Sanctity or “Mere Spirituality?”
by Professor Jack
Ross Douthat, author of the hard-hitting book Bad Religion, a takedown of the several varieties of contemporary pseudo-Christianity, writes that though we are a religious nation, we are also a nation of heretics. We have come to practice, with the best of Christianly intention, what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic Deism” rather than orthodox Christianity. We are, as someone has said, the generation hooked on “Mere Spirituality.”
Douthat asserts that it is in our lack of sanctity that we have missed our calling. “Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence,” he writes. “Only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.”
When’s the last time you heard a Christian mention “sanctity”?
Evangelicals are orthodox in much of their theology, I would maintain, but in their practice they would be unrecognizable to their ancestors. This goes for their leaders as well as the rank and file. The problem is not so much ignorance of the Bible or absence from church activities, though even in these their record is at historically abysmal levels. They are missing the mark in three other regards, and these three taken together are what sanctity, to use Douthat’s term, is all about.
First of all, evangelicals have abandoned not only the practice, but the experience of, solitude. Our world is so wired, so noisy, that we find silence uncomfortable and abnormal. Even libraries, once the place of social tranquility, have become busy activity centers. The scheduled hour of withdrawal from usual routines is all but unknown to vast multitudes of young and old alike. Yet without a retreat from the babble and clamor of the world people never get to know themselves or think their own thoughts.
Second, today’s Christians no longer know the meaning of sacrifice. Theirs is a vicarious renunciation. It demands nothing of them. They “tip” God with a little money, a little time, and a few canned prayers and worship ditties called music. They attend hip mega-churches with postmodern dudes for pastors, yet these churches are continually underfunded to meet basic expenses. Huge numbers go on “mission trips” not so much as missionaries as “vacationaries,” trips that are more satisfying personally than meaningful apostolically. They attend justice conferences or even spiritual retreats rather than visit the frantic single mother down the street.
Third, they have forgotten that the scriptures call them to separate themselves from the world. This theme runs throughout the Bible, and is a forgotten teaching of the contemporary church. I am talking about separation, not what used to be known as separatism. Separation may take many forms, but it is primarily a quiet and informed repudiation of the reigning assumptions and habits of popular culture. It is more an internal orientation than a set of external markers, but it is impossible to hide. I like to think of it as separation-as-enhancement rather than separation-of-deprivation. Christians should think better thoughts, speak better words, and know more of beauty and excellence than the coarse world around them. Unfortunately, they often try to blend in the world, sharing its manner of speech, its entertainment, its styles and fashions.
These three, solitude, sacrifice and separation, will not necessarily sanctify you, but you will not know sanctity without them. Until Christianity makes people different, it will not make a difference. It will simply fit in with all the other “mere spiritualties” of which the world already knows too many.
Good post, I learned some new things.
Some of my thoughts:
I’m not sure that sanctity is the totality of Christianity. The hinge of Christianity is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though the spectrum of beliefs about Jesus varies the fact of Jesus is the binding factor. It is interesting how you mention that in practice ancestors of that tradition would not recognize similarities. I guess I would question what would anyone from previous centuries recognize? Language, theology, science, art, math, entertainment, and the likes are always progressing. The progress of such is not inherently evil. I think a great question would be what are the new practices that our ancestors would also partake in?
The three practices that you pulled are fantastic practices in which any person should in some point in their life partake in. Some of which the New Testament speak of. I wonder though where is feeding the poor, healing people, and exhorting people to live in peace? These are more numerous in the New Testament.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Chris. I would agree with you that sanctity is not the totality of Christianity. Practical sanctity’s general absence from the contemporary Christian consciousness, however, is a source of weakness, including loss of identity, among Christians. The humanitarian acts you mention are always part of what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence,” but these alone are not salvific, unless specifically performed in the name of Jesus.