We've been working through this series on "Ordering Your Private World" by talking about five major areas of the inner life. We've talked about our motivation–the difference between being called and being driven. Last week we talked about the use of time–how we can recapture time and look for those God-moments in the midst of the ordinary.
This week, we look at the third dimension of our private worlds–one that is often neglected. That's the realm of the mind. How we train our minds, how we think, is a key to ordering the inner life.
I say that this part of our lives is often neglected because we live in a culture where mass media makes it quite possible for people to abdicate individual thought in favor of allowing some self-proclaimed "expert" to think for us.
It used to be that people went to a political debate to hear ideas, like in the 1850s when Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglass squared off over the issue of slavery and states rights. Interestingly, the format of those debates went something like this: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other spoke for 90, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30 minute rebuttal. Can you imagine? Today, in our sound bit culture, we wouldn’t sit still for it. Those debates are classic in their expression of ideas, with the ideas being central.
Nowadays, candidates are more concerned about looking good and playing to their constituencies than expressing any independent thought. And, of course, after each debate there is a phalanx of pundits filling the screen to tell us what we should think about what took place. One side or the other is constantly setting up straw men and then knocking them down with hateful vitriol. Talk show hosts make their living by gathering legions of people who think like they do or, more precisely, who allow the person with the microphone to speak for them. Listen to some of this stuff and it's easy to believe that despite the fact that we have access to more information than at any time in our history, we have actually become dumber as a culture.
We could chalk all that up to our cultural proclivity to choose style over substance, but I think there's something more at work here. It's quite possible that in our busyness as a nation, in our quest for productivity and success, in our desire to have and do more, we've actually abdicated real thinking in favor of convenience.
It's not just politics or cultural issues where this happens. It happens in churches, too. You look back at the early centuries of Christianity and you see that many of the great thinkers and theologians were lay people. When the Church became institutionalized, though, it began to move toward professional clergy. In the Middle Ages, for example, most people couldn't read, thus the most powerful person in the village was the priest, who could essentially make the Bible say whatever he wanted. Widespread abuse of power and bad theology was the result.
You'd think that the Protestant Reformation would have changed all that, but the reality is that when it comes to matters of theology, many people would rather simply be told what they should think and believe. We've seen the results of that taken to the extreme in places like Jonestown, Waco, and other places where strong charismatic leaders can manipulate seemingly intelligent people because those people became intellectually lazy and refused to question anything that was being said or done.
When I went to seminary, I was pretty convinced that I had received all the knowledge about Christian faith that I was going to get. I had been thoroughly indoctrinated in a very conservative environment where the mantra was, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." I remember one of my first classes, where I did a research paper on some theological issue. I quoted numerous sources, said all the right things. The prof pulled me aside. He said this: I'm giving you a good grade on this because you obviously did the work. But here's the thing–I really want to know what YOU think about this. All these guys you quoted have PhD's…I have one, too…but that doesn't mean they've earned the right to do your thinking for you. Based on the evidence, what do you think? You'll do a lot better asking questions than making pronouncements–in this class and when you get to the parish."
That was a moment of clarity for me. No one had ever given me permission to really think about theological stuff–to question, to doubt, to wrestle. It changed my whole outlook. How faith and reason work together in our inner lives is one of the keys to ordering our private worlds.
It's interesting to me that we live in a world where many people see faith and reason as being mutually exclusive. A number of bestselling books recently, like Dawkins' The God Delusion say that faith is irrational and only pure reason will save humanity. On the other hand, I hear fundamentalist religious leaders trumpeting faith while quelling people's capacity to reason. The truth is, however, that God gave humans the capacity for both faith and reason and one doesn't necessarily trump the other.
Here's where someone like the apostle Paul fascinates me. Paul was a person of very deep faith but also one who was a prolific and expansive thinker. This passage from Romans 12 captures Paul's idea of the relationship of faith and reason. For Paul, real transformation comes not through blind faith but through "the renewing of [the] mind." In other words, Paul says, you can't be a Christian and think as the world thinks, nor can you be a Christian and neglect the intellect.
Many Christians see the faith as being guided primarily by rules, doctrines, and regulations. While the Scriptures do provide boundaries for living, Paul would say that real transformation comes as the result of a searching mind that can "discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect." Remember that in the framework of Paul's Jewish worldview, the mind and the body weren't separate but a unified whole. We train our bodies for health and strength, thus Paul would say we also need to train our intellect in order to truly grow strong as God's people. You can't be mentally flabby and expect to grow as a Christian!
John Wesley would have said the same thing. Wesley was a child of the Enlightenment, that time in history where the world was turning from superstition to learning and education. Wesley's understanding of how one grows in the knowledge and love of God involved the use of one's reason. In Wesley's understanding, Scripture was the primary source for the life of faith, but Scripture needed to be read through three important lenses: human experience, the tradition of interpretation and through human reason. In other words, you can't read the Bible or understand faith if you check your brains at the door! For Wesley, Christian faith was a marriage of head and heart.
