Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tolkien vs. Lewis

I've engaged in a mini-debate with a professor over whether Tolkien or C.S. Lewis is better. I've not read much of Tolkien but I've read a fair amount of Lewis and from what I understand they take opposite views on the use of allegory.

If you have read the Chronicles of Narnia or The Great Divorce, you know that Lewis likes allegory. Aslan is clearly the Jesus figure and The LW&W is the story of Christ's death and resurrection. Tolkien, on the other hand, shied away from allegory nearly completely. He preferred to "sub-create" a new reality to which we could escape. This reality had the same values as earthly reality but it was a different story that did not directly relate to the Christian story. Tolkien liked certain elements of the Christian narrative, such as eucatastrophe (i.e. the happy ending after a catastrophe) and escaping into an alternate reality (Christians create a reality where an invisible God is more clearly visible). But Tolkien does not create an allegorical story.

There are two realities that are being "created." For Lewis it is the reality of the Kingdom of God. His stories clearly describe how God interacts with the world. For Tolkien it is a fairy story (and he readily describes his story as this) which is not merely for children but which describes a land where we can go to experience life.

So here is my opinion on the matter. What good is it to create an alternate reality that is not actually based on reality? Why not do as Lewis does and shed light on the Kingdom of God through the use of story. Is this not what Jesus does when he shares stories, or parables, with his followers. Perhaps Lewis is a bit didactic at times in that he tries to take some of the mystery of the experience away. But I think Lewis actually evangelizes through his stories, and not in some confrontational manner, by simply presenting the story of Christ in a manner which we can relate.

Tolkien, on the other hand, writes incredible stories (and he is clearly a better storyteller than Lewis) but the stories simply are made for enjoyment. The ethics may be the same as Christian ethics but since when is Christianity about ethics alone? I believe that books that share the story of Christ are greater books than books of fantasy and lore because they allow us to gain a greater understanding of who God is and who we are.

In the same way, therapy can be a means of simply allowing the client to escape into another world. And that is important for some. In fact, for those who do not want to discuss faith issues that may be where I get stuck. But I prefer to help the client see that God really exists and that God is a part of their life story.

Perhaps literature should be appreciated apart from its function. And perhaps we should consider how therapy tickles the client and makes them feel good. But to me that is far less potent than imagining therapy that brings clients into the love and grace and glory of God.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Psychology of Salvation

Ok this blog was a long time coming. I think I'm finally ready to write it. I had saved it as a "draft" a couple months ago but couldn't motivate myself to finish it. The problem earlier was that my theology was changing. The way I saw the world was changing. I was beginning to see "the point" of holy living. It made sense why I should live a righteous life. But I didn't know what to do with the fact that I kept messing up.

I ended up beating myself up every time I would fall short of my own expectations. I would drown myself in guilt and the result was usually that I felt God was distant. I put my own guilt on God because why should God love me if I couldn't love myself? I think this is why I turned my back on God for that short period, which I wrote about in a previous blog. I was so pissed off at God for flooding me in guilt. In fact it was me who was putting guilt on myself and pretending like it was God.

So where does salvation fall in all of this? If you would have asked me two months ago I didn't have a clue. I started writing this blog and I couldn't finish. I just didn't understand what the significance of being saved was. I thought that if I entered into my guilt, and I used it as a motivation to change, then I would be able to live God's life for me. I had some of it right. I was transforming my mistakes into something positive. But God's grace had no part in that. And when I ended up failing I didn't know what to do. I just felt guilty and ashamed.

But the concept of salvation provides me with something deep. The word "saved," once stripped of the religious stuff, is a powerful word. "Saved" indicates that there is something which I could not protect myself from. Coming back to salvation meant that I had to rely on God's actions and not my own. Instead of feeling like I have to make myself feel bad for doing wrong - which is ineffective at making me do the right thing by the way - I accepted the forgiveness of my sins. I was able to accept the story of Christ's crucifixion as grounds for believing that God is forgiving. And if God can forgive me then I should be able to forgive myself.

I can't understand why I didn't understand this just a couple months earlier. I had been raised on this. I guess it is just so unnatural to receive forgiveness that we have to intentionally accept it. But since I have started to practice receiving grace again people have remarked that I look happier. I don't know quite what it is, but I feel lighter. And I am now able to reconnect with God in ways that I haven't been able to in months. I think I'm starting to reappreciate God's grace. And that's it. The psychology of salvation is that it frees us from the cycle of guilt that can keep us trapped. It brings us into freedom. There is nothing that can make us feel worthy in the midst of our guilt except accepting the forgiveness of God.

