“Faith and Sex” or “Save Me From Your Concern…”

“Will you please talk to him?  I’m worried about his salvation…”

I hear that a lot.  I hear it from spouses of people who identify as skeptical/unsure/agnostic/atheist.   I hear it from people who have friends who believe or think differently from them.  I hear it from people who are worried about their gay/transgendered/pierced/tattooed/(insert other conventional taboo here) relative.

I hear it a lot.

And, I don’t question their sincerity.  The church has trained people to be concerned about this.  I just want to question that training…and that concern.

We’ve been conditioned to speak about salvation as a product.  It’s gotten, acquired, assured…what have you.

The problem that I have with this line of thinking, indeed with this concern, is that it implies that somehow we have a say in the matter.  And I realize that there are, indeed, some Christian circles that do believe that humanity has a say in the matter of salvation.  I heard a whole sermon by a prominent pastor at a huge church who assured the gathered congregation that they had to say “yes” to the Christ knocking at the door or else their salvation was in jeopardy.

In fact, I’ve heard scores of such sermons.  And, perhaps at one time, shared their thinking and nodded in agreement.

And believing that we must respond to the gracious invitation of God to reap salvation benefits is a stance that can be intellectually defended. It’s transaction based.  We love transaction based models: they’re concrete, every party gets to do something, everyone gets to act.

But I don’t see how you can hold a transaction model stance and then, in the same breath, utter that salvation “can’t be earned.”  Every time I hear someone say that salvation can’t be earned but then say, “and yet you must accept Jesus in your (pick your location: heart, life, worldview, marriage)” my brain starts going crazy.

Cognitive dissonance.

We run into a problem when we try to parse the word “earned,” but in the business of transaction, “earning” something is providing payment or appropriate satiation. I think a person who believes that you can’t earn salvation and yet must say “yes” to have salvation is not being intellectually honest.

Is not even a “yes” payment, in this instance?

Some might affirm that idea; some might reject it.  Frankly, I don’t see how it can not be an instance of payment.  We’re not talking about passivity here; we’re talking about action, the act of saying “yes,” the act of assenting.

Smacks of earning.  I think it is.

And this is where people start to get nervous.  They start saying, “Well, salvation is a free gift from God, but you can choose to accept it or not.”  And, in some ways, that makes sense, right?  If my local coffee store offers free coffee, I can choose to take a coffee or not.  In fact, proponents of the “free but accept” concept love to use examples just like that.

And that works if we’re just talking about coffee, cars, or other goods and commodities.

But are we?  Do we really want to lump salvation into the category of cars and candy bars?  Because, whether or not we want to, I think that we have.  There are many books that point out this fact, Rob Bell’s Love Wins is but the most recent. I think he does a decent job of exposing how we’ve cheapened salvation by using this transaction model, and in the process have actually ended up limiting God’s grace instead of, as the usual argument goes, limiting free will.

Theology nerds out there will want to blame Anselm at this juncture; I would encourage you not to do so.

It’s not Anselm we need to blame.  His atonement theory has not held sway over the Christian story just by luck or chance: it’s the theory that provides Christians with the most control over the field of life.  We should blame ourselves for reducing salvation to the same kind of transaction as buying a dishwasher.

Now, at this point Christians start to wring their hands and say things like, “Wait…then everyone has salvation?  I don’t need to worry about my atheist/agnostic/questioning/tattooed/Mormon/Muslim neighbor?”

I want to point out here in no uncertain terms that I’m not claiming everyone has salvation.  Any sort of claim I might make on the subject wouldn’t use that phrasing, as I don’t think it’s helpful.

But, in response to the question, I’d ask them to define “worry.”  Do I think you need to care for them?  Yes.  Do I think you need to be salt and light for them and for this world?  Yes. Do I think that their lives will/would benefit from being in a relationship with God and others who are asking important questions about life, meaning, love, and purpose through the lens of Jesus?

Yes.  Unequivocally, yes.

Do I think you need to wonder in the late-night-sweating-anxious-pondering way about what will happen to them after they die?

No.  I can’t say that I do.  Because I don’t think there’s anything that you can do about it.

Truly, I don’t think you can.

I think it’s dishonest to worry about people because you want them to adopt your worldview.  I think it’s dishonest to worry about people because you’re unsure of whether they’ll go to heaven, hell, Pluto, or Middle Earth after their last breath.  We should worry about people for the sake of their life now, not after death.  Millions of Christians go without feeding the Christian poor because, well, we care more about their salvation than we do their stomachs.  Likewise, millions are spent on Christian missions where bellies aren’t attended but “souls” are.

Pass out bread and keep the Bible.  Or, better yet, live the scriptures and pass out bread.

So, finally, what do I think about salvation and having/not having it?  I go back to an ancient model, a model of promise.  Christians cling to an eternity spent with God based on a promise.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The Christian doctrine(s) of salvation, heaven, and hell that have cropped up over the last 2000 years have been largely a disservice to the message of Jesus.  People set their eyes on post-life and begin to ignore this life, or people begin to think they have salvation in the bag and then stop engaging or critically thinking.  Or…well, I’ve mentioned some of the other “or’s.”

It’s a travesty.

Part of the benefit of living on a promise is that you take it for granted.  The promise, that is, not the relationship.

I think we need to continually foster a relationship with God, and that we need to foster a relationship with others that asks questions about God, life, and salvation.  And I do so not because I hope to get something, but because I think it is good.

But the promise of salvation?  I leave that up to God.

And with God, nothing more than a promise is needed, actually.  It’s in human transactions where we feel the need to deal with payment and satiation; guarantees and insurance are for human transactions.  God has always operated on promise and covenant.

“But what about them?  What about those that don’t believe or say “yes” to God’s invitation?”

Yes, what about “them?”

Whenever I do pre-marital counseling, I always do the “faith” discussion with the “sex” discussion.  I feel like the attitudes of both our sexuality and our spirituality need to be similar: we invite; we don’t coerce.

We can’t coerce someone into having sex with us.  That is a terrible use of power, and makes the choice ultimately not their own.  “You’ll do it if you love me,” is neither a real invitation nor attractive.  “Believe in Jesus or your salvation is in jeopardy,” doesn’t seem all that different.  It’s not honest or attractive.

And truthfully, when someone says to me, “Please talk to them; I’m worried about their salvation,” I have to wonder what they think I’ll be able to do.

I can only do what they can do: invite.

You can’t argue your way to faith (or out of faith, actually, despite many of the New Atheist writings of today).  It has always happened by invitation, promise, covenant. And to dangle the idea of salvation as a reality or non-reality based off of belief/response seems pretty coercive to me (not to mention intellectually dishonest).

I believe that a life lived in relationship to God is life-giving.  It’s salvatory here and now, in this life.  I believe that salvation after death is real and a mystery; as mysterious as the paradoxical cross I stare at every Sunday that testifies both to humanity’s hate and how God turns humanity’s hate into an act of love.

And, like all mysteries, it’s not to be gained or attained, mastered or bought.  It’s to be held, contemplated, treasured…and in doing so, lives are changed.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve turned salvation into a business transaction, and one that’s focused on death rather than life.  It breeds panic, unhealthy evangelistic practices, and pietistic but baseless concern.

So, before we begin to be concerned over someone’s salvation, perhaps we should take a step back and think of our own.  Did our saying “yes” to Christ save us?  If so, then aren’t we what got us our salvation?  Wasn’t it our yes?

And if the thought of that makes your stomach turn, as it does mine, then perhaps we need to lift our salvation up to God and say what I think is the most intellectually honest statement about this subject, “You take care of it.”

And then go back and begin inviting people into a relationship with God that has more to do with the here and now.

I Wonder if this Elephant is an Atheist…

I love it when people use the phrase, “elephant in the room” to describe that taboo topic that needs addressing in public.  Everytime I hear it I visualize that elephant and just where she might be standing.  I usually imagine her in the middle eating peanuts.

Here’s an elephant in the religious room: there are Biblical inconsistencies.

Not an elephant for you?  Not for me either.  But it is for some people, apparently.  Or at least, was.

Take Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill (go Tarheels!) for example.  He was trained in a conservative tradition where the Bible is viewed as inerrant.  Going from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton, that view evolved much to his sadness, and he’s written about it.

A lot.

Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus, Interrupted, these are all books which pull back the curtain, as it were, on what he believes people think or have thought about all things Christian, from the words of Jesus to the compilation, contents, and meaning of Scripture.

I was introduced to Jesus, Interrupted by a congregation member. He was reading it, so I figured I should read it.

I found it to be well written, but not particularly instructive.  The congregant, on the other hand, found it to be totally disruptive.  In short: it was faith-shattering.

Ehrman, too, lost faith after studying at Princeton and finding out much of what he has recorded in Jesus, Interrupted.  Apparently finding out that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament (surprise surprise, especially considering that if the historical Moses were based off of a real individual he was probably illiterate…and would probably not write in meta-Moses form about his own death) was faith destroying.  Or if not that, perhaps it was learning that the end of the Gospel of Mark was added at a later date because it was just too much to have the “women say nothing to anyone” after the resurrection.  Or perhaps finding out that in the Gospel of John Jesus dies on a Thursday, whereas the synoptics have him dying on a Friday.

Perhaps it was all of these that caused Ehrman to lose faith;  perhaps something else.

My point, though, is that I learned all of this at university, and was taught much of this in seminary.

And here I am, a Christian (reluctantly).

And learning it didn’t destroy my faith at all, it just reconfigured it.

I lost faith in the words, but grew in faith to the story the words pointed to.  I lost faith in the empirical thinking that we for some reason believe must rule our lives, and fostered faith in the storied thinking that truly moves mountains and inspires action.

Dr. Ehrman: in what was your faith?  Was it in the words, or was it in the promise the words pointed to?

In seminary I had a classmate who said boldly, “Even if tomorrow they find the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, I still hold fast to the promise…that is the nature of faith.”

Indeed, it is.

Religion does no good in espousing the inerrancy of its documents, creeds, doctrines, dogmas…whatever.  I have no doubt that people are leaving churches in flocks because they find that their faith in the inerrancy of Scripture cannot stand up to the fact that Paul probably did not write all the letters ascribed to him.

I should also mention that, the early church probably knew this and it didn’t seem to challenge their faith any…

But I do empathize with faith-destruction.  It’s tough.  Even Christopher Hitchens has a touching moment in God is Not Great where he speaks of his disollusionment with Marxism, and likens this to the religious individual losing faith.  He writes,

“Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined-as I hope-I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through.  There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.  But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (God is Not Great, 153)

The rub?  Hitchens and Ehrman point to the same evidence in both of these books.  Sure, Ehrman is less flippant and less inflammatory, but the gist of their arguments are the same.

And their purpose, I think, is probably the same.

And where is the defense of faith?  Usually found in the voice-box of a literalist…and thus the elephant enters back into the room.  Spong and Borg are attempting, Craig and McGrath are making some good noise, but the fact of the matter is this: if we are to defend faith as a life-giving concept, we have to stop teaching ridiculous notions like Biblical inerrancy, which are nothing but death knells waiting to ring.

Where is the emphasis on stories and how story shapes our reality?  Where is the emphasis on promise, beauty, love that defies description?

I read Hitchens and Ehrman, and find myself nodding a lot.  A lot of what the atheist and agnostic says makes sense to me, a reluctant Christian.  But none of it destroys my faith.  So either I’m deceiving myself (the Truth is not in me, I assure you), or my faith is in something other than words on a page or empirical proof.

So now, what are we to do?

Perhaps we can start by ushering the elephant out of the room, and then tell a story.  That’s what this a/theist does.

The Sighs of an Oppressed People

Sisyphus Crossing

I’m not a Marxist.

I do, however, like the t-shirt put out by Threadless.com of the “Communist Party.”  I imagine a Marxist has to drink a lot.

But Marx, in his wisdom (and foolishness…aren’t we all of that same coin currency?) wrote in Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophyof Right:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.  It is the opium of the people.”

The call to slough off the cubicles of the bourgeoisie, including the cubicle of religion, is the call to get sober, to get organized, to get…to get.

I took an interesting class the final semester of my seminary career.  It was entitled, “Engaging Violence through Theater” or something as equally ambiguous and enticing.  In preparation for our final practicum, the class assembled with some residents of a local retirement community to talk about the nebulous topic of “spirituality” to plumb the depths of using theater as a way to bridge gaps and rips in the societal fabric caused by factious religious tension.

In that circle of chairs were priests, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, all defined broadly. With the exception of the advanced ages of all the attendees (minus the seminary students), there was quite a bit of diversity in the room in general.

