WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
To sum up what we have covered so far: I have presented a simple definition of spirituality. By spirituality I mean that which gives us strength to go on with life, and to go on creatively. Understanding and cultivating spirituality have to do with understanding and cultivating that in our lives which empowers us, which is creative, hopeful, encouraging. I have in mind the reality of our actual lives.
One kind of experience of spirituality in the sense I have had is talking on the phone with a close friend about some deep personal issues. Another kind of experience of spirituality is listening to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s album “Kind of Blue.” Neither of these are overtly religious, but they are “spiritual” in that they are experiences which provide me with strength and energy.
Spirituality is difficult for us to talk about. In my experience, this in part has to do with associating it with guilt feelings, a sense of failure, and comparing myself to others. Nonetheless, we do well to work at overcoming this reluctance. At least I believe this for myself, which is why I am putting together these reflections. I can mention several reasons for doing so.
One is simply that this is an interesting topic. I find it interesting, and I know it is one of the hottest topics for books, discussion groups, and the like.
More important, whether we say “spirituality” or not, we do need to continue to grow in our strength and creativity to go on with life. Especially in our culture, many factors tend to sap our strength and creativity. I strongly believe that we have more resources than we realize, but we need more consciously to tap into them.
Many of us also need more consciously to overcome past problematic experiences of “spirituality” which have hurt us. I have referred to some of mine. I know that others have their own. As we emerge from these hurtful spiritualites, we often find ourselves tending toward the disempowerment of cynicism, skepticism, and doubt. We will continue to be disempowered until we find ways to think more positively and constructively. I think of the parable of Jesus, where he speaks of the casting out of one demon. When the void remains unfilled, seven more come in. We who have worked at ridding ourselves of problematic spiritualities likely won’t grow a great deal until we construct a more positive spirituality. It is in the hope of being constructive in this way that I address these themes.
The key to the whole picture is understanding. In particular, I am thinking of understanding ourselves and understanding God. These two themes of understanding ourselves and understanding God are closely intertwined. When we truly see ourselves for who we are, we will perceive the merciful presence of God, the giver of life. We only know God as we experience life with the openness and honesty and security that only come with deep self-awareness and self-acceptance. Genuine self-awareness and self-acceptance in no way stand in tension with trust in and worship of God. In fact, neither happens very deeply without the other.
Much of Christianity has tended to express what I see as almost a hatred of human nature. We see this especially in perspectives influenced by the doctrine of original sin. The “hatred” reflects a desire to escape present life and find refuge in a disembodied City of God, paradise in the sweet by-and-by. I see this perspective (in its myriad of nuances) as hurtful of spirituality. It separates us from the resources for encouragement that are available in our actual lives. This hostility toward human nature leaves us with little deep-seated positive impetus for creatively dealing with the world in which we live.
Western culture has certainly reacted against traditional Christianity over the past several centuries, but the result has been only more hostility toward humanness. We see this hostility in modern literature, visual art, and movies. We also see it in social sciences and even other sciences such as biology. Human beings are reduced to being machines or pure instincts or tiny, insignificant specks in the cosmos.
In response to all this, pop-psychology has tried to affirm individuals. I’m okay, you’re okay. This response generally is superficial and often feeds selfishness and narcissism. At the same time, we do well to see narcissism as a cry from the human soul meeting with neglect. The most constructive response to narcissism is not self-condemnation, but finding ways to affirm ourselves in deep, genuine ways.
We are created by God to live with a sense of meaning and significance. Genuine love of the self is the healing response to original sin doctrine, to hatred of humanness, to narcissism. This means that we find a basic awareness of and trust in who we are. We find a basic awareness of and trust in who God has created us to be. This, of course, follows from a basic awareness of and trust in who God is.
Much of Christianity has seen God as like an almighty king acting as “He” will, reaching into history and directing events. These king-like images of God have left me with too many intellectual and existential concerns for me to continue to accept them. They do not fit with life as I know it, where I do not see a God who acts like that. These king-like images don’t encourage my spirituality very much – in part because they lead to a denial of my experience of life.
I have come to think of God more as a loving presence (not obviously all-powerful). This God touches our souls amidst real life, even amidst brokenness and pain. This is a God who touches us lovingly without necessarily removing us from the brokenness and pain.
One biblical image of God speaks profoundly to our present (following the century of mass death and total war). This is the image of God whose presence remained after the destruction of ancient Israel by Babylon. Jeremiah, for instance, does not show God gloating at the unfaithful getting their just desserts. Instead, we see a God who grieves. God is present in the suffering and brokenness. This presence is not the presence of a white knight, riding to the rescue and making everything okay. No, God’s presence here is simply the presence of one suffering with the victims. Somehow, mysteriously, out of this suffering comes some glimmer of life, a sense that God’s love remains. God’s love remains, therefore healing and creativity continue as possibilities.
Human beings encounter this love especially powerfully in the on-going possibility of relationships. We may discover other people, discover God, as Thous rather than Its. We may discover others as entities capable of knowing and being known, freely giving and receiving love. Of course, we struggle – but God empowers us to find relationship, at least in part. This is genuine empowerment, genuine spirituality.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion. How would you define “spirituality”? What do you think of my definition? Is this a useable word for you? If not, what kinds of terms are helpful for talking about empowerment, hope, creativity?
Do you agree that we find help the most by looking at spirituality as that which has to do with encouragement in actual life – whether we overtly label it religious or not?
Why do you think we should (or should not) talk about spirituality?
How do you react to the notion that self-understanding and understanding God are essentially two sides of one coin? Is that too human-centered or not enough?
What do you think of human nature? What approach to spirituality best coheres with your understanding of humanness? How do you evaluate what the Christian tradition has said about this?
Do you think our culture has too low or too high a view of humanness? Or both?
What significance does the confession of God having created human being as good have for your understanding of humanness and spirituality? What about the doctrine of “the Fall”? Is my view incomplete because I don’t emphasize this doctrine?
How do you understand God in relation to your spirituality? How does this compare to what you see the biblical understanding to be? The understanding of the Christian tradition?
What does it mean to have a relationship with God? How is God present when we relate to another human being? Can a refusal to relate drive God away?