On chasing spirituality
Have you ever experienced a moment of excitement at some new thing, only to find out that some initially unforeseen aspect of it would disappoint you. It is the moment you find out you can sign up for a rewards card at Starbucks to get free refills, and then find out it only works during the same visit. It is the moment where you find out you can get your new cellphone absolutely free, only to discover you must use a $100 mail-in rebate to get your money back. At first, you are overjoyed at this new information, but ultimately you are left unsatisfied because of some catch. This new find could be perfect, except one key piece is missing.
I experienced this emotion a couple of days ago.
It was prompted by an article I stumbled across on Relevant Magazine’s website. Last year, I wrote a response to an article concerning the rise of individualistic spirituality. Today, I have a complaint with another article on a surprisingly similar situation. Relevant recently posted an article titled, “Should You Stay or Should You Go?” If you have not read the article, I would suggest you go do that first. It is a pretty quick read.
The author (a fellow named Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove) begins by telling the reader about his friend Don. Per the article, Don had recently moved from Chicago to work at a Benedictine college. Having moved to this new setting and reacting to the monastic lifestyle present on campus, Don determines that our contemporary Christian culture is too focused on movement as the means to spiritual growth.
“Well, you know, we Christians talk a lot about our spiritual journeys. We get excited about experiences and go places looking for the next spiritual high. We say God called us here. Then God calls us there. But it’s all so individualistic. It’s all focused on little ‘lessons’ or ‘insights’ theta we’re supposed to take with us to the next place,” states Don. He concludes, “I think I’m learning from the guys (the Benedictine monks) that God can change us if we’ll settle down in one place. So I’ve given up my spiritual journey. I’m going to just stay with God here and see how I can grow.”
The author spends the remaining article real estate discussing his impressions of this new revelation made by his friend. He blames a culture of hypermobility, cheap plane tickets, and a strong economy on permeating the Christian culture to the degree that it has reshaped our understanding of the “spiritual journey.” In his estimation, it has become a largely physical journey, moving us from place to place in search of new enlightenment.
Is he right?
To a large degree, I say yes. Hence my initial excitement with this article. The author is pointing to a tendency that has become all too common in the American church. Backed by our countless wealth, our easy access to information about the world, and our ability to actually get there, the church culture has become terribly mobile. We bounce from one mission trip to the next. We scuttle kids off to countless camps and other “spiritual” events in search of new truth. We even “shop” for churches now, looking for the church that will “feed” us the most. We travel from one spiritual venue to the next in search of our ever-elusive “spiritual growth.” The whole while, saying, “God called us to _________.”
Keep in mind, I am the guy that moved to Africa for two years because, “God called me.” Truth is, God called all of us who are part of his church, he just sent me. Past that, I do not want you to hear that mobility is wrong, that the church should not be sending people on mission trips and that we are never to move from one place to another. I currently write these words sitting in a Starbucks between Tennessee and my new home in Raleigh, NC. I am moving for the express purpose of theological study.
Movement is not categorically wrong.
However, it appears much of our Christian culture now feels spiritual growth is not possible without movement. If we want the real Christian life, we have to go find it somewhere. It is as though we say, “Church is good and all, but if you really want to meet God, then you need to go overseas,” or, “I can listen to my pastor, or I could really get something deep if I go to that conference in Atlanta.”
If you read those statements and did not see anything wrong with them, or have even said them, then let me tell you why I feel this is dangerous.
It takes spiritual growth and turns it into a collection of spiritual events. Discipleship and growth in Christ is not like collecting stamps or baseball cards. It is more like a marriage. It is a constant growth in relationship that does not come as much from events and experience as it does from abiding in the one with which you want to deepen your connection. Events and experiences may take place along the way. They may even become defining moments in the relationship, but the real growth comes from living life together.
However, if we are not careful, we treat spiritual lessons like little trinkets we must go find. It becomes a treasure hunt or a search for spiritual Easter eggs. We search out those mountaintop experiences and will fly to other countries or go to conferences to gain insight from gurus. We become that man climbing a Himalayan mountain looking for his Tibetan monastery and the wisdom inside to give meaning to his life. Except our Tibetan monastery is an orphanage overseas, inner-city outreach or village in the bush where everyone is starving. Our purpose for going is no longer to serve these people. Instead we seek personal enlightenment or worse, filling in slots on our spiritual scorecard of experiences.
Ironically, this can lead to pride in our efforts. It becomes self-fulfilling and focuses on our effort to achieve spirituality. In the end, the one with the most stamps in their passport wins. For some, it is simply a justification of wanderlust. It gives us a reason to spend the money on the plane ticket to go to some crazy place. This is obviously a poor motive, but has unfortunately become too common.
In his article, Wilson-Hartgrove, raises these issues. On these points, I feel we agree wholeheartedly. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am disappointed with his conclusions. This traveling enlightenment model makes spiritual growth an individualistic pursuit, and that is the biggest danger. Now the author alludes to individualism, but I feel his conclusions are completely devoid of any real help and wind up being no less individualistic.
The solution does not come in merely stopping our travels, as I feel this author would lead you to believe. Instead, the solution comes in being rooted in the right place, and this article doe not even mention that place.
Nowhere can the importance of the church body be found in his discussion of this issue. His example is of a man who found his spiritual enlightenment in the monasticism of a Benedictine college. He sketches a culture of restless souls who move from place to place looking for the next spiritual high. And, he speaks poorly of this. But he gives no credence to the essential nature of the church in real spiritual growth. In effect, he leaves out the most important piece of this puzzle.
In short, staying put is not enough. It is not about remaining in one place. It is about remaining rooted in Christ’s church. Ironically enough, you can travel all over the world looking for spiritual growth and wind up empty-handed. Or, you could stay in the same little town your whole life and not find a genuine relationship with God. But those are not the real issue at hand.
The real issue comes in the fact that this man can write a whole article about spiritual growth and never mention the church, and that many of us would not even notice.
Real spiritual growth exists only in community with the body of Christ. Searching for it anywhere else is chasing something that does not exist.