online book group: Almost Christian, chapter 1

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Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character . Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

So…what do we worship? And how does it affect what we are becoming?

If we are worshipping the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, we may be becoming that benign-whatever-vaguely-nice-but-shallow thing that no one seems to think is worth following.

As Charles Wesley put it:

“The greatest question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? … Is this commandment written in your heard, “you who loveth God love your brother also”? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Do you lever everyone, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? As Christ loved you?”

In other words–Christian faith is not only about what we believe with our minds, but also about our hearts–the core of our being–and and about our lives–the way we demonstrate the love God has given us. When we worship this God, the God of scripture, the God made known in Christ, the God who calls and equips and loves, then we will become that. The issue is not about whether we can think from a Christian perspective, but whether we love the kingdom of God more than the kingdoms of this world and our culture’s expectations.

This is why Dean says that our ability and willingness to remember and to live our identity as the Body of Christ is the core theological issue of the church today, and our lackluster response to that call is at the root of the problem–the problem of shallow faith that does not hold us, and to which we do not hold. When we lose our young people, it’s not because they’re simply off exploring, it’s because the faith we have passed on is Very Nice but is not holy, is not calling them to be the Body of Christ…it’s world, not kingdom of God stuff.

Faith in the Christian theological tradition is about desire for God and desire to love others as we have been loved. It’s about our whole selves–loving God and loving neighbor (and loving enemy!) with our whole heart, soul, mind, and body. It is about a gospel-shaped life. As Dean puts it, it’s more of a trust walk than a belief system (p6)–faith is about who we follow. Christian faith is about cleaving to Jesus Christ, joining a journey, and following him into the world. We can certainly have faith in plenty of other things, and we can follow them into the world too. Many of us have done that–we’ve followed the American Dream, we’ve followed money or fame or “success” or friends or expectations or politicians or any number of other things. But as Christians, we are called to follow someone, not something, and that someone is the Son of God.

The difficulty, of course, is that this may not be comfortable. It isn’t like going to the diner where everyone knows us and we can get just what we want when we want it, something to make us feel good and fill us up until our next visit. Diner theology, as Dean describes it, is “a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice.” (p10) This diner theology is safer and more comfortable, but it ignores Jesus’ call to lay down our lives for the sake of another (John 15.13), it ignores Jesus saying that we are to serve as we have been served–do take the role of the lowest slave, and work without recognition, it ignores that God’s self-giving love fills us with grace so that we can share it even when we have none of our own. Christianity is not about being nice, avoiding conflict, never rocking the boat, and keeping God handy in case of emergency. We have traded in the faith of scripture and thousands of years of Christian theology for a nice-smelling diner soup (a la Jacob and Esau).

 

We’re only partway through chapter 1, but I think that’s enough blunt statement for today. Dean does not mince words–she calls us out on our lukewarm teaching of a lukewarm faith. Next week we’ll continue with some ideas about how we got here and where we can go from here.

In the meantime: how would you describe your own faith? How do you define the Christian life? What do you hope we are passing on to the next generation? Have you encountered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in yourself or others or at church? What ideas do you have for how we can move forward more faithfully?

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