So it’s come to this. After hesitating for quite some time I am going to attempt the difficult job of writing about the way I experience Christian spirituality. I am writing for people who might be interested in things spiritual but who prefer to remain on the fringes; for people who do not necessarily feel a connection with traditional Christian culture and teachings, or maybe those whom images of ‘churchiness’ have left them cold or dissilusioned. Most of all, I admit, I am writing for myself.
This will be a very personal reflection and I will need to publish it in instalments. I can not possibly do justice to the topic in one sitting, and knowing myself I will need to wait for times of inspiration, so I can’t promise a regular publication schedule. I am not writing it in the expectation that anyone will feel moved to experience Christian spirituality in the way I do. If what I have to say does not interest you, you will not read it, and that is quite ok with me.
There seems to be a great need inside most of us for the spiritual, sometimes latent, sometimes burning bright, sometimes only flickering, but always there. I am no different.
I want to begin with a couple of generalisations that I freely admit are quite subjective and reflect only my perspective. I don’t pretend they have any academic rigour or validity. They are included because they may help you to understand where I am coming from.
Rob’s Generalisation No. 1
The media never tire of telling us how the numbers of those ‘without religious beliefs’ continue to grow each year. Census data is held up somewhat gleefully (I think) as proof that religion is losing its relevance in western mass culture. I see no point in disputing such a claim. Religion (meaning ‘organised religion’) has had bad press for decades.
Quite frankly, its all a bit irrelevant if our focus is on a living spirituality.
I think the emerging Christian church made its biggest error early in its history in allowing itself to become tied to secular government and executive power in the time of Emporer Constantine in the 4th Century. In the following centuries the church enjoyed increasing patronage from monarchs and nation states. In the process it found itself morphed from a counter cultural movement surviving oppression to become as one with the powerful elites.
As a result, people didn’t need to become martyrs nearly as often in the service of the Gospel. Life as a Christian became easier and even respectable! In the process the unique life saving and liberating Christian message has been neutered and tamed over the centuries into one of submission to the prevailing order and acceptance of the status quo. What an awful price to pay for comfort and safety and what a great pity for so many people over time.
I am Christian to the depths of my being, but organised religion is not the well spring of my Christian spirituality. Churches and their power structures may wither away and in some cases they deserve to. It is all the same to me. That is not to say the established Christian Church (big “C”) has no bearing on my spirituality or my beliefs. Far from it. I am deeply moved by corporate worship and prayer and feel a special bond with my fellow church-goers. The Church provides a framework within which my spirituality grows or dwindles. However the Church does not hold my identity as a Christian. My faith is a living thing, not tied to church buildings, institutions, or traditions. Although I may have sentimental attachments to one or more of them, my faith is not found in such things. It is found in the person of Jesus.
Rob’s Generalisation No. 2
The Zeitgeist has it that no type or form of spirituality is better or worse than any other. They all lead more or less to the same place, or so it is said. Indeed to make a comparative assessment of one against another in the public arena is to invite accusations of closed mindedness and intolerance. I do not agree with the Zeitgeist. I say it is possible to be tolerant and respectful while still making value judgements.
Why should we commit the deepest and most intimate aspects of our existence to a spiritual regime whose foundations and nature we have not bothered to evaluate? To avoid judgemental findings of a spirituality or belief system so as not to cause offence or appear intolerant is to be hopelessly naive. For this reason I say the Zeitgeist is feel good nonsense! We can and should make judgements about the rights and wrongs of spiritual claims, before we decide if they have any merit.
So, swimming against the prevailing tide of political correctness, I am unashamedly Christian. I respect my sisters and brothers who do not believe as I do, be they Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu or Agnostic. I support them in their journey and offer them my respect and friendship. Followers of other religions or belief systems are my fellow human beings. I do not however, surrender the sovereignty of my beliefs and my faith in the process of accommodating the beliefs of others.
Anyway, enough of the generalisations for now. I have no evidence to support my views about other people’s spirituality. I will try to confine myself to my own experience. Consequently I won’t be particularly interested in arguing the toss with anyone wanting to score intellectual points. This will be a personal narrative. I can only hope you find it worthwhile.
As I said earlier, I am Christian. I’ll now begin to unpack what that means for me.
As a first step it means there is more to life for me than material existence. There is a dimension of my life that defies easy definition or description and is not accessible to any other person. An inner space; a conversation (no, not little voices in my head!); a way of knowing and experiencing without using physical senses. Each of these is true but singly and even collectively they don’t do my spiritual experience justice. As I said, it is not accessible to any other person. It can only be comprehended tangentially and approximately through analogy and metaphor. It is intensely intimate and simultaneously transcendant. It extends out beyond my self and connects me to my creator whom I know as God. This is as self evidently true to me as is knowledge from any other source such as Physics, Mathematics, Music or Art.
My spiritual dimension cannot be separated from my physical life. Eating, working, contemplation, sleeping and waking go hand in hand with my spiritual consciousness. It is not simply my imagination but you will need to take my word for that. It is what makes me whole; what makes me me. I am convinced at the deepest possible level of my existence that God knows me and cares about me. Although I might be tempted to claim that I have conversations with God I would be selling the reality short. Frustratingly perhaps, I need to retreat to my description that my spiritual existence is unknowable to any one else, just as theirs is unknowable, except in analogies and metaphors, to me.
Am I then trying to claim some special status above ‘ordinary’ human beings by having this mysterious spiritual dimension? Absolutely and definitely not! I believe every person has some sort of spiritual dimension and lived experience of it. No person is simply the sum of the molecules and electric charges making up their physical bodies. This is not due to any cleverness or innate deservedness on our part. It is something given to each of us by our creator, whom I know as God. I believe it is part and parcel of the human condition. It can be ignored. We can deny its existence, but it can not be taken out of a person without that person ceasing to be human.
Which brings me to my second point.
Despite this wonderful spiritual dimension of my existence, hard experience tells me that I am also a very flawed individual. Sure, I have sparks of brilliance and I am occasionally nice to small children and pets, and I often remember my manners, but although I usually manage to hide it from others, I am also often not a good person to know. I won’t bore you with the details as they are tawdry and mundane if not completely unedifying. Will you empathise if I tell you I am painfully aware of just how base, selfish and destructive I can be to people around me? Will you recognise the same thing in yourself if I tell you no matter how hard I try to be a better person, I keep making bad and even sometimes stupid, inexplicable choices? It’s a bit like having the intention to turn your life around with a diet and fitness program that is going to start tomorrow. The best of intentions have a way of disintegrating, don’t they? New Year resolutions fit this category too and serve to illustrate my point.
If I were to be completely honest with myself (no way I am going to be completely honest with you – ‘you could not handle the truth’ (to quote some movie character whose name I forget)) and record all of the instances when I am not the person I would like to be, it would be a truly discouraging experience. I suspect it would be a similar experience for you too.
So I part company with those spiritual gurus who set themself up as ‘enlightened’, in charge of themselves, or in any way a model for the rest of us to emulate. Perfection is not a realistic goal for me in this life. I do not believe it is a realistic goal for any human being really. I believe to believe otherwise is to delude one’s self.
A realistic view of human nature is one that recognises our propensity to stuff up serially and spectacularly. This is what I think drew me to return to the Christian fold after years in the spiritual wildreness. You see Christian theology understands at a deep level what it means to be human. It sees humans as imperfect, flawed creatures and proceeds on from there. Other belief systems, as worthy as they may be, do not begin from this point. Any belief system that assumes that a human being can attain spiritual perfection through their own efforts ignores the reality of human nature in my humble opinion. So although it may be superficially attractive, and maybe even a little seductive for us to occupy the spiritual centre where we call the shots, it’s smoke and mirrors I’m afraid. It is wishful thinking to dream that any of us has it within us to be perfect. It ain’t gonna happen folks!
(Sorry, just realised that I may have been preaching.)
Back to my point.
So, if I accept that I am not capable of perfection through my own efforts no matter how hard I try, my ears and eyes are open to the message of the Christian Gospel. Its message makes sense to me intuitively. If I thought I had it all together myself, or that if I tried hard enough, or was clever enough, or meditated enough, or fasted enough, I could reach nirvana (or whatever is my spiritual goal) the Christian Gospel would have nothing to say to me.
As it is, because of my life experiences, the Gospel has a great deal to say to me and thankfully my eyes and ears have been opened to receive it.
It is a fundamental truth for me that at some inexplicable level I am broken spiritually. The message of the Christian Gospel for me (as well as I can express or contain it) is this:
That I have stuffed up.
That I continue to stuff up.
That this stuffing up goes deeper than I realise or can ever discover.
That I am a fool if I think anything I do will ever make me a worthy recipient of God’s grace.
That despite this, God has chosen to come to me, to pick me up and dust me off, to hold me tenderly and assure me that his love is unconditional.
That this is most clearly shown by the self sacrifice of Jesus for me and for all people in all times.
That this undeserved love is called Grace, and it is the most wonderful thing ever to happen to me.
The only way I can conceive of responding is with humility and thankfullness. I have done nothing to deserve this. God has done everything.
For a long time this was a stumbling block for me to understanding and receiving the blessing of the Gospel message. You see I kept coming back to what I needed to do. I couldn’t understand that nothing I could do would ever make a difference. What a wonderful moment it was when I understood finally that I didn’t have to prove myself to God (because I couldn’t anyway) and God’s grace was what it was all about.
I see so many people around me (including many, many church-goers) who are blind and deaf to this liberating message. They think Christian spirituality is all about a list of rules; all about living morally upright lives which will ultimately earn them the right of entry to Heaven. My Christian spirituality is headed in an entirely different direction. Thank God!
Jesus said in Matthew 10:39 (NIV) “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” What this means to me is persisting in putting myself in the centre will not lead me anywhere useful. Losing my sense of entitlement and need to be in control was the first inkling I had that there was another life out there; a life where God’s grace was everything I needed. That is the space in which I have lived for the past 10 to 15 years, accepted and loved by God and hopelessly grateful for that. My life is not perfect: far from it. Sorrows and disappointments continue to percolate through the love and happiness I receive from family and friends. Life goes on. I continue to be difficult to get along with at times. I continue to drink too much and I continue to be overweight. But in a strange way everything is different. In a way I feel that the grace of the Gospel has opened up so much for me that I just couldn’t see before. I have a special empathy for other people that I did not have in my younger years.
That’s about where I need to end for now. I hope you found my reflection useful. I did.
I will probably follow up with another instalment when I feel the need and the inspiration.
God bless you.