A school for living

I’ve written about Navigators missionary Jim Petersen before, specifically about his book Living Proof, so it surprised me that I haven’t written about the anecdote from that book which affected me the most. I just located it and typed it in for the sake of a friend, and thought it was worth repeating here, along with my comment.

A Brazilian friend, Mario, and I studied the Bible for four years together before he became a Christian. As an intellectual who had read almost all of the leading Western thinkers from Rousseau to Kafka, he had blended together his own personal philosophy that was fundamentally Marxist–with Bertrand Russell as his patron saint. Why he kept studying the Bible with me for four years, or why I stuck with him so long, neither of us can explain today. But there we were.

Since he lived life on the philosophical plane, our Bible studies were often pitched in that direction. One day, a couple of years after Mario had become a Christian, he and I were reminiscing. He asked me, “Do you know what it really was that made me decide to become a Christian?” Of course, I immediately thought of our countless hours of Bible study, but I responded, “No, what?”

His reply took me completely by surprise. He said, “Remember that first time I stopped by your house? We were on our way someplace together and I had a bowl of soup with you and your family. As I sat there observing you, your wife, your children, and how you related to each other, I asked myself, ‘When will I have a relationship like this with my fiencee? When I realized the answer was ‘never’, I concluded I had to become Christian for the sake of my own survival.”

Now, I don’t think Petersen and his family were especially “saintly”. He says “I remembered the occasion well enough to recall that our children were not particularly well behaved that evening. In fact, I remembered I had felt frustrated when I corrected them in Mario’s presence.” I think he was likely living a normal Christian family life–or at least what was the norm in the early 1960s for a family of Christians, mother and father also raised by Christians.

Mario was drawn by what he saw to be so. Doctrinal study only closed the deal. I was converted in the early 90s, and not by what I saw in other Christians–at best it was by the possibilities for living I saw promised in the New Testament. And I hoped that by signing up for the program, by associating myself with the people and practices, that I would eventually see those promises fulfilled in my life.

They were, eventually, but not because of Christian practice or community, quite the opposite. For quite awhile I held onto a hope that participating would work its magic on me, but fortunately I saw that there was no reason not to pursue growth on my own at the same time. So I worked on things that seemed obviously necessary but weren’t being addressed by the church, mostly getting my character in order. I couldn’t have managed it without the hope I had that the church and the community would eventually play an important role. But it was a vain hope, they never did.

I think the crucial change was identified by Thomas de Zengontita in his book Mediated. Folks of Petersen’s generation, and every preceding generation, were shaped at a deep level by their community. They had no choice–there were no options. But that’s all gone now, never to return. All we have is options before us. And neither church nor community has yet figured out how to step up to the plate and guide us into choosing wisely under these very different circumstances.

Back when community did the social shaping the church could focus on spiritual direction. Now I think we’re in dire need of social direction, a School for Living. But I don’t even see glimmers of it, and don’t expect to see them in my lifetime.

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3 thoughts on “A school for living

  1. I never know how much living well in the sense that Petersen means actually influences conversions *to* a group, but I can definitely state that living badly (in the converse sense) puts people off converting (or drives people away — and that especially in the tumultuous years of adolescence and young adulthood when so much identity work gets done). But I also think part of the problem is that end of that kind community isn’t that important to people anymore. If you look at how/why people really do emulate each other, I think of things like diet — and that’s because those are the primary ends being promised that people are seeking (health, beauty, and long life) as opposed to right(eous) life on earth and eternal life after that.

  2. But I also think part of the problem is that the end of that kind of community isn’t that important to people anymore.

    I agree. Such virtues have gone from being highly valued to being just more options, and not especially attractive ones. On the one hand, I think this is due to growing ignorance of what underpins the good life–people want the benefits those virtues would bring, but believe (hope?) there are easier, more palatable ways to achieve them.

    On the other hand, I believe more than ever that this thing about options is a sea change, that it’s a pipedream to think we could go back by somehow recommitting ourselves to the older models of church or community. I’d rather see the church/community commit itself to working with the new situation as it is, helping people sort through their newly available options. But I expect it will take a long time for those institutions to adjust to the new reality, with no assurance that the adjustment will be successful.

  3. Speaking with my historian hat on — I agree. It’s usually impossible roll back cultural change.

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