I'm going to ruin your day. Why? Because I must.1
There's a disturbing trend in contemporary Christian expression that needs to be squarely faced. We all experience it regularly. It's so ubiquitous at this point that many good people confuse it with authentic Christian expression. I'm referring to the superficial neo-spiritualism that has infected the contemporary understanding of the faith. This neo-spiritualism has some distinctive markers. So far, I've been able to identify the following:
- It has the characteristics of Anti-intellectualism.
- It has an obsession with redefining faith as an “encounter.”
- It improperly divides and orders the parts of the human soul.
- It tends toward Christo-monism.
- It redefines Christ's mission to be radical affirmation.
- It tends toward a de-emphasis of the Sacraments.
- It priorities the personal over the ecclesial.
- It lacks traditional sensibilities concerning piety.
One of my Dominican brothers is famous for remarking that all heresies are, at root, a problem with Christology. When we make mistakes about the person and nature of Christ we end up with far reaching errors.2 As you may be able to see from my list, this current error is no different. The funny thing is that quite often, the practical implications for these errors are difficult to see when they aren't being subjected to the rigorous lens of theological investigation. When these errors are employed in active ministry, like a Persian Rug glanced at a distance, it's difficult to see the flaw.3 But, unlike a Persian Rug, flaws in theology do not contribute to the beauty of Christian living. Rather, what may appear to be harmless or even good ideas might lead to theological error when they are, themselves, the result of theological error.4
Let me break this down in simple terms. There are two aspects of this contemporary problem. On the one hand there is a flawed understanding of grace. On the other hand there is a flawed understanding of nature. On the level of nature there is an undue emphasis on subjective experience over and against concrete reality. Included in this is a tacit denial of the intrinsic intelligibility of the natural order and an over-emphasis on ontological goodness.5 On the level of grace there's a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ's mission, how this mission is ordered in the economy of salvation, and the nature of the relationship of grace to nature.6.
So, what's the big deal? When these errors collide with our society, which is increasingly deprived of authentic relationships, we end up with what I'm calling a neo-spiritualism. Unsurprisingly it closely approximates the sort of Christian life that St. Paul finds and corrects among the Corinthians. Elsewhere I've called it simply neo-Corinthianism.7 The tl;dr version is that these dispositions create a pseudo-mysticism that is divorced from rigorous asceticism, the perfection of the virtues, and obedience to the tradition.8 Religion becomes something primarily in one's own mind instead of primarily in reality. The faith one holds becomes virtually indistinguishable from one's own imagination. One becomes a voyeur to Christianity instead of an active participant in it. Or, one works really hard but at the wrong things, in the wrong order, at the wrong time. Or one simply privileges action over contemplation.9
So, what's at stake? Well, for those who desire fidelity and progress in the spiritual life, they are deprived of those things necessary to advance beyond the first stage of faith - the stage of initial conversion, i.e., one never ceases being a beginner. For those experiencing the birth of faith for the first time, they are immediately led off course. For the tepid, they are provided no substantive reason to advance in the faith. For the unbeliever, they are given no real reason to believe. In short, everyone eventually ends in despair because the hope that's offered by Christ is dulled. In hope's place is found activism, and self-help programs with religious seasoning.10
Lest I leave you in despair, there is hope. There is a simple solution. Here's my advice:
- Remember that faith is an intellectual virtue. So, following the desire of the Second Vatican Council we all must educate ourselves, and be educated, in the sure doctrine of the Church. If you don't know the basics, you won't master the advanced course.11
- Never forget that theological study is ordered to attaining wisdom and not merely the accumulation of facts.
- Meditate on the Word of God. What St. Jerome said all those years ago still applies today. “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
- Participate in the Sacraments as often as you are able. Cultivate a love for the Sacraments for their own sake, not for what they can do for you or to you.
- Do corporeal works of mercy. Remember, faith without works is a dead faith.
- Don't wait for those around you to get on board with the renewal of authentic Christian life. Take the initiative. You will suffer for it, but that's okay, our Lord was killed for renewing things and no student is above his master.
- Don't hide your faith in your parish walls. Institutions can quickly become the proverbial bushel basket under which we comfortably cower.
- Don't expect perfection out of yourself. We are all sinners. Each of us is at a different stage. When you fall short, try and aim your fall so that you land in a confessional.
This isn't a magic formula. These are simply the basics of Christian living. If you do these things the others will fall into place. You don't need plans, programs, goals, and assessments. Our Lord has already provided the program. Follow him.
Hopefully you will thank me in the end. However, I know this is going to disturbe people. But, we must not give in to fear. Likewise, we must not avoid discussion on controversial topics. ↩
'Errors' isn't even necessarily the correct word here. Sometimes these imprecisions simply lead to dangerous practices. ↩
This is partially because there's rarely rancor or malice among those who fall prey to these errors. Their “heart is in the right place” so to speak. ↩
I like to give the example of the Albigentians. They were mostly correct in their critiques and instincts. But, many of their practices that, on the surface, seemed good eventually led to their fall into formal heresy. ↩
This shouldn't be confused with moral goodness (which is precisely what happens amoung those who hold to the error I'm trying to articulate). Ontological goodness is simply the way we speak about 'being' as it's related to the will. Moral goodness is about right action. ↩
I immediately think of “Buddy Jesus” from the movie Dogma when I think of this error. People simply forget that Scripture recalls that Christ preached a single message which was “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Everything else was an articulation of how one is to repent and what precisely is the gospel. ↩
Who knows? Maybe the term will catch on. ↩
In fact, I'm pretty sure most people don't even know what any of these things actually are or why they are important anymore. ↩
This is the strangest result to me. It's counterintuative that this sort of pseudo-mysticism would lead to an activist religiousity. However, it seems that when the relationship between nature and grace is conflated the natural result is some form of Pelagianism. ↩
Notice, there is no notion of eschatological transcendence. Immanentism reigns. One sign, then, of an enfeebled Christian expression is a sort of Christian Utopianism. Dispair in a Christian is evident when the majority of his resources are spent on benevolent philanthropy or fighting the culture wars. ↩
Even though there's a pius tradition that the gate of heaven is manned by St. Peter and not Alex Trabeck it is untrue to say that our theological knowledge will not play a role in our admittance into beatitude. Theology is about coming to know God so that we can grow in our love for Him. The more we know God, the more we can love a God. ↩