Monday, October 22, 2018

On Life as a Dream

Sometimes life feels like a dream.  Surely everyone can relate to the surprise and confusion Neo feels in The Matrix the first time he spots an instance of deja vu.  In Neo's case, there's a good explanation for deja vu--Trinity tells him that, actually, deja vu occurs when the computer-generated matrix world we live in re-programs or re-writes code--but in our life, unless we subscribe to a real-life matrix philosophy, deja vu and other dream-like qualities are simply confusing, perhaps even frightening or joyous, depending on our perspective.  If we believe in a god who has predestined or fated live events, then good dream-like moments may joyously confirm our belief; if we believe that there's no rhyme or reason for intelligent life, then good and bad dream-like moments may blur together as comical and entirely coincidental, not to be investigated; if we believe in a god who grants free-will or that there's some purpose in living well and spiritually, regardless of any god's existence, then good dream-like moments may serve to encourage us and bad dream-like moments may terrify us out of our belief, may convince us that actually there's no point to living well because the forces of evil are indeed in control.  What we do with the strangest moments in our lives will, then, greatly affect our general outlook on life and, by definition, death as well.  Plenty of reason, then, to explore how life can sometimes feel like a dream, why, and how we should approach that feeling.

An entire book could be written, surely, about one person's experiences in both the good and bad dream-like events categories and then how varying life perspectives and beliefs may react to those events.  Here I do not intend to write a book, thank God, but to clarify, using one instance, how and why life and death themselves are wrapped up in our working through our dream-like moments.  This is the case of a bad dream-like moment which, obviously, could and should be termed as a nightmare.

One of my favorite stories to tell, whether the point is good parenting, how my mother is funny, how I was an idiot kid, or how the woods behind my house growing up are really great, is a story about two of my friends and I, around sixth grade, going into the woods behind my neighborhood and getting lost.  We didn't tell anyone we were going up there.  I mean, obviously, we were kids.  We go out there, walk along a trail or two, and then I recognize a trail from this one time my father took me out to see the stream in the woods.  I convinced my friends that we didn't need to re-trace our steps to get home because we were all of two minutes from my house if we continued down this trail.  Now, one of those two friends of mine lived on the street with me and spent much more time in the woods than I did, and he asked, "Are you sure?"  Damn right I was sure.  Fifteen minutes later we wind up at a pond behind an elementary school, not at my house.  I missed a turn somewhere that I didn't know I should have been looking for.  Once we were there, we decided to play at the pond.  A few minutes after that, the father of the friend who didn't live on the street with us came to pick up his son.  Apparently, and thankfully, he knew that the trails behind my house also led to the pond behind the elementary school and he came found us. 

Imagine for a second that you are a father coming to pick up your son who had been, as far as you knew, innocently playing at a friend's house, only to arrive there to learn that, actually, the other parents had no idea where your son was.  You then frantically visit the house of another kid who lives on the street and learn from that set of parents that, maybe, they think, they heard the three boys trudging off into the woods.  You yell out into the woods and you receive no answer.  The time you were supposed to pick up your son was many minutes ago and you know your son isn't that irresponsible that he'd forget.  We haven't even arrived at the nightmare part of this story and already you're freaking out.  So you leave the mother of your son's friend (that's my mother) who has a bad knee clambering up into the woods while you rush off to the pond behind the elementary school.  It's all a mess.  When you find your son and the other two irresponsible kids who were supposed to know what they were doing in their own woods, you're angry, right?

Wrong.  That father, who had every right to be pissed off at everyone, perhaps including his own son, was extremely patient and kind, though firm, in teaching us all the ways we had messed up and how we could do better in the future.  He didn't want us to feel bad but didn't want us to act so irresponsibly again.  I remember this story well, and I tell it again and again, partly because the image of my mother's climbing up the hill in the woods was funny to me (it shouldn't have been) but mostly because the reaction of my friend's dad was so appropriate that I did feel bad and I never wanted to let him down ever again.  I also remember that story because of the last thing my friend's father said to us: "If you're going to play near water, make sure that everyone can swim or that you can rescue people if necessary.  Did you know that [I'm going to call my friend J] J can't swim?" 

Friendship, especially when you're younger, oscillates through stages.  At that particular time in sixth grade, J and I were particularly close, but it only lasted for a few weeks.  We were in the 'really close' stage of friendship where you hang out a lot and have sleepovers for only a few weeks.  Yet in that time we did have a couple of sleepovers.  At one of those sleepovers, which happened either shortly before or after the woods affair, J randomly asked me what I thought I'd be when I grew up.  To be honest, and I told him this, I had never, to that point, ever thought about what I would be when I grew up.  At least not seriously--I may have on occasion thought about being a professional hockey player, but I knew that was silly.  So after admitting to not having given it any thought, I blurted out something like, "But maybe, I guess, I'll be a pastor."  We talked about why--I had no idea why--for a little while, and then talked about how he was asking because he felt pressure to start figuring out his own life trajectory but didn't know where to start, and then we went to sleep and I forgot about the whole evening... until about ten years later when I first started seriously thinking and praying about going to seminary. 

My decision to go to seminary was, in the context of my sleepover with J, perhaps the first time I considered how similar life is to a dream.  In dreams, oftentimes a story is randomly and inexplicably changed by, say, a purple dinosaur rampaging through your house.  The dream may have been about a tea party with historical celebrities and then in comes a purple dinosaur.  Like an Ionesco play.  Then the rest of your dream concerns running away from or stopping the purple dinosaur and you've forgotten all about the tea party and the historical celebrities, unless one of those celebrities was Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park, because now Grant is running the dinosaur rescue effort because somehow the purple dinosaur is now your friend and is drowning.  Dreams are surprisingly orderly and well-written until they are not, until they are dominated by the random.  Studying to become a pastor felt that way, because it was essentially a random remark made to a friend about what I'd be when I grew up that suddenly dominated who I was becoming.  Either it was random, or God or the universe knew all along where I'd end up, but I didn't want to consider that possibility.  I'm a free-will kind of guy.  Now I wonder differently.  Let us continue telling the nightmare story.

Only a few months into my seminary career I got a random call from J.  I say 'random' because around the time of junior or senior year in high school, I distanced myself from our group of friends for a number of good and stupid personal reasons.  J and I had not spoken for any length of time to each other for at least four years, probably five, when he called me.  So long had it been that we had talked that J had to make sure it was still me who used the phone number he had for me in his directory.  He asked me how I was doing and then asked, "Have you heard about Giselle?"  I instantly knew then that 'life is a dream' can also mean it's a nightmare.

Giselle was a friend J and I both had in elementary school.  In elementary school, Giselle was slightly more than a friend to me, though.  She was a kind of goddess to me.  I wanted to be more than friends with her, but I didn't know what that meant, and I was also slightly intimidated by how confident Giselle was.  But she wasn't a jerk.  She was kind-hearted and loving.  After elementary school, I'm not sure I ever saw Giselle again.  I'm sure that we attended the same schools but for some reason I didn't see her and therefore my feelings slowly dwindled and eventually I forgot about her. 

Until seminary.  I received a Facebook friend request from Giselle a couple of months before seminary, which I obviously accepted, and then about a month into seminary her posts started appearing on my Facebook home page.  At first they were posts of relief and freedom, as she shared with the world that she had ended an unhealthy and abusive relationship.  Then her posts turned sour as Giselle shared some fear that she might be in danger.  My first inclination was to send her a message and offer her to come and stay with me at my dorm, hours away and certainly safe.  I decided not to send that message because, I figured, someone else closer would certainly be better suited to helping and protecting her, and surely that someone else would step forward.  It was only a few days after that decision that I got the call from J.  So I knew what he was going to tell me: Giselle had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. 

Suddenly life was surreal, and not in a good way.  I wondered then as I do know if our brains transform moments that are either too glorious or devastating into surrealism as a survival technique; if our feeling like life is a dream isn't because life is a dream but because we can't handle life's vicissitudes without some power, even if it's our own mind, working to protect us.

Regardless, J knew that I had a strange relationship with Giselle and he didn't want to leave me in shock.  To end the conversation on a better note, he asked me what I was up to.  I told him, and he said, "Oh, that's awesome, so you're really doing what you thought you might be.  That's really cool."  Now the darkness of life's dreaminess combined with the goodness of life's dreaminess, because I couldn't quite believe J would remember from one off-hand remark I didn't even mean or understand at the time that I 'wanted' to be a pastor.  It felt good to me to know that not only did J remember but that his memory proved that I was on the right path for me.  The only other person in my life who has ever said or suggested that I am doing what they always thought I should or would, or reminded me that I myself said I might, I married. 

Fast forward time again, about eight years this time, to the present day, to the next time I hear someone call me and ask if I had heard about a person close to me in the distant past.  Only a couple of weeks ago my mother called, which is strange because I'm usually the one who calls her, and she asked, "Have you heard about J?"  Perhaps you know where this nightmare is going.

J, I learned, got married and was on his honeymoon when he and his new wife were swept up by a flash flood.  His wife was able to swim out and survive but J did not.  "Did you know J can't swim?" 

Of course, being able to swim may not help when caught by a flash flood, especially if you're in a car, as it seems they were.  I'm also, surely, not the only person who was told J couldn't swim and most definitely not the only person mourning his passing.  J was a great guy.  But the nightmare isn't merely about J's unfortunate and tragic death.  The nightmare is how the story has unfolded, how we got to this point and the memories that life, or my mind, or something, has emphasized over time and recently: from J's dad's comments and question, to the sleepover and random question and my random answer, to my strangely following through on my random answer, to J's memory of that answer while also ruining the happy dream by telling me about the Giselle nightmare, and then full circle with my mother's phone call.  In my head, as soon as I hung up after my mother's phone call, the pieces fit together like a dream, like a nightmare, well-ordered yet tragically random at the same time.

