Is Christianity Mainly a Way to Salvation?
Does the love/hate relationship people have with Christianity revolve mainly around how it deals with “salvation”? I think that issue is indeed critical in most minds. And IF the teachings of much of Christianity are right, it is also critical to our eternal destinies. Here I will suggest that salvation for the individual did quickly become the most defining element of Christianity and has remained so. Is it also something that is “wrong” with this, the largest of religions?
In two recent posts I’ve tried to stimulate your thinking on just what Christianity is mainly about, how it functions. This is important for Christians for obvious reasons, though it is too often not thought about. It’s also important for those critical of religion in general or of Christianity in particular.
For example, if Christianity is actually (contrary to the above, and not to be discounted too readily) mainly a system of morals or a broad philosophy of life that is positive and leads people into more happiness and pro-social behavior than they would otherwise have, then maybe much of the criticism of it is unfair. (My own included, although I call myself a Christian of definitely progressive thought forms.) Now, it is extremely difficult to say whether or not this “more happiness, more morality” possibility is actual (many thinkers have weighed in on both sides) — tough to assess the actual world-wide effects of Christian faith, of any and all types.
You or I, like any individual, will naturally tend to have a clear sense of and care most about the effect on us. Don’t forget that the great majority of Christians or ex-Christians, individually, have experienced only one type, style, or specific theology of Christianity, or perhaps a few closely-related styles. For this and other reasons, individual opinions frankly don’t count for much as to our larger question, mine included. That said, I must leave this “how good (or bad) is Christianity?” question open, “unanalyzed” for now. (But will come back to it according to “popular demand”, so please comment if you have interest in this.)
I will now give my own answer to as to what Christianity mainly is. That is, in its most commonly experienced and understood expressions. It is a way of salvation. To probably a majority of Christians it is a way to BE saved and then to celebrate or lock in that salvation. (Note that some would be quick to say that it is actually Christ who is the way to salvation, not the theology or organization[s] we call Christianity.)
That answer comes from my own long and deep involvement in Protestant (Evangelical) Christianity for the first 45 years of my life, and from a heavy amount of study of it, other religions, etc. during those years and since. My judgment on this relates to what leaders at all levels in Christian churches and organizations tend to make the primary emphasis. People may end up treating it more like a philosophy of life or as a moral system but it is not primarily presented that way. The incredible amount of Christian art, music, ritual enactment and such through the centuries mostly relates to salvation, and to spiritual (“Christian”) growth more specific than general morality or philosophy.
To reconnect with the point of my earlier discussion in the recent philosophy section, the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles seems to be pitching Christianity, among other things, as a good, stable, well-credentialed philosophy as part of his public relations move for well-heeled Romans and added support among Christians. (We should remember that written materials were scarce and expensive and literacy very low throughout the Empire, so that direct readers at the time would be high status and/or wealthy, and hearers would be mainly Christians hearing his material read in small Christian groups.)
At the same time, the author picks up Paul’s emphasis on personal salvation and uses the term “saved” a number of times (though not necessarily meaning exactly what modern Christians have come to mean by the word).
I refer back to Luke in Acts because this book is pivotal in a way that few Christians even realize… and I know for a fact that a great many haven’t even read it! (And all educated Westerners should read the whole Bible, if for no other reason than its powerful influence on our culture, politics, laws, history, etc.) Through the book of Acts, Luke managed to connect Jesus’ direct disciples and the Jerusalem group that included all of the original Apostles (minus Judas) to St. Paul; their theology to his theology. When carefully viewed historically, it is almost certain (especially among most history-focused scholars of Christian origins) that there were two (or more!) distinct theologies and church “branches” during Paul’s lifetime. That is, up to about the beginning of the horrendous Roman-Jewish war in 66, after which the scenario gets really scrambled — beyond our unraveling.
The largely separate branches had key commonalities but also contradicted each other at a couple core points at least, including salvation. But thanks perhaps in good part to the brilliant, creative work of Luke in supplying the appearance of harmony and filling key gaps, the two were able to be melded together within a couple centuries. This was conceptually, for immediate and much later readers, and in church organization. A major boost had already come toward his cause and by the time of his writing, from the shattering of lives and the scattering of the Jerusalem Apostles. No one knows for sure where they (whoever may have been alive though aged), their successors, and their now-sizable group landed or how they fared after the war and destruction of Jerusalem in 70.
Christianity has done the same as most major religions and claimed to represent (and/or mediate, per the claim of Roman Catholicism) not just “a” way but “The” Way of salvation. This again goes back to Paul and his advocate, Luke. Both refer to the budding new faith as “the Way”. Paul, I believe, says it no more than once or twice. But that indicates the idea was adopted very early, probably carried over from earlier Jewish use. The original koine Greek’s use of articles is similar to ours and it was “the Way” as opposed to “a Way”. It may not have carried all the implications of exclusivity many now pour into the meaning. As a very rough parallel, I might give an inquiring motorist some directions and say “that is the way to the concert hall” when I actually mean it is just one route among several, the most direct one.
You may have noted that I have not said much, and will not, about the teaching of Christianity on salvation — what it is and how it is supposedly obtained. That is beyond the scope of a short article and my purpose here. The main thing I wished to contribute is getting people with spiritual interests to step back, perhaps view their church services, their Christian reading, Christian music, etc. with an eye to what the central focus is most of the time.
If indeed it is most about the personal reconciliation of each of us with God (i.e., salvation, either initially or as “worked out”), then comes the question of “What did Jesus teach most about? Personal salvation? The coming of the Kingdom of God and how to prepare to enter it (not necessarily the same as Paul’s conception of “saved by grace, through faith”)? Something else like the “ethics” of the Kingdom? (Here we are brushing up with morality again.)
And if we notice that Jesus was clearly in a “Here comes the Kingdom!” mode, what kind of Kingdom did he seem to have in mind? How was it to appear? (Questions we will address soon when I’ve finished and will give a review of a fascinating and almost-forgotten book by one of the 20th century’s great musical, theological and humanitarian geniuses, Albert Schweitzer.)… And no, if you are aware of “historical Jesus” scholarship, the book is not his more famous, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”, but one written in his very mature years.
For now, have you experienced Christianity as mostly about salvation, and personal salvation as opposed to societal or global salvation?