William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Tag: Salvation

Explaining the Theological Signficance of my Dissertation

[A few weeks ago I posted my dissertation abstract here (see link below), but was then asked to provide further clarification for what I understand to be the significance, uniqueness and potential contribution of my dissertation to contemporary, constructive Christian theology.  This is how I responded.]

First, as a work of political theology, it is hoped that a Christian soteriology will be expounded here that adequately develops a vision of redemption for the contemporary political and social situation in question on the one hand, but one that is also informed by eschatology – namely, has its criticism and inspiration rooted in an understanding of Christian hope in God’s coming reign through Christ as anticipated in Scripture and the confessing tradition of the Church – on the other hand.  Such an eschatologically-sensitized political theology will also necessarily take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship.  Only from the eyes of faith, it is believed, can a resistance to violence and suffering be embodied in the spirit of neighborliness.  The object of that faith is taken here to be the beauty and goodness instantiated by Christ (von Balthasar), which is seen most acutely by this Incarnate bearing and overcoming of unjust death (Sobrino).

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated.  Moreover, if different identifies of religious, political or cultural groups are isolated from each other and/or reified, the possibility of neighborly praxis is thwarted (Dussel).  Therefore, and secondly, a notion of identity and discourse as transmodern will help to elucidate how salvation in this conflict can be conceived as both historical and eschatological, ecclesial and political, particular and planetary.  According to Dussel, however, transmodern identity, even if hybridized or pluriversal (a way of talking about solidarity and difference dialectically), is reliable precisely because it is subaltern in nature, or, formed from the view of history’s underside, what for me is a thoroughly Christian theological idea in spite of Christianity’s heritage of imperial complicity.  Thus, it will be necessary to attempt an immersion in the experience of the colonized — not to do a cross-cultural ‘study’, which would still leave us blind to the colonial difference (Walter Mignolo), but to make a contribution to the project of decolonization itself.  For only a decolonized Christian theology is a viable one in the age of globalization.

Of course, various theologies of liberation have explored historical and political salvation from the perspective of the marginalized before.  My concern, however, is that the eschatologies of these theologies have sometimes been either over-realized or anthropomorphized. That is, they have perhaps placed too much hope in political and economic reformation, even if these are nonetheless vital dimensions of any contextual theology (indeed, material relations are assumed here to be the most determinative of any context).  Accordingly then, a more contemplative conception of salvation is needed from the view of existence itself, and from the view of God’s action on behalf of humanity and all of creation as Christians conceive it – not merely as inspiration for social liberation.[1]

Thirdly, as a transdisciplinary project that will engage globalization theories in the area of economics and cultural studies, and that will also be looking at practical examples of neighborliness from an ecclesial perspective, a careful analysis of context is crucial for the success of this dissertation and for its theological significance.  This is because a theology can only truly be significant when it is appropriately contextualized, as all theology is in fact contextual.  Many modern and postmodern theologies have neglected to account for the context of material relations vis-à-vis globalization in the manner that I intend to, and the contribution and relevance to political theology hereby depends on this.

[1] I still presuppose the importance of social liberation for my understanding of Christian salvation, especially as it is expressed from the experience of social suffering by the poor and marginalized.  I am simply suggesting that the example of Christ and the promise of eschatological salvation, preserved by transcendent and not only immanent hope, must also constitute the imagination, expectation and performance of this historical salvation. In this way, it is hoped that Christian theology can be both subversive and peaceful, or non-anxious.

Inclusivism Revisited

This is a cross-posting of a guest entry I made at Roger Olson’s blog on Monday.]

I still remember the first time I started to wonder about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.  I was about nine-years-old when I asked my mom about it.  She told me that we Baptists believe in an “age of accountability,” and she went on to express a firm expectation that God could be merciful to those who have not heard of Jesus or who are not old enough to understand their own sin and need of forgiveness.

