By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
What does it mean to be “spiritual” in this modern age? A term that is often thrown around and used, often in rejection of something labeled “religion,” one of the prevailing uses of the term is to refer to the individualistic seeking and pursuit of things that defy material, physical, scientific definition. To be “spiritual” is to keep our minds open to the aspects of reality, ranging from God to inner personal transformation, that our society does not have a well-defined, clear understanding of, while not being bound to the religious traditions. It seems that to be ‘spiritual’ is essentially to be open to topics and ideas that religion may seems to address, and so cut against the dominance of Enlightenment rationalism, while not feeling hemmed in by the specificity of religious doctrine.
Often spoken of ambivalently or negatively by people well-entrenched into the social and intellectual systems of religions, I would put forward there is something of value in being ‘spiritual’ in the modern sense, as someone who considers myself an orthodoxy Christian. Yet, at the same time, if we want to define “spirituality” based upon the New Testament’s description of the Spirit and spirits more generally, I want to suggest that we have fundamentally misunderstood what “spirituality” is ultimately about. In the end, I would suggest that a definition of “spirituality” that more readily weaves a connection between the New Testament and *some* of what falls under the label of “spirituality” is to be found in the notion of relational sensation and perception.
Firstly, the positive value of modern construal of “spirituality.” It is important to note that I have an immense appreciation for the collective witness of the Church of Jesus Christ through the course of history. I am a conciliar Christian, with particularly strong commitment to an understanding of God that the Nicene Creed provides. The Creeds and councils are important because there were alternative teachings about God and Jesus that were put forward that would have undermined the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To me, being an orthodox Christian is about not falling into the same mistakes that were made in the past, with the confidence that the Spirit leads the corporate church, even as I have my qualms about individual persons and all of their theological reflections as a whole, such as Athanasius.
Yet, I would put forward that the orthodox commitments of conciliar, orthodox Christianity is a minor component of Christian faith as expressed in the New Testament. To define the substantive nature of Christian faith by the Creeds is to, in a sense, allow our fear of the errors of the past to become a stranglehold on what we understand it means to be a follower of Jesus. The Gospel is more than orthodoxy, though for those who live out the redemption of Jesus Christ, they will discover with time that it is never less than orthodoxy. There are many elements about Christian life and faith in the shadow of the cross and the wind of the Spirit that the orthodoxy expression has not adequately expressed.
In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that there was a lot that was unfortunately overlooked in the transition from the apostolic era immersed in a Jewish worldview to the systems of thought more influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy that began to prevail. The concern moved away from the central concern of life-giving relations between God and each other to intellectual representations about God and His will. When prominent leaders such as Justin Martyr attempted to represent the Christian faith to the pagan world, they used the language and concepts the surrounding world would be familiar with, most particularly philosophy. Yet, the raison d’être of Greco-Roman philosophy was the pursuit of an accurate description of natures, otherwise labeled as “reason.” While some philosophers like Stoics did have concerns about what lead to personal well-being, the philosophical inquiry was more concerned about describing the state of affairs rather than changing them according to some positive end. Yet, at the heart of the New Testament is that God is doing a dramatic, transformative change in people that is manifested itself towards love for one another. Such was not the prevailing concerns of ancient philosophy, so as the early church shifted more towards a philosophical, intellectual mindset, the more these concerns went underground and were less noticed.
To be “spiritual” in the modern sense is to reverse the stranglehold that “rational” representations of science and reason can have on us. To that end, to be “spiritual” in the modern sense can be consistent with a reversal of the transition from the relational to the representational that early Christianity experienced. While we should retain our links with our spiritual forefathers in retaining orthodoxy, we can also fruitfully recognize that there are some missing links between the Gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament and what later defined orthodox faith. If we endeavor to be “spiritual” in the sense that we are seeking to discover realities about faith that the stream of Christian tradition has not consistently brought to the forefront, then a “spiritual” Christian is one who is seeking what was most essential and critical about faith in the crucified, resurrected Savior.
Yet, in the midst of this, we perhaps need a more robust definition of “spirituality” than we currently have in the modern. To be honest, there isn’t a real clear, sense of what “spirituality” is. In some sense, it is more defined by what it is not than what it is. Yet, when we look to the New Testament, there is a strong inclination that we can observe. While it is rare for anyone to about “spirituality” as some abstract concept, when we see talk about the Spirit and spirits, we can recognize a key feature that occurs over and over again: that of relationality and well-being.
