Old Friends

Everyone should have a few books that are like old friends. I’m reading through Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy for (I think?) the fourth time since college. I’ve been through a lot since then, and changed a lot - partly thanks to the book!

Its cover is worn and stained. The pages are starting to separate from the spine in one place. It is signed by the author: “For Gabe - Josh 1:8-9, Dallas” because I ran back to my dorm room to get it when I realized he was speaking at a Biola chapel. Somehow the signature means more to me now that he’s passed on from this life. It is marked up all over, in blue and black and green ink. I even used a highlighter in one place (I never use highlighters). Some of the underlining is sloppy or wavy - I read those sections in a car or bus and was unwilling to wait for it to stop to get a neat line. Some of the margin comments from an earlier me make present me cringe a little. Or a lot.

Reading it now, for probably the first time in 10 years, brings a sense of familiarity along with the newness of remembering what I’d forgotten. In a funny way I see myself in parts of it - “oh yeah, this is where I got that idea.” And there’s also some comfort in finding a thread of continuity in my life that stretches so far back. Like I said I’ve changed a lot, and not always in ways I wanted to. I’ve seen a lot that I thought was good turn out to be bad, or at least to be so mixed up with bad that it’s hard to believe in the good. But Willard’s teaching on discipleship to Jesus is something that I’m sure about the goodness of.


On debate and persuasion

The other day I listened to an old debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris on the topic "Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?" In some ways it wasn't a very good debate - the format didn't allow them to interact directly with each other; they each had their own angle on the question and mostly stuck to it so that to a great degree they spent 2 hours talking past each other.

From a technical perspective I think that Crag "won" the debate - he stuck closely to the actual question of how to ground morality. It was actually an almost comical contrast - Crag is parsing the question in a systematic way, making a positive case for a theistic grounding and a negative case for a naturalistic grounding; discussing both moral values and duties; making careful distinctions between (for example) moral ontology and moral epistemology, and refusing to be drawn away from the topic of the debate. Harris on the other hand is arguing that Yahweh is a moral monster, giving a (quite eloquent btw) description of the problem of evil, and saying that grounding morality in God is similar to psychopathy (really). Harris' only contribution to the actual topic of the debate was to say that if you take moral goodness to be identical to the wellbeing of conscious creatures, then you can develop an objective science of morality; but he seemed to think the identification was self-evident so he didn't give any reasons for it or respond to Crag's reasons for doubting it. He didn't give any negative reasons for thinking that theism couldn't ground morality (although he was clear that he's unimpressed with Yahweh). And he didn't give any defense whatsoever of the existence of moral duties in his framework.

If you parse their claims closely, you will find that they don't even disagree about the central question of the debate. Crag admitted in his opening remarks that he doesn't dispute that science can tell us about the well-being of conscious creatures. And Harris admitted that his moral framework starts with an axiom (the worst evil is the suffering of conscious creatures, and good is whatever is farthest from that) for which you can give no evidence, any more than you can argue for the law of non-contradiction or that 1+1=2 (of course, it is theism rather than atheism that gives us reason to associate our most basic intuitions with truth).

Nevertheless, if you pay attention to applause volume, the occasional laughter, and the tenor of the Q&A it is clear that the audience resonated with Harris. Crag's careful distinctions between different kinds of moral philosophy came across as cerebral and disconnected. Harris' axiom doesn't sound all that objectionable; so it doesn't matter to normal people if there are philosophical problems with his strict identification of good with well-being, or if he can't motivate duty (in fact that might even make his view more popular!). And Harris is an eloquent defender of his brand of anti-religious scientism, and a better speaker with a better voice.

So Craig won a technical argument that most people don't actually care about, but Harris presented his worldview in a more compelling way. This particularly struck me because our society is increasingly secular and I really enjoy thinking about technical arguments for theism based on the origins of life, the universe, and consciousness. But it's a sisyphean endeavor if you win and no one cares. Persuasion matters and that entails more than making fine philosophical distinctions.



I just finished reading Phantastes, by George MacDonald. I was seriously amazed at how vivid and richly imaginative it was. I know what C.S. Lewis meant about it baptising his imagination, although I wouldn't describe its effect on me like that.

I would describe the book as trying to show you a way of looking at the world as a place of wonder and possibility, of meaning and deep moral sentiment, of being shot through with a spiritual life and reality which is foreign to the mechanistic/scientific way of seeing. It tries to recreate a sense of the child's wonder at the world which we lose as we grow up, but at the same time the good and evil are not childish and silly but deep and compelling and sometimes scary.

One of the things that struck me the most was its portrayal of women, which is from a very different age than the one we live in. They are given a place of high chivalric honor and there is a strong treatment of their embodiment of ideas of goodness, purity, and otherness that merited respect. Most importantly, it's an honor and respect that is totally separate from sensual attraction and which is explicitly treated as far superior to such attraction. I'm sure that this idea is somehow "toxic" but I find it refreshing and so very preferable to the schizophrenic spirit of our own age that presents women in a objectified/pornified way, that glorifies sexual experience free of any constraints save consent only, and which then expects to build a culture of mutual equality and respect on that foundation.

One warning: the book is very episodic and has little in the way of an overarching plot. Also you have to get over the childish, sappy theme-park connotations (which MacDonald will quickly disabuse you of) that "fairy land" has in modern usage. But it's a work of deep imaginative depth and wonder which I highly recommend.



I don’t think you can understand Christianity without seeing in it a cry for deliverance. The cry of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, the cry of the righteous servant of God in the Psalms, the cry of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. And the cry of every heart in response to the cruelty of the world they find themselves in.

There’s a kind of popular piety that minimizes our suffering and sees in Jesus a kind of final deliverance that places those cries in the past, and views Christianity properly lived as a post-deliverance life of rejoicing and victory. But that doesn’t ring true to me. I am still crying out for deliverance, every day. From the wasting of sickness and disease, from despair, from the harm I do to myself and others and from the harm done to me by others. Jesus has, in a final sense offered forgiveness for all of these and removed the curse. But I feel the consequences of them every day, I need salvation not just from a final judgement but right here, right now.

You might reasonably think that you could avoid some of this by immersing yourself in a church community. But the church has really let me down in the past, in ways that I didn’t at the time think possible. And the hurt came directly from people I respected and saw as committed to holiness. It’s tempting to try to maintain my trust in Christianity’s transforming power by just redrawing my mental us/them lines and placing those people outside, as less committed than I thought they were. But the reality is much more terrifying. Good people, even abnormally good people, are capable of evil that seems totally incongruent with the good in them. All that is required for it to come out is to be prodded in a certain way or placed in a situation that activates their blind spots and they seem like totally different people.

And - more terrifying still - it’s not just the people who run churches that are like this. You are like this. The deliverance that you need, from sin, goes deeper than you know. And the safety you’re looking for can’t be bought by just finding the right community of safe individuals. Safety doesn’t come from a community, it comes from God.

It is still a comfort that God will subsume all of the crap done to us and by us into his perfect goodness, and that even now he is working in it for good. That is a cause for joy and genuine rejoicing. But right alongside it we cry, from the depths of our heart, for God to deliver us from the pain and oppression and hurt that come along with living in such a world as this.



I wrote this 7 years ago, but never published it. It was just a short, chance encounter but it really touched me and I still think back to it sometimes. I find something beautiful about the humanity and brokenness in Joey.

Joey came and sat down next to me, on a park bench during lunch. He likes to talk. He has been in prison most of his life (for theft among other things). He was released two weeks ago, and is homeless and hungry. He slept in the park last night, but he was woken up early by someone looking for drugs ("I don’t do that shit, man. I’ve been an alcoholic, but alcohol is a misdemeanor. That shit’s a felony"). His wife committed suicide ("You see that big tree over there, behind the bathrooms? That’s where she hung herself"). He still loves her, and misses her, he treated her well and never beat her and the restraining order was completely unjustified. He has a daughter, living with her grandparents, but he can’t go stay with them because they’re afraid he’ll steal from them. He would never do that. He shows me the scar in his stomach where a large black man stabbed him in prison ("he stuck me real good"). He’s on a first-name basis with the girl at the police station.

