Natural spirituality

What does it mean to be spiritual? It’s a nebulous term that can be understood in a variety of different ways, but typically conjures up a kind of religious/mystical connection.

Ursula King writes:

Some authors feel uneasy with the word ‘spirituality’ or references to ‘the spiritual’ because they may be understood as dualistic notions in contrast to ‘matter’ or ‘the material’, the physical or the world. To some the concept seems a rather abstract and idealized one, too separate from other human concerns. Others prefer the notion of ‘the spiritual’ to that of ‘the religious’ because it is wider, less concrete and less institutionally bound than the latter. Others again consider ‘the spiritual and spirituality as the heart of religion, its very centre, encountered particularly through religious and mystical experience. [1]

I’m sure we’ve all met people who claim to be “spiritual” rather than religious. I fully agree with King’s perception, especially when it comes to wrestling with what a Christian spirituality looks like.

Sallie McFague cites a definition of spirituality by the 1977 Scottish Churches Council, which I think is completely on point, relevant to our current situation, and desperately needed in our churches.

It defines spirituality as ‘an exploration into what is involved in becoming human,’ and describes ‘becoming human’ as ‘an attempt to grow in sensitivity to self, to others, to the non-human creation, and to God who is within and beyond this totality. [2]

Christian spirituality generally implies becoming less human. It is unfortunate that the language of struggle and temptation and weakness employed by the Apostle Paul is that of the spirit in contention with the body. It has been the cause of much pain and confusion regarding our bodies, our human identity, and our attention to the physical creation.

I believe that most of our current Christian spirituality and discipleship is focused on becoming more Christlike.

What is wrong with that?

Well, it isn’t possible. Dominant Christianity fails to hold the humanity of Jesus in tension with his divinity in a way that makes Jesus far more divine than human. We operate in a default mode that believes it is safer to make a mistake about the humanity of Jesus than it is to make a mistake about the divinity of Jesus. In this light, our discipleship and obedience to the divine Christ is impeded by our brokenness and our human weakness. Jesus as the Christ cannot be followed because he is not human but divine. Jesus of Nazareth, the Human One, can be followed. What is the difference? Dependence upon the Spirit. The more divine Jesus is the less he is like us, and the less he is dependent upon the Spirit for obedience, love, and healing.

In the dualistic paradigm of spirit/flesh it makes perfect sense that we denigrate our humanity. However, becoming less human is not the answer. On the contrary, the very act of becoming human provided the necessary avenue to imitate, participate in, and relate to God through Jesus. St. Athanasius wrote of divinization that God became human so that humans may become divine. Our spirituality is intimately linked with our humanity.

Through the incarnation, God redefined the vertical relationship between Divine and human to be radically horizontal. We failed to reach God, so God reached out to us. The incarnation ends the competition between spiritual and material, God and humanity, divine and human by blending them together in perfect tension and balance and harmony. Becoming more fully human is becoming more spiritual. The way towards God is not shedding the flesh to make space for greater increase of the Spirit, but by the Spirit integrating with and participating with our flesh, thus transforming it.

Learning to become more fully human (and therefore, more spiritual) requires us to continually look towards Jesus, but also to talk about what and who we are as humans, and what Jesus became when he emptied himself and became one of us. We must wrestle with what it means to bear the image of God, and the identity and responsibility that comes along with that image.


1. King, Ursula. “Spirituality, Society, and Culture.”

2. McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.


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