Posts Tagged Psalms

Self-Denial as Self-Help: Avoiding ‘Eat-Pray-Love’ Self-Indulgence

Self helpOver at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I offer some critiques on Kathryn Schulz’s recent piece in New York Times Magazine on the modern age of self-help.

Schulz highlights a variety of approaches to introspection and identity-seeking, and although she briefly mentions the Christian “method” of submitting oneself to God first and foremost, she proceeds to casually shrug it off, using scientific non-consensus as her excuse, instead favoring a “promiscuity” in our approach-taking and hypothesis-testing:

Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.

As I go on to argue, Christians should be cautious of this type of universalism:

Christians mustn’t give way to a life of random, impulsive decision-making, whether it’s geared toward curing a personal addiction or ramping up something as innocent and well-meaning as helping those around us. Submitting to a smorgasbord of humanistic experimentation in our identity-seeking may yield “beneficial mutation” for some, but “beneficial” according to whom and at the cost of what? In the end, Schulz’s proposed path of self-realization involves diminishing the mysteries of God-empowered transformation to an exotic menu option amid a buffet of Eat-Pray-Love self-indulgence.

Regardless of whether we’re able to fully rationalize God’s transformative effects over our deepest desires, attitudes, and decisions, in humbling ourselves before the Lord of Lords and asking what he would have us do in all of our endeavors, economic or otherwise, we can have confidence that he will follow through according to his will.

This doesn’t mean the process is easy. Seasons of introspection and self-evaluation are not typically resolved with the single thump of a Bible or the first implant of that seed of self-denial. But that’s certainly where we should begin. Living a life of whole-life discipleship requires earnest dedication and preparation, and a particular path for preparation exists—namely, submitting oneself to a real God with real purposes for real people with real needs. The marketplace of humanity gets much more interesting when the market information gets that good.

“Commit your way to the Lord. Trust in him, and he will act,” writes the Psalmist. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way.”

Read the full post here.

 

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Get Personal: Restoring Individualism to Gospel-Worthy Conduct

Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, Duane LitfinIn his new book, Word versus Deed, Duane Litfin contemplates how Christians are to be Christians at a time when the church seems bent toward what I might call representation without proclamation (and vice versa, though to a lesser extent, methinks). “Today some are emphasizing deeds at the expense of words, while others hold fast to ‘talking’ and forsake the doing,” Litfin writes. “This is an imbalance that must be righted.”

The book covers a range of topics, but for the moment I want to focus on an interrelated “imbalance” that Litfin briefly notes in his chapter on “gospel-worthy conduct” (i.e. the “doing” piece). Litfin encourages us to think of such conduct as being “lived out in five distinguishable circles of application”: personal life, family, God’s people, society at large, and the natural world.

These are all good “circles” for us to think about, yet we must also take care to order them properly. For example, as Litfin duly notes, the church has, as of late, begun to shift its focus directly to the social realm, ignoring the “personal life” or “private dimension” altogether—a faulty either-or approach that will not bode well if the church has any hopes of transforming the social sphere toward the heart of God.

According to Litfin, this switch has happened for the following reasons (quoted directly from the book):

  1. Our time and place in history is stamped with the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. In reacting against this imbalance some may be inclined to move directly, and perhaps too quickly, to the social and corporate implications of the gospel, bypassing the individual realm entirely.
  2. In certain Christian circles the personal dimensions of Christian living—issues of sexual morality, personal honesty, worldliness, etc.—seem to be as far as the demands of the gospel ever reach. These issues are stressed constantly but little is heard of the social implications of the gospel. Such a perceived imbalance undoubtedly prompts others to leapfrog these “overworked” private matters on their way to broader social concerns.
  3. Any emphasis on issues of personal holiness in the Christian life appears for some to be an embarrassment. They tend to write off such concerns as the unwarranted obsession of pietists.

These realities have largely shaped the focus of Remnant Culture (thus my focus on “Radical Individualism”). From Shane Claiborne to David Platt (in varying degrees, to be sure) we are consistently sold on the idea that misaligned, Enlightenment-style individualism is the only kind there is, and the only way the American church will get past it is by bloodying itself on a self-constructed altar to abstract social goods. Under this perspective, anything that might result in individual advancement or recognition, regardless of what is driving it, must be too individual-oriented, and thus we are told to compensate by injecting our actions with impulsive socially conscious do-gooderism. We may still be trying to push Christians toward obedience to God (Platt certainly is), but we will continuously miss the mark if we “leapfrog” past the messy, complicated subject of (1) what this all means at a personal, individual level, and (2) how that translates into the social dimension holistically (i.e. encompassing all of the circles Litfin mentions).

The fundamental problem with the American church is not that we are too focused on our private lives and need to go on more mission trips or curb our incomes at a certain level. It’s that we are not recognizing that our private lives need to be broken by God’s grace and our social responsibilities need to be rightly ordered in turn. We want a quick-fix answer for everything—as nearly every observer of the West will recognize—but such an orientation does not stop at the electronic store check-out line; it drags itself into every element of our vocation-building and world-changing, prodding us to skip pass complicated questions of individual purity and purpose and jump straight to easy-and-convenient “social” arguments, whether we’re talking about sexuality, mega-church management, or global poverty.

We need to take a step back and make sure our hearts and our deeds are on the right path, and that means doing a lot of difficult work at the individual level. We need to cry out, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need to pause and pray, asking Read the rest of this entry »

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The Moral Life of Babies: Does Moral Agency Have a Starting Point?

BabyPaul Bloom has a fascinating article on the morality of babies in the New York Times Magazine, in which he provides an overview of the psychological studies he has been conducting at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University.

The article is quite extensive, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I wanted to note that his findings definitely identify signs for significant moral capacities in babies. Whether it’s showing preference for “good guys” vs. “bad guys” or smiling/laughing at “justice” vs. “injustice,” Bloom shows that babies have at least some sort of moral aptitude.

As Bloom concludes: “Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness.”

I take exception to plenty of things in Bloom’s article, particularly the Singeresque notion that babies must be “humanized” (i.e. civilized) in order to be considered moral agents or worthwhile beings. Mere self-consciousness is hardly a starting point for discussing moral agency, and such arguments usually exclude the mentally disabled and plenty of others from the realm of moral capability. However, as a whole, I think Bloom’s findings are a great starting point for bringing the Blooms, Singers, and Dawkinses of the world to a proper view of human life.

If the moral agency and moral worth of babies are thought to be components we can gauge with human instruments, it would follow that such lives can be discriminated against using our Read the rest of this entry »

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