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Opening the Door with Yoga

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sarah Pfeil

Yoga, like grace, arrived in my life when I needed it the most. I had gone through an arduous cancer journey and my spirit seemed broken. After my first yoga class, I knew I had found a way to regain a new sense of being, of wholeness.

The yoga path I am speaking of is a spiritual toolbox which includes all practices of yoga; ethics, breathing techniques, postures, mindfulness, and meditation. Through my practice of yoga, I integrated all aspects of myself into a personal relationship with God. However, the actual practice of yoga can take each person in a different direction. It is not necessary to subscribe to any particular religious beliefs in order to follow the yoga path. The yoga path can lead to a deeper understanding of God, to greater contentment, or to a stronger and healthier body. This is completely a personal matter and how a practitioner chooses to use yoga is up to them.

The heart of yoga is the cultivation of equanimity in mind and body, so the spiritual heart center can wake to the present moment of being alive and sink into the deep and sustaining relationship with God. We integrate all aspects of ourselves into relationship with God. The foundation of yoga, the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas, are the ethical precepts or core values of yoga. These ethics are about avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty and embracing those behaviors that promote love. The practice of the yamas and niyamas guides us into right relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, creation, and the Divine Spirit.

The practice of the physical postures strengthens our bodies. As physically embodied beings this vessel/body is where God has chosen to call home. Through yoga we appreciate and listen to our bodies. We release tension in our bodies and create openings for the Holy Spirit to move within us.

In every major religious tradition, the Spirit of God is the source of our life-giving breath. In yoga the focus is on mindful breathing. Yoga recognizes the breath as our life force. When we breath mindfully we remember that the breath of life that God breaths into us is the same breath that we share with all living creatures. We notice that with mindful breathing, our bodies relax, energy is flowing within us and we begin to feel a sense of peace on the inside. Our spiritual heart center softens and opens. The peace on the inside flows out to others as radiance and joyful light.

The practice of yoga is designed to move us into stillness and surrender. We develop awareness to notice thoughts as they arise and let them dissipate before we get entangled in them. As we witness our thoughts, the tight control of the ego-mind loosens. We create space in our minds to slip behind thoughts and surrender into the stillness. In this stillness we meet God.

The practice of yoga healed me…. physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I became a Kripalu yoga teacher and had my own yoga studio. The biggest blessing of my studio was watching students allow their Divine within to radiate out. Minds quiet, the heart opens, change happens, and grace flows. Yoga is a contemplative practice and is an opportunity to remember lost aspects of our own Christian tradition. Namaste.


Sarah Pfeil is currently taking part in an 18-month spiritual formation program with the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. The program teaches leadership of contemplative prayer groups and retreat leadership. Sarah is a Kripalu Certified yoga teacher and a former Yoga Studio Owner. Sarah has a master’s degree in finance and spent 30 years as an executive in Health care Management and Consulting.

The Gift of Contemplative Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Kevin Hershey

If I was to summarize the gift that I think contemplative practice has to offer to the Christian faith, it would be that contemplation is what allows my discipleship to truly be a way of life, rather than a series of activities or events that I engage in, or a set of beliefs that I articulate. Traditional Church offers opportunities to learn about our beliefs and chances to live out our faith in particular times and places (e.g. Adult ed., Sunday morning worship, mission events, fun community gatherings). Contemplation moves beyond expressions of faith that are bound by time and place. It is about practicing a constant awareness to what is around me, and where God is in it. It includes everything from my capacity to see everyone I encounter as both “guest and guide” (as those from the Northumbria Community say), to how my body feels at that moment, to an awareness of my thoughts, feelings, and reactions to anything and everything that I experience around me. It maintains an open curiosity about everything I am present to and what (if anything) God could be trying to show me through my awareness. Walking through life in this way of contemplation, then, becomes an expression of Paul’s praying without ceasing.

Mindfulness, as I understand it, carries this same sense of awareness to one’s surroundings and self.
Where I think contemplation deepens this is that it moves us beyond awareness of what’s happening around and within us, and into connecting with all that we are becoming present to. As I become more aware, contemplation then asks me to consider how I am connected to it all. Once I am aware of the sights and smells and beauty of nature around me, how am I connected as part of God’s common Creation? Beyond awareness of the pains and pleasures in my body, how do I experience awe and gratitude for how God has formed me? As I am increasingly present to another’s thoughts and feelings, and my reactions and responses to them, how can I express a sense of connection with that person as a fellow child of God? If mindfulness is a way of practicing a deeper sense of awareness about all things, then I think contemplation is the extension of this awareness into actively connecting with God, others, creation, and self. Contemplation is mindfulness-in-community.

When I do well with contemplation (which is a lifelong, up-and-down practice for me), I am aware of how I am constantly walking together with God, serving God by being present to others, receiving God’s guidance and love through the world around me… it all becomes a way of life from the time I get up, until the time I go to bed. It is part of what I carry with me to my job, to interactions with friends, family members, and strangers, as well as those I’m annoyed by, angry at, or hurt by. It becomes part of the most spiritual things I do, like walking in the wood or meditating, and I find it in every-day things like watching TV and playing Barbie with my girls. Any sense of separation between “holy” times and “ordinary” times of life gets blurred and, at its best, disappears. All time becomes holy time when I become aware of and connected to the Holy in it.

This is, I think, the most significant lesson that contemplative Christianity has to teach the mainline church. There is nothing inherently more sacred about worshiping God in a sanctuary on Sunday morning than there is worshiping God by going to the beach with one’s family. There is nothing more missional about taking a group on a trip to rebuild homes in another country, than there is in noticing someone who is painfully lonely and stopping to talk with them while you’re out on your daily walk. These are all acts of God’s love. Doing them one way engages our Christian living as a series of events, bound to particular times, spaces, and groups, that we hope carries something of the sacred into the rest of our lives. Christian contemplation is the practice of seeing the sacred in all of life, and connecting ourselves and others in the Christ’s love. A contemplative life, then, becomes prayer without ceasing, mission without ceasing, worship without ceasing, love without ceasing. Through contemplation, we awaken to our discipleship.


Kevin Hershey is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a former therapist, specializing in Contextual Therapy with couples and families. He is a New Monastic, a Contemplative, a Friend of the Northumbria Community, and is always at work becoming what Brother Wayne Teasdale and Dr. Christine Paintner call a “monk in the world.” In 2015, he founded Companions on the Way, a new monastic community which focuses on looking at how Jesus teaches us to be in relationship with one another, and practices this way of relating in the world. It draws its identity as a “School of Love” from the language of Brian McLaren, and is part of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities Initiative of the PC(USA).

Finding Home

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Paula Estornell, PhD

Everyone has a story to tell. This is my story of finding home.

I got the travel bug when I was 10. It was my turn to fly with to Spain to visit our relatives. (My older siblings had already gone.) The sights, sounds and smells of Spain were strange and captivating. So were the people and the slow-paced, fun-loving way of life. It was a wonderful experience and for the last 40 years I have been thrilled to discover new people and places across much of the United States and many countries. I’ve lived in the north east, north west, mid-west and southern parts of the United States as well as Europe.

I love newness and adventure and never stayed in one place for more than a few years. Too much stagnation makes me restless. In my early years, I was searching for excitement. In my later years, I began looking for home. A place to connect with the landscape and people and rhythm of an area. A place to belong. But a sense of home has eluded me. Even after I moved back to the town where I grew up, where I had family and old friends, married, and had a child. It wasn’t until I discovered, rather unexpectedly, a deeper connection with God and then with others that I felt a true sense of home.

I had grown up without religion in my life and no real concept of God. My tough single mother had left the church disillusioned by the patriarchy and lack of women’s voices. I came upon religion rather accidentally when, soon after returning from two years abroad in the US Peace Corps, I looked in the yellow pages of the phone book to see what community organizations I could join. I wanted to reconnect with Americans and make friends. Unitarian Universalist sounded intriguing and worldly so I went to a service. The exposure to the teachings of major world religions, open-mindedness, freedom of expression, and social justice appealed to me and I stayed an active member for almost 20 years. The faith fed my mind and provided a wonderful community of people to connect with.

When our daughter arrived, we needed to leave our small lovely UU Church in search of a church with a vibrant children’s program. We started attending a local Christian church and there I discovered more than a nice community of kids for our daughter. I found a church library and a deeper understanding of God.

Since I knew very little about mainstream Christianity, I wanted to read a little about the faith and about Jesus to better understand what was being said during Sunday services. Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault changed my understanding of God and Jesus and changed my life as I continued to read books she referenced and others from that church library. Until then, what little sense I had of God and Christianity was that they provided moral guidance for people and those morals were subject to cultural influences. Cynthia and other authors wrote about the indwelling of the light of God in everyone and of a mystical Jesus who launched a radical peace movement and love movement across the Middle East and beyond. Thomas Keating provided centering prayer practices from his Contemplative Outreach organization that guided people to sit quietly each day to hear the voice of God. These Christian spiritual teachings and practices fed my heart.

I’ve now read over 200 books and articles on spirituality and Christianity and am active in local Centering Prayer and Wisdom gatherings and also a student at Shalem Institute in Washington DC. The impact of this reading, community building, and prayer practice has been profound. My restlessness has disappeared, and been replaced with a great sense of peace and gratitude and awe. I no longer search for home because I found it deep inside and in all the people I encounter who carry the light of God within. I still cherish teachings of other faiths and remain active in interfaith dialogue and activities through local organizations. My sense of home is in a loving God, the Divine Spirit that I feel and know is alive in me and in all creation.


Paula Estornell is a wife, mother and travel enthusiast. Paula has worked for many years promoting sustainable community development in academia, government and private sector. She is training to be a spiritual retreat leader and travel guide.

Church Matters — When It Mobilizes

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Stephen Roach Knight

Does church even matter anymore? That was one of the questions posed to me when I was invited to write for this blog, and the one that most resonated with me. Of course, my answer to that question is “Yes,” but perhaps not for the reason you might expect (or, if you know me, then, well, you probably would).

I believe church matters, perhaps more than ever, as a center for organizing in local communities. A few years ago, we invited Liz Butler from the Movement Strategy Center and Friends of the Earth to come and speak at the Transform Network national conference in Washington, D.C., and as an activist, she said it better than I had heard anyone say it before (which is why we posted it on the Transform Network website for posterity): “Community is the first step of collective action. Faith communities play a vital role.”

There is an incredible amount of movement work that needs to be done in order to effect positive change in our communities, in our country, and in our world — and it won’t be accomplished without the vital participation of churches as centers for personal and societal transformation.

In the Moral Movement work that I’m a part of through Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the participation of clergy and moral leaders at the center has been intentional and necessary. Many faith leaders are awakening to the responsibility to no longer be chaplains to empire but to be “prophets of the resistance” (as Michael-Ray Matthews says) or “moral prophets to the nation” (as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II puts it).

Yes, the local church is to be a house of prayer and worship, but it must also be a place of action and mobilization. The era of the country club church, the membership club for insiders, is over (if it was ever sanctified at all to begin with).

Churches with buildings in neighborhoods and city centers can and must open their doors not just so that people can come in on Sunday mornings but so that people can go out the six other days of the week to be salt and light and wounded healers. And clergy are being called to not just preach truth, love, and justice from the pulpit on Sunday mornings but to proclaim truth, love, and justice in the public square — at press conferences and vigils and rallies to address and confront injustice.

Church work and social justice work are both extremely difficult and life-long commitments. Both require strength that comes from a deep inner well of faith and spirituality. That is why, at Transform Network, we have chosen to put such a strong emphasis on what my wife Holly Roach Knight calls “contemplative resistance.” The idea being that we must develop practices of contemplative spirituality that will feed us and guide us daily as we seek to be about God’s work of love and justice in the world. Without those practices, we will flame out and burn those around us with our toxic Christianity or, in my case, masculinity. Centering prayer and other practices are daily opportunities to pull out the poison of white supremacy and patriarchy.

There’s really no excuse today. The question you might’ve asked in years past, “But how do we do it? How do we get engaged?” is no longer a difficult question to answer. There are so many tools and resources available today that speak to faith and social justice, and campaigns (like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival) to get involved with in order to engage. But if you are still uncertain and need help discerning where you and your church might best be engaged in the good fight of God’s justice in your community, I hope you’ll reach out to us at Transform Network. We’re available to spend 30 minutes on the phone with you for a free justice church coaching call to get to know you and offer whatever support we can to help you take the next steps to faithful presence and authentic engagement where you are, with the people you are walking with. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

You’re not in this alone. In order to change everything, it will take everyone — and every church. Because church still matters!


