Desiring more of God (2) Musings on the Spirit, humility and pride in an age of social media

narcissus-and-echo

In the last post we talked about the restorationist impulse that arises from a theological belief that the description of the first Christian’s experience of the Spirit in the NT is, by and large, a ‘norm’ that believers in all ages should long to see in their own lives and churches.

I say ‘by and large’ because some experiences are historically unique – Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit by the risen Christ and the missionary advance of the gospel in Acts for example.

That ‘norm’ includes the following:

  • being united to Christ by the Spirit
  • being given ‘life’ by the life-giver himself (regeneration)
  • a new status as a child of God (adoption by the Spirit by which we can call God abba Father)
  • empowering to live a life pleasing to God.
  • For Paul that ‘norm’ for Paul means living kata pneuma (according to the Spirit) rather than kata sarxa (according to the old age of the flesh that is passing away – see Romans 8:5

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

  • It means ‘walking’ or ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit and life rather than the powerless realm of the flesh and death (Gal 5).

In other words, the NT norm is thoroughly eschatological.

I’d go as far as to say that Christianity cannot be understood unless as an eschatological faith. The new age of the Spirit has dawned with the coming, death and resurrection of the Messiah, King of Israel and Lord of all. A Christian is someone who belongs, by God’s generous grace through faith in Christ, to the new age of the Spirit. He or she is a citizen of the kingdom of God here in the nitty gritty world of family, work, friendships and whatever else makes up your life.

That new life takes concrete shape in a person bearing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We may say, in other words, that a Christian is to be shaped by the Spirit into a person of virtue. Their character is, through the work of the Spirit, to reflect that of their Lord.

While many Christians stop at this individual ethical transformation through the Spirit, there is no hint in the NT that the presence of the Spirit is not also associated with charismata – spiritual gifts.

The term ‘spiritual gifts’ is actually quite unhelpful. It implies that there are ‘higher’ more ‘spiritual’ gifts (perhaps healing, prophecy, tongues etc) and then other more ‘ordinary’ and less ‘spiritual’ gifts (administration, hospitality, leadership).  Yet all ‘charismata‘ means is ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – they are all ‘spiritual’.  They are NOT just natural abilities, they are visible and tangible evidence of the empowering presence of God who gives good gifts to the people of God so that they may serve others within the body of Christ.

So, to come back to the question in the title of this post – what is our ‘role’ in experiencing more of God’s Spirit?

Well, at one level, the answer is none at all. A gift is a gift. The recipient does not ‘earn’ a gift, it is only received by faith. This is true of the initial reception of the Spirit – it is God’s gracious gift of life, inseparable from repentance and faith in Christ. All believers are given the Spirit to ‘drink’, all are baptised in the Spirit – it is a generous gift of God.

For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).

This is ALSO true of the gifts of the Spirit – the Spirit gives to whomsoever he wills. Again, a gift is a gift, it can only be received in faith with thanks and used well.

But, at another level, there IS a role for the Christian to grow and develop in his or her experience of the Spirit. Paul’s numerous ethical commands only make sense of the believer has real moral agency. We are not to quench the Spirit or treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thes 5:19-20). We are actively to walk and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5) – which implies that we can choose not to walk where the Spirit leads – to go our own way and act in ways opposed to the Spirit.

To walk on the path of the Spirit requires profoundly Christian way of looking at the self. By that I mean an awareness of the self’s desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

What would you put top of the list?

For me, one word comes to mind:

HUMILITY

For it is only from a place of realistic humility and that there can develop a subsequent desire for God’s Spirit to renew, cleanse and empower.

That desire will lead to a prayer like that of David – acutely aware of the depths of his own sin

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51

And a similar theme is taken up by Peter in the NT:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

As Peter says, the opposite of humility is pride.

It’s always been the case in every culture, but I think it is here that the Christian faith becomes profoundly, and perhaps increasingly, paradoxical in an age of technological know how, qualifications and expertise. A world where money, power, status, connections, networking, business plans, personality tests and the necessity of an impressive CV dominate the job market.

A culture increasingly shaped by the narcissistic world of social media.

Now, I am not against social media – this blog is a form of it. I’ve learnt lots from other blogs and enjoy processing thoughts in writing – it helps me think for one.

But it also inevitably presents opportunity to present a certain ‘face’ to the world. There is also a certain arrogance, is there not, about anyone writing for an audience? There is an assumption that ‘I’ have something to say that I think is worth listening to.

