January 17, 2007

Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century

2007 1502 page8 capN A FAMOUS STATEMENT Volatire proclaimed that “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Today, Voltaire’s pronouncement is echoed by contemporary philosophers and scientists attempting to understand the human desire for meaning, certainty, and a supernatural God. Social scientists have described this unquenchable desire for the mystical as a “spirituality revolution.” Others call it the “third wave” of scientific research. But the current interest makes it evident that these are soul-searching times.
With this unprecedented interest in spirituality we might be inclined to think that skepticism was out of style and faith was in fashion again. But the scenario is more complex than it first appears. As a church, committed to the proclamation of the everlasting gospel through the ministries of health, education, and compassionate service, we need to take a considered stand in relation to this modern-day phenomenon.
Spirituality: Why Are People Searching for It?
The current pace of change in social, political, and religious spheres has created a great deal of global and personal insecurity. Uncertainty, distrust, and deep-seated concern about where we are going and who is guiding us contribute significantly to a general level of apprehension. With the loss of confidence in religious leadership, participation in many of the faith traditions is showing a downward trend. In place of church attendance people are turning to the growing market of self-help manuals, body and spirit festivals, and New Age spiritualities.
2007 1502 page8Another reason for the renewed interest in spirituality is the awareness that materialism does not provide security and happiness. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, acknowledges this in his book Authentic Happiness, when he states that “legions of people in the middle of great wealth are rich but aimless, full of doubt about everything and starving spiritually.”
Philip Cushman, another American psychologist, concurs that our prosperous and individualistic society has constructed a self that is, fundamentally, a disappointment to itself. For too long it has sought to soothe its needs by filling up with consumer products, celebrity news, and self-growth programs. As a result the modern lifestyle has created “the empty self,” stripped of community, tradition, and spiritual meaning. An Australian epidemiologist, Richard Eckersley, sums up the human spiritual dilemma in his book Well & Good with these words: “Filling up an empty self is a poor substitute for the meaning derived from deep and enduring personal, social, and spiritual attachments. As a result our society is realizing that it has been running on empty, and is seeking to rediscover a deeper spiritual comfort.”
This spiritual emptiness has led to a spiraling outbreak of helplessness, depression, addiction, suicide, and personal suffering. Many secular therapists attest to the urgency of these problems, but also acknowledge that they have no idea how to respond to them. While various alternative spiritual paths are being popularized through print and media, most lead down the path of self-centered practices that only appear to increase the existential emptiness rather than resolve it. It is a concern that even some within the Seventh-day Adventist Church appear to be lured by spiritual practices promising self-discovery, growth, and self-actualization.
I recall the experience of a happily married graduate from an Adventist college, who responded to an invitation to attend a Buddhist self-growth weekend retreat. Following the retreat he developed the view that his religious life was too restrictive, hindering his self-discovery and personal growth. After months of accumulating resource materials on Tibetan Buddhism, he progressively lost interest in Bible study, church attendance, and the Spirit of Prophecy publications, and made room for the wisdom of enlightened philosophers. In time his marriage and young children began to hinder his journey of growth and self-discovery. Separation and then divorce from his committed Christian wife became a preferred option. Today in conversation it is evident that the Savior from his youth has become just another wise individual of history.

Spirituality: What Does It Mean?

The terms “spirituality” and “religion” are seen by many as synonymous. But of the two, spirituality has become culturally more fashionable. Spirituality is still predominantly used in the context of a religious experience, and refers to an individual’s personal quest for hope, purpose, and ultimate meaning in life. Religion, on the other hand, refers to the beliefs and practices of any faith community. While most people consider themselves to be spiritual and religious, there are some who prefer to be seen as spiritual but not religious.

With the rise of New Age philosophies the terms “spiritual” and “spirituality” have become ambiguous and are often used in reference to things that are either vaguely religious or entirely secular. In the visual arts, people speak of colors, paintings, and sculptures as possessing spiritual attributes. Food connoisseurs refer to culinary delicacies as divine and imbued with spiritual flavor. Expensive cosmetic products are advertised as prolonging physical and spiritual life. New Age books and magazines promise enlightenment, healing, and mind-altering spiritual adventures. Confusing? Yes, it can be.

