Sunday, May 6, 2012

Four Views on Christian Spirituality

Over the centuries, four main Christian traditions have developed. They have been shaped by historical, cultural, and political factors. Certain spiritual practices developed within these traditions as well.
Many of us are unfamiliar with Christian spirituality other than our own experience. This book gives an introduction to the essential practices of Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, and mainline (progressive) Protestant spiritualities.
The Orthodox Church is located primarily in the eastern Mediterranean, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It was separated from the church in the west in 1054. Their distinctives include the incomprehensibility of the divine essence to the human mind, the authority of tradition, veneration of icons as portals to the divine, elaborate liturgical worship, and veneration of saints and relics. The incarnation of the Word is emphasized. “...[T]he definition and destiny of the human person is to become divine.” (53) This is known as deification or Christification (Greek, theosis). It is the mystical union between Christ and the believer and a personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The Catholic church is diverse, consisting of many philosophical traditions and theological schools. The Roman pontiff is seen as the successor of Peter and infallible in matters of doctrine and morals. Tradition is on par with Scripture. There are meritorious works in salvation, the seven sacraments convey saving grace, prayers for the departed, etc.
Progressive Protestantism includes many historic denominations and is a diverse movement stimulated by the Enlightenment. They typically affirm God as love, Jesus as a moral teacher, uphold human goodness and moral progress and the primacy of human reason and religious experience. The Bible is interpreted more figuratively than literally. There is an emphasis on social justice actions.
Evangelicalism adheres to believe in primary revelation through Scripture, justification by faith, the atoning death of Jesus and his resurrection. There are two sacraments, God-centered worship, Bible study, prayer, anticipation of Christ's return, rewards and punishments.
Perhaps Evan Howard says it best in his response to the progressive Protestants. While all the traditions mention the importance of the Bible, interpretation is a key factor. “Orthodox and Roman Catholic writers tend to emphasize interpretations affirmed through hierarchical process. … Evangelicals tend to emphasize the ability of the ordinary individual believer to receive from the text. ...[P]rogressive Protestantism emphasizes the role of scholarly inquiry in biblical interpretation.” (153-4)

As is frequently the case in compilations, the writing is uneven. Some share their personal experiences while others take a more objective route. I was disappointed in that much of the text for each tradition was not about the nuts and bolts of spiritual formation. History of that tradition of Christianity was often given, doctrinal issues not necessarily essential to spiritual formation were often discussed, and the defining elements of the tradition were related. Having taught a spiritual formation class within an evangelical setting a few years ago, I was very interested in how the other traditions facilitated spiritual growth.
Being told that the sacraments were a means of grace (such as in Catholicism) was not enough for me. I want to know how the sacraments facilitate spiritual growth. What does an individual experience during a sacrament that facilitates Christlikeness?
I was told that Luther wrote music for worship, Watts pioneered hymn writing in England, and Wesley published thousands of hymns. I know the impact of Maranatha and Vineyard music. But I was never told why I should sing a hymn or a Scripture song. I was never told what to expect when I sing or what happens on the inside of me when words and tunes are combined as I sing.
I know a great deal more about the traditions, their distinctive aspects, having read this book. I know progressives do social justice works. I know Catholics celebrate the sacraments and practice contemplative prayer. I know the Orthodox fast and expect to become deified. I know evangelicals emphasize conversion and go to Bible studies. Yet I am still unclear as to how each tradition explains the actual spiritual formation process – what really happens to the individuals participating in the events or practicing the disciplines. How are the individuals transformed? What are the actual “mechanics,” so to speak, of the transformation in each tradition? What does each tradition teach about what actually happens within a person during a worship service, attending mass, fasting for a day, or doing social service? Those are the kinds of questions I wanted answered in this volume but were not.

If you are looking for a book revealing the spiritual practices of each of the traditions, this is the book for you. If you want to know what each tradition teaches as to how the practices affect a spiritual transformation, you might be disappointed in this book.

Zondervan, 240 pages.

I received an egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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