Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Heart of the Gospel

This morning I read this provocatively-titled article Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus. The author admits the title is a bit provocative, but he still makes some really good points. (I would only add that it's written from a US-perspective and that even in that context it does not describe all Evangelicals, though it does describe a significant segment of conservative Evangelicals. For a fruitful dialogue between a Unitarian and an Evangelical see this video.)

But you do have to wonder how people who are so vocal about being Christian can have values so different from the actual teaching of Jesus.

But this does fit into some of the thoughts I'm having at the moment. What is the heart of the Gospel? What is the the most vital part of Christianity?

For a great proportion of the Christian population the heart of Christianity is the person of Jesus, devotion to him, and belief in his divine sonship. Now some Unitarians claim that this kind of thing was only made up in the fourth century. That simply isn't true, and Unitarians should stop saying it. Devotion to the person of Jesus clearly developed very early on in Christian history, and is present in the New Testament.

Now I don't, and never have, shared this spirituality of devotion to Jesus. But at the same time, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with it, as such. But the question is: is it the heart of the Gospel? Is it the most vital thing?

The problem with putting devotion to Jesus at the heart of Christianity as that, as the article points out, you can commit to this devotion, while rejecting all of Jesus' teaching. You can be pro-wealth, pro-violence, pro-revenge while praying to Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. Of course many Christians are devoted to Jesus while also living out his teaching, but many, in fact I would say most, do not.

What I have been struggling to work out, really for all of my life, is what the heart of the Gospel really is. I think we desperately need a way of talking about the central thrust of Jesus' teaching as the heart of the Gospel. We could say "love" and I'd agree witht that, but it doesn't really go far enough, and we're in danger of going into a liberal dead-end that doesn't say much more than "it's nice to be nice."

I think the heart of the Gospel can be described as a number of central virtures. I'm still working this out, but I think the list goes something like this: prayer, immediacy, humility, simplicity, compassion, hospitality, reconciliation, justice for the poor and non-violence.

That list, I think, is the heart of the Gospel. Jesus' teaching points us in the direction of a lifestyle that is rooted in those virtues. And I would maintain that personal devotion to Jesus, and belief in his divine sonship is optional.

So as a Unitarian I approach ecumenism with a commitment, not so much "that you believe X and I disagree with you" but more like "you believe X, and I don't think it matters very much whether you believe in X or not, I think what's more important is that we do Y."


Blogger Glen Marshall said...

Hi Stephen

My two penn'orth:

first penn'orth - the heart of the gospel is not devotion to Jesus or following the teaching of Jesus, it is Jesus. The Xn good news is good news of a person.

second penn'orth - if pressed to reduce it to words why not go with the stuff Jesus said mattered most? Love God with every bit you; loves others like that as well and when it comes to what you do with your life make seeking the reign of God your number one priority.

7:49 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Hi Glen,

On the second penn'orth - yes that's pretty much what a Unitarian would have agreed with 100 years ago. And I do agree with it. But I don't think it's quite enough. It's a bit too easy, and doesn't provide enough of a recipe for transformation. I think there's more of it that needs unfolding - and I'm in the process of trying to work out what that means right now.

On the first penn'orth: I genuinely don't understand how a person is good news. What does that mean? I genuinely don't know.

9:39 am  
Blogger Glen Marshall said...

The first reason for saying that Jesus is the good news is to avoid reducing the gospel to a set of propositions. Truth wrapped up in a person is fuller and richer than truth boiled down to a set of words.

But you ask what it means for a person to be good news. First up an analogy: my wife is good news to me (and to many others). The reason she's good news is because of the difference she makes to (my) life by being who she is and by loving (me).

Second up the Christian gospel as I understand it is the news that God has done something, a happening in history that changes stuff, big time. And that happening happened in Jesus. God has done something and what he did was Jesus - his incarnation, his teaching, his death, his resurrection and the way in which all this becomes the decisive beach-head of the reign of God. (Of those articulating this from a non-nutty evangelical background I reckon Tom Wright is doing the best job at the moment.)

Third up the whole devotion to Jesus thing has to kick in, it's relationships that have the power to transform and by relating to the living person of Jesus we are shaped for and recruited for the project of the reign of God.

Finally, and I'm nearly done now, I think there's more to my second penn'orth than you credit. A bit too easy? Don't think so. Unless you turn it into a self-centred perversion of pietism. I reckon learning to devote all that we are to God and others is massively challenging and potentially hugely transformative. As for devoting your life to God's will being done on earth, seems to me that's right on the money. Difficulty is getting Christians (including this Christian) to believe and live it.

The bottom line though (oo er that's two financial metaphors in three sentences) is that when asked to focus his teaching these are the things that Jesus emphasised - love of God, love of others and seeking the reign of God so I don't reckon I'm at liberty to depart from this. Wrestle with it, articulate it yes, come up with something new, no.

9:41 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...


It's interesting that we haven't, before now, had a dialogue on these foundational issues, and I'm glad to do it.

On your last point I'm not seeking to depart from love of God and neighbour and seeking the reign of God as the central thrust of Jesus' teaching. But the commandment "love your neighbour" still leaves some questions hanging: "Should I join the army?" "should I pay my taxes?" My point is Jesus offers some help in wrestling with questions like these, and that we can miss that if we say NO MORE THAN "love your neighbour." There are some really central things about the Christian lifestyle that get missed out if we're not careful.

I'm speaking as a self-identified, but self-critical liberal who is aware of how Christian liberalism fails time and time again because it does not emphasise enough the need for transformation. I'm talking about the historical failure of liberalism to make "love of God and neighbour" transformational.

On the "person" issue this is where I just hit a brick-wall. And I'm not even sure we're talking about rational theology here. There's just something in my gut that doesn't get what you're talking about at all. And I never ever have (and I grew up an Anglican, so I really tried for many years).

I get that you love your wife, but you can see, touch, smell your wife. You could not love her if she lived 100 years ago, and you read a biography about her.

I suppose I don't get the idea that Jesus is "alive" in any meaningful sense. Jesus, to me, is a character, not much more meaningful to me as a "person" than the prodigal son. These are stories that I can relate to my story, that can inspire and guide me.

It doesn't really make any difference to me whether he was fictional or historical. The only thing that would matter to me if he wasn't historical is that I would wonder if a real person could really live like that. But then I would still have Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Ghandi etc, so I would still know it is possible.

And if we're talking about an imminent "spiritual" experience of Jesus, then I wonder how you know it is Jesus. Because my understanding is that such experiences are fundamentally Mysterious, and I'm reluctant to even use the word God to label them.

And I don't understand how Jesus changed anything. What did he change? What was different about the world in 40AD compared to 10 BC?

Sorry if I come across critical and argumentative. But I just don't get it.

2:52 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I agree Stephen that there needs to be a transformation (in any spiritual journey, Christian or otherwise).

I tend to identify the core of Jesus' message by comparing it to that of other great teachers and seeing if they said the same thing - if they did, it's probably a universal truth.

Can a long-dead person be good news? maybe, but Jesus isn't the only good news (like you said there's Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and I'd add Lao Tsu and Buddha too) and actually Jesus (through no personal fault of his own) was very bad news for the thousands of people persecuted and murdered in his name.

The transformation that is required is provided by encounter with the Mystery. Orthodox Christians talk about theosis (divinisation) which is a very helpful concept.

In the process of theosis, the ego participates in the death, journey to the underworld, and resurrection of Christ (NB: I am speaking mythically here) and develops into something greater, which is that we become part of the Divine. It is similar to what initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries would have undergone, with a similar outcome.

4:10 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Actually I think Andrew Brown has expressed the heart of the gospel in his post about George de Benneville, here.

4:31 pm  
Blogger Glen Marshall said...