He believes in God, a vengeful God who punishes people. We talk briefly about sin and forgiveness. It is hard to get a word in.

Lunch is over. As I’m getting ready to leave, I tell him I’ll pray for him ("Right now, man? Are you down?"). I’m down. He scoots over next to me and takes my hands in his – the hands of a thief and alcoholic. Violent hands that may have beaten his wife. He asks me to pray for her, too. When I’m finished, to my surprise he starts praying for me ("Bless him, God. He’s a good man. I know he’ll do right, trust me").

Say a prayer for Joey.


Breath Prayers and Anxiety

Just about anyone who has reflected on it knows that they only have a small amount of control over their thoughts. They seem to wash over and past us like a river, and we more or less unconsciously latch on to one or the other as an object of focus. This is often the case even when you are actively trying to think about something else: your mind wanders away to another topic, and then when you notice you bring it back, and then it wanders away again, on and on. So there’s a real sense in which your own mind is wild and untamed and not listening to your own will.

Many years ago I read through Richard Foster's book “Prayer” with my brother. He told me much later that the only thing he remembered was the chapter on breath prayers - and, as a matter of fact that is also the only thing that I remember. A breath prayer is a way of focussing your attention on a short phrase or sentence, meditating deeply on it in order to internalize a particular point - to move it from something you know in your head to something you feel in your chest. The most famous of these is the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”, but just about any verse of scripture that speaks to you will do. Mine lately have been “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and “I am at rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him” (Psalm 62:1).

Maybe you can tell from my two examples above that I’m trying to capture a sense of quiet and calm in my spirit that isn’t there. The mind is like a person in a small boat on the open sea of the emotions, and anxiety is like a storm. Or, anxiety is a response to the storm, gripping the boat with white-knuckle intensity in a search for stability and safety that can’t be found (“Save me O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck”). Meditating on a breath prayer is a way to invite God to speak “peace, be still” over the storm.

(as an aside: the storm seems to be located in the stomach area. In many cultures the seat of the emotions is the gut rather than the heart for this reason, and I think it is why so many people eat to try to feel better. It can be very illuminating to start asking yourself where you feel certain emotions, they are quite localized in your body. This is a motivating observation for the spiritual disciplines, but that would take us too far afield.)

Most people report that their mind wanders when they pray so that it is very difficult to pray for any extended period - more than just a few minutes. This is especially true in the midst of a storm. Focussing on a short memorized phrase removes most of the mental burden and makes it easier to both maintain focus and regain it when you lose it. The idea behind a breath prayer is to repeat it to yourself, again and again and again. Stressing each word in turn provides a focus for the repetition: “I am at rest in God alone”, “I am at rest in God alone” “I am at rest in God alone”, etc.

Because your mind and body are interconnected, it’s also important to slow and deepen your breathing while you do this. Part of what you’re trying to accomplish is bring about a physiological change in your body, and slow deep breathing will facilitate that.

Whenever you find your mind wandering, bring it back. I find it helpful to be active while you are doing this - go for a walk, do the dishes, etc. It can be done along with any kind of manual labor and, according to The Way of A Pilgrim, you can even internalize it to such a degree that it stays with you even in mental labor.

By the way, the concept of breath prayers has a much wider application than I’m giving here. A much more authoritative exploration rooted in the monastic tradition can be found in The Way of a Pilgrim, which introduced this concept to me before Eugene Peterson’s book.

I remember once, before a very stressful meeting, Emily heard me singing “It is well with my soul” softly to myself. And she smiled at me and said “no it’s not, you’re a mess”. Which was true enough, my gut was a storm of distress. Intentionally trying to cultivate a peace in your spirit isn’t magic, it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you feel totally normal. But you can train yourself to feel a sense of stability that sits on top of the storm and isn’t perturbed by it, as you hear Jesus speak: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”