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 7 Christian Objections to Mindfulness

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).