My Current Spirituality

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The spiritual side of life is very important to me, but I've rarely found it very easy. And even though people talk about it a lot in the religious traditions I've been involved with--all conservative Protestant Christian, with some glances at Catholicism and Orthodoxy--they've often left me more confused and disappointed than truly helped. But it's not all bleak. So for myself and anyone else who's interested, I'm writing this (dry, analytical) essay to clarify my spirituality-related problems and views and to try to chart a way forward. It's a spin-off from my essay on theology, "My Current Beliefs."

Agenda

A definition

I define spirituality as the activity of relating to God--that is, acting according to our relation to God as creatures and especially as Christians. Our relation to him is basically being created by him and being saved by him. Acting appropriately in this relation generally means serving and loving him. This differentiates into more specific behaviors, such as interacting with him in worship and prayer, obeying his commands, and loving his other creations, and these are activities that are also related to each other in various ways.

Coping

The problem is that I run into problems trying to do this in practice. For example:

  • I don't find the supporting ideas credible.
  • I don't find the specific ideas certain enough to support the practices.
  • I don't really know what the end goals are. What makes a good person?
  • Pain, or the threat of pain, stops me from being good, or I don't know how to respond to it in a good way.

Of these, pain looms the largest. Despite my relatively placid life, it's the factor that comes up most often in my troubled thoughts on spirituality. It keeps me from deriving any encouragement from passages like Psalm 91 or even Jesus' words in Matthew 6:33. The dominance of pain in my spirituality leads me to the idea of formulating a coping-oriented spirituality.

Other than continuing in the confused and conflicted state I've been in, my main alternative is to try to formulate a more traditional spirituality in a more consistent way than I've had in my mind. I'm sure this would make traditional evangelicals happy, but I'll probably do it later, if at all.

This more traditional model would likely be specifically God oriented, centering my reflections around God's agenda. I'll probably need to do this to a certain degree to give my coping reflections a context, but I have two problems with a God-oriented approach. First, it might lead me to overlook problems I'm trying to solve. And second, it assumes a lot of theological settledness I don't have.

The individual

The question of a God-oriented framework returns me to a discussion from my undergraduate days, the book-vs-boy debate in Christian education: Which do you start with in teaching, the Bible or the student? Henrietta Mears said it should be the Bible--teach what the Bible says, and then relate it to the student's life. Lois LeBar said it should be the student--bring up a need or experience of the students, and then relate it to what the Bible says.

To put it in software development terms, since that's closer to the world I live in now, should we be user driven or domain driven? Should we start our design process by considering our software users' needs or by analyzing the subject area the software will cover?

When it comes to spirituality, I've always been on the user-first side, because I run into show-stopping problems when I start with the domain. The spirituality domain descriptions can seem irrelevant to the Christian user's goals, or they ignore the user's problems, or they seem simply wrong in some way. So I want a coping-oriented spirituality, but more broadly I want a user-oriented one.

Specifically I want an individual-oriented spirituality, since we can also think of a group of people as a user of spirituality--the church. Even though some people think that's the way to go and I largely agree with their position, the community-oriented approach misses important points for me too, and it's not strictly necessary. Neither is starting with the domain. You can encompass the domain and the community with an individual-oriented approach, and starting with the individual makes sure everything gets connected back to the fundamental practical issue: that individuals are the ones who act.

Function and systems

The emphasis on acting surfaces a central feature of most models I create, which is that they are function oriented. By that I mean they start with goals and examine the means of reaching them. In examining function I also take a system-oriented approach, because I try to look at all the structures and dynamics involved in pursuing the goals I have in mind.

High-level framework

Here I'll outline a high-level view of my framework of spirituality. I derived this view by working backward conceptually from the challenges I face when trying to be spiritual. Later I'll drill down into more detailed viewpoints.

Goals, means, and dangers

My overall goal in life is joy, which I might define as a deeply satisfying sense of well-being that manifests itself on a spectrum from contentment to exhilaration. I expect to attain joy through virtue, comfort, growth, and relationship. From a Christian standpoint, salvation enhances and will fulfill these goals. Lack of salvation hinders and will destroy them. So you could say salvation is joy's overarching subgoal, and the other subgoals are something like components of salvation. Each of the components is endangered by certain threats and their fulfillments: temptation and vice, fear and pain, doubt and disbelief.

For each joy subgoal, including salvation, my main questions are

  • How can I attain it?
  • How can I assess its status?

For each danger, my basic question is, how can I cope with it?

