9 Spiritual Temperaments and Quiet Time Quandary (Pt 2)

It is hard to identify worship. JesusRelated image criticized the empty, self-aggrandizing activities of some of the professionally religious of His day, stating that these were clearly not worship. Yet that certainty was certainly not shared by the people. They would most likely have been quite impressed by how worshipful these clergy were. Perhaps these religious folk saw their activities as worshipful as well. (Cain may well have seen his sacrifice as a pure act of worship.) King David, dancing through the streets of Jerusalem, most likely saw his activity as worshipful. His wife saw him as acting as a clown. Only God really knows what is worship. (David’s wife was punished by God for despising him in her heart— despising a person certainly being sinful— and perhaps for judging what we are not cmpetent to judge. It seems doubtful that she was punished for inaccuracy. Again, only God knows.)

There are two struggles that we must address:

  • When is are actions, words, and thoughts worshipful and when is it simply satisfying some lesser need or desire?
  • If we find it so difficult to evaluate our own hearts in terms of worship, is it ever possible to evaluate others?

As an act of self-evaluation, I want ot look at myself from the perspective of the 9 spiritual temperaments. I will tentatively go from those temperaments that I feel are more part of myself to the ones that I see to be less part of me, to least.

TOP TIER

Intellectualist. The Intellectualist Temperament is not “worship for smart people.” It is about loving God with the mind. It is about loving God by seeking to understand God. This may seem to be hubris, but it is such only if one thinks one arrives. It is the journey that count– a journey that never comes to an end in this world.

This one hits closest to home for me. I did not care for devotional books because they were often done to help the reader “know God” or “feel God’s presence.” But there was little in them to help one to understand God. This may seem subtle but it is significant. With the devotional, one may have a happy “Our Daily Bread”-type story, with a verse for thought such as  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). It is certainly uplifting. But from the intellectualist perspective it is a source of controversial meditation. That is because the broader passage is about Jeremiah informing the exiles that God will be waiting 70 years to bring them home. Therefore, the message of hope is only really relevant to the hearers in the sense that it gives hope that a future generation will be blessed. The message of hope is actually mixed with a form of hopelessness. For the message from God to be identified as hopeful, one has to reject one’s own personal ambitions, and rest in the knowledge that one’s children or children’s children will experience the Lord’s favor. This sort of “hopeful hopelessness” is difficult for many Christians to appreciate, and it is exactly this sort of thing that spoils a short devotional thought of an FB ‘happy quote.’ But it is in this place of cognitive tention where the intellectualist worshiper thrives.

SECOND TIER

Naturalist. I do love to find God in nature— His Creation. I was raised in the country where I could see no neighbors from my house. The only building I could see outside of our homestead was a radio tower on Oak HIll, a couple of miles away “as the crow flies.” I like to get away from people sometimes (not easy here in the Philippines). When I am alone in the natural world, I tend to feel closer to God. In the Navy I was, in retrospect, so blessed that I was moved from the submarine fleet to the surface fleet. In the middle of the ocean, I would go up on top of the superstructure, lay down and look up at the stars undimmed by light polution. I would feel the undulation of the ocean pushing our frigate this way and that. Sometimes I would go out to the fantail and see the trail of bioluminescence brought by billions of microscopic organisms disturbed by the churning of our propellor.

Most often, whether back home or on the ocean, I would like to stare into space. I would imagine that I was part of space, with just a thin film of air protecting me from nearly complete vaccuum. This wasn’t hard to imagine, because that is reality. I would look at the stars and try to imagine them as they  are… not bright spots on a canvas, but a three-dimensional panarama going off in all directions for (approximating) eternity. This was harder to imagine… the mind buckles under the scale of the cosmos. It occurs to me that the Naturalist and the Intellectual can be quite compatible. People like Kepler and Newton saw themselves in their appreciation of God’s handiwork on a quest to understand the very mind of God. Who is to say that Newton’s second law of motion is not a statement (ode) of deep reverential awe to the Creator?

Ascetic.  This one I feel a connection to, but I also find myself pushing away from it. On one side, I appreciate the idea of living a life of quiet simplicity. Perhaps this jives quite well with the intellectualist and naturalist, who often find themselves closer to God when they are less entangled with people and people’s stuff. The solitary and simple, may appeal to me and I do feel closer to God removing myself from the frenetic world around. But perhaps my temperament comes closer to that of the writer of Ecclesiastes, whose perspective seems a bit more Epicurean than Ascetic— Fear the Lord, and enjoy the simple little joys you find in this otherwise rather meaningless existence. I have never fasted in my life and considering how ambivalent the Bible is on fasting, I have to be a bit skeptical of those who push it as a Christian must-do. Additionally, the ascetic lives a life of order and structure (according to the book). I have no order to my daily life at all. I generally sleep more often when it is dark than when it is light. I usually eat close to mid-day. Beyond these two points of reference, there is little consistent in my daily routine. I am not sure that I have a daily routine. So perhaps the ascetic does not really describe where I am…. but it someways, almost.

Traditionalist. I come from an Open-worship denomination. As such, we don’t have as much in terms of formal traditions. We may have quite a bit in informal traditions… but these do drift some over time. Still, the more I go to churches that embrace the musical “flavor of the hour,” the more I like to hear and participate in the great hymns of the faith, and sometimes even the ancient music traditions of the church. The more I go to churches that do the “Ummm… let’s see what’s next on the agenda” in worship service, the more I like a bit of reliable structure. The more I go to churches where members stand and sit, but do little more to participate in the corporate worship (maybe some clapping or waving hands around as well), the more I wonder if a bit of liturgical dialogue between clergy and laity is not such a bad thing.

I like to remember that the church exists in four dimension, not just three. It exists in three-space, but it also exists in time. We are part of a 2000 year old tradition, and there is something wonderful in sharing in the same words and actions as they… at least sometimes. Maybe for me I want a “rebellious traditionalism.” We rebel against falling into a spiritless traditionalism by appreciating eclectically the various traditions that our four-dimensional church has to offer.

Caregiver. I struggle with this one. I do like to serve in ministry. I like to teach, I like to help ministers become empowered to be more effective. I like to “fix problems.” I suppose that would make me a caregiver. On the other hand, there are some ways that I really am not. Does this mean that I am not a caegiver in terms of spiritual temperament, or does it mean that I am one, but the side of me that is a SELFISH JERK wars with that other side of me. Definitely an area for contemplation.

BOTTOM TIER

The other four temperaments are really not me at all. The tricky one of those is the Contemplative. I teach in an Evangelical seminary, and I give out spiritual temperaments test to a lot os students. Usually, Contemplative is one of the top two. I wonder about that. However, in the Evangelical worldview, adoration of God is taken quite strongly. So maybe this is a big thing for many of our students. On the other hand, there is also a lot of religious peer pressure in this area that may distort the results. Evangelical youth are really expected to groove to the worship songs no matter how poor the theology or sickly syrupy the words. On the other hand, maybe the questions are poorly worded. Thomas did admit that he struggled in separating the Contemplative type from some overlapping types like Ascetic and Naturalist (who are very much contemplative in their worship).

I am not not an Activist. I am not confrontational. I often respect (some) activists, but as Thomas noted, we tend to prefer dead prophets over living ones. We need them, but we often don’t want them as neighbors.

The Sensate and the Enthusiast do nothing for me. I have friends that fit into one of these… especially the Enthusiast. They don’t appear to be able to fathom any other type of worship. But then, most of us struggle with recognizing worship that is outside of our own area of comfortable connection with God. I am the type of person who, as a High Schooler, would bring a book with me to a party, so I would have something to read when I get bored.

I probably will never be able to appreciate the full range of worshipful expression directed to our God— and I doubt these 9 temperaments express the entire range. They at least give me something to think about as I stand awkwardly during a worship service while others sing enthusiastically and joyfully songs that are happy and musically contemporary, but with little else to commend them. They may help me to appreciate someone using an icon for reverential contemplation on the mystery of God without me automatically jumping to the conclusion that they are idolizing a “graven image.”

Maybe as I go through life I will rediscover Quiet Time and find that I gave it up too quickly and by combining it with a flexible routine, and my practice of contemplative journaling, it will have a vibrant place in my spiritual pilgrimmage. Maybe my practice of journaling and studying and reading really is my Quiet Time… just a slightly different Quiet Time. Anyway, it is something to think about.

 

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9 Spiritual Temperaments and Quiet Time Quandary (Pt 1)

I have been enjoying reading “Sacred

Image result for sacred pathways

Pathways” by Gary Thomas. In some ways, it has a feel like “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren (although less controversial in its style, and perhaps its intent) in that both seek to broaden the perspective of Christians in what may be acceptable and pleasing to God and/or valuable to us.

Quoting from Gary Thomas, 

Sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ‘quiet time’ became a staple of most discipleship and church training programs. Usually consisting of thirty to sixty minutes, the quiet time was most commonly composed of a short period of personal worship, followed by some intercessory prayer (using a prayer notebook or intercessory prayer list), Bible study (according to a set method) and then a concluding prayer, followed by a commitment to share what we learned with at least one other person that day. This is something that’s easily taught and, for some circles, easy to hold people accountable to: ‘How many times this past week have you had your quiet time?’ Anything less than seven was a wrong answer.   -Sacred Pathways, Zondervan 2010 edition, p. 14.

The section continues:

With perhaps good intentions (who would oppose regular personal worship, prayer, and Bible study?), we reduced the devotional life to rote exercise. A. W. Tozer warned us about this: ‘The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. We have almost forgotten that God is a person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.’  -Sacred Pathways, p. 14-15.  

I have always struggled with Quiet Time. It seemed often like drudgery. I always wondered why a relationship with God should seem like drudgery. Is it supposed to? But then, being a “disciple” presumably involves “discipline,” and discipline certainly does not sound like it should be easy or fun. 

Some would add more things to make Quiet Time more palatable or, perhaps, more difficult. Some recommended using different types of devotional works. One popular one then was “My Utmost for His Highest,” by Oswald Chambers. I had a copy, but I found it almost unreadable. That I must admit may not be to my credit. Chambers appeared to be a man of great faith and faithfulness to God. Others said that one should start the day with Quiet Time. The idea seemed to be that this is the best way to start the day. Of course, if it is the best way to start the day, perhaps it would also be the best way to end the day, or to spend the height of the day. (Gary Thomas mentions a humorous story of a disagreement he had with his wife, back when they were still dating, and she showed him that having Quiet Time during the lunch hour was Biblical, by quoting Acts 10:9– ‘About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.’)

But there was a strange twist. I would really enjoy learning about God, studying the Bible to learn more about God. I especially found this fulfilling in the context of preparing lessons for Sunday School, Group Bible Studies, or in preaching sermons. But then I heard from several sources that this does not count. Why? It seemed as if there is the presumption that work and worship don’t go together.

But maybe work and worship DO go together. It got me thinking that maybe what I find worship is different from what some other find worshipful. I guess that is why I like Gary Thomas’ book, because it doesn’t judge. One can worship God in different ways— one size does not fit all.

Thomas lists 9 different “spiritual temperaments” from different denominations in the present and in church history. The temperaments he listed are:

  • Naturalists
  • Sensates
  • Traditionalists
  • Ascetics
  • Activists
  • Caregivers
  • Enthusiasts
  • Contemplatives
  • Intellectuals

So I need to continue the journey as I look through these nine temperaments.

Losing Faith

A nice article below on addressing those whoImage result for rejecting god have “lost their faith.” Although speaking of a number of different religions, and a number of different Christian traditions, it primarily focuses on Evangelical Christians who have ultimately come to the conclusion that Christianity is false (along with other religions), and there is no God.

Now I know that there are many Evangelicals who, as they read this, are already getting ready to jump in on some matter of eternal security, and say that if they lost their faith, then they must never have had faith in the beginning (‘You can’t lose a faith that you never had’). A few might go the other way and suggest that if they really were saved by faith, then this APPARENT lack of faith is just a phase that will eventually work itself out. Some from a  different theological camp (those who reject perseverance of the saints’) would take this situation as support for their beliefs. These are unuseful perspectives.

The situation of religious people losing their religion is a genuine human condition, and trying to tie it into the theology of the ultimate fate of man, while important for theologians, is avoiding addressing the phenomenon honestly. People matter more than theological arguments.

One thing I like about the article is that, although it was written by one who is an apologist (Paul Chamberlain is director of the Institute of Christian Apologetics at Trinity Western University), the recommended method he gives for constructive engagement with those who have lost their faith is NOT to argue with them. He gives several tips.  I will here include #2.

Second, somewhere in our discussion it’s helpful to ask the most basic question of all, namely what exactly were they rejecting when they walked away? Then we must encourage them to share their stories fully while we restrain our natural impulses to interrupt and correct. Spoiler alert – this will not necessarily be easy listening. Their responses may be personal, emotional or intellectual, but there is nothing to be gained by avoiding the issues. Our number one task at this point is to listen.

One reason why we as Christians struggle with people losing their faith is not theological, but personal. We feel that that the person is rejecting us And sometimes we are right. Often, but not always, the person has not so much been turned off to Christ, but have been turned off to Christians or Christianity as it is practiced. (I think pretty much all of us have been turned off to Christianity as it is lived out and practiced by some Christians. Even if we did not reject Christianity as a whole, we all can share this common experience, I believe.) We need to focus on being better followers of Christ than being better Christians, and being a bit less thin-skinned.

Sometimes, they have not been turned off to the Christian faith, but to interpretations of that faith that are taught as if rejecting such interpretations is tantamount to rejecting God.  Taking another excerpt from the article:

Fifth, those who preach to our congregations week by week must consistently draw a distinction between the infallible text from which they preach and their own interpretation of it. Theologian J. I. Packer once told his students that while he believed in an infallible text, he in no way believed in an infallible human interpretation. We need to encourage those who hear our preaching to examine and question our teachings just as the Berean Christians in Acts 17 were commended for doing with the Apostle Paul.

Of course, there are many reasons for losing faith… a number are given in the article based on interviews with those who have gone through this experience.

You can read the entire article at the link below:

Why People Stop Believing:  And what we can do about it

 

William Carnegie and the Question of the Compassion

Teaching about William Carey and his arguments with some members of the Particularist Baptists regarding “the use of means to evangelize the heathen” reminded me of the story of another William. He is William Carnegie, the father of 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie. According to the story, William was attending a local Secessionist Presbyterian Church (in Scotland) and the sermon was on Infant Damnation. In that sermon the fiery preacher gave an equally fiery account of infants, those who died as babies who were not predestined for heaven, screaming in the torments of hellfire. William was horrified by the message. According to the story, he stood up in the middle of the sermon and said loudly, “If that be your religion, and that be your God, I shall seek a better religion and a nobler God.” (J. F. Wall, “Andrew Carnegie,” p. 34)

One could argue that William Carnegie’s complaint was three-fold.

1. He was bothered by a religion that would have as one of its doctrinees that innocent babies would burn for ever in torment because they were, for practical purposes, chosen for hell regardless of their potential merits or sins. Why would we set up a religion to teach that— especially since the Bible doesn’t actually say this… though some belief that it is a logical conclusion based on some verses?

2. He was bothered in what this teaching said about their God. Their God was fickle and sadistic, choosing to create some people with the irresistible end of blessing them for ever, and choosing to create others with the irresistible end of eternal torment. Is this compatible with a God who St. John said was best understood with the term “Love.” After all, if Thanos is called a villain because he wants to randomly cause half of the population of the universe to cease to be, how much more so if God randomly chose to have a majority of humans come to a state of eternal constant torment (ECT) where there is nothing that could have ever possibly been done to avoid that?

3. His biggest concern appeared to be more than this. William Carnegie was deeply bothered that the congregation was not moved by the preaching. How could people listen to stories of children, for no better reason that an essentially random preselection, being brutally tortured and not feel moved by that? How could they not respond with horror? I vaguely recall an old Bloom County cartoon where the gang was watching TV. They weren’t sure it is was a news broadcast of wartime killings, or a movie. They couldn’t decide. Finally one said something to the effect… “Can someone please tell us whether we should be enjoying this or not?” That’s a good question. If it is a movie, it is kind of okay to see death and mayhem. But if it is real life, we should be be disturbed by the horror, and feeling great compassion for the victims. If the preacher was expressing an obvious fiction with no connection to reality, it would be somehow sort of acceptable for the congregation to appreciate the message and (maybe even) enjoy it—- maybe. But if he is expressing reality, how could people not be moved mightily and cry out against such injustice?

William Carnegie brings the question in for thought here. If we have compassion… if we have empathy… how should we react to the idea that some people have no hope— their only future is one of absolute and unending horror.

How does one reconcile a strict form of Calvinism with Missions and how does one reconcile it with Compassion or Empathy? For me, I don’t really consider myself a Calvinist. In college I thought I was maybe a 3.5 or 4-point Calvinist (the 5th point was a matter of sophistry in my opinion… and that has not changed). But over time, I struggled finding much I could agree with. I am maybe a 2-point Calvinist which I suppose is not high enough to make me a Calvinist. I am not Arminian either. I feel there is a lot of healthy space in between those two groups.

But I still wonder. I know people in missions who are Calvinists. They like to say that their Calvinism drives their Missions. Historically, that has not been the case. Historically, such as 18th century England and 19th century America, Calvinism hobbled missions. And even in the case of William Carey, a missionary who came from a Calvinist group, his argument for doing missions was not that his theology informed his missions, but rather that Jesus commanded all Christians to evangelize. One must never use one’s theology to contradict God’s command. I spoke recently with a 5-point Calvinist who was on a short-term mission, and he was trying to explain how his theology “just made sense.” He worded his doctrine in such vague language that almost any Christian could agree with the language. But the language hid valid disagreements rather than informed. I left not knowing if the guy actually understood what he believed, and whether he knew how deceptive his presentation was.

In the end, however, I rather agree with William Carey. It is not really critical the exact details of minor theological points as long as one doesn’t use them to undermine Christ’s clear instructions to us.

Karl Barth was a Calvinist (or maybe post-Calvinist). In his later years he appeared to be a Universalist… believing that all people will, ultimately, be saved by God. A theologian friend of mine had made the suggestion that this was the most obvious way of reconciling a firm belief in strong Calvinism and the clear doctrine of God being Just and Loving. God can be just and loving while ramdomly choosing who to save and who to damn, if He saves everyone. I am not a Universalist, but then I am also not a Calvinist.

But I know many Calvinists do not follow the path of Barth in this area. I also know that the so-called “Neo-Calvinist” movement has been linked to a certain culture of ‘Christian machismo.’ I am not sure what to make of that. However, the macho or machismo quality has some qualities that may be a bit insightful. Machismo is often typified by being Strong, Unwavering, Independent, and Sexually Virile/Active. In Christian circles sexually active may not be seen so positively, but perhaps that has been replaced in being more gender complementarian or maybe being a “guy’s guy” in some way. But one thing that doesn’t really typify the label of “machismo” is being compassionate or empathetic. More often it is seen in being “cool” or a bit emotionally detached. The Westminster Catechism (a doctrinal guide for some Calvinists) describes God as Impassible— not having passions, or at least not being guided by those feelings. Since the most common emotion used to describe Jesus was His compassion (feeling the pain and sorrow of another), and that His compassion actually guided His actions, I struggle to see how Impassibility is a Biblical doctine. But it may be part of the explanation for the growth of Calvinist machismo. It is much easier to deal with death and torture of those we know, if we idealize a general lack of empathy or a lack of compassion.

I don’t have an answer to all of this. As I said, I am not a Calvinist, but I dwell in the tension between different schools of thought. I have found nothing that completely satisfies me. But I feel that all of us should wrestle with the same things that concerned William Carnegie.

No. Not All of the Time…

This was a short sermon I did for the International Student Worship Group at our seminary.

I like to look at common statements or stories and look at them in a different way. One I like to turn around sometimes is the saying,

God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.

For me, personally, I prefer to say, “God is good, but not all the time. Not all the time, but God is (still) good.

With the first saying, one is saying that God is eternally good of character. But we don’t live in the eternal state. We live from moment to moment. In often in moments of our lives we are not able to recognize God’s goodness.

In this we are not alone. The Psalmist in Psalm 73 had the same challenge.

A.  Verse 1.  God is Good.

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

This is simple and easy. Simple and easy. God is good to Israel. God is good to those who are pure in heart.

B.  Verse 2-15.  … But Not All the Time

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”

This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

If I had spoken out like that,
I would have betrayed your children.

Verse one says God is Good. But Verses 2-15 say that God is not good all of the time. The wicked prosper. They do evil things and amass wealth. They don’t seem to have any worries. They do whatever they want and God appears to reward them. If God is not rewarding them, he certainly isn’t punishing therm.

In verse 13 the Psalmist wonders if his faithfulness to God is worth it. He seeks to follow God’s commands, and yet he suffers while the evildoer profits. In fact things are so bad that in verses 2 and 3 he says that things are so bad that he sometimes even envies the wicked and is tempted to fall into sin himself.

We are not so different. We want things simple. We tend to want the evil to suffer and the righteous to prosper…. with the assumption that we are the righteous of course.

We want it to be that way… but it is not.

God Is Good. But NOT all of the time. Sometimes God steps back and allows the evil to prosper and go unpunished, and sometimes he allows the righteous to suffer and live without vindication.

We don’t want it to be that way.

C.  Verse 16-25.  Not All the Time

When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.

Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.

When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.

The Psalmist is struggling with the conflict between what he believes (God is good) and What he perceives (God doesn’t seem to be all all that good often).

However, then he enters the presence of God. Perhaps like Habakkuk, he brings his confusion directly to God. And he sees the bigger picture. Justice may be delayed… the goodness of God may be observable at all times. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but they are on slippery ground. And before you know it, God’s goodness will be demonstrated.

The Psalmist goes on to say… even though he feels abused and is suffering that God is with him and is still protecting him… in the present, and that some day he will be blessed of God.

And this leads to the final “But” in verse 28

D.  Verse 28.  But God is (still) Good.

But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

I read this as, But God is still Good. Despite the fact that things seem unfair. God seems unjust at times. God doesn’t always seem so God. God is good and good to be near. God is ultimately in control and is his protection.

So: God is good, but not all of the time. Not all of the time, but God is good.

You may be uncomfortable with that wording, but I believe much of the Bible becomes clearer this way.

If we identify God’s goodness in how we feel on a particular day, we will have trouble. Our lives are like a roller coaster… up one day and down another. God’s goodness is not tied to our feelings or whether we had a good day or not. God’s goodness is not liket that.

God’s goodness is seen in His character and in His ultimate intentions. If we want to see the goodness of God, we need to look to God Himself, and where He bringing things to. If we look for the goodness of God in the day to day things around us…. or in whether we are doing better than someone else or someone else is doing better than us… we will be disappointed often.

St. Paul as a “One Idea Man”?

Was St. Paul a healthy-minded missionary, or an obsessed madman. Let’s consider a few quotes from the 19th century and early 20th century to bring some consideration to this thought. This is not an idle consideration. Many see Paul as the ideal missionary. We should consider whether our ideals are, in fact, ideal.

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea”

Image result for joshua g. holland
Joshua Glibert Holland (1819-1881)

written by J.G. Holland back in the mid-1800s. His thesis is that individuals who obsess on one topic only develop a certain mentality that could be described as insanity. He suggests that the human mind was designed to be healthy with a number of ideas; not just one, much as the body is healthier with a range of foods rather than a diet of one food item or category. One time I transcribed that essay but now I can’t find it. Oh well. I have a paper copy in Sanders Union 6th Reader. It originally came from “Lessons in Life: A Series of Familiar Essays.”

 

The essay starts with a quote that expresses the idea:

“Cultivate the physical exclusively, and you have an athlete or a savage; the moral only, and you have an enthusiast or a maniac; the intellectual only, and you have a diseased oddity, it may be a monster. It is only by training all three together that the complete man can be formed.”   -Samuel Smiles

The idea that the “one idea man” is bad is far from universal. A quick websearch shows many who feel that this type of person is healthy and perhaps even bound for greatness. Within Christian circles, I will take another old and rather obscure quote:

being a man of one idea “… was not so bad after all; for were not the best and greatest men, who had achieved most for mankind, men of one idea? Paul himself was a man of one idea; so was the philanthropist Howard. A man of one idea was not to be dreaded, unless he had got a wrong one; if his one idea was a right one, let him have free course. The one idea system has done a great deal of good in this world.

<The Christian Messenger and Family Magazine, Volume II, p. 469.  (1846).>

So here are two very different ideas from the same period of time regarding a person who appears to be obsessed with a single idea. One possible way of synthesizing them is to note that Holland felt that God was a bit of an exception in that God is big enough (speaking about ‘God’ as idea in this context more than being) for a person to be single-minded about. Now, I don’t know about Howard listed above (perhaps John Howard, British philanthropist) applies, but regarding Paul, he had a singlemindedness to obeying God. However, during much of his ministry that singlemindedness led him to a wide range of activities. It led him to evangelism, churchplanting, leader development, writing, and charitable work. The ultimate idea

Image result for anton boisen
Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965)

may have been singular but it manifested itself in a wide range of activities. However, later in life, Paul gained a more focused singlemindedness on the need to stand before and speak to Caesar. This took several years and (possible) resulted in his death. Perhaps that more narrow single idea was self-destructive.

 

I would add an additional voice, that of Anton Boisen. He was a theologian who founded Clinical Pastoral Orientation. He also had several bouts of mental illness where he spent time in mental hospitals. I think his perspective could be said to have bearing on this. In his autobiography,

As I look around me here and then try to analyze my own case, I see two main classes of insanity. In the one case there is some organic trouble, a defect in the brain tissue, some disorder in the nervous system, some disease of the blood. In the other there is no organic difficulty. The body is strong and the brain in good working order. The difficulty is rather n the disorganization of the patient’s world. Something has happened which has upset the foundations upon which his ordinary reasoning is based. Death or disappointment or sense of failure may have compelled a reconstruction of the patient’s world view from the bottom up, and the mind becomes dominated by the one idea which he has been trying to put in its proper place. That, I think, has been my trouble and I think it is the trouble with many others also.

          -Anton T. Boisen, “The Exploration of the Inner World– A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience”, 1936 original publication, 1962 edition, p. 10-11.

Boisen suggests that a toxic fascination on one idea is generally driven by deep trauma that fractures a person’s worldview. That trauma then can lead to fixation on one thing that he or she cannot properly integrate into a new whole person.

Considering Paul again, his Damascus experience would certainly be a fracturing of world view. This fracturing would also bring about guilt and trauma. However, the focus on God is a big enough “idea” for fixation. As such, he was “healthy” with such a fixation. One could argue that his refusal to listen to church leaders and go to Jerusalem, and then avoided early release from jail so the he could see the Emperor, perhaps, shows a more narrow obsession with an idea that was not broad enough. Reading the book of Acts, it certainly seems clear that Luke was uncertain on whether Paul was right or wrong. This is particularly clear in Luke’s recounting of Paul’s arguments with the churches in Asian Minor about returning to Jerusalem.

Jesus speaks that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is also. Perhaps, one idea is too small because it becomes our cherished idol. Only God is worthy of worship so God alone can be our singleminded passion. Ultimately, one might make some tentative conclusions that apply to us:

  • Trauma can disrupt and lead to obsessive thinking.
  • Obsessing on a bad idea, is always bad.
  • Obsessing on an idea less than God is too narrow for humans, and may lead ultimately to unhealthy, even mad, thoughts and actions.
  • God is broad enough to encompass man’s passion/obsession. However, when such passion shows itself with total committement to one narrow activity, the same problem of unhealthiness results.

Satir and The Good Place

satir

My wife and I just started binge-watching “The Good Place” a few days ago. Before that, we had not heard about it— it was only at the suggestion of our daughters that we looked it up and began watching. Being a Newbie, I don’t know to what extent the show has been analyzed. It is a situation comedy show of people who died and are brought together to a heavenlike place that is known as “The Good Place,” as opposed to “The Bad Place” (and we find that there is even a Middle Place). It is not meant to be Christian. It isn’t. It is also not that deeply theological, at least in terms of theological doctrine.

It generally builds on the nearly universal human belief that the universe works on a sort of a weighted scale. Your actions, motivations and the influence you have on the world around you is weighed, and if found good, you go to the good place– a place of delight. If you are found wanting, you go to the bad place… a place where one exists in a place of banal tortures. This operation does not need a Savior, as it does in Christianity. On the other hand, it doesn’t involve a disconnected self-enlightenment, such as in Buddhism, either. We grow as people through interaction with others… and it is in these interactions that our life is measured.

