Salvation Loses Traction

salvation loses traction

Why does salvation not resonate with people today?

Individualism gives us a clue

Individualism weakens people’s resilience and makes them hypersensitive to being judged.

While strongly asserting autonomy people feel weak, fragile and vulnerable, even when appearances seem to give no justification for it. Authority is then an opponent, and the Church seems to be such an authority. This individualism becomes ideological over and above its effects on individuals. Although there are many contributing factors to this, individualism seems to be a significant hermeneutical key.

Related to this is the desire to be loved unconditionally, and an unwillingness to accept anything less as a standard of the good. Because of the weakness of individualism, and the resistance to judgement, the question of truth is downplayed. Love and acceptance seem to be the only relevant tasks for a Christian.

How do we get 'from here to love'?

But what then is the relation between how we actually are, and the hoped-for state of unconditional love? How might it come about? On the one hand there seems to be merely an act of will, yet such acts of will are usually lacking. Without knowledge of a process that could lead 'from here to love' we are left only with spontaneous solutions. But this, while having a romantic appeal, is not systematic. It seems to leave no way to work for it, other than mustering up an act of will. Or more likely, trying to stop others from imposing their acts of will.

So we have a sharp dichotomy between a romantic notion, founded on naturalism and spontaneity, and a moralistic notion founded on acts of will. Both are superficial and ineffectual as a real solution. They have only sporadic applicability.

If this is expressed in a Christian guise it renders the Christian message opaque. It does not seem to reveal anything helpful. It merely reinforces in different language the already prevailing notions.

A Romantic Notion

A romantic notion waits only on God to act, with little attention to how we are supposed to cooperate.

God is a romantic lover who tells us how good we are, and never criticises. But love requires two partners. If God is a merely ideal notion, who only gives and seeks nothing in return, it leaves us with no essential role. It is not apparent that there is a relationship as such. What kind of lover hopes for nothing in response from the beloved? It is possible to so emphasise God’s love that it seems to leave us with nothing to do, as if none of what we do really matters.

A Moralistic Notion

A moralistic notion, combined with the fragility of individualism, leads us to project anything judgemental outwards on others.

But it is hard to do this if one’s whole ethos is built on the ideal of being non-judgemental. This leads either to further withdrawal from real engagement with others and the world, or a very selective approach to moralising. It is only safe to moralise about what one's own in-group moralises about.

A Dilemma

Both these tendencies, the romantic and a moralistic, can come to characterise the Church. Different parts of the Church might stress different issues, but the same dichotomy appears.

There is then no clear way to relate these approaches to salvation in Christ. If it is attempted, it becomes selective. The moralistic approach appears as judgemental, which further turns most people away, but can attract the minority who think of themselves as effectively already saved. The romantic approach seems lacking in content, so that salvation seems irrelevant. Everybody is already saved.

This approach does not drive people away so much as wave them goodbye.

It is as though the sun lost all its mass, its gravitational attraction, and the planets just drifted off. This overall dilemma is something that needs to be understood, not merely bemoaned. From that understanding we can find a way forward.

What is the romantic notion of how we are saved?

What is the romantic notion of how we are saved?

We do not need to be saved, or if we do, God has already taken care of all that.

Even if we do bad things, God’s love and compassion is so strong that he has already done, and is doing, everything that could possibly be done, way beyond our capacity to comprehend. In so far as we have a task, it is simply to do the things natural for human beings to do. This may very well have some sort of religious dimension, since it seems to be natural to human beings, though perhaps not essential for everyone. Religion can be an enriching dimension of our humanity, which is essentially good. Salvation is all God's work, about which nothing helpful can be said. So there seems no need to use the concept of salvation, except in a symbolic or exhortatory sense.

What is the moralistic notion of how we are saved?

What is the moralistic notion of how we are saved?

Christ has clarified the nature of God's law, and we just have to apply our willpower and obey it.

It is our role to obey this law, which includes worshipping God and loving our fellow man. If we do not obey God's law we will rightly be judged, but God offers us forgiveness if we truly repent. In practice, a moralistic approach will always be selective, since it is psychologically debilitating to be preoccupied all the time with one's own detailed and continual shortcomings. We lighten and simplify this burden by focusing on a handful of laws as being the most important. Different groups will tend to identify different laws as the really important ones, and develop a style that reflects this. Salvation is our act of will to obey God's law, or our act of will to repent if we fail.

Drifting Away

These of course are simplified portrayals. I am not seeking here to quibble about details but to get an underlying sense of the fact that people find the notion of salvation either meaningless or selective. Either way, it reveals little of what salvation in Christ really is. It does not give us a distinctively and authentically Christian way of living.

One of our theological and catechetical challenges is to formulate and effectively communicate an understanding of salvation that is truly intelligible, that actually resonates with people in our cultural setting.

The majority of Catholics who have drifted away from the church in recent decades have seemingly done so without animosity. It does not appear that they have been driven away. Rather, the church's gravitational attraction has weakened and they have drifted off.

A Failure to Communicate

Although a full analysis of this phenomenon would reveal many aspects, I wish to highlight one in particular. It is the failure to effectively communicate the Church’s core message, our salvation in Christ. It is ironic perhaps that in an era when explicit attention to Scripture has increased, the raison d’etre of Scripture has somehow lost traction. As Dei Verbum says, the scriptures reveal the word of God ‘for our salvation’ (Dei Verbum, 11). God could have revealed all sorts of interesting things to us, but the unifying thread in the Scriptures is this movement of salvation.

The main reason for the loss of focus on salvation seems to be that it is thought to inextricably involve judgement. In our cultural climate this has been an unwelcome message, so we have tried to find other aspects of the faith to emphasise. Or we have tried to reinterpret it in such a way that salvation projects judgement ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’ where it touches me personally.

A counter-reaction might decide to emphasise judgement, to contrast it with the present slackness, to jog people out of a sense of complacency by overemphasising their guilt and depravity, if such overemphasis was possible.

Downplaying the Role of Faith

One of the effects of downplaying the centrality of salvation is to downplay the role of faith. It has become less apparent to people why faith would be necessary. There has been a drift here too, with faith being reinterpreted in a more generic sense. Everyone has some kind of faith, and that is the important thing, not the specific truth claims of Christianity.

The notion of truth itself has become diluted in the post-modern reaction to modernist rationalism. Truth inevitably raises the question of authority, which is what people are shrinking from. If the Church proclaims a certitude of faith it appears to be aligning itself with mere authoritarianism.

If what we all really long for is love, how is this related to faith? But how can love be secure without fidelity, faithfulness? Again, such fidelity might appear to have no ‘contents’ but simply be an adherence of will in spite of loss of affection. But without affection, do we still have love? This has been a major question and crisis affecting marriage, and hence on community, authority and love. How and why could I maintain love as an act of will? Is this approach sufficient? Does it work?

Some Basic Truths

The Christian view of salvation recognises a number of basic truths. (1) God is love, and wills the salvation of all. (2) Human weakness is endemic and profound, such that we cannot overcome it in any substantial way by acts of will. (3) So God's process of salvation takes into account human weakness, and works through faith to set us free to love.

The truth revealed by faith is not just a series of facts, but a process. It is a way, not just knowledge of the destination.

Faith as Relational

This helps to clarify how it is a relationship. It removes God from being a mere ideal, and reveals him as someone who wants a real relationship. This means faith asks us to act in response to God's acts towards us. This relationship is not something so mysterious as to be completely opaque. Rather, God really does reveal himself to us. This is personal as well as communal. We are not baby birds pushed out of the nest by God and left to fend for ourselves. We can actually find out a great deal about this process by which the mutual response between God and ourselves becomes genuinely a relationship. This is only possible if we know something about God. And this knowledge is not a mere set of general commands, which we are left to figure out on our own.

God initiates a personal process for each person, to lead them by many discernible steps along the way towards full union with God.

This does not mean that mystery is reduced to some mechanical process. Quite the opposite. God accompanies us, sometimes in clear ways and sometimes in ways requiring us to make leaps of faith.

Faith as a Way

The way of faith then needs to become something continuous, flexible, adaptive and responsive. One of the biggest obstacles to faith is a lack of teaching that can make this clear.

It is not uncommon for people to have the idea that Christianity is a set of commandments we have to obey without any real help.

The kinds of help on offer are either unhelpful or are perceived as such.

If we do not offer teaching in the faith commensurate to the challenge of walking the way of Christ, we can hardly blame people for not giving it a go. Teaching is often too generic and bland to be of any help. It does not help people discern the steps along the path. It just gives a roadmap that says ‘here’ at one end and ‘God’ at the other and nothing much in between except exhortations to keep trying. The only credible Church is one on the move, with the leaders walking along the path with the people helping them at each step of the way. This help must include clear teaching about the way of faith, a spirituality that works.

Obviously each person also has to engage in discernment of their own. But at the more general level we can still come up with a much more detailed and helpful map that people can take with them on those aspects of the journey that are inescapably personal.

A Hermeneutics of Suspicion

I have drawn attention to the practice and culture of individualism to throw light on why it is so difficult to communicate the Gospel today. It distinguishes a problem that seems new on this scale. Of course, all the perennial impediments to faith remain as well, such as rejection of a proposed change of lifestyle, and of ideas or practices that are difficult to accept and live. The kind of difficulty we have today is consequent on a heightening of consciousness. Cultures are now much more explicitly aware of many phenomena, whether psychological, political or cultural. There is a new sophistication, but it is generally a superficial sophistication. We know enough to be sceptical about a great many things but not enough to see through to recognise the untenability of a generalised ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Being too clever by half we know enough to reject positions but not enough for the deeper level of discernment needed to identify the truth that can still be known in spite of all the historical reasons for scepticism.

Leaving People Alone

This leaves people ‘epistemically alone’. There were always people who were sceptical about some aspects of the faith. Now people generally are sceptical about whether the faith itself can even have a legitimate meaning at all. But since such scepticism is ultimately groundless, there are no authorities who can actually refute it. The new authorities only undermine truth, they do not set up a clear, alternative truth to which people are asked to adhere. Yet this is a sleight of hand. It appears that the Church now has no self-proclaimed enemy against which it may be defined. It is often easier to define oneself by contrast with an opponent than to do so simply on one's own terms. This is especially so since the Gospel calls people to conversion, to turn away from an old life to embrace a new.

The new ideology likes to appear as a non-ideology. It is more subtle, and people find it hard to see it for what it is.

In the process it has seemed to leave no space for the Church to inhabit. In many ways it has taken over an idealistic vision drawing on basic Christian truths, especially the supreme dignity of the human person. It speaks of love, tolerance, freedom, dignity, peace and justice. All very Christian words. But by defining ‘person’ as ‘individual’ the entire substance of the Christian faith is lost.