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

Friday, August 17, 2012

Getting a band together

There is so much hatred available, it's hard to keep up with it.  So much cruel mendacity, it's easy to despair.  I am guilty of sounding that clarion call myself, as Scott the Obscure reminds me:

We can't get our band back together, because they've either sold out or been murdered by those who desperately want might to make right. I can't even think to much about Romero or the Maryknoll nuns. I was taught to admire these people, back when I was in Catholic school, and they were presented as well along the track for sainthood. And then admiring them became too incovenient for the Church's relationship with Power, and next thing I knew, I'm told Liberation Theology is heresy. Now the collusion of Bidness and Politics As Usual to make us ordinary folk suffer as much as possible seems insoluble, and I have moments that I fear blood in the streets and the sound of tumbrels.

I'm holding my tiny baby daughter, and I just don't know where this goes. Where can I find comfort without breeding complacency? Any passages you'd recommend, RMJ?

A question without an easy answer, unless you believe in the power of Hallmark cards.  I mean no disrespect, but this question always bothered me as a pastor, because I felt like the only response was to hand out scripture verses like nostrums, and that's a disservice to scripture and to the person asking me for help.  Given the forum, I'm going to indulge myself and answer Scott's question with reference to something Alberich asked:

 I guess this is more a question for the Reverend, so to speak: what is the point of exhorting a crowd, who is mainly already baptized and confirmed as Christians, to accept Jesus? How can religion be a bulwark for a democratic society if all religion involves is faith and the vocalization of that faith? Such vocalization is certainly beneficial to the faithful and I don't knock it at all, but how can that be all there is?

And if it is not all there is to religion, why the need to continually emphasize the acceptance of a faith and not the consequences thereof? Is there something that, as a Jew (albeit one who has, growing up in an 'evangelical' enough area of the country myself, heard this kind of talk from a very young age), I simply don't grok?
Because I find the two are related, and it explains why I shudder at citing scripture in answer to a plea for comfort or insight, at least in these cases.  Alberich brings in a very useful term, one I learned from studying the Hebrew Scriptures but not in these words.  He said, in full:

 I know in Judaism, while we talk about the need to acknowledge the sovereignty of God, we also follow it up with both petitions to God and also with an acceptance of the yoke of heaven (i.e. in our tradition, the commandments).
 "The yoke of heaven."  Even if the metaphor is agricultural and practically anachronistic, I still like it.  That, I think, is a key tenet of Christianity, but one little observed except among the religious and the pastor/priesthood, who too often are expected to take it on for the rest of the community:  the idea of the duty of faith, or to put it more bluntly, the obligation of trust.

What Alberich is describing in his encounters with his relatives is a basic soteriology, one resting wholly on the atonement theory of the crucifixion (to be fair, on a particular atonement theory, but there are other soteriologies rather than the classic atonement).    It is a commonplace of many strains of Baptists that salvation is the central teaching of Christianity, the central purpose, and the central goal.  One is "saved" by "accepting Jesus," preferably "into your heart;" but that salvation seems never to be assured, so one must return to church every Sunday morning, and attend revival meetings throughout the year, and....well, speaking wholly as an outsider who grew up among the Baptists and yet never lived as one of them, that seems to be about it, corporately speaking.  Individuals can backslide and sin in ways great and small (drinking and dancing being the most publicly heinous), but a Sunday altar call or a revival or two, and all is well again.

I'm doing the Baptists of this stripe something of a disservice, but I still remember the booklet I got once, about a pastor who'd discovered how to revive his preaching in December, preaching that was almost entirely of the fundamentalist/evangelical/Baptist-as-I've-described-it, stripe.  His discovery was Advent.  His discovery was the ancient Christian liturgical calendar.  His discovery was that there might be more to Christian worship than salvation, and that renewed, or at least reaffirmed, every 7 days or so.

The consequences of that faith were that you lived according to the dictates of your fellow church members.  Not, in itself, something unusual in the history of world religions.  In this case it usually meant no drinking or dancing; at least not with the shades up or the windows open.  The old joke was that Baptists didn't make love standing up because somebody might think they were dancing, and the only time Baptists didn't recognize each other was in the liquor store.  But what is the yoke of heaven for them, beyond that?

I must confess I don't know.  But I also don't know of many Christians who would take the "yoke of heaven" very seriously.  So it's not a problem peculiar to Baptists, and I'm not presuming to stand superior to them.  It's an opening point for a discussion, here, and that discussion now turns to the question of:  now what do you do?

You've become a confessing Christian, whatever creed or soteriology you confess; now what?  Now how do you face the future, comfort your child, comfort yourself?

Baptists comfort themselves by assuring themselves they are "saved."  Soteriology is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, of their confession.  For them the "wages of sin are death," and that death is metaphysical, not physical; it is damnation, death in hell, death in eternal separation from the glory of God.    At least that's how most of the Baptists (and not a few of the non-Baptists; religion is far more cultural than it is denominational) I've known have understood it.  So salvation is central: what matters is not how you live now, so much as how you will live then.  And, for most Christians actually who make salvation a central concern, how you live now only affects how you will live then based on what you believe, far more than on what you actually do.

Which is as unscriptural as anything can be, to be honest.  It is not what goes into a person, but what comes out of a person that matters, Jesus says.  God tells Jeremiah that the human heart is so devious even God can't fathom it, that God must test it to know what is there.  God, in other words, judges by what comes out, and what is on the lips is far less important than what is in the actions.  Not that Baptists are any better, or worse, at visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless.  As I say, any group of Christians who places a heavy emphasis on salvation ends up worrying more about the death of the soul than the privations of the body; at least of the bodies of others.  We always find ways to take care of ourselves first.

Does this lead us, then, to despair?  Depends on where you put your trust.

Scripture tells you to trust.  Scripture tells you to have faith.  Scripture tells you to put that faith, that trust, in God.

Jesus said God is God of the living, not of the dead.  God is not then, God is now.  The Scriptures tell us, from Genesis to Revelation (if those are your scriptures), that God is in history, if not of history.  So the faith we confess is that God is active now, right now, even now!  You want despair?  Look to Jeremiah and the Lamentations.  Look to Psalm 22.  You want joy?  Read Psalm 22, and don't stop until you are through with Psalm 23.  Read Isaiah 40, and just keep going.  Read Ezekiel, and don't stop with the valley of the dry bones.  Read of the joy of the early church in the book of Acts.

The Scriptures don't tell us not to despair.  The Scriptures do tell us to trust.  And where is that stated?  Where is it given as a simple phrase, a cohesive word, a telling argument?  Everywhere.  Nowhere.  The Scriptures give us passages, but I always want to urge people to find them for themselves.  Don't take one from me, don't take my word for it!  Take the word of God and see what you find in it.

What does one have to do with the other?  What's the connection between Scott's question and Alberich's?  Trust.  Seems to me the ultimate question is:  where do you put your trust? My critique of the sotierology of Alberich's relatives (but not, mind, of his relatives) is that it seems to put trust in what we do, not in what God does.  The constant repitition of the confession of faith may comfort the believer, but it too easily reassures the believer that she is in charge, that God is under control, that salvation is assured through their words.  If I trust in God, I set aside concerns for my salvation and I step out on faith to engage the world.  My answer to Scott is:  trust in God.  Which is a terribly broad and vague answer, and it always seems a bit like giving someone a snake when they asked for an egg.  But are things so bad as they seem?  Not if God is in history; not if the witness of the Scriptures is true.  And if that witness is false, where is the virtue of any sentence in it?  Where is its value, except as a bit of wisdom 2 millenia old, or from a time and place and people all but lost to memory?

What would I say to Scott?  I would say with Isaiah "Your God is coming!"  I would say with Jesus "Consider the lilies of the valley, which do not sew or spin, yet Solomon in all his finery was not clothed more beautifully than they are."  I would say "God's imperial rule is right there in your presence."
 
I would say that we live in the world we see.

Teach your daughter to see a good world; call it the basilea tou theou, the empire of God.

And that is the world she will live in.

I should add:  if God is indeed the God of the living, and to God even the dead are still alive, then the clouds of witness continue to surround us, and the circle continues to be unbroken, and the band is still together.  Teach your daughter that, too:  that the empire of God is always with us if we will just see it, and that the citizens of that empire are always with us, even if we can't see them.


7 Comments:

Blogger rick allen said...

I think you may be a little hard on our Baptist friends. Salvation is pretty central to the New Testament, seems to me.

"Jesus," is, after all, just a Hellenized, Latinized, Anglicized form of the common Hebrew name, "Y'hoshua," "Yah Saves." And the baby was to be called that "because he will save his people from their sins." So "Yah Saves" saves. Or ought to.

If I haven't garbled it over the passage of time, my recollection is that classical Protestant theology makes a strong distinction between justification and sanctification. Justification effects the forgiveness of sin; sanctification is that "becoming holy" necessary to stand in God's presence. An over-emphasis on justification can lead to a "getting saved is everything" mentality. But I'm not sure if that's really characteristic of most Baptists I've known, at least those seriously engaged with their faith. I don't even know if they use the Lutheran/Calvinist terminology, but most I have known care about more than making the cut on the last day.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I'm a bit harsh on soteriology, actually. Or I mean to be; to the extent I'm too harsh on the Baptists in particular, the error is mine and I repent of it sincerely.

But as for soteriology, I simply don't favor its central place in Xian doctrine.

Jesus says precious little about "saving souls" in the Synoptics, and not so much in John's gospel as is usually thought. Paul is actually pretty silent on it, too; especially if you don't read him backwards and so anachronistically through Augustine. And the emphasis on sin presumes an obligation placed on humanity through Adam which is not consistent with the concept of the Covenant in the Hebrew Scriptures nor the concept of "sin" in those same scriptures.

It takes a lot of squaring of the circle to make those things fit together. So I prefer an alternative course which doesn't require upending or tossing out classical Christian doctrine, just reinterpreting it.

Sort of like what Luther meant to do, before the Roman church rejected his "reforms." I think, in other words, my theology is in line with classical Christian theology, but I set aside the whole "In Adam's fall we sinned all" premise of classical soteriology, and find I am still quite Christian and quite in line with the New Testament, without it.

Besides, I never did like people asking me "Are you saved?" Whenever I told them I hoped so, but it was up to God, it always threw them off. And I still think mine was the only valid answer.

Anyway.....

Adding: the whole question of "savior" is a fraught one, and it accrued a religious meaning sometime after Constantine's time. In Jesus' time, it was Caesar who saved, and he was lauded both as a divine figure and the "son of God," and as a savior. Mostly from barbarism and into Roman civilization, rather than in a more metaphysical sense; but any claim of Jesus as savior in the gospels/letters would have been understood in that context, not in the theological one constructed centuries later. Again, we have to be careful about anachronistic readings.....

12:16 PM  
Blogger alberich said...

Thank you for your response. Of course, even within Judaism, there is the element of giving testimonials as to how beneficial it is to proclaim the existence, unity saving power and sovereignty of God: I can think of at least one point in our daily service (and two on Shabbos) where we do this by giving a gloss on our twice daily recitation of Deut. 6:4.

But when we actually recite Deut. 6:4, we follow it up not only with the acknowledgement of God's sovereignty* (which may be an acknowledgement of something entirely different if you follow Erich Fromm's theology) but also with Deuteronomy 6:5–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41 which talk about some what is actually meant by acknowledging the unity and sovereignty of God (it isn't just saying a formula or even believing it in your heart but there are specific symbols and actions involved as well as an admonition to remember and do all of God's commandments to be "holy unto your God") and some of the terms of the covenant (i.e. what will happen if we follow the rules or not).


Anyway, I'll need to remember this on behalf of my daughter as well.

* praised be the name of the glorious kingdom, forever and ever ... it's from Psalms IIRC, but I forget which one.

4:19 PM  
Blogger alberich said...

Thank you for your response. Of course, even within Judaism, there is the element of giving testimonials as to how beneficial it is to proclaim the existence, unity saving power and sovereignty of God: I can think of at least one point in our daily service (and two on Shabbos) where we do this by giving a gloss on our twice daily recitation of Deut. 6:4.

But when we actually recite Deut. 6:4, we follow it up not only with the acknowledgement of God's sovereignty* (which may be an acknowledgement of something entirely different if you follow Erich Fromm's theology) but also with Deuteronomy 6:5–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41 which talk about some what is actually meant by acknowledging the unity and sovereignty of God (it isn't just saying a formula or even believing it in your heart but there are specific symbols and actions involved as well as an admonition to remember and do all of God's commandments to be "holy unto your God") and some of the terms of the covenant (i.e. what will happen if we follow the rules or not).


Anyway, I'll need to remember this on behalf of my daughter as well.

* praised be the name of the glorious kingdom, forever and ever ... it's from Psalms IIRC, but I forget which one.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

alberich--

Thank you for the chance for the dialogue. The question of even how one is "holy unto God" is an intriguing one to me.

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Scott the Obscure said...

Wow. Thank you, Robert. And I'm sorry for putting you on the spot like that, it was just time for a different perspective from someone whose scholarship I truly respect (and which far, FAR exceeds my own). I really did need a few starting points other than the ones I've had before, because the ones I had, were leading me into walls.

I usually have trouble with the "trust God, God is in control" line of argument, really, no least because it invites the question of if the "control" is one of command or one of permission. But I'm honest enough to admit that I've got my own blinders on, so maybe from a different starting point, things will look clearer. OR I'll end up way over my head, again. Not unusual, either way. Sorry again to dump my bitters all over your doorstep...

1:10 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Scott--I remind myself one meaning of "Israel" is "Struggles with God."

2:36 PM  

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