Saturday, April 10, 2021

Blessed are the meek: the science and theology of humility

 I am giving a talk tomorrow at Theology on Tap in Brisbane, "Blessed are the meek: the science and theology of humility."

I am not giving the talk because I am humble, but rather because I need to be humble. The content I find challenging and helpful. Hopefully, others will too.

Here are my slides.

The talk is based on a chapter that will appear in a forthcoming book, To Whom Shall We Go: Faith Responses in a Time of Crisis, edited by Irene Alexander and Christopher Brown (Cascade, 2021).

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Mindfulness, Christian meditation, and mental health

 For almost 40 years I have struggled with mental health issues, off and on. About twenty years ago, following one particular low, a psychologist introduced me to the practice of mindfulness. In particular, I followed a set of exercises developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, such as the mind-body scan. These were incredibly helpful. They helped me to learn to control my racing thoughts. A few years ago, I was asked to speak to a counseling class in a Christian theological college in South Asia about my experiences. Here are some of the questions I tried to address.

When I give talks, such as this, about mental health I usually mention how mindfulness has helped me.

One question that I have continued to wonder about was how these practices, which have their origin in Buddhism and secular psychology, are related to a Christian perspective, and Christian practices of meditation and prayer. Hence, I was delighted when I came across the book, Christ Centred Mindfulness: Connection to Self and God by Katherine Thompson. Hence, I recommended it to my theology reading group. We discussed it with animation last Monday. I will give my perspective, both before and after the discussion.

The response of any reader to a book can be shaped by their experiences, prejudices, and hopes. I was naturally predisposed to like this book since I saw it as meeting an important need. It is short, clear, easy to read, comprehensive, and balanced. It covers a lot of ground in less than 200 pages. Overviews are given of the historical background to mindfulness, scientific evidence (or lack thereof) for its effectiveness, different forms of psychotherapy, some Biblical and theological basis for meditation, Christian mystics, modern Christian contemplatives, and many practical mindfulness exercises. This is important because mental health is multi-faceted. There are medical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions.

The greatest strengths of the book may be the following. It fills an important gap in the literature. The comprehensive survey (with many references) provides a good introduction to the relevant topics and issues. Hopefully, it will stimulate discussions and more books on this important topic. In the end, it is very practical. Readers can do the exercises. They are diverse, ranging from mindful connection to nature to Lectio Divina. On this basis, I would happily recommend the book to others.

There were some things that I struggled to understand on my first reading. The author gives a review of several different forms of psychotherapy, including Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, Dialectical behaviour therapy, Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). She advocates the latter and goes on to discuss how mindfulness fits well within it, particularly from a Christian perspective. However, I really do not get all the nuances here and could not really explain to you what ACT is. 

There are several diagrams and tables, designed to illuminate and contrast different concepts and approaches. They have the potential to be quite helpful, but they needed more explanation.

Stimulated by our discussion about the book, a number of possible weaknesses became more apparent.

Like any book, this one reflects the author's own personal and professional journey. She is trying to bring together her own personal journey of faith, her struggle with chronic physical pain, her PhD in Psychological Medicine, and her professional practice. I wonder if she has worked a bit too hard to put the pieces together in this book. Are mindfulness and Christian faith being "shoehorned" into ACT? Is she trying to give mindfulness and ACT a Christian baptism? Don't both need to repent first? Is there too much dissonance between mindfulness, ACT, and Christian faith and practice?

How do people change? How do people experience healing from mental illness? How can a Christian live by faith and persevere in the midst of suffering? What is the role of human agency? There is significant scientific and theological uncertainty about the possible answers. Any healing is a miracle, whether by modern medicine or by the working of the Holy Spirit. Given this, to what extent are "methodologies" useful? I don't know. Methodologies, whether clinical practices or spiritual disciplines, can have great value. But they do have limitations. They are all constructed by finite fallible humans, embedded in a sinful broken world. How does one find a humble and balanced perspective on and implementation of these methodologies? Again, I don't know.

In spite of my many questions, I think the book is a wonderful contribution and will benefit many.

Another member of the reading group, Chris Brown, has some reflections on the book on the "holy" scribblers blog.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Should a follower of Jesus pay taxes to an oppressive government?

``Giving to God and Caesar— the Complicated End of Dualism'' is the title of Chapter 4 of  Money Matters: Faith, Life, and Wealth by R. Paul Stevens and Clive Lim. It begins with the following quotation.
“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.”
In my opinion, the entire problem of life in contemporary culture can be defined as the challenge to understand that saying of Jesus. 

The relevant passage is from Matthew 22

17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not?’ 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ 21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

Stevens and Lim claim (page 45) 
In this extraordinary incident Jesus asserted that money can have a holy purpose. He fulfilled the desire to meet a divine purpose and this-worldly obligations at the same time. And teasingly, he left open the question of what “giving to God” means.

I fail to see this. In The Gospel of Matthew: A socio-rhetorical commentary, Craig Keener suggests that this passage may be descriptive not prescriptive. It is mostly showing how great Jesus is. He can easily put the Pharisees in their place.

I also wonder if this story should be read and interpreted in conjunction with the following passage from Matthew 17. 

 24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” 25 “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” 26 “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Keener (p. 445) states that the main points of this passage are the following.

Jesus cares about his disciples' social obligations.

