Temporal Spirituality

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (of the ’71 Stanford Prison Experiment) has some pretty crazy ideas, but I think he’s on to something with his talk at TED 2009 (6:34). He suggests that the way we cope with temptation (and eventually our overall success in life) is tightly linked to a personal trait that we don’t give much thought to: Time-perspective. Every time we make a decision, we are balancing the influences of our past, present and future.

Zimbardo presents six time-perspective factors. He proposes that the ability to switch time perspectives on-the-fly based on your situation is key to success, and suggests that the following ‘profile’ is optimal (slightly modified to show all six factors):

High Positive Past
Moderately High Goal-Oriented Future or
Transcendental Future
Moderate Hedonistic Present
Low Negative Past
Low Fatalistic Present

Where hedonism here means feeling freedom to live as we choose, as opposed to feeling locked in by circumstances.

Too much of one perspective is always bad, and they lead to pretty clear stereotypes – the workaholic has too much goal-oriented future, while the average teenager focuses far too much on hedonistic present. One of my favorite films, The Lion King, is all about changing time perspectives: Simba moves from having an overabundance of positive future to hedonistic present to negative past, and finally to a balance of the three.

I’d like to propose that this principle shows up in the teachings of Jesus. In the gospels, we find that He uses all of these perspectives in his teaching, and applies them as instructions for the kingdom life. In fact, I easily found the four positive perspectives within the sermon on the mount. (By the way, I love the title and tagline of this blog – very appropriate!)

Positive Past
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus talks about what role the past should play in our decisions.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Hedonistic” Present
This powerful statement from Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34 appears to value Zimbardo’s hedonistic present over both the fatalistic present and the goal-oriented future.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Goal-Oriented Future
In this brief parable from Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus acknowledges that there is some wisdom in making positive decisions for our future life on earth.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Transcendental Future
In this instruction from Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus clearly rates transcendental future thinking (eternal perspective) above goal-oriented future thinking (earthly perspective).

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So I think Jesus’ optimal time-perspective profile is a little different than Zimbardo’s. It might look more like this:

Most Important: Transcendental Future
: Hedonistic Present
: Positive Past
: Goal-Oriented Future
: Negative Past
Least Important: Fatalistic Present

And then, I think Paul’s list would be different from Jesus’. I just think it’s fascinating to find yet another way to look at scripture.

Obviously this kind of categorization can be spun to say anything we want, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth thinking about. Tomorrow, when you spill your coffee or decide who to sit next to at lunch, when your coworkers are a pain or you’re not sure whether to watch a movie or read a book, think about how your time-orientation is affecting your decision. You might be surprised.

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