If Christian book publishing trends are any indication, contemplative spirituality is a hot topic among Christian readers — hotin the dual sense that it arouses intense interest as well as intense opposition. Proponents claim it is an ancient Christian practice capable of deepening a person’s love for God and neighbor. Opponents counterclaim that it is biblically subpar, smacks of medieval Catholicism, and opens the door to New Age mysticism.
In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to John Coe and Kyle Strobel about whether contemplative spirituality is Christian, and if so, how. Coe and Strobel are professors at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Both are active in the university’s Institute for Spiritual Formation, Coe as the director and Strobel as a teacher. They are the editors of Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice, published by IVP Academic earlier this year.
“We are all living according to a specific regimen of habits,” writes Justin Whitmel Earley, “and those habits shape most of our life.” Even more, “they form our hearts.” In The Common Rule, Earley outlines a “rule of life” or “program of habits” to help readers fulfill the biblical commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34–40).
Earley calls this program “the common rule” because it has to do with “common practice by common people.” Its focus on laity rather than clergy distinguishes it from the well-known “rules” of Benedict or Augustine, although its basic purpose is the same as theirs. The common rule consists of eight habits, four daily and four weekly.
The daily habits are:
kneeling prayer three times a day,
one meal with others,
one hour with the phone off,
and Scripture before phone.
The weekly habits are:
one hour of vulnerable conversation with a friend,
curate media to four hours,
fasting from something for 24 hours,
and setting aside a day for sabbath.
Earley distinguishes the habits along two other spectrums. The first spectrum pertains to whether the habit helps us love God (sabbath, fasting, prayer, and Scripture before phone) or love our neighbors (meals, conversation, phone off, curated media). The second spectrum has to do with embracing the good (sabbath, prayer, meals, and conversation) or resisting the evil (fasting, Scripture before phone, phone off, and curated media).
One of Earley’s crucial insights throughout the book is that our habits reflect (and reinforce) our beliefs. He cites the early years of his career as a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer as a cautionary tale. To keep pace with his colleagues, to take just one example, he would pick up his phone to check his emails and formulate replies even before getting out of bed. As he thought about why he did this, he came to realize that he was drawing his identity and worth from others’ opinions of him. “Unless I’m well regarded in the office, I’m not worth anything,” he writes, describing that period.
By contrast, when he began to practice the daily habit of reading Scripture before picking up his phone, he began to draw his identity and worth from a different source. “Daily immersion in the Scriptures resists the anxiety of emails, the anger of news, and the envy of social media. Instead it forms us daily in our true identity as children of the King, dearly loved.”
Our habits, then, are what Earley calls “liturgies of belief.” Regardless of what we say we believe or value, habits reveal what we really believe and really value. “Our habits often obscure what we’re really worshiping,” Earley warns, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not worshiping something. The question is, what are we worshiping?”
That’s an excellent question, one that all eight habits of the common rule force us to face as we examine our habitual behaviors.
I highly recommend The Common Rule. It is a helpful little volume that will repay careful reading and re-reading, especially if you start putting its habits into practice. The book can be read individually, but perhaps the best way to read it is in a group whose goal is to grow in love for God and neighbor together.
Book Reviewed Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2019).
Kurt Vonnegut included a philosophy joke in one of his novels. It looked like this:
“To be is to do.” — Socrates
“To do is to be.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
“Do be do be do.” — Frank Sinatra
I can’t vouch for Vonnegut’s take on Socrates or Sartre, but I will say this: Any person who can be as well as they do lives as well as Sinatra could sing.
Ken Shigematsu opens Survival Guide for the Soul by distinguishing between doing and being. Drawing on an insight about Genesis 1–2 by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Shigematsu speaks of “Striving Adam” and “Soulful Adam.” These are not two different Adams, but two different ways of describing tendencies within all people. “One part of us strives to impact the world around us through our work and effort,” he writes. That’s doing. “And another part of us seeks soulful connection through relationships with people and by experiencing ultimate reality.” That’s being.
Ideally, we should keep our striving and our soulfulness together. But in the modern world, which emphasizes achievement, fame and success, Striving Adam has the upper hand, and Soulful Adam gets shoved aside. In response, we need to reemphasize meaning, not so that we can ignore achievement, but so that we can bring our striving back into balance with our soulfulness.
As Christians, Shigematsu argues, soulfulness begins and ends with understanding that we are God’s beloved. “Knowing that we are deeply loved by our Creator frees us to pursue a life of significant, enduring achievement — a life that is not driven by fear and anxiety but one that springs from a deep well of joy and gratitude for the love and grace God has shown us.”
At a surface level, all Christians know that God loves them. It’s written in black and white on the pages of Scripture. It’s painted blood red on the cross of Christ. But that surface knowledge too often doesn’t make it into the deep parts of our souls, where our emotions and passions govern. To move knowledge of God’s love from our heads to our hearts, we need spiritual disciplines.
