© Christianity Today,

April 2, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 5, Page 66

Modern spirituality begins and ends with the self; Christian spirituality, with the Alpha and the Omega.


I think I first noticed it six years ago. One of my daughters returned home from a school trip to Iowa and remarked that she would never again be embarrassed by our family's custom of giving thanks before meals.

She had been hosted by an academic family whose mother was also the minister of a novel spiritual community. Their family's time of meditation focused on the spiritual value of life-mediating crystals placed upon the mantelpiece over the fireplace.

"And I thought we were weird!" remarked my daughter, then 11 years old.

Attitudes toward the spiritual have changed considerably in the past few decades, away from a "scientific" dismissal of the nonmaterial toward an easy acceptance of all things mysterious. Rudolph Bultmann's long-accepted dictum is no longer self-evident in the climate of today's changing attitudes: "We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medicine and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament."

Bultmann assumed that in the "modern" period, Christians would be making a sacrifice of the intelligence were they to accept the miracles, signs, and wonders in the pages of their founding document: he pleaded that the value of the New Testament message lay elsewhere, and so tried to reformulate Christianity from a specially crafted existentialist perspective.

Bultmann's initial assumption lives on in some quarters, as some polemical writers and thinkers refuse to leave the "modern" paradigm for a more relaxed "postmodernism." An example might be the renowned (or, in some eyes, notorious) John Shelby Spong, erstwhile Episcopal bishop of Newark, who refuses to "sacrifice scholarship and truth to protect the weak and religiously insecure." Spong feels for the plight of "brilliantly educated men and women who find in the church. … a superstition too obvious to be entertained with seriousness."

But Bultmann and even Spong have a curiously old-fashioned ring to them today. For it is clear that, whatever objections to Christianity may be found in our age, fewer and fewer critics harp upon the so-called contradictions between faith and science. An uneasy détente seems to have been forged, as "wholistic" thinking has come into vogue.

In fact, we are no longer surprised to read in medical journals and in more popular magazines about serious experiments on the effect of prayer or the laying on of hands alongside more traditional medicine. In Canada, a few provincial governments approve and fund the use of alternative therapies, including methods directed toward the spirit, in the healing of cancer patients.

Similarly, efficiency is no longer the only concern in the workplace, and seminars or workshops on "spirituality" make constant inroads. Even teachers and federal government officials go "on retreat," rather than "professional development weekends," with their workmates.

In Quebec, these past two years have seen two seemingly contradictory developments, illustrated at my youngest daughter's elementary school. The Quebec government has abolished the distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic boards, renaming them as English and French; but for the first time in her life, my daughter has been offered a religious and moral values program with three options—Protestant, Catholic, and other.

Religious distinctions have seemingly paled in importance on the macro level, as mirrored in the new organization of the school boards, but on the individual school level, those distinctions have been surprisingly reinstated within the curriculum itself.
Riding a new wave
Spirituality, then, is back in fashion, and no doubt partly as a result of what Bultmann feared—a sacrifice of the intellect. Perhaps I have put that too strongly. Yet one is surprised to see so many people riding this new wave, often oblivious to its inconsistencies and without regard for a careful integration with the rest of life.

No doubt Bultmann would have quoted Jesus' parable of the empty house and the demons: they are back in legion. Perhaps the analogy of the hydra or weed is more apt: the modernist perspective, born of Enlightenment rationalism, has been unable to root out the human appetite for the spiritual. Could this be because we are spiritual beings?

Cut off the common plant as it appeared in our culture, and myriad new ones spring up in its place! This is nowhere more evident than in bookshops and on the Internet. Even popular singers tip their hat: "Dear Matthew. … you taught me about spirituality. … "

A sampling of spirituality Web sites to be found on Metacrawler, randomly selected: Spirituality for Today; Women's Spirituality Book List; The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking for Clarity, Balance, and Spiritual Connection; Medical Intuition; Jesuit Spirituality; Native American Spirituality; Transgender Spirituality; Spirit Tools for a New Age (pyramids, wands, daggers, and pendulums—sounds like Harry Potter books!); Spirituality and Health; Spirituality and Living Longer; The Inner Self Magazine: Spirituality as Opposed to Religion; Spirituality in the Workplace; Sex and Spirituality: Frequently Asked Questions; Apply Spiritual Ideas in Practical Ways; Spirituality Book—the Invisible Path to Success; Psychotherapy and Spirituality; The Spiritual Walk of the Labyrinth; and, last but not least, Male Spirituality.

