Sunday, January 31, 2016

You Are the Answer to Someone Else's Prayer


Cape May, New Jersey


 Often while praying my mind wanders to a person. I feel God places this person on my heart, as a burden. I am the one God is going to use as his answer to that person's prayer. 

A few weeks ago X left his work space and found a place where he could be alone, in the office building, and pray. X's spouse had a sexual affair with another man. She filed for divorce. X wanted to get help for their marriage. She refused.

That morning X received a phone call from his father. "Your mother has cancer. She's not expected to live much longer." X felt his knees buckle, his breathing difficult, the weight too much to bear. X had to get alone with the only One who could make a way where there seemed to be no way. X prayed, "God, help me..."

I was alone, in my backyard by the river, sitting in my prayer chair when, unknown to me, X made his appeal to God. I already knew about X's evil-assaulted marriage. As I was prayed the thought came to me, "Call X now." I did. I believed this thought was coming from God, to me.

I have learned, over years of praying and listening and risking, that God can come as an interruption, in my "wandering mind." What could I lose from calling X to check in? This was a no-lose spiritual situation.

I called X. He answered, "I can't believe you called me right now. I couldn't stay in my work space and had to get alone with God. I was asking God for help. And then you called."

We agreed this was no coincidence. It was the orchestrating work of the Holy Spirit. I was God's answer for X, at the time.

When you pray listen for the voice of God. When this kind of interruptive thought comes, check it out. You begin to discover that such things are from God. This increases your faith and expectation. You will be used by God to help others in their prayer-cries for mercy.

This is God saying, "I hear X's cry. I am going to answer X's prayer by placing the thought of X in John's mind."

Friday, January 29, 2016

Inner Healing Classes



I will be teaching an 6-week class on Inner Healing during the months of March and April. 

When: March 6, 13; April 3, 10, 17, 24.

Time: 6-7:30 PM

Where: Redeemer Fellowship Church

Topics will include: 


  • Our Need of Inner Healing
  • The Biblical Promise of Inner Healing
  • Overcoming Shame
  • Self-forgiveness
  • Healing of Damaged Emotions
  • Healing of Memories. 
  • Breaking into more freedom! 
Sign up in the church lobby, or send me an email.  johnpiippo@msn.com

(More) On Not Judging Others


I am asking God to fully free my heart from judging the hearts of others. I do not want to spend the hours of my life doing that.
What about judging behaviors? Of course we can do that, and will do that. We can make judgments about a lot of things without being judgmental.

But note this: one cannot make a reasonable judgment without first understanding. It is foolish to judge without understanding. Here's where it gets really tricky when it comes to the hearts of other people. We barely understand the complexities of our own heart. How can we think we have access to the inner workings of another person's heart and mind? Yet this is precisely what the judgmental person claims. They say, "I know what you are thinking!" Or: "I know why you did that!" Which makes us want to respond by saying, "And just who are you - God?"

Strive to understand others and be understood by them. When understanding is the goal, judgmentalism often morphs into compassion.

Time spent judging the hearts of other people is wasted time. First - our judgments can be wrong, and are probably incomplete. Second - judgmentalism has no redemptive value. The point of judging others' hearts is simply: to judge others' hearts. There is an intrinsic circularity, a sick redundancy, to judgmentalism. Third - we can't change peoples' hearts anyway, so why waste time judging them? Years ago God spoke to me and I wrote these words in my journal: "John, why are you trying so hard to change other people when you can't even change your own self?"

I have spent too much "judging time" towards other people. It is non-redemptive, non-edifying, and hateful. I am sorry to say that I have judged people falsely before (even in my own home) with the result being, not corporate household transformation into truth and love, but a deformed loveless heart inside of me.

Spend time, yourself, with God today.
Ask God to search out your own heart.
If God reveals to you some truth about another person's struggle, thank him that he has entrusted you with this knowledge, and begin praying for that person.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Praying to Deepen My Conviction that God's Love for Me is Enough


Grand Haven, Lake Michigan

Henri Nouwen was open about his struggle with self-hatred. He found the antidote to this heart-disease in a life of prayerful dwelling in God's presence. Few have written so well about this spiritual battle. I thank God often for Nouwen, and how God has used him to lead me out of my own self-obsession.

Tthe apostle Paul knew that our pre-Jesus condition finds ourselves with this situation: I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. When we become Jesus-followers this situation is defeated within us, and we discover that God's love now reigns in our hearts. In spite of this, the powers of darkness come to accuse us, even "day and night."[1] 

This should not surprise us. Nouwen writes:

"As you see more clearly that your vocation is to be a witness to God's love in this world, and as you become more determined to live out that vocation, the attacks of the enemy will increase. You will hear voices saying, "You are worthless, you have nothing to offer, you are unattractive, undesirable, unlovable." The more you sense God's call, the more you will discover in your own soul the cosmic battle between God and Satan. Do not be afraid. Keep deepening your conviction that God's love for you is enough, that you are in safe hands, and that you are being guided every step of the way. Don't be surprised by demonic attacks. They will increase, but as you face them without fear, you will discover that they are powerless."[2]

To hear what Nouwen described as "the inner voice of love" requires much intentional time dwelling in God's presence. When I assign my seminary students to do this, and read their spiritual journals, it is common to see the words: "Today God told me that he loved me." 

Do not expect to follow after Jesus and escape the voices of hatred. But the fire will be extinguished from their darts as the knowledge of God’s love is deepened in your own heart.

I know in my mind that God’s love is enough for me. I am praying for this truth to descend from my mind and become my heart.



[1] Revelation 12:10
[2] Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love, 93. New York: Image, 1996.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Praying Is Trusting, Not Controlling


Valley Forge, PA



            One of my favorite TV shows in the 1960s was "The Outer Limits." I remember the opening scene when the show took over control of everything. A calm, detached, obviously-in-control voice said… 

"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We can reduce the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits."

I remember watching and, just to be safe, changing channels (we only had 3 at that time!) to verify that I, and not this totalitarian voice, was really controlling things.

Part of me likes being in control and fears being out of control. I can control the channel I'm watching as long as you trust me with the controller. But I have learned that, in actuality, I don't control much in life.

One of life's great delusions is that we control many things. Yet most of what we experience in life is out of our governance. We don't control the weather, the expanding universe, or the microbiome that colonizes our body space. We don't control the foxes that live in our backyard, the sparrows that come to our feeders, or the bug I just saw in my family room. We don't control the outcome of our DNA or the laws of gravity. I place my fingers on my wrist and check my heart rate, which I have little control over. I program my phone to remind me of the coming meeting with you, but I do not control you. I cannot control the hearts and minds of other people.

I am not in charge of 1% of 1% of 1% of all that is happening within and without.  To embrace the illusion of control is to live in falsehood.

Conversely, I am controlled by many things. I am subject to the weather, the expanding universe, the colonizing microbiome, my DNA, global warming, and life's "circumstances."

Addictive behaviors may control me. I am a slave to anything that controls me. Anything I cannot repeatedly say "No" to controls me. Clinical psychiatrist Gerald May writes:

"Loss of willpower is especially important for defining the difference between the slavery of true addiction and the freedom of sincerely caring about something or of choosing to satisfy simple desires. If you find yourself saying, "I can handle it," "I can stop it," or "I can do without it," try to perform a very simply test: simply go ahead and stop it. Do without it. If you are successful, there is no addiction. If you cannot stop, no amount of rationalization will change the fact that addiction exists."[1]

In a world where I control little and am subject to many things, what can I do?

What I am not to do is: try to control the essentially uncontrollable. This leads to bad outcomes, especially in relationships. We may frantically attempt to control others, but this produces unhappy friends, children, co-workers, and lovers. “There are few truly happy campers in the world of a controller.”[2]

What I must do is: trust. I must trust God. Trusting God is the antidote to the futility of control. One way to trust is to pray. "In the act of prayer, we undermine the illusion of control by divesting ourselves of all false belongings and by directing ourselves totally to the God who is the only one to whom we belong."[3] 

Pray to be free of the illusion of control. 



[1] Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, 28. Emphasis mine. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.
[2] Keith Miller, Compelled to Control: Recovering Intimacy in Broken Relationships, xv.  Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 1992.
[3] Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, 39

Monday, January 25, 2016

Only the Immature Read Ayn Rand

In all my philosophical studies (Bachelor's, Master's, Ph.D) the name of Ayn Rand was never mentioned.

“The corn hasn’t quite matured if it’s still reading Ayn Rand.”
(The New Yorker
, Feb. 1, 2016)


See, e.g., 

The Vacuous Tautologies of Ayn Rand & "Atlas Shrugged"

Myths of Atheists and Skeptics


My feet, at Hockeytown Restaurant in Detroit
Atheist philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has provided a list of myths and bad thinking he finds among fellow atheists and skeptics.

Here are some of my favorites, with which I concur.

Science can answer moral questions. False. Pigliucci writes: "No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless."

Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). False. He writes: "No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue."

Determinism has been established by science. False again, "not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism)."

Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy "according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it."

All religious education is child abuse, period. False, Richard Dawkins! Pigliucci writes: "This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!)."

Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Wrong. "Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults."

What do all of these falsehoods have in common? Pigliucci says they are guilty of:

A. Anti-intellectualism. For example, "when noted biologists or physicists in the movement dismiss an entire field of intellectual pursuit (philosophy) out of hand they are behaving in an anti-intellectual manner."  "Scientism" is one predominant form of anti-intellectualism; viz., "the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community."

B. The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. MP writes: "Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program."

C. Failure of leadership. "Welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can."

- From Massimo Pigliucci, "The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto"

MP adds some nice advice for conducting civil discourse about important issues.

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.



Sunday, January 24, 2016

Assume Our Universe Is the Only World There Is



I listened to a radio interview physicist Leonard Susskind, founder of string theory. Susskind said that he thought a multiverse was possible, and if it was real it would be a series of universes one after the other rather than parallel universes. OK, except that this could never be scientifically verified, right? It's a non-verifiable theory.

Multiverse theory is popular now, but not among all physicists. It's fascinating and it's a lot of fun thinking about a near-infinity of other "me's" that exist simultaneously with the me who is typing these words. Really? Yes, says physicist Max Tegmark, who believes that in the multiverse "all possible states exist at every instant." Which means there are a host of "Max Tegmarks" in coexisting parallel universes. Tegmark says, ‘I feel a strong kinship with parallel Maxes, even though I never get to meet them. They share my values, my feelings, my memories – they’re closer to me than brothers.’ 

But, sadly, such thoughts are non-scientific. On this see Philip Ball's critical essay "Too Many Worlds." The Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) has lots of glamour and publicity. "It tells us that we have multiple selves, living other lives in other universes, quite possibly doing all the things that we dream of but will never achieve (or never dare). Who could resist such an idea?"
Well, we should resist it, argues Ball. He writes:
"We should resist not just because MWI is unlikely to be true, or even because, since no one knows how to test it, the idea is perhaps not truly scientific at all. Those are valid criticisms, but the main reason we should hold out is that it is incoherent, both philosophically and logically. There could be no better contender for Wolfgang Pauli’s famous put-down: it is not even wrong."
Ball's essay gives reasons to question the non-scientific implications of MWI. He concludes:
"If the MWI were supported by some sound science, we would have to deal with it – and to do so with more seriousness than the merry invention of Doppelgängers to measure both quantum states of a photon. But it is not. It is grounded in a half-baked philosophical argument about a preference to simplify the axioms. Until Many Worlders can take seriously the philosophical implications of their vision, it’s not clear why their colleagues, or the rest of us, should demur from the judgment of the philosopher of science Robert Crease that the MWI is ‘one of the most implausible and unrealistic ideas in the history of science’."
Shall we assume our universe is the only world there is? 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What Evil is Not

The Whore of Babylon, by Albrecht Durer



Tomorrow morning at Redeemer I will preach out of Revelation 19:11-21. I'll talk about the final eradication of evil, and emphasize:

  • What "evil" is (I will define "evil")
  • Why evil, given a correct understanding of, must be eliminated
  • What John sees when "heaven is opened"
  • What an "open heaven" means, and why we might expect it (even tomorrow morning)
I will share what "evil" is not, for the sake of clearing away some big-time misconceptions that lead to theological weirdness.

Evil is not some bodiless force that somehow gets into people and corrupts them, like lead in water gets into a person and makes them sick.
          Or like a poison gas.  Or like tear gas.
“Good” is not some invisible force, either.
“Love” is not some invisible force – like “love is in the air.”
The "Star Wars" idea, fun though it is, is philosophically ignorant. There's not a "dark side" nor a good "Force" that somehow gets into people, bringing either corruption or flourishing.
Much more tomorrow morning... 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Pastoral Leadership - If Growth, then Pain

My back yard on the river

If G, then C.
If C, then L.
If L, then P.
Therefore, If G, then P.

This form of reasoning is called hypothetical syllogism.

If we substitute for G "Growth," for C "Change," for L "Loss," and for P "Pain," we get this:

If Growth, then Change.
If Change, then Loss.
If Loss, then Pain.
Therefore, if Growth, then Pain.

If the first premise true? Definitely! Growth implies change. The tree in my front yard is growing. Therefore, it is changing. It is not the same tree it was yesterday.

Is the second premise true? Yes. To change is to leave something behind. Whenever something becomes new, something old is gone. Fifteen years ago we changed the name of our church. We introduced this to our people and gave them a year to pray about this. Leaving behind the old name was hard for some. We realized this, and wanted to be sensitive to the felt loss.

Is the third premise true? Not entirely. When a cancerous tumor shrinks, the loss of cancer cells is good. In this case where there is loss, there is relief. But it is often true that when a person's heart changes, or the heart of an organization changes, the resultant loss is painful. The resultant loss confirms staying power of the Seven last Words of an Organization, which are: "We've Never Done It That Way Before."

Any church that wants to go forward with God has to keep changing. Otherwise it will wither and die. This is especially hard for pastor-leaders because of Peter Drucker's list of the four most difficult jobs in America, which are:

  1. President of the United States
  2. University president
  3. CEO of a hospital
  4. Pastor


Le Point Vierge Où l'on Rencontre Dieu

Monroe County

Yes, I did study French. I had to pass reading exams in philosophical French and philosophical German for my doctoral program in philosophical theology . I bought a couple of books and taught myself to read these languages. Now years have gone by and if you don't use it you lose it. But I still recognize some things, like this:

Le point vierge où l'on rencontre Dieu.

Which means:

The virgin point of the spirit where one meets God, and which is the glory of God in us.

This is how Thomas Merton referred to the inner sanctuary of the heart where the God encounter takes place. This is a "still point of presence" around which Merton's life circled.

Kathleen Deignan writes that Merton "labored to name this mysterious center of being, 'a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will." (Merton, A Book of Hours, 30)

I have dwelt in this place for many years. Even this morning. Right now. This is where the Father comes to make his home in me. (See here.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Safety of Praying; The Danger of Prayerlessness

Monroe County

Last week I taught another Spiritual Formation class at Payne Theological Seminary. My desire is to co-labor with God to implant a greater praying, abiding life in pastors and Christian leaders.

My experience over the years, from student feedback, is that the majority of North American pastors do not have a significant praying life. By "significant" I mean: like Jesus had. It was customary and habitual for Jesus to exit to lonely places to met with God and pray. It should be the same for his followers. 

When someone acquires a praying life they encounter God in fresh, beautiful experiences. This is the allure and benefit of habitual, focused, attentive praying. When this is discovered one can no longer go without it. And, one becomes a safe person.

When a Christian leader has no time for this they are a danger to themselves and to others, as well as being inauthentic and irrelevant (to the plans and purposes of God, since they live as a disconnected branch).

The danger of prayerlessness is well-expressed by Ruth Haley Barton:

"Without the regular experience of being received and loved by God in solitude and silence, we are vulnerable to a kind of leadership that is driven by profound emptiness that we are seeking to fill through performance and achievement. This unconscious striving is very dangerous for us and for those around us; it will eventually burn us out (since there is no amount of achievement that will ultimately satisfy the emptiness of the human soul), and the people we work with will eventually notice that they are mere cogs in the wheel of our own ego-driven plans." (Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, p. 126)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jesus Healed People

St Mary's Bridge in Monroe

News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.
- Matthew 4:24

Over the years I’ve seen people healed after praying for them. One of them was my grandmother. 

Grandma lived with us 6 months out of every year when I was growing up. When she was in her mid-80s she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided not to have it medically treated. The cancerous tumors in her breasts grew. My mother used to bathe her, and visually saw and physically touched the hard, growing tumors.

Grandma knew she was going to die. She had lived a long life, and was ready to leave this world for another one. She even bought the dress she wanted to be buried in.

Grandma spent what we assumed would be her last 6 months in our home. Still alive, she went to live with my aunt and uncle who cared for her during the other 6 months. One day my aunt called. She told my mother that, while bathing Grandma, she noticed the tumors did not appear to be there. My mother could not believe this, yet wanted to believe . Mom traveled 400 miles from Rockford, Illinois to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to visually inspect Grandma and confirm this.

Grandma lived for 12 more years. She bought three more dresses to be buried in. She died at age 97. What happened? How can we explain this? I, my mother, my aunt, and grandma concluded two things:

  1. Grandma once was cancer-filled.
  2. Then one day the cancer was gone.
  3. We all believed (I still conclude) that God healed Grandma (using inference to the best explanation).
Jesus, when he walked the earth, healed people. His healings were demonstrations of the main message he proclaimed, which was about "the kingdom of God." The idea is this: where the kingdom of God is, physical and emotional illnesses are not. When "this present age" finally gives way to "the age to come," followers of Jesus shall dwell with him forevermore. Eternal life is a tearless, non-suffering existence. How weird, how incomplete, how irrational would eternal life be if it contained things like cancer and mental illness.

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us the age to come entered this present darkness. Light came into the world. Jesus's healings were demonstrations of that truth, which was: the kingdom of God is now in our midst.

Have I prayed for people who, as far as I can tell, were not healed? Yes. Have I seen people healed as a result of praying? Yes. Therefore I pray. 

Jesus came to heal. Jesus still heals. Bring your woundedness and infirmity to him today.

***
NOTE:

John Wimber's book Power Healing is still one of the best texts on this subject available. It was the forward by Richard Foster that convinced me to read it.

The work of University of Indiana scholar Candy Brown is important here. See Candy'sTesting Prayer: Science and Healing;  and Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing

See Candy's Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique. Candy traveled with Heidi Baker in Mozambique, bringing audiometric testing devices and visual acuity devices, testing persons before and after receiving "proximal intercessory prayer" for visual and hearing disorders.

See also Craig Keener massive, brilliant Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
Here are some posts I've written on healing. 

Testing Prayer; Science and Healing, by Candy Gunther Brown

Prayer & Divine Healing
If Someone Doesn't Believe Jesus Healed People
Why Doesn't God Heal Everybody?
"Ordinary" Christians as Agents of Healing: Candy Brown on Randy Clark & Global Awakening
5 Key Aspects of a Pentecostal Worldview

Praying Is an Act of Protest


Pottery by Gary Wilson
One result of a habitual praying life is that God removes unrighteous anger from my heart. God takes the chip off my shoulder. He softens the edge. He forms His heart of compassion in me for my enemies. He frees me from the prison cell of hatred, and releases me to love in ways I have never done before. 

For me this is not a theory but an empirical, existential reality. My wife Linda has seen the results. I am a better husband as Christ is more deeply formed in me. I get changed. Much of this happens as I am praying. 

In praying I become clay on a potter's wheel. I am not the shaping agent of my own transformation, God is. Many times I can feel Him shaping me.

This is praying as an act of resistance to the common, unholy structures of the world which demand conformation to their will. To pray is to protest against the hate-filled standards of our culture. In solitary praying I am protesting against the world which wants to shape my heart into its forms of destruction, hatred, manipulation, competition, suspicion, defensiveness, and war.

In praying I give witness to God whose love is all-healing and all-embracing. I protest against the world by declaring “Hands off me!”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How America's Drug Epidemic Has Spread






The Love of Bondage and the Fear of Freedom

Facing evil

Many love their bondage. It is their place of familiarity, the zone of comfort. They return to it like dogs return to their vomit.

The abused wife divorces and marries another abuser. The incarcerated drug felon is released only to return to heroin, and prison, again. The careless spender becomes financially free only to return to economic bondage.

Thomas Merton wrote:

"How can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire? God cannot plant His liberty in me because I am a prisoner and I do not even desire to be free. I love my captivity and I imprison myself in the desire for the things that I hate, and I have hardened my heart against true love. (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 16)

To stay free one must hate bondage, and choose and act from this hatred. "I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me." (Ib.)

Freedom is the place of unfamiliarity. When Jesus says "Behold, I make all things new," he inspires fear. This requires change and faith. Change means newness of being; faith is stepping into the new unknown.

Spiritual transformation is constant movement from familiarity to unfamiliarity, from bondage to freedom. The transformation is, among other things, the morphing of desire. The love/hate relationship between bondage and freedom inverts, usually slowly, to a hate/love relationship between the same. When this happens (and I have seen it happen in many people) one never returns to the old, once-familiar chains.

"If these seeds would take root in my liberty, and if His will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that He is, and my harvest would be His glory and my own joy." (Ib., 17)

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Uncanniness of the Ordinary

Stanley Cavell

One of my more precocious philosophy students approached me and said, "Did you know that we are more than 90% air?" Yes. 

"Trees," wrote physicist Richard Feynman, "are made of air primarily." Physicist Max Tegmark writes:

"Physicists have known for a century that solid steel is mostly empty space, because the atomic nuclei that make up 99.95% of the mass are tiny balls that fill up merely 0.0000000000001% of the volume, and that this near-vacuum only feels solid because the electrical forces that hold these nuclei in place are very strong." (Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, 4) 

Harvard Philosopher Stanley Cavell, following Wittgenstein (that great deconstructor of linguistic appearances), is interested in probing "the uncanniness of the ordinary." Which means, what? Things like: that we exist; that a world exists; whether we have a place in the order of things; how we respond to suffering and death; how do we live this life; what does it mean to live well; and so on. 

The deeper one goes into "ordinary things and events" the more extraordinary they appear to be. The Pre-Socratics plus Plato and Aristotle were on to this idea; viz., what you see (what appears to be) is not necessarily what you get (what really is). This is the paradox of analysis; viz., the more you know the less you know.

Many of my students are interested in these kind of questions and want to discuss them. Their educational background has to this point largely hindered them from going after the Big Questions. Baylor University philosopher Thomas Hibbs, in his article "Stanley Cavell's Philosophical Improvisations" (The Chronicle of Higher Education), cites Cavell and others who are critical of today's higher educational institutions for failing to address these questions. Hibbs quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons."" These are questions that thinkers like MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Cavell have dedicated their lives to addressing.

Universities systematically fail to situate students within a "big picture." MacIntyre says: "In contemporary American universities, each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners, or at least the most prestigious and influential among them, prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others." 

Hibbs writes: "Returning philosophy to the concern of ordinary human persons and showing how it might speak across disciplinary lines of inquiry are not easy tasks. But the life and career of Cavell testify not just to the possibility of such achievements but also to just how rich the results can be."

I wish you could see the eyes of many of my students as I introduce them to the philosophical issues surrounding the problem of suffering and evil. All of us face such things. What sense can we make of them? The discussion seems, to them and to me, enormously relevant and significant. When I present, in my logic classes, things like Peter Singer's argument for infanticide and Richard Dawkins's argument for aborting Down Syndrome babies, there is a lot of lively discussion!

In 1986 Cavell delivered the Tanner Lectures at Stanford University and entitled his presentation "The Uncanniness of the Ordinary." Cavell, whose mentor was ordinary-language philosopher J.L. Austin, turns his attention to everyday things (the "everyday"). The "everyday" is both eminently relevant and philosophically dense and interesting. 

Commenting on Wittgenstein's thoughts on everydayness Marjorie Perloff writes:

"What is the use of studying philosophy if it doesn't improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life? It is the pressing question Wittgenstein asked himself throughout his career as a philosopher. As early as 1913 in the Notes on Logic, he wrote, "In philosophy there are no deductions: it is purely descriptive. Philosophy gives no pictures of reality." (3) And a few years later, he made the following riddling entry in the manuscript that was to become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. But of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer." (T #6.52)"

Philosophy and religion are the two main contributors to issues regarding the "problems of life." These involve our own selves and the world that is right before our eyes. The ordinary and everyday turn out to be not so mundane after all. We are taken deeper and discover "the fantastic in what human beings will accustom themselves to... the surrealism of the habitual." (Stanford address, 4)

The Source of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Social Activism


As our nation pauses to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we will celebrate his great civil and political influence. But I expect we will hear little of his own understanding of the source of that influence. The fire burning deep in King’s soul was his relationship with God, which was fanned by his constant prayer life. Few scholars have attended to this, says Lewis Baldwin of Vanderbilt University in his book Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin corrects this.

I remember reading, for the first time, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I knew King was a Christian, but his spiritual life was never talked about in the media. We saw film and photos of King praying in the city streets, but were not told just how much this meant to him. His “Letter” greatly moved me, and I saw that King was an intellectual, a genius, a brilliant writer, and most importantly,  a fundamentally spiritual being. The social activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., was a function of a life grounded in God and prayer, which he defined as “conversing with God.”

Prayer was more than a theory or some religious thing for King. King had an actual prayer life, contrary to many religious leaders who talk about praying but don’t find time to do it. He saw it as necessary for changing his own life and the prevailing culture. Baldwin, the great King scholar, shows us that King never separated moral responsibility from a deep personal spirituality and piety. Prayer, for King, was conversation with God.

Once King received a phone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “*n-------,” threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home This deeply disturbed him and he was unable to sleep. He discovered that all the intellectual things he had learned in the university and seminary could not help him overcome this. Baldwin writes that King turned to God in prayer and had a face-to-face encounter with what is, in the tradition of his forebears, called a “Waymaker.” This God-encounter exposed his fears, insecurities, and vulnerablities. He then found great comfort as an “inner voice” spoke to him, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to stand up for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

It is important to understand King’s position on spiritual things if we want to grasp his societal accomplishments. King, who earned a Ph.D at Boston University, knew that intellectual accomplishments were not enough to transform self and society. God was needed, and prayer was a matter of “invoking the supernatural.” Baldwin writes that “King taught the people of Montgomery that the weapon of prayer was ultimately more powerful and effective than any gun or bomb.”

King spent much time alone in prayer. He told students that if you don’t have a deep life of prayer you have no business preaching to others. King saw himself as essentially involved in a “spiritual movement,” and not simply a struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace.”

King knew, existentially, that real, true prayer involves “a profound surrender of the self to God, not prayer rooted in self-pride, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness.” That becomes the kind of relationship with God that can transform the fabric of reality.

Leadership is influence. Therefore King was one of our nation’s greatest leaders. Baldwin brings us to the source of that influence, which was: King’s own soul-receptivity to the powerful, transforming influence of God. “King,” writes Baldwin, “was effective because his praying and preaching were effective. True leadership in his case made prayer and preaching indispensable.”