A People of Repair: Part Nine


From the Merely Spiritual to the Fully Human
by Gregory Thompson

This is the ninth article in a series of articles called A People of Repair, a series devoted to an urgent question currently facing every American Christian who seeks to live faithfully in this world: 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?

From the Partial to the Whole: A Shift in Calling 

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but there was definitely a shift. As I wrote in Part Seven of this series, my early years in the Christian faith were attended by a conscious awareness that being a Christian meant not only life with God, but also life with—and devoted to the comprehensive well-being—of others. As an expression of this, I split my time fairly evenly in those days between attending Bible studies and working on houses, between going on retreats and going on mission trips. Looking back now, I see that I instinctively understood that the call to love the neighbor was a call to love them wholly.

At some point, however, I began to hear—and, for a while, to entertain—the idea that this understanding was somehow misguided. That, to the contrary, what was most important in the Christian faith—and, by extension, in the world—was the spiritual. In this account, what really matters in the Christian life is not the body, but the soul. Not the alleviation of suffering, but the avoidance of sin. Not a commitment to my neighbor’s flourishing on earth, but to their presence in heaven. As an expression of this perspective, both the substance of my priorities and the shape of my time began to shift. I began to think less about my neighbor’s physical needs and more about their spiritual state. Less about feeding their hunger, and more about refuting their objections. Less about ensuring their safety and more about assuring their salvation. And even in those increasingly rare instances when I did give myself to, say, working on a home or serving food in a kitchen, I did so with a lurking awareness of the instrumentality of these labors, a belief that while these temporal things were nice, what really mattered was the way that they opened up the possibility of turning to things eternal. And not only this, I began to hear—with increasing frequency and shrillness—that to believe or to act otherwise was somehow a threat to the integrity of the faith. Indeed, that it was to fall prey to, what—in that most dreaded and whispered of phrases—is called “the social gospel.” 

Given the ongoing sensitivity around these issues, let me hasten to say that I do—as I always have—believe in the importance of the spiritual. I believe that human beings have a spiritual longing for God and that, as Augustine said, we remain ever restless until we find rest in God. I believe that we are daily dependent on the spiritual nourishment of the Holy Spirit in whom we live, and move, and have our being. I believe that both the healing of our spiritual wounds and the perfection of our spiritual virtues are found in union with the living Christ. And I believe that much of the daily work of the Christian life is the ongoing practice of understanding these spiritual longings, partaking of these spiritual nourishments, and deepening this spiritual union.    

That said, I also believe in the deep and abiding importance of the material: the physical, the economic, the ecological, and the—dare I say it?—structural. I believe that these are just as important to the Christian life as the spiritual realities that lie beneath them. I believe that the God who gives rest to our souls also intends to give rest to our bodies. I believe that the nourishment provided by the Holy Spirit consists not only of counsel and comfort, but of bread and wine, sun and rain, water and sky. And I believe that the Christ to whom we are united by faith is the risen Christ—embodied and enfleshed—and thereby honoring to our own embodiment. Because of this, I believe that any vision of the Christian life that emphasizes the spiritual to the diminishment of the material is, at best, confused and at worst, corrupt. 

And yet it persists. In virtually every ecclesial setting of my experience, I have encountered the lurking presence of a preference for the merely spiritual. Indeed, in more than one circumstance this has been more than a preference; it has been something more akin to an insistence. In reflecting on these things, I have come to believe that the enduring default toward the merely spiritual is the fruit of two impulses. 

The Pietist Impulse 

Historically speaking, this impulse can be discerned in a variety of Christian traditions: the desert ascetics, medieval mystics, romantic interiorists, 19th century holiness movements, and contemporary therapeutic contemplatives, to name a few. But what each has in common—and what many faithful American evangelicals share—is a deep emphasis on the interior and the spiritual as the primary locus of the Christian faith. While, as should be obvious, I have concerns about what seems to me to be a reductive emphasis on the spiritual, I have nonetheless learned a great deal from each of these traditions and have found myself both challenged and enriched by their insights. Indeed, much of my life has been an attempt not to free myself from these insights, but to take them and merge them with an equally robust concern for the material. In my view, this fusion represents both a deeply faithful and an utterly compelling vision of the Christian life.  

The Preservationist Impulse

This second impulse is at once more concerning and more broadly discernible in contemporary American Christianity. Like the pietists, the preservationists also tend to emphasize the spiritual as the primary locus of Christian faithfulness. The distinction, however, is that they tend to deploy this spiritual vision very selectively, and primarily at times when their social vision is threatened. Perhaps an example will help. Back when I was a pastor, I frequently found it necessary to address matters related to race, poverty, and military violence. When I did so, it was not at all uncommon for me to find myself on the receiving end of concerned conversations or frank emails devoted to reminding me about the dangers of polluting the gospel with the political, and calling me to resist the apparently ubiquitous lure of the “social gospel.” However, on occasions when I resisted using the morning liturgy as a July 4th celebration, or failed to publicly oppose a particular political candidate, I noted that these same people came to me to accuse me of “failing to take a stand.” 

Though originally confused by this apparent inconsistency, over time I began to understand that what I was witnessing was not the erratic deployment of the pietist impulse, but the consistent—and in time, wholly predictable—deployment of a preservationist impulse. That is, I was witnessing the workings of a Christian life lived in service to preserving a particular social and political vision. And according to the logic of such a life, when I spoke in ways that could be construed as support of that vision, I was “faithful.” When I neglected to speak in support of that vision, I was a coward. When I spoke against that vision, I was a social gospel liberal who tainted the spiritual priorities of the faith with a political agenda. This inconsistency—a hallmark of the preservationist impulse—indicates that, unlike the pietists, the preservationists are not actually committed to some sort of purely spiritual gospel. They are, rather, committed to the preservation of a social vision through the selective deployment of spiritual language whose function is to silence dissent. 

As I have written extensively elsewhere, one of my central concerns about the contemporary American Church is that it is in the grip of a preservationist impulse. There are, no doubt, many true and earnest pietists in its midst. But my view is that the honest spiritual commitments of these pietists are being cynically leveraged in the interest of a very particular cultural and political vision. And one of the terrible consequences of this situation is that many churches tend to retreat into spiritualized silence at the very places in which we most need to speak. 

It is more than evident that our communities are languishing under a host of evils: political tribalization, historical revisionism, the circus of celebrity, wealth gaps, gun violence, educational inequality, geopolitical instability, and ecological death—to name a few. Each of these matters to God, and each of them is a legitimate place for the labors of a community defined by faith, hope, and love. More than this, a necessary place. And yet so many of us, so many of our churches, and so many of our leaders remain silent. Why? Not because there is any biblical or theological reason to do so. Not because there is any historical, cultural, or political reason for us to imagine that these things will simply go away. We are silent because we are, I believe, confused by our own pietist impulses and, perhaps more to the point, cowed by Christian leaders who use those spiritual impulses as weapons for social conformity.

The fruit of this is tragic. Cruel indifference to the profound and ongoing suffering of our neighbors. And an absolute crisis of credibility for the Christian Church in our time. If the Christian Church in our time is to recover the meaning of its own existence, it is imperative that we cultivate the spiritual wisdom, prophetic courage, and divine compassion necessary to renounce our commitment to the merely spiritual and to give ourselves to form of neighbor love that is—as we are, and as our Lord is—fully human.

Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.

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