Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Salvation, part 2

Hi - what a good conversation we started here. Thank you to all who responded to my last post either in person, email, or publicly on the blog.

At the extremes, there are two different approaches to the "who is saved" question. These approaches intersect in various forms throughout Christian doctrines and the Biblical witnesses (plural - as with most of our big questions, the Bible gives us critical guidance but doesn't give an easy, consistent answer). Different traditions have worked this out in doctrines and practices as varied as double predestination, universalism, forced baptisms or complex tracing of ancestry to save your relatives in past generations. It is a sticky, difficult question.

Here are the two poles, as I see them.

1) Something you do clinches your spot in heaven. At the extreme, this means that you must act in a way consistent with Jesus calling in order to go to heaven. This shows up all over: Be a good person, follow the way of Jesus, get yourself baptized, join a church, take communion, seek out forgiveness and absolution, have faith, serve people, give your money away. Gandhi is often lifted up as a non-Christian who it's hard to imagine in hell because he was such an exemplar of human goodness. There are a variety of actions that fall under this category and there is wide debate about what it is that you have to do to be saved. Residue of this exists in most people's faith consciousness and it can inspire fear for people who ask the question: Am I good enough to be saved?

2) God alone has power over your salvation. The extreme of this approach says it doesn't matter what you do, God will (or won't) save you. Based on this approach, people might argue that Gandhi is in heaven because God's grace would expand to include someone who grew up without the same opportunity to grow in faith as those of us marinated in Christianity. This also covers the vast numbers of people who grew up in the faith but for some reason or another couldn't, with integrity, come to believe. There are an awful lot of people out there who wish they had faith, but just don't and can't force it. The "God's grace is huge" approach doesn't hold those people responsible for not being given the gift of faith.

This is, I think, where people like Rob Bell end up. God is too loving, too gracious, too expansive in mercy to let anyone live eternally separated from God's love. God's power ultimately wins out.

The classic Lutheran (pauline) formulation is saved by grace through faith. This thread is found most clearly in Romans. Grace is the free gift from God, but faith matters because through faith you claim the grace that has already been offered.

Importantly, in Romans, Paul contrasts "faith" with Jewish heritage, not with lack of religiosity altogether. He's arguing that non-Jewish people with faith in Jesus are part of salvation history. As far as I can tell, he isn't exactly addressing the question we are. Someone who is a Biblical scholar, please correct me if I'm wrong on this.

There is always the risk of turning faith into a human work instead of a gift from God and Lutherans work hard to make sure they don't turn faith into a litmus test for salvation. But there is, as one blog comment noted, a wide gray area on this.

Luther is more nuanced on salvation many people give him credit for. Martin Marty interprets Luther in the chapter "Will non-Christians be saved" from book"Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers":
God is hidden. Then God is also revealed. Luther says that even when revealed, God remains hidden: who would look for God in the bread and wine of Communion, the water of baptism, smudged ink in a Bible...The startling thing confronts his readers when Luther goes on to say that God is hidden not only in revelation but behind revelation. This is a way of saying that God is God and we are not; the mind of God is other than the human mind; the treasures of wisdom of God are vast, boundless and ours are small and spare and sparse...Our decisions have to be based on the knowledge we have: to share the word of grace, to take the commands of God seriously, to relish and be joyful about the word of salvation that we have received. The rest we leave up to God.
The key concept here is humility in the face of God's grace and the mysterious mechanisms of salvation. Opening up the possibility of salvation to non-Christians doesn't need to threaten the faith of Christians who are convinced, because of our encounters with the living God, that Jesus is the saviour of the world. Could it be that God is hidden not only in bread and wine, but also the non-Christian neighbors we've come to love?

More thoughts??

Friday, June 3, 2011

God is not a Christian - by Desmond Tutu


Desmond Tutu, an architect of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process, has long been a hero of mine. I've narrowly missed meeting him twice. Once was my choice: he was worshipping at the episcopal morning prayer at my Divinity School. My roommate, a faithful attendee, woke me up when she heard he would be there but I didn't feel right about attending a service in order to be in the same space as someone I admired. I regret that decision. Apparently, he wore a jogging suit and headed out running right afterward. He was in his 70s.

The second time I was in Cape Town at his cathedral. He normally presided over the Friday prayers, but had been called away to facilitate a peace process in the Middle East. I supposed that was a good excuse. That cathedral became, over the course of a couple of visits there, a place of meaning for me. But I never met Archbishop Tutu.

I admire him and his writing. I almost always find what he has to say resonates with the reality of my faith and the experience of the church in a world of diverse religious expressions. So am excited to read what he has to say in his new book of compiled writings and speeches: "God is not a Christian: and other provocations" .

Clearly, he too has wrestled deeply with the exclusion that is often seen at the heart of Christianity. I've written a tiny bit about this (see 2 blog posts down) and have had many recent conversations on the topic.

Here's a recent example of how that exclusive tendency plays out in real life:

My parents' pastor delivered a sermon on hell - who is in and who is out. This is fairly standard stuff. According to one basic Christian view, Non-Christians don't go to heaven.

A few days later, my dad went to the funeral of his deeply faithful, Jewish, colleague. This was a man he befriended and worked with. He was a good, kind, just, loving man. The two experiences (being told that only Christians go to heaven and then seeing a religious community send a non-Christian God-fearing man into his eternal rest) placed side by side exemplify the cognitive dissonance many Christians feel. They love non-Christians with a genuine love and hear in church (or assume they will hear in church) the doctrine that non-Christians are not heaven-bound. This is the tension that I have been hearing and seeing so many discuss lately.

Tutu's observations can help the conversation. An excerpt of Tutu's writing on this can be found here.

I've begun to articulate my current (and ever changing) thoughts on this like this: soulful, peace-loving people who are not Christian can be followers of the way of Christ (explicitly or implicitly) without being followers of the person of Jesus. But Tutu might not think this approach takes the differences between religions seriously enough. My approach may do violence. I think of how I would feel if someone told me I were a follower of the way of Muhammad, just not of Muhammad. How would I feel? I don't know.

Here's a brief Tutu quote that challenges:
We must hold to our particular and peculiar beliefs tenaciously, not pretending that all religions are the same, for they are patently not the same. We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.
Thoughts? Anyone read this book yet?