Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christ and the Cognitive Science of Religion

(These are notes toward a potential project on a scientifically-informed Christology.)
Your brain with its sensus divinitatis
I've been reading Justin Barrett's Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology. Barrett, a cognitive scientist now teaching at Fuller Seminary, demonstrates how cognitive science provides an understanding for the human mind. The development of the human brain with various key characteristics like an innate sense of teleology (things happen for a particular end or "telos") form the basis for a natural "sense of the divine," or to use John Calvin's terms a sensus divinitatis. As Calvin wrote,
That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to lie beyond dispute (Institutes I.3.1).
CSR inside
 Barrett, and now I'll join in, offer this sensus divintatis as a background for faith in God, arguing that this basic belief is endemic to human life and therefore an important component in building a theology informed by science. For him, this is Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). For me, it represents the proper use of natural theology and thus one of the key contributions that the sciences provide for theology. This awareness of the divine has been noted in the writings of Paul in Romans 1:19-20. (And I'm certainly not the first person to say that.) 
For what can be know about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
This is a cool book
Nonetheless, this sense of the divine, however, remains vague. As Michael Welker noted in Creation and Reality, it is a "vague knowledge of a vague power" (p. 25), open to serious distortions and manipulations. C. S. Lewis, when analyzing the similar concept of a "minimal religion," with a broad sense of the divine (and immortality), offered this critique; it
cannot exclude the Christian view that He [God] was present in a special way in Jesus, nor the Nazi view that He is present in a special way in the German race... In practice it will not be a religion at all; it will be merely a new coloring given to all the different things people were doing already.
We therefore need more clarity for an informed, and ultimately, beneficial belief, a belief that gives comfort, that changes our behavior toward the good, and really, that converts. Here the Gospels are critical because there we don't see abstract Deity, but the concrete and definitive revelation of God in Jesus. In Karl Barth’s words, we cannot focus on an “abstract deity,” but what “actually took place in Christ" (Church Dogmatics IV/1, 186).

And thus we arrive at the best news of all. We are created for God, and this is affirmed by the insights of cognitive science, but to have definitive knowledge of "the Deity" we need to look at Jesus Christ, who is indeed "is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15).

What do you think of all this?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Listening: The Know of Yes

[This is one more entry on the way to a book with the tentative title, When to Say Yes. Let me know what you think.]

“Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems?” he once said.
“They do it because life wouldn’t have any meaning for them if they didn’t.
That’s why I draw cartoons. It’s my life.”
Charles Schulz

