A search for spirituality

A plurality of spiritualities in the religious market exists- what are they?

Marcos De Benedicto, D.Min., is magazine and book editor at Brazil Publishing House, in São Paulo, Brazil.

Though the quest for spirituality cannot be considered a modern phenomenon, after the failure of virtually all the “isms” of the past, people today seek for some kind of God to worship. Obviously, spirituality must first be defined before we can hope to deepen our spiritual experience.

What is spirituality?

Spirituality may be described as the search for the ultimate meaning of life and a quest for finding a pleasant place for the self in the cosmos.

In the Christian context, it’s the answer to the question, “Who am I?” based on the reality of the One Who said, “I am Who I am.”

Spiritual people center their life on God, not on self. Paradoxically, they live integrated into the real life. Evasion from busyness continues as essential, but just for periods of time.

To be spiritual, in Pauline terms, challenges each person to say again and again, in the power of the Spirit, a grateful “Yes” to God, who expressed a graceful “Yes” to the sinner/believer in Christ Jesus.1

True Christian spirituality begins through the door of spiritual rebirth. Although external evidence may result from increased spirituality, growth manifests itself as an internal experience. In a sense, spirituality equates with relationship— the way we relate to God, to others, to ourselves, and to the environment.

How we experience God depends on our personal and corporate history. Complex, dynamic, progressive, social, and transcendental, spirituality results in religious identity. A one-fits-all expression of spirituality—a wrapped package that one can adopt forever— does not exist. Spirituality, to be real, must be cherished, nourished, and elaborated continuously.

One must be careful, for plurality of spiritualities in the religious market exists today, many of them selfish and syncretistic. For example, a new subculture known as neopaganism has begun to grow. Fluid, diverse, eclectic, highly individualistic, inclusive, and relativistic, mostly formed by urbanites in the 26- to 41-year-old range, this new religious movement reacts, to a great extent, against nominal Christianity.2 For neopagans, self continues as the most beloved god.

The root metaphors

Even among the great variety of Christian spiritualities, some are obviously more aligned with the Bible than others. A valid approach involves the study of biblical spirituality through “root metaphors” in order to describe the spiritual experience. I will mention ten of these metaphors.

We can combine them to better understand our spirituality and reshape our experiences.3

1. Rescue, redemption, and justification. Deeply rooted in the New Testament and valued by Protestant Reformers, these metaphors focus on God as the One Who loves us and takes the initiative to save us.

2. Healing, restoration, and strength. These metaphors suggest a process of physical or inner renewal. Mystics, Pentecostals, and charismatics emphasize healing and wholeness.

3. Walking, climbing, journeying, and homing. Focusing on the theme of pilgrimage, these metaphors show that we have come from God and are returning to Him. Some streams in the Catholic tradition prefer these images, keeping the eyes fixed on sacred shrines. As Beverly Beem and Ginger Hanks Harwood point out, the early Adventists also saw their religious experience as a pilgrimage toward the heavenly city, longing to enjoy eternal communion with God.4

4. War, battle, and combat. The apostle Paul used these metaphors to describe his inner spiritual struggles. He advised the believers of Ephesus to use the armor of God to fight the invisible forces of evil (Eph. 6:10-18).

5. Connection and contact. These metaphors underline the search for spiritual relationship with God. Jesus said that we must live connected with Him as the branch is connected to the vine (John 15).

6. Contemplation and presence. These metaphors have two streams. In the Christian tradition, we look to God in order to be changed, while in the Jewish tradition, God looks to us, as we live ethically and responsibly a common life in the world. To walk in the presence of God, according to Arthur Green, best summarizes Jewish spirituality.5 The believer must walk after God, with God, and toward God.

7. Imitation and discipleship. Imitation of models, both human and divine, demonstrated a very important element of religious practice in ancient times. The Gospels may be thought of as biographies written to teach an ethical way of life.

8. Silence, expectancy, and rest. These metaphors underscore a disposition of surrendering all to God and waiting for His help.

9. Thirst and hunger. Conscious of our insufficiency, we seek for God’s supplies. Only He can satiate our souls with the water, the bread, and the wine of life. These metaphors appear, not by chance, in some significant biblical passages in the mouths of the psalmist, Isaiah, Jesus, and the Spirit.

10. Feast and banquet. These metaphors speak of the joy that exists in the presence of God. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, sensorial delights and spiritual nourishment are not mutually exclusive.

A minimalist set of tools

Unfortunately, many churches do not promote personal spirituality or offer corporate spiritual formation. Perhaps in reaction to a past of veiled legalism, they act as if spiritual formation were a forbidden practice, or as if spiritual maturity might appear without a deliberate pursuit. However, spiritual formation does not come as an automatic byproduct of justification. Spirituality must be desired, sought, cultivated, and nurtured. It needs focus (or intentionality), organization (or structure), and continuity (or discipline).

There are many “how-tos” and “should-dos” for improving spirituality. Yet, an excess of techniques may be counterproductive. Spiritual disciplines should not become a tyranny. In my view, the “core of the cores,” the truly essential, centers in prayer, study of the Bible, meditation, celebration, and prophetic living.6 They do not bring spirituality automatically but can be a helpful means of grace in the “hands” of the Spirit.

Tool 1: Deep dialogue

Essentially, conversation with God at a profound level in prayer includes opening yourself to God so that God may touch you. Dialogue with God only happens through Christ, in the Spirit. By Christ’s merits, we can approach God as we are. This fact, already suggested in the Old Testament, links prayer and sacrifice (Gen. 13:4; 26:25). In a sense, to sacrifice (Hebrew haqrib, “to draw near”) means to bridge a gap. The sacrifice brings forgiveness, reconciliation, and intimacy.

We can pray (1) to request or (2) to commune. Both motives are legitimate. There is nothing wrong with the prayer style “Please, God,” especially if made with unselfish purposes. After all, if we do not ask things of God, we will ask for them from false gods. Yet, to change us, prayer must be more than a request based on a list of material items; it must be a personal, intimate, and passionate relationship of love. If a power-releasing symmetry in a picture of a finite being bowed before the Infinite Being exists, there would also be a power transforming synergy in a picture of a sinner embraced and kissed by the Holy One.

We do not know exactly how the Holy Spirit uses prayer to change us. Perhaps the Spirit seizes a state of openness to refine our thoughts, gives us new insights, draws clear pictures in our minds, presents better ways of life, and impresses on our consciences the character of God. Prayer distances us from sin, makes us more dependent on God, and reinforces our good purposes. Through prayer, we acquire a sense of belonging to a cosmic community, which makes us more accountable to the Sovereign of the universe and more responsible to the world.

Paul especially emphasizes the role of the Spirit in prayer. Through the Son we become sons. In being sons we receive the Spirit, and in receiving the Spirit we have consciousness of our sonship and cry “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:14- 16). The Spirit leads us to see God as a loving Father. In prayer, especially when the horizon seems foggy, our discourse and the utterance of the Spirit are mixed. Prayer as an eschatological discourse helps us, through the Spirit, to pulsate at the rhythm of God.

Tool 2: Study of the sacred classics

In the matter of “soup” for the mind/ soul, there exists a variety of sources. Today one interested in learning from the classics of Christian spirituality has access to most of them. These works may be truly insightful. However, we must be aware of two things. First, most works are “dated,” in the sense that they were written in a different cultural context. If they succeeded in their time, it is because they had significance to their target audience. Yet, their potential audience may be small today, because their presuppositions, descriptions, and prescriptions do not fit our needs and tastes. Second, they are a secondary source, in the sense that the Bible is the primary source.

The Bible stays as the inexhaustible well of Christian spirituality. Whenever the Spirit of God reveals, the content provides a richness that feeds many generations without being exhausted. In the storeroom of the Bible we find old and new treasures (Matt. 13:52). Its insights are actualized and amplified, not surpassed or nullified.

There are many Bible-study methods. Whichever we choose, we should consider adopting (1) a wholistic approach, applying the whole of ourselves to the study of the Bible, and the whole of the Bible to ourselves; (2) an existential approach, avoiding a mere aesthetic and unengaged study; (3) a spiritual approach, studying the Bible with prayer and asking for the illumination of the Spirit; (4) a soteriological approach, knowing that Christ is at the center of the Bible.

When we go beyond the letter, meet real personalities, and glimpse new pos sibilities, the Bible indicates the identity of God’s people, draws the framework for a holy community, and nourishes our selves. As we appropriate its promises, we live as if God were speaking directly to us. Factual knowledge of the Bible alone does not cause spiritual development, although it can help to shape one’s attitude. The Spirit must penetrate our inner world and use biblical truth to change us.

Tool 3: Balance of the self

Meditation can be divided into two broad categories: (1) meditation to empty the self and reach the zero (cosmic nothing) and (2) meditation to fill the mind and unite with the One (God). Christian meditation fits into the second one; it has content and leads to God. Biblical meditation is characterized not so much by our emptying but by the ecstasy of God’s emptying, in order to include us in His circle of love.

Meditation, it is believed, has spiritual and therapeutic advantages. It adjusts our vision, sharpens our focus, gives us perspective (the ability of seeing the relationship of the parts to the whole or the big picture), and elevates our dreams. During this time we hear God’s voice, discern God’s will, decide to obey God’s Word, and increase our love.

There are different approaches to meditation. A few possibilities are:

1. Meditation as contemplation. In the mystical traditions, the meditator searches for a direct experience of unity with the divine, in which the self disappears in the cosmic sea, so to say, and brings a sensation of ecstasy. A better biblical strategy calls for us to look to Christ, with the help of the Spirit, in order to gain awareness of God’s self and ways.

2. Meditation as insight-search. The study and appropriation of the biblical content results in finding new insights. For biblical authors, meditation is focusing on God’s Word, work, and world. This helps us to evaluate ourselves in relation to God and the universe. We see ourselves as in an infinite mirror.

3. Meditation as imagination. Through imagination, we can fly beyond the stars, visit other worlds, and visualize new universes. Imagination is not incompatible with God, for the Bible authors filled their writings with metaphors, parables, images, visions, and dreams. In meditative imagination we can visualize fighting spiritual battles in various circumstances. As we face and overcome them, we virtually create a new behavioral pattern.

4. Meditation as solitude. People generally fear loneliness, but solitude can bring blessing. The Spirit seems to work better in a context of silence and solitude. Great characters of the Bible who faced demanding tasks were at times prepared in the desert. We can mention Moses (Exod. 3), Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-18), Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11), and Paul (Gal. 1:15-18). The desert became a metaphor of quietness and quietude before God.

5. Meditation as relaxation. Meditation can be used as a technique for relaxation. The human body manifests a state of calmness whenever the mind concentrates for some time.

Tool 4: Creative celebration

With solitude basic for spiritual growth, the collective and celebrative environment is no less important. When we meet our peers of spiritual pilgrimage, there appears a critical energy that pushes us toward a common goal. The Christian community is vital to us.

The usual meeting place for Christians is the church. The church forms the context for conversion, incorporates the God-seekers, creates a new identity for us, presents us a new value system, and reorientates our personal story. In the church, memory and imagination come alive.

The Sabbath, as a sacred time and foretaste of eternity, is the best opportunity to promote this kind of experience. Free from the pressure and hurry, we open our minds to the cleansing presence of the Spirit.

Tool 5: Prophetic living

Biblical prophets have impacted and blessed the world by their disturbing and comforting voices. Prophetic living has become part of spirituality. All are invited to manifest the attitude and the spirit of the prophets. The prophetic living consolidates our experience with God and others.

How do we define a prophet, beyond the idea of a spokesperson totally faithful to God? A prophet travels between two covenantal spheres—divine and human. Attuned to the sighs of heaven and groans of earth, open to divine and human feelings, the prophet responds emotionally to God’s pathos. “In contrast to the Stoic sage who is a homo apathetikos, the prophet may be characterized as a homo sympathetikos,” says Abraham Heschel.7

Prophets have a special sensitivity to evil. Always aware of injustice, they do not fear to criticize the corruptions and perversities of the dominant ideologies. From Moses to Amos, from John the Baptist to the apostle John, every true prophet has challenged the status quo.

Prophets hate commonplace, but love common sense. For the prophet, whose concerns center with reality more than with originality, good is good, evil is evil; truth is truth, a lie is a lie; justice is justice, injustice is injustice (Isa. 5:20). Many prophetic shouts are calls to abandon twisted ways of thinking and behaving and to recover common sense. In the prophetic realm, it is imperative to dream, but always leaning on reality; namely, the ultimate reality (God).

Prophets have a cosmic ecological conscience. They respect and protect the natural world. According to a prophetic voice, God takes ecology so seriously that he will judge “those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18). More significantly, the nature also will share the future glorious cosmic restoration. Accordingly, the prophet has a simple, healthy, and even frugal lifestyle.

Prophets, aware of God’s action in history, can read off what God is doing in the world—or at least can read better than the rest of people. Prophetic eyes see deeper, far away, and far better— hence the prophet’s tendency to attribute human deeds to God. In line with God, prophets not only speak but also act. What they do has always been much more important than what they say. Prophets live in advance and to advance the realities of God’s kingdom. Always in a stand-by mode, the prophet is ready for God.

Logical priority

As a way of conclusion, we need to remember that a tension exists between being and doing, intimacy and action, prayer and compassion, the inward and the outward, the individual and the corporate dimensions of spirituality. The tension is real, but these dimensions are not mutually exclusive. The Bible establishes a logical priority/sequence: vertical/horizontal, being/doing.

Each person of the twenty-first century who seeks a more profound spiritual experience needs to be balanced like Jesus. Christ focused on important things and gave to every thing its correct value. He passionately loved the people and, above all, experienced directly the loving fatherhood of God in a new way and to an unprecedented degree.

All tools mentioned here, as well as other possible tools, are just tools. A tool does not work by itself—it needs an external power to manage it. This power, in the spiritual sphere known as the Holy Spirit, makes God real, immediate, and craveable.

1 R. P. Meye, “Spirituality,” Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin , ed. Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 906.

2 Danny L. Jorgensen and Scott E. Russell, “American Neopaganism: The Participants’ Social Identity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38 (1999): 325-338.

3 Here I partly follow Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1993), 124-126.

4 Beverly Beem and Ginger Hanks Harwood, “Pilgrims and Strangers: Adventist Spirituality,
1850-1863,” Spectrum 31 (2003): 67-75.

5 Arthur Green, “Introduction,” Arthur Green, ed. in Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible Through
the Middle Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1986), xiii-xiv.

6 See Marcos C. De Benedicto, “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Enabling Believers for Ministry: An Adventist Perspective” (D.Min. dissertation, Andrews University, 2004), 206-208.

7 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, two volumes in one (Peabody: Prince, 1999), 2:88, italics in
original.

 

 


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Marcos De Benedicto, D.Min., is magazine and book editor at Brazil Publishing House, in São Paulo, Brazil.

February 2006

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