The Little Way and the New Legalism of Radical Christianity

Ever since my discovery of the spirituality of the little way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux I've been thinking a great deal about how St. Thérèse can be an important resource for Protestants struggling with the call to be a "radical Christian" and the resultant shame when our lives seems pretty normal and ordinary.

For example, let me point you to two articles. The first is by Anthony Bradley entitled "The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic and Shamed." The article a follow-up reflection, prompted by a Tweet Bradley had sent out that said:
Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian is slowly becoming the “new legalism.” We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40).
The second article, entitled "The High Calling of Everyday Ordinary Living", is by Bob Robinson and is a reflection upon Bradley's concerns about the "new legalism" of being a "radical Christian."

I think these articles are describing something important. I'm particularly struck by Bradley's observations about how "radical" often gets fused with our narcissism, how the most terrifying thing in the world is being normal and ordinary.

I do think there is frequently a neurotic panic behind the push to being a "radical Christian." Consequently, the drive toward being a "radical Christian" can often become more about self-esteem enhancement, in religious guise, than anything else. 

And yet, I find these Protestant critiques of "radical Christianity" to be lacking. Specifically, I think their positive recommendations are often too generic and insipid.

For example, Robinson concludes his article by pointing us to James Davison Hunter's notion of "faithful presence." Hunter's work and the notion of "faithful presence" has gotten a lot attention lately. And I'm on board. But my complaint is that the notion of "faithful presence" struggles to connect with Jesus' language about "taking up your cross." Too often "faithful presence" unpacks as "just be a good person wherever you are." Which is fine. Who would object to that? But if that's the case, if all "faithful presence" means is niceness, family life and the Protestant work ethic, then why bother with Jesus?

What is needed, in my estimation, isn't a generic call to "faithful presence"--be nice and a hard worker wherever you are--but a way to get the radicalness of something like the Sermon on the Mount infused into "everyday ordinary living."

And that, I would argue, is the genius of St. Thérèse.

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22 thoughts on “The Little Way and the New Legalism of Radical Christianity”

  1. Luther's doctrine of vocation might also be a helpful complement to you thesis here.

  2. I think it is instructive to read Lisieux within her context. Here is a person who had already made a commitment to lifelong poverty, chastity and obedience. A commitment to, and even a longing for, martyrdom was a given. That served as a sort of baseline, because it is what surrounded her day to day. But she apparently avoided the temptation of becoming puffed up about it. Having done that, she realized that what was really important was simply to love the most unlovable people around her, practically. Sure, her community saw their own special radical vows as a kind of “supererogation,” but she found this routine and ordinary love _within_ a life of such complete self-sacrifice that it would put the most radical and missional evangelicals to shame.

    What seems important here is not that Therese of Lisieux avoided behavior that was, in an objective sort of sense, radical.” Far from it. Instead, I’d suggest that considering oneself and one’s community to embody radicalism is what generates the narcissistic, puffed-up, self-flattering, alienating, purity-obsessed way of being.

    I think the whole church is called to be a community that is actually practicing the Sermon on the Mount, by and large, with grace for their occasional failings in this regard, but who genuinely consider the ethic preached by Jesus to be normal. Aside from lacking the neurotic and purity-obsessed dimensions, that kind of community also seems to have vastly more capacity to encourage social transformation; people norm to norms, not to radicalism. This is what I’d like to hear the church say clearly to itself, and to the world: Follow the Sermon on the Mount, by God’s grace, with love and humility, as closely as you can. Simply recognize where you fall short and let God help you correct it, and worry more about your own efforts here far more than you worry about other peoples'. Whether you give your life to your children, or to international mission in dangerous places, there is nothing spectacular about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying, and producing a rich harvest as a result. It is profoundly powerful, but so is the sun, and the sun rises each day without any great fanfare.

  3. I'm beginning to realize that I'm an ordinary teacher, at an ordinary middle school, with an extraordinary Christ doing His work using my body. It cuts out the struggle for me, knowing that "as He is so am I in this world."

  4. Perhaps those who are truly radical would vehemently deny it, suggesting they did not consciously pursue being "radical." Maybe the self-indulgence comes when we are trying to be something we consider grand.

  5. I really appreciate Hunter's work, though I always felt like he lined up with what he called the "neo-Anabaptists," even though he denied it.

    I find Gabe Lyon's "The Next Christians" to be a more practical approach to the same thing. He gives lots of examples and spells out well what it looks like to be a "restorer," which is his term for what Hunter calls "faithful presence."

    You've made me want to explore Thérèse a bit.

  6. Rod Dreher's new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and example of 'faithful presence,' radical Christianity, or the little way St. Thérèse in your opinion?

  7. I would think that being "radical" is something of a young person's game -- and it doesn't much depend on what one is radical over. In part, that's probably an off shoot of hope, another wonderful product of youth. Well, at least that was all there for me; we get radical because we hope for a kingdom of some sort (at the time mine was of a Calvinistic sort). Here, I think Benedict's counsel of stability helps: stick in a place; do what's in front of you; be mindful. I've found all that produces a different, perhaps more mature hope. And maybe a deeper radicalism, too.

  8. Yes. The Acton Institute is so horrible, in so many ways. It seems pretty clear that his concern is that "radical" means "caring about social justice." And his answer? Move along kids. Get a job and stop worrying about policy. The Acton Institute will take care of that.

