Tag Archives: dualism

Against Mere Spirituality

"Hiding the light from the dark” Robert Bainbridge http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14646794
“Hiding the light from the dark”
Robert Bainbridge
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14646794
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.

When God Came Home

IMG_7992Seven Christmases ago I lay in a hospital bed, wondering if I would ever get to go home. Typhoid, brucellosis, and a host of companion infections had racked my body for months, reducing my frame to skin and bones and my consciousness to an unsteady state. The long battle with illness had finally landed me (literally) in an American hospital bed, transported on a stretcher through more ambulances and diagnostic labs, foreign ICUs and international flights than my semi-conscious brain could keep track of. Gazing out the sterile hospital window into the lonely darkness, I wanted nothing more than to be home.

But where was my home?

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere
Psalm 84:1-2,10

The borrowed space where my children were being tucked into bed without me there to kiss them goodnight? The flat back in South Asia where our pictures hung on the wall and our smell lingered in the rooms? Or was the home I was longing for really in heaven with God?

For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life… We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:4-8

Under the circumstances, that last option seemed better than usual. And my theological assumptions nudged me towards it. After all, wasn’t this earth just a temporary stopping place, this life just a preparation period for the life to come? Other than the grief it would cause my loved ones, what still tied me to my earthly home? In my experience, it was a place of pain and sickness and suffering, one that I wouldn’t mind escaping in order to move on to my true heavenly home.

But Christmas challenges my dualist assumptions. Christ’s entry into our world makes me stop and question the low value I have placed on it. If the only place that is really important to God is heaven, then why would He go to such lengths to make His home on earth? The longer I ponder Christ’s incarnation, the more I am compelled to ask:

Where is God’s home?

The incarnation was God’s fullness
coming home to earth.

As I trace the story of God’s presence on earth, I begin to see that He has always maintained a bit of home here. In the beginning He dwelt with Adam and Eve in a hilltop garden. In the exodus He resided in a glory cloud, ever perched above the tabernacle. In the temple He sat at the top of Jerusalem’s mountain, enthroned between heavenly cherubim with the earth-ark footstool just below.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:10, 14

But in the incarnation, God fully came home to earth. He stopped hovering above it and finally pitched His tent within it. He wrapped Himself in human flesh, an earthy, portable tabernacle, and used it to walk around in our dirty streets.

Contrary to my former assumptions, He didn’t do so merely to rescue souls out of the earth. He used His physical body to touch other bodies, to fix physical problems, to make physical food. These were not merely proofs of divine, existential power, they were also manifestations of God’s value on His physical creation. Jesus came to keep house, to perform some much-needed maintenance on God’s beloved earthly home.

Our bodies are the dwelling place of God,
His fleshy, portable temples.

The final nail in my dualist coffin comes when I ponder what Jesus did with His earthly body after He was done with it. Far from discarding it as a piece of used-up clothing that had outlived its purpose, He took it with Him, a piece of earth now resident in heaven, awaiting reunification with the rest of its redeemed kind.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk 2:14

So where is God’s home now? Yes, it is in heaven where Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father while everything in heaven and on earth is being put under His feet. But His home is also on earth, where the Spirit has been poured out into the physical bodies of His people. We are the dwelling place of God, His fleshy, portable temples. And He has sent us out into the whole earth, filling this physical space with His presence until eventually every inch of it is saturated with His glory.

I love the house where you live, O LORD, the place where your glory dwells.
One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
Psalm 26:8; 27:4-6

I’m glad I didn’t die that Christmas. I’m glad I got to stick around and enjoy the delights of God’s house here on earth. Now as I run through sunlit forests and walk through people filled-streets, I relish the beauty of His dwelling place. I savor the sweetness of His house, decorated according to His unique taste and filled with His “mini-me’s”. Yes, the suffering and pain are still present here. And yes, I still long for heaven’s rest. But for now, I get to be part of God’s cosmic DIY project.

This earth is my home because God lives here, too.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
…as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my (home).

Fleshy Theology

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
What’s the point of having a body?

As a college student, I remember finding my body an inconvenient obstruction to being in all the places I wanted to be at the same time. I had a hard time accepting that it wouldn’t allow me to work through the hours of the night and then stay awake in class the next day. Somehow physical limitations didn’t register as a valid reason to lower my ambitions. After all, wasn’t my body simply a temporary vehicle for my soul?

Years of motherhood, physical challenges, and the inevitable experience of aging have forced me to listen to my body (at least with one ear). But only recently have I encountered a compelling argument for why I should value it.

Sitting in an N.T. Wright lecture a few weeks ago, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective (no pun intended) on the physical realm. Far from being the messed-up, spiritually devoid location where our souls are temporarily housed as they await their true home in heaven, Tom Wright challenged me to think of the earth and everything in it as an integral, ongoing part of God’s redemptive plan. The imagery of a delighted God walking through His garden in Eden and the promise of new creation have sparked my imagination to see how infused this physical earth is with the presence of God. What’s more, taking seriously the fact that God manifested His glorious image in fleshy, human bodies has caused me to reconsider my former assumptions about the significance of my own body.

Is it merely a temporary shelter to be minimally maintained? Is it a side-point to my spirituality, a distracting, limiting necessity along my journey to Christ-likeness, or is it, in fact, an integral part of my being re-created in and conformed to His image?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ…
Colossians 1:15; 2:9–10

I suppose the starting point in answering these questions is to consider the significance of Christ’s body. It was the dwelling place of God, the physical space where God’s Spirit was located. But more than that, it was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

I admit I have to take a moment to let that sink in. I am accustomed to conceptualizing this in a spiritual sense but missing its physical reality. But if I have no trouble believing that God really was born of a woman and took a fleshly form, why do I get hung up on thinking of Jesus as a physical replica of God? Perhaps this is where I get caught with my dualist, Neoplatonic slip showing. Has my Western worldview really kept me from appreciating the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay…We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6–10

And yet there it is. Not only is Christ’s body a physical manifestation of God’s image—mine is too! My body is a visible representation of God, the eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, touching, seeing image of its Creator. But more than that, it has become a sacred space in which His Spirit lives. The eyes that I would prefer to be bluer and the wrinkles that are setting in despite my best effort are part of a face that is being transformed to look more and more like His.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

True, the image I see in the mirror is a far cry from the Original. Ugly expressions, dark circles, and sagging cells betray the fact that this face has been cursed. But there is hope! My body is going through the same process that Jesus’ body did. I can see its weakness, decay and eventual death setting in, but at the same time I experience a renewing force bringing light to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I treasure the fact that my mortal body is the place where Jesus’ life is being currently revealed. Better than that, I look forward to the day when this very body will be raised up from the dead, a new improved version of the same old me.

Our faces are being transformed to look more and more like His.

It may sound silly, but I think that is the beginnings of a theology of beauty, a little extra motivation to care for my body and make it as true an image of its glorious Lord as is possible this side of the new creation.

Godly makeup. Fleshy theology.