SPECIAL SERIES: Perspectives on spirituality by young people...
3. Armen Gakavian
3. Armen Gakavian
My spiritual journey...
My friends know me as eclectic. This is hardly surprising: I have had an Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) upbringing, Catholic religious education at school, encounter with Jesus through a fundamentalist Baptist Church, involvement with various campus Christian groups, and encounters with radical Christian communities. At the 'end' (there is really no end) of this process, I am now what I would call 'evangelical'.
The various institutional labels — Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, fundamentalist, evangelical etc — describe well the emerging layers and stages of my spiritual journey. From distant interest in God throughout my childhood, sufficing with external ritual (going to Church, praying at nights before going to bed) and a strong sense of God and morals (for which I am grateful to my parents), I moved on to a life-changing encounter with the person of Jesus. I decided to follow Him as Lord and Saviour, motivated primarily out of recognition of my own shortcomings and of my need for His strength to help me to live the kind of life for which I was created. The fundamentalist context both facilitated that encounter and new life, and limited it. Ultimately, however, the encounter would not have taken place without the 'intervention' of fundamentalism. Why?
Orthodoxy and Catholicism failed to prompt me to greater depths of spiritual commitment and experience...
Somewhere along the way, Orthodoxy and Catholicism failed to prompt me to greater depths of spiritual commitment and experience. Satisfied, like so many of my peers, with 'knowing about' God, I never came to 'know' God. Fundamentalism, with its emphasis on personal conversion, shook me out of my complacency and compelled me to make a choice: would I follow this Jesus I knew so much about, or not? I chose to say yes, and have never looked back since. But my understanding of this spiritual life has changed dramatically since that first encounter in 1986.
If Orthodoxy and Catholicism were limited in what they could offer, so was fundamentalism. Somehow it seemed dry, devoid of the mystical, sensual earthiness offered by the traditional Churches, bound by its single-minded emphasis on biblical 'text' to the exclusion of experience, tradition and culture. Worst still, its political conservatism, and fear and dread of the 'social gospel', meant that political dissent (read 'anything to the left of us') or engagement with social justice was off-limits. Yet I could not embrace the social gospel, either — 'human minds and hands without a soul', as I call it. Nor could I embrace the untamed experientialism and rampant materialism of much of the Pentecostal movement (despite its many attractions). And I could not return to the stifling traditionalism of Orthodoxy, with its human intermediaries and fetishisation of the institution, clergy, ritual and nation.
Radical personal conversion and discipleship...
So I began to read widely from the Catholic, evangelical, liberal and finally, coming full circle, Armenian Apostolic traditions. In particular, I began to enjoy the deep insights of the monastics, the richness of the Catholic social justice tradition and the musings of the early evangelicals (who did not separate evangelism from social engagement). Ultimately, however, I could never get past the evangelical emphasis on personal 'conversion' — on a vibrant, intentional relationship with Jesus, what one of my pastors used to call "the 'I will' to God", similar to marriage. While this concept of conversion may sound individualistic (and it often is), it need not be: personal conversion takes place in the context of community, and is nurtured by it. It is an individual choice, but it is not a lonely one. Indeed, radical personal conversion and discipleship seem to be the way the early Christians experienced their Christian faith.
The fact that Christian conversion has social, and not just personal-moral, dimensions and consequences, is something that neither the fundamentalists nor the liberals can fully understand. The forefathers of modern-day evangelicalism — John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Whitfield and others — understood this; it's the modern-day televangelists who have lost their way. Our understanding of the Christian faith has become privatized and dichotomized — 'inner world' versus 'social justice', etc. Yet the words translated "justice" and "righteousness" in the Old Testament are actually one word in the Hebrew (as they are in the Armenian), implying that social equity and personal life-change are two sides of the same coin. Similarly, the 'good news' of the Kingdom of God heralded by Jesus (what I call Jesus' New World Order) was a comprehensive, holistic package of spiritual, relational, social, economic, environmental and political healing and liberation. For Jesus, God's New World Order was simultaneously one of proclamation and action, as He and His disciples went around Palestine doing good and speaking the message of reconciliation with God.
When good news becomes bad news...
So why is this good news received as bad news by so many? Why are so many youth disinterested in — even hostile towards — institutional Christianity, or even towards Jesus Himself? Certainly bad publicity hasn't helped — the fall of so many televangelists, and George Bush's US presidency, have been a stumbling block to many. Power, fame and riches have always been the downfall of the Church. In His desert temptation Jesus said a resolute 'no' to secular power (I recommend the opening chapters of Donald Kraybill's The Upside Down Kingdom on this), yet the Church since Constantine has gladly embraced power and used it, often brutally. Any allegiance with a political system or ideology — left, right or otherwise — is idolatry.
Another reason why the Church/Jesus/Christianity is seen as bad news by so many, especially the young, is that it is quite simply not presented as good news. When Jesus was on earth, he set people free — free from anxieties, self-contempt, laws, shortcomings and even themselves, along with death and all its consequences. We, on the contrary, often use Jesus to enslave people. We all do it — I have done it, and continue to do it, usually unconsciously but not always so. When we present the good news of Jesus as a religious or ethical system rather than as a spiritual relationship (from which emerges spiritual practices and personal and social ethics), we are not presenting Jesus at all.
No wonder people are confused. Christian faith brings with it enough difficult questions — about hell, justice, who exactly is Jesus, which Church or theology (if any) is the right one etc — without us complicating it with worldly alliances, ideological allegiances and enslaving systems. This is why the key to spiritual survival is a deep personal encounter with Jesus and an ability to listen to the voice of God, through meditation on the Scriptures and reflective, honest prayer. This is what has made it possible for me to 'hang in there', even as I struggle with my own weaknesses and with so many questions for which I cannot find satisfactory answers (I'm sure there are answers, and I even know most of them in my head, but they don't always make sense to my finite mind).
Surviving the journey...
In all this chaos, I find refuge in the gospels. Reading about the teachings, parables and miracles of Jesus helps me to remember that Christianity is Christ-ianity — not a system, not a religion, but a person. And as I reflect on the two great dates on the Christian calendar — Christmas and Easter — I never cease to be amazed by what continues for me to be the greatest story ever told: that God came in the form of a human being, lived like us, suffered and died, and opened the way to God, and that by believing in this story and saying "I do" to Jesus, I can enter into a living, real relationship with God — a relationship that embraces my strengths, weaknesses and doubts.
So I have committed myself to the journey, and to knowing and practicing the truth (as best as I, with God's help, am able). God knows I am weak; but He knows I am trying, and His grace (unmerited favour) makes up for the rest.
As for the phases of the journey, a few years ago I began to understand that they are natural, and in fact healthy. Christian psychologist M. Scott Peck talks about four stages of human spiritual development. While these are not set in concrete and may not match everyone's experience, they do provide a good insight into how we develop as spiritual beings (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._Scott_Peck#The_four_stages). There are seasons in the spiritual life, just as there are seasons in our natural lives. I've found that recognising these seasons is the first step to spiritual sanity — and maturity.
With you in the journey,
Some of Armen's favourite books on spirituality:
1. Expect ups and downs.