A while ago I heard someone say “Christian discipleship is the process of becoming more human”. I remember the phrase staying with me for some time as I tossed and turned it over in my mind. Why was this phrase standing out to me? Usually we hear, “Christian discipleship is the process of becoming more Christlike”, so replacing that with “human” makes the hearer think twice. I think one of the reasons that we might stumble over this phrase is perhaps because when we think about becoming more Christlike, we think of becoming more “spiritual” which is often seen to be in opposition to being human. Being human is usually associated with “the flesh”, sin and failure. Being spiritual is to be holy, godly and separated from the possible contamination of this world. So in the minds of some Christians, being Christlike is more about escape from our humanity and our bodies so that we might be truly spiritual, holy and free from sinful flesh. To say then that Christian discipleship is “a process of becoming more human”, rattles the Gnosticism which sits hidden in the collective subconsciousness of much of Evangelical Christianity.
Gnosticism is an ancient religion which denigrated the material world in favour of the spiritual world. The “lower” world was associated with all things to do with matter and the flesh. The goal was to move towards living in the eternal world where God lived, which included all matters to do with the soul, perfection and spiritual things. Many of the New Testament letters could have been referring to Gnosticism when they referred to the false teachings that abounded at the time. In those times Christianity was susceptible to syncretising with this belief. However, today Christianity in many ways is still tempted by the ancient beliefs and practices of Gnosticism.
I hear it in contemporary and some more traditional worship songs.
I’m thinking of a song which says, “I want to be heavenly minded..I want to be like you [God]”. I wonder what the song writer(s) meant when they wrote that they want to be heavenly minded and that this is what is means to be like God. I suspect they did not mean living as a fully embodied person in the midst of the muck of this world. And I think of Amazing Grace, a beautiful hymn which contains the line “The earth will soon dissolve like snow”. I also wonder if John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace had room in his theology for a restored universe in a material sense, which means that the world will actually not dissolve but rather be renewed. Some of all of this may be due to bad theology or a misinterpretation of Scripture but I do also wonder if there is a Gnosticism revealing itself to some extent which is conveying the message that the world and the flesh do not matter, only the spiritual is of importance.
However, when the apostle Paul said in Colossians 3:2 “Set your minds on things that are above , not on things that are on earth”, he was not advocating a dualistic, gnostic practice for Christians! (1)
I wonder about a lot of things in this regard. Do we Evangelicals focus on evangelism more than social justice and polarise the two because we value the soul more than the body? I have heard people say that as long as people “make the decision to follow Jesus” and their salvation is secure, then that is all that is necessary, even if they have limited water, education, justice, shelter and clothing. Aren’t we saying here that what matters most is the soul not the body? I also wonder about the way that pastoring a church can sometimes be a dehumanising experience. It is perceived that what matters is the spiritual, so the body for example is not taken care of. Is that why we see such a high burn out rate among ministers? These things and more make me reflect on how seriously we see this God made flesh, the True Human, as the One who came to restore us that we might become more human in body, mind, emotions and spirit, not less so. Instead of seeing ourselves as God’s image bearers who are gradually being holistically restored in Christ from one degree of glory to the next, we see ourselves as damaged beyond repair waiting to escape our earthly bodies and go to a disembodied state we call heaven.
How did we get here?
Michael Gorman points to the same observation I made at the beginning of this article, that is that many of us have made a deep misinterpretation of the word “spiritual”, from a Christian point of view at least anyway. He states in an essay about the “this-worldliness” of New Testament spirituality that, ” For many people, including Christians of various kinds, the word spirituality connotes an experience of the transcendent, even specifically of God or Jesus, that is not connected to life in the world. Its purpose so to speak is to transport people out of the trials and tribulations of this world through mystical experience(s), an interiority focused on the self or the god/God within, or an eschatological orientation that pays scant if any attention to social ills…The resulting spirituality is often otherworldly, escapist and even narcissistic.” (2) I think that one thing, but certainly not the only thing, that we can do in order to drain the Gnosticism from our belief and practice as Christians is to re-appropriate the term spirituality. Gorman states that spirituality must be translated into the stuff of daily life mainly because as Christians we follow a God who entered into our human condition. In that sense the incarnation and the crucifixion are very ‘this-worldly’!
In the church where I pastor, we have tried to take seriously the grounding of our faith through our daily activities. Like most churches we have a set of values that we uphold which are particular to our congregation. Also, like most churches, we realise that those values can remain latent on well thought out documents rather than practiced. So it was very important for us as a church to come together in order to not only decide on our values, but also to decide on specific practices associated with those values. When we agreed on our values we also came to agreement on how we were going to practice those values in our daily lives. Too often churches leave this kind of work sitting in the minds of people in an abstract sense, but if we are going to embody our faith and ground our spirituality so that we become like Christ the True Human, we need to flesh out or “incarnate” our beliefs in our everyday lives.
Gorman quotes Bonhoeffer here who says
“Later on I discovered and am still discovering to this day, that one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life…[A]nd this is what I call this worldliness: living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities- then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the sufferings of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane. And I think this is faith;this is metanoia. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.”
Maybe if we began to redefine the practice of Christian spirituality as embodied, this-worldly, based on the incarnation and cruciform existence of Jesus, we might root out any Gnosticism in our beliefs and practices.
We might even begin to practice a spirituality which understands that to become more like Jesus is to become truly human.
1. For a great explanation of how Colossians 3:1-4 connects with v5ff thus refuting a primarily “otherworldly” interpretation of this passage see Michael Gorman, “The This-Worldliness of the New Testament’s Otherworldly Spirituality” in The Bible and Spirituality, A. Lincoln, J. McConville, L. Pietersen (eds), (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013)163-167.
2. Ibid., 151.[Photo by Mike King, CC via Flickr]