Category Archives: Spirituality

Let’s Get Growing (3) – As Gospel Community

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in August 2021 (page 13), the third in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

Many years ago, Monica and I took our youth group for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. During the evening, I saw a some guys at another table, probably stoned, one ‘resting’ his face in the pizza pan. I smirked. “Look at him!” Monica, concerned for the youth, whispered quietly, “The only difference between you and him, is Jesus.”

Monica was right. My smug sense of self-satisfaction, my snide superiority, my willingness to gloat over the failure of another all pointed in one direction: I had completely misunderstood, or even worse forgotten, the grace of God.

There are two ways to misunderstand grace: one is the way of self-righteousness: I assumed I was ‘more righteous’ than someone else because my life ‘looked better.’ The other is to fail to realise the depths of God’s goodness and love, and so fail to receive—and live in—the reality of this grace.

The two errors often are connected. The first error forgets that all of us lives only by the forgiveness of sins, not our own performance. The second error doesn’t quite believe that God can really forgive our sin. We still feel shame in our hearts and perhaps believe that we are beyond forgiveness. This shame is compounded when we believe that if others knew who we truly were and what we have done, they would never love us. Therefore, we learn to hide what we think is the ‘real’ me; we work harder, wear masks, and practise image-management, trying to earn our belonging, and prove our worthiness. We hide, and we perform.

Both errors indicate graceless community. The self-righteous person parades their own virtue and judges others—as I did, creating an environment where it is not safe to be less than perfect. They cannot create gospel community because they don’t believe the gospel. Their so-called righteousness is their own work and not the work of God’s grace. They have not learned to receive God’s love so they cannot show it to others. Where self-righteousness reigns, only moralistic communities are formed, and these can never become communities of grace and healing. Without a living experience of God’s mercy and grace we are like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding from God—and from one another—in fear and shame. The possibility of gospel community is destroyed because self-righteousness destroys openness and trust.

Gospel communities are places of healing and growth because God’s grace has become real in the believers’ lives. We find a place where we are truly known, even in our sin, and yet deeply loved. We find a place where God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness is mediated to us through others. Convinced of this love, we take the risk of letting our masks slip. We begin to expose our struggles—our hearts—to another, and healing grace begins its work. Believing—experiencing!—God’s love and forgiveness through others, we learn to trust him more deeply—and to offer the same love to others. This is gospel community.

Picture Credit: Katie Workman

Let’s Get Growing (2) – in the Gospel

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in June 2021 (page 13), the second in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). To the Corinthians he said, “We are being transformed into the image of Christ!” (2 Cor. 3:18). Yet it seems that this ‘transformation’ comes ever so slowly, especially in my own life!

Can our lives really be changed?
Can our lives be really changed?

Significant growth in a Christian’s life comes through a range of experiences, some unique to each person, others necessary for any Christian who wants to grow. All Christian growth is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit and involves a deepening engagement with Scripture and our response in prayer and thanksgiving. Trials, suffering, service, and ministry are also common catalysts of growth.

At the root of all Christian growth, however, is a fresh encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the gospel (Mark 1:1), and includes the story of his birth and baptism, his preaching and teaching, his healings and miracles, his parables and promises, his compassion and companionship, and supremely, his suffering, death, and resurrection. By returning again and again to the Gospels—prayerfully, studiously, hopefully, and in conversation with others—we open our lives to a transforming encounter with the gospel.

These stories speak to us, challenge, call, and commission us. They summon us to repentance and faith, to believe impossible things—and to hope for their reality, to a vision of the kingdom of God, to a life of companionship with Jesus, and to a participation in his mission.

So let’s get growing by reading, meditating, and pondering their message. And let’s do this in conversation with others in our small groups and at church. And with those who have written commentaries, and with the great preachers and theologians of the church. Let’s deepen our engagement with the gospel so that its message might penetrate the deepest corners of our minds, spark our imagination with new visions of life, and guide our decision-making and will in those directions.

