Wednesday, September 29, 2010


One time a professor of mine brought to class a picture of her favorite American President. As she showed it to us, she talked about Harry Truman’s presidency. She discussed the situation in which he came into office, his political party, and his accomplishments as president. After discussing all of this, she asked the class why we thought she was such a fan of Harry Truman. The answers she received were basically parroted back from he earlier presentation about his accomplishments and personality. After hearing our responses, she said we were wrong. Although she acknowledged the value of his contribution, his contribution was not the reason he was her favorite. Our professor said she loved Harry Truman because he looked like her “Papa.” She loved her papa, so President Truman was automatically lovable.

To me this is a great example of how emotions almost always drive behavior. Research has shown that the emotional parts of our brains are involved in a lot more than just happiness, sadness, and anger. These same systems play a vital role in how we process the world around us every minute of the day. People whose brain injuries have disconnected their emotional brain systems tend to become paralyzed with indecision and relational blindness. Similarly, some psychological disorders and psychoactive drugs can heighten emotional awareness to an unhealthy level leading to poor decisions and debilitating anxiety.

One part of the Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:5) suggests that we love God with all of our hearts. Heart and emotion seem to be almost synonymous when Jesus quotes this passage in Mark 12:29. Jesus used the Greek word “psuche,” meaning the seat of feelings, desires, and affections.

However, God is not a soft teddy bear or a familiar face. Since our world is broken by sin, he does not always occupy an automatically lovable place in our hearts. Our hearts are dragged away by other things. Broken people have distorted our image of our true loving God. Jaded thinking can lead us to not feel emotionally about God, but derogate the creator of the universe to our negligible intellectual understanding. We forget to stand in awe.

I think we need to spend some time with our heavenly papa. Watch the sunrise and think of God. See his work in the ones you love. Say his name in song and prayer. Tell others how good he is. Ask your heart how it feels about God, not just your mind. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

The A Word

Personally, I am very careful with the word “love.” I have no idea if I have ever been “in love” before, what does that even mean? I have never said those three words to a woman in the context of a romantic relationship. In a moment of rare open conversation, I once asked a group of my single grown-up male friends if they had ever been “in love.” I was surprised to hear that most of them said yes. After our conversation, it seems that most of them seem to define being “in love” as an extreme sense of affection for someone resulting from the combination of physical attraction and emotional attachment. I think if these guys were to be honest, they would say that they are no longer in love with that person.

As hard as it is to define love between humans, how hard is it to define love of God? The actions that signify love in humans might be very different from the actions that signify love for God. What does it look like to love God?

In the original Shema Yisreal from Deuteronomy 6:5, Moses used the Hebrew word “ahab” for “love.” From what I have read about it, this seems like it meant pretty much the same as our word for love. When Jesus repeats these words in Mark 12:29, he uses the Greek word “agape.” This word seems to combine affection with selflessness. This type of love seeks the good of the other.  In his book “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis called agape the purest form of love.

Knowing this definition, I wonder how many people actually have agape for God and/or others? Instead, we use knowledge of God’s agape to quell our fears and anxiety. We take other people’s selfless love for granted. Sometimes I do not love God in this way, seeking him above myself. I think relationships would work much better if we included some more agape.  People talk about the L word often, what do you think about the A word?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Word for Word

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian Psychologist who is famous for his work in developmental and educational psychology. He suggested that human thinking is inextricably linked to language. His research suggests that young children internalize the voices and speech of their parents and thus learn how to speak. This emphasizes the role of cultural interaction in everyday thinking.

Evidence for this theory comes from different cultural types of language. It has been said that Native Americans who live in the Arctic have numerous words that infer different types of snow. We only have one word for snow. Another example would be the difference between a layperson and an expert’s language. I might have seven or eight categories for which to describe a building, an architect would probably have hundreds. (For more on Vygotsky and the power of words, listen to this interesting radio show called "Radiolab")

Considering this line of thinking, the next portion of the Shema Yisreal is very interesting. When it was first spoken in Deuteronomy 6, the word used for the concept of love was the Hebrew word “ahab.” It appears that this word was fairly generic, much like our word “love.” It seems to have meant all of the things that the word love means to us. 

