Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sharing Knowledge and Admitting Ignorance

I like to listen to the radio when I work in the kitchen.  Yesterday I had the radio on while I prepared dinner.  I heard an interview with author Leah Hager Cohen, who discussed her book I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't).  The interview briefly discussed the concept of the book, which seems to fit nicely with the prior post.  The interview is available at the following link:

Ms. Cohen describes instances when people in secondary or supporting roles had knowledge or ideas that could have been helpful to those in positions of greater authority.  She illustrated the phenomenon that sometimes people in greater positions of authority don't want to hear what those below them have to say and may even send signals that the subordinate should hold his tongue.  Conversely, even without such signals from one's superior, people in subordinate roles may feel inhibited to vocalize too loudly their concerns.  (Indeed, in my professional experience and in my husband's, we've both known plenty of folks who have been fired just for voicing concerns to leaders who did not want their opinions.) 

However, Ms. Cohen describes how such phenomenon can be dangerous--even deadly in certain circumstances.  I think her point is that people in authority need to be open about the fact that they don't necessarily know everything, those below them in the organization's hierarchy might have helpful insights, and that is ok.  This makes sense to me.  Leaders don't have to have all the answers.  That is why they are not the only ones in the organization.  They have surrounded themselves with others who also have knowledge and skills, from which the organization will benefit.

Ms. Cohen encourages us to admit it when we don't know something.  It is liberating.  And the alternative is faking it, which can be counterproductive and a waste of resources to say the least.

She also made an interesting point that our current culture breeds this reluctance to admit it when we don't know something.  We are conditioned that knowing the right answer is critical.  She is particularly concerned about our current younger generation who've grown up in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has raised the role of standardized tests.  She explains that emphasis puts "a premium on knowing the right answer, being able to fill in the correct oval on a test.  I worry that we may not be teaching enough the value of experimentation and failure and risk-taking and the process of inquiry."

As an educator, I echo Ms. Cohen's concerns.  I've been frustrated by students who seem to have no interest in exploration or experimentation, but instead just want to know the bottom line right answer to every problem.  In disciplines like law, there may not be such an answer because analysis and persuasion are important in driving outcomes.  And in disciplines like science and engineering, there may be one right answer, but it may not be known yet.  In technical disciplines, it takes a lot of trial and error before we discover truth.  We cannot insist on correct answers in all cases.  That won't allow us to progress.

I think that similar points are valid in our spiritual walk. 

Do I believe in an absolute truth in a spiritual sense?  You betcha. 

Do I think I know and understand that absolute truth?  I'm not so sure. 

I really hope that I've been able to glean at least some of God's truth.  But frankly, I don't kid myself that I have it all down.  Not anywhere near it.  I don't pretend to have all the answers.  But I continue to work at it.  I read and reflect and pray. 

And frankly sometimes I wonder if we humans are even capable of comprehending all of God's truth.  God is a spiritual being of infinite power and knowledge.  We are much less impressive.  In every way, we're much punier than God. 

It seems to me quite egotistical to think we could know and understand everything about God.  It reminds me of the Anne Lamott joke I shared recently. 

It also brings to mind the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.  The serpent promised Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God.  Maybe that is one interpretation of original sin, the attempt to be like God.  I'm not saying we shouldn't keep studying his Word and attempting to draw closer to God in understanding his teachings.  But maybe the Bible begins as it does because we are to remember our tendency to try to be like God and the catastrophic repercussions of that tendency. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Humility and Pride

I am new to social media and recently "liked" Anne Lamott, the Christian author.  She posted something recently that included what she described as an old joke.  I'd never heard it before, but it is quite apropos of the new direction of this blog.  The joke asks, "what is the difference between us and God?"  The answer and punch line: "God never thinks he's us." 


So often we Christians speak and write with such a confidence in our beliefs.  We know what we know.  We're certain.  We cannot be wrong. 

What's more, we're often quite loud about our rock solid beliefs because the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) told us to go out and make disciples of all nations.  Many of us seem to think that you "make disciples" by force and being loud.  However, that is not the example Jesus gave for us.  He fellowshipped with people who became his disciples.  He became their friend and taught when they were receptive.  He did not force them to believe what they were not willing to accept.  He drew followers to him with love, not angry words. 

People who are adamant about being loud about their rock solid beliefs often give the excuse that they are simply following the example of John the Baptist.  John had a lot of great attributes.  And he was an in-your-face sort of guy.  But the reality is that John was not Christ.  Thus, it is Jesus, not John, after whom we should try to model our behavior.

And when we are so sure our religious beliefs are absolutely correct, we forget that even Christ's followers, who were with him during his earthly ministry on a daily basis, didn't always understand what he was talking about.  Jesus constantly had to correct them because they literalized figurative language.  Even though he taught in parables with agrarian symbolism, with which they would have had familiarity, they didn't always grasp his spiritual meaning.  Christ's teachings are not simple and easy to understand.  If it was a struggle for those who were with Jesus during his earthly walk, how much more difficult it is for us two thousand years later. 

I encourage us all to remember that.  Whenever we feel absolutely certain we know what the Bible is saying on a particular topic.  Whenever we feel absolutely certain we know God's mind on a particular point.  That certainty should be a huge red flag, my friends.  It is a type of pride.  The Bible repeatedly warns against pride, and instead urges us to adopt a humble attitude.

I often think how egotistical it is for us mere mortals to be so confident that we know for sure God's will and his teachings in every instance.  He is the great I AM, who has been in existence longer than our puny brains can even fathom.  He is the creator of the universe.  The same universe that we're still struggling to understand.  Heck, I cannot even wrap my mind around my daughters' math homework sometimes.

Beyond the sin of pride, another thing that is dangerous about being so certain we already understand God's will and his teachings fully is that it closes us off to new learning.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking about.  I've been a college peer tutor, a middle school teacher, an elementary school teacher, a law professor and a homeschooling mom.  I've also taught in various church ministries.  So, I've seen this happen in many different contexts.  When we think we already know something, our minds tune out.  If we think we already understand a passage in the Bible, we may gloss over it when we read it again or when someone tries to teach us about that passage.  In more extreme cases, we may even argue with the person who tries to share new insight.  They cannot be right if we already have a monopoly on truth.

Being closed is not good, my friends.  There is at least one commonality of all the people described in the New Testament as having converted to follow Jesus: they had an open-mind and an open spirit.  I have a friend who is originally from a small village in Nigeria.  I have heard him pray in thanksgiving that his grandfather was open to the missionaries who came to his village decades ago.  He and his whole family are now devoted Christ-followers.  Their faith is the center of their lives.  And conversion is not a one time only thing.  The holy spirit is constantly working in our heart if we are open to being guided.  We are not a finished product.  The potter is still working with the clay.

I encourage you to consider that even when a passage may seem to clearly mean something, perhaps our initial understanding is not correct.  I know sometimes I've latched onto a passage of Scripture that appeals to me because in my modern perspective, it seems to be saying something that I really like.  But sometimes when I read more background or scholarly explanation of the wording, I eventually come to understand that the passage didn't really mean what I thought.  Often there is historical or cultural context I was missing that makes it more apparent that the author was really writing about a completely different topic.  That can be disappointing to learn the passage did not really say what I had thought.  But it would be foolish to cling to my apparently ego-driven pearl of wisdom instead of embracing what the passage actually was teaching.

Alternately, our initial understanding of a passage from the Bible might not be wrong, but often it is not as full or deep an understanding as we might eventually gain if we keep studying.  This can happen not only with Scripture but other texts as well.  This summer I taught Criminal Law, a course that I had taught many times in the past, but had not taught for almost two years.  During that break, my focus had been on other legal topics--primarily business law, as well as a few others.  So when I returned to Criminal Law this summer, I had a very different perspective.  As I re-read the same Criminal Law casebook for the umpteenth time, and discussed the materials with a new set of students, I had all kinds of epiphanies.  I noticed parts of the same old text that I'd glossed over to some extent in the past.  I realized certain connections with other topics I had been studying and teaching in the break period.  Coming back to Criminal Law after all this time, I am quite sure I got as much out of the material as the students, and frankly had more to share with my class than I had in the past.  The same thing typically happens each time I teach a course.  It is not unique to Criminal Law.  The more one studies a topic, the more one integrates other learnings.  One's understanding becomes fuller than after the first, fifth or even tenth read.  If we work at it, the same happens when we study the Bible.

I write these words as a reminder to myself and to you, dear reader.  The need to avoid pride and to adopt a humble attitude is so critical when we sit down to study Scripture.  This is not easy, obvious stuff.  It takes time and struggle.  I encourage you to not be afraid of the time commitment or the struggle.  Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.

