I raise this question to help us, if we are middle class Westerners, to reflect on the influences and hindrances to our own spiritual vitality.
Gradually through the Industrial Revolution a new middle class emerged based on trade and business. And at some point the Bible came to be more important for this Protestant merchant class than God himself.
For me the Bible is God’s inspired Word to humanity and essential for the journey towards God. But what I mean is that faith became about doctrines on paper rather than about actual God-consciousness. It is enough to agree to certain statements on paper about God to be a believer, rather than to have actually experienced him or his love. If this happens it is no surprise that being conscious of God or finding him becomes elusive – if you like, we don’t really seek and so don’t really find. Or we are happy with what’s on paper so aren’t taken beyond it to discover the spiritual reality of God. In this way our spiritual life becomes “thin” in a rational sort of sense, and I suspect, sadly, that for this reason many more Western Christians than we think experience a faith that is uncertain.
Now back to the middle class. Before the Industrial Revolution the masses, peasants, grew crops to survive under feudalism – the dominant social system in medieval Europe. They worked the lands of the nobles, sharing their crops in exchange for military protection. Now while nature can go haywire sometimes, generally she is trustworthy – the cycle of seasons and crops can be relied upon. From nature the peasants learned how to have faith in mysteries beyond their control. Embracing the spiritual mystery of knowing God was not a giant leap.
However, by the time the Industrial Revolution was over, this agrarian culture made way for the new middle or merchant class living in cities. They were wealthy and seemingly in control of their destiny and depended more and more on themselves.
In the hustle of business and trade they learned to trust no one and to get everything on paper to maintain control – including their religion. They stopped embracing mystery or depending on the unseen action of God. Instead they formed their own doctrines based on their reading of the Bible, put them in writing, and made “faith” about agreeing with them.
It was a less “expensive” religion, with Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace appealing as ways of making their salvation a foregone conclusion. Instead of certainty, however, the Calvinist or Protestant work ethic quickly developed to prove their salvation just in case their doctrines on paper weren’t true!
Middle class Westerners today live mainly in cities, are relatively wealthy, are not dependent on the mysteries of nature for survival, and through wealth creation work to control the outcomes of life – we can afford the latest medical cures and cover old age with superannuation. The convenient grace message of recent decades makes salvation a foregone conclusion. When we don’t really need God it is a natural next step to make faith about doctrines on paper, rather than having our hearts burning for the presence of God. It seems benign enough because after all we are making the Bible central. But the point is that short of God-consciousness our hearts aren’t burning! And this can be the spiritual hindrance of being middle class.
Is your faith about agreeing to statements about God on paper, or reaching beyond to God himself?