Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Christian Spirituality of Person

By A William McVey

            For the last five years, I have been sharing somewhat structured conversations with spiritual seekers. They have come to these sessions because of my interest in a dialogue between Christian spirituality and Zen. Note, it is a dialogue with Zen mainly as a method of meditation compatible with a Christian theology of Via Negativa.
            Some of these seekers describe themselves in terms such as, “used to be religious, I am spiritual, but not interested in religion; I would like to be part of a spiritual group.” I explain that I will present my practice of Zen, especially Zen meditation known as Zazen. During these conversations, I will share how this practice has impacted my approach to prayer, meditation, spiritual mindfulness and a living a life of loving compassion in Christ.
            I do notice that backs seem to stiffen at the idea that we might talk about Jesus. I realize that we hit the often present “seeker inoculation point.” In the post-modern Western culture, people have not only rejected Christianity, they have immunized themselves against the idea. Furthermore, I am sad to say in many cases even at the name of Jesus.
            Yet, I pray and stay cool, but it is painful. When we finish the Zen part, I ask if they would like to start another conversation to explore various approaches to spirituality. I explain to them that I am an Episcopalian, and we follow a method of the “Via Media”. Simply, it means we love to explore and even go to extremes in loving and sometimes difficult probing conversations. We are a people who hold together by means of a loving consensus. They like that approach and the conversations begin, but there comes a moment when it gets tense. It is the moment when I present what I hold as the foundation of a Christian Spirituality of Person.
            I show an image of Michelangelo’s painting behind the altar in the Sistine chapel. I describe how commanding it is to stand in the chapel and experience the painting. It is the huge figure of God, the creator coming from the heavens and touching Adam, the man. The creator touches man. The creator touches his creatures and his creation and life is given. It is the image of the Absolute, Transcendent, and Sovereign Creator whose out stretched finger brings life in the touch and person comes into being.
            It is now that the seeker conversation becomes serious and some backs begin to stiffen even more. It becomes apparent that postmodern seekers are more comfortable with pantheistic and panentheistic spirituality. In this type of spirituality, yes even the panentheism types, God is All and His being is defined by the All. Everything natural is pervaded by the divinity. God is in the natural. God is natural. He is also beyond the natural, but He has somehow limited Himself to the natural.
            In the Sistine image, we learn that God touched us, and we became persons. We are not material beings. We are not a combination of the material and the spiritual. We are persons. God touched and bestowed upon on us the faculties knowing and feeling so that we might do the will of the creator. In a pantheistic style of spirituality, there is really no issue of will because the blending of the spiritual and the material into the universal All Minding must happen. Indeed, we just have to become conscious of our god-like nature. There is no issue of free will; it is all spiritual determinism.
             It is different with Christian spirituality where humans are the highest expression of God’s creation. Is it our ability to blend into the harmony of the universe? No, we, having been touched by the creator, and we have a much higher destiny because we are called on earth to hear and do God’s will.
The contemporary Christian philosopher Erazim Kohak writes, “A person is a being who meets you as a Thou, not just a “you,” opening himself to you, both offering and claiming respect. In the encounter of persons, categories of respect-moral categories-are in order. Not simply categories of purpose; purpose can also be mechanical and pointless. Nor categories of causality. Rather, it is the categories of respect, of good and evil, of right and wrong that govern the encounter of persons.” (The Embers and the Stars, A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Moral Sense Of Nature P.122)
            During Holy Week, we encounter a God who comes as a person and dies on the cross. The night before his death, in agony Jesus goes to the garden to pray with weak persons who fall asleep. I have thought this Lent perhaps the real agony for Jesus is the awareness that his disciples cannot handle the image of a weak God.
            It seems to me that a pantheistic and/or panentheistic God of force and moving energy appears much more powerful to a scientific-technical age.  A God we see in the here and now blending the spiritual and the material into a  force of the universe is more pleasing than the image of a weak person dying on the cross doing the will of the Father.
             I end here on Holy Week because we have come to the essence of a person based Christian spirituality. We are only weak persons who have become strong by way of the cross and resurrection and the Christ of faith.
Lift High the Cross!    He is Risen!


  1. Bill, your essay for me is the most important one you have posted. I think you have provided us with an essential principal definition of person evangelically for expressing our tradition in our contemporary setting. Excellent work, my friend.

  2. Bill you have skillfully reminded our readers of the Easter Mystery of God transforming weakness into strength, death into resurrection and sin into redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Your obversation of pantheism and panentheism is correct when you point out that if God is in and through everything, including human beings, everyone is strong and there is no room for the weakness of the Cross, or for that matter the weakness of we humans. This is one of your better pieces.