Friday, September 13, 2013

Christian Spirituality: Responsive and Catalytic

"The best of gospel preaching is at once proclamation and celebration..." -Henry Mitchell

As with most things in life, there is a paradoxical dimension to Christian spirituality. Unique, perhaps, to a spirituality that's specifically Christian is the fact that as much as it is catalytic--as much as it effects something--it is predominately responsive. Christian spirituality does not have its event as its end but as its beginning. In other words, it's not that we're causing something to happen, it's not that we're effecting some supernatural healing or cosmic power, but we are responding to something, to an event of heaving and power that has already been announced. The grace of God and the unique event of that grace--namely Jesus Christ--precedes human action; it precedes spirituality and spiritual practice. The grace of God is the event of Christian spirituality and it is the event which always, and in all situations, precedes us. Therefore, our action is always a responsive action no matter how proactive or catalytic it may be. And, as such, the heart of Christian spirituality is celebration. We celebrate the free grace of God, even in the darkness of the cross. 

Side note: not much can be said about this here, but Christian celebration does not always mean happiness. It does not always mean dancing and "putting a smile on." If that is our perception, then we're at risk of creating a space in our churches which precludes the celebration of human honesty. We risk the creation of a space in which it is expected that everyone is joyous and smiling and put-together. This kind of space will never be an honest space because the reality of suffering and death is a universal reality which is not dismissed from existence by God's grace but infused by it. What we are celebrating as Christians is not the absence of suffering and grief, but the presence of God therein. So Christian spirituality celebrates the presence of God and God's grace in the midst of our suffering. We are free to stand in the darkness, acknowledge our experience of it, stand honestly in the suffering and there discover the crucified Christ in our midst. Christian celebration is celebration that knows suffering. 

Beside the predominant responsive element of Christian spirituality is its catalytic element. Herein lies the paradox: while we are only responding to and not effecting God's grace, since God is in a relationship of koinonia with humanity--an essentially reciprocal and interdependent relationship--we are also in participation with the work of God's grace. We are indeed, by our faith, causing something to happen. God sanctifies human action to be eschatological, to have correspondence with God's work and therefore to have effectiveness. Jesus consistently alluded to the power of faith--"your faith has healed you!" God may be building the building, but that doesn't mean we don't get to hew the stones. It's God's work, but we are God's partners. When we engage in celebration, we are causing that which we celebrate to find correspondence in the life of the world. Our response to God's grace causes something to happen. The captives are liberated, the blind are given sight, the deaf hear, and the poor are exalted. The object of our celebration becomes the result of our action. 

2 comments:

Marcus Hong said...

Really appreciate this, Wes.

I would say, in response to your sidenote, that while I agree that Christian celebration isn't all about dancing and smiling, hopefully it should sometimes be about these things.

Problems arise when we either become dour and focus only on penitence, or put on false smiles and focus only on praise. As you gesture toward here, Christian celebration is about gratitude. Gratitude can lead to dancing (see the lame man from Acts 3), but is also connected to recognizing the reality of sorrow and brokenness. You should read Donald Saliers' book WORSHIP AS THEOLOGY. Gets right to this point.

Thanks again for the post!

Wesley Ellis said...

Thanks Marcus,
I think you're right. The key is honesty. How, in the present ambiguity of life and the sometimes overwhelming provisionality of promise, do we respond honestly to God's grace? I think if we are not free to dance and smile, we're missing something. But if we think that we are somehow spiritually deficient for experiencing absence and abandonment, then I think we're missing something there too. It is a paradox, I guess.

I will check out that book! It sounds great!!! Thanks for the comment and for the recommendation.

-Wes