Thursday, May 8, 2008

Individualism & Spirituality

Spirituality is the favorite playground of the postmodern expressive individualist. Spirituality is perceived as the perfect means to cultivate the private self and self-expression. Yet with little to no connection to anything historical or theological framework Christian spirituality quickly becomes syncretistic; a strange blend of Holy Spirit and self help. Yet, the purpose of Christian spirituality is not “developing a better self-image, achieving self-fulfillment, or finding self-affirmation, nor is it the development of individualistic qualities.”[1] Rodney Clapp states what orthodox Christian spirituality is not.
It is not opposed to the body, it is not non physical. It is not removed from history, the ongoing flow of time. It is not asocial, a solitary activity or state of being. It is not primarily inward and invisible, a hidden affair of the private heart...[It is not] a compartmentalized experience, customized by and for the lone individual, removed from any pesky, constraining traditions or social bodies (institutions).[2]

Rather it is about developing patterns and virtues that help incarnate Christ’s social body in the world. Clapp concurs stating that “Orthodox spirituality is participation and formation in the life of the church that is created and sustained by the Holy Spirit.”[3]

Evangelical spirituality, as I have noted many times, is a personal Christological piety. Yet when this eclipses the preaching and the Sacraments or that which constitutes the church as the church there is a serious problem.[4] When this type of spirituality is the center of ecclesial unity, “the individual is prior to the church in such a way that a cafeteria style approach to Christianity is inevitable.”[5] The tendency of American individuals is to “leave the church” which may or may not actually entail a physical leaving but rather making “faith their own.” Real or valid faith is determined by a process of internalization not by just accepting what ones parents believe. Particularity of faith is swallowed by subjectivity.[6] Without the framework of church history and theology a flimsy spirituality ensues.

Within individualism, a consumerist tendency fills the self-created void of others with desire for desire. Tolerance and pluralism relegate belief (and practice) “to one more item on the market shelf”[7] where we are free “to treat these narratives, roles, and symbols as disposable commodities: things to be played with, explored, tried on, and, in the end, discarded.”[8] Not only do our individualistic spiritualities succumb to consumerism. Consumerism is a spirituality itself. Not recognizing the irony, culture implores individuals to cast off or empty the self of all things external. The empty or impoverished self may selectively be filled with “commodity based self-enhancements”[9] as salvation from the emptiness of self. Miller’s comments on consumerism are telling about the state of Christianity. Individualism promises wholeness within self-sufficiency, but this leaves the individual in radical isolation, where selves never fully comprehend the other. “Relationships are reduced to acts of consumption, a consumption that, because it is completely determined by the monadic self, can never free it from itself.”[10] The empty self must consume, but gets consumed by the process of consumption where even our Christian spirituality and practices, designed to cultivate and channel our desire of God, are commodified. Consumer desire does not end in possession, rather it is endless desire itself.[11] Christian spirituality, even in the most individualistic sense longs to go to heaven – or more appropriately the coming of God’s Kingdom. The empty individual, consumed by consumerism, desires endlessly, and is thus perpetually seeking a unique spirituality from the “wisdom of many religious traditions stripped from their supporting communal infrastructures.”[12] The perceived freedom of choice in plenty of the spiritual cornucopia distracts us from recognizing the “structures that that maintain our dissipation.”[13]

[1] Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVp, 1998), 102.
[2] Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 14.
[3] Ibid., 14.
[4] Carter, 176.
[5] Ibid., 176.
[6] Chan, 109.
[7] Beth Newman, “Pluralism as Idolatry” ( Accessed on December 7, 2006.
[8] Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2005), 6.
[9] Ibid., 54.
[10] Ibid., 111.
[11] Ibid., 141.
[12] Ibid., 142.
[13] Ibid., 142.