Conversations with friendly folk in coffee shops, or pubs, surface an interesting response when many of these find out that I have had a long career as a pastor and a Christian teacher and author. The response (you’ve heard it, too) goes something like: “O, I’m not into organized religion, or church, but I am very spiritual.”

That intrigues me. Such persons usually don’t want to get too close to a confrontation with the notion of a personal God, or with the Jesus of my own pilgrimage. Many have been too badly burned by some expression of the church, and by some offensive ‘Christian’ persons. I can understand that. But the acknowledgement that they are ‘spiritual’ has some roots down there somewhere, and I would like to know how to help them track down those roots and give them some substance.

New Testament scholar, Tom Wright (in his book: Simply Christian) says that most folk have a desire for spirituality (along with relationships, justice, and a delight in beauty). A psychiatrist friend once shared with me that all folk experience one or more of three anxieties: anxiety of meaning (what does my life mean?), the anxiety over acceptance (does anyone care that I’m here or want to know me really?), and the anxiety over death (is there anything beyond this life?).

My desire, in response to the confession of being spiritual, would be to say: “Oh? Can you fill me in on that? Give spirituality some definition so that I understand what you mean?” Such a request might well provoke a retreat into changing the subject. But I occasionally respond that I would love to hear them out on what such a self-definition implies. I can also counter that I am also spiritual, but that my spirituality is defined by my encounter with Jesus … but I have to be cautious and not hasten to that affirmation too quickly.

Our culture has all kinds of ways of hiding from this sense of spirituality. It creates “designer religions” or “designer gods” that suit its own lifestyle. Or it escapes into social media, on into the false gospels of consumerism and materialism, like: go buy something and you will be more fulfilled! Many seldom let it get quiet enough to reflect on what their desire for spirituality means.

But if we persons are God’s creation, and created by and for him, then there is obviously going to be “an aching void” when God is displaced. I come back again and again to the wisdom of the Westminster Assembly church leaders in giving answer to the question: “What is the chief end (purpose) of man?” And the answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to fully enjoy him forever.” That’s the root of this inarticulate quest for spirituality that I meet regularly along the way.

It’s been said eloquently by so many over the ages. Jesus confessed that he was the way and the truth and the life.” Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Pascal said that there is a “god-shaped vacuum in every heart.” Paul told the Mars Hill folk that the god they worshiped in ignorance he declared to them.” Or, maybe the old spiritual says it best: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.”

I think next time someone offers to me that they are a ‘spiritual’ person, I’ll simply respond: “Tell me about it!” and see what happens.

Have you discovered something on this that I need to know about?


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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