You Need Both Faith and Spirituality
Here’s a problem that people of faith have had to deal with forever, mostly unsuccessfully. One’s life crashes, maybe shockingly crashes, and, in this case, let’s say one’s faith doesn’t help. Sometimes we’re talking about overwhelming, massive, societal crashes like the Holocaust, which kicked off existentialism and among the first worldwide instances of widespread atheism. For most people, though, the problem would be persistent, personal discouragement at some point—like the kind that has left many of my friends over the last few decades without the faith that brought us together. Maybe you or someone you love is experiencing something like this.
Sometimes the problem seems largely in our heads. I have friends who’ve battled pervasive anxiety even in circumstances that, on any given day at least, seemed at the very least fine to the outside eye. Encouraging them to stay strong in faith mostly doesn’t help.
This mystery–of faith’s tremendous power and often abrupt limits–isn’t escaping church leaders. Twenty years ago a confident narrative in my circle of leaders of conservative churches was that, yes, some churches that had missed the boat were declining (conservative churches boomed in the 80s, but then started to falter) but faith-filled churches like ours that got it would never descend. That narrative is over. My experience is that it’s now clear to all but a few holdouts that all types of churches are in significant decline. I met with a national leader a few months back and we talked about how I was working with some friends in L.A. in an informal think tank that was searching for a new form of trying to follow Jesus together in America. “Well,” he said, “keep us all posted on that one, because that’s what every half-awake leader in the country is looking for.”
Our gang has taken the task seriously. We’ve learned from our namesake business leaders in Blue Ocean Strategy about how people can offer new and helpful initiatives in such transitional times. I’ve taken on a reading and prayer exploration process that’s turning out to be nearly as in-depth as my seminary education.
We haven’t yet launched anything, but the initial returns have felt eye-opening, if only personally. Starting on the macro level, it does seem that our opening narrative here about faith faltering in the face of setbacks or injustices turns out to be relevant to the church decline America is experiencing. And it seems that faith–this was new to me–was never intended to be the only way through. Yes, faith absolutely is a central, lasting way that God answers our needs throughout our lives. But it turns out that the opportunity in the face of setbacks historically has been understood not to be faith but to be what might better be called spirituality. Again, this has both meaningfully encouraged me and also has suggested some ways forward for churches and people of faith.
A surprising starting point
I wouldn’t have guessed that a major key to churches’ problems in the early 21st century was suggested in, of all places, the 14th century. It was a time that produced a significant chunk of all Christian mysticism that still has a readership today. Thomas a’Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing were all rough contemporaries. (As were less-remembered mystics like Walter Hilton, Richard
Rolle, Birgitta of Sweden and others.) So what caused this explosion of Christian mysticism throughout Europe (much of it produced in one region of England)? Among other causes was the bubonic plague which killed half of England’s population as it also ravaged the continent. Parents renounced infected children and left them untended for fear of contaminating the rest of the family. On top of that, England and France were in the middle of an intractable bloodbath in the Hundred Years War. Religion was taking a hit with the corrupt Avignon Papacy in France, which saw seven openly secular, power-wielding popes before it collapsed after almost seventy years. In the face of these provocations, England’s government faltered, leading to a Peasant’s Revolt in which previously normal citizens grabbed axes and swords and marauded through the country, burning rich peoples’ homes, opening prisons, killing lawyers and starting fires. I mean, can you imagine?
Only one or two of these catastrophes might be enough to extinguish most peoples’ faith. Instead, this explosion of mysticism helped many, many people make it through these crises still with a connection to Jesus, and sometimes also with a new hope and depth.
Why mysticism? And how does it differ from garden-variety faith? Does it replace it? Supplement it? Is it the actual, capital-T-Truth which only comes out under this sort of extreme provocation? Or is it a break-glass-when-needed supplement?
The Two Opportunities
A number of writers answer that question by proposing, in various forms, four stages of spiritual development. Among the mystics I’ve noted, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing does this. Breaking with tradition, I’m going with a chart. You’ll be impressed with my up-to-the-moment graphics. I have a simple version.
And a complex version.
Let’s walk through it.
The baseline human condition they might call reactivity. We are effectively asleep and just reflexively respond to stimuli thrown at us. This is how Satan, the God of this World, keeps us neutralized and unhappy. We are “helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd.” Because of this, we largely feel victimized. (One tradition I looked at calls this reactivity “victim consciousness.”) But Jesus gives us an offer, saying to us “wake up, sleeper/ rise from the dead/ and Christ will shine on you.”
But how do we take Jesus up on this offer? Two primary opportunities are offered to us.
The first is faith, in which we get the surprising insight that we can play a role in seeing good things come into our lives. “All things are possible to the one who believes.” Like the woman with the flow of blood, while we perhaps can’t heal ourselves, can’t create the power of God we want to work in our lives, we can reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ robe. The activator here is belief. We can get this belief through, say, believing the promises of the Bible as being true for us. We can put ourselves into settings where faith is reinforced, like faith-filled churches. Perhaps we’re feeling disheartened one day, but our friends in the church are feeling full of faith and so can carry us through. Churches that emphasize the Holy Spirit might have a particular type of helpfulness to offer, as being filled with the Spirit can also increase our faith.
The second opportunity is the inverse of this one. Where you could regard faith as being about getting stuff, spirituality as taught by these mystics is about letting stuff go. This also has a rich scriptural tradition. Jesus in Gethsemane says he doesn’t want to go to the cross but “not my will but yours be done.” Being Jesus and all, why doesn’t he just muster together enough faith not to have to go to the cross at all? Or think back to the author of Ecclesiastes saying (in chapter 3) that some aspects of life, whatever our level of faith, are just fixed. (Picture trying to muster up enough faith, say, to pray that a beautiful dog would become a beautiful cat.) Thriving in those circumstances involves finding joy in those moments rather than fighting them. On the upside, spirituality of this sort makes the bold claim that our spirituality is in fact more powerful than our circumstances.
You can imagine how faith, on the terms we just described, failed during the bubonic plague. All these believing people wanted to muster up enough faith that this curse would pass by their homes, but they’d run into a buzzsaw that was bigger than that. But, again, greater faith wasn’t the right move even for Jesus in the garden. Sometimes something else is going on.
The key tools for spirituality in the folks I’ve looked into are either, to use a newer term coined by a Trappist monk, centering prayer or, to use an older term with Eastern echoes, meditation. “Be still and know that I am God.” With this kind of quietness and letting go, we can discover to our surprise that there is a God who is at work regardless of our circumstances.
And, by pursuing this more and more, we discover that God is alive in this moment. When we are reactive, the present moment basically doesn’t exist. We’re worried. We’re angry. We’re ill- used. None of those things are about openness to this moment. In this view, this moment is where God lives! But to see his face, to actually enter the tent of meeting right now, we need to let things go as a way of life.
If we practice faith and spirituality long enough, we get something that very few people get. It’s been given lots of different names depending upon one’s tradition. Psychologically speaking, you might say we get that state of being that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow, in which we’re so present in this moment that we’re lost in it and we lose a sense of time. The Cloud of Unknowing calls this, per the beatitude, “being pure in heart and so seeing God.” In John’s gospel, it’s Jesus only doing what he “sees” his Father doing. Some Eastern traditions would call it enlightenment. At this point even meditation is not needed, because you’ve already attained what meditation is trying for.
So–you might ask–in a world with that progression, in the end what do you need faith for? If we’re just gunning to get to flow, is persistently working the faith side of things just (as Jesus said about Paul) kicking against the goads? Demanding that life becomes something it’s not?
On the one hand, yes! Absolutely! Richard Rohr heavily takes the spirituality side of things when he says that all great spirituality is about letting go. Clearly if we don’t (as Jesus does) learn to let go in increasingly profound ways, we can’t get to flow.
But we’ll never quit needing things. That’s the thing.
When our child is sick, learning to let go is not what our heart is crying out for. And so our spiritual growth, if these folks are to be believed, involves an ongoing dance between faith and spirituality, as if both remain in play at all times. The growth area for most Western Christians is that we’ve only been encouraged towards one of these, towards faith, and we’ve run up against its limits, the limits that spirituality was intended to address. But we were never taught spirituality of this sort. And so we either try to re-whip-up some faith again and again and again or we develop a sort of internal jadedness. Jesus did not intend this to be so! But to keep our hope and innocence, we need to grow in these ways.
Back to the challenges churches are facing
Five years ago, my family moved to Los Angeles with a research goal in mind. We’d seen how some of the early Blue Ocean Faith insights were helpful in non-churchgoing places like Cambridge and New York and elsewhere. But we realized there were very different types of secularism in America. And one unexplored type was the sort of cultural secularism of the westside of Los Angeles. The thought was that, if our bold goals of offering potent spiritual direction to the secular world were to be realized, we might be served by understanding this different context. It’s been quite a journey, and one where we have learned a whole lot. The next thought piece will likely be a look at some of those things and about how they might apply more broadly–if we’re yet in a position to hazard some thoughts along those lines.
And churches are facing many pressures, some of which are obvious to all while others might be more hidden. Right now, to be sure, evangelical churches are facing a political crisis which is defining their brand to the rest of the world. But I’d propose that, by focusing on faith exclusively, many churches are also facing a crisis of not being able to deliver on their explicit promise of a better life. So our think tank is about to go public with a soft launch of what we’re thinking of as a spiritual center of some sort. It will meet in the afternoons so as not to compete with churches. But it will incorporate the spirit of the two opportunities we’ve talked about here. One friend confided that their life had been persistently disappointing in one area. While they’d kept up a brave front, their faith had been dropping and dropping. But just maybe they now had a different sort of hope offered by this union of faith and spirituality.
And, at the very least, all of this has helped me! By the end of 2017, I was stressed. I felt so many challenges in so many areas of my life that I was as anxious as I remember being. One night as I was praying, I felt a promise from God that my 2018 would be very different as God would teach me new approaches that would offer me a new kind of joy. That has proven true! 2018 has brought its own batch of challenges, as new years tend to do. But I have not experienced that stress, which I attribute to these things.