A few years later the pastor of our church, who was also my uncle, preached a sermon that essentially affirmed the same idea.  I’m truly grateful that my faith was formed in a home and in a church that gave me an open-ended answer to this question.  I think it made a big difference in the development of my understanding of God’s character.

So for me this issue has never been a major hindrance to my belief in Christ as Lord and Savior.  From time to time, however, I’m reminded how much of a stumbling block this belief is for so many non-Christians.  I remember seeing an episode of Oprah where, after acting appalled by the narrow claims of Christians, she insistently asked, “How could there only be one way?” On the other hand, some restrictivists or exclusivists Christians – those who believe that salvation is only available to those who explicitly confess faith in Christ – are completely scandalized by the possibility of inclusivism (the view I’ve just described above that I was taught growing up).

In seminary I had the chance to explore this question in a deeper way.  In one class, we read various accounts of restrictivism, inclusivism and universalism.  In another, we focused more on theology of religions and considered a number of Christian interpretations of other faith traditions.  Central to what I took away from this time was a new appreciation for the extent to which the various world religions have noticeably divergent understandings of what salvation even means.

From the Christian standpoint, salvation can be discussed in several ways.  The primacy of God’s grace extended to us through Christ’s atonement despite deserved judgment is well established in Scripture, but the gospels highlight Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God as well.  The Kingdom of God is not a synonym for what most people mean by the word “heaven.”  Nor is it a political reality obtainable in human history.  Yet Jesus declared that this kingdom was at hand, and that people everywhere should repent and believe in its arrival.

Repentance and belief according to Jesus require “death to ego.”  This death in turn suspends judgment and produces neighbor-love, the same neighbor-love commanded throughout the Old Testament.  And given there is little conception in the Old Testament of salvation in terms of afterlife, wouldn’t it be strange for the Christian understanding to completely depend on such a notion?  A better interpretation might be to say that Jesus elaborates upon the Jewish promise of salvation, rather than reverses it.

Jesus does this by incarnating full obedience to the law and the covenant with God, while also extending Israel’s election to the Gentiles.  In doing so, Jesus embodies the faithfulness that Israel could not.  This is what inaugurates Jesus’ reign — a reign that is not a straightforward overthrow of Rome, but neither is it an evacuation plan.  Rather, it’s a subversive and transformative forgiveness and liberation plan: cosmic and historic, personal and communal, spiritual and social.

So if salvation isn’t primarily a question about what happens when we die, then maybe the issue of non-Christian salvation loses some of its urgency.  Or, while I wouldn’t say it goes away, maybe the question simply takes on a different shape.  Bonhoeffer speaks to this very much, I think, in his Letters and Papers from Prison:

“Hasn’t the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Aren’t we really under the impression that there are more important things than that question (perhaps not more important than the matter itself, but more important than the question!)? I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that. But, fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical?”

Perhaps if salvation wasn’t equated with justification, or if salvation wasn’t divorced from discipleship and kingdom-building to begin with, the problem of “who will be saved” wouldn’t be so vexing.  Arminian theologians maintain that though there is a logical order of 1) prevenient grace, 2) repentance, 3) justification and 4) sanctification in salvation, enabled by God through Christ.  Yet, while each of these steps are distinct, the logic is not necessarily chronological.  For this reason, I think we are permitted to say that someone could benefit from prevenient grace in his or her life without coming to explicit awareness of Christ as the object of faith.

Furthermore, when Jesus mentions hell and judgment in the Gospels, he mostly appears to be addressing hypocritical religious leaders, pretentious people in general, those who trust in wealth or themselves, and anyone who oppresses or just ignores the poor (which is still to oppress them).  In sum, he’s warning people not to build their own kingdoms and not to exclude anyone from God’s kingdom. In this respect, he fits squarely in with the tradition of prophets before him.

Now, Jesus’ warnings about condemnation and destruction should be taken very seriously, for surely we’re all in danger of building personal kingdoms at different times in our lives.  But something else one learns about studying the Bible is that verses mentioning hell, or Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” cannot be read in isolation from their social and literary context. Nor are they to be taken simply as answers to questions we bring to the text (e.g., questions like “Can adherents to other religions or those who don’t know about Christ be saved?”).  First, one must try to discover the questions with which the biblical authors and audiences might have been concerned.

