Q & R: Five big ones!

Here are the Q’s from a friend who recently read my new book:

i have some theological questions that i am reflecting upon:
1. If Muslims and Jews embrace loving God supremely and loving their neighbor as themselves are they following Christ. The scriptures say we are new creations. we in principle have the resurrection of Christ within us. if they affirm the two greatest commandments and are attempting to live them out to they have the resurrected life of Jesus within them?

I think there are three dangers in answering this question. First, we don’t want to water down the specific gifts Jesus offers – in his teaching and life – so as to say everything he offers is available elsewhere. I think he makes a unique and real contribution and that shouldn’t be watered down or minimized in any way. Second, we don’t want to create a kind of Christian colonialism that says, “Everything you have that is good is actually Christ, just in different language.” That sounds open-minded and accepting in comparison with what is often said, and in a sense it is a step in the right direction, but I think it feels paternalistic and colonizing to “the other.” And third, we don’t want to limit the realities that Jesus taught and lived to those who use our particular language to describe them. Somewhere in the space created by avoiding those three dangers, in that dynamic tension I think the answer lies. Here’s one way to say it.
The Holy Spirit (in Christian theology, and in the Jewish Scriptures starting in Genesis 1) pre-exists all religions as we know them. If the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Jesus – and if that Spirit is the creative Spirit at work in all creation, and if that Spirit is the liberating Spirit (“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” Paul said) at work in all human society … and if love is truly of God and if everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love (as John said in 1 John 4) … then I think we might be able to speak of being “in Christ” as being “in the Spirit” …
So for some, their entre into God’s messianic (i.e. liberating and restoring) work in the world has been consciously through Jesus and his name and teachings, while for others – for any number of reasons (often because of the horrible witness of our religion), it has not. In my experience, everyone who follows the Spirit is led to acknowledge the goodness and wisdom and truth and life in Jesus – even if they may not choose to affiliate with the Christian religion or affirm the Christian religion’s articulations. As such, I believe they are living in the “new humanity” (which, I think, is the resurrection life) … In that way, I want to honor them as my equals and partners (often, in practice, my superiors in the sense of being much farther down the road than I am), or better said, I want to join them in the larger work to which God has called us. To do that, I don’t need to say they are “anonymous Christians,” etc., etc., which implies that if I don’t stick the label Christian on them, they’re deficient in some way – still “unclean,” etc.
In other words, I don’t need to say they’re on “our team” – but rather, that we and they are seeking to be “on God’s team.” Are “they” performing perfectly on God’s team? Of course not. Are we? Of course not. Do they have something to learn from and with us? Of course. Do we have something to learn from and with them? Of course.
That will not be acceptable to many of our fellow Christians who are thinking dualistically: insider-outsider, us-them, good-guys – bad-guys, clean-unclean, etc. Rather than trying to convince our fellow Christians of something they either aren’t ready for or find repulsive, I just try to live my life with this awareness – and seek to suffer the consequences as graciously as I can. As Paul said, in Christ it’s a new creation for me, so I no longer “recognize anyone according to the flesh” – I don’t categorize “them” in the ways I once did. I see us all caught up on one struggle, and I see us all surrounded by one grace.

2. Can we be truly good without Jesus in the truest sense that God wants us to be?
Again, I would ask if you mean the word “Jesus” or if you mean the reality of Jesus. I think of John 1 where it says that Jesus is the true light that enlightens every person. In that sense, nobody is without Jesus – We Christians would say that in the incarnation, Jesus has joined with all humanity (not just Christian humanity) … in solidarity and in abiding presence through the Spirit. That might change your question into … can we be truly good without God, without the Holy Spirit? But that would imply, once again, that people can exist apart from God … But really, isn’t every breath a gift from God? Isn’t everyone upheld at every second by the grace of God? Isn’t existence itself dependent on God? Can anyone flee God’s presence (I’m thinking of Psalm 139)? And can God be present to anyone anywhere without Jesus being present too? Isn’t even the person who doesn’t believe in God upheld by the grace of God? Isn’t the ability to not believe an expression of God’s grace? Don’t we all live and move and have our being in God?

If your question is “Can we truly be good without the Christian religion?” I think the answer is obvious. The Christian religion in its many forms in some cases helps and in other cases (sadly) harms people in their quest for being “good in the truest sense that God wants us to be good.”
Now, if we can put the distractions interposed by our religious misbehavior and misunderstanding aside, I think Jesus has precious, unique, priceless gifts to offer everyone who seeks to be good – and to everyone who doesn’t (yet). That’s why I share Jesus and his good news with everyone I can.

3. Is creation good but incomplete? What would completeness look like?

Here I think you’re bumping up against what I’ve written about in a few places – the difference between a more Hebraic “goodness” and and a more Greek “perfection.” One of the beauties of Hebraic goodness is that good is good without needing to be “perfect.” Your question raises the deeper question – is there such a thing as “completeness” or “perfection” beyond which nothing could ever become even “more good?” Or is God’s goodness of such a nature that it is always fertile – yielding new creative possibilities that yield even more diverse and wonderful goodness? I side with Gregory of Nyssa on this (I talk about him in the last section of A New Kind of Christianity, p. 238) … He says that sin is essentially a refusal to grow. Can we imagine God as a goodness that never ceases to create more goodness? So any kind of completeness that implies stasis – that’s good enough, no more – would be inconceivable in God? Maybe that’s why the Book of Revelation must end with a new beginning … “Behold, I create all things new”?

4. If Christians claim to follow Christ then they must memorize and follow his interpretation of scripture which is based upon the first and second commandment. We know that Jesus either reinterpreted the OT passages on violence in light of God’s love or he omitted the violence from his teaching. Does this mean the violent passages are not legitimate revelation in light of Jesus hermeneutic of God’s love?

— Here is where the word “complete” from your previous question comes in. OT (and NT) passages that promote violence should never be seen as complete. If violence has any purpose in our past, it is only to prepare the way for nonviolence.

5. What do you think of Teilhard De Chardin’s view of optimism?

— As you know, Teilhard’s thought is notoriously hard to “boil down” – but in general, I think he was saying what Rob Bell says, that in God’s universe, love wins … In Paul’s words, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. In Dr. King’s words, the arc of the universe bends towards justice. In Julian of Norwich’s words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”