Church And Faith (5)

CROSS

 Fiddes has a wide view of the impact of the cross, declaring that “Salvation is an idea which has the widest scope, including the healing of individuals and social groups and even the conserving of a natural world ravaged and polluted by human greed.” I certainly agree, though his use of the word ‘idea’ is an interesting one! Perhaps I would have said that salvation is a reality rather than an idea.

Right at the outset of his book, Fiddes points back to the cross: “Salvation, or the healing of life, issues from atonement, and this in turn has its basis in the cross of Christ.” The author therefore examines the constant factors of the human predicament that caused the cross to be necessary, which are alienation or estrangement, unfulfilled potential and sin or rebellion.

Fiddes says that “It is always in the present that God acts to heal and reconcile, entering into the disruption of human lives at great cost to himself, in order to share our predicament and release us from it.” Fiddes’ statement raises questions as to what he means by God “entering into the disruption of human lives” – does he refer back to the cross here, or he is saying that God does this daily?

It seems to be the latter: “If salvation is the healing of a broken relationship between persons, then it must actually happen now; it must involve the human response as an intimate part of the act of atonement.” Is this really so? Or is the present human response to the fact of atonement?

My question was answered on the next page, where Fiddes says that the human response to reconciliation with God “Must actually be part of the act of salvation, not merely a reaction to it afterwards.” Does this mean that, since not all of humanity will we saved, the act of salvation will always be incomplete and lacking?

“But forgiveness is not simply an announcement, a notice of pardon; it seeks to reconcile the person who is hostile to accepting forgiveness, or who is so anxious that he cannot believe he is accepted.” I agree with Fiddes, but I am uncertain whether he is focussing on the objective or the subjective as he considers the effects of the cross. That question lasted ten pages!

Fiddes again: “The question then is not whether a view of atonement is subjective or objective … the question to be asked is how well it integrates the two elements.” As part of this integration, the author says that “The fact that future salvation affects the present through its creative influence upon it confirms the discovery that influence is also the mode by which a past event changes the present.” I am following Fiddes here, but wondering about the difference between change and shaping – but perhaps I am overcomplicating issues…

I can see Fiddes’ book getting some sharp responses from some evangelicals, because it goes down the road of Open Theology, and even to use such a term is to court rebuke and vicious ostracism. “If we take seriously the freedom of God to love, then we can say that he desires fellowship with us, and that by his own eternal choice his being is enhanced by relationship with us.” Yet, do any of us have any good, deep and meaningful relationships that do not enhance us? 

We live love that is fully relational, that can be ecstatic, that goes beyond ourselves to others, do we not? Surely, then, Fiddes may be right to say that “God’s nature is fully relational; he is ecstatic love, love that goes out beyond the self to another.” Surely, then, our own experience of relationships show us that “Forgiveness is a costly and difficult matter both for the one who offers it and the one who receives it, because true forgiveness aims for reconciliation, and this means the removal of barriers to relationship.” As Fiddes has declared, “The cross is a creative act, a past event with power to change human attitudes to God and to each other in the present; this creativity is at the very heart of forgiveness, as can be seen if we reflect upon what it involves in human relationships.”

 DISCIPLESHIP

 Willard makes the valid point that what many churches call discipleship programs are little more than behaviour modification classes or information givers; as such they are helpful, but not adequate to human life. We need to learn how to train ourselves and others to “Learn from Jesus how to live our life as he would live it if he were us.” Surely we must be learning by now that an academic acceptance of propositional truth is, in and of itself, of absolutely no value if it divorced from a living and vital love relationship with Jesus himself. Yet, I wonder if we are learning that at all. Little wonder that Willard says that “We must recognize, first of all, that the aim of the popular teacher in Jesus’ time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the lives of the hearers.”

Changing and transforming people’s lives is the work of the Holy Spirit, and, while this does of course involve the mind, the Spirit’s work is not driven by the mind, but by the heart – because relationships centre in the heart, and not in the mind. Therefore, says Willard, “It is, frankly, hard today to think adequately about God – or perhaps to think of him at all. Our intellectual history works against it, and we certainly do not get much training for it.” It may well be hard to think about God, but look around the world and see the evidence of God at work, and let your heart tell you what you need. You need God. So call on him. “If I am Jesus’ disciple that means I am with him to learn from him how to be like him.”

