15 Questions for the United Church: Wendy MacLean Pt I

In a continuing series of interviews, The Believer’s Dilemma has examined the problematic theologies of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, which were based on original sin.  What do modern Christians believe? This week we have part I of an interview with Wendy MacLean, Minister of Vision and Transformation at the Montreal Presbytery of the United Church of Canada.

 

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Officially, all Christian theologies make some reference to the Fall of mankind in Eden as the origin of evil, sin and death. In practice, believers hold a wide variety of views about whether Eden is a literal event that occurred circa 4,000 BC or is an allegory for the human experience. This series of interviews represents denominational beliefs as understood by a single knowledgeable individual.  

 

History: The United Church of Canada was inaugurated in 1925, when the Methodist Church of Canada, the Congregational Union of Canada, and 70 per cent of the Presbyterian Church in Canada entered into an organic union. The motivation for the merger was principally pragmatic. Immigrants to Canada brought their diverse religions. As new towns and villages sprung up, particularly across the western prairies, it was not unusual for a settlement of a few hundred people to be divided into half a dozen denominations, each requiring separate buildings and ministers.  A ‘united’ Church was a sensible solution. Nonetheless, merging denominations with differing theologies (eg Presbyterians might believe in total depravity, limited atonement and predestination while Methodists might believe in freewill, personal responsibility and the possibility of universal salvation) provoked heated debates. Thirty per cent of Presbyterian churches refused to merge. The United Church of Canada was the first union of churches in the world to cross historical denominational lines and hence received international acclaim. It is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, and ministers to close to 3 million people in over 3500 congregations across the country. 

 

Position:  The United Church of Canada has its roots in traditional Protestantism and the Westminster Confession, although recent statements of faith (http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/statements ) are far removed from classical Calvinism. The United Church of Canada is one of the more liberal Christian denominations with a strong focus on social justice, tolerance and inclusion. It has become a large tent under which few beliefs are condemned as heretical.

 

Current situation:  The United Church of Canada struggles with aging congregations, declining attendance and churches that are closing.

 

Note: Italicised texts taken from the Westminster Confession (1646) and A Song of Faith (2006).

http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/statements/songfaith

 

1)  The Universe

 

A Song of Faith - God is creative and self-giving,

   generously moving

   in all the near and distant corners of the universe.

Finding ourselves in a world of beauty and mystery,

   of living things, diverse and interdependent,

   of complex patterns of growth and evolution,

   of subatomic particles and cosmic swirls,

we sing of God the Creator,

the Maker and Source of all that is.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  ‘The Song of Faith’ associates God the Creator with beauty, mystery, complexity and evolution. Was the universe created for a purpose?

 

Wendy MacLean:  What do we mean by purpose?  Does that mean there’s a goal?  The universe is part of a vast evolutionary process. The mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme talks about the creation of the universe as the sacrifice of stars. Creation is God’s self-expression.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  You see the universe as part of an evolutionary process that occurred over long periods of time?

 

Wendy MacLean:  Yes. We can see that creation is a vast, complex process. It was not until after the first stars died and exploded that carbon was released. Creation is not a one-time deal from the distant past. It is ongoing.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  When you say “creation is ongoing” are you thinking direct divine intervention or a hands-off process executed by natural laws?

 

Wendy MacLean:  God is the source of everything. I believe that God is using these processes to create the universe. It is difficult to conceive of so much beauty and complexity without a guiding intelligence behind it.  It’s all part of the holy mystery. When we put ourselves at the centre we feel we can describe a purpose and a direction. If we take ourselves out of the centre, then we are part of something vaster.  

 

2)  Natural Evil

 

(A Song of Faith)   Each part of creation reveals unique aspects of God the Creator,

   who is both in creation and beyond it.

All parts of creation, animate and inanimate, are related.

All creation is good.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Tradition Augustinian/Calvinist theology says that creation was good until the Fall, which brought sin, suffering, evil and death into the universe. The Song of Faith says that creation is good.  Those are two very different perspectives. How do you account for an all-powerful God permitting natural evil in the universe?

 

Wendy MacLean:  I don’t think we can personify God to the extent of knowing the motive for everything. I do believe in the Providence of God: a dispensation for goodness. It is God’s nature and desire to create, to provide, to love. Do I understand why evil exists? No. Can I explain it?  No. I certainly don’t believe natural evil is caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve. Original sin is not a burning issue in the United Church. Eden is a simple story meant to help us understand a complex mystery. I do not believe the creation stories can be interpreted literally.  

 

3)  Human Beings

 

Westminster Confession -   Of Creation

 

II. After God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures

 

A Song of Faith - So God creates the universe

   and with it the possibility of being and relating.