With regard to loving God, loving others and seeking the reign, yes absolutely we do need to say more but I think what you were after in the original post was the central thrust of Jesus teaching. I’m pretty convinced that this is that central thrust. This matters to me a lot because in my evangelical tradition we are plagued by people getting all kinds of stuff out of perspective, majoring on minors as it were. Recognising this as the centre is good way cutting through lots of crap.

Also I recognise and recoil from the classic late liberal tendency to reduce the gospel to rather wet platitudes but this is about full-blooded loving, giving it everything.

As for ethical content, political edge and social significance – just unpack what’s meant by seeking the reign of God, that’ll give you enough to be going on with.

So yes the bald statements about love and kingdom-seeking don’t say everything but they do to my mind point to the heart of things and I’d rather start with the heart and unpack it than come up with a list.

I guess though the real point of disagreement between us is the person of Jesus stuff. My reference to my wife was simply to seek to establish that it is possible for a person to be good news, something you weren’t sure about. Jesus is Christian gospel. And yes of course my wife is flesh and blood whereas Jesus isn’t (well not in the same way, though I would still maintain that he is embodied) but all analogies are by definition are partial. What matters I guess is my conviction that Jesus is a still a living person and a person up for a relationship at that.

Of course, once again to speak of relationship is to metaphorical (all religious language is) but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t point to a real experience and I guess that ultimately my conviction that I am in a relationship with Jesus boils down to a religious experience thing. I have had and continue to have a bundle of religious experiences that makes sense when understood in terms of relating to Christ. I refer to experiences best described as encounter, hearing, understanding, being inspired by, growing to know, knowing that I am known, loving and being loved. The NT regularly uses the language of personal relationship to describe our on-going encounter with God in Christ. (Spots a path wending away into the depths of a dialogue about the trinity!)

To offer an historical/biographical explanation, when I was converted as a teenager, I was told, “Do this and this experience/reality will follow and the way to make sense of this reality best is to understand it as a relationship with God through knowing Jesus.” That’s what happened and that’s how it has continued to make sense.

I find it difficult to conceive how I would maintain my discipleship without an ongoing, personal, experiential relationship with Jesus. I imagine that
it would all seem rather thin and grey to me. I wonder how you conceive of and articulate your own religious experience.

Finally, another point of disagreement: it matters to me that Jesus is a figure of history and not mere fiction, as I say the Jesus event is bout God doing something, and something way more than example and teaching.

BTW thanks for inviting the dialogue. It helps having to think these things through again and to have to articulate them anew. Sorry for the length of the reply!

9:33 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Yes, I'm glad of the dialogue too. It's interesting that in some ways we're seeking to drag our traditions towards each other. You - trying to drag Evangelicalism to be more social justice centred etc; me trying to get liberalism to be in the business of salvation.

It's interesting because I have always had an intimate, personal, loving relationship with the God who is Jesus' abba. It has never FELT like a relationship with Jesus. (Is that all this can be reduced to? I don't know)

And my original point was that I'm wrestling with something that will be at least a sermon series, and at most a book, and might make more sense when it's fleshed out than it does as a half-thought-out blog post. I suppose the list I came up with are different dimensions of loving God and loving neighbour and seeking God's reign. It might make more sense in futrure.

11:06 am  
Blogger Glen Marshall said...

I reckon the potential to get away from tired old categories of liberal and conservative is one of the most stimulating features of the current Xn scene. I think that some from each tradition will seek to cope with change be retrenching but here's hoping many more find each other, not so much in the middle but in a new place.

Have fun with the sermon series.

1:48 pm  
Anonymous T.A.H. said...

Brother Stephen
The video was very helpful.Other people may disagree with me, however I do believe that the teachings of Jesus are more important than doctrines about Jesus. The kingdom is here and now and needs active participants.But then again,perhaps these are just the rantings of a Christian heretic

1:17 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I would be interested to hear Glen's thoughts on whether he sees other religions as having salvific content.

3:54 pm  

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