“What are you giving up for Lent?”
This question tells us a lot about American Christianity. While the question alludes to historic Christian practices of fasting and self-denial associated with the penitential season of Lent, the syntax of the question also points out a crucial shift: even our self-denial is an act of self-expression. Our submission to discipline is converted to act of will power.
The sociologist Stephen Warner talks about the “de facto congregationalism” that characterizes American Christianity such that even episcopalian and liturgical traditions become governed by dynamics of autonomy and independence. Perhaps we could equally talk about a “de facto Pelagianism” characteristic of American Christianity such that even those practices of self-denial become mediums of expression and choice. (In my new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, I describe this as an “expressivism” that has captured our understanding of worship and discipleship, in contrast to a more historic appreciation for the importance and priority of formation.)
In a more robustly communal practice of the faith, my self-denial is not up to me. The practices of fasting and feasting are not a matter of choice: they are part of the spiritual architecture of the church. It’s not so much that I choose to abstain from meat; meat is not going to be served. There are communal commitments embedded in an environment that takes the emphasis off of my choice and will power and instead throws me into the formative power of the practice. My participation in the formative disciplines of Lent isn’t another chance for me to show something to God (or others). It is an invitation to have my hungers retrained.