What’s wrong with “spirituality”?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

This morning on NPR, there was a long interview with one of our reigning atheists, Sam Harris, who is now set to become the leader of the burgeoning “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd. He’s written a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. It was certainly interesting to hear him talk about this subject. He identifies spirituality as “self-transcendence” and he obviously believes this to be a primary goal in life. He believes that such experiences can be induced in certain ways, by various techniques (more about that in a minute).

For a long time now, I have been worried about the incursion of this thing called “spirituality” into Christian circles.  I don’t think most people realize how new this conception is. I never even heard the word until the 70s. Social action dominated the scene in the mainline churches in the late 60s, and to some extent that emphasis survives (after all, there is considerable biblical and theological support for it), but it has largely been put in the shade by “spirituality.” (I will now stop putting that word in quotation marks in this blog, though it remains in quotation marks in my head because it is so unsupported by the Bible, and so dubiously situated in the great tradition of the church.)

I first noticed this word in the mid-80s when a friend wrote me a lovely letter of support during a family crisis. I still have it, because it was truly heartwarming. There was just one thing that bothered me: she wrote, “You will be upheld by your spirituality.” Whereupon I asked myself, what spirituality? God help me if that is the case. I decided that she must mean my faith. But I will not be upheld by my faith either, full of doubts and questions as it is. If I am to be upheld at all, I will be upheld by God. And by that I mean the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So there is a strong note of Pelagianism in the whole concept of spirituality. It is defined as something we can cultivate, something we can rely on. There is a sense that we have this inner core of spirit that we can gain access to, that we can develop, that we can trust if only we can uncover it through various disciplines and practices. But there isn’t a tinge of anything like this in the entire biblical story. The best that anyone has been able to come up with in that regard is to focus on one single saying of Jesus, in only one Gospel, mistranslated “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 10:10). It is pretty generally agreed by New Testament theologians that the proper translation of this one-off saying is something like “the Kingdom of God is at hand” or “has come near.” The idea of a Kingdom of God “within you” is completely alien to the biblical world-view.

Do we hear any of the apostles or evangelists talking about how we should be cultivating our spirituality? about how we should learn to have experiences of self-transcendence? I don’t see anything like this in the Scriptures. It is true that Jesus went out in the desert for forty days to wrestle with his Messianic identity, and later withdrew into lonely places to do the same, but there isn’t anything in the Epistles about his followers doing that (the Desert Fathers didn’t come along until a few centuries later). It is remarkable how little the apostle Paul talks about anything like what later became known as “spiritual disciplines.” Paul never recommends going on silent retreats, or keeping a spiritual journal, or meditating, or contemplating. I am very thankful that he does not, because when I have tried these, I have been a total failure at them.

Interestingly, Sam Harris admitted in the interview that meditation does not work for everyone. Amen to that! So what does he recommend, with a straight face? Psychedelic drugs! They work for everyone, he declares. Although one cannot be sure what sort of trip one will have, there will definitely be a self-transcending trip. Apparently he is quite serious about this. The emphasis is on religious experience. No, amend that–spiritual experience.

I don’t mean to sound overly sarcastic here. It’s an important and serious issue. Is “religious/spiritual experience” (or self-transcending experience, let us say) at the center of the Christian story? This question cuts across parties in the church, because the so-called “born-again” experience is a requirement in some groups of Christians. I have often been asked to speak about my religious experiences, and I have always responded honestly by saying that I have never had any. Not in the sense that was intended in the question, anyway. I guess I would say that my baptism was a spiritual experience in precisely this essential sense: that in my baptism (aged about six weeks), I was received into Christ’s Body and sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There is something objective about that, as also with the Lord’s Supper, that transcends the subjectivity of personal experience, however “self-transcending” such experiences may seem to be.

(The second and third installments in this series are also posted in Ruminations.)

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