Monday, 11 July 2016

How can anyone like screaming in music? Let me explain

It’s baffling, isn’t it? Aren’t screams supposed to be unpleasant by nature? So how can people voluntarily listen to them, even enjoy them? How can you understand the words? Isn’t it just noise? Can that really count as music?

Well, reader, if you’re prepared to be open-minded about screaming, I’m prepared to explain the appeal of it. (At least, the appeal of some of it, to me.)

The “some of it” caveat is important because ‘screaming’ is diverse across genres and between vocalists. In fact, it’s better to speak of a broad family of harsh vocal styles (with 'regular' singing styles forming the family of clean vocal styles.) Think of the huge differences in clean vocal styles between, say, country, reggae and pop and that should alert you to the diversity that can also exist in harsh vocal styles.

Some harsh vocal styles are not even best described as screaming. They might be better thought of as shouting or growling. But even within screaming, delivery can vary as can the range of emotions, meanings and moods conveyed. Most people connect screaming with anger, but even if we limit the expressive capacities of screaming to those emotions expressed by it outside of music, we ought to acknowledge its power to convey sadness, anguish or aggression (think of the cries athletes release when they score points.) But the expressive powers of harsh vocal styles need not be limited to these primarily negative emotions. Screaming can also be playful; vocalists can use it to create a sense of fun, intentionally over-egging the melodrama of the style.

Nor does screaming only occur in heavy metal. Heavy genres descended from punk also make use of it, such as hardcore/post-hardcore. Although I listen to a lot of music with harsh vocals, I almost never listen to metal. In fact, screaming can occur in music that is not heavy at all. Have a listen to The Dear Hunter’s “The Bitter Suite…” below. One half of the song is driven by slow, melodious piano, the latter half by a mock broad-way musical sing-along. The vocals are entirely clean except for a short outbreak of screaming around 02:40 in the line, “where’s her heart?” (repeated just once).

The outburst enters the song to pack an additional emotional punch as the dynamics shift to release the ascending tension. And that, for me, is the primary draw of screaming. If you like your music to be emotionally expressive, there is a chance you can grow to appreciate screaming. When done tastefully, it adds emotional intensity to the song. Screaming, after all, is a highly expressive act. Of course, you might need a taste for the theatrical to appreciate it. There is an unapologetic “heart-on-sleeve” quality to it. (Not that you need to be outwardly flamboyant, just have a penchant for drama in your inner life.)

But even if you have the right disposition, it’s usually an acquired taste. I certainly didn’t like harsh vocals at first. And most of my now favourite bands are not bands I immediately clicked with. I doubt many people can sit through their first scream-intensive song and find it pleasant. The taste develops through “gateway bands”. Suppose you liked The Dear Hunter song above, despite not really liking the small screamed portions. Well, you might still listen to the song, even the whole album, just for the bits you like. Eventually, the harsher vocals might cease grating on you. Eventually, you might start to appreciate them. And from there, you can go on to appreciate vocals that are even harsher, or songs that are even more reliant on them.

It’s hard to have an instant taste for qualities that are outside the normal range of our experiences. Consider the way you develop a taste for alcoholic drinks. You don’t start off drinking the most bitter or strongest tasting stuff. You start with “beginner-friendly” stuff – stuff that’s sweeter and less alcoholic. Even with those softer drinks, you might not like the taste of the alcohol at first. But you persevere trusting that you will eventually appreciate what other people appreciate in the taste.

Thrice’s “Hurricane” is another beginner-friendly song to try. It showcases the fact that, really, there is a spectrum between clean and harsh vocal styles. Plenty of vocalists who would never dream of full-on screaming nonetheless experiment with tension in their voice. They might intentionally allow their voice to strain and break in places to emphasise emotional weight in the delivery. Thrice’s vocalist, Dustin Kensrue has a bluesy grit to his voice that he sometimes lets loose into screaming, but in this song is more restrained. Still, you hear hints of its potential. Listen out for the strain on his voice in the “our faith feels like a fistful of sand” line in the second chorus, and the way his voice drops to a deeper, harsher and more menacing tone as the third chorus transitions to the outro.

I can’t speak for everyone who likes harsher vocal styles. I don’t even like them all myself. They are too varied and aim at too many different aesthetic values to all be appreciated by one person with limited time and limited sensibilities. But it’s not madness to like them. Hopefully this post has given you some insight into why.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Doubt: A Short Guide with Recommended Reading

Doubt (of the kind I'm writing about) is a felt lack of assurance about a belief you care about. If you are a Christian, doubts about whether God is there, whether the Bible can be trusted, whether you are saved etc can be very painful. I’ve experienced doubt in various forms since my very first moments as a Christian. Here is a quick distillation of how I think doubt works and how you might progress with it.

