Spiritual Life: Living Faith

The words of a contemporary song by Adele express our longing for home as the longing for life, “I want to live, and not just survive.” [1]  The words of the song describe the hunger of our hearts.  The God of Life uses the hunger for life to form us so that we live from the heart.

The first three hundred years of Christianity connected people to God at the heart level, a level never thought to be inferior to the mind level, but also not in competition with it. It was in the heart where the issues of life were dealt with, and then from the heart where they were expressed.  The writer of Proverbs spoke of this (4:23), and Jesus spoke similarly (Matthew 15:18).

Much of this changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, and the Church entered the creedal era. [2]  The mind took precedence over the heart.  Faith became a belief more than a behavior as creedal orthodoxy overshadowed holy living.  The juxtaposition continued (with some exceptions), reaching another high point in the Reformation (e.g. the systematic theology of Luther and especially Calvin) and again in the Enlightenment, where reason came to assume a higher place than scripture, tradition, and experience. [3] 

Rationalism continues to this day in much contemporary theology, where truth is largely defined in relation to doctrines and “correct belief,” resulting in what John Wesley called the separation of knowledge (mind) and vital piety (heart), leaving too much Christianity in the throes of deformative intellectualism.  He believed God had raised up the people called Methodist to unite the mind and the heart in what he called “living faith.” [4]

The shift from the heart to the mind did not occur at any time without a corresponding preservation/recovery of a “religion of the heart.”  The early Christian abbas and ammas taught and personified the way of the heart. [5]  And the mystical movement has carried it on into the present day. [6]. And today, we are emerging from a long period of mind-focused (rationalistic) understanding of faith, e.g. right doctrine and correct belief.  We have seen too much of what John Wesley called “dead orthodoxy”–a faith that, at its worst, settles for an affirmation of faith apart from a corresponding expression of it–a deformed spirituality that James summed up as “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV).  

There is a massive turning away from this kind of toxic religion and a great migration toward a spirituality that is rooted in the primal elements of light, life, and love borne witness to in the creation story and projected in what the Bible calls the new creation. [7]. We are entering a new era where what Wesley called “living faith” (the religion of the heart) is reviving and providing life for those who hunger for it, which is all of us.  We are in a new axial age of the spiritual life, an age seen and assisted by spiritual formation.  There is a fresh wind blowing. [8]

But as we begin this series, it is necessary to emphasize that what is emerging is not a new version of I-it religion, but the resurrection of the I-Thou relationship.  What we are going to be exploring in this series is akin to what we most deeply long for in our best moments–what Richard Foster and others are calling “the with-God life.” [9]–the life we have always wanted. [10] Spiritual formation guides us on the journey from dead orthodoxy to living faith.

[1] Adele, “Love in the Dark,”  2016.

[2] The era is roughly 325 a.d. to about 500 a.d.–the period when the Nicean Creed, Athanasian Creed, and Creed of Cobstantinople were written by bishops gathered in church councils, defining orthodoxy and providing a tangible way to determine who was Christian.  I have benefitted from the teaching of Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, and Elaine Pagels for seeing how the imperialization of Christianity moved the locus of faith from the heart to the mind.

[3] Gerald Cragg, ‘The Church and the Age of Reason’ (Penguin Books, 1960). 

[4] Paul Chilcote, ‘Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision’ (InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[5] Benedicta Ward, ‘The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks’ (Penguin Books, 2003).  Henri Nouwen wrote about this in his book, ‘The Way of the Heart’ (Seabury Press, 1981).  John Wesley drew from this tradition, defining the spiritual life as a “religion of the heart.”  He drew especially from the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus) in viewing religion in this way.

[6] W.R. Inge, ‘Mysticism in Religion’ (University of Chicago Press, 1948).  Evelyn Underhill made the study of mysticism accessible to many through multiple books. Recently, Richard Rohr has revived interest in the mystical life in his books, ‘The Naked Now’ and ‘What the Mystics Know.’

[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, ‘Leaving Church’ (Harper One, 2006), and Brian McLaren, ‘The Great Spiritual Migration’ (Convergent Books, 2016) reveal the journey away from sterility to vitality.  

[8] I have written about this in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing’ (Wipf and Stock, 2013).  In this regard, I have greatly benefitted from authors writing about The New Monasticism:  Shane Claiborne, Elaine Heath, John Michael Talbot, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, etc.

[9] Richard Foster and Kathryn Helmers, ‘ Life With God’ (HarperOne, 2008).  Richard, along with others, developed this in ‘The Life With God Bible’ (HarperOne, 2005).

[10] John Ortberg, ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted’ (Zondervan, 1997).  This is one of the best books I know of to expound on the point I am making in this post.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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