Shigematsu discusses seven spiritual disciplines — he calls them “survival habits of the soul” — throughout the book. They are meditation, Sabbath, gratitude, simple abundance, servanthood, friendship and vocation. Each of these is a way of tuning out and tuning in. Tuning out worldly voices that tell us we are only as good as what we achieve, and tuning in to God’s voice that tells us we are truly and deeply loved.
“May you live more and more fully into the knowledge that the Creator of the universe cherishes you as a son or daughter,” writes Shigematsu at the book’s end.
That’s a good prayer for every soulful striver.
Book Reviewed Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a World That Pressures Us to Achieve (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).
“Superficiality is the curse of our age,” writes Richard J. Foster in Celebration of Discipline. “The desperate need for today is…deep people.” These words ring as true in 2018 as they did in 1978 when Celebration of Discipline was first published. And spiritual disciplines are still the way to produce depth. As Foster summarizes the matter in the book’s new Foreword, spiritual disciplines are “the means God uses to build in us an inner person that is characterized by peace and joy and freedom.” If you’re looking for help in overcoming the superficiality and distractedness of the current age, start with this book, which is forty years young.
Book Reviewed Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 4th ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018).
The Gospels provide little information about Jesus’ early years. Mark and John begin their Gospels with an adult Jesus. Matthew and Luke provide brief descriptions of His parentage and birth. Only Luke tells us a story about Boy Jesus.
Some Christians in the early years of the church made up stories about Jesus’ childhood in order to fill in the gaps of the Gospels. One shows Boy Jesus making clay birds on the Sabbath. When a religious neighbor protests, Jesus brings the clay birds to life. Another story speaks of Jesus striking a playmate dead, only to resurrect him when the kid’s parents protest to Joseph and Mary.
None of the apocryphal stories has a basis in fact. The one story of Jesus’ childhood with any historical credibility is found in Luke 2:41–52. Jesus is 12 years old. His family goes to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast. When they leave to return home to Nazareth, they realize Jesus is not with them. (It’s easy to lose a kid in a caravan!) Joseph and Mary quickly return to Jerusalem to find Jesus.
Two things stand out to me in this passage: (1) Jesus is a smart kid. He knows how to interpret the Bible well enough to amaze everyone who listened to Him. (2) Jesus has an intensely personal relationship with God. He’s not just smart, in other words, He’s truly spiritual. In verse 49, He asks, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” For Jesus, information about God is good. But a relationship with Him is better.
We shouldn’t read this passage as if Jesus were fully spiritually formed at age 12, however. As Luke puts it, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
Jesus got smarter, bigger, more spiritual and friendlier as he aged. Even for the Son of God, spiritual formation was a process, just like it is for us.
So, what did Jesus do as a boy? Whatever it took to become the man God made Him to be. We would do well to follow Boy Jesus’ example.
P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:
“Presbyterian Church to ordain gays as ministers.” The Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister, considers this a “moral awakening.”Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, comments: “They’re making this change amid a larger cultural change. General public opinion on gay rights is trending pretty dramatically in the liberal direction.” On a (cor)related (but not necessarily caused) note, mainline church attendance is tanking. Perhaps this illustrates the truth of W. R. Inge’s comment that those who marry the spirit of the age will find themselves a widower in the next.
While adolescents may question or review their spirituality, it remains a critical aspect of adolescent stability. While research on spirituality and adolescence is limited, studies of religiosity have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.
In short, as adolescents develop, they will need to confront their own spirituality and incorporate it into their sense of identity. Continuing the dialog while respecting that process and acknowledging the quest may be difficult. Yet it really remains the only option.
The moral horizon of our society has been narrowing for some time to a closed equation featuring selfish vindication and death, and it is this process that only God and His concept of mercy can reverse. If Christians are “salt and light” in the earth, as Jesus said we would be, then we cannot do better, in the project of propagating God’s mercy, than to start by absorbing its meaning ourselves.
“Black Preacher: Why I forgave George Wallace”: Because George Wallace needed forgiveness? According to the Rev. Kelvin Croom, “If a lot of us would forgive people, we could find healing. We could find peace.” Another path to peace would be if a lot of us would repent of our sins against others.
The phenomenological dialectic of right and good could be resolved if we could understand what is at the heart of human moral experience; but to understand this heart, we require more than what, unaided, human moral experience and purely philosophical speculation on this experience can provide. My argument for this conclusion is thus: What the duty aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of justice, which is inherently relational and thus irreducible to any interpretation of morality as mere personal fulfillment. What the happiness aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of desire–for-the-good, which is inherently personal and thus irreducible to an interpretation of morality as mere social or divine obligation. So, any explanation of the moral ought must include both others-related justice and self-related desire, and this is precisely what is provided by a theological ethics of creation and gift: If we are creatures, then we are inherently relational, with any actions related, above all, to our creator; and if creation is a gift, then we are supposed to enjoy creation as a good. And if God Himself, in essence, is a relation of three persons eternally bestowing upon each other and enjoying each other’s perfect divine goodness—God giving and receiving Himself—and if humans are made in the image and likeness of this Trinitarian gift-friendship, then we have the definitive—though still inexhaustibly mysterious—archetype in which the paradoxical human experience of simultaneous goodness and oughtness can ultimately be resolved.