by Dr. Ralph Blair
This booklet is based on material presented by Dr. Blair at the two 1997 summer conferences of Evangelicals Concerned held in Pennsylvania and California.
Copyright 1997 Evangelicals Concerned, Inc.
There’s way too much enthusiasm. And there’s also way too little. That’s because there’s enthusiasm and enthusiasm. So we’d better not be too quick to enthuse over just any enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm is supposed to be enlivening, but much of it is rather short-lived. Remember these words? “Get other names at 100,000 or more, 50,000 or more… . Ready to start overnights right away.” That’s from the White House memo launching Bill Clinton’s bed and breakfast deal. The New York Times headlined: “His Enthusiasm is Made Clear in a Memo.” But his enthusiasm didn’t last. It was dashed by the press’s enthusiasm for scandal — real or imagined. But even the enthusiasm of self-righteous journalists can be sustained by any particular scandal for only so long. Here’s another Times headline of erstwhile enthusiasm: “Addition of Kemp Offers Strength to Dole, Foremost on Tax Policy and Enthusiasm.” The publisher of a talk-radio digest enthused: “For the first time, there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm about Dole-Kemp.” He might just as well have said it was for the last time. The enthusiasm didn’t last.
So enthusiasm can be fleeting. It can also be forced and false. A British prime minister once said that “It’s unfortunate … that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth.” [Arthur James Balfour] Is this a clue that much enthusiasm depends on something less than the truth, something not quite the fuller story? When a private Old South military school was forced by the Supreme Court to drop its long-standing “men only” policy, it wasn’t only feminists who voiced enthusiasm. The Citadel itself announced it would “enthusiastically accept” women. But soon after the school year began, two of the female cadets were set on fire.
Enthusiasm can run hot and cold. It can be contradictory and confusing. Andrew Sullivan says Newt Gingrich “burst[s] with messianic enthusiasm that alternately inspires and bewilders.” Some enthusiasm makes no sense and apparently doesn’t even have to make any sense. If those of us who aren’t lesbians can’t comprehend the baseballese that fans throw at us, we’re told we should just interject an occasional comment that’s “thoughtful, enthusiastic and content free.” [John Leo]
There’s enthusiasm that’s merely hype. A New Age learning center in New York City promises evenings with assorted gurus that will be “amazing … electrifying … explosive … exhilarating … sensational … extraordinary … and [as it’s stated repeatedly] much more!” Prospective students are promised “enhanced energy” and even “boundless energy, … incredible power” and even “unlimited power”—though I do notice that there will be only “limited seating” for the session on “unlimited power!” They’re told that they’ll learn “techniques to maximize spiritual quotient, … heighten psychic abilities … ignite inner potential … [and] learn how to achieve, have and do all [they] want and desire.” They’ll learn the “secrets of a detailed plan for meeting and marrying money” and they’ll even be shown “how to attract every man in a room” and become a “man-magnet!”
There’s enthusiasm as threat. Here’s one of Vince Lombardi’s old locker room pep-talks: “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.” Of course, enthusiasm as threat can get far more frightening than that. Who was more enthusiastic than Hitler?
There’s enthusiasm that’s the manic symptom of a serious mental disorder.
And, wouldn’t you know it, there’s even enthusiasm for enthusiasm — any enthusiasm. That’s a sort of enthusi-ism. But the less we enthuse about that, the better.
Well there’s all this trivial and even tragic enthusiasm. And yet, there must be another enthusiasm—powerful and inspiring. After all, Emerson observed that “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.” In the words of Prime Minister Balfour, enthusiasm moves the world. Someone else has called enthusiasm “the world’s greatest asset.” He summed up enthusiasm as “nothing more or less than faith in action.” [Henry Chester]
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was writing of enthusiasm as such faith in action when she recalled that “whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story, in the material universe around me, or glimpsed it in human love, I wanted to cry out with joy.” She said that “The Psalms were an outlet for this enthusiasm of joy or grief,” adding that her own “writing was also an outlet” for it. An American artist wrote to a friend: “I am just full of the enthusiasm to do something really worth while.” [Howard Chandler Christy]
So enthusiasm can be fleeting. It can be mere affectation—all faked and fluffed. It can be only a formality. Enthusiasm can be dangerous, even deadly. It can be just wishful day-dreaming. It can be nonsense. What passes for enthusiasm can be enthusiasm, the delusion of enthusiasm! But enthusiasm can also be a living “faith in action,” an “enthusiasm of joy or grief” for the refreshment of a wounded and waiting world. Enthusiasm can be “something really worth while.”
Now some people are just naturally more enthusiastic than others. PET scans show that people with more activity in the left pre-frontal brain region consistently “rate themselves as more enthusiastic” than do those who have more activity in the right lobe. The higher our levels of dopamine, the more naturally enthusiastic we are. Researchers have found that, in studies of hundreds of identical and fraternal twins, an estimated 50 percent of the variance (individual differences) in ratings of happiness and enthusiasm is heritable. So those of us who find it easier to be up shouldn’t take credit for that and we shouldn’t look down on those for whom enthusiasm is naturally harder.
Even before PET scans, dopamine measurement and psychological research, it was observed that some folk tend to be naturally more enthusiastic than others. In 1888, in A Christmas Sermon, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that “our happiness is never in our own hands; we inherit our constitution.” But he elsewhere noted that since this “is a mixed world, … even the lightest-hearted will find at times that he has to make a deliberate choice of the brighter things, and to ignore the darker.” Throughout a lifetime of illness, this brave and wise Scot saw that it was his duty to be cheerful—to show a “glorious morning face,” as he so often put it. Stevenson knew that it is, as he said, a mistake to trust to nature for everything, something being always left for will to do.” In this he prefigured the behavioral geneticist whose recent PET scan research shows a genetic “set point” for happiness or enthusiasm but who urges us to keep above our set point by “find[ing] the small things that you know give you a little high,” adding: “sprinkle your life with them.” [David T. Lykken]
Like Stevenson’s, the life of Lewis Carroll wasn’t easy. And yet, like Stevenson, his contemporary, and in anticipation of psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s advice to reach out from one’s own trouble to help others in trouble, Carroll took his own enthusiasm as a gift “entrusted to me to ‘occupy’ with, till the Master shall return, by doing something to make other lives happy.”
Chaucer has one of his Knight’s Tale characters say that “All [are] frantically seeking happiness, / But oftener than not in the wrong place. He adds: “There’s no doubt we can all of us say so.” We’re all looking for enthusiasm, excitement, “something more.” And we also, too often look for it in all the wrong places. But we do wish to agree with the woman who said that “There must be more to life than just eating and getting bigger.” [Trina Paulus]
Seeking Enthusiasm in Superficial Sex. Here’s our biggest reason not to get bigger—at least around the middle. We think that sex is the “something more” we need and that we’ll have no sex appeal if we’re overweight. But sexual imprinting is so powerful that it trumps mere aestheticism. And sex cannot be simply “something more.” Sex is a vital gift of God. Sadly, though, in both gay and straight sub-cultures, phallic narcissists have taken this good gift for fun in deep connection and have distorted it. In our obsessive enthusiasms for orgasms, we’ve reduced sex to something superficial and sordid.
A senior editor at The Village Voice notes that we’re now “some 30 years into the so-called sexual revolution, near the end of what might well be designated the sexual century.” [Robert Christgau] He states: “Clearly, in no previous epoch of Western culture did so many put so much time and effort into the pursuit and perfection of genital pleasure, its polymorphous correlatives and the psychodrama that surrounds them.” If you’re under 40, it’s hard to realize that it wasn’t always this way.
Have you ever stuffed yourself so full of buttered popcorn that you spoiled your appetite for a great dinner? Americans are spending $8 billion a year spoiling their sexual appetites on popcorn! And even mainstream films and rock music can be so sexually superficial that, as a Time movie critic puts it, they’re becoming “sexual without being sexy.” [Richard Corliss] Says a New York Times reviewer: “we have practically been force-fed delight, desire and perversity, all ladled out so liberally by the media … that torpor has set in. More frontal nudity? Yawn. … More flashers, miscegenation, whips and pierced body parts? I think I’ll go to the market.” She says “They have made sex boring. … [They] trot out scenarios that used to guarantee titillation and dismay but now produce something closer to the effects of melatonin. The question is: are we having fun yet?” [Vicki Goldberg]
An Emory University study shows that 94 percent of sex on TV is between people who aren’t married to each other. The assumption is that sex is merely a physical act that satisfies an itch.
According to the founder of an adolescent AIDS prevention program, “Questions about oral sex start in fifth or sixth grade.” She says that “a typical seventh-grade question” among girls is ‘“Do you spit or do you swallow?”’ [Cydelle Berlin | Still, as a school nurse reports, “In talking with kids, I found that a lot of them didn’t think oral sex was sex.” [Elaine Sarfati]
While resorting to vaporings about “recreational sex,” Americans have the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases among the world’s so-called “developed” people. The nation’s most commonly reported infections are sexually transmitted. America has the highest rate of abortion of any industrialized nation. Over a third of all babies born in this country are born to so-called “single mothers.” Where are the so-called fathers? Isn’t all this heartbreaking?
And urban gay sub-cultures are no better. In the gay magazine, Genre, sex outside gay relationships is euphemized and rationalized: “Finding out that he’s stepped out on you can provide an opportunity to open up the relationship in a way that benefits both of you. Consider redefining the limits of your relationship: your new agreement could include outside sex for each of you.” [Robrt (sic) L. Pela] Such stupid advice is common, not only among secular gay therapists but even among leaders in the lesbian and gay religious communities. For example, a gay Christian ethics seminary professor accepts unquestioningly “marriages [that in his words] make room for additional sexual partners” and derides what he calls “compulsory monogamy” for “restrict[ing] the range and significance of other friendships” and for “weaken[ing] ties with the larger human community,” as he puts it. [Marvin M. Ellison] And his book, published by the major Presbyterian press, is blurbed by other mainline seminary profs. The psychotherapy director of a gay/lesbian social services agency gives Ibis excuse: “Gay men are limited in the number of ways that they can exhibit masculinity and promiscuity is one of the sanctioned, celebrated ways to do that.”
Woops. There’s that P-word. Even in advocating promiscuity, the word is not politically correct these days. As Larry Kramer chides, “we get very irate when the word promiscuity is used.” According to one published report: “At one gay men’s support group, a 20-year-old who described himself as promiscuous was hissed into rewording his own experience.” [Jesse Green]
For years, gay therapists have pushed these notions of gay “freedom.” A mainstay of most gay periodicals is the “personals” section—whether the superficial sex is for sale or not. The prostitutes are known as “escorts” or “massage therapists,” and in PC circles, they’re celebrated as “sex workers.” And the threat of AIDS notwithstanding, there’s a growing minority of gay men seeking out what they promote as the thrill oi unsafe sex, insisting on abandoning condoms in a practice they call “barebacking.”
Lately though, we’re beginning to see some secular gay resistance to such morally careless nonsense. In his new book, Sexual Ecology, the founder of Outweek magazine laments the legacy of “the multipartnerist ethic of the gay sexual revolution.” [Gabriel Rotello] Acknowledging that “the way we constructed gay male sexuality in the 1970s was guaranteed to lead to epidemics,” he’s now calling for more respect for monogamy and a greater “spirit of sacrifice or self-denial” among gay men and a “reward[ing] of self-restraint and [an] end [to] the pervasive belief that those who are living at the most extreme fringes of gay sexual life are somehow the most liberated and most gay.” Says the founder of ACT-UP: “We have made sex the cornerstone of gay liberation and gay culture and it has killed us. … Surely gay culture is more than cocks.” [Larry Kramer] These remarks were made in The Advocate, the nation’s foremost gay/lesbian magazine and drew more mail than any one article ever has. “Equally impressive,” according to The Advocate, is “the fact that 75% of respondents agree with Kramer.” Others who are writing along these same lines include Michelangelo Signorile and Troy Masters as well as Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer and Chandler Burr. Nonetheless, there’s now a reaction from so-called “Queer Theory” quarters. These self-styled queerer-than-thou advocates of a multipartnerist ethic recently called a New York City “teach-in” series to attack what they dismissed as these “neo-cons.” Their trash tantrums, dubbed “Sex Panic!,” are held in the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Greenwich Village.
Seeking Enthusiasm in Party Drugs.
The search for excitement in superficial sex is often combined with the use of illegal drugs for a quick chemical twist of consciousness. The “love drug” of choice among trendy gay clubgoers is Ecstasy. But as it turns out too often, Ecstasy can prove to be the violence-inducing amphetamine that it is.
The head of the youth program at the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center rationalizes drug use among her clients by arguing that “Drug use may in fact be adaptive to survive poverty and rampant HIV in their communities.” Adaptive?! Didn’t many of these clients get HIV by doing drugs? Besides, aren’t people also doing drugs at the other end of the socio-economic scale? Each summer, nearly 5,000 gay men plunk down $75 for a ticket to the Morning Party on Fire Island. As the Gay Men s Health Crisis s longest-running fund-raiser, the Morning Party’s also an excuse for doing Ecstasy and Crystal and Special K—not Kellogg’s ‘‘best to you each morning” but a cow tranquilizer. GMHC tolerates the drug scene for the sake of money from well-heeled gays who insist on having their “recreational drugs” with their “recreational sex.” One Morning Party-goer claims: “It’s like going to church!”
A Los Angeles study finds that most gay men who use crystal meth do so to intensify their sexual experiences. One study participant enthused that on crystal “it sprays farther,” referring to his orgasm. Says one researcher, all this drug abuse in sex is “a misguided way of connecting or to deaden the pain of being disconnected.”
Seeking Enthusiasm in Materialism.
We’re all surrounded by cultural enthusiasms for the quick fix that’s slang for sex and dope. But calls to “get-rich-quick” sell as well. Look at all the lotteries, Las Vegas, and even the lyrics of rap. Americans yearly spend over $30 billion on state lotteries alone. Listen to one who went from pushing street drugs to pushing a hip-hop take on the American Dream: “I’d rather use my gun ‘cause I get the money quicker.” [Tupac Shakur] Here’s our culture’s addiction to what’s been called “the pornography of ‘making it.’” “Making it” is slang for both sex and money. And while fat may be out, fat cat is in! People may find it easy to enthuse over the showing of some skin but they find it even easier to enthuse over “Show me the money!”
Candace Bushnell, New York Observer columnist and VH1 celeb says “Making money is the most satisfying thing.” She calls it “the ticket to happiness.” To that, New York magazine says: “In Candace’s world, a man is judged by the size of his budget.” [Maer Roshan] Al Goldstein, vulgar publisher of the sex-rag Screw, puts the make on her by adding: “She’s a size queen. … here’s my platinum. I’m ready to go.” Even Norman Mailer decries that “all our values are being leached out by the immense appetite for money.”
It’s a market mentality out there. People are obsessed with not only making it financially but in making it in every other way they can think of. We’re a culture bent on a ceaseless “transformation of luxuries into necessities.” [Christopher Lasch] But our focus is very limited. Butthead’s voice blares out over the aisles of CDs at HMV: “Hey Beavis, everything I need for the rest of my life is in this store!”
How much money is enough? A People magazine cover story this year was entitled “Going Broke on $33 Million a Year.” It’s about movie stars with money problems. The average American household income is around $33 thousand a year.
Those who make the Forbes Four Hundred list of wealthiest Americans still fight to climb higher up that ladder. Says Ted Turner: “What difference does it make if you’re worth $12 billion or $11 billion? … They are fighting every year to be the richest man in the world.” That’s what self-doubt and an irrational search for “something more” will do. They seem to refuse to learn what Abby Aldrich Rockefeller knew and warned her son about: “Too much money makes people stupid, dull, unseeing and uninteresting. Be careful.”
