Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Great Heresy of the 20th Century

Well, it looks like the Presiding Bishop accidentally struck off a firestorm with her opening remarks for General Convention. Here is the link to the whole speech, but this is the snippet that has gotten everyone in a tizzy (hat tip to Grandmere Mimi):

The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy –
that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right
relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that
salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That
individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the
place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of
all being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention

Jesus’ critical decision to journey toward Jerusalem is about the city of God’s dream, Yerushalayim, the city of peace, the city of shalom, the city of God’s holy mountain, toward which the nations stream. We Christians often think the only important part of the Jerusalem story is Calvary, and, yes, suffering and killing in that place still seem to be the loudest news. But Calvary was a way point in the larger arc of God’s dream – it’s on the way to Jerusalem, it is not in Jerusalem. Jesus’ passion was and is for God’s dream of a reconciled creation. We’re meant to be partners in building that reality, throughout all of creation. This crisis is a decision point, one which may involve suffering, but it is our opportunity to choose which direction we’ll go and what we will build. We will fail if we choose business as usual. There will be cross-shaped decisions in our work, but if we look faithfully, there will be Resurrection as well.

These words, and the ensuing cries of outrage from Conservative Anglicans touches on a subject that I have been wrestling with for the past year, that of the nature of salvation. Is the "Confession of Faith" or "The Sinner's Prayer" what redeems us? Is the conversion experience all there is to this?

Unfortunately, this is one area where even the Apostles could not reach agreement on. Read the sharp contrast between the letters of Paul and James and you will see the heart of this debate. Paul's writings, especially in Romans, clearly point us toward justification by faith, that we are justified by our belief in Jesus as "Lord" and "Savior". James, the brother of Jesus, argues for the opposite in saying that "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." So who is right in this? How are we saved?

Here is where it gets tricky, and I think this is where Bishop Jefforts-Schori was going with her bold claim on the Great Western Heresy. Salvation and repentance are not a one time thing. Simply saying "The Sinner's Prayer" or reciting the Nicene or Apostle's Creed are not enough, even if they are said with the utmost conviction. It's the change that takes place. Just like it's not baptism itself that is your mark of salvation, it is what that baptism represents, the "outward sign of an inward spiritual grace." James says it best when he writes, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder."

Part of our confusion I think stems from our definitions of faith and repentance. In recent times the word faith has become synonymous with belief and repentance with asking forgiveness. This is, however a far cry from what they originally meant.

First let's look at the word "faith". The letter to the Hebrews defines it as the "assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen...." At first glance this definition does not seem to help, but let's look closer into this passage. As we progress through the chapter, we read of how people did things "by faith". It begins to become apparent that faith is much more than just belief. Belief is simply to think something is true. Faith, by contrast calls us to action. It is the starting point from which we begin our journey. To have faith in something calls us to move forward.

Next we need to define repentance. The Greek word used in the New Testament means to change one's mind or a change in consciousness (from Wikipedia). In the Old Testament, it meant to return or to feel sorrow. Again, this reflects something that does not happen all at once. Repentance is more than just to ask forgiveness. It is to change course.

So what of this idea of individual salvation. Can I alone be saved? I tend to think not. For the journey of both Christianity and Judaism from which it sprang is that of community. In asking for forgiveness, the Jewish tradition is to beat your breast and confess, "We have sinned..." This is reflected in the Anglican "confession of sin" in the Eucharistic liturgy.

In our modern society, we have become obscessed with the individual. Our focus has moved from what we can do for God to what God can do for us. This has bled over into our theology. But while a personal relationship with God in Christ is vital to our growth as Christians, it is not the only thing. As Bishop Jefferts-Schori so succintly states, we are the hands of God within the world. Our faith in Christ must be a faith of action. Our faith in Christ must spur us on to make the Kingdom of God manifest in the here and now. We can not do this by ourselves. It is only as a community of believers that we can accomplish this.

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