A handful of selections from Huffington Post's "Religion" page:
Atheists are Redeemable
Well, Maybe Not....
God uses Tornadoes in Mysterious Ways
God Uses Anne Heche in Mysterious Ways, Too
The Devil Speaks Spanish!
No criticism intended as to any of these articles, or the fact the HuffPost decided to republish them, or even that I found them yesterday morning. We could consider Wolf Blitzer's faux pas or Glenn Beck's bizarre reaction to same (where would you be with me to aggregate the news that HuffPo already aggregates?) But I slide over those and other issues, such as whether free speech means the majority gets to promote religion with the support of government entities in Texas or Kentucky (in neither case do those proclaiming the "rights" of the majority have my sympathies. As a religious Christian myself I resented the Southern Baptist theology of my peers in high school, and could well have done without any expression of Christianity as listen to their public prayers. Oddly, it never occurred to me to sympathize with the Jews and the atheists in the audience; but it would now.)
I slide over them because there is a connecting thread in all of these stories: the ones I highlighted as well as the ones mentioned in passing. And that connection is: soteriology.
Redemption, for example, is a part of salvation. That metaphysical part which says today is a down payment on eternity, if you invest it wisely. (Pardon my simplicity of metaphor, but there's no reason to beat around this particular non-burning bush.)
What really got me thinking about this, though, was the "theological controversy" stirred up by the tornado in Oklahoma. It seems someone I've never heard of (more fool me, I'm sure) decided the words from Job were appropriate to the occasion:
“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20
Now, admittedly, I turned to the Psalms; because Psalm 29 always comes to mind on these occasions, even though I'm quite sure a natural disaster is not what the Psalmist had in mind, or what the community of believers has had in the centuries those verses have been used in whatever context. And context is not an insignificant consideration, here. I hesitate using scriptures at all in this blog, because scriptures aren't meant to be used as instruments, blunt or otherwise, among just anybody. Scholars approach the scriptures quite differently than preachers do, and I can tell you from experience that I use scriptures very carefully among congregations I don't know well (I recently did a funeral sermon and relied almost exclusively on poetry, so the people I was talking to wouldn't bring their own preconceptions to the scriptures and stop listening entirely to what I had to say. Scriptures can be a barrier as much as a doorway.) But I was trying to stir up a small community of readers of this blog and I knew I'd get feedback from what I said. I didn't, in other words, offer it up as a tweet.
And I didn't use the Book of Job.
Anyway, this stirred up a theological tempest in a theological teapot; and my first thought was: Is this really a theological matter? But it is, because it's a soteriological matter. The furor went something like this:
Piper, who recently retired from the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, is a leading theologian of the neo-Calvinist movement that’s sweeping many evangelical churches. In essence, Desiring God staffer Tony Reinke wrote, Piper was highlighting God’s sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy.And maybe that was right, since Piper later tweeted:
In response, popular evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans blasted Piper’s “abusive theology of ‘deserved’ tragedy,” and said Christians have to stop the idea of responding to tragedy by suggesting God is inflicting his judgment.
“The only thing we need to tell them is, ‘I don’t know why this happened but God is good and God loves us,’” she said in an interview.
However, she apologized in a follow-up post. “Piper’s tweet was vague enough that I don’t know that he was necessarily saying this point this time. Maybe it wasn’t the best time to call him out.”
“My hope and prayer for Oklahoma is that the raw realism of Job’s losses will point us all to his God ‘compassionate and merciful.’”But still, Rick Warren had the most pastoral response (at least in this article):
Megachurch pastor Rick Warren tweeted a few days after the tornado, “In deep pain, people don’t need logic, advice, encouragement, or even Scripture. They just need you to show up and shut up.#Love.”What does this have to do with soteriology? Well, the reference to Neo-Calvinism is one hint. The reaction of Rachel Held Evans is another. And lest her reaction seem a little, well, reactionary, there is a context other than Piper's leadership on the Neo-Calvinist front:
Piper also came under fire after suggesting in a blog post that a small tornado during a conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was a “gentle but firm warning” as it debated its position on homosexuality.This is a guy who has confused the God of Abraham with the gods of Greece (who liked to inflict plagues on cities for doing what they didn't like; as Apollo did to Thebes because of Oedipus), and who clearly puts soteriology at the center of his faith, because that's what Calvinism is really all about. Then again, that's pretty much what most people think Christianity is all about.
Otherwise, why would the new Anne Heche TV series about a woman who talks to God be titled "Save Me"?
If I may say, already wandering abruptly off the point a bit, this is a bit of what I'm talking about:
Late antiquity was an era of fear and melancholy, and contempt for the body was a leitmotif of many of its thinkers. Christianity provided a liberating message, in which the resurrection of Jesus offered hope of the transfiguration of the flesh and the glorification of all creation.How many people today here in the message of Christianity any hope of the transfiguration of the flesh and the glorification of all creation, and hear instead fear and melancholy and contempt for the body as a leitmotif of Christian belief? Is there anything in the reference to Job, above, out of context as it is in the original tweets, that doesn't speak of melancholy and fear, even as its defenders argue that
“The Christian church has to return to a robust understanding of who God is,” [Idaho pastor and blogger Doug] Wilson said in an interview. “If we do, we won’t have to hash through this with every tragedy.”
Well, maybe we do; and certainly a natural disaster with 24 people dead and hundreds homeless is not the best place to start that discussion. But there's also the fact of what we mean by "robust understanding," because if you are going to try to return us to the fear and melancholy of pre-Christian Europe, then I for one have no need of it. That such traditions have returned over the centuries to become "Christian" is indictment enough; that we perpetuate them in the name of "love" and "forgiveness" is downright perverse. Which is not to say Christianity hasn't contributed its own contempt for the body and fear and melancholy to the historical mixture. But it cannot be denied that it did so in the name of salvation. It did so because of soteriology. And there's the fundamental problem:
There's precious little in the gospels about salvation, and even less in Paul regarding soteriology. It is not a Hebrew construct at all, but a Gentile one, created in an attempt to universalize the Christian message. None of the sermons in the Book of Acts regard salvation from sin and redemption from eternal damnation. The thrust of Peter's famous Pentecost speech is to bring recognition of Jesus as Messiah to the Hebrews. He doesn't speak to Gentiles who know nothing of the God of Abraham; and Jewish traditions from Isaiah on are that the nations (meaning peoples; today we might well say "races") will come to the holy city of God because of the blessings poured out on Israel for their faithfulness to God's guidance. They won't come because they will recognize they need to be saved from hell. They will come because they recognize the benefits of the life given to God's people.
Not a strong enough message for Christianity, however, so hell and damnation had to come along, and come along double quick. If "in Adam's fall we sinned all," then Christianity has the superior message, and you can see the fight for that upper hand in the early 2nd century, recorded in the Gospel of John. Even then the famous phrase of John 3:16 only speaks of those who will perish, and those who will not. It doesn't say those who don't believe in Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah will burn in endless fire and everlasting torment. But take away that threat of eternal damnation, and what leverage does Christianity have?
Yeah; like that'll work!
If someone does not love you, to hunt them down and kill them is the worst kind of obsession and insanity. But, says every variation on Christian salvation I know of, if you don't love God, God will remember and at the last day, will hunt you down and kill you. Worse, actually; God will condemn you to everlasting torment. Why? Because God so loved the world.....
Sorry, but I've never been able to see anything reasonable in that.
This actually makes more sense to me:
"And in these words I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God."
Julian is a subtler theologian than she is given credit for. She carefully avoids treading on the Church doctrine of salvation, but she essentially says that all will be redeemed (as Pope Francis did, before he slightly corrected himself). One could read the "all" there as only believing Christians who follow strictly church teachings; but that makes a mockery of the sentiment and the vision. If all is not well, and all manner of thing is not ultimately well, then only some things will be well, and only part will be well, and the rest will not. The sentiments attributed to Jesus in the vision are either universal and inclusive, or they are gibberish. What's more, the sentiment expressed in the vision are in keeping with the promise of the future made by the major prophets. And their promise is not premised on the entire world worshiping the God of Abraham.
What, then, is redemption? Pie in the sky bye and bye? The hope of things unseen and unknown? Or the improvement of life here and now? There have been arguments that Christianity has done a great deal of good in the world. I find such arguments interesting, if not overly broad and difficult to defend; but the counterarguments that Christianity is the source of all evil in at least the Western world, is equally full of vague and glittering generalities, and as firm a defense against religion as the Maginot Line. The good that can be credited to Christianity is not solely the result of believing in a better after-life. The thrust of the gospels, over and over, and of all the letters, is about how to live here and now. When that lesson is turned inward, is perverted into personal salvation that lets you off the hook for how you live now, we get Christians who boldly proclaim the poor will always be with us because their concerns are not our concerns, where we are "saved" and they have obviously sinned and fallen out of God's favor.
Not exactly the message of the gospels.
And here is the rub of the matter: if salvation is truly a free offering from God, if we truly cannot earn salvation with works, then how can we earn it with faith? One exchange is as good as another, but without an exchange at all, there is no salvation. So is salvation a gift? Or a purchase?
If the woman in Luke 7, who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears and wipes them with her hair, has done nothing but make clear she is a prostitute who is trying to seduce a man so she can buy her bread that night, what faith has she shown? What good work has she done? Picked the right man? Recognized the Messiah? Or just become a valuable object lesson in the love of God available to all, even if they don't realize it until after the fact?
Connect that to the story of the sheep and the goats: "Do you see this woman?," Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee. "Lord, when did we see you?", ask the sheep, as they receive the blessing; ask the goats, as they are put out of favor. They were not told to believe a doctrine, accept a creed, remember a prayer: they were told that how they had lived was all that mattered. Who they cared for, was what was most important. When Elijah met the widow in the time of the famine, she shared with him the last food she had, just enough for her son and herself. That simple act of hospitality guaranteed her survival, with food enough for all three, until the famine lifted. When Jesus met someone he didn't say "believe these three things," he said: "See as I see." The halt, the lame, the blind, the beggar and the prostitute and the tax-collector: all children of God, all just like you. Love one another, he said; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. Because when you do, then you love God.
And if that doesn't buy you anything in the afterlife, it certainly makes this life a much, much better one.