Religion that works

I recently read the wonderful Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is a beautiful coming of age tale that juxtaposes the very different lives of two very different Christian families in Nigeria. Kambili, the book’s narrator, lives in the shadow of her father, who is both the pillar of his community — he uses his wealth to feed and educate literally hundreds of people — and an unyielding, brutal tyrant at home. Her life at home stands in contrast to the life she encounters at her aunt’s home, which is full of song, debate, laughter, and love.

One day, while visiting her aunt, Kambili observes a charismatic young priest who has befriended her coaching some boys in the high jump. When she notices him quietly raising the bar when the boys aren’t looking, she has a moment of clarity:

It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.

Kambili and her brother Jaja are well behaved and at the top of their classes academically; they know how to carry themselves in church and to do what is expected of them. They certainly know never to speak of out of turn and to honour their father without question or complaint. But they are also completely helpless and immature. Their cousins, on the other hand, are loud and obnoxious and need to be called out by their mother for being disrespectful. They openly challenge their mother, each other, and their priest. But they are capable. And, unlike Jaja and Kambili, they laugh.

This struck me as fantastic description of the difference between a religious outlook that promotes growth and maturity and one that demands submission to a system of authority. The Christianity of Kambili’s father is rigid, austere, serious, closed, authoritarian, external, and overly simple. By contrast, the Christianity of Aunty Ifeoma is agile, rich, lighthearted, open, questioning, internal, and receptive of complexity. I couldn’t help but be reminded of what Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write in their tremendous book The Discerning Heart, about eight movements of genuine growth: the movement away from facades; the movement away from ‘shoulds’; the movement away from conformity for the sake of acceptance; the movement away from people-pleasing; the movement toward openness; the movement towards trust in oneself; the movement toward trust in God’s faithfulness; and the movement toward accountability. In all of these movements, growth calls us to move away from the kind of religion of Kambili’s father and toward that of Aunty Ifeoma. Really, this growth calls us to a more genuine life of faith, because faith can only exist in the presence of vulnerability, vulnerability in the face of uncertainty, complexity, and mystery.

This is religion that works, religion that acts, to use Ken Wilber’s metaphor, as a conveyor belt, pushing us forward into more growth and greater maturity. As I hope should come as no surprise, this is also the kind of religion the New Testament call us to embody. My favorite passage about this is found in Ephesians 4, where Paul says that Christ gives us gifts “for building up the body of Christ [that is, the church], until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” This bears repeating: the goal of the Christian life is to become mature (literally, “a complete person”), and to grow into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” himself. Paul goes on: “We must no longer be children … but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

And so, let us keep on growing up. Let us keep on moving: moving away from facades, from ‘shoulds’, from conformity, and from people-pleasing, and towards openness, trust in oneself and in God, and accountability. This is to say, let us move toward faith, trusting that God is cheering us on, quietly raising the bar for us and knowing that we will clear it.

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