I’m really honored to have Christian Century publish a brief essay of mine as a part of their ongoing series in honor of acclaimed spiritual writer Frederick Buechner. Once every two months, this series asks writers to submit a story including a particular word. This compilation focuses on the theme: quake.
You can read all essays on that theme, including mine, here.
As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.
People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.
During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”
When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.
If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.
Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.
As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.
It’s been quite a year. With all the losses of 2020, one plus has been more time for me to write. Many new people started reading and following the blog this year, and for the first time, I’ve published several excellent guest blogger’s posts. Along with everyone else, the COVID pandemic was top of mind for me, and that was reflected in the themes of my writing.
As a way to review this year, below are the top posts of 2020 on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, this might be an interesting time to do so.
This was, by far, the most popular post on the blog this year. It revisits themes of posts I wrote years ago, but seemed to find new popularity – particularly in South Africa – in light of students made to learn at home.
Reviewing this year in writing like this makes me wonder about what themes and developments will arise in 2021. Hopefully one of hope!
Last week, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a Zoom book club in South Africa in which famed Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, agreed to participate. I’ve admired Volf for years, beginning with this interview in which he expounds upon some of his ideas about religion, genocide, and violence. I ultimately featured many of his insights in this piece I wrote about Christianity and the Holocaust.
To my surprise and delight, there were only a handful of people in the zoom call, which gave me stunning access to Volf. My daughter joined me over lunch, and we ended up discussing themes raised related to Christianity, genocide, racism, and social justice.
What most struck me during this discussion was a comment Volf made, in passing, which I paraphrase to the best of my memory here: “Every time I post to social media, I pray: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.‘” The thought was that, if the message to be sent didn’t line up with this prayer, Volf would change it, but if it did line up, the prayer was for the message to have this intended effect.
Note: It’s my honor and joy that my former student, Whitney Harper, guest authored the post below. Whitney was a student of mine when I taught in Scotland in 2009, and we have remained close ever since. She now is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.
In the United States we like to claim separation of church and state, but the reality is much more complicated. Although our minds may automatically be drawn to the Religious Right as the main violator of this separation, research has shown Democratic candidates have taken note, and are also making use of religious language to frame their stances.
In contrast to Republican candidates’ overt use of religious language to frame debates surrounding abortion, Christianity’s role in the public sphere, and “family values,” Democratic candidates tend to take a more subtle approach, being careful not to alienate non-Christian voters, but also making sure to use phrases that will perk up the ears of Christians. They tend to use religious language to frame care for the poor, healthcare reform, and concern for racism, sexism, and the environment; often centering their religious rhetoric on Jesus’ petition to care for “the least of these.” Although these references aren’t as explicit as Republicans,’ they have started to persuade more Christian voters to the Democratic Party, building up the more recently established “Religious Left.”
How has religious language been so successful not only in the Republican Party, but also in a party that has largely taken a more “secular” stance? Recent research can be especially helpful in answering this question.
A body of psychological research consistently shows that voters make their decisions primarily based on a “gut” feeling, and that religious language is especially helpful for speaking to this intuitive sense. For example, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines moral intuitions in relation to religion and politics in the United States. He argues that, when it comes to religion and politics – and really any of our decision-making – “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (italics in the original). By this, Haidt means that as much as people want to believe they make decisions rationally and consciously, the reality is that almost all of our reasoning is unconscious and driven by instinct and emotion. He elaborates:
“The central metaphor . . . is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior” (italics in the original).
In other words, most of the choices we make – including how religious we are, who we vote for, and how we make moral decisions – are driven by emotion. We then create reasons and justifications after the fact. We feel to our very core our beliefs are the correct ones – to the point that words can’t fully explain why, as much as we may try – and this strong urge makes it easier to dismiss other views. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias: the act of ignoring information that contradicts what we already think and seeking out information that reaffirms what we already believe.
This strong emotional gut-level reaction is what makes the coupling of religious and political language so powerful in a voter’s decision making. For example, for several decades the pro-life stance has been drilled into the majority of conservative Christians’ minds as the stance for Christians to look for when voting. Over time, this has strengthened Christian voters’ instinctive responses to “pro-life” language. Haidt continues:
For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.
Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:
“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night…
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…
What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
There are three main insights I gain from this.
First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.
This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.
As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase in our region, I continue to think of this excellent article from Christian Century. It challenges the presumption that the most productive metaphor for what we’re doing as a society is “waging war against the virus,” and instead raises some very thought-provoking questions:
Christopher Sardegna | Unsplash
“What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic?”
“Will we be patient and kind?”
Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it?”
“How will we care for those who cannot be cured – a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families?”
“How well will we grieve – privately in our own homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?”
When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.”
I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.
Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”
As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living.
If you guessed the 18-29 year-olds, you’d be correct.
In a recent nationally representative survey, 69% of 18-29 year-olds reported being lonely or isolated in the last 7 days (59% of 30-49 year-olds reported this, as did 45% of 50-64 year-olds and 39% of those ages 65+).
Of course, this isn’t a competition, and we who call ourselves Christians – and we who call ourselves compassionate humans – seek to care for those in need no matter the age or background. Still, I bet not many would guess that young people are those most struggling with feelings of loneliness or social isolation during this pandemic.
In another nationally representative survey, 66% of 18-25 year-olds said they had no one to talk to about these feelings. And, 80% felt better when a trusted adult outside their household reached out to them.
