“Holiness is a slow, slow, slow process…There’s a lot of adolescent spirituality in America.” That last line thunderstruck me, not because I didn’t know it was true, but because Eugene Peterson said it.
Peterson, to me, is one of American Christianity’s real treasures. I jokingly think of him as “my favorite non-Lutheran.” He is a thinker, a thoughtful man. He is not a stinker or a shouter. His demeanor in life makes his words that much more credible and important.
Surely there is a lot of adolescence in how Americans view faith. After 9/11, we collectively asked the question “Where was God?” while refusing all the while to answer it because we knew we would not like the answer. We’re good at that. Criticizing, but not solving. Questioning, but not answering. Talking, but not thinking. Shouting, but not doing.
It should not be surprising that American Christianity also bears this adolescence. Much of Christianity in America looks as if it is a reflection of society rather than a transformer of it. Peterson’s 17-year old critic sounds all too American. “Tell me what to do,” he insisted.
But if the preacher tells you what to do, he potentially stifles the full life of the Gospel in you. (Thus the need for what Peterson gloriously calls “ambiguity”). Of course, there are a million preachers out there telling you what to do. Hence, Peterson’s judgment. “There’s a lot of adolescent spirituality in America…and part of it is a result of bad preaching.”
The faith is not some switch to flip. It is, rather, a dim light always growing brighter through the Spirit’s illumination over time. It is as Paul describes it in Eph. 4.
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The language of “maturity” and “growing up” permeates this section of Scripture. In this life, it is a constant enterprise, this growing up. We never fully attain to the perfection of Christ. Holiness is a slow, slow, slow process. But it still is the goal, the end, of the Gospel itself. That goal is never fully attained until eternity, but it is still the goal.
Peterson’s critic wanted the message to be about him, and not about Christ. Our post-modern world is addled and handicapped mightily by the same immaturity. Witness the following distinction.
“This is my body” (for my own personal use/abuse–espoused by our contemporary society–unloving).
“This is my body for you.” (Christ, in His selfless sacrifice and Sacrament–love itself).
Just as Christ loves us and lives for us, maturity must then mean to live for Him and for others. “Tell me what to do” misses the fact that God has told us what to do. It’s what He has done. He put us first. We then simply reciprocate by not putting ourselves first, but Him and others. Love.
And so we must continue to grow up, to continue to attain to mature manhood. By grace into faith, we seek maturity not the worldly adolescence of our age and every age. God grant us to think and do the things that are right and not to seek our own selfish gain in church and in world.