Practicing for Heaven (Curt Thompson, Part Three)

The third and final part of our conversation with Dr. Curt Thompson covers what Christian eschatology means for our attempts to deal with political diversity in the church. 

In the first two parts of our conversation with Dr. Curt Thompson, we discussed why it is important to have “embodied encounters” with our civic systems and our political opponents, and what Good Friday can teach us about dealing with the challenges those encounters present. In this third part of our interview, Dr. Thompson gets into what Christian eschatology means for our attempts to deal with political diversity in the church.

The Christian Civics Podcast explores how the gospel empowers us to think, speak and act differently in the public square.

In This Episode

  • Dr. Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist in private practice in Falls Church, VA, and the founder of Being Known, an organization that develops resources to educate and train leaders about the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology, Christian spiritual formation, and vocational creativity. He is also the author of Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame, which explore the intersection of topics at the intersection of Christian spiritual life and contemporary neuroscience.

  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

CONTENTS

00:00–03:15 Introduction
03:15–23:09 Interview
23:10–25:53 Practicing for heaven
25:54–27:20 Light to the World
27:29–29:15 Prayer
29:15–31:49 Further reading, upcoming episodes, bonus episode

SHOWNOTES

For more information on Dr. Thompson and his work, visit beingknown.com. His books Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame are both available online.

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TRANSCRIPT

RICK: You’re listening to the Christian Civics podcast, exploring how the Gospel empowers us to think, speak, and act differently in the public square. I’m your host Rick Barry, the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Christian Civics, and I’m thrilled to finally bring you part three of our interview with Dr. Curt Thompson. Dr. Thompson is a psychiatrist in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia, and the founder of the Center for Being Known, an organization that develops resources to educate and train leaders about the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology, Christian spiritual formation, and vocational creativity.
 
I’m especially glad to finally get part three out to you, because this is the part of the conversation that included the points that were the newest and the most exciting to me. After the interview, we’ll come back together, and I’ll pull some of those points out for us. But first, I want to get us ready with some quick context.
 
April was a very busy month for us at the Center for Christian Civics. I think we had five or six events from the last week of March to the end of April, and a couple of those events were classes and workshops on how believers should approach the intersection of Christian faith and civic life. Our workshops are usually pretty wide-ranging, and cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time, but one of the ideas we always get into is that it’s important to grapple with what’s called the Noetic effects of sin, that is the effect that the fall had on our minds and our intellect, on the way our minds work.
This final stretch of the conversation with Dr. Thompson starts with a discussion of something that I think can pretty definitely be considered a Noetic effect of the fall: motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is one of those ideas that is easy to accept about other people, but hard to accept it about ourselves. It’s the idea that we don’t follow arguments or evidence or ideas to their real conclusions, even if we think they do. Instead, motivated reasoning is the idea that we interpret arguments and evidence and ideas in ways that support whatever vision of ourselves or vision of the world we already, on a gut level, want to believe.
 
We don’t do it deliberately, and we often aren’t even aware that it’s happening, but this idea can be backed up by scripture. Paul says we don’t see things clearly right now, we see through glass dimly, and we’re only going to see things clearly after the resurrection. The Psalms talk about our hearts and minds, as for things we can’t understand ourselves we need God to search our hearts and know us, and then we need him to reveal our hearts to ourselves.
After the interview, I’ll come back to talk about a couple of the other ideas that Dr. Thompson brings up, but first we’re going to jump right back into the conversation as he begins to explain some of the neurological and psychological dynamics that can play into motivated reasoning.
 
DR. THOMPSON: I tend to tell a story the way that I tell it as a way to help me make sense of the world. Again, following the general route of the brain, bottom to top, right to left, we sense things with our spinal cord, our brain stem takes things in from the outside and the inside of the brain, and we move that toward the right side of the brain, and we move from the right side of the brain to the left side of the brain, where we make sense of what we sense. We are doing this all the time, and we tend to make sense of things in a way that tends to reduce distress as expeditiously as possible. In fact, most of how we navigate the world is not–even though we might think that it is–it is not about making decisions or thinking about things because primarily they are correct, in concert with or consistent with objective reality, but rather we tend to make sense of things in such a way that it allows us to lower our distress and increase our sense of comfort.
Sometimes that sense of comfort leads us to tell stories the way we do, and the more we tell stories the way that we tell it, if it continues to give us comfort, if it continues to connect us to other people, that story is going to have increasing levels of plausibility for me. And so in some respects, books like The Righteous Mind point out this notion of how we tell stories and how these stories are associated with attachment processes. What’s important about what doesn’t get said is that we can assume that we’re not really able to change those stories. And the reality is that our stories are able to be changed if we are willing to be curious, if we’re willing to be humble enough to recognize that, in the end, my story, as I understand it, is only going to be most truly told, once again this is critical I think, most truly told when I am actually able to be in conversation with people with whom I have great differences.
Again, we were made, as human beings, from the beginning, not as homogenous beings. If God had wanted us to all get along, he could have made one generic, we’d all be the same. And this is the thing we tend to believe, right, we tend to believe joy comes when we are with people who are like us, and it’s certainly true that we have fun when we’re with people.

I tell people, I didn’t want to marry Phyllis, my wife, of thirty-one years, I wanted to marry a more attractive version of Curt, that’s who I really wanted to marry. I wanted to marry me, but in a more beautiful body, that’s who I wanted to marry. I didn’t really want to marry someone who, it turns out, is radically different from me in some respects. And yet God has made us in such a way that in order for us to see what real joy is like, we’re going to have to be with people with whom we have radical differences. And there’s no one who has more radical differences than God and man. And in some respects this is what God makes us, and now He’s radically different and chooses to have a relationship with us, and then says to us “I want you to do the same, I want you to live like we live, the Godhead lives, let us make mankind in our image.”

And so, this sense of motivated reasoning begins, I think, with the presumption that I want to be with people who are like me and what the Gospel, I think, invites us to consider is like, I want to wake up in the morning and ask the question, “Who are the people that I’m going to run into, who can I be looking for?” Not just who might I accidentally run into, but who can I be looking for with intention, with whom I have great difference, and set out to make contact, set out to be embodied love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control in that particular relationship, on purpose, and in so doing, in making that contact, by definition, will help prevent me from starting from this position of motivated reasoning, which the book kind of highlights, such that we’re not left to drift in an automatized way, not paying attention to how my old story, my old narrative and my old attachments are just like the tide, taking me out, without my being consciously aware that this is what’s taking place.

 
RICK: It sounds like there’s not any easy fix for motivated reasoning. What it takes is long, slow formations of relationships with people whose motivated reasoning is bent in a direction different from you and actually getting to understand them better and through understanding them better being known better yourself.
 
DR. THOMPSON: I think of the biblical phrase, “humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and he will direct your paths.” I’ll tell you, I’m not very good at humbling myself. I’m just not very good at it. I like what I like and I want other people to like what I like, and I will go to almost any length to spin a story in my head, to tell a narrative, of how it is that what I like is not just what I like, but how it is the right way to like what anyone should like. And in doing so I often forget that the reason that I’m doing that in the first place is often because I have my own unfinished business, I have my own places of brokenness, of woundedness, of sin, of places where I have not yet let God enter into my basement full of crap that needs to be healed, reconciled, renewed. And so frequently we find that my need to intensely hold onto a rigid version of my story is not just because, primarily, I think that my story is true, but rather I continue to hold onto and continue to believe that that part of my story is true as a way to help me regulate and contend with and contain my own unfinished business.
 
RICK: Is it realistic to expect to finish that business before the resurrection, before the consummation of all things?
 DR. THOMPSON: I think the answer is definitively no, but here’s the other thing. There is no indication in the biblical narrative that we are expected to finish that business.
I love – C.S. Lewis’ fiction has probably been the best way for me to learn his theology, and in The Great Divorce one of the pictures that I come away with from this dream the protagonist has in The Great Divorce is the sense, even though they don’t say this explicitly, is the sense that here in our life we are practicing for heaven. That’s what we’re doing, we’re practicing for heaven. And practice is always imperfect, but the point is not to become perfect, the point is to increasingly love to play the game. This is why we practice, we don’t practice just so that we can beat the opponent, just so we can become good at what we do, we become good at what we do so that we can enjoy playing the game. I’m not worried about whether or not I’m getting better because I’ll be getting closer to perfection, I want to get better because the better I get the more joy I get in playing the game.
And so when we see that any of these interactions with other people with whom we have difference is an opportunity for me to grow in my joy in playing the game, in this sense, grow in my joy that I get from connecting to those with whom I have great difference, because as I say people, if we’re not practicing for heaven, when it gets here, it may crush us. We may not know what to do with it when heaven arrives and God welcomes us and says “Hey, all you Democrats, we’re going to have a party,” and we’re like “How did they even get here?”, We don’t even know how they got here because we are so stuck in, we are so committed to telling stories about ourselves the way that we do. Again, as a way to protect ourselves from unfinished business that we often don’t know that we don’t know about. Evil would love nothing more than for us to think that all of this political harshness we’ve seen these past two years is really about politics. It’s not about politics. Politics is only the way our unfinished business internally, at the soul level, is being put on full display.
 
