On 2006-09-08, Sydney Freedberg wrote:
Welcome to anyone reading this. If you have no idea who I am or what prompted this post, you should first read my declaration of faith (http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=246#7891 - Vincent, could you make that a link?), of which this is merely an elaboration and a (partial) explanation.
Some overdue acknowledgments:
Vincent, thank you for hosting these discussions. Thank you especially for inviting me, more than once, to testify to my beliefs. In our sparring, you have landed a few blows that hurt, but that’s inevitable, and my admiration and love for you have only grown.
Everyone who has participated in these dialogues, thank you for your honest engagement and for your patience with my often prolonged discursions.
Thanks, especially, to those of you who have disagreed with me. You’re my best teachers.
And thanks in advance to everyone reading this. Please remember that I cannot claim to speak for all Christians, let alone for Christ. I speak for myself alone, no more—and no less, for I speak for all of me, to my uttermost heart. I take on this greatest of subjects in all humility and in full awareness of my shortcomings as a witness. My hands are shaking slightly as I try to type.
May the words that I write, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to You, O Lord.
2. Clear your mind.
When it comes to salvation, damnation, and justification, as in so many other subjects, there are some things we have to unlearn before we can start to learn. Our society in particular—and the Church has all too often been culpable in this—has surrounded these issues with a haze of sloppy thinking. I find myself, as I write and rewrite this essay, having to approach the truth backwards, starting with the misconceptions and then stripping them away.
Many of the worst mistakes arise out of lazy or simplistic readings of the metaphorical language of the Bible, uninformed by the two thousand years of careful interpretation that tradition offers. All too often the fundamentalists take the metaphor literally at the expense of its meaning. All too often the secularists respond by debunking the literal misinterpretation and then assuming that there never was any meaning there at all.
So, among other things, please set aside ideas like these:
- In Heaven, people in white robes sit on fluffy clouds and play harps.
- In Hell, people sit in fiery pits while wailing, gnashing their teeth, and being prodded with pitchforks.
- The Whore of Babylon is an Iraqi hooker.
- The Last Judgment is a legal forum to assess each individual’s good and bad deeds.
- “Belief” means “intellectual agreement with a certain set of statements of fact.”
- “Resurrection” means the soul lives on separately from the body.
3. The reassuring news: You do not have to call yourself a Christian to be saved.
My father was not a Christian. He was born Jewish, grew up assimilated, and expressed a bemused disdain for any system of religious belief. He died in 1997. I love him fiercely, and I don’t think he went to Hell.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
This is the verse that fundamentalists cite when they claim that anyone who does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord is damned. But even they cannot bring themselves to such ludicrous literalism as to damn pre-Christian prophets like (for example) Moses and Elijah—who the New Testament explicitly says appeared side-by-side with Jesus on the Mount of Olives and spoke to Him the night before his death (Mark 9:5; Matthew 17:4; Luke 9:33). Let’s aside aside the conceivable but tortured argument, “Well, they were prophets, so they knew about Jesus before He was born, so they were ok.” (Old Testament prophets weren’t soothsayers or prescient, anyway: They generally say something like, “God has threatened to do X if this goes on, but He has promised Y when you eventually repent, so stop being so horrible to each other.”)
So whatever Jesus meant in this passage, it has to be something more open than “if you weren’t lucky enough to hear about Me, or if You did hear about Me but didn’t believe I was your savior because my followers didn’t explain it convincingly enough to overcome your understandable skepticism, or you originally believed but then something horrible happened and you changed your mind, or whatever, then tough, you’re gonna fry.” Nor can I find any passage in the Gospels that equates “coming to the Father… through me” with thinking some specified thought, or saying some specified words, or performing some specified action.
One answer tradition offers us is the idea sometimes called, awkwardly, the “anonymous Christian” (and thanks to the person who provided that link to the work of Karl Rahner): To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, such a person practices a religion other than Christianity, or adheres to an entirely secular system of values, and yet over time comes to deemphasize those parts of the religion that conflict with Christianity, and emphasize those parts that agree with Christianity, until he or she believes and lives as a Christian in some essential way despite the outward differences. All of which is an annoying but useful way of thinking about things.
To uncramp the idea a little: All human ways of understanding God are incomplete, for we are flawed, limited beings and He is not; but God has put enough of His truth into every system of belief for any of us to find the way to life, if we look hard enough. And in truth, we have to look no further than the first line of this same Gospel to understand how broad “the way” along which we come to the Father through Jesus could be:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made… (John 1: 1-4)
Jesus is not only a specific human being—although that God thought so highly of humanity that He chose to become one of us is extraordinary Good News. Jesus Christ is both human being and God, and specifically He embodies that aspect of God which created—well, everything. “And God saw that it was good” is the refrain of the creation story (Genesis 1). I don’t take the six-day timeline literally (and Genesis 2:4-8 sets out a contradictory sequence of events anyway); but I do believe that everything that exists comes from God and has some spark of that essential goodness at its core, however befouled and scabbed over it may have become by accumulated evil. Which means we can come to Jesus through anything, for everything comes from Him.
4. The caveat: You don’t have to be a Christian—but it helps.
Just because we can find a spark of the divine in a housecat, model trains, an Italian-style sub with extra hot peppers, or (Heaven help us) in the fictional pantheon of man-eating, bad-smelling squid-things invented by H.P. Lovecraft, that doesn’t mean those are particularly good places to start looking. The signal-to-noise ratio is poor, and your odds of finding the way to truth and life are less than your odds of finding another way that leads nowhere or worse. Your cat (or Cthulhu) may teach you that true joy lies in sharing love with your fellow creatures, or you might decide that life is about sleeping a lot and torturing mammals smaller than yourself. Most likely, you won’t be able to extract any cosmic moral imperative more urgent than “hungry now.”
If nothing else works for you, well, the long way round could get you there eventually, but it’s still longer and harder than it has to be. It really helps to share a belief system with more than one person, so there’s at least someone else around to help you out, and with more than one generation, so you have some history to learn from, if only about what not to do. No one should be surprised when I say that it particularly helps to be a Christian.
That’s not because Christians are better people. Hardly! As C.S. Lewis points out, it only makes sense that the easiest, most obvious path would the one followed by the people too weak to get to God the hard way—people whose shortcomings are so blatant that they can’t pretend even to themselves that they don’t need serious help: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Ever since Jesus began to preach, respectable folks were shocked, not by any excess of lofty purity, but by the wrecked and broken human beings who flocked to Him: tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and people like me.
I was baptized in the church, Sunday-schooled on and off over the years, and confirmed at age 13. But while taking my confirmation classes, I decided that the whole idea of someone else having to die for my sins was unjust, irrational, and frankly insulting. I spent the next six years trying to be a good person on my own power. I failed. (I hope people understand that I won’t offer details). So as I sat in church with my mother for a Christmas Eve concert in 1996, having come for the music but suddenly realizing that there would be a Eucharist offered as well, I decided in that moment to stand up, walk forward, and accept the bread and wine. “I’m falling,” I thought. “If You’re really out there—catch me!”
Since that day I have considered myself a Christian. I still struggle to be a good person. I still fail. But now I understand that my success or failure isn’t the question at all.
4. The disturbing news: We cannot earn Heaven by doing good; we cannot earn Hell by doing evil.
The belief that, after death, good people go to a Good Place and bad people go to a Bad Place isn’t a lousy idea. It’s certainly an improvement over certain pre-Christian belief systems that said that eternal life was the reward for performing certain esoteric rituals, like getting your body properly mummified, bathing in bull’s blood, killing farm animals at set times of the year while reciting certain verses, or whatever the Hellenic mystery cults did (they didn’t publicize the details, which is why they’re called “mystery cults”). The problem is you get into a horrible tangle over who’s good and who’s bad. The absurd extreme is our pop-culture image of Saint Peter standing in front of pearl-encrusted gates like the bouncer at the universe’s most exclusive nightclub, looking the newly dead up in a big book that rates every person’s every action on some kind of point system.
“By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 12:33), but in practice it can be very hard to figure out a person’s moral character from the results of their actions. Circumstances get in the way. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis again, one person may lose his temper and cause the deaths of thousands, while another person loses his temper and just gets laughed at. Conversely, anyone who’s been involved with a non-profit organization probably knows at least one person whose constant good-doing is driven by relentlessly self-agrandizing ambition; put the same person in a street gang or a warlord’s militia and they’d act from the same motives by hurting people instead of helping them—and still feel equally smug at the end of the day. So to make any kind of judgment, we have to start considering intentions, which are so notoriously unclear that I, personally, don’t always know my own true motives, let alone other people’s.
Now, an omnscient God presumably knows what is in your heart and your unconscious, and can determine everyone’s actual intentions, which would square this particular circle. But the Christian doctrine of salvation doesn’t say that: It says we are saved by faith.
Some Christians seem to think this means that as long as they “believe,” they are saved, guaranteed. There’s even one heresy that argued you could commit any atrocity you wanted as long as you said, sincerely, that you accepted Christ. This is roughly equivalent to saying, “I love my dad, and my dad loves me, so it doesn’t matter that I wrecked his car, stole his wallet, and beat my brother senseless with a baseball bat, ‘cause we love each other.” The logical response is, “Dude, where’s the love? Because I hear you saying it, but I’m not seeing it.” If you really love someone, you at least try to make them happy at least some of the time: “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”
Now, a lot of us bear pathetically small and unripe “fruit”: the alcoholic father who beats his kids one night and tucks them into bed with a kiss and an apology the next; the office drone who manages to look the waitress in the eyes and say “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” and actually waits for an answer before his eyes drop back to his Blackberry; the self-professed Christian whose most daring act of witness to date is to spend most of his workday typing a blog post on theology (hi!).
But here’s the knife in the gut: Even if I left my desk this minute, gave all my belongings to the poor, and devoted the rest of my life to healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, and deposing tyrants by sheer force of will, I would still screw up a lot. I would still let other people down. I would still die, one day, and all my good works would come to nothing over time. I would still, in short, be human.
And here’s the light in the dark: I don’t have to do everything right. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:48, right after “love your enemies” and “if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out”). But He knows we can’t. Even as He calls us to the highest of ideals, He knows there is no ideal worthy of the term that a human being has the strength to live up to—not completely, not consistently, and often not at all. Left to our own devices, we all live with constant failure and end in death.
But we’re not left to our own devices.
Everything comes from God. That includes us. Evil is a parasite with no power to create, an absence of the good with no existence of its own: Everything that makes it possible for us to do evil—strength, intelligence, willpower, the desire for pleasure, even existence itself—is in itself a good thing, a gift from God, however it may be misused. And we are free to misuse them. Given our shortcomings, in fact, we are bound to misuse them, some of the time. Our choice is not between being good or being evil, because no human being is ever going to be entirely either. Our choice is whether or not we keep on trying.
The Good News is that, if we try, God has promised to help us, even if it kills Him (and it did). Every time we believe his promise, accept that help, and try to do what’s right, succeed or fail, we strengthen that inmost part of ourselves that struggles to choose the good. This is faith as a deeply engrained habit, not an intellectual belief; and like any exercise program, it takes repetition over time. It takes failing, over and over, and then picking yourself up and trying again: That’s true repentance, not just saying “sorry.” Or, of course, we can decide to stay down, curl up, and sink into the cesspool of our own shit. We can choose to get comfortable with our failures, to prefer picking at our scabs to healing them, to think about our own small concerns instead of anything else, until we are so twisted in upon ourselves that we cannot escape.
Hell is not other people: Hell is being trapped with your worst self, forever. Hell is closing yourself off from God so completely that just brushing up against a trace of goodness burns like fire. I hope God does not grant such souls immortality. But if the gift of the Cross cannot be taken back—if some part of us continues beyond death no matter what—then we have infinite time to make ourselves more and more miserable until boiling pits and pitchforks sound comfortable by comparison.
But if death is not the end, we also have infinite time to make ourselves better, bit by bit, with God’s help, until we can stand up straight before the Lord and open ourselves completely to the good. I don’t know what that Heaven will be like. If I were capable of comprehending it, I suspect I would already be there—like Elijah taken up bodily in his chariot of fire. I do know I am promised the resurrection of my body, somehow perfected, not some ghostly shadow-existence: God created my flesh, after all, and He called it good. I dare to believe I will be changed, but not dissolved, that I will not disappear into God like a drop of water into the ocean, but be set at last in the right place for my existence to have beauty and meaning, like a tiny colored tile added at last to the great mosaic. I dare to believe that when I rise again, it will be the end of the world, but only the beginning of my real life.
God is within me. God is the source and essence of my being, and of yours, and of everything else that is. If it helps you, you can call this inner fire “the Holy Spirit.”
God is beyond me. God is the glory that exceeds my understanding, the joy greater than I could hope for, the truth which said “I AM” before I was conceived and which will endure forever. You can call this universal good “our Father, who art in Heaven.”
God is with me. God is the guide that leads the God-within towards God-beyond, the bridge between what I am and what I could be, the sacrifice that blazed a trail for me through death and out the other side. God is the friend who walks beside me in human form, knowing intimately all my human weakness, my sorrows, my fear, my mortality, and showing me a path that I can walk, even through the valley of the shadow. You can call this Jesus Christ.
Lord, I believe: Help thou my unbelief!