Life in the Spirit
Sallie McFague concludes Life Abundant by writing,
As middle-class Americans, we do not see ourselves as evil, or especially in need of salvation. Most of us behave lawfully and decently, do our bit for the common good, and often give generously to the needy from our surplus. But at the center of Jesus’ message is the invitation to ‘see differently.’ If everyone and everything belongs to God, then we can no longer treat each other and the earth itself in a utilitarian way. If we see the world as a place to buy and sell, use and discard, control and possess, we will treat the world differently than if we see it ‘hidden in God.’ (Hans Kung, Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for Today, p. 162)
This is exactly where we are being invited to ‘see differently’: we are invited to see ourselves as oppressors of the poor and of the planet, and we are invited to “an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity.” (Walter Brueggemann, The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity, p. 346)
HUMAN EXISTENCE IN THE SPIRIT: Deification
If the world is hidden in God, then we come from God and return to God, and in the meantime we live in the presence of God. If the world’s ‘being’ and its ‘well-being’ and even its ‘reason for being’ is to live in intimate relationship with God, then we also live in intimate relationship with all other parts of God’s world. Sin is pretending that we can live outside this reality of interrelationship and interdependence. Sin is living a lie. Sin is refusing to grow into the image of God.
The Christian sacred story – the belief that all things have evolved from one Source, and that all things are contained within that Source – is congruous with the Big Bang of contemporary cosmology. But Christians make a claim that the cosmologists do not: the Christian sacred story makes a claim concerning the direction of the universe; and, in Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe they see the direction in which the universe is heading. Our sacred story says that all of creation reflects God, but in one person we see God’s reflection in an especially illuminating way. We see Jesus of Nazareth as the model of God, the window into the nature of God. So for Christians, life is Christ-shaped; it is becoming like God by following Jesus.
This sacred story is a deification, not an atonement understanding of salvation. It is an incarnation rather than a cross emphasis, a creation rather than a redemption focus, from the Eastern Christian tradition rather than the Western. This sacred story claims that we were created to be with God: the creation is the pouring out of divine love toward that end; the incarnation in Christ is the reaffirmation and deepening of that love; the cross is the manifestation of the suffering that will occur, given sin and evil, if all creatures, especially the most vulnerable, are to flourish; and the resurrection is God’s ‘Yes’ that, in spirit of the overwhelming forces of sin and evil, this shall be so.
This sacred story actually takes sin and evil more seriously than the atonement view. Sin and evil are not seen as individual failings but as all the forces – individual, systemic, institutional – that thwart the flourishing of God’s creation. In this sacred story, ‘evil’ is the collective term for the ancient, intricate, and pervasive networks of false living that have accumulated during human history.
Becoming ‘conformed to Christ’ is not personal salvation but conversion to the struggle for justice. Salvation is worldly work – involving ourselves in the just distribution of resources on a sustainable basis, working to make the body of God healthier and more fulfilled.
Can we do this? Some have done this, by being deeply, personally, profoundly grounded in God. The ‘saints’ who work tirelessly for justice are spiritually alive because they have immersed themselves in God’s presence.
THE LIFE OF DISCIPLESHIP: John Woolman and Dorothy Day
(For a deeper look at the lives of John Woolman and Dorothy Day,
see p. 186-195)
In people like John Woolman and Dorothy Day we find an unnerving authenticity: like Jesus himself, they were walking parables of a new way of life. In their lives, we see that the abundant life is the cruciform life. They also remind us of how deeply we are embedded in the consumer view of the good life: it is the ocean in which we live.
Christianity was the ‘wild space’ for John Woolman and Dorothy Day. Christianity was the place to stand in order to see the world differently – and having found a new vision for the world, they acted on it. At the heart of their vision was economics, because they asked, How can we all live together in God’s household, planet Earth?
The value of reading the ‘lives of the saints’ is not to copy their actions, but to see our own lives from a different perspective, from the ‘wild space’ Christianity gives us. – the perspective of God’s abundant life for all – and then to implement the new reading in concrete, mundane, practical ways.
LIFE IN THE CHURCH: Preaching and Living a Different Abundant Life
Walter Brueggemann writes, Consumerism is not simply a market strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it…. The great question facing the church is whether our faith allows us to live a new way. (The Liturgy of Abundance, p. 342, 345)
What, then, is the task of Christian churches at the beginning of the millennium? Market capitalism and the uncontrolled consumerism are not easy to identify as evil, but they have the potential for enormous destruction; they undermine the life-support systems of the planet , and contribute to an unknown number of ‘silent deaths’ from poverty and starvation.
Again, Brueggemann writes, Jesus presents an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. The churches must preach and teach a different view of abundance. The churches should recall their origins, prior to the Constantinian establishment; they were then fringe groups, sects, counter-cultural voices. We must begin to preach a different view of the abundant life, and we must also begin to live differently.
A ‘cruciform generosity’ is the way back to God.
LIFE IN SOCIETY: Three Questions
The question of vision: But, we ask, how do basic assumptions change? The problem is not that Americans do not love nature, but that they are enmeshed in a success story – the consumer one – that is ruining the planet. It is precisely from within this success story that Americans see the world. Christian churches (and other religions) must help people to see differently. Christian churches (and other religions) need to speak to our culture about on justice and sustainability – about who we are and how we fit with other human beings and other life-forms on our planet.
The question of evil: Again, we ask, how could a good God permit the evil that exists? It is time we shift our focus from God to ourselves. Humans are involved in almost every kind of evil presently occurring on our planet. We should stop fretting about how and why God is responsible for evil and consider the increasing and appalling extent to which we are. This would be a salutary task for the religions, and especially Christianity, to take on.
The question of hope: Finally, we ask, what chance is there for significant change? We can trust that God is able to bring this about, through our willingness and work. In other words, we are not alone.
It is not what we must do or can do,
but what God can and will do through us.
The churches’ current preoccupation with sexual issues tells the world that we care about sex, not economics; personal morality, not public good. This preoccupation has allowed us to avoid naming the real sin: consumerism and market capitalism as forces opposed to the abundant life for all people and the planet.
The churches appear, once again, to be in a state of cultural captivity. Over the centuries, small, marginal groups have formed within the church to protest in its times of captivity: the monastic movements, the Reformation sects, the Latin American base communities. In order to be truly for the church, it may be time for Christians to once again work against the church.
For us well-off Christians, sin is not principally personal or sexual; rather, sin is our refusal to face the systemic economic changes needed for the just and sustainable distribution of the world’s goods. Those changes are truly terrifying for us. But if we see – like John Woolman and Dorothy Day – that change is at the heart of Christian faith, then we should acknowledge it, even if it means we will not be comfortable. Like John Woolman and Dorothy Day, we also must accept the radical abundance of God’s open table for all.
Can we at least be honest, if not good? It might help if we could keep our ‘wild space’ intact. Being a Christian involves having a ‘wild space.’ That wild space is the shocking suggestion that all really are invited to the banquet, that every creature deserves a place at the table. This is a different vision of the good life, but wild as it may seem, it is not necessarily impossible. Its two key principles are very mundane: justice and sustainability. Could the wild space become the whole space – the household of planet earth where each of us takes only our share, cleans up after ourselves, and keeps the house in good repair for future dwellers?
Can a ‘cruciform generosity’ bring us and our world back to God?