Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The tension between tradition and revelation

***Note: I thought I'd published this months ago and I've been going mad looking for it.  It may or may not appear to be congruent with the development of my thoughts,  but it was intended to be up around July 4, 2010.***

Following up on previous thoughts on the tension between received wisdom and unfolding revelation I examine that tension in the issue of salvation as it is framed by Christianity. Note that my thoughts on these matters, especially what it means to know or follow Jesus, will almost certainly offend or unhinge someone, so if you are really wound uptight on such issues, be forewarned.

There are some common/popular traditional ideas to be addressed, so let's look at each of them in turn:

Jesus is an incarnation of God, and God is (among other things) Love

Now, that statement shouldn't really be too challenging. This doesn't mean Jesus is a delicate flower or a wuss, and it is a shame that many virtues have been associated with being weak or foolish. But if Jesus embodied Love, then knowing Jesus means knowing Love. Following Jesus would imply the same -- indeed, his life in the Gospels spelled out the message of loving others as oneself. It would also mean that any place that such love is expressed, there the presence of Jesus is felt. Notice the construction. I didn't say that where such love is expressed Jesus is (there), but rather his presence (which is already omnipresent) is felt. It is recognized.

Ponder the implications. In a Muslim prayer service. At a Buddhist charity rally. During a Native American spirit walk. When a mother picks up a child and tells her that everything is OK. Any place there is a peaceful heart or an act of compassion, whatever the circumstances, Jesus is recognized in some way. Hence the insight of the oft-repeated quote by Simone Weil:

"Christ does not save all those who say to Him, 'Lord, Lord.' But he saves all those who out of a pure heart give a piece of bread to a starving man, without thinking of Him in the least little bit. And these, when He thanks them, reply: 'Lord, when did we feed thee?' An atheist and an infidel, capable of pure compassion, are as close to God as is a Christian, and consequently know Him equally well, although their knowledge is expressed in other words, or remains unspoken. For 'God is love.' "

Jesus died, descended into Hell, rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven

Now we're cooking, 'cause this is really going to put nearly everyone off to deal with that set of propositions. So for the sake of fully appreciating Christianity, we have to go with the notion of Jesus fully embodying God in the flesh. God was as manifest in Christ as is possible. He is the exemplar. This is critical. Even if you only accept that for the sake of argument to grasp the points being made, go ahead and do it now.

So, Jesus died. The human being born in Bethlehem and who walked the Earth with bad breath and morning wood and all of the things any human male would have experienced died in his early thirties. This in and of itself wouldn't be news. But then there is the idea that God was fully present in Jesus -- totally invested. So, what happened? God died. Let me repeat that in case you skimmed past...

God died.

So, imagine that. God chose to die. My own preference for why is the solidarity with humanity model. It makes sense of the "trick the Devil" model by saying that we are deluded and sinful and this act goes along with our delusion to lead us into the light and the truth. We wouldn't be able to just accept that God could truly love and forgive us (that would be the "lie of the Devil"), so he did something radical to prove it. It also makes sense of the substitutionary atonement model in a similar fashion -- nothing we have done or can do can ever be enough to outweigh God's love for us, and he permanently tipped the scales so that no one could ever doubt it again.

But then something happened. Something which defies our superficial expectations but speaks to a deeper truth in us. Jesus rose from the dead. The details are unknown and it is proclaimed to be a mystery. But the basic point is this: Jesus didn't stay dead. Another way to frame it: Love conquered death.

(Now I know that many people will only view that in terms of love as a sappy emotion and death strictly as the irretrievable final malfunction of the human body. Taken in any sense saying that love conquered death is incomprehensible but with that narrow frame of reference it becomes absurd.)

An interesting note about the conquering of death. Matthew 16:18 talks about the gates of hell. Assuming this is a correct translation, let's ponder that a bit as others have. What is a gate? In the time of Jesus and the Apostles it was a guarded portal in and out of a city or a fortress. Now it doesn't say the gates of Heaven will hold against the forces of Hell. It says that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. So in that imagery who is trying to conquer who? (Which reinforces my universalist outlook.)

Following the example of Jesus and having faith in him is the path to salvation

If folks haven't been jolted by now, I've saved the best for last. Well, OK, I didn't save it, this is just where it fits in the development of theme being advanced. I recently heard someone use the term "informal Christian" but I am having trouble referencing it. But the way it was used seemed to lend itself, at least initially, to where I am now headed.