Rev. Steve Roach Knight currently serves as Director of Communications for Repairers of the Breach, the nonprofit social justice organization founded and led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Steve has previously served as National Faith Organizer, mobilizing people of faith to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, among other projects he has worked on for Bishop Barber. Steve is a commissioned minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and has formerly served as full-time consultant to the denomination’s church planting and church revitalization arm, Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. Steve is a co-founder and current board member of Transform Network.

Permission to Dissent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nathan Rouse

My story is little different than many others, but maybe not that different from yours. It starts in the pews of a church and ends… well, I suppose in the ways that matter most it hasn’t ended, but for this part at least it ends outside those walls in the wilderness. But the wilderness is where life is, where true Goodness and holy light may be discovered. And the place you had always thought to be identity reveals, upon sober reflection and the benefit of hindsight, its own decayed innards.

My story is a story of walking away — no, limping away — from religion and a subsequent stumbling, staggering, into Hope; and maybe these are the wrong verbs. Maybe it’s more of a ‘dying to’ religion or, if I’m being perfectly honest (and really it’s just you and me here so why not be honest) it was more a ‘being crushed by’ religion, a crushing which itself resulted, thankfully, in a subsequent ‘being born into’ Hope. Yes, being crushed and then being born. Those feel right.

See if you can chart this path with me, as odds are good you’ve borne witness to it, if not actually lived it yourself: idealistic young adult of faith hitches his (or her) fortunes to a community he loves and in which he feels loved, welcomed, even known, insofar as we can comprehend known-ness. Even when teaching that runs counter to instinct is posited, the love of the community and the belief in its perceived core integrity rivals the impulse to dissent. Until that one day, that day it all sours, that night it all withers; power abused, ostracism enacted, silence condoned, community lost, faith dimmed.

The place I’d known intimately had abandoned even the artifice of faithfulness to loss and revealed its ugly commitment to power and control and personality-worship.

Thank God for therapy.

Then, of course, in the middle of my own intimate faith doldrums, the presidential election of 2016 happened and the angst and grief I felt at the church locally ballooned and magnified, exponentially scaled up, into a wellspring of angst and grief at the church nationally.

This all sounds poetic, perhaps, but at the root of these experiences, at the heart of this forced questioning over these past 5 years, I keep being led back to a most basic line of thought: if adherence to the traditional forms of church and its mores can still result in catastrophe, then why bother? When pastors and presidents are guilty as hell of heinous wrongdoing; when leaders of faith and of civic life metaphorically and literally abuse those in their care; where, then, are we left to turn?

With unveiled faces and with tear-reddened eyes, I have come to think, to maybe believe that we turn — impossible as it may be — to the Suffering Servant; perhaps, ultimately, into the Suffering Servant. The face we had before the world was made is that of humility, lowliness, meekness. We are taught self-aggrandizement. We are modeled ego-stroking, even (and especially) by those in pulpits. Thus, only in the rubble of our old identities can we finally forsake the security of the puffed-up self; can we finally abandon the rigid language of religion and embrace the untamed and untamable spirit of Christ, adopting the posture of loss as the only example worth emulating. We’ve grown drunk following Christ, letting him do all our dying for us, forgetting that the end-goal of any following is embodying.

God help us, we’re so pathetic at embodying.

Reject the Cross as purely and solely substitution, and embrace the Cross as our own will to loss. Resistance only matters if we know what we’re resisting for, if we comprehend what our resistance has to offer instead. Merely holding back the hordes of corruption and decay is not enough. Resistance is painting a picture with our lives, by the aggregation of all our mutual loss into a redemptive counterforce; the very essence of light in darkness.

We dissent in practical ways, like holding our tongue long enough for our words to transmute our anger into tenderness; like truly attempting to conduct a life of love towards others, all others; like recognizing our own limited perspective and embracing the discomfort that comes in broadening it.

We dissent in our religious life by interrogating our biases; by insisting on accountability for our leaders; by fully and completely rejecting the notion of a national identity as a theological one; by recognizing that our own theology has an adverb; by seeing the true dignity of every life at all stages; by full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and minorities in the life of faith, abandoning the extreme exegetical gymnastics required to keep others from Christ’s great feast; by dignifying the agency of all in our midst, especially our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Once the church I loved had expelled me into the wilderness, I ceased striving against what I’d come to know is true: Christ’s kingdom and its gates are offensively inclusive and insultingly wide, and I would no longer be party to bodies, religious or otherwise, that worked to keep others from the Feast of Plenty, the Great Table of Christ’s Welcome.

Forced exclusion from a church congregation pushed me deeper into the suffering servant’s state, and imbued within me a permission to dissent; from the imperially entwined American church leadership that trades its sisters’ safety for power, its parishioners’ presence for pleasure, others’ children for perceived security, and its witness for an empty electorate.

There do remain good churches doing good work. But Christ’s kingdom isn’t bound by four walls and a steeple, no, it is unwalled and elevated, raised high and visible, it is untamed and untamable in the hands and feet of those embodying His prophetic witness to speak truth to power and to issue forth a Kingdom of goodness, where mercy and justice flow like a river.

The church was never a place, but a people. We fashion this Kingdom where we are so those who don’t know the way Home can more easily recognize it and find themselves amidst it. In the life to come for sure, but the life to come begins with the life at hand.

Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. So, too, dissent, for the Kingdom is in your hands.


Nathan Rouse is a husband, a father, a pet-owner, and a fool for hope. He can be found on Twitter at @thenathanrouse, and also co-hosts a podcast called The Fear of God, discussing horror movies and faith, if you’re into that sort of thing.

From SERVING to Serving

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Boni Kim

Growing up in America, the only place I saw people that looked like me was at church. My parents were Christian and so I just followed them to church every Sunday. We started off at a smaller Korean church and later moved to one of the larger Korean churches in the area.

It wasn’t until eighth grade I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. That was when I really started to explore what the church was. I had always liked helping out and volunteering for church and I discovered that I had been serving and being spiritually formed by my experiences even before I accepted Jesus into my heart.

During my college years, I went to an American church when I was at school and when I was home during the summers, I attended my home church. There was such a huge difference between the two churches that essentially did the same thing: worship God. When I attended church at school, I felt like I was learning so much and that I was getting something from the sermons every week. At home, I didn’t get the same kind of learning that I was getting at school. Nevertheless, after I graduated from college, I moved back home and started serving my home church.

Serving was my M.O. for most of my twenties. I believed that the only way I could grow spiritually was if I served. So, I served my heart out. I served as director for my church youth group for seven years along with serving and leading two summer camps for over ten years. During these years, I felt very tired and alone. There was only one person that was going through what I was going through, my best friend, and she was really the only person that I was able to talk to about my problems. Since she and I were pretty much in the same place in our respective churches, we just listened to each other and tried to encourage one another. In the end, I made myself believe that serving was the only way that I would learn more about myself, grow spiritually, and get closer to God.

Then, I burned out. I felt myself getting angry at the thought of stepping into church. Fuming when I had to sit through another meeting. I didn’t enjoy going to church. So, I stepped down from everything. I knew I needed rest.

During this time of rest, I learned that it was okay not to be in a leadership position in everything I was involved in. I learned to step back and be a participant and not volunteer. I learned to be more of a Mary rather than a Martha. (In my mind, I wanted to be perfect blend between Mary and Martha.) It was different because people around me have always seen me in a leadership position and have always asked me for help or asked me questions about certain events or camps. It was liberating to say, “I don’t know, I didn’t plan anything for this event.”

I also learned that it wasn’t JUST about serving. I didn’t just learn about God and my relationship with God only when I served. This time of rest was also apart of forming my spirituality. I learned that I could just sit and be a Mary and that was okay. It was definitely different and even uncomfortable at first. The more I was sitting back and not leading, the more I started noticing the small things with God. I never experienced just sitting back and enjoying God. This was a part of my spiritual journey that made me just sit and absorb God. Through just listening, God told me that I had done well in His eyes. All the serving that I did, was for Him and that He was delighted in me. When I realized that, I knew that servanthood was something that I couldn’t stop. It was just a matter of how much and what I wanted to be involved with.

