I was asked by a friend recently what I mean when I make use of the term “salvation.” At the time I was rather surprised, not at the question, but rather that I had been caught talking about salvation. It’s one of those terms that recovering evangelicals tend to shy away from due to its tight association with what they’ve come to see as a fairly cheap idea of “getting saved.” But as I reflected on it, it became clear to me that my dissertation work is really aptly characterized as a project on salvation, or soteriology (in big-word-talk).
So what do I mean by salvation? Here’s a brief attempt for your consideration: Salvation is that event or process in which one is both made fully aware of the limits of life, and yet, rather than turning back into some form of intoxication, denial, or rebellion, one experiences oneself as “accepted” or “held in being” in such a way that the limits of life cease to create anxiety, and therefore compulsion. Salvation is thus freedom to embrace one’s limits and the courage to engage life to its fullest. The one who experiences this salvation most radically is the one who is able to choose their own death for the sake of life. I think here of, for example, Thich Quang Duc. Surely, such acts could be done in the confidence of some reward in the hereafter, but this is not what I have in mind. I am thinking rather of the sober acceptance of life’s limits with no further guarantee beyond it. It is the freedom to live into the true, the good, and the beautiful for their own sake and not to be deterred by our existential fears, e.g., the loss of money, the good opinion of those you care about very much, personal comfort, or even life itself.
This, I think, gives fresh meaning to the old question: “are you saved?“
The following is a project I’ve been toying with for awhile now. I recently took the opportunity to try and flesh it out as an independent study for my PhD work. It remains very much a work in progress, but I thought I may as well let it see the light of day since it’s recently found its way out into the world by other means. Do let me know what you think!
In John 14:6, John has Jesus declare “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” This remark by Jesus has often been used by some Christians to declare the supremacy of their beliefs and to justify heavy-handed apologetic activities as well as the denigration of other faith traditions. Such is the way of context-free proof-texting. In context, this declaration was made in response to the disciple Thomas who, after hearing that Jesus was leaving them, asked despairingly, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” From this we can see that the primary intent of Jesus’ response is to comfort. It’s not a club, it’s solace, hope and peace.
I think this case can be made further by reading this passage in light of John’s logos Christology (Jn. 1:1-18). Here John envisions the Son as the union of Hebraic wisdom traditions and the Greek doctrine of the Logos. In other words, John sees the Son as God’s knowledge of God’s self, and the rational principle in creation. With that in mind, a more adequate reading of this passage goes something like this: “Whoever comes to the Father comes through me.” In other words, whoever lives in wisdom, reason and love has come to the father through the Son, for the Son is the Father’s wisdom personified.
From all this we have a different question now before us. The question is not, “do we believe in Jesus?”, for the meaning of this question is almost completely broken in our time; rather, the question is “have we come to the Father?” Do we live in wisdom, reason, and love? Ironically, in present times this is not the question that Christianity is asking to the culture, but the question the culture is asking to Christianity.
Can we make sense of the phrase “freedom in Christ?” It has been said that all outside of Christ are not free, but in bondage. On the other hand, it is suggested that to be in Christ is to be free. Is there any meaning to these words now for those of who doubt literal understandings of Scripture? I’m inclined to think so. In fact, I think the recognition of the non-literal mode of much Scripture opens up the possibility to cut past the credulity of the ancient imagery and grasp the insight of the tradition.
That said, here’s what I think the tradition is on to. As is corroborated by contemporary constructive developmental psychology, only a fully-centered individual can rise above the compulsions of biology and psychology, i.e., those elements of our existence that “drive” us. To transcend compulsion is the meaning of freedom. The only way to be a fully-centered person is to have accepted one’s ultimate acceptance. This is the meaning of Christian faith. This is the truth of the gospel. This is also the truth of the phrase “freedom in Christ.”
The pretensions of final truth are always partly an effort to obscure a darkly felt consciousness of the limits of human knowledge. Man [sic] is afraid to face the problem of his limited knowledge lest he fall into the abyss of meaninglessness. –Reinhold Niebuhr
I’ve been reading Niebuhr’s “Nature and Destiny of Man” recently. I share this particular quote more as a confession than a challenge, and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. But first, a bit on the context.
Niebuhr pegs the predicament of humanity as the tension between freedom (the potential to transcend all limits) and finitude (actuality of our creaturely limitations). From this tension is born anxiety. Anxiety the experience of the human dilemma. On the one hand it is the concern that by actualizing our freedom we might transgress our creaturely limits and therefore be destroyed. On the other hand, it is the concern that in seeking to avoid the risk of our freedom we renounce something essential to our humanity and therefore undergo self-loss through inaction.
This, for Niebuhr, is the fundamental insecurity of the human condition. Anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is the precondition of sin as either pride or sensuality. I wont be dealing with sensuality in this post, but pride is defined as the attempt to escape our human insecurity by making ultimate our own finite and provisional “programs”/convictions/agendas.
In my own history, I’ve had a number of good friends who identify as atheists. They posed the threat of ultimate meaninglessness to me. Looking back, I can see how my desire to find a historical or theological argument that could be used as a final demonstration of truth was really the temptation of pride. Such striving never did solve my situation of anxiety; it only made it worse, for I never lost sight of my own limitations.
It’s an unfortunate thing that the culture of our day (including much Christian culture) identifies faith with the pride I’ve just described (believing things ultimately on the basis of provisional evidence). This is unfortunate especially since faith in its true meaning is the real solution to anxiety. Faith is the concern that grips us from beyond the point of view of a threatened finite self staring out into a world. Faith both comes to us and through us. It is the courage to accept our ultimate acceptance. Without such faith love is not possible, for when we live out of our anxiety, the encounter with another is a potential threat, rather than an opportunity for reunion.
This is why I post Niebuhr’s quote as a confession. What I had once called faith can be better understood as the sin of pride. Since then faith has become for me not the possession of a “final truth,” but the state of being gripped by something unconditional both within myself and within the world I inhabit. It is being embraced by a reality which includes but transcends both. And when the contents of this faith are centered on the crucified God, the fruit is not anxiety or fear, but faith, hope, and love.
“If the Bible’s not true, living a life of self-sacrificial service is pointless.” ”If God does not exist, life is meaningless.” I’ve heard a lot of this sort of talk over the years, and I’ve personally been guilty of the last of these three sentiments. I now see them as the result of a dangerous distortion of faith, one that keeps people clinging to religious beliefs by way of fear rather than honesty, and forces those who can’t stand the tension to give up their beliefs, often in a state of utter despair (or, at least in a state of hanging out at the local strip club).
This issue was raised for me again recently while viewing a video a friend sent me on why he places unconditional trust in the Bible (The relevant action begins @ 22:30). Here we have John Piper (essentially the patriarch of the neo-refomed, or new Calvinist movement) lay out a version of our offending statements:
Building our lives on sacrificial service”, he says, “when it’s all a mistake would be very pitiable. In other words, if you construct your life around what you see in the Bible and discover in the end that it’s not true, that would be tragic. And that’s exactly what Paul says, isn’t it. 1 Cor 15:19 ‘If we have hoped in Christ in this life only we are of all men the most to be pitied.’ In other words, if the gospel proves false—Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, he’s not the Lord of the universe, he’s not coming again, he’s not taking us into his fellowship forever and ever—we really blew it, and are first class fools for the way we spent our lives.
Really? We blew it? So one who gives of themselves under the inspiration of the sacrifice of Jesus (or under whatever inspiration) and in so doing mediates healing life to those around them, freeing them from from the negativities of life (be they physical, psychological, or whatever), such a person would be a fool if the mythic story Piper relates is not fact? Such a person would have “blown it?” I hope your intuitions are sensing a problem here.
The common thread in all these assertions is the assumption that goodness needs a sort of guarantee. In other words, it is assumed that for goodness to be good, something else must ultimately hold true other than itself. A highest existing being with an ultimate opinion must be “out there,” a book must give us this opinion, a miraculous story from our past must be fact. This, I think, is highly problematic and leads to both dishonesty and great anxiety of conscience.
Why? Because the theology advocated above separates value from being and then demands that to secure the former, one must submit to a particular theory of what remains in the latter, namely, facts. This is the famous fact value split and the theology we are examining makes the validity of our values absolutely dependent upon a particular set of facts. It makes God one more fact in the world of facts, and thus requires a theory of revelation in which moral, historical (and in some cases) scientific facts are communicated to humanity through Scripture.
A religious person who is operating under this scheme could look at the life of anyone who does not accept their interpretation of the facts (e.g., a Muslim, an atheist, etc.), but who exemplifies an excellence of life that surpasses their own and yet be compelled to feel that such excellence counts for nothing, and that what is truly needed is to convince them of their own view of reality, their own particular interpretation of the facts. They could look at a gay couple whose fidelity and love surpasses that of any heterosexual couple they have known, yet still feel that since that mode of sexuality doesn’t mesh with their interpretation of the facts, it must be condemned. In effect, the self-sacrificial love of Jesus could be lived out before their very eyes, but if it was embodied in one who did not accept their own version of the facts, they would be compelled to call it a lie. Why? Because for them, values don’t tell us anything about what is ultimately real, facts do. The exemplification of goodness is not what is important, a good argument about the facts is.
But it is not only the actions of others that get condemned by those work from within this view, it is their own honestly as well. Under the influence of a specific unconditional interpretation of the facts, one has great motivation to not ask too many questions, for the worry is that if the interpretation of the facts were to fail, our own values would as well. This is perhaps the deepest anxiety such a view creates. The judgements on others are often just the external manifestations of this deep worry. The vehemence with which such a person attacks those who love well in spite of their divergent factual world-view is evidence of the threat they pose to the stability of the anxious soul I’ve been describing (see 3:59 of Piper’s talk. It’s not self-critical honesty that leads people to question the Bible, it’s: the Devil). Calling good evil is hard work and creates a conflicted, angry conscience.
The solution to this situation is the reunion of being and value. Being and value ought not be thought of as separate concepts; rather, value is a form of being. If this move is made, one can seek to develop an understanding of being-itself holistically. Our senses, emotions, intellect, the whole of our very being, because it participates in being-itself, have the potential to tell us something about being-itself, about God. Certainly, one must remember that we are finite and that all our judgements are fragmentary and fallible (even intuitions about value), but as Robert Adams put it so well, “…if we are not prepared to let our vision of value control in some ways our vision of reality, then we had better not be theists.” By which he means that those who silence their value intuitions to some authoritative view of the world, are easily lead into heartless fanaticism.
Theologically this all cashes out in a way that may seem foreign to most moderns. It is a way that has ancient roots, one that, though having Greek antecedents, was once within the Christian tradition, yet has been largely lost. This way suggests that we mean by “God” is not an external being who guarantees goodness, either by will or intellect; rather, by “God” it understands that we mean “that which is ultimate.” In the vocabulary I have developed above, this affirmation would be conceptualized in the proposition “God is Being-itself.” God is the ultimate fact and value, and the truth of all contingent facts and values subsists in God. On this view, to participate in the fulfillment of being (which we call goodness and truth) is to participate in God. For Christians, Christ displays for us the paradoxical fulfillment of being in suffering self-sacrifice—in radical, unconditional love. We needn’t believe anything, or “submit” to what the preachers of the world tell us Jesus means for us; rather, all that is needed is to be open to the fulfillment of being displayed in the story of the man broken on the cross, for us. If we hold value and reality together in the one concept of being, then the truth of the cross is not relegated to the revelation of a theory of the facts of reality; the truth of the cross is the revelation of the truth of being, and truth of being is inclusive of value—it is inclusive of our very selves.
To “believe in the resurrection” for such a person is to believe in a very different sense than the one tempted to run off to the strip joint. To believe in Christ and in Christ’s resurrection is not an unconditional affirmation of a conditioned theory of history. One may doubt optimistic appraisals of the historical value of the gospels, and yet believe—that is, to place one’s faith—in the revelation of God, of being-itself, in the story of Jesus as the Christ.
Sadly, for many in our age, this insight is not on the radar. As such, we are a people whose center of meaning and value is not informed by a principle of fulfillment through self-sacrificial love. It is my hope that as Luther was liberated from the work of loving God with his whole heart by his own volition, those who doubt might be liberated from the “work” of believing in-spite of their honesty through the unification of fact and value in being-itself, God who is.
Back 1 “myth” here is used in a technical sense. It does not mean, as in popular parlance, simply “untrue story;” rather, a narrative is a myth if it seeks to express deep truths of the ultimate origins, ends and meanings of existence. In this sense, all religious stories are myths. It matters little if one takes them also to be historically factual.
Back 2 If perhaps someone of Piper’s persuasion would grant that goodness may indeed be good without its guarantee, but then argue that in their view it simply wouldn’t matter ultimately. I would respond that this would be the same as goodness itself not being true and therefore, not good.
Back 3 I am defining “facts” here as “actual states of finite affairs.” I agree that for Christianity to be true in the sense I believe, it must “reveal” what is ultimately real. It must reveal a sort of “ultimate fact,” but now we are speaking about ultimacy, and therefore, symbolically.
Back 4 Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 366.
Back 5 If by God one does not mean that which is ultimate, then we are not dealing God but an idol in the deepest and most proper sense: the elevation of something conditioned to the level of unconditionality.
Erik Wielenberg wants to claim that, contrary to intuition, some necessary non-trivial ethical facts require no explanation (e.g., it is morally wrong to torture innocents for fun). To legitimate this claim, he reminds his opposition of their own claim that God’s existence is necessary, non-trivial and requires no explanation. I’m tempted to think they are both wrong. Let me explain why.
“For what it is worth,” Wielenberg says “the ethical claim that pain is intrinsically bad”, which he apparently sees as both necessary and non-trivial, “seems to me not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, I find it less in need of explanation than the existence of a perfect person who created the universe.” (In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism, 26) Perhaps, but this seems carefully worded. First of all, pace Wielenberg, it is not at all obvious that pain’s intrinsic badness is an ethical or moral* fact, and ethical facts are the sort we are trying to discuss here. It is an unambiguously evaluative fact, certainly, but why think it has a moral dimension in and of itself? No necessary or sufficient conditions have been offered for what amounts to a moral fact, so allow me to offer one necessary condition: Necessarily, a characteristically moral fact is one where the interests of more than one person are involved. Pain being intrinsically bad, then, does not rise to this level. Wielenberg gives us another example, however, that does fit this criterion, so let us proceed using that example. Namely, “…the state of affairs in which it is morally wrong to torture the innocent just for fun….” (Ibid.) Good enough.
Now let’s look at the second half of this comparison, i.e., Wielenberg’s incredulity with the claim that a perfect person who created the universe requires no explanation. I actually quite agree with him on this point, so I don’t mean to fault him, and he did make it explicit that this was the form of theism he intended to examine. However, there are other theistic options which are more durable to the sort of criticism implicit in his dismissal, namely the tradition that goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas in which God is not a being alongside other beings. In modern times Paul Tillich was the most famous modern proponent of this form of theism. The important feature of this theology for our purposes is that for Tillich, God is not a creator being derived from the analysis of contingent being. He sees the cosmological argument as an argument to be invalid. Instead,
“[t]he first cause is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain. Such a being would itself be a part of the causal chain and would again raise the question of cause.… When used as material for ‘arguments,’…categories lose their categorical character. First cause and necessary substance are symbols which express the question implied in finite being, the question of that which transcends finitude and categories, the question of being-itself…, the question of God” (Systematic Theology V. 1, p. 209).
Thus, we can strengthen Wielenberg’s initial musing, agree with it, yet offer a reformulation exploring the same basic point, but which concludes differently. Here it is: “For what it is worth, the ethical claim that it is wrong to torture innocents just for fun seems to not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, we may find it less in need of explanation than an eternal reality that answers the question of contingency and finitude.” This comparison, it seems to me, no longer works. If we are being moral realists here (and we are), then the former seems to cry out explanation much more so than the latter, for the latter reality, by definition, is beyond our categories of causality, temporarily, etc. (the things that allow our questions to work at all). Continuing to ask the question in this case actually demonstrates that one has not understood the nature of the answer given, but we can still ask, with no confusion, what makes it true that torturing innocents is morally wrong. Wielenberg himself answers elsewhere shrewdly, “…my answer is that it is the same sort of thing that makes other necessary truths true – namely, the essential nature of the entities that those claims are about” (Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, 51). Leaving to one side what this essential nature consists in, it might be noticed that, at least here, Wielenberg is engaged in the very thing he was above trying to avoid; namely, offering further explanation for the truth of non-trivial necessary ethical facts. Perhaps there’s more explanation needed than what Wielenberg initially suggested?
*Wielenberg intends to use these two terms interchangeably.