Spirituality and Health

Simultaneous to the growth in interest in spirituality, we are seeing an abundance of scientific research demonstrating the benefits of a religious and spiritual lifestyle. Most of the research has been carried out in relation to traditional religious practices of recognized faith communities. Seventh-day Adventists have been a focal interest group, illustrating the positive links between religion, spirituality, health, and well-being.

There is general consensus that those who live an active religious life enjoy better overall physical and mental health. A spiritual life enhances the functioning of the immune system, assists in recovery from illness, reduces mortality rates, and leads to increased happiness and a more positive outlook on life. It is also interesting to note that a growing number of authors of various spiritual persuasions are discovering the health benefits of Sabbath rest. Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, states as follows: “How did we get so terribly lost in a world saturated with striving and grasping, yet somehow bereft of joy and delight? I suggest that it is this: We have forgotten the Sabbath. Sabbath rest as a way of life reminds us of who we are, where we came from, and enables us to taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.” I’m encouraged to share the good news of the Sabbath, not only for theological reasons, but also for the practical health benefits it bestows on those who practice its observance.
Spirituality From a Christian Perspective
Several fundamental differences exist between Christian spirituality and modern spiritualities. The most significant of these is that Christian spirituality is God-centered (theocentric) and not human-centered (anthropocentric).
2007 1502 page8For the Christian, God is the ultimate reality and in Him humans have their beginning, purpose, security, and meaning. Several scriptural principles make Christian spirituality unique and highlight its authenticity.
To begin, Psalm 8:5 tells us that God made humans a “little lower than the angels.”* Some Hebrew translations express this more affirmatively, stating that man was created a “little lower than God [Elohim].” Genesis, the book of origins, in its chronology of creation events shows that humans were the crowning work of Creation. The inspired writings confirm that God in creating mankind sought to extend the heavenly family, so that “after test and trial the human family might become one with the heavenly family” (Ellen G. White, Letter 91, 1900). This was and is our destiny.
Furthermore, throughout the Scriptures the record highlights our special relationship to God. Understanding this relationship has profound implications for human spirituality. Humans are seen as truly unique in that of all God’s creatures, “God created man in His own image.” The divine image gives us special status as rational, emotional, and moral beings, possessing a will and the freedom of choice.
Most important, just as God is Spirit, humans, by being created in the image of God, inherited a spiritual nature. Although our body is made of the natural elements of the earth and our physical existence is similar to that of other created animals, our mind and spiritual aptitude reflect the likeness of God. This constitutes a fundamental, core truth essential to understanding human spirituality. A meaningful spiritual existence is possible only in the context of a close and restored relationship with God, and in knowing our Creator, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). Any spirituality that denies humanity’s dependence on God is contrary to the Christian view and not in harmony with the Scriptures. Rather then self-actualizing that which is human, God’s Spirit continually strives to regenerate, sanctify, and elevate humanity to a higher level of existence (Rom. 8:8-10). Through the workings of the Spirit of God in the lives of men and women, the relationship with God is restored and strengthened (Rom. 8:14-16).
Another distinctive quality of Christian spirituality is that it stands out as a dynamic spirituality, manifesting itself in service to others, in healing the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry (Matt. 25:31-46). It is marked by the fruits of the Spirit, which include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22, 23). It is not a self-centered spirituality focused on a “deep sense of self,” on auras and energy fields, on seclusion and isolation from the world.
Because it is empowered by the Spirit of God, Christian spirituality is unique, meaningful, and relevant in every age and generation. The greatest challenge for Adventism is to model this authentic spirituality (Col. 2:6-10; Phil. 2:1-15) in a way that will draw men and women to the only source of spiritual power and means by which to satisfy the soul’s longing and desire (John 4:14).
Are We Wired for Spirituality?
News headlines speak of scientific findings that show human beings are “wired for spirituality.” Scientists are asking: Did God create the brain, or did the brain create God? These fascinating discoveries have given rise to the new scientific specialty of “neurotheology.”