One of the biggest areas of debate in Christian theology is the row over the idea of exclusivity in salvation (with the exact nature of salvation being another hornet's nest). Prior to Vatican II, for example, the Roman Catholic Church said that it alone held the keys to salvation. But Christians have also frequently pointed to verses suggesting that those who follow the natural law written on their hearts may also find God. The way this has been framed, however, shows that the idea of a formulaic version of salvation was not completely abandoned. There were caveats. If you had heard of Jesus, if you had been exposed to the Gospel, and you weren't formally converted into a member of a traditional and apostolic church, then too bad. Or for some, you still had to say a sinner's prayer. Some ritual.

Yet this doesn't seem consistent with the notions already discussed above. Which is probably why some folks are not comfortable with those notions. For example, what does it mean to "know Jesus"? Does it mean knowing the few details of his life recorded in the Gospel? Does it mean you had to have met him in person in ancient Palestine? Many Christians and theologians would balk at such suggestions, pointing to the idea of a personal relationship with the eternal Jesus. OK, well, do we assume that this means Jesus isn't at work everywhere? Do we not find Jesus in all acts which embody his nature -- in acts of faith, hope and love?

Some will point to Bible verses about the importance of doing works the name of Jesus or to verses about baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Well, OK. But what does that mean? I agree with something said by a blogger named Henry Neufeld regarding the Bible (which is not original to Neufeld but which is the most concise and handiest explanation I have at present and which I stumbled across by accident). It helps to visit the link and see the picture to which he is referring:

"In the scripture, I believe we have a record, not of God’s pronouncements on all things, though there are some pronouncements, but rather, of God’s interaction with people. There is a human/divine combination in scripture. The people are not perfect. They are not even close. Some are despicable. But God works with them, and we have the record of the interaction.... the primary method of extracting data from the Bible in modern, conservative Christianity is the picture on the right. The Bible stands between the person and God, mediating what God has said. I’m advocating the approach on the left in which one listens to God directly, as well as through all available avenues, while the experience of scripture enlightens one’s own process of doing God’s will."

And so let us return then to the ideas of baptism and doing this and other acts in the name of Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Traditionally the Church has recognized three primary forms of Baptism: by water, by desire, and by martyrdom.

Water has a long history of deep meaning in spirituality and religion around the world. It is a source of and necessary to life, it is a symbol of life and spirit, it flows and connects, it is a medium in which things dissolve and mix, it is a way to become clean. No wonder it has such powerful sacred connotations. Like the wave realizing it is part of the sea or a drop of water mingling in the ocean, water invokes a powerful sense of (comm)union and renewal.

The other two, desire and martyrdom, reflect the importance of the will. The importance of surrender -- of the ego, the lesser self, into the greater whole. It is giving up a pile of rubble and gaining the whole world. These paths to baptism reveal that it is the desire of the seeking heart and its outward manifestations in the choices we make, rather than strict ritual, that matter most in connecting with Divinity. One's official baptism is a representation of the change at work in a person.

Ahh, but what about doing it "in the name of..." That matters, doesn't it?

Well, sure, one could make that argument. But then one had to contend with what that means. Again, some people think the words themselves constitute the full measure of a name. But what if God translated into the closest similar word in a language was Hupkek? What about the fact that technically we could refer to Jesus as Joshua ben Joseph? Must we still use the exact form "Jesus"? If Jesus has been named "Jack", would Christians hesitate to be baptized in the name of Jack?

Or are the words we use to name something only important in as far as that to which they refer? The idea that God would only be available to people through Judaism and the Gospel narratives that gave rise to Christianity certainly thinks very small of God. So how can we recognize Jesus, God the father, or the Holy Spirit?

Biblically speaking, God can be recognized through the universe itself and in the still small voice that speaks to each heart (1 Kings 19:11-13). Jesus can be recognized in acts of forgiveness, concern for the poor, and self-sacrifice (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). And "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

Those whose hearts seek and receive these things can hardly be said to be ignorant of God from a Christian perspective on the Divine. Having them baptized in the traditional Trinitarian formula would be a formality. Those who perceive an opportunity for a fuller and richer participation in the spiritual life and a deeper connection to God through the Gospel may find conventional Christian worship, practice and devotions would do well to "convert", but what about others who have heard the generic story of the life of Jesus and have been underwhelmed? What about those who don't find the presentation of Christianity to be sensible, moral or otherwise acceptable?

Again, it is important to ask what the Gospel really is. What is the good news? Is it really just that if you believe a series of unverifiable propositions of a miraculous nature about someone who lived millenia ago that you get to escape damnation? Has everyone who has "heard" the gospels really heard the Gospel? Does everyone who claims to "follow" Jesus really do so or even know it would mean to do so? Does the Spirit not have a plan to reach all of Her children? Does the Shepherd not find and tend to all of His sheep?


