Listenings: Danger!

In the early 1920’s Evelyn Underhill wrote, “The Spiritual Life is a dangerously ambiguous term.”  Given where the world of “spirituality” has gone in the nearly 100 years since she wrote those words, we are in no position to take them back.  They are more true now than ever before. That’s one reason why we have tried to lay down some foundations each week in this “Listenings” post. 

But we are at a place now where we must begin to explore the phrase “the spiritual life,” not only to see the essence of it, but also to see how we express the implications of it in everyday living.  We will have Evelyn Underhill’s book The Spiritual Life close at hand as we make this journey.  Her words still provide much-needed light on the path.

If you ask the saints of the ages why “the spiritual life” is a dangerous phrase, they will tell you that it’s because of the tendency to make it an individualized, privatized, and self-referent term.  In some circles it means little more than a kind of elevated humanity, where we focus upon ourselves and propose that our ideas are the ideas of God.

An equally-dangerous notion is that “the spiritual life” is so grand and glorious that we can never properly speak of ourselves as living it.  Only “the saints” (understood as super-human, religious Olympians) can be said to live a truly spiritual life.  In this danger, the spiritual life is always for someone else.  And whatever cannot ever be ours, can never be thought of as “real”—at least for us.

Somewhere between the extremes we must find what “the spiritual life” really means.  If it is not humanism on the one hand or angelism on the other, then what is it?  For this week, we will simply say that it is life lived here and now, but in the context of eternity.  It is routine life lived under the influence of revelation.  It is human life experienced and expressed as “the life of God in the human soul.”  It is the life God intended for every human being to have when He created us in the imago dei.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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