But I want to say more.

If engagement with the gospel is the root of transformation, at the heart of the gospel is a message of grace. At the heart of the gospel is the story of God who has loved us, and turned to us, come to us, and suffered for us and in our place. God stoops to gather us up, even in our sinfulness and alienation, even in our opposition to him.

But this is a disruptive grace by which God not only forgives our sins but also claims us as his own. By this grace, he calls to us out of the life we have independently constructed, and into a new life of friendship and obedience. To be touched by grace is to know that we are profoundly loved—and confronted. When Peter saw Jesus’ majestic power and authority, he also saw himself with fresh eyes and cried out, “depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That Jesus did not depart is pure grace. That he called Peter into a life of discipleship and service—this too is the same grace, and the two cannot be separated.

At the heart of the gospel—and therefore at the beginning of all Christian growth and transformation—is God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and of friendship with God (John 15:13). But only real sinners need apply! It seems that it is only as we face up honestly to our own willfulness, brokenness, and sinfulness that this grace captures our hearts with its transforming power. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Rom. 5:20)—and begins its healing work.

How might we experience this transforming and liberating grace? By turning again and again to Jesus, the Friend of Sinners (Matt. 11:19), coming clean with him, and with those we have wronged, and letting grace do its work. And by participating in communities of grace where the gospel of this grace is practiced and exemplified. We’ll talk about that next time.

Let’s Get Growing (1)

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in April 2021 (page 4), the first in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

One joy in life for Monica and me at the moment is watching our grandsons grow from little babies to little boys. Each so beautiful. So energetic. So curious. So full of life and learning. So unique.

Some things are predictable, other things not so much. How exciting when they take their first steps. When they speak their first words. Their first tooth. Their first lost tooth! The eldest of our five recently typed in and sent me his first text message. They’re growing up!

But there was also the first surgery. Little worries about speech or sleep or habits we don’t want to see develop. We long for our children to thrive, to grow, to be well-adjusted, healthy, and to become mature. We teach and train them, slowly and (mostly!) patiently. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. But then something wonderful and wholly unexpected emerges, and we can only express wonder and gratitude at the incredible gifts God has given.

No wonder the apostles Peter and Paul could speak of Christian development in terms of growth from infancy to maturity (e.g. 1 Peter 2:1-3; Ephesians 4:13-15). Spiritual growth can also be messy and unpredictable. It doesn’t happen according to a fixed timeline or schedule. It does not follow a nicely ordered path through a predictable series of steps or phases. Sometimes we progress in spits and spurts, sometimes two steps forward, one step back.

In the case of a child, it is possible to grow old but not really ‘grow up,’ not really become a mature person, responsible and respectful, accomplished and active. The same is true spiritually: it requires a strong intention to become mature, as well as some understanding of what spiritual maturity looks like, and how a Christian might take steps in that direction. And if someone does become mature it is not merely the result of human effort; surely a miracle of grace has also taken place! Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can someone become spiritually mature.

And yet the Bible consistently calls believers ‘to grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). It is clearly God’s intention that his children grow up!

Over the next few issues of the Advocate we will explore some of the patterns and dynamics of Christian growth and maturity. Some things are predictable, even in the midst of all the messy unpredictability. We can mature as hearers of God’s Word, mature in prayer or in service, in virtuous character, in Christian concern for all people, in knowledge or in hope. We hope you will join us as we learn together what it means to become mature in Christ.

Ignatius on the Spiritual Exercises

Last week I used introductory comments from Ignatius to define the Spiritual Exercises and their purpose. In 1536 Ignatius wrote a letter to a Father Miona in which he commends the Exercises. In fact, he implores his friend to take the Exercises and almost dares him not to enjoy and be benefited by them!