The aim of the new science is to identify specific circuitry in the brain that is activated by religious and spiritual experiences. One of its imminent leaders is Andrew Newberg, author of the book Why God Won’t Go Away. Using imaging technology to study brain activity in meditating Buddhist monks and praying Franciscan nuns, Newberg sought to observe what happens within the brain when meditators and prayers experience “peak transcendence,” or what is believed to be an “encounter with the divine.” At the moment of peak spiritual intensity, the subjects would tug on a piece of twine and Newberg would inject a radioactive tracer substance into an intravenous line running into the subject’s left arm and whisk them off into the imaging machine to study the biological changes in the brain.
2007 1502 page8By identifying the specific brain areas activated in meditation and prayer, scientists would like to find the biological basis of religious experience, and by doing so, enable believers and nonbelievers alike to experience the spiritual. If the spiritual experience can be generated by natural, scientifically-proven means, then quite obviously there would be no need to include God in the process. For scientists like Newberg, the spiritual experience has nothing to do with faith and religious beliefs. Beliefs are nothing more than a reflection of the evolving ability of the human brain and mind to invent myths to pacify existential fears and increase humanity’s chances of survival.
Brain-mapping studies have provided invaluable insight into the relationship between the brain and the mind. However, long before scientists began recording electrical currents in the brain, Adventists were blessed by inspired writings confirming that “the brain nerves which communicate with the entire system [of the body] are the only medium through which heaven can communicate to man” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 347). Not only does God communicate through the brain and the conscious mind, but His communication with us is facilitated by a healthy relationship between the brain, mind, and body.
The assumption of neurotheology that the brain is the sole source of our spiritual experience is contrary to the Christian understanding of spirituality. Christian spirituality cannot be reduced to a “God spot” in the brain, but is a holistic endeavor that calls for the care and nurture of all that God has entrusted to us—our body, mind, and soul, enabling the Spirit of God to dwell and work within us.
Is Modern Spirituality Antireligious?
Alternative spiritual paths in seeking to popularize their views often ride the wave of antireligious sentiment. Some are openly rejecting of the biblical emphasis on God, faith, and salvation.
Secular humanism and the emerging movement of positive psychology also stand critical of a faith-based, God-centered spirituality. Martin Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, states: “Positive psychology points the way toward a secular approach to noble purpose and transcendent meaning—and, even more astonishingly, toward God who is not supernatural.” Any view, according to Seligman, that attributes the virtues of love, wisdom, justice, temperance, and spirituality to a supernatural source, and portrays human nature as tainted by the doctrine of original sin represents the “rotten-to-the-core dogma.” Seligman concedes openly that “if there is any doctrine that this book [Authentic Happiness] seeks to overthrow, it is this one.” By attributing the noblest virtues to the human spirit, modern spiritualities shift the focus away from God as the source of all goodness to a vague and undefined inner source within mankind.
There are several biblical principles that we must remember. The foremost is that authentic spirituality has its origin with God and is empowered by His Holy Spirit. To find meaning in life and to experience an intimate relationship with God ought to be our first and most important priority. The words in John 17:3 express it so well; “And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth” (NLT).† By contrast the Scriptures make it clear that the root of all sin is self-centeredness. Centering one’s spiritual life on oneself and the human concept of self-actualization, irrespective of what it promises, leads us away from a meaningful upward relationship with God and, undoubtedly, affects our horizontal relationship with family, fellow believers, and the wider community.
As Seventh-day Adventist Christians may we share with the world a selfless, living, and dynamic spirituality. May we point searching souls to true spiritual enlightenment found only in Jesus, the only Light of the world (John 3:16-21). God says, “Seek ye me and ye shall live” (Amos 5:4). He is the answer to the soul-searching in the world today.
*Unless otherwise noted, the Bible texts in this column are taken from the King James Version.
†Scripture quote marked NLT is taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
Marek Jantos is a visiting lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide, a volunteer director of Adventist Health in the South Australian Conference, and convener of the Spirituality and Health Conferences.