Union with God. Spiritual transformation. Discipline of the mind, discipline of the body, fasting, and ceaseless prayer. Sacrificial care of the poor and rejected. Expanding powers of body and spirit: clairvoyance, miracles, healing. Constant tranquility, even when facing persecution and death. Indestructible joy. Union with God.

Yep, that's Christianity.

Now, these are probably not your first thoughts when you think of Christianity. We don't often think of Christianity as a particularly spiritual religion; from the outside, it seems more about orderliness, decency, and good citizenship, with a special gold star for scolding others. Yet that's not what it's like from the inside--or, at least, not what it was like at the start.

"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20), Paul writes. Not mere metaphor here; the life of Christ would literally infuse and transfigure believers. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17), Paul says.

Jesus himself makes it clear that "Follow me" means not just following his teachings but surrendering to him personally. Jesus prays "even as Thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that [my followers] also may be in us...I in them and thou in me, that they may be perfectly one" (John 17:21, 23). Some kind of transformative union is intended here, and it lies beyond easy words.

In fact, if these scriptures weren't overly familiar, we would think they had an "eastern" flavor, redolent of mysticism. It's a reasonable association for a faith that, after all, began in the Middle East.

Here's how it was summarized by a seventh-century Middle Eastern bishop, St. Isaac of Nineveh: "Fasting and continual rumination on God give birth to the submission of the senses, then watchfulness of the intellect, and then the ferocity of the passions are tamed. Next comes meekness of thoughts, which leads to luminous movements of the mind, then to zeal for the practice of virtues. This gives way to subtle intuitions, then the flow of tears, the remembrance of death, and pure chastity which is remote from every imagination.

"From this," he concluded, "comes clairvoyance and then mystic perceptions which the mind can understand."

Now, next time you hear Billy Graham exhorting a packed stadium to anticipate luminous movements of the mind, give me a call. Somehow in the West, we stopped expecting mystical union with God through Christ; instead, we aim merely to be like Jesus. Unlike the early Christians, we don't even try to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5), seeking a transformed, illuminated mind.

In comparison, a "What Would Jesus Do?" wristband seems pretty tepid.

What happened?

Three moments in Western history tilted the balance toward a more external, less intimate faith. Most recent is the Enlightenment, which 200 years ago proposed human reason as the antidote for religion (a.k.a. "foolish superstition"). This attack motivated Christians to develop sturdy logical syllogisms to defend their faith, and ix-nay so much on the upernatural-say.

Christian faith is reasonable, so there was no falseness in presenting it that way. But it did shift the point of emphasis, and faith became drier.

Further back, about 500 years ago, the battles surrounding the Protestant Reformation made theological argument the prevailing mode of being religious. It came to seem that "faith" equaled "ideas about faith." Right biblical belief is vital, and confusion is spiritually disastrous. But the purpose of faith was being lost, as it shrank under fire to the mere content of faith.

Push further back, about 800 years ago, and observe the first cracks between heart and head, intellect and emotion. This false division has dealt lasting damage to the West.

One strain of medieval devotion cultivated a cloying fixation with Jesus as the bridegroom of the individual believer, rather than of the whole church. Some of these writings are overblown to the point of being disturbing. As sentimental piety grew, women gradually became the majority of churchgoers, an imbalance seen in most Western pews today. (My thanks to Lee Podles, who develops this thesis in his book "The Church Impotent.")

A contrary strain sought to define theological truth in exacting detail, most famously asking how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In the West, Christian spirituality split between gooey sentimentality that could be cavalier about making sense, and theological tinker-toy construction that could be cavalier about enhancing faith. I once saw a poster reading: "I was wandering alone in a dark forest with only the light of a single candle to guide me, and along came a theologian and blew it out."

Yet union with Christ is not primarily either intellectual or emotional. It is ontological; it has to do with a real change in our essential being.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus