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The Christ of Cocoons

The following comes from a recent devotional delivered to the faculty of Coram Deo Academy (DFW, TX).

Parched by planning, grading, or any other part of the job, the Christian educator periodically needs refreshment in a Scripture that provides some spiritual nourishment for his vocation, for her calling. The teacher needs grace for the teacher. Romans 12:1-2 is a passage which provides, I think, such much-needed nourishment.

There Paul writes,

[1] I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. [2] Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As one considers these two verses, there are, I think, three main items to contemplate: (1) that Paul presents a spiritual mission, (2) that he presents the purpose for that mission, and (3) that he offers a means of bringing about that mission.

First, the mission itself. Paul alludes to it most clearly in verse 2: “Do not be conformed to this world,” he implores, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Here we have two imperative statements. We find a don’t-command and a do-command, a negative injunction and a positive injunction: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed.” The mystery lies in two semantic questions. The first: What exactly does Paul mean by “conformed to this world”? Is he asking us to give up our secular vocations? Does he want us to renounce Sunday football? What about NPR? The second question: What does Paul signify by “the renewal of the mind”? Is Christianity a call to intellectualism? Or doctrinalism of some sort? Is Paul talking about a brainy faith?

To the first question: Paul, it seems, is not asking us to give up the world in the sense of renouncing the goodness and pleasure of the material, created order, but rather asking the church to avoid worldliness—the thought patterns which blanket Creation with a spiritual fog and blind us to Creation’s maker. What Paul calls “this world,” then, is actually anti-Creational. One might appropriately think of it as the anti-world of sin, the domain of powers which ever try to twist the rightness and beauty of God’s good work.

Notably, here, Paul has to warn us away from worldliness in the form of a prohibition because he knows that worldliness is mankind’s sinful default. He knows how easy it is for us to slip into conformity with whatever anti-Creational habits of thought happen to be dominant at the time. He grasps how we are always more attracted to the claims of the age than we are to the authoritative claims of the Scriptures.

Lutheran scholar Peter Berger helpfully puts this spiritual reality in sociological terms when he observes that in every culture we find certain “structures of plausibility”: “We are social beings,” Berger explains in an interview with Al Mohler, “and much of what we think about the world depends on support by important people with whom we live.” Berger argues that the challenge of the modern age is that the claims of Christianity no longer seem plausible to present society. In a pluralistic world, Berger explains, the individual is constantly confronted by “different views, different worldviews,” and “religious affiliation increasingly ceases to be taken for granted and is dependent on an individual’s decision, his choices.” In a word, with the old Christian consensus gone at our point in late modern America, secularism simply becomes more believable and appealing.

How do we resist? This brings us to Paul’s second command, the call for the renewal of the mind. It would be a mistake here to construe the apostle’s vision as a mere matter of book-smarts or braininess. Rather one could, without hijacking the author’s intent, read the renewal of the mind as the renewal of the imagination. The kind of Christian transformation St. Paul is talking about, it seems, isn’t driven by the acquisition of facts (though facts are certainly indispensable to the Christian faith). Nor is he talking about grim moral determination (though that strength undoubtedly has its place). More what is in view here is the kind of learning we experience while listening to a story. The Christian disciple is one who sits at the feet of Christ, the grand storyteller, and listens to the fairy tale of the Gospel over and over and over again. Gradually, slowly, painfully slowly, the story changes our desires and patterns of perception, and we begin to long for and look for that reality Tolkien called “the far green country.”

The renewal of the mind, then, is essentially the trip back to fairy land—the re-enchantment of everything—and this journey is no doubt where the Christian and classical educator comes in. On our best days (really, the best of the best days), we are re-enchanters—Gandalf bringing fireworks back to Hobbiton. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we are “irrigating deserts.” Indeed, one of the most terrifying things about our times is how quickly contemporary culture kills the imagination of children. But a Christ-centered education—a paideia of the Lord, as Paul calls it—doesn’t just slow down the disease. It begins, through common graces, to reverse the effects, so that in some central part of us we are spiritually and intellectually healed.

Just how dramatic is this renewal of which Paul is speaking? As theologian John Murray writes, “There is [in 12:2] reflection upon…revolutionary change in that which is the centre of consciousness…the apostle propounds…metamorphosis.” (In fact, metamorphóō is the Greek word in verse 2 that we translate as transformation.) Murray’s commentary helps clarify for the educator the radical aims of Christian renewal: When we talk about real student success, we aren’t talking primarily about SAT scores or Ivy League acceptances. The Christian tale is something much better than college placement; it’s the promise of cocoons and monarch butterflies. Day by day the disciple of Christ begins to form a Christian imagination concerning every discipline—history, apologetics, mathematics, Latin, spelling—and the very self is metamorphosed.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the twentieth century, was once in conversation with a contemporary of his who objected to Maritain’s religious epistemology. Like Paul, Maritain believed that the human creature can not only know things, but can in some sense, aided by grace, get back some of the docility and wakefulness lost in the fall. “You are,” Maritain’s critic accused him, “a sort of dispenser of black magic, one who would bid us to fly with our arms.” “No!” Maritain replied; “I am asking you to fly with your wings.” “But we have only our arms,” the critic replied unamused. “Arms?” Maritain said, “No! they are really atrophied wings. And that is quite another matter. They would spring up again if you had but the courage, if you but understood that the Earth is not our sole support, and the air is not the void.” No doubt Maritain speaks for us as teachers. In his words, we are asking students to “fly with their wings” that are given again in Christ, the second Adam.

Thus Paul presents a mission, but he also explains in the same passage the purpose for that mission: “be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” Paul says, “thatand now we have a purpose clause—“by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” St. John Chrysostom paraphrases the above in this way: “God wills what is expedient for us, and whatever he wills is by definition expedient for us.” Or another way of putting this: Christian growth is both a binding and a blessing, a paradox. The things we are bound to do are actually the things that make up a life of optimum joy. The ancients had no problem believing that virtue leads to happiness and that one should pursue virtue for happiness. Today we don’t believe that. At best virtue is duty. But I would venture to say that the Christ of duty is not the Christ of the Scriptures. The real Christ is always transforming us unto joy, blessedness, happiness.

And this brings us to the last point: that Christ ultimately is the one who transforms you and not you yourself. Paul gives us an all-important prepositional phrase in verse 1: “I appeal to you brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies as living sacrifices.” The impetus for Christian change, Christian paedeia, is the Gospel, “the mercies of God,” and teachers need to hear this good news just as much as their students do. God is changing you now, this day, for his glory and for your joy. Through Christ you are being made new. It’s as simple as that. Undoubtedly this renewal Paul speaks of involves our active participation in throwing off, as we noted, the patterns of this world, but the actual power to do so doesn’t come from one’s own rugged determination. That’s why we espouse Christian and classical education. We need the tools of the ages to do what we are trying to do, but we also need the doctrines of grace. Otherwise, there is no lasting hope.

There is a mission of transformation for Christians (all Christians necessarily, but we also infer a special responsibility for Christian educators). The end goal of this mission is blessedness. (Indeed, “success” is too weak a word.) What is more, the whole prospect of Christian transformation is driven by the divine and not by the machinations or ministries of human ingenuity.

This is good news, and it waits for us—resplendent, shining, light on a branch in the breeze. Today, don’t go back to the Christ of duty, rigor, and hollow achievement. Turn instead to the Christ of cocoons. The earth is not your sole support, and the air is not the void.

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