Top Reads of 2014

Standard

Each year I recommend a handful of books that have made an impression on me. Here are my Top 5 from 2014:

The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The History of Christian Theology, Phillip Cary

The Presence of the Past, Rupert Sheldrake

In the Plex, Steven Levy

What makes a book noteworthy is that it changes how we think, usually through new information or a fresh perspective. Such a work makes it impossible to see the world as we used to.

Our brains can shrink with age and our minds constrict, which leads to a hardening of the categories. Great books serve as a mental and spiritual angioplasty; the ideas they insert into our thinking are stents that increase the flow of knowledge, imagination, creativity and humility.

Speaking of books, here are five I’d like to write that would probably cause aneurysms:

The Epiphenomenal God: Shadow Or Substance? 

100 Things To Do Before Getting Alzheimer’s: Stuff Worth Doing Even Though You Won’t Remember It (And Stuff To Do Because You Won’t!) 

The Holey Bible: Seeing Scripture As Divine And Human, Inspired But Not Inerrant 

The Teacher Who Beats Her Students And Gets Away With It! The Shocking Truth About Ms. Experience 

Why There Will Be Sex In Heaven But Not Marriage: Implications Of A Resurrection Body

Pre-orders anyone?

More Than Mortal

Standard

My wife Susan passed away three years ago today. She died suddenly while I was being treated for my third cancer. I’m still here and she’s not. Go figure.

Why are we mortal—subject to decay, decrepitude and death? In a word, physics.

Flesh and bone are accountable to universal principles like the second law of thermodynamics. Matter and energy can’t be destroyed but neither can they hold the same patterns forever. Everything physical is finite, from planets to people.

But I believe we’re more than mortal, more than the sum of our parts. I believe we’re also spiritual beings with an immaterial self not answerable to physics. That’s why “we struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone.”

Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is that we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines. —Atul Gawande

We also have room to hope that death is like the neck of an hourglass, opening into a vast reality not visible from this side.

Hourglass

A Massacre

Standard

The psalmist said, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,” (Psalm 139:14). But ask a physician and he’ll tell you the aging process is anything but wonderful.

Although the processes can be slowed— diet and physical activity can make a difference— they cannot be stopped. Our functional lung capacity decreases. Our bowels slow down. Our glands stop functioning. Even our brains shrink: … The earliest portions to shrink are generally the frontal lobes, which govern judgment and planning, and the hippocampus, where memory is organized. … By age eighty-five, working memory and judgment are sufficiently impaired that 40 percent of us have textbook dementia.—Dr. Atul Gawande

If we’re so well designed—and we are—why do we wind down so ignominiously? Why must our latter years be so fraught with frailty and failure?

The betrayals of body and mind that threaten to erase our character and memory remain among our most awful tortures. The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.—Dr. Atul Gawande

I watch this diminution happening to loved ones and it breaks my heart. I hate the indignities of old age. With Dylan Thomas I, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The Bible insists this decrepitude is our fault, not God’s. Biology blames the cycles and seasons of nature. I’ve changed my thinking as to the cause of our decline and demise. At the same time I’ve clarified the hope to which I cling in the face of the inevitable.

More on this in another post.

“Old age is not a battle.
Old age is a massacre.”
—Philip Roth

The Glass Test

Standard

One morning the dentist says you need a new crown—$1,000 please. That afternoon you land a job that pays $1,000. These are the facts.

How you choose to see the facts will determine how you feel.

If you see the crown as an opportunistic thief stealing money needed elsewhere you’ll feel frustrated, angry perhaps. If you see the job as a timely provision for the unexpected expense, you’ll feel relieved, happy even.

What you initially feel depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

An optimistic attitude is largely inherited, and it is part of a general disposition for well-being, which may also include a preference for seeing the bright side of everything. … A disposition for well-being is as heritable as height or intelligence. —Daniel Kahneman

Your disposition is set by nature and reinforced or moderated by nurture. Knowing your default setting helps you understand why you see things the way you do.

glass_half_full_

The Glass Test reveals who you are:

An optimist says the glass is half full.

A pessimist says the glass is half empty.

A fatalist says, “It is what it is.”

An engineer says the container is twice the size it needs to be.

A Republican says, “Who’s been drinking out of my glass?”

A physicist says the glass is completely full, half with water
and half with air.

I’m a physicist.

What are you?

 

Matter of Fact

Standard

“You can’t argue with facts.
You are not entitled to your own facts.”
—Larry Page

We may not be entitled to our own facts but we are entitled to our own feelings, and they control what we believe and how we behave. We’d like to think we’re rational, logical creatures but a mountain of evidence proves otherwise, as Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking Fast and Slow:

The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it. Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.

You may not know that you are optimistic about a project because something about its leader reminds you of your beloved sister, or that you dislike a person who looks vaguely like your dentist. If asked for an explanation, however, you will search your memory for presentable reasons and will certainly find some. Moreover, you will believe the story you make up.

Because this process takes place instantly and subconsciously it’s almost impossible to change—read The Happiness Hypothesis if you want to understand why—but at least we can be more aware that the heart, not the head, is in charge.

“Reason and emotion must both work together
to create intelligent behavior,
but emotion does most of the work.”
—Jonathan Haidt

Which God?

Standard

Religious faith brings out the best—and worst—in people. ISIS zealots are beheading Christian children in front of their parents because they aren’t Muslims. Christian missionaries from half a world away are staying in towns overrun by ISIS to care for those families—at the cost of their own lives.

What do these actions reveal about how God is perceived by these different faiths?

“My God is pleased when I behead children who don’t have the proper belief.”

“My God is pleased when I lay down my life for others, regardless of their beliefs.”

Which God inspires you to love and worship?

Which God would you rather spend eternity with?