Allan Josephson: Integrating Faith & Psychiatry, Part 1 @TheHighCalling

On the Way to Gettysburg 2

When Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Allan Josephson, M.D. decided to study psychiatry 30 years ago, persons of faith often wondered how he would fare as a Christian in the field. The influence of Sigmund Freud’s atheism has waned, Josephson said, but it was pervasive then.

Josephson not only survived, but flourished and became an agent of change. Today, he is Vice Chairman for Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Services at the University of Louiseville School of Medicine in Louiseville, Kentucky, and author of three books. One of them is the Handbook of Spirituality and Worldview in Clinical Practice, a text he edited and contributed to that is used in psychiatric residency programs to help psychiatrists understand the diagnostic and therapeutic implications of their own and their patients’ worldviews. …

In this series we’re going to tap into Josephson’s wisdom to explore this theme as it relates to:

  • How healthy child development mirrors Scriptural principles.
  • What children need in the contemporary family for healthy development.
  • Why there is an increase in people, particularly children and adolescents, who exhibit narcissistic behavior, and what can be done about it.
  • The psychological effects of technology.
  • How work defines the self.

Both psychology and theology have much to say about these topics. We hope you’ll join us for the discussion.

You can read more about Dr. Josephson’s journey at The High Calling.

Globetrotting toward a Spiritual Center and a Sense of Shared Humanity @NJShorePatch

 Dean Fengya’s accidental adventure evolved into a business with a spiritual core.

Dean Fengya, owner of Globetrotters, Pt. Pleasant Beach, NJIf you’ve driven the stretch of Route 88 where Point Pleasant Beach meets Bay Head, you’ve probably noticed Dean Fengya’s colorful collection of ceramic pots at Globetrotter, the import store he’s been running for 17 years.

What you may not have noticed is the religious statuary that grounds the carefully arranged field of blue, green, and beige. Fengya doesn’t import it for its religious significance, but that hasn’t stopped customers from turning some of the artifacts into shrines.

“My criteria is beauty. I see something that’s beautiful or I meet people that I know can make something that’s beautiful, perhaps with a little bit of my guidance and direction… and we work together,” said Fengya.

The pursuit of beauty has led Fengya to over 100 countries and he has integrated goods from close to 30 nations into Globetrotter and a second location that is set to open on Route 35 in July, he said.

Take those brightly colored ceramic pots that surround the flagship store, for example.  …

To read all about this delightful man and to see more photos of his beautiful wares, go to Manasquan Patch.

What Does It Mean to Live Out Vocational Calling in a Local Context? @TheHighCalling

David Greusel has designed stadiums for major league teams including the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros.

Yet this principal architect at Convergence Design in Kansas City, Missouri, suffered for years under the message that his work didn’t matter.

“It’s all going to burn anyway,” he heard from fellow Christians. “The only thing that lasts is the human soul.” Dualistic evangelical theology taught Greusel that designing buildings had no value, especially designing the kind of sports architecture that is his specialty.

Only in the last five or ten years has the architect felt confident in his vocational calling.

“God has called me to be an architect, to design buildings for people and communities and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s my ministry,” said Greusel.

More than just creating spaces though, his design style confronts the nihilistic philosophy that has dominated architecture for the last 80 or 90 years. …

Read the article here.

Who knew the Ivy League gem offered a wealth of free public religion events?

As a girl growing up in Point Pleasant Beach, I didn’t give much thought to Princeton University. It was the 1970s and I was, shall we say, distracted. If I thought about our state’s Ivy League jewel at all, I saw it as an inaccessable, dusty treasure chest full of academic stuffiness and snobbery.

If we’re lucky, we grow up and find out the world’s gems are much more accessable than we ever imagined. What a delight it was then, a few years ago, to learn that Princeton has a thriving faith community and offers a bounty of free public religion events.

It’s a pleasant 45 minute drive west on Route 33 and across Route 1 to the university from coastal Monmouth County and a great way to spend an afternoon or evening while enriching one’s understanding of the religious landscape. …

Read about some upcoming events here. Plus, where to park, eat, and shop in Princeton.

Training Elite Athletes with a Jersey Shore Ethos @NJShorePatch

How performance coach Todd Durkin uses hometown lessons to lead elite athletes to victory:

The first time I met superstar performance coach Todd Durkin he was on his bike, slinging a newspaper across my family’s front lawn. Then his sister and I married a couple of Bricktown brothers and we became family. Last week, for the second time in two years, one of Durkin’s clients led a team to victory in the Superbowl.

In an interview with Yahoo! Sports this week, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked about what a tough and effective trainer Durkin is. In the forward to Durkin’s new book,The Impact! Body Plan, last year’s winning quarterback Drew Brees credits the trainer with helping him grasp the elusive trophy. While Durkin expresses gratitude to these and other professional athletes for helping to make him a success, it’s his family and legendary Brick Dragons football coach Warren Wolf who get top billing in the acknowledgements. …

Read the whole thing here. …

Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson @Christianity Today

Roberta in her office

Roberta Ahmanson in her office, which is in one of three Ahmanson homes that I visited.

In its 2005 list of the 25 most influential U.S. evangelicals, Time magazine described former religion reporter Roberta Green Ahmanson and husband Howard simply as “The Financiers.” Indeed, that is what they are. But these are no ordinary philanthropists. Roberta, 61, and Howard, 60, are among a rare breed of donor who invests as much intellectual and emotional capital in the projects they support as their Fieldstead and Company philanthropy does vast sums of money. (One source who declined to be identified estimates Fieldstead’s annual giving in the low eight figures based on its projects and staff size.) While Howard’s name is at the fore of their notoriety, as heir to his father’s H. F. Ahmanson & Co. savings and loan fortune, Roberta’s passion and intellect have shaped a good deal of their giving in the
quarter century they’ve been married.

