Friday, January 22, 2021

On Time and Beauty (Some Notes)

Beauty appears to be both temporal and timeless. Every human experience of beauty is in time, and yet, when we experience beauty, we seem to transcend, even to be removed, from time. To understand beauty, it seems to me that we need to figure out time.

I am continually drawn to Augustine’s profound reflections, which are often cited and for good reason, 

“What, then is time? There can be no quick and easy answer, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it” (Confessions XI. 14).

What do science, philosophy, and theology say about time?            

The consensus view in physical sciences, following Albert Einstein, is that time and space are related, not independent aspects of reality (as in classical physics). One reason time cannot be entirely relative is what Hermann Minkowski identified as the “causality constraint,” that is to say, even within the relativity of time in an Einsteinian universe, observers in uniform motion find that causes occur before effects. More precisely, causes according to one observer are causes according to all other observers in uniform relative motion. In essence, causality is invariant, not relative.     

From a philosophical perspective, time can be understood (i.e., explained) as phenomenal, but not noumenal (Kant), or as the very structure of reality (Hegel, Whitehead). Similarly, beauty can be viewed as one of the atemporal Transcendentals (Thomas).      

Theological perspectives frequently explain and thus unfold time as a gift from God (Augustine), but are unsure about whether God’s eternity is atemporal (Thomas) or supratemporal (Barth, Russell). 

More personally, I’d like to see how time can be a component of human flourishing and a resource for the common good. 

This reminds me of a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high.”) 

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, my buddy Mike presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and a sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller, way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience”—be described? He writes 

“‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Put another way and drawing from Emanuele Ciancio (“Time Flow in the Natural World: A Theological Perspective”), the beauty of time might be summarize in the Greek New Testament word kairos, which means “opportunity,” or perhaps better, "the fullness of time."

Does human flourishing mean living a beautiful life regularly imbued with kairos

Monday, January 11, 2021

Intrinsic Religion

Being a pastor, or any kind of church leader for that matter, is a tough job (which I know from 18 years experience). And in light of the ongoing effects of COVID (emotional, physical, and otherwise), I've continued to ponder the future of the church in America. 

This has led me to consider the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religious life (or in more technical terms, "religiosity"). 

What has led me to this? I've been asked recently to find resources in preparation for a podcast interview on whether scientific research backs up the idea that faith in God (or religion, more generally) is good for us.

From what I'm learning it's about how we approach our faith, or in the literature, our "religion."

Extrinsic or intrinsic religion?

The first, intrinsic religiosity, you do because you want to, and the second, extrinsic religiosity, because you're trying to please others. (By the way, I think this is what a lot of people are getting at with the "spiritual, but not religious" moniker.)

For a bit more clarity, I'll quote the article "Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religiosity" that I recently read:

"The intrinsically religious see religion as valuable unto itself.  Instead of religion serving another motivation, religion provides the master motivation.

The extrinsically religious go to church with another end in mind (although likely subconscious). It may be making that new business connection or finding a spouse.  Or it could be psychological security, solace or self-justification."

Some mighty powerful words from the God-Man

If this sounds like Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, it should. 

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth." Matthew 23:27

Jesus is en fuego in this passage--he really undoes the "Jesus meek and mild" thing. This topic must have meant something to him. And so it should to us. (Because it's so good, you might want to read all of Matthew 23.)

Something for the church today

So far I've presented the conclusion from the research that we need to be together. But what do we do in light of the current pandemic?

At some point, we are going to emerge from COVID-19 protocols, and as I've argued before, we're not "going back to church" as a culture. That ship has sailed. 

And yet... We do know that, overall, religious life is good for us. I'd be happy to use Christian "spirituality," if that lands better, but just remember that it's the social connections, the "sociality," involved in our lives that makes church so potent for psychological and physical health.

So, we'd better figure out a way to keep the connections, but also grow in our vision for God.

A coda: notes on a way forward

My solution in brief: Outsource the teaching, insource the discussion and hang out. 

In other words, from the scientific research the most important contributions the church can offer is physical co-presence, i.e., being together in the same room. Yes, virtual community can give us something, but we are designed to be together. So, what if not worried less about the content we deliver and let other worldclass thought leaders do that via YouTube et al., while we create more intimate places for discussion? Or at least shoot for 50-50? 

Thursday, January 07, 2021

C.S. Lewis and "You Be You"

There's at least one contemporary expression that I don't fully understand. And honestly, I'm also pondering it in light of yesterday's riots and insurrection in our Capital and what was happening psychologically, both for President Trump and his virulent supporters. 

Was that distorted self-love, or is self-love always a distortion?

At any rate, here it is: "You be you." 

What exactly does this imperative mean?

A word from St. Clive

There are times like these when I wish C.S. Lewis were still with us. Because he grasped the inherent problem. If "you be you" is a form of self-love that implies "and don't give a *whiff* [substitute your word] about others," that indeed is a problem. 

It evokes the age old question of whether self-love is a Christian virtue. I, like St. Clive, have some doubts.

The twisted interpretations of "Love your neighbor as yourself"
For my part, "you be you" sounds a bit too much like what I hear smuggled under the banner of "Self Care" and the rank self-indulgence in America. It also causes Blaise Pascal always rings in my ear: To love yourself implies a level of dishonesty and self-deception because there's fairly icky stuff, some rats in the basement, when we peer into our own souls.

In interpreting "Love your neighbor as yourself," I've repeatedly heard "this means we have to love ourselves." But that's not Jesus's main point. There is no direct command for self-love. Instead, his emphasis is this: We know how we'd live to be loved. So, do the same for others. It's really just another form of the Golden Rule.

And yet, a caveat: I don't want to go too far. It is fine ultimately to love ourselves, but not to start there. And Lewis leads us in the proper order.

Back to CSL
For his part, and as I quoted in the last postC.S. Lewis knew the history the problem of self-love and arrived at an exquisitely concise solution. In "Two Ways of Self," he reminded us that, the Christian tradition, we are loved by God--and thus we can love ourselves
"To love his neighbor as himself, he may then be able to love himself as his neighbor; that is, with charity instead of partiality." C.S. Lewis

Or as he phrased it a bit more creatively in The Screwtape Letters, where the devil Screwtape is describing the aims of "the Enemy" (or God):

“The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor's talents--or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.” C.S. Lewis

Would about the scandalous behavior of our President and how it affected his mob? I think it's "you be you" and self-love gone wild. Would these insights help us today in undue the serious defects in American life? I think so. At least, one can hope. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Does God Want Us to Love Ourselves?

... a question I'm pondering and to which C.S. Lewis has one of the best responses (not a surprise)
“Now, the self can be regarded in two ways.  On the one hand, it is God’s creature, an occasion of love and rejoicing; now, indeed, hateful in condition, but to be pitied and healed.  On the other hand, it is that one self of all others which is called I and me, and which on that ground puts forward an irrational claim to preference. This claim is to be not only hated, but simply killed; ‘never’, as George Mac Donald says, ‘to be allowed a moment’s respite from eternal death’. The Christian must wage endless war against the clamour of the ego as ego; but he loves and approves selves as such, though not their sins. 
The very self-love which he has to reject is to him a specimen of how he ought to feel to all selves; and he may hope that when he has truly learned (which will hardly be in this life) to love his neighbor as himself, he may then be able to love himself as his neighbor; that is, with charity instead of partiality. The other kind of self-hatred, on the contrary, hates selves as such. It begins by accepting the special value of the particular self called methen, wounded in its pride to find that such a darling object should be so disappointing, it seeks revenge, first upon that self, then on all. Deeply egoistic, but now with an inverted egoism, it uses the revealing argument, ‘I don’t spare myself’—with the implication ‘then a fortiori I need not spare others’—and becomes like the centurion in Tacitus, ‘More relentless because he had endured.’ The wrong asceticism torments the self: the right kind kills the selfness. We must die daily: but it is better to love the self than to love nothing, and to pity the self than to pity no one.” 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Live it Like You Mean it

Two days of crisis

I've lived through 9-11 and 11-8, two great and tragic national, and even international, days of crisis. (Some of this will be in my sermon this Sunday at Brambleton Presbyterian Church.)

Most of us know 9-11, the date of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. But how about November 8, 2018? It was the day I can't forget—when the firestorm ripped through Paradise, CA, moving at three football fields a minute at one point, and burning its way to within about a mile and half of my house in Chico. The Camp Fire represents the most expensive natural disaster in the world that year, with a price tag of $15 billion, and the deadliest in California history.

I mention to underline one point: preparedness can’t happen while you’re in a crisis. We can't learn to care for those suddenly without homes, to pray when our backs are against the wall, and to live compassionately with those in terrible suffering while it's happening. Those are virtues we have to practice before the crises.

Habits: "We are what we repeatedly do"

About a week ago, I was listening to the leading sociologist from Princeton University about his new book on "lived religion." This isn't represented by scholarly texts of religious doctrine or theories about how people should preach (i.e., homiletics), but how we actually pray, how often we participate in worship services, what kind of small group community we're a part of. As Wuthnow writes, "Practicing religion focuses on what people do and say rather than only on what they think and believe."

Living religion is related to famous philosopher Aristotle's virtue ethics. It what cognitive psychology tells us: practices become habits, and habits become character. It's really what I as a Christian have learned from the Jewish roots of my faith, which calls it halaka, or "walking" in the way of God. 

What we practice. What we do is what we become. In fact, our practice becomes a habit and might even change the world.

Coda: "Does this mean we earn our salvation”?

Some of you might be concerned that this implies we earn our salvation. 

Put simply: No. We are assured of our salvation, and this is Jesus's call to discipleship and simultaneously his offering of abundant life (John 10:10).

Listen again to how Paul sets this so brilliantly in Philippians 2:12-13: 

"Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." 

Put a little more clearly perhaps, we work out what God has worked in

Or perhaps better, we walk out what God the Spirit has empowered us to do. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Peace in the Puzzle

The theme for this post is peace, which is related to a couple of pieces (yes, pun intended) I'm working ona sermon for Brambleton Presbyterian Church and the Science for the Church newsletter.

Three insights I discovered along the way... 

A key word from the Beatitudes lost in translation

When I first learned Greek at Cal, one day we were reading Matthew 5:1-12. My professor instructed us that we could translate Jesus’s word in the Sermon on the Mount this way: “Blessed are the peaceful” instead of “peacemakers

He was a great professor, and he opened the New Testament to me in many ways, but here his own leanings toward the interiority of spiritual life—he also lived in an ashram—frankly biased his interpretation of this word. 

And so I arrive a truly profound Greek word study: the word for "peacemaker" eirenopoioi combines two words, “peace” and “make.”

This means that the Beatitudes are not simply the "Beautiful Attitudes." When Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) came to earth, he called us to make peace. And that's significant.

I do realize that what I've said here may lead some to ask, Does this mean we earn our salvation? No, it means we work out what God has worked in (Philippians 2:12-13). Actually better than "work out" in the Jewish context is "walk out" because the key image for devotion to God in Jewish thought is halakha, or "the way of walking."

Peace now and then
Just yesterday, I read that even as former South Carolina Governor David Beasley accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the United Nation's World Food Program, while Rush Limbaugh declared there can be no peace between liberals and conservatives and that “we’re trending toward secession."

Yikes! It's hard not to despairand then I remembered Jesus's time was no less contested, which I discovered this article on the New Testament Greek word for "peace."
The New Testament was written in a time during which the Romans overran countless peoples and frequently resorted to mass torture and genocide in dealing with resistance, and the quest for peace was not a romantic one but came with widely felt urgency. Jesus' famous statement "knock, and the door will open" (Matthew 7:7, Revelation 3:8) is not about heavenly doors because in the Biblical model heaven has no doors, but rather about the great War Doors of the temple of Janus Quirinus in Rome. In times of peace these doors were closed amidst great imperial fanfare, and the greatest door-closing festivals were held during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian, just prior and right after the Great Jewish Revolt and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. [By the way, the name of the city means "in awe of peace, teaching peace"]

Peace and reconciliation through "fractal communities"
Just a few days ago, I had a breath-taking conversation about race and science and faith with Elaine Howard Ecklund and Cleve Tinsley IV. Among many insights, Cleve said that relationships help us move past the endemic racism in our country. He referred to Adrienne Marie Brown’s concept of “fractal community,” which, of course, borrows an image from mathematics and is a kind of science and faith connection, which I love. At any rate, Cleve reminded us: this is the way of Jesus. Where these relationships are, that’s where we see the reign of God. And as he summarized, “I think we really do change the world then.”

And maybe we can. Maybe we make peace.

Friday, December 04, 2020

On Time

I think a lot about time. You might say, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. 

And here are two core convictions: Time is a gift. And we spend time on what we love. I'll add to those, since it's the season of Advent, that when God comes to us in Christ in the Incarnation and inhabits time, God sanctifies time. This post then is what sanctified time looks like.

Speaking of the Incarnation, perhaps the most profound and counter-intuitive statement Jesus spoke was this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19). 

Without reflection, we might think he said the reverse: where our heart is, there our treasure will be. In this version of Jesus, we adjust our inner attitude, and then we do the right actions. 

But the order is different, and that fact is critical: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”Our hearts follow our treasures. I.e., what we spend our time is what we love, and the more time we spend the more our love grows. Invest your time in a church or nonprofit and see how you begin to care more about it. 

But why then do I often spend my time so poorly? Why do I not inhabit the present moment?


The problem is that we seem to live in every other time but the present. We throw away our time like it's dispensable. We don't treasure it. 

Blaise Pascal, the brilliant seventeenth-century scientist and theologian, offered a profound meditation on this topic: 

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. (italics added)

Or as the brilliant writer, Anne Lamott puts it, God wants to give us the child’s experience of “big, round hours." 

This thought, like so many, takes me to St. Clive, aka C. S. Lewis, who puts the problem of human existence—or better the ongoing temptation of time—into the mouth of a devil, Screwtape in his fictional correspondence,The Screwtape Letters. 

Screwtape writes to his junior devil, Wormwood, that “we want a man hag-ridden by the Future” because in essence the future does not yet exist and it takes his eyes off the present moment. 

"We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present."

And now back to Pascal; this also comes from Pensées

"So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists.”