Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ

I’ve recently begun a three month experiment in co-leading a small group of self-described cynics, skeptics and religious misfits engaging our questions at the intersection of life and God.  Tonight we’ll be revisiting what it means that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).

This implicitly exclusivist claim makes me squirm.  It only takes a brief survey of my own very messy, imperfect life to warrant deep discomfort with the idea that simply because I’m following Jesus, I’ve got more of a monopoly on truth and life- and God, for that matter- than my Buddhist or agnostic neighbor.

Just the other day I ran into an old acquaintance at the pool.  One of the things I love about this friend, “Q,” is that she breaks all the molds: she’s Muslim and likes to wear string bikinis when she works out, looks a bit like a female version of Bob Marley with her long dreadlocks, and will be retiring from a career in corporate America to write children’s books.  She and I were jokingly commiserating about how our life circumstances have made us a bit jaded, so that it can often feel like we’re walking around in a bit of a low-grade depression- hence our frequent trips to the pool to swim.   “But you’ve got Jesus!,” Q exclaimed in jest at my own admission. “I keep asking the prophet Muhammad to help me out!,”  We both had a good laugh.

Maybe the point that Jesus is “the Way” isn’t so much that those of us who would call ourselves followers of Christ have “arrived.” Or, similarly, that if Jesus is “the Truth” we Christians have some static possession of absolute truth. Or, that if Jesus is “the Life,” we will always be running around with perma-glued smiles, radiant, bubbly and high on life, contrary to what Joel Osteen might imply. (I still would like to know where he got his smile, though.)

I would venture to guess that the “direction” here is as important as the “destination.”  We’re spiritually en route to God and Truth and Life like everybody else- only the particular way we have chosen is the Way who is Jesus, and this Jesus is uniquely the very “temple of God.”  Like no other person who has walked this sad, old earth, Jesus is the living, breathing meeting place between heaven and earth.

And walking Jesus’ way is hard-going.  The nineteenth century theologian, Sören Kierkegaard, in his own meditations on John 14:6, emphasizes that the thing that distinguishes Jesus’ Way from others, making Jesus’ way more “narrow” than other ways that also involve poverty, suffering and misunderstanding, is the element of free will. “Christ chose humiliation,” Kierkegaard writes.  Those who follow Christ must choose humiliation also, and this path of humiliation is inseparable from the glory of the destination to which Christ gestures.

Kierkegaard goes on to write that like a mother teaching her child to walk, Jesus goes before us: “Jesus does not go by his disciples’ side, but is himself the goal, and turns himself toward the believer.  He stretches out his arms just as a mother does, if perchance she stands so far away that she cannot get near the child, then she stretches out her arms and moves them as if she were all the time grasping the child, although there is too great a distance between them for this.  So solicitous is the mother- more solicitous she could not be, because otherwise the child would not learn to walk.”

Maybe Kierkegaard is right- that when it comes to knowing our direction and destination (ultimately God) we are all like kids learning how to take our first steps.  While some of us may pretend to go it alone, we all in actuality use handrails of one sort or another.  All of us will stub our toes, or skin our knees, or take a nose dive.  But chances are we all, if we’re honest with ourselves, could use a loving and vigilant parent to help us learn to walk.  And it would seem by extension that if Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He is the most reliable parent on offer.

 

“Rightness” Versus Truth

Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at First Baptist Decatur yesterday six years following the publication of her memoir, Leaving Church.  She is one of my role models for her authenticity (an over-used word, I know, but for lack of a better term), groundedness and commitment to telling the truth as a preacher turned writer.

Taylor began her talk with a helpful distinction.  Pastors spend much of their time being concerned with “rightness” and “wrongness.”  Taylor had spent years in the pastorate doing just this, because “being right” had been part of her implicit job description.  But when she sat down to write Leaving Church, Taylor set out to tell a story that most fundamentally was simply “true”- true to her own experience, which may or may not be true for her readers, but was indeed true for her.

I like the distinction.  It helps to explain the gap between our smiling faces in church that show only “shards” (Taylor’s term) of ourselves on Sunday mornings and the rest of our lives- why it is that we so often retreat from church when life throws us a curve ball in the form of a divorce, or depression or some other kind of devastating new story line.

In times like these, we’re not looking for rightness or wrongness.  We’re looking for Truth.  We’re looking, whether or not we know it, for Jesus.

And, the good news here is that we don’t have to look far for the Truth.  The Truth just “happens” to us.  All we need to decide is whether to tell the truth.

Many of us don’t.

 

Observations on Grief

This photograph was taken on Memorial Day in 1983 and received the Pulitzer Prize the following year. (Credit: Anthony Suau/Denver Post.)

I’m learning more about the nature of grief as I make my way through Hilary Spurling’s fascinating biography of Pearl Buck.  Pearl’s only child, Carol, was born with a rare, degenerative condition that left her mentally disabled for the rest of her life, and Pearl found herself trying to raise her daughter in a day and age when disability was treated as a shameful secret to be hidden away and not discussed.  (I would submit that while we have come a long way here on behalf of people with disabilities and their families, we have a long way to go.)  Pearl soon learned in this context that the only way she could really bear her deep grief as a mother was silently and alone.

“Endurance is only the beginning,” Pearl wrote years later.  She went on to write, as paraphrased by Spurling, that “learning to bear grief that cannot at first be borne has to be done alone.”

Pearl dissected her grief into stages, beginning with devastation and disintegration. “Despair so profound and absorbing poisons the whole system and destroys thought and energy.”

How often, I wonder, do we apply Bandaid faith solutions to people’s grief?  The assurance, “God is with you”- regardless of its inherent veracity- seems empty, disingenuous and even cruel in these times.

I’ll never forget walking with a family whose only daughter, in her twenties, was fighting for her life against a rare blood disorder.  Gidgett had put on a brave face for a long time with this lifelong illness, spending days and even weeks at a time in the hospital for transfusions and other interventions.

The turning point came when she was told both legs would have to be amputated.

It was then that she succumbed.  Her will to live had itself expired.  She survived the operation only to die several weeks later.

I remember getting the call in the middle of the night.  Her father stood outside her room and yelled angrily at God through his tears.  His only daughter had been taken from him, and the very last person he wanted to see right now was the on-call chaplain.

Grief like this must be borne alone.  Even the compassion that friends, family and a community of faith may offer can only go so far in expressing solidarity with the one who has been undone by loss.  When the apostle Paul writing to the Galatians instructs them to bear one another’s burdens, I imagine he does so as someone who is very much alone within the bars of his prison cell.  And maybe the sacred “burden” we bear for one another is the sheer loneliness of another’s unknowable, often inexpressible grief.  We must acknowledge it, I think, lest we do violence to the other.  We must be willing to be taught and to use our imaginations in order to construct something of the inner landscape of the one who grieves.  This is the closest we can get to “being with” the one who endures deep loss.

 

 

 

 

“Flirt to Convert”: The Promise and Peril of Missionary Dating

I’m not sure this is what Jesus had in mind with the “Great Commission,” but I could be wrong!

Apparently Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is doing a whole series on dating and relationships: “You Make Me Crazy” offers “survival skills for relationships.”  I guess “Christian dating” is just one of those perennially hot topics.

When I was dating, the burning question was whether to engage in the questionable practice of so-called “missionary dating”- this, thanks to that oft-quoted, Pauline proof text, “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

It seemed, however, that all or at least most of the cool guys in those golden college years were the ones who were not spending their Friday nights strumming guitars and singing praise music at an InterVarsity worship service.

I solved the dilemma at the time by keeping my faith and dating life pretty much separate.  Paul, my husband to be, was a worldly, slightly older Ph.D. student whose sense of humor and charm gradually broke my hardened resolve to “play the field.”  We met- how’s this for nerdy?- at the underground library where I worked.  The dim, fluorescent lighting, hushed whispers and sterilized cubbyholes (a.k.a. make-out rooms) of “Cross Campus Library,” as it was called, became a kind of petri dish in which this nascent love between an evangelical Christian and an agnostic could develop.

