Since “spirituality” is as common, commercialized, personalized, processed, and often as unhealthy as fast food joints these days, it is important, vitally so, that we consider what it means to claim a Christian spirituality for ourselves. In short, I would summarize that a distinctly biblical, Christian spirituality is the process of the resurrection community being conformed to the image of Jesus, which includes his interiority and mission. The aim in Spiritual Formation for the re-formation of our inner life so that it becomes the same as that of Jesus, which propels us into missional participation with Him. Following Jesus is about becoming just like Jesus for the sake of Jesus’ mission.
The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote as the beginnings of my own wrestling with what living a distinctly Christian spirituality means.
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Prepared for Columbia Theological Seminary | November 2010 | Shawn Duncan
For a spirituality to be worthy of the epithetic use of “Christian,” it must be constituted by the Christ event. This means that it must be a practiced aim for a self-transcending and self-integrating transformation into the person of Jesus, his inner life and social presence. This can only occur through the dynamism of Trinitarian and ecclesial relationships, which are given identity and trajectory by the missional narrative that is the Bible. This will be unpacked following considerations of nonproprietary and religious/practiced spiritualities. Their juxtaposition with Christian spirituality will further the goal of understanding its distinctiveness.
Spirituality, like religion, education, marriage, and government, does not inherently possess nutritive value. Spirituality may be malignant, benign, or redemptive. Every individual, every community, and every culture lives a spirituality. This is what is meant by nonproprietary spirituality - true about all people, restricted by no governing beliefs or boundaries for practice. Though the experience and aim of an intentional and uncontaminated spirituality is progress toward “life integration” through an “orientation toward ultimate value that is transcendent,” we cannot deny that lives that are “disintegrating” are not also caught up within a spirituality (Rodger Nishioka). Otherwise only persons who have discovered and are nurturing a path towards uncorrupted wholeness can be said to have a spirituality. Though a spirituality may never progress toward such an ideal, it is still a spirituality. The role of the academic, the pastor, and the practitioner is to determine what a given spirituality is, where it came from, how it finds expression, and what must be changed so that it has a redemptive, dignifying, integrative effect.
Spirituality, then, is, in this comprehensive framework, the values, experiences, and practices that “animate” (Nishioka) life by giving it meaning. Participation in a great world religion, belief in a god(s), and deliberateness of practice is not necessary for nonproprietary spirituality. Human beings seek meaning for their life and some ideal to animate it; we are all spiritual beings. Whatever a person or a society uses as the animating reason to keep their bodies alive is their spirituality. Allister McGrath in one among many who locate spirituality only within the context of a specific religion. This denies the existence of a defining quality of human life for the millions of persons inhabiting the planet who are not confessors of a recognized religion. Fraternalism, nationalism, and tribalism as well as progress, freedom, family, honor, and responsibility all function as suitable spiritualities for many theistic and atheistic people groups all over the world. The world’s military regimes are better at spirituality than many religious groups in that they create an altruistic doctrine, strategically implement it, and have adherents who are emotionally and volitionally committed to doing anything and going anywhere to pursue and protect that system of meaning. This is a malignant spirituality, but a spirituality all the same. Spirituality is that which provides the meaning for life and serves as the impetus and justification for one’s social/familial rituals, vocational decisions, and interactions with the world. To say that all are spiritual does not mean that are all in touch with emotions or convinced that a paranormal force is working to sort out the details of life. It simply means that there is an ideology - whether perceived or unconscious - giving meaning to thoughts, actions, relationships, and, ultimately, existence.
