by George Clifford
Owen Thomas was first a physicist and then a theologian in the Anglican tradition. He is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Additionally, he has taught at the Gregorian University in Rome and served as president of the American Theological Society.
His credentials caused me to pause when I read the following in an article he authored:
The presence of the reign of God is a matter primarily of outward signs and actions rather than the progress and perfection of the inner life. The focus of the reign of God is primarily on public, communal, political, economic, and historical life rather than on private interior life. The traditional emphasis in Christian ascetical theology on interiority has led the Church in its mission to focus primarily on private, emotional, and family life to the exclusion of public, work, and political life. (“Interiority and Christian Spirituality,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan 2000), 59)
Lest one succumb to the temptation to dismiss his view on the primacy of the external over the interior for Christian spirituality with an ad hominem attack (e.g., what else should one expect from a physicist?), Thomas’ justification for his conclusion is worth considering. He argues that Christians splitting the spirit from the body and assigning priority to the former is odds at with the totality of our tradition. Jewish spirituality emphasized the unity of body and spirit. The Gospel of John echoed that message by prominently declaring that the Word became flesh. Thomas stands in good company. Contemporary historians of Christian spirituality like Urban Holmes share Thomas’ assessment that Christian spirituality rightly emphasizes the external over the interior.
Lent is an especially appropriate season in which to revisit this insight. In Lent many of us pay extra attention to our spiritual journeys (this is good). However, we tend to interiorize this focus seeking to identify the breaks in our relationship with God and to become more attuned to God’s presence through more time in prayer and study. We may choose a spiritual discipline designed to help us in that achieving those goals, even using nominally outward oriented disciplines such as fasting or helping others to improve our interior life. Inadvertently, perhaps unintentionally, we further divorce the spirit from the body, as the spiritual slowly becomes ever more synonymous with the interior life (this is not so good).
Over the last few decades, I have listened as numerous Episcopalians – as well as persons from other Christian traditions – criticized the Episcopal Church’s seeming preoccupation with social justice and human rights to the exclusion of evangelism, prayer, etc. Perhaps one source of this criticism has been that we have failed to express our concern for social justice and human rights effectively and consistently in Christian language. Assuredly, a second source of this criticism has been the widespread preoccupation with interiority that Thomas noted.
Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has made enormous strides towards more fully incarnating God’s justice. Although far from perfect, we more clearly stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation. We seek to welcome all, regardless of income, political affiliation, or theological/liturgical distinctions. With each step we have taken in these directions, others and I have discerned God’s presence and activity in our midst.
Now, I hear God calling us to sing another stanza in the Lord’s song. This stanza has us:
• Bringing good news to the poor (e.g., working to create a strong social safety net and to ensure all have quality, affordable healthcare while questioning the justice of an economic system that allows one corporation to buy another for $2 billion when the latter has no marketable product, let alone made a profit),
• Proclaiming release to the captives (e.g., campaigning to free hundreds of thousands from among the millions incarcerated in our nations jails and prisons),
• Helping the blind recover their sight (e.g., teaching people to see as God sees),
• And liberating the oppressed (e.g., aiding the victims of addiction, wounded warriors returning home with unrecognized psychic and moral injuries, and opposing tyranny, slavery, and exploitation everywhere).
Such is the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is not a ministry of ashes on the street, which is sadly more often theater than a ministry of enduring substance. Singing the Lord’s song is a ministry of transformation, of awkwardly, perhaps even uncertainly, living into a new reality, the Kingdom of God on earth. In singing the Lord’s song, we follow in the footsteps of the prophets and of Jesus, doing as they did, not foretelling the future, but discerning God at work in the world establishing justice, embracing with love, and empowering for life.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings ().