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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.

So, what does it mean when someone says: “I came to your church but it wasn’t very spiritual”? Or: “I used to go to church but there was no life in it, now I feel I’m spiritually alive.” We have all heard things like this. Is this purely human subjectivity? Is this purely in the realm of feeling? Or: are their ways we might gauge (at least to some degree) what would make a worship service more or less “spiritual”? Are there ways of talking about what spiritual life looks like and feels like? While there is certainly mystery on the God-ward side, are there common realities on the human-experience side which allow us to talk about this? I think there are.

blessing-prayerHere is my thesis. Let’s see how far this gets us: 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.

So, imagine this scenario (and pardon, if you can, the use of the plural pronoun): a person attends an evangelistic worship service. The music lifts up the greatness of God. As the person sings, they begin to sense a heightened awareness and connection with God. The preacher reads a Scripture passage and begins to preach. The message is heard as a word from God — and, not simply as the opinion of the preacher. As the service draws to a close, a challenge is given for people in the congregation to respond to the call of Christ to repent, believe and follow. The person feels an inward urge to respond — and they do. Someone prays with them a prayer of commitment to Christ. A spiritual experience? Certainly! And, what can we say about it? This person had a spiritual experience primarily (maybe exclusively) along the vertical axis. They felt lifted emotionally toward God, they heard a message they received as a word from God, they responded. With all due respect to the workings of the Spirit, we can talk in a descriptive and analytical way about what this person experienced. And, maybe what they didn’t.

Conservative-Evangelicals-Misunderstood-MillennialsAnd, imagine this scenario: a teen goes to church camp. This young person experiences life together with a new family group. In the course of the week, some very personal sharing of life-experiences takes place. Trust is built. The campers worship together, play together, laugh together, cry together, and pray together. A deep bond is formed in the context of Christian community. At the end of the week, it is painful for this group to separate from one another. This teen, who went to camp knowing few of the people there, now feels a deep bond with the other people at camp and with God. And, what can we say about this? This person had a spiritual experience primarily (maybe exclusively) along the horizontal axis. They experienced God in community. Again: with all due respect to the workings of the Spirit, we can talk in a descriptive and analytical way about what this person experienced. And, maybe what they didn’t.

Contemplative prayer is likely to be a spiritual experience along both of these axes.

I think spirituality can always be discussed and analyzed to some degree along these lines. What facilitates the sense of connection with God? What facilitates my sense of bonding with the community? What facilitates my identification with the needs of others?

What is the advantage of looking at things this way? It gives us a language and a set of basic conceptual tools by which we can discuss the spiritual aspects of Christian ministry and Christian experience.

Is there something I’m missing here? What should be added to this?


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3 Responses

  1. John Edward Harris February 8, 2019 / 2:00 pm

    While I resonate with what you wrote, I offer two responses.

    I agree that the human experience of spirituality is not beyond discussion or analysis. That is, after all, what you and I are engaged in through this exchange. We have inherited a treasure in the form of the discussion and analysis of spirituality from the great cloud of Christians, especially mystics, as well as our own experiences to reflect upon. We are, after all, not the first Christians to experience the mystery of God.

    I disagree that the person in worship had a spiritual experience primarily (maybe exclusively) along the vertical axis while the camper had a spiritual experience primarily (maybe exclusively) along the horizontal axis. Both the person in worship and the camper experienced the transcendent (vertical) within the context of a community (horizontal). I argue that both the horizontal and the vertical are always present, though perhaps not equally present. Even the solitary Christian mystic is surrounded by the communal history and prayers of the church that formed them. Even though person who experiences nothing more than fellowship around a campfire at church camp or the coffee and doughnut table after worship is surrounded by a community that has come together in the name of God.

    • Craig L. Adams February 16, 2019 / 6:38 pm

      Thanks for your rebuttal. I suspect we are not far apart on this at all. Nonetheless, I am not inclined to surrender the point. It seems to me that Camp Meeting evangelism (for example) sought to foster connection with God wholly on the transcendent axis — even as if no immanent axis existed — whereas Church Camp sought to foster connection with God wholly on the immanent axis — with far less emphasis on the transcendent. Obviously, God is both immanent and transcendent. When I became a camp counselor I found that I had so much to learn from the fellowship into which I was thrust — a wonderful, unexpected gift for which my experience in camp meeting and revivalism had not prepared me. The same God, yet now experienced in a new way.

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