My conversations with young adults convinces me that contrary to the expectations of secular thinkers, the postmodern generations tends to yearn for spirituality. They desire to embrace mystery, an expression of awe that is both alive and ancient, meaning that transcends space and time, and a sense of the divine. It is a good yearning, an expression of bearing God’s likeness in their very being.
I am struck by the fact that this postmodern yearning parallels an emphasis in the fundamentalist Christian group in which I was raised. Though I never heard them acknowledge it, this group had been shaped by a movement known as Pietism. Pietism was a movement of spiritual renewal that began in Lutheran churches in 17th century Germany. It said that true religion was more than mere belief, liturgy, and duty, and would properly express itself in a growing personal relationship with God as Father in the heart of the believer. Spiritual disciplines like prayer and Scripture reading would warm the affections for God, allow the Christian to hear his voice and love his presence. Given the dead orthodoxy of the church at the time, Pietism was a needed corrective.
Over time, however, the pietistic emphasis in my fundamentalist background took on some accretions that still plague evangelical Protestants today. The first is a tendency to downplay belief, liturgy, and duty as if they are somehow problematic in themselves. Not true—all three are to be vibrant and lovely expressions of faith according to the Scriptures. The second is the conviction that if a believer is not filled with warm affections, and sense of God’s presence something must be wrong. Slowly personal experience and feelings become a standard by which to measure spirituality. That, of course, leads to a growing feeling of guilt that only complicates matters further. In taking this step, a good emphasis had morphed into a legalism that is utterly destructive of grace.
Spiritual dryness, if that is [God’s] will at the moment, is as much to be loved and obeyed as spiritual fervor… It takes repeated aridity… to bring home to us that our own so precious feelings contribute nothing to our salvation; that, in fact, they generally stand in the way of our perfection. Spiritual dryness can finally lead us, after much pouting, actually to give thanks that it is not because we see God that we have joy. It is because he sees us.
Source: Gale D. Webbe in The Night and Nothing.