Saturday, June 23, 2018

Salvation outside the Church

Getting back to my series on soteriology (it's been a long week), one of the major theories in Christian soteriology, or how God's saving action works to save us, is the doctrine that goes back to the early centuries of the notion of "There is no salvation outside the Church." The Latin phrase, if what to get all really fancy, is Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. 

Needless to say, much ink and blood has been spilled over the centuries parsing this little number.

As always, one has to look at the historical context of any catch phrase or theological doctrine to make heads or tails of it. To try to divorce any distilled doctrine in isolation is a hazardous undertaking because nothing in theology exists in isolation to other theological or philosophical concepts. It's like a big tapestry. If you try to pull one of the threads and examine it apart from the over-arching tapestry, you are not going to get very far and might end up unraveling the whole thing and ruining it.

One of the points I made in my previous post about understanding soteriology is that the Church is always having to re-orient itself as time and culture change. This is not a complete break from the past and creating something new out of whole cloth. Some Protestants have tried this and it never works particularly well, as they end up creating their own orthodoxies, and once the pattern of breaking is established, there is nothing to prevent future breaks and re-reformings into smaller and smaller sects by following the same pattern until you literally end up with little groups of 5 people spitting at the other group of 5 people on the opposite side of the street because of a break from break from a break ad nauseum of the Body of Christ.

Going to what the Catechism currently teaches is a good way of making sense of "There is no salvation outside the Church." It touches on this idea of re-orienting the Church's message. It reads as follows:

"How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body" (CCC 846).

In other words, to be saved, you do have to go through Jesus. How that works and what exactly "The Church" is is open for debate. In years past, particularly in the height of Christendom in the High Middle Ages, "The Church" was the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome and only that. If you were not in the good graces of the Catholic Church of Rome, the Church's message was...well,...hellfire for you.

This evolved for several historical reasons, some of which stemmed from the fall of the Roman Empire and hurtling Europe into "the Dark ages." With the breakdown of the Empire, at least in the West, the Catholic Church gradually entered to fill to gaps to prevent anarchy. The clergy were educated (at least to some degree), and were natural administrators. Power just grew. Thus, but the time of the Crusades, the Church was very, very powerful indeed in both politics and spiritual realms.

Now, I am not going to go into all that. You can read history books on the reasons (some more legitimate than others) for the Reformation as they built over the centuries. One of the major battles was over this very issue of "what is the Church"? Because of the adversarial nature of the Reformation and the political forces involved, the whole affair because an exercise is "Our church is the True Church and yours is corrupt/heretical!"

What all sides lost sight of was God's grace: that Jesus was the Head. We made our own leaders the head, be it Pope, Reformer theologian, King, Consistory court, Presbytery, or realm. In the vitriolic theological pie fight, we tended to lose sight of the fact that Jesus said, "Follow me."

The Church in our ongoing call to follow Jesus, which requires occasionally re-orienting our views, recognizes that God does not condemn those who are innocently ignorant of the truth about his offer of salvation. Regarding this question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, 16) states:

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. (CCC 847)

In other words, Aslan is on the move. God is not a tame lion that we can keep in a nice, neat theological cage. God is everywhere, trying to bring all things back unto Himself. This is the major goal God will eventually reach. If you read the Book of Revelation, you see that in the end, God vanquishes all the effects of the Fall of Adam and sin, and recreated Eden in the end of time when He has accomplished all his goals and re-tied all the threads together again in the final tapestry of salvation.

God's primary means of doing this is the Church, but when the Church chooses not to co-operate, God can and does speak to people in ways we do not understand. This is part of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. We will no doubt be surprised who ends up at God's table at the end of the time, people we thought would never have made it because Jesus found a way.

The Church is not good at recognizing that those in the Church still sin, and that sin sometimes mars our message. We must always be mindful that God does the saving. We are a vehicle of that, but we must always be mindful of "There, but for the grace of God, go I." We point the way to salvation, we are an icon, a signpost. Sometimes we have to dust off our sign so people can read it. If we don't, something is wrong.

CS Lewis once wrote that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is to convince people he doesn't exist. Those of us in the Church have to make sure that we don't inadvertently pull the same trick and by our actions convince people we do not exist. Once that happens, we end up with no message of hope. We just become a country club with lodge meetings on Sunday mornings. It that's all we're doing, we are wasting our time because we are no longer the vehicle of salvation.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to have to explain that to God when I go to meet my maker and He asks, "What did you do to follow me?"   

