Archive for Spiritual

Joomla as a spiritual practice

I need to make a confession. I have a very low tolerance for badly designed user interfaces and overly complicated mis-uses of technology. We are using Joomla for The Trillium School website, and all I wanted to do was add a simple page announcing our Holiday Craft Camp next week. I’m sure it’s not just Joomla’s fault; it’s also the way our designer had shoehorned everything into Joomla’s structures. But in any case, things are way harder than they need to be. I update the website just infrequently enough that I tend to forget how things work every time.

Well, this last time, I started to notice my blood pressure rising and decided to step back, cool off, and do some thinking. “I really don’t want to learn Joomla right now; I just want to get this page created.” I didn’t have much else that’s pressing today, so I decided to take this as an opportunity to cultivate patience. Patience is often thought of as “grinning and bearing it” or waiting reluctantly with clenched teeth. But I like this definition better: “Patience is the ability to dwell gladly in the present moment when we have some desire, or what would normally be a reason to desire, to depart from it.” (Robert C. Roberts in Strengths of a Christian, p. 53)

One of the sources of my resistance is that I prefer to learn things comprehensively—or at least comprehensively within some well-defined range. That’s why I tend to enjoy smaller programming languages (like XSLT 1.0) and domain-specific languages. Joomla is a full-featured Web content management system with lots of bells and whistles. I’m not planning to use it for anything other than the school website I inherited. I’m not very inspired to learn it.

So today I found myself whining, complaining, and wanting to distract myself. This feeling caught me by surprise, because lately I’ve been really loving technology. There are so many interesting programming languages to learn, so many powerful tools and frameworks to unleash one’s creativity on. In fact, technology has been really exciting for me lately, even though it seems like it’s been years since I felt this way. I think the key for me has been gratitude. Rather than trying to hoard knowledge or get overwhelmed by all the things I won’t ever possibly learn, I somehow was able to let go of all that and begin to receive everything as a gift from God. Programming languages are part of the wonderful world we live in. I don’t have to walk in the woods (although that’s nice too) to appreciate and get excited about this planet we live on.

Learning things comprehensively can be useful (and fun), but I’m finding it’s not a good general policy to live by. For one thing, most things are impossible to learn comprehensively. For another, I don’t really operate this way. There are lots of technologies I merely learn just enough to “get by”—without understanding some of the fundamentals that would be required if I had to work with these technologies everyday: Ethernet networking, email protocols, DOS batch files, etc. So I’m fooling myself even when I say that’s how I prefer to learn things. There are lots of things I’m not an expert in, and that’s okay. :-)

Joomla can be the same way; the key is to just take some notes so I can refer back to them the next time I have a task to complete. This doesn’t have to be as painful as I’m making it. There is an underlying logic, and I can learn just enough to get by, capturing the knowledge in OneNote (what a great technology!), so I can refer back to it next time and save myself a lot of headaches.


Watching The Atheism Tapes

I just began watching The Atheism Tapes (on Netflix), by Jonathan Miller, a series of interviews with prominent atheist intellectuals. In the first episode, Colin McGinn reviews some standard arguments for and against the existence of God.

He puts forward lack of positive evidence as his principal reason for not believing that God exists. Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, he says, “there’s no more reason to believe in the Christian God than in the Greek gods.” I think this is a silly assertion. Nobody believes in the Greek gods today. However, many millions of people do believe in the Christian God today. He may not think that’s a good enough reason to believe in God, but it’s a big jump to say there’s “no evidence”. If he’s talking scientific evidence, then I grant him the argument. Scientific evidence is a very narrow sort of evidence, as science is a very narrow sort of inquiry. But the continuing faith of millions over thousands of years does constitute some sort of evidence.

Later in the interview, he admits that people do have a sort of “cosmic loneliness”, or angst. He sees this as an explanation for why people have such a need for believing in God. The belief appears to satisfy their deep need for connection. This is another sort of evidence. You can use it to either explain people’s need to believe despite God’s non-existence, or you can view it as another sort of evidence for God—a being which, when believed in, “satisfies a deep craving in the human soul”, as McGinn puts it.

McGinn is most persuasive, I think, when he brings up the problem of evil. This should be truly challenging to any Christian or anyone who believes in the existence of a good, all-powerful God. Why would a good, all-powerful God let evil things happen in the world? McGinn notes the standard, ultimately unsatisifying explanation offered by theologians: God gave us free will, and we’re the ones that mess it up. Then what about natural disasters? Ultimately, the problem of evil is a real problem for faith. One of my beliefs as a Christian is that whereas God is all-knowing, we are not. And we’re not particularly meant to be. There are things we don’t understand and won’t ever understand in this life. Atrocities such as holocausts happen. There is a profound potential for evil in the human heart. These are things we have to contend with, even if we can’t fully explain them. If you’re going to believe in a religion, make sure it’s one that acknowledges and contends with the reality of suffering in the world and evil in the human heart—even if you were born into a free, wealthy society such as America where we are protected from much of the world’s suffering.

I have friends, family members, and colleagues who are atheists, and I want to better understand their point of view. I also want to find ways to address my doubts and to bolster my own faith in the face of unbelief. Despite my natural affinity for philosophy and philosophical arguments, I don’t put my hope in them as a primary way to grow closer to God (which is a primary goal of mine). They do play a minor role though; they fit in somewhere. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about this topic. Just know that I haven’t even begun to expound on why I do believe, and I can’t necessarily explain all the reasons why I’m compelled to believe. (For one thing, I believe God had a large role in my choosing to believe and continue to believe, and that’s hopelessly circular from a philosophical perspective.)

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Does Christianity make sense?

American Christians—we are disconnected from our heritage. That’s an understatement. Do we even have a collective consciousness? Bible stories are for Sunday school. You learn them once as a child and then recall them again during Sunday morning services. When I was in Ireland, I was struck by the religiosity built into the décor of people’s homes. Pictures of the Virgin Mary seemed to grace every wall. It was a haunting presence, and certainly very culturally foreign to me. I suspect that’s not just because I didn’t grow up in the Roman Catholic church. We Christians in America don’t normally wear religion on our sleeves. We blend in. Our houses don’t look much different than any other. Religious icons, if our particular tradition doesn’t denounce them altogether, stay safely tucked away in cathedrals and worship centers.

My faith has been on the rocks lately. The basic Christian message in America, and all the cultural context with which I associate it, are divorced from its rich, Jewish heritage. We don’t have religious forefathers. We’re too American for such things. When I compare our religiosity to other areas of the world, I wonder what is distinctive about our collective consciousness. What do we take for granted? I think they’re probably the same things as most Americans: freedom, individualism, a value placed in the “work ethic”, financial success, etc. There’s nothing particularly Christian about these things. American, yes. Christian, no.

Why have I been struggling with my faith? Because when I look at the stories of the Bible, especially those of the Old Testament, they seem so complex and detailed and messy, but the American Christian message is so simple and pristine and Americanized. It doesn’t add up. Are we joking? Maybe we should stop using the Bible in church. Our message would be much easier to convey that way. The Bible just raises too many questions. But more than that, it’s too culturally foreign. It’s way too messy and complex. And arbitrary. Who are these people these stories are about, and why should I care? What do these ancient texts have to do with my life in America? Aren’t they just archaic instruments of power, used over the centuries by the Church to bend people to obedience (and break them if necessary)? Why in the world would I want to associate myself with that heritage?

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N. T. Wright, came on my doorstep just in time, it seems. It starts off quite generically and doesn’t dive into Old Testament stories. Clever, in a way. Draw people in and then pounce with the religious content. But one thing Wright said really struck me. Really, the entire section “The Glorious Complexity of Life” (pp. 48-51) is what struck me. I’ll quote a large chunk from the middle of it:

We should expect the world and our relation to it to be at least as complex as we are. If there is a God, we should expect such a being to be at least as complex again.

I say this because people often grumble as soon as a discussion about the meaning of human life, or the possibility of God, moves away from quite simple ideas and becomes more complicated. Any world in which there are such things as music and sex, laughter and tears, mountains and mathematics, eagles and earthworms, statues and symphonies and snowflakes and sunsets—and in which we humans find ourselves in the middle of it all—is bound to be a world in which the quest for truth, reality, for what we can be sure of, is infinitely more complicated than simple yes-and-no questions will allow. There is appropriate complexity along with appropriate simplicity. The more we learn, the more we discover that we humans are fantastically complicated creatures. Yet, on the other hand, human life is full of moments when we know that things are also very, very simple.

Think about it. The moment of birth; the moment of death; the joy of love; the discovery of vocation; the onset of life-threatening illness; the overwhelming pain and anger that sometimes sweep us off our feet. At such times the multiple complexities of our humanness gather themselves together and form one simple great exclamation mark, or (as it may be) one simple great question mark—a shout of joy or a cry of pain, a burst of laughter or a bursting into tears. Suddenly the rich harmony of our genetic package seems to sing in unison, and say, for good or ill, This is it.

We honor and celebrate our complexity and our simplicity by continually doing five things. We tell stories. We act out rituals. We create beauty. We work in communities. We think out beliefs. No doubt you might think of more, but that’s enough for the moment. In and through all these things run the threads of love and pain, fear and faith, worship and doubt, the quest for justice, the thirst for spirituality, and the promise and problem of human relationship. And if there’s any such thing as “truth,” in some absolute sense, it must relate to, and make sense of, all this and more.

Stories, rituals, beauty, work, belief. I’m not talking just about the novelist, the playwright, the artist, the industrialist, the philosopher. They are the specialists in the different areas. I’m talking about all of us. And I’m not talking just about the special incidents—the story of your life-changing moment, the ritual of a family wedding, and so on. I’m talking about the ordinary moments. You come home from a day’s work. You tell stories about what has happened. You listen to more stories on television or radio. You go through the simple but profound ritual of cooking a meal, laying the table, doing the thousand familiar things that say, This is who we are (or, if you’re alone, This is who I am). This is where we are ourselves. You arrange a bunch of flowers or tidy a room. And from time to time you discuss the meaning of it all.

Take away any of these elements, as frequently happens—take away stories, rituals, beauty, work, or belief—and human life is diminished. In a million ways, small and great, our highly complex lives are made up of the interplay of these things. The multiple elements of life we noted a moment ago tie them all together in an ever-changing kaleidoscopic pattern.

That’s the complex world to which the Christian story is addressed, the world of which it claims to make sense.

What a wonderfully effective frame in which to dive into the history of Israel. Wright’s book attempts to answer the question that has been plaguing me lately: How are the entire range of human experience and of the wonders of the natural world accounted for and explained by Christianity, the faith that I ascribe to? The way he sets the stage above, and indeed in the entire first of the book’s three parts (“Echoes of a Voice”), are at least tentatively scratching the itch I’ve been feeling. As I continue to read, I will be pondering two questions:

  1. Does this really make sense?
  2. How might Christians in America start embracing and engaging the cultural distinctives and particularities of their faith’s heritage?

Answering not only question #1 but question #2 also is going to be essential for the survival of my own faith. Continuing with the status quo just seems dishonest to me. Incongruent. Unsustainable.

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Fickleness revisited

Here’s the full quote from Thomas Merton, now that I’ve got the New Seeds of Contemplation checked out from the library.

Fickleness and indecision are signs of self-love.

If you can never make up your mind what God wills for you, but are always veering from one opinion to another, from one practice to another, from one method to another, it may be an indication that you are trying to get around God’s will and do your own with a quiet conscience.

As soon as God gets you in one monastery you want to be in another.

As soon as you taste one way of prayer, you want to try another. You are always making resolutions and breaking them by counterresolutions. You ask your confessor and do not remember the answers. Before you finish one book you begin another, and with every book you read you change the whole plan of your interior life.

Soon you will have no interior life at all. Your whole existence will be a patchwork of confused desires and daydreams and velleities in which you do nothing except defeat the work of grace: for all this is an elaborate subconscious device of your nature to resist God, Whose work in your soul demands the sacrifice of all that you desire and delight in, and, indeed, of all that you are.

So keep still, and let Him do some work.

This is what it means to renounce not only pleasures and possessions, but even you own self.

The last thing I want to do is defeat the work of grace. God help me.

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Fickleness and indecision

New Seeds of Contemplation

I read a passage from Thomas Merton at Barnes & Noble this evening that hit me right between the eyes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the quote online, except for this small excerpt. Maybe I’ll post it after I eventually buy the book.

Fickleness and indecision are signs of self-love. If you can never make up your mind what God wills for you, but are always veering from one opinion to another … from one method to another, it may be an indication that you are trying to get around God’s will and do your own with a quiet conscience. So keep still, and let God do some work.

The rest of the section included a couple examples that hit home–like starting another book before finishing the one you’re on, and starting new life pursuits every other day on every random whim. “Bilateral incongruence” is a related term I’ve come across (in the context of NLP). Also, this passage touched on what it means to fully give one’s life to God.

There. I placed a hold on it through Seattle Public Library.


Committing to a Dream

This quote (by Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray) was one of a million things that I reflected on the night that I decided to turn down an awesome job offer to pursue a new (yet old) dream:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.

The next step is trusting in God and waiting with expectancy and planning the details and trusting in God.


Perfect love drives out fear

Knowledge of the Holy - Reissue

Written in 1961 but useful for today:

The world is full of enemies, and as long as we are subject to the possibility of harm from these enemies, fear is inevitable. The effort to conquer fear without removing the causes is altogether futile. The heart is wiser than the apostles of tranquility. As long as we are in the hands of chance, as long as we must look for hope to the law of averages, as long as we must trust for survival to our ability to outthink or outmaneuver the enemy, we have every good reason to be afraid. And fear hath torment.

To know that love is of God and to enter into the secret place leaning upon the arm of the Beloved–this and only this can cast out fear. Let a man become convinced that nothing can harm him and instantly for him all fear goes out of the universe. The nervous reflex, the natural revulsion to physical pain may be felt sometimes, but the deep torment of fear is gone forever. God is love and God is sovereign. His love disposes Him to desire our everlasting welfare and His sovereignty enables Him to secure it. Nothing can hurt a good man.


Podcast. Selah.

This is an experiment.

The audio sucks because I did it with the built-in microphone on my laptop.

Psalm 84 (MP3)


Structure in which to flow

Living with ADD is like going 100mph on an icy road with no guardrails.

I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.

Structure in which to flow.

Meta-No :

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God…

And Meta-Yes:

…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

And another example juxtaposition:

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

The promises of God brought to bear on my reticular activating system. I have begun training. Training for godliness. I’m hard at work on my mental network of promises, laws, statutes, precepts, commands. Structure in which to flow.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure, and altogether righteous.