Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What I Might Have Said

Last week I gave a luncheon talk for the interdenominational “Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff” at my university. I’d been invited to talk about my book, but it occurred to me that for a group such as this it might be more meaningful to talk about how the book fit into a broader personal, spiritual, and intellectual journey.

After all, this was bound to be a group of people who had in one way or another confronted questions about the intersections of the religious life and the life of the intellect. And my book, whatever else it may be, is a milestone in my own personal journey to answer questions raised by these intersections. And so I thought it might be valuable to talk about the personal journey that took me from a child of agnostic preacher’s kids to the author of a liberal religious critique of the new atheists.

It was not a prepared talk. Instead, I took the informal luncheon format as an opportunity to explore in conversation with others a question I wasn’t sure I knew all the answers to. At some point I might try to write up the lessons I gained from that exploration, but what I want to discuss here is something that came up at the very end of the luncheon, when at least half of those in attendance had already left. I want to talk about what I might have said had the conversation not been abruptly derailed.

The line of conversation we were pursuing at that time was started by a thoughtful question from the minister who strives to maintain and mediate the fellowship (no mean feat, I think). It was a sincere personal question about interfaith dialogue, about finding the balance between personal conviction and genuine openness towards and respect for other faiths. Having written about this issue in a recent blog post, I shared some what I’d said there.

My answer prompted one of the more theologically conservative persons in attendance to speak up (let’s call him Jim). Jim pointed out that in John 14:6, Jesus is purported to have said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” After quoting this verse, Jim went on in something like the following terms: “When I am having conversations with people of other faiths, I must remain true to this foundation. And this means I have to let them know, as hard as it is to say and to hear, that unless they accept Christ as their Lord and savior, they won’t be saved.”

This comment prompted me to launch into a very brief overview of some of my thinking about Christianity and universalism. I began by distinguishing between two interpretations of John 14:6: the interpretation which takes the passage to say that no one comes to the Father unless they adopt the right beliefs about Jesus and/or make the right choices with regard to Him, and the interpretation which has it that no one comes to the Father except on account of the work that Jesus does on sinners’ behalf. While the former interpretation entails that only Christians who explicitly accept Jesus as savior are saved, the latter interpretation does not imply this at all.

I then confessed to being a universalist, at which point Jim promptly said, “That’s not biblical.” At that point I briefly sketched out what I took to be the explicit universalism of Paul, in Romans and elsewhere. And then I offered a metaphor that might be of some help in reconciling Paul’s universalism with the scriptural idea that it is Jesus alone through whom salvation comes. What I said, roughly, was something along these lines:

“Imagine that there are a number of people drowning in a lake, and a lifeguard—call him Chris—dives in and, one by one, rescues them all. Not everyone knows or acknowledges that it was Chris who saved them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t save them. Their being saved doesn’t depend on these things. It certainly doesn’t depend on Chris leaving some to drown. If those who do recognize and acknowledge their savior have any advantage over those who don’t, it’s that they know whom to thank.”

There are serious limitations with this analogy as a basis for a comprehensive theology, but for the purposes that I was using it for—to show how it’s possible for salvation to come from one individual and yet to extend universally, even to those who know nothing about that individual—I thought it was pretty helpful. And it also expresses my Lutheran theological disposition that our salvation is rooted in something God does rather than in something we do. Our salvation is not on account of our works but on account of God’s work on our behalf—and believing the right things or explicitly “accepting Jesus as Lord and savior” clearly qualify as our works.

I want to take time to say something more about this “theology of grace.” In part I do so because it may help readers to understand my reaction to what happened next. But more significantly, I do so because what I have to say here is precisely what I might have said next, had the conversation not been derailed in the wake of a remark that led me to lose my composure.

One of the greatest fruits of a theology of grace is that it liberates us to think, to question, to doubt, to admit uncertainty, and to take challenges to our views seriously. If we believe that our salvation does not hinge on our getting it right, we become free to be humble, to admit our finitude, to admit our inability to get it right—in short, to be intellectually honest about the human condition. And as I see it, an absolutely crucial feature of the human condition is that the fundamental nature of reality is beyond our grasp. We can theorize and speculate in ways that are more or less in line with what reason and evidence reveal, but we cannot know.

Our enormous material universe might be catalogued, its structure and mechanisms and history described to the minutest detail, and we would still face the same fundamental questions: Is there more than this? Is this world of immediate sense experience, this world whose structures and patterns we can describe, just a surface appearance? Or is it just a small part of something far vaster that is beyond description? Or is it, instead, the whole story?

We cannot know. We can be moved by the voice in our heart that encounters a hopeful vision, the voice that says, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” We can treat its urgings as emerging out of the part of us that IS, rather than the part of us that experiences and knows—the self insofar as it is a part of reality, rather than the self that stands back from it in an attempt to understand reality. We can treat our deepest longings as if they are a homing beacon, and their YES as an instinct that immediately apprehends what the discursive intellect cannot grasp. Or we can be moved by the voice that says, “I’ll believe it when I see it”—knowing that this is something we can never, ever see.

