Wednesday, November 17, 2010

FAQ 4: What is Salvation?

I'm currently preaching through a sermon series called "Frequently Asked Questions".  The premise is that I'll take the most common questions that people have about God, Faith, etc., and respond to them.  I'm not attempting to definitively answer these questions, per se, but I am publicly interacting with them.  I've dusted off my blog and I'm writing a post that interacts with each week's question.  So, without any further introduction, I give you my 4th question:  What is Salvation?

Salvation.  It's one of the most basic and fundamental concepts of Christianity.  Do you have it?  How can you get it?  Can you lose it?  What is it, anyway?  Ask 7 Christians and you may get 7 answers.  Most of the debates that revolve around the subject reduce salvation to a thing to be possessed or a status to maintained, and the general assumption seems to be that salvation is almost completely related to one's destination in the afterlife. 

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is translated "salvation" literally means "rescue".  As a Biblical concept, it finds its dominant expression in the Exodus,where the enslaved Israelites called out for generations to God, who eventually delivered them from their oppression.   Most Biblical references to salvation seem intended to evoke this imagery again and again.  Another prominent idea found in the Old Testament is that God IS Salvation.  The New Testament relies heavily on the Old Testament imagery of Salvation, but there are a few subtle differences.  In these texts, Salvation (rescue) takes place by Grace (unmerited), through Faith (trust, confidence) in Jesus. But even this short overview might lead one to an individualistic, escapist understanding of Salvation.  Such an understanding would be deeply mistaken and profoundly unbiblical.

I have less than no interest in the debate between "Once Saved, Always Saved" and a Salvation that is called into question by the commission of a sin or the misunderstanding of a concept.  The extremes at both ends of that spectrum are equally ridiculous, and frankly I question the spectrum itself.  In Galatians, Paul seems to call out the Galatian church for thee distorted version of Salvation they were promoting.  He says:

 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 
-Gal. 5:4-6 NIV

 That's right.  The infamous phrase "fall from grace" actually originates in a passage that is arguing against trying to justify yourself by law, as if you were "paying off the god".  He essentially says that to do so is to fall from grace...seemingly because you don't recognize it, and you don't believe you need it (or that it's sufficient in the first place). Salvation is not payment for services rendered.  It is a gift from God. no Don't miss the next thought though:  "The only thing that counts if faith expressing itself through love".  Paul refuses to choose from their options.  Instead, he transcends them.  To do anything else is to reduce grace to a commodity and Salvation to a status game.

I've come to believe that the Christian concept of Salvation is rooted in the Hebrew concept of Shalom.  Shalom is a word that the ancient rabbis used to describe both the original condition of the world in the Genesis creation narratives, and God's intention for how the world should be.  It means something like "harmony", and the rabbis argued that it exhibited itself in 3 ways:  Harmony between God and people, harmony between people and other people, and harmony between people and God's creation.  They argue that what we normally refer to as "the fall" in the Genesis 3 narrative is not merely meant to indicate a break the relationship between God and people, but rather the breaking of Shalom in all three of the dimensions we've discussed and a new trajectory towards chaos.  It can be argued that all sin can be traced back to the breaking of harmony in these 3 areas. It can also be argued that sin isn't a matter accumulating demerits so much as it is a matter of further distancing yourself and the world from the harmony God intends for it.  Salvation then, is rescue from this situation by the God who is most clearly revealed in Jesus.

This re-framing  has been profoundly helpful for me.  However, there is another aspect of Salvation that I believe may be just as important and just as overlooked.  Paul articulates it well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! …

Notice the language of "Creation" and "New Creation" here, and how resonant it is with what we've already discussed.  Paul isn't the only one who makes this connection (and this isn't the only place he does it).  In the Gospel that bears his name, John structures his telling of the story of Jesus after the Genesis 1 Creation narrative.  He names 7 days (in order) in the course of the narrative, and lists 7 signs/miracles (each of which can be tied to the parallel day of Creation).  On the 7th day, Jesus "rests" in the tomb.  He is resurrected (in a garden, no less) on the first day of the new week, indicating that New Creation has begun.  Although I could certainly keep going down that rabbit trail, I want to get back to Paul's argument in 2 Corinthians, because the next part of his argument is fascinating:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God

I've argued that Salvation is essentially reconciliation...rescue from the trajectory towards chaos...a return to the harmony (Shalom) that was broken, in all of its dimensions.  Now, Paul lets the other shoe drop.  Those who have been (are being) reconciled have also become agents of reconciliation.  Those who have been saved/rescued by God become agents of salvation.  It's not that you "have" salvation.  It's that salvation has you.  The writer of Ephesians makes a similar argument:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do
-Eph. 2:8-10 NIV

To be clear, I'm not arguing for a works-based Salvation. This text (as well as many others), deconstructs any such argument before it can even get started.  However, I am absolutely arguing for Salvation-based-works.  To be rescued is to become involved in the rescue.  Individual Salvation is not an end unto itself.  It is a means, by which we become active participants of what a living and active God is doing in the world.  Biblically, Salvation isn't just a status to be claimed, it is a vocation to be embraced.

