Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Concise Post-Christendom Theological Framework

When it comes to theology, the New Testament writings are somewhat fuzzy. The authors of the documents which came to comprise the New Testament were not systematic theologians and the documents they wrote were not intended as theological treatises. The collection of documents which we now call the Bible expresses a variety of theological viewpoints on various topics--more like a family discussion at the dinner table than a single voice.

Jesus and his early followers lived in tumultuous times; in the midst of tremendous political, social, economic, cultural and religious turmoil. In that setting, they experienced a series of remarkable events which left them grasping for language to define what had happened and to describe the ramifications. It all centered around the "Christ event": the life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As the centuries passed after this "Christ event" and the subsequent passing of his original followers, Christian theology gradually became more refined. The center of Christianity moved gradually westward from Judea to Antioch and Alexandria and Rome and Constantinople.  The many fuzzy bits were interpreted and polished and focused and universalized--with considerable influence from Greek philosophy--into official doctrines. Contentious ecumenical councils hammered out credal statements and excommunicated dissenting bishops. It was a messy process.

Doctrines that took shape over the course of centuries included the Trinity, the nature(s) of Christ, various Atonement theories, Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment for unbelievers, Heaven in addition to (or as opposed to) resurrection, various approaches to Baptism (such as infant vs. adult), Original Sin, Predestination (vs. free will), evolving eschatologies, hierarchical ecclesiological authority structures, etc. The "Constantinian shift" of the fourth century, in which Christianity went from being a persecuted underground religion to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, was a watershed moment that birthed Christendom: Christianity married to Empire (each empowering and legitimizing and shaping the other).

We, in the twenty first century, have received a Christian theology that has nearly two hundred centuries of theological development layered over the kernel of the "Christ event," and over Jesus's earliest follower's (such as Paul's) efforts to sort out the implications of that bombshell. The task of Christians today who are interested in the tangible effects of theology is to scrape away at the "waxy yellow buildup" of all those doctrinal and cultural layers, digging through the strata in order to get to what's intrinsic about being a follower of Jesus.

There are a few areas which I think deserve special consideration as candidates for reevaluation:

Hell - What happens if we eliminate the question of who's in and who's out? Suddenly a tremendous amount of layered on doctrines becomes irrelevant. I have written about Hell in detail elsewhere ( and won't belabor here the reasons why I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Suffice it to say that a large slice of Christendom theology was predicated on the notion that most of humanity would end up in Hell and only a relative few would be "saved." But what if (as I think Paul, John, et al, believed) all of humanity will eventually be reconciled to God? As I have written elsewhere (

"God is omnipresent. That means God is everywhere at once. It is impossible to be separated from God. The Eastern Orthodox church teaches that since God is omnipresent, Heaven and Hell are the same place--in the presence of God. What will make it Heaven for one and Hell for another will be one's orientation towards God.

What if God's view of judgement isn't punitive or juridical, but is instead restorative? What if true justice--God's justice--is all about putting things right; restoring things to the way they ought to be? What if God's ultimate goal is redemption and reconciliation, even if it requires a painful process?

I believe that in the end we will all see God as God is and be confronted with God's Truth, God's Holiness and, most of all, God's Love. There will be no hiding from the pain that we have caused to God, to one another, and to ourselves. People will experience the full realization of the impact of their lives. To be utterly exposed and come face-to-face with oneself as one truly is and with God as God truly is will be, for some, a horrific experience. All that one became throughout one's lifetime which is antithetical to Love and Truth, will be 'burned' away by God's holiness. It cannot remain in God's presence. Our God is a consuming fire. Perhaps for some, after this purgative 'judgement' is finished, there may not be much of themselves left. They will be saved, as Paul wrote, but as if through a fire.

After God's purifying fire removes all that is not of Love and Truth, what will come next is restoration. Love is the motive behind God's judgement and Love seeks to restore. Then, at last--when this work is finished, God will be all in all; God's victory will be complete. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. These will not be anguished confessions extracted from condemned souls about to be annihilated or cast into Hell. What kind of God would glory in that? No, they will be the joyful exaltations of a redeemed and restored humanity." This, I believe, was the vision of Paul and the earliest Christians.

If we accept this idea--that all will be reconciled to God--it eliminates the theological conundrums that people like Augustinian struggled with. For example, Augustine wrestled with trying to find the balance between God's grace and human's free will. He favored the view that humans were born as sinners (due to Adam's original sin being passed on seminally through every generation) and that the only ones who would be saved from Hell were those whom God had predestined (through absolutely no merit of their own) to receive salvation. It was imperative to Augustine that infants be baptized into the church as soon as possible in order to negate the inherited sin of Adam.

Augustine took the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis as a literal historical account (rather than as the powerful mythic Hebrew cautionary tale that it actually is). This resulted in a historical/theological narrative of Adam and Eve's "fall" from innocence and the resulting expulsion from God's grace which, in turn, caused their entire progeny to become a massa peccati (mass of sin) and, therefore, a massa damnata (mass of the damned). Because of humankind's default orientation of depravity and damnation (and, therefore, God's orientation of wrath towards humankind) no person could even *choose* to respond to God unless God enabled them to do so. This, according to Augustine, was grace. And since *all* humans were part of the same "mass of the damned" and under the same penalty, the implication is that God's selection of who would be saved from Hell was random and arbitrary (since no one has merit). Thus developed the doctrine of Predestination, which was later championed by John Calvin, came to America with the Puritans and lives on today in the teachings of folks like R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, et al.

And so Augustine and his theological descendants would say that salvation is only by grace, through faith, but that even that faith is a gift of grace. What if this is true, but the gift of grace is given equally to everyone?

Atonement - What if Jesus's death on the cross was not a violent sacrifice required by the Father, but instead a demonstration of Christ's obedience to God's values (whatever the cost) and of God's unstoppable love? Here is a way of looking at it that is different from the popular "substitutionary" atonement theory of our day: Jesus was tortured and murdered by people whose position of power was threatened by his popularity among the hoi polloi and his radical message of inclusion. As a result, these human representative of what Walter Wink calls "systems of oppression," demonstrated the very worst of human nature by having the Son of God tortured and killed. But at the moment of his death Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they don't realize what they're doing." The resurrection of Jesus was the demonstration that God's life and love are greater than the worst, most cynical, evil that humans can do.

Jesus did not have to die. God didn't require it. The awful crucifixion of Christ was not a price required by God to compensate for humankind's sin, but instead was purely an evil act of human conspiracy and murder. The resurrection of Jesus was a demonstration of God's power to restore and redeem and rise above the worst depravities that humans can choose to inflict upon one another and upon the world. God's love is greater than humankind's sin. That is the point of Christ's resurrection.

And what of sin? Augustine and his peers viewed sin in juridical terms. It was transgression against God's perfect will and therefore had to be met with penalty. But what if sin is not the problem, but rather is the symptom? What if sin is simply what results from our failure to "walk in step with the Spirit" (as Paul wrote to the Galatians)? When we are out of sync with God, we miss the mark of what God's loving and inclusive intent is. That is what sin, quite simply, is. Why do we not attune ourselves to God? For many it is because they have been made fearful of a God of wrath who is the antithesis of what Jesus taught and modeled. Is it because we don't realize the boundlessness of God's unconditional love? In our fear, we are alienated from God and from one another and even from ourselves. I believe that the "solution" to this is a revelatory realization of God's unconditional love. In my own life, I become increasingly aware of God's loving nature and intent as a result of engaging in contemplative practice. The more experientially aware of God I become, the less sin and guilt are a problem in my life. It is analogous to tuning in a radio to the frequency that gives a clear signal and, as a result, the static ceases.

So then, what is the point of being a Christian? Is it to escape Hell? No. Everyone will be reconciled to God, sooner or later. The point of following Jesus is to engage in the process of reconciling with God and with one another. The point is to "tune in" to God and be transformed and be agents of gracious transformation in the world. This transformation begins deep inside of us, and that inner transformation then manifests on the outside in our care for all aspects of God's creation. Rather than fear of eternal punishment, or Pharisaical conformity to doctrinal precepts or perpetuation of systems and structures, it is this active, humble care for all of God's creation that marks a Post-Christendom theology.



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