Sunday, April 30, 2006

Return to Blogging Expected Shortly

I haven't posted for awhile. I hope you haven't been checking in too frequently. I just thought it best to give myself some time of private thinking before returning to posting my thoughts to the world. From the last post you may have gathered that my faith has been shaken up recently. I've got some stuff that has been on my mind though so check back shortly. I just feel that after doubting the reality of God it would be presumptuous to try and argue anything from the perspective that He is real.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Why I decided not to renounce my faith

As you may have noticed, I have not posted in awhile. The reason is that I went through a crisis of faith. But I want to tell it to you as a story not as a fact. It was frightening, exciting, depressing, and infuriating... and perhaps you might relate.

Just about a week ago I nearly renounced Christianity. I don't say this lightly or jokingly. In fact, the experience was really scary for me. The thoughts had struck me at church on the day before Easter. The direct reason was hearing the pastor talk about a passage in 1 Corinthians 15. But it was a long time coming. I remember once telling someone that I would renounce Christianity if I was ever convinced it was false. But lately I had been questioning that statement. Why? Because even if it weren't true, I think I would still want the community, the purpose, the ethical guidelines. In short, I liked being a Christian regardless of whether or not it was true.

That's no problem right? Not when the text I believe in says differently (1 Corinthians 15):
12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
If it isn't true, my faith is worthless. I had reached the breaking point. What did I do? I started to think about some of the apologetics arguments - how can things become better by random chance, how can matter create itself, and that there is evidence for a "young earth." But I had never been impressed with apologetics. In fact I was quite frustrated with some of them for their lack of understanding of evolution. I then thought about how centuries ago people could attribute to God much more of the universe. They couldn't understand rain, solar systems, mental illness, and many other things. These are things which we have a naturalistic understanding of - we know how they work. And because we know how they work, we don't really see God in them like they did before.

So how am I supposed to believe in God if he doesn't show himself??? But in the midst of this something else was going on in my mind. The fact was that I had really grown spiritually lately. Not the cheesy, "Oh God is still working on me." No my life has really gotten better and both my actions and my thoughts are reflecting it (believe it or not for those who know me - but I know it for myself). But this was tearing at me because I had spent years praying for something to change me. But it was not until I started praying, reading my Bible regularly, having accountability, and being more vulnerable was I able to grow. I thought back on the nights I would cry out to God to change me but I was not willing to take the first step and take action. But shouldn't the great God of the universe make the first step? Shouldn't he transform my heart so that I would really want to change? I know that God wants me to be involved and all that - but I couldn't believe how God could let me suffer all that time and not take action himself.

By this time I was nearly ready to quit. And you might think I would have stopped this dangerous train of thought - taking it as an "attack from the devil." But that seemed too dishonest at the time. So instead I started thinking about what it would mean to give up my faith. It would mean that I would probably have to leave my school, a seminary. I would have to tell my parents and friends. I was afraid that leaving the faith would cause others in my family to leave as well- and I would end up being hated. My whole career would change. I was planning to write books about how to become a better person of faith! How ironic! It felt like so much of my self was dripping away. And why not? Being a Christian has been a huge part of my life.

But then some hope! No not from God. I realized that I could keep going to church. I liked church: the music, the friends, the encouragement, and the accountability. I liked living by the Christian ethic. I wouldn't give up my faith for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I didn't want an excuse to sin. I simply wanted to be free from my mind-constricting faith in a non-existent God. And then I thought about a book: Why I Left the Church. It would be my autobiography. I was starting to feel a new purpose in life and it was to open Christians minds to the ridiculousness of their faith.

But as you have already read, the subject is why I decided not to renounce my faith. It wasn't by divine revelation. God didn't talk in a booming voice to me. But my dad had been watching TV and had flipped the channel to a show with Dr. Gene Scott, a Biblical expert from Stanford. He was sharing on how we know that Jesus was resurrected. And, as the passage above says, that's where it all comes down to. I won't go into all the details but basically we know that he was resurrected because his disciples all split off and all but one ended up dying for saying that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God. And how ridiculous is it to say that a guy who had died was God??? But these people went to the grave out of a deep respect for Christ and a desire to prove his identity.

Well let's just say that the message hit me. I went to my room and sat down to pray. And it felt like someone was listening once again. So in the matter of 24 hours I went from doubting God's existence to nearly renouncing my faith to being sure once again that God is real. Since then I feel like my faith was completely torn down. It's now being rebuilt. Other things are starting to make more sense. I talked to one person in the midst of my doubting. He told me that I would come out with a stronger faith, never himself doubting that I would give up my faith (even though I felt certain that I was going to). He is being shown right.

