Spirituality, for the Whole, Entire, Big World
Sarah Walker ’07
Seminary can be challenging. In the three years we M.Div. students are here, we are inundated with theology and Bible. We take classes on mission and Hebrew exegesis. We learn from some of the best and brightest in their fields. And we have a unique opportunity to learn from one another and from our context.
We must keep that in mind, because the walls of the campus can too easily become the walls of our entire, little world. The six short miles to downtown Atlanta stretch far into the distance in the face of papers to write, tests to study for, and ever-present Atlanta traffic. If we do not venture beyond our safe haven in Decatur, it is difficult to know, let alone learn from, the context and city that surround us.
In her Colloquium lecture on “Worldly Spirituality,” Amy Plantinga Pauw ventured far beyond a personal, inward-focused understanding of spirituality. Pauw worked from Shirley Guthrie’s notion of a worldly spirituality to enflesh a way of living and being in the world that is deeply rooted in our faith.
Pauw argued that worldly spirituality is first and foremost centered on the Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains the entire world. Therefore, a worldly spirituality must embrace the whole world because there is no part of the world that is “bereft of God’s presence.” Spirituality is not, as it has often been conceived, an individualistic, private affair. It is outwardly focused, concerned with God’s intentions for the whole of creation. Moreover, according to Pauw, worldly spirituality must be concerned with the things of the world. It is an embodied, messy spirituality engaged in day-to-day living. It is not separate from civic life or how we spend our money or interact with our communities. Worldly spirituality must reflect our lives and be reflected in our lives. There are some things we learn only by doing. We are always figuring out what we believe in the midst of practicing our faith.
Citing Jonathan Edwards, Pauw outlined three types of pietistic practices the church ought to engage in: communicative, critical, and celebratory. Communicative practices are directed outward, recognizing that the church exists not for itself but for others. Communicative practices are always interactive: there is never simply one side giving and the other side receiving; rather, the church and the world give to and receive from each other. Communicative practices recognize that the Spirit is at work in non-Christian as well as Christian communities.
Within the church, critical practices are those through which we recognize both our high ideals as well as our continual shortcomings. Critical practices are humbling ones, through which the church admits that we are a sinful and broken people as much in need of God’s gracious love as anyone else. Through celebratory practices, on the other hand, we rejoice in God’s beauty and recognize the church not only as a sinful community, but also as a community of gifts.
Celebratory practices are not intended to achieve anything practical but are rooted in our worship and praise of God, which can be understood (to quote Marva Dawn) as a “royal waste of time.”
Communicative, critical, and celebratory practices are the ways in which Pauw attempted to put Guthrie’s worldly spirituality into a context we can grasp and engage. For those of us in seminary, it is a call to engage not only our studies and classes, but also the world we encounter around us and well beyond the walls of our seminary.