Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Christian Spirituality

I'm back. Sorry I was gone so long.

What does it mean to be "spiritual"? What does it look like? What does it feel like? When we talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, what on earth do we mean? I know that I have a personal relationship with my wife, but my relationship with God is nothing like that. I know the phrase "personal relationship" when referring to spirituality is simply a metaphor, but sometimes it seems like a pretty meaningless metaphor. I see very little "personal" about my relationship with God.

I am in the middle of a sermon series at Believers Fellowship call Roots: Understanding our Spiritual Heritage, in which we have been going through the Book of Colossians. I have been very excited about it because it has helped me clarify the role that the Scriptures play in my faith story. Throughout Colossians, Paul reminds his readers that they are not alone in this thing called Christianity--that they have inherited a tradition passed down from Paul and the other apostles. He criticizes them for being unfaithful to this tradition, as if they were trying to change the plot of the story halfway through (that's a party foul). Studying Colossians has really affirmed to me that there were historical men--Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, etc.--who had radical views of what God was doing with humanity. By calling myself a "Christian," I am claiming to be a student of these ways of looking at the world. There are limits to ways in which I can interpret the world and still be faithful to this tradition and thus call myself a "Christian." Good stuff.

One of the things that we have been looking at in Roots is "spiritual transformation." I believe that Paul viewed the world as two ages--the present age and the age to come. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the age to come, but it will not be consummated until His return. Thus, followers of Jesus always live in this tension between "already being radically renewed" and "not yet being completely renewed."

I can deal with the "not yet" part of Christianity. I realize that God has a lot of work left to do in the world and that we are not experiencing the kingdom as He intended. But the "already" part has been perplexing me. In Romans 8:9, Paul writes "But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (RSV). About this verse, James Dunn writes, "The fact that was immediately discernible was not whether they were Christ's--attested by baptism or confession--a fact from which their possession of the Spirit could be deduced as a corollary. That which was ascertainable was their possession of the Spirit; that was the primary factor from which their relation to Christ could be deduced. Their Christian status was recognizable from the fact that Christ's agent was in evident control of their lives" (James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1998], 430). Dunn essentially says that people didn't know that they had the Spirit because they were Christians, but they knew they were Christians because they possessed the Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit was so obvious in their lives that it could be used as evidence for their being in "the age to come."

That bothers me. It bothers me because I do not see the Holy Spirit working in my life in a way that makes me say "of course the Gospel is true; how else could I explain all of these changes?" Further, I don't see that kind of power in most Christians that I meet.
So, I am off to find out what it means to be spiritual. I feel that the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the original Christians was the major evidence for the truth of the Gospel. I want to reclaim that. Further, I am not interested in a series of proof texts or books on ten easy steps to spiritual bliss. I have read all of those and they don't work. I am going to use the Scriptures as a starting point to help me discern the kinds of things that the Spirit does in the lives of believers (i.e. I don't think it makes people bark like dogs or laugh uncontrollably), but ultimately I am not going to be satisfied with a biblical doctrine of what the Spirit should do, but rather an existential description of what He is doing. I am really not interested in more theories or quick fixes at this point.

I am going to start by studying the letters of Paul, reading Gordon Fee's God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul and by returning to some classic spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, especially as outlined in the works of Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others. I will keep you updated on what I find out.

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