Sunday, January 28, 2018

C. S. Lewis & the Crisis of Feelings

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll begin to see frequent posts from the new book, Mere Science and Christian Faith, in the coming weeks. On the way there, I'm musing about another book on Christian spirituality called "Fully Alive." It some ways, it builds off a chapter I wrote in C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, which I'm excerpting and adapting below.

During the early 1960s, the Christian Century published a series of answers by prominent
authors to the question, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The June 6, 1962, issue featured C. S. Lewis. Here are the ten books in his list:
  1. Phantastes by George MacDonald  
  2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton
  3. The Aeneid by Virgil
  4. The Temple by George Herbert
  5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth
  6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
  7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell 
  9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams
  10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour
What strikes me is the mixture. Some have a specific engagement with secular philosophy—here I particularly highlight Boethius’s sixth-century Consolation and his profound critical reception of Greek philosophy. Others are especially Christian, like Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, which offers a Christian vision of all human history and which affected Lewis profoundly; similarly affecting was MacDonald’s Phantastes, a book that Lewis said "baptized" his teenage imagination. He read both before he became a Christian—one provided a rational vision, a supposition of how to make sense of history from Christian faith; the other featured an imaginative approach to Christian truth. But others are not in any way Christian, like The Aeneid, written decades before Christ and which Lewis loved so much he began a translation of this classic. This too moved and shaped him.

Since Lewis was foremost a literary man, this list also reveals a great deal about three sides of Lewis and mirrors the three sets of crises he faced: first of all, those related to moving away from atheism; second, those that had a theological focus; and finally, those that expressed common human themes. 

Outside of his fantasy work in The Chronicles of Narnia (where some of this apologetic work is slipped in through imagination), Lewis is perhaps best known for countering atheism. He turned his considerable intellectual and imaginative powers to the crises of Christian faith in the twentieth century and the issues presented by believing in Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God—even as this insight overlaps with his arguments against atheism—and then to the Bible as God’s word. But there remains one additional side to him.

Lewis always maintained a healthy and sustained understanding of life as it is lived by all human beings: marked by disappointment and depression, suffering and trials, as well as the prospect of death, which we can all see and which none of us will escape. I suspect his setting in life—his teaching at two secular universities, Oxford and Cambridge—kept him mindful of those that never walked inside Magdalen College’s chapel or read the pages of the King James Bible as a devotional practice.

Here was a man who relished a good walk, a pint of beer with his friends, and reading exceptional books. Here was a man who also described personal crises not limited to believers in Christ, like sorrow over the death of a friend in battle and disappointment over never achieving recognition as a poet. Indeed, the Bible itself recognizes the destiny of all humankind and its sorrows: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). For this reason, I continue to turn to Lewis because, frankly, I’m not always drawn to people that display their spirituality too boldly in their writing or who seem to think that all of life consists of praying, reading Scripture, and singing hymns. Writers who resonate with me acknowledge the mundane things of life, like filling the car with gas; having keys copied at the hardware store; and buying butter, flour, and orange juice at the grocery store. They also acknowledge the hard things in life, like watching your children grow up, realizing your time on earth is also passing, seeing parents age and die, or grasping that dreams you once held will never come to pass.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Urgency of Strategic Breaks

From my book A Time for Yes, this post integrates lessons I've learned from various human sciences on what helps us to perform at our peak. Surprisingly, it's taking breaks.
Mondrian's "Rhythm of Black Lines"

Grooving—that’s life at its best. That’s what musicians—and especially drummers—describe as that moment when you’re feeling the rhythm so deeply that you’re almost obligated to stay in it. Not too fast, nor too slow. You’re “in the groove.” It’s the result of hearing the yeses, testing them, and then finding the right rhythm of yes and no, of notes and spaces. 
When Leonardo da Vinci was working on The Last Supper, he would without warning take a break.  The prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie was not amused and entreated Leonardo with tiresome persistence to complete the work.  The prior complained to the Duke who questioned Leonardo about his working habits. Leonardo, we are told, persuaded the duke that “the greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.”
Some like to describe this optimal state of life as balance. And that description works ok, if it implies the right mixture of activities that promote the good life. The problem with balance—or “the balanced life”—is that it sounds as if living well is to find some equipoise between equal parts of two different things, like relaxation and work.
I prefer describing life at its best as rhythm. It’s dynamic. Balance remains essentially a vision of things staying there on a scale. Balance is a teeter-totter that’s horizontal to the earth. It just stands there. A great rhythm, on the other hand, has movement and dynamism. It integrates a variety of different inputs. A little bass drum here. Some snare drum there, mixing with a thumping bass and a spiced with a shaker, a tambourine, or some conga. 
The key then is good rhythm among all the calls in life. Conversely, it’s not really work/life “balance” because I’m saying that all these three major areas—life, work, and love—need to play off one another to create a rhythmic beauty.
Rhythm—and this is the most important part and the one that’s often missed—has that expert relationship between sound and silence. To keep making noise is just that: noise. But a good rhythm has notes and spaces, and that’s what makes it work. And even more than work, that’s what makes it interesting and sometimes scintillating.  
Life is like that too. We live our best when there’s intense engagement in what we love, what we say yes to, and then points of rest.
The Bible also describes these moments of refreshing, of returning to God. One of my favorite verses finds its way into the prophecies of Isaiah:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;In quietness and trust shall be your strength.
This prophecy came to the people of Israel at a time of great social stress. They needed to hear about the rhythm of working hard and of returning to God. Tellingly, they did not because the next line reads, “But you refused” (Isaiah 30:15, NRSV). 
We need to listen to the call to return and rest. And this rest and return make the rhythm of yes and no.
Let me describe how that worked for me when I was a kid, when the importance of rhythm founds its way in sports. And there I learned that sometimes the best lessons—the ones you need to remember—happen at age 10.
I was down four games to five in the third set at my junior tennis match. I knew I had to perform at my peak. My opponent was bigger and stronger. (My December birthday always put me as the youngest in my age bracket.) At that moment, when I hit the forehand down the line, it needed to be winner. Not just something safe. It had to be special, something that would be sure to take the point. So I was nervous. Even at that age, I’d lost matches where I got too stressed, too uptight and anxious, and I’d missed key shots when I really needed to make them. I knew the feeling of losing that last game. Match and tournament over. Loss to Cootsona. Time to pack up and go home.
I realize that some of us have a tendency to play it overly safe. Maybe we like our breaks a little too much. We need to learn to engage in our yeses just a little more. But I’m assuming that those interested in this book are geared toward optimal performance. More often than not we just keep working harder and harder. We refuse to take a break. We assume more work and more activity is better. The result is usually not more efficiency. Rather, we find ourselves overstressed and making bad decisions.
It turns out that the key for me at that moment in that critical match was actually two minutes of not playing. Before serving at 4-5, I took a short, but necessary rest when my opponent and I switched sides. To gain some energy, I ate a few caramels my mother had carried in her pockets (the ‘70s equivalent of Power Bars). As best I could at age 10, I focused my attention—not on not losing, but on winning. My opponent was back on the court way before I was. But I waited until I felt ready to return to the game.
At 4-5, I served strategically and not wildly. I took the game. At 5-5, my confidence increased and my opponent’s began to waver. Then returning serve, I started to make shots with more freedom and less fear. I was becoming steadier. It got to 6-5. Time to change sides again. Everything in me wanted to rush to the next game—knowing that if I took it, this three-hour match would be over. Instead, as we switched sides, I paused again.
By the time I served at 6-5, my nerves were calmer. I was in the Zone. Even when I lost two points, I still found myself serving at 40-30. Match point. The serve pinned my opponent in the corner, and he hit a weak backhand. I put it away. Match to Cootsona. On to the quarter finals.
I won the match, and I’m sure the brief respite had everything to do with it. I followed my shaky start with my best work.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a tight business climate, where it’s all pressure all the time. We can make the mistake of not taking that break at a critical moment. The match in front of us is urgent, but there is nothing more urgent than strategic breaks. Because when we rest, we can go deep. And we need to dig down when the match gets tough. It’s at the depths that we find creativity and innovation. When we want a new insight on the pitch we’re about to make, the speech we want to write, or managing that challenging employee, we need to move into the deeper functions of our brain. When we are constantly pushing ourselves, it’s simply impossible to do our best work.
Harvard Professor Herbert Benson has called these moments in everyday life “breakouts.” I’ve called it “saying yes to no.” Using research from brain mapping, Benson describes that up to a point, stress helps us think and act better. Beyond that, however, it simply frustrates us. If you keep pushing yourself when you’re at a dead end, your “primitive brain” (the deep core that drives basic functions and raw emotions) goes berserk. That’s when we feel fearful, frustrated, and forgetful.
At moments of key stress where we know we need to perform, but can’t, it’s time to change pace. Breathe deeply. Beat a drum. Walk around the block. Listen to Switchfoot or Mozart. There are countless possibilities, but the key is to do something completely different. Then the stress function is relieved and creativity emerges. Function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies suggest that deep meditation and creative activity lead to “coherence”—a synchronizing of the logical left brain with the intuitive right brain.
In a tight market when we’re tempted to keep working and in the process simply get more stressed, let’s learn when not to work, to say yes to NO.
Now, interestingly enough, two former specialists in coaching tennis, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz, have taken their lessons from athletics and brought them to bear on life and particularly the maintenance of energy. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, they conclude that “managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.” 
Loehr and Schwarz discovered—as I did at age ten—that the best tennis players were the ones who used their breaks between games and even the time between points, most effectively. 
They also emphasized that personal energy is multidimensional. And they outlined four areas:
  1. Physical energy is the fundamental source of fuel for life and for igniting other energies.
  2. Emotional energy means access to pleasant and positive emotions: self-confidence, self-control, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness
  3. Mental energy involves realistic optimism, mental preparation, visualization, and creativity.
  4. Spiritual energy is connection to deeply held values and a purpose that go beyond self-interest.
Interestingly, Loehr and Schwarz emphasize the need for “positive rituals” to keep this energy management. Positive energy rituals support effective energy management. For example, there are barriers to good energy management: Negative habits that block, distort, waste, diminish, deplete and contaminate stored energy. The solution? To establish strategic positive energy rituals that insure sufficient capacity in all dimensions. 
Examples can be reasonably prosaic. You like to move your body? Take that walk around the block and grab a cup of coffee. In Say Yes to No, I recommend a daily sabbath, where we take 30 minutes a day to do something we love. Loehr and Scwarz found that our energy cycles run in about 90-120 minute intervals, and so at the end of each of those, we need to take mini-breaks. The key here is to put that in your schedule—to set in your iPhone and to know when your break is going to come.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Usefulness of Independence

