From Being Right to Being Good by Gregory Thompson
In this fifth article in a series of articles called A People of Repair, we continue to consider an urgent question facing every American Christian who seeks to embody faithfulness in our time: What do we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called? As I have wrestled with this question over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that the church in America, if it is to truly be a people of repair, must deliberately undergo a number of shifts in both the substance and the structure of its life.
In previous articles I explored the shift from Dominion to Communion, a shift in the purpose of our faith, the shift from Myth to Truth, a shift in our interpretation of the context in which we live out our faiths, and the shift from Victimhood to Servanthood, a shift on our identities. In what follows, we consider the shift from Being Right to Being Good.
From Being Right to Being Good: A Shift in Formation
When I first came to faith, my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was largely ethical and missional. Ethical, in the sense that I understood being a Christian required daily labor to transform both my character and my behaviors into a shape reflective of divine goodness. Missional, in the sense that I understood that the purpose of my life was somehow bound up with the call to love others and to give myself for their good. Looking back now, I am deeply grateful for this early formation and the ways in which it not only grounded me in the basic rhythms of the Christian life, but also ultimately guarded me against inevitable temptations to define that life in a way that devalued its ethical and missiological dimensions.
In my own case, that temptation—when it came—came as an alluring call to shift my understanding of the Christian life away from the ethical and the missional, and toward its conceptual dimensions. And I fell for it. Like, hard.
At first—during my late university years—this conceptual shift took an explicitly theological form. That is, without really realizing it, I began to think, read, and talk less about developing a Christian character or participating in a Christian mission, and more about developing what I believed to be a Christian mind. I began to read core theological works of the Western Christian tradition. I listened to audio recordings of lectures by leading theologians. I went to conferences. I labored—for the first time—to think both clearly and critically. And, as is often the case in such a life stage, I was eager to both discuss and debate these things at length with willing—or unwilling—interlocutors. It was a thrilling time in my Christian life, a time in which I was, really for the first time, giving myself to the task of understanding the faith that defined my life.
Over time, however, my interests—though still largely conceptual—shifted away from a relatively narrow focus on Christian theology toward what I learned to call a “Christian Worldview.” This led me to engage not only with theology but with poetry, art, film, music, architecture, history, and science, philosophy—each with an eye toward identifying and critiquing the worldview each of these presumably contained. If the turn to theology I described above was thrilling, the turn to a worldview was even more so. This is because it opened not only the faith, but the very world to me—showing me a God who cared not only about me and about my neighbors, but about all things.
Looking back now, I view this conceptual shift through a complicated lens. I can say without hesitation that this shift was both necessary for my growth and foundational to all the ethical and missional work with which I am now involved. And yet, I must also say that my conceptual turn entailed a real—if unintended—shift in emphasis away from how I lived and toward how I thought. That is, while never really denying the ethical or missional dimensions of the Christian faith, I nevertheless placed a disproportionate emphasis on its conceptual dimension.
The fruit of this was fairly predictable. On one hand, it meant that I began to put a good deal of energy into scrutinizing both other Christians and my neighbors for errors in their conceptual frame. Suddenly, understanding and debating the conceptual differences between Protestants and Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Baptists and Presbyterians, Buddhists and Secular Humanists became of paramount importance in my Christian life. On the other hand, this meant that I had less interest in, and therefore gave less energy to, the ethical and missional dimensions of the faith that originally anchored my life. Simply put, there is a very real sense in which I was becoming more right but less good.
At the risk of projecting my own issues onto others, it seems fairly obvious to me that the broadly reformed and evangelical churches with which I am most familiar are similarly afflicted. Indeed, this conceptual focus reveals itself in a host of ways: in our instinctive and virtually exclusive platforming of “thought leaders,” in our ongoing sponsorship of conferences, seminars, and curricula aimed at “cultivating a Christian worldview,” in our endless appetite for analysis and critique of those who differ from us, and—tragically—in our grotesque habit of treating our neighbors as abstractions by reducing them to their supposed worldviews and engaging them almost wholly through that lens. Each of these suggests that a great deal of the American church has itself succumbed to the conceptual temptation and that both we and our neighbors are worse off because of it.
My first awareness of the costs of this shift in myself came during my first year of parish ministry. I was 31 years old and had just taken responsibility for a large and complicated congregation in a university town. Although excited by the opportunity, I was also unprepared for the distinctive combination of public pressure, institutional conflict, and private pain that came with it. Nor was I prepared for the fact that at the same time I began this parish work, several important theological leaders—each of whom had a significant influence on me—entered into periods of moral crisis that were at once personally tragic and publicly destructive. Within a year of beginning my ministry, this convergence of vocational pressure and relational disillusionment left me both deeply frightened and desperate for answers to a fundamental question: How can I remain faithful amid dangers that lead so many to ruin?
In the months that followed, I posed this question not only to myself but also to my colleagues in ministry. To our surprise, the answer we found led us not away from the conceptual realms of theology or worldview, but in some sense beyond them—into the mysterious realm of formation. I remember the moment when clarity came. Wade Bradshaw, a friend and fellow pastor, looked at me and said, very simply, “We have to go to the monasteries.” Though neither of us fully understood the implications of these words, they nonetheless rang within me like a bell, filling me with hope.
Over the following year and a half, we labored together to unpack the meaning of Wade’s instinct. We started (of course) with reading books both by and about monastic leaders and about the life they aspired to lead. Augustine. Anthony. Benedict. Teresa. Aelred. Julian. Bernard, Ignatius. These writers opened an entirely new world to me—a world in which the goal of the Christian faith was not simply to think God’s thoughts (an impulse I now view primarily with wariness) but to participate in God’s life, and through that to be conformed to God’s image.
This insight led us, as it had many of our monastic sisters and brothers before us, to begin to ask hard questions not simply about what we believed, but about how we lived. To examine not simply our minds, but also our words, our use of time, our relationship with food and alcohol, our use of money, our friendships, our domestic lives, and our bodies. What we saw was disheartening. This is because it revealed a community of men and women, each of whom loved God and gave themselves to the work of ministry in his name, who were nonetheless profoundly disordered in the most ordinary aspects of our lives.
In response to this, we worked together to create a rule of life—adapted from the monasteries themselves—that would support us in the work of giving holy attention not only to what we believed, but to what we loved, and to how that love might take concrete shape in every area of our lives. In August 2010, we formally embraced this rule together and began to let it shape us into new human beings. And, while the intervening years have led each of us to different places in our lives, each of us remains devoted to—and anchored by—this rule.
Though I did not understand it at the time, this movement entailed a profound shift in the nature of my Christian life. That shift, simply put, is the shift from being right to being good. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that the conceptual dimensions of the Christian life ceased to be important. To the contrary, they remain essential to my life of faith. Nor do I mean to suggest, Lord knows, that I am good. What I do mean to suggest, however, is that the intellectual dimensions of my faith are now sublimated within and subservient to the large goal of being formed—mind, heart, body, word, and labor—into the image of our beautiful Lord. And I can say without equivocation that as I have walked a road more painful than I could ever have imagined, this shift has saved my life.
As I survey much of the American Church in our moment, it is my earnest yearning that both individual Christians and gathered congregations will embrace such a shift—and experience such joy—in their own lives. This is the only way to be free of our dark obsession with our own insight and our neighbors’ errors. This is the only way to be faithful in the midst of a painful path. This is the only way not only to be whole, but also to offer wholeness to our neighbors. This is the only way to turn from our needless participation in the violence of this world and become, at last, a people of repair.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.