Spirit Quest

         If all your friends were suddenly to begin talking about the state of their digestion - comparing symptoms, calling up for advice, swapping remedies - you would not consider it a hopeful sign.  Nor does the widespread interest in spirituality today lead me to think that the North American soul is in a flourishing condition.
        A person who has healthy digestion does not talk about it.  Neither does a person who has a healthy soul.  When our bodies and souls are working well, we are, for the most part, unaware of them.  The frequency with which the word spirituality occurs these days is more likely to be evidence of pathology than health.
        By taking this stance, I am not dismissing current interest in spirituality as sick.  The interest itself is not sick, but sickness has provoked the interest.  There is considerable confusion regarding the appropriate treatment, but virtual unanimity in the diagnostic:  Our culture is sick with secularism.
        But deeper and stronger than our illness is our cure.  The Spirit of God that hovered over the primordial chaos (Gen. 1:2) hovers over our murderous and chaotic cities.  The Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove (Matt. 3:16) descends on the followers of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit that filled men and women with God at nine o'clock in the morning in Jerusalem during Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) fills men and women still in Chicago and Calcutta, Moscow and Montreal, around the clock, 365 days a year. 
        What's more, there is a groundswell of recognition spreading through our culture that all life is at root spiritual; that everything we see is formed and sustained by what we cannot see.  Those of us who grew up in the Great Spiritual Depression and who accustomed ourselves to an obscure life in the shadow of arrogant Rationalism and bullying Technology can hardly believe our eyes and ears.  People all around us - neighbors and strangers, rich and poor, Communists and capitalists - want to know about God.  They ask questions about meaning and purpose, right and wrong, heaven and hell.
        For several years I was recruited by the state university, not far from where I lived, to teach a course in New Testament.  The course had been inserted into the curriculum in the Department of Philosophy and Religion 40 years before by a Christian professor who headed the department.  It was a surreptitious move on his part, hoping to provide university students access to the New Testament.  He taught the course himself to a few students, never very many.  And then he died.  By that time, all the professors in the department were either atheist or Marxist, and since there was no one to teach the course, it was left untaught.
        Through atheistic carelessness, it continued to be listed in the catalogue.  Some students spotted it and demanded that it be offered.  The professors had to go looking for someone outside their ranks to teach it and found a good friend of mine.  When he moved away, they tried to drop it.  But by then, it had become the most popular course in the department.  Student movements being what they were in those days, they again had to go looking for a Christian to teach it, and they found me.
        This kind of thing happens a lot these days - spiritual interest gathering force underground and erupting into unlikely and often secular settings.  Overnight, it seems, the tables are turned: instead of plotting ways in which we can get people interested in God, they are calling us up, pulling on our sleeves, asking, "We would see Jesus."  They, of course, do not always (not even often) say Jesus.  But they have had it with the world and their lives the way they are, and they have the good sense to realize that improved goods and service are not going to help.
        We may well be living during a wonderful movement in history, as those old frauds, the world, the flesh, and the Devil, are discredited by the very culture they have nearly destroyed.  As the dust settles and the air clears, we see a widespread readiness to respond to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
        Spirituality is not always recognized in the terms I am using to define it - the presence and activity of God the Spirit - but the awareness is there; the hunger is there.

