October 28, 2005

How Can We Be Spiritual In The Modern World?

1544 page8 caphat is Spirituality? That question is very easy to ask, but very difficult to answer. We all "know it when we see it," but usually can't find objective markers or language to measure and define what we are talking about.

We say of a fellow church member who is thoughtful, committed, prayerful, and attentive to others that he or she is spiritual, yet we know that the meaning of spiritual is not exhausted by those attitudes or behaviors. Seventh-day Adventists treasure such spiritual classics as Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages, but to be spiritual certainly means more than to have regular devotional reading habits.

Adventist Christians have shown special skill in defining and defending biblical doctrines and beliefs. But we haven't found it nearly so easy to describe our spiritual lives--experiences that by their very nature are intimate, personal, and subjective.

Some Christians have pointed out that spirituality can't be defined logically, and they are probably right. Can we adequately express the breadth or depth of love, joy, or anger on a piece of paper? Not unless you are far more gifted than I am. We know what these powerful emotions are only as we experience them.

Here's the conundrum: Writing about spirituality doesn't get us very far forward in understanding what it is or how it functions in our lives. Like all human qualities, emotions, and experiences, it is best understood in the context of what happens to us in our daily lives.

1544 page6Let me illustrate. The Australian balladist John Williamson wrote a song called "Galleries of Pink Galahs." It's about experiencing the struggles of living in the Australian bush. I shared it with a group of third- and fourth-year theology students one day at Avondale College in a class called Contemporary Religion in Australia. That class period turned out to be a milestone in my understanding of the nature of spirituality, not primarily because of the content of the song itself, but because of the reactions of the class members to the song. I had previously felt the song's impact when I listened to it by myself, but I was still surprised when students began to reveal their own reactions to the moving ballad. Many (but not all) said that the experience they had while listening to that song was almost mystical. Some went so far as to actually call it a "spiritual experience."

Soon afterward I played the song for a group of Australian Adventist ministers. Their reactions were virtually identical to those of the students. Then I invited a group of people who have worked on the land most of their lives to listen to the song. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.

Interestingly, there were some in each group who didn't experience the response of the majority. Questioning revealed that all who weren't particularly moved by the song had either grown up outside Australia or had lived most of their formative years in a city.

It didn't take too much imagination to work out what was happening. For those in the groups who had experienced the struggles of life in the Australian bush--who knew its pain and its frustration and who knew something of the dogged perseverance that it took to survive and thrive in that environment--the song called forth a spiritual response. Those who had little prior experience of the events and scenes described in the song couldn't respond in the same way.

A Spirituality of Everyday Life
The events I've related have helped me to clarify the nature of Christian and Adventist spirituality. My own viewpoint will undoubtedly continue to develop, but one important insight has emerged from my experience with "Galleries of Pink Galahs." Our spirituality is, at least in part, closely tied to our past and present experiences, particularly to the struggles and heartaches of everyday life. Genuine spirituality can arise only as we find the God of the Scripture in the context of our personal journey through the world. Without a knowledge gained from living through the rhythms of everyday life, spirituality can't be born and can't mature. Spirituality is closely tied to everyday life.

It's particularly important that we grasp that authentic Christian spirituality can be lived only in the context of real-life experiences. What is the point of a spirituality that is unrelated to actual living in the world, in which practitioners learn only to avoid the environment in which God has allowed them to be planted? Associating the spiritual life with monks, hermits, and people who have separated themselves from the cut and thrust of life has excused millions of Christians from living the life to which Jesus has called each of us. Spirituality came to be linked, especially in the medieval world, to those who somehow rose "above the world" and practiced rigorous self-denial and asceticism. While I won't diminish the authentic value of what many of those people experienced in their practices, I'm convinced that there is a greater kind of spirituality needed in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Authentic spirituality emerges from engagement, not avoidance. It is alive and dynamic, not silent and dead.

A Spirituality of the Desert
One truth about spirituality should not be made to contradict another, however. Lest you think me hopelessly off-center here, let me hasten to add that there certainly are very good biblical precedents for also nurturing spirituality through moments when we deliberately remove ourselves for a period from the bustle of life. The Bible repeatedly refers to the "desert place." Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus Himself all had significant spiritual encounters in "the desert." The Scriptures make it abundantly plain that believers need to separate themselves from the rush and busyness of the world in order to deepen their communion with God. Revitalization happens when we spend personal time talking with the Creator.

1544 page8Just as there is no substitute for both quantity and quality time in building a secure, functional relationship between parent and child, there can be no substitute for time spent in communion with God in order to maintain a friendship with Him. If your spiritual experience is lagging somewhat--if joy seems far away, and you are tempted to avoid the One toward whom you normally would run--chances are you haven't had a recent "desert experience" with God. This may be your signal that you need to take special time with Him. Your desert might be in a forest of gnarled old gum trees, or in a spring garden; on a mountaintop, or in a verdant valley. God may catch up with you as you ride a wave on a beautiful summer's morning, or as you look up at the stars on a cold winter's night.

If you want to know what it is to be spiritual, then you have to give God a chance to say things to you that usually get lost in the clamor and stress of "normal" life.

Remember that in addition to His 40 days in the wilderness Jesus often spent time with His Father in prayer. He recognized the need to routinely separate Himself from His family and nearest friends in order to build the spiritual resources that He needed to maintain His ministry. His spirituality was not accidental or haphazard. He was intentional about it, and endeavored to teach His disciples to be the same. They, unfortunately, were slow learners. Not until they experienced the trauma of His betrayal, scourging, and death did they begin to understand the depth of His relationship with His Father and with them. Only then did they realize their own need for that kind of relationship.

Spirituality in the Modern World
This brings us to the crucial point. The Scriptures make it clear that spirituality must be nurtured in the "desert place," but that it must be lived in the experiences of everyday life if it is to be authentic and meaningful.

What Do You Think?

1. What is wrong with the kind of spirituality that isolates itself from the real world?

2. How can our environment affect the way in which we express our spirituality?

3. Is there a difference between being religious and being spiritual?

4. How do you measure spirituality? Who should measure it? Can spirituality be taught?

Jesus took His message and His person to the people. He ate with the people, walked with the people, cried with the people, rejoiced with the people. He slept in their homes, fished in their boats, raised their dead, and healed their hurts. He wasn't some wandering ascetic who didn't know what it meant to go in to God and out to the people. He didn't practice an exclusive monasticism, but a genuinely integrated spirituality. His was a spirituality that illustrated His relationship with God through the everyday experiences of His life.

Using Jesus as our example, Christians learn that a viable and vibrant spirituality in the modern world can't be separated from all that life is. Authentic Christian spirituality:

1. Must influence the journey of life and faith that we are walking day by day, and must learn from each day's journey.

2. Will change and mature as we meet the challenges, frustrations, and joys of life. A static spirituality is like a fossilized tree: it resembles the real thing, but gives no fruit, offers no shade, and provides no joy to the beholder.

3. Will be ours and ours alone. We can't sit in judgment on the spirituality of another, nor on the way in which another person experiences and expresses his or her spirituality.

4. Will take time out to be disciplined.*

What is spirituality? A specific answer may still elude us. But if we understand that Adventist Christian spirituality in the modern world must grow from communion with God in the "desert" and find its expression in everyday life, we will be well on the way to finding our own answers.

No aspect of our spirituality can function without its balancing component. Each well-lived life needs both the desert and the highway, solitude and engagement. Taken together, they complement and help to build us into men and women who find a deep joy in Jesus Christ and have a great blessing to offer the modern world.

*Richard Foster has suggested 12 spiritual disciplines that lead to liberation--meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. See Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989).

Barry D. Oliver is the general secretary of the South Pacific Division, and writes from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.