So far in this series on practices and behaviours we can use to grow in faith, we’ve explored two ways of engaging transcendence (through ‘spiritual’ experiences and beauty), two ways of expanding the mind (through dialectical epistemology and value metabolism), and ways of bringing what is hidden into our awareness (especially through dream work and shadow work). Now we turn to what we do with our bodies. Today I’d like to look at an old friend of an idea that Steve McIntosh has given the lofty name of “perfecting the universe,” but which we as Christians know as “bearing good fruit,” and which might also simply call, doing good in the world.
McIntosh talks about practicing goodness as follows:
[W]e are here to serve as agents of evolution and that our role in the cosmic economy is to help perfect the universe of self, culture, and nature through the experience and creation of beauty, truth, goodness, and love. And this ‘practice of perfecting’ can be undertaken wherever conditions can be improved — wherever positive potentials remain unactualized and wherever good can be done, we can use our minds and bodies to make things better. And through this practice, our good works on behalf of others and ourselves — our fruits of the spirit — in turn become the rungs of the ladder of our own ascent.” (The Presence of the Infinite, 72)
While McIntosh frames it within evolutionary language that may make us a little uncomfortable (I for one am reticent to use the language of evolution in this sense of ‘ascent‘ since evolution is not about getting better and better, but about becoming better suited to survival in one’s environment, which is not the same thing, as our current crises of ecology and climate demonstrate!), what he’s saying has deep roots, certainly in Western philosophy, but also in Christian theology. There is for example, an ancient strand of Christian anthropology (i.e., the understanding of what it means to be human) that says that humanity is uniquely created as a microcosm of the universe, bringing together in our fragile selves the material, animal, and temporal on the one hand and the spiritual, heavenly, and eternal on the other. As we live into this vocation, we will, more and more unite our personal and collective behaviours with the heavenly values of God’s Kingdom.
As it happens, this is similar to the language that Ken Wilber and some of his fellow integralists use in their book Integral Life Practice. When it comes to ethical living, they identify the four quadrants of the Integral framework as representing personal beliefs and intentions (upper left), personal behaviour (upper right), community and cultural ethics (lower left), and laws (lower right). Good living in their model, involves uniting our actions and behaviours (and as communities, our laws and social structures) with our beliefs, values, and intentions. We might simply call this approach to life ‘walking the talk’. The more we are able to see and integrate from our spiritual experiences, cognitive development, and shadow work, the more we work we will see needs to be done in terms of reforming our behaviours, laws, and systems. They note that this not only benefits the world around us in a ‘selfless’ sense, but is also what is ultimately best for us individually as well:
Living ethically simultaneously benefits both you and everyone in your life. It enables you to live most happily, to bless others freely, and to minimize the inevitable unhappy entanglements that tend to accrue from unethically engaging the complications of life. You find yourself living in a field of goodwill, which is great for those who come into contact with you and also a very smart move. Ethical behaviour supports an intelligent, happy, fulfilled, productive, successful life. Ethics is not only how we can express our care and compassion for others — its’ also a way to simplify our life and maintain a clear conscience. It’s how we live with integrity …. (269)
In traditional Christian language, we call this bearing the fruit of the Spirit. I have spent a lot of time on this theme on this blog, so I won’t rehash it here. I will remind you, however, that when Jesus spoke about how we can discern truth from error, he pointed not to the Law or Scripture or tradition, or even good theology, but to the bearing of good fruit: We know something is good and true if it positively impacts the world around us. If we have life in us, we will act in life-giving ways to others. This is the way of grace.
We may be right to smirk at Steve McKintosh’s over-the-top language of ‘perfecting the universe,’ but as lofty as it may be, it does helpfully hit at just how important our actions are in the world. It isn’t enough just to have spiritual experiences or a broadened mind; good intentions are of no use if they are not matched by good actions.
My series on Bearing Good Fruit is full of practical ideas for how we can incorporate more of these characteristics and habits in our lives, so I recommend you check that out. But here are a few more suggestions:
- In any situation, ask yourself: What one small thing can I do right now to make this better?
- Commit to doing five small things for other people every day.
- Find a trusted charity and donate of your time and money as you are able.
- Revisit the suggestions from the value metabolism post.