You could now be saying to yourself that this essay reads more like a journal entry than a thoughtful essay.  I understand that.  And since I've given myself an opening for a tangent, I'll take it: I want to make clear that I in no way mean to distract from the very real grief that many are experiencing right now about J's passing if you knew him (which I am experiencing, too, and why I am not using his full name or more details about his death).  But from where I'm standing, this nightmare has taught me two things.  Well, more than two, but my wife only allows me a certain amount of time each week to myself for writing and I want to make sure I finish this.

1.  I don't know why other people use the phrase, seriously or not, "life is a dream."  I do not know why we sing, "row, row, row your boat..." or why de la Barca wrote a landmark play, "Life is a Dream," hundreds of years ago.  I do know, however, that, like in de la Barca's play, the phrase sums up well the mystery and strangeness of life.  Even if we believe in a Creator God, which would, seemingly, nullify the idea of life as a dream, we must still reckon with the concept because there's no question our hearts and minds process life itself like we dream.

Psychologists are rather clear on the fact that dreams are our minds' attempts to process our memories and thoughts.  Mystics would agree, I'm sure, though they may add that dreams are also our attempt to process the more grand spiritual forces, especially in terms of prophecy, at work in our lives.  Whatever the case, the fact that our minds are able to weave all of our most and least pressing thoughts and memories into a story that we can make some amount of sense of night after night is truly amazing.  Dreams are memorable not because of what we process but because of how we process.

How we process our thoughts, feelings, and memories at night is also, clearly, how we process when awake, too.  As soon as I hung up the phone with my mother, my mind had drawn a story-line through all of my experiences with J that made sense of his death.  In my story, in my nightmare, it made absolute sense that he would have died in water, on his honeymoon, and that I found out by a random phone call, while I myself am questioning my role as a pastor--and not only am I questioning my role as a pastor but the day after I received the call I also was set to fulfill a requirement on the process toward ordination that I've just started embarking on.  It all made sense to me.  Obviously these things happened, and obviously they happened when and how they did.  My mind had pieced together a dream out of my life and interactions with J.

To say that life is a dream, then, is not an escape from whatever meaning or purpose we may have in life, if we have meaning and purpose, but rather a statement of fact: we literally have no other way of processing and understanding the happiest and worst moments of our life, and everything in between, except as a dream.  If we deny life's dreaminess then we deny life itself, we become walking idiots with no vision and no understanding of who we are.  We only develop those traits through reflection and examination, and if we are reflecting and examining then we must admit that life is a dream.

Of course, life can feel like a dream for the opposite reason, that we do no reflecting or examining, no processing, and we are confounded later in life as to how we ended up in an office at 43 Main Street talking about loans at 3:23 p.m. on a Tuesday with a stranger.  But the queer thing, here, is that those who do spend time in reflection and prayer often try to deny that life is anything like a dream.  Life is a dream.  Life can't be anything but a dream.  Otherwise, we are not a person, because we are not processing.  I guess we could say it's a paradox of sorts: in order for life to have meaning, in order for our specific lives to have meaning to ourselves, we must think of life as a dream, as if we were/are sleeping.

de la Barca wrote his play to grapple with questions that we humans have been grappling with since our minds were opened, whether that happened as an evolutionary, random event or as God breathed His spirit into us.  Those questions are: what are we doing here?  How did we get here?  Are we alone?  Are we actually living?  Are we in a computer program?  In someone else's dream?  If eternal life is real, then is mortal life just a dream?  Are we pieces in a game (I think of the final shot at the end of Men-in-Black)?  What is the difference between real and surreal, if there is any difference at all?  To say that life is a dream does not to answer these questions philosophically but it does answer these questions existentially.

In other words, "life is a dream" should not be a philosophy that applies universally.  We cannot know whether others are living their life as a dream, in a dream, as they should.  All we can know is whether we, I, am living this life as a dream.  Am I processing the random and obvious as a dream?  Am I taking the highly emotional, good and bad, the ball of life's mess and unraveling that ball into a dreamy story so that I can move on?  Am I stuck in the emotions of the past, or stuck in an unreflective present with no sense of the future?  If we live life as a dream we protect ourselves from the worst of life's curveballs, because they'll no longer be curveballs but rather part of the dream's story-arc; if we live life as a dream, we are not stuck in the emotions of the past because we have processed them into our dream; if we live life as a dream, we are not a pinball living in the present with no sense of the future, because we will have reflected our life into a story-line moving into the future; if we live life as a dream, life becomes a steady stream of nothingness that, in who we are and who we are becoming, can become an everythingness because of how we process, of how we dream.  Life lived as a dream can both be a survival technique in a crazy world and a technique of becoming, free from emotional strings, as long as we do not succumb to the seeming meaninglessness and nothingness of life to translate "life is a dream" into "whatever, man."

2.  Or, life's dreaminess could be sinister.  Admitting that life is a dream could be only a survival technique in a world that has no hope and no meaning.

Remember that I interpreted J's memory of my throw-away, random comment that I might be a pastor when I grew up as a happy moment.  At the time I interpreted that happy moment to perhaps be like a dream in the sense that a random event then affected my later life, but all the while I was still in control.  What if I was wrong on all counts?  What if, actually, J's memory was a sign that I couldn't do anything other than be a pastor?  What if my 'random' comment at the sleepover was not random and instead the universe's, or God's, way of saying through me that I had no choice in the matter?

Here is where one's perspective and approach matter a great deal.  I have said to my churches and to others that know me that I "could do no other than be a pastor."  I tried for a couple of years but discovered that, actually, nothing will make me happy or fulfilled other than being a pastor.  I have told this to people in a mostly grateful way: God has given me gifts to be a pastor and so my choice to use them will be a meaningful and gratifying choice, yet always my choice.  As originally, it is a good dream.  Yet what if, in actual fact, I really couldn't do anything other than be a pastor?  What if the matter isn't so much about meaning and fulfillment but predestined fate?  Even if the end result is the same, not having a choice in the matter would be a nightmare.  Just as we seem to have little to no choice in the stories our dreams tell, so, too, we'd have no choice in life, making life only dark.  "Whatever, man," would then be our only defense against being meaningless pawns in a dream.

Everything is about interpretation.  We could go on.  In fact, I will go on with this, pointing out that maybe I didn't have a choice in saving, or not saving, Giselle.  Perhaps I want and wanted to be a good person but that's not in the cards for me.  So when that desire came to the fore, the universe, or God, or the evil forces running our dream, suppressed that desire, not just because I shouldn't save Giselle but because she needed to die, like in Final Destination.  In that movie, a guy has a dream that everyone on the plane they've just boarded will blow up, so he causes a ruckus and he and a bunch of others leave the plane, watching it blow up a few minutes later; then the universe comes to kill them in a whole host of ways, in the same order they would have died on the plane.  What if that movie is on to something?  Whenever I tell the story about Giselle, as I still carry significant guilt around with me, usually the first and often the only thing people to say to me as a means of consolation is, "If you had reached out to her, then maybe her ex-boyfriend would have found her anyway and killed not only her but you, too.  Perhaps would have killed anyone in the dorm on the way.  Maybe God wanted to save you for other purposes."  Friends, that is not consolation, because essentially we are then admitting our choices don't matter, that if someone is meant to die at a certain time then they will die, no matter what we do to save them.  If that is true, then it serves no purpose trying to better our natural instincts, trying to make ourselves or others better, trying to offer succor and security and refuge, because in the end, those who are meant to be murdered or swept away in a flood will be and nothing matters.  This is a way to interpret these dream-like events: yes, it's a dream, concocted by the mind of some higher power, and so we're screwed and we better screw everything except trying to enjoy the good moments that come our way.  As far as I see it, that would be truly a nightmare.

Another interpretation is that I simply screwed up with Giselle.  And, rather than J's death being an exclamation point to the end of a chapter in this dream that I cannot control and have no free-will in, J's death is simply a coincidental, random happening that only calls to attention Giselle and the other moments I've shared here as a means of free-will processing so that I can have greater power and grace to act better in the future.

Essentially, the choice is between being caught up in a dream or writing a dream for the purpose of becoming; between having no choice but to f*** it or making sense of our life in a dream-like way to give us greater power to choose in the future; between a nightmare or a dream that has no objective measure of good or bad. 

We could say that somehow or another I knew things I should not have known in sixth grade, that somehow or another I knew that I'd become a pastor and that I knew J would die in a water accident, and that's why I said what I did and remembered that woods affair the way I did.  We could say that either I or my Facebook or Giselle, or whatever combination of factors, knew that Giselle would need help and that I'd be in a position to help, and that's why her posts started showing up on my page, and why J was the one to call me.  We could say the universe somehow knew that the two times I'd hear about someone I cared for in my distant past would be Giselle and J, so the universe had J be the one to call me about Giselle.  We could say that what I have processed as a dream is actually a sign that we able to connect to a higher understanding of some sort.  We could say that, but I'm not sure it would be helpful because at some point we still need to choose.  We need to choose how we are going to interpret life as a dream--as nightmare or as a means of processing for becoming; either we have no choice or the choice to write our dream story.

Currently, it's hard not to perceive life as nightmare in the wake of J's death, particularly because I am unable to attend his wake or service (for other dream-like reasons).  His passing alone is a nightmare.  Adding to it the book-ending of my memories is not necessary but certainly contributes to the nightmare atmosphere.  But it seems rather depressing to me to understand life as a rolling dream down a stream whose path and origin we do not know.  I simply cannot go there.  I would break as a person if I interpreted life as a nightmare leaving me with no control or choice.  I'd rather feel guilt about Giselle and feel the full force of the tragedy around J's passing than think that it was all pre-ordained. 

And in feeling the guilt and tragedy, I can process and unravel the mystery of life in my dream, I can make sense of it, no matter how wrong or right my dream story is, and thus move on into the future.  I think that's what dreams are meant for.  Not merely processing but preparing--preparing us for the new day to come. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

How We Think and Interact: A New Idea?

In college, I took a literature class on utopias and dystopias.  Obviously, one of the texts was Orwell's classic 1984.  Another lesser known work was Zamyatin's We.  Both, you could say, had similar premises: the people did not have appropriate language to help them understand their plight and work towards freedom and liberty.  Orwell's novel is in many ways more terrifying because Big Brother is everywhere but hidden, watching you but without your knowing when or how, and controlling information and language but you don't know how.  Zamyatin's novel, on the other hand, is more overt: there's a tower in the middle of the city from which the government watches you and all the walls are clear, so you can never escape, and most pertinent to this essay, the city was enclosed inside of a wall.  Those inside had no concept of what was outside nor did they have language for speaking about the wall or how to get around or through it or what was on the other side.  For Zamyatin, the Russian, everyone knew they were trapped inside a wall but couldn't actually think about it because they didn't have the language.

The class read We after reading 1984, and I distinctly remember having a question about this language-thought-control well up inside me while reading Orwell and finally understanding it while reading Zamyatin: but why couldn't the people think about the wall and what was outside just because they didn't have the words for it?  I was immediately shot down by the rest of the class and the professor.  They asked me when the last time was that I had a thought without words.  I had no answer, that settled the question.  Except that the question wasn't settled for me.  For years I wrestled with the idea and eventually I realized that my question might have conjured a different response if ventured to and with non-English majors.  Of course English majors, and the English professor, would advocate the primacy of language and words for thought.  Living with my wife, who is far more spiritual than I, and having kids, which requires a lot of silent communication and engenders plenty of anxiety, has taught me that indeed my question was valid.  Ironically, I now have the words to understand why and how.

First of all, we should note the significance of Daniel Goleman's seminal book, Emotional Intelligence.  I remember having my mind-blown the first time I read it.  In the work and reading I do as a pastor, it seems Goleman's ideas penetrate everywhere.  More and more we as a society are recognizing that a person who is not book smart is not necessarily 'dumb' or 'worthless' (especially not worthless, don't ever say that).  Rather, they may simply have an empathetic intelligence, an interpersonal or intrapersonal intelligence that can also benefit the community around them if that intelligence is recognized and nurtured.  Our current cultural climate could, in fact, probably use some more of those forms of intelligences.  What I'm about to say here is closely aligned with Goleman's work and the work of others that has expanded the concept of multiple intelligences.  Indeed, what I'm about to say probably fits better with the many books on education and teaching to the various intelligences.

Okay, so, let's return to the case of living enclosed inside a wall.  The English major and the intellectual, best represented in this case by Descartes, have no way of thinking about the wall or what is outside because they rely on words, on language.  But what about the category of people I'll generously call 'athlete'--athletes may never again be praised the way I will praise them here--how would they think about the wall and what is outside?  Would the athlete be equally dumbfounded by the wall to the point of having a blind spot?  No!  Think about taking a drink of water.  When you are thirsty, do you always say to yourself, with words, "Hmm, I need to get up, walk over to the faucet, grab a glass, turn on the faucet by twisting or lifting up the knob, and then pour water into the glass which I will hold underneath the faucet, then turn off the faucet by twisting it again or pushing it down before the water overflows the glass"?  No!  Don't be silly.  Possibly you think to yourself, every time, "I need a drink of water," but the rest of the thought would either be blank routine or a series of pictures--you see yourself in the future doing the motions required to get yourself a drink of water, and by seeing yourself in the future you have thought.  Or, a better example for why I call this category athlete, think of going on a hike.  If you came to a tricky part of the path where there once was a bridge over a chasm but isn't there any longer, and you can't simply take a walking step over it, what would you do?  I imagine that if you are an athlete, you simply picture yourself taking a running start, jumping on a rock, and leaping over the chasm--or leaping into the abyss to your death, whichever. 

An athlete thinks not via words and language but through pictures, through kinetic imagination.  What is the human body, what is my human body, capable of doing?  What does my human body need to do at this moment and how will it do what it needs?  Athletic thought often happens so quickly that it has no time for words and language.  You could say that athletic thought is based in instinct and I wouldn't disagree, but there's more to athletic thought than merely instinct.  Typically we mean an instantaneous action or reaction talking about instinct, but athletic thought is clearly more than that.  I do not think through the process of leaping over a chasm merely instantaneously or instinctively.  Certainly athletic thought plays a large role, if not the only role, in instinctive reactions, but also plays a large role in any kinetic activity. 

Looking back at Zamyatin's case, the athlete, or anyone capable of athletic thought, can think using pictures of themselves climbing or punching through the wall.  Describing how such a thought process would work is, obviously, impossible in this case without using words.  Using words, the thought process, in pictures, might consist of viewing oneself with a rope, throwing it as high as possible, then climbing furiously hoping no one is watching, and then wondering what might be at the top of the wall.  It is more than possible to think that thought without words or language.  Some people might not be capable of athletic thought but, I imagine, that when our preferred mode of thinking is removed, as in the case with the wall, that most of us would be capable of using another mode of thought.  If you are blind, you depend on your other senses more; if you are can't think about something intellectually, you depend on your other modes of thought.

While all of us are probably capable of athletic thought, and the other modes of thinking I'm about to suggest, I wager that athletes, meaning those who prefer this mode of thinking, are best at communicating silently with their hands.  My wife, sorry to say, is horrible at talking with her hands or understanding others who try.  I suspect it is because she is much more an emotive or spiritual thinker.  I bring it up, though, because we have all, I'm sure, been in situations in which we needed or wanted to speak with our hands.  Perhaps it was a game, perhaps we were in another country, or perhaps our kids were sleeping and we didn't want to wake them up (guilty).  And I bet that you have noticed that some people are better at this than others.  I can tell you that my wife and I will not be winning any Cranium contests any time soon.  It is absolutely critical that we acknowledge that some are better athletic thinkers than others because some are better intellectual thinkers than others.  Intellectual thinking is defined in this case as the mode of thought that uses words and languages in order to build a complex, mental structure of thought and communicate that thought to others.  Such a definition sounds impressive, and we humans should be impressed at our ability to think intellectually, but is intellectual thought necessarily better or more important than athletic thought?  Should we praise our intellectuals more than our athletes and athletic thinkers?  If I had to guess, I'd say I'm 60% an intellectual thinker and 40% an athletic thinker, so I'd like to make the case that intellectual thought is the most important mode to humanity because I partially fit into the category of intellectual, but I can't and won't make that argument.  Athletic thought, and therefore athletic ability, should be considered as an equal or near equal to intellectual thought.

All modes of thought except, perhaps, the last that I'll get to, should be considered as equals or near equals.  Essentially, each mode of thought represents an expression of what it is to be human.  Whether you believe we have been created by God or not, we are an incredible breed.  We are capable of a great deal that is awe-inspiring, amazing, and wondrous.  Each mode of thought expresses that potential in some way.  More than that, each mode of thought can also optimize the experience of life if used well.  So when we encounter greatness in a mode of thought that we struggle to use, we should not despise or tear down that greatness but be thankful we are human.

Now, athletic thought, emotive thought, and spiritual thought, as I'll get to, could all be considered inferior to intellectual thought.  The intellectuals out there, like Orwell and Zamyatin, have made that case.  But athletic, emotive, and spiritual thought could also be considered superior to intellectual thought.  The reason is simple: intellectual thought is clearly secondary.  Descartes was, essentially, wrong.  We do not know our existence because we think intellectually.  We know we exist, as Sartre might say, simply because we exist--and Kierkegaard before him would have said, perhaps, that we know we exist because here we are living before God.  Human history did not begin when we developed the ability to communicate with ourselves or with others through language-thought.

At the beginning of human history, perhaps dating back to the beginning of Neanderthals, who were not as stupid as we have made them out to be, thinking surely happened.  Who we are as humans has not fundamentally changed.  Our technology, including language, as changed and improved, so our thinking (intellectual) has developed technological layers, but the ability to think has existed as long as we have existed.  Which means, if we take a moment to reflect commonsensically, that intellectual thought is derivative and athletic, emotive, and spiritual thought are fundamental.  Our ancestor humans had to be able to think through the process of creating fire, hunting animals, and even communicating knowledge.  For instance, if our ancestors learned that a certain berry is good to eat but another berry is poisonous, they had to be able to tell others which one to eat and which one to avoid.  Before we invented language and intellectual thought, a form of athletic thought would have been necessary.  Otherwise, we would not have survived.  No species anywhere, probably, would survive without some form of athletic thought.  The fundamental modes of thought were all we needed to survive.  Intellectual thought is only needed to thrive, or at least to try to.

William Golding has a great novel entitled, The Inheritors.  It's about a troop or family of Neanderthals around the time our own species started roaming the planet an destroying non-humans, and everything else.  I highly recommend it.  For now, I point to it as a fictional example of what I'm arguing: it must have been possible for our ancestors to think and communicate prior to language and intellectual thought. 

One of the more prominent themes of Golding's novel is that the Neanderthals must have been capable of emotive thought.  By this I more than emotional intelligence or multiple intelligences and here, if I haven't already, is where I think I am definitively positing a new and unique idea.  Theories of emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences focus almost solely, as far as I am aware, on education, learning, self-improvement, and community organization.  The intelligences are ways people learn and organize thoughts that are then translated into intellectual thought.  A person with interpersonal intelligence, for instance, would be able to think through the appropriate and best means of handling community conflict.  Those 'means,' however, are always attained and then communicated through intellectual thought.  Even kinetic intelligence, in my research, tends to focus on a person's learning or processing intellectually through movement.  For instance, kinetic intelligence is that intelligence that might help someone learn physics by playing baseball, rather than just by reading a book; or learning the hideousness of the Middle Passage by actually cramping into a slave ship, rather than hearing a presentation.  It should be clear that while athletic thought, by my definition, and kinetic intelligence are related, they are by no means the same.  Kinetic intelligence is a subsidiary of intellectual thought and athletic thought is a subsidiary of, well, nothing.  The same is true of emotive thought. 

Emotive thought is also, therefore, more than simply compassion or empathy or the ability to feel.  Emotive thought is, fundamentally, the process by which we attribute value via our emotions.  An easy example is that we value members of our family, as Golding's troop does, because we have an emotional connection.  We could describe that connection without emotive thought, yes, and we could feel that connection without emotive thought.  As such, please excuse a necessary tangent.

Another strike against Orwell and Zamyatin is that we can certainly feel love without having a word for it.  The feeling is the same with or without the word because we are still human.  English has one word for love and yet, when we use the word, we know the difference between the variety of loves.  Orwell and Zamyatin are right, however, in line with Derrida and the deconstructionists, in that we humans have a compulsion to understand the world around us intellectually and so we must ascribe meaning, words, to objects and feelings.  Those words, those meanings, only have meaning because we have invented the technology for them to have meaning, namely language, which itself is based on the idea that words have meaning only because they are not other words that have meaning.  So knowing the word love does not pre-date the ability to feel love, since the word has no real meaning anyway, and yet the world love, at the same time, controls our understanding of it.  While English speakers can differentiate the various meanings of love when the word is used, we have grown wary of using the word in certain legitimate instances because we've forgotten all the meanings.  For instance, I love my friend Rob.  I feel that love, but unlike the Greeks we do not have a word for brotherly/sisterly love, and so I struggle to say that I love him.  To say that I love him would mean that I am gay.  "Am I gay?  Well now I'm starting to question, but I don't think I am, so I can't love him."  See how that goes.  Frodo and Sam are often accused of being gay (though, even if they are suppose to be, being gay shouldn't be an accusation) simply because we do not have a word for brotherly love and have failed to maintain its residence in the catch-all 'love.'  Our desire to understand thus leads to inventing word-meanings that then indeed control how we live.  Another example is that if we only meant 'love' to mean 'lust,' as is now the case for many, then to love someone would only mean that we wanted to bed that person.  Our genuine feeling of love, as it should be understood, would then be mistranslated as compassion or adoration, which bring with it entirely different actions and behaviors.  We do not bed or marry those we adore or sympathize with.  Here, then, is the chain: we can feel emotions and act on them, like love, without knowing the word; we humans have been gifted, and perhaps cursed, with the gift of intellectual thought, so we want to put words to our feelings; we give words certain meanings; those words then have those meanings, sometimes changing over time; we feel emotions; we match our emotion with a word that we have assigned a meaning; we then act according to those intellectually assigned meanings.  The end result is that, while we can feel emotions without words, eventually our words, our intellectual thought of layering invented meanings in order to communicate complex thoughts to ourselves and others, then control our behaviors.  If this is all we mean by emotive thinking, then I have failed miserably because we end up in the same place.

Instead, emotive thinking is the ability not only to feel emotions without words, not only to act on those feelings and do so still without words, but to process a range of values as well as future behaviors according to our emotions that we feel now and might feel in the future without using any other meaning symbols.  Emotive thinking isn't, then, merely having emotions pre-language.  Feeling and acting on our emotions pre-language, or without the benefit of language, reduces us to instinct.  Yet we are more than instinctive beings.  So emotive thinking is, by comparison, the same as intellectual thinking but without the need or desire to put words to our emotions now or in the future.  Emotive thinking actively does not use intellectual thought that is controlled by language, and is a step above instinctive feeling.

Return again to the chasm in the woods while hiking.  If only that bridge had stayed aloft I wouldn't have any examples and you wouldn't have to read this.  When we get to the chasm, prior to our using athletic thought, we probably would take a moment to think emotively.  Does crossing the chasm, and possibly falling to certain death, create in us anxiety?  fear?  exhilaration?  pride?  We may use intellectual, language-thought at that moment, "If I do this and fail, I may fall, and I may die, which is bad.  If I do this and make it, though, I'll live and be awesome."  We may.  But we can and would have those thoughts with or without such intellectual thinking.  We could and would think emotively, to weigh the options and decide which option to take.  Is it worth risking fear for the sake of pride? 

Some people, that I would jokingly call maniacs, might get to the chasm and not think emotively.  These folk may jump immediately to athletic thought, of how to cross the chasm in the safest or, for the real maniac, the most dangerous way possible.  We all know these people that don't seem capable of feeling fear or anxiety.  I argue that there is a large difference between not feeling an emotion versus not thinking through our emotions.  If one of those athletic-only thinkers jumped, didn't make it, and started falling to certain death, I bet a million dollars that he or she would feel fear; she or he just didn't think about that fear ahead of time.  Obviously, if a person truly can't feel emotions--and I know there are people for whom emotions are literally and always will be foreign--then that person won't think emotively, either, but generally thinking emotively is a choice and feeling emotions is an instinctive reaction.  Put in that way, we start to see we can choose which modes of thought we prefer to develop and use--though, to be clear, this does not mean that we are particularly gifted in all or any of our chosen modes of thought, even if we develop and use them as much as possible.  It is more by habit that a person would approach a chasm in the woods without thinking emotively and only thinking athletically than because they are incapable of feeling. 

The last positive mode of thought that we can choose to develop and use is spiritual.  My wife is one of those people that you may be familiar with.  You ask her how she knows God exists and she'll say, "Uhh, I just know."  As an intellectual-athletic thinker, that isn't good enough for me.  I build layers of logic to come to the conclusion of God's existence or see that He exists, both of which are methods that inevitably leave some doubt.  But my wife knows.  It's annoying.  And admirable and representative of spiritual thinkers.  Forget those people who say they are spiritual but not religious as an excuse for not being either.  I'm talking here about the people who seem to jump to conclusions without any rational steps and are then, not surprisingly, unable to tell you how or why they think or believe what they do.  The reason they are unable to communicate their thoughts and beliefs is that we often demand that intellectual thought be the medium, rather than the spiritual thought by which they did their thinking.  Again, forget those people who can't back up thoughts and beliefs with rational, factual, and logical thinking or statements because they choose not to reflect on themselves or their beliefs, perhaps even choosing to live in a false reality of their own making--an ever too common personality these days.  Let's think only of those people who are genuinely able to and often do think spiritually. 

Stick with my wife for a moment here and she can further show us what genuine spiritual thinking looks like.  My wife, her name is Danielle, by the way, is a Master Reiki practitioner.  To her, Reiki is absolutely the practice originating in the East but it is also, to her, a channel for the ancient practice and gift of healing through the Holy Spirit.  Reiki is simply a spiritual language through which Danielle understands her own Christian faith and spiritual gift.  According to Reiki practitioners, there are seven chakras related to various goings-on in our lives, bodies, minds, and souls.  According to Danielle, she can actually feel those chakras, if not also see them, especially when there's something off-balance in a person's life or body.  Indeed, after one session, Danielle told a client of hers that she felt a particular chakra out of whack and what that might mean, and the client then reeled off a bunch of life events and attitudes exactly related to what Danielle just told her.  While I often give my wife grief, seriously joking that Reiki and essential oils are not the solution to all of life's ills, there comes a time when we have to admit that she and others are truly capable of thinking in a different, spiritual way. 

Again I want to point out that though we can choose which modes of thought we develop and use, we aren't necessarily going to be gifted in all or any.  Take my mother as an example.  She is a level 1 practitioner of Reiki.  Maybe one day she'll become a Master, too, but whether she does or not doesn't matter.  My perception of my mother is that she won't be able to think spiritually as well as my wife can.  I know my mother wants to live and think spiritually but I don't know that she can, at least not well.  This isn't a slight.  My mother is certainly capable of thinking emotively.  It's simply a truth that choosing to develop and use a mode of thought doesn't necessarily mean much will come of it.  The reverse is also true: we might not choose to develop or use a mode of thought with which we are or could be gifted.    For fun I once told Danielle to think of a number between 1 and 20 because I wanted to impress her with my spiritual capability.  I told her that I would think real hard for a few moments about what number she had on her mind.  So as not to embarrass myself or let her cheat, I had her tell me the number and, honestly, I would tell her if it was the same number that came to me.  And, honestly, I got it right about fifteen consecutive times.  Then I got cocky, failed a few times, and gave up.  The really funny part is that Danielle couldn't do the same with me at all.  So while Danielle is clearly able to think spiritually, I can hold it over her for the rest of our lives that I am more capable of thinking spiritually, I just choose not to.

Spiritual thinking is perhaps the most primitive form of thought.  By 'primitive' we shouldn't understand simple or outdated.  Rather, we should understand it as a foundational part of what constitutes human living.  Rudolf Otto, in the book The Idea of the Holy, an essentially comparative religion work, describes how all religions developed out of a sense that all humans have of what he calls the 'numinous.'  Further, the sense and experience of the numinous in every case leads to a description of the numinous as a 'mysterium tremendum.'  The Latin shouldn't be too hard to decipher.  While Otto, as I said, was writing a work in a field we call comparative religions, trying to boil down the source and origin of religion, ultimately what is most crucial to his work, I believe, is the necessary implication of spiritual thinking.  At some point in human history spiritual thinking turned into religious thinking, which, according to Nietzsche, was and is the process by which the powerful consolidate and justify power over the common people in institutionalizing a priesthood.  But before that transition occurred--if it occurred, because of course we may disagree with Nietzsche's analysis--Otto's thesis requires that humans were thinking about the spiritual senses and experiences they had in a uniquely human way.  Other mammals, we know now, are capable of complex communication and self-awareness, but are they capable of reflecting on the possibility of an unseen, not seeable being or sense?  Not only did humans reflect on the sense and being but we determined that the being is mysteriously great and terrible.  More than mere reflection on a possibility, more than mere faith in the possibility, we thought about and analyzed our senses and experiences and then made conclusions.  Otto takes his thesis yet further and argues that it is because of the conclusions based in our spiritual thought that we organized and structured our societies and our living the way we did and have.  I would wager that because our organizations and structures are well-defined and have been for quite a few centuries, we have somewhat lost the concept of spiritual thinking.  We have had no need for spiritual thought because it has been done for us.  It is thus hard to describe more than I have what spiritual thinking is or may be.

Before I talk about why any of this matters, I want to say that I think there is another mode of thought.  Those who think primarily intellectually find those who primarily think in this way particularly annoying.  It is possible to think blankly.  Our mode of thought is completely blank.  Not only a clean slate but no slate at all.  To some extent all of us have thought, and probably continue to think, in each mode, and there's no exception here. 

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, makes a case for how and why.  I admit that I do not find much of Dawkins's work convincing--not because I'm a Christian and he's anti-religion--but the idea at the end of the book is at least a start to understanding the blank mode of thought.  Dawkins argues that not only are our genes selfish, but ideas are selfish, too.  Somehow, ideas work themselves out in the ether of conceptualization and in the re-telling and re-sharing so that they will spread.  You can think of a meme here if you're familiar with what those are.  Memes seem to be designed simply to spread far and wide with no actual attached value.  And if the meme does not spread far and wide, then the originator of the meme, or some other interested party, might tweak the meme--perhaps by adding more cute cats--so that more people will like and share the meme on social media.  Since the meme has no actual attached value, we like and share for no reason at all except that the meme is, somehow, likeable and shareable.  So, too, goes Dawkins's argument, with ideas: we spread ideas not because they are good or bad, or have any value whatsoever, but because they are, somehow, spreadable.  And if an idea isn't spreadable, then somehow the idea modifies itself so that it will be spreadable. 

A self-controlling, selfish idea is not my idea of convincing.  With that said, however, Dawkins may have been on to something.  I have certainly experienced, and you may have, too, people who seem easily persuaded.  One man in particular I think of.  In conversation he would support one idea.  Then, after a few minutes of polite debate, he will have seamlessly switched to another viewpoint that someone else shared without ever admitting that other person was right or that he had changed opinions.  His mind apparently simply accepted this new idea without any transition.  There are other people I know who have changed their entirely personalities based on who they were dating or hanging out with and they never realized they were making a change.  This is not the same as keeping an open mind.  Keeping an open mind means that you hold one viewpoint but are willing to hear and consider other viewpoints as valid, and if some other viewpoint were seen as more true or convincing, then you'd make a concerted mental effort to re-work your thoughts.  But blank thinking is quietly and, without any thought whatsoever, being possessed by a new idea.  One should beware this type of thinking and instead keep an open mind.

We've reached the end of detailing the modes of thinking, at least the ones I've discovered thus far in my life.  Two questions deserve answers.  First, to again distinguish between multiple intelligences and these different modes of thought and, then, how or why any of this matters.

To answer the first question, I admit to being inferior to the task.  I am confident nonetheless that what I'm arguing here is not old business.  Instead, what I'm arguing here proposes a sort of disunity to forms of human thought, while the multiple intelligences and forms of learning suggest a unity to forms of human thought.  There is a limit to the use and meaning of words here because, ultimately, you are either an emotive thinker and understand or you're not.  But when it comes to multiple intelligences and various ways of learning, we are all able to grasp the same idea, just in our particular way.

If I were to run for elected office with a platform of love and hope, spiritually and financially, for the least and lost, then, based on the work of Goleman and many others studied and expounded upon to date, I would spread my message in different ways and utilize staffers who can operate in the different intelligences.  My staff would have to act and behave lovingly toward one another, and thus prove my message interpersonally; I would be honest about my own life and the ways I've experienced love and hope, thus proving my message intrapersonally; I would travel my district with a tour bus that doubled as a soup kitchen, thus proving my message kinetically; I would write eloquent and convincing position papers, thus proving my message aurally; I would have one-on-one town halls to listen, and have empathetic staffers with me, to thus prove my message emotionally; et cetera.  The message, the thought, is the same.  We are intelligent in different ways and therefore receiving the message, the thought, in different ways, but it is the same thought.  My staff and I may have different skills and intelligences in spreading the message, but it is the same thought.  Intellectually, the thought remains static.  Intellectually, we think the same way.

Picture a diagram.  I would draw the diagram for you except that I do not know how to do that here.  The diagram is this: one circle in the middle with a variety of outer circles all with arrows pointing to the middle circle.  That middle circle is our intellectual thought, or message.  The outer circles are the ways that we receive or apply that thought. 

Now what I am saying is that, actually, we should picture five different circles, each with their own outer circles.  One of those five, central circles is the same as above, the intellectual circle.  But the other four are the athletic, emotive, spiritual, and blank modes of thought.  Each of them will have the outer circles of the multiple intelligences because we will still receive and apply each mode of thought according to our given intelligences.  Most likely, our intelligences partly determine which modes of thought we prefer, so we might imagine that the outer circles connected to each central circle are not all the same size for each of the five modes of thought.  The kinetic intelligence circle may be largest for athletic thinking, for example.  To be sure, though, the evolution of our societal thinking, and what our society approves as proper thought, has tilted towards emphasizing intellectual thought to the exclusion of the others.  It's therefore hard for us to imagine that, in truth, not only are we receiving and applying ideas differently, but we are having different ideas and, based on which mode of thinking we're using, are capable of different ideas.  I'm not saying that we simply have one idea when using one mode of thought and another, different idea when using another mode of thought, but rather something more radical: the very nature of the ideas arrived at using one mode of thought are entirely unrecognizable to the ideas arrived at using another mode of thought.  Each mode of thought can and will produce a variety of different thoughts, so people thinking emotively can still disagree passionately but at least they understand one another, whereas an athletic thinker wouldn't even understand the disagreement.  The intellectual mode of thought in Zamyatin's hell-hole wouldn't recognize the athletic thoughts.  Or the emotive or spiritual thoughts which, in that example, may be more perceptive about how living inside of a wall determines our personality and understanding of God and humanity, generally, than the other modes of thought.  Through the different modes of thought, we have different thoughts, yes; but more than that, through the different modes of thought, we process and conclude about life in ways unrecognizable to all other modes of thought.  Therein is the difference between what has been studied and written about before and what I am putting forth.

And therein is the reason why it is important to venture into this territory.  Surely you have had the experience in which you are conversing with someone and they say or do something that, to you, makes no sense.  No sense whatsoever.  Or perhaps someone else said that you were making no sense to them.  No sense whatsoever.  Then even after explaining for a minute, or five, or ten, or for a lifetime, confusion continues to abound.  You may even throw out the word 'illogical.'  Indeed what you're railing against may be illogical.  But no matter how well you explain what would be logical through words, diagrams, presentations, movies, role playing, or anything else, the other person insists that what you are saying makes no sense.  By no means should we ignore the possibility that some people are not smart and not logical no matter what intelligence or mode of thought we're inhabiting.  At the same time, we should recognize that choosing different modes of thought may actually make it impossible to communicate with and understand one another.

I remember hiking with my father in woods around the White Mountains one spring when the river water levels were rather high.  On one trail, the path ran straight through the river.  Whether there was supposed to be a bridge there or not, I do not know, but there should have been a bridge.  Without a bridge, there was no way to cross.  My father suggested that we perhaps had gone off the trail, which was not well-marked, and that we should turn around and confirm our location.  I was confident we were still on the trail, though, and, partially being an athletic thinker, I swiftly envisioned a plan to cross by jumping onto a rock from which we could climb up a fallen tree and shift our way along to where there was another big rock near the other shore high enough that we could then jump to dry land.  My father, to whom athletic thinking is probably foreign (again, not an insult, because his intellectual thinking is the definition of excellence), said to me, "John, we can't do that.  What are you talking about?  That's not a plan.  I don't see it."  And so on.  My father literally could not understand what I was talking about until I went ahead and did it.  He followed my every move across and, still, didn't quite understand how we made it or how I thought up the plan.  That experience was a clear exhibition of the incoherence of one mode of thought to another. 

