Considering the healing hope of judgment day

I’ve spent some time over the years pondering the biblical notion of judgment day. As I grow older and more mature and my imagination of what such an event will involve changes, I find myself longing for a sermon I’ve never heard. It goes something like this:

We are all both victims and victimizers. We’ve done things to harm others and grieve God, and others have done unwarranted things to us that have harmed us and grieved God. When Jesus Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, as the creed says, this should be cause not just for fear and wariness over what we’ll be judged for, but also hope and relief that God will plead our cause and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will come heal our wounds by untangling the vexing mess of how we’ve been victimized by others and perpetrated injustice ourselves. How sweet that will be. 

To affirm one piece of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, yes, I’ll think we’ll be surprised by the gravity of what we’ve done wrong. It won’t be a pleasant experience. 

I remember a moment in therapy last year. My wife at my time and I had just separated. I had been exposed in the most deep and shameful way I’d ever experienced. She was unspeakably hurt by what I’d done—and understandably so. It was a toxic collision of hearts. We had triggered each other’s past wounds. There would be forgiveness, but not marital reconcilliation. We ended up getting divorced. 

Even in the midst of this brokenness and undoing, however, my therapist observed something profound. He said I looked relieved, as if this big, oppressive thing had somehow come out of me, as if I’d just been dragged out into the light after years of hiding in a hole. It didn’t feel like it at the time. It hurt like fucking hell. But like the dragon Eustace in Prince Caspian, who was only able to shed his scales when cut to the core by Aslan’s claws, it turned out to be the beginning of a profound seasion of growth and movement towards health. 

My own movement from this moment towards healing, however would not have been possible without what I believe is the other equally (if not more) important facet of judgment day: the naming of our own wounds and hurts inflicted by others. Seeing our sins will be shocking, but I think we’ll be even more surprised by the sweet relief of our heavenly Father and Brother tending to our wounds and binding them up. Like Matt Damon’s character in the film Good Will Hunting, I think we’ll weep in the arms of God as he whispers with a sweet, tender firmness over and over again: “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. 

It makes me sad that can’t remember ever hearing this in church. I’ve never encountered God this way until recently. I’ve never had this kind of hope and peace that all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. For most of my life I have not felt safe naming the ways that I’ve been mistreated and victimized, because I was warned so frequently that doing so was probably a way of justifing and downplaying my own sin that I alone was responsible for. 

This is a narrow truth. And a narrow truth is no truth at all. 

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said to his followers. For most of my Christian life I understood this truth primarily as theological beliefs about salvation, the divinity of Christ, and so on. But I think it encompasses something much broader, deeper, and more personal and intimate. Knowing and naming the truth about ourselves is freedom. Contrary to what I’ve long believed and heard from certain church traditions, this does not begin and end with affirming our sinfulness and having faith in penal substitutionary atonement. It begins and ends with the deep bodily and heartfelt knowledge that I am loved. It continues with naming, in the safe and secure presence of another, how I’ve been wounded and hurt, the most shameful things I’ve done, and what I mostly deeply long for.

I like how Brennan Manning put it. When we arrive at the gates of heaven, he says, Jesus is only going to have one question for us: Did you believe that I loved you? If I can begin and end with that fundamental, heartfelt conviction, then by all means bring on judgment day. Come quickly Jesus, because I know your coming only ends with healing. It has to. It must. 

I find a profound biblical precedent for this at the end of the book of Revelation, where the Apostle John describes a great vision of “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

A river of life watering trees for the healing of the nations. The healing of the nations! We’re talking about not just individual wrongs here, but corporate, systemic wrongs that we as individuals feel so powerless against. I see here the exposure of unjust systems, the generational trauma of disenfranchisement and war and racism brought to light and healed one person at a time, one story at a time, complete with all their perplexing nuance and complexity. The macro and micro come together in this great healing crafted ever so personally by a God who reigns over multitudes yet calls each one out by name and does not let a single person go missing, as the prophet Isaiah so marvelously says. 

Interestingly, John’s revelation goes on to describe those outside the city as “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” This is a powerful way to sum up sin. The practice of dishonesty and disingenuousness binds us—and those we’ve hurt—in our wounds, like a father who abuses his daughter and several decades later shames her for her infidelity and relational woes while touting his own stable marriage. If we are to bear the great weight of glory, we must bear the awful, healing truth about ourselves and our stories. A family, church, or society with such wounds may be able to function at a superficial level, but until those abuses are named it will not be whole. It will not be well. 

