Discerning the Spirits of the Times-The “Feel Good” Ethic vs. The Way of Spiritual Transformation
In one of my earlier, more modest works, In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, I wrote about our “world where easy experience is coveted and true knowledge acquired through labor is scorned.” And I posed the question as to whether movements that fit hand-in-glove with such a mindset are “truly Christian”?
That question posed in 2001 remains valid for us today. Too often, the experience and practice of religion or spirituality is associated with entertainment for the purpose of making oneself feel good with no reference or connection to the implementation of the Gospel’s counsels on the challenging terrain of day-to-day life. For many, religious experiences are contrived to make you feel good about who you are, where you are, when you are, and even what you want. They provide validation, empowerment, enthusiasm, but not necessarily what matters most: repentance through humbly and freely submitting to a way of life that can transfigure a vessel of clay into a vessel of honor for and in Christ. Instead of an all-embracing way of life illumined by teaching tested over millennia, the ultimate gauge is to be found in one’s own personal, private, subjective, emotional state. The patristic counsels of humility, obedience, fasting, confession, and watchfulness—that can provide real, objective benchmarks for the Christian way of life and that are founded on the bedrock of sacred revelation—are eschewed as old fashioned, outdated practices for people who superstitiously believe they are saved by works rather than faith, even though there could be nothing further from the truth. In this new world of ours, Karl Marx was right in writing that religion is the opium of the people.
However, the way of spiritual transformation is not solely based on human experience, especially if that experience is based on a “feel good” ethic designed to uplift the human spirit. The way of spiritual transformation recognizes the ancestral sin as a fundamental component of human history and each human life. In chapter 2 of Ancient Christian Wisdom, it is noted, “The tragedy of the present world can only be understood theologically by considering the second half of the Genesis story that describes how the misuse of human reason and freedom radically altered creation. The sacred history of the fall forms a second phenomenological layer over the Christian understanding of humanity and the universe in its pristine state. . .The wrong choice of the ancestral sin was not just a detour from the journey toward perfection. It was a dead-end characterized by a deluded state of irrationality and pride in which man disregarded the very boundaries separating the created from the uncreated realm. Although the divine image was not erased by the fall, it was darkened, thereby permitting human reason to grow indolent and lose its ability to clearly see the things of God. Instead of being directed toward the Giver of Light, human reason turned with blind selfishness toward creation and fell under the shadowy influence of the imagination that encouraged all manner of illusion, prejudice, superstition, and idolatry to grow freely. As a result of separation from God, human beings became more vulnerable to the devil’s influence as they became intimately acquainted with corruption, sickness, and death, foes that human freedom and reason could not overcome. When Adam and Eve were girt with garments of skin, human nature was clothed with dead matter, altering life into a struggle for survival in which instincts and passions would displace God-implanted reason.”
Human progress and technological sophistication do not supplant these truths of revelation. No amount of happy talk or exhortations to feel good about oneself can erase this reality. If you become seriously ill and go to the doctor and he informs you that you have cancer, he will in all likelihood prescribe forms of treatment that may be painful, arduous, and difficult. The same is true in the spiritual life. The effects of the ancestral sin incline us to a sickness unto death. The prescriptions of the Church (confession, prayer, humility, and watchfulness) are not designed to make you feel good about yourself. They are designed to restore us to communion with God for all eternity, but beginning today.