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Two Blossoms


    I've heard that word, spirituality, hurled in the loftiest of tones like a criminal indictment.

    At the scene of my denouement, my last annual church conference in Valley Stream, a Methodist functionary, thoroughly unacquainted with me or the local church, used that word, spirituality, like a bludgeon, to convince himself, I suspect, that my twenty-nine years in the pulpit had not been properly used for the building up of the Body of Christ. 

    Earlier, much earlier in Brooklyn, while our family was vacationing in Vermont, a young man, from the Methodist Board of Evangelism filling in for me, preached a couple of sermons that had "them crying in the pews."  He accused us of playing at being Christians, claiming our middle class way of following Jesus verged on the demonic and the same goes for those who preceded us in that place.

    And recently, very recently, I read a letter of resignation by an interim pastor in a church up north, in which she enumerated her reasons for leaving in mid-transition, that the church's spirituality defied her sanctified attempts to create an atmosphere of openness and, I assume, holiness, an obstinacy that prevented the healing of community divisions.  Something like that.   No, a lot like that.

    After fifty years of reflection on these indictments of others' spirituality by those who felt obliged to point out my and my friends' deficiencies I have come to the conclusion that our main problem is/was our piety: it wasn't the same as our indicters.  They favored a more robust way of expressing their Christianity.  I could (and will, if you press me) describe what I mean by "robust" in more specific, caustic, and (the indicters might say) condescending terms.   

    Now that I have banished "Christian," the adjective (see the essayChristian, the Adjective) from my vocabulary, I think I may do likewise for "spirituality."

    I do so not only out of peevishness.  I do it in large measure from my understanding of the New Testament witness to Jesus.  He reserves many of his harshest judgments for the religious (that is, pietistic) people of his day. Read Matthew 23 to refresh your recollection of the Lord's critique of the spirituality of the self-righteous: too much soul-saving, too little mercy; too much tithing, too little generosity... just for openers. It's one of the oldest heresies in the Judaeo-Christian book, against which Isaiah railed no less than Jesus: the exaltation of the first and greatest commandment to the exclusion of the second greatest.  Loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength should bolster, not prevent, our love for our neighbor.

    James Boswell famously quotes Samuel Johnson that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."  Piety, my dear friends, is the first refuge of the self-righteous.

    So "who is a Christian?" a friendly agnostic asked me the other evening.  I replied with an answer borrowed from D. T. Niles, a Sri Lankan Methodist of an earlier generation, that a Christian is anyone who says he is.  I can live with that.  In fact, I have... lived with that for a long time.


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