Listening to Your Life

I don’t think I’ve ever been told by two respected mentors, independently of each other, to read an author. Yet, this has been true for me this year in the case of Frederick Buechner. I’ve been reflecting all summer on Buechner’s daily meditations. This is an unusual blog post, but I want to list my favorite Buechner quotes below, without much commentary. Really I want to have these for my reference, but I may as well share them. Readers of my blog are likely to benefit from them as well. 

Much of Buechner’s writings can be summarized in this first quotation:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” 

This is elaborated below in different domains…

1. A Doorway Opens.

“At its heart, I think, religion is mystical. Moses went whith his flocks in Midian, Buddha under the Bo tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the Jordan; each of them responds to something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. ‘I have seen things,’ Aquinas told a friend, ‘that makes all my writings seem like straw.’ Religion as institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action – all of this comes later and in the long run maybe counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.”

2. Hidden Gifts.

“Which of us can look at our own religion or olack of it without seeing in it the elements of wish fulfillment? Which of us can look back at our own lives without seeing in them the role of blind chance or dumb luck? But faith, says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ and looking back at those distant years I chose not to deny, either, the compelling sense of an unseen giver and a series of hidden gifts as not only another part of their reality, but the deepest part of all.”

3. God.

“There must be a God because (a) since the beginning of history the most variegated majority of people have intermittently believed there was; (b) it is hard to consider the vast and complex structure of the universe in general and of the human mind in particular without considering the possibility that they issued from some ultimate source, itself vast, complex, and somehow mindful; (c) built into the very being of even the most primitive man there seems to be a profound psychophysical need or hunger for something like truth, goodness, love, and – under one alias or another – for God himself; and (d) every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come back using different words and images but obviously and without collusion describing with awed adoration the same Indescribability.

Statements of this sort and others like them have been advanced for thousands of years as proofs of the existence of God. A twelve-year-old child can see that no one of them is watertight. And even all of them taken together won’t convince anybody unless his predisposition to be convinced outweights his predisposition not to be.

It is as impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about him as it is to prove or disprove that Goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good…

All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore both God and ourselves to death with our chatter. God cannot be expressed but only experienced.”

4. The Sound of God’s Voice.

“I believe that we know much about about God than we admit that we know, than perhaps we altogether know that we know. God speaks to us, I would say, much more often than we realize or than we choose to realize. Before the sunsets every evening, he speaks to each of us in an intensely personal and unmistakable way. His message is not written out in starlight, which in the long run would make no difference; rather it is written out for each of us in the humdrum, helter-skelter events of each day. It is a message that in the long run might just make all the difference.

Who knows what he will say to me today or to you today or into the midst of what kind of unlikely moment he will choose to say it. Not knowing is what makes today a holy mystery as every day is a holy mystery. But I believe that there are some things that by and large God is always saying to each of us. Each of us, for instance, carries around inside, I believe, a certain emptiness – a sense that something is missing, a restlessness, the deep feeling that somehow all is not right inside his skin. . . Part of the inner world of everyone is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained him away. In such a world, I suspect that maybe God speaks to us most clearly through his silence, his absence, so that we know him best through our missing him.

But he also speaks to us about ourselves, about what he wants us to do and what he wants us to become; and this is the area where I believe that we know so much more about him than we admit even to ourselves, where people hear God speak even if they do not believe in him. A face comes toward us down the street. Do we raise our eyes or do we keep them lowered, passing by in silence? Somebody says something about somebody else, and what he says happens to be not only cruel but also funny, and everybody laughs. Do we laugh, too, or do we speak the truth?. . . Sometimes when we are alone, thoughts come swarming into our heads like bees – some of them destructive, ugly, self-defeating thoughts, some of them creative and glad. Which thoughts do we choose to think then, as much as we have the choice? Will we be brave today or a coward today? Not in some big way probably but in some little foolish way, yet brave still. Will we be honest today or a liar?. . . Will we be a friend or cold as ice today?

All the absurd little meetings, decisions, inner skirmishes that go to make up our days. It all adds up to very little, and yet it all adds up to very much. Our days are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance – not words that are written in the stars but words that are written into the raw stuff and nonsense of our days, which are not nonsense just because God speaks into the midst of them. All the words that he says, to each of us differently, are ‘be brave, be merciful, feed my lambs, press on toward the goal.'”

5. Vocation.

“It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. 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. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

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.”

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Educating the Struggling

It has long been known that American students, on average, tend to perform worse on international tests of achievement than students in other developed countries. In a recent article in the Star Tribune (“Finland not an apt mold for U.S. schools”), Robert Shumer notes that when the poorest schools are removed from these analyses, American schools perform the best in the world. He concludes, “all things considered, perhaps the U.S. education system is actually doing well.” Although he makes a valid point, no attempt is made to explain or propose solutions for those who most struggle, disproportionately the poor. 

Newly published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may help. In this landmark study, 11,320 cadets enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point rated their reasons for being there. One set of motives was “internal.” With these motives, the rewards of an activity follow naturally from engaging in the activity. For example, a cadet who wants to be trained as a leader in the military would naturally do so in the process of being a student at West Point. Another set of motives was “instrumental.” These motives provide a means to some other end, such as a good job after graduation. Results showed that the more that cadets endorsed internal motives for attending West Point, the more likely they were to receive early recommendations for promotion and the more likely they were to re-enlist after their years of mandatory service were complete. Maybe more surprisingly, the more that cadets endorsed instrumental motives, the worse they did on every measure being studied.

Obviously, there are many differences between the challenges faced by West Point cadets and average American students. However, the processes that explain achievement may be very similar. In both cases, there are desirable external consequences that ultimately follow successful completion of school, such as greater likelihood of career success and a good salary. Those who do well are less likely to become preoccupied with external consequences such as these, however, instead focusing on internal motives. More than likely, this means that they will not stop at the minimum amount of work required to earn an external incentive. Because they are more likely to experience rewards that come directly from tasks themselves, internally motivated individuals are more likely to spend more time on them, building skills, and ultimately achieving more.

Unfortunately, however, it seems that the encouragement many struggling students receive is to learn for instrumental reasons, not internal ones. Parents, teachers, and administrators often seek to motivate struggling students, in particular, to study so that they can get good grades, get into a good program, eventually make good money, and maybe lift themselves out of poverty. Former Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak and current Executive Director of Generation Next, a Minneapolis organization that seeks to close the achievement gap, for instance, has publically emphasized the importance of helping poorer kids get an education so that they can get good jobs. Although surely well-intentioned, emphasizing instrumental motives for learning ironically may undermine students’ long-term motivation and achievement. Rarely is there a message that struggling students would do well to learn because learning is intrinsically interesting or meaningful. Strangely enough, only when instrumental consequences are minimized in people’s minds are they most likely to be ultimately realized.

There are many factors that are likely to influence student achievement, ranging from biological factors to students’ attention to detail to various cultural and familial factors. In the end, however, only when individuals identify that they are curious, engaged, lifelong learners will they ever be able to achieve well in any meaningful long-term way. The earlier and more consistently our young people are encouraged to appreciate that learning can be internally rewarding, the better.

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Christianity and the Holocaust

“We must sometimes meditate on the events of the history of our time and try to penetrate their terrible significance. . . [Someone] who has meditated on the Passion of Christ but who has not meditated on the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz has not yet fully entered into the experience of Christianity in our time.” (Thomas Merton)

Although we often have heard the maxim to “never forget,” remembering the Holocaust often is difficult, maybe especially for Christians. Most have learned some of the agonizing history of the Holocaust, that approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others (including Roma / Sinti, political opponents, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and disabled persons) were systematically murdered. Most probably have not meditated on this in the way that Merton suggests, however. The numbers are so staggering that we often forget that those killed were people like us – moms, dads, sisters, brothers, and grandparents. Furthermore, approximately 1 in 4 of those killed in the Holocaust were infants and children. Perhaps more difficult for some Christians is to reconcile the connection between the Holocaust and the church. In fact, as religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Hayes puts it, “although Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible. . . [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”

The seeds for the Holocaust lay in a long history of anti-Semitism, some of which had clear origins in the Christian church. Soon after Christ was crucified, some inaccurately blamed Jews. Perhaps the most blatant and hurtful comments were made by Martin Luther in his book “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” in which he gives “sincere advice” to Christians including calls to “set their synagogues and schools on fire.” Luther’s motivation may be even more striking: “This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians.” Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust.

Indeed, it is important to remember that the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. Perpetrators typically were members of the Christian church, then dominant in Europe. In fact, Holocaust historian Doris Bergen notes that approximately 95% of Germans at that time were baptized and contributing church members. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the killings. For example, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s appointed successor and the person who initiated meetings to reach a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem,” was raised in a church and continued to be involved in religious activities throughout his life. In addition, churches willingly provided documentation (for example, baptismal and marriage records) to those who wished to establish Aryan bloodlines.

This raises many disturbing and challenging questions. For example, how could the Christian church contribute attitudes and actions that led to mass murder, particularly toward those with whom so much spiritual history is shared? How does the church fail to inoculate people against prejudice, indeed perhaps sometimes even promoting it? What responsibility do Christians have to stand up for people who have beliefs and backgrounds that are not shared? Finally, what should it mean to be a post-Holocaust Christian today?

Shortly after the Holocaust, psychologist Gordon Allport tried to make sense of his observation that religious people sometimes seem to be among those most prejudiced and hateful. Allport speculated that these individuals often may take an “extrinsic” approach to faith, often seeking some secondary gain from religious activities (for example, social approval, self-justification). In contrast, however, Allport observed that others may reveal an “intrinsic” faith, sincerely believing and practicing what they have been taught. In short, whereas extrinsically religious people use their faith, Allport said, intrinsically religious people live it. Considerable social science now supports this basic idea: The more extrinsically a person approaches their religion, the more prejudice they show; the more intrinsically they do, the less prejudice. Perhaps, then, many of the “Christians” involved in the Holocaust displayed less sincere commitment, involving themselves in church activities but never internalizing the teachings. Of course, we all are a product of mixed motives and desires. Perhaps the lesson that comes from this is to take the process of conversion more seriously.

Another significant problem that may contribute to prejudice and hatred is the all-too-human tendency to distinguish members of our community as being better than those on the “outside,” sometimes to the point of dehumanizing the “others.” Given the passion Christians can have for their convictions and mission, it surely is tempting to elevate the church and its members, debasing those who are different. For example, in his book, “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther struggles with how some Jews resisted converting to Christianity, ultimately referring to Jews as “venomous”, “great vermin,” and “a den of devils.” When large numbers of people are separated into categories of “us” and “them” in such ways, mass prejudice and hatred become a real possibility. In this regard, the church would do well to heed the words of Stephen Smith, co-founder and Director of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre in the United Kingdom: “When I talk of ‘them,’ ‘the Jews,’ ‘their’ suffering, ‘their’ burden, ‘their’ experience, I reinforce the divide and recommit all Jews everywhere to the status of the ‘other…’ They are a part of us; not as Christians, but… as a part of a shared humanity.” Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan suggests the same (Luke 10:25-37).

A final problem is the very common tendency to passively “stand by” in the presence of evil. For example, leaders in both the Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches generally did very little to resist the Nazi regime. Many other Christian bystanders did not protest when Jews were mistreated. If the Christian church had uniformly stood up for justice, particularly during the early years of the Holocaust, the plight of Europe’s Jews likely would be significantly different.

There are social forces that help to explain this bystander response. Individuals tend to diffuse responsibility to others in such situations, for instance. Yet, it is possible to resist such pressures and to be actively defiant during such times. Dietrich Bonhoeffer inspires many Christians because of his example in doing exactly this during the Holocaust, eventually costing him his life. Many lesser known Christians also rescued Jews. Some reasons are instructive, and include having a close relationship with someone in need of help, seeking to obey Biblical teachings about compassion and, in a dramatic reversal of traditional anti-Semitism, feeling a spiritual kinship with those of Jewish faith. A different kind of example comes from the response of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust, who consistently spoke against the evils of the Nazi regime, resisted enlisting in Hitler’s army, and defied giving the Hitler salute. When instructed to stop their missionary work, they continued. Significant Nazi resources had to be directed to address this movement, and many were killed as a result. However, the group’s response points to the significant difference a small and otherwise powerless group of people can make in the face of evil.

In conclusion, the history of the relationship between the church and the Holocaust teaches Christians many lessons about having a faith that is deeply internalized and vibrantly lived. It cautions against self-absorption, pride, prejudice, and hatred. It inspires awareness of apathy, and encourages involvement in matters of justice and compassion, particularly toward those most vulnerable. Overall, the Holocaust should provoke deep reflection among Christians about what it really means to be a follower of the Prince of Peace today. As noted by Stephen Smith: “After the Shoah, it is no longer acceptable to call yourself a Christian. Now you must prove it.”

For more information:

Rittner, C., Smith, S. D., & Steinfeldt, I. (Eds.) (2000). The Holocaust and the Christian World. New York, NY: Continuum.

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My Sacred Journey

Life consists of stories. By this, I don’t mean that we all read stories or watch stories or hear stories, but rather that we live stories. More than likely, we don’t live a single story either; instead, we integrate different stories, mostly based on our experiences with life, which typically are disparate.

Dan McAdams, a professor at Northwestern University, has scientifically studied stories, or life narratives, as he sometimes puts it, more than anyone. According to McAdams, a life story includes a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future. It includes a cast of characters, key experiences, and unifying threads. A critical assumption of narrative theory and narrative therapy is that the stories that most dominant our thought lives typically are the stories that most shape our destinies. If we somehow change our dominant internal stories, our lives change.

It is profound to reflect on the stories that most influence our lives. One story that has altered me is a story of death. When my mom died of breast cancer when I was 14, I coped poorly. For various reasons, I didn’t grieve honestly. However, these things have ways of resurfacing, and the upshot for me has been that I have been preoccupied with health, illness, and death during most of my adult life. The consequences have been both good (for example, helping me to appreciate life, have motivation to live fully now, and have a realistic view of death) and bad (for example, being anxious about health conditions and my own death). A second prominent story in my life has come from a humanistic worldview that emphasizes respect and care for humans without any accompanying religious or spiritual worldview. Many of my best friends are non-religious humanists, and some are the most admirable people I know. Taken together, these two storylines often have contributed to a sense of anxiety and despair, as they both suggest that life on earth is all there is. A third prominent story in my life comes from American culture. The story here is of people seeking to attain worth through standing out, relative to others, typically though achievement. I have proactively sought some of this story through psychology and self-help materials, both of which emphasize individuality. This story has motivated me to “be all I can be,” but also has led me to believe, in some ways, that my life lacks meaning unless it achieves something significant.

It is in this context that I read with astonishment Frederick Buechner’s book “The Sacred Journey.” Some of Buechner’s introductory lines help to explain:

“My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all. For the reader. . . it is like looking through someone else’s photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all these shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize. In fact. . . even in a stranger’s album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of these fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past – many of them half forgotten – through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey.”

Below I seek this third possibility.

Buechner writes about childhood in ways that bring back to me many otherwise long-lost memories of my own childhood. He writes that “it is by its content rather than by its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity – happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort.” More specifically, I deeply resonate with Buechner’s description of the child’s cast of life characters:

“. . . the people I knew as a child – my parents and grandparents, my brother, the nurses who came and went, the teachers and friends, the characters in books. . . I saw them all in much the same way as boundless. It never crossed my mind that there had been a time before they were or that there would ever come a time when they would be no longer. They were the Atlases who held the world on their shoulders – held my world anyway, held me – and their heads towered above the clouds.”

This definitely seems true in my life story. There were Atlases in my life – my mom, dad, and brother; a parish priest who basically was a father figure in my life; friends and their parents; teachers and coaches, etc. When I was young, their presence in my life was taken for granted. Now, I cannot conceive of how I would be now should any one of them not been there.

Of course, childhood only can last so long, and Buechner convincingly ties this to the time that it becomes clear that the Atlases of our lives are limited, that they die, or perhaps that they are fallible. In Buechner’s life, the exact moment this shifted was at the time of his father’s sudden death. He writes:

“From that moment to this I have ridden on time’s back as a man rides a horse, knowing fully that the day will come when my ride will end and my time will end and all that I am and all that I have will end with them. . . When somebody you love dies. . . it is like when your house burns down; it isn’t for years that you realize the full extent of your loss. For me it was longer than for most, if indeed I have realized it fully even yet, and in the meanwhile the loss came to get buried so deep in me that after a time I scarcely ever took it out to look at it at all, let alone to speak of it.”

As I mentioned above, this fits my experience almost perfectly. In some ways, this could leave one in anxiety or despair. However, Buechner then moves to a third potential season of life that has the potential to heal and restore hope.

Buechner begins an account of this potential last phase of life by noting that he had a “compelling sense” of an unseen giver.” This sense led him to a search that has the potential to change life, as it provides a story that eclipses all other stories. As he writes:

“Each must say for himself what he searches for, and there will be as many answers as there are searchers, but perhaps there are certain general answers that will do for us all. We search for a self to be. We search for other selves to love. We search for work to do. And since even when to one degree or another we find these things, we find also that there is still something crucial missing which we have not found, we search for that unfound thing too, even though we do not know its name or where it is to be found or even if it is to be found at all.”

Buechner elaborates on this latter point:

“It seems to me now that power from beyond time was working to achieve its own aim through my aimless life in time as it works through the lives of all of us and all our times. . . [W]hat I developed. . . was a sense of plot and, beyond that, a sense that perhaps life itself has a plot – that the events of our lives, random and witless as they generally seem, have a shape and direction of their own, [and] are seeking to show us something, lead us somewhere.”

With Buechner, “I choose to believe that, from beyond time, a saving mystery breaks into our time at odd and unforeseeable moments, and as I approach the end of this account. . . it is a few of those moments that I mainly want to describe.” For me personally, I sensed grace when my mom and dad took care of me when I was little and when a parish priest in my hometown befriended me and cared for me after my mom died. Grace was present when friends entered my life who encouraged me to set goals for my life and do something with my gifts. There was grace in the Professors who nurtured my intellect and supported me as I pursued an education. Grace was in my various mentors who came into my life to help me to learn about myself and how to live well. My wife has been full of grace for years in providing me with a stable relationship that has anchored me. Finally, I have found grace in a church home that has surpassed my expectations with role models and friends who have helped me to realize what it means to be fully alive. Maybe more than all of this, I share with Buechner a sense of grace that transcends what I can sense. Specifically, it is in the grace of God that I seek to find myself in a story of redemption, hope, and purpose that becomes the defining story of my life.

Buechner has the last word on this:

“. . . There can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all. . . true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake – even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death – that little by little we start to come alive. . . God knows I have never been any good at following the road it pointed me to, but at least, by grace, I glimpsed the road and saw that it is the only one worth travelling.”

Posted in Christianity, Psychology and Religion | 1 Comment

The Next Christians

One of the great popular myths about religion seems to be that there is much more uniformity in thought and practice than actually is the case. In his book, “A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists,” Christian psychologist David Myers points to this as an example of the tendency to commit an “outgroup homogeneity bias.” As Myers points out, tongue in cheek, “Catholic liberation theology and jihadist beheadings are, um, a little different!”

More specifically, someone might believe that their experience within a particular Christian church or denomination somehow generalizes to their potential experiences across all Christian churches or denominations, that their encounter with one Christian somehow represents their potential encounters with all Christians, and that the information they gather from prominent cases of Christians in the media somehow extends to all of Christianity. These tendencies demonstrate what Myers noted above, basically an inaccurate stereotyping process, and typically would not reflect the considerable diversity within any religion, including Christianity.

In fact, sociologists of religion long have theorized that there are at least three major branches of Christianity that reflect substantially different beliefs and psychosocial climates: The Catholic Church, the Evangelical Protestant church, and the Mainline Protestant church. More than likely, committed members of these different traditions likely all would agree that they desire to “follow Jesus,” but likely would disagree in what that specifically meant in daily life and experience.

Much of this is demonstrated in Gabe Lyons’ outstanding book “The Next Christians.” As discussed by Lyons, one common way in which Christianity long has been practiced is through what he calls “cultural Christianity.” According to Lyons, “cultural Christians” often seek to blend with the mainstream culture and/or are committed to “good works” in ways that are admirable but that offers little in the way of distinction. This way of being Christian finds historical roots in the Catholic Church and Mainline Protestant denominations (for example, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian). A second common way in which Christianity often is practiced is through what Lyons calls “separatist Christianity.” In his framework, “separatist Christians” often isolate themselves from the broader culture as they pursue purity, integrity, and personal holiness; when they engage culture, they do so primarily through politics and attempts to evangelize. This way of being Christian tends to be much more common in Evangelical or certain non-denominational churches.