We can be moved by longing or evidentialism, but we cannot know. And the theology of grace allows us to admit this. Paradoxically, if we are convinced of this theology, we are freed from the pathological need for certainty. And while such certainty may not be the root of all hostility and intractable conflict, it is one fundamental source of these things. When we can admit we do not know, we can come together and hear each other and be more fully open to each other’s humanness. And insofar as the theology of grace facilitates that, it bears pragmatic fruits that speak in its favor. We have pragmatic reason to live as if the theology of grace is true, as if our salvation doesn’t hinge on getting it right, because only then can we break free of the psychological forces that push us into trenches of false certainty.

All of this was lurking in the background of my thoughts as I laid out the metaphor of the lifeguard. And what Jim said next opened the door to elaborating on these ideas.

“But Christians,” he said, “have to choose their own lifeguard.”

I took him to mean that the lifeguard only swims out to rescue those who ask him for his help. I remembered a Lutheran pastor who strongly influenced me years ago, who tried to explain Lutheran theology by saying that, on the Lutheran view, if any of us have a right relationship with Christ it is because Christ has beaten down the walls around our hearts and seized hold of us from within. It is not by what we choose or believe that we become connected with the transcendent. That connection is forged because the transcendent loves us enough to reach through all our crud.

I'd found that message transformative in my own life. And so I said, “I disagree with that.”

And Jim replied, “Then you disagree with God.”

His facial expression as he said those words might, at a quick glance, have been viewed as smug. But I don’t think that’s right. Because I’ve felt that expression on my own face. It emerges when I’m containing something far more potent than smugness, something that’s surging up into my face in a tidal rush: The need to be right.

I’m no stranger to that need. In fact, I worry sometimes that it drives me more than it does most people. And that is one reason why I hold so fiercely to the theology of grace: as a ward against the more dangerous demons of my nature. (Again, I'm not blind to the paradox here).

But one of the forces that’s most likely to trigger my need to be right is precisely the kind of comment that Jim uttered in this exchange, in precisely the tone in which he uttered it. Like begets like. When he said, in essence, “If you disagree with me you disagree with God,” I felt the schoolyard impulse to reply with, “I know you are, but what am I?”

But just then, one of my friends from another department spat out his indignation in something along the following lines: “That’s just the kind of arrogance that fuels Dawkins and these other new atheists, giving their accusations against religion credibility!”

I sputtered something about these sorts of utterances being “anti-evangelical.” Then I went on to say that such a statement is a conversation-stopper. I said something along the following lines:

When you say to me, “If you disagree with me you disagree with God,” what I
think is this: “Here’s someone who isn’t open to genuine conversation, someone
who’s just in it to try to impose his views on me rather than offering reasons
and arguments and ideas that I can consider and learn from. This is certainly
NOT someone who will listen openly to my reasons and arguments and ideas—so why
should I bother to listen to what HE has to say.” That’s what goes through my
head. And so productive dialogue ends.

Openness begets openness. Self-righteousness begets self-righteousness. Entering an interfaith conversation with the assumption that one has the truth and that the point of the exchange is to make the other person accept it—well, that begets a similar response. Instead of a conversation, one has a battle of wills. One has polarized confrontations that are more about grand-standing than about sharing, more about impressing those who are already on your side than about building bridges across rifts of difference.

In fact, the trumpeting arrogance of Dawkins and the other new atheists doesn’t come out of nowhere, but is a response to those who end conversations about Darwinian evolution by saying, “This is not in line with my religious beliefs. As such, it conflicts with God’s truth.”

I said something along these lines, but I might have said it more eloquently had I not been caught up in the moment, allowing my emotional response to be dictated by Jim’s invocation of divine authority on his behalf.

And then the exchange ended. And the luncheon ended. And what I might have said about the theology of grace—how I am a better person when I live as if it is true; how it affords me the space to pursue my intellectual curiosity, to speculate in ways that draw from both reason and hope; how it frees me from the fear that arriving at the wrong beliefs will be disastrous (a fear that is at work in different ways among both religious believers and atheists)—none of that was spoken.

And, ironically, the reason it wasn’t spoken was this: in that moment when Jim declared that I disagreed with God, the theology of grace eluded me.


  1. Nice post.

    Grace is difficult to accept. It is the flipside of the coin from "nothing really matters."

    In both points of view, we do what we do for the actual benefits here and now. And in both cases we are intellectually free, as you said.

  2. Good to read a little explicit theological reasoning in this blog - I think it adds a lot. I know most of the time the blog is devoted to matters that lean more philosophical than theological.

    I've been reading Romans lately as a part of trying to understand scripture within my newer hermeneutical/theological framework. I was actually quite astounded at the universalism in there, which I had never noticed before. I picked it up a little bit in the NIV, but as I have been reading other versions, I have noticed it a lot more.

    It's pretty sad what the guy said to you, and I've encountered that stuff myself as well. In fact, I've probably said that type of thing to people in the past. It seems like the hubris of the "you're not disagreeing with me, you're disagreeing with God" comment is still pretty common within evangelicalism. But, it seems like many evangelicals (like Billy Graham and Rick Warren) are much more willing to leave the idea of knowing whether or not an individual is saved in God's hands, instead of claiming some sort of secret knowledge themselves.

  3. in that moment when Jim declared that I disagreed with God, the theology of grace eluded me.

    More like "I refused to buy into the theology of Jesus".
    Why did that group invite you in the 1st place? Had they never read your book or your blog? Were they just naïve?