"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Criticisms of the Disciplines

Like I mentioned a few days ago (see previous post), I'm intrigued by the criticism of the practicing of spiritual disciplines I’ve sensed from many in Christianity. Though I’m mostly unimpressed by the arguments against it, I think I understand the concerns and fears behind these critiques.

Some seem uncomfortable with how ecumenical it is. Well…for a person interested, for example, in how some principles of Buddhism can help me be a better follower of Jesus, I’m obviously kind of indifferent to a criticism of being in dialogue with other opinions within our own religious tradition.

I know many insist on recognizing the incompatibility and differences between various Christian expressions rather than their unity and similarity. But I think such plurality of belief within our faith gives us a better glimpse of the whole. That is to say that Catholics needs Charismatics, Methodists need Presbyterians, and Baptists need Mennonites to better understand God.

I know most denominations don’t think they need one another, and, at our worst, we assume that there is nothing of value in these other traditions. But I find that narrow-minded, silly, maybe a defense mechanism against that which “threatens” us. We should be able to help one another in our faith journey by sharing our own insights with others, regardless of what doctrines we disagree on.

Some seem to feel spiritual disciplines are a bit too mystical—too much focus on meditative practices, or too New-Agey, or too at risk of exposing yourself to the demonic, or whatever. I honestly don’t live with such fear in my spirituality. I don’t fear encountering evil by opening myself up to God in prayer, by seeking detachment from my worldly attachments, or by doing something that non-Christians would do in their spirituality.

I fear encountering evil more in myself when I have not spent time in prayer and meditation, the kind of evil that comes out in my laziness, anger, jealously, judgmental attitude, indifference to the needs and hurts of others, and self-preservation.

A few critics seem to feel that the disciplines are unbiblical or extra-biblical (and therefore suspect), because, there’s no specific passage commanding us to practice the spiritual disciplines. There’s also no specific passage about serving coffee on Sunday mornings, but we do it.

Silly “point” aside, I guess this is an issue of what questions one is asking in considering how to be a “good” Christian. For example, if my question is, “how can I live biblically?” then maybe I’ll come to one set of conclusions. If my question is “how can I become more like Jesus?” or “how can I better know and experience the love of God?” then I may come to different conclusions.

Maybe those questions sound the same. But often someone's choice of words reveals the assumptions behind those words. For example, when I hear someone ask, "is it Biblical?" instead of "can it help me know Jesus better?" I know there are very different assumptions at work behind each question, and can probably tell you a number of other things they believe or value just by those simple few words.

This is probably why I want to better understand the faith of my Muslim students at Evergreen, and why I wish I had more time to study history, science, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc. I'm hungry for learning, for understanding. And I think there may be insights and practices in the faith of others and in the various studies that can help me know the God of Jesus better. I do not fear exposing myself to “evil” by such extra-biblical practices.

But maybe the most important criticism or concern is that it feels like “work” or “works”—a denial of grace and a pursuit of good works that will better our standing before God. This is certainly a danger. I know trying to grow in your spirituality can be exhausting for some, guilt-inducing for others.

But I think it’s good to be aware of spiritually “coasting”—of assuming that all of our preaching of grace or Christ’s sufficiency or our depravity means being a good Christian means simply continually reminding ourselves that God loves us and that his grace covers our sins. I know I definitely need these reminders, but I don’t want to use such glorious truths as excuses to not to take my call to “be holy as Christ is holy” seriously.

I think the spiritual disciplines can help us overcome what might be called “anti-Catholic" sentiments, in light of the ways Luther (aside from all the good he did) and the Reformation have perhaps taught us to assume that Jesus and Paul despised everything about the Jewish Law and thus any efforts to better ourselves and live holy lives, when I’m not so sure that was the point either of them were making in their teachings. I don’t believe Jesus preached that we should reject any call to put effort into becoming more holy because such effort shows we don’t take God’s love and work and grace seriously.

Rather, I believe because of the relationship with God we now have, we are invited to grow in love and character. And in my experience, while I recognize the way God’s Spirit is at work in us and changing us, “growing” in love and character takes some effort—at least for me it does—as there are so many still-existing sinful, evil habits and tendencies within me that make me incapable of love at times—both giving it and receiving it.

Yes, Christ has set us free in some sense. That is both biblical and theological. But free from what? Free for what? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this theme of “freedom” and have actually become a bit suspicious of the way I/we understand it and perhaps overvalue it. I’ll save that for another post, but will at least say this: while I believe God, through Christ, has freed humankind in a way we could not possibly have done ourselves, I think God still desires in some sense to free us from our own personal “hells” and destructive habits—if we are willing.

I believe becoming more disciplined in ways that truly transform me into a better person, a person who more resembles Jesus, is a likely path toward increasing freedom from all the ways I am still “bound.” It is to this end that I pursue the disciplines. I need to be freer and more in touch with God’s love. And others need me to be freer and more in touch with God’s love. God help me.

Are there other criticisms that I haven't thought of? Maybe the spiritual disciplines are too formulaic? Maybe they seem too "me-centered"? Thoughts are welcome.

1 comment:

Krysti Emerson said...

Great blogs Matt. I think that the way we use or seek spiritual disciplines can be as individual as we all are! It seems that what may really draw and intrigue me, doesn't for someone else. Steve loves to do the "imaginative" praying, but it doesn't really draw me in like it does him. I prefer to journal my prayers. I think that God gave us the freedom to seek him in whatever way works - he is infinite and also promises to be found by us - if we seek for Him with all our hearts. I think as I get older, I am learning to be less critical of other people's journey with God - I cannot judge motives, and they only need one Holy Spirit - and it is not me!