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.
One 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.
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:
“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.”
Throughout 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
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.
Having 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.)
My earlier blog post, ‘Struggling Towards Holiness‘, has been published in the March/April issue of Touchstone. Touchstone has made this article available for those who don’t subscribe to the magazine at the following link:
The Cross of Least Resistance: Our Path to Holiness Runs Straight Through Calvary
Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.
“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.
“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”
My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.
I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”
There’s an American maxim which says you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite society. It’s hard not to have some sympathy with this advice, especially during the election cycle. After all, just look at how our political debates have become an emblem of all that is degenerate in our political discourse.
Even among friends, conversations about who should be our next president can quickly become divisive and alienating, while frank discussion of political disagreements rarely proves constructive and edifying.
Well, I’m here to suggest the impossible: political disagreements, when handled right, can actually be constructive and relationship-building.