The Mirror of God
Christian Faith as Spiritual Practice Lessons from Buddhism and Psychotherapy
By James W. Jones
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2003 James W. Jones
All rights reserved.
Faith as Practice
Understanding requires doing.
I did not learn diagnosis from simply reading a textbook. God help you if you go to a doctor and her only training in diagnosis came from reading a text. To learn diagnosis, I had to take that textbook and its descriptions of psychological disorders out onto the floor of the hospital. I had to actually see patients and watch those more experienced than I making diagnoses.
If I want to really understand physics, I can't simply read a physics text. I have to spend time in a laboratory, performing experiments and drawing conclusions from them. If I want to learn an athletic skill or to play a musical instrument, I have to practice by doing it over and over again, under the watchful eye of an accomplished performer. Medical diagnosis, physics, musical instruments, martial arts are learned primarily by apprenticeship, by practicing them under the direction of someone with experience.
You cannot become a psychotherapist just from reading books. Therapy is learned by spending years doing it under supervision. And when you want to learn a new way of doing therapy, then you have to start over with new supervision. When I wanted to learn hypnosis, for example, I not only took several classes in using hypnosis and read many books. I also went to workshops where the techniques were practiced under supervision and spent two years doing hypnosis under the direction of an experienced practitioner even though I had been doing other kinds of psychotherapy for several years.
We can distinguish two kinds of knowledge. I can have a "secondhand knowledge" from reading a book. Many years ago I was writing a book on science and religion and as part of that project I needed to learn something about physics. So I sat in on a few classes, read some books for the layperson, and got some tutoring from a colleague in the physics department. I got to the point where I could comprehend some articles in some journals, if they weren't too mathematical, and understand some of the visiting lecturers. But this certainly did not make me a physicist. In order to actually become a physicist, I would have had to spend long hours working in the laboratory or at the computer. That is, I would have had to learn to practice the discipline called physics.
This is also true of Christianity. And every religion. I can go to my local bookstore and buy books from the religion section, maybe take a course in Religion at the university. This will enable me to understand the definitions of some major terms and to go to a lecture and listen to it with understanding. But that does not make me a Christian. Or a Buddhist. I do not see the world or face life as a Christian or a Buddhist does from reading books or hearing lectures. To do that, I have to undertake the practices that make up the spiritual life in Christianity or Buddhism. Such discipline is essential in religion and in science.
Beliefs and Practices
A major problem in modern culture is that we separate theory from practice. In our educational system and mass media, we often focus on abstract ideas and not on the practices from which they emerge. Nowhere has that done more mischief than in the study of religion. Often, if I ask university students what comes into their minds when they hear the word "religion," they immediately think of creeds and beliefs. Ideas. But these ideas and beliefs often seem abstract to my students because these concepts have been removed from the context of practice in which they make sense.
Words only make sense in a context of practice. If I pick up a book about nuclear physics and have never studied physics, I may stumble over terms like "elementary particle" or "wave function." These terms make no sense outside the field of physics. I can look up an abstract definition in the glossary at the end of the textbook, but I don't really know what these terms mean unless I know what the physicist does with them: how they help her make sense of an experiment or design a new research project. At a party I may overhear a psychologist using terms like "reinforcement theory" or "contingency contracts." To really understand them, I would have to know how the psychologist uses them to explain why a child's behavior is out of control or to help a person recovering from a stroke regain some of their lost abilities. Separating theory and practice has turned many words into abstractions. To counter that, we must return our words to their connection to our lived experience. Disciplined practice is the way that connection is made.
Christianity is not an abstract theory. The beliefs of Christianity only make sense in the midst of the struggle to love God with our heart and mind and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Terms like God, prayer, redemption can only be understood if I know how the Christian uses them to make sense of his experience, to live a life of compassion and justice, to deepen her awareness of God. If I want a firsthand understanding of the Christian life, I have to live the Christian life. If I want a deeper spiritual experience, I must undertake a deeper spiritual practice.
In science and religion, as well as in art, medicine, and psychology, words only make sense in a context of practice. The meaning of a term is best understood by seeing the use to which it is put. The languages of (for example) physics, Christianity, and clinical psychology are designed to enable the practitioners of those disciplines to do things they want to do: to create experiments, live a spiritually oriented life, treat emotional disorders. The concepts found in physics, psychology, Christianity, and Buddhism enable people to engage in and understand these practices—practices to which they have devoted their lives.
There is a circle here between belief and practice, each influencing the other. The beliefs of (again), say, physics, Christianity, and clinical psychology help their practitioners understand experiences they encounter along the way. The theories of physics help physicists interpret the results of a just-completed experiment. The teachings of Christianity help Christians make sense of their awareness of the presence of God. The ideas found in clinical psychology textbooks help psychotherapists figure out the connection between a patient's interpersonal history and his depression. Here, too, practice plays a crucial role. The practice of physics or Christian spirituality or clinical psychology gives rise to these experiences that I am trying to understand within these fields. Running experiments generates the data the physicist has to interpret. Spending time in prayer and meditation and devotional reading sets a context in which the presence of God is encountered. Taking a careful personal history generates the information about the patient that the therapist has to work with. In all these examples, the practices of the field give rise to certain experiences and the theories, teachings, and beliefs found in that field provide categories by which these experiences can be understood and guide the practitioners in developing new practices and formulating new theories. Practices generate new experiences and provide the categories in which these experiences are understood: this circle characterizes every vital human activity.
Part of learning a new discipline is learning to experience things in a particular way. A biology student might say to me, "Dr. Jones, come to my laboratory and look through the microscope and you will see mitochondria." Not a chance! If I look through that microscope, I will see only what William James called a "blooming, buzzing, confusion." But if I study biology, then I will be able to see the deeper structures of cellular life. Or I might take an art student over to the physics laboratory and show him a photograph of a high-energy experiment—a black and white tracing of intricate lines and swirls, the tracks of elementary particles colliding. The art student might say, "What a beautiful work, I would like to frame it and hang it on my wall." Of course the trained physicist sees there the fundamental structures of the material universe. If you study medicine, what before seemed like disconnected swellings and pains now appear as symptoms of an infection. Part of learning a new discipline is learning to see new things: the structures of the cell, the traces of elementary particles, the presence of disease.
Likewise with Christianity. And any religion. Undertaking a spiritual discipline involves learning to experience things in a new way. A book formerly regarded as an out-of-date historical document now becomes a guide to contemporary life. Events previously dismissed as meaningless coincidences are now seen as graciously meaningful. An unexpected tragedy now becomes an opportunity to meditate on the transitory nature of life. Periods of meditation yield previously undreamed-of insights into the deepest Source of our life. As with physics, medicine, and clinical psychology, in Christianity too, practices shape what we experience. Practicing a science, a clinical art, or a religion is (among other things) training oneself to experience the world in a different way.
Beliefs and practices are not antagonists. Undertaking a practice depends upon certain fundamental beliefs and commitments. I would not begin the arduous study of physics unless I believed it would be fruitful and productive of new knowledge and be personally satisfying. I would not commit myself to the many years of training to become a clinical psychologist without the faith that it would help suffering people and expand my understanding of human behavior. The faith required to undertake such studies as physics or psychology is not blind faith. Teachers and supervisors and revered researchers have undertaken these journeys before me. Their examples inspire me and show that such fundamental beliefs and commitments can be intellectually and socially fruitful and personally satisfying, and that such faith is not misplaced. But I will not know that for myself unless I make the commitments, accept the beliefs, and learn the practices.
I cannot prove that to the skeptic. The convictions and commitments basic to a science or an art cannot be proven in advance. I can point to examples but I cannot logically demonstrate that scientific study will be fruitful, that order and regularity can be discovered in new domains of nature, that running or mountain-climbing can be exhilarating, or that living a socially connected life is better than a life of bitterness and isolation. Such truths can only be known (in a "firsthand" sense) by those willing to commit themselves to them. The contemporary philosopher of science Michael Polanyi says that basic truths are those things that are only "proven true" by those willing to stake their lives (or part of their lives) on them and live them out.
Obviously the same thing is true with Christianity. And any religion. The practices of Christianity or Buddhism depend upon certain basic beliefs and commitments: that meditation, worship, devotional reading, and moral action will lead me to new truths, transform me into the kind of moral person I want to become, and be personally fulfilling. Again I cannot prove in advance to the skeptic that meditation can deepen the sense of divine presence, that devotional reading can produce new insights, that communal worship can strengthen moral commitments, that sitting Zazen ("sitting meditation") will produce enlightenment, or that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Like the basic beliefs of the natural sciences or the clinical arts, these basic convictions are only "proven true" by living them out. Like the basic beliefs of the natural sciences and the clinical arts, the basic beliefs of a religion are known to be true by their potential to make sense of the very experiences that these same commitments and practices make available—be they the data of carefully contrived experiments in the case of natural science, or the diagnoses of carefully observed patients in the case of medicine and psychology, or the enlightenments gained through disciplined meditation in the case of Christianity and Buddhism.
Of course the beliefs and commitments involved in undertaking the practices associated with Christianity or Buddhism may appear more like blind faith than those associated with physics, medicine, or psychology. This is because, in our contemporary popular culture, many fewer people have undertaken the disciplined spiritual journey. And so many fewer examples are available to encourage us and serve as demonstrations of the fruitfulness of such a life. Nobel Prize–winning scientists and breakthrough medical researchers are prominently featured in the media (as well they should be). They are the cultural heroes of a technological society even when the actual science behind their discoveries is poorly understood. But often in the popular media, religious figures are only featured when they have done serious mischief: coerced young people into cultish dependence, seduced their devotees, absconded with the collection, or been found in bed with a prostitute. Thus the commitment to undertake the spiritual journey may feel to us today much more like blind faith or a dead end than undertaking the journeys of discovery at the heart of physics or medicine. But this is simply a matter of cultural relativity. We live in a society that provides few models and examples of the fruitfulness of the spiritual life. So anyone undertaking this journey is apt to feel alone and marginal. But without such a disciplined journey, there is no firsthand knowledge of religious truth.
Spiritual Practice in Early Christianity
I know this is a very controversial claim: that Christianity should be more centered on practice and experience than on belief. For much of its history Western Christianity has been centered around having the correct belief. The criteria for whether one is, or is not, a Christian have usually involved accepting certain dogmas or believing certain claims, such as "Jesus is the Messiah." Much religious energy from the medieval philosophers through the reformation theologians to contemporary religious thinkers has been expended on defining, clarifying, and often defending the correct set of beliefs.
But there is another stream of Christianity, neglected in the modern world, which does not focus primarily on belief. This tradition, going back to the earliest theologians of the Christian Church, attends more to religious practices, and the experiences of oneself and God that arise from them, than to beliefs.
Recently I have been reading some of these very early Christian writers on spirituality—from the first few Christian centuries—and one of the things that struck me was how psychological in a certain sense they were. They make the site of redemption the individual's interior struggle with themselves. They provide meditation techniques to help quiet the mind. For example, the Christian seeker is told to repeat the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me") in time with her breathing and the beating of her heart. The "heart" in these texts refers not only to the physical organ or to the seat of emotions, but also to a part of ourselves that is deeper than our thoughts and feelings. For these early Christian writers, the "heart" is our spiritual center, the "image of God" within us, the interior sanctuary wherein the meeting of the self and its divine source is consummated. Through such a practice as repeating the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me," this "Jesus Prayer" is said to "take up residence" in the heart, that is, in the center of our life. These spiritual masters often call this practice "a prayer of the heart," which means a prayer of the whole person, encompassing our thoughts and feelings and even our bodies.
One goal of such practices is called "watchfulness," which might be translated as attentiveness or alertness. Buddhists call it "mindfulness." It means entering the interior place of tranquility. Watchfulness "is the heart's stillness ... free from mental images ... unbroken by any thought," as one early Christian teacher put it. Here we become aware of something about ourselves that we cannot learn in any other way—that there is a place of peacefulness within. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Mirror of God by James W. Jones. Copyright © 2003 James W. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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