Our calling engages our passions. When we come to the path that makes sense for us, there is an inner Yes that resonates and energizes. Clearly this is not always easy—because often the path has difficulties—but, at the same time, it’s not toilsome because it’s the right path. And that rightness brings with it energy and creativity. There’s an inner drive that leads us to change the world for the better.
A brain knowing the yes
            The well-known author and pastor, Frederick Buechner describes the right calling, hearing our yeses, as a beautiful duet of voices.
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done…. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.[1] 
Buechner uses the term “work,” but I will replace this with “calling,” and calling arises at an amazing intersection of personal interest and external need.
            With Buechner in mind, I’m going to change this slightly and phrase it more succinctly:
Our yes is where passion meets mission.
It’s where what we want most to do coincides with what God wants done in the world. It’s that itch we have to scratch. What we “need most to do” in Buechner’s definition reminds us that there is something (or perhaps a few things) that we “most need to do,” that has in it an inner “yes.”
            But how do we know what we really care about? What does the experience of finding your passion feel like?
            This brings me to a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment (though I can’t verify this) 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,[2] Csikszentmihalyi 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 sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience” be described? He writes that “‘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.”[3] One key example for Csikszentmihalyi is the work of a surgeon, who works within certain limits (defined by keeping the patient alive), for a specific goal (the improved health of the patient), with a task that's entirely demanding and rewarding. Although paradigmatic, flow doesn't just happen for surgeons. It's actually a reasonably universal experience. But how did he find this out? He developed a new form of research, the Experience Sampling Method, in which hundreds of subjects wore pagers that beeped at odd intervals throughout their days. When paged, the participants had to quickly fill out a brief survey that noted what activity they were engaged in and a series of questions of whether they were more or less in the “flow.” Were they in “optimal experience”?
            Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates some surprising results: for example, human beings more often experience flow when they are working than when they are at leisure.” Although television requires mental processing, very little else mentally, like memory, is engaged. “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television.”[4] Ultimately, he asserts, optimal experience makes life worth living. When we’re in the flow, we want to do nothing else. And we don’t really care about much else. “An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.”[5]
            Doesn’t this first side, “finding your passion,” and looking for "flow" seem just a little too selfish and therefore illegitimate as a way of directing our lives? Not necessarily. I have learned from a distinction the Christian writer and Oxford literary scholar, C.S. Lewis. He delineated an important distinction: between being selfish and self-centered. Finding what we are called to do is, in a certain sense, selfish—we love doing it and therefore we find great joy—but entirely not self-centered—when we do what we love, we forget ourselves as we delight in the activity itself. Lewis writes,
One of the happiest men and most pleasant companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts.[6]
So, in a way, I’m asking us to be more directed toward what we like because there we have the power to become self-forgetful and even other-directed. Here I’m proposing a form of enlightened selfishness. With enlightened selfishness—or better, just doing what we enjoy doing, where we find “flow”—we actually forget ourselves. We simply cannot be self-centered.
            The point is not, as we often fear, that when we like to do something it will make us less moral. Actually what we truly love helps us to turn our eyes off ourselves and toward the activity, which is the beginning of right actions. In other words, don’t stay selfish as an end, but learn to follow what you truly enjoy and follow it toward something outside of us. And that leads to mission….
            One other suggestion here—often, as weird as this seems, it’s hard to know what we really desire. “I don’t really know what I want”. But I believe the God who created us can help us find what we truly desire. One of the most cited passages in the psalms reads like this: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4, NRSV). Some construe this verse to mean that God will give us the things we desire—a new BMW, a vacation in Tahiti. That sounds nice, but if you look at the context of the psalm, it’s all about doing what’s right and following God’s way.
            So here’s the bottom line: As we seek God, we actually find what we desire.
            When we look at God, we see a new set of priorities, a new vision of caring for others. And so, on the (b) side of the Buechner quote, what “the world needs to have done”—our environment, those outside of us—cannot be silenced. The list here is immediately evident: providing education, caring for health, creating beauty in the arts and culture. So it’s not just what we want to do—our passion has to meet some need. Here we move away from the siren voice of our culture that prizes individual self-expression above all else. Here’s the control on our selfishness. It is not centered on what benefits us first, but on what is of greater need in the world.
            So the first step of call—or our big Yes—is to listen: to obtain some sense of what direction that resonates deep in us and out in the world.
            Does this happen at once? Not for most people. Hearing the call is gradual and that each insight builds on the previous one. I’ve often thought this looks something like a website coming gradually into view. It doesn’t happen all at once, and even at first, it’s not clear what’s emerging. But at some point, it begins to make sense.
            I’ll have more to say on mission in the following post.

[1] Frederick Buecher, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, 95.
[2] Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
[3] Flow, 6.
[4] Flow, 30.
[5] Flow, 71.
[6] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, 143-4.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Now

The Time is Now
(In hindsight, I think this blog works as either another comment on Love Wins or as a second installment of my upcoming book, When to Say Yes.)

In the fine cinematic masterpiece Wayne's World, I believe it was Garth who uttered the famous dictum to his harassed and harried friend, "Live in the Now." 

Rob Bell would agree. (More or less.) He finishes Love Wins with one of his key convictions: Life, in Jesus's eyes does, not consist in "going to heaven when we die" (although Jesus does promise eternal life). Instead, it is about responding to God now.
Whatever you have been told about the end— 
the end of your life, 
the end of time,the end of the world— 
Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, 
If I understand Bell correctly (and I hope I do since I've been reading and re-reading him for the past month or so), he is urging us to live now in God's presence, to respond now to the Good News.

I'll bet you can guess where this brings me: back to St. Clive (aka C. S. Lewis). Lewis puts the problem of human existenceor better the ongoing temptation of time—into the mouth of his fictional devil, Screwtape. (Remember in reading this that "the Enemy" is God.)

we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy's commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other— dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. 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.

C. S. Lewis has put the finger right on my pulse at least. I am concerned, and even pre-occupied, way too often about what's to come. My work, and my desire to achieve excellence, almost implies obsessiveness with the future. But if we only live in the future, we never live. 

