Impediments to Thinking, Learning, and Decision Making

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom 7:15)

We are the best fed and most pampered generation of all time; yet, our young people and senior citizens are committing suicide at historically high rates and “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” (Lucado 2012, 5) Why?

Isolation and Loneliness

One answer is that we have become painfully isolated from ourselves: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds” (Nouwen 2010, 89). Our isolation has been magnified by a loss of faith and community, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Technology Facilitates Rumination

Isolated people often ruminate about the past. In ruminating, obsessing about a personal slight, real or imaged, amplifying small insults into big ones. For psychiatric patients who are not good at distinguishing reality and illusion, constant internal repetition of even small personal slights is not only amplified, it is also remembered as a separate event. Through this process of amplification and separation, a single spanking at age 8 could by age 20 grow into a memory of daily beatings.

Amplified in this way, rumination absorbs the time and energy normally focused on meeting daily challenges and planning for the future. By interfering with normal activities, reflection, and relationships, rumination slows normal emotional and relational development and the ruminator becomes increasingly isolated from themselves, from God, and from those around them.

Why do we care? We care because everyone ruminates and technology leads us to ruminate more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the video game played every waking hour, and the work that we never set aside all function like rumination to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads.[1] Much like addicts, we are distracted every waking hour from processing normal emotions and we become anxious and annoyed[2] when we are forced to tune into our own lives. Rumination, stress addiction,[3] and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful when alone and in today’s society we are frequently alone even in the company of others.[4]

Rumination is Not New

Jesus sees our anxiety and offers to relieve it, saying:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

Self-centered rumination is a heavy burden, not a light one, and Jesus models the Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness that break rumination by encouraging us to look outside ourselves. In Sabbath rest we look outside ourselves to share in God’s peace, to reflect on Christ’s forgiveness, and to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to prayer. In prayer we commune with God where our wounds can be healed, our strength restored, and our eyes opened to our sin, brokenness, and need for forgiveness. When we sense our need for forgiveness, we also see our need to forgive. In forgiveness, we value relationships above our own personal needs which break the cycle of sin and retaliation in our relationships with others and, by emulating Jesus Christ, we draw closer to God in our faith.

Obsessions Interfere with Reflection

Faith, discipleship, and personal reflection require that we give up obsessing with ourselves. On our own, our obsessions are too strong and we cannot come to faith, grow in our faith, or participate in ministry. For most people, faith comes through prayer, reading scripture, and involvement in the church, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. For the original apostles, the discipling was done by Jesus himself.

Jesus takes the world’s threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity and reframes them as promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth. But, Jesus ties these promises to discipleship and does not extended them to spectators.[5] These issues interfere with our spiritual development directly but they also interfere indirectly by impeding our normal thinking, learning and decision making. In many ways, psychiatric dysfunction has increasingly been mainstreamed.

References

Blackaby, Richard. 2012. The Seasons of God: How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.

Footnotes

[1] Technology connects us yes, but it more often isolates us from one another. A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend. Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations. For an exhaustive treatment, see: (Turkle 2011).
[2] This is a form of escalation in which psychiatric patients amplify rather than dissipate any tension in conversation. Even polite disagreement quickly evokes an increasingly hostile response.
[3] Stress addiction is a situation in which stress becomes the norm in our lives. Peace and quiet upset us because we are unaccustomed to it. Because we cannot relax, stress threatens not only our mental well-being, but also our physical health.
[4] Loneliness in the company others is the theme of a recent book by Sherry Turkle (2011). Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination. Blackaby (2012, 47) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.
[5] The yoke (Matt 11:28–30) Jesus uses to describe the work of a disciples was a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work without injury. Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not. This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples. This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (Jas 1:22)

Impediments to Thinking, Leaning, and Decision Making

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

Continue Reading

Origin of the Bible

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For Christians, what we know about God is revealed primarily in scripture. In order to understand the Christian perspective of God, it is accordingly important to understand the nature of the Bible and what it says about God. Let me start by describing the origins of the Bible.

People of the Book

In the Koran, Christians are described as people of the book. Part of the reason for this distinction may be that the New Testament was the first bound book. Books were cheaper to produce and more portable than scrolls, which continued to be used, for example, to record the Hebrew Bible. It is noteworthy that more New Testament texts have survived from ancient times than any other ancient manuscripts.[1]

New Testament Compilation

Athanasius suggested the twenty-seven books which now make up the New Testament in his Easter letter of AD 367. This list was later confirmed by the Council of Carthage in AD 397. The common denominator in these books is that their authors were known to have been an apostle or associated closely with an apostle of Jesus. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to prepare an authoritative translation of the Bible into Latin in AD 382 commonly known as the Vulgate (Evans 2005, 162). The Vulgate remained the authoritative Biblical text for the church until the time of the Reformation when the reformers began translating the Bible into common languages.

Reformation

In 1522 the reformer Martin Luther translated the New Testament into Germanand followed with an Old Testament translation in 1532.[2] Luther kept the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, but followed the Masoretic (Hebrew Old Testament) rather than the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) in selecting books for the Old Testament.[3] The books left out of the Masoretic text but in the Septuagint became known as the Apocrypha. These books continue to distinguish the Catholic (Apocrypha included) from Protestant Bible translations (Apocrypha excluded) to this day. The list given below, which excludes the Apocrypha, is taken from the Westminster Confession:

OLD TESTAMENT

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

NEW TESTAMENT

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

Jesus’ Attitude About Scripture

In our study of the Bible, Jesus’ attitude about scripture guides our thinking. Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18).

The Law of Moses refers to the Law (first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets refers to the other books of the Old Testament.

Timing of Writing

The last book in the Old Testament to be written was likely Malachi which was written about four hundred years before the birth of Christ. The last book in the New Testament to be written was likely the book of Revelation which was written around 90 AD.

Compilation and Divine Inspiration

The Bible represents the work of many authors, yet its contents are uniquely consistent. This consistency adds weight to our belief that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. This point is expressed within the Bible itself with these words:

“Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

References

Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin.

Evans, Craig A. 2005. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to Background Literature. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. 2005. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stone, Larry. 2010. The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of Its Writing, Translation, and Effect on Civilization. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.


[1] The technical description is the Bible was the first publication to appear in widespread circulation as a codex (bound book) (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 15). Stone (2010, 14) cites the existence of 5,500 partial or complete biblical manuscripts making it the only document from the ancient world with more than a few dozen copies.

[2] Luther completed the entire Bible in 1534 (Bainton 1995, 255).

[3] Luther translated the Apocrpha in 1534 but specifically said they were not canonical, just good to read (see: http://www.lstc.edu/gruber/luthers_bible/1534.php).

Origin of the Bible

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

Continue Reading

Creation and Trinity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bible starts telling us that: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) What do these simple words tell us about God?

In the Beginning

The phrase—in the beginning—tells us that God is eternal. If creation has a beginning, then it must also have an end. This implies that creation is not eternal, but the God who created it must be. If our eternal God created time, both the beginning and the end, then everything God created belongs to God. Just as the potter is master over the pottery he makes, God is sovereign over creation (Jer 18:4-6). God did not win creation in an arm-wrestling match or buy it online or find it on the street, he created it—God is a worker (Whelchel 2012, 7).

Transcendence

God eternal existence suggests that as mortal beings we cannot approach God without his assistance, an immediate consequence of God’s transcendence. The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 makes this point in a physical sense, but it also stands as a metaphor for philosophical towers that we might attempt to build, such as the Enlightenment Project.

Sovereignty

God’s sovereignty is reinforced in the second half of the sentence when it says: God created the heavens and the earth. Here heaven and earth form a poetic construction called a merism. A merism is a literary device that can be compared to defining a line segment by referring to its end points. The expression—heaven and earth—therefore means that God created everything.[1] Because he created everything, he is sovereign over creation; and sovereignty implies ownership.[2]

Holy

So, from the first sentence in the Bible we know that God is eternal and he is sovereign. We also know that he is holy. Why? Are heaven and earth equal? No. Heaven is God’s residence. From the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush (Exod 3:5), we learn that any place where God is becomes holy in the sense of being set apart or sacred. Because God resides in heaven, it must be holy. Earth is not. Still, God created both and is sovereign over both (Rev 4:11).
Genesis paints two other important pictures of God.

Holy Spirit

The first picture arises in Genesis 1:2; here the breath, or spirit of God, is pictured like a bird hovering over the waters.[3] Hovering requires time and effort suggesting ongoing participation in and care for creation. The Bible speaks exhaustively about God providing for us—God’s provision. Breath translates as Holy Spirit in the original languages of the Bible—both Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).[4]

Immanence

The second picture appears in Genesis 2, which retells the story of creation in more personal terms. As a potter works with clay (Isa 64:8), God forms Adam and puts him in a garden. Then, he talks to Adam and directs him to give the animals names. And when Adam gets lonely, God creates Eve from Adam’s rib or side—a place close to his heart.

Summary

Genesis 1 and 2, accordingly, paint three pictures of God: 1. God as a mighty creator; 2. God who meticulously attends to his creation; and 3. God who walks with us like a friend. While the Trinity is not fully articulated in scripture until the New Testament, God’s self-disclosure as the Trinity appears from the beginning (Chan 1998, 41).
The Lord’s Prayer casts a new perspective on Genesis 1:1when Jesus says: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) Because we are created in God’s image, we want our home to modeled after God’s.

References

Dyck, Drew Nathan. 2014. Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Whelchel, Hugh. 2012. How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press.


[1] Heaven and earth can also be interpreted as proxies for God’s attributes of transcendence and immanence (Jer 23:23-24; Dyck 2014, 99).

[2] God’s eternal nature is also defined with a merism: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

[3] This bird (avian) image appears again in the baptismal accounts of Jesus. For example, in Matthew 3:16 we read: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.”

[4] Breath itself is necessary for life—part of God’s provision.

Creation and Trinity

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

Continue Reading

Why Think About Faith?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live at a time when discussions of faith focus on our emotions and relational response to God in Jesus Christ. A subtext in these discussion is what will God do for me, not as a member of a family, but as an individual? While emotions and our relationship with Jesus are clearly important, how can we trust someone intimately who we know little or nothing about?

The Therapeutic Gospel

The therapeutic gospel fosters this attitude by focusing heavily on God’s love and seeing the role of the pastor through the lens of a counselor. In this context, Sunday morning worship becomes a group therapy session helping parishioners to purge anxiety through upbeat, uptempo music and an uplifting and witty sermons (all within a one hour timeframe of course) that provide nice to know religious information devoid of prescriptive advice. The triumph of the therapeutic gospel has come at the expense of traditional moral teaching.

If you do not believe me, consider some recent observations by one pastor about the difference between churched and unchurched young people in his youth group. The churched kids knew “how to get drunk, have sex and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing about it.” Meanwhile, the unchurched kids were “mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of whom [were] gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church.” and did not even try to hide their sinful activities. (Moore 2015, 70-71) These observations suggest that in the absence of moral guidance, we all gravitate towards hypocrisy.

The love promoted in the therapeutic gospel is motherly love (or grandfatherly love), not fatherly love. Mothers love their children unconditionally while a father’s love is conditioned on the need to learn discipline and prepare them for adulthood. Both types of love are needed, but motherly love in the absence of fatherly love does not prepare a child for the hard realities of adulthood. Adulthood provides independence, but only in the context of discipline and limitations. If you have never been denied anything growing up, how are you to learn to live within a budget or to deal with disappointment? Written large, the same problem faces our nation—how can our politicians ask for sacrifice when people think that their are entitled to free education, health care, and other public services?

Problems with the Therapeutic Gospel

Already in the 1930s, theologians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1995), warned about the problem of cheap grace—forgiveness without confession. Closer to home, Richard Niebuhr (1937, 193) warned of the development of: “A God without wrath [who] brought men [and women] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

What we have in the therapeutic gospel is a kinder, gentler Jesus, but without the possibility of salvation because this Jesus did not die for our sins. This is because we don’t believe in sin, which precludes the need for forgiveness. We just need a bit of therapy from a good counselor—all we need is love, to quote John Lennon.

Clearly, the focus on emotions to the exclusion of theology leads us somewhere that we do not want to go.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

In his path-breaking work on emotions in the New Testament, Matthew Elliott (2006, 46-47) outlines a cognitive theory of emotions that “reason and emotion are interdependent.” The alternative is to argue that reason and emotion are independent of one another, a key assumption of the therapeutic gospel because emotions are believed to rule our lives. Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions and his anger (or wrath) is focused on examples of when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

Significantly, the only example of Jesus being described as angry is in Mark 3:5 after the Pharisees displayed a hardness of the heart with respect to a man with a withered hand.[1] If God himself gets emotional about things that he believes are important, then clearly his emotions and reason are interrelated. By contrast, other gods in the ancient world would get angry spontaneously and did not limit their anger to matters of principle.

Perceptions, Learning, and Decision Making Introduced

If our emotions are to follow from things that we feel are important, then theology (our understanding of God), not emotions, should come first in our faith walk. How we perceive the world, how we learn, and how we make decisions remain more important than our emotional assessment of them.

[1] When we see Jesus clear the temple, he is shown angry, not described as such.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Moore, Russell. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

 

Why Think About Faith?

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent-2018

Continue Reading

Faith in Our Learning and Decision Making

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Faith is indispensable to how we perceive our world, what we consider good and bad, what we invest time and energy in learning more about, and how we make decisions, as I earlier discussed. In mathematical reasoning, faith provides the assumptions on which we base our analysis. When we take the discussion further to ask, why is it important to believe that God is a personal god—a trinity of three persons—we move beyond abstract assumptions and analysis to experience God’s love. God loves us enough to mentor us every moment of our lives, in good times and bad.

Our Rock

One of the most fundamental defenses of faith cited in the Bible arises in a parable told by Jesus:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matt 7:24-27)

Jesus might easily have addressed a room full of mathematicians because the order and stability of the created universe testifies to God’s existence and sovereignty.

Kurt Gödel, a Czech mathematician, who was born in 1906, educated in Vienna, and taught at Princeton University, is famous for his incompleteness theorem published in 1931. This theorem states that stability in any closed, logical system requires that at least one assumption be taken from outside that system. If creation is a closed, logical system (having only one set of physical laws suggests that it is) and exhibits stability, then it too must contain at least one external assumption. This is why computers cannot program themselves and why depressed people are advised to get out of the house and do something outside their normal routine—the same logic applies to any closed system.[1]

As creator, God, himself, fulfills the assumption of the incompleteness theorem (Smith 2001, 89) not only for us as individuals, but for the universe itself. Most eastern religions fail to grasp the significance of Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) How can there be an alternative path up the mountain to a Holy God who stands outside of time and space because he created them? Obviously, there is no other path up the mountain because as sinful people we are bound by time and space—we cannot approach a holy god. Humans have tried to build towers up to God since the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-6)

God must come down the mountain because we cannot go up it. As Christians, we believe that God came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, a point reiterated on the Day of Pentecost with the giving of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the human house really is built on a rock.

Our Mentor

In recent years, we have heard occasionally about an expression, WWJD, short for what would Jesus do? The Prophet Isaiah said this of the long anticipated Messiah:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:6)

Who wouldn’t want a divine counselor? Jesus likewise described the work of the Holy Spirit as that of a counselor:

“And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

If God himself, who is omnipresent and omniscient, is our counselor how can we fail?
What is most interesting about God’s willingness to mentor us is not just that we have the world’s most powerful person on our side—actually, an omnipresent, omniscient helicopter-parent would be most unbearable. What is interesting is that God mentored us from the beginning. In Genesis we read:

“Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19)

God could have just put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as slave-gardeners, but instead he gave them responsibilities and spent time with them like a loving parent, a theme reiterated in the story of Abraham. God blessed Abraham so that he could be a blessing to others (Gen 12:1-3).

Like Abraham, God mentors and blesses us so that we can mentor and bless those around us. To those for whom much is given, much is expected. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins makes possible God’s forgiveness, but we are expected to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15). We are to model God’s love.

References

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.


[1] An example can be seen in economics as applied to price theory. The U.S. economy requires one price be set outside the economy (in the world market) to assure stability. In the nineteenth century, that price was gold, and the system was called the gold standard. Every price in the U.S. economy could be expressed in terms of how much gold it was worth, as the dollar functions that way. Economists refer to this principle as the fixed-point theorem.

Faith in Our Learning and Decision Making

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent-2018

Continue Reading

Positivistic and Normative Information

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my training as an economist, my philosophy of science professor taught us to distinguish several types of information. Most important among these types were positivistic and normative information. Positivistic information observed information about what is (facts) while normative information focused on what should be (values). One might observe, for example, that a farmer owned one hundred pigs (a statement of fact) while the value of those pigs might depend on whether your religion accepts pork as a reasonable food that people might eat (a value statement). Christians usually eat pork while Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians typically do not.

Facts and Values

The usefulness of this distinction between facts and values arises when people disagree primarily on details, not the broad sweep of things. An old saw goes that we are each entitled to our own opinions (statements of values), but not our own set of facts (statements about what is). In the postmodern era as the consensus on basic values has broken down, the line between facts and values has also become blurred.

Breakdown in the Modern Consensus

A deconstructionist, someone who questions all authorities and focuses on power relationships, might argue that facts depend on whose value system is being imposed. The statement that a farmer owns one hundred pigs might, for example, be a provocative statement in a country where pork consumption is not accepted.

