"Discipleship is not something that follows after one’s soul is saved; discipleship is part and parcel of salvation."
For centuries, tensions between faith and action have remained at the center of discussions about the Christian life. Some scholars, like David Weaver-Zercher '83, associate professor of American religious history, believe that, in the realm of North American Christianity, these two facets of Christian living have often been iso-lated from one another, leaving an ever-widening gap between “spirituality” and the work of social justice.
“Spirituality has too often been reduced to a ‘therapeutic’ concept, focused on individuals and their psychological adjustment to the anxieties they feel in modern life,” says Weaver-Zercher. “At the same time, and often in response to this watered-down version of the Christian faith, some social activists have little time for the practices of Christian spirituality.”
Determined to reunite these aspects of a holistic Christian faith, Weaver-Zercher recently co-edited a volume entitled Vital Christianity: Spirituality, Justice, and Christian Practice. Drawing from presentations at the 2002 “Reconnecting Spirituality and Social Justice” conference organized by Messiah College’s Sider Institute, Vital Christianity includes 18 essays from a variety of Protestant and Catholic perspectives. William Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke University and a widely read author, participated in the conference and later joined with Weaver-Zercher to edit the book.
Several of Messiah College’s educators, alumni, and students were involved in the production of Vital Christianity. Reta Halteman Finger, assistant professor of New Testament; Richard D. Crane, lecturer in theology; and alumnus J. Alexander Sider ’95 wrote essays for the book, and student Benjamin Lamb ’08 developed the volume’s index. Weaver-Zercher hopes to use Vital Christianity in the classroom to spark yet more discussions on the essential relationship between Christian spirituality and justice work.
The editors were surprised by the unified voice that emerged as they assembled the essays. A prominent theme that runs through many of the essays is the importance of the Church in spiritual formation—an emphasis that they find is rare in many individualistic Protestant churches. Even more central to the volume is the notion that ethics is and should be an integral part of the Christian life.
“Protestants, in their reaction to what they perceive as ‘works righteousness,’ have tended to relegate ethics to a secondary concern, assuming—wrongly—that being Christian has to do with the soul but not the body. Our volume contests that assumption from beginning to end,” Weaver-Zercher explains. “As one of our writers notes, ‘To be Christian means to be a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is one who learns from and patterns his or her life after Jesus.’ In other words, discipleship is not something that follows after one’s soul is saved; discipleship is part and parcel of salvation.”