The Idea of Man in the Beatitudes: A Positive Psychological Reading

March 12, 2018 Author: Dr. Rajeev Michael OCD, Clinical Psychologist 0 Comments

The Beatitudes encapsulate the idea of man envisaged in the Gospel, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Within the Judeo-Christian context of the text, the Beatitudes draw the image of Man primarily as a theological perspective, delineating what a human person can become favored by the grace of God. However, the richness of the text allows for parallel readings.  Postmodern readings challenge absolutism and credit relative relevance of perspectives. This article attempts a psychological reading within the frameworks of the positive psychological perspective.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with a shock. The eight statements of ‘Blessed’-ness (makarioi) contradicted familiar talk. Jesus was drawing attention to the fact that here was something new and different. The audience should shed the familiar worldview if they wished to grasp the new idea of man and embrace the goodnews of the Kingdom. The eight statements are embedded by the phrase “theirs is the kingdom” at the beginning and in the end. This poetic device of inclusion suggests that the whole section is about people who are deemed as rightful citizens of the Kingdom. In other words, the eight beatitudes are the traits of the new humanity, of the true disciple of the Kingdom. Though Jesus does not explain each of the eight statements, the rest of the Gospel, especially the Sermon elaborates on the meaning of the beatitudes and is completed by its enactment in the Paschal events. Hearing Pilate’s “ecce homo” we are drawn to gaze on the face of Jesus, the man who became ‘poor’ (kenosis) – mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, persecuted for righteousness, and making peace between heaven and earth. Beatitudes are drawn over the image of the Son who became poor for our sake though he was rich, who shed divinity and embraced humanity.

Without prejudice to the theological view of man envisaged in the beatitudes, the remaining part of this article will explore the scope of attempting a psychological reading of the concept of man in the beatitudes and manifested in the person of Christ.

‘Makarioi’ has been translated as ‘blessed’, ‘fortunate’, ‘well-off’ and ‘happy’. Thus, beatitudes can be viewed as the eight-fold path towards Christian-spiritual wellbeing and happiness. The study of wellbeing according to Miller (1969) is the raison d’etre of psychology as a science. World Health Organization’s oft-quoted 1948 definition of health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing …” (WHO, 1948) has often been a reminder of what was neglected in research and practice in psychology in the post world war scenario. For instance, there was an almost exclusive preoccupation with remedying illness, life’s setbacks, etc., and a neglect of promotion of wellbeing (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

The emergence of Positive Psychology (PP) movement in the 1990s came with a promise of recovering attention on wellbeing. The focus on study of wellbeing as well as its promotion came to stay as a major feature of this movement. Positive experiences and positive traits were the main foci of the positive psychological literature of the early decades. This included exploration of what constitutes happiness (or positive emotions), wellbeing, and good life on the one hand and developing of a complete list of character strengths on the other. The ‘broaden and build theory’ of positive emotions by Frederickson (2004) and the ‘architecture of happiness’ according to Lyubomirsky (2005) were significant contributions to the study of wellbeing and happiness. On the other side, the positive traits were explored by researchers like Donald Clifton, the father of strength-based psychology and Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. The latter came up with the popular system of 24 character strengths classified under the umbrella of 6 virtues, viz., wisdom & knowledge, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence.

The almost exclusive focus on positive experiences and positive traits was severely criticized by the second wave PP researchers (PP 2.0) such as Wong (2011) and Lomas and Ivtzan (2015). They argued for a more inclusive and integrative approach in which the dark side of life also was made sense of and deemed relevant for understanding wellbeing. The second wave researchers ventured into studies on difficult experiences such as terminal illness, loss, and death and examined the factors that contribute not only to flourishing when life flowed smoothly, but also the resiliency-factors that manifested in face of life’s pain and struggles. The study of positive experiences (PP 1.0) was termed as hedonic-emotional wellbeing (Diener, 1984) and the more recent focus on positive functioning which incorporated a dialectical view of positive and negative experiences (PP 2.0) has been called the eudaimonic-psychological wellbeing (Ryff, 1989) (The term ‘eudaimonia’, coined by Aristotle, refers a life flourishing on virtues).

Not all the beatitudes are about negative experiences. Meekness, purity of heart, mercifulness, and peace-making are positive traits.  These can be understood based on the strength-based approach in positive psychology (PP 1.0) wherein character strengths are linked to wellbeing and happiness. The second wave of positive psychology (PP 2.0) lends useful theoretical framework for understanding the other beatitudes, where wellbeing is presented in the context of negative experiences such poverty, mourning, hunger, and unjust suffering.

One common thread that binds the beatitudes is the positive psychological construct of resiliency. Resilience means the capacity to quickly recover from difficulties, to bounce back to balance from stressful experiences. Beatitudes are not about giving blessings and solutions, but about building resilience for living life’s reality. The positive traits in the beatitudes are aspects of resilience while the negative experiences are contexts for building resilience.

