Spirituality Introduction

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Version 1.0, 3-20-05

There are many kinds of spirituality floating around out there–New Age spirituality, Buddhist spirituality, Hindu, Wiccan. You can even mix and match. Since I am a Christian (and a conservative one), the Christian variety is the kind that I pursue, so that is what you will find here. But even Christian spirituality comes in a wide array, and this fact is what has launched me on my current voyage.

When I was young, I didn’t think about spirituality as a thing in itself. I just went about my business of going to church and listening to Christian radio and evangelizing my friends, and my spiritual life went rather well, at least by my standards then. But over time things fell apart. In high school my evangelistic activities took me into apologetics, which was so absorbing that I forgot all about basic things like praying and reading the Bible and, to some degree, even evangelism. Spiritually I dried up. I suppose my spiritual life was dependent on all the evangelism I was doing. Once that dropped off, prayer got boring, and the Bible no longer seemed relevant. I still cared about God; my relationship with him had just lost its earlier vitality.

The groundwork for my spiritual reawakening was laid at youth camp the summer after my junior year in high school, but my renewal really began halfway through my senior year. By a sort of accident I began corresponding with one of my friends at school, and she and I were able to encourage each other in some areas of insecurity. After two or three weeks of this, she wrote in one of her letters that she thought this accidental correspondence was “meant to be.” The idea intrigued me, so I started looking for other things that might have been “meant to be.” And I found them. This started me on an amazing, spiritual roller coaster ride. God became the Great, Good Conspirator controlling my circumstances behind the scenes to build me up and give me opportunities to minister to those around me. My relationship with God became more conversational. My prayers were now a matter of listening as well as talking. That is, I paid attention to what God might be saying through my thoughts and circumstances. I even began to read the Bible much more regularly and with an enthusiasm that had always been lacking, though my interpretation of the Bible was very subjective.

Then began the Crisis. In the fall I went off to Wheaton, where I continued the same pattern of interaction with God. This was also the time I was introduced to Reformed theology. I had read a little about Calvinism two years earlier on the Internet, but that semester I had Theology of Culture with R. Scott Clark. He showed us not only the doctrine of election but also bits and pieces of the rest of Reformed theology. I never knew you could fall in love with a theological system, but I did. That class sent my thinking in a whole new direction; and like many converts to Calvinism, I felt like my theology had suddenly matured.

That summer I read a lot of Reformed theology on the Internet. While doing a web search for Scott Clark, I found a group called the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He had written an article in their journal, Modern Reformation. They were Reformed, of course, so I listened to them. Their main focus was not on theological instruction, however, but on cultural commentary, specifically commentary on the state of the evangelical church. It turned out there was not much about the contemporary evangelical movement that they liked. Contemporary worship music, listening prayer, “felt needs” evangelism, in fact anything that smacked of subjectivity was suspect. Christian spirituality, they said, was about the objective, historical, physical, earthy reality of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, communicated through words, water, bread, and wine. And since at that point I implicitly trusted Reformed theologians, I adopted their critique.

I can’t say their denunciation of subjectivity came as a complete shock. I had been questioning it myself. In my conversational relationship with God, I tried to be very sensitive to the Holy Spirit and listened very carefully to every little thought I had that sounded like a promise or a command. And I tried to have conversations with God during my quiet times. But I was never sure if the thoughts I heard were God or my mind’s own random productions; and in my conversations with God, my side of the conversation was a lot louder and clearer than God’s. After about a year and a half of trying to listen to God, I gave up and decided that if God was speaking to me, I couldn’t hear him very well.

So when I came back to Wheaton, I had much to complain about, and I didn’t mind sharing. But still I was frustrated and confused. I couldn’t support any of the restrictive claims and criticisms I was making. I could only cite my Reformed teachers, and their arguments were curiously lacking in Scriptural argumentation. Essentially my new beliefs were just as subjective as my old ones, based only on the authority of the modern Reformers and the new values I had picked up from them.

This threw me into an agonized confusion. I didn’t know how to be a Christian anymore, and I was no longer sure anyone else around me knew either. My confusion itself astonished me. I never expected to find so much diversity of opinion within Christianity. I was used to having my beliefs unsettled by atheists. But here were two Christian groups with diametrically opposed ideas about how believers should be carrying out their spiritual lives and ministry. Who was I supposed to believe?

I wasn’t just going to leave it at that. No one I talked to had answers that satisfied me, so I concluded I had to find them myself. During Christmas break, I decided to put all of these issues together and figure out this question of Christian growth and experience. So I set to work cataloging my questions and recording my reflections in a notebook. It was sort of an extension of my journal and a precursor to my thoughts pages. Over the next many months I worked very hard at defining the differences between the “objectivists” and the “subjectivists,” as I called them. I also tried to define my own reactions to the issues, to lay out the possible answers, and to reason out what the Bible had to say about these things. Now at last I was getting somewhere!

By the end of that summer, my confusion had begun to settle. While I hadn’t answered my questions completely, I had developed opinions I could live with, at least for the time being. I concluded that my Reformed friends had in many ways been too hard on evangelicalism. In some cases I thought they were too restrictive. In others I thought they were out of touch with the movement, at least its best sides. And in the case of my central struggle, listening prayer, I began to have doubts about my doubts. My argument against listening prayer was that since the source of inner voices was so uncertain, God wouldn’t use thoughts to convey information. Upon reflection, this struck me as a fairly shabby argument. And besides, some people simply had convincing experiences of hearing God speak to them through their thoughts! I was open to the possibility, then, that these other people’s experiences were valid and I was just too immature to discern God’s voice clearly.

Since then my thoughts have been percolating, and my spirit of independent inquiry has been growing. My questions have changed, too. Since I had some provisional answers to the dilemmas from my crisis, my thoughts shifted to the general question of how one grows spiritually. I spent quite a long time at first fretting over the fact that I was not a very spiritual person. But over time I came to several decisions. First, since I didn’t even know how to become a spiritual person, worrying about it all the time was a waste of energy. I wasn’t about to give up on the idea of being a devoted Christian, but I figured (and hoped) that God was at least as patient with me as I could be with myself. Second, I wasn’t going to obligate myself to anyone and everyone’s ideas about what was spiritual, though I did listen more carefully to certain people. Third, it would be better to be somewhat systematic and purposeful in my investigations than to make desperate, haphazard guesses.

Some of my more productive thoughts have revolved around certain other concepts that Wheaton introduced me to during my prior years of confusion. The main thrust of these ideas is that the church has a wealth of wisdom about the spiritual life hidden in the works of its ancient devotional writers. These were people who carefully observed the behavior of the soul and who seriously trained themselves to be godly by means of spiritual disciplines in a way that is rarely seen today. These writers aren’t the Bible, of course. Strictly speaking, they are only interpreters. But as people who have been shaped by Scripture’s values, they speak with some authority, both about Scripture and about human spiritual experience in matters that Scripture doesn’t directly address. They deserve careful consideration. So do many modern teachers, of course. I don’t think that wisdom passed from the earth with the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

My penultimate goal is to develop a system for spirituality, as far as I’m able, and my ultimate goal is to live it. I don’t mean I want to “put God in a box.” I’m aware of that danger, and I believe it can be avoided. I hope so anyway. I thrive on systems. I also don’t think I have to have the whole system worked out before I begin to put it into practice. That would be disastrous because in a sense the system is never finished. The best course is to develop both theory and practice at the same time. But the point is that the theory serves the practice and not the other way around.