1. First up this week, we have an amazing piece by screenwriter Dorothy Fortenberry, who is currently working on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In “Half-Full of Grace,” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fortenberry explains why she still goes to Mass, every Sunday, despite all her expectations to the contrary as a child. In a world of performance, that gracious yet monotonous hour provides a break from the wheel:

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago. I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally beloved children of God. We are all exactly the same amount of special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel embarrassed by are beside the point. I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality.

Fortenberry goes on to deconstruct misperceptions of Christianity, particularly those that suggest it may be some kind of self-improvement project. She argues that the Law, including the teachings of Christ, are actually quite demanding — even impossible.

The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. I wish I could have that certainty. It just seems so comforting never to doubt things.”

Well, sometimes I wish I had the certainty of an atheist…I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it…

It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands. Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily. Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket. Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting.

Fortenberry does find comfort, however, in prayer. I’d add that in the face of the iniquities so eloquently confessed above, there’s also comfort in the promise of forgiveness: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness’” (2 Cor 12:9).

2. If, as Fortenberry suggests, we are all the same in the eyes of God, then there is probably no better example this week than this segment from NPR: “Golden State Warriors Take On San Quentin Prisoners In Basketball.” It’s about the Warriors balling with prisoners at San Quentin, a NorCal maximum security prison. In this awesome 7-minute segment, there are no “good guys” and “bad guys”: there are some who have made irreversible mistakes, and some who have navigated unimaginable circumstances. “At the end of the day, you know, whether you want to believe it or not, everybody’s one second away from here.” (For further reading, see Ethan’s post about jail ministry.)

Vaguely related is this story, about a nonprofit that pays to keep former gang members in school: “[This prospect] is sure to have eyes rolling far into the backs of many people’s heads. But… ‘When they see that someone cares for them the way someone cared for me, they’ll listen to you…Eventually, they’ll follow.’” It’s a real-life example of imputation, how we are sanctified by love: we love because we were first loved. It’s the way Christ works. He gave himself — his body at the last supper — to a motley group of people who, over the course of their three years with him, hadn’t shaped up; he called Peter, of all people, the Rock.

3. This morning, The Atlantic posted a very frank interview about insecurity re: mainly “bedroom business.” Ultimately bearing out a low view of human nature (“anthropology”), this will almost certainly be a word of grace for many relationships. (Disclaimer: the featured image is somewhat, er, in your face; and so is the language.) Data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz measures how cultural expectations rub…up against… (doh!) what people search for on Google.

In surveys, people tend to speak of their lives more idealistically, in accordance with how they want to be seen, or how they want to see themselves; Google searches, by contrast, reflect the darker side of human wonderings.

The book is called Everybody Lies…People can say one thing and do something totally different. [Looking at Google data, you] see the darkness that is often hidden from polite society. That made me feel kind of worse about the world a little bit. It was a little bit frightening and horrifying.

But, I think the second thing that you see is a widespread insecurity, and that made me feel a little bit better. I think people put on a front, whether it’s to friends or on social media, of having things together and being sure of themselves and confident and polished. But we’re all anxious. We’re all neurotic.

That made me feel less alone, and it also made me more compassionate to people. I now assume that people are going through some sort of struggle, even if you wouldn’t know that from their Facebook posts.

The article is called “Our Searches, Our Selves” — which is worth noting. It’s easy to forget the strangeness of that word, “search,” when it comes to online exploration. But if we understand ourselves to be, as Percy said, lost in the cosmos, then we are also lost in the Interwebs, seeking a home, a place where we won’t feel so alone in our strangeness. I hope you find that here.

4. The Economist posted a great one called, “To err is human; so is the failure to admit it.” After rattling off some of their biggest errors as a publication, the article talks about a symposium for economists telling their “most regretted statements.” Plot twist: The Economist goes tax collector — “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13).

The article explains how cognitive biases prevent us from admitting — often from even seeing — when we are wrong:

Economists often assume that people are rational. Faced with a new fact, rational actors should update their view of the world in order to take better decisions in future. Yet years of economic research illuminate the ways in which human cognition veers from rationality. Studies confirm what is obvious from experience: people frequently disregard information that conflicts with their view of the world.

From The New Yorker.

People often engage in “motivated reasoning” to manage such challenges. Mr Bénabou [Princeton economics] classifies this into three categories. “Strategic ignorance” is when a believer avoids information offering conflicting evidence. In “reality denial” troubling evidence is rationalised away: house-price bulls might conjure up fanciful theories for why prices should behave unusually, and supporters of a disgraced politician might invent conspiracies or blame fake news. And lastly, in “self-signalling”, the believer creates his own tools to interpret the facts in the way he wants: an unhealthy person, for example, might decide that going for a daily run proves he is well.

Motivated reasoning is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone…

It is rarely in the interest of those in the right to pretend that they are never wrong.

This is nothing we haven’t mentioned before. In fact, it seems like cognitive bias has been covered extensively by most media platforms, ours included; and it’s probably no coincidence that this is coming at a time when — despite political polarization — it’s fashionable to hold concrete “beliefs” or “truth claims” at arms-length: “The American religion—so far as there is one anymore—seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong” (Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir).

So on the one hand, when you don’t know something, it’s probably best not to pretend to; but if that ambivalence becomes a means of being right, it’s just a power play. This is discussed in “Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance,” by Michael Patrick Lynch, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (ht BG):

We know people disagree with us on a range of issues, from climate change to taxes to vaccines. Indeed, we disagree on so much that it can seem, as one political commentator recently put it, that there are no facts anymore. That’s a way of expressing a seductive line of thought: There just is no way of escaping your perspective or biases. Every time you try to get outside of your own perspective, you just get more information filtered through your own perspective. As a consequence, objective truth is just irrelevant — either we’ll never know it or it doesn’t exist in the first place. […]

The postmodernist generation of humanists (and I am one of them) grew up in the 80s and 90s distrusting metanarratives and the very idea of objectivity. But while these movements rightly made us aware of how the implicit lines of institutional, gendered, and racial power affect what passes for truth in a society, they were sometimes taken further to encourage a complete — and often incoherent — rejection of the idea that anything is true (except that rejection itself apparently).

Skepticism about truth is really more self-rationalization than good philosophy. It protects our biases and discourages us from trying to see ourselves as who we really are. More than that, a rejection of objective truth invites despotism simply because it collapses truth into whatever those in power allow to pass for truth in your bubble. And once that is accepted, then the very idea of speaking truth to power becomes moot. You can’t speak truth to power when power speaks truth by definition.

Lynch argues that this ultimately contributes to a rise in arrogance. When what masquerades as philosophical uncertainty is really just an attempt to be right, humility remains as far away as ever.

Christ frees us from the Law of Being Right — he frees us to get our hands dirty, and to get things wrong. Robert Farrar Capon reads the parable of the talents as an encouragement to get in the game. He imagines God as saying, “All that matters is that you play at all, not that you play well or badly. You could have earned a million with the money I gave you, or you could have earned two cents. You could have blown it on the horses for all I care: at least that way you would have been a gambler after my own heart. But…you crawl in here and insult me—me, Mr. Risk Himself—by telling me you decided that I couldn’t be trusted enough for you to gamble on…” In the game umped by Mr. Risk Himself, we may always strike out, but we can never lose.

5. A new collaborative album, by Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner (The National), and James McAlister, is out today. It’s called Planetarium, and I hear it’s out of this world. Each song is named after a planet in the solar system, and the overall concept evokes outer space as a “depository for stray ideas and symbols” (in the words of Spencer Kornhaber) — and, I might add, answers. All throughout history we’ve “turned to the stars” to explain the things we don’t understand.

In an interview with NPR, Sufjan said:

I was also struck by the abundance of our lives here — of the human body, just our own biology, what we contain our anatomy — all kinds of stuff. There’s stuff going on and it’s like, life is so abundant here and yet we’re still obsessed with the exterior of here — and it’s just chaos. It’s methane gas and helium, just violent chaos. That’s what’s so interesting. There’s a sort of beautiful perfect order to life on earth that’s so mysterious and so profound. And yet as people we really f*** it up. We’re so dysfunctional, and we seek guidance from the exterior world, from the heavens, to help us understand our purpose here and to sort of create a sense of order.

Over at Salon, Stevens cites the Bible’s creation scene as one of his inspirations, saying that the “early Genesis stuff” is “kind of cosmic and prog-rocky.” At the end of May, Pitchfork interviewed him, asking if he was comfortable having people look to him as a “spiritual guide”; he replied:

Not at all. I don’t entertain those thoughts, but I do feel a sense of duty, a responsibility in my work. I believe it does speak for truths, and for beauty and love, and eternal, hopefully dignified things. But it’s the work that’s communicating that, not me. Even though I’m the author, I sort of relinquish full responsibility of the nature of that message because it’s much larger and more complicated and more nuanced than I could ever account for. Even in Planetarium, I feel like I was desperately gathering words together to make deadline, and a lot of it is abstract, but some of it has a powerful message that even I can’t be fully responsible for. It feels like it’s in the ether.

6. Lastly, I’d like to think that when Jesus walked on water, he did it with this much style: