We are going to be hearing more and more calls for a return to spirituality. Being “spiritual” in the nineties could carry the weight that being “politically aware” carried in the sixties.

But these calls will not necessarily be coming from Christian leaders. Nor will they necessarily come from leaders of other religions. They will be coming from a new breed of politician or social commentator who adheres to no creed and worships in no holy place.

Until now a stress on spiritual values in the West has traditionally announced a Christian attack on the erosive power of secular humanism. It has been a call for people to come back to biblically inspired living.

Yet the word spiritual is being drained of the meaning it once had for our society. “I’m not religious in a conventional way,” a leading European environmentalist said recently, “but there is a strong spiritual dimension to my life.”

This is a typically contemporary use of spiritual. This person had rejected Christianity as a teenager. She no longer had any respect for church teachings. But she did have “a profound liking” for “other human beings and species,” coupled with “an awe for the environment.” The liking plus the awe, she said, gave her “spiritual satisfaction.”

The word is even creeping into very high and unlikely places. Speaking to the Council of Europe in July 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev called for Europeans to build a new world worthy of “their spiritual potential,” adding that “the material foundation of life is changing drastically, as are its spiritual parameters.”

What could he have had in mind? Why would he praise European spiritual potential? What are the spiritual parameters he could see changing? Has anyone ever asked him, or do we just accept it as the compliment it was obviously intended to be?

In the world of green politics and new physics, spirituality is a key word. Fritjof Capra, influential author of The Turning Point, has described his vision as “an ecological and feminist perspective which is spiritual in its ultimate nature and will lead to profound changes in our social and political structures.”

Britain’s Green Party, in its latest manifesto, makes full play of its spiritual concern, calling for a recognition of “the spiritual dimension of our lives” and stressing that “spiritual needs” must be given a value equal to physical needs.

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Social forecaster John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends 2000, predicts a religious revival as we reach the end of the century and says that through it we will be “reaffirming the spiritual in what has become a more balanced quest to better our lives and those of our neighbors.”

Moving Toward The Mystical

But what do all these people mean when they speak so blithely of the spiritual? In most cases, I suspect, they mean that there is more to life than the material, and that if the human race is to survive and flourish it must pay heed to the unquantifiable aspects of reality as well as to the quantifiable ones.

The crisis in communism, the awareness that unchecked materialism is damaging the balance of nature, and the failure of scientism to nourish the soul have combined to turn the mood against reductionist philosophies and toward the mystical.

In Seeing Green, Jonathon Porritt, director of Friends of the Earth, wrote: “Stripped of its spiritual dimension, politics in today’s world is a hollow shell, and religion stripped of its political dimension is irresponsibly escapist.”

Thus far, the analysis of our race’s plight at the end of the twentieth century can only bring nods of agreement from thinking Christians who have, after all, been warning against spiritual impoverishment for considerably longer than the environmentalists have.

But because the analysis corresponds so closely to that of the Christian, it is more dangerous than blatant humanism. It sounds like the truth and could deceive the uninformed listener, but when you unpack the “spirituality” that is being so widely recommended, you realize how different it is from Holy Spirituality.

As used in secular discourse, spiritual can refer to anything that cannot either be tested in a laboratory or bolted to the floor. Rock musicians are “spiritual” if they play whimsical music; anyone with a fascination for the occult is “spiritual”; and, of course, anything New Age is automatically “spiritual.”

Jonathon Porritt was later asked what he had meant by “spiritual” in his book. He replied, “I have always used [the word] to refer to that aspect of human nature that allows people to transcend the limitations of their material world, to seek meaning in that which cannot be defined materialistically or scientifically.”

This illustrates the key difference between biblical spirituality and spirituality as a “megatrend.” Here it is viewed as an “aspect of human nature,” not as an invading force. The idea is that spirituality, like sexuality, is inextricably woven into the fabric of our being and we can either foster it or neglect it.

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The human problem, then, is not, as Christians believe, one of spiritual death but of spiritual sloth. We do not need to repent and be “born again of the spirit.” We just need to arouse the latent force within us. This is why there is currently so much emphasis on techniques that promise to improve the spiritual life. The force can be aroused through deep breathing or Mongolian chanting, or it may need a jolt of psychic energy from a crystal. Some even report that jogging does the trick.

A popular theory is that our spiritual nature is sited in the right side of the brain and that if we activate the correct area we can undergo a spiritual transformation.

Prof. Robert McKim, who leads courses in visual thinking at Stanford University, believes this and claims that his exercises are a form of “spiritual training” that have as their ultimate aim the union of the participant with “well, whatever it is. Whatever name you want to call it.”

Omni magazine even reported in December 1988 the development (at Canada’s Laurentian University) of a magnetic helmet, which, it is claimed, can induce “mystical states.” The reporter likened the effect of wearing this helmet to Saint Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road.

An Object Of Wrath

We clearly stand at a time of great opportunity. False idols of apartheid and apocalyptic Marxism, scientism, and progress without end are crumbling. There is widespread recognition that it is in the spiritual realm that we should look for answers.

Yet, unless we are willing to clarify constantly what is meant by biblical spirituality, the Christian message will be diluted. There may be times when, like Saint Paul on Mars Hill, we will lock into contemporary speculation in order to draw listeners toward the truth, but we must never allow ourselves to halt at the point of recommending “the spiritual life,” however comfortable that may feel.

In this new era we need to revise our vocabularies. We may have visions of tongues of fire descending at Pentecost when we talk of the indwelling spirit. Our audience may be thinking of a funny feeling that can be had for the price of an hour’s soak in an isolation tank.

Although it is conceivable to think of all humans as “spiritual” in the sense that we all, to some degree, reflect the image of God, the Bible is ruthlessly specific: It only ever applies the word to believers (“you who are spiritual”) or to matters of the one true God (“concerning spiritual things”). It never pampers merely well-intentioned people.

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In biblical terms, an unbeliever can never be described as “spiritual.” There is no room for that person who has no time for Christ but is nevertheless “intensely spiritual.” The unregenerate person is described in such blunt terms as “dead,” “separate from Christ,” “far away,” “without hope,” and “an object of wrath.”

Christian conversion is not a case of fanning that little spiritual spark in the human soul into a flame. It is a case of invading a dark and doomed soul with spiritual light from above.

Christian spirituality does not originate in a small area of the human brain. It is a transference of God’s personality into the human life, and it can only happen on the basis of repentance, faith, and discipleship. It cannot be coaxed, kick-started, or chanted into being. The original temptation is that we can become divine through a mechanical act.

Above all, we are not taught to discern Christian spirituality through subjective interpretation but through objective observation. The spiritual person displays love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control just as a fruit tree displays fruit.

The evidence that Saint Paul had passed from spiritual death to spiritual life was not that he heard a voice, saw a light, and temporarily lost his sight, but that love replaced his hatred, that patience replaced his testiness, and that meekness replaced his pride.

A magnetic helmet may stimulate the sound of angels’ voices, but it can never fit us for the kingdom of heaven.

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