Contemporary spirituality in Christian context
some quotes and sources
…spirituality has become a central concern. There is a reaction – and again I am thinking primarily of the part of the world which has been dominant over the last few centuries – against a kind of rationalism which is the child of a mechanical way of seeing the universe – something which has been characteristic of what we call 'modernisation' during the past couple of hundred years, a sense that we have become alienated from the creation and that a wrong kind of rationalism, springing out of a mechanistic way of understanding the world, is at the bottom of it. There is also, I think, and here I am perhaps open to challenge, an element of narcissism, namely of excessive concern about the self, which is a product of the individualism and relativism which are such marked features of our society…
Lesslie Newbigin, Come Holy Spirit- Renew the Whole Creation, 1990, p.2.
Some paths… emphasise an individuated form of spirituality, the primary locus of God or the Goddess - being within the individual human subject. Other paths emphasise the spirituality which runs through all that is natural, and which therefore connects everyone with the cosmic order of things. And yet other paths combine... monism with beliefs to do with external spiritual agencies, transcending what lies within….
Paul Heelas, The New Age in Cultural Context,in Religion, 1993, 23, p.105
Popular culture… confirms that stories our generation of non-believing believers (and younger generations) like to tell and hear are not about secular universes, but involve notions of a Higher Power. These stories, however, more often than not, have no sovereign, omnipotent, transcendent God. 'God' or the ultimate Power, may be powerful to an extent, but what is most notably lacking is the distance-separation between God and the world. Either, God (by whatever name) is made of the same stuff, and has the same limitations as humans, or humans are an essential part of the same universal flow of energy we may call God or the Higher Power.
Massimo Introvigne, Templeton Lecture, Harvard University, April 2000.
It is the pain, the actual deadening, horrifying pain of living in the modern which is at the heart of things. Most of us totally underestimate the existence and importance of this pain as a factor in our lives. It is glossed consistently. But the pain forces us to disown responsibility, to say No to the task of confronting and assimilating the problems of modern existence. We have too much pain to be able to choose the good. The existence of this pain deadens and numbs our moral existence. Our reserves of compassion seep away, our desire for real living is undermined by the task of moving from one day to another with the minimum of disaster. There is a sickness of the spirit abroad which forces us into cheap or sentimental theological solutions. An avoidance of moral conflict, a ready acceptance of so-called religious experience, whatever its origin or quality, these are the signs of a cheapening of the religious spirit in men and women.
Melvyn Matthews, Delighting in God, Collins 1987, p.99.
Spirituality can be a form of activity which takes us away from the commonness, the earthiness, the concrete crudity of our lives together. Much spirituality, some of which purports to be Christian, is in fact profoundly anti-incarnational, very elitist and stubbornly apolitical…. As long ago as 1952, Julian Langmead Casserley predicted that the retreat into religion would be the most profound and most enduring form of retreat from Christianity. Our age, Casserly suggested, was likely to be one which was prolific with new superstitions and myths…
Ken Leech, The Sky is Red, 1997, p.131.
It is not true, as the saying has it, that religion is what people do with their solitude. Religion is very much more how people relate to each other and to God in the light of certain corporately remembered solitary experiences - their own or, more often, other people's in the past. We are not meant to think of our individual selves as local shrines of the Holy Spirit. In Old Testament times local shrines fostered idiosyncracy and idolatry, and they do so still.
John V. Taylor, The Uncancelled Mandate, 1998, p.28.
I am not subject to claustrophobia except in New Age bookshops, where the bookshelves seem to close on me with their weight of 'Me, me, me'. Nothing on the shelves points me towards any other person. except perhaps a small group of like-minded friends, huddling together as they search for self-fulfilment within the blankness of a universe that ends with the death of the one being that matters in it, me, me, me. But worse than the claustrophobia is the smell of despair. This is a new age, not the first of its kind, but an age so caught up in hopelessness that it can find no better answer than, 'I can't change anything. It's all written in the stars'. Or an age that looks at the world and can find no response but a retreat into self and self-fulfilment.
Anne de Roo, Becoming Fully Human, 1991
…both hospices and the New Age have arisen in a postmodern society which undermines traditional authorities… Religion (controlled by church authority) is replaced by spirituality (which the individual discovers for herself)… What theological developments occur when Christians actually care for people who are dying? What seems to happen is a radical individualisation of faith, an exclusion of evangelism, the enabling of inter-faith dialogue, a moving beyond the confines of both religious and secular dogma, and an openness to mysticism and contemplation. These trends may also be observed in the general religious culture of Britain. If they feel right to those holding the hands of the dying - perhaps the ultimate test of any religion - they are probably a good indication of the future of Christianity in Britain.
Tony Walter, Developments in Spiritual Care of the Dying,in Religion (1996) 26, pp.359,361.
The essence of the Loving Relationships Training course, they explain, is that you learn to take responsibility for yourself. You learn to rid yourself of old patterns of guilt and blame so that you control your own life. 'Every experience has a lesson in it', says Rennie… 'We choose the experiences we have to have… you need whatever experience you attract'. The child who has cancer, he says, has it for a reason. But the important thing is to change who you are now… 'Once you change your internal experience, you don't reap that karma at all'.
on Darag Rennie and Sally Cook's 'Loving Relationships Training' course (Press report)
Scepticism is recast in an optimistic mode: if nothing is certain, then anything is possible. It is no less rational and certainly far more comforting to believe anything than it is to believe nothing. The close relationship between scepticism and credulity is highlighted by the way both extremes may be found in the same individuals…
Lawrence Osborn, Angels of Light,1992, p.106-7.
There is a dangerous concern with spiritual technology, with method and technique, the carrying over into the spiritual realm of the corrupting effect of consumer capitalism. So we see spirituality sold as a commodity… in recent years, it seems to me that the gnostic resurgence has been much more pronounced, an increasing amount of it now taking place within the Christian Churches.
Ken Leech, The Sky is Red, 1997, p.122.
The old gnosis has never since risen in such critical and yet plausible antagonism to the Gospel till its recrudescence in our own time…. even apostles of that Word … are more drawn to the gnosis of speculation, the occultism of science, the romance of the heart, the mysticism of imagination, than to the historic and ethical spirituality of the evangelical Christ the crucified. Now there will be no doubt of your popularity if you take that gnostic course with due eloquence, taste, and confidence. For it expresses the formless longings and the dim cravings of the subjectivity of the day. But it has not the future, because it misses the genuine note of the Gospel…
The capture of the Western Church by classical philosophy in the shape of medieval scholasticism was very complete; but it was not comparable to what would have happened had Gnosticism got the upper hand in the first crisis. For Aristotle did not represent the religious element in paganism which Gnosticism exploited, the spiritual, imaginative, kindling, popular element. Gnosticism was romantic; it was classicism turned romantic.
P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 1907, p.74.
There is always a strong ascetic element in true spiritual theology. Following Jesus means not following your impulses and appetites and whims an dreams, all of which are sufficiently damaged by sin to make them unreliable guides for getting anyplace worth going. Following Jesus means not following the death-procrastinating, death-denying practices of a culture that, by obsessively pursuing life under the aegis of idols and ideologies, ends up with a life that is so constricted and diminished that it is hardly worthy of the name… Ascetic practice sweeps out the clutter of the god-pretentious self, making ample space for the father, Son and Holy Spirit; it embraces and prepares for a kind of death that the culture knows nothing about, making room for the dance of resurrection. Whenever we are around someone who is doing this well, we notice the lightness of step, the nimbleness of spirit, the quickness to laughter.
Eugene Peterson, What's Wrong with Spirituality?in Christianity Today, July 13 1998.
'This destruction of self-will is a death which is experienced and freely undergone; it is within the innermost activity of the spirit that it takes place, and by the spirit that it is brought about. It grows with the growth of the spirit, and cleaves to it in its inmost depths. But it is a death which does not destroy sensitivity, but, on the contrary, refines it… It does not harden the fibres of the being, but, on the contrary, makes them supple, and spiritualises them. It is a death which transforms us into love.
Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (eng), 1937, p.407.
It is strange that in a generation in which the sense of social justice and of the solidarity of mankind is strongly developed, we find so much naïve faith in the goodness and reliability of uncontrolled and unbridled life force. For such a faith can only produce a society in which the most vital will dominate and which will oscillate between explosions of vitalism from the right such as fascism, and those from the left such as anarchism. When the neo-pagans attack Christianity as a life-denying faith and preach their gospel of the affirmation of life, we must admit that in many expressions of Christianity the negation has been more audible than the affirmation. But we must go on to make it clear that the new life in Christ is truly abundant and does not destroy, but transforms and orients the original life force in us.
W. Visser 't Hooft, Evangelism among Europe's Neo-Pagans,in International Review of Mission, 66:4, 1977, p.359.
(full text available here)
Why then are some evangelicals so suspicious of 'spirituality' today? Is it because it is critical of the politics of evangelicalism? Because wherever power and status are defended, indeed needed, the human spirit will become more apparent than the Spirit of God. Is it because of the hidden desire to be personally in control of one's life, which a rationalistic, fundamentalist type of person tends to portray? Is it because some of us are ill-equipped to deal with our emotions, so they get suppressed, along with the great upwelling of desire that God has planted within us? So we tolerate addictive types of ministry that reflect more about our temperaments than the divine calling. Is it possible that we have faith about doctrine, but little faith about personal transformation of our own persons in Christ? Is it because we place a much higher emphasis upon external actions of 'ministry' than upon the life of prayer? Is it because our public 'persona' matters more to us than our life that is 'hid with Christ in God'? Our resistance to true spirituality can therefore be as personally varied and distinct as our own will.
James Houston, Spiritual life today, in Eden & Wells (eds), The Gospel in the Modern World, 1991, p.193.
It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone…An "impersonal God" - well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads - better still. A formless life-giving force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap - best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed - that is quite another matter… There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?
C. S. Lewis, Miracles, 1947
Spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
C. S. Lewis
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