Skip to comments.The Danger of Pseudo-Transformation vs. Authentic Christian Spirituality
Posted on 01/11/2005 9:09:32 AM PST by Choose Ye This Day
'Spirituality' wrongly understood or pursued is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God. --Dallas Willard.
Most of us want to be changed, to become more like Christ. But is it happening? According to a Gallup poll, nine of ten Americans say they pray daily, and 84 million Americans almost a third of the population say they have made a personal commitment to Christ as Savior. But as William Iverson writes, "A pound of meat would surely be affected by a quarter pound of salt. If this is real Christianity, the 'salt of the earth,' where is the effect of which Jesus spoke?" Because by and large we do not expect people to experience ongoing transformation, we are not led to question whether perhaps the standard prescriptions for spiritual growth being given in the church are truly adequate to lead people into a transformed way of life.
The great danger that arises when we dont experience authentic transformation is that we will settle for what might be called pseudo-transformation. We know that as Christians we are called to "come out and be separate," that our faith and spiritual commitment should make us different somehow. But if we are not marked by greater and greater amounts of love and joy, we will inevitably look for substitute ways of distinguishing ourselves from those who are not Christians. This deep pattern is almost inescapable for religious people: If we do not become changed from the inside out we will be tempted to find external methods to satisfy our need to feel that we're different from those outside the faith. If we cannot be transformed, we will settle for being informed or conformed.
BOUNDARY MARKER SPIRITUALITY
James Dunn notes that in the first century A.D. a vast amount of rabbinic writing focused on circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath keeping. This seems odd, because no devout rabbi would have said these matters were at the heart of the law. They knew its core: "Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." So why the focus on these three practices?
The answer involves what might be called "identity" or "boundary markers." Groups have a tendency to be exclusive. Insiders want to separate themselves from outsiders. So they adopt boundary markers. These are highly visible, relatively superficial practices--matters of vocabulary or dress or style--whose purpose is to distinguish between those inside a group and those who are outside.
For example, imagine that you were driving through the Haight Asbury district of San Francisco in the nineteen sixties. If you came to a stoplight and a Volkswagen van pulled up next to you, plastered with peace signs and "Make Love Not War" bumper stickers and driven by a long haired, tie dyed, granny glasses wearer, you would have known you were driving next to a hippie. If it were the nineteen eighties and you were to see a BMW with a driver wearing Gucci shoes, a Rolex watch, and moussed hair so and nibbling on brie, you would know you were driving next to a yuppie. Bikers, too, are recognizable by their preference in fashion color (black), fabric (leather), skin ornamentation (tattoo), and beverage of choice ("great taste, less filling"). Farmers, doctors, politicians, and rock stars all have their own ways of distinguishing who is in their fraternity or sorority.
With this in mind, the importance of circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath keeping in the first century becomes clear. These were the boundary markers; the highly visible, relatively superficial practices that allowed people to distinguish who was inside and who was outside the family of God. What is worse, the insiders become proud and judgmental toward outsiders. They practiced what might be called a "boundary oriented approach" to spiritual life: Just look at people and you will know who are the sheep and who are the goats. This is pseudo transformation.
SPIRITUAL LIFE DEFINED BY ITS CENTER
With Jesus it was not so, Jesus brought a message that spoke to the deepest longings of the human heart, to become not simply conformed to a religious subculture but transformed into "new creatures." Instead of focusing on the boundaries, Jesus focused on the center, the heart of spiritual life. When asked to identify what the law is about, Jesus' response was simply "Love God, love people." He named a fundamentally different way of identifying who are the children of God: "Do they love God, and do they love the people who mean so much to him?
Jesus' early followers understood this clearly. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about the significance of having many spiritual "markers" but lacking the center: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." John put it even more bluntly: "Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love."
This is why the religious leaders of Jesus' day so often fought with him about circumcision, dietary laws, and the Sabbath. Jesus was not just disagreeing with them on how to interpret the Law. He was threatening their very understanding of themselves as the people of God.
BOUNDARY MARKERS IN OUR DAY
The search for identity markers did not die out in the first century. The church I grew up in was a fine church, and I am deeply in its debt, but we also had our own set of markers there. The senior pastor could have been consumed with pride or resentment, but as long as his preaching was orthodox and the church was growing, his job would probably not be in jeopardy. But if some Sunday morning he had been smoking a cigarette while greeting people after the service, he would not have been around for the evening service. Why? No one at the church would have said that smoking a single Camel was a worse sin than a life consumed by pride and resentment. But for us, cigarette smoking became an identity marker. It was one of the ways we were able to tell the sheep from the goats.
That is why the marker held an emotional charge far beyond its theological significance. For the pastor to smoke a cigarette would have caused a scandal, not because we were so naive that we thought it an evil thing to do, but because it would have violated an unspoken boundary marker. It would have threatened our sense of identity.
Of course, many beliefs and values will inevitably divide those who choose to follow Christ from those who don't. Jesus himself said he came not "to bring peace, but a sword." But what makes something a boundary marker is its being seized upon by the group as an opportunity to reinforce a false sense of superiority, fed by the intent to exclude others.
Religious boundary markers change from generation to generation. The Christian college I attended in the late seventies still had in effect a rule against the performance of jazz music on campus, a rule instituted in the early twentieth century. Fifty years later, no one was willing to rescind it for fear of appearing to compromise essential beliefs. The irony is that students were perfectly free to listen to punk rock or heavy metal--but Louis Armstrong was off limits. On Sundays the tennis courts were locked up, but for some reason the volleyball court was left accessible. As a tennis player, I always maintained that volleyball was the more worldly of the two sports, as it was more closely associated with California and was often played on the beach.
If you give it much thought, whether your religious background is liberal or conservative, Protestant or Catholic, you can probably come up with your own set of identity markers.
A boundary oriented approach to spirituality focuses on people's position: Are you inside or outside the group? A great deal of energy is spent clarifying what counts as a boundary marker.
But Jesus consistently focused on people's center: Are they oriented and moving toward the center of spiritual life (love of God and people), or are they moving away from it? This is why he shocked people by saying that many religious leaders--who observed all the recognized boundary markers--were in fact outside the kingdom of God. They were increasingly dead to love. And this is why Jesus could say that "the tax collectors and the prostitutes" who were a million miles away from the religious subculture, but who had turned, converted, and oriented themselves toward God and love, were already in the kingdom.
This was the great irony of his day: The "righteous" were more damaged by their righteousness than the sinners were by their sin.
We often look only on the outward appearances; Christ cares about our inner vessel. To truly change, we have to change inside, and strive to become more like Him.
I just thought I'd put it here for discussion.
I agree with you. I joined a parish for it's traditional worship, but they are defining themselves only by this tradition and keep well away from the community. I have to be in the community since that's where the problems are that have to be dealt with day-to-day.
They seem to feel that only by isolating themselves, can they stay within these spiritual boundaries safely.
In all fairness, this is my impression, and while they truly are very good people, I'm used to working in ditches. I need the spiritual recharge the parish offers every week so that I can work in ditches.
Perhaps there is a need for some to remain within the boundaries set and offer the spiritual support for those who must go outside. There is probably room for both views in the Church.
Brilliant. I think you have an excellent point.
Thank you for these words. I have been praying for a way to verbally express this very idea, and lo and behold, God answed me through you and James Dunn.
As always the Bible has the answer: Romans 12 MSG: 2. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Wow! I am completely impressed by your recall! I read the Screwtape Letters a couple of times and the last time was only a couple of years ago - I would never have remembered this particular exchange - which is perfect. C. S. Lewis was so gifted.
That's a great quote. We sometimes get so caught up in the 'busy work' of our denomination, that we forget about drawing closer to Christ and serving Him.
Also, there's a new book similar to the Screwtape Letters... saw it reviewed in January's edition of Crisis... sounds good.
Is this the PBS program? I'll have to check it out. (Streaming video and transcript available here):