3 Habits of Faith & Problem Solving

If you’re familiar with my posts and/or book, you know that I’m intrigued whenever I find a link between faith, reason and problem solving. It was about eight years ago that I was chosen to become the program leader for a specific kind of analytical problem solving process for my job. The method is not so much about one time “break-fix” stuff, like “Why does my PC keep freezing-up?” It’s more about analyzing trends and seeing the “big-picture”, like “Why do the Dell E5450’s freeze-up 25% more often than the Dell E5480’s in the Asian market?”

It gets particularly “interesting” when people bring their emotional baggage into a problem that is taking a significant amount of time to resolve, and I think the same can be said when discussing faith. It pays to be patient and persistent because in the final analysis it’s all about finding “truth” objectively, regardless of feelings, strong opinions, past experiences or intuition; finding truth even when empirical evidence is lacking or impossible to obtain.

So years go by as they tend to do, I still continue to come across aspects of problem solving that can relate to the spiritual life, such as this article about three habits of creative problem solvers.

HABIT #1: THEY’RE COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY

You may think a method of analytical problem solving is only about observable evidence. It is not. Most often it is physically impossible for us obtain all the data we would like to answer all the questions we have. In fact, I don’t remember a single instance when we had all the evidence we wanted at our disposal, therefore we need to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.

Uncertainty can help us see things from a new perspective. Without a comfort level with uncertainty, we can become fearful and revert to a “fight or flight” mentality, which is detrimental to any critical thinking process. For problem solving, the “fight” instinct might lead to irrational thinking, jumping to conclusions and being overwhelmed by the scope of the mess. The “flight” instinct might cause you to give up, pass the buck or waste mental energy blaming others.

It can be similar with the spiritual life. Uncertainty about the future, all the evil in the world, all the conflicting opinions, what we should do, or who to believe, can result in a “fight or flight” spiritually. Fighting for your faith or just fighting to keep your faith without a clear understanding of your faith will lead to irrational thinking, jumping to conclusions and being overwhelmed by the scope of the mess. Flight from faith can be just that…giving up with a bunch of poor excuses. If you take the time to seriously study your faith, you will become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Here’s a helpful tip from the article; create large swaths of certainty in the rest of your life. The more habit and ritual you create in your day-to-day life, the more stamina you’ll have when uncertainty shows up. Have a regular prayer time each day, receive the Sacraments often (weekday Masses/confession), read spiritual books grounded in Truth, and perform corporal/spiritual works of mercy regularly. These spiritual habits will give you strength when in the face of uncertainty.

HABIT #2 THEY KNOW HOW AND WHEN TO RE-FRAME SETBACKS

Failure results in negative emotions like shame, fear and frustration. As a result many of us hide it. Hiding a problem, or a failed attempt to solve it, can delay the solution and potentially make things worse.

A good problem solver will not internalize setbacks; they will learn from them and perhaps even use any new data from the failed attempt for the next attempt. He or she is also humble enough to get others involved. Instead of thinking, “I failed; better make sure nobody knows” they will think, “That attempt failed; let’s learn from it.”—Big difference.

Catholicism and Christianity in general is a lot about forgiveness second changes. We are to strive for holiness, but oftentimes we are more interested in what we want than what is right or what is true, living more ourselves than for God. Sin is essentially a refusal to let God have His way in our life, so we have setbacks. Re-frame your spiritual setbacks and learn from them. Don’t think “I failed; better make sure nobody knows.” Re-frame it; only your attempt has failed. Ask for help. Involve others. Go to confession.

HABIT #3: THEY BELIEVE THEY CAN KEEP IMPROVING

The article refers to having a “growth mind-set” rather than a “fixed mind-set”. A growth mind-set basically believes that things can get better with effort, learning and help from others. A fixed mind-set sees no way to continue. Don’t think to yourself, “I’m not smart enough to solve this problem.” Instead think, “It is not solved yet, but it can be, perhaps with new skills, knowledge or help.” Add the word “yet” to your thinking. “There is no answer, yet.” or “I’m not sure what to do, yet.”

The virtue of hope is needed in the spiritual life to keep us moving. “I’m not as faithful as I should be, yet.” or “I’m not sure how to grow spiritually, yet.” We need a growth mind-set, but what effort are we putting in? What new knowledge or skills do we require to improve? How will we seek the help we need?

The Catechism says in paragraph 1821, “In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to ‘persevere to the end’…” We should take comfort knowing that it is always possible to grow spiritual if we understand the mystery of God as an invitation. The negative view of the term “mystery” will say that we can never hope to understand it fully and we will never be perfect (fixed mind-set). The positive view says there is an inexhaustible well of truth and love from which the soul can drink with the assurance that the well will never run dry (growth mind-set).

“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.”

– Henry Ford

“Sages, leave your contemplation;
brighter visions beam afar.”

“Pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that produce our creeds.”  William James, The Will to Believe

“Sages, leave your contemplation…” is the beginning of the third verse of “Angels, from the Realms of Glory”, the entrance hymn at Mass today (Epiphany) at our church.   Although there are beautiful, impressive versions of the alternate version of this hymn (sung to the melody of “Angels we have heard on high,” with the beautiful descending Gloria as the refrain–see here and here), our music director (and I) prefer the original Regent Square version, as below:

“Sages, leave your contemplation” hit me hard.  It’s the message I’ve been trying to communicate in my blog posts–that there’s more to the world than science and logic reveal, even though these intellectual tools can enhance our appreciation of God’s Creation.

The opening quote from William James’ essay, “The Will to Believe,” also gives the same message.  Since I have expounded on this in more detail in a blog post, “Why do we believe?” , I won’t repeat those arguments, but just say “even though truth is conveyed on the two wings of faith and reason–to use Pope St. John Paul II’s apt figure of speech–the essential wing is faith.”

 

 

3

A Warning From Charles Dickens

No doubt you’ve heard of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I have the book and have watched different movie versions all my life, but only in recent years have I noticed a tie-in to Faith and Reason in a short, but important part of the story.

Therefore…at this festive season of the year it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for Catholic Faith & Reason, which suffers greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of basic Church teaching; hundreds of thousands are in want of common sense, so please enjoy this excerpt from my book, Faith with Good Reason, appropriate for the season…

In the famous tale of A Christmas Carol we are given a ghostly warning about “our business”. Mankind is our business, the common welfare, charity, mercy, forbearance and more1.  Another ghost exclaims, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom…”2

We are to help “the girl”, but our doom seems to stem ultimately from “the boy”. Why? Because what we know directs what we do. If God is Truth, then Truth should direct the will. If love is an act of the will, then to love or judge something, we need to know it. The primacy of the intellect is important in order to love and judge properly. In the end, you will not love a God you do not know—and you will not serve a God you do not love.

Our will reaches for what our understanding has seen. If we are ignorant of what is true, how will we direct our will? What will be our criterion for judging? Scripture gives us a subtle warning on the topic. “My people are ruined for lack of knowledge!” (Hosea 4:6). If we chose to ignore “the boy”, then doom will engulf us all, because it all starts with ideas, and ideas have consequences. “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”3 In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Mathew we hear, “For I was hungry and you gave me food”. This is certainly about physical food, but also about the spiritual work of mercy to feed the intellect. One can think of “Truth” as a kind of health food for the mind. The seeds of God’s image and likeness are in every person, so we have a natural hunger for truth/knowledge. Stop and contemplate “hunger” for a moment. What happens to people if they are hungry enough, for long enough? They’ll eventually eat something; they’ll eventually eat somewhere, but will it be good food or will it be garbage? Will they care where the food comes from as long as it gives some satisfaction? If we lazily accept anything that gives gratification we risk defaulting to our animalistic sensibilities and have the habit of replacing God with other masters since it seems to save us so much trouble.

We all like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, but people are like sheep and everyone eventually sits at the feet of a master. Who will feed your intellect about the Good, the Beautiful, the True? Will you sit at the feet of Jesus through His Church or will it be some politician or political party, a celebrity or talk show host, a television evangelist, your favorite college professor, or will it simply be the always “infallible” majority? Who is your master? Whoever it is, be prepared to give an account for what you believe and what you say. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak” (Mt 12:36).

Beware the boy most of all…

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).

– Bible verse from the New American Standard Version

 

  1. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, (New York: Barnes & Nobal Books, 2003), p. 28.
  2. Dickens, A Christmas Carol, p. 84.
  3. Charles A. Fowler, Biblical Truths for Men (Innovo Publishing, LLC, 2014), p. 115.

Top photo by John Leech – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=448357

1

Happy Pi Day

NATURE and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:

 God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Alexander Pope

Back in my mispent high school days I got extra credit in one of my math classes by giving presentations on Friday each week on the lives of famous mathemeticians, my way of compensating for the fact that math and I have always had a tortured relationship.  However, even though higher math will always remain a closed book to me, the history of math is not, and it reminds me that exploration in the realm of pure knowledge can be just as exciting as the exploration of the earth and the stars.  Faith and Reason allow us to explore the glory of God’s creation and what we do with the knowledge we gain thereby makes all the difference, both in time and in eternity.

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem,
Reflected in the beam divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And the Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

William Blake