Salvation is the delightful surprise of having your little life caught up in the purposes of God for the whole world.
-Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

    Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    FAQ Part 3: If I Have Faith, Why Do I Still Doubt?

    I'm currently preaching through a sermon series called "Frequently Asked Questions".  The premise is that I'll take the most common questions that people have about God, Faith, etc., and respond to them.  I'm not attempting to definitively answer these questions, per se, but I am publicly interacting with them.  I've dusted off my blog and I'm writing a post that interacts with each week's question.  So, without any further introduction, I give you my 3rd question:  If I have faith, why do I still doubt?

     “Remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding.  A God you understood would be less than yourself.”  
    -Flannery O’Connor

    I've written before about my basic beliefs concerning the relationship between faith and doubt, including in this recent guest post on Jason Boyett's blog.  In short, I believe that the two are inextricably bound together.  I believe that to say I have faith is, at the same time, to admit that I have doubt.  I believe that words like "faith" and "belief" are more closely related to words like "trust" and "hope" than they are to words like "certain" and "irrefutable".  Indeed, as thinkers from Tillich to Anne Lamott have pointed out, "faith" and "certainty" may be closer to opposites.  Though it may be uncomfortable for many readers to see it stated this way, there is a real sense in which "faith" is at best, a hopeful agnosticism...a confident gamble in which we are betting our lives on what we hope is true.  To say "I believe" is also in a sense to say, "I don't know".

    While I argue that "faith" and "doubt" are in some ways inseparable, I'd also argue that not all doubts are equal.  There is such a thing as "positive doubt".  It would be impossible to learn anything new, if one did not doubt the adequacy and/or validity of what we already know and believe.  Without doubt, no form of reformation would ever be possible.  With that being said, there is also a type of doubt that is chronic, paralyzing, and decidedly unhealthy.

    Where does this doubt come from?  In his excellent book, O Me of Little Faith, Jason Boyett proposes 6 possible causes:

    Sin--While doubt is not in and of itself sinful, it is often the result of persistent, unconfessed sin.  When someone lives in violation of their own conscience and what they believe to be right or good, they begin to create distance between themselves and those who share these convictions...including God.  This God, who is thus assumed to be increasingly distant and unforgiving, becomes less and less believable.

    Familiarity--As much as familiarity can bring comfort, it can also eventually lend itself to contempt and boredom.   For those who have been believers for some time, especially those who tend to think of faith as a static thing to be maintained, faith can be a lethargic, tedious exercise that eventually becomes untenable.  

    Depression--Boyett says "Some of us struggle to trust God when things are great.  When things fall apart, it's even harder."  As much as we'd like to believe that our emotional state has no effect on what we do or do not place our faith in, the reality is not so detached and compartmentalized. 

    Circumstances--Circumstances can bring us closer to God and they can also make us feel farther away from God.  If you know anyone who has been touched by tragedy and loss, you know this to be true.

    Being Human--In one of my favorite lines from the book, Boyett quips, "If you're afraid of doubt, being human isn't your best option."  As human beings, we place our trust in other things and other people and often find that our trust was misplaced.  If those we can see let us down, how much more difficult it is to trust an unseen God.

    Intellectual Doubt--The deeper you dig, the deeper the rabbit hole goes.  While some are able to accept simple explanations, others find themselves unable to turn off the questions that aren't satisfied with such answers.  In his book, The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor refers to such individuals as "Reflective", and rightly claims that their reflectiveness is both a blessing and a curse.

      * * *

       While I would never propose that you can (or even necessarily should) find away to rid yourself of all doubts, I can propose a few healthy ways of dealing with chronic doubt.  This list is not meant to be exhaustive.  I offer it from my own experience as what I have personally found helpful:

      Prayer--I don't actually mean "just pray your doubts away" or some other trivial cliche'.  When I'm in the depths of debilitating doubt, prayer is often one of the last things I want to do.  I just don't have the words.  Coming from a non-liturgical background, I have been surprised to find life and vitality breathed back into my faith by fixed-hour prayer.  Praying these historical prayers that have stood the test of time, at specific times of the day when other believers all over the world are also praying (given time changes), is a powerful thing.  I've found that they strengthen my faith and that they have even brought vitality back to my "spontaneous" prayers.  For those who are unfamiliar with the practice, I can recommend Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, and The Divine Hours Pocket Edition,  by Phillis Tickle to get you started.  Also, praying the Lord's Prayer a few times a day wouldn't be a bad place to start.

