Christians also affirm that God is present amongst us. We don’t believe in a deity that’s removed from creation but rather one that’s very much in the midst of ongoing, creative, loving, healing and reconciling activity every day. Yet, despite this we subconsciously reinforce the separation between what we imagine to be two separate worlds – the material one that we inhabit on a daily basis and the spiritual one, in which God is fully present, and for which we yearn.
We are keenly aware that the material world, including our physical bodies, lets us down all the time. So perhaps it’s only natural for us to pin our hopes on something else, something more enduring, something that we can only glimpse occasionally but which inspires us like nothing else can. So we withdraw into our inner world, into prayer and meditation. We disown the earthly desires of our bodies and lift up those who commit their lives to the disciplines of silence, fasting and chastity. We have a view of reality that looks something like this:
Our world is divided into two parts, the material being where most of our daily existence, including sin, dwells and the spiritual being where God and holiness is most clearly present. For the most part this isn’t a problem, in fact we’re not even aware we’re doing it, despite the fact that it’s continually reinforced in our language, our liturgies, our prayers, our songs, pretty much every aspect of our worship – private and public.
However, problems emerge when we first become aware of a resource limitation – time, talent, finance – and subsequently have to make choices about where we place what we have left. In The Salvation Army, our dual mission, which holds together evangelism and social action, presents a particular challenge to this worldview. In a situation where resources are finite, you have to prioritise and this dualistic understanding of reality can only be resolved in favour of those activities that fall under the spiritual category. How could one justify subjugating the spiritual in favour of the material? Furthermore, because the spiritual world has an eternal aspect and the material world is transient, any commitment of resources must be prioritised towards the longer term outcomes. In practical terms, it might be suggested that whilst housing or feeding someone are good and practical things to do, they should never come at the cost of a lost opportunity to win their souls for heaven. Of course, doing both might be the ideal but if one really has to choose – is there really a choice?
I’ve been puzzling over this situation for over 20 years now, since I first started working in Salvation Army social services and studying theology. For a while there, I was convinced that we just needed to get a better balance between the material and spiritual worlds and the activities that were associated with each. It wasn’t just that this way of seeing things inherently denigrated our social work – though in some ways it does. But I also had a nagging feeling that it didn’t quite sit with my experience. Sometimes at the end of a gruelling day, when I’d broken up a fight, listened to someone crying over their relationship breakdown and cleaned up someone else’s blood or vomit, I felt a sense of meaning and deep connection to life’s purpose that wasn’t always apparent sitting in my pristine uniform in church.
The spaces where the material and spiritual worlds meet are called ‘thin places’ in Celtic Christianity. In all forms of Christianity, including Salvationism, they are sacramental spaces. In fact, this is the purpose of all sacraments – they connect us between a physical reality in this world and the spiritual reality that sits behind it. It’s not magic, it’s mostly a presence of mind, a willingness to see the meaning and reality in a symbol beyond it’s present physical dimensions. Not just to see it, but to enter into it, to participate in it, if that’s at all possible – and our experience suggest that it is.
I went to a funeral in Zambia a few years ago where there were hundreds of people sitting on a hillside, singing, mourning and celebrating together. God’s presence seemed undeniable in that moment, so tangible that it would have been hard to believe that anyone there could have experienced it otherwise. Yet I’ve also experienced times when God seemed so far away that any such connection appeared either a distant memory or a hopeless fantasy.
Our fourth doctrine reminds us that Jesus was ‘truly and properly’ God and human. I suspect that one of the reasons that early church struggled with this so much was because of the same dualistic framework that continues to besiege us today. How can the divine be mixed with humanity? We still affirm the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane much more convincingly than we are able to proclaim the oneness between them that is found in the incarnation. Is it possible that what we are saying about Jesus is more true about all of reality than I had previously understood? Is this the key to understanding the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God? The more I dig into these questions, the more I have begun to see similar revelations breaking through right throughout the history of Christianity.
The beginning of this journey is starting to reject simplistic dualities. For instance, that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who always think in black and white, and those who can live with the large amounts of grey that inhabit our existence. Whilst there is some truth in this, like all generalisations it suffers when examined too closely. Sometimes dualisms are tempting because they pander to our tribalistic tendencies. We frequently fall into ‘us’ and ‘them’ ways of thinking. However, it’s possible to acknowledge the truth that underlies most dualisms without accepting that they capture the whole truth or that theirs is even the best (or only) illustration of the way things are.
Here’s another common way of thinking about our existence that might seem at first to be a bit more sophisticated than simple dualism but still reinforces the same paradigm.
This is a common way of thinking about holistic mission. We think about the various dimensions of a person’s existence (of course there are a multitude of ways of naming these and breaking them up, this is just an example) and look to find ways to address a person’s wellbeing in each of the areas. Truly holistic mission will ensure that a person is doing well in every area of their life’s pie chart. Sometimes this way of working can mean that someone coming for assistance might have five different people helping them with different aspect of their life! In our social programs, whatever we decide the spiritual segment means is what we assume the chaplain is doing (though I suspect very few chaplains actually see their work this way). The problem with ‘pentalism’ or any other ‘polyism’ is that it continues to reaffirm the separation of the spiritual from every other aspect of a person’s existence. Of course, when we look deeper we can also acknowledge that this isn’t just a false division for our spiritual dimension. Our emotional wellbeing affects and is affected by our social world, our physical health affects and is affected by our psychological wellbeing, etc.
Whilst the differences are important, the inter-connections are as well. This makes it harder to represent diagrammatically but I think something like this is getting closer to how I’m beginning to understand it and is a more helpful way to approach the development of holistic mission:
Again, the categories are debatable but they’re not really the point. In this case, by Mind I mean everything that we perceive as going on inside our heads – our personality, our thoughts, our emotions, our dreams, our fears, our sense of ‘self’, perhaps this is what some have thought of as their ‘soul’. By Creation, I mean the physical world outside our head including our own bodies. We invite an interaction between mind and creation every time we eat a piece of cheese or drink something sweet, when we exercise our bodies or when we enjoy the scenery on a bushwalk. Finally, the Social dimension encompasses all of our interactions between each other. It’s vital to the bigger picture and important, I think, to distinguish from the rest of creation because I suspect most people interact differently with other humans than they do with trees. All of this and the interactions between them make up who we are and have the potential to capture our life’s experiences. The space where each dimension bleeds into the next is highly permeable, like three pools of water running into each other – once the connections begin it is no longer easy to determine where one starts and another ends.
Now where does spirituality fit in, I hear you ask? Well, I contend that it’s right there, you just need to know where to look. It’s there in Mind when we think about God, when we immerse ourselves in private prayer, when we wonder about the meaning of life, when we are feeling most desolate and alone, when we decide that we need to live differently, to live more fully, to building a better world. It’s there in Creation when we become aware of the beauty of all that surrounds us, when we stand in awe of the micro-organisms that help us to live and the incredible vastness of the universe that surrounds us, when we are thankful for the health of our body and for when we curse it’s limitations. We can begin to understand the social dimension as having deeply spiritual moments, each time we respond compassionately to a person in need, when we fall in love and refuse to rationalise those moments as merely the consequence of bodily chemicals, when we are moved to create a more just world because we don’t want anything to happen to others that we wouldn’t want for ourselves.
Of course, not all of life feels like a particularly spiritual moment. Some parts of life we experience as extraordinarily mundane – though even this can be subjective. For one person, there is nothing more dull than doing the dishes, while for another this is the supreme moment of relaxation. This is what it means for Salvationists to be ‘pan-sacramental’. It means that all of life is potentially sacramental in character. If God is really omnipresent, then all moments, all places, are capable of revealing something sacred. However, I’d be the first to admit that this doesn’t seem to be an even scale – some things seem to be more ready to open up those thin places that others.
So if you believe that God is compassionate, then a life full of compassion will be more likely to reveal God. If you believe that God is concerned about justice, equity and everyone getting a fair go, then invest yourself in these things. If you believe that God is love, then show love without reserve. Most of all, don’t be bound by dualisms that set us apart from other people, whatever they are. For if nothing else, God is a God of surprises and loves more faithfully, more indiscriminately and more fully than we can ever imagine.