At morning prayer yesterday morning, the breviary offered this petition: “May we seek those things which are beneficial to our brothers and sisters without counting the costs, to help them on the way to salvation.”
The word “salvation” hit me. How long has it been since I considered it important to help someone on the way to salvation? What is salvation?
Last fall I met once a week with a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor to help him spruce up his Latin. He was preparing for an exam for a doctorate. After we finished he gave me a Christmas gift: a book by a Catholic scholar named Daniel Olivier writing about Martin Luther, first published in French in 1978.
Olivier’s thesis is that Luther’s challenge to the Roman Church made an essential correction to the world that scholastic theology (think Thomas Aquinas) solidified, a world where salvation was achievable if only you got with the program. Read “Law.” I recall once describing the spirituality of my childhood: being saved in the Catholic Church was mechanical, just like fixing the furnace. The Church at Luther’s time added a productive coda: you could save your friends and relatives by purchasing indulgences for them to get them out of purgatory. (Nobody could get with the program perfectly, so everybody was bound to be in purgatory.)
Luther rejected that kind of world. Luther’s world was centered on the person of Jesus Christ. His insight was that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ made all the rest of the program superfluous, if not downright counter-productive. That’s what he meant by “faith,” as opposed to “works.” Granted that his insight got captured by all kinds of religious and secular politics and was tragically run off the rails, but the Protestant movement he inspired has greatly enriched Christianity. It has taken the Roman Church centuries to realize that, a realization finally acknowledged in the Second Vatican Council.
I add some reflections from John Joe Lakers. Scholastic theology, along with much Church thinking before and after Aquinas and continuing today, is based on a Greek philosophical paradigm, that of a structured world that can be described perfectly once and for all in some sort of synthesis, for example, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Lakers contrasts this paradigm with a Hebrew paradigm based on narrative, on stories, where an incomprehensible God interacts with humans in unpredictable ways. The stories never end. They are continually in progress, right up to the present.
“Salvation” is a static concept. You have it or you don’t have it. You get it by sticking with the program. You get baptized, and then you obey the rules. Grace comes from a vending machine.
A narrative is unending, always unfinished, unpredictable.
One more Lakers’ contribution: love is involvement, involvement with four characteristics: it is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful. That is the way God is involved with us. That is the shape of the story that God would like each human person to live.
Salvation is to live a story of love, with God and with other people. We love the Lord with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, or, as Lakers often observed, as Jesus loved us.
We have moved away from a spirituality where the physical act of baptism would save a person. The Church recognizes that God surely is not condemning the four-fifths of the human race who are not baptized. Our calling is not to rush around the world baptizing people, as many religious did when they accompanied the colonizers of Africa and Asia and Latin America. Our calling is to live a story of respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people around us and with God, and humbly acknowledge that God may be helping people outside the “Faith” to live lives of love without hierarchical control. We are not called to rule the world, or even to fix the world. We are called to live a story shaped by the story of Jesus, a story of love, in the midst of all the ways that we unfinished human beings live our stories.