In other words, I’m starting to realize that judgment day, as best I can imagine and anticpaite it, will basically be a big, intense therapy session that comes with an epic release—tears of relief and rest and longed-for healing. In this sense I think the Catholic church might be on to something with its idea of purgatory. It seems there must be some sort of process of personal growth and healing that must be undergone as we enter fully into relationship with God. I don’t imagine it as a punitive process. But it also doesn’t seem just for one person to spend decades laboring at the emotionally painful task of healing and reconciling their story and growing into their calling, while another proceeds through life in deadened ingnorance and suddenly—boom—dies of a heart attack and without any further friction immediately knows perfect love, joy, and peace. I can’t extrapolate anything from my human experience (or the the experience of Jesus, for that matter) from which that would make sense at an emotional and embodied level.

Yes, I know what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, that we will all be changed in “a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” That sounds instantaneous. But could it be that with the Lord one moment is as a lifetime, and a lifetime as a moment? Could it be that what we do not address and heal from in this life will be—every so tenderly and lovingly—addressed by our Father in the next? Could it be that there are no shortcuts to redemption, but that in the end we will bless God that it is so because the long, agonizing process of our healing will be the very thing that makes us strong, solid, and whole enough to bear the eternal weight of glory?

I’m still pondering these things. But I’m pondering them less with fear and more with curiosity, anticipation, and wonder. The great final healing is still a mystery, one we glimpse only dimly, as if through a mirror. Yes, I am afraid of the pain and difficulty that will come with judgment day. I feel this every time I brace myself for a difficult, conflict-filled conversation with someone. But I am also not afraid of judgment day, because I’ve tasted of the healing that’s on the other side, and I want more. 

Wait Without Hope: Finding a Way Through Unwellness

As news reports about COVID-19 continue coming at the same torrential pace and shelter-in-place orders become something of a new normal, I’ve found myself returning often to a passage from East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting

I don’t know how to put what Eliot is saying into plain speech, but something about those words rings profoundly true to me right now even though I can’t quite articulate why. I suppose that’s the beauty of poetry. Something here defies our formations of logic, it resists fitting into our clean categories of thought. 

All I know is that I feel these words as a prophetic call, a timely word in a moment of distress not unlike the global moment in 1940 when Eliot originally wrote this poem. The words stop me in my tracks. Everything superfluous falls out of focus. Wait without hope. Wait without love. Something in me wants to scream. What the hell man? How can you say that? How dare you say that? We’re hanging on by a thread here. 

The words settle, however, like a bar of gold dropped into a running stream, and I discern that not all hope is created equal. In the Apostle John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, there’s a fascinating exchange between Jesus and Martha as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene. 

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Look at Martha’s response to Jesus’ claim that her brother would rise again. She holds a form of hope, that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But something about it feels distant and abstract, much like the way Christians today talk about the heavenly hope they have. It’s a way of disconnecting from the present suffering, pain, and loss in this world in the here and now, perhaps even a way of hiding our own lack of faith. It can become an escape from one’s present reality, a way of dismissing the agony of death or loss of any kind. 

Not so with Jesus, who for his part clearly has something more present, immediate, and concrete in mind: the literal, embodied resurrection of Martha’s brother…today. 

I wonder if this dismissive, sentimental hope is what Eliot is telling his soul to cast aside. It’s an abandoning of hope to surrender to the true unknown of the situation, to the fact that people will suffer and die before this is over, to the knowledge that we have no knowledge about how, exactly, this will be brought to an end. It’s about looking to the horizon and seeing only war—or disease—in sight. 

Eliot continues:

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

Echoes of life and liveliness linger in the dark recesses of our hearts, no more than a whisper. Our memories have not lost the garden, the ecstatic changing of the seasons, Eliot says, but there is an agony that must be undergone, a death to die in the darkness, a place of stillness from which the dance begins.

This is the place of loss, before we see what comes with a new beginning. “In my beginning is my end,” says the first line of the poem. It concludes with an inversion of its opening: “In my end is my beginning.”

When I read East Coker I mumble these lines under my breath like a chant, turning them back and forth on my tongue until some sort of clarity begins to emerge. “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” What does it mean? 

