Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Of Generals and Particulars

There are quite a few aspects to Christianity that are ‘general.’ Christianity carries with it moral commands and exhortations, the most culturally familiar one being the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which was said by Jesus himself. Many people connect with Christianity in this general sense would agree that the moral imperatives are good and match up well with what other religions teach about being good people. Will Smith recently stated that Scientology and the Bible teach basically the same things, and he quoted the Golden Rule as his prime example. In additional general terms Christianity encompasses ideas about good versus evil, transformation of society, and what is often referred to as ethical monotheism, all of which many people identify with in a positive way.
However, Christianity also carries with it particularities which sharply define the generalities given above. This is the part of Christianity which many people do not like. If all that the Bible and 2000 years of Church history teaches is “be good to people”, then anyone that came along and also taught “be good to people” would be teaching the same thing, and Will Smith would then be right. But Christianity has some particulars which define it distinctly, and to identify or define the Christian faith only by its generalities is simply inaccurate and disingenuous (not to mention blatantly reductionist).
What are some of these particulars? Two immediately spring to mind. The first is the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the second is the concept of original sin. These two particulars are radically distinct in the world of religious and moral concepts. No other religion pronounces its founder as divine in such a manner as Jesus Christ is portrayed in the New Testament. While Mohammed is viewed as a prophet by Muslims, he is not viewed as divine. While Buddha is highly Enlightened and revered in such a fashion as to be god-like, he is not viewed like Jesus as “the image of the Invisible God,” “by whom all things were created” and in whom “all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15,19). Theologically speaking, this is called a high Christology (i.e. a high theology of Christ)
Now this particular feature of Christianity, that is, the divinity of Christ Jesus, on its own does not create much of a stir. What I mean is this: many people think it’s a great idea for God to come to earth as a human and teach us all the right things. And why not, we’re certainly worthy of such attention, after all we are created in his image. But this is where the second particular cuts to the quick. If humans do in fact have original sin, that is, a sinful nature that all people are inherently born with – something both Old and New Testaments clearly teach – then it follows that something must be done about original sin. Even if God came to earth as a human in Jesus Christ, if all he did was teach a great moral philosophy, that does not change our inherent situation. Ours is a situation of a tragic inability to produce goodness on any kind of lasting or consistent way – if we could the world would be perfect. Deep down we all know this inability is real, despite our best efforts to deny it. No other religion has such a view of human nature. Theologically speaking, this is called a low anthropology (i.e. a low theology of human nature).
This low anthropology, the idea of original sin, indicates that just telling a person to “be good” does not guarantee they will. Maybe for like a day, or ten minutes, but not every moment for their whole life. And as many of you may already know, for all the good we may do, there is inevitably some ‘bad’ in our life that seems to offset the good. Furthermore, the most ‘heavy’ moral command given by Jesus is, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) – a pretty tall order for even the staunchest of the morally upright. So tall that most either ignore such a rigorous command or water it down by alluding to Jesus’ penchant for hyperbole. While Jesus did use hyperbole on occasion (and even sarcasm, wit, and many other means of communication), the Sermon on the Mount is hardly the setting for such hyperbole. No, Jesus meant what he said and we are left to deal with it.
How we deal with it is of great importance. As I stated above, Christianity carries much that is general, especially moral imperatives, which can be quite appealing. However, dealing with this question of “being perfect” requires us to look not at Christian generals, but to its particulars. If we are unable to live up to the moral commands of God as found in the Bible, because of a low anthropology, then we must have a savior. Not just any nice teacher will do either. In truth, only God himself can do something for us and to us. We are helpless. This is what the Bible teaches. This is the view of Jesus Christ himself, who said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). This is the Christianity of St. Paul, who writes in Romans 5:8, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the Christianity of the Apostles, like St. John, who wrote, it is “not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [i.e. the atoning sacrifice] for our sins (1 John 4:10).
These passages tell us of the atonement – the death of Jesus on the Cross where he took our sins upon himself, making atonement for them before God. This is the ultimate particular of Christianity. In the atonement the other two particulars of a low anthropology and a high Christology meet. Helpless people are rescued by their divine Lord, and he saves them not with platitudes or advice, but with his very blood. These three particulars are what make Christianity distinctly Christian. They do this because they make Jesus Christ utterly essential to Christianity. Much of what passes for “Christianity” today is essentially Christianity without Christ – knowing God apart from the Son.
What I mean is this: it seems to me that a great deal of effort is put into being “spiritual” these days, but this is an extremely general term to which generalities of all kinds of religions are applied. I practice a type of prayer style, I try to be a good person like Jesus or Buddha teaches, I am interested in studying religious ideas, and so on – therefore I am spiritual. What concerns me is that this is seen as sufficient for many Christians, so that what they get is a Christianity with no Jesus Christ, apart from some general ideas about him and his ‘teachings’. Jesus himself said that in order to know God you must know the Son (John 1:18; 14:7). There seems to me to be quite a strong and appealing movement to strive to know ‘God’ by bypassing the Son. Now, one may do this, but in all integrity they can’t call it Christianity. This is the offensive particularity of Christian revelation – if you want to know God, experience God, follow God, you must go through the Son of God, who is Jesus Christ.
What is in desperate need for Christians of all walks, and churches across the globe (but especially in North America and the West) is a reclamation of the particulars of the Faith, rather than a vague celebration of its generalities. Not in a shrill manner of vigorous ‘bible thumping’, but a firm stand on what is true about our Faith (1 Corinthians 15:58). The heart of reclaiming the particulars of Christianity are the three that I have mentioned above: the divinity of Jesus Christ, the lowly estate of humans, and the power of Christ’s death on the Cross (and subsequent bodily resurrection) as remedy for humans. Over the next few months we shall take a deeper look at these particulars, in terms of how they were explained by a lovely little statement developed in the sixteenth century that goes like this: salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, so that God alone gets the glory – or to put it in Latin: sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria.

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