Monday, February 29, 2016

Developing limited autonomy

This post on developing autonomy continues the series on spiritual disciplines useful for developing aspects of the human spirit. Limited autonomy (also termed agency and, more problematically because it implies the existence of a separate human faculty, free will) is unquestionably the most problematic and difficult to define aspect of the human spirit.

The concept of limited autonomy rejects both the extreme of complete determinism and its opposite, complete autonomy. Briefly, complete determinism seems wrong because it cannot explain the novelty that humans introduce in the world. Conversely, both DNA and experience determine some human choices. Limited autonomy describes an apparent human capacity for exercising some degree of autonomy. Autonomy's range is probably very limited, placing this trait closer to absolute determinism than to absolute autonomy.

Limited autonomy means that each individual has some measure of responsibility for developing her/his spirit, shaping her/his life, and moral accountability for her/his actions. Unfortunately, human behavior is so poorly understood that nobody can know with certainty which of her/his actions are determined and which result from exercising autonomy. Consequently, efforts to develop limited autonomy are necessarily imprecise and progress is difficult to ascertain accurately.

These spiritual disciplines can help an individual to recognize, exercise, and perhaps expand her/his limited autonomy:

  • Engage in rigorous self-examination. The six aspects of the human spirit provide one framework for guiding self-examination. Ignatius' spiritual exercises, used by generations of Jesuits, are another paradigm. Sessions with a spiritual director or psychoanalyst can be another means of engaging in self-examination. Regardless of method, honest self-examination will help a person to discern personal patterns of behavior and the values that shape those patterns. With the knowledge comes an increased possibility for altering the patterns and underlying values.
  • Establish specific, measurable goals for spiritual living and then track one's efforts to attain those goals. For example, a person may decide that taking art lessons will help to develop the aesthetic sense and creativity. Useful metrics might include tracking attendance at the lessons and the number of hours devoted to practicing the art daily. Alternatively, the individual might decide a better metric is the number of pieces of art produced daily or weekly. Measuring the aesthetic sense, creativity, and limited autonomy directly is highly problematic. These proxy measurements may indicate direction of change; the element of personal accountability may provide sufficient impetus to shift an occasional default of procrastination or avoidance to an expected exercise of autonomy as one engaged in the artistic endeavor.
  • Keep a fast by abstaining from eating a particular food, drinking a specific beverage, or not participating in some activity. Fasting can promote limited autonomy by nurturing the self-discipline to break an established pattern and substitute another behavior(s).

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Serendipitous creativity

Twentieth century American theologian Gordon Kaufman has suggested thinking about God as serendipitous creativity ("On Thinking of God as Serendipitous Creativity," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 2 (June 2001), 409-425).

Psychiatrist William Meissner has observed:
Man needs to create, to shape and transform his environment, find vehicles for expressing his inner life, or rather the constant commerce between the ongoing worlds of his external experience and his inner psychic reality…. It is through illusion, then, that the human spirit is nourished…. The man without imagination, without the capacity for play or for creative illusion, is condemned to a sterile world of harsh facts without color or variety, without the continual enrichment of man's creative capacities. (William Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience, p. 177, quoted in John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 69-70)

Meissner's observation, in the context of Kaufman's suggestion of serendipitous creativity as a metaphor for God, coheres with my view that the creativity is an aspect of the human spirit and thus part of the imago dei, the image of God in humans.

Carl Jung first promoted the idea of synchronicity, coincidences in which seemingly unrelated events are linked by causation or meaning. Jung and a broad circle of followers often discerned God at working in synchronicity's seemingly serendipitous happenings.

Can you identify examples or experiences of serendipitous creativity in your life, that is, can you identify examples or experiences of moments in which you have encountered the creator/ultimate reality/God?


Describing examples or experiences of serendipitous creativity as moments of divine-human interaction underscores that a naturalistic understanding of the human spirit (i.e., a concept of the human spirit that neither includes nor precludes an eternal or ephemeral element) is compatible with a variety of post-theisms, e.g., Kaufman's historicism and process theology. Furthermore, the process of trying to answer involves at least three aspects of the human spirit: creativity (discussed in the previous Ethical Musings post), self-awareness (explored in the next Ethical Musings post), and linguistic capacity (to be examined in the final Ethical Musings post in this series on the human spirit).

