Religion, Christian spirituality and naked public square
Many observers of the Christian faith in our country and society are very concerned about the high level of Christian religiousity and the un-correlated high levels of immorality, prejudice, indiscipline, corruption and everything wrong with our ‘Public Square’ – the values that guide our national discourse and development.
In his classic book that examines the relationship between religion, culture, politics and American society, Richard Neuhaus posits that secular America has deliberately “de-God-ed” the American society removing religious instruction from public schools and national life, with dire consequences for morality and the existence of modern America.
In our case, our religious activities are still thriving, in fact the drums, whistles and bells of religious worship are beating and chiming more loudly in our public offices, schools and in every corner of the country in such a frenzy that it looks like there is not only inter-religious competition, but indeed intra-religious competition.
Yet, our morality and all indices that measure societal development continue to be at an all-time low. What could possibly be wrong – definitely there is something lacking in our spirituality.
The discussions we had at the 2018 Lenten Retreat at Lux Terra Chaplaincy in Abuja made this connection clearer, and I believe a wider audience of Nigerians need to share in this understanding, so that indeed we may clothe our naked public square and set our country on the path to restoration – a path that requires Christian spirituality much more than the religious activities to which we have become accustomed.
To create the clarity, we must understand the relationship between Christian religion and Christian spirituality; the key elements that make Christian spirituality unique; and then explore how Christian spirituality can transform our naked public square.
Religion consists of all the devotional and worship activities as well as all the institutional arrangements that facilitate these acts of devotion and worship that try to connect us with the higher Spiritual being, God.
So, all our prayers, fasting, observances, singing, sacraments, Catechism, Bible School, Sunday Mass and Services, Fellowship, Church Structures and Hierarchy, Novenas, Tithing, Offering, Harvest, etc. are all part of the Christian Religion.
Spirituality is the communion with the higher spiritual being – God, that gives meaning to our lives, directs our conduct and keeps us one with God. It is the God-consciousness that translates into a creative energy that affects how we perceive everything (the lens through which we view the world), and how we relate with God and all of God’s creation.
Spirituality represents the ultimate goal of our lives and is the purpose of our existence, while religion is the process to attaining that goal or purpose – to buttress this, the Catechism of the Church says that the purpose of a Christian is to ‘know God, love Him, do His Will and be with Him in eternity”.
So Christian Religion that is devoid of this deep Christian Spirituality is not an authentic Religion – it is empty ritual – the kind of empty ritual that Jesus himself complained was at the heart of Pharisaic behaviour when he was on Earth.
Religion plays an important role in promoting spirituality, but like Stephen Covey said, “we must begin with the end in mind” and I extend to – “we must do everything with the end in mind”. Like the Pharisees and Ancient Israel, our public square has been taken over by people and activities that are overtly religious but apparently not deeply spiritual in an authentic Christian sense.
Authentic Christian spirituality is characterised by a number of distinct features compared to other ‘spiritualties’ that exist. When Nigerian Christians start to strive to ‘do everything’ in line with these elements, then our public square and national fortunes will start to transform. Firstly, it is that God is our Father – a loving, compassionate, merciful and just Father.
Also, that Jesus is His Son, our Lord and Saviour, and that through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are co-heirs to God’s Kingdom.
Thirdly, is that we should be Christ-like, hence the word “Christian” – this means that we are to be imitators of Christ, to live out his virtues and values of love, mercy, compassion, even love for our enemies and adversaries who wish to hurt us.
Also, we are saved by God’s Grace, not by our personal efforts – so, all that we have and are, and ever hope to be is because of the abundant Grace God gives us in spite of failures.
Finally, but not exhaustively, is the centrality of the Cross – the sign of Jesus’ passion and suffering, the sign of God’s abundant love for humanity, and the call that we too must ‘carry our crosses each day and follow Him’ and be prepared to suffer pain, losses and failure like our Christ and the early Christians did in pursuit of the ultimate heaven-bound goals.
So, if Christian religion is to make a difference in our society as it did in Europe when the early Christians transformed the World based on Christian values, Nigerian Christians must challenge themselves as they continue in their religious activities to focus on some of these deeper spiritualties and some of the symptoms of our naked public square – ethnic bigotry and hatred; religious intolerance and vigilantism; prosperity preaching, hate speech and violence against our enemies, mind-boggling corruption, crass materialism and acquisitiveness and many other ills that seem to be a reflection perhaps of some of our traditional African spirituality and the new spirituality of ‘mammonism’ and not authentic Christian spirituality.
Barrow is a member of the Faculty of Lux Terra Leadership Foundation
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