THE SEETHING energies of spirituality are evident everywhere. That is good. What is not so good is that spirituality is also prone to lack of clarity, making it difficult to carry on a conversation about it. In the enthusiasm for firsthand experience, many of the men and women to whom I have been pastor and teacher set aside the Christian's basic spirituality text, the Bible, and take up with new "scriptures" which strike them as fresh and fascinating. Having entered the spiritual culture of sell-help and self-sovereignty, their discourse is soon emptied of any gospel distinctiveness.
I love the energy that I discover in my friends but I am wary of the reductions that take place when God is interpreted through fragments of ecstasy or strategies for happiness. I want to harness these spirituality energies in biblical leather and direct them to Jesus.
Spirituality is like a net that, when thrown into the sea of contemporary culture, pulls in a vast quantity of spiritual fish. In our times, spirituality has become a major business for entrepreneurs, a recreational sport for the bored, and for some--whether many or few, it's hard to tell--a serious and disciplined commitment to live deeply and fully in relation to God.
Once used exclusively in traditional religious contexts, the word "spirituality" is now used quite indiscriminantly by all sorts of people in a variety of circumstances and with diverse meanings. This once pristine word has been dragged into the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace and playground. Many lament this, but I'm not sure that lament is the appropriate response. We need a term like this.
The attempt to reclaim the word for exclusively Christian or other religious usage usually begins with a definition. But attempts to define spirituality, and they are many, are futile. The term has escaped the discipline of the dictionary. Its current usefulness is not in its precision but rather in the way it names something indefinable yet quite recognizable: transcendence vaguely intermingled with intimacy. Transcendence: a sense that there is more, a sense that life extends far beyond me, beyond what I get paid, beyond what my spouse and children think of me, beyond my cholesterol count. Intimacy: a sense that deep within me there is a core being inaccessible to the probes of psychologists or the examinations of physicians, the questions of the pollsters, the strategies of the advertisers. Spirituality, though hardly precise, provides a popular term that recognizes an organic linkage between this beyond and within that are part of everyone's experience.
We need a term that covers the waterfront, that throws every intimation of beyond and within into one huge wicker basket, a term that is indiscriminately comprehensive: spirituality.
Historically, the word spirituality is a relative latecomer to our dictionaries. Only very recently has it entered everyday speech. St. Paul used the adjective spiritual (pneumatikos) to refer to actions or attitudes derived from the work of the Holy Spirit in all Christians. It was only in the medieval church, primarily in the context of monasticism, that the word began to be used to name a way of life restricted to an elite class of Christian, those who lived at a higher level than ordinary Christians. The lives of spiritual Christians, mostly monks and nuns vowed to celibacy, poverty and obedience, were contrasted with the muddled lives of men and women who married and had babies, who got their hands dirty in fields and markets in a world where "all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / and wears man's smudge and shares man's smell...." (Gerard Manley Hopkins). Spirituality then came into use to designate the study and practice of a perfect life before God, of extraordinary holiness in the Christian life. It was a specialized word having to do with only a small number of people and so was never part of everyday speech. …