And we shouldn't be afraid or ashamed if we aren't sure.  Lack of certainty is looked down in our secular culture.  None of us what to appear ignorant or unprepared.  But before the Lord and in the company of our fellow Christ-followers, being unsure is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.  Indeed, it is a sign of honesty and humility.  It is also a sign of a deep, seeking faith.  Keep seeking.  Be wary when anyone tells you a passage from Scripture is obvious or clear.  Do your own due diligence.  Dig deep over time to decide for yourself.  It is in that seeking that we come to understand God and his plan better.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"i repent" Post From "Our Exceeding Joy" Blog

I love blogs.  I love writing them.  And I love reading them.  I've got a list of a few I like on the right side of this page.  But it is certainly not an exhaustive list.  Time is limited.  I don't have time to read 100% of each blog that piques my interest.  I don't have time to read any on a regular basis.  From time to time, if I have a few minutes, I go to one of the blogs I've bookmarked to catch up.

This morning I had such a little break in my day and wandered over to "Our Exceeding Joy."  It is a blog by a woman named Sarah in Austin, Texas.  I went to college and met my husband in Austin.  I know first hand what a great town that is.  But what initially got my attention is that Sarah is an adoptive mom like me. 

I love the description of her blog.  She describes herself first and foremost as "an avid reader and writer."  She says her blog is an outlet where she writes "about the things that stir my soul" such as "Jesus, adoption, or human-trafficking."  What a woman! 

I read a lovely post that Sarah wrote earlier this summer on June 8th.  It was entitled "i repent."  Take a read of what she wrote.  I wanted to share it because it is beautiful and inspiring.  But I also thought it was very apropos of the new focus of my own blog.

In this post, Sarah explored her former hard-heartedness and judgmental tendencies towards people unlike her.  I particularly loved the following passages:

It never crossed my mind that I could be wrong.
Maybe this response is because I grew up in a culture where there was this prevalent fear of being invaded by the homosexuals and the abortionists. We talked a big game, but when it actually came to believing that God could love all these sinners, we battened down the hatches and only let in like-minded people.
Maybe it’s because I was taught that it was more important to be right than to love.
Or maybe it’s just a symptom of being a fallen, broken person.
Sarah really hits the nail on the head.  In our modern culture, it seems like everyone is yelling at everyone who disagrees with them.  We don't listen to others who are different.  We are not open to learning.  We think we're always right, like we have a monopoly on truth.  How arrogant.  Even the disciples were continually misunderstanding Jesus's teachings though they were with him 24/7 for several years.

And as Sarah points out so eloquently, we've tragically adopted the attitude that being right is more important than loving.  What a powerful statement.  As Christ followers, we can't fault nonbelievers from embracing and living that attitude.  But those of us who purport to have read and accepted the Gospels, we should know better.  Being right is NOT more important than loving God's people, whomever they might be.

Take a read of the whole blog post, which is available at the link below.  Meditate on it and keep it in your heart as you go through the day.  Beautiful sentiments.  Yeah, Sarah!

Friday, September 6, 2013

It Is Not Just the Politicians

In the last blog post, I described the exploitation of Jesus Christ by politicians to secure electoral advantage.  I wanted to be fair and note that I don't by any means believe only politicians exploit the Son of Man for earthly gain.  I'm a former corporate lawyer and professor of business law.  One of my points of consternation is when Jesus's name is exploited in the marketplace.

Sometimes it is subtle.  Maybe someone uses the ichthys (or "Christian fish") symbol in their marketing.  I did not used to think that was too bad.  But I began to ponder what they were really trying to communicate with such marketing.  I believe it is something along the lines of "I'm a Christian, so buy from me."  In other words, they are trying to gain an advantage in the marketplace through invocation of Jesus.

The advantage chiefly comes through one of two main forms.  On the one hand, it appeals to other Christians to do business within the community: "You're like me, so I'll buy from you."  But that is not appropriate.  Christianity is not a ticket to an elite country club.  The salt of the earth is not supposed to just hang out with other salt.  We're charged to go out into the world. 

Further, the appeal to stick within the community can have bigoted overtones.  Historically, it has been charged that such appeals are anti-Semitic.  As our Lord was Jewish, and as there is a long, violent history of Christian anti-Semitism, we need to be particularly wary of that.  But in the modern era, encouragement to give preferential business treatment to other Christians can be seen as bigotry against entrepreneurs of different faiths--Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc.  We're to be known by our love, not our bigotry and exclusion.

