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How Our Spiritual Hardwiring Shapes Belief

How Our Spiritual Hardwiring Shapes Belief

Spiritual by Design

Spiritual experience is something that seems hardwired into every human being.  No matter the culture, every people group has some natural spiritual expression. But let’s be honest about something.  We like spiritual feelings that make us feel good. So if this is true, how do we determine if a religious expression is right?

Anthropologist point out that human beings are fundamentally homo religiosus — we are essentially (that is our essence) spiritual beings. We see this aspect of humanity in every culture throughout the world.  To be human seems to entail a yearning for the divine. No other creature in the world appears to exhibit this aspect.

In the West, as the Enlightenments hold has continued to weaken its grasp on us, we have become more and more drawn back to spiritual awakenings of all varieties — witness the rise of Islam in North America. Some of these “faiths” are peculiar, but to be frank, some of them are terrifying.

You see, spiritual expression in all its forms and beauty contains within it the power to tap into our senses in deeper ways than rational explanations or facts of science.  There is indeed a mystery — an existential drawing that seems to ignite our senses. At the same time, this existential need appears to manifest uniquely within different cultures.

This spiritual yearning may be why there is a current trend within younger Christians to rediscover the ancient liturgical forms passed down through the centuries.

Yet at the same time, just because it is religious, ornate or even elaborate shouldn’t justify our acceptance of it.  Religious beliefs have consequences, and so it would seem that we should examine their truthfulness.

Christian Spirituality

Let me pick on my tribe for a moment.

Nothing is more religious than Christianity’s high ceremonial forms associated with liturgical traditions. Frankly, I was drawn into these high formalities because I grew tired of faith expressions that were dependent upon commercialized services, a minister’s personality, or even cool bands/lights. I wanted to experience something transcendent.

But I have learned something along this 17-year journey that has taught me something.  Liturgies potently shape and form our view of who God is and what he has done.  When we are not clear on this matter, it seems, we can communicate something never intended.

An example comes from a statement appeared in the popular article, “Why Millennials Long For Liturgy.”  In the second to last paragraph, Jesse Cone states “In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form (emphasis added).” 

I want to like Jesse’s theology. His statement is beautiful, pious and even poetic; however, it is not the understanding of the Bible nor of Anglicanism as expressed in the BCP 1662 and the 39 Articles.

According to this classic Anglican heritage, because we are being transformed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the only offering we bring is “praise and thanksgiving”. And in return, we experience afresh the grace given to us, through the memory of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Searching For Truth

There is a real danger inherent to liturgical forms that must be consistently measured against the standard of God’s Word: the tendency of substituting the message, which is the gospel of Jesus, with something else. This inclination is known as  “confusing the sign with the thing signified.” Just because an expression makes us feel “spiritual” doesn’t mean that it is right.

Our feelings are not the ultimate measure of truth.  St. Paul explicitly addressed this principle in his letter to Timothy,  “[they] have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). The word “godliness” could be interpreted as “spiritual piety.” Paul uses the same Greek word for ‘power’ to describe the potency of the “proclaimed gospel” (Rom. 1:16).  So Paul’s instruction to Timothy could be: “Watch out for those religious people who act all pious but deny the real message of Jesus.”

Because we are religiously hardwired, it is possible to “deny the real message of Jesus” but still appear spiritual. Why?  The answer is obvious – we are attracted to religious/spiritual experiences that make us feel good.

Yet, just because if makes us feel good, doesn’t make it true, beneficial, or even right.

Key Question

This Advent Season, why not reflect on the “truth” of Jesus – not because it makes you feel good.  Rather, why not reflect upon the fact that Jesus lived, died, and rose again.

What sources do you look to develop your understanding of God?

When is the last time you thought about what you believe is right about God?


About The Author

Jonathan G. Smith

The Rev'd Dr. Jonathan G. Smith is the Senior Minister of Redeemer Church in Orlando, Founder of Grace Nation, and owner of Higher Purpose Coaching. His passion is to see people transformed by the Gospel, the liberating power of Jesus Christ.

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