Transformed, or just informed?

At home, we recently started reading The Enneagram by Rohr and Ebert, and I got stuck before even getting to page 1. Here was the first speed bump:

All the Christian churches are being forced to an inevitable, honest, and somewhat humiliating conclusion. The vast majority of Christian ministry has been concerned with “churching” people into symbolic, restful, and usually ethnic belonging systems rather than any real spiritual transformation into the mystery of God.

page xv

Ouch! That hurts… largely because it’s true (the second sentence I mean, not the first–and more’s the pity). This guy has been a priest for over 30 years. He doesn’t let up, either: “Much of what is called Christianity has more to do with disguising the ego behind the screen of religion and culture than any real movement toward a God beyond the small self…” (p. xvi) Then he quotes Thomas Merton:

Their “faith” is little more than a permanent evasion of reality–a compromise with life. In order to avoid admitting the uncomfortable truth that they no longer have any real need for God or any vital faith in him, they conform to the outward conduct of others like themselves. And these “believers” cling together, offering one another an apparent justification for lives that are essentially the same as the lives of their materialistic neighbours whose horizons are purely those of the world and its transient values.

ibid., from Merton, The Living Bread (New York, 1956), xxii

Sobering words, these, reflecting a reality confirmed by reports from Barna and others. We so-called “christians” get divorced at rates similar to the surrounding culture, we have similar rates of absentee fathers, marital infidelity, ostentatious car ownership and so on.

What does this mean? Is the Holy Spirit sleeping in our modern or post-modern age? Is Christianity a sham? Are the promises of Jesus just pie in the sky?

Absolutely not. Rather, many of us attend church as a sort of social convention; we change (some of) our habits but we haven’t changed our identity. Rohr again:

What we have done for centuries in the West is give people new moral and doctrinal teaching without rearranging their mythic worldview. It does not work. It leads nowhere new–or nowhere truly old for that matter. It creates legalists, ritualists, minimalists, and literalists….

Rohr, op. cit., p. xix

I resemble this remark! I’ve written before that I sometimes think “What’s the action plan?” — that is, I’m looking for something to do rather than someone to becomeor become like (that is, Jesus).

At this point I must confess that had I read the above twenty years ago, I would not understand it. Let me offer a picture. It’s as if I go through life as a series of bus rides; I can take the “J” (as in Jesus) bus or the “M” (as in materialistic — philosophically materialist I mean, not necessarily the obsessed-with-acquisition, shop-till-you-drop kind of materialist) bus. What many of us do is take the “J” bus more often than we did before, but we still take an “M” bus quite often. And in either case, we’re still getting on and off the bus when we feel like it.

What we need to do, what I need to do, is form a new picture of myself. Rather than continuing to be the same autonomous person making different choices than before, what I must do instead is see myself as a part of Christ–a cell in a living organism if you will, as opposed to being a wind-up toy soldier on a dusty old shelf. Whether the toy soldier points to the east or west, it’s still a toy soldier that will be destroyed when the house burns (as this world inevitably will).

It’s as if the Kingdom of God were an organism (the church being called the “Body of Christ” for a reason) and we were cells in it, members of that body.

So perhaps what Rohr is saying here (and what I’m seeing here) is not anything new, but something very old:

  • Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
    Romans 12:4-5
  • Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?
    from 1 Corinthians 6:15
  • Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
    Ephesians 4:25
  • After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church– for we are members of his body.
    Ephesians 5:29-30
  • Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
    Colossians 3:15-16

I’ve read these verses, and verses like them, many many times. Many of us, we who went through Rick Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” (based on his book, The Purpose Driven Life ) even memorized Romans 12:5 (highlighted above in yellow). But do you or I sincerely view ourselves as being members of Christ? I’ll admit that I mostly don’t!

Now I’ll happily tell you that Jesus is in charge, and I actually do believe that “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Proverbs 16:9). And I absolutely do not claim to be the captain of my soul — Lieutenant (j.g.) maybe. Sometimes I even believe that Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20, Colossians 1:27).

But I don’t think of myself as an arm or hand (or a toenail or earlobe for that matter). This is something I need to think more about, and pray more about.

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