But we live in an age, unheralded in human history, where the individual has the ability to project him or herself, in an unmediated fashion, to much of the rest of the world. The subject matter on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is overwhelmingly ME.

In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and dies alone since he could not obtain the object of his love (so much for sologamy!). The Nymph Echo, looking on here, is heartbroken as his rejection.

Narcissism has been defined as

Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.

And in psychological terms as

Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.

Where admiration of the self and a craving for the admiration of others dominates,  the call of the gospel to decenter the self, follow Jesus as Lord, honestly ‘own’ (repent of) the self’s failings and deep brokenness, and walk a life of humility in the Spirit will seem to be utter ‘foolishness to the world.

If you accept the broad outline of what I am describing, what are the implications for evangelism, for discipleship and for teaching about spiritual growth and transformation in the church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

You are what you love 7: an elegant, attractive polemical post-evangelical-low-church manifesto that doesn’t persuade

9781587433801We left Jamie Smith last time delivering a rocket at contemporary American youth ministry.  His alternative to expressivist extrovert entertainment is to go back to the future – to formative practices rooted in the historic worship of the church. Namely:

  1. Enfold youth within a congregation committed to historic Christian worship and multigenerational gathering. There is no difference, young and old are formed by “the ordinary means of grace offered in the Word and at the Table” (152). He quotes Christian Smith’s 2005 study of how critical it is for discipleship of young people to have a network of non-parental adults who know and care about them.
  2. Invite young people into formative disciplines “as rhythms of the Spirit”. To see formative worship practices as the heart of discipleship.
  3. To reject entertainment for service – that unites all in a common outward focused service of others. (He rightly comments how the entertainment model, often at high level and high cost provision of services to young people – are actually often segregationist, dividing people across socio-economic, class and even race lines.

We’re not at the end of the book – and there is one more post on great stuff about teaching – but I’m going to jump ahead with some overall critique.

I find myself with complex reactions to this book.

One the one hand …

First, I’ve loved and find myself drawn to and in very substantial agreement with most of what he is saying. It is largely ‘where I am at’. He says it elegantly and persuasively. Again and again what he says rings true to life. Such as :

that discipleship is about the heart first; about the richness and freedom of the liturgy; the need for formative worship; that so much of our teaching remains abstract and rational; embedding ourselves daily in the Great Tradition of the church; being part of the church catholic; intentionally building in habits that run counter to the secular liturgies of pervasive consumerism; of the immeasurable value of multi-generational worship; of the thinness and superficiality of evangelical entertainment ministries; that we are formed primarily by habits and spirituality at home; that there is a hunger and thirst among many evangelicals I know (and I include myself) for a deeper, historically and theologically shaped spirituality than they currently experience …..

Second, he has rightly identified a very real problem. I remember posting a good while ago about the documented struggles of people to maintain spiritual growth within evangelical churches. This book is very much in that territory. Smith is right to point to a crisis in evangelical spirituality. His argument that such evangelicals desperately need to find real sustaining depth within ancient liturgical traditions is I think persuasive.

BUT on the other hand ..

Even as I have enjoyed the book, learnt lots, will continue to value much of what is in it (especially about us being affective worshippers) … I have three major problems with the book.

First, I am afraid  it is effectively sectarian in a reverse sort of way. By this I mean that Jamie Smith’s disenchantment with much of low church non-liturgical non-denominational evangelicals results in a very erudite, imaginative and heartfelt manifesto to leave that world behind. He’s effectively writing that sector of the church off.

More than once he states that if you want formative worship find a liturgical community. It is basically a call to leave low-church worship and find a community that is practicing the historic Christian liturgy and the church calendar; ideally in a building that is in keeping with ancient Christian tradition.

In other words, this is a polemical “post-evangelical-low-church” manifesto.

Within our context in Ireland it would take the form of a call to Anglicanism or Catholicism. Methodism perhaps? But Presbyterians don’t do liturgy much if at all, independent evangelicals neither, nor Baptists nor charismatics nor Pentecostals. Most in fact, rightly or wrongly, are intentionally never going to go there …

It brings to mind John Stott and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ head-to-head back in the late 1960s (I’ve read about this in books I hasten to add) … L-Jones was all for evangelical purity and leave the ‘compromised’ historic denominations behind if you want to be a ‘true’ evangelical. Stott, the Anglican, rejected this saying evangelical teaching and worship can be found within and without the historic churches. They parted ways on that one.

Smith, for me, is taking the Lloyd-Jones line in reverse. Now this is a very interesting reflection of where evangelicalism is at, but it is still a sectarian move. Just as ‘pure’ low-church worship has run away from ‘dead liturgy’, here is Smith extolling liturgy and criticising the dead-end of non-liturgical worship.

