WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
As we move along with these reflections regarding spirituality, it is good to pause and ask where we are going. One of my major goals is to help us think positively about our spiritual lives. Another goal is the help us accept our creatureliness, finitude, pain, mortality – and within these to find a sense of spiritual vitality.
With spirituality, we best not force our interest and the implementation of our growing awareness. We certainly benefit by pushing ourselves to think, to be challenged, to get new ideas and have old ideas season. At the same time, we will only move as our hearts are ready to. And often our hearts only become ready when they have to – at least that is how mine works. It is only when panic meets creativity – at the last minute, it seems – that my mind is really concentrated. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “Depend on it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in two weeks, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Actually, I have discovered that bumping up against our limits can be helpful. Times when we become aware of our brokenness, the fact that life is not always what we want, that we are not always what we want to be, are key times for spiritual growth. These are key times to learn to know our deepest selves. That is when we have to dig deep. Maybe we can say, that is when we have to realize we need to let go – of expectations, of ideals, of being able to impress others. We are left more with simply who we are. My belief increasingly is that that is a good place to be.
A spirituality for who we are emerges out of self-acceptance. Maybe we could say it emerges out of what we could call a chastised self-acceptance. This is where we kind of grin ruefully, saying that person in mirror is actually me – and I guess that’s alright. As several of my friends turn 50 and I face that milestone myself, I realize that this is a good time, as they say, to fish or cut bait. If you are going to go in with life, you have to go with what you have – extra pounds and all.
A spirituality for who we are emerges out of life in this world. We all carry part of the world within us individually and among us when we are together socially. When we think we are separate from “the world” we might be less self-critical about the way “worldly” attitudes creep in. This might include the strong dominating the weak (especially parents over children and men over women) and using “us-them” labels marking insiders and outsiders. These labels are necessary for worldly wars – and religious “purity.”
I do not at all think we should uncritically accept social values from our culture. Actually, I am strongly arguing the opposite. Nevertheless, the kind of spirituality I advocate is very earthy, very mundane and of the world. It is open to truth and creativity all around us – maybe in a movie, maybe in popular music, maybe even from our “heathen” next-door neighbor. We all live in the world. To seek to escape it only weakens us. Our hope is to gain strength to be creative where we are. Our hope is to gain trust in the power of love, empathy, and respect for people. This is power that applies in all situations in which we might find ourselves.
A spirituality for who we are emerges out of honesty about God. We could say, perhaps more precisely, that it emerges out of honesty about how we understand God. Ultimately, my self-acceptance and my acceptance of living in this world follow from an awareness of God’s Yes. The world, at bottom, is a friendly place because God is a friendly God. However, God is not an obviously all-powerful God. God is not a God who simply fixes things up, nor a God who controls all events or controls whatever people do. God is not a God who speaks once and for all time with clear rules and principles which we simply need to follow for all to be well.
This friendly God, this compassionate, empathetic God, this loving God, remains mysterious, the object of faith not of certainty. So we wrestle with God, we wrestle with life, we wrestle with other people, we wrestle with ourselves. The wrestling, though, is where we find ourselves living. To seek perfect rest, total harmony, pure contentment – these can lead to dishonesty because life simply is not perfect. If we think it should be, we might well lie to ourselves and deny our experience of brokenness and imperfection. We also might be blind to the creativity we can find within these imperfections.
What I propose is a spirituality that emphasizes self-acceptance, living in this world, and being honest about God. This is the kind of spirituality that offers hope and encouragement for living as we are.
Up to now, in my reflections, I have dealt with somewhat foundational issues: how we understand ourselves and how we understand God. After this, I want to be more concrete. I want to look at what I guess you could call sources of spiritual encouragement – at least for me. What helps me toward self-acceptance, living in this world, and honesty about God? I will limit my reflections to six themes. These are six of numerous sources of encouragement for me. They include the Bible, community worship, music and other forms of art, nature, solitude and prayer, and, finally, friendship.
Probably my main conclusion from the thinking I’ve done so far is that the key to spirituality is recognizing, believing in, accepting that God is a Thou. God is not an It. What God is ultimately about (and what we are ultimately about) is being in relationships.
Our spirituality works when we view people, God, creation as entities to love, to respect, to relate with in mutuality. Our spirituality works when we see others as Thous. The hindrances to spirituality arise when we see God, people, creation as objects, as Its.
I considered human self-will, where we view other people as means, as objects to manipulate, compete with, overcome. This happens in our culture especially when we become too concerned with material possessions, needing to exploit people and nature to grow wealthier. We objectify people when we support warfare, when we abuse children, when we are shaped by racism, sexism, or homophobia. Our spirituality, our prayers, are empty when we close ourselves to relationship with those around us – a main theme of the Old Testament prophets.
I also considered hierarchicalism in relation to God. Here we exalt God so much that we make God an It. We make God a purveyor of brute force and so removed from us that all we can do is obey, bowing down to this almighty power. This, of course, becomes a pattern for tyrants on all levels. Political leaders who we dare not question, religious leaders pronouncing God’s absolutes, and fathers who rule the home with an iron fist all count on hierarchicalism. In part, at least, the impetus for objectifying, for living in an It-world, is fear. We do not genuinely know and accept ourselves, so we build walls and keep our distance.
Our challenge is to find ways to trust, to know mercy, to ease into relating with openness, repsect, and love. This is indeed the challenge of a lifetime. I hope that by thinking more explicitly about spirituality we can work at meeting this challenge.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion.
How can we grow spiritually?
What makes spiritual vitality difficult for us?
Does this It-Thou distinction make sense? Do you agree with how central I am saying it is to spirituality?
How would you characterize the main hindrances to your spirituality?
What can you say about how you understand yourself in relation to spirituality? About how you understand God?