In my youth, this was a favorite evangelistic cry in my fundamentalist religion and it often stirred my adolescent and, later, young-adult passions with visions of “taking the world for Christ.” Yes, I needed an identity back then for I had none otherwise and when I “surrendered to preach” I immediately knew that my life was laid out for me, that I had heard and answered “the call” and God would do great things through me. And that passion and ambition is appropriate and common in our youth and fortunately the exigencies of life slowly eroded the hubris and I am learning to approach spirituality with more maturity.
But looking back on the zeal to “win the world to Jesus” and seeing the same clarion call being announced from pulpits, and some version of it even from the political the platform, brings memories back about that phase of my life and the community I was raised in. I see so very clearly now that my desire to “win the world to Jesus” was my desire to “win the world to Lewis Earl Chamness, Jr. (aka “literarylew”). It was a deep-seated need to make “the world” like myself with my “world” being primarily those around me, those unfortunate souls who happened to cross my path. I was lonely, alienated, depressed, anxiety-ridden and the anguish that tortured my soul could be mitigated by the comfort of having a safe little world of people who believed just like me. And, yes, the long-term goal was to win the entire world to Jesus but mercifully my narcissism graciously allowed me to focus primarily on my little obscure tribe.
And now, having retired after careers teaching history and practicing as a mental health clinician, I’m finding the courage to apply my clinical “gaze” more to the human “predicament.” The snapshot of my early spirituality presented above is seen with more maturity and even humility. We are all children at one time and when we were children we behaved as children. But if we ever find the courage to look back on our childhood, and discover that it still is very much present with us and very much an influence in our adult life, we can learn so much about ourselves and find the power and grace to make better choices. This “gaze” allows me to see the fundamentalist zeal of my little Baptist sect (Landmark Missionary Baptists) in an historical context, realizing that the origins of this group were in the post-Civil War South as an expression of poor Southern white people who were feeling disenfranchised or dispossessed. Any group feeling intense grief like that will always find some means of claiming “self” importance and with my little church it glommed onto the common notion in religion that they were “special” and that they, and other Christians, had to task of “winning the world to Jesus.” (Though with Landmarkers, there were Christians and then there were real Christians who when in heaven would have the exalted status of being included in “the Bride of Christ.”}
But everyone’s belief system has an historical and personal context and that does not necessarily leave it without value. For example, this critical look at Jesus presented above has nothing to do with the historical figure of Jesus; it merely demonstrates that Jesus, and any spiritual teacher, will always be utilized to some degree to fulfill tribal and personal wishes, including thate for aggrandizement. But for people with a fervent spiritual impulse, recognizing and owning this need for aggrandizement, and other base impulses, is very difficult to entertain. These baser impulses are what the Apostle Paul called “the flesh.”
I think that “winning the world to Jesus” could still be a valuable goal in our world but it would require a critical look at the terms and a willingness for those consumed with this passion to take a critical look at themselves. In other words, it would require self-reflection which is very difficult, and often impossible, for those who are comfortably ensconced in the firm conviction that they are “right.” Jesus was not, and is not, a toy or bauble for children to play with to avoid their existential malaise or anguish. Jesus was, and is, about relationship and “relationship” involves connection with other people and with the world itself. “Relationship” is not about subscribing to dogma and learning a lot of theology and philosophy. It is about finding the courage to being open to other people and to see the inter-relatedness of all people even those that we find it easy to banish into that vast category “them.” The spirituality of my youth, my passion for “Jesus”, was merely about maintaining a precarious immature identity which could only be done by drawing rigid boundaries between me and the world, having imbibed of the “us vs. them” mentality. The Christian faith of my youth was only for the purpose of maintaining my isolation which theologian Paul Tillich described as “an empty world of self-relatedness.” Oh how empty it was!