Brian McLaren, Author at Center for Action and Contemplation
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Who We Are Is Who We Will Be

Hell, No!

Who We Are Is Who We Will Be
Friday, September 17, 2021

My colleague Brian McLaren has long explored what it might mean to be a “new kind of Christian.” Brian once wrote a fictionalized story about a pastor asking questions at the edges of his faith. Dan, the book’s main character, strikes up a friendship with an older, former pastor who mentors him into a larger, more generous, and loving Christianity. This pastor leads Dan through a thought experiment:

Imagine that you have just died and passed through the doorway of death. And you enter heaven. And it is a place of intense brightness, a place fragrant with goodness, a place alive with love. The presence of God seems to pervade everyone and every thing. . . . In this place, people are humble and genuinely interested in others. . . . It is a place of true freedom, trust, and intimacy. And even though it is a place of great diversity, with people of all cultures and languages and times retaining all their uniqueness, it is a place where no one argues, no one fights, no one hates, and no one complains—not because they aren’t allowed to but because they don’t want to, because they accept and love one another completely. They are fully alive. . . . Think about how you would feel entering that place.

OK. Now I want you to imagine that someone has walked beside you through that doorway of death. And that person has lived his life cramped in hatred and fear, tight in guilt and greed, ingrown in lust and selfishness. He has spent every day of his life complaining and being bitter and blaming others and being ungrateful. He has been suspicious of those different from himself, and he has become an expert at lying and cheating and using others. He is proud, arrogant, unwilling to admit he is wrong. . . . Now, how would that person feel?

Could it be that the very light that seems beautiful to you would seem blinding to him? Could the very warmth of the love of that place that to you is so perfect seem to him horrible? Could the acceptance and love and trust and openness that welcome you seem to him disgusting, weak, terrifying, insipid, or repulsive? . . . Maybe it’s not that there are two places beyond the door of death, heaven and hell. Sometimes I wonder if hell is just what heaven feels like for those who haven’t learned in this life what this life is intended to teach. I believe with all my heart that God is not willing for even one person to miss out on the joy and glories of heaven. . . . We are becoming on this side of the door of death the kind of people we will be on the other side.

Richard here: In the Gospels, Matthew’s especially, Jesus teaches that we will face consequences for the choices we make in our lifetimes, but they are never for the sake of punishment. Instead, they are a manifestation of God’s redemptive and healing love, which will ultimately prevail.  

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Jossey-Bass: 2001), 90–91.

Story from Our Community:
I grew up in the Catholic Church of the 1950s, which Richard Rohr describes so well—a judgmental God with rules that could lead me to heaven or hell. I left the Catholic Church and found a Christian community that encourages me to think for myself about my religious beliefs and values. Then several years ago, a friend introduced me to the teachings of Richard Rohr and I will forever be grateful for his wisdom, which has changed my life as well as my faith. —Ted W.

Image credit: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, La Hija de los Danzantes (detail), 1933, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: A portal is an invitation to ponder what lies beyond. This young woman peers into a portal in curious exploration, unsure of what she will find, but still relaxed and open to what comes. In the same way, we are invited to accept that God’s love is constant even beyond our limitations of human knowing. In life and death, God’s love is.

Living Inside God’s Great Story: Weekly Summary

Living Inside God’s Great Story

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Week Thirty-Five Summary and Practice

Sunday, August 29—Friday, September 3, 2021

Sunday
I would gather my siblings and neighborhood friends and have them sit on a bench in the backyard. I would hold my penny catechism upside down since I couldn’t read yet, and I would pretend to teach “about Jesus.” I must have been a weird little kid, but I was happy too!

Monday
Everyone creates their own definition of perfection that they try to live up to, and then they experience the illusion that they’re either perfectly wonderful or completely inadequate.