However, when Jesus quotes the Shema Yisreal in Mark 12:29, he uses the Greek word “agape.” The Greek language had several words that signified the concept of love. Agape appears to have mostly been used to connote a decision-based love, a commitment.

It makes sense to me that the languages would change over time. As the world gets more complex, so does language. What does not make sense is that in modern-day English we only have the word “Love.” It just seems too simple to describe something that was so complex that the Greeks had several words for it. It seems like it would be the same as calling all plants trees.

Given that language seems to be what shapes our thinking, could it be that having only one word is one of the reasons why we have such a hard time understanding love?

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Is the sky blue? Of course it is, right? Wait, what exactly is blue? Blue is a particular mixture of light wavelengths that pass through my retinas and stimulates my brain in a particular fashion. Now do I experience “blue” the same way as you? Is there any way I can know that? I guess I can know that what I call “blue” is the same things as you call “blue.” Even if we experience blue differently, we generally call the same things blue. What about feeling blue? Do I feel blue the same way as you? Do you know what it looks like when I feel blue?

As I grow older, the world often looks less coherent. Some simple generalizations I have perceived about the world that worked in the past no longer seem to hold water. Pluto was always a planet, but now it is not. Yet Pluto did not misbehave and lose it’s status, something only happened to the way Pluto is understood. It seems that depth of knowledge actually induces less generalizations and more complexity.

Yet amidst this world of complexity, there is a word from God. In Deuteronomy 6:5, he says the Lord is one God. Moses used the Hebrew word “Echad,” which means one, alone, or unique. As the world of knowledge gets complex and seems less coherent, there is one God. Although humans may not perceive any coherence, there is one God.

As a learner, this gives me some peace. That peace comes from having faith that the existence of one God implies some level of order in the universe, even if we do not perceive it. For example, I had a hard time figuring out how the numbers in my apartment complex were assigned. It seemed like there was no reason in it. Yet I know now that whoever assigned the numbers ordered them in two concentric circles. There actually is coherence. It was just hard for me to see. If there is coherence, then may be my attempts at learning are not in vain, there is actually truth I can discover. There is some order.

Second, God is unique. It seems to me that even people who believe in God like to treat the world as being governed rules and principles like a computer program. Although this seems attractive to our brains, God is unique. Our world’s governor is a conscience, not a science. You can have a relationship with a conscience, not so much a science.

In the Shema, God first called us to hear him. Now he tells us who he is: the one, alone and unique. He makes and breaks order, we rise and fall because he is. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hear and There

It is very common for people to practice selective attention. When an adolescent is enthralled in a video game or an adult in a sporting event. It seems like a bomb could go off in the next room and no one would notice. This is actually an amazing ability of the human brain. It seems to have limited capacity to process information at any given time, therefore it can cancel out extraneous input. Yet the extraneous information is not completely cancelled, because some things can be impactful enough to shift the person’s attention.

In the Shema, God needed to shift their attention. It is as if he is saying: “If you hear nothing else, hear this.” God had already brought them out into the desert in order that he could pass on this word. It is quite common in the Bible for God has to go to extremes in order to get peoples’ attention. In one Old Testament story, a guy’s donkey had to talk to him (Numbers 22). In another story, Jonah had to be abandoned in the middle of the sea to shift his attention (Jonah 1). Paul had to become blind in order to hear God (Acts 9).

Jesus said in John 8 that the people were not hearing him because they had no room for his word (John 8:38). Jesus’ teaching was outside their box of normal everyday life, therefore they could not hear him. They had selective attention and hearing.

I know I am guilty of selecting that which I hear. My mind darts around like a mosquito from one thing to another, yet sometimes missing that which is important. I think it is important for me occasionally to stop and hear. I need to listen to voices outside of my own head. I think everyone needs to take some time to stop using selective attention and try some elective attention. In this we can decide to listen for the voice of God around us everyday. What do you hear?