An approach to scripture, even when it’s confusing

What do you do when you read scripture you don’t understand? Break out the Greek and Hebrew dictionaries? Go read your favorite commentaries?

Or there is the more elusive contemplative approach: meditate on the scripture. Let your mind soak in it and let the holy spirit use it to say something to you.

Here, Alison wonderfully describes a way somewhere down the middle of this road:

When we say that this text is “Holy Scripture,” we don’t mean to say that it is venerable, with a patina of glorious tradition, or something like that. We mean that we don’t question it so as to break it, but rather we allow it to get lose enough to us to produce a break in us.

If we can hear the parts of the text which make no sense, rather than only those parts which we use to justify ourselves and strengthen our self-image, then perhaps from within that same sense of strangeness we will hear the Other whose image we are called to recover.

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.17

Reveal yourself as a sinner to your children

I’m pasting this here, just to remember. It’s from a short but excellent post on parenting by C.J. Mahaney.

You have the privilege of introducing them to God the Father and describing the ways in which he is different from you, different from all sinful fathers, and how in any way you are like him it’s only because of grace that you reflect him. See Luke 11:11–13.

Your honest confession of your sin to your children will protect them from having hard thoughts about you or God.

Requiring appropriate obedience does not promote hard thoughts about God. This only happens when we do so in self-righteousness or anger.

No man is an island

Smart people are always saying things like, “For every two new books you read, you should go back and reread one of the best ones.” Well, just like I rarely rewatch movies, I also find this difficult to do with books. There are just so many new things to explore! In fact, I think I could count on two hands the grand total of all books I’ve ever read more than once.

A couple years ago, I devoured all the Merton I could find. Alas, the parts that I didn’t blog about have evaporated from my memory. I remember No Man is an Island being especially good though, so I’m rereading it. And waddayaknow?! It is really good. It’s one of those books that is difficult to quote from on this blog because there is no good place to stop. I type in one paragraph, and then tack on the next, and then discover that the next 3 pages are worth quoting as well. The end result is that I don’t end up blogging about much of it at all, because it would take more effort to summarize into something of a readable length.

Nevertheless, here is an example of some of the spiritual no-nonsense talk Merton gives in the preface:

No matter how ruined man and his world may seem to be, and no matter how terrible man’s despair may become, as long as he continues to be a man his very humanity continues to tell him that life has a meaning. That, indeed, is one reason why man tends to rebel against himself. If he could without effort see what the meaning of life is, and if he could fulfill his ultimate purpose without trouble, he would never question the fact that life is well worth living. Or if he saw at once that life had no purpose and no meaning, the question would never arise. In either case, man would not be capable of finding himself so much of a problem.

Our life, as individual persons and as members of a perplexed and struggling race, provokes us with the evidence that it must have meaning. Part of the meaning still escapes us. Yet our purpose in life is to discover this meaning, and live according to it. We have, therefore, something to live for. The process of living, of growing up, and becoming a person, is precisely the gradually increasing awareness of what that something is.

This is a difficult task, for many reasons…

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.xi

Merton goes on to talk a lot about “finding yourself”, but it’s nothing like the shallow stuff you heard in grade school or the stuff you still hear on Oprah. It’s ALL wrapped up in God.

Father hunger

Reading a bit like Iron John at times, Erikson places great emphasis on a man’s relationship with his father. In describing Luther’s, he quotes a passage from Tom Wolfe:

From the beginning . . . the idea, the central legend that I wished my book to express had not changed. And this central idea was this: the deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man’s search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united.

-Thomas Wolfe, The Story of a Novel, p.39

I suspect there is a LOT of truth wrapped up in this.

The truely creative man has no choice but to proceed!

Though using Darwin and Freud as examples (not exactly my favorite thinkers), Erikson here does a good job describing creative and intellectual restlessness.

As was indicated in the preface, Freud and Darwin are among the great men who came upon their most decisive contribution only after a change of direction and not without neurotic involvement at the time of the breakthrough to their specific creativity.

