Save the World or Savour It?

Posted on: March 30, 2019, by :

I borrowed the title of this piece from a recent Alban Institute article because it struck a chord with my Lenten reflections. And it resonates with the train of thought I am following for our gathering on this fourth Sunday of Lent under the theme About Sin. My thinking has also been resourced by Marianne Borg (wife of the late Marcus Borg) in an article she wrote for her Awe and Wonder website. The churches of my youth were certainly fueled by the evangelical tenet that the purpose of the church was to save the world – or at least to save as many individuals in that world as we possibly could. The ‘world’ was viewed as ‘lost’ and ‘sinful’ and we, the ‘saved’, were charged with, first, separating ourselves from that lost world and, second, calling our friends and anyone else we connected with out of that world to be saved by the sacrifice (the ‘blood’) of Jesus. Many Christian churches continue to operate with that imperative.

The notion of a ‘lost’ world arises from the traditional Christian teaching that people are by nature sinful and unclean (the theology of ‘original sin’) and Lent has generally been considered a penitential season in which we ‘sinners’ (penitents) express deep sorrow and regret at having done so many wrong things. But the theology of original sin is a made-up idea, a human construct from the fourth and fifth centuries that was designed to establish the Church as the avenue of God’s grace and empower the priesthood as the mediator of that grace and forgiveness to the ‘laos’ (people). The only way people could be ‘saved’ from their ‘lostness’ was through the Church. This teaching has resulted in a judgmental theology that speaks of the redeemed and the unredeemed, a theology that has been misused and abused by systems of power and status in terrifying and destructive ways. And for many of us it has been personalised and internalised and subverted by our superego to wreak havoc on our own sense of self-worth!

But I don’t agree that we are by nature sinful and unclean (as the catechism puts it), ontologically stained. In fact, I delight in Matthew Fox’s theory of ‘original blessing’ – that all creation was declared ‘good’ by the Creator and that all creation is ‘blessed’ by the Creator, all the time. That is not to deny our limitations, our ‘brokenness’, but it is to assert that the faults of which we are often so aware and so acutely confronted by are actually ‘integral to our humanness’ (Denise Levertov) and, rather than deny them or apologise for them, we do better to acknowledge them and accept them – with humility but not with shame. Perfection is not our goal. As Paul asserts, only God is perfect and God does not require that of us, so why do we so often beat ourselves up in the pursuit of it!

Perhaps Lent, rather than a time of penitence, might be characterised as time of honesty, when our limitations are recognised and our failings are acknowledged; when we express our gratitude to the Creator who unreservedly loves and graces us all; and when we review and re-orient ourselves via questions of how we live, what we value, what we believe, and how we are contributing to the better world for which we yearn. Or as Mary Oliver posits in the poem I shared recently, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


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