Along the Way: Healthy Religion

Reading Brian McLaren’s latest book, ‘Do I Stay Christian?’ has been a good experience for me for multiple reasons. [1] In this post I look at one of them: the importance of embracing and expressing healthy religion. At first glance, that seems like a “Captain Obvious” statement. Who would want any other kind? And yet, after reading McLaren’s book, it is soberingly clear that there are formidable forms of toxic religion, not only doing great harm, but moving more people than we imagine to say “No thank you” to Christianity. [2]

It will take us decades to turn this around, and the reversal will not be a return to theological and institutional status quos. God is using the liminal space between religious toxicity and religious health to once again do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). We are in a new-wine era. We must make new wineskins. [3]

That effort, wending its way toward a new era yet to be seen is a “great spiritual migration” into which God invites us. [4] We must be engaged pilgrims, not waiting on others to do what needs to be done. “This is the day of salvation”—the moment of restoration. We must do what we can, using the time and resources we have, to move forward into increasingly healthy religion. Three words point us in the right direction.

Seeing…..John the Baptist and Jesus came proclaiming the message of the kingdom of heaven, with its internal (“within you”) and external (“in your midst”) dynamics, both of which made it near and now. Jesus great desire was that his followers would have eyes and ears to recognize it (Mark 8:18). As a Life-Giver, Jesus summed it up in the phrase “abundant living” (John 19:10).

We must become students of this kingdom, one in which even the word ‘kingdom’ must be understood in a new way. Traditional monarchy language is insufficient, even misleading. Jesus put it plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). To see the kingdom of heaven requires metanoia (repentance)—that is, looking at life in a new way.

Syncing…..healthy religion is not just seen, it is experienced. It is not just believed, it is behaved. To see the kingdom of heaven is to enter it because the wonder of it ignites our journey in it. We affirm the faith and then align ourselves with it.

In the Wesleyan tradition, this is experience—brought into its relationship with Scripture, tradition, and reason. It is “religion of the heart” (inward and outward holiness). It is “living faith” (as the Wesleys often called it), faith where love prevails through the enactment of the two great commandments and the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit. The contemplation of the kingdom ensues in our congruence with it. [5]

Serving…..once we see and sync with the kingdom of heaven, we joyfully accept our opportunity to serve God in it, offering ourselves to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). In the words of the Wesleyan Covenant Service, “Christ has many services to be done.” We acknowledge this by bringing our particular form of service to the task of glorifying God and exalting Christ.

The model for this service comes from Christ himself in what we call his kenosis, as seen in Philippians 2:5-11. We sync with his spirit and serve with his disposition. Paul says we have “the mind of Christ” and our obedience is expressed every day through our routine activities—what we refer to as ordinary holiness. Brother Lawrence, in his classic ‘The Practice of the Presence of God,’ says we are meant “to do little things for God.” We serve that way.

Healthy religion includes additional features and details. But seeing (the kingdom of heaven), syncing (metanoia), and serving (kenosis) get us moving, and doing so in the right direction. [6) We have hope that if we embrace and express these things, we will be among those whom God uses to move us into the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). And so, we pray in the Spirit of Sts Francis and Clare of Assisi, and others before and after them,

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

[1] Brian McLaren, ‘Do I Stay Christian?’ (St. Martin’s, 2022).
[2] Chapters 1-10 in ‘Do I Stay Christian?’ look at unhealthy Christianity: anti-semitism, violence, colonialism, institutionalism, money, white patriarchy, toxic theology, lack of transformation, constricted intellectualism, and an aging demographic.
[3] Chapters 11-20 in ‘Do I Stay Christian?’ says “Yes” is a compelling answer because: leaving hurts allies and helps opponents, leaving defiantly or staying compliantly are not the only options, where would I go?, it would be a shame to leave a religion in its infancy, our legendary founder, innocence is an addiction and solidarity is a cure, I’m human, Christianity is changing for the worse and for the better, to free God, Fermi’s paradox and the great filter.
[4]Brian McLaren looks at this in detail in his book, ‘The Great Spiritual Migration’ (Convergent Books, 2016).
[5] Eugene Peterson emphasized congruence in his books, ‘Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places’ and ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ and also in articles and interviews. It was one of the main themes in his spiritual theology.
[6] Ilia Delio’s book, ‘The Wisdom Jesus’ (Shambala, 2011), explores all three of the themes in this post: “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” metanoia, and kenosis. Her excellent book shows how Christology is at the heart of it all.

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 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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