A sermon by Revd Elly Sheard
(Chaplain to Truro and Penwith Colleges)
Isa 58: 1 – 9a
1 Cor 2: 1 -12
Matt 5: 13 – 20
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word ‘spirituality’. It’s a bit of a buzz word these days and whilst we as Christians probably link our spirituality very closely with the practice of our faith, there are many people in our society who would call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’. Certainly, in my work as chaplain at Truro College the ‘spiritual but not religious’ phrase is one I am familiar with. Indeed, whilst as we all know, the number of people practising any form of religion in our society has been declining for many years, the numbers who would claim to be on a spiritual search, or following a spiritual path, has risen steadily over recent decades and continues to do so. Many of these people would, I suspect, largely agree with this definition that I came across on the internet: “Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all.”
And I think that probably makes quite a lot of sense to me as well. I do agree that spirituality is something that describes an essential and universal human experience – that all of us are seeking and searching for answers to the big questions of meaning with which life confronts us. And I do agree that spirituality, as the word is used in common currency today, is a broad concept with many variations – indeed, perhaps we might want to say that spirituality is a word that can mean whatever we want it to mean – and that my meaning of ‘spirituality’ is as good as yours.
And perhaps this is where it gets tricky. The individualized nature of our society means that we, rightly, respect the dignity of each person as an individual, but it also means that when it comes to spirituality we consider it a very private realm and, too often, we end up leaving people, especially young people, to fend for themselves in this absolutely fundamental area of their lives.
It is an attitude that the Apostle Paul would have had no truck with. In our reading this morning from his first letter to the Corinthians he makes it very clear that in his view there is a clear difference between one sort of spirituality – a worldly spirituality – and another sort of spirituality – a godly spirituality that derives from the dwelling of the Spirit of God within the lives of Christian people.
In today’s terminology we might want to draw a distinction between the individualized, DIY, model of how spirituality works in the lives of many in our society and the spirituality that has developed and is still developing in the lives of ourselves and our fellow Christians – a spirituality through which our sense of personal meaning and purpose is filtered as we come to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God.
Some Christians would want to say, I think, that there is no place of meeting – no overlap - between these two ways of thinking about spirituality. You are either within the fold of Christian believers, in which case your spirituality is grounded in your acceptance of God’s redemptive and life-changing love for you and the whole of your spirituality follows from this. Or you are not within that fold, in which case you have nothing solid on which to base your inner life – no way of facing up to those big questions that life inevitably throws at you – and you are left to fend for yourself or perhaps to make up your spirituality as you go along in the ever-changing sea of ideas and teachings that swirl around in our society today.
I suspect even Paul, may have had much sympathy with this view – that your spirituality is either worldly or Godly and there is no middle ground. But I am not so sure.
Jeremy has asked me to say something this morning about my work as a chaplain at Truro College – and I am getting there! In my daily work at the college, I am surrounded by several thousand staff and students of whom only a very small proportion have any contact with the church – or indeed with a faith group of any kind. I haven’t actually done any kind of proper survey, but I strongly suspect, however, that a significant majority, if asked, would say that they are spiritual people or that they are interested in spirituality. And as I get to know more and more of them, I cannot with all honesty say that, because they are not conventionally religious they are somehow unacceptable to God or, even worse, bad people. Of course they are not. Here in Cornwall, Christianity still has a significant foot-print in our society, and especially when it comes to behavior and ethics many people still have a basic Christian grounding in their lives, even if they don’t recognize it as such. But that is fading fast and increasingly among the young, knowledge of even the basics of the Christian way as a possible guide for their spiritual path through life is something that increasing numbers of them would regard as incomprehensible. Tales of criminal activity in high places and statements from church leaders on sexual matters that are completely at odds with the ethics of nearly all our young people do not help. Yes, those ethics may have been developed along the sort of DIY lines that I mentioned earlier, but the radical inclusivity that they often embody are a vital – and I believe good - part of young people’s spirituality today.
So how do we navigate this challenging mix of spirituality in our modern world? Despite the fact that Paul seems to have been drawing much more black and white distinctions in his correspondence with the Corinthians, I do wonder if things were really that straightforward even then. And certainly today, spirituality is varied, nuanced and complex – and if we have the privilege, as I do, of being able to speak and act in this area in the world outside the church as well as within, it seems to me that we can only find our way through humility and prayer, through love and respect for others. My first responsibility as a chaplain is to listen, carefully and with respect, to those whose views may be different from mine. And that may take a long time and never really comes to an end. Only by listening and doing our best to understand where others are coming from will we be in a position to speak about what we have found in the riches of our Christian spirituality – and, of course, only by engaging intentionally with our own growth in that spirituality will we be in a position to have those conversations when the opportunity arises.
The lifelong human journey of spirituality – whether Christian or on some other path – is the most exciting and important part of our whole human existence. Perhaps we might even say it is what we are made for. And in today’s world, where spirituality is the source of so much lively interest all around us, it is surely vitally important for all of us that we hear the call of our Christian faith to engage with this quest – and thus to be able to be of service to our fellow-citizens in the process.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.