Spirituality as a bridge into culture

0021044_adLast weekend we had Brian Draper join us for the morning services and a lunchtime meeting on ‘everyday spirituality’. Brian used to work for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, but is now a freelance writer and speaker, and has for some years been a contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

I found Brian’s approach to spirituality very engaging and practically helpful. Rather than start with spirituality as something ‘religious’, and exploring Scripture, his approach was to begin with what I would call enlightened common sense. He introduced us to some of the ideas of Shawn Achor and his notion of ‘positive psychology’ (you can watch his TED talk here or buy his book) which relates how our brain functions to the ways in which we are most creative and productive. I found this a helpful reflection on my own experience in thinking and writing.

He then went on to look at the question of our energy, and the relation of spirituality to how we function in life. Here he made use of the work of Tony Schwarz and his organisation The Energy Project. This notes how we often try and work past our natural energy levels (he believes we can only focus on something for 90 minutes before needing a break), and instead of renewing our energy, we continue to use up energy in unproductive rather than unproductive ways. In terms of the table below, we are at our best in the top right quadrant. But when we are tired, instead of moving into the bottom right and renewing our energy, we move across into the top left, and simply push ourselves harder by using up energy without achieving much. Exhausted, we often then slump into the bottom left, and try and make up for our tiredness in unhealthy ways, like over-eating, or watching tv, or any number of other unhealthy habits.


Negative energy output

We use up energy but in unproductive or frustrating ways

PerformancePositive energy output

We give out energy, but in a way which is positive and productive

Burn out

Negative energy input

We try and replenish our energy in ways that are unhealthy and destructive

RenewalPositive energy input

We regain our energy in ways that are healthy and positive

What was really interesting is what Brian then did with these ‘secular’ insights: he related them to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom. A key passage was Matt 11.28–30 in Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase The Message:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

41cj2JYXBsLThere is a similar movement in Brian’s latest book What Matter’s Most? It comprises a challenging set of reflections which begin with illustrations or insights from life—often from other people’s experience—and then makes connections with our ‘inner’ life. But the connections are not always explicitly from Scripture, and Brian is consciously wanting to avoid predictable, ‘religious’ or cliched formulations. The result is challenging, engaging and intensely practical, offering reflections which enable you to see your own walk with God with fresh eyes. I am looking forward to spending more time with the book.

What are the issues in engaging with spirituality in this kind of way? The first thing to note is that it is very powerful. I found the two main things that Brian explored with us very helpful in making sense of my own experience, and giving me a framework for continuing to think about my patterns of working and how they relate to my own spiritual life. It was clear from conversations with others afterwards that others had found the insights similarly helpful. Part of that, I think, springs from the way Brian talks about everyday experience. But part of it is also due to the ideas being well rooted in research about how we think and live. There is a sense in which the ideas not only connect with our experience, but have practical credibility, and that makes us take the insights more seriously.

The second thing I found intriguing was the connection with aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Inasmuch as these insights connected with ‘enlightened common sense’ in the world around us, they form part of what we might call the ‘wisdom’ tradition in Scripture. There are parts of the Old Testament where the differences between its teaching and the world around it (in the ancient near east) are very small. We can find philosophical thinking in other texts which bear striking resemblance to the sayings in Proverbs, for example. This is the point where the threshold between Scripture and the world around it, between (if you like) God’s special revelation to his people and God’s general revelation to the whole of humanity, is at its lowest point. It is the place of easiest connection between God’s people and the world around.

And much of Jesus’ teaching, particularly in Matthew’s gospel in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) is of the ‘wisdom’ kind. He draws on nature for his illustrations; he motivates his listeners through enlightened common sense; he engages them by starting with their experience. This is echoed in some other NT writings, most noticeably the circular letter of James. So this looks like a biblical and effective way of reflecting on spirituality which also engages with the world, and potentially finds common cause with people who might not regard themselves as ‘religious’.

And that left me with a question. If we can find ‘salvation’ (in the sense of fulfilment, happiness, and a life well lived) through this kind of ‘enlightened common sense’, why do we then need Jesus? As I was listening to Brian, I couldn’t help but think to myself that Jesus didn’t say ‘Think carefully about life, come to your senses, and all will be well’, he said ‘Come, leave everything, and follow me.’ The gospel isn’t about self help; it is about proclaiming that God has done for us in Jesus something that we could not do for ourselves. It was interesting that the responses that Brian has received from his teaching on spirituality by and large have not involved people saying ‘I read my Bible much more now’, but ‘I have taken up art, or playing the piano, or something else creative.’

This isn’t really anything other than the old conflict between ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ spiritualities. Once-born spirituality looks for the continued between the created and the redeemed; the goal of faith is to discover our true selves as God made us. Twice-born spirituality looks for the discontinuity between the created and the redeemed; this is how we were before we met Christ, but this is now who we have become. Alongside the ‘wisdom’ tradition in Jesus’ teaching sits the apocalyptic: ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15).

Perhaps the connection is to be found in that verse from Matt 11. Jesus says we need to discover the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’—but he says that we need to come to him to discover them. Perhaps there are lots of good teachers in the world, and lots of good teachings; the problem is that we don’t have it within ourselves to follow them without something else happening. In correspondence, Brian reminded me of the modern-day parable he quoted by Cynthia Bourgeault:

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And couched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, “We . . . are . . . that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground . . . and cracking open the shell.” “Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

So I will continue to enjoy Brian’s insights, from his books and his broadcasts, and make the most of insights from the world around. And I will continue to wrestle with the invitation to radical change and distinctiveness from the world as well.

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