Tuesday
Although one could find contemplative nuances in the communal prayers and everyday work of baking biscuits, it is in the legacy of the healers that I found the most overt practices. —Barbara Holmes

Wednesday
The reality of Thomas Merton made God’s unreality impossible to me. That is, his very reality was to me, the presence of God as a transformed person. —James Finley

Thursday
I had this feeling of being seen. Known. Named. Loved. By a Someone bigger than the sky that expanded above me. It was as if the whole sky were an eye, and all space were a heart, and I was being targeted as a focal point for attention and love. —Brian McLaren

Friday
I was also one of the relatively rare few who also had it patterned into me that prayer was listening to God. Not even listening for messages, exactly . . . but just being there, quietly gathered in God’s presence. —Cynthia Bourgeault

 

Fishing with the Divine

The two, fish and God, go together like fish and water. —Brian McLaren

For two of our CAC faculty, Barbara Holmes and Brian McLaren, fishing is a deeply spiritual practice. Brian shares how fly fishing connects him with the force and source of Life.

There’s something about capturing a fish that feels both primal and holy, especially when I’m not fishing to get dinner, but “for sport” or for “catch and release,” as it’s called. When a fish takes my artificial fly, whether it’s a trout in Yellowstone or a tarpon in the Everglades, I feel that the line could be an electric cord, transferring the animal’s aliveness, its vital energy, its élan, like a current through my arm to my body and my soul.

The truth is that I don’t actually fish just “for sport,” as if fishing were a competition that involved me winning over the fish (or over other fishermen, although sometimes, that element is certainly present). Nor do I fish simply to catch and release. No, I fish for this sense of connection—to know the fish by feeling its power, its resistance, its strength, its aliveness. . . .

The old Scottish novelist (and Canadian Governor General) John Buchan (1875—1940) famously said, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” [1] For some people, God seems easily attainable, as familiar as a lucky coin in the pocket, as conjurable as steam from a teapot. But for many of us, God is more elusive, and at best, we hope God is there, here, in here, but we can claim no rational certainty. In this way, encountering God is a lot like encountering a cutthroat trout that you can’t see. You can place yourself in a suitable location, prepare yourself, reach out your line, and—wait. And hope. And wait. And hope some more. And wait some more. [2]

A photo of Barbara Holmes fishing off a dock. Barbara Holmes shares: “One of the ways I practice contemplation in my life is through fishing. It’s the place and the space where I find a real connection through the ocean, the waves, the sound of the water, the birds diving, and the struggle with the adversary, which is the fish.” [3]

We invite you to watch this video where Barbara talks about her love of fishing as a practice of contemplation, connection, and community. 

References:
[1] John Buchan, “Lost Monsters,” in Great Hours in Sport, ed. John Buchan (Thomas Nelson and Sons: 1921), 15.

[2] Brian D. McLaren, The Galápagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey (Fortress Press: 2019), 173, 174.

[3] Barbara A. Holmes, “Introduction,” Our Teachers (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2021), faculty presentation, May 5, 2021, video.

Image credit: Raul Diaz, White Sands New Mexico (detail), 2006, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The natural grandeur of this photo reveals the creative and mysterious aspects of the Divine. But it doesn’t capture the dryness of the air, the heat of the sand, the sounds, the smells, and the tastes. That requires us to be there, present inside the landscape and story.

The Cosmos Reveal God’s Great Love

Living Inside God’s Great Story

The Cosmos Reveal God’s Great Love
Thursday, September 2, 2021

Brian McLaren grew up, as I did, in a very religious home, where “our story” was defined by strict religious obligations, with clear insiders and outsiders. However, a mystical experience in nature opened Brian up to God’s Great Story. He writes:

I grew up in a religious home. A full-dose, hard-core, shaken-together-and-my-cup-runneth-over, conservative, Bible-believing, Evangelical, fundamentalist Christian home. . . . Holidays and Sundays were just the spiritual appetizers. For the main course, there was also church every Sunday night. And there was a Wednesday night prayer meeting too. . . .

Some neighborhood buddies . . . invited me on a weekend retreat with the youth group from their Southern Baptist church. And that’s where spirituality snuck up and crashed upon me like an unexpected wave at the beach. The retreat leader sent us off on Saturday afternoon for an hour of silence during which we were supposed to pray. I climbed a tree—being a back-to-nature guy—only to discover that my perch was along an ant superhighway and that mosquitoes also liked the shade of that particular tree. But eventually, between swatting and scratching, I actually prayed. My prayer went something like this: “Dear God, before I die, I hope you will let me see the most beautiful sights, hear the most beautiful sounds, and feel the most beautiful feelings that life has to offer.” . . .

In spite of my sincerity, absolutely nothing happened. . . . [After supper,] a few friends and I snuck away to a hillside and found ourselves sitting under one of those sparkling autumn night skies. I walked several paces away from my friends and lay back in the grass, fingers interlocked behind my head, looking up, feeling strangely quiet and at peace. Something began to happen.

I had this feeling of being seen. Known. Named. Loved. By a Someone bigger than the sky that expanded above me. Young science geek that I was, I pictured myself lying on a little hill on a little continent on a little planet in a little solar system on the rim of a modest galaxy in a sea of billions of galaxies, and I felt that the great big Creator of the whole shebang was somehow noticing little, tiny me. It was as if the whole sky were an eye, and all space were a heart, and I was being targeted as a focal point for attention and love. And the oddest thing happened as this realization sank in. I began to laugh. I wasn’t guffawing, but I was laughing, at first gently, but eventually almost uncontrollably. Profound laughter surged from within me.

It wasn’t a reactive laughter, the kind that erupts when you hear a good joke or see somebody do something ridiculous. It was more like an overflowing laughter, as if all that space I had been feeling opening up inside me was gradually filling up with pure happiness, and once it reached the rim, it spilled over in incandescent joy. “God loves me! Me! God! At this moment! I can feel it!”

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words (HarperOne: 2011), 5, 7, 8.

Story from Our Community:
I begin each day with the joy of these reflections. Full of wisdom and insight, new ways of looking and longing, I share them with friends, family, and grandchildren. I love Fr. Richard’s Franciscan incarnation theology of the “Christ-soaked world.” Nothing is wasted. Everything is sacred. —Liz M.

Image credit: Raul Diaz, White Sands New Mexico (detail), 2006, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The natural grandeur of this photo reveals the creative and mysterious aspects of the Divine. But it doesn’t capture the dryness of the air, the heat of the sand, the sounds, the smells, and the tastes. That requires us to be there, present inside the landscape and story.

An Evolving Faith Includes Doubt

An Evolving Faith

An Evolving Faith Includes Doubt
Wednesday, June 2, 2021

In my mind, one of the markers of an evolving faith is an ability to integrate doubt—to hold the tension between what we’ve been taught and what we’ve come to know as true. When grounded in an experience of Love, doubt does not represent a step backwards, but is a necessary condition for any movement forward. CAC teacher Brian McLaren speaks of his personal journey with doubt as the essential ingredient in the evolution of his faith from “orthodoxy” or right belief to “orthopraxy” or right way of life.

Before doubt, I thought that faith was a matter of correct beliefs. My religious teachers taught me so: that if I didn’t hold the right beliefs, or at least say that I held them, I would be excommunicated from my community, and perhaps, after death, from God’s presence. They taught me this not to be cruel but because they themselves had been taught the same thing, and they were working hard, sometimes desperately, to be faithful to the rules as they understood them. I tried to do the same, and I would still be doing so today if not for doubt.

Doubt chipped away at those beliefs, one agonizing blow at a time, revealing that what actually mattered wasn’t the point of beliefs but the clear window of faith, faith as a life orientation, faith as a framework of values and spirituality, faith as a commitment to live into a deep vision of what life can be, faith as a way of life, faith expressing itself in love.

For all those years, when I said, “I believe,” I thought I understood what I was doing. But more was going on, so much more. . . .

Looking back, I now see that underneath arguments about what I believed to be true factually, something deeper and truer was happening actually.

For example, whether or not the creation story happened factually as described in Genesis, I was committing myself to live in the world as if it actually were a precious, beautiful, meaningful creation, and as if I were too. . . .

What mattered most was not that I believed the stories in a factual sense, but that I believed in the meaning they carried so I could act upon that meaning and embody it in my life, to let that meaning breathe in me, animate me, fill me. . . . Whether I considered the stories factually accurate was never the point; what actually mattered all along was whether I lived a life pregnant with the meaning those stories contained. To my surprise, when I was given permission to doubt the factuality of my beliefs, I discovered their actual life-giving purpose. . . .

Doubt need not be the death of faith. It can be, instead, the birth of a new kind of faith, a faith beyond beliefs, a faith that expresses itself in love, a deepening and expanding faith that can save your life and save the world.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It (St. Martins: 2021), 206, 207, 212.

Story from Our Community:
These have been extremely challenging times and, though difficult and often dangerous, inside each of them lay opportunity. I can enmesh myself in ego (my own and of others), yet I do my best to awaken to Christ consciousness. Everything is for the sake of spiritual evolution. It’s all about love for the sake of more love. Each of us has been Divinely granted yet another day to recognize the only real force—LOVE. —Robert L.

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, bamboo 天竹子 (detail), 2015, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: The capacity of bamboo to grow mirrors our own potential for inner unfolding. As long as there is life, there is evolution. As long as we have breath, our faith can continue to grow.

Making New Friends

Friendship and Grace

Making New Friends
Thursday, April 15, 2021

I’ve known CAC faculty member Brian McLaren for many years; and I deeply admire his gift for making friends through his genuine curiosity, compassion, and unconditional presence to others. In this passage, he encourages us to build relationships outside our comfortable social and religious groups.

Christian mission begins with friendship—not utilitarian friendship, the religious version of network marketing—but genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking, and enjoying this or that neighbor in particular. . . .

Many new friends have come into my life . . . Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers, and others—including lots of atheists and agnostics, too. One of the most dramatic of those friendships began in the aftermath of 9/11/2001. Like a lot of churches, our little congregation held a prayer service. While praying, I felt a voice speaking, as it were, in my chest: Your Muslim neighbors are in danger of reprisals. You must try to protect them. The next morning, I wrote and made copies of a letter extending, belatedly, friendship toward Muslim communities in my area, and offering solidarity and help if simmering anti-Muslim sentiments should be translated into action. I drove to the three mosques nearby—I had never visited them before—and tried to deliver my letter in person. . . .

[At the third mosque,] I clumsily introduced myself [to the imam] as the pastor from down the street . . . I then handed him my letter, which he opened and read as I stood there awkwardly. I remember the imam, a man short in stature, slowly looking down at the letter in the bright September sun, then up into my face, then down, then up, and each time he looked up, his eyes were more moist. Suddenly, he threw his arms around me—a perfect stranger. . . . I still remember the feeling of his head pressed against my chest, squeezing me as if I were his long-lost brother. . . .

My host welcomed me not with hostility or even suspicion, but with the open heart of a friend. And so that day a friendship began between an Evangelical pastor named Brian and a Muslim imam we’ll call Ahmad. . . .

It’s one thing to say you love humanity in general, whatever their religion; it’s quite another to learn to love this or that specific neighbor with his or her specific religion. So, do you have a Sikh neighbor, a Hindu coworker, a Muslim business associate, a Buddhist member of your PTA, a New Age second cousin? Invite them into companionship over a cup of tea or coffee. Ask them questions. Display unexpected interest in them, their traditions, their beliefs, and their stories. Learn why they left what they left, why they stay where they stay, why they love what they love. Enter their world, and welcome them into your world, without judgment. If they reciprocate, welcome their reciprocation; if not, welcome their nonreciprocation. Experience conviviality. Join the conspiracy of plotting for the common good together.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books: 2012), 223, 225, 226, 231.

Story from Our Community:
These meditations enrich our lives with different ways of seeing, so important in the narrow tradition I grew up in. I found the gift of Jesus at twelve, but he was wrapped in the culture of the missionary church. We have spent years letting go of the wrapping and keeping the gift. God has used Fr. Richard and Brian McLaren to teach us the depths of meditation, giving us a new awareness of our place in the universe and how connected to everything we are. —Nel S.

Image credit: Suzanne Szasz, Taking a Close Look at Nature at High Rock Park in Staten Island (detail), 1973, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Friends of all kinds surround and hold us.

Overcoming Contact Bias

Learning How to See

Overcoming Contact Bias
Thursday, March 4, 2021

Brian McLaren and Jacqui Lewis, my conversation partners in the recent podcast series, Learning How to See, understand that Jesus’ model of acceptance, inclusion, and love for “the other,” helps us overcome and heal our biases. Brian describes what he calls “contact bias,” when a lack of personal and ongoing contact with people who are different from us causes us to fail to see them for who they truly are:

When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with “the other,” my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged. Think of the child who is told by people he trusts that people of another race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or class are dirty and dangerous.

You can immediately see the self-reinforcing cycle: those people are dirty or dangerous, so I will distrust and avoid them, which means I will never have sustained and respectful interactive contact with them, which means I will never discover that they are actually wonderful people to be around. . . .

In this way, the prejudice cycle spins on, unchallenged across generations. As prejudice persists, it becomes embedded in cultures and institutions, creating systems of racism and hatred, marginalizing groups who are stigmatized, dehumanized, scapegoated, exploited, oppressed, or even killed. . . .

But if we are willing to listen to [“the other”] and learn from them, we can break out of our contact bias, which opens us up to seeing in a new way. . . .

On page after page of the gospels, Jesus doesn’t dominate the other, avoid the other, colonize the other, intimidate the other, demonize the other, or marginalize the other. Instead, he incarnates into the other, joins the other in solidarity, protects the other, listens to the other, serves the other, and even lays down his life for the other. [1]

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who leads what she describes as a “multi-everything” congregation in New York City, shares the gifts that embracing the other can bring. She views inclusion as central to the Gospel call to love:

The one we follow into mission and ministry—Jesus the Christ—was an avowed boundary crosser, a reformer of the religious and secular culture of his time. We are in good company when we lead the way on radical inclusion of those different from ourselves. In some contexts that might mean a black church reaching out to Korean neighbors, a Latino congregation starting a ministry to immigrant families from North Africa, or a Chinese church hosting an afterschool program for African American junior high students. . . . We believe the commitment to inclusion and diversity is a high calling, issued to all who count themselves as Christians, no matter what our ethnicity or culture. [2]

The more we bump into the folks who are so-called “other,” the more we are stretched, the more we are pulled out of that bias and have new truths because we have tangible evidence of the beautiful, powerful creativity of our God who made all of this diversity for us to enjoy. [3]

References:
[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [45–46, 90].

[2] Jacqueline J. Lewis and John Janka, The Pentecost Paradigm: Ten Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation (Westminster John Knox Press: 2018), 8.

[3] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

Story from Our Community:
I am so grateful for the Daily Meditations and the podcasts on bias [Learning How to See]. They help keep me grounded and hopeful. Surprisingly, for me, I have a sense of peace and awareness of the presence of grace in the midst of this mess. —Angela A.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Jesus and Bias

Learning How to See

Jesus and Bias
Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Learning how to see our biases is a psychological exercise, but one with immediate theological and social implications. It demands self-knowledge and the crucial need to recognize (1) when we are in denial about our own shadow and capacity for illusion; (2) our capacity to project our own fears and shadows onto other people and groups; (3) our capacity to face and carry our own issues; and (4) the social, institutional, and political implications of not doing this work.

If some Christians think that this is mere psychology, then they surely need to know that Jesus himself was a consummate analyst of human nature. He was really a brilliant psychologist and named many of the issues that we call today “denial,” “bias,” “projection,” and “the shadow self.” He also emphasized the necessity of inner healing of hurts to avoid continuing to hurt others.

Brian McLaren offers this perspective on why Jesus’ teachings were so effective in freeing people from an over-attachment to their own way of seeing:

When you aggressively attack people’s familiar ideas, they tend to respond defensively. They dig in their heels and become even more firmly attached to the very ideas that they need to be liberated from. . . .

That’s why Jesus, like other effective communicators, constantly told stories, stories that grabbed people by the imagination and transported them into another imaginative world:

. . . there once was a woman who put some yeast into a huge batch of dough [Matthew 13:33]

. . . there once was a man who had two sons [Luke 15:11]

. . . this man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho [Luke 10:30]

. . . a woman once lost a coin [Luke 15:8] . . .

Through these short “imaginative vacations” to another world, Jesus helped people see from a new vantage point. He used imagination to punch a tiny hole in their walls of confirmation bias, and through that tiny hole, some new light could stream in and let them know of a bigger world beyond their walls. . . .

[Jesus] didn’t spend a lot of time repeating or refuting the false statements of his critics, and he didn’t counterpunch when he was attacked or insulted, but instead, he used every criticism as an opportunity to restate, clarify, and illustrate his true statements. He had, to use a contemporary phrase, message discipline, which drew people to his central simple message: an invitation to overcome long-held biases, to think again, and to see and live life in a new light. [1]

It’s so hard to be vulnerable, to say to our neighbor, “I don’t know everything” or to say to our soul, “I don’t know anything at all.” Yet Jesus says the only people who can recognize and be ready for what he’s talking about are the ones who come with the mind and heart of a child (see Matthew 18:3). The older we get, the more we’ve been disappointed and betrayed by life and others, the more barriers we put up to what Zen masters call “beginner’s mind.” We must never presume that we see “all” or accurately. We must always be ready to see anew.

References:
[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [63–64, 68].

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013, 2019), 175, 183.

Story from Our Community:
A dear friend introduced me to Richard Rohr’s meditations. At first, I was a bit confused by the ideology of a universal Christ. I was raised Protestant and had God packed neatly into the Ten Commandments. I’ve learned the importance of emptying myself out so that there’s more room for Christ in my heart. Once I began to empty my cup full of ego and fill it with Holy water, the Holy Spirit brought my spiritual senses to life. — Stacey H.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Confirmation Bias

Learning How to See

Confirmation Bias
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

One of the phrases that has stayed with me from studying Latin in the seminary is “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.” This statement is not only kind of fun to say, but it has been critical to my understanding of how we process information. Directly translated, it means “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” Thirteenth-century scholastics such as John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) intuited this. It was early psychology before we thought we had psychology! What it means, in other words, is that we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. We see the things we want to see, the things that confirm our assumptions and our preferred way of looking at the world. [1] Brian elaborates today on how confirmation bias, which he believes is the most powerful, operates:

We all have filters, [such as] What do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed?

If so, I can accept it.

If not, in all likelihood, I’m simply going to reject it as unreasonable and unbelievable, even though doing so is, well, unreasonable.

I do this, not to be ignorant, but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness, and certainly without my permission) makes incredibly quick decisions as it evaluates incoming information or ideas. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.

But ideas that don’t fit easily will require me to think, and think twice, and maybe even rethink some of my long-held assumptions. That kind of thinking is hard work. It requires a lot of time and energy. My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets hard work like this as pain. . . .

Wanting to save me from that extra reframing work, my brain presses a “reject” or “delete” button when a new idea presents itself. “I’ll stick with my current frame, thank you very much,” it says. And it gives me a little jolt of pleasure to reward me for my efficiency. [2]

The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who is Brian’s and my mutual friend, speaks of confirmation bias in this way: 

“We are all wired by what we’ve experienced to be in search of a story with an
ending . . . that feels like it has a completion. And the stories that we gravitate to are the ones that make sense to us, stories that fit, stories that feel like they have continuity, connection to the past, where we’ve been. . . . Those stories that we will follow are the ones that feel true, feel like they have continuity to our past and that resonate with the trajectory of our lives. So, we’re looking for the story that doesn’t necessarily change our minds; we’re actually looking for the story that confirms what’s in our minds.” [3]

References:
[1] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

[2] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [15–16].

[3] Jacqui Lewis, “Why Can’t We See?” podcast.

Story from Our Community:
A dear friend introduced me to Richard Rohr’s meditations. At first, I was a bit confused by the ideology of a universal Christ. I was raised Protestant and had God packed neatly into the Ten Commandments. I’ve learned the importance of emptying myself out so that there’s more room for Christ in my heart. Once I began to empty my cup full of ego and fill it with Holy water, the Holy Spirit brought my spiritual senses to life. —Stacey H.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Recognizing Our Biases

Learning How to See

Recognizing Our Biases
Monday, March 1, 2021

CAC faculty member Brian McLaren has done thoughtful and helpful research about what makes us see things so differently from one another. He identified thirteen biases that we outline today. Being a former pastor and an excellent communicator, Brian found a way to make these complex ways of seeing simple and memorable. He writes:

People can’t see what they can’t see. Their biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion. No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls of bias. . . .

Confirmation Bias: We judge new ideas based on the ease with which they fit in with and confirm the only standard we have: old ideas, old information, and trusted authorities. As a result, our framing story, belief system, or paradigm excludes whatever doesn’t fit.

Complexity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.

Community Bias: It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Complementarity Bias: If you are hostile to my ideas, I’ll be hostile to yours. If you are curious and respectful toward my ideas, I’ll respond in kind.

Competency Bias: We don’t know how much (or little) we know because we don’t know how much (or little) others know. In other words, incompetent people assume that most other people are about as incompetent as they are. As a result, they underestimate their [own] incompetence, and consider themselves at least of average competence.

Consciousness Bias: Some things simply can’t be seen from where I am right now. But if I keep growing, maturing, and developing, someday I will be able to see what is now inaccessible to me.

Comfort or Complacency Bias: I prefer not to have my comfort disturbed.

Conservative/Liberal Bias: I lean toward nurturing fairness and kindness, or towards strictly enforcing purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, as an expression of my political identity.

Confidence Bias: I am attracted to confidence, even if it is false. I often prefer the bold lie to the hesitant truth.

Catastrophe or Normalcy Bias: I remember dramatic catastrophes but don’t notice gradual decline (or improvement).

Contact Bias: When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with “the other,” my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged.

Cash Bias: It’s hard for me to see something when my way of making a living requires me not to see it.

Conspiracy Bias: Under stress or shame, our brains are attracted to stories that relieve us, exonerate us, or portray us as innocent victims of malicious conspirators. [1]

Richard again: I don’t know any other way to be free of all these biases except through the contemplative mind. I see almost every one of them within myself–at least at some point in my life. I also believe there are enough good-willed people out there who, if presented with a list of these biases, have the freedom to investigate, “How can I let go of that? How can I move beyond that?” [2]

References:
[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book.

[2] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

Story from Our Community:
Having had my “feelings hurt” by being overlooked, I was shocked to realize that everything within me seemed to scream out that I surely deserved more credit, greater appreciation, and significant affirmation. In searching for direction, Richard’s astounding words—YOU ARE NOT IMPORTANT—pierced me to the core and then connected me to my real self, whose only desire is to be in union with my beloved Lord. —Jo C.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Lean Not on Your Own Understanding

Unknowing

Lean Not on Your Own Understanding
Thursday, February 4, 2021

If you understand it, it is not God. —St. Augustine, Sermon 117 on John 1:1

God is Mystery and not any “thing” we can wrap our little brains around. Brian McLaren shares how he realized this during a time of deep doubt and perplexity in his life:

A verse I had memorized in my childhood came to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. For the first time, it dawned on me: there’s a difference between doubting God and doubting my understanding of God, just as there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting my understanding of God. Would I be able to doubt my understanding of God while simultaneously trusting God beyond my understanding? In a strange way, that question for the first time in my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God. [1]

It’s wonderful to be blessed with such a clarifying insight! Yet, it sometimes takes a longer and more painful “dark night of the soul” to free us from our inadequate concepts of God. Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, another good friend, explains:

[John of the Cross] says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.

All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way. . . .

Yet it would be a mistake to attach the promise of more spiritual benefits to a night that is designed to obliterate them. Those who have come through dark nights of their own, not just once but over and over again, often cannot find the words to say why they would not trade those nights for anything. Yes, they were nights of great loss. Yes, the soul suffered from fearful subtraction. Yes, a great emptiness opened up where I had stored all my spiritual treasures, and yet. And yet what? And yet what remained when everything else was gone was more real than anything I could have imagined. I was no longer apart from what I sought; I was part of it, or in it. I’m sorry I can’t say it any better than that. There was no place else I wanted to be. [2] (italics in original)

Richard again: This description of the “dark night” as a gift can be misleading because such times of unknowing are almost always endured more than enjoyed. However, the experience of mystery, paradox, and not-knowing brings to our lives a rich and unexpected grounding.

References:
[1] Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 92.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne: 2014), 145, 146.

Story from Our Community:
I live in an assisted living facility with my husband. I have been writing a haiku a day during the pandemic. The great unknowing / This 2020 vision. / Seeing with new eyes. —Juliana H.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
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