God tends the universe,

   mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.

God enlivens the universe,

   guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Why do humans exist?

 

Wendy MacLean:  We’re part of the dream of God. We are giving birth and being born at the same time. I love the story of Eden because it speaks to a wisdom, but it’s a small story for such a big mystery.  The Westminster Confession opens with the statement “The chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”!  Joy is a wonderful way to picture our relationship with God.  The other word is glory – doxa.  We live to be that doxology, to be that praise of God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  In this world, God often seems remote.  Is that because we have shut our eyes? Or has God intentionally left us to our own devices?

 

Wendy MacLean:  God is not remote. God is in every cell, every breath, every moment. We can see God or not see God. That is a mystery I struggle to grasp with my rational mind. There is also a little girl inside me who simply believes in God’s goodness and says, “I love you, Jesus.” Those two states of mind co-exist. The big picture is the ongoing mystery of creation.

The little picture is that I do not have to reconcile the contradictions. I can just believe. God is with me.  Even though I am just one person I am important to God so that every hair on my head is numbered. God is vast and at the same time, intimate.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: The Song of Faith describes God as mending brokenness, reconciling the estranged, and guiding all things in harmony. How does that fit into the question of why humans exist? 

 

Wendy MacLean:  That is the idea of the kingdom. The purpose of the kingdom of God is healing and wholeness for all. I believe that is evolutionary. How long have we been on the planet?  Just a moment in time. We are just a blip on a much bigger picture.  Currently we’re very human centered. We want everybody to be happy and healthy and fed.  Later, we’ll move beyond the way we experience life now.   We’re part of creation that is vast. The Providence of God longs for the goodness of creation.  

 

4)  The Existence of  Evil 

 

Westminster Confession - Of the Sin of Man.

 

We believe that our first parents, being tempted, chose evil, and so fell away from God and came under the power of sin, the penalty of which is eternal death; and that, by reason of this disobedience, all men are born with a sinful nature, that we have broken God’s law, and that no man can be saved but by His grace.

 

A Song of Faith - Made in the image of God,

we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.

Yet we choose to turn away from God.

We surrender ourselves to sin,

   a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.

Becoming bound and complacent

   in a web of false desires and wrong choices,

   we bring harm to ourselves and others.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Confession establishes the origin of sin and death in Eden. Ever since, human nature has been depraved.  A Song of Faith speaks about sin as a choice.  This is different language. Why do you think a God of perfect goodness created - or permitted - evil?   

 

Wendy MacLean:  It’s hard for me to conceive of original sin and a wrathful God because I’m caught up in the joy of God. John Newell talks about the heartbeat of God. We’re not separated. Science is drawing us in that direction.  Nature has flaws, but the paradox of these is that they in themselves are part of the on-going evolution, changing and re-forming, and transforming the planet. Evil as we understand it is also contextual. Historically, it was considered evil for women to challenge their husbands—it still is in some cultures. We have moved past this in our culture. Our theology and the voice of the Spirit and the witness of Jesus Christ continue to tune our hearts and minds to the presence of justice and goodness. How can we live up to the call? We are obliged by our faith to challenge evil. In our “New Creed” (http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/creed) we are called to “seek justice and resist evil.” These are not passive responses. We look to scripture as a living word to guide us.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: What does Eden mean to you?

 

Wendy MacLean:  I love the story of Eden. I’m a feminist. I love Eve. She’s my mother. She was the one who represents an individual consciousness. She said, ‘Let’s see...’ She represents awareness. I know that Augustine portrayed Eve as the villain who committed the original sin which caused all her offspring to be born depraved. I don’t believe that.  I see much more truth in the writing of Matthew Fox who wrote a wonderful book called ‘Original Blessing’. In the evolution of consciousness, Eve’s daring represents the challenge to mindlessness. The United Church vision of the kingdom is not the same as Eden: The kingdom is not a perfect paradise where nobody has to think or work or worry. It is a place where all life is respected and beloved, where every living thing has life “in its fullness.” Eve’s courage is a symbol of taking up authority: finding a voice. It is a tragic story as well, since for the rest of history Eve’s voice was despised. The sign of the kingdom is when the voices we use reflect or echo the voice of God. Christ is an example of this. Maybe this is why he is portrayed as the second Adam: not because he was like the creature before Eve corrupted him, but because he represents the whole human being: living as the image of God even in the midst of all the human incompleteness.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If you dismiss Augustine’s ideas about Original Sin, how do you account for an all-powerful God permitting evil?

 

Wendy MacLean:  There is an old story about Eden where Satan is furious because he is the one who wanted perfection. God created us human, which is imperfect. The perfectionist nature that Satan demands in this story is a cheap imitation of God—the same arrogance that the Ten Commandments warn against: idolatry.  We are not God. Satan’s temptation is, “You will be like God.”

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Did God create us imperfect, or free to choose good or evil?  

 

Wendy MacLean:  The distinction is not perfect-imperfect. I am referring more to perfectionism, which is an obsessive striving for control beyond our own field of influence.  God doesn’t intentionally build in imperfection. God creates with perfect wisdom. The freedom to choose was interpreted by Satan as an imperfection.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  What is the role of evil? 

 

Wendy MacLean:  Evil leads us away from God.  Evil is usually very subtle and seductive. It can look like goodness. It is mostly about power, but power per se is not evil. The mystics were always fighting arrogance because the only way through this kind of evil is humility.  The greatest temptation is to fix that longing for wholeness by covering it up.  We try to deny our human limitations by pretending we are far more powerful than we really are. The traditional deadly sins of lust and gluttony are just ways of trying to have power over our incompleteness.  ‘A Song of Faith’ reminds us that sin can also be cowardice and apathy.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: When you say “the Church” are you speaking about the United Church or the entire Christian Church?

 

Wendy MacLean: I’m thinking about Western mainline churches. In the United Church our focus has been more on social justice than on sin. Our voices have been very strong in protesting against practices that exclude, oppress, or torture other human beings. We have attacked the systemic presence of evil. For example, the United Church was the first denomination to ordain women. In 1986 the report on Human Sexuality challenged us to consider practicing homosexuals in the same context for ministry as we would heterosexual candidates. This rocked the church. It was an excellent opportunity to witness to our convictions, and to challenge evil.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma: I have heard pastors from other denominations question whether the United Church is still a religious organization since it has focussed its attention on social justice rather than sin and salvation.  The United Church appears to be in decline.

 

Wendy MacLean: It is true that congregations are declining and churches are closing.  This offers us the opportunity for resurrection. Even this apathy is an opportunity for grace. From the time of Constantine, the history of the Church in western culture has been complicit with the power of the dominant culture. We are moving toward something new. We’re freer.

Believer’s Dilemma: Isn’t there a danger of being so free that you end up with nothing?

 

Wendy MacLean: Yes. When you open up the ways of thinking about God, you expose yourself to accusations of believing everything and nothing. But a belief system that is not tightly bound to orthodox principles can be just as faithful as a very rigid belief system because you can never name God precisely. God is not a domestic deity who is ‘useful’ to us. It is not unfaithful to regard God as a mystery who cannot be precisely named. The Hebrews could not see God and live. The question is, “How do you have a relationship with something so vast?”  The intention of God for the incarnate Christ was to show us there is a way to access this great mystery. The theology of Teilhard de Chardin speaks well for our times. We are part of the Christ spirit.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Mathew Fox has some interesting things to say about that. Original sin made it impossible for depraved sinners to have a relationship with God, and redemption only benefitted the elect.  

 

Wendy MacLean: Some of that theology is so deeply engrained in our culture that people who have no sense of it being a theological notion are still living with those categories of universal sin and conditional salvation. There is a longing for certainty, and to have perfectly clear categories of right and wrong. This is the nature of Fundamentalism. The United Church has a contextual theology which challenges us to live with the ambiguity that we cannot think like God, yet we are called to live in the justice that God asks. Christ came to show us the way, but in the end, we are not God. We live in the paradox, trying to be just, compassionate and faithful.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Fundamentalist Christians accept that God will condemn people to eternal torment for no reason other than that they did not know Jesus. That is a horrible legacy of original sin.

 

Wendy MacLean: Most Christians believe we are free choose to accept Jesus or not.  If you don’t make the right choice, you are responsible. What about people who are poor, ignorant and damaged?  How much choice do they really have? They are born into misery. Did God cause that to happen? Have they been rejected? There is brokenness in Creation.  That’s how we’re all implicated.  We are all human beings. We are all of equal value.  That is the nature of compassion. If something hurts you, it hurts me. We cannot be at peace until everyone is well. The United Church is not a creedal church, so what I say may differ in some ways from what my colleagues say, but the basic theology and spirit will be the same.  I will not say: “I am right and you are wrong,” but I will say: “We have different ways to get where we’re going.”

 

5)  The Conflicted Human Nature

 

Westminster Confession   - Of the Fall

 

I. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

II. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God,  and so became dead in sin,  and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

III. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

 

A Song of Faith  - Yet evil does not—cannot—

   undermine or overcome the love of God.