Let me repeat once and twice and as many more times as I am able: I implore you, out of a desire to serve God our Lord, to do what I have said to you up to now. May His Divine Majesty never ask me one day why I did not ask you as strongly as I possibly could! The Spiritual Exercises are all the best that I have been able to think out, experience and understand in this life, both for helping somebody to make the most of themselves, as also for being able to bring advantage, help and profit to many others. So, even if you don’t feel the need for the first, you will see that they are much more helpful than you might have imagined for the second.

See: Letter 6, ‘In praise of the Spiritual Exercises‘ in Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics, 138-139.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (ii)

Yesterday’s post asked what a spiritual exercise is. Today I continue unpacking Ignatius’ definitions to explore his intent for those undertaking the Exercises.

Ignatius gives the purpose of the Exercises: the overcoming of self and the (proper or ideal?) ordering of one’s life in relation to God. Expanded, this means that one undertakes the exercises to free oneself from ‘disordered attachments’ so that they may decide freely to dispose their life in accordance with what is good for the soul.

Ignatius presupposes that the self develops all manner of attachments which are detrimental to the spiritual life, although seemingly beneficial to the self. There appears to be a contrast between the ‘self’ and the ‘soul’ where the former identifies the person independent of their relation with God, while the latter speaks, as already noted, of the person in light of their relation with God. Ignatius presupposes that what is good for the self may not be good for the soul. What is good for the soul, however, will (ultimately) benefit the whole person. That Ignatius argues on Christian grounds is evident. He is presupposing a Christian understanding of life and after-life, of sin and salvation, etc., a worldview taken for granted in sixteenth century Christian Europe. What is good for the soul may in fact not appear to be beneficial for the self but makes sense in the light of eternity.

The word ‘attachments’ here is one of the “key terms in the psychological vocabulary of the Spiritual Exercises” referring to the feelings, judgements, and emotional structures and responses of the heart. Some attachments are positive while others are ‘disordered,’ perhaps opposed to reason and good judgement. These can operate in many ways and at many levels within the self, even to the point of altering perceptions of reality.[1] It likely is equivalent to what Jonathon Edwards and others referred to as the ‘affections.’ One’s attachments are disordered to the degree that they limit or hinder one from seeking and finding the divine will. Any commitment or judgement that constrains one’s response to God would, I imagine, be considered by Ignatius as ‘disordered,’ that is, as an attachment that is wrongly related to God and his will, and which functions therefore against the welfare of the whole person seen in the light of eternity.

Ignatius seeks an ordering of one’s life in freedom from disordered attachments. It should be noted that some attachments might preclude a decision to seek and find the divine will. The self is bound by its attachments in ways which turn or distract the person from relationship with God. It is also possible, however, that one might seek the divine will under the impulse of disordered attachments, by coercion for instance, or to find acceptance with one’s peers. Ignatius indicates that a true decision for God and his will can only be made in freedom.

Anyone undertaking the Spiritual Exercises or any form of spiritual discipline has already made a ‘decision for God and his will’ in some sense. Ignatius is obviously aiming at a deeper, whole-of-life, and transformational decision. He is aiming at the ‘overcoming of the self’ in its alienation from and resistance to God in favour of an existential deposition of the self into an entirely committed form of life—an existence wholly ordered toward God.

Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”

(Luke 9:23-24).

[1]  Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), xv.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (i)

In the opening paragraph of his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius provides a statement of purpose:

Spiritual exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment [paragraph 21].[1]

In the first of his Annotations—directions given to those giving and receiving the Exercises—he writes:

The term ‘spiritual exercises’ denotes every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, contemplating, praying vocally and mentally, and other spiritual activities, as will be said later. For just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul [paragraph 1].[2]

These two definitional statements provide an entrée into Ignatius’ intent with respect to the Spiritual Exercises. In today’s post we use these statements to understand what a spiritual exercise is. Tomorrow I will unpack the statements a little more to understand their purpose.

First, Ignatius tells us what a spiritual exercise is: any form of prayer undertaken for the specific purpose of the development, health, and strength of the ‘soul,’ analogous to physical exercises undertaken for the health and strength of the body. Although this is not a novel thought, it is useful. Paul the Apostle uses similar language in 1 Timothy 4:8 to affirm the superior value of spiritual endeavour: “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it hold promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

The familiar image of physical exercise applied to the spiritual life carries notions of regularity and consistency, focus on particular developmental activities, the nurture of health through practice, the pursuit of greater excellence, consistent performance, and other similar ideals. This exercise is undertaken for the good of the ‘soul,’ which is probably best understood here as a reference to the whole of one’s life and existence viewed from the perspective of one’s relationship to God. It is better to avoid the idea as a reference to some constituent aspect of the human person, some faculty or part of the person, distinct from their other ‘parts.’

These spiritual exercises primarily are forms of prayer, though other activities are also in view. One might think of such things later identified commonly as spiritual disciplines, including activities of service, or solitude or fasting or confession and so on. In this definition Ignatius identifies the examination of conscience, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. During his Exercises Ignatius will develop some of these at length.

[1] Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), 289.

[2] Ibid., 283.

Who Am I? (Bonhoeffer)

Peter Kline, ‘Bonhoeffer,’ acrylic on paper, Australia, 2018

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement 
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotism and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, 
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison,
 New Greatly Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1971), 347-348

Born into a well-to-do family in Berlin in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew his station in life, was accustomed to his liberty, and generally had the resources available to secure it. Imprisoned in Tegel, and deprived of every normal comfort, Bonhoeffer struggles now with what is left once the various markers that had anchored his identity have been stripped away.

In his essay on Bonhoeffer and the question of Christian identity, Jens Zimmermann applies Paul Ricoeur’s theory of identity to Bonhoeffer (in Houston & Zimmermann (eds), Sources of the Christian Self: A Cultural History of Christian Identity, 628-647). Idem identity refers to that ‘sameness’ of the self that endures through time, the sense of permanence in terms of characteristics and habits that declare what kind of person we are. Ipse identity refers to one’s personal agency, our self-constancy in the face of challenge when idem identity falters or fails. The generality of ‘what’ becomes more specifically and personally, ‘who.’ Typically, the kind of person we are, and who we understand ourselves to be, find a sense of coherence in a narrative that integrates events and character centred on a personal self we can identify. Yet what happens if one loses control of the narrative, if the crucible of life exerts such pressure that our narrative is forcibly changed or reconfigured in ways contrary to our subjectivity? What, then? Zimmermann suggests that this is what we find in Bonhoeffer’s Who am I?

The three opening stanzas portray Bonhoeffer as he is perceived by others, with a bearing that reflects the kind of person he has become in accordance with the formation which occurred in his family life, education, and other life developments and opportunities. Like a squire coming from his country home, like one accustomed to command and to win. His bearing is that of formative habituation, and in a very real sense, this is who he is.

Or is it? He is not in command nor at liberty—at least, not as he was used to. Is he really that which others say of him? Is ascribed identity his real identity? Is he merely what others see in him? Perhaps it is actually him after all? It is, after all, his action, long practised and deeply ingrained. These are habits of life, relationship, being, and carriage that he has chosen and lived; it is not something merely ascribed as though he had no essential relation to what others now think of him. And yet, his external bearing does not reflect his internal turmoil.

Is his identity really that which he knows of himself—something vastly different from his public persona? The language of the longer central stanza is the haunted voice of his inner unrest, his weakness and powerlessness, his loss of liberty and desperate yearning for the smallest kindness or grace of life.

And so, who am I?—This man as seen by others, or this whom I feel myself to be? Who am I before others—a hypocrite? Before myself—contemptible? Am I both these men? Neither? Who am I? What is my identity?

In the end it is not a question Bonhoeffer can answer, and in the end, he turns from it and lets it go. In the end it is neither a matter of how he appears before others or before himself. Both the approving court of external opinion and the harsh court of internal censure are set to one side. Such opinions, questions and determinations can only mock; they are not a path toward reality or peace. One’s identity rests not in others’ opinions or in one’s own reflections, but in a source external to ourselves. Ricoeur noticed this.

In the final analysis, the ipse or true selfhood that persists when all other aspects of identity fall away consists in the address from beyond itself by another to which the self responds, ‘here am I’ (Zimmermann, 634).

Zimmermann notes that Ricoeur would not identify the source of this address which calls to and grounds the ‘I’—philosophy forbids such identification. This Other could be God, or it could be another person, or perhaps one’s own very self, or perhaps an empty space. Bonhoeffer as a Christian, however, has no such hesitation:

Whoever I am, thou knowest O God, I am thine.

Who he is, whether before others or himself, is a question he cannot answer. But he knows, and he knows that God knows—which is the truly important thing—that he is God’s. His identity and being lie not in himself but in God. And in this he can rest.

Spiritual Conversation

We had our final Zoom Church service this morning; well, for now at least. From next Sunday our church will be meeting in person again, gathering for worship, fellowship, and teaching, and it seems that most of us are pretty keen to be back together again.

Our church is a smaller congregation with a mostly older demographic. The leadership did not even really consider the possibility of ‘live-streaming’ or pre-recording a service for distribution on the internet.

I’m glad. We would not have had the technical capability to do so, and I am sure the product would have been very poor. Instead they opted for a live Zoom Church model with two or so YouTube  worship clips, one to start and one at communion. There was pastoral time, a shortened message, and general conversation at the end that most times included some Q&A around the topic of the message. They worked hard to make sure that our most senior members had devices, could get logged on, could make contact during lockdown via Facebook or email, and could join church services on Zoom. We had folk in their nineties who had never used a computer before joining in like old pros!

I’ve enjoyed Zoom Church. It’s been easy for me since I am not one of the organisers! Before Zoom I was at church early every week to help set up and participate in the worship ministry. For the last two months or more I have Zoomed in at 9:28am or so, wearing pretty casual around-the-house kind of clothes, participated in the service, and at the end, I was already home! It’s been a pretty-relaxed couple of months.

This relaxed approach to church can be deceptive, however. “How can I offer to the Lord that which costs me nothing?” asked David in Chronicles. It is possible that Zoom Church could reinforce the sense of worship and fellowship as optional aspects of Christian life. It could also reinforce a passive, individualist, or consumerist approach to Christian life and worship, although Zoom Church could be better in this respect than live-streaming. At least we can speak to and interact with one another in real time.

Actually this was both a blessing and a difficulty. I found the conversation time at the end of the service could be difficult with one person only at a time being able to talk. Typically our church gathers for ‘foyer time’ – coffee and cake and all kinds of goodies, as well as conversations that can linger on for longer than the service itself. Multiple conversations and prayers happen in this time, and frankly, I prefer the foyer to Zoom.

In Zoom Church we can see faces and hear voices which is great. But it is not the same as the embodied presence of one another when we are all together. Christianity is an embodied religion – think incarnation; think resurrection; think the church as the Body of Christ – and in this respect Zoom is less than adequate.

And embodied gathering is local, public, and visible in a way that Zoom Church is not, and this, too, is part of what it means to be the people of God in the world. The digital environment is a representation that does not yet mediate reality; I doubt it ever will. Reality is messier and more demanding.

But a blessing of Zoom Church has been a new experience and depth of spiritual conversation. At the end of the service many in the congregation have stayed online and we have opened discussions around the content of the message and theme preached. And sometimes, this has been very rich indeed. It was this morning, as different members shared insights and experiences of prayer, faith, brokenness, and hope. I came away from the service grateful for the privilege of having been there, enriched by the depth of conversation, in awe of the way in which God was teaching and forming us through the priesthood of all believers.