Paul’s parents were (and remain) somewhere on a spectrum between agnostic and atheist.  Mine were (and remain) more old-school evangelicals and former missionaries.  (You might imagine what their first meeting was like following my future husband’s marriage proposal.  Dare I say, “awkward”?  Thank goodness for wine!)

Paul’s lack of faith proved difficult in those first couple years of our relationship.  By the time things had progressed to “serious,” (meaning I had decided to date Paul exclusively), Paul had begun attending both a weekly graduate men’s Bible study and Sunday worship services; and he had discovered to his great surprise that you can be a Christian and still have fun and be smart.  These would be important milestones on a gradual journey that at some point along the way involved a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

But the external pressure to break up, often coming from the Christian circles in which I found myself at the time, was often hard to resist.

When I tried out for the only Christian singing group on campus, a rather dour, sour-faced couple who were leaders in the group- they came right out of central casting as seventeenth century Puritans, but without the costumes- sat me down to say that I would be rejected because I was dating an unbeliever.  That episode sparked a rather dramatic, emotional break-up with Paul, made all the more difficult by the fact that he and I were still attending the same worship service on Sunday mornings.

On one Sunday during that tearfully laden period of separation, we happened to run into one another on our walk back to campus.  It began to rain.  Paul had the umbrella, which he happily shared, and moments later we were passionately smooching one another in a thunderstorm just outside my dorm- at which point, the seventeenth century Puritans just happened to walk by.  It was like the college version of the movie, “Saved,” and we were back together, this time having vowed not to let Christian peer pressure keep us apart.

When Paul writes to the church in Corinth telling them not to be “unequally yoked” to unbelievers, he is well aware of the context: the church in Corinth is navigating boundaries in a culture known for its wild, promiscuous lifestyle; it is a culture in which even religious acts of worship have become loud, sexual orgies.  So Paul, in this context, is not giving free, pre-marital advice here; instead he is offering some basic guidelines that will help the Corinthian church live into their relationship with God and one another.

Still, experience has much to teach on the promise and peril of “missionary dating.”  Maybe both the promise and the peril could best be summed up in one word: “transformation,” either for better or worse, and for us I’d like to think that change was mostly for the better. There is no doubt that both Paul and I changed in the process of getting to know one another and falling in love.  There is no doubt that seventeen years later (five years of dating plus twelve years of marriage) we are both very different people than when we began this whole journey together.  And there is also no doubt that just as God was at work in my life before I met Paul, God was at work in Paul’s life before he met me- and has been ever since.

Did this reality require that Paul be a Christian in the first place? Of course not.  Thankfully God doesn’t abide by our often useless categories.  In fact, I would venture to guess that God derives great belly laughs from connecting all sorts of different people and watching their “conversion” in the process. Because life, afterall, as the preacher reminded me on Sunday, really is all about learning how to love better.

So, what do you think about “missionary dating,” based on your own experience and reading of Scripture? Is it a misnomer to begin with?  Is it more perilous than promising or more promising than perilous?  Leave your thoughts below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ask Sister Gramick Anything: How Would You Reform the Church?”

Sister Jeannine Gramick has fearlessly taken on the Vatican around issues of church reform.

I’ve just made the virtual acquaintance of Sister Jeanine Gramick, thanks to yesterday’s installment of Andrew Sullivan’s series, “Ask Sister Gramick Anything.”  Sr. Gramick may be best known for her work at the helm of an organization that she started back in 1977: “New Ways Ministry” advocates for the inclusion of gay and lesbian Catholics and their rights within the church.  As someone who belongs to a church that is “reformed, always being reformed,” I’m primarily interested in what Gramick has to say here around how the Catholic church most critically needs to change- from a more “totalitarian” (Gramick’s term) expression of government, based on outdated notions of “papal infallibility,” to more fluid, democratic incarnations of church.

