I had the joy to meet a beloved retired pastor, theologian and professor of the church this weekend. His was a name I had heard frequently from pastors who studied with him at seminary, and I was thrilled to finally meet him. As we spoke, his concern for the church became clear. In short, he feels as if the church today:
- doesn’t know what it believes;
- doesn’t have anything to proclaim (because of problem #1);
- wouldn’t proclaim anything anyway (even if it didn’t have the problem of #1 and #2) out of fear of offending non-Christians and the politically-correct sensibilities of our society.
His concern/rant is not uncommon, and perhaps is not entirely without merit. I asked him what the Church should be proclaiming, and he said that we should proclaim Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world – not multiculturalism, not liberal politics, not new-fangled language for God, but Jesus Christ. He shared about the various magazine articles and books he has read that trumpet the Good News of community and diversity and progressive political causes, but which seem to lack any firm foundation in faith in Jesus Christ.
He also spoke about the deteriorization of "truth." "There is no longer anything that is true," he said. "We all have our own truths these days, and our church has sadly bought into that mistaken belief system. We apologize for having particular beliefs that may offend others. This is our truth – Jesus is God’s Son and is the savior of the world." I asked him what it means to be a savior, but before he could answer I was pulled away and we never finished the conversation.
He wasn’t grouchy or particularly angry, and I find his perspectives neither completely right nor completely wrong. He is addressing the nature of belief, and this is something that I’m beginning to question and explore. What does it mean to believe (in general), and in particular, what does it mean to believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior? Is belief about providing adherents with an unmovable truth, with a path for life, with a gateway to eternal life, with a vision for society, with a series of beliefs that may or may not have much to do with our daily lives . . . . ? ? ?
For better or for worse, I think much of my generation of believers is less concerned with disembodied truths or with constructing a crisp and clear theological/philosophical paradigm, than we are with developing beliefs and systems to help us live our lives day-in and day-out. If someone says that Jesus Christ is the Savior, what does that mean for me, for you, for the world?
This beloved professor is sad that clear and direct proclamation of Jesus Christ seems to have been obscured by progressive political priorities. Perhaps he is right – perhaps we liberals have so focused on the Way of Jesus that we’ve forgotten the Word Jesus. Our faith has something unique to offer the world, and yet we liberals are often afraid to talk about it for fear of offending others or not appearing open to God’s work in other traditions. I believe that our proclamation of faith can be particular to our beliefs and traditions while at the same time be open to God’s broader work in the world. We do not need to dilute God in order to proclaim or experience God’s work in the world.
Yet I suspect that this dear old saint fails to appreciate that for generations we’ve allowed the Proclaimed Word to trump the Living Word, and that the proclaimed Word itself has often been uncritically coopted by narrow interpretations to serve an elite segment of society. His emphasis on proclamation and belief keep faith coralled in the cerebral realm rather than allow it to enter the personal and lived realm. We liberals, when we talk of multiculturalism or progressive politics or "new" language to describe God, we are talking about a vision for society and the world that reflects the priorities of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, rather than start with orthodoxy as a basis for life, our faith and life are an intertwined coil – each informing and shaping the other.
So yes, our churches should be proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the Word – but what does that mean for me, for us, for the world? Perhaps I’ll call that dear old professor, take him to lunch, and finish our conversaton.