Monday, December 14, 2015

Thoughts on Christian Faith and Mindfulness

A few days ago, a friend posed three questions about the practice of mindfulness and the Christian faith. These seemed like good fodder for a blog entry. I'll start with the questions:

How do you think mindfulness and the Bible relate instead of contradict each
How do you utilize mindfulness as part of your spiritual life, quiet time, as a way of connecting with God? 
Why do you think some Christians have issues with regarding mindfulness?

1.     I think we probably have to admit that mindfulness, in at least a technical way, comes from Buddha’s teaching, namely part of his Eightfold Path. But, for what it’s worth, Buddha wasn’t probably trying to create a different spiritual tradition, but more of what we might call psychology. Today his teaching been further secularized in the particular practice of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), to be sure, and has become a practice that we, as Christians, need to see whether it’s effective and consistent with what we believe. I can't see that it's much different from applying Myers-Briggs categories to Christian life, for example. If there’s truth to be found in any endeavor, then we as Christians are right to follow it.

     John Calvin put it so well in the Institutes
“If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” 
     With this in mind, I would say that mindfulness does not contradict biblical teaching, but is consistent with a stilled mind (Psalm 131). In that it empties ourselves of destructive thoughts, it is therefore more of a preparation for prayer that prayer itself. Or if it is a form of prayer, it’s really close to centering prayer in the Roman Catholic tradition (Thomas Keating would be a resource here.)

2.     I use mindfulness throughout my life daily as a way of calming myself. If I’m starting the day right, I do a brief (1 minute) clearing of my thoughts and thus my "concerns/anxieties." Important note: this can be the same word in the Bible and thus not always negative—e.g., Philippians 2:20 “concerned” and 4:6 “be anxious”. It is similar to what I learned in Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast about “prayers of consciousness”—i.e., meditating on the state of your mind. If I make time, I may take about 3-5 minutes through a variety of mindfulness techniques, often as a preparation for other forms of prayer. One I enjoy is imagining my thoughts as clouds and then attending to them, without judgment, until the sky clears. (But there are others.) I then try to bring the practice of mindfulness into my day in an ad hoc fashion—e.g., when I’m brushing my teeth or generally when it’s a simple activity that I can do easily; when I find myself in a place I can find stillness while waiting for something to happen (maybe for a haircut, even waiting for a doctor); when engaged a particular activity (such as eating), I seek to bring my mind to a state of being undivided and focused; when my heart is beating too fast and I need to return to my breath. So, all in all, my actual technical practice of mindfulness is limited (maybe 5 mins/day), but I bring it into several other parts of my day.

3.     Christians’ issues with mindfulness usually relate, in my experience to a concern that we want to do God honor and not let alien spirits into our lives. Something from Buddhism may be disrespectful and even dangerous. Mindfulness “empties” our mind and opens us up to all sorts of influences. This resistance is also summarized in a slogan like “If it’s not found in the Bible, it’s not ok for Christians.” Instead, I would rather say (with many others like Calvin), “If it’s consistent with, or even doesn’t contradict, the Bible rightly understood—and if it’s true—then we as Christians are obligated to follow it.” This in a way is common sense: how could God address all the issues believers through time would face in one book (or even better, a collection of 66 books)? It’s not possible. But, to some degree, this resistance is about a wider posture of relating to the world around us, and I feel generally confident that Christ has come into the world and is "the true light that enlightens everyone" (John 1:9). At the end of the day, I'm confident that God’s Spirit and people will help us discern what’s true and what’s not.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Theological Musings, Following Karl Barth and A.N. Whitehead

I'm working on an article that compares Karl Barth and Alfred North Whitehead and offers some conclusions for 21st century theology. On the way toward its completion (which is not imminent, by any means), here are some excerpts...

Who is God, what is the world, and how do the two relate? Certainly they have woven through my mind and created a winding path of challenge, perplexity, and discovery. It could even be argued that, in some way, these questions animate all of Christian theology. And sometimes when I wonder about the most fruitful next direction for theology—and really Christian thought generally—I’m concerned, even a bit dismayed, that there seems to be no clear guiding voice at the moment leading us forward. To state what others have decreed, we have no Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich that guides our discipline today as those voices did in the middle of the last century.

For that reason, I will take the approach of looking backward and seeing what we can learn from two voices that set out two distinct poles for theology, namely the master of confessional and Reformed theology, Karl Barth, and the mathematician cum philosopher and theologian, Alfred North Whitehead. And it leads to a central question: Is there a way forward theologically that allows for a “thick description” of the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ and that also takes in the insights of science? Incidentally, in mentioning “two poles” in theology, I suppose I am arguing for a very Barthian concept, a dialectic—one, in this case, that’s defined by two essential opposites. This project is embedded in conviction that neither of the two opposites has all truth.

Here then is my thesis: The way forward for theology in the 21st century is recognize some areas where these two great voices found common agreement and then head in a double movement (or “two ways at once”). To find a path that takes in both confessional theology, best exemplified by Karl Barth, and is in constructive conversation with other forms of human knowledge (such as science), exemplified by Alfred North Whitehead....
I do not know all the ways that heading two directions would work out, but I can sketch some contours. First of all, theologians will flourish when they go deeply into their own theological sources and create a rich and thick description of the God they know in Jesus Christ. At the same time, they will find fruitful work as they engage with other forms of knowledge, such as science and literature and philosophy. And in this regard, Whitehead’s philosophy is particularly useful.
In a word, what I’m saying is that Christian systematic theology has as its task to be mindful of the world around, and those theologians who are mindful of the world of culture have as their task to be related to the specific event of Jesus, to the “tremendous fact” of Christianity. Or as Whitehead phrased it:
 It starts with a tremendous notion about the world. But this notion is not derived from a metaphysical doctrine, but from our comprehension of the sayings and actions of certain supreme lives. It is the genius of the religion to point at the facts and ask for their systematic interpretation. In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Parables, and in their accounts of Christ, the Gospels exhibit a tremendous fact. The doctrine may, or may not, lie on the surface. But what is primary is the religious fact. (Religion in the Making, 50-1)

This tremendous fact is indeed, in Barth’s theology, the place where we understand the nature of God.

The meaning of [Jesus Christ’s] deity—the only deity in the New Testament sense—cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute, non-worldly being. It can be learned only from what took place in Christ. (CD IV/1, 177)

What can be taken away from this common point of agreement, and more specifically from the doctrine of God when Jesus becomes the means of inquiry? That’s one of the questions I’m still working on.