A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, April 07, 2011

What Does It Take to Get In?

How would you answer that question?

People ask questions about the faith for a variety of reasons and I want to sketch four — there are of course other reasons. Some ask questions because they want to know. This sort of person asks a good question and then sifts through the Bible and sorts out theological history and intellectual options in an attempt to find the truth. Some people ask questions in a more careless fashion — they ask questions, some of them quite good — like How can God be all powerful and all good and have a world like this? — but don’t seem to want to find answers. They just don’t work hard enough. They are proud of having good questions. Some ask good and middling questions but the questions are a cloak for doubt. They don’t ask to find an answer but they soften their overt doubts or unbelief by expressing them in a question. Others ask questions to befuddle and to bewilder — all with a desire to confuse in order to lead to other questions that are behind those questions in order to find deeper answers. I think Rob [Bell] is trying the last approach....

The questions he asks in the first chapter [of his book, Love Wins] are piled on top of one another, one after the other, question, question, question. They are probing one major issue: If we believe in an afterlife, and if that afterlife is entered as a result of some “condition”, what does it take to get in? What do you think? Please stop and answer that one. That’s the question this chp provokes.

Touching on one Gospel text after another, he is led to this laundry list of options, and I eliminate his white space: “Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’re married to, or whether you give birth to children? Or is it what questions you’re asked? Or is it what questions you ask in return? Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?” (16-17)

Bell observes that “almost everybody, at least at first, has a difficult time grasping just what Jesus is” (17). Then this: “Except for one particular group.” Then he points to the demonized people. Not that this matters that much but, no, that’s not right. The Gospels clearly present a spectrum from outright rejection (those who sin against the Spirit) to passive inattentiveness (“this generation”) to various forms of belief and obedience, like the disciples. The disciples, in their sometimes failures, represent those who have genuine faith. And then he points also to the woman who washes his feet know him — but why choose her? Aren’t there also plenty of others? Well, he’s sampling and dipping in and out.

His point, so I would infer: getting in might be the way the gospel is presented, but there’s a list of options about how one gets in. His chp rhetorically baffles the reader to get us to ask: What does it take to get in? [If we believe in the "in vs. out" gospel. I do.] And what does this whole getting in or not getting in stuff say about God and what the faith is all about? Is getting in what it is about? Do many present the gospel this way — in an “in vs. out” approach? Let’s take a good look at what we’re doing and saying and ask this question.

But is there confusion on the part of the Gospels? I don’t think so. One needs only to read the Gospel of John to see his terms for proper response, like faith/believe, and abide, and obey. Or examine the “enter into the kingdom” sayings of Jesus — and I can’t quote them so will list them (Mark 9:43-48; 10:15; 10:17-27; Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 21:28-32). But Jesus’ rhetorical aim is not to bewilder by listing but to provoke his listeners in order to gain their attention so they can see the all-consuming claim of Jesus on life.

I will put this differently: from one person to the next the Gospels show us that Jesus did not say the same thing. He didn’t say “Do these three or four things and then you can enter the kingdom.” Shame on our evangelistic simplicities. No, he summoned each person out of their own particular and concrete realities, revealed what it was that stood between them and him, summoned them to see that this is the First Commandment all over again — have no other gods before me — and make the absolutely stunning claim. It’s all about coming to Jesus, surrendering to Jesus, trusting Jesus, obeying Jesus, or following Jesus. Variants on a theme, folks. Variants on a theme.

That trust in and commitment to him was the new first commandment. These demands aren’t designed to bewilder but to stun us into attention and to dig into the depths of our soul and say “Will you give yourself to me or not?” Rob’s book never really comes back to this listing of options, but I think his book does answer the list of questions by synthesizing an answer in chp 7 into this: We respond to God properly by accepting his love story of us instead of the bad story we’ve got of ourselves. He summons us out of our story into God’s story. I like that approach too.

There’s much more to say, and we don’t have space for it. You can read my take on the theme of this post in One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, pp. 109-119.


PamBG said...

There is one thing I know for certain: That our actions indicate to us what we *really* believe in. What we say we believe in is our own self deception. There are a few patients I know who are really truly depending on God. They have no ,ore health, no more money and, in some cases, no more friends and family. If "belief in God/Jesus" is the criteria for getting in to heaven, then I think B and J will be saved.

Me, what I really believe in is "being useful". Which, it seems to me, means I have faith in myself rather than in God. But I want to be a disciple of Jesus and I hope there is hope for me because I hope that, through Christ, God will be gracious and merciful.

I am so bone-weary tired of the doctrinal squabbling. If God cares this much about ideas rather than lives of people, then is there any point to anything?

Allan R. Bevere said...

There is one thing I know for certain: That our actions indicate to us what we *really* believe in.

I completely agree, Pam... so since we stand on common ground let me push back a little. You state that you are weary of doctrinal squabbling. If you are referring to the often immature responses by people who disagree and the insulting of each other I quite agree. But I would submit that people are quite complex and thus belief and actions go together, as you indicate. Thus, if what we do matters, what we believe also matters, which is why we keep talking and debating over what we think and how we behave.

I am very uncomfortable with the sharp distinction we draw between belief and action... both matter... and paying attention to the former does not mean that God cares more about ideas than the lives of people. Because God cares for people, he cares about how they live and what they believe.

The problem is on our end since all of us see through a glass darkly.

PamBG said...

Well, there has certainly been a lot of squabbling around this book!

Maybe it's not Seminary that causes a person to lose their "faith" but rather CPE when you are shown that you don't really believe what you claim to believe.

All I can do at the moment is rely on God's grace. And God's grace is apparently limited to a certain set of ideas if a number of individuals are to be believed.

Allan R. Bevere said...

...but rather CPE when you are shown that you don't really believe what you claim to believe.

I'm not sure what you mean, Pam.

PamBG said...

In CPE I am being challenged to examine what I "really believe" in the light of the idea "What we really believe is how we live our lives".

As I said, what I "really believe" - the way I have lived my life - is in being useful. This is a form of idolatry. I'm not radically trusting in God, I'm trusting in my own ability to be useful. So, if the criterion for salvation is that Jesus is my savior, that's not what I *really* believe (and I'll bet that's not what most people really believe either).

So I'm hoping that God is ultimately more merciful and gracious.

Hope that makes sense.

Allan R. Bevere said...

It does, Pam... thanks!

For me, since salvation is a journey in progress it's learning to trust, taking three steps forward and two steps back... doing a better job trusting in one situation and a not-so-great job in another.

I wonder if we have not done a real disservice to people's faith-walk with our emphasis on salvation as a one time past event. While there is a sense in which that is true... the journey has to begin somewhere... it is still a process of going on to perfection.

I certainly cannot speak for you, but in getting to know you over these years, my hunch is that you trust in God more than you give yourself credit for.

I have always found myself drawn to the affirmation that the essence of the moral vision of the NT can be summarized as, "You are in Christ, now become what you are." The problem is that the becoming is not easy.

PamBG said...

The pastor of my "new" denomination gave me a booklet on Christianity from this denomination's perspective. (Mainly because I asked him if he knew of anything that gave a simple explanation of Christianity for a patient who has had a recent experience of God.)

The booklet spends some time trying to explain it's view of what it means to be a Christian, particularly in contrast to those who say that we need to do or believe something special (e.g. speak in tongues, say a special prayer).

Christianity, the booklet says, is mainly following in the way of Jesus. It summarizes as: "The Lutheran way is (1) seeing the crucified Jesus as God in the flesh, God entering the darkness of our existence to gather us into a Kingdom of wholeness, unity and peace. (2) seeing God in all creation but specifically in the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist."

I like that a lot and it speaks to my soul.