Postmodern spirituality sets experience as lord over Scripture, Whitney tells college students

Communications Staff — February 14, 2006

Being biblically grounded and church-centered is essential to true Christian spirituality in a postmodern culture, Don Whitney told students Saturday, Feb. 4, at the 2006 Collegiate Conference at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Whitney examined and critiqued post-modern spirituality among people who are professing Christians. He identified three characteristics of such “spirituality,” saying the first element is the eclectic, or varied, religious practices such people use.

“Post-modern spirituality will draw from almost any source,” he said. “If a perceived spiritual benefit can be achieved then the practice is considered valid regardless of whether or not it is in the Bible.”

The conference theme was “The People of Truth: Believing, Defending and Living Biblical Truth in a Postmodern Age.”

Whitney said contemporary sources of spirituality might include Catholic and Protestant practices, ancient and modern traditions and even pagan religious practices. As long as spiritual benefit is perceived then the act is considered valid, however, Whitney argued that this opens people up to heresy.

“One of the dangers of grasping merely at the practice without examining the source, is that you unwittingly take some of the beliefs that go along with it,” he said. “People believe that something they perceive as so beautiful spiritually must be right and they get into heresy.”

Whitney said another characteristic of people who practice postmodern spirituality is that they desire an experience that includes not just the mind, but also the whole person.

“Postmodern spiritually wants something that is more than just head knowledge, that works in real life,” he said. “It wants a worship that can be felt and relationships that are deep. It realizes that salvation is not just about the head, but about the soul, body and heart.”

Whitney recognized that this is a positive desire, but argued that experience must not trump biblical theology in determining what practices benefit the entire being.

“You must evaluate enjoyment by whether or not it comes from God,” he said. “A spirituality that emphasizes the spiritual [experience] heavily is in danger of disconnecting itself from sound theology. This is like cutting off the blossoms of flowers. They are beautiful for a while, and give a fragrant aroma for a while, but don’t last because they have no root.”

The final characteristic of post-modern spirituality is that it emphasizes relationships, Whitney said. He identified two cultural reasons why relationships have become so important to people.

“This generation, more than any other, has grown up in broken homes,” he said. “They long for relationships they have not really experienced, which is a rightful longing.

“This culture has also distanced us from one another. We buy things on the Internet, get money from the ATM, and deal very little with people face to face. All of our relationships are through glass, be it through a computer screen with email and instant messaging, or through the television watching sitcoms and movies.”

Whitney recognized that this desire for community is good, but said one problem is that people often develop it outside the local church.

“The place God has ordained as the primary place for meaningful relationships is the local church,” he said. “Like the ‘Cheers’ bar or Seinfeld’s restaurant, people develop a place they go for relationships. That is why Starbucks and other coffee shops are so popular now, because people go there to develop community.”

Whitney said that even the relationships in church are developed often simply for the sake of having a community and not for encouraging people to seek a relationship with God.

“Community is good and right and healthy, but not if it neglects an individual response to the Gospel and a relationship to God,” Whitney said.

Whitney pointed to Scripture as the authority for developing appropriate spiritual practices.

“The Bible is the measure of the validity of any spiritual experience, and if an experience is not validated by Scripture then there is a conflict,” he said. “Every one of our spiritual experiences should be inaugurated with the Bible or be informed by the Bible.”

Working from 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Whitney said that Scripture is both profitable and sufficient in the area of developing one’s spirituality.

“Scripture tells us that the Bible is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” he said. “If Scripture is not profitable for you, the problem is with you, not with Scripture. The Bible also claims that the practices taught in it are sufficient for spiritual life. Any benefit that someone finds from a non-biblical practice at best is not necessary.”

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