Monday, May 28, 2012

A Wisdom of the Head and a Wisdom of the Heart

 Heart : studio shot portrait on isolated white background of a Beautiful Funny Woman expressive

I've been thinking a lot lately about change--not global change or political change or climate change or religious change. My focus is more personal than that.  I want to consider why I change and why you change your beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and actions, and I want to use a literary and a biographical example to do so.

This spring I reread Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times with my Great British Writers class. As one of his shorter novels, it's a great introduction to Dickens' world. It contains all the glories of character and all the faults of sentimentalism of this great Victorian writer. To me, the most interesting character in the novel is Thomas Gradgrind, the retired merchant turned schoolmaster, who speaks these words at the opening of the book:  "Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!"

Within the societal context of the novel, Gradgrind (whose name describes his educational philosophy well) stands for the Utilitarian philosophy that scientific principles could be applied to social problems and thus create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. What Dickens reveals as the novel progresses, however, are the tragic consequences of Gradgrind's philosophy when applied to his own children. His son, Tom, becomes  a thief, and his daughter, Louisa, forced to accept an arranged marriage with the much older Josiah Bounderby (because it is the practical and sensible thing to do), grows unhappy in her marriage and comes dangerously close to adultery with the unprincipled aristocrat, Harthouse, saving herself at the last moment by running to her father's house and confessing her deep unhappiness to him.

His daughter's confession is both crushing and life giving for Gradgrind. "The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet," he says to Louisa the next day. But it turns out that this disorientation was necessary to bring about change in one who had been so firmly committed to his system of "nothing but Facts." Gradgrind is essentially the only dynamic character in the novel. Dickens shows us the extent of his transformation through this climactic speech: "Some persons hold .  .  . that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. I have not supposed so; but, as I have said, I mistrust myself now. I have supposed the Head to be all-sufficient. It may not be all-sufficient: how can I venture this morning to say it is! If that other kind of wisdom should be what I have neglected, and should be the instinct that is wanted, Louisa--" Gradgrind's experience gives him the courage to end the marriage between his daughter and Bounderby, and his transformed beliefs and values are demonstrated by his actions in the rest of the novel.

We see the same principle of change operating in the life of C. S. Lewis. In the 1940s, Lewis published his first apologetic work, The Problem of Pain, in which he took on the question of human suffering, specifically: how can a God who is both good and all-powerful allow suffering? It was the book that launched his career as a popular apologist for the Christian faith. It attracted the attention of the director of religious broadcasting for the BBC and led to the series of radio talks that were later published as Mere Christianity. In The Problem of Pain Lewis explored intellectual and philosophical questions about human suffering. It demonstrated, in Thomas Gradgrind's words, the "Wisdom of the Head." Some twenty years later Lewis was to experience something that caused him to question much of what he had written in that early apologetic work: the struggle with cancer, remission, reoccurence of cancer, and death of his beloved wife, Joy Davidman. As he saw, up close and personal, his wife's suffering and the ultimate ineffectiveness of his fervent prayers (in which Lewis even asked God that he be allowed to take Joy's pain into his own body), he came to the realization that "Experience is a bitter teacher. I've just come up against a bit of experience" (Shadowlands). Following Joy's death, Lewis wrote a book under a pseudonym called A Grief Observed, which recorded his grieving process. The emotions in the book are so raw, so honest, that it makes for difficult reading. I would suggest that if Lewis' early apologetic work expressed the "Wisdom of the Head," A Grief Observed expressed Lewis' "Wisdom of the Heart."

So what makes people change their beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and actions? I don't know all the reasons people change, but I do think that a big one is life experience. People don't change easily, so I'm thinking that often it takes some pretty significant events, perhaps even dramatic and catastrophic ones to bring change about. A couple of biblical examples come to mind. Near the beginning of the book of Acts we have Pentecost: a rushing, mighty wind; tongues as of flame; and people hearing the gospel in their own language. I imagine those pilgrims who came expecting the same old Pentecost celebration got more than they bargained for--and, as a result, their beliefs and lives were changed forever. Later in Acts, when God wants Peter to go preach to the Gentiles, he sends him a dramatic vision on a roof to declare that all foods are clean, rocking Peter's world, introducing him to a new reality in which "God is no respecter of persons." That life experience would change Peter's worldview and practice forever (though one does wonder why the Pentecost experience wasn't enough for Peter).

So one conclusion I want to draw is that life experience is a catalyst for change. These experiences are often surprising and unsettling and often unpleasant. They disorient us. After such an experience we may say, with Thomas Gradgrind, "The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet." But that disorientation is temporary and can lead to a new way of seeing and being in the world. It may even lead us to the recognition that there is a whole realm of understanding and a way of relating to other human beings that we never knew existed. As a result, we may attain to the Wisdom of the Heart.

