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

 

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.

Simplify Complex Problems Like Descartes

Ever Feel Stupid?

Many of us wish we were smarter than we are. Rene Descartes even felt this way:  

“For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory…I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been my singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit me to reach.”

So, though he felt less clever than many others, he was able, by his estimation to increase in knowledge and mental ability over time because of a method of thinking which he came upon at a young age. And while we shouldn’t fool ourselves, his IQ has apparently been estimated to be around 162, his methods may yet help us. He made important contributions to philosophy, intellectual method, (for better or for worse) to anthropology with his dualism, and to theological proofs. Even Hume claimed to be convinced by Descartes’ proofs of God’s existence.

The Method

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Descartes really did improve his mind with his method. Don’t we sometimes face relationship problems, philosophical questions, difficult assignments, or some other such issue that makes us freeze or look for distractions? Descartes did too, but he used this method:

  1. The first [rule] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.
  2. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
  3. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.
  4. And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.1

A Paraphrase

Did you get that?

Here’s my paraphrase:

  1. Start with what you know. Ask these questions, “What do I know? What can I figure out? What is the problem I am facing? What facts are present? What knowledge do I have that is less certain?”
  2. Break the problem down into smaller pieces. For example, when trying to solve a relationship problem find answers to questions like, “How do I feel? Is this feeling based on selfishness or a genuine offense? Do I need to apologize for anything? Who wronged me? What did they do?” In a mathematics problem break the problem down into smaller steps. Try to discover which equations apply through trial and error, find out precisely which unknowns/variables you must discover, look at mathematical expressions in terms of discrete steps like in the classical order of operations (PEMDAS). 
  3. Then start solving it. Answer from the simplest and easiest questions first. Then move toward the hardest and most complex synthesized answers. Just because you do not know the solution to a problem does not mean that it is not available. 
  4. Through the whole process, take notes. Write everything down, the human mind is fallible, forgetful, and is jogged quickly by lists, diagrams, and graphical representations. Write what you know, write the smaller problems and questions, write the solutions to them and the steps, then finally bring it all to a conclusion. 

Good philosophy is the art of asking and answering the biggest and smallest questions of our existence. 

References

1Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Electronic Edition), 2.7

Dialectic: The Second Art of the Trivium

Introduction: What is dialectic? What is logic?

The second liberal art is logic or dialectic. Dialectic typically refers to the practice of precise discussion, using a question and answer format with facts or apparent facts, to explain or get at the truth. It has another, less academic, use I’ll explain later. Logic is a more narrow term, referring to the form of correct argument rather than the whole process. In classical school literature, you’ll see the two words used interchangeably (I will as well), this has classical precedent. For instance, the stoics tended to use the word logic to refer to argument, monologue, persuasion, theory, and several other domains. The best definition for logic/dialectic is the art of reasoning for the purpose of discovering or demonstrating the truth. And so logic involves the study of the forms of argument as well as specific arguments. But why study dialectic? Isn’t it easier to just go with gut feelings or go a long to get along?

Dialectic Protects Us From Pathological Thinking

An alarming trend in education today is the reinforcement of pathological thinking patterns by professors who will not expose students to material that is challenging to their worldview (if the worldview is of a certain sort, anyhow). Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain this ugly trend:

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

 

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Notice the claim in bold. Our dominate institutions of knowledge and reasoning are training young people to be threatened by claims which contradict their beliefs. Put more simply, people are learning to be offended by disagreement. One of the primary reasons to learn logic is that it can train us to distance ourselves from our beliefs and the claims of others and to ask whether or not they are supported by evidence or at least coherent with one another.

Logic Trains Us in Virtue

Another reason to learn logic is that logic is training in virtue. Dallas Willard explains that:

[Logic] requires the will to be logical, and then certain personal qualities that make it possible and actual: qualities such as freedom from distraction, focused attention on the meanings or ideas involved in talk and thought, devotion to truth, and willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads via logical relations. All of this in turn makes significant demands upon moral character. Not just on points such as resoluteness and courage, though those are required. A practicing hypocrite, for example, will not find a friend in logic, nor will liars, thieves, murderers and adulterers. They will be constantly alert to appearances and inferences that may logically implicate them in their wrong actions. Thus the literary and cinematic genre of mysteries is unthinkable without play on logical relations.

 

Those devoted to defending certain pet assumptions or practices come what may will also have to protect themselves from logic. All of this i, I believe, commonly recognized by thoughtful people. Less well understood is the fact that one can be logical only if one is committed to being logical as a fundamental value. One is not logical by chance, any more than one just happens to be moral. And, indeed, logical consistency is a significant factor in moral character. That is part of the reason why in an age that attacks morality, as ours does, the logical will also be demoted or set aside–as it now is.

Again, note the bold. Willard claims that since being logical requires that one be devoted to truth, free from distraction, and concerned with meaning, that those who only want to defend pet ideas will find no friend in logic. And we live in a world wherein people seem to have no plan to examine their lives as Socrates recommended. I’ve known Christians, atheists, democrats, republicans, logic professors, men, women, adults, and children who approach life in this unexamined way.

Of course, I’m not quite making an argument here. But I will:

  1. True beliefs are good and false beliefs are bad.
  2. Logic helps us reject false beliefs are discover true ones.
  3. Therefore, logic helps us discover what is good.

The steps in the argument above would be readily accepted by most.

Further Reflections

In short, logic or dialectic is the skill of thinking things through. There are several varieties. Logic can be taught in a symbolic or mathematical form or a propositional (sentence based) form. Similarly, logical reasoning can be divided up in terms of the form taken in the reasoning. One can utilize deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. These can simplified in this way:

  1. Deductive reasoning is reasoning such that true statements are arranged in such a way as to yield a necessarily (this means it cannot be any other way) true conclusion.
  2. Inductive reasoning is based on probabilities or what may or is likely or unlikely to be the case.

Either of these logical forms requires that you have three things in order to have a complete syllogism (a series of statements leading to a conclusion):

  1. Premises – these are the starting facts of a syllogism.
  2. Inferences – these are statements moving beyond any of the individual premises by relating them to one another or moving beyond them in a way which follows the rules of thought (to be discussed later).
  3. Conclusion – this is the final inference in the series.

An example might look something like this:

  1. The sum of the angle measurements in a triangle is 180 degrees. (Premise: Statement)
  2. Therefore, the sum of the angle measurements of two triangles is 360 degrees. (Premise: Inference from point 1)
  3. All quadrilaterals can be divided into exactly two triangles.
  4. Therefore, the sum of the angles in a quadrilateral is 360 degree. (Conclusion: inference from statements 1, 2, and 3).

Though a comprehensive overview of logical reasoning is not possible in a blog post, I do want to mention arguing by analogy. Argument by analogy is looking at a known relationship, such as that between water and its constituent elements: hydrogen and oxygen and generalizing a principle from this relationship and using it to make a provisional inference concerning an unknown relationship:

  1. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. (Original Case)
  2. Other liquids, like alcohol, are similar to water. (Similar Case)
  3. Therefore, they are may be made up of still more simple elements. (Provisional Inference)

Argument by analogy is most commonly used to form conjectures in mathematics and hypothesis in science. It is a very common form of argument in the human sciences and in courtrooms. It is especially handy in automotive repair and medical experiments (mice respond this way, therefore human beings may as well). A good example of religious and philosophical argument by analogy is The Analogy of Religion by Joseph Butler.

Therapeutic Dialectic

I mentioned earlier that dialectic has explicit uses for monologue, namely arguing with emotions, impulses, and impressions so that your intellect can aim your will toward what is good or healthy. Martha Nussbaum quotes Epicurus making this point:

Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul (Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, 13).

Argument/dialectic was considered to be the primary tool to be used in moral development across the philosophical school of the ancient world. Pierre Hadot saw dialectic and rhetoric as method of discussion and controlling your self-talk:

The means employed are the rhetorical and dialectical techniques of persuasion, the attempts at mastering one’s inner dialogue, and mental concentration. In all philosophical schools, the goal pursued in these exercises is self-realization and improve­ment. (Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucalt, 102-103)

Logic/dialectic is a tool for pursuing moral and personal excellence. It allows you to see which impulses contradict your goals, which controlling thoughts are actually false, and which choices more appropriately set you on the path to goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Summarizing the Benefits of Learning Logic/Dialectic

  1. Logic trains us to have mental resilience.
  2. Learning logic trains us to find the truth in any discipline. It functions as the foundation of everything from jurisprudence and forensic science to chemistry and mathematics.
  3. Learning logic helps us to question authority. This is crucially important in our era, when truth is essentially equated with “what authorities say.”
  4. Logic enables temperance (the virtue of responding rightly to our passions/feelings).
  5. Learning logic can help you to discover small hypocrisies in your life wherein your actions do not match up with the apparent truths you accept.
  6. Learning logic can help you to deal with difficult people.
  7. Learning logic can help you become a more effective writer by helping you to avoid contradiction and to write paragraphs in a sequence which flows from premise to conclusion or from assumptions to application and so-on.

Resources for Learning Logic:

  1. Online Tools:
    1. Lander Logic Page
      Here you’ll find example and exercises to practice.
    2. Khan Academy
      There are free exercises and videos in the critical thinking section to which I’ve linked.
    3. Any number of old logic text books available at books.google.com for free.
  2. Books
    1. Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft
    2. The Logic of Real Arguments by Alec Fischer
      I’ve used excerpts from this in my logic class. It mostly inspired me to have my students get out of logic textbooks and into actual arguments on subjects of human interest..

 

How I Escape the Dungeon

Everybody finds themselves in the dungeon from time to time. It’s that place where you feel like progress is impossible or meaningless, like you’ve gone too far in a wrong direction, or that there’s no such thing as the right direction. It’s so weird, because it feels like the same place no matter where you are. Sometimes, just being a person gets you down. The stresses of parenthood, the anxiety of being single, the Sisyphean task of making/spending money, the frustrations of work, feeling stuck at a job you hate, feeling like important tasks are undone, and dealing with other people. All of these together can make you feel like just getting out of bed is a chore. How do I escape? Here’s my get out of the dungeon plan, in the form of questions, when everything comes together to make me feel staying in bed all day:

  1. Have I been to the gym more than twice in the past seven days?
    For men, being strong helps you feel engaged in the world and gives you a sense of personal dominance over nature in a way that does not contradict nature. The weight room is a place where a man gains Marcus Aurelius’ mindset: “Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces…what is thrown atop the flame is absorbed, consumed by it – and makes it burn still higher. (M. Aurelius 4.1)” Being stronger is obviously useful for women, too. 
  2. Do I engage in daily exercise (push-ups, squats, calf-raises, stretches, etc) upon waking?
    There are a minimum of three exercises I try to do in the mornings, when I’m planning my life well, the list is longer and includes stretches and joint mobility exercises that vastly improve my arthritis pain. If I’m feeling down, I almost certainly stopped doing them days ago.
  3. What am I eating lately?
    If I base my diet around meat, eggs, cheeses, and vegetables I’ll feel better. If I’m eating sweets, breads, and even too much fruit, I start to feel worse. My family tree has some diabetes, so I suspect that my body just isn’t meant for sweets more than one or two days a week.
  4. How am I managing my sleep?
    If I’m sleeping 6-9 hours a night I’m feeling great. If I sleep 9 hours too many nights in a row, I start feeling more sleepy all day. But if I sleep less than 6, then I’m a wreck. Chances are, if I’m feeling down, I’m not managing my sleep well.
  5. Am I thinking about the past?
    Sometimes I think a lot about elements of my past that went poorly and I just replay them over and over. This strategy literally does nothing to improve my lot. But when focus on improving the quality of my work, of my relationships, of my knowledge, and of my skill-base now, then I start to feel better. It’s funny how whether it’s inside or out, complaining does nobody any good unless we voice it in prayer.
  6. Am I obsessing over something I cannot change?
    Many fantasize about a job they wish they had but don’t. If it’s changeable, change it. On the other hand, many have children for whom provision is necessary. Such parents cannot change their job, yet. So, they shouldn’t fantasize all day about where they aren’t (if they wish to feel good). In my case, because of the nature of my job, I’ll think myself into a funk by thinking about my job. As a teacher I want my students to choose well. It’s difficult to watch some of them choose poorly. But what I can change is the quality of my teaching, the content of my courses, and whether I teach in a manner that is pleasant for my students and myself. Others may do this to themselves with politics, economics, sports teams, and so-on.
  7. Am I taking my religious duties seriously?
    When I’m regularly participating in leisure time centered around Bible study, actively putting Jesus’ words into practice at work, in my family life, and in how I spend my money, and when I’m participating in the life of the church I feel better. There is less moral incongruity. I feel connected to the foundation of reality.
  8. Am I keeping track of my blessings?
    The old song says, “count your blessings…see what God has done.” People might think it’s cheesy or stupid, but they probably live their lives miserably. In the morning and before bed, when I think of specific blessings for which I am thankful, I feel better in between. Another step might be to declare the steadfast love of the Lord in the morning. Wake up and say, “Jesus loves me and gave himself up for me” or “God so loved the world that he have his only begotten son.” If you’re not a Christian or not religious, are you filling that psychological gap with something?
  9. What are my priorities?
    When I make my main goals in life virtue, the well-being of my family, and my health, then I tend to function more joyfully. If I make my goals financial, task based, or too far into the future, then I get down.

Teddy Roosevelt on Masculinity

A former student texted me out of the blue something like this, “Why isn’t there anything specific about masculinity taught at the school?”

It’s a problem I’ve thought about for a while. There are, at the high school level, many pitfalls. The first is the significant danger of shaming young boys for non-masculine behavior with girls in the room. Pastors like Mark Driscoll were famous for this at their churches and it was stupid pageantry. Obviously this wasn’t meant. 

But all that aside, I think that the best president said it best:

The boy can best become a good man by being a good boy—not a goody-goody boy, but just a plain good boy. I do not mean that he must love only the negative virtues; I mean he must love the positive virtues also. “Good,” in the largest sense, should include whatever is fine, straightforward, clean, brave, and manly. The best boys I know—the best men I know—are good at their studies or their business, fearless and stalwart, hated and feared by all that is wicked and depraved, incapable of submitting to wrong-doing, and equally incapable of being aught but tender to the weak and helpless. A healthy-minded boy should feel hearty contempt for the coward, and even more hearty indignation for the boy who bullies girls or small boys, or tortures animals. One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises.

Now, there’s more to masculinity than this, but not less. 

A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Corruption and Perfection

Imagine the horror of your bad habits being made known on your body, on the news, or to the masses on social media. Even more than your social life, imagine the effects of such habits on your soul or upon your highest aspirations in life. If you’ve ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray you get to experience that through a man whose indiscretions are hidden from view by virtue of their effects being transferred to a painting of himself that essentially represents the sum total of his virtues or vices.

The power of the novel, or even the concept of a painting that ages in our place for anybody who hasn’t read it, is in its ability to make us reflect upon whether or not our actions move us closer to perfection or deeper into soul and aspiration destroying corruption.

The processes of corruption and perfection are measurable by comparison to an ideal self, a moral standard, or, in the case of physical goals, literally measurable by the strictest standards of science (fitness, financial, and other such material based goals).

With this in mind, I suspect that the best way to help somebody pursue a like of moral virtue is to get them to imagine an ideal version of themselves that seems ideal to them. Once you start pursuing that vision of the good, two things can happen. First, you realize how poorly you make choices, in other words, you’re a sinner by your own law. Secondly, you realize both the greatness to which you could realistically aspire and the silliness and small-mindedness of your ideals.

Richard Swinburne explains the process of personal corruption. It is essentially the encouragement of bad desires and elimination or deformation of good desires. This is the result of choices we make. In the book he proposes the case of somebody who decides to do what they know (or think they know) to be evil. He describes what he considers to be the two possibilities for somebody who repent of their actions:

“Gradually, unless a man to some degree pursues the good, one of two things happens. First, the agent may try to persuade himself that the action which he believes to be wrong, say stealing, is not really wrong. He looks for disanalogies between stealing and other wrong acts, and analogies between stealing and acts which are not wrong. ‘It’s only luck the victim had the watch to start with,’ says the thief; ‘so I’m just upsetting the balance of luck. Anyway, hardly anyone really loses anything, because almost everybody is insured.’ And so on. Or secondly, the agent may say ‘I don’t care about right and wrong. I’m not going to be a moral man in future.’ In one or other of these ways the agent intentionally dulls his conscience, blinds himself to awareness of good and bad, right and wrong.”1

In other words, as we make poor decisions we either deaden our emotions to that decision but justifying it over and over again or we convince ourselves that morality in this or in all cases is not real.

An important question for thoughtful people is this:

Are there any habits for which I feel the need to justify myself to my conscience? And then ask, “Is my conscience right or wrong?”

This process, I think, applies not just to matters of right and wrong, though it obviously does. I think it applies to any good habit that makes us more fully alive, more fully functioning, and more happily human. Areas that take extra effort to develop good habit like diet, frugality, paying bills on time, working on your art daily, managing your property, reading instead of watching television, exercise, cleanliness, intellectual effort, and so-on can go through the process of corruption until we find ourselves unfeeling and ungoverned by reason with respect to these things. We revert to our merely animal nature and live on the basis of impulses rather than reason.

This particular discussion is interesting to me because my favorite definition of free-will is “the ability conceive of an ideal and pursue it.” I heard it in a lecture and I don’t know from whom the lecturer was quoting. But it’s elegant and sidesteps all the other metaphysical baggage that comes with debates concerning free will.

Anyway, what good thing do you want? Do you want honesty, freedom from pornography, control over your emotions, a positive net-worth, to be truly tranquil in yourself and benevolent to those around you? Now ask, do my habits tend toward these goods or away from them? Is it worth it to keep up with habits that lead you to eventually abandon your highest aspirations or live with the anxiety caused by desiring what you believe you’ll never acquire? In other words, ask yourself if you’re on the path to corruption or perfection. You’ll have plenty of time to decay when you’re dead.

 

Footnotes

1 Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford [England]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1989), 174

*Image: By Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) – en:File:The Picture of Dorian Gray- Ivan Albright.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757597

Exceptions to Jesus’ teaching

In a previous post I briefly mentioned exceptions to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

Below, I’ll attempt to show that this is true and why it matters.

Thesis: In the New Testament, there are exceptions to several of Jesus’ teachings.

Corollary: The exceptions to Jesus’ teachings demonstrate that they are meant for everyday existence. 

On Exceptions to Jesus’ Teaching

Knowing that the teachings of Jesus include exceptions is important for several reasons:

  1. It helps us move beyond treating Jesus is a deliverer of banal platitudes that he never meant people to practice.
  2. It provides evidence that there is not a dichotomy between taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he said and finding realistic times when those sayings do not apply (kind of like Proverbs). In fact, the dissolution of this dichotomy might be what helps some people to start putting Jesus’ teachings into practice.
  3. It provides evidence that the teachings are terse expressions of a way of life that was actually reasoned through by Jesus and the gospel authors rather than a pastiche of contradictory ideals.
  4. It helps us avoid the trap of making the Sermon on the Mount purely religious. For instance, there are people who teach that the sole purpose of Jesus’ commands is to make God’s law so impossibly hard (nobody could ever practice the Sermon on the Mount) that people are forced to ask for God’s grace.
  5. It reminds us that Jesus himself taught that certain Old Testament regulations were being misunderstood because exceptions were not allowed in their application in his day: Sabbaths, hand washing, contact with leprous persons, etc. Thus, we might infer that Jesus’ own teachings are meant to be applied as general purpose teachings that can be suspended in light of obvious exceptions.

Examples of Exceptions

Well there are two kinds of exceptions: explicit and implicit exceptions. Perhaps the most well known exception to Jesus’ teaching is the exception regarding divorce. It’s an instance where he explicitly says when his rule does not apply. Implicit exceptions to Jesus’ teaching are made known by his own practice or by the other New Testament authors clarifying Jesus’ meaning. Some exceptions are included directly in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a preliminary list:

  1. Teaching: “But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matt 6:6)
    Exception: “And Jesus declared [in front of everybody], ‘I thank you Father…” (Matthew 11:27)
  2. Teaching: “Give to the one who asks of you.” (Matthew 5:42)
    Exception: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ (Matthew 12:38-39)
  3. Teaching: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
    Exception: ” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  (22)  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)*
  4. Teaching:  “He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
    Exception:
    “…except for sexual immorality…” The exception to Jesus’ harsh strictures of the dissolution of marriage is included in the teaching.
  5. Teaching: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
    Exception: Jesus told his disciples about his fast in the wilderness.

Conclusion

There are more exceptions to the commands in the Sermon on the Mount, but these suffice to demonstrate that the exceptions exist.

In the appendix below are some quotes that might do more justice to the issue than I can. But it should be said that if the gospel authors and the rest of the New Testament portray certain commands of Jesus as having exceptions, then it is precisely in the normal parts of our life that we’re to make those teachings work. Exceptions imply that a normal exists.

Hand-wringing over whether or not a general principle always applies as a way of avoiding it is unwise. The same goes with math. The Pythagorean theorem does not apply to all triangles, but that is no reason to refuse to use it for right triangles. Similarly, Christians who say, “well, you can’t love Hitler…” therefore I don’t have to love rude people is untenable. 

I would claim that the exceptions to Jesus’ teaching show that the Sermon on the Mount is meant for the day-to-day lives of his followers or anybody else who is curious about what Jesus is all about (he gave the sermon in the hearing of the crowds after all). So if we see Jesus as somebody who has really thought through what it means to walk with God, then we have to suspect that he thought through which of his commands (if any) apply in all cases and which do not.

*This particular teaching/exception works like this, “Be the first to reconcile when you give offense…unless you’re the offended party, then be the first to forgive.”

Appendix

  1. Quote from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien

    Relationships must follow the rules. Our confidence in a stable and orderly universe leads us to prioritize rules over relationships, but it does more than that. The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions. When we begin to think of the world in terms of relationships instead of rules, however, we must acknowledge that things are never so neat and orderly and that rules are not as dependable as we once imagined. When relationships are the norming factor in the cosmos, we should expect exceptions.

    In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time. Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries. The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1:9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.

    Consider this striking Pauline example. Paul asserts, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2). He makes a similarly concrete claim elsewhere: “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised” (1 Cor 7:18). Paul was a vocal opponent of circumcision at the Jerusalem Council, where the early church decisively determined that one need not be circumcised in order to be a Christian (Acts 15). This appears to give us a hard and fast rule you can take to the bank; there seems to be no room for exception. Yet in the verses immediately following the Jerusalem Council, Luke tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). Westerners can’t help but ask, “Didn’t Paul say someone who was uncircumcised should stay that way?” (see 1 Cor 7:18). Isn’t Paul breaking his own rule? If we understand Paul’s exhortation as a fixed and universal rule against circumcision, we are forced to make a difficult decision. Either Luke’s account of Paul and Timothy’s mission (and, by extension, the history of the early church) was inaccurate. Or Paul could do as he pleased, even if that meant contradicting his own teaching.

    There is, of course, another option. Luke tells us that Paul’s rationale for having Timothy circumcised had to do with relationships, not rules. Paul was about to evangelize in Timothy’s hometown of Lystra, and Paul decided it was important that Timothy be circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” In other words, even in a matter as sensitive as the value of circumcision for Christian faith, relationships trumped rules. (Randolph and O’Brien )

  2. Quote from The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

    If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his work—as any Roman soldier could require of a Jew in Jesus’ day—I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will. I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I also will not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

    If I know people want to borrow something they need, I will not avoid them and their request, and I may, as appropriate, give to those who ask me for something even though they have no “claim” on me at all—no claim, that is, other than their need and their simple request. That is how God does it, and he invites us to join him.

    Of course in each case I must determine if the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength is, precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God. As a child of the King, I always live in his presence. By contrast, the way of law avoids individual responsibility for decision. It pushes the responsibility and possible blame onto God. That is one reason why people who must have a law for all their actions lead such pinched and impoverished lives and develop very little in the way of genuine depth in godly character.

    If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and leave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things I know I must do, and I must make the decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

    If I owe money to a shopkeeper whose goods I have already consumed, I am not at liberty to give that money to “someone who asks of me”—unless, once again, there are very special factors involved.

    If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

    Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life is kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

    If someone has taken my coat by lawsuit, I or someone else may well have a greater need of my shirt than he does. If not, I give it with generous love and blessing. Or perhaps the other’s need is so great I should give my shirt even if I suffer greatly. But what if the other doesn’t need it at all? Then I won’t impose it “because Jesus said so” and I must keep this “law.”

    In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (Willard)

Bibliography

Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998.

Quick-Sand Memory: Lecture to the Wall and Beyond

Introduction

Many young people are challenged to study harder to succeed, but very few of them are given any helpful guidelines for studying. Below are two helpful study techniques and one piece of research that support them.

Lecture to the Wall

“The Overnight Student” by Michael Jones which can be found here. The book is wonderful. Read it, it only takes about an hour. Jones recommends doing things this way:[1]

  1. Take a bite – Read a manageable portion of your source material.
  2. Use Your Tongue – Explain what you’ve just read out loud to an imaginary audience without looking at the book or at any notes. Take note of everything that you cannot explain. You do not understand those things.
  3. Reread – Read your source material again asking yourself consciously, “what does this mean, how can I explain this to an audience, to what does it relate?”
  4. Repeat steps two and three until you have mastered the material.

Lecturing to the wall makes you embarrassingly aware of your gaps in knowledge, but with a plus! You’re embarrassed at home with nobody around to hear it but you (or a roommate). This is far better than being embarrassed by not knowing the material on a test, at a job interview, when giving a speech, while defusing a bomb, during a hostage situation, while fighting Godzilla, or during a group project.

Update: In a 2014 study, John F. Nestojko found that “participants who expected to teach learned more from a passage than did participants who expected to take a test.”[2] In the experiments, subjects did not actually teach, but were told to study material as preparation for teaching. So, the expectation of teaching primes learners to learn more, probably because they expect to have to explain things. This goes nicely with the fact that we learn while we teach. So lecture to the wall is not only anecdotally effective, but it has more scientific support than I had initially supposed.[3]

PQ4R

Another technique, which is similar to Lecture to the Wall, but less helpful is PQ4R.  It’s from Richard Restak’s Think Smart:[4]

  1. Preview – Skim through a chapter of material, noting the headings, vocabulary words, and concepts.
  2. Formulate Questions – Ask questions about the material you have read.
  3. Read – Read the passage looking for answers to the questions you’ve asked.
  4. Reflect – Think about what you’ve read and how to apply it as well as its relationship to the subject at hand and its relationship to other subjects.
  5. Recite – Repeat the material from memory after you’ve learned it. Do this with the text book closed, and only open it to check your accuracy. Put it in the exact language of the text as well as in your own words.
  6. Review – Try to recall and summarize the same points.

Restak’s system is helpful, but it is slightly disorganized. For instance, how can you know what questions to ask about the material until you’ve read it more carefully? I think that Preview, Read, and Formulate Questions should be somehow in the same step. It’s also too many steps to remember. You’d have to study the method to utilize it.

References

[1] Michael L Jones, The Overnight Student (Bellingham, Wash.: Louis Pub., 1990), 44-60.

[2] John F. Nestojko et al., “Expecting to Teach Enhances Learning and Organization of Knowledge in Free Recall of Text Passages,” Memory & Cognition 42, no. 7 (October 2014): 1045

[3] K. J. Topping, “The Effectiveness of Peer Tutoring in Further and Higher Education: A Typology and Review of the Literature,” Higher Education 32, no. 3 (October 1, 1996): 321–45

[4] Richard Restak’s Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance, (Riverhead Books, 2009), 109.