More narrowly, there is also what can be designated as religious/practiced spiritualities, which can be theistic or nontheistic. It is here that McGrath’s definition is more helpful: “Spirituality concerns the quest for a fulfilled and authentic religious life, involving the bringing together of the ideas distinctive of that religion and the whole experience of living on the basis of and within the scope of that religion.” Though the lived experience may not be this robust, this definition does represent well the ideal for persons finding their spirituality within the boundaries of a specific religion or spirituality program. Thus, for this more limited category of spirituality to be sufficiently nuanced, McGrath’s definition should be reworked to include those Robert Wuthnow identifies as living a “practiced-oriented spirituality.” These persons still evidence “quest for a fulfilled and authentic [spiritual] life” but not within the ambit of a singular doctrinal system. A religious/practiced spirituality is life animated by a deliberate quest of authentic, fulfilled, and integrated life. This quest is defined and carried along either within the confines of a specific religious system or by a set of practices “negotiated” (Wuthnow) and cultivated from a wider variety of sources. Christian spirituality, as a theistic, religious spirituality, obviously fits within this framework, as does, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. spiritualities. What must be analyzed is what - in beliefs, practices, and aims - makes Christian spirituality distinctly and robustly Christian.
The first question in the analysis of Christian spirituality is whether one offers a description of the lived experience of it or a theological prescription for it. In other words, is one addressing the spirituality of Christians or Christian spirituality? Some attempts at arriving at a definition live with the former, some within the latter, and others oscillate between the two, like the preface to Minding the Spirit that declares that spirituality is:
the daily lived aspect of one’s faith commitment in terms of values and behaviors; how one appropriates beliefs about God and the world (what is); the process of conscious integration and transformation of one’s life; the journey of self-transcendence (what should be); the depth dimension of all human existence (what is); a dialectic that moves one from the inauthentic to the authentic and from the individual to the communal (should be); the quest for ultimate value and meaning (is and should be) (Dreyer and Burrows)
An approach like this is helpful in that it affirms the importance of what Bernard McGinn refers to as the “anthropological approach” and the “historical-contextual approach” which deal with what is and why/how it came to be, whether as a result of human nature or cultural circumstances. This is what the editors of the three volume series Christian Spirituality centered upon. They called it “Christian spirituality as a discipline.” This means “reflection upon the historical manifestation of the lived experience [of Christian belief].” What is of interest presently, however, is the “theological approach,” which here means addressing what should be. Even a life committed to a “set of (creedal) beliefs and values that are embodied in a real and daily way of life” (Nishioka) is still a spirituality of Christians because it lacks sufficient Christocentric content. To lose a mooring in the theological prescription that constitutes Christian spirituality is to nullify the value of descriptors that emerge out of an investigation of a people’s anthropology, history, or context. The essential role of the “existential project” (Sandra Schneiders) is to be placed in dialogue with so that it moves towards the spiritual life as theological project.
Therefore, let it be stated again: For a spirituality to be worthy of the epithetic use of “Christian,” it must be constituted by the Christ event. This means that it must be a practiced aim for a self-transcending and self-integrating transformation into the person of Jesus, his inner life and social presence. This can only occur through the dynamism of Trinitarian and ecclesial relationships, which are given identity and trajectory by the missional narrative that is the Bible. Each component of this description shall be fleshed out below.
The first and defining quality of the Christian religion is that it is founded upon a person and a historical event - not upon an ideal, a philosophy, or a law. As Michel de Certeau affirms, “Christianity implies a relationship to the event which inaugurated it: Jesus Christ.” Christianity is predicated upon the historical arriving of God enfleshed walking, teaching, dying, and, especially, rising. Any form of spirituality that encourages a departure from or reduction of the embodied narrative of the Christ cannot be considered an authentic Christian spirituality. Definitions and descriptions that center upon “lived Christian beliefs” rather than the living Christ present and embodied among His people are insufficient by themselves. Therefore, a distinctly Christian spirituality must be thoroughly christocentric.
Jesus is kept at the center of Christian spirituality because He is its end. The second descriptor of persons living Christian spirituality are those in the life-long process of transformation. The journey of Christian spirituality is a move toward wholeness, life-integration, and orientation towards ultimate value. Coming to know Christ intimately, follow Him obediently, and be formed into His cruciform image constitutes personhood. To place these byproducts as the aim, however, is to truncate Christian spirituality into self-actualization and to lose its distinctiveness from other spiritualities. So, this is the aim must stay at the center: the church re-formed into the image of Jesus. As God was incarnated in Jesus, Jesus is made flesh by the church. This has both ethical and missional implications. The process of transformation that is Christian spirituality is a movement toward the character of Christ as it is also a participation in the mission of Christ.
The capacity of Jesus to love His enemies, refuse greed, live peaceably, speak truthfully, obey His parents, abandon lust, reject selfishness, love all, etc. are part of what is referred to here as the character or the ethics of Jesus. The editors of Christian Spirituality claim that spirituality can be “distinguished from Christian ethics in that it treats not all human actions in their relation to God, but those acts in which the relation to God is immediate and explicit.” (McGinn) For a thorough and disciplined analysis of Christian spirituality, this is not suitable. It assumes that a people’s spirituality is primarily located in their personal, relational connection to God, and it assumes that ethics are not a part of that. Both preconceptions are misguided; Feminist and Liberation theologians have taught as much. Becoming like Jesus includes joining in His intimate connection with the Father just as much as it means taking on His way of life. His and our ethic of “all human actions” is part of relating well to God, one another, and the world. Christian spirituality leads disciples to progressively take on this way of being. A spirituality can be tested as Christian, then, by its effectiveness of imbuing the inner character, the morality, or the ethics of Jesus, which is a part of the mission of Jesus.
John speaks of Jesus as “the sent one” who transfers His Spirit to make us the sent ones (i.e. 3:34; 20:21). Luke anachronistically retells the event of Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah so that His life and ministry could be set within its missional context (4:18-19). Since the Fall God has been working to redeem and reconcile a broken, lost, and evil world. Jesus is the beginning of the end of that mission. A spirituality that fails to serve as an impetus to this mission is not a fully Christian spirituality. Jesus as a man of prayer is just as relevant to Christian spirituality as Jesus the harbinger of justice. In Christian spirituality “a tension between the mystical and the prophetic should be characteristic” (Philip Sheldrake). To learn meditation without learning ministry amongst the “least of these” is not Christian spirituality. Contemplation and compassion, solitude and solidarity may not be a part of the spiritualities of all Christians, but their dynamic interrelatedness is decidedly a part of a Christian spirituality. They are vapid without one another, for “every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Thirdly, this process of transformation into the person and event that constitutes our faith happens through practice(s). What is first affirmed in calling Christian spirituality a “practiced aim” is the role of the classic spiritual disciplines, which can be understood as a “constellation of practices which forms a mystagogy into a life of Christian discipleship” (J. Matthew Ashley). Christian spirituality is certainly subject to the wind of the Spirit, surprise encounters, unexpected epiphanies, and unmanageable interferences, but there are also disciplines - fasting, examine of conscience, mediation, and the like - necessary to lead one into a deliberate, formative, sustaining, and substantive encounter with God.
This descriptor also endorses a modified use of Robert Wuthnow’s “practice-oriented spirituality.” As American society has progressed away from spirituality cultivated by a locale within which persons are rooted, individuals have learned to “seek” and to “negotiate” between countless options as they move through the world. Even though this has opened many up to a deeply rich and wildly vast array of possibilities, it, for many, has led to an inconsistent, aimless self-serving spirituality based on a few fleeting experiences (i.e. “seeking-orientation”). Others have entered into this new landscape and discovered more deliberate paths, however. These persons have chosen a course of learning and development which includes practices that require time, sacrifices, and life change. The relates to Christians in that the process of becoming Christ requires the same intentionality of practice. There is divergence, however, in that Wuthnow’s practitioners may or may not be rooted within a community or a specific faith system. They can seek self-transcendence toward ultimate value on their own. Part of the Christians program of growth necessitates community and a specific doctrinal system. Our ultimate value is Christ, and self-transcendence is found through the cross - Jesus’ and our own.
The final meaning of practice has similitude with Elizabeth Liebert’s use of the term. She says, “‘Practice’ is the intentional and repeated bringing of one’s lived spirituality into the various theaters of one’s scholarly work and attending to what happens when one does.” To adjust this for our purposes, “one’s scholarly work” should be replaced with “one’s relationship with Christ and His Word, church, character, and mission.” This means that having a “practiced aim” is a deliberate choice to evaluate one’s experience against Christ and respond accordingly. This is what disciples do. They engage in action, weigh it against the teachings and life of their master, and then work toward greater alignment with him or her. This gets us to the heart of the matter and a word that would, if it existed, be more fitting than practiced: discipled. Since Christian spirituality is fundamentally about discipleship to Jesus Christ, a verb form of disciple best describes the correct form of its lived experience. Practice in this sense is deliberate consciousness in one’s life to continually weigh all things against the Christ event.
Fourthly, becoming Christ requires a total rejection of the privatization of spirituality.
One thing that comes out very clearly from any reading of the great desert monastic writers of the fourth and fifth centuries is the impossibility of thinking about contemplation or meditation or ‘spiritual life’ in abstraction from the actual business of living in the body of Christ, living in concrete community (Rowan Williams).
This commentary could certainly be extended beyond the desert Abbas and Ammas to include the majority of historic Christian peoples. Christians are only Christians in community with one another. The conditions of the church are the conditions in which Christian spirituality takes place. This must be held in balance with comments like: “spirituality is the aspect of organized religion which is least under the control of the religion institution” (Schneiders). In a context so quick to contrast spirituality and religion, one must carefully yet robustly hold up the indispensable role of the church in Christian spirituality. Certainly “organized religion” and the “institution” are under fire and, in some ways, rightfully so. Bad religion and malignant institutions are not reasons for the denial of the need for the church or for making spirituality out to be something separate from one’s religious commitments. Christians and their spirituality exist as church, as community. Institutions, without trying to control it, must hold this connectedness up and not leave it to something that is entirely “out of their control.” This communal identity is true because God is Trinity.
Trinity is the full expression of God’s perfect love and oneness in Himself. To be made, or remade, in that image is to be drawn into and reformed by community. Christian spirituality is intensely and intrinsically relational. It is about initmacy within a triune God, which in turn creates intimacy with one another. “The Trinity reforms persons not only to intimacy with the three divine persons but to Christian community as well” (Mary T. Clark). Also, “In Christianity the term ‘spirituality’ is most apt for... life in the Spirit who makes it possible to pray ‘Abba, Father!’ Union with Christ in the Holy Spirit, in whom one becomes a child of the Father, is the foundation of Christian prayer and life” (Clark). Not only is the Trinity the model for communal spiritual living, it is the constitutive force that makes communion possible. Paul says it like this: “In [Christ] we both have access to one God through the Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens with God’s people... And in [Christ] you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit” (Eph 2:18022) This is where the word ‘spiritual’ takes on special significance in the Christian faith. It is SPIRITual. Spiritual to the Christian is not about her own spirit but about the Spirit of God who makes the whole project of Christian spirituality possible. The Spirit initiates, continues, and fulfills a Christ-becoming life to the glory and praise of the Father.
The final descriptor is where the particularity of a Christian spirituality finds it second most important piton - the Bible. Other than Jesus Himself, there is no other entity that must be depended upon as heavily as Scripture for the understanding and experience of Christian spirituality. To say that Christian spirituality must be biblical is a truism so vague it is almost inconsequential. The use of the Bible is not inherently healthy nor will it automatically support the development of Christian spirituality. The relationship of Scripture and spirituality will be delineated further below (if one has interest in the portion of the paper to which this is referring, please contact email@example.com). For now, however, it is important to reflect on the way in which the Bible is upheld in Christian spirituality.
