Thursday, December 13, 2018

Not Sentimental Gush, but Love Appropriate for the Crisis

Last Sunday Preaching at St. John's
Since Chico continues to feel the effects of the Camp Fire devastation, I kept up the theme of reflecting on how we can respond.

I preached last Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chico, and since it was Episcopalian worship, I was preaching from four lectionary texts. 

Three were about prophecy (Malachi 3, Psalm 126, Luke 3). And one was an outlier—Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1. Here’s a key section, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson:
“So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” Philippians 1, The Message
Obviously, this isn’t a standard prophetic text… except insofar as it tells forth (instead of forth-tells) what the community in Philippi was called to do in light of their faith in the promised Messiah, Jesus.

It seems like this prayer is critical for us in Chico as well.

Why? Paul directs the early Christian communities at Philippi to pray for both “hearts” and “heads”—to be filled by Christ that they might respond to the gospel. The most standard rendering goes like this, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.” 

The Problem of Sentimental Gush

Do we need that at times like this, as we live in the devastation of the Camp Fire? We need to have deep emotions of compassion for those affected by the fire (as Ann Lamott has written, moral action comes from our guts in the New Testament). It may start there, but it has to be informed. How are we going to make it for the long haul in front of us without a love that’s “sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush”? I can say that one thing I’ve learned from Laura’s work at the Jesus Center is that good, compassionate care for the homeless among us takes really clear thinking, planning, and implementation. 

You see, sentimental gush can very quickly become compassion fatigue and moral blame. I have to say I was challenged by this article in Aeon, “The Bad News on Human Nature, in 10 Findings from Psychology.” And how, especially as the problems continue in the aftermath of the Camp Fire that we might begin to blame the victims.
We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate. The unfortunate consequences of such beliefs were first demonstrated in the now classic research from 1966 by the American psychologists Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. In their experiment, in which a female learner was punished with electric shocks for wrong answers, women participants subsequently rated her as less likeable and admirable when they heard that they would be seeing her suffer again, and especially if they felt powerless to minimise this suffering. Since then, research has shown our willingness to blame the poor, rape victims, AIDS patients and others for their fate, so as to preserve our belief in a just world. By extension, the same or similar processes are likely responsible for our subconscious rose-tinted view of rich people." Aeon, "The Bad News on Human Nature"
This kind of moral fatigue can lead to frankly immoral attitudes and behavior.

You see, sentimental gush can also very quickly become frustrated outrage.
Laura happened to be at Bidwell Presbyterian Church parking lot the week after the fire. And the church, after putting together a “pop-up” free store for a week to provide clothes and supplies for those devastated by the fire, decided to not open for donations on Saturday. 

As my wife, Laura, was there, a car that drove up with donations. They obviously hadn’t checked first about what was needed or whether the church was at the gunwales with donations (which they were). They asked if the church was accepting donations. She replied that she doesn’t work at Bidwell Pres, but that she thought they were taking closed today. And the person shot back indignantly, “What kind of church closes?” I’m not sure what Laura replied—and whether any reply would be helpful—but maybe it’s the kind of church that takes a break because it wants to be there for the community for months and years to come—the kind that’s been in Chico since 1868—and the kind that’s expressing love and compassion that’s sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.

Real, Compassionate Action Needed 
And maybe that’s why our Butte County Sheriff, Kory Honea, has become a bit of a rock star in Chico—because he combines caring and strength. Which is what we need in a time of crisis. At downtown Chico’s “Christmas Preview,” where the shops are open on a Sunday night and families stroll the streets with vendors and activities all around, we saw Kory, and everyone wanted to take selfies with this guy, not Santa Claus. Because he’s not just about sentimental gush, but real action.

Our questions then are this: “What do we hear from this text today? And how do we respond?”

For Chico-Paradise, for Butte County, we need to pay attention to the science of climate change and how best to manage our forests and fight fires, to know the needs around us and to respond in compassion. 

Are we ready to care and to bring a love that’s “sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush”? 

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Can Science Save Us in Times of Crisis? A Camp Fire Reflection via Kierkegaard

One question I’ve posed to both my humanities class and science and religion students at
Chico State University is, 
“Can the truth of science save us in these time of the Camp Fire crisis, should we look to the great humanists like Pico, Shakespeare, Kant, and Austen, or maybe all of the above?”
It’s not clear to me that either science or the humanities is perfectly poised to offer salvation. Science—and technology—seem, however, to offer the most immediate solutions. Of course, I want all the best science and technology to fight a massive fire. Drones and helicopters, accurate reports and effective evacuation orders distributed through the web and email… and above all, leaders who listen to the science of forest management and global climate change. 

We need this, but I’m not sure it feels the human soul.
Instead, is the truth that saves, to quote the 19thcentury philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, subjective? This week in my humanities class we arrived at the early 1800s and thus Kierkegaard (or SK). When SK stated that “truth is subjectivity,” he meant that we can’t simply put any truth out there as something simply to observe—especially the truth of authentic religious faith in Jesus Christ—instead it needs to affect us as subject. It has to change us. 

Here’s how SK phrases it through the persona of Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments:
“The problem we are considering is not the truth of Christianity but the individual’s relation to Christianity. Our discussion is not about the scholar's systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categories but about the individual's personal relationship to this doctrine, a relationship which is properly one of infinite interest to him. Simply stated, ‘I, Johannes Climacus, born in this city, now thirty years old, a decent fellow like most folk, suppose that there awaits me, as it awaits a maid and a professor, a highest good, which is called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity is the way to that good, and so I ask, how may I establish a proper relationship to Christianity?’” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
This, of course, trivializes the profound self-involving truths of Christian faith. Again to SK:
“For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective, and thought points away from the subject. For subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must penetrate deeper and still deeper into the subject and his subjectivity.” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
And finally, in his conclusion:
“Subjectivity culminates in passion. Christianity is the paradox; paradox and passion belong together as a perfect match, and the paradox is perfectly suited to one whose situation is to be in the extremity of existence.” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
I find this compelling. Trained as a scholar, I find it fun to play with ideas like a baby who ponders the objects in the mobile above his crib. They entertain, but don’t change, us. 


SK wrapped himself up in the truth of Christianity (as do I), and yet this passionate subjective engagement with truth relates to a wide variety of issues. Like the Camp Fire… And so I ask, Which truth will change us as subjects? Do science, technology, or human thought change us as subjects enough to foster compassion and wisdom and action?

Though I love science and its glorious insights, I lean toward the great humanist thinkers like Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Pascal—perhaps because they’re all Christian. Thankfully I don’t ultimately have to choose between science and the humanities. But I do have to decide whether the truth I find is subjective. And I wonder what truth you’re finding in this time of crisis—are you engaging with that truth subjectively?