How might we expect Christians to respond to this smorgasbord? It is clear that some have joined the growing trend to forge one's own "spirituality" in an eclectic manner rather than being guided by the wisdom of the Christian tradition alone. This seems to be true even in the relatively "conservative" context of Canada, where almost 90 percent of Canadians typically consider themselves as affiliated with a particular denomination—although they may have little deep experience or knowledge of their own tradition (or even of the Christian faith). Many approach their spiritual journey as artisans working on a bricolage, or a religious version of the song, "Mambo Number Five"—a little bit of gospel language here, a little bit of Celtic wisdom there, a little bit of karma in the sun.

Perhaps that is too flippant. Certainly, Christians are not the only ones with insight into the human spirit, and different human traditions may have wisdom to offer. Yet, if they are to remain faithful to their tradition, Christians should be on guard against a simple drift into the contemporary consumer mindset—represented by Andrew Walker, who declares, "We are no longer swayed by one religion alone. Many kinds are for sale, and compete for our attention. We, the consumers, are completely free."

Likewise, Michael Ingham, Bishop of New Westminster, following the Swiss theosophist F. Schuon, is deeply committed to the evolution of religions and humanity's "emerging God consciousness." This, Ingham believes, will lead "noble spirits" in mysticism beyond both the personal and the propositional to a transcendent point where all faiths meet.

Charitable appreciation, creativity, and spiritual flexibility are required to welcome "a gradual drawing of the circle of knowledge wider and wider," under Ingham's schemata, and in the end, we will see that "historical distinctives. … are of little value" and learn to characterize faith in Jesus more modestly as an authentic path among other equally genuine spiritual roads.
Defining the ephemeral
But what, after, all, is "spirituality"? Most assume that spirituality is fundamentally about us. In her Walking a Sacred Path, Lauren Artress typifies our emptiness in this subjective manner: "We lost our sense of connection to ourselves and to the vast mystery of Creation."

For Artress, spirituality is about regaining a sense of connection to ourselves and to the Creation. Perhaps that is involved, but what about our connection to the Spirit of Truth, the one to whom our spirits are called to respond? How can a truncated spirituality, intent mainly upon finding an inner connection, be said to represent the Christian mind?

Christians proclaim the good news that God himself has visited humankind, dramatically and decisively, in the one who is God-with-us, Jesus the Lord—dying our death, conquering it in the resurrection, and ascending to the Father in a manifestation of triumph and glory. As a result of these particular events, the Holy Spirit has also come to dwell intimately with God's people, working out the reconciliation that has already been accomplished in Christ.

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation is that God has assumed human nature, taking it up into himself so that it may be both healed and glorified: body and soul, we have been visited by our Creator, and we see the location of this mystery in Jesus himself. Our spirit, will, heart, mind, passions, and body (which tend to war against each other), our interpersonal relationships, our relationship with the other parts of creation—all are out of joint. They all find their healing because of the initiative of God.

Further, because human nature has been taken up into God the Son, a new potential for intimate fellowship with God, and the glory that accompanies this, has now been forged.
The link made possible
Adam and Eve walked with God. Fallen humanity, its spirit wounded, lost that ease of communion. Redeemed humanity has been sent the enlivening Spirit, who is himself a promise of the unimaginable intimacy to come when "we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is."

Paul looked forward to the final resurrection, when our very bodies, healed and new, will be completely animated or empowered by the "Spirit" rather than simply by "soul" as they now are (1 Cor. 15:42-49). He explains that while Adam was a "living soul," Jesus Christ, through the resurrection, has provided us with a "life-giving Spirit."

Notice that this is not an optimism born of confidence in the inner capacity of the human spirit, although Paul is well aware of the wonders held within the very good human creation of God. Rather, all this begins with the act of God, continues through the wooing of God's Spirit, and issues in the willing submission (there's an uncomfortable word) of the human spirit to him.

Here, then, are the two challenges that a Christian mind brings to the sometime inchoate and frequently narcissistic spiritualities of today: First, we can understand our human spirituality only in the light of our creatureliness—a fallen creatureliness at that—and that of God's initiative on our behalf.

Second, when we speak of our human spirit being linked to the divine Spirit, that can only make sense in the light of the particular one whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension have made that possible. Christians know of one mediator, Jesus Christ, and of the particular, Holy Spirit of God, who is radically free to visit whom he chooses, whose role is to glorify and interpret Jesus to us, and who is not to be identified with a vague world-force or abstract power to be manipulated by us.