Consider Fieldstead’s $20 million investment into Roberta’s hometown of Perry, Iowa. It was Roberta’s vision that led to an elaborate restoration of the historic Hotel Pattee and the installation of an iconic downtown gateway by acclaimed sculptor Albert Paley. So too did Roberta’s vision secure Paley gates at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope in Tustin, California— and at the Ahmansons’ meticulously designed beachfront home in Corona del Mar. Orange County Register sources valued the home at $30–$35 million last January.

The Ahmansons’ critics focus on their support for conservative causes like Proposition 8 (their donations totaled approximately $1.4 million in 2007–2008), and for conservative thinkers like the late and much reviled Christian Reconstructionist Rousas John Rushdoony. The secular media especially have made and repeated these criticisms over the past decade.

For example, in a scathing 2004 Salon profile of Howard, “Avenging Angel of the Religious Right,” Max Blumenthal took pains to show that the Ahmansons’ ultimate goals are theocratic, a charge that has been widely disseminated. Roberta at once denies and defends the claim: “I never was, and I don’t know if Howard ever was either. I’m afraid to say this, but also, what would be so bad about it?”

Blumenthal wrote, “[Howard’s] money has made possible some of the most pivotal conservative movements in America’s recent history, including the 1994 gop takeover of the California Assembly, a ban on gay marriage and affirmative action in California, and the mounting nationwide campaign to prove Darwin wrong about evolution. . . . And besides contributing cash to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Ahmanson has played an important role in driving Bush’s domestic agenda by financing the career of Marvin Olasky, a conservative intellectual whose ideas inspired the creation of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”

Meanwhile, Blumenthal described Roberta as a “warm refreshingly humorous . . . spokesperson and indefatigable guardian” of her husband. But he failed to either understand or to communicate the depth of her contribution to their work.

Howard, who has Tourette syndrome, rejects Blumenthal’s portrayal of his marriage. So do numerous sources who know the Ahmansons well and describe them as equals. “Sometimes [Roberta] has to confront me when I have Tourette-related issues,” said Howard, “but she is not really a ‘caretaker.’ ” Roberta added that the Salon profile was “full of lies” and won numerous corrections.

Furthermore, critics and supporters alike may be surprised to learn that Ahmanson is not opposed to domestic partnership rights for homosexuals. She said, “Marriage is something that has had a long definition in history. . . . The thing I’m most concerned about is that religious institutions maintain their freedom of association and their freedom of religious practice. The Catholic Church, for example, should not have to perform same-sex marriages.” After Proposition 8 was overturned, she said, “Everyone knew how the judge would rule. It’s headed for the Supreme Court. Always was.”

In 2005, The Guardian ran a sensational article titled, “Anti-Gay Millionaire Bankrolls Caravaggio Spectacular,” covering an exhibit sponsored by the Ahmansons at London’s National Gallery. The writer repeated many of Blumenthal’s charges and likewise failed to communicate Roberta’s primary role in the project, not to mention her deep commitment to the arts.


I became familiar with the Ahmanson name not through Time or Salon but at St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach, where the couple was lauded for investing in the church’s legal dispute with the Episcopal Church. Howard and Roberta were members for a dozen years before joining Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, and although Roberta is currently between churches, she describes former St. James rector David Anderson, president and ceo of the American Anglican Council, as her pastor.

Meeting Roberta for the first time last winter, when she was in New York speaking at the International Arts Movement’s Encounter conference, I too found her to be a warm and generous conversationalist. Our discussion quickly turned from art and philanthropy, topics she covered in her conference talk, to mutual friends to the bipolar diagnosis that she and a member of my family share.

The interview led to a three-day stay at the Ahmanson guesthouse, where conservative luminaries like Anderson, Olasky, Thomas Oden, and Terry Mattingly had stayed before me. The well-appointed, art-filled home is located around the corner from the main residence and across the street from another that houses their private offices and Roberta’s extensive dish collection. On the weekend of my visit, Howard was driving Roberta’s red Range Rover to Hillsdale College in Michigan to collect their son David, who was completing his freshman year after a tutor-led primary education. Roberta stayed behind to host a lecture by Dallas Willard at their home. Afterward, she would meet her family in Michigan to begin a classic cross-country road trip before flying to Rome, where she would speak at a conference on Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love. Next, they would return home and host a week-long celebration of the completion of their elaborate three-year home reconstruction, the subject of The Orange County Register’s interest.

To say Ahmanson’s passion for art permeates every space she inhabits is to underestimate her commitment. As we toured the main house, her running commentary on its extensive collection rivaled anything an art historian might offer. Although she was fighting a cold during frenzied preparations, she picked me up in Howard’s Toyota sedan to tour the Village of Hope, a traditional housing program whose Paley gates, sculpture, and stained glass showcase her artistic vision.

Ahmanson chairs the board of the five-year-old Museum of Biblical Art (mobia) in nyc and belongs to the Collectors Committee at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She began arranging furniture and pictures when she was a young child and fell in love with painting in eighth grade, but love of art is not what drives her. Her life’s primary animating force was found in her strict Regular Baptist upbringing: her desire“to know if there was a God and if it mattered.”

She found the answer “painfully” at Calvin College, from which she graduated in 1972 before earning an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan in 1974. “When I was 21, I admitted that there was a God and that I believed Christianity was true, that it was the best description of reality. That’s how I think of it, and if there were a better description of reality, I hope, with C. S. Lewis, that I would embrace it. But it keeps proving itself to fit.

“Once you start on that path, you want to understand the world. It connects to my journalism, because what we believe shapes what we do. It shapes the art we create, the buildings we create, the institutions we create, the governments we create. All those things grow out of what we believe to be the nature of reality. So it’s the biggest question.”

Ahmanson taught (unsuccessfully, she says) in Canada before moving to California to pursue journalism. At Calvin, she had become aware of the biblical theme that we become what we worship. “We worship dead things, we become dead. We worship the living God, we become alive,” she says.
“And one of the attributes of that living God is beauty. Beauty leads us to him. We really cannot live without it.”

A mutual friend introduced her to Howard in 1984, when she was working at The Orange County Register. They married two years later. Conversations with people who minister to the poor taught her that beauty can inspire the downtrodden to improve their lives. Additionally, she says, “We live in an increasingly visual age, one in which art museums have become the new temples, art an alternative to religion. Art can serve God or be an idol. Given who God made me, it seemed that I had a responsibility to get involved in the work and the larger conversation.”

main house chapel

Stained glass window in the courtyard chapel of the Ahmanson’s oceanfront home.

This is not to say that the art she supports is saccharine or safe. Quite the contrary. The Caravaggio exhibit featured work from the 16th-century painter’s final years, after he had murdered an associate. The same newspaper that vilified its sponsors published an admiring review that said, “There is a frisson of the transgressive about Caravaggio’s art, a morbidity as much spiritual as it is—to modern eyes—sexual and social.”

Dawson Carr, the exhibit’s curator, researched online about the Ahmansons after they had approached the museum to fund Christian exhibits. The art historian was apprehensive about what he found. “I got all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and vitriol and the like, and I just thought to myself, Oh my goodness, what is this going to be like?” He discovered that the couple “may be doctrinally conservative, but in point of fact these are not ignorant, mean-spirited, nasty people the way they’re often portrayed.”

Carr also says their sponsorship of Christian art is vital and that they never tried to influence the content or presentation of the show. mobia director Ena Heller echoes Carr’s sentiments. “I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when it comes to religion, people get very personal, very defensive, and slightly illogical, and I have never seen that with Roberta.”


Early in their marriage, the Ahmansons befriended Methodist theologian Tom Oden. Some 20 years ago, as they were sitting on their front porch overlooking the Pacific, Roberta asked Oden a question that would lead to one of their most significant projects: “What do you want to do with the
rest of your life?” He was taken aback, but had been thinking for several years about a major scholarly project on the ancient church fathers’ Bible commentary. He recalls, “Right quickly I said, ‘Well, this is the project that if I really could do it, I would feel I’d been most useful.’ ”

InterVarsity Press publisher Robert Fry- ling describes the resulting 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series,co-funded by Fieldstead, as “the most significant publishing project in the history of InterVarsity Press.” He says it has been acclaimed by evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic leaders, including two popes. “This extraordinary series would not have been possible without Howard and Roberta.” Meanwhile, the Ahmansons are funding another Oden project, the Center for Early African Christianity, whose mission is “to educate African leadership in the depth of African intellectual literary achievements, especially those from the Christian tradition of the first millennium.”

Roberta’s passion for journalism began when she was in high school and has continued throughout her life. She co- authored Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, and Fieldstead funds two projects that relate to this interest and involve Roberta’s longtime friend Mattingly: the GetReligion blog of the Media Project and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ Washington Journalism Center, which Mattingly directs.

Mattingly, for one, doesn’t think Roberta was fundamentally changed by marrying into great wealth. “The lady still reads like a tornado. She’s obsessed with the same kind of artistic and cultural and political and religious stuff. The same person that I knew as a reporter, chasing people around asking questions about all that, is frankly the same person that I know today.”

Roberta at Village of Hope in front of sculpture she commissioned

Roberta Ahmanson at The Village of Hope in Tustin, California, where she and Howard donated art and other ammenities.

When pressed, Ahmanson describes herself as a “Reformed Anglo-Catholic” and a philosophical realist. Two-thirds of the way through 2010, she had already read 74 books in the categories Mattingly mentioned, among them William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East; Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge; volumes in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series; James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World; several books on the arts; several by Pope Benedict XVI; and the fiction of Frank Tallis, Jaqueline Winspear, and Henning Mankell.

Like Mattingly, Olasky knew Ahmanson before she married Howard. When they met, he was an associate journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin working on an article for Eternity magazine. Fieldstead solicited Olasky’s help editing the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, a 16-book collection that was co-published with Crossway Books. The Ahmansons went on to help finance (to various degrees) Olasky’s summer writing sabbaticals, international research trips, a James Madison Fellowship at Princeton University, and World Magazine, of which Olasky is editor in chief.

The second of the Turning Point books, on international poverty, emerged from a series of meetings that Fieldstead sponsored in Villars, Switzerland, and then at their California home. The meetings, Olasky says, also informed his thinking about domestic poverty and led to his influential book The Tragedy of American Compassion. Newt Gingrich commended the book in his 1995 inaugural address as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and former President George W. Bush, in the foreword to Olasky’s Compassionate Conservatism (2000), described him as “Compassionate Conservatism’s leading thinker.”

As Blumenthal noted, Howard and Roberta also have strong ties to intelligent design, which purports that life on earth is best explained by reference to a creator. “We are probably the single largest supporter of the intelligent design movement, and have been since the beginning,” said Roberta. Her perspective on theistic evolution is unflinching: She rejects it because it “legit-imates naturalism as the mode of understanding reality.” Even so, she is not a seven-day creationist, and Fieldstead funds projects at institutions that promote evolution (see “Where Does Their Money Go?” sidebar).

Ahmanson is equally un-flinching in her defense of Rushdoony, controversial in part for his belief that the Levitical laws should be applied in modern society. Roberta claims he wasn’t “the ogre” he was made out to be and explains his theodicy as a response to his family’s flight from the Armenian genocide in Turkey. “His whole life project was to try to figure out what could protect you. In the end, he came down to the only thing that is solid is God’s law. Well, you say the word law in the 20th or 21st century, and people break out in a rash.”

Peb Jackson, the principal of Jackson Consulting Group, has known the Ahmansons throughout their marriage. When I asked him about their connection with Rushdoony, he said he hadn’t thought about it in years, but, upon reflection, said, “I think they were perhaps a little bit zealous in reference to their powerful support for Rushdoony in that effort. It’s really a reflection of the passion that they bring to wanting to focus on the forces in culture and society and faith, and wanting to use their God-given resources to influence those forces.”

When asked if it bothers her that their philanthropy is often overshadowed by criticism of their activism, Ahmanson said, “It used to bother me. My husband, for one thing, became a Democrat [in 2009], and he’s much more complicated than this kind of cardboard figure that they try to create. Even The Guardian must have figured it out, because they didn’t do any scare kind of stories about ‘The Sacred Made Real’ exhibit we sponsored at the same museum [in 2010]. They just left it alone, and the show got nothing but rave reviews, including one in The Guardian.”

Fred Smith, founder of the Christian philanthropy group The Gathering, says the Ahmansons are generally ten years ahead of their peers in Christian philanthropy. He mentions their foundational support of the pro-life movement in the 1980s, as well as their art patronage and interest in the early church. Smith thinks people don’t realize how much Roberta has changed. When he first met her, he says, “She would get angry and just kind of stomp out of the room figuratively and say, ‘You guys are never going to get it.’ I think over the years, she’s learned to temper that a great deal.”

Smith attributes some of Roberta’s early frustration to the transition from religion reporter to wealthy patron. “In some ways, she responded by saying, ‘Now I have a bully pulpit,’ and then went through some of the painful experiences of finding out that you can burn some bridges with this new bully pulpit until you get comfortable with it.” He adds, “I think everybody assumes that wealth brings perfection and omniscience. Sometimes the wealthy foster that myth as much as anybody. She’s had to grow up and stumbled around some in that, but I think she’s growing up. She’s not against things as much as she’s now for things. I think that’s made a big difference.”

Roberta Ahmanson is a force of nature. She brings intelligence, passion, conviction, and energy to the projects she pursues, and yet, she is defined even here in terms of Howard; with characteristic mirth, she declares she is amused by this fact. “Well, I am his wife and it’s a very important part of my life,” she offers. But she is so much more.

Where Does Their Money Go?

Roberta Ahmanson identified her and her  husband’s most significant beneficiaries:

• The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
• The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture
• The Center for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia
• Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope
• Perry, Iowa (Roberta’s hometown)
• The Museum of Biblical Art
• Faculty development grants at Biola University
• The Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University
• The Pacific Symphony’s Class Act Program
• The National Endowment for the Arts intern sponsorship in the chairman’s office
• The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project
• The Christian Community Development Association
• Food for the Hungry

Recent 990 tax forms for the Ahmanson Charitable Community Trust and Fieldstead and Company include donations to:

• Pepperdine University
• Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
• International Arts Movement
• Association for Community Education
• Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation
• World Food Prize Foundation
• Heartland Film Festival
• map International
• Trinity Christian Community (New Orleans)
• The Media Project

*This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Christianity Today.

The Abortion Debate: Open Hearts, Open Minds and Tragedy as a Fair Minded Word @TheHuffingtonPost

Fordam University bioethicist Charles Camosy introduced Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words: A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate at Princeton University on October 15, 2010 by saying that it wasn’t the conference any of its organizers wanted or envisioned. Instead many compromises were made between him and his colleagues Peter Singer (Princeton), Frances Kissling (University of Pennsylvania) and Jennifer Miller (Bioethics International) as they thought about how to find common ground amidst the debate.

In his introduction, Camosy, who is pro-life, outlined three goals: 1. better map disagreements; 2. find common ground across divides; 3. have open hearts and open minds. Kissling, who is pro-choice, compared her pre-event anxiety to preparing for a wedding that both families believe is a horrible mistake. (Perhaps such fears were eased as the conference unfolded because there were security guards at the doors on the first day but not the second.)

After the conference, Camosy described it as largely successful in meeting these goals despite pockets of incivility, while Evangelical participant David Gushee (MacAfee School of Theology, Mercer University) described it as an audacious attempt that largely failed to find common ground.

Gushee was on the first panel, “Bridging the Abortion Divide: Recurring Challenges, Emerging Opportunities,” with his Common Ground colleague Rachel Laser, Mary Jacksteit of the Public Conversations Project (which initially attempted to bridge the abortion divide in the 1990s) and both Kissling and Miller. While I learned a lot from each discussion, theirs was the only one I attended that didn’t devolve into a remix of worn-out debates. Perhaps this is because all five speakers were already committed to the goal of exploring shared values.

Laser (who is pro-choice) and Gushee (who is pro-life) became friends through their work on an abortion governing document that was submitted to President Obama’s transition team. They described themselves as comrades in arms who bonded as they fended off friendly fire from their respective sides.

In his opening remarks, Gushee described abortion as a tragedy. Kissling objected to this definition. She said the moral right of women to make decisions about reproduction is essential for them to be recognized as human beings and while she respects the “category of fetal life,” she doesn’t “have a sense of individual fetuses as possessing high value.” Even so, she’s troubled by what she sees as a coarsening of discourse over the issue.

Gushee’s use of the term tragedy initially struck me as emotionally loaded too. I did not choose abortion when I had an unplanned pregnancy, but several members of my social circle did in similar circumstances and only one of them seems to have experienced it as a tragedy. The rest have occasionally communicated feelings of guilt about their abortions, but not regret.

I have written for Christianity Today from a strongly pro-life perspective and yet I’m not sure I ever thought of abortion as tragedy either. Instead, I’ve thought of it and continue to think of it as morally wrong. When I think of tragedy now-a-days, I tend to think of my son Gabriel’s suicide. The issues are related in that he didn’t have the right to take his own life any more than I had the right to take it and yet they are different because he was mentally impaired by Depression when he did so. (Despite notions to the contrary, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says suicide is overwhelmingly a function of mental illness rather than free will.)

Because Gabriel’s death left his brother with no siblings in this world, I’ve become increasingly grateful for his cousins, several of whom were conceived outside of marriage and whose biological parents either never married or married and later divorced. That is a different kind of heartbreak, and yet all these young people are flourishing as are our bonds with one another despite the complications and pain common to all blended and broken families.

My gratitude for them has gotten me thinking about those other children who are missing from my social network because of abortion. I experience Gabriel’s death as tragic because I had the opportunity to know and love him, while I experience those children as mere absences because I never got the chance to know them. I’ve subjectified them as thoroughly as Kissling has.

This is an oft-cited problem with discussions about abortion that pit the life of the unborn child against the welfare of the mother. Women can speak for themselves while unborn children can’t and we are incapable of fully comprehending what we are missing, even if we can glimpse it from the joy other children bring us.

I talked to Gushee about his use of the word tragedy. He said it may not have been the most philosophically precise description, but he was trying to communicate that abortion reflects a deep brokenness in the human condition. This sounds exactly right.

When I think about how tragic my son’s death is, I’m reminded that I would much rather live with the anguish it causes me than envision a life in which I never knew him. Abortion is a tragedy in and of itself, regardless of whether or not we as individuals or we as a society feel that it is so.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see things imperfectly in our finite understanding, but one day we will see with perfect clarity. Only then will our perception of abortion match reality.

Check out reader reaction to this reflection at The Huffington Post.

Deep Church: A Short Review

When I heard that Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church, was getting a lot of buzz from diverse quarters of the evangelical and post-evangelical community, my ears perked up.

The Emerging/Emergent discussion was completely off my radar screen until late 2006 or early 2007 when “Emergents” were being denounced in toto in conservative evangelical circles. I was familiar enough with the reactionary tendencies of some of these conservatives to be leery of their judgment. However, because I write for Christianity Today, people began asking me what I thought. So I read some things online and went to the American Academy of Religion Conference in San Diego, where I listened to a helpful discussion by Tony Jones, Scot McKnight and Diana Butler Bass. I also heard N.T. Wright dismiss the “fluffy” post-moderns there and other speakers entirely ignore  them.

I have never been interested enough in the topic myself to actually read a book about it. I did, however, talk to Dallas Willard about the philosophical underpinnings of Emergent philosophy and was hardly any clearer afterwards. It seemed to me though that if the Emergents were guilty of anything beyond questionable theology, it was hubris, particularly in their careless criticism of the Church, our mother.

Jim Belcher’s book is not only the first I’ve read on the topic, it is also the only resource I have encountered that has clearly and thoroughly answered my philosophical questions. The chapter I most appreciated, and the one I will reread until I have it down, is the “Deep Truth” chapter on philosophy. Len Hjalmarson summarizes it nicely here, so I won’t do so myself.

If any bias comes through in Deep Church, it is a bias toward Presbyterianism and popular reformed voices like Tim Keller, whom Belcher lionizes. There’s nothing wrong with expressing one’s own convictions and preferences, but here it weakens his “third way” argument because what he’s really advocating is not a third way for all believers, but a third way for the evangelicals and post-evangelicals whose tribes have denounced Emerging/Emergent.  Similarly, I came away from the book with the sense that for Belcher “deep ecclesiology” means Presbyterian ecclesiology. As an Anglican and former Baptist who attended a Mennonite college, my witness diverges on this matter.

Nonetheless, as long as readers understand the context in which this book was written and who its audience is, they’re likely to find much to appreciate.

The Fragility of Truth and Other Inescapable Facts

Let’s get this out of the way first: Truth itself is not fragile; our possession of it, our interpretation of it, the role it plays in our societies is fragile. So said Simon A. Levin, the director of Princeton University’s Center for BioComplexity, as he was introducing Sarah Jones Nelson, director of the Princeton Project on Fragility

Jones Nelson began by saying that “Truth has faced adversity since antiquity and the known story of Truth as justice has taken many twists and turns along the way.” Her thesis is that “the quest for Truth is fragile,” like our species, because “the processes of verification are complex” and “irrefutable verification often exceeds our capacity to conceptualize what is even vaguely Truth—in dreams for example, or in the deep past. This is why authentic perception of Truth often eludes us.”

She posed a series of questions:

*What is Truth? That Pontius Pilate was more brutal than the New Testament conveys is historical truth by inference. “Corresponding records to reality may be inferred as credibly factual because credible evidence supports it [reality?].”

 *What about philosophical truth related to values? A beautiful narrative or ancient Hebrew poetry, for example. “Here the question of verification is more elusive than historical and scientific truth, which have testable means for verifying data.” But even in astrophysics, “observation is strongly theory dependent.” The magnitude of the universe makes it impossible to observe apart from theories of what one is seeing.

Then there’s the question of what facts really are. There is a “dichotomy between valuatively deductive statements of fact” and “factually deductive statements of value,” such that it makes Truth “more complex than the known facts that comprise it. The perception of Truth signifies two universes of reference.” “Robust categories of Truth require a robust conceptual language “… Logic and syntax are foundational to the formation of the disciplines. “New fields generate new concepts of fact value and the corresponding Truths are fragile until they are credibly understood and when necessary verified by inescapable data.”

Our speaker hearkened back to Plato and Aristotle for a case study. She said Aristotle and Plato held different conceptions of Truth, and although these conceptions created the “first world synthesis of Truth,” one must note that its moral conception included both slavery and the subjugation of women. “Social norms emerging from ancient cultures continue to inform the contemporary open question of justice and the perception of reality that Truth is a fragile goodness.” … Students at Plato’s academy came from families where educated slaves had taught them their history of the Trojan War and prepped them for their first class in which Plato would be denouncing Homer’s heroization of Odysseus, the consummate liar” and “perilous twists and turns when lying meant outwitting and surviving better liars, thieves, monsters and angry gods.”  She is “certain Plato was thinking of Homer when he banished poets from public” saying, “Pythagorean truth was just about all he could handle.”

We returned to Princeton, with our guide calling it the “Athens of the Eternal Now.” She posed three questions (with passing reference to others, such as those related to establishing the historicity of ancient manuscripts).

1. What is truth?

2.  What is goodness, justice, beauty?

3. What is love?

Classical Athens “indelibly invented formal categories of human experience” and the foundations of democracy are as “fragile as documents of antiquity.” But, Truth can be found [emphasis mine]:

1. “Democracy functioned publicly by means of consensus and agreement, in which the role of women was manifestly paradoxical.”

 2. “Consensus was built upon common persuasion in an inextricable unity of religion, politics and theatre. Belief flowed from the will of godesses and gods.”

 3. “Slavery was thought to be a manifestation of the cosmic order. ”

“Plato might possibly have understood mathematical truth, but seemed to have been misguided by many of our standards of justice, equality and the rule of law. Clearly some principles do and must change to accommodate ever more humane interpretations of cognitive, moral and natural law. Furthermore moral pluralism is a fact of historical truth, raising deeper questions for criteria for explaining identity and difference, for distinguishing good history from good metaphors and the ends and origins of any phenomena. Take the misguided application of Christian eschatology to Big Bang cosmology. In her view this is “as preposterous as Paul the Apostle telling [director of the Princeton Center for Theoretical SciencePaul Steinhardt how to do pure physics…” She attributes the problem to “ongoing category mistakes from which Galileo and countless others have suffered enough.”

She asked:

* What is scientific truth? The answer has evolved with new discoveries: general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory,etc. “These matters prove there are deep limits of intelligibility defining the parameters of open questions.”

 * Is altruism rational? “How are group formation and identity internalized so that altruism becomes reciprocal, as good for self as others, as the Dalai Lama teaches in the traditions of ancient Buddhism.” “Poetry in Second Isaiah  is one of many examples from Hebrew Scriptures mandating universal law to care for what is other than the self ” It is “vindication of the unselfish.” She asked, “What does this say about the durability of altruistic values?”

 * What is moral truth? “We are asking whether or not it is viable to generalize reciprocal altruism on large scales. … Cooperation is fundamental to survival of the species. … We are seeing that cultural selection is a fragile phenomenon, but the institution of stable cultural practicing is robust on a small scale in courts of law and renaissance art guilds, for example … with strong constraints on membership, codified by statute. The resulting language of selective morals, of loyalty, of honesty stabilizes cultural selection groups where membership is identity … based upon trust, the single most important element of a good society. Fragile sensibilities can flourish in good faith.” [emphasis mine]

 * What is personal human truth? “The Fragility Group is engaged also in reflection on the fragility of human societies. Stable systems share an emerging process of adaptation. … Formal systems of adaptation are robust at all levels of complexity. … We examined the  history of cultural selection in which dynamical emergence occurs. For instance, in the practice of medicine, in a durable form of religious art and scholarship. This in turn raises the open question of causes for the emerging of Athenian democracy and theatre from which we can learn about the early mechanisms of psychology, as Freud did from Oedipus to Psyche.”

 * What is political truth? “[Political scientist] Maurizio Viroli… introduced the Fragility Group to Plato’s analysis on the “goodness of political institutions being fragile for two reasons. Because passions like ambition and avarice erode goodness. And because time erodes goodness by weakening memory and true knowledge of the self.” Civic love, agape, keritas [sp.?]. “Is a form of reciprocal altruism and self love consistent with love for your neighbor as commanded in ancient Greek, Hebrew and Roman manuscript traditions? Love is a virtue and a formal energy.”

“In politics,” she said, “human memory is a possession of Truth that can be destroyed by war, genocide, famine and torture.” eg. “trivializing the Geneva Convention.”  “By contrast our fragile acquisition of the Pythagorean Theorem, a durably beautiful truth, like music, unchanged by events, flourishes in memory as if by miracle.”

We all undoubtedly have open questions that require Truth gleaned from a multiplicity of disciplines. “We are witnessing a dynamical explosion of information with no predictable outcome as to how these fields will combine intelligibly, as the Internet makes the printed media ever more fragile.” Historian Anthony Grafton demonstated this fact to the group. “The Project on Fragility is giving birth to a renaissance of clarity and renewed understanding of interdisciplinary approaches to curricula. We are creating a remarkable level of intuitive coherence.” The goal is collaborative problem solving on a grand scale, the likes of which Jones Nelson says has never before occurred.

In conclusion, our prophet assured us that “Truth itself is robust. By contrast, possession of Truth is fragile” [emphasis mine], because “what we know we can forget,” eg. what we know about slavery and the Holocaust. “The imperishable task of remembrance must be protected by the inescapably durable fact that Truth itself is something sacred.” The “survival of the species” demands that the collaborative search for Truth continue. The alternative is “moral paralysis.”

With a nod toward students, she advised: “You needn’t believe in God to act with moral integrity. Nor does belief in the existence of God make you an imbecile incapable of rational thought simply because the proofs are inconclusive in the minds of others.  And if anyone says you don’t fit in because you differ, be a good skeptic and remember you’re right to take it as a compliment.”

As usual with these events, the Q&A was nearly as interesting as the lecture. The first commenter compared the talk to a romantic poem that he could not readily interpret. What was the point, he wanted to know. A mathematician noted that Truth in mathematics isn’t as absolute as people imagine. He said that in order to define Truth in mathematics, one must get outside its language. He called this a “sobering reality.”

A student then asked if the anti-intellectualism of American culture demonstrates the fragility of knowledge. He advocated a hierarchy of disciplines in regard to Truth. Of course, he wanted the empirical disciplines at the top and poetry at the bottom. Jones Nelson marginally agreed with his assessment. Fragility Project group member and Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams was in the audience. I caught up with him at the reception. He disagreed with the subjugation of artistic truth to the empirical, as did I. One can find Truth in artistic forms that is obscured in empirical expressions.

A man to Williams’ right wanted to know if fragility is a problem or a solution. Obviously in the case of slavery, it’s a solution while in the case of Holocaust denial it’s a problem. Jones Nelson said the conversation itself is somewhat fragile, because there’s never before been one like it across disciplines. I find this claim difficult to take seriously. Perhaps she meant in a formal sense, one that requires sponsors and funding, which the group is seeking. The Vatican asked her to launch this project … long before Pope Benedict reinstated the Holocaust denier(s)… but after she had spoken at the Vatican about Holocaust denial.

Finally a student asked what my husband called the Philosophy 101 question: Does Truth exist at all?  Here Jones Nelson mentioned the Deconstructionists, sounding at first as if she was affirming them, even though she concluded by saying she believes Truth does exist, eg. historical Truth verifiable by archaeological evidence.  She unfortunately qualified this statement by saying that whether or not Truth exists for oneself is entirely subjective. I asked her later about the Deconstructionists, telling her that my philosopher friends tend to dismiss them outright. She acknowledged this and tied the early Deconstructionists to Holocaust denial. She relegated the “harmless” ones to the 1980s like bad hairdos. Leave it to us evangelicals and post-evangelicals to be 30 years behind the times in philosophy  philosophical fads, as well as just about everything else. Humility. We should be first in that.

For years, my husband has been advocating in private conversation just this approach to problem solving. He asked the speaker if the group won’t ultimately have to come to some consensus about Truth in order to accomplish anything tangible. She didn’t really seem to have an answer. In fairness, the question was asked over a delightful banquet of salmon, steak, asparagus, cheeses, chicken piccata, eggplant rollitini, raspberries, etc. and amidst a small crowd of inquirers.

The Fragility of Truth and Other Inescapable Facts. It’s a lovely title and a fascinating topic that was elegantly outlined. There was free food and, later, a martini crafted and named just for me. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon! Here’s to hoping the Princeton Project on Fragility leads somewhere.

Thinking about Religion, Belief & Politics @ Princeton

The inaugural Danforth Lecture at Princeton University was a lucky little feast for the brain Thursday afternoon. CUNY anthropologist Talal Asad gave a breathtaking talk on “Thinking About Religion, Belief and Politics.” I hadn’t expected Charles Taylor to be the subject of Asad’s elegant dissection, but there it was: A Secular Age fileted and served on ice. 

This eminent scholar/author said Taylor’s seminal work deals with personal crisis of belief that are insufficient to the global crisis of our time. He argued that beliefs formed through external acts of devotion and training are not inherently coercive, but can lead to authentic faith and the formation of a moral personality. Asad appeared to be making a case for non-Judeo-Christian, or, at least non-Protestant, religious influence in the public square. He spent precious little time talking directly about politics, but instead drew an entertaining connection between the development of public ventilation systems and narcissistic notions of belief.

Asad objected to an audience member’s suggestion that he dismiss religion outright as a dangerous force that wants to control other people’s bodies. He said the secular/religious debate is tired and suggested that market forces can be at least as coercive as religion. He cited coercion of women’s bodies as an insightful example. 

Although the lecturer expressed faith in liberal democratic values, he has comparatively little faith that states can effectively implement those values. He concluded by confessing doubt that mankind will see the next century. With such apocolyptic vision, one wonders where he gets off saying personal faith is insufficient to the times. Perhaps he thinks no other kind will hold sway in coming decades.

Ah well. My momentary USC advisor Diane Winston tipped me off to Princeton Religion Department public offerings. I had been lamenting the loss of such local events at USC and UCI, but found this first lecture a more than adequate substitute. Thanks to Ed Gilbreath, I’ve also been reading the blog of two Princeton professors lately. Check it out; it’s called The Kitchen Table.

The Princeton University Art Museum is likewise a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The museum is free and contains a good deal of compelling Christian art and iconography. There are also a couple witty architectural exhibits right now and a nice collection of ancient art, including Roman floor and wall mosaics. Strolling the campus, parts of which date back to 1756, is itself an exercise in art appreciation.

My husband’s handicapped tag came in handy on this trip. A quick phone call to the PU parking office and we were waved in to park on campus. Between the museum and the lecture, I dragged him to the Whole Earth Natural Grocery, which has been selling bulk health foods on Nassau Street since the 1970s. The last time I was there, it was a warm, earthy place. A low VOC renovation has left the store feeling sterile, cold and utterly suburban. Still, I stocked up on brown rice, Kombu seaweed (which is supposed to reduce the gassiness of beans when a couple 1-inch chunks are thrown in the pot) and other vegan staples. 

On the drive to Princeton, I was struck once again by the subtle beauty of my state. We passed quaint farms, small towns and mile after mile of hearty pine. A gas station on Rte. 33 was simultaneously selling Chicken Parmesan sandwiches and gas for under $2-a-gallon. Can’t beat that.

At dinner on the same road in Hightstown (half way between home and Princeton), a high school classmate of my husband’s was working as a waitress. Dinner was lousy. We should have eaten down the road at Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty instead. Baker’s original Lobster Shanty is a landmark in my home town of Point Pleasant Beach. I went to high school with his children, one of whom is a longtime friend.

We were at a delightful party together last night. There was plenty of good wine, lots of laughter and a passionate debate amongst old friends the likes of which I imagine taking place in Republican living rooms from coast to heretical coast. The topic? What does it mean to be a Conservative? What went wrong in ’08? And since when did disagreement mean one’s conservative and/or spiritual credentials are suspect?

Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to be home?

I have a job interview Tuesday. Send up a prayer for me if you’re so inclined. I’ve been told to prepare for a two-hour introduction.

The Far Country, and Home

We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickle’s worth of sense into our days. And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do: churn out enormities at random and beat them, with God’s blessing, into our heads—that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God? (And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?) We forget ourselves, picknicking; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. “God is at home,” says Meister Eckhart, “We are in the far country.”

We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all. We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to break our necks for home.

There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.

—Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Spiritual Evolution

Harvard Medical School professor George E. Vaillant was the speaker at yesterday’s UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum meeting. Vaillant is Director of Research for the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  His research has involved charting adult development and the recovery process in schizophrenia, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and personality disorders. He is the Director of the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard University Health Service, which has prospectively charted the lives of 824 men and women for over 60 years. Vaillant has been at the helm for 30 of those years.
Vaillant titled his lecture Positive Emotions, saying that spirituality is another name for positive emotions and psychiatry doesn’t talk about positive emotions, religion does. The lecture wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, but the book sounds intriguing.
Here are my notes:

1. Introduction

  • Negative emotions are about me and now, while positive emotions are future and other focused.
  • [Positive?] emotions are the unwelcome guest at the academic table. This truth is so dramatic that the leading text of psychiatry includes 1-600 lines about:
    but only
5 lines about hope
1 line about joy
0 lines about love
0 lines about compassion
0 lines about forgiveness
Vaillant had to delve into hymns, psalms and prayers to find such words. He says religion, for all its defects, allows us to pull positive emotions up into consciousness.
  • The average Fortune 500 company lasts 40 years; most family fortunes are gone after 3 generations; most nations after 300 years. The world’s great religions are all committed to compassion and unselfish love. All have lasted 1400 years or more.
  •  45 year olds-to-75 year olds with strong community involvement become less religious, more invested in grandchildren, etc. Same group experiencing bad life events that are not self-inflicted (eg. philandering, alcoholism), increase religious involvement.
  • Brain continues to myelinate until age 60. Parts that myelinate in adult life connect passions to fore brain and social judgment. Thus, 70 year olds have less trouble with depression, impulse control and anti-social behavior than people half their age. The heart and brain grow in simultaneous awareness.
  • Compare a golden retriever to a clergyman. Put both in a trunk. Drive around in the desert for an hour. Ask yourself: Which one will be happy to see you when you open the trunk? Maybe it’s not only humans that God constructed in his own image.


2. Mental Health Scales

The Four Fs (me focused) [did he mean 3 Fs and an L?]
PANAS (Positive/Negative Affect Schedule, positive emotions):
  • Induce positive emotions, scores go up; induce negative emotions, scores go down.
Positive Psychology (introduced 1999):
Good Cheer
  • No place for passion or joy on scale.
  • Freud thought awe was an infantile emotion.
  •  1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupery: It is only with the heart one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
  • Don’t believe everything you think.
  • 1943 Autism recognized as a relational rather than cognitive ailment. Attachment is different from cognition.  


Vaillant’s Scale (unique):

3. Case for Spiritual Evolution

Murder rate in 1300 50 times what it is today. In the 19th century, US spent more on defense than health care. Now inverted. In 1900, both the World Health Organization and Boeing 747 were equally unlikely dreams. Nobel Peace Prize and Olympics instituted.


  • Real Darwinian success evident in unselfish love.
  • Religion may kill many, but so do automobiles.
  • Religion is just as dangerous as new-fangled tranquilizers.
4.  Q&A


  • Hippocratic Oath can be summed up as: Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want them to do unto you.
  • Love and service are vital to healing.
  • Found nothing in medical library about joy. One of the most powerful ways to produce joy is for a lost person to be found (peek-a-boo, sick person recovers, etc.). Not love affairs; affairs all about me.
  • AA meetings: more consistent hugs than anywhere else. Hugs heal, invite expression of “poor me’s.”
  • Psychiatrists: overpaid, overworked. [and yet, we’re grateful for the good ones]
  • 10 years hard data proves AA works better than psychotherapy for treating alcoholism.