I turn to another mentor. Blaise Pascal, that eternally insightful scientist and philosopher of the seventeenth century, pretty much described the same dilemma, but set this dilemma in the words of philosophical reflection. This comes from his Pensées: 

We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. 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. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.
Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.
I'll let Rob Bell have the last word on this topic, as he ties this call "to live in the now" with the words of Jesus's parables. I find these words true and truly moving. Even though I've quibbled with Bell in previous posts on some things, words like this reminds me that there's deep wisdom in Love Wins.
Jesus tells these stories to wake us up to the timeless truth that history moves forward, not backward or sideways. Time does not repeat itself. Neither does life. While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices. While we may get other opportunities, we won't get the one right in front of us again.

Friday, May 04, 2012

When to Say Yes: From No to Yes

Where is Your Yes?
For a few years, I've been working on the "yes" book to complement Say Yes to No, and here it is! In the following weeks and months, I'll be serializing When to Say Yes (the working title), which I then intend to publish as an ebook. I'd love you to be part of the process. The chapters will be short (no more than 1500 words so you can read them in 6 minutes or less). As they appear, please give me your feedback.

My last book, Say Yes to No, started with a crisis, in the midst of a cardiologist’s office to determine whether I had stress-related health issues. This book doesn’t start with a crisis, but a critical realization nonetheless.
            That realization happened a few times, once when Jeffrey Ressner of USA Today Weekend interviewed me about the way Say Yes to No related to Jim Carrey’s movie, Yes Man. In this movie, Jim Carrey plays Carl Allen, a man who simply declares a pre-emptive “no” to everything that comes his way. He is miserable, that is until he goes to a self-help seminar where the guru forces him to make a covenant where he will declare “yes” to every opportunity that comes his way. Every opportunity. That covenant puts Carl Allen in some fairly unusual moments, but ultimately Carl finds that saying yes opens up his life.
            That fact naturally led to a question that Jeffery posed: “How does this film relate to your book that emphasizes the importance of nos?”
            My answer? “My book starts about two-thirds of the way into the movie, where Carl begins to realize he can’t say yes to everything.”
            So I’m not against saying yes and I wasn’t when I wrote Say Yes to No. Put another way, I never wanted to be known as “Dr. No,” But I wanted to emphasize that when we declare too many yeses, we burn out. Instead we have to discover a nurturing no or two, the kind that provides for health, excellence, and life. But I gradually realized that I needed to say more.
            Continually through conversations about the book, I heard something like this: “Greg, I do like what you’re written, but I don’t know my yeses. How do I find those?” One even continued further. Referring to my analogy of Michelangelo seeing the sculpture of David before he ever put the chisel to the marble, this question came to me, “How can you help people find their David? I think many people haven’t. And that’s really a struggle.”
            My reply was that the yeses have always been reasonably easy for me to find. But now I need to take outline what it means to say yes and where, when, and how we declare nine key yeses.
            Why then the change to “yes”? Why write this book, When to Say Yes?
            So then I offer a brief an update since 2008.
            I began Say Yes to No with a period of struggle in 2001 (and finished it around 2008) where I had said, and tried to live out, too many yeses. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer enmeshed in the stress outlined in the first chapter of Say Yes to No, but the struggle is subtler and never fully leaves. Healthy practices whether to manage our physical well-being to fight the lure of what I earlier described as “schedule obesity”—an over-fed commitment to tasks—are habits to cultivate. I keep working on the relationship between the right yeses and nos, and it’s vital to take hold of what your yeses really are. 
            The economy also helped my cause a bit, or at least made the need for no even more apparent. The serious economic crisis of 2008 and its continuation over the past four years, the meltdown of the stock market, the crisis of confidence in our banks and Wall Street leaders, all led us to the recognition: we had declared too many yeses for too long—yeses to buying that we can’t sustain. The United States had bought houses it couldn’t afford and too many HD TVs on second mortgages and lines of credit.
            There is also one secondary element: I began to focus more on the market place through the public relations campaign for Say Yes to No. I also found myself engaging more business-related topics and commenting on’s blog, interviews on Business News Network and, as well as the American Management Association’s publications like MWorld and Executive Matters. I began to ask why and realized that calling—or to use a bit more expensive term, vocation—is critical to what I’m doing with yes and no.
            But here’s one thing about calling and our yes: I believe it’s not just about where and how we work, it’s about how we respond to all the triangle of our life—personal life, work, and love.
            Finally, yes is basic to faith. As the noted author Kathleen Norris has written in the introduction to Amazing Grace, human infants “build a vocabulary, making sense of the chaos of sound that bombards the senses.” She continues, “Eventually the rudiments of words come; often ‘Mama,’ ‘Dada,’ ‘Me,’ and the all-powerful ‘No!’ An unqualified “Yes” is harder sell, to both children and adults.” Actually I had always thought that nos were harder, that setting out boundaries in a world of seemingly infinite possibilities posed the greatest challenge. But Norris ties saying yes to realities of faith.
To say “yes” is to make a leap of faith, to risk oneself in a new and often scary relationship. Not being quite sure of what we are doing, or where it will lead us, we try on assent, we commit ourselves to affirmation. With luck, we find that our efforts are rewarded. The vocabulary of faith begins.[1] 
Yes is also central to understanding Jesus, at least according to the Apostle Paul who wrote, “In him it is always ‘ Yes.’ For in him every one of God's promises is a “Yes’” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20).
            All in all, this shift from no to yes has required that I become more explicit in the place that God has in this task. I realize that we can say yes “to the Universe” and say yes “to the way we are made.” If you translate my references to God in that way, I won’t quibble. I have always wanted to communicate to those who are spiritually open, but not religiously identified. But I speak as a Christian, and, as Kathleen Norris pointed out, yes is a bit of a leap of faith, and it opens us up to their being a greater Yes behind this universe. Or perhaps put another way, our saying yes to call implies that someone calls us. As a Christian, this means God’s call, expressed definitively in Jesus.
            So it’s time to look at when to say yes.

[1] Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith New York: Riverhead, 1998, 1.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Bell on Jesus

Reflections on Christ inside
How do you summarize Jesus's message?

If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know I’ve been reading Love Wins. S
o I’ve taken some notes to summarize Rob Bell’s position on Christ (his “Christology,” to use the technical term). Here are some notes along the way (not intended to be exhaustive, but certainly to representative):

First of all, Bell writes that, according to Jesus, love implies freedom. Therefore God’s invitation to us in Christ is a free invitation. But this freedom has consequences: 
God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it as we please. Saying yes will take us in one direction; saying no will take us in another.
One of the key sections of Love Wins is the rather lengthy reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), which more or less fills out his chapter, “The Good News is Better Than That.”

I read that chapter again last night and found myself quite moved—moved at the truly deep goodness of Jesus’s retelling our story. Whether we describe ourselves as undeserving God’s grace (the younger son) or too proud to bend to receive it (the older son), the Gospel is about believing God’s story more than our. When we say yes to God in Christ, we let God's story define us. Whether we self-abase or self-aggrandize, God re-narratives our life.

As Bell describes it, this is story of love, not of fear. I do love this line:
Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.
Not only do I love that line (and believe it's true), but overall I like Bell's Jesus. And that fact made me reflect: sometimes what I like is what’s true and good. But I’m not sure that what I like is always what’s best for me. I'm reminded of the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7). Jesus's words there are fairly harsh. In many ways, I don't immediately press "like" when I read them. I'd prefer to keep thinking about God's rescue and meditate on that. But there's more to the story.  Here I have to quote St. Clive (aka C. S. Lewis) who was accused of “caring for” Paul’s theology of grace more than Jesus’s rigor ethics.
As to "caring for" the Sermon on the Mount, if "caring for" here means "liking" or enjoying, I suppose no one "cares for" it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge-hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of the man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure. This is indeed to be ‘at ease in Zion’ (Amos 6:1).
So, yes, I quibble with Rob Bell's Jesus. And I submit that he picks and chooses to find the Jesus he prefers. (Admittedly, it’s a trait that we all fall into.) 

But I do not quibble with this final insight. What represents God's deepest nature ? "God is love" (1 John 4:8). So even though Bell lays out an incredible amount of reflections in Love Wins, the heart of what he believes about Christ can be found in the book’s title:
Love is what God is,Love is why Jesus came,And love is why he continues to come,Year after year to person after person.
And may you know,
deep in your bones,
that love wins.
No more quibbles. I'll let Bell have the last word.