These two Christian challenges, our needy creaturely status, and the particularity of God's Spirit, over against other concepts of divinity, freedom or power, must stand. Yet they are not to be confused with a low view of humanity, or a triumphalism that declares that God's Spirit is only active among those who call themselves Christians.

What is to be affirmed is a sober but full assessment of the human condition and the human nature, alongside a joyful response to the particularity of God's clearest word, and most surprising revelation to humankind, his glory in the face of Jesus.
Experience it
Let's finish with some idea of what we might expect of a "Christian spirituality."

We have established already that for the Christian community, informed as it is by the stories of God's Creation, the Fall, his calling of Israel, God's climactic coming in Jesus, and his sending of the Spirit into his church, "spirituality" cannot be an amorphous concept. Nor is it simply a branch of anthropology—that is, the study of humans themselves.

Rather, spirituality is the study (or better yet, the practice) of when or where or how the very Spirit of God meets with our spirits, both personally and corporately as the Body of Christ. Yet, immediately in saying that, we know it to be skewed. For we have made the great Initiator, the Alpha, the object of our study; or we have turned our attention away from him to an experience.

Better, I think, for us to take seriously the saying, "A theologian is one who prays," and to take as our symbol of Christian spirituality the figure of the woman praying in the catacombs: she gazes toward heaven, her open hands raised with palms upward, aware of the human need, a powerful picture of the soul at prayer, or the church at prayer, or both together at prayer.

With her open hands she says to the Spirit, "Come!" Yet, in doing this, we only invite him to fill what is already his, for in him we live and move and have our being. Moreover, he himself is the gift of God's people together.

A full-bodied Christian spirituality, then, will lead us at every moment to invite God's Spirit to make a personal dwelling in our lives, knowing that we do this together, as the faithful in Christ. Inner and constant receptivity becomes an extension of our baptism, and an ongoing fulfillment of that unity that we experience and express around the Lord's Table.

As we enter into this adventure of Communion with the one to whom we owe our very breath, meditation upon the Scriptures—the reading, marking, and inward digestion of them—is essential. Spirituality is not a private thing apart from what we have learned in Scripture but intimately connected with that story, those words, those pictures of the one we love. Spirituality begins with learning from him, not with human resolve for the esoteric, nor with a search for personal empowerment, nor with confidence in human solidarity.

It is at times of watching and in quietness—in our sober recognition that God is the Word and that our role is to attend—that our Lord comes to us. The human spirit hears the divine Spirit lovingly but powerfully encouraging us to live with him in the present, despite nostalgia for our past and fears or hopes for our future.

As C. S. Lewis puts it, we are called to attend to "eternity itself, and to that point of time which [we] call the present. For the present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience which God has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered to us."

Today is the time of salvation. In learning attentiveness toward him now, in putting aside all the distractions, memories, fears, and keen anticipations that crowd our minds, we become more fully what we are meant to be. We are on the way to becoming "prayer" before God, allowing his Spirit to pray within us where we are too weak or too simple to know how to pray.

In this way, we do not lose attentiveness toward the world, and toward others, paralyzed in a spiritual disconnection. Strangely, in seeking him, or rather in being sought, we find ourselves at home in the world in a new way, yearning and working for its renewal, which will be fulfilled when the time is ripe.

Part of our attentiveness today must surely mean that we take note of the new openness toward those things that could be considered "spiritual." Love will also dictate that in a well-meaning desire to build bridges we do not accept everything called "spiritual" and do not acquiesce to the malformed, underdeveloped, or human-centered approaches to "spirituality" we see everywhere.

Rather, may it be that we ourselves "acquire peace, and a multitude will be saved" (Seraphim of Sarov) as we live, speak, refrain from speaking, act, and pray in such a manner that the very Spirit of God is seen pointing toward the One who has loved us.

When we have the mind of Christ, the world itself, and especially every human person in it, becomes a window to us of his presence, his love, his peace, his power. In the words of Ephrem the Syrian, "Wherever we turn our eyes, there is God's symbol."

Christian spirituality is becoming present to the Lord, as he is always present to us. "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us sinners, your very own, and upon the whole world that you have made and have come to renew."


This essay is adapted from a talk originally given at Saint. Paul University, Ottawa, in a session bringing together supporters of Augustine College, Redeemer College, and Saint Paul University. An abbreviated version has appeared in the Dallas Morning News.