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  • David OMalley

Taking the incarnation seriously


Taking the Incarnation Seriously

This is an extract from a longer piece.


There are mixed feelings about spirituality in the Church: On one hand it offers personal energy and commitment to faith. On the other hand, it is difficult to contain and direct within a Christian community. But spirituality is part of being human and must therefore have been embraced by Christ in becoming one like us. So, there must be ways in which this area of experience can be given space in the life of the Church. This extended reflection attempts to explore some links between religion and spirituality. It ends with a specific reflection on multiple intelligence theories as one incarnational way of thinking about what we do, as Church, to feed the souls of baptised Christians.

Spirituality has many definitions and whole books have been written on what it might mean. One of the simplest definitions is offered by Evelyn Underhill, a modern mystic of the 20th century who described spirituality as:

Direct intuition or experience of God.[1]

If spirituality is the direct access to experience of God, those of us who are religious need to ask ourselves what religion is for. If individuals can access God in their own experience why go to church, why bother with shared prayer and liturgy? This is a key question behind the changing face of religious practice in Britain today. How we answer that question depends upon how we view the purpose of religion in our own cultural setting. The way that religion is presented through media and even by the Church itself has led to a distorted image of religion which separates experience from faith.

One favourite question that opens up this area is expressed as follows:

Ford make motor cars, Warner Brothers make films,

what does the Church do?

This question has been difficult to answer especially since the fear of hell and judgement seems to have faded in some peoples’ minds. Now many associate religion with words such as ritual; boring sermons; old women in hats; hypocrisy and intolerance.[2] In contrast, the word spirituality evokes in people a sense of an inner life; peace; gentleness; sincerity and unity. The media, and in many ways the Church itself, has presented religion in terms of authority, structures and an exclusivism that contrasts with the apparent open-minded tolerance of the present age. It seems therefore that religion and spirituality are opposing approaches to the experience of the sacred.

The distinction that people make when they say, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual” emerges from a culture that wants to separate two experiences that really belong together. The media view of religion as exclusive, authoritarian and hypocritical makes a caricature of religion. When the Church pronounces its truths without listening to people, it too reinforces that same prejudice within the culture. When liturgies are celebrated without reference to the experience of individual worshipers, the gap between spirituality and religion widens. Religion, at its best, is a seamless experience of God that has an inner and an outer dimension; a personal and communal experience of God that leads into wisdom, ethics, self sacrifice and loving kindness. It is a far cry from the hypocritical and authoritarian image with which it is burdened in contemporary culture.

Religion has many dimensions that include the doctrinal and ritual elements that are the source of much tension and disenchantment for many people; but there are other dimensions of religious experience that also need to be recognised and given due space in the religious life of Church communities. Some of these dimensions are ways of feeding the spiritual hunger that many people seem to be feeling in our secularised culture. Ninian Smart describes seven dimensions of religion as follows. Which areas do you see as over- emphasised and which ones seem, to you, to be under-represented in your experience of Church?

  • Belief - Doctrine

  • Ritual - Liturgy

  • Experience - Feelings

  • Myth - Stories

  • Ethics - Morality

  • Community - Institution

  • Art - Aesthetic[3]

These dimensions are not isolated or unrelated to each other but they are parts of an organic whole, each affects the other. Beliefs are expressed in rituals, art expresses the myths of our religion and ethics directs the way we live as a community. The apparent dominance of doctrine and moral issues in Church and in contemporary media may be masking the greater importance of the individual feelings and stories that people need in order to make sense of their own experience and so achieve the fullness of life promised in the Gospel. In a culture that can be toxic to religion it is easy for a Church to become defensive and retreat into older certainties. As one writer has commented ‘the last act of many struggling organisations is to rewrite the rule book.’ Defensiveness in the Church can lead to a fear of listening because it might imply a loosening of control or a sliding slope that undermines the way that faith is traditionally expressed. In that situation, the Church might find itself using people to shore up old structures rather than inviting them to explore the path to fullness of life in Jesus.

Ninian Smart sees myth and experience as the food upon which the other dimensions feed.[4] Perhaps the weakened state of our Church is the result, not of lack of doctrinal, ethical or liturgical life, but a failure to embrace the feelings and stories of the Church community in their search for meaning. The experience of Jesus is the starting point for all Christianity. Our faith is founded upon a direct intuition and experience of God in Jesus. In sharing this experience of God, as Father, Jesus spent time listening, telling stories from life and opening up the experience of the ordinary as a pathway to an encounter with God as Father. For Jesus too, experience fed the more formal dimensions of religion.

[1] Mystics of The Church page 9 Clark Books Cambridge 1925


[2] See David Hay The Spirit of The Child page 6 Jessica Kinglsey London 1998


[3] Ninian Smart The Religious Experience (of mankind) Prentice Hall 5th Edition 1969


[4] Ninian Smart The World Religions Page 13 Cambridge University Press 1998

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