Another example comes from seminary.  A girl I was interested in, but too afraid to say anything to, came to visit me once.  As a tangent, you'd think that her coming to visit is a sign she's waiting for me to say something, but alas.  During the visit my friend, for that's all she'd ever be, said that she believed each of the religions are actually true.  I responded with near vehemence.  Only one religion could possibly be true.  Maybe Christianity is wrong, fine, but it doesn't make any logical sense for all of them to be true all at once, especially when a few of the religions explicitly exclude any others.  She told me, patiently, that it does make sense from a certain perspective.  She said no more and I was too chicken to tour around Boston with her, so I knew any possible relationship was over before it started and there was no point in arguing.  Since then, I have begun to wonder if she's right.  Perhaps my intellectual/athletic modes of thinking, which are both focused on singular, universal truths that we can either know or see, were and are incapable of sharing her spiritual perspective and mode of thinking, regardless of what intelligences I possessed. 

The crux to my interaction with that charming woman is that I simply do not know how she made sense of her statement.  Or how she processed her thoughts to make the statement.  I do not know because, as I've said, I choose not to think spiritually.  Why I make that choice, I also do not know, but I know at least that I do.  With this theory in tow, however, we can start to make sense of what seems to us like nonsense.  Take, for instance, the many devout Trump supporters who are hurt by his policies and/or his rhetoric.  It seems like nonsense that they would still support him.  Of course, we still cannot ignore legitimate stupidity or nonsense, but perhaps it is not a nonsense position.  Maybe, instead, these Trump supporters are blank or emotive thinkers at work.  Unless we are blank or emotive thinkers, it's impossible to say if they are indeed nonsensical.  Our exclusive emphasis on intellectual thought blinds many of us to the possibility that, indeed, they make sense after all, and perhaps many of them are rebelling against the very concept of being pushed out of conceptions of authentic thought.

A clear consequence of this theory, and my point in arguing for it, is that we must engage with ourselves and with one another in a more spiritual way.  We must come to this conclusion for two reasons.  In detailing those reasons we'll understand what I mean by engaging in a more spiritual way.

First, there's a real danger that we accept alternative truths that are not true at all.  It is entirely possible that what makes logical, clear sense, that what is true in one mode of thought is not sensible, and thereby apparently not true, in another mode of thought.  As I argued to my lady friend, that sounds like the definition of relative truth--what is true for me may not be true for you, and that's okay, we don't need to work it out.  If you and I witness a murder, and I saw person a did it, and you say person b did it, we can't both be right.  One of our testimonies will be absolutely and resolutely false.  Relative truth really doesn't make sense in a world of facts.  There is no such thing as alternative truth or alternative facts.  Whatever mode of thought we use, truth is still truth.  We cannot make up our truth out of falsehood, out of mere desire, control, power, or evil, and claim it's true and that no one can tell us otherwise.  Truth doesn't work that way and we need to avoid that danger.

Perhaps, however, we can understand the relationship between relative and universal truth in a more holistic, primitive way.  Perhaps universal truth is the only way of expressing facts of our existence, the world around us and how we came to be.  But perhaps deeper truths about what human life is about, why we came to be here, and to what ends and how we are supposed to strive, are only understood through our own persons.  Since we have and use different modes of thought, we come to unrecognizably different conclusions.  That does not mean that the truth has changed for each of us but, as long as we think within a particular mode, we cannot express to one another what the truth is we've arrived at.

Most importantly, since all but the now emphasized intellectual mode of thought are primitive, as in original to our being and existing as human, and the intellectual mode of thought has been layered on top of the others, if we are going to understand one another then we must do so by primitive means.  We cannot argue with one another and force agreement.  Indeed, intellectual thought itself is, in a way, fabricated, so any explicit agreement we come to must be confirmed by other modes of thought in the first place.  Since all but the intellectual mode of thought are primitive, original to who we are, then to come to true, sympathetic agreements and understanding, we must dig deep inside of ourselves and learn, again, how to think in the ways primitively and spiritually human.  Language will be of little help to us.  If we are going to understand one another, and God, and ourselves, then we must first connect, spiritually--distinct from thinking spiritually--with our natural, created state.  In so doing we will deepen our ability to think well in the different modes and thereby come to understand how truth is expressed in those modes. 

After understanding one another better, we will still have the ultimate decision to make: which mode of thought best expresses truth, including the truth about who we are and why we are.  We will also have to decide which mode of thought best enables good living for ourselves.  At least, though, we will have found that what we perceive as relative truth is not, in all cases, exactly relative; at least we will have found that not only do people not all act the same but also that not all even think the same; at least, and crucially, we will have found how to engage with one another on a deeper, spiritual, and primitive way that encourages inter and self-connectedness in a original, free way not controlled by structured language and intellectual thought.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What Can People Pray For?

I don't know if you are like me at all but praying for myself often seems wrong.  Can I really pray to God asking for a pretty girl to say 'yes' when I ask her on a date?  Or healing from a rare disease?  Aren't those prayers selfish?  Does God care?  Sometimes we add, "if it be thy will, Lord, do this," and I wonder if that negates the whole purpose of prayer.  I mean, if it is God's will that we are healed from cancer, would we need to pray for it to happen?  We also sometimes pray for other people.  Doing so is unselfish, yes, but isn't it also intrusive and coercive?  Am I allowed to ask God to show someone the light, because then aren't I limiting that other person's free will?  These questions haunt me and my prayer life.  What does God care enough about that we should pray for?  Does God mind if we are selfish?  Can we pray for something that we think is good but actually would hinder other people's free will?  Can we change God's mind and will?  If we can't, is there any purpose praying?

If you are anything like me and have asked these questions and wonder what it is you should be praying for and how it is you should be praying, don't worry.  I have the solution.  It might be strange to you, however, so I'll start by pointing out that often there are three different general modes of theology from which we approach theological questions: a theology of creation; a theology of the cross; or a theology of resurrection.  Typically, those who approach theology from resurrection focus on grace and redemption and love.  For example, rather than sending someone to prison for committing a crime, we should offer therapy and support.  Those who approach theology from the cross focus on our sin and absolute need for Jesus Christ.  These folks often then emphasize belief in Christ for the sake of salvation and that nothing else matters, because we and the world are broken and in need of ultimate, divine redemption.  I am, usually, a creation theology guy.  I and others who fit into this category of doing theology typically focus on relationship and God's intended purpose for us as human beings.  My theology of creation is vastly different from the norm but it is useful here.

It seems to me that the only rational reason for God's creating humans in His likeness is for us to share in the divine life with Him.  God did not create us so that we might be saved or so that we might serve God.  Originally God created us so that we might enjoy the life that He has given us and serve with Him caring for and living in Creation.  Any other reason for God's creating us makes God a tyrant Creator.  A tyrant Creator is not the God we believe in (maybe God is a tyrant, but we don't believe He is, anyway). 

All of this matters because prayer is, as we know, communication with God.  Any time we communicate with someone, whether it's God or not, we reflect the relationship with the person in our communication.  For instance, when I talk with my son, I often speak with a softer, more excited voice than normal.  I also often am talking about numbers and letters and the random things that we see.  I don't communicate that way with other people because I am not their father and I am not trying to teach them the alphabet, how to count, or why worms wiggle into the ground as I do with my son.  How I communicate with my son is a reflection of the fact that I am, indeed, his dad.  Likewise with God, so we need to be clear what type of relationship we have with God.  Are we merely servants or sinners in need of salvation, or are we supposed to be more than that?  Of course the categories of cross and resurrection are important and, in fact, central to our faith, but I do not see how they can define the intended relationship God had planned for and with us.  The only God could have intended for our relationship to be defined by the cross and/or resurrection is if God also intentionally created us as sinful so that we would need Jesus to die on the cross and be raised.  And that, to be plain, is not the Creation story.  God made us good and we, through our given free-will, chose a posture of rebellion.  Rather, according to our Creation story, it seems that God intended us to be sharers, to an extent, in divinity and the divine life and joyously live in and with Creation while caretaking Creation.  Based on that, it seems logical that we must also believe prayer, our communication with God, should be a reflection of God's intended relationship with us and aim to restore that relationship.

Put another way, we certainly may be, and often are, in need of forgiveness and salvation.  Because of God's intended and hoped-for relationship with us, however, our prayer in those many instances should not be, "Father, forgive me," and instead should be, "Father, I hope that I can see and know in my heart that you have already forgiven me."  The cause for the difference is that, when we see our proper relationship to God and the relationship God wants and has always wanted, we also see that God has already done all that He can to restore the relationship.  The rest is up to us.  We then need to do our part in restoring the relationship.  Our role in life becomes key when we prioritize God's intended relationship for and with us and think of the work of Christ as, while central, making possible that original intended relationship.

Our prayer life changes drastically when put in these terms.  Look, if God isn't a tyrant God who created us only to test who would believe and have salvation, then it is not necessary to pray for forgiveness, that other people would come to believe, that the church do exactly what I-me-I want, or anything of that ilk.  God has already done the work of restoring the relationship He intends and now it's up to us, as individuals, to live into that relationship.