                                  Bored with Freedom
        In order to respond appropriately, it is necessary to take stock of this failed culture out of which a hunger for God is emerging.
        Our culture has failed precisely because it is a secular culture.  A secular culture is a culture reduced to thing and function.  Typically, at the outset, people are delighted to find themselves living in such a culture.  It is wonderful to have all these things coming our way, without having to worry about their nature or purpose.  And it is wonderful to have this incredible freedom to do so much, without bothering about relationships or meaning.  But after a few years of this, our delight diminishes as we find ourselves lonely among the things and bored with our freedom.
        Our first response is to get more of what brought us delight in the first place: acquire more things, generate more activity.  Get more.  Do more.  After a few years of this, we are genuinely puzzled that we are not any better.
        We North Americans have been doing this for well over a century now, and we have succeeded in producing a culture that is reduced to thing and function.  And we all seem to be surprised that this magnificent achievement of secularism - all these things!  all these activities! - has produced an epidemic of loneliness and boredom.  We are surprised to find ourselves lonely behind the wheel of a BMW or bored nearly to death as we advance from one prestigious job to another.
        And then, one by one, a few people begin to realize that getting more and doing more only makes the sickness worse.  They realize that if it gets much worse, the culture will be dead - a thoroughly secularized culture is a corpse.
        People begin to see that secularism marginalizes and eventually obliterates the two essentials of human fullness: intimacy and transcendence.  Intimacy:  we want to experience human love and trust and joy.  Transcendence:  we want to experience divine love and trust and joy.  We are not ourselves by ourselves.  We do not become more human, more ourselves, when we are behind the wheel of a BMW, or, when capped and gowned we acquire another academic degree so we can get a better job and do more and better things.  Instead, we long for a human touch, for someone who knows our name.  We hunger for divine meaning, someone who will bless us.
        And so spirituality, a fusion of intimacy and transcendence, overnight becomes a passion for millions of North Americans.  It should be no surprise that a people so badly trained in intimacy and transcendence might not do too well in their quest.  Most anything at hand that gives a feeling of closeness - whether genitals or cocaine - will do for intimacy.  And most anything exotic that induces a sense of mystery - from mantras to river rafting - will do for transcendence.
        It is commendable that we have a nation of men and women who, fed up with things as such and distraught with activity as such, should dignify their hearts with something more than a yearly valentine card.  It is heartening that our continent is experiencing a recovery of desire to embrace intimacies and respond to transcendence.  But it is regrettable that these most human and essential desires are so ignorantly and badly served.
        But then, a culture as thoroughly secularized as ours can hardly be expected to come up with its own medicine.  For the most part, North America come up with a secularized spirituality, which is no spirituality at all.  They ransack exotic cultures and esoteric groups in a search for wholeness; but being new at this and without experience, they have no way of discriminating between the true and false.  Fraudulence is rampant.  Our leaders. ignorant of human nature, promote pseudo-intimacies that dehumanize.  Our celebrities offer a pseudo-transcendence that trivializes.

                                  Internalizing the World's Ways
        Historically, evangelical Christians have served the church by bringing sharpness and ardor to matters of belief and behavior, insisting on personal involvement, injecting energy and passion, returning daily to the Scriptures for command and guidance, and providing communities of commitment.  But presently there is not an equivalent precision in matters of spirituality.  It turns out that we have been effected by our secularizing culture far more than we had realized.  Evangelicals have been uncritically internalizing the world's ways and bringing them into churches without anyone noticing.  In particular, we have internalized the world's fascination with technology and its enthusiasm for activities.
        Instead of being brought before God ("O come, let us worship and bow down") and led to acquire a taste for the holy mysteries of transcendence in worship, we are talked to and promoted endlessly, to try this and attend that.  We are recruited for church roles and positions in which we can shine, validating our usefulness by our function.
        After a few years or decades of this, we find ourselves in churches (evangelical churches) where there is as little intimacy and transcendence as in the world.  We feel impoverished - defrauded, even.  We look around for evidence of what we desire most.  It is there in our Scriptures.  We catch glimpses of it in other people.  We see signs of it in other parts of the church, in other centuries, sometimes in other countries, sometimes in other denominations.  We want it for ourselves.  What's wrong?  We are believing the right things.  We are doing the right things.
        Things! - that's what is wrong.  We become avid for spirituality:  we long to be in community, experiencing love and trust and joy with others.  We are fed up with being evaluated by how much we can contribute, how much we can do.  We hunger for communion with God, something beyond the satisfaction of self, the development of me.  We are fed up with being told about God.
        We go to our leaders for help, and they don't seem to know what we are talking about.  They sign us up for a program in stress management.  They recruit us for a tour of the Holy Land.  They enroll us in a course in family dynamics.  They give us a Myers-Briggs personality-type indicator so they can fit us into the slot where we can function efficiently.  When we don't seem interested, they talk faster and louder.  When we drift somewhere else, they hire a public-relations consultant to devise a campaign designed to attract us and our friends.  Sometimes the advertising campaign is successful in enlisting people who want something to do without the inconvenience of community and want to know how to be on good terms with God without having to give up the final say-so on their own lives.  But they don't attract us.  We are after what we came for in the first place: intimacy and transcendence, personal friends and a personal God, love and worship.

