On Freedom

One of the greatest, most essential, human freedoms is what we choose to devote our minds to.  Often we allow our minds to simply run free, meandering wherever our thoughts naturally take us.  And sometimes our minds may seem to have minds of their own: we might feel incapable to change our chronic thought patterns, our mental obsessions.  In these situations we have a choice to either passively succumb to the overactivity of our mind or to willfully persist in directing our thoughts to something more worthy of our attention.

Realizing the full freedom of the mind is an aim of many forms of meditation.  A huge purpose of meditation and contemplative practices is not only to hone your attention but also your intention.  A goal of these disciplines is to improve your capacity to focus your mind and your will.  And for many, having a scattered, untamed mind is really a symptom of having a scattered, untamed will.  Growing in personal freedom involves, among many things, choosing what you will spend time thinking about.  Our minds our not fully free if we have no control over our thoughts, if our mental musings are an endless chain of reactionary effects rather than a movement guided by the action of our will.


On Christian Theology

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine.  Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

—Dorothy Sayers

On Listening

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.  Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render.  They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.  They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.  But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.  One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.  Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer


On Science & Religion

Our obsession with scientific inquiry and progress is really a reflection of our deepest obsession: to know what life is all about.  The root Latin word, scientia, simply means ‘knowledge.’  Though these days the word ‘science’ has generally been narrowed to refer to particular kinds of knowledge gained in particular kinds of ways.  The first definition of ‘science,’ for instance, that appears in my Oxford Dictionary is ‘the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.’  So according to our contemporary understanding of ‘science,’ the particular kind of knowledge we can gain through the ‘hard sciences’ is knowledge of ‘the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world.’  And the particular kind of way that this knowledge is gained is through repeatable ‘observation and experiment.’  This is certainly the most common understanding and aim of contemporary science: to gain knowledge of natural phenomena through observation and experience.

Yet ‘science’ originally encompassed any organized body of knowledge.  In fact, my dictionary includes the ‘archaic’ definition: ‘knowledge of any kind.’  Out of this broad understanding of science, theology was actually thought to be the ‘queen of the sciences’ in late medieval times.  It was considered to be the highest form of legitimate knowledge about life, one that all other bodies of knowledge were ultimately integrated into.  But this broad understanding of science (also read: knowledge) radically changed over the course of modern history.  What’s occurred could be called the Great Narrowing of Knowledge.  What we can know and how we can know have both been ruthlessly restricted over recent times.  Many influential historical figures and forces have worked to narrow knowledge to strictly deal with quantifiable physical phenomena that can be subjected to controlled observation and experiment.

The narrowing of ‘science’ definitely parallels improvements made in the tools used to observe our natural surroundings.  The creation of instruments like the microscope and the telescope had a huge role in sparking the Scientific Revolution, for instance.  Such instruments allowed scientists to observe nature in new ways and at new levels—and what was found frequently sent a shock through our collective system.  Our reliance on religious traditions—and not simply our previously limited technology—received a great deal of the blame for our ignorance of our natural surroundings.  Not only that, such traditions were increasingly considered to be outmoded and unnecessary.  New tools allowed us to gain new knowledge about nature; we apparently no longer needed to rely on traditional knowledge since we could rely on our ability to know through reason and direct experience, aided by new technology.  Even more broadly, the modern movement not only became characterized by anti-religious attitudes but also by anti-historical attitudes.  The future was thought to be what really matters, not the past.  And so, unsurprisingly, the invention of new observational tools coupled with the widespread rejection of religious and traditional knowledge was also paralleled by a rise in materialist ideology.

The materialist assumption is simply that matter is all that exists, so matter is all that matters.  Materialism has become the scientific orthodoxy in many predominant places. The pressure to conform to this current creed can be great because those who dare to doubt materialist ideology risk being denounced and excommunicated as heretics by the reigning scientific priesthood.  But its assumptions and explanatory power still deserve to be questioned.  They deserve to be seriously scrutinized because the process of continually scrutinizing what we think we know about the ‘real world’ is the lifeblood of healthy science.

Materialism also deserves to be questioned because it is seriously questionable as an all-encompassing philosophy of life.  Many significant aspects of our human experience are ill-explained or entirely disregarded by its reductionist explanations.  For example, subjective consciousness and the life of the mind, as well as free will and our ethical intuitions, are important aspects of our lives and human experience that do not fit well, if at all, within materialism.

We must really ask ourselves, can knowledge gained strictly through natural scientific inquiry adequately explain all of reality?  Can naturalistic assumptions adequately account for the rich diversity and depth of all the experiences we have in life?  Can materialism adequately account for our powerful experiences of beauty and awe, of goodness and evil?  What about the wonders and mysteries and power of love?  Call me a Romantic, but I think not entirely.  Scientific methods of knowing have certainly allowed us to learn much about the natural world.  But we would do ourselves a collective favour if we acknowledged that such methods are not the only way to seek and gain knowledge of what’s real and knowable.  Nor can all of our human experience or all phenomena of life be neatly measured and tested in carefully controlled circumstances.

Guiding our scientific pursuits are some of life’s great questions: What is reality?  What is knowledge?  What ways can we gain trustworthy knowledge about reality?  We should be careful to not let our prevailing answers to these sort of philosophical issues to harden in unquestionable dogmas.  Especially since our investigations into the nature of reality and knowledge are actually motivated by even more basic investigations into the nature of our existence: Why are we here?  What is the meaning and purpose of life?  What is the best way to live?  Who are we?  Though matters of meaning and purpose are not formally within the bounds natural scientific inquiry by virtue of its methods, it is impossible for these issues to not get tangled up with our scientific investigations.  Because motivating our commitment to scientific inquiry is our essential hunger to know what life is all about.


On Listening

“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother’s confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects. Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

―Dietrich Bonhoeffer


On Jesus

The significance of Advent is staggering.  So much could be raised and explored in reflecting upon the meaning of what we celebrate during this season.  By beholding the movement of our Incarnational-God, we learn that he is Emmanuel: God with us.  We learn that he loves with a love that is fathomless and fierce.  So fathomless and fierce that he assumed the condition of a person—even that of a totally helpless infant—to compassionately relate with us in a most extraordinary way.  Because this is what the truest love does: it motivates a lover to adjust and endure to be with their beloved, no matter the circumstance.  It motivates a lover to intimately enter the experiences of their beloved, no matter the cost.  It motivates a lover to compassionately bear the burdens of their beloved, no matter the difficulty.

Our God who is Love has done all of this to be close, to be near, to be with us.  He has acted in this incredible way so that we might know that we are not alone; that we might know that we are loved and valued beyond anything we dare comprehend.  Far from being cheap cliches, these are truths that can heal the most profound pains of the soul.  So at Advent we celebrate our God who acted as we are ultimately moved by his immense love for us.

We can also learn that our Incarnational-God has a special concern for people who are excluded and despised.  For the nobodies, the nothings, and the no-goods.  So much so that he became such a person.  This has huge relevance in our world of increasing disparity, division, and discrimination.  So may we remember that God actively expressed his love for us so that we would be ultimately inspired to follow his example, as we commit to becoming advent-people.  The kind of people who are continually learning the ways of active humility, compassion, and love.  The kind of people who wish to lovingly include everyone, regardless of their background or position or creed.  Thomas Merton powerfully expresses this startling significance in the following:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst… With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.”

As I reflect upon the significance of Advent, I cannot imagine a more remarkable act of humility.  I cannot imagine a more compassionate act of solidarity. I cannot imagine a greater expression of active love.  I cannot imagine a more radical revolution: that this is the way God goes about changing the world.


On Listening

Listening should not be viewed as a technique; it should be viewed as an act of love.  All of our talk of ‘effective listening skills’ may mislead us into imagining we simply need to follow some behavioural checklist, ask probing questions, nod at appropriate times, make eye contact, and so on.  These sort of ‘skills’ can be incredibly valuable and they certainly may contribute to good listening.  But there’s not much that would distinguish an interrogator from a friend if they’re applied simply on their own.

The difference maker is love: a genuine interest in really learning, understanding, and bearing the burdens of a friend.  Love is the most powerful inspiration for effective listening.  It will motivate and guide listening far better than any set of skills could on their own.  Love will inspire the best questions, love will shape the most genuine responses, love will motivate a friend to persist in pressing deeper when needed, love will even remind us when our words are inadequate.  The most effective listening cannot be done without love.