Spiritual Disciplines in a Postmodern Culture
By Lonnie Vestal
One cannot reflect long upon the life of Jesus without considering the spiritual disciplines that marked his ministry. In fact, spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting were so a part of his life that we might understand them as self-applied “disciplines”. In the case of Jesus they are perhaps best described in terms of the lifestyle itself, since they did not impose themselves upon an otherwise carnal nature. Likewise, what we know about the lifestyles of His disciples suggests they were no less committed to a life of spiritual discipline.’ If Paul’s ministry is indicative of the other disciples’ ministries, we know that these disciplines, in addition to giving them spiritual strength, were the means by which they obtained direction (both literal and spiritual) for their ministries (Acts 16:6-7)?
However, when reflecting upon Christendom today, there seems to be a great disparity between the practices of the first-century church and those of the typical North American church. Thus, the question could be asked: are the spiritual disciplines headed for extinction? This question is particularly relevant to the Pentecostal movement, since it traces its roots to the humble mission at Azuza Street, Los Angeles. It was there that William Seymour, through much prayer and fasting, ushered in the greatest Pentecostal revival of the early 20`h century.
Indeed, it seems that most if not all revivals have been preceded by a renewed emphasis on the spiritual disciplines. Those pastors who recognize the validity of spiritual disciplines seem to experience numerical growth more consistently, which is, in reality, a reflection of the spiritual growth brought about through their spiritual disciplines. John Wesley, founder of the early Methodist movement, which in its inception had more similarities than differences to the modern Pentecostal movement, was one such pastor. When asked about the potential longevity of the Methodist movement, he responded by saying,
The Methodists must take heed to their doctrine, their experience, their practice, and their discipline. If they attend to their doctrines only, they will make the people antinomians; if to the experimental part of religion only, they will make them enthusiasts; if to the practical part only, they will make them Pharisees; and if they do not attend to their discipline, they will be like persons who bestow much pains in cultivating their garden, and put no fence round it, to save it from the wild boar of the forest.
John Wesley’s insightful observation especially bears repetition following the recent decision made by the United Methodist Church (UMC) to allow Karen Dammann, a lesbian minister who was on trial for violating the UMC’s Book of Discipline (particularly the part forbidding homosexual ministers), to continue practicing her homosexual lifestyle, thereby condoning the practice for all Methodist homosexual ministers. The immorality of the UMC’s decision is surpassed only by the absurdity of the trial that forced judgment on the matter. One witness for the defense, Dammann’s District Superintendent Ron Hines, claimed that Dammann had done much good in her pastorate and had “helped them reclaim what it means to be a church.”‘
This failed attempt to judge rightly is indicative of the lack of spiritual intimacy evidenced in the greater Christian community. Also, the decision of the UMC is telling of the nature of the problem: it is not an issue of spiritual stagnancy; it is one of fatal spiritual regression. The absence of the spiritual disciplines cannot be overlooked as one seeks to understand the journey from Wesley’s dedication to his successors’ apostasy and the reasons for such spiritual deterioration.
Although the Pentecostal movement, particularly the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), may never debate whether or not homosexuals can hold a ministerial license, there are other pertinent issues that threaten its existence and unity. Many issues are of such weight that they require judgment rich with the wisdom that comes only through the spiritual disciplines. The role the spiritual disciplines play in the future of the church needs to be revisited if travesty and division are to be avoided.
It would be overly-simplistic to say that spiritual disciplines have fallen out of use due to complacency and apathy. What is important to note are the explanations that account for the reasons they have fallen out of use, especially if we conclude that the present regression is not due to a failure on the previous generation’s part to communicate their necessity. One explanation that does seem valid has to do with the postmodernist philosophical movement that has pervaded North American society. This philosophy, and the worldview it purports, was not nearly the obstacle to the Pentecostal movement in the early 20`h century that it has become in the last thirty years. In fact, one might conclude that its predecessor, the modernist worldview, was actually conducive to the Pentecostal growth. According to Dr. Chris Witcombe, proponents of the modernist worldview felt that,
“Truth” discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions such as the Church …. The belief was that “the truth shall set you free.” … Through truth and freedom, the world would be made into a better place.
Modernists of the early 20`h century who acknowledged the existence of objective truth were more apt to receive the ultimate truth of the gospel. Conversely, those who are influenced by the postmodernist worldview will most likely either reject it out of hand or mentally relegate it to the same status of other world religions. Subsequently, the lifestyles, or spiritual disciplines, that flow from faith in Jesus become another casualty of postmodernist relativism. Therefore, this chapter will attempt to examine the philosophical shift that is identified as postmodernism and the ways in which the church can counteract its influence upon the saints, particularly as it relates to the much-needed spiritual disciplines that its Cornerstone exhibited.
The Postmodern Shift
The devolution of human thought has led to the postmodern age.’ If postmodernism is a movement, then the philosophy that under-girds it is known as “deconstruction.” There is little consensus-neither among its proponents nor among its detractors-as to what are the tenants of postmodern doctrine. Indeed, no one has produced a definitive work on postmodernism, a fact that should suggest its volatile and nihilistic nature. However, the one fundamental principle of the postmodernist is the denial of all foundational, a priori categories upon which man can base human reasoning.’ The epistemological and theological ramifications are as follows: First, this leads to the conclusion that the epistemological base-superstructure (and/or narrow-based foundationalism) metaphor is invalid. This means essentially that “there is no direct experience of reality without interpretation; and all interpretation is in some sense corrupted by the cultural and personal prejudices or prejudgments of the interpreter.”‘ Second, this leads to the conclusion that theology (and the lifestyle that it produces) is merely a subjective product, not applicable to any objective, rational paradigms of reality. To put it succinctly: truth is relative, and the authorities that claim to purport the truth may safely be disregarded.
Postmodernism then seeks to raze the base of things that can be known. The result is a society in which one’s set of truth-claims does not necessarily have to correspond with objective reality (there is no such thing to a postmodernist); it merely has to correspond to his reality.
Obstacles Caused by Postmodern Thought
If absolute truth does not easily assimilate itself in a postmodern culture, then the outgrowth of that truth is all the more uncertain. This presents a true obstacle to applying the spiritual disciplines, because if truth is relative, how much more are the disciplines that result from the knowledge of that truth? To further frustrate matters, most theologians will admit that a correlation exists between the spiritual disciplines and spiritual maturity (a growing understanding of the truth), but how does one prove this to a postmodernist, especially when these same theologians will rightly agree that the spiritual disciplines are not “spiritual” in their mere performance; they are a means to an end? For example, at no point does performing the discipline of meditation produce anything. There is no objective, observable product that comes from the discipline itself; the ingredient of faith must be present if the discipline is to be beneficial to the individual. If there were a cause-effect relationship between what one did (performance of the disciplines) and what resulted from one’s actions (spiritual maturity), then the value of the spiritual disciplines would be apparent to all. However, spiritual maturity is not mechanistic; it is relational. Therefore, theologians’ attempts to correlate precisely the spiritual disciplines with spiritual maturity must begin by acknowledging this, and doing so will, in the mind of the postmodernist, make relative those things they seek to codify.
The above obstacle mainly concerns the dilemma of codifying the spiritual disciplines. Another obstacle has to do with the person who seeks to codify them. Since a postmodernist does not recognize an objective basis for authority, then speaking as an authority is a doomed task. Indeed, authoritarianism has been replaced with a kind of “inner empiricism,” where the “the source of authority… [is] nothing more than personal experience.”‘ If this is true (which it is not), then the suggestion that one’s experience is indicative of a necessary law is nothing less than an attempt to impose one’s authority on the will of others. This assumption springs from the nihilistic notions of the postmodernist, which includes the belief that “there is no truth, no value, no concern. All that is left is `The Will to Power’.` Traces of this mindset are evident even in Christian circles, so that pastors must now carefully couch the arguments for the spiritual disciplines in such a way that the saint is assured of the pastor’s pure intentions.
Benefits of Postmodern Thought
In light of the obstacles mentioned, one might assume that postmodern thought can only hinder the application of spiritual disciplines. However, there are some aspects of postmodern thought that cohere with the disciplines. Emphasizing these aspects can help convince the reluctant believer to apply the disciplines and reap the benefits thereof.
An ironic benefit of postmodern thought is the rejection of empiricism and absolutism. On the one hand, truth, for the postmodernist, is relative, and thus any truth claims are subject to interpretation. While this mindset does not affirm truth, it does not deny it either, and the inability to completely deny the truth is for some a step forward. Furthermore, the rejection of empiricism of the Enlightenment reopens the door to the possibility of a supernatural world and experience.” In short, Christianity has once again become intellectually relevant.” In fact, postmodernists’ reactionary tendencies against empiricism often mean that they welcome the supernatural experiences that can occur through a mastery of the spiritual disciplines.
Another benefit of the spiritual disciplines comes from the priority the postmodernist places on community. Individualism is shunned so much so that the postmodernist’s belief system is derived solely from the
community.” If the community both informs and motivates the postmodernist as to the content of his faith, then the spiritual disciplines will flourish in a Christian community if they are practiced and encouraged by enough members of that community. Dallas Willard discusses this opportunity by saying,
[The disciplines] are much more effective if they can be practiced in community, and you can’t really practice them without community. If you have a community where they are understood as a normal part of our lives, there can be instruction or teaching about them, which brings about a kind of accountability.”
On the surface Willard’s mention of accountability seems to destroy the spirit of the disciplines, since the disciplines should be done in response to the internal promptings of the Spirit. However, Willard is not advocating a coercive system of spiritual discipline enforcement, but rather he is encouraging an open dialogue in the community about the disciplines and the positive effects they have on the believers’ relationship with God.
Ideally, the spiritual disciplines should not suffer or flourish as a result of newly emerging world views. They are, after all, something that the Spirit initiates for the purpose of bringing the believer into greater intimacy with Jesus disciplines are not and into more perfect supplemental to a conformity with the will of the Father. In theory, the believer should maintain disciplines in the face of a sinful generation.
Humanly speaking, the believer’s faith to spiritual disciplines are self-imposed mechanisms, subject to human misconceptions and
neglect. The church, entrenched as it is in postmodern culture, can benefit from an understanding of the challenges and opportunities it
faces as it presents the need for a renewal in the spiritual disciplines to a skeptical generation.
One thing seens to amply evident from the witness of Scrpiture and history: the spiritual disciplines are not supplemental to a Christian walk of faith; they are very much necessary for the believer’s faith to remain.
The above material was published by Christian Life College Press, Stockton, CA. This material may be copyrighted and should be used for study and research purposes only.