Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Multiple choice religion

Can an individual improve themselves over time in any fundamental sense? Or is the human journey rather one of self-acceptance? 

Christians get themselves in a lather about the faith / works debate. You can make the bible 'prove' either that we are depraved and utterly reliant on God to fix us - Answer B = accept. Or that we play an active part in fixing our world and ourselves - Answer A = improve.

I'm not particularly interested in the debate for its own sake. But I don't want to smooth it over with platitudes either, as many try to do. The tension it addresses impacts my actual life.

It was, some years ago, a great release for me to encounter thinkers (Rohr, McLaren, Brueggemann, Keating et al) who emphasise Answer A. They focus on how the God of Christian scripture needs human partners to complete his work and the ways they alter it; how the serious pursuit of difficult practices like solitude, meditation, tithing and confession make deep and lasting change; how great is our human potential to improve our world.

This freed me from overbearing religious leaders from both conservative and liberal camps making me feel crappy. The right telling me I'm impotent, worthless, a sex-crazed victim of myself. The liberals denouncing me as strident, intimidating, self-promoting, suspect. To hear of my essential goodness, my image-of-godness, my capacity to make myself more and better, the world-changing potential contained in every mortal minute of my life.... well, it might out of context seem like God-denial. But in fact it has brought me nearer heaven.

That said, one of my favourite public figures in Christianity today is Nadia Bolz Weber. Despite the criticism she gets for swearing and embracing LGBT people (yeah....), she is pretty conservative, theologically. Appropriately for a Lutheran, she argues only God can fix us. 

She would say (and did, during a recent Q&A in Sheffield) that no, a person cannot improve themselves. Prayer, scriptural study, hard work and spiritual practices may be helpful in coping with the day-to-day. But they do not alter our essential, sinful, state as only God's forgiveness can. Answer B = accept.

Nadia is focused on loving people, using her celebrity to confess her own flaws, standing up fiercely for the judged and being deeply committed to forgiveness in community. So her 'YOU ARE A SINNER, ACCEPT IT!' is really ok to hear - in a way it isn't from almost everyone else with a microphone.

Which reveals a paradox and proves it's not the words that matter. It's what's inside the heart of the speaker and the listener.

I think that very many beleaguered and battered Christians in our nation really need to be reassured about their potential and brilliance for a while. But the pendulum can always swing the other way, making us overreach ourselves.

For me, the answer, as with so many of life and scripture's contradictions, is sometimes A and sometimes B. And often a little bit of both.

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