A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
I’ve written the past two weeks (here and here) about William Willimon’s recent attack on spiritual practices in his chapter in the wonderful book, A Spiritual Life, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. I think Willimon’s chapter should be considered required reading for anyone teaching, preaching or writing about spiritual practices. Willimon lays out significant arguments – which I disagree with but take seriously – that need to be addressed when we advocate patterns of Bible study, prayer, fasting, Sabbath keeping, etc.
Willimon describes an interaction with a Hindu student that occurred when he was the dean of the chapel at Duke. This student complained about the way a professor talked about Hinduism in a course on world religions. The professor, the student said, described Hinduism as a set of rather dull ideas, while in reality Hinduism entails a complex set of eating practices – involving even smells – which are virtually incomprehensible to outsiders (p. 225)
I have had similar conversations about Hinduism and other religions in my department. For the past four years, I have been teaching in a “theology and religion” department in a New Zealand university, where Christian theology, Biblical studies and Church history are taught alongside courses on many of the world’s religions. To my shame, before I joined this department I knew very little about the religions of the world beyond the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Because Christianity has creeds in which we affirm what we believe, I assumed most other religions had at least some credal elements. I have come to understand that many religions are self-defined more by practices than by belief systems.
Departmental seminars, reading groups and conversations with my colleagues have stimulated a lot of thinking about the role of practices in various religions, and thus also the role of practices in Christian life. Willimon’s chapter came at a good time for me, continuing my reflection on this question. I agree with Willimon that none of our actions earn us God’s approval or love. This God, whom we worship and serve, loves us beyond all comprehension. In Christ, this God breaks into human life. Through the Holy Spirit, this God speaks to us, encounters us, shapes us, transforms us and empowers us. We cannot make the Holy Spirit do anything.
God is amazing, and yes, God is untamable and wild. We should never stop being open to unexpected encounters with this amazing God. In fact, God is always the initiator. God reaches out to us as our Creator, as our Redeemer in Jesus Christ and as our Sustainer through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, any action we take as an attempt to draw near to God has to be viewed as a response to the initiative God has already taken.
And yet I still affirm that Christian practices have great significance in transforming us and enabling us to hear God’s wild, untamable Word to us. I believe spiritual practices make space for us to encounter and hear this God who is already with us and in us and speaking to us. And I believe spiritual disciplines – with the emphasis on the word discipline – help us to embrace the structures and habits that shape our characters more into the image of Christ. Spiritual disciplines are a means by which we respond to God’s call, and they in turn open us to God’s further action in our lives. Spiritual disciplines are a reflection of the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Surely someone who is being transformed into Christ’s image would desire to do the same kinds of things Jesus did – and Jesus fasted, drew near to his Father in prayer, and went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath day. Why would we do anything less? As we grow in Christ-likeness, we can expect we will also grow in having the right motives for those actions.