Category Archives: Christian living

Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?

Base of a human brain, from Vesalius' Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.
Base of a human brain, from Vesalius’ Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.

Human beings are thinking creatures.  To be sure, we are embodied, and our flesh-and-blood living matters, too.  But while our capacity to think is a quality that separates us from the beasts, this too often goes unused.  This is tragic for all people, but especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Christian faith is not about the abandonment of critical thought but about its enlivening, about its highest end.  N.T. Wright argues that the Church – the body of people, alongside Israel, called to be and to bear God’s message to the world – cannot be herself without thinking:

“If the ekklesia of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of of the mind’, to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people, to understand who this God is, who this Messiah jesus is, who this strange powerful spirit is, and what it means to be, and to live as, the renewed people of God, the renewed humanity.  This is a worldview, in other words, which will only function if it is held by humans with transformed minds, and who use those transformed minds constantly to wrestle with the biggest questions of all, those of God and the world.” (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 567)

If you spend too much time in the wrong internet haunts, you quickly get the impression that Christians today have no capacity for or interest in critical thinking.  Oh, to be sure, there are a lot of rhetorical grenades tossed about, many blogs and articles written, read, and shared, but most of this takes place within very defined and uninteresting echo chambers.  The conservatives quote Witherington, Piper, or Al Mohler, and the progressives quote Borg, McLaren, or Rachel Held Evans and likely post 15 articles from HuffPo Religion, AKA theology’s Mos Eisley.  It’s all quite dull, really.

Christianity cannot be sustained absent renewed minds that come about by prayer through the gift of the Spirit.  This is a non-negotiable part of our faith, though many seem to want to make it option  (just look at my previous post’s comment section).

noll scandalI suggest the church needs thought police.  Not, mind you, to police what is thought – but simply that thought occurs at all.  While I don’t count myself a progressive or conservative Christian, I can appreciate such Christians when they engage their own and others’ faith traditions with depth and sincerity.  Unfortunately, too much of our conversation in the church turns on surface-level ranting that makes MSNBC and Fox News look academic.  Two decades ago, Mark Noll charged that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was that there wasn’t much of one.  Unfortunately, rather than rising above that, many progressive evangelicals and other populist Christian voices have continued this trend.

As Wright notes, there is no church without renewed minds marked by Spirit-imbued intellectual effort.  There is much more, of course, to being God’s people.  But when lived out truly, our vocation to the church will always include, treasure, and encourage the life of the mind.

Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

Henri Nouwen on Living Where God Is

From The Inner Voice of Love:

“To live a disciplined life is to live in such a way that you want only to be where God is with you.  The more deeply you live your spiritual life, the easier it will be to discern the difference between living with God and living without God, and the easier it will be to move away from the places where God is no longer with you. 

The great challenge here is faithfulness, which must be lived in the choices of every moment. When your eating, drinking, working, playing, speaking, or writing is no longer for the glory of God, you should stop it immediately, because when you no longer live for the glory of God, you begin living for your own glory. Then you separate yourself from God and do yourself harm.

Your main question should always be whether something is lived with or without God. You have your own inner knowledge to answer that question. Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God.  These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them. But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart and find rest there.” (pp. 23-24)

Eugene Peterson on Growth, Change, and Fads

Sunday I preached on Christian maturity and holiness, playing off of Colossians 1:28:

“It is him whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

In my preparation I came across an excellent quote from Eugene Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall, a collection of reflections on spirituality from the life of David.  He talks wisely about the difference between growth and change, and consequently the value of both the old and the new:

“When we grow, in contrast to merely change, we venture into new territory and include more people in our in our lives – serve more and love more.  Our culture is filled with change; it’s poor in growth.  New things, models, developments, opportunities are announced, breathlessly, every hour.  But instead of becoming ingredients in a long and wise growth, they simply replace.  The previous is discarded and the immediate stuck in – until, bored by the novelty, we run after the next fad.  Men and women drawn always to the new never grow up.  God’s way is growth, not change…David at thirty-seven was more than he was at seventeen – more praise, saner counsel, deeper love.  More himself. More his God-given and God-glorifying humanity.  A longer stride, a larger embrace.” (136)

Peterson incisively names one of the besetting tragedies of our day: the idolatry of novelty.  This is true in fashion and entertainment, but also in the world of business and the church.  We hop from one thing to the next – like a frog jumping from one lily pad to the other – staying “interested,” but never growing.  Getting stimulation, but never going deep.

But God’s way is growth.  Our goal as the church is the same as was Paul’s – to present people, not just who have been “saved” or who “got Jesus” one day in the 70’s – but who are “mature” in Christ, who have spent their days following Jesus going deeper and growing more in discipleship.  These are not Sunday Christians easily imbibing just enough of the gospel so that they can remain apathetic, but engaged Jesus people who have made their lives a continual and growing sacrifice of worship to their Lord.

As John C. Maxwell has said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”