Monday, April 11, 2011

Sacred Pathways 1

Because Spanish language resources for theological education are not as plenteous as the English, Wesley Seminary--with a lot of help--is facilitating the translating, contextualizing, and writing of materials for our MDIV curriculum in Spanish.  For our Spiritual Formation course called Change and Transformation, I am initially summarizing some of the material our English MDIV students read for the Spanish cohort.

Here is my summary of the first five chapters of Gary Thomas' Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God (Zondervan).
Some truths are fairly obvious once someone points them out to you, and yet sometimes hard to see on our own. One of these is the fact that we are all different people. We have different personalities based in part because we have a different genetic make-up and in part because we have grown up under different circumstances.

Our failure to recognize these differences lies at the heart of all sorts of relational problems we have because we assume that everyone else thinks or should think the same way we do. These differences are not simply a matter of different cultures or even sub-cultures—and many are not even fully aware of these very obvious differences. They apply to the difference between me and my spouse, between me and my children, between me and other people in my church or work.

It should be fairly obvious that if God relates to each of us as specific individuals, then he will relate to us all a little differently. Certainly we as human beings share certain things in common. We all need food, water, shelter, love, and many other things. But we are also all different from one another.

It seems that we humans often have a tendency to assume that the way we interact with God is the way to interact with God. Those who find it easy to get up at 4am to pray for an hour may wonder how spiritual someone else is whose prayer time is less regimented. The person who devotes hours each week helping the needy may equally wonder about the spirituality of the person who does not. The same goes for the tireless evangelist who wonders why we are not spending as much time as she talking to non-believers.

In short, we observe a tendency among Christian leaders to see their primary way of relating to God as the way, with a “one size fits all” mentality. The brilliance of Gary Thomas’ book, Sacred Pathways, is not necessarily the specific paths he mentions, but the fact that he recognizes that we all approach God differently. His first chapter, “Loving God,” expresses the same basic point we have just made. We have one God, but God has many different relationships (p. 18).

Somehow it seems obvious that God will relate to an introvert a little differently than he relates to an extrovert. He will relate differently to a person oriented around their senses and the external world than a person who is more intuitive and inwardly oriented. You have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test and should recognize these as some of the different personality types people have. God will relate differently to a thinker than a feeler. God will relate differently to a person who likes to leave things open-ended than to a person who likes to come to definite conclusions.

To be sure, we should expect God to help us to grow. Could it be that God both causes and allows things to come into our lives to make us more balanced? Just because we are not prone to certain things because of our personalities does not mean that we would not glorify God by moving beyond our comfort zone. Nevertheless, God is a God who takes on flesh (John 1:14). He comes to us because we cannot reach up to him. He is a God who meets us where we are and then takes us from there.

Chapters 2-5 of Sacred Pathways discuss five types of individual Thomas has identified as different in the way they most easily relate to God. They are:

Chapter 2—Naturalists: Loving God Out of Doors (pp. 35-50)
The first type of person Thomas discusses are those who seem to meet God most easily when they are outside, surrounded by nature. When they see God’s handiwork, they strongly resonate with the fact that “los cielos proclaman la Gloria de Dios” (Salmo 19:1). He also discusses some of the temptations these “naturalists” need to avoid.

Naturalists can mistakenly think that they do not need other believers or to gather in Christian assembly (cf. Heb. 10:25). They can substitute their impressions for genuine revelation. They can even elevate nature almost to a divine status. However, these extremes do not negate the fact that some people most easily experience God when outside, surrounded by the creation, communing with him in their own Garden of Eden.

Chapter 3—Sensates: Loving God with the Senses (pp. 51-68)
Thomas thinks of Ezekiel when he thinks of a “sensate,” a person who experiences God best with the stimulation of touch, smell, taste, and so forth (pp. 52-53). Ezekiel feels the winds. He sees flashing lightning. He hears the sounds of wings. He eats a scroll.

It is probably obvious that the sensate shares some similarities with the naturalist above. One of the main differences is that you can smell and taste things both indoors and outdoors. What does a church smell like? How does beauty affect you? Although we will discuss the “traditionalist” next, there is probably a reason why God instituted sacraments like baptism and communion, which involve sensations and tastes.

Do you feel closest to God in a service that makes your senses come alive? Would drawing or art help you pray to God? Then you may be a sensate. Thomas warns the sensate not to “worship worship” (p. 66), where you mistake the experiences or beauty for the one you are worshipping.

Chapter 4—Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol (pp. 69-93)
Many Protestants, especially in Latin America, have reacted strongly against “empty ritualism.” We might thus start with some of the warnings Thomas gives to the traditionalist—a kind of mechanical repetition of rituals without really encountering God. Other “temptations” he addresses are those who neglect reaching out to others in their preoccupation with traditions or those who judge others because they don’t do things the “right” way. But it is also significant that Thomas does not limit traditionalism to what we might think of as “high church” or Roman Catholic worship. All churches have traditions, and most churches resist changing them.

We should not assume that this group of people cannot genuinely meet God because they prize following time honored traditions. John Wesley not only took communion every week, but suggested you should take it as often has you had opportunity. You would be hard pressed to argue that communion was ever an empty ritual for Wesley. How could we seriously object to a church that read a passage from the Psalms, from the rest of the Old Testament, from the Gospels, and from the rest of the New Testament every Sunday?

So the traditionalist should not judge the person whom God does not meet in these ways. But we also should not assume that the traditionalist cannot genuinely meet God in their practice of tradition.

Chapter 5—Ascetics: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity (pp. 95-113)
The final type of “sacred pathway” we want to look at this week is the ascetic, the person whom God most easily meets through self-denial. Again, some of those with this personality have a tendency to look down on those who do not fast as often as they do. But we also should value those who feel closest to God when they are alone and nothing is around to distract them. These are those who like to go on retreat or practice periods of silence.

Thomas describes several types of actions that ascetics highly value. “Watching in the night” is a practice of being quiet when everyone else is asleep. They resonate with the verse that says, “!Quédense quietos y sepan que yo soy Dios” (Salmo 46:10). They fast. They live simply. They grow incredibly through hardship and value working. Their temptation is to seek pain for its own sake or to overemphasize personal piety.

Next week I might post summaries of chapters 6-11.


JohnM said...

Interesting subject.

I note you said "Thomas does not limit traditionalism to what we might think of as “high church” or Roman Catholic worship. All churches have traditions, and most churches resist changing them."

Does Thomas suggest any connection between sacred pathways and denominational choices, or perhaps even the very existence of different worhsip traditions, e.g. Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentacostal, etc.?

Chris said...

PentEcostal :)

Randy Mahoney said...

Dr. Schenck,

During this semester I held a monthly spiritual disciplines event called "Cultiv8" (cultivate). Each session talked about a different SoulShift and spoke of what spiritual disciplines tied to it. However, the first session (in February) was an overview of Thomas' book and I had those who attended fill out a questionnaire to see what pathway they fell in line with the most. Thanks for posting!