As we return to gathered services next week, the leadership of the church are planning to gather differently. We are not going back to ‘business as usual,’ but are endeavouring to retain some of the advances we have made in Zoom Church. Foremost for me, is the hope that we can retain and grow in this practice of spiritual conversation.

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards (2)

In my earlier post on Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards I endeavoured to set forth sufficiently and sympathetically, the central tenets of his spiritual vision. It is a vision of ageing gracefully by finding a way—being led—to personal and spiritual maturity. The measures of this maturity are indicators such as being freed from the narrowness of self-serving ego needs, and of dualistic and exclusivist patterns of thought. The mature person has learnt to accept reality, and others, as they are, and have become more self-critical than critical of others. They have learnt that the secret of internal freedom and happiness is to ‘receive and return the loving gaze of God every day’ (159).

The book sets forth a range of perceptive insights and warnings that we do well to reflect upon. For example, Rohr insists that change and growth, movement and direction are integral aspects of a mature spirituality. Similarly, he warns that sin repressed or denied will surely break-out elsewhere. He wisely admonishes his readers toward practices of solitude and friendship, and reminds us that there is a connection between personal and spiritual maturity, and that we cannot ignore the one in the pursuit of the other. He speaks of the place of Jesus and of the church in his spiritual vision: ‘I quote Jesus because I still consider him to be the spiritual authority of the Western world, whether we follow him or not. . . . Jesus for me always clinches the deal, and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place’ (81).[1] The church he regards as ‘both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home’ (80). The church functions like a cauldron:

A crucible as you know, is a vessel that holds molten metal in one place long enough to be purified and clarified. Church membership requirements, church doctrine, and church morality force almost all issues to an inner boiling point, where you are forced to face important issues at a much deeper level to survive as a Catholic or a Christian, or even as a human. I think this is probably true of any religious community, if it is doing its job. Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable (74).

At the heart of his spiritual vision lies what he calls an ‘incarnational mysticism,’ a two-sided spirituality deeply grounded and engaged in the world and in ‘mystical union’ with God (75-78). It is incarnational as it is open to, inclusive of, and embracing the world in all its diversity, suffering, and beauty; mystical in its desire for immediacy, to abide in, as we have already noted, the loving gaze of God.

Despite the various strengths and claims of the book, I find I remain ambivalent toward this vision. Behind every exposition of spirituality lies a theological or philosophical vision of God and reality that in turn shapes the distinguishing features of the spirituality being proposed. As I understand it, Rohr’s theological vision is the product of a pluralist understanding of divine operations and revelation, and of human encounter with and participation in the divine. The spiritual quest is a universal impulse and Christianity is just one expression among many religious and non-religious quests for the truth. It is one expression of the primary spiritual insights which are found also in the writings of other religious leaders, poets, myth-makers, mystics, psychologists, and so on.

The portrayal of God in this book is remarkably thin and one-sided:

There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend there is. The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone. God and Jesus’ only job description is one of constant renewals of bad deals. The tragic sense of life is ironically not tragic at all, at least in the Big Picture. . . . Faith is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it—even before we change it (62-63).

The tactic applied here is not uncommon; find and emphasise the diversity of witness in the biblical documents and then use the fact of this diversity to discredit the reliability of the whole. This is lazy theology, though very convenient, for then one can introduce one’s own ‘reading’ as the explanation, or the meaning, or the key. In this case the knowledge we might have of God is stripped back almost to an empty abstraction. Is the gospel as vague and as bland as presented here—somehow God is with us and we are not alone? Is this really the extent of that for which we might hope? Is it the case that this ‘god’ exists merely to clean up our mess—and that we are those who will change the real? Somewhat ironically, just two pages earlier Rohr had complained that ‘organised religion has not been known for its inclusiveness or for being very comfortable with diversity’ (60). Although social diversity is an imperative, diversity in Scripture renders it questionable.

Rohr’s reading of Scripture and of the gospel thus appears somewhat reductionist, as he selects and emphasises only some aspects of the biblical-gospel narrative at the expense of other elements. His reading of the atonement, for example, is exemplarist and Girardian, and discounts the testimony and imagery of Paul, Peter, John, and Hebrews with respect to Jesus’ saving death on the cross (68-69). He interprets God’s forgiveness as a sign that ‘God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us’ (56-57). It seems to me, however, that this is precisely the opposite of what the New Testament declares, that the very act of forgiveness, together with its necessity, presupposes that the ‘rules’ matter a great deal. In this respect Rohr’s position not only diminishes the New Testament portrayal of the cross of Jesus, but also treats the idea of sin—which surely includes the inhumanity and abuse of some towards others—as something negligible or easily dismissed. The Bible, on the other hand, approaches all kinds of sin with great seriousness.

Rohr argues for a spirituality based in ‘Big Picture incarnational mysticism.’ The Big Picture is a mechanism for side-stepping the particularities and details of a biblical vision in favour of a few generic universal principles. The image of the incarnation is employed with a dual purpose. On the one hand it affirms a spirituality of service amid the harsh realities of life in the world—something I also affirm. On the other hand, however, Rohr also uses it to affirm Western cultural priorities as though these are a religious obligation. This is cultural Christianity, something he otherwise rejects when it differs from his own cultural preference. Mystic desire or experience grounds the spirituality as a religious phenomenon without tying the adherent to any particular portrayal of God beyond the notion of God as absolute and unconditional love.

In the end Rohr’s spirituality appears as related variety of the ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ that Christian Smith argued has become a major religious faith in North America. To me, this is not so much an exposition of Christian spirituality (and certainly not a biblical spirituality), as an exposition of a generic ‘spirituality’ suited perhaps for those who might claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ This is a spirituality amenable for those who consider themselves ‘progressive’ whether religiously inclined or not. Richard Rohr himself is, of course, religious—he has been a Roman Catholic priest for most of his life, and finds his ‘most consoling home’ in the church. But he also admits that this is not a necessity per se. Other religious communities could just as easily assist and guide a person on their spiritual journey. I suspect, however, that some of his followers will not have the same degree of attachment to the church that he has, and may be led by this account of spirituality away from the God and the Jesus portrayed in Scripture, and into a spirituality and form of life of their own devising. Christians, whether Roman Catholics, Protestants, or disaffected evangelicals can do better much than this.

[1] It would be of interest, however, to assess Rohr’s understanding of Jesus in light of his more recent The Universal Christ (2019) in which he aims, according to one reviewer, to distinguish between Jesus and ‘Christ,’ with Jesus understood as limited, particular, and earthbound, while ‘Christ’ is unlimited, universal, and cosmic. I suspect that this move would allow him to displace the particularity of what Jesus actually says and does as recorded in the gospels, with an idiosyncratic content predicated upon his vision the universal Christ.

A Good-Friday Prayer

O Lord, our God:
We have gathered this day in order to consider how You carried out
Your good and strong will for the world and for us all by letting our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your dear Son, become captive that we might become free,
by letting Him be judged guilty that we might be innocent,
by letting Him suffer that we might have joy,
by giving Him up to death so that we might live eternally.

Of ourselves we can only go astray.
And we have not deserved such deliverance, not one of us.
But in the inconceivable greatness of Your mercy
You have shared our sin and our misery in order to do such great things for us.
How else should we thank You except by comprehending,
laying hold on this great deed, and letting it hold sway?
Yet how can that happen unless the same living Saviour,
who for us suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried but now is risen,
come Himself into our midst, speak to our hearts and consciences,
open us to Your love, lead us on to entrust ourselves entirely to it,
and to live from this love and from it alone.
In all humility but also in all confidence,
we beseech You to grant this through the power of Your Holy Spirit.
Amen.

(Karl Barth, Selected Prayers, 34, adjusted)