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The role of Spiritual Disciplines in the Modern Church



spiritual institute of the Christian Church
Modern Christian Spirituality

This essay shall address the role that spiritual disciplines can play in the corporate life of the Church. Beginning with the changing situation that the Church has found itself in, it will explore how matters of spiritual fulfilment remain as important now, in the postmodern paradigm, as they did to the early days of the Church. It will show how the ‘quest for experience’ can be met through corporate spiritual discipline. It will explore how ‘reflexive spirituality’ goes some length to address the spiritual need of many, but that ultimately, if devoid of church doctrine, presents a danger to future iterations of Christian Spirituality. For the Reformed church the true nature of spirituality is found in the corporate setting which contrasts with the current emphasis on the individual. Finally, it looks at the important role the ecumenical movement is playing in matters of corporate spirituality.

 

Corporate Spirituality in a Changing Church

 

At some point at the close of the twentieth century the age of ‘postmodernity’ began. It marked a great period of tumult for institutions in general and had a profound impact on the Church in particular. Sheldrake remarks candidly ‘the major social, political, and cultural changes had a serious impact on Christianity’.[1] He goes on to state that this had three notable elements that stand out: institutional religion noticeably declined; boundaries within and between Christianity and other faiths blurred; and that Christianity became truly global.

 

The corporate life of the Church remains in flux but has paradoxically ignited a great fire for spirituality. McCrone presented a paper at the University of Aberdeen in September 1996 regarding the future of the Kirk. Writing of a post-modern Scotland he notes ‘Meta-systems of belief – religious and secular- have lost their ideological power to persuade and mobilise. Yet at the same time, lower-case politics (protest) and lower-case religion (spirituality) are vibrant’.[2] For the Church, this can be viewed both positively and negatively; as Christian spirituality both broadens and deepens, the opportunity arises for congregations to seize upon the new spiritual interest and swell their numbers; however, deinstitutionalising threatens the authority of the Church, which increases the likelihood of heretical beliefs or unorthodox teachings emerging from within the Christian setting. Spiritual disciplines practised in community therefore become vital to the corporate life of the Church, they can both nourish the seeker and correct the heretic.

 

Nourishment Through Experience

 

The shift to the paradigm of postmodernity has brought to light what Tidball calls ‘the quest for experience’.[3] He writes that this shift is marked by the emphasis on personal desire, even as a perceived right of the individual, to experience for themselves the knowledge of something. This knowledge is received through direct sensory perception, that is through feeling and not on the basis of received traditions and wisdom, or through the reasoning of objective facts.[4] Phrases such as ‘I know’ or ‘I think’ have been replaced by ‘I feel’. The theological response for Tidball has been weak; he writes that from the period of the Reformation onwards the Church’s emphasis has been on ‘the word, doctrine, right belief and the cerebral aspects of the faith’.[5] A ‘theology of experience’ is required, but Tidball offers a warning: a ‘theology of experience’ cannot only concern itself with revelation or exceptional encounters that occur in a dramatic manner, but with how God is experienced gently and daily.[6] The most simple of spiritual disciplines would be to engage in a daily period of contemplation; this could be centred around the beauty of the created world, how the sun or the rain feels on one’s skin, how the trees and flowers smell, how a piece of fruit tastes sweet in the mouth. This sensory discipline, although experienced individually, can be mandated corporately: the minister can suggest it to the congregation, go out and experience God’s world! It enriches the life of the Church as it carries the implication that the Church does not only preach God on a Sunday morning, but that He makes himself available to all at any time. Integrating Christian spirituality into everyday life, begins the future proofing of the Church as an institution in the postmodern, post-Christian world.

 

 

The Subjective and Objective in Reflexive Spirituality

 

Tidball sums up the postmodern paradigm by writing: ‘the objective has had to make way for the subjective and man has become preoccupied with the inward quest for self-fulfilment’.[7] There remains, then, a need to find purpose in a world that eschews any notion of objective truth. For the Christian, who believes in the objective truth of God, the faith sits precariously in the modern world. Besecke points out that scholars who study this precarious situation ask questions such as: ‘what happens to religious tradition in a world that values critical thought? What is the relationship between modern reason and traditional faith? How do people find transcendent meaning in modern society?’[8] The phrase coined by sociologist Wade Clark Roof is reflexive spirituality; reflexive is used in the context of reflection, which Besecke defines as ‘a habit of mentally stepping back from one’s own perspective to reflect on it objectively’.[9] The idea of reflection chimes well with much of the early Christian approach to contemplation; although reflexive spirituality remains popular among people who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, reflexive spirituality can be employed by any group in a church setting.[10] The spiritual discipline of Lectio Davina lends itself most suitably to this approach. To take first a very literal interpretation of what the text says is an exercise in intellect; follow this by a period of reflection, brings the scripture to a very personal level. It naturally flows from the objective to the subjective and becomes immediately applicable to the self. This type of practise is perfect for a group setting, the resultant self-reflection is then discussed objectively from the other members of the group’s perspective. Any residual ennui that arises from the individual’s interpretation of scripture, can often be framed, or clarified with the aid of another individual’s interpretation. What flows from this is a revitalising and new contextualising of the word of scripture. This approach also reiterates the ‘theology of experience’, bringing to light not only the doctrinal qualities of scripture but also what it means in the life of the individual. Roof describes reflexive spirituality in a manner which can be equally applied to Lectio Davina:

It encourages a more open stance towards religious teachings and spiritual resources, more experiential and holistic views, an active incorporation of religious input into constellations of belief and practice, or greater agency on

the part of the individual in defining and monitoring one’s own spiritual life.[11]

 

Thus, the corporate approach to nourishing the spiritual lives of the congregation proves beneficial. An issue that arises with the reflexive approach, however, is its seeming devaluation of Christian Doctrine for emphasis on self-interpretation. Indeed, Besecke writes: ‘people who practice reflexive spirituality seek to move beyond doctrine-centred religion but hold tightly to the idea of transcendently meaningful universe’.[12] Sheldrake wades into this admirably when he writes: ‘it appears that spirituality is one of those subjects whose meaning everyone claims to know until they have to define it’.[13] Christian Spirituality must, therefore, have at its heart the doctrines of the institutional Church for it to make any sense. Sheldrake goes on to say contemporary spirituality has emerged as a cross disciplinary subject, which on the face of it, has considerable problems of coherence’.[14] It is here that we can find heretical beliefs smuggled into Christian Spirituality but only if there is a deliberate move away from doctrines of the Church. At the very core of the Christian version of spirituality must be the need to seek out a union with the Triune God. It becomes imperative then that the Church becomes the sole point of origin for the undertaking of spiritual discipline.

 

Mystical Union and the Sacraments

 

For Jean Calvin, spirituality was corporate. He held a very high view of the Church, to the extent that his view of spirituality clashes with that of the more postmodern view. Hageman notes: ‘in Calvin’s thinking the Church precedes the individual and not the other way around as has become so popular in contemporary spirituality’.[15] Mirroring this view, Torrance points out that ‘we often adopt an anthropological starting point then seek to justify religion in terms of its pragmatic value’.[16] Calvin turns this all on its head, affirming that at the start of any spiritual discipline is in the Triune God, and that the pragmatic value is the aim of a closer relationship with Him. At the heart of Calvin’s spirituality, and the subsequent doctrines his theology produced, was the ‘unio mystica, the union of Christ with the believer.’[17] It can be said then, that any spiritual discipline will ultimately begin and end with the Triune God; the result of which will be a call to worship, and beyond this, a call to continue in the mission of Jesus. An embracing of which will refill the pews on a Sunday morning. According to Sheldrake:

Christian Spirituality is founded on discipleship: dual process of conversion (turning away from disorder and towards new life – offered by God in Jesus), and of learning how to follow in the way of Jesus, and like him proclaim God’s kingdom.[18]

The corporate life of the Church, in theory then, shall see an increased need in the ministering of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist: on the proviso the Church is preaching how the unity of Christ, and the pledges of God are found in the sacraments. This has the added benefit to the congregation of providing a more varied form of corporate worship. The encouragement from the Church to begin a spiritual discipline also allows for the Church to offer guidance in both practice and in correct education as to the nature of the Triune God. This permits space for doctrinal consistency.

 

Ecumenical Partnership

 

Christian tradition has a long and storied history that is gradually being rediscovered by the ecumenical movement and partnerships. This returns us to Sheldrake’s second notable element: the blurring of boundaries within Christian denominations. Alongside the doctrinal consistency that comes with these institutions, is the resurfacing of spiritual treasures. Sheldrake remarks that ‘Christian spiritual traditions offer a long history of inherited memory of spiritual wisdom, but most importantly an art of discernment’.[19] The spiritual disciplines that the Church can now offer a seeker are wide and varied. Of central importance to Christian Spirituality down through the ages, two things have remained constant: prayer and the opportunity to contemplate biblical text.[20] The closer partnership between the denominations provides many previously unknown methods in which to engage with these two things. This provides a rich opportunity for any individual denomination to explore news forms of worship and new styles of fellowship. Even on a basic level, the use of unfamiliar texts can be explored within the church setting, bringing a new dimension to the congregational study. An approach to the new texts which is truly disciplined, and properly discerned, allows in turn for the appreciation of the denomination which held it in such esteem; this fosters the possibility of even closer ecumenical relations. As Raiser phrased it: ‘the ecumenical movement gets nowhere unless and until ordinary church people are involved in it’.[21]

 

Conclusion

 

The global state of Christianity continues to shift, as people in western societies continue to fall away from the Church, the nations of the Global South continue to strengthen the number of Christians worldwide. The need for spiritual fulfilment has not perished, but the western Church has overly focused on structure, rationalistic teaching and taken a moralistic approach to religion.[22] It has, it seems, forgotten its role as a spiritual institution; it has shied away from what it has to offer in terms of the plethora of resources it has at its disposal; all of which brings a credible spiritual dimension, correctly discerned, to the postmodern world. Spiritual disciplines bring so much wealth to the corporate life of the Church, that they should be the starting point for any dwindling congregation to be made alive again in Christ. This essay has reflected on the need for such practices, to not only be encouraged, but has shown they make up a vital component to any church community.

 

 

 


 

Bibliography

 

Besecke, Kelly ‘Reflexive Spirituality: Finding Meaning in Modern Society’ in You Can’t put God in a Box: Thoughtful Spirituality in a Rational Age, (New York: Oxford Academic, 2013)

 

Hageman, Howard G., ‘Reformed Spirituality’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality: an ecumenical reader, ed. Kenneth J. Collins, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000)

 

McCrone, David, ‘The Post-Modern Condition of Scottish Society’, The Future of the Kirk:Theology in Scotland Occasional Paper, ed. D.A.S Fergusson & D.W.D Shaw (1997) pp. 11-20

 

McGrath, Alister E., Christian Spirituality: An Introduction, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999)

 

Raiser, Elisabeth, ‘Inclusive Community’, in A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol.3 1968-2000, ed. John Briggs, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and George Tsetsis, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004)

 

Roof, Wade Clark Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the remaking of American Religion, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999)

 

Sheldrake, Philip,  A Brief History of Spirituality, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) < ProQuest Ebook Central - Reader (oclc.org)> [30/11/2023]

 

Sheldrake, Philip, ‘What is Spirituality?’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality: an ecumenical reader, ed. Kenneth J. Collins, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000)

 

 

Derek J. Tidball, ‘Christian Theology in a World Crying out for Experience’, in Christian Experience in Theology and Life, ed. Howard Marshall (Aberdeen: Rutherford House, 1984)

 

 

James Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996) <Worship, community & the triune God of grace : Torrance, James : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [01/12/23]

 

 

 

 


[1] Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) < ProQuest Ebook Central - Reader (oclc.org)> [30/11/2023] p. 174

[2] David McCrone, ‘The Post-Modern Condition of Scottish Society’, The Future of the Kirk:Theology in Scotland Occasional Paper, ed. D.A.S Fergusson & D.W.D Shaw (1997) pp. 11-20 (p.16)

[3] Derek J. Tidball, ‘Christian Theology in a World Crying out for Experience’, in Christian Experience in Theology and Life, ed. Howard Marshall (Aberdeen: Rutherford House, 1984) pp. 1 -15 (p. 1)

[4] Tidball, Christian Theology in a World Crying out for Experience, p.1

[5] Tidball, Christian Theology in a World Crying out for Experience, p.12

[6] Tidball, Christian Theology in a World Crying out for Experience, p.13

[7] Tidball, Christian Theology in a World Crying out for Experience, p.1

[8] Kelly Besecke, ‘Reflexive Spirituality: Finding Meaning in Modern Society’ in You Can’t put God in a Box: Thoughtful Spirituality in a Rational Age, (New York: Oxford Academic, 2013) < https://doi-org.uhi.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199930920.003.0002> [30/11/2023] pp.9-26

[9] Kelly Besecke, ‘Reflexive Spirituality: Finding Meaning in Modern Society’

[10] Kelly Besecke, ‘Reflexive Spirituality: Finding Meaning in Modern Society’

[11] Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the remaking of American Religion, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999) p. 75

[12] Kelly Besecke, ‘Reflexive Spirituality: Finding Meaning in Modern Society’

[13] Philip Sheldrake, ‘What is Spirituality?’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality: an ecumenical reader, ed. Kenneth J. Collins, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p. 21

[14] Sheldrake, ‘What is Spirituality?’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality: an ecumenical reader. p.21

[15] Howard G. Hageman, ‘Reformed Spirituality’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality: an ecumenical reader, ed. Kenneth J. Collins, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p.147

[16] James Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996) p. 70 <Worship, community & the triune God of grace : Torrance, James : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive> [01/12/23]

[17] Hageman, ‘Reformed Spirituality’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality p.142

[18] Sheldrake, ‘What is Spirituality?’ in Exploring Christian Spirituality: an ecumenical reader. p.32

[19] Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) < ProQuest Ebook Central - Reader (oclc.org)> [01/12/2023] p. 206

[20] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Spirituality: An Introduction, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999) p. 88

[21] Elisabeth Raiser, ‘Inclusive Community’, in A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol.3 1968-2000, ed. John Briggs, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and George Tsetsis, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004) p. 243 

[22] Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) p. 206

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