Friday, March 27, 2009

The Obsoleteness of Some Classical Dualisms

Christian theology inherited a set of dualities from the Bible that have been the source of mischief and of irresolvable problems.

1. The first -- and fundamental one--is the sharp distinction between the saved and the lost. This can be traced to apocalyptic thought in which at the Endtime a final judgment will separate the sheep from the goats, roughly -- though not universally or without qualifications -- translatable into Israel and its enemies. In the New Testament this dualism is spiritualized and universalized and functions without regard to nation, race, or ethnicity but still divides the human race into two distinct categories. You are fundamentally either in or out; you go to heaven or to hell (Matthew 25).

2. The second is between salvation by grace or by works as determining whether you are to inherit the Kingdom or not, i. e., be a sheep or a goat. However grace and works are related and whether grace goes to those divinely chosen (Calvin) or who freely accept proffered grace (Arminius) and however the two might be combined in the total picture, the fundamental distinction between the saved and the lost is not abrogated here and hereafter-- with rare exceptions (Origen, e. g.).

3. The third is between justification and sanctification -- closely related to but not identical with grace and works. Justification is absolute; you either are or are not justified-- saved or lost--whether by grace or works or some combination. Sanctification is a matter of degree. You can be in a perpetual paradox -- justified and yet a sinner, no matter how good your works get (Luther), or you can move part way (Calvin) or ideally totally toward perfection (Wesley), with most reserving total sanctification for the life beyond.

Brevity compels me to assume that readers can spell out the major positions that been taken and the names of theologians who developed them over the centuries. History discloses a complex variety that would take volumes to detail and that cannot be represented accurately in every respect in a few words. (The professor is leaving an escape hatch for himself.)

The problem with all these dualities is that the complexity and variety of human experience defy the precision they seek. There is no way the spiritual and moral multifariousness of actual life in real people can be fit into the classical theological categories designed for the purpose without vitiating them. In fact they were not developed inductively by reasoning from experience. Rather, in classical theology they were constructed from the exegesis of texts and by using the vocabulary that arose over the centuries and applied to experience, although experience certainly entered into their original formation and were tested through the ages by experiential references, though the inherited tradition provided the fundamental referent points in deciding among options.

Let us admit these categories with their dualities do not function operationally in many churches these days, especially those in the mainstream of non-fundamentalist, non-creedal ones. Liberal professional theologians give vary degrees of attention to them in their constructive work, and the everlasting distinction between the saved and the lost has been generally abandoned, along with the notion of a never-ending hell for the wicked. For some, belief in the reality of life beyond death is itself optional. Even when the classical categories are employed, it often seems it is more out of respect for tradition rather than as essential tools of thought.

Why, then, do I bother? Good question! I guess because the professional in me likes to practice a little in retirement mode.

The alternative to classical categories is some form of holistic thinking which employs more organic models using biological analogies like health. I propose that the physical, moral, and spiritual dimensions of health in their unity, distinction, and interdependence are manifested in "infinite variety" (Shakespeare). The Hebrew notion of shalom meaning "completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord" (Strong's Concordance 7965) might be a good place to start.

This would produce a continuum from the least moral and spiritually fit human being to the most healthy, e. g., as we would get with physical health. While there are certainly enormous differences between human beings with respect to their relationship to God and neighbor, any bright line between the saved and the lost would be arbitrary and of limited utility.

Well, you can take it from there.

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