Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jesus of Narcissus

I have been thinking lately about how most people tend to see God as a kind of a reflection of themselves.  This "self reflection" of God takes many forms.  It ranges in everything from the image that we have of Christ, when we think of the person of Jesus (I used to live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and many of my friends who are from the major religion of that city used to see Christ as a blond haired, blue eyed super model), to the clothes that God wears (There is a cathedral in France that I visited once that features a statue of Christ wearing a full suit of medieval armor and carries a sword).  But most of all this tendency can be seen in the way that we sometimes see the challenges that we face as not just a mere hurdle that we must overcome, but a challenge to God - the creator of the universe.

I have a friend who often tells me that he is, "under spiritual attack."  Because I believe in spiritual attack, and that there are many other spirits in the universe (small "s" spirit), and in this world, that are other than the Holy Spirit, I often listen.  The conversation usually goes something like this.  "I believe I am under spiritual attack."  "Tell me about it."  "Well, I came into late work yesterday, and my boss told me that if I keep coming in late, he will fire me."  "I see, well how do you think this is an example of spiritual attack?"  "Well, because my boss knows I am a Christian, so I think he is just singling me out because of my belief system."  "Do other employees have the same problem?"  "I don't know, they never come in late."  "Ok....let me ask you a question.  Have you tried to come to work on time, and see if that changes anything?"  "Oh, so you are just like my boss - you are attacking me now too!!!"  (ugh:-).

You can also see this tendency in the names that people use to address God.  When I hear people pray to God with the phrase, "Jesus, we JUST want to thank you...", I often think that there is an attempt to bring Jesus down to be JUST a pal or a friend.  When I hear people pray, "Dear God," I sometimes wonder if there isn't a small part of them that wants to sanitize God, or antiquate God a bit.  As in, I wouldn't say to my wife, Star, "Dear Star, can I ask you something?".  If I did that she would think that I had done something really wrong.  All names for God, of course, fall short.  I often pray to "Father", which I am sure means that at a deeper level, I am in need of a comforting, strong, steady (and sometimes severe) figure who is God.

In Greek mythology, the figure of Narcissus, was, of course, a great hunter who was known for his beauty.  Greek myth tells us that Narcissus was the son of the river god named Cephissus, and a nymph named Liriope.  Narcissus was full of pride, and he shunned those who tried to love him.  Another god named Nemesis (and that is where we get the word for an arch-enemy - "nemesis") noticed how Narcissus pushed away all the people in his life who tried to love him.  So, Nemesis attracted Narcissus to a pool where, while looking into the water, he saw his face in the reflection, and instantly fell in love with that image.  Narcissus did not realize that what he was looking at was really only a reflection, and not a real person.  So entranced was Narcissus by his own image, that he was unable to leave the water's edge.  Eventually, so the myth goes, Narcissus lost his will to live.  He kept staring at his own reflection until the day he died.  And, of course, Narcissus is where we get the psychological term, "narcissism", which is a fixation with oneself, and ones appearance.

Where am I going with this blogpost?  Just this - the hardest thing for humans to do is to get beyond ourselves.  While we may not be so obsessed with ourselves that we decide to die beside the reflection of our own image, like Narcissus, most of us just have a very hard time moving beyond ourselves.  As Christians, we believe that the only way past ourselves, is not to say, "I'm not going to think about myself today."  That is an impossibility.  The moment we say this, we are thinking about ourselves, and it makes the problem worse.  The only way is to know and love a God who is different from us, who is bigger than us, who is stronger than us, and most of all is not - US.  If we make God into an alter-image of ourselves, we can find no ultimate salvation beyond ourselves.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote the lines, "Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us" (from,  "To a Louse").  What we believe as Christians is that our God has the power to not only see ourselves as others see us, but more importantly, to see ourselves as we see ourselves.  And to see beyond that.  And to love beyond that.

Every Sunday, I close the worship services that I lead in Goleta with a simple Benediction; "Go in the name of the God who loves you, even more than you could ever love yourself.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

And, at least in my own case, that is sometimes saying something:-)

What about you?


All For Now,


Monday, June 19, 2017

20 Minutes at a...Time

This morning, as the family was rushing off to their sundry summer activities, I was given the job of keeping an eye on Ewan, our 11 month old son [pictured above].  In case you haven't spent much time with toddlers lately, let me tell you, this is no small feat.  The moment Ewan is engaged with one project (the overtipping of a dog bowl, for example), he is off to another activity (the eating of dog food, for another example).  Basically, my goal as a parent is to keep Ewan engaged in some kind of activity for;

20 Minutes at a...Time

And so the morning goes.  One activity after the next.  20 minutes of block time.  20 minutes of crawl time, 20 minutes of eating time, 20 minutes of door stopper inspection time.  In a way, breaking the day up into smaller segments makes the whole thing easier.  If you are watching an 11 month old for 9 hours, all you have to do is come up with 24 different activities.

20 Minutes at a...Time

I have been reading a book on preaching by Will Willimon entitled, Undone By Easter.    In it, Willimon gives extensive thought about the ramifications of being human and the implications of living within a world that is bound up in small increments of time.  In his lecture delivered at Duke University,  Willimon reminded me that the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said that; "everything in life is only for a moment."  After that moment passes, everything is simply, "it was", and no longer, "it is".  The fleeting moment alone is "real", everything else passes away.  Willimon also observed that the Gospel of Mark's favorite word is, "immediately" (Euthys - in Greek).  In the writing of the book of Mark, and it should be noted that that took place around 40 years after the resurrection of Jesus, John-Mark (the author of Mark), seems to think that everything to do with God is immediate.  Everything to do with Jesus is instantaneous.  Everything is momentary.  With Jesus, it was also;

20 Minutes at a...Time

One of my favorite commentators and speech writers, David Gergen, who served as an assistant to four President's of the United States, said that the most ideal length for a speech is 20 minutes.  "People's minds begin to wander after 20 minutes," said Gergen.  "And usually, that wandering of the mind goes to thoughts of [dare I say it]...sex".  This chestnut of wisdom from Gergen has really helped me to try to pair my Sunday sermons down to a more manageable length.  I would hate to cause people to sin, by the mere preaching of a longer sermon than necessary:-).  The human mind seems to be able to focus best in increment of;

20 Minutes at a...Time

The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that; "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens... a time to plant, a time to uproot, a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance."   And perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, those activities only last for a short season.

20 Minutes at a...Time

I would, of course, write a few more paragraphs here about the nature of time, except that it has already exceeded my 20 minute framework, and Ewan is onto another activity.

Immediately, EUTHYS!

All For Now,


Monday, June 12, 2017

A Story of Grace

Dear Fellow Blogpost Readers,

Its been a couple of weeks since I wrote a blog post.  Sorry about that!

I've been juggling many things lately, not the least of which is a move to another house which our family now finds ourselves in the middle of.  Also, I'm beginning the writing of my dissertation for my Doctoral project, and my book proposal (WITH) has now been submitted to the publishers.  Oh, and did I mention that school is now out for the summer.  To say that we are busy, in the Baird household, would be an understatement.

I was thinking about taking a couple of weeks away from my blog, but decided, that I missed not writing it, and several of you have contacted me that you have missed not reading my post.  Also, I did want to take a moment in the middle of all of this bustle to relate a real story of grace and kindness that happened to me recently.


So, it was a Monday morning, and my job for the day was to pack up several boxes and to take care of Ewan (my 10 month old for the day), before picking up the two girls from school.  Our garbage gets taken away every Monday, so I took the cans to the curb the night before.

About 10:00 in the morning I heard a knock on the front door.  I wasn't expecting any visitors, Ewan had just gone down for his morning nap, and so the knock on the door was a bit of a surprise.  When I answered the door, a man in a green jump suit with a patch that said, "City Sanitation Services" was standing there.  "Do you live here?" he asked.  "Yes, I do."  "Did you lose your wallet?"  I quickly frisked the outsides of my pockets and found that my wallet was, in fact, not there.

"Oh my goodness, yes I did," I said in a concerned voice.  "Well, here it is!" said the man standing in the door.  "I found it right next to the garbage cans outside, on the street and I wanted to bring it up to you."  The man in the green jump suit extended his huge, dirty, mitt-sized hand with my black wallet inside of it.  "Thank you SOO much," I said.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  Instinctively, I reached inside my wallet to offer the man a tip for his kindness.  "Oh, no, that's fine," he said,  "I'm just glad you got wallet back.  I've got to run!  I'm late in picking up the garbage cans today."  As the garbage man ran back to his truck which was idling on the curb, I yelled; "Ok, well thank you again, I can't thank you enough."

I was dumbfounded at this man's, this - "garbage man's"- kindness to me.  In a move of caution I quickly looked in my wallet to see that everything was still there.  Now, here's the thing.  As a child of my generation, I never carry cash.  But because I did a funeral the weekend before, and a generous parishioner had given me $100 for a funeral that I conducted, I was carrying a very large bill.  Incredibly, all of the money, my credit cards, and other personal items were still there.

Ever since the occurrence, what I am now calling "wallet-gate", I have been thinking about the immensity of the act of kindness that this kind garbage man had bestowed upon me.  Here is a man, I thought to myself, who was behind the ball in his morning duties.  He probably doesn't get paid more than $10 an hour.  And yet he took time out of his schedule to bring a wallet to the door of a person he had never met.  How easy it would have been for him to just take the $100 bill, and throw the wallet back on the ground.  How easy it would have been for him to ring the doorbell, leave the wallet, but not wait for me to answer.

And I confess that I have sometimes looked at people who perform the more menial tasks in our society with a slight heir of condescension and superiority.  But no more!  Whenever I see a "Sanitation Engineer" working hard at what he does in another setting, I will remember the extreme act of kindness that this perfect stranger showed me.

And I will also remember that no matter how busy I get, I should always have time to offer a simple and graceful act of kindness!

All For Now,


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,


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,


[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