Agents

In the pursuit of joy, I am not alone. There are other agents that relate to me in various ways: God, believers, non-believers, and non-human organisms. I might also include the non-living environment in this list. I have interactions with these agents, which break down into my actions toward them and theirs toward me. These interactions relate to salvation and its components in various ways.

Obligations and expectations

The actions have deontic levels, on a scale something like obligation, benefit, permission, and prohibition. For convenience I'll speak in terms of obligations. Toward others I have obligations, and correspondingly of them I have expectations. Obligations relate to values--qualities that encapsulate desired patterns of experience. Obligations especially relate to needs at various levels, such as needs of the agent, of the relationship between agents, and of the environments that support the agents.

Beliefs

On a more abstract level, I interact with ideas--with my beliefs about the realities that help or hinder my status and progress. This is because my beliefs shape my actions. And this is why temptation, fear, and doubt are dangers. Additionally, belief is another type of action, and some of the agents, such as God, care about the beliefs we hold. Virtue seems to entail certain beliefs.

Meaning

Another factor is the individual's internal network of meaning. This is the interconnected set of symbols and messages the person understands and associates with emotions. This network at least partly determines what kind of influence a religious message, activity, or experience will have on the person.

Key challenges

God's disposition

Putting these pieces together, we come to two related key issues that especially grip me, in addition to the ones I've covered. One is God's disposition towards me. This partly ties in with how I can assess the status of my salvation, but once salvation is established, what is the tone of the resulting relationship? This is only one part of the overall dynamics of the relationship, but it's one that I think shapes them at a fairly fundamental level. Is God fully happy with me at all times? Does he get disappointed? angry? Does he tend to be more nurturing or more stern? Should I feel wary of him? How quickly should I feel forgiven when I confess? Knowing how God feels about the events of my life will shape how I feel about both myself and God, and these beliefs and emotions will shape how I interact with him.

Trusting God

The other key issue is whether I can trust God. Christians generally see trusting God as a virtue and one that enables other virtues; trusting him overrides temptation, fear, and doubt in some way; trusting him leads to salvation in some way. But what is he guaranteeing, how reliable does he prove to be, and how do his provisions compare to what I believe I need? If some of my needs remain unmet, how can I cope with them in a way that enables the virtue of trusting God?

Trust is linked to both broader and narrower questions. The broader questions I have in mind are whether God is good and capable, which put the question of trust in the same family as the problem of evil: If God is good and all-powerful, yet evil exists, does God exist? If evil and God both exist, can I trust him to be both good and all-powerful? Or to ask a somewhat different but more personal question, can I trust him to be willing and able to take care of the things I care about?

The narrower questions are whether and how I can carry out expected Christian practices, such as prayer, worship, and service. To fulfill them with love, confidence, persistence, and other virtues they're meant to have, it seems necessary that I believe certain ideas with conviction, basically that God is good and capable, and so his instructions can be trusted and the important things in life will be better if I obey him.

I personally have no trouble assuming God can accomplish anything he wants, so my questions are about his goodness: How willing he is to accomplish things I care about? What kind of goodness does that mean he has? And how I can cope with that possibly painful kind of goodness? That is, how can I relate to it constructively, in a way that produces virtue in me?

Spirituality and theology

This essay is an adjunct to the article "My Current Beliefs," which covers my theology. So it's worth looking at how spirituality and theology relate. That is, what do I want to know from theology given my model of spirituality? I've found two main questions: (1) What does God expect of us? (2) What circumstances are helping or hindering us in meeting these expectations? There's a third one that isn't specifically related to spirituality but that I always want to answer: How do we know these things? Theology has input into that one too.

Planned updates

  • Influences on my spirituality
  • Comments on spiritual practices

Potential sources

This is a very incomplete, unsorted, inconsistently formatted list of sources from a variety of perspectives I might consult as I work through these issues.

Boa, Kenneth. Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Revised and Expanded Edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

Kyle, Eric J. Living Spiritual Praxis: Foundations for Spiritual Formation Program Development. Eugene, OR: PICKWICK Publications, 2013.

———. Sacred Systems: Exploring Personal Transformation in the Western Christian Tradition. Eugene, OR: PICKWICK Publications, 2014.

———. Spiritual Being & Becoming: Western Christian and Modern Scientific Views of Human Nature for Spiritual Formation. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015.

Lehman, Karl. The Immanuel Approach: For Emotional Healing and for Life. Immanuel Publishing, 2016.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976.

Pargament, Kenneth I. The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Vlachos, Hierotheos, and Effie Mavromichali. Orthodox Spirituality: An Introduction. Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1996.

Willard, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002.