Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

The Brain on Faith: Part 4 in a Four-Part Series

Am I the only one who had to take care of one of these my eighth grade year?

Some of my regular readers may be amused to learn that I actually got the eighth grade science award.  (I guess I took extra good care of my egg baby or something.)  Somewhere in high school, I, like many other adolescent girls, fell away from pursuing the sciences.  Fortunately, others went on in their pursuits, and the past few days we’ve been speaking with one of them: today we’re wrapping up our interview series featuring Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries on the subject of neuroscience and theology.

How has studying the brain changed your understanding of yourself?  How has it changed your understanding of human beings and what makes them “made in God’ image” and about who God is and what God is like?

I think one major thing that I’ve learned about humans is that we aren’t particularly rational. I mention this earlier, that we have a misguided notion that if we just took the time, and were careful, and smart, and logical, that we could take all of the inputs we get – all the information we have ever received in any form throughout our whole lives – and have the perfect appropriate responses to all things. That we can be purely rational and our behavior would be flawless. This just isn’t so. We aren’t purely rational – and frankly that’s a good thing, because we wouldn’t survive very long if we were. The size that our brains would need to be, and the amount of energy they would need to consume, in order for us to function that way would be enormous. Not to mention that if we were slowly processing large quantities of information with such top-heavy brains – an irrational predator would come and eat us before we could respond. Our brains have evolved to use information processing short cuts to reduce energy demands and streamline processing. And this has been very beneficial evolutionarily. But it also means that when it comes to things like money and politics and life in our modern society, we don’t make logically optimal and rational decisions – despite our illusion that we do.

I never know how much we should look to humans to inform our image of God. While I think we are “made in God’s image,” I don’t think we are replicas of God, and I worry that we tend to make idols of God in our own image.

Now and in previous centuries the church has often rubbed up against science (think Galileo, Darwin, etc) much like a Brillo pad on grease- with a stubborn, even hostile determination to rid itself of the questions science has posed for theology. Are there ways in which, to borrow the apostle Paul’s sentiment that God is “reconciling all things to God’s Self”- you see any rapprochement taking place here?

Yes and no. There remains much hostility between the church and science, although in many ways this appears often to be more politically based than religious, per se. But there is indeed a growing sense that one can affirm both science and faith. Many Christians accept the big bang and evolutionary theories. Almost all Christians embrace medical and technological advances, all rooted in science. And some are eager to find common ground between science and religion. But I’m a bit wary of much of the way this is going about.

One approach is Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA). That’s the idea that science and religion are concerned with separate realms of our lives. To paraphrase Gould, one deals with the ages of rocks, the other with the rock of ages. And I think many people, whether they realize it or not, buy into this mindset. But I think this idea is wrong. The first problem, is that it reduces God to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, referred to as “God of the gaps.” Anything we can explain is science, and what we can’t explain is God. This idea that God must exist outside of science, outside of the natural world, is sad – and poor theology.

Another problem is that I don’t think it’s clear where we draw the boundaries between science and religion. As our scientific knowledge continues to grow, those gaps get smaller, and we’re quickly pushing God further and further out of our lives. Many people, including Gould, say that the one realm where science has no place is questions of morality. And here I’d disagree as well. Science has plenty to say about morality. There’s been great work done in psychology, evolutionary biology, economics and neuroscience that contribute to our discussions of morality.

Another approach for affirming both science and religion is to say that there must be a dialogue between the two. This is a bit better – but it has a bit of a problem. The main flaw is when this is expected to be a two way street – that beliefs and facts are to be given equal footing, such that scientific results are considered a matter of opinion. And, at the risk of sounding condescending, I just don’t see how that can be. Don’t get me wrong, science doesn’t have all the answers, scientists don’t know everything, but when empirical evidence and religious beliefs go head to head, I don’t see how one can hold the two in balance.

Ultimately science is a method, a way of asking and testing questions. Religion is – well, it’s trickier to define. At worst it’s a set of beliefs; at best, a relationship with God, a cultural practice, a community, a spiritual practice, an ultimate concern. However we define it, I don’t see how it can inform how we ask and test questions. But, I do see how what science has learned can inform our beliefs, how we function as a community, how we nurture our selves and one another, and how best to act on our ultimate concerns.

At the same time, I do think scientists, when in dialogue with people of faith need to hear and understand where the questions and misgivings of some believers stem from. For instance, many people who don’t accept evolution don’t do so because they are so deeply committed to the facts of the six-day creation myth, but because evolution pushes God’s involvement further away in space and time. If God didn’t shape humans out of mud and breathe life us a few thousand years ago, but maybe God did trigger the big bang – that sounds so cold and uncaring. And so I do think scientists involved in these conversations need to be able to listen to and to speak to those concerns. But I don’t think religion can tell scientists how to ask questions or what results to accept.

How does creationism converse with science? A bit like this....

But yes, I do see a growing interest among Christians to understand how faith and science can co-exist. And I think we need to move beyond trying to jam these two puzzle pieces together, but learn how science can inform our faith, how our theology and our practice can grow from what we are learning.

Maybe a similar question would be: what is the promise and peril of neuroscience for Christian theology and the church?

