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When I was a teenager I had this nagging fear that I was not “saved.” I constantly thought that I wasn’t good enough to call salvation mine, so I was constantly begging God to let me experience salvation. I was convinced that I would know I was saved because there would be this switch inside me–a light that would flip on and make things entirely different.

Then I stumbled upon grace. Afterward, I was convinced that I would remain “saved” no matter what I did or thought. That brought me deep comfort and allowed me to approach God in new and different ways than I ever had before.

The tension that I experienced over those few years was between an understanding of salvation that demanded my perfection and an understanding of salvation that made room for and accepted my imperfection.

I’ve since diverged and unlearned the understandings of salvation I was raised to believe and taught well on through my youth and early adult life so marvelously illustrated by this lovely image beside these words. In fact, I think we need to scrap the idea of salvation altogether. What if we were to remove the concept of salvation from our vocabulary and theology? Before I go on, let me share some things I do appreciate and value about traditional salvation theology:

1. It is easy. I think this speaks to a wide grace that I find so beautiful, attractive and inclusive.

2. It accepts us where we are at, which is most often broken and messed up and hurting ourselves and others because of our condition.

Those are indeed great qualities of the salvation theology that dominates Evangelicalism. However, I do not think these concepts would disappear if we were to erase salvation language. I’ll get to that, though. I shared the pros, so now I’ll offer two cons to traditional salvation theology.

1. It is escapist. Salvation is often understood as a move away from the earth or one’s body and toward heaven or a spiritual life.

2. It does not necessarily embody or demand an ethic. Salvation as an event does not require or demand significant life change. This is a really important critique against our individualistic notions of salvation.

So if we can’t speak of salvation any longer, how do we speak of the experience by which we come into communion and relationship with God? I believe there is tremendous value in speaking in terms of conversion rather than salvation. We already find an example of this in Eastern Orthodox theology, a well which I think we Evangelicals need to draw deeply from. Orthodox theologian Elizabeth Theokritoff writes about this experience of entering into relationship with God as a “comprehensive process rather than an individual attainment.”[1] Rather than an event, it is a continuous, life-shaping process. This is a process that closely parallels our concept of friendship. We engage God in a way that seeks to know as we also allow ourselves to be known, bearing ourselves and our vulnerability before God. The metaphor of friendship is deeply relational and intimate, therefore quite appropriate. The process of conversion is one in which we are deeply engaged in friendship with God that bonds us together and transforms us toward becoming more like God. To quote Irenaeus, “He became as we are that we might become as he is.”

One of my favorite scenes in all the stories of Jesus takes place in Mark 8, and I think that it embodies the idea of conversion quite well. The NIV tells it this way:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

This is a beautiful picture of the kind of conversion that has the potential to replace our moment-in-time, singular event salvation language. Allow me to make a few observations.

The blind man is brought before Jesus by his friends, but not dragged against his will. Healing and conversion happens within the context of a community that recognizes our needs and inability to always save ourselves, but also within our willingness to risk being known by God. Conversion, for this man, took place within the context of friendship and coming into contact with people who could see. In my own journey, my beliefs and convictions have often been shaped the most by relationships, the human experience, and the wisdom and insight of people with differing perspectives who help me to see things in fresh ways that resonate with the heart of God.

When Jesus spit in his hands and rubbed them on the eyes of the blind man, he could only see partially. “I see people; they look like trees walking.” The Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians come to mind: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Cor 13:12). Our initial steps in the process of conversion is an unveiling, beginning to see people, ourselves, and the earth with new eyes. Jesus spat into his hands and rubbed them across the man’s eyes a second time, and the man could now see. The blind man received sight, but it was not instantaneous. How did the blind man who has never seen a thing know that he was not seeing clearly and experiencing the gift of sight after Jesus touched him the first time?

In this way, salvation, or conversion is not something we attain ourselves, but something that we engage in co-operatively with God. As I mentioned earlier in favor of salvation theology, in this nuanced understanding we are still met by Jesus where we are at without being required to earn God’s favor or prove ourselves. That is a beautiful reality that must remain in any revision of grace and conversion.

Ultimately, this is about allowing Jesus to spit in his hands and rub our eyes so that we may see clearly, with greater love, with more grace, and with a heart for justice and peace. This changes us tremendously. Jesus may come in many different forms: our atheist coworkers who used to be Christians, a Muslim neighbor, a song or poem, an undocumented immigrant, or even a vegetable garden. When we let go of the concept of salvation we lose the power to say who is in and who is out, saved or unsaved. Rather, we all become persons relating to God and allowing God to give us new vision, to see clearly.

