Spirituality: up or down?
David F. Wells
Today we have a choice between two kinds of spirituality. One starts from ‘below’ and the other starts from ‘above’. One sees saving spirituality as natural to the self. The other sees it as given to the self. One starts with human experience, the other with divine revelation. One is self-sufficient. The other understands its debt to unearned, divine grace. One is pagan and the other is Christian.
The spirituality from below is now pervasive throughout the West. By the end of the 1990s, 76% in Britain and 78% in the USA said they were ‘spiritual’. Many add that they are spiritual but not religious.
This is a stunning turn of events. Only three decades ago it was widely assumed that secular humanism would become completely dominant. Its proponents were talking about the day when all religions and all spiritualities would disappear. That, they said, is the fate of superstition in the modern world. But things have turned out differently.
Out of public sight
What is true (though largely unnoticed) is that the secular outlook did alter this landscape, though not by eliminating religion. Secularism has not so much banished religion as forced it out of public sight.
This has been formalised as official policy in France but is widely assumed elsewhere. And this is why much spirituality today is overtly not religious. Religion is a public matter. It has doctrines that are believed, beliefs that are taught, worship that is practised and institutions where all this happens.
Modern spirituality, by contrast, wants no doctrines, no fixed points, no public practice, and no institutions. It is, in fact, a perfect adaptation to our postmodern world. It is private, internal, individualistic, unburdened by rules, free from others, and self-focused. It is the inevitable product of our over-psychologised world.
The spirituality from below assumes that God, or ‘the sacred’, can be accessed from within ourselves. That further assumes that the self is uncorrupted and can serve as this kind of conduit.
And the focus of this spirituality (which takes many forms) is always therapeutic. It is looking for solace – an internal balm for the stress, anxiety and emptiness of life in an impersonal and competitive world.
Christ came from above
The deeper cause of these symptoms, however, lies elsewhere – in the fact that people have no centre in life. This centre, the triune God, is not lost, of course. He is just lost to us. He is hidden because he has hidden himself from us as sinners.
This is not self-evident. Otherwise the ‘market’ would not be flooded by spiritualities that presume that the sacred is there for the taking. But God can only be found and known on his own terms. That is the essence of the spirituality from above.
Christ came from ‘above’ (John 3:31; 6:33, 38, 42; 10:36) to be incarnate and now reigns ‘above’ in his risen and ascended form. Forty-two times John’s Gospel says that Christ was ‘sent’ – sent into the world because of sin (John 3:17; 9:39; 12:46 etc.). He took our flesh, and submitted himself to our death, the just for the unjust. He rose victorious over sin, death and the devil.
As the New Testament writers framed this glorious truth they cited Psalm 110:1 no less than twenty-one times. All God’s enemies are being made Christ’s ‘footstool’ – all kingdoms and powers, all height and depth. He now reigns over all (Ephesians 1:21; cf. Galatians 1:4).
His conquest is complete but the mopping up operation is still under way. And it is in the Church and through the Church that God makes known Christ’s conquest and the gospel of his grace in this fallen creation.
Access to God
This gospel proclaims that the self is corrupted and blind; that God is estranged; and that judgement looms over all who build their lives around self rather than God. We, therefore, cannot find God. He must find us.
And when we are found we are accepted only on his terms, namely, that Christ has borne our sin and we must forsake every other claim upon the favour of God. As William Temple said, we contribute nothing except the sin from which we need to be redeemed.
The essential difference between spirituality from above and spirituality from below is that of control. Do we control our access to God, doing it our way, or does he?
How we answer this question will determine whether God becomes like us or whether we become like him. I want to be like him.
The author is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, MA.