THE LEGACY OF AUGUSTINE: Perhaps the theologian who has most influenced Western Christianity is Augustine (354-430 CE) who became the Bishop if Hippo in North Africa. Augustine was a genius whose thought often focused on the inner life of individuals. He was the church father who emphasized Original Sin and predestination. His theology was complex and nuanced. Unfortunately, the complexity and depth of his insights were often not appreciated and were interpreted in simplistic and narrow ways by later theologians.
However, with Augustine came a disproportionate emphasis on individual salvation, the damnation of most humanity, and a determinism regarding the ultimate destiny of individual humans. The Original Blessing of the Creator found in Genesis 1 was forgotten. The focus was on sin and how one could be redeemed from such sin. Augustine’s influence can be seen in both the Roman Catholic tradition and Protestant denominations, especially among conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.
Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament have a communal orientation that has been lost in much of Western Christianity. The ultimate goal of God according to Paul is the reconciliation of all creation to God through Jesus Christ—everyone and everything in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. (See Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Ephesians 1:3-10.) We are saved (healed, made whole, reconnected to our ultimate Source, each other, and the whole of creation) within community and as a part of the New Heaven and Earth which will be the old heaven and earth emancipated from sin, transience, and decay. The Bible knows nothing of a salvation that is limited to the individual apart from the rest of creation.
Eastern Christianity never accepted Augustine’s concept of Original Sin. For the most part, the Eastern Church maintained the communal and cosmic focus found in the Scriptures and the Early Fathers. Western Christianity, on the other hand, has been plagued by an excessive focus on the sinful nature of human beings. Some Western traditions still believe that we come out of the womb as sinners and are stained by the sin of Adam and Eve. Such an emphasis has led to unfortunate aspects in Western Christianity. Here are some examples:
- The original focus of Jesus (“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) on the mending and transformation of life in the here and now has been replaced with an obsession of going to heaven when we die. Eternal life is about a qualitative life emulating the character of God we can live right now which will continue in the next dimension, but the emphasis should be on the quality of that life and not its quantity. However, when the most important message of the church is about how to get to heaven, it’s easy for this self-centered, mercenary, fear-based motive to dominate one’s faith and the church’s mission.
- A focus on Original Sin and one’s individual salvation assumes a wrathful God who must be feared. Fear, not love, is the foundation of much evangelism in the West, especially among conservative Evangelicals. “Are you saved?” is the primary question. Southern Baptists insist “once saved, always saved.” However, you must be sure you really are “saved.” That’s why many Christians claim they are saved but still do not feel safe. Such fear also guarantees the careers of many evangelists and preachers. The late Leslie Jordan said he had been baptized fourteen times after coming forward in revival services to make sure he would make it to heaven. What so many Christians do not realize is that you cannot love what you fear. I John 4:16-21 reveals this truth: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. In this is love perfected in us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as God is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. Fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because God first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother or sister, he is a liar; for anyone who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother and sister. This passage reveals that authentic faith in an unseen God must be accompanied by a love for others on this earth. Why? Because “God is love.” Once again, we see the direction of the gospel is from heaven to earth and not from earth to heaven. What I call the “beam me up, Scotty” theology of much Christianity is blasphemous and heretical. When will we ever get it? The good news is, “For God so loved THE WORLD.”
- With a focus on the individual, the communal aspects of justice, peace, compassion, and reconciliation between humans are easily minimized or forgotten. When all that matters is one’s individual salvation (and one assumes that salvation comes with a monosyllabic grunt of “Yes” to the question, “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”), it’s easy to remain racist, greedy, violent, arrogant, cruel, and lacking in compassion. Those old enough to remember Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” will recall a man who “believed.” He argued with his Meathead son-in-law constantly about religion. However, there was very little about Archie which resembled the example of the One he called Lord. One reason racism continues in the Bible Belt South where Southern Baptists dominate is the refusal to accept the connection between loving God and loving all other humans. This obsession with individual salvation also explains why so many Christians have no concern for justice, the climate crisis, poverty, hunger, and oppression of “others.” In authentic Christianity, there are no “others.” The unspoken assumption of too many American Christians is “As long as I and those I love have our first-class tickets to heaven where we will live in our mansions in the sky, we don’t have to worry about such ‘worldly things.’ We are focused on spiritual things.” And yet the only place Jesus ever gives an extended description of the Last Judgment says that we will be judged by such things as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, and ministering to those in prison. Apparently, in Jesus’ eyes such “worldly things” are spiritual things. Jesus also said, “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the good news will save them.” Obsession with our individual salvation (and building a theology on that obsession) is a narcissistic heresy which denies the very nature of the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, everlasting love of the God we claim to trust and the Savior we profess to follow.
Jesus was very clear about his mission and our own. We are to “seek first the Kingdom of God (Where? Here on earth) and its righteousness (Righteousness is a Jewish synonym for justice).” Self-centered, fear-inspired religion cannot allow a commitment to that mission. And neither can it ever allow us to know the heart of a God of love.