Finely Tuned Instruments of Welcome: The First Person Nature of Holiness

Since the publication of Unclean I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between hospitality and holiness. As I argue it in Unclean, holiness is driven by a purity psychology that, given the features of that psychology, undermines lives of welcome and compassion.

But a concern is raised that if welcome and compassion are privileged--or perhaps over privileged--where does spiritual formation take place? Where are Christian virtues modeled, practiced, and acquired? Where is saintliness and sanctity promoted, even expected?

In short, where does holiness fit in?

I think these are deep questions, and post-Unclean I've been thinking a great deal about queries along these lines.

The first thing I noted, in turning to this puzzle, was this: the people I tended to hold up as hospitality exemplars--people who showed radical compassion--were very often people of great holiness and sanctity. People of worship, prayer, moral discipline, and religious observance. I'm thinking here of people like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, St. Francis, Jean Vanier, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I'm thinking of the people at my church: the most hospitable are often the most holy. I'm thinking of the holiness of people outside my religious tradition, like Gandhi and the Buddha.

And, of course, I'm thinking of Jesus.

The most holy people are often the most hospitable.

And yet, I stand by the argument I made in Unclean: the pursuit of moral purity often undermines the life of welcome as "sinners" and the morally "unclean" tend to be shunned and excluded. The church stories we all could share illustrating this dynamic would provide ample evidence of the dynamics Unclean was trying to describe.

So what's the trick? How are we to pursue holiness in a way that makes us more hospitable rather than less?

I think a part of the trick is this: holiness is a first-person rather than a third-person enterprise. Holiness is a personal rather than public affair.

Isn't this what Jesus was saying when he said don't worry about the speck in your sister's eye but attend to the beam in your own? Isn't Jesus saying that holiness is a first-person issue rather than a third-person issue? That holiness is about me and not about you?

When holiness becomes a third-person affair we end up as the moral police. We end up judging the behavior of everyone else. I think this is the root of the problem with the Christian culture wars. Across wide swaths of evangelical Christianity there is third-person finger wagging about the decline of values and morals in the larger culture. Christians become moral police and holiness Nazis (American culture: No soup for you!).

But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus preached that holiness is a first-person, private, and closeted affair. Holiness is for you, not your neighbor. And what's the goal of all that holiness? I'd phrase it this way:

Holiness is a training you pursue to become more hospitable.

When I think of athletic training I think of the phrase "a finely tuned athlete." I think holiness is doing something similar, creating finely-tuned spiritual athletes.

The trouble is, to keep with the athletic metaphor, for most of Christianity holiness has become a spectator sport rather than a regimen of personal fitness.

So this is what I think is a piece of the puzzle in negotiating the relationship between holiness and hospitality. Is holiness a first-person or a third-person effort?

Holiness should be, if Jesus is to be believed, a first-person effort. Holiness shouldn't be moral blood sport, a spectator sport of moral finger wagging at the culture. Holiness should be a matter of personal training and fitness.

Holiness is about becoming a finely tuned instrument of welcome.

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21 thoughts on “Finely Tuned Instruments of Welcome: The First Person Nature of Holiness”

  1. I was thinking of 1 Peter while reading the first part of this, where holiness seems to be embodies corporately, although still in the first person - a holy nation.  I like the way you lay out the process of working from personal holiness to a corporate ethos of welcome, hospitality and graciousness.  Thanks for a challenging read for a Tuesday morning!

  2. Makes me think of this bit of progress in popular 'worship' music:

  3. Agree, Holiness is a 1st person thing.  Where our problems have come in is that there is a group that is commissioned to talk in the 2nd person - the church.  When a preacher puts the burden of the law on you, that isn't being judgmental, that is fulfilling part of the calling. (The larger part of that calling is proclaiming the gospel.)  We (1st person, plural) have largely rejected that teaching and rebuking, or binding and loosing, authority of the church.  If you go with your athletic metaphor, the church is the coach.  The funny thing about coaches is that the best of them were usually mediocre players.  Not to excuse the lack of holiness in a church, but the office and the person are not the same thing.

  4. I'm deeply grateful for your work in Unclean.  I've found it very meaningful/helpful.  But, I'm wondering if it's ultimately unhelpful to dichotomize holiness into a first person vs third person enterprise.  I certainly agree with this post in as much as Jesus clearly taught that we should take the beam out of our own eye FIRST.  So, this has to be the first priority.  But, then he did say that after that, we will see clearly to be able to address the speck out of our brother's eye.  And Paul (in 1 Cor 5) makes it clear that we are not to judge the world/culture, but that we are to tend to matters of communal holiness in the church.  So, I see where calling holiness a first-person enterprise is a helpful corrective . . . but, wouldn't you agree that it's an over-correction?  

