Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Beyond Religion and Spirituality



Beyond Religion and Spirituality

Address to the President’s Conference sponsored by Trinity School for Ministry
Baltimore, Maryland
October 21, 2006

Celebrating the Baltimore Declaration 25 years later

by Fleming Rutledge

When the Baltimore Declaration first appeared, it was electrifying for many of us. It offered so much encouragement, and strengthened the hand of those who were wondering if we hadn’t become entirely irrelevant. Since then, a lot of friends have split. For myself, I’m still here as a representative of the dreaded “mainlines.” I have not and will not give up on the mainlines, and that includes The Episcopal Church (TEC)—which will always be PECUSA to me. To paraphrase Graham Greene, I intend, God willing, to live out the rest of my life as a piece of grit in the machinery.

The title of this address is “Beyond Religion.” Everybody here knows about that fast-growing category among millennials called “spiritual but not religious.” Generally speaking, people use this self-definition to mean that they want no part of the “institutional church” but seek a connection to some sort of transcendent dimension. This viewpoint presents us with serious problems in proclamation and teaching the gospel. I’m going to argue that the biblical witness is neither “spiritual” nor “religious,” but because so many millennials define themselves in these terms, we need to address these conceptions with warmly pastoral sensitivity and audacious theological imagination. I am long past the point of being in a position to engage with young people in a local setting, but I am quite sure that many of you here have special gifts of the Spirit for the times we live in, and I’d like to try to give you some encouragement your approach to the millennial challenge.

Obviously I’m not going to be using those two words, “spiritual” and “religious,” in the commonly understood way. When I use the word “religion,” I am using it the way Freud used it in The Future of an Illusion. That is to say, “religion” is the projection of human wishes and desires onto an imagined god or gods who require ritual, worship, prayer, sacrifice, and so on. This whole phenomenon, he thought, was tragically self-deceiving, and it was the responsibility of mature civilization to discard such illusory thinking. Freud’s long essay is, to my mind, the most powerful argument against religion ever written, and every thinking Christian should read it. John Calvin argues the same point as Freud in a certain sense, since he famously declared that the human mind is “a perpetual factory of idols.”

I am also using “religion” in the sense that Karl Barth used it. I first came across this in 1973 at Union Seminary in New York City, where Paul Lehmann required theology 101 students to read Barth’s Romans commentary—yes, the whole thing! In our first year! Speaking for myself, I experienced it as revolutionary, in very much the same way as its early readers did. Barth refers to “religion” as “the last human possibility” confronted by “the impossible possibility of God”.[1] He declares, “Religion is a human work.” And further, “A religion adequate to revelation and congruent to the righteousness of God…is unattainable by human beings.”[2] That’s the way I’m using the word “religion.” I believe this statement about the incapacity of the human being to come up with anything like the story of God in Jesus Christ is a foundational biblical affirmation and essential to the renewal of the church.

And as for the word “spiritual,” I’m using it as almost synonymous with “religion.” Spirituality, as I’m defining it, is essentially a human activity or human trait. This word “spirituality,” now so omnipresent, was unknown until fairly recently. I never heard it used in the church until about 30 years ago, and now it’s heard everywhere. (I was a bit disappointed to see that Dr. Les Fairfield is teaching a course in “Celtic Spirituality”….) Well, I’m taking a polemical stance here, but I believe that for the sake of the gospel we must make a distinction between spirituality and faith. To put it in the simplest terms possible, spirituality is all too easily understood as a path or ladder to human religious attainment, whereas faith is pure gift, without conditions. Nothing can be done from our side to increase it or improve upon it. On the contrary, we throw ourselves daily upon the mercy of God, saying, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!” I like the old translation because it puts the emphasis on “thou”—it’s God who is going to help our unbelief.

I have often spoken of the moment when I became suspicious of spirituality. Thirty years ago, our family was undergoing a crisis. I received a long, compassionate letter from a friend on the West Coast. The letter was wonderful and I saved it, but there was one thing in it that bothered me. The friend who wrote it said, “Your spirituality will get you through this.” I recoiled when I read that. I think it may have been the first time I was ever conscious of that word. Whatever it meant, I was keenly aware that I didn’t have it. In and of myself, I had nothing adequate for what was facing my family at the time. I had only the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, in death and in life.[3]

            I think it might be helpful to recall how some of the current enthusiasms emerged. In Walker Percy’s novel The Second Coming, published in 1980, there is a hilarious description of a wildly eclectic group of people among whom are born-again Christians, old-line Episcopalians, a trendy minister in a jumpsuit (this is the 80s), a believer in astrology, a theosophist, and a Jehovah’s Witness. The narrator reflects:

“Is this an age of belief, a great renaissance of faith after a period of crass materialism, atheism, agnosticism, liberalism, scientism? Or is it an age of madness in which everyone believes everything? Which?”[4]

I had forgotten how firmly all this believing in everything had taken hold until I went through my old files on religion. For instance, I found a New York Times article from 1986 about “spiritual concepts.” Here’s how it begins:

Representatives of some of he nation’s largest corporations, including IBM, AT&T, and GM, met in New Mexico in July to discuss how metaphysics, the occult, and Hindu mysticism might help executives compete in the world marketplace.

The article goes on to describe “human potential” techniques that “blend Eastern mysticism and Western occult thinking.” Increasing numbers of middle-class Americans are showing interest in this supposedly new thinking in which “man can create his own reality.” We are on the verge of “a great evolutionary leap of consciousness.” Celebrities like Shirley McLaine popularized notions that “man can achieve whatever he wants, create whatever he needs. People are beginning to discover their own divine self.” Back then, though, the reporter thought it was important to quote various authorities who raised alarms about this way of thinking. Listen to their warnings: “This [trend] represents a complete rejection of Judeo-Christian ideas and bedrock American values.” The new notions, one said, reject “the Judeo-Christian idea that there is a single, omnipotent God who has revealed his will to man.” (You could still say “man” back in 1986!)[5]

Look, I know you know all this, but I must admit I was startled, going through my files, to realize how thoroughly these “New Age” ideas from the 70s and 80s have become integrated into the psychological and mental makeup of our culture, almost without being noticed: “Master the possibilities.” “Create your own reality.” “Be all you can be.” Here’s my point: these ideas about human self-creation are deeply religious notions. They are born out of illusion, wishful thinking, and a failure to look radical evil straight in the face. Human potential itself has become the object of worship. What I’m suggesting is that “spirituality” can easily become a type of human-potential thinking.

To bring this right up to date, I saw many connections this week to the political horror show we are living through. In New York State, where I live, a woman named Wendy Long, a Republican, is running for the seat of Senator Chuck Schumer, in line to be the next Democratic party leader in the Senate. She supports much of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda. She wants to restore “Judeo-Christian culture.” Why do I mention this? Simply to point out that, contrary to Wendy Long’s assumptions, it is not Muslims who started to undermine our Judeo-Christian identity. It was white, late-sixties New Age gnostics who were themselves products of the Judeo-Christian persuasion. The enemy was in our own household.

In the Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth defines “human religion” this way: “the realm of attempts by man to justify and sanctify himself before a wilfully…devised image of God.”[6] The position I’m staking out is that in today’s context, it is more crucial than ever to make a sufficiently sharp distinction between self-justification and self-sanctification, on the one hand, and on the other, the utterly gratuitous, prevenient action of God in justifying humanity by the self-offering of his Son. I’m choosing those two words carefully: gratuitous in its original, primary meaning of “given freely, without regard to merit” and prevenient, meaning “to go before,” as in prevenient grace which precedes anything we can do to earn or deserve it.

So what is the antidote to the situation we find ourselves in, where voices within the church are calling for the reinstatement of Pelagius as a Christian teacher and model? Where “Celtic” services on Sunday evenings, with candles and chants and eclectic liturgies, attract far more millennials than Sunday morning worship? Where so often, sermons are little more than assorted more-or-less-religious reflections having little to do with the actual biblical text? Where the high Christology of the Creeds and Councils has become a Jesus-ology, based on his inclusive table fellowship? What is the antidote?

In one of my old files I came across an interview with the pre-eminent Anglican missionary bishop and historian Stephen Neill. He said, “Biblical preaching is practically unknown these days.” This is in the 1970s! He continues, “I find a very remarkable response to biblical preaching. There’s not nearly enough of it in the churches in America…[Unless] you are rooted and grounded in the faith, there is no particular impulse to pass it on.” This was more than 40 years ago, and the trends have proven him right.

I’m here to argue that when there is no biblical preaching, the church is in a crisis. We need to define what we are talking about, though. I think many people think we are hearing biblical preaching because the Sunday sermons seem to be based on a biblical text. But that is not what makes a sermon biblical. If the preacher is not personally invested in expounding the text, so that he or she seems to be risking something, it’s not biblical. If the sermon does not seem to be coming out of the preacher’s inmost life-and-death wrestling with the text, it’s not biblical preaching. If the preacher is not preaching as George Whitfield did, “a dying man to dying men,” it’s not biblical preaching. My friend the late great writer Joseph Mitchell, was a member of Grace Church in New York in Fitz Allison’s time. He was very scornful about what was being called, in the 90s, the Information Highway. “There is no information highway,” he said. “What you need to know is, you’re going to die. That’s the information.” Annie Dillard wrote something similar: the writer must write as one “who knows she is dying, speaking to other dying people, determined not to enrage by triviality.”[7] What I mean by speaking of dying in preaching is that every sermon should have at least a suggestion that this might be the last word a preacher ever says, the last word you might ever hear. Is it a word of death, or a word of life?

When a preacher expounds a text on Sunday morning, it should be clear that he is totally invested in what he (or she) is saying. I have always remembered something from my very early days as a preacher. The text was the story about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. My mother was in the congregation. She reported to me afterwards that she overheard someone saying, incredulously, “She preaches about that as if she believed it!” That was a watershed for me. I learned how important it is that even if no one in the congregation believes the biblical story, the preacher believes it. More than that—the preacher stakes her life on it.

The preacher should be changed by his preaching in some way, every time. If the text is really having its way with you, you will know it and those who have ears to hear will know it. If you know you are dying you will know the word of life when you hear it, and it will not be something plucked out of an online homiletical resource. It will be wrenched out of your gut by something—Someone—whose power issues forth from the same living Word that brought the creation into being out of nothing—ex nihilo.

“What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-9) This has little or no resemblance to “religion.” Religion goes round and round on itself like one of those labyrinths that so many churches have now. I apologize in advance for those who will be offended, but the Word of God that encountered Jeremiah is not going to be found either in the coils of a labyrinth or at its center—or, for that matter, on any spiritual journey undertaken with the idea that your own efforts are going to bring you closer to Jesus than Jesus already is to you. The Word of God can and will break you. There is no wishful thinking in it. There is surprise, shock, and the utterly unexpected. Above all there is the cross and resurrection bisecting the human story and changing everything.

            This has to be all I can say to an audience that has had a long trip, some of you, and drinks, and dinner. I know it is very incomplete and inadequate in its provocations. For instance, I haven’t time to explain how important it is to have small groups meeting regularly to study the Bible, with guidance. The Word of the living God does not go out into a vacuum. As it is expounded, it is already doing its prevenient work. The fruit of the Spirit is the people of God. The Spirit in the living Word is already preparing those who will hear. He is present also in those who do not hear. The test of our radical dependence upon God can be found in Paul’s words to the church in Romans about Abraham, who went forth in faith trusting the Word of God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). The things that do not exist: life where there is death, hope where there is no hope, faith where there is no faith.

I spend half the year in New England, where there seems to be a church closing every week. The landscape is dotted with art galleries and community centers and “event spaces” that used to be churches. I often feel like Elijah:

“Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.”

But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand persons who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
(Romans 11:3-6)

I hope you recognized that, from Romans 11. You see? It is not in your hands. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32). He is doing for himself great things that we cannot even imagine. Therefore be bold, be unafraid, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have a great gospel. There is nothing else like it in heaven or in earth. It is neither “spiritual” nor “religious”:

it is the still, small voice that you do not expect and cannot command;

it is the trumpet call of the age to come;

“it is the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.”[8]




[1] The Epistle to the Romans, transl. Edwyn C. Hoskyns ( London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 332. This is the early Barth, of course; many would say that he modified his use of the word “religion” later. That is a legitmate argument, but I think if he were around in our present context he would throw the Romans bombshell on the playground of the theologians once again.
[2] Ibid., 366.

[3] An oblique reference to the Heidelberg Catechism, Article 1.
[4] The Second Coming, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1980, 159.
[5] Robert Lindsay, “Spiritual Concepts Drawing a Different Breed of Adherent,” The New York Times, 9/29/86. Mr. Lindsay, was no fool. It’s interesting how rare this sort of perspective has become in the Times of today, 30 years on. And he was writing before the p.c. rejection of “man”!
[6] CD, thesis statement for I/2 (???). Barth does continue to speak sometimes of Christianity as religion (as did Calvin) but I am not sure that in today’s environment he might not have returned to his more polemical language in the commentary on Romans.
[7] Annie Dillard wrote that in a blurb for my first book, in 1998, and a lot of people thought she meant I was dying of cancer. Being literal-minded is an enemy of biblical interpretation!
[8] I Kings 19:12, I Corinthians 15:52, I Thessalonians 2:13)