Christian holiness can no longer be considered a matter purely of individual and isolated acts of virtue. It must also be seen as part of a great collaborative effort for spiritual and cultural renewal in society, to produce conditions in which all can work and enjoy the just fruits of their labor in peace. — Thomas Merton from New Seeds of Contemplation
I grew up in the “Holiness Tradition” — a way of being Christian in the world in which much emphasis was placed on personal piety. Usually centered around what the Christian “should and shouldn’t do”, it was, for all intents and purposes aimed at the individual. Salvation was essentially about the individual making it to heaven in the afterlife. This life was for the sole purpose of shedding all of the sins and vices that would prevent one from entering the Pearly Gates. We obsessed over whether or not Christians could go to see a movie in a theater, or have a beer while watching a ballgame (or indeed if a ballgame constituted a “worldly amusement”). We were convinced that dancing or going to a swimming pool would put us in the express lane towards lust and land us squarely on the superhighway to the fires of an eternal hell. And while it was never explicitly stated, in the church of my childhood, I clearly heard that our little band of faithful followers were the only ones who really had the correct understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.
My upbringing brought me many good gifts. I learned about sincerity in prayer. I learned to take comfort from and be challenged by the words of Holy Scriptures. I learned about how people in the church can care for each other in times of need.
Now I’m an Episcopalian. We’re pretty good at service projects. We do our best to dial down being judgmental (even if we still struggle mightily with this unattractive characteristic of religious folks from time to time). We don’t speak of heaven as much as we talk about the “hope of the resurrection”. But, at some level, we’re not that different from our sisters and brothers in the Holiness Tradition. We still tend to think of faith as a private and personal matter. Only instead of tending to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, we can tend to isolate our faith from the rest of our lives.
Merton’s call to collaborative holiness isn’t about getting everybody to heaven by getting them to behave like we think they ought to behave or believe like we think they ought to believe. The renewal of society cannot be accomplished by simply voting for a Democrat or a Republican and then going home to read our Bibles and pray that our candidate will win. Somehow, we Christians who live in this country will have to do something that’s at odds with our American focus on the individual. We will have to shift our focus from “What is best for me and mine?” to “Who is my neighbor and how are we called to live justly as a society?” If we begin asking the latter question, we might find our unquestioned suppositions about what it means to be a person of faith upended. Who knows? We might even begin to understand we cannot be a follower of Jesus all by ourselves. We might discover we need other followers of Jesus to support us in that endeavor — even (or perhaps most especially) the followers of Jesus with whom we most vehemently disagree.