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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In God We Trust. All others pay cash.

I have my problems with Christian salvation, and so with most theories of soteriology.  Some of my thoughts on this subject are quite technical and almost systematic; some, less so.

Take, for example, the simple statement "Jesus Saves."  What does it mean?  If it's a sign posted by a bank; one thing.  In the picture above, another.  I even saw a picture on Google of Jesus pulling a man out of the water by the man's wrist.  Is that what the statement means?  Is that even a good metaphor for what the statement means, a better visual representation of the "correct meaning" than the picture above?

No, probably not.

Usually we mean something like this:


Which begs the question still: what does this sentence mean?

Usually, salvation from damnation; from an eternity in hell, in the burning flames of Hades, in the sulfurous tides of the land where those who enter must abandon all hope.

What a Chick tract means, in other words.  I've never been a fan of Chick tracts, but then Hitler liked dogs, too, so Chick tracts are not reason enough to set aside the traditional doctrines of Christianity.

Well, not Chick tracts alone; but the whole idea of salvation has, by and large, been a club Christians have used to beat up either other non-Christians, or other Christians they deemed insufficiently "Christian" enough for the holy tribute of salvation.  Soteriology is what led to Calvin's bizarre and ultimately perverse doctrine of the elect, and a soteriology his followers used to turn Christianity inside out.  I am thinking particularly of TULIP (which, no, is not Calvinism; except it is, once the doctrines move far enough away from Calvin's Institutes.  I am not blaming Calvin for the state of Christianity today; but I am blaming soteriology, which too many Christians think is the be-all and end-all of Christianity.).  TULIP is nothing more than a cudgel to be used against to motivate people to act as we would wish them to (and as we are sure God would wish them to).  Indeed, making people behave has become the primary purpose of soteriology.

We use it to make people join "our" church, to make people think as we do, or just to make people be civilized.  The root of the fear that the "death of God" would undermine society (and the modern day attack on Christianity, that morality can only come from a deity) was that, absent a fear of damnation (God is dead), what would keep the great unwashed on the straight and narrow?  That it had never kept the leadership in line was beside the point; but directly to the point of the purpose of soteriology (which is, after all, a human doctrine.  I don't remember Christ espousing one in the gospels.)

So how about the sheer damage proponents of "traditional" Christian soteriology do?  I've yet to meet a person whose theology emphasized individual salvation who didn't use that emphasis to deny comfort and succor to others.  Oh, they make nice noises about helping the destitute, but as far as really doing it, not much happens.  Individual salvation means you are individually responsible for the state of your immortal soul.  And if you are individually responsible for the state of your soul, you are individually responsible for the state of your life.  In this understanding, the community doesn't exist to take you in, it exists to set you straight, to straighten you out, to determine whether or not you are worthy of admission to the company of the Blessed.  Any help is short term and blunted, and meant to get you back to being responsible for yourself again, the way God intended!  Living as the widow who fed Elijah is simply not on:

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)

There are nuances, of course; variations.  Not everyone who believes in individual salvation as the central doctrine of Christianity agrees with Baroness Thatcher:

They stem not from the social but from the spiritual side of our lives, and personally, I would identify three beliefs in particular:

First, that from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil. And second, that we were made in God's own image and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice; and further, that if we open our hearts to God, He has promised to work within us. And third, that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil chose to lay down His life that our sins may be forgiven. I remember very well a sermon on an Armistice Sunday when our Preacher said, "No one took away the life of Jesus , He chose to lay it down".
Thatcher carefully distinguishes "spiritual" from "social," and makes it clear throughout that her emphasis is on the individual, that, as she famously said elsewhere, "Society does not exist."  "Man," in that first sentence, is clearly an individual:  only individuals choose good or evil.  And it is up to us, as individuals, "to use all our own (!) power of thought and judgment in exercising that choice."  And it is only after we have done so that we can "open our hearts [not the seat of thought and judgment] to God," who has "promised to work within us."  Because, after all, that's what Jesus did.

Which is one of the weirder theories of the crucifixion I think I've ever heard.  It's supported, to some degree, by John's gospel; but everybody agrees John's Jesus is the least human of the four representations in the canon.

Anyway....

The third is the oddest also because it doesn't connect to the acts of thought and judgement of the individual, or even of God entering your heart and working within you.  What it does connect with, is that even God has to make individual choices.  What it tells me is that even God is all alone.

Which is a very chilling place to put the emphasis (and not at all what the author of John's Gospel meant).  If Thatcher means to use it to make God "one of us," then it's even worse.  But it does explain the complete lack of Christian humility in Thatcher's speech.  Why be humble when you are equal to God?

