Relaxing into the Person of Christ

I’ve been pondering Christopher’s last post for a couple of days now. In it, he draws our attention to the nuance necessary around themes of baptism, discipleship and sanctification.

I’m of two minds on the topic at the moment.

On one hand, I appreciate the image of relaxing into the person of Christ. That connects with me on all sorts of levels. As one of my chief physical disciplines is tai chi, I resonate with the idea that relaxation is one of the ways that we return to a more natural state —as opposed to the tension which we manufacture as a defense mechanism against the world and which thereby distorts us muscularly from our proper shape and function. The idea of relaxing into the person of Christ as a way of understanding discipleship, as a form of the imitation of Christ, and as a way of reconnecting with the image of God woven into us at our beginnings makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, Christopher writes with reference to the situation of the “terrified conscience” (as Luther termed it). There are now and always will be these consciences in our churches and our theology—particularly our ascetical theology—does need to recognize it. But (and you knew there’d be a “but”…) I can’t help but think that the dominant character of our time is not the “terrified conscience” but the “complacent conscience.” The complacent conscience doesn’t need to be told not to stress out about their salvation status—they’re not doing that anyway. The complacent conscience doesn’t need to be told that God’s grace is sufficient, they already assume it, and in doing so may even presume upon it. I suspect that what this conscience needs is to be reminded that a yet more excellent way awaits them—but that it will require effort and action on their part.

Does this mean we need to advocate for a return to works-righteousness? Of course not. And yet, as beautiful as I find the image of relaxing into the person of Christ and as much as it makes sense to me, I wonder if this image of (apparent) inaction speaks the needed word of the Gospel to those who need not fewer reasons but more to engage and to be transformed.

I’m still pondering…

5 thoughts on “Relaxing into the Person of Christ

  1. Christopher

    At least in part, this relates to our I suspect differing formations, which goes to show that theology is contextual without being relative (some few things the ancestors in faith have a blocking veto and so are non-negotiable as I wrote a recent seminarian), and ascetical theology is always influenced by the personal within the communal setting.

    You’ve mentioned before a sense of complacency in your experience of being Lutheran growing up. I was raised Pentecostal and then converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult only to discover that in terms of authority and salvation they share very much in common–authoritarian leadership tendencies and a cycle of holiness/confession that for the scrupulous is ill-advised. And I think it is a cycle particularly that many lgbt persons endure/struggle with because of deforming societal/ecclesial relationships/communities in relationship to us.

    You could say that the scrupulous and the complacent are both in extremis cases, and because both are more common that not, however, unlike sacramental theology, therefore, we cannot avoid an ascetical theology that generally accounts for both within the broader rule of the Church’s life together, based as that is in a the generous breadth/depth of our prayed Anglican Christology/Pneumatology and as these are absolutely constitutive of ecclesiology/sacramentology.

    What is vital for me is that Anglican Christianity is non-anxious, sacramental, and mystical in a personal-communal way rooted in praying–which is not doing nothing, but doing the primary thing. Ramsey once noted the drip, drip power of participating in our liturgies…it changes you. It also gives you space to ponder what it is God is calling you to, to ponder sin through the lens of Christ. So many volumes written on holiness and saints do not give that kind of space, with their stages, etc. or do not begin with Christology, Christ’s Person and work (including virtues) as starting point for a life prayed and lived in Christ, and I think this is a mistake…it cuts off the mystical grounding/spirituality from practices/ethics/morals.

    I will note that “relaxing” into Christ — this is James Alison’s language, is not complacent or unconcerned about growing in grace… It’s that the ground is different. We return again and again to Baptism, God’s incorporation of us into Christ and his Body through means of matter and God’s people. Alison works from a Roman perspective, while I’m working from what lies behind the baptismal emphasis of our current BCP which has the hand of Maurice all in it, such as our description of Baptism as “indissoluable bond” and “covenant,” affirmation of Baptism, practice of Reconciliation, etc. It is within this framework that the Church points us to growing in Christ.

  2. Beth

    I’ve been musing on this post for a few days. I usually resonate strongly with Alison’s work and love the image of “relaxing” into Christ; I also absolutely agree with the further comment that Anglicanism, when lived robustly by a community, is “non-anxious, sacramental, and mystical in a personal-communal way” with that magnificent, ordinary “drip, drip, drip.” This is all quite powerful for *me.*

    However, insofar as I can come up with data about Episcopal churchgoers *other than me* based on 18 years as a priest (and all our data are skewed, I’m sure, based on where we’ve been and so on), I tend to think Derek is right that the complacent conscience is far, far more common than the anxious one in contemporary society.

    I’ve certainly dealt with anxious consciences — often converts from either the Roman church or an evangelical denomination — among people who come to me already desiring to grow in Christ, already convinced that the Christian enterprise is in and of itself a matter of great weight and import. But these are a minority. The majority, at least in my experience, don’t take the issue seriously enough to be anxious about it. They seem to translate much talk about grace into a vague sentiment that God always generically accepts everyone and everything anyway — a notion so flaccid that one could hardly blame them for not finding it transformative or grounding.

    It also seems to me that, yes, the robust Anglican environment of texts and practices and time-markers and ethos, that ordinary, homely, yet profound drip-drip-drip, can be trusted to do a pretty significant work of quiet formation in a more serious vision of both the beauty and the cost of grace *when it’s there* — but that this environment is currently available in, again, a minority of parish communities. As I look around (and visit/supply at parishes, currently being non-parochial and looking for a call), I don’t see that system, to borrow a word from Martin Thornton, in operation particularly often. I see something that uses some Anglican materials as a resource for a more generic vision (to overgeneralize wildly!) and that cannot necessarily be counted on to do the work for us.

  3. bls

    A very interesting conversation! I think these are exactly the kinds of discussions that need to be had to get the church back on track – and to make the full depth of its faith actually manifest and available to people.

    I think Beth has said some things that are really spot-on here – particularly about the “system” not being in operation in many places. That’s one of the keys, to me. Another is the statement about “the Christian enterprise [being] in and of itself a matter of great weight and import.” And of course these two things are related!

    I may write about this myself; I want to describe what happened to me – mainly because I want the system to be available for me and everybody else. I want people to have the same chance to have the conversion experience. I will say quietly here, though, for now, that I don’t think it’s any accident that the places in which you find “the system” at peak operation are those that have a crucifix mounted on the wall….

  4. bls

    (Should probably say “…tend to be those that have a crucifix mounted on the wall….”

    It can happen in other ways, I’m sure – but to me this has been a fairly reliable indicator, and for a good reason.)

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