The foundational tenet of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God and that he died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later. His death and resurrection are linked to the concept of original sin, which we have discussed elsewhere on this blog.
All Christians believe that Christ is their personal savior to some degree. The fundamentalists take this concept to an extreme and they preach that a person cannot be saved until they are born again. Being born again means that the person has publicly acknowledged Jesus Christ as their personal God and Savior. Please note the emphasis on personal. It is this emphasis on personal and individual salvation that I want to address today.
The fundamentalists want us to believe that Christianity sprang, like the goddess Venus, pure and chaste from the mind of God and that any discussion of historical context or human interpretation has any relevancy. To that I say, "Male bovine manure!" Nothing that happens in our finite universe can be removed from its historical context, least of all our feeble attempts to comprehend the Unknowable – the Infinity we call God, YHWH, Jehovah. Allah, Brahman or any of the other million names for the Great Architect.
One of the best introductions to primitive religious beliefs, especially those beliefs that were prevalent in the West and Middle East prior to the rise of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, is James Frazier’s The Golden Bough. For most people not familiar with Victorian English, this book is a difficult read because of the stilted language, but it is well worth the effort. One of its strong points for me is the lack of ethnocentrism when compared to other anthropological texts of its time. The Victorians were thoroughly convinced that the English were God’s Chosen People and were obligated to lead the poor, benighted savages of Africa, Asia and the Middle East to the light of Christ, by force if necessary. Sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? Classic examples of this attitude are the British missionary in "Zulu" and the American missionary in "Jeremiah Johnson." Our Victorians wanted to "save" the Native Americans. I think the reason that Christianity gave up its [need word here] attitude is that the savages were smarter than the missionaries and Christianity could no longer compete on theological grounds. A classic case of "If I can’t win, I’ll take my ball and go home. " Any attempts to interpret the Christian kerygma in its historical context result in charges of doing appeasement theology or some such nonsense.
What these people forget is the the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, especially as presented in what Christians call the Old Testament, is the God of History. Why do you think the Okls Testament is organized chronologically? It tells the story of God’s intervention in human events – HIS story. Just maybe that’s where the term comes from?????
History is about social groups – tribes, nationals, civilizations. It is NOT about any one individual. A God of History, then, is a God who offers salvation in some form or another to a tribe, a nation, a civilization. The God of the Old Testament is the God of Israel. Contrary to the way some wnat to read it, God’s covenant was not with Abraham the individual, but Abraham as the representative of his people, much as treaties are made by individuals sitting down at a pow-wow, but the treaty is not between just the people at the conference but the nations they represent. So, God’s covenant is not between God and one individual, but between God and a social group that extends forward and backward in time – a people and their history.
Jesus said he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. The Law is not the set of rules set out in the Pentateuch, but rather what imbues those laws with power – the covenant. All of the events in the Old Testament leading up to the birth of Jesus are God’s irruptions into the history of Israel, his ongoing efforts to fulfill his part of the bargain so to speak. The covenant is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus.
If we accept all of this, there remains one unanswered question" If Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham and that covenant has to be understood as being between God and his people, not between God and a particular individual, then how are we to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of that covenant?
I think we get a clue in John 3:16, part of the Scriptural verses quoted at the end of the parable that serves as the launching point for our discussion. The first few words say it all: "For God so loved the world…"
God’s chosen people are not the descendants of the tribes of Israel nor are they those who "profess Jesus as Lord." but rather God’s Chosen People are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve since the dawn of history and until the end of time. Jesus did not come to offer private individual salvation to a few, but rather to redeem us all as a people not as individuals.
We are all already redeemed, whether we are born again or not. No strings. But, if God is the God of history, then the act of redemption that was Jesus’ death and resurrection needs to be understood in its historical context and as an act that had historical significance. If one reads the mythos of other religions, one finds many instances of the sacrificial death of a sacred king for the good of the people.
That will be our jumpimg off point in the next part. In the meantime, feel free to offer your thoughts and comments.