Monthly Archives: February 2014

Two Saviors and Two Kinds of Salvation

As we observed last week’s essay (“Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?”), modern culture aims toward the twin goals of mastery of nature through science and technology and mastery of the self through persuasion, social pressure and political coercion.  What goals does Christianity set before us as objects of hope and guides for action?

As a first step in answering this question, I need to deal with a misunderstanding that plagues this discussion. It is often said that on certain moral issues the general culture has been out front of the church and has embodied Christian morality in a purer form than the institutional church. Sadly, there is some truth to this charge. Churches have not always lived up to the gospel. Perhaps you have heard this idea used by Christian speakers as an argument for reform of the church. The argument derives its power from the shame in the thought that the pagans are living the gospel better than the Christians are. But we ought not thoughtlessly to give this argument more weight than it deserves. Jesus used a form of it in his parable of the dishonest, shrewd manager (Luke 16:8). Paul used a similar argument against the Corinthians who were tolerating and even celebrating an incestuous relationship among two of their own (1 Cor 5:1). In neither case, however, were the pagans commended for genuine virtue. It was precisely their lack of virtue that made the comparison effective.

In what moral sectors has the culture supposedly attained a superior morality over the church? In every case the “superior” morality has to do with the progressive liberation of individuals from “oppressive” political, social and moral structures. In no instance have I ever heard the general culture proclaimed ahead of the church in embodying the law of God, holiness or any other characteristic that limits the immediate desires of individuals or calls into question their autonomy. It’s always about liberation.

In other words, the moral areas where the culture appears to be ahead of the church—if it really is—is an accidental overlap between the trajectory of modern progress and the Christian ethic of love and individual responsibility to God. The narrow road of the gospel heads upward while the broad way of the world heads downward. At a few points they appear to intersect but in reality they do not. Such overlap is like a false cognate, a word in one language that is spelled or sounds exactly like a word in another language but with a totally different meaning. My favorite German/English false cognate is the German word “Gift.” It means not a thoughtful gesture but poison.

In analogy to the false cognate problem, consider the way the word freedom is used in the two frameworks, Christian and the secular cultures. For contemporary culture “freedom” means the absence every external thing that keeps you from doing what you please. But for Christianity “freedom” means the absence of every internal thing that keeps you from loving God and doing his will. The only thing the two uses have in common is the declaration that something is absent.

What is progress in the Christian frame of reference? Progress, as I said in last week’s post, is movement toward a goal. What is the ultimate goal toward which progress must be measured? Almost every New Testament book sets the goal before us. But I will just mention two texts. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery that God “purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). And in that great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of Christ reigning until he has subjected every enemy, even death, to himself. Christ will at that time give the kingdom to God, so that “God may be all and in all” (15:27-28). The goal of creation and world history is union with and submission to God. The means of that unification is Jesus Christ. And the space where that union is now taking place is the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).

How do you measure progress toward the redemption of creation, toward the union of heaven and earth under Christ? I have to believe such progress is possible because I believe the goal will be achieved by God’s power. But I am extremely cautious about measuring progress toward that end. Surely growth in holiness, faith and love can be considered progress. But are we in a position to make a judgment about our growth in holiness, faith or love? Wouldn’t it be spiritually dangerous to do this? God alone is the judge of such matters. And wouldn’t the same caution be warranted in other areas too?

Here we see a dramatic difference between measuring progress toward a finite worldly goal and measuring progress toward the achievement of God’s plan. And this difference may be one source of the temptation for many contemporary Christians to identify progress in liberating individuals from oppression into autonomy with movement toward the time when “God will be all and in all.” I do not think this equation is sound.

The two goals we’ve discussing represent two kinds of salvation worked by two different saviors, the one human and the other divine. Hence, as far as I can tell, “faithfulness” not “progress” is the watchword for the Christian stance in this world.

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Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?

I want to take a week or two out from the 16-part series on the “God and the Modern Self” to address an issue that is on my mind. Recently, I seem to have heard an increased use of the idea of progress to justify certain moral, social and political changes. I don’t want to take up the specific changes that are being advocated, and I don’t do politics on this blog. But I do want to consider the rhetoric of progress because it seems completely confused and confusing. After all, this blog is about “thoughtfulness in religion.”

A few days ago I heard an advocate condemn his opponents because they are “on the wrong side of history.” And quite often lately I hear people speaking of making progress or suffering regress in certain moral areas. So let’s think about progress. It should be clear that there can be no progress unless there is a goal toward which one can move closer. If I am on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York City, my arrival in Kansas City clearly marks progress. I am getting closer to the destination. In general, then, progress is movement toward a goal. We consider progress good when the goal at which it is aimed is desirable. If the end is not desirable, we don’t usually consider movement toward it positive. For example, we speak of a person’s change toward worse health as regress or decline rather than progress toward death, though, if death were desirable, we might call movement toward it “progress”.

Now it is possible for one person to consider the end toward which things seem to be moving as good whereas another person considers it bad. Hence one person’s progress can be another’s regress or decline. My point is that we use the word progress for movement toward an end, and judgment about the quality of that movement depends on our judgment about the worthiness of the goal. There is nothing inherently good about “movement toward an end.” Everything depends on the nature of the end.

Since the Enlightenment, two main types of progress (“movement toward an end”) have been recognized as desirable: scientific progress and moral progress. Since the early 17th century, scientific progress has been measured by the extent of movement toward bringing nature under the control of humanity. Every scientific advance moves us closer toward complete understanding and therefore complete (or at least maximum) control. We want to subject nature to our wills and make it serve us and add to our comfort, health and happiness.

What passes for moral progress follows the same trajectory as scientific progress. Just as the goal of modern science and technology is liberation of human beings from servitude to the ordinary course of nature, the aim of modern moral progress is liberation of the individual from domination by political authority, oppressive social structures and divine and natural moral law. The unarticulated goal implicit in the modern understanding of moral progress is complete liberation the human self from all self-alienating forces into absolute self-determination and unfettered “pursuit of happiness”.

I emphasized the word “unarticulated” because the rhetoric of progress could not be as persuasive as it is if it stated this goal openly. Everyone knows that absolute independence is impossible for human beings, and anyone who claimed to have attained it would be dismissed as crazy. And yet total liberty and autonomy is the ideal by which all “oppressive” structures and forces are exposed and condemned as immoral and unjust.

Universal moral law, natural order or divine purposes are given no role in guiding and restraining the arbitrary, self-determining self. The reason for this exclusion is obvious. The rhetoric of progress views these guiding and restraining structures as oppressive by definition.

We can draw two conclusions at this point: (1) the modern rhetoric of progress aims at a goal impossible to attain, and (2) if it were attained, chaos, anarchy and nihilism would engulf the world. The rhetoric of progress works only so long as it hides its final goal and fails to attain it fully. How shall we judge a moral ideal that, were it attained, would destroy the world?

Allow me to point out one more contradiction in the modern idea of progress. As persuasive as the rhetoric of progress is, it has not been able to persuade everyone. Even though its ideal is total freedom from authority and oppressive structures, it seems to have no moral objection to using social and political power to destroy its enemies and coerce the unwilling to move on to the next phase of human liberation from oppression. The means (coercion) subverts the end (freedom). And since the end can never be attained, the means, which is the exercise of coercive power, replaces the end. The end becomes a mere moral justification for the means. (On second thought, perhaps using coercive power is not inconsistent with the end. If the ideal end consists in the individual self’s exercising power over itself, it makes sense for an individual in a position to do so to use coercive power to attain even more autonomy for the self.)

Conclusion: the fundamental problem with the modern idea of progress is that it measures progress as movement toward a bad end.

Next week: Movement toward what end could be considered “progress” from the perspective of Christian faith? What is the end and what kind of means of moving toward it are consistent with the end?

