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..

 

Irrational Beliefs and Choosing Our Feelings

Introduction

In previous posts, I’ve written about the relationship of emotions with reason. I move forward with that here. In this case, the idea is to look at the way in which beliefs and choices based on them lead to emotions, both negative and positive.

The Disputation Pattern

In their book A Guide to Rational Living Albert Ellis and Robert Harper outline ten irrational beliefs that they believe interfere with people’s feelings of happiness or contentment. They discuss the ABCD pattern of disputing those beliefs. I’ve mentioned it here. Ellis, as far as I know, is the source of the ABCD pattern of belief change:

  1. Adversity
  2. Belief/Behavior
  3. Consequence
  4. Disputation

Martin Seligman added an E. Energize. He never defined what it meant, though. In practice, I’ve found that “energizing” a new belief or emotion is acting as though you believed or felt it before it kicks in.

10 Irrational Beliefs

Below are the ten irrational beliefs outlined in the book. It does not take a great deal of effort to see how these beliefs lead to making emotionally charged judgments about our lives and others. Similarly, one can see how they might lead to a fixed mindset (the notion that one cannot change). While I think that this material is useful for Christian spiritual growth, for the time being, I want to just state these false/irrational beliefs simply as facts of human nature. We have a tendency to buy into these ideas and give them to our children. This is the case regardless of religion. I think that Christianity provides the ultimate belief-set and moral vision for a growth mindset, but many people focus so much on the “right vs wrong” aspect of disputed doctrines that they do not look at the “transformation of the mind.” This, by the way, is evident by how many Christians who are deeply concerned about doctrinal correctness, have a tremendous wrungness in their thought lives (I’m not excluding myself here).

Anyhow look through these beliefs and ask yourself these questions for each one:

  1. Is such a belief reasonable, feasible, or helpful to anybody who might have it?
  2. Do I believe this?
  3. What consequences does this belief have for my emotions and decisions?

The irrational beliefs followed by my reflections on them:

  1. You must have love or approval from all of the significant people in your life. (101)
    The result of this belief is that any significant person who does not approve of you means that you aren’t accomplishing some important feat. It can lead to feeling like a failure and therefore sadness, anxiety, and anger.
  1. You must be thoroughly adequate, competent, and achieving. (115)
    This belief is self-defeating. If you believe that you must be great rather than that you can improve, then you’ll always feel behind.
  1. That people absolutely must not act obnoxiously and unfairly and when they do, you should blame and damn them and see them as bad or wicked or terrible individuals. (127)
    Buying into this belief can lead us to hate others for minor slights and to wilt under the slightest criticism because “they mustn’t do that.” This belief requires your self-concept and happiness to become very fragile. I personally have decided to take any mockery or attempt to shame me as a form of ego-boosting flattery. It makes life more interesting and fun.
  1. You have to see things as terrible, awful, horrible, and catastrophic when you are seriously frustrated or treated unfairly. (139)
    The result of this is to dramatize any speed bump in life. Thus a slight frustration becomes a ruined day, month, or year.
  1. You must be miserable when you have pressures and difficult experiences; and you have little ability to control, and cannot change, your disturbed feelings. (155)
    This is actually two beliefs. They are false and weakening. If you believe that you cannot change your disturbed feelings, then you won’t try to. If you think that trials will always make you miserable then you cannot grow from them. For instance, if pain means misery, then you’ll never go to the gym or ask somebody on a date for fear of rejection. Jonathan Edwards put it this way, “Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them; what good I have got by them; and, what I might have got by them.”[1] This is a much more powerful outlook.
  1. If something is dangerous or fearsome, you must obsess about it and frantically try to escape it. (163)
    I struggle with this. I’m afraid to run toward danger. But the fact of the matter is that danger and fright are a part of life. When it comes, thinking about it obsessively without formulating a plan may still leave you dead, but you’ll have been miserable until it got that way.
  1. You can easily avoid difficulties and self-responsibilities and still lead a highly fulfilling existence. (177)
    This is the millennial malaise. It can lead us to believe that we deserve more than we’ve earned solely because we’re special or the “system” doesn’t or shouldn’t apply to us. This appears to be a self-serving idea, but it doesn’t actually serve you. Abandon it, it’s bullshit.
  1. Your past remains all important and since something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your behavior and feelings today. (187)
    You aren’t your past.
  1. The idea that people and things absolutely must be better than they are and that it is awful and horrible if you cannot change life’s grim facts. (197)
    Christians can have a tendency to buy into this one in a big way. I think that people in relationships with abusers are this way, too. Instead of accepting that a person is what they are until they change, the attempt to change them is made paramount in life. This inevitably and lead to frustration or even hatred toward the person that the other wishes to help by changing them.
  1. You can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommitedly “enjoying yourself.” (207)
    The Netflix generation is one of the self-rated most anxious generations of all time. Yet, it is perhaps the nation that spends the most time on mindless entertainment. Obsessive passive enjoyment as a means to fulfillment is a definite dead end.

Many people might believe all or the majority of these. There is no reason to feel shame for having a false belief. It happens. Children believe that bread crust has more vitamins because a well-meaning adult said so. These things happen. But now, ask yourself what belief should you replace the false one with? What evidence is there for the true belief?

Example:

Belief 7: Your past remains all important and since something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your behavior and feelings today. (187)

You might persistently recall how a parent treated you, a bad habit from your past, or a terrible failure that bequeathed this belief to you. Either way, not it haunts you. So you say things to yourself like, “Once a loser, always a loser.” “I’m just a sinner.” “I’ll never change.” “This is who I’ve always been.”

So, you’ve got to argue with this belief. Here’s how you might do it:

  1. Argument 1: This belief has bad consequences. Of course I can’t change if I believe I won’t change. I’ll sabotage any progress I make!
  2. Argument 2: The Bible says that change happens like growth. It takes time and happens in increments. This means that it is possible but that it might not be immediately evident. Also, the Bible says that my past is not the only factor in who I become. It is very clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as my baptism are even stronger factors for my future.
  3. Argument 3: Lots of people overcome their pasts. This belief is not only false, but it is obviously false.

Choosing the Circumstances of Our Emotions

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard observes that:

“There is no choice that does not involve both thought and feeling. On the other hand, what we feel and think is (or can and should be) to a very large degree a matter of choice in competent adult persons, who will be very careful about what they allow their mind to dwell upon or what they allow themselves to feel. This is crucial to the practical methods of spiritual formation.[2]

His last sentence struck me as very powerful. I had never deeply considered the idea that emotions could be chosen. I set myself to researching the idea and came across the book Not Passion’s Slave by Robert Solomon. In it he defends the claim that that “One cannot ‘simply’ decide to have an emotion. One can, however, decide to do any number of things-enter into a situation, not take one’s medication, think about a situation in a different way, ‘set oneself up’ for a fall- that will bring about the emotion. Or one might act as if one has an emotion, act angrily for instance, from which genuine anger may follow.”[3] The Albert Ellis book I mentioned earlier has a similar perspective.

My current point of view is that we can choose our feelings, albeit indirectly. It is perhaps better to say that we can choose the evaluations of our life and the thoughts which result in our emotions and their intensification.

Conclusion: Do Some Practical Experiments

If you’re in a place in life wherein you feel enslaved to your feelings and find yourself thinking, “Maybe I’m just wired this way,” I think some experiments are in order. I recommend examining your feelings and getting very Socratic with yourself. Ask questions like this:

  1. What choice did I just make to make myself to feel this way?
  2. What am a “feeling” about? Am I mad at somebody/something?
  3. Is this feeling reasonable (am I mad at God, an inanimate object, a baby, a dog, etc.)?
  4. What belief am I basing this emotion on? Is this belief helpful, true, or false?
  5. What belief should I replace it with?
  6. Is my emotion pointing me to a problem for which there is a positive solution?
  7. Am I about to make an irrational decision to act immorally, increase my negative emotions, or hurt a relationship based on this feeling?

After you do this, think of a true/positive belief and act on it instead. See how things change. For instance, if you feel sad because you think you’re a loser, but you know that you don’t actually lose at things, then stop standing with defeated posture. Stand with straighter posture (chest out, chin up), smile, and do something beneficial for yourself or another person.

Try various exercises like this and see how they help you.

It’s a Pascal’s Wager. If you’re captive to your emotions and you don’t like being in that place, presumably nothing else has worked. Weeding out your irrational beliefs could help you or leave you in roughly the same place. You have a 0 cost proposition with some probability of benefit. And thanks to the placebo effect, it is possible that believing in advance that this will work could help you even more.

References

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), lxiv.

[2] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002), 51

[3] Robert Solomon, Not Passion’s Slave: Emotions and Choice (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 199.

Self-Deception, Self-Knowledge, and Self-Denial

In Luther’s 95 theses, he observes, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

I think that Luther is correct here. For instance, in Romans 12:2, Paul summarizes the Christian life as being “transformed by the renewing of the mind.” Luther’s thought is that the entire Christian life is looking to God’s revelation in Christ, looking to ourselves as sinful and in need of grace and mercy, and transforming our minds on the basis of that revelation.

With this in mind, I wish to look at true self-knowledge and self-deception.

Self Deception

Coming to know ourselves in a true way is central to the Christian life. It is also central to becoming successful in other endeavors as well. The problem with coming to this knowledge is a frequent failure to consciously admit what we really know to be true. This is a form of self-deception.