Another way in which religious stereotyping often may “miss the mark” is by failing to consider possible changes within a religion. Indeed, the history of religion is characterized by transformations in how individuals interpret and practice their faith. The history of Christianity, for instance, demonstrates the evolution of different movements and denominations that may have been difficult to predict before they occurred.

In “The Next Christians,” Lyons eloquently describes forces within Christianity that may contribute to a revitalized faith today. As Lyons points out, Christianity in the Western world is becoming increasingly unpopular. Referring to the survey research documented in his other book, “UnChristian,” Lyons notes that young people in the United States mostly associate Christians and Christianity with negative concepts, including “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “too political,” and “antihomosexual.”

In response, many Christians, especially many young Christians, are asking deep questions about what it means to follow Jesus in ways that reflect Jesus’ actual teachings and that make sense in a culture that has largely become disenfranchised from cultural and separatist Christianity. Lyons writes about how these “next Christians” seek to (1) restore what is broken (rather than being offended), (2) create culture that is whole and holy (rather than criticize it for not being so), (3) follow a calling to contribute meaningfully in their work (rather than simply being employed), (4) be grounded in practices that renew (rather than being distracted by cultural fads such as technology), (5) live in intentional community (rather than being isolated), and (6) practice civility as they work with others from different backgrounds to promote the “common good” (rather than being divisive).

Surely, many of these aspirations seem idealistic. This is another way in which religions may be distinguished. Clearly, some people associate religion more with the past. In doing so, however, they may fail to recognize that others may associate religion with change that could occur in the future, if only they tap into the best – not the worst – that their traditions may offer. As Shane Claiborne once said:

“We had all kinds of baggage from the church. . . recovering evangelicals and disenchanted Catholics. . . And we just said, ‘We’re going to stop complaining about the church that we’ve experienced and try to become the church that we dream of.'”

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Why I Believe

Ever since college, I have been on a mission to understand, as best as I can, what ultimately is true. It seems to me that this quest is the beginning point for making a life commitment, which everyone does, either intentionally, as I hope to do, or unintentionally. As I have deliberated on these matters, I have noticed that most people do not have good reasons for investing themselves in their worldview. Many, for instance, will say that they believe in God because they have “faith,” because they were taught to believe by their parents or community, or because they believe in the Bible (but then don’t have good reasons for believing in the Bible). This seems insufficient to me. In the end, it seems that a person should have solid reasons for believing whatever they believe is most important in life.

In my journey over the past 20 years or so, I have changed how I have approached this issue. In the beginning, I was much more focused on intellectual reasons to believe. As time has went on, and as I have become more acquainted with the limitations of intellect, however, I increasingly have relied on psychological reasons. I discuss each of these below.

Intellectual Reasons to Believe

For me, trying to figure out whether I believe in a Creator God has been the starting point. As I have thought about this, I have returned time and time again to the question: What best explains the origins of reality as we understand it? Let me frame this question further by describing some aspects of reality, as I see it. Based on everything I understand, the universe is incredibly complex, yet also full of order. This is what allows mathematics to have utility, as everything about the universe basically can be explained by fairly simple (some say beautiful) mathematical formulas. Also, the universe consists of matter, living beings that can reproduce to create other living beings, and human beings who clearly are conscious and some might say also are free, creative, loving, moral, relational, and potentially rational.

An atheist must explain all of this by saying that it all happened by time and chance alone. For example, matter somehow was created by non-matter, life somehow was created by non-life, and consciousness was created by non-consciousness. I find this implausible. In particular, I find it hard to believe that living organisms could have developed into different genders that then can combine to create new life through such random factors.

The only way I can make sense of reality as I observe it is to posit the existence of an eternal Being that possesses similar qualities and thus must have guided the process along. In my mind, it is entirely reasonable, then, to assume that there must have been a Being who is complex, ordered (some say beautiful), conscious, free, creative, loving, moral, relational, and rational who ultimately is responsible for reality as we understand it. I think it takes much more of a “leap of faith” to believe in time and chance alone as an explanation for reality than it does to believe in a Force with these properties.

Occam’s Razor is a principle that often comes up in this kind of context. Basically, this is the principle that, all things being equal, the best theory is the theory with the least assumptions necessary. Typically, this principle is used to suggest that belief in God is a worse theory than non-belief. However, to be honest, given reality as I described it above, I think it takes considerably more assumptions to believe in time and chance alone (or in the existence of different universes, as some have more recently suggested) as explanations of reality than to believe in a Supernatural Force. Occam’s Razor, in my view, actually favors the existence of God. For example, think of how much of a leap it really takes to accept the idea that reality evolved by accident. Compare this with the Supernatural assumption, which has been accepted by every culture throughout history. Personally, it seems to me more likely that a Supernatural Force was responsible for reality as I observe it than to assume it all happened to come about by time and chance.

Given my belief in a Supernatural Being, the next question for me has been what form It might take. As I suggested above, I think reality suggests that God has certain properties (i.e., complex, ordered, conscious, free, creative, loving, moral, relational, and rational). This by itself actually leads to a fairly refined portrait of God.

For better or worse, I have been raised in a predominantly Christian culture in a Christian family, and this has led me to consider the claims about Jesus Christ being Divine. An analogy has been influential in my thinking. Specifically, the early Christian church might be likened to a wildfire in that it grew almost exponentially after the death of Jesus. Similar to what I wrote above, an important question is: What best explains this? It doesn’t seem that the followers of Jesus were intentionally lying because many of these people died for their beliefs. So, this leaves us with two reasonable explanations: Either Jesus really was the Son of God or His followers were somehow psychologically influenced to believe that He was (while, in fact, He really wasn’t).

I always have found it important to refer to the best information possible on the issue which, almost everyone agrees, are the Biblical documents themselves, considered to be (more or less) reliable historical documents (as far as historical documents are reliable anyways, given that they are written a generation or two after the relevant events). In particular, I find it intriguing that Jesus was noted by so many authors as rising from the dead within a few generations after His death. As one important example, consider 1 Corrinthians 15:5-8, where Paul writes: “. . . he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

Again, there is no reason to believe these people were making this up, as they ultimately died for their convictions. So, either Jesus really did rise from the dead and really was seen by over 500 people or these people were experiencing hallucinations of some kind or were seriously delusional.

A hypothetical question to ponder. . . Imagine if a so-called Savior was alive today and claimed to be the son of God. Then, they died. Some said, though, that they rose again, showing their Divinity. As evidence of this, they wrote publically that over 500 saw this person raised. If this was a hoax, this quickly would be discredited and the movement would be isolated to a small cult. With Christianity, though, the movement spread like wildfire.

In other words, it seems to me that it is considerably more likely that Jesus rose from the dead than any other explanation. If this isn’t accepted, one must come up with a more reasonable explanation that fits the reality that the church grew like wildfire in the context of a public declaration that there were over 500 people who saw the risen Christ (some of whom were still living at the time of the letter) in a cultural environment where this was not expected.

Some options. . .

Could there have been some kind of mass hallucination? I guess anything is possible, but I’ve personally never heard of such a thing happening before. Hallucinations are experienced individually and not in a group, particularly in a group this size.

The best alternative explanation I personally can think of is that something like a cult developed where a social psychological process took over, suspending people’s rational judgment (think David Koresh). This also seems unlikely to me, though, given, again, the resurrection reports noted by so many, the desire to discredit this all from being true, the cultural context in which this took place, and the record showing that a number of people seemed to show critical thinking about these issues (for example, the doubting Thomas).

Psychological Reasons to Believe

Having said all this, I recognize that there may be many good, smart people who will disagree. One can’t prove what I’ve written above. For instance, I believe my logic is much better for the existence of God than the Divinity of Jesus (mostly because the latter relies on historical evidence, which always can be questioned). Given this, various psychological reasons to believe have become increasingly important to me to acknowledge.

It is obvious to me that I am personally very limited. Of course, my body and life clearly are limited in what they can do; for example, I will die someday. In my daily life now, though, I also clearly am limited. I lack security. I always seem to long for more and more. No matter how well my life goes, ultimately, I feel deeply incomplete.

Others seem to struggle with similar feelings. In fact, I am fascinated that almost everyone I ask, no matter what they believe, wishes that there was a loving God on whom they could depend. Generally, when genuine needs exist, there is a way to fulfill them. People thirst, but there is water. People hunger, but there is food. People crave sex and companionship, and there are other people. As C. S. Lewis concluded, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

But, of all the religious and spiritual beliefs that exist, why the Christian belief system? Again, to me, if I search out different ways to meet my needs for security, attachment, and completeness, the Christian story seems most fulfilling. In this story – more than any other (that I know of anyway) – there is a sense that there is a perfect Being passionate about being intimate with me to the point of great sacrifice. When I am really honest with myself, this is what I seek: “to know, even as I am fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).”

Or, as Timothy Keller wrote in “The Prodigal God:”

“In the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn the reason why all people feel like exiles, like we aren’t really home. We are told that we were created to live in the garden of God. That was the world we were built for, a place in which there was no parting from love, no decay or disease. It was all these things because it was life before the face of God, in his presence. . . The Bible says that we have been wandering spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings. Though we long for bodies that ‘run and are not weary,’ we have become subject to disease, aging, and death. Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who stay true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them. Though we long to make a difference in the world through our work, we experience endless frustration. We never fully realize our hopes and dreams. We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the heavenly father from which we have fled.”

Perhaps I am wrong about this. As I said, the best reasoning still leaves uncertainty. At some level, I think every honest and introspective person has to acknowledge some degree of agnosticism. And, being human, I am fairly certain I am wrong about some of my deepest convictions.

Having said this, when it comes right down to it, what I have written above makes most sense to me. During times of doubt, I continually come back to these reasons. I cannot get around their truthfulness and hold on my life. If I had been born in a non-Christian culture, maybe a culture where people didn’t believe in God, I’d like to believe I’d still believe what I do today because of the pull of these reasons.

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Quotation #7: The Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5:3)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is arguably the most countercultural set of teachings in history. It consists of eight pronouncements (often called “beattitudes”) about who truly is blessed in God’s view. It begins with the pivotal statement about the poor in spirit, after which are statements about the blessedness of those who mourn and the persecuted. These pronouncements suggest the opposite of what our culture presupposes, that those who are blessed are the strong, the euphoric, and the powerful. Overall, it seems that the Christian God has a special connection with those who suffer and are oppressed. Ultimately, Christianity teaches that suffering is an important aspect of life. It is not something to “push away,” but is something to “be with” in order to be ultimately transformed.

Jesus seems to embody these teachings personally. The prophet Isaiah points to Jesus as someone who would be “despised” and “rejected,” “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (53:3). He spent the most time with the physically and mentally sick, and those on the fringes of acceptance in society. In the end, Jesus personally yields to deep sorrow for a greater purpose, for resurrection.

Another way this emphasis is revealed in the Bible is in Psalm 23. For instance, the Psalmist writes:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (1-4).

As Rabbi Harold Kushner points out, what is most striking about this Psalm is how the pronoun changes. God is impersonal (“he”) until the individual walks through the valley, at which point God becomes personally involved (“you”).

One way in which this line of thought informs my life is in helping me to accept and benefit from suffering. Like most, I would prefer not to suffer. Sometimes, this means I “push away” pain. However, it seems that suffering is inherent in being human, and points to a broader need I have for Something More. It provides a route for personal and spiritual growth, if I allow it. One way in which this occurs for me is to allow myself to feel pain, and to pray through what that pain might want to teach me. This emphasis has parallels in recent developments in cognitive therapy, particulary acceptance and commitment therapy.

The above teachings also make me pause as to what I am trying to accomplish in life. Although my culture would have me strive for strength, euphoria, and power, God seems to suggest these ends are not necessarily the ultimate goals. Rather, God desires me to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [Him]” (Micah 6:8).

Finally, these teachings encourage me to regard all people as equal. Whereas there is a tendency to favor those who are strong, happy, and powerful, I am reminded that everyone has value. In particular, I feel a calling to form relationships with and uplift those who are sick and marginalized in society, recognizing that I have experiences of being “sick” and “marginalized” in my own ways. Rather than acting based on my perceived “ingroups,” relative to perceived “outgroups,” I strive to identify with all people, as best I can, and to treat them as I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I am convinced that all people have good and evil inside. As Elie Wiesel suggests:

“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

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