Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Top 14 Favorite Hikes: Part 3 - The Final Countdown #5 to #1

part 2 is here
part 1 is here

This is the final installment of my top 14 favorite hiking and backpacking trips of all time. I am wrapping up with the top 5 and I thought I’d count them down in reverse order.

#5 Burgess Shale Hike: Kootenay, Canadian Rockies (1 day, 15 miles)

Of all the hikes on the list, this one was less of an adventure and more of a pilgrimage. The burgess shale was the first early Cambrian LagerstĂ€tten (which in an extremely fun side note is the German word for motherlode).[1] This providential[2] preservation of the soft body portions of organisms of the early Cambrian Sea provided our first window to the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. It seems to indicate[3] that only 30 million years elapsed between the development of multicellular organisms and the evolution of every major body plan that can be observed today (plus several others). But, most know the Burgess shale because of the seemingly improbable critters its consolidated, anoxic sediments record. These are critters that can decidedly cause one to ‘remember his name.’ It is also worth noting that Walcott himself and Simon Conway-Morris (the current authority on the shale) were/are both Christains.

The Burgess Shale is a world heritage site, in the Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies. We had to book a guided tour and were told that if we wanted to remove a rock, we were going to have to commit a body cavity to its concealment. The other hikers were, without exception, fascinating people. The most memorable one was an economics professor who studied how punctuated equilibrium could be used to predicatively model economic systems. However, while this hike might have been primarily about the history of life, it was still a fifteen mile round trip in the vastly underrated Canadian Rockies including the requisite glaciers and the trips finest waterfall. Just a thrilling day to wrap up our Glacier-Banff trip.

#4 North Lake to South Lake: King’s Canyon (4 ½ days, 55 miles)

This had to make the list simply because of its scale. It was the longest trip we have taken. It would have crept higher if we had taken longer to do it. But it is difficult to get more remote in the lower 48 than in King’s Canyon’s Evolution Valley. Hikers were scarce, passes were dramatic and the alpine meadows were pristine and unmatched. We also saw golden trout, which are famous and only life in a few lakes in the southern Sierra[4].

#3 Piegan Pass: Glacier National Park (1 day, 10 miles)

Almost everyone I know who has been to Glacier, lists it as their favorite national park, including Amanda and I. It is so startlingly original with the sharp, thin monoliths jutting wherever you turn, like the blades of an enormous gauntlet. This was our first time hiking where Grizzly’s roam and Glacier backpacking permits are notoriously hard to get so we decided to keep to longish day hikes. The whole trip was remarkable. We saw big horn sheep, mountain goats, strike-slip faults, and even a Grizzly at about 30 ft.[5] But I have never seen anything like Peigan Pass.

The soft colors and steep but rolling slopes of the landscape were offset by the stark, watchful presence of ‘the Garden Wall’. The Garden Wall competes with El Capitan as the most sublime geologic feature in the lower 48. It is a razor thin (by geologic standards), stripped[6], arĂȘte that runs through the center of the park. This is the first time I have been hiking and literally felt like I had entered a mystical parallel reality. Lakes are not supposed to be that blue. Cliffs are not supposed to be that shear. Geology is not supposed to be that mind blowingly sublime. Days are not supposed to be this full of wonder.

#2 Copper Ridge: Cascade Mountains (3 days, 25 miles)

There is a theme in the final two hikes. They are both multi-day ridge trips. Ridge hikes tend to be fantastic since you get sustained views for relatively little work (once you actually get on the ridge). We spent more time on the trail during this trip than we needed to and our packs were heavier than they had to be because Washington trails[7] are literally lined with huge blueberries in August. We would linger often to eat them and then not be hungry for meals.

Most of the trail and both campsites were well placed for extraordinary views of the Cascades[8]. The first night we looked out over the palisades range into Whatcom Pass and the second night we had great peaks to the South and our own secluded alpine lake to the North. The lake was unsurprisingly frigid, but a brief swim was still required.

A lonely Ranger manned a shelter on the highest point of copper ridge. He said that one to four groups passed through each day and was starting to get a little desperate for human contact. We also got ‘charged’ by a black bear.[9]

#1 Teton Crest Trail: Teton National Park (3 Days, 32 miles)

This was part of a 10 day Yellowstone-Teton trip[10]. The Teton hike was so spectacular; it left us feeling underwhelmed by Yellowstone. Still early in our backpacking careers, I pitched this one to Amanda by sharing that it starts with a ski lift deposits you at a starting elevation of 10,450 ft. The hike was not without elevation gain, but there was no grueling first day as is common with ridge trips. The highlights of this trip included happening on a moose[11] and cresting the ridge so close to the three stark peaks you felt like they were in reach. The loop ended at Jenny Lake where a water taxi picked us up and took us back to the parking lot.

It is hard to articulate why Teton is our favorite. But it was not even really close. Maybe it was the towering, triangular peaks. Maybe it was the lush canyons which seemed to simply be a string of one waterfall after another. Maybe it was the satisfaction of getting and staying so high and taking in so many dramatic views while skirting the pesky 4,000 foot first day. Maybe it was just 3 sweet days with my wife touching the sky and huddling under a little tarp, warming hot chocolate as the hail beat down. But the Teton Crest trail is the winner of a VERY worthy field.

[1] Since its discovery by Walcott in 1909, similar sites have been discovered in China and Greenland.
[2] Yeah, I believe that. I’m not sure who would be more offended, Fundamentalists or Atheists.
[3] Being a punk-eek (punctuated equilibrium) guy, I unsurprisingly agree with Gould in this assessment. But our guide simply would not buy this. He champions the alternate hypothesis that multicelular evolution was going on at thermal vents for millions of years before, but was just not recorded in the fossil record. His commitment to gradualism, however, also gave rise to an awkward resolution of the problem of the surprisingly early development of life. He credits extra-terrestrial migration. He could be correct on both counts (though the former seems more likely than the later). But, I say, let the rocks tell the story.
[4] We spent the last night at Golden Trout Lake. I took a picture of one and sent it to my brother. Got a one word response. ‘Jerk.’ I think he thought I was gloating. He might have been right.
[5] We were coming back from Ptamagain Pass on a trail that also leads to the more modest destination of Ice Lake. The trail had been closed our whole time there because of bear activity, but I desperately wanted to do it, and it opened up on the last day. The hike was stunning, but on the way back, within a mile of the trailhead, there was a crowd of Ice Lake day hikers who had been rounded up by a ‘Bear Ranger.’ (Glacier has special rangers dedicated to grizzly ‘situations.’) A bear had taken up residence in the middle of the trail. The Ranger made us wait about an hour until the bear had moved 30 ft off the trail and then had us quickly ferry by while he stood between us and the completely unpulsed beast with one hand on his mace and the other on his sizable side arm.
[6] I find the stripe to be just startling…and beyond fascinating from a geologic perspective
[7] This trip also included extended day hikes in Olympic where we ran into the same thing.
[8] Maybe the most underrated mountains of the lower 48.
[9] What actually happened was that hikers farther up scared it in our direction. It changed course as soon as it saw us. But for a terrifying few seconds it looked like it was charging us on a thin ridge with few places to hide.
[10] This trip started oddly, as I spent time in all 4 major US timzones in a span of 48 hours. I was teaching a class in Jefferson City Missouri the week before. But my grandmother died at the end of that week, so I flew directly from Kansas City to Syracuse, drove late that night to Norwich, NY for the funeral, then caught the red eye from Syracuse to Sacramento, and then drove to Wyoming the next in time to use our permit which had been locked in months in advance.
[11] The moose was so quiet that we were surprisingly close when we noticed it. But…we only saw the moose because we took a wrong turn and got lost for a mile (loosing ~800’ of elevation in the process). I called it our moose diversion. Amanda was not as willing to rename it. We also saw a whole family of mountain goats. The kids were really young and incredibly cute.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wisdom and the Heart: The Role of Affections in Epistemology

The Scriptures teach two basic things about wisdom:

1) It is the among most valuable things you can acquire. It is far more so than material wealth
2) It is also decidedly difficult to acquire and is apparently the result of a protracted, intentional process.

But what is it? If we are to be about the business of acquiring wisdom, shouldn’t we understand what it is? For years I operated based on this anecdotal distinction: knowledge is the accumulation of facts and wisdom is the ability to bring facts to bear effectively on a particular decision. This has been a descent working definition for me for years. But I recently have had to question it on the grounds that it is far too cognitive.

You see, the book of Proverbs (the go-to Judaeo-Christian text for all things wisdom) describes it as a far more complex phenomenon. I was startled into this recognition when I happened upon the following verse.

