American life is full of examples of a generic sort of secular spirituality. From Oprah to political candidates to 12 Step programs, individualized spirituality is favored over organized religion.
In my experience, people seem to desire a connection to something greater than themselves, something transcendent. But, they don’t trust the religious narrative handed down to them or the religious leaders who taught them.
So many turn to a homemade spirituality, to a religion-less amalgam of world spirituality: a little Buddhism here, a bit of Hinduism there, a touch of Native American practices and a heavy dose of Christian Gnosticism for nostalgia’s sake. They are left with the view that Jesus was just a guru or a political activist, and that Christianity has nothing to offer those looking for a more spiritual life.
At this point, some discover (or rediscover) the Orthodox Church and are happy to learn that there is a long history of meditative prayer and asceticism in our Tradition. Between the icons, the incense, the quiet prayers and the prostrations, Orthodoxy can feel like the next way to scratch their spiritual itch.
The problem is, the Church is neither just a religion to be practiced nor just a spirituality to dabble in. The Church is the Body of Christ, a community of persons striving to know and encounter Jesus Christ. So prayer, going to church, and leading a spiritual life have the person of Christ Himself as their purpose, rather than abstract “enlightenment” or “being spiritual.”
Let’s take a look at three things many of us set up in the place of Christ, three idols we (perhaps unintentionally) use to distort our understanding of Christ and His Church.
1. The idol of the emotions
For starters, being spiritual doesn’t just mean being more attuned to your emotions. Sometimes we might look for an emotional experience as evidence that we’ve had a spiritual experience (a feeling of having an epiphany, a dream, or being moved to tears). If this is what we’re looking for—just an emotional reaction—it’s no wonder so many people feel more spiritual out in nature than they do in the Liturgy.
If we’re not particularly excited about attending Liturgy, we might think we’re doing something wrong when we see others who seem to love church. If we’re bored in church, or we just don’t feel the butterflies that we see our friends having, we might think we’re missing something. But the Liturgy isn’t about having an “experience” in a one-dimensional, emotional sense; it’s about joining with the rest of the Body of Christ to worship God and to offer our whole lives to Him.
It’s about the deeper experience of communion, of a living relationship with the Lord.
Being spiritual means we are attuned to the Holy Spirit, not to our spirit. I saw a great tweet this week by @MichaelHorton_ which said, “The Holy Spirit is not a feeling, but a person—the third person of the Trinity.” We become more spiritual people by getting connected to, and having a relationship with, the Holy Spirit Himself.
2. The idol of right action
Just because you’re going through the motions of the religious life doesn’t mean you’re living a spiritual life in Christ. In fact, it’s very easy to replace authentic spiritual life with a surface-level religious one and think you have it covered.
It might sound something like this: “Self, have you prayed today? Did you do your cross before you ate and when you drove? Go to Church this Sunday?” Check, check, check. “Okay great, I did what I’m supposed to do,” we tell ourselves.
We can get so wrapped up in trying to do things right that we miss the whole point. If our faith is about nothing deeper than fasting when we’re supposed to and crossing ourselves the way we’re supposed to, then our faith is probably resting on a foundation of fear: the fear of not being accepted by God. We try to take things into our own hands, to do things “right,” as if we need to earn God’s love rather than trust in His mercy.
This false view of a God who only loves conditionally affects the way we act, and turns us from spiritual people into religious people. We care more about dropping crumbs of antidoron on the floor than we do about the visitor that comes through our doors. In the words of Christ, we “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23) in favor of the idol of right practice.
But God doesn’t need our actions to prove ourselves or earn His love. He doesn’t desire our religious actions to become ends in themselves, as if they are the goals of the spiritual life. Our goal should not be the motions of Orthodoxy, nor even Orthodoxy itself, but Jesus Christ who is the “beginning and the end” Himself (Revelation 22:13). With Him as our goal, the right actions we take lead to relationship with Christ.
3. The idol of being right
Everyone wants to be on the winning side of an argument. It’s great being part of a faith that is called “Orthodox” (no one wants to be “heterodox”!) since that puts us on the side of the winners, those who got theology right. Yet a desire for being right can conflict with, and even replace, a desire for Truth (Who is a Person rather than a set of beliefs). Instead of engaging our faith and discovering why the Church Fathers chose to be active Orthodox Christians, members of the Lord’s Body, we are content with just proclaiming Orthodoxy as our preferred ideology.
Our pride for our Church isn’t all bad. Being Orthodox means being part of a 2000 year old Christian tradition, which itself continues thousands of years of Jewish tradition. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s also a humbling thing to realize that our own personal opinions on Church teaching, based on our limited experience, are but drops in the bucket compared to the life of the Church.
And the Church is alive in Christ, as His Body. But how easy is it for us to transform it into just another club or ideology, elevating it as the idol of our adoration (ie. the pride of being Orthodox) instead of directing our worship to Jesus Christ? We have to be careful that in our desire to live a spiritual life we don’t fall more in love with Orthodoxy than we fall in love with the Lord.
The idols that we set up in our lives keep us from living an authentically Orthodox spiritual life. They keep us from humbling walking with our God, because they keep us seeking things other than Christ Himself. Jesus never said we needed to have an emotional experience before we could know Him, or that we had to check things off a to-do list before we could know Him. And when He gave us the Church on the Feast of Pentecost and sent forth the Holy Spirit, He didn’t want us to then elevate the Church as the object of our love. He wanted us to direct our love to Him.
So in the next blog post, I’ll be addressing some things we can do to live an authentic, Orthodox, spiritual life in the world today. But until then, take an honest inventory of yourself. In your desire for a spiritual life, have you instead turned to the idols of emotions, of right action or of being right instead of surrendering your life to Christ?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Woman crying: http://www.ccwatershed.org/media/photologue/photos/cache/CTL-Emotion-Thumbnail_preview.png
How to cross: https://orthocuban.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/O-blessinghand.jpg
Orthodoxy bumper sticker: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2015/02/christianity-only-tougher.jpg