Monday, September 25, 2017

On Discovery and Discernment

Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.Malcolm Gladwell
Once we discover our yeses—where passion meets mission—we then must test them to see if they work. (This is what Dave Evans and Bill Burnett call "trialing" in Designing Your Life.
But first, let’s take a look at the process of making decisions.
One of my mentors, the late psychologist and Princeton Seminary professor, James Loder, represents the type of thinker whose interests spanned Jean Piaget to John Calvin, Niels Bohr to Søren Kierkegaard. He was both one of the most brilliant men I’ve met with flights of intellection that would simply stun and who would also shed tears as he spoke about his and others’ “transforming moments” with the Spirit, times when lives were forever altered in God’s direction.
Jim Loder co-wrote a book with physicist Jim Neidhardt on the integration of theology and science, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of theSpirit in Theology and Science, where they describe a five-step process of discovery or discernment.
1.        Incoherence (even conflict, where things don’t quite add up—and we’re searching)
2.        Search for resolution (where we’re looking around trying to figure out how to solve the incoherence)
3.        Construction of new meaning (when the resolution begins)
4.        Release of energy with the discovery of the resolution (We can think here of Archimedes running naked from the Greek bath house shouting “eureka”—which means “I found it”—because he had discovered the theory of the displacement of water.)
5.        Verification (I’ll return to that in a moment.)

In Loder’s understanding of these “transforming moments,” we interpret or verify our insight in this fifth step, particularly integrating our current resolution with the past and projecting its implications into the future.
I’d like to reflect on these five steps of discovery or discernment.
First of all, conflict or incoherence can be good. Sometimes we notice—and it can hurt when we observe this fact—that there’s a conflict between what we believe and our life in God’s calling, or we want to refine it. Loder helped me to see conflict as a necessary part of human development, as the fuel that moves us forward to greater growth. More specifically, we find our yeses because of this incoherence.
Second, I believe our intuition or imagination is powerful. Our intuition often grasps the right answer before we have the specific steps to prove it. But our intuition is inexact. And that’s why testing is key.
Loder and Neidhardt analyze Albert Einstein’s great intuitive leaps that lead him toward his theories of special and general relativity, theories that define physics almost a hundred years after Einstein’s discoveries. They describe Einstein’s use of imagination as “a jump of imaginative insight: a bold leap, an informed, speculative attempt to understand, a ‘groping’ constructive attempt to understand." Einstein talked about how his intuition guided the process and provoked him to ask more questions.
When we are searching and testing, we sometimes find that great imaginative insight, that “bisociation”—where we bring two ideas that seemed incompatible together—and we work to interpret our lives accordingly.
Third, discovering almost always includes continuity with the past. New insights have a connection with our past. They create a narrative that makes sense. It’s the story God is writing in our lives. If it doesn’t have continuity, then it’s not a real solution. If we’ve heard God direct us in the past, the future will make sense with what has gone before. Each chapter builds on the chapter beforehand. It’s a new chapter, but the story has continuity.
Finally, verification or testing is essential. And this is the key concept for this section of my book. As Loder writes of science, “many beautiful physical theories are simply wrong. The steady-state theory of the universe was indeed aesthetically very pleasing to the human mind but it could not account for such key astronomical observations as the background (black-body) radiation." We have to test our great insights and see how they work. Big bang cosmology (which is implied in Einstein’s theory of relativity) could account for cosmic background radiation as the echo of the initial creation of our universe. Thus it makes better sense.
So now it’s up to you to test your specific yeses. And this is partially how I understand Paul’s words to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 3:11). (By the way, it’s clear that this is not working for our salvation because the passage continues with “God is at work among you.”) “Working out” our salvation means that we work out the implications of your salvation. We’ve already declared our big Yes to God and now we work out what that means for us particularly. How does a yes affect the twenty-four a day life as it’s really lived?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chiseling: The Creation of the Universe and The Art of Negation

Chipping away represents God’s vision. Michelangelo believed that his creative power reflect divine inspiration. Late in life he received the moniker il divino (“the divine one”), though he was more modest than his fans: 
"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." Michelangelo
I’m convinced the Creator knows what art--and especially the art of negation, of saying creative Nos--can look like. God, the supreme Artist, sees our lives as works of art. And this is true artistry since we’re not simply blocks of marble for God to sculpt. 

To shift artists, the nineteenth century master painter, Vincent Van Gogh once wrote his brother, Theo, about God’s amazing skill. 
“Christ… is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes human beings instead of statues.” Van Gogh 
It’s definitely more difficult to work with living beings—and to use us in the process of chipping away. We resist the chisel. And yet, you might even say that God’s chipping away becomes part of the healing of lives.
Saying No through chiseling away at possibilities appears to be God’s method. Scientific discoveries have confirmed that this is the way God has created the masterpiece we call our universe. In forming the world, God also chiseled away. The entire universe has come into existence through a gigantic quantity of No’s. 

Since the 1960s, an astounding set of discoveries reveal that the universe has certain, very specific conditions, which allow for the emergence of conscious, moral creatures. Using anthropos, the Greek word for “human being” (as in anthropology), it’s called the Anthropic Principle, which states that the cosmos is fitted from the beginning for the emergence of life in general and intelligent life in particular. In fact, about thirty discrete, precisely calibrated parameters—such as the expansion rate of the universe, the mass of the universe, the strength of the strong nuclear force, and the ratio of antiprotons to protons—all were needed to produce the universe. Otherwise, it simply would not exist. (Watch this video for a related discovery.) Oxford physicist Roger Penrose has described just one such parameter, the “phase-space volume,” with a number almost impossible to write—a “1” followed by 10123  “0s.” That’s amazingly precise and signifies an almost innumerably amount of No’s.

In other words, the Creator chipped away at an enormous number of possibilities to create this world. God said No many times to create the Yes’s of life. It looks like the creation of beauty, intelligence, goodness depends on what is rejected even more than what is selected. 

And here’s what I figure: if chipping away through the art of negation is good enough for God and the universe, it’s good enough for you and for me, and our lives.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How do I Know what I Really Want in Life?

"I'm confused about what I really want. All I hear inside in static? How can I hear a wiser voice to guide me?"      

Here then is the bottom line: As we seek God, we actually find what we 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. “Take delight” first in the Lord. Order all other things around God. By putting God as my first love, and thus ordering my loves properly, other desires fall in place. And I find out what I really want.
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 Frederick Buechner's 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 worldwide, creating beauty in the arts and culture. So it’s not just what we want to do—our passion has to meet some actual need. Here we move away from the siren voices of our culture that prize 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 to God—is to listen: to obtain some sense of the direction that resonates deep in us and out in the world. 
Does this happen at once? Not for most people. Listening for the call is gradual. Each insight builds on the previous one. It’s something like a website coming gradually into view. (You have to imagine a slow connection speed for this.) 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.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Some Notes Toward A Theological Rebuttal of White Supremacy That Shouldn’t Have to be Made

I've been working on a response to the rise in white supremacy in our country and why it makes no sense as a follower of Jesus. I wanted it to be brilliant, but it never quite got there. Maybe my head is jumbled because I can't believe I'd even have to write such a post. But that's the world of 2017...

Question to answer: How much do we as Christians stand against racism generally and white supremacy specifically? Or do we stand for it?

It seems like every thoughtful Christian I know is trying to put together our President’s indulgence (or minimally, equivocation) toward white supremacists with his widespread support among some religious conservatives. I suppose we’d like to think that our country has learned something since 1865 or so about how to interpret the Good Book without supporting racism. 
So I returned to my Bible, and, as a theologian, I tried to figure out if there’s a case to be made for presuming one race has God’s favor over another.

I started with the first book and with creation: Genesis 1:26 clearly tells us the first humans, Adam and Eve (almost better translated as “Dusty” and “Life”) are created in God’s image. However we understand these two, creation means that we are all one in this pair. Paul in Acts 17:26 proclaims that God "made from one he every nation [ethnos in Greek, as in "ethnic group"].

I flipped to the New Testament and found that redemption has some strikingly universalistic (and need I say "non-racially segregated"?) themes. John 3:16 sets out that “God so loved the world” that God gave his Son, and In that same book (12:32), Jesus declares that “When I am lifted up from the earth”—in John’s Gospel, this means both being raised on the cross and in the resurrection—“I will pray all people to myself.” It’s not very nuanced, to be honest. Sort sounds like everybody.
What about the end of time or the consummation? Revelation 21: 24 sets out, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.”
That is, all the kings of the “nations” (again from ethnos) will bring their tribute God and the Lamb on the throne. By this time, I was running out of books to read….
All this means I couldn’t do it. I could not figure out how to read the Bible and be a white supremacist. Do those who take this book seriously believe that all are created in God’s image, that Christ came, taught, and died to redeem all, and that Christian hope is all tribes from all the ethne, will bring their tribute? The clearest conclusion is that white supremacy--any kind of racial supremacy--is supremely unbiblical.
Maybe there remains one easier solution—the religious conservatives who voted for and support Trump are white evangelicals.

I certainly hope that’s not the answer.