One of the laws of physics that I learned a long time ago has a great application in many areas of life beyond physics. The law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In terms of spiritual growth, if we consider the word based approach to be the action, there is a reaction that is almost as common and just as strongly accepted by some other segments of the church. That reaction is one that downplays words of faith and elevated actions as the essence of faith.
If the conservative parts of the church tend to follow the word based approach, the more liberal elements of the church tend to favour the action based approach. Now, I have a disadvantage here because I grew up and still minister in the word based side of things and what I know of the reaction is based not on personal experience but on my reading and limited contact with people who approach spiritual life and growth from this perspective.
On the whole, I have to confess that I have a bias towards this understanding. Those who follow this approach are actually doing something about the state of the world. They are often working in food banks, building houses for the poor, raising money for medical care and so on. Rather than discuss the subtleties and nuances of the latest theological understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross, these people are right out there in the world, making a difference.
I may not always agree with the approach such spiritual activists take but I applaud their willingness and desire to do something, to give the cup of cold water or plate of food or warm coat to those in need. Their willingness to step out of their comfort zone and confront the effects of evil in the world inspires me–and often is much more attractive and exciting than the latest debate over the wording of some principle of faith. As much as I enjoy writing and believe in the power of words, there is something more exciting about actually feeding the hungry.
At its most basic, this approach to faith makes a strong connection between what we do and our spiritual life which sounds really good until I ask one of my favourite questions. When I ask “why”, then I run into difficulty. The “why” of all the activity often comes down to some version of “because”.
It might be “because someone has to do it” or “because it needs to be done” or “because we should” or “because Jesus did it” or some other because. But the truth is that often, I find the “because” statements thin and lacking substance. Part of that is likely from my background in the word-based approach to spirituality but a bigger part comes from the lack of real thinking behind the actions.
It can very quickly become a spirituality of doing, a faith based in works where we do what we do to ensure that we earn a place in heaven. And while the majority of the people in the world seem to accept the need to earn a place with their god or gods, one of the basic principles of the Christian faith comes from Galatians 2.8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (NIV)
Just doing things is no more a route to spiritual growth and development than memorizing words. I actually know lots of people who will do anything for another person–sometimes for money, sometimes to gratify a deep seated psychological need, sometimes to gain control of a person, sometimes with a view to long term gain–but definitely not from a desire or need to grow in faith or become closer to God. Such helpful people are sometimes deeply appreciated–but at other times, they are seen as meddling and overbearing people whose “help” has too many strings attached.
So, just as the word wing fails to really develop an healthy spirituality, so the action wing fails as well. Spiritual growth and development needs a stronger and wider definition than either of these extremes provides. And that is where we will go tomorrow.
May the peace of God be with you.