Do you know a young person – outside your household – you might connect with? Maybe a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, member of your community, or someone you barely know but feel like might be struggling?
A call, text, Facetime, or care package dropped off at their front door might mean more than you realize.
I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.
Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:
“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”
And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.”
I feel like I’m finally settling into a bit of a rhythm during this time of “shelter-in-place,” and most days, I start with some kind of spiritual meditation. One that has particularly struck me came from a podcast by Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite programs, “On Being.” (I’d encourage you to listen. The podcast is about 10 minutes long.)
What initially made me pause was how Krista referred to how individuals typically gain a sense of self-worth, and how this time of pandemic is sometimes proving to be a mental health challenge because of that. In fact, research in Social Psychology by Jennifer Crocker shows how people use many strategies to find worth, some of which are more steady and healthy than others. Krista points out that in our individualistic, modern world, many of us have been taught to believe our worth comes from achievement and activity, and how this source of worth is now being threatened because we are not as able to achieve and be active as we might prefer. Others, in contrast, may find worth through their relationships with others, and that, too, may be challenged now during this time of physical distancing.
As an alternative to these sources of self-worth more likely to fluctuate – particularly in this time – Krista discusses how, at her best, she finds worth in simply “being human.” This idea is heavily referenced in Humanistic Psychology and particularly the writings of one of my Psychology heroes, Carl Rogers, who basically argued that all humans have dignity by birthright. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of inherent worth is thought to stem from the fact that we are “children of God,” “made in God’s image,” or possessors of a “Divine spark.” That means we don’t need to strive for worth; we already have it, if we’d just accept it as ours now.
In a passage that has become one of my spiritual touchstones, theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'”
A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
C. S. Lewis
As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.
When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before – such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.
I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.
“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home. The truth is not that it is going to be alright. The truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)
I’ve been chewing on this quote for the past week, and I’m still now sure what I think about it.
Of course, we need hope that this global pandemic, too, shall pass. And it eventually will. And we have responsibilities for making this happen and preventing as much suffering as possible by staying home, staying connected with each other, and caring for those in need.
But, on the other hand, from the perspective of my Christian faith, there is something deeply profound about realizing that, below the surface, some really important things are already settled. Some things are alright now and no matter what may come.
As we practice social distancing, it’s a perfect time for you to comment below and engage in some virtual discussion.
What, for you, is “alright” now and no matter what may come? How have you been able to connect with deeper truths and greater peace in the midst of this storm? Do you have a faith perspective, and has that helped” If so, how? What are you doing to connect with a deeper and more peaceful perspective intentionally in your daily life?
Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.
I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.
Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.
Although the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges seemed to settle many civil issues about same-sex marriage in the United States, the topic remains contentious in many religious communities. In recent years, some denominations have broken with the historical Christian view that same-sex relations “miss the mark” and have become more LGBTQ affirming. Many have not, however, meaning they will not support “unrepentant” same sex sexual behavior or same-sex marriage in their churches.
From February 23-26, 2019, another major denomination will meet to discuss its official stance about same-sex relations, as leaders in the United Methodist Church will convene in St. Louis, Missouri to discuss “a way forward.” The plan recommended by the Methodist Council of Bishops would allow local decision-makers to implement policies about matters such as same-sex marriage that best fit their social contexts. If approved, this would enable more progressive districts to support the ordination of gay and lesbian Pastors and marry same-sex couples, subject to the conscience of the local pastor, while allowing more conservative districts to remain unchanged in policy and practice.
At play in these deliberations are questions of how to know what is true about matters of faith. The founder of the Methodist tradition – John Wesley – proposed four “ways of knowing,” now organized in what is popularly termed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral:” experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture. Basically, Methodists look for “converging evidence” in these four domains when creating church policy, although Scripture is prioritized.
In anticipation of the denomination’s upcoming meetings, I have led a discussion group at my local Methodist church exploring same-sex relations, using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an organizing tool, for the past six weeks. Members of my church community have discussed their experiences with gays and lesbians, we invited several gay Christians to our group to listen and learn from their stories, and we have explored Scripture from both conservative and progressive perspectives. As a facilitator, my charge was to lead this group neutrally, meaning I have not shared my opinion very often, I have tried to make sure the best of materials are shared from both conservative and progressive viewpoints, and I have sought to create an atmosphere that is hospitable and conducive to honest, respectful conversations among individuals who often disagree.
I’ve written some personal essays before – these on death and the relationship between science and faith are examples – but below is maybe the most personal essay I’ve ever written. It technically is a narrative essay – focusing on my lifelong experience with the Bible – and I developed it through the help of some amazing folks at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Our teacher at the Loft encouraged us students to submit our work to literary publications, and I sent mine to a very cool Christian literary magazine called Ruminate. I was so honored when they accepted!
Anyway, here it is. I’d love to hear your reaction.
In his op-ed, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks calls “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” “the best modern book on belief.” The author, Christian Wiman, has struggled – for many years – with a rare form of cancer, and he lays bare many of his rawest thoughts in this book about many aspects of meaningful living, particularly in relation to faith. I think the best way to give a quick glimpse is to share a few select passages.
“No one ever believed in God without perceiving God.”
“To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”
One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.
The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?
Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.
Then came September 11th, 2001.
When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.
After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”
“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”
Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”