RICK: So political, cultural, depolarization in the church community is not just something that helps us exercise our responsibility to become good stewards of our community, and it’s not just something that provides a confounding witness to people outside the church, it’s actually also a practice for people in the church of what it’s going to be like when we’re made perfect, when the kingdom comes.
 
That’s a dimension of it, frankly, that I’ve never thought about before. I’ve thought about those first two a lot, but that third point is really convicting just on a personal level.
 
DR. THOMPSON: Yeah, it is and, you know, that is convicting to me because I’m not very good at it. I like the idea more than I like the actual practice of it, but I do believe that it is the first thing, I think that witness, for instance, to the world, is a byproduct of this. Being a witness is not my first priority, it is a byproduct of what we do when we really do see – when Jesus comes and says, in Mark’s gospel, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is here,” the notion is not “dude, you better repent because if you don’t, like, you’re going to be left out,” it’s more like “it is here, and repentance is about practicing for what is here,” and if that’s what I’m doing, if I’m practicing the Sermon on the Mount, because that’s the only way one can survive the kingdom, if you will, if that’s what I’m practicing, when it gets here we’ll think well of course this is the way we want to live, and of course practicing this necessarily bears witness, because it is so necessarily radically different. But it’s not because bearing witness is the first thing I’m trying to do, it bears witness because it is so starkly different from everything else we see and hear from what is going on around us.
 
RICK: We know that government, politics, civics, these are big, complicated topics. They can suck up as much energy and time as a person is willing to give them.
 
Over the last couple of years, especially 2016 and 2017, I think there were a lot of people that reached their limit. I know that 2016 and 2017 were the years that these topics, for a lot of people, became so frustrating that they pulled the plug.
One of our chief commitments at the Center for Christian Civics is that if you’re a Christian in the US, God didn’t place you in a participatory and representative democracy by accident. He’s given you some sliver of responsibility by placing you here that most of the people, across most of human history, didn’t have.
 
And so you have to think very seriously about what it means for this responsibility that you might not want to bear. It might be frustrating and exhausting to you. You have to think about what it means to be given that responsibility by God. So how can our listeners, who are convinced that they have some kind of spiritual mandate to embody the gospel in their civic lives do that without driving themselves into the ground emotionally or intellectually? How can they practice good mental or emotional or neurological self-care?

 

DR. THOMPSON: You know, the Bible was written in a world that was far less virtual than ours. And so much of what we even think about as engagement amounts to reading newspaper or online articles, most of which are increasingly inflammatory.
 
And so one of the things I would consider as a possible first step, is the discipline of restraint. What are the things we expose ourselves to that are not, in fact, actual embodied encounters with our civic system? An encounter with a Facebook post I don’t consider to be a real encounter with anything. They don’t really tell me much of anything.
 
RICK: That said, please continue to share our blog posts and podcasts on Facebook.
 
DR. THOMPSON: With that one exception. But what I mean by that is if someone has a relationship with you, and they know you, and they’re going to follow you and your blog posts and your Facebook posts, that’s different than just picking things out of the ether – I’m just listening to CNN or Fox or whatever it is that I’m doing, but I’m not having embodied encounters with real people, with whom I’ve had great difference.
So I would say that first of all, It’s the discipline of restraint, it is saying no to things that are not real encounters with our civic experience. And then I would say, the way that we bear witness, as believers, is to actually have encounters with people with whom we have difference. I can think of a neighbor, who’s two doors down from me where I live who I think may think about things, socially and politically, differently than I do. The single most helpful thing I can do is to find a way – I want to say, like, let’s have dinner together, quite literally, I want to have dinner with you, and I want to say “tell me what you think about this and about that.” But then it again goes back to the question of, I don’t just want to know what they think politically, I want a sense of where this is coming from out of their story.
The same thing can be true about what we think about our government. It’s easy to see all the signs and posters that go up every election that say to vote for this person or that person and to just completely disregard them because I don’t want anything to do with that.
 
Well, I think it matters that we would actually make contact with somebody. And again, by that I mean, like, can we have coffee together, to know that I can have more increasingly embodied engagement with this. For those who are actually in the government process, I mean I know a lot of government workers who are doing really, really, really effective, hard work. And some of those folks, what I hear from them, is that some of their work that they’re doing, that they see as most profitable is continuing to be in conversation with people who are on the other side of the aisle from them. These are the things that we actually don’t hear very much about. For all of our polls that tell us about how fractured we are, and I don’t doubt that that’s the case, I also know that there are lines of connection that we very rarely hear about that are taking place. And I would say that to the degree that we are able to do that, it’s going to be to our advantage.
 
RICK: A lot of the advice you’re giving is, I think, very good, very challenging, in a healthy way. But it does go against the grain of the cultural milieu we live in today. A lot of the forces in our world are pushing us to be increasingly virtual and increasingly disembodied. Going against those cultural trends can take emotion, can take resilience, can take fortitude, that doesn’t come easily. How should people think about building that fortitude?
 
DR. THOMPSON: Well I think, to your listeners, I would imagine that if I were one of your listeners, it would be easy to assume that what we have to do is that we have to do this by ourselves. That is a reflection of the very culture that we have been describing. Now we might be smart enough to know, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to organize, but most of us I would suggest, walk around feeling like we’re not very connected to each other. I think it’s no accident that Jesus did not come and pick one person to be his successor. He picked a group of twelve, and it turned out to be more than that.
I think it’s not surprising that when God chose – when God asked Abraham to partner with him, He didn’t just ask Abraham by himself to pick up and leave. Abraham left with his whole family. His family, Lot, everyone, the whole kit and caboodle went. God works in communities and when were going to work with systems or within systems we need to be part of a system that’s doing that, that’s William Wilberforce.
So I think that one thing that I would say that we can do, is for those people who are like minded and who really want to do this, I would say it would be important to be getting together in the same room at the same time and pray about what we’re doing. And this can’t be just like “God help us be better civic people.” We want to name what are we going to do this week, what are the conversation we’re going to have, what if we decided that we’re going to have some dinners together with people, we’re going to bring people together over dinner, people that we know are not in the same place, to have conversations and to really say that what we really want at the end of the day is that we want a world of goodness and beauty. And we know that we’re different, but we really want to emphasize that we want to make contact, we want ourselves to flourish together, we want to love one another. We want to be in the best place. Most of what God does he does in very, very small and slowly moving increments.
 

RICK: Alright, we’re back. Thanks for sticking with us. I know it was a longer stretch between episodes than anyone wanted, but I hope it was worth the wait. Before we get into prayer together, I want to take a couple minutes to take a look at one more idea from this interview and one action idea that Dr. Thompson suggested off of it.

First the idea: Practicing for heaven, practicing for the future we know we’re expecting. I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about how we can live out our faith in our actions and in our relationships, but this idea of practicing for heaven made me realize that I was missing a pretty important point. I tend to think about discipleship, about spiritual formation, about transformed relationships and passionate stewardship as previews of the kingdom for other people. The reason we work for these different kinds of relationships or the reason we work to change our communities is because doing that gives other people previews of the kingdom, gives them foretastes of it. It’s the appetizer that helps them get excited about Jesus’ meal.
Back in part one or two of this interview we talked about how we have to actively train to have these kinds of heart relationships the same way that athletes train for a hard race and we said that we do this because it makes us better at helping other people understand the kingdom that’s coming, it helps us witness to other people more effectively.
 
But Dr. Thompson reminded me of the fact that Jesus didn’t just come for other people. He came for us too. He came for you. And getting better at these kinds of relationships isn’t just good for other people. It’s good for us, it’s good for you, it’s good for me, it gives us a chance to live the way that we were meant to live. And it means that when the kingdom comes we’ll have so much practice doing this under the weight of sin that doing it without the burden of sin is going to feel more like dancing than work.
If there’s one idea I’ve taken away from this long conversation with Dr. Thomson, one thing he said that’s had the biggest effect on the way I think and behave and pray over the last few months, that’s it. The idea that our lives, our attempts to walk in line with the gospel, even when it’s hard aren’t just discipline.
 
They’re also rehearsal for heaven. And that’s been a really encouraging thought, a really motivating thought when I haven’t wanted to talk with someone or pray for someone.
Now the action item. The interview ended with Dr. Thompson offering a suggestion for how to start practicing for heaven when it comes to our relationships in the church with our political opponents. He suggested meeting regularly to practice having these conversations, and I want to make sure you’re all aware of a resource that we offer that can help with that.
If you’re looking for a way to start practicing these conversations in ways that you can be sure won’t just spin out into anger or arguments or name-calling, a way to actually help ground you and your friends or you and your small group members in the Gospel as you start having these embodied encounters across partisan divides, then I think the place to start is probably going to be with our first Bible study guide, Light the World. It follows the story of Creation, Fall, Restoration, and Incarnation, and guides you all through a conversation on how each chapter of that story changes the way you respond to politics and political campaigns, no matter what political ideologies you hold or sympathize with. It can give a group of Christians who have never voted the same way as one another a shared vocabulary for talking about politics and government and it can help establish a baseline of trust so that you can start practicing for heaven in these relationships more confidently.
In just a few minutes we’re going to wrap up this episode with some recommended readings and some quick rundowns of upcoming episodes. But first let’s take a few minutes to pray together.
 
Mighty God, we spend so much time waiting for your future, mourning the fact that it’s not here yet, thanking you for the promise of it, praising you for your power to make it a reality, asking you to work through us to help more people believe in it and become excited about it.
 
But I know that in all of that I’ve often neglected to simply prepare for it, to practice for the heaven that I believe is coming, and I think that I’m probably not the only one.
 
Your word tells us you love us, that you’re concerned for our hearts, our minds, of strength, and our lives. That we are your beloved children. And yet too often we think that you’re only concerned with using us to get to others. We forget that you love us as much as you love those you trust us to reach. You don’t just want us to celebrate you so that other people can see you being celebrated, you want us to celebrate you because you want us to have hearts that feel cause to celebrate. Thank you for considering us so closely. By your spirit, lead us in preparation for your kingdom as we practice these hard duties, these difficult relationships, these disciplines of compassion and responsibility. Open the eyes of our hearts so that we can not just see your coming future more clearly, but also better understand what the experience of that future will be like for us. You sent your son to teach us to prepare for it. He went to the cross to secure our place in it. And you raised him from the dead to prove to us that it is a guarantee. And so we pray these things in his name.
 
Amen.
Okay, thank you for praying with me. If you want to go deeper into some of the ideas Dr. Thompson brought up, we’ll have one of the books he mentioned linked in our next newsletter, along with a couple other books related to topics he brought up. You can sign up for that at our website, christiancivics.org, under the publications tab. And that’s where you can also find that Bible study guide, Light the World.
The spring and summer are shaping up to be a pretty busy time on the podcast. We have a ton of episodes recorded and lined up. Some of the topics we’re going to be covering is ministry to refugees and asylum seekers, how to have faithful conversations with non-Christians when we don’t control the terms of debate, some excerpts from some of those events I mentioned we hosted in April, and a whole bunch of interviews from last months MLK 50 conference.
If you want to help us make sure we can get these episodes out on time, regularly, more consistently, then consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Center for Christian Civics. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Center for Christian Civics, my cofounder and I recently recorded an oral history of the organization. That’s going to be going out to donors at the start of July. So if you’ve made a tax-deductible donation of any size to the Center for Christian Civics in 2017 or 2018, you’ll be getting that bonus episode in just a few weeks. If you haven’t made that donation just yet but you want to before the bonus episode comes out, then head online to christiancivics.org/donate.
 
If you’re been enjoying this podcast, however intermittently it’s been coming out, please remember to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. That all really does help other people find us. If you have any questions or concerns or if there are any topics you want us to dive into in future episodes, please drop us a line through the contact forum on our website. We do read it, every note that comes in. your encouragement means a lot and our questions help us plan for the future on the blog and on the podcast.
And that’s it for this episode, thank you for listening, we’ll be back in a few weeks, and don’t forget to visit our website, christiancivics.org. To hear more about our work, empowering our church to be lamps on stands across the political spectrum.

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