A felt lack of assurance has basically two sources:

(1) Your beliefs presently don’t have the degree of support that they ought to have and you rightly desire that they have that proper degree of support.
(2) You beliefs presently do have the degree of support that they ought to have and you wrongly desire that they have a higher degree of support.

Suppose you feel hungry. The problem could be that you need more food. Or the problem could be that your appetite is too large. Perhaps your body has enough food but because you are used to overeating, your body is not satisfied by a normal portion of food. You want more than you should.

A desire for assurance works in a similar way. You find yourself seeking arguments that God exists, seeking evidence that the Bible is reliable, seeking some guarantee that you are saved. The problem could be that you do, in fact, need such assurance, such “food” – that’s option (1). But the problem could be that your appetite for assurance is overblown – that’s option (2). Maybe you have a sufficient degree of evidence and support for your beliefs (“food in your belly”) but you keep craving more.

Most of us initially think that our doubt is type (1). After all, when you are hungry, it just seems to you that you need more food! But often, when we learn more about ourselves, we realise that we fall into option (2). We have an over-inflated hunger for assurance. (It’s also possible to be both; you might have an inflated appetite for assurance and yet not have even received a basic portion of it.)

Plain Intellectual Doubt

Let’s call (1) plain intellectual doubt. It’s like ordinary, normal hunger. You have a warranted desire for food – for greater support for your beliefs. If this is the kind of doubt you’re dealing with, it gets resolved in one of two ways. Either you end up getting that support or you abandon the beliefs. This one is quite simple, really. If you have plain intellectual doubt about the reliability of the New Testament, well, you confront the issue. You try and figure out whether the New Testament is reliable or not.

The complicated part of plain intellectual doubt comes when you wonder: how does this sort of examining of the evidence sit with having faith? Is there some conflict here? That’s a worthwhile question. Another question worth asking, which many doubters neglect, is: suppose I abandoned this particular belief I am doubting – would I have to abandon Christianity as a whole? Too many Christians bundle all of their religious beliefs into one tightly connected package. Should one piece of the package get broken, it would all get broken, they think. Granted, for some issues this would be true. If you conclude that God doesn’t exist, there really isn’t any Christianity worth salvaging after that. But what if you ended up thinking that this or that part of the Old Testament isn’t accurate to the degree you thought it was? Would the whole thing go out the window? That should be less obvious. In other words, don’t make more hang on your doubt than need be.

Gregory Boyd’s book, “Benefit of the Doubt” does an excellent job of showing that biblical faith is compatible with testing the evidence and showing that Christianity does not need to be so brittle as to collapse with every shift in our thought. I’d recommend it as the first stop for the person with plain intellectual doubt.

Moving on, let’s call option (2) over-inflated doubt. It can actually be further subdivided:

Over-inflated Intellectual Doubt

The metaphor I have been using of over-inflated hunger suggests that over-inflated doubt is primarily driven by emotional desire. I will get to that kind of over-inflated doubt below. It is important to note, however, that over-inflated desire can also be driven by intellectual convictions.

Suppose you believed that the only kind of evidence that counts is scientific evidence. You seek assurance that God exists but when people offer you philosophical arguments, you dismiss them. You seek assurance that the New Testament is reliable but when people offer you historical evidence, you dismiss it. “Only scientific evidence will satisfy me.” It’s not hard to see that you would have over-inflated, unquenchable doubt with this sort of scientistic belief. Philosophical & historical evidence is perfectly legitimate, but you won’t accept it. What you need is to change your belief about what counts as evidence (or what counts as rational, acceptable, plausible etc.) Of course, if you are a Christian, scientism probably isn’t tripping you up. But there are other views with overly stringent criteria for evidence that can derail you.

This gets you into philosophical territory about the nature of evidence, knowledge, rationality etc. That is, it gets you into the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. A helpful intro to these issues, requiring no background in philosophy at all, is Esther Meek’s “Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People”.

Over-inflated Emotional Doubt

In my experience, this is the most common kind of doubt Christians struggle with. As the hunger metaphor suggests, the problem here is an emotional desire for assurance that won’t take healthy portions of assurance as satisfying. If you end up fretting about mere possibilities this can be a sign of over-inflated emotional doubt. “All my friends say I am very devoted, but what if they don’t know the real me? – what if I’m not really saved?” If you notice that very few people worry about the sorts of things you do, or to the extent you do, that can be a sign that unruly emotions are running amok. Gary Habermas has helpful discussions about this kind of doubt in his books “The Thomas Factor” and “Dealing with Doubt”. Both are free to download from his website.

What do you do about this kind of doubt? Well, it’s complicated. In essence, this is an anxiety problem. Not that everyone who struggles with such doubt is clinically anxious. You can have struggles with anxiety that are not extreme enough to count as an anxiety disorder. But even so, how best to deal with anxiety is a matter of debate. For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve found helpful from personal experience.

What do you do if your appetite for food is over-inflated and you want to bring it back to healthy levels? You steadily decrease your diet so that you get used to being satisfied with smaller portions. Of course, you will often feel hungry as you do this. Your body might be crying out for unhealthy portions. But by slowly denying your desires satisfaction, they steadily weaken. That is, you need to develop a tolerance for a certain degree of hunger for a while. Same goes with the craving for assurance. You learn to tolerate a feeling of uncertainty and so eventually to bring your desire for certainty and assurance down to more realistic levels. Rather than trying to satisfy your desires for assurance (often fruitless, given how unrealistic the desire can be) you just allow them to sit there until they fade. Again, speaking personally, I have found practicing mindfulness very helpful in developing this tolerance. If you’d like to read more about mindfulness and its compatibility with Christianity, you might like to read my post, “Answering 7 Christian Objections to Mindfulness”.

So ends this quick run-down on doubt.

Monday, 28 March 2016

2 Bad Ways to Cope with Religious Complexity

Religion is monstrously complicated. There are so many of them, and even when you open the guts of one of them, you find further diversity. Different denominations, different theological camps, all boasting arguments in their favour. The atheist world isn’t all monotone and simple either. Atheists radically disagree about what atheism entails. Some think that as God goes out the window, meaning and morality leave with him. Others think we ought to barely notice that we’re a deity down.

Despite the bewildering options, most of us manage to take up some position or other on religion. Maybe we opt for Evangelical Christianity, or Sufi Islam, or Humanist Atheism, or our own preferred spiritual blend. And hey, we may have thought hard about where to pitch our tent. But most of us recognise that there are a lot of stones we left unturned. Did we look at all the options? Did we look at all the arguments? Certainly not. We’re not even aware of all the issues at any one time. And even if we were, sifting through all of them would be above our pay-grade.

So most of us are in the position where we have some convictions. We have plumped for some beliefs and not others. But when we pause and look over our shoulders, a jungle of complexity comes into view. And it threatens to engulf us. It threatens to make a mockery of our commitments, chosen as they were with most of the jungle left unexplored. How can we really be sure that some hidden beast – some argument out there – won’t show our life path to be wayward?

There are two approaches to this existential threat we should avoid. Both fail by offering an illusory sense of control. In my experience, most of us are tempted toward one or the other.

The Paralysis Approach

People who slip into this approach are acutely aware of the complexity out there. They are very sensitive to it. They feel the force of the threat. And the way they stay in control is to minimise their vulnerability to it. If they don’t heavily invest their life in a particular path, then (so they reason) they can’t be disappointed or caught out if something comes up to problematize that path.

I’m not necessarily talking about the full-blown agnostic. This could be the Christian who believes and tries to live to please God, but struggles to really go all out. Whenever Christian convictions call for something to be put at stake, there is a struggle to let go. Maybe the Christian suspects that God is asking her to get heavily involved in ministry to the homeless. She knows she wouldn’t do it if it weren’t for her belief in God. So now it hits her: what if God doesn’t exist after all? The prospect of costly time investment summons doubts. “I haven’t read enough on the problem of evil. If I could just get that sorted in my head, I’d feel certain enough to do the homeless thing.” Feeling anxious and uncertain, she finds a way to avoid the homeless ministry. And of course, even if she did get a better grip on the problem of evil, it wouldn’t stop there. There would always be some other problem, lurking in the complexity jungle that she’d need to tackle before she’d feel ready to commit.

The illusion here is that she has a choice about whether to make a risky commitment. But she doesn’t. Her inaction is itself an action. When she avoids signing up to the homeless ministry, her action isn’t neutral as to whether God has asked her to do it. She acts exactly as if God hadn’t asked her to do it. By copping out, she acts exactly as she would act in a world in which God had made no such request. By refraining from acting as if God has communicated, she thinks she has positioned herself in some safe place immune from any risky investments. But she has invested herself in the implicit belief that God hasn’t communicated. This belief is equally vulnerable to the complexity jungle. Maybe God does exist and has communicated!

If we are tempted by the paralysis approach, we need to accept that we are always making vulnerable commitments. There is no safe space we can hide in. But we can learn to better tolerate that vulnerability. To fear it less and so feel the anxiety of uncertainty less forcefully. That way, we can whole-heartedly give ourselves over to our convictions. We never pretend the complexity isn’t there. But knowing that there is no other human option but to live a life riskily ventured on fallible convictions, we refuse to let complexity bully us. We refuse to be cowed into fear. We own up to the need to take action in a world we can never fully comprehend.   

The Head-in-Sand Approach

People who slip into this approach are acutely aware of the need to take action in the world. They value full-blooded conviction. They are on a mission. They aren’t paralysed by complexity. No, their problem is that they try and ignore it. Their response to the threat is to avoid it, to push it aside. That’s how they try and stay in control. They fear that if they let complexity into their life, their bearings will be destroyed. They won’t know where they are heading any more. They won’t know who the good guys are, the bad guys are, and how to win.

Again, this could be anyone but consider a Christian portrait. The Christian tempted by this approach tends to be uncharitable towards differing camps. Atheist views won’t be given their due. May even be made out to be obviously false. “Of course the problem of evil doesn’t threaten belief. We have the answer to this problem right in Genesis 3, don’t we?” Even other Christian views that fall outside the accepted boundaries might be viewed with hostility. But it’s not all necessarily hostile, it might just be, well, simple. “I don’t get involved in these debates. It’s enough to follow Jesus, right?” Oh, he holds a whole host of theological assumptions, he’s just not aware that they are assumptions. He doesn’t know that half the things he believes could even be in dispute by fellow Christians. He’s never got engaged enough in the issues to find out. He just wants to press on, living life according to his tidy picture of it.

The illusion here is that he has a choice about which world he lives and acts in. But he doesn’t. He is stuck in the real world. He may have a lot of passion, and may do a lot of gutsy things for his convictions. But the world he is trying to make a difference in is partly a fantasy world. All the grey and rough edges of the real world have been smoothed out to be more manageable. But of course, the complexity and its threats don’t go away if we ignore it. Indeed by ignoring reality, we increase our chances of making life commitments on bad grounds. Downplaying evidence that is potentially contrary to your beliefs is not a good recipe for holding true beliefs. If you want to navigate a bold life on a sea-worthy conviction, it helps to have a conviction that has confronted reality and passed!

If we are tempted by the head-in-sand approach, we need to accept that we are always vulnerable in a world larger than our comprehension. There is no neater, tidier little world we can retreat to. But we can learn to better tolerate our vulnerability to the real world. To fear it less and so feel the anxiety of uncertainty less forcefully. That way, we can whole-heartedly live with eyes open to the world and its complexity. We never allow the complexity to sap us into paralysis. But knowing that there is no other human option but to live a life riskily ventured in complexity, we refuse to be coaxed by cosy illusions. We refuse to be cowed into fear. We own up to the need to take action in a world we can’t bend to our wills.  

The Virtuous Approach

From the mistakes of the two bad approaches, we can piece together some picture of how we should cope with complexity. We ought to retain the recognition of complexity from the paralysis approach. And we ought to retain the commitment to action from the head-in-the-sand approach. We should bravely face up to complexity – look it squarely in the eye – yet venture our lives in the midst of it. This takes some courage. It is hard to put your life at stake in a conviction that may indeed be false. But as neither complexity nor the need to act will disappear, it’s the best we can do. None of us do it perfectly. We are all tempted toward the 2 bad approaches. But the third, virtuous approach is the balanced ideal to aim at. Best as I can tell.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Do personality profiles explain who God gives religious experiences to?

Some Christians seem to experience God nearly every week. Each Sunday’s worship provides a new encounter with the Holy Spirit: an extra layer of emotional healing or a word of knowledge for a friend. Other Christians can count the number of “religious experiences” they have had on one hand, if they’ve even had any to count. And you don’t have to pluck Christians from different churches to expose this contrast. You can find this variation within a single church. Even charismatic churches that put religious experience near the spotlight will have plenty of members who just don’t have them. These members need not be sceptical of others’ experiences, they just acknowledge that their own Christian walk looks very different.

But why? What explains such vast disparity in the way God seems to interact with his children? Do Christians who lack these experiences suffer from some form of unfaithfulness or sin? Most Christians shy away from that explanation. It’s not very charitable. Krish on the sound-desk may not have many Holy Spirit encounters under his belt but everyone knows him as the church’s greatest “prayer warrior”. Do we really want to accuse him of a gross spiritual error? Alternatively, maybe Christians who have these experiences suffer from gullibility? Again, not a very popular explanation. Merissa who serves coffee may be quirky but her spiritual experiences brought her to faith and profoundly changed her life. Do we really want to accuse her of basing her spiritual life on an illusion?

No, by far the most popular explanation thrown around in churches is what I call the personality profile explanation. What we seem to notice is that there are patterns in the kinds of people who have lots of experiences and those who don’t. Usually, Christians try to articulate these two kinds of people as “feelers” and “thinkers”. And so, supposedly, what “feelers” most benefit from is emotional experience and what “thinkers” most benefit from is Bible study or theology. And so, God simply gives to each kind of person what most benefits them. Feelers get the religious experiences and thinkers don’t (what they get is more “heady”), in line with their personalities.

It’s a nice way to resolve the mystery without anyone’s feelings getting hurt. Both kinds of Christian – the experientially charged and the experientially lacking – are affirmed as having equally valid spiritual lives. Nobody gets accused of sin or self-deception. But while it scores points for social convenience, it scores very poorly on plausibility. I just don’t buy it. Here’s why.

First of all, as I argued in my previous post, the “feeler” versus “thinker” distinction is far too simplistic. But suppose we grant that Christians really can be categorised that way. (Or fill-in whichever other way you’d want to make the distinction.) The problem is that it seems equally plausible that God would try and balance us out rather than cater to our preferences. It’s just as plausible that God would try to stretch feelers by denying them the experiences they naturally desire and stretch thinkers by giving them experiences they aren’t naturally comfortable with. God, after all, wants to build our characters. Typically this involves taking us out of our comfort zones, not keeping us firmly within them.

Now this doesn’t rule out the popular psychological profile explanation. It just dispels the illusion that God obviously would interact with us in the way it states. The stronger objection, which should rule it out, is that the benefits of religious experiences for the Christian are clearly enormous no matter what the personality profile.

The Obvious Benefits

Consider the way a direct experience of God boosts one’s confidence in his existence and goodness. An experience of God makes God a tangible reality in one’s life, rather than a mere idea one believes in. Experiencing God makes it easier to say that one personally knows God, not merely knows about God. Experiencing God can allow for his love to truly be tasted so that it transforms one’s self-image. Experiencing God allows one to know that God has reached out to communicate in a person-specific way, beyond the church-wide address of the Bible. It can provide the spiritual equivalent of physical touch – a hug – in the context of grief and difficulty.

Are we really to think that God withholds these outlandish benefits to a type of person only because of their intellectual orientation? Does God really observe the fact that someone more readily picks up a theological book than dance to Hillsong and then say, “Nope, I don’t think this beloved child of mine would really benefit from having a direct encounter with my manifest presence. It’s just not her style.” This is surely implausible. The thinker would be immensely blessed by tasting God’s love, just as the less bookish person would be. None of the benefits of experience seem personality-dependant. 

And we all know this already. Those Christians who have frequent experiences certainly do. They stress the immense value of “life in the Spirit”. Their experiences are a rich source of spiritual nourishment. They balk at the idea of living a holy, Christian life without the tangible presence of God. They are desperate in their preaching for others to encounter Jesus, not merely to assent to ideas about him. They know that a life with these experiences is richer, all else being equal, than one without. The personality profile explanation only gets trotted out when they are caught flat-footed, embarrassed before a church friend who doesn’t have these experiences. “No, no, I didn’t mean to say that this is really important for everyone. God knows your personality and will work in a way that suits you.” It’s well meaning, but it's hard to say that it's truly representative of their convictions.

Those who lack the experiences aren’t ignorant to it either. They are often deeply bothered by their lack of experience. They can imagine how much the experiences would help them. They see the benefit in their friends. Indeed, there has always been a great asymmetry between the camps. Suppose the “feeler” tires of dependence on the experiences and wants to develop theologically and exegetically. Well, the feeler just picks up a book and gets on with it. By contrast, the “thinker” who doesn’t have these experiences can’t seem to change her circumstances. The thinker can’t just switch experiences on. And so eventually, after feeling stuck when the experiences don’t come, they need to find some way to accept that fact. The personality profile explanation offers some solace. But it’s false comfort; it’s not a good explanation.

I don’t deny that God can have good reasons to withhold such experiences. I just think it’s implausible that among those reasons, the desire to cater for personality preferences ranks anywhere near the top. Whatever explanation we reach for, it shouldn’t be that one. Cast about for another one. Or own up to one of the less flattering ones. Or maybe better yet, be content with mystery.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

No, the debate about religious experience is not about whether we should trust emotions

Christians who often have and highly value religious experiences are “feelers” and people who don’t and are more sceptical (fellow Christians or not) are “thinkers”, right? Apparently, the difference between the camps can be boiled down to a very simple dispute about emotion. Enthusiasts for religious experiences chide the sceptics for a distrust of emotions. And sceptics chide the enthusiasts for a na├»ve trust of emotions.

