Along the Way: A Hard Look on the Inside

My last “Along the Way” post dealt with the evil of fundamentalism/nationalism, looking at Jesus’ call to have eyes that see as a way of naming it, resisting it, and overcoming it with good.

The problem is, when the eyes of our heart are opened (Ephesians 1:18), we see something else–we see that mainline Christianity has not escaped evil, but rather has contributed to the mess we are in today. When our eyes are opened, Jesus tells us to look at ourselves, not just others (Matthew 7:1-5). In fact, he tells us to look inside before we look outside. It is a hard look, but one that is necessary.

When we do, we see that we have benefitted from evil as much as any other person or movement. One of the reasons that evil is so difficult to overcome is that we all participate in and prosper from it. [1] The influence of evil upon our egotism, ethnocentrism, and economics (noted in the last post) is no less real. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Progressives have their unique contaminations, so we do not escape the “guilty as charged” conclusion when the Spirit searches our hearts (Psalm 139:24). In this post, I will use writings by Thomas Merton and Lisa Sharon Harper to show how this is so, and then conclude with my own thoughts.

Thomas Merton’s “Letters to a White Liberal” was one of my early eye-openers. [2] Written in the summer of 1963, they ran nearly 70 pages in printed form. He wrote the letters as a “call to universal examination of conscience” on the part of all Christians, and especially those who considered themselves liberal.

The length and substance of the letters preclude a detailed summary. They are a read-it-for-yourself necessity, but in a nutshel we can see that Merton’s indictment lay in the fact that while liberals championed many good things, many Gospel things, they did so in ways that preserved their security and power.

As the letters unfold, they show how this has been so in many ways: politically, economically, militarily, even racially. Position papers and laws (in and of themselves) were written by the liberals in ways that did not end up respecting Black Americans, but “look nice on paper.” In the end, Merton shows, Christians made profit (e.g. money, materials, status) more important than people. This, he noted made the liberals feel good while perpetuating a view of the individual/collective self that treated non-Whites as objects, and largely left them “in their place.”

Merton’s words were a hard saying when I first read them decades ago, and have remained so every time I re-read them. They were written to those who went to church without ever becoming the Church. They connected with the view of E. Stanley Jones written forty years earlier in his book, ‘The Christ of the Indian Road,’ in which he showed how too much of institutional Christianity (in his case, Methodism) was incarnating colonialism more than Christ.

Lisa Sharon Harper’s book, ‘The Very Good Gospel’ has come alongside Merton’s letters because what she writes about further illustrates the failure of the Church to be the Body of Christ–a failure, in her view, to embrace and express shalom. This has occurred to a large extent, she writes, because the Church settled for “thin theology.” [3]

Thin theology is not an original idea with her, but one that Miroslav Volf put forward in 2011. On the conservative side, Lisa points to “Gospel tracts, simple diagrams, and fill-in-the-blank studies” as examples. On the progressive side, thin theology “lacks deep roots in the Scriptures and Christian traditions.” No matter from where thin theology emerges, the most dangerous thing about it, Harper says, is this: “It also has left us without the biblical foundations needed to comprehend Kingdom theology.”

Thin theology renders people incapable of recognizing fallen-world ideologies and faux faith. It leaves “the principalities and powers” free to peddle their putrid patriotism and snake-oil spirituality. We are seeing how true this is as people fall prey to conspiracy theories, QAnon lunacies, and Christian Nationalism–falsely concluding that “the kingdoms of this world” are of God.

Merton’s recovery was in relation to a restoration of the true self (imago dei) in its individual and collective manifestations. For Harper, it is the recovery of shalom. Taken together, both of them call us to a recovery of humanity[4]–holy humanism which God commended in the Perennial Tradition long before organized religion ever came on the scene. [5]

In addition to the hard look that Merton and Harper call us to take, I would add the following things without comment. As a Church, we have…

–emphasized going to church more than being the Church

–made members more than disciples

–clericalized the church, turning the clergy into a guild and the laity into donors who support the system

–defined right belief more as assent to to doctrines than alignment of our lives with the Gospel

–turned differences into divisions (complete with “our side is of God”) and made our disagreements battlefields

–elevated religion above humanity, making it possible to claim to be religious while behaving inhumanely

–made missions too much about the transfer of cultural values so that becoming Christian looks more like being European or North American (also read “white male”) rather than like Christ

–built walls rather than bridges and constructed fortresses more than welcome centers.

If we add everything up, it is little wonder that people are staying away and walking away from the Church. When we take a hard look at ourselves, we find that the problem is not the world’s rejection, it’s our self-righteousness.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he cleansed the Temple, not the Sanhedrin. If we take a hard look at ourselves, we realize that if he went to work again today, he would cleanse the Church, not the Capitol.

[1] Richard Rohr, ‘What Do We Do with Evil?’ 38-42.
[2] Thomas Merton, ‘Seeds of Destruction,’ 3-70.
[3] Lisa Sharon Harper, ‘The Very Good Gospel,’ 10-11.
[4] David Gushee writes about this in his book, ‘After Evangelicalism’ as does Brian McLaren in his book, ‘Do I Stay Christian?’
[5] Bede Griffith’s book, ‘Universal Wisdom’ describes the main features of the Perennial Tradition in the introduction. Richard Rohr’s ‘Oneing’ journal (Vol. 1, No. 1) explores the Perennial Tradition from various angles.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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