Tuesday, November 07, 2006

One of the things I appreciate about having left LA (and thus The Church on the Way, where I grew up) is that it has introduced me to the wider world of Christendom much moreso than I would have if I had stayed at home and continued going to the church I grew up in (which, for the record, is a fabulous church).

I like being exposed to other traditions, which wasn't always the case. I suppose all of that time spent with Archimedes rubbed off on me some in that respect (well okay, it really starts with Judith Langford). It's really nice to be able to look at another version of Christianity and honestly say, as he did the last time he visited TCOTW, "This is not my tradition and it never will be, but good things happen here." It reminds me how good God really is, and that God is bigger than my religion (which is not to get all universalist on you, dear readers. God is bigger than my religion but he is not the God of all religions). But all this ecumenicalism does have certain dangers.

The other day, in talking with Thayet, I was struck by the realization that in some senses I've been hanging out with Reformed people too much. Let me explain what I mean by that, because what I mean is quite narrow. I have absolutely no beef with the religion of people like Vonsus and Mayxm. I look up to them as believers a great deal; as far as I can tell their tradition has done well by them. But it isn't my tradition, and I wonder if that makes me less able to deal with its particular foibles. Speaking as an outsider, I feel like the Reformed tradition likes to harp an awful lot on two themes: the depravity/inability of man, and the grace of God.

Now, to be sure, these things are true. I agree that every part of our species - every faculty we have - is broken in some way. There is no part of ourselves that we can rely upon absolutely. It is entirely beyond our power to save ourselves. You cannot be Christian and disagree with those statements (unless I've somehow misphrased them, which I don't think I have). And those basic truths highlight, in stark and terrible fashion, just how much man is in need of God's grace to make up his natural deficiencies.

Harping on this theme is, I think, one of the Reformed tradition's strengths. I imagine it is a useful guard against certain tendencies within Christianity and without to say that we as mankind can do it ourselves: to say that we don't need to give God access and sovereignty over every part of ourselves because we can grow on our own through experience, community, moral effort, or whatever; or because God is inside of us and therefore when we say "God" we mean something like "my internal faculties." And of course neither of those things is Christianity. It is true that God is inside of me, but that is not to say that God is me, and one must never lose sight of that (nor is it to say that God is inside everybody). When Christians say (if I can venture to speak for the entire religion) that God is in their hearts, they mean that they have invited God to reform the most private parts of them, that there is no part of themselves they are holding back from him. They don't mean that their internal voices have suddenly become God (I happen to affirm, as not all Christians do, that God does speak to believers in a voice that is more like my own internal voice than anything else, but that does not mean that every time an internal voice says something God is the speaker). Or, on a slightly more nuanced note, God's reform of my life is not some sort of one-time morality transfer - that is, I cannot let God fix me up and then go my merry way without him, keeping my personality upgrades like I would keep a house remodel, so to speak. And as for the idea that we don't need God's grace because of our inherent human faculties, that's just silly. I imagine that the Reformed tradition is a pretty useful guard against these kinds of follies.

But, at least for someone like me who didn't grow up in it, that tradition also presents some very real dangers. That danger is to focus so much on the depravity and inability of mankind that I forget God's grace - or to put in a perhaps more useful way, I forget what God has done. Now of course I must always remember that apart from God, I have nothing worthwhile (I still have lots of very cool stuff - man apart from God is still by far the most ridiculously awesome thing on this planet. But even things like sentience, conscious thought, art, and love are not worth a hill of beans in the ultimate sense, apart from God). But here's the thing: I do have God, and it's important to remember that fact. It's important to remember the fact that God saves, right now, and that that means something (as Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, it's kind of difficult to say what - Christian me may not actually be more admirable than non-Christian X, depending on where I started relative to X on the admirability scale. But the real question is what Christian me looks like relative to non-Christian me). God calls me righteous. God calls me holy. God says that he has placed his Spirit inside of me and that that empowers me beyond what I would otherwise be able to do. And because God says it, it is true. This relates back to my 10/29/05 post about divine legal fictions. It is true that I am in desperate need of God, and I will always be in desperate need of God. But it is also true that God is here, and he will always be here, and (to quote Satine) that is worth everything.

Harping on this theme is one of the particular strengths of my own tradition, which is something I'd kind of forgotten. It's a practical guard against other one of the dangers I feel the Reformed tradition is prone to: that I focus so much on my own depravity that I forget to focus on God. Or perhaps more subtly, that I focus so much on God's grace that I forget what God's grace is. The importance of this (as Thayet pointed out, though not in these words) is that a man who focuses too much on his depravity really isn't good for much. As I said earlier, you can't stay in the fight if you're convinced that you have nothing to fight with.

Now, this is not to say that the Reformed tradition supports anything so silly as encouraging its adherents to focus on their own depravity to the extent of ignoring God's saving grace. Quite the contrary; as a rule I find that real live Reformed Christians are extraordinarily Christ-centered. But I am not a real live Reformed Christian, and I don't always navigate the idiosyncratic hazards of their tradition as well as a native would (essentially, focusing on man to the point of ignoring what God has done). I get the impression the same is true of Reformed believers coming to my own Arminian charismatic tradition - to them, my version of Christianity seems to present a grave danger of focusing on man to the point of ignoring our need for God at all.

And so on and so forth for all the other flavors of Christianity. The funny thing is, I don't find that real live Arminian charismatics are anthrocentric at all, or works-centric, or any of the other things that outsiders seem to worry about (and perhaps fall prey to, as I can fall prey to the dangers in their traditions). Now, am I just blind to the ways in which my Christianity is broken? To some degree, undoubtedly. But I don't think I'm quite that blind. I begin to suspect that one of the good reasons for denominationalism is that all versions of Christianity (probably all versions of all religions, and indeed all world views) have their potential dangers, and growing up in the tradition helps to innoculate against them.

1 comment:

Ayudaren said...

I find it an unfortunate reality that so many people are unfamiliar with one of the, in my mind, fundimental tenants of the Christian Faith as a whole.

God isn't some kind of bad-ass traffic cop that nails you for not doing things by his rules because they're his rules. God sets me free to be the person I want to be, not the jerk I end up being all the time.

I suspect Christianity would encounter a lot less opposition if more people understood that fact.