I recently reflected on some of the main spiritual pathways found among evangelicals today. Let me identify three broad sectors and offer a brief commentary on each. It’s still a preliminary work of reflection and readers are invited to look over my shoulder to offer comments.
We need a starting point so let me suggest a simple interaction between two elements of spirituality: Truth and Spirit. If we trace a “Truth line” on a graph as our horizontal line, let’s posit a low devotion to truth at the left end and a high devotion to truth to the right. Then cross the truth line at its center with a vertical “Spirit line” that starts at the bottom with a low devotion to the Spirit and continues upward with a high devotion to the Spirit at the top.
An obvious question follows: what do the words Truth and Spirit mean? We don’t know. That is, our point here is not to impose definitions but to look for the ways the words are used in various Christian communities. They offer us their own definitions by the way they explain and practice their own form of spirituality; and each will refer to both Truth and Spirit in their self-descriptions. And I will also measure their usage by my set of values that are arguably Bible-based.
With our crossed lines we end up with four quadrants: A. the lower left section that features low Truth & low Spirit; B. the upper left section that is low Truth & high Spirit; C. the lower right section that is high Truth & low Spirit; and D. the upper right section that is high Truth & high Spirit. Let me label each of these for the sake of conversation.
A. Defective spiritualities. I mentioned three pathways but now I’m listing four sectors. The point is that a combination of low Biblical Truth and low devotion to the Spirit is where sub-Biblical versions of faith prosper: it’s best ignored.
B. Experiential theology. A high devotion to Spirit and a low devotion to Truth is a growth zone in Christianity today. In this sector the goal is to achieve union with God. Whether “Spirit” expresses the coming of the Holy Spirit to reveal God and his love; or if it draws on the neo-Platonic mysticism that Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite brought into Christianity in the 6th century, the goal is always to achieve a sense of “Wow!” God offers immediate subjective impact so that in this sector the Truth is not so much dismissed as subsumed: Truth and Spirit are united as one so that in worship we encounter Spirit and Truth as pure experience. Music, singing, and worship meet in one ambition: to feel God’s presence. There is, then, little interest in God as a teacher of truths; or in Bible content as a crucial resource. And with this relative disinterest in the Bible the sector is considered a “low Truth” zone by outsiders. Some proponents offer a threefold mystical ascent through: 1. Purgation 2. Illumination and 3. Union. Spiritual directors use liturgies or quietist practices as venues to encounter the Spirit and to unite with the ineffable One.
C. Creedal devotion. Those who distrust the experiential claims of the High-Spirit camp and who are devoted to the pursuit of Truth are characterized by a devotion to proper doctrines or creeds. Here the Bible is taught with admirable clarity and Bible truths are systematized in Systematic Theologies. Yet, as viewed by outsiders, this is a low-Spirit zone because his sole function is to empower believers and not to engage them personally or to communicate with them directly. In some circles his role is explained by the “doctrine of means”—that is, he employs preaching, Bible reading and memorization, church sacraments, and other functions of obedience to do his work, and in the process he remains invisible to faith. Within this approach Christianity is seen as an educational commitment with members trained to be Christians and then affirmed or confirmed after they complete a proper training course. Experiences of God, if they come, are a nice but unnecessary bonus; and experience by itself is not to be trusted.
D. Biblical relationality. The final sector is both high Truth—with a devotion to the Bible as expressing God’s heart and the “mind of Christ”—and also high Spirit. That is, the Spirit is experienced as he is sent by the Father to witness to the believer’s heart by an “Abba, Father” invitation to bond with God in devoted love. This Spirit-to-spirit bond sets up an inside-out progression: from new birth to progressive maturity. In the New Testament, for instance, Nicodemus would have been in sector C. Creedal devotion, as Jesus told him that he needed the Spirit to come and produce the sort of transforming movement that he alone supplies and that every true believer experiences. This experience is of a new love that the Spirit pours out in the believer’s heart. And the Spirit also illumines the believers heart to “hear” what God’s word communicates.
Of these three common pathways found among Christians today I find the final sector as the only biblical option. Why? Because it alone offers a relational bond to God as its ambition; and it treats God as both the initiator and the sustainer of our spiritual life—so that apart from him we can do nothing. It begins and continues by his initiative; so faith isn’t our pursuit of experience for experience sake; or our pursuit of theological purity for the sake of community standing; but it is our encounter with God himself who wants to share more and more of himself in eternity to come. We simply respond with delight and our lives change as a result. It is a proper faith, based on truth, working through love, the love poured out in our hearts by the Spirit.