Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Limitations of Common (Mis)Conceptions

This blog is broadly about a flourishing, fully alive faith.

Because science has riches to offer our faith, sometimes as a challenge, but even more as a resource, these posts often address topics in science and religion.
This time I’m addressing the complexity of understanding that latter term. 

Why? I read two articles this week that made it really difficult to stick with stereotypes and their (mis)conceptions about religion in American. They also touch on topics of particular relevance in light of the opening of an impeachment inquiry.

The first posed the question, “Who’s an evangelical and who gets to decide?”

It noted that Beth Moore, the fabulously popular evangelical speaker, and Southern Baptist Convention leader Russell Moore, and even (I added “even” since he so often seems a walking stereotype of conservative evangelicalism) John Piper the notable pastor and author—all “white evangelical” leaders—have expressed significant concerns about President Trump. Not everyone is Jerry Falwell, Jr.
—a fact I'm quite thankful for. 

But even more, it demonstrated how… well, I’ll just quote it,
“Nonwhite evangelicals, especially African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos, were less enthusiastic about Trump. Polls often exclude such nonwhite evangelicals by design, as stories about ‘evangelicals and politics’ typically only look at “self-identifying evangelical white Republicans and politics.” Article, "Who's an evangelical and who gets to decide"? 
What seemed like a simple association—"evangelical” implies "Trump supporter"—became much nuanced, and to my mind, exceedingly more interesting.

The second was not actually an article, but a rather extensive report by the Pew Research Center with a somewhat boring title, “The Religious Typology,” but explosive implications—by which I mean, if we take this seriously, our stereotypical ideas about American religion will be exploded.

Pew's new religious typology breaks Americans into seven categories with much more captivating titles like Diversely Devout (traditionally religious, but open to reincarnation and psychics), Relaxed Religious (religion important to them, but not engaged in traditional practice), and Spiritually Awake (skew more toward New Age and untraditional religious practice). About 43% of Americans are in these three—spiritually open, but not entirely religious identified.

Since I can’t leave politics this week, the 12% Pew found to be God and Country—these fit most closely with the white evangelicals that support Trump. That’s like 1 in 8 Americans. These are the engaged Trump supporters. Not all evangelicals are full-throated in their support of the Republican Party and our President? Case closed? Not quite—but minimally some new insights.

All this reinforces what I discovered when I was writing Negotiating Science and Religion in America,

“'One day I woke up and wondered: maybe today I should be a Christian, or would I rather be a Buddhist, or am I just a Star Trek freak?'” And so Leigh Eric Schmidt begins his 2012 book on the American individualized spiritualty, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality in which he demonstrates that, while plenty of contemporary examples exist, so do precedents in our country’s history, and also charts (as Wade Clark Roof describes it inside its cover) the 'lineage from Emerson to Oprah.' Already in the nineteenth century, Philip Schaff described America as 'the classic land of sects,' and John Weiss offered this declaration, which summarizes so much: 'America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of sacredness of the individual.'
The American cultural tradition of religious pluralism, which chooses among various inputs for spirituality, is longstanding and venerable. The past directs our present. Americans have always held copious strands of religious threads in our hands, which we weave together in fascinating ways. An excerpt from my upcoming book Negotiating Science and Religion in America
At times of high political drama, or even when we just want to understand this unusual country, it’s entirely complicated to grasp American religious life—and probably better not to lean on stereotypes and (mis)conceptions.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Re-Animated Soul Dialogue, Part 3

As I mentioned last week, my brother Marcus, who is also a novelist, helped me rewrite one of my previously posted Soul Dialogues to make it funnier and more interesting. 
Since this blog often looks at themes in religion and science, the topic of the soul fits right in. What is the soul? Is it a solely religious concept? Is it something science can study? What am I doing talking to my imaginary friend Dan? And why are we now in Oxford's Addison's Walk at Magdalen College thousands of miles from where we started? (I suppose that's what happens when you converse with an imaginary friend.) 
So many questions to ponder... In any event, this is the third and final part.

Dan: Greg, knowing you as I do, I can’t believe we’re done with this topic already. I thought I’d hear about positive psychology, Scripture, and becoming fully alive. Let me hear it all—whatever you’ve got to say.
Greg: You are a true imaginary friend, wanting to so generously hear all that I have to say. And before you’ve had an imaginary lunch.Let me start with this: When I was trained in the humanities at Cal, I learned that Sigmund Freud called religion an illusion. (Today Richard Dawkins echoes this and calls religious belief a “delusion.”) Put in simple form: If you believe in God, you’re crazy. The more you believe, the crazier you are.
Dan: I’ve heard some of that myself.
GSC: But science doesn’t agree with either of them.  Research—the kind backed up by quantitative and statistical analysis—points to the opposite conclusion. By and large, religious belief leads to happier lives.
Dan: I want to believe it, but says who?
GSC: Well, first of all, the Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley (my alma mater—Go Bears!) has demonstrated the psychological benefits of forgiveness. Second, Health talked about the “Surprising Health Benefits of Religion” like lower blood pressure, more life satisfaction, more resilience, healthier immune system, and a longer life. You might say that, when we say yes to God, we say yes to happiness, the abundant life, and human flourishing.  Choose one of the three for a description, but if you ask, Do I want one of these? The answer is Yes.
Dan: The science sounds compelling. But what about Scripture and human flourishing?
GSC: There are so many examples, but here’s one. I remember attending a conference on technology and faith where, at a lunchtime conversation, a bright, young physicist, who struck me as both articulate and ebullient, told me how she had struggled with depression. One of her problems was perseverating
Dan: Perseverating?
GSC:Yes. Perseverating. Thinking about the same thing over and over.
Dan: Of course. Of course. Of course.
Greg pauses for just a moment. Dan shrugs.
GSC: Anyway, the cognitive response she learned through her therapist was to let her brain saturate on positive thoughts—to perseverate on positivity, perhaps. And she pointed to New Testament book of Philippians (which we talked about back in Chico) as a beautiful expression of that work. 
Dan: There’s that name again.
GSC: I’m telling you.
Dan: I’m hearing you.
Greg stops mid-walk, caught up in the moment and his thoughts.
GSC: Do you want to hear something else?
Dan: Yes.
GSC: Okay. (With some excitement and gestures) Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases the key verse I mentioned earlier: 
“I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
Dan: We should probably start walking again. Folks are beginning to stare. But I like where you’re going.
Greg begins walking again.
Dan: So, Greg, my friend, it’s getting close to lunch, you’ve been philosophizing for a while, and I’ve been wondering if there’s some payoff from all this discussion of the soul. Greg, what’s your point?
GSC: Integration. That’s my point. Bringing all of our soul to all of God. 
To be one, wholly—and holy—God’s. That is the point of talking about the soul.
Dan: This is good – we’re back on the soul.
GSC:  Is it ok if I preach it?
Dan: Of course. Greg gotta Greg.
Greg stops again, taken over by the moment.
GSC: I’m convinced there’s just one you, and there’s simply one me that God created. We can talk about “body” and “soul” and “spirit” and “mind.” But God doesn’t want us separated. God wants us to be one person who relates to our one Lord. Now science does tell us that parts of the human brain developed in different ways, and so it’s natural (in that sense) to feel dis-unified. But spiritual life is the practice and power that brings us together and in some ways works to reverse what’s natural.
Dan: Greg is definitely Gregging!
GSC: Yes! Disunity is at least one huge component of sin. Isn’t that what Paul lamented in Romans 7—“I don’t understand my own actions”—that there were at least two selves fighting against each other? Sometimes it feels like a barroom brawl inside of my noggin!
And this seems to me to be one key element of monotheism—our belief in one God. We don’t go from deity to deity, like ancient pagans did—a god for our work guild, another god for love, another for the political life, and yet another for the home. And so on… As Christians, we know one God who loves, creates, and redeems all of us. At our best then, our souls aren’t separate parts of us, warring against everything else—against our flesh, or whatever else.Instead, being fully alive is bringing all of us to all of God. If anything, the soul ought to describe that unity. To be one, wholly—and holy—God’s. That is the point of talking about the soul.
How’s that for a soapbox moment?
Dan: You had me at “disunity.”  And now I’m really hungry. Soul food?
GSC: Sounds nourishing. Let’s go.
Greg walks on again.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Re-Animated Soul Dialogue, Part 2

As I mentioned last week, my brother Marcus, who is also a novelist, helped me rewrite one of my previously posted Soul Dialogues to make it funnier and more interesting. Since this blog most often takes up themes in religion and science, the topic of the soul fits right in. What is the soul? Is it something science can study? Is it a specifically religious concept? And what am I doing talking to my imaginary friend Dan? Why are we now in Chico's Upper Bidwell Park five miles away from where we started?
Questions to ponder...
I submit to you the part deux. In last week's edition, I'd just stated "it’s also what makes sense in the church."
Dan: So things are good?
GSC: Yes, so far they are. What are you thinking?
Dan: Well, I just have a feeling that you’d want me to do this, so I’m going to get all specific right now.What do you mean by “it”?
GSC: I mean the way that we bring together all we are—body and soul—under the power of the Spirit.
Dan: Got it.And, what about the Bible?
GSC: What about the Bible you ask?
Dan: Yes.
GSC: Well,glad you askedI have one word for you.
Dan: Yes?
GSC: Philippians.
Dan: Philippians?
GSC: Philippians. It’s just 104 verses, but in it you can find the answer to almost every theological question. 
Dan: In just those 104 verses, everything you want to about God is contained! That’s amazing!
GSC: Thank you, Ed McMahon. (Last-century-Johnny-Carson-Tonight-Show reference.)
Dan: Dan.
GSC: Dan. 
Dan: Please, no applause. Just doing my job.
GSC: At any rate, it’s true—and in Philippians.
Dan: Yeah.  Heard that somewhere. So the Bible agrees?
GSC: It does. I think about chapter four and Paul’s emphasis on the mind, or our attitude
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4
Mindset directs hearts. That’s how God made us.
Dan: Ok, that makes sense.  But that’s not all, is there? We’re not near the lunch place yet.
GSC: There’s more, don’t worry.I think next we need to take on a common misconception about life and happiness.
Dan: I see, a nice small topic before our meal. What are you thinking?
GSC: I’m remembering something I heard the other day in a sermon—“Christian faith isn’t all in your head.” On the one hand, Amen to that! On other, faith isn’t all in your feelings, either!
Dan: Not to be too philosophical, but no, duh.
GSC: I know, right? But people fall for the feelings trap. “If it feels good, it’s right.” To which I say, “Really?” Your feelings change. They’re not a reliable guide. Instead, put your faith in what you know to be true and the feelings will follow.
Dan: So, cart after horse?
GSC: Exactly.
Dan:  But wait, hold on, I am your imaginary friend, but I have to ask, as a friend,what have you got against emotion? Isn’t everything you care about based on emotion?
GSC: Good question! 
Dan: Again, just doing my job.
GSC: I love emotion. And like Jonathan Edwards’s famous 18thcentury defense of “religious affections,” emotions or “affections” are central to most believers’ understanding of Christian faith and most people’s experience of life.
Dan: Sounds true. Or at least accurate. But is there a difference for Edwards between emotions and affections?
GSC: Yes. “Affections” for Edwards represented something a bit more substantial than ephemeral emotions. Still the point stands—it’s not all cold rationality. 
Dan: That sounds right. And makes sense. You’ve convinced me again. As Plato often comments in his dialogues, “Socrates, you are the wisest man alive.”
GSC: Thanks.
Dan: What are friends like me for? And I know you’re about to expound again, but one more thing.
GSC: Yes?
Dan: Aren’t these affections or emotions a gift to give us motivation?
GSC: God definitely gives us emotions or feelings. At the same time, it’s not feelings that define us. It’s actually walking in God’s way that does. As C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter in 1950, using “obedience,” a word not heard much today, 
“Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases. We can’t produce them at will and mustn’t try.” C.S. Lewis
Dan: No one writes letters like that anymore.
GSC: Or allegorical fantasy, for that matter, either.
Dan: Word!
GSC: Indeed.
Dan: And I get what he’s saying, but what do we do with someone like neuroscientist Antonio Damasio? He’s found that, without emotions, we can’t make moral decisions. 
GSC: Theology and science intersecting and complementing. Nice segue, my friend.
Dan: You’ve taught me wellAnd, come to think of it, how about Jonathan Haidt? He notes that often we, with our rational deliberation, are simply the rider on the back of the elephant of emotions. 
GSC: Tru dat as well! But the point is that, through taming our emotions, learning how to engage our rationality, and living in a good community, we learn to direct the elephant. I think Haidt is onto something, but takes it too far.
Dan: So both emotions and reason need to work together, but it’s how we actually live that defines our happiness?  Yes?
GSC: Yes, well summarize you, young Padawan.
Dan: Dan.
GSC: Dan. Much learned have you learned today.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Re-Animated Soul Dialogue, Part 1

