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.

Science Fact of the Day #2: Teacher Somatotype

As in all cases “science fact” is used loosely.

The Main Claim About Teacher Somatotypes

In Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations the authors observed that:

“Teachers who are ectomorphic are usually perceived by students as anxious and less composed but perhaps intelligent. The endomorphic teacher is generally perceived by students as slow, lazy, under-prepared, and not dynamic in the classroom. The mesomorphic teacher is perceived as credible, depedable, likable, and competent but possibly tough and dominant.” Virginia P Richmond and James C McCroskey, Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations (Boston: Pearson/A and B, 2004), 269

For those who don’t know:

  1. Ectomorphs are lanky body types
  2. Endomorphs are dad-bod types
  3. Mesomorphs are beefy (muscly) types

teppelin: “ Three common male body types: Endomorph (often “chubbier” men) • Soft and round body • Gains muscle and fat very easily • Is generally short and “stocky” • Round physique • Finds it hard to lose fat • Slow metabolism Mesomorph (the...

Is that a reasonable claim? What is the evidence?

Now, here’s where things might get interesting. In this social-psychology text, several paragraphs per page will be riddled with citations. But this particular paragraph cites no studies. Is this just a personal observation? Is it an impression?

I don’t know.

I think that it’s probably partly true. There is some research that shows similar stereotypes in the broader population toward the somatotypes (which, since they’re based on eye-balling, are basically observational, not genetic categories).

I did find a study from the eighties showing that one class of students rated, based on photographs, attractive teachers and female teachers higher on scales of competence, organization, and imagination.* Of course, to extend this finding further seems like a hasty generalization. But that’s the only one I could find about teacher somatotypes and it wasn’t referenced in the textbook.

One study checked for stereotypes on the three body types and differences between the sexes both in stereotype attributed and in stereotype attribution. In this particular study, ectomorphs were perceived favorably despite historically negative stereotypes.** But over all mesomorphs were still perceived most favorably except in terms of intelligence and meanness. Big muscles can make you look stupid and mean. In this particular study, there were some gender differences: female mesomorphs didn’t suffer on the perceived intelligence or kindness rating. And female endomorphs weren’t perceived as more sloppy compared to male endomorphs. These generalized stereotypes could be applied to teacher somatotypes. 

It’s important to remember that none of the observations above are about stereotype accuracy. That’s a different cake to bake.

But I will make a suggestion here: If you are of a somatotype about whom certain stereotypes are made, it is important in a professional setting to put those stereotypes to rest if your workplace requires merit. If people assume you’re a stupid jerk because you lift, but your boss expects you to be kind as a part of your job, you have to break the stereotype. If you’re not in a merit based job, then those stereotypes may not matter to you. I would suspect that these stereotypes apply to all fields. 

References

*Stephen Buck and Drew Tiene, “The Impact of Physical Attractiveness, Gender, and Teaching Philosophy on Teacher Evaluations,” The Journal of Educational Research 82, no. 3 (January 1, 1989): 172–177.

**Richard M. Ryckman et al., “Male and Female Raters’ Stereotyping of Male and Female Physiques,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 15, no. 2 (June 1, 1989): 244–251.

 

Learning to Pray

My wife and I were speaking with a psychologist friend, whose colleague is an atheist.

She’s never studied theology in depth and so she found herself frustrated with his argument that the archetypal underpinnings of Christianity and its similarity of aspects of previous myths show that it isn’t true. This led to a brief discussion about prayer which led me to some thoughts about the meaning and experience of prayer and how to help Christians learn to pray:

  1. We tend to talk to ourselves, so when we pray and it feels like we’re talking to ourselves, that’s not as awkward a state as we think it is.
  2. We frequently talk with imagined versions of people we know, rehearsing arguments we want to make, things we wish we said, bouncing ideas off of idealized versions of parents, fictional characters, and so-on.
  3. We also reason to ourselves about our ideals and our relationship to various rules: am I speeding? was that the right thing to do?
  4. We, if we’re really self-conscious, have conversations with ourselves about an ideal version of ourselves: “will this make me who I want to be…do I care?”
  5. This can lead us to moral and practical introspection of the sort that is very helpful.
  6. We frequently wish, in an impersonal way, for things. “I wish I had less debt.”
  7. Psychologically, when we wish for something or make a goal, our perceptions tend to filter the world in terms of that goal. If you want a motorcycle and set yourself to getting, you see more motorcycles, more open opportunities to buy one, and so-on. And so, there is a psychological explanation for why prayers seem to be coincidentally answered. For a brief look into how this happens with goal based behavior, here’s the gorilla study.
  8. So, if all prayer does is change your perceptions it’s worth it.
  9. Prayer, defined as making requests of what we perceive to be the greatest possible being (God), forces us to compare ourselves not just to the ideal people around us, but to the greatest possible ideal. And so prayer, in the way previously mentioned, reconfigures us to look for opportunities to seek the highest possible ideal we could imagine for ourselves.

And again these aren’t theological reasons to pray, per se. They’re natural experiences most of us have. And they may be conversation pieces to have with somebody who struggles with prayer. The theological realities of prayer, that God hears our weakest requests and honors them are not negated by recognizing some of the more natural elements of prayer. If you believe that we are what God made us, then all these natural results of prayer are God ordained anyway.

Another brief thought, Christian devotion times don’t have to be all prayer in the sense of “asking God for things.” Christian devotion includes soliloquy, prayer, meditation (mulling over a subject), contemplation (focusing the mind on aiming at God), letting your mind wander in silence, introspection, study, family discussion, and so-on.

Our devotion time doesn’t have to be “15 minutes of prayer…followed by listening for God to tell us something specific.”

Jordan Peterson’s Online University

Over at Captain Capitalism, Aaron Clarey made a point I don’t find fully convincing.

It’s a brief and hidden point in a post I otherwise agree with entirely. He mentions Jordan Peterson’s desire to offer a liberal arts education online and calls the degree Peterson would offer worthless. 

Now, in context, Clarey has affirmed that which I affirm: that the modern university’s liberal arts program is worthless. He describes it here:

Yes, liberal arts degrees, especially the social justice warrior slop Coursera is serving up, are worthless, pointless, even damaging to the students naive enough to take them.  Yes, these courses/degrees will ruin their lives, at minimum sending them down the career path of poverty and e-begging, at worst replacing family, love, freedom, and excellence with a fervent ideological addiction to socialism.  And yes, you can learn this slop for free, with the exact same employment prospects, as going to the library and reading ALL the liberal arts/Marxist books you want.

With this I absolutely agree and majoring in that crap not only leaves you nearly unemployable, but it also makes you resentful and teaches you to reject the past and every good thing you might learn from it or that it has given you.

But I think that the vision Peterson has for a liberal arts degree is of the sort that made those degrees worth having in the past. Clarey has a “Clarey test” for whether or not a person might have good advice. One of them is whether or not they have a worthless degree and he gives history and other humanities degrees a pass if they’re before the Marxist/Postmodern shift in the universities. If Peterson’s vision is like this, and people learn to think logically, creatively, precisely, and deeply through his program then I think it would teach people to be extremely happy in an economic and spiritual sense. 

Anyway, Clarey’s book are good. I recommend them.

Human Sex Differences

Last night at a Bible study the question of sex differences came up. Specifically, we discussed whether there were traits/virtues that were either feminine or masculine in the Bible.

The consensus was yes, but upon being asked to give specifics, only my wife and I named anything other than the special bond of motherhood.

