My Struggle With Self-Consciousness

My Struggle With Self-Consciousness

(My shadow)

Ever since I was a child I have struggled, at times, with an over-self-consciousness. I remember, as a high school student, walking into our city’s mall to shop and thinking that people were looking at me and evaluating me. For me this was not a positive experience, nor was it some ego-thing. I did not want people to stare at me, and felt that they were. For the most part of my life I have not wanted to be the center of attention. If you knew my Finnish parents and ancestors you would see where my genes come from and why this is so. We men would rather be out in the fields baling hay by ourselves. Point the spotlights on someone else, not us.

Once when I was in cub scouts we put on a little skit before our parents and families. We made a cardboard TV, and did a “TV show” on a little stage. My part in the show was to tell a couple of jokes. I remember feeling very nervous about doing this. When the time came to put my face in the cardboard TV-screen opening and tell the jokes, I clutched and blew it. Embarrassment flooded into my face as our families laughed, not at my jokes, but at me. I am a failure!

Now, many years later, I still have self-conscious moments, but they are far less than when I was a kid. Freedom from the sense that others are evaluating me has been a gradual thing. A key moment in my transformation from self-obsessiveness to freedom from self came eighteen years ago. I was part of a conference, and one of the speakers was talking about about this stuff. He said: “You’d worry a lot less about what other people think of you if you realized how little they do.” Whooaaa! That hit me as so true. I wrote it in my journal. I wrote it on a 3X5 card and carried it with me, pulling it out many times and reading it again and again.

One way we can move into greater and greater inner freedom is by identifying truth and meditating on it. Paul writes, in Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Make a spiritual habit of meditating on true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy things. Ask God to help these things descend from your mind into your heart. After days and weeks and months and even years of doing this, you’ll experience the Spirit working freedom into your soul.

“Godthink” – The Naive Idea That All Religions Are the Same

“Godthink” – The Naive Idea That All Religions Are the Same

I remember hearing, a long time ago, the idea that “All religions lead to the same thing.” Or, a variation of this: “All religions are One.” But when I began studying other religions it seemed obvious that they were not saying the same things, and that indeed they were many times saying opposite things. Buddhist monism is not Judeo-Christian theism is not Hindu polytheism is not Muslim anti-Trinitarianism.

Boston University’s Stephen Prothero (of American Jesus), in Separate Truths,” writes that tt is misleading — and dangerous — to think that religions are different paths to the same wisdom. A lot of people from Oprah Winfrey to the Dalai Lama (“who should know better”) claim that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.” Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.” Prothero says: “This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.”

Prothero writes:

“The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions.

But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?”

Such thinking is naive. Prothero calls it “Godthink.” Where in the world did Godthinking come from? It came, partly, from the idea that one’s own religion is the way to heaven or nirvana or paradise. How so? Prothereo says religious exclusivism caused religious violence which caused the rise of a “religious tolerance” that reimagined the world rather than described it, in the hopes of eliciting feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. That was a nice move, but inaccurate.

Prothero:  “When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison… [W]hile we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.”

Prothero thinks that what the world’s religions do share is a “starting point.” From then on they begin to diverge, and do not share a “finish line.” All the world’s religions begin with this observation: “Something is wrong with the world.” Something has “gone awry.” After this universal agreement, the world religions part company as regards the diagnosis of just what has gone wrong. They depart from each other even further as they prescribe what now needs to be done to correct the situation.

“The great religions also differ fundamentally when it comes to the techniques they employ to take you from problem to goal. In Confucianism, the rules and rituals of ancient Chinese civilization foster the religious goal of social harmony. But according to Daoists, these very rules and rituals cause the human problem of lifelessness. Civilization is a vampire, Daoists claim, sucking the life out of us, depleting our qi (vital energy), and taking us to an early grave. The only way to pursue the Daoist goal of fostering life is to live in harmony with the naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity of what Daoists call the Way.”

The world religions also differ in that they “look to different exemplars – Christian saints, Hindu holy men – to chart the path from problem to goal.” While there are family resemblances, “today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share.”

I agree with Prothero’s skepticism re. the fruitfuolness of “interfaith dialogue” as something that will “bridge gaps” between, e.g., Christianity and Islam. Prothero writes:

“While I do not believe we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap. You would think that champions of multiculturalism would warm to this fact, glorying in the diversity inside and across religious traditions. But even among multiculturalists, the tendency is to pretend that the differences between religions are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don’t warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them.”

It’s not helpful, and even harmful, to Oprah-sync the world religions. Prothero concludes: “[B]oth tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.”

Prothero gives us a nice piece of work. Read it in its entirety.

Dr. Seuss’s Cartesian, Sartrean Birthday Philosophy

Dr. Seuss’s Cartesian, Sartrean Birthday Philosophy

Yesterday was my 61st birthday. In honor of my own birthday, I am going to write about one of my favorite birthday books, Dr. Seuss’s epic Happy Birthday to You. It’s a deep philosophical text, so I hope I don’t lose anyone in my analysis. (And listen to this as you read – the entire thing!)

Happy Birthday to You (hereafter HBY) is the story of the Birthday Bird (hereafter BB) from the land of Katroo, who arrives one night at the bedside of a boy on the even of the boy’s birthday. The BB sweeps the kid up and takes him to Katroo for the hugest carb-filled birthday ever seen.

Seuss writes, on the BB:

“Katroo is the only place Birthday Birds grow.

This bird has a brain. He’s the most beautifully brained

With the brainiest bird-brain that’s ever been trained.

He was trained by the most splendid Club in this nation,

The Katroo Happy Birthday Asso-see-eye-ation.”

So we see that the BB is smart. How smart? The BB has the “brainiest bird-brain that’s ever been trained.” The word “brainiest” is a superlative, indicating incomparability. The BB has (thinking on Anselmian lines) “a brain a greater than which cannot be conceived.” But, you say, it’s still only a bird-brain. Correct. But if it is the “brainiest” bird brain, indicating a brain a greater than which cannot be conceived, then the BB has omniscience. The BB is, like God, an omniscient being.

The BB’s brain is “beautiful.” Like Nobel Laureate John Nash, the BB has “a beautiful mind.” Here one does not mean the brain’s physicality but sheer cognitive mental powers. But if the BB’s brain was “trained,” does that not imply that the brain-trainers of the Katroo Happy Birthday Asso-see-eye-ation have brainier brains than the brainiest brain of the BB? Logically, that is impossible. So here Seuss is logically incoherent. But that fact should not cause one to dismiss what comes next, for to do that would be to miss some of the best philosophizing in all of Western culture.

“He [the BB] knows your address, and he heads for your bed.

You hear a soft swoosh in the brightening sky.

You are not all awake. But you open one eye.

Thenover the housetops and trees of Katroo,

You see that bird coming! To you. Just to you!

That Bird pops right in! You are up on your feet!”

This is troublesome. A total stranger who:

1) Knows your address? How did the BB know your address? Because an omniscient being knows all things that can possibly be known, which would include your address.

2) The BB “pops right in.”

3) The BB “heads for your bed.”

This is disconcerting. The boy does not know the BB. So he does not know the BB is omniscient. Even if he did know that the BB is omniscient, this does not imply that the BB is omnibenevolent. As far as the boy, and we as well, know, the BB may be malevolent. So here we have a scene where an omniscient and possibly malevolent Bird pops into your room and heads for your bed. This is not obviously good. Here I think we can excuse Seuss, who is writing before our troubled times when neighborhoods were Rockwellian and windows and doors were left unlocked.

We read further, as the BB says to the boy, “Get dressed!” The BB sweeps the boy away and on to Katroo. Does “Katroo really exist? No, in the same way “Pandora” does not really exist. As they fly out we read:

Five minutes later, you’re having a snack

On you way out of town on a Smorgasbord’s back.

“Today,” laughs the Bird, “eat whatever you want.

Today no one tells you you cawnt or you shawnt.

And, today, you don’t have to be tidy or neat.

If you wish, you may eat with both hands and both feet.

So get in there and munch. Have a big munch-er-oo!

Today is your birthday! Today you are you!

I have a number of concerns and thoughts here. They are:

• The use of ‘cawnt’ and ‘shawnt’ are typical Seuss-isms as he desperately tries to keep the rhyming going.

• The assumption is: on your birthday, no one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot do.

