Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Christianity is a Verb

The title of this essay is a phrase I have been using recently in discussions about religion and the nature of Christianity. I have frequently said that I would like to write a book by that title. More than anything, however, I’d like to live my life in conjunction with it.

Christianity isn’t a title and most certainly isn’t an entitlement. “Christian” isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. Christianity isn’t the group you align yourself with; it’s the lifestyle you lead each and every day. Church isn’t an activity center; it’s a community outreach center.

In our earliest Christian writings, texts found both within the New Testament and outside the New Testament, we find that discussions like this – discussions about the very nature of Christianity and what it means to call one’s self a Christian – go back to the earliest days of Christianity. In New Testament theology, this discussion is one that goes by the more familiar theme of “faith vs. works.”

Faith was an integral part of early church life, much as it is today. For modern Christians, “faith” generally means trusting that God exists, that Jesus was his divine son, that he died for our sins, and that he rose again after three days.

For the earliest generation of Christians, however, “faith” was somewhat different. First, the question of God’s existence wasn’t one that generally concerned people. “Atheist” in the first century typically referred to someone who believed in a different god, not someone who had no faith in any gods. Someone who believed in no gods at all would likely have been called insane, rather than atheist.

Second, the earliest Christians didn’t think of Jesus as “divine,” the way that we do today. The idea that Jesus was literally God in the flesh did not come about in Christian circles until well after the first generations of Christians. The Trinity doctrine, for instance, wasn’t formulated and adopted until the 4th century C.E. For the earliest Christians, faith in Jesus meant faith that Jesus was a uniquely “God-inspired” person; a teacher and prophet through whom God worked directly; a human being through whom one could meet and engage the spirit of God. For a Jewish Christian in the 1st century, the very suggestion that Jesus had been God himself would have been seen as the worst kind of blasphemy. It would never have even crossed their minds. For Jews, God was so completely “other” that they didn’t even write his name. They used code words – abbreviations, essentially – to refer to God.

Third, while the idea of Jesus’ atonement and resurrection was an early development in Christian history, “resurrection” had a different meaning for those earliest Christians than it has for us today. Jewish tradition had conceived of resurrection as a physical event that happens to the body; you die, you are buried, and then your body comes back to life and you rise up out of your tomb. In Jewish theology, this was an event that was expected at the end of time, when God would finally reconcile the broken world to himself.

Jewish Christians, however, came to understand resurrection quite differently. Faced with the stark reality that their teacher had been brutally and unceremoniously executed by the Romans, they came to understand that, in death, Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God. He had died for their sins, like the Passover lamb, and had been raised up to the heavenly realms. For these earliest Christians, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension happened simultaneously. It wasn’t until later that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was separated from his death. So when those early Christian texts talk about resurrection, they are talking about spiritual resurrection, not bodily resurrection. When they talk about the risen Jesus appearing to people, they are talking about spiritual apparitions and religious ecstasy, not a literally dead person literally coming back to life and re-entering society. That sort of literalistic understanding of early Jewish Christian scripture is a product of later centuries and later Christians unfamiliar with the unique religious worldview of 1st century Jewish Christians.

Some of my readers may find this last point particularly difficult to accept. I recognize that and am sensitive to it. My opinion is that it doesn’t matter whether one conceives of resurrection as spiritual or physical – it might have been either one. Ultimately, it is a faith proclamation in either case, because it’s also possible that it didn’t happen at all, that Jesus just died and was dead. What is far more important is what that faith proclamation means for us as Christians.

And that ultimate meaning brings us back to faith vs. works. The apostle Paul, in his many writings now extant in the New Testament, talks a lot about faith. In a cursory examination of the NIV translation, I counted exactly 100 repetitions of some form of the word “faith” within Paul’s letters. And that was only counting the 7 letters scholars widely agree came from Paul. There are 6 or 7 others that have traditionally been attributed to him as well. Clearly faith was important for Paul.

Paul’s words about faith – particularly in Romans – have led to what I see as a major problem in modern Christianity. This is the idea that we are saved by “faith alone.” Paul argues, throughout Romans and elsewhere, that Christians are saved by faith, and not “works of the law.” This has been misunderstood in mainstream Christianity to mean that the “profession of faith” in God and Jesus is all that really matters. If you profess your faith and mean it, and if you “ask Jesus into your heart,” then you have attained salvation. Of course, there is plenty of lip service given to leading a good life, being kind to others, “living like Jesus,” and so on. But all of that is just icing on the cake. Salvation is actually attained by the profession of faith. It’s good to do the other stuff too, but it’s not required.

For me, this is a quite depressing misunderstanding of Paul, and it’s one that is unfortunately extremely common among Christians. When Paul spoke about “works of the law,” he wasn’t talking about “good deeds.” He was talking about Mosaic Law – Old Testament commandments about how Jews should live their lives. He was talking about things like dietary restrictions, lifestyle codes, circumcision, honoring the Sabbath, appropriately celebrating the various Jewish holy days, and so on. He was saying that these things don’t provide salvation because they are ultimately impossible to follow perfectly. Instead, salvation comes from God’s grace, through faith. And that isn’t just plain old faith. Paul makes it clear that the kind of faith he is talking about is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). In other words, faith is an action, not a mere profession.

