Monday, February 2, 2015

Voting: By Needs or By Ideals?

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I had originally planned to write this back in November around election time, but I didn't have the motivation to sit and actually write it out. But the ideas are relevant year-round, I think.

I've seen plenty of commentaries focus on various groups, astounded at the group's minorities who vote for a different party or against a measure that goes against their needs.

But should we be voting just based on what we want? What about the role of sacrifice? Of doing what's right even when it's "not in our best interest"? In my view, doing what's right is ultimately in our best interest.

A couple of concrete examples:

Back in undergrad, the University of California system was talking about raising tuition for the first time in many years. Students were up in arms. Of course I didn't want my tuition to go up. It wasn't in my best interest (at least from one perspective). However, I supported the tuition hike because it seemed reasonable.

Similarly, we have lived in our little city for several years now, loving the small town feel and a variety of amenities, like it being a clean, safe city with nice parks. Like many cities, ours had some financial problems, so there was a measure proposing a temporary tax hike in order to keep these services going. After hours of reviewing arguments on either side, my wife and I decided to vote against our best interest and for a tax increase in order to keep what we loved about our city.

Shouldn't voting be about looking at the big picture and not just about my short-term desires? Why are we so quick to judge others by assuming what is in their best interest? And assuming what motivated their vote?

If we want thoughtful voters (I guess not everyone does), then we also need to recognize that not everyone votes based on what they think is best for themselves, but actually consider society as a whole. And there can be honest disagreement about what falls into both categories. But stopping assuming what is in other people's best interest may be a good start.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Will All Be Well?

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I've started subscribing to Richard Rohr's daily devotional, which I have found to be more thoughtful than most, balancing both an opportunity to pause and contemplate with intellectual growth and stimulation. Back in November, he had a post reflecting on Julian of Norwich's famous prayer, "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

I'm familiar with this prayer, having prayed it myself. It's a nice reminder of God's sovereignty, among other teleological ideas. But this time, I wondered how true this prayer really is. It depends on our end point, of course, as one could argue that once creation is renewed and reconciled, "all will be well."

But in the shorter term, not everything works out right. Babies die. Terrorists succeed. Good people go bankrupt. Hard workers lose their homes and jobs. People in therapy suicide.

No matter how hard we work, sometimes bad things happen.

So is saying a prayer that all shall be well still true? Or is it a Nietzschean opiate to make us feel better? Psychological research has indicated that the negative cognitions of the depressed (and I would add that the anxious probably fall into this, as well) are actually more accurate than the thoughts of those who are normal. The depressive things are reality. But it doesn't help us live, either. It seems that sometimes we need some level of ignorance or blindness in order to function appropriately.

I want to believe that all shall be well. Teleologically, I could say it's so. Frankly, I've had a remarkably blessed life. But in this world, I've also seen others in great pain despite faithfulness.

What is the balance between hoping all shall be well and knowing that it's not? Maybe it's the hope that's the key.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Retributive Justice: Human or Divine?

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Last week, I talked about whether God needs to be appeased. The big thing I want to emphasize in this sort of discussion is how embedded ideas of retributive justice are in our society. There is just a fundamental assumption that this is how things work, and of course God works the same way.

A poignant example of this, to me, was when I had jury duty recently. As I was walking into the courthouse, there was a guy with a bullhorn yelling about how people were going to Hell. Another was handing out tracts to everyone entering the courthouse. (Side note: While I hate this sort of representation of Christianity, I'm proud to live in a country where this can occur outside of a government courthouse. Further, what does it say about the claim that Christians are persecuted in the US?)

Having done my undergrad in Berkeley, I'm good at just walking past people trying to hand stuff to me. Trying to keep my temper in check for giving Christians such a bad name, I just said a polite, "No thank you" to the guy with the tract and keep walking. He then aggressively said, "Did you see the sign?!" referring to a cross saying something like, "Do you know God?" I responded, "I'm a Christian," to which he seemed to celebrate with a "Yeah!" So I turned around and said, "But you're doing it the wrong way!" I couldn't help myself. I'm unwilling to let others think I support such behavior.

Moving back from the side rant, what this indicated to me was the tendency many of us have to make assumptions about how things work and what others believe. These individuals were clearly promoting a highly retributive justice God right in front of an institution specializing in retributive justice (let's be honest, the US justice system is fundamentally about retributive justice--it frankly would be difficult to build a different system at this level). In many ways, this was a wise move--it powerfully reinforces the central principles of what they're trying to argue. If you believe in the governmental justice methodology, then it's easy to apply that spiritually.

But what if that application is wrong? What if retributive justice is really a human practicality (or tragedy)? What are we missing if we assume this approach to justice is from God?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Does God Need To Be Appeased?

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As atonement continues to come up in our Sunday school class, I continue to reflect on how much a substitutionary view has been central to our theological language. Propitiation is a perfect example of this. Propitiation is a common term used in atonement discussions and other areas of theology. It's a fancy word for appeasing someone, often the Divine.

There's just an assumption that someone has to be appeased. But is that necessarily so?

Humans need to be appeased; there's little doubt about that. But the Divine? When made in humanity's image, the Divine surely have to be appeased. However, from a Christian perspective, we are made in God's image, yet we are different. I'm increasingly convinced that the transactional, conditional acceptance notions we have in our theology are not from God, but from our broken human nature.

Others have talked about some of the problems with the various atonement theories, namely substitutionary and ransomed theories. The idea of propitiation is really central to these criticisms, as who does God have to appease and what kind of character does a God have who needs to be appeased?

The mimetic theory of atonement seems to address some of this. It doesn't minimize any of the biblical record, but in my view, recognizes the human theological evolution and understanding that develops over centuries/millennia.

Does someone need to be appeased for our salvation? Yes, but nothing divine. I'm inclined to believe it's us who need to be appeased for our own wrongdoings. We are the ones who can't get over ourselves. So God provides a way for us to move past it and to him.

How does this change our view of salvation? Of God and his character? Of the Bible?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health

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Tomorrow, October 7, is the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding, and this post is part of a synchroblog on the topic. A list of other posts in this theme are at the bottom.

Many of my readers know I am a psychologist with a specialty in spirituality and psychology. My BA is in Religious Studies, my PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) had an emphasis on spiritual integration, my dissertation and other scholarly work has focused on the topic, and I'm currently the chair of my organization's spirituality awareness committee. I have provided many trainings on the topic of spirituality and mental health.

Through it all, one of the most common issues is the apparent contradiction of spirituality and psychology, especially within the Christian traditions. Scathing comments from some of psychology's biggest initial names (like Freud, Ellis, and Watson), have really shaped the landscape of interactions between spirituality and mental health providers. Both sides are often afraid to talk to the other based on the assumption that they hate one another. What we need is peacebuilding.

Accurate information can be extremely helpful for peacemaking efforts. So I want to share some history about spirituality and mental health to help demonstrate that the two have, historically, actually been more partners than enemies.

In fact, the earliest people to provide assistance were faith communities. The fourth and fifth centuries included the building of monasteries for the mentally ill by St. Basil in Caesarea, St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and St. Benedict in Monte Cassino. Just by the individuals' titles emphasizes that these were not small, unknown efforts, either. The Middle Ages provided government asylums, where the public could sometimes pay to watch the mentally ill in chains for entertainment. Phillipe Pinel, a French Roman Catholic, was a major advocate for reform of these asylums, and his reforms spread throughout Europe. An English Quaker, William Tuke, established the York Retreat for the Humane Care of the Insane, and his model spread to the US. Today, many faith-based or faith-friendly organizations and institutions focus on humane, ethical treatment of the mentally ill. Some examples include LDS Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federations, Institute for Muslim Mental Health, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, NAMI’s FaithNet, and Mental Health Ministries.

Much to the surprise of many in the mental health world, it has, in fact, been individuals of faith who have led many of the efforts to improve the treatment conditions of the mentally ill. Some of the most inhumane efforts have been from the biggest critics of spirituality.

On the mental health side, virtually every major professional organization lists appropriately addressing religion or spirituality as part of their ethics code now. This includes the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. The public mental health system even acknowledges the importance of spirituality in treatment. See the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative and LA County's spirituality efforts, including a Clergy Advisory Committee and an annual conference.

While not everyone on either side of spirituality and mental health are interested in collaborating and making peace, increasingly, most people are interested in not only being cordial, but finding ways to be mutually reinforcing and beneficial. So let's stop making assumptions about each other and assume we have the same goals at heart.

Shameless plug: For those in Southern California and interested in these topics, I'll be on a panel at the University of Redland's Symposium on Integrating Spirituality and Mental Health on October 29. More information is available here and here.

Other synchroblog participants:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fighting Biblical Literalism with Literalism?

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I'm not a fan of literalistic readings of the Bible in general. There's just no argument from any worldview, in my opinion, that supports this exegetical method. Even if every word was spoken by God and transcribed by humanity, that doesn't mean every word is literally true, as no one (even Jesus) spoke that literally all the time. And even Jesus' words were obviously highly contextualized, so "plain meaning" in our time just doesn't make any sense.

When taken too far, there are some extra special absurdities derived from literal interpretations of biblical text. Therefore, some people like to argue against a universally literal reading of the Bible by pointing out inconsistencies generated by such a reading. I can find this humorous (and appropriate) at times, as it helps keep all of us honest. As an example, one could argue against requiring a belief in a 7 day creation period by showing what else we would have to believe by the same interpretive methodology. The point of the argument is not to promote a particular interpretation necessarily, but to argue against a particular interpretive methodology.

However, then there's other times when I see people fighting conclusions made by literal interpretations by making another literal interpretation after criticizing this exegetical method. This is different than what I described above, as the methodology is undermined, but then the same methodology is used to come to a different conclusion.

Let me give an example. In our Sunday school class, we're exploring Borg and Crossan's The First Paul, discussing authorship and interpretation of the Pauline letters. For those who don't know, Borg and Crossan are squarely liberal scholars. They do not ascribe to literal readings of the Bible. In fact, a central component of their thesis is that only some of the letters attributed to Paul were authentically written by Paul. The rest, Borg and Crossan argue, were attributed to him in a way that often happened at the time. This argument alone helps undermine a literal reading of Paul.

However, part of the way they argue for different authorship is through a literal reading of the texts. They have several examples, but one is the topic slavery, as they see Philemon advocating for abolition (perhaps only of Christian slaves), while reading Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Ephesians 6:5-9 as advocating for the maintenance of slavery. However, the latter verses never explicitly support slavery. They could definitely be read that way (and have been in the past, of course). However, I see both of these as very superficial, literalistic, non-contextual interpretations.

Borg and Crossan's conclusions may be absolutely correct, but methodology matters. At least in this context, I do not find they have a rigorous explanation for their exegesis, as they are relying on a plain meaning of the text, which they clearly do not support themselves.

I find it interesting that some liberal scholars seem to do this. They clearly reject biblical literalism (and have changed their belief structure often in reaction to it, sometimes to the point of rejecting Christianity, like Bart Ehrman), but then use literal interpretations to make their arguments. I wonder if they seem to believe that the Christian community only values literal interpretations and in order to be heard, they have to use that methodology. Obviously, that's not true.

Historically and currently, a significant portion (perhaps even the majority, although they tend to be quieter) of Christians appreciate and value good non-literal exegesis. In fact, demonstrating that faithful Christians can interpret the Bible non-literally and still value it is critical to maintaining the faith of many and even evangelizing to many. So personally, I find it detrimental to the community of faith when those who have rejected literalism primarily use a literal interpretation to get to their points. Biblical literalism has already been effectively discredited for decades, if not longer. Rather than continuing to use it to make our arguments, lets show how good, faithful scholarship can actually be done.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Meaning Without Transcendence?

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This is the third in a series on meaning. A conversation I've had with others and is central to a universal concept of meaning is whether transcendence is needed for meaning. Viktor Frankl and others have argued that meaning is a central human need, and I'm inclined to agree.

There are many people who argue that transcendence is not at all necessary for meaning. They explain that they find meaning in simply enjoying the world around them, from sunsets to close relationships. However, nothing more than that is needed.

Others argue that such situations are insufficient. I'm in this camp. One way I'd phrase it is that survival for the sake the survival is not compelling nor meaningful. For me, there necessarily needs to be something more, something inherent, something transcendent to find meaning. That's where faith becomes central to me.

From the first perspective, having kids is important and meaningful only because that's just part of human nature, and we've evolutionarily been wired to have those drives. There's not necessarily anything transcendent about it, so just enjoy what biology has given us.

In the second perspective (using Christian language), God has used evolution to give us a desire for family because there is something inherently, transcendently meaningful about building life and relationships, and guiding little lives and character. Adoption is meaningful and relevant in this second context for me. I think it's harder to argue for in the first.

There's so much pain and destruction caused by humans that if there's nothing transcendent about them, then I find it hard to argue for our continued existence, frankly. But if there's something transcendent and valuable about all life, then we should continue on (and be good neighbors to our non-human friends).

What keeps me going is the faith that transcendence gives life and struggle meaning. I really have trouble understanding finding meaning without that. How about you? Do you find that meaning requires transcendence?

Questions?

Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).