HT: The Way of Improvement Leads Home
I like food and I like folks who can carry a good conversation, so I liked watching Bourdain’s shows. Our older son and I got to meet him years ago at Book People. We had to wait for a few hours as we were at the back of the line. We got to him after he signed autographs for hundreds. He was present with our son, affable, and very kind.
A good interview with Bourdain. HT: James K.A. Smith
Moore: I regularly say that I had to write my books. And this continues to be true with the two book projects I am currently working on. Gathering from the tenor of your latest book’s content, it seems like you felt a high degree of compulsion to write How to Think. Is that true?
Jacobs: Yes, and true for this one more than for any other. When the Presidential election campaign and the Brexit debate really started heating up, I became more and more concerned by what was passing for debate on the issues and personalities involved. There was (there still is) a lot of shouting, and, above all, many people seemed absolutely determined to mischaracterize their political opponents’ views. It was as though not thinking had become a virtue. The more I reflected on how such an environment might have come to pass, the more clear it became to me that I needed to write this book.
Moore: In David McCullough’s fine biography of John Adams he mentions how the second president believed his son, John Quincy, must go overseas to get a complete education. How critical is it for our own education to interact with people from diverse backgrounds?
Jacobs: In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill stated the case in a way that, in my view, cannot be bettered. I would be foolish to use my own words when his superior ones are available:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.
Moore: To what degree, if any, is careful thinking made more difficult by the ubiquity of social media?
Jacobs: It is very difficult to overstate how inimical social media are. All the major social networks want to keep us engaged with their site, and that means we need to be emotionally manipulated: to feel delight, triumph, rage, contempt, and to register those feelings instantaneously. And as long as we’re doing all that, we cannot think.
Moore: Does the unity and diversity of the trinity help us better think about important and complex matters?
Jacobs: If so, I’m not sure how! But I think the relational character of the very Godhead itself, the continual interplay-in-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should remind us that we, made in the image of that God, cannot be monads. In their lesser and limited ways, all healthy human communities, and especially the community called the Church, imitate the endlessly relational unity of the Triune God. This is why I argue in my book that you cannot “think for yourself” and shouldn’t even if you could: thinking is something we always do in response to other people.
Moore: You address the area of emotions and their importance to thinking. Many would not make that kind of connection. Why did you?
Jacobs: There’s a great deal of evidence now — the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has done a lot of it — that demonstrates that people who are unable to have proper and healthy emotional responses to the world make bad decisions. But wise persons have always known this. As C. S. Lewis comments in The Abolition of Man, the importance of training the feelings is central to much ancient thought, pagan and Christian alike: “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”
Moore: You’ve written a well-regarded book on C.S. Lewis’s imagination. Other than his native brilliance, what are a few things Lewis did that made him a great thinker?
Jacobs: That passage I just cited gives one indication! (His awareness of the need to touch people’s dispositions as well as their rational faculties explains his writing of fiction as well as apologetics.) But I believe the really key thing is this: Lewis, though raised in a Christian home, if not an especially devout one, became an atheist as a teenager and indeed for some years was quite assertive in his atheism, always feeling free to mock the simple beliefs of his friend Arthur Greeves. So when, at around the age of 30, he became a Christian, he was able to do so only after unstitching a garment of conviction that he had stitched up quite determinedly over a period of fifteen years. As a result, he came to know both atheism and Christianity from the inside. He was always in the position that John Stuart Mill, in the passage I quoted above, says that the genuinely thoughtful person must be in: knowing the strongest arguments of all sides in a dispute, and knowing them as though from the inside.
Moore: If you could wave a wand, what three books would you have every American read to equip them to be better thinkers?
Jacobs: I’m reluctant to make a list, in large part because, as I explain at length in my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I’m a big believer in reading at whim. But also, what you need to read depends on what you need to understand. So here’s a suggestion: Consider the people whose views you find especially appalling, but also appallingly popular. Find out what they read. Find out what books they believe are the most compelling accounts of their position, the ones about which they say, “This is it. This is what I stand for.” Now, go read all that. At the very least, you’ll sharpen your own thinking by having to articulate your own response to arguments you detest.
But beware: you just might end up changing your mind.
From my forthcoming book, God, What on Earth are You Doing?
How Should We Live in this World?
As mentioned earlier, a proper understanding of trusting God through suffering does not preclude enjoying the good things of God. We can and we should. Since God does not need us, our celebrations, our hobbies like golf or woodwork, and our love of travel, can be tangible demonstrations of trusting in God’s grace. Unfortunately, these good things can also become unhealthy diversions that keep us thinking about the most important issues of life. Even gifts from our gracious God can lead us astray. We must guard against “perishing inch by inch in play at little games.”
We live in a world with easy access (thanks to media) to the never ending news of injustice, suffering, and evil. How do we process this avalanche of sadness without going mad? Years ago, I heard theologian David Wells say that only God is able to handle all the suffering and evil in the world. We were not designed for the constant bombardment of bad news, so it would be wise to consider how much we ingest on a daily basis.
Perhaps we should take the popular option of doing what Voltaire prescribed many years ago: simply hunker down and only “tend our own gardens.” Tending to our own affairs does seem to be a good way to maintain some semblance of sanity.
