A physical faith in a disembodied age

Fishing the Lehigh River

We live in a disembodied age. Think about it. If you’re like me, most of your communication with others takes place by text or email. We may speak on the phone regularly, but many of us live miles from our closest friends and rarely have protracted face-to-face conversations. In fact, our common means of communication tend to assume that we are biological computers sharing discrete data packets with one another. This assumption is obviously false, but is it also detrimental to our flourishing?

I have recently started fishing the waters near my home in Bethlehem (PA). I had always envisioned fishing as an essentially passive activity. The popular perception is that fishing is essentially a form of outside napping. It’s not. In many ways fishing is very active both mentally and, to a lesser degree, physically. Every cast of the line you’re thinking about where to place the lure or the fly. Every time you reel you’re trying to mimic the action of the lure you’re using. You’re looking for evidence of trout activity. You get the idea.

In this regard, fishing is an awful lot like Christian spirituality. Fishing requires the alignment of our minds, our actions, and it requires a store of wisdom that comes through experience. Our Christian faith calls upon us to be Christians inwardly as well as outwardly. We are invited to a faith that embraces thinking and acting. And over a life of practicing the faith we find that we begin to have a sort of wisdom to offer others. It’s a wisdom that’s shaped by, among other things, our physical experiences and practices.

Christians have historically affirmed the goodness, if brokenness, of the created order. As a result the Christian faith has typically valued our physicality rather than running from it. Consider that the two most important signs and symbols of our faith involve the sprinkling of a child or convert with water, and the consecration and reception of bread and wine. These are tactile experiences that are central to our faith. 

I worry that my evangelical faith has not paid sufficient attention to physicality. Online campuses. Virtual communion. Symbol-less sanctuaries. Perhaps we’ve taken things further than we ought, or than what is helpful in our present moment.

When it had the choice the ancient church chose to affirm the value of images of God under the rubric that in the incarnation we have permission to represent Jesus as both truly God, and also a Palestinian jew. The second Council of Nicaea restored the practice of venerating icons to the universal church.

Of course, as a reformed Christian I am part of tradition that looks on iconography with a degree of skepticism. My own conviction is the Christian traditions should continue to “agree to disagree” and to do so charitably. I value icons for aesthetic rather than dogmatic reasons.

God has given us bodies, and God has placed us in a physical world. Any spirituality that fails to account for this essential truth is surely deficient.


Where is God in the world?

The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systemic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the ‘desanctification’ or ‘disenchantment’ of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure ‘nature,’ a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to ‘natural laws’ and can be appropriated by us as a resource for our own ends. As natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood–and exploited–through scientific and technological effort.

Norman Wirzba, “Agrarianism after Modernity” in J. K. A. Smith, ed., After Modernity (2008), p. 249.

Five reasons I enjoy working in our garden

About three weeks ago I made good on my longstanding resolution to reclaim the overgrown garden bed at the back of our yard. We moved into our house in 2007 with dreams of planting, growing, eating, and sharing vegetables we had grown ourselves. A blend of factors conspired to stop us from doing so: we had kids, we worked too much, etc. You get the picture.

Something changed not long ago. I had been planning and preparing for my upcoming sabbatical leave. In the process of doing that I realized (with the help of some wise colleagues) that it’s important to begin the changes you wish to make during your sabbatical before it commences. I started asking myself: which of the things I hope to do during my leave can I start doing now? Gardening was one of the answers.

I was also given a copy of Craig Goodwin’s book Year of Plenty. I started reading it and realized: here is someone like me. Craig knew little about gardening before he started, but he started and learned as he went. Somehow, entering another’s story helped allay my own insecurities about gardening.

I’ve been thinking about why I moved forward on this and what I have valued over the last almost month of my experiment. Here, then, are five things I enjoy about working in the garden:

  1. I can contemplate/reflect/think. working the soil provides margin to move physically and yet be still mentally. I find my mind wandering in and out of prayer, thinking about big things in the life of our family, and generally giving thanks for the chance to be outside.
  2. It provides inspiration. I often find some insight or inspiration from working in the garden. For example, as I was weeding recently I reflected on sin. I encountered a particularly belligerent weed, deeply rooted, which reminded me of some of the sins in my own life. Some sins that show little above the surface of our lives can have roots that have grown dreadfully deep.
  3. I can share it with the kids. When I find a cool insect or am ready to plant, I call the kids over and they share the moment with me. They get to experience walking in the turned soil before planting; they get to play with worms. They get to experience things that I imagine a lot of children rarely experience anymore.
  4. I enjoy getting dirty. I often work the garden in bare feet and without work gloves. It’s fun, believe it or not, to get dirty. There’s a novel sensate experience to working in soil that many, if not all, of my ancestors have experienced and that I enjoy experiencing as well.
  5. Its productive yet patience-building. You plant a garden with the plan and desire that it will produce a crop. Yet, there are many factors that are almost totally out of your control. It may be two months from sowing seed to seeing a yield on that initial investment. In the meantime any number of things can go wrong and, regardless of how much you want to, you can’t make a seed grow faster!
I’ll let Englishman Rudyard Kipling have the final word:
“Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!”