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Tribute to Father Figures

I apparently created something of a sensation this week in Omaha. I was up there on Tuesday for my job, and happened to catch a radio segment on one of the AM news radio stations when the program DJ was interviewing a member of the Korean War Veteran's Association. It was a particularly good interview retrospective on this former vet's memories of Korea, etc. The DJ in question is more a comedian and right-wing political talking head, but occasionally he does some interesting interviews or talks about local Nebraska politics like interviewing the Omaha mayor or what have you. If I am up in Omaha, I will at least tune in to see if he has anything interesting to say.

Well, a few days later, I wrote the DJ a short e-mail, thanking him for having this gentleman on his show. Both my grandfathers and my great uncle were in the Korean war, and so hearing this old guy reminded me some of them, all three of whom are long since dead now. My great uncle in particular came back from Korea and was largely messed up the rest of his life from what we would now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but nobody really knew much about that when he was still alive, much less how to treat it. "Crazy Uncle Bill" as we called him largely lived out his life as a homeless guy, despite our attempts at helping him.

Apparently on Friday, the DJ read my e-mail on the air. Omaha being close to Offutt Airforce Base, the radio station switchboard lit up with people asking for him to re-post that segment, which he did here. It begins at the 40 minute segment of the clip. Again, I apologize for anything else he says before or after it, as I said, he's a comedian and political talking head entertainer that does other lampooning stuff which isn't pertinent here, but if you have the time, listen in to the 40 to 45 minute segment or so.

I include it today on Father's Day because Uncle Bill, though he never had any kids, basically was a father figure for a short time what he was in Korea to orphans, and it haunted him the rest of his life.

Sometimes fatherhood makes us make sacrifices, even if they are not our own biological kids. Not all fathers are biological fathers, but are just as important in their own ways.

Happy Father's Day to all the fathers out there, biological or otherwise, that were never thanked.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Catholic Soteriology and Duckspeak

What the Catholic church teaches on the issue of how we are saved (soteriology) is extremely complex. To get a grasp on it, one has to basically look at it from the standpoint of really three different time periods that had some very different cultural and theological worldviews:

1. What was taught and/or assumed to be taught in the Middle Ages (Anselm and Thomism),

2. What was taught in the Council of Trent (which was responding to the Protestant Reformation),

3. What was taught through and in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

I will try in the coming days to devote at least one or two blog posts explaining each of these time periods. One really does have to get a grasp of the historical backgrounds and conflicts of the various eras to begin to unravel why the Church teaches what it teaches. It can be confusing and a vast sea of teachings and seemingly conflicting theological ideas and suppositions, but there is a method to the madness.

Before I get to that, however, I posit a general rule of thumb that guides my own thinking on interpreting these issues and making sense of it all.

Time goes by and cultures and demographics change. Scientific and philosophical progress or digress alter our understandings of the world; thus, worldviews change over time amongst peoples. Juxtaposed with this is that God, however, is unchanging, and His major revelations to men are thus unchanging. In the Catholic faith, we call this Divine law.

So, on the one hand, you have a world always in flux and change, which leads some misguided theologians to take as operative Gospel truth in the banner cry of "The Church must change or die!" However, there is also the idea from the Book of Ecclesiastes that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that "vanity...vanity...all is vanity!"

To respond to the changing of seasons but also the cyclical nature of overall human existence, the Church is always in need of reorientation. Notice here that I use the language of reorientation, not necessary one of breakage or reform. Sometimes the Church does need reform if corruption has been allowed to enter and take root, but this is not always the case. Regardless, the Church always needs to be checking to see if it's message and actions are in sync with the eternal message of the eternal God (i.e. the Gospel) but also in sync with a world that might no longer understand your theological babble and lingo and ceremonies. If you are lacking in one area or the over, you can get off track fairly quickly, at which point you need to re-orient yourself and your message to reach as many people as possible with the message of love and hope.

By saying all that, the Church must be mindful of not selling out "the faith once delivered" and relativizing it in the name of progress or "getting with the times" to achieve general social acceptance or popularity in the short term. The Church must also be mindful to not begin to operate and isolate itself in what I call a theological ghetto. I always think of the classic children's picture book, Duck For President, where you have this farm duck that revolts against the farmer and finally gets himself elected US President by holding rallies "saying things that only other ducks understand." The Church must always be vigilant to make sure we don't just assume people know what our message is and what we are talking about (for instance, if we throw 50 cent words around like soteriology). Perhaps at one time in culture, people did understand that stuff, but if they don't anymore, are we, as Paul says, just a "clanging symbol" that only other Church ducks understand.