So which is the correct attitude: trust or distrust? My answer: I have no idea what on earth either side are talking about. We need some further context. I just can’t make any sense of the idea that without qualification I wholesale trust my emotions (or wholesale distrust them). It seems to me that I trust emotions for certain things and distrust them for other things.

I mean, suppose I’m learning about physics and I’m told about two competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. If I believe one of them over the other just because I found myself feeling happy as I looked at its maths, then I’m rather foolish. No matter how much of a “feeler” I am, if I take a stand on the physical nature of the universe based on a happy feeling, I am irrational. You should distrust emotions for insight about physics.[1]

On the other hand, suppose I find myself surprised at a flutter of affection I feel for a female friend. Maybe she means more to me than I had realised? I won’t right there and then conclude that I like her. But, no matter how much of a “thinker” I am, as I start to explore what she means to me, I’m going to consult my emotions from time to time. They won’t be all I consult, but it would be crazy to totally disregard them. You should, to some extent, trust emotions for insight about what’s important (or what’s important to you.)

So whether you are an enthusiast about religious experiences or a sceptic, you are going to have to trust emotions for some things (like what matters to you), and distrust emotions for some things (like physics.) Neither camp can sensibly say that the other wholly trusts or wholly distrusts emotion. So if their disagreement is about trust and emotion, it must be a disagreement about what emotions can be trusted for.

It seems to me that the disagreement is about whether emotions can be trusted for evidence of God’s activity. The sceptic of religious experience is very happy to have religious affections. He or she can be deeply moved by the gospel accounts without falling into any inconsistency. But that’s because he or she is not claiming that God supernaturally caused, say, the joy felt when reading the resurrection account. All that happens in this everyday case is that the drama of the gospel account naturally evokes emotional sympathy in those who appreciate it.

Where the sceptic draws the line is in thinking that the presence of an emotion – even if the context in which it arises is striking – provides evidence that God caused it. That is, the sceptic is very suspicious of inferring that God has miraculously reached into a person’s mind/spirit and given them emotional sensations. At least, he or she is suspicious of making this inference on the evidence that normally satisfies the enthusiast. The fact that someone arrives to church feeling depressed and then suddenly and dramatically finds himself or herself happy when worship begins is not good grounds, so says the sceptic, to infer that God’s Spirit has wrought a minor miracle.

Otherwise put, the enthusiast is typically much happier than the sceptic to attach a particular meaning to the mere occurrence of emotions in certain contexts. The enthusiast is much happier to say that having certain emotional experiences means that God is supernaturally doing things.  But the sceptic has the suspicion that such meaning is only how things subjectively appear and that it would be shown to be illusory if we took a more objective approach. If we stepped back and viewed the situation in a more detached way, a plausible and preferable naturalistic explanation would be available. 

If I’m right, this is what enthusiasts and sceptics should be discussing. Can emotions be trusted for evidence of God’s activity? Is a detached, objective perspective really the more privileged perspective for assessing cases of religious experience? Posing the question as one of whether emotions should be trusted or distrusted full-stop over-simplifies the debate and the people on either side of it. It's simply not a case of Spock versus the Romantic.

(And this is just keeping in view those religious experiences centred around emotions. There are plenty of other religious experiences that aren't, like those involving dreams and visions.)

[1] You might have theoretical intuitions that you trust but these are not emotions even if they have a felt component.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Answering 9 Christian Objections to Mindfulness

** This article has been updated with answers to additional objections not covered in the original **

My claim: there is no good reason why a Christian can't practice mindfulness.

That said, a caveat. The kind of mindfulness I am defending here is the scientific, secular variant. This is the kind advocated by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and popularised by sources like the book “Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World” and the app, “Headspace.” Let’s look at 7 Christian objections to mindfulness and clarify what mindfulness is along the way.

(1) Mindfulness is meditation, and since it isn’t Christian meditation, it isn’t allowed.

It’s true: mindfulness practices are referred to as meditations. Unfortunately, the word “meditation” has a spiritual ring to it that disguises how totally mundane and non-spiritual these practices are. In the context of mindfulness, “to meditate,” just means, “to concentrate,” or “to be aware”.

The clue is in the name “mindfulness” itself. When we say, “mind the step,” we mean, “be aware of the step,” so that’s the meaning of “mind” to keep in mind (to be aware of… see, there it is again.) Mindfulness practices are simply exercises in awareness or attentiveness. To dispel the mystery, here are the short 10-20 minute practices described in the book I mentioned above:

You eat a raisin and pay attention to its texture and feel.
You pay attention to sensations up and down your body.
You pay attention to your breathing.
You pay attention to how your body feels as you move your limbs.
You pay attention to sounds around you and then your thoughts.
You pay attention to difficult or negative thoughts feelings inside you.
You pay attention to how you react to positive thoughts about yourself.

That’s it. No sitting around chanting mystical incantations. Indeed, one student on the mindfulness course I recently participated in complained that the practices were not spiritual enough! I can’t see any biblical warrant for thinking that one cannot pay attention to raisins or breath. Indeed, many of us are naturally very good at being present and attentive to sensations and our body. So it would be strange to hold that it is impermissible to intentionally develop such attentiveness. The worry behind this objection seems to fall aside once the nature of “meditation” has been clarified.

(2) Mindfulness is about emptying your mind

This is simply mistaken. Mindfulness does often quieten one’s mind, but it doesn’t empty it. Look again at the practices listed above. They are all about concentrating on something, which precisely involves keeping something in your mind. You hold, say, the sensations of your body in awareness and sustain it there. The reason why this quietens your mind is that rather than having your attention dart from worry to worry, you firmly place it and keep it fixed on one thing, like your breath. But if your mind is fixed on your breath, it’s fixed on something, so it’s not empty as this objection supposes.

(3) Mindfulness is about abandoning moral judgments

It’s true that mindfulness encourages you to take up a non-judgmental attitude. It encourages you to, for instance, be attentive to your own negative feelings without saying, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or, “this is sinful”. But the aim is not to have this non-judgmental attitude all the time. The aim is merely to open up pockets in your life where you are able to simply observe how things are going without evaluation.

Imagine if someone came to you – looking to you as a friend – to confess a worry that they had done something bad. What would happen if, from the very first sentence of your friend’s story, you started judging his character? For one, your friend would recoil, wounded that you were being so harsh, that you failed to listen. And second, your judgment would be premature – you wouldn’t have heard the whole story. Maybe it’s not as bad as you first thought. And even if you hear him out and come to think that he has done something wrong, your first reaction might be to hug him, even if you later proceed to evaluate the serious moral consequences of his actions.

By analogy, mindfulness exercises allow you space to listen before judgment, they don’t eradicate judgment. They allow you to befriend your own negative feelings by actually listening to them before trying to bat them away as unpleasant or wrong. This way you actually face up to your emotional life and start treating yourself with greater kindness too – the kindness God feels toward you.

(4) Mindfulness is about distracting yourself

I came across this objection in a Christian anti- “self-help” article recently. The accusation is that mindfulness encourages you to run from the problems in your life. As the above should have made clear, nothing could be further from the truth. Mindfulness encourages you to turn towards difficulties in your life. By allowing yourself a compassionate space to listen to your negative feelings, you permit yourself to truly attend to them. You allow yourself to feel pain without your first reaction being to numb it through avoidance or quick (and ineffective) fixes.

(5) Mindfulness teaches that there is no self

In mindfulness literature you come across the maxim that “you are not your thoughts”. But this does not mean that you don’t exist at all! All this means is that your thoughts do not necessary represent who you are or what’s true about you. Suppose it seems like a friend ignores you from across the street and you think “nobody likes me”. Mindfulness encourages you to notice those thoughts rather than mindlessly follow them and the negative mood-spiral they produce. After all, just because you have had that thought does not entail that it is true.

In fact, there is a long Christian tradition of saying that your thoughts are not necessarily your own or representative of you. For many Christians have held that spiritual beings drop good or bad, true or false thoughts in our minds that are not our own doing. But whether or not you want to hold such a view today, you can still hold that our own minds sometimes conjure up thoughts that need not be true and representative of how we ourselves are.

(6) Mindfulness has Buddhist roots

True, even secular mindfulness has, by its own admission, historical roots in Buddhist practices. But the historical roots of something do not necessarily entail anything about whether it or its contemporary form is okay to make use of. Consider one of the most popular arguments for God’s existence used today, the kalam cosmological argument. This argument was originally developed by Muslims but is now used by Christians. Indeed, “kalam” is an Arabic word. But since nothing in the argument commits one to distinctively Muslim beliefs or goals, it’s fine for Christians to make use of it.

Likewise, so long as mindfulness does not commit one to distinctively Buddhist beliefs or goals, it’s fine for Christians to use it. And I have already argued that mindfulness does not commit one to any beliefs like the non-existence of the self, the inappropriateness of moral judgment, or the goal of emptying one’s mind. So I can’t see anything wrong with Christians practicing mindfulness, even given its roots.

