Sunday, June 14, 2009

Spiritual Eutrophication

Eutrophication is an ecological problem. It occurs when there is an increase of nutrients in an ecosystem and plants grow excessively. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how this can be a problem. After all, growth is good and we want plants to be productive.

The problem is that growth does not always lead to productivity. Sometimes the things that are normally required for growth are so abundant that organisms fail to develop properly in the frenzy that can accompany maximal growth. Very often proper development requires that we turn off, or at least slow down, normal growth. In some cases proper development can only occur with periods of privation. Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.

In order to understand this, it is important to keep in mind the difference between growth and development. Growth means getting bigger (or more abundant) and any change is only a change of degree. Development involves change of a different kind. A caterpillar, for example, after it emerges from an egg grows quite a bit, but in spite of all this growth it still looks like a caterpillar. In experiments using insect hormones that keep the caterpillar from becoming a cocoon, a butterfly is never formed. The insect just becomes a giant caterpillar. This might sound interesting, but for the caterpillar it is a disaster. It never gets to become a butterfly and reproduce – which is what caterpillars are supposed to do. Growth, by itself, fails the caterpillar of its potential. Development is also required, which happens when the caterpillar changes into a cocoon. During this period of its life, the insect utilizes energy that it has previously stored for this purpose. This period of maximal development is also a period of maximal privation. But without the privation, the caterpillar never reaches its potential.

The classic example of eutrophication is the increase in nitrogen and phosphorus that sometimes accumulates in lakes and ponds in agricultural areas. These chemicals are normally helpful to plants when applied in various forms as fertilizers. At times, however, they can be washed into nearby drainages and accumulate in standing bodies of water where they provide nutrients for algae. If there is enough of the nutrients, the algae grow excessively and consume most of the oxygen in the water. Other organisms such as fish and amphibians and the invertebrates that they eat, die because all of the oxygen has been used up by the algae.

Human beings can also create environments where too much growth occurs. This almost sounds heretical to even suggest such a thing, but it is true nonetheless. In our zeal to create maximally comfortable and productive environments for ourselves, we end up harming, or even killing, many things that are needed for our spiritual growth. This turns out to be a unique form of eutrophication. It is unique because the causal agent, as well as the object of harmful side effects, are one and the same - they are us. Because the harmful side effects are primarily spiritual, the problem can be called spiritual eutrophication.

Fulfilling the measure of our creation requires both spiritual growth and spiritual development. Together, this part of our lives is very sensitive to disturbances. Physical needs such a procuring food, shelter and medical care can easily occupy center stage of our lives. Emotional needs can, and often do, become priorities too. Our lives are very often so saturated with these immediately demanding needs that it’s understandable how spiritual needs can be forgotten, at least momentarily. It’s one thing, however, for a balanced life to find itself for a time focused on non-spiritual needs. It’s another thing altogether for non-spiritual needs to become the focus of our lives, even to the point of choking out the truly important and sustaining spiritual needs. Such a life, in the long run, will destroy its spirit just as too much algal growth in a lake will kill the other organisms needing oxygen.

Without doubt, consumerism, in one form or other, takes center stage of most people’s lives. Our commercial society is clearly a product of consumer priorities. It has so saturated our lives that we verily believe that we can resolve any problem - be it physical, emotional, or even spiritual - with money. We even plug in the allotted time into our day-planners for spiritual growth and believe that our spiritual needs have been covered.

But there is something inherently wrong about this assumption that growth is a universally good thing - whether it be physical, financial or spiritual. And this is where the distinction between spiritual growth and spiritual development becomes important.

Growth means more of the same thing. This doesn’t necessarily imply that it is easy. It can be quite difficult. But it is not the same thing as development, which involves a change in form. Spiritual growth can make us feel satisfied if we do nothing more than just attend more religious meetings. Or maybe it is manifest in making larger donations, or memorizing more scriptures. These things are, of course, worthy things to do. But they are usually fueled by the idea that growth is the ne plus ultra of our existence. We all too often make the assumption that our spiritual “growth” is tied up with our own personal worth - or with the things we have achieved. This is the mistake Jesus was teaching against when He said that the widow contributing her mite to the temple treasury had contributed more than the other donors.

Spiritual development, on the other hand, cannot be so easily handled. It is no more monopolized by visible and fully-churched religionists than is wisdom monopolized by Ph.D.’s. The reason is that the way to spiritual development leads through privation. Of course, not all kinds of privation have to be monetary or physical. There are a lot of ways it can happen. But there is a single word that includes them all. It is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that is the means to spiritual development - not a sacrifice that we decide on ourselves - but sacrifice that we must yield to. It has to be a sacrifice that is offered to us from God and the measure is simple - will we yield to His will and not our own? Full spiritual development is achieved when we have successfully yielded ourselves to all of the trials that God deems necessary for us.

One of the dangers of a lopsided spiritual growth is that it can lead to pride. And too much pride usually offends others. Sadly, when there is an abundance of pride in a congregation, many individuals needing spiritual nourishment decide not to associate with the church and fail to participate in saving ordinances. This is one of the most obvious examples of spiritual eutrophication, but there are many others.

Spiritual growth can be an offering to God. No doubt He is pleased when we commit more to Him. But if we are not careful, we can let the fertilizers of faith, instead of the true source of faith, blind us to - even choke out - the greater needs of the spirit, like algae killing fish. We then fail to see that it is the sun that is the ultimate source of life and not anything that we might contrive to offer. In the end we may never mature spiritually if we fail to see this, for spiritual maturity requires spiritual development. Coming to God means that we leave the world behind. It was never meant to be a trophy.

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