Thursday, July 28

Literature and Spirituality: Crafting a Point of View

I didn’t want to wait a week for this post because I don’t want to get ahead of myself, which is a really weird phrase when you think about it. Don’t think about it now though I will say that reading about and trying to process what we’re learning because of the James Webb Telescope plus the lost Covid years are messing up my thinking about my own time-space continuum.

My process so far:

  • Review a syllabus for the Literature and Spirituality class.
  • Note the books with which I’m familiar and the ones I don’t know; eliminate some titles based on those I do know because if I’m not interested in reading or re-reading them, I’ll never encourage students to read them.
  • Look up the ones I don’t know to figure out if I want to know them then, based on that “research,” order said books through Thriftbooks or an at least good condition copy through Amazon.
  • Skim some of those books once they arrive; regret some purchases and not others. That’s why I buy used, but also note that some of the regrets may be partially okay so have to figure out if I can find legit PDFs for at least some chapters because I’ve learned we don’t always have to read the whole book. I won’t say how many years it took me to appreciate that as an option.
  • Read articles I’ve found and determine which have useful and applicable information as opposed to “Wow, that’s really interesting” information that I’ll be tempted to include anyway just because I found it interesting. (I’m not alone in this; you know who you are.)
  • Review the responses from friends and colleagues. Make notes. Reflect on my own ideas about spirituality.
  • Write blog posts to help me process.
  • Start fiddling with introductory PowerPoint presentations for students.
  • Based on my reading, these are some of my thoughts about spirituality and what it means or implies. I need to point out that just as my thinking (and writing) often rambles, so does my research. I might be hot on the trail of one thing or idea and get distracted or sidetracked by something else. In this case, it was Nicholas Cusa and Giordano Bruno because others kept mentioning them.

    I’ve created a Padlet timeline to help me track, well, whatever I find. It’s helping me and may help my students. I'll continue to add to it as I discover and learn.

    Where I started

    For me, my first thought was that spirituality is an expression of what I value and how I want to live. That was the first pass and somewhat validated by my research, but there I am getting ahead of myself. Then I started thinking about what informs how I want to live, which reminded me of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976). (A movie was made; I’ve never watched it. You can find the whole 4-hour-plus movie through Vision Video or the first episode here You might also find this 2016 assessment or revisiting of Schaeffer’s work interesting, too, especially in light of what’s going on in the world today

    But I have to go back a bit further for those of you who don’t know me. I became a Christian in late 1977, so after I graduated from college. This will be an abbreviated version of my conversion story. Let’s just say that I had fun in college and that academics were important but not a priority. I started working as a bookkeeper for a small software company then located in Satellite Beach, FL (I was born and grew up in Florida. Oldest of two. Family life complicated.) There was one other single woman there; she was a programmer. We became friends. She invited me to church and though my family and I had gone to church of a different denomination, I’m quite certain that was the first time I heard the Gospel. She and her family were incredibly patient with me, encouraging me to ask my thousands of questions and process my doubts. Roughly nine months later, I was born again. Yep, I find that weirdly symbolic as well. Was my life immediately transformed? Yes, in some ways, but certainly not completely. I had so much to unlearn and then learn. My responding to the altar call that day and then being baptized was only the beginning of my very wobbly journey to understanding what it means to be spiritual, but not religious. Hold that thought, and probably for a few blog posts because I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to that idea of being spiritual but not religious.

    So what informs my understanding of spirituality and how I want to live is my relationship with God, my understanding of who He is and who I am in relationship with Him. My spirituality is directed or guided by my understanding of the Holy Spirit and His (long, long-suffering) work in and through me. What I value is not what others tell me to believe or what they believe is true about God or the Bible, but what the Spirit guides me to think and test and process based on what I read in the Bible and what others teach me. But no one person—theologian, author, or pastor—defines my faith and spirituality. After all, those theologians, authors, and pastors are human beings and, therefore, fallible. They each have their own cognitive, spiritual, and religious biases.

    Faith vs. Religion vs. Spirituality

    I know we’re clawing our way to understanding spirituality, but I think many trip over “faith” and “religion.” I’m going to simplify my definitions. There is a lot of research, interestingly much of it secular, about these terms.

    And so, for me, religion is how we practice our faith; that is, the rituals, the practices, and the values of the denomination or the church someone attends. I grew up in a church with specific liturgies for each Sunday. There were certain things we did at certain times and in response to certain things. In other denominational experiences I’ve had, there are still routines as we follow the order of the service: when we sing, when we pray, when we hear the sermon or homily, when and how we have communion, etc. Practicing Jews have their rituals and that often depends on their affiliation because Orthodox Jews have rituals that are different from Reformed Jews, etc. Muslims pray five times a day and have specific guidelines for those prayers. You get the idea.

    My faith, however, is personal. Most Christians know Hebrews 11:1-3:

    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the world were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (NRSV).
    Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible (NIV).
    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the [worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible (NKJV).

    But I think we have to look at all of Hebrews 11 and then all of Hebrews 12 and Hebrews 13, and in whatever translation you like. I think these chapters of the Bible help me understand what it means to express my faith—my belief in who God is and my relationship with Him.

    When I attend a church service, the expression of my faith might be in how I interact with and engage in those routines and practices. And if I don’t agree with the values of that denomination, I likely won’t be in a church of that denomination because I won’t feel connected.

    Now that’s just me. You don’t have to agree with any of this, but I beg you to think about it.

    That brings me back to spirituality: how I believe I should live my life and how I know how to do that. One of my favorite verses in Scripture is Isaiah 30.21: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it” (NIV). But because I don’t like to take a verse out of context, just go take a minute and read all of Isaiah 30. Yes, all of it. In whatever translation you like.

    Because this is how I believe faith and spirituality intersect, maybe even collide. I believe, like Kabir (and that may really mess with your head), that God is “the breath inside the breath.” I don’t care if you believe the Bible is or is not the inerrant Word of God. I don’t care if you believe the Bible is a fable or anything else.

    My faith in who God is informed by Scripture, absolutely. But I also believe that God speaks to me through His word differently than He does anyone else. Why? Because of Isaiah 43, specifically Isaiah 43:1-13, but also all of it. Because of Psalm 139. All of it. Because of Romans 12. All of it.

    How I personally respond to, embrace, believe, absorb, think about, pray about any and all of those chapters and verses is part of my faith. How I act or change my behaviors and how I live because of my response, embrace, thoughts, prayers—my soul response—is my spirituality. Perhaps what others might call living out their faith.

    Next time I’ll share what some of my friends and colleagues have said about spirituality and how that, plus my research, is shaping my thinking. If I have time, I’ll talk a bit about some of the texts though that may have to wait for subsequent posts.

    And just remember that I'm crafting my point of view, so I may as yet change my mind. The journey continues.

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