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by Chuck DeGroat
My vocation is to be love. St. Thérèse of Lisieux
I grew up in a very conservative Reformed tradition that tended in this direction: “putting on the mind of Christ” was like checking the theological boxes of Calvinistic, Reformed theology.
Somehow, “putting on the mind” was akin to plugging into the timeless, absolute, propositional truths in the mind of God. (If you don’t believe me, one seminary philosophy professor even conducted an exercise in which he had us close our eyes, tune in to Plato’s world of the forms, and—as he whistled—connect to the Timeless and Absolute.) The “truths,” in the end, usually looked less like the messy, winding, and multiperspectival narratives of scripture and more like propositions ready for mental deposit. Certainly, to get on through to the other side of ordination, the latter was required.
When I was grilled in ordination exams, my “mind of Christ” was tested in a written exam, a four and half hour committee exam, and a two and half hour floor exam. The entire process ignored issues of character except for a kind gentleman who asked me a few questions about pornography. I had downloaded the answers into my mental server. It went well. I was approved, even to a standing ovation in committee. No one knew how shattered my nerves were, how deeply ashamed I felt about missed or partial answers, how my disconnection from Jesus betrayed my answers about union with God. That’s just not how we did it.
I invested years of my life in this. I would have graduated from seminary and immediately entered a PhD program at St. Andrews if it wasn’t for an honest man, a counseling professor (you know, the ones who secretly despise theology and just want people to live from feelings…or so I thought). Gary sat with me on perhaps the first day I ever dared to let someone in to my lonely, insecure, anxious, traumatized inner world. In a matter of thirty minutes, he’d put words to my deep disconnect, invited my addictions into the light, gently persuaded me that I’d be dangerous to the church without significant help, and most of all, honored me as a human being by showing up as one himself. I have no doubt that I do what I do today because of that pivotal, life-altering moment.
For a time, my past was a kind of trauma. My pain came out sideways and sometimes even directly. My cynicism was biting and my perception quite negative. Like many of us, I have that tendency to flip from an all-good to an all-bad place. This is actually developmentally appropriate, for a time. It serves us well in our early years. Mommy good, strangers bad. Dogs good, snakes bad. And for a time—my brand of theology good, yours bad.
But we have to grow up. And growing up means embracing the so-called good and the bad, the broken and the beautiful. The many victims of abuse I’ve worked with over the years, with a lot of honest work, eventually embrace the entirety of their stories, every part of themselves without edits, and even with some measure of gratitude. They have become my wise teachers.
Today, I can be quick to judge those who, at times, remind me of my twenty-five-year old self. If I see utter certainty or dogmatism in any form, whether from the theological left or the right, I feel it deep in my being. I tense up. I feel sick. I quickly forget that it’s taken a process, a journey to become more a bit more whole. Note, I didn’t say more “open-minded” or “progressive.” Growing up is not about flipping from one certainty-system to another. It’s not simply about being fed up with evangelicals, leaving or tiring of cultural accommodation and instead racing toward some cultural enclave (maybe Benedict has an option?) Yes, it can include some movement one way or the other, but what I’ve come to deep in my being is that “putting on the mind” is about transformation, paradoxically through un-knowing. As unknowing does it transformational work, we become people who can speak with wisdom, not to convince but to invite, not with violent words but with humility, not with condescension but with love that lives courageously for the sake of the other.
Unknowing, according to many Christian mystics, is not a rejection of a theology or a dogma or a belief, but a release of it…or perhaps, a release of certainty in it. It exposes the idolatry of every box we put God in. It does not reject tradition but reveals the developmental immaturity of tribalism (sit with that…tradition vs. tribalism). It opens us up to experiencing union with God rather than the cheap addiction of a god-substitute. It embraces the silence of contemplative prayer in a world of too-many-words. For a control freak like me, it reveals my weapons and invites me to lay them down.
Developmental theorists of many stripes use different words to invite us into transformation and depth and maturation—words like integration, generativity, wisdom, unitive experience, non-dual, and more. But I like the phrase “the mind of Christ.” You might even call it Christ-consciousness, though we may have to brush off some baggage surrounding it.
Jesus did not deposit theological categories into tabula rasa disciples (though every bit of their experience was a formative theological education). No, Jesus said “Follow me.” And even after three years, they were still bickering and making power plays and running away. It turns out that growing up into this mind of Christ takes a long time.
Joy and peace and patience and kindness and self-control and generosity—all of these aspects of new creation life require the unknowing of our old patterns, our outdated consciousness. In fact, we need to befriend old parts of ourselves, not to go backwards but to transcend and include every part of our story, every fragmented part of our soul. We invite every part into the light of Christ, to be healed, renewed, reconciled. The work of conversion is endless.
I now look back to my past with gratitude that Jim took me to Ligonier conferences and that Richard taught me to think theologically and that Frank gave me a theological wineskin that made sense, even if new wineskins would eventually be needed. RC taught me awe for God’s holiness and Al introduced me to the glory of Herman Ridderbos. And then there was Gary. Gary invited me to grow up, in a hard, messy conversation with many tears and a dream of studying overseas that I let go on that day.
It turns out that “putting on the mind of Christ” becomes less about depositing facts or throwing truth grenades, and requires much un-minding, as we relinquish and surrender all that we (idolatrously) thought was “God.” The Pharisees had checklists for right belief and behavior. The Zealots had their weapons of mass destruction. The Essenes their avoidance strategies. The Sadducees their political strategies.
What do you need to un-know? What my journey looks like is different than what it looks like for you. What transformation looks like is vastly different depending on story and personality and context and more. But can I make a suggestion? Can we honor the reality that this is a process? The winding story of Scripture with its many wilderness journeys, failed leaders, strange prophets, stubborn disciples, seemingly dueling “truths” and messy “life together” teaches us—the journey takes a long, long time.
I think of this long journey particularly right now as various denominational synods, assemblies, and communions meet this summer. This is where a lot of mind-changing attempts happen. There will be a lot of rousing speeches about “truth,” no matter what side claims it. Everyone in the right wants to teach everyone in the wrong, as if the perfectly worded argument will suddenly turn the room.
It’s amazing how so many of us feel like we’ve got it figured out! But this is the anti-thesis of the mind of Christ! I’m not entirely sure what collective “unminding” or “unknowing” looks like, but I suspect (as Richard Baxter taught me in The Reformed Pastor) it begins with collective humility and repentance, surrendering our gods of certainty for the sake of showing up as human beings before one another—all of us in need of Jesus.
Lord, re-mind us.
Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral theology and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.