Frederick Schmidt: 4 Ways the Culture Misunderstands Spiritual Formation


For much of the late 20th Century and all of the early 21st Century, an increasing number of people have described themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

Even if that trend left the church at some disadvantage in speaking to the needs of a growing segment of the population, the development was a welcome one. It was also a wake up call to a church that had allowed an important dimension of its experience to slip to the margins of its life.

The church's failure to do that work, however, left people to navigate the American spiritual landscape on their own, sorting through not only the misunderstandings that were common across the church, but the ways in which our culture misunderstands spiritual formation as well.

In order to provide some orientation to that landscape, yesterday I described the four ways that the church misunderstands or misrepresents formation. That description can be found here.

This time I want to describe the four ways in which - from a Christian perspective - the culture misunderstands spiritual formation.

I say, "from a Christian perspective," because - of course - if you don't share Christian assumptions about spirituality, then you can certainly describe spiritual formation in almost any way you like. And people do.

But for those who are trying to get their bearings from a Christian perspective, it is important to understand how even well-intentioned alternatives misrepresent the goals of the spiritual life.

So, here's my shortlist of cultural misunderstandings of spiritual formation:

Spirituality as Talisman

A talisman is an object that wards off adversity and insures good luck and for many, the latent assumption is that if we are spiritually attuned, we will not suffer - or at a minimum - we will not be troubled by suffering.

That magical assumption has wrapped itself around spiritual practice in the church and, in particular, around the practice of prayer. I have lost count of the number of people who assume that if life is difficult, then they must have failed in some way.

The Christian message offers two correctives to this misunderstanding of the Christian life:

One: Our journey into God is made possible by God's grace. We are never good enough and our goodness and the rigor of our spiritual practice is not the key to that journey.

Two: That journey into God sustains us in lives that are inevitably marked by suffering and mortality. Contrary to some caricatures of the Christian faith, it's message is not escapist or about "pie in the sky by and by." It is about a faith that sustains us in cooperating with the work of God's Kingdom, which is breaking into a broken world, but which is not yet fully transformed.

Spirituality as Quietism

If I am spiritual I can elect to withdraw from the world's needs and from the obligation to address those needs.

Fed to some degree by popular images of spiritual people as somehow otherworldly and given to a faintly tragic demeanor, it is not uncommon for "more practical types" to complain that the problem with spiritual formation is that it's all about withdrawing from the world.

There a number of ways in which this caricature of spiritual formation misunderstands the Christian tradition.

One: Withdrawal from the world is a secondary meaning of the word "quietism." The other - and primary - definition of quietism is a withdrawal from one's desires in favor of attending to the things of God. It is, then, far more about getting clear about our desires and God's and, for that reason, quietism (properly understood) makes far more rigorous demands upon the person who practices it than does the popular understanding of it.

Two: Even those who live in monasteries, devoting themselves to regular prayer, understand that prayer involves engagement with the needs of the world. Convinced that the world is marked by physical struggles that mirror spiritual struggles, the difference is in the conception of what is at stake.

And three: Christian spirituality is always and everywhere about a journey inward that requires a journey outward. Unlike some forms of spirituality, spiritual formation in the Christian tradition is never simply for the benefit of the one who gives themselves to the journey into God. The journey into God leads us into deeper connection with others as well - with the needs and the struggles of those living on life's margins and facing peril.

Spirituality as Therapy

Many think that to be spiritual is to be emotionally well-adjusted and emotionally well-adjusted people attend to their spiritual lives.

Predictably, in a culture that finds the notion of sin and redemption quaint or quite simply objectionable, it is easier to think of the spiritual life in therapeutic categories than it is to think of it in theological categories. Bookstore shelves where self-help and spirituality merge with one another are an artifact of this approach to the spiritual life.

To be sure, spiritual formation may lend itself to a better-adjusted approach to life, but it doesn't necessarily. And when a person is deeply in touch with the will of God, the priorities of a deeply spiritual person may not even look like a balanced approach to life from a secular point of view - particularly in a world in which self-actualization is often given priority over every other commitment.

Whatever its impact on our emotional lives, spiritual formation assumes that we are made in the image of God and that as such, we are more than flesh and emotions. And everyone, regardless of their psychological state can begin the spiritual journey.

Spirituality as Lifestyle

In some corners, the spiritual life is all about lifestyle. If I can just get the lighting and the mood music in my life attuned, I will be centered and whole.

This, it seems to me, is where cultural understandings of spiritual formation finally land if there is nothing transcendent and divine at stake in the spiritual journey. As such, the desire to change our lives hints at the fact that there is, in each of us, that God-shaped vacuum that St. Augustine described.

But for Christians, spiritual formation can never be about interior decorating. The assumption, in fact, is completely different. Formation - from a Christian point of view - is demanding, transformative, and liberating in ways that can be invigorating and frightening at the same time. And it is fundamentally and inescapably about an encounter with God in Christ.

What is striking about all four approaches to spiritual formation on offer from our culture is that to one degree or another, all of them lack a transcendent dimension.

At the same time, however, our culture's desire for spiritual deepening speaks to an existential need that has been missing from our life as a church. Human beings are made to love, know, and desire God, and if the church expects to offer the world a gift that speaks to that longing, it will need to provide guidance that moves beyond the self and leads people toward the divine.

From Frederick's blog at