Monday, September 30, 2013

Do Smart People Need Faith?

In August, I read an interesting article discussing a meta-analysis exploring the relationship of intelligence and faith. Since this lands squarely in a major area of interest for me, psychology and faith, I was fascinated.

Ultimately, just about any studying examining IQ and faith is going to identify correlation, not causation. The four causal factors suggested by the authors sound very plausible to me and could play a role in the lower levels of faith of those with higher intelligence.

I wonder if part of the causal influence has to do with the type of work those with higher intelligence tend to engage in. I don't mean to be derogatory here, simply descriptive. Those usually recognized to have a higher intelligence (from a cognitive standpoint--there is a lot of debate over other forms of intelligence, including emotional, social, creative, etc., and I personally think those do need to be recognized as elements of intelligence) tend to have white collar jobs. Those with lower intelligence tend to have blue collar jobs (of course there is always an exception, especially with immigrants).

Let's think about stereotypic blue collar jobs. Lots of manual labor. Lots of repetitive actions. Not a lot of mental stimulation. It's no wonder many blue collar workers turn to prayer, singing hymns, and other spiritual activities during work. I know I was often bored during work when I had blue collar jobs. From a psychological perspective, it can fill a gap of stimulation.

Now let's think about stereotypic white collar jobs. Very little manual labor. Very little repetitive actions. A lot of mental, novel stimulation. In the past few years of having increasingly stereotypic white collar positions, my time has been very filled with a variety of stimuli that also fill my brain. Since I like my work, I continue thinking about it and processing it in my off time. I notice I feel like I have less "downtime" to fill with prayer, Bible reading, etc. In some ways, I could argue my work distracts my brain from spiritual things (okay, from my incarnational perspective, work can be very spiritual, but we're talking about more explicitly spiritual stuff).

The more our time is filled with the ins and outs of daily life and a variety of activities, the easier it is to explain life away by those things. We are also more distracted from any potential spiritual needs and longings, so we're not even aware of them.

Do smart people need faith? I would argue yes. But they often have more of a challenge to recognize their need of faith.

"O Lord! Thou knowest how busy I must be this day: If I forget thee, do not forget me!" Sir Jacob Astley (1579-1652)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dealing with Controversy

Controversy is no stranger to the Church. Some would argue that God made it that way. However, how we handle controversy is key. Much of the Christian Church sings the hymn, They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love, but many of those congregations would not be recognized by love.

Back in July, our pastor was addressing various questions posed by congregants. One of the Sundays addressed how our congregation deals with controversy. It was one of the best sermons I've heard. Ever.

With the bulletin was a document entitled Controversial Issues and the Church's Ministry. Here is a copy (used with permission):
Controversial Issues and the Church's MinistryAffirmed by the Executive CouncilThe First Baptist Church of Redlands, CaliforniaAdopted on May 7, 2002 and revised on June 28, 2005 
Members of The First Baptist Church of Redlands like Christians elsewhere are not unanimous in their understanding of many social and personal issues. Several guiding principles therefore become important when considering controversial issues and the ministry of Christ's church. 
a) All people are received into the membership of The First Baptist Church of Redlands on the basis of their confession of faith in Christ and their commitment to support the ministry God has given us as a congregation both locally and globally.
b) Members of this congregation struggle with a number of personal and spiritual issues, and we humbly acknowledge that we all fall short of God's glory and are dependent on God's grace in every area of life. 
c) We all are challenged to study the scriptures using the best knowledge and interpretive principles available to us as we follow the leading of the Spirit, upholding as a congregation the historic Baptist principle of soul liberty in matters of faith and practice. 
d) The mission and ministry God has given our congregation is greater than any one issue. We must not allow the divisiveness of this age to divide the church, but (as Jesus teaches) trust God to separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). 
e) The ministry of Jesus stretches us beyond our comfort zones as we reach out into our community. We must, therefore, guard our hearts against prejudices and false stereotypes cast upon minorities in our society and instead base our perspectives on convictions that build community and trust.  
f) Everyone is to be treated with the respect due one for whom Christ has died. No one is to be abused or harmed by either words or actions. Disparaging remarks, unkind comments, and abusive behavior have no place in the body of Christ. 
g) When considering leadership openings all character issues are relevant and may be taken into account in any and every situation.
While I'm of course biased, I love this. There are so many things that could be said for each point, but the thing I appreciate the most is that this statement reminds us of our priorities. Rather than getting bogged down by the minutiae of theological debate, this perspective keeps us focused on the greatest commandment: Love God and love others.

This statement is more about character and identity than about doctrine, and I think that's what makes it so Christian. And so hard to live up to!

During the message, my wife leaned over to me and said, "Now, that's something I would like to see posted on the door by the sanctuary!" She was referring to a past congregation we attended where they posted a huge sign at the sanctuary entrance, stating, "As Christians, we believe..." with their statement of faith. This move was one of the last actions that let us know we no longer aligned with their vision. As I explained to one of their pastors, trying to understand their decision-making process of the sign, I didn't even necessarily disagree with the content. By putting something up like that, they were sending the message that only people who agreed with that long list (very little of which would be salvific, in my opinion) would be welcomed in that congregation as a Christian. That process is what I have a problem with. And our current congregation's above statement reflects exactly the opposite sentiment. We are here on a journey of life. And life throws a lot of curve balls of confusion. We will do our best to be faithful in word and deed, but how we go about finding and living out truth is critical.

As our pastor told me one of the first times I met him, "We don't want doctrine to get in the way of doing what's right." That in itself could be a controversial statement, but I agreed with it then and agree with it now. It doesn't mean we don't stand by right belief. But we don't use it to clobber others. The right thing to do is to love people. No matter what. That doesn't mean excusing behavior. But not excusing behavior also doesn't mean condemnation. Ultimately, this approach is using the Bible as the center of the Christian faith.

I've experienced our congregation to demonstrate that delicate, holy balance. I've heard that our pastor has been accused by other community churches of being "too loving." I can only pray I receive that condemnation some day. Frankly, it's the same one the Pharisees gave Jesus...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Does Psychology Create a Need for Church Style? @maguyton

How much does our psychology influence the faith approach we follow, appreciate, and even need? There is regularly a lot of dialogue in the blogosphere about the holiness and horror of both the sin/wrath-focused church and the therapeutic church. Morgan Guyton recently published a couple of excellent posts on fundamentalism and his thoughts on the drive to the (highly disturbing) Christian domestic discipline movement (AKA wife spanking--yes, seriously). These posts spurred me to write about some thoughts I've had about the dichotomy between the sin and therapeutic churches.

One of the things I often hear from major proponents of sin-focused approaches is that we all need to be reminded of our problems, our weaknesses, and that God is in charge. In accordance, the argument for and against the therapeutic churches is that they make us feel too good about ourselves and make us forget about our failings.

This also reminds me of some of the applications of the 12 step approach (not all implementations are the same). Interestingly, there is a decent amount of narcissistic traits in people with substance misuse problems (this is a broad generalization, of course). I think the people who do best in 12 step programs often have this tendency, which is why it makes sense that they need to be reminded of their limitations. Can the same be said for the sin-focused churches? I think so. Some of the loudest voices of this approach (cough, Mark Driscoll, cough) ooze narcissism, so I can see how they benefit from being reminded of their finitude. And just like a good narcissist, they assume everyone is like them and needs the same approach.

Except I've met very few people who aren't aware of their limitations. Those who seem to be needing reminders fall into the undermentioned category. Almost every person I've worked with in my clinical work is acutely aware of his/her problems. Especially when we start getting into levels of higher anxiety, the last thing people need is to be reminded of what's wrong with them. Believe me, as someone with a strong level of perfectionism, I condemn myself plenty.

Continuing this message in the spiritual life does nothing to bring us closer to God. Rather, it reinforces psychological pathology, reinforcing a process of psychic self-flagellation. The therapeutic church approach, reminding people of the unconditional love and grace of God, compensates for the self-condemnation pattern many people experience regularly.

So perhaps both approaches are needed based on particular individuals and psychological processes. After all, God does meet us where we're at, right?

Does that mean I could actually recommend Driscoll and crew to the narcissists? I would have a hard time doing so because of his self-righteous condemnation of others rather than just himself (actually, I don't think I've ever heard him criticize himself, just like a good narcissist). Unfortunately, this becomes a pattern of many sin churches--the people condemn themselves, then become self-congratulatory for doing so and turns the condemnation on others, reinforcing the narcissistic tendencies.

Interestingly, a healthy therapeutic church (yes, there definitely are extreme, unhealthy ones who disregard any semblance of growth and change) could be very good medicine for narcissistic traits. In psychology, a popular explanation of the etiology of narcissism is called the narcissistic injury, which argues that these individuals in fact have an incredibly low self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. Building up authentic self-regard is actually the "cure" for narcissism in this case. Internalizing God's unconditional love and grace is a core goal of therapeutic churches. And it's a beautiful spiritual and psychological cure to many ills...

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Need to be Right

Anyone ever want to be right? I know I like being right. And even more importantly, many of us like others knowing that we're right (especially when they're wrong, huh? :) ). How many conflicts arise from the insistence on being right (and trying to get others to acknowledge that)? What happens to the way we treat others when we insist on being right? What happens to our emotional state? Do the answers to these questions match with the fruit of the Spirit or most people's goals of life?

One of the concepts in the skill of dialectics in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is to let go of being right. This doesn't mean that there isn't right and wrong or that we shouldn't hold true to our values. Rather, the idea is essentially about letting go of winning an argument.

DBT is focused on targeting emotional dysregulation (emotions being overwhelming and out of control). So all the skills are practically aimed at increasing our ability to regulate ourselves. Trying to be right frequently leads to emotion dysregulation, which in turn leads to poor judgment and interpersonal conflict.

So trying to let go of having to be right allows us to look at what is effective in our long-term goals. Do I really need to convince my wife that dishes should be put in the dishwasher and not left in the sink? While I'm, of course, right, insisting on being right only leads to conflict, fights, and a poor relationship. Are the dishes really worth that? When we're emotionally dysregulated, whatever we're fighting for does seem worth it. But then we calm down, and it seems silly. So the goal is to head off the dysregulation in order to maintain wise decision-making.

This can be hard when relationships aren't at stake. I've been really tempted to take our first adoption attorney to court or make a formal complaint to the state bar association for breach of contract. From one angle, it's a lot of money we lost, and fighting to be right could literally pay off. And it's not like I care whether the guy likes me or not. But how much energy is lost in the process? What are the chances of actually achieving my goals? It's an uphill battle.

But there are times when it bothers me. A lot. I realized it's not really the loss of the money, since we'll get most of it back through the federal adoption tax credit. It's tolerating the idea that he thinks he won (or so I imagine him thinking). I don't want him to think he's right. I want him to think we're right. But what good does that ultimately do? Not much. It'll satisfy my emotions for a bit, then something else will come along to trigger them. Wouldn't it be better to find ways to regulate without relying on others?

There are times to fight for justice, but we need to be wise about it. And when our desire to be right becomes too strong, then we can actually lose sight of justice itself. (I'm afraid this happens sometimes in the legal system when prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers, etc. behave unethically just to be right rather than seek truth.)

I see Jesus acting this way when Pilate was questioning him. There were so many ways Jesus could have argued he was right. But would it have convinced everyone? Would it have been effective at achieving his ultimate, long-term goals? From this perspective, I can see him saving his energy for what was most important. He could tolerate people thinking he was evil and even forgave them for making such erroneous judgments. He didn't have to be right. And that allowed him to be at peace and make even more powerful impact.

Yet ironically, how often do we insist on being right in the name of Christ? How much good does that bring?

I like being right. I want to be on the right side of things. More importantly, I really like it when people think I'm right (even if I'm wrong). And that desire leads to a lot of unrest. Jesus came to bring us life and peace. Part of that, I believe, is letting go of having to be right.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Occult Question, Part 2

I received a very thoughtful email from a reader in response to my post last week, Why I Don't Believe in the Occult. He agreed to let me post our short exchange, as I think it adds to the conversation and provides some clarification of my points.

Reader's Comment:

To the author at Jacobs cafe RE: on the nature of the spiritual world. 
I write, on an iPhone, in response to your comments about what you don't believe in related to the spiritual world of the occult and Hollywood's formulas about such. 
I have no problem with agreeing with you about the typical Christian Bookstores problems with popular supernatural fiction and Harry Potter and all that. I start with the assumption that CS Lewis' ScrewTape Letters and Charles Williams works like Descent into Hell are pretty tame and accessible and acceptable literary statements with "relative theological acceptance" on the mainstream Protestant conversation. So I want to make clear I am leaving all that context behind just to honor or admit some particular spiritual encounters I had with the Occult that were not shared by any of that sophisticated reflection. The experience i speak from was only a raw and totally "re-settling" and "over-turning" event. 
So, Part of me agrees with you and my "sophisticated theological" training supports much of that denouncement you make. BUT, also I was fortunate enough 40 years ago to directly experience some very deep encounters with the occult and from that found Jesus, as rescuer from that occultic violence. 
What you probably need to expand your horizons and reflection is to have some "scary as hell" encounters with the demonic realm where you shit your soul's pants and then thank God you were preserved from further fury and demise. When you find yourself like Job in a whirlwind holding your hands over your eyes and wondering where your ground of being and cosmological correctness vaporated... You will end up with a more complete sense of the context of your occult investigation.  
 I say that with an old Jesus people hippy guy's heart that has read thousands of sophisticated theological works over the last four decades but never forgotten several soul-shaking occult encounters.
Best of luck with your occult encounters and supporting grace. 
My reply:
Thanks for your comments, ___. 
I want to clarify that my post was really about the potential process of the occult and the concern people have in engaging in incantations and formulaic "magical" interventions. If dark forces exist, I don't think they operate in that fashion, so I see no threat in those activities. I see them just as games.
The existence of conscious dark forces is another conversation and debate, of course, which I talked about a little two and a half years ago ( Ultimately, I see it as a matter of faith, as any experience could be explained by a variety of psychological, cultural, sociological, medical, etc. theories. But they could be actually caused by dark forces. I'm not sure we'd ever be able to prove it one way or another, just like we cannot prove or disprove God. It's faith.
I'm not sure I would live my life any differently if I was very confident in an active, conscious Satanic force. I still think the ways we engage evil in the world would be the same whether it is human nature or active dark forces...


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).