So far in this series, “Re-learning Christian Faith,” we have heard that human life and even human being are relational. I am an individual in my own right, but I cannot be human all by myself. The basis of human being is not an individualized existence but the person in relationship with others. As the theologian Douglas John Hall puts it, human being is with-being; it is a matter of communion, not isolation.
As one person commented in response to my blogging, the implications of this relational view of human life and existence are huge. As we begin to explore those implications, a word of caution is needed. While our humanity cannot be individualized so that I could be human alone, the individual is never to become lost in the crowd. In this biblical view of life, my being as a person never gets absorbed into Being with a capital “B,” meaning cosmic or universal Being that passes for God in some philosophies and some religions. Who you are will always matter because God is not Being but love, and love requires the particularity of the person who is loved.
No, who I am is not a matter simply of me, of ego alone. I am created to be not alone, and I become a human person through my relatedness to others which happens in relationships of various degrees of intimacy. But – and this qualification is crucial – the working out of who I am never is meant to take away my individuality because that individuality is necessary to love.
Much of the pain and joy, both, of human life comes from the struggle to live and develop as an individual while also living and growing in communion with others in family and communities. Is it not the heavy weight of others’ expectations, demands, and judgments that threatens always to stifle me, to mold me into a self I know is not truly who I am? Am I not forced by those expectations, demands, and judgments to play roles in life instead of being true to myself? How many people have confessed faith in Jesus Christ because so doing would relieve the pressure on them and make life more bearable by making them acceptable to family and community?
“Above all, to thine own self be true,” sounds wonderful and courageous, but by myself I have no self, no human personhood to which I can be true. Human life is, at its core, a matter of love, and the nature, intensity, and responsibilities of love are defined, in each case, by the particular relationship or relatedness.
On one side lies solitary confinement within myself, on the other side enslavement to the demands of others (real or imagined) with its loss of myself. Both are dehumanizing. Neither allows me to be human and to live as the person I am becoming. Yes, personhood is always something in process of becoming. Who I am is always the person I am becoming.
The implications are, indeed, huge. For Christian faith, one huge implication is that salvation cannot be understood or experienced rightly as something that happens to me alone, all by myself, apart from communion with others. I can hear a wonderful professor of mine, declaring passionately in class one day when demands for social justice were troubling the serenity of the seminary, “The Old Testament knows nothing of individual salvation!” Personal salvation, yes, but not isolated in the individual. I would add that the New Testament knows nothing of it, either, although that truth may stand out less plainly.
Somewhere along the line in the history of our faith, salvation was reduced and degraded into a matter of gaining guaranteed entrance into heaven in the afterlife. “Where will you go when you die?” the billboard asks me as I drive by. Make your reservation with Jesus now, before it is too late. That notion and the sales pitches that come from it are unbiblical and untrue to the Christ they proclaim.
Throughout my years of pastoral ministry, I realized increasingly that Christian faith desperately needed a re-expansion of its understanding of salvation. A friend reminded me once that during the Dark Ages in Europe, life was so wretched for so many people that hope for a better place beyond the veil of tears became their one light of hope, and the church was able to play upon that hope of deliverance beyond sight to control its people – hope, that is, in combination with their fear of an even worse place of unending torment. But such an impoverished understanding of hope and salvation continues to plague us and to degrade Christian preaching and evangelism (good news bringing) into a hopeful/fearful transaction for the afterlife.
We need a much bigger, truer, more faithful, and more human view of salvation. For now, I’ll leave it with that statement.
Happy new year!