Reimagining Adventism, Part 9c: The Gospel and Absurdity

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Reimagining Adventism, Part 9c: The Gospel and Absurdity

I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.–Viktor E. Frankl

 

I recently purchased the Audible version of the classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl. In the first part of the book, Frankl unravels his own horrors as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau. While Frankl intentionally restrains himself from going into too much detail, he nevertheless takes the reader into the stark, miserable quagmire of a life that he and fellow prisoners had to endure.

 

Focusing on the less dramatic experiences, he slowly–instance by instance–drags the reader into the death camps. Time almost stands still as the imagination wraps itself around each scene and detail–the insults, beatings, and humiliation; the frostbite, illness, and starvation–all of it begins to build up until, at last, the sky turns grey with ashes and one is immersed in the wretchedness of the Holocaust.

 

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Frankl’s intent, however, is not to linger on the horrors, but to extract from them meaning. To this end, his narrative arc brings him to a central point in the book where he describes himself, in the midst of a dark and hopeless night, being swept away by his imagination and seeing his wife. The experience was profoundly romantic and existential. For there, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, Frankl managed to escape and speak to his beloved. The experience, Frankl described, provided him with a much-needed respite from the angst.

 

However, it gave him something more–a glimpse at the mystery of redemption that many a great theologian has failed to ascertain. Frankl describes this glimpse as the epiphanous realization that “[t]he salvation of man,” a subject that has given rise to countless religions, political systems, and philosophies, “is through love and in love.”[1] This realization gave Frankl the capacity to endure almost unimaginable horrors and survive to become the founder of logotherapy and author of the bestselling aforementioned book.

 

There is a lot that can be said of Frankl, for a great deal of what he wrote is immersed in a poetic dance between suffering and hope–the human experience to put it simply. But for our purpose in this particular article, I want us to focus our attention on this idea of love’s redeeming power. Somehow, in the midst of his agony, a man who had little knowledge of the depths of Christian eschatology was able to glimpse the true end of the tale. Whether he ever knew it or not, Frankl’s realization took him right to the center of God’s heart, where he discovered that salvation–whatever complexities it entails–can be reduced to the singularity of love.

 

Now, of course, Frankl did not see this in theological terms so much as in psychological and philosophical ones. To be fair, his entire perspective was focused on how he could, by being tethered to his beloved in soul, transcend absurdity and press through that which, in most circumstances, drained men’s will to live. Nevertheless, this romantic conceptualization of redemption, I contend, is but a reflection–a grasping at the wind if you will–of revelation’s soteriological drift.

 

In the previous articles, we have explored this narrative with the question: how can we reframe soteriology to speak beyond religio-centric concerns and directly to the heart of the secular mind? We have seen that the journey cannot begin with the classic grace versus works mentality, because that one does not make much sense to a non-religious mind.

 

Rather, the journey must begin in a different sphere and speak directly to the value structure the listener already has. In my particular context, I have found that value structure, while secular indeed, is more holistically biblical than the frameworks we often employ. For deep in the secular language of being there is a longing for meaning, for autonomy and self-determination, and most of all–for a kind of justice that is so inherently divine that the overwhelming flood of postmodern relativism has been unable to extinguish it.

 

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Thus, from this starting place, we can explore the origin of sin as an ideology–political in many ways–of self-advancement. This ideology then spread to the earth where humanity, by embracing the way of self over love, chose to rebel against its maker. The result of this rebellion is that humans perpetuate the Satanic political regime by replacing the centrality of God and love with the pursuit of self. And it is this pursuit, deeply embedded and seemingly irremovable, that drives the human narrative constantly toward empire and injustice.

 

Thus, if God is to restore humanity back to its original design, a reversal of the way of self must be actuated in real-time and in real human flesh. This reversal is complex, but the gospel is given to us in the language of children–that God became a man, lived out love in all its perfection, and restores those who surrender to him through love and in love.

 

This of course, does not negate the very real and important element of justification by faith–that our life of self-centered adulation is absolved, absorbed by the sin-bearer on the cross and now, covered by his virtue, we can celebrate the beautifully outrageous proposition that God regards us as complete in him even though we are yet incomplete.

 

Nevertheless, the secular mind–far removed from the burdens of legalism–does not need to linger there too long. For Paul assures us that we are counted as perfect while we are being made holy, and to the secular man, this process toward practical holiness is of insurmountable value. And it is here that I enter into the final perspective introduced in the previous article, and which I, borrowing from clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, have come to refer to as the divine reorientation towards the highest possible good.

 

The Divine Reorientation Towards the Highest Possible Good

 

We are all familiar with the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi who, in protest to the British occupation of India, once noted,

 

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. You Christians are so unlike your Christ.[2]

 

The comedian Bill Maher also once stated,

 

There’s no greater role model, in my view, than Jesus Christ. It’s just a shame that most of the people who follow him and call themselves Christians act nothing like him.[3] 

There is a clear sense in the culture, a zeitgeist that recoils from the supposed good news of a salvation free of demands. We, Christians, seem to think it a good thing. The culture, not so much. The secularist mind is immersed in a perpetual tension between meaning and meaninglessness and has, in some sense, learned to exhibit moral outrage despite its enslavement to moral relativism.

 

There is something within that is crying out for a better world, a better economy, better borders, better education, and better governance. The mind of the culture is drenched in the sweat of its own labor for a world where there is no slave, no inequality, no disparity, and no injustice, a mindset at odds with the evolutionary proposition that life is disinterested in our ideals and that the universe is fundamentally cold and unfair.

 

To this milieu, the happy Christians and their “receive Jesus and all your sins will be forgiven and you can go to heaven and it really is that simple and free!” message, are, quite frankly, laughable. Heaven is not desired. Forgiveness is not sought after. Assurance is not pursued. Rather, what the culture is attempting to do is to construct a new tomorrow, a future in which humanity has achieved a collective and inclusive good–perhaps even the highest good that can be imagined.

 

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In light of this pursuit, a gospel that fails to interact with this metamorphosis of society by opting instead to linger at the pacification of individual religious pathologies is an irrelevant message at best. At worst, it is part of the problem. Thus, in my interaction with secular culture, I always emphasize what scripture refers to as the “transformation” of being in which one’s entire life is reoriented after the divine heart–the highest possible good–and molded in its image with “ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). This experience, the biblical witness views as a holistic “renewal of the mind” (Rom. 12:2) in which the divine dwells in you (Act. 17:28, Gal. 2:20) and becomes a “spring of living water” flowing through the soul (Joh. 4:14), cleansing the conscience (Heb. 9:14), and restoring in us the image of love lost at the fall (1Joh. 4:8).

 

In short, the experience of salvation is one in which a reborn finds herself experiencing a divine reorientation towards the highest possible good, which is Jesus himself, who lived out love in human flesh and towards whom the biblical authors call us to pattern and orient our lives. “Walk as he walked” (1Joh. 2:6), “Follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21), “Be imitators… of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), “Walk in love, as Christ loved us” (Eph. 5:1-2), “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:24), “Put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), “Have this mind… which is yours in Christ” (Phil. 2:5), “Set your mind on the Spirit” (Rom. 8:8), and so on and so forth.

 

This biblical theme in which the rebirthed consciousness is beckoned toward a reorientation of being and conduct, aimed at and patterned after the character of Jesus–the sum of all that is meant by “the highest possible good”–is deeply embedded in what it means to be a believer and follower of Jesus. As such, the gospel is good news for more than the fact that I can enjoy individual assurance. It is good news because the gospel is the promise of restoration for the collective web of the human race. God is at work, drafting and crafting a new kingdom filled with people whose lives are oriented toward love–a community which celebrates autonomy, self-determination, and authenticity while turning their backs on the deceptive allure of self-centeredness and allowing the Spirit of God to restore them to the image of other-centered love.

 

A kingdom of everyday humans who have discovered what it truly means to be human and who live that humanity out–not in convents and monasteries, but in the daily brokenness of society. A people who are salt sprinkled on culture, on neighborhood, and on empire. A people whose lives–while far from perfect–are nevertheless trending toward a transcendent love that moves them to live, not for self but for others, and in whom the image of Jesus is reflected authentically even in their blemished being. A people who, in the words of the reformer John Wesley, daily enact “the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor” by allowing this love to “[rule their] tempers, words, and actions.”[4]

 

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This perspective of the gospel is often ignored in favor of a hyper-grace framework that focuses more on the free gift than the true cost. This is partly due to centuries of Roman legalism which, at least in the Adventist context, was repeated in the rise and dominance of Last Generation Theology–a legalistic and perfectionistic approach to salvation that has littered Adventist history with the tattered and shipwrecked souls of the sincere. But my contention is that it is time we got over our legalistic trauma and rediscover the beautiful salvific narrative of scripture, a story in which salvation rises from the individual to the collective, from the local to the universal, from inner peace to outward impact.

 

For the truth is that, once reborn, we are indeed led by the divine to orient our lives after the highest possible good and–in the midst of that reorientation– live out the ethic of love in the grind and agony of traffic, business and struggle. And that, in doing so, we usher in the kingdom of God by living out its principles while occupying the temporal empire of man to which we will one-day bid farewell.

 

What would it look like if we stepped away from a grace versus works framework and focused on a more holistic vision of salvation as the restoration of humanity? Would our gospel not then speak meaningfully to humanitarian disparity, justice, and the reversal of suffering? Would our people not be moved to get over this obsession with personal assurance and realize that to follow Jesus means to think less of self, less of religion, less of laws and more of love–the highest love which is Christ himself.

 

Would our churches not mobilize to become epicenters of God’s movement, spaces of healing and redemption in our communities? Would our evangelism not shift from informational models to more relational and missional approaches? Would our entire culture as a church not move from formulaic arguments over justification and sanctification, and instead opt for a faith that is truly alive, meaningful, and felt in its sphere of influence? Would our faith not interact beautifully with the heart of a culture erroneously searching for a world beyond, by looking at the world within?

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Soren Kierkegaard once said,

The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.[5]

And this is precisely what the culture awaits–a faith, a church, and a Jesus to be lived and in whom the highest dreams of humanity are fulfilled.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

______

Notes.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

[2] Mahatma Gandhi, “Gandhi glimpsed Christ, rejecting Christianity as a false religion.”

[3] Bill Maher, “Quotes by Bill Maher.”

[4] John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.”

[5] Soren Kierkegaard, “‘The most beautiful things in life are to be lived’: 9 quotes from Christian Søren Kierkegaard.”

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.