Thursday, September 06, 2012

Learning About Spiritual Growth: An Academic Bias?

Have you ever tried to learn about spiritual growth and direction? There are some books on the subject. There are even courses on the subject that you can study at theological schools or religious schools. Again, I have read some of the books, and read another course syllabus or two. The courses generally have required reading from selected books; some also require journaling as a spiritual exercise.

There's a trend in there, a bias if you will allow the word when no hatred is meant. There is a quiet assumption that one way of learning is better than all others: books and writing. The quiet assumption is that spiritual growth is mainly achieved by reading spiritual books, and secondly by writing spiritual writings. These things do have their place. The Bible was written by people, and has been read by spiritual seekers through the ages. And I'm a bookworm by nature. So I can enthusiastically support reading and writing as full of spiritual potential. The problem comes when we believe that reading and writing is the majority of what we should be doing.

When we read the Bible, we find that the Bible asks more of us than to read it: it asks us to live it. If the Bible tells us to pursue fellowship, then reading a book is not the best thing to do about it: sitting down to a meal and being kind to the people there is a more fitting spiritual exercise for fellowship. If reading the Psalms is a spiritual exercise, then so is singing them -- or being in choir. If the Bible tells us to visit the sick and welcome the stranger, then it is a spiritual exercise to visit my shut-in neighbor (or reach out to her not-precisely-friendly daughter), or be part of the church's cooking brigade that sends out meals to those who need them.

Is there anything we do that is not spiritual? A thing may be spiritual in a good way, or in a bad way in the case of giving in to temptation. Anything we do for family, friends, or neighbors is spiritual in a good way. Our employment can be spiritual regardless of what kind of job we have, by how we treat people and whether we give a full measure, running over, when we work.

What would a spiritual teacher teach, if the goal was to reach beyond books and show how wide and full and beautiful the life of the spirit can be?

When we think of learning, we are used to thinking about books and writing. But what it would look like if we learned to follow Christ like we learn to play a sport: more of a "coaching" model, where there are practical and active things each day? What if we pictured discipleship more like apprenticeship, or an on-the-job training?

My daughter once had a very good soccer coach, and the team was nearly unstoppable. That coach had years of practice figuring out just the drills that would get the kids excited about learning how to block and pass and score. I think St Paul even had something similar in mind when he used sports and military analogies for spiritual growth -- and when he put two of his congregations in competition with each other over helping the needy.

What would a spiritual coach do? What exercises would a really good coach devise that would make us eager and enthusiastic about loving our neighbors, and become skilled at kindness and generosity? These aren't idle questions; I am trying to find ideas.

No comments: