There is a clear mistranslation at the start of the version of the epistle reading I read just now. It should have begun: ‘concerning the spiritual’ – or even ‘concerning spirituality’ - rather than concerning spiritual gifts. The word ‘gifts’ has been supplied by the translator. And this is wrong because the passage is concerned with spiritual service and spiritual activities and not just spiritual gifts. Paul has three words for these three things: carismata – spiritual gifts, diakonia – spiritual services and energhmata – spiritual activities – all of which he talks about in this passage. And incidentally the word for spiritual (as in the first verse of the passage) is pneumatikwn – an adjective not a noun.
To put all the emphasis on gifts – as the translators do by their mistranslation – is to forget that spirituality is not just manifest in gifts – like speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc. – but in service to others (including- in the context of the church - everything from flower-arranging to preaching) and spiritual activities (such as celebrating the Eucharist – as we are doing now, prayer, etc).
Of course the difference between a spiritual gift and a spiritual activity or service is fuzzy. Is prayer an activity, service or gift? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
So here Paul is talking about spirituality. What more can we learn from what he says? Recently I have been trying to sort out my ideas about spirituality and what it is. This has been partly prompted by meeting a man on the internet called Ron. I have met Ron through the blog of my friend Lesley. Ron is from Manchester and that is about all I know about his personal life. But I now know a quite a lot about what he thinks about religion, spirituality, etc. He is an atheist but one who is willing to engage with Christians. Very willing actually. One of our recent discussions has been about the spirituality of atheists[i] Ron seems to be offended when I ‘accuse’ atheists of sometimes getting spiritual but I guess I want to try and convince him that spirituality isn’t something particularly odd – of interest to just to those of us who are religious.
Perhaps this is something similar to what Paul is doing here when he tries to explain spirituality to the, formerly pagan, Corinthians. He starts by, in effect, saying that not everyone who calls themselves spiritual is spiritual: it depends on what the person is being ‘spiritual’ about. In Paul’s words you can be ‘led astray by dumb idols’. But he then goes on to set a pretty low bar for spirituality. He says that ‘No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. So just the confession that Jesus is Lord is a spiritual act.
My view – and I’m not sure that Paul would entirely agree with me – is that it’s even possible to be a spiritual atheist. This is because for me the most helpful definition of spirituality is that it’s connection with all of four things: oneself, other people, the natural world and God (not necessarily in equal measure) I am not now quite sure where I found this definition – and it’s more of a description than a definition – but I find it helpful in a variety of different contexts.
One of its implications is that it means that I do not think one has to believe in God to be spiritual - partly because I think connecting with one of the other three – oneself, another person or the natural world cannot really be done without God’s help – the help of the Holy Spirit. And here I think Paul would agree with me. Just one example of this: I do not think it is really possible to love God without loving oneself and indeed vice-versa.
By connection I mean something like having a relationship with. In other words spirituality is much more than having knowledge of or belief in and is associated with feelings for the other starting with a feeling of deep connection. [Incidentally I assume this is what Paul means – following Jesus in John’s gospel – about being in Christ and Christ being in the Christian]. Having a relationship cannot just be one way, both the object and subject of a relationship give and take – one from the other. [ii]
Ron doesn’t like my definition of spirituality because he thinks that spirituality can only be concerned with God. One of his definitions of spirituality (well more precisely mysticism) is a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with god through contemplation or ecstasy. I agree with the ‘intimate union’ part of this definition. But not the rest. Spirituality for me has nothing to do with doctrine and not much to do with understanding, and while God is essential He (graciously) is not the end of the matter
Because Ron doesn’t believe in the existence of truths which can transcend ordinary human understanding or in God, then for him all spirituality is based on an illusion and is hence fundamentally an illusion on the part of those who make claims for spirituality.
My argument is that atheists can’t help find more transcendence in life than they generally care to admit. Richard Dawkins for example is famously ’into’ awe and wonder. Here is a quote from his new book The Greatest Show on Earth. 'Evolution is an inescapable fact, and we should celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty. Evolution is within us, around us, between us, and its workings are embedded in the rocks of aeons past.' This to me sounds very much like spirituality – particularly the bit about evolution being within us. The sounds suspiciously like connecting with the natural world to me. And connecting with the natural world is, as I have said, one aspect of spirituality.
Many atheists (both New and old) are into the astonishing nature of creation (to chose my words carefully) but also its mysteries. But they are also into things like freedom. This is, I think, because they find the idea of God terrifying (and indeed it and He is) and that atheism ‘frees’ them from the necessity of connecting with God. Now I think connecting with God gives us ‘perfect freedom’ from amongst other things – and perhaps most importantly - the wrath of God. And perhaps atheists understand this more than some Christians.
I could go on about the spirituality of atheists but back to the passage from 1 Corinthians. How does this help explain spirituality? Is it any use in explaining spirituality in the modern world where it’s still common to find people discussing and being interested in spirituality? (It is in fact well known that many more people claim to be interested in spirituality than they do in religion.)
Well I think it helps in two ways. Firstly I think Paul is arguing that spirituality is one thing and but also many. Paul is saying here that there is an essential unity to spirituality – all who confess that Christ is Lord rather than say Caesar is Lord or – perhaps more likely these days - science is Lord – are by his definition spiritual. My view would be that many – may be even atheists like Ron – confess that Christ is Lord without knowing it (but perhaps that’s for another day and is, of course, as likely to offend atheists as much as ‘accusing’ them of being spiritual). But there is also a necessary diversity to spiritual gifts, service and acts. This diversity should not be a source of conflict (though clearly - from the context the Corinthians thought it was – and we in the Church still tend to do so today) but this diversity should enrich and benefit one another. Furthermore a concentration on gifts rather than acts, or indeed acts over gifts is to neglect the breadth of the Sprit’s working. The contemplative and active lives are complementary (c.f. the story of Mary and Martha).
Secondly Paul is arguing that manifestations of the Spirit, whether they be gifts, service or acts are firstly ‘apportioned to each one individually as the Spirit wills’ but secondly these manifestations are ‘given for the common good’. That is we might expect people to appear more or less spiritual in a superficial sense. Some people will speak in tongues some won’t (i.e. they’ll have different gifts). Some will be good at flower arranging/preaching and some won’t (i.e. they’ll seem more or less useful in their spiritual service to the church). Some will be’ good’ at prayer and some won’t (i.e. they’ll seem more or less spiritually active). But the Spirit will give them all something. And this something is not just for themselves it’s for the common good..
So in summary we take a narrow view of spirituality at our peril. We should be tolerant of different expressions of spirituality but also seek to identify the different manifestations of the Sprit in others and in ourselves. Finally spirituality, like God, is essentially indefinable: any attempt at description is bound to be provisional so forgive me if I have been too provisional and feel free to go back to Paul.
To remind ourselves of the provisionality of description in relation to God here is a poem I have recently come across (also through Lesley’s Blog). It’s by CS Lewis. [iii]
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
[ii] And this includes the connection with the natural world (probably the most controversial aspect of my definition)
[iii] Entitled: Footnote to All Prayers