Saturday, September 2, 2006

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.”

When I read the piece, I found it hard to miss its application to the seemingly futile efforts of the Christian community (in which I readily include myself), to remain in, but not of, the world. George Barna makes a living pointing out the multitude of ways in which evangelical Christians act no differently from the world around them. Yet at the same time, this little nugget jumps out of his data and grabs me by the throat: According to Barna,
"92% of self-described evangelical Christians, whose behavior is not discernibly different from the surrounding culture, view themselves as being “deeply spiritual."
How can there be such a radical disconnect between the “deeply spiritual” way in which the church sees itself, and the contradictory behaviors and beliefs it exhibits?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that society has lured us into dissecting our minds from our hearts by redefining what it means to be "spiritual." Those who display all the same behaviors as the world around them, yet see themselves as somehow being “deeply spiritual,” have not made the association between what they claim to believe and how that belief should manifest itself. They have never connected their head with their heart. Worse, the culture has misled them about what their “heart” really is.

The heart, according to the culture that has been so successful at penetrating it, is the most important thing about us – it is the place where feelings and emotions let us know what matters most. When those feelings and emotions are positive, we are on the right track. We have found the truth, and the truth has let us be. Those who have perfected this search are considered society’s most “spiritual” people.

While I agree that the heart is the "most important thing about us," I reject the conventional wisdom about the definition of the heart. It is not just the center of our emotions. It is the center of our being -- the aspect of our person that defines our true identity as a creature made in the image of the Creator -- made with the ability to understand, seek and relate to Him.

If Dallas Willard is on the right track (and I think he is), real “spirituality” is not just mental assent to truth. It is not just a “good feeling” about God. It also depends on doing the hard work of relating that knowledge to the practice of a system of behavior that manifests those beliefs without a conscious thought – to act automatically, not because we have to consider all available options, but because it has become our very nature. It is who we are. Brother Lawrence called this “The Practice of the Presence of God.” It is a dedication, motivated by joy, to the spiritual disciplines of our faith. Paul called it "righteousness" (Greek: dikaiosune)

It is "spiritual expertise."

I would not suggest for a second that this limits or excludes the work of the Holy Spirit in the renewing of our mind. But it seems to be a cop out to accept the renewal part while simultaneously avoiding the hard work that is required of us to live out the life we so easily claim to be our own. They will know us by our fruits.

If we are open to the fact that God’s Truth cannot be suppressed, I suppose it’s not so weird to find such a revelation in a magazine devoted to the defense of methodological naturalism. The Truth is the Truth, no matter where you happen to find it.

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