I mostly see the promise – I believe that the continuing developments in neuroscience can help us to better understand the world, ourselves, and our relationship with God. I see this as good – as great really. This is peril, however, if our goal is to clamp firmly to the past. If Christian theology wants to uphold the doctrine and theology of the past, then neuroscience (and all science) is a great peril to theology and the church. If our faith requires that, then we’ve got big problems. The advances in neuroscience will change our doctrines and our understanding of God, ourselves, and the world. We have been warned not to create idols, and I think that when we cling to our old worldviews we create such idols – idols of our concept of God, idols of the world and of ourselves. My experience is that by destroying idols we breathe anew. I think theology that embraces science, that embraces neuroscience, will breathe new life into our faith, new life into our church.

Got comments for Saskia? Leave them below.  Thank you, Saskia, for your contributions here, and for your thoughtfulness both as a scientist and a person of faith.  If part of what it means to follow Jesus is to exhibit a curiosity about and wonder with the world around us, you’ve modeled this for me.  I hope for all of our sakes you keep asking the questions!

Tomorrow, I respond to one reader’s suggestion that I can’t be a woman minister because “the Bible says so”….

 

The Brain on Faith: Part 3 of a Four-Part Interview

We’re back with Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries in a conversation about neuroscience and faith…

I’m curious about how you read Scripture these days, and want to spend some time here.  How do you read the creation story, for instance? 

In a soundbite, I take Scripture seriously, but not literally. That always sounds a bit trite to me, but I think it’s pretty accurate. I love Scripture, and I love to study it, but I don’t believe all of it is literally true. Some of it I think is myth – such as the creation stories in Genesis. I do not think the world was created in six days – with the sun being created after plants (how did they photosynthesize with no sun?). I don’t think Eve was made from Adam’s rib. But, I don’t think that myths are bad. While I don’t believe them to be literally true, I do think that they contain truth. I do believe that the world is good. I love the care and the validation of each part of creation. Light and dark. Dry land and water. I love the image of God breathing life into Adams lungs. If it had been written after microscopes were invented, there would be bacteria and microbes in the mix as well. Myth isn’t bad, myth is useful. And I find inspiration in these myths.

Adam and Eve utilize their prefrontal cortex to do some higher-level reasoning.

But I think we run into problems when we base doctrines on a literal reading of them. For instance, our understanding of sin, original sin, seems predicated on the Fall of human beings, Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. I know that many Christians (though not all) are comfortable with evolution, but what does that mean for the Fall? What does that mean for our understanding of the human condition? What does that mean for our understanding of redemption and atonement? If these doctrines are contingent on the Fall, what are we to make of them?

I like to speculate that the Fall was an evolutionary development that was unique to humans. Perhaps the development of the prefrontal cortex, or the emergence of language or tool use is what demarcates our fallen state. None of these are unique to humans, though, simply much more developed in humans than other animals. And I don’t think I’d say any of these are bad developments. Of course, perhaps the idea of Original Sin isn’t accurate. Who’s to say Augustine got that right?

What do you make of supernatural occurrences in Scripture, such as Jesus’ miracles?

Other parts I read differently…I don’t know if [the miracles] all actually happened; I don’t know that they didn’t. I’m generally skeptical, but I think we get distracted when we get hung up on whether they actually happened or not. It becomes a litmus test – in order for Jesus to have actually been divine he had to be able to do these things. And if there is any natural explanation for what happened, or if there were ever evidence that the miracles did not happen as recorded in the Gospels, then Jesus couldn’t have been God. Well, why? Why must God act outside of the natural world? Where did this rule come from?

I don’t think that’s the point of these stories. To me the mechanism isn’t important, it’s the acts. Jesus feeding five thousand people. Did he really make 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food for all the people, or did he inspire people to share their food with strangers? To me the how is less important than the feeding, the fellowship among strangers. All those healing stories – did Jesus really heal them? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus touched and included the outcasts – the bleeding women, the leperous Samaritans, the lame and the blind. All of these people, who had been excluded from community, from worship, from physical touch, he embraced and included – no small feats. These are some of my favorite stories, and I believe they are pivotal to the gospel. If we were to go through the Bible, a là Thomas Jefferson, and cut these out because we don’t believe they happened literally, I think we’d lose much more than stories of magic. The miraculous acts, to me, are highlighters indicating that there is something really critical about these encounters. But I don’t think it’s the mechanism of the interactions that’s critical – I think it’s the end result.

Then there is the apostle Paul’s own wrestling with the reality that he does the very things he does not want to do….

Romans 7. I find that this passage wonderfully describes decision making. This is a very interesting area in neuroscience, currently, that relates neural processes to psychology and economics, among other fields. We have a notion that we have the capacity to be completely rational. If we could control our passions, or our sinful nature, then we could always choose the optimal behavior, the correct response to the array of information we receive. And Paul could have always done what he wanted to do. But the evidence is that this is a misrepresentation of reality. The reason that we sometimes do what we don’t want to do is not because we are weak, it’s because that is how we are wired. Our behavior, our decisions, are rarely made rationally. The evidence is that most of our behavioral choices are made instinctively and subconsciously, and that the rationalization of those choices – when we think we are actively making them – happens after they are made. Much like Hume’s thought that reason is the slave of the passions.

"My brain made me do it, Mom."

I think this is really important, on many levels. For starters, this false notion that we could potentially act perfectly rationally is very unhealthy, and the more we learn to trust our instincts and emotions, how to use them and not fight them, the healthier we will be. I also think this has important implications for education and moral development. We learn moral behaviors not by learning the right answers, but rather by learning the right actions. We need to train our behavior much like we learn to play musical instruments or how we learn to perform athletic feats, or even how to speak languages. It’s not by studying the theory and learning the right answers – it’s by practicing the actions. Learning the motions, learning how to make decisions, when to slow down, when to swing. To the extent that we limit our education to teaching our children, and ourselves, to think the right thoughts and give the right answers to moral questions, we are crippling ourselves.

The Brain on Faith: Part 2 of a Four-Part Interview

Every mad scientist needs a brain on their shelf, next to the do-it-yourself EEG kit and the amputation saws. A lab coat is good, too. See "Top 12 Things You Need To Be A Mad Scientist" at http://listverse.com/2008/03/06/top-12-things-you-need-to-be-a-mad-scientist/.

If you’re just tuning in, we’re continuing our conversation with Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries, as part of a four-part exploration of the intersection between neuroscience and theology. 

Are human beings hard-wired to believe in something, God, etc?

This is a great question. Daniel Dennett, among others, has argued for this idea. He wouldn’t say “hard-wired” – per se. That has much stronger meaning in science than I think you mean. But do we have an innate tendency to believe in something, such as God? I’d say, yes. A big part of what our brains do is to create coherent sense out of all the information we receive. For example, take visual perception – our brain creates a whole, stable and consistent percept from the snippets of visual information we take in each moment. As we live in the world, our brain is constantly making sense of our experiences and the information we receive, creating essentially a narrative of the world. And this is extremely valuable and important, and allows us to function in the world.

One theory of religion is that it results from this tendency. Essentially, in creating this narrative, in making sense of what we perceive, our brains is looking for causes, for agency. Bustling in the leaves behind you is because a person or animal is there, etc. So the idea is that when we can’t find a proximate cause we devise spirits or gods that cause the unexplained things. The theory is that over time this developed into religion as we know it today, with dogma and doctrine and rituals. And so long as religion is a list of just-so stories about the world, and a god (or gods) that look a lot like super heroes, then yeah, I think this could be a fair assessment of religion. But I don’t think that’s what faith is, what religion is – and that’s why I think we need to be willing and able to let go of just-so stories and the idols we create for God.

So yes, I think we have a innate tendency to believe things. We need this in order to function in the world – to navigate, to communicate, to glean any information from the world around us. And some aspects of religion rely on this innate function, but it’s not the whole story.

Some people would say faith is just a neurological circuit in the brain firing. How would you respond to that?

Why “just”? There’s a notion that if something is the result of brain activity then it isn’t real. If I explain to you how we perceive sunsets, and how the neural wiring of the visual system establishes complementary colors, does that make the sunset less beautiful? The activity of our brain is what lets us think, lets us see beautiful things, taste food, listen to music, laugh at jokes, and fall in love with people. It doesn’t make these things less real or pleasing – in fact, I find that understanding more about these things makes me enjoy them more. For example, there are neural circuits in our brains that underlie language, our ability to speak, our ability to learn language, etc. But nobody would suggest that language is just an illusion, just the activity of neural circuits. Rather, evidence of such neural circuits validates these functions. Similarly, the idea that faith is the result of neural activity should not diminish or invalidate faith. The fact that faith amounts to brain activity doesn’t make it less real or significant. All of our behavior and all of our thoughts and all of our feelings result from neural activity – why would faith be any different?

Do the brains of religious and non-religious people differ? To take this further, does someone with the “fruit of the Spirit” have a different looking brain?

This is a really interesting question. Frankly, I don’t think this has been examined in a way that directly answers those questions, per se. Do the brains of religious and non-religious people differ? I’d say no. I’m assuming you are asking about brain activity, rather than brain structure. (There is some interesting work showing structural differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths, but usually we look at functional differences).

Marie Callender's chicken pot pie or Velveeta mac n' cheese? Thank God I don't have to think like this when I'm saying the creeds.

So of course then we’d have to ask are there differences when people do what? That is, I don’t expect there to be differences in brain activity when somebody is reading a grocery list, for instance, but could there be difference when somebody is doing something religious, or thinking about God, or something like that? Sam Harris, of course, showed that the brain activity of Christians when they affirm statements of faith (ie. Jesus is the son of God) is the same as the brain activity of non-religious people when they affirm statements of fact (ie. the sky is blue). He uses this to argue that beliefs aren’t special – they aren’t different from other ideas or thoughts.

There have been some studies looking at brain activity when people pray, or even trying to capture brain activity during “practices related to compassion” – and mostly they find relatively subtle effects, often not statistically significant, and only when they are comparing, for example, mediation novices with monks who have meditated for over 10,000 hours. That’s roughly one hour per day for 30 years. I find those kinds of studies unconvincing. 10,000 hours of any action will probably show some changes in brain activity for that action. And if that’s the amount of prayer or meditation it takes to effect a small difference, I’m not sure we could honestly say that your run of the mill religious person (say the typical church goer) has different brain activity than non-religious people.

So, bottom line, to date I think there is very little evidence to suggest that there are significant differences between the brains of religious and non-religious people – but I also don’t think it’s been adequately studied to give a definitive answer.