Even though I told people I was taking a rest from serving, the servant heart inside me didn’t really let me stop for long. I was still involved with things here and there, so it’s not that I stopped serving altogether. I just learned how to say “no.” It took me a very long time to say no and to turn things down. It had to get to a burn out to say no. I learned how to balance and to know what my limit is.

I have by no means got my spiritual life figured out. I believe that’s something that is going to be an ongoing thing. I know that I just need to be connected to God first and foremost. After that, it’s really what God calls me to do to further the Kingdom. God is still working on me and I’m still discovering more about my relationship with our Father as well. In order for a relationship to grow, the relationship will always be going through some kind of transformation. That’s how I know that my relationship with God is still ongoing.

Currently, I am a deacon at my church and a Sunday school teacher. For now, that’s enough.


Boni Kim is an elementary school teacher at American Montessori Academy in Redford, Michigan. She has been a member of and served at the Korean Presbyterian Church of Metro Detroit (KPCMD) since childhood and is now a deacon at New Hope Church of Michigan, the English Ministry sister church of KPCMD. 

Fighting About Politics and Religion: Why Do We Do It?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nanette Sawyer

“Even before I knew why she was criticizing me, I knew I disagreed with her…” This line got a laugh when I recently quoted it in a sermon. Perhaps people could identify with it; if I’m honest, I certainly can. No one likes to be criticized.

Author and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote these words in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He was describing the day his wife asked him to not put the dirty dishes on the counter where she prepares the baby food. His disagreement with her came before he even knew what she was going to say, because he wasn’t reacting with his rational mind, he was reacting with his instinctive need to self-protect. In a light tone he admits that he realized on that day that he was a chronic liar.

He’s not alone, of course; Haidt was using himself to explain the human tendency to want to defend our reputation or the reputation of our “group,” whatever that group may be in any given situation. It could be a sports team, a political party, a family, a religion — any group of which we are a part and which defines some aspect of our identity.

One of Haidt’s major points is that our sense of being right, our sense of moral righteousness, comes not from our rational mind, but from an instantaneous “intuition” or intuitive cognition. Our intuition is like an elephant that we ride — it’s large, powerful, and in control. Our strategic reasoning is like a small rider being carried around on the elephant trying to explain why the elephant is right (even when it’s not).

It’s easy to say that other people’s deeply held beliefs are irrational, but more difficult to admit that mine are irrational, too. Irrational doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, it just means that our moral judgment, our sense of what is right and wrong, happens instantaneously and unconsciously in a flash of intuitive cognition, influenced by prior experience and beliefs.

This changes how we might think about discussing religion and politics with people who differ from us. Giving people more and better “reasons” as to why our opinions are better than theirs will generally not lead to either party changing their perspective. To effectively engage with people who disagree with us means befriending the elephants, theirs and our own, and accruing new experiences so that our intuitions change.

In addition to recognizing that there are both elephants and riders in the room, Haidt outlines moral foundations theory and shows that self-identified liberal and conservative people make moral judgements based on different types of criteria. Six classic moral foundations are:

  1. Care / harm
  2. Fairness/ cheating
  3. Loyalty / betrayal
  4. Authority / subversion
  5. Sanctity / degradation
  6. Liberty /oppression

You can take a free test (start with the Moral Foundations Questionnaire) and see how you measure up at www.yourmorals.org.

Haidt’s book is smart and well-documented, but grounded in story telling that makes it easy to read and understand. I have found it incredibly helpful as I try to wend my way through complex relationships with people who disagree with me and with each other in profound ways. Jesus said, “how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4). Haidt’s book helps me take a look at the log in my eye.


Nanette Sawyer is a Presbyterian pastor who leads faith formation and small group ministries at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago. Nanette was the founding pastor of Grace Commons, a small emergent church formed in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. The author of Hospitality the Sacred Art (Skylight Paths, 2008), she feels called to guide people in spiritual practices that prepare us to be deeply rooted in God’s love and brave in extending that love to others.