Skilled Faith?

In Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, he discusses the work of Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, who did research in the 1960s on how we develop skills. They broke the process into three stages: 1. The cognitive stage in which you intellectualize the task, defining its parts to work out what to do; 2. The associative stage in which you concentrate less and make fewer major errors; and 3. The autonomous stage in which the skill no longer requires great concentration (think the way most of us experience typing on a keyboard or driving).

For this third stage, Foer offers additional nomenclature:

“As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the ‘OK plateau,’ the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.” (p. 170)

If you’re like me, the faith analogy springs out of that quote. How often have I settled for less in my level of intimacy and relationship with God? How often have I stopped at the OK plateau?

A lot of us feel the sting of the OK plateau with respect to our faith. But with it comes a sneaky assumption – that faith is a skill and that it’s something in which we should always be improving.

It’s not surprising when you think about it. Culturally, most elements of our lives can be converted into some form of “expertise.” We want to be better. We watch the Cooking Channel and wish we could make crème brulée. We read blogs about parenting and want to start 15 new traditions every holiday. We watch people whose faith we admire and conclude that we just need to _______ (pray more, read more Scripture, attend church more often, fill in the blank).

Expertise, having the skills, is a comfortable idea. We’re familiar with all manner of ways to measure it (return on investment, accurate predictions, sheer output).

So it’s easy to forget that faith is not about expertise. It’s about experience.

Intimacy with God poses problems; it’s not always linear or “up and to the right.” It takes twists and turns, as our lives do.

Faith as experience invites us not to develop more “Christian skills”, but to enter mystery, to enter the very life of God. Jesus reminds us that to enter that life, we have to give up on becoming better.

Ultimately, our goal has nothing to do with surpassing some kind of OK plateau; our goal is far richer, deeper and truer than that because it’s found not in a skill set, but in God himself.

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God Doesn’t Rush Pregnancy

Earlier in December, we were sitting with a group of friends, discussing Scripture and its significance, thinking about the upcoming birth of Christ, when Rachel, my wife, uttered these simple words, “God doesn’t rush pregnancy.”

They’re obvious words in some sense. We know that a fetus takes 40 weeks or so to fully form and be ready to enter our world. We’re grateful for the medical marvels that can help those born prematurely, but that is no one’s preferred way forward. Pregnancy takes time. Of course God doesn’t rush it.
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But then, I think about Mary. Nine months of wondering what was going on. Perhaps years of pondering exactly what the reality-piercing words spoken to her meant.  Her body changing, cravings coming and going, morning sickness and the wearying burden and blessing of carrying life.

If ever there was a time for God to rush a pregnancy, to speed things up a little bit, that seems to be the time. He had already asked so much of her – to believe the miraculous, to face family and friends with a nearly unbelievable truth, to give her “yes.”

But…God doesn’t rush pregnancy.

I suspect that it’s these extreme times in the lives of our forefathers and mothers in the faith that speak to us something of the way God works in us. Mary’s yes wasn’t to an overnight result. It was to a process of forming and waiting and wondering. A slow one.

I want my yes to God to be punctuated by a rapid response. Sure, I know God has his timing, but how hard would it be for us to sync watches?

But formation doesn’t seem to happen that way. God seems far more interested in forming us slowly, over time, bit by bit. We are grateful for moments of punctuated grace – times when heaven comes near enough for us to gasp and we are fully aware of God’s presence. It’s the very rarity of these moments, though, that helps form us.

We are invited to find grace in the mundane, God’s presence in those around us, his gentle guidance in our listening when things seem quiet.

I wonder if Mary knew this when she gave her “yes,” when she agreed and affirmed that it should be to her according to God’s word. Maybe this came as no surprise to her, that she would need to be patient and wait a long time before having the promise undoubtedly confirmed – that she had borne the Son of God.

Maybe she knew, but I’m more impatient. I still need the reminder…

God doesn’t rush pregnancy.