Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.

Peace.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 40

Posted: May 15th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 40

86. Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.

Straightforward, but perhaps even more appropriate for out time. We misuse food today in so many ways and are, in turn, ruled by it.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 39

Posted: May 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 39

78.  It is one thing to be delivered from sinful thoughts and another to be free from passions. Frequently a man is delivered from such thoughts when the things which rouse his passions are not present. But the passions lie hidden in the soul and are brought to light when the things themselves are present. Hence one must watch over the intellect in the presence of things and must discern for which of them it manifests a passion.

And this is an important point. Passions require a trigger. If we simply remove the trigger, we are not free of the passion. The former is important, of course, but only the first step in our healing. Moreover, like the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like other men, including the wicked publican, we are often proud of our ability to resist things with which we have never been truly tempted. We need to understand that we share in the weakness of humanity and that only through the strength of Christ can we be truly healed.


Speaking of God – A Good God

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – A Good God

For you are a good God and love mankind, and to you do we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. (Orthodox Great Vespers liturgy)

When we speak of God, it’s important that we remember always that he is a good God who loves humanity. I notice that aspect often seems to become obscured in modern Western discussions about God. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in certain Calvinistic strands that either explicitly or implicitly end up attributing both good and evil to God. A God who is responsible for evil is not a good God. It’s one of the more outrageous assertions that can be made about the God we find fully revealed in Christ. (Moreover, it’s only in Christ that the creation of the human being is finished.) I thoroughly agree with the Orthodox that any such claims about God are utterly heretical and contrary to the faith which has been handed down to us.

But it can take subtler forms. For instance, in the strands of evangelicalism within which I swim, it’s very common to hear “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when tragedy strikes. It permeates thought, conversation, teaching, and song. The concept comes from Job and illustrates one potential issue with lifting verses and phrases at will from our Holy Scriptures and applying them without the guidance of a deep and apostolic tradition. Here’s the verse from Job.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21.

The first thing that we have to recognize is that in his fatalism, Job is actually incorrect! (Though the next verse goes on to note that Job did not, in truth, charge God with wrongdoing.) Yes, in a broad sense God allows freedom in creation. That’s part of being a good God who does not deny any good thing to his beloved creation, even if that good thing can be twisted. In the context of the narrative, we have something of a “God’s eye view” that Job lacks. We know that God took nothing from Job. Satan did.

But Job’s perception makes perfect cultural sense. It was normal in the ancient world to ascribe all sorts of things to the gods. We see that in, for one example, Homer. At one point in the Iliad when, speaking of the son of Atreus and godlike Achilles, he asks, “Which of the gods brought them both together fighting?” It’s not a rhetorical or allegorical question for Homer. He has an answer. Apollo did. Job, from the context of the narrative, doesn’t worship multiple gods. He worships the one God. So when he loses everything, it’s natural for him to ascribe it to God. It’s also what his friends assume — which is why they spend so much time trying to explain why God must have done it and Job must have deserved it.

But we know from the story that God didn’t take anything from Job. God never really explains himself to Job, but as the reader that’s one of the things we must understand. (Job is also a type or shadow of Christ as the suffering servant in the narrative. But that’s another discussion.)

Moreover, that should not come as any surprise to a Christian. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it’s so that we might by sons of our Father in heaven. Why? Because God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He is a good God who loves mankind without condition or reservation.

Ours is the God who makes all things new, from whom the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We respond to evil by doing good, by blessing, and by acting to heal and restore.

Our God is a good God — a God of divine love. We must always speak of him in those terms when we dare to speak at all.


Why Do We Pray? 6 – Intercessory Prayer

Posted: March 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 6 – Intercessory Prayer

At this point in my series, the question that should arise in any reader’s mind is a straightforward one. How does intercessory prayer fit into everything I’ve attempted to describe? It’s a good question and I think it’s one every person who deeply thinks about Christian prayer must face at some point. And it’s a question which, if answered too facilely, ends up painting a pretty ugly picture of God. I think John, the commenter on the opening post of this series, expressed one such objection well.

“So somehow God is going to help me get through a situation or make an outcome better while people are dying and struggling with things that are way more important than my nerves when speaking in public.”

Indeed. A God like that is capricious, weak, or even evil. It’s certainly not a God I would care to worship.

But we also can’t escape the role intercessory prayer has always played in Christianity. It’s deeply embedded in our spiritual DNA. We pray individually for the needs of others. We offer intercessions corporately in liturgy. Christianity has a sacrament of holy unction or healing. We believe the saints, living and reposed, pray with us and for us, interceding on our behalf. We are instructed to pray for one another and we are told those prayers are effective.

And indeed, our tradition is rich with stories of such effective prayers, both the mundane and the wonderful. It’s hard to find a Christian who would say they have never experienced an answered prayer.

So how do we resolve that tension? Before I offer my thoughts, I feel it’s important to note that these are just my current ideas. I make no guarantee I’ll think the same way tomorrow, though these thoughts have developed over the years and seem relatively unlikely to change dramatically at this point. Others may find them helpful or they may not. I will say that I think it’s more important to actually pray than to necessarily understand why we pray. With that disclaimer, I’ll proceed.

In order to explore this question, I’ll have to start by reflecting back on past things I’ve written about the nature of human beings and what Christians label “sin.” It’s a tenet of Christian faith that God created man in his image. Creation was not shaped from some pre-existing eternal stuff. Only the uncreated God is eternal, that is has always existed and will always exist. Of course, sometimes when we say that God created ex nihilo, or out of nothing, we don’t pause to ask, “From where did that nothing come?” The perfect God of self-sufficient and overflowing love somehow made room for a creation that, while filled and sustained by God, nevertheless is not God. When you think about it deeply, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

And the human being, at the apex of that creation (or at least the piece that forms our planet), was created with a nature intended to image God into that creation. When we choose to image something else into creation, we call that sin. And while sometimes the effects of sin are obviously causal and related, I have suggested elsewhere that’s not always the case. We do not and perhaps cannot perceive the way our choice to image something else into the fabric of creation distorts and damages it. We do not perceive all the ripples and all the changes.

Moreover, we are not isolated beings. Christianity, in fact, teaches that we are more tightly interwoven through our shared nature than we usually comprehend. That’s why, when the Word assumed our nature and mortality, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection had universal effect. Jesus defeated death and freed us from its bondage. He changed the nature of humanity, which changed all human beings. We see ourselves as separate and independent, but we are less so than we believe.

One of the deep dangers we face every day is the temptation to look at another human being and see ourselves as somehow separate and perhaps even better. We see that truth revealed in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. But it’s not only when we look on the other with pride that we are mistaken, but sometimes also when we look on the other with compassion. We look at another and say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and perhaps we even try to help. But the truth is we are all bound together in everything we suffer and we have all contributed in some way, even unaware, to that suffering. This is so deeply true and embedded in our faith that it is perhaps better to look at our brother or sister and simply acknowledge, “There go I.”

Prayer, then, especially intercessory prayer, is in some sense the opposite of sin. To the extent we are able to align our wills with God’s and begin to image God into creation as we were intended to do, we join God in the healing of creation rather than its destruction. I’m always reminded of the image from Revelation, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Sometimes we may see what appears to be a causal relationship. (We pray for someone and they receive that for which we have prayed.) Other times we may not see any direct effect. In this sense, intercessory prayer subverts sin and heals the damage we have collectively caused to the fabric of creation.

When I think of intercessory prayer (and sin for that matter), I often think of the butterfly effect. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it comes from chaos theory. In precise language it describes a sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Basically, it’s capturing the idea that a small change in one area of a non-linear system can create a large difference in a later state of the system. The classic example from which the name is derived is that the formation of a hurricane could be contingent on a butterfly fluttering its wings weeks earlier and a continent away.

