Douglas Todd, the Religion Reporter for the Vancouver Sun, recently wrote an article entitled, Liberal Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘middle way.’ In the article he claims that Liberal Christianity is the faith practiced by most mainline Protestant and even many Roman Catholic Christians in North America. He outlines 10 points of Liberal Christian belief on topics ranging as widely as Jesus, sex, social justice and death. This current series, Classical Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘ancient way,’ is our response to his article. Although there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points, there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.
Today, we will continue with the sixth point of Liberal Christianity: Reviving Ancient Spiritual Practices. Douglas Todd writes:
Liberal Christians don’t go for things like speaking in tongues, known as glossolalia. And they are shy about pleading for God to directly do something for them, as if God were a magician or puppet master. They view prayer as a way to develop rapport with the divine. Open to learning from Eastern spiritual practices, liberal Christians are also rediscovering their own tradition’s overlooked paths to contemplation and the inner life. They’re following Barbara Brown Taylor, John O’Donohue and Jay McDaniel and meditating, going on pilgrimages (like Spain’s El Camino), lighting sacred candles, walking labyrinths, chanting and sharing sacred meals.
Classical Christianity shares the Liberal concern about treating God like a magician or puppet master. God is not some sort of cosmic vending machine. Liberal Christians are wise in shying away from prayer that treats God this way. However, it’s one thing to come to God with reverence in your requests. It’s another thing not to make requests because you believe God is relatively uninvolved in the life of his people (an issue that arises from point one of Liberal Christianity).
Liberal Christians view prayer as a way of “developing rapport with the divine.” Classical Christianity would take issue with approaching prayer this way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes prayer as gift by which we engage in our relationship with God. It says “the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. This communion of life is always possible because, through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ.” The Catechism explicitly says that our rapport with God is not cultivated through prayer but through Christ in baptism.
This approach to prayer is affirmed in the Catechisms of the Reformation as well. Martin Luther’s Shorter Catechism describes prayer this way, “God would tenderly urge us to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him confidently with all assurance, as dear children ask their dear father.” The Heidelberg Catechism says “We must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, revealed to us in his Word, asking for everything God has commanded us to ask for … even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord.” Both reiterate that our rapport with God is not developed by our prayers but by Christ.
Classical Christianity reminds us that Christ is to be found in all places and is available to all people.
Liberal Christians should also be commended on their return to the ancient practices of our shared heritage. Contemplation and the cultivation of the inner life have long been a bedrock of Classical Christianity. Others outside of the Liberal stream have been pushing for this too. Richard Foster in his book, The Celebration of Discipline, calls for such a return. Fr. Richard Rohr has been actively calling Christians across the spectrum to contemplative prayer.
The Liberal approach to cultivating our inner lives with Christ through contemplative practices, however, needs to come with a few cautions:
First, self reflection and examination is necessary and good but can turn into navel gazing. The 16th century mystic Teresa of Ávila writes “It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.” However, she also says “we shall advance more by contemplating the Divinity than by keeping our eyes fixed on ourselves.” If we are to develop our inner life the primary Classical aim is to abide more fully with the Holy Spirit.
Second, the contemplative life within Liberal circles can easily slip into Gnosticism, whereby spiritual practices become a way of attaining special knowledge and encounters with God. The practices can give way to some self-perceived spiritual superiority. Classical Christianity understands that God is available not just in our spiritual practices but even the mundane. As Brother Lawrence in The Practice of The Presence of God writes, “Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave him not alone.”
Third, the modern Liberal approach to these practices is prone to syncretism (mixing religious perspectives). To be fair, Christianity has adopted philosophical frameworks and practices from other religions throughout the centuries. However, whenever Classical Christianity engages in syncretism it does so in such a way that new ideas and practices are brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (and with great caution knowing that the Biblical witness strongly condemns syncretism with other religions). When Todd recommends someone like Jay McDaniel, he is implicitly suggesting that other religions have the same capacity to lead us to God as Christ does. Classical Christianity would outright deny this.
Finally, Todd mentions that Liberal Christians enjoy the practice of “sharing sacred meals.” While table fellowship is an exemplary practice of Jesus in the gospels, the only sacred meal that Classical Christians are preoccupied with is the Eucharist. It is in the bread and wine that we truly encounter the sacred: we participate in the presence of Jesus. There is no spiritual practice that even comes close to this.
While there is much to be commended in Liberal Christianity’s return to ancient spiritual practices, there is just as much to be cautioned. Classical Christianity reminds us that Christ is to be found in all places and is available to all people. It teaches us that Jesus’ presence is not contingent upon our ability to find him but that he has made himself available to us through baptism and communion. In light of this, we pray not to develop rapport but to celebrate being in communion with the triune God.
In our next post, Mike will respond to the seventh point of Liberal Christianity: Jesus’ psychological insight into hypocrisy.