Not all Christians believe that growth in the Christian life is essential, although they note with approval the growth in belief from childhood to adulthood. What is essential, in their view, is the justification of human beings in the mind of God, a justification accomplished by the death of Jesus Christ. If people have faith in this justification, then they will be saved in the sense that they belong to the in-group of believers who will be rewarded by God. The only human contribution to salvation is the faith that accepts it, on this theological view, and even that faith is a gift from God. This theology is fairly common among conservative Reformed communities. It requires an anthropomorphic conception of God as one who accepts some people and rejects others and whose anger is bought off by Jesus’ faithfulness unto death.
In contrast to this theology is the view common to the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and related traditions that salvation has to do with real differences made in people’s lives so that they grow in godliness. The growth itself arises from God’s grace in many forms, but it is not a function of God’s relenting of anger at the unjust human race that has made itself the enemy of God. Growth in the Christian spirit is profound. St. Paul, in our 2 Corinthians text, called it becoming a New Being. Jesus likened it to a plant that mysteriously grows from stalk to head to full grain, and to a mustard bush that grows from a tiny seed to a huge plant. The gospel for today has to do with the character of this growth.
At the outset, two paths to growth need to be acknowledged, even if they converge toward the end. One is the path of chronological maturation from infancy to old age within the Church. Many of us were brought up in the Church from an early age and went through more or less expected stages of religious growth in childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, mortgage holding, family-raising, empty nesting, and settling in to reflect on things. Of course, a great many people, contrary to the stereotypes, never get married or grow through the nuclear family phase. Many people come from such dysfunctional families that the stereotype of growing up simply does not apply. Reflecting on this model of Christian growth we need to keep in mind our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, and the transsexual men and women in our midst, for whom this stereotypical model of growing up is a violent assault on their identity. Fortunately, the churches are themselves growing up to the need to break stereotypes of what infancy to old age is supposed to mean. At the last General Conference of the United Methodist Church, fully a third of the delegates voted against the stereotypes of human identity now codified in Church law.
The far more important path of growth in Christianity is that from religious novice to spiritual adept. The novice might be young, but then again the novice might begin in mid or late life. The first step for a novice is enculturation into the patterns of the Christian life. Congregations provide the standard patterns for this, both for the raising of children and for welcoming new Christians at any age. The patterns have to do with church attendance, learning the meanings of the symbols, participating in the liturgical events of the church, adopting practices for home life such as grace and prayers, and also reading religious literature. These patterns can be sustained throughout life, however modified at various stages and situations of living. Most outsiders recognize Christians by their observance and exercise of these patterns, and many Christians conceive their identities to be defined by them.
My sincere hope is that Marsh Chapel articulates a clear and contemporary version of patterns of the Christian life. We emphasize the importance of understanding, since we are a University Chapel. But we also emphasize the liturgical calendar that takes us through all the major doctrinal center-points in the course of the year. I am a lectionary preacher and so have lifted up the main texts in the three-year cycle of the lectionary during my term here. No matter how many times we go through the liturgical calendar and the lectionary, each time gives deeper understanding and appreciation of the patterns of the Christian life. Although growth in the Christian life also means growing to appreciate the patterns of other religious cultures for living before God, at its center it means growth in the deepening of Christianity’s own patterns.
I dare not mention growth in the integrity of Christianity’s patterns without stopping to call attention to the chief of those patterns, living for the redemption of the world. In liberal circles this means first paying attention to issues of social justice. Growth is absolutely necessary with regard to the Christian approach to social justice. We all know that the bottom line is that we ought to be kind to people, to love them where that term does not degenerate into something sappy.
But our ordinary notions of Christian virtue, even of Christian love, are closely tied up with manifesting the virtues of our own particular culture. We want everyone in the world to be like the ideals we hold for ourselves (of course, noting that we do not often live up to those ideals). The first jolt of maturation in social conscience for Christians is when we realize that other people have other ideals, and that those ideals might be far more worthy than our own. At the very least, this jolt in maturity causes us to ask whether our own sense of justice can make a good case for itself when set in fair competition with other senses of justice. The mark of immaturity about serving the needs of the world is to think that all good people are in our in-group, and the bad people are in the out-groups. The mark of first maturity is the recognition that the difference between the in-group and out-group is a desperately wicked concept, however it might have had evolutionary staying power in primitive times, as I discussed last week. As St. Paul put it so often, everyone is a sinner. No one is in a naturally pure in-group, not even the Jewish community to which he adhered. Christian maturation for Paul consists in how we cope with our sinful selves in the face of God’s offer of forgiveness. Under no circumstances would mature Christians go to war against unrighteous people because they are unrighteous. For, we have met the unrighteous enemies and they are we. War is acceptable only in the extreme cases of defense of the defenseless. Mature Christian social justice aims at peace-making and the removal of all the social conditions that lead to violent frustration. The maintenance of the in-group thinking that advocates the superimposition of Christian patterns on non-Christian peoples is an evil. So is the insistence that our form of Christianity should be imposed on other Christians. In every case, we need to judge competing patterns of religious life by their fruits: do they lead to love and justice?
Serious maturation in Christian inner spiritual life continues this relativizing of standard Christian patterns. Our complex Christian traditions are rich in resources for spiritual formation. To see so many people these days pay attention to these resources, going on retreats, becoming explicit about the cultivation of their spiritual lives, is extremely gratifying. Deep prayer, long meditation, practiced contemplation, comfort with long silences, monastic submission to daily hours, communion with God’s wildness in nature—all are patterns of spiritual development, and all are to be understood and judged according to their ability to propel us to become more godlike, more in tune with the divine, more a part of God’s own wild glory.
The primary metaphors of explicit Christian spirituality have to do with sin and its forgiveness. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, sin sets us in contradiction to ourselves: the good we would, we do not, and the evil we would not, that we do. Nothing makes us more individual, more singular, more alone by ourselves, than this self-contradiction in which we deliberately sin. By God’s mercy in Christ, we are forgiven our sins and their individuating selfishness, and much of spiritual life consists in coming to terms with God’s unconditional acceptance of us. To learn to accept God’s forgiveness when we already condemn ourselves is not easy task.
Now the metaphors of sin and forgiveness, with their individuating force, lead us to imagine and hope for an individualized heaven in which we continue more or less as we are but with no pain, suffering, enemies, or garbage to be taken out. These, of course, are childlike images that are understandable in children, and even more understandable for people whose lives have been degraded by suffering from beginning to end—heaven is where things get made right. The Jewish images of the heavenly court, the Christian images of the heavenly banquet, and the Muslim images of the heavenly garden all provide metaphors for individual life in improved circumstances.
Of course, as we mature and come to understand the way symbols work, we realize that heaven is about eternity and not about an improvement on our temporal history. Eternity is hard to imagine, however, and we do so with non-eternal, temporal images whose limits we need to know. Roy Sasi, our faithful radio member in Rhode Island, asked me whether those who have passed on to heaven will be able to observe how well those whom they loved on Earth are doing in the coming years. I say yes, because in eternity we are all together in the creative act of God, and all the moments of our youth, adulthood, and old age are together with all the moments of everyone else’s youth, adulthood, and old age. The limit to this metaphor is that most of what we mean by consciousness and observation has to do with the passage of time, not eternity. Within time, we wonder about people, suggest answers to our questions about them, sort out the answers, act on them, and get feedback about whether we are right about the people. All this takes time, and supposes distance between us and those whom we observe. In eternity there is no merely stretched out time, and no distance of this sort. So I do not know how far the analogy of ordinary temporal consciousness can be extended in contemplating eternal life, if you want to think literally. You can think of heaven as a balcony in a theater in which the saints watch us act out our roles on the temporal stage below, but I don’t quite know what watching would mean in the eternal instance. Spiritual growth includes coming to terms with the ambiguities and limits of our symbolic thinking about God and eternal things.
Another, more important, step in spiritual growth needs to be mentioned, however, namely, the recognition of the limits of the individualism in our primary metaphors of sin and forgiveness. As we become comfortable resting in the loving and forgiving arms of God, the salvation of our own soul becomes of interest. I think we are then open to seeing the suffering of others as it really is, and to developing true compassion. The primary metaphors of Buddhism are helpful here. Our very concerns with sin and our own salvation come to look like sinful selfishness. The reality is that our sinful selves are transient realities within the wild processes of God’s glorious eternal life. The reality is that within these transient realities, life has so much suffering mixed with joy and satisfaction. The reality is that a clear view of all this suffering, both in others and ourselves, is the very meaning of compassion.
In our time and culture the group that has been forced to recognize this the most consists of gay men who came of age in the 1980s when AIDS killed so many. How many friends and acquaintances can you bury before the blind ubiquity of suffering overwhelms you? So many of the dying young men had been rejected by their parents because of religious bigotry about homosexual impurity. What deeper suffering could there be, than to be disowned by one’s family and by one’s own body’s immune system, dying in cold sweats, suffocation, and madness? In the face of this plague the surviving gay men developed new forms of friendship to care for the dying and to support one another. Not only did they care for their lovers, they cared for those who had no lovers, for the strangers, for those imprisoned by the toxins of life. This new form of friendship had to go beyond kinship and affection-ties to something like compassion for the sake of suffering itself. Many gay men became Buddhists because Buddhism begins with the recognition of suffering as more important than the achievements and guilts of one’s own ego.
But the life of deep compassion in the face of incomprehensible suffering is also a profound form of Christian spiritual life. In the practice of such compassion our individual differences cease to be important and our unity with one another in God’s wild nature becomes palpable. What counts most in life is not what we build and hold on to, although of course we do have our responsibilities. What counts most is our loving, moment by moment, with compassion for whoever comes our way, friend, foe, or stranger. The simple reason for this is that at the deepest level, there is only one reality, God’s wild life that we see as blasts of cosmic gases, blind forces of nature, chance births at chance times in chance places with chance encounters that people our transient lives. Our ultimate individual significance is nothing more than being short-duration waves within this grand divine creative act, at one with all the other waves in the ocean of God’s eternal and singular glory. Knowing this, the ultimate spiritual goal of our lives is nothing more than to live each moment with compassion, loving our neighbors because that love is part of the vast love of God embracing us all. May we grow into that realization.