November 24, 2004
Identity and good works

So, about a week late, I'm finally getting around to blogging my first Beta class. Alpha, which I took a year and a half ago, dealt with basic Christian dogma (who is God, who is Jesus, etc.). Beta basically assumes you've accepted the premises of Alpha, so it delves into the business of living a Christian life.

The priest began with an overview of the two kingdoms (the world and heaven)
their differences and how they coexist. One thing that struck me was how much importance he placed on identity as the key to Christian praxis. In the world, he said, you are what you do; you try to "make something of yourself" through your actions. In heaven, you recognize who you are -- a child of God -- and act accordingly.

He backed this up with something I had noticed myself, which is how Paul, whenever he's admonishing his errant brethren, always starts out by reminding them who they are. It was also interesting how he interwove this with sola gratia, which he was very insistent upon (I guess that's where the Reformed theology comes in).

"There is nothing -- nothing -- not ONE THING you can do to make God stop loving you," he said. "Doesn't that give you goosebumps?"

He went on to explain that, although that sounds like license to do anything, he believes that if you realize who you truly are your behavior will follow.

"For instance, why don't I go to strip clubs?" he said. "Is it because it's against the rules? Is it because it degrades women? No. It's because I don't want to. I'm not that kind of a person. Of course, I'm not that way about everything. But that's because I don't always remember that I'm a child of God."

I've been thinking of this again after seeing the argument at the Boar's Head Tavern about whether salvation is supposed to make you a better person. (See here, here, here ... just keep scrolling up.) Especially striking in contrast is the iMonk's claim that "Regeneration showed me how rotten I am, and I have progressively gotten worse. I am more aware of my depravity year by year. I have committed sins as a Christian I never would have dreamed of as a lost person. In fact, every sin I now commit is against all I know of the Gospel, making me, without a doubt, the chief of sinners." The iMonk, also coming from a Reformed background, seems to take an ultra-sola fide approach: God's grace gives you the faith that you're saved despite your miserable condition, and that's about it.

There's a non-Christian ghost haunting this difference: humanism. Lots of liberal churches have absorbed the Rousseauish idea that people are essentially good and will be innately benevolent if restored to their natural state. A lot of conservative Christians have reacted against this, emphasizing human fallenness and depravity. And both of these views, I think, are supported by the Bible. The story of the original good creation that went astray is there. The sayings about how all fall short in the sight of God are there. And the idea that bad behavior comes from forgetting your true self is there (not just in Paul, but also in James, that bane of sola fide advocates). In fact, most of my table's discussion at this class was about reconciling what the priest said with fallenness.

I think the main difference between the humanist view and the Christian view of human goodness is the method for finding that lost self. As I mentioned here, the modern humanist approach has generally been to see society as the harmful influence on a person, and so the goal is to remove as much as possible the influence of other people. Christianity has generally admitted to the sinfulness of society, but placed the emphasis on reforming social relations themselves, right down to the level of family. The sort of individual empowerment that humanists prescribe is hubris. (Yoder writes about this in Chapter 7 of TPOJ, which I will blog presently.) Also -- this is where I agree with iMonk -- the redemption cannot reach its perfection here on earth, so to some extent we're all living in both kingdoms until Judgment Day.

I can't tell, as of yet, how much of All Saints' teaching is going to respect this difference and how much it's going to be straight-up humanism. Although my table talked about fallenness, the priest didn't. However, it's just the beginning.

Posted by Camassia at November 24, 2004 03:56 PM | TrackBack

first, let me say, i think you do a really good job at blogging easily complicated issues in a simple, understandable way (assuming a bit of background knowledge). I really like your posts so far.
I think that holiness traditions tend to also view society- that is non-Christian others- as the undoing of faith, that and of course Satan. So in this way I suppose the perceived function is compatible with Rousseauish humanism, yes?

there is also a heaping dose of tragic-flaw-due-to -Adam thinking, which I guessed combined would equal something like society encouraging and promoting our latent falleness. Kind of like M.Night Shyamalan's kiddies stuck in that wilderness, who only later find out sin is dormant but there in each one of them and will spring up unaccounted for, because, after all, they are a society.

the thing is, I am really working on a pretty heretical perspective here, and not intentionally. If sinners love God in proportion to their sin, if say, we would not know how redemptive and loving Christ is without the woman in adultery and without the thief on the cross, well then does not sin serve as some sort of functionally-necessary canvass on which God is shown by contrast? maybe this isn't heretical really, but it is a pretty positive spin on our falleness. tell me, should I be wary of suggesting this in a church? What say you or others reading this?

Posted by: erica on December 3, 2004 05:55 PM

Thanks for your comments. I've deleted your extra posts. Please do not puts the same comment on multiple posts. If your comment appeared not to go through, wait a few seconds and refresh the screen.

As to your question, well, it depends entirely on what church you're talking about! But speaking for myself, I think where you lose me is, "...sinners love God in proportion to their sin." I've generally understood sin itself to be what prevents us from loving God, so the forgiveness of sins removes that barrier. Otherwise it sounds like the only reason to love God is that he forgives you, which is certainly a reason, but not the only reason.

Posted by: Camassia on December 4, 2004 12:11 PM
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