In case you are interested here's how my previous post, which I was unable to write any more on, began:
If you have read my blog for a long time, you might have noticed that I steer clear of the Christian belief that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. Not because I don't believe it. Mostly it is because I just don't know what to make of it from a psychological perspective. Which is fine for me because I can accept that I will not ever fully understand God's greatest act for all mankind. But I'm afraid that it paints the picture that I believe that Christ's death on the cross means nothing. So here I will be a tad theoretical and I heartily encourage feedback because it is a topic that I am only beginning to consider.
Once I got to there I couldn't write any more. I said that I was afraid that it suggests that Christ's death meant nothing to me... but I could not argue the opposite. Clearly at the time I really thought that Christ's death meant nothing. Now this might shed more light on why I nearly renounced my faith. Without the work of Christ I'm stuck with a bunch of guilt and anger towards God. And because of all that anger I could not deal with the reality that God exists. Thank God that He taught me what it means to be saved by grace and not by works.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Mirror Neurons and Our Connectedness

I'm taking a Cognitive Psychology class and my professor has been speaking a lot about embodied cognition, or how we "think" with more than just our brain. He also brought up "mirror neurons" which are neurons that fire when we see someone doing something in the same way that they would fire if we were doing them ourselves. Now this was perhaps one of the biggest findings in neuroscience in the last decade. (see Mirror Neurons)

The significance is that mirror neurons testify about our innate wiring to be affected by our environment and the people around us. I find it amazing to think that I can experience what someone is going through simply by seeing them go through it. Apparently, our gut reaction when we see someone getting hurt or crying is something that is hard wired into us. It seems our Creator wanted us to be relational beings.

I think the most exciting part of it is realizing that what we consider to be me actually stretches out beyond our flesh. We are connected to other people and the things around us in ways we simply cannot avoid. We interact with the world and the world interacts with us. As John Donne prophetically wrote, "No man is an island unto himself."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Forgiveness is Action

One error that the modern person, Christian or not, commonly makes is to believe that forgiving a person means simply making a decision within your mind not to remain angry at that person. We mistakenly believe that forgiveness is separable from reconciliation, or making things right between the two parties involved. But if that was the case then forgiveness would remain merely an abstract concept and forgiveness would mean nothing.

I believe that true forgiveness means that we are willing to do good to another person as if they had done nothing wrong to us. And sometimes when a person says to themself, "I forgive them," that may be exactly what they mean. But I believe that forgiveness requires action whenever possible. Why? Because a person could merely tell themselves they forgive another person just so they don't have to deal with the guilt of not being a forgiving person.

The problem is that people like to feel good about themselves. They want to think of themselves as kind, forgiving people. And if they are ever brought to the point where they must forgive another, then suddenly they feel ashamed because deep down they don't want to forgive. So what do they do? They pray or say to themselves that they forgive the other person or party. But they still treat the person with contempt, claiming perhaps that the person has "lost their trust or respect" or that "they still need to learn their lesson."

Real forgiveness, on the other hand, requires action. Because we can deceive even ourselves, we need to let our forgiveness change the way we act. True forgiveness requires that we act to restore the relationship, regardless of whether or not we were wrong. The only way to own forgiveness is to embody it. Just as Christ was the incarnation of God's forgiveness of humankind, so we must incarnate our beliefs into action. We must stop acting self-righteous and we must take responsibility to "prove" our forgiveness. Otherwise we risk the seething anger of hostility that will eventually tear down our souls.

Finally, I hope you may gain peace, patience, and grace if you embark on this. It is perhaps the greatest challenge of maturation to learn how to forgive and reconcile. Sometimes it does in fact mean that you keep a healthy distance. There are people out there who you should not "forgive and forget" what they have done. But unless we learn to test our willingness to do good to those whom we have reason to remain angry against, we may really be hiding a great deal of anger within us against them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Connecting with God

How do we measure our relationship with God? I have sometimes strayed to believe that it all depends on the emotions I feel as I pray. Then I have gone to the other end and said that it all depends on how righteous a life you live. I suppose that I'm not the only one. The one side stresses that the religious law has been abolished and replaced with freedom. The other side stresses that relationship with God will lead you into holiness. So how ought we live?