I suspect that Gramick is also giving voice to a trend that we are seeing trans-denominationally, as churches everywhere adapt to new contexts for mission and ministry.  It is also a trend that, I believe, contains all sorts of life-giving potential for creative, ecumenical, cross-pollinating partnerships in the service of the church and more importantly the world.  Maybe it goes without saying that I hope the trend continues.

You can hear Sister Gramick’s answer here.

 

 

Evil in “High Places”- Why This Week’s Convictions Belong to a Long Struggle for Justice

Jerry Sandusky was sent straight to jail following last night’s guilty verdict and will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Philadelphia’s Msgr. William Lynn will serve a prison sentence of 3.5-7 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. - Ephesians 6:12 (King James Version)

This week the man at the center of the Penn State scandal, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years.  (See “The Little Ones: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued.”) Coincidentally, Sandusky’s guilty verdict came on the very same day that Monsignor William J. Lynn was found guilty of endangering children, becoming the first senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision.  Also coincidentally, these almost co-occurring guilty verdicts came in the same state, sending (in the state of Pennsylvania at least) a strong message to sexual predators and the institutions that protect them.  Hopefully other states are taking note.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. was right- that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice”- then the arc in these cases has bent just a bit more, even if it has a long way to go.  The next harder and more elusive but equally important task will be to bring to justice the many others guilty by association- those in power who, by keeping silent or covering up these evils, colluded with Sandusky and his clerical counterparts.

Because I have to imagine that when the apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, reminding them that their struggle is not with “flesh and blood,” but with the powers and principalities that rule this world, institutionalized evil would have been at least one of the things Paul had in mind here.  Some translations render the last words of verse 12 as “heavens,” but I prefer the King James translation: the “high places” are where the powerful sit, clinging tightly to their vested interests in the forms of image, reputation, money and, of course, power.  And, I can think of few “higher places” than a prestigious academic institution with its reputation, endowment and loyal fan base to protect- or a 1.5 million-member archdiocese charged with the shepherding of souls and the coffers to show for it.

If the question that remains in the immediate wake of these guilty sentences, then, is why- whywhen predatory behaviors were not just suspected but witnessed and documented, were such evils allowed to continue?- the answer, I suspect, lies in this often hidden, spiritual realm to which the apostle Paul alludes. The “spiritual wickedness in high places” to which Paul refers is a realm in which I would venture to guess there are many co-collaborators like Lynn, whose consciences may or may not condemn them, but who, regardless, must be held to account for their devastating sins of omission and commission.

ESPN columnist Howard Bryant puts it well: “The mythology of the coach and the hagiography of the institution, the immediate reflex to protect the institution and the fear of crossing it, far more than Sandusky himself, allowed this tragedy to mushroom. Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat, whether it occurs in the church, the university or the Boy Scouts.”

Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat.

A struggle?  I would say so.  But a worthy one, too.  Because as Bryant concludes, if the overriding lesson of these scandals is that power corrupts and blinds, it is also true that there is hope in the aftermath of great tragedy: “the failed culture of the past doesn’t have to be part of the future.”

I am hoping along with him.

 

 

The Missionary As Barefoot Nature Preservationist

Pearl Buck, a fellow “MK” (“Missionary Kid”) is best known for her bestselling work, “The Good Earth.”

Hillary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth is my current bedtime companion these days, and I’m probably reading it as a way to better understand myself.

You may know Pearl Buck from her seminal, best-selling work, The Good Earth, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and later the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.  But Pearl Buck was also the daughter of missionaries to China before she went on to become a writer.  Her parents, Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, served with the Southern Presbyterian mission in a tumultuous time in China’s history (think, for example, the Boxer Rebellion) at the turn of the nineteenth century.

I’m only midway through the book, but am struck most by the psychological portrait painted here of Pearl’s father, Absalom.  He was inhabited by a furious, all-consuming passion to convert “the heathen,” one that often placed his own family in harm’s way.  (Pearl lost three older siblings to sickness during the family’s overseas posts- a fact that Absalom barely even acknowledged in any of his writings, despite his wife’s resulting breakdowns and the strain it placed on their marriage thereafter.)

