What’s wrong with spirituality? part two

Monday, September 7, 2015

Yesterday’s blog about spirituality (look back in Ruminations) immediately received a surprising number of hits. So here we go again.

Today’s New York Times reports this, in the Arts section, from the esteemed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (I am a ballet lover, so my eye picked this up):

Standing alone in the Rothko Chapel in Houston when I was 22, I finally understood that abstract painting could be an emotional, even spiritual, experience. As the sun shifted in and out from behind the clouds over the deep blackened purples and grays of the paintings, a great sense of calm flooded my hyperactive 20-something mind. The colors seemed like portals to another realm.

OK, I can certainly connect with that. Let’s get this on the table right away: people do have such experiences, and they are often memorable. I remember Paul Lehmann agreeing with someone who said that they enjoyed the young artists in their congregation. Yes, he said, artists can have a sense of “another dimension.” Sensitive, artistic souls can sense “portals to another realm.” Mozart’s Magic Flute and a good many passages from Wagner’s Ring cycle, to mention just two of endless available examples, have certainly given me intimations along those lines.

But what sort of dimension are we talking about? What sort of realm? Interesting word, that, since “realm”–unlike “dimension”– suggests a dominion, over which presides a Power of some sort. Dare we call it a “kingdom”? And what is our relationship to such a realm? and is it automatically ours for the taking because we have had an experience of it? Wheeldon’s upgrading of “emotional” to “spiritual” certainly gives the impression that he wants to say something important, even something objective. But how does one person’s subjective spiritual experience translate into an objective, universal truth that can be shared as the basis of a community, let alone a community in which there are no distinctions (as in Romans 3:22, and yesterday’s Sunday reading from James 2:1ff)? One of the most striking features of the Christian community as it is evoked in the New Testament is that in it, all distinctions are erased. Such a community is, it should go without saying, an eschatological reality, in the sense that such a community in all its fulness exists in God’s future, not in “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:3); however, it is God’s promise of such a future that enables Christians to behave without discrimination in the way that James depicts: “My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do not show favoritism” (2:1).  So the point here is that spirituality in its various forms is too free-floating to be Christian truth. These forms are, for the most part, unanchored in anything this-worldly.

Moreover, spiritual experiences are individual experiences. No one can share another’s religious experience. It’s true that many people are moved by Rothko’s black paintings, but not all in the same way, and many other people look at them and feel nothing at all. When I was 13 I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah in my home town. It was the first time I had ever heard it. I was completely overwhelmed (maybe that was a “religious experience”) and could not speak for quite a while after. It was a great shock to me to learn that my friends, who also attended, were completely unmoved.

A recent copy of Christianity Today contains a review of a new book by Richard Foster’s son Nathan. Foster pere’s famous book, Celebration of Discipline (1978)  has sold zillions of copies and was a very hot ticket when I was new in ministry. I dutifully read it when it came out, or rather, I tried to read it, but it left me cold. The son’s book is called The Making of an Ordinary Saint, and it tells of Nathan Foster’s serious rededication, during a personal crisis, to the spiritual disciplines his father recommended. The review is very respectful, but critical. It’s critical on the basis of the solitary nature of the author’s journey, its lack of contact with Christian fellowship. The reviewer laments the drift toward individual, unshareable religious experience.

Speaking of journeys: a long time ago, at General Theological Seminary, I took a course in spiritual journeying. We read a lot of the mystics. We also read The Pilgrim’s Progress. The difference between John Bunyan’s book and all the others was so great that I couldn’t see any link between them, except that everybody in Pilgrim’s Progress was on a journey–but they were on it along with other members of the Christian community in close physical proximity, supporting one another every step of the way. Moreover, there are substantive references from Scripture on every page. In the class, we were asked to do a lot of vague meditating. I would immediately fall asleep. We were also asked to try to learn to say the “Jesus prayer,” in and out, as automatic as breathing (I forgot to say yesterday that “Pray without ceasing” [I Thessalonians 5:17, also translated “unceasingly,” “continually,” or “constantly”] has also been invoked in the context of spiritual disciplines. Most, however, have not read Paul’s injunction so literally.)  In any case, I was a flop at all of this. (Sam Harris was right: meditation doesn’t work for everybody. Maybe I should get some LSD. See yesterday’s blog post.)

