What Makes Christian Spirituality Distinctive? (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

Daryll Tippens
July – August, 2003

A few weeks ago I walked the streets of Pompeii, an ancient city that flourished in Jesus’ day, frozen in time by the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius. As I scanned the well-preserved baths, shops, houses, and theaters—and even the human remains permanently fixed in the positions they fell on that fateful day in A.D. 79—I couldn’t help thinking that Pompeii’s world is like my own, for at the center of that hedonistic culture one recognizes a longing for the sacred in its many temples dedicated to the gods, next-door to the markets and the brothel. In the midst of the carnal one always finds evidence of a natural “spirituality.” So it is today.

Whether ancient or postmodern, no matter how far they wander from the Creator, humans never lose the memory of their Maker. Even the most rebellious soul is just one step away from the path that leads back to the Father’s arms. And so Christians are ever hopeful, even in the darkness of modern-day Pompeiis. When the Apostle Paul walked the streets of Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, he saw “extremely religious” people “groping” for God (Acts 17:22, 27). Similarly, as we see people adopting strange “spiritualities” today, we are not discouraged because, like Paul, we know these seekers are not far from home. All people are hard-wired for God. In its crudest form “spirituality” means little more than self-improvement. From a Christian point of view, what could be good about this ill-defined quest called spirituality?

“Spiritual” today does not signify that something is Christian or even religious. Today “spiritual” is more likely to mean something generic: self-aware, interconnected, or trusting in a higher power. “Spirituality” today refers to almost any kind of inner work, whether it’s cultivating a sense of mystery, attending to one’s emotional needs, or cultivating one’s authentic identity. In its crudest form “spirituality” means little more than self-improvement. From a Christian point of view, what could be good about this ill-defined quest called spirituality?

The current flowering of “spiritualities” raises some big questions for Christians. Shall we condemn the whole enterprise as false religion? What is the relationship, if any, between these popular spiritualities and Christian spirituality? Should we become suspicious of the growing interest in “Christian spirituality,” since it sometimes resembles the spiritualities found in the marketplace? Using Paul’s missionary approach in Acts 17 as our model, I suggest that, before we condemn, we look for common ground upon which to dialogue with our searching, sometimes confused neighbors.

There is some good news in the current turn to spirituality, first, because it signals a growing disenchantment with materialism. If Paul were a missionary in North America today, surely he would recognize the current situation as evidence of humanity’s innate spiritual hunger. While they are still far from home, these seekers are reaching out for a deity unknown to them (Acts 17:27). God’s truth shines in all that’s fair, even among the lost: “light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8-9). Furthermore, the new spiritualities honor the possibility of the sacred. It is increasingly common, even among intellectuals, to critique the limitations of Enlightenment rationality. The African-American feminist bell hooks observes: “The spiritual awakening that is slowly taking place counterculturally will become more of a daily norm as we all willingly break mainstream cultural taboos that silence or erase our passion for spiritual practice.” Intellectuals like hooks now freely admit that there are spiritual ways of knowing. This epistemological shift is momentous and historic, for it invites dialogue with non-believers about the God of Scripture and the “legitimacy” of Christian experience. The new spiritualities do not automatically lead to baptismal waters, of course; but the new consciousness opens the door to conversation, the necessary prelude to conversion. At this hinge moment of history, Christians must be ready to introduce seekers to the superior spirituality offered by Christ. Furthermore, Christians must be able to assert the unique elements of Christian spirituality which distinguish it from the popular spiritualities of the day. Briefly, let me mention a few of these distinctives.

1. Christian spirituality entails a specific way of life. Popular spirituality often rejects ethical agendas, but a mature spirituality is necessarily ethical. It involves a particular way of life, rooted in Scripture and in the proven traditions of historic Christian practice. It includes, but is not limited to, what we commonly call “the spiritual disciplines”: prayer, worship, Scripture reading, meditation, caring for the sick, fasting, “Sabbath” rest, etc. Pre-eminently, it is walking as Jesus walked, becoming more like him, degree by degree (2 Cor. 3:17-18; 1 John 2:3-6). The aim is simple and breathtaking: “as he is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).

