On Pointy Hats And Politics

Last month the head of the worldwide Catholic Church visited America riding on a very public image as a champion of the poor and downtrodden whose calls for various forms of “social justice” have put him at odds with the conservative wing of his church, even as his refusal to capitulate on abortion has angered his more liberal members. That’s all fine and dandy.

But one would hope that the man whose office and reputation very much make him the face of Christianity worldwide would also be willing to take a stand for the seemingly uncontroversial idea that members of the human family should not be abused or imprisoned simply because what they believe happens to disagree with the political class that happens to run their country.

One would hope.

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Nothing To Believe In

When it comes to spiritual issues, I am always amazed that people will accept and defend things that they would never, ever accept when addressing any other subject. People will convince themselves (and try to convince you) that the most illogical, nonsensical claims make perfect sense as long as they are attached to religion, spirituality, or questions surrounding ultimate meaning for our existence. Case in point: Nica Lalli, who wrote a book entitled, Nothing: Something To Believe In. In an interview about the book, Lalli proclaimed that:

I am an atheist. I have never joined, or been part of, any religious group or organization. I was raised without religion, and without much understanding of what religion is. I have never had much of an identity religiously, and I stayed away from much thought or discussion on the matter. It is only recently that I have really explored the many options for religious beliefs and have decided that rather than saying, ‘No comment,’ I now call myself an atheist.

Though she admits that she has had little training in religious matters and that she really doesn’t even understand what religion is, she seems to feel comfortable making judgments about religious ideas — especially those attached to “organized religion.” What Ms. Lalli fails to see is that by calling herself an atheist, she is in no way laying claim to a neutral position. Contrary to the deliberately provocative title of her book, she is most definitely not believing in “nothing.” Ms. Lalli is, by definition, making an explicitly religious claim.

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Spiritual Expertise

OK, this is weird. I never thought I’d find a spiritual truth outlined and defended in Scientific American but I guess there is a first time for everything. There is no doubt that the editors did so unwittingly, but their August, 2006 cover story, “Secrets of the Expert Mind,” might as well have been written by Dallas Willard.

In their analysis of what constitutes the genius behind the making of a chess grandmaster, as well as those who dominate in music, sports, art, or the mastery of any other field, we find scientific verification from “expertise theorists” that it takes enormous effort to instill “chunks” of knowledge in our long-term memory and to use that knowledge while simultaneously (and oxymoronically) thinking about what we have decided to put our minds to doing. This, say the experts in the field cultivating expertise, is not gained by:

experience but [in the] “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time.

The writers go on to point out that “motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability [and that] … the preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.”

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