As part of my preparation for helping out with classes in the undergraduate Christian spiritual formation program, I’ve been reading through Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. The content is not new to me; I read the book in high school and have been exposed to much of Dallas’ teaching by Jim Smith. I’m not saying I fully understand all the conceptual work Willard does regarding the presence of the kingdom and transformation in full detail. But, I approached these readings as a concepts review, rather than looking for new insight.
That’s why I was so struck at how at how much this passage hit me between the eyes this morning:“Where we spontaneously look for ‘information’ on how to live shows how we truly feel and who we really have confidence in. And nothing more forcibly demonstrates the extent to which we automatically assume the irrelevance of Jesus as teacher for our ‘real’ lives.” —The Divine Conspiracy, 55.
In the second chapter, Willard outlines the “Gospels of Sin Management.” On the Christian right, this gospel is manifest as a “go-to-heaven-when-you-die” program. Atonement and the cross are central to this conception. We are broken people who need forgiveness, by giving mental assent or praying a prayer we receive this forgiveness will reap the fruit…when we die.
So, what’s the problem? This gospel has nothing to say to life now; it ignores the in-breaking of the kingdom of God and leaves its adherents waiting to live.
I’m feeling pretty good at this point. After all, I went to Duke Divinity (hardly a bastion of the religious right).
Then I turned the page.
On the Christian left, this gospel plays out in a social gospel type fashion, though not exactly in the traditional sense. This gospel proclaims the finality of love: resurrection over crucifixion, life over death. Taking cues from the civil rights’ movement, among others, this gospel focuses on structural sin and powers. Desire becomes the standard and anything that limits what people desire must be removed. Willard characterizes it as another version of the American dream.
The problem with this gospel is that ‘love’ can lose any point of contact with God’s action in Jesus Christ, and so the message morphs into a kind of generic egalitarianism.
In Willard’s estimation, these presentations of the gospel leave out the importance of personal transformation in life now. The one is overly future-focused, the other is structure-focused. Both gospels have much to say on those topics, but little to say about joining faith and life together–two things that shouldn’t be separate anyway. Sin-management, not kingdom living, is practiced.
While I might quibble with parts of Willard’s presentation of the left, I think the earlier quotation (no, I didn’t forget) is spot on for both ends of the spectrum. The hope of resurrection and praying and working for transformation of unjust structures are integral parts of the Christian faith. For Willard, the problem is that we have neglected to follow Jesus’ own teaching and example.
I’m happy to go to church, pray the daily office, and do other ‘religious’ things, but I don’t often look individual moments of my day as part of the call God has put on my life. It’s not intentional, I just neglect it. I believe, but I regularly disregard the abundant life Jesus preached. And where else can I learn about that life then from Jesus?
Again, from Willard:“Strangely we seem prepared to learn how to live from almost anyone but him [Jesus]. We are ready to believe that the ‘latest studies’ have more to teach us about love and sex than he does, and that Louis Rukeyser knows more about finances. ‘Dear Abby’ can teach us more about hot to get along with our family members and co-workers, and Carl Sagan is a better authority on the cosmos. We lose any sense of the difference between information and wisdom, and act accordingly” (55).
Now, I have no Idea who Louis Rukeyser is, but you get the thrust of his point. I could insert other names: Lifehacker, the latest Facebook link, _________.
Far from advocating any kind of legalism, I think Willard has his finger on something important:
I would rather read a 5 point post about being a better me than participate in the difficult work of being conformed to the image of Christ.
And I have to confess, most of the time that is true. I substitute quick fixes for lasting change. Which shows how easy it is for me to trust Jesus for my faith and ignore him with my life.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. I don’t want to sound like a Debbie-downer. There are days when I follow Brother Lawrence and practice God’s presence more often. This quote just got me thinking about who my teacher is, and I’ve been thinking about it all day.
Jumbled thoughts at this point, but hey, I guess you have to start somewhere.