If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I rarely try to learn how other Christians have experienced God, and then encourage them in that. Instead, I try to get them to experience God in the same way I have, without ever really hearing and trying to understand their experience. This is true for many of us Christians. Unless they engage in theology, or go on a retreat, or speak in tongues (pick your favorite), we don’t really think they have the Spirit.
Gary Thomas’ great book Sacred Pathways helps us understand our own spiritual temperament. Thomas spells out nine different “pathways” or spiritual temperaments, with their attending strengths and weaknesses: the naturalists, sensates, traditionalists, ascetics, activists, caregivers, enthusiasts, contemplatives, and intellectuals.
His book is geared toward helping me learn my own spiritual temperament. But this kind of approach can also help us empathize with the spiritual experiences of others. Different people have different spiritual pathways.
Here is a relevant passage from Sacred Pathways:
Excited about meaningful (to us) approaches to the Christian life, we sometimes assume that if others do not experience the same thing, something must be wrong with their faith. (p 16).
In everyday life, the diversity of spiritual temperaments can cause misunderstanding. The enthusiast may perceive the traditionalist as dead and dry, while the traditionalist may perceives the enthusiast as over-emotional and sentimental. The activist may believe the intellectual is too busy with pie-in-the-sky questions, while the intellectual may believe the activist is an unthinking agitator. The contemplative can suspect the caregiver is an enabler, while the caregiver can think the contemplative is unconcerned with the needs of others. And the cycle of misunderstanding is difficult to break through. Being human, all of us struggle to really understand and appreciate each other’s experiences and gifts.
Of course, there are limits to diversity and temperaments have weaknesses. The Creeds spell out some pretty clear outside barriers to orthodox belief. Christian spirituality has certain recognizable limits as well. But when we find an orthodox and faithful believer, we are finding someone in whom the Spirit is at work. The spiritual gifts are meant to complement each other.
It is beautiful to see the Holy Spirit at work, bringing together the streams of Christian faith and experience into One Body. It is an amazing thing to pray that we “keep in step” with the Spirit as he brings us together as one.