Faith Thinking Aloud

A Sketch of What Happened to American Christianity

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The frame for this series of blog posts is, “Re-learning Christian Faith.” I’m looking at changes in Christianity’s condition and place in the world because those who hold to the faith and are held by it have come to an intersection, a crossroads, whether or not they realize the situation has changed and choices must be made. Those choices are being made, but it would be better for people of faith to make them consciously than to follow a crowd down a wide path Jesus himself rejected.

Christendom has waned. In Europe where it began and developed, Christendom (the kingdom of an imperious Christianity) has been waning for a long time, but here in the United States a more democratic form of it continues on as a popular change-resisting movement which has now grown belligerent. Christendom, of course, was always belligerent because it imposed Christianity upon people and nations and felt itself justified in using, not only political persuasion, but war, torture, and all sorts of intimidation and cruelty.

Being a minister in a traditional Protestant denomination (Presbyterian), I have witnessed the church’s loss of power, prestige, and influence. When the Cambodian Invasion hit the presses in 1970, our General Assembly was in its annual session, and the Nixon administration sent an undersecretary of state to address the Assembly on the matter which was erupting into a crisis for the president. I doubt that any administration now or in the future would care that our General Assembly was meeting, let alone send an official to address it in a time of political crisis. Since retiring, I have been asked by several people, “Presbyterian? Is that Christian?” I live in Pennsylvania. Our first presbytery was in Philadelphia. I’ve been told that much of established Pennsylvania law was written by Presbyterians. The only clergyman (all men at the time) to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister serving as a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress. It has been told, perhaps apocryphally, that at the time of the American Revolution, King George remarked that his colonies had “skipped off after a Presbyterian preacher.” But today I am asked by evangelical Christians whether Presbyterian is a form of Christianity or some other religion. Many have never heard of us.

We don’t know our own history and, worse, don’t care. Popular thinking comes from the television and so-called social media. As American evangelicalism found itself increasingly isolated from American secular culture, it insulated and isolated itself. Christian schools protected its children from mingling with children of color and from worldly ideas. Home schooling offered further insulation so the children could be “trained up right.” There were Christian yellow pages so evangelical families could avoid doing business with non-Christians, whom they did not trust.

In this isolation, the teaching of science could be kept under the thumb of biblical literalism as it had been kept under church authority in Europe while Christendom retained its power. People, especially women, were to be kept in their (supposedly God-ordained) places. The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960’s and early 1970’s was to be condemned and withstood. Evolution in particular was to be rejected. Climate change was to be viewed as a hoax. Godly women were to be submissive, and godly men were to be gentle with their submissive wives (as long as they obeyed and stood by their men).

With the rise of the “moral majority,” Christian evangelicalism turned belligerent. One newspaper comic strip artist summed up the thrust by having one of his characters declare that, since we’re the majority, we shouldn’t ask for power but just take it. Dispensationalism (started in the 19th Century by the British cleric John Darby and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and then by novels – Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind series) sanctified evangelical belligerence by declaring the old dispensation of humility and tolerance over and done. We were, it proclaimed, entering the “end times” when the final conflicts would begin, the faithful would be “raptured” to safety, and Christ would return to cast non-believers into hell and establish his kingdom forever. The time for the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7) was over; the time had come to stand up for Christ and destroy his enemies. The day of Christian humility and gentleness had passed, which was certainly unintentionally ironic in view of Christendom’s history of pomp and brutality.

Evangelical Christianity, however, is not just one thing. There are “evangelicals for social justice.” There are evangelicals who are neither belligerent nor fundamentalist, not anti-science, not isolationist. In truth, my brief sketch of the changes that have occurred just in my lifetime could be argued or nuanced at various points. Home schooling has proved very good and helpful for some and probably many children, especially as public education is dismantled or bled dry by corporate “reforms.” If Dispensationalism dismisses the Sermon on the Mount, 19th and early 20th Century Protestant Liberalism tended to make it so much the centerpiece of Christian faith that Jesus’ crucifixion was reduced to a mere demonstration of the kind of love Christians were to emulate.

There is now also a kind of anti-faith fundamentalism popular on social media sites but spreading even to some actual scientists and otherwise serious thinkers. I might call it fundamentalist popular atheism because it interprets the Bible just as literalistically as the believing fundamentalists but to mock and deride it. Accepting what fundamentalists say about the Bible as what the Bible truly says, they make the Bible an easy target for scorn, a foolish opponent quickly conquered. So, biblical faith and serious interpretation get slammed and degraded from both sides: believing fundamentalism and the unbelieving fundamentalism of popular atheism.

We stand at a crossroads. Christian faith was never meant for power, prestige, and privilege. Jesus rejected that way for himself and for us. Today, many American Christians angrily decry their loss of privilege and cultural establishment as though it were persecution. Many still want dominance over the nation and all its people. Douglas John Hall, the theologian whose work persuaded me to launch this series, believes Christians of the traditional Protestant churches now have a window of opportunity to be transformed by gospel (good news of Christ) into faith communities engaged in the movement Jesus set us out on before Christendom, before the church became imperial. But to take that path, we will have to accept our role as a minority and learn to serve without power, to persuade without coercion, and to love without returns on love’s investment in people.

Hate Rampant

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I’m interrupting my blog series with something from a book I’ve just read: Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited. At the start of his chapter, “Hate,” Thurman suddenly takes me from World War II right into the present day in our nation. The book was published in 1949, so “the last war” was for Thurman then WWII.

To even the casual observer during the last war it was obvious that the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese gave many persons in our country an apparent justification for indulging all of their anticolored feelings. In a Chicago cab, enroute to the University from Englewood, this fact was dramatized for me. The cab had stopped for a red light. Apropos of no conversation the driver turned to me, saying, “Who do they think they are? Those little yellow dogs think they can do that to white men and get away with it!” (64)

During the early days of the war I noticed a definite rise in rudeness and overt expressions of color prejudice, especially in trains and other public conveyances. It was very simple; hatred could be brought out into the open, given a formal dignity and a place of respectability. (74)

Are we not in that moment again: that moment when hatred can be brought out into the open and given a supposedly formal dignity and place of respectability? For many people, Donald Trump has validated hatred, giving it free expression and the appearance of a respectability it can never truly have. How can such license to express hatred and inflict it upon strangers be rationalized by the people so doing? Thurman explains.

If a man’s attitude is life-negating in his relationships with those to whom he recognizes no moral responsibility, his conduct is without condemnation in his own mind.

God, help us.

Truths We Need to Rediscover, one: Human Dignity

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Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . .”So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:26a,27 NRSV)

Human dignity is a gift to us, not an achievement. True, some of us speak and live with that dignity much of the time, others not often, and some hardly ever. True also, our human dignity can be hidden, corrupted, and even degraded beyond recognition, but it cannot be removed or destroyed utterly because it has been conferred upon our humanity and so persists in all and each of us as God’s gift.

I suspect many people would recoil at what I have just said because we have been trained to view dignity as something we must earn and then may possess with pride as though it were our very own attainment, even if we inherited a head start at birth. We have preferred to regard dignity as something comparative belonging to the superior people but lacking in those we regard as inferior. As deeply entrenched and widely accepted as this notion of comparative human dignity may be, it is a lie. Yes, the way we live may display the gift or hide it, even contradict it, but we cannot lose it entirely because it is not our own to lose or surrender. Our basic dignity comes not from superiority, achievement or supposedly high birth, but from God as an endowment in our creation.

Comparative dignity imposes shame upon society’s lesser people, while tempting the supposedly greater people to a presumption of proper pride. Insidiously, the comparisons persuade both groups to internalize the false hierarchy of shame and pride and so to understand themselves as inherently lesser or greater. Think of how many evils in our world are rationalized and perpetuated by the false belief that some people are more valuable than others and that some people’s lives matter more than others. The insistence that “black lives matter” opposes this life-destroying falsehood precisely at a point where the truth is rejected, not saying that black lives matter more than other lives, but declaring what has been denied with brutal and murderous consequences. The counter claim which piously declares, “all lives matter,” is false, not because all lives do not matter (they do), but because it seeks to cover up the ongoing reality that the lives of black people are disregarded in much of our society.

We judge and are judged according to biological factors: gender, so-called race (a phony distinction among us), sexual orientation, physical size and strength, beauty, etc. Add the biographical factors of family wealth, education, position in society, and list of achievements, and you set the powerful standards for shame and pride used by long tradition to degrade some people while elevating others to prestige and privilege. To hide the unfairness of such comparisons, toss in the remarkable success stories of certain outstanding individuals who have overcome severe disadvantages through extraordinary effort (and often luck), the stories used to justify scorn for the rest of the people against whom our systems are rigged. “See, he did it; what’s wrong with you?” So do we justify our contempt and cruelty while maintaining privilege for the favored.

Biblically it is true that human dignity is not merely a status but a commission to represent the Creator’s love and care for the creation. It is dignity for the sake of responsibility and service. Individually and collectively, humanity is charged with caring for God’s world as well as for each other. It is this stewardship responsibility that lies at the heart of the Bible’s saying we are made in the image and likeness of God. Biblically, it is not our opposing thumbs, complex languages, comparatively large brains, or reasoning powers that most set us apart from the other animals, but our capacity for knowing God and caring about the things God cares about – for the sake of the whole human community and all God’s creatures. As God’s appointed representatives, we are called out from the rest in order to bear responsibility for service to God for the sake of the rest.

Here we come upon a major task in rethinking and re-learning Christian faith. To join with Jesus the Christ in his mission of representing God in and for this world, we must address human dignity as a reality, however tarnished or hidden it may be in someone’s life. We must meet people with respect for the image of God, and so we must respect both their dignity and their freedom. Triumphalist Christianity, enamored of power and glory, cannot represent Christ faithfully to the world’s people. Know-it-all Christianity bears false witness to Christ. As Christendom continues to fade from the earth and as Christian becomes less and less the thing to be even in the United States, we have a chance – a window of opportunity – to hear and rediscover Christ’s call and to become the kind of movement in the world that Jesus launched.

In Jesus’ parable of the father and his two sons (traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son), the younger son degrades himself utterly, but when he returns to what had been his home and family, begging to be taken back as a slave, his father instead restores to him the dignity his son has renounced and tarnished beyond recognition. Who the son is to his father overrides any judgment upon him including his own judgment upon himself, but at the same time his father’s love becomes in a restorative way the greatest possible judgment upon him. No longer will he be the man he has made of himself. That man, the non-son he made himself by disowning his father, is to be no more. His shame is countermanded. True, psychologically, it would not be quick and easy for a living person; he would have to grow out of his shame and into his true place within the family. He would need to become forgiving of others and patient with his older brother’s resentment of his return, but the way his father welcomes him home serves as a major analogy for the redemptive desire of God. The father recognizes and restores the dignity his son has spurned but could not lose completely because his father still loves him.

So, here I believe is one imperative for Christian faith: respect human dignity. We are not compelled to respect all behavior; God’s demand for justice sometimes requires that we do not. But, we are to respect the person because of her or his relation to God, a relation created from God’s side. It’s not difficult to understand. We find ourselves caring more about someone in a degraded condition if we learn the person is the daughter or son of a friend. That’s rather the same idea..

Next, another truth of human life we need to rediscover: solidarity.

Corruptions of Christian Virtue

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In human life, there is no idea, principle, or calling that cannot be corrupted. In my previous post, I set empathy, compassion, and justice in opposition to power, prestige, and privilege. Justice is important within that trio of God-forms in which Christians are called to live, important for many reasons one of which is that it helps keep empathy and compassion from slipping down into sentimentality, pity, and self-satisfying benevolence.

How is justice corrupted? It is often corrupted by authoritarian judgments we make “by the book.” Jesus tells his disciples not to live by the book, not to become judgmental. He refuses to adopt the principle that people should get what they deserve; indeed, his teaching, life, and death all nullify that principle from God’s point of view. He speaks out against the religious tradition of seeing justice and righteousness in terms of reward and punishment. God is not the supreme and ultimate dispenser of rewards and punishments.  God is not in the business of giving people what they deserve. What Christians call “grace” is the very opposite of judgment according to what each person deserves.

Justice also corrects empathy and compassion when they take satisfaction in helping the poor and downtrodden without challenging the systems that keep them poor and downtrodden. What we now call charity, giving to the needy, can bring pride and self-gratification to the well-off while enabling them to avoid confronting the systems in society that maintain those inequalities and by which they themselves benefit. I have seen it trumpeted that conservatives give more in charity than liberals. Whether that charge is factual I neither know nor care. Because charity makes a self-satisfying but very easy substitute for justice, it enables the well-off to feel quite good about keeping people in their places and things the way they are.  The charitable are empowered to feel good about themselves and contemptuous toward the needy who fail to show them proper gratitude.

How else are empathy and compassion corrupted? Ask a woman who has gone to her pastor seeking help because she is being abused by her husband, only to be told she must endure her beatings more patiently, try to understand the pressures under which her husband lives, and strive to be a better Christian wife who doesn’t drive him to such rage and violence. Her pastor is thereby telling her the fault is hers and she deserves the beatings she receives from him. She, not he, needs to be fixed. She must forgive, endure, and try to do better. Such false counseling is unfair, unfaithful to Christ, and horrifically cruel.

In many contexts of personal life and the life of human societies, Christianity has corrupted its call to empathy and compassion, to forgiveness, and to humble service. Certainly that calling is corrupted whenever its admonition is imposed upon the weak and vulnerable, the already shamed and degraded, and so is put forward in support for the more powerful oppressor. Before the American Civil War, churches wrote slave catechisms to proclaim as God’s own will the institution of slavery and to push upon the slaves a sacred duty to accept and even embrace their enslavement and obey their masters even when they were not being watched by any overseer. God was presented as their great overseer, their divine slave master. Jesus was to be their field boss.

Christ’s call to humble service is NOT a summons to become servile and live as doormats for anyone wishing to walk all over us. In my next post, I’ll endeavor to clarify why it is not.

Where Now?

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We shall have to exchange Athanasius’s “He became human in order that we might become divine” for the yet more incarnationally oriented summarization of soteriology: “He became human in order that we might become truly human.” (Douglas John Hall, Professing the Faith, pp. 337-338)

Huh? To satisfy my spell checker, I had to add three new words to its dictionary from that one sentence. Let me try to translate English into English.

Athanasius was the bishop who in the Fourth Century became the leading speaker for what emerged as the correct (orthodox) position concerning the nature of God’s being with us, God’s coming to us. We call that correct position the doctrine of the Trinity.

So what?

The biblical understanding is that all our human problems come from our rejection of relationship, first with God and then with each other as with ourselves. In short, we reject our being creatures of flesh and blood. We want to “be as gods” – gods to ourselves and gods over each other. Not content to receive life as a gift and accept our vocation as humans, we demand life for ourselves on our own terms. This denial of relatedness and rejection of relationship is sin.

Christian faith goes wrong when it tries to force belief in Jesus as the Christ into the mold of our desire to leave behind our creaturehood and become divine. Our lust for power, prestige, and privilege, however, demands that we reject our own creaturehood – not only our mortality (the fact that we shall all die), but our grateful receiving, day by day, of the gift of life that relates us to each other and all other creatures.

What are the relational desires that contrast with our lust for power, prestige, and privilege? They are empathy, compassion, and justice. Empathy seeks to understand and be with the other person and even with the frightened or hungry animal. Empathy represents our capacity to feel with and stand in solidarity with another person. As a friend has reminded me, the more correct word might be sympathy, but that word has become too much connected with pity for the pitiful: “Poor thing!” No one wants to be pitied. So, the psychology with which I am most familiar uses the word empathy to speak of a tenderness that drops its defenses enough to care for and become somewhat vulnerable to and with another.

Compassion derives from the idea of suffering with another whose suffering is not our own until we let ourselves care. Compassion is empathy in action for the sake of the other with whom we stand in solidarity.

Justice sets limits upon empathy and gives spine to compassion. It is not the enemy of compassion but keeps it from sliding downward into self-indulgent weepiness and hand-wringing. Here I find it helpful to keep in mind the insistence of Abraham Heschel that the world does not need more people who speak highly of justice as a concept but more who cannot abide the specific injustices done to others even when those injustices do not harm them directly.

So, the goal of our salvation is to restore our rejected relationship with God and our denied relatedness to other people and groups of people and on to the nonhuman creatures. It is to heal and restore our damaged humanity, our creaturehood. It is to make us human as the Christ became human for us and the world.

The rest of relearning Christian faith follows from this. Hall continues:

Will we say “Yes!” to being creatures? That is the question. Until we are ready to repeat our own “amen!” to the Creator’s gift of life, we have not made good our own peculiar creaturehood. (338)

A Crucial Question

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In my post of January 5, 2019, I wrote:

The great worth of a person comes from love, and only love (in all its variety that includes friendship and true neighborliness) makes the individual irreplaceable. No talent, skill, or accomplishment can make a person irreplaceable. Even the best in the world at something is soon replaced by another who is better. Aging takes away such greatness, and it is soon forgotten. Only love values the person as the person. Love holds dear the particular person, who that person is rather than what that person has or can do.

No sooner had I written those words than I saw a problem and not a trivial one. So, my next paragraph raised a troubling question.

Fine. That all sounds beautiful, but what of the person who is unloved? And what of the one who was loved by people who have died and now is left alone? What of the person who has been hurt, perhaps shamed, too deeply to be able to accept love or the need for it? Are the lonely, the lost, and the embittered no longer human?