Proverbs 16:21
“The wise in heart are called discerning,
and pleasant words promote instruction.”

It describes wisdom as a property of the heart as well as the mind. Once I saw this, I could not believe how ubiquitous it was.

Proverbs 2:10
“For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.”

Proverbs 18:15
“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge;
the ears of the wise seek it out.”

Proverbs 23:12
“Apply your heart to instruction
and your ears to words of knowledge.”

Proverbs 23:15
“My son, if your heart is wise,
then my heart will be glad;”

Proverbs 24:32
“I applied my heart to what I observed
and learned a lesson from what I saw:”

Wisdom as the Bible talks about it is not just a condition of our cognitive faculties but also our hearts. But does this make sense? Isn’t this phenomenological language anyway? Isn’t the ‘heart’ (or, in the Hebrew idiom, ‘the bowels’) is just a specific function of the brain anyways?

Well, yes, but there does seem to be a basic principle here that good choices are not co-extensive with good decisions. Or to put it quasi-quantitatively:

Choice = Understanding + Volition

There are two ways a choice can go poorly. I can not know the right thing to do or, I can know the right thing to do, but, for any of a variety of motivations, do something else anyways. Understanding is only part of the equation. Wisdom is not just sound understanding, but also sound affections. It is not only a function of what we know, but also what we love.[2]

But the epistemological waters are even muddier than that. Because of the problem of confirmation bias,[3] the well documented phenomenon that the human brain over represents the reliability of information we want to believe…understanding itself is a function of our affections.[4] Wisdom has to include not only knowing the right things but also wanting the right things.

Many of best theologians recognized this[5]. They saw the process of spiritual growth, not simply as training the mind, or training the will, but of cultivating a new set of affections. We are motivated by what we love. The standard cultural advice to ‘follow your heart’ is not only destructive…it is fundamentally useless. We WILL follow our hearts. We WILL act on behalf of our deepest affections. Spiritual growth is the process of training those affections towards the best things.

This post was written while listening to This is War by 30 Seconds to Mars
[1] Also Proverbs 2:1-2, 10:8, 14:33, 15:14, 16:23, 23:19
[2] Jesus takes this idea up when he says ‘out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.’ Actions betray affections. That is why Christians don’t just talk about the message of Christ but also the work of Christ. Because we don’t just require better information on how to live, we require better passions to live it for.
[3] The idea of ‘Confirmation Bias’ has recently found its way into popular parlance, mainly through the work of the ‘New Atheists.’ It is a helpful and sound critique. However, it is the classic example of a two edge sword that wounds the bearer as deeply as the assaulted. (Swords like that are best reserved for the self immolation of honest reflection.) The ‘New Atheists’ brandish confirmation bias as if it is only theists that are subject to it, but can not demonstrate why a secular worldview is an antidote to this phenomena.
[4] The idea that ‘the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge’ also bears on the idea that epistemology is far more complex than simple cognition, but that is a topic for another day…and probably another author.
[5] Particularly, Jonathan Edwards and Augustine are known for this.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Labor, Art or Sacrament? - Lessons from a Year of Preaching (Part 1)

I am preparing a post on lessons I have learned from my first year of regular preaching.[1] The first point, however, kind of spun out of control and became its own post. The second has too. So I have decided to make it into a series. Here it Part 1.

The first major question that emerged as I struggled to produce frequent, quality, pulpit content was one of taxonomy. What was it, precisely, that I was doing? Was it a labor, an art or a sacrament? Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. But it is a result I am still coming to terms with.

At the heart of this categorization is the question: “To what extent is the effort expended correlated with the outcome?” It is pretty clear that in most cases, preaching quality has a strong functional relationship with preparatory effort expended.[2] To this extent, it is a labor. Work produces results. But the infuriating part is that effort is not fully predictive. In other labors I engage in, be it programming, engineering projects, chores, exercise, studies or even a backpacking trip[3], the effort expended is strongly predictive of the quality of the result. But I gave talks that required 20 hours of prep that were better than talks I sunk 60 hours into.

