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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The New Desert

In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church was an underground organization that hid to avoid persecution. All of that changed in the early fourth century, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the Empire - ironically because he believed that doing so would allow him to vanquish his enemies more effectively. Out the door went Christ's teachings on non-violence and resisting the status quo, and replacing them were bishops instructing people to be good citizens who were loyal to the Empire. Gone was concern for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, and in was the lust for power and control. In response, many of those who truly understood the teachings of Christ fled to the desert and established what today we see as early monastic communities. Many chose to live as hermits. Whatever the specifics of their vocation, they all had a sense that they could not be loyal to the God of their experience and understanding while living in the population centers of the Empire.

Sometimes, especially in our western lives of air conditioned comfort, I feel it's easy for us to imagine that these early contemplatives headed to the desert because they liked uncomfortable places or thought them beneficial for spiritual advancement. Perhaps that misses the obvious point that the desert was what lay outside of the cities, and it wasn't so much that they were headed to a desert as it was that they were getting out of Dodge City! Had the cities been surrounded by a different sort of wilderness, perhaps they would have fled to the mountain, or the forest, or the sea. I believe the point was they were getting away from the population centers to a place of more freedom and less scrutiny so they could clear their heads and listen for Divine guidance. The fact that it happened to be a desert is something of a secondary detail.

I believe that the contemporary desert is the spiritual but not religious state.

It's no secret that the Church has focused primarily on a dubious theology of the groin over the last fifty years rather than anything even remotely connected to the teachings of Jesus. Forget about the poor, forget about social justice, the real question seems to always revolve around genitals and who does what with theirs. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, people started moving away to the desert, and at some point the floodgates opened. People stopped identifying with what most of the Church was saying and elected instead to follow the voice of the Spirit dwelling in them. Rather like the heresy hunters of days of old, many inside the genital circus decried those who left as somehow being unfaithful to God, but can any reasonable person honestly believe that following the Spirit is being unfaithful to God?

It's also true that the SBNR landscape isn't a perfect place. There are good ideas there, and there are some rather dubious ones as well, but that's the nature of any human enterprise - Spirit led or otherwise. Many if not most of those who went to the SBNR desert went because they reached the point where they simply could not stomach being preoccupied with genitals all day and night - just as their ancestors who went to the literal desert couldn't stand being preoccupied with propping up the status quo - a fascination that remains to this day, and which I am sure also accounts for more than a few SBNR exiles as well.

Instead of engaging in SBNR bashing, we should be applauding their courage and their commitment to the spiritual journey, whether or not it is our own particular path. We should be learning from what they have discovered, incorporating the good and letting the dubious pass us by. Most importantly, we should reflect on our own paths and ask ourselves if we are really being loyal to where we are called to be!


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