We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right

A conservative evangelical didn’t like, at all, my quotations from Integral Christianity – you are the light of the world. He wrote:

“Self-actualisation is antithetical to the Gospel. It is the realisation of the utter depravity of the self and the need for an imputation of righteousness and sanctification that is the hallmark of true religion. Theologies that reject this notion and instead elevate the individual as the divine (or a demiurge thereof) are simply spiritual manifestations of the glorification of self that so pervades our modern Western culture.”

I experience myself as deeply spiritual but not very religious, at least in terms of the institution, the church, General Synod, the House of Bishops the Anglican Covenant, Biblical orthodoxy. I have a deep faith in the infinite love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. I experience the prejudice, lack of faith, bitterness, abuse and manipulation of those who claim to be rescuing Christian truth and orthodoxy from the likes of me.

The conservative evangelical critic is not going to like the quotes which follow, from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. I’ve only reached page 23 of the introduction but already I am inspired. Richard writes:

It is not that suffering or failure might happen, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences – all of this is necessary and even a good part of the human journey.

You cannot avoid sin or mistake anyway (Romans 5.12) but if you try too fervently, it often creates even worse problems. Jesus loves to tell stories (the publican and the Pharisee and the prodigal son), in which one character does his life totally right and is, in fact, wrong; and the other who does totally wrong ends up God’s beloved! Now deal with that! Jesus also tells us that there are two groups who are very good at trying to deny or avoid this humiliating surprise: those who are very “rich” and those who are very “religious.” These two groups have very different for themselves, as they try to totally steer their own ships with well-chosen itineraries.

Such a down-and-then-up perspective does not fit into our Western philosophy of progress, nor into our desire for upward mobility, nor into our religious notions of perfection or holiness. “Let’s hope it is not true, at least for me,” we all say! Yet the perennial tradition, sometimes called the wisdom tradition, says that it is and will always be true.

Those who are carefully engineering their own superiority systems will usually not allow it at all. It is much more done to you than anything you do yourself, and sometimes nonreligious people are more open to this change in strategy than are religious folks who have their private salvation project all worked out. This is how I would interpret Jesus’ enigmatic words, “The children of this world are wiser in their ways than the children of light” (Luke 16.8). I have met too many rigid and angry old Christians and clergy to deny this sad truth, but it seems to be true in all religions until and unless they lead to actual transformation of persons.

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. That might just be the central message of how spiritual growth happens; yet nothing in us wants to believe it. I actually think it is the only workable meaning of any remaining notion of “original sin.”

Well, I don’t experience myself as a ‘depraved self’ as my conservative evangelical friend implies, because I am unrepentantly a gay Christian in a loving relationship who doesn’t buy into Biblical fundamentalism and the so-called orthodoxy beloved of those who wish to deny my full humanity in Christ. I am a glorious self in Christ by virtue of my birth. I have no truck with the church’s attempts to instil neurotic guilt in me.


  1. (Rev'd) David Austin says

    I like your thoughts Colin which I can accept – with the proviso that Romans 6:1 also needs to be put into the calculation…Richard Rohr is good at identifying our dualistic thinking – ‘us’ & ‘them’, but in my view, goes to far, when Sin & Righteousness are seen as bedfellows…

Join the discussion