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GEN-X RISING: "Spirituality" is empty slogan without a church community Andrew C. Thompson, Jul 24, 2007
(c) 2007 DESIGN PICS
"Spirituality" might feel good, but without a faith community, it's not enough to impact someone's life, says Andrew Thompson.
By Andrew C. Thompson Special Contributor
"I'm spiritual, but not religious." That common statement heard today is shorthand for: "I like God. I even like Jesus, but I can't stand the church."
The person who makes such a statement is likely to be turned off by a word like "discipleship" but very much attracted to a word like "spirituality."
And the Spiritual Softies out there -- no disrespect intended -- think they've solved the problems of religion.
Spiritual Softies are turned off by the church because they are convinced that it is too worldly or too political. So they focus on "spirituality," a term they use for some vague notion of God or the Holy Spirit.
In fact, the more vague the better.
Spiritual Softies are not particularly interested in the claims of any of the major world religions. They don't want to hear that Islam, Christianity and Buddhism hold incompatible beliefs about God or the world.
Instead, religious pluralism is the flavor du jour, and people who like spirituality think that dropping all particular beliefs and just focusing on "spiritual truth" (whatever that is) will solve the world's problems.
There is, of course, one little problem: The word "spirituality," removed from any concrete religious tradition, is an empty term. It doesn't actually mean anything by itself.
And in the Christian tradition, spirituality is usually associated with mystics whose discipleship and devotion to Jesus are more intense and concrete, not less so.
This misunderstanding is a big problem for the church.
Spiritual Softies have bought into pop culture's exploding market for spirituality. They've been taught that treating Christianity like just one more tasty dish at a potluck supper is perfectly acceptable. "Spirituality" feels good, and makes no demands.
Of course, every bit of pop culture spirituality hits a brick wall when it comes to Jesus. Because Jesus' spirituality takes the shape of the cross, reflecting sacrificial love, servanthood and surrender.
And yes, it is about the church.
Take note: At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks to Peter. This is the same Peter who was the first to confess Jesus as the Christ and about whom Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my church."
So Jesus asks Peter very pointedly, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" Though Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus asks him two more times to drive his point home.
Each time, Peter answers, "Yes Lord, you know that I love you." And Jesus says to him, "Feed my sheep."
That's a familiar enough story, but too often we stop there. But John's Gospel goes on to record that Jesus says something very strange to Peter.
He says, Peter, when you were younger, you could do anything and go anywhere. But when you grow old, someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.
And then he looks at Peter, and says simply, "Follow me."
Now a lot of people take that as a sign indicating how Peter will eventually be martyred for his faith.
I take it as the kind of direct response any Spiritual Softie needs to hear when he says, "I'm spiritual but not religious."
In the Christian faith, there is no separation of the Holy Spirit from the call into sacrificial discipleship and the redemptive community of the church. Jesus is not a product to be bought, a feel-good panacea for the shallow materialism of the world.
Jesus is the Son of God, who has reconciled the world to God's own self. And he has created the church as the community where we can find reconciliation.
Cyprian, a third-century bishop of Carthage, famously said, "You cannot have God as father unless you have the Church as mother." That is, you cannot be in communion with God without being a part of the body of Christ.
Such words expose the sugary spiritualism of our day for the empty concept that it is.