On Spirituality

Toward a Renewed Christian Spirituality: A Manifesto by Kenneth Leech

A renewed Christian spirituality will be concerned with the recovery of the vision of God in the contemporary world.  It will seek to speak of God and the deep things of the spirit in ways which are meaningful in the present climate.

It will be a spirituality which is rooted in the experience of God in the life of the Jewish people.  In the study of the Old Testament, it will bear witness to the revelation of God in the desert to a people of pilgrimage.

It will be a spirituality which finds its centre in Jesus Christ, seeing in him the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily.  It will seek to be faithful to his proclamation of the Kingdom of God. It will see in Jesus both God incarnate and a human comrade, the divine revealed and the human raised up.

It will be a spirituality which looks to the faith of the Apostolic Church as exhibited in the New Testament: the faith in God who brings unity to the human race, and who has wrought salvation and reconciliation through Christ; a God of light and love; a God whose Spirit brings freedom; a God who nourishes and builds up the Body of Christ.

It will be a spirituality of the “desert.”  From the desert experience it will cherish and seek to strengthen the contemplative life of the Church.  It will seek both solitude and communion as equally important aspects of the life of the spirit.

It will be a spirituality of “cloud and darkness.”  It will bear witness to the mystery at the heart of God, and to the mystery at the heart of the human encounter with the divine.  It will seek to lead people away from a religion of easy answers into the dark night of faith.  It will be a contemplative spirituality.

It will be a spirituality of “water and fire,” of cleansing and purifying, of renewal and spiritual warmth.  In the symbols of the water of baptism and the fire of the Spirit, it will see the call to continual rebirth and the daily challenge of the God whose nature is consuming fire.  It will be a charismatic spirituality.

It will be a spirituality rooted in the Word made Flesh.  It will hold to the truth of God incarnate, and will seek to find and serve God in the flesh and blood of God’s children.  It will rejoice in the divine gifts of matter and sexuality, seeing in the human the gateway to the divine.  It will be a materialistic spirituality.

It will be a eucharistic spirituality.  At its heart will be the celebration of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  It will recognize Christ both in the Eucharist and in those who share his nature.  It will seek to manifest the eucharistic life of sharing and equality in the world.  It will therefore be a spirituality of the common life, of holy communion.

It will be a spirituality of pain, seeing in the passion and death of Jesus the heart of the gospel.  It will preach Jesus crucified and seek to follow the way of the cross.

It will learn from the mystical writers to see God as the ground of all reality and of our own beings.  It will seek to recover and promote a true Christian mysticism as an integral element in Christian theology and will encourage the ministry of spiritual guidance.

It will be a spirituality which will take seriously the experience of God in women’s history; the feminine namings of God in Scripture and tradition; and the forgotten or neglected insights of writers who have experienced God in a feminine way.

It will be a spirituality of justice and peace.  It will seek to know and follow God in the pursuit of justice for all people, in the struggle against racism and other forms of domination, in the movement for world peace, and in the campaign against poverty and inequality.  In the struggles for a more humane world, a renewed spirituality will come to discern the face of God, the holy and just One, and to share in the peace of God which passes all understanding.

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On Christian Theology

“Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of god as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfillment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus, who said, Behold, I call you friends. Jesus, as the son of God, is the first Other in the universe; he is the prism of all difference. He is the secret anam cara of every individual. In friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free.”

—John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

On Spirituality

What is the relationship between spirituality and religion?  Since the words spirituality and religion both potentially possess a wide variety of meanings, the terms must first be given some definition.  By “spirituality,” I mean that which a person chooses to do with their spirit.  “Spirit” here refers to the dynamic seat of an individual’s life, desires, and vitality which energizes and enlivens them.  Spirituality, in this sense, is a universal human activity that may or may not be engaged in along with religion.  By “religion,” I mean the rules, rituals, theologies, ethics, taboos, communities, and traditions we form in an effort to manage the human spirit, for better or for worse, which are often also engaged in in our search for God.  So, with these working—though not exhaustive—definitions now in mind, we can return to the original question.

