Image: Peter, known to be outspoken about his faith and devotion to Christ … Drawing by Chris Cook (

‘The unsettling journey of Lent’

Ben Gilmour
Lent 2, Year B
Mark 8:31-38 

As we embark on the Lenten journey, we are invited into a season designed not just to alter but to fundamentally disturb our comfortable lives. Lent disorients us from the norms, pushing us to the uncomfortable edges of our existence. It’s a time that demands hard work and introspection, challenging the habits and biases that keep us in our comfortable, privileged spaces.

The challenge of Lenten discipleship
I confess, alongside many, that I struggle as a Lenten Christian. Faith, too often, has been co-opted by a culture of individual satisfaction, peace and security. This existential vision of self-making, with faith merely as a tool for coping and comfort, reduces God to a means to our end – the fulfilment of our desires. This perspective, prevalent in both Western Evangelical and Liberal Protestant traditions, has led Christianity into a crisis, making it a servant to the cult of individual self-actualisation also known as the craft of authenticity.

The Jesus collision with Rome, our collision with secularism
Our faith collides with a worldview that relegates religion to the private sphere and even belief in a God that is more like a trinket of the less evolved humans. Societies in the west are indifferent to the implications of a public faith. Yet, in a world where everything is commodified, even the sacred has been made marketable, consumable, leaving the question of God absent from our public institutions. The Uniting Church, my vocational home, strives to be contextual, discerning our path through prophetic voice and social action, yet we too are challenged not just to be relevant but to be willing to bear our crosses, even unto death, for Christ’s cause. This is a high and challenging call of discipleship. But what does this mean in our context?

The cultural diagnosis: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
Research by Christian Smith highlights a prevailing attitude among religious youth (Pew Research) as to what faith is. He summarises it as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) – a belief system that reduces God to a provider of good feelings and moral guidance without demanding real agency or sacrifice. This perspective, while comforting, fails to capture the transformative power of true faith.

Let’s unpack the three core components of MTD to gain a deeper understanding:

1. Moralistic
The moralistic aspect of MTD emphasises a general belief in being a good person. According to this view, the primary purpose of religion is to foster morality, with a focus on behaviours and attitudes that are universally considered positive, such as kindness, fairness and honesty. The emphasis here is on moral conduct as the essence of religious life, rather than adherence to specific doctrinal beliefs or participation in religious rituals or mission. Smith summarises this view as: “God wants me to be good and not a jerk.”

2. Therapeutic
The therapeutic dimension of MTD reflects a view of religion as primarily serving individual emotional and psychological needs. This perspective sees God or religion as a source of comfort and happiness, a means to help individuals feel good about themselves and their lives. It reduces religion to a personal wellness tool, with faith acting as a mechanism for achieving personal peace, happiness and satisfaction. The focus is on the self and its wellbeing, with religious practice being valued to the extent that it contributes to personal contentment and emotional health.

3. Deism
Deism, in the context of MTD, suggests a belief in a distant, non-intervening God who created the world but does not actively participate in it or intervene in human affairs. This view relegates God to the margins of daily life, seeing the divine as a concept or background figure rather than an active presence in the world. God is acknowledged as existing but is not seen as particularly relevant to the day-to-day challenges and decisions faced by individuals. The deistic element of MTD thus reflects a significant departure from traditional theistic views of God as intimately involved in the world and in the lives of believers.

Andrew Root’s critique and the call for transcendence
Andrew Root critiques this shallow faith formation, calling for a reimagining of faith that transcends individual consciousness and engages with divine action. Lent challenges us to move beyond the comfort of individualism and to embrace the messianic suffering that our faith demands, recognising the political and social ramifications of following Jesus in a world that values power and prosperity over sacrifice and service.

The political and social implications of our faith
As we navigate our current secular age, we must wrestle with the political implications of our devotion to Jesus’ costly reign. The temptation to spiritualise or individualise this call must be resisted. Instead, we are called to engage deeply with the political and social realities of our time, recognising the ways in which our faith intersects with issues of justice, democracy and the common good.

Reimagining our faith in the public sphere
How, then, can we reimagine our engagement with the world in a way that transcends the limitations of faith formation that manifests MTD? More than that, this gospel text is a politically engaged text. The Romans, with their so-called sons of God, demanded taxation, labour and even death for the glory of the eternal empire. Jesus’ call us to “take up your cross and follow me” was a call to see and believe that this way of life was more important than the political realities of their day. Peter, like any of us, was focused on care and attachment to Jesus but struggled to see the how this foolish path could be of any significance. I wonder if Jesus’ vision of this reign of God is also a call to embracing a faith that focuses not on individual fulfilment but on communal and societal transformation. This call of discipleship is a costly one. This Lent, let us listen anew to the call of God, seeking encounters that transcend our boundaries and lead us to a deeper communion with God and with each other.

I have been doing some developmental thing and reflecting on a faith formation framework that doesn’t land with the MTD space, and I am playing with what I call the TTC framework for faith formation, focusing on Transcendence, Transformation and Communion, which offers a profound and holistic approach to understanding and cultivating a deep, meaningful faith life. This framework contrasts sharply with the more individualistic and utilitarian perspectives highlighted by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Let’s explore each component of the TTC framework to understand its implications for faith formation:

1. Transcendence
Transcendence refers to the aspect of faith that acknowledges and seeks connection with the divine that is beyond and greater than ourselves and the material world. It emphasises the importance of recognising God’s wonder, mystery and otherness. Faith formation within this context encourages individuals to look beyond the horizons of personal desires and experiences, inviting them into a relationship with a God who is both immanent and transcendent. This relationship with the divine transcends our understanding and experiences, pushing us to encounter God in ways that challenge our perceptions and expand our spiritual horizons and our sense of being. It’s about moving beyond a self-centred, self-serving faith to a God-centred understanding of existence. Making space, deep listening, contemplative prayer, worship, being with God, in creation, in the secret places of our heart, with others.

2. Transformation
Transformation focuses on the profound change that occurs within individuals as they engage deeply with their faith. This is not merely about moral improvement or psychological wellbeing but about a fundamental reorientation of one’s life and identity in relation to God and others. Transformation in the TTC framework involves the process of becoming more like Christ, one could say, embodying Christ’s values, like compassion and justice for the poor, and living out Christ’s teachings in every aspect of life. It’s about the renewal of the mind and heart, leading to a life that reflects the fruits of the Spirit. This transformative process is ongoing, involving both personal and communal dimensions, and it challenges not only those who gather as the community of Christ, but all who engage in the transformation of all creation for the common good.

3. Communion
Communion emphasises the relational aspect of faith, both in terms of our relationship with God and with others within the faith community. It speaks to the deep connection and fellowship we are called to have with God, rooted in love, worship and discipleship. Additionally, communion extends to the idea of living in community with other neighbours of faith, sharing life together, supporting one another, and working together for the common good. This aspect of the TTC framework highlights the importance of the Church as the body of Christ, where believers are united in their diversity to reflect the image of God in the world. Communion challenges the notion of an isolated, individualistic faith, instead promoting a vision of faith that is inherently communal and interconnected.

Implications of the TTC framework
The TTC framework for faith formation offers a rich, multidimensional approach to developing a deep and enduring faith. It addresses the need for a faith that is not only personal but also communal, not only focused on individual wellbeing but also on the transformative power of the gospel to change lives and societies. By emphasising transcendence, transformation and communion, this framework counters the trends of individualism and consumerism in contemporary culture, inviting people of faith into a more profound and meaningful engagement with their faith and with the world around them, with a God, Christ and Spirit orientation.

Conclusion: a Lenten call to re-formation
As we journey through Lent, let us dare to reshape our understanding, focus and devotion of faith from a self-centred to a God-centred perspective. This cultural shift will undoubtedly be uncomfortable, challenging the forces that have shaped us. Yet, in this discomfort, we find the true call of Lent: to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to reconcile with creation, and to find our ultimate home in communion with God. Amen.

The Rev. Dr Ben Gilmour is Director & Leadership Coach, Vital Leadership Team, Uniting Mission and Education, Synod of NSW & ACT.