Prof: Church must discern amid postmodern spirituality

LOUISVILLE, Ky.–Being biblically grounded and church-centered is essential to true Christian spirituality in a postmodern culture, Donald Whitney told students last February at the 2006 Collegiate Conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Whitney, associate professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary, examined and critiqued postmodern spirituality among those who are professing Christians. He identified three characteristics of such “spirituality,” saying the first element is the eclectic, or varied, religious practices such people use.

The conference theme was “The People of Truth: Believing, Defending and Living Biblical Truth in a Postmodern Age.”

“Postmodern spirituality will draw from almost any source,” he said. “If a perceived spiritual benefit can be achieved then the practice is considered valid regardless of whether or not it is in the Bible.”

Contemporary sources of spirituality might include Catholic and Protestant practices, ancient and modern traditions and even pagan religious practices, Whitney said. As long as spiritual benefit is perceived, postmodern spiritualists consider the act valid. Whitney, though, argued that this opens people up to heresy.

“One of the dangers of grasping merely at the practice without examining the source, is that you unwittingly take some of the beliefs that go along with it,” he said. “People believe that something they perceive as so beautiful spiritually must be right and they get into heresy.”

A second characteristic of people who practice postmodern spirituality, Whitney said, is that they desire an experience that includes not just the mind, but also the whole person.

“Postmodern spiritually wants something that is more than just head knowledge, that works in real life,” he said. “It wants a worship that can be felt and relationships that are deep. It realizes that salvation is not just about the head, but about the soul, body and heart.”

This is a positive desire, Whitney said, but he added that experience must not trump biblical theology in determining what practices benefit the entire being.

“You must evaluate enjoyment by whether or not it comes from God,” he said. “A spirituality that emphasizes the spiritual [experience] heavily is in danger of disconnecting itself from sound theology. This is like cutting off the blossoms of flowers. They are beautiful for a while, and give a fragrant aroma for a while, but don’t last because they have no root.”

The final characteristic of postmodern spirituality is that it emphasizes relationships, Whitney said.

“This generation, more than any other, has grown up in broken homes,” he said. “They long for relationships they have not really experienced, which is a rightful longing.

“This culture has also distanced us from one another. We buy things on the Internet, get money from the ATM, and deal very little with people face to face. All of our relationships are through glass, be it through a computer screen with email and instant messaging, or through the television watching sitcoms and movies.”

The desire for community is good, although one problem is that people often develop it outside the local church, Whitney said.

“The place God has ordained as the primary place for meaningful relationships is the local church,” he said. “Like the ‘Cheers’ bar or Seinfeld’s restaurant, people develop a place they go for relationships. That is why Starbucks and other coffee shops are so popular now, because people go there to develop community.”

Yet even the relationships in church often are developed simply for the sake of having a community and not for encouraging people to seek a relationship with God, Whitney said.

“Community is good and right and healthy, but not if it neglects an individual response to the gospel and a relationship to God,” he said.

Whitney pointed to Scripture as the authority for developing appropriate spiritual practices.

“The Bible is the measure of the validity of any spiritual experience, and if an experience is not validated by Scripture then there is a conflict,” he said. “Every one of our spiritual experiences should be inaugurated with the Bible or be informed by the Bible.”

Referring to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Whitney said Scripture is both profitable and sufficient in the area of developing one’s spirituality.

“Scripture tells us that the Bible is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” he said. “IF Scripture is not profitable for you, the problem is with you, not with Scripture. The Bible also claims that the practices taught in it are sufficient for spiritual life. Any benefit that someone finds from a non-biblical practice at best is not necessary.”


Garrett E. Wishall, Baptis Press
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