What has the experience taught me? Well first of all it was refreshing to finally come out and be honest about my doubts. Whenever I had doubts before I would typically censor them so they would come out one at a time. But being honest was what allowed me to really understand the reality of Jesus' work. Secondly I learned I have a lot of anger towards God. I discovered that because I feel like I've been dealt a raw deal at times, I just do not trust God. Then I learned that my emotions can really focus my thoughts. Despite the fact that I do have evidence for the presence of God, my anger just made me focus on the negative experiences so that I could justify leaving God.

So now I am Christian. I feel more confident that God exists. I am even starting to believe that it was Him who started to change me. But I know that I need to stay honest. I have to doubt and be real to be a person of faith. Otherwise my faith is useless.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Why don't my prayers work?

Since I've been involved in more discussion about the prayer and healing study lately in classes, I thought I should update my thoughts. Perhaps you will be less defensive about the fact that prayer did not work in the study. (See two posts down to learn a little more about the research study) I hope you don't mind it is in bullet form; I thought that would save readers some time.

Ok here are some possible "solutions":

1) Healing worked predominantly when the person being healed had faith. Jesus often acknowledged the faith of those he healed. That faith is not assured in a research experiment.
2) Healing occurs primarily through touch and relationship. When it occurred over a distance it took much more faith, as seen in Jesus' healing of the Roman centurion's servant. In my opinion, praying for someone you have never met, who you only know as a name, lacks the relationship that Jesus incorporated into his healings.
3) Non-religious people might be disturbed by the thought of being prayed for because it might bring up bad memories of church experiences. These people may have bitterness over the prospect of being prayed for and therefore might have poorer outcome.
4) Some also, as the study suggested, feel performance anxiety over having to perform for the prayer. Participants might want to prove that prayer is effective and it could cause them extra stress. This may be unique to a research setting where those praying have no personal relationship - but also might suggest that telling a person that countless people are praying for them might be rather daunting.

And here are some assumptions that cause the problems:

1) Supernatural healing is different from medical healing. A surgeon's job often is to just make careful incisions, at some level the surgeon just trusts that the body will repair itself. Perhaps we need to consider the spread of medical technology and knowledge to be God's way of healing the sick. We should be wary of the temptation to believe that the more we know, the less God is doing.
2) Healing should always occur at our demand. Although one troubling fact about the study was that many patients who were prayed for (and knew they were being prayed for) actually did worse, our typical assumption is that, if we have enough faith God will heal the person. We know that God wants to heal the sick. But we also know that suffering is part of life and can't simply just go away. God never promises to heal every sick person.
3) God ought to work our way. This is really the underlying problem. We often are concerned that this or that doesn't work the way we want to. But that is not how faith works. Faith believes in outcomes more than processes. The humble conclusion is that we need to just be patient and believe.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Dichotomatization of Psychology and Religion

There exists within the church a great divide. Psychology and faith are distancing themselves - trying to act like neither will impact the other. Now I'm the first to admit I will naturally have a bias. But at the same time, I truly believe that both can effect the other. Therefore, I have no real allegiances. I think the Bible encourages getting to know our minds and hearts. And I think the study of religion can tell us a lot about human nature. In fact, I think Christian psychological researchers and theorists ought to begin with the Bible and let that illuminate their research studies and their theories.

But why is there such an animosity that some ministers preach against the dangers of psychology?

The first is that the church is threatened because over the last 4 centuries it has had an adversarial relationship with science. It's the infamous science vs. religion debate. And psychology falls on the wrong side. But it's more than just that. There are small issues that are highlighted by some Christian fundamentalists (i.e. spanking children, homosexuality, etc.) where psychological research seems to put doubt in the believers. Spanking is shown to be counter-productive to good emotional development. Homosexuality is suggested to be genetic (I believe there is probably a genetic predisposition, but not a gene that makes a person homosexual - similar to the genetic contributors to alcoholism). This research threatens some Christian fundamentalists becausesuddenly it seems their faith is under attack.

But psychology has not been completely irreverent of religion. In fact, the scientific study of religion is still a blossoming field. I believe that the research methods of psychology can develop measures of spirituality which can assist in determining if, for example, a pastor is effectively developing the faith of the congregation or if the 40 days of Purpose strengthens marital relationships (one article has already shown that it does). But Christians only want the positive results. They would have loved to hear that prayer actually contributes to better outcome for heart surgery patients. Pastors would have shared it at church. But since it came out negative the issue will be tucked away and go undiscussed.

So why are religion and psychology (even Christian psychology) considered different realms? Paul often did outcome studies to determine the spiritual health of a church. When he noticed that the behavior or attitude of a church was ungodly, he rebuked them. In my opinion, that is using research, albeit observational research, to make judgments and alter decisions. Shouldn't we devote ourselves to gaining greater insight into the mystery of faith, being patient as we trudge through periods of doubt? Or does psychology have nothing to say about religion?

Many people think psychology does not address sin. There are several theories which view sin as a social construct and not as something real. But certainly not all theories. And often psychology adds a lot of insight into sin. Psychology addresses the defense mechanisms which often cause sinful attitudes such as projection (placing your feelings on another person), intellectualization (thinking about your problems rather than feeling them), and denial (refusing to accept a painful event). These are very helpful ways to understand how your sinful behavior is actually operating. Psychology also helps us know how to counsel, or even rebuke, in a gentle way, as Paul commanded us to do. You may think that this knowledge was unneccesary for centuries and you would be correct, but we are dealing with a generation which is inundated with thousands of emotional messages in the media that teach individuality, materialism, and community detachment. The church ought to use the scientific method to make it more effective. If psychology can show us how the church can minister better to people then we should at least bring it to discussion, even if we do not adapt all it has to say.

I am reminded of the discoveries of Galileo. If the church tried to deny the possibility that the earth is not the center of the universe, couldn't it make mistakes today? Will the church faithfully believe in God's word while still being open to their own lack of understanding of it? Or will it close-mindedly reject all new ideas as being "unbiblical"? I hope that we learn not to rest in our own feelings of certainty about the universe and accept that we have more to learn.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Prayer and Healing

Well a recent article by Benson, et al., that is scheduled to appear in The American Heart Journal, was just announced in the New York Times and will certainly prove controversial within the Christian community. The article found that prayer actually does not lead to better outcome for heart surgery patients, and actually found that complications actually increased for patients who knew they were being prayed for (though it does not report if this was significant or not). Regardless, I will give the article the benefit of the doubt regarding to methodological issues and discuss the implications of this research.

From a Christian perspective, why would prayer be found ineffective (and possibly harmful) with patients undergoing heart surgery? Well the first possibility is that God did not want to make prayer an activity of effectiveness. If research came out and supported prayer's effectiveness, then only a fool would not pray. And if you are familiar with Christianity, you know that it is centered on faith, if prayer was empirically validated, then faith would not be an issue.

I have some problems with this argument, however. Why would God deceive mankind? Well perhaps deception is a strong word, but in a sense, if that was true then God would be keeping us from truth simply because it was scientific truth. As a scientist, I have strong convictions not to believe that is how God works. Besides, even with positive results, it seems likely that prayer would still be doubted and that most people would still not pray. And even if more did pray, couldn't God discern which were genuine?

Another explanation is that the research article asked participants to include a certain phrase within their prayer, "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications," which was not the type of prayer that Jesus modeled as he prepared himself for crucifixion. Instead, Jesus prayed that he did not have to go to the cross, but he said "but thy will be done." We do not know whether or not a formulaic prayer that demands God to act in a certain way actually works.

Once again I feel this argument does not hold much merit, though it certainly brings up some issues. If we were to pray for God's will all the time, we would often be inauthentic. We ought to pray the words "your will be done" only in those moments when we feel we can accept whatever God has in store for us. And I don't think God is threatened by our upfront requests from him. In fact, the lamentations of the Bible are often just that - requests that God act.

Then was it just that the people weren't faithful enough followers of Christ? I have no clue but my guess is no. Perhaps their desires were tainted by a sinful desire to prove God works to the world. Again we will perhaps never know. But I don't think it helps our case as Christians to suddenly strike back at the scientific community or the research participants. These people were doing research to discover truth, whereever that may lead them. Sometimes we discover things that frighten us because we feel that it threatens our faith. But that doesn't need to be so.

One thing I know is that science is NOT about finding the truth. It's about finding things that are true. If you don't ask the right questions, you don't find the truth. And the worst part of it all is that no matter what there is always some degree of the unknown in science. It's based on statistics and computations.

So how do I make sense of the finding that prayer does not help people get better? Well for the negative aspect of it I wonder if the people who were being prayed for were people of faith. If they were not then perhaps saying they were being prayed for could result in deep resentments about religion coming up. And, like the study suggested, the patients who knew they were being prayed for could possibly have been feeling greater pressure to get better, not just for the sake of those praying but also for the sake of science's knowledge about the power of prayer. All of this remains speculation. Perhaps over the course of my studies I might have the opportunity to do a research study on the effectiveness of prayer, perhaps in a different light. Unfortunately, the problem remains that naturalistic studies don't remove all the confounding factors while experimental studies create an unrealistic environment.

From my own experience I know that prayer changes the way I act. If I pray for someone, I am more likely to remember their struggles and ask about them later. It helps me to gain sympathy and compassion for their struggles and the time necessary to think about what I can do for them. In that sense prayer has benefits that have nothing to do with a "spiritual force." I don't deny the possibility of God's Spirit healing people. In fact I believe God does heal some. But I know that God has also allowed suffering in the world. I believe that God often ignores our prayers because his will is perfect. The amazing thing is that God's will can be changed by us, he listens to us. But important to remember when we feel our prayers are powerless is that prayer changes us. And perhaps that's the best reason to continue praying.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Empathic Pains

A conversation:
J: What do you mean?
S: I mean it bothers me when people smoke.
J: The second-hand smoke?
S: Well, yes - of course that - but it's much more than that. It's the pain it causes me.
J: The pain of inhaling their smoke?
S: No, like I said, it's much more than that. When I look at a young man puffing on a cigarrette, I see his lungs being coated with tar and all the dangers of cancer, as well as the financial damage it does him.
J: Well yeah but it's his choice isn't it? Can't he make that decision for himself?
S: Of course he makes decisions, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt me? When he smokes, I feel his pain.
J: Well that's not his problem.
S: I'm not trying to blame him, I'm just sharing why it hurts. But you bring up a good question: is it his fault? Of course it's an addiction. But that addiction hasn't conquered him has it? He is still a person with the ability to choose. And shouldn't he choose not to do harm? Shouldn't we refrain from doing harm to others?
J: Well that's not harm, that's just your empathy. You can blame him for second hand smoke but not your gut reactions to his smoking. You're not really feeling his pain; you're just sympathizing with his decision to hurt himself.
S: So he is responsible for physical pain to others but not emotional pain?
J: No emotional pain too. Child abuse can include emotional abuse. And I do believe that psychological harm is still harm. But where do we set the line? If you felt pain when I did something harmless, like chew gum, would that mean I was doing wrong?
S: Of course not, because gum chewing does no real damage, as least as far as I know, and so anyone who felt pain from that would be emotionally immature. But smoking does do damage.
J: Yet, it only does you damage because you let it affect you.
S: And you seem to think that is my problem? Have you never felt pain when you see someone suffering.
J: Of course, I'm not an ogre just because I don't care if other people smoke. But that suffering was never at their own hands. They had not chosen to do what they do.
S: It's not a matter of choice. Whether or not I feel the pain does not depend on if they have choice or not. I feel the pain because I connect with them. I have learned how to love another person. When I see another I pray for them. I ask for the willingness to do good to them. And you know what it does? It creates a place for them in my soul. Everyone does it, that is why we grieve when we lose someone we love. But few do it intentionally, and even less with strangers. If we allow ourselves to connect with other people, we feel their pains... but we also feel their joys. Do you mean to say that loving others is emotionally immature?
J: No, it just sounds silly to care about someone you don't even know. How could we possibly love everyone?
S: We can't and perhaps I'm just sensitive to this one area. But I don't apologize for that. I'm grateful that I've learned to love others more than I could ever dream of ten years ago....

If you think I'm commenting on smoking, you'd be wrong. It's a dialogue placed within the issue of smoking but to me it's about much more than that. What does love look like? What does it mean to have your heart hurt? What would be the implications for public policy if we treated the healthy heart as something that could be wounded? What about issues like immigration? war? abortion? health care? These are issues that wound the caring heart.

Abraham Lincoln once wrote to his old friend and roommate about how his friend's ownership of slaves was impacting him, "It is hardly fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union." Is that the solution, to deaden our hearts, when we feel the pain of injustice and wrong? Thank God this man finally decided it was time to stop "crucifying" his hatred of slavery and allow it to move him to action.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Rethinking Pathology and Suffering

Ever get the feeling that someone up there is trying to tell you something? I started Lincoln's Melancholy and now for class I have been reading Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning. Perhaps two books on suffering and loss of meaning may seem far from providential but it's really clicking with me. Not only on a theoretical level, although "pathology" seems to be less pathological now, but also on a personal level.

How do we find meaning when we "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous forune"? Is it possible to be positively transformed by negative experiences? I have swung back and forth on the issue, not wanting to undermine the terrible pain that we all can endure. But hearing that a survivor of the Holocaust can see meaning in his sufferings may mean that perhaps I'm just too afraid of moving on to realize how much I have been changed for the good by my period of depression as an emerging adolescent.

The Bible says that trials develop perseverance and perseverance, character and character, hope (Romans 5:3,4). But sometimes those on the outside lack the awareness that trials would not really be trials if we saw their meaning immediately. We may believe that which does not kill us, only makes us stronger; but, in the midst, suffering is suffering. But the other side of the coin is a negative pessimism that is convinced that our suffering really was in vain, all in the hopes of glorifying ourselves. But I must do neither. I must be honest about the suffering that took place (by neither amplifying it nor diminishing it) and the character development it has achieved.