For the last few years, on a pretty regular basis, I’ve gotten together with a few friends to talk about stuff…real stuff, you know, the stuff we never talk about as Americans. Today, my friends and I got together and started talking about morality vs. sin. The premise for the discussion was whether a person can not necessarily be moral (according to cultural norms and values) but still be becoming more ‘divine’. Some of us (not me) read an article by an Orthodox priest who was pointing out the difference between morality and divinity. As you probably don’t know, Orthodoxy has its goal as divination, or becoming like the Divine – like God.
I was raised in a context that taught that humans like myself are inherently evil and incapable of doing anything truly good. Without Jesus, no one can do something that is actually genuinely loving for someone else. I’ve written elsewhere about how I don’t believe this any longer, but it is still something that I fight against in my way of thinking about life and people and the world. My friend, Dustin, brought up a friend of his from high school who was not a Christian but was a genuinely good guy. He said (though he retracted this statement later) that he thinks that his friend’s ability to be truly unselfish had a limit based on his lack of submission to Jesus.
Is that true?
This statement led us down a different rabbit trail, guided by yours truly. I asked the others if they found this to be true in their experience. Ryan said that, based on his experience, if someone is a Christian and says so, he knows that he is not going to like that person. He said that Christians, in his life experience, are the most selfish, least generous, generally worst kind of people on the planet (and he’s a Christian himself). Mandy concurred, saying that she learned more about community amongst her nerdy theater agnostic/atheist friends than she ever learned from the Christians she knew growing up. She said, when she became a Christian, she had to learn how to invalidate the truly good things that her friends did and represented because they were not Christians themselves.
I think that it may be the case that our theological anthropology has been flawed by what we have learned in the church. We learn that Jesus is the only reason we can do anything good, so if anyone who doesn’t know Jesus does something good, it must be either ‘not real’ or even deceptive, at least selfish in some real way. This is because we believe that humans are inherently evil, instead of inherently bearers of the image of God, however flawed that may be. When we start from that point, we see that the Christians in the world are generally worse people than those outside of Christianity because Christians have accepted as fact that they are incapable of being like God (apart from the few occasions that Jesus actually leaks out).
So, I followed up by asking Ryan and Mandy if Jesus has made a difference in their own lives. If it’s the case that most Christians are terrible, how have they been changed by becoming Christians? Are they worse off? Have they become less generous and more selfish? They both emphatically said that Jesus has made a real difference in their lives. They have learned to be able to accept their own failures not as evidence that they are inherently evil, but as evidence that there are still a lot of cracks in the image of God within them, and everyone else.
Is this two sides of one coin?
Jeff, not me, brought up an interesting question that is worth pondering here as well: If we lived in a town with one church and one mosque, and the church was clearly leading us away from developing the image of God within us, but the mosque was doing the opposite, would we leave the church and go to the mosque? Which is more important: religious identification or becoming like God? Is it even possible that one can become more like God within the mosque? If so, what difference does Jesus really make? (I realize that there are four questions there, but they are all related).
Against my better judgment as a teacher, instead of letting those questions linger, let me propose an answer, the same answer I proposed to Jeff (which I have also written about elsewhere). If God is indeed reconciling all humankind to himself through Jesus, then the spirit of Christ is at work in all places at all times, drawing people into transformative relationship with Himself. Karl Rahner called this being an ‘anonymous Christian’, but I think he used that language because he was a Catholic theologian and was grasping at orthodoxy. To answer the questions above, I would say, “Yes, absolutely, if there is a better chance in community with others to connect with and become more like God (more loving, peaceful, generous, selfless) outside of the church, we should pursue that. The fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that no matter what religious system we find ourselves in, the Spirit is at work to bring all people into relationship with God.”
That’s heresy for some of you, and so new its hard to handle for others. And that’s a no brainer for still others. The point of life is no longer to wash ourselves from sin in order to be put into a right relationship with God – Jesus accomplished that (see Hebrews, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, John) for everyone already. The answer to the question in Genesis 3 has been given. The answer to the question in Genesis 1, whether we will live out that image of God that is damaged goods within all of us, remains to be seen, for now. That’s the work of the Spirit, the work of renewal, restoration, reconciliation, redemption, and righteousness (meaning God setting things to right again). What we do know is that the very tree that gives life and healing to the nations is still ahead of us (see Revelation). God’s justice is still ahead of us. God is drawing us into that, no matter what religious system we find ourselves in. That’s good news.