I named courage in battle as a prototypical masculine trait. She named a quiet and gentle spirit as a feminine trait I don’t think anybody thought what we said was accurate. But for clarity, from a Biblical point of view, the virtues in Scripture are for every person and from a philosophical point of view, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence and for both sexes as well. But with that background, the question is this, does the Bible praise certain traits as particularly masculine/feminine (despite their being virtues for all)? And does the Bible condemn certain traits in one sex more than another? Those two questions, if the Bible does either or both of those things, might yield a picture of what traits/virtues/vices are masculine and feminine. With respect to having a quiet spirit, while 1 Peter 3:1-4 extols this traits with respect to a wife’s relationship to her husband, the Bible portrays it as a general virtue for all humanity in Psalm 131 and in 1 Peter 2, Peter attributes a quiet spirit to Jesus.

I started to wonder, how might one find traits that were, on average more feminine and on average more masculine. I think it would look something like this:

  1. Same Sex Admiration/Aversion
    1. Ask members of both sexes what they admire in same-sex friends, role models, co-workers, politicians, etc. You’ll have to define the traits to ensure, as much as possible, that the traits are seen the same way. It may also be possible to use questions using trait behavior from other valid constructs.
    2. Ask members of both sexes a similar question but with respect to aversion, mockery, avoidance, etc.
    3. Have members of each sex take personality inventories.
    4. Compare the results cross-culturally to determine which traits are most likely culturally conditioned and which are not.
  2. Opposite Sex Attraction/Aversion
    1. Ask members of both sexes what they find attractive in an opposite sex mate. Control for the difference between short term attraction and long term attraction.
    2. Ask members of both sexes what they find repulsive in the opposite sex.
    3. Also ask what is admirable in the opposite sex friends, co-workers, leaders, and politicians without reference to sexual attraction.
    4. Compare the results cross culturally to determine which traits are most likely culturally conditions and which are not.

In doing this I think you could get a feel for what traits, on average, are more likely to be instantiated in each sex (they cluster male or female) and which traits are considered admirable in each sex. But you may also get a feel for what is virtuous in a man or woman as well as what is blameworthy. At least with respect to social credit and attraction.

Any thoughts on this? I’m purely in the friendzone when it comes to psychometrics.

Placebo and Intelligence

In a recent experiment, psychologists “designed a procedure to intentionally induce a placebo effect” in order to test the claims of intelligence increasing software.[1]

The study has a small sample size, but bear with me. 

In the control group (people who simply thought they were participating in an experiment) there was no difference in pre and post training intelligence. In the experimental group (who were told they were training to increase their intelligence) an increase in intelligence was measured (5-10 IQ points) after only one hour of training.

In general, exercises designed to improve intelligence take several hours of training over the course of several weeks to yield a measurable effect. So the researchers designed the experiment to remove training based improvement.

Why do this?

Several attempts to measure ‘cognitive improvement games’ advertise to participants in a way that may prime them for placebo improvements (or appeal to people for reasons related to their beliefs about intelligence thus creating a selection bias by recruiting people who really want the training to work). But, as I mentioned, people apparently improved. Now, I don’t care about brain training games. Just use Khan Academy, Duo Lingo, and learn to write software. Your brain will improve. 

What interests me is what this study might imply about beliefs and mindset. If people can be persuaded to improve at an intelligence test by being primed to believe they have engaged in an activity that made them smarter, how could teachers, counselors, parents, ministers, and others leverage such a finding? We know that the coaching effect is very powerful for athletes. Could it hold true for education? It certainly makes more sense than the self-esteem movement. Replacing: “You’re smart and you can do it,” with “this brain training will make you smarter if you do it” could be a useful mindset technique. 

Anyway, there are genetic limits to IQ. But within that set range, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and, perhaps, belief can yield minor improvements. I find Arthur Whimbey’s research on this compelling. Prior to computer games, like we have today, he found that teaching people to think sequentially (out loud or writing out their thought processes) led to increased IQ scores and performance in school. This accords with Ritche’s claim that education also increases IQ.

But again, this study is small potatoes in terms of evidence. Either way, fake it till you make it is the best strategy. 

Reference

[1] Cyrus K. Foroughi et al., “Placebo Effects in Cognitive Training,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 20, 2016), 1.