Have you had those kinds of experiences in your own life? In a future post, I hope to explore this idea of change more and use a personal example of how I've been led to change my beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and actions based on life experience.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Life According to Anne Lamott

I discovered Anne Lamott's writing about ten years ago when I was doing my best (without much success) to teach a creative writing course. After searching in vain for a textbook suitable for the class, I stumbled upon Bird by Bird, in which Lamott shares her experiences as a writer. It was too late to order the book for the class, so I began many class periods by reading aloud her witty and practical observations on the writing life. I'm not sure how much the class members got out of it, but reading Lamott was lifegiving for me. She was such an encouraging and honest guide that at times she almost made me believe I could be a writer (and even that I might be able to teach creative writing). The first, I like to think, has turned out to be the case to some extent, the second, not so much.

From there I moved on to Traveling Mercies, the autobiographical work where she recounts her childhood, her addiction, her failed attempts at being a writer, her faith journey including finding a church community that nourished her, and her eventual writing success.  Of the many things I appreciate about Lamott, one of the greatest is her vulnerability and honesty about her own life. She's willing to put herself out there as she is, with all her fears and anxieties and screw ups. She admits that life is hard, that she doesn't have all the answers, that she needs the help of friends and fellow followers, and, most of all, God's help just to make it through most days.

Recently, on Twitter, Lamott referred to a commencement speech she gave at Berkley in 2002. Having just sat through something like my fortieth commencement ceremony, I was interested to see what kind of advice Lamott might give to an undergraduate audience. In her Twitter post, Lamott said that the speech contained pretty much "all she knows." I think it's her honest and forthright approach to life and faith that make her an excellent guide for all of us, but I especially commend her thoughts to the students I teach at George Fox University. You could pick many worse voices to listen to as you leave the safe confines of GFU and begin a new phase in your life. Herewith are a few excerpts from Lamott's graduation speech followed by some of my reflections. Enjoy!

So from the wise old pinnacle of my 49 years, I want to tell you that what you’re looking for is already inside you. You’ve heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can’t buy it, lease it, rent it, date it or apply for it. The best job in the world can’t give it to you. Neither can success, or fame, or financial security — besides which, there ain’t no such thing. J.D. Rockefeller was asked, “How much money is enough?” and he said, “Just a little bit more.”

I'm a bit older than 49, and I'm still trying to learn this one. This seems a great antidote to all the competing voices you tend to hear when you are graduating telling to look outside yourself or to something you can do or accomplish for contentment. Anne's right. It won't work. As a bumper sticker I saw recently put it, "Begin within."

I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, and whether you get to start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn’t what you do, it’s … well, again, I don’t actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher. But I know that you feel it best when you’re not doing much — when you’re in nature, when you’re very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music. 

I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes; in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Bach, whoever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark, concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with aliveness and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking in English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and says, “Yo!”

Because music has been such an influence on me throughout my life, I resonate with the idea that we can identify and feel our spirit when we listen to the music we love best. And it doesn't hurt that she mentions Emmylou Harris, who is one of my favorites and whose music will be in evidence at my memorial service someday if my surviving family members carry out my wishes. 

We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it’s a really busy person, taking care of a needy annoying person. Or even if it’s terribly important you, stopping to take care of pitiful, pathetic you. In fact, that’s often when we see spirit most brightly. 

These lines make me think of stories about Jesus, who seemed to be often interrupted by needy and, I'm sure, sometimes annoying people, yet who accepted those interruptions with grace and responded with love. And he also took time to care for himself, retreating for a time to regain his focus.

You’re here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill — and we’re all terminally ill on this bus — all that will matter is memories of beauty, that people loved you, and you loved them, and that you tried to help the poor and innocent.

These lines remind me of an Emmylou Harris song that goes, in part, "When you're gone, long gone/ The only thing that will have mattered/ Is the love that you shared and the way that you cared/ When you're gone, long gone."

So how do we feed and nourish our spirit, and the spirit of others?
First, find a path, and a little light to see by. Every single spiritual tradition says the same three things: 1) Live in the now, as often as you can, a breath here, a moment there. 2) You reap exactly what you sow. 3) You must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that we can’t help you. 

You don’t have to go overseas. There are people right here who are poor in spirit; worried, depressed, dancing as fast as they can, whose kids are sick, or whose retirement savings are gone. There is great loneliness among us, life-threatening loneliness. People have given up on peace, on equality. They’ve even given up on the Democratic Party, which I haven’t, not by a long shot. You do what you can, what good people have always done: You bring thirsty people water; you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog. 

