On a recent holiday interstate, I wandered into a Christian bookstore and picked up a book on the new arrivals shelf. It had a lovely cover, spirituality in the title, and claimed to provide the ‘secrets’ to a new intimacy with God: six of them to be precise. I could do with some of that, I thought, and grabbed it for a browse. Turns out the so-called secrets were about an innovative as a new recipe for pavlova. Egg whites and sugar? Really?? My word!
It’s not just its predictability; it’s the persistence of books like this in describing the spiritual life as some otherworldly, out-of-body romance. The title of the first chapter gave it away: ‘Come Away with Me!’ What followed through the entire book made intimacy with God sound like a two-week get-away in Fiji. All idyllic and peaceful, soft sunsets and still waters: ‘leave the cares and chaos of the world behind and be at one with Jesus.’ Don’t get me wrong; I like vacations, but they’re few and far between. Where is intimacy with God when the bags are unpacked and the sunscreen is back on the shelf?
This business of ‘spirituality’ is an interesting thing. There is certainly a long history of equating it with a state of mind set apart from the humdrum of daily life. Come away with me, indeed: come away from the limitations of earthly existence; come away from worldly pursuits and material cares; come away from the contaminated world of work and the chaos of family; come away from all that is ‘fleshly’ to live beyond the body and its natural longings.
I suspect this very dualistic notion of spirituality depends in part on St Paul’s exhortations to choose life ‘in the spirit’ over life ‘in the flesh’: ‘For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’ (Gal 5.17). But when Paul compares spirit and flesh, he is not describing two different realms of existence. What he’s doing is describing two ways of living in the same world. In each case, he’s referring to life as an integrated whole. Life lived in the Spirit is lived in its fullness according to the purposes of God. Life in the flesh, the very same life, is lived in opposition to God (Gal. 5:17), corrupt and shallow (Gal. 6:8; Rom. 7:5; 13:14), and lurking in the shadow of death (Rom. 8:6f). To quote Jürgen Moltmann:
Life ‘according to the flesh’ is life that has miscarried, life that has strayed into contradiction with itself, life that suffers from the bacilli of death. Life ‘in the Spirit’, on the other hand, is true life, which is completely and wholly living, life in the divine power of life, life which has found the broad space in the marvellous nearness of God.
The notion that spirituality concerns a narrow ‘religious’ and other-worldly sphere of life—one to which we must retreat to truly know God—is simply not present. Spirituality is not a vacation from the everyday. What Paul has in mind is an integrated way of life, a unity of living that includes every task, every circumstance, every relationship, every place; a way of life that celebrates and responds to the nearness of God in Christ in all things. ‘True spirituality,’ Moltmann says, ‘is the rebirth of the full and undivided love of life; the total Yes to life and the unhindered love of everything living.’
Now that sounds like a spirituality worth pursuing.