Some twenty years into his missionary labors, Absalom wrote this: “We are by no means overtaking these millions with the Gospel.  They are increasing on us…a great and increasing host against us…Heathenism with all its vices still living and active…The darkness, widespread and deep, sin in all its hideous forms, intense worldliness as well as hydra-headed idolatry.”

This kind of hostile and combative relationship with the world as a parental inheritance was one that Pearl sought to navigate growing up in her Chinese environment.  She was at an early age and by her own admission more Chinese than she was American.  This meant hours spent listening to her Chinese playmates’ mothers and aunts “talk so frankly in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.”

Spurling as biographer here is revealing some of her own bias against missionary zeal, a bias that at times in the book comes across as a bit unfair. But she also is speaking to a sad reality in the history of the church: that historically its missionaries have been prone to view themselves as self-contained wielders of morality and salvation, always in the service of a God who stands in opposition to the world He created.  And Spurling captures the implicit irony here- that the result can be a people sent out into the muck and mire, looking more intent to protect themselves from the hard realities of the world in which we live.

So maybe a healthier way to view ourselves in relation to our world is to recognize that the divine footprint has been there- everywhere we go- before we ever even entered the picture.  Maybe we need to view ourselves more as “nature preservationists” whose task is to preserve that divine footprint- to gesture to it while all the while being vigilant lest we deface it with all of our own litter.

Peter Millar, in Waymarks: Signposts to discovering God’s presence in the world, captures the following sentiment shared in a cross-cultural workshop, which I think says it well: “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy and we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream.  More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”

Maybe, then, one measure of a true disciple is whether she is willing to tread lightly in bare feet.

 

 

The Skimp on Recent Developments

This saint and sinner finally wears the infamous "little, black dress." Note: the kids' paraphernalia in the background has not been Photoshopped in.

Fellow saints and sinners who weighed in on a popular post from last year, “The Minister and the Little, Black Dress,” will be mildly amused to learn that I finally did it: on Monday evening on the occasion of my husband’s 43rd birthday and per his request, this mommy and minister found the excuse to wear the skimpiest little black dress she has ever worn and probably will ever wear again.  (How’s that for “dirty, sexy ministry,” by way of a tip of the hat to the popular blog of that name?)

The result?  My husband thought I was the hottest looking woman to dine at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant…in a strip mall off Buford Highway…on a slow Monday evening.  (He did say some other kind things which I won’t reprint.) But I wore that slinky, tightly knit, spandex dress that felt like crinkled selifan wrap and gave me curves I didn’t know I had- in all the wrong places- with enough pride to let my husband take a picture as proof that I did actually wear the dress.

For those of you mothers for whom “nightlife” nowadays generally means a glass of wine while folding laundry and then bed at the wild hour of 9pm, I would highly recommend the experience of the “little, black dress.”  And, for you fellow women ministers for whom the “big, black dress” is more common attire, usually on Sunday mornings, consider incorporating one skimpy cocktail dress into your wardrobe for your date nights.  (And then hope that none of your parishioners will show up to the Vietnamese joint on Buford highway. Chuckle.)

By way of other updates, our four-part interview with Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries caught the attention of The Christian Century, which will publish some further reflections from Saskia on the implications for theology of the latest discoveries in neuroscience.  I’ll keep you posted on when Saskia’s article is to appear.  I’m really thrilled about this!

Some of you may have caught my loud and rather random gripe that there is not one female “emerging evangelist” pictured on the “Emerging Evangelists” Facebook page.  Matt, from Emerging Evangelists, wrote a kind and patient response in reply: “Kristina, would love to chat sometime. We have asked several women over the past few years, but haven’t gotten any to jump on board besides Jon and his wife. Hope this helps.”  I have a note in to a Matt asking if he’d be willing to be interviewed on the subject of women  “emerging evangelists,” or their seeming lack thereof, and why they’re so reluctant to “jump aboard.”  Stay tuned- or be prepared to be disappointed if I don’t hear back.

Finally, fellow saint and sinner Adam (Atlanta, Georgia) had this to say about Bethel Church’s kingdom-come work, in response to yesterday’s inquiry: “Emily and I have been following Bethel Church for over a year now, and we have been extremely blessed by their ministry. They actually have a church plant here in Atlanta http://www.ibethelatlanta.org in which my brother attends. I have never experienced a church who is as hungary, and passionate for God and his Kingdom as Bethel. We were introduced to Bethel via the documentary movies “Finger of God” and “Furious Love” made by Darren Wilson. In the first movie Darren explores the supernatural, and “weird happenings in the church” in the second film he explores God’s love for people, and this summer a third film is being released titled “Father of Lights” which is about God’s heart. I highly recommend these films, which you can find and view online: Finger of God: http://vimeo.com/23558863Furious Love: http://tinyurl.com/cdwx687Father of Light trailer: http://fatheroflightsfilm.com.”

Thanks for reading, everyone- and most especially, thanks to those of you who respond.  It’s always an encouragement to know folks  are not just reading but engaging these “thoughts at the intersection between life and God for anyone converted, unconverted or under conversion.”

 

The “Signs and Wonders” of the Kingdom of God

The 2012 Kingdom Culture conference is happening here, starting today.

The  “2012 Kingdom Culture” conference hosted annually by Bethel Church, in Redding, California, starts today- and I’m intrigued.  (Are any of you participating? I’d be curious to hear more about what you know or have experienced here.)

I’m most intrigued because of the way that Bethel Church describes itself: their web site reads that “the personal, regional and global expansion of God’s kingdom through His manifest presence” is Bethel’s mission, with one implication being that “every believer is a supernatural minister” and that “signs and wonders follow thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

And, I’m cautiously optimistic about what seems at least from first impressions as a church living into God’s mission.  A mission that is very much about the unleashing of the kingdom of God.  (Here in the United States I don’t see this sort of intentional kingdom living modeled by churches very often.)

That said, I’d also like to know more about the emphasis here on “signs and wonders.”  To be sure, the Jesus we meet in Scripture is always healing the sick in miraculous ways; but Jesus Himself would ask, “Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk?’” (Luke 5:23).  In other words, what measure, if any, in the way of “signs and wonders,” is Bethel Church using to define this dawning kingdom of God in people’s lives?

The other day an acquaintance was once again marveling at the amazing things God is doing through the healing ministry to which he belongs through his church, “Three in One Church.”  (For some reason the Triune God is always last on my shortlist of associations here, with golf and the world of retail sales vying for first; and if you’re wondering, yes, this really is the name of his church and I did not make it up.)  This time my friend had been wowed by what he described as a kind of “manna from heaven” experience- only this time the “manna” falling from the sky came in the form of a small, rough-cut diamond.  This was not the first time apparently that a diamond had fallen from the ceiling of the building where “Three in One” worships.  But it was the first time my friend had witnessed it; and he had quickly become a convert to the notion that God randomly drops diamonds from ceilings as a sign of God’s favor.

Another “sign and wonder”? Maybe.  There seem to be all sorts of things that might qualify under this rather broad rubric of God’s sovereign omnipotence.  Still, I couldn’t help but be skeptical.

It seems to me that when we begin to set our expectations on dramatic healings from cancer or diamonds that fall from the sky, often at the expense of more “ordinary” but equally mysterious happenings, we actually limit our vision of what God is doing in inaugurating a kingdom that is truly cosmic in scope.  Afterall, we worship a God who can reveal Himself both in roaring thunder and gentle whispers (1 Kings 19).

So, what do you think about all this “signs and wonders” stuff? And, got more info or firsthand experience on Bethel?  Send it along!

Tomorrow, an update to “The Minister and the Little, Black Dress” and other miscellany.

 

Can a High Christology Accommodate Genuine Interfaith Dialogue?

On the limits of interfaith dialogue…and they hadn’t even begun to talk about Jesus yet.

