Monday, August 16, 2010

A response to Peter

I posted a link to my last Reflections post, “Bono-fied Christianity,” on the ELCA’s Facebook page and got this response from Peter (who I do not know):

This is exactly why we need the Reformation now more than ever. Christianity is NOT about church, it is NOT about ethics, it is NOT about justice. It is about the freedom from sin, slavery and death that is brought about by Christ's death and resurrection alone and only, and the real-world, tangible comfort that brings to those who trust this Good News.

It’s odd to see such enthusiasm for classic Lutheranism from a young and intelligent person like Peter (not a pastor, btw) while a middle-aged pastor like me is trying to stifle a yawn. No, that isn’t quite right. It’s not so much a yawn as shrug of the shoulders and perhaps a little sigh. Memories of too many seminary lectures come back, all met with another voice: “Well, no, not exactly.” All those solas (“grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone…”) have had too many unfortunate collisions with modern and post-modern realities over the years.

It’s the language, of course, that has become such problem. What do any of those words mean to ordinary people in 2010? One of the characteristics of a cult is that its members use a coded vocabulary which is truly understood only by them, and Christianity has been progressively sliding into that status.

Skipping for the moment the “NOTs” of the second sentence, consider the positive affirmations of the third: “freedom from sin, slavery and death.” The reality is that no one experiences freedom from any of those things—not Christians, not anyone. We all do bad things and have bad things done to us, throughout our life. We all experience bondages of one kind or another, many of which are simply functions of the circumstances of our birth. And as we all know, one of the two certainties of human existence is death.

To be somewhat more serious, consider this last one: death. I rarely encounter people who are overly concerned about the prospect of their being dead, and this is especially true among the elderly (who sometimes are looking forward to it). People are concerned about becoming sick and of the process of dying. People often are very concerned about someone else being dead, such as a spouse or other family member. People are generally not concerned about their own mortality, and this is true whether they are actively religious or not, or whether they believe in an after-life or not.

This is remarkable and I don’t think it has been recognized what a game-changer this has been for the church and Christian life. There are many explanations, of course. The dramatic increase in life expectancy is a big one and science’s influence on our worldview is another. Many no longer believe in any existence after this life, but even for those that do it has become such a blur or generically good thing that it has no real content.

Thus, the “freedom from sin, slavery and death” that Christian faith promises has lost its traditional content. It cannot be existentially true for people because these things are simply inescapable parts of the human condition. To postpone this freedom to some other future existence renders it practically meaningless for most people. If Jesus’ primary achievement is presented as having won this “freedom” it means his relevance will also be fading fast. It’s hard to see where “the real-world, tangible comfort” is to come from in this circumstance.

As for the “NOTs,” I think that in the case of the church it is simply untrue historically but it is becoming true now, which is what my post (and others previously) was all about. Christianity is de-coupling from the church and thus less and less about the church.

As for it not being about ethics or justice—well, this is the heart of the matter. I think this notion is fundamentally wrong, and as wrong as could be. I would agree that for centuries the church imagined itself being a salvation dispensary. As the marketing/evangelism department will attest, however, customer interest in this product has dropped off the cliff.

The only thing giving Christianity any creative life recently has been the recognition that Jesus, in fact, was little interested in the metaphysical “salvation” that came to be peddled by the church through its sacraments, evangelists and missionaries. No, what biblical scholarship has helped us recognize is that Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, was "all about" ethics, justice, and their correlate, compassion. Reading their biblical stories now it’s hard to imagine how this could have been missed—except for the fact that we often see what we want to see and that for a long time the church controlled what people could see.

I don’t expect what I have written to have at all persuaded Peter or anyone with his viewpoint (and I know there are many). Rather I simply wanted to set out the alternative and show the depth of the divide. What some view as “fluff” (the word of another commentator), I see as the meat of what Christianity is about and has to offer. More important that what I think, however, is that this is what Christianity is now becoming and thereby is continuing to spread the hope and expectation of the coming of the kingdom. Thus, reformation is happening but it is a reformation of Christianity (as Don Cupitt has written) which may or may not include a reformation of the church.


Michael_SC said...

Hi, I used to be Peter, in love with the idea of 'the historic reformation' and all the sola's (why do modern Americans like to throw out Latin phrases by the way? To make themselves sound smart? Did they take Latin in High school? But I digress). I now realize this is all intellectual play, not real Christianity. (I was in a conservative reformed setting, we see it here too, not just Lutheran). If Christianity is to be real and vital and relevant, and it is, then it needs to focus on other than reciting 16th-century formulas.

Judy said...

Christianity is such a broad subject....but it means following Christ. Religion is of the people and their laws, faith is of God and the individual. That is what I teach to my confirmation class. Develop your faith relationship with God and let religion blab away

Peter said...

Sorry that I never saw this reply until just now.

I will completely agree with you that language is a good part of the problem and that today we tend to treat the Augsburg Confession as a dead document. One task we have today is proclaiming the Good News in such a way that it can be received by a modern audience.

The heart of our disagreement, though, is what the power of Christ is, and what Jesus means. If he just means a new set of ethics, there really isn't any new change. We don't actually need Jesus for anything. Even Jesus acknowledges that the Torah pretty much summed everything up (Lev 19:18). If it's just ethics, we might as well be Jews. The only insights into ethics that I see Christianity providing is that no matter what we do, it isn't good enough. Otherwise, it's just another system of death.

It is mercy, not justice, that Jesus brings. What we need Jesus for is all of the bad things we've done and will do. All of our failures and their concrete consequences that we have coming to us. To use more of the Lutheran lingo, in trusting God's promise, we are given new life. That new life isn't 'try harder next time to be perfect', it is 'your sins are forgiven' and the transformative power that brings. To a very large extent that transformative power can't be communicated just in words. It is only from being grounded in that transformative power that we are given new hearts that allow us right action. Right action is a byproduct, if you will, of what Christ does for us.

As you point out, we don't always trust, even having heard the Good News. Luther's sinner-saint concept is an attempt to describe the tension we live in between old life and new life. Yes, even Christians will suffer and die (and if anything, we're called to go into the valleys of death to bring Christ's healing life. that's not metaphorical...), and yet, that isn't the end. We're not chained to our deaths, or those of loved ones.