I just celebrated my third wedding anniversary where my wife and I made the brave camping escape (neither of us are woodsie). During our trip to Lakewood Campgrounds we made the detoured stop at Greeview Averies, a small zoo, where we captured this awesome picture of an eagle up close and personal.
I never realized how big these creatures are and no longer doubt their ability to carry off a mid-sized dog (or me for that matter! – apparently an eagle can kill a young deer and fly away with it). This eagle was so beautiful and majestic, but as my wife pointed out, there was only one problem. It was so very sad to see such a majestic creature cooped up in a cage. It would never fulfill its purpose in life. How sad is that. A creature made to be the royalty of the air, but living in a cage.
This sounds familiar. It sounds like the Church.
There’s a lot of talk these days about “living like Jesus”, “what does it mean to be like Jesus?”, “I still follow Christ”, “I want Jesus-spirituality” and so on. These phrases have caught on because they resonate with many people who want “Jesus-shaped spirituality” (often in contrast to religiosity or churchianity). I too want a Jesus-shaped spirituality. But no matter where you are at, what tradition you hail from or where and how you gather and worship, my prayer is that these phrases would complement and not replace good theology which they are intended to communicate.
Amidst the world of religiosity and churchianity – people who go to church once a week to get church and do the church thing and hear the church sermon and sing the church songs – are caged eagles. And amidst the “organics” – people who want to be spiritual like Jesus, do the Jesus thing, talk the Jesus talk and hang-out organically the way Jesus did – there are caged eagles.
Jesus is no more or less a “spiritual” leader then he is a “religious” leader. In fact he is both (James 1:26-27) and so much more. But “spirituality” in our cultural context is more or less a hollow word filled with imprecision and vagueness. We are to be spiritual people no doubt, but when we take this word into the secular context and tell people, “you don’t need religion you just need a spiritual or mystical encounter with Jesus”, you might as equally well direct them to the Dalai Lama, Mohandas Gandhi, Ramana Maharshi or any other great spiritual leader past or present. The problem is not with the concept you are conveying, it is with the message they are receiving.
When we Christians say “spiritual”, good theology dictates that we mean “new creation” and everything in which that phrase encompasses. So to have a Jesus-shaped spirituality is to be, literally and spiritually, re-created – through the process of death and resurrection – into newness of life, Christ’ life (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 1:21, Romans 8:11). But this is not the message the world hears when they hear the word “spiritual”. What they hear is this:
On very rare occasions throughout the history of mankind, Spiritual giants have appeared to exemplify the Highest Truth, guiding followers by their conduct in every moment of their lives; Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi was such a giant. Unique in our time, He perfectly embodied the ultimate truth of Self-realization, or complete absorption in the Supreme Itself. (Here)
People may not consciously articulate it that way, but – given humanity’s natural tendency towards the almighty “self” and popular New Age spiritualities which have hijacked the phrase “spiritual” and made it their own – that general idea is what is received.
But this is the exact opposite of what it means to be a Christ-follower. Christ tells us to take up our cross and crucify the “self” so that we may live (Luke 14:27, Romans 6:8, 2 Timothy 2:11) . It is only after we are out of the way that true life comes. It is only through death that resurrection happens; and resurrection is not resuscitation. It is not the old-self being revived, it is a new creature altogether. This is what happens through the born-again experience when people enter the family of God. But I wonder how many in the Church truly realize this.
Whether we are talking about religiosity where people do the “Christian thing” or if we are talking about “spiritually organically following Jesus” – people who want to be socially active like Jesus and in every way that Jesus exemplified (his treatment of outsiders, his care for the poor, his address of women, his lambasting of the religious establishment, his inclusion of everyone and so on), the problem may persist. We need to keep in mind that becoming a “Christian”, doing the “God-thing”, becoming a “Jesus-follower” (or whatever hip phrase you prefer) is not about following Jesus’ example. (There now, I have perturbed somebody somewhere.)
All of this is not about following his example; it is about being created into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18). Jesus did not come and die so that people can merely learn how to be good and how best to treat one another by following his example; he died to undo the disastrous effects of Genesis 3 (cf. Philippians 2:5-11, Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:17-28). And when that happens, an individual will be transformed into Christ’ image to reflect Christ’ likeness. In other words, spirituality language on the lips of Christians should convey the thought of dying to your old life and living a new life which is hidden in Christ – new creation. This results, of course, in following Jesus’ example, but it’s much more than that.
But spirituality language in the ears of the secular society conveys the idea of following a great spiritual leader to better humanity and to feel better about you. You serve yourself by serving humanity. So when a Christian evangelizes using “Jesus Spirituality” language, what the menu reads and what is actually served are not the same.
My wife tells me that if someone from El Salvador visits a restaurant in Mexico and orders Enchiladas they will not get – and maybe not appreciate – what they expect to be served. The word is the same on the menu, but the dish differs based on the culture you are in. The same can be said with “Jesus Spirituality” language. What we place on the menu and what people actually get may not be the same thing. So if people are converted under the pretense of “Jesus-spirituality”, which to them means following Jesus’ example as best they can, they are like caged eagles. And the same goes for all the people who converted under the pretense of “changing religion” or “becoming Christian”, which to them may mean finding a law in Christianity which will ease their conscience – caged eagles.
When God recreates a person he does not create them to be caged eagles – neither “do-the-church-thing” people nor the “be-spiritual-like-Jesus” people. Christians have been re-created to fly. So get out of that cage and take to the skies, i.e., stop living as if you belong grounded in this society, your citizenship is from above where you are seated with Christ in heavenly places. (Philippians 3:19-20)