Privatized Christianity in America

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Christianity Today reports on a great number of lone-ranger Christians in the United States:

‘Despite believing their church emphasizes spiritual growth, engagement with the practices associated with discipleship leave much to be desired,’ the report stated. Fewer than half of practicing Christian adults are involved in activities such as Sunday school or fellowship groups (43%), a group Bible study (33%), or meeting with a spiritual mentor (17%).

The same article also gives this telling pie chart, showing that 38% of Christians who say spiritual growth is very or somewhat important also would rather do their discipleship on their own:

To me, discipleship on one’s own, just ‘me and Jesus’, just seems a contradiction in terms. St Paul says in Ephesians, after all, that the whole Body of Christ builds itself up. Even those who are much deprived of the Church’s physical presence generally should seek what fellowship can be had, that they may be built up by the Church and themselves contribute to the Church they belong to by faith.

Is the wrong doctrine of Christian life being taught? I think so. The problem, I think, is the emphasis on private devotions as the home of personal piety. As I have written before, to have one’s own private experience validated in the midst of a multitude is not public piety at all, but rather a projection of oneself onto others: there is not thereby created a public piety, but an exhibitionist piety. Whatever helps fulfil the individual end is what many Christians wish to do; they have little sense of distinct ends held by a group in common. But Althusius, following both the Scriptures and the philosophers, affirms the existence of these ends and the life of the organized body as distinct from, though connected to, the lives of the members:

Political order in general is the right and power of communicating and participating in useful and necessary matters that are brought to the life of the organized body by its associated members. It can be called the public symbiotic right.

The thing is not only about ‘accountability’, the appeal of the man desperate to find justification for the involvement of other persons in individual life. Indeed, the very idea of accountability makes no sense but as an unnatural imposition from without unless – and this truth bears repetition – there is by human nature such a thing as common life, whose ends are intrinsic to man, and known by his very body and soul, but unable to be fulfilled by the individual in himself. Our responsibility to one another comes from the need, which by right of nature we pursue, to fulfil the end of what Althusius calls ‘political “symbiotic” man’, namely ‘holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis, a life lacking nothing either necessary or useful’. Keeping ignorance of this natural fact by artifice, however, we find ourselves unable to justify social life except on the grounds of freely desired desire.

Not helping matters is the notion of going to heaven, by oneself, as ascending to the place where God dwells. The idea would appear to be well substantiated: the Psalms speak of the desire to remain in God’s temple, saying that one day in his courts is better than thousands elsewhere. The temple of stone having been made obsolete and then destroyed, we think then of some ascent to heaven, some separation from earthly things. The notion of ascent to the heavenly temple is not untrue, but the mystical quest can overshadow real human life unless we remember by whose work we are united to Christ in the first place, and to what end. The Holy Spirit by whose secret work we are in Christ also equips us to fulfil his priestly mission as one priesthood under the high priesthood of Christ. The whole earth is to be the Lord’s holy temple, for it shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. The beatific vision, glimpsed in our Lord’s Transfiguration, is the glory that, in the holiness of our lives, is to fill the earth as it is in heaven; and this task requires all flesh to see the glory together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

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