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Mind and Body

What Am I?

We are told by the scientists that the different aspects of our personalities – things like addiction, temper, even our religiosity – are the exclusively the result of physical causes – we are just “born that way”.

But is that actually so? Can we always attribute our actions to just the physical structure and chemistry of our brains?

I think there’s more to the story. It has been observed that cognitive therapy actually imposes physical changes on brain. If I am irrationally anxious (certainly the structure of my brain will be involved), it has been found I can retrain my brain through therapy: and that this retraining physically changes its structure.

In which case, we must go further upstream to find the first cause. There must be something else at work beyond the basic facts of our brain’s physical characteristics, something that can manage and modify the brain – and therefore our lives.

A couple of things follow. First, and most importantly, it suggests that what we are as people is more than just the sum of our physical parts. What is “I”? We must have another aspect of selfhood that lies outside our brain chemistry, for that which imposes change on its structure can’t be part of the thing it modifies.

And this implies that if we allow ourselves to fall into certain habits of thought, addictive behaviours, or whatever, our brains will develop the physical characteristics that reinforce these behaviours.

But it also means that we can change, though it would be an uphill battle against the pathways our own habits have allowed our brains to develop. It’s better to develop the right habits from the start, to not allow ourselves to pick up destructive habits from the get-go. Bad habits happen by themselves; good habits must be cultivated. We must make a specific effort to impose positive changes on our brains.

Here we move beyond the mere physicality of our brains; we must consider what is prudent and just, and order our lives accordingly. How shall we choose to live? These are not scientific issues but are better addressed by philosophy and religion.

Reference: https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/social-anxiety-citations-references

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Imposing Values

The “Christian Right” is often accused of wanting to push their moral view on society. While there are some Christians who feel they should force Christian laws on those who don’t want them (I’m not one of them), I’m wondering if it has occurred to anyone that progressives are doing exactly the same thing. They have their own ideas and since the Enlightenment have been promoting them with an evangelistic passion.

“We’re not pushing our values on anyone” they may protest. “People just need to be free to choose”. But their supposedly value-neutral stance is a truth claim no more or less than any other, and the moral relativism it entails carries social consequences as real as those that flow from any other worldview. To insist are no absolutes is (ironically enough) itself an absolute statement, a truth claim that would please the most rigid fundamentalist.

Both sides are convinced they are right, and opponents to Christian belief are often as holier-than-thou as those they accuse; perhaps more so because at least informed Christian belief insists that believers are saved not by how good they are but by God’s naked grace. In fact, Christianity raises this issue to the point of doctrine, an understanding prerequisite to any meaningful conversion. I see no such corrective in liberal thought.

There is no truly neutral ground. No matter how you look at it, someone is trying to impose their values on someone else, and this affects everything from families to the law of the land. To accuse only Christians of this misses the true state of things.

Good News

People who are not familiar with the Bible tend to look at it as a book full of rules and statements that Christians accept as true. If they scratch the surface a little further, they see the rules of a seemingly wrathful God (mostly in the Old Testament), and the nicer, more gracious teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

That understanding misses the meat of what the Bible is trying to teach us.

The Law tells us what we ought to do, and that’s great as far as it goes. God cares about humanity, and tells us to Do The Right Thing, both toward Him and in being fair to our fellow creatures. But our experience – held up against this righteous standard – tells us we don’t always do the right thing. Our selfishness affects our relations with people and separates us from God.

The Gospel (literally, “good news”) tells us what God has already done for us – that we have been forgiven since Jesus took our separation from God upon Himself. He broke down the wall. It’s not a rule: it’s an announcement. All we have to accept it.

Easier said than done. People often ask if Christianity is easy or hard, and the answer is… yes.

It’s easy because the justification we could not achieve has been done for us. Christ paid for our sin with His own life and the resurrection is the graphic demonstration that in defeating the sin that bound us, He defeated everything attached to it – even death.

It’s hard because to just accept that and live in the freedom it brings is completely against our inbred desire to justify ourselves. We have trouble feeling good about our lives unless we do the work. The task of the Christian is to unlearn this way of thinking; to let go, to rest, and to just thank God for what He’s done. And (I can’t stress this enough) Christianity is not just agreeing with what the Bible says about God: it’s about trusting the person, work and love of God Himself for us and in us.

And we need constant reminders. Our actions we see and live with every day; but trusting an unseen God doesn’t come as easy. That’s why even experienced, instructed Christians need to keep up the good habits of reading their Bible every day, prayer and getting together with other believers.

But what freedom as light gradually begins to dawn in our hearts! It’s like water to a person dying of thirst, and one senses purpose, love, and radical healing of the heart. And it is offered to all who will simply come, “just as I am”.

The Basis of Forgiveness

… is a recognition
1. of my own sin. These days it is unpopular to consider personal guilt; it is approached more like a neurosis than a moral fact. But all mankind displays this tendency to sin. No amount of education or social engineering can change that.
2. God really has forgiven me. This incredible gift is given not because I earned it, but because of His love for me.
3. Universal guilt also means we can’t brag about how much better we are, and none can judge. The Christian lives purely by God’s grace., and this is key if we are to avoid a holier-than-thou attitude.
4. As we live in this forgiveness, our hearts start to change for the better in practical fact. And that is just plain incredible.

The Great Contradiction

Present conventional wisdom holds to values of tolerance; all cultures are held to be equal. Live and let live.

But what about when one culture would deliberately prevent members of their society from participating in that society as equals?

If we don’t challenge such views, we are not standing up for the marginalized within those societies. Is this just? Yet we are told we must not criticize such cultures.

My point here is not to bash another culture but to point out a double standard inherent in “progressive” thought: deeming all cultures equal, they prohibit criticism of societies that enslave and marginalize their own members. In doing so the progressives are not demonstrating tolerance: they are actually accomplices to injustice.

What’s more, they are quite intolerant towards those who would shine a light on these issues, branding them bigots and cultural imperialists. But can any of them answer the contradiction instead of just name calling? I don’t think they can.

You can’t sit on the fence. At the end of the day, there has to be a set of values that are absolute and binding on humanity if ideas of justice are to have any meaning.

Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is viewed by most modern thinkers as the starting point of many great evils; that if we did away with it, the world would be a better place.

But I think that depends on what your fundamental is.

A few years ago a gunman went to an Amish school and shot ten young girls, of whom a number died at the scene, before taking his own life.

The families of the victim forgave the gunman and took up a collection for his widow.

To say this goes against the grain is an understatement. And if the Amish aren’t fundamentalists then I don’t know who are.

The difference is that their fundamental is a Man dying for His enemies. The cultural and political baggage that has sometimes attached itself to Christianity (and there is plenty) aside, this is what lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. Christians are told to forgive the same way that Jesus did, and for his sake. If they don’t, they are departing from its teachings.

What’s your fundamental?

A thing I’ve noticed about many of the online debates lately is that people who make truth claims are often derided on the basis of their supposed affiliation with a school of thought: “you’re saying that because you’re a liberal, or a conservative or a vegan or lived at this particular point in history” …or whatever.

This approach has been called historicism, which posits that any truth claim must be judged in the context (for instance, the culture or a particular time in history) it was made in. 

Is this wise? The actual truth of the statement is not discussed; its validity is judged on the basis of what group or time the speaker belongs to, and the veracity of a particular claim is accepted or dismissed without rigorous examination.

Another less than beneficial result is that it tends to stereotype people in the discussions and promotes prejudging of motive. If what I say brands me a conservative then there is a tendency to assume all the other supposed evils of that view are are part of me as well. This discourages productive debate, steering the discussion away from issues and tending towards personal attacks. It promotes the sort of fractured discourse we see in modern politics.

This came up in a discussion I was having the other day. We were discussing the origin of moral truth and a pretty forthright statement made in a video I had reposted. The speaker’s statements were impugned on the basis that “he assumed the supremacy of the Judeo-Christian worldview” and were dismissed (if I understood my friend correctly) accordingly. The speaker was derided as narrow, bigoted, and hopelessly behind the times.

Of course the speaker assumed that supremacy. So do I: I could hardly call myself a Christian if I didn’t believe it was actually true. But Historicism assumes all truth claims are equal (by all being merely products of a particular view), a logical impossibility if there is such a thing as actual truth. It fits hand in glove with postmodern thought, and I think it’s quite useless if someone is trying to judge between truth claims.

And we must judge, for even the historicist is making a truth claim. A person with an intellectually rigorous outlook can’t sit on the fence; that many do reflects an uncritical acceptance of a prevailing (and I would suggest dishonest) intellectual climate.

Critical Thinking

Critical thought is usually associated with skeptical viewpoint. I tend to think of it more as reasoning your way through to the bottom of a issue to find out what’s really true.

There’s sort of an irony to the idea that many consider critical thought (they called themselves “rationalists” and “freethinkers” a century ago) as a thing used to debunk religious superstition; but I’ve found it cuts both ways. Many are not willing to look past what passes for our modern, materialist wisdom.

CS Lewis (and others like him) helped me here. He was able to demonstrate the tremendous rational coherence of Christian faith and debunked many of the shallow arguments trotted out against it.

I have found that Christians don’t have to be afraid of the hard questions. In fact, atheists and agnostics have to jump through a lot more mental hoops to justify their belief systems than their believing counterparts do.

But Christians do need to be critical thinkers. We need to examine our own assumptions if we are to have a robust faith; and we can certainly question the assumptions of our critics (and they assume a great deal more than is perhaps fair or reasonable). We don’t have to park our brains at the door when we become Christians.

Read the Bible deeply and on a regular basis; and read history, science and philosophy as well. Know what you believe and why it matters: and then live it out in the world. That is the kind of faith that can change the world.

The Bible in a Year

A few years ago, I decided to read the entire Bible in one year. I was surprised at some of the insights I was able to get out of it.

The advantage was that you get what the Bible is saying in context: not individual texts lifted out like some sort of blessing box verse, but the whole sweep of the Bible’s narrative while it’s fresh in your mind. You get much more of a feel for what it is telling us. It was, and continues to be, a life changing experience.

I’ve slowed down a little, but continue to read it daily: It has been so profitable and encouraging I just can’t stop.

What stuck out after taking big gulps of the Bible? One thing that was striking was my view of God in the Old Testament:

– God is fair, and God is Love. If He’s mad, it’s because people are unfair or unloving.

– That people matter. They really do.

– That the moral law is not something we made up, but is as real and objective as mathematics. That it has a Source. Good really is good, and evil is, well, evil.

– That God is a covenant making God. He makes promises to His people, and that He is faithful.

– That He always has shown grace, even in the Old Testament.

I was also able to see how well the Old Testament meshes in with the New. How many of the promises made to Israel find their consummation in Christ, and how the promises made to the nation of Israel now open up to include anyone – Jew and Gentile – who will trust in Israel’s Redeemer.

– The New Testament, besides the gospel narratives (the actual teachings, work, and resurrection of Christ) shows us, especially in St Paul’s writings, the logic of redemption, and how it all fits together.

– That God is relational: the individual’s decision to trust God is crucial.

– That even Christians are still human and can get it wrong. Much of the New Testament contains letters written to correct imbalances that were showing up in the young churches.

– That there is an end to History. That death really has been defeated, and that we were made for happy endings because there is one.

– That despair is not an option. That there really is hope and meaning for life.

Just a few thoughts. If you haven’t Read the whole Bible, I’d encourage you to do it. Read the New Testament first, and Psalms and Proverbs. Don’t let some parts (the geneologies in Chronicles and some of the more nit picky rules in Exodus and Leviticus come to mind) bog you down. Set aside a little time, every day, and read. It takes a while to develop the habit, but it’s really worth the trip.

Islamophobia

Much has been said lately about attempts to legislate against hate speech.

ISIS and its odious compatriots are pushing a particularly narrow and violet version of fundamentalist Islam. Whether by accident or design, their atrocities tend to associate decent, law abiding Muslims in the west with the horrors we hear of perpetrated in the name of Allah.

The politically correct rush in to tell these people that we don’t blame them, and in that I feel they show a real generosity in spirit. But they overshoot, clamping down on any legitimate criticism of Islam.

Therein lies the real danger: this attempt to silence critics pushes people into corners. It attacks the very heart of what we are, creating a “them vs us” mentality as people with legitimate fears have their voice removed.

There’s a real irony here. Just as some tend to label all Muslims negatively due to the actions of a few, so do others lump the critics of Islam into a single, monolithic group of haters. This is neither fair nor wise.

Hate speech laws don’t change hearts. They just push the discord deeper down, where it can fester. And even those who have a reasonable objection are marginalized as their voice is being legislated away (as an aside, I think this accounts for much of Donald Trump’s recent election as President. A creeping sense of political correctness has inclined many to push back the polls).

This is not what liberal democracy is about. Freedom of speech goes hand in hand with freedom of religion and conscience. Everything must be open to critique, and those examined have the right to response. It is neither unreasonable nor Islamophobic to ask Muslims who have come to live among us to give assurances that they now share our values.

Aristotle told us a city is a unity of unlikes. True diversity must allow for differences of opinion: and that is what I feel is threatened by hate speech laws. They negatively affect other, more fundamental constitutional rights. Yes, some feelings may get hurt; freedom is messy. That’s the price we pay for living in the west.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus is the way to God, but freedom to choose or reject Christ is implicit in that belief. As a citizen, I must support Muslims’ right to practice their faith peacefully, even if I disagree with its view of God. We’re supposed to be civilized about our differences, and ours is an age where common courtesy is in short supply. People need to exercise good manners and do careful investigation before criticizing.

The freedom to critically examine creeds and lifestyles must be maintained, as does the right to respond in civilized discourse. Labelling a critic an Islamophobe, homophobe, Christianophobe or any other label is just name calling and does far more harm than good. It splinters the freedoms we cherish, and in the end nobody wins.