Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Frederica Mathewes-Green on an ancient evangelical spirituality

Frederica Mathewes-Green's topic at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference was on spiritual formation. As she gave her presentation, she scrolled through a series of icons and commented on their significance and relevance to the topic. Ancient Christians, after all, were mostly illiterate. So they could not read books, but they could read faces, gestures and postures. They learned Christian character and spirituality through the images of faithful saints in the icons.

In keeping with the recurring theme of the global church, I was glad to see that many of the icons Frederica displayed represented a broad diversity of cultures and national backgrounds. I didn't jot down all the names or places, but I recall that some of the saints and icons were from Africa, Russia and Latin America. One in particular that struck me was an icon of the Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion.

Frederica talked about the classical Orthodox spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and I was glad to hear her broaden the definition of almsgiving to include various ways of loving one's neighbor, whether care for the poor or social justice or global mission. Often we evangelicals view spirituality and spiritual formation in private, internal terms, where it's only about inner personal transformation. In actuality, spiritual formation is incomplete if it remains private. Personal inner transformation should fuel us and propel us toward outward activism.

Tagging back to my last post, let me mention a brief hallway conversation I had with Brian McLaren relating to the global church and spirituality. Part of our discussion was about the fact that when we retrieve the ancient church's practices of spiritual formation, we need to be careful that we don't only focus on the Western church's spiritual practices. This might be an overgeneralization, but Western spirituality tends to be more contemplative and cognitive. But when we look at the Eastern church and Asian practices, we see a more embodied spirituality. The East was not quite as affected by philosophical dualism or Gnosticism, so it has always had a more holistic view of the body, mind and spirit. Thus it's not surprising that many modern Christians are now exploring Asian practices like yoga and tai chi, precisely because they affirm the physicality of spirituality and have a more concrete (yet meditative) experience. I'm reminded of an Emergent gathering I went to a few years ago that had morning Christian yoga at the tennis courts, and when my colleague was hesitant to go, someone exhorted him, "Get out of your head and into your body!"

Of course, Christians are divided on how much we can or should appropriate or Christianize such practices, and we certainly need to be careful of underlying worldview conflicts. But I'd be very interested in finding out ways of recovering more authentic, indigenous Christian spiritual practices of the Asian, African and Latin American church and discovering how they complement and fill out our North American and Western European spiritual tradition.


Anonymous said...

Al--You say that Eastern church has been less affected by Gnosticism. But that's not my understanding, at least when it comes to their art and music. In Joan L. Roccasalvo's "The Eastern Catholic Churches," American Essays in Liturgy, ed. Edward Foley (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992), she says "“Iconography falls into the category of idealistic rather than realistic art. The icon presents the spiritual person, that is, the character of holiness in a person rather than other qualities such as the physical, emotional, or intellectual” (p. 49). And "In their simplicity and holiness, the chants have one purpose: to create a mystical atmosphere for prayer resembling ‘silent music [or] sounding solitude’”(p. 46). In other words, Eastern Christians have been affected by Platonism if not Gnosticism.

Al Hsu said...

Ah - I was unclear. In the same breath I mentioned the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Far East (Asia), which of course are very different things. In terms of Gnosticism's lesser effects in "the East," I was mostly thinking about geographic Asia, not Eastern Orthodoxy. Though these are excellent points here, especially as regards to Platonism.