Here is my crucial question. What happens when people cannot hear the gospel as gospel? As Douglas John Hall points out, we speak mostly in the church of “the gospel,” meaning the Christian message of Jesus Christ as we have received it and continued to expound it. But gospel means good news, and to be accepted and trusted as gospel, it must be heard by people as good news for them and for the world. There are barriers to their hearing our message that way.

First of all, for most people today, it’s not news. They’ve heard or misheard it before. At the outset of the Christian movement, the message was news. It was something new and radically different in the Greco-Roman world. Now, twenty centuries later, it is not new at all but encrusted with many layers of barnacles, and that’s putting the situation nicely.

Christianity has associated itself with all sorts of prejudices, corruptions, cruelties, abuses, scandals, deceits, and con games. Ever since the Fourth Century CE, it has cozied up to power, gloried in prestige, asserted authority over the lives of people and nations, and demanded privilege. The victims of an imperious Christianity have been many and continue to be many. We may think first of the Inquisition and the Crusades, but consider also the atrocities committed by the conquistadors (in the name of Christ) against the pre-Columbian peoples of the American continents, the widespread and long-term sexual abuse of children now coming to light, the horrors inflicted upon homosexually oriented people with hormone treatments and so-called “conversion therapy,” the blaming of women who were the victims of violence and other abuse in their own homes and the terrible pastoral admonitions to endure the abuse and try to be “better Christian wives,” the slave catechisms written by churches and used to indoctrinate black slaves into being good Christians by obeying their masters, the pious pressuring of girls into accepting second-class status as human beings, and the list could go on. How many situations crying out for salvation have left people unsaved because their misery was passed off as God’s will?

As long as people longed for heaven and feared hell, the churches were able to control them. When fear of hell wasn’t enough, physical and mental punishments could be added and often were.

The Enlightenment and the rise of scientific thinking brought new questionings of the churches and the faith. In reaction against free thinking and scientific method, Christian Fundamentalism arose, evangelicalism simplified the gospel and kept it focused on heaven, and end-time movements warned people to get onto the right side of a coming apocalyptic nightmare. In simplistic reactions against fundamentalism, pseudo-scientific arguments set up a straw man to be easily mocked and defeated. Accepting fundamentalist literalism as the real Christian faith and the only way to read the Bible, then launching attacks upon that straw man created what I call unbelieving fundamentalism, which continues to be quite popular on social media as a smug way of taking cheap shots at faith.

The situation is even more complex. Here in the United States, Christianity became so closely identified with conservative Americanism that much of my generation (baby boomers) simply left it behind. There are also less dramatic but no less real reasons why many people cannot hear “the gospel” as gospel, as good news for them and for the world. In the face of popular fundamentalism, preaching often became timid, safe, repetitious, non-challenging, unimaginative, and boring. Exploiting the boredom and the hunger for optimism in a society growing more depressed and cynical, mega-churches and TV preachers pushed entertainments and resort style features to make faith easy and fun for all ages, stressing positive thinking and showers of blessings attainable for a price.

There is also our human tendency to hear what we expect (or fear) to hear. A minor incident in my own ministry may illustrate what I mean.

Our ministerial association had its annual pulpit rotation, and I preached in a large Protestant church where the concept of grace was certainly stressed: God’s unmerited favor and undeserved love. The pastor asked me before the service to remind the kids in his confirmation class to write their own summaries of my sermon on index cards to be collected with the offering. Every student in the class wrote the opposite of what I had said about grace, all insisting they had to earn and deserve God’s love just as they had to earn and deserve their parents’ love. This way of hearing what we want to hear or are resigned to hearing is not unique to children. Many times I have heard people express to me their appreciation of my having preached what they had heard but not what I had said. I have also had the problem work in reverse, where someone has misread something I have written as something else the person regarded bitterly as typical of a Christian minister.

All of these factors and, no doubt, more contribute to the profound difficulty of representing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people in our time. What we represent to them is not gospel if they cannot hear it as good news of life, healing, and hope. We could blame them for not having ears that hear and hearts that believe, but that would be foolish, false, and self-defeating. What can we do? I have some thoughts if not nicely worked answers. Next time.

Physicians and Quacks, Lovers and Gigolos, Investment Counselors and Con Artists

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My assertion that, viewed biblically, salvation is contextual – that God meets us with it in our time, place, and situation of need for deliverance, release, healing, or revitalization – may seem similar to the blessing-dispenser view of God preached by the prosperity gospel evangelists, but, no, the two stand in opposition to each other. They are opposed to each other in much the same way as the honest lover and the gigolo, the legitimate investment counselor and the con artist, or the prophet who speaks unwelcome truth to the powerful and the false prophet who supports the king’s ambitions and pretenses. Jeremiah declares of such false prophets, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14 NRSV) There is the problem with the prosperity gospel’s always friendly and supportive blessing-dispenser god. Like a quack rather than a real physician, this false god treats people’s wounds lightly, with a little conscience salve and assurances of blessings to come when the bill is paid. To be healed, the patient of a true physician must confront the illness and accept treatment that may prove painful. To receive valid salvation within the context of the real need for it, a person or a people must face the full negativity of their dilemma and face also their own part in it.

Even the Hebrew slaves, who certainly had not enslaved themselves and so were not at fault, had to learn, upon being set free, to see and admit their own slave mentality in order to leave it behind. Their masters no longer provided them with meat or even water. They had to step up to thinking and living as free people. Light, pleasant healing is seldom enough for deep wounds. The problem of the former slaves was not guilt but a complex combination of shame and dependency. They had been abused and yet rendered dependent upon their abusers. Salvation meant escaping the abusers and the false security of dependency with its old habits of self-protecting and pleasing, of making peace where there was no peace.

I want to keep this post short because it is hard – not so much hard to understand as to accept. Healing can hurt. Liberation requires release from the oppressor and from the self that has been forced to adjust to being the oppressed. Receiving hope necessitates letting go of false hopes and dreams often long-held. What has been comforting must be rejected as false comfort or at least as no longer appropriate to the new, liberated situation. Guilt over having adjusted to the imposed oppression is probably neither fair nor helpful, but facing the shame and dependency is likely necessary however difficult. Unrecognized self-hatred must be faced to be left behind.

The theologian Douglas John Hall whose books serve as my springboard for this series of blog posts has written that the majority cultures in current North America, particularly in the United States and Hall’s own Canada, continue to want to see themselves as heroic even as they find themselves increasingly slipping into depression and despair. In his analogy to Greek mythology, we want to see ourselves in the image of Prometheus who boldly stole fire from the gods to become humanity’s benefactor, even as we live more and more in the image of Sisyphus who was condemned to roll his great rock up the hill again each day while knowing he would never get it to the top but would end the day feeling it slip from his grasp and then watching it roll back down the hill to await his repetition the next day of the same pointless labor.

Biblically, salvation is always responsive to the need of the time, place, and situation. The Word, the truth of God, meets us where we are and enters into our situation in solidarity with the afflicted, the oppressed, the trapped, the outcast, and the defeated. That same salvation may come also to the oppressors, abusers, slavers, and privileged who steal life from their victims, but it is even harder for them to accept it as salvation when it topples them from their falsely exalted positions and so feels like an outrage. For both oppressed and oppressor, the goal is healed humanity set right, but it may be easier to be lifted up to valid humanity than to be knocked down to it.

The biblical understanding of salvation as this-worldly, contextual, and relational raises many question and challenges for Christendom-style, triumphant Christianity. More to come.

For the World

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Biblical faith is not escapist. Neither is it world-hating. Because, however, love moves from the particular to the whole – from the person loved to the world loved – it always has been tempting for those who feel chosen or called to isolate themselves in some sort of purity and security, closing their hearts to the rest of humanity and the rest of creation.

Biblically, to be chosen means to be called out from among the many, not honored as superior, and then to be sent back among the many as a servant of God’s love for them, even when that love is angry or grieved. The Creator loves the creation. Israel is called to become a light to the nations, a banner of hope, a representative of God’s steadfast love for all earth’s peoples. The human is created in God’s image and likeness for the stewardship of representing God’s love and care for all the creatures and the very earth itself.

Salvation is always personal because love is personal and particular. Parents recognize the pricelessness of all children through their love for their very own children. Their empathy for strangers’ children draws strength from their compassion for their own. That’s how love works.

Jesus Christ sends his disciples into the messiness of the world, just as God sent the earlier prophets into the messiness, suffering, and corruption of the marketplace and the centers of political power. Salvation is not escapist, and when Christianity presents salvation as escape from this world, we have corrupted our message and thwarted our calling.

If we are chosen, it is because God’s eye is on the world. Yes, we are called to be different – to think and act differently from the ways of the society in which we live – but for the sake of that society. If, instead, we retreat into Christian enclaves, surrounding ourselves with (like-minded) believers and avoiding others except, perhaps, to give them aid in our benevolence (most often from a distance, without actually going among them), we are putting the light Christ has given us under a basket (Matthew 5:15) so it illuminates nothing for anyone but shines only for itself and likely soon goes out.

Current end-time Christianity is both escapist and world-hating, longing to be “raptured” out of the world, leaving (the “late, great”) earth to be burned to a crisp. But that end-time sectarian Christianity is only the extreme of Christian escapism, popular and dangerous as it has now become. Any Christian faith turned inward upon itself and seeking to keep its hands clean from the dirt of the world is aborting its calling to follow Jesus Christ. We are not chosen for obsession with our own purity, neither of morals nor of doctrine. We are not called to be self-consciously better than other people.

What we term the Incarnation (the becoming flesh of the Word, the relational Truth of God) means God’s truth got dirty with the dust, muck, and slime of our humanity’s degradation and suffering. Jesus never turns away in disgust from the wretched, the shameful, or the degraded. In anger he does confront the self-righteous, those contemptuous of the rabble whose sins and failings stand out in plain sight, but his anger is their chance to take another look at themselves and realize their own humanity.

If anyone is chosen, elected, saved, or called, it is not to be raptured out of the world but to be sent back into it to love it and suffer with it. The only perfection to which Jesus calls his disciples is that of love (Matthew 5:44-48). That call is to service not sentiment, to empathy not pity, to solidarity not benevolence, and to humility not grandstanding.

Now that the churches (especially but not only the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches) are being humbled by their loss of both popularity and prestige, maybe – just maybe – they can find themselves anew within the movement launched in the early church, before the Roman emperors drafted the church into the imperial systems and structures and transformed it into Christendom. For what does it benefit a church to gain the whole world but lose its soul? Maybe now that we are losing what we thought we had gained, we can discover the truth in that question.

Salvation? What Is That?

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I said earlier in this series, “Relearning Christian Faith,” that we need to allow the gospel to expand our severely restricted view of salvation. The Bible presents salvation as something that happens for us in context – that is, within the context of human distress and need. Water is salvific for a person dying of thirst but not for one who is drowning. That example may sound trivial in contrast to the question of our ultimate destiny beyond our dying, but its implications are not trivial at all. At issue are questions of when, where, and how life matters.

If the only truly significant question in the life were how each of us will spend eternity, salvation would be nothing more than a matter of ensuring the proper arrangements were made for us before we died. This life would be meaningless aside from the decision about hereafter. Christianity departs from the Bible when it presents life that way, as merely a matter of time allotted for making the choice between heaven and hell. That stick-and-carrot means for driving us has driven us astray, thereby degrading life, love, and all that gives worth to being human in this world. Fear hell (the stick) and hope for heaven (the carrot)! Decide before it is too late because you never know when you’ll die! Get saved! And then stay saved, which has generally meant being obedient to Christian authority and giving “time, talents, and treasure” to a church or to the latest evangelist with a commanding personality and an entertaining show. No wonder that from the outside Christian faith has seemed a clever and insidious way of driving the sheep, keeping them under control, and fleecing them! It has too often and for too long been just that. But, no! Biblically, salvation is coming alive, stepping out of confinement into freedom to move, being healed, coming to a dignity that enables life and love to be shared, going forward with hope and courage. And, because human life is relational, living it involves going forward together with shared purpose and responsibility.

In the Bible, salvation is restoration to life – to freedom, wholeness, and vitality. Salvation takes many forms, depending upon the present distress of the person or people in need of saving. For the enslaved people of Israel, salvation came as exodus (stepping out) from the bondage that had kept them degraded to the level of beasts of burden. Those who were no people, subhuman, were released from their shame and delivered into freedom as God’s people, and their release required great adjustments because it made them responsible for their shared life in ways they had not been allowed to be responsible during their enslavement. For the prisoner, salvation comes as release. For the outcast, it comes as acceptance back into the family or community. For the mentally ill, as clearing of the mind. For the sick or broken, as healing. For the lonely, as friendship and love. For the childless who long for children, as conception and birth (or adoption). For the abused, as escape, healing, dignity, and restored capacity for self-love. For the refugee, safety and freedom in a new home. The list could go on to be as long as the list of life-threatening, life-robbing, life-diminishing distresses and agonies of being human in this world. And those last three words in the previous sentence matter greatly – “in this world” – because here is where God meets us with salvific grace.

The focus of the Bible is upon this world, not another, and upon this life. I am not denying the important role of salvation in responding to the distress of our mortality – to the human crisis of death and impending oblivion. “I believe in the resurrection of the particular person who is loved and the life everlasting.” But even distress over our mortality belongs to us in this life in this world – within the context of our actual being where we are. It is the living who fear death. The person who learns to trust God here and now will be learning to trust God also for then and forever, but the biblical focus is upon here and now.

I want to keep these posts shorter than some have been, and so I’ll hold for next time a consideration of the life-damaging consequences of falsely deferring salvation until after death. Faith, hope, and love belong in the present. We do not see what lies around the next bend in our life’s road, but we can learn to trust, and we can discover what salvation means in our present anxieties.

Needy? God?

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This post is the second part of, “God: Neither Self-sufficient nor Needy.” Part one is here.

Who in the world thinks of God as needy, especially among people not cynical about religion? Sure, in his poem, “The Latest Decalogue,” the English Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote:

Thou shalt have one God only; who
would be at the expense of two?

That snarky comment, however, seems pointed at the comfortable practitioners of religion rather than at God as such. Truly, that distinction should be made throughout this post because the real issue in considering any neediness in God is the religious desire of human beings to satisfy themselves that they have met the need and so have the God-question securely in hand and well managed so their practice of religion serves their comfort and security in life as they are living it.

In the ancient world, it was common for people to assume that it was to a god’s advantage to defend and prosper his (or her) city or land because upon that security and prosperity the god’s status depended. Even the God to whom the Bible bears witness was said to be “enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3, NRSV), and a typical piece in the prophetic argument for mercy for Israel or Judah is to ask God what the other nations will think and say if divine judgment is executed upon Yahweh’s own people. Why should the nations be given reason to mock Israel by asking in scorn, “Where is your God?” as though that God were weak.

In addition to the implied need of God for a secure and prosperous people to reflect their God’s glory, there is the whole matter of sacrifices and other prescribed forms of devotion employed to satisfy the needs or demands of God. At issue is the question of what pleases or delights God. The ritual of sacrifice, at its best, was meant to express an inward reality of repentance, contrition, and remorse, with the intention to do otherwise in the future. Of course, making the proper sacrifice devolved into a sort of magical safeguard against divine displeasure and currying of favor. What does one do after having done some evil, made some mistake, or merely been imperfect and fallible as all humans are? One offers a sacrifice to appease God. A modern Christian might similarly offer a prayer of confession or receive the sacrament.

A young husband speaks hurtfully to his wife, but seeing her reaction decides to express his remorse in an apology supported by a pretty bouquet. Sensing his sincerity, his wife accepts the apology (and the flowers), and so the trouble dissipates. But, having seen (he imagines) how well the flowers “worked,” he fails to take her feelings and her dignity to heart and question himself. Instead, he simply sticks with what works: if she’s upset, give a bouquet. Soon enough, she detests his flowers and is ready to shove them into his face.

Of buying off God with sacrifices meant to appease the divine ego without the bother of rethought living and changed behavior, a psalmist gives words to God’s desire for integrity.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
(Psalm 50:12-15 NRSV)

More than a few biblical scholars and theologians have noticed that the Bible frequently speaks negatively of religious practice, not for its forms, but for its motives that drain those forms of meaning. Yahweh God will not be appeased! Like the young wife at the sight of more quick-fix flowers, God gets disgusted by religion intended to mollify the divine sensibilities without effecting a change of heart or changing the treatment of others.

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New Moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation – I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:12-17 NRSV, amended with capitalization of Jewish observances)

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 NRSV)

And it is not just the Old Testament but is every bit as much a Christian problem of integrity, of attitudes and motives, and of regard for other people.  It is relational, not merely religious.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful . . . . (The apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13:3-5 RSV)

So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV)

God does not need our offerings, praises, or doctrinal correctness. Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of power, pride, and prestige to take the form of a servant and, for the sake of the world and its people, endured shame, agony, and death does not need the pride, power, or prestige of churches or of cultural Christianity in American society.  Christ does not need a Christianity that is powerful, let alone dominant.

The biblical insistence is that compassion must rise above the self-regard of power and prestige. Empathy, compassion, and respect are to come especially from those in positions of power over others; the powerful are called to set aside that power for the sake of love, justice, and respect.

God has chosen to need us, but with love’s need for love in response. Human love in response to God’s love must turn not only “upward” but also outward to the rest of humanity and to the whole creation. Religion (including Christian religion) without justice and compassion is rotten to God.

To religious people griping about the demands made upon them by a supposedly peevish and needy Deity, the prophet Micah speaks for God:

What is good has been showed to you, human. What does Yahweh require of you but to do and make justice, to love chesed (a Hebrew word for steadfast love, kindness, mercy, covenant loyalty, and more that is profoundly relational), and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)