Monday, May 15, 2017

WITH - 12



For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been my sojourn to try and unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next several weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH me...here is installment #11.

***

The American Cultural Identity

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the country of Canada on July 1 – “Canada Day”.  I was vacationing in Victoria, British Columbia, and I had splurged on a one night stay at the famed Empress, hotel.  The truth of the matter was, though, that I had made vacation plans to visit Canada many months before, and I did not know that I would be arriving on Canada’s national holiday.  As you might expect, red maple leafs could be seen on everything.  And I mean everything!  There were red maple leafs on the boats in the harbor, there were maple leafs on long strings hanging between houses.  There was even a big red maple leaf painted on the very bare and very pregnant belly of a young woman who was walking down the street.  But aside from the red leafs emblazoned on everything imaginable, there was no other noticeable or decipherable signs or displays of rampant Canadian patriotism.  When I checked in at the front desk, there were already around 1,000 people luxuriating on the lawn outside, waiting for the annual Canada Day parade.  By the evening, this crowd would swell to around 30,000 people who were gathering for a rock concert.  “Guess I won’t be getting any sleep tonight,” I told myself.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  What was so remarkable was how peaceful and how quiet and how demure the crowds were who gathered on this occasion.  Canada Day was a very calm and very collected affair.  Even the rock concert was quiet!  There was something deeply “Going With” in the totality of the Canadian personality and character set.

By contrast, not long thereafter, on July 4, I was back in the United States on the Central Coast of California, where I now live, gathered with my family to celebrate our own national holiday – The Fourth of July.  At 3:30 on a Friday afternoon, I was sitting in an alcove of the Ventura harbor, hotel room, overlooking the Ventura flotilla of boats that were about to be launched in patriotic fashion.  However, a completely different scene, from the one I experienced just days before in Canada, stretched out before me.  Though there were far less people gathered, the crowds were much noisier.  There were bursts of home-purchased fireworks going off everywhere.  Kids were loudly screaming and playing pick-up football games.  Boom boxes were bellowing rap songs, and a seeming unending supply of cheap beer was emerging from blue igloo coolers around the park.  It was loud, very loud.  Shouts and yells of aggressive independence jubilation rang out from the people here, there and everywhere.  As the evening festivities commenced, a nearby sound system boomed the lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s famous song, “I’m Proud To Be An American”.  A somewhat inebriated middle aged guy held a Coors in one hand and belted out the lyrics so all could hear;

And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I gladly stand up
Next to you and defend her still today
Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
God bless the USA!!!

Why were the two country’s national celebrations so different from one another, I asked myself?  Though the two country’s, Canada and the United States, are so close to one another geographically, they could not be more different in terms of temperament – at least in terms of the outward expression of their national holidays.  Why were they so different?

I recently put this question to a North American historian who explained to me, “Oh that’s an easy one.  Canada never really had an independence movement, or fought a war, or declared their allegiance to a flag, and their negation of a crown.  America has defined itself, historically, not in terms of what it is for, but what it stands against.”  And it’s true.  It is practically a mainstay of the American cultural patchwork and mystique to go AGAINST anything and everything that stands in our way.  It is a full-blown part of the American psyche to stand up for what we believe in and to stand for the values and against that we consider to be wrong.  Since our very inception as a country, our heroes and our founders were people who, against all odds, and to the very possible end of their very survival, stood against the forces that thwarted them.  Whether it is Henry Ford, who, by standing up against his agrarian roots single handedly brought about an entire transportation revolution in America, and a subsequent philosophy of individualism to go along with it (see the enclosed quote above), or Robert Frost, who penned the aforementioned great work of poetry – The Mending Wall – standing against is definitely a mainstay of the American cultural tradition.

Consider the words of another recent hit single from a group of major country western stars named the “Highwaymen”.  Should I mention that the “Highwaymen” are made up of some of the most muscular and visceral examples of male bravado that our country has produced in the music industry: Kris Krisofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings (served prison time), and Willie Nelson (also served prison time on a lesser charge of possession of narcotics).  Together they cut a hit album that made it platinum two years running with the American Academy of Country Western Singers, and remains an integral part of the American hallmark of music Americana.  The song is entitled, “Against the Wind”;
Against the wind
A little something against the wind
I found myself seeking shelter against the wind
Against the wind
I’m still runnin’ against the wind
I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind
Well I’m older now and still runnin’
See the young man run (against the wind)
Watch the young man run (against the wind)
Watch the young man runnin’ (against the wind)
He’ll be runnin’ against the wind (against the wind)
Let the cowboys ride (against the wind)
Oh (against the wind)
Let the cowboys ride (against the wind)
They’ll be ridin’ against the wind (against the wind)
Against the wind (against the wind)
Ridin’ against the wind (against the wind)
Against the wind

Many books, and much thought has been given to the topic of exactly why it is that Americans have a certain proclivity towards going against those around them, rather than going with them.  One of the most articulate of these voices is a Columbia University Business School professor named Sheena Iyengar, who speculates that the national character trait boils down to a nationalistic proclivity towards  “individualism” and “choice”.  Most everything in American history is defined by the individual right to choose what a person feels is the right thing.  To choose the right political party, the correct stance on an issue.  To choose which denomination or religion that we will be a part of.  We choose what our positions are on particular issues (pro-choice, pro-life, gay-rights, transgender, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms).  Iyengar observes that; “You could argue that the unique history of this country allows it to have choice more than any other country.  In 1776 our forefathers began to look at what a political democratic institution might look like, but at the same time you have Adam Smith, and capitalism, the idea of the independent consumer, and then pretty soon thereafter you have Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his ideas about self-reliance.”  When you think about it, the very notion of making a choice about something is the process of standing against one idea, and standing for another.  People who aren’t forced to make decisions or choices are people who don’t feel compelled to stand against this idea or that.  This is human nature.  However, somehow, as Americans, we have developed not just a sense of a right to make decisions that usually benefit ourselves or our own groups.  This aggressive stand, may create an inherent sense of “againstness” as a culture.  


All For Now,

GB

Sunday, May 7, 2017

WITH - 11



For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been my sojourn to try and unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next several weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH me...here is installment #11.

**

Going With Is Often About Giving Up Control

            Most relationships in our world are not completely parallel.  What do I mean by a parallel relationship?  If you think about two lines that are parallel, they are right next to each other, they are right beside one other.  The parallel bars in gymnastics are, for example, two pieces of wood that are at the same height, that are right at the same level.  Neither bar is higher or lower than the other than the other one.  So, a parallel relationship is one in which both people in the relationship are at the same level.  In a parallel relationship, there is no degree of hierarchy or superiority.  Both people are at the same level of power.  This level of equanimity can occur at the financial level, at the physical strength level, on an emotional level, on a spiritual level, or in terms of authority.  An example of a parallel relationship might be a married couple (at least this is the case in most healthy marriagesJ).  A healthy marriage is one in which neither the wife nor the husband has a level of superiority.[1]  Both are at the same level.  Both people in the marriage may have different areas of strength from one another, but on balance there is a parallel relationship.  Another example of a parallel relationship might be two students who go to school together.  Both students are at the same level.  They are both students.  One student may get “A’s” while the other student gets “C’s” but, in the end, they are both students.  An example of an un-parallel relationship might be a boss and a worker, or a powerful political leader and a common citizen.  The boss always has power over worker, and the politician always has power over the common citizen.  These power differentials can often be used to take advantage of the person who is not in power.

Going With another person is often about the simple process of either reversing the power dynamic in a relationship, or at the very least making an effort to cause the relationship to be as parallel as possible.  This role-reversal requires that the person “in charge” make a conscientious decision to allow the person who is not “in charge” to have some level of control in the relationship.  This role reversal, or power reversal, almost never occurs on its own.  It almost always requires a certain level of self-awareness and a desire for equanimity between two people.  However, when one person decides to give up a level of power or authority or control over another person, great examples healing and transformation can occur.

            Simon Sinek is author of the best-selling book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  He is a motivational speaker and marketing and business consultant.  Sinek’s 2009 TED talk entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is listed as the third most popular TED presentation of all time.  I recently met up with Sinek in the South Kensington, a suburb of London, to discuss with him an extremely innovative approach that he recently took with a person that he was counseling who was “in trouble” in several aspects of her life.  Sinek had been counseling this woman for about three or four months and nothing was helping.  No amount of talk-therapy was assisting her in any way.  She continued to have the same set of problems week in and week out.  It was always the same story: her relationships were failing, her job wasn’t working out, and her life was a mess.  Then, Sinek decided to try a new counseling approach with her.  It was an experiment.  He decided to do a role reversal, in-order-to give his client a higher level of control.   One day, out of the blue, he said; “Going forward, I to try something new.  I want you to start to counsel me, rather than me counseling you.  I will become your patient.  You will become my counselor.”  His patient was initially totally surprised, but then decided to go along with the idea.  To his amazement, Sinek and his patient noticed an immediate difference.  His client’s problems and life difficulties were slowly but surely going away.  Her relationships were coming back together, her job situation had improved, and she felt healthier, and all-around, more grounded.  Sinek chalks this transformation up to allowing his client to be more in control of her life. 

            What is even more incredible is that Sinek noticed that the therapy and the counseling that his client was giving him was extremely helpful advice.  Sinek said; “The thoughts she had about my life, and the solutions she had to my problems were extremely helpful, and right on the mark.”  He said, “I talked to her just this morning, and she gave me incredibly good advice for the particular problem that I was dealing with.” Sinek pointed out that he looked forward to conversations with his client every single week, and that, to his own shock and surprise, he had benefited as much from the power reversal as his client had. 

            When I asked Sinek for what he thought the reason for his success was, he said that; “The key was that I took the role reversal very seriously.”  He said, “It wouldn’t have worked if we had just been pretending or if we both didn’t see this as a serious dynamic.  We both treated the new arrangement as if it was the real thing, and in a way, it was.”  In the role of a counselor and not the counselee, “She has given me lots of new ideas.  She offers me very good advice.  most of all, it worked because she became in control of her life.  And she no longer thought of herself as a victim”.  Finally, Sinek added; “We are all works in progress.”

            A healthy Go With relationship can often be as simple as allowing the person who you are in relationship with to have more control and power, and, correlatively, for you to have less control power.  The arrangement can be out in the open and talked about (as Sinek did), or it can be more hidden, by simply one person deciding to allow the other person to be in charge.  Going With someone else is often simply a matter of allowing someone else to be in the driver’s seat and you to be in the passenger seat.  Ironically, it may seem that being the “receiver” in a relationship setting is less of a joyful experience than being in the “giver” position.  However, in most cases when a person is allowed to feel the experience of being “in charge”, and when the person who was in charge can experience the sensation of being “out of control” – great transformation can begin to happen!


All For Now,

GB



[1] The non-parallel aspect of a marriage relationship has often been incorrectly viewed from a Biblical standpoint – making the husband superior to the wife.  More about the incorrect Biblical translational reasons for this tendency have been written about in Chapter 7; “Why Going With Is Hard For Men.”

Monday, April 24, 2017

WITH - 10


For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been my sojourn to try and unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next several weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH me...here is installment #10

**

Education And Philosophical Thought
           
As a way of thinking about how radical and basically counter-cultural the notion of “Going With” someone else actually is, think for a moment about the number of things in our society which are based around the opposite notion – of Going Against.  When we vote for something we Go Against.  When children develop intellectually, the first word they often learn to say is – “NO!”.  Our Protestant roots come to us because a handful of people in the 1500’s decided to “Go Against” to protest the status quo of the religious establishment.  Our American identity is formulated around the notion of dissent and private and individual decisions (rights). 

One of the best examples of this is the way we learn to think.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire basis of learning, education, thinking and philosophical thought itself has its basis in critique -  in “Going Against”, something or someone else.  Consider for a moment what happens when you are trying to develop an argument for something.  Let’s say you want to make a decision about whether to go to school A (Cranberry College) or school B (University of Spottsvlvania)[1].  The way most people decide such questions is to find all of the reasons why they should and more importantly - should not - go to Cranberry.  Then all of the reasons they should and - should not  - go to Spottsylvania.  This is often called a list of “pros and cons”.  Then, the smart person usually adds up which column has more reasons for why they go to one college and why they should not go to the other college.  If the “Going Against” column outweighs the “Going With” column, a decision is made.  In other words, most people come up with as many reasons why they should “Go Against” something in order to decide ultimately what they should do.

One of the classical ways that people develop answers to tough questions is to pit ideas against each other in a forum.  This is known as a debate.  We have lots of examples of both formal and informal debates in our lives.  When we are trying to get to the bottom of a notion, or we are trying to come up with the truth, we enter into a dialogue, or a process of determining the veracity of an idea or a concept.  We usually approach all ideas from the standpoint of determining “what’s wrong” with them.  When he hand in homework to a teacher or professor, we are counting on them giving us constructive feedback, which is a nice way of saying we want to know if we have made any mistakes.  One professor put it this way in a book she has written about how to do good academic research:

                        “As I read critically, I need to query the content.  What
                        exactly is the author saying?  Is it the same thing throughout
                        the piece I am reading?  Is the author consistent with himself
                        throughout the piece?  How does this compare with other items
                        she has written?”[i]

Critique and “Going Against” is how we determine the veracity of a thing or not.  Even image and notion of the molding young minds comes from the idea of a sculptor, cutting away bits of clay or rock to reveal the beauty of the object that is being attempted and rendered. 

