In my studies I am reading Ola Tjørhom, who represents what has been called “evangelical catholicism.” He is concerned that the Reformation project went seriously wrong, and one of its greatest failings was its lack of recognition that the ecclesiology of the Reformers remained essentially catholic even while they criticized Rome in terms of doctrines and practices. Luther was not an anti-Catholic rebel. Rather, he saw himself and those who embraced Reformation teachings, as better Catholics than those leading the church in that day!
Tjørhom has a great concern for ecumenism, because, he asserts, unity is a fundamental characteristic of the church’s nature. However, this is not merely a “spiritual” unity but rather a visible unity. He writes:
“…[I] wish to emphasize the basic visibility of the Church and ecclesial life. On a critical level, I would argue that ‘liberal-pietism’ and Protestant Lutheranism have ended up with a perception of the Church as a vague idea or an abstract identity that neither is nor has a body. In a more constructive perspective, my main concern is to make it clear that the church and its unity are just as empirically recognizable as the external word and the concrete sacraments that constitute it, and at the same time make it clear that there is a ‘physical’ character or anchoring of our life in Christ that follows from this visibility.”
He calls his perspective: “the gospel of the empirical perceptibility of grace.” His point is that spirituality, whether personal or corporate, is not “spiritual” as we normally think of it, but physical and palpable.
Today I simply want to list the central features he sees in this “materialist” spirituality and piety that he commends.
- It originates in a place: the Church. Though the Church is not the source of our salvation and spirituality, it is the context for them.
- It has a language of its own: liturgy. Liturgy is what God’s people do, bodily, when we worship. It is what we do together. It is the drama of redemption re-enacted as God speaks and gives to us and we respond to him and receive from him.
- It is sacramentally based, with the external and visible means of grace as its backbone. The Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Christ through physical elements. In using the stuff of creation, he points to the ultimate restoration of all that God has made. This is crucial. We who cry out for mercy look not to our own deeds or feelings but receive gifts from outside ourselves through which Christ and his salvation comes to us.
- It applies primarily to the life of God’s people as a whole first and then through that community to each individual. At best, Protestant pietism views the Church as a helpful aid to one’s personal and private devotion. At worst, the Church is a hindrance and stumbling-block. For many, spirituality is about my story, and I choose whether or not I will connect my story to that of the Church. However, in this spirituality, I enter into something bigger and more fundamental than my own “personal relationship with God.”
- It is not directed toward producing nice religious feelings or sentiments, but is expressed through what we do and the concrete signs that accompany life in Christ. It is anchored in the world and directed toward God and my fellow human beings. It is a life of faith — nurtured by God’s external word and sacraments. It is a life of love — set free in Christ to serve others.
- It is firmly grounded in both creation and redemption — it is lived in God’s world and in mission to all God’s creatures with a goal not simply of “saving souls” but of renewing all creation. It looks both outward: toward the world it is called to serve, and forward: to the time of eschatological fulfillment.
Ola Tjørhom observes that contemporary “spirituality” is being embraced enthusiastically by many in the churches today, as well as in our culture. However, it is more in line with the gnosticism the Church has always opposed than it is with classic Christian practice and tradition. It is predominantly esoteric, consumerist, and privatized spirituality. In contrast, the spirituality he commends is simple and plain as water, bread, and wine, offered freely, and found in the community of faith formed within the story of redemption in Christ.
O taste and see that the Lord is good!