These words serve as the mantra of today’s seekers. It is their “declaration of independence” from organized or established religions. It also represents the expectation of finding spirituality within oneself and not through the preaching or teaching based on an ancient book or tradition.
What then is spirituality? Whatever you want to call it! And nobody can judge you for it as long as you are willing to forgo judgment of others’ spirituality, as long as it is not organized. However, this form of spirituality is also coming out of the seminary.
In his most recent book, The Future of Faith, liberal professor emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School, Harvey Cox, celebrates the shift in Christianity away from fundamentalism and its emphasis on doctrine to “spirituality” and social activism. He favors a doctrine-less faith – a faith we experience and perform, not something we believe. (You might ask, “What beliefs enable us to understand our experience and direct our social activism? This vacuum will be inescapably filled by the beliefs of society.)
Cox suggests that the Biblical revelation is entirely unnecessary. He asserts that one can be a “practicing Christian, but not necessarily a believing one.” This makes the teachings of the Bible irrelevant, and Christianity merely becomes a matter of good deeds, and “salvation” becomes a matter of personal attainment. In describing his liberation from his Baptist roots, he explains:
· We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. (18)
However, Cox’ prime targets are the Biblical teachings themselves, which, according to Cox, are irrelevant:
· I also became friends with several students who seemed to me to exemplify the Christian life better than some of the taut fundamentalists, although they were not particularly concerned with being doctrinally correct. (16)
For Cox, this constitutes a slam-dunk. But what does it mean to “exemplify the Christian life?” For Jesus, we first have to be set free (John 8:31-32) from the lie before we could step into the light of God:
· “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21)
Evil can come in many forms. Perhaps its most dangerous form is self-righteousness, which poses as virtue, even godliness. Therefore, Jesus had warned that the most vicious forms of persecution would come from those who were convinced that they were spiritual:
· “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (John 16:2-3)
How can this be? Don’t think for a moment that this was because they were following religion instead of spirituality and God instead of their own inner promptings. About them, Jesus warned that their religion was just a show and that they didn’t even believe the Law of Moses (John 5:44-47). Instead, their religion, spirituality, and social activism were all about themselves so that they could look good in the eyes of the world.
Spiritual pride is a life-controlling, self-righteous, and blinding force. It tells us that we are right even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary:
· Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart. (Proverbs 21:2; 16:2)
Can finding spirituality within ourselves heal us of such blindness? Instead, our normal tendency is to see the things that we want to see. We believe those things that will make us feel good about ourselves.
The evidence for this is overwhelming. We want to be flattered and surround ourselves with “yes” men, people who will make us feel good about ourselves and not those who will tell us what we need to hear.
Consequently, when the psychotherapist advertises her services, she doesn’t say, “Come to me and learn the truth about yourself.” Instead, she says, “Come to me to reduce your unwanted symptomology.”
Of course, many will object to this characterization, but why? We want to believe that we are really seeking after truth, even though this postmodern culture has rejected the existence of objective spiritual truth. It is offensive to us to think that we are motivated to think pleasant, “spiritual” thoughts about ourselves at the expense of truth thoughts.
Is my assessment valid? Yes! It is even largely affirmed by the psychotherapeutic community.
In Positive Illusions, Psychologist Shelley E. Taylor argues that “normalcy” involves layer upon layer of self-delusion. Nevertheless, she argues that these delusions are necessary and positive:
· People are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal.
· Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases. (214)
If the “normal” are more self-deluded than the “abnormal,” what should be the therapeutic goal? What represents a therapeutic success story? Learning to see ourselves as we truly are? Not according to Martin L. Gross:
· “The ideal patient must be suggestible. He should be able to easily absorb dogma and ideas of the most abstract, even outlandish dimension. He should be philosophically adaptable and able to ape the therapist’s value system and biases. The more he agrees with the therapist, the better his chances of being helped. This conditioning process is at the core of all faith healing, magic and religion. Psychologist David Rosenberg checked out the connection between improvement and value-conditioning in psychotherapy. He found that those rated as ‘improved’ had changed their moral values in sex, aggression and authority in the direction of the therapist’s own prejudices. Those who had been rated ‘unimproved’ had tended to hold out.” (The Psychological Society, 48)
We do not gravitate towards truth but to comfort. What does this suggest about finding one’s own spirituality? These findings do not bode well for this pursuit.
Instead, the Bible insists that we must first be changed from Above. But how? By the Spirit working through the Word of God – the very object that many have claimed to be irrelevant!
Jesus repeatedly pointed to the relevance of the Word of God in His final pre-cross teaching and prayer (John 14-17):
It is through Scripture that we love God and enjoy His presence:
· Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:23-24; 15:6-14)
How are we transformed? Again, by the Spirit applying Scripture to our hearts and minds:
· Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. (John 15:3)
When Jesus was praying to the Father, He expressed the same truth:
· Sanctify [cleanse] them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17)
Jesus understood that the truth of Scripture transforms. We cannot perform spiritual surgery on ourselves. This surgery must be performed by God Himself through the truth. Nor can we lift ourselves off the ground. Someone else must do this for us.
This sounds strange to modern/postmodern ears, which tend to regard experiences as transformative, not truths. However, right before this, Jesus had prayed:
· “But now I am coming to you [Father], and these things I speak [Scripture] in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word…”(John 17:13-14)
How can truths or teachings produce joy? As a Zen Buddhist, late psychiatrist and writer, M. Scott Peck, wrote the esteemed best-seller The Road Less Traveled. Fifteen years later, he wrote Further Along the Road Less Traveled to bring us up to date with his spiritual pilgrimage. During these years, Peck observed that his Christian patients were improving. Peck concluded:
· The quickest way for you to change your attitude toward pain is to accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.
· Now what better news can there be than we cannot lose, we are bound to win? We are guaranteed winners once we realize that everything that happens to us has been designed to teach us what we need to know on our journey.
Peck found that believing these truths proved transformational. Consequently, Peck gave up meditation on his changing inner states in favor of meditation on Scripture.
How do we grow in love? According to Jesus, the Word plays a central role:
· I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." (John 17:26; NIV)
How can Jesus’ teachings produce love? When we come to know how beloved and protected we are, we too will love. We will be largely freed from the tyranny of having to seek the approval of others. Freed from their opinions and confident of God’s opinion of us, we no longer have to resent those who do not give us what we want and need. We are freed up enough to begin to look to the needs of others.
However, this is a process:
· So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you WILL KNOW the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
However, this is a painful and humbling process of stripping away the layers of self-righteousness and self-deception, and few are willing to bare it.
Real self-examination (spirituality) is so painful that few can tolerate it. I couldn’t, even after the counsel of five highly-recommended psychologists. Instead, we blanket ourselves with “positive illusions” in favor of true but negative and depressing self-knowledge. We run from the light and anyone who will focus the light upon us and into the comfort of darkness and delusion. However, we run to people who will stroke our self-esteem.
What “positive illusions” do we feed to ourselves? Well, I convinced myself that I was better than others in all regards. Although, deep down, I knew better, I nevertheless believed that I could handle anything. However, this was a drug that required increasingly greater doses to get the high. Meanwhile, my delusions were removing me from reality and from meaningful relationships. When we refuse to see ourselves, we also have blinded ourselves to reality and to others.
How did the truth set me free? It taught me that there was something better than my false spirituality – a Savior who loves, forgives, and gave His life for me. Only with the assurance of His love could I endure His penetrating light.