Above all, Christian spirituality cultivates self-sacrificing love: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:1) A spirituality concerned only with “self-improvement” (tailored to one’s personal taste), is selfish and destructive—the opposite of Christian spirituality. The goal is self-giving, not self-improvement, for it is through radical openness to others that we truly know our “higher power” (see Phil. 2: 5-11).

2. Christian spirituality is God’s work, not ours. Recently a friend came to me in great distress. A college-educated professional with a very successful business, “Reggie” had adopted a New Age philosophy that placed the obligation of self-improvement (one might say “redemption”) entirely on his own back. He was deeply convicted that he must become a better man, but he also knew that he did not have the power in himself to fix what was broken. A believer in reincarnation, he told me that if he failed to repair his life now, then he was doomed to repeat his life until he “got it right.” He felt doomed to live Groundhog Day through eternity. His “spirituality” offered no grace, no help from a loving Savior.

Reggie’s problem is not unusual, for legalism is an inherent danger of today’s spiritualities. Even Christian spiritualities can subtly morph into works-centered systems, leading people to believe that they make themselves better or justify themselves by their good works—praying more, studying their Bibles more, fasting more, etc. If our spirituality devolves into self-justification, then it cancels the redemptive work of Christ and becomes spiritual slavery (Col. 2:23; Gal. 5:1). Christian spirituality is always God-centered and liberating. Change is preeminently God’s gift to us, not the fruit of our work.

3. Christian spirituality is Trinitarian. The great Bible passages concerned with transformation always reveal the shared work of Father, Son, and Spirit. While we collaborate with God—our “work” is to yield our will to his—transformation is God’s work in us, through Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. God, through the Holy Spirit, shapes us into the image of the Son (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18). Transformation, therefore, is Trinitarian and supernatural—”from above” (from the Father), “of the Spirit,” and for the express purpose of shaping us in the image of Jesus (John 3:3, 6; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).

4. Christian spirituality is concrete and communal. Many popular spiritualities are highly individualized, deriving from the long-honored American ideals of self-reliance and personal autonomy. In other words, these spiritualities are focused on the self. Biblical spirituality, however, affirms that it is all about him, not us. We belong to him, and he changes us as we participate richly in a particular community.

Because Biblical spirituality is communal and ethical, rooted in self-sacrificing love, it is also necessarily concrete. When we love, we don’t just entertain positive, private thoughts in our heads. Love is a transitive verb requiring an object. Thus, when we love, we must love some thing or someone—God, another person, a class of people. Indeed, the quality of our spirituality can be measured by the quality of our love for others, in community. True spirituality, according to John, is loving action (1 John 3:18).

This is the key: to offer a gracious, liberating Biblical spirituality which we have tested in our own lives. Love doesn’t emanate like radio waves from a machine; rather, it flows from a particular human heart, mediated by a particular human body, towards another particular human being, and expressed concretely through action—spoken words, a letter, a handshake, a hug. In Bonhoeffer’s terms, we need love with skin on it. Unfortunately, some forms of Christian spirituality have become dangerously disembodied and docetic, but authentic spirituality is as concrete as Jesus’ touch. According to John, Jesus’ spirituality was so physical that you could look at it and touch it (1 John 1:1). So should ours be.

Let us celebrate the fact that popular forms of spirituality in our day can prepare the way for an encounter with God. They certify that a great spiritual hunger is abroad in our land. We can be thankful for the new openness to notions of the sacred and transcendence. We can gratefully and in humility accept the opportunity to lead our neighbors to a more authentic spirituality. This is the key: to offer a gracious, liberating Biblical spirituality which we have tested in our own lives. We show our own willingness to submit ourselves to God’s chastening, shaping power. And we humbly confess that we fall far short of the ideal of “Christification”—the ultimate goal of Christian spirituality. We invite all to join us on the road to the supreme goal: “as he is, so are we in this world.”New Wineskins

Darryl Tippens

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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