• All food groups and food non-groups are fair game on your birthday.

• Forget all sanitary rules.

• Even eat with hands and both feet. (The thought of eating with both feet disturbs me. Especially since, at age 61, I can barely touch my feet while bending.)

• On your birthday you can eat like a pig with its snout everlastingly in the trough of all foods.

OK – not good stuff. Anti-parental antinomianism. But here’s where Seuss now enters into some big-time philosophizing. He writes: “Today is your birthday. Today you are you!”

You are you. ‘A’ is ‘A.’ This is the logic of identity. Yes, it’s tautological thinking, redundant stuff. But when the subject is the self, and the predicate is also the self, then we have a powerful, existential statement of personal identity. We are now heading in two converging directions; viz., Cartesianism and Kierkegaard’s idea of truth as subjectivity. Let us proceed.

“If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you.

If you’d never been born, well then what would you do?

If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?

You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!

You might be a doorknob! Or three baked potatoes!

You might be a bag full of hard green tomatoes.

Or worse than all that… Why, you might be a WASN’T!

A Wasn’t has no fun at all. No, he doesn’t.

A Wasn’t just isn’t. He just isn’t present.

But you… You ARE YOU! And, now isn’t that pleasant!”

There’s so much stuff here that one wonders where to begin!

1. “If you’d never been born, then what would you do?” The answer to that is, ‘you’ wouldn’t ‘do’ anything since ‘you’ would not be.

2. You might be “a toad in a tree.” But this cannot be true, since if ‘you’ had never been born then ‘you’ would not have been born as a toad in a tree. Had you been born as a toad in a tree you would not know it. We have toads croaking in our backyard as I write. Perhaps some of them are in trees. But I am certain not one of them is now thinking, “Wow – I was born as a toad in a tree!”

3. You could never have been born as a doorknob. No current physical theory allows for that kind of thing to happen.

4. But… you might be a “Wasn’t.” That is, if you had never been born, even as a toad in a tree (but not as a doorknob) you would not exist at all and would be, ipso facto, a ‘Wasn’t.’ Pause here for a moment, as I make some comparisons between Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Seussian philosophy.

In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on “Sartre’s Existentialism,” we read:

“Sartre’s ontology is explained in his philosophical masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, where he defines two types of reality which lie beyond our conscious experience: the being of the object of consciousness and that of consciousness itself. The object of consciousness exists as “in-itself,” that is, in an independent and non-relational way. However, consciousness is always consciousness “of something,” so it is defined in relation to something else, and it is not possible to grasp it within a conscious experience: it exists as “for-itself.” An essential feature of consciousness is its negative power, by which we can experience “nothingness.” This power is also at work within the self, where it creates an intrinsic lack of self-identity. So the unity of the self is understood as a task for the for-itself rather than as a given.”

The connections between Sartre and Seuss should now be obvious. But just in case they are not:

1. Seuss’s “You are you” (or later, his “I am I”) is “independent and non-relational.” Here the Seussian self is not defined in relation to something else. It exists “for itself.” This is precisely the kind of birthday Seuss is advocating; viz., a birthday that is only about the self and for the self.

2. A ‘Wasn’t’ has an “intrinsic lack of self-identity.” That is, a ‘Wasn’t’ essentially, or ontologically, lack self-identity.

The philosophical excitement now builds as Seuss writes:

“Shout loud at the top of your voice, “I AM I!


I am I!

And I may not know why

But I know that I like it.

Three cheers! I AM I!””

Sartre’s definition of existentialism is: existence precedes essence. One first of all, primordially, exists. “I am .” Or: ‘A’ is ‘A.’ The predicate is self-identical with the subject. One’s existence is, drawing from Kant, “analytic” rather than “synthentic.”

Seuss continues:

“Sing loud, “I am lucky!” Sing loud, “I am I!”

If you’d never been born, then you might be an ISN’T!

An Isn’t has no fun at all. No he disn’t.

He never has birthdays, and that isn’t pleasant.

You have to be born, or you don’t get a present.”

Here a celebration breaks forth, as the Cartesian certainty is clarified. I exist! Therefore I am. Seuss’s Cartesian certainty is nothing less than as follows.

1. I have a birthday.

2. Therefore I am.

Again, it is important to note that neither Seuss nor Descartes nor Sartre are making an evidentialist argument for personal existence. Instead, one’s own existence is simply a given, a datum, much like a Plantingian “properly basic belief.”

Which brings us to my favoritest line in the entire book: “You have to be born, or you don’t get a present.” Taking this line, and using a reductio, I reason:

1. I got presents today.

2. Therefore I was born.

3. Therefore I exist. (From 1 & 2)

The rest of Seuss’s book is one giant celebration of ego-centered, non-relational personal gluttonous existence. At the book’s end I admit I am touched, as Seuss writes:

“I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!

If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”

Now, by Horseback and bird-back and Hiffer-back, too,

Come your friends! All your friends! From all over Katroo!

And the Birthday Pal-alace heats up with hot friends

And your party goes on!

On and on

Till it ends.

When it ends,

You’re much happier,

Richer and fatter.

And the Bird flies you home

On a very soft platter.

So that’s

What the Birthday Bird

Does in Katroo.

And I wish

I could do

All these great things for you!”

And why would I write about these things today? Because it’s my birthday, and I have nothing else to do. I am what I am, therefore I will write about what I will write about.

Yoga Is Essentially a Hindu Religious thing

Yoga Is Essentially a Hindu Religious thing

(Hinduism’s “Lord Shiva”) has this interesting article, written by Hindu professor Aseem Shukla, on the necessary connection of yoga with Hinduism. Shukla is dismayed that yoga has been co-opted by Christians and Jews and embraced by Abrahamic religions. Shukla writes:

“Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.” In other words, American yoga-practitioners don’t have a clue as to what they are really saying and doing, and from Shukla’s Hindu perspective this is not right. It reminds me of being in Bangkok just before Christmas and seeing a mall filled with Christmas decorations, and Thai people shopping with no clue about Christmas, as understood by Christians.

“The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.” Hinduism, says Shukla, is “a victim of overt intellectual property theft.” There has been a steady disembodying of yoga from Hinduism.

Shukla does not think yoga is only for Hindus. He does think that cutting yoga off from Hinduism’s spiritual roots misses what it has always been all about.

Shukla concludes:

“Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God. But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization–that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths–that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate–since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation.”

Shukla says practicing yoga will make a Christian a better Christian. But if, as Shukla claims, a practicer of yoga is connected to Hinduism’s spiritual roots whether they acknowledge it or not, then I think Shuklas misunderstands Christianity. For those of us not interested in practicing Hinduism, yoga is something to be avoided.

Panel Discussion on the Problem of Evil

Panel Discussion on the Problem of Evil

On Thursday I’ll be one of the six panelists in the panel discussion on the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Joining me with be an atheist, two Buddhists, a Muslim, and a Roman Catholic who has a Ph.D in philosophy. MCCC Meyer Theatre auditorium. 7 PM. April 22.

On Wed. morning I’ve asked our RMS students to think about how they would respond to that question. On Thurs. morning I’ll share with our RMS II graduates on the same. I love doing this kind of thing – should be fun!

Human Trafficking in Toledo & the U.S.

Human Trafficking in the U.S.

(The Vasquez-Valenzuela family held two young girls inside this apartment when they weren’t working the streets. The windows were nailed shut so the girls would not try to escape.)
A friend connected with the FBI made me aware of this recent human trafficking arrest.

Some “girls—some as young as age 12—were smuggled into the U.S. from their village homes in Guatemala. Their impoverished parents were told that their daughters would be working in restaurants and jewelry stores in California and would earn good wages that could be sent back to their families.

Instead, upon arriving in Los Angeles, the girls were taken to have their eyebrows tattooed and their hair colored and then forced to work the streets as prostitutes. It was one of the biggest human trafficking cases we’ve ever investigated, and when it was all over last year, nine defendants known as the Vasquez-Valenzuela family went to jail—with the ringleader receiving a 40-year sentence…

“These girls and women were physically beaten and were held in apartments so they couldn’t escape,” said Special Agent Tricia Whitehill in our Los Angeles Field Office. “Members of the Vasquez-Valenzuela family would sleep by the doors with knives,” Whitehill added. “So not only were they physically held captive, but they were also under constant threat.”

Here is from the FBI’s Human Trafficking website:

“It’s sad but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled. They are trapped in lives of misery—often beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes or to take grueling jobs as migrant, domestic, restaurant, or factory workers with little or no pay. We’re working to stop human trafficking—not only because of the personal and psychological toll it takes on society, but also because it facilitates the illegal movement of immigrants across borders and provides a ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists.”

Here in Monroe we’re 15 miles north of Toledo. Toledo ranks “fourth in the nation behind Miami, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas in arrests, investigations, and rescues of children involved in the sex trade.” (Toledo Blade, March 14, 2010) It is “estimated that as many as 1,800 people may be trafficked in Ohio at any given moment.”

To be part of the rescue effort, go to

Religious Experience

Religious Experience

(Sunset, Warren Dunes State Park (Michigan), Lake Michigan)

My conversion from weak deism to Christian theism began with a “religious experience.” I was in a social fraternity at Northern Illinois University, living with three of my fraternity brothers. I was a music theory major, played guitar in a couple of bar bands, drank a lot, and did drugs nearly every day. I never thought about God. I never prayed, even as my life was falling apart around me.

One night I was playing in my band, somewhere in the Chicago area. I was on stage, and the thought came to me: “I have a problem.” My drug-using roommate had recently said the same to me. When he told me this I laughed it off. Coming from him, I thought it was ridiculous. Now, on stage, I was thinking that he was right.

A few weeks after that thought, my roommate invited a campus ministry leader to talk with us about God and Jesus. We planned some questions to ask him, including a “big question” we knew he’d never be able to answer. That night we listened to this person talk to us about God and Jesus. Then we asked him our questions, including the big, unanswerable one (whatever it was). His response was: “I don’t know the answer to that question.” Then he said something that forever changed my life. What he said was: “I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do believe there is a God, and that God loves you.”

My world was rocked. An inner revolution had begun inside of me. In that moment a clarity came over me and I knew, beyond a doubt, that God existed, and that God loved me. For three days (a good biblical number, right?) I wrestled about what to do with this. My resistance to becoming a God-follower was mainly due to my fear about what my friends and fraternity brothers would think of me. Actually, a lot of my problems were because of my fear of what others thought of me. So I chose to follow God, which was important for two reasons: 1) I now had a life-purpose; and 2) I finally made a choice that was not a function of what others thought of me.

I had a religious experience. A God-encounter. I see it as an indisputable fact that, historically, this was the moment when my life was forever changed. I see it as disputable that what happened to me was an encounter with God. Some will dispute this. And inwardly, I have disputed it because of my training as a reductionist (cf. B.F. Skinner’s claim that science can reduce all mystery to knowledge). But the overall sense I have is that, on that day, God came to me, experientially. As I write this, I do not doubt it. Nor am I repressing doubts about this, in denial about this, or feigning certainty for the sake of giving some kind of personal testimony that might convince others.

I am certain it will not convince a number of people. The fact that this happened to me and that I perceive it as being from-God does not serve as an argument, to others, for the existence of God. I don’t expect others to be convinced that God exists on the basis of my experience. Equally, I am existentially unmoved by the doubts of others. Such is, often, the nature of religious experience. I think it’s also the nature of nonreligious experience. For example John Allen Paulos, in Irreligion, claims to have no sense of a God. I don’t doubt this. But Paulos’s non-sensing of God does nothing to cause me to question my sensing of God, just as my sensing of God has no effect, I presume, on Paulos. He would think my experience could have nothing to do with God since God does not exist; I think any moments of Einsteinian wonder have to do with God.

I think an atheist’s non-experience of God could existentially validate their atheism. In the same way my experience of God validates my theism. As it should. And no apologetic is given either way. So, a few things about the nature of religious experience.

According to William James, “religious experiences are significant because they form the root of religion.” (Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger, Philosophy of Religion, Fourth edition, 35) If this is true, then without religious experiences persons are not really religious. I think I have met people like this. Their “faith” is only theoretical and intellectual. There are forms of Christianity that emphasize the intellectual-theoretical to the point of disparaging the experiential. For example, the classic “Four Spiritual Laws” place “feelings” as being the caboose at the end of the spiritual train. For James, experiences are located in the engine room. It is precisely my ongoing spiritual experience that fuels the engine of my spiritual train. It seems as if I’ve got the God-gene.

Religious experiencing is important in Christianity. Philosopher William P. Alston, in his essay “Religious Experience as Perception of God,” writes: “The main function of the experience of God in theistic religion is that it constitutes a mode, an avenue, of communion between god and us. It makes it possible for us to enter into personal interaction with God… And if God exists, there is no reason to suppose that this perception is not sometimes veridical rather than delusory.” (In Ib., 57) As Kierkegaard knew, religious truth is deeply subjective and personal. SK writes: “Here is a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing person.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript; in Ib., 113)

(See also some things I have written about non-discursive experiences – here, and here.)

Beware “prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety”

Beware “prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety”

(Store window in Ann Arbor)

John Piper is taking an 8-month leave of absence to fast from book-reading, sermon writing, sermon preaching, blogging, Twittering, article-writing, report-giving, paper-reading, and speaking engagements. Piper’s reality check guiding question is: “What will happen in my soul and in my marriage when, to use the phrase of one precious brother on staff, there will be no ‘prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety’?”

Now that is a great question. And, I hope Piper doesn’t turn on his laptop to see my affirmation of his choice. “Notoriety” can become addictive. Anyone reading this, who has gained even the slightest bit of public acclaim, should take notice. Public acclaim is like a drug. Ask yourself: who, or what, would I be, if no one paid attention to me? Answer this question, and you begin to get at your real self.

Isn’t the biblical idea that all honor and acclaim should go to God, and when this happens we should be very pleased? Therefore beware of preachers or teachers or writers or whatever-ers who become “popular.” A drug is being injected into their spiritual veins that will be hard to come off of. I see Piper’s spiritual move as God calling him into a detox unit because his spirit has become polluted.

Piper writes of being “famous,” and the toll this has taken on his marriage:

“As I have stood back in recent months and looked at my own soul—my own sanctification, my own measures self-denial or self-serving—and my marriage and family and ministry patterns, I have felt an increasing need for a serious assessment—a kind of reality check in the light of God’s word. Am I living in the mindset and the pattern of life that Jesus calls for here in Mark 8:31-38, especially in relation to those I love most?

On the one hand, I love my Lord, Jesus; I love my wife and my five children and their families. These are the supreme treasures of my life—my Lord, my wife, my children. And I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. Indeed, I hope that the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem. That’s my dream. And that’s my plan, if God wills.

But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, even though they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. Noël and I are rock solid in our commitment to each other, and there is no whiff of unfaithfulness on either side. But, as I told the elders, “rock solid” is not always an emotionally satisfying metaphor, especially to a woman. A rock is not the best image of a woman’s tender companion.

In other words, the precious garden of my home needs tending. I want to say to Noël that she is precious to me. And I believe that at this point in our 41-year pilgrimage together the best way to say it is by stepping back for a season from virtually all public commitments.”

Ironically, when Piper emerges from this hiatus, he may be more popular than ever. The solution to this is found in is own words: “As I have stood back in recent months and looked at my own soul—my own sanctification, my own measures self-denial or self-serving—and my marriage and family and ministry patterns, I have felt an increasing need for a serious assessment—a kind of reality check in the light of God’s word. Am I living in the mindset and the pattern of life that Jesus calls for here in Mark 8:31-38, especially in relation to those I love most?”

What does Mark 8:31-38 say?

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life[c] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.””

I have always felt that pastors and preachers and Christian teachers and musicians and artists and creators should have these priorities rock-solid in their pattern of living:
1. Spend much personal time with God, alone on his presence, to be spoken to and shaped by God, and to find one’s ultimate trust in God.
2. To spend much time with family – with your spouse and children if married; with family and perhaps just a very few close friends who know you and love you enough to tell you the truth.
For me, if someone is not doing #s 1 and 2, I could care less about how wonderful a speaker or musician or teacher or book-writer they are, because – probably – they are addicted to their own glory, though meager it is.
I am now stopping to pray for John Piper, and that #s 1 and 2 will be regained and secured in his spirit.
As for myself, and for you, beware “prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety.”