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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Meanwhile, off in the weeds....


Mimi has moved on, but I refuse to be so accomodating.

The question of soteriology ("R U Saved?") is a pastoral question and a theological question. The pastoral question is actually tougher, since it has to be applicable to human life. The theological question is thornier, since it can be attacked, interpreted, ignored, and generally misunderstood with impunity. But one underlies the other, and separating them is sometimes like removing the threads from the tapestry.

If you want the thorny theological approach, I have made a few stabs at soteriology: Part I and Part II. A more tangential, but literary approach, is posited here and here.

And in a comment at Wounded Bird, a contrast in soteriologies was drawn between Anselm's Atonement Doctrine, and the writings of Julian of Norwich. Always a bit tricky to get theological with the work of mystics, but a very good idea to use their work pastorally. Anchorites, after all, were actually treated as a form of pastorate.
But we should start with the question behind the questions Grandmere Mimi asks. And that question is: What is 'salvation'?

Originally, it was a political term; or political as we understand "political" today. There's always a great danger in creating anachronism in such discussions; retrojecting our ideas 2000 years into the past, yanking common sense ideas from 2000 years in the past up by the roots and trying to pretend they grew in the soil of our culture; etc. But "salvation" in 1st century Palestine, the time of Jesus and Paul, meant one thing: Roman power and civilization, which "saved" conquered people ("barbarians") from the horrors of, well...barbarism.

It's worth noting here that "barbarian" was a term the Romans took from the Greeks (as they took most of their philosophy and arts), and meant rather literally "the people who go 'ba-ba-ba,'" that is, the people who engage in meaningless babble. People, in other words, who don't use our language. It is no accident that the British considered Latin the superior tongue and both drilled it into their students for centuries, but modeled their grammar on Latin when they decided English needed formal rules.

But salvation was a particular political term in 1st century Rome: it referred to the saving acts of Caesar, specifically whatever conquests he had made, or whatever rule he imposed on peoples who didn't necessarily consider themselves (nor were they considered) Romans (I make the distinction because Paul was a Roman citizen). Salvation, then, was tied to civic polity: Caesar was divine, and his beneficent rule meant one was saved from darkness and disorder. Such salvation, of course, was meant to be acknowledged with gratitude and obeisance. So any claim in 1st century Palestine that Jesus bar Joseph was a savior, was not only a political claim, it was a treasonous one.

Which is one reason the concept of "Jesus as Savior" seldom appears in the Gospels. We retroject it there, particularly in John 3:16, but the idea of salvation there is "life into the ages," not salvation from damnation. The whole damnation concept came along much later.

So, you see, if we are going to talk about salvation and from what we need saving, we first need to talk about what "saving" means. To put it more fully in concept, let's start with a bit of Paul, via Crossan:

That opening [of 1 Thessalonians] "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church (ekklēsia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace," was much more subversive than we imagine. The standard Pauline term for a Christian community is ekklēsia, a Greek word today usually translated "church." But the word originally meant citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-governmental decisions. Maybe that was perfectly innocent, but also maybe not. And anyone familiar with Judaism would have heard in his "peace" the content of the Jewish shalom of justice and not that of the Latin pax of victory.

Next, Paul belives absolutely that "Jesus" or the "Messiah/Christ" or the "Lord" all refer to the same person. Paul can spaek of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the Lord Jesus or, most simply, of the Lord. On the one hand, "lord" was a polite term usable by slave to master or disciple to teacher. On the other, "the Lord" meant the emperor himself. What we see here is what Gustav Adolf Deissmann described, almost a hundred years ago, as "the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, 'lord.'" Or, if you prefer, polemical parallelism as high treason.
In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. 166.

Take note, first, of the danger of anachronism: "That opening...was much more subversive than we imagine." We do the Scriptures great injustice when we imagine they were written for us by people like us in our world today. But if we are going to place the question of salvation in its historical context, we have to go back into the historical uses of Paul, first.

