The New Spirituality

by R. Wesley


Spirituality has become the buzz word of the last decade. On the university campus and on the street, to speak of “being spiritual” is hip. This was not the case even ten years ago, when one’s concern about spirituality was met only with condescension. A drastic and unexpected shift has occurred during the past ten years. Modernist, materialist beliefs have been eroding and now stand discredited. A new “openness” about how to think of the human situation and even human nature has emerged. A new postmodernist climate in which reality and the nature of man are defined in many ways has reopened the cultural and intellectual door to “things of the spirit.”

At first this new emphasis on “spirituality” seems a breath of fresh air. From the Christian’s perspective, does not this new openness to spirituality signal new opportunities and openness for the gospel? Perhaps. We can certainly pray so. But I fear the flip side of the new spirituality coin is ominously negative.

The historical narratives of the Bible are replete with examples of various “spiritualities” that contended with the true God and His unfolding message of judgment of sin and of mercy to those who recognized their need. The overall message of the Bible is a call for all humans to assess their spiritual condition and to seek true fulfillment of it. The Bible also makes clear, however, that man can both desire spirituality and rebel against the true Creator God. If we look at Genesis, for example, we see that the first humans, Adam and Eve, sought a “different spirituality” than the one God had offered them. They sought a “spiritual” plan apart from the one God had set before them.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?”

And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.'”

And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die!'” For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. (Genesis 3:1-7)

In this passage, the creatures, Adam and Eve, were attracted to the serpent’s proposition that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would give them knowledge to ascend to “godlikeness.” They desired to transcend the created finiteness God had willed for them and had called “good” in favor of being metaphysically “big” like God. This desire to be “big” like God–to escape the limitations of our finite human nature and condition–lies at the center of false spirituality.

To support this contention, let me extrapolate from the Genesis passage what I believe is the true spiritual condition of humanity and then discuss how we now seek mistakenly to fulfill and rectify our spiritual condition.

(1) God made human creatures of both matter and spirit. We are inescapably creatures of both the material and immaterial–bone, blood, flesh along with mind, ideas, beliefs. God called our material nature “good.” He also created us to have a non-material, or “metaphysical,” existence. Our metaphysical being is “spiritual.” God, who is Spirit, determined that we should share a non-material, or spiritual, existence like His. Thus, as God is metaphysically non-material, so He has created man to have a metaphysically non-material component to his being.

(2) But God is not just “non-material”; He is also a moral Being. He created our spiritual (metaphysical) being to have a moral nature, just as He does; the spiritual cannot be separated from the moral. In biblical terms, we cannot have true spiritual existence that pleases God and leads to eternal life without also having our moral natures be like God’s moral nature–holy, righteous, and good. Again in biblical terms, our spiritual being and our moral nature are so intertwined that one cannot be altered or affected without consequences to the other. Thus, man’s moral decision to rebel against God lead man to experience a metaphysical consequence: his spiritual existence was condemned to alienation from God. The Bible calls this death.

(3) Man’s lust to be “like” God was a desire to possess a “big” metaphysical nature–self-determining, powerful, and worthy of awe–through the knowledge available by eating the fruit. In his rebellion, man was unconcerned about possessing a moral nature like God’s. Man ignored the fact that his metaphysical being was bound to his moral being. He was not concerned about his moral condition, even though he knew that to disobey his Creator was morally wrong and dangerous. The result of man’s act is a morally fractured and diminished spiritual condition tied to a physical and metaphysical consequence: we humans are bound to death and its physical and soulish entropy.

(4) As a consequence of the moral-spiritual rebellion against God, we humans are now trapped in a condition of moral ignorance and impotence. The death God said would occur has placed humanity in a position of permanent moral brokenness resulting in our rebellious misunderstanding and misapprehension of our true moral-spiritual need. We humans are now enslaved to our desire to ignore our moral condition.

(5) We humans remain conscious, however, of something at the very core of our being that cries out for healing and fulfillment. We are aware that we are small, finite creatures, unable to control the powers of nature and the momentum of cultural and historical forces around us. As a result of this sense of loss and alienation from God (our moral and metaphysical diminishment), we humans, even in our rebellion against God, continue to need and to seek the healing of our spiritual condition.

(6) We humans recognize that something is missing, that somehow we are spiritually incomplete. We believe that by transcending or adding to our present metaphysical dimensions, we will find the spiritual fulfillment we sense we need. We attribute to this metaphysical transcendence a liberation to a new level of being and freedom from the constraints, boundaries, and disappointing limitations of our present condition.

