Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bouncy Balls, Checkbooks, and Salvation

I spent most of this afternoon reading excerpts from various works by Medieval theologians.  It isn't always captivating stuff to read, but for some reason there tends to be at least one thing that really catches my attention.  While I was reading a portion of On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith by Hugh of Saint Victor (sounds a bit obscure, no?), I was struck by a passage where he explains how and why salvation works the way it does.  After describing our debt to God, Satan's dominion over us, and the way God's justice plays into all of that, he writes:
In order, therefore, that God might be placated by man, God freely gave to man that which he was in duty bound to repay to God.
After I read that line, I just stopped and stared blankly at the page.  Something about that whole transaction of giving and sacrifice and repayment seemed really odd to me.  Why would God give us something that wasn't ours just so we could give it right back to God?  It never actually belonged to us, so how could it repay our debt?  Why did God go through all that trouble—essentially giving the payment, not actually to us, but right back to to where it came from—when it would have been easier just to forgive the debt?

As I sat there with the book in my lap, still staring at the page, I realized that that strange transaction reminded me of something.  Remember when you were about six years old and Christmas came around?  You were old enough to know that people exchanged gifts that time of year, but you weren't old enough to recieve any sort of allowance—so what did you do?  Your parents gave you a couple of dollars and took you to the store so that you could by them gifts.  In purely economical terms, you didn't actually give your parents anything.  In fact, they really didn't even like the Santa eraser and Rudolph bouncy ball that you gave them.

But that wasn't the point.  Something took place at a level that went deeper than the transaction itself.  At the heart of it, it was about you.  It was to show you something, to teach you something.  Although the money and the eraser and bouncy ball were meaningful, they weren't what was really important....

I have to wonder if the same is true of the salvation narrative.  Surely God could have saved us in some other way.  Nothing forced God to become incarnate and die a terrible death for us.  But that's what God chose—not because it makes the most sense economically—because God wanted to show us something.  Perhaps the incarnation had more to do with teaching us about God's ultimate love and less to do with fulfilling cosmic justice.  

I remember wondering about salvation when I was young.  The transaction never seemed to line up right.  No matter how I rearranged things in my head, the balance sheet never quite worked out right.  Maybe the incarnation was about much more than cosmic accounting.  Maybe God cared more about us than a balanced checkbook.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Meaning in the Universe

While I was at work tonight, I had one of those random "big-question" conversations with a co-worker.  It turns out that we both share skeptical/cynical tendencies, but we also share a sense of hope and yearning for something greater.  While we were talking about human sacredness and our place in the grand scheme of things, she shared this vision of the cosmos with me (well, this is my paraphrase):

So here we are, living in a particular time among billions of other humans on this thing called Earth.  And Earth is just one of many millions of planets in the glaxay, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.  Even the universe itself may be one of infinitely many universes in the multiverse.

And that makes us really tiny.

In this vast, swirling cosmos, untouchable and devoid of meaning for us, we are nothing.  On such scales of immensity, we are infinitely small.  But because everything else is so unreachable, this cramped little world of ours is everything.  In the face of such emptiness, our lives and world are infintely meaningful.  

And what does all of that mean for us?

"Don't be an asshole," she said.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Know Thyself

The first time I encountered the phrase "Know Thyself" was in The Matrix. At one point in the scene where Neo meets the Oracle, she points up to an inscription above the doorway (that reads, "Temet Nosce") and says, "You know what that means? It's Latin. Means 'know thyself.'" She tells Neo that if he looks deep within himself he will find out whether he is the salvation of humanity....

Strangely, a similar notion of self-knowledge has been coming up in some of my reading recently. Early on in Christianity, especially in the east, it seems that there was a concept that self-knowledge could lead to salvation. Although it's a bit foreign to me, I find it very intriguing. 

Essentially, it all boils down to being created in the image of God.  Because we were created in God's image, there is something inside of us that connects us to God.  If we truly develop self-knowledge, we will come to know the image of God inside of us—and that means we will know God.  Such intimate self-knowledge is deeply connected with purity of the soul and spiritual maturity.  It takes purity and maturity to know ourselves (and God), but it is through knowing God that we develop purity and maturity.  They seem to work in a profound spiral leading inward toward ever-increasing knowledge of God.

This knowledge of ourselves and of God is our salvation.  If we truly know ourselves, we will know God, and if we truly know God, we will love God.  That true knowledge of and love of God transforms our every action (we are able to see God in others and love them accordingly), making us more and more like God.  And that is what salvation is—being wrapped up, in knowledge and in action, totally in communion with God.

My reaction to this vision of salvation is both enthusiastic and skeptical.  The wonderful thing about this vision is that being created in the image of God takes on substantial meaning.  It goes beyond just giving me a basis for my self-esteem.  Instead, just by virtue of being human, I have a direct and profound connection with God—I have a part of God within me.  Being created in the image of God is something that can be acted upon and forms the basis for how I should live my life.

On the other hand, though, this is so drastically different than the pessimistic picture of human nature that I learned growing up Protestant.  If humans are as horrendously depraved and incurably evil as Luther and Calvin would suggest, how could we possibly find the image of God within us?  Has sin distorted the image of God within us beyond the point of recognizability?  

I have to wonder whether it is possible to know myself so deeply that I could find God inside.  How optomistic am I about human nature?  Do I really believe that humans still bear any recognizable image of God?  Or are we so corrupt that the image has been warped completely out of shape?

What would I find if I looked deep inside and truly heeded the words, "Know thyself"?