Gotta Be Me but How?


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!

Widening Our View


My previous post began roughing out a project, and its form was rough-cut. This morning I have taken my FreeMind diagram and turned it into an expanded table that I think is more legible. I am not trying, however, to schematize human life, need, and hope but, rather, to widen a wrongly narrowed view that, while continuously quoting the Bible, is unbiblical.

The working principles are:

•   Human life is created to be relational and being truly human must be understood and lived relationally. “It is not good for the human to be alone.”
•   Sin is not wrongdoing but alienation. It is the rejection and denial of relationship. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”
•   All human life and thought is contextual, always. We are bodily creatures, always living within time and space. We are always where we are, interacting (positively or negatively) with our environment. Our selves are shaped by both biology and biography, and we are never truly independent of our time, place, culture, language, education (formal and informal), etc.
•   Salvation, therefore, is and must be always contextual. God meets us where we are and as we are in relation to our world. Is there an alternative? How could God meet us where we are not? If God did so, that would be judgment and rejection. I am not where and as I should be.
•   The personal and internal blends with the social and external; the two aspects of human life cannot be separated.
•   Personal problems and needs blend with systemic conditions because we are social creatures. Completely alone, even in memory, I would be no one, not human. Salvation, biblically, while always personal, is never individualized. I once heard a minister declare there was no social gospel. That statement is incomprehensible. There can be no gospel that is not social because there are no problems, needs, or imperatives in human life that are not social.
•   Biblically, imperatives are created by the restoration of relationship, not by mere rules, regulations, and restrictions. That’s why Jesus summarizes the imperatives as, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.”
•   God works by promises rather than declarations and mandates. Therefore, the agency of transformation is hope, not fear. The context is love, not judgment.
•   Jesus was not so much interested in getting us into heaven as getting heaven into us and our world. For him, the “kingdom of heaven” (where “heaven” is a pious euphemism for God) is the re-creation of this world, not a place in the sky by-and-by when we die.

That’s a start. I’m attaching the chart as a PDF (Portable Document File) that can be read with the free program Adobe Reader (TM). Click here.

Like Cold Water


Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
(Psalm 51:2-3 NRSV)

All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
at the words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
(Psalm 44:15-16 NRSV)

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
Rise up, O LORD! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear, O LORD; let the nations know that they are only human.
(Psalm 9:18-20 NRSV)

Jesus went throughout Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues
and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom
and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
(Matthew 4:23 NRSV)

Each Sunday, the Presbyterian worship service includes a prayer of confession followed by an assurance of God’s continuing grace of forgiveness, healing, help, and guidance – in short, renewal of the damaged relationship. Confession in this sense admits need, but mostly I find it narrows to admitting fault. The focus falls upon guilt summarized in the familiar phrase about those things we have done (that we ought not to have done) and those things we have left undone (that we ought to have done). Here we have the two-fold source of guilt: sins of commission (done) and sins of omission (left undone). Grace then narrows to pardon and cleansing – not counting our sins against us but washing our guilt away – and may even be degraded into the notion of another chance to get it right even though we are assured we shall fail and need pardon again. Such a misunderstanding of grace tends to have the wrong effect: instead of making us gracious toward others, it may make us continuously guilt-ridden and pressured to do life perfectly (or just better than someone else).

I am not suggesting that guilt is no great human problem. I know better, but I know also that guilt is far from being the only human problem, and currently it does not seem to be weighing so heavily on many people’s minds, especially not the minds of younger adults, as other problems in the human condition.

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Avoiding a Cheap and Dirty Trick


This post is the last in a series of four written to serve as discussion starters for a group of university students doing an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.

It is easy to find in the Bible exhortations to patience in times of suffering and to humility in the face of demands made by life and other people. Be long-suffering. Do not complain. Accept your limitations and the various affronts to your pride that come with living in this world as well as those which come from the world’s reactions to your conscious decisions to seek the will and way of God. Do not insist upon your own way, but do what is best for others. Be a servant.

It is one thing for me to give such advice, such encouragement to humble faith, to myself as needed. It is quite another matter for me to give it from a position of privilege and comfort to someone else being made to suffer. That’s the cheap and dirty trick we need to avoid.

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