Tag Archives: progress

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?

In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?”  “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”

Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.

The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.

Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.

Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.

The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.

Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.

A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…