Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Revival or the saints?

On Friday, December 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI addressed students throughout the United Kingdom during his apostolic visit. He could have spoken apologetically or enumerated the evils of modernity. He could have sounded a prophetic warning, or he could have just said something politically winning and nice. He certainly started that way: "First of all, I want to say how glad I am to be here with you today." No doubt not a few expected the rest to follow along in the same manner--but it didn't. The Pope had scarcely finished thanking everyone when, to my astonishment, he began talking about saints. "I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century." My astonishment was (and is) not that he talked about saints, but that he was inviting the students who heard him to become saints. He wasn't talking St. Catherina of Siena (1347-138), daughter of an Italian cloth dyer, but appealing to a would-be St. Ashley Butler of Leeds (1992-20??), marketing major and a soccer enthusiast and daughter of a network administrator.

"Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before," he continued. "Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. . . . When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. [I am asking you to put those other goals in the context of true happiness, which ] is to be found in God.

"We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts. . . . God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints."

It is well known that Benedict XVI has dedicated his pontificate to combating the secularism of the West and the spiritual indifference of its people. His life has been a long exposure to modernity in all its forms. As a young man, he was well-equated with Nazism, having nearly been a Hitler Youth but later drafted into the military. After the war, he became a student at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. There he studied Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers and became a fan of the Roman Catholic neo-Kantian theologian Karl Rahner. He witnessed the social turmoil and youth uprisings of the 1960s as a professor at Freising College. He would later teach at the universities of Bonn, Tübingen, and Regensburg.

So given his exposure to modernity and the overtly stated agenda of his pontificate, Benedict XVI chose to talk to the youth of the West about sainthood.

Contrast this with another doctrine aimed at spiritual indifference and even secularism. Contrast it with the doctrine of spontaneous, regional, and supernatural revival developed best in the United States by Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards. A New England Puritan, Edwards witnessed the First Great Awakening of 1733-35 from his post as minister in Northhampton Massachusetts. The First Great Awakening extended from Great Britain to the American Colonies during the 1730s and 40s. It was the result of dynamic preaching that urged hearers to repentance and personal renewal. It turned the face of frontier Protestant Christianity inward away from corporate liturgy and doctrine and toward private emotion and personal response. People were encouraged to examine their lives, to repent from sin and commit themselves to moral living. Edwards wrote a book based on his experience of the Awakening. It was called A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and was published in 1746.

In Religious Affections, Edwards constructs a method of self-examination for separating true religious experience from its counterfeit. New faith, he says, must be tested to see if it is genuine. Good works in themselves mean little. Edwards concludes that the twelve fruits of the Spirit are the true signs, and of them, love is the chief. "Love is the chief of the affections, and as it were the fountain of them." And, he continues, only spiritual men, that is human beings awakened by the Holy Spirit, exhibit its fruits.

Since the First Great Awakening, evangelical churches have prayed for revival in the face of growing secular indifference. With Edwards they have understood revival to be a changing of the mind and emotions of each human being toward repentance and amendment of life. With Edwards they have understood this to be completely a work of the Holy Spirit. And, keeping the First and subsequent Awakenings in mind, they have understood the phenomenon of Spirit revival to be pneumatic, unexpected, and in some way geographically located. The revival tradition has taken on other characteristics since Edwards as well, especially under the influences of charismatic preachers like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham and the pentecostal movements of the twentieth century.

My experience of revival as it is practiced in evangelical churches today is pedestrian. Revival announced in an American church today means a jejune week of long evening Sunday services. There will be jeremiads against the evils of the culture and full-throated appeals toward repentance--hear the echoes of the tent-meetings of Methodist perfectionism, of "praying through" to the "second blessing", of tongue-speaking and people slain in the Spirit. There will be prayer, fervent and pious prayer. And there will be appeals for revival made to God--where revival is like a spiritual thunderhead and the praying congregation Elijah kneeling on the dry mountain.

This post has gone much longer than expected, but here are two responses to the challenge posed by Western secularism: popular Protestant revivalism and Roman Catholic sainthood. There is room here, I think, for a compare and contrast that would lead to interesting conclusions. I hope I have laid a very little of the groundwork here--and a general work it has been. For myself I think that the revival tradition makes little sense in its expectation for a falling of "latter rain" upon the citizens of [insert town, city, state, or country.] But there are commonalities between Benedict's challenge and the challenge made by Edwards and picked up in the evening preaching from revival pulpits, save Protestant recoil from the papist grammar of "sainthood" even as they (we) pray for private sanctification and public rejuvenation.