Tract IV: What is Christian Spirituality?

Tracts for the Times 2.0

In my next series of tracts, I will be presenting a comprehensive outline of Christian spirituality, as embodied in the Anglican tradition. In Tract #4, I’ll define just what Christian spirituality is.

What is spirituality?

The word “spirituality” has taken on different connotations in Christianity. Originally, the word was derived from the Latin word, spiritualitas, which was used in the Pauline sense to refer to the realm of the spirit as opposed to that of the flesh (meaning sinful nature). Jewish theology and early Christian theology knew no divorce between the body and the spirit: man is a body-spirit unity, and to divorce the body from the spirit is death.

However, by the 12th century, under the influence of Greek philosophy, in which corporeal things were tainted and not fit for divinity, the word “spirituality” began to be opposed to corporeality. Around the 17th century, “spirituality” was applied especially to the interior life of the individual Christian. “Spirituality” for many Christians still consists of these later, disembodied definitions of spirituality. As I reflect on the state of much of contemporary Christianity, spirituality is seen primarily as individual and interior. This is not only a relatively recent way of comprehending spirituality but is also the source of a disfigured and impoverished Christianity. For many Christians today, this world is sinful and not really worth saving.

In an extreme version of this, associated with dispensationalism, I’ve heard preachers say “You don’t make the beds on the Titanic” (an alternative rendition is: “You don’t polish the brass on the Titanic”). The implication is that this world is evil and doomed, and so why bother to save it?

Which brings me to a humorous incident involving my always entertaining brother, Paul. Paul was having a conversation one day with a young man about evangelism. This young man argued that evangelism was the most important thing we could do because it was the one thing we could do on earth but not in heaven. Paul thought a moment, turned to the young man, and said, “Since there’s no marriage in heaven . . . and therefore no sex . . . I guess me and my wife better get busy!”

An individualistic spirituality often results not in worship and holiness but in narcissism. I go to church, or pray, because of what I get from God. Or I read the Bible primarily about what it means to me, not what it means to the Church or what it teaches about God. An individualistic spirituality can lead to the “Just me and Jesus” syndrome, where I’m the center of the world, can worship God anywhere and in any way, and without the bother of other Christians, of tithing, etc…

As far as an interior and “non-corporeal” spirituality goes, the truth is that we always worship with our bodies, even in prayer, the most ethereal aspect of spirituality. Even in prayer, we pray using space, posture, breathing, brain, etc… How could the body be a distraction to spirituality, irrelevant to it, or of less value than the human spirit, when God made a point of taking into Himself all of human nature, including a body? And He calls His people, His Temple – “The Body of Christ.” And, no, when you get to heaven, you won’t be floating on clouds as a disembodied spirit for eternity, sprouting wings and playing a harp (OK, maybe the bit about playing the harp).

“I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”

Christians have many misconceptions about spirituality. The first is the common saying: “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious.” A saying which relates to a wider reality, that “people just don’t like the Church.”

There are many contemporary slogans that reflect this dislike and even hatred of the Church:

  • “I’m against organized religion.”
  • “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”
  • And the ever-popular meme of the day: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Now who wouldn’t want to be “spiritual”? Even many atheists and agnostics think of themselves as spiritual. While being “spiritual” is very fuzzy these days, the meme, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” does, in fact, have an important meaning.

I’m sure there is a diversity of things that people mean when they think or say things like this, but the essence seems to be this: “I want to transcend myself and get in touch the spiritual dimension of life on my own terms, without anybody else telling me what to do!” How American this is! But also how individualistic and self-centered.

It’s safe to be spiritual because when I claim to be spiritual, I can think of myself as a good person without necessarily having to confront my own sins and faults. It’s safe to be spiritual because it doesn’t demand anything of me except what I already want.

By being “spiritual,” we mean that we can choose whatever god we desire, worship Him in any way we want, and that no one can bind or obligate us in any way. We mean that God comes to us individually and not corporately; privately but not publicly.

“Religion,” on the other hand, has taken on a negative connotation among Americans, especially the dreaded “organized religion.” My first question (always subvocalized and never articulated) is: “Do you prefer disorganized religion?”

The reason for this negative attitude is this: religion comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind.” And religion is all about binding: binding oneself to God and binding oneself to others. But we assume that binding means slavery and tyranny and that independence from others means freedom and liberty. And we don’t want anyone else limiting our desires and actions.

The truth is that Christianity is a religion but also that spirituality is vitally important.

“Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”

True or False: “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” This, of course, is another common meme among Christians with a false view of Christian spirituality. This idea pits “relationship” vs “religion.” Presumably, relationships are good because they allow us to be free to be ourselves, without the expectation and obligations of others. Relationships with God are good because they’re genuine and allow me to express my love for God. A relationship with God allows me be alone with Him in the way that I desire.

Religion, on the other hand, is presumably not truly Christianity because it means I have to relate to God according to the rules and expectations of others. Also, religions are dry and dead and choke out the intimate relationship I might otherwise have with God. Religion, in this meme, is formal, institutional, and inauthentic.

I’ve heard people say that religion is a way to earn salvation, and salvation is all of grace. I’ve also heard Christians say things like “religion” is a creation of man and a bunch of man-made rules.

Not so fast.

It would be easy to prove that Christianity is a religion. After all, it’s the creation of God, and not man. God created the Church and breathed His Holy Spirit into her so that she is filled with the life of Jesus Christ and is called the Body and Bride of Christ. As far as “rules”: I’m pretty sure that the 10 Commandments and all of the commandments of Christ and the apostles were God’s idea. But there’s more to why it’s a good thing that Christianity is truly a religion.

I discussed earlier how religion comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind.” And the essence of both true relationships and true religion is this binding, for the most binding force on earth is love. By love, I’m bound by my wife and give up a lot of the liberty I had as a bachelor. I can’t look at other women now, or take them out for intimate dinners. I can’t live a separate life from my wife: she’s one with me wherever I go.

Love, in fact, requires binding oneself to another, which is why Christianity is what we might call a religious relationship. At the heart of Christianity is the covenant. And what is the covenant but a very special, religious relationship, that is completely binding and put in effect by a vow or oath from which there is no escape. A relationship without religion would look like what? A life filled with occasional remembrances of God and coming before Him only when I feel like it?

Maybe one of the reasons so many Christians believe that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion is because they have not correctly read the way God relates to men in the Scriptures. Jesus Christ has taken one Bride, the Church, of which all Christians are members. The relationship Christians have with God, therefore, is a corporate relationship. And it was Jesus Christ who ordained apostles to lead the Church after His Ascension, and Jesus Christ who ordained the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Finally, my relationship with God is never just “me and Jesus.” Jesus has united Himself to His whole Church, and that contains billions and billions of other Christians, with whom I now have a relationship as well.

What is Christian Spirituality?

Having looked at false views of Christian spirituality, it’s time to give you a robust positive definition.

“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (Acts 1:1).

I find this to be one of the most illuminating verses in the New Testament. Luke’s “former account,” is, of course, the Gospel According to St. Luke, and if you read Luke 24 and Acts 1 back to back, you’ll realize they belong together like man and wife, like peanut butter and jelly (or banana).  What does Luke say about his Gospel?  That in it he wrote about the things that Jesus Christ began to do and to teach.  This can only mean that in his present book (“The Acts of the Apostles”, which some later editor added) he will be writing about the things that Jesus Christ continues to do and to teach. Which brings us to verse 9.  In verse 9, Jesus ascends into heaven, never to be seen in the flesh again until we get to heaven.  But this presents an interesting little tension in the lives of Christians: how can Jesus Christ be around to continue to do and to teach when He’s sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven?

The answer to this question is why I think this odd, little verse is so illuminating. In the book of Acts, St. Luke is writing about the words and works of Jesus Christ as the Spirit of Christ lives in the Body of Christ to be the presence of Christ on the earth.  The main character of the book of Acts is therefore not St. Peter or St. Paul, the greatest tag team in history, but Jesus Christ Himself, as He works through the Holy Spirit who indwells His Body, the Church. This, finally, is true Christian spirituality: the life of Jesus Christ communicated to the Body of Christ by the Spirit of Christ.

But sacred history doesn’t end with Paul in prison on page 1875 (in my Bible): it continues through our lives. The same Jesus Christ who changed water into wine, healed the blind, deaf, and dumb, and raised Lazarus from the dead is the same Jesus Christ who had Peter and John heal a lame man and had Paul stand preaching on Mars Hill is the same Jesus Christ who helps me to write these tracts and helps you to raise your kids.  In fact, now that the Body of Jesus Christ has been broken and blessed and is distributed throughout the world and even populates Paradise again, the truth of Jesus words become clear: “he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12).

The Ascension of Jesus Christ is the turning point in the life of Christ and His Church. The Ascension marks the changing of the guard from Jesus Christ of Nazareth in a local body to Jesus Christ ruling the earth through His Mystical Body. In reality, the work of Christ can’t be separated: the Incarnation, His life, His Passion, His Crucifixion, His Resurrection, His Ascension, and His Session are all part of the same centrifugal love that has come down to redeem those He loves.

It’s because Christ ascended to heaven that He sent the Holy Spirit, and all of the events of Acts 2 and Pentecost and our lives proceed from His life and work. As He sends His Holy Spirit to us, He is with us, as He promised. As His Holy Spirit dwells in us, we become His Temple and Body that do His heavenly will and participate in the establishment and manifestation of His heavenly kingdom here on earth.

Jesus Christ continues to minister to men on earth through His Church. If we can understand this, then we can understand that Christian spirituality is inescapably an ecclesiastical spirituality.

As Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote:

Were it not for the new Body, where would Christ have tongues with which to preach the Word of Life? Were it not for His Mystical Body, where would Christ find lips with which to speak forgiveness to penitent thieves? If were not for this Body, where would He find hands to lay on little children, feet to receive the ointment of other Magdalenes, and a breast to receive the embrace of other Johns? . . . . How else could He, as the incarnate God, console other widows than those of Nain, visit other friends than those of Bethany, attend other nuptials than those of Cana, call other apostles than those of the lake, convert other women than those in Samaria, and other men than the centurions of Calvary? How could He the God-man show meekness to other soldiers’ executioners, patience to other timid disciples, love for other publicans, friendliness to other Judases, forgiveness to other malefactors, devotion to other Johns, affection to other Marys, wisdom to other doctors in the Law, except through another Body with whose Feet he could step from Jerusalem to the world, with whose lips He could speak to us to call ourselves modern?[1]

True Christian spirituality is the life of Jesus Christ communicated to the Body of Christ by the Spirit of Christ.

  1. The Mystical Body of Christ, 51-52.

Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several books, as well as an even greater number in his head.


'Tract IV: What is Christian Spirituality?' has 1 comment

  1. February 14, 2020 @ 2:57 pm Arthur Davis

    Thank you for this article. I am rather stunned at how good it is, this depiction of the Biblical Body of Christ versus the modern Gnostic church of “me and Jesus”. “How American this is” is so sadly true (which I as an American both admit and seek to resist). As a member of Church of the Ascension Anglican, I very much appreciate your comments on the centrality of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus and what it means for us in this the Now and Not Yet Church age where we are called to be His Body, filled with the Spirit, until He comes.

    Reply


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