Thursday, March 03, 2022

Retroactive Salvation

For years I called what happened praying with a friend one night in October 1975 a born-again experience. I did recognise that there were two previous experiences from that year alone that involved permanent commitment, but using different language and a bit vaguer.  As I was running with a crowd that considered particular-language/particular night conversion to be normative I stuck with the "born-again" terminology, though under the influence of CS Lewis I understood that sometimes things happened in stages. I did wonder if the July or September events were the "real" conversion. It was the culmination of a very messy senior year in college, when I was personally a wreck despite appearances, wrestling with questions of what real faith, real devotion looked like.

When the Billy Graham Crusade came to Manchester in 1982, I suddenly recalled that I had watched him on TV around 1965 and decided to follow the directions of writing in a commitment card telling him I accepted Jesus and asking for materials.  I don't recall what they were, or even if they ever came.  Graham was pretty conscientious about those things.  I would bet that they did. Oddly, I found out much later that he had had a previous crusade in Manchester in 1964.  I recall nothing about this. I wondered if this were the real time of conversion, and soon after remembered that in my confirmation statement at First Congregationalist in 1967 the phrase "accept Christ as my personal savior" was required, or the deacons would not approve you for it.  At the time, I imagine I took the meaning to be much more about identifying that Jesus, not Mohamed or the Buddha or some other guy was the key piece, not quite getting the savior part. I understood the doctrines about as well as a 14 y/o could,* but that's actually not enormous, and I was missing something about the commitment, the intensity, and whole life aspects.

By 1982 I had also been a Lutheran for a few years and brought a child forward for infant baptism, and thus had reflected quite a bit on what exactly that meant. I thought - and think - that grace extends farther than soul-winning theology credits, because even the best and most aware adult convert is not more than a couple of inches farther along than a newborn, so drawing a line at a spot that we, from the outside and from our reasoning, judge to be the spot where someone "understands enough" seems artificial. So I wondered, already chuckling at myself for a few years, whether my baptism in 1953 was the "real" turning point. I had pushed the time back considerably at this point.

Hovering in the background was the knowledge that the Scriptures say a great deal about being chosen even before birth, and indeed, before the universe itself, unimaginable as that is. I decided that there is something quite profound about the last discussion in The Great Divorce, in which the retroactivity of what our earthly lives mean is explained to the Lewis character. If one goes on to Heaven, then the place left behind can be considered Purgatory, though perhaps it does look out on Hell itself from the outer rim.

*Part of why I find the assertion risible by people who are now non-Christian that they had "seen through" all that as ten-year-olds or whatever is that I was an all-star with such abstract questions and I still knew squat. I have also dealt with many children about religious understanding since then. Bits of understanding and piety can be real, and bits of doubt and skepticism can be also.  Just not much.  Those might actually be better than me at such things now, but they weren't a different species.  Their retrospective is false - and convenient. They project back what they believe now and find scraps of it then and declare they were wise. What they usually mean, without knowing it, is that "I learned enough science to know that these things don't ever happen according to natural processes."  Well duh.  That's kind of the definition of miracle. The first chapters of CS Lewis's book by that name cover the logical and philosophical territory succinctly, about what assumptions one has to make to reject the miraculous altogether. I doubt any ten-year-olds were considering that.

1 comment:

james said...

Very much yes to Lewis.
What does a choice look like from a timeless perspective?