“Enter through the narrow gate”: culture, tradition, and the Christian paradox of other-centered individualism

At the end of a long post about changing her views on abortion, Mermade asks:

…sometimes I do worry about whether or not I am indeed deviating from the narrow path (see Matthew 7:13), but no longer view the “narrow path” as being politically conservative in a secular culture. I am still trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said to enter through the narrow path. Any interpretations you guys have of that are very much welcome.

Well, lots of folks can give interesting lectures about the various gates into the city of Jerusalem that existed in Jesus’ time. The number of treatises and dissertations that have been written about the physical location and theological significance of those entryways is mind-boggling. But since we tend to use the idea of the “narrow” and “wide” gates metaphorically in contemporary Christian culture, I’ll roll with that, and offer a reflection that doesn’t cling too narrowly to traditional interpretation.

“Wide” gates are those that many people can fit through at once. “Narrow” gates are those that, perhaps, only one person can get through at a time. A simple and reasonable reading of the passage is that Jesus is doing what he does throughout Matthew: turning conventional wisdom on its head and suggesting a radically different interpretation of what it means to live a righteous life. Matthew, of all the Gospels, is the one most concerned with reaching the Jewish listener. Jesus challenges the parochialism and ethnocentrism (these are not anachronistic terms to use here) of his followers, suggesting throughout Matthew that active commitment to loving the entire world (rather than just one “people”) is the central component of his message.

By challenging his followers to love their enemies, to refrain from judging, and to rely upon an essentially individual relationship with God for their spiritual sustenance, Jesus shatters their preconceived notions about identity and community. As he will do in Luke with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus suggests that being a good neighbor to all requires a rejection of tribalism. There’s one of His many paradoxes at work here: on the one hand, the follower of Jesus is called to a life of radical love and service; on the other, the follower of Jesus is called to reject too close an attachment to family and culture lest family and culture become idols. This point is made explicit later in Matthew:

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Those are hard words, particularly for people who do what so many people all over the world do: practice “family worship”, in which obedience to parents and submission to tradition are seen as the chief duties and responsibilties of life. Most people want to enter through the “wide gate”, meaning that they want to go through this life and into the next with an entire entourage of loved ones. The wide gate is nice; it’s the gate of consensus, the gate of tradition, the gate of obedience, the gate the ancestors built and walked through themselves.

The narrow gate is wide enough for, well, you. And perhaps you alone. Abraham showed his willingness to walk through the narrow gate when he took his only son out to be slaughtered, showing us all where family ought to rank in our priority list. Ruth walks through the narrow gate in her eponymous book when she chooses devotion to Naomi (to whom she no longer has any kinship ties) over loyalty to her own people (to whom custom dictated she ought to have returned.) We walk through the narrow gate when we prioritize God’s unique claim on our hearts over the commands of the culture and our families. And as scary as it is to walk through that gate alone, our solitude is always illusory; in the end, we walk in the certainty that He who knows us best and loves us most is on the other side.

My favorite spiritual, about which I wrote in a similar vein a few months ago, is “Lonesome Valley”. The beautiful — and to my mind, theologically sound — refrain:

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley
You’ve got to walk it by yourself
Ain’t nobody here can walk it for you
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.

I wrote in March:

“For me, as boisterous and gregarious as I can be at times, the journey of life is a walk through a lonesome valley. In the end, in the very end, I walk alone with Jesus. My wife is with me for part of the journey, perhaps (God willing) until the end, but she joined me late. My late father was with me for part of the journey, but he has left me now, and gone to join the cloud of witnesses who love me and cheer for me but do so from afar. Day in and day out, the life of faith is essentially solitary, even when surrounded by family and friends. And barring the apocalypse, we shall not all die together. The last stage of the Lonesome Valley crossing is made radically alone, even if (as we all hope) there will be a glorious reunion and eternal togetherness on the other side.”

This is what it means to walk through the narrow gate.

3 thoughts on ““Enter through the narrow gate”: culture, tradition, and the Christian paradox of other-centered individualism

  1. One of my favorite song lyrics is from “All This Time” by Sting … “Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.”

    I happened upon it in high school and have kept it with me ever since. I think there is a place in a spiritual community for some people (not everyone, perhaps), but at the end of the road, there is only you.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. I’m not a theist, much less a theologian, so I can’t and won’t comment on those aspects of this.

    But this post reminds me a lot (unsurprisingly*) of one of the longest-running debates in Western political philosophy, that between `individualists’ and `communitarians’. As their names indicate, individualists emphasise individual action and the dangers of uncritically embracing a tradition, while communitarians talk about the importance of tradition to give meaning and structure to our lives and our essential dependence and interdependence with others.

    So in response, I can see a Catholic or communitarian pointing out that we can never really go it alone — whatever `it’ is. We need the emotional and often material support of our friends and family. We need relatively economically and politically stable environs to engage in such pursuits as theological reflection. We need our particular cultural and religious traditions to provide the conceptual tools with which we engage in this and other intellectual pursuits. Even when Thoreau left Concord he never left the intellectual tradition of Locke, Jefferson, and Paine.

    * Unsurprisingly because it often manifests as a debate between Protestants on the one side, Catholics on the other.

  3. Thank you, Hugo, for your insightful reply regarding my question. It was very helpful.
    The next challenge re: my spiritual journey (and seeking to enter through the narrow gate) is to slowly stop seeing the world from a “Focus on the Family” perspective, because I still do. I do not mean that in a political sense, because obviously, my views on social issues have changed substantially within the last two years. But deep down, on some level, I still crave solid answers. I still fear that I will be cast down into hell for doing certain previously forbidden things. It’s easier (though it certainly not easy) to change your political views. It is even harder to change the way in which you view and treat others because it requires deep humility, which is the essence of what it means to enter through the narrow gate. I have a problem with my temper and pride. That is compounded by my yearning for black and white answers. I also still internally judge people all the time.
    So, in writing about my journey through blogging, I wish to stress to people that the ultra-right wing views of Focus on the Family, for example, are but a mere symptom of a larger problem. Ask any fundamentalist Christian why they think abortion is never morally justifiable, ever? Ask another Muslim extremist why a small sect of them believed blowing up another country’s Trade Centers was morally justifiable? If the answers to life’s greatest dilemmas/questions about what is and is not moral seems obvious to you and few others, then you should worry.
    I draw a paradox with my mother: As I mentioned in my latest comment re: parenting, the doctors could give my mother pills to see if they could correct her delusional thinking which was compounded by severe depression. Similarly, liberals can argue against the VIEWS of the religious right, but conservatives won’t listen. Other liberals will praise you, the likelihood that Twisty Faster will change any conservative’s mind is virtually nil since she, and other liberal bloggers, can only argue about the views of the religious right. They don’t understand how they think. It takes a hell of a lot more work to change the way in which they view the world. My mother, for example, had to first realize by her own will that she was alienating her family members and damaging her kids because of her illness. In the same way, I have read Christian purity books which teach young women (and used to teach me) that Satan was literally in the car with Christian couple who wanted to make out, because he wanted them to “sin” and thus take the “wide path.”
    So, I say to the liberals, be the change you wish to see in the world. Spend less time arguing with conservatives online and more time showing what it means to be a truly compassionate person as Jesus is. That is how change is made. And that, to me, is what entering through the narrow gate is all about. I wrote this long comment because this is my struggle re: entering through the narrow gate. I gotta leave the old Christian mindset behind and embrace a new one. And this time, I will not have the support of my family.
    And on a side note, Jesus asked questions, presented paradoxes, and even asked his own disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It is ironic that many Christians believe that Jesus came to give us solid answers. He came not only to save humanity in spiritual sense, but also to provide an example for what it means to love God and thus love others. So that should be reason enough why I should stop seeking hard and fast answers for everything and begin walking through that lonesome valley, i.e. radically changing the way I view the world with much prayer and reflection.

Comments are closed.