Sunday, August 27, 2017

C. S. Lewis and (Enlightened) Selfishness

Another excerpt from my book, The Time for Yes, on discernment...
"I would not know how to advise a man how to write. It is a matter of talent
and interest. I believe he must be strongly moved if he is to become a writer. Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out." C. S. Lewis in a 1963 interview
Doesn’t “finding your passion” and looking for "flow" (as I've written in recent posts) seem just a little too selfish and therefore illegitimate as a way of directing our lives? 

Not necessarily. I have learned from a distinction from the Christian writer and Oxford literary scholar, C.S. Lewis. He delineated an important distinction: 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 in comparing selfishness with self-centeredness.

"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. 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. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end, give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindnesses are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration." C. S. Lewis

As Lewis says, either of the two will destroy the soul in the end. So I’m proposing a form of enlightened selfishness--or, as some friends of mine prefer, enlightened self-interest.  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. We just do what we enjoy doing, where we find “flow”—we actually forget ourselves. And therefore we simply cannot be self-centered.
(If you’re philosophically minded you’re welcome to call this “the hedonistic paradox.” Search for happiness and you won’t find it. Do what you enjoy, and you’ll find happiness as a by-product. But then again, you may not be philosophically minded….)
The point is not, as we often fear, that when we do something we like it will make us less moral. “How good is that guy—he actually likes serving at the homeless center!” Actually, what we truly love helps us to turn our eyes off ourselves and toward the activity. In fact, that’s 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 yourself. (And all this leads to mission, which I’ll arrive shortly.)
I’ve been unfolding this idea of “enlightened selfishness,” and I now arrive at the weird part: we often don’t know what we really desire. How many times do you hear someone saying, “I’m not sure I really know what I want”? 

We don’t always have the answers, but I believe the God who created us can help us find what we truly desire. That will be the content of a future post, but in the meantime, feel free to post your ideas.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Our Awareness of Divinity

This is more or less my teaching from last Sunday. It will appear in a different form in a chapter of an upcoming book, Connecting Faith and Science: Philosophical andTheological Inquiries (Claremont Press, 2018). I'd be interested to know what you think.

One of the places I absolutely love is Lake Tahoe. I believe I’ve literally been there every year of my life. And so, in a way, it’s part of me. The beauty of its azure lake flanked mountain peaks is stunning. It’s also a place where I sense something deeply spiritual. My mother, who most of her life was not a particularly religious person—she was even anti-religious at times—told me once, as our family would be sitting along Tahoe’s shores: “Here’s where I can see God.” At the time, I let the remark stand without further comment, but it definitely stuck in my head.
That’s what I mean by the title “our awareness of divinity.”
The phrase “awareness of divinity” comes from John Calvin, for whom the appreciation of nature was a key part of his spiritual life. In his vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.3.1) Calvin wrote this: 
“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”

Reading beauty in the book of nature
This summer I’ve highlighted the idea of “Reading the Two Books,” that is, we read both the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Christians have noted that we read both books because they have one Author and therefore they don’t contradict, though their insights may enhance each other. One of the ways to read the book of nature, as I’ve mentioned before, is to see the beauty in creation.
This leads me to ask, What is beauty? If we were to Google beauty—especially for images—it’s almost entirely feminine physical beauty, along with products like cosmetics and shampoo, and events like beauty contests. Is that what I’m talking about?
I’m not denying that physical beauty is one form of beauty, but ancient thinkers talked about a broader transcendent beauty. Plato offers three markers for beauty: order, symmetry, and proportion; similarly, Thomas Aquinas, highlighted integrity, consonance, and clarity. Theologian Thomas Oden offers this: “Beauty is that quality or combination of qualities within a thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind of spirit.”
Ultimately, theologians see this beauty pointing back to God. So do many poets. As Gerald Manley Hopkins, the profound nineteenth century poet intones:
“Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Golden Echo”).
There is a similar experience of beauty as scientists read the book of nature. In Adventure of Ideas, the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed to this in scientific as well as artistic pursuits.
“Science and art are the consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty.”
It is beauty that lures us and that makes truth worth discovering.
And this brings us to the "awareness of divinity" because we see beauty around us, and we want to know the origin of this beauty. The Psalmist declares that he desires God’s beauty,
“One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
In the seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered a proof for God based on our inherent yearnings: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? Pascal wrote, “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” He continued by observing 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.

The twentieth century Oxford literary professor C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about three hundred years after Pascal 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.” C. S. Lewis

And there are poets today in the world of rap music that are telling us the same thing, that no matter how hard the contemporary music scene tries, it can’t entirely let go of God. I start my Introduction to Religion class on Tuesday at Chico State with a reflection on God and spirituality in three of the most prominent rap artists today, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper. They all talk about, and struggling with, faith in God. Chance, for example, appeared on The Tonight Show and produced a moving live rendition of his song “Blessings,” which includes the lyrics, “I speak to God in public," and "Are you ready for your blessing? Are you ready for a miracle?”
That is one way to express our natural awareness and yearning for God. A readings from the book of Scripture as most Protestants know it, as well as a text from the Catholic Bible--both from around the 1st century AD, offer similar insights. The context, by the way, is idolatry, the worship of creature rather than Creator. Both texts direct us back to the Source of all that is. Having said that, these verses seem clear enough to me. So I'll let them stand on their own without further comment.
Romans 119 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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.  
Wisdom 13For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
CSR and the awareness of divinity
This inherent “awareness of divinity” has also been studied by cognitive scientists, as they read the book of nature. What can evolutionary science teach us about this “awareness of divinity”? Justin Barrett, through his work in developing a Cognitive Science of Religion, uses the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue that evolution has developed human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events, or are predisposed toward teleology.
“Evidence exists that people are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered" (Justin Barrett), which naturally leads to belief in a Creator.
For example, preschoolers “are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design.” Some use this tendency to impugn belief in God—i.e., we cannot help but believe—instead I am arguing here that it is part of God’s creation. We are created through evolution with an openness to belief.      

