Participatory soteriology and the shape of Christian life together

Christopher offers a semi-defense of Pelagius (a semi-Pelagian defense?) and calls for a movement of “Advent asceticism” that sees a particular form of communal obedience not as an attempt to earn heaven, but as a response to Heaven as it has come to live among us in the Incarnation. He notes that much Protestant theology, with its focus on a once-for-all transactional account of salvation, has a hard time underwriting this kind of response. Instead, he advocates a “participatory soteriology”:

What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

Somewhat relatedly, I’m reading Keith Ward’s Religion and Human Nature, which is the third volume in his four-volume “comparative theology.” In it, Ward is trying to develop a Christian theology that is open to the insights of other traditions while still remaining a distinctively Christian theology.

An important distinction Ward makes in this volume is between “forensic” and “soterial” models of sin and salvation. In short, for a forensic model, the fundamental human problem is guilt and the solution is remittance of guilt (whether through punishment, satisfaction, or forgiveness). For a soterial model, by contrast, the fundamental problem is the the sickness of the human self: its affections and desires are disordered. The self is turned in on itself, to borrow Luther’s phrase, loving itself in a disordered way. The corresponding solution is healing: we need a re-orientation of our deepest selves toward love of God and neighbor.

Writing about different forms of Hinduism (but in a way that he intends, I think, to apply to Christianity) Ward observes that “a concentration on a forensic notion of desert misses something basic to the religious perception”:

What is missing is the idea…that the goal of human life lies in a relationship of devotion to the supreme Lord. A mechanical and forensic model, concentrating on individual moral success of failure, misses this element of personal relationship that lies at the heart of devotional faith….[A] soterial model…construes the spiritual state of the human self primarily in terms of analogies to disease and health. The healthy soul is one that is in a state of devoted login service to the Lord, that is transfigured by the beauty of the Lord, and empowered by the Lord’s love. The sick soul is one that withers and atrophies because it is incapable either of giving or receiving the love that alone gives life. (p. 53)

A lot of traditional theology, particularly Protestant, has favored the forensic account. Jesus dies on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. The problem, as Christopher notes, is that Protestantism (particularly Lutheranism) hasn’t always had a good account of what we’re supposed to do after that. The result has all too often been a complacent conformity rather than lives conformed to the image of Christ.

Correspdonding to the forensic and soterial models, Ward distinguishes two understandings of “justification.” The first, which has dominated much Protestant theology, understands it as a kind of declaration of legal innocence. God “imputes” the righteousness of Christ to us, even though in ourselves we remain sinful. Arguing for a different view, Ward suggests understanding it more relationally. Justification is being rightly related to God.

When ‘justification’ is taken to mean, ‘a declaration of legal innocence’, one faces the difficulty that a guilty person has to be declared innocent by God. But, if God is perfectly just, how is this possible? As I have interpreted it, justification means ‘establishing the possibility of being rightly related to God’. How can a person whose deepest motives and dispositions are to cause great harm be rightly related to God? Only if those motivations and dispositions are wholly changed, by an inward turning of the mind, a metanoia. (p. 190).

What is accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection is that God unites humanity to divinity and makes possible this restored relationship. The cross shows both “the suffering that self-regard causes to self, to others, and to God [and] the life of obedient self-giving that God requires” (p. 191). But it is more than that: it is “the historical vehicle of divine power to forgive and heal” (p. 191).

Instead of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’, it might be better to speak of ‘healing’ and ‘participation’. What God requires of sinners is a transformation of life in penitence and obedient love. This requirement is met by participation in the power of the Spirit, which is luminously expressed in and mediated through the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice gives particular form to the Spirit’s activity, and founds the community of the new covenant in which the Spirit can transform human lives into the image of cruciform love. (p. 214)

That last point strikes me as key in light of Christopher’s observation that Protestant Christianity often lacks forms of disciplined community that give a paritcular shape to the Christian life. Participation in the Spirit is participation in the particular cruciform shape of Jesus’ humanity. This incorporation into Christ restores our relationship to God and makes possible a re-ordering of our desires. We “put on the mind of Christ,” to use Paul’s phrase, and are renewed in our humanity. This is a gradual process, one that may not be complete until after death. But by being “in Christ” we are empowered to receive a new self, one that is rightly related to God, our neighbor, and the rest of creation.

Pelagius for the rest of us?

(I tweeted a bit about this earlier, but I thought I might as well write some thoughts into a proper blog post.)

As if to confirm our most stereotypical expectations, a proposal is being put before a diocese of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta to “rehabilitate” Pelagius by reversing the Council of Carthage’s (5th century) condemnation of Pelagian teachings.

Now, I’m willing to believe that Pelagius got a raw deal in being tarred as an arch-heretic. Given the dearth of extant writings, it’s quite possible that he was unfairly targeted by the ecclesiastical powers that be. And certainly modern mainstream Christianity is–for better or worse–more doctrinally latitudinarian than the early church was.

Nevertheless, I can’t shake the impression that, possibly because of the lack of reliable primary sources, Pelagius has become a kind of cipher–a blank screen upon which modern liberal Christians like to project their idealized version of an optimistic, nature-loving, life-affirming Christianity. In other words, the opposite of everything they dislike about Augustinian Christianity (in what is usually caricatured form).

This is similar and even related to the vogue for a vaguely mystical, eco-sensitive “Celtic Christianity” that, again, often bears little resemblance to the real historical deal. Pelagius is often upheld (by J. Philip Newell, for example) as the paragon and forefather of Celtic Christian spirituality.

What ought to tip us off that something fishy is afoot here is that the popular version of Pelagian-Celtic Christianity is strikingly conformable to the concerns of comfortable, middle-class westerners: the affirmation of everyone’s inherent goodness, a rejection of the doctrine of original sin, a generalized eco-spirituality, and a belief in an immanent God that resembles a vague life-force more than the rather demanding God of the Bible.

A good antidote to this whole line of thinking that still takes some of the underlying concerns seriously is Paul Santmire’s Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology. Santmire, a Lutheran eco-theologian, wants to recover theological themes that can support care for the environment, but he also departs from the Matthew Fox-neo-Pelagian crowd at a couple of key points.

First, Santmire strongly affirms that eco-justice must go hand-in-hand with social justice. The slums of the globe’s vast mega-cities teem with millions of desperately poor people for whom the reality of injustice and radical evil are palpable everyday realities. From this, Santmire infers a need for a robust theology of sin and atonement:

[A]lthough Fox talks regularly about “justice-making,” he chiefly seems to be thinking about a revolution of consciousness that is going to transform the world, not unlike the idea of “Consciousness III,” proposed by Charles Reich in The Greening of America during the heyday of the 1960s. In Fox’s major works, we encounter little attention to the often stalemated, anguished struggles of the oppressed, which sometimes can last for decades, even longer, and then, with some regularity, still be lost.

The Christian masses throughout the ages have likewise lived and died with the bitter reality of struggle. Struggle against overwhelming odds has been their daily bread. This is why they have turned again and again to the figure of the crucified, and have struggled all the more desperately in this instance to make sense out of this apparently senseless but nevertheless redemptive death. (p. 22)

A neo-Pelagian gospel of personal self-improvement and consciousness-raising may resonate with a certain small strata of the global elite, but what Santmire calls the “Christian masses” are all too aware that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot save ourselves.”

Further, Santmire commends what he takes to be some of the authentic insights of Celtic Christian spirituality–but these differ rather starkly from the kind of feel-good New Agey themes often associated with that tradition. According to Santmire, the eco-sensitivity of Celtic Christians was rooted in orthodox Trinitarian and Christological affirmations, and these worked themselves out in a fairly severe spirituality that might make some contemporary devotees of “Celtic” Christianity blanch.

