The Christian Veneer of a Sacred Journey
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams caused a stir last week by adding his signature to a letter to the Prime Minster calling for the inclusion of trans people in the upcoming ‘conversion therapy’ ban. One particular paragraph in the letter has sparked a lot of discussion: ‘To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole: precious, honoured and loved, by yourself, by others and by God.’
Several good pieces have been written pointing out how this perspective on trans experience is fundamentally unchristian (e.g. here and here). But what has also struck me is that the words of this letter perfectly illustrate the way that a Christian-veneer can be put on a fundamentally secular perspective.
This observation chimes with a point I found really helpful when I recently read Trevin Wax’s Rethink Yourself. In the book, Wax explores different approaches to identity formation, critiquing the approach most common in our society and demonstrating why the Bible’s approach is better.
Wax sums up the secular approach, deemed common sense by many in our culture, as looking in, looking around and then looking up. We start by looking in to find ourselves, then we display that to others and look around for them to affirm us in our identity, before looking up to add an element of spirituality to our existence, looking for God also to affirm the identity we have discovered and defined. Wax rightly notes that while the final step of looking up can give this approach an appearance of being Christian, it is actually just looking for a divine rubber stamp on a fundamentally unchristian approach. We are the ones who define who we are. We are in control. God follows our lead.
The truly Christian approach, the one revealed in the Bible, Wax describes as looking up, looking around and then looking in. We start by looking up to God, allowing him to define who we are. Then we look around, displaying God to others, living out our identity as his image-bearers and receiving both encouragement and challenge from the family of God. Looking in is then the final step, and when we look in, we evaluate our desires in line with what God has revealed, seeking above all to foster our desire for God himself, the source of true life and joy. This is the truly Christian approach, and this is the approach we as humans are designed to take. God is the one who defines who we are. He is in control. We follow his lead.
In describing trans experience – and I think the context suggests they are particularly referring to transitioning – as ‘a sacred journey of becoming whole’, the authors of the letter are taking the secular approach with its veneer of spirituality. They are suggesting that the way we find out who we are and how we can best live is to first look inside ourselves. We then look to others to affirm us in that identity. (‘Every church should be a safe space that affirms people in being who they are, without fear of judgement.’) And finally, we look up to God, assuming that he will also affirm us in our self-discovered identity, looking for his stamp of approval to make our journey into this identity ‘sacred’.
Viewed this way, it’s striking that the authors describe the journey as being honoured and loved ‘by yourself, by others and by God’. Or we could rephrase it, by looking in, around and then up. (I don’t want to overplay this point as I suspect I too would have put God at the end of the list for rhetorical emphasis, but in context, it’s a revealing order.)
The letter is a reminder of how easy it is to make perspectives sound Christian, even when in reality they aren’t. It’s also a reminder of how easy it is to persuade ourselves that we are living as a faithful Christian when in reality we aren’t.
For those of us in leadership and those of us who get to teach other Christians, there are some helpful lessons here. We need to help people gain and maintain a deep understanding of biblical truth. People need to deeply know the real deal so they can easily spot the counterfeits.
This specific example demonstrates that people need to understand biblical anthropology, what it means to be human and how we find who we really are. People need to understand true discipleship, the call to deny ourselves and what we find inside (the ‘in’), in order to live in obedience to God (the ‘up’) and love of our neighbour (the ‘around’). And people need to understand the primacy of God, that he is the one who designs and defines. If we don’t help people get these foundations firmly in place, the Christian veneer on perspectives such as that displayed in this letter will go unnoticed and people will instinctively add their own veneer onto fundamentally unchristian perspectives.
I’d suggest that one of the greatest risks to the Church in the modern west at moment is that we allow secular perspectives to be baptised and given the appearance of being Christian. The danger is profound because the veneer disguises what’s happening. The shifts in thinking are significant, but they look small because they’re disguised behind Christian language. If we don’t become aware of this and seek to tackle it, we may look back in years to come and realise we’ve lost any semblance of true Christianity and it happened right under our noses. If we’re to avoid this, we need deep thinking, deep teaching, and deep faithfulness.