By Lee Karl Palo
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible (CEB). For reasons as to why I use the CEB, go here.
What follows is an attempt to sketch out what the Christian faith is really all about in a positive manner. This is more difficult than you might think. One of the more challenging practices when you are a philosopher or theologian is making a positive statement. Pretty much everything you can say is a comment or evaluation on what has come before, a reality which doubtless gave rise to Alfred North Whitehead’s famous line, commonly paraphrased as: “All of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”[i] This is also true in Christianity as well. The beliefs we have were formulated in light of other beliefs. For example, the authors of the Bible weren’t writing in a vacuum, but were aware of the religious beliefs of their neighbors (Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Canaanite, etcetera).
If we ask, what is Christianity really all about? I would argue that in essentials it is about a proactive commitment to live as a people of God called to love God and love others, as a people called to join in the task of making the world a better place—doing good to others and caring for the world in the service of a loving creator, as a people called to embody this love of God as an expression of the reign and realm of God in action in the world today!
That’s it in brief, but few things this important can be stated this briefly so let me sketch this out just a bit more as my own footnote responses. The hope is that I might provoke some conversation
The Core of a Positive Faith
In the New Testament, Jesus identifies what he believed to be the essential elements of faith in God. This is what he says…
One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31
In the Matthew 22:34-40 parallel Jesus also said, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” This has been and continues to be a common emphasis in both Judaism and Christianity. This emphasis is comprised of two Bible passages from the Torah that together make up the core of faith. The first is Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” This passage is referred to as the “Shema” in Judaism. The second verse, is Leviticus 19:18b, which reads “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”
Judaism preserved these commands as central to their religious identity. Christianity took this further by extending the religious ideal of love for God and neighbor, not just for one ethnic group, but for all of humanity. This relationship of Christianity to Judaism has been characterized by Franz Rosenzweig as akin to Judaism being like the Sun and Christianity being the rays of the Sun. A commitment to serve and care for God and others is thus central to the Christian faith, and is what I will refer to as “the core.”
Positive Faith in Action
After Jesus’ answer regarding which commandment is the most important in the Markan passage cited above (Mark 12:28-31), the “legal expert” follows up Jesus answer in Mark 12:32-34. There is a clear allusion to Micah 6:6-8 in the legal expert’s reply. The passage culminates in verse 8 with the famous words, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” Doing justice is at the center of practicing faith. In a similar fashion, the Letter of James reads, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us” (James 1:27). To help those in need, with an expansive idea of who our neighbor is that we are to “love as we love ourselves,” expresses the core of the Christian faith (see Luke 10:25-37 where we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s parallel to Mark 12:28-34).
While it can be conceived that the avoidance of doing harm to others may be an expression of the core, this doesn’t capture its full expression. The Golden Rule is found in many different world religious traditions, including Christianity. In many forms, the Golden Rule is phrased negatively as something like “Do not treat people in the same way you would not want to be treated.” In the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule is phrased positively, “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (see also Luke 6:31). Instead of an inwardly focused existence that avoids doing harm to others, Christianity promotes doing good to others in community.
Positive Care for Creation
This emphasis on care for others does not end with care for our fellow human beings. The command in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 is for humanity to take charge of God’s creation. We are connected to our environment, so our actions must consider implications for others today and for our posterity. The poetic echo of creation’s goodness from the spoken word of the divine in Genesis 1 sings of the value the creaturely realm has to God. Jesus’ bodily resurrection too speaks volumes as to God’s valuation of material existence. Resurrection is not the transformation of a physical body to an immaterial higher state of the soul—it is to a transformed material bodily existence. The material world matters to God for it to be resurrected. Animals do not exist merely to be exploited, but they are a divinely given responsibility to manage. To limit ethical behavior as only relevant to the treatment of our fellow human beings is dangerous. It trains people that kindness and care are relative. It is a slippery slope that can lead to the devaluation of people either by default or design, and ignores the intrinsic worth and the goodness of all of God’s creation.
Bible Scholars have also noted that God’s good creation is designed for humanity to continue the work. Religion does not exist to stifle creativity, but to give it direction and turn it loose. Make something beautiful out of the wonderful world God has made. While this is easy to conceive as being about artistic expression, that is not its limit. There are many systems that can use some creative direction toward the goal of benefitting others. Hospitals look for ways to improve patient outcomes and employ new techniques to heal. Businesses can look for opportunities to meet human needs and adequately provide for their work force. The possibilities for creative endeavors in any field are endless.
