This is a continuation of http://institute.wycliffecollege.ca/?p=112
The first part of this article was about in-house distinctions of spirituality: what are the different branches of the Christian tree, if you like. In this second part, I want to think about—well, I guess the opposite of in-house is out-house—what distinguishes Christian spirituality, this Christian tree (whichever of the five types we’re taking about) from other forms of spirituality?
Before we get to that, a couple of things by way of introduction:
1. You have probably noticed that the word spirituality is used in our culture as though it is just one thing, the same the world over. But in fact this is not the case. Different religions and traditions actually have different definitions of what it means to be spiritual, and indeed of the idea of spirit. This is one reason the word is notoriously difficult to define!
Some time ago, my friend Faun Harriman drew my attention to an article in Chateleine magazine (that well-known authority on spirituality) which was quoting researchers at the U of T, who defined spirituality as “the beliefs we hold concerning our place in the universe and our connection to a higher power. Spirituality (they say) reduces stress, promotes healthy lifestyle choices and increases a sense of belonging.”
Is that right? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Are those characteristics of Christians? Does Christian spirituality have to do with knowing our place in the universe? Yes, I suppose that’s part of it. Does it have to do with connection to a higher power? Sure, though it makes a big difference whether the name of your higher power is Jesus Christ or The Force of Star Wars!
Does it reduce stress and promote healthy lifestyle choices? Well, that depends. Faun commented that spirituality “didn’t exactly boost Jesus’ longevity.” Did it reduce his stress when he set his face to go to the cross? Was it a healthy lifestyle choice to oppose the Pharisees? What did the families of his disciples say when they went home and said the master had called them to take up their crosses and follow him? “Wow, that’s great. What a healthy lifestyle choice you are making! That’ll really increase your sense of belonging.” Probably not.
Those researchers are not describing Christian spirituality. They’re not making allowances for the diversities of spiritualities in our world.
If there could be a common definition, it would have to be a very minimal one, something like, “those things that connect a person to a bigger reality than the material.” As soon as we move beyond that, we start getting into differences.
2. The second thing is this: how many of us were using the word spirituality twenty years ago? Probably only one or two of us. So why has it become almost universal in recent years, as in the phrase, “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not . . . religious”? There are at least a couple of reasons to do with changes in our culture:
(a) One change is that people have come to realise that there is more to the world than simply the material. We have realised that there are other parts of us, which for convenience we call our spirits, that also need tending and nurturing. It seems to me that that in itself is a good thing.
But the other reason it’s gained in popularity I don’t find so encouraging:
(b) In western countries thirty years ago, if we wanted to take care of our spirits, where would you go? We would probably have checked out some churches. But now we don’t want to do that, because we are “spiritual but not . . . religious.”
What’s the problem? Why do we make that distinction? I suspect that too is to do with changes in society in general. Church is too restrictive. After all, most churches/synagogues/temples/ mosques tend to have definite ideas about spirituality, and people now are more inclined to want to do their own thing, not accept someone else’s ideas. You’ve heard the kind of statement: “Nobody can tell me what to believe; nobody can tell me how to behave; I’ll decide what’s right and wrong for me.” It’s not rocket science to realise that that kind of attitude is hardly likely to drive people into the arms of organised religion (can you imagine someone saying, “I’m creating my own spirituality, so I’m thinking of becoming an Anglican”?). (It has to be said, however, that those who talk about organised religion obviously don’t have much experience of the average parish council.)
So the concern with spirituality actually comes out of the individualism of our world, it comes out of the idea that spiritual stuff is private and personal, and that if it’s for real it’s unlikely to have anything to do with an institution. (As someone pointed out recently, in our world, formal has come to signal hypocritical, while informal has come to mean genuine and authentic.)
These things should alert us to the fact that what Christian tradition has to say about spirituality may sound quite different, and not necessarily appealing to the average person who is “exploring their spirituality.”
One more thing: you know, don’t you, that the world divides into those who divide things into two categories and those who don’t? I do, so it won’t surprise you to know there are two ways of thinking about Christian belief and practice.
