Jesus Creed: What Is the Focus of Spiritual Life?

By McKnight, Scot | The Christian Century, September 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

Jesus Creed: What Is the Focus of Spiritual Life?


McKnight, Scot, The Christian Century


DISCIPLESHIP AND disciplines: during the past 50 years these two words have expressed for many of us the quintessence of following Christ. We have come especially to associate "discipleship" with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose prophetic voice showed us what it was like to be a Christian under Hitler's regime. "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," we read in Reginald Fuller's translation--words that challenge us to take up the cross daily, even at the cost of persecution and death.

The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer's lectures to students at an underground seminary, had an enormous influence on the American church. It convinced people that following Jesus meant a life of radical commitment to his teachings, especially as crystallized in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7; Luke 6). The pursuit of social justice that dominated the 1960s found a renewed theological basis in the term "discipleship." Anabaptist writings made their way into American pulpits. Menno Simons, John Howard Yoder and Ronald Sider were no longer seen as extremists but as prophetic voices. Protestants began wearing crosses, sometimes large wooden ones, and to argue that the way of the cross taught by Bonhoeffer had powerful implications for how all Christians were to participate in society and, in particular, in (or against) war. Good recent examples of this orientation can be seen in Virginia Stem Owens's Living Next Door to the Death House aim in Jim Wallis's Faith Works.

Almost imperceptibly, however, another voice came to be heard in the '60s and '70s, first from the back pew, then from the pulpit itself. Many sensed that succeeding generations would need more spiritual sustenance than was provided by a radical commitment to social justice. A turn inward was made, a turn to find the source of strength to fire the active life.

The superficiality and materialism of culture and the noisiness and stress of the active life spurred many to seek peace and tranquillity. Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out, which begins by reaching into the deepest part of the self, best expresses this need to turn inward. Nouwen's profound and enduring perception of spiritual formation moves from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality and from illusion to prayer.

Turning inward to the spiritual disciplines led to a rediscovery of the great traditions of the church. In practicing the disciplines, Protestants joined hands with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Protestants read The Rule of St. Benedict and Orthodoxy's The Philokalia. The evangelical Quaker Richard Foster may have been most instrumental in making the disciplines accessible to a large public, but many others helped in the process. One thinks, for example, of Thomas Merton's books, such as The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), What Is Contemplation? (1959) and The Inner Experience (2003), and spiritual writers such as Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Kathleen Norris and Roberta Bondi. Care of the soul has become central to spiritual formation.

What do the terms "discipleship" and "disciplines" evoke about what it means to be a 21st-century Christian? Discipleship refers to a Christian who is radically committed to obeying Jesus Christ, one who studies Jesus' teachings and puts them into practice. Of course, most go beyond these teachings to incorporate the powerful images of rue Pauline letters into their practice--images like living in the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit. But no matter how broadly the image of discipleship is conceived, its foundation is radical commitment.

Discipline evokes the ideas of effort, commitment, will power and regimentation. One of the great impacts of a steady practice of the spiritual disciplines is that it gives a rhythm to one's life. As the ancient Hebrews turned the mundane calendar into a sacred calendar of holy feasts, and as the early Christians turned the Roman calendar into a sacred calendar of Christian days and seasons, so the practice of the disciplines can create a sacred rhythm to our days, weeks, months and years. …

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