Take This Bread

In her book Take This Bread, Sara Miles presents her spiritual autobiography. Much like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, she shares how she come to the improbable place of Christian identity. The path to faith is described with reference to communion primarily, as well as the role of food in people’s lives, particularly those who come to benefit greatly from the author’s work in developing food pantries throughout the San Francisco area.

Sara Miles describes a Christianity that will be difficult for many Christian to recognize. Miles sees this as an indictment against Christianity, especially evangelicalism and fundamentalism (all essentially lumped together with abortion clinic bombers and related characterizations of the so-called “Religious Right”). The point I think Miles makes is that not many Christians really care for the poor in practical, tangible ways, and her writing here is convicting; there is much to be gained from reflecting on praxis integration and taking practical steps to respond to real needs in one’s community.

That the author’s Christianity is difficult to recognize, however, may also be an indictment of her approach to spirituality. She rejects both politics and religion as “simply a matter of opinion” [p. 160] and is convinced that “faith” is “about action” [p. 161]. But there is a disregard, here, of the early church and attempts to live faithfully before God and to live faithfully in community. She seems to agree with the observation made by a friend that the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed) is “basically a toxic document” because of it’s attempt to “standardize belief and overturn heresies” [p. 191]. This ahistorical perspective will be a concern to some readers along with her willingness to overlook (or disregard) orthodoxy in favor of orthopraxy alone. Of course, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are widely understood by Christians as two sides to the same coin: that Christian doctrine informs life in ways that make meaningful practice and service that much more likely – often as an expression of gratitude for what the believer recognizes as God’s grace and mercy in his or her own life.

In keeping with this view, Miles places great emphasis on the kingdom of God as ocurring right now rather than in the future (she appears to reject any discussion of an afterlife): “The kingdom was the same old earth, populated by the same clueless humans, transformed wherever you could glimpse God shining through it” [p. 222]. The concern she raises reminds me of the saying, “He/she is so heavenly minded that he/she is no earthly good.” This refers to people who are so caught up in the next life that they overlook or avoid responsibility for addressing needs this side of eternity. But the Christian affirms that the Kingdom of God is both now and extended into eternity. What we do here matters, yes, but not because there is no afterlife, but precisely because there is no great wall separating the Kingdom of God as experienced and practice in the here-and-now and that which will be experienced in eternity.

In the end the reader cannot help but be impressed by the impact Miles has had on so many of the marginalized in the San Francisco area. She has helped start nine food pantries – a remarkable accomplishment and expression of love for one’s neighbor. The reader will be left wondering whether they agree with Miles that this is Christianity or whether this is what Miles wishes was Christianity – acts of love independent of doctrine about love. It is certainly a spirituality that is concrete and practical in its regard for humanity; it can be this without dealing with transcendent reality, without transcendent purposes, without the miraculous, without the Virgin birth, and without the return of Christ.

Integrative Approaches – 1

Our faculty often select a book to discuss together. You may recall that last year we read Kingdom Triangle by J.P. Moreland. This year we are reading Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity by David Entwistle. Entwistle is Chair of the Psychology Department at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.

I met David Entwistle several years ago and had the opportunity in 2003 to present at Malone College. They hold an annual Worldview Forum, and that year the topic was the body. So I presented “What’s a body for? A Christian perspective on our physical existence.” This was in response to the other speaker, Chris Santilli, a hedonist and nudist (and author of Hedonism and Hedonism II), who presented a hedonic view of the body. It was an interesting trip to Ohio, I can assure you.

In any case, back to the book. The first chapter essentially challenges Tertullian’s rhetorical question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This is the claim that Christian faith is enough, that “human reason and biblical truth are essentially irreconcilable” [p. 11]. Entwistle’s conclusion is that one can be both a Christian and a psychologist, but that integration is best considered “as both a noun and a verb” [p. 19]. Integration is both discovered as something that already exists, and it is also “something we do as we create ways of thinking about, combining, and applying psychological and theological truths” [p. 19].

Through Eyes of Faith – 12-13

The next two chapters in Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith address the two sections of states of awareness (Chapter 12) and learning (Chapter 13). On states of awareness, the authors discuss Herbert Benson’s work on restricting sensory input through relaxation response. We were actually just discussing this in Applied/Clinical Integration, as we were reviewing an article on holy name repetition, which has its roots in Judaism and was practiced by the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Chapter 13 covers the free will versus determinism debate. After distinguishing the two positions of determinism and indeterminism, they discuss the Christian concepts of God’s foreknowledge, sovereignty, and grace. They end this chapter with an image that conveys the paradox here:

Our situation is like that of somone stranded in a deep well with two ropes dangling down. If we grab either one alone we sink still deeper into the well. Only when we hold both ropes at once can we climb out, because at the top, beyond where we can see, they come together around a pulley. Grapping only the rope of determinism or the rope of human responsibilty plunges us to the bottom of a well. So instead we grab both ropes, without yet understanding how they come together. In doing so, we may also be comforted that in science as in religion, a confused acceptance of irreconcilable principles is sometimes more honest than a a tidy oversimplified theory…. [p. 77]

But do we really choose to grab both ropes…?

Through Eyes of Faith – 10-11

The next section in Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith addresses sensation and perception. Chapter 10 deals with the question of whether science demystifies religious experience and faith. Here’s a nice quote:

The more scientists learn about sensation, the more convinced they are taht what is truly extraordinary is not extrasensory perception, claims for which inevitably dissolve upon investigation, but rather our very ordinary moment-to-moment sensory experience of organizing formless neural impulses into colorful sights and meaningful sounds. [p. 55]

Chapter 11 helps the reader distinguish between subjectivists who see perception as “arbitrary mental constructions” and objectivists (naive realists) who believe that “our experience mirrors reality” [pp. 60-61]. Here they discuss the concept of schemas and conclude with an observation about religious experience: “To have a religious experience is thus to assign to sensory experience spiritual significance. It is to interpret phenomena with an awareness of the presence of God” [p. 63].

The Psychology of Traffic – 3

I’ve posted twice now on the book, Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt. Here’s my third brief reflection, and it’s based on coming across several words/phrases with which I was unfamiliar:

  • “Traffic calming” – the practice of getting automobile drivers to reduce their speed (e.g., use of a speed bump);
  • “Gap acceptance” – finding a place for your car to fit when coming onto or leaving the highway where the on-ramp and off-ramp loops come together;
  • “Throughput maximization” – the “sweet spot in which the most vehicles can move at the highest speed thorugh a section of highway” [p. 122];
  • “Dilemma zone” – what engineers call “the moment when we’re too close to the amber light to stop and yet too far to make it through without catching some of the red phase” [p. 54];
  • “Shoupistas” – followers of Donald Shoup, an economist at UCLA and author of The High Cost of Free Parking;
  • “Pittsburgh left” – also practiced in Beijing the notorious “Beijing left”), it refers to the quick left after a red light and in front of oncoming traffic;
  • “SMIDSYs” – for “Sorry, Mate, I Didn’t See You” referring to the “failure to see” a motorcycle in England [p. 83];
  • “Los Gatos effect” – “Drivers seem reluctant to abandon the passing lane and join the lane of trucks chugging uphill, even when they are being pressured by other drivers, and even when the other lane is not crowded” [p. 120]

Choosing Celibacy

Marcy Hintz has an article in Christianity Today (Sept 08) titled “Choosing Celibacy.” She argues for a move away from the language of singleness to the language of celibacy, a word that reflects a vocational narrative, something intentional that reflects a commitment to the church as “first family” as Rodney Clapp would say. Toward the end of the article Hintz discusses the monastics and early church fathers and mothers who played important roles in church history. Here is her conclusion:

“Single” does not do justice to the vital intelligence that spurred these saints to wed their affection to the forward-moving family of the church. “Celibate,” on the other hand, is a word that tells me they knew exactly what they were doing. Theirs was a way of life purposely chosen with their community wholly in mind.

… In restoring the language of celibacy to the lexicon of the church, we’ll also restore a traditoin that has historically produced much life. More imprtantly, we’ll restore a Christological story of family, in which celibacy is a viable choice, a worthy commitment, and a sacred relationship. [p. 49]