How to pass any exam

I’ve told my students this exact advice so many times:

Here are some posts I’ve written about serious study strategies:

  1. Lecture to the wall
  2. Thomas Aquinas on Memory
  3. Study Space
  4. The Bible’s Study Pattern

 

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practices and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor

Introduction

I found out about this book from twitter, when James K.A. Smith mentioned anticipating it’s release. I had never heard of the author before, but he’s an ethics professor with his PhD from Notre Dame.

The aim of the book is stated on page 18:

In this book, I highlight the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I point out empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I also provide practical suggestions on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I titled this book The Gospel of Happiness – because this is good news, very good news indeed (18).

The argument is fairly obvious from chapter to chapter. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Ways to Happiness
  2. The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
  3. The Way of Prayer
  4. The Way of Gratitude
  5. The Way of Forgiveness
  6. The Way of Virtue
  7. The Way of Willpower

Dr. Kaczor looks at the relevant psychological research concerning each topic as well the Biblical and historical teachings of Christianity and shows their coherence and overlap. After he makes these comparisons he makes recommendations for personal practice.

The Bad
I really found very little objectionable in the book. Perhaps a more New Testament studies oriented definition of the word gospel would have been nice. The gospel is not merely, “good news” because it makes us happy. It is good news because it is an announcement about God’s kingdom. But this weakness is forgivable because the author isn’t a New Testament scholar. Also, it makes very little practical difference to the content of the rest of the book.

There are two formatting issues though: the book uses endnotes which are as annoying as having socks full of fire ants. Also, there is no index. An index would have been wonderful.

The Good
Where shall I begin? For starters, the book takes on Nietzsche’s notion that Christianity makes people weak, miserable, and stupid (183). Many Christians feel guilty about pursuing happiness, power, or success and I think that this comes from adopting a Nietzschean understanding of Christian ethics instead of Biblical one.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the content of the endnotes. The amount of helpful literature cited is a great library builder.

More importantly though is the content of the book. As stated above the author means to show how positive psychology and Christian teaching over lap and offer practical advice for improving happiness. I’ll summarize the first chapter to show how the author does this so that you can see that he performs his objective admirably:

The Ways to Happiness
In this chapter, Kazcor uses Martin Seligman’s PERMA definition of happiness and shows how Christian teaching and practice, at its best, fulfills the requirements of each piece of the puzzle (21). It is important to recognize that Kaczor and Seligman define happiness as flourishing and well-being, not merely as positive emotion (as you’ll see). PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (21). Here are summaries of Kaczor’s explanation of each.

  1. Positive Emotions
    Kaczor cites several lines of research that indicate that religious people generally have higher positive emotion than irreligious people (22-23). He does observe that Christians are “called to love God and neighbor regardless how they may be feeling at the moment” (24). He also observes that doing the right thing while experiencing negative emotions is harder. I would add that Kant would say that makes it even more moral. Essentially, Kazcor notes that since we know the our emotions impact others and how we make decisions, we are obligated to care about fostering positive emotions in ourselves in ways that are not contrary to the Christian life. In doing this, we are able to foster well-being and emotional happiness in others (26). What I wish he did observe here was that doing the right thing for our neighbor can lead to positive emotions (he does say this on pages 66-67).
  2. Engagement
    Engagement is our flow or activation of our strengths in order to accomplish some task. Kaczor reminds readers that in Genesis, man was made to “tend the garden.” With this in mind, he notes the importance of legitimate work as a way of experiencing unity with God (29). I’ve written about this  myself.
  3. Relationships
    Seligman’s taxonomy of happiness includes relationships as a “rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (30). Kaczor here writes about the obvious place of human relationships in the teachings of Jesus. His main focus here is Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24). I would have added the importance of embedded personality in ancient thought is simply assumed in the Bible, so much so that while individuals are responsible for their actions, their identity is not merely related to achievements like in Proverbs, but it is linked integrally to their community associations (in Christ, the body of Christ, the church of God, etc).
  4. Meaning
    Kazcor notes that Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is better than the self” (32). Kaczor points to the subjective experience of Christian obedience in small things as a level of meaning added to people who aren’t famous for their contributions to the world (33). He also notes the objective question of whether or not anything actually has meaning and notes that Christianity claims to offer objective meaning to the life of the Christian and to explain the objective meaning of the cosmos and human existence in general. If Christianity is true, then meaning is provided for like Paul says, “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  5. Achievement
    Here Kaczor notes the importance of feeling successful for human happiness, but also notes the traps that Christian morality trains us to avoid: greed, vanity, and social comparison which are all things that positive psychology notes do not actually contribute to overall happiness (40). In my opinion, many Christians are so concerned to talk about God’s grace saving us from sin despite our failure to do good works that they fail to talk about the importance of tackling small and big tasks for God, neighbor, and self in order to be happy. But the Bible does say that with toil there is profit and with mere talk there is only poverty. Paul also approves of a certain measure of pleasure in spiritual growth (Gal 6:4).