For instance, one of my legs is shorter than the other. As I’ve gotten stronger in the gym this leg geometry issue has become uncomfortable.

For years I just thought, “Well, it’s not that bad. In fact, I can totally deal with it.” But in reality the different is significant enough that affects my posture and contributes to some sharp pain in a small area in my lower back.

I finally admitted that I have this problem and went to a cobbler and got some hard crepe added to my squat and dead lifting shoes.

My back is slowly getting used to having even hips in the squat. I’m not as strong as I was despite being functionally “healed” by my change of mind on the matter. But I’m slowly building back up and squats and deadlift no longer make my hip joints feel weird or bad.

With respect to spiritual growth, similar failures to acknowledge the actual state of our souls can cripple us as we grow in other areas. Similarly, admitting the truth about ourselves, “I really am a wrathful/lustful/arrogant/murderous/selfish/failing/fooling person…” can feel like a major regress. But living with frequent failures and near misses with respect to our most embarrassing or incriminating impulses and then covering them with phrases like, “I blew it” or “God is strong in my weakness” is a copout if we think of repentance as the whole of the Christian life. Repentance involves, as I mentioned above, comparing ourselves to the revelation of God in Christ.

Self Knowledge

So, coming to self-knowledge has benefits. But it is difficult just like coming to true knowledge of this or that field of study.

In the case of my leg-length discrepancy, I had to actually become weaker temporarily to train my body safely. A similar problem could come to somebody who finally owns the fact that they are greedy and in significant debt. The art of living justly and graciously with regard to finances might require that they become way less generous until they pay of their debts (because giving money away that you owe to somebody else is certainly not Christlike or good).

Because self-knowledge can be so difficult or even painful, we have tremendous incentive not to gain it. This reticence may even lead us to not even have a system in place to gain self-knowledge.  Thankfully, the Bible and plain reason give us several methods to gain self-knowledge:

  1. Admit that your wisdom is apt to be flawed[1]
    1Co 3:18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
    1Co 8:2  If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.
  2. Compare Your Life to Scripture’s Moral Ideals
    Jas 1:23-25 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  (24)  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  (25)  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
  1. Accept Criticism
    Pro 10:17 Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.
    Pro 12:1  Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
  2. Be a part of a group wherein you can frankly discuss your sins, failures, and flaws
    Pro 27:17  Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
    Jas 5:16  Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
  3. Spend time in silence
    From personal experience, spending time in silence is a powerful way to have the tape of your life replay in your mind. If you approach this with the mindset that “I am what I think and what I do,”[2] you’ll find that you might be a lot worse than you are. This is probably not a good discipline for people who struggle with depression or melancholy. But if you want to assess yourself, then it is hard to find a better method.
  4. Journal
    This can come from all of the previous methods. You can write your personal resolutions and your assessment of how you met them or did not.

Conclusion

One of my old karate instructors said, “When presented with two standards, always choose the highest.” Self-deception is easy. Self-knowledge is hard. But the way of self-knowledge allows us to deny ourselves in the truest way. And self-denial under Christ’s guidance is the only way to the life of rest that he promises:

“to step with Jesus into the path of self-denial immediately breaks the iron-clad grip of sin over human personality and opens the way to a fuller and ever fuller restoration of radical goodness to the soul. It accesses incredible, supernatural strength for life.”[3]

References

[1] Observe that while Paul criticizes the “wisdom of this age” Paul never equates that with the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The wisdom of “this age” appears to be the wisdom of making non-Christian ideals ultimate such as riches, knowledge, rhetoric, long life, etc.” These are all goods to seek in the Bible, but they are not to be sought as ultimate or final goals. Instead the Christian who sows and spins for food and clothes is to nevertheless “seek first the kingdom of God.” So don’t take Paul’s warnings as a censure on being wise. Paul actually says that you can become wise if you first admit your foolishness. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3:19 you see that God’s wisdom (what is revealed in the Old Testament and the gospel) is still good. This is why we shouldn’t boast in our favorite teachers as though they make us superior to other Christians. Instead, we should boast in the Lord.

[2] In Christ this is not all you are, but you are not less than what you think and do.

[3] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2002), 75.

 

 

Dallas Willard on Acknowledging God

There are many passages of Scripture that give instructions whose application is not always apparent.

One the most important disciplines prescribed in your Bible is to “set the Lord always before” you (Psalm 16:8). Elsewhere it is put this way, “In all your ways, acknowledge him…” (Proverbs 3:6).

But how? Dallas Willard gives us solid direction here:

The gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus preached, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is precisely the good news that, in everything I am and do, God invites me to invite him to be my co-worker. He invites me to look to him, to act and move in tangible ways no matter what it is.

Go back to that verse in Proverbs, “In all your ways acknowledge him.” What does that mean? It means that we recognize he is God, and we acknowledge his authority in what we are doing. When I set up a course, or when I undertake to translate something from German into English, or whatever I am doing, writing a paper, composing a book, I expect God to direct me. I expect there to be a movement in my life that is more than me.

I’ve written about how Proverbs 3:5-7 is not about a weird mysticism that is against using wisdom. But it is the case that the form of mysticism, if it is mysticism at all, described by Willard is precisely what the text says.

  1. Acknowledge that what you do should be done in the character of Christ: humility, love, honesty, thoughtfulness, and so-on.
  2. Acknowledge that what you do should be done excellently, as unto the Lord. This goes back to Genesis 1:29-2:15. We were made to take dominion or be garden cultivators.
  3. Acknowledge that the knowledge necessary for your task is made available in the world by God and is hidden in Christ (Colossians 2:1-5).

How to Read Biblical Metaphor

When we read our bibles we’ll often come across well-crafted images which were meant, at the time, to pack tremendous rhetorical punch. Two of the biggest mistakes we can make are to:

  1. Read over the images with no feeling and think of them as ancient curiosities.
  2. Work hard to understand them academically without reference to the feelings that the human and divine authors wished you to feel.

These two common responses to the Biblical imagery are common for those of us from less meditative versions of Christianity or who have academic training in biblical interpretation.

An example of this might be to read something like Psalm 23 and simply observe that it is about God’s care or to read it and look at ancient parallels and attitudes toward shepherds or whether or not David wrote it. But the Psalm is using imagery to be formative and evocative.

In one of my favorite studies of metaphor, though flawed in some of its historical analysis, is More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor.

The author’s make several observations about the power of barely noticed or entirely unnoticed metaphor in thought to structure our experience. But more core to the book’s message is their observation of the power of intentionally constructed metaphor to communicate actual knowledge and to give structure to human experience.[1] The authors outline the power of metaphor under these headings (explanations are my own):[2]

  1. The power to structure
    Metaphors can add structure to a concept that does not natively have that structure. For instance to consider spiritual progress to be a war now means that there are short term tactics, long term strategies, and that enemies to spiritual progress (like the seven vices) deserve no quarter because they are passions which wage war against your soul (your very being as a human). Not coincidentally, even the word progress add structure to the concept of the spiritual life. The spiritual life has milestones, a destination, and so-on.
  1. The power of options
    A metaphor is powerful because of its many options. If I explain metaphor like a closet from which structures can be pulled depending on the weather, but I do not say whether or not it is a walk-in closet then leave the option open. But I can close the option to make the metaphor more specific: Poetic metaphor is like a walk-in closet with a gun-safe, and four seasonal racks of clothes. You can pull clothes out for purpose, or even take stashed metaphors for dry months financially or grab a dangerous metaphor for a home invasion.
  1. The power of reason
    Metaphors allow us to import new ways of reasoning to current life circumstances. So to use metaphor of this sort in a speech or poem or in your self-talk, is to offer people the power, not just to feel, but to think differently. An example from Scripture would be, “There is a way that seems right to a man, be the end of its way is death.” Many people, once they start a course of action feel like the result is predetermined and forget that they can back out or change course. But reminding people that life functions like a road and you can often turn around before you reach a dead end allows them to reason their way out of their current situation.
  1. The power of evaluation
    Metaphors can bring in evaluative force from other domains into the domain utilized. For any of my lawyer readers, this is part of the power of legal analogy and precedent. Case ‘X’ is like case ‘Y’ wherein verdict ‘Z’ was reached. Therefore, verdict ‘Z’ is appropriate. Similarly, most people like being strong more than being weak. So in politics, somebody who takes metaphors of strength versus weakness to frame policy differences has imported a fundamental human preference as a metaphor for evaluating ideas.
  2. The power of being there
    Metaphors are simply there. For instance, most people have been on journeys. This is the power of “life is a high way,” “walk in the Spirit,” “the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” The image is already there to be exploited.

Of course, I would add and the authors do all over their book, that metaphor has the power to cause feeling.

What this means is that poetry and poetic language when properly engaged has the power to be a formative experience and it is, indeed, meant to do so. This is because they engage our emotions by calling upon past experiences (available pictures), they engage our intellect by adding structure, new paths of thought, and the ability to evaluate things differently, and they engage our imagination by causing us to use images to see the options used, available, and unavailable by the writer/speaker.

By the way, some people might balk at using Lakoff and Turner’s manual for Biblical interpretation, but Robert Alter says basically the same thing:[3]

“The psalm are of course poems written out of deep and often passionate faith. What I am proposing is that the poetic medium made it possible to articulate the emotional freight, the moral consequences, the altered perception of the world that flowed from this monotheistic belief, in compact verbal structures that could in some instances seem [to be] simplicity itself.”

The poetry in the Bible, particularly the Psalms, is meant to give concrete expression to the philosophical, moral, and emotional consequences of the monotheistic beliefs of the psalmists. In other words, the metaphors of Scripture provide grist for the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional mill.

We read a poem, place ourselves in the appropriate frame of mind to understand it’s meaning and accept or reject (in whole or in part) the message therein.[4]

In short, when we come across imagery/metaphor in the Bible’s poetry or moral teachings we should attempt to interpret it using intellect, emotion, and imagination. The exercise below is simply meant to show how to interpret the Biblical imagery to determine what it means. The exercises below could be applied to any poem and are not meant to be explicitly spiritual, they just seem that way because they’re about the Bible.

  1. Intellect
    Here we look at the structure the metaphor provides to the thing described and the new pathways of reason and evaluation the metaphor seeks to convey. This involves understanding the metaphor in its ancient context as well then making the appropriate inferences from the metaphor to our own lives. For instance, “Our Father, who are in heaven” might be meant to lead us to think of our struggles not as God’s hatred or indifference but as either discipline or his respect for us as sons (see Hebrews 12).
  2. Emotion
    In this case, we seek to place ourselves in an emotional frame of mind similar to the one the metaphor intends to place us. In the case of hearing that the Father of Jesus loves us in the same way he loves Jesus, we might remember a time that we felt extremely loved. To do this, I recommend sitting in silence and really thinking about it, imagine the circumstances that led to the feeling, the person who loved you that way, and the specific feelings in your physical body (hairs standing up, tears, blood rushing to your cheeks, that strange warmth in your chest like you want to shout and cry for joy at once). Then realize that God’s love for you is like this but infinite. That’s what the imagery is, apparently, meant to invoke.
  1. Imagination
    Use your imagination to place yourself in the position that the metaphor demands of you and to look at the options it leaves open. “Our Father, who art in heaven,” takes away the option of seeing God as opposed to your well-being, even if his commands are opposed to your immediate desires or goals. The image does leave open the option of there being an older brother in the family to explain the Father’s orders to his children.

This post might be a bit more academic than some would like. The practical payoff for spiritual formation will be in another post.

References

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989),

[2] Lakoff and Turner,  64-65.

[3] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 113.

[4] On this aspect of poetry, see especially C. S Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: University Press, 1961). His notion of making sure to take an author’s work on its own terms in order to accept or reject one’s orders is great. On this score, I also recommend Mortimer Jerome Adler and Charles Lincoln Van Doren, How to Read a Book, 1972.

 

Growth in Grace: Means

In previous posts I’ve been writing about God’s grace and what it means to grow in that grace.

To grow in anything, at least on purpose, we need to have three things. Vision, Intention, and Means.

Today, we learn about means. By what means can we grow in God’s grace?

A word about means, means are method or instruments for accomplishing something.

For instance, if I am fastening two boards together, the means by which I do it could be a nail or an adhesive like glue. The means by which I drive the nail is a hammer.

Similarly, if I have a vision for becoming a person with no debt, the means by which I do this might be to write a budget and follow it, work a second job, invite a roommate to help with rent, and so-on.

Christian growth in grace is no different. Many times we read the commands in the Bible to have certain virtues or character traits and we miss out on the parts of Scripture that offer means for gaining those character traits.[1]

One way of talking about the means of growing into Christ’s image in to talk about “spiritual disciplines.” Some people don’t like that language because it implies doing hard work, but Jesus calls us to be disciples, so having disciplines seems like a natural outgrowth of that. But if you do not like the language, then call them “means of grace.”

What are some of the means the Bible gives for growing in grace?

  1. Meditation on the truths of the gospel of Christ
    In fact, this very act is what we did in the post on vision. Thinking about the greatness of Jesus, his love for us, his plan for history, the mercy of his Father, and the power of his Spirit, and what kind of person he wants to make of us is precisely one of the best means for achieving that vision (2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6).
  2. Knowledge of Scripture
    2 Timothy 3:14-17 makes it clear that knowing, not just the gospel (the New Testament), but the whole Bible is important for wisdom and training in righteousness. Reading the Bible as a book meant to reveal Jesus Christ and to train us in wisdom can help you to grow in wisdom and righteous character. With this fact in mind here are some means that are meant to help you have more Scripture intake:
  • Read the Bible
  • Bible memory
  • Bible study
  • Listening to the Bible out loud.
  • Listening to the Bible with the church community.
  • Meditating on the Bible.
  • Praying the prayers of the Bible.
  • Making visible inscriptions of important passages of the Bible in your home.
  1. Fasting
    This discipline is controversial, but it is at its heart, saying no to food for a set period of time in order to receive a blessing from God. In the New Testament that blessing is connected to receiving a reward from God for prayer and alms giving. I suspect that the idea is that fasting gives us time away from food to pray and extra resources to give. Later Christians connected fasting, rightly in my mind, with learning self-control (self-mastery) and temperance.
  2. Prayer (with the specific meaning of “asking God for something”)
    The prayers in the Bible range from prayers for good things, prayers for bad things, prayers for help, and prayers for forgiveness. But most especially in the New Testament we see prayers for help in character transformation. This is especially so in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and the prayers in Paul’s letters.
  3. Practicing the Presence of God
    This spiritual discipline is similar to the self-help tool called “mindfulness.” Except instead of trying to be non-judgmentally mindful of your internal feelings and external circumstances, you try to bring God or rather, truths concerning God before the mind. There are three ways to do this:
  • God as revealed in nature
    In doing this you can think either personally about God’s presence in nature. But this has limits, because not everything it beautiful and capable of lifting your mind and soul to the Lord. You can also do this philosophically by thinking about causality and the need for a first mover or prime cause for every aspect of reality you see or experience. Both of these are important.
  • God as revealed in Scripture
    Here you bring God before the mind by recalling memorized Scripture about God’s greatness, love, and mercy. Examples of this that are built into the Christian life are singing hymns, taking the Lord’s Supper, and remembering the meaning of Baptism.
  • God as revealed in personal experience
    Here you remember answered prayer, specific moments of spiritual intensity, and the stories of other Christians. By recalling these specific acts of God on the stage of recent human history, you can remember more fully Jesus’ promise “I am with you every day” (Matthew 28:20).
  1. Confession of Sin
    Confession of sin to others (God included) has a doubly cleansing effect. The first is that the Bible teaches that confessing sin is one of the conditions for receiving cleansing from unrighteous character (1 John 1:9). Secondly, is that it works like finally going into that messy room in the house that you avoid so that you don’t have to clean it. Once you calmly admit what is wrong you can become much more active in removing it. It’s just the way the human mind works. Keeping some bad habit as a deep dark secret seems to fuel our efforts to avoid confronting it ourselves. Simply admitting it to the Lord and/or a trusted Christian friend is enough to destroy our patterns of avoidance and internalized shame.

Now, obviously, there are other means to growing into the Biblical vision of Christ-like character in the kingdom of God, but these are some of the most explicitly Biblical ones.

No Instant Power-Ups

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in all of this is that growth in Christian character is by degrees and is awaiting a final transformation that we ourselves cannot do (1 John 3:1-2). You might work on a spiritual discipline for quite sometime before you one day notice: well, Jesus has really changed me. The metaphors the Bible often uses for spiritual growth are building houses, growing crops, taking long journeys, and being students. None of these things occur with instantaneous efficiency. There is no reason to expect your spiritual growth to happen this way, either. In other words, be like the ant in Proverbs 6:6-8.

Do you have anything you think should be added to the list?

Posts in the series

  1. What does “grow in grace” mean?
  2. Growth in Grace: Vision
  3. Growth in Grace: Intention
  4. Growth in Grace: Means
  5. Growth in Grace: The Feelings

References

[1] There are several reasons for this. One is a recent Protestant aversion to anything that sounds like works. In the reformation era, works were only considered bad insofar as they were treated as necessary when the Bible either never mentioned them or forbade them or insofar as they were treated as a means of earning rather than a means of showing gratitude (growing in grace). Many modern Protestants think that any talk of “trying” in the Christian life is bad. I deal with this misconception in relationship to how Christians talk about “duty,” “debt,” “obligation,” and “trying” here.

It’s a New Year: Be the Ant

Pro 6:6-8  Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.  (7)  Without having any chief, officer, or ruler,  (8)  she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.

This is a short passage. In context, the author is talking about settling accounts and avoiding poverty.

There are four ant-traits in the text that are relevant for settling accounts (Proverbs 6:1-5) and avoiding poverty:

  1. The ant is a self-starter.
  2. The ant prepares for the future.
  3. The ant prepares little by little (because she’s tiny), every day.
  4. The ant prepares for a long time (until winter).

A lot of people don’t like New Year’s resolutions.

I typically make pretty hard ones even though I see the practice as cheesy (pizza is also cheesy and it’s wonderful), but this year I already have too many goals to work on, so I’m simply trying to improve my efficiency at reaching them.

But if you don’t like resolutions for the New Year, but still want to reflect on bettering yourself here are two questions:

  1. What do I want more of?
  2. What do I want less of?

Think hard about these. The answers should be optimistic, but not impossible. They should also be based on your actual values, not simply social ideals that other people think you should live up to. Think about things like, “I want more knowledge, more time with my church, more time with my family, more good feelings, more Bible memorized, more risk taking, more money, more power, more humility, etc.” For question two think about things like this: “I want less wasted time on the internet, less television, less clutter, less whining, less fighting, less time spent feeling depressed, less sugar in my diet, less debt, less sinful habits (porn, explosive anger, greedy spending, intentional antagonizing, etcetera), etc.”

If you’re in a bad mood, listen to some music to get more pumped up, go for a walk, have a coffee and come back to them. Or, if you’re more contemplative, think about a time when you felt really successful and confidence. Think about it until you have the same emotional reaction you did at that time in your life. Do it until the hair stands up on your neck or arms or you feel embarrassed for being pumped up about something that happened five years ago.

After you’ve spent time reflecting on these two questions then reflect pair down your wants to a reasonable number for you. One might be all you can muster, but like a snow ball starting with a single handful, that one thing is better than nothing. I recommend no more than six. You can work on building up habits for two months at a time to solidify them before adding a new one. Of course, you could redo this exercise every month.

Now ask these two questions:

  1. What small, self-starting, regular action can I take to get the more that I want?
  2. What small, self-starting, regular action can I take to have the less that I want?

These actions should be small, designed to get the results you want from the first two questions, and be things you’re willing to change if they do not work. They should be easy enough to do that they make almost no difference in your life when you do them and make almost no difference when you don’t. But, if you do them for several days, weeks, months, and years they’ll add up. Think about the ant. She probably gathers enough food for each day and a little bit more.

As a final exercise, to motivate yourself to do these small little actions I recommend:

  1. Imagine yourself enjoying the more/less you plan to have and how pleasant that will be compared to how your life is now. Capitalize on your motivation out of your current frustrations and the motivation toward who you want to be. This sort of visualization seems kooky until you read old poetry, sermons, and speeches and see how often visualization and imagery were used to motivated people. Television may have stolen our imagination in this regard.
  2. When the small habit seems like a burden one day or several weeks simply say, “I’ll be better and happier for doing this than I will be for not.” Don’t let the false “be authentic to yourself by being a wreck or admitting your weakness” keep you from shoring up your weaknesses. You can admit that you have weak arms, but you still better do some bicep curls to fix it. Imagine if your doctor decided not to study your illness because he was being “true to himself” when he felt too tired to read ten pages from a desk reference.

Fake it Till You Make It

One of the weirdest struggles I have is periodic long stretches of depressive/depressing thoughts.

I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, but I sometimes struggle with debilitating self-doubt, lack of confidence, and even feelings of meaninglessness. And when I said debilitating, I meant that on a vacation I’ve been able to literally sit and do nothing unless somebody asked me to for days in a row. I’m sure that I don’t have clinical depression, because I manage to snap myself out of it. The point of this post is that tremendous self-doubts can be overcome, but not always by debating yourself.

One of the ways the feelings I described above manifest themselves is at my various jobs. I work as a software developer and I teach in various contexts.

I often feel completely out of place around people who are significantly better trained than I am. On top of that, I can attribute my lack of capability largely to decisions I made in the past that distracted me and kept me from all sorts of success.

One of the tactics I’ve used to help me overcome such feelings has been “fake it till you make it.” Here’s a great quote on the subject from an unusually helpful article at Psychology Today:

Likewise, the most effective way to move toward change is to act like you’ve already achieved it. Don’t worry about playing mind-games with yourself. Don’t worry about affirmations. The way to become a fit person is to act like one. I’ve always found that the hardest part of exercising—the only hard part, really—is putting on my sneakers. Once they’re on, there’s pretty much a 100 percent chance of getting some form of workout done. Why else would I have these shoes on?

Now, I do think that affirmations have their place as does debating your inner-monologue, but sometimes just acting like somebody who knows what’s going on helps you learn. Similarly, acting like somebody who isn’t feeling depressed is a good way to help yourself snap out of it.

So, if you want to get out of a funk, start pretending to be a person who isn’t in a funk. This isn’t insincere, this is defense against the dark arts. You’re using built in features of your brain to get out of feelings that hurt you, end of story.

Concluding Thought

Don’t fake it till you make it without actually doing the things that a competent person does (working, thinking things through, asking questions, etc).

Postscript:

Here is an important comment from a good friend named Kieran:

This is good advice if you get in a bit of a funk. There can come a point though where all you’re doing is faking it and not making it. That’s a sign of something dangerous and it’s both hard to spot from the outside and hard to admit to oneself. Real depression is an illness and should be treated as such, with medication and therapy.

The Fourth ‘C’

Over at the Bold and Determined blog there is a post about the Three Cs of a morning routine (their post is great, read it).

They are:

  1. Coffee
  2. Cardio
  3. Cold Shower

These are all good ideas. I’m not a fan of aerobics or cardio as a form of fat loss or as a way to “get in shape” for that you need sprints and weight training (which exercise your heart, btw). But caffeine has tremendous neuro-protective capacity, it improves working memory, focus, alertness, etc. It’s great stuff. I would switch the coffee and cardio order though. I prefer to be fully awake before consuming my coffee. But these guys are more successful in life than I am, so their advice might be better.

Not only would I change the order, I would add a fourth.

The Fourth C

The fourth C is calling, which is not the same as career.

Career is what you do to make money. Calling is what leaves a legacy that is unique to you, your circumstance, and your abilities. I wrote about the difference here: Career vs Calling.

In the mornings you get up, get your body and brain moving and while the rest of the world sleeps you work on your calling.

If you’re a teacher, you write lectures to put online in order to build a legacy for the future.

If you’re a home school parent you plan the day’s lessons.

If you’re going back to school to learn a new skill, you perfect if before you hit your 9-5.

If you’re a pastor you practice your Greek and Hebrew.

If you’re a student, you work on your blog to practice writing.

What will you do with your extra time in the morning?

If you don’t wake up early enough for a 4-C morning, what’s stopping you? Here’s how I wake up: How to become a morning person

Applying the Advanced Thought Kata: Evaluate Your Actions

Previously, I’ve written about two thought katas:

  1. The Beginner Kata
  2. The Advanced Thought Kata

The advanced kata has applications beyond mere thoughts. If we change the words, this kata becomes a useful tool for evaluating your habits:

All habits have a purpose with a point of view based on assumptions which have consequences and form our identities.  With facts, data, and our experiences, we use inferences and judgments in order to determine if our habits are worthwhile.

The subtle shift to habits is very important because many of us mindlessly perform the same habits for decades without ever thinking about them.

Application of the first move

I think that the first part, “All habits have a purpose with a point of view,” is especially important. Many of us have habits that, since we did not adopt them on purpose, have a purpose determined by somebody else! Mindlessly watching television instead of using it as an intentional rest period can work this way.

Here is an example from the weight room. If you lift weights, you might always turn the plates one way on the barbell. This makes literally no difference in how the weight sits on the bar. But many people learn this habit in high school football and never abandon it. Btw, the best direction to face the plates depends on what body position you use to remove them from the bar.

Other habits might be more insidious. Think of getting home from work with a bag of fast food and plopping down on the couch to watch television. Where does this habit come from? Did you choose to spend 2-3 hours a day passively absorbing other people’s ideas from a screen while eating food whose quality you know you could exceed with 30 minutes in the kitchen? Whose idea was it?

All habits, all habits have a purpose. The question is, what purpose? And what are the assumptions of that habit? With regard to fast food, the assumption is that speed is of more value than nutrients or the act of creating a dish. But is this assumption true? It depends on what your own goals are.

Socratic Questions for Habits using the Advanced Thought Kata

  1. What is the purpose of this habit? Is this a good purpose (does it match my values, is it objectively good from a moral stand-point, is it objectively good for me from a health/personal goal stand point)?
  2. What point of view is implied by this habit? Is it a despairing habit, a habit based on virtue, on lack of virtue and so-on? Does this habit assume that hope is real, that time has meaning, etc?
  3. What are the results of this habit in my life? What will the results be if I keep it up (how much money am I losing, what is happening to my health, are there eternal consequences, is it hurting others, etc)?
  4. What is this habit doing to my self-concept? Is it helping me to identify more and more with the good, with my family, to be at ease with myself? Is it building relationships with the tribe or community of which I am a part? Or is it creating anxiety about my purpose in life or at odds with what I believe truly matters?
  5. With these things in mind, is this a habit I wish to pursue whole-heartedly, alter, reframe, or abandon?

Conclusion

The other pieces of the kata apply in similar ways to the example above, but I thought that it would be easier for me to give you questions to find your own applications than it would be for me to give you examples.

I’ve often told people these two things:

  1. Never be embarrassed to do the thing that makes you the best.*
  2. If nobody finds your habits unusual, then perhaps you haven’t thought about them enough.

Number two is especially important, because very few people have chosen their habits and so doing something precisely because you’ve thought it through will be weird. I used to get made fun of at the gym for doing one set to failure, a buddy of mine ate with a perfect diet with no cheat days to lose weight in high school, some of the people I know with the most Bible verses memorized are people who hang them up all over their house, and several of the most successful people I know make it a point to wake up and do work for several hours before the sun comes up. None of these are the habits of normal people. What will you change?

*I received one of my greatest compliments from a student whose SAT I merely supervised and I said this while we were waiting for the last group of students to arrive. Several years later she told me that that quote had completely changed her approach to life.