Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons
Eugene Peterson had a publishing life before The Message. And one could argue that it was his previous publications that led, at least in part, to the renewal of Christian spirituality among pastors and laypeople today. In such books as Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Run with the Horses, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, and The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, Peterson exposed the shallowness of American Christianity and offered a bracing and invigorating alternative.
It is momentous, then, that Peterson has returned to writing about the Christian life with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Eerdmans, 2005). It is the first of a projected five-volume series in which Peterson will systematically pull together themes he has been talking about for three decadesspiritual formation, Scripture, leadership, the church, pastoring, spiritual direction.
The first volume is a tour de force in spiritual theology, combining incisive cultural analysis and biblical exposition with a sweeping and engaging vision of the Christian life.
All of his writing has emerged out of his work as a pastor, mostly at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, a Baltimore suburb. He was the founding pastor of the church, which grew to some 500 members before he left after 29 years. He went from there to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and then to Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is now "retired," living in his home state of Montana, but he remains at heart a pastor who cares deeply about the Christian life as it is lived in the local church.
As Peterson was finishing the manuscript of Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, CT managing editor Mark Galli spoke with him about themes that emerged from the book and his life.
What is the most misunderstood aspect of spirituality?
That it's a kind of specialized form of being a Christian, that you have to have some kind of in. It's elitist. Many people are attracted to it for the wrong reasons. Others are put off by it: I'm not spiritual. I like to go to football games or parties or pursue my career. In fact, I try to avoid the word.
Many people assume that spirituality is about becoming emotionally intimate with God.
That's a naïve view of spirituality. What we're talking about is the Christian life. It's following Jesus. Spirituality is no different from what we've been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading Scriptures rightly. It's just ordinary stuff.
This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong. There is an intimacy with God, but it's like any other intimacy; it's part of the fabric of your life. In marriage you don't feel intimate most of the time. Nor with a friend. Intimacy isn't primarily a mystical emotion. It's a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency.
Doesn't the mystical tradition suggest otherwise?
One of my favorite stories is of Teresa of Avila. She's sitting in the kitchen with a roasted chicken. And she's got it with both hands, and she's gnawing on it, just devouring this chicken. One of the nuns comes in shocked that she's doing this, behaving this way. She said, "When I eat chicken, I eat chicken; when I pray, I pray."
If you read the saints, they're pretty ordinary people. There are moments of rapture and ecstasy, but once every 10 years. And even then it's a surprise to them. They didn't do anything. We've got to disabuse people of these illusions of what the Christian life is. It's a wonderful life, but it's not wonderful in the way a lot of people want it to be.