“Salvation should no longer be conceived as a singular process or activity. Rather, it comprises all the activities and processes within human affairs which are helping to overcome the violence and disruptions and alienations, the various forms of oppression and exploitation, and all the other historical and institutional momentums today promoting personal and social deterioration and disintegration. In short, wherever a spirit of creativity and liberation and healing, of reconciliation and reconstruction is at work in the world, there is to be seen saving activity.” Gordon Kaufman
This is the last post in a series of responses to the 8 churches who decided to preach against progressive Christianity. I never could finish a response to the resurrection that these churches spoke of last week but I have written on the resurrection previously. And I’m grateful for my friend Virginia Dicken who helped us re-imagine the Virgin Birth. But today I want to tackle the question of salvation, from one progressive Christian perspective. Because the claim that Jesus is “the only way” to me, is the most problematic of the claims made by these 8 churches.
Partly, this is so, because the meaning of the phrase is not clear. As progressives, we could say that Jesus is the only way for us. This is a confessional and an autobiographical statement. To me, Jesus, becomes a human picture of God and God’s character, a window for us to see the vision God has for the world. And for many of us Jesus may be the most powerful and preeminent means of doing that. But it is not an apologetic statement, meant for all people in all times. It is rather an expression of our own faith journey and how we have come to encounter God.
We might be also be able to talk about Jesus being unique, not just for us, but for himself. For every individual is unique. Everyone has a unique set of relationships, influences, and ability to contribute to the ongoing story of our world. Jesus is no different in this regard. And we can see this with the trajectory established after him which would become the church, the kergyma, the good news of the kingdom of God, in the very conversations we are having today about the good in life and of salvation. In that, Jesus is a unique entry point to learn about God’s dream for our world.
That would not be enough for the 8 churches though. I believe they want to say that only by believing certain things about Jesus, that he was crucified and resurrected for our sins, can we be saved. And those people who do not believe such things are not saved. To claims this though begs the question, what is salvation? What is it that we need to be saved from? For these churches, salvation appears to be a means to go to heaven. To not be saved means to go to hell. And you can draw the line that separates those going to heaven or hell based on the Christian religion and Jesus.
There are a lot of problems with this description. Is there an empirical basis for believing that there is a heaven or hell “out there”? Is there an empirical basis for believing that we can speak meaningfully of a personal existence beyond the physicality of our bodies and our environment? Does this account make sense of the Biblical witness, in particular Paul who envisioned a cosmic salvation that involved not just all people but the whole creation? Does it nurture feelings of superiority over and against other people in other religions as well as the non religious?
The question I want to focus on is this: what we do need to be saved from? Saved from God? If the question is where God sends us in the afterlife it seems so. If God is to be identified with the good in life, such an account could not make sense though. From ourselves? That one is easier to imagine. As our nation is in shock with the shooting death of 9 African Americans in a church Bible study in Charleston South Carolina and as the national conversation about racism, guns, and our criminal justice system comes into focus, we discover that we need a lot to be saved from.
And sifting through the forces that prevent the changes that would allow us to address these forces, centuries of racial hatred, an idolatry surrounding violence, a broken political system unable to address basic reforms that would allow for a fair and equitable distribution of resources and power, we can be discouraged. And we can’t afford that. But we can be sober in our assessment of how interconnected and complicated our problems are. And they are not just problems, they are questions of salvation. What makes for life abundant, which Jesus spoke of? What blocks it?
The biggest problem with the account given by the 8 churches about salvation and Jesus as the only way is that it fails to give an account of salvation that relates to this life and world and it fails to give an account of sin which recognizes how many threads and how many issues are a foot in any instantiation of it. When you look at what happened in Charleston, there is no one solution and there is no one source of the problem. Racism, classism, a dysfunctional political system, a dysfunctional person, the complex matrix of causes and effects are not going to be solved by one act.
And that is why I started this post by a quote from Gordon Kaufman. The problem with “one way” theology is that it doesn’t provide us any tools to negotiate the complexities that makes for good or blocks it in our world. In this, you need not one way but rather all the resources; moral, conceptual, political, ritually, and more from all our respective religious traditions to relate to the problems of life, to the question of salvation. And you don’t need just religious traditions involved.
As Gordon Kaufman writes:
“It is not a matter therefore, to be dealt with by pastors and priests and theologians alone, by those who are experts largely in religious practices and traditions. It requires also the combined expertise and efforts of psychologists and chemists, engineers and artists, politicians and farmers, educators, physicians, laborers and many others, each making his or her unique and indispensable contribution to the common good. “
That does not mean the Christian tradition has nothing to say of the matter. We have many resources to relate to the good in life, which is to say, to relate to God. But any attempt to limit those resources, to just Christianity, excluding other religions and non religious resources, blocks effective ways of relating to the problems of life, of potential solutions, and therefore effectively blocks the work of God in the world. That is ultimately why the pluralism of progressive Christianity is not just a nice idea, it is a requirement to the question of salvation.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma