I had a long conversation over the weekend with an Asian friend who is engaged in conflict-resolution projects in her war-torn country. She was particularly interested in the importance of inter-faith conversations and practices, and we got round to talking about the difference between Christian and Buddhist worldviews or cosmologies.
As she put it, she is driven in her work by a desire to serve life, perhaps rather loosely sustained by the awareness that everything participates in the divine—I think she might describe herself as a secularized Buddhist, but I’m not sure.
I suggested that although the modern church has often appeared more inclined to bicker over beliefs and boundaries than to make the world a better place, in principle the same desire to affirm and serve life is there. But it is mediated necessarily through the story of the strained relationship between a distinct people and the Creator God, which is all the way through a story of new creation.
I have tried to tell that story on a number of occasions, not least in Re:Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church. My view is that there is little point in replacing a simplistic gospel of personal salvation with a simplistic gospel of life affirmation. No doubt it would be an improvement in some respects, but it still fails to do justice to the biblical narrative and is therefore likely to miss its central dynamic, which is the struggle of concrete communities fully to embody the presence of the good Creator God, in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world, through real—not mythical—history.
Anyway, here we go again. Feel free to take issue with it. And keep in mind that telling the story is not an excuse for doing nothing….
The foundational premise of the Judaeo-Christian narrative is the belief that the cosmos is the work of the one true Creator God.
The actual narrative then arises out of the contradiction between the goodness of the Creator and the self-evident corruption of the good creation.
The “original” sin—at the level first of the individual and then of human society—is the ambition to “be like God” or to usurp the place of God in the scheme of things (Gen. 3:5; 11:4). Inequality, injustice, wickedness and violence are the consequence of this act of rebellion.
The response of the Creator God at this point is to “choose” Abraham, in the shadow of self-aggrandizing empire, to be the father of a new creation in microcosm, grounded in a seminal act of trust and obedience (Gen. 15:6; 22:15-18). The promises made to him by the Creator undergird the whole ensuing narrative.
The descendants of Abraham are eventually given the good land of Canaan in fulfilment of the promises. The terms of their loyalty to the Creator God are set out in the Law of Moses. This is how they will be a new creation. They have received the original “blessing” of created life—albeit in a constrained, localized form—and are expected to mediate that original blessing to a world that has repudiated the Creator.
The success of the “new creation” project, however, hangs on the continuing trust and obedience of the people of Israel. The Law carries the dire warning that failure to walk in the ways of the Creator—the failure to be a good, new creation—will sooner or later result in invasion, destruction, exile and oppression by foreign powers.
From the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom (722 BC) onwards, the story becomes one of continual conflict between Israel and the surrounding pagan empires—invasion by the Babylonians, exile, Hellenistic tyranny, Roman occupation.
During this period the hope is conceived by the prophets not only that the people of the one true Creator God will be delivered from this cycle of conflict and restored, but also that the hostile nations, with their fabricated gods, will eventually come to acknowledge the rightness and sovereignty of Israel’s God.
The Judaeo-Christian narrative divides in the first century AD over the question of how the God of national Israel intended finally to resolve the political-religious crisis faced by his people—how the prophetic hope for salvation and kingdom will be fulfilled.
Jesus proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God as a decisive moment both of judgment and of salvation for Israel.
He presents his people with a stark choice between a broad road leading to destruction and a narrow road leading to life. He calls his disciples to follow him down the narrow road of rejection and opposition for the sake of the future existence of God’s new creation people.
They will be messengers of the coming kingdom event, first to Israel, then among the nations. But they will also be the nucleus of a renewed people of God.
Jesus is condemned as a false “saviour” by the Jewish authorities and executed by the Romans.
Appearances of Jesus to the disciples after his death convince them that the God of Israel has vindicated his “Son” by raising him to life. More than this, they come to believe that God has exalted him to a position of authority at his right hand to act as judge and ruler of the nations.
In this way, through his trust and obedience Jesus has become God’s decisive answer to the political-religious crisis faced by the descendants of Abraham.
Empowered and inspired by the Spirit of Jesus the disciples continue to proclaim the “good news” to Israel. Jews, both in Roman-occupied Judea and in the diaspora, mostly refuse to believe, but many Gentiles, remarkably, find this story of judgment and renewal, crisis and kingdom, God and history, compelling. Their response is to worship the God of Israel in the same Spirit and they become de facto members of the same movement.
As a result communities of radical hope and faithfulness emerge across the Greek-Roman world, formed of people—both Jews and Gentiles—who believe not simply that Jesus died for the sins of Israel and was raised from the dead, but that his resurrection points to a day when the old idolatrous system will be overthrown and the nations of the empire will confess Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So through this long period of historical transition the God of Israel achieved two things through the faithfulness of Jesus. First, he saved his people from the problem of their innate disloyalty and sinfulness—the flesh—so that they could exist as new creation according to the Spirit rather than according to the Law of Moses. Secondly, he gained recognition from the nations of the empire that he alone is God, and there is no other (cf. Is. 45:21).
Historically speaking, European Christendom represented this extraordinary new political-religious arrangement for perhaps fifteen hundred years, until the God of Israel was in turn overthrown, in a momentous modern coup-d’état, by secular-rationalism. The western church is having a hard time coming to terms with this latest “catastrophe”, but we deal with the problem, nevertheless, as a sign of new creation, as mediators of the original blessing for the sake of life.