Darwin failed in medicine, and had, as if accidentally, embarked on a trip which, in fact, he almost missed because of what seem to have been psychosomatic symptoms. Once aboard the Beagle, however, he found not only boundless physical vigor, but also a keen eye for unexplored details in nature, and a creative discernment leading straight to revolutionary insights: the law of natural selection began to haunt him. He was twenty-seven years old when he came home; he soon became an undiagnosed and lifelong invalid, able only after years of concentrated study to organize his data into a pattern which convincingly supported his ideas.

Freud, too, was already thirty when, as if driven to do so by mere circumstance, he became a practicing neurologist and made psychiatry his laboratory. He had received his medical degree belatedly, having decided to become a medical scientist rather than a doctor at the age of seventeen. His moratorium, which gave him a basic schooling in method while it delayed the development of his specific gift and his revolutionary creativity, was spent in (then physicalistic) physiology. And when he at last did embark on his stupendous lifework, he was almost delayed further by neurotic suffering.

However, a creative man has no choice. He may come across his supreme task almost accidentally. But once the issue is joined, his task proves to be at the same time intimately related to his most personal conflicts, to his superior selective perception, and to the stubbornness of his one-way will: he must court sickness, failure, or insanity, in order to test the alter- native whether the established world will crush him, or whether he will disestablish a sector of this world’s outworn fundaments and make a place for a new one.

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.46

Balance in parenting and discipline

Concerning Luther’s childhood discipline:

Medically-minded biographers may go a bit too far in saying that Luther’s nervous system was undermined in those days. It is certain, however, that the disciplinary climate of home and school, and the religious climate in community and church, were lumped together in his mind as decidedly more oppressive than inspiring; and that, to him, this seemed a damned and unnecessary shame. He blamed his atmosphere for his special monkishness, his intensity of monastic “scrupulosity,” his obsessional preoccupation with the question of how on earth one may do enough to please the various agencies of judgment teacher, father, superior, and most of all, one’s conscience.

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p. 78

As a parent, I really want to keep the car on the road with this. It’s really easy to drive off into the ditch of permissiveness and tolerance of sin and rebellion. This largely produces brats with a sense of entitlement. Luther experienced mostly the opposite. The other ditch is repressive submission to authorities (of all types, not just the good kind!) and demanding conformity to the obvious stifling of creative energy and joy.

This is why good parenting is hard work. You have to keep your eye on the road all the time. What do you do when you get sleepy?

Give yourself a humble introduction. It’s more true!

I really like an introduction like this:

The psychiatrist…not only disavows God’s hand in the matter, he also disregards, in his long list of character types and somatotypes, the existence of a homo religious circumscribed and proved not necessarily by signs and miracles, but by the inner logic of his way of life, by the logic of his working gifts, and by the logic of his effect on society. To study and formulate this logic seems to me to constitute the task at hand.

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.34

I love an introduction where the author, whoever they may be, is up front about defining the scope of what they are dealing with AND the limitations of their own tools. This quote alone doesn’t exactly capture the attitude he takes toword this, but here is a secular psychologist who says, right at the beginning, something like:

We are going to try to do the best we can to understand Luther’s thinking without considering the hand of God. If you believe in God, I’m sure you think that he played a big part. If you don’t believe in God, you probably think nothing of the sort. I’m no expert in diving the hand of God, so I’m only going to apply the tools I have as best I can. Take it or leave it.

I’m sick of books where the author provides no qualifications – as if he is the de facto expert on EVERY FREAKING THING you can imagine. Christian authors who pontificate about theology, economics, education, micro-biology, tort law, history, and robotics, all in the same chapter without providing any footnotes…sigh. Maybe they are really smart and have great things to say about these things. Nevertheless, I really appreciate it when they say, up front, that they are only approaching a subject from one particular angle. It’s a form of humility and intellectual honesty that is NOT difficult to bring into the conversation (about one page somewhere in the first chapter will do) but goes a LONG way in presenting your ideas in a way that other thinking people (including non-Christian thinking people!) can take much more seriously.