One is that it is like a tightrope—narrow and straight, and if you step even slightly to left or right, you’ll fall off. I know Christians who regard their spirituality that way, and maybe you do too. That’s not at all what I’m trying to do here: to define a tightrope for you.
The other way of thinking about it is that Christian belief and practice are like a field with a fence around it. It’s a big field, it’s a beautiful field, and there’s lots of space in the field for Colin and Astrid and Eddie and Chris and Samantha to run and jump and dance and explore and pick flowers. But the fence is there to say, This is the territory marked out for us by God: there are dangers outside.
So what I’m going to do is list some of what I would say are the fence posts that define the field of Christian spirituality.
Fence post 1: Christian spirituality centres around a relationship with God.
Now, you may ask, isn’t this stating the obvious? No, because this is not true for all spiritualities. Others might say the goal is to be one with the universe. (You know what the Buddhist said to the hotdog vendor? “Make me one with everything.” Buddhists tell that joke, so I think it’s OK.) Others might say the goal of my spirituality is self-fulfilment.
For someone like Shirley Maclaine, it is something else again:
I am God, you are God. God is not something or someone separate from the world or from me. . . . If one says audibly ‘I am God’ the sound vibrations literally align the energies of the body to a higher atunement. You can use – ‘I am God’ or ‘I am that I am’ as Christ often did . . . Each soul is its own God. You must never worship anyone or anything other than self. For YOU are God. To love self is to love God. (Dancing in the Light)
Now it’s her right and privilege to believe whatever she likes. But as a simple observation of fact, her understanding of God and hence her spirituality is not one shared by Jews, Christians or Muslims And all the streams of Christian faith we looked at in Part I say the same: God is in some mysterious sense has a quality we can only call personhood, and God is a “person” who is other than us.
C.S.Lewis describes a young woman whose parents were very concerned that she should not think of God as a person: as a result, when she was asked as an adult what her picture of God was, she replied, God is like an infinitely-extended tapioca pudding. No, as Christians understand God, it’s not like that. Think of the opening scene of the movie Contact, where the camera moves out from the earth, back and back and back, into the infinite vastness of the universe. The Christian claim is that behind all that, through it, in it, above it, is a vast, mysterious, wonderful, awesome Being who loves me and invites me into a face-to-face, I-Thou relationship.
And when we speak of the Incarnation, God being revealed in our world, it is as a person that God is known.
Suppose that Bill Watterson, the cartoonist who created Calvin and Hobbes, wants to communicate with his creations, Calvin and Hobbes. So he creates a new cartoon character, and draws him into the strip. His name is Bill Watterson. In character, he is very like the “real-life” Bill Watterson, but, of course, he exists in two dimensions, and he communicates through speech-bubbles. In the strip, this character shows what the “real” Bill Watterson is like: his ideas, his values, his attitude towards his creation are all consistent with those of the cartoonist. Thus Calvin and Hobbes can know their creator in a way that’s real authentic but of course it’s limited. They are faced with the possibility of a relationship with their Creator.
But this whole idea of incarnation only works because we believe God has this quality we can only inadequately describe as personhood.
Sometimes, you know, we may take it for granted, and talk flippantly about “my relationship with God”, or (to quote the movie Dogma) my “buddy Jesus” but actually it is radical and overwhelming thing to claim what Christians claim.
So this is our first fencepost: for followers of Jesus, the heart of our spiritual life is nothing more not less than to know God, this God, and to be known by this God. This is primary: everything else is secondary.
Here’s fencepost #2: Christian spirituality is not a do-it-yourself faith.
This too goes against the spirit of our age. We tend to say things like, “Do whatever feels good”; “Find whatever works for you”; “My beliefs are true for me but it doesn’t mean they’re true for you”; “Nobody can tell you what to believe.”
And so much current interest in spirituality takes a kind of mix and match approach: a bit of Buddhist meditation, a bit of Gregorian chant, and a weekly Catholic mass. In other words, take whatever practices you want from wherever you find them, and put them together in whatever way works for you (though what it means to say a spirituality “works” is not very clear). After all, who’s to tell you you’re wrong?
But in Christian tradition, the way we express the life of the spirit, the way we nurture our spirits, is not in the first place something we work out for ourselves. In this sense, Christianity is not a grass-roots faith: we don’t arrive at it by personal investigation or voting on it to find a consensus: it’s a top-down faith–by which (trust me) I don’t mean through bishops and synods particularly, but from God. Christian spirituality is, or at least claims to be, a gift from God, and our job is to receive it with gratitude. Now this is not to say there’s no freedom or diversity in Christian spirituality. Of course not—that’s what I wrote about in Part I.
This blend of a form given by God (on the one hand) and yet freedom that is up to us (on the other hand) is explained I think brilliantly by New Testament scholar Tom Wright. He suggests the Bible lets us in on the story God is writing about the world. (He says it’s a play in five acts. Following Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh in Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, I think it works better with six.)
- In Act 1, God creates an incredibly beautiful world. At the heart of it are human beings who live in a dance of perfect harmony with the Creator, with one another and with the environment.
- In Act 2, things go horribly wrong. Human beings try to play God. They step out of the choreography of God’s dance. They get out of step with one another, and with the environment, and, most importantly, out of step with God.
- In Act 3, God begins to restore his work of art to even more than its original glory by calling one elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, to be the ancestors of a nation through whom this restoration will come.
- In Act 4, God writes himself into the script of human life, to model for us what human life should really look like, to die for our sins and to rise again.
- Act 5 is the period between Jesus’ return to heaven and his return; and:
- Act 6 is the end of our world, when Jesus returns and restores the world to more than its original beauty.
Now, says Tom Wright, suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s were found today. He suggests that it’s all there except Act 5, which is missing. What could you do about the missing act? He suggests the best thing would be to get together the world’s top Shakespearian actors, tell them to immerse themselves in the play as we have it, and then let them loose on the stage. They would perform acts 1, 2, 3 and 4 as Shakespeare wrote them, but then they would ad lib act 5! All they know is that their characters have to behave in a way that is consistent with the play up to this point, and (if there are six acts) it has to connect convincingly with the events of the final act.
Now, says Tom Wright: that’s where we are. God has given us a framework for our lives, to understand the story as it was before we came on the scene, and as it will be after we are gone. And it’s as though God says to us: This is my story: do you want to be a part of it? This is the way your spirit will come to life and flourish. It will stretch you, there will be adventures you could never have imagined. Sometimes it will be hard, but it will bring you joy. And it will be the right part for you, the part I dreamed for you before time began and for which you were made.
Fence post #3 really follows from this: Christian spirituality affects every aspect of life
Christianity, you know, is a horribly practical religion. Sometimes it would be nice if it were only a matter of candles and incense and prayers. (I think it was Chesterton who said that Judaism was the first religion in the world to link spirituality and ethics: if you follow this religion, you have to act in a certain ethical fashion. When you think about it, there is no obvious reason why you shouldn’t keep your worship life and the rest of your life separate: it depends on the kind of God you worship.) Christianity, the child of Judaism, is the same.
As a result, our spirituality will invade every corner of our lives, from our work lives to our sex lives, from our reading habits to our shopping habits.
And, if we ask why the Creator of the Universe would care about such everyday things, the answer is simple: because God made the whole of life, not just the religious bits of it, and because God loves us and wants us to enjoy life to the full in this amazing world. You know what the greatest privilege is for any human being? It’s to able to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way 24 hours a day. It’s the most beautiful thing in God’s world. It gives God great joy. That’s why it’s so important for our spirituality.
- If you’re an artist, your art will be different because you love God. Not that it will all be realistic paintings of Bible scenes (heaven forbid! those are not necessarily Christian!). But as you paint a landscape (say), it will be with the knowledge that God made that landscape, and that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” If you paint a portrait, it will be with the knowledge that it is the image of God you are representing. And so on.