Monday, February 22, 2016

Developing one's creativity

Creativity is a second facet of the human spirit (the first facet, discussed in the previous post, is the aesthetic sense – the six facets do not constitute any particular hierarchy or pattern and the numbering is strictly a matter of convenience).

Creativity connotes a person using her/his limited autonomy to imagine and then to choose in a different manner than predicted. That is, creating entails arranging items in novel or unexpected patterns. Although closely linked to limited autonomy, neither creativity nor limited autonomy completely maps the other because creativity emphasizes a novelty not intrinsic to limited autonomy. Art, inventions, written compositions, oral narratives, and new structures are all among the ways in which humans manifest creativity.

Every creative endeavor gives birth to something new. Thus, creativity is one of the intersections between the human spirit and ethics. Is that which a person creates life giving or life destroying? For a severely traumatized person, creativity may afford an opportunity to express and thereby to unleash safely a demonic (i.e., destructive and death dealing) infestation. This can initiate the healing process and make room for the indwelling of God's Spirit and new life.

All humans are creators. At a minimum, each human creates a unique life for her or himself. Is the life that you are creating for yourself one that leads deeper into mystery and the wonderful tapestry that we call the cosmos? Alternatively, is the life that you are creating for yourself one that stays in the shallows, afraid of the depths, and content to taste without indulging?

Creativity points toward hope. Humans are not hamsters condemned to spending their days running inside a wheel going nowhere. Instead, the novelty that human creativity introduces into the cosmos is suggestive of both a creator (God) and the possibility that creation has meaning and an aim.

Creativity is also time-consuming work. Creativity does not just happen. The creative person intentionally devotes time to an endeavor, repeatedly rearranges the items (i.e., colors, materials, notes, words, etc.) utilized, and eventually discerns the emergence of new patterns. What appears spontaneous – a maestro sight-reading music for the first time who nonetheless performs it with a fresh interpretation – is in fact the product of a lifetime of learning and effort.

Consequently, spiritual disciplines that may nurture the creative aspect of the human spirit are those disciplines that spark new thoughts, feelings, or actions, particularly when those thoughts, feelings, or actions birth new life, lead one deeper into mystery, or are wellsprings of hope. These spiritual disciplines include:

  • Regularly engaging in an art or craft, broadly constructing both of those terms to encompass painting, sculpture, music, writing, cooking, carpentry, knitting, and much, much more
  • Taking lessons, studying, or practicing an art or craft
  • Committing to a new pattern in a relationship, e.g., marriage, celibacy, friendship, or collegiality. One good measure of creativity is the degree to which the new pattern births new life instead of death or pain. At their best, norms such as marital fidelity offer helpful guidance on the likely outcome of upholding or deviating from a particular behavioral pattern. A new pattern of friendship may entail maintaining a clear boundary to end exploitative aspects of the relationship or becoming emotionally vulnerable to permit greater levels of intimacy. A new pattern of relating to a colleague may require substituting respect for disrespect, demonstrating greater trust through increased delegation, or establishing fair mechanisms of accountability that treat the other as a mature, responsible adult.
  • Regularly playing, i.e., giving what Eric Berne called the inner child time and space in which to surface in ways that are constructive, renewing, and creative. Part of the allure of games, including life action role playing, much online gaming, and some board games, is that playing a game authorizes the inner child to come to the fore, with the gamer temporarily, and sometimes creatively, setting aside at least some of her/his inhibitions, usual behaviors, and so forth.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Developing one's aesthetic capacity

Humans, far more than any other species, invest time and resources in creating and experiencing beauty. Cave dwellers decorated cave walls; even the most ancient human implements reveal aesthetic as well as functional design elements. Evolutionary biologists suggest that early humans more fully developed the aesthetic sense because it contributed to the survival of the fittest. Through an expanded aesthetic capacity, these individuals enriched interpersonal communication, strengthened communal bonds, and attracted potential mates.

Most narrowly conceived, the aesthetic sense thus denotes an individual's experience of beauty. Beauty is present in the created world and all species, in humans and in one's self, in some ideas, and in some created things. Contemplation of beauty draws the observer into the observed, which may promote self-awareness or self-transcendence, be a motive for loving or being loved, or a catalyst for creativity. Medical research indicates that performing music can help to reduce the likelihood of dementia, suggesting the value of further exploring the potential spiritual and physical benefits derived from cultivating one's aesthetic sense.

More broadly, art denotes an intentional effort to create beauty by employing one's own aesthetic sense or attempting to affect another person's aesthetic sense. Art may be visual, aural, tactile, or moral, i.e., art finds expression in a wide variety of genre and media including painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, literature, music, and human interaction. The act of creating art entails utilizing multiple facets of the human spirit: the aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and perhaps self-awareness, linguistic capacity, and loving/being loved.

Among spiritual disciplines that may develop one's aesthetic sense are:
  • Daily strolling in nature, taking time to observe the flora, to watch the fauna, to feel the warmth of the sun (or cool of the wind or precipitation), perhaps walking the same path every day so that the landscape becomes part of one's spiritual landscape
  • Weekly visiting an art gallery, spending 5 or 15 or more minutes in front of a work, to notice both details and the entirety, to ponder the feelings and thoughts experienced as one is present with the piece
  • Spending twenty minutes every day to listen to music of a genre that one finds interesting and conducive to relaxation.
  • Taking lessons to learn to play an instrument or to sing.

Knowledge frequently invites a deeper experience of beauty. The person walking in nature may delve more deeply into creation's beauty by acquiring some knowledge of plants, animals, geology, and the weather. The visitor to an art gallery may experience the art more powerfully by learning about artists, styles, and media. Hearers may find music's beauty more potent as s/he becomes educated about instruments, compositional structure, and styles. In short, spiritual disciplines that develop the aesthetic sense may also include expending the effort to inform one's aesthetic sense, thereby enriching one's experience of art.

Similarly, sharing the experience of beauty with one or more other persons can enrich one's aesthetic sense by expanding the spectrum of observations, feelings, and thought that the beauty triggers. Spiritual disciplines, in other words, do not have to be solitary endeavors.

Culture shapes human perceptions of beauty. Cross-cultural aesthetic experiences can thus helpfully fracture the paradigm or set of lenses through which one typically views life. Deeper grammatical or structural elements of beauty and art, such as harmony and proportionality help to make cross-cultural aesthetic experiences meaningful.


Lastly, the aesthetic sense will benefit from daily attention. Integrating beauty and art into one's daily life is perhaps the optimal way in which to achieve this aim. Actively listening to music, living in a place you make as aesthetically pleasing as possible, making an effort to radiate beauty, and seeking, then pausing to enjoy, beauty in others and the world are practices through which a person can daily nurture the aesthetic sense.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Pathways to spiritual growth

During the remaining six weeks of Lent Ethical Musings will feature posts focused on spiritual development. Several previous posts have described my understanding of the human spirit, most recently in Rethinking spiritual practices, posted December 17, 2015.

The human spirit – a person's quintessence – consists of these six facets:
  1. Self-awareness (sometimes described as self-transcendence)
  2. Linguistic ability (especially the symbolic use of language, which enables humans to find meaning in life and to build community)
  3. The aesthetic sense (art can add depth to life, offer a fresh perspective and increase self-awareness, improve communication, and contribute to community)
  4. Creativity (humans have introduced significant novelty into the cosmos, unlike any other species, and implicitly poses questions of value, i.e., it points to moral concerns)
  5. Limited autonomy (located between determinism and freedom, but probably closer to the former than to the latter)
  6. Loving and being loved (sometimes called reciprocal altruism, but that term minimizes the importance of emotion for this facet of the spirit; this facet explicitly adds a moral dimension to spirituality).
Each week during this Lent, an Ethical Musings' post will identify specific spiritual disciplines that a person can use to cultivate a particular facet of her/his spirituality.

Although Christians have traditionally emphasized Lent and Advent as seasons for adopting a spiritual discipline, that practice has both contributed to a misperception and caused unhelpful confusion. Persons serious about walking the Jesus path (or any other spiritual path, for that matter!) recognize that spiritual growth is not something to which one pays attention only during a particular season of the year. Individuals who want to achieve spiritual maturity make spiritual growth a continuing concern. A practice adopted during a particular season, such as Lent or Advent, may become an integral element of the person's spiritual life or, having been tested and found unsatisfactory, set aside in favor of other practices. Sometimes a spiritual practice may prove useful for a period and then the practitioner will recognize that the practice is no longer helpful and set it aside.

The confusion surrounding annual calls for persons to adopting a spiritual discipline for Lent, Advent, or another season stems from these calls rarely providing any description of spiritual maturity or guidance on selecting a discipline for achieving spiritual growth. Consequently, many individuals select a spiritual discipline from habit (e.g., someone who each Lent abstained from alcoholic beverages), convenience (e.g., someone who abstained from chocolate or intentionally helped another person each day during Lent), or social justice commitments (e.g., becoming a vegetarian during Lent). All of these can be good disciplines. I selected those illustrations based on choices friends have made. None of those persons could explain why s/he adopted that particular discipline nor identify the spiritual gain they hoped to achieve. These friends are not unique but exemplify a general lack of definitional clarity about spiritual maturity. And, to apply a familiar adage, if you don't know where you are going, any path will get you there.

These five guidelines may help you to choose and keep a spiritual discipline:

  1. Choose a practice for which you feel some energy or enthusiasm. That energy or enthusiasm is essential to transform desire into commitment.
  2. Select a discipline that adds balance to your current spiritual life. If, for example, you spend considerable time in reflection, then you may find balance by selecting a spiritual practice that requires physical creative activity.
  3. Aim for measured progress instead of attempting giant leaps. Most change is incremental rather than radical. Generally, a person is most likely to persevere practicing a spiritual discipline that requires modest alterations in lifestyle or activities.
  4. Stick with the new discipline long enough – at least seven weeks – that your practice becomes habitual. If at the end of seven weeks you have not habituated the practice, examine your motives and aims: Why are you, consciously or subconsciously, resisting habituating this practice? What can you discern about your actual motives for having chosen this discipline?
  5. Being accountable for practicing the spiritual discipline significantly improves the odds of actually fulfilling your commitment to adopt the discipline. Choose a method that fits your personality and lifestyle. Options may include adding the practice to your daily to do list, keeping a chart of days you keep the discipline, and having regular meetings with a spiritual director or confessor to discuss your adherence to the practice since your last session together.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Listening for echoes

Almost fifteen years ago, after a visit to the former Church of St. Etienne, which is now a museum, in Beaugency, France, I wrote:

Echoes of voices
Resounding from hard walls
Hard floors,
A space full of echoes of life.


The former Church of St. Etienne
An unsmiling woman,
Proud beauty weighed with the cares of years;
Ripe fields, bright flowers –
Echoes of life,
Refracted from eye and hand of artist.

Built for echoes,
Echoes of the unseen,
Heard in water and bread and wine and light,
With a voice that echoed across the centuries
And echoes even now.

Few if any
Hear the ever so soft reverberations,
As they see and feel these new
Echoes of life.

Lent is a time to listen for the echoes, to hear a word (or music) of life in the spaces of our lives that seem empty, perhaps even deserted, spaces that we preserve museum-like, unwilling to fill them but unsure of why we keep them. And in those echoes, one can sometimes experience anew an elusive love, a force that draws us more deeply into the elusive mystery at the heart of life.

What spiritual discipline have you chosen to practice this Lent to help you hear the echoes of the divine?

[This Ethical Musings post was first published in 2014.]

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ash Wednesday

The Christian fast of Ash Wednesday (February 10, 2016) falls, as always, seven weeks and five days before Easter (March 27, 2016). Attendance at Ash Wednesday services is declining, as is worship attendance generally. Consequently, some churches have started programs, sometimes known as Ashes on the Go, to make the imposition of ashes more readily available to busy people, e.g., on street corners.

Jesus warned people against turning religious observances into public demonstrations of one's piety. In twenty-first century North America and Europe, few people seem likely to be impressed by a person have a smudge of ashes on her/his forehead one day annually.

