Toward an Integrated Spirituality

Many years ago I joined some teenage Inuit friends on a two-day Arctic caribou hunt up the west (left-hand side) of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay. This is still one of the most unpopulated places in the whole world. We felt how small and mortal we were in that vast, silent emptiness that spread to the horizons. Our destination was Maguse River, where a small cluster of derelict buildings would provide a place to overnight. Thousands of white geese rose suddenly from the long grass as we approached at dusk, with such a shocking blast of sound that we literally staggered and our hearts raced. So much sound puncturing that much silence was almost too much to bear.

The birds all disappeared, and if anything, the buildings felt lonelier than the land, for they had been abruptly abandoned years before by a resident group of evangelical missionaries when their leader died in a dreaded winter “white out.” Unable to see amid the swirling snow, he crashed his plane and the adventure ended. Now the doors creaked and swung open in the wind in ways that made the Inuit wary of ghosts.

This bleak scene was once an evangelical missionary outpost. Who else but evangelicals would have pursued tiny, nomadic Inuit groups roaming this remote region with the Gospel? Who else but intrepid evangelicals would have ventured so far, and endured so much, for the sake of so few?

My mind moves to a similarly motivated, but at face value more successful, evangelical venture. Today prosperous Hangzhou, China boasts the largest registered church in that whole nation. Around five thousand worship openly each Sunday there. I walked through that beautiful, lakeside city a couple of years ago, and realized, with a mix of pride and humility, that the China Inland Mission, and Hudson Taylor himself, with his indigenous pigtail and silk tunic, had set up operations right there over one hundred and fifty years ago. Evangelical spirituality has always gravitated toward activism and mission. It is both our strength and our vulnerability.

In previous blogs I wrote of my longstanding desire to discern the contours of an authentic Christian spirituality, not some faddish variety, but the deeper kind that has sustained believers through the centuries. I shared my discovery that such spirituality has always been characterized by three dynamics: a relational dynamic (Christ with us), a transformational dynamic (Christ in us), and a vocational dynamic (Christ through us). The Christian life has always involved connecting, becoming and doing. It is about living in relation to God, being transformed by the impulses of his divine life, and actively participating in God’s purposes in the world. 

The point I want to make here is that these are not three calls bundled together, from which we are at liberty

It is sobering, however, to note that believers have always found this balance elusive. An integrated spirituality does not come easy to any of us. Take for example even the classics of Christian spirituality. They offer us rich resources, but by measuring them against our three-dimensional standard it is easy to see how they tend to favor one dynamic over the others. The mystical writers have left us a great legacy of insight into the nature of deep communion with God. The monastic tradition has explored the transformational impulse with great passion and diligence. Compassion, evangelistic zeal, and demand for justice have led mission-focused believers to attempt great things for God in the world.

We must embrace the full scope of our spiritual heritage. By itself the mystical pursuit can become self-serving and even narcissist. On its own, to the neglect of everything else, the monastic or Puritan impulse will breed legalism. Divorced from the other two, a fixation on mission will only lead to worldliness.

An interesting pattern emerges when contemporary evangelical writing on spirituality is measured against this standard. It turns out that the majority of our favorite writers gravitate toward the practical, vocational aspect of spirituality. We move most comfortably, even eagerly, into the sphere that matches our genetic predisposition as activist evangelicals. Our tradition has conditioned us to opt for the quantitative over the qualitative. We are more interested in making disciples than in being disciples—more inclined to preach the Gospel than embody it.

Therefore evangelicals especially need to be aware that an undue fixation on the vocational can drift toward functional secularism. After all, how can we move in the right directions without the guidance that comes in relationship? How can we ever succeed and endure without the inner strength that comes from a crafted soul?

Voices today are warning us that the church of the twenty-first century will be spiritual or it will not be. But what is needed is an integrated spirituality. Then we will be able to move from rhetoric to reality, from image management to authenticity, and from hectic activism to meaningful vocation.

One Response to Toward an Integrated Spirituality

  1. John Mustol October 18, 2008 at 3:18 pm #

    We see the western side of Hudson Bay as “unpopulated” from our human perspective. There are, however, thousands of species of plants, lichens, microbes, invertebrates, insects (black flies and mosquitoes!), birds, caribou, arctic foxes, polar bears, and other things that make their home there. All of this “stuff,” according to Christian theology, was created by God. In fact, if Christian theology be true, God is responsible for creating that bleak and lonely land. I wonder if God sees it as “unpopulated”? Maybe He does. There are many passages in the OT where God lays waste to the land, rendering it “desolate” (i.e. “unpopulated” by humans) – a haunt for wild animals (Deut. 29:22-28; Is 24:3-6; Hos 4:1-3; etc., etc.), and this is generally viewed as “bad.” On the other hand, Jesus spent 40 days in the “unpopulated” wilderness and was “with the wild animals,” whatever that meant? For a stab at it, see Richard Bauckham, “Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark 1:13): A Christological Image for an Ecological Age,” in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology. ed. by Joel B. Green and Max Turner. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. Maybe, if human populations continue to expand and our technology continues to improve we will build cities on the Maguse River. Then it will no longer be bleak and desolate – or will it?

    But enough of this nature stuff. Let’s talk about spirituality. I wonder if Christian spirituality is not a multidimensional thing. I wonder if there are not many colors, textures, and hues that run down through the centuries in various ways, times, places, and people groups – perhaps unified by the inscrutable activity of God in reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. Perhaps there is a diversity that, because it is, in fact, the work of God the Holy Spirit, transcends our understanding – from the evangelical fervor that deposited missionaries in those shacks on the bleak Maguse River to the determined activism of Hudson Taylor and his colleagues in the (“beautiful” and not “bleak”?) teaming cities of China. In the early centuries of the church, a few Christians seeking deeper spirituality fled the cities that, by then, were being converted en masse to Christianity, and went to live in the bleak and lonely deserts of Egypt and Syria. Such spirituality seems to us today here in Southern California to be incomprehensible, if not downright insane. But, if such spirituality be valid, then there is indeed astonishing diversity. Maybe we should speak not of Christian spirituality but of Christian spiritualities? But if we do, then how do we integrate them and where are the boundaries?

    I think it is well for all of us (especially those of us who, in our postmodern age, are opposed to the “totalizing” presumptions of Christian proselytizing) to remember that, were it not for that fervent evangelical spirit of Christian missionaries on the Maguse River, in the crowded cities of China, and in countless other places, there would be no Christianity and no Christian spirituality. It is this activism of evangelical spirituality, this devotion to the propagation of the gospel, that has given rise to Christianity as a worldwide faith. Christianity is an incredibly diverse religion. I am thankful for that evangelical “spirit” that is responsible for the existence of the worldwide Christian church – in all its gloriously diverse spiritualities.