Thursday, 12 June 2008

Total Spirituality

OK, following on from a previous post, here is the first (although these aren't in any kind of order) of many things I got out of the book Total Church.

There are a couple of things which have nagged me (by which I mean, I've felt there was something wrong, but couldn't definitely put my finger on it) as I have thought about 'spirituality' over the past few years. One is that, as evangelical Christians, we don't seem to be very good at spirituality. And so I've been encouraged lots to venture outside of my own theological tradition to 'be spiritual.' Prayers, icons, candles, whatever. I don't necessarily have a problem with learning from others, but it bothers me when I don't have a gospel-centred alternative to compare things to.

The other thing which has nagged me is the individualism that seems to be a big part of being spiritual. We tend to focus a lot on personal and private prayer and Bible study. Again, not necessarily bad things, but I think it's part of the reason why we can be very personal and private about our faith in general. So that when we get together, we're just a collection of individuals who happen to all be worshipping God in the same place. I went to a CU meeting once (I won't say where) which was mostly silence. I think we were meant to listen to God. I lasted about 30 seconds and started thinking about something else.

Chapter 9 of TC is about Spirituality, and it addresses both of these things. The authors point out that God's Word should be central to our spirituality. We don't need to just sit quietly until God pops something into our heads - he's already spoken through the Bible! Our spirituality should be marked by passionate engagement in the world and in prayer. And it will happen in the context of community.

A really helpul way the TC boys look at the role of coummunity in spirituality is to look at the Bible story emphasising first the individual, then the community. Both stories are true, but the individualistic version misses out a huge part of the picture. And they explain how this should work in practice. We should prioritise prayer together over prayer on our own. We shouldn't separate our relationship to God from our relationship to those around us, as one affects the other. And we need the constant exhortation and encouragement that comes from being together as a community.

When we make spirituality about certain practices, we set up what TC calls a 'spirituality of achievement' - you're more spiritual the more/better you do. The goal is often union with Christ. But that is upside down. Union with Christ is not the goal of spirituality, but its foundation. Basically, the gospel is all we need. Paul makes a big deal about that in Colossians. It reminded me of something pretty mind-boggling that Andy Shudall said at a Relay conference. We can fall into the trap of thinking of the gospel as the door we walk through to become a Christian, which we then leave behind. But that's rubbish. The gospel is the car we drive, the petrol in the engine, the map we use to find our way... you get the idea.

Should I feel guilty that I don't find candles and chanting particularly helpful? Does that make me immature? No. And it's good and healthy to be spiritual by spending time with God's people, marvelling at the gospel together.

My boss once asked me a question which was something like, "what do you think is the key to maintaining the spiritual life?" My answer what that we maintain the spiritual life by holding tight to the gospel. We don't need to move on to other things - in fact, that will lead to disaster. What we need is to have our heart and mind opened more and more to the transforming, reconciling, humbling power of the gospel.


paul maurice martin said...

"Spirituality" is such a vague term that it's often given me trouble too. It encompasses a lot of things that have nothing in common.

I think the main thing, as you suggest, is that it does refer to individual experience. To my mind, the question then becomes: what sort of individual experiences truly help connect us to God? And I think both the gospels and the most thoughtful writers on the subject of "mysticism" (to my mind, an unfortunate and misleading term) tend to point in the same direction.

A great place to begin is William James' classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. It's still assigned reading at leading divinity schools though written in the early 20th century.

kittu said...

Hi friend,
I think you need to explore within, within your heart before getting confuse with this word 'spirituality', Spirituality is a vast term and I think we are here, we a are alive, we are experiencing many things on this planet, just because of the existence of spirituality . Whatever is happening in this world is like a mystery of that super spirit and walking on the path to experience that super conscious spirit is called spirituality . Everywhere there are many bondages & boundaries but in the spiritual world there is no boundary, no boundaries of borders, countries, religions, sex, money, culture, no boundaries and obstacles at all. Spirituality is beyond all these things, and if one go on this path, at each phase, he will find himself in a new world, because spiritual world is so vast, it can not be experienced in a day. We need to go deep; we need to explore it more. It seems very fragile to come at a conclusion so soon.

gazleaney said...


Thanks for your comment. You're right - the vagueness of the term is part of the problem. And there is definitely an element of individual experience involved. But I guess what I was trying to get at is that we can over-emphasise our personal relationship with God so that we under-value our corporate relationship with God.

I also think this corporate element will help us to ground our spirituality in real life, so that we don't end up with "spiritual" bits and "unspiritual" bits.


gazleaney said...

Hi Kittu,

Thanks for your comments.
One thing I would say is that, as a Christian, my spirituality is centred on a person, Jesus Christ (I guess that wasn't very clear from my post). You say there are no barriers in the "spiritual world," but actually there's a huge one. We can't get to God because we've rejected and offended him, so we're separated from him. Jesus changes that - he died to pay for our rebellion against God, so that we can be forgiven and the way opened to God.

When I say the gospel is at the heart of our spirituality, that's what I mean. If we trust what Jesus has done, then God becomes our Father and our relationship to God is that of a child to its father. That's what Christian spirituality is all about. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that true spirituality is only possible through Jesus, because only he can make it possible for us to have that kind of intimate relationship to our creator.

peterdray said...


I guess I both agree and disagree with your post. I agree with the overall message but can't help thinking that your drawing a false dichotomy between candles and holding fast to the gospel.

As you know, I loved the book overall, but I think the chapters I found least helpful and leaast Biblically driven were those on spirituality and on world mission.

I cautiously agree with your second paragraph, as there often doesn't seem to be anything distinctively Christian (or at least distinctively evangelical) about many forms of 'spirituality'. However, I think that the main problem amongst evangelicals is activism which often leaves us prayerless and dry.

I also cautiously agree with your third paragraph. It's true that we can often take an unhealthy individualistic emphasis to our spirituality and to our Christian lives more generally. Many Christians forget that nearly all of the NT was written to groups.

However - and this is my major gripe - growing in godliness in Scripture seems to flow from choosing allegiance to and treasuring Christ over other things that demand my affections and attention. This is a ongoing process - every day I need to choose to follow Christ. The implications of the incredible theology of Romans 1-11 flows into the very practical exhortation of chapters 12-16. I'm always struck by how these implications are, in some ways, nothing massive, but a million different small decisions every week in which we choose Christ (many concerning how we relate to others, although not exclusively).

The point is that only I can make these many regular decisions. If I'm not daily letting my heart be recaptured by Christ in a real and personal way, then I'm going to find it very difficult to show that spiritual vibrancy on an average day.

'Spirituality' then, surely, means having my heart and emotions and will and desires changed so that I long to choose Christ above all. I need to soak my whole being in Scripture and worship in prayer. It's a real blessing when we're able to do this with other Christians, but the danger is that if we neglect our own private devotions that we live off the fumes of others and become too easily content with it.

Historically speaking, candles and liturgy are amongst the ways in which Christians have found it helpful to develop a Biblical spirituality. I'm not saying that we all have to enjoy these things, but I think you also need to realise that this is a way in which certain people are wired. I may prefer listening to Scriptural songs on my mp3 player which speak promises and the character of God to my heart - but I need to realise that others are different.

Total Church is helpful when it distinguishes between the traditional Roman Catholic position of trying to achieve union with Christ with the more Biblical position of relationship with God flowing from our union with the resurrected Jesus. However, the logical conclusions of what you're saying seem to be that personal devotions are an expression of the first of these theologies. That is, in my opinion, a load of rubbish. Christ died, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God. My personal devotions and worship are an expression of living out the relationship with God for which I've been saved. Obviously that's more than personal, but it's no less.

I don't think that a person should feel guilty if they don't find candles particularly helpful. However, I'd be concerned if their relationship with God didn't express itself in personal worship and adoration at some level. That's my concern about so many evangelicals (including many in leadership) - just too busy to have any sort of private expression of worship. Of course it's good and healthy to spend time with God's people and marvel at the gospel together. But it also should express itself personally.

It's of course true that we maintain spiritual life by holding tight to the gospel. But I hold tight to the gospel by letting Christ daily recapture my heart in his beauty and sufficiency in my own personal devotions as well as with others. Isn't that the model that we see in the psalms?

Thanks for getting me thinking :) I'd love to hear how you might interact with what I've written.