Over the last few months a few curious religious incidents have made news headlines. Consider the following:
– An extraordinary genocide of Christians and other religious minorities occurred in Mossul Iraq and in Syria by ISIS – Islamic Extremists (so extreme that they were excommunicated by Al-Qaeda – a known terrorist organisation.) For them such things were spiritual acts. To a common human being such acts – including the beheading of little children, the rape of women and the crucifixion of men – is not spiritual but monstrous extremely evil and barbaric.
– In Nigeria a building collapsed under the ministry of TB Joshua. He had allegedly had visions of the building collapse three weeks before it had happened, but this curiously did not lead to preventative measures, nor to practical assistance to those caught in the rubble immediately after it had happened. For many who follow him spirituality is measured by supernatural occurrences and power. For many normal human beings real spirituality has more to do with the practical service of safety and assistance to those caught in the rubble, particularly the humility to get one’s hands dirty to help.
– Lesego Daniel, a pastor of the Rabboni centre encourages his congregants to drink petrol as part of their religious ceremonies – despite the terrifying effects of consumption of petroleum. Somehow his community seems to find the act meaningful even though it is neither Biblical nor reasonable to that most uncommon faculty of common sense.
“Religion is the opiate of the people” is one of the most frequently paraphrased statements quoted from Karl Marx. I am afraid that not only does religion placate people, like opium does, it often has a similar intoxicating effect.
But does the fault lie with religiousness in and of itself?
Contemplating events such as these in the news it seems to me that the problem does not lie with religion – although most certainly there are good and bad religions, and some religions that are better or worse than others. No, when we are confronted with such events we are faced with a deeper and more primal question: What is spirituality? We are drawn to certain beliefs, certain practices, certain dispositions – whether moderate or extreme, balanced or unbalanced – because in some sense we find them to be ‘spiritual’.
What do we find to be spiritual and why?
First a disclaimer: This essay – of sorts – is simply a contemplation on a series of observations. I cannot say that I fully understand the subject. It is more that I see something in it and want to share about what it is that I think I am seeing.
In this essay of sorts I do not mean or intent do discuss religions (or religionlessness for that matter) – although much can be said on such topics. I am more curious as to the spiritualities and the senses of spirituality that guide our decisions, beliefs and actions.
Why are we ‘spiritual’? What is spirituality? Perhaps we are spiritual because we fear death. Perhaps we need to know what is beyond it. Perhaps we are spiritual because our parents and societies taught us to be. Perhaps we are spiritual because we encounter moments of inexplicable transcendence in life. Perhaps we are spiritual because we feel an undeniable psychological need for it. Perhaps we are spiritual because of a sense of connection that we feel with others and the world around us. Perhaps we have had spiritual experiences of ‘God’. And perhaps we simply anthropomorphise certain metaphysical values.
Whatever the reason for our spirituality, it seems a fairly universal phenomenon.
Brainstorming the subject it seems immediately clear to me that spirituality has both objective and subjective aspects. And as much of what we perceive to be spiritual is subjective – such things can also be heavily culturally influenced.
As I consider Charismatic Christianity for example, I note that it has distinct African roots. It started with communities of African American congregants following the Azuza street revival in America. African culture is prominent with its belief in the supernatural. It is loud and rowdy. It follows strong leaders. People like to sing and dance. There are clear positive aspects to such a spirituality as well as potential negative aspects. Charismatic Christianity naturally adapted to Africa – as we can see with the Nigerian and South African pastors.
Culturally though I can note how much such Charismatic communities have in common with African political marches, labour strikes and African native animistic religions. It is flavoured with a spirituality that is expressed very much (i) through the senses, (ii) expressed through the body, (iii) with a strong – perhaps exaggerated sense of the supernatural and (iv) a complete submission to the religious chief and his status – whoever he may be.
In the older Christian Monastic traditions of Europe as well as the Eastern religions spirituality has far more to do with controlling the body than giving expression to it. Practices of self-denial, asceticism and austerity are far more prominent there, whilst in the African paradigm it is almost expected of religious leaders to demonstrate some extravagance to demonstrate their status and prominence.
