Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Emotional Impact of Good Thinking

There is a long practice (or prejudice) in Christian history that separates “head” and “heart.”  It comes to us most strongly, perhaps, from the Pietist movement that began in Germany in the 17th century.  People who identify themselves as “evangelical” know this terrain very well.  We pietist evangelicals use this kind of language commonly to describe inauthentic religion (“mere” head knowledge) and authentic religion (heart knowledge).  I don’t like this trade-off and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.  The head-heart trade-off is a false dichotomy.

It turns out that good thinking involves having the right kind of feelings, a point to which Christians need to pay close attention.  We need, therefore, to quit talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.”

I rather feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but let me try out this idea anyway.  Let’s try to notice the difference between between two aspects of learning.  “Learning” can mean something like cognitive mastery – I “get” (i.e. understand and can manipulate) an idea and can make use of it in other ideas.  I’m afraid that, usually when we talk about learning doctrine, we put it in this framework.  But (by itself) it isn’t learning.  It is reductionistic and looks much like the “head knowledge” we decry.

If we follow the usual path, at this point we switch to “heart knowledge” for the corrective, but it is precisely here that we start going wrong.  We go wrong because with “heart knowledge,” sound doctrine (good thinking) tends to get downplayed.  Oh, yes, we know that believing the right things matters, but really it matters mostly to prove our orthodoxy, our being on the “right side” of a controversy.  For spirituality, by contrast, what  really matters is how one feels and what one does.  Does one feel love for Jesus?  Does one do what Christians are supposed to do (go to church, tithe, feed the poor, etc.)?

If we want to work on “heart knowledge” we tend to look to the spiritual disciplines to help us.  So, we read books on prayer and mysticism, or fasting, or some other practice.  We tend not to read books on theology, partly because “theology” has become so technical that only professional academics can use the lingo.

So we pietist evangelicals fall off the log the other direction and reduce the Christian faith to “heart knowledge.”   In truth – and it’s critically important that we “get” this point –  “learning” something means doing the hard cognitive work for understanding and being taken by, possessed by, the truth of God’s revelation.  It is still mental and conceptual, but it is more than mere mastery of concepts.  The ideas become personal – the will has yielded and “made it personal” in a more-than-merely-cognitive way.  In learning, I’m not merely manipulating an idea.  That idea permeates my whole being.   Clearly, this sort of learning affects our emotional tone and we become, over time, different, renewed, transformed people.

If my chain of thought is sound, it means we Christians need to spend a lot more time with doctrine/theology: reflectively, ponderingly, persistently, leisurely, slowly, prayerfully.


December 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If Only We Recognized the Prince of Peace

I’ve heard the story.  I’ve read the story.  And I just watched the story on the History Channel while I was mortifying my flesh on the treadmill.  The Christmas Truce of 1914 is truly a historical wonder, but not for conventional interpretation.

For context, a quick re-telling: On the Western Front, five months into World War I, British and German soldiers made enemies through no act of their own, found themselves staring across No Man’s Land at each other on Christmas Eve.  Across that void, the British heard Germans singing, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” and some of them began to sing back, “Silent night, holy night…”

Peace broke out.  Enemies met in that space between the trenches and exchanged food, chocolate, trinkets, buttons and other bits of memoriabilia.  There was a small Christmas tree.  They even had a soccer match.  It must have been an absolutely miraculous moment.

The Christmas Truce so took hold that the British officers actually had a pretty hard time getting their troops back into a more bellicose posture.  According to the History Channel telling, it took a British officer essentially murdering a defenseless German soldier to jump-start the war.  Four long years of horrific bloodshed ensued.

Historians on the program opined that the “reason” such a moment could take place was because the combatants could – in the Christmas moment – recognize their common “humanity.”  The narrator even used the word “fellowship” in describing how quickly and well these men bonded with each other.

Completely lacking was the historians’ recognition of the common faith of the British and German soldiers.  What an astonishing blind spot!  Recognizing the “humanity” in someone else does nothing to explain this moment and, worse, it positively ignores the obvious.  These British and German combatants, in hearing the songs of Christmas, recognized their common Lord.  Something bigger than France, Britain or Germany was revealed, if only for a moment – the governance of the Prince of Peace.

Now let’s play the historian’s game and think about counterfactuals – the “what might have happened” had event B taken place rather than event A.  So, in my little scenario, let’s say that the troops – recognizing the implication of Christians killing other Christians – on both sides had refused to carry on with the war.  What if they had realized that both  British and German followers of Jesus had something in common that transcends national status?  What if the moment had been permitted to develop (the History Channel program played out just this possibility that perhaps the war might have been permitted to stop right then), which might have dramatically foreshortened what became a long and bloody war?

