Christian Salvation: Communal, Political

D. Stephen Long

Are you saved?
No, not yet.

John Wesley said Christianity is essentially a social religion. By that term he didn’t mean that Christianity must be concerned with social justice along with personal holiness. He meant something more profound: Christian salvation is neither personal nor individual; it only occurs in communion with others.

Wesley pointed in the direction of something significant, something I think is necessary for contemporary Christians to consider. Too much Christianity is more akin to heretical Gnosticism or Platonism that the social religion Wesley referred to. In the former, the body was viewed as the problem. It weighed down the soul and the soul sought release from the body. Death, then, was one solution to the soul’s predicament; at death the soul is free to rise and return to its origin. Coupled with modern forms of individualism, especially allied with capitalist commodification, this theology creates a debased form of modern, gnostic Christianity, which becomes more like a contractual exchange that takes place with a “personal” banker than communion with the living God. A person enters into an individual exchange, giving their heart or soul to Christ in return for eternal salvation. It is a quid pro quo, a power relationship that binds two parties in a mutually useful agreement. I give God my soul. God gives me eternal life.

This reductionist understanding of Christianity contributes to the deformation of faith all too evident today. It contributes to a vicious “Christian” politics in which being a Christion becomes an act of power against others. We say “Merry Christmas” to threaten those who say “Happy Holidays.” It also leads to this vicious sentiment: by entering into this contractual relation, the individual escapes the fate that awaits all those others. That fate only makes the individual more grateful for his or her new contractual relationship with God.

It also leads, I think, to the following paradox. On the one hand, the redeemed individual seeks to get others saved by entering into the same contractual relationship. On the other, the redeemed needs the unsaved in order for her or his contractual relationship to be unique, personal, individualized. If they were not facing a judgment that the individual escapes, that escape would be less meaningful to the individual. Perhaps this paradox is why so many people bristle when a stranger asks them, “Are you saved?” They are correct to bristle. The only proper answer to the question. “Are you saved?” is with the response, “Not yet.”

Salvation is not an individual contract to escape judgment. Biblical expressions of salvation are much more communal and political. Salvation is understood as participating in the Risen Body of Christ, of being a member of the household of God, the communion of saints, or belonging to the city Christ establishes. It is not for individuals, but for “all the nations.” These images – body, household, city – are essential for understanding Christian salvation. They teach us that God is not saving individuals, but God is restoring creation, and this can only be done through a political community. Unlike any earthly political community that uses its power through intimidation, threat or resentment, the restored political community will be known by the “light” it emanates attracting the nations to its beauty. It cannot be forced through power, but formed through cross and resurrection. Until that restoration occurs we are not saved; we are being saved.

In my next few installments, I hope to explain the above thesis. To do so will require attention to some key Scriptures. Reading Scripture well is no easy task. Much damage is done to Scripture and to Christian witness because we put the wrong question to Holy Scripture. One should not read the first book of Genesis asking questions of astrophysics. After all, as Origen noted in the third century, it cannot be read literally since it refers to a day before the sun is created. Nor should one read the story of Noah’s ark asking questions of maritime architecture. Too much foolishness emerges because poor interpreters put the wrong questions to Scripture. One worthy question, a question posed by God, is found in the book of 2 Samuel. Once King David has finally settled in the land, he decides that God should no longer live in a moveable, tabernacle. If the king has a settled house, then the God of the universe should have one as well. King David decides to build God a house, but God puts an intriguing question to David, “Are you the one to build me a house?” The question is intriguing because on the one hand it shows the foolishness of David’s question. Is the God of the universe like you that he can be contained in a dwelling? On the other, it is one of the most important questions God poses in Scripture: “Will you be my house?” It is the question to which Jesus is the answer, and the answer to that question is why, as Wesley noted, Christianity is essentially a social religion.

Posted Jan 09, 2017

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