Santmire isn’t blind to the flaws of traditional Augustinian Christianity–but he maintains that it preserves important truths and provides resources for a more cosmic and creation-friendly vision (as evidenced by the mature Augustine’s thought, as well as that of Irenaeus, Luther, Calvin, etc.). Traditional theology’s vision is of a creation (human and non-human) in bondage that can only be freed by God’s overflowing, unmerited grace. In Santmire’s view, this speaks much more profoundly and hopefully to our contemporary situation of mass poverty and ecological devastation.

A side of Calvin we don’t often hear about

From an interview with novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson:

[Calvin] writes very beautifully about the notion that any encounter with another human being is an encounter with an image of God.

If it’s someone offending against you, it is someone that God is waiting to forgive for his offense. And so it’s a sort of triangulation where you’re not in the trenches at war with some other person.

You are thinking, “This person is sacred to God. What is God asking of me in my encounter with him or her?”

Calvin does insist that when you see a human being, you are seeing an image of God. He says that the beauty of the image should override everything and leave you with only the will to embrace that person and help them to the fullest extent of one’s means.

The idea of a human adversary is something that he virtually eliminates as a concept that is possible to a Christian person.

And when you consider that he himself was under threat of death or his whole city was under the threat of death for decades and decades and decades, he was not speaking loosely. He was talking about a time when the Inquisition was very active all around them.

So for him to say you cannot legitimately call another human being your adversary is a very, very major statement.

I don’t know how accurate this is as exegesis of Calvin, but imagine how our interactions (politics–church or secular; online conversation) would change if we took this seriously.

Bultmann, modernity, mythology, and Pentecostalism

Here’s an interesting piece from sociologist of religion and lay theologian (I believe he’s Lutheran) Peter Berger on the relevance of Rudolf Bultmann for today. Berger notes that Bultmann was right that the worldview of the New Testament is thoroughly “mythological” in that it portrays a world suffused with and permeated by supernatural forces (God, angels, demons, etc.); moreover, this worldview is starkly at odds with the semi-official worldview of modernity, which posits a “closed” universe that operates entirely according to its own immanent causal laws.

Bultmann was wrong, however, in thinking that “modern” people couldn’t also maintain a mythological (or selectively mythological) worldview or that modernity necessarily requires Christians to abandon supernaturalism in favor of a “demythologized” gospel. As exhibit A, Berger points to the growing global pentecostal movement, for which immediate experiences of the spiritual realm are a living reality, but which is also increasingly sophisticated, both technologically and intellectually. Christianity’s center of gravity is largely shifting toward this more charismatic brand of faith and away from those traditions that have made some kind of truce with the worldview of modernity (e.g., liberal Protestantism). As these two forms of Christianity come face-to-face (Berger points out that churches in the “two-thirds” world are now sending missionaries to “re-evangelize” Europe and North America), “Bultmann can be seen again as posing a suddenly urgent question: Is the mythological worldview of the New Testament a necessary ingredient of the Christian faith?”

I always say that liberal, or mainline, Protestantism has a problem with the supernatural (or the transcendent, the numinous, whatever term you’d prefer). This is partly due to its accommodation to the intellectual culture of modernity, as Berger suggests, and partly a result of these churches’ emphasis on social activism and reform. The fruits of this, however, have often been spiritually desiccated communities that add little of distinction to the secular liberal agenda. Under those circumstances, it’s not always clear why one would join a church rather than, say, the ACLU or MoveOn. Sometimes social activism has been joined with a kind of individualistic, therapeutic spirituality, but one that too often lacks the orientation toward the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that, as Rudolf Otto maintained, is the beating heart of religion. Plus, as many theologians and philosophers have pointed out, the closed universe no longer enjoys quite the support from science that we once thought.

I don’t think we can–or should–go back to a premodern worldview. Or that we need to mimic the spirituality of Pentecostalism (though we could certainly stand to learn from pentecostal Christians). But I do think that mainline churches need to facilitate genuine encounters with the Mystery at the heart of our faith. We also need ways of articulating that Mystery intellectually that make sense with what science shows us about the world, but without embracing a reductionist understanding of reality.

I want to be a Pentecostal too

Marvin offers a review of Allan Anderson’s book on global pentecostalism that really makes me want to read it. The essence of charismatic Christianity, according to Anderson (according to Marvin) isn’t speaking in tongues or some of the other trappings usually associated with pentecostalism, but rather “A shared conviction that the Holy Spirit can and should be experienced immediately and powerfully.”

I’ve often complained that mainline Protestant Christianity lacks an emphasis on “transcendence” or the direct experience of the Spirit. The usual reasons offered are that mainliners have accepted the worldview of modernity, which doesn’t leave much room for direct experience of the supernatural, and are overly focused on social and political change at the expense of experiential religion. There do seem to be some signs of change here. For instance, in The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes about his own mystical experiences and about the importance of spiritual practices and the “thin places” where the Spirit seems to pierce the veil of natural causality. And in his view, this isn’t opposed to, but goes hand-in-hand with, a focus on social justice.

Overall though, it does seem that, for mainliners, direct experience of the Spirit, whether in its more charismatic or mystical forms, isn’t something we’re comfortable talking about, much less encouraging. How would we go about changing that?

(See also my earlier post on Krister Stendahl and speaking in tongues.)

Stendahl on glossolalia

Krister Stendahl has a really interesting essay in Paul among Jews and Gentiles called “Glossolalia—The New Testament Evidence.” He argues that what we usually call “speaking in tongues” was a widespread part of early Christian expeience that was later damped down by the institutional church. He maintains that glossolalia as discussed in Paul’s letters were an “ecstatic” form of religious experience that is proper to Christianity.

It seems to me that the witness of the New Testament texts as to the phenomenon called glossolalia is quite clear and quite simple–and quite up to date. The various texts carry with them a certain critique of the situation today. The history of our main traditions is one of fragmentation and impoverishment within the Christian community. As I read Paul it seems to me crystal clear that if the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and all the “proper” Christians, including the Catholics, did not consciously or unconsciously suppress such phenomena as glossolalia, and if other denominations did not especially encourage them, then the gifts of the Spirit–including glossolalia–would belong to the common register of Christian experience. (p. 121)

He also says that it’s a mistake to separate charismatic experience from Christian witness against injustice because the one time the NT promises that the Spirit will provide Christians with words to speak is when testifying to the faith before the authorities.

There are those who identify the public impact of the Spirit with spectacular religious exhibitions on TV and maximum publicity for evangelistic campaigns, while casting suspicion over those who challenge the authorities by their courageous witness to Christ’s justice in the courts. It seems that the biblical model is the opposite one. In the courts is the confrontation that has the promise of the Spirit. (pp. 120-121)

Stendahl–a Lutheran–is no charismatic, but he says that the church needs them because “light-bulb wattage” faith isn’t sufficient to meet the difficulties that the world faces. He also thinks, however, that charismatics would benefit from incorporation into the broader church so that they can be nurtured into a more mature faith that doesn’t rely exclusively on “peak experiences.”

I take it that this essay must’ve been written prior to the inroads made by the charismatic movement into the mainline denominations. Still, I think it has relevance since it would be a stretch, to say the least, to maintain that most mainline churches honor charismatic experience as something normal and desirable. I’m about the least “charismatic” guy around (in the theological sense!), but even I resonate with Stendahl’s point that we mainlainers are extremely wary of the more ecstatic forms of religious experience. He makes the intriguing suggestion at the end of the piece that charismatic phenomena like glossolalia belong to the same spectrum of experience as mysticism–both are forms of living religious experience that a religious tradition should want to nurture.

Attention must be paid

There have been a couple of articles recently on the “slow reading” movement, one in Newsweek and one in the Guardain. Actually, “movement” may be a bit strong; it seems to be more of an impulse, or a reaction against our 24-7 ultra-connected, multitasking, information-saturated lives. (Where “we” are a relatively small minority of affluent elites, just to be clear.)

Slow reading is just what is sounds like: taking your time, really engaging with a text, not skimming or snacking on bits and pieces of information. The concerns of the slow reading movement echo those of technology writer Nicholas Carr, who in an Atlantic Monthly article from 2008 worried that Google was making us stupid. That is, re-wiring our neural circuitry to make it harder for us to pay sustained attention to a piece of writing, or an argument, or narrative. (Carr followed up his article with a book called The Shallows that has gotten a lot of attention.)

I think most of us probably sense that there’s something to this. I know that when I’m reading something online the urge to follow a link or open a new tab is almost irresistible. Rarely do I read anything of substantial length online from start to finish they way I might when reading, say, a long magazine article or a novel. It does seem to require more effort to pay attention.

If this is right, it has implications beyond reading. The ability to pay attention–to attend to some person, or thing that exists apart from (but also in relation to) us–plays a large role in the moral and spiritual life. The philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch argued that the moral life begins in the ability to appreciate something–a part of nature, a body of knowledge, a person–for its own sake, independent of any benefit it may have for us. In other words, to pay attention. Buddhism teaches that the path to liberation is learning to pay attention to reality without the distortions imposed upon it by the chattering of our minds. Christian prayer involves paying intentional attention to God–the ultimate context of Being. So, if our minds are rendered incapable of sustaining that kind of focus (and, to be fair, not everyone agrees this is happening), what happens to us as moral and spiritual agents?

Huxley on distractions

I’ve been spending what free time I have this summer dipping into the works of Aldous Huxley, both his fiction (Island, Eyeless In Gaza) and non-fiction (Brave New World Revisited). I’m currently working my way through a collection of essays called Huxley and God, which, as the title suggests, deals broadly with religion.

Huxley is best known of course for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he also had a lifelong interest in religion and mysticism. He popularized the idea of a “perennial philosophy”–a basic metaphysical, psychological, and ethical structure common to the great religions of the world. Huxley was a friend and mentor to Huston Smith, who further explored the perennial philosophy (or “primordial tradition” as Smith prefers to call it) in his study of the world’s religions.

One of the points Huxley returns to in several of these essays is the danger distractions pose to the spiritual life. We’re more commonly aware of the dangers of our passions–our deep-seated desires, our self-will. But, Huxley says, the “imbecile mind”–with its constant, meaningless chatter–can be even more insidious:

It is of [distactions’] essence to be irrelevant and pointless. To find out just how pointless and irrelevant they can be, one has only to sit down and try to recollect oneself. Preoccupations connected with the passions will most probably come to the surface of consciousness; but along with them will rise a bobbling scum of miscellaneous memories, notions, and imaginings–childhood recollections of one’s grandmother’s Yorkshire terrier, the French name for henbane, a White-Knightish scheme for catching incendiary bombs in midair–in a word, every kind of nonsense and silliness. … [W]e are … creatures possessed of a complicated psychophysiological machine that is incessantly grinding away and that, in the course of its grinding, throws up into consciousness selections from that indefinite number of mental permutations and combinations which its random functioning makes possible. Most of these permutations and combinations have nothing to do with our passions or our rational occupations; they are just imbecilities–mere casual waste products of psychophysiological activity. (Huxley and God, pp. 153-4)

In Huxley’s view, the modern world has made it particularly difficult to free oneself from distractions because it has elevated the pursuit of constant distraction to a positive good (one is reminded of Pascal’s line about men’s miseries deriving from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone):

The Old Adam’s restless curiosity must be checked and his foolishness, his dissipation of sprit turned to wisdom and one-pointedness. That is why the would-be mystic is always told to refrain from busying himself with matters which do not refer to his ultimate goal, or in relation to which he cannot effectively do immediate and concrete good. This self-denying ordinance covers most of the things with which, outside business hours, the ordinary person is mainly concerned–news, the day’s installment of the various radio epics, this year’s car models and gadgets, the latest fashions. But it is upon fashion, cars, and gadgets, upon news and the advertising for which news exists, that our present industrial and economic system depends for its proper functioning. For, as ex-President Hoover pointed out not long ago, this system cannot work unless the demand for non-necessaries is not merely kept up, but continually expanded; and of course it cannot be kept up and expanded except by incessant appeals to greed, competitiveness, and love of aimless stimulation. Men have always been prey to distractions, which are the original sin of the mind; but never before today has an attempt been made to organize and exploit distractions, to make of them, because of their economic importance, the core and vital center of human life, to idealize them as the highest manifestations of mental activity. Ours is an age of systematized irrelevancies, and the imbecile within us has become one of the Titans, upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the social and economic system. Recollectedness, or the overcoming of distractions, has never been more necessary than now; it has also, we may guess, never been more difficult. (pp. 156-7)

One can well imagine what Huxley would’ve had to say about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, um, blogs, and the various gadgets that keep us constantly in touch with these sources of distraction. O brave new world, indeed.

“Graceful simplicity” in worship

Interesting post on Justin Martyr’s account of an early Eucharist (via Connexions). I’m not completely sold on the principle that whatever the early church did was better, but I do think there’s a case to be made for occasionally pruning the liturgy to let the gospel show forth more clearly (a sound Reformational principle). I’d be interested to know what Derek or Christopher thinks of this.

Food rules for Christians

I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who said, with typical pungency, that no religion can be interesting if it doesn’t tell you what to do with your pots and pans or your genitals. By at least part of that criteria, Exeter University theologian David Grumett seems to be trying to make Christianity interesting again. In an article in the Christian Century, he argues for a recovery of “food rules” among Christians.

Young Augustine’s experience with the Manichees, Grumett argues, left a somewhat unfortunate legacy to Western Christianity of disdaining any religious limitations on how much and what kinds of food we consume. In reacting against the anti-materialism of the Manichees, Augustine delivered a blow to the valuable practice of regulating our diets according to religious ideals.

Grummett suggests that recovering a more traditional ideal, like that associated with early Benedictine monasticism, can help Christians relate their eating practices to their faith:

The desert fathers were famous for their meager diets, and early monastic rules were codifying this practice in moderated form. The major rule for monasteries in the West, St. Benedict’s Rule, prohibited healthy adults from eating the flesh of four-footed animals. It also limited the number of meals that could be taken in a day and the range of choices at a single meal.

This ban on what we today call red meat points to a Christian tradition different from that of Augustine, one in which food choices express spiritual devotion and identify people as part of a faith community. It also shows how, through avoiding the food typically thought of as high-status food, Christians may resist the networks of oppression which such food symbolizes and on which it depends. To eat meat frequently requires significant quantities of land, feed and water—either your own or those belonging to someone else, who might, on a good day, be paid a fair price for them. Worldwide, animals farmed for meat generate more pollution than motor vehicles and consume vast quantities of food while elsewhere people are going hungry.

“Modern Christians,” he writes, “are in danger of slipping into a fast-food mentality: speed, convenience and illusory abundance rule, regardless of the consequences for the planet.” Attending to the sources of our food–how it’s produced, where it comes from–can be ” a means of reconnecting to our spiritual heritage and traditions and marking the Christian calendar and the seasonal calendar—which is itself God-given.”

Grummett doubts that agreement on a set of food rules is either likely or desirable, but observing cycles of fasting and feasting, restricting certain types of food, and reconnecting to the sources of our food are all ways of living out our faith in concrete, daily practice.