That this was misunderstood even in the earliest generations of Christianity is apparent within the New Testament itself. People came to understand that all they had to do was profess faith in Jesus, and they were set. They had their “get out of death free” card. Much of the book of James is a response to misunderstandings Christians had over Paul’s direction about faith. James attacks those who think that mere professions of faith are good enough for salvation. What good is it, James asks, if you wish someone well, but don’t actually do anything to help them? In 2:17, he says: “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The word “works” in that passage is not referring to Mosaic Law. It is referring to good deeds. James is attacking the platitudes and religious stagnation he saw around him. People had their profession of faith, their conversion to Christianity, and they were content to sit on it, offering lip service at best. James says no. James says that’s wrong. James says you have misunderstood Paul. Paul was talking about Mosaic Law as it related to faith, not good deeds or lovingkindness in relation to faith. James makes clear what Paul frequently left ambiguous – that faith without good deeds and loving actions was a dead faith. It was meaningless. It served no purpose. It was, as I have said elsewhere, a windmill with no wind.

Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since the time of James. Many Christians still think a profession of faith is all they need to attain salvation. Like the Christians of James’ era, they have their “get out of death free” card, and they are content to sit on it. It’s too challenging to actually follow Jesus in the lifestyle he taught. It’s too challenging to actually give ourselves away to others. And more than that, it’s not at all convenient to our modern way of life in this materialistic, individualistic western society.

Jesus showed his followers how to live for others. He showed his followers how to love one another and work together for the common good. He demonstrated how the kingdom of God is a present reality that we all can take part in. He taught that the kingdom of God is our responsibility, not some future event that we have no control over. Early Christians textualized this teaching and asserted the importance of faith working through acts of love and compassion. For Jesus and the earliest Christians, salvation was never about the future. It was about the here and now, and it was attained through acts of love.

As a Christian, I don’t engage much in absolutes. I recognize that what we know about Jesus comes from ancient texts that are wide open to interpretation. I recognize that we can’t know anything about God other than what we discern from those texts that we consider authoritative, and from our own personal religious practice – prayer, meditation, etc. I believe that God can be approached from many different religious traditions and I do not believe in claims of theological exclusivity. I feel a high level of contempt for those religious persons who claim to have the exclusive pathway to heaven, and anyone who doesn’t follow them has an exclusive pathway to hell.

For me, salvation is about life in the here and now. I have hope for an afterlife, but religion, for me, is about how we act and live together here on earth, in the present. So when I talk of “being saved” or “not being saved,” I am not talking about eschatology – that is, ideas about the ultimate destiny of humanity and the world. I am not talking about the end of the world and what will happen to humans after they die. I don’t know what happens to people after they die. Instead, I am talking about life in the present. Salvation for me, then, is expressing love for God through acts of love for others. Those two things cannot be separated. I cannot express love for God unless I am living for others, and I cannot live for others without expressing love for God. I approach this salvation through the teachings of Jesus and the earliest Christians who taught in his name. If someone approaches God from a different religious tradition, but one with ultimately the same ends, then I consider them a brother or sister in God.

For me, if a Christian is not expressing love for God through acts of love for others – that is, if they are not living for others rather than for themselves – then they are not taking part in the kingdom of God promised by Jesus. They are Christians in name only – which means they aren’t Christians at all. As James said, their faith is as good as a corpse.

Even though those words come without any underlying threat of eternal damnation and ultimate eschatological absolutes, I realize they may seem harsh. And lest I appear as a monstrous hypocrite, I will be the first to admit that I frequently fall short.

There is nothing more difficult in modern western society than to actually live like Jesus taught us to live. Our culture teaches us to pursue wealth, pursue material and personal gain, pursue power and influence and authority and status, and live for ourselves even at the expense of others. It teaches us that individualism is the ultimate expression of humanity, and reinforces the idea that if someone fails or falls on hard times, they probably have only themselves to blame. We promote charity, but we expect to get a tax write-off for doing it. We promote living Godly lives, but we expect divine blessings in the form of material gain for doing it – the age old Gospel of Prosperity. We toss a few bucks in the offering plate, give some money to the Santa Claus at the Salvation Army bucket every Christmas, and give our old, worn-out clothes to Goodwill – and we think it’s enough. We’re nice to people, we try not to be hateful, and we generally attempt to be contributing members of society – and we think it’s enough. We say our prayers, we attend worship services, and we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain – and we think it’s enough.

My argument is that it’s not enough. My argument is that the life of Christ is a life of service to others. Not service just when it’s convenient. Not service in the form of platitudes. But a real, living, active lifestyle of service for others. Living for others and not for ourselves. Putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of ourselves.

That’s salvation. That’s living as part of the kingdom of God. That’s true faith. And even if we frequently fail to live to those standards, the least we can do is try. Make the attempt. When we fail, try again. And never stop trying.

If we do that, we are following the life of Christ. We are living Christianity as a verb. If not, we are just silent windmills in a vacuum.

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