The Reformation that occurred in Christianity a few hundred years ago on the other hand seemed quite cerebral and coincided with the renaissance and the social revolutions that followed it. It emphasised the role of personal conviction, personal choice and religious understanding. People were often killed for having divergent convictions. Later when the reformation institutionalised itself the perspective of spirituality began to shift away from that of conviction, belief and understanding to tradition – cultural co-operation – and to legalism (or at the very least moralism – i.e. an emphasis on the discernment between right and wrong and the doing of it.)
Following the simultaneous rise of humanism in Europe – ironically with both democratic principles and human rights – as well as those from communism – many seem to naturally ‘see’ spirituality through the lenses of humanism and liberalism. For such spirituality is often a matter of liberty – the freedom to do what one wants – as well as social outreach, and cultural tolerance.
Our personal values and our social values therefore strongly influence what we see to be ‘spiritual’ or what we expect of any religion in its being spiritual. What those values are also determines both the strengths and the weaknesses of our own particular brands of spirituality:
– Those given to emotionalism and the senses may be quick to believe but they may be quick to be distracted by weird spiritualities or manipulative leaders also.
– Those given to moralism maybe strong at maintaining moral standards but they may also be quick to lack compassion and freedom of spirit.
– Those given to sentimentalism may be ‘nice’ but they may also fail to draw any sense of passion.
– Those given to liberalism may be compassionate but may fail utterly to stand for anything clear in particular.
So much for my general observations.
This brings me to the Biblical stuff. I was wondering what the Bible would say on the kind of spirituality that it endorses. So here are a few thoughts.
- The Values of Honesty, Sincerity and Authenticity
In John 4 we have an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritian woman. She is a woman of a different religious persuasion who intentionally seeks to provoke a religious dispute with Jesus. The incident is quite curious because she is collecting water at quite the wrong time of day which suggests that she may have been a social outcast for all her many divorces. (She did not collect water with the other women early in the day.) In provoking a religious dispute with Jesus she reverts back to an assimilated faith of “We believe” rather than “My own conviction”.
Jesus responds by saying, “The day is coming when the true worshippers of God will worship him in spirit and in truth.” It seems to me that Jesus was telling her that we need a spirituality of realness: a worship of God not tied to temples and rituals but rather to honesty: wherein we can be ourselves and God can be himself.
So it seems to me that the first Biblical value I find on spirituality is that of authenticity – honesty – realness. Whatever we do, we need to be real. We need to be honest in our convictions. For the philosopher Kierkegaard ‘realness’ did not only have to do with honesty, but also with self-honesty – that our beliefs should be our own and not that of our social crowds.
I.e. God wants us to be honest and real with him. That is that kind of spirituality that he responds to.
- The Value of Practical Love
In 1 Corinthians 13 and 14 we see Paul confronting a very ‘charismatic-like’ community’s spirituality. In 1 Corinthians 13 he explains that their communal spirituality needs to be characterised by love. In the first century the churches were challenged by gnosticism which made ‘love’ very much a spiritual feeling divorced of reality. In 1 John John explains that love must be practical. It is not just positive feelings, but it reaches out with practical assistance.
Jesus himself challenged the religious feelings of his own feelings in the well known parable of the good Samaritan. The story is about a man from another religion who did good things to someone in need. He explained to his orthodox listeners that that is the kind of love that God requires from them.
I.e. Real spirituality loves with the kind of love that gets its hands dirty with practical assistance.
- The Value of Understanding
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul continues his confrontation of that very charismatic-like community. He explains to them that for mutual service and ministry of gifts to be of help it has to be qualified by the characteristics of being both spiritual and relating to understanding.
When something is just understanding it might as well just be a lecture. When it is just spiritual it does not help anyone either. Faith and reason, spirituality and understanding need to go together before it becomes of use.
Contributed by Kurt West