When working on a Master’s thesis in history at the University of Arkansas in the 1980’s, I focused on American religion, specifically the fundamentalist Christian response to the influence of modernity in the late 19th century. One book I stumbled across me was entitled, “Churches in Cultural Captivity” by John Eighmy which described how the Southern Baptists had unwittingly been “captured” by their culture, disobeying one of their basic maxims, “To be in the world, but not of the world.”
Any spiritual tradition faces the peril of enculturation as any spiritual truth has to be conveyed through human contrivances like ritual, art, and language. The essence of spirituality is a dimension of the human experience which is ineffable and therefore not accessible through these or any other cultural contrivances. These contrivances are but pointers to the spiritual dimension of life but immediately they are likely to fall prey to people who will take them literally, who will not allow these symbols to make any ingress into the depths of the heart where they can be meaningful. Language, for example, will never get beyond conceptual formulations, words and phrases (i.e. jargon) which rattle around in the cavern of the mind and have all the value of what the Apostle Paul called a “sounding brass and a tinkling symbol.” Or, to borrow from comedian Jerry Seinfield, they will amount to, “Yada, yada, yada.”
Often these sterile thoughts and ideas rattling around “up there” might contain great value. But if they are only ideas, devoid of any engagement with a heart that is connected to a body, they will only be dogma and usually will serve the purpose of satisfying some cultural dictate. One simple cultural dictate is simply to fit into the comfortable confines of the tribe which in my case meant “getting saved” and becoming a Christian. Furthermore, these sterile ideas will likely gain power to the point that they make the individual extremely amenable to the prevailing sentiments, values, and more ways of the prevailing cultural milieu. Thus, early in my spiritual life, it was definite that women should be submissive to their husbands and stay in the home, that blacks were inferior to whites and should be kept “separate but equal” with not so much emphasis on that “equal” part, that everyone who did not subscribe to our biblically correct view of the world was likely to spend eternity in hell. For, when spiritual truth is only conceptual, i.e. “the letter of the law”, there will be no internal discernment and one is likely to be innocently imbibing what the Apostle Paul called “the wisdom of this world.” This does not make these people “bad people” it just means they have been captivated by their culture and have not allowed the spiritual wisdom of their tradition to sink down from the head into the heart.
Spirituality of this fashion will always be very formulaic, legalistic, and judgmental. This is a cognitive faith, one that is emphasizes thinking over the affective dimension of life, the phenomenon described by the Apostle Paul as “the letter of the law.” These are the people who Jesus encountered in the person of the Pharisees and he immediately saw right into the “foul and ragged bone shop of their heart” and called them hypocrites. That quotation was from the poet W. B Yeats who also noted, “Oh God, guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone. They who sing a lasting song must think in the marrow bone.” Yeats saw the dilemma of the “disembodied word” and those in whom their words have not become “enfleshed” are apt to practice great evil though always in the name of what is “good” or “godly.” This is a matter of experiencing an integration between heart and mind so that we don’t merely talk a good game, but our behavior “speaks” a good game. Or, as I heard Richard Rohr say one time, “Speak the gospel everywhere you go; and, if necessary use words.”
These “gospeleteers”, whose daily functioning draws from a mélange of rhetoric in their heads, can’t act for any purpose beyond themselves for they cannot see one. They “have eyes to see, but see not; ears to hear, but hear not.” These are not necessarily bad people. They are merely people who have been enculturated too well and/or have never stumbled across a church or spiritual teacher who challenged their spiritual preconceptions, forcing an encounter with subterranean regions of their heart. This makes me think of a fear that Ralph Waldo Emerson voiced in the 19th century, the fear of coming to the end of his life and realizing that he had not really lived his life at all. Or, to put it in the words of Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and lose his own soul.” Jesus was telling us that if we spend out whole life only skimming along on the surface of things, especially in the realm of spiritual things, we will have lived without every tapping into an authentic dimension of our own life. He was saying, for example, that if we spend our whole life “christianized”, we will miss the point and experience of being a Christian.
Jesus was not and is not about fire insurance. Jesus was about getting God “down from heaven” onto the earth, expressing his graciousness, kindness, and love as his Presence is woven into the very fabric of our being. That will not leave us as some damn Christian geek running around bible-thumping and trying to make you see the world like he does. Even more so it refers to the “working” out of an imminent deity that Jesus taught is within us already, as in when he reminded us, “the Kingdom is within.”
A VERY NECESSARY CAVEAT: I am using terminology from one particular spiritual tradition. Remember, “the word is not the thing.”