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July 25th, 2012 @ 9:04 am by Kevin
This morning, my wife forwarded me Richard Rohr’s daily mediation called “Jesus and Buddha.” I like it so much I decided to quote the entire piece here:
The Christian tradition became so concerned with making Jesus into its God and making sure everybody believed that Jesus was God that it often ignored his very practical and clear teachings. (How many of us love our enemies?) Instead, we made the questions theological and metaphysical ones about the nature of God (which asked almost nothing of us!). Most of our church fights have been on that level, and no one ever really “wins,” so it goes on for centuries.
What Buddha made clear is that the questions are first of all psychological and personal and here and now. We created huge theories about how the world was saved by Jesus. I think what Jesus was primarily talking about was the human situation and describing liberation for us right now. Clearly the Kingdom of God is here and now, as Jesus said. However, we turned Jesus’ message into a reward or punishment contest that would come later, instead of a transformational experience that was verifiable here and now by the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). For Jesus and for the Buddha both rewards and punishments are first of all inherent to the action and in this world. Goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment, and then we must leave the future to the mercy and love of God, instead of thinking we are the umpires and judges of who goes where, when, and how.
I think this perspective highlights one of the key issues dividing Christians today: Is Christianity simply an external system of future rewards and punishments, as people like Jerry Newcombe believe? If so, being a Christian is about conforming to that system and teaching other people to do the same–not to mention warning them about what will happen if they don’t. How grace factors into this perspective is a mystery, seeing as this essentially turns Christianity into a works-based religion. But you’ll hear adherents to this view arguing for it all the time.
On the other hand, we have Christians like Richard Rohr who certainly keep one eye on the future, but who believe that being a Christian is primarily about imitating Christ today. I’m definitely in this camp. As a commenter on my Huffington Post article said yesterday,
I don’t believe that God is the egomaniac that so many people make him out to be. I don’t think he really cares all that much whether we believe in him or not. What matters most is how we act, what we do and how we live our lives in relation to others. So you’re an atheist. Whatever. Do you love your neighbor? Yes? Then that’s great. Keep doing it. So you’re a devout Christian. That’s wonderful. Do you love your neighbor? No? Then you still have work to do. It’s that simple.
I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think God puts too much stock in the names we call ourselves. In fact, when someone tells me they’re an atheist, I tend to imagine God chuckling and saying, “No you’re not.” Especially if that atheist is currently engaging me in a theological debate. The same goes for any of us who take on the name “Christian.” In that case, I see God eying us skeptically saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Just so we’re clear: This is not another version of the works-based salvation I criticized above. Unless you define salvation–as I do–as deliverance from the cycle of self-destructive violence in which the human race has been trapped since the beginning. In that case, I believe we can literally play a hand in the salvation of the entire world. How? By imitating Christ, by loving our neighbor–even our enemy–as we love ourselves. We don’t do this because we’re afraid that if we don’t, God will consign us to hell. We do this because we recognize that this is the only way to break the cycle. And until we do, hell will continue to reign. And we won’t have to wait until we die to experience it. Best of all, this doesn’t require faith in some sort of convoluted theology. It is what Rohr calls a “transformational experience that is verifiable here and now by the fruits of the Holy Spirit.” In case you don’t know what those fruits are, Galatians 5:22 gives us a list: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Where does grace enter the picture? Simple, it’s all grace. That’s because our actions do not determine is our eternal destiny. That has been secure from the beginning. As Thomas Talbott argues so well in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, our actions merely determine the means by which our salvation will be achieved.
For the more tenaciously we cling to our illusions and selfish desires–to the flesh, as Paul called it–the more severe will be the means and the more painful the process whereby God shatters our illusions, destroys the flesh, and finally separates us from our sin.
So tell me this: Which brand of Christianity is most likely to produce such fruit? One that runs around warning people that the wrath of God is about to come down unless they jump through the right hoops? Or a faith that announces that salvation is already here, that there’s no longer anything to fear–not even God?
I can only respond with the fruit each brand of Christianity has produced in my own life. And if you ask my wife and children, they’ll definitely go for door number two.