Spiritual Growth and Another Problem with “Make America Great Again”

“Make America Great Again!” It’s a message many Christians have already decried, lamenting its racist, exclusionary, and isolationist undertones.

Yet it’s also a message many Christians find appealing. I believe many American Christians may be predisposed to like this message because it echoes a theological narrative they knowingly or unknowingly embrace. A narrative that should be discarded.

The narrative is simple: God made everything good. Humans messed it up. God made, or is making, or will make everything better. We respond, more or less, with: “thanks God, for making everything great again, like it used to be, in the beginning.”

I don’t think this is the right narrative for Christians.

Consider two prominent approaches to understanding spiritual growth or formation: recovery models and developmental models.

In a recovery model of spiritual growth, it is assumed that there is something “great” either lost (possibly irrevocably lost) in our past or presently within us, buried under layers.

The pessimistic version of this model says we’ll never find this greatness and only “recover” it in the sense that God “gets over it” and accept us. We’re not great, only God is.

The optimistic version of the model looks for this goodness within. If we peel back the layers—perhaps layers of sin, ego, fear, external pressures to conform—we will discover our true, authentic self. A self that is hidden or perhaps broken, needing to be unleashed or healed.

In a developmental model of spiritual growth, our true self is continually created. Created by God’s nurturing presence with us. Created by our choices. Our actions. The actions of others. The unique pressures upon us. The opportunities afforded us. Grace.

We come into the world as a relatively blank slate—excepting our genetic history and social environment—and enter an ongoing creative process that continues throughout our entire lives. We develop virtues. Ideas. Talents. Social and relational skills. We learn how to love. We learn how to create and grow things.

While there are useful and illuminating elements of the recovery model, I find it lacking as an explanation of the spiritual life. Christians should embrace a developmental model of growth.

The theology of the Biblical narrative of “creation and fall” arose from communities dealing with their angst over “paradise lost.” Loss of homeland. Loss of temple. Loss of a good way of life. Loss of power. Potential loss of identity. A theology that appealed to their sense that what they once had could be recovered was a natural outcome and gave them hope to endure their present crises.

Contemporary Christians should be wary of the trappings of nostalgia. God is taking us forward, not backward. God is taking us to a place we have never been, not returning us to an idyllic place we (think we) once knew.

We need to see the expansion, not contraction, of God’s activity that Peter begins to see in Acts. We need to see the forward momentum excitedly conveyed by the author of Hebrews, cataloguing heroes of the faith in a progression building to Jesus and beyond: to us, invited to “run the race” Jesus ran, to live the faith he “pioneered and perfected.”

Jesus traveled the way of love. I would argue that love is something Jesus had to learn. His love may have been extraordinary, even divine in some real sense. But his love wasn’t just uploaded to his brain one day. Jesus trained. He watched. He listened. He practiced. Jesus developed his capacity to love, continually surprising others with the novel, creative, and subversive ways he expressed this love.

There is in an increasing consensus in the sciences that humans have grown, over our history, to be more collaborative, prosocial, and, simply put, good. Leading positive psychologist Dacher Keltner has critiqued the “survival of the fittest” motif and argued that positive traits have developed over the course of our evolution that are more fundamentally others-focused.[1] Feminist, ethicist, and psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that we are “hard-wired for empathy and cooperation.”[2]

Christians should follow the lead of theologians like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose marriage of science and theology led him to conclude that humans participate in the world’s “vast becoming what it is.”[3] Humans co-create (with God) their own selves while moving toward harmony with everything else. Love is our future, toward which we grow.

God created the world, but not a fully functional, completed world. I think of God more like a gardener, who plants a seed, waters it, removes stifling weeds, and watches us blossom through a delicate combination of nurture and our own natural yet miraculous self-expanding properties.

The best my marriage has ever been in its six and a half years is this very moment. I expect my marriage will continue to improve—assuming I am open to change and open to new and deeper ways of expressing and receiving love. In the same way, our world can continue to improve the more we are driven by humility, collaboration, generosity, empathy, care, and a creative justice that seeks to ensure all are valued, respected, empowered, and given opportunities to develop their talents.

Many Americans may be anxious about the ways we presently suffer or don’t have all that we need (or at least think we suffer or lack something). The solution, for our country and for our own individual spiritual growth, is not to look backward but forward.

Christians need a more hopeful narrative of growth than the “paradise lost” one, which tends toward spiritual defeatism and impotence. We need to discard the myth of an idyllic past and give our energies to the hope of a better future.

Easter can remind us of this. The resurrection of Jesus is not about returning to something old but the emergence of something new. Even if our scars come with us.

[1] Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009).

[2] Carol Gilligan, Joining the Resistance (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), 3.

[3] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001), 24.

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