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Every Tuesday and Thursday I teach a class on the church: ecclesiology. Students don’t have a clue what that word means – they take it either because they need it for their major or they need an elective and this one fit into their schedule. I love talking about the historical development of the church, the issues that gave rise to the various movements and conflicts. I love discussing Cyprian, Calvin, and feminist ecclesiology, trying to blow up all of our preconceived notions of what these voices might say. This past week we discussed Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, which students were required to read as an assignment for the class. Students were bored, excited, upset, relieved – a whole range of emotions – some of them loved Bonhoeffer, others didn’t, others were indifferent. Most were ok with the content of Life Together, even if they thought it sounded too “traditional” and not charismatic enough. The real fireworks started when I offered some background.
I wanted to make sure we heard (or read) Bonhoeffer’s claim that God loves “real” community and not an “ideal” community. We read a few paragraphs after which I started to explain Bonhoeffer’s aversion to “religion.” I quoted Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, trying to get students to hear Bonhoeffer’s concern for a Christian life grounded in courage and responsibility born out in the concrete love of our neighbor. I threw out a question: How would your life be different if you thought there is no “heaven” or “eternal life”? Silence. Then the class went crazy. Many of them couldn’t comprehend why anyone would live a “good” or “moral” life without the threat of hell or the promise of some eternal reward. I pushed them to consider that maybe there are things in this life that are worth while apart from any reward we might receive. I argued that maybe Christ has come to show us what it means to be human in this world… to embrace our finite, imperfect (not sinful), way of being human in the world. I suggested that maybe we are called to love others without concern for what’s in it for us… that love, generosity, and grace are the marks of a humanity lived in Jesus Christ. I’m not sure they bought it.
All of this got me thinking: What is so threatening about the possibility that the meaning and goodness of life is not grounded in some future, abstract, eternity, but in the finite, temporal experience of each moment? Have we (my students and I) been so inscribed with the capitalist paradigm that we cannot think of any activity or experience that is inherently worthwhile? Must there be a payoff – a reward – for meaning and goodness to exist? The incarnation declares that God is “with us” in this life, that God has not come to take us to some spiritual abstraction, God comes to bring life giving breath to our humanity in this created existence. Maybe the “surplus value” of resurrection isn’t abstraction – maybe its the concrete flesh and blood of new creation.
Whatever… if this makes you uncomfortable, or you think I’m out of bounds, just remember that I’m a Minnesota Twins fan. If the goodness of baseball is only in what comes at the end of the season?… well, you get the point.
Jason, right on. This is what my book's all about, Why Be A Christian — If No One Goes to Hell. I've put some thought into the issues you discussed.
Paul had similar thoughts in Romans 2:12-16.
This is probably the point where I would tell a class to go climb a tree or do some other activity that really has no payoff beyond itself.
On a slightly more serious note, this is why I think that the promise of salvation is, among other things, best understood as a safety net. We don't have to spend all of our time trying to be successful here and now, and can actually take the time to do the things that are worth doing for their own sake, rather than restricting ourselves to the things that will give us what we "want". We can afford to live the Christian life because God offers us salvation, instead of having to live the Christian life to gain it.
Keep up the good work!