For many of us, Christianity simultaneously attracts and repels. We feel its power and beauty, but can’t shake the feeling that something’s just a little off about the whole thing. It’s a tension felt not only by folks on the outside or the periphery of Christian tradition, but those of us right smack in the middle of it as well. We know that there’s a living path of transformation in front of us, and yet so many people in the Church seem so, well, untransformed.
It’s an important dissonance to pay attention to, and one that we’re beginning to get clearer insight into as Christianity dialogues more deeply with the other religions. One of the most simple and direct pointers I’ve ever been given to the problem was when a friend in college explained to me why she identified as a “Buddhist Christian” (Buddhist, she said, was the adjective and Christian, the noun). It was as simple as this: “Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, and the Buddha tells me how to love my neighbor.”
In Buddhism, she had discovered spiritual teachings and practices (like meditation) that gave her a practical path for cultivating more love and compassion in her life. In contrast, Christianity seemed focused mostly on something called “believing,” and told her only what to do and not how to do it. It’s that how piece that has so obviously dropped out of the picture for much of Christianity, and it’s why so many of us find ourselves turning to contemplative traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism to fill in the gaps.
Today, however, most of us are aware that Christianity actually does have a rich contemplative heritage, complete with teachings, practices, and instruction manuals for the spiritual sojourner. It’s not always as accessible as that of other traditions, but we now stand as heirs to the hard work put in by spiritual giants like Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton to reclaim and reinvigorate the Christian contemplative tradition. But where did we go wrong? How did we lose those treasures in the first place?
When we turn to the Gospels with the fresh eyes given to us by Eastern religions, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that Jesus was first and foremost a “wisdom teacher”—that he taught his followers a path of spiritual transformation. He asked the perennial wisdom questions like, “How do I lose my life in order to find my life?” He taught in parables, aphorisms, and koans—the classic methods of wisdom. (For any of you wanting to explore this dimension of Jesus’ teaching more fully, I highly recommend Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Jesus. )
When we look to the writings of early Christians like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, we see this understanding continued, with a clear emphasis on spiritual practice and inner work.
So if this emphasis is so obvious in the Gospels, and was cultivated and developed in the life of the early Church, how and why did it drop out? There are a few key moments in history worth pointing to. The big one, of course, is Christianity’s linking with Empire in the fourth century under the rule of Emperor Constantine. With an imperial edict in 380 making Christianity the official religion of the state, what had once been a path that took profound commitment to follow suddenly became the religious wallpaper of an entire empire. With Christianity now serving as an imperial identity marker, the degree of actual commitment to the transformational teachings of Jesus began to vary wildly.
At the same time, Constantine wanted to consolidate Christianity as a belief system, and councils of bishops were called to formulate what would eventually become the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”), said still today during the Sunday worship of many Christian denominations. What’s important to take note of here is not the correctness or incorrectness of the content of the creedal statements, but rather the shift that happened in Christian identity when intellectual assent to cognitive maps became central to what it meant to be Christian.
Belief in the first three centuries of the Church was much more about being and doing; it was an activity of the heart that implied action and practice. After the fourth century, belief came to be something much more intellectual and abstract—and thus less transformative. A friend who is a former Roman Catholic monk (now living at a Hindu ashram, and still a Catholic), likes to say that the great councils of the Church “attempted to hammer out the mystery, but instead they just hammered the mystery out.” Subscribing to the faith became a largely cognitive act, rather than a transformational encounter with mystery.
Even prior to Constantine, however, the context of persecution and martyrdom that shaped the early Church played a significant role in getting things off to a shaky start. As you read the Gospels, you see Jesus constantly working to overcome dualistic, “us vs. them” thinking: he uses examples of outsiders like Samaritans and Romans (heretics and pagans) as models of good faith; he includes women in his close circle of disciples; when some of his own students want to condemn the spiritual work of a person outside of their circle, he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us”; he teaches his disciples to “pray for your enemies and love those who hate you”; and, of course, he prays near the end of his life, “may they all be one.” We see Jesus constantly resisting the urge to fall into the dualistic mind.
But the early context of persecution brought “us vs. them” thinking into Christian consciousness with full force. What Jesus had brought as a path of awakening and transformation suddenly became an identity marker that could be opposed to other identity markers. First it was Jew against Jew (all of the earliest Christians were Jews), but quickly it became Jew against Christian and Roman against Christian. In the heart of this initially oppressed Christian minority the early seeds of anti-Semitism were sown. Go on to link this newly won martyrdom complex to the forces of Empire and you see the beginnings of the path that led Western history to the Holocaust. Link the same imperial-religious identity marker to creedal statements and you can chart the course that led to heresy hunts, witch trials, and the Office of the Inquisition.
Even with all of this history, however, the Christian contemplative tradition was never fully submerged. It stayed alive in monastic communities, and Benedictine monasticism in particular was one of the strongholds that preserved Christianity as a path of practice and transformation. But mysticism was often held in suspicion, and some of the greatest Christian contemplatives faced the Inquisition and did not survive the encounter. Christianity would go on to pass through the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment (with its heavy emphasis on rational thought), and the fire of mysticism would be all but burned out. But there were always those who kept the coals alive.
And now here we are. And here and now is an incredibly good and hopeful time for the Christian path. The whole imperial-religious complex of Western Christendom is crumbling. Christianity is no longer the cultural wallpaper assumed by every single person. We hear cries of “the Church is dying!” And this, I believe, is a great thing. Because as Christianity begins to lose hold as the dominant cultural identity marker, we can begin to rediscover it as the path of awakening and transformation that it has always been. We can move beyond thinking of Christianity primarily as a belief or belonging system and rediscover it as a path—as the how that my Buddhist Christian friend longed for and couldn’t find. Now that it’s becoming clear why something has felt a little off about Christianity for so long, we can start to do something about it.
Underneath the rubble, there are warm coals burning. Words echo down through the centuries: “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I am guarding it until it blazes.” A living path of awakening still flows to us directly from the heart of Jesus. For those of us who feel called to walk it, we have a fire to stoke and tend.