When the Gospel of Matthew writes—“Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them” (Matt 8:30), the implication certainly is that this region is outside Israel (where pork consumption was not accepted) and may also imply that the people in this region are morally corrupt or simply Roman. An Muslim commentator on American grocery marketing today might likewise conclude that the United States is obviously a Christian country because no Muslim or Jew would accept open sale of pork in a grocery store.

The point is not that we cannot observe whether or not pork is being sold. The point is that the interpretative gloss on such an observation quickly leads to a change in the conversation serious enough to make the distinction between value and fact less helpful.

Breakdown in Consensus Influences Professionals

The breakdown in consensus about basic values not only makes conversation about disputable matters more difficult, it also leads to challenges to authority figures, like professional economists. One forgets that professionals are specialists whose experience focuses on making fine distinctions that an ordinary person might not be sensitive to. When large values are in flux, small values get less attention and making such distinction adds less value. Thus, we see that professionals continue to earn high incomes, but the focus of their work has changed and it carries less status in a social context.

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews distinguished themselves from Gentiles not only by their religious beliefs, but by their dress, food laws, and other customs. As Christians in the first century began to evangelize outside the Jewish community to Gentiles, these distinctions made it harder to focus Gentiles on God’s character and Jesus’ teaching. The separation of the Christians from the Jews ironically came not over these customs but over the absence of Christian political support for a Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Starting Point for Science

Returning to the observation that now in the postmodern era the consensus on basic beliefs has broken down. What exactly were the beliefs that brought us the modern era and science? Going into the nineteenth century, nearly everyone in Western countries subscribed to belief in one God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). This fundamental belief proved important to the growth of science because one creator implies one set of scientific principles that were assumed to apply to all of creation.

If more than one god were believed to exist, then this unity of principles would seem quite arbitrary and one would not spend a lot of time and effort to impose such an idea. Why wouldn’t another set of principles exist in the realm of another god? Consequently, the idea of objective truth is reasonable in the context of the first verse in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut 6:4) It is not surprising that in the early years of the modern era the best scientists were often religious individuals, Jews and Christians, influenced not only by their intellect, but by their faith in one benevolent God who created and loves all of us.

Positivistic and Normative Information

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent-2018

Continue Reading

Learning from Experience

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

From the fourth century before Christ, philosophers have distinguished experience (Aristotle) from theory (Plato). Experience has the characteristic of being concrete and personal while theory transcends individual experience to distinguish relationships and general trends.

Personality Types

In developing a classification of personality types, psychologist Carl J. Jung (1955) further refined the distinctions made in the process of reflection. Jung (1955, 90-92) distinguished introvert from extrovert, sensation from intuition, thinking from feeling, judging from perceiving. Using these distinctions to classify an individual’s preferred reflective tendencies, sixteen different personality types can be identified.

One can develop hypotheses about how that each of these types would learn and respond to particular challenges. For example, Myers and Myers (1995, 149) write:

“The five types that favored the stable and secure future were all sensing types. The warmest of the sensing types, ESFJ, characteristically favored service to others. Seven of the eight intuitive types favored either the opportunity to use their special abilities or the change to be creative…”

Personality types are not predictive in a deterministic sense because people do change their classification over time, but they indicate tendency or probability.

While individuals often prefer one or the other yielding classified personality traits, our experiences are shaped by the theories that we hold and these theories may even permeate our language. An Eskimo language may, for example, distinguish many kinds of ice and snow while an African language might make no such distinctions having relatively few opportunities to experience ice and snow.

Presuppositions Matter

Plato took interest in this influence of theory on language and asked the question: how do we perceive the idea of a horse? If you had never seen a horse, how would you describe one? In the Bible, one of the first things that God did with Adam was to create new creatures and show them to Adam to see what he would name them (Gen 2:19). Naming is often interpreted in the Bible to indicate authority or sovereignty over the items being named[1]; naming also provides form—the idea of a horse or the prior experiences with horses—to our experiences. In a broader sense, culture shapes our language and thinking the same way, providing form to outline and bear our experiences.

Example of Police Shootings

Philosophers call this idea of culture providing form to our language and thoughts a presupposition. Presuppositions can take the form of cultural assumptions, even racial stereo-types. In recent months, presuppositions have been controversial in the context of police shootings where in ambiguous and threatening situations police are more likely to shoot suspects from one racial group than another, even when they themselves come from the same racial group.

The presumption that a person from one racial group may be more dangerous than another is discriminatory because information about a group is being substituted for information about the individual. But the source of this presupposition is unclear—does it reflect experiential knowledge (the group is objectively more dangerous) or theoretical (discrimination). If this presupposition is experiential, then no amount of police training will make it go away, because police officers would have to place themselves in greater danger to comply with their training. But if it is theoretical, then training will presumably change future police behavior because the presupposition is unconscious discrimination. Obviously, we care a lot about the source of this presupposition, but to date the public discussion has simply assumed a theoretical source.

Presuppositions in Church Attendance and Biblical Interpretation

Presuppositions influence our attitude about church attendance and how we read our Bibles.

For most Americans in the 1950s, American culture presumed that women worked primarily in the home and families attended church on Sundays. The “blue laws” mandated that most retail stores were not open on Sunday. In my grandfather’s home town, a farmer combining his corn on Sunday would likely have received a pastoral visit the following week. Today, the stores are legally open seven days a week because the culture presumes that women and men both work during the week away from the home and church attendance is no longer assumed.

Biblical interpretation is also informed by our cultural presuppositions. Today, for example, many people read their Bibles without believing the miraculous events that are recorded. Behind this skepticism is the metaphysical presupposition that the physical world is the only world and science has not been able to reproduce many of the miracles recorded in the Bible.

Luke 10, for example, reports that Jesus restores the sight to a blind Bartimaeus (Luke 10:46-52). Was the miracle the restoration of sight or something else, like a restoration of faith? If Jesus restored Bartimaeus’ sight, then Jesus’ status as the Son of God is validated. If he merely restored his faith, Jesus may be nothing more than a great teacher or prophet, as many have claimed.

Christians who have experienced God’s hand on their lives have no problem believing that Bartimaeus had his sight restored, a counter-cultural presupposition. How do you interpret the miracles recorded in the Bible?

References

Jung, Carl J. 1955. Modern Many in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933). New York: Harcourt Inc.

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type (Orig. Pub. 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.


[1] The power of words is again emphasized in a biblical context when we see how serious blessings and curses are taken. For example, after Jacob is caught stealing his brother, Esau’s, blessing from his father, Isaac refuses to take back the blessing—much like God creates the heavens and the earth with spoken words, blessings—once conferred—cannot be retracted.

Learning from Experience

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

Continue Reading

The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In order to understand the role of authorities in our decision making, let’s return for a moment to my decision as a college student to follow my father into the economics profession. As mentioned previously, when I decided to study economics, I had no idea what an economist could expect to earn and whether studying economics posed a profitable investment decision. This implies that my decision was not entirely rational in the sense that I exhaustively studied the alternative to studying economics and chose the field yielding the highest prospective salary. What I knew was that my father had studied economics and was able to earn a living.

Notice the high level of uncertainty that I confronted in making this life-changing decision of a career. Those of you who have read my memoir, Called Along the Way, probably recall that I made this decision under duress—I had labored anxiously for months without direction and on the morning that I made this decision I had a bad hangover. These are not ideal conditions for making major life decisions and bring to mind the circumstances facing the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Still, I took it on faith that if I followed my father into the economics profession, I would earn a similar income and be able to support a family. In a formal sense, I did not (and perhaps could not) make a rational decision based on current expected earnings in the economics profession.

Rationality of Decisions Based on Authority

Two important points can be made about my decision to study economics.

The first point is that most decisions are made within a context of high levels of uncertainty. Uncertainty motivates the gathering of additional information. Because information is costly and time-consuming, the search process is often constrained by the limits of our budget (both money and time). When no limit is imposed, analysis paralysis can arise if we have trouble making decisions.

The second point is that the use of authorities in the decision process provides an obvious short-cut to searching for more information. While some may not languish over decisions but simply adopt the advice of others to avoid the anxiety of decision making, this was not a motivator for me. I knew that if I studied economics, my father could advise on what to do and what not to do along the way, reducing my decision risk. In a sense, I became an informal apprentice to my father. Being an apprentice therefore not only cut my search costs in making the initial decision, but also the prospective costs in making future career decisions.

If I chose another field to study, I could have gotten the same benefits by seeking out mentors to guide through difficult decisions along the way. In fact, when I moved in my career to finance, I did exactly that. Although I changed positions repeatedly in my government career, I always sought mentors to guide me in my career.

Christ as Mentor

In a very real sense, placing our faith in God is analogous to taking Christ as our mentor. When we come to faith, our information set is minimal, but we know that God is good and is trustworthy. By trusting God and taking Christ as our guide, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that come with inexperience as decision makers in this life.

But there is one other important point to make. As Christians, we know that the future is in Christ. Knowing the end of the story reduces the uncertainty that we face in this life. Thus, we not only benefit from the guidance of our mentor, he reduces our uncertainty. It is like we already have tomorrow’s newspaper and know today which stock will go up tomorrow.

The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

Continue Reading

Decisions Under Uncertainty

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Decisions that we make are often assumed to be made in a context of certainty about outcomes. We use language like, if I do A, then B will follow, as if we knew the outcome with absolute certainty. This is an unrealistic assumption, but we assume it anyway to keep things easy, at least for purposes of explaining our decisions to ourselves or others.

Why Do We Assume Certainty?

Part of the reason for this simplistic assumption is that decision making creates anxiety. The future is never known for sure and important decisions can affect outcomes, our state of mind, and how others view our competency. Our anxiety levels go down when we are confident of our ability to make decisions and have experience showing that our competency is justified.

Experience with Decision Making

In my own experience, my decision skills improved greatly when I traded commodities, stocks, and options. Timely decision making was important as a trader and my decisions had previously been marked by “analysis paralysis,” a condition where the decision maker keeps procrastinating in the hope of gathering more information. In trading, analysis paralysis proved costly because buying opportunities quickly disappear in a competitive market. My training as a trader proved costly, but I learned how to assess information requirements quickly and to limit the markets that I traded so I could act quickly without a high level of uncertainty. I also learned to cut my losses when the market did not perform as expected.

Cutting one’s losses quickly is important in other contexts. Suppose that I worked in a particular field for a number of years only to find that my chosen field was no longer “hot”. If I continued to work in that field and to deny the lack of interest of my employers, my career would suffer even if I retained my position. Suppose that I reached a certain age and no longer needed to work to earn a living in a stressful job. If I continued to work anyway because the money was good and ignored the effect of the stress on my health and on my family.

Uncertainty Affects All Aspects of Decisions

Going back to our original example of a decision—if A, then B—we have at least three sources of uncertainty in this simple equation.

First, what if condition A is only partially met or if we are mistaken in our ability to trigger this condition? If I want to purchase a car, I need to have the money necessary for the purchase. What if I do not have the cash and do not know if a lender to make me a loan?

Second, what if the relationship between A and B changes? Suppose I raise the money to buy the car, but it is no longer available for sale?

Third, what if I raise the money for my car and it is still available for sale, but the dealer package does not include the features that I really wanted, like perhaps a car radio or guidance system or air conditioning, at the price originally quoted?

Uncertainty is Especially a Problem with Investment Decisions

While buying a car can raise a number of issues in itself, the uncertainty level rises when the car is needed to make an investment decision or needs to be paid out of future earnings. What if I am starting a new job as a traveling salesman, what car is most suitable for my new position? Suitability might take the form of having seats that remain comfortable after a six hour drive so that I can meet with customers in a relaxed manner. Or it might take the form of safety features that prevent accidents in the case of narcolepsy.

If my investment in a new car needs to be paid out of my earnings as a salesman and my future earnings are in question, my ability to repay my automobile loan needs to be estimated and may depend on events that I have no control over.
The same problem arises in making decisions about education. In college when I decided to study economics, I had no idea what an economist could expect to earn and whether studying economics posed a profitable investment decision, but I knew that my father had studied economics and was able to earn a living. I took it on faith that if I followed my father into the economics profession, I would earn a similar income and be able to support a family. In a formal sense, however, I did not (and perhaps could not) make a rational decision based on current expected earnings in the economics profession.

Focus on the Assurance of Salvation and Doubt

The defining characteristic of the postmodern era is uncertainty, precisely the oppose of tradition society. In traditional societies, tradition informs every important decision in one’s life—what gender roles we follow, who our friends are, who we marry, what profession we take up, and who we worship and how. Life has meaning in a traditional society because when we accept this guidance, we are rewarded with status and honor. All of this guidance has been abandoned in postmodern culture where we are responsible for every imaginable decision with little or no guidance and, in any case, given no rewards of status honor. If we succeed, we are fully employed, have a medical plan, and can buy stuff. The defining characteristic of the individual in the postmodern era is anxiety.
The church responds to the postmodern dilemma primarily by over-emphasis of the assurance of salvation in Christ and, in effect, denial of any form of uncertainty. We all know this is a highly problematic theological stance because it leaves little or no room for doubt. Jesus did not take this position. Listen to the words of Jesus spoken to the father of a boy possessed by an evil spirit:

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us. And Jesus said to him, If you can! All things are possible for one who believes. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

The father recognizes that his faith is not sufficient for healing; Jesus accepts his prayer and heals the child notwithstanding. The father’s prayer is effectively our prayer.
God’s mercy through Christ is the only assurance of salvation that we have and Jesus knows that the uncertainty in this life, which wells up in us as doubt day to day, cannot snatch us from his hand (John 10:28).

