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16 October 2023

The social, emotional, and psychological challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years have led many to seek solace and reprieve through spiritual practices. The previously not-so-spiritual people suddenly found spiritual practices to be of help for coping with isolation, loneliness, and anxieties brought on by a relentless contagion. Many have turned to ancient spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation to cope with the challenges—seeking a sense of peace, inner calm, and interior resource. On the Christian front, more Christians are turning to Christian spiritual practices such as silence, Christian meditation, spiritual friends, conversations, and retreats.

On the surface, this development appears to be good. Not until I noticed the amount of attention that practitioners are drawing to themselves over social media about their newfound spiritual practices. For example, there was a post by a Christian while on a ‘silent retreat.’ Is not a silent retreat meant to be a time in silence and solitude—and an opportunity to abstain from social media? Yet, this person is drawing attention to oneself through a social media posting about being on a ‘silent retreat.’ And there are other examples—such as, posting pictures of being on spiritual retreats at exotic overseas retreat centres, drawing attention to being on “an extended retreat,” or meeting up with some special spiritual guru.

Sharing a newfound experience on social media is probably not wrong. Yet these observations left me with a feeling of unease as I sense something amiss with all these attention-seeking behaviours. I decided to search the internet for clues on spiritual pursuits and consumerism. Interestingly, I stumbled upon the term “spiritual materialism,” first coined by Chögyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Trungpa sought to address the common pitfalls of self-deception in seeking spirituality. He addresses it through three categories, which I found to be quite enlightening. Sadly, however, he fell into the very pitfalls he warned others about and ended his life in alcoholism and sexual scandals.

While it is not uncommon to read that some go on a shopping spree, an eating adventure, or a binge drinking social to destress, it seems that some now go on a spirituality quest for essentially the same reasons as those who go to shop, to eat, or to drink. They do so to feed the ego. Those with a newfound spiritual enthusiasm are pursuing spiritual “highs” from essentially the same motivations as the ego drives. As I discovered, “spiritual materialism” is essentially consumerism masked as spirituality. Our ego needs are certainly real—and need proper attention. But if we now use spiritual means to satisfy our ego needs what we previously did through material means, then have we not moved from being self-centred and egoistic in our spiritual pursuits?

This, in my opinion, is an especially tricky issue. For the engagement with the spiritual provides these behaviours with a veneer of religiosity that makes it harder to detect the true motivations deep within. Apparently, this is one of the issues the Apostle Paul had to address in the Corinthian church. There, members were boasting about their spiritual gifts and pitting themselves against each other rather than deploying them for the common good as God intended (1 Cor. 12). When we only skirt the surface on spiritual exercises, are we not in danger of going down the slippery slope of spiritual masquerade?

What then are some correctives that will guide us on the proper path of spiritual pursuits? In this regard, we return to the reliable criteria of Scripture and trinitarian spiritual theology. Just as I pointed to the Corinthian malady, the apostle Paul provides a corrective for that church which is also applicable to us. It is that they must understand and remember the meaning of their baptism into Christ Jesus. Previously, when they were pagans, they embraced the Corinthian values of individualism and flamboyance—seeking to outdo and outshine each other. But now that they are baptized into Christ Jesus, they have died to themselves and rise to a new life in Christ. This new life in Christ Jesus must now shape their spiritual worldview and practice—and one of them is learning to use their spiritual gifts for the common good of the entire body of Christ.

Similarly, trinitarian spirituality provides a corrective against egoistic spirituality. Rather than the self, the triune God is at the centre. Trinitarian spirituality calls us to live for the glory of the Father, through the empowerment of the Spirit, to grow into the whole measure of the fullness of Christ Jesus our Saviour and Lord. If we keep this trinitarian focus, it will steer us from the dangers of egotism and wean us from the vestiges of the old self that lurks in the background in all our spiritual pursuits. It will call us beyond the self to the community of God.

These scriptural and theological bases provide us with defining criteria on the quality and trajectory of spiritual practices and pursuits—teaching us to discern their true worth and where they eventually take us. We ask not just how apparently good the practice is but why we engage in it and where it takes us with respect to God’s rule in our lives. Do they make us more proud, more self-sufficient (yes, I know it sounds strange), and more out of touch with God’s Mission? Or do they help us to die to ourselves more, to have Christ and his Spirit indwell more, and to build up his church more? These guiding criteria help to prevent us from going on an ego trip in our spiritual pursuits. Instead, they keep us close to the heart of God.

I wish to leave you with the definition on spiritual formation by Jeffrey Greenman and George Kalantzis which I found to be helpful for steering us from the dangers of self-centred and egoistic spiritual pursuits. “Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world.” Keeping this definition in view will guard us against spiritual materialism.

Rev Dr Jimmy Tan is chaplain, and lecturer of pastoral and practical theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore