Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World

Kyle Bennet wants you to stop taking spiritual heroin-or, at least, that’s what he says. This spiritual drug is a bit ambiguous but has something to do with using Sunday worship as a kick to get you emotionally pumped and stable for the rest of the week or, alternatively, using spiritual disciplines as a spiritual fix to get you closer to God or to get God to speak to you about your future path. The solution, in his mind, is partially found in seeing spiritual disciplines like fasting, solitude, feasting, meditation, etc. as actions for others, disciplines that bring horizontal and vertical benefits.

He accurately pinpoints our Christian tendency to see loving our neighbor as bound up in big–usually political–issues. So, we love our neighbor by getting involved in politics or donating to massive humanitarian organizations or doing food drives and supporting homeless shelters. But Bennet expresses this well and is worth quoting at length.

“The way of Jesus does not involve endless private, mystical experiences that tickle our fancy. Rather, it is the transformation of mundane activities that have vast public implications for our neighbor. Many of us are blind to the ways that we oppress, neglect, and ignore our neighbor in the little things that we do every day. We have ‘blind spots’ in our practice of love. We have coherent, solid, and persuasive views on sexuality, abortion, immigration, and taxation, for example, but we’re not entirely aware of or intentional about what we do during the week. At the end of the day (or more precisely, during the day), when we are done with our deliberations and debates and we put away abstract concepts and universal principles, what happens? What are we like? What do we do in our daily deeds? Are we loving our neighbor in our everyday procedures and cultural practices? In theory, we claim to love our neighbor, but do we love her ‘on the ground’? What does this entail for us as stay-at-home parents, patrons, consumers, or voters?” (pg. xv)

It’s a persuasive argument, and Bennett’s agenda is to show how each of the spiritual disciplines have horizontal benefits, and should be practiced with our neighbor in mind.

For example, the practice of simplicity is not just about reliance on God or spiritual focus but about buying only what we need and giving the rest away to benefit our neighbor. Meditation is not just about directing our thoughts to God but about directing our thoughts towards our neighbor.

This last one, especially, got to me. As a more introspective type I spend a lot of time lost in my thoughts and the vast majority of the time I’m thinking about myself in one way or another. None of the thoughts themselves are bad–thinking about future career paths, planning for the week, thinking about books, considering conversations, healthy self-criticism–all these are helpful and useful. But when they’re what I focus on more than anything else, we’ve got a problem.

The best part of each chapter is the postscript where he outlines specific ways to practice various disciplines for one’s neighbor. Many of the chapters themselves are a bit long and repetitive. The book promises far more than it gives (“What I offer here includes some phenomenological analysis, theological commentary, historical appropriations, and pastoral admonition” (pg. xvi), but still has enough insights that it’s worth reading.

Bennet is at his strongest, though, when he articulates the problem with conservative Christian obedience to the second greatest commandment. What he gets at is precisely what Dostoevsky says in the sermons of Father Zossima. Active love, as Dostoevsky calls it, is the hardest love of all. We all want to think about loving others. In today’s Christian world, and for me, that can sometimes look like trying to articulate Grand Ideas of Christian Visions of Public Life, or Big Ideas for How to Engage Culture, or Large Strategies for Christian Countercultures.  None of those are bad, of course, but that’s the easy kind of love. Like Dostoevsky says, we all want to love our neighbor when it’s done quickly and publicly and with much applause and support. But in the day-to-day realities of our lives, where we go to work with others and (for me) walk down university sidewalks past hundreds (thousands?) of students, we’re much less eager to love. To take it to the bible, when Jesus told us what a neighbor is he didn’t tell us about the Good Samaritan who articulated the precise problem with Roman-ruled Israeli welfare systems. He told us about a traveler walking along a road who decided to love a wounded man in front of him with the money and resources he had.