                         Focus, Precision, and Roots
        It is my sense that spirituality is mostly of concern among the laity these days, the men and women who are running markets, raising children, driving trucks, cooking meals, selling cars, believing in God while changing a flat tire in the rain, and praying for an enemy while studying for an exam.  Religious professionals, by and large, are working from a different agenda.
        Contemporary spirituality desperately needs focus, precision, and roots:  focus on Christ, precision in the Scriptures, and roots in a healthy tradition.  In these times of drift and dilettantism, evangelical Christians must once again serve the church by providing just such focus and precision and rootage.  That it is primarily lay Christians who are left to provide this service to the church is not at all crippling.  The strength and impact of evangelism has often been in its laity - transcending denominational divisions, subverting established structures, working behind the scenes, beginning at the bottom.
        I have five items of counsel in matters of spirituality for all who hunger and thirst after intimacy and transcendence.  Each item provides evangelical focus, precision, and rootage to spirituality.  As we get it straight ourselves, we will be equipped to provide leadership to others, an evangelical leadership that is so conspicuously lacking at present.
         1. Discover what Scripture says about spirituality and immerse yourself in it.  This is not a matter of hunting for a few texts, but of acquiring a biblical imagination - entering into the vast world of the Bible and getting a feel for the territory, an instinct for reality.  The scriptural revelation is not only authoritative for what we believe about God and the way we behave with each other, but also for shaping and maturing our very souls, our being, in response to God.  The Scriptures provide as much precision in matters of our being as they do in our thinking and acting.  Spirituality that is not continuously and prayerfully soaked in biblical revelation soon either hardens into self-righteousness or dissolves into psychology.
        2. Shun spirituality that does not require commitment.  Personal commitment to the God personally revealed in Jesus is at the heart of spirituality.  Faddish spiritualities, within and without the church, ignore or deny commitment.  Evangelical counsel places the Lord's commands - believe, follow, endure - at the core of all spirituality.  A lifelong faith commitment to God as revealed in Jesus Christ is essential to any true spirituality.
        "Ecstasy doesn't last," wrote novelist E.M. Forster, "but it cuts a channel for something lasting."  Single-minded, persevering faithfulness confirms the authenticity of our spirituality.  The ancestors we look to for encouragement in this business - Augustine of Hippo and Julian of Norwich, John Calvin and Amy Carmichael, John Bunyan and Teresa of Avila - didn't fit.  They stayed.
        Spirituality without commitment is analogous to sexuality without commitment - quick and casual, superficial and impersonal, selfish and loveless - eventually a parody of its initial promise.  Deprived of commitment, sexuality degenerates into addiction, violence, or boredom.  Deprived of commitment, spirituality, no matter how wise or promising, has a short shelf life.
         3. Embrace friends in the faith wherever you find them.  This may mean friends across town in another church, or another continent, or, through books from another century.  Spirituality digs wells deep into our traditions, and at some point, we find we have tapped into a common aquifer.
        I grew up in an atmosphere of strident anti-Catholicism.  Being Roman Catholic was far worse than being unsaved, for Catholics were the enemy, obedient soldier of the Antichrist, ready to wipe us out on signal from the Vatican.  And then one day, to my great surprise, my Pentecostal-minister mother came home from a retreat she had led, talking with warmth and appreciation about several nuns she had met.  Soon she was referring to them as "my" nuns.  The "sisters" had become her sisters.
        This is a common experience in our age of recovered spirituality.  We find ourselves praying with Quakers and Orthodox, Carmelite nuns and Mennonite pacifists.  Baptists lie down with Presbyterians, and Anglicans play with the Methodists.