The first beatitude about blessedness of the poor in spirit introduces the concept of resilience. We can understand the blessedness of poverty in spirit by contrasting it with the anxiety of losing something one has. Most worries are about losing something. Some people get caught in the vicious cycle of craving for something until possessing it and then constantly worrying about losing the possession. The possession may be things or people or one’s own status or achievements. These negative emotional states are contrasted by the blessedness of equanimity which is freedom from this vicious cycle. Equanimity is a character strength which is acquired through the practice of mindfulness. The equanimous person learns not to cling to something if he/she likes it, nor to be averse to something because he/she does not like it. Equanimity is about learning to accept the reality as it is, whether it is the reality about oneself or other people or the environment. One way of doing this is by submitting the reality to God. Take the example of the widow who gave her two copper coins back to God. She then feels the freedom of not having anything to hold on to. Having entrusted to God her little wealth, she is now in an unenviable position of complete trust in God, like the ‘anawim’ of the Old Testament. Thus the first beatitude presents a way to overcome the woes of worries by building the character strength of equanimity and trust in God.

Spiritual anxieties are even harder. Some people experience the anxiety of having to please God or fearing about displeasing him. Others worry about being rejected or abandoned by God. Trust and freedom goes hand in hand. The more a child trusts in the mother, the more the child ventures out away from her. The blessedness of trust in God is manifested in the freedom to venture out. The ‘dark night’ is a form of anxiety about being left alone by God. In contrast to this anxiety, those who have developed spiritual resiliency would say like the psalmist “the Lord is my Shepherd, nothing shall I want” even while walking on the valley of the shadow of death. St John of the Cross used the ‘nata’ (nothing) mantra to emphasize the need for single-minded focus on God’s glory. Seeking nothing means worrying about nothing. Budha’s path of ‘dhamma’ also was about seeking nothing, having pure detachment from ‘sankharas’ (in Pali), or the consequences of actions, which is acquired through the practice of mindfulness (vipassana). Contemporary psychology, especially the PP extensively utilizes training in mindfulness to foster emotional health.

The second beatitude addresses suffering without specifying a context. Suffering as such is not a blessing. But the context of suffering (what for), the approach/attitude to suffering, and the outcome of suffering can make it a source of strength and contribute to personal growth in some people. The Cross of Christ is a powerful symbol of meaning in suffering. Finding meaning in suffering is very much a Christian value and as much a subject of interest for the second wave PP researchers.

 Research on people with terminal illness and other traumatic conditions have found that the initial phase of shock and denial is followed by anger, bargaining and the question of ‘why me’, before being able to arrive at the phase of acceptance. Pals and McAdams (2004) who studied narratives of people in traumatic conditions found that acknowledging and integrating one’s distress was necessary for the recovery process. Denial of distress prevents recovery. It is common wisdom that crying helps in coming to terms with distress. Questions about the meaning of life and of suffering are likely to arise when one goes through a traumatic experience. While dealing with the difficulties caused by the trauma, there is the need to resolve the question about why it occurred (“to me”) and whether life continued to make sense. According to Park (2010) the efforts to deal with distress is likely to lead to a process of meaning-making, which would help in acceptance and recovery.

 However, in some people the process of recovery from trauma not only reaches a phase of acceptance, but moves further towards personal growth and perception of positive changes/benefits linked to the trauma itself. This phenomenon, termed as ‘posttraumatic growth’ has been reported in the context of difficult life experiences including traumatic illness conditions like cancer, HIV, chronic renal failure, spinal cord injury, dealing with painful loss including death of loved ones, recovering from natural calamities, etc. According to Calhoun and Tedeschi (2014), posttraumatic growth is characterized by changes in perception about self, changes in one’s relations with others, and changes in one’s philosophy of life. The domains in which posttraumatic growth manifests are personal strength, appreciation of life, relating to others, new possibilities, and spiritual growth. In an unpublished study that I conducted at a medical college with spinal cord injury patients whom I met and interviewed over a period of 6 months, four out of ten participants reported indicators of posttraumatic growth. For example, a young Hindu female participant, who used to be a dancer and dance teacher by profession said that her spinal cord injury had made her a much more strong and confident person. Four years after her traumatic injury, with persistent hard work, she was able to dance again sitting in her wheel-chair. She said: “I used to be a dancing star, but now I’m a challenging star”.

There are two beatitudes about the struggle for a cause: about those who hunger and thirst for justice and those persecuted for righteousness. One of the findings of PP research is that psychological (eudaimonic) wellbeing is determined by what contributes to long-term happiness. Having an ice-cream or watching a movie gives short-term pleasure (hedonic wellbeing). On the other hand, sustained happiness or eudaimonic wellbeing is contributed by things like having a purpose in life, pursuing a meaningful life-goal that is focused beyond oneself, or engaging in activities that make a difference for society. In other words, enduring happiness and wellbeing can be facilitated by helping people identify sustaining purpose in life with a focus outside self. That is why positive youth development (PYD) programs often involve initiatives by youth for social justice or community needs. One of the ill-effects of our system of education is that it generates excessive competition and focus on self and one’s own achievement. It is important to help especially young people learn to look beyond themselves and get involved with a passion for social causes/problems. In a study of Indian youth which I conducted (Michael & Mehrotra, 2015) the social issues/causes that college youth picked as relevant for action were: corruption, violence against women, waste management, social discrimination, sustainable environment, education, poverty, mental health, and prevention of addition. It was also found that three fourth of Indian youth did not consider themselves to be cognitively or actively engaged for any social cause. Jesus was a man for others in his life and in his death. He called his disciples to be fishers for people, or labourers of the Kingdom. Embracing the path of Christ would mean hunger and persecution, yet that would also mean enduring happiness and wellbeing.

