Saturday, May 20, 2017

What is it to "belong" to Christ? (1 Cor 15:22-24)


During the Q&A portion of the 3rd session of the Universal Salvation and Christian Theology class that I'm taking online at The School of Peace Theology (this was several Saturdays ago - 4/21), I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Parry a question about 1 Corinthians 15:23.  I'd like to spend a few minutes tossing around a few ideas that didn't have a chance to fully develop in the immediate context of the Q&A.

Here are the verses:
For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him.  Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.  (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET)
That whole “then when Christ comes, those who belong to him” part.  That's the part that I was curious about.

Specifically, what is "belonging"?  What does it mean to "belong" to Christ?

Dr. Parry's starting point (though not his settled ending point) was that those who “belong” to Christ are the church - those who have “accepted Jesus in faith”.  Belonging as such is an act of volition, a conscious choice that an individual makes herself.  She knows that she's making it, and if she doesn't know that she has made it then she hasn't made it.  Nobody can make this decision for her, and she cannot ultimately make it for anyone else.  There can be no exceptions with a strict exclusivism, not for children who perish too young to “accept Jesus”, the mentally disabled, or those who "never heard".  The inherent nature of "belonging" forbids it.  And that brings to attention the general idea that this exclusivist criteria must be met before the moment of physical death.  Within the context of universal salvation however (the topic of the class), the implication is that there are subsequent opportunities to "accept Jesus" after that moment in time "when Christ comes" - those who don't "belong" at this point may still yet "belong".  After all, a major theme of 1 Cor 15 is that Jesus has defeated death, so a soul's disposition towards God at an arbitrary moment in time is not given the final word over human history.  Nevertheless, belonging in the relevant sense is limited to those who have "accepted Jesus".  I'll call this the "exclusivist" definition of "belonging".

But what about those who, due to the time and place that they lived and died, never even heard of Jesus?  Those faithful Jews who, though "faithful", didn't "believe in Jesus"?  What of those whose hearts are inclined towards God and who love others yet don't possess the "proper vocabulary" or whose circumstances didn't permit a "proper" Christian faith (the majority of the human race)?  C.S. Lewis elucidates this well in Chapter 15 of The Last Battle in the character of Emeth:

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.
By this criteria, we would say that Emeth belonged to Aslan prior to his awareness.  I'll call this the "inclusivist" definition of "belonging".

Or does belonging transcend any sort of moral assent or our “acceptance” of it all together?  Might we belong to Christ regardless of our awareness or even the "good intentions" of Emeth?   It isn't so much about whether a conscious faith in Jesus is “necessary” or not - "necessity" being characterized by the idea that God is looking for a minimum level of “faith” in order to grant "belonging".  It's that our belonging might entirely transcend any conscious awareness of it as such.  That we might all find ourselves caught up in "belonging to Christ" when that day comes, finding ourselves home in such a way that some of us might have known and anticipated while others of us might not.  Either way human knowledge and consent is simply not the point (though it's not to say that a belonging can be forever separated from the experience of it as such).  This idea of belonging ultimately rests on the premise that the original goodness of God, the goodness from which all things have come and to which all things are called, is irrevocable and fundamentally true regardless of our "acceptance" of it.  This is not to say that a "conscious faith", the type envisioned in the "exclusivist" category above, is excluded or minimized or is anything other than our telos.  It's just to say that while "faith" might be the means by which we perceive and participate in our belonging, "faith" is not what first originates that belonging.  It gets tricky I guess, but the idea is that belonging in the sense here is prior to "faith" - that belonging actually creates and sustains faith.  It recognizes that God works deep and mysteriously within the human person, well below the surface of awareness, conscious choice, and the time/place in which we were born.  In other words, we do and will "belong" and ultimately our experience will catch up to this fundamental fact.  Call this the "absolute" definition of "belonging".

Or we might look at it as Henri Nouwen does in The Return Of The Prodigal Son:
At issue here is the question: "To whom do I belong?  To God or to the world?"  Many of the daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God.  A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed.  A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me.  It takes me very little to raise me up or thrust me down.  Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.  All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me. (p 42)
So in this case, my “belonging” is understood in terms of that which existentially defines me.  What religion a person belongs to, what she professes to believe, what sacraments one has partaken of, or what "sinner's prayers" one has prayed are largely irrelevant.  Belonging, in this case, is a matter of the soul's home and the reality in which a person participates.  It isn't all together opposed to the exclusivist/inclusivist characterizations above (though it has inclusivist overtones), but it is distinct in some ways.  It is primarily about our makeup, our state of being, our "ontology" and isn't concerned with exclusivism/inclusivism according to the way that the terms are generally used.  Call this the "ontological" definition of "belonging".

Each of these has it's own set of questions and complexities, but a universalist can be fine with any of these definitions in a way that is thoroughly Christian.  They aren't necessarily opposed to one another and may even represent a sort of progression - with a consciously understood and ontologically mature "faith" being the end toward which God mysteriously calls and forms us.

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