In this way preaching feels like an art. While most great artists are extremely disciplined individuals,[4] it is the field where effort seems least correlated with effectiveness. One thing I have heard creatives of all kinds talk about is the capricious and fragile nature of the creative process. When it is there, it is there and when it is gone, there is no amount of work you can do to retrieve it. They live in constant fear that they will wake up the next morning and it will be gone. They don’t exactly know what has generated the creative gift and so they have no promise that it will continue. It is a fearsome and tenuous existence. I experienced some of these same feelings in the pursuit of excellent preaching. The main difference is that I can talk to mysterious source of inspiration who joins his power to my effort to determine the efficacy of the outcome.[5] And in that way, preaching is a sacrament.[6]

In, Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts, Steve Turner said, “The power of effective preaching isn’t a question of art.” It was a disappointing statement in an otherwise very good book. To relegate creativity as the image of God to the musicians and fine artists, we impoverish our imaginations about what preaching could be. But Turner’s basic point has some weight. Preaching is, at least in some ways, a mystical sacrament. I expend rigorous labor and creative effort in the preparation process to honor God’s self disclosure (the Scriptures) and attempt to make it culturally clear. But there is a sense in which I would not expect effort to be strongly correlated with outcome.

I am, after all, participating in a gift. The tools are not mine. The raw materials are not mine. The primary passion is not mine. The results should not be mine. By my evaluation, my best outing last year came in a week that I felt underprepared.[7] Some would use this as an excuse to put less effort into the preparation. This would be an error…a kind of ‘convenient calvinism[8]’ that disregards God’s proclivity for inhabiting human efforts. And it is worth noting that while success is not highly correlated with effort, dismal failure IS highly correlated with lack of effort.

But there is a sense in which I would find it offensive if the success of this endeavor was a deterministic predictive function of effort. If preaching is something I can simply learn how to do and then bang out like spread sheets and journal articles, it becomes self refuting. Only in its laborious, creative, sacramental form, where there is genuine terror but there is also divine access, can it really be a conduit of the transcendent.

This post was prepared while listening to Fall/Winter by Jon Foreman
[1] Though I am well into my second year, so I might have to change the name.
[2] This, of course, is not universally believed. I served under a youth pastor for a while who believed that evidence of a teaching gift was the ability to teach on any topic with no notice. This, however, demonstrates insufficient esteem for the scriptures or respect for the listeners, in my opinion.
[3] And, to some extent, even relationships.
[4] This is one of the myths of ‘the arts.’ Shiftless bohemians use ‘the arts’ as an excuse for aimless reflection and dabbling. But the vast majority of artists I have heard describe their work describe a life of discipline, order, regularity, and long, long hours. I applied to colleges as an art major with the vision of a life of leisure in front of me. But good art is some of the hardest work out there.
[5] Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, puts this well: “None are so able to plead with men as those who have been wrestling with God on their behalf…Most preachers who depend upon God’s Spirit will tell you that their freshest and best thoughts are not those which were premeditated, but ideas which come to them (in prayer), flying as on the wings of angels; unexpected treasures brought on a sudden by a celestial hands, seeds of the flowers of paradise, wafted from a mountain of myrrh.” Lectures to My Students (p45)
[6] I can’t help it…one more Spurgeon quote: “All our libraries and studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets…If you dip your pens into your hearts, appealing in earnestness to the Lord, you will write well: and if you can gather your matter on your knees at the gate of heaven, you will not fail to speak well.” (p43)
[7] Though, paradoxically, it was the week I had spent the most time preparing for.
[8] Which is far more like Gnosticism than and form of robust Calvinism.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

2009: A Year in Books

I have two friends that try to read 52[1] books per year. For the last two years Joel has posted updates on how he did and brief thoughts about each work. I liked the I am stealing it. I do not remotely try to read 52 books per year. Twenty is more my pace…particularly because I take detailed notes on many of them in an attempt to retain the material.[2] Here is my 2009 in books.

Pigeon Feathers - John Updike
I am embarrassed to admit that the first time I heard of Updike was the day he died. I LOVED this little book. The man could write, and had an uncanny window into my psychology[3] in a way I suspect few experience. There is a sense in which I wonder why he has such wide appeal, because his work appealed to me on such a personal level and I consider my experience to be relatively eccentric.

Culture Makers – Andy Crouch
I was disappointed by this book. It was long and sluggish (especially for a book on Culture). But, as I look back over my writing and preaching since I read it, it is clear that Crouch has influenced my thought or, at least, has flourishes of quoteability. He did change the way I read some OT prophetic work.

Perelandra (A)[4] - CS Lewis
The best volume of Lewis’ space trilogy. Lewis’ fiction is mostly uneven.[5] But his playful and creative mind cannot be held down by his lack of mastery of the genre. There are flourishes of absolute brilliance. And these alone are worth the price of admission.

Ender’s Game (A) - Orson Scott Card
I am trying to consume more classic Science Fiction since that is what I have been writing lately. I listened to this while exploring Portland one week while I was there on business. For me ‘The Gate is Down’ will always be associated with morning runs along the Columbia and evening walks through one of America’s finest cities. I liked it, but have come to the conclusion that the criteria for artful prose is lower for classic SciFi than for contemproary or classic novels. At least I finally get a whole genre of nerdy jokes:

Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts - Steve Turner
A book that culminates in an analysis of U2 isn’t exactly ground breaking, but despite a slow start and a predictable end, Turner can write and brings a pretty withering analysis to Christianity’s relationship to the arts. The middle chapter ‘The Split’ is, by far, the best.

Life Together - Dietrich Bonheoffer
Bonheoffer is one of my favorite theologians (maybe my favorite). I have taught classes on his theology more than once. But I had never read his work on community. It started a little slow but, on the whole, was unsurprisingly stunning.

Stumbling on Happiness (A) - Daniel Gilbert
My last post emerged from this book, but does not even begin to plum its value. The book’s general thesis is that humans are very bad at predicting what will make us happy and that the accounts of others who have been through a given event are much more reliable at predicting our experience of the event than our personal prediction.

In Cold Blood (A) - Truman Capote
Capote can write and can also structure a story. I am still amazed that he manage to spring a twist ending on me in a book that was supposed to be as predictable as Titanic.

Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman
Lets be fair. I am a Klosterman fanboy. He could probably write a diary of a year of bowel movements and I would read an enjoy it. But I was apprehensive about his first work of fiction.[6] I liked it.

The New Testament and the People of God[7] - NT Wright
Sweeping scholarly work tackling the literature and worldview of the inhabitants of Israel from about 200 BC to about 125 AD. Wright’s thing is to try to walk the line between what he calls ‘the two arrogances’ of fundamentalism and reductionism. He is a scholarly giant who brings to bear the best scholarship to first century studies and finds the outlines of an orthodox Christian faith[8] in the morass. I found that some of the points I thought were insufficiently argued in his popular works were thoroughly demonstrated in this volume.[9]

Acts for Everyone: Part 1 - NT Wright
But, the really intriguing thing about Wright is that he can switch hats so effortlessly. He can produce some of the best NT scholarship being written and then turn around and churn out these helpful, readable, accessible and enjoyable commentaries for preaching help and devotional use.

City of God - Augustine
I have written plenty about this tome in this space.

Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
I wrote an extended piece on this and my friend Joel wrote an extended response.

Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell (A)
Friends have recommended Vowell to me for years, so I finally picked upp her only work the Library had in Audio for our two ‘through the night Tampa<-->Panama City drives’ during our holiday vacation. It was very good. Though I was left wondering if Assassination Vacation should have been more like Killing Yourself to Live or visa versa. Vowell is insightful and funny, but her Northeastern Liberal requirement to express moral outrage[10] at most things southern got in the way of handling the Lincoln assignation sites in the nuanced, even handed way she treated the Cleveland and McKinley sites.[11]

The Rise of Christianity - Rodney Stark

I wrote a post on this one.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (A) - Bill Bryson
I am a sucker for science as story. Seriously, tell the historical narrative of how something came to be known, believed, or disbelieved, include a couple of outlandish personalities, make a couple jokes and I’m happy. Bryson’s little romp through a history of science was insightful, artful and entertaining.

Partial Reads

My reading time is probably my most limited commodity. Therefore I do not waste time finishing books that: (a) could have been pamphlets and yield most of their useful insights in the first 100 pages or (b) suck or (c) do not demonstrate enough potential to out compete the shiny new volume in the just-arrived Amazon box for my time.

Marriage: Sex in the service of God (30%)
Ash’s work is sound, scholarly and weighty. I got a lot out of what I read. Unfortunately, it is also dry. I’m not sure if it is a compliment or an outrage that he managed to make a book about sex boring, but I am going to go with both.

Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit - Clark Pinnoch (50%)
Pinnoch’s book on the Holy Spirit was really good, but not good enough to finish.

Life: The Science of Biology – Sevada (30%)
This was the text for the two Biology classes I took in the Fall. It is actually very good. Well written, well illustrated…I enjoyed reading it and did most of the assigned readings though I knew they would not help me much on the tests.

The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World – John Stott (30%)
Really liked Stott’s commentary on Acts – but only read the passages I preached on.

That Hideous Strength - CS Lewis (60%) (A)
This is Lewis’ attempt to make his argument from The Abolition of Man in a fictional work. I simply haven’t finished it yet. But it says a little about my ambivalence about the Space Trilogy that I was able to put it down and not completely compelled to return to it.

How Fiction Works - James Wood (70%)

My friend Tiffany recommended this after taking a look at one of my short stories. It was excellent, but I was not ready for it. There are two chapters on how Flaubert changed the novel. I have not read Flauber. So, hopefully, my 2010 list will include a couple of his novels and then I will revisit this text.

Apostolic Fathers - ed Michael Holmes (60%)
The Fathers were thrilling, but I got bogged down in the Didichae and the Shepherd. The latter are such crass moralists I had trouble identifying with them. But Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp et al were like finding family I did not know I had.

Mere Christianity - CS Lewis (50%)
I have decided to revisit some of Lewis’ writings. While his fiction can be uneven, his prose is unmatched. So much of contemporary Christian thought is just a repackaging of the things he wrote.[12]

From Every Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race - J. Daniel Hays (50%)
This text is full of intriguing factoids and effectively makes the case that the world of the Old-Testament must be read as a thoroughly multi-ethnic world. Unfortunately, it seems that Hays is an OT scholar and I read the book hoping it would help me unpack and preach the issue of ethnicity in the early church. Sadly, there were only four pages on Acts. This seems like a pretty dramatic failure, seeing as ethnic tension/reconciliation is probably one of the top 3 or 4 themes of this central Biblical text.
[1] Joel and Alex – that’s one per week.
[2] I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on ‘year in review’ blogs, but surely I am flirting with it.
[3] As a quasi-existentialist, post-neo-orthodox Christian strongly influenced by Kierkegaard and Chesterton.
[4] (A) stands for audio book. I consume most of my fiction and popular literature through audio media. But I count these as ‘books I read.’ It's ok, you can judge me.
[5] With the exception of The Great Divorce, which is mostly dialogue, and, therefore, is just a more readable version of his prose.
[6] Apparently, I’m not the only one. He had to sign a two book deal to get this published, promising the same publisher his next major essay collection, Eating the Dinosaur which just came out.
[7] I finished this at the beginning of 2010, but am including it anyway
[8] Even if it is, at times, a strained orthodoxy.
[9] Which is the first of a 4-5 volume set.
[10] Yes, we understand, slavery was bad. We are not going to think you are a racist if you fail to express moral outrage every time you mention it.
[11] In a related note, she caricatured Jonathan Edwards, using him to demonstrate why an upstate NY free sex commune (where the middle aged men ceremonially ‘deflowered’ the girls) wasn’t so objectionable after all. How could someone who is so deeply curious and interested in the complexity of American History so completely mischaracterize (though it is a popular mischaracterization) one of our most interesting historical figures. Her penance should be to do an Edwards/Wesley/Awakenings book - that could really be in her wheelhouse.
[12] In fact, a recent CT article argued that Lewis is the bane of Christian writing because nearly anything we try to articulate, he has already done and with more insight and creativity.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Our Brain’s Surprising Mistake: Freedom, Prediction and Marriage

There may not be a more intensely American value than Freedom. It is one of the few things seen by almost all as an unqualified good. The last administration used it as a trump card in support of foreign wars and domestic tax cuts. The current administration has followed suit, leveraging[1] our passion for freedom on behalf of their pursuits. In a world where we can not remotely agree on what is good, valuable or beautiful, the thing we fight most intensely for is self determination of those criteria. Many of fiction and history’s most compelling figures were revolutionary agents for their self determination. Shoot, the climatic moment of one of the best movies ever simply consists of the disemboweled protagonist yelling ‘FREEDOM.’

In our country’s founding document Freedom is listed as one of the foundational, self evident, divinely granted human rights…along side ‘The Pursuit of Happiness.’ We have since generally assumed that freedom and happiness are strongly correlated. But this is an assumption that is worth revisiting. Surely, slavery, communism and fascism impinge on personal happiness…but within the context of most western societies, does increased freedom actually increase happiness?

Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard College Professor of Psychology[2] says no.

In his excellent book Stumbling on Happiness[3] he cites a study in which students in a photography class produced a dozen black and white photographs and printed their two best and were allowed to keep one. The students were divided into two groups, 1) the escapable group and 2) the inescapable group. The first group could exchange their photograph for the other one at any time in the future and the second group had to make a final, irrevocable decision on which photograph they would keep. Then the researchers followed up on the students and ‘measured’[4] their satisfaction with the photographs. Which do you suppose were more satisfied? If our fundamental assumptions that self determination and increased options produce happiness are true, then we would expect the first group to be the most satisfied.[5] But the opposite was true.

“The escapable group liked their photographs less(emphasis original) than the inescapable group…Apparently, inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate this will happen. Our failure to anticipate that inescapability will trigger our psychological immune system (hence promote our happiness and satisfaction) can cause us to make
some painful mistakes…but most people seem to prefer more freedom to less…

...Our fetish for freedom leads us to patronize expensive department stores that allow us to return merchandise rather than attend auctions that don’t, to lease cars at a dramatic markup rather than buying them at a bargain, and so on…

...Committed owners attend to a car’s virtues and overlook its flaws, thus cooking the facts to produce a banquet of satisfaction, but the buyer for whom escape is still possible is likely to evaluate the new car more critically, paying special attention to its imperfections as she tries to decide whether to keep it…We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.”[6]

And this, in part, is why I believe marriage[7] is vastly underrated. Marriage is not exactly at the peak of its popularity, particularly among young men.[8] I believe that one of the fundamental reasons for marriage’s disrepute is this perception that limiting our freedom is the surest way to limit our happiness. It is ironic[9] that such a widely held tenet of our cultural narrative is based on a nearly universal misunderstanding of how our brains work.

But marriage only works if it is an ‘all in’ proposal. ‘For better or worse’ is the currency of marital satisfaction. It is the engine of contentment. According to Gilbert, inescapability is the catalyst of disproportionate focus on the admirable aspects of your selection. It is an unconscious building block of a life of gratitude. Our brains are wired in such a way that frequent re-evaluation undermines our happiness.

The volitional and intentional limitation of options is a counterintuitive path to happiness. In his theological work on marriage, Christopher Ash, argues that this is because marriage is the way of grace over works:

“When we focus on the gradually deepening (or evaporating) relational intimacy as the locus of marriage, paradoxically a terrible insecurity is engendered…To live outside is to live by works, to be constantly on our best behavior, to be only as good as the last time. To live inside (the covenant of marriage) is to live in grace, responding freely to unconditional pledged love, not to have failure and personal inadequacies drive us to paralyzing despair.”[10]

It is only when marriage is seen for what it truly was meant to be, that the Scriptures’ repeated comparison of marriage and the gospel begin to make sense. And, of course, the principal that limiting one’s freedom can actually augment one’s happiness has spiritual implications beyond marriage. A common objection to Christianity is that it limits our freedom and, thus, our potential for happiness. But, deconstructing the fundamental connection between freedom and happiness destabilizes this objection.

I think the Psalmist essentially articulates the same thing Gilbert reports when he says: “Yahweh, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”[11]

This post was written while listening to the Rise Against station on Pandora

[1] Or manipulating our passion for freedom, depending on one’s political perspective.
[2] At Harvard University.
[3] This is not nearly the saccharine self help book it sounds like. Rather, it is a well written and insightful review of recent psychological research on the phenomena of human happiness and why our brains are not particularly good at it (or, conversely, why we are sometimes better at it than the ‘facts’ warrant).
[4] So, I am what is called a ‘hard’ scientist. I realize that moniker is self serving, but if you are skeptical about how this was ‘measured,’ um, well, me too.
[5] In fact, this was another facet of this study. Several of the students were asked to predict if they would be more satisfied if they had the option to exchange and most said they would.
[6] Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness – p 183-5
[7] In its covenantal, vowish, form rather than its dissoluble social contract form.
[8] Chuck Klosterman has a great quote in Killing Yourself to Live that really encapsulates the contemporary perception of marriage. He seems genuinely confused at the controversy in the Episcopal Church about same-sex marriage and quips “In my opinion we must legalize gay marriage. Gay men are the only men in America who still want to be married.”
[9] Again, ironic in the Alanis Morissette ‘as it has come to be know’ usage of the word.
[10] Marriage: Sex in the Service of God p 74-5
[11] Ps 16:5-6