- If you are a store-keeper, you will be aware that your calling is to be the channel through which God’s material blessings come to those who need them. So you will sell products that honour the creator—that are well-made, that didn’t exploit those who made them, that are beautiful as well as useful—and you will treat your customers not as your source of income, but as amazing creatures who reflect the majesty of their Creator.
- If you are a teacher, you will teach with the consciousness that you are teaching children how to live in God’s world, how to treasure it, steward it, make responsible use of it. And you will treat your students equally because each is in the image of God, and because Christ died for each one.
We could go on, but you get the idea. This is part of spirituality? Absolutely. Because in Christian spirituality, there is no secular/sacred distinction, as Samantha tried to get through to us in Part I. Our spirituality filters into every corner of our lives, and brings light and beauty, meaning and joy.
After that, #4 may seem rather jarring:
Fence post #4 Christian spirituality is tough
Those researchers at U of T seem to have missed this one. But it is crucial. Think of Christians who are killed for their faith—more, we are told, in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen put together—had they made a healthy lifestyle choice to follow Jesus? Yet Jesus made it very clear that anyone wanting to nurture their spirituality in the Christian tradition needs to know that it will mean some costly and uncomfortable choices, if it hasn’t already done so.
You know the sort of thing Jesus says: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, child, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s very self—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
Jesus, frankly, is not a nice person who only wants us to be happy and comfortable, and his spirituality is probably not a kind of spirituality we would choose, left to our own devices: “Hmm, I’ve got some ceremony here, I’ve got some mystery and some meditation. I think what I’m missing is a little suffering, and I guess I’d better be open to the possibility of martyrdom. Sure: why not?”
It’s unlikely we would do that. But if we begin to explore Christian spirituality, we will quite quickly discover that this is inescapable. After all, the cross of Jesus Christ is the central symbol for Christian faith. And we are told that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” so in the crucifixion God has also suffered. C.S.Lewis even wonders whether the act of creation itself may have been a kind of crucifixion for God: “Perhaps there is an anguish, an alienation, a crucifixion involved in the creative act.” (Letters to Malcolm) In other words, difficulty, suffering, hardship are inseparable from the heart of Christian faith.
But let’s notice this too: Jesus is not being a sadist when he says such things, though it can look like that at first sight; in fact, there can be days when it feels like it. No: actually the opposite: he’s being kind. He has understood something very profound about the way God has built the world. Listen again: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-25). Did you get it? God’s ultimate goal is not that we should lose our lives: he wants us to save our lives and he’s telling us the way to do that.
Now, this death and resurrection can happen in any one of a million ways. It’s about ten years now since I decided I was meant to be an evangelist (I’m still embarrassed by the word), and, as you might expect, it wasn’t an easy choice. I was doing good ministry, working with students, directing an area and supervising staff. But then there came a crisis: one of my staff burned out and I felt I was responsible and that I should resign. IVCF kindly said, We don’t want you to resign, but maybe there is a different job you should be doing with IVCF.
Well, as I thought about it, two options came to mind: one was that maybe I could be a teacher of the Bible available to students across the country; the other was to offer myself as an evangelistic speaker for students across the country. I had recently read Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, and as a result I was thinking about the importance of taking risks. That would mean the evangelism option—certainly a road less travelled. Bible teaching would have meant appreciative audiences; evangelism could mean the opposite! And what if it didn’t work out? What would I do with my life then? What if no-one wanted an itinerant evangelist (specially an Anglican one!)? Did I even want to be known as an evangelist? What if no-one became a Christian through my ministry? What if there was opposition to the Gospel? Would there be the financial support to do it? It felt a lot like a choice to “give up my life”.
But it was one of those times when I knew Jesus was saying, “Take up your cross . . . If you give up your life you will find it.” To my amazement, within a couple of months, I had received invitations for the following two years. I was involved in that ministry of evangelism for almost ten years, and I have to tell you I have seldom found such joy in serving God. To my faithless surprise, I found that Jesus was right: when I gave up my life, I found my life.
Well, no two stories are identical, and I don’t know how Jesus has called you to give up your life or where he will call you to give up your life. But this I know: if you are a follower of Jesus, it will happen if it hasn’t happened already. It feels like cruelty, but in fact it’s kindness, and it’s central to Christian spirituality.
The next fence post can also feel like a death.
Fence post #5 Christian spirituality thrives in community
Again, there are many spiritualities which are individual and private. You can just figure it out for yourself, you can practice by yourself. There may be no-one else in the world who shares your spirituality, and that may not be important for you. But Christian spirituality is inescapably corporate.
I suspect for most of us this community thing happens on different levels. For myself, it works like this. My wife Deborah is my closest source of Christian community, with whom I read the Bible and pray and share life every day. But then I also have a prayer partner, a male, with whom I meet every three weeks or so, and we share different kinds of things and pray for one another. I have a men’s Bible study group called “Saturday Stuff for Guys” which meets every other Saturday morning, which I wouldn’t miss for the world because it brings me great encouragement. And then there is the larger, Sunday congregation, some of whom I know and love well, some of whom I hardly know at all, and some of whom (if I’m honest) I find a bit difficult.
But if Christian community feeds our spirituality, it can also be a real pain in the anatomy and very destructive. I bought a second hand car recently, and it turned out that the dealer was a Christian. I asked him what church he attended, and he said, “I’m not involved in church right now. I go to my Promise Keepers group, but that’s it. You know, I’d heard the saying that the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded. Now I know what that means.” And he wouldn’t tell me any more, so I didn’t pry.
If it’s any consolation, it’s never been easy. Even when Jesus hung out with the twelve, more than once they were divided over who was the most important among them. And the reason we have much of the New Testament is because letters had to be written to churches that were divided!
The easiest response to problems in the church, I know, is to say, Oh, I’m going to leave this church and go over to the next one. Eugene Peterson in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant says this is why the Benedictine Order added to the traditional three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience the vow of stability. What does that mean? It means you can’t switch monasteries. Deborah discovered this not long ago, when she happened to be visiting a Benedictine monastery, and learned that not only can monks never leave their monastery, they will sit between the same two people every mealtime of their lives until they die and someone takes their place. (You just hope they have good table manners.)
Does it sound extreme? Maybe, but it’s saying something important. Christian spirituality is not nurtured in a community consisting of all the people we like best in the world. It grows by learning to live and work and worship with all God’s people, the difficult ones as well as the easy going ones, the ones who are like us and the ones who are different from us.
This isn’t just something God dreamed up to make life difficult for us. Rather, it’s God saying, This is how you function best. If you work at this, this is how you reflect who I am. After all, if God is a community of three, and we are in God’s image, then it is only in community that we will grow into the likeness of our Creator.
So . . . five fence posts around the field of Christian spirituality. Christians don’t need to be ashamed of their spirituality or apologise for it or water it down. It makes sense, it’s resilient, and, in spite of the abuses, it has produced the fruit of beautiful lives for two thousand years.
But, you know, I have to confess I don’t really like talking about Christian spirituality. It seems to me one of the good things about political correctness is that we call people what they want to be called. So we don’t call the Inuit Eskimo any more, because that’s not what they call themselves; we don’t call First Nations people Indians any more because it’s inaccurate and it’s not how they think of themselves. (I would like to think that one day this principle will be applied to the Welsh, since Welsh is an Old English word meaning foreigner.)
But what of Christians? Even “Christian” isn’t a word that Christians chose for themselves: it was a label stuck on them by other people. And I for one don’t particularly want to be thought of as an adherent of Christian spirituality! Sounds so dry, doesn’t it?
The way I want to think of myself is the way the first Christians thought of themselves, simply as disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus, students of Jesus. The focus is not on us and our spirituality but on the journey and on him, our Teacher and Friend, our Lord and Guide, the Way, the Truth and the Life.