Meet in the Middle

In light of my comments in a previous post about the subtle differences in emphasis between the two streams of the Mennonite world I am becoming increasingly familiar with, I was intrigued to come across a passage by Ron Rolheiser in my reading this week that addresses the importance of both the private (i.e., individual piety) and the public (i.e., concern for justice) dimensions of Christian spirituality.

The following two quotes address the twin dangers of a spirituality that is either too personal or not personal enough, and are taken from a chapter called “The Nonnegotiable Essentials” in The Holy Longing:

Within liberal Christianity, and within secular culture as a whole, there is a certain fear that having too-privatized a relationship with Jesus is dangerous, that this is something that takes us away from true religion. Thus, to speak of a personal relationship with Jesus today is to run the danger of being called a fundamentalist….

There are real dangers in an overprivatization of spirituality.  The spiritual life is not just about “Jesus and I.” However, there are equal dangers in not having enough “Jesus and I” within our spiritual lives. The danger in not having the proper interiority (intimacy with God) and the personal moral fidelity to back up our faith preaching is that we end up turning Christianity into a philosophy, an ideology, and a moral code, but ultimately missing what Christianity is all about, a relationship with a real person. If we refuse to take seriously this first pillar of the spiritual life, we will continue to go through the motions, perhaps even with some passion, but we will be unable to inspire our own children or pass on our faith to them. Moreover, we will eventually find ourselves both empty and angry, feeling cheated, and struggling with the temptation of either becoming ever more bitter or of chucking it all.

And the opposite danger:

When we make spirituality essentially a privatized thing, cut off from the poor and the demands for justice that are found there, it soon degenerates into mere private therapy, an art form, or worse still, an unhealthy clique.

God cannot be related to without continually digesting the uneasiness and pain that are experienced by looking, squarely and honestly, at how the weakest members in our society are faring and how our lifestyle is contributing to that. This is not something that a few liberation theologians, feminists, and social justice advocates are trying to foist on us. This is not a liberal agenda item. It is something that lies at the very heart of the gospel and which Jesus himself makes the ultimate criterion for our final judgment.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Ryan. For me no more important issues address the fundamental reality of the Christian calling. We are supposed to be Jesus people doing Jesus work.

    …”The danger in not having the proper interiority (intimacy with God) and the personal moral fidelity to back up our faith preaching is that we end up turning Christianity into a philosophy, an ideology, and a moral code, but ultimately missing what Christianity is all about, a relationship with a real person.”..

    Father Ron has nailed it! In intimacy with Christ, in the interior silence of being and allowing His presence to be felt we are nourished. Christ within us closes the gap between our ideals and our actions. Christ within us gives us the neccessary strength and wisdom to effect, first the changes neccessary to ourselves and then the strength and character to help others. It isn’t neccessary for us to carry the weight of the world. Mother Theresa once said something to the effect that if you seek world peace; seek world justice, start with your family, start with a neighbor. People are often saved one at a time.

    I know I can be a relentless and a sometimes bothersome (to put it mildly 🙂 ) advocate of all thing RC but the Church has a long past and present with interior/contemplative prayer. Most RC churches today provide a specific chapel where we say before the “Blessed Sacrament”, through the monstrance, Christ in body, blood, soul and divinity is present. For centuries RCs worldwide have engaged with the Lord in this fashion. While it maybe discomforting to some sects within Christianity there is significant biblical affirmation of iconic worship and all communities that are historically bound to Apostolic succession, particularly in the east, where hardly any contest the legitimacy of their historical claims, worship is decidedly manifest through iconogaphic images, relics and artworks.

    The point being that the RC and the EO have a greater depth of experience in these matters that would be of definite advantage to other Christian groups. The intentions would and should be eccumenical in spirit and not intended specifically for conversion.

    I am convicted that unless there is a universal revival of interior life with Jesus, the Kingdom on earth will remain mostly man made and mostly inneffectual.

    1. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have much to teach other Christians (I would steer away from the term “sects”) about contemplative spirituality, aesthetics in worship, and many other things, no doubt. On one level, the reason for this is obvious enough: they are older traditions, with much more experience and theological reflection to draw from. But I think aside from that, there are some things that RC and EO understand and experience in ways that other Christians (including Anabaptists) ought to pay attention to and learn from. Conversely, I think that there are things that Anabaptists understand and experience that RC and EO (among others) ought to pay attention to and learn from.

      The body of Christ is deep and wide, and it is much more effective, I think, when we recognize, affirm, and share the gifts that we have been given as different parts of the body.

  2. Ryan, with regard to interior relationships, do you share my concern that it is their minimalization, or in some cases outright abscence, that hinders the work of the Spirit in effecting the Kingdom on earth? Biblical exegesis and theology or contemplative prayer and spirituality, which would you prioritize and why?

    1. Yes, I share your concern. We cannot bring about the kingdom through our own hard work and determination. Unless God is animating our efforts towards his ends, our own efforts will always fall short.

      Biblical exegesis and theology or contemplative prayer and spirituality, which would you prioritize and why?

      I think this is somewhat of a false dichotomy, so I’m not comfortable picking one or the other. I think both of the options as you’ve presented can be (and are) incomplete without the other. I do, however, think that prayer would have to be the rock-bottom priority. If someone had no access to Scripture, no interest or ability in formal theology (because everyone is a theologian, on one level), they would still have access to God through prayer. For those who seek, God is present—he is “not far from any of us.”

      1. I like what you said here. I understand your reticence in responding. I hoped using the word priority iimplied an interdependance that a mutually exclusive, dichotomy would not. I whole heartedly agree that the options I presented are incomplete, one without the other.

        Still as I experience the plethora of mostly well articulated Christian perspectives on line, rich in intellectual rigour but often seemingly indifferent to acknowledging (openly at least) a commitment to spiritual discernment and I participate frequently in Eucharistic celebration that sometimes seems more about obligation and ritual than what should be an awestruck experience of the divinity of Christ, I wonder if we’re losing
        something important.

        The “real person” relationship that Fr. Rolheiser affirms seems almost anachronistic. Many Christians give the impression, to me at least, that Christ is legitimate insofar as he can be intellectually defended and explained and Christianity is legitimate insofar as her precepts affirm the common good. The notion that Christ is present, manifest through the Holy Spirit, irrespective of human apologetic or outcomes, seems often abandoned.

        Fundamentalists and those who might otherwise be labellled as theologically naive, deserve some credit and respect. Insofar as they genuinely attempt to mediate life through the Holy Spirit, they behave consistently like Jesus and consistent with scripture. While some of there understandings and efforts are mistaken, I am more dissapointed in
        a well educated Christian fraternity that condemns them, than I am in their sometimes errant understandings and applications.

        “For those who seek, God is present”. I like that statement very much indeed.

      2. Yes, I think what you say is very often true. It is so easy—for all of us, including “fundamentalists”—to reduce Jesus to a more manageable size, whether we need a divine therapist, a justification for our preferred ethical system, or a philosophical theory.

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