One of the vagaries of curriculum revision is that you find yourself teaching a new course or two. So, in the wake of that change, I found myself teaching a class on the theology and practice of Christian spirituality this autumn. To open the conversation, I asked the students to write down the definition of spirituality, explicit or assumed, that they brought with them to class.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that for many of them, the definition that they brought with them was broad enough that it could have included pretty much any kind of spirituality and some things that barely fit the description. As we talked about those definitions, it was also clear that the inspiration behind that definition was the desire to include anyone who chose to describe themselves as spiritual.
Now, in the comparative study of spirituality (like the comparative study of religion) such definitions have a purpose. If your task is to study the wide-ranging number of practices and convictions that shape what the world might describe as a spirituality, then a broad definition or a definition that captures the essential characteristics of spirituality will be necessary. (Though even in that effort, everyone would agree that not just anything people describe as a spirituality is a spirituality.)
What became clear from our conversations (and, again, this was no surprise) is that these wide-ranging definitions subtly became the criteria by which my students also judged what was capable of being included under the label, “Christian spiritualities.” This is not to say, for example, that they treated Buddhist spirituality as if it were Christian spirituality. But it is to say that, in a way that is much harder to define, they included convictions that were clearly at odds with the tradition of the church under the label, “Christian spirituality,” and they deemed the differences between Christian spirituality and other kinds of spirituality as largely inconsequential. In other words, the descriptive labels generated by comparative studies of spirituality had become normative labels for what they understood as Christian spirituality and / or spiritualities that were compatible with Christian understandings of spirituality.
There seem to be at least three reasons that they were prepared to make this move: (1) For some of them, a comparative definition was the only one that they had been offered. University programs devoted to the comparative task were the only places that had attempted to define spirituality and, as a result, the definition served as a default. (2) For some of those students, however, that definition had also acquired a normative character. In other words, whatever its merits for comparing Christian spirituality with, say, Wiccan spirituality, they had also been taught or assumed that the comparative definition was universally applicable and normatively important. (3) Predictably, then, the comparative definition wrapped itself around the church’s emphasis on inclusion. And — because inclusion is no longer about the universality of God’s redemptive love, but about “what you believe doesn’t matter” — what emerged as important for many of them, is that they avoid defining Christian spirituality in a fashion that excludes anything.
It is here that the problem with using definitions that are crafted in order to draw comparisons between spiritualities becomes clear. Crafting a definition of Christian spirituality that “includes everyone” is like crafting a definition of physical “fitness” that “includes” people who are 150 pounds overweight and eat Twinkies three times a day, but want to thought of as “physically fit.” Those labels might be useful in the world of sociology where the task is to describe a phenomenon that is widely disputed and used in endless proliferation. But, as a definition that describes what is normatively at stake, it is both useless and misleading.
Put another way: If including everything in a particular community becomes the only or most important goal that any group has – including the church — then soon it becomes clear that being included in whatever “it is” becomes meaningless, because – by definition – the boundaries of belonging have been erased. There is no “there” there.
How one defines spirituality, then, is something that occupied the rest of the semester and occupies a good deal of time that I am devoting to a new writing project. But, after the conversations I have had over the semester, this much is clear: There is a healthy approach to Christian spirituality that takes its cues from 2000 years of Christian experience and that avoids the extremes of the contemporary alternatives: A wooden fundamentalism that is preoccupied with who is going to hell over the slightest difference in understanding and a flaccid “it doesn’t matter what you believe” progressivism.
Both approaches fail the church and its people.