Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Collectivism of Scripture, and De-emphasizing the "Personal" In "Personal Salvation"

There's a somewhat spirited conversation going on over at Cerulean Sanctum. Dan's been posting about the "God of the Group," and I've thrown quite a few cents in over there, so I thought I'd just distill some more thoughts, and say my piece over here now.  It being a topic about which I'm rather passionately convinced: that the Bible's content (and God's purpose) is primarily about "a people" and not a bunch of persons.

The word of the day is "collectivism." As opposed to "individualism."

Now, I actually don't know if "collectivism" is the best word for the paradigm governing the lives of the biblical writers.  To at least a few, this will immediately evoke images of Soviet era communism and totalitarian oppression. This is not an uncommon objection, I've discovered when talking about this matter. So I'm not really stuck on the word "collectivism." Maybe "corporatism" would work better.  Or maybe just "union."  Anyway, the point is, people in the Bible generally aren't running around concerned with their "personal relationship with God" as we're often led to believe. Rather they see themselves as folks who belong to a wider "people" which has a corporate relationship with God, which has been effected by the singular salvation of God. And they're very thankful for the God of Israel's redeeming work in history, and that they get to be a part of this people which he saved and preserved for himself. So let's not make the mistake of thinking this produces a less personal response in the individual. 

But one thing that strikes me as telling, is that one of the most common go-to qualifications, if you will, to the notion that the sweep of Scripture is telling us about a "people of God" dwelling with God (rather than about "my personal salvation") is that we must be careful not to say that one can "be saved" by joining a church.

Now, aside from the fact that what's usually meant by "personal salvation" is the believer's eternal, post-mortem destiny, which is not a good place to start with the word "salvation..."

...aside from that, this objection brings us right back around to the very reason we need to hear the correction in the first place- that we're far too individualistic in our concept of salvation and relationship with God! So if we hear that the overwhelming number of references in the Bible to God's people is in the singular, and our primary objection is that "one must be saved individually," We've slipped right back out of alignment before even hearing the content correctly.  This just betrays how badly this correction is needed. 

Doesn't it? Because "individual salvation" is an imported emphasis.  To my knowledge, nothing in Scripture tells us that the saved individuals of, say the book of Acts, conceive of their salvation as a personal, individual thing.  They conceive of it as God's, and as something that has been effected for his people as a whole (that's how Jews thought, after all).  And they have personally walked into this grand unified sweep of God's salvation. 

Salvation ought to be thought of not in terms of its "individual personalness" but in terms of what God is doing for the world, in the world, and for the people of God.  It's calculated in terms of the the goal of the oneness of the communityin Christ. This doesn't mean people come to salvation by becoming part of some de-humanizing hive-mind.  It means that no one obtains a salvation that is not for the entire group. Imagine that- there is no such thing as "personal salvation!" And here I spent so many years trying to feel grateful, or emotionally responsive, about my personal whatzits that God had given to me individually. But it's simply not enough to conceive of it this way.  The Christian church has not experienced a bazillion personal salvations, which just happen to form a community afterwards. The Christian church has experienced one salvation!

If we're simply trying to ward off some notion that salvation happens by joining a church, let's deal with that when we get there. But if you were planning on leaving membership in the Church out of your definition of salvation, I think you'll find that it's a problematic as well.  You don't "get saved" and then as a result of that, "go to church." You "get saved," and the very definition of that salvation includes membership of a body, the Body of Christ. Church isn't something you do once you're saved, it's something salvation creates.  And conversely salvation doesn't merely concern where an individual is going when they die, it concerns how they relate with God and the people of God now.  So if you're talking about a salvation that doesn't by its nature create a unified body in the present, you're not really talking about Judeo-Christian salvation.

Thus when Paul tells the church in Ephesus:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. Eph 5:18-21

...we do not hear (no matter how true it is!) "I ought to be filled with the Spirit," but "The church in Ephesus (singular) ought to be filled with the Spirit." And this filling will be marked by the 'one another-ing' of its members that flavors Paul's commands.  That's what a verb followed by "one another" does- it de-emphasizes the individual's standing and self-concept, and looks toward a grand, holy unity under Christ towards which the Spirit is bringing the Church. The individual's unique qualities and personal character traits are perfectly respected and preserved- it's just that they now exist for the church! 

That's probably why Western Christians are generally a total mess when any sort of holistic scrutiny is put on their obedience.  Their self-concept is that of someone who thinks they ought to obey every command.  Instead, they should think of themselves as members of a body which ought to obey every command.

So what does this do to personal responsibility? Does it simply dry up and disappear? Of course not- it means that the personal responsibility, like salvation, is calculated in terms of the goal of oneness of the community, in Christ.  Not personal progress. Not personal destiny.  That's why there are so many "one another" commands in the New Testament.  That's why Jesus prayed in his final hours for unity, and in almost every discourse he gave, the imperatives concerned how his disciples were to treat one another, and the other humans they would encounter.  That's why the vast majority of commands addressed to Christians are addressed to a church, singular (not Christians, plural).  And that's why so many of the illustrations of God's love involve a reuniting of things that were separated before (lost coin, lost sheep, lost son). John 14-18 might be a good place to start. The heart of Jesus' commands therein is "love one another." 

Yet this is lost on most of us unless we have the paradigm shift actively placed before us; sometimes it takes many repetitions. Why? The power of socialized understanding- the power of paradigm.  The fish doesn't see the water it's swimming in. How could it?  Westerners don't hear commands to a community, they hear them as if to individuals.

This is all a problem of perspective, methinks. It's perfectly understandable if you've been socialized in a radically individualistic society (like ours) to default to an individualistic understanding of Scripture. It's just that we're not designed to stay in one place with our knowledge of God- let's edify one another. If you've got something, you give it to me; if I've got something, I'll give it to you! (how collectivist of me)

1 comment:

dle said...

"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me."
—John 17:20-23 ESV