Monday, November 15, 2010

Parable of the preacher

Yesterday I listened to a preacher on the radio. He was in a studio, taking calls; he wasn't giving a speech like they usually do. He was an old preacher, his voice warbly, but he still had charisma.

First he was talking about the father, the son, and the holy ghost. I had no idea what he meant by this. Then a caller asked him: What do you mean when you say nobody can know Jesus? Didn't people know Jesus when he was alive?

The preacher started to jitterbug up and down and all around this question. It was funny to hear him argue that you can't know the mystery of God, and yet somehow presuppose a god. I didn't know what he meant -- it didn't make any sense -- but clearly he had something in mind.

The best part was when he started telling someone about salvation. Salvation, he said, was an experience where all these new possibilities are revealed that you were never aware of before. I immediately knew what he meant by this. Then he started talking about the difference between the "saved" and whatever you call people who aren't saved. He said they aren't stupid or unworthy. They just aren't aware of these possibilities; they are stuck in a certain way of seeing things. Again, I knew what the preacher was referencing: something true; something that happens between teachers and students, even if they are not called by those names.

Religious people often reference things I don't understand in order to reference the truths that I do. But lots of people do that. And not only that, but I'm always referencing things that others may not understand in order to strike at something that they do.

So even though the preacher and I don't use the same terms or understand the same things, we can still speak a common language in the things that are true. I need not insist that he cease to be a preacher, or take offense that he is -- things I have no control over anyway. And in this way, it was a comfort to be at peace with my brother.


Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Diplomacy in action.

fwoan said...

Are you unfamiliar with the Christian concept of the holy trinity? I grew up in a fundamentalist family so it's all very drilled into me.

I remember long discussions how to get people saved (or "born-again") so that these "new possibilities" could be shown to them.

Eventually it was that procedure that undid all the grooming I had gone through. All this talk of a supremely loving entity didn't coincide with the necessary rituals to "experience" his love. It seemed to boil down to: I love you so much that if you don't believe I'm the son of God then you will go to Hell.

JRB said...


So it is fair to say you didn't find much truth in that approach?

Jim H. said...

Here's the thing: You say you knew what the preacher meant by salvation. Maybe you do; I'm certainly not one to gainsay. Though you don't really elaborate.

I don't.

If you polled 50 religionists from 50 different traditions, you would probably get 50 different notions of soteriology. And within the respective traditions, there are debates, disputes, conflicts, and even schism over this very term. In effect, it's meaningless; though it has something to do with being eligible to share eternal life in the presence of god—again, whatever that means.

The key word is "revealed". After Luther, the notion has been bastardized to mean every fever dream of any putative believer. So, the notion of salvation comes down to your preacher's understanding and your understanding (which may be the same) and mine (which may be different) and the Pope's (which undoubtedly is different) and so on.

You can't reason your way to salvation; there is no rational basis for determining if we're talking about the same thing, or whether we mean the same thing when we talk about it. Some communities do coalesce around a shared understanding, but over time they often wind up going their separate ways as they explore the depths of their conceptions.

Just my opinion on a thoughtful blog post.

JRB said...

Jim H.:


Yeah, I don't know what he really meant. He just described something that I could identify in my own life, and then attached his interpretation to it. The interpretation didn't make any sense, but the description was accurate.

I think the diversity in human cultural practices represents a creative response to reality; a response that is shaped by particular circumstances and social relationships. So just because community practices differ doesn't mean that they don't often reference the same things.

The problem is that people spend so much time arguing over their practices, which from their perspectives are the "correct" ones.

fwoan said...

Definitely fair, my friend.

Jim H. said...

I do agree that having that experience of "new possibilities" is an important aspect of something let's call spiritual growth (for lack of a precise term). It's the aim of psychoanalysis—neurotic or archetypal. It's also a certain sort of freedom or liberation (depending on your political mindset). Some people call it 'thinking outside of the box' or creativity. I could go on; and most likely so could you.

But is it salvation? Perhaps to some. And certainly (from my own experience) not to others.