I have seen how an emphasis on spirituality can cause division. It was very common in the mid-sixties, when a “charismatic movement” exploded in the mainline churches. Many congregations split because some had the feeling that others looked down on them as insufficiently spiritual. I have seen this happening much more recently, for instance in small groups where some members are constantly referring to their spiritual practices and their spiritual directors in ways that make the other participants feel like very poor excuses for Christians. This is precisely what was happening in the Corinthian church to which Paul wrote so passionately. Some “super-spiritual” teachers had come into the congregation and were leading its members into a false gospel of spiritual hierarchy (reread I Cor. 12-13 in this light). Paul’s concern is to show what is truly of the Holy Spirit and what is not. Over against the self-styled pneumatikoi,(spiritual persons) and huperlian apostolon (super-apostles) who were apparently mesmerizing the Corinthian Christians, Paul sets “the word of the cross.” That is the test of spirituality, and indeed of all religion. We should be wary of any spiritual teaching in the church that is not grounded in the teaching of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).

A glance through some of the Internet sites concerning Mark Rothko yields some suggestive material. Dominique de Menil, the celebrated art patron who, with her husband, sponsored and paid for the Rothko chapel, said at the dedication, “we are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” To which the Christian must respond that “the divine” is too vague a way to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moreover, no work of art, whether abstract or not, and no image, not even a crucifix, can tell us of the scandalous historical particularity of a crucified Messiah unless it is preceded or accompanied by words. An image of the Crucifixion is without meaning to a person who does not know The Story. The central significance of Christ’s horrific death can only be communicated in words–hence the central place of the Word in Biblical faith.

I read that Mark Rothko was deeply moved by Fra Angelico’s frescoes in San Marco, but apparently saw only”the concentration on light” and the “spirituality”; typically for viewers of art in our time, the impact of Angelico’s actual images of Christ was nil. Yet, interestingly, Rothko himself–a Russian-born Jew–is quoted as saying, “I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it.” I have no idea what Rothko meant by “God,” but the statement about God engendering the world from outside the world is very close to what classical Christian doctrine says about God and the Creation. That is an insight that can be mined.

In any case, the energy and imagination that’s being expended by the mainline churches in trying to foster spirituality, with little to show for it in actual commitment to actual Christian communities, would be far better directed to finding fresh ways of communicating the evangel of Jesus Christ and him crucified to those who are wandering about in vague spirituality. That “realm” that is sometimes sensed from beyond ourselves is not simply a feeling of “self-transcendence,” however moving and memorable such experiences can be. That realm, that dominion, is the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy begin and end in the Lordship of Christ over the entire kosmos.

In recent years, I have met many young Christian scholars, preachers, and leaders whose convictions about these central doctrinal affirmations gives me great hope for the future.

This is the second of three posts on spirituality in Ruminations.

(The quotation from Rothko is in a book about his work by Jacob Baal-Teshuva.)


Speaking of generic spirituality, a few days after writing this, I came upon a quotation from an op-ed piece by Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gregory Newbold of the Marine Corps, who opposes women in front-line combat. He writes, “The characteristics that produce uncommon valor…are derived from the mysterious chemistry that forms in an infantry unit that revels in the most crude and profane existence so that they may be more effective killers than their foe.” Having read quite a lot of war literature, I do not doubt that this is true. Then he goes on to ask how introducing women into this mysterious chemistry “will not degrade the nearly spiritual glue that enables the infantry to … endure the unendurable” (emphasis added). This is a very important use of the word “spiritual” which, I think, will resonate with many combat veterans, not a few of whom testify that they spend the rest of their lives missing the bonds that they formed in warfare. The point here is that the concept of “spirituality” can be used to support virtually any kind of human endeavor without any reference whatever to the Christian gospel, and indeed antithetical to it.
(Quotation from “Gender Integration of Marines Brings Out Unusually Public Discord,” The New York Times, 9/19/15.

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