The Divine Embrace 2: heresy vs. spirituality

Webber, as I mentioned in part 1 of this series, defines spirituality as “a lived theology.” That is, Biblical spirituality is based on the core teachings of the Church, as expressed in the earliest creeds. The early heresies, such as Gnosticism and Arianism not only challenged theological ideas, but challenged those areas that directly impacted how we are to live. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds specifically affirmed the Incarnation, the “God joined with man” concept that is essential to any understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Early Church theology, as does Orthodox theology today (and a similar concept in Lutheranism) is that of Theosis, or man becoming God (essentially, “Christ-like,” rather than equal to God). It is the principal of God becoming man that makes it possible for man to become joined to God.

Furthermore, this spirituality is solely at God’s initiative. The Pelagian heresy taught that man could achieve holiness through his own will. It was Augustine who argued that “a man’s free choice avails only to lead him to sin.” Pelagianism was rejected at the Council of Carthage in AD 407, which agreed that “our spirituality is not accomplished by our initiative but by God, who became incarnate…” It is only Jesus who can unite us to God.

Early Christian spirituality, says Webber, was a theological spirituality; that is, the theology was not meant to be merely believed, it was meant to be lived. The concept of the Trinity, for example, is essentially relational or communal; therefore, there can be no such thing as an individualistic spirituality. He quotes Philip Sheldrake as saying,

The incarnation is more than a defense of the reality … of the human nature of Jesus Christ. It is a governing principle of Christian living; of God’s way of relating to creation and our way of response.

Spirituality, then, is participating in the purposes of God in history, at the initiative of God.

Webber goes on in Chapter 2 to explain how Platonic Dualism began to distort the original concept of spirituality. Plato, as we know, saw the material world as inferior to the Ideal world, separating the physical from the spiritual. This way of thinking began to creep into the Church, causing a shift in contemplation from God as subject, to God as object. God was no longer the origin of our spirituality, the One who reached out to us, but spirituality became our way of reaching out to God. Spirituality shifted from being a gift of God’s grace to a striving after grace. That which was physical and normal to life became seen as evil, and only the spiritual was seen as good.

A second crucial shift in contemplation came in the late Medieval period, with the rise of mysticism. Where earlier contemplation was focused on the purposes of God (creating, incarnation and re-creating) of which we were the beneficiaries, now contemplation was focused on man’s experience, as he tried to grab hold of God. It was a shift of focus from God’s work toward us, to our work toward God. Furthermore, this shift caused a split between theology and spirituality, which now became a “spiritual discipline.” In man’s seeking after God, his relationship with God then started to take on a romantic aspect.

It is amazing for me to read Webber’s account and see these influences still at work in – and sometimes controlling – the church today. What really grabbed me was this comment by Webber:

… the language of spirituality moved from the “indescribable wonder of God” to the “wonderfully indescribable experience of God.” …spirituality expressed a movement away from “God’s story,” to “my story.” …

Consequently, participation in God shifted from life-affirming spirituality to a life-denying spirituality.

Webber’s correct, here, I believe. Of course, if you’ve read through this blog over the last couple of years, you’ll see that I’ve been on a similar track. But, Webber actually knows what he’s talking about, and he says things so much better than I can.

I have not done this chapter justice at all, but merely tried to pick out a few of the highlights, so you’ll be encouraged to buy the book, or at least begin to think about these things. Next time, we’ll move into Chapter 3, dealing with the Reformation to 1900. After than, he deals with Modernism in Chapter 4, and post-Modernism in Chapter 5. Then, he gets us back to the Good News. I can hardly wait.

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