The mood of the current culture in North America and Western countries is decisively tilted against religion in favor of “spirituality.” This term has become an empty and meaningless word precisely because it is used in so many different ways by so many different people. The rational for this shift makes sense given the generally secular shift of the culture in the last several generations.
I acknowledge that I am myself not very fond of the term “religion” because frankly the Bible has nothing good to say about humanly devised means to manage God. Further, I know from experience how damaging toxic religious convictions and practices can be—particularly as instruments to justify hatred and bigotry toward the “other.” However, the common use of the term “spirituality” is not of much help because it is so vacuous. Words mean things, and when people intentionally stretch out the term “spirituality” to accommodate any and all beliefs and practices that express the recognition of something beyond ordinary human experience, this leads to confusion rather than clarification. Yet confusion is one of the hallmarks of the time we live in. And to the extent that believing people have allowed worldly thinking into their lives Christian communities have also reflected confusion about even the most fundamental matters.
The Church, regardless of the history of abuses of power and flirtations with error, continues to exist and even flourish because it is “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15, NRSV) This is no credit to human believers of any historical generation or geographical location but to the staying power and faithfulness of the living God. (I would argue that this is the implication of Paul’s affirmation in 1 Timothy 3:14-16 and other letters).
The rubber meets the road in how people actually live. In the practicality of walking through their daily experience people display for all to see their conceptions of “spirituality” (or religion). I assert that against the backdrop of the actual way of life of worldly persons and institutions (religious or otherwise) one can see what true spirituality is—if one wants to know the truth. I can say this only because of the Truth I have encountered and embraced.
The Person of the Lord Jesus stands out in such sharp contrast to religious duties or belief systems for people who seek to try to understand him. And I do not say that the awareness of this contrast is necessarily pleasant—at least not at first before one has come to love the Lord. For his life exhibited the truth and the love of the living God. And contrary to what people may say there are few who actually want to know what is true and to receive the pure fiery love of God. All who believe him and learn to abide in him (which requires obeying the truth in love) also exhibit his life and character. I would submit that this what makes the Church the “pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
There is an intriguing account in John’s gospel that is helpful for me. At this point the Jewish religious authorities were looking to kill him and so he was intentionally not going to Judea or Jerusalem. His brothers told him that he should attend the Festival of Booths (or Tabernacles) with his disciples in order to show the people miracles. “If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (John 7:4, NRSV) John notes that this comment expressed the unbelief of his brothers (v.5).
“Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” (John 7:68, NRSV)
He said this not only to his own brothers but to people who were devout Jews. Their reasoning is straightforward and I think many people would have difficulty arguing with it. If Jesus is the Messiah, the one promised by God to come and deliver the people of Abraham, then he should step forward at the Festival and show his power to all (“to the world”). But this is not how God operates and not how Jesus thought about himself, his mission or the capacity to do miraculous “works”!
The truth is that God surprises us with how he operates. The “world” and people who have aligned themselves against the Creator hate the Lord because of who he is and how he operates. His actions cannot be scripted or anticipated nor can any of us coerce God into to doing anything. He is free to act as he pleases, in the time he chooses and in the way he chooses toward us who believe and toward those who do not believe in him. The Lord Jesus’ life is an example of this. And I would argue that the life and example of his people (the Church) should naturally be surprising to worldly people—for the life of God is operating in and through them.