In a recent post, I shared John Ortberg’s definition of what constitutes a spiritual discipline: “A spiritual discipline is simply an activity you engage in to be made more fully alive by the Spirit of Life.”
I think there are some positive and negative implications here.
On the negative side, this sets the bar pretty low. As Lillian Daniel, author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, notes, these sort of spiritual experiences are
Often some shallow combination of exercise and caffeine, coffee shops as spiritual community, hikes as pilgrimages, The New York Times as sacred text, and sunsets—don’t ever forget the sunsets. These people are always informing you that they find God in the sunsets. Well, excuse me, as if people who go to church didn’t see God in a sunset. You know, my take is that any idiot can find God in the sunset.
I tend to agree with Daniel. As we’ve seen, this is the kind of New Age, DIY spirituality John Ackerman calls “pick and choose.”
On the positive side, this kind of spirituality may be a necessary first step toward community. As Howard Thurman noted, “When you can go deep down inside yourself, really know who you are and are secure in who you are—then—you can find yourself in every other human being.”
The second step? Thurman believed that “we all have as human beings to want to be with others—the desire to be part of a community.”
Indeed, these sort of experiences can be the foundation for both individual and communal spirituality. Consider this from Ellen Idler, director of the Religion and Public Health Collaborative at Emory University:
Meditating, yoga, fasting, walking a prayer circle, making a pilgrimage, taking the sacraments, singing with a choir, going on a weekend retreat, listening to the words of inspired speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., dancing in a group at a wedding, lighting Advent or Hanukkah candles, saying daily prayers, or contemplating a sunset or a mountaintop view are all spiritual and religious practices undertaken by many of us in our daily lives, at special seasons of the year, or maybe just once in a lifetime.
What all of these practices have in common, however, is the way in which they integrate different aspects of our human experience – our emotions with our intellect or our minds with our bodies – while also connecting us with others who share similar beliefs.
Similar beliefs, but not the same. Religious community inevitably brings with it some sort of diversity. The kind of diversity where, as Lillian Daniel says, “other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.”
So seeing a spiritual discipline as “simply an activity you engage in to be made more fully alive by the Spirit of Life” has its plusses and minuses.
But if it can lead to individuals into a deeper engagement with religious community, I’m willing to go with it.