Current Options in Spirituality

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.


7 Responses to Current Options in Spirituality

  1. Chris August 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    Helpful post, Ron. One thought… it seems that in sector A (high Spirit, low Truth), the perceived dismissal of the Bible as central to the Christian walk comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible. If the Bible is simply a “handbook” to Christian living, then it is easily dismissed in favor of experience. Yet if the Bible is an invitation to the heart of God, a book in which we engage at the heart level with the Author, then what greater experience can we ask for? The Spirit plays a great role in our reading of the Bible… with this understanding you end up in sector D (high Spirit, high Truth).

    Thanks again for this, brother.

  2. Ron August 10, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    You’ve hit an important point, Chris. Thanks. The Bible is, indeed, an experiential resource in the sense that it reveals God to us in a Heart to heart disclosure. In a real sense the Spirit’s work of illumination is to affirm to us that the living Truth is offered to us in the true words of Scripture. If we lack the Spirit’s presence we will also lack any experience of the Truth engaging us personally in what we read. And if we claim to hear from the Spirit apart from his disclosures of the living Truth, Jesus, in the Scriptures, we miss his greatest purpose: to reveal the Son.

  3. Pete Gall September 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    I would suggest another layer or lens to this framework, Ron. Maybe call it prescriptive vs descriptive.

    We’re talking about what sort of spirituality contingent beings find compelling. I think being a contingent being can be scary, and I think I’ve seen people drawn to sources that can give them a sense of control, either by laying down a strong objective/rules/facts/doctrinal platform, or by providing a view into the future (and therefore telling them where they’re at relative to where they’ll end up). The first is control underpinned by prescription, and the second is control by description.

    The questions of “am I doing this right” and “is this how things are supposed to go” strike me as questions that can have wonderful relational value when asked of God and his word. In healthy balance, quickened by the Spirit, they sound a lot like the living questions of works and faith.

    I think you’re labeling religious tendencies in a way that’s fair to the “what” of each. I wonder what may be revealed by further examination of underlying questions of “why” and “how” (and perhaps the “whom” – if the question turns to what role the Spirit may have in a person’s current quadrant status, or to what role denominational leanings may contribute to the Body).

  4. Matt Smith September 19, 2011 at 2:39 am #

    A masterful job of briefly outlining the damages done over the last 40 years to christian spirituality. It seems to me, there existed two main schools of thought that the “experience” based movement played off of. The first was a naive view of deception; that of overconfidence in spiritual matters. The second an opposite swing of the pendulum: a petrifying fear of all things spiritual. When we look back to see what became of the church’s faith there is a single but devastating hinge pin driven by Satan into history that stole faith from more believers who opposed him than were evidently deceived. In the 70’s during the emerging movement of charismaticisim, the Old Scallywag’s message to the church was (name it and claim it), essentially, “I’ll tell You God what I want and trust You to give it to me.” This was called “great faith.” However cunning this scheme was to destroy the zealous and ignorant, it was not primarily intended to trip them up. It began a revolt in the conservative branch of the church that over-reacting leaders asserted; a revolt so strong that the Spirit was reduced to mere discussion, faith became ethereal and relationship became “devotions.” Now, after what appears to be a great devastation to the church, Many, like the apostle Paul, are being called up, having a strong biblical knowledge and a renewed or new faith to hear the Spirit’s voice~ His thoughts (Psalm 139), and follow (worship) Jesus in spirit and in truth. This is an antitheses to “naming and claiming as it were. This faith is completing the faith of our Forefathers and shaking the earth as it did in the days of Moses. His children that follow the Holy Spirit’s leading will truly see the church of Acts reborn. By God’s design, who works all things together for good, we can see that just as the Lord was silent toward Hezekiah for a period to know all that was in his heart, so we have been tested. In our unbelief we have groped to find in “doing” what could only be known in the favor of His relationship with us. A relationship so deep in love for the Father that all platonic arousal seems empty and cheap. This is what we were made for! God is now waking up new leaders to carry His church into the great finale. This is you and I and all those becoming new; hearing His voice and following where He leads. We are called out in this Master Orchestration to wake the Church just before dawn. Thank you dear Brother for your faith in the Spirit and undying commitment to biblical truth.

  5. Ron September 20, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Thanks for the two responses above. Let me comment on Pete’s note first.
    You’ve rightly commented on the more behavioral (versus motivational) basis for the discriminations I’ve offered here. Good and true. But my ambition was limited by both a word limit and a sense that some light can be shed by showing how the standard “experience” versus “creed” camps have their own distinct blind-spots. A number of additional layers can be chased by simple analytical pairings. E.g. faith and works would be another option; discipline and desire is yet another.

    Matt, let me just comment that the sort of divide I’ve traced has been very active in recent decades (as you’ve noticed), it reaches well back into the centuries! My study of the Puritans offers multiplied examples.

  6. Matt Smith September 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    Thank you, I would be interested in hearing more of your findings if you have a moment to spare.

  7. Ron Frost September 27, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    I’m thinking of the moralists like Pelagius who dismissed Augustine’s certainty that God’s love via the Spirit transforms our hearts. Or the so called Antinomian Controversy of New England (1636-1638) where a group of creedal moralists denied John Cotton’s confidence that God’s love transforms. Ann Hutchinson, on the other hand, went beyond Cotton into the error of “mortalism” by presuming that God-within (by the Spirit) was directing her thoughts and actions in immediate ways.

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