There was once a powerful dictator who ruled his country with an iron will. Every aspect of life was thought through and worked out according to a rational system. Nothing was left to chance.
The dictator noticed that the water sources around the country were erratic and in some cases dangerous. There were thousands of springs of water, often in the middle of towns and cities. They could be useful, but sometimes they caused floods, sometimes they got polluted, and often they burst out in new places and damaged roads, fields, and houses.
The dictator decided on a sensible, rational policy. The whole country, or at least every part where there was any suggestion of water, would be paved over with concrete so thick that no spring of water could ever penetrate it. The water that people needed would be brought to them by a complex system of pipes. Furthermore, the dictator decided, he would use the opportunity, while he was at it, to put into the water various chemicals that would make the people healthy. With the dictator controlling the supply, everyone would have what he decided they needed, and there wouldn’t be any more nuisance from unregulated springs.
For many years the plan worked just fine. People got used to their water coming from the new system. It sometimes tasted a bit strange, and from time to time they would look back wistfully to the bubbling streams and fresh springs they used to enjoy. Some of the problems that people had formerly blamed on unregulated water hadn’t gone away. It turned out that the air was just as polluted as the water had sometimes been, but the dictator couldn’t, or didn’t, do much about that. But mostly the new system seemed efficient. People praised the dictator for his forward-looking wisdom.
A generation passed. All seemed to be well. Then, without warning, the springs that had gone on bubbling and sparkling beneath the solid concrete could no longer be contained. In a sudden explosion – a cross between a volcano and an earthquake – they burst through the concrete that people had come to take for granted. Muddy, dirty water shot into the air and rushed through the streets and into houses, shops, and factories. Roads were torn up; whole cities were in chaos. Some people were delighted: at last they could get water again without depending on The System. But the people who ran the official water pipes were at a loss: suddenly everyone had more than enough water, but it wasn’t pure and couldn’t be controlled.
We in the Western world are the citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialists by default. And the water is what we today call “spirituality,” the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.
Many people today hear the very word “spirituality” like travelers in a desert hearing news of an oasis. This isn’t surprising. The skepticism that we’ve been taught for the last two hundred years has paved our world with concrete, making people ashamed to admit that they have had profound and powerful “religious” experiences. Where before they would have gone to church, said their prayers, worshiped in this way or that, and understood what they were doing as part of the warp and woof of the rest of life, the mood of the Western world from roughly the 1780s through to the 1980s was very different. We will pipe you (said the prevailing philosophy) the water you need; we will arrange for “religion” to become a small subdepartment of ordinary life; it will be quite safe—harmless in fact—with church life carefully separated off from everything else in the world, whether politics, art, sex, economics, or whatever. Those who want it can have enough to keep them going. Those who don’t want their life, and their way of life, disrupted by anything “religious” can enjoy driving along concrete roads, visiting concrete-based shopping malls, living in concrete-floored houses. Live as if the rumor of God had never existed! We are, after all, in charge of our own fate! We are the captains of our own souls (whatever they may be)! That is the philosophy which has dominated our culture. From this point of view, spirituality is a private hobby, an up-market version of daydreaming for those who like that kind of thing.
Millions in the Western world have enjoyed the temporary separation from “religious” interference that this philosophy has brought. Millions more, aware of the deep subterranean bubblings and yearnings of the water systems we call “spirituality,” which can no more ultimately be denied than can endless springs of water under thick concrete, have done their best secretly to tap into it, using the official channels (the churches), but aware that there’s more water available than most churches have let on. Many more again have been aware of an indefinable thirst, a longing for springs of living, refreshing water that they can bathe in, delight in, and drink to the full.
–N. T. Wright,