Critiquing Spirituality with Christ ~ BitterSweetLife

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Critiquing Spirituality with Christ

Everybody loves spirituality. It’s more popular than caffeine or iPods. Spirituality has the same allure as “fashion”—until we get specific. It’s at that point that the prep kid thumbs his nose at the frat boy, and the Goth sneers at her neighbor’s cheerleader get-up.

Likewise, the soft category of spirituality has a billion happy advocates—but Christian spirituality has just a few.

In Eugene Peterson’s introductory volume to “spiritual theology,” Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, he makes a series of distinctions that have been and will continue to be central to the identity of this “spiritual” blog.

Peterson notes:

At this time in our history, “spirituality” seems to be the term of choice to refer to this vast and intricate web of “livingness…” I am quite content to work in this field of spirituality with whatever is given me, however vague and fuzzy. But I am also interested in providing as much clarity and focus as I am able by identifying life, all of life, as God-derived, God-sustained, and God-blessed: “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 116:9).

So, by labeling this blog “spiritual,” I’ve put BitterSweetLife in the middle of a huge, amorphous, waterway of vying “spiritualities.” And like Peterson, I’m happy enough to do this, because it opens up a level of conversation. An ambiguous spirituality is all right with me—at first—because almost as soon as I begin talking (i.e. you begin reading), preconceptions and generalities will start flying loose like mud off a bike wheel.

This goes to say that, as an arbiter of Christian spirituality, I can’t get away from the fact that part of my job is to debunk and (even) excoriate other “brands” that mistakenly assume All Truths Are Created Equal. How does this happen? How do I get to this exclusive point of specific spirituality? More quickly than you might think.

Peterson again:
Jesus is the name that keeps us attentive to the God-defined, God-revealed life. The amorphous limpness so often associated with “spirituality” is given skeleton, sinews, definition, shape, and energy by the term “Jesus.” Jesus is the personal name of a person who lived at a datable time in an actual land that has mountains we can still climb, wildflowers that can be photographed, cities in which we can still buy dates and pomegranates, and water which we can drink and in which we can be baptized. As such the name counters the abstraction that plagues “spirituality.”

And so, while I’m eager to engage in conversation with any and all “spiritual” persuasions, my conversation will inevitably involve a limiting of options, a criticism of naïve assumptions. I couldn’t get away from this even if I wanted to.

I’m reminded of all this when I get invitations from other advocates of spirituality who mistakenly assume we’re all in the same boat. We’re on the same river, yes—we all live in reality—but we’re cutting the waves in different directions.

In the next couple weeks, you may see some “spiritual” reviews (by request) which will include, as inherent to BitterSweetLife and the Christian faith, critique as well as dialogue.

Consider it a consequence of engaging with reality.

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Iambic Admonit said...

This is excellent. Very well outined, logical, and just "offensive" enough in the Biblical sense. How does this work in real-life conversations? On a blog, we can just write whatever we want, and people can read it or not, comment or not. But when you're talking to someone, and s/he wants to say you are the same, since you both embrace spirituality, how does the offense work as against the love and the sharing? An eternal problem -- no, not an eternal problem. A permanent temporal problem.

Ariel said...

Clarifying or debunking "spirituality" in conversations isn't quite as straight-forward, is it? If the written exchange is something of a dialectic, the verbal exchange is definitely more circular.

I find that the relativity presupposition runs very deep where spiritual truths are concerned. People are often surprised at first when I explain (gently, I hope) that two contradictory statements cannot both be true, and this applies in the realm of faith just as surely as anywhere else.

I've found that I sometimes have to illustrate my point with examples from opposing religions - i.e., either we die once, and then comes the judgment, (Christianity), OR we exist in an endless cycle of incarnations leading toward nirvana (Hinduism) - not both.

I try to let reality do my arguing for me. I like how you describe these situations - "a permanent temporal problem," and an essential one at that.

Verashni said...

I just spent the last week on a mission at a university doing this very thing: engaging random groups of students in conversations about spirituality. The relativism thing runs more deeply than I thought- People who called themselves Christians would get completely offended at my assertion that there must exist an absolute truth. You're right Ariel, in conversation things get very circular. If only it was all rational argument and debate, but so often I would reach the end of one proof to get "well maybe that's true for you, but for me...". To these people, nirvana and reincarnation can exist for them and heaven for me. They really don't see the contradiction. Often the only thing that broke through the pseudo-intellectual claptrap was the spirit at work.

Ariel said...

"To these people, nirvana and reincarnation can exist for them and heaven for me. They really don't see the contradiction."

I am amazed, really amazed, at the way that people are able to divorce the realm of the unseen from the normal claims of reality. I find myself looking for ways to constructively express my incredulity.

Do we really believe that reality will magically adjust itself according to our thoughts about Question X? Does life descend into gibberish as soon as we take our eyes off it?

Issues like this bring home to me the fact that there really is a "blindness" at work before Christ arrives... Reason is powerful, but even logic can only ride so far into the soul. As you say, only the Spirit can cut through the really thorny problems. It is a miracle whenever someone comes to see Christ in the full light of day.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife