Christian Spirituality

Personal Spiritual Development
The Christian Traditions as Dimensions of the Spiritual Life
Summarized by Robert J. Young

[a summary of the Christian traditions of spirituality
as reflected in Foster, Streams of Living Water, (Harper, 1998)]

As one attempts to study the dynamics of spiritual growth, what is at times termed "personal spiritual development," several areas of study converge. Among these are the history of the Christian faith with the writings which characterize it, the dimensions of the spiritual life (which are sometimes called the Christian devotional traditions), faith development, spiritual disciplines, and contemporary devotional literature. This essay is one of several which attempt to briefly address these areas, and then to suggest a synthesis which may integrate these materials into a holistic understanding of spiritual development.

Spiritual formation is not easy, nor is it the same for everyone. Each individual Christian has unique preferences, experiences, personality, and abilities. Spiritual health does not depend upon the acceptance and development of certain skills, so that when one finishes the skill development, spirituality is insured. Rather, each person must integrate into life a balanced approach to spiritual health. As physical health depends upon a variety of foods and exercises to feed, nurture, and develop various parts of the physical body, so also spiritual health depends upon a variety of spiritual exercises. One of the more obvious attempts to address this variety is in Foster's Celebration of Discipline. Less well known are the spiritual traditions which Foster identifies and expands in Streams of Living Water (Harper). See also A Spiritual Formation Workbook by James Bryan Smith (Renovare).

The purpose of this essay is to identify and briefly describe various spiritual traditions to encourage increased understanding of the spiritual development models available and to encourage integration of those traditions into personal spirituality, according to individual desires and abilities.

When Thomas a Kempis wrote On the Imitation of Christ, he was suggesting that one paradigm for the Christian life is to become like Jesus. We are to be imitators (Eph. 5:1). We may imitate others who are imitating Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Most frequently our attempts to be like Jesus are limited to areas of life such as our Christian works or service, our compassion, our humility, our attitude, or overcoming temptation. We quote that he left us an example for us to follow, but we often limit that example to physical life and physical concerns. Much less frequently do we hear sermons or classes devoted to becoming like Jesus in our innermost spiritual being.

Perhaps some have given up on being like Jesus in these areas. Can we really pray like Jesus? Can we really expect the same level of intimacy with God? Can our hearts be as pure, our lives as holy, our walk as spiritual, our attitudes as just, or our proclamation as fervent? After all, wasn't Jesus God? (John 1:1; Phil. 2:5-6). Yes, he was. However, Peter suggests to his readers that we are able to become partakers of this divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

What was the secret of Jesus' life? How did he continue a deep, abiding, constant relationship with the Father? Perhaps part of the answer is found in the spiritual traditions. What would happen in your life and mine if we were to integrate a portion of each of these into an integrated spirituality?

I. The Contemplative Tradition

Foster describes this tradition as the prayer-filled life. The post-first century roots of the contemplative tradition most certainly should be traced to the early fourth century when Antony determined to leave his family in Egypt in favor of a life of solitude and reflection. His decision was certainly influenced by the death of his parents and his desire for answers. Antony meditated on Acts and out of that meditation sought the desert.

The monastic experience is likely rooted to some extent in Antony's experiment in withdrawal from society, financial security, and the world. Antony eventually found opportunities for service in the life he had chosen, but such has not always been the case with those who withdraw from the world in favor of spiritual solitude.

If this tradition uses prayer extensively, it is also tied to meditation. Beauty treatments for the soul, the contemplative practice seeks to make us holy in thought, in love, in the things we desire, and in wisdom. The fire thus lit by contact with God is as a fire within us, ignoring the emptiness of this world by the transforming power that is greater and higher than we.

Christians who have not investigated the power of the contemplative practices in their spiritual lives are encouraged to explore the depths of reading, prayer, and meditation.

II. The Holiness Tradition

Ancient roots for the holiness tradition abound. More recently, the Pietists, Wesleyans, and Puritans have obviously focused on holy living. With recent call to virtue from a variety of sources (e.g., The Book of Virtues, William Bennett) perhaps this tradition is rebounding. Sober thought, however, suggests the difficulty holiness faces as a virtue to be sought. Christians may have become more tainted by the world than many would like to admit. What does it mean for us to life our lives in virtue? How can we refocus the attentions of the church upon the purity of the church? Perhaps part of the problem is in a misunderstanding of this tradition.

The holiness tradition suffers from the bad press of those who seek to be "holier-than-thou," from the identification of holiness with rules, and from a distaste for withholding ourselves from the niceties of life. If Christians were to understand that holiness is attention to heart matters, affirmation of life, holistic spirituality which encompasses body, soul and spirit, and not a righteousness to be obtained by works, perhaps it would be more popular.