(7) If mindfulness is so important, then why didn’t God talk about it in Scripture?

First of all, I don’t think that practicing mindfulness is important for everyone. Lots of people who are already good at being present in the moment, in being tuned in to sensations and bodily feelings probably won’t get much from it. Mindfulness tends to be beneficial for those who are overly analytical and spend much of their time living in their heads rather than dropping into their body. For these people, mindfulness helps them to develop some balance by training them to be attentive rather than solely judgmental and conceptual. Mindfulness is especially beneficial for those whose lack of balance in this respect contributes to problems of anxiety and low mood etc. So mindfulness is not some secret trick to solving all life’s problems; it helps one develop a particular skill, that of attentiveness.

Furthermore, the Bible was written at a particular time to a particular audience. Why think that people had exactly the same difficulties in ancient cultures that people do in modern cultures? Perhaps cultural conditions were such that people simply didn’t struggle with the kinds of mental well-being issues that many modern people do.

Finally, at any rate, the Bible does put forward principles that are very much in line with mindfulness. One of the things mindfulness encourages is to allow pockets in our lives where we simply let things be. We allow ourselves to notice life, its highs and its lows, without always trying to control and manipulate it. By allowing yourself to, say, simply feel (“listen to”) the pain of heartbreak without trying to fix it there and then, you acknowledge that you can’t always solve every problem right away. You acknowledge that you can’t run your own show. For the Christian, such moments provide opportunity to acknowledge one’s dependence on God and trust in him. They provide the space to “be still and know that [he] is God” (Psalm 46:10).

*** Below are responses to further objections not considered in the original article ***

(8) Westerners are ignorant of the essentially religious nature of mindfulness

Some Christians claim that mindfulness is not the neutral, secular practice that I have made it out to be above. They claim that it is, instead, profoundly religious. What evidence is provided to back that up? Usually, the evidence is the testimony of eastern Buddhist practitioners. Apparently, many deeply religious Buddhists are puzzled at westerners treating mindfulness as a secular mental health tool. For these Buddhists, it is inherently religious. And so the thought goes that since these Buddhists are authorities on mindfulness, they must be right that mindfulness - even as practised by westerners - is inherently religious. If Christians practice mindfulness, they are practising something with deeply Buddhist religious significance.

An analogy will show what's wrong with the thinking here. Take the word "sport". It has traditionally been applied only to games that involved real physical exertion. Rugby counted as sport but not chess because of the physical nature of Rugby. But these days it is becoming more common to use the word "sport" to describe games with little physical exertion, including computer games. The professional playing of Halo or Fortnite is called "sport" by some people, or "e-sport". Now suppose we interview some traditional athletes and ask them to comment on what some people are calling sport - these computer games. Probably a good many of them will say, "I am puzzled by this. Sport is inherently physical. It is part of a life devoted to physical development and excellence. You can't take the physicality out of sport." Suppose that we even take these athletes to be authorities on what sport is. What should we conclude about some of the things other people are calling sport, like computer games?

Here is what we should not conclude. We shouldn't conclude that computer games are, in fact, inherently and deeply physical. It would be really weird to say, "look, these athletes have told us what sport really is. And so these computer games that you call sport are secretly profoundly physical, even though they look for all the world like they are not." No; what we should conclude is that computer games should not be labelled "sport". But note that the objection to mindfulness we are considering makes a parallel mistake. Maybe these Buddhists really are authorities on what mindfulness is, and are correct that it is inherently religious. If so, we should conclude that what westerners are doing when they merely focus on raisins, or their breath, should not be called "mindfulness". We shouldn't conclude that these practices are secretly profoundly religious, even though it looks for all the world like they aren't.

At best the lesson to draw from this objection is that we should use a different word to describe these secular, religiously neutral practices. I'd suggest attention exercises if that is the route you want to go.

(9) Mindfulness causes alienation from self

Some people who practice a lot of mindfulness have reported experience a disturbing sense of alienation from themselves. They feel detached from their thoughts and feelings to an excessive, worrying degree. Christians sometimes use this to argue against mindfulness.

But over-developing and over-emphasis any mental skill can lead to problems. Spend too much of your time honing your analytic abilities without keeping other mental habits in check and you risk getting lost in rumination, as well as increases in anxiety. I see mindfulness as a way to develop a particular mental skill: that of detached awareness. If you are naturally low in that skill, mindfulness is a way of catching up. But it is possible to over-develop and over-depend on this skill. Everything in moderation!