Friday, 4 September 2009

Photosynthetic spirituality: a new light on discipleship

algal forest in river wye copy

Algal ‘forest in miniature', with reflections of leaves: River Wye at Millers Dale

Christianity is a religion of light.

But first, some enthusiastically appreciative sentences about biology. At the base of our human food chain are autotrophic plants, which basically produce their complex organic nourishment from simpler inorganic molecules using light energy.  Chloroplasts are the essential bits of evolutionary kit which both plants and algae  use to accomplish this spectacular piece of biochemical wizardry. We humans are heterotrophic and, as Wiki so charmingly puts it, this means that we are “ known as consumers in food chains and obtain organic carbon by eating other heterotrophs or autotrophs.” In other words we are one or several steps removed from the light, depending upon what we are munching at the time. Chewing broccoli gets us close, whereas feasting on a once cuddly, fluffy but now roasted lamb is somewhat further removed. (Vegetarians would certainly argue that such ‘distance’  has a moral as well as a biochemical dimension.)

I am beginning to think that heterotrophic spirituality is a bane of our times. What I mean by ‘heterotrophic spirituality’ is this: a ‘second hand’ sort of faith which we accumulate by consuming the thoughts, creativity and passion of others who have been directly energised by the light of God’s love. Such an approach tends to sit in our heads as a sort of propositional Sudoku. One can go through life filling in the religious numbers and feeling an increasing sense of anticipation that completion is in sight, but of course it never is, no matter how many numbers we write down onto the grid of our hopes and dreams.

Being consumers of religion is not enough and it never has been. Such lazy spirituality will not transform you, me or the world. I believe passionately that we have to be energised directly and personally by the light of God’s love in Jesus and by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then we become producers, not just consumers. When it comes to God, the autotrophic is the only way to go if we are to experience an authentically fulfilling spirituality. There is just no substitute for being energised directly by the light of God’s love. Second hand heterotrophic strategies will inevitably leave us hungry and unfulfilled spiritually.

So each and every authentic disciple will have within them the faith-equivalent of chloroplasts. In fact, I think everyone has, it's just that for so many they are either switched off by culture and secular worldviews, or are so rarely used as to be a perplexing aspect of one's identity. 'Faith-chloroplasts' are the crucial ‘who, where and how’ godly bits of psycho-social kit which bring our spirituality alive in a world-engaging way. It is that combination of prayer, contemplation, awareness, intellect, openness and expectation within which the energy of God’s creative presence hits the tarmac of our intention and commitment, and we and others feel the traction (to use a petrol-head metaphor). This is what living within the kingdom of God means. Jesus says that it is very close to each one of us. Without the crucial production of presence-assured, hopeful and love-filled motivation by our faith-chloroplasts we will always be one-step removed and beyond its actual reality. And the suffering and neediness of the world will probably be that little bit greater for it. The light of God's love has to energise with that same passion for transforming the world which we see in Jesus. It is this which takes us beyond our Sudoku selves and into the world in order to be good news for the poor and to help the oppressed at last find freedom. Photosynthetic spirituality engages us personally in God's mission of mercy, justice and loving-kindness. Surely then, photosynthetic spirituality is the way to go if we long to be disciples?

Because Christianity is a religion of light. Why then does so much godly love-light go unused? And what might we do about it?

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