In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren ponders the question of what the church’s “one mission, message, and quest” should be. In other words, here in our fragmented, postmodern world, where the church has splintered into so many different theological, ecclesial and cultural forms, what can Christians rally around as a unifying message to inspire the community of faith as we move into the third millennium? McLaren goes on: “What one great danger do people need to be saved from, and, more positively, what one great purpose do they need to be saved for?” And then he provides his answer:
Of many possible answers, there is one to which I am continually drawn, embarrassingly obvious and simple to understand, but also embarrassingly challenging to do: the church exists to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls. (p. 164)
Really nothing radical here. McLaren is just pointing out that the heart of Christianity is the two great commandments:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
So simple. So obvious. And yet, so difficult. Those of us who are engaged in the contemplative practices: silent prayer, meditation, contemplation, the Daily Office, Lectio Divina, working with a spiritual director, making retreats and quiet days, participation in a third order or oblate community, engaging in the “higher consciousness” projects of thinkers like Ken Wilber or Jim Marion, studying the writings of the great mystics and contemplatives, and/or interfaith spiritual practices such as Shambhala Training, Christian yoga, Christian zen, or so forth — we need to keep asking ourselves, over and over again: is all this “stuff” that we are doing, A) helping us love God better; B) helping us to love our neighbors better, C) helping to love ourselves in healthy ways better; and D) helping us to become, more and more, people of Christlike love? If we cannot enthusiastically, honestly, and simply say “yes” in response to all four of these questions, then something is out of joint. You can do all the contemplation in the world, but if it isn’t making you a more loving person, it’s a waste of time.
Of course, I believe that the contemplative practices do slowly but inexorably form us into “people of Christlike love.” That’s the whole point: not gaining higher levels of consciousness, or attaining secret knowledge (gnosis), or experiencing mind-blowing union with God, or even feeling as if our sins have been washed away. Those are all worthy goals in themselves, and the dedicated contemplative will reap benefits in each of these ways. But all these “goals” are secondary, to a practice that ultimately has no “goals” at all: for contemplation is not meant to make us into something different, but rather to call us back to who we really are to begin with: children of God, ambassadors of love. By keeping that essential goal front and center, all the other benefits of contemplative practice will assume their proper perspective.
And I suppose it must be said that if a person is humbly working on growing in Christlike love without doing any of the contemplative exercises, than he or she is further along on the mystical path than someone who meditates flawlessly, practices lectio daily, etc. etc. but whose heart remains trapped in anger and fear.
Keep the mission alive: walk with wisdom — live in love.