Can you create community?

“Community will start again when people begin to do necessary things for each other again.” – Wendell Berry (Morris Allen Grubbs, ed. Conversations with Wendell Berry, 75).

I’ve been reflecting on what seems like an innocuous little quote. Institutions like churches and universities spend a great deal of money in the name of “creating community.” Initiatives and programs are started and funded with the purpose of bringing into being that utopian idea of “community.” Berry’s simply (and profound) observation undermines what is often an overly consumerist approach to creating community.

Some reflections:

    1. Community is not a thing to be created; it is shared activity. Community occurs when we give our shared attention and effort to something outside of ourselves.

    2. Community arises most deeply in shared “necessary things.” Healthy community implies that we rely upon our neighbors. It’s almost impossible to really rely on someone in the context of leisure or luxury. This isn’t to say that leisure or luxury are always bad only that they are limited and, of course, to some extent (especially luxury) they are optional.

    3. Community impllies reciprocity or mutuality. We need and are needed. Community cannot be uni-directional.

These values bring to mind my recent trip to Quarryville, PA. At the 2000 census the population of Quarrville was 1,994 (it occupies 1.3 sq miles of land). That means that the borough of Quarryville is about the same size as InterVarsity as a national movement and less than half the size of the university where I do collegiate ministry.

If you spend much time around the town, you’ll notice that agriculture is the primary means of sustaining a family. There are lots of farm-owners and other farmworkers around. There seem to be some dairy herds as well as land that’s producing crops.

You get the sense that there is a great degree of community in that place. It’s not the sentimental sort of community that I often fall prey to. Rather, it’s a robust form of community that for a suburban person might even feel at times gossipy, exclusive, or even provincial. However, it is real community marked principally by what Berry notes above: doing necessary things for one another.

We long to find community, but our modern consumer values mitigate against it. Consumerism makes community difficult because we come to believe that we ought to be able to buy our way out of needing other people (by purchasing a tool, hiring a handman, etc). It makes community feel burdensome. It also belittles necessary things. Who wants to spend their lives doing chores? I certainly do not, but it is entirely possible that our aversion to things mundane is detrmental to the development of our souls in a Godward direction. After all–spiritual formation is, as Eugene Peterson has written, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Mile 26 of a marathon might be a high, but most of the preceding 25 are fairly gruelling (or so I imagine).

We desire nothing so much as “to be named and placed” (Craig Goodwin, Year of Plenty, 80). And there’s no better way to experience this than to get down and dirty and do some necessary things, together.

Parents, remember when you used to sleep?

Sleep is on my mind today.

I haven’t read it, but a friend tells me that James Bryan Smith (in The Good and Beautiful God) claims that sleep deprivation is one of today’s greatest inhibitors of spiritual formation. I’ve written about how technology enables our loss of sleep here.

Interestingly,  also came across this article about the health benefits of napping at Michael Hyatt’s blog. Hyatt quotes Winston Churchill on the benefits of a midday rest:

You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half.

Rest and sleep are something of an ongoing challenge in the Gissing household at the moment.

As an infant our son Nathan (3 yo) slept very well. He began sleeping through the night quite early on, under six months. He has, however, always been an early riser. For a long time his regular waking time was about 6:00a. He’d also take a two hour nap during the day.

Then came the fateful day when we decided to get rid of the paci. Things have never been the same. He now no longer will nap in the day. If he does nap it is only because his level of exhaustion overpowers him–over the weekend he came out after quiet time (not quiet at all, by the way) and sat with me on the couch, he was literally nodding off sitting with me!

He will nap if I am at home and he lays with me on the couch (see left). It’s like in the absence of something and someone to keep him still and peaceful, he manages to keep himself awake doing all manner of things–even when he’s exhausted.

Napping together is a sweet thing, but it’s ultimately not sustainable.

I mentioned to a friend recently that getting married exposes a level of self-centeredness the we rarely know we have absent entering into that relationship. If that’s true, parenting takes us even deeper within our own hearts and exposes more of the issues we have. 

Writing about sleep and sleep problems, as well as parenting, is really about one thing–recognizing our limitations. Each of us has limitations of time, concentration, energy, etc. There is only so much that we can do to increase our capacity in order to meet the challenges of our day. We have to not only increase capacity where we can, but we have to focus and limit ourselves so we’re addressing on the right things.

Chief among those right things is rest and sleep–for big kids as well as little kids. The challenge this week is: what are you going to do to improve the quality and duration of your sleep?

Is enviromentalism innately *elitist*?

Rod Dreher at Cruncy Con links to a fascinating piece from the New Republic. Read it here.
In it, Nordhaus & Shellenberger (two environmentalists) explore why environmentalism seems to have real difficulty gaining popular traction. Their conclusion is that environmentalism is essentially a movement in and of cultural elites (like many other important movements like, for example, civil rights):

The problem is not that most greens are elites, per se, but rather that too few of them acknowledge the material basis for their ecological concern and that too many reject the modern project of expanding prosperity altogether.


…[T]he truth is that, while we often talk of our desire for greater community and interconnectedness, we choose ever more privacy, autonomy, and personal freedom. Few of even the most ardent greens could seriously imagine subsuming their individual identities to a pre-agrarian tribe, or abandoning their office jobs for a life of hard agricultural labor. The retreat from older forms of community, and the move toward greater individuation, is universal and largely positive. Colin Beavan and Michael Pollan lament, respectively, the loss of community and the loss of connection between humans and the land. But both choose to live alone with their families in cities, not on agricultural communes, and both express themselves as unique thinkers and writers.

Wise words from Mr Berry

“The industrial economy…reduces the value of a thing to its market price….But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted.”

-Wendell Berry, “A Nation Rich in Natural Resources,” in Home Economics, 135.

Shane Claiborne and Me

I was over at Sojo.net just now and read a short article by Tom Sine talking about Shane Claiborne. Shane is part of what is being described as The New Monasticism. It is a post-Protestant re-conceptualizing of a common religious life informed by the writings of the great Monastic leaders of the Medieval Church. Since writes:  

Over the past two decades, a new Protestant movement very much like the Franciscan order has emerged. Like many in the traditional Franciscan order, they have moved into the poorest urban communities in our world, live in community as families and singles, and care for the poor, often living at the same lifestyle level of the poor around them. A number of them have even developed a rule of life.

This is a compelling way of life and one that is counter-intuitive to our prevailing notions of the good life. I have not always been as interested in this movement as I now am. Once upon a time, in 1998, Shane and I were in seminary together at Princeton. I did not know him personally, but remember him asking a question in OT (I think it was OT) and prefacing it by saying that he lived in intentional community. I had no idea what “intentional community” was and I certainly thought he was something of an odd bird (as the English say) since he wore apparently home-made clothes. Ten years later, I am a little more enlightened. The one thing that does concern me about this movement is its inability to capitalize a community. It seems to be a charity movement in the sense that it is dependent upon money from others in order to be sustaining. I am not sure that it creates wealth for a community. However, I am willing to admit that this is not the only (or perhaps not even the most) important thing for a Christian group to do. Thanks Shane, and others, for creating an interesting alternative to traditional evangelical and post-evangelical Christian living.

Interesting Comparison – Biological Engine v. Internal Combustion Engine

From How Stuff Works:

Is there a way to compare a human being to an engine in terms of efficiency?

It turns out that “biological engines” — which is what the muscles in your body are — are pretty amazing in terms of efficiency. To find out how efficient, let’s look at how many calories a person burns while riding a bicycle.
If you look at a page like this calorie chart, you will find that a person riding a bicycle at 15 miles per hour (24 km per hour) burns 0.049 calories per pound per minute. So a 175-pound (77-kg) person burns 515 calories in an hour, or about 34 calories per mile (about 21 calories per km).

A gallon of gasoline (about 4 liters) contains about 31,000 calories. If a person could drink gasoline, then a person could ride about 912 miles on a gallon of gas (about 360 km per liter). Considering that a normal car gets about 30 miles per gallon, that’s pretty impressive!

To be fair, keep in mind that a car generally weighs a ton or more, while a bicycle weighs only 30 pounds. Cars also travel a lot faster than 15 mph. But it is still an interesting comparison. Note also that people cannot drink gasoline. However, people can drink vegetable oil, which contains nearly the same number of calories per gallon (if you look at How Fats Work you can see that fat contains long hydrogen/carbon chains just like gasoline does).

The people riding in a race like the Tour de France are riding more like 25 mph. Because air resistance rises very quickly with speed, they are burning about three times more calories — something like 100 calories per mile. In a 100-mile stage of the tour, a racer might burn something like 8,000 to 10,000 calories in one day! So they are getting only about 300 miles per gallon. The only way to replace those calories is to eat a lot of food (see How Dieting Works for details).