            Many people don’t realize that the very term “intellectual” itself has its roots in a culture of dissent – of going against.  The term, “intellectual” was originally invented by those in the country of France in the late 1800’s to refer to those who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  Captain Dreyfus, you may remember (the one for whom the Dreyfus Affair was later named), was falsely thought to have sold secrets to the German Embassy in 1894.[ii]  Dreyfus, who also happened to be of Jewish cultural and religious origin, was thought to belong to a group of people who critically looked at society, and how it worked and was structured.  Intellectuals were, in a sense, dissenters, they were counter-cultural.  Intellectuals were – “Go Againstsers”.  The derisive term “intellectual” was invented and applied to Dreyfus because he was thought to have belonged to a group of people who were against the normal order of society.[2] 

            The very origin of formal education (pedagogy) itself relies heavily on the give and take of ideas, of the back and forth of argument, of the pro and con positions on any given subject.  In other words, in order to train people in critical thought, two people are pitted AGAINST each other.   The best examples come from the ancient Greeks who employed a way to teach the act of thinking by way of pitting two people against each other in an intellectual battle.  One of the oldest, and most ancient forms of education is the Socratic Method of teaching (also known as Maieutics or the Elenctic Method).  Though the term was not actually coined by Socrates, and it is doubtful that he ever employed it, at least in the form that think of it, The Socratic Method still remains as the most famous means of educating young students in the art of critical thinking and philosophical thought.  The Socratic Method, in short, is an argumentative dialogue that takes place between two individuals.  It is two people who pair off AGAINST one another as a way of teaching young pupils that there are many sides to every issue, and truth is sometimes elusive.  Here is an example of the Socratic Method, as it is used for children;

Person 1: Who is the best person to do good to his friends and evil to his enemies when they are sick?
Person 2: A Doctor
Person 1: What about when a person is on the sea, who is the best person to have around?
Person 2: A Sailor
Person 1: Here’s a different question; In what situation is an ethical person best able to do harm to his enemies and do good to his friends?
Person 2: In going to war as an answer to question one, and in negotiating a treaty as an answer to two
Person 1: But when a person is well, they don’t need a physician
Person 2: No
Person 1: And if they are not on the ocean then there is no need for a sailor
Person 2: No
Person 1: So, in peacetime, there is no need for justice?
Person 2: I really don’t think so
Person 1: So, justice may actually be of use in peacetime as well as in war?

This type of conversational debate is also known as the field of formal and classical logic.  Notice how the subtle differences in the questions from person one, lead person two to see that that their original proposition wasn’t as truthful, or didn’t hold as much water as they had hoped.  But again, it is this back and forth, argumentative style which has been thought of as the best way to sharpen a young mind, through thousands of years of history.  Today, we might sign up such a student for the High School Debate club.  Did I mention that I was my own High School Debate President?

Some of the most luminary minds in our world are also minds that are intellectually critical of others.  In other words, they “Go Against”.  In a book that is aptly named, Letters To a Young Contrarian, philosopher and social commentator Christopher Hitchens, just before he died observed that; “In life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation…there must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled.”  Hitchens, who was known for a kind of acerbic and biting wit, knew that what brought energy to his conversations was give and take, going with and going against, being contrarian. 

            Why is all of this important?  It is important because the radical nature of the notion of “Going With” someone or something else begins to emerge, only when it is pitted against almost the entire swath of intellectual accomplishment and human development heretofore.  So, to cut right to the theme of this book, when Jesus said, “Behold, I am WITH you always, even until the end of time,” He really was saying something earth shattering.  Jesus was saying that we should be different than all that has come before us. 



[1] I’ve picked two totally imaginary schools so nobody gets upset
[2] As an aside note, it is fascinating to note the number of labels in our society that were originally meant to be terms of derision.  Like the word “intellectual” that was originally meant to be a pejorative term, so were the terms Methodist, Quaker, queer, impressionist, and suffragette. 



[i] Vyhmeister, Nancy Jean, Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), p. 106
[ii] Hitchens, Christopher, Letters To A Young Contrarian, (New York: Persus Books Group, 2001), p. 3