Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

What is Faith without works?

The question of God, for most people, both inside and outside the church, often comes down to this: is God a cosmic parent, or not?

If God is a cosmic parent, a sort of uber-daddy, then the question of evil smacks us right in the face. Why do bad things happen? Why doesn't God take care of me? Why did God make all those poor people, evil people, etc., etc., etc. Most of these questions, of course, are not new. They are asked throughout the Bible, raised in books like Jonah and of Job (the former categorized as prophecy, although it reads like a "wisdom" text, the latter categorized as "wisdom" although used in part, especially by Handel, as "prophecy."). It's a reductio argument to simplify it to the issue of "cosmic daddy: yes or no?," but that's where most of the questions start, for most people.

I mention this because Jim Wallis was on "The Daily Show" last night, touting his latest book. At the end of the interview, he told Jon Stewart his two "conversion" stories. The first, he said, occurred when he was six years old, at a tent revival. The children were made to sit in the front row, where the preacher could see them eyeball to eyeball. And in the midst of his fiery sermon full of brimstone and damnation, this preacher asked the children how they would feel if Jesus came back that day and took their mommy and daddy, but left them behind because they weren't "saved." Well, as Wallis said, he realized he'd have to take care of his 5 year old sister, so he answered the altar call right away!

But his second conversion, "the one that took," as he described it, was when he read Matthew 25. That's the parable of the sheep and the goats, when Jesus divides the good and the bad, and says "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me." That, said Wallis, was the point, for him. We are here to take care of each other, especially to take care of the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized. Because, said Stewart, faith without works is dead; and works without faith...ehh, it's still pretty good!

I think Wallis agreed. I know I do.

If God is a cosmic parent, judgmental and demanding, then we are doomed, and we'd better get out spiritual houses in order and, especially in this post-Romantic world where the individual is the measure of all things, we'd better be sure we measure up to God's requirements. But if God wants us to take care of each other, there is no cosmic parent coming home to see if we've gone to bed early or thrown a wild party instead; no rich daddy who's gonna send lawyers, guns and money to get us out of this. In that case, it's up to us. And what difference does religion make in that choice? Perhaps no more than creating the motivation for your action. Perhaps no more than giving us a Martin Luther King, Jr. Or a Dorothy Day. Or a Thomas Merton, an Henri Nouwen; or my late mother in law.

Religion can be transformative. It can give you a reason, a strength, a power, a desire, to act. It can persuade you that there is no cosmic "Daddy," but that the universe bends on an arc toward justice. Perhaps it does no more than that. But in this world, that is always more than enough.

Let me add a P.S. to this: Atrios has an add flashing on his site this morning that quotes 1 Timothy 6:17-18, in the context of the most expensive Presidential inaugural in history (At long last, have we no shame? Apparently not.) I note it in passing since I can't, for awhile, create a post on that topic. But it's entirely relevant to this issue, and we'll get to it as soon as possible.

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