To speak about “True Spirituality” carries with it the implication of a claim to know what the content, form and reality of spirituality actually is. So I will state clearly what is otherwise assumed here. In writing this series of essays I am making that claim—to have limited but accurate knowledge of what constitutes “True Spirituality.”
Before the skeptical reader begins to object with vehemence to this I want to point out a fact: Everyone who dares to assert knowledge about “Spirituality”, to elaborate upon its content, form and reality, and then seek to explain it to others is also making a claim just I am here. The Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim Imam or scholar, the Jewish Rabbi, etc. all implicitly make this claim in the act of teaching others about their beliefs and practices. Even the atheist or agnostic (skeptics) are, in a strange kind of way, making a metaphysical claim in denying the reality of a “true spirituality” rooted in God’s actual existence or in asserting that knowledge of this reality cannot be known.
In each of these cases such religious (or “spiritual” if one prefers that) persons are acting and thinking about the world in accordance with their worldview. According to Scripture, these are “worldly people” even though they are devoted to some particular religious group, theological perspective and pattern of life associated with that group or perspective. For worldly people are operating—perceiving and choosing—out of their carnal knowledge of the world as they can perceive and understand it. Thus, they are conditioned to expect (and do expect) human life and experience to follow certain patterns and routines which can be anticipated and managed. While these expectations will differ depending upon the cultural and religious background of a group or individual there is nevertheless very certain boundaries that are assumed about life together (human society) on earth; and these cover how to properly relate not only to one’s fellow human beings but also the Ultimate reality (God or whatever term is used).
My grandfather had a GMC pickup truck. I have many memories of him working on it in the front yard of my grandparents’ house. What I did not know at that time was that he utilized duct tape to keep most of the linking parts near the engine in working order. He had lived through the American Great Depression and was always reluctant to spend money on the parts he needed to fix things on that truck. Somehow this makeshift strategy worked. However, when he passed on to be with the Lord Jesus my parents sold the truck. My parents later learned that the person who had bought it paid a couple thousand dollars to replace most of the small parts in the engine (hoses, wires, etc.). My grandfathers’ makeshift strategy of using duck tape to fix his truck did not work in the end—what was needed was new parts designed for that truck.
We humans are inclined to find our own solutions to our own depravity. And we have the audacity to hoist these solutions upon God as well as on our fellow human beings and expect God to bless them. Further, we even get angry when either God or other people will not play along with us. (See Matthew 11:16-19.)
For example, perhaps one of the most absurd attempts at this was done regarding Jesus through so-called “search for the historical Jesus.” A small select group of people, some with advanced academic degrees, known as the Jesus Seminar, presumptively set out to selectively pick and choose from the information in the gospel texts and Christian tradition. Their purpose was establish a consensus on the saying of the “historical Jesus.” That is, they did not accept that the Gospels present the life and teachings of the Lord accurately and so they set themselves up to decide what Jesus taught. What an extraordinary example of redefining who Jesus and fitting him into their own image and likeness. In this case these are skeptics but I could multiple examples by professing Christians to manage the Lord by defining what he can and cannot do theologically.
The depravity of human nature especially manifests whenever humans seek to impose and enforce their beliefs upon each other. (And the demons are always there to help!) As in other spheres of human life and activity we compete with one another and utilize our beliefs to justify dominating, manipulating and forcing others to do as we wish. I suggest that this is at least part of the reason why religion has such a bad name. And further, why the Christian Church is so distrusted and frankly mocked today in Western countries.
Christians of past generations, especially when the church leaders had predominant influence within a society, did utilize that social position to force conformity more often than encourage people to freely embrace Christian faith. I am here thinking of the history of the Christian church in the period after late Roman antiquity to the Medieval period in Europe and also during the European Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation period. The practice of Christianity in America has been refreshingly different due in large part to the vision the Founders of American government had and enacted in the Constitution and put into practice in the early period of the American Republic.
As already noted Christian leaders and people following their lead have not been above coercing people to conform to some version of Christianity. This abuse has been rooted in arrogance. This arrogance has most often been expressed through the presumption within the Church (among the leaders) that they had intellectually categorized and explained the reality of God and his will. What other people who differed needed was to change their minds and then amend their way of life to conform to the traditions of the churches. (Thus one frequently finds strands of moralism and intellectualism in the Church Fathers amidst many exemplary examples of Christ-like service and written teaching of sound doctrine.) What I have described above is demonstrable from the historical record.
I have taken an excursion into history for a reason. History is critical to understanding not only people’s conceptions of spirituality but also in discerning what is “True Spirituality.” For the life of person (or communal life of a group) expresses and demonstrates what he or she (or they) actually believe(s) about God and spiritual reality. And what an individual or a group believes and practices in rooted in the past (traditions). These will vary because of the variety of cultural contexts into which the Gospel was deposited and was built upon in the churches.
How can we establish what “True Spirituality” is given these facts? One key to both deciphering and navigating toward an accurate understanding of spirituality is to examine the underpinnings of the theological convictions that have animated the actions of church leaders in the past (whether they were unjust or morally exemplary). Thus I have given this historical analysis.
As I noted above, I think that one of the most profound errors that crept into the theological building of historic Christianity in Western Europe has been the following assumption: God must first show his truth to the human intellect and then bring it experientially into human life. To put this another way, that God’s normal mode of operation with human beings is to enlighten the intellect and convince people of the reasonableness of his truth so that they can believe and then conform their lives according to that truth. And then the forms and practices that are consistent with that truth will be developed (traditions). In my opinion this is not how God operates in the human person and it is not the intellect that drives spiritual transformation.
What is “reasonable” and acceptable to the intellect has principally been defined as the Traditions of the Church—within Catholic and Protestant circles. It is tradition that has defined what “true spirituality” is to look like in the practice of the Christian faith. I value Christian tradition(s) and have learned much from them. However, I think that to hoist them above Scripture or to try to fit them over Scripture without a willingness to change traditions at the points where they do not align with Scripture is idolatrous.
How many doctrinal arguments and fights have spawned from this presumptive arrogance! How many people have been led astray doctrinally because biblical teaching “did not make sense” and thus had to be reformulated to fit the confines of what was considered “reasonable”! We have stood before the living God and demanded that he speak to us in ways that are suitable to our comfort and preferences. This assessment can be accurately laid upon every one of the major strands of Christian traditions—from ancient times to modern day.
Having said all of this, what is most amazing to me is that God worked with Christians of every generation and lead men and women to knowledge of the truth. He has raised up leaders and teachers and scholars who imperfectly articulated and implemented biblical teaching as best they understood that. I can affirm this without qualification while also maintaining the critique elaborated above. For God is faithful to his own word and always seeks those who desire to know the truth.