Camassia has an interesting post up today, responding to this earlier post of mine about agape and my All Saints youth group. In my piece, which attracted considerable (if kind) criticism from the likes of Kendall Harmon, I argued for a "here-and-now" understanding of salvation. I wrote:
In a nutshell, this is what All Saints might understand salvation to be: the knowledge that God lives in us and we are making His love complete in the world through our actions and above all, through our unconditional agape love for one another.
Kendall called this view "too horizontal", and Camassia suggests -- with some accuracy -- that this is a theology for folks who see themselves as comfortable and powerful. It is a theology for people who see the problems in their lives as things that can be solved in the here and now. And to an extent, she's right. The problems my teens cope with are things like depression, drug use, peer pressure, unrequited crushes, unintended pregnancies, parents divorcing, and so forth. Those are sources of real pain, mind you -- but they are all problems that can be solved in this world, in the near future if not in the immediate now.
But billions of folks around the world are coping with far more serious, intractable problems: grinding poverty, brutal war, and horrific injustices on a scale that relatively affluent Pasadenans can only vaguely and fearfully imagine. In youth group, we can hug away the pain of a break-up; but hugs and affirmations -- even when done in the name of Jesus -- don't seem to have the same efficacy in toppling unjust governments, ending genocide, or providing clean water. For those who are truly suffering, is it not possible that the hope of "another country" where there will be "no more tears, for the former things have passed away", is much more vital and more necessary?
Hugo may regard his kids as “saved” by the warm embrace of his agape love, but what if the authorities decided to come around and start hauling the teens off for torture, rape, and murder, and All Saints was unable to stop it? Would that unsave them? I think that the futurism of the New Testament, the sense that things were yet to come to fruition, wasn’t just from the fact they erroneously thought Jesus would come back very soon (as Hugo told me) but that they were facing persecution. Would it really have been sufficient for them to know that their deaths would eventually enable Hugo to create his loving youth group? I don’t know, but somehow I think they died for more than that.
(Let me be clear that I don't think it's my embrace that saves them; I may be a bit on the narcissistic side, but I'm not suffering from a messiah complex! What I meant was that in this world, in this time, the best thing we can do to live out our salvation and bring about the Kingdom is to love radically and bravely. But that love, ultimately, doesn't stem from ourselves alone but from God.)
In any case, it's a good point about persecution. I've been thinking about it a lot this morning. A loving community -- even one that loves in the name of Christ -- is not automatically protected from torture, rape, and murder. And if -- God forbid -- those evils were to come to "my kids", they would need a far stronger understanding of salvation than the one I've been providing. In the face of unspeakable suffering and evil, Christians need to rely on explicit promises about the next world. And it's because our kids aren't facing that kind of suffering that I can afford to offer a definition of salvation that is very much concerned with sharing agape love.
I've been a youth leader at All Saints for some six or seven years now, but I realize I've very rarely talked about heaven -- and yet, the promise of eternal life is very much a part of my own faith life. I've had several "conversion experiences", the last and most dramatic of which took place in 1998 after nearly dying from a series of spectacularly bad choices. Locked in an institution, I felt abandoned and alone and in a state of utter existential despair. I read the Bible (the one book I had access to in the place I was), and prayed unceasingly for help. And in the midst of my anguish, a line came to me. It wasn't a line from Scripture, but (perhaps fittingly for me) a famous line I'd memorized in high school, from the poet Wallace Stevens:
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
And what I understood, at that moment, was that in this "vale of tears", there will always be a "final no" -- what is death but the "final no" to our longing for eternal life? And what of all the other "no's" we hear in this life, when others leave us or abandon us or betray us or disappoint us -- or when we betray or abandon those whom we love? In my moment of conversion, the poet's line meant that after all of that, in the end, would be God's thundering and everlasting "Yes!" It would be a "forever yes", one that promised eternal life. And in that institution, shoeless and beltless and nearly hopeless, my "future world" depended on believing in that yes.
My conversion hinged on a belief in eternal life. Yes, as a result of my conversion, I have wanted badly to share the love of Christ that I -- on my best days -- feel welling up inside of me. But while hugs are good and hugs are nice, I know that in my own darkest moment, my life wasn't transformed by a human hug. It was transformed by a sudden and overpowering belief in the eternal "yes" that transcended all the "no"s of this life. And I realize I've got to be a bit more explicit with my kids -- in a way that is palatable to my fellow liberal Episcopalians -- about that "yes" experience and the eternal joy it promises.