There is extraordinary interest these days in what it means to be a Christian. A decade ago the interest was focused more on what Christians believed than on what they were. Now the reverse seems to be true. In the last few years, over 500 books have crossed my desk relating in one way or another to spirituality or living the Christian life. There is no indication that this flood will slow down anytime soon.
Although considerable diversity exists in this veritable deluge of material, it is still possible to pinpoint some trends. Whether the ideas are a reflection of the way things are or just represent what is desired is difficult to say. I suspect it is a mixture of both.
What stands out is a fundamental stress upon such ideas as wholeness, unity, and integration. There is a shift toward looking at life as a whole. In theory, body, soul, and spirit have given way to psychophysical unity. In practice, spiritual, emotional, and physical problems, considered as discreet difficulties, have given way to “personal” problems having various components. The relation of diet to prayer, exercise to worship, emotion to thought, vitamins to meditation, sex to well-being—even glamour to successful living—are all being looked at. Nothing is seen as independent of anything else; all is related to the whole human fact.
Along with this stress upon unity is a stress upon personal relations. Individualism is giving way to a “man in community” ideal. The value of personal devotions is not denied, but it is often observed that if private devotions do not revitalize personal relationships in the family, church, and society, they are no more than spiritual self-indulgence. It is possible that the “me generation” is now becoming a “we generation”—at least among Christians.
The return to more traditional and historical forms or expressions of spirituality is also noteworthy. Perhaps the danger of “trendyness” is becoming apparent. Whatever the reason, there is great interest in such as Madame Guyon, Thomas à Kempis, and Brother Lawrence; reprints are appearing regularly. Contemporary traditionalists such as Henri Nouwen are also in great demand. Among the publishers, Harper & Row, Crossroad, and Seabury are leading the way back to what the church has done historically.
The church and worship are being looked at as aspects of the Christian life, and virtually for the first time evangelicals are entering seriously into the discussion. This is one more indication of the move toward “we think” as opposed to “me think.”
The subject of prayer, in all of its aspects, is receiving special attention. There are currently over 350 books on the subject in print, covering everything from prayer in the ancient Syriac church to a pocket guide to composing prayers for all occasions. In most of this the focus is away from looking at prayer as a way simply to manipulate God (asking and receiving) to conceiving of it as basically communion with God.
The long-standing dichotomy between devotion and action seems to be disappearing. Now action is overt devotion, and devotion is spiritual exercise (action). Social action is being emphasized, and it is not so much that private devotion needs to be expressed in action for the public good, but that public action is a variety of private devotion. The very ideas of public and private seem to blend together.
Another element in the newer books is a broader perspective and greater tolerance of other approaches. The old days of spiritual imperialism where one was forced into another’s mold are fading. Stained glass (where the light shines differently through each window), not plain glass (where the light always looks the same), is now being used to describe the Christian life.
One final observation about trends today: there are only a limited number of eccentricities and overemphases. They exist, but are not in any large number or great circulation.
What can one make of all this?
I find it hard to be critical, for most of the trends evident today are a positive sort. The deep spiritual hunger that drives people both to write and to read this material is a profoundly significant phenomenon. With so many things vying for our time and commitment, it is noteworthy that interest in spiritual things should be so high. We seem to know instinctively that we do not live by bread alone. After all, our discontent with material things (not to say lack of interest in; even we Christians are a very materialistic generation) could turn us into cynics or avaricious scoundrels.
So far, that hasn’t happened. The return to biblical basics, coupled with a generous tolerance of the way that is to be expressed, is also encouraging. Who among us would claim to have the last word in being spiritual? To be on the way, and paradoxically, especially to be on the right way, is boast enough.
It is all very complex, this being spiritual, because human existence is a very complex phenomenon. That is why the last word will probably never be spoken on the subject. But without oversimplifying, the Bible sums it up in nine short words: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 5:8). All the rest is commentary.
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