IChristine Sine sent me an invitation to write (alongside so many other wonderful writers) in response to a question she posed about Spiritual practices. If I can summarize Christine’s question (no doubt very badly), and premise for the series, she asked why do most people experience God outside church in the world, whilst Christians see only prayer, bible study, and going to church as spiritual practices, for knowing and experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus?
It was a good question for me, in that it bothered me and got me thinking. In particular, how tragic it is if the bible, church and prayer become self referencing static mediators of the gospel, with no connection to the real world. But also, how equally tragic and a measure of gospel paucity, if spiritual practices, are about experiences of God in the world, with no framing by the canonical-linguistic grammar of the gospel, prayer, and Christian community. Both are as bad as each other, or perhaps at least lead to a question, what are the nature of spiritual practices, and how are they connected to the world, and church, and scripture?
Otherwise without some understanding of that, it’s easy to accept the opening premise at face value as fact, and in response as a Christian to reach for what I do in the world as ‘a spiritual practice’. That is to respond by listing what I do in the world, outside of the bible , prayer, and church, as where I meet God. It’s to locate spiritual practices on those terms, and that’s something I’m uncomfortable with. Just as I am uncomfortable with collapsing ‘spiritual practices’ into bible study, prayer and going to church.
I can easily reach for how having turned 40 years old this year, I became a cliche, and I decided to get a motor bike. I can describe how the training process in the UK, with four separate tests and requisite training, have been forming me as a biker. How I for the first time have a hobby away from my work, and the pressures of Church community. How a ride through the english pastoral countryside, clears my mind, connects me to creation, and how close to God I feel compared to going to Church. And if I were to imagine that Christians who see spiritual practices as solely the domain of prayer, bible and going to church, were to ask me, how can you ride a motorbike as a spiritual practice, my reply might be like that of Charles Spurgeon, when asked how could he smoke cigars? That I do it to the glory of God.
But I misrepresent Spurgeon, and do him a disservice, as do many Christians, when we use his most wonderful aphorism, as a thin veneer, to baptise everything we do as a ‘spiritual practice’. For if I justify all I do as being done to the glory of God, everything is a spiritual discipline, perhaps apart from going to Church, prayer and the bible.
So how might we begin to respond to this separation of ‘spiritual practices’ from church community, the bible and prayer? How did we arrive at this separation, and how might we begin to frame this theologically, to understand the nature of ‘spiritual practices’ and how they form us as human beings before God?
One reading of St Augustine, would provide an understanding of the human condition, in which we have not fallen from God, but we have fallen from ourselves, into ourselves. For Augustine, humanity has not fallen out of perfection, but rather out of Creation, into the condition of privation, isolation, and withdrawal. Sin is not a fall from God, but the fall from ourselves, otherwise we could not exist as human beings. While our response to this condition is further retreat, into isolation from others, and forming life around ourselves, redemption is the move back into Creation and presence with God and others. While Augustine is often critiqued as being world denying, he can be seen as providing just the opposite, with a theology of engagement with the world.
As I read him, Augustine is not world-denying but world-affirming, and it is not that we have too little; it is that we are overwhelmed by the plenitude of Creation, we end up loving love itself, desiring desire, and become lost to ourselves, isolated from God and each other. Augustine does not want us to love the world more, but rather change how we love it. As evidenced in his own life and ministry and teaching, we see Augustine encouraging Christians to move deeper into the world and its affairs.
For Augustine, the Christian life in response to this problem, and human condition, was one of ascesis, of re-training our desire and longings with, towards their proper orientation, and ends, that enable us to participate in the redemption of creation, by Jesus. Within this crude summary of Augustine, we might see that ‘spiritual practices’ are those things that are located within this ascesis, that which leads to re-training and re-directing of our desire towards their god redeemed ends.
Or in response to my own question posed at the start of this post, I might see that prayer, church, and the bible that does not form us in engagement in the world, is as bad a process of ascesis as spiritual practices that move us too deeply into the world and become disconnected from the church, prayer and the bible.
I can ride my motorbike as a spiritual practice and meet Jesus. I can offer God my motorbike riding within his re-training me from someone within a fallen self identity as a workaholic, into someone who can find his identity in the sheer indulgence of the enjoyment riding through God’s creation. Or it can become an ecclesiology for one, having more in common with the problem of my isolation from God and others, and idol of my own making that forms me around my own isolated desires and disconnection from others. A substitute for real ‘spiritual practice’, justified around my own fallen desires and ends, rather than those learned and practiced within the community of God’s people.
Everything can be a ‘spiritual practice’, but not everything is a ‘spiritual practice’. It is the ends, the means, and the formation that takes place within our activities that determines what is ‘spiritual’. Charles Spurgeon new this well I think, which is why when Christians questioned his smoking to the Glory of God’, his reply in a letter to the Telegraph Newspaper was:
‘"The expression 'smoking to the glory of God,' standing alone, has an ill sound, and I do not justify it; but in the sense in which I employed it, I still stand to it. No Christian should do anything in which he cannot glorify God—and this may be done, according to Scripture, in eating and drinking and the common actions of life.
When I have found intense pain relieved, a weary brain soothed, and calm, refreshing sleep obtained by a cigar, I have felt grateful to God and have blessed His name; this is what I meant, and by no means did I use sacred words triflingly. If through smoking I had wasted an hour of my time—if I had stinted my gifts to the poor—if I had rendered my mind less vigorous—I trust I should see my fault and turn from it; but he who charges me with these things shall have no answer but my forgiveness.” (http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/cigars.htm)