This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Body and Spirit (cont.)

In the last post, I began exploring the idea of physical training as a tool for spiritual development in Eastern cultures and in Christianity. Here, I want to explore some of the ways that physical exercise can contribute to spiritual growth for Christians.

We need to start with a definition of spiritual growth. I am going to part company with many people who talk about this subject, who see it almost exclusively in terms of cultivating our relationship with God. I would argue instead that true spiritual growth is developing every aspect of our being to become more fully what God made us to be. This includes our relationship with God, of course, but any area of personal growth can be an element of our spiritual development, as long as we do not get obsessed with one aspect to the detriment of others. There has to be balance if we are to grow to be like Christ, which should be the goal of every Christian.

How does physical training fit into this? On the most basic level, the Bible tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This means that we need to take care of it. To do otherwise is to dishonor the Holy Spirit who lives within us. This means we need to adopt a lifestyle that keeps us healthy, including such things as good nutrition, exercise, and rest.

Taking this one step further, when we do not feel well or are tired or in pain, we cannot concentrate; it thus becomes very difficult to pray, read and study the Bible, meditate, and so on. This observation led people across the ancient world to build educational institutions around the idea that it was necessary to develop the body and mind together.

According to legend, Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, taught physical exercises that became the basis for kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in China because the monks were in such poor physical condition that they fell asleep during meditation. Daoist and Buddhist temples became centers of both education and physical exercise. Korean dojangs and Japanese dojos did the same for the nobility in their countries. In ancient Greece, philosophy and athletics were both taught together in the gymnasia, and Roman education had as its ideal “a sound mind in a healthy body” (mens sana in corpore sano).

There is great wisdom in this. Our bodies are the vehicles through which we develop our minds and hearts. It follows that cultivating health and physical energy can be an important, even in some cases a necessary, prerequisite for spiritual growth.

We can take this still further. Hard physical training develops our bodies, of course, but it also develops focus, concentration, and mental toughness in a way that few other activities do. Virtually all professional strongmen, past and present, talk about how crucial the mental aspects of their training are for their success. And the focus and concentration they learned from the iron carries over into other parts of their life as well.

You don’t need to be a professional strongman to reap these benefits, of course. For those inclined toward it, hard physical training can develop character and focus that affects all parts of our lives. It doesn’t do everything: the Apostle Paul tells us it is of some benefit, but godliness benefits us far more (1 Tim. 4:8). This is where balance matters. We must practice the other disciplines and consciously cultivate godliness as a higher priority than physical ability. But that doesn’t mean that physical training isn’t valuable. For those inclined toward it, it can be a form of spiritual discipline.

In some cases, athletics may be a calling as well. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell tells his sister, “God made me for China, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Liddell’s ultimate call was to be a missionary to China, but at least for a time, it was also to be an Olympian. Each of us has a calling that God has given to us that we are to pursue in obedience to Him, and whatever that calling is, we are to pursue it wholeheartedly in obedience to Him and doing it for God, not our employers. In other words, it is a spiritual activity. For Christians such as Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, athletics is thus an integral part of their spiritual life, a point David Brooks doesn’t really understand.

These last two points are central to a concept known as “muscular Christianity.” While it can be taken too far or pushed inappropriately as a universal requirement for believers (or at least for Christian men), it is nonetheless a legitimate expression of the faith for those who are called or inclined toward it. And for all believers, cultivating health and energy are important elements of taking care of God’s temple and enabling us to pursue those disciplines and activities that are important for our personal growth.