Sin and Virtue are both Difficult

From my recent Touchstone feature, ‘The Cross of Least Resistance‘:

If we look into the faces of people whose lives revolve around the pursuit of sinful lusts, we often see how severe is the toll exacted by their lifestyle. In many respects, sin is hard work, but its fruits are things like heaviness, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. Those who strive to live for others and who strain after virtues like humility, gratitude, compassion, and charity also find life hard work, but the fruits they reap are things like serenity, inner well-being, and joy.

A Different Approach to the Classroom

struggling towards successGrowing up in the modern West, most of us have been conditioned to think that the best students are those who don’t struggle. Successful people are those who easily achieve straight A’s, who can get their homework done as quickly as possible, and who rarely have to deal with unpleasant realities such as frustration, struggle, confusion or failure. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned and permeates the culture of the classroom.

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Spiritual Nationalism in America

puritans25One of the things I’ve been exloring recently is the ramifications of the Puritan rejection of the ecclesiastical calendar. Eager to avoid anything resembling Roman Catholicism, the Puritans rejected all holy days (even Christmas) with the exception of the Lord’s Day.

It is significant that the desacralisation of time among the Puritans’ descendants resulted, not in a calendar free of liturgical significance, but in time becoming ordered according to the new liturgies of secular nationalism.

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Critical Thinking

From my book Saints and Scoundrels, page 302:

Saints and Scoundrels by Robin Phillips“In our era, young children are continually being pressured to engage in self-expression before they are shown how to think coherently, and they are pressured to engage in reasoning before they are given the facts with which to reason. The result is not intellectual freedom but enslavement, for someone that is never taught how to think is by default trained to be a bondservant to the latest fad or fashion.”

A Model of Gratitude

Since I’ve been posting a lot recently about gratitude, mention of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is way overdue. Bonhoeffer was one of the best examples of gratitude throughout the 20th century. Like Viktor Frankl, Bonhoeffer showed that gratitude is possible even in the midst of unimaginably harsh circumstances. Here is what I wrote about Bonhoeffer on page 264 of my book Saints and Scoundrels:

DB“Even in the midst of the agonizing circumstances of a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer never ceased to overflow with gratitude to God. Facing the daily possibility of death, he regarded each day as a precious gift from the Lord, to be received with thankfulness and joy. One English officer imprisoned with him later commented: “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.” Thankfulness did not come easy to Bonhoeffer. He had much to be troubled over. His worst torment was the separation from his beloved fiancee, Maria, and the uncertainty of not knowing whether she was safe. During these sufferings, Bonhoeffer’s approach was not merely to refrain from complaining. Nor was it to be joyful in spite of the hardship. Rather, he teaches us that we can be grateful not just in suffering but for the suffering itself. Bonhoeffer believed that difficult circumstances, no less than pleasant ones, come from the hand of God.”

The Role of Beauty, Joy and Love in Parenting

parenting in loveThroughout my career as a freelance author, there have been certain themes I keep returning to. One of these themes is the necessity for parents to demonstrate to their children that Christianity is beautiful, that following Jesus is not simply the right thing to do but also lovely and attractive.

Christians have often failed to take seriously Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique that religion has a tendency to stifle joy and to bring death rather than life, and that consequently Christianity is life’s nausea. Sadly, what often passes for “Christianity” has often been nauseating and succeeds only in driving children away from the faith. Continue reading

Strengthening the Habits of Virtue

From ‘Do What Comes Naturally…But Work at it‘:

Lab research shows that human beings have a limited amount of will-power in any given situation. That is why, if you try to run the Christian life on will-power alone, sooner or later you’ll run into trouble when confronting a big temptation. It is good for each of us to work on gradually increasing our will-power, which we can do through practicing ascetic disciplines; however, the surest defense against temptation lies not in will-power but in habituation. The thousands of tiny choices we face every day are opportunities to strengthen the habits of virtue, to make right behavior natural for us. It’s in all these small choices—the things that don’t seem very important to us at the time—that virtue becomes habituated and we gradually develop the inner resources to remain faithful in the face of more challenging circumstances and temptations. The decisions to serve others, to recall our minds back to prayer when we begin thinking about ourselves, to be patient with those who annoy us, to practice impulse control when we begin mindlessly surfing online, to practice attentiveness towards those we love, to constantly shift loss-frames to gain-frames, to practice mindfulness to control our brains—these and hundreds of other choices we face every day are opportunities to define the types of behaviors that become habituated in us, so that when we find ourselves in an extremely challenging situation, we won’t have to rely on will-power alone, but can act automatically out of habit.

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What Science Has to Say about Heavy-Handed Parenting

indexHaving benefited so much from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, I was eager to read his latest book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

The book is about the consequences for humanity when so many of our tasks – from driving airplanes to keeping medical records – are increasingly being handed over to machines. You can be sure I’ll have plenty to share from this book in the days ahead since it relates to my ongoing interest in how hyper-pragmatism is forcing us to renegotiate what it means to be human.

For now I wanted to share a point Carr made along the way that is subsidiary to his overall theme but which relates to something I shared in my earlier post ‘Nine Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Parenting Teenagers‘ (It also relates to the Christian insights in the excellent book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.)

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Intellectual Curiosity and Freedom

From ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 4)

When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.

Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.

But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”

Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)