I think the whole of creation, spiritual and material, can certainly be described as a non-linear system, so it seems like an apt metaphor. At least, it helps me place intercessory prayer in a context in which it makes some sense to me. It may be less helpful to others.


Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

Posted: January 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

It came up in the comments on Elizabeth Esther’s post, so I felt I ought to write something about this belief. It’s not actually a belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus and then God restored her hymen, though I frequently saw it characterized that way in the comments. Rather, it’s a belief that Mary gave birth without pain and without any physical damage to her body, including her hymen.

It’s primarily a theological point. As I understand it, many have seen in Mary’s ‘yes’ to God the beginning of the healing of creation. And since one of the things described in Genesis 3 as a result of our mortality is that ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’, Jesus being born without pain or physical damage is seen as one of the early signs of that healing and restoration.

I tend to disagree, but not because I find the concept incredible. After all, how is such a delivery any more incredible than a virginal conception? Rather, I lean toward a different theological perspective. Jesus became flesh, or sarx, which means he assumed everything it means to be human in our mortal state. And so I believe he was born as we are born. The healing and restoration of all creation flows from him, but he began life fully and utterly one of us.

Ultimately, though, I think we all have to confess we have no way to know which is true.


Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Take a moment to read the text above again. It often seems to me that many Christians have become so familiar with it, they miss its impact. There are a number of points to note. First, the angel, a messenger of God and presumably speaking with God’s voice, calls Mary highly favored and blessed among women. Later, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary (and the fruit of her womb) blessed. Mary, also under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even prophesies that all generations (except many modern Protestants, apparently) will call her blessed.

Why?

Without having sex with a man, the angel tells Mary she will conceive a child through the power of the Highest and that child will be called the Son of God. This is central to Christian belief. Jesus was not just a special human being used by God. We believe him to be the Dabar Yahweh, the Word of God, made flesh. His eternal, divine nature is joined to a fully human, mortal nature through the agency and with the active cooperation of Mary.

Make no mistake, there is no evidence in Scripture or any other source that Mary was merely a vessel and that any such vessel would have sufficed. There is no evidence or indication that a ‘plan B‘ existed. Mary’s consent and cooperation with God were essential. There is a strong thread of ancient theology which calls Mary the new Eve. As her son, Jesus, is typologically compared to the first Adam, so Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is seen as healing Eve’s ‘no’ to God. ‘Eve’, of course, means life or life-giver as ‘Adam’ means man or mankind. Through her ‘yes’ to God, Mary consents to give life to he who as the new Adam joins the nature of God to the nature of man, defeats death on our behalf, and gives true and lasting life to humanity.

And her ‘yes’ required a courage that should be clearer after my previous post on honor-shame cultures. Mary certainly recognized that she would be perceived as having engaged in adulterous sex and she knew the shame and dishonor that she and her family would experience. She knew she could be killed, but trusted in God nonetheless.

And Joseph was also courageous and faithful. The text tells us that he was righteous, but I think most miss the true import of that phrase. Being named ‘tsadiq’ or righteous in his honor-shame culture was a big deal. He was counted among the ‘tsadiqim’ and much honor accrued from that. Having a betrothed become pregnant was shaming enough, when he was instructed to marry her anyway, that meant giving up his standing as ‘tsadiq’ and assuming a name of shame instead. But Joseph was faithful to God first. He counted God’s honor as more important than his own. It’s important to understand that about Joseph.

I recognize there are many today who choose not to belief in the virgin birth, but who do still call themselves Christian. All I can say is that those who have done so have redefined Christianity to an extent that their version of Christianity is discontinuous from any historical or traditional strand of Christian belief. There are many ways people do that today, and it’s one of the reasons modern ‘Christianity’ is so confusing. There are thousands upon thousands of sects which, if you dig even a little below the surface, hold outright contradictory beliefs, but which all still call themselves Christian in some sense. If you do not believe in the virgin birth, but you do believe that Jesus was in some sense the divine Son of God (and if you don’t at least believe that, then it’s hard to see how your belief can still be labeled ‘Christian’), then of necessity you must believe that Jesus was a normal human male child who at some point after conception was in some sense divinized. That’s actually one of the ancient heresies reborn in slightly different clothes.

However, this is a dogma on which most Christians agree. It’s even incorporated in the Nicene Creed, with which I think I’ll close this post. Hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought.

I believe in one God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there shall be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.

In one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins;

I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.

Amen.


Spanking Kids

Posted: December 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther faced off with Michael Pearl on Anderson Cooper. I applaud her for her courage. On her post, I made two comments I want to preserve on my blog. The first is simply my reaction to her post and her courage for speaking out.

Way to go EE!

And the truth is that kids are resilient. (The older we get, the less resilient we seem to get, but we often still have surprising capacity in that area.) Some break. Sometimes even those who experienced much worse don’t break and find healing. Some experience things that boggle the minds of others and become relatively unscathed adults.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. A child can be loved, given structure and boundaries, and given many other advantages, yet still walk dark paths as an adults.

Parenting matters, and can matter a great deal. But neither good nor bad parenting can assure any particular outcome. And in many ways that’s a good thing. After all, aren’t most of us a mixed bag as parents? It’s good that our mistakes don’t really “scar our kids for life” even if that also means the things we do right don’t guarantee a positive outcome.

I think that’s an important, but overlooked point. Our kids are free human beings just as we are. The fact that we can’t do anything that will guarantee a positive outcome is the corollary to our freedom from every mistake we make having a permanent effect on our children. You can’t have one without the other.

The second comment is one I made to someone who described themselves as a former pediatric trauma nurse and asserted that ‘spanking’ was an overall good in order to ‘keep kids from running into the street.’ I’m tired of that meme being abused, especially by someone asserting professional authority, so posted (if EE approves it) the following.

I wasn’t going to say more than I had mentioned above, but in describing yourself as a pediatric trauma nurse you have made an appeal to authority (in this case professional authority) while making an assertion of fact that is contrary to psychological findings. I don’t defend the language of the person to whom you were responding and their blurring of categories. But you’re appealing to medical authority and your statements are contrary to fact. I don’t want to leave that unchallenged.

This is one of the peer-reviewed articles I can find available online for free. (That’s actually an ongoing problem when discussing science.) I’ve read many more in other media and its results and conclusions are consistent with other peer-reviewed studies I’ve read.

http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1284539.pdf

Now, that might be a bit much for people not accustomed to reading scientific papers. I come from a family of scientists, though I am not myself a scientist. My mother is many things, but those things include two masters degrees in psychology and art therapy.

Personally, I have experienced abuse and my older son was seriously abused by his biological mother at a young age. (Lots of medical and legal bills and bankruptcy followed that experience, but I regret none of that part of the cost. I do regret that I wasn’t able to learn to be a better parent any faster than I did.) I had the ability to read and understand the research and the motivation to do so.

Here is the key point. The only “positive” thing that has been shown to correlate with corporal punishment is short term (less than five seconds) behavior modification. It’s good at doing that. It’s pretty poor at moral internalization and every other positive long-term measure. And it correlates with some pretty negative long-term outcomes.

What does that mean when it comes to “running into the street”? Well, it shows a number of things (which other peer-reviewed studies have also shown). First, if you are close enough to strike a child, then you have no need for short term behavior modification. You can physically restrain the child from running into the street. (Or they have already run into the street, you’ve caught them, and you are striking them because they frightened you.)

So if short-term behavior modification is not the goal, then moral internalization must be the goal. (You want the child to internalize that they should not run into the street and restrain themselves in the future.) But corporal punishment is one of the worst approaches to moral internalization. That’s not to say that it never works, but it usually doesn’t. And there are many other things you could do that would be more likely to result in moral internalization. Studies have shown precisely that as well.

