Recently, I read the online reflections of a fellow (former?) Christian who has wandered far afield in his spiritual journey. I’m not going to link to his post here, because I don’t wish to hold him up to judgment and because I’m more interested here in thinking aloud about what goes on when people abandon the Gospel. This is a blogger whose writings I have often appreciated over the years. He’s always been more “progressive” (there’s so much wrong with that term, but I’m not going there) than I, but he has been solidly in the Christian trajectory, the historical arc of the Church, the cosmic Gospel. And now he’s not. Now he’s, well, it’s hard to put my finger on. He speaks affirmingly of fellow “witches,” of hallucinatory drugs, of reincarnation, of pluralism, of a pantheistic monism, and more such shiny things. More to the point, perhaps, is that he overtly repudiates classical doctrines of Trinity, atonement, Incarnation, and more. The repudiations make possible the affirmations.
Once upon a time, I lived in Christian circles that only allowed a variety of responses to this.
A) He was never a Christian in the first place. Toggle-switch spirituality: on or off, in or out, saved or not.
B) He has “backslidden.” Dimmer-switch spirituality: more or lesser degrees of faith, somewhere on the path of salvation but currently derailed; unknown future.
C) … well, I guess we only got A or B.
But exposure over the years to many occasions of this kind of development (though perhaps not to this degree) convinces me that there is more to the problem than a toggle-switch or dimmer-switch issue. So, so many who have engaged with the Gospel, who have expressed faith in Christ, who have been part of the Christian community, have now wandered in search of what they perceive to be greener pastures. “It just doesn’t work for me anymore.” “It’s too simplistic.” “I don’t have room in my life for that anymore.” “It’s too exclusive.” And on and on.
If we keep the conversation focused on the present, it’s easy to ask questions that lead to simplistic answers. We can always point to a variety of issues that can create such problems. Bad theology, bad teachers, bad leaders, bad companions, bad books, bad celebrity speakers, bad music, bad preaching, bad choices, bad dreams. Bad, bad, bad. I, like most of you, have my own lists of badnesses that I work hard to avoid, more or less successfully.
If, however, we expand the conversation to think more broadly about why anyone who was dwelling “within” Christian faith would wander to such alternative spiritualities, we might begin to ask better questions, for in reality this kind of development, however weird it seems, is not new. Over and over again throughout the history of the Church, we encounter characters who find the parameters of Christian faith just a little too constricting. Or too sedentary. Or too narrow. Or too particular. Or too messy. Or just too banal. From Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla in the late 2nd century, to the Paulicians of the 7th century, to the Cathars of the 12th century, to Swedenborg in the 18th century, to, well, an unknown number of Church leaders and members today, we can see sparks flying off a certain grand teleological arc of orthodoxy, drifting through space, and landing far afield from the rest of the body of Christ. Some of the sparks have lit great movements of their own; others have just slowly faded away.
But why? How can it be that the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ–the most world-shattering news of the invasion of God himself into flesh and the invitation to return with this God-Man into the very heart of God himself and there enjoy a conscious bliss beyond our ability to imagine–how can it be that this is too constricting or banal? How can any hallucinogenic or expectation of reincarnation or dissolution into some impersonal divine entity come close to the wonder and sheer outrageousness of the Gospel?
Perhaps C) never shows up because C is us. And that makes us uncomfortable. C is our dumbing down of the Gospel so it sounds super bizarre and ridiculous. All too often today it sounds like this:
We were supposed to be good, but we screwed up. Ever since, God has been so, so angry. God demands a sacrifice to make up for things. Jesus came to calm God down and protect us from God’s rage by sacrificing himself. If we just accept Jesus we’ll be able to go to heaven when we die. Heaven will be great of course, but it’s a step down from real life, here and now. In the meantime, we should be generally good, try to be as happy as possible, go to church when we can, read our Bible if we wish, and check in with God now and then with a prayer. Oh, and we should make sure we vote.
Of course, that’s ridiculous. No one teaches that, right? Who would want to believe that? If that were Christianity, I’d move on as well.
That’s the contemporary version, of course. Dumbing down looks differently in different ages. It may look like a proper membership or a minimum number of rituals or a signature on a statement of faith or a rejection of science. It’s a conservatism that isn’t about conserving at all. It’s about control. After all, conservatism is really about moving forward while retaining the best of what has passed. It’s about recognizing and preserving the gold amongst the dross of traditions and cultures and experiences. It’s about enriching the future with the hard-won clarities of the past.
Think about it in terms of creativity. Over the centuries, Christianity has had an oh-so-rich cadre of visionaries who have taken the Gospel and magnified it in inexpressibly compelling and creative ways. Artists, theologians, novelists, composers, activists, philosophers–they have been deeply creative and deeply orthodox, and their work has drawn us into contemplation of the glory. Maybe some of their work seems out of place to some of us today, but there’s no question that it inspired, informed, shaped, and deepened true Christian faith in its day. It did what it did because it doubled down on orthodoxy and thereby launched its power anew.
Bernard of Clairvaux doubled down on the love of God, and launched a God-focused revolution in the individual soul. Francis doubled down on the selflessness of Jesus, and launched a social renewal of compassion and care for the poor. Thérèse of Lisieux doubled down on small actions of self-denial for the love of Christ, and launched a new way of “little flowers” for Jesus. Origen, Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Pascal, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Wesley, Frederick Douglass, William Seymour, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.W. Tozer–these and so many more doubled down on Christian truth, but were also creative in their appropriate of the Gospel, adhering to its central truths while exploring ways of expressing these truths and understanding them. They certainly made mistakes; human creativity is implicitly imperfect. We mine them for the gold, recognizing that it all needs assaying.
We, too, have our visionaries, but their voices are marginalized; we seem far more interested in preserving formulas, in secure systems, in acquiescence, in proper order. We bore each other with platitudes; we rerun our insipid formulas; we let go of the ancient mysteries; we forget the supernatural, we don’t have time for awe, we erase agony, we banish self-denial, we decay in our tidiness. No wonder we wander to shiny voices like Rohr or explore eastern spiritualities or escape into drug-induced ecstasies or just plain give up on it all.