I've had some input and book recommendations from friends, for which I am grateful. I haven't gotten my hands on the books yet, but I don't see any reason why I can't start out by thinking it out on my own and see what I am able to come up with provisionally. This is rather in the nature of reasoning out loud -- it won't be too polished, but I'll try not to ramble. To curtail my natural verbosity, I might skip over some rather basic stuff with a vague reference. Sorry about that. If anyone is actually reading or interested, ask and I'll explain. Obviously my theological method is sort of personalized; not everyone will think like I do because we're all so special and unique. Nevertheless, if there are professional theologian types who want to give me pointers on how to think things through, I'll be happy to take a note.
Spirituality -- Definition and Purpose
I always think that the key to figuring something out is to figure out the right questions. Answering questions is usually either easy or impossible, but getting the question right is the challenge. So here's some question brainstorming:
Why do we need some kind of practice in the first place? If we have a good orthodox theology, why is it then necessary to do something? What is it we're still lacking? What do we still need to achieve? For that matter, what are we trying to even get to in the first place? What is the goal of the Christian life?
Meaning of Life:
That has to do with theological anthropology, the point of a human life insofar as God made us and made us for a purpose. Therefore, the human telos is to do and be what God wanted it to do and be in the first place. I like Nyssa's approach of looking at creation, eschaton and the fallen present. So if we compare where we are now to the paradisal bit (edenic and eschatological) then we get a sense of the "distance" that needs to be crossed.
What are the elements or characteristics of human life in Eden and the eschaton?
Eden: made in the image of God, given life by breath of God, living on God's generosity and abundance ("garden"), talking with God "face-to-face", no sin yet, no death, etc.
Eschaton: "one in Christ", adoption of humanity through/in Christ, God is "all in all", seeing "not through a glass darkly but face-to-face", presumably no sin there either -- life different than here (no marriage, no death, etc.)
Common themes: 1) God as source of life and sustenance, 2) face-to-face knowledge and close relationship with God, 3) tension between our similarity to and difference from God, 4) formal similarity and/or inclusion in Christ key to relationship with God (using "similarity" here in a mathematical sense -- as opposed to "congruency", "identity" or "dissimilarity"), 5) stability of goodness (i.e. nothing bad going on -- no death, no decay, no fear, concord rather than conflict, unity in paradoxical coexistence with diversity, cosmos as ordered and eternally maintained whole).
So, the point of human life is to live out things 1-5 above. Why God made us to do this is another matter, one that would be fun to speculate about. Later. For now, we'll play parent and say, "Just because God likes it that way." But still. We've got five points summarizing the meaning of life. There you go. Surprisingly simple.
Upsetting the Apple Cart
Versus the good stuff that was/will be/ought to be, right now we've got sin. Not going to go through all the individual arguments here, but just take my word that we still have (1), (3), and (4) of the above. These are all fundamental principles of creation and of the nature of human beings; as they're inherent to the fundamental existence of creation and of people qua people, they don't get tossed out when sin comes in. God's still the source of everything, even if the situation is a bit more complicated than "take fruit, put feet up, be sustained."
The question of just how much similarity to God we have left is more vexed.... But similarity is key and will always be in tension with difference. And there's more difference given that the sin of the Fall consisted in turning away from God as the source of existence toward the privation of God which is evil (with the "fruit" understood as an experiential binary-knowledge which requires privation of good in order to name good as "good" vis-à-vis its opposite "evil" -- rather than the general Western understanding of the fruit as an object in an arbitrarily populated matrix of obedience-testing wherein the "commandment" is a complete cipher characterized only by the penalty of death for disobeying it).
[Yeah, that part about the Fall was condensed a bit. OK: it was condensed a lot. If anyone wants my whole theological interpretation of Genesis 3... oh, I'm just kidding myself here. Moving on.]
So it would seem that we've got to just get back to living points 1-5. Except that now there's sin. And the effects of sin. Which is to make us forget that 1-5 are what it's all about. So, we turn from the creator to creature. And even if we posit a creator and call it God, we do not actually know God. And that's a problem. And we've still got bad sin habits. And death. Disease. And leisure suits. Lots of bad things came from the Fall. I'm fairly sure that mosquitoes had a post-lapsarian evolution.
How do we fix this? Basically, we don't fix it. We cannot. Because even if we deduce from natural revelation that there is a God, even if we can figure out that God is good, we still basically don't know God from a hole in the ground. No one has seen the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals the Father. Had God not elected the people of Israel to enter into relationship with him and had God not opened up membership in Israel to us goyim through the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of his pre-existent and consubstantial Son, then we'd be S.O.L. as far as God goes. We could, at best, be virtuous pagans -- a far cry from knowing and being in a face-to-face relationship with God.
So God provided a "fix" through the spiritual economy. We have Jesus and the Biblical witness and the orthodox formulations that explain what happened. So why isn't everything wonderful? Since God's the one who does all this, why do we have to do anything?
The Point of Spirituality
I'm not an "irresistible grace" Augustinian/Reformed type, but I want to underscore the importance of grace and God's activity and initiative here (not "initiative" the way Calvinists mean it - where God decides whose drink he's going to spike with roofies so he can drag their inert forms off to salvation and in so doing decides whose drink NOT to spike so that they can go on merrily to perdition where they belong -- *shudders*).
Basically, what goes on in spiritual practice is that we're showing up in a certain way and hoping God acts. Since I assume in the case of Christian spirituality that the practioner is already a Christian, there's a sense in which our practice will be like dancing with God: grace leads, but we're not rag-dolls getting dragged around the floor -- we know some steps, have a sense of rhythm and can follow God's lead. A big part of what our practice will accomplish is making us available to grace: we have to show up at the dance and get out on the floor. Oh -- and God's the music, too. And the dance. (Metaphors with God are always like this, haven't you noticed?)
So the point of our spiritual practice is to step into what God has already done and is doing. Basically, having the Logos take on human nature and die and get resurrected and heal people and feed people and cast out demons and preach doesn't actually do much good UNLESS you somehow get that important eschatological bit of being adopted "in Christ ." Jesus said he is the way, the truth and the life and no one gets to the Father except through him.
We're back to why orthodox theology and the tradition are so key here. Let me be incontrovertibly clear on this point: spirituality is NOT about being Christ-like by trying to do some stuff that Jesus did. It's NOT about mechanically following Jesus' example or taking Jesus' "advice" as if the Gospels were a self-help book called "Getting Along with the World the Jesus Way" (I'm sure if a book with such a title were written all about how to be friends with everyone with some little quotes from Jesus it would sell like hotcakes and lead millions to an anemic and insipid imitation of Christian life and faith). An unmitigatedly Christian and orthodox spiritual practice is about us doing what we can to be included in Christ and to turn/allow ourselves to be turned to God (and thus be transformed into greater Christlikeness). It is a practice that is unapologetically "impractical" -- at least, in the way most people define "practical" -- and yet, vitally important for every aspect of life, including all the practical ones).
I think I've given myself a decent sense of what this spiritual discipline is attempting to do/cooperate in doing. And I'm beginning to see what sort of actual practices might play into this.
I have about three or four really more focused statements which could be sort of "defining characteristics" of my new spiritual discipline, but I think that I'll save them for the next post where I start outlining the program itself.