Follow that reasoning very far, or even take it up at all, and you wind up at Mars Hill Presbyterian Church, which is not a place I want to be:

Mars Hill has not entirely dispensed with megachurch marketing tactics. Its success in one of the most liberal and least-churched cities in America depends on being sensitive to the body-pierced and latte-drinking seekers of Seattle. Ultimately, however, Driscoll's theology means that his congregants' salvation is not in his hands. It's not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism. Ultimately, however, Driscoll's theology means that his congregants' salvation is not in his hands. It's not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism.

Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin's 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. And some babies who die in infancy — if God placed them among the reprobate — go straight to hell with the rest of the damned, to "glorify his name by their own destruction," as Calvin wrote. Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer's free decision to accept God's grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.
And we all know personal friends are people just like us.  Why be humble when God is your BFF?  Why be a servant when you pal around with the Logos that created the cosmos?  A little of that goes a long way, and it goes a long way in the wrong direction, for my taste.

But are we totally corrupted?  Do we all deserve eternal damnation?  Is that any better than Jesus being my BFF?  And can I set any of this aside without completely re-writing traditional Christian soteriology?

Even Luther runs afoul of his own reasoning on this.  Luther decided it was God's grace that saved us, and that God's grace is wholly unmerited, because there is nothing we can do to merit it.  Yet we must do something.  We must choose to accept that grace.  Apparently if we don't, we're still damned.  Which means we were damned from the beginning, damned before birth, and only the right choice will save us.  Which means the grace is not unmerited; we only merit it if, like the characters given the decision to choose the chalice in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," we choose wisely.  Everyone watching that film knows the Nazi will not choose wisely.  He's the bad guy, they never make wise decisions.  He doesn't deserve grace because he's made too many bad choices.  He deserves only damnation.  But to switch back to Luther, we've all made bad choices, we all deserve damnation.  How is it this one choice determines our salvation?  And if it does, how is grace then unmerited?  Are we left only with the simplistic version of Pascal's wager:  it's better that I choose God than not, just to be safe?  What kind of choice is that?  What kind of soteriology is that?

So eventually grace comes to us because we make the right choice or we think the right thought or we say the right words (whether we mean them or not, even God doesn't know).  What is the point of this tail-chasing?  Historically it's been to establish precisely what Jesus specifically preached against:  a hierarchy where the believers, or at the worst extreme the "elect," get to claim privileges for themselves above all others.  And that is not only a perversion of the most basic Christian teachings, it's reprehensible.  Dare I say, it is the fundamental heresy?

If I profess a soteriology now, it is a soteriology of life, not an after-life.  My sympathies are with the nuns and monks who work especially with the poor, the ones who, as Windhorse noted:

... are concerned with trying to find food and clothing and medicine for the least among us, not lecturing them on sin or hypostatic union. Mother Teresa did not try and "save" Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, just help them. As a result, she has become a powerful and inspiring example of Christian values while, conversely, the likes of salvationists like Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard and Pat Robertson have done immeasurable [harm] to the Christian message.
I have never been so comfortable with Christianity as I have in those moments when I realized I was trying to help someone in the name of Christ, rather than to "save" them from a fate I don't think anyone is born to deserve.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this was a powerful essay, RMJ. You hint at the awful impulses behind the desire to divide others into sheep and goats, which is the great historical shame of Christendom. I've honestly never read a Christian piece quite as brave as this one to question the central precepts of soteriology, which may as well be the third rail of Christian inquiry. But without that questioning we"ll never evolve away from an understanding of Christ's message as a religion of idols and explore instead the awareness of the Kingdom as our shared connection with and in the Absolute and with each other and the radical compassion that requires of us.

Windhorse

10:18 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

But without that questioning we"ll never evolve away from an understanding of Christ's message as a religion of idols and explore instead the awareness of the Kingdom as our shared connection with and in the Absolute and with each other and the radical compassion that requires of us.

Struggle as I do to name it and clarify my thinking on it, this indeed is the center of my theology.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous DAS said...

I was gonna jump in on the last thread, but I figure that I'd jump in here in this shiny new thread instead:

What do you make of the argument (I know I've heard it before, I just cannot remember where well enough to provide a link/citation) that the focus, by some elements of the Reformation, on individual salvation, was an important step in the development of the notion of individual rights and liberties that we all hold so dear? And that this focus was also important in empowering individuals to accomplish more, which helped build Western civilization (because people who are motivated do more things which means we can have more good stuff: like technological do-dads, better sanitation and roads, etc.)?

11:21 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"If I profess a soteriology now, it is a soteriology of life, not an after-life."

Again with the either/ors!