      Confession--If the doubt you are experiencing is the result of ongoing sin (as discussed above), then I highly recommend that you find a few people whom you respect to confess it to.  However, that kind of confession isn't necessarily what I'm talking about here.  Doubt becomes malignant and harmful when we keep it covered up, as if it were something to be ashamed of.  When you bring your doubts out into the light, confessing them to a few people you respect, you may find more hope than you ever thought possible.  You may find that others have the same questions.  You may find others who don't struggle with the same questions, but also don't reject you for thinking differently.  These moments of "I'm not crazy" and "I'm not alone" can be wonderfully liberating, and will hopefully lead to the next practice on my list.

      Conversation/Community--Christian faith is not a solo sport.  It was meant to be done in community.  Hopefully, the confession of doubt within community leads to hopeful and helpful dialogue that explores the way forward.  By this I don't necessarily mean that others will talk you out of your questions.  As we've already said, what you are doubting may well be worth doubting.  The way forward is a path that is best explored together.

      Nature-- I am not an outdoors person, as this blog post by my wife clearly illustrates.  Left to my own devices, I'll stay holed up inside with a book.  However, I've found that when I'm out in nature, there's something that I can't put words to that points to something greater than myself.  There are many different proposals by many different people on what that "something" is.  However, the point is that the vastness and complexity of Creation help me to feel an appropriate sense of smallness, awe, and wonder.

      Art--When I started a Master's Degree in Theological Studies, someone offered me what I thought at the time was an odd piece of advice.  They told me to make sure that I made a point to stay engaged with artistic things...listen to good music, engage with good stories/fiction, etc.  As strange a suggestion as I thought it was, I found it to be incredibly valuable.  I've found that faith is a very right-brained phenomenon (Daniel Pink writes persuasively about this in A Whole New Mind).  When we try to have faith by approaching God from a totally left-brained perspective, we often become junior-high kids with scalpel in hand, who have relegated God to the role of dead frog to be dissected and labeled.  Something is obviously lost in the process.

      Action-- There is no better antidote to paralyzing, unhealthy doubt that to take action, for the sake of others.  Introspection can be both a Spiritual discipline and a snare of self-absorption.  Taking action, especially with other people for the sake of other people breathes new life into dry faith almost every time.  It's not that the questions get answered--in fact, new questions may be generated in the process.  Its that our more self-centered, self-absorbed questions tend to evaporate as we pour out the life and energy we've been trying so desperately to protect, for the sake of the world that God so loves.

       “What if there is another category of reality in the universe, no less real just because it doesn’t shrink itself to our instruments and portals of ‘knowledge’?  What if that category of reality--let’s call it mystery or spirituality--dwarfs all of our knowledge, as space dwarfs our little earth?  Are we humble enough to look up from the little things we are so proud of comprehending and controlling, to face massive realities--humbling mysteries--greater than ourselves, and therefore greater than our ability to squeeze into our little boxes of certainty or ‘knowledge’?  Are we willing to step off the narrow ledge of knowledge to soar into the broad spaces of faith?”  
      -Brian McLaren, Finding Faith

        Wednesday, November 03, 2010

        FAQ Part 2: Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? (or a Tea Partier, or a Libertarian, etc.)

        I'm currently preaching through a sermon series called "Frequently Asked Questions".  The premise is that I'll take the most common questions that people have about God, Faith, etc., and respond to them.  I'm not attempting to definitively answer these questions, per se, but I am publicly interacting with them.  I've dusted off my blog and I'm writing a post that interacts with each week's question.  So, without any further introduction, I give you my 2nd question:

        Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat?  (or a Tea Partier, or a Libertarian, etc.)

        No.  (Thanks for reading  ;) )

        Of course, the title of this post is a silly, non-Biblical question.  Nothing like our political parties existed at the time of Jesus, nor did anything like our political system.  Someone might suggest "How would Jesus vote?" as a better question, but that one would have to be immediately followed by "Would Jesus vote at all?"  I suppose the real question is more along the line of "How would Jesus have us use our vote?", or better yet, "What does political engagement look like for those who follow Jesus?"

