Every Sunday morning I teach an adult Sunday School class.  On occasion, I will preach sermons when our pastor is on vacation—or lately, when his chemotherapy saps his energy.  I also regularly teach college courses in Hebrew, Bible and Theology.

I have discovered a very effective, if maddening for students, way of teaching. It is called the Socratic Method.  In practice, this means that I ask questions of my victims with the intent of causing “cognitive dissonance.” That is, I challenge their preconceptions by demonstrating that they contradict other things that they claim to believe. It creates mental discomfort and generally forces them to adjust those conceptions or beliefs and to think more clearly.  

So let me try it on you. 

Most people would agree that Jesus is very spiritual.  Many would also believe that following his example means that they must discipline themselves to sleep less, to rise early in the morning to pray, to abstain from rich food, and to live in poverty. They believe that spirituality derives from asceticism: think monks in caves eating gruel, beating themselves with leather straps, and praying all the time.

In other words, they believe that the more miserable they make themselves, the more spiritual they will become.  Most religions have a notion that the most holy, the most spiritual of all, are those who have renounced all worldly affairs and are devoting themselves exclusively to prayer and contemplation.

But consider the following very brief story:

The wedding reception had been going for hours. The music was loud. It was crowded and there were more people than the organizers had expected. While everyone was having a wonderful time, something awful had happened.

The man in charge of the festivities pulled the groom aside and asked in hushed tones, “Where’s the extra booze stashed?”

“Extra?”

“The last keg’s almost empty and I can’t find another one.”

* * *

Not quite the way you remember Jesus’ first miracle, performed at a wedding reception in Cana? Then perhaps you need to reread the Apostle John’s account and pay attention to what’s really going on. As recorded in John 2:1-11, Jesus’ mother came to him with the news that the wedding host had run out of wine. After a bit of cajoling, Jesus made more for them.

It was high quality wine, not the cheap stuff.

Moving right along.  Consider another question I enjoy asking students to make them rethink their notions of spirituality and God’s attitude toward how we should live: what is the first commandment that God gave to the human race?

If you answer anything other than “have sex” then you weren’t really paying attention when you read the first chapter of the Bible. Genesis 1:28 records God’s first words to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and increase in number…”  Only one way to obey that commandment, isn’t there?

So.  God’s first commandment is a lot of fun, and leads to children and normal family life with its pleasures and responsibilities.  Why do so many then imagine that God’s other commandments are designed to make them miserable, or that denying oneself pleasure is somehow next to godliness? And, in case you forgot, let me remind you: Jesus’ first miracle, the first one he ever performed, was to make more wine for a party.

So what are God’s intentions for us? Is spirituality achieved by living alone in a cave on a mountaintop in contemplative prayer?  Or are God’s intentions closer to what Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying: “Beer proves that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Where does so much of religion get the notion that asceticism—giving up on pleasurable activities, embracing and even choosing suffering—will help us become more spiritual?

I would suggest it grows out of the practice of “building hedges around the law.” That is, we make extra laws to keep us from even getting close to breaking God’s laws. For instance, in order to avoid taking God’s name in vain, the Jewish people decided to stop saying his name at all. Obviously, if they NEVER verbalized his name, how could they ever break the third commandment (Exodus 20:7) against misusing it?

It is a very human tendency to fall into this mode of thinking. Consider these questions:

Do statements against gluttony mean that we should not eat?

Do statements against sloth mean that we should not sleep?

Do statements against drunkenness mean that we should not drink?

Do statements against adultery mean that we should not have sex?

Do statements against greed mean that we must be poor?

Many have answered all these questions in the affirmative. But, is that how God would answer these questions? 

Greater or lesser spirituality is not based on the circumstances of our lives. It is not achieved by choosing to be miserable. A housewife or a factory worker who lives in suburbia and spends her evenings watching sitcoms can be just as worthy and worthwhile, just as close to God, just as spiritual, as the isolated missionary in a distant land cut off from modern conveniences.

The Apostle Paul wrote: “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

My conclusion, therefore, is that asceticism is not spiritual at all.  Quite the opposite: it is instead, the very essence of worldliness.


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