An increasing number of people, and especially the young adults that I work with each day, have come to identify with the malleable phrase “spiritual, but not religious.” There is good reason to believe that all kinds of people identify with the phrase, including some of the most highly religious people in the country, those conservative Evangelicals that proclaim “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship.” Even setting this ambiguity aside, it’s undeniable that many folks today are pleased to find “god” without the trappings of associating with a traditional religious community.
I spend a significant amount of time explaining Roman Catholic beliefs to my evangelical and Protestant friends. As a theologian it is part of my calling to illuminate and clarify. So much of what non-Catholics say about Catholicism is intended to obscure.
Recently I had a friend invite me to speak on a panel discussing a pretty basic and essential question: Why does Jesus Matter?
I suppose that as an Assemblies of God minister there is an expectation as to how I would answer this question. In fact, I dare say that those who invited me to speak on the matter invited me for just this reason. They wanted to hear a clear articulation of the traditional answer to the question.
My Assemblies of God argues that “Man’s only hope of redemption is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Salvation is received through repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, being justified by grace through faith, man becomes an heir of God, according to the hope of eternal life.” (http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_full.cfm#5)
As far as it goes I have not one concern about this position, even though it has come under attack as somehow creating an image of a blood thirsty God who is simply waiting for us to mess up so that we can suffer eternal damnation. These critiques are simply misunderstandings and even a person with an undergraduate degree in theology can respond adequately: God does not desire to punish anyone but God’s holiness demands righteousness. This is not a limit on God, it is a fact of the very condition of holiness. We do not critique darkness because it is unable to accommodate the presence of light. It just is this way as an aspect of the very definition of the thing. And so the traditional argument that the importance of Jesus lies in how he is able to make it possible for unholy people to stand in the presence of God, by taking on their unrighteousness and exchanging it for his righteousness, is part of the message of the cross of Jesus. Jesus, being sinless and in fact even holy, did not suffer the death which is caused by his sin, rather he suffered the death of our sin in our place so that we may live life at its most full. Praise God.
But I simply cannot stop there. To do so would be a little like stopping at the narthex of a great cathedral because you had in fact, “gotten into” Notre Dame or St. Paul’s or the like.
My wife and I have a nerdy pastors’ tradition of making one of our vacation destinations a visit to the nearest cathedral to where we are taking vacation. Maybe the greatest that I have seen is St. Patrick’s in Manhattan but most of the great cathedrals share a common trait: the narthex is built such that when you enter it you are clear that you have not yet entered the greatest part of the cathedral. You can see rich imagery and form just beyond the narthex and you are drawn to keep walking past the narthex and enter the fullness of the cathedral.
I think stopping with the saving work of Jesus for you and me is a bit like stopping in the narthex. It is in fact part of the Gospel, but you and I are not the most important aspect of the Gospel story: God is.
If we were to rub our eyes a bit, as you do in the morning when you haven’t seen clearly in a while, we could begin to see the Gospel story’s significance is about the world which God has and is creating and re-creating. This story is significant not only because it includes the way in which each of us will enjoy God’s presence forever but more importantly because the Gospel is a continuous revelation of who God is independent from and yet imaged by God’s good creation. God made the world that he might enjoy it and that his creatures might properly enjoy him, but also because the way of the Gospel which is told in the story of God’s creation actually reflects the person and being of God. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at the story of creation and joy in the early chapters of Genesis. Look at Moses and the Exodus. Look at David and his salvation from both his enemies and his own sin. Look at Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. And ultimately, look at the redemption of all things in the final chapters of Revelation. That is what God is like. And if the story continues to play out as we are told it will, then we will all see the beauty of a God who makes in his own image.
So where does Jesus fit into this greater story? All of Christian theology deals with this question in one way or another. For brevity, I will function on only the two most significant aspects of Jesus’ ministry as window into the rest.
We cannot and should not ignore the cross of Christ in this wider and more expansive account of Jesus’ significance. Paul’s emphasis on preaching “Christ crucified” was central to his message, if for no other reason than its absurdity as a way of redeeming the world (I Cor. 1:17-31).
The cross of Christ is significant because it reveals to us our own sinfulness. Even the righteous man will not be spared the violence of sinners. When the truly righteous comes, his death will be the result of a conspiracy between political and religious leaders and even his own friends, all among those whom are expected to be the most holy in the community. Jesus crucifixion reveals to us the depth of humanity’s fallen nature. In the great sermons recorded in the book of Acts “whom you crucified” is spoken of as a word of judgment against those who conspired (Acts 2:36, 3:15, 4:10, 7:52-53). The cross by itself is not the glory of Christ, but the shame of sinful humanity.
The very heart of the Gospel lies in the second movement, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3:15). Paul put it another way, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I. Cor. 15:17).
Why is the resurrection of Jesus so important? Because his resurrection is the “firstfruit” of our coming resurrection (I Cor. 15:20). When we read the end of the story, those final chapters of Revelation tell a story of God’s city coming down out of heaven to dwell among people. God’s presence no longer will live in temples, but will be among the people. And what will be the great indicator that this has come? There will be no more mourning or death or crying of pain. All these things will give way to the power of resurrection. A power whereby “death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Jesus resurrection matters because it is the first moment of the initiation of the new world. Everything changes on Easter morning.
These different aspects of the Gospel message do not need to be set against one another. There are even a great number of other ways of construing the importance of Jesus. Orthodox Christians would say that the union of human and divine is the beginning of our union with God. Some Christians speculated that Jesus was the “ransom” for a debt owed to Satan. And some Christians have argued that Jesus made possible the path to the righteous kind of life by first living the righteous kind of life.
These are not mutually exclusive. There are some ways in which one of the other might be construed which would be exclusive. Jesus as a moral example has sometimes been proposed as an exclusive because it has been suggested that Jesus was necessarily human to the exclusion of divine. This is a problem for Christian orthodoxy. But most of these other proposals are parallel and not contradictory.
But I do think it matters which of these we try to articulate. The message that Jesus forgives us of our sins because of his sacrifice on the cross is important for persons seeking their life to be reconciled to God. This is the reason that this aspect has been told so many times.
But the proposal that I have just suggested has audiences which are drawn to it as well. Viewing Jesus this way means that you can affirm the place of the world in God’s plan of redemption. It means that you can account for the gross injustices in the world with hope that God cares and will do something about it. If the Kingdom has begun, it can also mean that we have some hope that small pockets of Christians may overcome injustice, even if only temporarily, as a sign and witness that God will finally defeat death in an overwhelming and final victory. That is Good News. And Jesus matters because his story is Good News.
I had a friend ask to write a blog entry about how I understand interfaith relationships and the future of interfaith relations. His blog can be found at: http://uindyinterfaithforum.wordpress.com/
This is my humble response:
Within about three weeks, I realized that this was a radical group of Christian disciples. And my life was never going to be the same. It hasn’t been the same.
About seven years ago, I had another life-changing experience. This time it was a small chapel with a couple dozen college students. There was incense and statues and brightly colored robes with a priest who spoke in a slow and monotone voice. He spent the next hour or so explaining each element of the Roman Catholic Mass. He told us about how the multiple readings of Scripture pointed to the importance of the whole Bible. He explained about how the Eucharistic prayer recounted a summary of the whole of salvation history. And then he handed out little wafers and a quick drink of wine and told the group gathered that Jesus was present in those humble gifts: and he meant it.
But I had long thought that Roman Catholics had hidden the truth of Jesus Christ among their stylized rituals. Suddenly I realized that the faith I held so dear was at the center of those rituals. After talking with a few Roman Catholic friends, it became clear to me that life was never going to be the same again. It hasn’t been the same.
Not only did I discover that I had been sorely wrong about the faith of my Roman Catholic friends, but I began to realize that I may very well be wrong about a great deal of other things. But you simply can’t live that way. You can’t walk through daily life without some idea of how the world works and what your place in it is.
So I made a pledge. I cannot dismiss the religion of another as foolish. And I must not give up the faith I hold so dear as I explore life and faith and truth with those who see things quite differently than I. Those notions were formed in the context of a Pentecostal Christian learning from Roman Catholic Christians. But the tension between these two commitments doesn’t stop at the border of confession of Jesus.
The tension between learning from the Other and holding on to the faith which gives you life and hope can never be resolved easily. And the generation who I serve as a University Chaplain at UIndy is ready to fully explore a world that is marked by shades of gray. I think that the future of interfaith relationships is going to be marked by these two realizations.
People in the emerging generation have eaten at table with Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Wiccan. Some of the beliefs and commitments of these folks strike them as dead wrong. On the other hand, I don’t know very many Christians, even those who count themselves among the radical Christian disciples, who have a prayer life which equals the prayer lives of their faithful Muslim friends. We have some things to learn from each other, but some of our differences go down to the core of who we are and will never be reconciled.
Dismissing the Other without questioning your own beliefs and practices is too simplistic. The problem is, you might be dead wrong: just as I was about my Roman Catholic friends.
But giving up the good gift that God has given me as a Pentecostal Christian denies the gift that I have to offer the world as I pray for healing and I live for Jesus. If I give up my commitment that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” to pretend that we all worship the same God, then it seems that I have little to bring to the conversation and little hope for my life or theirs.
There must be another option: one that is filled with ambiguity. But the ambiguity encourages a life where faith is the “evidence of things not seen.” It takes a mature and faithful person to raise their hands to God in worship and be fully aware that another faithfully religious person thinks you are deeply mistaken in that act of worship. These are things that you discover when you refuse to let these difficult questions at the intersection of faiths be resolved with bumper-sticker theology.
This generation of faithful leaders will not be so easily charmed by images of a black and white world. And I think their commitment to God will be better for it.