In his wonderful book Streams of Living Water, the Quaker theologian and author Richard Foster outlines six traditions of Christian spirituality. Each of these traditions – or “streams,” as he calls them – is rooted in scripture and has historical precedent. Each has its own distinct emphases and accompanying practices. And each comes with a unique set of strengths and limitations.
For me, Streams was a revelation. It helped me make important connections between the disparate parts of my spiritual experience while giving me a better appreciation for the Christian traditions I knew less about. I was encouraged by Foster’s hopeful conviction that despite widespread division within the church, these six streams were already “flowing together into a mighty movement of the Spirit,” constituting “a great, new gathering of the people of God.” Charismatics and Contemplatives side by side. Evangelicals and Social Justice folks hand in hand. Holiness and Incarnational brothers and sisters growing together. It’s a beautiful picture.
But what about those of us who don’t necessarily belong to any one stream? What about those of us who would have a hard time picking just one? What if we don’t want to have to choose between the strengths of one or the other? Indeed, what if we don’t need to?
Enter Kyle David Bennett, whose new book Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World is for people like you and me. People who are equally at home in a Taize service and a living room Bible study. People who believe we are called to be set apart from the ways of the world and are called to culture making. People who are just as likely to advocate for the rights of undocumented children as we are to practice contemplative prayer. In short, people who intuitively sense that to be Christian is not just to appear for Sunday worship or to regularly spend time in scripture and in prayer but to actively seek to love our neighbors as ourselves – and to view all of these activities as essential and interrelated.
If we’re honest, most of us have grown up understanding the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, and rest (among others) as practices designed primarily to sanctify us as individuals, which, in turn, honors God. But as Bennett argues, the “vertical” aspect of the practices is only half the equation.
“This emphasis on spiritual growth and intimacy with God is only one part of the whole. And at least to God, it seems that it’s not even the most important side of the equation or the most important part of the whole,” he writes. “For Christians before us, these disciplines were not primarily or exclusively practiced for the intellectual goods that they offer each of us as individuals. They were not really practiced for us at all. Rather, they were practiced for others… They were seen as acts of love toward one’s neighbor that bring life and health and vitality to the world.”
In this book, Bennett invites us to view the spiritual disciplines “from the side,” to consider anew the “horizontal” dimension of these practices. In each chapter, he considers the ways our practices become malformed and examines the ways these disciplines, rightly practiced, can renew us – as well as our neighbors and our world.
Fortunately, Bennett doesn’t peddle in guilt. Nor does he waste our time with formulas and empty promises. Even better, while the author has bona fide scholastic chops and could safely engage these issues from lofty heights, he comes at it like a fellow pilgrim, a fellow stumbler, simul justus et peccator.
“The Christian life is a consistent and integrated life,” he writes. “It is one in which piety is inseparable from public justice, spirituality is inseparable from ethics, devotion is inseparable from deeds, worship is inseparable from fellowship, and evangelism is inseparable from discipleship.”
A Christian life for all the streams? Yes please. Sign me up.