 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

Continue Reading

The Immaturity Problem

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Decisions in a society focused on youth culture pose a special problem because of the refusal of many to shoulder responsibility for their actions. As mentioned previously, in an ideal world we would approach important decisions as well-informed adults who understand our own weaknesses and consider carefully the options presented to us, taking our time to consult with our mentors, friends, and family and being devoid of dysfunctions, like mental illness or drug use. Even in the absence of external manipulation, youth culture undermines decision-making out of ignorance, impatience, and unwillingness to rectify obvious dysfunction.

The Designated Adult

Families and organizations manage to survive in this environment, not by encouraging greater rationality, but by weakly tolerating a few designated adults who tirelessly attempt to hold things together while many others simply party on. Family systems theory refers to this phenomena as overfunctioning (Friedman 1985, 210-212). Gilbert (2006, 17) notes that the overfunctioning individual usually pairs up with an underfunctioning individual to form one functioning person out of two.

In a church context, a pastor may be hired to rescue the congregation from a decline in membership only to find that members refuse to accept the new members that the pastor welcomes into the church. Churches of this sort may go through a series of pastors and eventually close their doors because the members refuse to adapt to and accept the changing demographics of their community. Parents unwilling or unable to practice “tough love” may find themselves saddled with caring for children that fail to launch and for grandchildren engendered by the same.

The One-off Solution

Postmodern culture encourages this behavior by refusing to insist that participants hold an internally consistent set of values and preferring one-off solutions.

Probably the most obvious example of this problem arises with the American drug culture that arises, in part, as the dark side of the propensity of Americans to place too high a value of an unsustainable work ethic. When attempts to compete in this unsustainable work culture fail, recreational drug use spirals into addiction and destroys any possibility of further advance in one’s career. At the heart of the problem is the attempt to live a licentious lifestyle alongside of a career that requires exacting personal discipline.

In this example, recreational drug use is proffered as a one-off solution to the problem of stress. Instead, of living a balanced lifestyle with time devoted both to work and self-care, the worker self-medicates and skips the trip to the gym or the family outing. Drug use starts out as the solution to the problem of stress through self-medication, not perceived as a problem in itself.[1] This confusion between problem and solution can lead to addiction, but—more to the point—it began by trying to find a one-off solution to the problem of stress, rather than mitigating the stress itself.

When the usual pattern of problem solving is to seek a one-off solution—looking for a pill to solve our health problem—we are less likely to perceive the spiritual problem that may be behind many of life’s challenges.

More than the Usual Background Noise

Every age has had its distractions. The postmodern era stands out because the volume of the background noise has been turned up significantly while the usual institutions—family, church, community—for dealing with it have been seriously weakened. It is now up to the individual to turn off the cell phone, computer, and other media or, alternatively, screen the massive amount of information available for specific information of use in making decisions. Meanwhile, the pace of life and work has accelerated rendering this filtering process for the conscientious decision maker more difficult.

But not everyone steps up to this challenge.

Presented with an overstimulating environment, many people opt simply to check out, self-medicate, or insulate themselves with white noise—the omnipresent headset, the television never turned off, or refusing to leave their rooms or other comforting environments. This latter option functions much like rumination that keeps the individual from reflecting on their daily challenges as they obsess about events in the past, especially past trauma. The individual who ruminates (or employs white noise) essentially refuses to think about current decisions and, as a consequence, frustrates their own maturing process becoming developmentally impaired.

Decisions in a Sub-Optimal Decision Environment

The problem of relying on designated adults, rather than aspiring to maturity, and habit of seeking one-off solutions both undermine the decision environment that many people face in the postmodern era. Many people reach the age of consent or of legal maturity well before they are able to function as self-reliant adults leaving them unable to make good decisions, vulnerable to manipulation, and unable to advance spiritually.

References

Clinebell Jr, Howard J. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic Through Religion and Psychology (Orig. Pub. 1956) Nashville: Abingdon.

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA): Leading Systems Press.

Footnotes

[1] Clinebell (1978, 19) observes: “Does the person’s drinking frequently or continuously interfere with his social relations, his role in the family, his job, his finances, or his health? If so, the changes are that that person is an alcoholic or on the verge of becoming one.”

The Immaturity Problem

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

Continue Reading