Sunday, March 10, 2019

Can Evangelical Christians Practice Mindfulness?




Dr. Irene Kraegel is director of the student counseling center at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has 15 years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist, and her current work includes mindfulness training for students at Calvin. Dr. Kraegel shares her experiences and thoughts related to the integration of Christian faith and mindfulness practice at her website, TheMindfulChristian.net.


In this follow-up to an interview about How Christians Can Benefit from Mindfulness Practice, Irene discusses a Christian approach to mindfulness with Catharine Hannay, editor and publisher of MindfulTeachers.org.


Catharine: After our previous interview, we got a comment from a reader who was very upset that you integrate mindfulness with your faith practices. Why do you think some evangelical Christians have such a visceral reaction against mindfulness?

Irene: I think it’s helpful to first acknowledge that many Christians (including those within the evangelical tradition) are quite open to mindfulness, and even eager to integrate it into their lineup of spiritual practices. Despite my frequent writing and speaking regarding the topic of Christian mindfulness, I have experienced no other encounters with Christians who are angry about an integrative approach.

Catharine: That’s an important point. I’ve also found that in my own conversations with Christians, the vast majority have no trouble with mindfulness.

Irene: Having said that, it’s true that some Christians are wary of mindfulness practice. Many of us within the evangelical Christian tradition have been taught a fear-based approach to spirituality. This stems partly from a healthy understanding of evil and sin in the world. 

Most evangelicals are aware that evil is rampant and that there are spiritual forces of darkness in the world. We recognize that we must all work diligently to take in what is good and keep out what is harmful, given that we are always vulnerable to “attack” as we seek to walk rightly with God. We have a deep respect for our Creator that leads us to prioritize worship of God above all else, and we are deeply monotheistic, wary of any hint of other-god worship.

So for some Christians, the idea of sitting in open, unprotected silence can seem dangerous. I have read some write of fear that this posture will open up space for Satan to influence thoughts and actions. I have read others who describe a belief that no practice without explicit prioritization of God and Scripture can be considered as a faithful Christian practice.

Catharine: Can you explain more about why some Christians feel so vulnerable?

IreneFor Christians throughout much of history, religious persecution has been the norm and being vigilant against attack has been necessary for survival. As a result, themes of spiritual attack and protection from evil are prevalent within both Scripture and Christian tradition. We get a glimpse of this in a passage from 1 Peter 5:8-11:

Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Christ-followers are encouraged to be vigilant and wary, never letting down our guard lest we are overtaken by evil. When Scripture passages such as this are given excessive weight, it is possible to forget that God is actually sovereign and all-powerful, and that we are not responsible in our human strength to ward off all evil. 

It is tempting to give ourselves more power in discerning “the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17) than we ascribe to God – a temptation that goes all the way back to the Fall. And part of this temptation is to believe that we are not safe unless we are on high alert – that it is up to us, not God, to keep the world safe.

Anyone under threat will have an activated fight/flight/freeze response, conscious or unconscious, and none of us think particularly clearly in this state. We are more likely to oversimplify information and to move into black and white thinking. We are more likely to resort to “us and them” viewpoints to make our positions more clear and defensible. For evangelical Christians, this can lead us to oversimplify spiritual divisions and remain closed to viewpoints that do not explicitly name Jesus or put Jesus explicitly at the center.

Catharine: Do you think this is just a spiritual division?

Irene: There is also a more psychological and political explanation. Our world has always been divided along lines of culture, race, economics, class, gender, and education. In our current age, a cultural division has emerged between evangelical Christians and liberals. This is not a “real” division, and the lines blur quickly when I peruse my friend group that consists largely of devoted Christians with liberal politics. The evangelical Christians who dominate the news cycle and the cranky online comment sections have no overlap with my in-person Christian life. 

However, there is no question that these cultural divisions do really exist. Most of our reactions to one another are more visceral than rational. So it is not only that some evangelical Christians have visceral reactions to mindfulness – it is also true that some mindfulness practitioners have visceral reactions to evangelical Christians. We are too often reacting to caricatures of one another rather than taking the time to actually know one another’s perspectives.

Catharine: That’s something that really bothers me. The evangelical Christians I know (including beloved members of my own family) don’t fit the stereotypes. I think some mindfulness teachers are reacting to the very small minority of evangelical Christians who’ve threatened lawsuits at public schools. 

I know of several other situations where skeptical Christians have had thoughtful conversations with mindfulness teachers about which practices might or might not be appropriate for them. Do you have any advice for helping evangelical Christians make this type of decision?

Irene: Paying attention to the difference between theology and culture has been helpful for me. Much of mindfulness philosophy is more influenced by eastern culture than western. When western evangelical Christians encounter culturally unfamiliar practices (such as sitting on a cushion, ringing a bell, or stepping out of “doing” into “being” mode), we may sometimes have difficulty distinguishing cultural discomfort from spiritual danger. 

Because so much of one’s communication with God is nonverbal, felt within the soul, it is not always clear when one is receiving a message from God versus simply feeling uncomfortable about something. So when mindfulness evokes strong discomfort, Christians may have a tendency to attribute this to spiritual danger rather than to the discomfort that arises from learning something outside of a cultural comfort zone.

It can also be helpful to differentiate mindfulness from Buddhism. This is not always easy, as many mindfulness practitioners do link their practice to Buddhism – and I would argue that Christians do need to be thoughtful about any mindless blending of Buddhism and Christian faith. 

There is much debate in the modern world about whether Buddhism is a religion, a psychology, or a philosophy. Regardless of which is true, the reality is that Christianity and Buddhism are at odds on some very fundamental questions. 

While there are those who enjoy exploring an integrative approach, and while there is much that Christians and Buddhists can learn from one another, most evangelical Christians will be wary of venerating the teachings of any prominent spiritual leader outside of the faith. (And it should be pointed out that most Buddhists would be wary of venerating the teachings of Jesus, whose claim of being the only path to salvation does not tend to sit well with those outside of the Christian faith.)

Catharine: Thanks so much for sharing your insights. You have an invaluable perspective as a devout evangelical Christian who is also a mindfulness teacher. In addition to your own site, TheMindfulChristian.net, what resources would you recommend to folks who’d like to learn more about Christian approaches to mindfulness?

Irene: Abraham Kuyper famously stated “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This means that we do not need to put up false divisions between the sacred and the secular – God is at work everywhere we look. We have the opportunity to see God in every square inch of creation. In fact, my favorite book about mindfulness – Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World – is written in a completely secular format. And it just happens that the author is an ordained minister, and that the concepts in the book fit seamlessly with my own experience of the Christian faith.

So to approach mindfulness in a Christian way simply means to be aware of God’s presence in the process of attentiveness to the present moment, and to recognize the maker in each element of the present moment. We do not need to add anything else to the practice to make it Christian – we are simply including God in the equation. In this way, mindfulness is an act of worship and communion with God.

Some books related to Christian mindfulness are beginning to emerge – a new one came out last year called Right Here Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness by Amy G. Oden, and I am in the process of writing a book on the topic that will be released in the spring of next year. For Christians who are open to exploring a potential fusion between faith and Buddhism, there are many books on the topic – Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr is a favorite of mine.

There are also many books by modern authors that do not name mindfulness but that explore the beauty of present-moment awareness within a Christian framework. Examples include:
Books such as these open our hearts to the sacredness of the present moment, establishing a mindful attitude as one pathway to God’s presence.

Thank you, Catharine, for sharing these insightful questions! I appreciate your passion for interfaith dialogue as related to mindfulness, and I am honored for this opportunity to be interviewed on your blog again. I am also happy to answer any questions that readers might have as they read through these thoughts. Blessings…


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related posts: 

How Christians Can Benefit from Mindfulness Practice (the original interview with Dr. Irene Kraegel)

What Does the Bible Say About Mindfulness and Compassion? (Q+A with Dr. Kraegel)

How Christians and Buddhists Can Teach Each Other About Mindfulness 

5 Common Misunderstandings About Christians and Mindfulness

Thought-Provoking Videos about Mindfulness and Meditation (including faith-based perspectives)

Metaphors for Mindfulness and Meditation (including faith-based perspectives)