Tag Archives: death

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

Lovesick Reflections

In 10 hours I get to see Alicia after 10 weeks and one day of being apart.  At first, reverting to bachelorhood was a party.  I ate meat, played board games, got lazy about recycling, and drank beer.  Actually, I drank more herbal iced tea than beer, but the point is that I did very manly things.  But after the first month I began to experience severe symptoms of what I suppose would be best diagnosed as lovesickness.  My best friend, my lover, was far away.  But as the day approaches weariness has given way to  excitement, or to be more accurate, excitement has been added to weariness.  Last night I was so jazzed to see her I could not sleep, not a wink, and as I lay there in the dark thoughts crashed over me, eventually overwhelming my heart with a profound sense of blessing.  I got up determined to share these thoughts with you.  (So please pardon any sleepy verbosity you might encounter.  I am writing in a sleep-deprived stupor.)

A good friend of mine, Ben Walker, had to bury his mother recently.  It got me thinking about death and bereavement.  Comparing my bereavement to his is about as ridiculous as comparing a pinch to losing a leg, but it has nonetheless provided helpful perspective.  Because it is a perspective constantly eroded by the grind of our daily banality, it must be reestablished from time to time and for me it happened last night.

Obviously, losing a loved one or being separated from them is only excruciating because we care.  A very easy solution would be to never love anyone, care for anything, or enjoy anyone.  If we did that, if such coldness was possible, the day your father died would be just another breezy summer day.  But for humans, you and me, we grieve, we wail, we cry, we ache, and all of it heaves deep within our chests and stomachs.  Frankly, I find this response  to loss very encouraging.

Loss is only capable of causing pain when we have something good to lose.  Loss reveals what we have been enjoying this whole time.  It allows us to see how those we lose are enormously precious to us.  This morning this idea overpowered my brain until I felt nearly unbearable levels of gratefulness as I ached to see my wife.

Loss helps us in another way.  It gives us insight into other relationships.  Loved ones do not magically become important to us because they die or go to Rwanda.  If so, living loved ones and nearby loved ones, are likely similarly connected to us.  Imagine a farmer who goes out to the field to check his carrots.  He can’t see the carrots underground, so he pulls one up, roots and all, and then has a pretty good guess about the state of his other carrots.  Bereavement pulls up one of our carrots, and that process sucks, but it also provides an opportunity to see the likely depth of other relationships.  We should not waste it.

Those of you who have read Therefore Joy already know that one of my big mantras is that humans universally possess an embarrassingly pathetic understanding of the enormity of good in the world and in our lives.  We do well when we widen that understanding and share our insights with each other.  The widening thought that hit me in the face this morning, not for the first time and hopefully not for the last, is pretty simple: I enjoy this girl so much that just the prospect of being reunited with her makes me too excited to sleep.  These roots run deep.

Alicia will die on me someday, or I will die on her, and one of us will see the roots pulled out, and it will be awful.  But until then, I want the presence of mind to see and appreciate our deep love and enjoyment of each other.  I want to treasure her affectionately before I lose her.  My hunch is that it will make the good times even better.

In other news, my goal this summer was to finish sending Therefore Joy in to publishers by the time Alicia got back and I did it!  I feel 10 pounds lighter.