Second, the book is not attempting to build bridges, or to suggest reform of low-church worship. His “all or nothing” approach is unfortunate.

Third, there is something unconvincing about the appeal to the power of liturgy within a historically embedded community. Too much weight is put on it here. It simply has not sustained authentic Christian discipleship within many historic churches. They sadly have often been lacking life, love, passion, heart, mission, and concern for the poor. There is more at play here than Smith allows.

Theologically – and ironically for a book on love – I think he does not give the presence of love within the community in the power of the Spirit a prominent enough role. In other words, where there is the Spirit at work, love will be evident. A church may have hit-or-miss worship, flimsy teaching, haphazard discipleship etc … but if there is a deep love for God, an outward focused love for others – the poor, the wider community, love across boundaries – then there is life, mission, and an embodied witness to the presence of God

Does not love cover a multitude  of sins?

So, for all my personal attraction to the forms of Christian life that Smith espouses (I guess I’m a closet Anglican charismatic anabaptist if there can be such a thing), I’d take that flawed Christian community over one that has all the liturgical depth you like but little heart-love for God and others …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

How does spiritual change happen?

One of the bigger questions for any form of Christian ministry (preaching, teaching, youth ministry, children’s ministry, bible studies, church life in general, theological education etc) is this:

How does spiritual change happen?

My feeling (hey this is a blog post, not an academically researched article I can have feelings) is that there are all sorts of assumptions floating around this question and they are frequently found wanting. I wonder if you agree.

[And in case I get labelled as saying truth or doctrine does not matter, please note that is not what I’m saying. I happen to believe truth matters a lot – I love teaching theology after all. I am questioning how we ‘learn’ truth for spiritual transformation.]

Assumptions like:

“If people affirm Christian beliefs, that affirmation will result in a transformed life.”

In this case the person is happy to say, ‘Yes, I believe that’ when the Nicene Creed (or similar) is read. They may have no great intellectual objections to Christian faith and the existence of God, the incarnation, cross, resurrection and so on. They may happily attend church events and services for years. But apparent ‘mental assent’ to doctrines on its own is another lousy indicator of spiritual maturity, or even of spiritual life.

“If we can show the coherence, truthfulness, and reliability of the Christian Scriptures and Christian theology, people will see the truth and make the logical next step of faith and trust in God.”

Maybe and hopefully so, but this assumption dare I say is the favourite one of teachers, PhD students and the like. Simply explaining and ‘naming truth’ in a lecture, sermon or thesis does not on its own automatically guarantee spiritual transformation.

A close cousin of that last assumption is “If we teach it well, people will ‘get it’.

How many preachers & teachers would love this to be the case! For this model elevates their importance: in a hierarchy of learning they are at the top of the pyramid. Maybe long ago this was the case when ‘the minister’ (note the singular there – as if there was only one who ministered!) was one of the most educated and learned people in a community, but that ain’t true any more.

[And I wonder if the multidimensional ways that people actually learn in a globally interconnected world has de-centered the role of preachers and pastors to such a radical degree that many are profoundly disoriented – but that’s a post for another day.]

But if we pause to think about what spiritual transformation actually involves we would be much slower to jump to the assumption that ‘if we teach it well, they will get it’.

All of these assumptions, I suggest, are based on an epistemology that spiritual transformation comes via acquiring or assenting to knowledge. Knowledge is something that can be mastered and acquired. It is mediated by the expert (the pastor, the PhD student, the lecturer). It is passed downwards from expert to ‘lay’ person who receives it.

This has been called ‘mythical objectivism’ – the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower.

There are at least three problems with this sort of assumption.

1. It doesn’t work  very well.

Studies have shown this sort of objective rationally detached learning to be a myth. The big problem is an overly simplistic assumption about HOW learning is ‘translated’ from the mind of the listener to their day to day lives. ‘Magically’, the learner, having acquired ‘knowledge’, then somehow assimilates that knowledge into her thoughts, feelings, actions, daily routines, decisions, and life with God.

But learning doesn’t happen this way. At the very least, for a message to be learned deeply and integrated into everyday life, it has to be worked out something like this:

Listen to the message ___ Understand it ___ Believe it ___ Remember it ___ Commit to it  ___ Act on it daily

Mythical objectivism begins with the listening and hopes the rest will somehow follow.

2. It distorts how we teach and expect learning to happen

The onus, in this model, is all on the teacher to teach well and the rest will follow. I’m all for excellent teaching, but this model is horribly hierarchical and narrow.

3. It is individualistic or non-relational

This is the point I really want to talk about. Even that learning process listed above still fails to integrate that learning works in relationship with others. Learning is a multi-way process between people. Christian learning is learning in relationship with other Christians within a community of faith. But even more than this – Christian learning flows out of relationship with the living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here  are some big sweeping assertions (BSAs) – remember it’s a blog post after all.

BSA 1: Much of western theology has been shaped by mythical objectivism. It has been far more concerned with defining right doctrine than focusing on how that doctrine acts to transform lives.

BSA 2: The (unbiblical) disjuncture between faith and works / justification and sanctification in much Protestant theology is an example. Soteriology has tended to trump the Christian life in a way that is out of line with the Bible’s more integrated understanding.

BSA 3: The (unbiblical) marginalisation of the Holy Spirit in much Protestant theology is another example

Some of these thoughts come from reading a fascinating book of a PhD thesis by Volker Rabens called The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul

Much Protestant theology has had a static and passive view of spiritual transformation. The Spirit is given to or infused in the believer at conversion. And after that, there is fuzziness on how exactly spiritual transformation takes place.

In contrast, Rabens (who did his doctorate under Prof Max Turner in London School of Theology) argues that spiritual transformation in Paul is much more dynamic and relational.

Transformation happens

“primarily through a deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life.” (Rabens, 2010, p.21)

It is not the relationships themselves which transform, but it is the Father, Jesus, and the community which “give shape to these Spirit created relationships”

Being a Christian is to be brought by the Spirit into a new status and new spheres of relationships. It is the Spirit who transforms the believer as a result of a deeper encounter of God, Christ and fellow believers. This is well captured in 2 Corinthians 3:18

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

It is also the Spirit who empowers for spiritual transformation (Rom. 8:12-17).

This deeply relational model is a long way from the assumptions we started with  that tend to see ‘me’, ‘my knowledge’ and good teaching as the keys to spiritual transformation and which, to be blunt, marginalises the Spirit and the Christian life.

It also is true to who we are as people, created in the image of God and made for relationship with him and with each other.

None of this negates the importance of good doctrine or teaching. But it does put relationships at the heart of all spiritual transformation rather than ‘detached objective knowledge’. Relationship with the triune God; relationships with brothers and sisters in community.

A closing question: think of an experience that has been deeply transformative in your life … what happened? How did it work?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

On inappropriate sharing and spiritual progress

I don’t tend to blog too much about personal stuff – isn’t a middle-aged parent, teacher, elder, and man (!) supposed to have his life together? To have answers, not lots of questions? To be a model mature Christian, walking in faith with no great struggles or conflicts?

Occasionally in a class on the Holy Spirit discussing the Christian life or something related, I may say something like I struggle with anger, lust, greed, faithlessness, envy, worry or some such thing (the  list could keep going here but there is such a thing as inappropriate sharing).

More than once a reaction from students has been ‘Oh no, don’t tell us that. I thought when I get to your age I’d be over such things.’

Now this is somewhat amusing; amusing for its bluntness – like watching Up in the Air last night with my daughter where 23 yr old Anna Kendrick says about George Clooney, ‘Oh no I don’t think of him like that at all, he’s old‘. (no comparison with George Clooney intended!)

But it’s also revealing of an expectation that the Christian life should, or will, get easier. That at some point, we reach a plateau where we can relax a bit, dump a lot of baggage, rest from the fray, and walk easily ahead on a new level.

Now one reaction to this can be to wonder wherever did such an idea come from?

How can Christians, of all people, who are supposed to know a bit about the realities of sin and the daily need for God’s grace, ever swallow such hokum?

How, if we look at ourselves with ‘sober judgement’ and see the swirling mixture of ambitions, fears, resentments, self-reliance, judgementalism, pride etcetera, can we imagine that we will be free somehow of our very human and fallen nature in this life?

How, if we look around at the pervasive reality of fallen Christian leaders, can we be naive enough to think that those who are a bit older and more experienced are somehow less prone to spiritual failure?

Why are we so easily seduced by the idea that there is some sort of silver bullet to the Christian life? Is this longing what lies behind so much investment in some Christian circles of the necessity and possibility of a special transforming spiritual ‘event’ that will revolutionise your life for good?

But another reaction is to acknowledge that those students are right.

A mature Christian should show signs of spiritual transformation; there is something wrong about an adult who is still acting like a child.  1 Timothy 3 is pretty unambiguous about character qualifications for leadership:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

And recall that Timothy was ‘young’ – the issue is maturity in Christ not age per se. And mature believers are to set an example:

set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 1 Tim 4:12

And without making this post too much longer, the NT is pretty clear on what I think can fairly be called a high expectation of spiritual progress.

For Paul, the Christian knows the experienced reality of the Spirit. The ‘new age’ has dawned to which Christians belong – rather to the age of the flesh which is passing away (Roms 6-8).

What Jesus and the Spirit have effected, the believer is to participate in – to ‘walk by the Spirit’ and so not live to the flesh (Gal 5). Christians are to ‘put off the old man’ (Col. 3:5, 8, 9; Eph 4:22, 25-32; 5:3-5). And in such walking by the Spirit, the Law is fulfilled (Rom. 8:4).

So where does this leave me sharing my failures?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

An unexpected meeting in Monasterboice

IMG_0443The vast international readership of this blog may not quite appreciate the emotional and physical sense of well-being that impacts Irish people when that elusive yellow orb shows itself unhidden for a few days.

Last Friday was one such day – the end of a beautiful week. After a couple of day’s work up North, I was driving down the MI from Belfast to Dublin on a glorious Irish summer’s evening. Fields of rape seed would come into view, their incandescent yellow blazing incongruously alongside modest green pastureland.

As I passed the sign for Monasterboice, I felt prompted to turn off and go visit the monastic site sitting within view a half mile west of the road. It didn’t make sense. It was getting late, I had a way to go, I was tired.

I could see the broken top of the Round Tower poking up out of verdant chestnut trees, surrounded by a carpet of yellow. There was no-one around. Tourists had long since departed to their hotels. I climbed over the stone steps in the wall and wondered into the deserted graveyard.

Suddenly, now out of my comfortable isolated capsule of a car (and upbeat Springsteen anthems), I could feel the warmth of the setting sun, hear the mournful croaking calls of the rooks in the trees, smell the scented clean air, and, most of all, hear the gloriously peaceful silence of a sacred place.

The sun was setting, casting its longitudinal rays over the IMG_0482surrounding fields and onto the crucifixion scene on the extraordinarily tall and elegant 10th century West Cross. Nearby, Muiredach’s Cross (also 10th century) stood in the gathering shade; perfect, enigmatic, imposing – stories captured in stone. Also at the centre of its West face, a crucifixion panel – the cross in the middle of the cross. But the cross was not the end of the story – resurrection and future judgement are etched on the other side. Those Christian artists knew their stuff.

I had to wait about twenty minutes for shadow slowly to clear from the West Cross as the sun moved clear of the Round Tower to shine unimpeded on to its face.

Time, a short period beforehand, had seemed so compressed, urgent. Now, it didn’t seem to matter at all.IMG_0461

As I waited, sitting on the stone steps of the Round Tower, I heard a fluttering of wings, not once but twice. I could only have heard it when still and quiet. A pair of blue tits were zooming in and out of a tiny hole in the mortar of the monument, often perching on a handy gravestone with food in their mouths, before dashing straight into the crack, almost too fast to see.  Then they would poke their heads out before pelting for the cover of a yew tree.

After numerous attempts, I caught one of them on camera doing his/her emergency exit – instinctively not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to the nest within the 1000 year old tower.

I wondered back to the car, noticing as I did so, how the sun was shining a spotlight on the foot of Muiredach’s Cross. I thought of Issac Watts’ surveying of the wondrous cross – the only right response IMG_0472bbeing one of thankful worship and celebration at its foot. This was what God was calling me that evening.

I drove home in no rush, Bruce stayed on mute; I felt calmer, peaceful, more aware of the spectacular glory of the Irish countryside in full bloom and more aware of the presence of God the creator.

Those magnificent ancient crosses had continued to do what they have been doing for centuries – silently telling, to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, the story that changes all other stories. A story that puts everything in perspective and makes our self-important agendas and schedules seem, if not unimportant or trivial, somehow less about us fitting him into our lives and more about us understanding our place in God’s story.

IMG_0480I didn’t plan or ‘go looking’ for an encounter with God that Friday evening; but with a little silence, attention, reflection, listening and prayer, I believe that he came and graciously met me.

How about you ? Where has God ‘turned up’ in unexpected places at unexpected times and in unexpected ways?

The gospel of self-esteem on steroids

Here is a Student’s Creed used for real in an Irish secondary school prayer service.