One of the focus of the first wave PP research was to identify a comprehensive list of character strengths, similar to the traditional psychology’s efforts to identify a complete list of people’s character traits/qualities to define human personality. According to Martin Seligman, a maximum of seven (out of 24) character strengths shape what each of us can become at our best. Discovering one’s strengths (from a given list) and applying these strengths in day-to-day life will contribute to personal growth. Each of the beatitudes is linked to one or other strengths of character. However, three beatitudes stand out for the importance of the character strengths or personal qualities for defining the idea of man in the Gospel: meekness, mercifulness, and peace-making.

Meekness is not same as weakness. Jesus was meek like the silent lamb before the shearers. But the reference is not about lamb’s powerlessness but complete cooperation. He would not resist after offering to accept the Father’s will. Yet, when the servant of high priest slapped him, Jesus asked him to justify the action or admit the fault. ‘Gentleness’ is sometimes used as an alternative for ‘meekness’.  The gentle Jesus who sat down and wrote on the ground neither cowed before the demanding crowd nor made the woman feel bowed down with guilt. Gentleness is in not making someone feel small before you, nor allowing yourself to be made small before someone. Jesus did not condemn the sinner. On the other hand, when Pilate tried to question Jesus, it seemed as if Pilate was being questioned and was losing ground. An apt word to describe meekness in psychological jargon would be ‘assertiveness’. However, assertiveness does not come automatically. It needs to be trained/cultivated. Only those who have learned to regulate their egoistic needs, picked up emotion regulation skills, and capable of objective view of people and situations, can actually talk and act assertively. And these are rare breed and they will inherit the earth.

Mercy as a character strength does not require elaboration here since we have just ended an year-long reflections on the mercy. Jesus is mercy made flesh. His incarnation was his way of empathic love for us. He took our flesh, smelt our air, tread our soil, shed our tears and ate our feasts. Mercy is the outcome of this empathic shift of perspective, God learning our phenomenological reality by living a human life like ours. The moment you keep aside your view point and try to make sense of the other person’s point of view, he/she turns around to try and understand your view point. That is why those who are truly merciful, will receive mercy. Just like meekness, mercy is also not same as weakness. The citizen of the Kingdom is merciful to all yet relentlessly fight for justice. Just like meekness (assertiveness), mercy also requires that one is first able to regulate one’s emotions and egoistic needs. For this reason, spiritual masters taught that compassion resulted from practice of mindfulness. Those who have mastered emotion regulation skills will then be capable of arbitrating peace between people in conflict.  Because only those who have won over their emotions can take objective stand on issues, work for justice and fairness, bring peace rather than create conflict, not take sides but include all, and move and help move beyond narrow confines.

The beatitudes concern both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of man. The first beatitude was primarily about the vertical aspect, about man’s trust and surrender to God who provides. Purity of heart brings in another important aspect of the verticality – man’s preparedness to contact God. God experience is a gift and is received through grace. Yet, spiritual masters teach us also about the need to be prepared for it. ‘Purity of heart’ summarizes this preparedness. Something is pure when it is uncontaminated. Water is pure when it is clear. Purity of heart refers to singleness of intention (like that of Mary of Magdala). It is about simplicity and clarity of mind. In a story, two servants went to plough on the field. One was so diligent and wanted to work maximum that he worked without resting. The other sat down to rest on regular intervals. In the evening when the master came, the second servant had finished more portions of work. What was his secret? While he rested, he was sharpening his plough. Attention is the human instrument that mediates experience of divine presence. As St Elizabeth of the Blessed Trinity said, the question is not whether God is present to you, for that is assured, but whether you are present to God. Eye is the lamp of the body. The more one is attentive, the more the divine becomes present to you/ in you. Practice of mindfulness sharpens attention and fosters pure detachment and single-minded focus. Those who neglect the psychological methods to sharpen attention, such as mindfulness or other forms of meditation/awareness skills, do not have reason to complaint if their prayer life stagnates.

To summarize, the idea of man in the beatitudes seen through the framework of positive psychology is that of one who has overcome anxieties through unrelenting trust in God, is resilient and finds meaning in suffering, is willing to take on hardships for the cause of the Kingdom, has cultivated meekness and empathy, has mastery over one’s emotions, and so mediates peace for others, and finally keeps sharpening attentiveness to the divine self-manifestation always and in all forms.


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Author: Dr. Rajeev Michael OCD, Clinical Psychologist