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Faith and the “Inward Witness”

Several years ago I read a column by Donald W. Haynes — and its content has stayed with me. Haynes used to write a regular “Wesleyan Wisdom” column for the United Methodist Reporter. (I always appreciated what he had to say.)

Donald W. Haynes

The one I’m thinking of was titled “Like Wesley, do we seek an ‘inward witness’?” It appeared in November of 2012. It was about the experience of the assurance of salvation. First, Haynes talks about Wesley’s religious life prior to his famous Aldersgate experience. Was he seeking God? Certainly. Was he seeking a holy life? Certainly. Did he have faith? Yes. But, there was a vital and missing element: an experience of inward assurance. It was this that he found at the prayer meeting at Aldersgate. Haynes writes:

Wesley’s doctrine was sound and his self-discipline was exemplary, but he still lacked what Paul called “witness of the spirit.” Wesley admitted later that he did not understand his father, when the old Anglican on his death bed in April 1735 told him that “inward witness” was the “strongest proof of Christianity.”Surely, many of us know how Wesley must have felt. In the years since revival altar calls gave way to confirmation classes, very little has been said in most United Methodist churches about an experience of assurance that one’s sins are forgiven. Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist children once learned a little chorus: “I’ve got the peace that passeth understanding down in my heart . . . down in my heart today.” The second stanza was the same except the last line, “down in my heart to stay.”

How many of us must confess—while we believe that God loves us, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins, that the Bible is the Word of God, and that we are to reach out with deeds of kindness and acts of mercy—we still have a missing link in our relationship with God? Deep in our soul, there is an empty spot which only the Holy Spirit can fill. Is this not the Achilles heel of multiple millions of Christians? Is this not one important clue to the net loss of 650,000 United Methodists already in the 21st century?

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Spirituality and the Spirit

I have previously written about spirituality in what might be called a generic sense: as a human capability. A simple way of understanding the spiritual side of human nature is to see it as the capacity for self-transcendence.

candle-tipI have explored this idea here:

As I say, it is possible to see all of this as “spirituality” in a generic sense. It’s a human capacity.

But, to go further in discussing this, I need to draw on ideas explicitly from Christian theology.  At this point, the Christian perspective gives us some help in understanding how human spiritual capabilities connect us with God and with the world around us. The helpful concept in this case is the idea of the Holy Spirit. Our human capacity — and yearning — to reach out beyond ourselves is answered by the reality of God’s Spirit reaching to us. This is only natural to expect. We have an desire to connect with a higher reality than ourselves. Our desire to breathe is answered by the air around us. Our desire for food and water are answered the reality of food and water. Our desire for a connection with God  — which would give a framework of meaning to our lives and our moral choices — is answered by the Holy Spirit of God. (more…)

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The Ecstatic Structure of Human Spirituality

blessing-prayerLast week I posted on What is Spirituality?”. This was my attempt to get a handle on what it might mean to call something “spiritual.” While spirituality is certainly a subjective phenomenon, I believe there is a way of talking about it and analyzing it, to some extent. I said:

Human spirituality is self-transcendence. A spiritual experience is something that lifts us beyond our selves. The true essence of spirituality is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; and our neighbor as much as we love our own self. (See Luke 10:27, etc.) There is both a vertical (God-ward) axis and a horizontal (other-ward) axis to this. But, spirituality is always being lifted out of ourselves. Spirituality connects us with God, with the community of faith and with the needs of other people outside the community of faith. These vertical and horizontal axes correspond roughly with the idea of God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. Traditionally, Christian theology has affirmed both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence.

Here is another way of saying it: there is an ecstatic structure to human spirituality. A spiritual experience is something that lifts us beyond ourselves. It may provide us a sense of connection to a higher reality or it may provide us with a sense of connection with other people. Or, it may do both. But, in any case, it lifts us beyond ourselves — outside ourselves.

I realize that this assertion (especially the language of “ecstasy”) is very much open to misinterpretation, so I feel the need to say more about it. (more…)

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What is Spirituality?

Oddly enough, Christians often have a difficult time talking meaningfully about spirituality. It is as if words fail us at this point.

candle-tipWe are at the edge of a mystery. We are talking about the ways of God — and the ways in which humans find connection with God. We are not used to thinking of this as something which is open to analysis and investigation. After all: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8 NRSV).

I certainly do not wish to deny this. But, this does not mean that the experience of human spirituality is beyond discussion or analysis — at least to some degree. Yes, there is a mystery to the way God works. But, truth be told, we are surrounded by mystery continually. there is a mystery to the way the world works. We are often unaware of this — but, still, it is true. There is so much about life and the world that we do not — and apparently cannot — fully understand. But, this does not stop us from talking meaningfully about the things we can understand. (more…)

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Holy Spirit, Self-Trancendence, Community

Reason_for_HopeThis conception of the Spirit’s relation to the human person and to human community rings true for me.

Pannenberg sees in the heightened exocentric capability of humans the basis for their uniqueness from other animal forms. In the being-with-others that characterizes their existence, they are able to transcend themselves — to look back on themselves again — and thereby to develop self-consciousness. This exocentrically based development of self-consciousness indicates [this] to him as well as the connection between humans and Spirit. Pannenberg credits the self-transcendence required for this process to the action of the Spirit, who lifts humans above themselves, so that when they are ecstatically with others they are themselves. For this reason self-transcendence cannot be accomplished by the subject itself. Rather, all knowing is possible only through the Spirit.

By extension, the same ecstatic working of the Spirit found in the individual is the basis for the building of community. In fact, community is always an experience brought by the Spirit, who lifts one above oneself.

 — Stanley J. Grenz, Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1989).

I expect worship to be an experience that lifts me out of my pre-occupation with myself. (more…)

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