Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 12

Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Philosophical Perspective

Mike Austin

The tenth session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop featured a presentation by Dr. Michael Austin (philosophy, Eastern Kentucky University) and comments by Dr. James K. A. Smith (philosophy, Calvin University). The session was moderated by Dr. Gregg Ten Elshof (philosophy, Biola University). Dr. Austin’s paper was titled “Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Philosophical Perspective.” This session continues our attempt to explain the problem of Christian immaturity/malformation and consider actionable steps toward fostering greater spiritual and moral vitality among Christian individuals and groups.

Below is a summary and some key quotes from Dr. Austin’s paper. In the video, Dr. Austin briefly summarizes the main points of her paper and Dr. Smith offers additional comments.

Download and read the full presentation paper, Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Philosophical Perspective by Mike Austin

01.  Summary

Quoting Dallas Willard, Austin defines Christian maturity as “the changing of a person from the inside through an ongoing relationship to God in Christ and one another.” Austin continues, “As the inner self is formed in this way, it will be made manifest in one’s external actions and social relations.” Having established a working definition of maturity, Austin details what he calls the “causal factors” of Christian immaturity and how they’ve manifested in malformed actions and social relations. 

Austin’s deepest concern regards trends he finds within American conservatism. When he applies Willard’s “VIM” model (vision, intention, and means) to American conservatism, Austin finds therein a vision of control, security, and comfort; an intention to do what it takes to attain or protect these things, even if it violates the teachings of Scripture and Christian thought; and a means of power. Austin shows how this “culture war paradigm for relating to others, produces certain kinds of spiritual malformation in followers of Jesus.” Culture wars are driven by the vices of sloth (“resistance to the transformative demands of love”) and pride (thinking of ourselves as intellectually, morally, or spiritually superior). He notes, “we display the vice of sloth when we are indifferent to the needs of others, to what we owe them, and to what change might be demanded in us by fulfilling our obligations to them.” Pride, he says, manifests in “the use of dehumanizing and derogatory language about other human beings, disregarding their ontological status as image-bearers of God.” 

How did this come to be? And how might we reform these tendencies? For one, Austin links Christian immaturity to the reduction of discipleship to the acceptance of mere beliefs. He contends that we must go beyond mere confessionalism. We need to pause and consider the desires, emotions, and motives operating below the surface. In a similar vein, Austin sees that faith has been reduced to the repetition of propositional knowledge, as if it were real belief. Instead, Austin calls for a real knowledge of what (and in whom) we believe. He also is suspicious of our preferences for a certain kind of experience of God, which can inhibit real “transformative union” with God. We ought, instead, to seek God himself. Overall, he is leery of the separation of moral and spiritual transformation. According to Austin, one cannot claim to be spiritually transformed and still behave immorally. Thus, he is critical of a kind of escapism that wants to jettison concerns for real transformation in this life. He warns that if we don’t believe that transformation is possible in this world, then other lesser ends such as influence, power, pleasure, and wealth will come to take its place. 

In the final section, Austin offers “a few suggestions concerning ways to counter the spiritual malformation present in large segments of the American church,” one of which is meditating on the virtues. We might ask, what are the virtues, how does one grow in them, and am I embodying them? In his conclusion, Austin offers MLK’s “Beloved Community” as a model for Christian social maturity. He remarks that “such a community provides fertile ground for spiritual formation, unlike the community of the culture war.” It is a community that “includes the kind of Christian values that are suitable for a nation-state, one that allows everyone the opportunity to flourish, without coercing people to be Christians or marginalizing anyone, regardless of their faith or lack of it.”  

02.  Key Quotes

“In large segments of the Christian population in America, there is a lack of faith in Jesus and his way. The way marked out for us by Jesus, in some ways, is very clear. Love of God and neighbor are central to it.”  

“A primary reason for my focus here is that I’ve spent the majority of my life as a Christian in theologically and politically conservative circles, and am deeply troubled by many of the trends present in them.” 

“Rather than attending to and pursuing the best possible state of our souls and the well-being of our churches and communities in union with God—the most important things—we attach greater importance to inferior things, including wealth, reputation, and honor, as well as certain forms of political, economic, and social power that we want to deploy for our fallen notion of self-interest.”  

“Americanized spiritual malformation is also cultivated and manifested in those who adopt a culture war paradigm of engagement with others in politics, ethics, or religion . . . The malformation I have in mind shows up in a variety of Christian communities, in a variety of ways, hindering the process and results of Christian moral and spiritual formation that is true, beautiful, and good.”   

“[Dehumanizing and derogatory] language undermines the human capacity for empathy, which is deeply connected to important Christian virtues like compassion, humility, and love. We need these, and many other virtues, not just as we engage others about hot-button issues, but more importantly as we go about our daily lives as followers of the Way.”  

“These and other practices related to a thick conception of the virtues are ways in which one can more fully “participate in the divine nature” and “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge; self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection, and to mutual affection, love” (2 Pt. 1: 4, 5-11).”  

“We need a vision of political engagement for American Christians that can capture hearts and minds in ways that reflect the heart of God and character of Christ, rather than falling prey to the poison of the culture war.” 

“We need an open and inclusive approach to politics and public life. Christians who engage in these realms should do so from a posture of love, humility, and service, rather than one of coercion, pride, and lust for power. We need to quit the culture war in favor of something better.”

03.  Application Questions

  • What is the VIM (vision, intention, and means) of our politics?  
  • What resources within spiritual formation can counteract the culture war mentality? 
  • Do our spiritual life and/or ministry models promote a life with Jesus quarantined from our morality (the way we treat others)? What might a model of formation that brings coherence to our spiritual (inward) and moral (outward) lives include? 
  • Do our formation models cultivate growth in our knowledge, awareness, and practice of the virtues?  
  • Austin asks, “what does the humility [self-emptying] of Jesus in Phil. 2:5-11 imply for how I relate to the marginalized in my community or those I disagree with on political issues?”