catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 21 :: 2010.11.19 — 2010.12.02


Fasting to hear

Since the publication of Richard Foster’s 1987 classic, Celebration of Discipline, Protestants have experienced a revival of the classic spiritual disciplines: practices such as confession, fasting, simplicity and solitude, which help to form Christian character. Protestant theology was born in the wake of the Black Plague, in a pool fertile for reflection on the eternal salvation of the soul. But for far too long we have desperately needed to consider whether or how our lives could presently be molded into the image of Christ. Celebration of Discipline provided just such an opportunity. It is an invitation for Protestants to reflect on how God can form us into the image of Christ through the classic spiritual disciplines. Though they have enjoyed a long and rich history in the Roman Catholic tradition, the spiritual disciplines were largely ignored in Protestant churches until Foster’s publication. And it’s no surprise why: the mantra of the Protestant reformers — “justification by faith alone” — is the contention that we are not made righteous by anything that we do, but by believing in what Christ has done for us. The reformers rejected anything that even smacked of monasticism or asceticism, considering them consumerist attempts to “earn salvation,” rather than accepting by faith the free gift of God’s grace offered through Jesus Christ. So the question I want to take up in this essay is whether Foster’s theology of spiritual discipline actually works within the Protestant theological tradition. Can we discover a means by which God shapes us into the image of his Son that does not either turn into a consumer spirituality or lose touch with the theological tradition that distinguishes us as Protestants, or are we resigned to focusing our theological attention solely on the hereafter?


Consumer Spirituality

The theology of spiritual discipline goes all the way back to Aristotle’s theory of the virtues, which, he says, “we acquire first by having put them into practice.” In the same way that “men become builders by building houses and harpist by playing the harp,” so we develop virtuous character by first acting virtuously, and virtuous character in turn produces virtuous action. Aristotle is not bothered by the circularity. Indeed, his theory seems to work: nearly all contemporary psychologists now have some sort of psycho-somatic theory in which actions shape character and character action.

Aristotle’s theory of the virtues got deep into the bloodstream of Catholic moral theology. By the time you get to Thomas Aquinas, the most important of the medieval theologians, virtue language is ubiquitous. According to Aquinas, virtues are habits of the heart that give shape to its most powerful impulses and desires, the way a river’s banks give shape to the river. To be specific, Aquinas says the virtues shape our appetites and our powers. In other words, virtues shape our desire for things (or, shape what it is that we desire), and our ability to get those things.

Here’s an example. I’m relatively new to the sport of distance running, but now, more mornings than not, I get up about an hour before I otherwise would, lace up my sneakers, and jog around my neighborhood. When I started running I was mostly interested in shedding a few pounds, but my problem was that I couldn’t run very fast or very far without getting winded and giving up. I hated it. But the more I do it, the more I get up when I don’t want to, or keep running even when I’m out of breath and my legs are cramping — the more I discipline myself — the more I’m beginning to notice some subtle shifts taking place. The issue of weight loss, for instance, has nearly dropped out of my mind completely. Now what I want is to be a good runner. I want to be able to run long distances quickly and take great joy in doing it. What’s more, I’m actually getting closer to becoming this kind of runner: I can run a lot farther now than when I started. And I still hate getting up in the mornings, but once I’m out there it’s not so bad. See what happened? I had an appetite, a desire that was somewhat shallow (I wanted to lose weight so I’d look good in my plaids). Nor did I possess the powers to do it, (I couldn’t run very far or very fast). But as I engage in the disciplines of a runner’s life, I am developing the virtues of a good runner. And those virtues are beginning to give shape to my appetites (now I have a different desire, to be a good runner) and to my powers (I actually am becoming a better runner).  

So, this bit of Catholic theology that many Protestants write off as “salvation by works” is really quite good news! For certainly salvation is not simply about receiving Christ, but about God shaping our hearts into his image. Spiritual discipline, in the Catholic tradition, is the gift of God, by which he shapes our hearts into the image of Christ. But, of course, those of you with a sharp Protestant eye see the problem: I’ve gotten better at running because I’ve been running. The virtues have a way of eventually taking over and making us the kind of people who do the right thing without even trying. That’s why my runner friends tell me that one day I will actually want to get out of bed early to run (though I still find this hard to believe). But to begin with I had to make small steps in the right direction. I had to choose to get up one morning and lace up my shoes, and I had to choose to do it the next morning, even though I was sore. But if my heart being shaped into the image of Christ also begins by taking simple steps in the right direction, it begins to look like salvation is within our reach, as though our wills are not bound by sin or as though the corruption of original sin can be “fixed” through our deliberate action. In short, spiritual discipline begins to looks like a consumer spirituality: sure you have a problem, but we have what you need to fix it, the choice is yours! All you have to do is take small, deliberate steps in the right direction. It was against this kind of consumer spirituality which Martin Luther took up his pen.


A Tree and Its Fruit

In his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther explores the dichotomy of the spiritual and bodily nature of a human, or the inner- and outer-man as he puts it. Luther does have some room for the disciplines insofar as they help the outer-man to better serve his neighbor. But “how a righteous, free, and pious man becomes what he is,” that’s a question for the spiritual inner-man. Luther’s insists that “it does not help the soul if the body…is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.” In other words, you cannot become a righteous person by performing righteous actions. Luther’s problem with this Aristotelian logic is that even pagans and hypocrites can do righteous things. Does not our Lord himself condemn the hypocrites who, though they fast, look dismal and disfigure their faces? Or those who, though they give alms, sound trumpets in the streets and in the synagogues? These hypocrites, through their acts of righteousness, did not develop righteous character, but rather brought condemnation upon themselves. So, wonders Luther, when we — pagans and hypocrites, all! — perform acts of righteousness, do we not condemn ourselves? Surely, it cannot be righteous actions that produce righteousness, it must be the other way around! Thus, Luther directly contradicts Aristotle, saying, “A good or bad house does not make a good or bad builder, but a good or bad builder make a good or bad house. And in general, the work never makes the workman like itself, but the workman makes the work like himself.”

Now we see why Luther rejected the theology undergirding the spiritual disciplines: we cannot become righteous by doing righteous things. Instead, we must be infused with Christ’s own righteousness (Luther’s terms), and only then will truly righteous acts follow naturally. But it’s interesting to note that Luther himself never stopped practicing the spiritual disciplines. In fact, it was so obvious to him that Christians should continue in spiritual discipline, that he didn’t even bother to defend the practice. (In a moment we’ll get to why I think that is). But with no explicit theology to justify their practice after the Reformation, the spiritual disciplines began to erode like a hillside without a root structure, to the point that, before the publication of Celebration of Discipline, they had fallen almost entirely out of use in Protestant piety.

That’s why Celebration of Discipline was such an important book: before its publication, the primary means by which the Christian tradition had said God shapes our hearts, was all but lost on Protestants. Foster re-introduced the spiritual disciplines and helped us to imagine again what it would look like for God to mold us into the image of Christ. What Foster failed to do, however, was address any of the problems his book raised vis-à-vis the Protestant theological tradition. Perhaps one of the best selling points for Celebration of Discipline — and certainly its greatest downfall — is the fact that we have largely forgotten how Protestant theology works. Because by the time we get to Foster and the new Protestant theology, we have a full-blown, carefully-defined system of spiritual disciplines — intentional, concrete human actions — each specifically designed to counteract a particular vice. It’s consumer spirituality run amuck! Foster writes, “If we ever expect to grow in grace, we must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action.” Sadly, what’s lost is not merely Luther’s rejection of this theology, but we’ve also forgotten that early Protestant theologians had a different theology of the means by which God shapes our heart.


How the Gospel Shapes our Hearts

According to Luther and the reformers, if God is going to shape our hearts into the image of Christ, it’s not going to be by what we do, but by what Christ does. That’s why the reformers are annoyingly insistent that we keep preaching the gospel, again and again telling the story of what Christ has done on our behalf. The new Protestant theology also has a place for the work of Christ, but in another way. In another book that has fostered the Protestant revival of spiritual discipline, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard suggests that we know the disciplines in which to engage by following the example of Christ. But for Luther the story of Christ works a bit differently. You seek from the saints an example, but from Christ, he says, “you seek not only the example but at the same time the virtue itself.” This is because “Christ not only displays the appearance of the virtue to be imitated, but transfuses the virtue itself into men.” In this way, for Luther, the gospel is not merely a direction to be followed, but a kind of sacrament — a promise that gives what it promises.

How does the gospel give what it promises? The new Protestant theology seems to assume that we are saved by the gospel, but that we can then set it aside and dust it off only to share it with others who don’t believe. But to be shaped into the image of Christ we’ll need something else, perhaps the spiritual disciplines. No so for Luther. He thought that hearing the gospel is the only way to grow in Christ — or more accurately, for Christ to grow in us. As Paul says, “Christ grows in our hearts by faith” and faith comes by hearing…the word of God." So when we hear the gospel — the good news of Christ — he literally gets into us, the way good music “gets into” our heads the more we hear it. That’s the thing about good music, you don’t what to hear it only once. The more you hear it the more it grows in your heart and mind, and the more you become the kind of person who likes and appreciates that kind of music. Music has a way of making us like itself. The gospel works like that, too. Luther says that “the word imparts its qualities on the soul.” The gospel is sacramental for Luther the same way the bread and wine of the Eucharist are — as we reach out to take hold of it, it reaches into us and makes us like itself. And this is what the reformers meant by the mantra “justification by faith alone:” we don’t become righteous (in both the Greek of the new testament and the Latin of Luther’s bible, justice and righteousness are the same word) by doing righteous things, we receive righteousness — Christ is us, the hope of glory — as we believe the gospel and Christ grows in our hearts.

Okay, by now I’ve probably given away my position: I think Luther was right to the reject the theology of the spiritual disciplines. Too easily it can deteriorate into a consumer spirituality that makes us think we are independent of God’s grace, as though with the right tools we could fix our fallenness. Instead I think Christ grows in us as we receive him by believing the gospel. But here’s the kicker. That’s exactly why I think it’s important for us to practice the spiritual disciplines: I think they can help us to hear the gospel well.

Consider fasting. Christians have always understood that our eating habits are integral to our spiritual formation. We are told that the earliest members of the Church could be found daily “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all people.” It is no surprise, then, that eating habits are an important part of the spiritual discipline tradition as well. If you are a self-indulgent person, fasting can shape your appetites — in this case, literally — and form you into a more self-sacrificial person. Or, to use Foster’s metaphor, “our human cravings are desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting keeps them in their proper channels.” (It’s interesting that while the Catholic church still celebrates a number of feast days, the new Protestant theology doesn’t seem to have much room for feasting as a discipline). But, at any rate, Luther would reject this theology out of hand. No amount of righteous action will turn us into righteous people. But I want to suggest that Christ does grow in our hearts as we fast, not because it disciplines our desires, but because fasting, like all of the classic spiritual disciplines, can help us to hear the gospel well.

The earliest church calendar was relatively simple: a rhythm of weekly fasts and feasts which was almost certainly lifted directly from the Jewish tradition. At a pretty early date, however, Christians began fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays instead of Mondays and Thursdays like the Jews. The church historian Justo Gonzalez speculates that “this shift took place in commemoration of the betrayal and crucifixion [of Jesus].” So for the early Church it seems fasting and feasting was not a way to reign in an out-of-control appetite, but a dramatic telling of the gospel story. Whether it’s Friday evening and your stomach is rumbling or it’s Sunday afternoon and the cabernet is dancing on your tongue, fasting and feasting is a tactile commemoration of Christ’s story. It is our action, but it is an action that directs our attention away from itself to what Christ has done on our behalf. And so Christ grows in our hearts by faith.

I’m thankful to Richard Foster and to the new Protestant theology for re-introducing the practice of spiritual discipline for many Protestants. For the first time in a long time, it has got us thinking about how exactly God shapes our hearts into the image of Christ. But if this revival is going to survive, we need some theologians who are willing to think seriously about how it fits into the tradition of Protestantism and on how the spiritual disciplines can be a way of hearing the gospel in our bodies.

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