I am returning once again to the third option. Jesus offered himself as the new source for fulfillment. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) And prepare yourself for some spiritual cannibalism...
"Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." (John 6:53-58)
The point is that we need to rest and exist in God. If we get caught up in performing, or in doing as we please, we are missing the mark. We must stop criticizing ourselves when we aren't perfect. Instead we should accept the forgiveness of Christ with joy.

Why the sermon in a blog primarily about psychology? Because if we take the road of legalism we will end up getting caught up in focusing on our behaviors. Then we will end up focusing on ourselves more and more and then get frustrated more and more. Why? Because it is hard to receive forgiveness when we forget who it is that forgives. If we stay in relationship with God as an end in and of itself, then we will not be constantly troubled (psychologically) by our behaviors. It is a sign of a lack of connection with God if we are feeling depressed or bothered that we are not growing spiritually.

The solution is that we can connect with God through constant prayer and that can be the measure of our walk with God. There is no doubt in my mind that prayer, if authentic and honest, will lead you to holier living. But holy living is a byproduct and not an end in itself. If you are interested in learning how to walk in prayer with God I suggest "Practicing the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence. It costs just a few dollars at Christian bookstores. The final warning is that we are also not supposed to feel guilty if we are not constantly in prayer with God. If we do not connect with God then it is our loss because the spiritual connection ought to be fulfilling and fun. We should not feel guilty, only sad, that we forget to pray to God.

As it says in 1 Thesalonians 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Spirituality Psychologically Unhealthy?

During my time at Fuller I have often come across the notion that spirituality can often function as a defense from actually experiencing reality. In other words, what we often term spirituality may in fact just be a false show that deceives others and ourselves. I think it is important to consider because we should never pretend that just because someone says that they are turning over something to God does not mean they are properly dealing with the situation. I think some humility is required to accept the fact that we still don't "work our faith" perfectly.

But my reservation is this: is it possible to turn something over to God in a manner that is considered psychologically healthy? When do we stop trying to process something and finally make the decision not to worry about it and place it in God's hands? Sometimes I worry that there is a fuzzy line that we cannot always discern. In my opinion we never fully process life events. We never get over them; they always mark our lives. If that is the case then we should wonder when it is appropriate to claim God's grace for the event.

I think it takes a discerning, objective eye. We cannot trust ourselves to be in charge of our own spirituality. We need wise elders who can tell us when things that we claim to have turned over to God are really eating at our souls. There are a couple tell-tale signs that we have used spirituality improperly: we unconsciously do things to harm a relationship with a person we claim to have forgiven, we avoid prayer because of anger with God, we are completely unwilling to consider that we might not be fully surrendered to God in an area, or we are highly judgemental of others with a flaw that we feel we have been forgiven of.

If all else fails it does not hurt to revisit our past. It may take some time and energy but it promotes humility and the willingness to continue to learn from previous mistakes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


I started thinking about a blog I would want to write and all of a sudden I hear the fireworks from Disneyland booming. I'm a good 15 miles from Disneyland but they are still pretty loud. Anyways, the fireworks captured my attention. What captures your attention? What do you hear that sticks out from all the noise? What do you see that blinds you in comparison to the dark? What do you feel that reverberates through your bones?

I believe that 90% of our days we operate at 10% of our capacity. We just don't seem to be aware of what is going around us. Think about the times when you have gone through your day and all of a sudden realize that it is a beautiful day out. We live in a state of semi-awareness. I think there are three things that reliably awaken us from our trance.

The first is pleasure. Whether it is sensory or emotional, pleasure brings us into reality. Suddenly for the sake of fully enjoying life we decide to engage in what is around us.

The second is pain. For some reason when we are in pain we suddenly start fighting vehemently to find the answer. It's curious because it seems impossible to deny reality when we are in pain. I'm thinking of Fight Club where Edward Norton tries to visualize the cave with the penguins to escape the pain. But he just can't do it, the pain brings him back to reality.

Pleasure and pain are the fireworks for our souls.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Therapy as Church

The counseling room is a sacred place. Not only is what you say confidential, you are expected to share your deepest secrets. So connecting the therapy room with a sanctuary is not a great stretch. But is therapy an outstretch of church? Can it be? Perhaps we should discuss first what therapy is already doing to aid the work of the church and then we can discuss what it could potentially do for the church if it was oriented that way.

