Monday, August 01, 2005

Personal Piety Stinks

The other day I came across the following sentiment regarding the unity which Ephesians 4:1-3 says the Church should exemplify: "These verses speak of unity but it is speaking of spiritual unity, not organizational unity. It speaks to the inner qualities of humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance which then produces spiritual unity among the believers . . . these verses don't teach that 'unity of the Spirit' requires us all to submit to one another and bow our convictions to the majority. Unity can only come when we are united in the truth (emphasis mine)." The context of this quote, as you might imagine, was a very thin self-justification for not conducting oneself in actual deeds of humility, gentleness, patience or the tolerance of love. No, to go beyond the "inner dispostion" into the actual enactment of these "attitudes" one must meet a further qualification than merely being a Christian - namely agreement upon "the truth." The truth, of course, like peace, is concieved not as an external reality (such as fidelity to Jesus or trustworthiness as a disciple), but rather as an internal state of mental assent to whatever doctrines one may care to stipulate. In other words, spirituality is essentially an "inner" thing.

This privatized perspective on religious duty (which attempts to circumvent every communal obligation placed upon the Christian) is rooted in one of evangelicalism's most foundational principles - personal piety. Evangelicals invented the "devotion" - fastidious prayer, meditation, personal Bible study and memorization and the like. We commonly emphasize the need of every individual to be personally confronted with God's call upon them, and we measure the validity of a person's induction into our community by their stories of personal renewal (we call it a "testimony"). Beyond the event of conversion we continue to prescribe the personal piety of "devotions" and provide "accountability" strictly in this sphere of religious activity. And of course this is all well and good.

But the ugly bastard stepchild of evangelicalism's contribution to Christianity is a concept of personal piety that excuses oneself from public moral responsibility. For all of the raging against postmodernism among the ranks of theological conservatives (among which I happily place myself) it's ironic that passages like these in Ephesians get so lustily user-defined. Peace? An inner quality? Is there a more extreme example of reader-response than that? What sort of intelligible Jew viewed the the coming kingdom of God as primarily an inner quality? What sort of bizarre hermeneutical hoop-jumping can make the deeply national and politcial visions of Isaiah, exemplified in the Messianic "prince of peace" of "whose government there shall be no end", merely an "attitude"? If Paul is even mildly serious about the division of Jew and Gentile having been broken down in Eph. 2, and about the new humanity this constitutes in Eph. 4 (both of which are clear echoes of the Old Testament hope for God's universal rule over all the nations of the earth) than this hyper-privatized interpretation is unmasked and exposed for what it is: the spirit of this age and a product of ideologies that hail from lands foreign to the Bible.

Personal piety is well and good, but the Church described by the Ephesian epistle is more than an assemblage of spiritually enlightened individuals - it is a commonwealth consisting of all nations, both Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:12-16), the new humanity (Eph. 4:24ff.) where Jesus is proclaiming His victory over sin and death as He sits enthroned above all earthly and demonic rulers (1:20-23). And because that's what the Church is, a glorious outpost of God's coming kingdom planted in the present, the piety God desires is a PUBLIC piety - not in the sense of Pharasaical self-congratulation, but in the deeply impassioned purpose of not only proclaiming who Jesus is, but demonstrating through our communal lives that He really is at God's "right hand in
the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come." Perhaps this is why the early church didn't relegate moral instruction to "devotions" in a manifestly cloistered religious sphere of conversation. Disclosure of personal finances, discussions of sexual ethics, detailed codes for family living and even practices of communal ostracism were all normal functions of church life. If Christians don't belong to that sort of community, a community of public piety, to what community do we belong? Perhaps the feeling of "inner peace" which comes to the exclusion of the communal practices outlined in Eph. 4:1-3 is less concerned with truth than it appears, and is in reality the most dangerous kind of fiction.


Anonymous said...

Theologically conservative non-evangelical bloggers are travel agents advertising a fly-fishing trip to Fallujah. It's the best fishing there is, but you'll probably be murdered before you get there.

So be it. Presumably your theological conservatism is the natural result of your view of inspiration. And presumably, your non-evangelicalism is the natural result of theological conservatism without the wet blanket of cultural conservatism.

However you've arrived at this place, don't be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you. In no-man's-land, you are going to take it from both sides.

You probably won't get much grief from me, though. Thanks for your post.


Nathan Logan said...

"Disclosure of personal finances, discussions of sexual ethics, detailed codes for family living and even practices of communal ostracism were all normal functions of church life."

And how much have those areas specifically suffered for lack of accountability among the community of the Body! Both are epidemic problems in the church, furthered by the pride of thinking, "I can handle this myself," or the spiritual pride of thinking, "I don't want anybody to know I sin in this way - they will think I'm not spiritual!" The more hushed a sin in the Body, the more pervasively it spreads. I shudder to even consider the number of men in the church who are struggling with media-related lust (Internet, TV, movies, magazines) who have not disclosed the problem to any other person. It's scary.

And personal finances? Does it get any more personal than that? I have a funny feeling (in my tummy) that if we were to have specific accountability in that area, as the American church, our spending habits (and budgets) would look significantly different. Despite God's VERY serious view of the matter (including "weeping and gnashing of teeth"), we seem to take greed pretty lightly in this culture.


Anyway, good thoughts. And I have no idea what Anon is saying, but I'd love to book one of those fly-fishing trips. =)

TheBlueRaja said...

You're right about getting it from both sides, anonymous, but thanks for your wonderfully quirky encouragement! I do hope, however, that I didn't give the impression I had given up on evangelicalism. I consider these comments a "critique from within", not merely rock-throwing.

Your intincts were right about the constituents of my conservatism, although I would probably put the foundations on my view of incarnation with inspiration perhaps being a derivative of it. Likewise my uneasy membership in evangelicalism is due to the "wet blanket" of consumerized Christian culture. Thanks again for your colorful post -- hope to hear more of them, maybe even without the anonymity!

TheBlueRaja said...

Semper reformanda! You and I should chant it arm in arm over a beer at Kahootz Pub and Eatery in Meridian, Nate!

Nathan Logan said...

Name the time, my friend, name the time (but don't name it for this weekend, cuz I'll be out of town).

Stephen said...

Great thoughts. I have a question regarding your statement about inspiration. By saying that your view of inspiration is based on your view of incarnation do you mean to say that you are in a sense Neo-Orthodox? By that I mean, do you believe first in Christ, then the Bible as the revelation of God to man?

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks Stephen. I suppose that there's a dialectic going on there -- namely that you can't really know Christ apart from the testimony about Him; at the same time though, you can't know His word unless you follow Him. I suppose that I may have some Barthian sympathies with the primacy of Christology in our doctrine of revelation (), but that is in no way to denigrate the necessity of the written Word. It is to say, however (with Barth), that theology is impossible without humility because the truth at issue is a Person who says: "I am the Truth". Consdier the following quote from Barth's Dogmatics:

"To apprehend and affirm the idea [of deity] we have to think of definite periods in human history as this name leads us. . . we have to think of definite events and series of events which according to the witness of the Old and New Testaments actually took place at these periods and in these places, relating them always to the spoken and actualized 'I am'. And then necessarily we have to think of the concrete Scripture which bears witness to these events, the text of the Old and New Testaments."

The sense in which I see Christology as foundational is in that He is God's Word, who proceeds from the Father; He, in turn, sends God's Spirit, who ministers in His place and through Whom the Scriptures came to be.

TheBlueRaja said...

Sorry about the empty parentheses -- they were meant to carry a reference to Hebrews 1:1-4.

Stephen said...

I see. Thank you much for sharing your view.

TheBlueRaja said...

I thought i should note a few points of clarification here:

1) I am a conservative evangelical, though not without grief

2) I am not Neo-Orthodox, though not willing to villify them

3) I am Indian, and a pacifist. Not that this has anything to do with anything, but I just found it funny that those two things are suprisingly unrelated!

Jeremy Jensen said...

Nice discussion, and it's nice to hear that BlueRaja has not bought into political Christian conservatism lock, stock, and barrel, or at all for all I know.

I know this is somewhat unrelated, so I apologize if I've derailed this thread.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, Jeremy -- I must say that if what you mean by "political Christian conservatism" is the Republican Christian right, I'm tempted to go as far as to dismiss it as fundamentally un-Christian, root and branch. That isn't to say that I don't think being a Christian isn't a necessarily political statement -- I think it most certainly is -- but it is to say that the polarities of "liberal-conservative" and "Democrat-Republican" are fairly unhelpful for a Christian agenda.

jeremy jensen said...

I'm pretty sure you're my new hero, I think?

Jeremy Jensen said...

Reading your last post on this thread, I really think you'll enjoy Sojourners (the magazine I mention in the Baby Bacteria thread). They recognize that neither the left nor the right are really aligned with Christian values. Did you see any of those "God is not a Republican or a Democrat" bumper stickers that began appearing around the presidential election? Those were created and distributed by Sojourners.

matt said...

I came across these quotes which display the necessity of love for unity, not the other way around.
“I do verily believe that when God shall accomplish it (unity), it will be the effect of love, and not the cause of love. It will proceed from love, before it brings forth love” (John Owen).
“Ah, were their souls fully assured that God had loved them freely, and received them graciously, and justified them perfectly, and pardoned them absolutely, and would glorify them everlastingly, they could not but love where God loves, and own where God owns, and embrace where God embraces, and be one with every one that is one with Jesus” (Thomas Brooks).

Interesting, looks like outward action. I need to finish my sermon.