To themselves, the wealthy don’t seem all that wealthy. They keep looking for something more. Worth magazine recently published a list of the 300 richest towns in the country and residents of the two Long Island towns that placed second and third expressed surprise at where their towns ranked. Said one resident: “You read about certain communities throughout the country and you get the impression they are much wealthier.” A Worth editor noted that these two communities were not the only places that questioned their high ratings: “Wealth,” he observed, “is in some respects a state of mind and many people who are wealthy don’t consider themselves wealthy.” Indeed. It’s not what we have but how we see what we have that determines our experience. As someone has pointed out: “a tub was large enough for Diogenes but a world was too little for Alexander.” [Charles Cabel Colton]
All that we’ve been noting of enthusiasm for superficial sex, drugs, and materialism is summed up in descriptions of much popular gay culture by gay people themselves. Here’s what Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA has to say about West Hollywood, perhaps the gayest city in America: “status is established by the make of your car, the style of your hair, the cost of your clothing, the source of your mineral water, the shape of your nose, … the breed of your dog … the influence of your agent and the tone of your body.” Moving from the West Coast to the East, we find the same misplaced enthusiasms for the superficial. Here’s what a gay columnist says about what he calls “The Chelsea Boy sect: … a contemptuous, vacuous and evil spawn who operates without shame right out in public, day or night, seven days a week [in] New York City’s gay ghetto of 8th Ave from 14th to 23rd Sts.” He says they’re “easily spotted running in packs of sassiness … are not over 34, not over 5 ft 11—talk too much about Fire Island summer shares, know the drug dealers, … have a bubble butt, a hairdo that requires a product and clothes most often purchased to look like sportswear (promoting the boy effect) … [and] must present, at all times, the perfect face of health, wealth and happiness. It is toward this that they work day and night on their bodies, that they gather in groups of others like them to sip cocktails at whatever chic faggotry eatery is newly opened and eye the others not like them with the clear look of disdain that maintains the separation.” [Thomas Woolley]
Seeking Enthusiasm in Spiritualities.
A New Yorker essayist cautions: today’s youth are being “shaped [into] consumers before they’ve had a chance to develop their souls.” [David Denby] That’s not good news. Even if the wishes of their consumer mentality seem to be met, they are thus in danger of the fate of their elders, about whom John Cheever wrote from his own experience: “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.” As they experience the “increased narrow identification of the American dream with the American standard of living” and as that fails to rise for most Americans, what one historian calls “a spiritual crisis” will result. [Christopher Lasch] Hopefully.
Now obviously there are rewardingly realistic enthusiasms for sexual intimacy, pharmaceutical advances, and all the life-affirming benefits of the arts and sciences. They may all quite properly invoke appropriate and pleasurable enthusiasms. However, as C. S. Lewis rightly said, although true spiritual enthusiasm—what he called Joy—“is not a substitute for [appropriate] sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy.” He went on to say that he “sometimes wondered whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” He said: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. … [These] are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself.”
What Lewis calls “longing” reveals a deeply spiritual hunger. So what about enthusiasms for what passes for today’s spiritualities—besides the idols of sex, drugs, and stuff?
According to a New York Times religion editor, there’s an “ever-expanding universe of contemporary American spirituality. … The nation,” he says, “has become a hothouse for new movements.” [Gustave Niebuhr] A sociological study shows that many Americans want a spirituality that is “formless” and unregulated. They describe themselves as “not religious” but “spiritual.” The researcher says “What that means is ‘I don’t like institutional religion, churches.’ But ‘I’m very spiritual’ means—you name it—all kinds of U.F.O.’s and crystals.” [Robert N. Bellahl The term “spirituality” clearly requires an asterisk. “Spirituality” is as meaningless a term these days as the term “religion” was when author Hilaire Belloc objected to hearing “people saying ‘Religion’ and meaning music, & others saying ‘Religion’ and meaning breathing, or sleeping or being or some other vague thing.” Spirituality today is often no more nourishing than a brunch of hot air.
Although annual sales at Christian bookstores in this country are at $3 billion, Americans are spending close to $2 billion at New Age outlets. This spring, the Book-of-the-Month company launched what it calls One Spirit—“the first club to celebrate and explore spirit, mind, and body.” Charter members are promised “access to resources on just about every aspect of spirituality.” Just about every aspect of spirituality? Hardly. Among the three dozen selections in One Spirit’s initial offering there isn’t one that represents the most significant spirituality of the past 2,000 years of Western civilization: basic Christianity. One Spirit offers James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, of course, together with the author’s “user’s guide” as a bonus. But will a “user’s guide” really help this book? Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom assesses The Celestine Prophecy as “the most objectionable, the most absolute spiritual garbage that I believe I have seen in my entire life. And I have confronted a great deal of spiritual balderdash.” He says those who enthuse over Redfield’s book “are feeding themselves on McDonald’s hamburgers rather than on true nutriments.” A University of Chicago historian adds that it’s “an insult to McDonald’s to refer to it in the same paragraph as The Celestine Prophecy.” [Martin E. Marty] Other offerings are more New Age and pop-psycle messages: books on “how the soul contains a unique ‘daimon’ [demon] that determines the pattern we live by,” “seven principles to create success, shattering the myth that it is the result of hard work,” “how to transform the momentary release of ejaculation into countless peaks of satisfying orgasm,” “an accessible guide to cultivating the psychic awareness available to all of us,” and one on how to “cast your own [astrological] chart”—though, unfortunately, not into the wastebasket. There is one on Jesus—sort of. It’s on “the healing system believed to be practiced by Buddah and Jesus.” One spirit indeed! It’s all a single spirit of self-reliance that’s selectively inclusive and monotonously diverse.
Perhaps the most common notion in today’s popular spiritualities—in terms of what is sought, taught and bought—is the notion that there’s really nothing wrong with us, as in “me, myself, and I.” But of course there’s something wrong—else there would be no New Age “answers” to seek and sell and buy into. But what’s said to be wrong is not me, but society, Western tradition, organized religion, the government, and all other so-called power centers that are out of favor with whatever politically correct provincialism holds sway at the moment. This victim mentality is used, as well, on the Right, where the oppressor is said to be the degenerate Left. Wendy Kaminer notes that “People don’t get up on Oprah and say, ‘I’ve sinned.’ The focus is never on their own behavior and always on the behavior of other people towards them. They’re not confessing, they’re complaining. But it’s complaint in the form of testimony.”
Here are a couple of humorous illustrations of this self-serving spirit. Newsday political cartoonist Doug Marlette is also the creator of the “Kudsu” strip that pokes fun at pretentious piety and PC religion. In a recent “Kudsu” strip, we see the Reverend Will B. Dunn being instructed by one of his up-to-date parishioners. Dunn says: “Let me get this straight—the word ‘sinners’ is spiritually incorrect!” “You got it!,” confirms his parishioner, who goes on to say that “‘People of foibles’ is more sensitive, supportive and nurturing!” “I see,” says Dunn, “People of foibles, repent!” But the parishioner interrupts: “‘Repent’ is too harsh. How about ‘reflect’? ‘Reconsider’? ‘Take a look at?”’ Dunn then offers his own alternative: “Check it out?”
Garrison Keillor has written a New Age parody of “Amazing Grace.” He says that being reared “as a Plymouth Brethren, I did not grow up paranoid. We believed that sin lies within us. It isn’t imposed upon us by the media, Communists, liberals, labor unions, or anybody else.” But that’s not what people want to hear these days. So he’s adapted the 18th-century hymn to our contemporary spirit. He calls it: “Amazing Me, I am Okay.” Here are three of his tongue-in-cheek verses. But do notice that up-to-date revisions don’t wear well. Though we’re still deeply moved by the singing of the original text by John Newton –now over 200 years old—up-to-date spiritual self-help trends are trite, far more transient than transcendent. Here are the three new verses by Keillor: “When we’ve been here for thirty years, / We often get depressed / Eating kelp can sometimes help / But wheat germ is the best. … Through many phases, stages, trips / I have already been / And in that process I have learned / I am my own best friend. … Whatever gets you through the night, / T.M. or primal scream, / is good if it makes you feel good / And builds your self-esteem. … Amazing me, I am okay” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah … .
This is what is sought and taught and bought because, of course, people don’t think they’re O.K., they don’t like themselves. Even though some of their thinking that they don’t measure up is irrational, at bottom, it’s not. The “I’m O.K.” nonsense is fundamentally excuse and self-deception. And since the psychobabble/spiritspeak that’s sought and bought is not what is most deeply needed, it doesn’t work.
The haunting sense that we’re not O.K. has led to the construction of identity politics in which we try to feel good about ourselves by identifying with others and having them stroke us in a tribalism of victimhood over against “oppressors,” real and imagined. So it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of talk now about an identity spirituality called “gay spirituality.” It’s not surprising that “ex-gay” advocates speak of “gay spirituality” or “gay theology” to discredit the integration of faith and homosexuality. But it is surprising when we who are called to bring our homosexuality, with all else, to our Lord, identify with “gay spirituality” or “Gay Spirit.” Listen: For a Christian who happens to be gay instead of a gay man who happens to be a Christian, the Spirit is Christ, not gayness. For a Christian who happens to be lesbian instead of a lesbian who happens to be a Christian, the Spirit is Christ, not lesbianism.
This primary identification with Christ is defining for a Christian’s every identity. In his book, One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church, Manuel Ortiz writes that “The church’s task is neither to destroy or maintain ethnic identities but to replace them with a new identity in Christ that is more foundational than earthly identities.” But to say this with reference to Christians of a particular ethnic or racial group or a particular sexual orientation neither denies the secondary identity nor destroys continuing distinctions of diversity.
There’s so much diversity throughout creation. Are any two snowflakes the same? We’re all different DNA. Each of us is one-of-a-kind! There are many colors but one rainbow. As Christians who should love all neighbors as ourselves, we must be sensitive to the needs of an increasingly diverse national neighborhood. Ethnic, racial, gender, cultural and other differences influence everything from the experience of anxiety and depression to evangelism, worship, and even sexual orientation. But if we fail to get the diverse implications of diversity, we’ll fail to get more than that.
Diversity’s become big business. A Village Voice columnist points out that the prevailing advocacy of diversity is quite capitalistic: there’s more money to be made off “a limitless assortment of lifestyles and identities.” The editor of The Encyclopedia of American Religions reports that “A major trend is toward differentiation and more pluralism all the time.” [J. Gordon Melton] It’s nonetheless a clearly “market perspective on religion.” That, as sociologists of religion know, is nothing new in America. Disestablishment has always meant what a historian recognizes as “adaptation, competition, invention, tinkering, innovating, bargaining, selling, buying, marketing of religious options.” [Martin E. Marty] So even New Agers are old-fashioned in being consumers who choose their spiritualities “by weighing the anticipated costs … against expected benefits.” This is what even the “church growth” movement continues to emphasize.
Diversity advocacy is now such a big deal that New York Times columnist Russell Baker says we’d have to “cut the plugs off [our] radios and television sets and burn all newspapers and magazines as they come through the door [in order to] get through a day without reading or hearing about … diversity.” His Times colleague, Maureen Dowd, writes that we’ve all been through “a decade of diversity whining” and Harvard’s Nathan Glazer regrets that “we are all multiculturalists now.”
Well it’s simply descriptive to recognize that diversity exists. As such, it need not necessarily be celebrated or censured. But prescriptive diversity is something else. It’s prescriptive to say that diversity as such is always worth emphasizing or enthusing over. Baker wisely observes: “Diversity, what a fraudulently sweet-smelling word you are.” He’s right, of course. That’s because most advocacy for so-called diversity pushes a diversity that’s not really very diverse. It’s actually rather selectively restrictive. Today’s self-conscious diversity advocacy is usually limited to the sentimental relativism of the latest and the leftist, excluding almost anything informed by a rigorously reasoned tradition. As historians George Marsden, Glenn Tinder and others have documented, universities, for example, make a considerable show of “celebrating diversity” but traditional Christians tend to be excluded in what has become “a virtual establishment of unbelief.” [George Marsden] “Feminists, Freudians, Nietzscheans, Heideggarians and many others are admitted to the scholarly community without question, but not Christians.” [Glenn Tinder]
But is this all that new? When Time magazine did its cover feature on C. S. Lewis in 1947, he was identified as “one of a growing band of heretics among modem intellectuals: an intellectual who believes in God.” (Time referred to T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden as other examples.) Time noted that Lewis “is not particularly popular with his Oxford colleagues: their most serious charge is that Lewis’ theological pamphleteering is a kind of academic heresy.” This, even though as Time indicated, “one of Lewis’ severest critics insists that his works of scholarship [on Spencer and Milton] are ‘miles ahead’ of any other literary criticism in England.” No. Hostility to Christianity among the intellectuals is not new at the end of the 20th century. It wasn’t new in 1947. And it wasn’t new—as Lewis is quoted as saying—of his own student days in the Oxford of the 1920s. In 1955, in his inaugural lecture upon moving from Oxford to the Professorship of Mediaeval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge, Lewis observed that “whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian … for us it falls into three—the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian period. … It appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first.”
At the same time, religious fundamentalists and even many evangelicals today are intentionally pushing an anti-diversity monoculturalism. For example, what chance do supporters of gay rights—much less gay men and lesbians themselves –have on conservative Christian campuses these days? But, of course, both the so-called multiculturalism and the frankly monoculturalism are monoculturalist. If the Religious Left seems to be confusedly, maybe even calculatedly, naive about diversity, the Religious Right seems to be confusedly, indeed calculatedly suspicious about diversity. They’re both perverse.
What both camps have in common in celebrating or censoring so-called diversity is an over-emphasis on differences. What’s bad about this is that these differences tend to be framed as differences between “us” and “them,” between, for example: gays, lesbians and transgendered over against everyone else. Both seemingly prescribed and proscribed diversity depend on perpetuating an “us-against-them” mindset that tends to spin into intergroup hostility. And preoccupation with either celebrating or censoring such diversity can blind us all to what, more importantly, most of us have in common with each other and how, within each group, there is a genuine diversity. Historian Douglas Jacobsen notes that “the people I talk with face to face rarely, if ever, live in the consistent ideological worlds described by the rhetoric they sometimes allow themselves to use.” He speaks of a “sloppy ‘center’ [that] is not forged at the top of society, and … is not dictated by ideological pundits.” In Ward Connerly’s words: “This reveling in blackness—black is beautiful, black power, black consciousness—just creates an invisible wall of difference that sets us apart.” The same can be said for an over-emphasis on lesbian and gay “pride.” Speaking as a Christian, Jacobsen asks us to “come down from the ‘rhetorosphere’ and try to live as Christian neighbors.”
Along with an over-emphasis on what separates us, the uncritical celebration of diversity can distort by isolating differences instead of relating and integrating them. As an English professor who grew up male, black, poor and gay—as well as much else—has said: “We’ve become far too comfortable in isolating these variables.” [Dwight A. McBride] After all, one’s multiple identities must be lived within one life and so it makes sense to look at them together and appreciate the many tangents that we have in common. It is in such connections with each other that we can hope to break through the estranging boundaries that diversity obsessions can erect and maintain.
There is much in American Evangelicaland to sap the enthusiasm of those of us who believe that the Gospel and the Golden Rule belong together. Our enthusiasm in identifying ourselves as evangelicals is dampened and even deadened when we see the nasty self-righteousness that passes for cultural evangelicalism these days. But contrary to many disgusting realities and stereotypes of modem evangelicalism, there is something besides. Evangelical faith in action does not and cannot equate to the Religious Right.
There’s more diversity among religious conservatives than you’d think. There’s more for the socially-concerned to enthuse about, for evangelicals are to be found on all sides of questions about diversity itself, let alone on issues of homosexuality, inclusive language, feminism, the military, capital punishment, abortion, etc. “Some of the more conservative denominations (e.g., Southern Baptists) exhibit no less internal diversity than other groups on such issues as abortion and premarital sexuality, and they exhibit significantly greater internal heterogeneity on gender role attitudes.” These are findings of studies reported in the Review of Religious Research in 1996. Researchers find that “contemporary evangelicalism is far from monolithic, socially or politically.” The editors of the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, acknowledged in June that “evangelicalism [is] a movement that, though united by the gospel, seems blessedly unable to find agreement on much else.”
Now if today’s readily observable diversity among evangelicals tends to be camouflaged in caricature, what is the difference between that stereotype and what one historian calls “a world marooned from living memory!” [Christine Leigh Heyrman] In her new book, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Heyrman writes that “Before the appearance of evangelicals in the South there had been no tradition of according women any kind of spiritual authority.” The southern Baptist and Methodist churches of the 18th-century and early 19th-century were “the only settings in the South in which white men were required to compete for standing not only with white women but also with African-Americans.” She writes of these evangelicals’ opposition to slavery and slave holders. In his 1976 classic, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, theologian-historian Donald Dayton documented these and other evidences of the fact that evangelicals used to be in the very forefront of social action on behalf of the oppressed—whether slaves, women, child laborers, the poor, etc. Wheaton College founder Jonathan Blanchard and premier American evangelist Charles G. Finney were among these leaders. Sadly, their concern for the oppressed has not prevailed in much of the current brand of evangelicalism, but it has not—by a long shot –disappeared.
On the other hand, there’s less diversity among the religiously liberal than you’d think. Here, too, we’re captivated by stereotypes. For example, after chanting Hindu hymns and other pagan pieties in a conga line of sweating enthusiasts at one of his new techno-cosmic rave masses designed, as he puts it, to be “a trance dance that takes us back to our lower chakras,” ex-Dominican Matthew Fox (now an Episcopal priest) implores: “Let’s dance our diversity!” But it’s just that: “our diversity” that gets danced. It’s diversity as defined and approved by Matthew Fox and his followers. It’s themselves they proclaim and celebrate.
The gay editor of Second Stone takes note that “As much as we claim to treasure diversity [in the lesbian/gay communities], those of us who may be Republican, pro-life, or Christian can testify that what is really treasured is believing and behaving like the majority.” [Jim Bailey] If you doubt this diversity-as-inquisition, try expressing a pro-life view at a mainline church caucus of lesbians and gay men. Thought police will shut you up every bit as fast as they shut up pro-choice talk at a Focus on the Family rally.
Maybe no matter how seemingly tolerant any of us is, there lurks in each of us something of the fundamentalist. The writer, O. Henry, once told of his meeting and talking with a man who seemed to be the one true cosmopolite since Adam. He’d been everywhere and seen everything and had done it all. To him, he said, all cultures are one, none is better or worse than another. In modem terms, he was the perfect pluralist and magnanimous multiculturalist. But a little later in the evening, O. Henry witnessed a violent dispute during which the waiters ejected the worldly relativist. The writer learned that the fracas sprang from the man’s resentment at some disparaging remarks made about his hometown, Mattawamkeag, Maine. The relativist was a fundy, you see.
Of course today’s Left is as stridently and self-righteously narrow-minded as the Right. And the Right’s as narrow-minded as the Left. Diversity dogma on both the Left and the Right is stuck within itself. So it’s all a dumbed-down diversity. Each establishment is either blind to syncretism’s contradictions or it pretends not to see them, as in, for example, the Right’s confusion of Christianity with capitalism and the Left’s confusion of Christianity with Marxism.
There are sincere people on the Left who have seen excesses from the Right and have tried to fix things. And there are sincere people on the Right who have seen excesses from the Left and have tried to fix them. But if your only options for remedy are Left- or Right-wing fixes that always entail their own blind spots and unintended negative consequences, you’re stuck where you are!
One would assume that even the most avid diversity enthusiasts would want to exclude everything from cannibalism and the child-sacrificing cult of Moloch to backwoods snake-handling and the hocus-pocus of the “ex-gay” movement. Surely there’s diversity with more perversity than even die-hard diversity enthusiasts dare embrace. There really is a difference between Jackie Collins and Willa Cather. Jerry Falwell’s no Saint Jerome.
But here again we can’t overlook the effects of our society’s overdosing on a narrowly-styled nonjudgmentalism and a self-serving multiculturalism. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that up to 20 percent of students are unwilling to condemn even the Holocaust as morally wrong. They think that they shouldn’t make any moral judgments. They take the same approach to other issues such as human sacrifices among the Aztecs and ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe. They say Americans shouldn’t judge other cultures. Clark University philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers observes that students who refuse to condemn these major horrors are nonetheless quick to speak up on certain selectively PC topics to attack the selling of fur coats or the distribution of pro-life literature.
So being blindly caught up in enthusiasm for a cluelessly dogmatic diversity can warp more than common sense. It can, more importantly, pervert the welfare of others as well as one’s own. Haven’t you been appalled at the popular media’s diversity-speak in the wake of the Heaven’s Gate suicides? Over and over we heard and read that we should not judge those whose spiritual path led them to move on to the “level above human.” We’re told: Who are we to judge?! And that’s never meant as a question! Says diversity-speak: So what if their truth isn’t your truth!
But that wasn’t Elijah’s view when he went head-to-head with the priests of Baal. Would diversity revisionists have Elijah declare that the Baalites have Baal truth and the Israelites have Yahweh truth and so let’s all celebrate this wonderful spiritual diversity by setting up the Mount Carmel Inter-faith Council?
And Paul didn’t risk life and limb all over the Mediterranean world in order to celebrate some sort of fictionalized spiritual diversity of pagan fertility cults, Rome’s gods and goddesses, Greek philosophies and pantheisms with a Nazarene squeezed in at the end. Paul explained that it was to the Athenians’ acknowledged ignorance and spiritual hunger that he preached to them the good news of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.
In a world in which there are still many false “gods” and “goddesses,” multiplied spirits and spiritualities, obviously there has to be a distinguishing criterion among them. Paul recognized this when he said that even if Christians speak in tongues, that’s nothing without their confession that “Jesus is Lord.” [I Corinthians 12] As a New Testament scholar comments: “ecstasy or enthusiasm is no criterion of spirituality … but the confession of Jesus as Lord [is].” [F. F. Bruce] John, too, warns against falling for just any old spirit of enthusiasm. He urges Christians to prove the spirits—whether or not they’re of God—because, he says, many are false, they’ll let you down, they’ll break your heart. [I John 4:1] John tells us of the criterion we Christians are to apply: Any spirit that denies that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is false. It’s the reality of the incarnation — the amazing union of God and humanity in Jesus the Christ – that is the test.
Paul repeatedly says that any add-on to the good news is a curse. [Galatians l:8f] Writing to Christians, he says it doesn’t matter who in the world (or from heaven, for that matter) pushes a rival gospel, the followers of Jesus Christ are not to accept any substitutes. He says: Let any who try to push so-called good news of their own agenda be anathema, God-damned! He said to himself: “Woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel!” [I Corinthians 9:16] He even said—echoing Moses—that he could pray that he himself could be anathema—damned of God—for the sake of his Jewish kinfolk. [Romans 9:3] Paul knew that our problems run so deep that we’d be totally disillusioned and undone by reliance on any remedy but that of the plain gospel of Christ. So to hell with rival Right-wing add-ons. To hell with rival Left-wing add-ons. To hell with even mixed and middling additions that would rival the good news that God was indeed in Christ, reconciling the world to God.
The Zeitgeist is such that it seems to some sincere people that testing spiritualities today as the early Christians urged in the first century is not in keeping with today’s spirit of largesse, inclusivity, pluralism and diversity. It would not be politically correct. But what spirit says so?
Anyway, we can’t escape spiritual discernment—whether or not we do it intelligently or faithfully or whether or not Paul and John urged us to do so. In any objecting to the discerning of spirits there is an attempt at discerning of spirits. Our standards may vary, but we all test spirits. We can’t help but do so. You’re testing what I’m saying even as I speak! You test what you read as you’re reading. But New Age spirituality, held hostage to postmodernist assumptions, celebrates a so-called “non-judgmental” approach though its “non-judgment” is, of course, judgment. This was illustrated the other day on “CNN & Company” when a best-selling author who should have known better blurted: “We’re wrong to put a value judgment on it!” [Nancy Friday] The Apostle takes three chapters in I Corinthians to say what F. F. Bruce sums up in one sentence: “The primary token of the indwelling Spirit, the indispensable evidence that one is truly ‘spiritual,’ is not glossolalia, but love.” [I Corinthians 12:1-14:40] And just a few words beyond John’s test—the crucial question as to whether a spirit affirms the incarnation of Jesus Christ—John says that “every one that loves is bom of God and knows God … for God is love.” [I John 4:7f] Some people today may say: Now there’s a test that’s more in tune with our times. If a spirituality pushes love it’s of God! Not so fast.
We must look into what one means by “love.” “If love is the answer,” Lily Tomlin requests: “could you rephrase the question?” Billie Holiday can warn: “Don’t threaten me with love, baby!” What kind of “love” must they have in mind? Perhaps they’re thinking of “nothing but sex misspelled,” [Harlan Ellison] or “just another four-letter word.” [Tennessee Williams] No wonder Germaine Greer writes in exasperation: “Love, love, love—all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures …” and on and on she quite rightly goes. Beyond a synonym for sex, we all use the same exhausted English word to say we “love” Streisand, we “love” Haagen Dazs, we “love” our pets, and we “love” the Lord. Terrible things have been done in the name of “love” of God and country. Stupid things have been done in the name of “love” of each other. In the name of “love” children are spoiled rotten, alcoholics are enabled to drink, churches fund the “ex-gay” movement. So just what do we mean by “love?” What did Paul mean? What did John have in mind?
Of course there’s no question that mere orthodoxy is not enough. It’s not simply a matter of rattling off some dogmatic assertions—even about the incarnation and even if what we’re saying is true as far as it goes. The devils are orthodox and can spout scripture ad nauseam. But true affirmation of the incarnation is not at odds with the love of which John writes. The incarnation is the basis of that love. This self-giving love—agape in the biblical text—that John says is lived by everyone who is born of God and knows God is fruit of this same God’s Spirit that enables a person not only to affirm that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and is Lord but to live the Lord’s love.
Especially these days, there are those who are quick to turn John’s “God is love” into their own “love is God.” ‘“God is love,”’ says Bruce, “is as compressed a statement of the gospel as is well imaginable; yet it is no more a reversible statement than is its counterpart … ‘God is light. But many people nowadays don’t seem to realize this. They lack the critical abilities of even the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse who knew that, in the words of the Hatter, “I see what I eat” is not the same thing as “I eat what I see!” Bruce goes on to point out that “‘God is love’ is an affirmation about God … [and] it is so in the sense which is spelt out in [this]: ‘that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.’” It is not enough to test spiritualities only in terms of our own changing notions of what love is and say that whatever we call love is of God.
Even before the four gospels were written, Christians understood that they were to live the love commandment of Jesus as it was modeled by Jesus himself—love that was willing to give itself up to death for the welfare of others, even enemies. “We know what love is by this,” wrote John. “He laid down his life for us. We therefore ought to lay down our lives for one another.” [I John 3:16]
But notice that in so much so-called love, the question is “What’s in it for me?” This acquisitive “love” is about me: my desires, my fantasies, my feelings, my rights, my group. In contrast to such a market mentality love, the love of which John writes is God’s self-giving love for others. For others! God was in Christ, voluntarily laying down his life for the good of others, reconciling us to God. This, says John, is what love is.
Do we see very many spiritual gurus willingly laying down their lives for the benefit of others? For the benefit of their rival gurus? Do we see many of us in our group willingly laying down our priorities, let alone our lives, for people in a rival group? We find it hard even to lay down our prejudices for others!
There are groups out there—everything from stadiums full of Promise Keepers to millions of small cells of those who meet regularly for mutual love and support. They hug each other, cry with each other, and contribute to feelings of community. But as fine as much of this can be, a Princeton sociologist cautions that these groups’ spiritual dynamics can “inoculate people against deeper forms of spirituality and deeper relationships with God.” [Robert Wuthnow] He says “it’s subtle, because the language of Christianity is one of love and acceptance.” But he says that in many of these groups, “it’s such total acceptance and tolerance, there may not be much accountability.”
Twenty-five hundred years ago, one of the Greek philosophers observed that the gods of the Thracians were blond and blue-eyed while the gods of the Ethiopians were black and had flat noses. [Xenophanes] He suggested that if oxen and horses had gods, their gods would be in the image of oxen and horses. Time magazine’s review of Norman Mailer’s new novel purporting to be a memoir of Jesus observes “the many passages in which Mailer’s Jesus sounds quite a bit like Norman Mailer.” The reviewer says that “merely attributing the author’s opinions to Jesus himself seems like dirty pool.” Yet that’s what’s done in the gimmicky Jesus Seminar that its founder, Robert Funk, says aims “to set Jesus free … from the scriptural and creedal and experiential prisons in which we have incarcerated him.” But doesn’t Funk merely transfer Jesus from an imagined “experiential prison” to one of his own imagining? As Alexandra Hall says in The New York Times Book Review: “For all his discussion of religious pluralism, Mr. Funk does not acknowledge his own biases; in investigating the parables and aphorisms of Jesus, he reports finding a kind of Jesus-as-Sartre, who conveniently reflects his own thinly veiled existentialism.” Here’s what a Bible scholar observes about John Dominic Crossan’s recent book, The Historical Jesus: “Does not Crossan’s picture of a peasant cynic preaching inclusiveness and equality fit perfectly the idealized ethos of the late 20th century academic?” Marianne Williamson’s “Jesus” is another example of such projection. In her enthusiastically-received seminars on A Course in Miracles, Williamson claims to be preaching at the dictation of Jesus. Foisting a pop-Zen redefinition on all her uses of Christian terms, she’s emphatic: “Jesus is his name. There’s no point in pretending that his name is Herbert.” But she might as well call him Herbert, or Gee-Whiz or Jiminy Cricket or Judas Priest or any other euphemism for Jesus, since her Jesus has no more to do with the Jesus of the Bible (the historical source on Jesus) than Herbert has. Her Jesus “is a face,” she says. “He is definitely a top of the mountain experience, but that’s not to say he’s the only one up there. … ‘one begotten Son’ doesn’t mean that someone else was it, and we’re not. It means we’re all it. … You and I have the Christ-mind in us as much as Jesus does.” She says that her “Christie” teaching appeals to “people who seek Jesus, but without the judgment, the guilt, the punitive doctrine.” How nice. This is a New Age version of the old Pollyanna liberalism that Yale’s Richard Niebuhr brilliantly critiqued as “the story of how a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Have you noticed that spirituality on the Religious Right bears an uncanny resemblance to themes of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and shares developments on the far right in Islam and Judaism? Have you noticed that the spirituality of the Religious Left is virtually the same as the agenda of the most liberal secular Democrats? Why is it that goddess worship so appeals to radical feminists and that so many men are dead-set against any use of even biblical metaphors of God as Mother?
Maybe it’s not so much about a desire to identify with something or someone beyond oneself. Maybe it’s not even merely a matter of projection, creating gods and goddesses in our own image. What if at bottom, it’s all about an inordinate self-obsession that doesn’t attempt to project onto anything or to identify with anyone except oneself? What if it’s all about self-worship? After all, as C. S. Lewis once quipped: “While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is best.” He confessed that he himself was “layer after layer of inordinate self-regard.” Don’t we all find this to be the case with ourselves?
A New York Times essayist recently wrote that “The current decade … still has no satisfying label, like the narcissistic Me Decade of the 1970’s or the acquisitive Gimme Decade of the 1980’s.” For that matter, there was the Doing-My-Own-Thing 1960’s. So here’s the Times writer’s suggestion for the 1990’s: “the Look-at-Me-Decade.” But it’s all the same old Me! Me! Me! It’s always all about me, regardless of the decade.
It’s the theme of plenty of popular music. Whether “going my way,” “doing it my way and nicely,” “my cup of tea,” “I gotta be me,” “I’ll go my way by myself,” “I did it my way,” blah, blah, blah. The first double album in hip-hop was Tupac Shakur’s “All Eyez on Me.” It reached No. 1. “My Life” is the best-selling album of the “queen of hip-hop soul,” Mary J. Blige.
Advertisers have not failed to catch the spirit of me-ness. A Reebok ad features a poem entitled “Monogamy” that’s “according to my goals, / and how I feel now, this instant. … Don’t ask me to be faithful.” There’s Reebok’s “This is my World.” David Letterman’s mom remembers when even her little David used to run along the beach singing “This is my Father’s world!”