Therapy is confession
Somewhere along the line we have learned that what makes us grow is something which the church has taught for years: confession. It is hardly surprising that confession was encouraged as a spiritual discipline given that it seems to produce some definitive life changes. There is something about confessing secrets that breaks the power of shame. In this sense, therapy acts as a church because it provides a place where people can learn how to confess. The ideal is that the client will learn to confess as a life practice outside of therapy and that the church will then equip the individual with the theological teachings that can allow the person to change, whether it is their behavior or their identity.

Therapy teaches self-awareness
Another gift of therapy is that we learn to be more aware of how we are feeling and what we are thinking. By doing so we learn to recognize our internal states more readily. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that the commandments against murder, adultery, covetousness, and idolatry were about the attitudes and not just the actions. As such church is concerned with what is inside the individual. Therapy empowers the person to recognize their defects rather than ignore them. By doing so, therapy is empowering the person to surrender their attitude earlier before the attitude becomes action.

Therapy is about a life-story
Therapy helps the individual create a comprehensible narrative on their life. As a result, the person can learn to recognize themes and conflicts within their own life. One of the church's primary modes of teaching is through the stories of the Bible. If a person is more aware of their own lifestory, they can use the Biblical narratives as a way of understanding themselves and God. Since therapy has taught them how to create their own autobiography, they can learn to relate to stories as well as commandments and facts.

What therapy can be:
  • Therapy can be a place where fellowship can be encouraged. The therapist can teach the person to search for confessional relationships of grace.
  • Therapy can be a place of theological discussion. A theologically competent therapist can discuss faith issues in ways that help solidify faith rather than tear it down.
  • Therapy can be a place of morality. Therapy can help people see the intrapersonal and interpersonal ramifications of actions.
  • Therapy can be a place of personal growth. More than just being a place where people can find relief from mental illness, therapy can be a place where people become better people.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Language of Healing

Language is one area where I think psychology fails against religion. The language of psychology is not as powerful as the language of the Bible. And language is world-creating. The words racism, sexism, and spousal abuse were rarely present in the 19th century. But creating the language to discuss the problem allows the problem to be better understood and confronted. I look at four concepts and discuss how Biblical language could help us understand reality better.

Addiction vs. Slave to sin
Although the word addiction has lost some of the stigma surrounding it as people have become more compassionate for those addicted to alcohol, drugs, and sex, it lacks a sense of what it is like to be addicted. Romans 6 describes man as being slaves to sin in order to convey the sense that we are "addicted" to sin. Greek thought, which Paul was likely familiar with, knew of addiction and recognized it's power in human life. But Paul wanted to send a message. While addiction can be a valuefree label, for in some sense we are addicted to food and sleep, slavery is not. Slavery is a terrible way of life, especially under the rule of a wicked master like Sin. But more than that, we find comraderie in our slavery. When we are slaves all we have to live for is our relationships with other slaves. We don't really own anything. We don't have any claim to anything. Our work only benefits our master. We may sit back and enjoy some of the things we create but in the end none of it belongs to us.

Often I, and many others, have seen addiction and being a "slave to sin" as being hand in hand. While that is perhaps an enlightening stance, it neglects the powerful semantic and historical meaning that is suggested by the phrase "slave." When the Hebrews first immigrated to Egypt, they were hoping to find freedom from a devastating famine. But they eventually were enslaved to the Pharoah of Egypt and used their labor to build his great pyramids. So when the Bible says we are slaves to sin, it connects us with the history of Israel within which we find many lessons about our current situation. When the Hebrews were finally freed from slavery, they were angry at God because he didn't immediately bring them to the Promised Land. The word addiction is not semantically connected to this story and so when the addict conceptualizes his or her problem, he sees it in isolation - that is his only problem. But the story of the Exodus, and of American slavery, teaches us that leaving slavery often means entering into a long period of turmoil. The psychological language of addiction doesn't bring this to light, although it is true.

Resistant vs. Hardened heart
Some of you might be familiar with the psychoanalytic term resistant meant to describe client's who deny their therapists brilliant interpretation of why they do what they do. Ok yeah I'm being a bit sarcastic but, yes, I think it does exist. The Bible teaches a similar concept when it talks about those whose hearts are hardened. The Bible used the term to describe those who would not listen to and accept the truth. Sounds similar to resistant right? But the word means a lot more here.

Hard hearted conjures up images of there being a hard coating around the heart. That coating protects the person from damage but also keeps the person from seeing the truth. The heart for the Jew was not the center of emotions - that was the gut - but it was the center of the identity of the person. A hardened heart meant that the person had become inflexible to change, which means a lack of ability to see one's own defects and sins. It illuminates that there is something wrong at the core of the person. Now for a trained psychotherapist this word would probably mean all that. But to explain to a client that they are being resistant seems like it could be only situational - it is very abstract. A hardened heart would convey the message that they are fundamentally wrong. A phrase that would no doubt rock the world of any client and therefore should be used with great care and gentility.

Dying to One's Self vs. ????
From a psychological viewpoint, there isn't much we can say to comfort those who want to do something but feel like doing it would kill them. The man who greatly desires to forgive his alcoholic father so that he can be free of his anger toward feels like it would kill him to do such. And we face these situations everyday in small ways. We feel that if we give up our incessant attempts to control our lives, we would be free, but it terrifies us what could happen. The Biblical language offers a solution - and it isn't pretty. We die to our selves. This means no less than facing our fears head on and saying that we want the freedom more than life itself.

Pathology vs. Sin
Perhaps the most controversial concept within psychotherapy is evil. Most therapists are secular and are quick to challenge the client's notions of what is right and wrong. If the client says they want to have an affair, the therapist would likely ask why don't they have one? Of course the therapist is trying to help the client clarify and strengthen their beliefs but once the client can say no more than "It is wrong; I made a promise" the therapist would likely go in for the kill and suggest that might just be what society says and it is not rational and so they should have an affair. Besides the fact that the therapist is typically shattering the client's moral ground in what I believe is an unethical manner, their view is typically that nothing is wrong unless it is pathology. If it isn't in the DSM IV, the so-called "Bible" of the psychologist, then it's not wrong (homosexuality once was; pedophilia, and other sexual abnormality still is; affairs never were).

The Bible takes a very different stand of course. The Bible teaches that people are not diagnosable, actions are. The DSM intends to use criteria in order to apply a diagnosis to a person while the Bible intends to use criteria in order to label what actions are sinful. The Bible diagnoses all people as sinners and symply gives a list of "symptoms" that describe what make us sinners. (As a side note: I realize I'm painting a negative picture of the Bible as if all it does is tell us how bad we are. That is hardly the case - if it were each time I read it would be a pretty depressing. Secondly, sin is often more about the attitude than the behavior. I use simple descriptions to keep the analogy clear.) But the Bible creates comraderie - while a psychological diagnosis creates isolation. Psychologists have known that their is a labeling effect - people will act more like the diagnosis that they are given. Why? Because people are trying to relearn their identity as one that is pathological and different from normal.

And finally, we often see that people with mental disorders often are extremely talented and can learn to use their disorder to their advantage. Many great poets have been depressed. Many comedians are bipolar or ADD. The reason is that these people learn to channel their disorder in order to become more creative. This is not sin. Sin does not just look at the symptoms, it looks at the effects. A person may feel so angry at his neighbor that he offers to mow his lawn in order to sublimate (I had to throw in some psychojargon) that energy in a positive manner. Or a person may use that anger and cause damage to the neighbor's property. We need this reminder - to know that we can turn our weaknesses into strengths.

All this is to say that we need "Christianeze." Sometimes Christian jargon gets a bad rap because it does not connect with the non-Christians. But that's not to say it shouldn't be used at all. For people who have studied the Bible, these phrases can actually help people understand reality better. I think that the solution to Christianeze with non-Christians and young Christians is not to abandon it completely but to use the language in contexts where their meaning is clear or by explaining the language as it is said. To simply replace Christian words with psychological words means to abandon our history and the culture of love and compassion that makes the church appealing.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A New Man, A New Blog

Since my recent doubting about the existence of God, I have come to the conclusion that some of my thoughts that I have shared on my blogs have been wrong. Not wrong in the sense of being false but wrong in the sense that they lacked the right perspective and the full view of things. Ok maybe just plain wrong at times as well. So instead of making you go back and do a thoughtful critique of every blog, I thought I would make it easy and do the work myself. I expect it to not only be beneficial to myself but also enlightening to you. And for balance I'll add some other stuff I've been processing so that it will be a good mix of reflections on the past, present concerns, and future aspirations.

Takes a man to admit he's wrong? I'd sure like to think so. I would like to say that I've been open to opposing viewpoints and for input from others, so I think that may redeem me some. Well enough reflection on what my blog will be... next blog I should be back on track.