Early on in college I had the good fortune to take a literature class taught by a contemplative practitioner. The college itself was a conservative one, but here was clearly someone with a different state of awareness. He didn’t seem particularly concerned about defending Christianity, or getting people to convert, or about revival on campus, or winning the city for Jesus.
With a gentle depth, he seemed more interested in whether people were moving toward wholeness than the brand of faith they were practicing, or even the fervor with which they practiced. With disarming graciousness, he was clearly present and interested in what his students had to say, though his education and intellect vastly surpassed ours. He was humble. Students experiencing a crisis of faith or elsewhere in their lives sensed in him a safe presence in which to confide.
Introduction to Mystical Theology
His class, the first place I had ever heard of John of the Cross, or the Jesus Prayer, or Hesychasm, or Thomas Merton, opened up an inner tension for me. If the gospel wasn’t mostly about conversion, then what was it about? And why wasn’t this professor very interested in our moral well-being? And why did he seem to think mythic truth was an even bigger deal than literal truth, as we read through Homer and Dante and Dostoevsky?
A Pentecostal Household
Growing up in the missions field and a Pentecostal pastor’s household, I understood a presentation of the gospel using the four spiritual laws. Being a good Christian meant living the right way. Planting churches and winning converts was the highest good, wasn’t it? Call it a conversion-centered faith. The literature professor reminded us the Latin root of the word we used for salvation was salve – to heal or make whole. What if salvation was less about conversion and more about wholeness?
As the tectonic plates of faith began to shift within toward this wholeness-centered faith over the years, another tension opened up. If the theology I was raised in was off base, were thousands of missionaries the world over uprooting their families and their lives needlessly?
Stages of Spirituality
Here’s where the idea of stages of spirituality has been tremendously helpful. And from Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love to Dr. James Fowler’s seven stages of faith to Keating’s “four You’s” along the spiritual path, there are many models to choose from. While by no means absolute, Ken Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics has been helpful for many who dig into this conversation (most conservative communities would be at the blue level).
People like my parents at the time, Jesus People, YWAM, biblical literalists, and so on, however, are at a particular and legitimate stage of spiritual maturity. It may not yet be a full flowering of awareness, but their work can help people move out of a state of despair, isolation, and into a state of forgiveness, acceptance, and community. It can help people move past their narrow ego lenses. It can help people in a state of inner chaos. Conversion may be a step along the path toward wholeness.
That doesn’t mean the journey ends there.
We do well not to confuse the Kingdom Christ spoke of with the churches we build. One is a reality of being-in-the-world. It is both inner and outer. The other, at its best, provides a context for that quality of being to thrive. At its worst, it is narrowly interested in self-perpetuation. What provides stability can also provide a childish means of organizing life for ourselves and others. Being oriented by wholeness demands that we continue to grow.
In communities where right living becomes the outward sign of true faith, unconscious moral policing sets in. When no one wants to show their cards for fear of being found out, things become shallow. We become more interested in genteel propriety than drinking life to the lees, or what Christ called “life abundant.”
The older people can still have good community, some moral instruction, a support system, and somewhere to put the kids for a few hours a week. But spiritual growth become stagnant. When “walking with the Lord” means settling for shallowness and moral conformity, eventually, the kids tune out. If faith is mostly about avoiding sin so we don’t end up in hell, the faith itself ends up fairly tedious.
Not hell, exactly, but not far off. More like a Hades where the bored shades just sort of float around.
Authors like Rachel Held Evans, Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren, and Benjamin L. Corey’s Formerly Fundy blog explore this territory with far more depth and longevity than I. Heck, Franciscan monk Richard Rohr even has an entire series on Spiral Dynamics.
For me, one forum to work out this tension has been formal education in seminary, but it’s been far more powerful to experience the shift toward openness first-hand as an inner awakening. Contemplative practice has provided an avenue of transformation and spiritual growth simply not available in most evangelical contexts I grew up in.
In a Pentecostal church, claiming with Thomas Keating that “silence is God’s first language” wouldn’t get a lot of Amens. And yet for me that sentence resonates far more deeply than any revival church service I’ve been to.
The Priestly and the Prophetic
In biblical terms, there are both priestly and prophetic traditions. One works within traditional structures and corresponds to today’s pastor or church worker. The other spends time in solitude and seeks bears a striking resemblance to the monastic, the mystic, the contemplative, whose unmediated connection to truth doesn’t rely on traditional structures.
Both have their part to play. And both do well to stay oriented toward wholeness.
Even as we move beyond earlier forms of faith, as Richard Rohr reminds us, we must transcend and include. In a state of spiritual maturity, we can appreciate the good in the earlier stages and without judgement and condemnation, embrace the good that exists at every stage. Even if we’ve been judged or condemned or burned by people in those earlier stages of development.
Even as we may have found new points of orientation, we understand we too still have a long way to go.