What does it mean? It means what my pastor told his daughter after the 9/11 attacks when she asked the same question: The world as you know it is gone. Let’s start there. And for now let’s end there, because right now there is nothing else to say. There is no concrete hope to offer. Scientists are working on a vaccine, yes. Some states are reopening their economies. The rate of new cases is on the decline in many areas. But we do not know if another wave of infection is ahead. We don’t know how long it will take to develop a vaccine. We don’t know why so many people who carry the disease are asymptomatic. We’re living the dark. 

What is the way forward? Again, the poetry says it best:

In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know.

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“It’s a hard thing to ask of someone, to wait without hope,” I told my therapist through tears last week. “It’s so much to ask.” But as this story continues, and as our weirdly passive and active battle against COVID-19 drags on with no end in sight, I find myself returning to this heavy feeling. We must find a way to wait without hope, to go by a way of unknowing, a way of lack, a dead way of no ecstasy.

It won’t do to give people false hope. Rumors and anecdotal reports of effective treatments that are not actually effective (such as the ones alluded to by our president) only make matters worse and threaten to cast us into depths of anger and despair that are even harder, nigh impossible, to recover from. 

There is a way, Eliot reminds us, that death leads to birth rather than nothingness and despair. But we must be willing to let the world turn upside down, where darkness can become light, and stillness become the dancing. In voicing my sorrow over the difficulty of waiting without hope, I found that what I need right now isn’t happiness or relief so much as a friend to listen to me share my unwellness, to be willing to not look on the bright side for a moment and simply attend to my loss (and trust me enough to do the same for him in his pain).

Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about these feelings, explains how this process works on a relational level:

(W)e must be willing to name our sadnesses, both great and small. And we must name them to another who is able to validate our emotion. It is in this action that our minds realize they are not alone, and our grief is shared. In sensing that someone else also shares the load of our grief, we no longer have to burn the energy we have been consuming in our attempt to contain it. And with the lightening of our load, we are freed that much more to care for others, receiving their grief, and to begin the process of creating goodness and beauty around us.

This journey to redemption takes time. It is exhausting. But it is no less than the way of the Christ. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave, he sees Mary weeping, he goes to the grave and weeps. He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but first he mourned because he loved Lazarus and those who mourned over him. He felt their sadness with them. 

Near the end of his life Jesus would weep again in Gethsemane, begging the Father for some way—any way—other than the god-awful road of bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, and suffering the crushing blow of our iniquities. But through this road of death, the darkness in the tomb became light, the stillness turned to dancing, and the faint, ecstatic echoes of how life was meant to be found their full voice in humanity once again. 

There was—and is—no other way, “just death into life, over and over until all things are right.”

Life during the pandemic: limitations, trauma, and dignity

We are now several weeks into a strange and bizarre new way of living as the novel coronavirus approaches what will hopefully be its apex. During this time my thoughts and prayers have returned often to the question of how I, Andrew Collins, can flourish during a time like this. As I’ve leaned into this question, I’ve noticed three streams of response emerge in my heart as I journey through this strange new world that has happened to us. 

LIMITATIONS

The first, and most obvious to me, is that of mortality, death, limitation. I think of the weighty, prescient timing of the outbreak in light of the church calendar observed by many Christian in liturgical traditions. On February 26 the season of Lent began. Those who attended Ash Wednesday services had ash marked on their foreheads and the following words spoken over their bodies: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” 

I have no doubt that our society, and in fact the entire world, is collectively more in touch with this reality right now than we have been in a long time—perhaps not since World War II. We are facing a threat that is both seen and unseen. We know it exists and the harm that it causes, but it is invisible to the naked eye. Disease could catch us anywhere. It could lie within us, symptom free, and spread through us into the body of another. The world is suddenly a dangerous place.

But the world has always been a dangerous place. Our bodies have always been fragile and finite, vulnerable to the whims of a distracted bus driver, a cancer diagnosis, a stray bullet, a heart attack striking out of thin air. 

Beyond the short span of years we have on this earth, we are limited in other ways. Shelter in place orders have brought this truth to the forefront of our awareness. We cannot do many of the things that we love, that we once had the freedom to do. We cannot gather to pray together at the church down the street. We cannot get on an airplane, fly across an ocean, and feel the thrill of exploring strange new lands and cultures. We cannot step into our therapist’s office to weep. We cannot meet strangers in the park over a friendly pickup game of basketball. 

Yes, we are not so free and autonomous, the possibilities not so endless, as they once seemed. 

I do not think it is such a bad thing to see this and feel the check in our gut from this—the stifling lonliness as we sit alone in our apartment, the sense of being trapped in a handful of bedrooms with our family with no relief in the near future. In fact it can be, if we are willing to face it, the place where we begin to live life with greater fullness and sincerity.

I like how Annie Dillard puts it in An American Childhood:

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring. It is riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping. Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.

We have been forced out of the “dreaming fast loud routine” that is the modern world. That much is true enough. Why not, then, pay attention to the stillness, and find ways to enter more deeply into this country weekend before the hours tick away?

TRAUMA

In the past I might have concluded this essay here and let the existential message of death and finiteness be the last word. But I think there’s room in this space for more movement, for a dance of feelings and experiences. I think there’s room for us to let the highs and lows show up and speak their piece. 

Have recognized that life is short, many of us feel that we now, thanks to shelter-in-place orders, have time to pursue things that we have long put off. Now, we tell ourselves, is the time to learn to play the piano, to get out our canvas and paints again, to become penpals with that friend from high school we lost touch with, to write the novel that’s been percolating for the last decade, to fan the fading embers of a once-vibrant marriage. 

But the harsh, awful fact is that this epidemic is a traumatic event. The planet has bucked under us. We’re not living on the same earth that we were on two months ago. We’ve lost our footing. The rythms and liturgies of life have cut out. I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist, but I know that trauma does not bring out the best in us. It tends to have a regressive effect, resurfacing old wounds and old survival tactics.

An acquaintance of mine expressed this well in a Facebook post last month:

Go easy on yourself today. You’re not supposed to know how to do this. You’re not supposed to have all the answers or be totally peaceful and calm. This is new and uncertain and scary…

Your old patterns are gonna flare up. The ones you don’t like. The ones you wish would just go away already. The ways you avoid and escape and abandon yourself.

It’s enough right now just to notice them.

I see my old patterns flare up these days. I feel my existence sucked back into the orbit of glowing smartphone screens and self-aware Facebook posts and I hate it. As I scroll aimlessly, frictionlessly through social media, I feel the same restless impulses that I used to feel in my early twenties, always itching for another red notification, another blue dot, another buzz heralding the arrival of a new text message. I stay up past midnight playing a computer version of Axis and Allies against crappy AIs until I can hardly keep my eyes open, and then go to bed with that dull feeling of nothingness inside that lingers after wasted time. All the while a vertiable treasure trove of unread books sits within arms reach. I berate myself for wasting precious quarantine time, yet still the cycle goes on.

I have worked hard the past four years to pull away from this digital orbit but now it feels like I don’t have a choice. Better to Facetime a good friend than not speak to him at all, right? Better to ramp up my freelance work a bit and remain in decent financial shape so I’ll be okay as the economy slumps into a recession for who-knows-how-long, right? 

Yes, I think so, but I still don’t like it.

I’ve often sung the refrain with Switchfoot: “I want to thrive, not just survive.” I sing it still, trying to stave off the old feelings of shame and self-loathing creeping up in my heart. In these moments I try to remember that sometimes our journey to thriving begins with naming that it’s okay to just survive, that our feelings and bodies are serving us and in some cases quite literally keeping us alive.

I recently rewatched Dunkirk, the World War II film about the miraculous evaculation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops who would otherwise have been captured or killed by advancing Nazi armies. At the end of the film, as the soldiers return to the safe shores of England, an old blind man affirms them as he hands out blankets.

“Well done lads, well done,” he says as the soldiers pass by. “Well done lads.”

“All we did is survive,” one soldier replies, still reeling, no doubt, from memories of torpedoed navy vessels sinking into the sea, screaming dive bombers overhead, and body bags lining the beaches of Dunkirk. Surely he feels pathetic, impotent, cowardly. But the blind man’s response is as profound as it is simple.

“That’s enough,” he says. “Well done.”

Last week UN Secretary General António Guterres said the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge facing the world since World War II. To use biblical language, the world is entering a time of trials and tribulations. There will be many moments, more for some of us than others, where it feels like we’re just getting by, just surviving.

I’m with the old man handing out blankets: that’s enough.

DIGNITY

The third stream involves claiming and living into my own dignity, worth, and power as a human being. In the face of encroaching limitations and disruptive trauma, this takes me into a paradoxical space because I see myself and those around me being humbled and exalted at the same time. Yes, we are finite and limited, but that does not mean we need to throw up our hands in surrender and give up the power and volition that we do possess. Quite the opposite. Even though we’re isolated and separated from each other, our humanity is still on full display in profound, unique ways.

A remarkable thing happens when we name our own mortality. I like how Marilynne Robinson articulates this in her essay Proofs, where she considers a passage from 1 Peter:

All flesh is grass, and the beauty of it is like the flower of the field. In feeling the truth of such words we are seeing the world from a perspective like God’s. In feeling our unlikeness to the eternal we are experienceing the very height of our humanity—experiencing, that is, our ability to know far beyond our needs, our immediate circumstance, and to ponder existence itself. As we humble ourselves we are exalted.

Sit with that a moment. Read it again.

In the midst of much tragedy and death, this is a remarkable thing to consider. It underscores the reality that I can find new ways to seek out and experience life during this season, that I can choose to be in the world in a way that is both more human and somehow more divine even as the knawing anxiety betrays my vulnerability and the stay-at-home orders shock body and soul with the cold brevity of my finitness. 

In this hour of loss and disconnection I see my own indomitable human spirit rise up and surface despite the tumultuous sea of overwhelmed hospitals, global upheaval, and economic recession that surrounds me. It rises as I dance alone in the kitchen to the beat of an indie pop song while making scrambled eggs for lunch. It rises when I leave an 80% tip on a to-go order at my local coffee shop—something I would rarely, if ever, do under “normal” circumstances. It rises when I bring home firewood, chopped up from damaged framing lumber at the lumber yard where I work, so that my roommates can have fires in the living room on cold, cloudy days as they work from home. It rises when I pray aloud a liturgy for medical providers, weeping in the car as I beg Jesus to reach out hands of healing and comfort to those suffering in isolation from COVID-19, cut off from friends and family. 

In all of these moments I step into my own human dignity. Rather than shrink back in the face of a crisis that is outside of my control, I continue to make my own choices. I find new ways to live and move and have my being in the world. I exercise the power that I do have—power bestowed on me as an image bearer of God—to actually impact and change the universe, to play a part in someone else’s story, to catch the eye of God himself. 

The coronavirus may be bringing about the end of life as we know it in many ways, but it is far from the end of life. Like a seed that falls to the earth and dies before it sprouts, perhaps there is a time to die before we live. Wouldn’t that be something?

To despair and numb ourselves to the weight of the world’s brokenness is a very human response. To hope defiantly that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” is also human. We do both all the time. I for one intend to ride these waves as they come, trusting that I am, in fact, living out a story, for to be alive is to be in motion, a tender shoot unfurling and reaching recklessly up towards the sky.

“After-Birth” Abortion?

Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.

I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.

Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?

For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:

How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.

Continue reading →

Book Review: The Shallows

NOTE: This post marks the end of my longest blogging drought since starting this blog a little more than a year ago. For more than a month, I posted nothing. That’s unacceptable, but there’s no point in self-flagellation. What matters is that I’m back with another book review.

Yeah, it feels good to write again. On with the review:

About a year ago, I noticed an odd irony about my college experience. When I looked back to high school and compared my study habits, classes, and the things I remembered then to my college classes right now, I found that I was much sharper in high school. I remember being much more focused and engaged when I memorized biology terms as a high school freshman than when I studied Hegel in Intro to Philosophy last semester. I have no doubt that I’m smarter and more informed than at any other point in my life, so how could this be? (aside from sleep deprivation)

I found the answer in Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Few books have shaken up my thinking like this one. It will probably end up changing the long-term course of my intellectual life. Here’s why:

As the subtitle implies, Carr’s argues in “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It is shaping the way we think largely without anyone realizing it. This happens at the neurological level. The more we do certain activities, the better we become at them because our brains forge new circuits to make us more adept and sensitive. This applies to motor skills like playing the piano as well as more abstract thinking like reading a book. The more we practice a certain pattern of thinking, the more our brain map makes space for it.

This process also works in reverse. When we don’t practice certain things, those neural pathways start to go away. In people who become blind, for example, the neural paths that the brain once used for sight are rewired to enhance other senses like hearing and touch.

The implication of this is, as Carr quickly points out, is that technology ends up shaping and even controlling us much more than we might like to think. In the case of the internet, it trains our minds to be distracted. We jump from one thing to another within seconds—always shifting and moving and consuming. . . without really retaining. And with the sheer volume of information out there, we hardly have a choice. Between RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, Tweets, email, and instant Google searches, no one can afford to read anything anymore.

At least, we don’t read in the same sense that we traditionally mean when we “read” a book.

At this point, Carr treads with care. As a technology writer who has written for publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired, he has a pretty good understanding of the power of the internet to process information, mine data, and help us live better, more productive lives. He shows us how the internet has wrought an irreversible change on humanity, but demonizing the web is the last thing he wants to do. It is not inherently good or bad. And Google in particular is neither God nor Satan–although many people see it as one or the other. Even though the impact of the internet is unique, technology has always changed the way we think. Continue reading →

Book Review: A Rumor of Angels

We live in an age in which beliefs about religion and the supernatural–especially in the public square–seem to be growing increasingly polarized and antagonistic toward each other. The religious seem to be growing more religious, and the secular more secular. Modernity has engulfed the world over the last two centuries, and genuine, deep-set religious faith seems to be growing more and more untenable.

What are we to make of this? How should church leaders and secularists alike respond when faced with decisions about how to engage with the culture and those with differing beliefs? Or more important still, how ought we to go about finding answers to questions of faith and the supernatural?

Enter “A Rumor of Angels” by Boston University sociologist Peter Berger. Berger is one of those delightful intellectuals who refuses to be easily categorized. He does not subscribe to the typical thinking and well-known rhetoric of either side and offers his criticism to traditional Christians and the secularizing left alike. Berger himself probably put it best in a 1980 article in The Christian Century in which he described “A Rumor of Angels” as “an attempt to overcome secularity from within.”

I was first introduced to Peter Berger through a pastor. In this video about the question of certainty in biblical interpretation, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York city referenced “A Rumor of Angels”, noting that the decision to remain skeptical and avoid taking a position on something is itself a decision about what the text is saying. In other words, you can choose from the various interpretations, come up with your own, or claim some sort of “enlightened uncertainty”, but all three are concrete statements about the nature of what you are interpreting. Any belief you choose takes a stance about the nature of reality. If one of the first two positions is correct, then the third one isn’t going to do you much good.

Indeed, the most valuable insight of “A Rumor of Angels”, I found, was Berger’s insistence that the cultural forces that condition our beliefs really have little to no bearing on whether or not something is true. At one point in the book he recounts a visit to India where he encountered a street funeral and afterwards spoke with a Hindu who shared a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. It spoke of life, death and reincarnation. Berger found that his western, Judeo-Christian sense of life sharply rejected the eastern view. He admits why: worldviews are relative and his beliefs had been largely conditioned by his background and society.

This fact in itself, however, does not present any “new” problems to the question of belief; it is merely a sociological observation. “The matter becomes interesting in a very different way,” Berger writes, “the moment one passes from, broadly speaking, the sociology of knowledge to questions of truth.” For all of our observations and analysis about how religious belief comes about, it does not help much when it comes to answering the one big question: Who is right? Continue reading →

Highlights from Orthodoxy, Part One

I just finished G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

It’s a delightful read. They don’t make great writers, journalists, and public intellectuals like they used to. Chesterton’s prose is simple, clear, and concrete. He has just enough British snobbery to make him interesting and humorous at times, but not so much that he comes across as an arrogant jerk. He is opinionated and strongly convinced of his own beliefs, but he still humbly embraces the paradoxes and mysteries of life. One thing that I most appreciate about him is how he tends to find errors in a way of thinking only after he has first studied and believed it.

Most fans of Chesterton will agree that perhaps the greatest testimony to his genius is the timelessness of his work. He clearly anticipated the flow of society toward the coming modernist age. Although he deals with some outdated ideas and criticisms of Christianity, much of what he has to say remains relevant today.

But enough of what I think. I’ll let the man speak for himself. Here are some of the top quotes (in my opinion) from each chapter:

From Chapter I, Introduction (to help put the rest of the quotes in context):

When the word “orthodoxy” is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography.

From Chapter II, The Maniac:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. . . The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. Continue reading →