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The Heart of Christianity: Personalization and Meaning

I have been teaching Psychology of Religion at a private university in Ecuador for over 14 years. Most students who take this course have abandoned Christianity and have been seeking alternative spiritual paths. The main reason for this rejection seems to be because of the “substance definition” of Christianity used by the church in Ecuador. This definition places emphasis on belief, doctrine, and creed. What is believed, such as the trinity, is what matters and students can’t accept this tenet. However, when we discuss books such as The Heart of Christianity and The Meaning of Jesus, most students are shocked by these perspectives of Christianity. They had no idea that Christianity could be viewed in this way. Also, when these ideas are framed in the context of a “functional definition”– what works for a person and society such as prayer, meditation, and acts of service—the students’ reactions are surprising. I can see their complexions change, their eyes open, and many claim that with this way of looking at Christianity they could reconsider Christianity as a viable spiritual path.

Later in the course on Psychology of Religion, we discuss what would happen if the heart of Christianity or any religion was meaning? This notion is compatible with the functional definition of religion and the teachings of Marcus Borg and other Progressive Christians. This article summarizes this meaning-centered perspective of religion which is consistently received very well by both Christian and non-Christian students here in Ecuador

Viktor Frankl, founder of Logotherapy (Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy), wrote that if religion is to survive, it will have to be profoundly personalized. If this is true, I can’t think of a better way to personalize Christianity think for each Christian to place meaning at the center of his or her faith.

What do I mean by Meaning-Centered Christianity? I like to think of it as a way of living our faith at the junction of meaning and the sacred. Expressed in a different way, Meaning-Centered Christianity is a search for meaning in ways related to the sacred. It has to do with discovering, building, changing, and holding on to the things people care about in ways that are tied to the sacred. This religious journey involves both pursued purposes and destinations and the activities and practices used in the journey.

The reason many of us are Christians is because Christianity gives meaning to our lives. In fact, I suspect that for many of us, meaning giving is the most essential function of our faith. Those of us who believe this is true must explore what it means to live our faith with meaning at the center.

With meaning at the center or at the heart of faith, more Christians would be less concerned about the “substance definition” which includes the objective, historical, factual truths of Christianity and more interested in how to define, discover, and create sacred meanings. This approach has an essential element of tolerance and acceptance because sacred meanings vary from person to person depending on a host of factors such as personality and culture.

What are some of the common paths to Meaning-Centered Christianity? There are many possible paths, but I want to discuss some of the most fruitful ones and broadly classify them as intrinsic meaningful activities and derivative meaningful activities. Intrinsic activities are meaningful because the activities or processes themselves are meaningful such as mediation and helping an injured person. Derivative activities are meaningful not because the activities themselves are meaningful but because they lead to a goal or result which is meaningful. As a career counselor, I often remind students and clients of how many people do work that contains meaningless activities per se, but these activities gain meaning because they are toward something they value such as supporting their families, defending their country, etc. Let’s begin by discussing those intrinsic activities that are meaningful in themselves and can yield sacred meaning.

Intrinsic Meaningful Activities and Processes

I want to begin with the meaning power of creative activities. According to Frankl, the act of creating is a principal source of meaning, and most of my students have confirmed this. To help us live a meaning-centered faith, we should take advantage of these creative activities that support our faith such as creating a new and better way of helping people, improving the environment, etc. In this example, both the creative and the helping aspects are meaningful to many people.

For most of us, experiencing love is another major source of meaning. The act of loving and receiving love is meaningful. Again, if we incorporate love in our meaning-centered faith, many aspects of our lives could be enriched. The meaning power of love is rather obvious, particularly if we take a moment to realize how uncommon it is for someone who is deeply in love to say that his or her life is meaningless. Now if we relate love to God and if we love God with all our heart—as emphasized by many Christians– many of us would probably feel that our lives are more meaningful. In addition, there is another meaning benefit from this sacred love. If we love God with all our heart, does this love stay confined to God? In most cases, I think not. The love usually extends to other people, animals, and perhaps to the earth itself. And when this happens, often the love is returned to us increasing the meaning power of the original love we had for God.

Spiritual practices are another fruitful path to a meaning-centered faith, because the spiritual practice or activity itself is meaningful. Most of us have experienced spiritual practices that were assigned to us by a specific church or faith. Some of these practices have been established by a leader of a church or faith, and they were probably influenced by the founder’s personality and culture. This means that for us to have a truly personal and meaningful faith today, many of us must change or augment the spiritual practices that originated from our church or faith. The spiritual practices must be personalized.

Which spiritual practices should we consider for inclusion in our meaning-centered faith? Meaningful spiritual practices—which can include activities such as prayer, reading scripture, meditation, fellowship—vary from person to person and are determined by personality, culture, psychological issues, and other factors. Because of this, it is obvious that –despite the practices of many religions–there aren’t any preordained sets of practices that work for everyone. For example, extroverted personality types tend to prefer practices involving the companionship of others, whereas introverts tend to prefer more time alone perhaps in medication, prayer, etc. There are several cultural issues that could affect spiritual practices. One is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension, “masculine vs. feminine”. (You may want to refer to his book, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.) Masculine cultures—also called quantity of life cultures—tend to view the roles of men and women as being quite different, and there is more focus on doing and achieving things. On the other hand, feminine cultures—also called quality of life cultures—view the roles of men and women as being quite similar, and there is more value placed on quality of life. This cultural difference could affect spiritual practices in the sense that masculine cultures and religions could define spiritual practices differently for men and women. We see major gender role differences in several religions around the world.

An example of a psychological issue that could affect the selection of spiritual practices is “internal vs. external locus of control”. Some people have an internal locus of control (the belief that their future is in their hands), and others have an external locus of control (the belief that God, fate, or luck determines their destiny). Each of these types of people will approach God and their lives differently and need different spiritual approaches and practices. The whole notion of God as a partner or not can be radically affected by locus of control.

Derivative Meaningful Activities and Processes

Derivative activities are those that are meaningful because they play a useful role toward worthwhile objectives which are meaningful. From a religious perspective, a meaningful derivative activity is not meaningful in itself but because it serves God. This can be illustrated by explaining the experiences of one of my Christian missionary students. As a student, she said her “sole” reason and meaning for living was to serve God, and how she did it was not important to her. Three years after she graduated, I received an email from her when she was working in the Ecuadorian rain forest as a missionary. She said that she finally realized the importance of intrinsic meaning coupled with derivative meaning. Without the intrinsic meaning from the activities themselves, she found herself burned out. She said she solved this problem by finding a way to serve God and at the same time be enriched and energized by meaning in the activities themselves.

Purposes and missions to live—which can include derivative meaningful activities or a powerful combination of both derivative and intrinsic meanings– can provide deep and rich sacred meanings. One thing that can make them sacred is the belief that the purpose or mission is transcendental in nature, i.e., it comes from God and the purpose or mission is more important than we are as individuals. Living for a purpose or mission is a choice to dedicate and commit ourselves to something or someone beyond ourselves. This means we turn away from a primary concern for ourselves and toward a concern for others. Steve Sapp and Mary Richards, in a workshop at the American Society on Aging in 1996 told the story about a group of Jews who were fleeing Germany during the holocaust:

Having to cross a mountain pass to reach safety, some of the older members began to tire and give out, asking that they be left behind rather than slow down the group. A number of younger people, fearing for their own safety, were willing to agree. A wise young person responded by saying, “We realize that you are tired and infirm and that you just want to sit down and rest. But we have these young women with their babies and they are so tired from carrying them this far. Will each of you just carry it as far as you can before you give out? Then we’ll leave you there.” Everyone in the group made it across the mountains.

Those who choose to believe in purposes and missions as sacred meanings may find a reason for being, a special calling if life. However, because these purposes are sacred, we may choose to believe that we do not construct them by ourselves; rather, they are constructed for us by God. In this sense, we do not need to create a sacred purpose, but rather discover the one or ones already created for us by God. The question is not what we expect from life, but what God expects from us. The question we may ask is what ways can I fulfill the sacred tasks that are waiting for me to undertake?

Unavoidable Suffering

Another important source of meaning is through unavoidable suffering accompanied by an attitude adjustment that itself provides meaning. (There are numerous books in Logotherapy on this subject. My favorite is Meaning in Suffering by Elisabeth Lukas.) Again when we connect this to the sacred, we can realize an important sacred meaning: Profound meanings can be derived from the freedom of choosing our response to our suffering. In other words, how we face our own suffering can provide enormous meaning to our lives. Furthermore, accepting God as a partner during our suffering can provide sacred meaning. With this view, each of us and God are active partners in coping with our situation and both share the responsibility for coping. In these suffering situations where we are powerless, surrendering to God’s power or accepting God as a partner is a viable and meaningful option. It is my view that Progressive Christians are better able to adapt this “partner” perspective than people of many other faiths.

Meaning plays an essential role in religion. Clearly understanding this role and applying meaning in sacred dimensions can significantly increase the meaning-yielding power of our Christian faith. It is possible and advisable to place meaning at the center of our faith. Perhaps Meaning-Centered Christianity is an appropriate guidepost for the new Progressive Christianity.

About the Author

GERALD L. FINCH, Ph.D. [ or] is a professor of Psychology of Religion, Existential Psychology, and Spiritual Psychology at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. He has certifications in grief counseling and suicide prevention. He is the author of Beyond Happiness: Paths to Meaning-Centered Living.

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