21 September 2006

Individual Perseverance is a Community Project, Part One

Introduction: The Loneliness of Spirituality

Every era throughout history has had its societal manure processed and sold in different bows, ribbons, and labels. Sin and half-hearted hedonism 2000 years ago manifests itself in the same type of unbelief as it did then, but with all new enticements marketed to appeal to the 21st century materialist. Though we have new terms, new bows and ribbons, the same problems and stumbling blocks that kept men from God then are keeping them from God now. The enemy never changes, the war still rages, but the nuances of the battle always seem to be recycled. The frontline encounter may be at different places, but the fight for the faith is all the same. To be faithful believers, we must know where the major battle is, what is at stake, and how to fight so as to win.

In America, the battle is one that rages for religion and for the individual. For all of the blasting that organized religion has received with negative criticism, it may be interesting to note that there has developed a rise of spirituality in America. We see that this spirituality in America is greatly separated from Christendom and Christian doctrine. Gone is the spirituality that allowed Jonathan Edwards to refer to “religion” and mean simply Christianity. This rejection of Christian Truth has led to a tension between culture and Christianity. There is a lack of common ground with individuals because there is no longer the idea of a common “religion,” or a pool of Biblical truth to fish from. A pump of pluralism has been unleashed into the pure streams of our culture and Christians are struggling to stay afloat.

And with Christianity no longer influencing culture through God’s merciful common-grace restraints, the bonds that bound the individual’s relationships have been blasted. The individual is “free” to explore areas that were at one time deemed “off limits or wrong” by society’s common laws. So, the person begins a private, internalized pursuit of a higher power, or a pursuit to find and trust in one’s self. This spirituality may produce a pursuit of the sacred, and it may mean a search for a god. Wells quotes the story of the Liveranis who

began to build their own church, salvaging bits of the old [Catholic] religion they liked and chucking the rest. The first to go were an angry, vengeful God and hell—‘That’s just something they say to scare you,’ Ed said. They kept Jesus, ‘because Jesus is big on love.’

From the local bookstore, in a bulging section called ‘Private Spirituality,’ they found wisdom in places they had never before searched, or even heard of: In Zen masters, in New Age chestnuts such as A Course in Miracles, in their latest find, Conversations with God.

Now they commune with a new God, a gentle twin of the one they grew up with. He is wise but soft-spoken, cheers them up when they’re sad, laughs at their quirks. he is, most essentially, validating, like the greatest of friends.

And best of all, he had been there all along. ‘We discovered the God within,’ said Joanne. ‘That’s why we need God. Because we are God. God gives me the ability to create my own godliness’ (Hanna Rosin, Beyond 2000: A Self-Made Deity qtd. in David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, 113).

You can imagine that with God out of the way, and self as the new God, there is no objective morality. There is no standard to follow. And if there was a standard, this type of God would never expect perfection or righteousness. What is most distressing is that the person refuses any guidance from community. By ensuring that all their relationships are shallow, the individual guarantees that no one can judge their spirituality. Their journey is a private one, and like the superficial relationships that are forged along the way, the journey is as equally superficial as the dead relationships. Wells points this out be quoting Mark Greene’s “Tourists”:

Tourists; that’s what we are becoming…
Tourists, we move through life, flitting from idea to idea, from
novelty to novelty, from new person to new person,
Never settling, always moving…
Selecting the best sights, the highlights, the choice cuts,
avoiding the mess on the edge of town, the slums, all the
uncomfortable things, the struggle of really knowing people,
Never settling, always moving lest we hear the hollow clang
of our own emptiness…
Tourists; that’s what we are becoming…
Inquisitive, curious, picking up the tidbits of other
people’s depth…
Tourists, flicking through our snapshots, the paper thin
trophies of our click and run existence, filing them away,
loading the next roll of film,
Never settling, always moving,
Tourists; that’s what we are becoming,
Tourists; that’s what we are becoming….(qtd. in, 134).

“It is quite apparent that the new spirituality is practicing what has become one of the norms of the postmodern world—that is, the belief that each person must be allowed one’s own private space within which one has the freedom to define reality for oneself and set one’s own rules” (Wells, 168). Truth is subjective, what is true for me may not be true for you. Your god may work for you, but he, she, it may not work for me. And it is arrogance to impose your beliefs on my beliefs. You can not tell me that my system is wrong. “Spirituality…has come to stand for what is private and internal” (Wells, 110) and “violating this private space is, socially speaking, intolerable” (Wells, 168).

So please understand the tension that is inside this culture when we read Hebrews 3.12-14. In calling for a community of people to stop moving and stay for awhile, to be willing to be transparently honest, to be eager to be exhorted in Truth, to be called to look to the God of the Bible, and to be unashamed about the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ alone means swimming against the cultural current. But I think that the Bible makes it crucial for the perseverance of the believer to be provided by a community of believers. What does that look like for the individual and the community?


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