Fulcrum review by Sarah Cawdell of 'Spiritual Fitness: Christian Character in a Consumer Society' (London: Continuum, 2006), by Graham Tomlin, Principal of St Paul's Theological Centre, near Holy Trinity Brompton.
Graham Tomlin is principal of St Paul's Theological Centre, a recent institute, based at St Paul's Onslow Square and sponsored by Holy Trinity Brompton, London. It offers a new kind of space in which churches and individuals can develop their own theological understanding. Tomlin has taught in the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford over a number of years, and has been Vice Principal of Wycliffe Hall, where he remains an Associate Lecturer.
I have to begin by saying that I found this book very hard to pick up. I am not into physical fitness, and going to the gym has never even crossed my mind. The first sentence of the book: "Everyone today agrees that the church is failing." was provocative enough to mean that I didn't get any further for a good couple of months. But I had made a commitment so eventually I have read it through, and I found myself more challenged and encouraged in Christian living than I have for some time, so much so that I question whether I have ever really been committed to Christ at all. Tomlin has encouraged me to take a different attitude to the spiritual disciplines neither the enthusiasm of immaturity nor the complacency of long practice, but a more measured and appreciative understanding of the weakness of my mind and body, and the value of a disciplined and regular celebration of the love and grace of God. So much for the personal response; now for the book.
In the first chapter Tomlin evaluates the effect of consumerism on church going in society; and in the second introduces the metaphor of the gym, with an examination of the spirituality and mind set behind those who inflict such torture on their bodies (my interpretation not his).
He develops his argument with an overview of the development of the church through the patristic period, with a helpful and intricate discussion of the key influences: Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas alongside theologians from the present period such as Hauerwas; and the effect of contemporary culture. His key to spiritual fitness is training in the Christian disciplines within the community for the purpose of developing character by the cultivation of virtue. Tomlin is deliberately confrontational in his exploration of virtue as a Protestant, challenging the church to work out her salvation, whilst receiving it as pure grace. He refuses to allow the gospel to become a matter of works, emphasising in a variety of ways that "the true motivation for growth in spiritual fitness is not that we feel better. It is that God is glorified in us." (page 104), pointing us constantly away from a self-centred, consumerist, competitive approach towards the love of the Father expressed in the self-giving of the Son.
Tomlin weaves together the testimony of Scripture, the early fathers and the Reformation with the present to present a precise tapestry of recommendations to develop the church, as a body and as individuals. As he says, God entrusts power to those whom he knows will use it for the purposes of the kingdom. In Christ he found such a man, and as we are transformed to reflect the divine nature we can come to share in such a privilege.
The phrase that will stick in my mind from this book, and be quoted on many occasions I am sure, is not a new idea, but the exasperation makes the point: "we are called to be like God, and we settle for just being nice." (page 86).
Tomlin is not pointing us in a new direction, far from it: Paul himself used the same metaphor in a number of his letters. It is the same message, written in terms that will appeal to those who are striving for physical fitness in the gym today, and even managing to get through to those of us who prefer a good walk in the country.
Sarah Cawdell lives in Shropshire with her husband and three teenage children.