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How high control cultures run over our intuition
Churches do this a lot. How do we correct this error, but with balance?
For those with kids, we are all now back to school, post Labor Day. I hope your transition back into the grind of hustling kids out of bed and out the door, and busy afternoons of sports practices and extracurricular activities, has gone ok. It's a lot. For me, the adjustment was a bit jarring, and I'm still catching my breath.
I wanted to write this week about listening to our gut. It's come up several times in recent weeks, in conversations I've had and books I've read and articles I've come across.
The first moment that stands out is when I was speaking to Russell Moore about his latest book, Losing Our Religion. Here's what he told me:
"When I look back over the last years of my ministry, there were lots of times when my mind was wrong, and there were lots of times when my heart was wrong, but there are very few times when my gut was wrong. There would always be these moments where I would say, 'This seems crazy to me, but I seem to be the only one who sees it, and so it must just be me.' And so I would make all of these rationalizations."
Moore was talking primarily about seeing religious leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention behaving in ways that struck him as off, or wrong. He would find himself saying, "This is somebody who seems to lack character, seems to lack stability." Or, "this is a really, really awful person or behavior." Two figures who fit into this category are Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. You can read a summary of what they've been accused of here.
But Moore shoved his concerns down because others seemed to be acting as if it were no big deal, or as it it didn't exist.
The motivation to sweep things under the rug, Moore said, was that people inside the conservative SBC believed "the stakes are too high" to allow a leader of the conservative movement to be taken down. It was essentially a political argument, about power. That led to a situation, Moore said, where "when conscience means nothing, all that is left is power." (That seems to be the case, incidentally, for those who are still defending Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from being impeached for corruption.)
So, Moore is not saying that his gut is the same thing as his conscience. But he seems to be saying that many times our subconscious, or our instincts, can serve as an early warning signal for something that's wrong. And then, he says, our intuition can be steamrolled by our rational mind if there are incentives for us to do so. We can reason our way to a place of accepting something as ok that isn't ok.
The second time this came up was in reading Shannon Harris' new book, The Woman They Wanted. This theme of suppressing our instinctive knowing is everywhere in her book. But there's a difference of degree between Moore's story and Harris'. Moore's suppressing of his instinct seems to have been occasional. Harris' story is one in which this suppression became a way of life.
"I was a walking zombie," (134) Harris writes in her book. This was the result of living for 15 years as the wife of evangelical celebrity Josh Harris, who was the pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. That's the church where I grew up, by the way, so this hits close to home. But the story has national touch points because of Harris' influence through his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and because our church was the hub for a mini-denomination called Sovereign Grace Ministries, led by C.J. Mahaney. SGM has been in the news over the past decade for mishandling sex abuse cases and refusing to submit to an independent, third party investigation.
But the sex abuse cases have always been the tip of the iceberg in my opinion. The SGM culture I grew up in, which Harris experienced as well, was badly deformed and harmful in systemic, pervasive ways that require a careful accounting. Harris' book does this in a very personal way. She describes what it was like to be programmed, through SGM's tightly scripted and highly controlling culture, into what she calls "disassociation."
"Humans are not meant to live like this -- in constant dissociation and denial, smothering and silencing the messages of our bodies and our spirits. This can actually lead to sickness, disease, and even death," (213) she writes.
I'll be talking with Shannon Harris soon about her book and will have more to say about the book. For now, I want to stay on this theme of listening to our bodies. Harris comes back to this point numerous times.
"To stop knowing yourself is to fall asleep to yourself ... We are designed for whole-body intelligence ... this knowing doesn't come from our head ... it is some truth rooted deep within our gut, some truth our body is telling us. This doesn't seem right. I need something. I do not feel good around this person. I don't want this. I do want this," (187) she writes. "Our bodies know things in advance of our conscious minds ... The knowing comes first. The reason, the understanding, comes later. Our bodies are ahead of our minds. I repeat, our bodies are ahead of our minds" (188).
If it seems to you that Harris is having to shout to be heard, you are correct. I have compared living in a highly controlled religious subculture to being under a spell. All your day to day information is from the same set of marching orders. You are shaped and taught to believe and listen to only a certain set of people who believe the right things. Everyone else is suspect.
By the way, any of us can be under a spell if we allow ourselves to be live in a world where we hear the same things, over and over, from the same point of view.
In the SGM context, we were taught to disbelieve our minds, our guts, our instincts, because we believed that we were corrupted and sinful, more than anything else. They taught us other things about ourselves, good things. But the foundational building block of self-understanding and self-knowledge was that we were evil, through and through, from the bottom of our toes to the top of our heads. A Scripture verse that was quoted incessantly was from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, Chapter 17, verse 9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?"
This over emphasis on “original sin” was how we applied the theology of Calvinism. And it created a quasi-gnostic faith practice, in which we viewed our own bodies with suspicion and even disgust. We retreated into an ephemeral, hyperspiritualized religion of emotion and theology, and perfectionism. "I was overcivilized," Harris writes in one illustrative passage. "I was so civilized I was artificial. I couldn't feel my limbs or hear my own heartbeat" (195).