Indeed, wearing ashes, and by extension their public imposition, seems more likely to prompt queries from the puzzled or bemused than to cause anyone to regard the wearer of ashes as especially devote. Clearly, the contemporary spiritual ethos differs from Jesus' experience of people competing in public demonstrations of their piety.

So, why wear ashes?

First, ashes imposed with the words "Remember, you are dust," remind the wearer of an individual's insignificance within the broad scope of the cosmos. I could not begin to count the grains of sand (= dust) on the beach that I see while I write this posting, much less count all of the specks of dust in the vast reaches of the universe. A human body, which consists of approximately 17 trillion cells, is an incredible gift. However, that marvel pales in comparison to the cosmos' far vaster grandeur and to the mystery of life itself. Keeping my ego in proper perspective enables me to cultivate healthy relationships with self, others, the world, and God.

Second, ashes imposed with the words "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return," remind the wearer of one's personal morality. This annual reminder is a helpful inoculation against succumbing to our culture's exaltation of youth and youthfulness, with its implicit hope that the right technology and medical assistance may indefinitely delay infirmity and death. Birth inevitably leads to death.

Third, ashes historically signified sorrow for one's sins. The word sin (hamartia in Greek) connotes both falling short of the mark (sins of omission) and crossing the line (sins of commission). Nobody is perfect. The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday encourages self-examination: What have I done that I should not have done? What have I failed to do that I should have done? Am I truly sorry for my failings? If so, can I repair any harm my failures caused? Why did I fail in those particular ways? How can I change, and how can God change me, so that I avoid similar failures in the future?


Finally, the annual observance of Ash Wednesday reminds us that neither time nor life is linear. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, describes spiritual progress as climbing a spiral staircase. Spiritual progress (or regress!) thus repeatedly affords one similar vistas, but from a slightly increased (or decreased) elevation. Lent is an excellent occasion to take stock of one's spiritual journey. Is your spiritual elevation increasing or decreasing? What is happening in your spiritual journey?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Donald Trump: Like a petulant child

Donald Trump refused to participate in the last Iowa debate among those running to become the GOP presidential candidate because he did not like one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly of Fox News.

Trump's behavior is more like that of a petulant child than the maturity of someone ready to become the leader of the world's most powerful nation. The President of the US has to interact, repeatedly and with at least a veneer of politeness, with many people whom the President may personally dislike or whose views the President may find distasteful if not reprehensible. The President, as Commander in Chief, also has direct authority over the world's most powerful military and nuclear arsenal. A person campaigning for election as President of the US, who sulkily refuses to participate in a debate because of objections to one of the moderators, demonstrates a very disturbing lack of emotional maturity and a frighteningly excessive degree of narcissism (believing him or herself to be the center of the world).

After months on the campaign trail as the self-proclaimed GOP front-runner, Trump's ignorance of the Constitution, economic facts, and international affairs reflects a similar emotional immaturity. Contrary to Trump, (1) prohibiting Muslims from entering the US would violate the Constitution's ban against government discrimination based on religion; (2) unemployment in the US is not in excess of 20% but at 5%; (3) the Kurds and the Iranian national guards are not identical but are from different religions, ethnicities, and states.

Sometimes the President of the US would benefit from having a dealmaker's skills. The job, however, calls for much more than making deals. A President depends upon global respect to exert international influence. A President needs vision to inspire and to lead domestically and internationally. A President needs an extensive grasp of politics, economics, military, national, and international affairs. Crises do not occur with built-in time-outs for the President to get up to speed on a set of issues. Debates that ask potential candidates to address tough issues, issues some would prefer to avoid, offer opportunity to watch the candidates perform under pressure. Candidates who refuse to take the time to learn about the issues convey amateurism, an implicit lack of respect for the public, and appear to substitute brash self-confidence for the depth and competence that the seriousness and magnitude of the President's responsibilities require. Trump, for example, in a press interview was unfamiliar with the US nuclear triad of ground, air, and submarine capacity to launch strategic nuclear weapons.


The Presidency is not like Burger King: you cannot have it your own way, Mr. Trump.