Through the course of a mostly civil and enlightening discussion, there were a couple of peaks of agitation.  At one such peak a very irritated woman, a devout atheist, said something to the effect of, “I don’t need a god, and I think the implication that I do is insulting!”

Point well taken.

Directly following her statement, an elderly African American woman with a severe palsy, who had previously spoken of the faith of her parents in slavery, spoke up, “Listen.  From my tradition, we made a god because we needed a god.  If you don’t need him, don’t take him. But, leave our god alone.”

Point well taken.

Religion is the sigh of an oppressed people.

I like this notion of Marx however much I would like to divorce the opiate reference.  After all, if religion is an opiate of sorts, you’d think that “religious people” would be happier…another notch in Hitchens’ belt for pointing out that fact.

But that idea takes for granted that the point of religion, or even faith for that matter, is to impart happiness; a mistaken conclusion, I think.  For while religion or faith (not the same, mind you, but I’m not interested in dissecting each at this junction) might indeed provide for it’s adherents’ happiness, this is not the goal…at least not in the mind of the faith-laden individual writing this blog.

Kiekegaard, in Fear and Trembling, warns against looking at faith lightly.  He writes,

“But what no one has the right to do is let others suppose that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.”

Difficult because, well, our oppressions…in their forms…cause us to scramble for the concrete: beliefs, forms, arguments.  Cause us to scramble for happiness, satiation, comfort.  Cause us to set goals that we can fill ourselves with until we get that “just full enough” feeling.

Yes, full of it.  It’s gotten.  And I do not discount the fact that many people use their beliefs in this way, whether theistic, atheistic, or somewhere in between.  It gets us that “just full enough” feeling.

But the Knight of Faith, a person whom Kierkegaard is admittedly not able to be, knows that, “faith finds its proper expression in (the person) whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.  (They) act on the strength of the absurd.”

The strength of the absurd.

Why do we shy away from this word, “absurd”?

I’d like to think that it is probably the absurd that overcomes oppression in most situations.  In those situations when it appears that power, however its form, should win, we then and there find that power is in fact weakness because in the face of the absurd you are not dealing with elements of the same nature.

Like steel and fire: both powerful, but in different ways…one dissolving the other.

And yet, metaphors only go as far as they do.

Sigh.

Kant, in section III of the Philosophical Doctrine of Reason, relates an interesting bit on the sigh of humanity.  He notes,

“A member of the English Palriament exclaimed in the heat of debate: ‘Every man has his price, for which he sells himself.’ If this is true (and everyone can decide by himself), if nowhere is a virtue which no level of temptation can overthrow, if whether the good or evil spirit wins us over only depends on which bids the most and affords the proptest pay-off, the, what the Apostle says might indeed hold true of human beings universally, ‘There is no distinction here, they are all under sin-there is none righteous (in the spirit of the law), no, not one.”

Sigh.

And were religion, as an institution, meant to address this situation, to answer the moral question, we would end up looking at straw as well.  Indeed, I’m quite convinced that morality is not contingent upon organized religion.  And yet, organized religion is used by many in just this way…another way of getting full of morality, of seeking to point at the moral seed and exclaim, “I’ve found the tree of life.”

And yet.

And yet, we have never arrived at that thing that acknowledges the communal “sigh”.  You see, even with moral and emotional satisfaction being found outside of organized religion (and within), we still, as a whole, as humanity, sigh.

That seems absurd…to sigh even when it seems that all we are needing is at hand with and without systems.

And that absurdity, that, I think, is no drug.  That’s more real than anything I’ve found.  And it hints of faith…the faith that in chaos is indeed order.

Whether we are insulted by the insinuation that somehow God is necessary, or insulted by the fact that God may not be necessary, we fall under the same oppression.  We think we know.  Slavoj Zizek claims that the god we think we understand is like a Tamagotchi toy-our own creation which subsequently makes demands upon us.

Whether it is the god of Reason, like Hitchens, the god of Order, like Marx, or the God of Israel, like Swindol.

Perhaps the sigh, then, is the only appropriate response.  It is not a sigh of despair, nor a sigh of anguish, but a sigh of relief.

Relief in the fact that we don’t understand God.

That’s absurd.  Indeed.