Today, this new day, I am a successful student. Overnight my mind and body have produced thousands of new cells to give me the greatest advantages possible. I am born anew, revitalized, and full of energy.

I am rare and valuable; unique in all the universe. I am nature’s greatest miracle in action. I have unlimited potential. I believe in my abilities, attitudes, and goals. I am worthy of greatness because I am the most important person in my world.

Today I push myself to new limits. I use my skills and knowledge every day. I begin the day with a success and end it with a success. My goals are being reached every day and I seek them eagerly.

I act positively and happily, fully accepting myself and others. I live to the fullest by experiencing life without limits. I embrace life. I approach each class, each book, and each assignment with enthusiasm, happiness and joy. I thirst for knowledge. I look forward to reading and believing this creed each and every day.

I am a positive and successful student. I know each step I must take to continue to be that way. I am clear on my goals and see myself reaching them. I now realize my infinite potential, thus, my burden lightens. I smile and laugh. I have become the greatest student in the world.

No, really, I jest not. This was not written by Tom Marvolo Riddle in training to be “he who shall not be named”.

This is the gospel of self-esteem on steroids.

The good news is, quite simply, ‘ME’.

I am marvellous, successful, ambitious, focused; a miracle, unique, worthy of greatness, the centre of my own universe. There are no limits to my wonderfulness, joy, potential and stupendous significance (cue megalomaniacal laughter).

This is the gospel where I am my own saviour, guide and god. I am without fault, a specimen of perfect humanness (move over Jesus).

There is no Fall in this gospel. There is no need of salvation either. How can perfection be improved? I only need fully to accept myself as I am.

Neither is there any humility.

Or reality. With enough positive thinking, we all can be ‘the greatest student in the world’ – which dilutes greatness just a tad (Cue link to The Incredibles. Elastigirl tells her son, Dash, not to run so fast so he won’t stand out. We are, she says, all special. Dash replies with the immortal line, ‘Which is just another way of saying no-one is.’)

And precious little humanity. It is a ‘gospel’ that leaves no room for doubt, for failure, for struggle, and, ironically, for learning and discipleship. What have I to learn when I am already the master of my destiny, the lord of myself and my world?

All this is a stark contrast to the first preaching of the real gospel.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 finishes with the magnificent good news – not of our own infinite all round splendidness – but that Jesus the Messiah, who was crucified, is the risen living Lord.

The men of Israel’s response was not to congratulate themselves on their successful achievements and healthy self-images; their hearts were cut to the quick and they repented, put their faith in the resurrected Lord, and were baptised as a sign of dying to themselves and being raised to a new life in the Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Some musings on religious deregulation and the decline of denominations in a consumer culture

In the smooth stream of consciousness that is this blog, I want to connect the last post (on the decline of religious belief) and this one (on religion in a consumer culture).

The link might at first not be very obvious. After all isn’t the fact that many Catholics don’t believe what their church teaches primarily a problem of ecclesiastical reform of some sort? Better catechesis? Better Bible teaching? More personally ‘owned’ faith than an assumed ‘second-hand’ detached sacramentalism? More transparent and accountable leadership structures?

Maybe the answer is ‘Yes’ to all of these. But such a response misses something fundamental and pervasive and this is why a hollowing out of traditional Catholic belief in Ireland poses profound challenges to all churches. Because none the responses above really begins to engage with the contemporary culture in which Irish people live, breathe and have their being.

Here’s a proposal: the most pervasive and powerful cultural force that impacts everyday thought and everyday life is 21st century consumerism. And consumer culture is radically reshaping traditional forms of Christian belief (whether Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian or whatever) that value and are shaped by coherence, reason, systematic revelation and authority.

Vincent J Miller puts it like this,

“The most profound challenge of consumer culture is neither a heretical corruption of doctrine (not that examples of such are lacking in the religious discourse of consumer culture), nor a theology or ontology implicit in such practices. Such problems are familiar grounds for theology … For this reason it is always tempting to lure cultural problems such as consumerism into familiar territory – the seminar room, the heresy trial – where their implicit doctrines, values and anthropologies can be evaluated, found wanting and be declared anathema. The problem faced in consumer culture is of an entirely different order and thus calls for a fundamentally different response. Here theology is faced with a cultural system that shows little interest in censoring, editing, or corrupting the contents of religious belief. Any beliefs, even those most radically critical of capitalism, are embraced with enthusiasm.”  Vincent J Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, 4-5. (my emphasis)

What he’s saying here is important. A consumer culture gratefully adopts pretty well everything. Nothing cannot be commodified. And this all encompassing embrace ‘flattens’ out meaning and significance. We live in a world of bewildering diversity, but one at the same time where beliefs and values are largely detached from communities and traditions that gave them meaning. The result is a Babel of co-existing truths, where nothing is privileged, all are equal and it is up the free autonomous individual to create their own story out of all the choices passing before her eyes every day.

So what develops is a spectrum of individual ‘seekers’, each selecting their own belief systems from a vast and inclusive supermarket of ‘truth’. Some atheists and agnostics will determinedly refuse to put anything remotely ‘religious’ in their supermarket trolley of faith (they just fill it with other faith commitments). But others will be quite happy to select a wide variety from the shelves – Tibetan prayer flags, nativity sets, a statue of Buddha, a sacred heart, incense and candles, crystals, your personal guardian angel, participation in occasional religious events, books on vaguely Christian spirituality by John O’Donoghue and so on ad infinitum.

Miller rightly wants our understanding of consumer culture to get below surface critique. It is not so much that people are necessarily shallow and narcissistic – the therapeutic culture critique – but that people

“… encounter religion in commodified form, where doctrines, symbols, values, and practices are torn from their traditional, communal contexts. In such a setting it is quite easy to construct hybrid religiosities abstracted from particular communities (such syncretism has always taken place; it is just infinitely more easy to do now). Such deinstitutionalized forms of religious practice have come to prominence among a broader transformation of religion. Changes that were once understood as the inevitable decline of religious belief in the face of secularization have in recent years been reconsidered. Sociologists now speak of ‘decline of religious monopolies’ or of religious ‘deregulation’ in which religious belief and practice remains strong, but traditional religious authorities and institutions lose their power to influence both society at large and their own believers. (6-7)

There is a belief and a spirituality for everyone. This does not necessarily mean such constructed spiritualities should be dismissed as superficial. The real issue, says Miller, is that ‘believers encounter elements of tradition in an abstract, fragmented form and are trained to engage them as passive consumers.’

So to get back to the poll on contemporary Catholic beliefs in Ireland:

They represent not so much a decline of religious belief, but a free-market deregulation of traditional Catholic faith and practice. Each religious consumer weaving together a sort of religious patchwork-quilt made up of fragmented pieces of traditional Catholicism and various other belief systems; each quilt forming a unique pattern of individually chosen beliefs and attitudes.

And it ain’t only the Catholics who are busy weaving multi-coloured quilts. All denominations face a crisis of authority and of fragmentation. It’s no surprise that membership is generally in freefall. Miller has things to say later in his book about ‘countering the commodification of religion’ which I’ll post on.

What are some implications of religious deregulation for Christians? Here are some sketchy ideas that come to mind as I write this post – please feel welcome to add your own:

This is not all a ‘bad thing’. In Christendom Irish style, religious institutionalism was pretty stifling. Faith was frequently a dead thing. ‘Deregulation’ opens up stories of personal faith and discussion and debate over beliefs. Like Paul in Athens, this gives space to connect with the religious supermarket and go to the story of Jesus.

Nothing can be assumed anymore in terms of what people believe. And that includes evangelical ‘church going’ people. Each person’s story needs to be heard and listened to.

– Linked to the above point, if nothing can be assumed, then there is a deep need for some form of catechesis, for learning and teaching the story of the gospel and how it calls each Christian radically to reshape their lives around that story.

Denominations face particularly profound challenges in being out-of-step culturally with their bureaucracy, hierarchicalism, slow-footedness, and emphasis on institutional authority structures. How able will they be in adapting to more flexible structures and becoming more fleet-footed?

– Christians have always faced the challenge to negotiate their culture without succumbing to syncretism; to be in the world but not of it. Today perhaps the biggest challenge of all is how to ‘tell the gospel’ as good news without turning it into one more lifestyle choice that will meet the individual need of the consumer (to be happy or whatever). Such ‘consumerist faith’ does not quite fit with the call of Jesus to take up the cross and die to the self!

Comments, as ever, welcome.   

Solitude, loneliness and terminal distraction

A story with a sting in the tail from the Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Third Way in an article on Solitude, loneliness and terminal distraction by Simon Parke.

The psychologist Carl Jung told a story of a young priest who came to see him. The man of God was restless, feeling the power was going out of his ministry. Jung heard him out and recommended that he spent one evening a week by himself. The priest agreed to this plan and left.

When he returned the following week, Jung asked him how his evening alone had gone. The priest said it went fine. He’d watched TV and enjoyed it. Jung pointed out to the priest that he was supposed to spend the evening alone, without the TV for company. He encouraged him to try the same thing again next week. The priest agreed and left.

