Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Leo Tolstoy once observed that “food for myself is a material issue, but food for my neighbour is a spiritual issue.” In the deeper regions of Christian practice, ‘spirituality’ is not about forsaking the material world, it is about working for its transformation through communal transparency to the love of God. Far from legitimating escape into a private realm of piety, this means breaking down the (often distinctly ‘material’) barriers between persons, which in biblical terms are seen as making us resistant to the divine invitation to “life in all its fullness”. That is also a challenge to the Christian church, which has often employed ‘the sacred’ to escape from, or demonize, ‘the secular’.

Tom Best is a US Disciples of Christ minister who has worked on ‘faith and order’ issues for the World Council of Churches for many years, and is involved in preparations for the next WCC Assembly in Brazil, February 2006. In a recent circular, he tells a story that makes it plain why ecclesiology - how each church understands itself and its relation to other churches - is crucial for the life and integrity of the Gospel in the world.

“It [concerns] an elderly parishioner in Ghana, whose village was fed by the priest of a neighbouring village during a famine. When the famine was over, she went to the neighbouring village to thank the people there for what they had done.

“But when she attended the priest's church to greet and thank him personally, she was unable to take communion because their respective churches did not agree on some points. So the woman went to her bishop and asked the following question:

“‘How can we share the material food which keeps us from starving, and not share the spiritual food which Christ himself offers us? I think when Christ comes again, he will feed us himself - and then we will do what is right!’”

In a disarmingly simple way, she had identified the flaw in church practices which ‘disincarnate’ their religious actions and symbols, rendering them contradictory and impotent as vehicles of transformation.

To put it Tolstoy’s way: what breaks down the wall between liturgy and life, and what makes an everyday piece of bread ‘spiritual food’, is that it is used to generate life for all and to show us that true sustenance is indivisible - rather than simply satisfying some private, self-enclosed desire.

By those standards, what passes for ‘spiritual’ in the religious realm is often nothing of the sort, while what passes for irreligion elsewhere may tell us more about the life of God than endless pieties. This is what comes through with life-changing force is Jesus’ ‘Samaritan moment’, his famous story of an outsider who turns the tables on those using religion to bolster a false understanding of their own goodness, while wholly failing to recognise God in the material shape of their neighbour.

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