Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Personal Salvation

It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness.

So begins that modern mogul of megachurches, Rick Warren, in his bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life." He's right, of course, though I wish he would have expanded the thought in more directions than he did. But I'm afraid that though millions bought (and presumably read) his book, the Purpose Driven (tm) People haven't gotten the message. Whether it's in the old hymns of the faith:

I once was lost, but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see. (Isaac Watts "Amazing Grace")

Or the spectacular navel-gazing of that new "praise chorus" "Marvelous Light:"

Lift my head and spin around
See the marvelous light I've found

Whether learning to claim Jesus as your "personal savior" or acknowledging that He died for "my sin," the stuff that comes across the pulpits and sound stages of churches new and old is most definitely "about me." And when the subject is sin, it usually falls into the camp of the stuff "the world" does, unless, like the various "Promise Keepers" and "Quiet Battles" and similar ministries, it deals with the private demons of addiction, sex, porn, etc. I find it interesting that most "sin" the church talks about is either sex, or voting Democratic (and Democrats like sex), but I digress.

I've been griping about this individuality for a long time, and the response is usually something along the lines of "of course, you're right," whereupon the hearers go back to their worship (another word that's been badly distorted, but one thing at a time) and that's the end of it. Meanwhile the gospel continues to be taught as basically Jesus' solution for each of our individual sinfulness, and if there is any collective or greater good to be had, it pretty well disappears into the self-contemplation of the devoted "saved." I came across a highly relevant passage this past week in N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" that, I believe, clarifies the issue better than I ever have done. Consider:

" insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question--to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world--may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all."

This, I believe, gets fully to the point Paul was making in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 (or 21) that God in Christ reconciled us to himself and then gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We are saved, rescued, reconciled, not for any benefit of our own, but so that we, in turn, might become Christ's ambassadors and save, rescue, reconcile others. To the extent our faith is "personal" (by which I mean "private") it is irrelevant to God's purpose.

By this I do not mean to deny our own accountability for our actions. I do not mean to suggest that we don't at some point need to confront the reality that either Jesus is Lord, or he isn't. But acknowledging his lordship is supposed to take us out of ourselves. . .not just give us the quiet assurance that, for us at least, it'll be all right.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A word about creeds

Those who've been in regular dialog with me for some time now know that I have a long-running issue with creeds or statements of faith. To some extent my issue is with the concept itself--that a creed seems often to be used to define who's "in," or more particularly who's "out" of fellowship with a group, a deity, a religion. While I freely acknowledge my own inconsistencies here, it seems to me a proper understanding of the sovereignty of God would necessitate a certain humility of the sort that would say "this is what I believe I understand to be true, but the final arbiter of faith and faithfulness can be God alone." Not content with that, humans seem to have expended a lot of effort over the years trying to draw clear "lines in the sand" delineating who's got it and who's not.

The word "creed," of course, comes from the Latin "credo" which simply means "I believe." So at its simplest a creed is simply a summary of those things an individual or group believes to be true. Depending on what follows the "I believe" statement, however, a creed can--and often has--become a list of what is important to the particular believer(s) to the effectual exclusion of those things not on the list. At its worst, then (and here I'm speaking strictly of Christianity, though I am sure similar things can be said in and of other faiths), subscribing to a creed may tend toward a form of reductionism whereby any concerns not on the list--however relevant or scriptural--are excluded as of lesser (or no) import.

Creeds need not be reductionist. The only creed that we have recorded in the Gospels as being endorsed by Jesus himself is simple, yet all-encompassing:

Hear, o Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. . .and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mark 12:29-31

I have represented this as a creed, and yet that's not entirely accurate. Jesus actually spoke these words (quoting from the Hebrew scriptures), not in terms of "what should we believe?" but rather "what is the greatest commandment?" This difference is actually quite important, because particularly in our current definitions of faith, "believe" is something one does in one's head, while a "commandment" implies action. In fact, the love of God and neighbor are necessarily active things that cannot exist in an intellectual vacuum apart from deeds and lifestyle. This is vitally different from, for example, the statement of faith recently adopted by the denomination of the church I currently attend. Have a look at this fairly-typical evangelical statement of faith here. Interestingly, nearly all of the points in this statement, and certainly all of the specifics, involve propositions to which one must give intellectual assent to be a member in good standing. Very little is said about the way one might live as a believer, and what is said is in the most generic of terms. (To those who would suggest I'm selling the church short by oversimplifying its SOF I would add that in my personal experience, I have been excluded from certain opportunities to serve based solely upon my failure to give assent to points in that statement about which we can do nothing EXCEPT agree or disagree intellectually)

The history of creeds in the church needs far more detailed analysis than I shall attempt here, but I think it's interesting to note an unsubtle trend in the church's use of such statements. We begin, of course, with the concise, yet all-encompassing "Love God, love your neighbor" summary Jesus himself preached. The early church was similarly broad but simple with its revolutionary claim "Jesus is Lord," which could not have been mistaken by any first-century hearer--"Caesar is Lord" being both a theological and political pledge of allegiance in the Roman empire of the day (citations welcome; I don't have one readily at hand).

But by the time of the second century, looking at Iraneus' Rule of faith and the Apostles' Creed, we see something interesting has happened. Gone from Iraneus are any references to discipleship, lordship of Christ, or anything of the sort (the Apostle's Creed still calls Jesus "our Lord"), replaced entirely by things one either thinks are true, or not. The Nicene Creed, a hundred-plus years later, perpetuates this loss while further defining what must be believed, but it gets really interesting in the sixth century when we look at the Constantinople "anathemas," in which we are informed that (if I may crudely, but not inaccurately, paraphrase) "if you don't believe and say these things, you can go to hell, and if you aren't sure that certain people (names are listed!) are going to hell, you can go to hell, too!"

(Lest the reader fear that I am overdoing the sense of "anathema," have a look at this document which clarifies what the term means and meant in the time those anathemas were written. Consider this language from the anathematizing ritual: "...we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church...")

I am sad to say that this latter has pretty much become the standard. Sure, just what is on or off the list has varied somewhat through the centuries, but the core is still there: what counts is what you think and say, and if you don't think and say the right things, you can (and will!) go to hell.

How far we have strayed from Jesus' "Come to me!" And how many may we have driven FROM him with our creeds? Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)!