This is the last of a 3 part series exploring the idea that, just as light is refracted by a prism, our hermeneutic (interpretative strategy) as we approach the Bible is subject to our own personal and collective “prisms”. In the first article, we looked at prisms drawn directly from the biblical text. In the last post, I touched on a prism that comes from our modern cultural viewpoint. Here we approach another, philosophically both ancient and very contemporary, prism:
Most 21st Century Christians do not think of themselves as disciples of a 5th century BC Greek philosopher named Plato. And yet, his imprint on Christian thinking is undeniable. Like Pythagoras before him, Plato believed in the immortality of the soul and that at death the soul departed from the body. Indeed, Socrates asks an interlocutor, in Plato’s Republic, “Haven’t you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?” This is exactly what most modern day Christians believe. However, the NT is not all that helpful in supporting this belief. When speaking of eternal life, the NT writers generally refer to the resurrection of the body from the dead. They do not appear to have in mind some disembodied soul floating up to unite with God.
The reason this is important is that once we disconnect the soul from the body, it’s a small step to devaluing the physical, the material side of existence; that is something the NT taken as a whole doesn’t do. Sure, some passages (e.g. Matthew 10:28) appear to put the body (σομα) and the soul (ψυχη) in opposition to each other. Because, indeed, according to the NT vision, man is more than simply the sum of his molecules. Thus, to lose one’s body is not as serious as losing one’s soul.
Famously, Jesus stated, “whoever wishes to save his life (ψυχη) will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (ψυχη)? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Judging from the context, for Jesus, the soul is not so much some separate, immortal, purely spiritual part of the self, but instead the core of the self, the essence of one’s being (inclusive of spiritual, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions). It goes way beyond the body, but need not be thought of as separate from the body. A concrete example of this kind of soul destroying hell, for me, is war. The worst part of war may not be the physical death of young soldiers and civilians, but instead the dark evil it lights afire in the core of our very selves, both as individuals and as a people. Even survivors aren’t immune to this. For that matter, even the souls of those who history will judge to have been on the “right” or “noble” side of a conflict, are stricken with the soul-diseases that war brings (hatred, vengeance, prejudice, numbing, distrust, fear…).
When we have a Neoplatonic prism (the immortal soul) on our eyes, we understand salvation one way. When we have a different (maybe Hebraic) prism that sees the soul as the sum of who one is, in body and spirit, then we understand salvation in a rather different way. Let me suggest a study:
(1) First, read all the Old Testament passages on “salvation”. You will find that for the Hebrew mind, salvation was not other-wordly, but instead concrete and very much here-and-now. A few examples suffice:
When Jonah confesses,
Salvation is from the Lord
he is referring to actual life and death, not spiritual life and death. Similarly,
My soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation,
exclaims the Psalmist; and he goes on to define salvation as very much social, as a reversal of the powers normally at work in societies,
My whole being will exclaim, Who is like you, O LORD? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.
Later the Psalmist tells us that salvation is being free from the politics of oppression, from the illusions of social position and the false pretenses of wealth and power:
My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Even the profoundly Christological prophecy of Zechariah, foreshadowing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem,
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
is understood as a promise of peace rather than escape into some immaterial paradise:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.
(2) Second, keep in mind that Jesus was a prophet (and much more) in the direct lineage and tradition of all the OT prophets. He surpassed them (Hebrews 1 tells us so), but he saw his work as a continuation and fulfillment of the prophetic tradition (e.g., Matthew 5:17). He would NOT have understood salvation in an entirely different, Pythagorean-Platonic, manner from the OT prophets.
(3) Now, read the New Testament passages referring to salvation in a new light, informed by this OT prism (rather than Plato’s). I think you will note that even in the NT, the social, communal, here-and-now aspects of salvation cannot be denied. Preaching the gospel (ευαγγελιον) is NOT reducible to “saving souls”, but instead represents proclaiming good news that is both here-and-now and in-the-age-to-come. About the latter, Jesus and the NT writers claim the coming age is already upon us… God’s reign is already “breaking in” to our present reality, changing things before our very eyes, turning things upside down, setting them aright… though not yet fully. That’s good news!
So, when Jesus connects salvation to forgiveness of sins, as in the case of the sinful woman,
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
could it be that he is saying more than “your sins are forgiven so you will now be able to enter heaven after you die”? Might it be that he is setting her free, right here and now, from the oppressive judgment of the religious crowd; that he is affirming her worth in God’s eyes despite her lowly standing in the world; that he is freeing her of her own self-hatred?
Could it be, also, that this act of forgiveness is more than the deliverance of an individual (see last post)? Could it be it is part of an overarching plan to heal a community that has drifted and misconceived God’s reign? In forgiving her, he is righting the religious order, saying “stop judging, because she is, by her faith, recognized by God as His own” (see if that is not the essence of his words to Simon the Pharisee). He is calling upon his people to become a people of mercy and justice (NOTE: the very fact that prostitutes existed in Israel was an indictment NOT merely of the individual woman, but of an entire people who had neglected the care of widows and of women wrongfully abandoned by their husbands; viewed individually, prostitution is sad, but viewed communally, as indicative of collective guilt, it is horrible!). The text certainly highlights the host’s and guests’ reactions to the woman and Jesus’ response to her, thereby suggesting communal and not merely individual concerns for salvation.
Understand that I am not arguing for a total de-spiritualizing of the NT notion of salvation. I know conservatives have been leery of liberal Christianity’s tendency towards a “social gospel”. We can’t reason heaven away altogether. I simply believe that rejecting Greek (and Cartesian) dualism (body ≠ soul) allows us to understand that the saving of man here-and-now (e.g., feeding the hungry, healing the sick, exposing and confronting oppression, protecting the environment, etc…) is NOT something we do to merely in order to increase our credibility so that we can get to the “real” work of the Gospel, or, saving the immortal soul of man for the afterlife. Instead, saving a man’s soul IS saving his very self (the essence of his being) which requires attention to how he lives in the body, in community and in the environment. To use some creative license with James’ famous words (James 2:18), one might say:
You care about the saving of the soul and I about the saving of the body; show me a salvation of the soul without a transformed bodily & communal existence, and I will show you a salvation of the soul by transformed human existence.
I said in the original post of this series that to recognize our (distorting) prisms, we need to engage with Christians who have a different vision. I think the work of people like Richard Horsley (e.g., Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder) is very helpful in countering the over-spiritualized, Platonic understanding of Jesus’ mission, though perhaps he goes too far the other direction.
I know for me personally–spoiler alert: I’m going to step on toes here–a church that claims to be evangelistic (meaning about the work of saving men’s eternal souls) and yet in which the “church versions” of those very social/communal problems that Jesus came to undo still exist unconfronted & unchanged (e.g., favoritism, sectarianism, authoritarian leadership, double speak, false cheerfulness, control, exclusion, alienation of critics, suppression of dissenters, material inequity, judgmentalness, etc…), is, quite simply, not evangelistic enough!
While it might be hard for some of us to open our mouths and invite someone to church, or open the Bible and teach someone about sin, repentance, baptism and a new life… it is certainly much harder still for all of us to actually live out God’s kingdom as a community!
So, for me, the number of “conversions” a church claims (when they mean the number of new souls that will now ostensibly be admitted into a later, spiritual heaven) is entirely unimpressive and insufficient, when that same church is neglecting the “rest” of the good news! Incidentally, without this latter kind of change which involves a re-visioning of human life, the number of “conversions” will prove to be fleeting… I think Jesus described this as traveling over land and sea to win a single convert only to make him twice as much a son of Gehenna…
Of course, the reverse is problematic too. Reducing the gospel to healthy sociology or psychology won’t do. We mustn’t shrink back from engaging in the spiritual dimensions of existence. We can’t forget that the Christian way of life only makes sense in view of the eschaton and the resurrection from the dead. That’s what Paul maintained.
Even in this conclusion, you’ll note how difficult we find it to avoid talking about physical/earthly salvation and spiritual salvation as separate. Yet the whole point of this post is that they cannot be separated. Aaaarrggh! The curse of dualism!
Oh, Plato… can we get you out of our systems?… or at least our theology?