To be fair, most of our contemporary obnoxious atheists haven’t gotten the memo either.

N.T. Wright and Thomas Merton are two people that come to mind that do a really good job of defining the scope of their writing from the get-go.

The strength (and foolishness) of youth

In its search for that combination of freedom and discipline, of adventure and tradition, which suits its state, youth may exploit (and be exploited by) the most varied devotions. Subjecting itself to hardship and discipline, it may seek sanctioned opportunities for spatial dispersion, follow wandering apprenticeships, heed the call of frontiers, man the outposts of new nations, fight (almost any- body’s) holy wars, or test the limits of locomotive machine-power. By the same token it is ready to provide the physical power and the vociferous noise of rebellions, riots, and lynchings, often knowing little and caring less for the real issues involved.

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p. 42?

The latest junk degree: Interdisciplinary Studies

Yes, you too can have a degree in anything you want! Enjoy music, political science and yoga? How about math, Shakespeare and welding? Change your major too many times? Have we got the ticket out for you! Get a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. Come up with your own study plan – have a couple of your favorite profs sign off on it and you’re on your way! It sounds cooler than a General Studies degree too.

PLUS, if you still can’t get a job when your done, you can always go back and get a GRADUATE degree in interdisciplinary studies! Woo hoo! Add some French and a thesis on the intersection of the Beatles White Album with Finnegan’s Wake. Cool! Now that you’re $100k in debt, you’re sure to find that dream job.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m actually ALL FOR interdisciplinary studies. I think nearly all of the most interesting scholarship AND productive work out there intersects many disciplines.

Can you write a killer application with only raw computer science chops? No. Creative graphic design powers? No. A deep understanding of user interfaces and lots of intuitive empathy? No. You need all three! Yes, you can have a team of people working on a project, one of each, but the really genius folks have all three working together in their own heads. You won’t learn this stuff in school either, though school will help parts of it.

I like reading Girard and he dabbles in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, literary criticism, theology, and more to come up with some truly original ideas.

The problem with our kings and politicians today is that they are hyper-specialists in getting elected with (occasionally) some background in law. This is not a good mix for actual creative problem solving.

It’s well-known that some of the world’s greatest musical performers are lousy teachers. Teaching well has almost nothing to do with your ability to practice 10 hours a day without your head falling off. It requires a lot of thinking about cognitive psychology, communication, and even a certain set of sharp social skills.

The world has had many great inventors, but all the ones you probably know about (folks like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs) also knew a thing or two about economics.

I could go on and on. All the best stuff is “interdisciplinary”. But you got to figure that out on your own. The degree won’t really help. It could mean anything, or nothing.

Oddly enough, I got to thinking about this after reading the introduction to Erik Erikson’s Martin Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History:

So we may have to risk that bit of impurity which is inherent in the hyphen of the psycho-historical as well as of all other hypehenated approaches. They are the compost heap of today’s interdisciplinary efforts, which may help to fertilize new fields, and to produce future flowers of new methodological clarity.

His own metaphor is tongue-in-cheek. I love it.

Young Man Luther

I’m having a good time reading the (apparently) controversial biography of Martin Luther by Erik Erikson. Erikson was a secular psychologist and the one who coined the phrase “identity crisis” in the 1950s. A lot his talk on what was going on in Luther’s head is probably conjecture, but portions of it make a lot of sense. Never a dull moment. Other than the textbook summary, I actually know very little about Luther, so I feel like this is filling an appropriate void.

From the introduction:

Luther has been both vilified and sanctified, and both by sincere and proven scholars, who have spent a good portion, if not all, of their lifetimes reconstructing him from the raw data – only to create, whenever they tried to encompass him with a formula, a superhuman or a suprahuman robot, a man who could never have breathed or moved or least of all spoken as Luther spoke. In writing this book, did I intend to do better?

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.13