Saving Jesus (Episode 1): Less Filling, Tastes Great?

My church has begun a series of classes using the Saving Jesus program, a DVD-based small-group curriculum that aims to free Christianity from the prison of conservative doctrinal rigidity. Tonight’s class took a few pokes at traditional understandings of original sin and salvation, and suggested that the “faith” that saves us is relational trust, not possession of correct belief. That reminded me of my initial aversion to the doctrine of justification by faith, when I learned about it in a high school history class. It seemed to be God rewarding the toady; it takes far less effort to mouth the approved ideology than to live a good life. Faith as offering of one’s self, as trusting God’s unseen powers and intentions more than my own visible ones — now that’s a real challenge.

All of this reaffirms, for me, how fruitless it is to oppose faith and works. One of the points made on tonight’s DVD was that Jesus doesn’t force healing on us. We have to step forth and be willing to admit that we need it. This is an action, maybe the most dramatic and wrenching action we’ll ever perform. It’s much riskier than mere agreement with doctrine. Yet paradoxically, we are not allowed to say that we saved ourselves through action. The work of faith does not belong to us because there is no separation between us and it. To say my faith, my talent, means that there are two: the ego and the object it possesses. I have not wholly given myself over to the work, but stand apart from it so that I can use it to reinforce my pride. To the extent that I overcome this separation, I am acting (writing, praying, repenting) in and through faith.

It would be a shame, though, if we closed the faith-works gap only to open up another one between theory and practice. If the anti-intellectualism of the Right is refusing to admit that Biblical interpretation must be informed by personal experience and discoveries in secular fields of knowledge (stay tuned for a post on how the distinction between Biblical and secular knowledge is itself anti-Incarnational), the anti-intellectualism of the Left is bashing creeds in order to exalt “practice”. (Whereas I am clearly an intellectual because I write sentences with more than 50 words.)

My minister tonight went so far as to say that we are saved/healed by the act of trusting, regardless of what we call the object of our trust — Jesus, God or the Life Force. That’s just willpower, not Christianity. Jesus didn’t die to teach us the power of positive thinking.

Faith without works is dead (James 2:20), but we are justified by faith alone (Romans 3:28). One of the many things this means to me is that doctrine is worse than useless unless it leads to a wiser, more fruitful spiritual practice. However, it’s also not enough to say “trust God” while discouraging examination of our beliefs about who God is. I’m not saved by belief in the Creed, but my experience of salvation is inseparable from the concept of God contained in the Creed — a God who doesn’t expect me to become perfect on my own, who loved me enough to die for me. Where my efforts come in, and it’s a task I fail at every day, is to appropriate that gift of grace so that I can actually live as if “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Such salvation isn’t conditioned on what I believe, but if I don’t believe in it — if my doctrinal posture precludes it or makes it irrelevant — how can I receive it?

5 comments on “Saving Jesus (Episode 1): Less Filling, Tastes Great?

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    The faith-works gap? I thought you were an Episcopalian (the faith of my sheltered childhood).

    Is there such a thing as a born-again Episcopalian? Isn’t that something like a born-again Unitarian, in robes, yet…?

    I dunno, maybe that would have done it for me.
    As it is…

    “Myself when young did eagerly frequent/Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument/About it and about: but evermore/came out by the same door as in I went.

    …Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit/Of This and That endeavour and dispute;/Better be merry with the frufitful Grape/Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.”

    Rubiat of Omar Khayyam, 2nd Translation, XXX and LVI, respectively; Fitzgerald

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Where my church (Episcopal) stands on faith versus works is, as with so many issues, unclear. We’re Protestants, so we’re supposed to believe in salvation by grace alone, but since our split from the Catholics had more to do with Henry VIII’s gonads than theological differences, we’ve retained some of Catholicism’s positive attitude toward human agency (unlike, say, Calvinists). Officially, we believe in the divinity of Christ – but unofficially, you’re right, we’re just UU’s with better fashion sense. Sigh.

  3. The Grace Girl says:

    Born-Again Episcopalians? Humm…let’s think. I’ll check the 39 Articles…..Yep, I’m totally legit.
    signed,
    (you got it) One of them

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    Grace Girl, I’d love to hear more about what “born-again Episcopalian” means, in your experience. The churches I’ve attended in NYC and Massachusetts have shied away from that kind of evangelical language, unfortunately, because they probably associate it with right-wing politics. So I don’t get to hear too many spiritual testimonies. I can trace my conversion to a moment when I “got it” but on another level, I was slowly Christianizing my whole life and didn’t know it.

  5. Susan says:

    When I lived on Beacon Hill, I attended an Episcopal Church that had a divided clergy on what constituted sin. It avoided any public mention of the homosexual crisis imploding the church. What makes the liberal wing so angry is the AUTHORITY of Jesus Christ. They don’t like to be under submission. The same law that God gave to Moses is the same law God gives to you, with a few updates from Jesus. “Love others as I have loved you” means be willing to lose your life. “Carry your cross” means the inconvenient things we do for Christ, such as–Join a 90 yr.old woman at her table at the Boston Common MacDonalds. Chat with her about her life and lift up the name of Jesus. Then walk her home afterwards. Coincidentally, three times now, at this same MacDonalds, I’ve done this with the same woman, the last living of 10 siblings. She said she’s too old to make it to church, and I think God used me to bring his comfort.

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