Positive Theology Will Change the World

This post is adapted from some work I have been doing for grad school.  Forgive the boring academic “I-want-to-end-my-life-by-inhaling-my-neck” tone.  To ease my readers, I will embed two inane insults directed at Thomas Jefferson.

Positive psychology is now spawning positive sociology, and is likely to produce other serial fields as well.  Currently I am imagining about 20 or so academic disciplines focusing on strengths and human flourishing, one of which is positive theology.  (Naturally, I have an interest in that.  I am trying to publish a manuscript entitled Therefore Joy: A Positive Theology for the Next Generation).  In the following few paragraphs, I synthesize a representative handful of positive psychology research for a religious context, specifically in regards to death reflection, meditation, and ritual, and then discuss a possible definition of positive theology.

Death Reflection

The work of Frias and colleagues (2011), indicates that reflecting on death can help increase gratitude in individuals, unless you are a lisping loser like Thomas Jefferson.  By fully grasping the transience of life, by being exposed to death, the reality of your own death or those around you, one can better appreciate life, prioritize, and find an enormous upwelling of gratefulness.  Unfortunately, modern America bifurcates like it’s nobody’s business.  Kids go to school, parents go to work, old people go to nursing homes, and dead people go to cemeteries.  But religion can serve to connect some of these groups, especially the not living ones.

Ruins of Irish church and cemetery.

Traditionally, cemeteries ringed churches which descendants likely attended.  On a weekly basis, churchgoers were reminded as they passed the gravestones of dead family members, of the fleeting nature of life.  Also, belief in the afterlife is important to many faiths, not only the Christian faith but also Islam and other traditions, and can lead to more reflection on death.  Within the walls of the churches themselves, many faith communities still ask practitioners to contemplate the death of others and their own impending deaths on a regular basis and act in light of those reflections.  While it is tempting for the American church to follow society’s example and also compartmentalize death and ignore it, religion has an opportunity to be one of the last major social arenas in modern society where death can be discussed, considered, and reflected on at length.

In light of this, one intervention that I have thought about doing, not in a religious context specifically, but for highly mobile individuals like myself, is having a portable family cemetery.  Specifically, I would create a chest to house the ashes of my ancestors that are not Thomas Jefferson.  Accompanying each small urn would be a picture, a short personality description and bio, and a record of their relationship to others.  In this way, death could be incorporated into the living-room of the highly-mobile.  A portable cemetery would also help individuals locate themselves as part of a collective that not only extends to those living, but also to those dead, and those that will come after, even old men not yet born—a theme I commonly rant about.

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez, 1632


Fredrickson and colleagues (2008) used Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) to increase overall well-being.  The mechanism put forth was that LKM increased positive affect, which increased the ratio of positive to negative emotions, which built emotional resources, which in turn increased positivity, which finally increased well-being.  While there seems to be a well demonstrated self-reinforcing dynamic inherent in positive emotions, all that we know from this study is that meditation seemed to cause increased well-being.

The Dalai Lama

Meditation has religious roots.  In fact, without religion, today we might not have the concept of meditation.  Numerous strains of the five major world religions include meditation.  However, many strains do not practice meditation, and, of those who practice, many forms of meditation are not obviously similar to LKM.  Obviously, we need to know what it was about LKM that made it successful.  If we can isolate the necessary ingredients, we can look at what religious meditations are “proven” aids for human flourishing and encourage emphasize on those practices within respective religions.


One of those aspects was explored by Anastasi and Newberg (2008), in a study that linked ritual relatively devoid of theological content to reduced anxiety.  This indicates that at least one “active ingredient” of meditation might be its function as ritual.  In LKM, individuals position themselves in seated or standing positions and focus their attention on breath, and then on positive feelings they have towards people that they love, and finally they are asked to expand those feelings towards a widening circle of others.  Each session is similar.  Therefore, perhaps the most powerful aspect to LKM is the ritualistic component.  Regardless, there has been a tendency in many churches in America to move away from ritualism (high-church, formal, liturgical services) and towards Pentecostalism (low-church, informal, “spirit-led” services), though obviously the two are not exclusionary.  Religious practitioners might be interested in the important function that ritual plays and could reinvigorate ritualistic elements in various ways.  The opportunities for religious rituals are endless and need not be expanded here.

Child lighting Menorah

Another important ritual

Definitely on my personal top 10 rituals of all time.

In conclusion, I think it is important to highlight two points.  First, as of 2010, religious people comprise over 88% of the world’s population (CIA World Factbook).  Religion will continue to be a powerful force for generations to come; it is arguably the world’s most influential institution.  Secondly, there is wonderful and surprising plasticity in religion.  How shall we practice?  What words shall we pray?  What beliefs shall we focus on? There exists a range of answers that fall well within the parameters of religious doctrine.  Therefore, for those religions that prefer human flourishing, why not choose those aspects of religion most conducive to human flourishing?  Finding those aspects and making those connections is the task of positive theology.  Intervention studies like those mentioned here can inform religious practice without compromising the integrity of what religious people believe.  Death reflection, meditation, and ritual are just a handful of many aspects of religious practice that may be worth highlighting.

It makes me wonder: perhaps it is through religion that positive psychology will change the world.

Pope Benedict XVI


Anastasi, M. W., & Newberg, A. B. (2008). A preliminary study of the acute effects of religious ritual on anxiety. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 14(2), 163-165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/acm.2007.0675

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,95(5), 1045-1062. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013262

Frias, A., Watkins, P. C., Webber, A. C., & Froh, J. J. (2011). Death and gratitude: Death reflection enhances gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 154-162.

The World Factbook.  Central Intelligence Agency.  Retrieved at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

9 responses to “Positive Theology Will Change the World

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  • Cary Clifton

    I’m sorry Jer. I have been wanting to post a response to your blog on Pos Psy for a while, but as you know, a lot of stuff gets in the way. So, thanks for your patience.

    Death: I find the study you cite a bit confusing as to the reflection of death increasing gratefulness in people. It seems to me that the vast impression from my own experience, the experience of the people I knew, and the exposure to society, both Western and Chinese, is that exposure to death and reflection on death more likely breeds fear. There is a reason why we in the USA sanitize and compartmentalize the death (of someone else) experience thru hospitals, morgues, funeral homes and cemeteries, and it not because of gratefulness. On this, Chinese society is even worse, even to be upbraided over saying “see you again” (zia jian) while in the elevator of a hospital, as tho I were cursing a person to see him again in the hospital.

    The Bible agrees with this assessment when it says, “(Christ will) deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb.2:15)

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding the study and need more information about what the study was about.

    However, I agree completely that religion is the strongest arena in society where death can be discussed and reflected on. The dilemma is that the data offered by these religions differs radically, and people have the sense to know that they all can’t be right—not just about the small stuff.

    I like your idea of a portable family cemetery, but not because of the reason you would like me to. I like the idea because it offers a great focal point to honor the generations before me. It gives a place in the home, and can be a launching point for stories about the people the urns represent, and thus the lives of my fathers and mothers are remembered and honored. It brings my story into the continual story of my generations and puts it in context. I like that.

    As a focal point to reflect on death, not so much.

    Meditation: I totally agree that the physical act of meditation can bring increased health and mental well-being—just by slowing down and becoming quiet. However, I personally feel that some forms can actually be dangerous. However, for a follower of Christ, having their focus on Him as they mediate is great stuff and should be advocated in every church! And meditation on their love for others also sounds good.

    Ritual: I think that tradition and ritual in themselves are not bad and can be used effectively as teaching tools and as conduits of meaning, expressions of one’s heart. That is why a number of young people have moved to more high church expressions, because they find that, explained properly, the rituals aid in meaningful and significant worship.
    The problem is that rituals have not been typically explained that way, and they often become a restrictive gateway (do this ritual or don’t come), and the ritual becomes devoid of meaning and substance.
    Instead of placticity, what I see is hardening—people with rituals place less on the significance behind it and more on the act, and these things seem to get more inviolate day by day in the religions that use rituals significantly.

    Bottom line: I think that more can be done to explore the question—how does a believer in Christ live wisely? We teach wisdom with money, and with time, and with relationships; perhaps we can also with our minds, how to cooperate with how God has made our minds so that we are not fighting against ourselves. In that role, positive psych has a lot to offer, and can indeed inform the things we do (or not do).

    However, the statement “through religion positive psychology will change the world” is quite the hyperbole. Christianity, at its core, is not about people feeling good in this life. It just isn’t. At its core is a historical event—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The implications of this event are huge—as to what man’s problem is, who God is, and the point of our lives. And the basic requirement of a disciple—to deny himself, pick up his cross and follow—mitigates against making flourishing the point. I would say that man flourishing is what God wants, but His idea of what is “true flourishing” and how to achieve it is not ours, for His eye is looking at a much bigger picture for us. He will bring the flourishing, but in His time and on His terms. Pos Psy might help make us wiser in this. But it can’t be the core. The core runs much deeper and His horizon spans the ages.

    So, let me ask you a question, so I can avoid misunderstanding your import. Are you advocating that religions refocus their core on the elements that make people flourish? Are you saying that the main issues, I mean the big deep-down core issues, that plague mankind can be addressed with positive psych?

    • Jer Clifton

      On death, they find that reflection on death tends to allow one to treat life as a precious resource. As for how death reflection creates fear, I don’t know. I would guess it forces you to face the fact that you will die, which allows you to mentally process it instead of it purring in the back of your mind. I’m glad you like my portable cemetery chest! Should we start one!

      I agree on ritual, except that religions with rituals are still very plastic. And rituals can be changed. Also, I think all forms of religion have them. We certainly have them (passover traditions, etc.).

      Positive psychology can change the world through religion without religion changing very much at all. My points is that religions can incorporate positive psychology without changing it’s core. But it can still be the mechanism through which positive psych does most of the good that it does. The question is, will religion let it?

    • Jer Clifton

      did you read eric’s remarks? they had some similar concerns.

  • Benstah

    Nothing really important to say here except that it is pretty fitting that I was listening to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” (not to be confused with Mr. Rogers’ autobiography, “A Life of Pure Lust”) while reading this post. Also, re: your previous post about overthinking stuff, I definitely fall into the overthinking trap a lot, and do tend to find that music or audiovisual distractions work well for me. Also, taking the dog for a walk. Somehow, being responsible for an animal, especially one that is bred to be annoyingly positive and energetic all the time, has a good way of breaking the funk (not in the George Clinton sense of that phrase). Also, Thomas Jefferson is sniveling, toffee-nosed butt-weasel.

    • Jer Clifton

      hear hear! (on crapping on Jefferson).

      Actually, taking care of an animal is a positive intervention that I believe some people have studied. I’m not sure if it varies across pet types though (cats, dogs, etc.) But some of the happiest cultures in the world tend to own dogs: apparently it combats loneliness, and also injects more exercise in your day, and it is something that exhibits unconditional affection towards you. So keep it up!

  • a dude

    Hey, I’m writing a letter to PlanetMoney about you, and I might try to name drop Emily Olstrum how could I work that in?   Also, whats Alicia blood sugar levels like?


    • Jer Clifton

      Are your writing about the front yard and front facade contest? If so, totally tie in Ostrom by saying that it was a community intervention based on her commons theory principles.

      Alicia’s blood sugar has never been better. The doughnuts are helping.

      btw, really really like your long comment. will reply soon. just busy at the moment.

  • Whit

    Just when I think we’re getting along so well you go and do something like this.
    You wrote a while back when you first breached the topic: “What is the role of the church when science has a more reliable record of pointing people towards well-being?” Well the role of the church, my friend, is to remind us to go fuck our well-being. Consider it shit, consider it loss. Consider it all rubbish so as to have a shot at gaining more. Pain, failure, loneliness and injustice these are not the challenges of our age, they’re the symptoms of an ancient, deep and magical blight, and the church has not interest in getting into the market of anesthetics, rather it pushes it all back in our faces as emotionally palpable reminders to look up, momentous of the scares etched into our savors wrists. It’s brokenness and atrophy that reminds mankind that our towers will not reach heaven- our joy are ruins, beautiful yes, but haunting reminders of the world as it was meant to be.
    Your blunder is so classic you might as well have started a land war in Asia- placing man at the center of religion. With sincere slight of hand you’ve cut and pasted all the parts of liturgy you find socially palatable while paying no mind to the fact that you’ve scuttled the ship. Positive psych is nothing but a gimmick if it is not used as a companion exercise to faith and worship. Without truth is not all happiness forgery? Can mirth or well-being without gospel be anything but a counterfeit lover, a beguiling transient mistress for our lovesick souls? Every laugh, all smiles are crumbs- rumors of a feast; sumptuous at times yes, but let’s not try to be satisfied with them, let’s find our way to the banquet table. Only in doctrine can happiness protocols become regal rite, anointed and holy. Between happiness and dogma I say give me that orthodoxy, give me theology, philosophy and creeds and the rest will unfuck itself; these things will guild me to that great hall, setting me on a path shaded in your joyful leaves and in pursuit of that crafty wizard crouching just behind it all – the forger of neurons, brewmaster of enzymes, neurotransmitters, and fermenter of my hormones from the cauldrons of an ancient star.
    Or maybe I read way too much into this post, but maybe I didn’t, and I do not know how to use – punctuation! this wine is also tasty, you should hop on skype, because I’m just saying that I’m totally sure many major religious leaders may agree with you, but so too will fringe sects, cults, and minor league militias.

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