I see the questions about fruit of the Spirit as a different question. Personally, I don’t see these as traits that are unique to religious people. I think religion might help cultivate these attributes, but I think plenty of non-religious people exhibit them as well. Again, I don’t think this has been explicitly studied – and I think it would be difficult to design a good experiment to look at this parameter – but I’d be more inclined to expect differences in brain activity that correlate with kindness and gentleness and patience, etc.

Correction:  By way of elaboration to yesterday’s post, in which I joke about the genre of movies that Saskia shows her fruit flies in her experiments, I asked Saskia to share a bit more about the kinds of “flicks” she shows her flies.  She wrote the following: “…the movies I show are way simpler – patterns of motion really. I can’t say what the fly itself ‘likes,’ but I’ve been studying a particular cluster of neurons that respond really strongly to looming stimuli – that is stimuli that mimic an object moving towards the fly on a direct collision course. I’ve shown that these neuron are “necessary and sufficient” for the fly’s escape response – that is these cells are why when you try to swat a fly it usually gets away.
Got questions or opinions?  Just leave them below.  Tomorrow join the conversation about how a Stanford neuroscientist takes the Bible seriously.

From Boobs to Brains: A Four-Part Interview with a Stanford Neuroscientist

Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries shows movies to fruit flies and observes how their brains respond.

What can our grey matter tell us about sin and redemption?

If all this boobie talk is becoming tiresome- incidentally just the other day NPR’s Terry Gross was interviewing someone who has written a whole book on breasts- we’re on to a subject I find frankly far more scintillating.  It’s one that we’ve been waiting for, and it won’t disappoint.  Today is the first in a four-part interview series with friend and fellow saint and sinner Dr. Saskia de Vries- about implications of the latest discoveries in neuroscience for Christian theology and how these two areas, of neuroscience and theology, might converse with one another.

Saskia and I met in college through the InterVarsity circuit.  Now, more than fifteen years later (my college reunion is next weekend and I’m not going because I’m in denial) we both have traveled a bit spiritually and theologically  (while, I would like to think, and speaking for myself, keeping the very best of our evangelical influences).  Saskia went on from Yale to earn a PhD from Harvard in neurobiology, and currently is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  She has spent her entire career studying visual processing- how the cells and circuits of the brain detect and encode visual information (ie. how an image is turned into a neural signal) and how that information is used to guide behavior.  She currently studies this in fruit flies, where she records the electrical activity of tiny cells in the fly’s brain while she shows movies to the fly.  (I have a question in about which flicks are her flies’ favorites. )

"I'm in the mood for a romantic comedy." "Aw, c'mon! We always see chick flicks. How about an action thriller?"

In July I’ll have the privilege of leading worship with Saskia and preaching to her church, Old Presbyterian Church, in San Francisco, where she is an active leader in the community.  Saskia, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

How did you become interested in the relationship between neuroscience and theology?

For the most part these have been distinct interests. I have been interested in both fields for a long time. I think I got more directly interested in the relationship when a few years ago I was revisiting some of the confessions of the church. I found myself really frustrated about what I feel are misconceptions about our selves, as humans, and the world. I understand why they are in there, some more subtly than others, as these confessions were written hundreds of years ago and reflected the accepted understanding of the world at the time. But our understanding of the world has changed, significantly. And I found myself frustrated that the self-correction that is the norm of science seems to be missing in theology. I have to believe it’s not all together absent, but it seems to me that we are largely willing to ignore what we’ve learned about ourselves and the world in order to hold onto these historical documents. We do so only as a disservice to ourselves. We don’t ignore it in other realms of life – when it comes to legal practice, or medicine, or technology. But we do in the church. Why? To what end? I think this need to cling to the past is hurting the church.

How has your vocation as a neuroscientist informed your faith?

As a scientist, you are trained to ask questions. We constantly ask questions, and sometimes the most exciting breakthroughs come not from asking new questions, but from asking old questions in new ways. As technology develops, and as we learn more, we often have new insights and new tools with which to ask old questions. Questions, however, aren’t always encouraged when it comes to faith. Many view faith as believing things without asking questions, or at least not too many questions. But I’ve always asked them. And I’ve found that I can put a lot of question marks into the midst of my faith, and yet my faith persists. I don’t necessarily believe everything that many consider required of a Christian, but I continue to follow Christ. In fact, I believe I probably follow Christ more faithfully with the question marks there than I did without them.

You are a Presbyterian, which means you belong to a confessional church that is “reformed, always being reformed.” How do you see our confessions needing to change or stretch into the latest discoveries in neuroscience?

So many of our confessions were written some 300-400 years ago, and were written in the mindset and worldview of that time. And that’s fine, good even. But as our understanding of the world and of ourselves has grown, I think our confessions need to, too. I think, for starters, our confessions can reflect what we’ve learned about the origins of the world and of our species. But this is not a dominantly central part of our confessions.

The confessions are written with a very strong dualistic sense of self – that our body and our soul are distinct. This does not hold with science, and some have argued is not even biblically accurate – I refer you to the work by Nancey Murphy on this. I think this is harmful to our understanding of ourselves, reducing us to heads and hands as Marcia Mount Shoop said in her book a few times. (You can read an introduction to Mount Shoop’s book, “Let the Bones Dance,” here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/wp-admin/post.php?post=1584&action=edit.) Maintaining this duality is also harmful to our relationships with each other and with the world around us.

Further…the ideas of strict rationality and free will are very strong undercurrents in the confessions, particularly how it relates to the concept of sin.

We Christians talk a lot about sin and redemption. How do your studies enrich and problematize these two categories?

Perhaps one of the big problems emerging from the intersection of neuroscience and theology regards the concept of sin or morality. More and more we are finding biological causes for immoral behaviors: brain tumors that result in sinful behavior, genetic predispositions to violence or addictions, etc. How do we hold people accountable for behaviors that they aren’t freely choosing? Can the same behavior be sinful if freely chosen but not if it results from a tumor or brain trauma? And perhaps most commonly, is homosexuality a sin if you are “born this way?” These are tricky questions, that I think underscore problems in our understanding of free will and our understanding of sin.

As a follow-up to Marcia Mount Shoop’s book which you reference earlier, she argues that a central Christian claim is that redemptive transformation happens at the cellular level. How would your work corroborate this?

I like this idea. I am very much a physicalist – I believe that our mind and our souls are one with our bodies. And to the extent that our experiences change us, they change our bodies – even on a cellular level. Experiences, both good and bad, can change the neural connections in our brain, the genes that we express and the molecules that we make. This is true for traumatic events (eg. PTSD) as well as healing events. And so yes, I think that redemption reflects changes that happen cellularly.

Tomorrow, are human beings hard-wired to believe in God? Is faith just a firing of certain neural circuits?  Stay tuned. And, got a question you’d like to ask Saskia?  Leave it here.




 

 


Boobie Traps: Breastfeeding in Church

What if this woman and her son show up in church on Sunday?

Boobs and breastfeeding have been a “protuberant” topic these days.

First there was the recent TIME magazine cover story that sent ripples through the blogging community. “Are You Mom Enough?” went the headline.  By first impressions, the picture shows a Photoshopped model (young, white and upper-class looking, I might add) casting a blank, vaguely defiant, slightly seductive stare at the camera while a boy who looks to be as old as five stands awkwardly next to her, his mouth stuffed with her left breast.  (It turns out that the woman posing is actually the mother to the little boy in the picture, who is an over-sized three-year-old.)

Then there is my five-year-old son’s fixation of late.

“Guess what, Mommy?” he said one day last week after school, his face brimming with the same wonder and excitement that must have splashed across Benjamin Franklin’s face at the discovery of electricity.   “Ms. Patrick’s boobies are bigger than Ms. Hawkins’!” (Ms. Patrick and Ms. Hawkins are assistant teachers in my son’s pre-K class.)

“Really?”

“Yes! And, Ms. Hawkins’ boobies are bigger than Ms. Casey’s!” (Ms. Casey is my son’s primary teacher.)

“Wow.”

“And Ms. Casey’s boobies are bigger than yours!”

At that: “Now Cam, I hope you’re not talking about boobies like this at school in front of your friends and teachers.”

(By way of an aside, I haven’t told my son that I am now writing a whole article on the subject.)

Then there was my friend’s own quandary as a leader in her church.  When I bumped into her two days ago, she was on her way to have a conversation with a woman who had been publicly breastfeeding her four-year-old in mixed company to the passive aggressive complaints and alleged departures of a few uncomfortable people in the church.  Apparently nobody had confronted the woman and my friend had decided it was her duty to do so.

I listened without saying much, and couldn’t help but sympathize for a moment with the apostle Paul when he writes to the church in Corinth prescribing that women wear head coverings in worship (1 Corinthians 11).  In Paul’s context, the church sat yards away from a pagan temple where women priestesses engaged in wild, sexual orgies; Paul is therefore drawing an intentional contrast here between how women in the church should comport themselves in worship, and how these ancient erotic dancers and prostitutes are carrying on.

But, where does this leave us with respect to the quandary my friend was facing?  Our culture tells us that boobs are important mainly for how they can attract men.  They’re about as valuable as a pretty quick surgical procedure, too- a couple thousand dollars tops for some juicy implants that can at least withstand the gravity of aging if they manage not to leak and cause all kinds of painful side effects.

It is rare that our culture actually blesses breasts’ other, arguably more essential, life-giving function, however.  I still remember being asked, as a nervous, first-time mother unsure of herself and trying to breastfeed, to leave my son’s pediatrician’s reception area: “it might make some of the dads feel uncomfortable,” I was told.  Even in the company of all women, I would sometimes be offered a “private” room in which to feed my son, and it was unclear whether the invitation was more for my comfort or for the comfort of the women present.  When I went back to work as a pastor after my daughter was born, I remember the looks, usually of the grossed-out kind, when I had to leave gatherings every few hours to use a breast pump while leading a mission trip.  These experiences probably contributed at the subliminal level to my decision to use a nursing cover and to wean my daughter at nine months.

Our culture and our churches have a whole lot of hang-ups when it comes to the use of boobs for the purpose of feeding a child.  But, when a woman chooses to breastfeed, she engages in what was once Nature’s exclusively necessary right of passage for the survival of the human species.  To this day, the World Health Organization recommends two years of breastfeeding as the ideal.  The American Pediatric Association sets the bar at one year.  Those who choose usually for the sake of their children to continue beyond these prescriptions often face mockery and derision, as was evidenced by a tide of unkind comments elicited by the Timecover story in response to women who subscribe to this attachment form of parenting.  (If truth be told, I would be the first to admit my own personal discomfort, if not outright disgust, with the concept of breastfeeding my five-year-old.)

How's this for a statement?

I brought these questions and admissions to the precocious mommies in the weekly Bible study I attend at Clairmont Presbyterian.  Each of us had had different experiences with breastfeeding.  Some had stopped after only a few weeks or months.  Others had continued until the culturally prescribed one-year mark in this country and then stopped.  Others had continued well beyond this time, so that one in our bunch was now still occasionally breastfeeding her four-year-old child.

Together we mused, leaving no stone unturned.  What does it look like for the church to make a cross-cultural statement about women’s bodies with respect to this sacred and necessary, life-giving act?  If the larger culture obsessively finds ways to expose women’s breasts for their sexual, rather than mothering potential, what is to be the church’s response in this context?  Must men’s hang-ups and a prescription for women’s modesty come at the expense of a woman’s child needing to eat, or at the expense of a woman’s sense of self-respect and decency about her calling as a mother?  Should a mother breastfeeding in church settings be asked for the sake of modesty or the weakness of male congregants struggling with sex addictions to find a private place to breastfeed, even when such reactions only perpetuate a woman’s sense of shame about her body doing what it’s supposed to do?  Should she be asked to wear a nursing cover?  What if the child is older than a year and nursing covers no longer work as effectively in hiding the goings-on?

Or, this?

While we did not land on any one, definitive answer to all of these questions, we sliced and diced away until one common sentiment emerged: that while we women would all make our own choices on this issue of breastfeeding in and out of church, we could do a better job of supporting one another’s decisions, whatever they looked like.  Asking a nursing mother to hide herself away for the sake of modesty or for men struggling with sexual temptation is really only on a spectrum at the extreme end of which is asking women to wear burqas.  Whether a mother chooses to wear a nursing cover or whip out her breast in mixed company for a child older than one year of age, we women could and should be doing a better job of supporting one another’s choices in these critical and difficult years of rearing young children.  We could be telling one another that we were plenty good enough because our God was good enough, to paraphrase Rachel Held-Evans in her recent post.

As for the woman my friend was on her way to see?  We mommies agreed: chances are she was not in the right church in the first place; maybe she should reconsider her Sunday morning commute.

 So…what do you think about the contentious issue of breastfeeding in public and how the church is to respond? 

What To Make Of God’s Annoying Fan Club?

This bumper sticker, a personal favorite of mine, will probably make the cut for my forthcoming book, titled "Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls."

“I’ve got nothing against God, it’s His fan club I can’t stand!,” goes one bumper sticker.  Endless scandals, bickering, and declining membership and budgets in many denominations all point to a long, historical track record of failures to be the “enchanted community” (to borrow fellow saint and sinner Bob Henderson’s expression) the church claims to be as “God’s people.”

My own experience has confirmed this.  We’re all a bunch of mess-ups a whole lot of the time, and sometimes it takes a visit from a slightly dubious refrigerator man to remind me. (If you’re wondering about the strange entrance of the refrigerator man here, you can read about it in yesterday’s post.) I have found that the people I most admire are the ones who are willing to consistently admit this truth about themselves and about the church, and, in turn, to live without taking themselves too seriously while taking Jesus a whole lot seriously.  These I suppose are the “saintlier” ones in our midst.

But what, then, to make of the church?  Is it enough to simply confess Jesus as Lord and then disregard the mixed-up bunch of stragglers blathering along behind him?  I don’t think so.

Here is where I find Nicholas Healy’s insights, in the last issue of The Christian Century, helpful.  Healy argues that while the church in Scripture is called to respond to the Gospel, it does so “haltingly and feebly for the most part, and that’s all right, because God’s salvation of the world is not contingent upon the church embodying or displaying the Gospel successfully.”

The point, I think, is that the church is still called to be the church and to witness to the Good News in Jesus Christ- and, as I often like to recall, compliments of G.K. Chesterton, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”  If this can be said of marriage, child-rearing and important vocational decisions, it can most certainly be said of God’s mission.

Healy goes on to write that the church does not possess the gospel but exists to “point away from itself to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  And, this is where I really want to land: “the church is theologically distinctive because of God’s call, not because of its response to that call.”

The church is distinctive not because of anything it can or cannot do by virtue of being the church, but because of God’s call in Jesus Christ.  Period.

These days, whenever I hear Christians on both sides of the political aisle throw verbal mud pies at one another, or learn of yet another inner church leadership squabble over power and egos at stake, I take refuge in Healy’s offer of consolation that the church is still an embodiment of the world’s response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If “visibly [the church] confuses as much as or more than it signifies,” does this mean that we need to seek a clearer embodiment of the gospel elsewhere? Do we need to assume that God has given up on the church and we, too, can simply disregard it, because that would often be more convenient? These questions, I suspect, are similar to the ones the apostle Paul wrestles with in Romans when he addresses his own confusion about why God’s chosen people have largely rejected Jesus as Messiah.

Here again is Healy giving voice to what has been all along mere intuition shaped by experience on my part: “What we are as Christians and as the church is hidden by our own finitude, diversity, inconsistency and the confusions of our places within the world. This is not to say that, hidden underneath all our worldliness, we are special. For who we are, as Christians and as the church, is what the world is, too. The church is not an ark floating on the top of the waters. It lives and breathes within the waters. The world is the ark of salvation; the church is but the worldly expression of the Christian response to God’s saving work in the world.  The church is called, then, to be the world’s Christian expression. We are hidden yet truly called by God, and we are the church irrespective of the quality of our response. Thus the church, our true center, our essential existence, lies outside ourselves, in God and in the world. As the Christian expression of the world, we remain a worldly product, for to be the church as it is called to be, we must be in and of the world; we are not called to leave the world—and anyway, how could we? But we are indeed called, so our lives as Christians are centered in God’s call to us in the world. The world and God are the church; the church isn’t the church apart from both the world and God working in it.”

The church, with all its messiness and small-mindedness and often inflated sense of self, obliges us to reckon with the big picture grandeur of a God whose heart really is for the whole world.  This is no small calling, so it’s understandable that we’ll fail to live into it well or consistently, but we need the church for this very reason: as a reminder that God in Jesus still keeps calling the whole world to God’s Self, regardless of how well we respond, and has a mission whose success ultimately does not depend on us even as it summons us.  So, in short, if you were hoping for only therapeutic trash talk about the church, which I imagine many of us can unload, I am sorry to disappoint.

The Lesson of the Refrigerator Repairman

What do you get when a professor and a minister have a broken fridge? Answer: An appliance repairman.

He showed up at our door yesterday afternoon to fix the refrigerator.

(What do you get when a professor and a minister have a broken refrigerator? Answer: An appliance repairman.)

The first words out of his mouth signaled he was Russian.

Maybe I should have guessed what was coming when I asked in my now slow Russian (residual stammerings from four years in college and a summer at Middlebury) whether he liked Putin.  (I know they advise not to talk politics in polite company and at the dinner table, but to my knowledge the rule book makes no stipulations for refrigerator repairmen from foreign countries.)

“Yes,” he had answered in reply with a wry smile.

“Really?”

It turns out he had come to this country three years ago on vacation and succeeded in getting hitched, gesturing to the ring on his left fourth finger as he waded with his other hand through bags of frozen peas, popsicles and scattered coffee grinds to the back of the freezer.

By this time he had found the problem: the line at the back had frozen, blocking cold air from entering the main fridge compartment and ruining a couple gallons of milk before their expiration date.  The solution? A ten minute exercise in defrosting.

The price was a different matter.  A whopping $174.  This was calmly relayed to me after the procedure had taken place.

“What?!  That’s awfully expensive,” I demurred, remembering that two years ago when the same thing happened to our fridge, the service man had charged us $15 for the same procedure. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t pay that.”

“I’ll give you a 20% discount then.”  Then, seeing that the look of shock on my face had yet to dissolve into one of resignation about the fact that my wallet was about to walk off, “Okay, how about you pay $85 just for labor?  That is the cost of one hour of my labor.”

“That’s still too much,” I protested. “You were here for maybe 15 minutes tops!”

“But I drove 40 minutes to get here, and then I had to take all the stuff out of your freezer.” (Correction: I had had to take out all the stuff from the freezer.).

“Okay, then…how much do you want to pay then?,” he asked.  The tone and content of the question took me back to the souvenir vendors on Gorky Street in Moscow selling matriushka dolls to naive tourists: they meant, “let’s bargain.”)

“I don’t want to shortchange you,” I said, “but at tops I can really only pay you $60.”

“Okay,” he said, acquiescing.

I wrote the check to Putin’s fan- “Kevin” is his name, not, I’m pretty sure, your everyday, run-of-the-mill Russian nomenclature- and he was soon off, looking even a bit self-satisfied at the “generosity” he had shown.  He had left me with a receipt that showed a 111% discount.

The exchange reinforced a lesson that in recent years I’ve been learning about human nature, which is this: we human beings, most of us “saints and sinners” at least, are all fundamentally the same at our core.  We’re good at telling ourselves all sorts of lies to justify ourselves.  We’re good at using others and even calling ourselves “good.”  When we feel we’re being treated unfairly (as I did in this exchange) we’re quick to say so, too.

Churches aren’t any different when it comes to these things.  When an ego or job security or one’s very livelihood are on the line, we will usually do what it takes to get our “fair” share or to justify ourselves with all sorts of self-inflated claims about our intentions.  Maybe this realization is why I have become so cynical and jaded about the church and about human nature in general.  I’ve seen and experienced it up close.  Maybe you have, too.

Does this mean that we are simply to give up on the church?  Does this mean that the church no longer really matters, because so much of the time it totally fails to be what God intended it to be, anyway?  I don’t think so.  For more on why I don’t think so, come back again tomorrow.

 

 

 

2012 World Prayer Assembly Kicks Off

Today marks the second day of the 2012 World Prayer Assembly in Jakarta, Indonesia, which as part of an ongoing global prayer movement is bringing together some 20,000 children and 5,000 ministry and marketplace leaders from more than 200 nations and across denominations to pray for Indonesia and the world.  The event, co-hosted by Korean and Indonesian churches, is an eye-opening look at the nature of the church, God’s mission and “transformational prayer” in the global South.