I particularly appreciate the wide view of spirituality Lamott presents here. I sometimes fear that our Christian university students only hear spirituality addressed from one perspective when there are, in fact, innumerable traditions from which we can learn. And, as Lamott reminds us, what we often find in studying those traditions is a surprising unity about some of the stuff in life that matters most.

Anything that can help you get your sense of humor back feeds the spirit, too. In the Bill Murray army movie “Stripes,” a very tense recruit announces during his platoon’s introductions, “My name is Francis. No one calls me Francis. Anyone calls me Francis, I’ll kill them. And I don’t like to be touched — anyone tries to touch me, I’ll kill them.” And the sergeant responds, “Oh, lighten up, Francis.” So you may need to upgrade your friends. You need to find people who laugh gently at themselves, who remind you gently to lighten up. 

Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.

It wouldn't be Anne Lamott without humor, and she delivers here. Any commencement address that quotes from a classic movie like "Stripes" is alright in my book!

If you're a university student or a recent graduate reading this, I hope you'll take Lamott's words to heart. And I might add one more piece of Lamott wisdom. It occurs in her writing book Bird by Bird when she suggests that one of the most important lessons to learn as a writer is the lesson of "shitty first drafts." (I think I may have edited this statement in my creative writing class; the college I taught at then was pretty conservative.) In a great chapter, Lamott tells her own harrowing tale of having to scrap a novel that she had worked on for months and start, virtually, from scratch. What I want to suggest, however, is that this truth applies not only to writing but also to life. How many of us can look back on our past life events and identify some things that didn't work out so well the first time around. Perhaps it was a really bad first job or a terrible relationship or a depressing place to live. We're going to make bad choices and we will suffer for them, but we don't have to live there. We can always start over or try to revise those first attempts into a satisfying and compelling narrative. 

Here's how Lamott closed her address. Blessings to you.

So bless you. You’ve done an amazing thing. And you are loved; you are capable of lives of great joy and meaning. It’s what you are made of. And it’s what you’re for. So take care of yourselves; take care of each other. Thank you.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Problem with Certitude

Like you, I've seen lots on the news and in Facebook posts this past week concerning President Obama's expression of his personal support for same-sex marriage. As I've read and listened to people's, specifically, Christian people's reactions in the wake of Obama's interview, I've felt (occasionally) encouraged but more often discouraged. My discouragement doesn't come because of my personal views about same-sex marriage, which are not the point of this post; my discouragement and disappointment come from the nature and tenor of the conversation itself. Specifically, I'm distressed by the way many Christians seem to feel called to take definitive and certain stances about complex issues, and the rhetoric they use to state and defend these positions, rhetoric that tends to divide rather than unite and close discussion rather than open it.

I'm interested in exploring what it is about the Christian religion, and perhaps more specifically, evangelicalism that results in such an approach.

In 2009, I published a book about C. S. Lewis' writing style ( in which I argued that a major reason for Lewis' popularity among evangelical Christians in the 1940s and 1950s was his style of certitude. Lewis was writing in a time where scientific discoveries and religious liberalism were challenging the assertions of conservative Christianity. In a period of doubt and questioning, Lewis' clear pronouncements about the truth of miracles and the validity of key Christian doctrines were welcomed by his audience. In an age when traditional doctrines were being questioned, readers found in Lewis a Christian (and an intellectual, no less) who knew what he believed and stated it in no uncertain terms. To give one example, to those who said that Jesus might have been a great moral teacher but not the son of God, Lewis responded that Jesus must be either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. No other options. Case settled. Lewis seemed to have a way of cutting through complex arguments and reaching a simple solution that was convincing to his readers.

I was in my late twenties when I did my initial research on Lewis, and I have to say that in those days I was one of those readers. As a young Christian in a conservative denomination, I, too, found Lewis' confident answers to complex theological questions reassuring. I remember quoting Lewis' famous liar, lunatic, or lord explanation approvingly in articles and presentations. Years later I discovered that this very famous argument for Jesus' divinity could be more accurately described as a logical fallacy because there could be other options than the three Lewis enumerates. As my views on faith have changed over the years and I've been called into a wider, less fundamentalist view of scripture, I've grown less and less enamored with the clear, confident Lewis whose words and style seem to say: "here's the way it is; I'm not asking for debate; take it or leave it." Today the passages I'm drawn to in Lewis' writing are the ones where he expresses humility, even doubt--passages where he admits that he doesn't have all the answers and even encourages the reader not to feel compelled to agree with the opinion he's defending. A good example would be the passage in Mere Christianity where he leaves the door open for people to come to Jesus who don't know Jesus. The fictional representation of this idea is found in the last Narnian chronicle where Emeth, a follower of Tash, is admitted into Aslan's country based on his pure heart and good character even though he was not, in name, a follower of Aslan.

So what does all this Lewis stuff have to do with today's Christian rhetoric?  What I've heard and read from those who oppose Obama's position on same-sex marriage are most often appeals to some kind of certainty.  For example, I was listening to an NPR interview of some of the audience for Mitt Romney's commencement speech this weekend at fundamentalist, evangelical Liberty University. In the speech itself, Romney only addressed the issue once, but he addressed it in tones of certainty: "Marriage," he declared (to roaring applause),  "is a relationship between one man and one woman." Period. End of discussion.  Here's what an audience member had to say when asked about her position on same-sex marriage: "It's wrong. There's nothing else to say about it. It's in the Bible." Case closed. No discussion wanted here. This audience member's attitude was pretty close to the old bumper sticker: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Among my Facebook friends, I've seen a number of posts that begin with the phrase, "The Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is sinful."  I want to respond: Is it really, really so clear as all that? Don't you want to open up some room for discussion here? Are you aware that some Christians who read the Bible arrive at a different place? As one of my colleagues pointed out this week, when someone opens with the phrase "The Bible clearly teaches" it's a sign that she's stopped listening to and trying to understand the other person's point of view.

These statements of certitude about this complex issue (and many others we could bring up) are, it seems to me, unfortunate at best and damaging and divisive at worst. Instead of certainty, I want to argue for uncertainty. Instead of definitive positions, I wonder what would happen to the climate of discussion if more people said things like "I don't really know what I believe about this issue" or "I would like to hear more stories from my gay and lesbian friends before I develop my position." Or even, as President Obama said prior to his interview, "my position on this issue is evolving."

I found it interesting that before he stated his personal view in the interview, Obama was being criticized by religious conservatives for not taking a definitive stance on the issue. His "my position is evolving" statement was seen as a political tactic. I even read Facebook posts that declared (confidently and certainly) that Obama was going to wait until after the election to "come out" with his true feelings. In this regard, I applaud our President for taking the political risk to state his personal views. Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire his honesty and courage.

What I'm suggesting here is that there is a cultural tendency in evangelical Christianity that does not leave room for "evolving" positions, complexity, uncertainty, or doubt.  In fact, in my history as a Christian I often felt I was expected to know exactly what I believed about all sorts of issues and that if I didn't I was somehow a slackard as a Christian. I remember that passage in Timothy being quoted to the effect that we should always "ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us." Guess I just wasn't aware then that included as part of that hope was my position on same-sex marriage!

Another tendency I deplore is the one that assumes there is one proper or appropriate or approved position that all Christians must take on any given issue. For me, this started back in my Bible classes at my Christian College where we would discuss questions like "Can Christians serve in the military?" or "Should Christians dance, or play the lottery, or drink alcohol, or ____________ (fill in the blank)?" I'm not saying that some of these weren't worthy questions to discuss; what I am saying is that each began with the assumption, which I now see as flawed, that using the Bible as their guide, all Christians would ultimately be able to agree on the "Christian approach to" or the "Christian view of" whatever issue was on the table. Here's a current day example: I was following a comment thread on Facebook about the same-sex marriage debate where a commenter had made an inclusive plea for LGBTQ folks to be embraced in Christian fellowship. The next commenter asked, "_____, are you a Christian?" Well, it doesn't take much analysis to deconstruct that question. The commenter had obviously assumed that anyone who could suggest that the LGBTQ community be loved and accepted in the Christian church could not (de facto) be a Christian.

So here's my modest proposal. When discussing these controversial issues as Christians, can we exercise enough humility to temper our statements? Can we resist the temptations of certitude, realizing that they tend to draw lines in the sand and reinforce stereotypes that non-Christians already carry about those of our ilk? Can we learn the use of conditional phrases like "Based on my understanding of scripture" or even "I might be wrong about this" or, God forbid, "my views on this are evolving"?

Doubt is not a four-letter word--even for Christians, as Richard Rohr reminds us:

It is probably necessary to eliminate most doubt when you are young:
doing so is a good survival technique. But such worldviews are not 
true--and they are not wisdom. Wisdom happily lives with mystery,
doubt, and "unknowing," and in such living, ironically resolves that
very mystery to some degree" (Falling Upward: A Spirituality
 for the Two Halves of Life)