Five Myths about Spirituality

Five Myths about Spirituality by Dr. Greg Waddell

SPIRITUALITY HAS BECOME A HOT TOPIC.  Since Thomas Moore’s publication of Care for the Soul in 1994, more than 800 books have been published with the word “soul” in the title. An Amazon.com search for books with the word “spirit,” “spiritual,” or “spirituality,” in the title yielded 39,181 results. I did the same with Google.com–searching only in the titles of web pages–and came up with 3,380,000 hits! The problem, however, is that there is no consensus about what everyone is talking about.

Referring to the word “spirit,” H. Grady Davis wrote in Design for Preaching:

It is one of the most treacherous terms in the preacher”s vocabulary. It cannot be trusted to convey any definite meaning. . . . a vague, ragged, ambiguous word. . . what Rudolph Flesch calls ‘gobbledygook,’ what every intelligent listener recognizes as ‘jargon, or ‘lingo’ or even ‘cant.’

Webster”s Collegiate Dictionary numbers 14 distinct meanings for the word spirit, ranging from God himself all the way down to a volatile liquid. Yet, the need for spirituality is greater than ever. In his book, “To Know as We are Known,” Parker Palmer writes:

There is an illness in our culture; it arises from our rigid separation of the visible world from the powers that under gird and animate it.

So, the question I have is this: “What does it mean to be a spiritual individual? What is spirituality? To do this, I have to first address some common myths about spirituality.

THE MYTH OF RELIGIOUS RITUAL.  The performance of religious rituals is often equated with spirituality, whether it is the lighting of candles, anointing with oil, or the recitation of a memorized prayer. I’m not saying that ritual has no place in spiritual development. It may be a useful tool to help us develop and express our spirituality. On the other hand, it can also become a lifeless substitute, a mechanical performance, a mere routine without meaning (See Isaiah 1:11-18). Instead of serving as a channel into real spiritual experience, ritual can usurp reality.

SEVERE SELF-DENIAL AND SACRIFICE. A friend of mine heard a worship leader tell the local church he was visiting: “I am dedicating this month to prayer and fasting. I want to fast 10 days. Brothers and sister, we need to sacrifice if we are to expect anything from the Lord.” I have also observed with my own eyes as an elderly woman walked across the rough stone floor of a large cathedral on her knees to beg the saints for a favor.

Both of these examples demonstrate a common error that sees spirituality as equivalent to sacrifice. There was a time in human history when such things as animal sacrifice and the austere treatment of the body were elements of the spiritual journey, but their purpose was to point to a better way. They were shadows of the real thing (Colossians 2:16-19). Such approaches to spiritual development have been replaced by a new way that involves a direct, personal relationship with God.

THE LIGHT OF SPIRITUALITY IS WITHIN. This approach to spirituality points to our inner selves as the source of knowledge about the spirit dimension. For example, W. C. Roof in “A Generation of Seekers” writes:

Spirituality gives expression to the being that is in us; it has to do with feelings, with the power that comes from within, with knowing our deepest selves and what is sacred to us.

This sounds enlightened and it does express an element of truth–particularly the recognition of the intangibility of the spirit dimension. It also misses the mark. At best, it is only a half-truth. Referring to this mistake, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. . . . Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.

In other words, a healthy spirituality must have a source of true north that is outside of oneself. True spirituality does not flow out from within; it flows in when invited.

ISOLATION IS THE PATH TO SPIRIT.  This is a remnant of the Middle Ages when those who were committed to spiritual development isolated themselves from the world. Even today, the self-pronounced spiritually enlightened often come across as aloof and disengaged. In his classic novel, “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad referred to the Christian missionaries he came across in Africa with these words:

You may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place. . . . The earth for [most of] us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!–breathe dead hippo so to speak and not be contaminated.

True spirituality has its feet firmly planted and is willing to smell the dead hippo. Jesus commanded His disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

CORRECT WORDS MEAN A CORRECT SPIRIT. Many religious people seem to think that a spiritual person is one who can verbalize correctly certain doctrinal beliefs. I”m not saying that correct words are a bad thing. They are better than confused or inaccurate words. However, if words and actions had to be prioritized, then correct action would have to be placed above correct words, orthopraxy above orthodoxy. As James, the brother of Jesus put it: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

These are some of the most common mistaken ideas about spirituality. In the next post I will attempt to describe the biblical perspective on spirituality.

Why do you think people often substitute symbolism and ritual for real spirituality? What are the dangers of a misguided spirituality for leaders today?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

Photo Credit: Cornelia Kopp (AlicePopkorn), Silence, 27 September 2009. Available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/alicepopkorn/4765161879/

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