Conclusion
Over all I find the book to be a wonderful clarification of the position of Christian theology and the Biblical witness on happiness, but it is not merely that. It also functions as a defense of Christianity because it shows that Christianity is actually good for you. Finally, the book is a great book for devotional reading or for pastors to read in order to help Christians in their pursuit of Christ and of earthly and eternal happiness. I highly recommend it.

Mike Bird, Evangelical Theology, and the Sermon on the Mount

There are a lot of things Christians “need to know.” For some it’s predestination, for others, the age of the earth, or the order of end times events. In reality, the core of theology is simpler than that.Mike Bird in his, Evangelical Theology reminds us of the test for Christian theology:

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5– 7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) are good test cases for any theological system.

Contra some Reformed theologians, Jesus is not teaching people the law so they can see how they don’t measure up, wail for their sinful hearts, and realize their need for the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness. Contra some dispensational theologians, Jesus is not teaching what kind of law the Jews will keep in a post-rapture millennium. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto for the kingdom. It is the ethical vision for God’s people if they are to live out the covenantal righteousness that comes from experiencing the kingdom’s saving power. This is what the new Israel of the new age is supposed to look like. Not the elitist micropiety of Pharisaic leaders who claim their tradition represents the true measure of righteousness, nor the compromised Jewishness of the Herodians who dress up Hellenistic values in a Jewish garb. The sermon is about new law for the new age.

Bird, Michael F.; Bird, Michael F.. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Kindle Locations 8394-8401). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

 

Christian theology must accommodate the teachings of Jesus rather than circumvent them. If it cannot, it is not Christian.

The Hurt-Feelings Fallacy

The internet made me abreast of an informal fallacy which I have dubbed:

The Hurt-Feelings Fallacy

When a premise and/or conclusion of an argument hurts somebody’s feelings or hypothetically could do so in the future, then the argument is problematic. Because of this, the conclusion and the premises are all false. Similarly, if the corollaries of the argument could cause hurt-feelings then the whole argument is false. Also, and most important of all, if the person making the argument has or potentially could stimulate hurt-feelings, then all of the arguments that person makes are totally false.

This is a pernicious fallacy and one which is difficult not to commit. For instance:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Could be responded to thus:

I do not want to die, that hurts my feelings. That argument is unsafe.

Also, one could say,

If I accept the records about Socrates, then I might have to consider the historicity of the Bible, but the Bible hurts my feelings.

This fallacy has allowed me to disprove almost everything. My favorite example is this:

You have disagreed with me. You have given me hurt-feelings, therefore your whole ideology is wrong. Also, you are not a person.

Happy nihilism!

In real life, many people do think that the hurt-feelings fallacy is a real refutation of hard to accept truths or uncomfortable arguments. This is absurd. Hopefully this silly song will cheer you up!

 

Growth and Biblical Wisdom

Everybody has a self-theory, some hypothesis or doctrine about what/who they are. Some of these theories are simple sentences like, “I’m an athlete.” Others are more fundamental, like, “I’m worthless.” According to Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden, our self-theories lead directly to our self-esteem maintenance/repair strategies after we fail at a task or to reach a goal. (Dweck, 130-131). They have distilled the various self-theories into two helpful categories.

The Self Theories:

  1. Entity theory:
    Entity theory is the theory that all of your personal traits are fixed in place.
  2. Incremental Theory:
    The incremental theory of the self is the theory that no matter who you are, your qualities and abilities can be improved upon.

Two strategies of self-esteem repair:

  1. Fixed/Static View
    It is often found that those who hold to the entity theory, because of the assumption that change is impossible, also have a static view of self-esteem repair. These people repair their self-esteem by avoidance of activities that are difficult. Adherents to this self-theory also utilize comparison of their performance to examples who performed even more poorly than themselves to bolster their sense of worth/skill.
  2. Growth View
    Those who hold to the incremental self-theory, because of the assumption that change is possible, adopt a growth perspective on self-esteem repair. These individuals use strategies like examination of deficits and practicing unattained skills.  They are also more likely to utilize comparison of personal performance to those who performed even better to understand why they succeeded.

Can you guess which self-theory and which strategies tend to be associated with success? If you guessed, “the incremental theory and the growth view,” you guessed correctly.

In the book of Proverbs, the self-theory assumed by the author is the incremental theory. The author assumes that people can change:

Pro 8:1-5 ESV  Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?  (2)  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  (3)  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  (4)  “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  (5)  O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense.

And as one would expect from somebody who holds the incremental view, the author of Proverbs recommends responding to personal failures and challenges with a growth strategy:

  1. Pro 9:8b-9a Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.
  2. Pro 15:5  A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
  3. Pro 15:12  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
  4. Pro 15:32  Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

The whole book basically indicates that one of the main differences between the wise and the unwise is that the wise are willing to face correction and improve. They admit their flaws and errors. They do so whether the flaws pertain to morality, character, knowledge, skill, or anything else.

Conclusion

Learning to change our perspective on failures and internal shame is very difficult. We often feel painfully ashamed of failures, mistakes, and sins. This shame can paralyze us into being unable to admit fault. It can even force us into hiding our flaws and dwelling only on our positive traits and thus can prevent change. It is all the better to admit personal failures of morals, knowledge, and skill. Fessing up to oneself, to God, and to other people is a liberating experience. In so doing, shame can become the sort of sorrow that leads to repentance and personal transformation. One good article on the subject can be found here: Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself.

Works Cited:

Andrew J Elliot and Carol S Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

Appendix:

Though the author of Proverbs assumes that you and I can change, he is a realist. You and I have all known people that we worry about because they keep making bad decisions. The fear is that eventually it might be too late to change. Proverbs does notice that some people will want to change their habits at the last minute before a calamity. They procrastinate. They hope to perhaps utilizing a montage strategy. “Oh, I messed around all year and have to make a 100 on the final and only have 8 hours to study…wisdom come save me with clips of fun, hard work, and sweet music!” Kind of like in Rocky, Revenge of the Nerds, the Muppets Movie, and Mulan:

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a cosmically powerful female prophet who represents the highest aspirations of human motherhood, the ultimate wife, and the most wise sister a young man could have. Young men typically love women, this is probably why the literary device is used. The book is written for young men, but it clearly applies to women as well. Anyway, here is what Lady Wisdom says after being ignored until the last minute before a disaster:

Pro 1:24-27  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,  (25)  because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  (26)  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you,  (27)  when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

If you refuse to change your character long enough, you won’t be able to suddenly make the necessary repairs in order to succeed. I tried this in Hebrew as an undergrad. You cannot study at the last minute for Hebrew and succeed.

Burning off dead wood

What is a human being and how does it grow? Two men offer helpful and constructive answers can be found below. To be human is to be the sort of creature whose mind can incorporate struggles and trials into itself to become more. Marcus is commenting on the Stoic concept that human beings are rational animals, Peterson is commenting on Scripture in the first quote and on Jung’s understanding of Solve et Coagula[1] in the second. I hope what follows is helpful and encouraging:

Marcus Aurelius

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher. (Aurelius Meditations, Hays Translation 4:1)

 

Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. (Aurelius 5:20)

Jordan Peterson

It’s not just a little linear, it’s step-wise, right? It’s that the you that emerges as a consequence of your latest catastrophe is everything that you were before plus something more. And that actually constitutes what you might describe as measurable progress, right? And that’s another argument against moral relativism, because if you can do everything that you could do before, and you can do some more things we could just define that as better. It’s not a bad definition. And then we have enough. It’s like, what you’re trying to do is to differentiate the world and differentiate yourself and every time you undergo one of these revolutions then hopefully both of those things happen. And then there’s a moral to that story, too, which is do it voluntarily and maybe do it don’t wait for it to happen catastrophically. Keep your eyes open and when something goes a little bit wrong that you could fix it. Don’t say, “No, that doesn’t matter.” Maybe it does matter. Maybe it is matter. Maybe it’s exactly the matter out of which you should be built.[2] 

 

[confronting the unexpected and undesired good is…] It’s a forest fire that allows for new growth, and that’s how those things are put together and, and it’s useful to know too because if you burn something off you might think well there’s nothing left. That’s not true! If it’s dead wood, then you have room for new growth. And you want to be doing that on a fairly regular basis. That’s the snake that sheds its skin and transforms itself, right? That’s the death and resurrection, from a psychological perspective. It’s exactly the same idea! Now, we don’t know the upper limit to that, right? Because we don’t know what a person would be like if they let everything that they could let go let go and only let in what was seemly, let’s say. But you can see, that’s funny we know that to some degree you can see people vary from you can see people start to do that, it’s not a rare experience. And people improve very rapidly. They can improve their lives very rapidly, a lot of it is low-hanging fruit. If you just stop doing really stupid things that you know are stupid your life improves a lot so and it frees you up. It also means there’s a there’s an element there that’s also associated with pride because people tend to take pride in who they are, and that’s a bad idea because that stops you from becoming who you could be because if you’re proud of who you are you won’t let that go when it’s necessary you won’t step away from it you know and then you end up being your own parody That’s also a very bad idea. You want to be continually stepping away from your previous. Part of that too is that you have to decide, are you order, or are you chaos, or you the process that mediates between them? If you’re the process that mediates between them you are the thing that transforms. And that’s the right attitude for human beings because that’s what we are. The thing that voluntarily confronts chaos and transforms. That’s what we are. And so, for better or worse, you know, that’s our deepest biological essence, you might say. So, you can let things go if you know that there’s more growth to come.[3] 

 

Reflections

Aurelius’ meditations and Peterson’s broader argument provide a helpful rationale for learning the dialectical arts, adopting asceticism, and a more positive approach to life’s trials.

References


[1] One of my dear friends was deeply interested in Jung and before his tragic death wrote the song linked above.

[2]

How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?

The question in the title is a quote from the character Tyler Durden in the book, Fight Club. But how much can we know?

How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? – Tyler Durden

 

And even for men to prefer gymnastic exercises by far to the baths, is perchance not bad, since they are in some respects conducive to the health of young men, and produce exertion—emulation to aim at not only a healthy habit of body, but courageousness of soul…But let not such athletic contests, as we have allowed, be undertaken for the sake of vainglory, but for the exuding of manly sweat. Nor are we to struggle with cunning and showiness, but in a stand-up wrestling bout, by disentangling of neck, hands, and sides. For such a struggle with graceful strength is more becoming and manly, being undertaken for the sake of serviceable and profitable health.[1] – Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria is under the impression that the gymnasium, including wrestling/boxing can train a boy/man is courageousness of soul as well as physical health.

Reference


[1] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 284.

Hitting the Links 1/6/2017

Here’s a good Ed Latimore quote:

Of every thing I’ve cooked lately, this is my wife’s favorite: 5 Ingredient Carnitas. Enjoy.

Strength training is a prophylactic for aging. And it takes remarkably little time if your goals are modest. If you don’t lift, you having nothing to lose but weakness, get to the gym/garage/push-ups. Also, here’s this 70 year old lifter.

Bret Contreras, “the glute guy,” recommends five daily practices to improve your health or at least your sense of well being. I especially appreciate deep squat and diaphragmatic breathing. He also has a big fat stack of references at the bottom, but with health practices (that aren’t dangerous) the best evidence is trying it out.

Speaking of diaphragmatic breathing, Wim Hof has his 40 breaths +push-ups exercise up:

Another way to practice Wim’s exercises is to do 30-40 breaths, breathe out and see how long you can wait until your next breath. When I’m not having allergy problems, I can typically over three minutes if I do the exercise (without the push-ups) two or three times in a row.

Nicholas Taleb asks, “was Jesus a non-white refugee?” The question is important because many skip questions of safety, reasonablity, alternative solutions, and rational altruism in the refugee resettlement debate in order to utilize the “Jesus as a brown refugee and you would reject him out of racism.” And many individuals of sensitive conscience fall for this tactic without considering whether or not the claim is true and whether a nation has a duty of the sort prescribed. I don’t mean to comment on the politics, but just on the rhetoric of this case and whether its foundation is, in fact, in fact.

Being a vegan probably isn’t very healthy for your brain.

Pop-eye is stronger than your favorite characters:

Two Types of Honesty

There are two types of honesty:

  1. Frankness: Saying what you think/feel is true, simply. When one is being frank, you could speak complete untruths (objectively speaking) while still being honest.
  2. Scientific Accuracy: This mode of honesty is intentionally humble in the sense that you say what you think could provide evidence for, qualify what you mean, and admit which elements of what you say are unclear to you.

Each mode seems to have its weaknesses and is more appealing to those of certain personalities and occupations.

Tucker Carlson: 20 Ideas for 2018

These screen caps are too small, but I suppose you can just search twitter for the thread (that’s how I found it after seeing somebody quote it). Tucker Carlson (whose show I don’t watch, but there are some hilariously edited clips online), gave 20 pieces of advice for the New Year. I found 5 to be obvious but easily forgotten. 7 is straight out of Epictetus (which means it’s probably good advice). He’s wrong about food. My mouth waters for steak and eggs. He’s also right to emphasize personal responsibility for your emotional state and life in general.