Friday, December 22, 2017

Excerpt: The Science of Christmas Future (A Redux)

Even though the numbers are decreasing link, most Americans (56%, to be exact) will
celebrate Christmas this year in a church congregation. And right in the midst of those worship services, they’ll hear about (1) a virgin giving birth to a baby (2) lying in a feeding trough (or manger), and that this birth (3) receives an angelic announcement and (4) visitation by “wise men” or magi who have traveled hundreds of miles, guided by a heavenly light (more on this in a moment).

If hearing about this four-part Christmas story hasn’t just become routine, it should register us as some fairly unusual stuff. Or maybe it strikes me that way because Christmas arrives just after I’ve finished teaching my college course on science and religion. And maybe that’s why I pose this question:

In an increasingly technological and scientific world, is the Christmas story unbelievable? Put another way, Is there a science of Christmas future?
For the rest of this post, see my blog on the Huffington Post:

Sunday, December 17, 2017

God's Blessings, the Incarnation, and Our Gratitude: A Dialogue

The question: If in the Incarnation of Christ we have received the fulness of “grace and truth” (John 1:14), how should we respond and what should our gratitude look like?

In discussing the science of gratitude through the work of U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons a few nights ago, my friend Bill and I were engaged in a spirited debate about the nature of gratitude, especially as we look at the greatest gift of all this season, the birth of Jesus Christ. I thought some of that discussion is worth posting here. My comments below will serve mainly as foils for Bill’s reflections. 

(And, in order to get this posted by Monday--which is my pattern--you're seeing this in a form that's still a bit rough-hewn. So I reserve the right to make a few edits this week to help clarify our meaning. Still I think the essence of our discussion/debate is here.)

Feel free to comment on how you see the answer to this question.

Bill:  It’s become popular to reduce gratitude to an emotion, but I resist that idea. While I agree there are emotions associated with it, it is much more than a feeling. My emotional responses have a lot to do with my chemical or hormonal levels at the moment. Identifying gratitude as an emotion overlooks that an actual debt is incurred. The debt is real, despite the giver waving it off. Gifts create bonds that we actually feel some reciprocation is necessary. It’s misused as a common sales technique to manipulate someone to reciprocate by buying a product. The emotions that go along with gratitude are those associated with relationships involved. Gratitude does not exist outside of a relationship.

I’ve been excited in seeing that the biblical word for gratitude or thanksgiving (eucharist) literally means “to return good grace.”  Returning grace is not a payment for something received, but is an expression of love. When we recognize ways our value has been elevated, we return grace by doing something to elevate the value of the other. “Thank-you” is not properly an expression of gratitude. It is a “place-holder” expression that says, “I am ‘thinking’ of you…” (which is the literal meaning of “thanks”). It is like a yet un-cashed “I.O.U. It says, “I will remember this debt of kindness in some future encounter.” 

Greg: Bill, this implies that somehow gratitude necessitates something that we received. I want to challenge the idea that gratitude always meant I personally benefited. It often does, but if that’s the only definition, then gratitude is always selfish. And what the Spirit leads us toward is serving others and moving beyond our interests alone: “Look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others,” as Paul write sin Philippians 2: 4. And there are even more mundane examples. We can experience gratitude when something good happens for a friend. “Hey, I’m thankful you won a car at the Almond Bowl football raffle” (which really did happen to a friend of mine).

Bill: I find your example challenging. It does give me something to think about. However, I would ask, “Why chose the word grateful?" The word “gratitude” itself contains a form of the word grace and it implies that you have received grace.

Greg: We must be careful of taking the roots of words too seriously, sometimes words do in fact mean what their roots imply, other times the meaning has meandered through the centuries. To note the ways that words change, C. S. Lewis, for example, points out in Mere Christianity that gentleman had nothing originally to do with kindness or propriety, but simply that you were in a particular social class. To be more precise, originally, a gentleman was a man of the lowest rank of the English gentry, standing below an esquire and above a yeoman. But the word has morphed. And the little roots of “gentle” and “man” don’t really help much either. 

Bill: While this is true, words change meaning, it is also true that the etymology of words frequently point to important distinctions in reality… distinctions we can point to and identify. These distinctions are lost, forgotten, or obscured when we reduce the meaning of a word. If we begin to use the word “gratitude” as a synonym for “glad,” then we have in effect lost the word. 

As C.S. Lewis has also pointed out, there is a tendency for a culture to reduce all words to synonyms for “good” and “bad.” This is also one of my concerns in focusing on gratitude as an emotion. It has the effect of reducing it to an “emoji.”  It is reduced to a subjective experience to be studied by psychology. Gratitude is an excellent word to describe the response to receiving grace. It means we didn’t deserve or even ask for it, but we have personally benefited. 

A second consideration to be addressed in your example is this: Who are you grateful to? The consensus of those in our group, and the papers we had read together [from the work of Emmons and texts he edited], seemed to agree that gratitude was personal and intentional response to gift that was both intentional and personal. Who are you grateful to for this benefit? If emotions “move us” toward some action (as the word and research implies), what did his gratitude move you to do.

Greg: Yes, gratitude implies indebtedness. And when we think of the Incarnation during this month, the grandeur of that gift leads us to sense indebtedness to God—and that is reflected in the biblical texts. But there is this higher way our relationship with God that Jesus points to when he refers to his disciples as “friends” (John 15:15). Simply put, friends aren’t just debtors. Even more, Paul’s deepest conviction—expressed passionately in Galatians—is that we are free for Christ (not, of course, free from doing what’s right). Faith receives grace freely, apart from works. I'm concerned that to feel the burden of reciprocity twists grace into a form of works that nullified the grace given. We can never pay back what God has done in Christ, and to act as if we could is to live in a form of slavery God never intends.

Bill: While grace is freely given and cannot be earned, nor can it in any way be repaid… the act of grace has indebted me to another in that the value of my life has been increased at their expense. Even though they do this freely, without expectation of a return, the moral register of the recipient usually recognizes the debt of gratitude. While this debt can be ignored, in most cases, if it is brought to our attention, we respond with expressions of gratitude. We could imagine an exaggerated example of ingratitude… someone accepting gifts as if they were a right “because grace doesn’t expect anything in return anyway.” The exaggeration makes the point that we have an innate sense of the injustice in such a response. I'm not suggesting your advocating such a response… only that such a response could be a logical extension of what you seem to be proposing. I believe your initial instinct is correct, that grace is not a burden, but frees us. And it is important to guard against turning grace into manipulations. I believe what I’m saying addresses that.

I want to repeat, our indebtedness has nothing to do with what the other person expects in return. It has to do with the recognition of the moral law of justice, and what is rightfully ours to take at the expense of another. In other words, justice demands a return of some sort (and this has been the philosophical conundrum Aristotle talked about), but it cannot be a return that nullifies the grace in the gift. You can’t buy the gift. The justice required is when receiving grace, is a return of grace. A return of grace means you owe a debt of “gratitude.” This is expressed by doing something to elevate the value of the giver. This is not a payment or response to the gift, but to the giver. For grace is really not in the gift, but a gift of grace is really an extension of the persons themselves. Grace is always personal, intentional and relational and therefore gratitude must be so also. This is why Paul identifies ingratitude (in Romans 1:21) as the sin that darkens the mind to God.

Practicing gratitude (which we read in Emmons's work) are really practices of awareness. As we become aware of our connections to others through gracious acts, it should evoke the experience of being loved… which is why it has health benefits. But to be actively aware of, and to take advantage of, the love of another without intent of reciprocating that love will be self-limiting… for it is a form of injustice. It disregards the personal nature of the gift… that the gift is a form of the persons themselves. Any disregarding or demeaning of a person is an injustice… and ingratitude can be a form of injustice.

Greg: As you begin to talk about the practical form of gratitude, I think our perspectives are really close. The word ingrate is still, in my vocabulary, a sign of moral weakness, even sin. It would be hard to find a more fundamental theological statement about our life in response to God than James 1:17: "Every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." 

Bill: Yes, to ignore the debt of gratitude is equal to the mistake of trying to “re-pay” a gift given. Both actions nullify to person as a giver. They both focus on the nature of the gift and their relationship to the gift rather than the giver. Grace is the essence of relational bonds. You must “return grace” for “grace.” This must also be something that is not earned, but gives value TO the giver... rather than merely giving something of value to the giver. This is “grace for grace.”

Sex is an example of the exercise of grace and the return of grace (gratitude). If the sexual union becomes an exchange for money or reward for work, it is profaned by the denial of its true nature. Its nature is to bond a relationship in love and care. Despite claims of “free-love,” and the proclamation of “no strings attached,” there are always “strings” that will have a profound effect on everyone involved. The strings are real, not because the grace isn’t freely given, but because grace is always costly to the giver... and it directly affects our identity and value... and it undergirds our connection with the rest of the world. But this kind of binding is the nature of love. It frees us by securing us.

