If You Think . . . (5)
Ch.5: Salvation is a Matter Between the Individual and God
Two Models of Being Human
What does it mean to be human? Few more important questions than this one. How we see ourselves and others goes a long way to determining how we think and respond to others and the issues we face in life. The way the western world has taught us to see ourselves, and which America has adopted with a vengeance, is individualism. I call it the “billiard ball” view. Individualism sees each human being as complete, self-sufficient, and whole in themselves. They need nothing outside themselves to be fully human. That is simply a matter of actualizing their inherent potential and thus realizing themselves. Everything else is external to them. Relationships, opportunities, obstacles and the like are analogous to the billiard ball rolling around the table striking other balls and rails. These are no doubt important but ultimately adds nothing to our essential humanity.
When Christianity is run through an “billiard ball” filter we end up believing that God deals with us as individuals. Each has our own “personal” relationship with God. He saves us as individuals when we respond to the gospel. We grow as individuals “coming to the garden alone” to spend time with God. We practice individual spiritual disciplines. We envision God’s will as an individual “plan” for our lives that we must discover and implement. We may have spiritual friendships, small groups, and even be a part of a church, if we find such things helpful, but they are not necessary to who we are and become.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Christianity rejects this individualist “billiard ball” view of what it means to be human and offers an alternative. I call it the “Molecule” view. What it means to be water is hydrogen and oxygen atoms in relation to each other. Water cannot be water without both and the electrical and chemical processes binding them together. Human beings in Christian faith are like molecules. We need others and relationships with them to be who we are created to be. We are “hardwired” for community. The PCUSA’s study document A Declaration of Faith articulates this Molecule view nicely:
“God created human beings with a need for community and with freedom to enter into it by responding to their Maker with grateful obedience and to one another with love and helpfulness. We believe that we have been created to relate to God and each other in freedom and responsibility. We may misuse our freedom and deny our responsibility by trying to live without God and other people or against God and other people. Yet we are still bound to them for our life and well-being, and intended for free and responsible fellowship with them. Since every human being is made for communion with God and others, we must treat no one with contempt. We are to respect and love all other people and ourselves as well.” (ch.2, par.4)
Like the Billiard Ball view, the Molecule view will shape our lives and responses to issues we face, though in a very different way.
The Billiard Ball view operates with a trinity of “Me/Myself/I” and its posture toward the world is that of a heart “curved in on itself” (Luther). The Molecule view comes out of the Christian trinity of “Father/Son/Holy Spirit” and its posture toward the world is that of a man hanging on a cross, arms fully outstretched to embrace the world.
A distinction needs to be made between “personal” and “private.” The later view is individualism. The gospel is addressed to me as a private individual. My interactions with God take place within my “heart” and are a private matter between me and God. Salvation means that I now have a “personal” relationship with God. I suggest, however, that what we mean is that we have a private relationship with God. The private and the personal are not the same thing!
And that makes sense if our being and becoming persons, hence, personal, is constituted by our relationships with others (Molecule). If this is how we become personal, then in salvation, as we become the persons God meant us to be, it is in relationship to God and all others related to God. We grow to know God as we immerse ourselves in this community through whom we learn to identify the gifts and graces God has given us. None of this can be done by ourselves or on our own.
So, in addition to distinguishing between private and personal, we also need to distinguish between individual and individuality. The former terms of these pairs are “Billiard Ball” terms, the latter ”Molecules.” Just as we truly become personal in relationships, so to, we learn what makes and distinguishes us, our individuality, through our relationships.
God’s eternal purpose is about a worldwide community of people not a group of saved individuals. God wants a “partnership” akin to a business partnership where everyone involved has a “skin in the game,” where their destinies are conjoined, where they are “one heart and one mind.” Know what the biblical word for that is? It’s the much-abused but very sturdy and important word koinonia (weakly translated as “fellowship”).
The archetypal hero of the old west may ride off into the sunset after visiting retribution and judgment on the bad guys. But lone heroes are not God’s way. His way is a body of folk who “must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). And that, friends, is what salvation is all about!