  1. that's a hard one, that exclusivity thing

    interesting thoughts, TT

  2. Is it hard? Or do we just prefer the packaging with which we are familiar? Notice I am not suggesting that we give up on God or Jesus or relegate them to some lesser status. What DOES it mean to say things like "God is love"? Is God only love when we discuss religion, or the right religion, or is God still love even to someone who doesn't believe in any of the images humans have put out describing God?

  3. . .. I was thinking that must be a hard one for YOU - because of your background - moreso than someone like me who grew up in a liberal/mainstream church to the limited extent i grew up in any church at all.

    I hope that wasn't too presumptive of me?

    Here's my spin on this. ..
    The tendency in xianity - and especially in conservative, Reformation-based xianity - to want to create simplified dualities and divide all people into "sheep and goats" based on nothing more than nominal religious participation and/or some cultural norm is well known. But don't we all - or at least the vast majority of us - qualify as BOTH sheep and goats? The truth for most of us anyway is thqat sometimes we succeed, we respond as we should to - "the least of our brothers." But at other times we don't respond appropriately. And then we've failed.

    So, perhaps, if we wanted to find an exclusive group of "God's people" we should look for a group that always responds in an overwhelmingly positive fashion to all those challenges - those presented by the common needs of all our human brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one single group like that anywhere. Those people - the "people-for-others" as Bonhoeffer wanted to call the Church - don't seem to congregate in any one particular worldly place, belong to any one culture, participate in any single set of rituals or anything like that.

    And that, for me, makes things far more complicated and leaves many important things far more up in the air.

  4. No worries met, just didn't get your angle.

    I guess I just don't know why one would want to find an exclusive group to be called God's people other than the kind of insecurity that leads to tribalism (and extensions such as ultra-nationalism). The fact that I was raised in church's with such leanings actually fueled my rejection of such thinking because it never sat well with me.

    Plus, I had the benefit of being a totally irreligious atheist. Not a temporary atheist who is just upset with religion, but a fully formed, mature atheist who thought religion was still good for many people.

    When I got into Buddhism, its "ecumenism" was a selling point, with the whole 84,000 dharma doors teaching. In other words, there is no one and only right way to learn and practice the dharma. Many Buddhists believe that atheists, Christians, Muslims etc have been, are, or could be Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The fact that traditions within Judeo-Christianity also recognize saints and people with a special relationship to God who are outside of its formal structures is similarly encouraging.

    The idea that we should focus on a pass/fail rate for charity or kindness for each religion suggests that God only works in people in the right culture and the right house of worship. Just because someone identifies with a religion tells you nothing about whether they are opening their hearts and minds or are just going through the motions.

    Judging by fruits is useful in seeing if someone is being transformed, but no one would blame a professor if a student zoned out in class and didn't study at home and then failed the exam. If a lot of people are being transformed but others are not, and if the former are showing significant changes, that's a good sign.

    There is also an unspoken implication here that truth can be measured solely by how well people communicate it. Someone who stammers and stutters and gets lost while trying to explain evolution isn't necessarily wrong and someone with a slick presentation and a wonderful demeanor who makes a compelling case that killing off the elderly and disabled is a merciful and productive activity is right.

    So, my own observation is that those who are dedicated to regular prayer forms, who employ forms of prayer and meditation which are contemplative or mystical, and who emphasize humility, charity, kindness, compassion and service to others, these are the ones who bear the most fruit in each religion and among the irreligious. Hence those religions or those elements of religions which best emphasize and communicate these ways of living will be the ones who are most effective.

    And are these not the lessons taught by the Hebrew prophets, in the Gospels, and by the early church? Does it matter whether one can exclusively claim these lessons as Buddhist, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Christian? If one says Christianity proclaims that "God is love" and people in other religions also observe that the Divine is pure light and joy or that the original mind is boundless compassion, does the congruence of their observations complicate or lessen the teaching that God is love?

  5. *should read "is a merciful and productive activity isn't presumed to be right."

  6. Follow-up thought:

    If we take the parable of the seeds at the beginning of Matthew 13 to represent the church, those who show up to hear the Gospel or who are evangelized in other forms, notice that Jesus predicts 3 out of 4 will fail (at least initially) to become "people-for-others".

  7. There was an old SB preacher I met online once - in 2003-4 i think - who told me that only one person out of every four or five people in the pews, were 'real Christians" . .. i.e. "actually saved" . . . and he meant even good, old-fashioned, conservative, evangelical Baptist-type churches

  8. Given that I grew up in that environment I suspect that is true, but that requires a definition of real or truly saved. I guess my measure was how serious they were about what their faith meant in their whole life and not just during service. But that's life. I was just watching a video where someone said that one big reason people dropped out of church in the 60s and 70s was because it became socially acceptable to do so. People who only went out of peer pressure and to not be gossiped about had no more reason to attend.


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