The resurgence of interest in spiritual practices signifies renewal in the church. But as Augustine recognized centuries ago, there is no value so good that it escapes the possibility of its own distortion.
Spiritual practices have enjoyed a heightened appreciation over the last 30 or so years. Whether in response to the Christian secularism of the sixties or to the doctrinaire emphases of much evangelical Christianity, legions of Christians have turned to the ancient practices of the church to enrich the perceived poverty of their inner lives.
The literature of contemporary spirituality alone constitutes a small industry. Late authors Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, along with Richard Foster and Dallas Willard are among the leading names in a vast and diverse movement for spiritual renewal. Organizations like Foster’s RenovarÃ© and the French TaizÃ© movement offer conferences and retreat experiences to promote the spiritual life.
Protestant seminaries, learning from their Catholic counterparts, now routinely require courses in spiritual formation. Spiritual development groups, prayer retreats, fasts and healing services now cross the lines of Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative Christianity in surprising ways.
Spiritual renewal is a sign of a flourishing church. It brings to expression patterns of life deeply embedded in the biblical witness. Not only did Jesus go into the wilderness to pray, but he called on his disciples to do likewise. Paul told the churches under his charge to pray without ceasing. Luke spoke of the first churches gathering daily for prayer and the breaking of bread.
Spiritual practice is also at least a part of what it means to be a Christian and to unite with a community of believers. In prayer we reach out to our world, lifting one another to God in our mutual brokenness. Through patterns of worship, some more liturgical than others, we immerse ourselves in the world-changing story of Jesus, making our own lives a very real extension of that same story.
So where is the problem? What could possibly be seductive about such revival? How could any warning cry be more than mere nitpicking on the part of theologians with too much time on their hands? The questions are good ones. And certainly no warning need be raised unless the danger is sufficiently compelling.
But the danger in this case is indeed compelling. For all its benefit, much of today’s spiritual revival rests on a kind of dualism—a dualism described by the late Robert McAfee Brown as “The Great Fallacy.” This fallacy is the belief that life is eternally divided into two spheres which must forever be respected.
Whether we think of the spiritual and the physical, the religious and the secular, mind and matter or body and soul, the dualism is roughly the same. In the case of Christian spirituality, it takes the form of an assumption that there is a “spiritual” or ethereal realm which is quite separate from the physical and day-to-day aspects of one’s existence.
Part of the fallacy’s attraction, according to Brown, is that it excuses us from taking responsibility for the very concrete needs of the political, social and physical world. One need not become concerned with issues of poverty, hunger or political oppression if one is preoccupied with the far more important “spiritual” realm.
Many, of course, would deny that their own spiritual practice is in anyway dualistic. But inner peace, the search for meaning, restoration of relationships, and release from anxiety are prominent themes which turn up with remarkable frequency in the literature of spirituality. The old temptations of Greek ways of thinking, which have long exercised influence over Christian thinking, re-emerge. Spiritual renewal is for many a matter of the heart, pure and simple—a path to peace and personal contentment.
Ironically, a dualistic view of spirituality is strikingly absent from Scripture. One finds instead a collection of texts focused more on the earthy aspects of our existence. Diet, sexuality, real estate and money end up being not peripheral, but prominent concerns of the biblical texts.
The Old Testament prophet Micah summarized the spiritual life like this: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8, NRSV). It is a mistake to suppose that Micah described a three-step process for getting right with God.
In good Hebrew fashion, the prophet was not even describing three separate sorts of activity. Rather we find here three variations on a single theme. The godly life is a life of humility before God, recognizable by acts of justice on behalf of the disadvantaged, and kindness for those in need.
In the New Testament, the letter of James offers a similar summary of Christian spirituality. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27, NRSV). Again the inward and the outward, the physical and the “spiritual,” stand in remarkable synthesis with one another. The spiritual life is simultaneously the active life, neither complete without the other.
Christian spirituality that is biblical in character will never be satisfied with mere “inner peace.” It will always long for its outward journey into the sinful and broken world, where the kingdom can be proclaimed and parables of mercy enacted.
A spirituality that is biblical will not allow itself to be seduced into a dualism which celebrates the inner life at the expense of the outward. Nor will it permit the search for peace with God to become reason for neglecting the radical call to obedience. The spiritual and the ethical are not polar opposites, but essential dimensions of the one Christian life.
Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Ben Leslie is Provost and Executive Vice President for Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He served as academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from 1990-2006.