Willard proclaims that “You cannot call upon Jesus Christ or upon God and not be heard. You live in their house, their ecos (Heb 3:4). We call it simply the universe. But they fully occupy it. It is their place, their kingdom, where through their kindness and sacrificial love we can make our present life an eternal life.” This is the language of relationship, and a relationship which transcends the academic and intellectual; indeed, there is a real likelihood that the academic will neither comprehend nor apprehend the reality of relationship.

And so as Willard says, “Jesus’ good news about the kingdom can be an effective guide for our lives only if we share his view of the world in which we live.” Therefore, “Central to the understanding and proclamation of the Christian gospel today, as in Jesus’ day, is a re-visioning of what God’s own life is like and how the physical cosmos fits into it.”

Willard speaks my language – it is the language of relationship. “One is blessed … if one’s life is based upon acceptance and intimate interactions with what God is doing in human history.” Relationship with God means that he is what God is doing in human history, he is also doing in my history. He is doing it in your history. He is doing it in their history.

“Their union with Jesus allows them now to be a part of his conspiracy to undermine the structures of evil, which continue to dominate human history, with the forces of truth, freedom and love.” This is relational, this is life-changing, and this impacts how we see, and therefore how we treat, people. “Our confidence in God is the only thing that makes it possible to treat others as they should be treated.” In this way, like Willard we are a real part of the divine conspiracy.

 GOD AT WORK?

Thwaites has a lot to say about work (in its widest context – not merely employment), but he makes statements that are a little hard to take, such as: “God waits in the good fruit of our everyday life and work to be discovered and encountered by us.” Does this mean that church and the world are one and the same? Can we discover God better at work than we can in church? Or only in work?

He goes on to say that “We were created to discover the very attributes, nature and power of God through all life and work.” Such statements need careful explanation and clear application – and it must begin with defining the word ‘work’ in a way that is accessible to everyone; not merely in understanding, but in relevance to daily life. For example, how does Thwaites relate to the unemployed and long-term sick?

He also spends time on the (Hebrew) naming of things, from the animal kingdom through to the words that we speak about our daily lives. “From the time of creation we were given the right and responsibility to name all things. This means that the definition or descriptions we accept or give to any thing, person or event will determine our relationship to them, our ability to see and go into them and ultimately the reality we will build in and from them.” Is this the power of positive speech? Or is it negative? “So, if saints call their work secular, boring, carnal, cursed, second fiddle, then this will be exactly what their work will be for them and they will be for it.” But what do I do if my work (employment) really is boring, really is hard, really is second fiddle?

THE THREE SPHERES

Thwaites declares that there are “Three unseen and created spheres that God has made for humanity. The first is marriage, the second is family and the third is work. These three spheres are the primary building blocks of humankind’s created reality.” Therefore, he says that “The church is not something separate from marriage, family and work.” But is church something separate from the single, the divorced and the lonely? Do they count? What of them?

Thwaites declares that “After all of these millennia the three spheres of the created order have not been shaken – people in marriage, people in family, people engaging the world through work.” Yet, as I look around our land today, I see that these very things are being shaken today, am I wrong to see that? Or mistaken? For I see the foundation of marriage being shaken apart in our society, I see the whole basis of family being shaken up in our society, and I see the workplace changing beyond recognition for many people. How can Thwaites say that they have not been shaken?

SUFFERING

Thwaites also tackles the issue of suffering: “The person of God is actually present in the disappointment, the setback, the obstacle and even the injustice. He is actually present in your suffering as God made man.” Now many have trodden this road, but without actually clearly defining what suffering is, and what it is not. It seems to me that Thwaites does exactly the same. Or fails to do exactly the same.

Thwaites says, “We have seen through the darkness, reached through the futility and journeyed through the pain to arrive at the beginning of our inheritance in the all things of creation.” “That is why we must suffer with him to enter into our inheritance.” What does this mean for me? Today? And for my relationships? Am I alone in finding these statements abstract and unhelpful?

Can we really expect that God’s kingdom will fully come in our country and in our world? “In and through our work in the unseen orders of the creation we are called and privileged to find the justice and holiness of God in government; the beauty, suffering and playful delight of God in art, literature and leisure; the power and supply of God in business; the wisdom and knowledge of his Spirit in education; the wholeness of God in the wonder of our physical life and in the healing disciplines.” What does this mean? I long for Thwaites to be utterly practical in applying his arguments, but it seems that I long in vain.