A Christmas Truce of 1914 that led to peace would have prevented the humiliation of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles…and Hitler would not have happened.  There would not have been the smoldering resentment in Germany that fed his demonic vision.  The German economy would not have been shattered.  The political situation would have been different.  No Hitler, no World War II.  Imagine a history without either World War I or II.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a historical marvel.  We ought to scour history for other such moments.  They show us the Prince of Peace ruling.  If only we recognized him. Come, Lord Jesus.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas, Doctrinal Truth and Human Flourishing

In my prayer time the other day I was pondering Psalm 43:3, “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”

Truth and good order go together.  The shalom of God means that truth and good order lead to human flourishing.  God’s created order means goodness and blessing for all.  Implication: truth cannot be a secondary matter.

Talking about truth sounds to many people like a mere intellectual game.  The spirit of the age encourages people to separate the experience of God’s goodness from doctrines about God’s nature and work.  Some people argue that one can have a powerful and life-changing experience of God without being committed to (or even very worried about) truth.

Clearly, we don’t have to be perfectly logical and coherent in order to experience God’s goodness.  Certainly, there are flaws in my concepts of God and I still experience God’s goodness.  But I don’t think this point gets at my concern about the spirit of the age.  The problem is that we almost entirely divorce truth claims from experiencing God’s goodness, as if we can have heads full of seriously bad ideas and still experience the fullness of God.

We mostly soft-pedal doctrinal differences.  We don’t like doctrinal debates (too abstract and probably irrelevant) and we don’t like to tell people openly, “You’re wrong,” even though we think it all the time.  The underlying assumption seems to be that doctrine really doesn’t matter very much – that God is so gracious and good that God apparently overrides really bad ideas with grace and love anyway.  But, of course, I just made a doctrinal (or theological) claim about God’s goodness.

Does God care whether I think A or B about God?  Since we’re approaching Christmas, is it truly only of secondary importance that some Christians dismiss a literal incarnation of the Word of God, preferring to think of it as metaphorical and not actual?  Does thinking A rather than B have no impact on their spiritual lives?  Their experience of God?  Can we grow to maturity either way?

If there is not real life from God in true doctrine, then about any old idea works.  If doctrine is nothing more than manipulating concepts, while experience of God lies elsewhere, then any old idea works, because God apparently works independently of ideas.  But of course, not any old idea works.  If any old idea worked, then God-as-cruel-Tyrant works as well for helping me flourish as does God-as-loving-Parent.

Having a head full of the right ideas that don’t penetrate one’s heart is not what the Christian life is about.  Neither is the opposite, that one need be unconcerned about sound doctrine because God will bring a flourishing life anyway.

I believe that those people who are captivated by the incarnation of the Word of God will have a dramatically different Christmas experience than those who think it’s just the birthday of Jesus.  There.  I said it.

December 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , | 1 Comment

Academic Moral Equivalency and Christian Perfection

I have been seriously pondering John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection for several years.  Have we his heirs advanced or retreated in our understanding of Methodism’s “grand depositum” as he put it?  I don’t know.  We certainly don’t like the word “perfection,” a problem Wesley himself had to face.  Still, if he considered it the reason “Methodists were chiefly called into existence,” then it seems like we ought to figure out if there is a 21st century version of it that can be called legitimately Wesleyan.

The idea of spiritual maturity suggests that some people are further along the path toward it than others.  Already we sense the danger of making a judgment, yet the Bible makes it.  One recalls, for example, that word about some still needing milk while they should be ready for meat.  In the Christian life, there is a trajectory toward a telos, a goal.  We can argue about whether or not we ever reach the goal, but it’s a goal we envision.

We do the same in education.  A college senior should be more mature than a freshman.  The very terms we use for undergraduate classification points this way.  Educational theory includes the telos.  I’ve been scouring through Fowler’s stages of faith lately.  He and his main authorities (Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg) all include a view of maturity.  They believe that they have empirically demonstrated that some people are more mature than others.

We tend to assume, do we not, that a college-educated person is better educated than someone who has no college?  We assume, don’t we, that going to college challenges people to become more self- and world-aware, which is better than not being aware?  One of the major goals of a college education is to help develop whole people, not just skillful people who are good at doing certain jobs.  This is supposedly the difference between a college degree and a technical school degree.

So, in addition to skills, we expect a college education to develop appropriate attitudes and behaviors.  A well-educated person is more than a skilled person.  A well-educated person has some of the right…virtues.  A well-educated person should also be a wise person, no?  Everything I’ve said so far about a college education can be applied to theological education.  Don’t we expect advance in a theological education?  A person with a Master of Divinity should have the skill and the character, by virtue of the education, to lead a congregation, right?

Most academic institutions assume that by merely having the experience, these virtues will emerge in our students.  Yet the academy prizes and rewards skill and achievement rather than good attitudes and behavior.  We tend to assume moral equivalency.  More educated people are supposed to be likewise more trustworthy, more wise, because more aware of “the issues.”

I’m not sure we Methodists have gotten Mr. Wesley right on Christian perfection.  Yet, in higher and theological education, we have taken up this very endeavor, only in academic terms and with academic values rather than Christian ones.  We assume that something like an academic version of that fruit of the Spirit will happen by virtue of the experience.

I think we have something still to learn from Mr. Wesley…

December 7, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments