Against Mere Spirituality

"Hiding the light from the dark” Robert Bainbridge
“Hiding the light from the dark”
Robert Bainbridge
Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Prayer.

Sunday morning’s sermon should have resonated with my Spiritual Formation soul. After all, this is the subject I teach. Henri Nouwen, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux: they were all there, their famous quotes beautifully interwoven into the tapestry of the message. And yet the longer I listened, the more disturbed my spirit became within me. Something was seriously missing.

And then I realized: it was God.

That seemed so preposterous that I went back to listening, searching for Him between the fibers of the sermon. How can we talk about spirituality without the Spirit? But sadly this isn’t the first time I have encountered the puzzle of isolationist spirituality.

Spirituality itself has been a missing component in much of modern thought. Our dualistic splitting of body and spirit, natural and supernatural, and even secular and sacred have forced us to chose which we will focus on at any given time.

Rather than resist this philosophic intrusion, the church has capitulated to it, allowing our sphere of influence to be relegated to the realm of the spiritual. Full stop. We sing. We pray. We exhort. We encourage. But at the end of the service, the only thing we carry away is a soul that has been strengthened to hold on for another week as it waits to be evacuated to heaven, hopefully taking a few others along with it.

Our relegation of the physical sphere, however, has resulted in a spiritually bankrupt society, governed by a secularism that leaves no oxygen for the soul. And a new generation of spiritually starved souls has gone looking to end their hunger.

So why aren’t they finding God?

Because we left Him behind at church and in our prayer closets, safely tucked away in His tidy box where He won’t threaten our economic interests, our time restrictions, our professional interactions, or our safe, convenient lifestyles.

But that sort of split-spirituality won’t cut it. And our indictment is found in the words postmoderns use to describe what they are searching for:

Authentic. Radical. Embodied. Real.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. … And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Romans 8:9-11

If those words described our spirituality, then wouldn’t they find God among us? If we were actively integrating our faith into our physical lives, embodying Christ in our care for all of creation (spiritual, social, physical, and global), then wouldn’t those seekers flock to us?

Instead they have been left to create their own form of spirituality, one which lacks the Spirit we claim to be full of. And so we get messages like the one I heard Sunday morning. Though it held out an appeal to pursue the “dangerous, radical adventure of a spiritual life,” it made no waves in a university chapel setting which was oriented for people “of all faiths or no faith at all,” because at bottom it didn’t challenge a secular paradigm. It didn’t call people to God; it only called them to leave behind the noise of the world and to get in touch with their deeper, truer selves.

And this is where I see a shocking similarity between secular spirituality, eastern spirituality, and much of historic Christian spirituality. It is predicated on the pursuit of our own spirits, of seeking to transcend the physical realm that we assume holds us back from the full realization of who were are as spiritual beings. So saints and mystics, monks and disciples of all stripe and religion end up pursuing the same path.

Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Prayer.

All of these are disciplines which I advocate in my classes as core to the Christian life, but always with the understanding of their purpose. These are practices that nurture the communion between God’s Spirit and ours, building a bond between us that forms the basis for all the rest of life. But true spirituality always erupts in transformed living.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. …in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:19-23

God’s Spirit is too penetrating to stay locked in a monastic cell, too powerful to remain safely contained in our hearts. He moves through every layer of our being, bringing it in conformity to His glorious image. And He manifests Himself through our physical bodies, working radical redemption in the world around us as we use them to tend His global garden.

Mere spirituality calls us in to our private selves.

Real spirituality calls us out into the public mess.

8 thoughts on “Against Mere Spirituality”

  1. Do you mean I might have to share the hurt of others, and maybe even find out that I’m wrong in some places, to get any more of Jesus than I’ve got? I dunno Tiffany, that’s asking an awful lot.

    1. I’m laughing and groaning at the same time, because your point is all too true. As I wrote this I couldn’t help but think how Evangelicals and Catholics, liberals and conservatives all head in the direction of isolationist spirituality. I suppose it’s human. But none of us are beyond hope of change. May God use our feeble efforts at spirituality to lead us into a dynamic, transformative relationship with Him.

      1. I’ve found some resources on the “isolationist spirituality” matter. Just yesterday I was skimming T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, as I had to return it to the library. I’ve put an excerpt at the end of my comment [1]. The idea is that we have become more isolated as persons, engaging in less and less community. I wonder if this is because we believe that, to use an idea from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, our ‘private goods’ conflict with others’ ‘private goods’. What if who I am is simply in fundamental opposition to the other person? Then we have to restrict our interactions to a surface level of peace. Go too deeply, and there be dragons.

        I have also come across evidence of isolation in Chap Clark’s Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (update: Hurt 2.0) as well as Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. In my own observation of culture, I see a lot of judgment by appearances, which are just awesome at squashing people’ true identities, distorting them to fit the current molds of society. The molds of society executed Jesus.

        A while ago, theologian Roger Olson wrote two blog posts: What’s New in Theology? (Some Musings about Novelty–Or Not) and So What’s Left for Theology to Do? Some Musings about Theology’s Future. On the second, I asked whether there was more theology to do on the Body of Christ. Olson responded with the suggestion that I read Emil Brunner’s The Misunderstanding of the Church. Therein, I found [2], which blew me away. Do we even want the Holy Spirit around? What he threatens to do is bring unity, which means that my rough edges are going to bump into yours, and we might get boo-boos as a result. Are we too scared of this? Perhaps we don’t believe there will be anything left after the bumping?

        Ok I should stop here. I could go on for quite a while about this issue!

        [1] When God Talks Back

            And then there is what one might call the attenuation of the American relationship. A great deal of sociological data suggests that the American experience of relationship is thinner and weaker than in the middle of our last century. Robert Putnam’s massive analysis of the decline of civic engagement in the United States argues powerfully that American citizens have become increasingly disconnected from friends, family, and neighbors through both formal and informal structures. Union membership has declined since the 1950s. PTA membership has plummeted. Fewer people vote in presidential elections (except in the South). And with data collected since 1975, one can see that people have friends to dinner less often (and they go out with them no more often). Time diary studies suggest that informal socializing has declined markedly. Between 1976 and 1997, family vacations (with children between eight and seventeen) nosedived as a family practice, as did “just siting and talking” together as a family. Event eh “family dinner” is noticeably in decline. Putnam uses this data to argue that social capital is on the wane in late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century America. It also suggests, however, that Americans citizens might feel more lonely. They are certainly more isolated. More Americans live alone now than ever before: 25 percent of them do, compared to 8 percent in 1940 and none in our so-called ancestral environment, when we roamed as hunter-gatherer bands on the open savannah and no one slept alone.[54]
            These social changes have facilitated the modern faith practices that build an intensely intimate relationship with God. Our strange new absorbing media probably make us more comfortable with intense absorption experiences. (324)

        [2] The Misunderstanding of the Church

        In any event we ought to face the New Testament witness with sufficient candour to admit that in this “pneuma”, which the Ecclesia was conscious of possessing, there lie forces of an extra-rational kind which are mostly lacking among us Christians of to-day.[1] (48)

        For theo-logy has to do with the Logos and therefore is only qualified to deal with matters which are in some way logical, not with the dynamic in its a-logical characteristics. Therefore the Holy Ghost has always been more or less the stepchild of theology and the dynamism of the Spirit a bugbear for theologians; on the other hand, theology through its unconscious intellectualism has often proved a significant restrictive influence, stifling the operations of the Holy Ghost, or at least their full creative manifestation. But we shall never rightly understand the essential being of the New Testament Ecclesia if we do not take fully into account these paralogical revelations of the Spirit. (48–49)

      2. Yes, Tiffany, that we might all be truly spiritual as the sons and daughters of God IN HIS Son, our Divine Pattern, and learn to only do those works we see our Father doing and speak the words we hear Him saying. THIS is where we will find His supply even for the most wounded and obtuse people and circumstances He puts us with and in. And as Susan said, “AMEN!”

      3. I’ll join my voice to yours in asking Him to increase in us all so that we can and do reflect our Father. I like how you put the burden of effort back on the Spirit of Jesus working in us to accomplish this. It’s a tricky tension to hold on to, running hard after righteousness while at the same time trusting God to produce it in us. And you’re right: the ultimate proof of His success is when we can respond with grace to overwhelming circumstances and love to prickly people.

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