Back to Paul–how do we then "renew our minds?" Well, first we have to understand that it's a discipline. It's not something that happens by osmosis. Last week we talked about how we use our time, and training the mind requires time and effort–particularly for those over 40. Recent studies have shown that people in middle age often develop cognitive problems because they don't introduce any new thoughts or patterns in their lives. The brain can actually atrophy. Think of training your mind as a way to keep from losing it!
In his book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald gives some ideas for how we might be transformed and how we might "renew our minds" to grow. I just want to paraphrase a few of these ideas.
We are transformed when we learn how to listen. Driven people have a hard time listening because they're always talking. I've always admired people who were good listeners, but the reality is that all of us can learn to listen. The first step to good listening? Learn to ask questions. How many times in a conversation do we not so much listen to the other person speaking but instead think of what we're going to say next? The people around us are a wellspring of knowledge. Children, older people, co-workers, others whom we take for granted have stories to share and experiences to process. What would happen if you intentionally took a day this week and began every conversation you had with someone with a question? And not, "How are you?" That's lame. But a real question. Take someone to lunch and ask them questions to let them talk about themselves. Listening is a discipline. I know it's one that I need to work on.
But listening also involves being open to other people’s ideas as well. We have become so entrenched politically in this country that no one listens to the other side or to any voice that doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Jesus rarely told people what they wanted to hear, and yet as Christians we celebrate him. I wonder if what would happen if we allowed ourselves to listen to all sides of a debate or listen to the stories of other who are different from us. To listen without dismissing, to hear without being angry, to dialogue about ideas rather than hurling epithets. Failure to listen is, in my opinion, what’s really hurting our country. As Edwin Friedman puts it, one of the real markers of madness is the inability to stay in relationship with those with whom we disagree. Can we learn to listen, can we take the time to understand, are we willing to hear something other than we expect?
We are transformed when we learn to think theologically. One of my seminary professors once said that the primary role of the pastor is to be the resident theologian of the local community. He also said that we weren't to be the only theologians–that everyone has the capacity and, indeed, the need to think theologically. Problem is that many churches are set up to merely dispense information, fill in the blanks, make sure everyone knows a particular theological system. Just like we ask questions of others in order to be good listeners, we need to be able to ask questions of our faith, of the Bible, of our tradition in order to understand. A lot of people are intimidated by the Bible because it seems to come from a strange world, but my approach is to look at it like an exploration into a foreign country. You have to learn the language, know the geography, understand the people. Once you do that, you begin to feel right at home. That's why Bible study groups are so vitally important–we learn to think theologically when we get together with a group of people and hear their responses and wrestlings with the text. I get no greater joy than when I'm working with a class and people are beginning to see that world open up before them. If you're not intentionally learning to think theologically, it's very hard to grow spiritually.
We are transformed through reading. It's really interesting to me that while we push our kids to read in school, many adults have altogether stopped reading for themselves. We've become a sound bite culture, a visual culture, where speed trumps thought in the information age. Reading is a way of really digesting a new idea. I love books, of course, but I love reading from a wide variety of disciplines. I even like to read things I don't necessarily agree with. Every word I read expands my mind just a bit more. I love it when someone from the church recommends a book. I love reading the New York Times Book Review to see what's new. Reading, and particularly reading the scriptures, is (as the old commercial says) FUNDAMENTAL to our understanding of life and faith.
We are transformed through disciplined study. When we graduate from high school or college there's a sense that our days of studying and "homework" are over. Well, not if we want to be renewed in our minds. Setting aside time each day for disciplined study is a real key to learning and growth. Study actually burns new pathways in our brains and increases our capacity for thought. If you're married, make space and time for each other to give over to study…maybe even read a book or engage in a study together. I always give homework in my Bible study classes because learning isn't a one shot deal.
We are transformed when we apply wisdom and knowledge in the service of others. The knowledge we gain from using our reason isn't for us alone. When we are transformed by the "renewing of [our] minds," we can in turn transform the world. Sharing knowledge, sharing ways of learning with others is important for our own retention. I think the old adage is true that if you are teaching someone you are really learning yourself. Someone out there needs the knowledge you have so that their own life can be transformed.
We are always trying to recruit Sunday School teachers, for example. A lot people say, "Well, I don't know enough about the Bible, etc." To me, there's no better way to learn the Scriptures than to teach them. I'm always looking for new ways to bring knowledge to my classes or to the congregation through my sermons. I always wind up learning more than the people I'm teaching! I challenge you to look for ways to share what you know and to learn what you don't. If you're a financial planner, for example, there are people out there in need of help with managing their finances. If you're in business, there are young people trying to learn a trade who could use your wisdom. The list goes on and on.
Here in Monument most of the people who come to church are highly educated, more so than the national average. The question is what we'll do with that education to transform the world. If we have the capacity to learn a business or a trade, we have the capacity to learn and be transformed by deeper spiritual truths.
I'm proud to serve a church in the Methodist tradition where "head and heart go hand in hand." We want to be a community of listeners, learners and teachers.
We’re providing multiple opportunities for you to exercise your mind and be transformed. I want to challenge you to be a part of a class, read a book we’re recommending, be a Sunday School teacher, learn something new. May we all be transformed by the renewing of our minds!