Our Abba In Heaven: God and the Modern Self #12

As I read the Four Gospels I am struck by the way Jesus trusted, obeyed and honored God as his Father and his God. He embodied the Father’s character in life and in death and submitted to God in all things. But Jesus’ relationship was not a distant and dutiful submission to an aloof Creator, Lord and Judge. He loved his Father and treasured an intimate relationship to him, a relationship revealed by his use of the Aramaic word Abba to refer to God. This word speaks of childlike boldness and unquestioning trust in the love of a father. In this area, too, Jesus teaches us about the true nature of human beings.

What does it mean to be authentic human beings, fully alive, free and aware of our true dignity? According to Jesus, it means to be children of God who relate to God as our Abba.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus speaks repeatedly to his disciples about “your father in heaven” (5:16 and many more). Jesus wants us to experience a similar intimate relationship to God and attain the life we were created to live. The Gospel of John asserts that Jesus came to give people “the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12-13). And in 1 John 3:2 and Romans 8:16-19, we are told of the glorious destiny of God’s children: resurrection, eternal life and sharing in the divine nature.

In part, we know what something is by observing what it does. Jesus explains to us what children of God are by telling us what they do and how they think. In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus illustrates in six examples what he means when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). Children of God act like their Father because they think like their Father, they see the world and others like their Father sees them: (1) Not only do God’s children refrain from murder, they don’t even get angry. Anger arises from offense and offense from pride; and pride finds room only in a heart that has forgotten God. God’s children remember God. (2) Not only do God’s children not commit adultery, they don’t even lust. The lustful heart cannot truly love the neighbor and the one who does not love the neighbor cannot love God. God’s children love God.

(3) Not only do God’s children follow the laws concerning divorce, they don’t seek a divorce at all. God’s children keep their promises no matter what. (4) Not only do God’s children tell the truth under oath, they don’t swear at all. They don’t need to swear to add weight to their word. They know God hears every word we utter. God’s children speak truth. (5) Not only do God’s children not seek revenge beyond reason, they do not desire revenge at all. God’s children return good for evil. (6) Not only do God’s children not hate their enemies, they love them and feel more compassion for the plight of the enemy than offense at being wronged. God’s children understand that it is an infinitely greater evil to do wrong than suffer wrong.

What sort of human being can love God and the neighbor in these radical ways? If Jesus is our model, what is the identity of true human self— the self that receives its being from the Father in gratitude, uses itself in service to the Father, shares itself unselfishly with its neighbors and returns itself ungrudgingly to the Father? Children of God! That is what we are. The true human self is not a pure, arbitrary will that lives to expand its control so that it can do as it pleases.  No. The true self is God’s created image, God’s child. And God’s children relish the love lavished on them as God’s beloved children. They exist by participating in the divine life and they live to image the perfect life of God in the world. Empowered by this sense of identity and by living this way, they experience their authentic humanity; they feel themselves as fully alive, free and aware of their true dignity.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 12 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Divine Adoption”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Jesus seems to feel no tension in his relationship with his Father between submission and intimate familiarity. How would you reconcile these two?

2. What special status is being given to human beings when they are designated as “children of God”?

3. Discuss the six challenging ethical commands Jesus gave in Matthew 5:17-48. What sort of revolution in character would enable a personal to live by these rules?

4. Discuss the contrast between the “modern self” and the self Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the self who lives by these six rules.

Next Week we will paint a picture of the new self that Jesus calls his followers to “put on”, the “other” that stands in our way and the power by which we can overcome the other.

A Strange Way of Being Human: God and the Modern Self #11

In the past three installments we’ve allowed Jesus to teach us who God is. This view of God differs radically from the modern self’s image. The God revealed in Jesus is a “for us” and “with us” God. The Father of Jesus Christ is the gracious giver of life and the Savior who gave himself for us. In no way is this God a threat to the genuine good of human beings.

Now we allow Jesus to model for us what a human being is supposed to be. In the next two installments we will unfold a view of humanity that makes clear from the human side that defiance or subservience or indifference toward God is not necessary for the full flowering of our humanity. Ultimately, I want to show that only by affirming God’s full deity can we affirm our full humanity.

The contemporary and culturally dominant view understands the human self as a center of arbitrary will that, in its search for happiness, can exercise its freedom and dignity only by doing what it pleases without external restraint. Christianity teaches, in contrast, that human beings are created by God, in the image of God. Only by actually imaging God in our actions and character can we exercise our true freedom, experience our dignity and attain happiness. Human beings are by nature “aimed” at God and open to God. We are born with the potential to be conformed to the image of God and united to God through Christ. And that potential cannot be fulfilled in any other way.

In the gospels, Jesus refers to himself most often as “the son of man.” But Mark begins his gospel by designating Jesus as “the Son of God.” When “supernatural” characters speak about Jesus, they often call him “the Son of God.” Most importantly, the divine voice heard at Jesus’ baptism and at the transfiguration, said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The concept of “Son of God” as it is developed in the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament is rich and full. It includes affirmation of Jesus’ divine nature and his eternal existence with the Father; and it gives character to Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was both divine and human. Hence when Jesus related to his Father, he related as God and human at the same time. Or let me put it another way. Jesus related to God as human in time the way he relates to the Father eternally: in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love. We see this dual relationship dramatically illustrated in the temptations Jesus endured at the beginning of his ministry and in his prayerful struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion.

After his baptism and the heavenly voice’s declaration of Jesus’ sonship, Jesus immediately went into the desert, as Matthew describes it, “to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). The devil placed three temptations before Jesus: to turn stones to bread to satisfy his hunger, to leap off the Temple to test God’s promises, and to worship the devil to receive power over the world. In two out of the three temptations the devil prefaced his suggestions with the words “if you are the Son of God.”  In these words the devil attempts to cast doubt on Jesus’ sonship and implies a false view of what it means to be the Son of God. Clearly, the devil thinks being the Son of God means possessing powers and privileges to be used according to one’s own selfish will. Jesus responded to each temptation by rejecting the devil’s view of divine sonship. For Jesus, divine sonship means gratitude, trust and obedience to the Father.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed to be spared from the humiliation and suffering to which he had been assigned. He begged the Father three times for relief, but after each request he said, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Again, we see the Son of God relating to God as a human being in time the way he relates eternally: with gratitude, obedience and self-giving love. Of course, this is not the end of the story. Divine sonship also means the victory and glory of the resurrection. But it must not be forgotten that even for the Son of God victory and glory come from the Father through suffering and death. And in the face suffering and death, being the Son of God means trusting and obeying God.

Perhaps this installment raises more questions than it answers: how does this view of the human relationship to God do justice to human freedom and dignity? How can we conceive of trust, obedience and self-giving as acts of freedom and dignity that lead to happiness? We don’t have answers these questions at this point, but we have established something important: if we believe that Jesus Christ models how a human being should relate to God, we have to consider the possibility that trusting, obeying and submitting our wills to God, as unlikely as it seems, really do fulfill the concepts of freedom and dignity. What a strange way of being human!

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 11 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“A New Way of Being Human”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the proposal that Jesus models the ideal human relationship to God. What reasons does the New Testament give for this belief?

2. Do you agree that Jesus models in his humanity in time his eternal relationship to the Father? If true, what is the significance of this likeness between the divine Son of God’s eternal relationship to God and his human relationship?

3. Discuss the temptations of Christ. How are they related to temptations that face us, and how do Jesus’ answers to the devil make sense?

4. Discuss the argument made in the last paragraph of the essay. It goes this way:

a. Jesus models the true human relationship to the God of Jesus Christ.

b. Jesus related to God his Father in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love in all circumstances.

c. To relate to the God of Jesus Christ in a truly human way, we must relate in gratitude, obedience and self-giving love in all circumstances.

The next installment will explore the implications of Jesus’ teaching that we can be God’s children too.