Harry Huebner on Spirituality and Religion

In the beginning of September, after two years away from the university, I will begin a Master’s program at McMaster University. Because we will move in the beginning of August, this new chapter seems even closer than it actually is. Because of this, I have embarked on a quest to read some of the written texts by my most influential teachers at Canadian Mennonite University.

In various applications, I articulated my desire to pursue graduate studies as, in part, a desire to be challenged and changed so as to avoid being too easily pigeonholed in comfortable ways of thinking. If this is true, whither this effort to further delve into the traditions and ways of thinking in which I am already so thoroughly steeped? The answer is that I find oftentimes the most positive changes and most fruitful challenges come when we encounter new persons, worlds, and ideas with a strong and rooted sense of who we are and a deep appreciation for where we are coming from. That is, I suspect that a new program will better serve me the more rigorously I know what I have learned and hold to be true (at least, to the extent that I agree with my teachers).

I just picked up Echoes of the Word: Theological Ethics As Rhetorical Practice by Harry Huebner, my thesis advisor. I’d already read his skewering of Gordon Kaufmann in “Imagination/Tradition: Disjunction or Conjunction” his analysis of Yoder’s (non)method in “The Christian Life as Gift and Patience: Why Yoder Has Trouble with Method” and his articulation of political ecclesiology in “The Church Made Strange for the Nations,” but I’ve enjoyed going through the book in its entirety. I plan to post a few quotations from the book as I work through it over the next few days. As with other posts of mine comprised primarily of quotes, these passages represent material that I find interesting, compelling, and/or helpful. However, in these cases they will also serve as a sort of personal theological itinerary, marking out where I have travelled and what my thinking has become.

To begin, here is Huebner on spirituality and religion.

We are accustomed to thinking that fewer and fewer people are religious. This may be true if we are thinking about organised religion, but not otherwise. Sociologists such as Reginald Bibby tell us that the new word of the day is ‘spirituality.’ The word is heard everywhere. It comes up in the workplace, in the classroom, on Oprah, in the army, and even in the Mafia. But is this good news? When everything becomes spiritual, then spirituality becomes nothing. Then Freud is right when he says that religion is simply another word of wish fulfilment. Familiarity has a way of destroying the power of words that have long-standing and rich meanings and uses.

Spirituality is a word that has become ambiguous at best and meaningless at worst. Most frequently it connotes direction away from the earth toward a transcendent reality, hence is contrasted with materiality. But in this case it abstracts transcendence and rids it of virtually all Christian content. The Judeo-Christian story tells us that God is holy, commands respect, awe, and fear. Yet we don’t create God; God creates us. That is, the movement, as Karl Barth has taught us, is not from us to God – away from the earth, as it were – but from God to us. God as creator has tied the spirit to the material. The notion of the Word made flesh, dwelling with the people has explicit material connotations. The whole point of the prologue to the Gospel of John is to show that the gnostic separation of the spiritual and the material is anathema to the gospel. – Echoes of the Word, 21-22

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