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, March 26, 2012

Body and Spirit

There’s a paradox in the ways Eastern and Western societies view the relationship between the body and the spirit. In the Eastern world, the body is used as a vehicle for spiritual growth, whether through yoga, many forms of meditation, dance, martial arts, or any of a wide range of other physical practices. In the West, spiritual growth is focused far more on mental activities such as prayer, meditation (understood as a rational activity), study, etc. There is little or no tradition of using the body as a vehicle for spiritual development.

This situation is curious from a worldview perspective. Eastern thought tends toward monism, the idea that everything is one (frequently identified as god), and that distinctions between things are illusions. In fact, in many versions of Eastern thought the physical world itself, including the body, is an illusion.

In contrast, Christianity believes that the physical universe is real, including the body. The world is a creation of God that is sustained by Him but has its own integrity: it operates according to its own rules in accordance with the laws God established at creation, subject to miraculous intervention on the part of God.

So how is it that the worldview that sees the physical as an illusion uses the body for spiritual development, but the worldview that sees the physical as real doesn’t?

We need to add one qualification here. Physical disciplines involving self-denial, such as fasting, abstaining from certain kinds of food or drink, sleep denial, and celibacy, find their ways into spiritual traditions around the world. There are many reasons for this which we may explore later. In this post I’m more concerned about physical disciplines that involve developing the body as a vehicle for spiritual transformation

Looking at the Eastern world first, physical disciplines in these spiritual traditions are intended to produce one of two specific results. They may be designed to put you in an altered state of consciousness that will enable you to see through the illusion of distinctions to the fundamental unity of everything—in other words, to generate a mystical experience that transcends the merely physical. Alternately, they may be intended to focus the mind on the immediate present, a state known as “mindfulness.” Mindfulness can be a means of shedding your ego and living with compassion because you recognize your unity with everyone around you. Living in a state of mindfulness is generally what people mean when they use the ill-defined term “spiritual” to describe someone.

The point is that in the East, the body is used as a vehicle to transcend the physical.

In the West, particularly since the rise of Christianity, spirituality is connected ultimately to the Bible and related texts. Since the Bible emphasize practices like prayer, singing the Psalms, meditation (understood as a rational activity), and study, along with corporate worship, these form the core of Christian spirituality. The body is conspicuously absent from this list, except for fasting and different forms of self-denial. The only focus on the body in these devotional practices comes from the use of particular postures for meditation in some traditions, such as the Celtic crossfigell (cross vigil).

In an odd way, the very fact that the West sees the physical world as real contributes to the sense that the body is irrelevant to spirituality. Particularly in the wake of the Enlightenment, we’ve bought into the idea that the physical and the spiritual world do not mix, that the world of matter and energy is completely separate from the world of the spirit. Since the spirit is non-physical, we thus must use non-physical means to develop it.

This idea is akin to an ancient heresy called Gnosticism, which argued that body and spirit are separate and ultimately opposed to each other. In Gnosticism, the body had nothing at all to do with the spirit, leading Gnostics either to unbridled excess on the one hand or to extreme asceticism on the other. Even though the Church rejected Gnosticism as heretical, in part because the Bible teaches that the physical world is intrinsically good, it has had continuing influence on Christianity.

A good part of the reason for this is the Apostle Paul’s rhetorical contrast between “flesh” and spirit, where the flesh is described as evil. When used this way, however, Paul does not mean the physical body; he is referring to something that is non-physical, that is, the part of us that resists the Holy Spirit’s authority and direction in our lives.

To be sure physical appetites can be occasions for sin and the body can be used for sinful behavior. Christians need to recognize that and deal with it. But Scripture tells us that the body is good and that it needs to be used in the love of God (“The greatest [commandment] is ‘Love the LORD your God with all your … strength’…”).

So it is clear that we need to reject Gnosticism, and along with it the idea implicit in the typical post-Enlightenment worldview that the spiritual and physical worlds do not connect with each other.

Does this mean that physical development can be part of our spiritual development? I think it can be, for reasons that I’ll discuss in the next post.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Muiredach's Cross

A bit late for St. Patrick’s Day, my new article on Muiredach and Celtic Crosses is up at the Colson Center: http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/indepth/17534-muiredach-late-9th-early-10th-century. A few labels somehow got dropped from the illustrations. On the second diagram, the left should be labeled East/Middle Earth and the right West/Middle Earth; on the third, the left should be labeled (East)/Dawn/Spring/Birth and the right (West)/Sunset/Autumn/Maturity.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Goal Setting

I got a question from a reader about goal setting, so here are some ideas that may help. They are adapted from Franklin Covey, John Maxwell, Andy Stanley, Steven Barnes, and a number of business CDs not available to the general public, plus some of my own thinking on the topic.
One general note: as you are going through the entire goal setting process, you should also try to find someone who can act as a confidante or mentor to help you work through the steps. We frequently find ourselves in mental ruts that we cannot break out of. A fresh perspective can be very helpful to get you to think outside the box and find new options, opportunities, or directions.
Before setting any goals, it is important to identify your core values. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because we all have things we know in our minds we should value, but they may not be the things that really matter to us in our heart of hearts. I recommend blocking a full hour undisturbed, and sitting down with a pen and paper (NOT a computer!), and start writing down the things you value.
Once you think you’re done, you’ll have gotten through the more superficial layer. Dig deeper: what are the things you are most proud of? Of all the things you’ve done, what gives you the greatest satisfaction? When your mind wanders, where does it habitually go? If you discovered you were going to die tonight, what things would you most regret either doing or leaving undone? Who or what would you be willing to go to the mat over or to risk your life for? If these last questions seem overly dramatic, you don’t understand core values. They are the things that matter the most to you, the things that matter more than you do. Fear of loss is a much greater motivator than hope of gain, so understanding those fears is an important clue to what you truly value.
Once you have that done, think about your long term dreams. If you could design your own life, what would it look like? To help with this, think about it in terms of categories: relationships with God and with important people in your life; career; and personal life, including health, personal growth, experiences, and lifestyle. What would you do if time and money were no object? Where would you go? Who would you help? What would you learn? Where would you live? What charities would you support? If these are really the things you want long term, they should connect directly back to your core values. Understanding this connection can provide powerful motivation for you to develop a plan to turn those dreams into a vision and direction for your life.
If you are a Christian, what we’re really exploring here is your sense of calling and understanding what it is God made you to be and to do to fulfill your part of His plan for the world.
At this point, you might consider drafting mission and vision statements for your life. The vision statement talks about your purpose, values, and direction; it’s the big picture of where you believe your life should be heading. The mission statement is an overview of how you’re going to get there. It addresses the question, “what do I do,” while the vision statement addresses, “why am I here,” or even “who am I.”
These are the steps that look at the big picture. They may seem rather abstract, but if you want to put together goals that will help you long term, you need this big picture to show you where you want to go. It will also pay to revisit these issues annually to determine if they do in fact reflect your values and your growth. You may find your priorities shifting or clarifying, and you want to be able to use that to adjust what you’re doing.
Next, we need to get to some more specific, rubber meets the road issues. List all of the roles you have. For example, I am a husband, a father, a college professor, a free lance writer and teacher, an entrepreneur, …. Once you have the list, ask yourselves which are nonnegotiable, which line up most closely with your values, and which are moving you in the direction of your vision. Hopefully there will be some overlap. These are the roles you need to concentrate on the most. If your current job doesn’t make the list, you need to start thinking about how to transition into something that does.
I would suggest that the most important roles to think about are your relationship with God, your relationship with your family, your relationship with your community, your professional life, and your personal growth. These are key areas for everyone, though the specific details will vary from person to person.
In each of these areas, ask yourself where you would like to be in a year: what will your relationship with God, your family, and your friends look like? Where would you like to be professionally? What do you want to learn or do for your own personal development? (I would also suggest that you think about these same areas five and ten years from now, though for most people that’s too much of a stretch. If you can do it, great; if not, stick with the one year time frame this time around.)
Your image of where you would like to be a year from now is your goal in each of these areas. Find a phrase that encapsulates the idea, and write it down with a date you want to accomplish it. You will be reviewing (and ideally rewriting) this goal daily.
Last step: identify actions that you can take daily that will move you toward your goals. Beware of dramatic changes or silver bullets: they rarely work. Your life is made from your daily habits, so if you want to accomplish your goals, you need to do this through developing new habits. Small, easy steps are best, without trying to do too many things at once. It takes 21 days to develop a habit, so I suggest the following approach:
  1. Identify the most important step you can take daily for each of your goals. (In some cases, these might be weekly, such as getting to the gym three times a week if you want to get into shape, but you get the idea.)
  2. Put these steps into your routine and stick with them for a month. Write and review your goals and the steps daily to keep you on track.
  3. At the end of the month, assess whether each step has become a habit. If it hasn’t, do it for another month. If it has, ask if you’re making satisfactory progress toward your goal, then determine if you simply want to keep with that habit or add a new one for the next month.
  4. Ultimately, you’re looking to reach what John Maxwell calls the Rule of 5: no matter how big the goal, if you do 5 key actions toward it every day, you are all but guaranteed to reach it eventually.
And that’s it. It’s a longer process than you may have wanted, but the early steps, which are in many ways the most difficult, are actually the most important and lay the foundation for everything else. I’ve adapted this from lots of other people, and you may decide to modify it for yourself, but the basic approach is solid and will help you clarify, set, and meet meaningful goals for your life.
A few books to help you along the way:
  • John C. Maxwell, Put Your Dream to the Test, Today Matters, and others
  • Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge
  • Andy Stanley, Visioneering
Franklin Covey has some excellent resources as well.

Monday, March 12, 2012

True Reason

In response to the new atheists' Reason Rally, to be held on March 24 on the Washington Mall, Tom Gilson over at Breakpoint asked me to contribute chapter to a book tentatively titled "Reason, Really?" After batting around a few possible topics, we settled on Christianity and slavery. Other chapters were contributed by William Lane Craig, Sean McDowell, Chuck Edwards, John DePoe, Peter Grice, Matthew Flannagan, Randy Hardman, David Marshall, Carson Weitnauer, and David Wood. In what probably counts as the greatest miracle since the Resurrection, the book was completed in less than two months.

The book, which has been retitled "True Reason," has been released as an e-book published by Patheos Press. You can order the book for all the major e-readers through this link. If there's enough interest, Patheos may put out a print edition as well.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Monthly checkup, and a progress report

It’s been a busy week, so I didn’t get my end of the month checkup on goals written last week. So here it is, a bit late.

We’re far enough into the year that if you haven’t been working consistently on your New Year’s resolutions (if you made any), you’ve probably either given up on them, not made any progress on them, or forgotten them. That’s OK, but if you want things to improve in your life, you need long term goals and some kind of plan to reach them.

For those of you who were reading in December when I wrote up my suggestions for resolutions, this will be familiar ground. For those of you who weren’t, here are three very specific suggestions for dealing with your long term plans.

First, write them down, ideally every day, but at the very least review them daily. More on this at the end of the post

Second, find a small step you can take daily (i.e. a habit you can create) that will help you move toward the fulfillment of each of your goals. It takes three weeks to develop a habit; give yourself a month, then reassess to see if the habit is established, and if so,  if it’s helping you toward your goal and if you want to add a new one this month.

Third, share the goals with someone who can hold you accountable for your progress.

If you’ve been doing this, have you seen any progress? My bet is you have. What additional steps can you take this month to improve?

A personal report: I have been writing down my goals and intermediate steps to reach them daily, pretty consistently since January 1. Some of them have involved breaking habits that have been in place literally for years. Within about two weeks (less than what it normally takes to develop a habit!), the habit was gone, and I haven’t relapsed since.

The only thing I did differently was write my goals out each day, focusing on the positive outcome I wanted and not the negative action I wanted to lose.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to techniques; I’ve tried too many things to believe in magic bullets. And it’s possible that there are other explanations for the change. But this seems to be working well for me, whatever the reason, and I see no good reason to risk stopping.

The takeaway is that if you’re having problems reaching goals or breaking habits, try writing out the positive outcome you are looking for daily. I also included what I saw as a necessary step to achieving the long-term goal. This only takes two or three minutes at most total for all of my four big goals. Try it for a month and see if it doesn’t help you move forward.