That there is a system of belief upon which to build one’s spirituality is just as important as the way in which that system is appropriated. Propositional doctrine is not biblical. It is the creation of a Renaissance/Enlightenment hermeneutic which has guided most of modernity’s biblical scholarship since the nineteenth century (Thurston). It is this understanding of the Bible, of doctrine, of belief that allows one to speak of spirituality as something different from doctrine. Biblical spirituality is not just the use of the Bible to nurture spirituality, though it is that. Biblical spirituality is about a lens through which to view and use Scripture. Narrative doctrine is a more fitting approach, for it is what the Bible is. The Bible is a system of belief enfleshed in a story or, better, the Bible is the story of trinitarian redemptive, reconciling action in the world from which we learn not just what to believe but how to believe it. Any attempt to segregate dogma from spirituality is a misunderstanding and/or misappropriation of them both (McGinn). It is narrative explicating doctrine; it is doctrine fleshed out in narrative. The implication of embracing Scripture as “doctrinarrative” is that a missional God and a missional people are revealed.
Though the connotation of interiority dominates much popular understanding of spirituality, Christian spirituality is to be “deeply concerned with the practice of everyday life in the outer, social world” (Sheldrake). Social justice, liberation theology, and missiology cannot be treated as optional special interest subdivisions of biblical studies. An accurate reading of Scripture will reveal this. The church’s action in the world on behalf of the poor, broken, oppressed, lost, hungry, and captive is part and parcel to authentically Christian spirituality. As we become like Jesus, we embrace His way of living socially and publicly in an incarnational, missional way. Prayer, meditation, and liturgy are to be considered in the same breath with shopping, taking up residence, and doing business. A true encounter with those things more commonly considered spiritual are to propel the church into active engagement with the world. Any “spiritual discipline” that leads to passive interiority or ecclesiocentrism is a rejection of Christian spirituality. This is the nature of the Bible from which we procure The Story in which we are called to participate.
To conclude, two adjunctive comments are necessary. Since Christian spirituality encompasses persons in community taking on the full life of Jesus in their character and in their vocation, then one must acknowledge its absolutely comprehensive, undeniably holistic nature. Rowan Williams rightly articulates it this way: “It must now touch every area of human experience, the public and social, the painful, negative, even pathological byways of the mind, the moral and relational world.” Christians will all live a spirituality. It is simply a question of whether it will be reductionistic and disintegrating or comprehensive and redemptive.
Also, history and Scripture both testify that there can be no expectation or articulation of one normative form of Christian spirituality. One must recognize the ever evolving and expanding nature of the spiritualities of Christians, which must be allowed to act as “contributor(s) of genuine noetic content to the Christian tradition” (Schneiders). As ecumenism continues to define the postmodern landscape and as present day persons are learning and borrowing more from the East, from the past, and from other world religions, homogeneity should not be expected or desired. However, the above characteristics offer boundaries for mystic, charismatic, active, reformed, emergent, etc. traditions to live within and be tested by to determine whether they are distinctly Christian. It can be summarized in this way:
The event of Jesus Christ is the measure of all authentic forms of Christian discipleship in the sense that they presuppose that event but are not identical repetitions of it. The particularity of the event of Jesus Christ permits the placed nature, the particularities of all subsequent discipleship (Sheldrake).
Attempts to affirm spiritualities as Christian that have a “marginal at best” (Schneiders) relation to these theological moorings is misguided and will have a malignant affect on study and practice. These may be influenced by Christianity, have familiarity with it, or offer a syncretistic blend with it, but they cannot be treat as distinctly Christian. A spirituality is Christian only if it is relationally centered on Christ by the Spirit through the church for the progress of becoming more like Christ, which includes taking on His ethic and His mission. “The task is to make the center strong, the symbols large, the words of Christ clear, and make that center accessible, the circle large, the periphery permeable” (Gordon Laycock).
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Another (much more simplified) way I think of this is to view Christian spirituality as the growth of a plant. In this image, the Garden in which it grows is the Triune-ecclesial community. The dirt in which it is planted is the missional, doctrinarrative of Scripture. The food that nourishes and gives it life is the Spirit. The tools for cultivation are disciplined practice and incarnational living. The “it” of which we speak, the plant itself, is Christ being grown and regrown, produced and reproduced. The fruit this plant produces is the ethic and mission of Jesus.