Losing My Religion (At Least That’s the Plan)

On the spiritual journey, the message is always to you. The message is always telling you to change. Now, what most religious people do is they use religion to try to change other people. It’s always someone else that needs changing. No. Stop it. Once and for all. Whatever happens in your life is a message to you. It’s telling you something about you. Oh, the ego wants to avoid that. So we look for something out there to change. Somebody not like me is always the problem. (Adapted slightly from a lecture “Men and Grief” by Richard Rohr)

Rohr puts his finger on a vital point that turned a light on for me several years ago. I feel his observation can be the basis for our own spiritual inventories.

Think of the church you attend. Do your pastor’s sermons focus week after week on what is wrong with those people “out there” or does your pastor challenge you to look at yourself and move toward greater wisdom and maturity?

Are your Facebook friends–those in the habit of posting updates with religious content–largely casting judgment on others or encouraging others in their journeys onward and upward?

Do your seminary professors look down upon other theological traditions and train you to demolish their systems, or are they leading you toward greater humility along with depth of understanding in preparing you for Christlike leadership in the church?

When you have a minute, a few moments of quiet, take stock of the Christians you hang around with.

Are they religious, as Rohr defines them?

Do they think they have arrived and others are simply in need of correction?

Is the problem always someone else who is not like them?

If your answers is yes, you are not in a healthy Christian community.

Let’s nip something in the bud, shall we. I am not saying that Christians should always agree, never call others into account, or never say someone is just plain wrong. I am talking about whether the dominant message you hear is about what’s wrong with “them” or whether it is about you and your growth in humble, loving, Christlikeness.

To anticipate another objection: no, focusing on yourself in the spiritual life is not narcissistic. Actually, passing judgment on others because you feel you are right and have little to learn from others is about as narcissistic as you can get. Focusing on one’s own spiritual journey takes tremendous courage and humility, because what we find deep down in our souls is often quite ugly and unnerving.

This is what Rohr means by the ego wanting to avoid spiritual introspection. “Ego,” as Rohr and others use the term, refers to that part of ourselves that wants to project a “self” to the world that appears intact, together, in control, when in fact that self is actually a false self–a self that is superficial, inauthentic, a coping mechanism, a show.

The biblical word for all this is hypocrisy, which is the core complaint Jesus had againt the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

So, look around you. What does your Christian community look like?

Does it nurture the false self, which is sin, or the true self, which is the self that grows once we lay down our false sense of control and submit our selves to a wise and loving God?

Does it present itself to the world as the crowing moment in the history of Christ’s Church, where all others are in need of their tutelage, or does it model for you Christlike humility and love?

And when you are done doing that, turn your gaze on yourself. You have to, you know, or this whole exercise is one big contradiction.

Are you in the habit of thinking of your own views on theology as the one sure thing in your life that does not have to move and all others as objects to benefit from your insight?

When you come to disagree with others on theological matters, is your first instinct to defend your views because you “know” the the problem is with “them?”

Do you think of yourself as on the inside and judge others by how much like you they are?

I have made some hard decision in my life–professionally and ecclesiastically–by asking myself these sorts of questions. I do not want to be around religion. I want to lose my religion.

But I also learned, and not always the easy way, that my own spiritual journey is stalled at the gate if I don’t scrutinize my own ego, if I don’t lose my religion.

Losing one’s religion is hard.

Richard Rohr blogs at “Unpacking Paradoxes” and is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. He is the author of many books including, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics SeeAdam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, and On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men.

 

This post first appeared in June, 2012.

  • Ed Babinski

    The real challenges take place inside each of us, whenever we think about things, or as Oscar Wilde once put it, “It’s so easy to convert others, but oh so difficult to convert oneself.”

  • http://facebook.com/marshall.peace Marshall

    Hate to mention it because I think the message here is right on, but the post uses “you” and “your” 52 times. Possibly the message could be said differently?

  • Craig Higgins

    Right on the money!

  • Tex Taylor

    I’ve never understood why authors believe it’s an either or. If a relationship with Christ is healthy and one mature in his or her faith, then one can both correctly discern his or heart and the world too. To me, you come very close to presenting a false dichotomy.

    Give me a church that is not afraid to point to the sins of the world. I am completely convinced the fathers of my faith – those first century Christians – would be considered radical and zealots by today’s watered down, fickle bunch of counterfeit Christianity. Anybody can mouth platitudes they are a sinner. It takes courage to confront a sinful world and be vocal about it.

    Christians should be actively engaged in this world. And that includes calling sin, sin – both of self and of others.

    • peteenns

      Tex,

      I see your point, and I even allude to this scenario briefly in my post. However, taking the log out of one’s own eye so that one can see the speck in another’s eye more clearly is not “fickle” or “counterfeit Christianity.” It is maturity. Also, it takes no courage whatsoever to “confront a sinful world.” Some people love doing it. They get a buzz. I remember John Stott speaking about 10-15 years ago. He said that sometimes the church has to fight–but Christians should hate it. The problem, he said, is that too many Christians in our culture run to it for deeply dysfunctional reasons. He called that tendency “pathological” and he is right. Maybe it would be worth your while to consider Rohr’s observation. You may not agree, but it is born out of tremendous experience.

      • Andrew

        “It takes no courage whatsoever to confront a sinful world.” Tell that to Saint Paul as he was being stoned for preaching the Gospel. People nowadays might not resort to that (although in the Middle East and else where Christians are being martyred for their faith on a daily basis), but they can still throw a lot at you. It takes tremendous courage to be able to stand strong on moral issues and present the Truth. You see, there is not a truth for me, and another truth for you. There is one Truth. Jesus is the Way, THE Truth, and the Light. And you took that quote from Jesus about the log in your eye and have twisted it to mean that you can never correct anyone. Really. I have to be perfect before I can tell someone they are living in sin? I am sorry, but that is not going to happen. I live my life to grow closer to Jesus Christ and His Church and to show others to Him. I absolutely have the right to correct others. Now, I absolutely must do it in a loving way. And I also must be prepared for others to correct me. I need it. I cannot always see the log in my eye, and I need my brothers and sisters in the faith to help me, while I in turn help them.
        I challenge you to grow strong in your witness. You do not have to fight. Jesus never lifted a finger, but you can sure bet he didn’t back down from anyone who attempted to rebuke him. I completely agree with you that we must be introspective and continue to work on our relationship with Christ, but we are also called to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16). Do not put a lamp shade on your light. We cannot be light if we do not stand up to sin.

        • peteenns

          Andrew, I think you have misunderstood my previous comment somewhat significantly. See also my post. I am not saying what you say I am saying.

  • Ryan

    I had not come across Richard Rohr before, so I googled him. I have to confess that he really gets my Spidey Sense tingling. Consider e.g. this quotation of his:
    “‘Incarnation is already redemption,’ and you do not need any blood sacrifice to display God’s commitment to humanity. Once God says yes to flesh, then flesh is no longer bad but the very ‘hiding and revealing’ place of God.”

    There are other associations of his I find worrying. Otherwise, I do find the post helpful.

    • peteenns

      Don’t pick a few quotes, Ryan. The man has done a lot of good, even if you may not agree with everything he says (who does?). We would not want to be judged by others by the same standard.

      • Ryan

        Nelson Mandela has done a lot of good. The Dalai Lama has done a lot of good. I don’t know if their words are worth staking my life on.

        Some more quote mining, if you’ll indulge me: we must “find public ways to recognize, honor, and name the feminine nature of God….”. Really?? As if there aren’t enough subtleties dealing with actual revealed Scripture, we must throw something entirely made up into the mix?

        “Evil is not overcome by attack or even avoidance, but by union at a higher level. It is overcome not by fight or flight, but rather by “fusion”!”
        “Fusion”? Really?? Not “transformation”?
        This is a very common theme of his. He states it repeatedly, in various ways. I don’t get the feeling of a “sinner saved by grace”, but rather a sinner making an extremely subtle and erudite truce with sin.

        I won’t explore further the whole enneagram and running around the desert with a group of naked young men. I find this at best tacky and lacking credibility.

        • peteenns

          Isn’t there feminine imagery in the Bible?! And cant fusion be a metaphor for transformation and union with Christ? No thinker is without flaws, but I hope you are not just mining for juicy quotes.

          • Ryan

            I’m not.
            I’m genuinely concerned that he seems to be of the school that’s proclaiming that Christ’s work was basically a cosmic pantomime to demonstrate to us how special we are and we just haven’t grokked it, yet.
            Whatever the Gospel is, THAT it is not.

          • peteenns

            But we ARE “special” aren’t we? Special enough for God to love us intimately? There’s plenty of sin talk with Rohr, by the way. He just uses different language.

          • Ryan

            Who’s the “we”? (that nasty, unsophisticated tribal language rears its ugly head…)

            We are special and intimately desirable inasmuch as we are clothed in blood bought wedding garments. Outside of those, we are common whores. But I do know that the “bloody” bit has become rather passé.

            One final quote and I think it’s quite self-explanatory:
            “Jesus was not necessary, and he was solving no problems. There was no problem to be solved; he was simply for Christians, the phrase from Colossians being he was the image of the invisible God. He was the icon who brought us into the lovability and generosity of God. Quite possibly that is why the Cross became that deepest icon because humanity needed an image that God was on our side, that God was given to us, that God was for us and not against, and benevolently involved with the universe: that’s of course supposed to be the transformative meaning of this image of the crucified Jesus. Unfortunately, the fixing mode engineers him into solving a problem, paying a price. This terrible atonement theology that we’re stuck with today claims that there was something to be atoned for. I think that is simply a rather horrible theological example, it’s been called the most unfortunately, unsuccessful theological debate that ever happened in the church, but pretty much it’s been accepted for the last 700-800 years. Jesus came to identify with the pain of the world and enter into it with that cosmic sympathy and to invite us into that identification with sadness…no problem could be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.”
            (this is, of course, an illogical resolution in that it is merely shifting an “atonement problem” to become a “flawed creation” problem)

            Pete, do you honestly find this convincing?

          • peteenns

            Ryan,

            If I may, I think you have taken my blog post, which used a quote from Rohr, as a vehicle for critiquing Rohr as a whole. In doing so you’ve actually demonstrated my point about in and out thinking. Return to the post and what I actually said and feel free to comment the point I was making and the point I see Rohr making. I’d be particularly interested in whether you think healthy Christianity focuses on what is wrong with the other rather than on the self.

            As for atonement quote, I’ like to see what you are reading. It still sounds to me like you are doing google searches for quotes. In my opinion, Rohr tends to state some things in extreme ways. I am sure you are aware of debates among evangelicals of the inadequacies of traditional atonement theologies (Scot McKnight, for example).

          • Ryan

            Pete, I fully agree with your post.

            Forgive me for taking the references to Rohr, the two hotlinks to his sites and references to four of his books as some sort of implicit endorsement. That was an assumption on my part. However, as someone rather unfamiliar with the man, I would have appreciated some indication that his teaching is, at its core, rather dissonant with mainstream evangelical teaching (or even Catholic teaching, for that matter). I may not have jumped to the same conclusions with e.g. a quotation from Confucius or Plato.

            I find Rohr’s interpretation of the cross far more impotent than even McKnight’s (which I do question), so it’s maybe slightly disingenuous to compare them.

          • peteenns

            Ryan, I DO endorse Rohr as someone is often incredibly insightful and worth reading carefully, but not because I agree with him on everything–which is part of the point of my post. I try to have that same attitude with people across the spectrum.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise Porter

    I remember when I first started wearing my cross necklace, I wondered if people who didn’t know me would label me a hypocrite due to the rampant finger pointing Christians often seem to engage in on the world stage. That this thought even crossed my mind is diagnostic of our current “religious” climate and to me a sign that we need to point the finger back at ourselves, as you indicate.

    I am convinced that any spiritual journey, regardless of one’s “religion” demands intense self-scrutiny and ego death. If we can’t honestly look at ourselves stripped of our masks and pretensions (or at least attempt to), how can humbly face the Lord? However, to do this requires spiritual calisthenics and our psychological defenses to be stripped away. I can’t say I find it fun but I know it’s what I need to work on. Related, the poet Hafiz writes, “All the false notions of myself that once caused fear, pain, have turned to ash as I neared God.

    Christ died on the cross. I wonder if we can put our ego on the cross for the Cross.

    And yes, without a doubt speaking out against sin can be both verbal and vital. When we don’t we often collude with violence, injustice, etc. out of complacency. Yet have we looked at ourselves deeply enough to sound the war cry? Can we not also speak out against sin in other ways? Sometimes being the vision goes much farther than speaking about the vision for talk can be cheap and sometimes delusional. When used wisely, it can be instrumental, healing and inspiring.

    The feminist Gloria Steinheim years ago coined the phrase “the personal is political.” Yet years later she realized that although the personal is political, profound political change often occurs when there is a true revolution within.

    Thanks for this post and also the OT book recommendation.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “Actually, passing judgment on others because you feel you are right and have little to learn from others is about as narcissistic as you can get.” Well said. This should preach!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Buxy Cavey has a great book along these lines called “The End of Religion” NavPress 2007 A line from his Introduction captures the theme when he refers to the Bible as “a document designed to blow up religion from the inside out, with the teachings of Jesus functioning as the pin.”

  • Paul

    What’s so ironic about this post is that Dr. Enns is one of the biggest violators of it (sorry to be so outward focused!). Dr. Enns is constantly criticizing a certain type of Christian (we all know who they are, so I won’t elaborate on the point). In fact, in this very post he’s criticizing a type of Christian—those who are “outward focused,” those who point out flaws in others and desire to see a change in them. Clearly, Dr. Enns thinks this is a flaw in others and desires to see them change. Along with this, he thinks leaders of seminaries and other Christian institutions of higher learning are damaging to the faith in the way they treat the “best and brightest” students and scholars. They should change. He writes posts pointing out their flaws and imploring them to change, bemoaning the fact that they probably won’t (which is, of course, another flaw). This is my first comment here, but this comment is but one example of a repeated trend I see in Dr. Enns’ posts: he excepts himself from the criticisms he applies to others.

