Monday, August 06, 2007

What is Faith?

For a long time now - long before I became Christian - I've wondered what precisely is the content of that faith that saves. As those who've followed my arc of my argument know, I have deep reservations about the Evangelical view. Before I became Catholic, I had concluded that the Catholic view is superior. Now I wish to take up the question again. My contention is that the Evangelical view, if thought through, unfolds into the Catholic . The faith that saves is not merely an emotional or cognitive state separated from the rest of oneself. It is rather a profound transformation of the self that extends into all facets of one's life.

Let us begin. My Evangelical brethren tell me that all anyone needs to gain salvation is faith. Faith saves, they say. But faith is always faith in something. Moreover, it is faith that the thing will behave in a particular way. I had faith long before I had faith of a religious sort. I had, for instance, faith in my wife. I had faith that she would remain with me and her children, and that she would act to insure their welfare; and here, as in all examples of faith, faith is always faith in, and it is always faith that.

So what is the faith that saves in. What is it faith that? (From here on "faith that saves" will be "fts". Surely you didn't think that I could write an entire post and not make an abbreviation?) The first answer is easy. The fts is faith in Christ. The second is not so easy. But of course it has to do with the salvific power of Christ's life and death. Perhaps then we should say this: the fts is the faith that by his life, and his death, Christ secured for us all that is necessary for our salvation. (I'll not here take on the issue of just how Christ secured it. Opinions divide on the issue, and it is not my purpose here to defend one over the others.)

Let us then reflect upon this faith. It is like a flower bud. It seems simple, but is really complex. So let us begin to unfold what it is in it. Assumed in this faith is our impotence to obtain salvation for ourselves. Assumed moreover is that the gift of salvation is freely given and is not demanded by our merit. The fts knows the impotence of humanity, knows what it lacks, but accepts the free and unmerited gift of salvation.

Now what, I ask, is the natural response to one who freely gives us such a gift as this? What is the natural response to one who dies to give us the gift of salvation? Gratitude, certainly. But in addition to gratitude, we must say that love is the natural response. Those who have faith in Christ - not a mock-up but the real thing - also love Christ.

This is our first conclusion. The fts is never just faith in Christ. It is also love of Christ. But the love that grows from the fts does not end in Christ. It must extend to the whole of humanity. For Christ died not only for one. He died for all. Thus did he show his love for all, and if we love Christ we will come to love what he loves. If we love Christ, we will come to see the infinite value, the infinite potential, in all that we attribute to ourselves when we say that Christ died for us. (Christ died for sinful creatures. He did not die for worthless ones. Christ died for creatures deficit of virtue. He did not die for ones who had no potential to grow in virtue.) Thus the fts includes not only love of Christ. It also includes love of humanity.

(One could say the same about hope too. If one has faith in Christ, and one knows him for who is his - the risen son of God - one will inevitably have hope for the life to come.)

The fts thus unfolds into a love a God and of neighbor. It is there in it, perhaps implicitly at first, but it the faith grows and becomes more secure, so too will the love. Faith without love is an impossibility, as it deep faith without deep love.

But what has this to do with works? (One would assume that I meant to end with a word about works, for to start I said that the Evangelical view unfolds into the Catholic view.) The answer of course is as simple as it is obvious. There is no love without works. If I say that I love my children but do not care for them, you know that I lie. If I say that I love the Lord but do not do as He commands, you know that I lie. It is not that love often or even always gives birth to works. Rather it is that works are love made manifest. They are the public face of love, and as such are not something distinct from it. Love is loving, and loving is seeing after.

I contend, then, that faith has an internal and necessary connection to works. They are in the end not something separate from it; they are not even something distinct from it to which in time it gives rise. They are the fts's public face. So when one says that it is not by works but by faith that one is saved, one is guilty of error. Of course the works one does prior to, and in independence of, faith do not save. But the works of faith - the works in which the love entailed by faith live - do save, for they are faith, and so love, made manifest.

Faith saves. Works save. This is no contradiction because works are faith in action.

Between Augustine and Pelagius: A Middle Way

This post at He Lives led me to think again about Pelagianism.

I have a dirty little secret to admit. I have some sympathy for Pelagius.

Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, rejected the doctrine of original sin. He held instead that each human being is born innocent and without taint of sin. A consequence of this is that each of us has within himself the resources to resist temptation and thus live a sinless life. Thus for Pelagius we are born as were Adam and Eve in the garden. Neither our will nor our intellects are corrupt when we are born. Rather we all have within us the ability both to know the good and to follow it always.

Why would a Christian say such things as this? Pelagius' reason was simple. He held that, if we come into the world with a nature ruined by Adam's sin, our later sins are inevitable and thus not culpable. The plausibility of this is difficult to deny. Do we hold someone responsible for something that could not help but do? Do we punish them when their act was inevitable?

I do agree with the claim that we are not culpable for that which we cannot ourselves help but do. Thus I think that a just God would not punish us for our sins if they grow out of an innate sin-nature. But am I forced to reject the doctrine of original sin? I am not. I embrace it. (Indeed I think that, of all bedrock Christian doctrines, this is the one whose truth is most clearly visible in the world around us. We are ruined creatures, as is plain to see.) But how then do I avoid the conclusion that God punishes those who could not help but sin? My answer is simple: in the end all are saved, and God punishes no one.

I am a universalist. Salvation is not only held out to all. Salvation is given to all. (Of course it is not given to all in this life. Thus I hold that it is possible to gain salvation in the life to come.)

To my universalism, I conjoin an Augustinian account of grace. Only by God's grace are we able to escape our sin-nature, and that grace is a free gift no one ever merits. We either accept that grace, or we do not. If accepted, we begin the upward path of sanctification. If not, we remain mired in sin.

Thus I should say that I am mostly Augustinian with a bit of Pelagianism mixed in. With Augustine, I hold that original sin is only too real, and that only by grace do we escape it. With Pelagius, I hold that God would not punish us for our sin-nature and the sins that inevitably follow from it. Thus I reject an assumption made by both Pelagius and Augustine, the assumption that some are damned. Pelagius held that all have within themselves the ability to live sinlessly and that God punishes those who freely chose to disobey God's commands. Augustine held that no one has within himself the ability to live sinlessly, and that God extends the gift of grace to only some and damns the rest. (I always found this bit of Augustine morally repugnant.) I hold that no one has within himself to live sinlessly and that only by God's grace do we escape sin. But I hold that, in the end, all receive God's grace and thus that, in the end, all are saved.

How, then, do we preserve that bit of Pelagianism that is plausible (the bit that denies culpability where there is no freedom to refrain from sin) but embed it in an Augustinian view of grace? We become universalists. (I've expressed my attraction to universalism before. See here for instance. It is my one little bit of unorthodoxy.)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Little Green Jesus

This little piece by Paul Davies explores the impact that discovery of an alien intelligence would have on the Christian faith. Here's a snippet.

Suppose, then, that E.T. is far ahead of us not only scientifically and technologically but spiritually, too. Where does that leave mankind’s presumed special relationship with God? This conundrum poses a particular difficulty for Christians, because of the unique nature of the Incarnation. Of all the world’s major religions, Christianity is the most species-specific. Jesus Christ was humanity’s savior and redeemer. He did not die for the dolphins or the gorillas, and certainly not for the proverbial little green men. But what of deeply spiritual aliens? Are they not to be saved? Can we contemplate a universe that contains perhaps a trillion worlds of saintly beings, but in which the only beings eligible for salvation inhabit a planet where murder, rape, and other evils remain rife?

Those few Christian theologians who have addressed this thorny issue divide into two camps. Some posit multiple incarnations and even multiple crucifixions – God taking on little green flesh to save little green men, as a prominent Anglican minister once told me. But most are appalled by this idea or find it ludicrous. After all, in the Christian view of the world, Jesus was God’s only son. Would God have the same person born, killed, and resurrected in endless succession on planet after planet? This scenario was lampooned as long ago as 1794, by Thomas Paine. “The Son of God,” he wrote in The Age of Reason, “and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.” Paine went on to argue that Christianity was simply incompatible with the existence of extraterrestrial beings, writing, “He who thinks he believes in both has thought but little of either.”

I'm curious to know what my readers think.

Myself, I have only a few thoughts.

First, Davies seems to assume that the Logos must incarnate in the form of each intelligent species. I'm unsure why this should be the case. The Incarnation was necessitated by the Fall, but the Fall itself was not necessary. Perhaps some intelligent species experienced no Fall. I've heard say that Christ would have come even if there had been no Fall, but that the manner of his life would have been quite different. This seems to me mere speculative theology. I admit its possibility, but I don't think it something that we can know. So I say too that we cannot know whether the Logos would incarnate in worlds where there was no Fall.

But for those intelligent species that did Fall (and I don't think we can rule out the possibility that there's more than one), I can think of no reason to deny that the Logos became incarnate in their form. Let us adopt Augustine's view of the matter. Sin was introduced into the human world by Adam and Eve (and let us understand that Adam and Eve are stand-ins for an early generation of human beings), and it was transmitted to their descendants via the procreative act. It was this original sin, this inherited stain, that was wiped clean by Christ (here understand as the Logos' union with human flesh). Christ died not for all intelligent creation. He died for humanity. (Of course, the Christian already knew this. Christ did not die for the angels.) Might it not be the case then that the Logos, in a radically different physical form than the one we know, also died so that another intelligent species might be saved?

Should we suppose that human flesh is special in some way and that the Logos could unite with only it? Of course not. The Logos could become incarnate in any species made, like humanity, is the image of God. Should we suppose that the Logos could become incarnate only once? Of course not. If it can be done once, it can be done more than once. Should we suppose that the Incarnation need happen only once? I won't say "Of course not". Matters are not so clear as that. But it would seem that it might need to happen more than once. For if another intelligent species fell, and the sins of prior generations were passed to later ones, it seems that Christ would need to incarnate in the form of that species.

On objector is likely to brush aside what I've said and assert this:

The Incarnation was the crux of universal history. It was God in the flesh, and thus we cannot suppose that its efficacy was anything less than universal. It sufficed for the salvation of all creation, for it lacked nothing whereby salvation might be gained. Do we suppose that God would need to do again what had already achieved its goal? Do we suppose that the Incarnation had only limited efficacy? The Incarnation was, rather, once-for-all; and its power is cheapened if we suppose that it need be done again and again.

I admit that this does have some force. (At least I feel that it does - even though it really only amounts to a single assertion made again and again.) My reply is, it seems to me, a bit underhanded. But it just might do the trick. Let us suppose that by "Incarnation" we mean not a particular event. Suppose rather that we mean a kind of event. The Incarnation, let us say, is God united with the body of some creature no matter where on when this might happen. The Incarnation is thus a universal; it is multiply instantiable. Once this shift in terminology is made - the shift from talk of the particular to the universal - the point that the objector wishes to make can be embraced. The universal incarnation is the crux of history. Its efficacy is universal.

Let me end with a bit of autobiography. I for one am not troubled by the idea of multiple Incarnations (or multiple instantiations of a universal Incarnation). Indeed now that I've had time to live with the idea, I've come to like it. Wouldn't it stand as an even greater testament to God's love for his creation? (One also thinks here of John 3:16. "For God so loved the world . . . " The Greek word translated as "world" is "kosmos". Thus "world" here doesn't mean only Earth. It means the whole of the universe. Thus if there existed non-human intelligent species, it would seem that God would love them just as he loves us; and if this is so, he would as much desire that they commune with him as he desires that we commune with him.)

Addendum. I realized that my title might be thought to poke fun at Christ or at the Incarnation. It most certainly does not. The possibility of multiple Incarnations is serious matter, and I take it seriously. But I do think it possible that the Logos have become little and green, for there might be little green aliens who need salvation just as much as do we.