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The Divine Conspiracy (A New Kind of Question, Part 1) July 17, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Christianity, Saving the World.
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Question: By following Christ’s teachings, can we make an observable, profound, positive change in both our inner lives and our day-to-day interactions with the people around us?

“Imagine, if you can, discovering in your church letter or bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting on you…or how to quit condemning the people around you, or be free of anger and all its complications. Imagine, also, a guarantee that at the end of the seminar those who have done the prescribed studies and exercises will actually be able to bless those who are spitting on them, and so on.
In practical matters, to teach people to do something is to bring them to the point where they actually do it on the appropriate occasions. When you teach children or adults to ride a bicycle…you don’t just teach them that they ought to ride bicycles, or that it is good to ride bicycles, or that they should be ashamed if they don’t…Imagine driving by a church with a large sign in front that says, We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves To Jesus How To Do Everything He Said To Do.”
– Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Let’s face it: the vast majority of us are not living the sort of lives we’d like to. Much of the time we find ourselves behaving in spiteful, angry, deceitful, selfish and deliberately hurtful ways when ideally we would like to be calm, generous, honest, and caring individuals. We resolve to take control of our own actions and to live as better people, but somehow the combined forces of habit and societal pressure always seem to pull us back into “default” mode. The consequences to ourselves (our health, our relationships, our happiness), the people around us, our society, and our planet are all too obvious. Can Christianity offer a practical solution?

Unfortunately, as Willard discusses, most Christian institutions tend to skirt the problem. Generally, they give one of two unsatisfactory answers:

Answer 1: We can solve the problem of evil by making sure we have eternal life in heaven (this involves believing that Jesus has died for our sins and accepting him into our lives.)

Answer 2: We can solve the problem of evil by working to create a just and peaceful world for everyone (this involves eliminating poverty, hunger, racism, disease, discrimination, and violence from our society).

These solutions, Willard argues, are not so much “wrong” as incomplete. What’s the point, after all, of “getting into” a perfect paradise for eternity if we remain the same selfish, quarrelsome, and discontented individuals? Shouldn’t accepting Christ have a real, positive impact on our inner lives and our actions now? Likewise, how can we hope to create a just and peaceful society if we, internally, are not just and peaceful people?

We can see there is an essential practical step entirely missing from both approaches: how can we become individuals capable of – both now and for eternity – living in harmony with those around us, with ourselves, and with God?

*******

Well, Willard asks, how do we learn *any* practical, hands-on skill – such as swimming, piano, carpentry, or speaking French? First we find a good teacher who knows the discipline and has experience passing it on to others. Then we repeatedly practice the skills required (butterfly stroke, playing scales, cutting and sanding wood, conversational drills) until they are part of not only our conscious knowledge but are ingrained, automatic actions which we can perform without thought. We are not learning isolated facts (“the capital of Portugal is Lisbon”) or purely abstract theories (such as atomic theory or free-market economic theory). Rather, we are learning various patterns of behaviour which we can reproduce and apply in our own lives.

One of the things I most admire about Willard’s approach is his recognition that evil (or in Christian terminology, “sin”) is mainly unconscious habit. Most of the time when we gossip or put others down or exaggerate the truth or are carried away by an explosive blast of furious anger, we do not deliberately choose to follow these behavioural patterns (who wants to become angry, after all?). We do so because we have no others in our repertoire, or none ingrained enough to be automatic; we are like a computer running a “default” program. We may intellectually recognize that there are more positive ways to interact with others, but unless we have previously made a sustained, conscious effort to put these principles into practice, we are like a music theorist trying to give a concert without having ever touched a piano; our abstract understanding simply won’t help much on a practical level.

Much of the dimension of personal blame and condemnation (which many find the single most off-putting aspect of contemporary Christianity) is thus removed. We are not “bad people” but rather, simply, human beings who through observing others and reproducing their behaviour have copied these patterns of interaction into our own lives. In a very real sense, we “don’t know what we are doing”; once we have a clear insight into its destructive effect on our own lives and those of others, we will not choose to live that way. This is an extremely empowering message; we don’t have to (indeed it is pointless to) sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for God to magically transform our personalities. Rather, we must learn a better sort of existence through focused, applied effort on our part together with his guidance and help. Which leads to the next point…

*******

If we are to learn to live in peaceful fellowship with others and our own selves, Willard proposes, the first thing we must do is to find a teacher. (Otherwise, for all our good intentions we probably won’t get too far). In the Christian tradition (obviously there are others!) the ideal teacher of this skill is Jesus himself, as reflected in his life on earth and his words that others have recorded. Only by consciously following his instructions and by consistently, deliberately applying his principles in our own relationships with others and ourselves will we become the kind of people we want to be.

Next Willard gets down to the the “nuts and bolts” of the matter, which makes up the core of his book. Taking the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer as the two most unified, detailed records of Jesus’ teaching available to us today, he outlines the basic principles of Jesus’ approach. This begins with the recognition (the “Beatitudes”) that the ideal life – one of love, forgiveness, and infinite potential rather than hatred, condemnation and self-limitation – is available to all, right now. It doesn’t have to wait until some idealized future utopian society or a bodiless after-death state. This is the essence of Jesus’ “Gospel” or “Good News”: realizing that the sort of life God intended for us is open to every human being.

Next Jesus outlines the behaviours that prevent us from living this sort of life and which cause conflict within ourselves and our society: anger, contempt, revenge, hatred, condemnation, and manipulation of others for our own ends. (Willard discusses each in detail and why it is so destructive.) If we are to become the sort of beings we were meant to be, we need to step by step, consciously remove these factors from our interactions with others. Setting aside time for interacting with our teacher (God) through prayer, meditation, solitude and careful study of Christ’s own words is an important part in this process (it’s impossible to learn a skill if you never meet with your teacher!) In a larger sense, by applying these principles of active discipleship to Christian churches and communities, Christianity can be a relevant, powerful force for change within our society and our world.

*******

To sum up: this is the sort of “self-help” book we need to see more of: one that consists not of comforting statements and feel-good rhetoric, but a practical “how-to” manual that teaches us how to really make a difference in our own lives. Which is, when it boils down to it, the essence of what God wants for every one of us: to “have life and to have it abundantly.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Post 1 of the “A New Kind of Question” series. For an Introduction click here.

* C.S. Lewis’ novella “The Great Divorce” provides an insightful and compelling glimpse into what such an existence might be like.

** As Willard describes: “We hear cries from our strife-torn streets: “Give peace a chance!” and “Can’t we all just get along?” But you cannot give peace a chance if that is all you give a chance. You have to do the things that make peace possible and actual. When you listen to people talk about peace, you soon realize that in most cases they are unwilling to deal with the conditions of society and soul that make strife inevitable. They want to keep them and still have peace, but it is peace on their terms, which is impossible. And we can’t all just get along. As a major part of this, our epidermal responses have to be changed in such a way that the fire and the fight doesn’t start almost immediately when we are “rubbed the wrong way.”

Comments»

1. World Wide News Flash - July 18, 2010

The Divine Conspiracy (A New Kind of Question, Part 1)…

I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

2. JM - July 20, 2010

In lieu of (yet another) “self-help” manual for Christians, which is likely to be read only by Christians, I propose “we” (Christians and non-theists, all good-intentioned people) act as a living example of individual strength and light. We know by now that individuals can have a profound impact on the world. Books are easily replaced, but acting as ministers of Christ or just of humanity can touch individual lives, and lessons learned from those interactions are not likely to be forgotten.

contrapuntalplatypus - July 21, 2010

I propose “we” (Christians and non-theists, all good-intentioned people) act as a living example of individual strength and light. We know by now that individuals can have a profound impact on the world.

I couldn’t agree with you more (in fact that is the subject of the next book I’ll be discussing in the series, a powerful and inspiring model for how we might begin…) My only question would be to the first part of your sentence:

In lieu of (yet another) “self-help” manual for Christians, which is likely to be read only by Christians, I propose…

Does it have to be either/or? (In fact, is an either/or approach even applicable?) If those of us who identify with the “Christian” faith and worldview wish to truly change the world, than hadn’t we better try to use Christ’s teachings to eliminate those things within ourselves – self-centeredness, apathy, argumentativeness, greed, egotistical certainty that “my” idea/approach is “the right way” – that are most likely to hamper our efforts? Otherwise, isn’t it likely we’ll end up “getting in our own way”? So many groups that start out with a deep commitment to making the world a better place degenerate so quickly into bickering and petty struggles for power precisely because of these tendencies. (I am not of course claiming that Christ’s approach is “the only” or even necessarily “the best” way to do this, just that it is the one most readily available to Christians.)

I know that in my own experience I see the struggle against evil in the world, and the struggle against evil within myself, as inherently linked. What happens in the “microcosm” of my own life and choices can have a very profound impact on the “macrocosm” – the people I interact with, and on the world. Of course it works the other way as well; what we see and encounter in the world around us can compel us to actively work to become better people. And I think it is precisely through interacting with others to try to achieve a greater good, together with a conscious effort to not let the “dark” tendencies within ourselves “take over” our efforts, that we can most effectively make a difference in both the interior and exterior struggles we face. At least that has been my own experience both on #iranelection and elsewhere…


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