My brother Marcus, who is also a novelist, helped me rewrite one of my previously posted Soul Dialogues to make it funnier and more interesting. Since this blog most often takes up themes in religion and science, the topic of the soul fits right in. What is the soul? Is it something science can study? Is it a specifically religious concept? And what am I doing talking to my imaginary friend Dan? 
Questions to ponder...
I submit to you the first part.

GSC:  Dan? You there?
Dan (Imaginary Friend): Yeah, Greg.  Right here.  Always here. What’s up?
GSC:  Walking and philosophizing.
Dan:  Can’t say no to that.  In fact, I can’t say no to anything you ask me.  What do you want to talk about?
GSC:  The soul. 
Dan:  Right on.
GSC:  And Aristotle.
Dan:  That was my next guess. Can we get lunch too?
GSC:  Sure. My treat.  You never eat very much.
Dan: That probably explains why I’m always hungry. And incorporeal. Let me just put on my imaginary kicks and we’re off. 
Greg and Dan hit the streets of downtown Chico. Only Greg is visible to other humans.
Dan: So, the soul, huh?  What’ve you got?
GSC: Let’s start with Webster’s definition.
Dan: Love Webster.  What’s it say?
GSC: That the soul, my imaginary friend –
Dan: Dan.
GSC: Dan. Is (according to Webster’s) “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.”
Dan: And you agree?
GSC: Yes, let’s at least start there. But I also have a thesis.
Dan: Okay, lay it on me.
GSC: What Webster says is fine, but in order to have our souls become fully alive, we need to reconcile the inputs of our hearts and minds. Or as Jesus phrased it, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” This is happiness. This is the essence of Christian spirituality.
Dan: I’m with you on that, of course, but why do you care?
GSC: Well, here’s the thing.I know I’m not always emotionally “up,” and that if I rely on my feelings it’s shaky ground. It’s what disappoints me with “spirituality” today in the U.S. Too much emphasis on feeling and excitement. It’s like we all have to be amped up and happy to be spiritually whole and integrated. 
Dan: This just a feeling you have?
GSC: Very funny. But no, not at all. It’s from research, my friend. I’ve just finished a book about the history of religion and science in our country. And I’ve found that as a people, we’ve done much better when we’ve put together our strong thread of rationality alongside our deep search for spirituality. 
Dan: Didn’t the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead say something like that in 1925? 
GSC: In fact he did! You are way inside my head. 
Dan: True. But I’m stealing your lines. You go. It is your blog.
GSC: Alright. Thanks. He thought that, to some degree, the future of our civilization depended on how effectively we were able to relate science and religion, particularly “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.” 
Dan: Almost a hundred years ago. What a thinker. And you?
GSC: I’m with him. In my own pastoral and professorial experience: people too often divide themselves between head and heart. So it’s also what makes sense in the church, as well.
[End of part one]