    • peteenns

      Paul, please read my post more carefully:

      “Let’s nip something in the bud, shall we. I am not saying that Christians should always agree, never call others into account, or never say someone is just plain wrong. I am talking about whether the dominant message you hear is about what’s wrong with “them” or whether it is about you and your growth in humble, loving, Christlikeness.”

      You seem to read my post as saying that we should never be outward focused. Rather, I am saying that those whose Christian lives are dominated by “the other guy is always the problem” are wrong. If you see there a logical contradiction with my post, I would simply suggest you give it more thought.

      Several months ago, I posted on a similar topic and quoted John Stott in a lecture he gave at WTS (hardly accidental, in my opinion). He told us that sometimes debate and calling out other Christians is necessary–but when it becomes a way of defining one’s commitment to Christ, it is, in his words, pathological. I have seen how utterly debilitating and sub-Christian such behavior can be, and I will call it out on this blog as pathological, even if this blog is one small part of my life as a flawed follower of Christ.

      I hope this is clear now.

  • Brad

    Thank you for this post. It helped me immensely as I was, due to a flood of difficult incidents this week, in danger of failing to evaluate myself as you have described, which was having horrible effects on my devotional life. It is much appreciated!

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  • Andrew Dowling

    For what it’s worth, I find it fairly convincing. If you want to talk about illogical, you will find much more of that in any sort of traditional satisfaction/substitution atonement justification.

    And Pete is right when he says that such an avenue does not take sin off the table.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    Sometimes it seems necessary to “give up God for God”, as it were — i.e. to
    let go of many long-held and deeply comforting beliefs in deference to an honest evaluation of the evidence for them. When this happens, the first reaction may be to latch onto another set of dogmatic beliefs (whether religious or atheistic) to take the place of those that must be jettisoned. This too may be a necessary stage in “the phenomenology of Spirit”, but it is still provisional and one-sided. I think Richard Rohr is on the right track and very much appreciate his work. But I can also see how both his Catholic background and rather liberal orientation make him somewhat off-putting to someone with a conservative, evangelical mind-set.
    Perhaps this article will speak to such minds with more sensitivity:

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/what-do-we-have-to-lose/

  • mark.wauck

    “I hope this is clear now.”

    Not really. Paul’s post if perfectly clear, yours is subjective complaining. It’s always the other guy who’s dominated by the “other guy” syndrome. There were some pretty famous early Christians, including Jesus if you consider him a “Christian,” who spent a lot of time criticizing the “other guys.”

    Personally, I have no problem at all with your constant complaining. But, please, don’t complain when the other guy complains about your complaining.

  • Craig Vick

    I’m glad that I’m not like the Pharisees (just kidding). I have one minor quibble or perhaps an addition. I don’t think my first instinct is as important as where I end up. My first instincts are often wrong. Didn’t Croesus learn that Solon was right?

  • rvs

    A wise theologian friend of mine told me a few years ago that he was lactose intolerant and therefore insisted that I not eat ice cream. I love ice cream. I enjoyed his point, and I very much appreciate your wisdom here. As far as R.E.M. goes, Daysleeper is under-rated.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    Hello Peter,

    I really like the way you are settimg priorities.

    But you should no longer describe yourself as an “evangelical” :-)

    Our priority should be to follow the Golden Rule while not rejecting the existence of the supernatural out of hand.

    Lovely greetings from Germany.
    Liebe Grüsse aus Deutschland.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • Brian P.

      Indeed. I think this departure and this freedom is not distinctively Evangelical.

  • Derek

    Wasn’t a good portion of Paul the Apostle’s ministry comprised of correcting others with sound doctrine – earnestly contending for the faith, and all that?

    • Andrew Dowling

      It was a good portion of his letters to churches (that we have), but I don’t think it comprised near the majority of what he preached

  • Brian P.

    Yeah, I lost my religion a number of years back. So glad I did. So glad to be free. I do my best to influence pastor and church and those.

  • labreuer

    Christianity is supposed to be a refuge for people who fear they would be rejected if their true self were known. How many “Bible-believing” churches today would be described this way by those whose sins aren’t of the socially accepted sort?

    I attended suicide prevention training a few years ago and one of the questions asked of attendees was whether they would talk about suicidal thoughts to a pastor/priest/whatever. Out of thirty people, I was the only one who said he would. Say what you will, but I see this as quite damning, and not of the attendees.

  • klhayes

    I think I have been agnostic for a number of years now, just bold enough to say it recently, These issues and questions are why I left Christianity.


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