Theological Core Exercises

How attending to our theological center helps us remember who we are.
Theological Core Exercises
Image: Joel Kimmel

For nine years now, I have been watching my mother’s identity slowly fade as memories and capacities switch off, one after another, like lights of a house shutting down for the night. Marriage may be a school of sanctification, as Luther said, but caring for aging parents is its grad school, especially when he or she lives with you and suffers from dementia.

It’s been said that as we become older, we become caricatures of ourselves. Dementia speeds the process. It’s easy to see why: With loss of executive cognitive functioning, we’re less prone to monitor what we say and do. We begin to fly on auto-pilot, re-tracing again and again well-trod paths.

What lies under the many layers of skin we accumulate over the years, the social masks we have carefully constructed? What lies under my mother’s happy face? (“I’m fine,” she’d say, even after a fall). I recently discovered the answer.

Years into the dementia, she lost her last line of defense and began to voice her inmost thoughts aloud. “Father, don’t let me fall” accompanied her every shuffling step behind her walker. Initially I thought this terribly sad—clearly, she wasn’t fine but anxious—yet I eventually found it comforting. The Bible depicts life as a walk: Shouldn’t we all be praying to the Lord to help us avoid missteps? Though she had forgotten former friends and neighbors, and large swaths of her own life, she remembered the fatherhood of God.

I wonder, what will be left of me, or the last thing I remember? I’m pretty sure it won’t be my college GPA, my CV, or the amount in my IRA. When the rough edges have worn off, what essential traits would be magnified? Such questions got me thinking about my deepest identity and what I might do to improve the integrity of my core while I still have time.

Exercising Our Core

Core strength training is all the rage in exercise circles these days. The core is the inmost part of something (think apples). Our English term derives from the Latin cor and French coeur, which mean “heart.” In the context of physical fitness, the core is the foundation of bodily movements.

Almost all of our basic upper and lower bodily movements—bending, lifting, sitting, standing, etc.—depend on muscles related to the core. The core supports and stabilizes the spine and directs power to the arms and legs. Sedentary lifestyles make for inactive cores, and weak cores make performing everyday tasks harder and may lead to injury.

Throughout the United States, there are gyms and fitness centers ready to help you improve your core. Core training focuses on four areas: strength, mobility, flexibility, and stability. Each of these plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s overall health and ability to function.

As a Christian theologian, I don’t identify my body as my core. My concern is with my soul core, what Scripture calls the heart, the inmost self that addresses God as “Father.” Can we strengthen this core? Are there exercises for that?

Think of one’s inner being as the foundation of everyday worshiping movements basic to being a creature made in God’s image. Our soul core supports and stabilizes our heart and is what enables us to speak and act to the glory of God. Paul prays that our “inner being” may be strengthened with power through the Spirit of God (Eph. 3:16).

I am not the first to think of exercises to strengthen our inner being and identity. Ignatius of Loyola’s 16th-century classic Spiritual Exercises is probably the most important forerunner. Ignatius writes: “We call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and . . . of seeking and finding the will of God.”

Ignatius’ exercises are part of the core curriculum for training Jesuit priests, but it would be a mistake to think that core training is for clergy only. The same could be said of Helmut Thielicke’s 20th-century A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Every Christian is an amateur theologian insofar as following Jesus Christ has to do with knowing God.

If I speak of theological rather than spiritual core exercises, it’s because Christian spirituality involves more than the human spirit, mindfulness, religious experience, or sense of a generic sacred. Rather, Christian spirituality refers to the Christian life as caught up in the life of the triune God. Theological core exercises concern what we do to participate in what Father, Son, and Spirit are doing in, with, and through us to make us more like Christ.

Core training typically focuses on physical stability, strength, and flexibility. Each plays a key role in the body’s mobility. Similarly, theological core training focuses on three analogous aspects of our spiritual core—the cognitive, volitional, and relational—each a response to a prior word of God.

Trinitarian Core Exercises

Core stability: cognitive exercises

Corresponding to the body’s stability are certain beliefs that support our sense of self. Paul cautions against teaching or holding “a different doctrine” that “does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3, ESV). “Sound” connotes being free from disease (a sound mind), firmly established (sound construction), and orthodox (sound doctrine).

Image: Joel Kimmel

One way to answer the question “Who am I?” is to say what you firmly believe. It is surely significant that many churches recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed on a weekly basis, for these articulate our deepest Christian convictions. And speaking of stability, Paul calls the church “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). It’s also worth noting that reciting the creeds is a valuable Trinitarian exercise.

However, while core doctrine is central to our core identity, it cannot be the whole story: “Even the demons believe” (James 2:19). There is a danger, particularly for theologians, of mistaking what we know intellectually about God for knowing God. Descartes so valued our cognitive capacity that he declared, “I think, therefore I am.” German theologian Helmut Thielicke helpfully (and uncomfortably) reminds us that “conceptual experience” is no substitute for genuine faith.

I’m a Reformed theologian, but I hope that at my core there is more than Calvinism. While it’s important to work on theological core stability, we have to make sure not to overdo this cognitive muscle. If we do, we may contract what Thielicke calls “the theologian’s disease,” namely, the temptation to define ourselves by what we believe—and proudly look down on those who believe differently. The cure for this disease involves another kind of exercise: humility. “I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Rom. 12:3).

Core strength: volitional exercises

At the heart of the Ignatian spiritual exercises is an emphasis on becoming the kind of person who will choose rightly. To a great extent, who we are is less a function of our beliefs and abilities than of the decisions we make. This may be why so many people are searching for their core identity: There are so many choices in our consumerist culture.

Image: Joel Kimmel

Considered theologically, however, there is only one thing to decide: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). The Psalms and Proverbs present life as a series of decisions to walk either the way of wisdom, which leads to life, or foolishness, which leads to death. Our choices define and eventually refine us. Am I the kind of person who opts for the false gods of money, sex, celebrity, power, and so on, or do I choose to obey the one true God?

Wisdom is not a one-time choice. We strengthen our core by making the choice to serve the Lord again and again and again. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”

Unlike other forms of power, willpower often involves choosing not to do certain things. Paul regularly exhorts his readers to exercise self-control (1 Cor. 7:5; Gal. 5:23; 2 Tim. 1:7), and many spiritual disciplines involve forms of abstinence and self-denial. Our core most resembles Jesus when we steadfastly decide “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Core flexibility: relational exercises

To this point, I’ve been talking about what individuals can do to improve their spiritual cores. But what if my core involves more than my individuality? There is an important difference between being a solitary individual—one member of a class—and being a person.

Image: Joel Kimmel

Christians believe that God is one in three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit are each God, yet each is who he is only in relationship to the other two persons. Similarly, human persons are who they are by virtue of their relationships: At my core, I am the son of my mother, a father to my children, and a husband to my wife. Most importantly, I am a child of God—“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).

To be in relationship involves core flexibility, being stretched beyond my individual self. Grace is God stretching me beyond not only my comfort zone but beyond my ability to stretch myself. That I can receive grace and be transformed by it means that my core transcends my natural limits.

Proverbial wisdom says, “You will know them by the company they keep,” and the Bible explains why: “Walk with the wise and become wise” (Prov. 13:20). It follows that who I am is as much if not more a function of my loves (i.e., my core relationships) as my capacities, as James K. A. Smith argues in his book You Are What You Love. I improve my core flexibility by making time to deepen the most critical relationship in my life, with God.

We know ourselves most truly when, like the apostle Paul, we see ourselves as men and women “in Christ.” Followers of Christ keep company with Christ as they seek to live out his life through their own. To be in Christ is to behold his glory, with unveiled face, a beholding that eventually results in “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). This includes learning to desire the kinds of things Jesus desires, in particular, to do the will of the Father (Matt. 6:10; John 4:34; 6:38).

At the core of every Christian should be a loving and faithful relationship with the Father in the Son through the Spirit. Relationships take time, and a relationship with God requires regular quiet time, which is why solitude and silence are among the chief spiritual disciplines. Is there a word for this kind of relationship? There is: “friend of God” (James 2:23). Augustine would say “lover of God,” since he believed we are best known by our loves.

“I Sing, Therefore I Am”

I’ve suggested that our core identity involves core beliefs (believing God’s Word), core choices (obeying God’s Word), and core relationships (indwelling God’s Word). The best way to strengthen our core is to attend diligently to the convictions, choices, and relationships that define us, all of which involve attending and responding to the Word of God.

Recent brain studies have shown that our memory of and capacity for music is one of the last things persons with dementia forget. Perhaps that is because music is cognitive, affective, and physical at once, involving our minds, emotions, and bodies. In any case, and with apologies to Walt Whitman, I sincerely hope that at the end of the day I’ll be able to do more than sing of myself.

What I do remember are some of the hymns my mother used to sing. One in particular stands out in light of her recent condition, Civilla Martin’s 1905 “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” whose refrain goes like this: “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, / For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” I like to think that these words continue to define my mother at her core, for even if there comes a time when she can no longer recall the song or its message, she remains in relationship with God, as one of the sparrows on whom he keeps his caring eye.

There are other hymns that express the Christian’s cognitive, volitional, and relational core. For example, Karl Barth suggested “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.” Barth rightly understands that it is God’s Word that defines me and determines my core. There is core value in memorizing hymns, particularly those based on Scripture.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed the question of his core identity toward the end of his life with a poem, composed in prison, entitled “Who Am I?” Am I who others say I am, he wonders, or what I know of myself (i.e., weak and needy)? Am I one person today and another tomorrow? The answer comes at the end:

“Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

Who am I? When memories fade and muscles atrophy, I hope my last breaths will sing these lines: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below.” It may then be out of tune, and so, in the end, be a caricature, but it will still be a doxology. There is no better theological exercise for improving your core identity than praising God.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His forthcoming book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, releases next spring from Lexham Press.

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