  5. Hmm. Not sure I agree about the correlation between holiness and hospitality. It would make an excellent subject for study. One of the things I love about your work is you use current research to reflect on this stuff.

    Here is why I say I don't see the correlation:

    #1 - personal experience. Anecdotal I know, but in my experience the most hospitable people have been the least "holy" by church standards. Hippies, bohemians, burning man attendees, the kind of people who smoke and swear and drink and would also let you sleep on their couch even if you were a total stranger.
    #2 - Cheers. Isn't there a sort of cultural meme that the places where everyone is accepted and welcomed are usually the ones we'd rate low on the holiness scale like bars? Whereas places of self-improvement and high-standards are places that judge and exclude, like gyms and clubs?

    #3 - Jesus. It's the woman who everyone calls a sinner who washes his feet, showing him hospitality, while his Pharisee host (highly concerned with personal holiness) fails to. Jesus seems not only to be hospitable toward, but also to receive hospitality from the unholy: tax collectors, gentiles, the unclean etc... If holy people tended to be the most hospitable why would the gospel represent them as the opposite?

    Obviously, this all depends on how you define holiness. You could define it as "being hospitable". But I think there IS an underlying conflict between holiness and hospitality. Holiness requires separation to remain pure while hospitality does exactly the opposite. Holiness builds up the self, while hospitality lays the self down for others.

  6. Or put another way, perhaps: Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well"

  7. Thanks for the comments an especially the pushback. A comment and a revelation...

    My thoughts about this topic keep evolving. I wrote this post three months ago. That's the revelation. I'm blogging about three months out. For the most part, posts, when they appear, are things I wrote three months ago. Today I'm writing things that will appear in April and May.

    All that to say, between now and April there will appear a follow-up post to this one that does a better job of articulating what is only poorly formulated in this post. That follow up post still might not be satisfactory, but I think it's a better take than this post. Basically, this post is just rehashing in new language (first person vs. third person) something Jesus said: take the beam out of your own eye (first person) before addressing the specks in the eyes of others (third person).

  8. If we define personal as "individual," how does that relate to your thoughts on a/theism?

  9. A few random thoughts and observations here:

    #1: It's interesting you mention Gautama Buddha and St. Francis in the context of hospitality. Both were mendicants: they relied on the hospitality of *other people* to keep them alive and holy. (Mendicants are sacrosanct because they're sacralizing; their presence is a space where the Third Person is allowed and expected to exhibit sacredness through interactions with the mendicant. Gandhi used that to strategic effect in the Independence Movement.)

    #2: What do you mean "me," comrade? First Person has a plural too, which also expresses holiness and hospitality (mind you the Benedictines, including Dorothy Day) - but in a radically different way. (I recently read the Western monastic tradition interpreted as the imitation of the primitive church in Acts 4, compared with the Franciscan imitation of Jesus the individual.)

    #3: My housemate B. is the most hospitable person I've ever known, which is why I have a stranger crashing in my room for the week or so. The most recent link of a long chain of the same. This is our dynamic: he invites the stranger to crash in my room, and when I find out about it I don't turn them away. It's always my room, because there's nowhere else with enough space to lie down.

    For this, both he and I have been told that we're good, that we're blessed, doing the Lord's work, etc. and anybody who finds out usually says as much. And it's not true, because I didn't even try to be until a night I blogged about last year. Any holiness, or even goodness, I have for my Works of Mercy is ascribed to me by third parties. To riff on Thérèse of Lisieux, there are no enemies crashing in my room, but there are feelings. As long as they're there, all I'm being is not an asshole.

  10. Thinking on this more, I'm reminded of Jonathan Haidt's work (and summary of other peoples' work) on moral foundations: people who identify themselves as more liberal tend to value "harm-care" and "fairness" more highly, and "purity-sanctity" less highly than people who identify themselves as conservative. But the conservatives still value the other foundations as well. I've sometimes wondered (hypothesized is too strong a word) if this moral bifurcation is part of a historical process involving the elaboration of a certain type of Christian ethics (the subsumption of purity by harm-care), and whether a Charles Taylor-esque (Sources of the Self) story about this might fit the facts: liberalism is a secularization of a Christian moral re-ordering. One large wrinkle in this story is that I believe this bifurcation of moral standards is international and cross cultural; socio-politically, I suppose you might tell a story about the spread of Christian values, but that strikes me as a stretch (and naively triumphalist in light of the real history of colonialism). But you might be able to tell a more interesting and tragically ironic story about this. At any rate, Haidts data set does seem suggestive of a purity-hospitality trade-off of some sort, at least in terms of what people value and how they consciously order their moral intuitions. I'm not sure about how it relates to actual behavior, though; I think there is a tricky dialectic between how we present ourselves (even to ourselves) and who we actually are, and the reflections on purity culture here touch on one aspect of that equation. Here, I am thinking of the NIMBYism about the homeless that arises in the very liberal (and white) enclave of my own city, and the invisibility of the working class, racially diverse community on the other side of the highway. In this context, I think I can spy a "harm-care" hypocrisy, or recoil, and I think that a community that was focused on subsuming purity in harm-care, rather than unreflectively telling itself it has outgrown purity culture, could work through this kind of hypocrisy. And while purity is consciously rejected as a matter of sexual ethics, I see purity culture re-emerge in the less conscious (and also less strictly psychological forms) of neighborhood boundary monitoring, a focus on organic and local food, and the largely unexamined phenomenon of 99.5% white liberal enclaves. While you may have snuck it in under the rubric of first and third person, I appreciate that the post is engaged in a bit of subsumption of purity into harm-care, rather than a bad faith effort to pretend we have outgrown purity. I think that is an essential part of what Jesus was up to.

  11. I guess my thinking had gone off in a tangent.  I was thinking along the lines of private versus corporate activity of hospitality (I vs. Us), when you were making a point about first-person vs. third-person hospitality (Me vs. You).  I completely agree with you that my personal responsibility is to be proactively hospitable to you, not wait for you (or whoever) to be hospitable.  I think when I read this post yesterday my thinking vered off course in that many Christians tend to over individualize the Christian life at the expense of realizing we have been baptized into the Body of Christ, which means the individual (first-person singular) responsibility to be hospitable is still a communal (first person plural) activity.  My thinking was that your use of the world "personal" doesn't therefore undermine the horizontal and vertical directions of movement in a/theism.  I'm not sure that clarifies anything, but thank you for asking me to clarify.

  12. Thanks for clarifying.

    When people worry about the "individualism" of Christian it tends be focused on soteriology, the experience of salvation. That is, all I worry about is my personal salvation. It's an issue between God and I. The worry here is that salvation is just about me and not about, say, politics, economics or creation.

    But when we turn to holiness I do think an individual focus is a good thing. When we pray and fast we do these things "in secret." When I make moral judgments I make these about myself rather than about others.

    But your point is well made. There is much--morally speaking--can and should be done collectively. But it's more in the form of modeling, coaching, sharing, and encouragement. Hebrews 10.24 comes to mind:

    "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds."

    The point being, I don't think a personal focus is generically bad. Some places it's bad and other places it's good.

  13. Richard:  I like where you're going with this and appreciate the challenge to lead towards communal holiness primarily through the means of modeling, coaching, sharing, etc.  But, it does seem like Paul (in 1 Corinthians 5) has a category for more forceful forms of discipline in extreme circumstances, yes?  I wonder if you have any thoughts about how Christian leaders ought to discern when it is appropriate to exercise the more forceful forms of discipline.  On this note, I have a question about your book (Unclean) as it relates to 1 Corinthians 5.  My understanding is that you're arguing that Jesus himself relativizes metaphors of purity.  But, isn't it the case that (in 1 Cor 5) Paul is centers his argument for church discipline (communal holiness) upon the purity metaphor?

  14. I'm gonna have to disagree with you about the holiness/hospitality dialectic, and more generally about how holiness is...

    I think there's more to holiness than "hospitality," but there's only a conflict between holiness and hospitality if the gap between sacred and profane can't be bridged, if God is utterly transcendental - and Christianity denies that. Our sacred praxis for the last 2000 years would be very different if we didn't. (Off the top of my head, we'd always have adored the Eucharist and had fierce arguments over whether to receive it, instead of vice versa.)

    And I think part of what Richard sees in hospitality is that it can be an a/theistic sacrament. An outward practice that collapses transcendent grace.

  15.  By all means disagree. I didn't say there was no way to bridge holiness and hospitality, but I think there is a conflict. A conflict which to me Jesus clearly resolves in favor of hospitality in the gospels. Jesus seems to say, if you have to choose between holiness and hospitality (as in the case of the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan) choose hospitality every time.

  16. I would wonder if hospitality might not be the shape of a communal holiness.

    Holiness and hospitality both have a self-emptying quality to them, a dying to self. The barriers to my own holiness are less the "big" things, the deeds, but much more the little sell-outs, this self that refuses to die. It would seem that something similar happens with the community, that the turn to hospitality is that dying to the self, the letting go of our own institutional or communal narratives. it does seem as if the two, this personal dying to self, and the openness of the community are manifestations of the same, and so reinforce one another (I mean, really, what's the point of dying to self if it only ends up in a cell in the desert? That's the Protestant in me talking.)

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