Monday, July 11, 2011

The Most Important Thing

What's the most important thing in the Christian faith?

I've heard people make a variety of claims, in books, in preached sermons, or in unsolicited irritable declarations.

Evangelism - I mean that whole "Go ye into all the world" was the last teaching Jesus gave, right?

Scripture - because without that, we can't know anything, right? It'd be all up for grabs.

Worship. Isn't that what we were made for?

Grace. That's what sets Christianity apart from other faiths.

Prayer. Self-denial. Sacrament. Forgiveness. Community. Faith. Discipleship. There are a lot of nominations here, and I'll bet I've missed some good ones. Some of them have a pretty good claim on being the center. Of course, that is because a lot of these lead pretty quickly to several others, and can be seen as various doors, perhaps, into the presence of God, which is where we are ultimately bound. There is no need to see these as competitors when they are partners.

Yet the competition among them does seem to be much of what divides us. These splits are the modern version of "I am of Apollos; I am of Paul." We note that those other groups get part of it right, but just don't put enough emphasis on X. When we get huffy and extreme about it, we say that they "deny the importance of X." Pretty strong language that. And sometimes justified. Yet I think the abuse is far greater.

Because of my cast of mind, I am better equipped to declare what things are not the center than what things are.

Scripture. The earliest Church didn't have written scriptures and seemed to do just fine. If you want to enlarge the definition to include The Teaching Of The Apostles Which Eventually Got Written Down As Our Bible, then fine. But I haven't been getting the impression that's what most Bible-centered Christians mean when they say "scripture." They mean Book. Written down. Further, there were many ages in the church, and still places in the world, where written scripture was not available, or not widely understood. Yet many of those Christians were obedient souls who I am sure we will see in heaven.

We got print-focused when the printing press came in. Just prior to that and relatedly, what we now call witchcraft grew up as a branch of science, rather a descendant of alchemy, with it's exact-wording spellcasting and incantations. The age-of-exploration dependence on the Bible as a magic book that carried the gospel and protected believers from harm and sin - that's not the opposite of witchcraft, that's a cousin.
Caring For The Poor. As with Scripture, this is a good thing twisted into something less-than-Christian. Jesus's words throughout the NT are not about the poor, but about the brethren. The Jews were in one tribe. Jesus told them he was declaring a new tribe, first identifying them as Jews that chose the kingdom, then hinting and finally declaring that non-Jews were going to be welcome into this new tribe of believers in the kingdom. This tribe was going to be characterised by their devotion to each other, their forgiveness of each other, their sharing with each other. Looking over Jerusalem, He speaks of how their love for one another will be the mark that distinguishes them. At no time does he expand this to include the poor in general, or the nations of the world generally. Paul's teaching is the same, focused on the new community, and throughout the first century, observers of the Christians note how they are devoted to each other, not to the poor in general, or their neighbors in general, or any other category other than the church. Paul collects for other churches in distress, never for the poor of the next town. And it should be embarrassingly obvious and not necessary to point out, but it is: there isn't the remotest hint of Christians being encouraged to lobby the powerful, whether secular or religious authorities, on behalf of the downtrodden. We might wish Jesus had said that. We might say that he sorta kinda did, but put it in terms people could understand then (and we of course can fill in those blanks for Him now). We might believe He would have said that if He'd thought about it. But it's just not there.

As Christians became more influential, and eventually came to rule societies, the question of whether generosity should be extended generally became important. Certainly, in most of the western nations which give us our tradition of how we are to treat the general poor, all communities were in some sense Christian nations (however pagan they might remain and how poorly they understood Jesus), and thus all the poor were part of the Church, and the structures we built in weren't clearly divided between Christian poor and non-Christian poor, because the latter category didn't occur to people much. Not until about 1800, when prosperity of Christian lands started to become more general, and people were floating theories of what was the most ethical way for nations to behave - theories as diverse as Adam Smith and Mother Ann Lee and Joseph Smith and Karl Marx - did Christians really get rolling with any idea that Jesus came to teach us to share with the poor of the whole world. Before that, the Christian focus was more on denying oneself - not seeking after riches, taking up one's cross - than on general almsgiving.

It would be an exaggeration to say that many cultures have in practice, whatever they might say in theory, regarded virginity, especially for women, to be the most important marker of the faith. An exaggeration, but not a falsehood.

Tolerance is a big favorite of people outside the church, especially if they were church-raised. The reasoning, if any, seems to be that Jesus loved different people, so therefore they're all fine. He thought Samaritans were okay, which was shocking, so we just extend that to understand that Jesus thought that all kinds of people are cool, and it's only ignorant Christians making up their own rules who say any differently. This is ludicrous, because Jesus never said that Samaritans were fine and certainly not that Samaritan culture was just as valid as Jewish culture, but only that Samaritan individuals were as eligible to embrace the kingdom of God as Jews were. Paul, Peter, and the early church expanded that to include any sort of people who could become members of God's kingdom. They never said that those people were already there, or that their cultures were as valid as Jewish culture. It's a secular value, not an entirely bad one, that is a big favorite these days, as Unselfishness was the apogee of secular values a generation ago. So people who don't like to think very hard decide that if it's such a great value, someone as great as Jesus must've been foursquare behind that.

There's more false centers, if y'all want to have fun with this.

Of this list, which would I say is the worst, the furthest from the center? Eh, probably whichever one I heard most recently that torqued me off.


Texan99 said...

It seems so hard for us to walk that line between "you don't worship as I do, depart from me, you scum" and "I'm sure anything you feel is right is just fine."

james said...

Well, Julian griped that "The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well," so care for the general poor is not entirely a novelty.

One of my favorite characters in the gospels is sometimes called Dismas. All he did was change his mind and look to Jesus. Given how poorly I (and many others if my eyes do not deceive me) actually manage to work out the various "centers of the faith" perhaps Dismas had the right idea.

Seriously, I agree that the "most important thing for us to be doing" varies a lot. The partisans seem to skip over 1Cor12:6 et seq.

I remember being urged to go to an evangelism conference. At the first session we were given a Great Commission inspirational talk and the assignment to go out and talk to one person about Jesus that afternoon. I went out with everyone else, but faced with a relative absence of masses of unredeemed humanity (and a lot of conference attendees), I had leisure to contemplate a couple of other passages: about doing to others what you'd have them do to you (and I dislike being buttonholed by coup-counters), and wasn't there something about different gifts...?

I bailed on the rest of the conference.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, and Francis wanted to travel to Muslim lands specifically to give alms to them. You are certainly right that concern for the general poor is not a novelty. It is a quite reasonable extension of Gospel ideas, I think. It's just not the core of Jesus's original message.