Sunday, December 23, 2007

Are there any Christians?

A prophet of our age, Will Campbell, once said, "Baptists are the hope of the world, if we could only find some." My claim is that Christians are the hope of the world, if we could only find some.

For purposes of discussion, let me begin this way. If we were really Christians in the New Testament sense, most of us would give 50% or more of our income to help those who are worse off than we are. This is a simple implication and a modest, even weak, interpretation of the commandment to love your neighbor equally with yourself, not even to mention Matthew 5: 38 ff. To put it another way to get things going, Christians need to justify why they spend more on themselves than the median family income in this country, which by world standards makes us quite affluent. Radical Christianity would insist that we cannot have two coats as long as anybody in the world has none.

Peter Singer in a provocative essay pointed out that if we had the chance to save a child's life right before us, we would do so even at considerable sacrifice to ourselves. But he rightly noted the fact every time we spend a few dollars for something we don't absolutely need, a child dies who might have been saved had that money been given to, say, Oxfam. There is no way to escape the logic of that.

In another place I argued that the radical ethic of the New Testament was incompatible with civilization, i. e., the assignment of responsibilities with rules and expectations in a continuing society. Total self-giving love that demands nothing from the other is irreconcilable with assigned roles, duties, division of labor, accountability, and so on. The unqualified demands of sacrificial love require their implementation in the moment without regard for future consequences for self or others. Orderly life could not go on if no one ever insisted that others play their part, share the load, live by the rules of civilized society, and carry out their obligations. I concluded that the compromises necessary to have a continuing, organized society were not wrong but that we make the compromises long before and far more extensively than we need to for the sake of civilization.(1)

What, then is the value of an ethic of absolute ideals demanding perfection in this ambiguous, complex civilized world?. Reinhold Niebuhr and Alfred North Whitehead are my guides. Whitehead said that the impractical ideals of the first century are a standard by which to measure the shortcomings of society. "So long as the Galilean images are but the dreams of an unrealized world, so long they must spread the infection of an uneasy spirit" (Adventures of Ideas). A morally serious person of faith cannot read take equal love of neighbor seriously and be at ease with any social status quo.

Reinhold Niebuhr made the same point. Agape, Christian love, is an "impossible possibility" that is relevant in all situations as both judge of every present achievement and guide to further moral advance

OK, the objections: You want to make us feel guilty all the time. No, I am suggesting that our unrealized ideals are a spur and guide to action not a guilt-inducing mechanism.

You don't appear to know about salvation by grace through faith, not by works. O yes I do; it is our only hope. But I also know about "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer), and that that "right strawy epistle" (Luther), James, says that faith without works is dead. Nobody has ever worked out the relation between grace and law, faith and works in a satisfactory way that is descriptive of everybody, not Protestants, not Catholics, not Luther, not Calvin, not Wesley, not Reinhold Niebuhr.(2) They, however, along with the New Testament all teach that genuine faith expresses itself in good works.

I prefer a pragmatic, experiential approach. Those who are burdened by guilt at their lack of moral perfection need to hear the liberating word of grace. Those who are at ease in Zion need to hear the demand to do better and to reread Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches a doctrine of salvation by works that warns our failure to meet the neighbor's need will get us cast into the eternal flame. My observation is that the population of those at ease in Zion far, far outnumbers the guilt-ridden.

So why am I getting into all this? Here is why: The typical operational assumption among us is that being a Christian means living a respectable life by middle-class standards, being an active, faithful church member, giving generously to church and charities, and doing a usually modest (sometimes zero) amount of good works on a volunteer basis. That is the definition of a cultural Christian. Is it a definition of a New Testament Christian? I don't think so. For my reasoning, see the first two paragraphs.
(1) Complicating all this is the fact that we don't expect the end of the world very shortly (or live as if we do, even if we say we expect it) as Jesus and early New Testament Christians generally did. Even fundamentalists have life insurance policies and have savings plans for retirement.

(2) For one things the usual assumption is that you are either saved or lost; you either have faith or you don't (although this note is muted in modern liberals), whereas actual experience is too multifarious and variegated to fit a strict either-or logic. Both faith and works come in all sizes, varieties, strengths, and patterns.

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