I've just entered a new chapter in my life. I have started teaching 'spirituality' in our BAppTheol curriculum at Carey Baptist College. It's going to take me a few years to feel confident with the material - but, hey, you gotta start somewhere!
On the first day we did an exercise where students put 30 different words/phrases on the whiteboard which immediately come to mind when the word 'spirituality' is uttered. 20 years ago there would be a few empty spaces as we didn't tend to use the word. And 10 years ago you could have guaranteed that two little words would have made it onto the whiteboard: "new" and "age"! But those two words were nowhere to be found. I've spent the week since trying to decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Has 'spirituality' got so good that it has purged itself of harmful influences? Or has 'spirituality' got so bad that we just don't notice harmful influences anymore?
I am not sure! I guess I will find out. However I think we face this dilemma as followers of Jesus because of the image about spirituality which prevails among us today. Richard Foster is one person who has popularised it. It is the image of streams. Spirituality is like a river in which many streams - or traditions - mix and mingle and flow together.
There are any number of these streams. In one place Foster identifies six: the Holiness stream (a focus on being pure); the Contemplative stream (a focus on prayer and meditation); the Charismatic stream (a focus on the Spirit and spiritual gifts); the Incarnational stream (a focus on keeping sacred and secular together as we live in the world); the Social Justice stream (a focus on helping those less fortunate than us); and the Evangelical stream (a focus on the scriptures and sharing the gospel). A bit brief ... but that is the basic idea!
Now I confess that I find this image of the streams of spirituality to be far from convincing - both in theory and in practice.
In practice Foster's stated (and laudable!) intention to bring balance into spirituality doesn't easily happen. The tendency is for spiritually-minded Christians to hop into their kayak and find their way into the stream they prefer. "Sure - over there you can be into the Charismatic with a sprinkling of the Incarnational - but as for me I prefer the Social Justice with a hint of the Contemplative." I fear that Foster's desire for balance gets swamped by the tsunami of consumer choice. Balance too easily becomes preference. And preference always finds it hard to choose what we don't like ... and what we don't like is probably exactly what we most need.
In theory I remain unconvinced about the 'Evangelical' (not really the right word!) stream being just one of the streams in the river. This is the one which nurtures a focus on the scriptures and sharing the gospel. Is this just another stream? Really?! Surely this one is more than just a stream in the river? Isn't it more like the banks for the river? It is the one which determines the course of the river. It reaches right across the river providing the channel to include things from every stream. And it discerns what is a bit toxic and is able to divert it out of the river altogether.
My suspicion is that "new" and "age" should still be on that whiteboard - as well as a number of other words like gnosticism and mysticism. We need a clearer discernment with these words. However my suspicion is that because the Word of God can tend to be seen as just another stream in the river rather than the banks for that river of spirituality, we lose the ability to use the Word to carry out a more objective and critical discernment of what is happening. My difficulty is not so much with Foster but with those who apply Foster's image in a way he probably didn't intend. And my suspicion is that because of this there could well be much in so-called 'Christian' spirituality that isn't really 'Christian' at all. But I guess that is still up ahead of me.