Is it possible to take seriously the unique, “once and for all” saving work and person of Jesus Christ, while also respecting the views of friends from other faith traditions and engaging in genuine interfaith dialogue?  Is it feasible to have a high Christology and a robust soteriology, without treating every interaction with a Jew, Buddhist or agnostic as another “come-to-Jesus-or-else-eternally-burn-in-hell” moment?  These are my questions lately.

And, if a big part of real dialogue with people of other faiths is withholding judgment about their eternal destination, then it would seem by extension from a reading of Paul Dafydd Jones, who teaches in the religious studies department at the University of Virginia, that it is indeed possible to answer “yes” here.  Dafydd Jones’ “hopeful universalism” is an answer to intonations of, on the one hand, what Dafydd Jones calls “populist neo-Arminianism” in Francis Chan’s recent work, “Erasing Hell”- namely, the notion that a decision of faith on our parts is “needed to complete the salvific process that God initiates;” and, on the other, the Augustinian-Calvinist understanding of “limited salvation,” by which God in God’s sovereignty chooses and predestines some for salvation and some for eternal punishment.

In their place, Dafydd Jones proposes a biblically rooted account of God’s love and sovereignty that succeeds in simultaneously taking sin seriously and emphasizing the cosmic significance of the life and death of Jesus Christ.  He does this by first appealing to a term familiar to those of us steeped in more Calvinist, Reformed traditions- that of “election”:

Following the later Barth, I favor an account of God’s love for humankind that identifies Jesus Christ as the “electing God” and “elected human.” These terms, I hasten to add, aren’t a tip of the hat to ardent Calvinists. Talk of election helps to connect the doctrines of God, Christ and salvation. It’s a way of saying, specifically, that God’s loving advance toward us, realized in Christ, has ramifications for human being as such. The incarnation makes a difference to who we are. It renders us people who bear the image of “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15); it marks us as those whom God “can choose . . . in Christ before the foundation of the world [and] destined for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4–5).

This allows Dafydd Jones to enlist a very high view of Christ’s work and person that also takes the problem of sin and evil seriously:

Christ, on this reckoning, isn’t merely a focus for Christian thought and action (although he is certainly that). Christ is the basis for a soteriology that delights in the fact that none of us are the sum total of our awkward, sinful and frequently disappointing lives. Through Christ, God has bound Godself to us, and us to God, in the most radical way imaginable. And this binding is not occasional or temporary. It cuts to the heart of who we are, while speaking volumes about the person that God is and the actions that God undertakes. Precisely because the scope of the Son’s intercession is as broad as the humanity that he assumes, precisely because Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of the Father” (Acts 2:33, cf. Acts 7:55–6 and Mark 16:19), there is good reason to suppose that God’s saving work has no limits. It’s not theological overreach to hope that salvation will come to all. Such hope follows directly from an awareness of God’s love and power, articulated by Christ and distributed, mysteriously, by Christ’s Spirit.

The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.

There really is a “consuming fire,” then, as Edward Fudge supposes. But this fire doesn’t await sinners in the future. This fire—the fire of God’s holy love—concentrates itself in Jesus’ own suffering and death. And because Christ takes to heart the entire shocking history of our sin, sin is wholly burned up, whollyfinished, when Christ breathes his last. Is this not the meaning of Jesus’ cry of dereliction? Doesn’t this cry show that God has accepted Christ’s thoroughgoing identification with sinners and that God’s contestation of sin has run its course? And with the fire of God’s holy love burned out, doesn’t the resurrection show God relating to God’s children in a new way?

Hopeful universalism, on this reckoning, does not require the Christian to downplay the past, present and future fact of wrongdoing. It requires only that the Christian acknowledge the nearly unimaginable price that Christ paid for our salvation: being the sin that God condemns and rejects, so that those who live “in him” (that is, all of us) might receive the blessings of God’s favor.

[Correction: Dafydd Jones' article, "A Hopeful Universalism," appears as the cover story in the current issue of "The Christian Century."  I originally posted the article in full, but because it is behind a subscription wall, have decided to take it down and excerpt it in a few key places instead.]

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