I have been contemplating spirituality in the Christian faith and the reflection of it in our present world.  We see reflections of spirituality all around us in symbols, activities and conversation.  In my own experience, I have mostly been exposed to a spirituality that manifests itself in the form of accomplishments.  Spiritual people do things and do them consistently.  In my world, for example, spiritual people always read their Bible, went church (all services), abstained from “worldly practices” (undefined or succinctly defined depending on what served the interest of the power).  While all these may be activities that should remain in the Christ follower (depending on how you define the latter activity), they do not provide an adequate picture of spirituality.  Further, in our present world setting, many people claim to be spiritual, but in a way apart from the Christian faith. Yet in their own way, they express adherence to spirituality in ways that bear results similar to Christ followers.  For example, their ability to see a spiritual connectivity to nature demands that they treat the earth in a responsible way.  Similarly, their ability to see a spiritual connectivity to all other humans demands that they treat them with respect and dignity.  However, both the secular and Christ follower are seeing their spirituality centered on them.  Their tasks reflect their spirituality.  Therefore it becomes about the individual and not about anything outside of their ability to show self restraint or consistency.  The late Robert Webber identifies three types of spiritualies situated on self: Spiritual legalism, Intellectual Spirituality, and Experiential Spirituality.  The three forms of spirituality outlined by Webber grow from one another.  Many times a quest end as defeated Christ follower becomes resigned to choosing the one that made him feel most spiritual. Spiritual legalism is about tasks, what you do and don’t do.  Webber fitly critiques this view by suggesting that it “goes beyond biblical faith and practice to require adherence to systems of behavior and belief that go beyond the story of God and the freedom to live in the new life modeled by Jesus” (83).  Intellectual spirituality seeks to “know God,” and is rooted in the enlightenment emphasis of reason and science.  Intellectual spirituality finds similar results as spiritual legalism in that it many times results in pride or unwarranted separation from other Christ followers.  Webber again proposes that, “while knowledge is an important aspect of the Christian faith, it is not to be confused with the spirituality of our mystical union with God.  Often the lust to embrace higher knowledge forms within us attitudes that are the opposite of Christian spirituality” (86).  Experiential spirituality is found many times in revivalism and Pentecostal/holiness/Charismatic movements.  Experiential spirituality reacting against intellectual spirituality, seeks to know God, but through experience instead of intellectual knowledge.  Therefore, for Experiential spirituality, knowing God is squarely rooted in an event.  For example, the revivalist may experience the “personal relationship with Jesus” that began at an altar call.  The emphasis centers on the date of the event instead of the process.  This category bases their spirituality many times on their feeling about God’s view of them or his action toward them.  Webber concludes that, “to suggest that ‘I am a spiritual person because I felt the forgiveness of God in a particular experience’ places confidence in my own experience rather than in God’s embrace of me on the hard wood of the cross” (89).  So if these three views provide an insufficient concept of Christian spirituality, what is the answer?  I have been ensnared in all of these three ideas of spirituality and found all of them fruitless and frustrating.  Webber suggests a solution that I am trying understand, but have yet to exhaust its ramifications.  He proposes,

historic spirituality situates spirituality in the story of the Triune God, who creates, became incarnate, took my humanity up to his, entered the suffering of the cross, and rose from the grave.  God drew me unto himself and did for me what I could not do – He himself restored my union with himself.  Now having been baptized into this great mystery, I contemplate God’s work for me and the whole world and I participate in God’s purposes for the world revealed in Jesus Christ.  Spirituality is a gift.  The spiritual life is the surrendered life. (90)



Filed under Community, Current Church Trends, Theology

2 responses to “Spirituality

  1. Sean Brendan

    Very edifying post, Mr. Abell. I have muddled through this question before; it can require great introspection and sometimes enlightening (perhaps awkward or embarrassing) conversations with others about your faith.
    I think the three views can be redeemed through Christ. I have heard and witnessed a general problem among pastors today wherein on one hand have we a pastor who elevates too much the grace of Christ without the righteous judgment of God the Father, and on the other have we a pastor who elevates too much the judgment (righteous or not) of God the Father without the grace of Christ; hence we have Joel Osteen versus Fred Phelps, more or less. In response to this problem, I hear the words of Piper, ‘we need pastors whose robes are dipped in the blood of Christ and singed by the fires of hell’ (quote inexact).
    So in this way, I believe a balancing of spiritual legalism reborn as spiritual obedience and servitude to God in order to honour Him by careful servant-likeness, with that of spiritual intellectualism reborn as spiritual knowledge and awareness of God’s promises, His truthfulness as shown by historicity, and His reasonableness which smashes all other arguments, alongside finally spiritual experientialism reborn as spiritual baptism wherein we partake of our communion with Christ the Son and God the Father through the Holy Spirit Who is our Seal of Faith, can in effect be a wise and good spirituality.

    Our good brother Aaron Hanbury lead me to your post, and I am thankful for it.

    • Sean, thanks for the perspective. I like your idea of holding the three ideas in tension. Although it still does not solve the problem of the practices being rooted in our work instead of God’s work on our behalf. Also, how does the church, worship fit into spirituality?