Spiritual Formation: An Individual Thing or a Communal Thing?
I'm about halfway finished with a book that's been sitting on my "to read" stack for a few months: James Thompson's The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ. I pulled it off the stack and blew the dust off after our preaching team of elders decided to do a 13-week series on the Church this Fall. The first couple chapters had me "amen-ing" all over the place, but as I've moved through it I've grown impatient with the narrowness of the author's position on the nature of Christian discipleship or spiritual formation.
Having left the book at home, I can't quote Dr. Thompson verbatim; so I'll have to summarize his argument according to the best of my memory. The arc of his argument is roughly as follows:
- The Church finds its identity and being in Christ.
- The apostle Paul addresses (primarily) whole churches, not individuals in his scriptural letters.
- Authentic Christian spirituality / discipleship is a thoroughly communal endeavor; therefore, any attempts to relate to God as an individual are inappropriate and counterproductive.
While I heartily affirm his desire to move western Christians away from an overly individualized, anti-communal form of discipleship, I'm afraid he is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The dichotomy between relating to God as an individual and as part of a community is, I believe, false. While God has absolutely formed us in His image (as relational Trinity) as intrinsically relational beings, to argue that we are only relational, only part of a community, and only related to God through the Church (a historically Roman Catholic position) is reductionistic and unhelpful.
There are several reasons I think and feel this way, but Peter Scazzero in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality pinpoints one of them. Interacting with some of the great, Christian mystics of the contemplative tradition, Scazzero comments, "Silence and solitude are so foundational to emotionally healthy spirituality that they are a theme repeated throughout this book. We observe this from Moses to David to Jesus to all the great men and women of the faith who have gone before us" (p. 86). Healthy, Christian spirituality lies in a proper balance of togetherness (community) and separateness (solitude). Overemphasize one or the other, and you run into trouble.
Unhealthy individuals create unhealthy communities, and unhealthy communities form unhealthy individuals. It cuts both ways. The path to sustained health requires proper attention to both the communal and individual aspects of spiritual formation.