The Positive Confession of Conviction
in God’s Redemptive Work in Christ
So one may ask: Where do the religious claims of the Christian faith enter into the discussion? Where Jesus summed up the essence of what it means to have faith in God as an expression of love, the early church soon realized that there were aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry that meant he was more than just a great rabbi or a wise teacher. They believed, as Paul wrote to fellow Christians in the city of Corinth, that “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).Acceptance of this redemptive claim was grounded in a public confession of one’s conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, makes possible the salvation of the world.
In a letter to the Christians at Rome some time around 55-57 CE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Romans) Paul explains how salvation is offered through the gospel of Jesus Christ. At one point, he calls to mind for the recipients of this letter the essential confession of faith that was already core to their beliefs about Jesus. Christian convictions were grounded in the actions of its followers. He writes, in Romans 10:9-10 what may be the earliest creedal confession of faith we have in Christianity:
“Because if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.”
This confession was framed for easy memorization for oral repetition (since illiteracy was common in the ancient world). To better see what is going on in these two verses it is instructive to diagram it in its chiastic structure.
A - Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord”
B - and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead,
X - you will be saved.
B’ - Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness,
A’ - and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.
I have italicized the parallelism. But what does this confession entail as belief?
To say “Jesus is Lord” would be to deny that Caesar is Lord. Confessing the lordship of Caesar is what would have been expected of all loyal subjects of the Roman Empire. A contemporary translation accounting for the political overtones might be something like “Jesus is the leader of the free world,” or “Jesus is the Commander-in-Chief,” or even “Jesus for President.” To put a positive spin on it would be to emphasize that Jesus’ way of radical love for God and neighbor is what should be followed, rather than any human political ideals. It is hard to make the claim of being a Christian believer unless you actually participate in Christian action as exemplified in love—and this is salvation to follow the way of Jesus. To merely make an acknowledgement that Jesus should be considered the ultimate religious figure in the universe doesn’t go far enough if the way of Jesus isn’t followed in practice. Further, embracing the goodness of creation, as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection, leads people to work toward justice for all of creation. It is to the resurrection and transformation of the world that the Gospel calls all people.
The World of Love [the Kingdom of God]
Salvation in primitive Christianity had earthly overtones. It was to a better way of living in this good creation that Jesus saves us. There is, of course, the additional belief that this better way of life on earth will one day transcend mortality. Nevertheless the focus is on this world, and not the hereafter. What is doubtless the central prayer of the Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer, exemplifies this focus on the transformation of God’s creation. We pray as Jesus taught us in the developed tradition of the Lord’s Prayer (first articulated in the Didache)…
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever. Amen. (The “Ecumenical Text” from the United Methodist Hymnal #894)
With the passage of time, many terms lose their historical connotations. The term “Kingdom of God” finds meaning almost exclusively in religious contexts today, but in the First Century CE there was more to it. There are few countries in the modern world that are ruled by monarchs, but not so then. As noted above, many terms and titles for Jesus, that we today think of as honorific, had political connotations for the early church. To proclaim God’s Kingdom is to imply that there is something wrong with earthly kingdoms as they are now. This is an obvious clue as to why Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire. The “Kingdom of God” would certainly have been understood as a term used in opposition to the kingdom or rule of earthly figures like Caesar. Again, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not. Given problems with the term being so far removed from its original historical context and its origin as a negative term criticizing other political realities of the ancient world, it may be helpful and instructive to find a different term to represent the Kingdom of God.
If it is God’s will that “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), then I would suggest the term: the World of Love. Justice and righteousness are roughly synonymous terms, as evidenced by the parallelism of the first half of Amos 5:24 to the second half. A Christian notion of radical equality among all persons, regardless of hierarchical distinctions like slave/free, Jew/Gentile, male/female, etc., demands working for justice. God loves all people and all creation, and the direction of scriptural salvation is toward the redemption and transformation of the world—to a World of Love.
Christianity, as I hope can be seen by now, cannot be limited to knowing factual data about spiritual realities. It is more than intellectual assent to religious propositions. Humanity has a divinely given purpose. What then is Christian evangelism if not an invitation to others to join in the task of making the world a better place—doing good to others and caring for the world in the service of a loving creator? The goal of humanity is the embodiment of the World of Love—the Kingdom of God!
[i] The original version is “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Special thanks to Robert Reid and Terri Stewart for their help in editing this post prior to publication.
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo