I introduce this webpage with an extended quote from ‘Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places’ (p.4-5) by Eugene Peterson (author of The Message translation of the Bible). Peterson launches his monograph with an observation about the burgeoning thirst for spirituality in contemporary society. This has arisen, he argues, because of a universal and fundamental desire ‘to live from the heart’ and because of the failure of our surroundings – the arid social, ecclesiastical and educational contemporary landscape – to meet that need. The prerogative implied by this diagnosis forms the backdrop not only of Peterson’s magnificent guide to spiritual theology but also of the rather more modest contribution offered in this webpage:
“The meteoric ascendancy of interest in spirituality in recent decades is largely fuelled by a profound dissatisfaction with approaches to life that are either aridly rationalistic, consisting of definitions, explanations, diagrams, and instructions (whether by psychologists, pastors, theologians, or strategic planners), or impersonally functional, consisting of slogans, goals, incentives, and programs (whether by advertisers, coaches, motivational consultants, church leaders, or evangelists). There comes a time for most of us when we discover a deep desire within us to live from the heart what we already know in our heads and do with our hands. But “to whom shall we go?” Our educational institutions have only marginal interest in dealing with our desire — they give us books to read and exams to pass but pay little attention to us otherwise. In our workplaces we quickly find that we are valued primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of our usefulness and profitability — they reward us when we do our jobs well and dismiss us when we don’t. Meanwhile our religious institutions, in previous and other cultures the obvious places to go in matters of God and the soul, prove disappointing to more and more people who find themselves zealously cultivated as consumers in a God-product marketplace or treated as exasperatingly slow students preparing for final exams on the “furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.” (Peterson, p.4).
The upshot of this institutional failure, observes Peterson, is that spirituality has become ‘free-floating’ leading to do-it-yourself constructions that are ill-formed, and conditioned ultimately by the dysfunctional cultural context that is our contemporary lot:
“Because of this spiritual poverty all around, this lack of interest in dealing with what matters most to us — a lack encountered in our schools, our jobs and vocations, and our places of worship alike — “spirituality,” to use the generic term for it, has escaped institutional structures and is now more or less free-floating. Spirituality is “in the air.” The good thing in all this is that the deepest and most characteristic aspects of life are now common concerns; hunger and thirst for what is lasting and eternal is widely acknowledged and openly expressed; refusal to be reduced to our job descriptions and test results is pervasive and determined. The difficulty, though, is that everyone is more or less invited to make up a spirituality that suits herself or himself. Out of the grab bag of celebrity anecdotes, media gurus, fragments of ecstasy, and personal fantasies, far too many of us, with the best intentions in the world, because we have been left to do it “on our own,” assemble spiritual identities and ways of life that are conspicuously prone to addictions, broken relationships, isolation, and violence. There is no question but that there is widespread interest in living beyond the roles and functions handed to us by the culture. But much of it ends up as a spirituality that is shaped by terms handed out by the same culture.” (Peterson, p.4)
We may have diagnosed the malady, but what is the cure? It is a quandary that should, perhaps, pre-occupy our thoughts rather more than it does and it is a problem that is not peculiar to the spiritually-minded. On the contrary. Rather like the revision classes I offer my students, the solution is often attended to most by those who need it least.
It is at this point, of course, that any consensus we have maintained thus far dissipates into a million competing viewpoints. Indeed, for some, it is spirituality itself that should be in the firing-line. Religion is the opiate of the masses and spirituality is the classic symptom of that addiction. A thorough-going detox programme is what we need, and we have likes of Richard Dawkins to eagerly assist. However, the “cure” of atheism leaves us in a worse predicament than the original malady – akin to curing poor eyesight by plucking out eyes. On second thoughts, I’ll stick with the myopia thanks...
Unfortunately, for the faint-hearted, atheism is not conceived as the cure at all, but the awful looming reality that they hope and pray isn’t true, the inevitable and ultimate futility of existence that we all fear. On further examination, of course, this fear reduces to a phobia specific to a particular phase of our spiritual journey. It is an exotic case of the ‘grass-is-always-greener’ syndrome - that all-too-common and contagious condition that affects most of us at some point in our lifetime. If you’ve been brought up a believer, the rationality of logical positivism can (on occasion) appear much the superior. But those who leave behind their spiritual homestead for the fairer pastures of the scientific worldview find on arrival that it is plagued with as many uncertainties as the epistemology of their homeland. How, after all, does science exist at all? “Physics explores a universe of great rational beauty that is also rationally transparent to us ..., but of course by itself, [physics] is unable to explain its good fortune in being able to do it.” (Polkinghorn).
For C.S. Lewis, John Polkinghorn, Stephen Unwin and many others who have made a very thorough reconnaissance of the territory called rationalism, the exodus towards informed spirituality was a happy one. “I believe that our thirst for understanding will never truly be quenched by science alone, and that we have to look beyond science. For me, that ‘beyond’ takes me, easily and comfortably, in the direction of religion.” (Polkinghorn) There are exceptions. For Lewis, the abandonment of atheism came as the compelling, involuntary, corollary of reason itself – he famously described himself as the most reluctant convert in all England. But for most of us, it is our thirst for spirituality, often provoked by some early spiritual encounter, that draws us toward the theocentric worldview.
We should not be ashamed of this spiritual first cause. Our sense of the spiritual should be regarded every bit as legitimate a sense as our sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. If mankind had evolved without eyes, it is unlikely that our theories of the universe would have incorporated the notion of light. Its existence would be un-provable and it seems unlikely that Einstein would have arrived at e = mc2 (where e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light in a vacuum) and even less likely that he would have understood light’s full range of remarkable properties. On a more personal level, if we are not very good with numbers it is tempting to downgrade activities, theories and concepts that are essentially mathematical. If we find it difficult to learn new languages, it is easy to dismiss the benefits of being multi-lingual. And if our sense of the spiritual is poor, we may be quick to minimise its role in the universe and even to ridicule those who appear to draw such joy, ecstasy and meaning from it. “Science is very successful, but it has partly purchased its great success by the modesty of its ambition. It only aims to consider one sort of reality: whatever you can treat as an ‘it’, that is to say, an object that you can kick around and pull apart, putting it to the experimental test.” (Polkinghorn interview, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s18054.htm). Our sense of the spiritual connects us with the Divine; it tells us that there is so much more to the universe.
Whatever one’s predispositions and preconceptions, and whatever side of the argument one finally comes down on, the exploration of the debate over the belief in God is an exhilarating one. If you’re are interested, you could do worse that to start with Stephen Unwin’s entertaining book, “The Probability of God”. A more complete and convincing modern account of Pascal’s Wager, Unwin’s book takes us, with unlikely panache, on a whistle-stop tour of the philosophy of religion in the versatile vehicle of Bayesian logic. Other good reads for the scientifically minded are the works of John Polkinghorn. For those who enjoy a more eclectic and intuitive approach, consider C.S. Lewis’s classic writings (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Surprised by Joy, Abolition of Man, to name but a few), bearing in mind that many of Lewis’s heuristic arguments have been subsequently adopted and extended by more systematic philosophers (see the engaging discussion between Prof Andrew Walker and the former Nollath Professor of the Christian Religion, Oxford, in “Rumours of Heaven”, Walker et al 1998; see also www.existence-of-god.com for related material on the broader debate).
One of the positive side effects of Richard Dawkins' tirrades against belief is that they have provoked a number of excellent replies, not least from Antony Flew, a former leading atheist who has come to the view that ultimately the evidence leads to the door of theism. "There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind" is his highly readable account of his intellectual journey.
Also highly recommended is Francis Collins' "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief" written by a leading biologist and thoroughly debunking the myth that science and religion are natural enemies. Perhaps the best book I've come across on this theme is "Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction" by Diogenes Allen. This is a crystal clear philosophical treatment of the relationship between Christian thought, science, postmodernism and other religious belief systems.
Theistic conclusions have also proved to be a surprising outcome of some unlikely thought processes. Robert Wright, for example, concludes his entertaining book on game theory with more than a hint of belief in divine intervention:
“It seems God could have created the world physically exactly like this one, atom for atom, but with no consciousness at all. And it would have worked just as well. But our universe isn’t like that. Our universe has consciousness.” (David Chalmers, quoted in “Nonzero”, 2000, by Robert Wright, p.321).
“That biological evolution has an arrow — the invention of more structurally and informationally complex forms of life — and that this arrow points toward meaning, isn’t, of course, proof of the existence of God. But it’s more suggestive of divinity than an alternative world would be: a world in which evolution had no direction, or a world with directional evolution but no consciousness. If more scientists appreciated the weirdness of consciousness — understood that a world without sentience, hence without meaning, is exactly the world that a modern behavioural scientist should expect to exist — then reality might inspire more awe than it does.” (Robert Wright, “Nonzero”, 2000, p.321).
Even when we are convinced of the legitimacy of spirituality, how do we navigate the bewildering range of options? It is C.S. Lewis’s journey that is once again most informative. For him, myth and legend, belief and superstition ancient and modern do not compete or contradict a unified belief-system, but complement and confirm it. ‘Above all else, Lewis succeeded in convincing us that the good dreams that God has sent the pagan world in the form of myths are really rumours of heaven. These rumours in a revelatory way rustle through the pages of the New Testament, for in them we not only hear of the sheer solidarity and weight of the glory to come, but the astonishing news that in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, both particularly and uniquely, myth has become fact’ (Walker in Walker et al op cit).
Perhaps it is surprising, for those who view religion generally, and Christianity specifically, as an emotional crutch, that there exist believers for whom Christian belief is bereft of even the possibility an existential dimension. Enthusiastic cessationism is an oxymoron, both in theory and in practice, but is also something of a sanctuary for those scarred by the spiritual abuse of the Faith and Discipleship Movements, or left exhausted by extreme Pentecostalism, Toronto blessings, and the perpetual frustration of unfulfilled revivalism. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that existential spirituality is at the very heart of the New Testament and of its crowning doctrine of Resurrection (click here for more on this).
Our digression has, you will note, led us full circle back to the first chapter of Peterson’s book and the efficacy of spiritual theology. For all its dissenters and critics, the Christian story and worldview, Peterson argues, offers us a coherent, well-trodden and potentially exciting path through the disorientating and unbounded landscape of spiritual need and experience:
“...it seems preferable to use the term “spiritual theology” to refer to the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understandings and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocused “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The two terms, “spiritual” and “theology,” keep good company with one another. “Theology” is the attention that we give to God, the effort we give to knowing God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and in Jesus Christ. “Spiritual” is the insistence that everything that God reveals of himself and his works is capable of being lived by ordinary men and women in their homes and workplaces. “Spiritual” keeps “theology” from degenerating into merely thinking and talking and writing about God at a distance. “Theology” keeps “spiritual” from becoming merely thinking and talking and writing about the feelings and thoughts one has about God. The two words need each other, for we know how easy it is for us to let our study of God (theology) get separated from the way we live; we also know how easy it is to let our desires to live whole and satisfying lives (spiritual lives) get disconnected from who God actually is and the ways he works among us. Spiritual theology is the attention we give to lived theology”. (Peterson).
For Peterson, this is not a theology that is confined to the Sunday service or dusty church halls. It is instead, as the book’s deliberately enigmatic title suggests, Christ who “Plays in Ten thousand places”. It is a spirituality of life. A return to the core of the gospel, if we truly comprehend the promise it holds, requires us to challenge the bogus and the counterfit. How can the spiritual vagrant find the loving embrace of true Christian community if there are so many charletons, false signposts and mixed messages along the way? One of the greatest challenges facing contemporary Christianity is that some of its most dynamic and fastest growing elements have become entangled with dubious structures of governance and practice that are the very antithesis of New Covenant spirituality.
The Coercive Hegemony of the Modern Tithe:
It is heartbreaking to observe, for example, that one of the most acute manifestations of this malaise is in the area of financial management. At the heart of much of the problem is the doctrine of tithes — a teaching that has made a vigorous come-back over the past hundred years. Propagation of the doctrine has left tithe-churches awash with funds, at least relative to many of their less prescriptive counterparts. Indeed, the temptation for church leaders are obvious — big budgets offer big opportunities but also big egos, big wallets and big falls from grace. Of course, that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil is not limited to churches who teach tithing. A particularly ugly aspect of the doctrine, however, is its obligatory nature, which can exacerbate the plight of the poor and vulnerable in ways not envisioned or characterised by the original Scriptural accounts. I argue below that the hermeneutical case for tithing is weak and that gospel-driven churches would do well to adopt a more volitional approach to the doctrine of giving. (See also the essay presented at the end of this page, the FAQs of Tithing article, and the Giving and Taxing module for the Scottish Churches Open College degree course).
What other obstacles do we need to clear away to help the spiritual sojourner find a clearer path through the Christian maze? The list of topics below are by no means exhaustive -- more of a reflection of my own interests. Not all of the essays are currently available (or indeed currently written!) – so the list is partly a guide to my current research interests.
If there’s a doctrine that needs sorting out it’s this one, not least because of the massive ramifications it has for the believer who loses a loved one and the profound conflicts it raises in practice for those in pastoral roles. This paper takes no particular side in the debate but charts the implications for the synergy of doctrine and practice using data drawn from a survey of Scottish ministers from a wide spectrum of denominations.
The humility and courage of men like D. L. Moody (click here for a short biography) have inspired many, myself included, but their legacy in terms of revivalism, superstar preachers, method- and numbers-based evangelism is, I feel, an unhelpful one. Stackhouse (“The Gospel-Driven Church”) and other contemporary theologians have shown us how far we have drifted from the wisdom of the New Testament and of Christian orthodoxy.
What shall we make of the Church and its foibles?
Perhaps the foregoing discussion, supplemented no doubt by your own experience, has left you less than enamoured with current church culture. In which case, the subtitle of Philip Yancey’s book: “Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church”, provides apt encouragement. As well as its title, I should emphasise that the book’s content also has much to offer! Yancey takes us on a tour through the lives of some of the world’s most influential thinkers, writers and activists and reminds us how great is the potential of human spirituality. Faith and spirituality can provide a potent remedy to the human condition and Christianity an antidote to the materialism and status-anxiety of our age (see p. 225-274 of Alain de Botton’s book which carries this title: “Status Anxiety”, Hamish-Hamilton, London, 2004). That these pernicious forces can infiltrate our church structures and cultures should not surprise us, nor should they lead us to despair. They should drive us, instead, to see with even greater clarity of vision the importance of spiritual community and how beautiful is the counter-culture that it can potentially, and so vitally, offer.
To abandon church would lead us back to the predicament that motivated this webpage from the outset – how can we navigate our way through the foggy mist of “free-floating spirituality”? The answer, I would like to conclude, lies not in isolation from the Christian community, but in its rediscovery. The low estimation of contemporary society should lead us to a high view of the church. I remain passionate about the joys and efficacy of spiritual theology but believe with equal conviction that it finds its ultimate expression in community – the community of the Godhead, yes, but also in the community of the church. She is, after all, 'the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way’ (Paul’s letter to the early Ephesian Church). The Good News of the Kingdom has implications far beyond the holy huddle of the Christian remnant. 'There is no hope for society but in such a church; and there is no hope of such a church but in such a gospel' (Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, p.8). She is here for the 'healing of the nations', not an ethereal pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die sort of healing, but the infectious consequence of the tangible, brotherly affection that comes from vibrant faith in Christ:
"Corporate-discipleship: fraternal-belonging was Jesus’ big idea, and plan for the renewal of society; a catalyst and engine for building God’s Kingdom. His idea, which has lasted over the centuries, was simply this: a mixed community of sinners called to be saints, a divine society where the risen Christ in the midst of it is grace and truth, and the Holy Spirit is at work within it. An inclusive and generous friendship, where each person is affirmed as of infinite worth, dignity and influence. A community of love, overflowing in gratitude and wholehearted surrender, because it participates in the life of God. This corporate-discipleship, we call the Church, worships God and infects the world with righteousness." (Dr John Sentamu, Sermon preached at his Inauguration as Archbishop of York, 30 November 2005).
We have more than a little way to go to see this grand vocation become a reality, but we have the footsteps of the Church Fathers and of Christ Himself, to encourage and guide us. We travel along well-worn paths.
Not sure if God Exists?
Other worthwhile and fairly accessible books on this theme include:
Interesting Articles and Quotes:
"The new evangelism: The man who put conscience on a coffee cup", by Andrew Gumbel, Independent, 17 May 2006. According to Andrew Gumbel, Rick Warren "... doesn't think a lot of televangelists or the powerful, media-anointed leaders of the Christian right, whom he accuses of "self-centred consumerism" and self-aggrandisement at the expense of their spiritual mission. Until relatively recently, he worked almost entirely under the radar and, despite building a movement of extraordinary power and reach in churches around the world, was barely known in the broader culture." To read the full article, go to www.independent.co.uk and do a search on "Rick Warren" or try going directly to the article by clicking on the following link:
Papers by Prof Pryce on Religious Themes:
Stoddart, E., and Pryce, G., Observed Aversion to Raising Hell in Pastoral Care: the conflict between doctrine and practice, Working Draft 25th March 2004. Click here to open.
Pryce, G. (2005) Ten Reasons to Ditch the Doctrine of Tithing. See text below.
Pryce, G. (2006) Tithing FAQs. Scroll down or click here to download.
Pryce, G. (1997) The Life of DL Moody. Click here to access.
Pryce, G. (2002) Giving and Taxing, module for the Scottish Churches Open College.
Pryce, G. (2003) Notes on Micah, 5 Nov 2003. Click here to access.
Pryce, G. (2003) Notes on Joel, 5 Nov 2003. Click here to access.
Click here for Gwilym Pryce's contact details.
and five things we can learn from the OT practice
Gwilym Pryce, 16th August 2005
2. To teach tithing is to violate the judgement of the first Church Council.
The following questions and answers are based on discussions that have arisen in response to the Pryce (2000) essay on tithing (“The Principle of Giving and the Practice of Tithing”, available for downloading here). I am grateful to those involved for granting permission for their comments to be used, though they do not necessarily agree with my responses. I am keen to continue the dialogue on this important area of doctrine so if you have any thoughts or questions please do not hesitate to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. For a pdf version of Tithing FAQs, click here. For a Rich Text Format version, click here.
Click here for Prof Pryce's contact details.
Go to www.geebeejey.co.uk to order Inference and Statistics in SPSS by Gwilym Pryce (GeeBeeJey Publishing).