Another excerpt from Mere Science and Christian Faith (here in less than two months)...

We know that God is not ultimately demonstrable through natural science. God’s fingers, as it were, won’t poke through a laboratory experiment. In fact, since I advocate for dual causation (which I’ll explain in a another post), I believe we want to keep a measure of independence between faith and science. As nice as many pastors are, scientist don’t need them in the lab sprinkling holy water on their experiments or providing 24/7 spiritual encouragement.

Though I advocate for the integration of science and faith, independence has a place. If God is going to work in the natural world, he will often do so through natural means. (Though obviously a miracle like the resurrection is a direct act of God without natural causes.) One tried-and-true way to understand this is dual causation (see my footnote).

We can speak of an event through two means—God’s and the world’s. For example, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, 
“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (Exodus 14:21). 
Did God or nature do it? Yes—both are necessary to describe the event. 

Similarly, consider 
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
When God knits us together in our mother’s womb, that divine work also occurs through natural processes. This is a useful and necessary perspective. We should not use science to prove God’s existence, and there is no uniquely Christian way to bring water to the boiling point or to map the human genome.

Footnote: For a philosophical approach to this question, see Ric Machuga, Three Theological Mistakes: How to Correct Enlightenment Assumptions About God, Miracles, and Free Will (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), esp. 93-99, and “The Hows of Science and the Whys of Philosophy: Why Final Causes Are Still Necessary,” in In Defense of the Soul: What It Means to Be Human (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), 57-63.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

A Brief Meditation on Religion and Science in the United States (excerpt from a manuscript)

I'm currently working on a book about the past, present, and future of religion and science in the United States. The manuscript is due December 1. I thought I'd provide a peek into the book's current state.

America has always had a dialectical relationship with science and religion, that is to say, with rationality and order, as well as feeling and conversion. And since I begin this study with European settlements in the West and the East, it is even anachronistic to speak of “America” or “the United States.” Nonetheless, a dialectical—and sometimes contentious—relationship exists between these two forces, which of course, continues to the present day.

To use the scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s categories, as Americans, we are often poised between “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction” (Science and the Modern World, 181). From this citation, it sounds perhaps that religion is solely emotional. Whitehead does later comment in the chapter devoted to “Religion and Science” (from which this quote emerges) that 
“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.” A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-2.
That is to say, religion seeks to put us in connection with a broader Reality behind the reality we see. It is not simply an emotion, but an intuition of Something or Someone greater than we are.
Some might say that science and religion sets up the contrast between “head” and “heart.” That idea is somewhat distorting—since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in the brain—and yet that contrast begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit together. The eminent historian of American religion Claude Welch labels the three main threads in the eighteenth century “pietism, rationalism, and romanticism” (Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century I:22). In my view the former and latter are both cut from similar human cloth where Romanticism is often a secularized religion, and rationalism is the thread of science in our culture.
If we imagine science (or rationality) on one pole and religion (or feeling) on the another, some have fully given themselves to one pole or its other; many tend toward one as a major, and the other as a minor theme; and some have been able to bring the two together, or at least hold them in a dialectical tension. 
The story I’m telling to bring us to the present, and then the future, of religion in the United States, is one in which no generation ever arrives at fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate. 
If I am convinced that we have done best as a country when we have held both religion and science together, it’s related to my conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination. My intent in this book, however, is primarily to observe not to promote.