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Wells analyzes competing spiritualities

OWASSO, Okla. (BP)–Historic Christianity’s chief competitor today is a popular brand of spirituality that rejects objective truth, is market-driven, therapeutic and centered on the exaltation of self, theologian and author David Wells told attendees of the annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference.

Wells contrasted two competing approaches to spirituality — “spirituality from below” versus “spirituality from above.” The spirituality from above is that which is held by historic Christianity and views God as having spoken in Scripture, sees God as sovereign over His creation and sinful man separated from God, Wells said.

The “spirituality from below” seeks to commandeer God and use Him for the purposes of humans, Wells said, and it is this spirituality that is at the center of a postmodern understanding of Jesus Christ.

“We are awash of spiritualities of every conceivable kind,” Wells said. “In America, 6 out of 10 people say that in life’s crises, they depend on the power within. They are thinking about the natural connection with the sacred. More than half say that the only truth is the truth of private experience, in contrast with the external truth in Scripture.

“That is why many say they are spiritual and not religious — religious, meaning accepting doctrines that someone else has determined, rules that someone else has devised or institutions such as church where expectations fall upon them. I believe that this spirituality which is emerging all throughout the West is the major competitor of Christianity.”

Wells is professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and the author of numerous books, including the 1993 work, “No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology.” His most recent book is “Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World.”

Wells was the keynote speaker at the Founders Conference, which addressed the topic, “God’s Truth Abideth Still: Confronting Postmodernism.” The June 26-29 sessions at Bethel Baptist Church in Owasso, Okla., marked the 25th anniversary of Founders Ministries, which formed in 1982 to advance Reformed theology.

This spirituality from below has arisen because humans are made in the image of God to worship God, yet they have lost categories such as sin and grace that help them understand life, Wells said.

Wells cited figures to show the eclipse among Americans of any notion of sin: 8 of 10 do not believe in original sin as taught in Scripture — a denial shared by 50 percent of Christians — and only 17 percent define sin in relation to God.

“Inevitably, they are trivializing the notion of sin,” Wells said. “Yet sin has great gravity and seriousness, and to not understand sin is to misunderstand God, misunderstand ourselves and the world in which we live. The bottom line is that we have lost our categories of processing life. … Thus we become spiritual on our own terms.”

Ironically, modern humans are among the wealthiest and most affluent people in history, they are awash in material goods and have a life expectancy nearly twice as long as 200 years ago, yet they remain utterly disenchanted with life, he said.

The harshness of life as seen in millions of broken homes and a hyper-mobile society lacks roots and has created in contemporary humans a restlessness and a desire to turn inward to find significance, Wells said. This empty search for self has led millions to seek answers on the psychiatrist’s couch, he said.

“We have never had so much, yet we have never had so little,” Wells said. “This is why the self movement has taken root in America. It is speaking in its own way to the pains and the wounds and the emptiness and the confusion that people really do feel.

“In this self-talk, all are processing reality through the self, not just when catastrophe strikes, but when we are unhappy or bored or unappreciated and we want therapy for these moments. We seek techniques that will bring some control to how we are feeling.

“Here is what it has come down to: We who have set out to find the self, if we have found the self at all, we have found that it is fragile, broken, unhappy and unfulfilled. … This self is not coping very well. These are real pains, and the answers that the self movement is giving are not real answers.”

Another attribute of this “spirituality from below” is that its adherents come to God on their own terms seeking to “buy” from God what they desire in much the same way as they shop for clothing and sporting goods at the local mall, he said.

Evangelicals are marching down this road in droves, Wells said, marketing Christ as a therapeutic product to meet all the self-centered “felt” needs of consumer-oriented Americans. This spirituality is nothing more than self-idolatry and is antithetical to historic Christianity, Wells said.

“In the mall, I am sovereign,” Wells said. “Before God, He is sovereign. In the mall, I buy things for my own use; before God, I am bought for His own service; in the mall, I don’t commit myself to the product I buy; before God, I commit myself, yield my sovereignty and repent of the ways in which I use my freedom as rebellion. This is becoming the most serious competitor to biblical Christianity.”

To combat this pagan spirituality, Wells urged evangelicals to be about the business of asserting boldly and firmly a “spirituality from above,” a spirituality which is centered in the Gospel. This spirituality is utterly opposed to this “spirituality from below,” he argued, because it includes a sovereign God reaching down in love to redeem unlovely sinners.

The four Gospels in the New Testament set forth the spirituality that is synonymous with historic Christianity, he said. Contrary to self-centered spirituality, the Bible clearly asserts that the human spirit has no sufficiency in itself, Wells said; humans are born dead in sin, facing the judgment of God and in need of rescue from outside themselves.

It is this spirituality alone that will bring the freedom and rest that those in contemporary culture are so desperately seeking, he said.

“In the contemporary spiritualities, people talk because there is no one who has spoken,” Wells said. “In Christian spirituality, we listen because the living God has spoken to us in His Word and His Son. It is all about Christ to the exclusion of all contemporary spiritualities. It is not about the sinner. God will not be had on the sinner’s terms. God is had only on His own terms, and that is through Christ and His grace. This is a glorious message of freedom, because now [in the Gospel of grace] we finally have been released from all our striving which ended up empty.”

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  • Jeff Robinson
    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.Read All by Jeff Robinson ›