Attention to me, me, me is perhaps nowhere better displayed today than in the obsessive focus on physical appearance. The cover of a New York magazine shouts: “Does She Need $20,000 Worth of Cosmetic Surgery? Who’s to Say?” and pictures a more than conventionally attractive young woman. The magazine goes on to document the tens of thousands of dollars a woman can spend to get thicker lips, thinner thighs, firmer breasts and a rounder rear. And men are spending similar amounts. The cover of a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report was on “The Price of Vanity” and the readers were warned of the new risks of cosmetic surgery. Among the almost two million such “vanity procedures” in this country each year, there are pectoral implants, hair transplants, and penis enlargements. At $6,000 each, surgical efforts to make a penis bigger run risks of infection, painful sex and even sexual dysfunction. The Village Voice informs us that “to be male at the moment in this dementedly narcissistic culture is to be pumped and preternaturally smooth. … There probably aren’t two unplucked chest hairs in all of Chelsea.” And all those Ken Doll “bald chests,” as gym baron David Barton calls them, don’t come cheap. Is this the real world?
One of the last of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips was a pointed commentary on all this me-ness. Bill Watterson’s six-year-old Calvin tells Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, that in history’s “unalterable tide … Everything and everyone serves history’s single purpose.” Hobbes asks: “And what is that purpose?” Calvin doesn’t skip a beat: “Why, to produce ME, of course! I’m the end result of history.” “You?” Hobbes asks. “Think of it,” Calvin blusters on: “Thousands of generations lived and died to produce my exact, specific parents, whose reason for being, obviously was to produce ME. All history up to this point has been spent preparing the world for my presence. Now I’m here, and history is vindicated.” Hobbes asks him, “So now that history’s brought you, what are you going to do?” The final frame shows the two couch potatoes in front of a television set watching cartoons. It’s true, of course, that our coming into this world took a universe of preparation. But the followers of another Calvin knew that the goal of all that preparation was the glory of God and our joy in Him forever.
But the secular worlds don’t have a patent on me-ness. The worlds of spirituality offer lots of what a Roman Catholic cardinal calls “spiritual autoeroticism” [Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger], lots of what evangelical critics call “consumer-driven ministry” [Robert W. Patterson] and “individualism” [Edmund Clowney], what a Loyola University sociologist calls “individualistic and therapeutic” [Mark Shibley] and what a Jewish seminary professor calls “narcissism” [Neil Gillman], Writing in Notre Dame magazine, a Catholic psychologist and former priest objects to New Age me-ness even in workshops for members of Catholic religious orders. He calls it “McSpirituality, junk food for the soul.” [Eugene Kennedy] It’s “ordered more to expanding individuals than building communities, more to self-awareness than self-sacrifice. … [through] a variety of pseudo-mystical and anti-intellectual adventures. … this is,” he says, “Disneyland posing as Chartres.” An evangelical minister, writing for InterVarsity Press, says that he is “uncomfortable with the common evangelical practice of inviting people ‘to accept Jesus’ or ‘to invite Jesus into your life.’ As long as I invite Jesus into my life,” he explains, “I can maintain my essential self-centeredness. Jesus may be an important part of my life, adding a wonderful new dimension, but I’m still in control. … [this] gospel [can’t] save us from ourselves.” [Donald W. McCullough] But in the words of George MacDonald: “Christ died to save us … from ourselves!”
Me-ness is the dogma of narcissistic human pride which, as a leading psychiatrist points out, “is maintaining the fantasy, the delusion of grandeur … in which the individual is prevented from establishing his personhood.” [Carl A. Whitaker] At the beginning of this century, the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev put it succinctly: “Humanity without God is no longer humanity.” He said that “The elaboration of the humanist religion and the divinization of humanity properly forbode the end of humanism.” In his Op-Ed piece in The New York Times this spring, screenwriter and producer Marty Kaplan asserts: “Religion may offer a source of nostalgia, a sense of community, a consoling mythology, but without faith, without the experience of God, it is no protection from the crisis of spirit at the century’s end. This is the sadness at the heart of our secular lives.” So long as people are focused on a spirituality that is merely the self-writ-large or on “religion” which, as theologian Karl Barth assessed, is “the affair of godless humanity,” there can be no escaping me-ness.
Speaking of the funeral service for Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Murray Kempton at a celebrity-packed Manhattan church in May, the rector explained to a New York Times reporter that “the service is typically Anglican … the focus is upon God and His mercy and His love, and not the American obsession with self and lionization of the individual.” The reporter added: “Truth be told … the service could be a hard slog for some late 20th-century ears.”
A basic tenet of the contemporary dogma of me-ness is the notion of one’s right to oneself, a notion that George MacDonald called “the one principle of hell.” This right is presumed today. It goes without saying. But why should it go without saying—especially among Christians? There is, after all, another and older view.
When preparing for confirmation in Reformed churches, believers learn that the answer to the very first question of the 16th-century Heidelberg Catechism begins: “That I am not my own. …” I am not my own? You are not your own! Five simple syllables that, when put together, spell an idea that is totally out of sync with all our celebratory me-ness at the end of the 20th century. Paul had said it in the first century: “You are not your own.” [I Corinthians 6:19] He said that instead of belonging to themselves—or, for that matter, to anyone else—the Corinthian Christians belonged to the God whose Spirit indwelt them and to the One who paid the price for them on the cross. But today, that “I am not my own” –especially that my body isn’t my own—sounds restrictive, harsh, and downright undemocratic! Call out the ACLU!
As Christians, though, we believe that we don’t belong to ourselves. My body does not belong to me. Nobody else’s body belongs to me. Nothing that I like to call “mine” is really mine.
Do you find these words uncomfortable? But really: they can be comfort. “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” is the question for which “I am not my own” is the beginning of the answer in the Catechism. That I am not my own is a comfort? Yes. That I am not my own is a fortifying, a strengthening (which is what the word “comfort” means). That I am not my own is a comfort because, as the Catechism puts it: I instead do “belong—body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” F.W. Robertson used to say: “The mistake we make is to look for a source of comfort in ourselves: self-contemplation instead of gazing upon God. In other words, we look for comfort precisely where comfort never can be.”
The Catechism documents with scripture the strengthening gift of thus belonging to Christ rather than to myself. Says this pastorally comforting response: Christ “has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
What comfort is there in belonging to myself? But what a comfort it is to belong to this Christ! I belong. I belong to Christ. Therefore, I belong to God.
And I am the one who belongs to God. I am God’s own. Notice that I am not denied. I am not neglected. I am loved. Some form of the personal pronoun “I” appears a dozen times in this brief response to the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question. It’s such a singular in Paul’s letter as well. So Christian opposition to me-ness is not opposition to me. Quite the contrary. Christian opposition to me-ness is deepest support for me. Me-ness offers no way out of the dead-end of self-centered, self-entrapment. Me-ness locks us up inside ourselves and throws away the key. Belonging to Christ sets us free.
ENTHUSIASM AND ECSTASY: THE INS AND OUTS OF CHRISTIAN LIFE
If you want to be outstanding, you must find your standing outside yourself. That’s what ecstasy is: ex stasis, standing outside ourselves. As Christians, we believe that the truly outstanding ecstasy is found, not in ourselves-by-ourselves, but in relationship with others, and most profoundly found in being found in relationship with The Other—in God, in God-with-us, who is Christ the Lord. And this relationship is Love. In this ecstasy, we’re in the presence of God’s transcendence.
The root meaning of enthusiasm is en theos: in God. To be a Christian is to be en Theos: in this God who was in Christ. To be a Christian is to be enthused, en-Godded. This is Christian enthusiasm: this God s Life and Love in us. In this enthusiasm, God’s presence is within us.
Now when Christians speak of being “in God,” we’re not promoting the “naive and sentimental pantheism” that C. S. Lewis decried 40 years ago as “the permanent natural bent of the human mind,” even though pantheism was a part of his own spiritual journey on the way to Christianity. Lewis called pantheism “the normal, instinctive guess of the human mind, not utterly wrong, but needing correction.” Pantheism and monism (the notion that all is one) are even more dominant on today’s spiritual scene than then. Says Shirley MacLaine: “Know that you are the universe … Know that you are God.” Marianne Williamson preaches that “there’s actually no place where God stops and you start, and no place where you stop and I start. … at our core, we are … actually the same being.” As she puts it cutely: “There’s only one of us here.” She’s apparently oblivious to the fact that monism forms an ontologically impossible foundation for the major themes for which her New Age fans flock to her: relationship and love. If there’s no one else here—no other—there’s no one with whom to have relationship, no one to love or be loved by. Said Jesuit scientist-philosopher Teilhard de Chardin: “Pantheism seduces by its vistas of perfect universal union. But ultimately, if it were true, it would give us only fusion and unconsciousness; for, at the end of the evolution it claims to reveal, the elements of the world vanish in the God they create or by which they are absorbed.” Pantheism is a Black Hole.
These days, though, even the premier affirmation of monotheism can be turned into pantheistic prattle. Someone has taken the sh’ma, Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” and rewritten it as “Hear, O Israel, the divine abounds everywhere and dwells in everything, the many are One.”
Paul could indeed use pagan poetry to support a Jewish-Christian doctrine of God when, on Mars Hill in Athens, he borrowed Minos’ prayer to Zeus to affirm that “in thee we live and are moved and have our being” [Acts 17:28], but he never forgot that he was not his Creator, Savior or Lord. A contemporary pantheistic mindset seeks our source and salvation within ourselves, as though there is nothing higher or deeper than the human spirit. When Christians speak of being “in God,” we’re not saying we’re God.
Nevertheless, there is long-held teaching of a radical spiritual transformation into the very life of God—affirmed in both Testaments of the Bible as well as by traditions as diverse as the Western Fathers, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the classical Wesleyan theology of sanctification. These all envision some kind of deification of believers, a union with divine energies if not divine essence. According to Paul: Christians “who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” [II Corinthians 3:17f] As it’s phrased by Irenaeus: “If the Word was made man, it is that men might become gods.” Here’s how a modern Orthodox bishop puts it: “In the Age to come, God is ‘all in all,’ but Peter is Peter and Paul is Paul.” And Charles Wesley hymned: “Heavenly Adam, life divine,/ Change my nature into Thine;/ Move and spread throughout my soul,/ Actuate and fill the whole;/ Be it I no longer now/ Living in the flesh, but Thou.”
Real estate people say that location is everything. That’s their “monism,” if you will. They say that the three most important things are location, location, location. Where it’s at is where it’s at. That’s true for enthusiasm, too. Where it’s at for enthusiasm is en Theos, in God. Where it’s at for enThusiasm is where God is. And where is God? God is!
This is-ness of the living God is given in The Name revealed to Moses: “I Am the One who is.” This God always is. Praising this ever-present God, the Psalmist enthused: “If I ascend to the heavens, You’re there! If I descend into death, You’re there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the western seas, even there Your hand shall lead me and Your right hand shall hold me.” [Psalm 139] So it’s true that wherever one might find oneself and wherever one might go—God is there already. One is never out of the reach of this God who always and in all ways is here. Thus the where of enThusiasm is anywhere.
But the where of enThusiasm is more intimate than omnipresence. In God I am ec-statically outside the isolating self-absorption of my me, my all-too-cramped experiential me, “where,” in words of the pioneering psychologist William James, “disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending.” In God I’m freed from my own compensatingly pretentious but self-defeating self-centeredness. I’m re-centered in God, who knows His me, the deepest me He created and redeemed me to be in Christ Jesus—even “before the foundation of the world,” as Paul declared. [Ephesians 1:4] Said James: “To give up one’s pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified.” This author of The Varieties of Religious Experience concluded that “evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its self-despair, and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest of possible examples” of this liberating loss of pretentiousness. James was speaking, of course, of the biblically-based evangel of his own nineteenth century and not of what often passes for it in modem suburban Evangelicaland.
In true Christian enThusiasm, we find our God-centered selves in losing our self-centered selves. This is what Jesus taught as it’s recorded in all four gospels [Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25]. Accordingly, Robert Louis Stevenson said that “In every part and comer of our life, to lose oneself is to be gainer; to forget oneself is to be happy.” That makes so much sense psychologically. After all, most unhappiness does derive from our inordinate worry about our own welfare as we fantasize and define it, the grasping after the ungraspable, our believing we need things to go our own way, day after day after day. Forgetting oneself is one of the most freeing favors we can do for ourselves and others. Writing of excessive self-regard—what another Scotsman called “soul-sickening self-examination” [George MacDonald]—a third Scotsman pointed out that “The man who has no opinion of himself at all can never be hurt if others do not acknowledge him. Hence, be meek.” [Henry Drummond] Surely these insights were never more needed than in our own eagerly offense-taking age.
Said C. S. Lewis: “I became my own only when I gave myself to Another.” An evangelical Christian psychiatrist puts it this way: “Christianity is not about seeking yourself, but about God seeking us. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are central … to Christian psychology, whereas self-fulfillment is central to the assumptions of secular psychotherapists.” [Jeffrey H. Boyd] This Yale-affiliated psychiatrist who is also an Episcopal priest goes on to say: “Lose yourself for Christ and paradoxically, you will discover who you really are. … The soul is not an end in itself. … Your soul will be discovered indirectly if you … ‘Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind [and] Love your neighbor as yourself. ”
If true Christian enThusiasm is in God, it must be said that such enThusiasm is in the God who was in Christ, the Christ of the cross. To be a Christian, to be in this God, in this Christ, is to be in the God of the cross. This is not a popular notion of enthusiasm or spirituality today. But if Jesus refused to take his being in God as something to be grasped for his own exclusive possession, and knew it to be something to be given away to others until he himself was empty and dead on a cross, how can we be in this God in this Christ for our own selfish purposes?
Happily, enThusiasm in Christ is not merely my personal affair. It’s not just between me and Christ. He is so much more than my personal Savior. The where of Christian enThusiasm is not only in me in Christ. The where of Christian enThusiasm is a community in Christ, the Body of Christ. It’s a whole new family affair. And the point is not for the welfare of only the immediate household of faith but for the whole wide world for whom Christ took up his cross and for whom we, in our turn, follow.
We Christians are the “called out,” a countercultural community of discipleship in the Christ of the cross. We have been called to “come out” of the self-centered world-order and to “come out” of our own disordered worlds of self-centeredness. God calls us in Christ to “come out” of the dark and suffocating closets of self into the light and enlivening closeness of Christ’s presence.
The Apostle prays “that Christ might dwell in your hearts through faith so that you might be rooted and grounded in love in order that you might be empowered to grasp with all other Christians what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses mere knowledge, in order that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.”’ [Ephesians 3:17ff] In order that we might be filled with all the fullness of God? What more could we ask than to be so enthused?
To be filled with all the fullness of this God is to be filled with the Love of the God who is Love and who, in the Christ of the cross, lived that Love unto death. We’re one in Christ in order to love as Christ loves. And we’re willing and able to love with Christ’s love because we’re in Christ’s love. We couldn’t love like that on our own. God’s love in Christ is the prompting and the presence and the practice of the Love that is Christian enThusiasm.
All our passing enthusiasms depend on what we feel and think. But true enThusiasm can’t depend on what we feel and think. That’s because what we feel depends on what we think and what we think can be wrong and is subject to doubts even when right. True enThusiasm—our being in God—is anchored in God and is mediated in God-given faithing. Dopamine and dogma do fluctuate, but the living Word of the Lord endures through it all.
True enThusiasm springs from that deep good heart of Divine Mystery of which the Word made Flesh is the best hint we’ve been given. Creatures, of course, can never fully understand their Creator, but Christ Jesus remains but a hint of God’s heart not because we’re finite nor because He doesn’t wholeheartedly seek us out, but because, in our preoccupation with ourselves, we’re so hesitant to welcome Him in. Meant to be God’s own, we’ve meant to be gods of our own.
The Risen Christ did not have one good word to say about the indifferent church at Laodicea in southwestern Phrygia. He said that theirs was a spirituality of nauseating neutrality. But He assured them that His rebuke was His illuminating love and urged them to turn around and face the opportunities for true enThusiasm that could be theirs only in Him. I close with His words to that unconcerned congregation: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking. If any one of you hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to you and share myself with you, and you may share yourself with me.” [Revelation 3:20]