Apologies up front. This is a bit of a ‘brain-dump’ post as I try and sort out some thoughts that have been running around my head. It largely draws on a number of different strands of thought coming from books I’ve read recently, sermons, and just general thoughts that are always lurking around. It’s also an opportunity to engage critically with one of those ‘light-bulb’ moments when things, for an instant, seem to make a little more sense.
I suppose it has its roots in my main concern of evangelicalism. For a very long time I’ve been unhappy about, what seems to me, too heavy a focus on ‘me’. Evangelicalism seems (and I accept that this is somewhat of a caricature) wholly concerned with ‘personal salvation’, ‘Jesus as my personal saviour’, ‘Do I know Jesus?’, ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ and all sorts of trite phrases that focus on ‘me’, not Jesus. The emphasis for evangelism is to get a person to make that ‘personal decision’ to follow Jesus. If they do that, then they will be saved (whatever that means). I’ve never seen scripture as being that self-focused and I can’t help but think that such an emphasis becomes too self-centred and self-serving. Scripture seems to me to have a much more corporate focus – but more of that later. Anyway, I got over that bias a good while back and have since adopted a much more ‘Kingdom’-focused theology that is less about ‘me’ and much more about community and relationships within that community.
It wasn’t a perfectly settled position though and was sufficiently rough round the edges to merit more thought and, to a degree, that’s where I am now. But, now to introduce one of the threads that’s been dangling. I’ve been reading some books by an American professor, Scot McKnight. He lectures at North Park University. Among his many books, there is what might be described as a very loose trilogy, building on an earlier work called The Jesus Creed. The Blue Parakeet, One.life, and The King Jesus Gospel all build on his project work started in The Jesus Creed. The can be broadly characterised by the phrase, “your […] is too limited.” In the first, it is our understanding of scripture. In the second it is our understanding of discipleship. In the third it is our understanding of salvation (gospel). Interestingly, they are all written from a very evangelical perspective, but one which seeks to get past the ‘personal’. They’re also written into a very US-centric context, so the issues they address are perhaps less common here in the UK, but nevertheless, in engaging with a creeping narrow fundamentalism, they still have some relevancy.
The books generally chime well with my overall theology – less focus on the personal, and more on the communal. They’re about what the work of the Kingdom is and our place in that. McKnight is less bothered about whether we end up in heaven of hell (for that’s not the trajectory of scripture anyway) but about whether we have a place in the Kingdom or not. And that is characterised by our works – not for salvation, but as an imperative of our faith. And the focus of those works is what Jesus (and the rest of scripture, for that matter) is concerned with – the outcast and stranger, injustice, the downtrodden and excluded, and so on. We may think we’ve ticked the box of ‘personal salvation’, but if we think we have, and do not participate in Kingdom work, then we’ve probably completely misunderstood ‘salvation’ anyway.
I still question elements of McKnight’s writing, but, on the whole, he has ‘redeemed’ evangelicalism, in a sense. He has turned the proclamation of the Good News towards its proper focus and lifted it away from the self-centred ‘soterian gospel’, as he terms it.
OK, so that’s one strand of thought that’s floating around my head. Another comes form last Sunday’s lectionary readings (and subsequent sermon). If you don’t follow the lectionary, or have forgotten already, the gospel reading was from Matthew 25:31-46 – the bit about the sheep and the goats, and doing things for ‘the least of these’. It’s a familiar text, much beloved of those who like their judgement and eternal punishment. But as I read it, and read some commentaries, I began to wonder whether the classic conservative evangelical reading of the passage was entirely merited and whether, indeed, it did not actually challenge much of that Calvinist teaching. But here’s where we hit a rough edge that needs engaged with and I’d appreciate any thoughts on the matter.