  9. Have you read Arpin-Ricci's response to Bradley? He wrote a book about infusing the Sermon on the Mount into everyday ordinary living called "The Cost of Community". Worth checking out.


  11. In some of Fr. Daniel Berrigan's work, he is critical of those who choose the monastic life without real engagement in the world at large. There really aren't that many Thomas Mertons,

    I'm not putting anyone down for living an ordinary good, Christian life. In fact, one of my current endeavors is to be engaged, conscious and present in life's most ordinary moments. And it's hard work! But I think it's a little dishonest to pretend that this is enough. There's is nothing radical about the ordinary.. And it's sort of self-serving to pretend otherwise.

    And I'm saying this as someone who admittedly should be doing a lot more. When I read Berrigan I'm struck by how much compromise we're willing to accept when we engage (or neglect to engage) in the world at large. Inaction is in effect a kind of action. When we choose not to speak truth to power, or to not stand up for the weak, or the oppressed. When we enable the leaders who represent us to kill and torture.

  12. I'd say somewhere between 'faithful presence' and 'the little way.' I'd be interested in your thoughts if you ever get a chance to read it.

  13. I can understand some degree of suspect regarding the ordinary, being viewed as "Holy Inactivity"; and it would be for some. Yet, the ordinary is constantly being shaped and reshaped in the person of contemplation, and when

  14. I am 64 and live in a rural town. My life is very ordinary. And it shouldn't be. What I mean by that is what Shane Claiborne refers to as being an ordinary radical. I could be far more loving to those around me than I am. But I have never felt ashamed by anything I have read in the writings of those called the new monastics. I have only felt great joy that these Christians are moving into the broken places in our country to offer community with Jesus to their new neighbors, and that this community with Jesus stands in stark contrast to the values of our society which seem to me so clearly counter to Jesus' way. I have fallen in love with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and couldn't help but think of him as I read the articles about "the new Christian legalism". He was called a legalist as he called Christians in Germany and around the world to obey Jesus' commandments in simple loving obedience no matter how impractical or counter intuitive they seemed to be. He argues that what had happened in Germany was that their Christianity had become something without Christ. He turned the table on those that accused him of legalism by stating they were the real legalists. He said they had misunderstood Luther's understanding of salvation by faith and not work,s and consequently replaced salvation in Christ with salvation in a principal or law. He wrote his grandmother from prison and said that what it really came down to was a choice between Germanism and Christianity. By Germanism I believe he meant a form of Christianity without Christ. I think any country with a strong Christian tradition can fall into the same error. So to use our country as an example, the choice may be between Americanism and Christianity.It is possible.

  15. "[T]his community lives by values which are utterly foreign to the values some men and women are possessed by. Thus, this community lives without attachment to money and prestige and hatred and violence and war. Its house will be buffeted and struck by the blows of the world.; it can't exist in Nirvana in the sense of cheap grace. It has to earn its salvation by its love the dispossessing Lord." - Daniel Berrigan, The Raft is Not the Shore

  16. Being a "radical Christian"is to live by faith and not by sight. to trust in the finished work of Christ apart from anything that 'we do', 'say', 'feel', or 'think'.

    It's not a move from vice to virtue. But rather a move from virtue to grace. - Gerhard Forde


  17. Thanks, Richard, this is good perspective. On a related discussion, at our school we're discussing what it means to be "faithful" in a "changing world". On the one hand, faithful doesn't mean "doing things the way we've always done them", nor does it give in to a sense of progress which seems inevitable. I've also found a dichotomy in that some people jump in to DO radical things with little thought, while others THINK endlessly about what to do that would be considered radical. Every time my colleagues and I bat around this discussion, it really does boil down to small prayerful steps.

  18. This backlash to the "radical Christianity" meme is interesting to me in a very way.. I totally agree with you, Richard, that it can be the product of a neurotic panic stemming from issues of low self-worth. About four or five years ago, I got very into it for those very reasons. This kind of self-worth chasing isn't sustainable, of course, so within a year or two I crashed and burned, having a total meltdown. This led to a few years of healing and growing to understand grace in a fresh way, during which I felt very wary of those calling to be "radical." But in this period, God gradually taught me that unconditionally obeying Him really is the best way to live, precisely because of his grace. And now, this obedience is leading me into missions. So in some ways, I've come full circle, only with a radically different perspective.

    So I can't say unequivocally whether the call to "radical faith" is good or a bad thing. I think it really depends on the individual. I do make sure that any time I challenge someone I douse it in profuse amounts of grace. And of course, the truth that radical obedience doesn't necessarily exclude things like getting a "normal job" and raising a family needs to be hammered again and again. I think this is what Shane Claiborne was trying to get at in coining the term "ordinary radicals."

  19. I think you're on to something in regard to the panic around being ordinary. I also believe just about everything happening in American Christendom is a reaction to the political-focus-on-the-family-Christianity that had become so prevalent, and, what was your word, insepid. From missional to radical to neo-Calvinism, all of them are trying to reorient a church to focus away from a battle we were losing to begin with.

    The problem is we don't know how to be distinct, so we grab for radical. We struggle to be distinct in the workplace and culture in a way that testifies to the inner-working of the Spirit in our lives, but radical is easier to spot, and in many ways superficial. Distinctive Christian living pours and oozes into everyday events and conversations that offer grace and healing for the those in front of us. These ways of living are much more subtle. While adopting 45 kids from Africa (which is awesome to do, and just an example - please no one curse me), is much more noticeable...and garners many more applause.

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