The core of human spirituality in lived experience is simply that which one gives their life to. This finds its expression in our most basic energies, drives, desires, and longings from which we form our life’s goals and pursuits. One of the most central and fundamental spiritual questions then is, what are you giving your life to? This big question can be broken down and approached through some smaller questions. For instance, what do you give your time, attention, and energy to hour by hour throughout the day? What do you want in life? What do you long and dream for? What ambitions and goals do you strive for? What is your vision of happiness and success and what are you doing to pursue it? What would be your ideal life’s work? What purposes and values motivate your choices and shape lifestyle? What do you consider to be a valuable way to spend your time? What ethical convictions influence your behaviour and decisions? And why and how do you going about doing all of the above?
All of these questions surround and relate to the central question of spirituality, what are you giving your life to? The unique set of answers you or I or anyone gives to questions like these will provide us with a snapshot of the spirituality we are currently living. One important distinction worth bearing in mind here is a person’s assumed spirituality may not be entirely the same as their actual spirituality, if it even is at all, as David Benner puts it. In other words, the spirituality that an individual professes may not be the spirituality they actually practice and live. People can say one thing and do another. But this is nothing new. In the end, spirituality is not merely a matter of belief. Spirituality is an entire way of being and living in the world, which includes beliefs, but is certainly not limited to beliefs. One’s spirituality is more fully represented by what one is living for.
A person does not need to self-identify as a Christian in order to know God or Christ or the Love the pervades and sustains all existence. God will not be controlled. Christ will not be contained. Love will not be owned by any person. And thank God for that! Central to Christian teaching and theology is the simple affirmation that God may be directly known by trust and hope. Indeed, Christ taught that anyone may personally know God, who he affectionately called Abba, within the hidden depths of their heart through faith—before and beneath and beyond outward appearances or signs or surfaces or stereotypes. This intimate, relational knowing originates at a gut-level, immediate and unmediated by anything or anyone.
You may know God directly—and nothing whatsoever can possibly separate you from God, who is Love. Not death. Not life. Not angels or demons. Not things in the present or things in the future or any powers. Not the highest heights or deepest depths. Not even dogmas or institutions or religious traditions or anything else in all of creation could possibly separate you from the powerful love of God that has been displayed by Christ Jesus. This is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And it is a message that, ironically (and thankfully) enough, subverts the ultimacy of even the best and the worst of Christian religious traditions. For the Divine Love revealed in Christ could never be controlled or contained or owned by anyone—not even by Christians. This is one reason why it is so crucial that Christians learn to adequately distinguish the essence of Christian faith and spirituality from the many Christian religious traditions that have been (hopefully) formed around it. Failing to make this distinction can create countless misunderstandings that limit and distort the good news that Christ proclaimed.
There are times to laugh. There are times to cry. There are times to hold yourself together. And there are times to let yourself fall apart. One of the greatest gifts we can give another person is to simply be present with them while they are falling apart. To simply meet them in the midst of their suffering. In the midst of their hopelessness and helplessness. To even enter a place of darkness and unknowing with them. And with nothing more than a compassionate willingness to provide them a safe place to rest while they unravel. In these uncommonly honest encounters, our opportunity as friends is to listen, to see, to understand, to hold, to be with, to be there.
This can be incredibly challenging for many reasons. One of which is that expressions of pain and weakness from others can remind us of our own. So we tend to ignore or downplay or discourage such displays to avoid allowing ourselves to be vicariously touched by the pain. But the tacit social pressure to always “keep it together” can sometimes exacerbate deep wounds. The pain is still there. It’s just moved deeper underground. We can sabotage one another’s deep healing and growth by prematurely offering easy solutions and quick fixes in response to genuine expressions of pain. And we can prevent own personal healing and growth when we refuse to allow ourselves to ever unravel with another person, even someone we know and trust. Instead, we keep a stiff upper lip and never let on that something’s wrong. We can even become so attached pretences that we unfortunately loose touch with our own deepest truths.
Sometimes growing requires strength, perseverance, grit, and great effort. But sometimes growing requires what can feel like the opposite–a willingness to be vulnerable, transparent, weak, even helpless. It is common for a person to acknowledge their need to be strong. But real transformation lies in knowing the wisdom of both strength and weakness. It is hard to believe that anyone could still accept us in our deepest weakness and shame, in our most profound moments of hopelessness and despair. We are so conditioned to think love is conditional. But it is in these times of weakness, these sacred moments, that we are in a position to learn what real love is: unconditional and free. Entering these moments first requires courage to be vulnerable. If we allow ourselves to go there, to go fully into that place, we may learn one of the counterintuitive truths at the centre of Christian faith: that the pathway of death can lead to new life.
Honest questions and curiosity are the lifeblood of healthy spirituality. Contrary to some popular notions, real inquiry is not the enemy of authentic spirituality. Quite the opposite actually: the spiritual life thrives through genuine inquiry, curiosity, and questioning—through intentionally pursuing life’s depths and horizons while allowing oneself to be changed in the process. Certain religious commitments and attitudes can absolutely discourage curiosity, and therefore stifle ongoing spiritual development. Sometimes these attitudes can accumulate into overall cultural ethos that is anti-rational, anti-intellectual, and anti-inquiry, the results of which are always harmful. Though some non-religious attitudes can also oppose spiritual development, sometimes ironically by way of asking lots questions, though disingenuously, with a motive of apathy or fear or cynicism, and without a real interest in discovering any answers that may disrupt or challenge one to change. Here asking questions actually becomes a strategy for defending oneself against real questioning while maintaining the appearance of being a “free thinker.” Questions obscure to protect.
But the truth is that curiosity nurtures the spiritual life. Our spirits press and expand within us, longing to be unleashed into life. Spirituality is truly for the curious, the questioners, the inquirers, the free thinkers and movers; for those dissatisfied with cliches, easy answers, and party lines; for the learners, the explorers, the risk-takers, and the students of life; for those who want to throw their entire being—body, mind, soul, and spirit—into the pursuit of life and truth; and for those who are willing to change, to grow, to evolve, and to expand in doing so. Authentic spirituality then enters one into a lifelong pilgrimage of seeking and searching, the destination of which cannot be fully known. Spirituality then is for the brave. It is for those who have the courage to dare to make its unknown journey.
When the core of spirituality is properly seen as a universal human activity that exists beyond apparently religious beliefs or practices, various forms of human life or work or culture can exhibit new and surprising and even sacred significance. Erich Fromm’s comments, for instance, concerning how “modern man” devotes his “life energy,” presents a striking portrait of what could be called the contemporary spirituality of capitalism:
“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature. His main aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his ‘personality package’ with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.”
Capitalist spirituality has all of the classic features of an established tradition: a vision of paradise (the free market); goals for human life (maximize profit, frenetic activity, steadily consume); an implicit anthropology (humans are rational actors, commodities, consumers); principles, codes, and values (fair exchange, supply and demand, accumulate wealth, live to consume); a view of evil (market interferences, extra-market commitments, consumer decline, inner boredom); special places of congregation and worship (trading floors, shopping malls); an image of the good life (unlimited consumption); a mission for the faithful (market expansion, economic globalization); and a functional deity (the invisible hand, the market forces). Is it any wonder then that it has been so successful?
Mother Teresa said “if we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.” For a long time I had the impression that forgiveness was some magical thing. I thought forgiveness was primarily something felt, like an emotion. But forgiveness I’ve learned is actually very simple. Forgiveness is a choice—a choice to let go of past hurts and wrongs in order to heal, to reconcile, and to move forward together towards a better life and future. Certainly true forgiveness can be accompanied by wonderful feelings of pleasure or relief or peace. But these emotions are responses to the freedom that the act of forgiveness offers. And sometimes seeking that freedom is not easy, even though forgiveness itself is exceedingly simple. Forgiveness can actually require hard work and a persistent commitment to renew one’s choice to forgive, especially whenever the heavy ropes of bitterness or anger or resentment begin to re-entangle us. This is why “the weak can never forgive” as Gandhi saw it. “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
To call oneself “Christian” involves—at bare minimum and before anything else—identifying oneself as someone who is committed to loving all people unconditionally. To be Christian is to be a student (or “disciple”) of the way of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth taught and practiced a love that pushed the boundaries and challenged the taboos of his day. Jesus’ love was radically indiscriminate, inclusive, unconditional, active, voluntary, sacrificial, and free. His is a love that exceeds any descriptions or standards or controls or conditions that could possibly be used to limit its power in any way, shape, or form. Christ displayed unbounded compassion through his willingness to love those who had been marginalized and despised by the powerful, and to live with those who had been ignored and shamed by the privileged. By the social-cultural-religious-political standards of his day, Christ loved the unlovable, touched the untouchable, reached out to the misfits and the disadvantaged, embraced the worn out, the weary, and those who had been beaten down for whatever reason. And Christ’s task is the Christian’s task.
Any Christian’s love will surely be imperfect. But the Christian commitment is to humbly acknowledge this and yet still not give up. The Christian is the one who takes a risk, who stumbles, who falls, who gets back up, and who keeps trying to love without fears or conditions. Christians should therefore be on the cutting edge of love. But sadly this is not always the case. Sometimes Christ’s loudest spokespersons are truly his worst enemies. It is an extreme insult to Jesus’ message and way that “Christianity” is often first associated with privilege and power than with love. And even worse, that “Christianity” is used to justify prejudice and hatred and oppression and violence against others. This is not only a terrible mistake but a tragedy. Some Christians today will give lip-service to loving as Christ loved, but then hasten to add so many conditions and qualifications to what “love” really is that they end up with a love so pathetically small and weak that it should be properly identified for what it truly is: unchristian. The irony here is extraordinary. Lord, have mercy.
The Apostle Paul’s following prayer is for anyone and everyone, and certainly for anyone who would dare to call themselves Christian. May it be our prayer: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner beings, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”