The disciples need to be ready to surrender their privileges and rights for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus supplies needs like these as well as other needs

Putting both these interactions about money and taxes together, I would say they highlight how money is tied up with power and questions of allegiance, honour, and authority. People play these silly games with money.  Let people play their silly games. Play along. Instead, followers of Jesus should focus on his kingdom.

Much of the chapter is arguing against the dualism of the sacred-secular divide. The authors' state (p.47-8) that

by the fifteenth century only the monk, nun, and priest were regarded as having a calling. Karl Barth’s summary is apt: “According to the view prevalent at the height of the Middle Ages [secular work] only existed to free for the work of their profession those who were totally and exclusively occupied in rendering true obedience for the salvation of each and all.” 
[“Vocation,” in Church Dogmatics, III/4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 601]
This is not far from the contemporary idea that business people in the church are “walking checkbooks” needed to support the pastor. But what they do to make this money is not sacred. So what happened?
The Reformation promoted some of the problems of duality, particularly because it led to a dis-enchantment of much of life.
 With the disenchantment of work and exchange, money makes rational calculation and accounting possible but it does this by re-reducing everything to “mere quantities.” This is something that the German social philosopher Georg Simmel elaborated in his massive volume. So, as is said of some merchants, they know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

 In summary, the dualism that persists globally among Christian people has multiple sources: the persistence of Old Testament patterns, the Greek philosophical influence, the decline of the holiness of everyday life following the Protestant Reformation, and the influence of other faiths and philosophies.

 So how then do we reconcile both sides of the coin, God and Caesar? How can we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s? This can happen only with a thoroughgoing integration of faith and life. R. T. France, commenting on Matthew 22:15–22, suggests that “this is not the rigid division of life into the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, but rather a recognition that the ‘secular’ finds its proper place within the overriding claim of the ‘sacred’.”

Monday, March 1, 2021

The active presence of God

Currently, at church, our focus, both in sermons and in small group study, is on the book of Exodus.

The Bible Project, as always, gives a helpful overview.

I am beginning to appreciate the importance of this second book of the Old Testament. Jesus highlights how he is the fulfillment of Moses many times. Exodus introduces and spells out many key concepts such as YHWH (the name of God), the sovereignty of God, ritual sacrifice, tabernacle, law, covenant, communal justice, substitutionary atonement, and deliverance.

Here, I just mention one concept that has struck me. On the one hand God is revealed as holy, set apart, and unapproachable. Yet, paradoxically God is also present and with his people. Exodus 3 says:
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you[b] will worship God on this mountain.” 13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

This presence of God is then experienced by the Israelites in the cloud that leads them through the wilderness and in the tabernacle that is constructed at the end of Exodus.

This idea of the presence of the holy God is not just an abstract idea but has practical implications. Followers of YHWH (and Jesus) are to be actively present with others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.  As God is actively present with them they can be actively present with others.

The Incarnation and the Holy Spirit represent the ultimate fulfillment and embodiment of the active presence of God. Jesus said, 

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17:18) 

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21).

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Beauty, art, and mission

 Last night my wife and I watched Many Beautiful Things, a documentary about the extraordinary life of Lillias Trotter. It captures the beauty of her life and art and how she followed Jesus. The striking cinemaphotography gave a glimpse of the amazing ways that Trotter could see beauty in nature and then capture it in watercolours. Daily she wrote diary entries about her life and spiritual journey including ornate pictures of scenes and people she engaged with. She was independently wealthy and of frail health. She had artistic talent that could have led to her being the greatest English painter of her time, according to the judgement of John Ruskin (the leading English art critic of the 19th century). Yet, her desire to follow Jesus led her to care for destitute women in London and eventually women and children in Algeria. This choice was a great disappointment to Ruskin.

You can watch it for free on Youtube (with endless ads) or on RedeemTV without ads. I thank Tanglaw Roman for bringing it to my attention.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Where did money come from? Does it matter?

Does the historical origin of an idea, method, or system matter when considering how to respond to it?
Modern psychology began with Freud, whose personal life, ideas, and methods have received robust critiques. Does that mean modern psychology is flawed?
The administrative structures of many nations were built by colonialists. How is that relevant?
If something has Christian origins does that mean it is necessarily good? 

``Holy Money—A Brief History and Why It is So Complicated to Handle,'' is the title of Chapter 3 of  Money Matters: Faith, Life, and Wealth by R. Paul Stevens and Clive Lim.

They consider recent scholarship that argues that the origin of money was not the barter system but actually religion, Babylonian and Jewish, .. 

Caroline Humphrey’s definitive anthropological work on barter concludes. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever being described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”

The authors state (p. 40)

Money, since its beginning, has been a spiritual matter and was created within the temple for the sacred management of the temple. The earliest use of money was within a canopy of sacredness to moderate the wealth of the temple and to justly distribute goods among the residents of the city.

 Thus, "money has a soul". They continue.

Like all the “principalities and powers” named in the Bible (Eph. 6:12), money has a dark spiritual side. As we saw in the temple context, money demands devotion, devotion that should be rendered to God himself.

On the one hand, I found this chapter interesting.  My wife less so. But, I remain to be convinced that the issue of the origin of money is that crucial to developing a Christian response. 

In ancient life, whether Jewish, African, South Asian, or Babylonian, everything had a religious dimension, and much of life (food, family, politics, economics, warfare,...) was centred around temples. Some was pagan and evil. Some was good and promoted human flourishing. That is a long way from the world that the readers of this book live in.

Some, or even many readers, may find the chapter heavy going, and the momentum and interest build by the first two chapters may wane.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021