Last week I was travelling with an evangelical clergy colleague to an event, and mentioned that I was writing something on evangelical spirituality. ‘That’s a bit of an oxymoron!’ came the immediate response, followed by laughter. Some years ago Michael Green, former Principal of St John’s College and Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford, had a similar conversation. His response was simply ‘That will be short!’ There is a suspicion within the church that evangelicals don’t take spirituality seriously, and that for serious reflection on the spiritual life, you need to reach for other traditions. Derek Tidball expresses this perception well in his book Who Are the Evangelicals?:
Many would…question whether evangelicals have much to offer by way of spirituality. Evangelicalism appears to be such an activist faith that the essential characteristics of spirituality can too easily appear to be squeezed out.
Another perspective is offered by Gerard Hegarty:
Roman Catholic usage has come to associate ‘spirituality’ with the ‘inner life,’ or the ‘interior life,’ thus making the connection with the mystical tradition…It is not difficult to see how this sits ill at ease with the evangelical emphasis upon practical devotion having a direct influence on character and ‘good works.’
And yet, if evangelical leaders lose their vital connection with the life of God, the outward focus of evangelical activity becomes a hollow shell and loses the essential touch of grace.
Just over 20 years ago, Alister McGrath gave the St Antholin lecture on ‘Evangelical Spirituality: past glories, present hopes and future possibilities.’ He begins by recognising those evangelicals who have seen the importance of spirituality within the evangelical tradition, and quotes with approval a lecture by Jim Packer.
We cannot function well as counsellors, spiritual directors, and guides to birth, growth and maturity in Christ, unless we are clear as to what constitutes spiritual well-being as opposed to spiritual lassitude or exhaustion, and to stunted and deformed spiritual development. It appears that the study of spirituality is just as necessary for us to hope to minister in the gospel as is the study of physiology for the medical trainee. It is something we really cannot manage without.
But McGrath goes on to lament how little notice has been taken of Packer’s encouragement.
My concern is that evangelicals have not paid anything like the necessary attention to this major theme of Christian life and thought. As a result, evangelicalism has become impoverished, where it ought to be rich; it has depended on the insights of others, where it ought to be contributing to the life of the church. I wish to suggest that the time has come to throw off the cult of dependency, and move towards the development and rediscovery of spiritualities which will complement and nourish the great evangelical emphases upon the sufficiency of scripture, the centrality of the death of Christ, the need for personal conversion, and the evangelistic imperative. Evangelism gets us started in the Christian life; but spirituality keeps us going, and refreshes us along the way.
McGrath has noticed how often evangelical ordinands at Wycliffe Hall, where he was Principal, came with clear evangelical convictions, but as they were looking for patterns of life and discipleship which would sustain them, felt the need to move out of the evangelical tradition and step into more ‘catholic’ habits. He goes on to ask the challenging question: having won people for the gospel, can evangelicalism keep them?
That perceived lack of a credible, coherent and distinctive spirituality is one of the greatest weaknesses facing evangelicalism today.
(It is worth noting here the importance of the word ‘perceived’.) I wrote to Alister to ask whether he thought, more than 20 years later, the situation was any better.
There have been some good things – I think of Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard, both of whom worked within an evangelical context, and found ways of developing approaches which would be well received within the evangelical community. Going further back, we had Jim Packer, whose Knowing God is still a classic. I know how many people have found these approaches helpful.
But I’m not sure that things are that improved here in the UK. There is still suspicion of “spirituality” as a concept within evangelical circles – for example, I have often heard it said that “spirituality is not a biblical term”. That’s true, of course, but then neither is “theology”. My own feeling is that there is still some way to go.
Part of the problem is that UK evangelicalism tends (though, happily, just “tends”) to be suspicious of anything that engages the imagination (as that suggests it is fictional) or the feelings (as that suggests it is “emotionalism”, which is a definite no-go area for male evangelicals raised in a certain tradition).
I personally value Jim Packer a lot. But I find that my own reading in spirituality tends to draw on non-evangelical sources, not because I am disinclined to read evangelicals on this topic, but because there aren’t that many evangelicals writing sensibly and pastorally in the field. They seem to assume that reading the Bible is unproblematic, and is in itself an adequate approach to spirituality. In fact, there aren’t that many evangelicals writing in the field – end of discussion. I think one of the issues here is that evangelicalism still hankers after the security of a bygone modernism, when the goal was propositional truth which nourished the mind, and hence – like most Enlightenment writers – suppressed the imagination and emotions. But things have moved on, and younger evangelicals are more alert to these matters, probably because they no longer inhabit a modernist mindset, and hence can read the Bible without having to filter it through this distorting and compromising mindet.
McGrath here cites some negative reasons why evangelicals have been less interested in spirituality than other traditions. But in his earlier lecture he mentions some more positive reasons.
They arise from a historical perspective. According to the historian Owen Chadwick, the whole notion of ‘spirituality’ as a discrete discipline originates with the French spiritual writings of the seventeenth century. In reaction to a concern with the material, these writers wanted to focus on the inner life of the soul. But this was predicated on a fundamental distinction between the material and the physical, between the soul and the body, and between the inner life of spiritual reality and the outer life of the everyday. Very often this has meant that spirituality has involved a withdrawal from the world. This kind of division and separation is one that evangelicals have rightly felt very uncomfortable with. And evangelical commitment to engage with the world by means of practical action has made the notion of withdrawal problematic.
I think there is another, perhaps even larger, reason underlying evangelical ambivalence about the practices of spirituality in other traditions. It is the focus on grace, of God’s initiative in offering unmerited forgiveness. The biblical text underlying this concern (often implicitly) is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (Luke 18.10–14)
The Pharisee here is drawing attention to his own spiritual disciplines—disciplines which of course Jesus commends. But the tax collector has his focus elsewhere—on the unmerited grace of God. This actual leads to a certain passivity in relation to spiritual disciplines, and a lack of self-consciousness. As the Pharisee illustrates, to spend too much time focussing on what I do is to miss the point: evangelicals constantly want to focus instead on what God has done. This might weaken self-awareness and reflection on actual spiritual practices. But it has the virtue of keeping the main thing the main thing. Is this enough?
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?