Monday, 27 March 2017

Do you have a 'boring testimony'?

I used to think that being raised in a Christian home and not having had a time in my life when I went (outwardly, openly) AWOL gave me a 'boring testimony.'  I was always amazed at stories of people who had been drug-dealing, gun-running, bank-robbing, biker gang members (or even just had given up on the faith and walked away from God), but then God's grace reached down and grabbed hold of them when they had sunken to their lowest and brought them back, like forlorn prodigals returning to the loving father.  Thanks to some mature mentors in my life, I long ago quit seeing the testimony of those whom God's grace has preserved from straying as any less an act of mercy than God's many dramatic rescues of out-and-out rebels.  Of course, in neither case can people take credit for their walk with or return to God.  It is God's gracious love for both the wayward son who returns and the older son who has always had the father's love and blessing that gets the credit.

Reading St. Augustine's Confessions a few years back, I came upon a passage that says it so well.  (The Confessions are written as an extended prayer to/conversation with God.)
What man who reflects upon his own weakness can dare to claim that his own efforts have made him chaste and free from sin, as though this entitled him to love you the less, on the ground that he had less need of the mercy by which you forgive the sins of the penitent?  There are some who have been called by you and because they have listened to your voice they have avoided the sins which I here record and confess for them to read.  But let them not deride me for having been cured by the same Doctor who preserved them from sickness, or at least from such grave sickness as mine.  Let them love you just as much, or even more, than I do, for they can see that the same healing hand which rid me of the great fever of my sins protects them from falling sick of the same disease.
                                                                                     - Confessions, Book II, Chapter 7

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Doctrine of Original Sin, or: "If we are lost, then we are lost together"

When Blue Rodeo wrote the lyrics to their song, Lost Together (quoted in the title to this post), they likely weren't thinking about the Christian doctrine of original sin, although considering a couple of the other lines, it does seem to fit quite well.  What "perfect world" is the singer referring to when he looks into his lover's eyes?  The world is broken somehow, for "so much [is] controlled by so few," and we are all "stumbling from one disaster to another."  It makes one wonder if the "shooting star" the singer sees near the end of the song, the sight of which makes him conclude that, "somehow it all makes sense," might actually be Satan plummeting from heaven.  Could the fact of these lover's relationship indicate that love is the force that ultimately does overcome sin?  "And I want all the world to know, that your love's all I need, all that I need.  And if we're lost, then we are lost together."  Nah, that's probably not what they were thinking when they wrote the song.  It was a fun thought experiment, though.

Alan Jacobs is talking about original sin, however, and its leveling or equalizing effect.  While not denying the equally biblical doctrine of humanity as created in the image of God, Jacobs posits an interesting theory: "that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of 'the confraternity of the human type,' an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the 'universal democracy of sinners.'" 
 “By contrast [to the doctrine that all of humanity is created in the image of God], the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better.  It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I.  It is true that not everyone can do this:  the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t.  (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) [Responding to evangelical teaching that everyone, regardless of class, is a sinner in need of repentance.]  But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word—to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others—than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves.  If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation.  That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.”
                                    -   Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History, p. 200-01

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Gospel, according to the gospels and the epistles...

If you can see past the Wrightian over-generalizations, there is a good corrective here:
     Christians, particularly in the Western world, have for a long time been divided between "epistles people" and "gospels people."  The "epistles people" have thought of Christianity primarily in terms of Jesus's death and resurrection "saving us from our sins."  The "gospels people" have thought primarily in terms of following Jesus in feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and so on.  The "epistles people" have often found it difficult to give a clear account of what was going on in Jesus's kingdom-announcement and his call to his followers to be "perfect."  The "gospels people"--or perhaps we should say the "beginning-of-the-gospels-people," since the line of thought they embrace usually screens out the last few chapters--have often found it difficult to explain why the Jesus who was doing these remarkable things had to die, and die so soon.  They have often found it difficult, in consequence, to relate to the central themes of Pauling theology. 
     This either/or split does no justice, in fact, to either the epistles or the gospels.  Still less does it do justice to Jesus himself.  For him, the kingdom which he inaugurated could be firmly established only through his death and resurrection.  Or, to put it the other way around, the main purpose of his death and resurrection was to establish the kingdom he had already begun to inaugurate.  The way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus's death, with prolonged sections of preliminary teaching followed by quite detailed accounts of the "hearings" before the chief priests and the Roman governor, was chosen not for the sake of "local color" or mere historical reminiscence tacked on to the front of an event (the actual crucifixion) whose theological "meaning" must be culled from elsewhere.  The "meaning" of the cross, in the gospels, is that it is the execution of the kingdom-bringer, the one who gathers up the "royal" and "priestly" vocations of Israel and of all the human race, the one who at the same time embodies Israel's God coming to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven.  The famous passages which encapsulate what later writers have thought of as "atonement theology" (such as Mark 10.45: "The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many") are interpretive clues to understand one key dimension of what the whole story is about, not the superimposition of a supposedly "Pauline" theology (about Jesus "dying for our sins") on a narrative which is basically "about" something else.
     Likewise, for Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus did not accomplish merely a "supernatural" salvation having nothing to do with God's rescue of creation....for Paul the whole point of the achievement of Jesus and his death and resurrection is that, through Jesus, a redeemed people has come to birth, and that through this people the creator will ultimately set the whole world to rights. The point of it all is "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5.17; Galatians 6.15).  The gospels, the epistles, and Revelations itself "work" only when you see them as detailed elaborations of the large, complex, but utterly coherent story we sketched earlier: the call of Human to be God's image-bearer into creation, the call of Israel to be the rescuer of Human, and the vocation of Jesus to be the one who, completing Israel's task, rescues Human so that, through redeemed humankind, the whole creation can be liberated from its corruption and death and the project of new creation decisively launched.  Shrink this narrative, or leave out one or more key stages within it, and you will never understand the New Testament as a whole, still less its call to learn the habits of heart and mind that anticipate the final goal.
                                                                - N.T. Wright, After You Believe, p. 110-12.