In today’s postmodern culture, many people are “tuning in” to the fact that they have a metaphysical, or spiritual, part of their being, and they are seeking some way to fulfill this “aspect” of their lives. They pursue such practices as Yoga, Tai Chi, and various meditation techniques. Others give themselves to poetry, art, music, or charitable causes that are “spiritually enhancing” in that they have to do with non-material goals and principles. People see all these efforts as spiritually “enlarging” their lives. None of these practices, however, necessarily leads people to confront themselves about whether they are actually “being good” as the God of the Scriptures requires of us. These practices are simply people’s efforts to be “spiritual” without being morally accountable to the God who created them.

I know one young man at the university who is very concerned to be a “spiritual” person. According to him, his entire way of looking at and interpreting the world around him is “metaphysically based.” At the same time, he sees no connection between his sexual promiscuity and his spiritual life. He desires to be “spiritually” alive–cognizant and concerned about the metaphysical nature of life and reality–but he does not see particular moral boundaries for his spirituality.

A very popular way people have sought spiritual “enlargement” or “enlightenment” is through the “Eastern” approach to spirituality. Hundreds of versions of this Eastern spirituality exist (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and so forth), but in general they all share one common, central belief: that all reality–man, beast, insect, and material cosmos–are ultimately and spiritually “one.” Within an Eastern belief system, then, humans reach true enlightened spirituality by a change of perspective and consciousness that penetrates the illusion of particular, personal forms of existence to realize the “oneness” of all things. As Adam and Eve sought spiritual liberation and ascension to “godlikeness” through a special kind of “knowledge,” so many today seek spirituality through a new consciousness in which the enlightened individual realizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. The finite individual realizes spiritual “enlargement” through connection of consciousness with the “Infinite.” Writer Helen Tworkov puts it this way:

The radicalism of [Eastern mysticism] lies in its insistence on emptying the small egocentric mind of all personal and cultural descriptions. This peeling off of layers, this letting go of prefabricated images, concepts, and ideas of ‘self’ is a process of uncovering another sense of being which is already there, intact, alive, waiting to see the light of day. It is a state of being that is inherently interdependent with the whole universe. In Buddhist teachings, the experience of separation, of distinct I and you, subject and object, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of reality, for it accounts for one aspect only, what Buddhists call the relative, but not for the Absolute. The process of realization is one of gaining awareness of what already exists. (Helen Tworkov, “Spiritual Matters: Zen in American Art” in Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives, p. 95.)

A recent conversation with a graduate student provides a poignant example of spiritual need and the “Eastern” quest for fulfillment. Carrie underwent surgery and treatment for breast cancer. She recovered nicely, only to be frightened a few weeks ago at the prospect of the cancer returning. Thankfully, the prospect proved wrong; a pathology report had been misread. The looming possibility of death, Carrie confided in me, had caused her to recommit herself to a search for a spirituality that would console her fears about death. She also desired a new spiritually-grounded perspective on living this life. In her quest, she told me, she had begun to read Buddhist writings. She asked me about my faith and confessed that she had a very nonreligious Jewish heritage that she had pretty much ignored. After I had shared a few thoughts with her about the differences between biblical and eastern mystical religious thought, she said, “I must confess, when I think about death I want there to be a personal God, but when I think about living a changed life in this world I tend to want to follow Buddhist teachings.”

How clearly her words point to our desperately autonomous and rebellious tendencies. On the one hand, we want a personal God to be there, to care for us, and to take us to heaven when we die. On the other, we just want happiness and escape from the troubles and threats of this world, while avoiding any accountability to moral goodness and the God who requires it of us. Deny it as we will, we cannot live comfortably with ourselves or others without authoritative–even transcendent–meaning, rules, and guidelines, without which chaos rules at both the personal and social levels. We want spiritual solutions that mend our personal psychological brokenness and pain, but we do not want to see the connections between the pain and tragedy in this world and our own moral corruption and impotence.

Ultimately biblical spirituality is about knowing and loving the God who is there. He is a very particular Creator God who is very specific in His nature as our Creator, our Judge, and our Redeemer. True spirituality, then, is about learning to love what this God loves and to hate what He hates.

We can and should identify with the often unspoken and engulfing pain that brings us all to want to find a means of transcending and escaping our desperate spiritual need. The emergence of a new cultural consciousness and willingness to talk openly of our human spiritual natures can be a positive step toward true spirituality. But the new “hip” climate for spirituality is no guarantee that the Bible’s definition and description of human spiritual need will be heeded. As the Apostle Paul did at Athens in the first century, we can and should build bridges of discussion and dialogue between the new spirituality and biblical spirituality. But as Paul did, we should carefully and boldly distinguish between man’s common spiritual nature and quest for metaphysical “enlightenment” and what the Bible explains as a much more specific need–the spiritual renovation of our moral natures to the end that we become creatures defined by glorious goodness.

Copyright January 1970 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

R. Wesley