Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are You Christian? (Yes, I Believe So)

Based on his reading of Karl Barth's commentary on Romans, Robert E. Willis writes the following:

"Sanctification, then, is real. It is obedience that poses a continuing problem. . . . Are we really obedient? Do we really let the divine disturbance fall upon us, so that our lives are opened for service in love to God and our neighbor? There is no way of answering these questions directly. . . . Man lacks the capacity to tell himself that he is obedient, that his actions are performed in response to the command of God. The only possibility ... [is to act, and to] leave the results, the assessing of those actions, entirely in the hands of God. . . .

[Thus:] If the issue of obedience is not to be decided by direct reference to specific actions and possibilities, then we are forewarned against any attempt to set up orders and structures within history to which the adjective 'Christian' could automatically be attached. This occurs whenever we attempt to speak unambiguously of a 'Christian' world-view, morality, or art; or of a 'Christian' personality, family, party, or newspaper. These serve merely to mark human efforts to establish continuity between the actions of man and the prerogative of God; or rather, they involve a continual ignoring of that prerogative. Barth's treatment of obedience is thus designed, in the first instance, to safeguard the freedom of God."

This of course raises questions about, among other things, Christian ethics and assurance of faith.

In the case of the latter: Can we discern whether we are 'Christians'? Can we have assurance of faith? I think the answer is in the question. Our salvation is a matter of faith. Either Jesus raised from the dead or he didn't. Our salvation rises and falls with that. Am I a Christian? I have no way of proving it. I believe it to be so because I believe Jesus Christ has reconciled all to God.

In the case of the former: Can we speak of what it means to act 'Christianly'? I think later on in his career Barth gets more clear about this, indicating that there are certain frames of reference within which decidedly Christian activity takes place and there is in the Christian community the belief that by invocation of God and hearing of His command in the present there can be confident obedience along certain lines. But even then the confidence is not in oneself but in the grace of God to take any attempt at obedience and sanctify it and make it good.

This is the kind of stuff I've been thinking about for what seems like months on end now. I'd be interested to hear whether it is at all intelligible and, if so, whether it seems to be on to something or not.
(quotations from Robert E. Willis, The Ethics of Karl Barth, p. 56-57)


Kampen said...

"The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you...Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it." (Luke 17:21,33 NRSV)

I've often been quite wary of things that claim to be Christian like in Willis' list above because it raises the question "what makes this book Christian apart from that one?" And the answer is usually either that the author is Christian (but then, what makes him/her a Christian?) or the content is Christian (what makes it Christian?). Both of these answers raise subsequent questions that try and criteriorize (is that a word?) Christianity. My question is, where does the concern with who's in and who's out come from? Coming up with criteria for Christianity seems to me to be a dangerous endeavour. I think you are right to ask: "Can we have assurance of faith? I think the answer is in the question. Our salvation is a matter of faith. Either Jesus raised from the dead or he didn't." But whatever "faith" names it is not a set of propositional beliefs. The "I believe" of the creeds name a different grammar of faith, the form (of life) of a community.(Or so Rowan Williams suggests, and I agree). Also, Kierkegaard talks about faith as the opposite of sin, and that the self is only free from sin (faith) by relating itself to its theological self--God, which is the criterion of the self. My worry is that by coming up with criteria for Christianity we're behaving analagous to Kierkegaard's self relating to the human self.
In relation to the Luke text I cited, I think our search for "assurance of faith" is an attempt to get a handle on faith, on Christianity, when really the Christian life is a life lived radically and ambiguously out of control.
I can see how this raises questions about Christian ethics and I am interested in those, but I guess at bottom my question is why its necessary (that's maybe too strong of a word) to have assurance of faith?
I think any assurance of faith cannot be expressed but only witnessed to. Our assurance of faith is in the capacity to say with Julian of Norwich "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" in the face of great despair and suffering.

I don't know if any of that is coherent. It's really just a half-baked thought, but an honest attempt to engage what your saying here.

Kampen said...

Also, more directly to the question of "are you Christian," Kierkegaard reminds us that we are not the best judges of ourselves/our condition. In the same vein, a professor of mine tells a story in which he is coming out of a university library and someone asks him whether or not he is a Christian. Without thinking he responded with "I don't know, but I have some friends who might be able to tell you." The questioner, immediately assuming my professor was right about himself, and seeing this as a great opportunity, proceeded to tell him all the reasons he should become a Christian. The thing is though, the questioner missed the point. I would, without hesitation, affirm that my professor is Christian. My professor, however, (being a Christian) recognizes that there is no such thing as individual Christianity, and that therefore, questions concerning Christian identity involve a community of believers, which basically guarantees a myriad of opinions and ideas. Whatever is it that Christian identity names, it is ambiguous and ad hoc.

forrest said...

I am glad that these topics are confounding academics as well as me. The uncertainty of the group makes me come to the conclusion that, these questions are, rather, better thought of as statements. As you say, "Am I christian?" becomes "I am sincere in my belief that Jesus has 'reconciled all to God'" A person is able to know if they are sincere.

Jon Coutts said...

Kampen: "Who's in and who's out" probably has a long pedigree, and probably in context for some good reasons. For instance, when churches are making decisions, who holds sway? Stuff like that. I think in evangelicalism's emphasis on the priesthood of believers this question is asked exponentially more. People are always trying to figure out who to follow, since they can follow pretty much anyone they please. And the who's-in and who's out categories make for convenient shortcuts---often short-circuiting the real work of discernment that ought to be happening, and short-selling what it means to "call" someone to leadership and submit oneself to a community.

The "what's-in and what's out" question is probably related. We put the adjective Christian in front of a great many things (or even thing-producers) and it is like a seal of approval (or at least an initial show of trust). I think Willis' quote (remarking on Barth) is right that this is "a continual ignoring of [God's] prerogative" and an effort to "establish continuity" between our actions or things and God. Which is God's job.

Thanks for bringing in the distinction with Kierkegaard, there. I think you are onto something when you say that "our search for 'assurance of faith' is an attempt to get a handle on faith, on Christianity, when really the Christian life is a life lived radically and ambiguously out of control."

You asked: "Why is it necessary to have assurance of faith?" I am not sure it is. I actually think it might be antithetical to what it seeks. I think in times of doubt of self we come back to Paul: "If Christ is not raised, our faith is useless." Too often our question is: "If I didn't mean it I might not be saved." This introspective self-doubt might have its place in a turn to penitence and humility, but is no warrant for a turn to find certain grounding for our faith position. Faith is a dynamic following and not a possession. (I find connections here with the blog post at Conversant Life right now called "Being a Generous Evangelical", but I'll let that conversation happen elsewhere.)

That story of that professor is absolutely poignant. I feel like I've read it somewhere before? Your blog, or maybe I read it from your professor's mouth?

Anyway, thanks as always for your thoughts.

Jon Coutts said...

Forrest: The more I go on in my studies the more sure I am of my early suspicion that academics are simply the people most beligerently willing to admit and tackle their confoundedness. I hope that even in my most dogmatic blog posts even the confounded question will not be far away, nor unwelcome!

I definitely don't want my rebuke against "certainty" to be taken as a call for "uncertainty" to prevail. I just think Christians are after something other than these things. I do think it important for people of faith not to feign certainty. Important for the faith at least. I think certainty is an illusion at the best of times, and Christians should be ready to give reasons for their faith but not hitch their wagons to modernity's illusory quest for certainty in the process. Not sure if I'm addressing what you were after or not, but thought I'd make that point in self-clarification.

As for a person being able to know if they are sincere, I'm not so sure. (pardon the subversive double meaning!). I think the problem for many people of Christian faith has been that for assurance of faith they have gone looking at their sincerity as the ground for certainty. But I'm not sure we are ever 100% sincere, or 100% able to tell how sincere we are.

That is why I agree with you that the answer to the question "Am I a Christian" has to be something based on the "Christ", and not something based on the "I".

Karl Barth remarked somewhere (and I'll look it up if you'd like me to) that it should strike us as odd that we find it more believable that we could be with God than that God could be with us.

Jon Coutts said...

Forrest, I now realize that in my second last paragraph I might be putting words in your mouth, so correct me there at will. It occurs to me that you simply meant that answering the question of one's Christian-ness is simply a statement of one's belief, and not of one's sort of state of being. In that vein I think I agree. But I guess I'm responding to that and taking it further. The answer to Am I a Christian is historically a confession of something outside of oneself. The creed begins "I believe", but the point is not the I believe, so much as everything that comes after it.