The relationship between spirituality and religion is similar to the relationship between that of human health and eating and exercise.  Ideally, we choose to form eating and exercise habits, disciplines, and lifestyles, perhaps even in communities with others, that enhance our physical and psychological health.  We follow a balanced and healthy diet, eat reasonable portions of food, ensure we get enough physical activity, spend time doing things that nurture our psychosocial wellbeing, and so on.  But sometimes we don’t live up to these ideals.  Take a bodybuilder, for instance, who begins exercising their body to such an extreme that it’s damaging to their health, possibly even taking years off their lifespan, because they become more motived to appear a certain way than to be healthy.  Or take myself, as an example.  Forming and maintaining healthy eating habits has been challenging for me since I have formed the habit of overeating unhealthy foods to ease discomforting emotions.  There are many possible reasons that we can become motivated to eat or exercise in ways that do not support or enhance our own health.  When this happens, sometimes the habits and lifestyles we form can unfortunately become unhealthy, sometimes even extremely so.

Ideally, we likewise choose to form religious habits, disciplines, communities, and lifestyles that enhance our spiritual health, and indeed simultaneously support and enhance the spiritual health of others.  Religious traditions at their best have done this, but sadly religion has not always been at its best throughout human history or around the world—which is a significant understatement, I know.  At its worst, a person or group can become motived to engage in religious activities, ideologies, and lifestyles for reasons other than enhancing spiritual health and development.  Religious individuals can be motivated to engage in religion in order to gain power and control over others, in order to sanctify hatred and violence against strangers, in order to insulate themselves from the harsh realities of life, and in order to justify countless other possible evils.  Whenever this occurs, spiritual health is invariably ignored if not actively suppressed, since authentic spiritual growth can challenge and threaten the status quo of immature religions.  Indeed, the history of human religions shows that religion can ironically be engaged in as a means of avoiding spiritual growth altogether.

This is why religion at its best should always act in the service of the spiritual health and development of human beings.  Problems and even outright evils arise whenever we get their proper relationship wrong.  This is precisely why human spirituality must always take primacy over human religions.  To use more overtly “religious” language, it is why the Spirit of Life should always be our primary source of inspiration and guidance before that of religious traditions.  This, however, does not mean that the wisdom of the ages contained in the best of our religious traditions has no value.  It means, rather, that following the guidance of humanmade religious traditions should always be infinitely secondary to following the ever-unpredictable and ever-expanding movements of the Spirit.

 

On Spirituality

I once was lost, but now I’m found.  I once was an ideologue, but now I see.  We are living in revolutionary times.  Times of significant change and reformation on many fronts.  Our time is a return to the primacy of spirituality, a return to mysticism, a return to the heartbeat of our religious traditions at their best.  It is a time of interspirituality and interreligious cooperation.  Though the “spiritual but not religious” movement has been a significant part of these changes, a return to the primacy of spirituality does not necessarily involve permanently excluding religion from our present or our future.  Such a return rather recognizes spirituality, first and foremost, as before and beneath and beyond all humanmade religious traditions and ideologies.

Spirituality and religion, at their best, can still coexist to the benefit of human spirituality so long as their true relationship is kept in proper perspective.  Healthy religion always acts in support of human spiritual flourishing.  Religion, at its best, should always serve as a means to authentic spiritual growth.  Tragically though, often their roles have become reversed through history: we then pour our energies and lives into preserving and promoting religious systems as mere ends in themselves, often to the stagnation and detriment of our spiritual development.  So existing religious traditions will often need significant re-forming and re-shaping if their proper relationship with human spirituality is to be reestablished.

This is spirituality beyond shallow ideology to deeper forms of faith—to ways of belief that engage whole persons and whole communities in our globalizing, pluralistic world.  Jesus talked about faith a lot.  But not the kind of faith that we tend to think of, and not even the kind of faith that is often implicitly associated with Jesus and many of his most vocal modern day spokespersons.  When we hear the word “faith,” we often think of it as intellectual assent to a particular set of abstract concepts and beliefs.  Faith, in this sense, is primarily a mental commitment.  Faith is a head-trip for the dogmatically inclined.  As such, we often associate faith with exclusive ideology, which is fair if we’re talking about faith as intellectual assent to particular beliefs.  And in our post-Enlightenment world, faith has certainly been reduced to this in many spheres.

For Jesus, faith is a much richer, fuller, more profoundly personal act of knowing than mere intellectual assent.  Faith expresses itself in an inwardly abiding trust and hope.  Faith is a relational posture that begins deep within in the heart and then flows out from there through the whole person towards a loving embrace of Life.  And the “heart” was something that Jesus talked a lot about too.  We tend to associate the heart with sappy emotions, romantic fantasies, maybe even soft-headedness and irrationality.  But the heart in Jesus’ time and culture represented the centre of a person, the dynamic seat of their life and desires.  The heart was more like what we would tend to associate with a person’s gut—their deepest source of primal energy.  So when Jesus talks about faith, he’s talking about a deep kind of heartfelt, gut-level trust that involves our whole person, beginning with our deepest desires and life.  He is talking about a kind of knowing beyond ideology.  Not surprisingly, the faith that Jesus taught was incredibly threatening to religious groups in his time, as the gospel stories describe, because he told people that they did not have to go through the existing institutions in order to know God.  Jesus taught that anyone could know God, anywhere, anytime, simply through the inward act of personal trust.

At its core, this was and still is a deeply irreligious message in many respects, if by “religion” we mean the ideologies we must first believe and the rules and rituals we must first perform in order to become acceptable to God.  Jesus’ message was that anyone can know God personally, intimately, because God is not the property of religious ideologues or institutions.  His message was so subversive that religious insiders of his day conspired against him, demanding that the political powers execute him, and ultimately they got their wish.  Though in the minds and hearts of Jesus’ earliest followers, the authorities still did not win.

Sadly, today Jesus is frequently associated with religion at its worst.  So often when people hear the name “Jesus” they think of an exclusive set of beliefs and an exclusionary way of life.  I don’t believe that this is the kind of movement Jesus of Nazareth intended.  Which is why I think Jesus needs to be reclaimed as the revolutionary spiritual figure that he is.  We should be deeply troubled when individuals try to turn Jesus into an ideologue who justifies some exclusionary religious system.  The True Movement of Christ begins deep within the hearts and minds of people through faith, moving outward and upward and forward from there in all-embracing acts of unconditional love.  Truly the way of Christ is the inclusive Way, the inclusive Truth, and the inclusive Life, ever present and sustaining everyone and everything, always seeking and drawing us deeper into an inclusive Love that transcends humanmade ideologies and divisions.

 

On Mysticism

The criticisms offered by some opponents of apophatic/negative theology, which is prevalent in mystic traditions, are frequently motivated by fear.  Pure and simple.  Sometimes this fear begins as fear of the unknown, at least for those who have never heard of or studied apophatic theology or mysticism.  But some, knowing something of these things, may say they are against mysticism because they are interested in defending the truth.  Mysticism, it is implied, is soft on truth.  I agree that truth matters.  Real freedom and knowledge begin with naming the truth.  And the truth is that apophatic theology challenges many of our most beloved reductions and illusions of God, which is why some find it so threatening.  Because it can be threatening, indeed it can be scary, but in the best possible way.  It threatens all of our small gods, our small christs, our small visions of life and reality that prevent us from knowing God and Christ and Life and Reality.

 

On God

I don’t believe in a God.  I believe in God.  What may initially appear to be a petty grammatical difference without any real distinction actually has outrageous theological implications.  Think about this for a moment: when you hear the word “God” what is the first picture that enters your imagination?  Don’t overthink it either.  Just get your gut-reaction, even if just in the privacy of your own innerworld. Did you picture a mean old man?  An african women?  A loving father?  A light?  An ocean?  A dove?  A rock?  A lion?  A king?  A lamb?  A tree?  A shepherd?  An abyss?  A river?  A tribal warmonger?  A humble peasant?  Something or someone else?  Or did you draw a blank?  It is a fascinating question to consider, because the pictures we hold of God, whatever they happen to be, matter a lot.

David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, makes a seemingly subtle but truly massive distinction between conceiving of God as a being and conceiving of God as Being.  To imagine God as a being—even a really, really big and strong and powerful and super being—involves conceptually reducing God down to some discrete figure with limited boundaries and form, which also conveniently turns out to be something/someone we can rationally wrap our minds around.  Instead, Hart says that an essential aspect of a classical conception of God in Judeo-Christian traditions involves affirming that God is not simply a being.  Rather, God is Being.  Or, as Meister Eckhart puts it, God is Is-ness.  Incidentally, many popular debates [just search youtube] about whether God does or does not actually exist more specifically surround the question of whether a demiurge-style God—a God that is a being—does or does not actually exist.  And I have to admit, though I believe in God, I come down on the side of the atheist debaters when I listen to these conversations, at least concerning the conception of God that is implicitly under scrutiny.  These debates, however, are often tremendous adventures in missing the point.

This distinction between God as a being and God as Being raises an important question.  Where is God?  If God is just a being, then it would be possible for such a human-shaped (or pick your shape) ghost-being to be in one place and not another place in the cosmos, floating here or there as it/he/she pleases, but never being everywhere all at once.  Rob Bell points out that if God is like this then we can divide the world up into holy places and unholy places, sacred and common, not to mention divide people up into those who God is with and those who God is not with. But if God is pure unbounded Existence, then God grounds and sustains all that exists, including our own existence, moment by moment, breath by breath, always actively giving us the gift of life out a constant overflow of unconditional love.  If this God ceased to exist, even for a millisecond, then so would we.  This means that we are constantly in contact with God.  We are immersed in the Divine.  God, as it were, has always been right here, hidden in plain sight.  Because the curtain has been torn.  God pours sunshine on the just and the unjust.  Indeed, the whole earth is full of the radiance of God!

Consider a story in the Hebrew scriptures that describes an interaction between Moses and God.  Moses is going to travel to Egypt to confront the Egyptian Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelite people from slavery.  This is no small task.  And Moses is clearly afraid.  As he is working on mustering up the courage to go and do this, Moses asks God, “who should I tell them sent me?”  Moses, in other words, was asking God for God’s name.  What God says to Moses is really intriguing.  God says, “Tell them that ‘I AM’ sent you.”  In the ancient world, people named things and people and gods and so on so that they could isolate and identify one thing from another, one person from another, one god from another.  Naming necessarily involved making distinctions and divisions, separating one thing from some other thing.  And we still love to name all kinds of stuff today, as opening up any textbook containing technical language in science or medicine or philosophy or theology shows.  But this God’s Name totally obliterates the very categories and assumptions of Moses’ original question.  It exceeds the boundaries of what naming is supposed to be all about in the first place.  It’s as if God says to Moses, “You can’t name Me.  You can’t isolate me.  It’s impossible. For I can’t be fit into those boxes.”  Some suggest that this Name can also mean “I will Become what I will Become.”  A more mind-bending name does not exist.  This God is pure Being, pure Becoming.   The Name God gave to Moses was considered to be so holy that ancient Hebrews developed the habit of substituting the “Lord” for the actual Name in their speaking and writing.  For God’s Name was thought to be too holy to even speak.

Followers of religions that ascribe personal qualities to God—fatherliness or motherliness or capacities for intelligence, intention, or relationship, for example—sometimes mistakenly project additional human qualities onto God—such as physical-esque forms of a body, a face, hands, feet, and so on—if even only in the privacy of a particular believer’s imagination.  The mistake is understandable from a human perspective: if God is like a father, then it seems only natural to imagine that maybe God looks something like my father.  And some biblical writings do even ascribe human-like features to God, like hands, feet, a face, and so on (though theologians going back to ancient times have frequently affirmed that it would be a mistake to interpret these writings as implying God has a literal, physical, bodily form).  Nevertheless, when we imagine God to be a being of any form, it’s easy to consequently imagine that this God created the cosmos in such a fashion that it essentially exists and operates independent of it’s/his/her own existence, like a machine would.  God then shows up for the odd intervention or repair here and there, from time to time, as a mechanic would with a car.  [As a side note, this concept of God also neatly fits with the mechanistic-style view of the cosmos we’ve inherited from Newtonian physics—which is increasingly recognized as being an insufficient total-picture of reality.]

“If you comprehend it, it is not God.”  So wrote Augustine.  Similarly, if you can draw a picture of what God looks like, whatever you have drawn is surely not what God looks like.  The closest drawing would be no drawing, which is to say a blank page.  For God is Spirit, meaning that God’s Being transcends the limitations and divisions of physical, space-time forms.  Some Christians may object to these suggestions.  They may say, hasn’t Jesus shown us what God looks like.  Jesus is, after all, “the image of the invisible God.”  This raises some excellent questions.  Does Jesus display what God’s literal body or eyes or hands or feet or face look like?  Or does Jesus, as the image of God, display the character of God’s love and intentions and heart (figuratively speaking) for all people?  If its the former, then we have a problem, because there aren’t any extant mugshots of Jesus of Nazareth, nor are their any detailed physical descriptions of him in the gospel writings.  Thankfully though, it’s the latter.

All things considered, having images of God can be perfectly fine nevertheless.  We are embodied, visual people with fertile minds and imaginations.  Issues arise depending upon how we hold and relate our images of God to the Reality of God, not to mention to ourselves, whether they be physical icons or abstract ideas.  The second commandment Moses gave to the Israelite people was that they should not make for themselves any “graven images.”  Creating humanmade statues of gods or goddesses for worship was widespread at the time in the ancient world.  As such, the purpose of the commandment was to prevent people from confusing limited, lifeless, humanmade objects with the Unlimited Life that sustains all that exists.  In our rational age we have largely moved on from this particular cultic practice of identifying God with limited humanmade objects.  But we would be wise to recognize that the deeper meaning of the prohibition applies equally to limited humanmade abstractions.  Whether images carved of rock or wood, or images made by the mind and imagination, both are limited reductions that at best can point us to the Real God that exists beyond them, or at worst become false idols that never could and never can contain God’s Full Reality. The danger lies in fusing images with Reality.  What I am talking about is not atheism, either, though apophatic theology can have that vibe to it for those unfamiliar with its purpose and value.  Actually, apophatic theology (or “the way of negation”) has had a longstanding relationship with its paradoxical partner, cataphatic theology (or “the way of affirmation”), in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Some Christians have even suggested that, oddly enough, modern atheist movements have served to purify us of certain Christian idolatries in the way good apophatic theology does.

Some Protestant Christians I notice have traded idols made by human hands for idols made by human minds.  They assume they are free from idols so long as they can’t see them with their eyes or touch them with their hands.  But this is a tragically mistaken assumption.  Theological idolatry is much more pervasive than many assume.  As someone raised in the Protestant tradition, I must admit that my first reaction upon reading about conceiving of God as Being was that I thought it sounded unorthodox.  At the very least it didn’t fit within my existing mental concepts or categories for God.  So coming to terms with the notion has been a humbling, gradual process.  I was at first shockingly but then pleasantly surprised to discover that viewing God as Being is actually profoundly orthodox Christian theology, with strong roots in Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions.  Apparently I was the one who had gone out on a shaky theological limb.  What I initially feared was unorthodox turned out to be thoroughly orthodox in the end.  Ironic, isn’t it?

What I am talking about is not a version of pantheism either, though it is much closer to pantheism than some Christians are sometimes comfortable with, at least in my experience.  The Judeo-Christian traditions and scriptures have historically affirmed the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence.  To have one without the other would present only a partial version of historic Judeo-Christian theology.  For example, Divine transcendence without immanence tends to verge on deism, whereas Divine immanence without transcendence tends to verge on pantheism.  So while what I am talking about is not pantheism in its strictest sense, I am also not talking about deism either.  [N. T. Wright, incidentally, has cleverly distinguished between pan-theism (all is God), and what he called the-en-panism (God in all)]  I suspect that many of the concepts/pictures that religious westerners who believe in a personal God hold are closer to a deistic, Enlightenment-influenced demiurge than they are to classical conceptions of God.  I have no problem confidently admitting that I do not believe in that kind of God.  I’ve never seen such a god, nor have I encountered any particular evidence or argument that has persuaded me to believe in such a god.  I think that that kind of god happens to be nothing more than an abstract idol, an imaginary projection.  Now on the other hand, the God of traditional Judeo-Christianity—I happen to find that God incredibly compelling.  That God, some might say, is mind-blowing.  To which I say, exactly.

 

On Christian Theology

It would be an unfortunate oversight not to notice the similarities between the language of classical trinitarian theology and sex.  Early Christian theologians formed mind-bending concepts such as perichoresis to affirm the paradox of God’s three-in-one-ness.  Perichoresis means that the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Spirit—coinhere, interpenetrate, commune, and mutually-indwell within each other in perfect loving friendship.  This is a vision of Reality as a Comm-unity of Active Love.  Now it would be a mistake to imagine that this means God is constantly having sex within God as we understand human sex.  It is more the reverse, actually: human sex, at its best, gives us a small window through which we can imperfectly perceive something of the Love and Life of God.  Life-giving sex is a brush with the Divine.  Indeed, the bodily act of sex likewise gives an image of what all loving relationships involve at deeper levels: a profound oneness of hearts and souls.