"My body had never been properly invited to our religion," (201) she concluded.
So it is necessary to shout to be heard to break that spell, I think., author of A Curious Faith, has written about this. On Substack recently she described "a relationship that finally taught me to trust my gut."
"The marker was this: our very first meeting, our first conversation, I had this flutter in my innermost being that said, 'Warning. Warning.' I ignored it," she wrote. "Years later, it turned out, I was one person in a long line of people who’d been used and swindled by this person."
Last year she wrote this:
I have spent my whole life overcompensating for the wicked and deceitful heart that beats inside of me. I have done it by mainly thinking of myself in reference to others, their approval, their love, a semblance of peacefulness between us. “Are we okay?” has been my barometer for “Am I okay?” If the people around me found no fault with me—I would convince myself—then surely I was doing okay. I learned to deeply mistrust my own heart, my own inclinations, my own beliefs, and my own convictions. It wasn’t that I so much trusted others hearts, inclinations, beliefs, and convictions, but that I looked at them as arrows pointing to true north in my disorientated world. If I kept going that way or this way, then surely I would stumble into truth or goodness or righteousness or God.
So this dynamic of self-doubt is pretty pervasive among evangelicals, it seems. What's the answer? Unlimited self-belief? I don't think so. Believing that, actually, God loves me and I have a good heart? For some that might help. But not everyone is a devout believer.
I'm always looking for something to steady me when I start getting downhill momentum on something. I can envision a particularly steep portion of a hike we do every summer in Maine. I always coach the kids with us, as we descend, to keep three points of contact on the ground, and to hold on to a rock ledge that runs along one of the most slippery sections.
I am aware that sometimes as we push away from powerful spells, we can fall under counter-spells if we don't intentionally complicate our narratives and probe our understanding for weaknesses and holes.
And it just so happened that The New Yorker magazine ran a piece on July 6 called, "The Paradox of Listening to Our Bodies.” The sub-headline read: "Interoception—the inner sense linking our bodies and minds—can confuse as much as it can reveal."
Here's how the article defines interoception:
Scientists call our ability to feel what’s happening inside our bodies interoception. A portmanteau of “interior” and “reception,” it differs from perception, which comes from our five senses, and proprioception, which tells us how we are oriented in space.
Interoception is an inner sense having to do with our bodily processes. It can be divided into three rough categories. The first comprises feelings that break through into consciousness based on need; this is how we know when we need to pee or sleep or hydrate, and how we grasp that our hearts are racing after a good jump scare. The second encompasses the unconscious ways in which our brains and bodies communicate; our brains detect high glucose levels in our livers, for example, then release hormones that trigger our metabolisms, and we are unaware of the process. A vast number of these silent interoceptive processes are going on within us all the time.
The third category of interoception has to do with how our bodies and minds, together, sense and respond to the flow of events. On a recent Zoom call, Tim Dalgleish, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, told me that the body is constantly delivering a set of signals—changes in our heart rates, breathing, digestion, and so on—that fluctuate along with the events we are encountering. It’s tempting to see the flow of information as one-way, from the mind to the body; we might understand an escalating heart rate, say, as a “reaction” to a feeling of nervousness. (An exam is placed on our desks, we grow nervous, and our hearts start racing in response.) But Dalgleish told me that it made more sense to think of the body and mind working synchronously as part of a single “prediction system.” “I don’t think we are ‘reacting’ to anything,” he said. Instead, we are constantly forecasting what is about to happen, with our bodies and minds contributing to that forecast. “There’s a mental component and a bodily component,” Dalgleish said. “They both happen at the same time.”
When we talk about “listening to our bodies” or “going with our guts,” we are often talking about this type of interoception.
The article clearly says that "interoception can help us see ourselves more clearly."
But the author, Jessica Wapner, warns that "even if you’re receiving a strong signal from your body, it can be inaccurate."
"One of the lessons of interoception research, however, is that access and accuracy don’t necessarily go together. Just because we have a bad feeling doesn’t make it right ... Garfinkel told me that “people with anxiety and depression attend too much to the body.” Data show that people with panic disorders are often hyperaware of their heartbeats ... When such a dynamic is ruling a person’s mind, increasing interoceptive awareness isn’t going to help. It may help more to learn to let in the external world.
So the question is, how do we listen to our bodies and our intuition, and keep that input as accurate as possible? How do we value our intuition and keep it accountable?
"The paradox," Wapner writes, "is that [interoception] may be at its most accurate when it is, in itself, invisible."
The unconscious signals are often the trustworthy ones. The complications begin when we try to listen in and understand what we’re hearing. We’re urged, for all sorts of reasons, to listen to our hearts. But a life looking inward isn’t necessarily a life well lived. “You don’t want to be focussed too much on the body,” Garfinkel said. “You want to be focussed on the world.”
What are your thoughts on this? This is far from a final word on this, nor is it meant to be. There's plenty more room for exploration and learning on this topic. What resources have helped you think through this topic?
One last note. This notion of intuition is mostly applicable, I think, in the realm of personal relationships and private personal decisions we make about our own life. I would not think that our intuition is anything other than a starting point for inquiry when it comes to the common good and the question of how to build a healthy society.
Again, I’m going to flag Jonathan Rauch’s book The Constitution of Knowledge as a vital resource for how we think about what counts as public knowledge: the set of facts we can all agree on or at least debate in our efforts to build community and a functioning politics. I did a long summary of that book here.
If you want to focus on big-picture themes about Election 2024, I have no objection. How might the series of criminal indictments affect Donald Trump? What does the economic outlook portend for next year? How does voter concern about Joe Biden’s age impact his reelection chances? What happens if Republicans gain support among among Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters who didn’t go to college? These are worthwhile questions.
But it is much too soon to engage in what Other Nate (Cohn, of the New York Times) calls “crosstab diving”, i.e. scrutinizing the minutiae of polls. Most voters aren’t paying attention yet, and it will be nine months to a year before they do. Furthermore, polling this early historically has little to no predictive power. It’s not hard, for instance, to find polls from this point in 2015 showing Hillary Clinton with double-digit leads over Trump.
There are exactly four things you need to know about the horse race right now:
Joe Biden could win.
Donald Trump could win.
Someone other than Biden or Trump could win.
The odds of these scenarios do not shift very much from day to day.
Who are the Republicans supporting Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general facing impeachment? by Jon Ward for Yahoo News
The impeachment trial of a powerful Republican in Texas this week is being fought by two groups in the modern Republican Party who see the loss of political power as an existential threat.
Former Trump White House adviser turned podcaster Steve Bannon put it bluntly. “This ... is not really about Ken Paxton,” Bannon said Tuesday on his daily webcast. He cast Paxton’s trial as a small battle in a larger war by Trump against “the establishment.”
The implication of Bannon’s comment is that the details of Paxton’s trial don’t matter, and his alleged misconduct and lawbreaking don’t matter, because he has litigated aggressively against the Biden administration’s policies and supported Trump politically in the past.
Paxton’s other main source of support is from two Texas megadonors who have spent at least $30 million over the last decade, and probably more than that, to push the Republican Party and state government further to the right.
“The cornerstones of our government are crumbling and starting to come apart. And it’s because of the lack of morality, the lack of belief in our heavenly Father,” Wilks said in a sermon he preached in 2014 at the small church two hours west of Dallas where he has been the pastor for many years.
Wilks — whose church website appears to state that they do not believe that Jesus Christ was divine, in what would be a view many Christian churches would hold to be heretical — also said in a 2013 sermon that homosexuals are “predatorial” and “want your children.”
Dunn, meanwhile, has expressed the view that evangelical Christians are uniquely designated by God to be in charge. “If you are an evangelical and you don’t vote, that means you are not doing your duty because you are the ones that God gave the authority to,” Dunn said, according to a Texas Monthly profile.
The comments of both men follow the broad contours of the perspective of Christian nationalists, who believe that the nation can prosper only if their interpretation of the Christian faith, which is usually very right-wing and fundamentalist, dominates government and culture.
The Contagious Corruption of Ken Paxton by David French for The New York Times
What’s happening now is a Texas-size version of the civil war that rages across the right. Is it possible for Republicans to police their own, or does Paxton’s devotion to Donald Trump and his zealous commitment to the culture wars excuse his misconduct, however egregious? Is it possible for Republicans to potentially start the slow and painful process of healing the G.O.P.?
Paxton’s aggressive loyalty to Trump, in other words, acts as a form of indulgence that grants him license in his personal and professional life. Paxton’s acknowledged sins, including his affair, are cheap and tawdry. Yet a constellation of Republican stars are rallying to his side, led by Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ted Cruz and Steve Bannon. Because he’s a fighter. He goes to war against the left, and if the age of Trump teaches us anything, it’s that the current of his leadership flows eternally toward conflict and self-interest, consequences be damned.
It’s hard to overstate how much this ethos contradicts the Christianity that Paxton purports to proclaim. In fact, scriptures teach that the role of the godly man or woman isn’t to yield to power, but to confront power when that power is corrupt. The mission is to swim against the cultural current.
Five Years Later: What I’ve Learned About Women and Men in Sports by Martina Navratilova
The promise of Title IX has not been realized, 51 years after its inception. According to a report by the Women’s Sports Foundation, high school girls enjoy 1.1 million fewer sports opportunities than boys do, and college women enjoy 80,000 fewer opportunities than men. Champion Women, Inc. has found that women lose out on 1.1 billion dollars in college scholarship dollars alone, not to mention inequities in sponsorships and media coverage.
Can males who identify as women be accommodated in sports? Of course. They can play in the men’s category. The men’s category can be redefined as “open.” Or they can create their own events, as the Gay Games have done every four years since 1982. I support any accommodations so long as male athletes do not take participation opportunities or scholarships from female athletes.
The female category was created to provide opportunities for women to compete fairly. It was always intended to exclude males. We need to keep excluding them.
I promised to educate myself, and I have. I plan to keep advocating for fair competitions—and equal rights—for female athletes. I hope you’ll join me.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend!
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