Friday, May 24, 2013

An Apologetic of Charity

I once had a lengthy conversation with a young Jewish lawyer who was devout in his faith. He told me that he didn’t see people categorically, valuing them based on their adherence to a particular system of belief. He said that he tried to always ask the question, “Is this a righteous person?”

It appears that Pope Francis sees things in a similar way. He is quoted in a recent article in the Huffington Post (thanks to my friend Matt Vlahovich for alerting me to this):

"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!". . . We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Now, I recognize that the Protestant Reformation has taught us to beware of two assertions: That God’s reconciling work in and through Jesus Christ is for all people, and that good works count for something. The Pope is clearly going to stir us up on this one.

And I’m glad he’s doing it. We need a little shaking up on our transactional concepts of salvation that allow us to feel we can clearly determine who is in and who is out with God. We need to pay better attention to the connection between belief and behavior—not only in how we conduct our lives, but also in how we intentionally do things that can be called good.

So, before the inevitable concerns about universalism and “works righteousness” (I despise that term) hit the blogosphere, let’s stop and think about this:

The Pope claims that believers share something in common with non-believers. We share together our co-humanity, a humanity that the Bible says bears the image of God. When a non-believer—an atheist, even—engages in deeds that could be called good, is that person not expressing a goodness that has God as its source? What other source is there for deeds that are truly good? And is it possible that believers and non-believers alike might come together, not with a dismissal of the importance of Christian faith, but in solidarity with the desire to engage in righteousness? Is there common ground for us to share? I believe there is.

People engaged with sincerity and integrity in interfaith dialogue have learned something about finding common ground with their conversation partners. Christians who desire to listen well with the goal of mutual understanding have learned that there is common ground where the dialogues can begin, rather than separation where only combative debates can happen. For example, conversations among Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims can find common ground in their shared monotheism. They also share a common sense of value about Jesus. It’s not that the lenses through which they view God or the person of Jesus Christ are the same, but that they are starting points of commonality.

Taking the Pope’s view of good works might help us engage with those who embrace atheism. I’ve read two different articles by committed atheists who lament the lack of charity among their fellow non-believers, and admire the good works done by religious people. What if we invited our non-believing friends into our efforts to feed the poor, minister to the sick, assist the needy, and so on? Would we find common ground with them? In the doing, would they begin to recognize the image of God that has always been imprinted upon them?

I long ago wearied of the combative form of so-called “apologetics” that seems to pit Christianity (at least, a certain brand of it) against all comers. I appreciate the long-standing tradition of defending the faith, but using the Bible as a theological rocket launcher has no appeal to me.

I wonder if we could discover an apologetic of charity? Could the defense of our faith be one of demonstration rather than disputation? I think that both the Pope and the apostle James might go for that idea. As James says,

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:17-19)

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