Everything Old is New Again

December 17th, 2009

Ancient Christian practices are finding a home in post-modern Christianity

by Brian McLaren

I was raised Plymouth Brethren in the 1950s and 1960s, a group that has taken some pride in skipping over the centuries of church history between about 63 C.E. and about 1835, seeking to be “New Testament Christians” who are freed from “traditions of men,” whether they be Catholic men or Protestant men. (The gender-specific language was intentional and unambiguous.)

Not only that, but in the 1970s I had experienced a powerful conversion in my teenage years through the Jesus Movement. It was a movement known for being hip, not ancient; contemporary, not contemplative; and oriented around evangelistic practicalities, not spiritual practices. In the ’80s I was involved in the house-church movement. In the 1990s, it was the church-growth movement.

At each stage, we focused on how to “be” the church and “do” evangelism in the rough waters of late modernity and early post-modernity. We looked around and ahead, but not necessarily back. We were so busy trying to escape the tyranny of the recent past that we had little reason to explore the resources of the ancient past.

Beginning in the mid-90s, the modernist categories of my faith had deconstructed, and something new began to emerge. My dualisms began to fade away. I began integrating the polarities of liberal vs. conservative, pastoral vs. prophetic, contemplative vs. activist, and so on.

But to understand what was happening, I had to understand what had happened.

Dualism has had a long history in the Christian religion. It springs from the belief that ultimate reality exists in two incompatible airtight zones. The distinction begins with a dualism that pits matter against spirit or body versus soul. Eventually there are many dualisms: the contemplative versus the active, the individual versus the communal, the church versus world, the political versus the religious, and so on.

Plato is often blamed for making dualism seem wise and philosophical. But it wasn’t until we combined Neoplatonic thinking with the power dynamics of the Roman Empire that dualism became such an addictive aperitif. Once you’ve tasted that Greco-Roman cocktail, dualism isn’t just a matter of perception and thought anymore: It becomes a tool of superiority and domination. Everything can be sorted into one bin or another—and we are in the good bin and they are in the garbage bin.

In the modern era, dualism met its competition: reductionism. Reductionism is the idea that all reality can be reduced to mechanisms that the mind can understand through physical validation. It dispatches anything non-material into the bin of illusion. Consciousness is nothing but electrical brain impulses. Altruism is nothing but the outworking of a selfish gene. Love is nothing but sex or domination or parasitism. And God is nothing but a projection of someone’s Superego. Smart Christians saw this mechanistic, naturalistic, and anti-spiritual reductionism as a dangerous threat to faith. Unfortunately, their realization prompted some to retreat deeper into dualism as the only safe place for faith.

Was there a third option out there? I asked myself. Like thousands of Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and conservative evangelical Christians, I began to discover what had been carefully hidden in plain view: Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God. Something new—or very, very old—emerged.

This “emergent thinking” transcended both dualism and reductionism. It differed from both pre-modern dualism and hypermodern reductionism. Under the dualist-reductionist crime wave, we had been taught that evangelism and social action were separate and even competing options. We’ve done the same thing to the contemplative life and the active life; to the social dimensions of faith and the devotional dimensions of faith; to our church life and our “normal” life. We show our captivity to reductionism and dualism by using the word “versus” between these things.

My newly emergent thinking led me to develop a new appreciation for the ancient ways. Perhaps the dominance of modernity was so strong that I couldn’t escape it without immersing myself in pre-modernity. I started reading the medieval mystics and monastics (both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), devoured everything I could find on Celtic Christianity, discovered the treasures of the desert fathers and mothers, and savored the strange yet familiar perspectives of the pre-Constantinian Christian faith.

MANY GIFTED WRITERS—Ruth Haley Barton, Mindy Caliguire, Tony Jones, Richard Foster, Phyllis Tickle, Dallas Willard, and others—played a major role in opening my mind and heart to forgotten ancient ways and practices. Eventually, I passed on my own experiences in my book Finding Our Way Again, which I organized around this concept: The Way of the Ancient Practices.

“WAY.” Modern Christians generally understand “the faith” as a system of doctrines or beliefs, epitomized in an outline of abstract propositions called a systematic theology or “the Christian worldview.” But the farther back we go, the more we see that our forebears saw truth and belief as essential for an even higher goal: a way of life lived in community.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ early followers were known as followers of The Way. In the Epistles, Paul speaks of “the way of love.” John speaks of “walking as Jesus walked.” The word “Christian” occurs only three times in the New Testament, but the term “disciple” occurs about 260 times. Disciple meant “a learner in the way.”

Evangelism in this context wasn’t simply getting people to profess adherence to Christian doctrine or to say a magic prayer or to undergo a magic ritual. It was inviting them to be baptized into the community of disciples so they could learn to practice the things that Jesus commanded—to live the way of life that Jesus lived.

Imagine what it would mean today for our churches to be known not as centers of indoctrination, but as schools of love; not as institutions interested in self-protection, but as outposts in a movement for personal and social transformation; not defenders of doctrine, but as dojos where beginners and saints together practice a way of life.

“PRACTICE.” Through a variety of influences, contemporary educators have rediscovered that they don’t simply transfer information from the teacher’s notes and brain to the students’ notes and brain. Instead, their calling is to train people in the practices of their community. Historians teach the practices of historical investigation; English teachers teach the practices of literacy, interpretation, and communication; scientists teach the practices of the scientific method.

Christian educators teach the practices of the way of Jesus. For many of us, this focus on practice seems strange. There are anxious groups of Christians for whom words like “contemplative” and “spiritual disciplines” are suspect, and those who teach these subjects are labeled as heretics or apostates. Some of these critics worry that an emphasis on practices will lead to a de-emphasis on God’s grace and an over-emphasis on “works.” Others might be described as hyper-Protestants with a revulsion for anything with remotely Catholic associations.

By and large, however, Christians across traditions realize that each tradition has its own practices and that no tradition is above learning from others. So evangelicals with practices such as daily quiet time, Bible study, and witnessing, have something to learn from and offer to mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics with their own practices of weekly or daily Eucharist, silent retreat, or lectio divina, for example.

“ANCIENT.” Author Phyllis Tickle encouraged me to examine the most ancient spiritual practices in monotheism. In particular, to look at seven practices that originated in ancient Judaism and then were retained by Christians in the first century and Muslims in the seventh century.

• Fixed-Hour Prayer—Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the practice of setting aside three, five, or seven special times of prayer each day, often employing patterns or forms of prayer that have been developed over many centuries and that are shared by whole communities.

• Sabbath—Just as the day can be enriched by set-apart moments, so the week can be enriched by a set-apart day for rest, worship, and reflection.

• Liturgical Year—As the day and week are enriched through special periods of prayer, the year can be also through special seasons of emphasis such as Lent, Advent, and Pentecost.

• Sacred Meal—For Christians, our sacred meal is called the Eucharist. It is a ritual sharing of food through which participants bond to God, to one another, and to a common faith.

• Fasting—People of faith have discovered that the intentional and purposeful abstention from food for periods of time can both intensify and satisfy spiritual hunger and thirst.

• Tithing—Regular proportional giving to assist the poor is an essential spiritual practice that shows love for both God and neighbor.

• Pilgrimage—Spiritually oriented travel can become a metaphor for the spiritual journey, and depending on the destination, it can lead to profound deepening of understanding and devotion.

My research on these ancient practices reminded me also of other spiritual practices I had learned from mentors over the years. In my teens and 20s, I practiced personal disciplines such as journaling, scripture memorization, and meditation, publicly identifying with and speaking up for Jesus Christ, serving others in secret, simplicity, solitude, and silence. In my 30s and early 40s, I learned communal spiritual practices—group spiritual discernment and direction, spiritual friendship, submission, and communal retreats. It wasn’t until my late 40s that I began to learn what might be called public or social spiritual practices—the practices of activism.

SOCIAL ACTIVISM SHOULDN’T be separated from spiritual practices. Both categories should be integrated in the life of followers of Jesus. Public advocacy, protest, boycott, civil disobedience, and even arrest can all be part of the Christian spiritual life. I learned that these weren’t simply political practices: they were truly spiritual.

A few years ago, I joined a group in Washington, D.C., protesting cuts in public funding for the poor. We participated in an act of civil disobedience at a government building and I was one of the last to be arrested. Two officers put plastic handcuffs on me and escorted me to the police wagon nearby.

As we walked, one of them said, “You guys are really polite. What’s this all about?” I explained that we were protesting a budget that took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. Most of us were Christian ministers, I said, and we believed that God cared for the poor so we needed to speak up on their behalf.

The other officer said, “Wow. That’s great. Thanks a lot for what you’re doing. Somebody’s got to stand up for poor folks.” He loosened his grip on my arm and reached over to pat me on the back.

At that moment, I realized that what we were doing was valuable not only for what it said to government officials and what it meant for poor people: It was also a valuable witness to the character of God—that the living God is a God who cares for the marginalized, disadvantaged, and forgotten.

In The God of Intimacy and Action, Mary Darling and Tony Campolo affirm the need to keep social activism and spiritual practices (including evangelism) connected. My hope is that increasingly we will see these practices as being not different things but as various facets of the same thing: living in the kingdom of God, living in the way of Jesus, living in love for God and neighbors.

The life of Jesus has a secret inner life and a public outer life, a way with ancient roots, and a way that opens up new possibilities for our future. Notice the new surge of interest in social compassion and justice. Notice the resurgence of interest in the ancient practices, in contemplative prayer, in spiritual direction, in fasting, in pilgrimage, in the praying the daily office, and in the liturgical year. Notice how all of these are being encouraged by the 500-year-old technology of the printed book, the more recent technologies of magazines, radio, and TV, and the much more recent technologies of Web sites, podcasts, and Twitter feeds.

When Jesus proclaims, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news!”—those words reach us as individuals and as societies. When we agree with Jesus and seek to adjust our lives to that good news—both personally and publicly—then we begin practicing a new way of life. n

Brian McLaren (www.brianmclaren.net), a church planter and pastor for 24 years, is a writer and speaker. His most recent books are Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

Ancient Practices Reading List

Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian D. McLaren

The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life by Tony Jones

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard

Spiritual Friendship by Mindy Caliguire

Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard J. Foster

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton

In Constant Prayer by Robert Benson

The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling

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