THE SPIRITUALIST HERESY
"Hey, brother, have you found Jesus?" "Oh! Is he lost again?" "Brother, that's not what I mean. Have you taken Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour? Are you born again?" "Of course! I was raised a Catholic and I have been faithfully practicing my faith since I was a kid. I admit that now and then I fall, but I confess my sins and stand up and try to do better." "You can be doing everything your Church tells you to do, and still not be doing the will of God." "How's that?" "Because you are not listening to what the Spirit tells you to do." "How does the Spirit tell me the will of God?" "He speaks to you in your heart when you take time to pray and listen." "You mean the Spirit can tell me something different from what the Church teaches me?" "You've got it, man!"
Here we have the essence of the spiritualist heresy: The Church is a human society; it is "flesh"; it has only laws which do not give life. But the Spirit, which gives life, does not pass through any body or sensible sign; it goes straight to the soul. Grace does not perfect or build on nature, it replaces it. It is not important to think, study or search; just wait for inspiration. Philosophy and culture are useless; religion is the only true wisdom.
The spiritualist heresy is the antithesis of the materialist heresy. The latter says that all so-called spiritual activity is nothing more than the operation of that super-computer which we call the brain. There is no spirit or after-life, and all that is worth living for are the pleasures, possessions and honours of this life. Who belong to these two extremes?
The materialist heretics
So many people in Europe, mostly educated and prosperous, have dropped religious practice altogether and made money or their belly their god.
In Nigeria most people are highly religious, but for many of them material needs come first and they use religion only as a tool to get these things. So we see them running to anyone who promises them a "miracle". And we see preachers spreading the gospel of prosperity: that health and wealth are the signs of God's friendship, whereas sickness and poverty are signs of a sinner.
Not only Christians, but also Muslims fall into this thinking when political power and money become their main concern.
The spiritualist heretics
Most early Church Fathers were not spiritualists. For example, Justin Martyr (c. 130) took a positive approach to human sciences or philosophy, accepting all that is true and correcting what is false. He propounded the theory of "logia spermatika", meaning that the eternal Logos (Jesus) spread the seeds of truth in the intelligences of all men; so they all have a partial grasp of truth. At the same time he argued that the Christian faith had the answer to the perplexities of the philosophers about God, the soul and the world.
Tatian (c. 120), on the other hand, was a spiritualist and took a negative approach to philosophy, viewing it as the enemy of Christianity. Whereas Justin, who had claimed for Christianity the benefit of all that was good and true in Greek culture, died a martyr, this arch-enemy of Greek philosophy died out of communion with the Church.
In the late 2nd century Montanus said that the Old Testament was said to be the era of the Father, the New Testament that of the Son, but he was the oracle or incarnation of the Spirit (like Mulumba Mulumba), beginning a new age. Montanus lived in Phrygia, where the traditional cult of Cybela, the great mother of the gods, had been known for its frenzy throughout the ancient Roman world. So the Montanists were given to extatic frenzy and spiritual noise. Montanus likewise emphasised holiness and had no place for sinners: "The Church can forgive sins, but I will not do so, lest others also commit sin."
Tertullian (d. 220), in North Africa, was utterly opposed to philosophy, drama and Roman or African culture. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" His negative approach to most other things in life and his imbalanced personality led him eventually to quit the Church and become a Montanist, ultimately forming his own sect of it.
In 311, still in North Africa, Donatus contested the ordination of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in 311 because it was performed by Felix of Aptonga, a bishop who had surrendered sacred books during the Diocletian persecution. The Donatists would not recognize the validity of any sacraments performed by reinstated clerics who had once lapsed. They maintained, moreover, that the holiness of the Church excludes the presence of any sinners.
St. Augustine (d. 430) preached against the Donatists, distinguishing between Christians who had received the sacraments only (baptism, and the first steps of repentance) and Christians who received the sacraments and also had the holiness that the sacraments give. There are saints and sinners in the Church, and the sacraments are effective not because of the holiness of the priest, but because of the holiness of Christ working in and through the priest, worthy or unworthy.
In 12th century southern France the Albigensians were so spiritual that they said matter was not from God but from the devil. Therefore they did not eat meat and their "perfect" members did not marry. Jesus, they said, did not have a real body (since that is evil). They rejected all the sacraments, because these are material signs. Their ascetic "holiness" attracted many people who were scandalized by the materialist, pleasure loving clergy of that time and place. St. Dominic went barefoot to preach against them.
In the 16th century most Protestants tried to justify their break with the Pope on the grounds that they were listening to the Spirit. Martin Luther said that all flesh is corrupt, and the Church is nothing but flesh. Philosophy and theology are useless, and only the Bible has the truth. Faith in God brings instant forgiveness, but holiness is not for this life but the next.
Other Protestants promised holiness in this lifeafter all, Martin Luther was discouragingly negative and pessimistic. The acquisition of this holiness is verified not by good works, but by the "warming" or heat of one's inner feelings, which the Spirit is said to produce. This direct experience of the Spirit, for them, made the Sacraments (and the Church) superfluous.
The holiness Churches in Nigeria today (such as Deeper Life and the Anozie movement) are not offering anything new. They appeal to the authority of Spirit against the fleshly "institutional" Church. They tell their followers not to reason and think, but to listen to the Spirit. Since no one has the Spirit as much as their own leaders, this listening means surrendering one's mind to the authority of the leaders of the sect, and blind obedience to them. For them the sacraments of the Catholic Church are not effective, because the priests (like the people) are not holy. Besides, God cannot be found in such material "juju", but only in the Spirit. These people sometimes interpret the self-emptying of Jesus (Phil 2:7) not as a foregoing of the privileges he could have claimed by right of his divinity (the true meaning), but as a renunciation of his humanity, especially his intellect (the opposite of the true meaning).
Spiritualism is not restricted to Christianity, but is found in fundamentalist Islam as well. For many Muslims, not only is Islam a complete way of life revealed by God from heaven in the form of the Qur'ân and the example of the Prophet (Sunna or adîth), but philosophy or culture are useless and have nothing to contribute. They do not talk of inculturation, but only of aligning people and society to the Islamic mould.
Critique of the materialist and the spiritualist heresies
One thing the materialist and spritualists heresies have in common is dualism: the idea that matter and spirit are not only distinct, but can never be joined. It is a denial of the Incarnation, not admitting, with the true Spirit of God, that "Jesus Christ came in the flesh" (1 John 4:2), "whom we have seen and our hands have touched" (1 John 1:1).
Because the Word became flesh, his body, the Church, is holy, even though its members can sin. God sanctifies people through the Church, especially its sacraments. Receiving communion or confessional absolution is the same from any priest, no matter how holy or how sinful he is, because he is acting not on his own, but only by the power of Jesus.
Because Jesus took a human nature, nothing human is alien to the Church. It adopts the culture and language of every nation to express its worship and teaching, while still preserving a single universal faith. It affirms the power of human reason, encouraging philosophy and science, while joining it to the wisdom that comes from above. It encourages medical practice and at the same time invokes God's healing power. It asks us to examine the psychological state of a person before assuming that there is a devil to be cast out. It asks us to reason, take counsel and listen to legitimate authority about the practical things we have to do, and at the same time to have an ear for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
By avoiding the extremes of materialism and spiritualism, Catholicism is a balanced religion. And that is one sign to any reasonable person that God is behind it.