This passage makes two distinctions. One is obvious – the sheep and the goats. The other, less so – the Nations and ‘the least of these’. Setting aside the sheep and goats distinction, it’s the other that I find much more interesting and challenging. It seems to me that the ‘flock’ (of sheep and goats) gathered before the King/Judge is the Nations. It also seems to me that a Jewish reading of this would be that this is anyone not Jewish. By extension we could perhaps stretch that then to being anyone who is not Christian. And so what we have in this scene are non-Christians being judged, and rewarded with eternal life, for their works. But it’s more subtle than that. The ‘works’ are actually the deeds and reactions to the needs of ‘the least of these’ – arguably, the Christian community, who are identified as Jesus himself. So, by inference, the reaction to Christians is a tacit acceptance or rejection of Jesus. But note that there is no mention of becoming ‘Christian’ – only how Christians are dealt with. That, to me, raises all sorts of big questions over issues of ‘salvation’ – about who’s in and who’s out. And it turns the focus once again towards the Kingdom and its works and purpose.
So that’s floating around in my head as well along with yet another strand of thought that draws from two sources. The first is slightly more nebulous and involves Advent thoughts and the ‘waiting’ of the Jewish community for God’s direct engagement in the world, bringing freedom from oppression. The second is is related, in a sense. I’ve started reading Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus. If you haven’t read anything of Wright’s, I would highly recommend him as one of today’s most intelligent and accessible theologians. Anyway, I’m not too far into the book, but what struck me was his scene-setting for Jesus’ incarnation (which is what Advent is about, really).
It is patently obvious, or so it seems to me now, that whenever we speak of the scriptural understanding of salvation, or deliverance, or redemption, we can only do so at a ‘communal’ level. The Jewish expectation was that it was the Jews, as a people, as a nation, which would be saved. Personal salvation doesn’t seem to be a factor. And so, again by extension, why do we think that we can turn the very Jewish Jesus, and his very Jewish teachings, into a personal goal? Is this the arrogance of Western Christianity at play? Furthermore, what Jesus achieved through his life, death and resurrection, was not salvation for individuals, or even just for the Jews, but something which extended to the entirety of creation. Christ died for all! in a very communal sense.
So,where these strands of thought have taken me is to a place which feels more ‘coherent’ and has greater integrity, but needs more refinement. The ‘corporate’ or ‘communal’ nature of salvation overcomes the issue of a me-centred gospel. But it also ensures that what I am called into is not only a ‘personal’ relationship with Christ, but into a whole set of redeemed and restored relationships – self, God, community, creation. We cannot stop at the ‘I’m alright, I’m saved’ proclamation, because that only reflects one aspect of those restored relationships. It is our coming into the work and purpose of the Kingdom (that is here now, in imperfect form; a pale reflection of the future Kingdom in all its glory) that shows the restoration of those other relationships.
It also means that I can stop focusing on the question of whether ‘I’ am ‘saved’ – the issue of assurance. I am already ‘saved’ – that ‘corporately-inclusive’ act of Jesus assures me of that. Am I a Christian? (the least of these) is evidenced by my works – also to ‘the least of these’ (this time a more broadly-inclusive definition, for what the Mt25 passage also shows is that we are all, Nation and ‘the least’, under God’s care).
Where does this line of thought push us? It certainly raises issues of universalism. It also raises questions around what defines whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’ – and it becomes less about ‘me’ and more about who I identify with.
Does this detract from grace and move more towards works? Or does it even place too much emphasis on what I do and decide? I don’t think so (but I’m willing to be corrected) because I think, if anything, it makes God ‘bigger’ than we would often perceive or show Him (that idea of our […] being too limited). It shows that God’s grace is all-encompassing. It also doesn’t mean that God accepts anything based on a corporate-inclusivity. The idea of faith and works becomes inseparable, both at a personal and communal level – just as the Old Testament witnesses to in its chronicling of the history of the Jews. It doesn’t suggest that works alone will save us, but it does raise awkward questions over what might be termed ‘anonymous Christianity’.
Like I said, this is a brain-dump, just to get some thoughts teased out and work out where they might go. Any comment and critique is welcome.