<The story line of the series changes considerably from Season 1 to 2 to 3. I will generally seek to avoid spoilers Especially beyond the middle of season 2.>

While theologically the story is not hugely innovative. It is in psychology that it gets more interesting. My wife noticed that the storyline appears (perhaps intentionally) to work based on Virginia Satir’s Growth Model in Family Systems (a field of Psychology).

The most obvious example of the use of this model is survival stances or coping strategies. Under stress, she describes five coping strategies. Of these one is considered healthy (being congruent), while four are considered unhealthy.

  • Placating. Agrees with the other, seeks to calm the storm, giving up one’s own perspective if necessary.
  • Blaming.  Protects self by lashing out at others.
  • Being Super-reasonable. Ignores emotions and is relationally aloof. Focuses on logic and rationality.
  • Being Irrelevant. Rather than deal with the stressor, does not address it, but redirects through acting out or drawing away.

In the show, Elanor is a blamer. She is aggressive and avoids taking responsibility. Chidi is super-reasonable. He is bookish and analyzes and over-analyzes rather than addressing relational and emotional issues. Tahani is the placator, seeking to be liked by everyone, being a people pleaser. Jason is irrelevant… missing the issue entirely or acting in a way that is often quite random and not towards addressing the stressor. This is over-simplified, but is quite clearly established.

This is not alone. Stories often build around thee four types. Consider “The Simpsons” that tends towards Homer being the blamer, Marge the placator, Lisa the super-reasonable, and Bart the irrelevant.

But in The Good Place, it is taken further. The plot initially builds around an experiment where the four dysfunctional copers are brought together in a seemingly idyllic setting and seeing whether they can “create their own hell.” This is in line with Satir’s Transformational Systemic Theory. In that form of therapy, the goal is to bring relational transformative growth to a group (especially a family) as well as individual through interaction/communication. In the therapy, new elements are brought in that leads to a period of chaos. Out of the chaos is meant to come growth. In the first seaon of The Good Place, the elements that bring chaos are thought to bring misery and a spiralling out of control of the people involved. However, what is found is what Satir theorizes which is a much more positive view of people’s ability to grow and change through the interaction. They help each other.

As we move into season 3, this theme is taken further almost into a Satir-type therapy session where the experiment has changed to an even more important question– Are we able to change? A fifth character, Michael, actually takes on an almost therapist-like role of coming in at times to bring in new elements to push the group towards corporate and individual growth.

As I said before, I am not sure that the writers of the show are intentionally utilizing the work of Virginia Satir, but I suspect they are. I find it nice to find a comedy, a light-hearted romp, that actually takes seriously some very fundamental concerns. While some may complain about the “bad theology,” the show makes it clear that the setting is driven by the human relationships. The theology is just there to make the premise of the relational interactions plausible.

The show in this sense reminds me of the movie “Inside Out.” It tries to use and explain psychological understanding of human development and emotions. The setting of much of the movie is a control room in the head of the preteen girl with beings that serve as the emotional guides. One is not supposed to reify (consider them to really exist). It just serves as a device to set up the interactions in a way that make sense to us.

Brings things back to ministry and theology, I think of the ham-handed way that Christians commonly express their faith in artistic ways. Typically, it has an “in-your-face” and overly simplified manner to it. Frankie Schaeffer talked a bit about it years ago in his book “Addicted to Mediocrity.” Christians today (most definitely including myself) definitely struggle with:

  • How can we teach while still be entertaining? In line with Titus 2:10, how can we “adorn the gospel”?
  • How can we address major issues without cutting short the process of reflection to jump to a quick moral aphorism? Are we really that afraid of personal reflection?
  • How can we address issues intelligently and spiritually with the ambiguity that we commonly find in the “real world?” Watching the movie again, “Candle in the Dark,” on the life of missionary William Carey, the inspiration in the story comes, in part, from its ambiguities. It feels real. Failures and struggles add to a story and message, rather than detracts from it.

Curiously the “real world” is often easier to understand through a well-crafted unreal world. I feel that “Inside Out” has done this through an “unreal world” for psychology. “The Good Place” has done it with another “unreal world” for both psychology and moral philosophy.