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1. Elizabeth Theokritoff, “Salvation of the World and Saving Earth,” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology 14 (2012), 142.

For a couple decades now, Sallie McFague has been an important and insightful voice in the conversation regarding Christianity and ecological deterioration. Our theologies are far from innocent when it comes to the issues of environmental ethics, caring for creation, and seeking justice for those on the receiving end of environmental and systemic oppression. Christian theologies regarding the material and spiritual, humanity and creation, nature and history, systems of power and authority, and both creation and the eschaton all deeply influence the praxis around human and non-human life. Within the ongoing conversation of ecological theology, McFague takes Christology to task. How do the ways in which we approach Jesus’ life, death and resurrection influence the way that we approach all of creation?

“The task now,” writes McFague, “is to embody in praxis the ecological Christologies that have been developing over the last several decades. Further refining Christology is less critical than putting Christology into practice. The problem is not that we need to know more Christology; rather, we need to know more about nature and how to live out these Christologies in relation to nature.” [1]

She implies that our theology–if not coupled with thoughtful, ecologically influenced praxis–is disconnected and ineffectual to embody God and enact justice in our earth-context. I feel like it is appropriate to play with Aquinas’ words to summarize: a mistake about Christ will lead to a mistake about Creation.

Of course, remembering what we say about the Christ is essential to moving beyond simply knowing “more Christology.” To begin, the creedal confession at Nicea affirmed Jesus’ co-equality and metaphysical oneness with God, “by whom all things were made.” It affirms that there is a uniqueness and salvific purpose in the incarnation. The later Chalcedonian commentary on Nicea cemented the dual nature of Jesus’ being, characterized as “fully God and fully human.” Chalcedon preserves tension, paradox, and mystery in describing God’s blending of the spiritual and material in the incarnation event rather than dualistically subjecting one to the other. This is critical for contemporary ecological theologies in their fervent resistance to dualist tendencies in Christian thought that elevate the spiritual over the physical.

The Situation

McFague takes to defining our situation as such:

The climate change case calls Christology into immediate practice. For affluent Christians, it demands a different view of the abundant life, one that includes cruciform living, the practice of restraint, diminishment, the death of unlimited desire, and control of ecological selfishness. Ecological Christology defines sin as the refusal to share the necessities of life with others, both other humans and other life forms. Sin is insatiable greed, wanting to have it all. Acting justly toward nature and other human beings demands sacrifices from Christian elites. Sustainable living involves acceptance of finite limits, such as how we drive our cars, emissions controls, and carbon taxes on industry. it includes “free trade,” the policies of the world Bank, and stock market investments, as they affect the natural world and poor people. When we see where Christology, economics, and ecology intersect on an issue such as climate change, the need for different practices at personal, professional, national, and global levels becomes apparent. [2]

Sacramental Christology

So, how does the incarnation influence us communally and individually to enact care and love and justice for the entirety of life? This is a huge question that I don’t pretend to possess an answer to. However, I think that a sacramental Christology is a door to a helpful and appropriate ecological theology for our present time. Its focus is a divine immanentalism and the affirmation of God’s presence in all of creation. Inherent in this approach is a challenge to the transcendence of classical theism, something McFague has written about extensively. Nodding to the humanity of Jesus, this approach is deeply incarnational and affirms the vibrant presence of God in both nature and Jesus, a shift that embraces bodies and the physical world around us. These ideas stream through Eastern Orthodoxy and indeed reveal ecological concerns to be of deep importance to theology and the Christian tradition. For example, Dumitru Staniloae writes, “The economy of God consists in the deification of the created world, something which, as a consequence of sin, implies also its salvation.”[3] He continues, “Salvation and deification have an ontologically unified humanity and nature as its aim.”[4]  John Chryssavgis states that “we are a part of the cosmos and are less than human without creation.”[5] Yet, McFague wonders, “while sacramental Christologies find God in nature, do they respect nature itself? Do they pay attention to the other or do they use it, however subtly, as a way to God?”[6]  It is up to us to live the answers to these questions. The following are some of my reflections on a sacramental Christology and questions that point towards praxis, a lived Christology.

Metaphysical Fusion

The mystery of the Incarnation itself, as Jesus embodies the God/Man and possesses the full nature of God and the full nature of humanity, highlights the fusion between the spiritual and the material. This is in stark contrast to Platonic thinking that has deeply influenced Christian thought and swayed us into certainty that the soul is in competition with the body. The Incarnation teaches us that matter and spirit, or body and soul, are not separate, but as Fr. Richard Rohr says, “two sides of the same coin.” This mystery reveals to us that it is inappropriate to elevate the spiritual as superior to the physical––that our souls are more important than our bodies, or that non-human life is ultimately not important to redemption and reconciliation because it lacks a soul that can be saved. Jesus forces us to reconcile that tension and be present in holistic ways.

Location

As the biblical story unfolds the theme of place is absolutely central to the story. The Incarnation continues this pattern of revealing God to be uniquely interested in place. Jesus encounters the full range of his geographical setting by engaging socio-political and religious life. While Jesus certainly was not stationary, he was very much rooted in the community life of a particular region. Though anachronistic, it may be appropriate to understand Jesus as committed to his bioregion. Jesus found himself among both the elite and poor subsistence farmers and revealed the interconnections between religion, economics and production, community and justice. How does the natural world interact with religion, economics and production, community and justice in our own contexts?

Healing

On a broad level I’ve been critical of stories depicting Jesus healing, but the importance that Jesus and the gospel writers placed on physical healing is not lost on me. Through these stories of healing the gospel writers are challenging socio-cultural boundaries regarding clean and unclean which more often than not tend to fall along class distinctions. The healing stories also foreshadow the resurrection, the ultimate transition from broken to whole.  The re-incorporation into community life seen through healing stories is a critical component to any ecological Christology. What are the broken pieces of our natural world that have been splintered from community and reduced to objects or means? How can we attempt to make them whole and re-introduce them to community? Or more likely, what are the broken pieces of our natural world that we need to see with new eyes and allow ourselves to recognize as a part of our vitality and abundant life? What is our responsibility to nature?

Salvation

If we submit to McFague’s definition of sin within an ecological theology stated above, salvation is “neither solely human nor spiritual. It must be for the entire creation. and it must address what makes different creatures and ecosystems flourish.”[7]  These may be abrasive words to many, but traditional concepts of salvation reflect Platonism more than the redemption spoken of in the Hebrew Bible or of the Cosmic Christ that reconciles all things to himself (Colossians 1). Salvation entails repentance to God and to the entire earth community.

Prophetic Criticism

Because of his embeddedness within a particular context, Jesus not only witnessed abused power but was also affected by it. His own experience and his solidarity with the oppressed led him to be outspoken when persons in power used religion or status or law to dehumanize others and/or esteem themselves. Such dehumanization toward the unclean, the sinners and various Others by persons in power failed to recognize and respect the imago Dei within them. This creates a culture of blindness to the image and presence of God all around us. Similarly, when those in power mistreat forests, fisheries, rivers, the atmosphere, and the people that surround them and depend on them, they are failing to respect the imago Dei pulsing through creation. Do we see God present in creation? What do we do when power is used for exploitation rather than blessing? How do we reveal God through creation for justice?

Resurrection

Lastly, the resurrection is crucial to an ecological Christology because it promises hope. “The resurrection will not solve our ecological crisis;” writes McFague, “it will not tell us what to do with regard to either small or large problems.”[8]  However, what the resurrection does accomplish is the symbolization of the “triumph of life over death.”[9] That death has the final word is not something that Christianity affirms. We live into and participate in a story that affirms and hopes against hope that there can be new life, different life, and better life in the midst of brokenness and even death. This must propel us beyond despair and helplessness.

So…

Discerning the proper response to the environment, as well as defining the role of nature in redemption is still a hotly debated issue within Evangelicalism. How can these categories be better elaborated on and better pointed toward community praxis and toward moving this conversation forward in Evangelicalism? What would you add or edit? Are these concepts true to orthodoxy vis-a-vis early creedal statements? Do you agree with the definitions of sin and salvation, or rather, do they cohere with the biblical categories of sin and salvation?

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1. Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have it?” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 39.

2. Ibid., 41-42.

3. Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, The World: Creation and Deification (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 1.

4. Ibid.

5. John Chryssavgis, ed., Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eeardmans), 24.

6. McFague, “An Ecological Christology”, 32.

7. Ibid., 38.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.