Once I read the studies and thought about it, I realized there really aren’t any situations where I’m primarily concerned about immediate compliance (short term behavior modification) when my children are within arm’s length. Yes, my children can sometimes embarrass me. I got over that a long time ago. But as a parent, my goal is always moral internalization. I want them to internalize what I’m trying to teach so it becomes something they can do for themselves without me forcing compliance.

So I decided I would do the best I could to use approaches to discipline correlated with greater success at moral internalization. Which is not to say I don’t ever yell (a lesser form of the same sort of thing as spanking), but I don’t hit my children. And I’ve gotten pretty good at apologizing when I do yell and explaining why I did. Doesn’t make it all right, but kids mostly want to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. They forgive easily.

Have I screwed up and will I screw up tomorrow? Sure. But I don’t hit those I love the most. And maybe that’s a start toward learning not to hate those I love the least.

So my cards are on the table. What say you? But be warned, I will remove comments I believe cross the line. I’m not interested in the sort of comment war I’ve seen on other blogs. If you assert something, you better have more than your opinion or an anecdote behind it. This is something about which I feel strongly, and experience tells me if you push me, I’ll tear what you say apart. So be prepared. Or just walk away if you have your own strong opinions and believe it would be mutually counter-productive to engage.

UPDATE: I wrote the comment below later on EE’s blog and wanted to preserve it here as well.

“Right” and “wrong” are moral judgements (unless they are used to mean factually correct and factually incorrect, when usually isn’t the case in these discussion). That wasn’t the point of my comment at all.

Rather, if your goal is moral internalization (teach the child not to run into the street in the future so they restrain themselves) then corporal punishment is one of the least effective means you can choose to accomplish that goal. That’s not a moral judgment, that’s a statement of fact.

The question then becomes, why do parents do something that’s ineffective at their stated goal? And why do they often perceive it as effective when it isn’t? (In other words, why do their perceptions fail to coincide with reality?) That’s another discussion, entirely.

Here I was simply pointing out that your assertion of fact (that spanking a child is an effective means of teaching them not to run into the street in the future) was incorrect. That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s as close as you get to an established fact in behavioral science confirmed in multiple studies by lots of researchers over the course of decades. Corporal punishment is pretty good at very short term behavior modification. It sucks at moral internalization.

Heck, I even read a study from more than a decade ago (not available online as far as I know) that didn’t rely on parental reporting on the specific subject of ‘running into the street’. Instead, they used a control group of parents who reported using spanking to correct that behavior (and controlled for as many factors as they could). And then they taught a study group of parents a relatively simple and straightforward disciplinary approach to teach their small children not to run into the street. Then they observed both sets of families as they were outside under similar conditions for similar periods of time each day over the course of a  period of time. (It was something like 2 weeks or a month.)

Over that period of time, the control group of kids who were spanked showed little or no reduction in their attempts to run into the street. The group that was effectively disciplined very quickly fell to almost no attempts to run into the street.

The same study also asked the parents questions designed to determine their perception of the effectiveness of their disciplinary approach. And this was the strange part. The study group correctly perceived the effectiveness of the approach they used, even though it was new to most of them. However, the group of parents who spanked also reported that they perceived their efforts as effective and further significantly under-reported the number of times their children tried to run into the street.

That’s a good illustration why our perceptions of effectiveness — without objective measures — are not particularly trustworthy. Heck, Michael Pearl perceives his approach as effective.

And I’m not particularly interested in sympathy for myself or my son (who’s doing pretty well for himself with a family of his own now). I was just explaining why I was motivated to actually learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to discipline.

And corporal punishment doesn’t work in any of the areas I care about, and which I believe most parents care about, when it comes to disciplining children. (Even when compliance — short term behavior modification — matters, which isn’t very often, there are other approaches to achieve it that don’t have the negative outcome correlations of corporal punishment.)

I did notice one thing that I don’t think was clear in my abbreviated overview of the ‘running into the street’ study I described. All the parents normally spanked their kids. (I think this study was from the late 80s or early 90s when it would have been much harder to find parents in the US who wouldn’t have given their small children a swat for running into the street.) They first observed the entire group for a period of a week or two to establish norms in the study situation. They then taught a selected study group a different approach and continued the study for another week or two. Obviously they didn’t tell the control group that they were the control group and as little as possible to either about the purpose of the study. (I think they told the study group they were evaluating a ‘new’ idea for a parental discipline technique or something like that.) In human behavior studies, you can never control for everything. But I thought it was a pretty well-constructed study. That’s one of the reasons it lodged in my brain all these years.

This isn’t a moral judgment like any discussion of abuse must be. (Though I will note that there seems to be a pretty huge gray area between things that almost everyone would agree are non-abusive corporal punishment and the things that almost everyone would agree are clearly physical abuse. That’s another problem to discuss at another time.) This is a discussion of reality and the fact that so many parents’ perceptions of reality with their parenting techniques and children don’t coincide with what is actually happening.


The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

I’ll conclude my series of reflections on Khouria Frederica’s book with this reflection on the path thoughts take to pull us away from prayer. The fathers identify stages such thoughts take.

1. Provocation. Provoking thoughts can arise from our subconscious or whispered by other powers. They can appear blasphemous, evil, or even noble and good. If blasphemous, we might wonder how we could think such a thing, which is always a good indication that it may not be your own thought. The fathers consistently advise us to ignore provoking thoughts. Don’t try to argue with them or agree with them. Keep praying.

2. Interaction. Of course, we don’t usually do that. Instead, we engage the thought. Our nous turns from God and begins to consider the thought instead. The thought has a foot in the door. The fathers advise crying out to God for help. Wrap your nous in the Jesus Prayer.

3. Consent. “At this point, the nous has become intoxicated with the thought and embraces it. A sign of this stage is that the nous becomes absorbed in gazing at an image or playing out a fantasy.” It’s at this point, when we have consented to an image or fantasy, that we become responsible for sin as Jesus warns, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Captivity. With consent, the ability to resist the thought begins to crumble. At some point, it will be put into action.

5. Passion. After repeatedly consenting, we no longer have the ability to use our will to resist. The thought appears and we act without resistance. It has become something we suffer, similar to a compulsion or addiction. We are ruled by it. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Without spiritual healing, we are helpless.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


The Jesus Prayer 18 – Repentance

Posted: April 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

What’s the point of repentance? It’s important to understand the Christian (and older Hebrew) idea underlying it as a change in direction or a turning rather than a sense of sorrow. (I know it took me a while to figure that out given my background.) But even once you understand that fact, what is the ongoing process of repentance within Christian life meant to accomplish? And that’s tied to the idea of salvation.

Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, so we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and be healed at ever deeper levels. We spoke earlier about having a sense of urgency in our spiritual lives, and this is the root of that urgency. The lingering presence of sin damages our ability to see reality clearly. It darkens the nous. Sin also strengthens the power of the evil one, and helps him spread suffering and injustice in the world. No wonder we yearn for everything that is bent or damaged in us to be burned away by the radiance of Christ.

Another danger Khouria Frederica discusses is the state of acedia. It’s a state of despair when we decide to rid ourselves of one particular sin, but fail again and again, eventually giving up on salvation.

But the Lord may know something about the underlying structure of your sin that you don’t. It may be that some other debility, maybe something you’re not even aware of, is holding that big sin in place, and that has to be dealt with first. You might think that the Lord cannot stand the presence of your ugly sin, but he has been standing it a long time already, and he’s not going to stop loving you now. If he can be patient enough to bring about a healing that is permanent, you can too; all you have to do is let him love you.

And that’s why we must never abandon repentance. I read once of a monastic saying about the life of a monk: “We fall down and get back up. We fall down and get back up.” In many ways that describes us all.