Saturday, July 18, 2009

Conversion Fragment 4: Justification

At some point in my journey I was moved powerfully by a side-by-side comparison of the Protestant and Catholic salvation theologies. That is, the abundantly important answer to the question of, "How we are saved?" I assented to the Catholic position on Justification well before my "conversion event".

Beginning with my experience of Protestant justification theology, it was an encounter of numerous ideas. The idea of "once-saved-always-saved" (OSAS) was extremely popular but not universal. The ideas that we are saved by "faith alone" and "not works", and that salvation was a purely extrinsic, purely juridical event (rather than process) was, however, universal. Despite the juridical tone, there was also a great deal of talk about "personal relationship with Jesus Christ".

My experience with Catholic justification theology was incredibly different. Where Protestantism was speaking in terms of an event, Catholicism acknowledged an event, but emphasized a process. This process was a dynamic (personal) relationship with God that had a direct impact upon the interior condition of the person being saved. This relationship (and by extension, the person) thrived when nurtured and degenerated when neglected or abused. Every single thought, word, and action had consequences for this relationship.

While Protestant justification concepts appeared founded in microsamples of Pauline writ, the Catholic justification theology impressed me with its harmony with the Exodus narrative in the OT, the spousal language of the prophets, and really, the Bible as a whole.

Catholic salvation theology looks rather strange through the lens of micro-texts. Catholic salvation theology looks even stranger through language designed for the express purpose of making it unintelligible. But with a view of the entire Scriptural canon (the Protestant canon will suffice) Catholic salvation theology emerges as something astoundingly beautiful and astoundingly salvific.

Let's begin with the Exodus parallel. Exodus is the archaetypical story of salvation. It's in Exodus that God first saves in a big way. Specifically, He saves an entire community through a rather elaborate process. First came the saving-out-of Egypt---a sort of "negative salvation" by removal from danger. Then came the testing and purification in the desert. (Not everybody passed.) Finally came the saving-into the Promised Land, the "positive salvation" of possessing God's blessing. God indeed "gave" them this Promised Land, but get this: He required that participate in the gift by picking up their swords and fighting for it.

Catholic salvation theology exhibits remarkable fidelity to the Exodus narrative. Catholics recognize the communal nature of salvation. Baptism is a sort of the crossing of the Red Sea and release from bondage. Our lives, from Baptism to final purification are a desert pilgrimage. There is even a concept of "Church Militant" to describe those of us who haven't died, and are fighting day after day. Salvation, in the Catholic system, isn't fully realized until resurrection into a glorified body.

Moving now to the Spousal language of the Prophets, the Scriptures frequently speak of the relationship between God and man as a husband-wife relationship. Relationships are dynamic. They change according to the commitment level of the partners. Catholic salvation theology follows this pattern of a spousal love relationship. We can trust in God's commitment, but committed are we ourselves? Entry into the Church is very much like a wedding, and the Eucharist has a very Spousal character to it. In the Catholic mind, God is a God who wants no boundaries with us so ever, He is so humble that he desires to unite his Divinity to our Humanity, changing it from the inside out. This is very, very, very (did I say "very"?) different from the relationship between a judge and the criminal he acquits.

Here, I recognized, is a paradigm I can actually live, has an extremely broad base in the Sacred Scriptures, has no anxiety about "works", is even more "personal" than the Protestant system, and goes so far as to "theologize" my marriage. Could it be true? I am a hopeful person. I believe the truth exists, that it is attainable, and that it is the best possible thing for all. For this reason I think I assented quickly---it's far too sublime to be solely a human work.

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