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Christian spirituality in a postmodern age

  • Timon 

“Spirituality – doesn’t that have to do with yoga or meditation!?” Spirituality has long been popular again. But what does Christian spirituality look like? The question we ask ourselves here is how we understand and shape our “spiritual life”. How do we approach this often controversial topic in the postmodern age?

“I think, therefore I am” was the motto of the famous philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650). This principle has also characterized many Christians in the past decades: I recognize God’s truths for my life, and that gives me meaning, joy and fulfillment. But this rational way of living the Christian life no longer seems sufficient for many, especially for the younger generation. Why?

One reason is certainly that in many cultures, emotions or feelings have taken on enormous importance. “I think, therefore I am” turned into “I feel, therefore I am”. To put it bluntly: what I feel and experience determines how I view the world. If I have a good feeling about something, then it’s right. Or using the example of gender: if I feel like a woman, I am a woman (even if I’m in a male body, or the other way around). Hence, objective truths no longer determine how people see themselves or the world around them.

“I feel, therefore I am” – has also become a tendency in many churches. The atmosphere in church services and especially the worship is catered for people to express their emotions. Transcendent experiences and impressions increasingly play a determining role in spirituality. At the same time there are churches in which this is strongly rejected. They focus primarily on teaching and believing “pure doctrine”. But often both of these tendencies are found within a church, where the older generation leans towards “I think, therefore I am” and the younger to “I feel, therefore I am”. Sometimes this leads to a chasm between young and old.

This tension exists not only within congregations, but also in a much broader sense among Christians of various backgrounds and cultures. So what role do objective truths – as they are in the Bible – play in our walk with God? And what role do personal experiences and feelings play? The Bible gives us a good perspective on this.

Biblical Truth: a solid foundation

There is no question that we must be firmly anchored in the truth of the Bible. Those who listen to and do what Jesus says are compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock (Mt 7:24). So be it a pandemic or all sorts of consiparcy theores that come our way, our house of faith will stand firm. God’s Word endures forever (Mt 24:35) and gives us truth that is not dependent on any opinion, culture, government or medical experts.

Hearing and reading the Bible has a multitude of benefits for our lives, because “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Or in the words of the New Living Translation it “is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right“. So it is even enough for us to “thouroughly equipped for every good work”! Well, there we have it: just read and apply, it’s that simple. What more do we need!? …Well, if we stop here, we would miss a crucial aspect of spirituality.

A Living Relationship: moved by the Spirit

The Bible itself tells us that pure head-knowledge and self-righteous obedience is not true spiritual life. Because God “has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:6a, NLT). A living relationship with God means not only knowing God’s truths, but also letting his Spirit move and guide us. Being guided by the Holy Spirit inevitably has something to do with our own subjective perception. That is why we should not underestimate our personal experiences.

Feelings are also an inseparable part of our relationship with God. God’s love for his people Israel is much more than a willful decision: “He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph 3:17b); “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isa 62:5b). It is precisely this relationship that is characteristic of Jesus and the church (Eph 5:22-32)! We should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Mt 22:37). Our walk with God includes not only our mind, but also the deepest regions of our hearts and soul. Paul writes, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:3). Therefore, love is more than willful zeal, it is more than a decision. Yes, it is also a feeling.1

Neither … nor!

Neither “I think, therefore I am” nor “I feel, therefore I am” should determine our lives as Christians. René Descartes’ statement meant that ultimately we can only trust our mind and that our mind defines us. Proverbs 3:5 shows, however, that even our minds are affected by the consequences of the fall and can therefore be fallible: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding“. On the other hand, feelings or experiences alone cannot guide us, “for we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Who would deny that feelings can be quite deceiving at times?

We don’t have to go a long way to see that we can “fall off the horse” in both extremes. If our spirituality is determined by feelings and personal experiences, we drift towards “sensationalism”. On the other hand, if we suppress feelings and personal experiences or consider them to be insignificant, our faith will “dry up”. In both cases, a legalism or a performance driven thinking creeps in. Either a religious pressure that demands obedience, or an emotional insistence on certain doctrines. We can also start do doubt God himself. We doubt his word or resign inwardly because of disappointing experiences. We then craft with our own spirituality that is often summed up like this: “just be yourself and do good”.

Conclusion

One the one hand, the unchanging truth of scripture and on the other a vibrant faith that can speak of God’s power and love: Both together make a strong team! These two aspects can be seen repeatedly in the Bible. Using the example of Jesus: He talks about the fact that he can forgive sins and he confirms this by healing a paralytic (Mk 3,10-11). He teaches, he demonstrates! Paul says it to the Thessalonians like this: “because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). The good news was not only heard, but also felt.

The truth of the Bible helps us to rightly interpret our experiences and gives them deeper meaning. With its help, we can discern whether an impression or an impressive experience was a move of God or not. Our experiences with God in turn give us a tangible certainty about the written truth. This relationship of truth and experience gives us a healthy perspective for Christian spirituality. It protects our faith from being “shipwrecked” and helps us develop a vibrant church culture for young and old.

What are your thoughts and experiences about this topic? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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