If it is my life here, and my life in the world to come, the connecting thread is my life, and what saves me (and us) here saves me (and us) there. What I am today is a combination of choices I have made, plus the grace I've received, unearned. Why should the future be any different?

The very name of Jesus means "Yah saves." The angel said that it was because he would save his people from their sins. Sin is the corruption of the good. If it can bring about hell on earth now, why not in the world to come?

Hell is not someplace that God arbitrarily sends people. But we can choose to go there, say "no" to grace, as we do here everyday. Jesus can get us out of hell in various ways, and I very much appreciate it.

There are indeed various theologies trying to account for how that help arises outside of the structures of the Church. But that we can't entirely adequately account for them doesn't mean they aren't there, or haven't long been recognized.

I guess this goes back to the social/spiritual dichotomy, which I would maintain is another necessary both/and. Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats is undoubtedly both. And though it's no small thing to provide for our wants, thinking about something like the community envisioned in Brave New World (which I happened to be glancing at last month) rather drives home the point that everyone's material wants could conceivably be met in a community that was humanly and spiritually dead. We live both in the present and under the aspect of eternity. I don't see how we jettison one without eventually losing the other; it's all one life.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Hell is not someplace that God arbitrarily sends people.

I disagree. Seems to me the very act of damnation is arbitrary. And the primary theory of soteriology is equally arbitrary: the blood atonement for the sin of Adam which can only be paid with the blood of Christ. The very doctrine of Original Sin means I have sinned ab initio, from the moment of my birth, before I even had a chance to have a choice in the matter. If that isn't arbitrary, what is?

Soteriology arose out of a need to explain the crucifixion in other than mere human terms. In part, that deflection was political: had the Gospel writers living under Rome condemned Rome for the death of their spiritual and political leader, they'd have all gotten the same, and their readers with them. In part, that deflection is spiritual: how is it God can be so powerless as to be killed by us? And so the powerlessness of the Cross becomes the ultimate power of the cosmos.

I ain't buyin' it. I can set aside salvation and damnation and still see and try to live in the kingdom of God, the unbrokered kingdom that I do not enter by my merits, that I "earn" only by being open to it, that I choose only by accepting its reality.

And that acceptance is all the grace of God I need to know in this world. As for the next? Well, I don't presume the Platonic soul is also the Xian "eternal life." Especially since the Greek version of the original Aramaic is "life into the ages." Which might not mean an eternity in heaven (or not hell) at all.

But I have my hands full now. What comes after will take care of itself.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

What do you make of the argument (I know I've heard it before, I just cannot remember where well enough to provide a link/citation) that the focus, by some elements of the Reformation, on individual salvation, was an important step in the development of the notion of individual rights and liberties that we all hold so dear?

Seems to me it's a kind of chicken or egg question: which came first, the culture, or the doctrine? Luther's Reformation, for example, was supported by German princes anxious for change. His challenge to Rome was propitious. Did he change the culture, or catch the zeitgeist?

So with individual importance. I don't really see it rising until the Romantic era, but the society small enough and simple enough to produce the culture of Beowulf was already immeasurably more complex by Chaucer or Piers Plowman; and it was more complex again by the Industrial Revolution, when the importance of the individual took off. Each of those changes diminished the power of the elite and emphasized, however slightly each time, the importance of individual action and choice (consider the tale of the Wife of Bath, for example). But even the Romantic revolution was presaged by the Enlightenment; so...

Which came first? As I found myself saying in an earlier post (much earlier; much, much earlier), when the question is between culture supporting the movement or the movement changing the culture: bet on the culture.

3:20 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"I ain't buyin' it."

Not that you got to. Just seems to me that scrubbing all reference to salvation out of the Christian scriptures leaves them pretty thoroughly bowdlerized. Even the brevity of the Nicene Creed sees salvation as the purpose of the incarnation.

But, yes, if there's nothing to save us from, no point in a savior.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Not that you got to. Just seems to me that scrubbing all reference to salvation out of the Christian scriptures leaves them pretty thoroughly bowdlerized. Even the brevity of the Nicene Creed sees salvation as the purpose of the incarnation.

"Savior," as I noted in an earlier post (linked above) is a very loaded term. It isn't limited to "savior from our sins." Nor was it taken as such in the gospels. It can actually be linked to the crucifixion, in as much as proclaiming Jesus to be a savior (or Lord, for that matter) was a political issue for Rome. Nobody got crucified in Rome for religious controversies.

As for bowdlerizing the Scriptures, you have to read salvation into them; you don't read it out of them. The scriptures stand quite well without it, and salvation works quite well without damnation as the only alternative.

4:46 PM  

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