Thus, there is always that tension of being true to the Faith but also being open to explaining the faith to people who have no idea what we are talking about or why they should even care.

It is this idea of reorientation, and the balancing act thereof, that has led to different eras and methods of understanding how we are saved that have lead to the 3 different time periods I talk about above. The Church has not broken with the past in terms of talking about how we are saved, but it has had to modulate its message to different time periods so that we are clear about what we are saying. A medieval peasant and a 1960s Hippie radical both needed to hear the message of Christ, but the way the Church tells the message to one and then the other was quite different indeed.

We must avoid Duckspeak but be true to the Message of Christ and not be wooed into preaching the Spirit of the Age. This is not an easy task. Sometimes mistakes are made in how far we re-orient the Church. Sometimes we have done too much and gone too far, sometimes we have done to little and not done enough, but we always have to try.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Brother, are you saved?

As I talked about in my previous post on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Aslan's harrowing of hell, i.e. the Witch's Castle, I made reference to the concept of soteriology. I can tell it is an obscure theological term because's auto-correct is having a meltdown every time I try to type it here. It was getting so adamant, in fact, that I actually started to doubt myself and double checked my dictionary to make sure I was spelling it correctly, which I was.

So, what is soteriology, exactly?

Soteriology is one of those 50 cent words you learn in seminary that some denominations get all bent out of shape over. I have seen screaming arguments over the topic before, both in real life and certainly in the online world. (Twitter, I am looking at you, you human sewer!)

If you want to get technical, soteriology literally comes from the Greek words of σωτηρία sōtēria "salvation" from σωτήρ sōtēr "savior, preserver" and λόγος logos "study" or "word." In a brief, digestible nutshell, soteriology is a churchy word for the branch of theology that studies or tries to understand how we are saved, or how God saves us, if you like.

In other words, how does salvation work?

This immediately begs an interesting question because it presumes we, as humans, somehow need to saved. If we don't need to be saved, then, really we have no reason to think about or study soteriology. Certainly, atheists have no need of the topic, because if there is no God, then we are here by a series of random chances, and as such, we don't need to be saved from anything and there is no one (read: God or gods) to do the saving regardless.

It is interesting though that in the heart of most all religions though (apart from atheism which is a religion in itself, but that's a discussion for another day) feel that something about humanity is wrong. Something is just now what it should be. There is more to this thing called existence than apparently meets the material eye.

In Hinduism and to an extent Buddhism, soteriology takes the form of a belief that we must somehow end the cycle of death and rebirth. They have the notion of reincarnation, of course, and that literally is their idea of hell, to just be condemned for all eternity to go through an endless cycle of drudgery and toil in material form without reaching Nirvana or Enlightenment or what have you.

Of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam focuses on how humans can repent of and atone for their sins so not to occupy a state of loss. They believe Adam sinned, but that sin was Adam's alone. We are all as responsible for our own actions, and as such, we need to ask God to forgive us, and if we do, then God will usher us into Paradise one day, and if not, then God will send us to a fiery grave for all eternity. The Qu'ran says, "If you avoid the great sins you have been forbidden, We shall wipe out your minor misdeeds and let you through the entrance of Paradise.” As I read Islam, it's basically a theology of works righteousness: that we save ourselves through our own agency of prayer and asking forgiveness and giving alms and all that. If we do right, Allah will forgive us and reward. If we do wrong, then basically hellfire. It's not God's prevenient grace or election or what have you. It appears to be straight up Pelagianism.

Judaism is a hard read on the issue, depending on what strand of Judaism you are looking at, particularly modern vs. pre-modern. Judaism (at least the Modern forms) seems to have no real definitive belief in personal or individual salvation. It seems much more corporate, that God saves His People, Israel. That somehow salvation comes through the life-giving Law, the Torah. If we are his people, God will be our God. This is where Judaism gets murky because some Jews (some don't) do not believe in an afterlife or soul. Once you die and the breath of God goes out of you, that's it, you cease to exist on any level: here, heaven, hell, or otherwise. So, by that line of thought, you are only saved by virtue of living a good and righteous life. Whether individual souls exist and what happens to them after death if they even exist is by no means a settled question in Judaism.

With the idea of the Resurrection of the Body and the adoption from early on of Greek notions of body vs. soul duality, Christianity has a whole different take on soteriology than virtually any other religion. Even within Christianity, there is a wide range of ideas of how we are saved.

Certainly, our Evangelical brothers and sisters tend to focus a lot on the idea of the eternal soul. You may have had some well meaning person come up to you in the grocery store or in some public place and ask you straight up, "Brother (or Sister), are you saved?"

This is, naturally, a very loaded question. They usually have a very individualized idea of our relationship with God. That is to say that all our relationships with God are on the individual level. That is to say that Jesus die for you, personally, and you should have a personal relationship with him. At best, I am thinking here of the theology of personages like the late Rev. Billy Graham, who articulated ideas like that in a boldly radical way in Big Tent revivals and all that. At worst, I am thinking of the hellfire and brimstone sermons I heard from time to time in my youth in the Bible Belt that if I didn't walk down the aisle and give my heart to Jesus and recite the sinner's prayer and all that, then it's surely hellfire and brimstone for me come one second after I die. Regardless, Jesus died for me the individual, not for the Church or for the greater Body of Christ. This is a very rugged individualist American way of doing religion: that all I need is Jesus, and all Jesus needs is me, and, praise Jesus, it's me and God, and things like the Church and Baptism and Sacraments all that are at best tangential and at worst are meaningless rituals because being "Born Again" is what it's all about in that vein of soteriology.

Of course, that's only one, small branch of Christianity. I pick on it perhaps because it's such a colorful target that I think most Americans can either relate to or have had some other bad experience of in some way or form, even if you never believed that way. At the end of the day, it is a good example, right or wrong, of one way of doing soteriology, by asking the question, "Brother, are you saved?" That is basically what soteriology means: the study of how God saves us.

In a subsequent post, I will start looking at how Christianity came to produce such interesting if misguided ways of doing soteriology, but this is just an introduction to the concept. And it is something that I think we do need to think about? I mean, how does God work in our life for our redemption? Is it individual or corporate? Is it some combination thereof? Or, is it like some of the Ancient Stoic philosophy where the meaning of it all is is to lead a life of Public Virtue? I will leave you with that thought, until we meet again on this blog.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Literary Marvel

We've reading CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to our daughter the last week. I freely admit it's one of my favorite works of literature. Most people immediately think of Aslan's death on the Stone Table as the perfect Christian allegory about Jesus. While a powerful scene, and indeed one of my favorites, I think most people miss the allegory in the next chapter that I would argue is perhaps CS Lewis' allegorical masterpiece, more so than even the Stone Table scene.

The scene, of course, begins in the Easter morning scene where Aslan is resurrected in front of Lucy and Susan, much like the women at the tomb in the Jesus story. The true allegorical storytelling magic, I think, actually begins after that. Lucy and Susan ride on Aslan's back to the Witch's Castle to free the Narnians who had been turned into stone by the evil White Witch when she is in her full power. Aslan of course goes round and breathes on all the stone statues bring them back to life. That in itself is re-pleat with scriptural allusions, the breathing of the breath of life into that which is inanimate is a very Jewish theological notion, found in the Creation stories all the way down to the Middle Ages with the folktales about the golem, the zombie-life creature that Rabbis create to protect the Jews by breathing the holy name of life into a clay sculpture. In most of the golem stories, the soulless create wrecks havoc on the faithful, but that's a discussion for another blog. This, of course, was one of the major sources that Mary Shelley used to create the Frankenstein monster.

The beauty of the scene that we are looking at here is that in a very few pages, CS Lewis brilliantly retells the story of the Harrowing of Hell: when Jesus descends into hell, hades, or the grave. There is much debate on where exactly Jesus went and what it meant, with some Evangelical Protestant theologians rejecting the whole notion by claiming there is no scriptural warrant for it. I have literally seen them get into online hissy fits about the whole notion.

There is scriptural warrant for it, as well as the fact that it is critical to almost all early Church theology, as found in the creeds (the creeds actually predate the closing of the Christian canon by at least a half century). I will come back to this in future blog posts, as I plan to discuss and make digestible the idea of the Christus Victor soteriology of the early Church. (Don't worry, I love unpacking 50 cent seminary words.)

What Aslan does in this scene is breathe life into the Witch's captives in the grave and give them new life. That is, in CS Lewis' theological masterstroke, the traditional teaching of the Harrowing of Hell. I love that scene. It truly is brilliant story telling, and completely theologically orthodox. Christ storming the doors of hell or hades and preaching to those in prison and bringing them back to life.