I have been loath to quote extensively in this blog from the books that I read, but I found the following excerpt from Romano Guardini’s book, The End of the Modern World,1 to be especially relevant to where I am just now in my life.
First, let me frame the context before offering the quote from Guardini.
Generally speaking, this blog is about my search for real religion and the real kernel of Christianity. More specifically, I write about my search for God in my everyday, ordinary life – my sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life (Rom 12:1, The Message). I concluded several years ago that the modern church, surprisingly, has little to say on this subject.2 The church has, by and large, done the opposite of what the apostle Paul advised in Romans 12:2 – Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. (The Message).3 Guardini did not discuss the subject of the influence of culture on the church, per se. Rather, he undertook a much broader analysis of the unsustainable philosophical predicament in which modern humans, including Christians, find themselves.
In Genesis, God told humans to take dominion over the world, with the implication that our activity in that realm would be conducted with a sense of cooperation with and responsibility to God. Indeed, Guardini observed that human beings are gradually attaining more and more control, that is, dominion, over important aspects of life and nature, invoking the best example of his time: nuclear energy. The dark side of nuclear power (i.e., Hiroshima), of which Guardini was fully aware, continues to this day to provide the quintessential example of human power over nature, particularly when responsibility to God is ignored. What he could not have anticipated would have been the introduction of ubiquitous technologies that would hold promise for improving our lives (e.g., electronic communication, cheap goods through mass manufacturing) while at the same time endangering, not just a single city, but our entire planet (e.g., global climate change)! In other words, Guardini, of necessity, could not have known the specific applications of human power that would arise in the future. On the other hand, he had a very good sense for the extent of the damage that humans could inflict upon themselves and upon nature.
Guardini believed that the church, the modern Christian, is not prepared to “show the way,” but he offered, among several others, the following suggestion:
“…we must try to rediscover something of what is called the contemplative attitude, actually experience it ourselves, not just talk about it interestingly. All around us we see activity, organization, operations of every possible type; but what directs them? An inwardness no longer really at home within itself; which thinks, judges, acts from the surface, guided by mere intellect, utility, and the impulses of power, property, and pleasure. An ‘interiority’ too superficial to contact the truth lying at life’s center; which no longer reaches the essential and everlasting, but remains somewhere just under the skin-level of the provisional and the fortuitous.”
In whatever happened to the interior life?, I bemoaned the fact that, although the church, at least in some cases, does a reasonable job of plugging people into community service projects, it is relatively weak at helping people develop their interior lives and the strength that a person derives from such development. Guardini’s plea speaks precisely to this need. He implicitly believed that we have lost something valuable, something, I might add, that the mystics of old had mastered: access to the interior life.
In my experience, the church extols two kinds of Christians: people of character and people of strong biblical conviction. Those who are characterized by either or both of these attributes are labeled as “people of strong faith.” In fact, strong Christian character or deep knowledge of doctrine and the Scriptures are equated with a close relationship with God. But, a person can have strong character and, yet, be an atheist. Likewise, the Pharisees were people with strong biblical convictions, yet who invoked the wrath of Christ. In the Scriptures, in contrast, people of faith were not people who were known necessarily for their knowledge or theological conviction or even strong character. (Gideon and David come to mind as examples.)
The true “heroes” of the Bible were people who knew God intimately. Take Moses, for example. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33:11) When this verse is used to argue that we can know God in the same way that Moses did, the immediate retort is, “Ya, well, that was Moses and I’m not Moses.” My response is this: “That you are not Moses is true. But, you have something that Moses apparently did not have: God lives inside of you. And, yet, inexplicably, you claim that you cannot speak to Him face to face, as one speaks to a friend!” The contemplative mystics begged to differ. They sought, and found, God Himself. That such people are rare in the world today is an important clue that modern Christianity has lost its way.
You see, we are so out of touch with the interior life that we cannot hear or experience God in our everyday, ordinary lives and people like me struggle to find help and guidance in an endeavor that, by rights, ought to be the highest and central activity of the church… and the salvation of the world. Guardini calls prophetically, from 60 years ago, for a rediscovery of contemplation and the interior life. That Dallas Willard had to write a book called Hearing God forty years later at the end of the 20th century is telling, considering that hearing God ought to be as natural and normal for the Christian as breathing.
The relentless accumulation of power and knowledge that allows us to control technology, nature, and even people themselves, sans any sense of responsibility to God Almighty that is attained through contemplation, will inevitably lead to our doom.4 The world cannot afford “Sunday-only” Christians any longer. Bill Hybels, in Courageous Leadership, wrote, “The local church is the hope of the world.” But, churches comprise individual Christians. What the world needs is churches full of contemplatives who, following in the steps of the great saints like Ignatius Loyola, set out to “help souls” and change the world. Elaine Heath has observed, “The church is in trouble in the post-Christendom West, the kind of trouble that requires leadership from those who are holy.”5 By “those who are holy,” Heath is not referring to people who are saintly in the vernacular sense of being perfect. The people who will be positioned to help the world are those who are holy in the sense that they know God Himself intimately.
Few people realize that, in the pursuit of God, there is far more at stake than simply being religious. Changing that perception starts with you and me.
1 Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998.
The End of the Modern World and Power and Responsibility were initially two books, which were combined into one volume and published in 1998. Guardini was a theologian and philosopher who wrote about culture, Christianity, and modernism. His books are not apocalyptic (as the title might suggest to modern readers), but prophetic. Guardini’s analysis spans the millennia, from the early Greeks to modern times, finally painting a picture of western civilization that is undergoing profound change. Though the book I read was published in 1998, Guardini wrote his books in the 1950s and, from 60 years out, his analysis of the modern world is both prophetic and profoundly concerning. I should also note that my summary statements about the book barely scratch the surface of Guardini’s thoughtful analysis.
2 “The Church and its ministries seemed to have the most influence at the beginning of a person’s spiritual growth process. This hand-holding approach appears to be necessary in the early stages of spiritual growth. However, as with adolescents who long for independence, the more mature believers do not seem to benefit so much from programmatic hand-holding – ‘the institution of the church becomes less central to their faith development.’ The study concludes that, ‘Our analysis paints the picture of the church being too preoccupied with the early growing years, leaving the spiritual adolescents to find their own way – without preparing them for the journey.'” (my emphasis, Willow Creek Reveal Study – a Summary)
3 Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21 Century Church, Hendrickson Publishing, 2003.
4 This strong claim is not made frivolously. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, well-known biologists from Stanford University, wrote in a recent article published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the British counterpart to our National Academy of Science, “Today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’, facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems.” (Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H. Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proc. R. Soc. Lond., Ser. B: Biol. Sci. 280: 1-9, 2013.) Interestingly, Guardini’s dire predictions in the 1950s predated any awareness of the impending global calamities to which the Ehrlichs refer. What would he write now?
5 Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach, Baker Academic, 2008.