Category Archives: Christianity

The Emotional Life of Jesus

When I imagine Jesus – similar to when I imagine the Buddha – what initially comes to mind is someone who was pretty emotionally flat or emotionally neutral. If there’s an emotion I associate with Jesus, it’s one of serenity. Maybe this is because, when I consider Jesus, my mind’s eye turns to paintings and statues I’ve seen throughout my lifetime, such as the one my mom hung in our living room when I was a boy. In these, Jesus seemed to be beyond human emotion.

Heinrich Hofmann’s 1894 Painting | Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long been fascinated by emotion. Part of what inspired my calling to Psychology as an undergraduate were experiences at the University of Wisconsin helping to do research in influential emotion labs exploring embarrassment (with Dacher Keltner) and interest (with Judy Harackiewicz). In graduate school, at the University of Minnesota, I conducted research investigating correlates of emotional well-being, including anxiety, depression, hostility, and happiness (with Pat Frazier). I’m generally curious about how individuals feel, and I watch for non-verbal indications of how people react to life. It seems to me that someone’s emotional life reveals something deeply important about who they are.

I’ve also long been a follower of Jesus. Surely, a lot of this has to do with being raised in a Christian family in an often times Christian-dominant culture. But, there’s also something about the stories of Jesus that intrigue me. There’s something about who Jesus was that seems different, countercultural, and stunning.

It wasn’t until recently that I started to seriously explore the intersection of these two parts of myself. That is, I’ve started to wonder about the actual – not the imagined – emotional life of Jesus. In contrast to the sense I’ve received in some parts of Christianity to which I’ve been exposed, as I read it now, Jesus was a person of deep, passionate emotional intensity.

To explore Jesus’s emotional life, I did a focused study of the Gospel of Mark. This Gospel generally is considered by Bible scholars to be the earliest Gospel – written about 40 years after Jesus’s death. As the progressive Bible scholar, Marcus Borg argued, this account of Jesus’s life likely includes elements of both metaphor and remembered history, but the emotions attributed to Jesus, as discussed below, seem most likely to be traceable to the historical Jesus. As one reads this Gospel, there’s also an evident sense of immediacy to it, which lends itself to an investigation of Jesus’s emotional life.

To better understand context, as I read through Mark, I noted passages that described where Jesus chose to spend his time. He seemed to spend a lot of his days by the water (1:16; 2:13; 3:7; 4:1; 5:1), in the mountains (3:13; 6:46), in Synagogue (1:21; 3:1; 6:2) and, maybe not surprising for someone who didn’t seem to have a home of his own, in other people’s homes (1:29; 2:15; 3:20; 14:3). He seemed to frequently withdraw into nature to get away from the demands of the crowds, and to pray (e.g., 1:35; 6:46). This begins to give an indirect glimpse into Jesus’s emotional life.

In looking for more direct descriptions, what most surprised me in studying the Gospel of Mark was how often Jesus seemed to experience great irritation, sometimes to the point of almost seeming impatient. Jesus was said to speak “sternly” (1:25). On several occasions, he was described as being “indignant” (1:41; 10:14). At one point, Jesus looked at his skeptics “in anger… deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (3:5). When he finds people selling in the temple courts, he drives them out, overturning tables in anger (11:15-17).

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Why Religious Fundamentalism Can Inspire Hatred (and what to do about it)

Intermixed with much of the worst of human history is a religious motivation. This can be seen in the involvement of a religious motivation in the genocide committed against American Indians and the Holocaust. More recently, this can be seen in the motivation behind tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the January 6 attack on the United States Capital. Other examples include the involvement of religion in motivating prejudice and violence directed toward members of the LGBTQ population and various cases of religious persecution.  

Hooded Members of the Ku Klux Klan Displaying Christian Imagery, 1935.

As Blaise Pascal once reflected: “human beings never do evil so completely and so joyously as when they do it from a religious motivation.”

How can great world religions – which generally teach love, compassion, and justice – become powerful instruments of prejudice and violence?

Although acts of religiously-inspired hatred are complex and caused by many variables, one common factor concerns religious fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism involves a rigid kind of certainty in the possession of the “one truth” and the “one way” to live. It typically relies on a literal interpretation of a sacred text and an absolute reliance on that text. Other sources of knowing what’s true or other ways of determining what’s valuable are rejected – such as when science or a different group offers an alternative perspective – in favor of what’s unquestioningly accepted within the group.

With this all comes a strong urge for fundamentalists to form a sense of who are “insiders” and who are “outsiders.” Explicitly or implicitly, it’s easy for all of us to believe members of our groups are superior, while others are inferior. One way for religious fundamentalists to address this is to develop an evangelical zeal to bring outsiders to the inside through attempts to convert them. However, when individuals reject their arguments or invitations, fundamentalists can develop even stronger attitudes against them, to the point where outsiders can become seen as less than their human equals, sometimes even leading to consciously or unconsciously dehumanizing them. At this point, prejudice and violence toward members of the outgroup become more likely.

Because fundamentalist groups also tend to draw like-minded people to their communities, individuals in these groups often decrease or completely lose contact with those different from themselves. As a result, the kinds of reality checks most people tend to naturally have happen to them when they interact with people different from them become less likely, creating the conditions for stronger stereotypes and prejudices to develop.    

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What It Means to Have a Relationship with Jesus

One of the most basic – and yet for me, personally, one of the most confounding – aspects of Christian faith involves what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ve always been confused by Christians who talk about their personal relationship with Jesus with total certainty, as if it was as obvious as their personal relationship with their spouse. To me, it hasn’t been obvious what it means to have a relationship with a Being I can’t directly perceive.   

In light of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about a story that appears in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:13-35). For context, this occurs after Jesus was said to have been resurrected.

“… two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do you not know the things that have happened here in these days?’

‘What things?,’ he asked.”

They then proceeded to discuss Jesus, particularly his death and rumors of his resurrection. They talked about the Scriptures.

After this discussion, “as they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

Later in the story, the two friends walking to Emmaus recognize Jesus (after which Jesus mysteriously disappears, raising other questions). But, at this point, the two friends don’t recognize him.  

So, here’s my question: Even though they didn’t recognize him, were they in relationship with Jesus?

It would seem to me the only fair answer must be “yes.”

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The Ways of the Fundamentalist and the Mystic

For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. From the media, this is the impression often given. However, decades of thinking and research in the psychology of religion suggest there are multiple ways of being religious, with distinct pros and cons.

Let me elaborate with a few personal stories.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be visiting a conservative Christian college when I was somehow invited to a retirement party for a faculty member – I believe a Theology Professor – who had worked at this college for many years. At one point, this man took center stage and spoke about his long and distinguished career. The Professor’s speech started as you might expect – with references to the meaningfulness of his work, gratitude for colleagues, etc. – until he took a surprising turn and honestly reflected on some of his struggles. The Professor started crying. He had a difficult time finding his words. Eventually, though, he explained how he called himself an “Agnostic Christian,” someone who wasn’t certain about religious and spiritual truths but still felt like he knew enough to make a commitment to Jesus and his interpretation of a Christian lifestyle. He discussed how the juxtaposition of “Agnostic” and “Christian” was sometimes not welcomed by conservatives at this college, but how this self-understanding felt so important to him and to his identity that he was moved to tears in sharing it.

For me, the Professor’s presentation felt like a revelation, for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, this was the first time I had ever heard someone openly acknowledge how they were both deeply uncertain about religious and spiritual truths while still being deeply committed to a faith. There was a raw honesty in this confession, and the juxtaposition created a new way for me to start thinking about my own religious and spiritual identification as well. Second, the Professor demonstrated to me the importance of adjectives in the religious world. Apparently, some people don’t simply identify along the lines of “Christian;” some identify as “Conservative Christian,” “Agnostic Christian,” “Social Justice Christian,” or “Mystical Christian.” In these cases, which of the two words is the adjective and which is the noun also can be enlightening to consider.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I found myself in a large group discussion about religion and spirituality at my public college. People were sharing their diverse ideas about religion and spirituality, and I thought I would “float” the above story and how it fit with my own self-understanding. A few people I didn’t know had joined us from a conservative Christian student club on campus, and after I shared, they walked over to me. I will never forget what happened next. One of them bent down and whispered into my ear: “you can’t be Christian and not know.”

Many people do not seem to recognize there are different ways you can be religious.

Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

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Contentment Whatever the Circumstances

No matter how people feel about Christianity, I imagine most would aspire to the place St. Paul arrived at when he declared:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

I don’t know about you, but I was hoping for a better 2021 than 2020. If anything, for me personally, 2021 brought more problems, not fewer. Family troubles intensified. Work conflict increased. And, though we have vaccines to mitigate the worst outcomes from COVID-19, the pandemic has not faded.

I wonder what Paul meant when he said he was content whatever the circumstances. Based on other things he wrote, I don’t believe he avoided or ignored the awful parts of life. After all, Paul was in prison at the time he wrote these words. In general, avoiding or ignoring difficult circumstances seems like a recipe for only increasing one’s problems in life long-term. So, the question I’m left with is: how can we honestly face life’s struggles and still be content?  

Part of my prayer practice is to actively listen for God. Inspired by the Quakers, I set aside time regularly to be silent and see if any wisdom “bubbles up” or “reveals itself.” I also “listen for God” in other ways, such as in conversations I have with friends. Sometimes, if I can listen carefully enough (a big “if”), something does indeed “bubble up.” Sometimes, some of that “received wisdom” has stood the test of time.  

I don’t know if any of this does a good job of answering my question – and I surely have a long way to go before I get to the place Paul was at – but when I consider how to honestly face life’s struggles and still be content, I find myself continually returning to four points of inspiration.

1. “Accept and expect irresolution.”

This is something my friend, the author and peace activist, John Noltner, likes to say. I clearly remember many years ago attending a small workshop with John when I first heard him emphasize this point. Years later, in silence, these words came back to me and they have stuck with me since.

I think part of what makes it so difficult to find contentment is we often look for final and complete resolution of our problems. Then, and only then, we believe, can we really reclaim our contentment.

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Quake

I’m really honored to have Christian Century publish a brief essay of mine as a part of their ongoing series in honor of acclaimed spiritual writer Frederick Buechner. Once every two months, this series asks writers to submit a story including a particular word. This compilation focuses on the theme: quake.

You can read all essays on that theme, including mine, here.

Merry Christmas!

Awe Decreases Political Polarization

As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.    

People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.

During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”

When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.

If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.

Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.

As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.

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To Dust I Shall Return

“The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” (Thomas Merton)

On this Ash Wednesday – in the middle of a pandemic, where COVID deaths in the United States now easily surpass the number of American deaths in World War II – Merton’s words ring particulalry true. I don’t remember a year where my soul has been more ready for the 40+ day season of intentional contemplation that is Lent.

Remembering today that I am made of dust – and to dust I shall return – reminds me how often I cling to earthy attachments, and how this brings with it great suffering. The admonition of St. Ignatius to “hold things lightly” also comes to mind.

My tendency is to skip past Ash Wednesday, to quickly divert myself to my longing for more, for hope, for Easter. This year, I’d rather learn to sit in the tension, in the reality of hardship, to not push these feelings away, and to realize this is a vital part of being human as well.

The 5 Top Posts for 2020

It’s been quite a year. With all the losses of 2020, one plus has been more time for me to write. Many new people started reading and following the blog this year, and for the first time, I’ve published several excellent guest blogger’s posts. Along with everyone else, the COVID pandemic was top of mind for me, and that was reflected in the themes of my writing.

As a way to review this year, below are the top posts of 2020 on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, this might be an interesting time to do so.

5. The Need for Sacred Moments

Based on new research published this year, this post explores the human need for connection.

4. Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of the pandemic, this post unearths insights from one of my favorite books: The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.

3. “Done” with Religion

This is a personal confession with some of my struggles with church and religion, in light of new research published this year on people who are “done.”

2. Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

Featuring insights from my friend, Deanna Thompson, this post explores Biblical spaces for coping with tragedy.

1. Psychological Factors in School Success

This was, by far, the most popular post on the blog this year. It revisits themes of posts I wrote years ago, but seemed to find new popularity – particularly in South Africa – in light of students made to learn at home.

***

Unsplash | Immo Wegmann

Reviewing this year in writing like this makes me wonder about what themes and developments will arise in 2021. Hopefully one of hope!

Advent, 2020

In the Christian calander, Advent refers to the four Sundays and weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In Latin, Advent means “coming,” and this season provides a window in time for Christians to intentionally dwell in a spirit of longing, hope, and patient waiting and anticipation. In a year of public health crisis, financial and work uncertainty, racial unrest, and political strife, this emphasis strikes a new resonance in our life experience and has the potential to impact us more powerfully than in the past.

As I seek to understand and live out my faith, I find I become consumed, from time to time, with different perspectives and voices. As I look on my bookshelves, for example, I am fondly reminded of times where I have been enamored by the insights of Frederick Buechner, Shane Claiborne, Kathleen Norris, Parker Palmer, Barbara Brown Taylor, and, of course, C. S. Lewis, among others. Recently, I have acquired a new hero: Kate Bowler.

Kate Bowler

Kate has put out a free Advent devotional, and I find I am profoundly drawn in by her thoughts, as she so beautifully and compellingly connects traditional Christian faith with the suffering of this year and this moment. Part of this ability surely stems from her own experience and struggle with as someone who suffers as a stage IV cancer patient, (which she discusses in her amazing TED talk). For example, in the “liturgy” she shared today, Kate invites us to pray:

“blessed are we with eyes open to see
the suffering from pandemic danger, sickness and loneliness,
the injustice of racial oppression,
the unimpeded greed and misuse of power, violence, intimidation,
and use of dominance for its own sake,
the mockery of truth, and disdain for weakness or vulnerability,
and worse,
the seeming powerlessness of anyone trying to stop it.

blessed are we who despair for our democracy,
and ask: what can we do to protect it?

blessed are we who ask: where are you God?
and where are Your people
the smart, sane, and sensible ones who fight for good?”

***

As I meditate on these words, I am stunned by the realization of how much pain this year I have consciously or unconsciously tried to suppress. I feel my perspective broadened and made more whole by inviting and welcoming “eyes to see” those who are sick, lonely, and oppressed. I recognize, afresh, the extent to which truth, weakness, and vulnerability are being mocked, and how that makes all the problems we’re facing worse. I appreciate the despairing concern for our democracy and world. And, I agonize over why “God’s people” so often are part of these problems, and why they are not more often involved in the fight for good.

This prayer validates my experience and urges me to have more empathy for those who are struggling right now and do what I can to help. As Kate concludes her “liturgy,” it builds a conviction to “take hold of hope, as protest.”

As we look toward Christmas this year, we do so with a realization that God doesn’t shy away from awfulness (like I tend to do). In fact, God enters in vulnerably – rejected, in the midst of a genocide, and in the humble form of a baby. Emmanuel remains with us, in suffering, and God calls us to be present, in suffering, as well.

Do Young Adults Need Their Godparents?

As more and more people read this blog, I get increasingly asked by others if they can write a guest post. I have almost always declined, but this post below by Magdalyn Fiore really caught my eye, maybe because I’m a godparent to three wonderful boys but also because I’ve never seen anyone write anything about this topic before. Hope you enjoy!

~Andy

***

It’s Sunday morning and you’re standing at the front of the church beside the baptismal font. The air is cool and the entire building is lit by sunlight shining through stained-glass windows. Everyone in the pews is silent, smiling, and the only sounds you hear are the words coming from the Pastor and the cries of the baby in their careful arms.

“Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” the Pastor asks.

“We are,” you proclaim.

Congratulations! You have just become a godparent. But what does it mean to be a godparent? What role do godparents play throughout the child’s life, particularly as they grow into young adulthood, when godparents may be needed most?

***

The tradition of godparents, or sponsors, originated in Judaism through the ancient custom of brit milah, a circumcision ceremony after the birth of a baby boy, during which a sandek, or “companion” in Hebrew, would hold the baby. The ceremony of baptism incorporated a similar tradition through godparenting after Christianity emerged. A godparent pledges to act as a life-long support for the baptized infant (or adult) to help them live a Christian life and fulfill religious obligations, such as attending church services and receiving other sacraments. Across different Christian religions, godparents commit to helping raise a child in a religious context, particularly if the child’s parents neglect the responsibility. They vow to be a source of information and guidance throughout their godchild’s entire faith journey, including as the child grows into emerging adulthood.

Emerging adulthood is a period of development roughly between the ages of 18 to 25 years, during which time individuals tend to self-explore and self-reflect about many topics, including religion and spirituality. It’s a ripe time to ask questions about the faith tradition they grew up in and its relevance as they transition into adulthood. But as emerging adults begin to question and explore religion, their relationships with their godparents often don’t live up to their original promise, with godparents frequently abandoning the opportunity and responsibility to spiritually mentor their older godchild. 

According to developmental scientist, Caitlin Faas, many emerging adults don’t even know who their godparents are, and the relationship is often overshadowed by other roles the godparent plays in the person’s life, such as aunt or uncle. At best, the young person might receive an extra present from a godparent at Christmas or on a birthday, but something deeper and more meaningful rarely emerges.

“Emerging adults are questioning their own religiosity more,” Faas says. In fact, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, 40% of young adults experience either a definitive or temporary decline in religiosity between adolescence through young adulthood, while just 10% report an increase in their religiosity. “So as that’s happening,” Faas continues, “do they feel like it’s a safe space to talk to their godparent about that?” She adds that as godchildren grow older, godparents—and older adults in general—don’t have clear societal roles laid out for how to connect with that age group, and that we tend to think 20-year-olds don’t want to talk to their godparents. “They probably do,” she assures. “But are you going out of your way to reach out to them?”

Unsplash | Ben White

In many cases, this hesitation to reach out to godchildren as they age may reflect something about the godparents’ own religiousness and spirituality, Faas says. “Are godparents able to have those difficult conversations about spirituality with their godchildren who are 20? Will they take the time to figure out what their own spirituality means? Most adults haven’t even figured it out – if you really want to get deep into, ‘Well, why do you go to church?’ Can most adults answer that question?” To truly be prepared for deep spiritual discussions, Faas urges, godparents must be open to hard questions and dig deeper into their own religious and spiritual convictions and behaviors.

Emerging adults don’t always know where to turn for answers to their complex questions, especially when their godparents are not practicing the faith or are not involved in their life. According to a national study conducted by Springtide Research Institute (The State of Religion & Young People 2020), more than 1 in 4 individuals aged 13 to 25 know only one or fewer adults they can go to when they need to talk. Looking even closer, only 50% of those who don’t have any adult mentors say their life is meaningful and has purpose; however, when young people have just one mentor, 70% say their life has meaning and purpose. This percentage continues to increase overwhelmingly the more mentors a young person has, which reflects the importance of trusted adults in their lives, especially as they seek belonging and navigate questions regarding meaning and identity.

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Becoming an Instrument of Peace

Last week, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a Zoom book club in South Africa in which famed Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, agreed to participate. I’ve admired Volf for years, beginning with this interview in which he expounds upon some of his ideas about religion, genocide, and violence. I ultimately featured many of his insights in this piece I wrote about Christianity and the Holocaust.

To my surprise and delight, there were only a handful of people in the zoom call, which gave me stunning access to Volf. My daughter joined me over lunch, and we ended up discussing themes raised related to Christianity, genocide, racism, and social justice.

Miroslav Volf

What most struck me during this discussion was a comment Volf made, in passing, which I paraphrase to the best of my memory here: “Every time I post to social media, I pray: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.‘” The thought was that, if the message to be sent didn’t line up with this prayer, Volf would change it, but if it did line up, the prayer was for the message to have this intended effect.

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The Religious Language of Republicans and Democrats

Note: It’s my honor and joy that my former student, Whitney Harper, guest authored the post below. Whitney was a student of mine when I taught in Scotland in 2009, and we have remained close ever since. She now is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

***

In the United States we like to claim separation of church and state, but the reality is much more complicated. Although our minds may automatically be drawn to the Religious Right as the main violator of this separation, research has shown Democratic candidates have taken note, and are also making use of religious language to frame their stances.

In contrast to Republican candidates’ overt use of religious language to frame debates surrounding abortion, Christianity’s role in the public sphere, and “family values,” Democratic candidates tend to take a more subtle approach, being careful not to alienate non-Christian voters, but also making sure to use phrases that will perk up the ears of Christians. They tend to use religious language to frame care for the poor, healthcare reform, and concern for racism, sexism, and the environment; often centering their religious rhetoric on Jesus’ petition to care for “the least of these.” Although these references aren’t as explicit as Republicans,’ they have started to persuade more Christian voters to the Democratic Party, building up the more recently established “Religious Left.”

How has religious language been so successful not only in the Republican Party, but also in a party that has largely taken a more “secular” stance? Recent research can be especially helpful in answering this question.

A body of psychological research consistently shows that voters make their decisions primarily based on a “gut” feeling, and that religious language is especially helpful for speaking to this intuitive sense. For example, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines moral intuitions in relation to religion and politics in the United States. He argues that, when it comes to religion and politics – and really any of our decision-making – “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (italics in the original). By this, Haidt means that as much as people want to believe they make decisions rationally and consciously, the reality is that almost all of our reasoning is unconscious and driven by instinct and emotion. He elaborates:

“The central metaphor . . . is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior” (italics in the original).

In other words, most of the choices we make – including how religious we are, who we vote for, and how we make moral decisions – are driven by emotion. We then create reasons and justifications after the fact. We feel to our very core our beliefs are the correct ones – to the point that words can’t fully explain why, as much as we may try – and this strong urge makes it easier to dismiss other views. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias: the act of ignoring information that contradicts what we already think and seeking out information that reaffirms what we already believe.

This strong emotional gut-level reaction is what makes the coupling of religious and political language so powerful in a voter’s decision making. For example, for several decades the pro-life stance has been drilled into the majority of conservative Christians’ minds as the stance for Christians to look for when voting. Over time, this has strengthened Christian voters’ instinctive responses to “pro-life” language. Haidt continues:

Unsplash | Brad Dodson
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The Emotional Benefits of Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

***

The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

***

It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

***

What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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“Done” with Religion?

My core identity remains deeply Christian. However, after 48 years of attending church at least once per week (almost without exception, even during college), I am – at least temporarily – “done” with the local church.

Part of this stems from the era of COVID-19. At the same time my family and I try to do what we feel is responsible in preventing further spread of the virus, others in our area see no problem with in-person worship, contributing to a new sense of disconnection.  

Even if COVID-19 never happened, though, I still might be “done.” For years, although I earnestly joined with others in my local church community to recite the same creed and prayers of the Christian faith and to pour my heart into collective worship and service, I often – ironically enough – had the sense we didn’t share the same worldview or many of the same values. I never felt comfortable attending the men’s Bible study because I believed my questions or divergent thoughts would not be welcome. Maybe this is an aside – or maybe not – but my kids never significantly connected with anyone in the church’s youth program either. As time passed, I realized we didn’t really have a place at that table.

I’m not happy about being “done.” I feel failure… isolation… and profound loss. I’ve described this split as being like “divorce.” And, yet, in my brokenness, I also feel some degree of new freedom.

***   

The first time I heard of a religious “done” was when I was in a meeting with my colleague, Josh Packard, Sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, and author of “Church refugees: Sociologists reveal with people are DONE with church but not their faith.” The term “done” is a play on words, referencing the more common term religious “nones,” the broader, growing group of individuals in the developed world who express no religious affiliation.

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On Living in the Age of COVID-19

For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.

Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:

“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night… 

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…

What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

There are three main insights I gain from this.

First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.

This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.

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What If We’re Not Waging “War” Against COVID-19?

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase in our region, I continue to think of this excellent article from Christian Century. It challenges the presumption that the most productive metaphor for what we’re doing as a society is “waging war against the virus,” and instead raises some very thought-provoking questions:

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Christopher Sardegna | Unsplash

“What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic?”

“Will we be patient and kind?”

Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it?”

“How will we care for those who cannot be cured – a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families?”

“How well will we grieve – privately in our own homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?”

Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

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The Most Lonely and Isolated

Which of the following groups do you believe, in the last 7 days, have felt most lonely or isolated?

-Those aged 18-29
-Those aged 30-49
-Those aged 50-64
-Those aged 65+

If you guessed the 18-29 year-olds, you’d be correct.

In a recent nationally representative survey, 69% of 18-29 year-olds reported being lonely or isolated in the last 7 days (59% of 30-49 year-olds reported this, as did 45% of 50-64 year-olds and 39% of those ages 65+).

Of course, this isn’t a competition, and we who call ourselves Christians – and we who call ourselves compassionate humans – seek to care for those in need no matter the age or background. Still, I bet not many would guess that young people are those most struggling with feelings of loneliness or social isolation during this pandemic.

In another nationally representative survey, 66% of 18-25 year-olds said they had no one to talk to about these feelings. And, 80% felt better when a trusted adult outside their household reached out to them.

Do you know a young person – outside your household – you might connect with? Maybe a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, member of your community, or someone you barely know but feel like might be struggling?

A call, text, Facetime, or care package dropped off at their front door might mean more than you realize.

Holy Saturday

I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.

Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:

“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”

And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.” 

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