Fourth in a series
One of the seven broken signposts that A.T. Wright studies in his new book Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World (New York: HarperOne, 2020, $27.99) is spirituality. It is one of the seven signposts that Wright doesn’t think are working in the contemporary world and which he thinks can be healed by embracing the vision that St. John presents in his gospel. I smiled as I read the first couple of sentences in Wright’s chapter on spirituality.
Wright points out that the word “spirituality” was not a word he heard used much in his younger days and he recalls the first time he heard it. My experience mirrors Wright’s. I can recall exactly when I first heard the word. Wright points out that today many who seem no longer interested in religion seem very interested in spirituality. He notes the frequency with which some contemporaries make statements such as “I am not religious but I am spiritual.” Wright argues that what people are searching for in efforts to be spiritual is beautifully and brilliantly presented by St. John.
Asserting that John would be surprised, puzzled, and deeply disturbed by the confusion over spirituality in our world, Wright explains that concerning spirituality we have the same choices that were available in the ancient world. He states the following:
“Either the gods are largely absent (Epicureanism); they are somehow divine forces within us and the world (Stoicism); they live in a nonphysical and nontemporal world to which our world can escape (Platonism); or they are particular forces operating in different areas of life (ordinary paganism). John, however, lived in the Jewish world which was as radically different then as it is radically different now. For Jews, the One God of creation was utterly different from the world, and yet intimately involved with it.”(p. 66)
Wright claims that the paradox of God, being infinitely different from the world and yet very involved with it, was second nature to the Psalmists — basic to the Prophets — and is the main subject of the “Five Books” — the Torah of Moses — and that this paradox finds its main expression in the Temple — the place where heaven and earth came together. While the Temple was central, the Torah was also very important in the spiritual life of the Jews. The Torah is the narrative of the One God and his people. Stressing God’s desire to be with his people, Wright emphasizes that the relationship between God and his people was expressed in Temple and Torah:
“The point is that the God of Israel didn’t just want to live with his people in the Temple. His desire was that his very life, his breath of life, wisdom, joy, and so on would be inside their very individual lives. After all, if they really were made in his image, what could be more appropriate than for that image to come to life and vividly express the reality of God’s power and love in a life that is both truly human and truly God-reflecting and becoming more and more so all the time.
“We note that these two focal points of ancient Jewish spirituality, Temple and Torah, are deeply affirmative of creation, celebrating its goodness, while refusing to worship it.” (p.69)
For John, Jesus is the new Temple, and his followers, infused by the Holy Spirit, are to be Temple people also. God is not just going to be with them but live in them. Jesus is the vine and his followers are the branches. The presence of the Risen Christ within us is not so that we can escape the world and enter heaven but rather that we can be channels of God’s love to others. John’s gospel takes the hopes and dreams of those who lived before the arrival of Jesus to a new level. I think of St. Teresa’s statement that God puts our best dreams to shame. The Father’s gift of his Son goes beyond all hopes and dreams and the presence of the Holy Spirit in teaching and inspiring Jesus’ followers is central to the spirituality that John presents in his gospel. I can imagine someone hearing John’s message for the first time suspecting that the good news is too good to be true.
I suspect that those who have given up on the Christian religion and welcomed some extra-ecclesial spirituality have had some terrible experiences of religion. My guess is that they never grasped the beauty and profound truth of John’s message. If they did how could they reject it? Those of us who accept John’s message should do our best to live up to it, to be temples who bear grateful witness to God’s love.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.