Recently, I preached in various churches from the book of Lamentations. Towards the end of my sermon preparation I spent some time reflecting on the common responses people have to suffering. I’m sure there are others, but I came up with three “D words”: detachment, diversion, and depression. My wife later added desensitized which could easily fit as a characteristic of those who detach.
The idea of “detachment” from pain is gaining popularity in everything from business books to popular books on spirituality. Diversion is also something we’ve already addressed. Again, diversions in and of themselves can be welcome respites from the constant onslaught of grief, but it is unhealthy to never face your struggles. The response of depression is something many of us can identify with. We look at our broken world in all its chaotic mess and we despair. Another “D” came to my mind later with diminish, where we downplay how bad things are. I think those as well could be plugged under the detachment option.
Jesus provides us the perfect example of how to handle the devastation that comes from acute suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s “soul was deeply grieved, to the point of death.” (Matt. 26:38) Jesus was deeply troubled, yet willing to submit to the Father’s will. If it is okay for the Son of God to be so troubled, we too are given much space to cry out to our God. Being baffled by what God is up to and yet still trusting Him can coexist. In fact, these are signs of spiritual health. Lament underscores that we are not at peace with the brokenness of our world, but we can still experience “the peace that transcends human understanding.” (Phil. 4:7; J.B. Phillips New Testament) What good is peace anyways if we only experience it when circumstances are to our liking?
The glorious news is that the ultimate lament of all time was given by Jesus on the cross. I like to say that because Jesus gave the only upper case L, lament, we now can “lament with hope.” Our laments can come from deep within. These visceral cries are not just allowed by our great and gracious God. They were modeled by Him!
It may feel like our world is crumbling before us, but the worst possible lament was already offered by Jesus. His lament on our behalf gives us confidence that our weeping will not last forever. The older I get I find myself offering two laments on a regular basis: “God, you know how difficult it is to live in this world, right?” and “Please come back soon and make things right!” I’m comforted by the fact that I have the full freedom to offer these prayers of lament to God.
Tragically, the cynic’s posture is one many take. It is important to realize that all cynics share a common, but terribly misguided belief: they think they are omniscient. This may sound very strange to you. How in the world does a cynic think he is all knowing? Let me explain. A cynic has determined that he knows everything, and concluded that all indeed is bleak. Nothing or no one seems to be able to change his gloomy assessment. Here is where theology gets practical. Only God is all-knowing. He is the only one who is fully aware of all the pain and suffering that goes on in our world. As we saw, God’s Son gave the ultimate lament for sin. Sin is the reason for all the grief in our world. The irony is that things are actually worse in one sense than the cynic can appreciate for cynics rarely consider their own sin. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. The cynic has missed a massive truth: God is the author of hope. Biblical hope does not mean our life will be smooth sailing. This is clear from our study of Habakkuk. We can find rest, however, in the hope-filled promise that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) Lest you are tempted into a cynic’s mode by saying these words are unrealistic, keep in mind who penned them. The apostle Paul experienced great suffering. He was no mere theoretician when it comes to pain.
Christians can stare honestly at the brokenness of the world, their world (!), yet be steadied by a God who offers real comfort in Jesus. My prayer is that this study brings greater wisdom, joy, and confidence in the only One who is worthy of our trust. May we be like Habakkuk who learned that nothing or no one can take away “the God of his salvation.”
 See for example, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Mediations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York, NY: Random House, 2016) and various writings of the popular writer on spirituality, Anthony de Mello. A profound book demonstrating the impossibility of mixing Stoicism and Christianity is C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).
 For the suffering of Jesus, I am grateful for a conversation I had with our son, David.
Most of us debate poorly. There are a number of factors like not knowing what we believe as well as we should, presenting a caricature of an opposing position, and even if we don’t err with those two, we tend to get testy! My number one resource for making improvement is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I wish every American would read and ponder this seminal book.
Here’s a good example of how to do better:
I was speaking about expressing proper emotions during my sermon last Sunday. This classic sketch was part of my introduction. I should add that this was one of those very rare times that I used a video clip to introduce my sermon. It was simply too apropos to leave out!
Actually, I refer to the similar ways their detractors speak of both candidates. And the detractors I have in mind are us Christians. By the way, I will not be voting for either, but I digress.
It is amazing to me how many Christians say if Hillary/Trump becomes president, x, y, and z terrible things WILL happen. Perhaps. But who knows the future except God, plus the history of revivals reminds us that God can do wonderful things in very dark times.
So fellow Christians here’s my message: Stop acting as if you KNOW the future. You don’t, and if you did, you might be very surprised what will occur.
This came to me while I was driving the other day:
Be careful of not being a…
prickly person purveying pedantic polemics
An excerpt from my forthcoming book, God, What on Earth are You Doing? an Honest Conversation:
I often say that we Americans know how to cry, but not lament. Crying can simply be sadness over circumstances we do not like. Lament is a deeper cry of the soul that brings one’s sorrow to God and wrestles with it there. One wise pastor says, “In this fallen world, sadness is an act of sanity, our tears the testimony of the sane.” Those in this category have internalized the great themes of the Bible, not in the stereotypical Sunday school sort of way, but in a way that has produced lasting fruit over the course of many years.
 Zack Eswine, Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those who Suffer from Depression (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2014), 30.