Category Archives: Theology

Loving Assholes

I’m a confirmed idiot.  After all, one time at a friend’s house I went to the bathroom and accidentally urinated entirely in my friend’s trash can (By the way, I was completely sober).

However, I am also awesome in this specific way:  I value assholes.

Assholes, of course, can just be jerks who just enjoy hurting other people or don’t care when they do.  These people are obnoxious.  Nobody likes them, and for that reason, most of us are scared shitless at the idea of being thought of as one.

But I enjoy people who are willing to risk being mistaken for a jerk.  I appreciate those willing to potentially hurt the other person for that person’s sake.  They are willing to risk the relationship.  They are willing to make you cry if it makes you better.  I call them loving assholes.

Alicia took this picture when we were in Sri Lanka last summer.  It is very related to this post (it is not related to this pose).

Alicia took this picture when we were in Sri Lanka last summer. We think it looks cool.  It is also very related to this post (it is not related to this post).

Loving assholes are quite possibly the most important type of close friend to have in your life.  They are valuable precisely because they care more about you than about being in your life.  They call you out when you are being mean to your wife.  They let you know your fly is down.  They insist that you apologize to your kids when you have done something wrong.  They stop you from buying that last round of shots.  If your inner-circle consists of yes-men or yes-women, you risk becoming abusive; nobody is above it.  We can all fall into habits of being, for example, short-tempered, verbally abusive, or generally unkind towards the people we love.  If nobody in your life is a loving asshole, than nobody will call you out.

I am a loving asshole.  Consider this example:  it was two months before my friends wedding and I was his best man.  I became increasingly concerned about my friend’s marriage.  After a few cautions, I reached the point that I could not in all honesty support their marriage and I stepped down as best-man.  I risked my entire relationship with my friend in an attempt to help him.

Artists easily shoot themselves in the foot by not seeking out honest feedback.   In college, a buddy of mine wrote and directed a six hour play and had his friends perform it.  I saw it, the first 1.5 hours was pretty good, but on the whole it was awful.  It tied up his friends lives for a big chunk of their senior year, and nobody had the heart to tell him what they thought.

To the extent that I am a good writer today is the same extent to which I have managed to cultivate honest feedback.  I reccomend this loving-asshole-cultivation technique in particular: marry one of them.  I can count on Alicia to give me an honest and frank appraisal on, for instance, this post.  I see it now, “It was good.  You probably said ‘asshole’ too often.  You probably could have come off as slightly less self-congratulatory.  I thought it was hilarious when you peed in Jim’s trash can.”

Of course, if artists do not cultivate an inner-circle of loving assholes, all they risk is being a bad artist.  If you or I do not have any loving-assholes as friends, you risk being a bad person.

Of course, I am not alone in being a loving asshole.  There are millions of us, and we are asshole-ish to different degrees and in different varieties.  However, I doubt that truly loving assholes are much more than 5% of the population (total guess).

One loving asshole that comes to mind was Jesus.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus constantly ‘sticks it’ to the pharisees and others.  One example is Matthew 15: 1-7a.

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”  Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!  Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.” (NIV)

The Pharisees prided themselves on being extra-devoted to the Law.  This would have really pissed them off.  In fact, we know it did.  Two verses later the disciples warned Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  Jesus replies, “Leave them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”

Of course, Jesus can get away with that sort of innapropriate behavior because he is all-knowing and what not.  You and I should emulate Jesus in the other, Philippians Christ hymn sort of way; by being really really humble.  But being really humble means being willing to forsake your clean image as a good person and occasionally that might mean making someone sad.

Fortunately, the world is hungry for honest feedback.  Instead of feeling sad, we often feel invigorated and closer than ever when we confront someone out of love.  I was inspired to write this post because I have recently started some life-coaching sessions with an individual who simply wants to learn how to get better at making conversation.  She is eager for some frank appraisal and discussion.  It’s inspiring to see.

And it makes me want to ask my reader’s, who do you need to be a loving-asshole for today?

4 quick tips on being a loving asshole:

  • Only be a loving asshole, generally, with people you know well. You can’t speak into someone’s life if you do not know what you are talking bout.  
  • Take responsibility for your very good friends.  Know when it is likely that nobody will speak certain truths into someone’s life unless you do.  
  • When you confront as a loving asshole, you do so for the other person’s sake.  Any defensiveness on your part when they push back (and they likely will), and you are just an asshole.
  • Loving assholes are only loving assholes occasionally.  Usually, they are just loving.  Don’t go overboard.

This post is #2 in my “I’m a Confirmed Idiot” series. You see, sometimes I have thoughts worth sharing, but I don’t share them because they are in various ways self-congratulatory.  If subtexts had vocal chords they might scream, “See!  Aren’t I great?”  Don’t get me wrong.  That’s a wonderful message which the world needs to hear.  It is just problematic when it is so obviously preached by me.  So sometimes I avoid ideas and messages worth sharing, things I believe in, that may help people, in the pursuit of looking like a nice guy.  So, in the “I’m a Confirmed Idiot” series, I am requiring myself to, before getting into obviously self-congratulatory prose, start with a formulation in which I confess an entirely true and unrelated personal epic fail.   This frees me to make my points with righteous passion, holding nothing back, for, as it says in Leviticus 27:35, “If you are humble for a moment, feast on the joy that comes from being full of yourself the rest of the time.”  Look it up; it’s in the Bible.  

Incidentally, this is also #2 in my series “Old Jer Ideas” and remarkably similar to my first post.  

Positive Theology Will Change the World

This post is adapted from some work I have been doing for grad school.  Forgive the boring academic “I-want-to-end-my-life-by-inhaling-my-neck” tone.  To ease my readers, I will embed two inane insults directed at Thomas Jefferson.

Positive psychology is now spawning positive sociology, and is likely to produce other serial fields as well.  Currently I am imagining about 20 or so academic disciplines focusing on strengths and human flourishing, one of which is positive theology.  (Naturally, I have an interest in that.  I am trying to publish a manuscript entitled Therefore Joy: A Positive Theology for the Next Generation).  In the following few paragraphs, I synthesize a representative handful of positive psychology research for a religious context, specifically in regards to death reflection, meditation, and ritual, and then discuss a possible definition of positive theology.

Death Reflection

The work of Frias and colleagues (2011), indicates that reflecting on death can help increase gratitude in individuals, unless you are a lisping loser like Thomas Jefferson.  By fully grasping the transience of life, by being exposed to death, the reality of your own death or those around you, one can better appreciate life, prioritize, and find an enormous upwelling of gratefulness.  Unfortunately, modern America bifurcates like it’s nobody’s business.  Kids go to school, parents go to work, old people go to nursing homes, and dead people go to cemeteries.  But religion can serve to connect some of these groups, especially the not living ones.

Ruins of Irish church and cemetery.

Traditionally, cemeteries ringed churches which descendants likely attended.  On a weekly basis, churchgoers were reminded as they passed the gravestones of dead family members, of the fleeting nature of life.  Also, belief in the afterlife is important to many faiths, not only the Christian faith but also Islam and other traditions, and can lead to more reflection on death.  Within the walls of the churches themselves, many faith communities still ask practitioners to contemplate the death of others and their own impending deaths on a regular basis and act in light of those reflections.  While it is tempting for the American church to follow society’s example and also compartmentalize death and ignore it, religion has an opportunity to be one of the last major social arenas in modern society where death can be discussed, considered, and reflected on at length.

In light of this, one intervention that I have thought about doing, not in a religious context specifically, but for highly mobile individuals like myself, is having a portable family cemetery.  Specifically, I would create a chest to house the ashes of my ancestors that are not Thomas Jefferson.  Accompanying each small urn would be a picture, a short personality description and bio, and a record of their relationship to others.  In this way, death could be incorporated into the living-room of the highly-mobile.  A portable cemetery would also help individuals locate themselves as part of a collective that not only extends to those living, but also to those dead, and those that will come after, even old men not yet born—a theme I commonly rant about.

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez, 1632


Fredrickson and colleagues (2008) used Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) to increase overall well-being.  The mechanism put forth was that LKM increased positive affect, which increased the ratio of positive to negative emotions, which built emotional resources, which in turn increased positivity, which finally increased well-being.  While there seems to be a well demonstrated self-reinforcing dynamic inherent in positive emotions, all that we know from this study is that meditation seemed to cause increased well-being.

The Dalai Lama

Meditation has religious roots.  In fact, without religion, today we might not have the concept of meditation.  Numerous strains of the five major world religions include meditation.  However, many strains do not practice meditation, and, of those who practice, many forms of meditation are not obviously similar to LKM.  Obviously, we need to know what it was about LKM that made it successful.  If we can isolate the necessary ingredients, we can look at what religious meditations are “proven” aids for human flourishing and encourage emphasize on those practices within respective religions.


One of those aspects was explored by Anastasi and Newberg (2008), in a study that linked ritual relatively devoid of theological content to reduced anxiety.  This indicates that at least one “active ingredient” of meditation might be its function as ritual.  In LKM, individuals position themselves in seated or standing positions and focus their attention on breath, and then on positive feelings they have towards people that they love, and finally they are asked to expand those feelings towards a widening circle of others.  Each session is similar.  Therefore, perhaps the most powerful aspect to LKM is the ritualistic component.  Regardless, there has been a tendency in many churches in America to move away from ritualism (high-church, formal, liturgical services) and towards Pentecostalism (low-church, informal, “spirit-led” services), though obviously the two are not exclusionary.  Religious practitioners might be interested in the important function that ritual plays and could reinvigorate ritualistic elements in various ways.  The opportunities for religious rituals are endless and need not be expanded here.

Child lighting Menorah

Another important ritual

Definitely on my personal top 10 rituals of all time.

In conclusion, I think it is important to highlight two points.  First, as of 2010, religious people comprise over 88% of the world’s population (CIA World Factbook).  Religion will continue to be a powerful force for generations to come; it is arguably the world’s most influential institution.  Secondly, there is wonderful and surprising plasticity in religion.  How shall we practice?  What words shall we pray?  What beliefs shall we focus on? There exists a range of answers that fall well within the parameters of religious doctrine.  Therefore, for those religions that prefer human flourishing, why not choose those aspects of religion most conducive to human flourishing?  Finding those aspects and making those connections is the task of positive theology.  Intervention studies like those mentioned here can inform religious practice without compromising the integrity of what religious people believe.  Death reflection, meditation, and ritual are just a handful of many aspects of religious practice that may be worth highlighting.

It makes me wonder: perhaps it is through religion that positive psychology will change the world.

Pope Benedict XVI


Anastasi, M. W., & Newberg, A. B. (2008). A preliminary study of the acute effects of religious ritual on anxiety. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 14(2), 163-165.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,95(5), 1045-1062.

Frias, A., Watkins, P. C., Webber, A. C., & Froh, J. J. (2011). Death and gratitude: Death reflection enhances gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 154-162.

The World Factbook.  Central Intelligence Agency.  Retrieved at

Lovesick Reflections

In 10 hours I get to see Alicia after 10 weeks and one day of being apart.  At first, reverting to bachelorhood was a party.  I ate meat, played board games, got lazy about recycling, and drank beer.  Actually, I drank more herbal iced tea than beer, but the point is that I did very manly things.  But after the first month I began to experience severe symptoms of what I suppose would be best diagnosed as lovesickness.  My best friend, my lover, was far away.  But as the day approaches weariness has given way to  excitement, or to be more accurate, excitement has been added to weariness.  Last night I was so jazzed to see her I could not sleep, not a wink, and as I lay there in the dark thoughts crashed over me, eventually overwhelming my heart with a profound sense of blessing.  I got up determined to share these thoughts with you.  (So please pardon any sleepy verbosity you might encounter.  I am writing in a sleep-deprived stupor.)

A good friend of mine, Ben Walker, had to bury his mother recently.  It got me thinking about death and bereavement.  Comparing my bereavement to his is about as ridiculous as comparing a pinch to losing a leg, but it has nonetheless provided helpful perspective.  Because it is a perspective constantly eroded by the grind of our daily banality, it must be reestablished from time to time and for me it happened last night.

Obviously, losing a loved one or being separated from them is only excruciating because we care.  A very easy solution would be to never love anyone, care for anything, or enjoy anyone.  If we did that, if such coldness was possible, the day your father died would be just another breezy summer day.  But for humans, you and me, we grieve, we wail, we cry, we ache, and all of it heaves deep within our chests and stomachs.  Frankly, I find this response  to loss very encouraging.

Loss is only capable of causing pain when we have something good to lose.  Loss reveals what we have been enjoying this whole time.  It allows us to see how those we lose are enormously precious to us.  This morning this idea overpowered my brain until I felt nearly unbearable levels of gratefulness as I ached to see my wife.

Loss helps us in another way.  It gives us insight into other relationships.  Loved ones do not magically become important to us because they die or go to Rwanda.  If so, living loved ones and nearby loved ones, are likely similarly connected to us.  Imagine a farmer who goes out to the field to check his carrots.  He can’t see the carrots underground, so he pulls one up, roots and all, and then has a pretty good guess about the state of his other carrots.  Bereavement pulls up one of our carrots, and that process sucks, but it also provides an opportunity to see the likely depth of other relationships.  We should not waste it.

Those of you who have read Therefore Joy already know that one of my big mantras is that humans universally possess an embarrassingly pathetic understanding of the enormity of good in the world and in our lives.  We do well when we widen that understanding and share our insights with each other.  The widening thought that hit me in the face this morning, not for the first time and hopefully not for the last, is pretty simple: I enjoy this girl so much that just the prospect of being reunited with her makes me too excited to sleep.  These roots run deep.

Alicia will die on me someday, or I will die on her, and one of us will see the roots pulled out, and it will be awful.  But until then, I want the presence of mind to see and appreciate our deep love and enjoyment of each other.  I want to treasure her affectionately before I lose her.  My hunch is that it will make the good times even better.

In other news, my goal this summer was to finish sending Therefore Joy in to publishers by the time Alicia got back and I did it!  I feel 10 pounds lighter.  

Loved in Hell

Can loved ones be in hell?  I think everyone who believes in hell would say, “Of course.”  But this poses some logical problems for me.

In Veggie Tales’ Jonah, the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything define compassion for us: “Compassion is when you see that someone needs help, and you want to help them.”  It could also be said that you “let someone else’s trouble trouble you.”  But how do the troubles of those in hell not trouble those in heaven who, I assume, tend to be loving, compassionate people?  Is heaven possible in a world with a populated hell?

In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis wants to say it is.  It is possible to love those in hell, which in his grand metaphor is a greytown filled with those determined to hate the world and themselves, and not to be made miserable by that love, even if they are our dearest loved ones.  Lewis wants to say that if there is a hell then the Veggie Tales view of compassionate love does not work, because then hell would hold heaven hostage.

My trouble is that the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything have a good definition.  My understanding of love seems to necessitate letting others hijack your emotions.  As Mr. Holton, my 9th grade English teacher, said about having kids, “It’s like letting your heart walk around outside your body.”  That makes sense to me.  That is how my marriage feels, or having good friends, or having a god you love, or a dog you cherish, or loving anything at all ever.  A true lover cannot care about the self-inflicted emotional distress of those they love without that distress in some way translating into distress for themselves.  Distress is distress even if deserved.

Because love connects us, in a world of hate, all suffering is local.  It’s quarantined.  In a world of love, pain rides veins of sympathy, slowly spreading throughout the world to make us all miserable.  Maybe God made the world that way purposefully.  If we all loved each other, joy and misery would be universal.  That also means that those veins of sympathy would intertwine heaven and hell.

So, is compassion not good, or does it somehow become not good after Judgement Day?  Does compassion need to somehow accommodate corollaries (for example, another’s troubles only bothers you when they are not self-inflicted or deserved)?  How can it?  Will we not have real compassion or love for people in hell?  Or, will hell be empty?  I have no answers.

Maybe God cuts people off from his love because he loves others and must be allowed to be happy for their sake, otherwise the pain of the former will spread.  Maybe hell could mean being completely forgotten.  I cannot have compassion on someone if I do not remember they exist.  But while God can make me forget, can he forget?  I doubt it.  Even if he is the only one who remembers that there are people in hell, wouldn’t his love of people who are getting tortured torture him?  Is heaven good for us and miserable for God?

I think the magnitude of suffering dictates in part how bad we feel for even self-inflicted pain.  Lewis’ “greytown” seems less awful than fiery torment.  Even if fiery torment is self-inflicted, if we love them in any meaningful sense, we will feel bad, right?  Aren’t we called to love our enemies?  Is it a big step from that to love the damned?

But maybe my definition of love is incomplete.  Maybe more central to love is caring about someone else’s wellbeing more than your own.  In doing this, you throw yourself wide to the afflictions of compassion, but misery is avoided, because this sort of love is impossible without something else: a radical humility. You cannot care about someone else more than yourself if you care for yourself an infinite amount.  Have you ever been loved by someone who is not humble?  You haven’t.  It’s impossible.  Humility makes love possible, and part of humility is not taking on cares and woes that are not yours.  You are not responsible for everything if you do not think of yourself as having power over everything.  “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Somehow, maybe, by giving up on yourself, you can care about others, but that care does not pollute your happiness, because you have given up on yourself.  As Tyler Durten says in Fight Club, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”  As Victor Frankyl notes in Man’s Search for Meaning, you have to give yourself up and devote yourself to some larger purpose to be happy.  As Jesus says in Matthew, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

A radical humility is more central to our faith than anything else (my favorite passage is the Christ Hymn in Philippians).  Maybe radical humility is what saves hell from destroying heaven.  But at times it feels like alot of bullshit.  Christ’s call to die to self is an obnoxiously internal command.  I wish I could just do some hail Mary’s, observe Friday fasts, make a pilgrimage, and do stuff that makes me feel Christian and good.  I long for legalism.  But Christianity is an immensely internal experience.  Humility, love, faith, God…I cannot measure it, see it, record it, or describe it.  I hardly understand it.

So of course it would feel like bullshit, and of course it might be.  It just makes me crazy.

These are ramblings.  Please take them as such.  

Assassination Rocks!

Most of the world is celebrating Osama bin Laden‘s death.  Some, however, are recoiling from that celebration and mourning the loss of life.  Both groups annoy me, but only if both groups are as single dimensional as my single dimensional description of them.

On the one hand, bringing an end to bin Laden’s exploits is a wonderful thing.  He killed lots of people and would kill more.  It also is a good morale booster and makes the West look and feel less incompetent and idiotic (“Seriously?  This guy walked free for almost 10 years after masterminding the single biggest terrorist attack in world history against the most powerful country in the world?”).  I am happy that we have ended this rallying symbol for Islamic fundamentalism.  However, I regret that we could not have had a trial for him as I think that would have been cathartic for society.  Trials are what separates societal civil justice from street gang vigilantism, and, since street gang vigilantism is no doubt a major goal and modus operandi of Islamic terrorist organizations, it’s too bad we couldn’t nab Osama and be rub-it-in-your-face civil to him.  But assassination is better than nothing.

On the other hand, assassination celebrations are weird things.  As a Christian, I believe that bin Laden was loved by Jesus just as much as me, you, or Mother Theresa.  God’s grace is as offensive as shit.  When Jesus died on the cross, he died for bin Laden.  He thought of bin Laden’s despicable actions, but also how beautiful he was as a human being and how passionately he would pursue his beliefs.  Yes, Osama had good qualities.  He will join the ranks of amazing people who did bad things like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon, etc.  All these men had incredible talents that are admirable.  Even douche-bags of less grandeur, the local annoying jerk say, has admirable qualities.  He or she has a mother.  He or she is beautiful.

However, I barely have time to mourn for those who have not killed thousands of people indiscriminately out of some crazy religious calling.  I barely have time to mourn child hunger, the African Aids epidemic, or my friend’s problems with depression.  In fact, the only reason that I can see to single out bin Laden’s death as something to mourn is because other people are celebrating it.  In other words, it’s a stellar opportunity to act morally superior.

Finally, as many of you know, I am not a fan of punishment or anyone, especially Christians, who want to deal it out.  Justice is God’s to do, and he does it in the afterlife I’m pretty sure if at all (note “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” and Christ’s parable about the workers in the field).  So, I see Osama’s death as a means to an end and not an end itself.

So, I think our appropriate response to Osama’s death is celebration with a moment or two to pause and say, “Ok, assassination is not ideal.  Ok, God loved bin Laden just as much as he loves me.  Ok, I like his death’s good effects more than just the fact of his death.”  Then we drink a beer (or two), come up with a few cheesy movie lines to use as toasts (e.g. “Hijack this!” and “To the liberation of bearded men everywhere”), and wake up the next day and go about our business in arresting the suffering of others and the depravity of ourselves.

…in other news, Donald Trump called Seth Meyers a stutterer in what appeared to be a somewhat derogatory way.  Of course, I have an opinion, as I am deeply concerned with what Donald Trump thinks of me.

The Pope’s Book

I am no great fan of Catholicism.  I think Paul would LOL at the idea of papal infallibility.  I think apostolic succession is proven silly by a quick game of Telephone.  I think that the doctrine of transubstantiation is unnecessary and weird.  However, Catholicism is still a powerful force for good in the world, I know many wonderful Catholics, and I love their Orders, their love for education and the arts; I also love the informed thoughtfulness of Pope Benedict the XVI.  Last week, I had said that I started reading Jesus of Nazareth by the Pope.  Actually, that’s what I was listening to when I heard the screams when Wes fell in.  Alicia and I tried to read it together about a year ago and petered off about 3 chapters in.  This time, I didn’t get much further.

It’s not because it’s a bad book.  It’s good.  It’s thoughtful, maybe too thoughtful.  Once the novelty of reading the Pope wears off, it gets a little boring, especially when you are having a tough time concentrating anyway.  The voice they got for the audiobook sounds like a deep and grandfatherly God the Father, and it makes me sleepy.

In the intro, he does a great job at providing a synthesis for two ideas in tension.  In fact, it’s a tension the Clifton family has been feeling as I have become more theologically liberal in some ways.  The first idea is that we should be concerned with nothing but the facts of history and should use any means, especially the historical method, to find them.  In the second idea, we recognize that the Bible was written by a single author for all time, including ours.  I tend to find myself gravitating to the first idea, which the Pope agrees is very important.

“The historical-critical method–specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith–is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work.  For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events.  It [the Bible] does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth.  The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands:  Et incarnatus est–when we say these words we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.”

I resonate with this.  In concert with what he says, I have observed that my faith itself is what motivates my skepticism for such a notion as timeless, perfect, words.  But he wants to thoughtfully incorporate both ideas, and I find that laudable.  He seemed to succeed in the first few chapters.  I am so happy that the Catholics have such an intelligent person as their leader.

I think my favorite quote comes at the end of the intro, “I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”  I should start all my books with that quote.

In the meantime, I need something a bit more entertaining.  I think I’ll start listening to Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff.