loren Eric Swanson: The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality

Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality (Doubleday, New York, New York, 1999)

However the human spirit is incurably religious and, secular philosophy notwithstanding, it keeps doing religious things. Thus, in the Western world, even though the Enlightenment wrote off religion, its most fervent converts continued, and continue, to be zealously religious, albeit in covert forms. Everyone worships at some shrine.
Thus, for example, ideologies of all kinds, from Marxism to secular feminism, substitute a normative theory of history for the Judeo-Christian story of salvation and propose this new story as the story of salvation; secular art turns creativity into a religion whose God is so jealous as to make the old demanding God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam appear lax; secular moralists demand a doctrinal orthodoxy (political correctness) which religious fundamentalists can only envy; secular moral zealots continue to find no end of causes that call for religious martyrdom; positive thinking and pedagogues of excellence propose a new religious hope; the cults of physical health, replete with ever more demanding forms of asceticism, replace old spiritualities regarding the should; ancient animism, the worship of nature, takes on new religious forms; myths and fairy tales replace the old Bible stories; new shrines (from Graceland to Lady Diana’s tomb) continue to appear; and secular forms of canonization, of books and people , do what religious canonization formerly did. Religion is never at the margins. Everyone has a spirituality, including today’s adult children of the Enlightenment.
The secular world too enters today’s spiritual arena carrying plenty of religious baggage. P. 49-50

Essential truths are those that are necessary for everyone, prescribed for everyone, and nonnegotiable for everyone. They cannot be ignored or bracketed on the basis of temperament, taste, situation, or lack of time. In the case of essential truths, like the ten commandments for instance, it is not a question of personal choice (“I feel like doing them or I don’t”). They are nonnegotiable, universally prescribed.
Accidental truth, on the other hand, refers to a real truth, but to truth that takes its importance only in relationship to more essential truth. Accidental truth can, for a variety of reasons, be ignored or bracketed. Thus, to give just one example, it can be true that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at a given shrine. However, even if it is true, that truth in no way has the same importance as does the central truth of God becoming incarnate in Christ. The truth of a Marian apparition is what classical theology calls an accidental truth. The truth it teaches is not universally prescribed, but is one that you can choose (on the basis of temperament, taste, background, culture, or time) to either respond to or not. Unlike the truth of the incarnation or of the Ten Commandments, there is a certain negotiability here, not about its being true, but about whether or not it is something to which we should attend. [from the End Notes: The word “accidental” here is used in its technical, philosophical sense (as opposed to its commonsense usage), i.e., as Aristotle defined “accident” (as opposed to “substance”). Accident refers to those qualities of something or somebody which, while part of the makeup, can (and do) change.] P. 52

More than a few Christians might be surprised to learn that the call to be involved in creating justice for the poor is just as essential and nonnegotiable within the spiritual life as is Jesus’ commandment to pray and keep our private lives in order. Jesus’ teaching on this is very strong, consistent throughout all the Gospels, and leaves no room for equivocation. In the Christian scriptures, one out of every ten lines deals directly with the physically poor and the call from God for us to respond to them. In the gospel of Luke, that becomes every sixth line, and in the epistle of James, that commission is there, in one form or another, every fifth line. P. 64

Moreover, the call to do justice as an integral part of relating to God is already strong within the Jewish scriptures. Beginning about 800B.C., the Jewish prophets made one truth central to their teaching. They taught that the quality of faith in the people depends upon the character of justice in the land—and the character of justice in the land is to be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable groups in the society, namely, widows, orphans and strangers. Thus according to the Jewish prophets, where we stand with God depends not just upon prayer and sincerity of heart but also on where we stand with the poor. P. 64-65

Jesus never disputes that. He takes it further. He identifies his own presence with the poor and tells us that, ultimately, we will be judged on how we treat the poor. Bluntly put, we will to to heaven or hell on the basis of giving or not giving food, water, clothing, shelter, and justice to the poor. How we treat the poor is how we treat God. For this reason Jesus asks us to make a preferential option for the poor: “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your family or your relations or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and repay you. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; then you will be blessed.” Reaching out, preferentially, to the poor is an essential component of the spiritual life.
This is not a new teaching albeit our understanding of it is deepening. All Christian churches have always taught this, in one way or the other, and they have also always, in their best expressions lived it out. Despite many embarrassing blemishes in the history of Christianity, it has too a proud history in terms of the poor. From the initial establishment of hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and schools for the poor (long before secular society took any responsibility), to the role of the churches in overthrowing slavery, to the social gospel within many Protestant churches and liberation theology and the social encyclicals within Catholicism today, the Christian churches have always made the preferential option for the poor an integral part of living out of one’s faith. P. 65

When we make spirituality essentially a privatized thing, cut off from the poor and the demands for justice that are found there, it soon degenerates into mere private therapy, an art form, or worse still, an unhealthy clique.
God cannot be related to without continually digesting the uneasiness and pain that are experienced by looking, squarely and honestly, at how the weakest members in our society are faring and how our own lifestyle is contributing to that…It is something that lies at the very heart of the gospel and which Jesus himself makes the ultimate criterion for our final judgment. P.66

Only one kind of person transforms the world spiritually, someone with a grateful heart. P. 67

…a century ago, a prominent Protestant theologian, Frederick Schleiermacher, tried to point this [wanting God but not wanting the church] out in a book with a curious title: Speeches on Religion for Those Among the Cultured Who Despise It. Schleiermacher pointed out that, separate from historical religion, namely, the churches with all their faults, the individual in quest of God, however sincere that search, lives the unconfronted life. Without church, we have more private fantasy than real faith….he submits that real conversion demands that eventually its recipient be involved in both the muck and the grace of actual church life. P. 69

Social justice, therefore, tries to look at the system (political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and mythical) within which we live so as to name and change those structural things that account for the fact that some of us are unduly penalized even as others of us are unduly privileged. Thus, social justice has to do with issues such as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, abortion, and lack of concern for ecology because what lies at the root of each of these is not so much someone’s private sin or some individual’s private inadequacy but rather a huge, blind system that is inherently unfair.
Hence, justice differs from private charity: Charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, while justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none; charity is about treating your neighbors with respect, while justice is about trying to get at the deeper roots of racism; and charity is about helping specific victims of war, while justice is about trying to change the things in the world that ultimately lead to war. Charity is appeased when some rich person gives money to the poor while justice asks why one person can be that rich when so many are poor. P 169


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