Thus, reducing the gospel to a transaction between humanity and God through Jesus’ death that grants access to heaven instead of hell falls significantly short of its bigger biblical vision.  Many times when a question like “how can the non-Christian be saved?” is raised, this reduction has already been committed.  Bearing in mind instead the alternative and more holistic conception of salvation briefly outlined above, one is able to move past the question of individual standing before God and begin to see salvation more as a journey of becoming and partaking.  It’s a journey that’s initiated by God and by grace through faith, yes, but faith that brings a transformed consciousness and social critique so that salvation can keep spreading!

I’ve always found the story of the thief on the cross from Luke 23 to be a compelling illustration of this. The second thief on the cross there probably didn’t know that Jesus was dying on account of humanity’s sin, but he knew “divinity” when he saw it.  Unlike the two of them, Jesus was innocent, and the second thief acknowledges this.  His spirit was contrite, his soul remorseful.  Lo and behold, “paradise” would be his.  And yet, this is not a gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity, for, presumably, the first thief is excluded – and not because he failed to pass an ethical or doctrinal test.

This is not the first time Luke juxtaposes two kinds of people in order to show us what salvation might look like. Luke 18:12-14:

‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’  “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’  “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Bonhoeffer’s distinction between the question of salvation on the one hand (i.e., who’s in/out, and on what grounds) and the matter itself (new life in Christ) on the other hand, may be the all-important one.  Who is concerned about the question of salvation in the Bible?  People like those in the crowd who, after hearing Jesus make his quip about the camel going through the eye of needle, ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”  Or, people like the expert in the law who, desiring to justify himself, asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Only to get a very difficult and disappointing answer.  Also, people like the disciples when they ask, “Which of us will be the greatest?”  But see, the tax collector and the second thief are not trying to justify themselves.  They know they can’t.  Instead, they both cry out to God in the only way they know how.

The door of salvation is opened by receptivity to God’s humbling and convicting Spirit that is always already invading our space.  This same Spirit, when recognized, calls for a “change of heart.”  And if it is Christ who then leads people through the open door, who are we to be so certain about the limits on how, when or for whom he does this?

Without a sense that God steadfastly pursues and values all people, the basic human need to have clear-cut lines drawn between insiders and outsiders wins us over.  Often though we aren’t even aware of this need, because the need itself can so easily be covered up by egoistic readings of the Bible. As any self-critical reading quickly shows, however, God likes to mess with our boundaries and gives us a different map.  “The last will be first,” “the proud laid low”: insider-outsider distinctions are not just blurred; they are reversed.  The formulas serving our insatiable drive for certainty and security are ultimately unsettled.

As I suggested before though, the question of non-Christian salvation nonetheless never entirely goes away.  Obviously, we are in the realm of speculation at this point, but not outside the realm of biblical hope.  In my judgment, to play it safe or plead utter ignorance by hiding behind some seemingly restrictivist texts is to risk missing the intensity of God’s love.  This love has intensity that overflows from the center of the biblical narrative despite discrepancies.  Conversely, to believe confidently in the redemption of the world with all its condemnable sin and blindness – with a biblically qualified sobriety and peace – is to keep oneself exposed to this intensity.  In sum, Christians can go on repenting and believing, sharing and practicing the good news, trusting that, as Barth said, God’s “yes” will be bigger than our “no” – all the while letting God be God in the mission of redeeming humanity, history and creation.

What is the Gospel?

As in the previous post about salvation, no matter how familiar it is or how much we think we know it, I always find it worthwhile to ask the question again and again, What is the Gospel?  My friends over at interlocutors: a theological dialogue are doing just this.  Here is link to a recent post by Yi Shen Ma, a very bright guy who really helped me learn during my time in graduate school at Claremont.

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