        4. But then return home and explore your own tradition.  Hunger for a deeper spirituality, a Christian life in which God is authenticated in everyday circumstances and personal relationships, is almost always accompanied by a sense of deprivation; we suspect we were not provided our rightful heritage by our church or pastor or family, that we were not guided and nurtured in the ways of robust holiness.  That sense of deprivation often turns into anger:  "Why didn't you tell me about this?  Why did you use my hunger for God to recruit me for your religious projects?  Why did you flatten my longing for God into explanations that would keep me in my place?"
        Angry over our impoverishment, we cannot help noticing churches or movements that look better.  We see places and people who are risking themselves in love and God, and we know we would flourish if we could only live among them.  They have already stimulated and nourished us so wonderfully.  We get ready to jump ship.
        Our wisest counselors usually tell us to stay put.  Every place, every congregation, every denomination, has a rich spiritual tradition to be discovered and explored.
        Evangelicalism is also a tradition - representing centuries of prayer and holy living, witness and wisdom, and treasures for our nurture.  Recover what is yours by right by going deep, not away.  The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence.  Every religious community has its dead spots; your task is to dig wells in your desert.
        Baron Friedrich von Hugel, a Roman Catholic layperson, was one of the most respected spiritual directors in England in the early years of this century.  As men and women came under his influence and sought his direction, they frequently wanted to become Catholics.  He never encouraged it.  He insisted they stay where they were, as Presbyterians and Anglicans and Baptists.  He consistently sent people back to their own churches.  There is plenty of digging to be done in our own back yard.
        There are, to be sure, exceptional cases.  But spirituality does not normally thrive by transplant.  Those of us suddenly awake to the rich heritage we missed all these years, who now want to become Orthodox or Catholic or charismatic, need to ask if Jesus is speaking to me in his command to the healed demoniac in Gerasa who, when he begged to return with Jesus to Galilee, was sent back to the "church" he grew up in:  "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mark 5:19).
        5. Look for mature guides; honor wise leaders.  There are many holy friends and pastors, teachers and priests, brothers and sisters among us.  But they do not advertise themselves.  Seek them out.  Cultivate their company either in person or through books.
        Because an appetite for God is easily manipulated into a consumer activity, we need these wise, sane friends as guides and companions.  There are entrepreneurs among us who see the widespread hunger for spirituality as a marketplace and are out there selling junk food.  The gullibility of the unwary who bought relics from itinerant monks in the Middle Ages - splinters of wood from the true cross, finger bones from the saints, a few pieces of thread from Jesus' seamless robe - is more than matched by North Americans in matters of spirituality.
        We are trained from the cradle to be good consumers.  It is understandable that we seek to satisfy our hunger for God along the lines in which we have been brought up.  But it is not excusable, for we have clear counsel in the Gospels to steer away form this consumer world:  "Blessed are the poor. ... Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. ... Love not the world nor the things that are in the world."  And our Lord's counsel is confirmed and expanded in numerous ways by our wise evangelical ancestors in the faith. 
        Spirituality is not the latest fad but the oldest truth.  Spirituality, the alert attention we give to a living God and the faithful response we make to him in community, is at the heart of our Scriptures and is on display throughout the centuries of Israel and the church.  We have been at this a long time.  We have nearly four millennia of experience to draw upon.  When someone hands you a new book, reach for an old one.  Isaiah has far more to teach us about spirituality than Carl Jung.

Subversive Spirituality by Eugene B. Peterson. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Regent College Publishing; 1997.

 

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