The Oddness of Christian Spirituality

I.

To be a people called by God means being odd.

This is what Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon claim in Resident Aliens, their classic book on the church’s relationship to culture.

To illustrate what they mean, Hauerwas and Willimon draw on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12).  When we read the Beautitudes carefully, we can see how they teach us to see differently than the world.  They teach us that God blesses exactly those people who the world gives less honour: those who don’t have it all together, those who are burdened with sorrows, those who don’t go after personal gain.  Hauerwas and Willimon simply point out that, if we begin seeing things in this way in our lives, we cannot help becoming an odd people in the world.

II.

Recently, I’ve had some odd spiritual experiences, which I do not fully understand.  I had an experience where, on an intense emotional level, I seemed to be aware of God inside me.  This experience followed from a long period of regular contemplative prayer, and it was followed by a mental breakdown.  In this post, I want to use Hauwerwas and Willimon’s idea of oddness to begin to think through this type of experience.

For Hauwerwas and Willimon, being odd begins with seeing odd.  For this reason the Sermon on the Mount, which asks us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), begins with the Beautitudes, which teach us to see with heavenly light.  

My spiritual experiences certainly followed this pattern as well: first, I began seeing things differently, and then, I must admit, I began acting and speaking very strangely.

The experience of the Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration also seemed to follow this pattern.  Upon seeing Jesus, his face shining like the sun, standing with Moses and Elijah, Peter cries out, “Lord, it is good that we are here.  If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matt. 17:4). As Mark’s Gospel points out, what Peter says is odd (Mark 9:6)!

III.

Now let me state an objection to using Hauerwas and Willimon’s idea of oddness to describe this type of experience.  For them, “being odd” is often thought of in ethical terms. For example, Hauerwas and Willimon think the church should be odd in the world by following God’s example of blessing the poor and loving its enemies.  

The objection would go that the oddness of spiritual experience does not have this ethical component.  It is not evident that I or Peter did anything self-evidently good because of our experience, any more than, say, Don Quixote. We just acted odd in the good old-fashioned sense of the word.

IV.

The reply to this objection comes from Saint Aquinas’ theology of contemplation.  For Aquinas, contemplation is a type of prayer where our attention is directed past the objects of our senses, and past our ideas, into a simple state of receptivity to God.

About Aquinas’ view, Williams writes that “contemplation, although in important respects continuous with the rest of the life of the understanding, is essentially odd.  It is ‘an activity appropriate in the highest degree for human beings’, yet it is strange and singular, and unlike other human acts in being determined by grace alone.”  Such an experience can be terrifying and disorientating as we encounter a spiritual experience that goes beyond our ordinary ways of controlling and understanding the world (127).

Rowan Williams’ description of contemplation as a pure state of reception to God’s grace is illustrated well in the story of the Transfiguration. Peter wants to do the right thing. He sees his own presence as important (“Lord, it is good that we are here”) and tries to do something of service.  However, the presence of Jesus in his glory makes this entirely innappropriate. The voice from the cloud directs him simply to receive: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:5).

So, the objector is right to say that spiritual experiences do not make you odd in an ethical sense.  However, “oddness” for Hauerwas and Willimon is not merely an ethical idea. We are odd because we are a people called by God.  And like every good Christian knows, being called by God is mostly a matter of grace.

V.

Understanding my spiritual experience as fundamentally an experience of receptivity — at a conscious level — to God’s grace makes a lot of sense to me.  It makes sense of the spiritual depths of the experience, as well as why my mentality and my speech could, at the same time, go a little wonky.  If this is right, then the question becomes “How should the odd ‘seeing’ of contemplative experience be integrated into Christian life?”

Hauerwas and Willimon.  Resident Aliens: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong. Nashville: Abingdon, 2014.

Williams, Rowan. Christian Spirituality: A Theological History from the New Testament to Luther and St. John of the Cross. Atlanta: John Knox, 1979.

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