One of the most challenging things about the spiritual life is progression. How do we change? What’s the key to transformation? How do we make and embrace rhythms that will foster the kind of growth we desire (or at least claim to desire). This is a problem for those who explicitly identify as religious and count themselves as members of religious communities and institutions. It’s also a problem for those who would identify as spiritual but not religious. Whether it’s body image and weight issues, general health, overcoming co-dependent tendencies or dealing with deleterious habits, the problem is the same: how do I embrace what I know is good for me, but hard, without being consumed by resentment or just becoming plain exhausted?
Rules tend to not work very well. The problem is that the deepest transformations in our lives come from the inside out, not the other way around. We are creatures of desire and unless we desire the thing that is good for us we’re not likely to pursue it in any deep sustained fashion. You can make a law that prohibits theft or embezzlement, and it might stop someone from stealing, but the avarice or sense of entitlement that create the motivation to steal in the first place remain impervious to legislation. Hence Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord command what you will and give me the grace to will what you command.”
This passage in Frank Lake’s Clinincal Theology is instructive here:
When a man becomes related to the law by effort, instead of to the Lawgiver by affiance, related to the ethical demand but trying to satisfy it, instead of to God by trusting the satisfaction of Christ, related to the standards by discipline instead of to the Person by discipleship, he frequently ends up in depression. This is because the law of the Spirit of Life is not to be found in the law of self-effort, self-discipline, or will-power. The spirit of joy is the fruit of a life in loving relationships on the human level, and ultimately with Christ Jesus on the divine. In His concern for the truth of eternity, the Holy Spirit must withdraw Himself and His endowments from the man whose life is centered in regulations, especially religious regulations. Depression, and aridity as one of its cardinal symptoms, is a direct effect of disobedience to God’s law of life through-interpersonal-contact with His creatures.
Robe Bell says he isn’t interested in controversies over traditional and long held conceptions, but in the possibility of regaining the meaning, mystery, love, and hope that go with God.
But isn’t that like saying as a radical interventionist, “I’m not concerned with your family history, with the language, patterns and symbols that have landed the family here. I’m concerned with moving the family forward today!”
The thing that bonds liberals and evangelicals tighter than Jacob and Esau in the womb is a loathing of the tradition.
There is a reason self-awareness escapes us all. True moments of insight into ourselves, normally the cloud of unknowing, are rare. We want to get a sense of the whole that we are, not to be confused with who we hope to be or who we try to convince ourselves we are. But the prerequisite of such insight is a fundamental posture of gratitude, which can only come as a result of an overpowering experience of acceptance that reverberates so deeply in our proverbial bones that the calcified deposits and shards that grind and cut us in our most sensitive spots are shaken loose and made manifest before us. In the absence of this kind of acceptance, we’re constrained to fragmentation, disintegration, covering up, deceiving and hiding, with some occasional successful attempts at diversion thrown in, rare as they may be. It all adds up to continual exasperation, followed by dreaded expiration.
So a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God, a knows all things, can do all things, undertakes all things that are to be done, and does everything cheerfully and freely; not that he may gather many merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God thereby, and he serves God purely for nothing, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or doubts, hunts and worries in what way he may do enough and with many works move God.
At least theologically, there are two effective divisions between American Christians, One is between those for whom the gospel is itself the norm of all truth and the person of Christ therefore the founding metaphysical fact, and those for whom some other agenda or “theory” is the overriding norm. The other is between those who use “justification by faith” — or in the especially aggravated case of Lutherans, the “law and gospel” distinction — to fund their antinomianism, and those appalled by this. The language in which I have described the alternatives will doubtless betray on which side of each division I find myself.
Before delineating the various aspects of the gnostic type, it should be understood that the one primary ingredient for the birth of gnosticism is a particular mood. The mood is one of despair. The gnostic solution can be satisfying only to those who have no tangible or rational hope. Because a certain number of people at every stage of history are caught up in despair, gnosticism of one sort or other always has a following. Throughout Christian history, certain individuals and small groups have been drawn toward the gnostic way. That historical reality is not terribly alarming; every great religion has variations on the theme. When, however, we come to a period like that of the first four centuries of the Church, when the gnostic way almost prevailed, how can we speak of a mood? Can an entire culture be in despair? And if so, why?
“The religion of man is always conditioned absolutely by the way in which the starry heaven above and the moral law within have spoken to the individual. It is, therefore, conditioned by nature and climate, by blood and soil, by the economic, cultural, political, in short, the historical circumstances in which he lives. It will be an element in the habit or custom with which, quite apart from the question of truth and certainty, or rather at the very lowest and most rudimentary stages of his inquiry into it, he compounds with the terms of existence imposed upon him. But the terms of existence, and therefore custom, are variable. Nature and climate, or the understanding and technique with which he masters them, may change. Nations and individuals may move. Races may mix. Historical relationships as a whole are found to be in perhaps a slow or a swift but at any rate a continual state of flux. And that means that religions are continually faced with the choice: either to go with the times, to change as the times change, and in that way relentlessly to deny themselves any claim to truth and certainty; or else to be behind the times, to stick to their once-won forms of doctrine, rite and community and therefore relentlessly to grow old and obsolete and fossilised; or finally, to try to do both together, to be a little liberal and a little conservative, and therefore with the advantages of both options, to have to take over their twofold disadvantages as well. That is why religions are always fighting for their lives. That is why they are always acutely or chronically sick. There has probably never been a religion which in its fateful relation to the times, i.e., to change in man (or rather in its own liberalism or conservatism or in both at once) has not been secretly or openly sick. And it is a familiar fact that religions do actually die of this sickness, i.e., of an utter lack of fresh believers and adherents. They cease to exist except as historical quantities. The link between religion and religious man in his variableness is the weakness of all religions.”