Is the disappearance of prophets why Tim Keller says spiritual formation needs to be completely redone?
Last week I described an in-and-out, back-and-forth path keeping us from becoming delusional. Following it requires the four offices of Jesus: redeemer, priest, prophet, king. Prophets stand at the gate, inhibiting illegitimate priests and the paths they take.
Many ancient religions recognize this. They see prophets as gatekeepers, helping us see life as “coming in and going out from one place or state to another.” These faiths recommend having a guide, a gatekeeper commending good shepherds but curbing illegitimate ones.
Celtic Christianity is one example. It sees prophets as standing “near the door,” Richard Rohr writes, occupying a “thin place,” helping others “learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one.”
We see this position in the human brain, in the corpus callosum. It occupies a thin place between the hemispheres, facilitating our in-and-out, back-and-forth neural pathways necessary for the two hemispheres to collaborate. The corpus callosum does this by inhibiting both hemispheres, keeping each one from acting independently of the other.
Which is why we ought to note a recent development: the corpus callosum is shrinking. That thin part of the brain inhibiting both hemispheres from ‘doing their own thing’ is thinning. This is less a problem for the five percent of the western world who bias the right brain. Iain McGilchrist says the right, even when unchecked, always seeks “the Other,” the other hemisphere (the left) and whatever else is out there beyond itself.
The left brain, when uninhibited, doesn’t. Approximately 95 percent of the western world’s population biases the left brain. When uninhibited, the left doesn’t seek out the right brain, rendering the left brain “ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its shortcomings.”
There are two shortcomings worth discussing. First, the left hemisphere doesn’t understand implicit meaning. Left-brained Christians say everything in the Bible has to be stated clearly, explicitly. But in the John 10 passage, Jesus as King is implicit. So is Jesus as King being tied to Jesus Our Bridegroom. Left-brained Christians miss seeing the marital gospel in John 10.
Second, the right hemisphere “is deeply connected to the self as embodied,” writes McGilchrist. Christians who bias their right brain more naturally see the gospel as God “marrying” us, a story told in our bodies. They use marital language to describe salvation.
The left hemisphere sees things as disembodied. Christians who bias their left brain use abstract language to describe salvation, words like concepts or worldview. And because the left brain is narrowly focused, they tend to shrink salvation to have been saved and will be in heaven. Between the two, being saved toward the fullness of salvation is rarely heard.
It is noteworthy that two-thirds of the worldwide (non-western) church sees the gospel as God “marrying” us. Salvation is in three tenses; past, present, future. Have been saved, being saved, will be saved. They see it embodied in Jewish marriage: betrothed, preparation, consummation. Betrothal is foundation, preparation is formation, consummation is the fullness of salvation. Formation requires following an in-and-out, back-and-forth pathway.
Which brings us to Tim Keller. I have tremendous respect for him, as do many. So it’s noteworthy that he says spiritual formation needs to be redone. Completely. Empirical studies of western Christians’ behaviors support this. But rather than redoing formation, why don’t we instead return to ancient pathways for spiritual formation?
A friend recently suggested this. He recommended that we talk less about transformation and get clear on formation. But this requires getting clear on the truest form defining a Christian. In the marital gospel, our truest form is as the bride of Christ. We are betrothed to Jesus.
Prophets remind God’s people of this. For centuries, illegitimate shepherds led the nation of Judah on byways not yielding healthy formation. The prophet Isaiah reminded Judah: Your creator is our husband. The prophet Hosea reminded Judah: You are his betrothed, his bride. Both were ignored. Judah had become a not-for-prophet enterprise.
I fear the ‘Western’ segment of the church is a not-for-prophet enterprise. This is why Iain McGlchrist writes, “Western Christianity is active in undermining itself.” We’re trapped in a hall of mirrors, merely reflecting back to ourselves what we already know we know we know… but there’s no way out of a hall of mirrors. It’s delusional.
Is this why N. T. Wright sees the work of McGilchrist as a way forward?
I don’t know. I do know the fullness of salvation is found in following an in-and-out, back-and-forth pathway. I also know that everyone’s cup of joy will be full in eternity. The path we take will determine the size of our cups, for not everyone’s cup will be the same size.
That’s grist for next week’s mill. Happy Memorial Day.
 Richard Rohr, “Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position,” Radical Grace, April-May-June 2006, Vol.19, No. 2.