Do you not know that of all those who run in a race, only one obtains the laurel? So run, that you may receive it. Every man that strives for the championship is disciplined in everything. Now they do it to obtain a decaying crown, but we, an imperishable one. Thus I run, not meanderingly, thus I fight, but not as one who shadow boxes; indeed, I discipline my body, and bring it to heel, lest in some way when I have tried to teach others discipline, I myself should be disqualified from the race. (I Corinthians 9:24-27)
There’s an aversion to difficult Christianity. An older parishioner from eastern Pennsylvania once opined to me how hard it was for people who weren’t Orthodox (i.e., Protestants) to understand fasting. She grew up eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and that’s just the way it was. From the time she was a little girl she had internalized the discipline of fasting so that she could see its proper end, namely, true piety and devotion. True piety – – not to be confused with the evangelical phrase, real spirituality – – takes effort. It is not obtained by wishing, nor had by thinking right thoughts, nor by having some emotional experience in the midst of a crisis. Yet this passes for “spirituality” for so many moderns, arising from the ideas of individualism and existentialism, and the notions of alienation that they entail.
The Danish nineteenth-century theologian, Soren Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling, an extended meditation on Genesis 22 and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, illustrates what this type of spirituality entails. Kierkegaard focuses on the crisis of this episode, and how the choices Abraham made during it, formed him spiritually. Abraham must face his task alone: to speak with anyone (e.g., Sarah) would compromise his individual integrity, and thus debase his experience with God. So we, armed with our solitary faith, must face the crises God has for us, hoping thereby to obtain some contact with or sense of the divine. This contact or sense is found not within the confines of traditions, rites, fastings and “rote” prayers, but by an encounter with the divine that somehow surpasses all of these institutional trifles.
One can see Kierkegaard in the pages of the New York Times bestseller, and an evangelical rage a few years ago, The Shack. Sentiments similar to those in The Shack proliferate in the bookshelves of not only Christian bookstores, but even of Borders (where still open) and Barnes and Noble, all linked with the most recent evangelical phenomenon called “the emergent church.” This newest phase of Christianity (or better put, life with God) without “religion” resembles Kierkegaard’s disdain for “Christendom”.
In The Shack, the main character struggles for years with the brutal murder of his youngest daughter, and the depression that followed. He then receives a strange note inviting him to return to the very place she was last known to have been, the shack in the wilderness where she was murdered. He arrives to find – – though he had suspected all along – – that the invitation had been sent by God. Once there, he realizes that his view of God had to go, since God appeared as a fat, black woman, an Arabic carpenter, and an Asian wisp of a woman. Over this weekend he confronts his pain, solitude, anger, alienation, and isolation. The author, William Young, maintains that what he relates in the book is actually a compression of the years it took him to come to terms with painful events in his past. His solution is simply to walk away from the Church, and live with God “without benefit of clergy”.
There are all sorts of internet sites and weblogs devoted to this book. Many list the numerous theological errors it contains; but since, as I am writing this, Great Lent is here, the two most compelling difficulties, at least for me, are the picture it gives us of what the Christian life entails, and the very troubling notion that our Lord Jesus Christ in his Incarnation does not give us the fullest revelation of the Father and the inner life of God.
I shall leave the second point for another time. But with regard to the first: the Christian life entails a steady obedience in the direction of God. It is not something that I can accomplish by myself: I need, as does everyone, the entire Church (both living and departed), to aid me in my quest. Further, it is not something resolved in the midst of crisis, but from lifelong obedience and discipline. Even St. Paul, who faced Christ in his own moment of crisis on the road to Damascus, still needed the aid of others to perform not only his ministry, but to perfect his faith. As noted in another post, our father among the Saints, St. Basil of Caesarea (whose Liturgy we celebrate during Lent) noted that a hermit=s life demonstrated immense spiritual strength and grace, but that the life within the community was still to be preferred, for you have no one=s feet to wash when you are a hermit.
Coupled with the stark individualist spirituality of The Shack is its notion that nearness to God happens apart from asceticism (the life disciplined by prayer, fasting, and love). For the author, these are so many rules invented by Christians, and indeed, Jesus doesn’t want us to be “Christians.” After all, the author has Jesus saying, “Who said anything about being a Christian. I’m not a Christian.” Volumes could be written, but here it must be sufficient to note that we are to imitate Christ; this is what the word Christian meant, and should still mean. We must go with him to the desert to confront the devil, to learn that we don’t live merely by food, to realize that God, and not our own grievances or wants should be the focus of our lives, and to understand that we are not to live in expectation of God delivering us from self-will and arrogance (i.e., tempting God) apart from discipline.
In short, crises aren’t what prepare us for the mundane of the Christian life, but rather the mundane – -keeping the fasts, saying our prayers, learning patience, etc. – – is the forge that tempers us for crises when we face them.