When he returned the following week, Jung asked him how it had gone. The priest said it went fine. He’d read a book all evening and enjoyed it. Jung pointed out that he was supposed to spend the evening alone, without the company of a book. The priest became exasperated. How could he possibly spend the evening just with himself?

‘Well if you don’t want to spend the evening with yourself,’ observed Jung, ‘are you surprised that others don’t want to spend time with you?’

Why are we afraid of solitude?

Why does everyone reach for their mobile phone if they have to wait more than 2 minutes for a train? And once on the train, reach for the free newspaper to fill in the time until arrival? From what do we need such constant distraction?

What’s the difference between solitude and loneliness?

Why is so little made in our culture of the joy and creativity and refreshing nature of solitude?

Do you feel like a machine – relentlessly active, ceaselessly ‘productive’ and always on standby, never switched off?

Do you feel overwhelmed by what Parke calls the ‘restless negativity’ of the mass media that invades your inner self?

I’m going to try to have a time of solitude over the Christmas break. Maybe you can ‘join’ me and we can compare notes here afterwards!

Total Church 11: evangelical spirituality – an oxymoron?

Continuing discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

Chapter 9 is on Spirituality

Work has been a bit manic lately. Now there are few things more yawn inducing than moaning about how busy you are.  And there can be something especially irritating about someone involved in ‘Christian ministry’ seeming to assume ‘Christian busyness’ is somehow of a different, higher, order than the busy pressurised daily lives most people live trying to earn a living and a 1001 other things.

Anyway, that wee rant out of the way, the reason I mention busyness is that Chirstian spirituality needs to be about following Jesus in everyday life – and our lives tend, for good or ill, to be busy. Spirituality therefore is not just for when we can retreat or get away from everyday life – to escape to the quietness of solitude or whatever …..

Of course there is a place for this – but Chester and Timmis have a go here at a sort of Christian elitism; an advanced spirituality of silence, contemplation and solitude that is actually at odds with what they call a biblical spirituality. Namely, reading and meditating on God’s Word; participation in community; and involves speaking, praying, engaging with others in real life.

This is the sort of spirituality that evolves from they dual thrust of this book – a gospel word and gospel community. According to the authors it stands in tension and even opposition with the more meditative type of spirituality. In this they are actually quite bullish about an evangelical spirituality of activism, mission, Bible study, preaching, pastoral care and so on. Activism is of course one of David Bebbington’s quadrilatoral marks of evangelicalism.

Rather they say, we don’t need ‘more’ than the gospel, more than Jesus and all the spiritual riches he gives us. We don’t need ‘more advanced’ levels of discipleship than following Jesus daily, in community and in service. [And if I have a criticism here it is their virtual silence on the Holy Spirit – they need to make much more space for integrating the Spirit into a theology of Christian spirituality].

The authors’ view in this chapter goes straight against a pretty wide consensus that evangelicals are pretty bad at the ‘inner spiritual life’ and have much to learn from more ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ traditions that have a place for silence, contemplation and prayer.

What do you think? Do you equate ‘spirituality’ with ‘special experiences’ of some sort? Experiences that are to be sought out, tend to be rare, and take you to a deeper communion with God? Or is ‘spirituality’ better understood as making that decision not to say something negative about someone behind their back?

Now I’m framing this as an either / or choice which is unreal. It’s hit me afresh looking at Mark each week just how ‘manic’ the scenes are around Jesus and how busy with ministry he was. Yet there is a response of retreat, prayer, space before re-engagement. But I think the general question stands – how would you describe what ‘spirituality’ is?

And another question comes to mind. Does far too much talk of Christian spirituality tend to assume there is a ‘right’ model to be found that will somehow ‘unlock’ the key to spirituality?

It’s taken me a long time to feel free of that straitjacket. Silence, contemplation and solitude have never worked too well for me (but sometimes they’ve been helpful). Neither has the evangelical ‘quiet time’. So I feel an affintiy with the authors on this one – I tend to work out spirituality as I live life – sometimes alone reading Scripture, reading other Christians, reflecting on issues in writing, praying with others and alone, discussing with others, speaking and teaching, being active in a small community, being a father and husband etc …

The problem with these is the assumption that there is a ‘one size fits all’ form of spirituality. Yet we all have different personalities, are in different contexts, live in different cultures, have been formed by different experiences and face different challenges.

So what does your form of spirituality look like? How has it changed and developed over the years?