Archive | April, 2012

Colson: Good-bye to a joyful man

23 Apr

Charles Colson (1931-2012)

I never had a short conversation with Charles Colson. We talked only twice and I came away convinced he had too many thoughts and too many tasks to squander on small talk.

Colson died on Saturday at the age 80. The obituaries have noted his life and career: Nixon White House operative (famous for saying he’d be willing to run over his grandmother for the president and other tidbits). Watergate figure who did prison time for obstruction of justice. A  “born-again Christian” who started what became the largest prison ministry in the world. A public thinker, author and frequent gadfly who, to his credit, aimed to appeal to the brains of skeptics and believers–and not just their hearts–in his articles, books and the Wilberforce Forum. But as several commentators have said since he died, Colson’s most memorable legacy may be his life, a picture of redemption.

The first time we met was in July 1990, when he was a keynote speaker at a church convention in Kansas City. At the time I was editing a small Christian magazine called The Lookout and arranged an interview. Actually, I thought I would just be part of a press conference, but only I and an editor for a small Filipino Christian magazine showed up–and after a few questions, the Filipino editor left. It was Chuck Colson and me, one on one for 45 minutes.

He seemed a little annoyed, maybe because no Kansas City media showed up, but he patiently answered my questions and in the process gave me a lesson in interviewing. I had my agenda, but it didn’t take long for the old lawyer and politico to skillfully and subtly take charge. I didn’t even notice until I looked at my notes later. I don’t remember much about the interview or the resulting article itself. What I remember most clearly is his energy, his Yankee-lawyer drive (not to mention his clipped cadence), his finely sharpened mind, and, when he talked about his standing before God, his humility. He didn’t laugh often during our conversation, but he exuded what they would call in the 19th century “good cheer.” Here was a joyful man.

Colson during his White House days, with President Nixon (left) and aide Ken Clawson (right) in May 1972.

I spoke with him again at length almost nine years later. Another interview, but this time  it was for a job. We spoke by phone since I was holed up at the suburban Washington offices of Prison Fellowship and Colson’s think tank, the Wilberforce Forum, and he was in Florida. I had arrived just ahead of a February ice storm, the same one that prevented him from traveling to D.C. Colson was my last interview of the day. I sat in an office alone with a phone, and we talked for about a half hour. He asked a few questions about my family and my background, and I think we spent about 10 minutes or so actually talking about the job–but then he took off for intellectual highlands and brought me along.

The interview changed altitude quickly, almost naturally: From the job to the goals of the Wilberforce Forum and his writing, to the shifts he saw in Western culture and in the church. He’d talk a few minutes and then punctuate his remarks with a question: What did I think of this author or that trend? What did I make of this historical connection he had made? He was testing me, of course, but at some point the mode shifted from interview to conversation. Through the phone lines, I could feel that familiar passion and good cheer.

I can’t claim Chuck Colson as a friend or colleague. (It didn’t work out for me to go to Prison Fellowship, probably the best result for all concerned.) The time I spent with him was a blip in the course of his 80 remarkable, turbulent, redemptive years. But I’m grateful that we met and that I got to join those heady, challenging conversations with him. And like so many others, I’m simply thankful for Chuck Colson. He realized, maybe as few people do, that he was a rescued, reconciled man, and he spent his days aiming to pass on that gift.

 

Eternal beasts (or ‘Is this cat in heaven?’ part 2)

18 Apr

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks (c. 1834)

I like to think that one of the gifts in the age to come will be enjoying lap time with my cat and maybe the company of other animals, but Sister Mary Martha will have none of that. No way, no how, the blogging sister says. (Motto: “Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.”) But even she acknowledges that many Christians think otherwise, and so they do. A recent article in Christianity Today, which I mentioned in my last post, offered a range of opinions.

Jewish thought is just as ambiguous. (Look here and here, for examples.) Jewish commentators hint at a possible dividing line: The Aristotelian-leaning rabbis, such as the great medieval scholar Maimonides, are less inclined to see a place in heaven for animals. But the more mystically inclined, such as those who follow Kabbalah, think animals will be in heaven, in part because their rabbis taught that souls transmigrated—that human souls not ready for heaven enter the bodies of animals (ideally kosher ones, of course). But that’s another issue.

Muslims, on the other hand, generally agree that the Koran teaches animals will be in paradise, part of the enjoyment God promises to his faithful ones. The Islamic concept of “Jannah,” or paradise, differs dramatically from the Christian, but I’m struck by the reasoning here. Animals, Muslims say, do what they were created to do by God, and so they “submit” to him–an important word, since that’s what the word “Islam” means. From that perspective, it makes that sense that God would admit them to paradise. That is, if I’m interpreting this teaching correctly, Muslims say God allows animals into heaven, rather than excludes them, precisely because they don’t have the choices we do, and he will be merciful.

I don’t know if we’ll reunite with pets and other animals in heaven. I hope so: they would fit with the joy.

I know, I know: there are all kinds of logical objections. If animals go to heaven, for instance, will we have to put up with mosquitoes and cockroaches for eternity? (C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in the Problem of Pain that “if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”)

Maybe the bigger question here is why I—why we—are so taken by this question. Why does this matter? Perhaps the way we think about animals offers clues to how we think about the creation and even the creator. I want my old cat in heaven because he was worth something, part of God’s good creation, and I like to think that God is generous even to cats and dogs, not to mention lambs and wolves who can enjoy a peaceful meal together.

I imagine heaven would give animals the same essential gift we Homo sapiens hope for: to live fully as intended. Dear departed Stache will get to live out his perfected “catness,” whatever that means, much as I look forward to fully live out my perfected “humanness.”

One last thought: If we embrace the idea of a God who cares for his creatures even into eternity, shouldn’t we care about them as well in the here and now?

Is this cat in heaven?

16 Apr

Stache

My cat, Stache, died almost six weeks ago. More precisely, I had him “put to sleep,” as the euphemism goes. Kidney failure finally brought him down, but it was only a matter of time in any case. He missed his 17th birthday by only a few weeks.

That cat was around for most of our family’s life. We watched him being born, one-fourth of a litter. He and his brother, Biggin (as in “Big One,” because he was), moved back and forth across the country with us and, odd as it seems, they became one of the few constants in our lives during those years.

I wrote this note and posted a photo on my Facebook page the night Stache died:

“RIP Stache (1995-2012), beloved and affectionate cat. (Pronounced “Stash,” as in ‘Moustache.’) Traveler (Ohio, Colorado, Tennessee), adventurer, hunter, sometime lord of the manor, and a virtual member of the family for almost 17 years. Peacefully “put to sleep” today with advanced kidney failure. Stache and his twin brother, Biggin (d. 2007) make me hope that animals are in heaven.”

The response astounded me: dozens of notes of sympathy and assurance, including this one from Paul, an esteemed church historian: “Yes, there will be dogs and cats in heaven, but the cats and dogs will lie down peacefully together next to the lions and the lambs. Really sorry to hear this, because pets are family members and they ‘make history.’”

When I went to bed that same night, I felt myself waiting for him to jump up and curl behind my knees. I mentally checked myself and then sat up and cried like a baby. It took about three weeks for me to stop looking for him to come out from the flowerbed or greet me in the driveway when I pulled in from work or jogged back after a run.

A 17-year habit is hard to break. A 17-year relationship, even with a cat, is hard to let go.

I let the subject slide until last week. Then a Time cover story (April 16) about heaven appeared, summarizing the view that heaven is more tangible than we often think. Would that include animals? (This followed a Feb. 20 cover story about animal friendships.)

And then Christianity Today published a forum in its April issue, specifically asking: “Do Pets Go to Heaven?

So between articles in major magazines, the overwhelming response from friends, including some I haven’t heard from in years, and my own experience (and the fact that Americans spent almost $51 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association), this seemed like a subject worth thinking about.

The three Christians who responded in the Christianity Today article, all evangelical Protestants, were hopeful but noncommittal. Reuniting with Fido (or Stache and Biggin, in my case) is a warm and fuzzy idea, but there’s not a theological consensus.

That’s pretty much the case if we look more broadly. The Roman Catholic Catechism, for example, doesn’t explicitly say one way or the other. It does, however, distinguish between “animal souls” and “eternal souls.” Thus, many Catholic and other Christian thinkers follow the logic and say that because animals’ souls aren’t eternal and because they can’t choose to believe or follow God, they can’t be in heaven.

Others, however, point to all the biblical verses that affirm the value of animals as part of God’s creation, as symbols of his “peaceable kingdom” (Isaiah 65, etc.), and even objects of his salvation. (Take a look at the last verse in the book of Job.) All this, many Christians say, would say that animals are part of God’s eternal plan.

We haven’t even considered what Jews and Muslims think. That’s in the next post.

Breaking news: Political conservatives are not stupid!

9 Apr

Count to 10. Easy, right? Almost automatic.

Now, count to 10 again—but in alphabetical order. That’s different.

Now mentally trace a route you often drive or walk—to your job or the grocery store or school. Again, simple.

Now, imagine that your normal path and even the next most obvious route to the same place are blocked. What’s your third- or fourth-choice route?

That little exercise illustrates the difference between what psychologists call “low-effort,” or “automatic,” thinking and “controlled” thinking. Most researchers believe we manage most of our days with automatic thinking, which frees our brains to focus on more complex, unfamiliar or difficult tasks. That’s how I can make a tuna sandwich or pump gas or drive to work while I think about details for my daughter’s wedding or how to revise a class schedule or deal with the insurance company.

That’s the kind of difference Scott Eidelman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and his colleagues discuss in a recent research journal article. The title might explain why it’s generated a lot of friction.

Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” published online in March in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, states a simple thesis, summarized in a news release: “People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response. This low-effort thinking seems to favor political conservatism, suggesting that it may be our default ideology.” (The paper identified “political conservatism” with three common traits: “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”)

To be clear, the researchers added, “We are not saying that conservatives think lightly.”

Or that they’re stupid. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of several conservative bloggers.

Study: Conservatism ‘linked to low brainpower’” according to the aggrieved TeaParty.org. “Study ‘Proves’ Conservatism Linked To Stupidity” The Ulsterman Report sarcastically proclaimed. The Conservative Review harrumphed: Conservatism Comes From “Low Brainpower?” Not So Fast, Eggheads At University Of Arkansas. And you have to love the headline from the Washington Examiner: “Study: Dumb drunk people are more conservative.”

During a phone conversation on Friday I asked Eidelman if any of these headlines were accurate interpretations. In a word: “No.”

Scott Eidelman, Ph.D.

While he’s happy people are talking about the research, Eidelman confessed he was “a little disappointed” in how the study has splashed onto the blogosphere.

He compared the reaction to a game of telephone: When social scientists use a term like “low-effort thinking,” they’re using specific jargon to describe the normal, automatic thinking we all do—counting to 10, driving to work—in contrast to the “second-phase” thinking we do when we have time to ponder a subject.

But apparently some knee-jerk commentators saw “low effort” and “translated” it to mean “no-effort” or “lazy” or even “stupid.” Those mistakes got picked up and amplified by others. The “quotations” in the headlines are actually from other commentators, not from the scientists. For the record, the following words don’t appear anywhere in the original research: stupid, stupidity, stupidly, brainpower (low or otherwise), dumb. Not even prove or proves. And not, um, egghead.

Eidelman did not point out the irony of how such shoddy treatment only reinforces the kind of “stupid” stereotype that the commentators are complaining about. You can leave that to me.

“It’s not that political conservatism promotes low-effort thought,” he told me. “What we found is that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s not the same.”

Eidelman drew an analogy: He might carry an umbrella because it’s raining, but that’s completely different from saying that it’s raining because he carries an umbrella. In other words, while low-effort (or “first-response”) thinking tends to promote political conservatism, being conservative doesn’t tend to promote low-effort thinking.

This conservative tendency is roughly reflected in clichés about “comfort zones” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” As Eidelman noted, certain “conservative” characteristics are built into humans for our benefit, such as the tendency to save our energy or avoid unnecessary risks.

“If you want to look at evolutionary history, people were more likely to survive if they assumed a person approaching was a threat,” he explained. “It was smarter to assume that unknown plant was poisonous rather than edible. Or the sooner you know your place in a society, the better your chances to thrive.”

Sometimes those “first responses” were correct: the stranger was indeed hostile or the plant was really poisonous. But sometimes the stranger would turn out to be an ally or the plant a healing herb. In those cases, the “first response” would be … well, wrong. Finding out if the first (“low-effort”) thinking was correct could be discovered only with “second-step” thinking.

“When people don’t have the opportunity to engage in political thinking, when you strip away the effortful thinking, they tend to be conservatives,” Eidelman said. “But that’s only concerning the first-step thinking. We don’t have much on what the second step is. It’s an open question if that first response is correct. We haven’t measured outcomes. We think the scales are tipped toward conservatism. But whether it’s good or right to challenge that depends on people’s values and goals.”

Eidelman wondered if this “low-effort” tendency might help explain at least one aspect of current American politics.

“Liberals might understand conservatives more than other way around, because liberals, in a way, started at the same place,” he suggested. So here’s a thought: could empathy explain why congressional Democrats are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, to compromise more often on legislation than their Republican colleagues?

As we finished talking, it occurred to me that America’s Founding Fathers were literally invested in the status quo of the British colonies. They valued hierarchy, as their later writing of the Constitution proved. They preached personal responsibility. They sound a lot like political conservatives. But Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others did anything but stop at “low-effort” thinking. If they had, we might never have seen the American Revolution.

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