This blog entry by my friend Kirk got me to thinking…
I haven’t read the rest of Scot’s series of posts and he may have covered all this, but as I see it, the root mistake has not been to make Christianity self-centric, but to make it salvation-centric, with salvation placed in the context Scot notes. The problem is not so much that the context makes Christianity too individualistic, but that it makes it too finite. As I wrote my view some years ago:
[…] What we must do is discover the vision to see this love, and find the courage to submerge ourselves and drown within it. This is the great challenge of the Jesus story, and it is the sheer depth of this challenge, rather than any intellectual debate, that has caused serious emphasis upon Jesus’ story to often be viewed with great skepticism. Jesus called us to accept more than we are willing to accept, to reject more than we are willing to reject, to love more than we are willing to love, and to give more than we are willing to give. Jesus called us to live within the reign and rule of God, and we are typically unwilling to do so. This is why people like you and me killed him.
Yet while most of Christianity focuses upon Jesus’ death, I believe we must choose to think instead of his life. I fully understand that as far as Christian doctrine is concerned, the death and resurrection of Jesus are of paramount importance. But I can never escape the feeling that to focus upon them to the exclusion of everything else is a way to cheat at believing the story. It seems to me all too convenient to say that Jesus died for us, and that is the end of that—than to say Jesus called us to live like he did, and that this is the beginning of everything.
By making Christianity finite, as if it’s all done once the problem of salvation for the individual is solved, is what leads a person to not need church anymore. If, on the other hand, we viewed Christianity as unbounded, notably in terms of the depth of personal relationship with God, I think we’d find a return to community. I say this because my experience of God has been, basically, that (1) it is indeed true that my life is indeed entirely about God and myself, but (2) as I live with and belong to God more and more deeply, I cannot help but live with and belong to all people more and more deeply. As I become more intimately involved with God, I naturally become more involved in the lives of those whom God loves. I have found that this is not intellectual on my part, but is rather something that “happens” to me as I become more devoted to the relationship I have with God.
In a sense, then, where the church has failed, where it has hoisted itself by its own petard, is in failing to adequately lead people to devoted relationship with God. This is one of those ironies that is in the same league as “he who wishes to save his life must lose it,” in that the church as community can truly remain only if its focus is to develop the personal relationships of its individual members with God.
What community has often done instead is to rely upon this finite view of Christianity (and the incumbent selfish view of salvation) to attempt to keep people in community; for example by quoting the standard “let us not give up meting together as some are in the habit of doing” and by attempting to equate absence from assembly with a loss of faith—as if staying home on Sunday mornings is nothing less than a dog returning to its vomit. In other words, community has said, “if you do not remain in community you will go to Hell,” which again is a problem of making theology finite.
Another shortcoming of community is that Christian community is also finite and selfish in itself. For example, note that I say that the more intimately I am involved with God and belong to God, the more I belong to those God loves. God’s love does not stop at the church door; God loves all of creation and all of us who inhabit it. I belong to those who are in Christian community, but I belong equally—in fact perhaps more so—to those who are not in Christian community. And so in some cases we malign the Christian individual who is too self-centered to be bothered with a community of believers, while at the same time being too church-centered to be bothered with the rest of God’s children. And here I am not talking simple evangelism designed to get people into Christian community, nor am I talking simple acts of kindness or service to the secular community. Both of these, too, are finite and eventually fail to achieve community in any true sense.
What I am talking about is a complete spiritual awakening and constant presence in the heart of God as an individual Beloved creature of God; an awakening and presence in which I become the Love of God manifest on earth. Only in this way does my faith, my theology, my very life become infinite—and I truly enter communion with all of humanity. This is a tremendous, glorious mystery beyond human ability to articulate. And yet, it can and does happen. The potential value of Christian community rests in the idea that this is what Christian community should be hoping for, praying for, teaching, fostering, and making real in individual lives.