Brother Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s recent post on The Twelve, Slouching Toward Augustine, ignited some cognitive dissonance for me. (And cognitive dissonance is good, as Steve reminded me when I told him I would be engaging him in this virtual dialogue!) In his post, Steve reclaims the centrality of the grace and forgiveness we find in Scripture (and in Augustinian theology), while raising some important questions about Christian movements that emphasize the importance of transformation.
On the one hand, I am with Steve in his discomfort with holiness movements, particularly. I went to a family event at an ecumenical camp this past weekend. I knew in advance that the guest speaker for the adults was going to be unpacking the biblical concepts of grace and holiness, and I had a little eye roll in my soul. “Ugh,” I thought to myself. “What flavour of narrowly-defined holiness is he going to be selling? Whatever it is, I’m not interested and I’m not buying.”
So I was with Steve. But Steve wasn’t only offering a gentle critique of holiness and pietist movements. He also expressed his concern, as I said above, about groups of Christians that focus on sanctification and transformation. At the start of his post, he quoted a Christian leader’s convictions about living transformed lives in the way of Jesus. This Christian leader is a person I know well and with whom I have participated for several years in a learning community.
The learning community we are a part of is committed to personal transformation and holds the belief that personal transformation and congregational transformation are connected. The increase of the former leads to the increase of the latter. So, when Steve wrote that he has “come to have an aversion to most Christian groups that emphasize sanctification, holiness, and transformation,” I blushed. “Typically,” he went on, “I’ve encountered sanctimony and pride over their ‘deeper, truer’ commitment, their simple fellowship, free from all the clutter that is the church. They so frequently exhibit that awful brownie-point-earning, hair-splitting, self-improving, speck-in-the-eye-of-others-spotting, moral anxiety that is far, far from the way of Jesus. I find very little appealing here.”
Now, I trust that Steve wasn’t pointing a finger directly at me, at the church leader he quoted, or at the learning communities we are a part of. But perhaps he was rolling the eyes of his soul ever so slightly.
Because I respect Steve and his work so much, I want to take seriously his concerns and aversions. And so, I offer these two wonderings.
First of all, I wonder if what bothers some of us about any Christian movement is less whether they focus on behaviour over belief (or belief over behaviour, or belonging over either of these), and more whether the movement exudes any kind of spiritual elitism.
Nearly 25 years ago, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 2, Craig Blomberg called it out:
In an age of specialization, we are bombarded by claims that the key to a happy, healthy Christianity, individually or corporately, is to be found in some new technique of evangelism, practice of certain spiritual disciplines, strategy for church growth, self-help therapy, Sunday-school curriculum, form of music or style of worship, and on and on. When these so-called “keys” pit their agendas against the majority of believers’ beliefs and practices and move away from the humbling, central focus on the cross of Christ, they have become elitist and potentially divisive and must be rejected.
If a Christian movement focuses on personal and corporate transformation, it should do so only with full knowledge of the inevitability of lots of failure along the way, with a humility that never boasts with presumptions and assumptions, but invites with honest curiosity, and with complete dependence on the work of Christ at our centre. Christ transforms us. We are co-labourers, but it is Christ that transforms.
Secondly, I wonder what it would be like to release and bless one another to lean into the individual and corporate spiritual personalities we have been given.
There are many different frameworks for different types. Corinne Ware, in her book Discover Your Spiritual Type lays out four spiritual personality quadrants: learning, gathering, being, and doing.
W. Paul Jones has developed a theological worlds inventory that parses out how different people see the main trouble in the world (separation, conflict, emptiness, separation, suffering) being met by the central grace in the world (reunion, vindication, fulfillment, forgiveness, endurance).
No doubt, when offered these typologies, some of us would love to think that our communities and congregations are made up of a healthy balance of all the worlds and types. Others of us think there aren’t enough categories in these typologies to fit the people and communities we know. And still others resist quadrants and types altogether!
Could it be that the body is not made up of one part, but of many? Could it be that we need many spiritual personalities, theological worlds, and atonement theories even!… many love languages, evangelistic languages, and faith languages… to be the body of Christ in this world?
Some of us slouch toward Augustine; some of us roll with Rohr. At the end of the day I am thankful that “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).