Correct beliefs or correct deeds?


My darling wife sent me a link to a blog post entitled: Is it more important to believe the right things or do the right things?, by Randal Rauser, a professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, in Edmonton, Alberta. Prof. Rauser writes about a schism within the entirety of Christianity. What is required for salvation: is faith alone sufficient, or are good deeds required. Of course, Christians mean a particular belief in this context. Salvation means that, as all humans are imperfect, sinners, God will set us apart from Him, send us to eternal punishment, unless we can persuade Him to forgive us and place us near to Him. I have in mind the separation of the sheep from the goats.

I’m capitalizing God and the various pronouns in the style of accepting God as a proper noun, the specific name for a specific being, although capitalizing the pronouns is a typically religious practice rather than a grammatical one. I’d refer to you as Wayne, a proper noun, but to you and he. I guess first person, I, is upper case. I have in mind, for this post, the particular god that Christians worship.

Christians dispute among themselves as to God’s standards in this matter. Some say that all He cares about is whether the human sinner believes in Him. Salvation through faith alone. Others say that Jesus, and Paul, have directed us to help the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, and the outcast, to give our wealth to the poor, to turn the other cheek, and other important works of charity. These people have in mind that there is a tally of deeds, good and bad, and salvation depends upon whether the balance is positive or negative and perhaps the magnitude of the excess of the one over the other.

A key part of the origin of Protestantism, one of Luther’s 95 Theses, had to do with so-called indulgences. These were documents, prepared by the Catholic Church, and given to some of the faithful to demonstrate that the recipient had performed some important good deed in honor of the Church or to atone for his sins. Evidently, people of that time felt that the material certificate, written and blessed by Church officials would inform the Lord and be accepted by Him as proof. One possible good deed was to donate money to the Church, an option mostly recognized by the Church when the donor was wealthy and gave a large amount. This was known as selling indulgences, and Luther saw it as corrupt.

(Note added: My sweetie tells me that I have gotten my theology mostly correct, but not entirely.)

Prof. Rauser tells a story of two men who lived during the horrendous Rwandan genocide: Hutu people massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsi people. The first man, a Protestant Christian church leader and a Hutu. Thus, he held, we suppose, the proper thoughts and beliefs to receive salvation. He received an appeal from other church pastors, Tutsis, famously beginning “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” This church leader informed the Hutu killers where the Tutsis pastors and their families were hidden. The second man in this story was a Senegalese Muslim member of the UN forces in Rwanda. Ordered to remain in safety, this second man ventured out repeatedly to bring endangered Tutsis to safety. We suppose that a Muslim does not have the proper beliefs to receive salvation from God. But this soldier continued his efforts until he was killed.

Posed in this way, we suppose that Prof. Rauser believes that the Lord will not save the first man, because of his evil deed, and He will not condemn the second, because of his righteous actions. Yet, as Prof. Rauser knows, salvation through faith alone, or that salvation is a free gift from the Lord given for His inscrutable purposes, is a crucial tenet of Protestant Christian theology.

My sweetie, a strong and thoughtful Christian didn’t send me this essay to engage in a theological discussion with me hoping to resolve differences in Catholic or Protestant theology. She is concerned with the fact that I am not religious. Many Christians accept that a loving and good God would not condemn good people who either lived and died before Jesus or who have never heard the Christian story. But this out will not help me. I know about Christian ideas. I’ve read the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. I’ve studied world and European history, and I know some about Christian thought and history. But I am resolutely not religious, an empiricist, and a naturalist. I’m a secular humanist, which some Christians would consider an insult, but I take as a proud identity. I picture myself as the intellectual heir to the great ideas of the Enlightenment.

Fortunately for me, my warm and loving darling is open-minded. She judged me by my actions and thoughts as we dated and smooched (that’s kissing I wish to inform younger readers), and overlooked the warnings of some of her friends and many of her teachers about hanging out with non-believers any more than necessary. But I know that she takes seriously what those friends and ministers taught her. She knows them to be good people. Of course, she had other friends, and a few religious teachers, who thought I was just fine, and that we were lucky to have found love with each other.

I agree with this latter group, indeed, that I have been very fortunate to have found love with such a sweet and darling, sensible, talented, and disciplined, curly-haired woman who overlooks my various Y chromosome problems.

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