I’m not sure that I’ve entirely understood the nuances of what he is saying, but if I’ve interpreted his post correctly he seems to be reflecting the contemporary ambivalence about a focus on individual salvation (viz going to heaven), and advocating instead a focus on transforming ourselves and this world here and now.
No, this wasn’t the point of my post at all, Kate. Either I have been very poor at communicating my thoughts (which is quite probable – you are not the only reader who has failed to grasp my point), or there must be some difficulty on your end. I have been rather tempted to see the whole discussion according to the analogy of the Copernican revolution, but I think a fairer analogy would taken from popular thought on the Middle Ages. Brought up on the Edward Gibbon view of the decline of civilization with the fall of Rome, the idea of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” is a very hard one to shift from popular mythology, no matter how much hard work one does on the historical facts.
What I am trying to suggest is that, for the sake of the revitalisation of the Church’s evangelising mission – the “New Evangelisation” in other words – we will benefit from a thorough-going investigation into the depth of meaning in the word “Gospel”. This investigation would take in the whole breadth of the use of the word in Christian tradition, but it must necessarily start with a right understanding of the use of the word in Scripture itself. This is not some “protestant left over” of my Lutheran days. Becoming a Catholic has actually freed me from the strictures of the limited view of “the Gospel” I had as a protestant. It is, rather, the simple methodological fact that a study of historical origins in the disciplines of both language and theology shines a great light upon the root meaning of both words and doctrines.
To use another analogy: in writing a biography of a person of great significance, the study of that persons childhood and family background will give us insight into that person’s later character and into the reasons why he acted in this way rather than that way. It will not, of course, tell us everything about the mature career of the person, and formative events and influences along the way must be taken into account as well, but a book which dealt only with the mature man, and not with the origins and formative years, might well misconstrue important aspects of the person’s life and work.
In actual fact, I was originally motivated to the whole question of “what is the Gospel?”, not by theologies which saw it in terms of “individual salvation viz. going to heaven”, but in terms of “love one another as I have loved you”. It was spurred on by the debate in the Melbourne Town Hall about whether “the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”, in which the primary aspect of the Church’s mission was held up as “doing good” or “social justice”. Social justice is an important part of the Church’s mission, but I am sure you will agree with me that it is not the be all and end all of the Church’s mission.
Yet I was also aware that the success of the “Social Gospel” picture has something to do with the fact that it answers many modern western Christians’ true eschatological hopes, if I may put it that way. When Jesus first proclaimed the Gospel, and when Paul et al. took it to the Gentiles, it was a message that made sense and had a strong appeal, because it gave a credible answer to a question that they were asking. My concern is that if we, on the other hand, preach a gospel focused on “going to heaven when you die”, we might in fact be preaching an answer to a question that no-one is asking. This, it seems to me, is part of the reason why the appeal of the Gospel is so weak in today’s Western context.
So I am not really asking the old “liberal” vs “conservative” question. In a way, I see both alternatives readings of “the Gospel” to suffer from the problem of the biography that ignores the question of origins. My real question is: by studying the historical origins of “the Gospel” – not discounting the future “career” of this term – can we grasp a new and revitalised way of proclaiming the Gospel for today, one in which the Gospel has defined shape and a sharp point on the end? It is my contention that if we do, we will find an understanding of the Gospel that is neither the “Social Gospel” nor the “Go to heaven when we die” Gospel, but something far richer, and, frankly, more exciting. In other words, true “Good News”!
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Update: In the combox below, Kate asked a question and I wrote a reply which should be, I think, a part of this post, although it is a terribly long post to start with…]
January 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm (Edit)
I’ve put the substance of this comment on my own blog as well, but are you saying then, that we need to construct something that is meangingful to people now which implies that the Gospel is not ‘just’ about salvation, but not just a social Gospel either? So what precisely is it that you are advocating? Sorry, more words is not really clarifying it for me!
Okay, and here we are at the heart of the matter.
I am certainly not saying that the Gospel is about anything other than “salvation”. Everything in the Scriptures and in Tradition make it quite clear that the Gospel, the Good News, is good news about liberation from a terrible bondage that is being personally and corporately experienced. That is precisely why it is “Good News”, and, wherever it is preached, it is received gladly by those who hear it. The question is: salvation from what? Liberation from what?
As a side example, take what is classically known as “Liberation Theology”. It was remarkably successful precisely because it refigured “the Gospel” in terms that were directly applicable to the people of South America and other oppressive states. Like Luther’s theology of justification, it spoke to the felt needs of the people AND was expressed in the shape of “the Gospel” as they had known it. The question was – with Liberation Theology as with Luther’s doctrine of Justification – was it the authentic Gospel, the “authentic good news”? Did it address the true bondage at the source of the “felt” bondage?
So, a double whammy in this question: When we preach the Gospel, does it:
a) connect with the “felt bondage” from which hearer yearns for liberation?
b) maintain the “true bondage” from which the hearer actually needs liberation?
Two Scriptural elements here in this reflection.
The first is the fact that Jesus performed signs to denote his authority to declare the “Good News” of the coming of God’s Kingdom: exorcism and healings. When John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus (Matthew 11) to ask him if he was “the one who is to come”, Jesus sent back the message: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” This reflects well the reading from Isaiah which Jesus read in the Synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4). It also shows that for all these, there was a specific “felt bondage” from which Jesus was giving “salvation”: for the blind, sight; for the deaf, hearing; for the lame, walking; etc. This was Good News because it was personal liberation, personal salvation, from a true “felt bondage”.
Secondly, as the story about the healing of the paralytic man (Mark 2) shows, Jesus perceived that a greater “true bondage” which was being experienced by Israel as a whole, corporately, namely, the bondage to the Strong Man (against whom Jesus was the Stronger Man, cf. Mark 3:27). That “strong man” was Satan, and the sign that Satan’s bondage (experienced personally as sickness or demon possession, but experienced corporately in the dire straits of Israel as a whole in the 1st Century) was being defeated in the victory that Jesus was accomplishing. This was the true “good news”, and the “forgiveness of sins” (done precisely by Jesus on his own authority) was the true sign of the this true liberation.
So, my question is this: How do we proclaim the Gospel – which is the “Good News” that Jesus is liberating/saving us from bondage to the true usurper, Satan – to our world today in a way that it will be heard?
1) There has to be a connection with the “felt bondage” that touches people’s real lives. What are those bondages? How does the Gospel which the Church proclaims address these?
2) How does the Church show, by freeing people from this bondage, the much deeper “true bondage” from which they and our world as a whole, desparately need “salvation”, deliverance, liberation?
The problem with Liberation Theology was that it addressed the “felt bondage”, but left the Gospel there. It was so “this world” (to pick up your earlier reference to Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate) that it forgot the greater, cosmic bondage (the word used in Greek by Jesus for “world” is “kosmos”) in which the whole world is imprisoned and from which the whole world needs “salvation”. I propose that the “Social Justice Gospel” suffers from the same problem. It is popular, because it is easily understood and enthusiastically embraced: it matches the “felt bondages” of people in their personal lives in this world. Luther’s “doctrine of justification by faith” was popular for much the same reason, despite the spiritual and theological way in which it was phrased and absolutely contrary to his original hopes (there is some evidence that he himself was disappointed by this at the end of his life’s work). It addressed many of his contemporaries (in particular, political leaders like kings and princes, and peasants – cf. the 1525 Peasants Rebellion) “felt bondage” under the institution of the Church. It offered them liberation from the Church’s authority, and was therefore heard as “Good News”.
All along, the real oppressor of humankind is Satan, the Strong Man, and his cronies, sin and death. Those who have “eyes to see”, as Jesus would say, can see this, but those are few. We look at our society, and all the solutions that journalists of both the Right and the Left propose, and we see what they cannot see: that the real bondage from which we need “salvation” are the powers of Satan.
It seems to me that the solution is not a more energetic preaching of the “Good News” as the offer of a blissful afterlife. True salvation – true liberation (as Joseph Ratzinger wrote many times before becoming Pope and many times since) – from the powers of evil will only be found in, as you put it, the decision to serve God first and last. In Jesus Christ, his whole person and his paschal mystery, God has opened the doorway into a new existence, “the Kingdom of God”, in which not only the “true bondage” but also the “felt bondages” will be finally overcome. The best description of this in the New Testament is in Revelation 21. The In the New Jerusalem (which incidentally, comes DOWN from heaven to earth, not the other way around) “God will dwell with his people…and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away”.
Thus the final “salvation” will address both the “felt” and “true bondage” of God’s people. This is the kind of “salvation” we need to be proclaiming as “Good News” if it is to be heard today with the same power that it has been heard in former years. This, I would argue, should be the aim of the “New Evangelisation”.