I tend to chafe at triumphalist presentations of the church: the notion that Christians pray for God’s transformation in all sectors of society as a kind of spiritual colonization of sorts can often go hand in hand with the “dominion theology” (a.k.a. the “New Apostolic Reformation”) of a Peter Wagner and others in this country.  (If you didn’t catch Peter Wagner’s interview with Teri Gross last October, I’d commend it to you.) “Dominionism” depicts the role of Christians as one of casting out demons in business, politics, and culture in preparation for the end times.  There is certainly some biblical precedent for this approach, and I like how Shane Claibourne, for instance, commends in a similar vein “exorcising Wall Street,” but there are real dangers lurking within this worldview, too.

Still, the sheer enormity of the World Prayer Assembly in unifying people across the globe- a bit like a prayer Olympics of sorts- obliges me to ask the question, “What new thing is God doing here?”  If you didn’t catch the video invitation to the WPA Assembly in my previous post on the subject, here it is again:

YouTube Preview Image

Divine Child Abuse Atonement- Why It Can’t Hold Muster

Those of you watching with bated breath the conversation that began last week- about bad atonement theories- will be vaguely interested in knowing the latest: I have given some thought to fellow saint and sinner Paul’s claim that an orthodox Trinitarian understanding rules out divine child abuse readings of the atonement…And (do I hear a drum roll?)….I think Paul (who it turns out is not a professor of theology, after all, but reads a lot) is right.  Must a traditional, (orthodox) understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement “cosmic child abuse”?

Yes, I concur.

Paul writes back to further clarify his thoughts here: …As far as the discussion goes, I would maybe add that while the language of “God giving his son” may fall on our ears in a somewhat jarring and strange way, it seems like that is because we no longer read Scripture theologically. Jesus is not God’s son in the same way as one of my children is my son. If he were then divine child abuse might obtain as a description. When God gives his Son it is also the same as saying that God has given himself. The Trinity is not three Gods, it is one God in three persons. Too, Jesus also says that no one takes his life from him, but that he gives it of his own accord. That would indicate at the very least a cooperation that would militate against the divine child abuse idea. But because Jesus is the second “person” of the Trinity, it goes way beyond mere cooperation. Still the language of scripture is the Father sending the Son and this is admittedly open to misreading and bad preaching/theological interpretation. But it is just that, misreading and faulty interpretation.

Below is my response:

Hi Paul,
Thank you for these very helpful insights. I would agree with you, after further thought, that theologically orthodox Trinitarian doctrine resists the imposition of a divine child abuse understanding. One of my favorite treatments of the atonement comes from Mechthild de Magdeburg, who uses a dialogue between the Three Persons to propose one way Jesus freely offers Himself up to the Father. In short, I concede that you are absolutely right.
I would also probably add that the divine abuse stuff is less central to my discomfort with penal substitution theory, and I’ll need to spend more time considering why.
Thanks for reading and interacting, and visit again sometime!
Best,
Kristina

I would add that much work remains for preachers, theologians and evangelists, in presenting the atonement in a way that is both theologically correct and missionally compelling.  If it is true that a divine child abuse presentation of the atonement is technically theologically incorrect, it is also true that in many circles of the church, we could do a better job of presenting the atonement for all those who seek God and a more complete knowledge of Him.

A “thank you” to all of you for reading and thinking with me.

A Mother’s Day Tribute

You may have heard me tell this story once before here, in the context of “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” (http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2011/11/body-dysmorphic-disorder.html), but with Mother’s Day tomorrow, it’s worth a retell as a tribute to my mother and the many of you engaging in some of God’s best work.

When I was a kid it was an inevitability that I would one day have to wear braces.  One lone tooth managed to poke its way out in all of my pre-eighth-grade school photos.  That’s when my mother took me to an orthodontist for an evaluation: after asking me several times to bite down, smile and say “ah,” all the while quizzically looking at my jaw in relation to my face, this man turned to my mother and explained that while, at the whopping cost of $5,000 they could fix my crooked teeth, they would not be able to fix the assymetry of my face.  A tone of clinical professionalism from someone who had probably been inspecting jaw lines and dental molds a little too long, belied the subtle insult.  My mother was quick to catch it nonetheless.  With that, this soft-spoken, patient and slow-to-anger woman, exclaimed that my face was “just right,” that there was nothing wrong with it, and that we would not be needing their services.

These days, as a mother to a daughter with “cerebral palsy”- (at least according to one pediatric neurologist who in the absence of a diagnosis that might explain Samantha’s low muscle tone, used “CP” as a catch-all diagnosis) I identify more and more with my mother in that orthodontist’s office years ago.  My daughter is perfect, cerebral palsy or not.  Sam’s challenges are what make her so unique and lovely; they’re the sites of God’s ongoing provision.

And, I have to believe that God in Jesus responds similarly to us.  In the same way that a proud, loyal mother can exclaim at the perfection of her child and run off anyone who would tell them otherwise, God protests all the powers of darkness that would tell us we’re not okay or lovable or acceptable just the way we are.  Psalm 139, today’s morning read, is an exclamation of just this- that God has knit us together in our mother’s wombs, the unique, marvelous creations that each of us are.

This Mother’s Day, then, I give thanks for the love of our triune Mother and all mothers everywhere.

 

 

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