The other way entrepreneurs try to gain an advantage through invocation of the ichthys or other Christian references is to use it as a means to vouch for their business scruples.  In other words, "I'm a Christian, so you can trust me."  In general, my husband is a lot more skeptical and less trusting than I am.  When someone uses symbols or words to express their Christian faith in order to gain someone's trust, alarm bells go off in his brain.  Over the years, I've come to respect this hesitancy of his. 

Some good friends of ours seem to put great emphasis on the Christian label in the way that my husband never would.  That label seems to be one of the reasons they first were drawn to be our friends because at first blush we don't actually have all that much in common.  Though they put a lot of emphasis on the Christian label, I am often puzzled by their faith.  They go to church only very sporadically and never pray before meals, their home doesn't seem to have any evidence of faith, and they often say things that seem to express deeply held secular values in conflict with the Gospel.  Yet, the Christian label means a lot to them.  So much that a while back they entered into a business deal with a man largely based on his representation that he was a Christian.  To them, this meant trustworthiness.  Invoking the label "Christian" was a like a code for "I'm the right kind of person to do business with."  Had my husband been in their shoes, such a representation in that context would have been a huge red flag.  And it turns out, for good reason.  The business deal quickly went bad.  The man had hidden the fact that he was a wanted felon.  There was evidence of illegal drug use, domestic violence and other awful things.  Eventually the man skipped town to evade the police, leaving our friends with a horrible mess to clean up.

Beyond such subtle use of symbols, these days other businesses may use their faith in perhaps more obvious ways.

Chick-fil-A is a high profile example.  The private corporation's CEO, S. Truett Cathy, is a Southern Baptist and that faith has been important in the corporate culture.  Their official statement of corporate purpose includes the goal: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.  To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."  In line with his faith, Mr. Cathy has made sure that the company's restaurants are closed on Sundays, which is unusual in the American market place.  To be clear, I personally don't believe the decision was made in order to exploit Jesus to gain an advantage in the marketplace.  However, I do believe that an advantage is nonetheless achieved in this way.  I myself know a lot of folks who favor the restaurant for this business decision, as well as other indicia of being a "Christian business."

Another high profile example is Hobby Lobby, whose website describes the business with a lot of religious references:  Of four commitments listed, the first is "[h]onoring the Lord in all we do by operating in a manner consistent with biblical principles."  The website also indicates it is closed on Sundays.  However, the business has gain attention recently because it has sued over regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. "Obamacare").  Specifically, the company objects to required coverage of emergency contraceptives (a.k.a. the "morning after-pill"). 

Personally, I respect very much those who value the sanctity of life, and I deeply admire those who would potentially sacrifice financially to be true to their deepest values.  However, the pragmatic attorney side of me is skeptical about this particular lawsuit. 

The reality is that the "morning after pill" is used in just a small number of cases.  Unlike birth control pills or condoms, most women will never use the "morning after pill" because it only works in limited contexts.  It can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy from happening.  Specifically, the pill prevents ovaries from releasing an egg.  If it does not leave the ovary, an egg cannot be fertilized by sperm.  The "morning after pill" is thus appropriately labeled "contraception," and not "abortion." Unlike the former, the latter removes a fertilized egg from a woman's body.  Although there is disagreement over when human life begins, the earliest definition is fertilization of an egg by a sperm.  No one asserts that an unfertilized egg or a solo sperm is equivalent to a human being.

Further, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, most Christians would not assert that there is a moral imperative to allow an egg to be released from an ovary such that fertilization might occur.  As a former Catholic, I can vouch that even most practicing Catholics disagree with this official teaching.  Indeed, when my husband and I went through the church's marriage preparation classes, the couple teaching the course professed bewilderment over that teaching and indicated they had not followed it in planning their own family.  This was quite telling as the wife taught in the church's parochial school, the couple were active and well-respected in the church, and they were close friends with the pastor.  These were not casual mass attenders, but the lay backbone of the church.

It is important to note that because of its limited utility, the "morning after pill" is typically intended to be used when a woman's primary contraceptive fails (e.g., a condom breaks) or in the case of rape.  Even many people who are opposed to abortion would allow an exception in the case of rape. 

Due to these circumstances, I myself wonder about the sincerity of the Hobby Lobby lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act.  Perhaps I am wrong, but my suspicion is that the company is raising the issue of religious freedom as a ruse to avoid having to provide costly health insurance to its employees.  Indeed, I've known a number of fans of the store who've been sympathetic to the corporation's position because of the invocation of religious freedom.  These same folks would likely not be as sympathetic if the issue were framed in a different way, e.g., eating into corporate profits to provide health care to workers.