The thing that pushed me away from Christianity was actually the least Christian of Christian-y things: an ultra-cerebral, hyper-emotional, over-spiritualized spirituality that suppressed or demonized my human embodiment.
The Christian Savior took on flesh and lived thirty years of ordinary everyday life before doing anything remotely heroic. The Christian hope involves the resurrection of our bodies, even the weird, embarrassing, gross parts. The Christian liturgy involved all five senses — kneeling, signs of the cross, incense, weekly edible sacraments, music. The Christian spiritual life looked like loving the guy next door, even if you hated him, and taking care of your family, and living your life, minding your own business, and doing daily, mundane practices like prayer and drinking a little wine for your stomach problems. The most distinctly Christian things about Christianity — the incarnate life and death of Christ, the resurrection, our daily unspectacular worship — require the physical.
What passes as Christian spirituality today looks like none of that.
Long sermons catering to knowing the right things and long periods of worship meant to inspire strong emotions dominate churches. The church’s most common ministries, like Sunday school, involve teaching the right stuff about the Bible.
The evangelical Christianity of my youth saw our relationship with God as something separate than and primary over everyday life. Truly dedicated Christians spent as much time in relationship with God as they could, with daily quiet times (preferably right at the beginning of the day, since Jesus is more important than sleep). How often you consciously thought about Jesus was a sign of how mature you were in your faith, I was told. Moms and secular workers and kids in school got a pass, a pat on the head, an encouragement that “there are seasons when you don’t have as much time for Jesus, and God understands that; just spend as much time as you can with him; there’s grace; don’t worry.”
But I did worry, because when my relationship with God is something separate from the rest of my life, everything that I do ultimately becomes a distraction. Marriage, kids, brushing my teeth — all good but distracting things. And even though I knew there was God’s grace for stuff like that, I felt that everyday life — both its requirements and its pleasures — were guilty little sins that God turned a blind eye to. What did it say about me that I would rather read a novel that didn’t even mention God to shutting my door and praying?
Since my devotion to God was measured by how much I consciously thought about him, spoke to him, and set aside time to him, every time I chose to do something else with my time, I felt like I was betraying him.
Then there was the fundamentalist influence, that required a total separation from and/or spiritualizing of everyday life. Certain enjoyable things were off-limits (like drinking or watching R-rated movies), and enjoying those things revealed a crooked heart more interested in the things of the flesh than the things of the Spirit. It was confusing to get a hang of the exact rules, but I eventually figured them out: intellectual and artistic stuff was okay if it came to the right moral and theological conclusions; caring for your personal appearance was okay if it involved looking good for your husband, making sure men didn’t stumble, celebrating “femininity,” and showing respect to God on Sundays (otherwise it was vanity); hanging out with people was okay if you called it “fellowshipping.” Everything needed to have an explicitly Biblical stamp of approval to call it good or Christian.
Then there was the river of asceticism and dualism from which these evangelical and fundamentalist tributaries flowed: the life of the saints, who gave up everything to go to foreign countries or “do ministry,” or hole themselves away for a life devoted to quiet time. These were the super-Christians, the ones who took Jesus seriously and literally. Again, we lesser peons who drove to work and raised kids and lived in the suburbs got understanding pats on the head that our lives could kind of be like Jesus’s too — but the really serious Christians weren’t afraid to give up everything and go anywhere and dedicate themselves to Official Christian Ministry. That was the ultimate Christian life we needed to work up to.
In other words, our relationship with God was something separate from our everyday life. Our ministry was something separate from our everyday life (unless you were a super-Christian who gave up everyday life for an extraordinary, ministerial life). Our spirituality relied on the cognitive (researching, assenting to, and nicely strong-arming others into believing the right things; consciously thinking about, talking to, or hearing from God), the emotional (feeling the joy, happiness, connection to, and presence of God), and the supernaturally miraculous and huge (obvious ministry, inexplicable miracles).
Yes, yes, there was sometimes room for the everyday life, but it wasn’t the best use of your redeemed life. Maybe self-care was okay if it made you better able to do your ministry, or maybe reading that secular novel was okay if you made you think about God in a different way. Conscious thought about and interaction with God was the definition of Christian spirituality. Explicit serving of others was the definition of the sanctified Christian life.
All of that sounds awesome — but I just wasn’t cut out for that. Quiet times felt destructive to my faith, a place where I begged for God to show up and got silence. The constant giving and going of this always-happy, always-exciting, always-huge, always-others-centered spirituality exhausted me. The duality of wanting so badly to love and serve and worship God by putting him first but needing to brush my teeth or wanting to read a secular novel ate me up.
I felt God’s presence in relationship with people. I wanted my body and my daily needs and my desires and my humanity to be significant to God instead of distractions to my relationship with him. I wanted to unite the spiritual and the physical, the everyday and the supernatural.
Having tentatively lived this spirituality for a couple years, I’m confident in saying that this embodied spiritual life is transformative and healing and 110% Christian. It’s not that conscious theological thought or prayer or quiet times are un-Christian. We are spiritual creatures too, and God is Spirit. Those are Christian acts. They’re just not inherently “more Christian” than physical things.
I don’t hear God speaking into my soul. But I have gained lots of wisdom from the world and people around me, and that is the voice of God. I don’t do Official Christian Ministry. But with every relational interaction, I try to think about how to respect the other person and make peace with them. I don’t have a designated time for Jesus, because I have the opportunity to meet God in every moment and every person. I don’t consciously think about God every second of my life, because he is in all things, and all good things come from him. I don’t verbally pray without ceasing, because my “prayers,” my response to God’s goodness, come in the form of deep-belly laughter and tears and silence. I don’t experience God in a supernatural way, because he entered into the natural and made it holy.
I take care of my body as an act of defiance against death and decay, because I trust that my body will experience the resurrection. I enjoy sex and baby snuggles and stupidly insignificant conversations with my sisters, because God created me to need and find joy in people. He too lives within an eternally Triune relationship. I wash the dishes and make the bed and vacuum the crumbs off the floor, because I reflect God’s image in taming the chaos. I read secular novels and study art by crazy atheists and think about interesting things that non-Christians have said, because the image of God as creator resides in all of us. I take time to care for just me, because God loves me — not primarily as an instrument to serve him or others, but as a beloved child of God.
And I go to church every week, and say the same prayers I said last week, and have some awkward and not eternally significant conversations with fellow churchgoers, because the Christian life is not about the exotic and the emotional and the supernatural, but about the everyday and the repetitive and the incarnational. Sometimes the sermon is really inspiring, or the Eucharist makes me cry, and sometimes I just sit in the pews, unmoved, knowing that in this mundane act, I’m following in the steps of our Lord, who lived a totally ordinary life too.
Many of these thoughts stem from Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary.