Fine lines

It is a truism that most people today are intensely interested in spirituality, less interested in religion, and little interested in churches. People who offer independent answers to the deeper questions of life receive a good hearing, but Christian answers to the same questions are generally seen as boring.

The tension between spiritual hunger and distaste for traditional Christian food can be seen in the programs offered in Christian spirituality centres. Apart from explicitly Christian retreats and prayer days, they may also make room for yoga, aromatherapy and reiki. They may also encourage retreatants to participate in retreats on their own terms, without asking of them an explicit religious faith or practice.

These customs blur the boundary between Christian spirituality and other spiritualities, as well as the boundary between Christian and other participants. They sometimes provoke a reaction from those who wish to return to a more narrowly focused program in which Christian faith and practices are reinforced.

The same debate about boundaries is also found in discussion of attitudes to other religions and to our contemporary culture. If you insist that Christian faith and practices are uniquely privileged, you will most likely hear the objection, ‘But we all worship the same God, don’t we?’ To which you might object in turn that neither ancient Judaism nor the early Christian churches were heavily into crossing boundaries. They saw other Gods as rivals. They also insisted on the crucial importance of distinctive practices like baptism or dietary laws. And so the argument will continue.

In Christian debates about spirituality and religion, both sides will appeal to the belief that God came into our world in Jesus Christ—the doctrine of the Incarnation. Those who believe that boundaries should be porous will see in the Incarnation God’s strong affirmation of the world, of culture, and of the aspirations expressed in other faiths. In becoming human, God wanted us to recognise the value of our world, including the aspects of it that a narrow view would discount.

Those who insist on the privileged character of Christian faith and on the importance of a distinctive Christian faith and Christian religious practices also appeal to the Incarnation. They argue that in coming into the world in Jesus Christ, God named this one life as a unique meeting place. So, the Incarnation is an exercise in boundary marking.

In any decent Christian theology these two aspects of the Incarnation will be held in tension. But the image of God identifying with our solid world suggests a further tension in spirituality. The Incarnation underlines the value of every human being, and affirms the invitation that God makes to each human heart. God is involved in each person’s personal journey.

But the earthiness of the Incarnation also suggests that journeys do not end in the heart. We travel fortified by rituals, practices, public commitments and beliefs. These, however, are related to the inner journey in complex patterns that cannot be manhandled to fit an established template. So although spirituality cannot be identified with the inner journey that remains when religion and its institutions are siphoned off, neither can it be identified with a one-size-fits-all set of religious practices.  

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

 

 

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