You have have noticed that I write a lot about ‘bearing good fruit.’ The idea can be found in some form or another in almost everything I’ve posted here. This hasn’t always been my focus, though. I used to love theology for theology’s sake: I loved plumbing the depths of our faith and reflecting of its deep Mysteries. I loved getting lost in the ideas themselves and their consequences. While I’m grateful to have that background and I draw upon it daily, I can honestly say that I don’t really care that much about it anymore. I still believe that ideas and their consequences are important, but for the past couple years, systematic theology has left me banging my head against the desk. Lately, I’ve come mostly just to care about what works, about what changes lives. I care about theology only inasmuch as it releases the Good News in people’s lives and empowers them to bear good fruit. I’m not entirely sure if this is a positive development, but I’d be more concerned were it not for the fact that it puts me more in line with Jesus’ own thoughts on the matter.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the metaphor of bearing good fruit as the key to how we discern truth from error, much as John the Baptist had before him:
Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly hungry wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits (Mt 7).
When we think about how Christians have historically sought to discern truth, this is really quite remarkable. But, according to Jesus, truth is to be judged not by fidelity to tradition or to the letter of Scripture, but by the fruit it bears, by its consequences in and for the world. And it’s not just Jesus: From Psalm 1 through Paul, according to the Scriptures, the quality of the fruit our lives bear is to be the criterion through which we discern goodness and truth.
This is a surprisingly foreign idea both within our culture and within Christianity. Our culture focuses far more on what we consume than on what we create. Immediate gratification of our every desire and whim is the basis for our economy, entertainment, and, increasingly (and alarmingly) our relationships. Any suggestion that we might be better served not to indulge is looked at with suspicion. Any personal sexual boundary is seen as a hang up or as repression. And the constant and instantaneous pleasure-fixes provided by social media, smartphone games, and extreme one-day sales events make it difficult to live with any sort of focus or intentionality.
Perhaps because of this broad cultural equating of happiness with immediate gratification, those who speak on behalf of Christianity mostly seem to have turned their back on happiness as a value. It is even common to hear Christians say things like “God cares about your holiness, not your happiness.” Not only does this make Christians sound like a rather depressing and dour bunch, but it also reinforces the notion that there is a gulf between being holy — living lives set apart for God — and our enjoyment of life. This promotes a rather monstrous image of God, an image that bears little resemblance to the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me this response misses the mark. After all, according to Paul, a holy Spirit-filled life looks like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5.22f), hardly a dull or dour set of qualities.
Yet, this isn’t the full story. The cracks in the consumption-driven Western life have been showing for some time. People are increasingly looking for a break from the incessant pull of ‘more’. More than ever in our culture, people are being drawn towards more intentional ways of eating and consuming. A massive industry has arisen surrounding questions of how to live a good, happy, and fulfilled life. Writers within this genre, from Deepak Chopra to Brené Brown and Gretchin Rubin, are increasingly household names. Moreover, two of the biggest cultural trends in this moment are yoga and mindfulness meditation, which are both practices devoted to cultivating discipline and concentration, essentially taking a time-out from the grip of the never-ending swirl of stimuli and pressures of our world. And most exciting for my own interests, in this last generation, an entire subfield within psychology has emerged that explores not neurosis and mental illness but the positive conditions for psychological health and wellbeing. More and more it seems, big questions about what it means to live well are returning to the fore. The fields are, as they say, ready for the harvest — a harvest of wellbeing, growth, and good fruit.
As part of this movement, in work taken up by the VIA (“Values in Action”) Institute on Character, researchers in positive psychology have searched through not only the scientific record, but the oral and written traditions of cultures from across the world, in the hopes of discovering universal conditions for happiness and wellbeing. And what they have found is a list of virtues not unlike the good spiritual fruit described in our Scriptures. These include virtues of wisdom (creativity, curiosity, love of learning, perspective, and judgment), virtues of courage (honesty, perseverance, zest, and bravery), virtues of humanity (love, kindness, and social intelligence), virtues of justice (fairness, leadership and teamwork), virtues of temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation), and virtues of transcendence (gratitude, appreciation of beauty or excellence, hope, humour, and spirituality). And so, it would seem that there is actually an increasing convergence between what psychology is telling us about human happiness and what our Scriptures have been telling us about life all along.
Over the coming months, I’d like to explore these values intentionally, from a Christian perspective, to see what our own tradition has to say about them, and how they interact with the values of the Gospel. I think this will be an interesting project, as the VIA character strengths represent a more comprehensive and intentional list of the ‘good fruit’ that we might bear than what Paul provided us, and I believe our spiritual lives will only be enhanced by broadening the focus of what holiness and true wellbeing might look like.