Why Spiritual Formation Is Political

Why Spiritual Formation Is Political July 22, 2019

I’ve heard several very good spiritual conversations end in the exact same way. With the claim that things got too “political.”

Someone moves the discussion from philosophy to pragmatics. In the hopes of talking about the “So what?” of God, a thought is offered that sound partisan. Conversations about love, economics, race, immigration, it doesn’t matter.

If it sounds like politics there are some who respond with this phrase: “This was a good conversation until you made it political.”

My response to this sort of criticism is very simple. Everything is political. 

Even the journey of spiritual formation is in essence a political journey. We could say that the matters of soul and spirit are too clean, too transcendent to be tied to a darkness such as American politics. I say “American politics” because it is the only politics I know well and the politics that most affects my life today.

And yet, even the journey of becoming like Jesus happens in a place. At a time. With a people. Those three aspects of human life are just as “spiritual” as any practices, philosophies, or mystical experiences of the divine. So why is spiritual formation – and Christianity as a whole, to be honest – a political journey?

The best place to start in this discussion is to recover the etymology of the word “politics.” One of the meanings connected to the Greek word politikos is “of, for, or related to citizens.” Throughout history the word “political” covered anything related to the administration and governing of cities.

If I can be so bold, the very idea of politics is rooted in the realities of people. 

I believe we’ve forgotten that. We have lost the people in the polity or the governance of people. I believe there’s a parallel between losing people in the politics and losing wisdom in favor of legalism. Without people, there would be no politics. In turn, without people there would be no spiritual formation.

So, wherever there are people there will be politics.

I don’t believe this is controversial news, is it? We know this. I believe the next thought is what we struggle with. The capstone of Jesus’ teaching is this:

“…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus indicates that everything God has in mind for people (“law and the prophets” in v. 40) hinges on this central commandment. The commandment to love.

What I know is that right now someone reading this is saying either “Oh great, another LOVE conversation. Must be a liberal” or “Yeah but what about the TRUTH?”

Both of those responses highlight why I feel this post is so important. The most important guidance, the most beautiful piece of wisdom that Jesus offers us is love. Love is what forms us, guides us, and engages us in the life that God has in mind for everyone.

Yet we have found a way to make God-rooted love cheap, unnecessary, weak, or even insufficient.

But I believe that everything about us forms us. Even our response to Jesus’ teaching and our quickness to assume partisan allegiance by how we read this text is part of our formation.

So, if love is the key move in the journey of formation then everything we do is rooted in love of God and others. If that is indeed the case, then anything that is truly political (of, for, or related to people) is an opportunity for us to express love.

Any opportunity for us to affect, guide, support, and engage people is an opportunity to love. Politics should provide these very opportunities.

Spiritual formation then is a political journey.

Learning to love God and others through the interparticipatory relationship we all share under American politics is part of the education of our soul.

So my recommendation is that we stop pushing anything that sounds “political” into the corner. Our political thought can teach us the subtle dynamics of how to love by wisdom rather than by law alone.

The political journey teaches our soul what we fear.

We learn about our inability to listen well. To love well is to hear another person as a person, not as a caricature.

Loving God with our heart, mind, and soul means that wherever we put our political treasure is where we ground our soul.

There are no political conversations that are disconnected from the love of God and others. The more we realize this, the further we go on this journey of becoming with Jesus.

(Photo by timJ on Unsplash)

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