Most of our typical prayers, then, are irrelevant or inappropriate.  The selfish, 'I hope she says yes' type of prayer that I started with are definitely inappropriate.  Whether or not we receive favors from God do not, or at least should not, affect our relationship to God.  Our own heart, mind, and body are the only things that affect our relationship to God.  Likewise, the prayers of healing and protection that are overwhelmingly common if your church worship includes prayer time are now irrelevant.  God intends to have deep, divine relationship with all of His children, and has already done and is doing all He plans to do in that regard.  Protecting our uncle Jimmy while he travels to Hawaii or healing our aunt Jane from cancer won't, or shouldn't, affect their relationship with God.  Change what I said earlier, then, to read that only our hearts and minds should affect our relationship with God.  Beyond that, too, it doesn't make much sense to pray for a single person when God wants to care for all of us at the same time. 

Since I've essentially taken away our most common prayers, the prayers of intercession on our behalf or on others' behalf, you may ask, "So what in the heck can we pray for?"  Obviously we are now getting to the point of the matter.  What we can and should be praying for are the attributes God hoped we'd have when He created us in the divine image.  Theologians and scholars throughout Christian/Jewish history have pointed out the fact that we probably don't look like God in appearance.  The image-likeness between divine and human has more to do with morality and spirit.  Yet, since we are often sinning up a storm or concerned about external happenings--whether we get that job promotion, whether so and so claims to have faith, whether our aunt Joan lives or uncle Jimmy returns home safely--we ignore or forget the intended inner being and relationship of God's creative work.  Essentially, we should pray for the restoration of Adam and Eve's spirit and mind, without that fruit-eating bit, and for the mind of Christ.

In practical terms, such prayer means that rather than praying for safe travels for our uncle Jimmy, we pray that God help Jimmy make smart decisions--not text while drive and pull over if he's tired.  Such prayer means that rather than praying for aunt Joan's healing, we pray that she know the strength and peace of God no matter what miracles may or may not happen.  Such prayer means that rather than praying that so-and-so shape up, we pray that we can be a source of God's light and patience to them.  Such prayer means that rather than praying for specific actions to be taken by the church or country, we pray for God's wisdom to be made known in our individual and collective minds.  Such prayer means that rather than praying for the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup, or for a job interview to go well, that we have the courage and confidence of Christ to live as a disciple in all places and times. 

Yes, our prayer then becomes more vague and less convincing.  Many pastors and prayer-experts out there would say that we should have the confidence that God can do all things, even the specific thing of healing David of acne if we prayed about it.  Jesus did say, after all, that faith can move mountains.  I agree that we should have such faith and confidence.  But I disagree that we should aim that faith and confidence at external happenings for three reasons: 1) If what we pray for doesn't happen, because it's not in alignment with God's will, then we may lose hope and faith, and that's no good; 2) The external happenings are not the express intention of God's creating us; 3) Similar to #1, we then attempt to imprint our thoughts and desires on the world.  God gave us free-will but not free-will to dominate the will of others or of Creation.  Others are also free, for good or for ill, to make whatever choices they want.  Including specific, external requests in our prayers dampens the free-will of all people around us.  Take, for example, the prayer for safe travel.  What if someone chooses to drive at 120 mph going the wrong way at the very time uncle Jimmy is on the road?  Praying for safe travel then limits the free-will of the maniac and, also, of uncle Jimmy, who might choose to do something stupid and text while driving and not see the maniac coming.  Praying for specific, external happenings is a reflection of our sinful nature, trying to shape the world into our likeness, rather than a reflection of God's hoped-for relationship with us.

At the end of the day, what God wants and what is best for us is to share with God in deep, gratifying relationship with Him through the good, bad, and ugly.  Like with a good friend, the relationship shouldn't change because of what happens in life.  Indeed, we know we have a real friendship when the friend sticks by our side no matter what and can still be honest with us.  So, too, with God.  We know we have a real, deep relationship with our God when we can abide in His presence even when His constructive criticisms are convicting and challenging, even when aunt Joan dies, even when we are fired for no good reason from employment and our first job interviews go horribly, even when we honestly tell God we aren't sure what He's doing and if we can possibly agree. 

Perhaps we can and do still pray for all the stuff I'm saying we shouldn't, but I do think we shouldn't pray for any of it until, at least, our perspective on our relationship with God changes and our prayer life changes to, indeed, reflect that relationship.  Perhaps what we should do is simply pray, "God, I'm here."  Pray that one over and over again, 24/7, until we realize that it is our being in God's presence and sharing in life with our God--how amazing it is that we have life!--is what most matters.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What Is Fame?

Six weeks ago my wife gave birth to our second son, Soren.  While on paternity leave until this past week, the recurring thought in my head was, "Well, now I won't be able to write, with two kids running around."  For me, this was a major problem.

Earlier versions of this blog said, "On the road to being famous," or something like that.  I had hoped to chronicle the early stages of a famous writer's career.  The idea seemed cool.  Well, that idea still seems cool, but the chances of my becoming a famous writer are dwindling by the day and, now that I'm a pastor, actively desiring to be famous may not be the best goal for me.  Regardless, the dream still resides deep down in my mind and heart.  It's not so much that I want to be famous but that I want people to read my work, for their sake, for the sake of asking challenging and needful questions about how we can and should live well and with God.  Now it seems it may be time to put my dream away entirely.  Throw it away.

On the other hand, my recent experience has also brought to my memory a book that a good friend of mine (who I haven't talked to in a long time, because I'm a terrible friend.  Sorry, Alexandra!  I hope you and the family are doing well!) lent to me: The World According to Garp.  Apparently Robin Williams starred as Garp in a film of the same name about thirty years ago.  In the book, and probably the movie, too, Garp gains some notoriety writing fiction, but then he gets married and has children and essentially becomes busy with being a stay-at-home dad.  He earns satisfaction from being a good dad but, eventually, he has problems with his marriage, himself, and society because he isn't writing any more.  He isn't being who he knows he is.  So he starts writing again... until he's assassinated.  If it weren't for that, Garp would have written again.  Likewise, I recently heard an interview with Michael Chabon about his new book of essays on fatherhood, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces.  The introduction to the book tells the story of how a famous writer told Chabon, right before the publication of his first book and shortly before his wedding, that Chabon should never have kids.  Kids, this writer said, would interfere with his writing and he simply would not have the output he could have with kids.  Chabon clearly decided kids were worth writing less, though, because he's had four.  Maybe, then, it's possible to have kids and be a writer and I just need to calm down, wait for a year or two before they're older and less needy and tiresome.

As I have pondered the one hand and the other hand--thinking I need to totally dedicate myself to fatherhood, or incorporating writing into fatherhood--I've come to ask the questions, "What's the point, anyway?  Why do I want to be a writer?  Why do I want to be famous?  What is fame?" 

There is no question that, from a Christian perspective, fame is one step away from sinful egoism; and wanting to be famous is itself sinful egoism.  Is it possible, though, to want to be famous in a good way?  My college entrance essay was about how I'd like to be Tom Brady for a day to use my fame for good purposes.  The Catholic school I attended loved it.  It's a great idea.  Fame also provides a platform, and probably lots of money, to serve the world.  I like to think that my desire to be famous, as I've said, fits into the latter category of fame, of serving the world.  My writing is almost entirely aimed at encouraging provocative reflection and therefore a deepening of faith and faithful practice.  That's good.

The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've realized that whether or not fame is okay, and therefore whether or not it's okay to want to be a writer, misses the point anyway.  By the way, you can fill in whatever your dream is to replace my dream of writing.  We all have dreams of doing something and being so good at it that people see us and shout, "Hey that's so and so, the great ______ (fill in the blank)."  But why is that?  Why do I say that I want to write and be famous?  Why do we tag fame onto our dream?  Indeed, why is fame the dream itself?  Even if we pretend or genuinely believe that our fame could serve the world, why is fame a part of the equation at all? I don't know the answer to these questions.  Whatever the answer to 'why' I do know that Jesus's words, "Whoever wants to be great must be a servant," are critical.  If we want to be great, if we want to be famous, we can't think about it, or else we won't be great. 

And here's what I've discovered, here's the only mental space I've found that can provide me peace and contentment as well as a motivation and drive to be a writer, to do the thing I dream about and think about constantly: if we are gifted in a certain way, whether it be writing, plumbing, selling jewelry, whatever, then we do that thing simply because we are gifted in that way.  Doing and practicing our gift is the fame, is the reward, regardless of how other people perceive us.  Doing and practicing our gift is a virtue. 

Indeed, the meaning of 'virtue,' rightly understood, is something practiced.  People are not born virtuous.  Virtue must be practiced, and the reward of the virtues is in the practicing.  Being virtuous does not give us good things and happiness in life; being virtuous and practicing the virtues are themselves good and happiness. 

What this means is that whatever our dream is, we should do it and follow our dream for no other reason than that it is what we do, it is who we are.  For me, I should write not because it might lead to fame, not because others might think well of me, not because I can serve the world, but only because writing is what I do and who I am.  Essentially, I think, this is what Garp came to discover.  And Michael Chabon, as he realized that it didn't matter if having kids would interfere with writing as much as he could.  What Chabon knew and knows is that he is a writer.  That's what he does, that's who he is, and he can do no other.  He is particularly gifted, as are many other writers, to be able to make a living out of his dream, out of his identity and virtue, but we shouldn't necessarily aim to make a living or become famous from our dreams, from our identities.  We just do them because that's what we do, that's who we are.  So that's what I'll do.  I want my kids to see that their dad carves out time to do what he is gifted to do, to do what he feels an inner calling to do, even if it means spending less time with them.  As long as I don't become like the father in the "Cats in the Cradle" song, I think that's a good lesson.

Of course, I can add that, for we Christians, we do what we do because God has called us to.  If God calls us to do something, it's best to obey and not question why God has gifted us in certain ways for certain tasks.  Now, I'm not one that likes that word, 'obey,' even with God.  I like my independence.  Part of the argument in my book, Created Human Divinity, is an attempt to maintain parts of our independence from God.  Yet still, if a divine and all-powerful God has given us certain gifts for certain tasks, will it do us any good to ask why?  Or hope to become famous?  Probably not.  So best just to do what God has given us the power and dream to do.

Maybe I won't sell more than 100 copies of anything I publish.  Oh well.  I now realize that's fine, as long as I'm using the gifts God has given me.  That's what matters.  You should agree, too, because I'm telling you, no other attitude will provide the same peace, contentment, and motivation to use our God-given gifts and live our best life, especially with kids running around 'interfering' with our dreams. 

And besides, as someone recently reminded me, Soren Kierkegaard only sold a few hundred copies of his works in his lifetime and now... well, now his work has become critically important to thousands, myself included.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Prayer is Work

The phrase, 'thoughts and prayers,' has come under a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of years, and rightly so.  When 'thoughts and prayers' are a substitute for real action, rather than the foundation of action, then those thoughts and prayers are rather hollow.  From a Christian perspective, prayer is good regardless, but for 'thoughts and prayers' to be truly effective, we need to have a better understanding of how prayer is work.

Prayer is work for three reasons.  The first is the most obvious: it takes time to pray.  If those of us who are religious are honest, we'd have to admit that we don't pray nearly as much as we should.  Distractions in life are too numerous to avoid, it would seem, so we fill our day with everything but prayer, except for maybe the few minutes after we wake and before we sleep.  Finding and making the time to pray as much as we should is, then, work.

We may not want to consider prayer work.  Yes, prayer is supposed to be a natural outpouring of our faith and love of God.  Yet we must understand that we find our greatest joy, peace, consolation, etc. not from our faith generally but from spending time with our God.  If we are not spending time with our God, then we need to make sure that we do, and that requires work.  We have to work at making time to pray.  And there should be no question that, if Christians (and Jews and Muslims) are responsible for anything it is to pray.  Jesus said things like, "When you fast... when you pray," assuming that we would.  Fasting, of course, is another form of prayer that is definitely work. 

Fortunately, prayer is the easiest kind of work we can possibly do.  If we ask, "when do I ever have the time to pray?", the answer is simple: you can pray with your family, you can pray while you eat, you can pray while you garden, you can pray while you do the dishes, while you cook, while you have sex, etc.  If our greatest joy, peace, consolation, etc. come from spending time with our God, why not pray all the time?  You don't always need to set aside time to go to a quiet place to pray.  That is important, certainly, but your prayer can be the acknowledgement that you live before our God, that you are working before God, you are eating before God, and so on.

Having said that prayer is the easiest kind of work we can do, I must also say that it is among the hardest things we can do.  That is because we are often confused as to what we should pray for or how we should pray.  Again, simply recognizing that we are in the midst of God can be your prayer, but there are certainly times when we must put words and thought to our prayer.  What should we ask for?  What can we ask for?  Should we even be asking for things?  I'll answer some of these questions in my next post (I hope), but for now I'll say that prayer seems hard because, a) we think we need to be some type of expert, and b) we aren't sure where God is calling us to go.  For the answer to a), I point you to my Holy Pastor Doing Stuff You Tube video on how to pray.  Prayer doesn't need to be complicated.  Just say what's on your mind.  The answer to b), however, is that we need to learn how to listen.  Prayer is work because listening is not our forte. 

So the second reason prayer is work is that, in prayer, we can come to understand one another.  We must listen in order to understand others, of course, and in that silent listening, we may learn how to see life from another person's shoes.  In prayer we can ask, "what is so and so thinking?  Why do they act that way?"  If we are silent and listen, and truly open, God may show us. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, prayer is work because we can come to an understanding of God.  Again, if we listen in silence during our prayer, God's will for us will become known.  Rather than fretting about the right thing to say and whether what we are praying for is in alignment with God's desires for us, why don't we just ask God, and then listen for the response, what God is doing with us and where God is calling us? 

The latter two reasons, especially, are where we can put some meat on 'thoughts and prayers.'  I would wager that most people who say, 'thoughts and prayers,' and nothing else, don't even make the time to truly pray.  But if we do make the time to pray, then our thoughts and prayers cannot merely be, "God, comfort these people, show them your love, be good to them, etc. etc."  That's a good prayer, and much needed after a tragedy when 'thoughts and prayers' is most heard, but it's also a relatively weak prayer.  If our prayer is instead a prayer of understanding, of sitting in silence to listen to the rhythm of other people's hearts and the will of God, then we will be changed and then forced into action.  If we come to understand the plight of our neighbors, we cannot sit back and do nothing; if we come to understand God's desires for us, then we cannot then sit back and do nothing.  If prayer is taken seriously, then, it will lead to work, to action, in the name of God and our brothers and sisters.  It cannot be otherwise.  Those who express thoughts and prayers and then do nothing are clearly either not praying or not working at prayer.  Like God, we cannot hear the cry of the needy in our prayers and then not seek to liberate them.

What can't happen is the creation of a division between 'thoughts and prayers' and action.  Surely, as I've said, there are many who use 'thoughts and prayers' as an excuse for action.  But good prayer, prayer that we work at, leads to holy action.  Action without prayer or pre-prayer will be action that is either misguided or unsustainable.  Think about it: if one day you woke up and said, "I want to run a bike shop," and then you started looking into what it would take to run a bike shop, would you have as much patience and determination to follow through as if you thought and prayed for weeks about what you want to do, what you are gifted by God to do, and then concluded that you want to run a bike shop?  Obviously the sustainable action--the sustainable bike shop scenario--is the one that has worked at prayer before action is taken.  Not only might you quickly lose interest in running a bike shop in the former, prayer-less scenario, but you might also make mistakes along the way.  We must keep thinking and praying, then, but really work at it.  Work at prayer so that we can, as a society, not remain stagnant and not remain far from God's intentions for us and instead take right, holy action.

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Once we can understand prayer as work that we Christians should and must do, easy and hard work, then we can also put the role of our pastors into better perspective.  This may seem like a radical shift in subject and I suppose it is to an extent.  But if Christians are called to the work of prayer, then pastors are especially.

Unfortunately, the role of pastor has been tweaked in harmful ways in the past hundred-fifty-plus years.  This is particularly true in Methodist churches.  Back in the day, pastors were theological and spiritual and moral guides.  Evangelicalism, despite its modern bent, combined the twin aims of revival and reform because, to John Wesley and Charles Finney and others, the role of pastors and of the church is to listen for God's nudging and then follow ardently.  Strong abolitionist and feminist and nearly communist movements sprung out of the original evangelicalism.  Pastors were the lead, the impetus for revival with the vision for reform, and the daily/weekly tasks of the church were delegated to the church proper.  What happened was that churches became established, secure, stable, and wanted the pastor not to push them too far ("hey, we've done so much already") and instead to take care of them ("hey, wouldn't it be nice to get a visit from the pastor?").  Slowly but definitely surely, the theological and moral, prophetic and visionary leadership of pastors dwindled away.  The spiritual comfort aspect of pastoral ministry took center stage.  Nowadays, then, pastors spend most of their days and weeks writing and preaching sermons that don't tackle moral or so-called political issues at all, teaching bible studies, and visiting people to ask basic questions like, "How are you doing?  Okay, let's pray."  Meanwhile, people in the churches do very little of the work they used to, whether it be visiting, holding one another spiritually and morally accountable, preaching and exhorting, or leading community activism.

All of this is connected to churches having a hard time understanding that when a pastor is praying, she or he is working.  It should be clear that churches' insistence that pastors settle down to care for the individual spiritual needs of the congregation has also led to a desire for tangible pastoral work on behalf of church members.  You see, if a pastor is no longer a holy reformer of church and society, then a pastor no longer has need to pray, because prayer is the work a pastor does listening to the needs of the downtrodden and oppressed and to God's loving Spirit.  The only prayer a pastor can do is with the church members for good health, promotions at work, or more members.  But none of that is not the ultimate work of the church or of Christians generally.  Churches and church members tend to want to know that their pastor is tangibly working for the time they expect.  If a pastor is paid for forty hours, then the pastor must be able to account for how all forty hours were spent between worship and sermon preparation, Bible study, visitation, meetings, or the like.

Instead of our current model, however, we should return to the model of a pastor at prayer.  It may seem like cheating, for instance, that I count about half the time I spend on my bike, Cato, as work for the church.  But that is work for the church, because my role as pastor should be in hearing God's call, listening to how we are out of step with God's intentions for us and how we might get back into step with God's desired path for us.  The church in this scenario is not a collection of people being cared for, but rather a family working towards God's kingdom.  What does that kingdom look like compared to the world we live in?  The answer must come in prayer.  The pastor must be the leading figure in such prayer.  We need to be grounded in the working of God.

Yes, we can say that a pastor should pray on his or her own time, but a pastor's 'own' time is when they need to pray for their personal life.  A pastor must be personally renewed as well. 

My hope is that in understanding the role of prayer in our Christian and church lives we will have a healthier relationship with God and also a more Christ-like impact on our world, as our churches once again claim the part of activism for the sake of transformation.