Christianity Is a Spirituality
Thomas Cathcart

Before there were Christian “beliefs,” there was Christian spirituality. Before the council of bishops at Nicea decided that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, there was Christian spirituality. Before the Council of Chalcedon decided that Jesus Christ has two natures, divine and human, there was Christian spirituality. Indeed, before the title “Son of God” was ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, there was Christian spirituality.

On that first Easter, the extraordinary experiences of Jesus’s followers were spiritual experiences. Apart from how any of them chose to put it into words, the experience itself was a spiritual “shaking of the foundations,” not an empirical observation or a metaphysical theory.

Because the church dates Christianity from Pentecost, it would be anachronistic to call Jesus’s own spirituality, or that of his earliest followers, “Christian,” but the spirituality on view in the oldest strands of the first three gospels is at the very least proto-Christian spirituality; it too is at the heart of the Gospel.

If we are to come to terms with Christianity, it is crucial to understand that it was first—and is foremost—a spirituality. Otherwise, it is impossible to make sense of the experience and commitment of the first followers, years before there were “beliefs” about Jesus. Likewise, without a grasp of the radical spirituality of Christianity, it is impossible to make sense of how, in our skeptical age, people can still feel their lives turned upside down by the power of the Gospel.

There are many who would say, “On the contrary, the explanation is simple: there is no sense to be made. Religion is nonsense.” This reduces Christians to subrational creatures and chalks up their odd behavior to primitive strivings for certainty or divine handholding or a desperate desire for immortality. No doubt, there are people who partially fit that description, and perhaps most of us fit it sometimes, but a few weeks spent in nearly any church in the world would expose the silliness of this stereotype as a universal explanation for Christian commitment. An anthropologist who made such a visit would see people spiritually centered in prayer or sacrament, spiritually aroused by preaching or the reading of scripture, spiritually expressive in song and litany and fellowship.

The recognition that Christianity is a spirituality dissolves many of the questions that have plagued us—adherents and non­­‑adherents alike—since at least the Enlightenment. It provides a common universe of discourse that enables us all to talk to each other, instead of past each other. It allows us to accept and affirm the totality of science. And probably, most importantly for the peace and survival of our species, it gives us a non-tribal basis of identity.

People do not generally have their lives changed by “beliefs,” except in the sense that these beliefs become the dangerous foundation of tribal identification and exclusion. Critics like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are right about the enormity of that danger. But, tribalism aside, we do not generally develop radically new attitudes toward other people or toward ourselves or toward our own mortality because of theological argument or ethical doctrine. Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism are not primarily belief systems. They are visions of a path, a way of being-in-the-world. And, more than that, they are described by their adherents as sources of spiritual empowerment that have transformed them so that they can (sometimes) follow that path and can (sometimes) “put on” that way of being-in-the-world.

The late cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined a religion as “(1) a set of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973, 90). When Geertz looked at the religion of Native Americans, for example, he saw first a spirituality—moods and motivations—centered on their experience of the ways of nature, with a secondary conceptual structure that expresses and supports that spirituality. It is my contention that Christians would profit from looking at Christianity in the same way.

Spirituality is often misunderstood. It is not something that some people (for example, Christians or Jews or Buddhists) have and other people (for example, logical positivists or atheists) do not. Everyone has a spirituality, a way of seeing the world and being in the world. Everyone has “powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations,” and everyone has a “conception of a general order of existence,” perhaps articulated, perhaps not—a basic worldview or stance from which he or she sees reality. Why, for example, is it important to some atheists to critique Christianity? It is not generally because they are nihilists. It is more likely that they are motivated by a very positive spirit. They find Christianity contrary to that spirit, and they are understandably offended. Perhaps they are motivated by the spirit of love of objective truth or the spirit of honoring empirical evidence or the spirit of unmasking hypocrisy or the spirit of ridding the world of outdated metaphysics. Whatever it is that motivates them, the fact is something does. Spirituality is simply another word for what motivates or animates us.

To be Christian is simply to say, “What animates me is life in Christ.” Every Christian knows this at some level. We may argue about fine points of theology or ethics or become defensive with other Christians or non-Christians about our beliefs, but every Christian knows down deep that anyone who says, “What animates me is life in Christ,” is his Christian brother or sister, and all the rest is footnotes. And every Christian knows, or should know, that there are non-Christians in the world who are animated by a kindred spirit, even though they may not identify it as having anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth, and that this spirit too must be honored.

This is not to dismiss all theology or all doctrine. The motive for much theology is the conviction that someone else got it wrong in a way that distorts or distracts from the real spirit of the Gospel. The Nicene Creed, for example, came about because the bishops saw that Arius’s teaching of the ontological gap between God and Christ made worship of Christ idolatrous. The twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich has modestly said that the value of apologetic theology is that it may remove a barrier to faith, presumably one created by other (perhaps tacit) theology. But theology—or belief, if you will—is not the essence of Christianity. The essence is being grasped and animated by the spirit of Christ.

Theology has its place. In Geertz’s language, the “conception of a general order of existence,” a Weltanschauung or world-outlook, embodies and expresses our spirituality. Because it is the framework that determines how we think about everything else, we had best not get it wrong. Still, if we only “get it right” and lose the spirit, we will have become noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

Some would say that Christianity is at bottom an ethical philosophy that can stand on its own, supported by reason, without spiritual trappings. That is wrong on two counts. First, loving your enemies is contrary to reason. Secondly, as a free-standing ethical imperative, it is impossible to follow. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6: 43–45, NRSV). The church is becoming increasingly aware that Christian growth occurs via spiritual “formation,” not catechetics.

Just as literary theory is no substitute for literature and cultural studies are no substitute for culture, “beliefs” are no substitute for the transformation that occurs when one is grasped by the spirit. And yet for some reason most public dialogue is about what we “believe.” We divide people into believers and non-believers, rather than lovers and non-lovers or forgivers and non-forgivers. As Tillich said, Jesus is accepted as the Christ because—and only because—he brings the “New Being.” Period (Tillich 1957, 118ff.). The other Paul put it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17, NRSV)



At the very heart of Christian spirituality is kenosis, the New Testament Greek term for emptying. Paul uses a cognate of the word kenosis in his letter to the Philippians: Christ Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave... and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2: 7–8, NRSV). In a world that then and now prizes filling ourselves—with our accomplishments, our power, our self-esteem, our shrewdness, our possessions, our learning, our piety, our number of Facebook friends—Jesus espoused a spirituality of emptying ourselves. Paul says that he too had once filled himself with all these things—especially his own righteousness and zealotry—but now “I regard them as rubbish” (Phil. 3:8, NRSV).

This point of view was radical and counter-cultural then, and it remains so today. It made Friedrich Nietzsche understandably furious. He called it a transvaluation of all values, a sellout of all the noble values of the ancient world, a despicable dismissal of the natural human striving for greatness. Worse, he attributed the appeal of Christianity to petty resentment of the strong and noble by the weak and pathetic. Too small-minded and cowardly to compete with their superiors, the weak can feel good about themselves only by labeling the strong “bad” and themselves “good.”

Of all the critics of Christianity, Nietzsche deserves the greatest respect, because he “gets” Christianity. He understands that Christianity is primarily a spirituality, not a metaphysic. More specifically, he understands that Christianity is a spirituality of kenosis, and he despises it for precisely that reason. Christians have nothing to say to Nietzsche other than to say that sometimes our motives for self-surrender are as he describes, but sometimes they are not.

Of the nine blessings that introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, at least six of them are about kenosis. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are the meek.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It is unclear whether a seventh, “Blessed are those who mourn,” is about adopting a spirit of kenosis or simply a prophecy that those who in fact are mourning now will no longer be mourning “at the end of the age” (Matt. 5: 3–12, NRSV).

All of the ethical demands of Christianity are grounded in the spirit of kenosis. Agape, selfless love, is an emptying, as is forgiveness. Generosity stems from kenosis, as does gratitude. The prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” is kenosis, and so is the prayer, “Not my will but thine be done.”

Psychologist Richard Beck attributes our human desire to fill ourselves up to our terror of death, which is the ultimate emptying. Given our mortality, we are driven to “make something” of ourselves, to enhance our self-esteem, to succeed at something, to make our lives “count” (Beck 2014). Beck revives Ernest Becker’s notion that the purpose of a culture is to create “immortality systems,” ways of being that give us the illusion of immortality (Becker 1973). There are groups to join, cultural attitudes to adopt, positions to be taken, all of which insulate us, with greater or lesser success, from the threat of meaninglessness. Meaninglessness, in turn, owes its power and urgency to our fear of death.

It is fascinating that Becker’s critique of culture is precisely the critique we often hear of Christianity: namely, that it is an irrational immortality system, a wish-fulfillment strategy driven by our fear of meaninglessness and death. Becker, and I would suppose Beck, would partially agree with that assessment—insofar as Christianity is often a “filling up” (with dogma, self-righteousness, self-esteem) rather than an emptying of ourselves.

For Beck and Becker, this human striving for self-esteem is ultimately self-defeating. In the end, we will all die, regardless of our ego strategies, and this death will be totally meaningless, at least in the usual terms of accounting. So why does kenosis offer any advantage? Isn’t emptying ourselves to confront the final emptiness of death a bit like practicing breathing water to avoid drowning? Why is it not just another act of bad faith, another self-deluding attempt to provide meaning in a meaningless universe? Christianity says that the answer is that at the heart of kenosis lies affirmation of an alternative reality, symbolized variously as resurrection, new life, the “kingdom of God” or the “will of God.” No amount of philosophy or theology or belief, however, can produce that affirmation. As Tillich says, we cannot grasp it. It must grasp us.

Resurrection is not primarily a doctrine or belief. It is a spiritual reality for you or me, or it is not. Tillich used to tell his classes, “Don’t ask what the New York Times photographer would have captured on that first Easter; it is beside the point.” He meant that, if Christ is alive for you now, it doesn’t matter what the photographer’s camera would have revealed; and, if Christ is not alive for you now, it doesn’t matter either. We cannot grasp the power of the resurrection in a belief or a doctrine or, God forbid, as a scientific fact. It must grasp us.


Santayana: A Philosopher for Our Time

“Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in; and another world to live in—whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no—is what we mean by having a religion” (Santayana 1905, 5).

George Santayana wrote Reason in Religion over a hundred years ago, but its moment may be imminent. In a time when religion, taken literally, has become easy sport for satirists, Santayana’s work may help us see the proper role of religion in relation to life.

Santayana described himself as an atheist, at least in the usual sense, and has been described by others as an “aesthetic Catholic,” who rejects the dogma and moralizing of the church, but loves the poetic power that “vitalizes the mind.” He calls Protestants “northern barbarians” and holds them chiefly responsible for the literalism of Christian beliefs and the destruction of Christianity’s poetry. But Santayana is more than an “aesthetic Catholic,” if by that we mean someone who derives superficial pleasure from the poetry of Christianity. He is an aesthetic Catholic in the sense that he sees both art and religion as central to life and calls them both humanizing forms of reason. He thought that religion loses its way, however, “whenever its symbolic rightness is taken for scientific truth” (Santayana 1905, 8).

A question for our time is whether the church can disentangle itself from its literalistic and moralistic past and become more open to the Spirit, which “blows where it chooses, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8, NRSV). It is not an easy question. As Tillich has said, we cannot simply leap back over two thousand years of Christian thought to become contemporary with Christ, as Kierkegaard imagined. The very language in which we think has been formed by those two thousand years of history (Tillich 1967, 471). What we can do is to always listen for the Spirit and be open to its word. In the end, we will necessarily make concrete judgements about how to think and how to act, but perhaps we can come to those judgements by trying to discern which way the Spirit is blowing. Perhaps we can even come to realize that all our judgements are provisional and that they are always open to correction by the Spirit. Perhaps we can recover the truth that Christianity is at bottom a spirituality. A


 Thomas Cathcart is a Lutheran layman in Red Hook, New York. He studied philosophy at Harvard College and theology at the University of Chicago, Bangor Theological Seminary, Boston College, and McCormick Theological Seminary. He is the co-author, with Daniel Klein, of the New York Times best-seller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes (2007). His essays have appeared in The Cresset and Theology Today.


Works Cited

Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2014.

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Santayana, George. Reason in Religion [1905]. In Works of George Santayana, Volume VII, Book 3. M. Wolleck and M. Coleman, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

_____. A History of Christian Thought. New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1967.


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