When grace is not returned, there is a breach in the relationship. Gratitude can never be selfish, because it is the recognition and care for these relational bonds. The danger of manipulation comes when we don’t recognize that grace and gratitude does not begin or end with us. We are not the source of the grace… for we all have received and can extend grace only to the extent we recognize we have received grace. We channel the grace we have been given. We are stewards of the grace of God. We should be grateful for every steward and show our appreciation… but our true debts are to the one who bestowed the grace first. Gratitude is what creates community, for it is a binding exchange that involves a long chain relationships that begin and end with God. The Apostle Paul’s solution to avoid manipulation is interesting. In a thank you letter to the Philippians he is careful to never actually say “thank you” to them. He chooses instead to say, “I thank God for you….” Gratitude, if it is not to be manipulative or diminished, is always in some way, a recognition of the grace of God. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Today's Kinder, Gentler Atheism

This is another excerpt from my upcoming book, Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults. When I mention that I specialize in religion and science and, to some degree, the study of emerging adulthood, people often ask about whether the growth of the those professing no religious affiliation (i.e., the "nones") means a growth in atheism. My response is well summarized in the quote below from a student.
“I think most people are neutral—‘It’s cool if you believe it.’ If they want to believe, more power to ’em.” Amanda, age 19, atheist
Overall I don’t often encounter the sneer and hard-edged approach to Christian faith that
Richard Dawkins emits and embodies. The key value I find in eighteen- to thirty-year-olds is tolerance. The attitude of atheist students today is kinder and gentler than that of my Berkeley classmates in the eighties, who seemed intent on disproving my faith.

In addition, it’s important to note that these New Atheists don’t speak for all scientists. Consider what one nonreligious scientist had to say about Dawkins
“He’s much too strong about the way he denies religion. . . . As a scientist, you’ve got to be very open, and I’m open to people’s belief in religion. . . . I don’t think we’re in a position to deny anything unless it’s something which is within the scope of science to deny.”
This leads me to conclude that the future of science and religion will have a bit less antagonism even if, increasingly, our country will look beyond the church to figure out how to bring the two together. (Unless, of course, a large contingent of the church changes its course and stops rejecting mainstream science. But that's a subject for another blog...)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Living the Yes: Finding the Beauty of Life

I'm beginning to sketch out a book on Christian spirituality, very tentatively titled, Fully Alive. In that process, I've been drawn back to my book The Time for No and particularly its final chapter (or really, a meditation). In it, I begin with a quote from Søren Kierkegaard.
"The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived." Søren Kierkegaard
Beauty is found in doing what we are created to do. This suggests that we are created for
some activities (and not for some others). It implies that there’s a God who created us uniquely and purposely. As I mentioned from the start, saying yes is an affirmation of faith.
First of all, let me be clear: I don’t think this is about amassing more stuff.
If materialism could do it, we’d be fairly happy in this culture. It was the newscaster, Peter Jennings, who noted almost two decades ago, in 1997: 
“When I came back to my current job and began to wander around this country again, I was struck by how many Americans, in the midst of such plenty, were hungry for something more than our vaunted consumer society could provide for them.” 
Jennings pointed to religion, which is fine, as long as “religion” itself points to God our Creator.
Over a millennium and a half before Jennings, one of the greatest thinkers in western history, Augustine, began his autobiography with this prayer, a prayer of his own discovering that looking for fame and sex and even generalized spirituality left him unsatisfied. 
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine of Hippo
Then again there’s the French 17th century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who realized in his famous “thoughts” (that’s what the French word means in its title, Pensées) that we all seek to be happy: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” 
But Pascal observed that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:
What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. Pascal
C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about 300 years later with a simple, logically compelling phrase: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In different yet complementary ways, these three realized that we are created to return to God. Our yeses find their satisfaction in the One who made us.
This journey then, of finding the time for yes, leads us back to God our Creator. We seek our yeses and really, we are seeking for God. When we get this right—when we say the right yeses in life and therefore the right nos—we find God right at the Center. That brings it all together. “In Him all things hold together” as the early Christian leader, Paul, wrote to the believers at Colossae (Colossians 1:17). God holds not only the universe, but our lives together.
That’s where I want my life to be found, centered in God. Because there is what’s best: joy, peace, power, happiness, excellence, success, and beauty. As one of my favorite bands, Future of Forestry, puts it: “I will go where beauty leads me home.”
And I have to admit, I like those things. I want to find my back to Beauty itself. 

So I’m saying yes.

Monday, December 04, 2017

On Emerging Adults and Faith

This is another adapted excerpt from my book set to be published March 6, 2018, Mere Science and Christian Faith(By the way, if you pre-order, I recommend using the discount code: PRE3814.)

In talking about the culture and attitudes of emerging adults (i.e., 18-30 year olds), we arrive a critical question: Is this new reality good or bad? Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, along with Patricia Snell, who tends toward the negative in his assessment, still summarizes well both the positive and negative sides of the emerging adult experience in Souls in Transition:
The features marking this stage are intense identity exploration, instability, a focus on self, feeling in limbo or in transition or in between, and a sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These, of course, are also often accompanied . . . by large doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, disappointment, and sometimes emotional devastation. Smith and Snell
It’s worth noting that Smith’s follow-up to his first study highlights the shadow side of emerging adulthood, as the subtitle makes clear: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side ofEmerging Adulthood.Not all is right in Denmark—or at least with emerging adulthood.

It is, of course, entirely possible and utterly faithful for emerging adults to transform their experience of being “in between,” with its consequent worry, into a radical openness to what God can do. I’ve seen plenty of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds do just that. In that light, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Philippians 4:6-7 is brilliant:

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. (The Message)
Notice the displacement of worry with Christ. That’s a powerful image. I’m hoping this generation will take the raw material of emerging adulthood, center it on Christ, and let God do "a new thing" (Isaiah 43:19) in all kinds of areas, including science and faith.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thanks Leads to Giving

I think Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday. And even though we tend to overeat on this four-day weekend--which may not be so good for our physiques--thanksgiving as a practice is so good for us.

Dr. Robert Emmons came to Chico last week and he spoke at Chico Adventist Church on gratitude. You might remember I mentioned him this summer. Emmons, UC Davis professor of psychology is a leading expert on the science of gratitude. (Here's a site that summarizes some of his work.) He reminded us that gratitude is good for our health, for our relationships, and for our giving to others.
“The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.” Robert Emmons.
I could put this in lapidary form (and I even think this is what Emmons himself stated): 
Gratitude is one of the cheapest prescriptions for overall health we can find.

In a way this is nothing new. The psalms—and much of the rest of the Bible—know this. Let’s listen to one of the psalms describe this gratitude.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.  
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. 
Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his;  
     we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.      
Give thanks to him, bless his name.For the Lord is good; 
     his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100
What then, from Psalm 100, is our theological grounding for a life of gratitude?
  • We belong to God because God has created us.
  • God is faithfulness and gracious.
  • We enter into a life of worship with thanksgiving or praise.

And when we live in the way that God created, we find life.

Here again to quote Emmons:
“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness.” Robert Emmons
When we live in the way that God created, we find life.
And I’ll add one: when we live this way, in gratitude, we are generous.
If you don’t mind a cutsy saying, Thanks leads to giving.

I was just at the American Academy of Religion conference where about 6000-8000 theologians, biblical studies specialist, and scholars of religion meet in various cities that can hold such an event. This year it was Boston. I find it an amazingly enjoyable event. I see all kinds of friends I’ve known over the years, meet publishers, and have some great lunches and conversations. Still, I must admit some of the papers are a bit arcane for the uninitiated. Here is a sampling of a few titles:
“Hacking Perception”: Techno-Entheogens, Virtual Reality, and the Vulnerability of Subjectivity”
“Making America Humble Again: Humility and Magnanimity as Greatness in a Post-veridical World”

“’A Beau Ideal for Whosoever Hopes for God’”: Piety, Medicine, and Prophetics in the Medieval and Contemporary Middle East”
Besides this  I also heard some really important research. One was delivered that the cognitive science section, a group that looks (in very general terms) at how our brain functions in relation to religious life and practice. One paper (and here's a similar one) presented a study of people with two types of God concepts: God A, who is Authoritarian and B God, who is Benevolent. Here's the payoff: If we see God as benevolent, we are more likely to be forgiving, to give to those outside our inner circle, and generally to act with kindness.
We become like the God we serve.
And who, we should ask, is our God? Is it God A that we read in Psalm 100?
“For good is the LORD, whose mercy is everlasting;
      and whose faithfulness endures from age to age.”
Thanksgiving as a holiday is an amazing reminder for us to seek health and life to its fullest. But let’s not wait just for the holidays. Thanksgiving is far more important and far better than that. Indeed giving thanks might be the best prescription for health. And it is truly priceless. As the Psalm 92:1 declares, “It is good to give thanks.” Amen.