We imagine Paul's letters have always been read as church tradition has taught us: either Paul was the lawgiver who set down the doctrines of Christianity in the Letter to the Romans, and refined issues of ecclesiology in the letters to the Corinthians, and then issues of pastoral care and minor matters of theology in the other letters; or he was the dictator who ruled women should cover their heads and sit quietly while men ran everything (I've commented on the irony of this misunderstanding before); or that Paul established the Anselmian soteriology which Anselm merely clarified with the tools of Neo-Platonism. and that, of course, is just for starters. There have even been abortive attempts to remove Paul from the canon altogether, labelling him a mythmaker who radically distorted the 'true' message of Christianity. We needn't go there at all. Instead, we can look at Krister Stendahl's landmark reading of Paul's letters, to get a perspective that helps us understand how easily we can misunderstand ancient texts:

For Paul had not arrived at his view of the Law [Stendahl is concerned with Romans 7:19] by testing and pondering its effect upon his conscience; it was his grappling with the question about the place of the Gentiles in the Church and in the plan of God, with the problem Jews/Gentiles or Jewish Christians/Gentile Christians, which had driven him to that interpretation of the Law which was to become his in a unique way.....

Yet it was not until Augustine that the Pauline thought about the Law and Justification was applied in a consistent and grand style to a more general and human problem....His Confessions is the first great document in the history of the introspective conscience. The Augustinian line leads into the Middle Ages and reaches its climax in the penitential struggle of an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and his interpretation of Paul. (Stendahl, pp. 84-85)
The Pauline effort has to first be put into context, and that context, provided by Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles, was the conflict between Peter, who thought the gospel message should go only to Jews, and Paul, whose Damascene vision convinced him he must carry the gospel to all who would listen. Peter actually had the better argument, since Jesus' message was based in Jewish understandings of divinity and covenant and Torah, things wholly inapplicable, not to mention mysterious, to Gentiles. Paul, however, won the historical battle. But, as Stendahl points out, that's what changed everything in Pauline interpretation. After the first century the battle of Paul v. Peter was over, and Paul won. Paul's importance, then, receded, because he was the partisan of the Gentiles, and that point of view now prevailed. But then, at the collapse of the Roman Empire and in defense of the Church as it then existed (and in creation of both a wholly new theology and, as Stendahl argues, a sea change in human thought), Augustine took up Paul and, through the Confessions, universalized him. Paul's importance was no longer as the champion of the evangel to the Gentiles; now he was the vanguard of the introspective conscience, an introspection essential to Christian soteriology (as Augustine's Confessions became the touchstone for both Christian piety and Christian theology). This introspective consience became Luther's model as he struggled with his own conscience and, after pestering his confessor to the point of exasperation, finally produced Luther's doctrince of justification by faith. Which doctrine means, of course, you just have the proper faith; and that you need to be justified. But how did the idea of justification, i.e., salvation, become universalized?

Well, through Augustine, primarily, but not entirely. But Augustine did universalize Paul, presenting us all with a conscience from which we could be divided:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Romans 7:18b-24

The interpretation of that passage seems so obvious to us now. But it is an interpretation that would make no sense to Paul's original audience, or to almost any audience prior to Augustine. Which is damned hard to imagine, but there's that problem of anachronism again. Let me just quote from Stendahl again:

...it is exactly at this point that Western interpreters have found the common denominator between Paul and the experience of man, since Paul's statements about 'justification by faith' have been hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection. Especially in Protestant Christianity--which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and in the piety of the Middle Ages--the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpeted in the light of Luther's struggle with his conscience. But it is exactly at that point that we can discern the most dramatic difference between Luther and Paul, between the 16th and the 1st century....
Now, to put Paul in his proper context, as a 1st century Jew interpreting the law and the gospel for a Gentile audience, what do we need to understand?

It is pointed out that for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace. Hence Paul would have been wrong in ruling out the Law on the basis that Israel could not achieve the perfect obedience which the Law required.
Stendahl's interpetation of Paul turns on Phil. 3:6: "I was blameless as to righteousness-of the Law, that is," and he points out that Romans 2-3 "deals with something very different."

The actual transgressions in Israel--as a people, not in each and every individual--show that the Jews are not better than the Gentiles, in spite of circumcision and the proud possession of the Law. The "advantage" of the Jesus is that they have been entrusted with the Words of God and this advantage cannot be revoked by their disobedience (Rom. 3:1ff.), but for the rest they have no edge on salvation. The Law has not helped. They stand before God as guilty as the Gentiles, and even more so (2:9). All this is said in the light of the new avenue of salvation, which has been opened in Christ, an avenue which is equally open to Jews and Gentiles, since it is not based on the Law, in which every distinction between the two rests....The only metanoia (repentance/conversion) and the only grace which counts is the one now available in Messiah Jesus. Once this has been seen, it appears that Paul's references to the impossibility of fulfilling the Law is part of a theological and theoretical scriptural argument about the relation between Jews and Gentiles.
You'll notice, if you're still paying attention, that we are no closer to answering the question "What is 'salvation'?" But to move to an answer, we first have to move away from the concept that sin was universalized by the cross, and that Paul was the theologian who first established that truth for us.

There is a false assumption behind the doctrine of salvation that Christians are compelled to evangelize so as to bring salvation to the damned. It is accepted as the driving force of the gospel, yet it was not Paul's motivation after Damascus (the voice didn't tell him "Get off your ass and save the world!"*), and it seems clear Patrick's evangelization of the Irish, much as the rest of the British Isles were converted, happened more by consideration and cooperation than imposition (the pattern used later, especially as the Church became identified with the State). Indeed, the evangelizing effort of the Church as it became an arm of the European state more and more closely resembled the "salvation" offered by Rome: where Patrick (to pick a point of comparison) integrated into the culture, the Church later vigorously uprooted that culture (and this kind of "salvation" was not limited to the Holy See. The United Church of Christ has confessed its sins in its Congregational ancestors in Hawaii, who did so much to help destroy the indigenous culture there in order to "improve" it, and "save" the natives from their "benighted" state.) All of which is to say: "salvation" has often been many things other than being preserved against damnation and the eternal torments of hell. Which is another concept with almost no support in the scriptures, except in the apocalyptic vision of the Revelation to John (who probably didn't mean it literally enough to have a doctrine of the afterlife built upon it). "Salvation," then, entails being saved from. But from what? Hell? Damnation? Perdition? Eternal torment? Few of these actually have Biblical warrant. Even the "Old Testament" God of wrath and judgment is not portrayed in Scripture as a God of eternal wrath:

Yet even now," declares the LORD,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13and rend your hearts and not(AD) your garments."
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the LORD your God?

Joel 2: 13-14

The salvation consistently offered by the God of Abraham is one for this life, not for the sweet bye and bye. It is the peculiar Christian doctrine which emphasizes the life after, even though Matthew's parable of the sheep and the goats re-emphasizes that it is how we live that matters, not what we believe ("Lord, when did we see you?") Which brings around to Dorothy Day:

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11.

Such renunciations, of course, involve the gift which can neither be given nor received, else it is not a gift; yet only in this giving "renouncing all compensations" do we truly give at all. Call it the paradox of the gift; and use it to consider the paradox of salvation.

The emphasis of the teachings of Jesus, even in John, is for how we conduct ourselves in this life, not in anticipation of the life beyond but in appreciation of "life into the ages." Dorothy Day's renunciation of compensations is John's "sacrament that wasn't," the foot-washing that Jesus conducts in lieu of the eucharist. In John Jesus establishes the importance of humble service, rather than the central sacrament of thanksgiving. It is all of a piece, and the reason we have four gospels, not just one; but especially when John's gospel is read as the "gnostic" one, the "ethereal" one, the one where Jesus (almost literally) sucks all the air out of the room (the final discourse that replaces a final supper goes on for three chapters), this central almost-sacrament is not to be overlooked lightly. There is no thought of compensation in the selfless act; so much so that it is and will remain the sacrament-that-wasn't. There is no thought of compensation in Matthew's parable of the sheep and the goats. By the time of the revelation, it is far too late to recognize the long-delayed compensation. No coincidence, either, that this parable doesn't play a central role in any dominant Christian theology or soteriology. "Lord, when did we see you?" is to plaintive a cry to build a foundation on. But, as Dorothy Day, and the example of most of the saints show, it is enough to build a life on; if we are willing to live a life renouncing all compensations. And that would include the compensation of salvation.

Which is surely harsher than the threat of hellfire and damnation. Perhaps that is why the latter is still the prefered mode of motivation toward confession, rather than any exhortation as to how we should live. Always the conviction comes first, the confession; and following from that should come the changed life, but, if it doesn't....? Well, what are you gonna do? At least they come to church regularly, and keep up with their pledge.

Terrible when a pastor is so cynical, isn't it? But what is the value of salvation if it cuts you off from the life you are living now? What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your own soul? And how is that soul lost? Through failure to believe the correct doctrines, recite the correct creeds, hold the correct theological opinions? Or is it worn away simply by the way you live? By selfishness and withdrawing from the larger community into smaller and smaller and safer and safer tribes, groups, gatherings who think as you do and act as you do and don't demand any more from you than you demand from them, and who by that service provide you with the compensation you cannot renounce? What is salvation? Is it something that comes to you, or something you have to accept, and in accepting it, live it? Which is more salvific? How you live now? Or how you hope to live in the hereafter?




*Sorry. Really lame joke.

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