The Road to Christian Enlightenment

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What if just ten percent of Christians actually lived the way Jesus calls us to live? What would that world look like? Can we even imagine it?

The historian and theologian Ronald J. Sider writes, “I have no doubt that if 10 percent of the Christians today would really live the way Jesus called us to, we would transform the world in powerful ways in the next twenty-five years.” If that’s true, then why is it that Christians don’t live that way? And if they were to do so, could they really transform the world?

Well, let’s unpack this a bit. First, the problem behind the problem is the suggestion that fewer than 10 percent live the way Jesus calls us to live. Perhaps it’s far fewer—maybe somewhere in the low single digits. If this is the case, then it should be no wonder that the Church has lost the so-called culture war in this country.

To be clear, though, the notion of a culture war is overstated. There never was a war. Christians not only willingly surrendered the territory, they have been complicit in its surrender, passively aiding and abetting the cultural slide for much of the past century. As a consequence of this slide, the core ideas of Christianity—including its ethics and morals—have not only been marginalized in today’s society, but they are now overtly ostracized by the media, the courts, and the culture that Christianity’s abdication helped create. Indeed, the greatest challenge the Church faces today is not the culture, but the state of the Church herself.

 

Today we find that the perception of Christians by non-believers is overwhelmingly negative. David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Research Group, observes, “Only a small percentage of outsiders strongly believe that labels ‘respect, love, hope, and trust’ describe Christianity. A minority of outsiders perceives Christianity as genuine and real, as something that makes sense, and as relevant to their life.”

And, apparently, it has become less relevant to many Catholics as well. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix adds: “Since AD 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the Faith, parish religious education of children has dropped by 24 percent, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19 percent, infant baptism has dropped by 28 percent, adult baptism has dropped by 31 percent, and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41 percent.”

Indeed, many Americans are losing their religion. According to Pew Research, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion—the so-called “nones”—continues to grow at a rapid pace. “One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30,” Pew reports, “are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” This is up five percent over five years.

There is no question that such changes in spiritual beliefs—particularly those of young adults—will dramatically alter the spiritual landscape in America. This is particularly troubling, Kinnaman adds, as young Americans see present-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, boring, overly political, anti-homosexual, insensitive toward others, out of touch with reality, and more interested in converting people than engaging and loving them. In short, they reject modern-day Christianity because it no longer seems “Christian”—whatever the word might mean to them. Worse, these observations of Christians in the world shape many people’s perceptions of God as well. Nearly 50 percent of all Americans, for example, perceive God as cold, critical, and harsh—a view that reflects the popular perception of Christians and only reinforces the accelerating trend of this general falling away. And so we have seen a weakening of the power that the Christian story has historically had over the popular imagination.

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But why has this happened? Why is the Faith being abandoned on such a scale? The reason may be simply that it is just too inconvenient—particularly in the context of the popular culture. Not only is Christianity misunderstood, but it is also perceived to be impractical. Or more precisely, as G.K. Chesterton observes, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Indeed, it is extremely difficult to detach from all that comes with our Earth-boundedness, its great expense notwithstanding. To these same fears, Thomas à Kempis writes in The Imitation of Christ,

There is one thing which keeps many back from spiritual progress and earnest amendment of life, and that is, a horror of the difficulty and labor of the conflict. Those mostly outstrip others in forming virtues, who strive to overcome those things which are most grievous and repugnant to themselves.

Yet on the heels of these strong words, à Kempis asserts, “The more a man conquers himself… so much the more does he progress in holiness, and the more grace does he acquire.”

So few of us succeed or even attempt to conquer ourselves—fewer even than 10 percent, to be sure. This is the fundamental problem the Church faces in the world today, and not the culture. How shall we “move the needle” in a world where most believers tend to discount, disregard, or, worse, domesticate Jesus’s teachings? How do we move the hearts, minds, and souls of multiple generations of Christians who have grown accustomed to the darkness of our age?

We are indeed in need of a renewed “Christian Enlightenment.”

This most influential of Christian devotional writings, The Imitation of Christ, is, after the Bible, the most widely read and translated book in the world. Indeed, there are more than 6,000 translations of the work!

The fact is, for many the idea of the imitation of Christ is unexplored territory, which means that essential spiritual truths still lie undiscovered by the average believer. But this is what promises to make learning and practicing the wisdom of The Imitation of Christ life’s most stimulating, challenging, and rewarding adventure. And if just 10 percent of Christians would embrace its answers, the world would most certainly be transformed. But how can such a vision come to pass?

Simply stated, living the way Jesus calls us to live means imitating the pattern that He established for us. This pattern has always been radical, but also essential; daring, but also exciting. Living this pattern in today’s world means nothing short of splitting the atom and, in the process, releasing massive amounts of spiritual energy—a tremendous outpouring of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Consider these attributes in contrast with the prevailing—and, perhaps, deserved—opinion of Christians in America today: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. These are the very attributes that a life of imitation yields. But getting there won’t be easy.

First and foremost, what’s needed is an existential sea change—a change that has nothing to do with the culture, or even the Church writ large, but with the individual believer. Scripture gives us a clue here. Rather than conforming to the pattern of the world, we are instead to be transformed by a renewal of the mind—one mind at a time. In other words, through the call of Jesus, men become individuals.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a man who was thoroughly acquainted with the cost of standing apart from the crowd—writes, “It is no choice of their own that makes them individuals: it is Christ who makes them individuals by calling them. Every man is called separately, and must follow alone.” It is the individual to whom The Imitation of Christ speaks.

“The most ruinous evasion of all,” echoes Kierkegaard, “is to be hidden in the crowd in an attempt to escape God’s supervision of him as an individual, in an attempt to get away from hearing God’s voice as an individual.” Thomas à Kempis concludes, “He, therefore, who aims at attaining to a more interior and spiritual life, must, with Jesus, depart from the crowd.” And this brings us to the distinct minority of Christians who choose this road with Jesus—the road less traveled.

Image: Christ Donating His Blood by Lorenzo Lotto

John Schroeter

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John Schroeter is executive director at TheImitationofChrist.com and producer of a special illuminated edition of Thomas à Kempis's devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019 to mark the 600-year anniversary of its initial publication.

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