The way is the path of life, and its purpose. More accurately, the content of the way is the specific path of life. The form of the way, its most fundamental aspect, is the apparently intrinsic or heritable possibility of positing or of being guided by a central idea. This apparently intrinsic form finds its expression in the tendency of each individual, generation after generation, to first ask and subsequently seek an answer to the question what is the meaning of life?
– Jordan Peterson
To follow Jesus means to walk a path of kenotic love, self mastery, inner transformation, and social change. To follow Jesus means to harken to a voice of alternative wisdom that the mainstream culture rejects and rails against. Kenotic love is this – pick up your Cross, bear the weight of integrity, die to self by loving others genuinely, and undermine the abusive Empire. In doing so, we may potentially find much of the meaning of our lives.
The concept of metanoia – Greek for turning or transformation – implies an ongoing process of becoming more fully human. Much of spirituality is an exercise in orientation – keeping ourselves on a path of self-mastery, self-correction, and self-development. Our personal engagement with the symbol of the Cross and the open table, the internalization of the teaching and parables and their meaning, and the willingness to orient our lives through the mythic narrative of the scriptures all fuel our transformation.
Spirituality in a post-Christian culture is evolving beyond traditional religious practices into a philosophical undertaking that typically includes a framework of values aimed at producing an intentional lifestyle. What are the general characteristics of the post-Christian spiritual lifestyle and can they relate to Christianity in a meaningful way?
First, contemporary spirituality implies a striving for wholeness understood as a fully integrated approach to life that balances health, work, relationships, service, learning, and select religious practices. Therefore, spirituality today implies that to thrive is to flourish as a human being in the fullest possible sense, and one that is deeper than merely being successful in terms of career or having money.
Second, contemporary spirituality involves seeking encounters with the sacred, usually understood as some metaphor or reality of ultimate concern – God, spirit, Oneness, and so on. In this sense, the sacred usually implies something of the numinous, feelings associated with cultivating awe and reverence for the mysteries of life and the universe. Further, there is also the implication that the spiritual-sacred resides beyond the material realm, and therefore the spiritual journey often takes people inward to the depths of subjectivity and/or to concerns beyond the mundane.
Third, contemporary spirituality often includes searching for meaning and purpose in life, yet with the individual conducting and guiding their own quest. This development reflects the decline in respect for traditional religious authority. The individual will map out their own path, usually a combination of reading, meditation, yoga classes, exposure to nature, and so on.
What then is Christian spirituality and how can one cultivate it in a post-Christian culture? Perhaps even more importantly, can a realistic Christian spirituality speak to today’s post-Christian world?
Christianity implies a relationship to the event which inaugurated it – Jesus of Nazareth. Christian spirituality therefore need not be different in form than today’s post-Christian varieties, but must be different in content. Christians today are encouraged to seek wholeness and balance, personal thriving, encounters with the sacred, and even numinous experiences – but to do so understanding wholeness, sacredness, balance, and so on from a Christian perspective – from within the Christian narrative, engaging Christian symbols and metaphors, and embodying the values of the gospels.
The New Testament is the source of the foundational Christian narrative. It is overlaid on the Jewish story of creation, dignity, covenant, and redemption. Christian symbols include the Cross, the open table, and many other symbols employed in Jesus’ parables and teachings – wheat, water, mustard seeds, and so on.
Therefore, part of the outward form of Christian spiritual practice is the reinforcement of the meanings of the narrative and symbols through ritual – baptism, liturgy, eucharist, candle lighting, as well as the celebration of the holy days within the Christian calendar. When these powerful sources of meaning are engaged, transformation of self and often entire communities is possible.
Spirituality and Human Imagination
Imagination is the human mental capacity to create images and ideas. Today, imagination is often treated as a childish realm of fantasy and daydreams. Yet without our capacity for imagination, all works of fiction would be impossible. Further, so would most of physics and biology since we must rely on imagination to help us visualize and comprehend the workings of atoms, cells, and stars.
Imagination is also a significant arena for religion and spirituality. Like atoms and cells, we don’t see God or Jesus. Again, the language of religion and theology is the language of imagination – story, symbol, metaphor, and poetry.
Imagination is central to the religious consciousness. Religion does not necessarily “demand belief” (certainly not unquestioning belief) nor does it invariably “prescribe and proscribe”. At its best, it operates precisely through the exercise of the imagination. Certainly, Jesus’ teaching method was to awaken the imagination.
Read the gospels. Jesus taught no doctrines, added no dogmas, promulgated neither creed nor moral code, and never seemed interested in acting the constitutional lawyer, describing structures, offices and the protocol of succession. Instead, Jesus appealed to imagination, which in its artistry seeks to enchant rather than to coerce, to haunt rather than to conclude, to tug at the heart rather than to beat about the head.
– James Mackey
The notion of spiritual experience is ubiquitous in human culture, but also ambiguous. The exact nature of the claimed experiences remains open to debate. Common traits of religious experience are claims of light, of expanded consciousness, or grasping the connectedness, unity, and oneness of reality, while others report the presence of another, feelings of immense love and acceptance, and so on.
While these experiences speak to some reality, whether that reality is an actual experience of the Divine or whether it is the byproduct of brain physiology-chemical responses induced by ritual or meditation remains an open question.
In any case, like all experience, spiritual experience is always subjective. This does not mean it is invalid or irrational. However, it does mean that spiritual experience should not be treated as normative or supplied as the justification of theological claims. Rather, it points to an awareness in subjectivity that must be conveyed using metaphorical and poetic language, the core language of theology.
Once inner spiritual experiences are segregated from ethical and/or traditional contexts, they tend to lose their sacred and transformative quality and become merely peak-experiences — temporary gratifications for an ego hungry for subjective spiritual heights, but often leading to further self-absorption and narcissism — the antithesis of what any authentic spiritual path strives for.
– Jorge Ferrer
A few Greek terms have been used within our various essays – logos, kenosis, metanoia, and eudaimonia. These terms are central to the dynamics of Christian living and spirituality.
The Christian concept of grace may be interpreted to be the inner power of this dynamic. Rather than treat grace as some magical power that rains down from heaven, grace is the transformative-creative potential of the following dynamic.
In logos we encounter not only the order of our lives, but their meaning as well. Chaos is not only the opposite of order, it is also the opposite of meaning. The Christian assertion of logos as divinity is an affirmation of the meaning of human life – and that meaning is found primarily in an ordered thriving, wholeness, and loving self donation of self to others to achieve the same.
A central aspect of Jesus’ teaching is that kenosis is vital to logos – that the meaning of our lives comes into sight best when we are not focused on self, but rather self emptying. Our wholeness is found by giving ourselves to those values and things that return us to ourselves improved and reconstituted.
Our awakening to these realities and our sense of self orientation is part of metanoia, the process of repentance, which is better understood as self directed transformation, rather than groveling before power. Metanoia is awareness, the condition for change, as well as the ability to sense our direction in life. It inspires us to turn toward the good, toward God, and toward those things worthy of our dignity. It motivates kenosis.
Kenosis is a Greek word that means emptying. It primarily refers to early Christian perception of Jesus’ loving, self-emptying to become human, an act of humility spoken of in Philippians 2:7, where Paul describes Jesus humbling himself, setting aside his divine privileges, becoming nothing for the sake of all.
Philippians describes Jesus’ act of selfless love, but also encourages individual followers to do the same – Paul implying that at the heart of the Christian life is a sacrifice of self for others, in love and service. This theme of making a gift of self and sacrificial love resonates throughout all the gospels and is powerfully conveyed in the symbol of the Cross.
Kenosis as a key component of Christian spirituality is a significant theme in Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality. In Orthodox spirituality, union with the divine is found through kenosis – the giving away of self in love to others – a dying to egoisitic desires and an embracing of one’s own Cross thus conforming our lives to the example of Jesus.
Western theology utilizes the concept of kenosis, with glimpses of it in Jewish theology and spirituality, with God emptying himself and accepting limitations in order to create the world and enter into covenants with humans.
Kenosis is a process of self-giving that does not end with us empty. Through our loving donation of self, we find ourself returned to self renewed, or recollected. In recollection I come to myself, I recover the center of my being, experiencing the depth and reality of my own subjectivity, for fully self-possessed, therefore, more free and capable of giving myself again in love. Each act of dying to self returns generates new life, recalling Jesus’ parable of the grain of wheat.
The assertion that we can give ourselves away to others, to values, to circumstances for the sake of love and goodness, implies a conviction of both human freedom and human autonomy and self-possession – we are our own to give at our choosing. And what we give ourselves to will determine the condition we find ourselves returned to after the gift.
The call of authentic value for an adequate response addresses itself to us in a sovereign, but non-intrusive, sober manner. It appeals to our spiritual center. In a certain sense, this call is intimate and personal, one in which I experience the uniqueness of myself.
– Dietrich von Hildebrand
We are fully capable of squandering the gift of self – offering our lives for things not worthy of our dignity and value. In such cases, we are recollected in a diminished state. Humans create their future character through action – what we do, what we give ourselves to – influences what we become and the type of person who emerges over time. Continued giving of self to selfish pursuits, forms a person who is increasingly selfish and establishes a self-centered character.
Conversely, if we give ourselves over to things of value that are worthy of our dignity, we should experience recollection, the regathering of self in a more full and unified manner. Continued giving of self to goodness and virtue results in those goods improving us as persons, refining our character, and making us more like Jesus.
Given that we do not possess the fullness of ourselves at any one time, being extended through time, our lives and formation of character are a dynamic process. Kenosis and recollection build on one another, our moral choices influence not only our future character, but our future moral choices as well. Therefore, our moral action is capable of building a positive feedback loop, with each choice for the good reinforcing our ability make such choices in the future. The same holds for immoral choices.
Therefore, at the heart of our transformation in Jesus is the Cross, an archetypal symbol of self-donation and self-emptying motivated by and for the sake of love. This process of inward formation points toward eudaimonia – the Greek term for wholeness or thriving. The process is systematic and inter-looping, never static.
Our apprehension of creative meaning (logos-God the Father), awakens us and orients us (metanoia-powered by the Holy Spirit), to give our lives in love to others (Jesus-Kenosis), thus leading to Eudaimonia – wholeness (holiness.)