Holiness at its best is singleness of heart on the things of God, progress in lifestyles that reflect and glorify Jesus, and an avenue of identifying and uniting with God. Holiness at its best would allow life to function as God intended life to function. Perhaps such would be a goal more worthy than it seems at first glance, given our dysfunctional world. We Christians might find our lives more influential and powerful as a statement to an unbelieving world if we were more aware of the dynamics of holiness and sought to incorporate a greater commitment to holiness into our spiritual lives.

III. The Charismatic Tradition

While the charismatic movement has obvious roots in the 20th century, one might in church history point to the Montanists of the second and third centuries, Joachim of Fiore, Francis of Assisi, and the Franciscan spiritualists of the 13th century, or the Spiritualist movements contemporanious with the Reformation. Foster refers to this tradition as "discovering the Spirit-empowered life."

I think that an unfortunate description, for the discovery of the Spirit-empowered life is not, according to Scripture, dependent upon the activities or beliefs usually associated with modern Pentecostalism or the Charismatic Movement. This connection, too frequently made, discourages many Christians today from seeking an understanding of the Spirit, and for others leads to a virtually Spirit-less version of Christianity that entombs the Spirit in the written word of God.

Christians should carefully study the person, work and role of the Holy Spirit to avoid being led astray into a variety of false and empty teachings, while at the same time seeking to understand precisely what power God's gift of the Holy Spirit provides in our daily lives.

IV. The Social Justice Tradition

In the minds of many Christians, the association of the social justice tradition with the social gospel is enough to reject the possibilities the compassionate heart provides for spiritual growth and development. From the first century deacons and widows, to the mendicant orders of the medieval church, to the involvement of churches in the abolition of slavery, the suffrange of women, the American civil rights movement, and the challenge of addressing the oppression of many in third world nations today, the history of Christian involvement in seeking justice and righteousness is rich and long. The eight-century prophets, whose writings are recorded in our Old Testament, issued a call for righteouness and justice that echoes even today.

Any Christian or congregation who rejects the opportunities and challenges of seeking justice for all has diminished the potential for a holistic spirituality. The church must be benevolent, as must individual Christians. If the love of Christ constrains us, we not only love Christ, but we love those Christ loved. The tendency of some to leave doctrine behind in the search for justice should not deter us as we seek the heart of Jesus and the compassion of Jesus in our daily spiritual walk.

V. The Evangelical Tradition

Foster refers to this spiritual tradition as "discovering the word-centered life." This description likely has much appeal to many, even though some may argue with the name "evangelical." By this time, it is hoped that it is becoming clear that these traditions do not present "either-or" options, but rather provide a variety of insights into the way in which the "mind of Christ" is formed in those who seek to follow him daily and walk with him always.

Church history is filled with those who sought to understand, explain, and apply the word of God, from the Apostle Paul, to Ignatius at the beginning of the second century, to Augustine, to Aquinas, to a multitude of names that could be mentioned from the Renaissance and Reformation periods. Nor is such an emphasis lacking in today's world, as one sees more and more "back to the Bible" movements that seek independence from any organized religious group or denomination.

Incorporating the Bible, its study and reading, into one's spiritual life is fraught at least with the danger that we come to the Bible with a mentally and not spiritually, that we either separate the two, or fail to integrate them. The incorporation of the Word into one's life requires and intentional, continuing focus, for some little "hit and miss" reading and study of Scripture will not suffice for the Christian who genuinely wishes to center life in the Word. While our lack here may be less than in other of the traditions, all would do well to refocus efforts on building life on the foundations of the Word of God--living, written, proclaimed--which is a power from God. Through knowledge we ground our lives, and understand the nature of our spiritual being. Here is an important doorway to keeping our spirituality on track and in tune with God's will.

VI. The Incarnational Tradition

Those who have, throughout the annals of church history, sought to understand the Christian life incarnationally are not as well known to us. Can we find Christ formed in us, living in us, the hope of glory? In what way is he in us, and in what way are we the presence of Christ in our world? In this tradition, as in all of those before, it is easy to go overboard and declare this tradition the single panacea for Christian spirituality. None of these are without Biblical support, none can stand alone.

Christians today would perhaps find new challenges in considering how the incarnation of Jesus informs the possibilities for the divine nature in us.

Conclusion Other paradigms for understanding the history of Christian spirituality could be listed, but these provide a helpful beginning point for developing an integrated, holistic spirituality. Perhaps this brief synopsis and expansion will provide the impetus for reading more in Foster's Streams of Living Water.

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Last updated February 23, 2001.