Another area of research suggests that evolutionary pressures, particularly the human need toward cooperation as it leads to survival, produces a common stock of morality; “a recurring theme is that humans seem to naturally converge upon a common set of intuitions that structure moral thought,” such as “it is wrong to harm a nonconsenting member of one’s group.”
According the the Cognitive Science of Religion, we have then, deeply imprinted on the structures of our mind, an intuition of purpose and of morality. These together offer a sense of a moral Creator.
There are similarities with Calvin’s “awareness of divinity,” which points to a sense of the numinous, powerful and brooding. “Where can I go from Your presence? Where can I flee from Your spirit?” cries the psalmist in Psalm 139. It is the feeling of being out in a forest at night, knowing that no one is there, but feeling something. Often this experience can frighten us. And yet it also provides a witness to the natural knowledge of God. To be clear, God has used the process of evolution to implant this natural awareness.

Sense of the divine clarified by book of Scripture
There is a danger to this “awareness of divinity” if we only read the book of nature. It can leaves both Nazis and altruists unchanged, except with a veneer of belief and an assurance that what they already do now has divine endorsement. An “awareness of divinity” can be the basis of nature-worship, built on a sense of the mysteries of the natural world. It can be a brash, hedonistic worship of ourselves, embodied in the basest forms of contemporary spirituality. Even the Nazi’s propagated an appreciation for what “God is doing through the German Volk” and supported it with the powerful, but vague feeling of the Numinous working to renew the German civilization. (This also seems to be the case for today’s U.S. white supremacists and neo-Nazis.)
The book of Scripture offers clarity and directs this natural awareness of God. It describes Jesus as the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Science acts in some ways, in describing this “awareness of divinity” as general revelation, but those truths receive clarity through God’s special revelation in history, especially depicted in the pages of the Bible. For example, we can find the beauty of God’s design in the natural world through scientific work—and thus be led to conclude that God is an incomparable designer. We can, however, only know that God has created all humankind in the divine image and that God has redeemed all humanity in Jesus Christ through the book of Scripture.

I’ve always been taught to ask, So what? What do we do with this? We might simply enjoy reading the book of nature today and noting how it quite easily leads us to ponder the presence of God, something like my mother’s experience at Lake Tahoe’s shores, “Here’s where I can see God.” And in that we can thank our Creator that we are imprinted with this “awareness of divinity.” I hope that seems like a good start.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Know of Yes (Listening)

“Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems? 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. 
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. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC
Buechner uses the term “work,” but I will replace this with “calling,” which 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 that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high-ee.”) In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 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 a sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller, way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience”—be described?
“‘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.
One key example for Csikszentmihalyi is the work of a surgeon, who operates 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, surgeons don’t exhaust the experience of flow. In fact, flow is 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 experience flow more often when they are working than when they are at leisure. In fact, 54% of the participants who were “in flow” were paged at work. And 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.”
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." Csikszentmihalyi.
So if your “pager” beeped right now, would you be “in flow”? Take some notes throughout this week at random intervals and see when you’re in optimal experience, whether you’d keep doing that activity and “are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it.” As the fabulous book Designing Your Life reminds us, it may take some "trialing" or testing--which is the theme of the next section--to find your passions. Still, the key for this post is that your passions will lead you to yes.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Science of Gratitude

U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons has studied the science of gratitude. In his very approachable book entitled Thanks, Emmons tells about a study he and a research team conducted with participants whom he divided into three groups and who keep three types of journals for ten weeks—and I’ll restate this in my own words—one where daily the participants grumbled (describing what’s wrong in their lives), one where they stated things without sorting out positive and negative, and a gratitude journal where they simply noted what is positive in your life.

During this practice, he asked the participants to note their subjective levels of happiness. In other words, how would they rate their own happiness?

His findings? In contrast to the other two journal keepers, participants who kept the gratitude journal 
“felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions.”
According to the scale he and his research team used, 
“they were a full 25% happier than the other participants.”
Gratitude results in happiness because we are designed to be thankful.

Incidentally, John Templeton, the financier who later put his money into engaging life’s “Big Questions”—like the relationship of religion and science—had a very simple rule: start your day, immediately when you wake up, by noting two things you’re thankful for. And as a result, I’m told that Templeton, was an extraordinarily happy man.

Or maybe the word “extraordinarily” was ill-advised because Emmons research suggests that any of us—even those not born with a “sunny” disposition—can become happier through the practice of gratitude.

And this leads me to a question: if thanksgiving is fairly directly related to happiness, then why aren’t we more thankful? Don’t we want to be happy?

With this question, we arrive at the greatest problem in our culture, even though we probably have heard the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” our whole consumption-based society is founded on the idea that we can’t be thankful with what we’re given, that we always need more. As much as I can enjoy the craft of advertising, I know that its aim is increases our desires for what we don’t have. This makes it easy to be thankless in our society—to complain, to mutter under our breath that we could be happy “if only.” If only I had more money, I could buy that car, which would drive me past a stunning beach view, and I’d be accompanied by a beautiful person, who—because of car—would be sitting next to me.

As the proverb describes it, money can’t buy happiness, and I’d add this: wanting more money to buy more things positively makes us less happy.

My own goal out of all this is to be thankful for what I am receiving and not bitter for what I’m not receiving.

It seems that according to the science of gratitude, this has some marked positive benefits.