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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The nature of salvation

Is salvation universal?

Will God ultimately accept everyone—good and evil, sinner and saint?

If you believe in an all-loving and merciful God, then the answer has to be yes. If you believe that God is love and life, then the answer has to be yes. If you believe God loves even with our imperfections, then the answer has to be yes.

We'll get back to that in a moment, but for now let's wrestle with one of the great moral dilemmas of our time: what it means to be good.

If you keep church law because you are afraid of the consequences that's not goodness, it's just being scared. Good and evil are not just about what you do, but about what you love.

Goodness is loving what's good and that, knowing it's opposite, you still choose the good. We kicked off the second half of RCIA class last night with a reading of Chapter 2 of St. Paul to the Ephesians:

Generosity of God's Plan. You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient.

All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), rasied us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

The launching point for discussion was the first passage, "You were dead in your transgressions and sins…." What does that mean? That we are damned, stained, flawed? As we began to talk this through, the absurdity of what we've been taught begins to take hold and we, or at least I, begin to wonder why we never questioned the teaching before.

If we believe that we are stained and need to make up for our flaws then we are saying we believe in a God who says, "I made you imperfect and now I'm going to hate you for it so you'll have to do an awful lot to make up for it."

"If you have that stained, damned, good/evil mentality then you don't trust God," says Father Bob. "And that's a big problem in Christianity." Because you can love something that's flawed and imperfect. In fact, all human love is that way. Father Bob says that's the way in which God loves us. The false possibility of perfection is what makes us neurotic.

He introduced us to the notion that we need to hold different views in tension, not elevate or exaggerate one over the others. For example, Jesus' death as sacrifice became a dominant theme in Christianity. A such, his death is seen as a ransom to an angry God. There's truth in that statement, but it's not all true.

Take, for example, our notion of sin. The Bible is not terribly concerned with personal sin. And yet we are obsessed with it. The Bible is concerned with "corporate" sin, as in "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is more concerned with sins against humanity — genocide, slavery, persecution, etc.

Catholics are obsessed about sins involving the body. The Bible sees salvation as corporate, we see it as personal. Jesus preached against corporate evil. Most of the big personal sinners in invited into his fold. We see salvation as private.

"I've got to get to heaven. If you do that's great, but I've got to worry about me." The whole notion of church is that we help each other to reach salvation. But in reality, our modern Catholic churches are more akin to buses — we're all going in the same direction but we don't care who else is on board. Unless, of course, it earns us points by helping them.

In the Old Testament, the Jews viewed salvation as corporate — everybody gets it, good and bad. We see salvation as our choice. Jesus' revelation is that God's love is universal and complete for all humanity and it is not contingent upon us earning it.

Just look at our own relationships. Are they predicated on having to earn each other's love or to live up to a standard that's been set? If so, they probably won't last because then we're only playing at love, not actually loving.

Likewise, the church is not an agent of salvation. No human institution can control God's salvation.

And what, then, is the nature of evil? Is it necessary? In affect, evil is necessary. There is evil and there are people who love evil and choose evil over good. I don't believe in a personified evil. But I do recognize there is tremendous evil in the world. But the devil can be seen as an easy out. "The devil made me do it." But if the devil made you do it, then you don't have free will.

What of God's will? Is it preprogrammed? Someone dies and people often remark that it was God's will or that God took him. But it can't be preordained. Is it your will that your children lead a happy life? Of course. Can you make that happen? No, but you can impact it indirectly by loving, listening, being there, showing them good, etc. We can't guarantee they will be happy, but we can help. It's the same with God's will.

This lead eventually to the question of eternal life. We are working our way through a chapter on salvation that includes this definition of eternal life:

"We are mortal like every creature, mortal with our whole being—body and soul—but we are also kept in the eternal life before we lived on the earth, whilewe are living in time, and after our time has come to and end."

In other words, God is always present to us even though we may not be present to God. What we are called to seek is union with God. It's what the mystics wanted and it's what the Buddhists and Hindus know through different means. So why don't Christians understand this?

Because we are all deeply influenced by Plato (who, of course, was not a Christian). For Plato, the physical is not real, only the spiritual. For Plato, what is most real about a person is your soul. Your body dies but you soul goes on. That's common Catholic/Platonic thinking.

But Jesus was a Jew and he did not believe he had a soul. For Jews, God's life is inside of you. God's breath ("ruwach" in Hebrew) is what makes humans different from animals (contrary to the oft-taught Sunday school maxim that our souls made us different from the animals).

What makes us different from other living creatures is that God made us in his image. "This makes the resurrection so much more meaningful. The whole person is revivified," says Father Bob. We're looking forward to that discussion.

So what does total union with God look like? Father Bob believes it is freedom from desire. We can't imagine that and we don't want to imagine it. Death is the enemy in Christianity and Father Bob says our fears are fundamentally related to trust. We blame God for death. We are finite creatures and we hate that we're not God. We're also afraid we'll be disappointed in death. That the surprise will not be that great and it will be a huge letdown. We laughed at this description, but it's probably closer to the truth than any of us cares to admit.

Salvation, however, is about giving up control.

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