When Jesus warns against the blasphemy of the Spirit, the Pharisees had attributed his exorcism of demons to Beelzebub. Such evil thinking denies the gift that was given to the man who was healed. The Spirit was bringing about healing and wholeness from torment, but the Pharisees could only see evil spirits behind it. For them, they thought Jesus was a deceiver. So, on both Jesus’ side and the Pharisees’s side, the work of spirits was intrinsically social, whether to heal or to deceive. When John cautions people to discern the spirits in 1 John 4.1-6, it isn’t said with the concern of simply getting the right confession about Jesus and the Father. Instead, in the context of the whole letter, there is a certain implication: if one receives the Spirit that testifies to Jesus, then they will love one another because they will know the God who loves. The discernment of the spirits was intertwined within social and relational realities.
We see this connection between Spirit and relational realities becoming very apparent in Galatians 5.22-26. The fruit of the Spirit, far from simply being individualistic emotions and feelings had in isolation from others, are more concerned about the makeup of our relationships with each other. Paul then follows his exhortation to be lead by the Spirit with an appeal against having rivalrous and contemptuous attitudes towards one another. In Paul’s mind, to be lead by the Spirit is to live in a distinctive type of relationship with each other that differed dramatically from the often competitive, antagonist social realities that the people were exposed to.
So, if we were to describe “spirituality” in the New Testament, we could perhaps define it as coming under the influence of powers and forces of life that influence, direct, and empower our relationships with others. To be under the influence of a spirit, whether it be the Spirit of God or some other spirit, was to have one’s life directed towards a specific way of engaging and interacting with others.
Yet, in accepting this definition, we need not go into some sort of fanciful speculation about the nature of these powers and forces. The New Testament spends little time describing and explaining these spiritual powers and forces. Even the Spirit of God is assumed to be the source of Christian love and experience more than He is speculated and explicated upon. The nature of spirits is more mysterious than it is science, or in the case of the ancient world, philosophy, but the recognition of spirits in the New Testament is not lifted up as an alternative intellectual zone of explication that we can come to know of life the visible cosmos, for instance. One should not treat “spirituality” to be a field of a readily explicable reality like other things.
With that caveat in mind, perhaps a way forward to defining spirituality in a useful way is to connect it to our sense of relational sensation and perception. Even though science had made leaps and bounds in understanding the nature of human thinking and emotions over the years, there are still a number of experiences of human life that can not be readily observed, quantified, and theorized about. More particularly, we still have a rudimentary understanding of the impact that relationships have on our well-being and life. While there is mounting scientific evidence that relationships are powerful forces for well-being, and unfortunately the loss of health, we don’t have a robust, scientific description of the power of these social realities. It may be assumed that this is simply due to the limitations of our present knowledge-base and the technology to study these social realities, but with more time and sophistication, we will get closer to understanding the fundamental nature of human relationships.
Yet, what if some of the mechanisms that influence how we understand, think, feel, interact with other persons can not be adequately represented through science because of how highly dependent science is upon visual information, and to a lesser degree, auditory information, to explain the world around us. What if there are other channels of sensation and perception that (a) do not produce a high-definition field of attention that we can readily reflect and observe like we do other sensations and (b) can not be readily perceived by the traditional senses which (c) contribute to the way we relate to and connect with others? Scientific knowledge would not be able to develop a robust understanding of this form of energy and information as the stream of information isn’t readily observable and quantifiable, but at best would only be able to indirectly infer the existence of the phenomena, much like many astrophysicists infer the existence of dark matter without any direct observation. Science would never be able to fully give an account of this domain of experience and reality, even if it has a profound impact on us.
To that end, perhaps a way forward in thinking about spirituality within orthodoxy Christianity is to see it as the recovery of the vital, life-giving experiences and realities brought about by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that peers far deeper than what either orthodoxy and modern science can penetrate. Yet, this form of spirituality is not some free-floating, pick-and-choose as you go find what works mentality, but it is a spirituality that is lived under the pedagogical tutelage of the Rabbi Jesus, whose words and life can form us in such a way that makes us more acutely aware and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In this way, to be spiritual is to come to Jesus to have our ears and eyes opened and our hearts softened to the deeper realities of the Spirit, who is directing us to love God and love one another in deeper ways than we ever imagined. We learn how to be spiritual from Jesus and as we become spiritual, we discover a new way of living with God and each other that brings life and shalom. To be authentically spiritual as orthodox Christians is to wake up from our dogmatic slumber dominated by dreams of theological representation and to begin to dive deeper into the currents of the experience of love that gives and sustains life.