        Any good discussion of Christianity an politics has to at least briefly look at the effect that a Roman Emperor named Constantine had on Christianity.  In the 4th century AD, Constantine had a dream or a vision in which he reportedly saw the symbol of the cross with the message: "Under this sign, you shall conquer".   He had a cross constructed like the one he saw in his vision and had it carried at the front of his army like a standard.  The battle was won, and Constantine claimed to become a Christian.  He subsequently legalized Christianity, and by the end of the century it was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  In his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, Greg Boyd sums it up well:
         “For the first time, the church was given the power of the sword.  Rather that viewing this new sword-power as Jesus did--as a temptation of the devil that needed to be resisted--influential Church leaders like Eusibius and Augustine saw it as a blessing from God…Once the church acquired power over others, everything changed…The faith that previously motivated people to trust in the power of the Cross now inspired them to trust in the power of the sword.  Those who had previously understood that their job was to serve the world, now aspired to rule it.  The community that once pointed to their love for enemies and refusal to engage in violence as proof of Christ’s Lordship, now pointed to their ability to violently defeat enemies as proof of Christ’s Lordship.”
         I honestly have a growing concern that the political involvement and party devotion of many Christians is more than flirting with idolatry.  Idolatry is essentially giving devotion, allegiance, etc. that are due only to God to something man-made.  I would extend this to what Peter Rollins calls "ideolatry", where we begin to worship our own concepts and ideologies as if they were God.  Forgive the string of quotes, but I think they explore this point well:

        “There is no better way for a political party to establish the legitimacy of its political point of view that to declare that Jesus is one of its members.  The remaking of Jesus is not just some kind of harmless campaign technique.  It is not merely something sophisticated sociological observers can pass off with a wry smile and a wave of the hand.  It is not just bad religion that needs correcting.  The Bible calls it idolatry!”
        -Tony Campolo 

        "Now, as kingdom people we are called to live in love, which means we are called and empowered to live free of fear.  Because our source of worth, significance and security is found exclusively in God's love and God's reign, not our own immediate well-being and because we believe in the resurrection, we are empowered to love even those who threaten our well-being--for this does not threaten our essential worth, significance, and security.  We are therefore, not to fear them (1 Pet. 3:14-18).  If we do fear them, it is only because some element of our essential worth, significance and security is rooted in what they threaten.  In other words, fear is an indication that we are living in idolatry, not love.
        -Greg Boyd
        "To confess that I play Tetris religiously isn't to say anything pro or con about religion. But to do it more than once a day, visit the Drudge Report every hour, check my cell phone every three minutes, and listen to Rush Limbaugh more often than I listen to any other human voice and then to claim that these things have absolutely nothing to do with my religion is to be, to some degree, delusional. My religion is my practice. It's what I do."
        -David Dark
         In truth, there are multiple Christian perspectives possible for sincere people of faith.  There are intelligent people of faith on both the Left and the Right, who can make Biblical cases for the stances that they take.  There are also Anabaptists and those who take a similar position of non-participation in the electoral process (as voters or candidates), who also have profoundly Biblical reasons for their own political positions.  There are those who see party affiliation as the best way for them to affect positive, "Kingdom of God" changes in the world (Where Justice and Righteousness flow like a mighty river.  Where the poor, oppressed and downtrodden are lifted up.  See the prophets for further descriptions), and there are also those of us with convictions against political party affiliation because we feel they demand an allegiance that we are not willing or at liberty to give.  There is no political party that can truly claim to be "Christian" or "God-ordained".  To buy any propaganda that says otherwise is to reduce Jesus to a rubber stamp, and Christianity to a convenient voting block.  To allow groups with political agendas to manipulate us based on fear is to say that we have placed our faith in something other than God.  To allow political ideology to cause me to see another human being as an enemy or as less human or valuable than people like myself, is to sell out the way of Jesus for the sake of power.  Chuck Colson puts it like this:

        "Every human being is made in God’s image. This is the foundation of human value and is shared by all people, making all equal before God. We frequently appeal to the image of God to make a case for protecting the unborn, but we must recognize that Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are all also made in the image of God. Simply put, Christians cannot demonize our opponents, because to do so is to insult the God in whose image we are made.”
        The demonizing of those whom we disagree with politically, whether they are other voters, entire political parties, or famous politicians is not Christian...ever.  To do so is to betray the Way of Jesus and to indicate where our strongest allegiance lies.  Regardless of any label it applies to itself, unthinking partisan political engagement is not Christian...ever.  To engage in such a way is to indicate where we have truly placed our faith.  I'm not saying that the Bible prohibits Christians from affiliating with political parties.  However, I am saying that when they do so, they are to be prophetic voices who offer relevant critique rather than compliant sheep who accept whatever talking points they are fed.  Scripture tells us to "Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you." Political voices from all sides tell us that if we will only seek first these things, then they will give us the kingdom we want.  As followers of Jesus, may we have the courage of our convictions as well as a Christ-like humility that allows us to listen and learn from those unlike ourselves.  May our devotion to the Way of Jesus lead us to engage in a higher level of discourse, and may we resist the temptation to merely baptize partisan mudslinging as if it were somehow holy.

        “Instead of participating in this kind of polarizing politics, I think Christians should embrace the politics of Jesus, which is a ministry of reconciliation…It’s not so much that Christians of various stripes on the political spectrum ought to be looking for common ground as that they ought to be looking for higher ground. 
        -Tony Campolo