God forgives,

   and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings

   with honesty and humility.

God reconciles,

   and calls us to repent the part we have played

   in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.

God transforms,

   and calls us to protect the vulnerable,

   to pray for deliverance from evil,

   to work with God for the healing of the world,

   that all might have abundant life.

We sing of grace.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  According to Luther, we are born totally depraved because of original sin. Only the elect are transformed by grace.  The Enlightenment turned original sin on its head.  According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are born perfectly innocent but are corrupted by society. In the modern world, we are more inclined to see a mixture of forces and temptations.  Do you see human nature as essentially good, evil, or a mixture of both?  

 

Wendy MacLean:   I believe human nature is basically good because we are made in the image of God. We find meaning and life in the Christ-spirit, and believe God is creating and re-creating in us and with us. This is good! as God said in the beginning. Our culture is more familiar with the concept of ‘ego’ rather than traditional theological language like ‘depravity’ and ‘bondage to sin’.  For me the choice is not between good and evil but between ‘ego of self’ and ‘surrender to God’. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  ‘A Song of Faith’ says that “evil does not—cannot—undermine or overcome the love of God. God forgives, and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings with honesty and humility. God reconciles, and calls us to repent the part we have played in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other. God transforms, and calls us to protect the vulnerable, to pray for deliverance from evil, to work with God for the healing of the world... ”  That is a powerful image. Evil exists but it cannot overcome the love of God.  Is this what you mean by surrender; that we allow ourselves to be surrounded by the love of God? 

 

Wendy MacLean:  Yes. We need to make space for God. Surrender is a spiritual practice. It is the act of metanoia, or “turning” which we practice in the prayer of confession. Surrender is the traditional “Not my will, but Thine, O Lord.”  In our contemporary language we speak of “letting go” and imagine this in terms of ego, which takes up a lot of space! Neil Douglas-Klotz has made a powerful translation of The Lord’s Prayer, in his book: ‘Prayers of the Cosmos’.  He translates “hallowed be thy name” as “make space for the name to dwell”.  Even as a physical image, that’s quite beautiful.  Once you make space, God will fill it. The act of prayer is to make space. It is not all me directing my world and telling God what to do.

 

6)  Primitive Peoples

 

Westminster Confession  - Of Covenants

 

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Scientists estimate that human society precedes the traditional dates for Eden (4,000 BC) by many thousands of years.  What kind of relationship would those remote cavemen have had with God?

 

Wendy MacLean: Ancient societies often believed in an Earth Mother and a Sky God.  The Church hated the idea of a living relationship between heaven and earth.  The Canaanites and other ancient peoples worshipped their gods in the High Places. They had female deities. The mother Goddess embodied fertility and birth.  Those ancient people had a strong relationship with the divine. They recognized “mana” or a transcendent power, which they imagined in many ways.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Matthew Fox has written extensively about the need to reconnect our religious vision with the earth and to rebalance our male-female spirituality. There is a whole group of conservative Christians who absolutely despise Fox’s writings and barely stop short of calling him the antichrist.  They denounce his New Age Spirituality, ecology and feminism as a revival of the gods of the High Places which were abominated in the Old Testament.

 

Wendy MacLean: Those were women’s rituals. When Jephthah made a vow that caused him to sacrifice his own daughter as a burnt offering, she implored him, ‘Give me two months to visit the high places and mourn my virginity with the full moon’ (Judges 11:29- 40) Jephthah’s daughter needed to connect with other women, to name the sacredness of life, which was being sacrificed for war. The high places were shrines. The Patriarchs hated that stuff. They were terrified of the strength of women so they had to destroy the shrines, and the rituals of women.  Judeo-Christian worship breaks away from worshipping nature deities.  The Law and the Torah liberate people from the random nature of weather and seasons and landscape. Women and women’s rituals acknowledge the power of fertility and bringing life into the world. This fecundity is part of the bigger song of creation and life-bearing witness.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: For you, the Earth Mother and the Sky God are all part of the same divinity, or are they different? 

Wendy MacLean: God’s spirit permeates all of creation.  There are many ways of accessing holiness. Does that sound terribly Pagan? It is earthy. They are elements of a deity who is both transcendent and immanent. God is not a sky god or an earth goddess. Those ways of imagining God are not any more or less accurate than calling God ‘father’. They are metaphorical language. God is one.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: I’m sure a lot of people will think, “That’s not Christian. That’s exactly what the Hebrew people were ordered to destroy. Christianity fought to stamp out among the Druids and the tree-worshippers of Northern Europe.” 

 

Wendy MacLean: It is not worship. I don’t worship any trees!  Just like Catholics don’t worship statues of saints. It is more like reverence. It is prayer. Any woman going to fetch water early in the morning when it was dark would have said some kind of prayer or incantation to keep her safe. When she had a sick child, she would call out for help and healing. Is that anti-Christian?  Of course not. It is a human desire to have a relationship with a power beyond yourself.   When we honour our relationship with creation, we are acting more like the way God created us, not less.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: There are Christians who declare the divine nature is so obviously visible in creation that anyone who does not worship the God of creation is without excuse (Romans 1:20).  Ironically, ancient people who had no Bible are without excuse if they did not recognize God in nature, and damned if they did, but called him by different names, including the Mother goddess.  

 

Wendy MacLean: It’s all about having control. Where it really gets twisted is when the desire for power becomes superstition and magic. Then ritual turns into making deals with God to gain control over the natural world. This takes us back to Eden and the temptation to be gods. We address God as ‘Father’ in our most beloved prayer that Jesus taught us. Why would we ever dare to assign God a gender in the first place? Christ speaks of an intimate relationship, and models this on a human one.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: That’s an interesting point. People who condemn Paganism and New Age Spirituality may find it perfectly natural to make deals with God in their prayers and to expect God to deliver. There is an entire Prosperity theology based on ‘name it and claim it.’

Wendy MacLean: That’s not being faithful. True faith is being in relationship with a mystery that we do not control. We live out of our faith. We live in trust. We can be certain that God is faithful. We cannot be certain that God will do everything our way. Thank God for that!

 

7)  Laws and Commandments

Westminster Confession  -  Of the Covenant

V. This covenant of grace was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If salvation requires true knowledge and a specific kind of faith – in Jesus Christ – how could that have been available to people who lived in remote times and places? How did a God of perfect justice reveal Laws and Commandments to all the peoples of the earth?  

 

Wendy MacLean: Pre-Christian and non-Christian people had relationships with God. Can I tell you exactly what that was like? No. I don’t have to know, because I am convinced that they are all God’s children.  We can’t approach scripture with a scientific mind. It wasn’t written like that. Ancient peoples had access to mystery in a very different way. They didn’t impose categories they way we do. They weren’t linear. They way we think is very post-Enlightenment.   The Laws and the Covenant are liberation proclamations. They are not to be used to oppress the stranger or widow or foreigner or orphan. They call for us to care for them, and to remember that we too were slaves at one time. Throughout world religions, we find the call to treat each other as we would like to be treated.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Paul wrote about this problem in Romans (chapters 10 and 11).  He was very concerned about how salvation applied to his Jewish friends and ancestors.  And he tried to connect the unknown god of the Greeks to Jesus. Paul wanted to believe that the God of salvation is inclusive, although his letter to the Romans is also quoted to prove that salvation is predestined and highly exclusive. Calvinists teach that the atonement of Jesus was strictly limited.

 

Wendy MacLean: I find the whole question difficult. I’m a very committed Christian. I’m a minister of the gospel. But I can’t imagine that God didn’t include other people. When we recognize the God in whom we live and move and have our being, we find ourselves in the Christ –spirit, which is generous and polyvalent.

 

8)  Reconciliation via Laws and Commandments

Believer’s Dilemma:  Protestants place a very high value on scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the truth that leads to faith and salvation. Therefore Christians have a tremendous advantage.   Do you think Laws and Commandments reconcile believers to God and cause them to live righteously?   

 

Wendy MacLean: Beatrice Bruteau writes about the Ten Commandments that even the laws themselves are iconic. They are the way through which we can see God.  So the rules serve to create a relationship. They are a gift that reveals God. That is why they are so sacred.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Paul wrote in Romans that Laws and Commandments were more inclined to cause people to sin than to live righteously.  So was there any real advantage for Christians to have these texts which so clearly reveal sin?

 

Wendy MacLean:  Again, I’m going to say that my faith is not about sin and guilt.  It is about a relationship with the mystery of God.  Brokenness exists, but our relationship with God is about healing. I truly believe in the original blessing rather than original sin. The Laws can be used to liberate or oppress. Jesus challenged the way the laws were being manipulated.

 

9) Salvation

Westminster Confession  -  Of Christ

Article VII. Of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe in and confess the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man, who, being the Eternal Son of God, for us men and for our salvation became truly man, being conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, yet without sin. 

Article XI. Of Justification and Sonship. We believe that God, on the sole ground of the perfect obedience and sacrifice of Christ, pardons those who by faith receive Him as their Saviour and Lord, accepts them as righteous, and bestows upon them the adoption of sons, with a right to all privileges therein implied, including a conscious assurance of their sonship.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  This brings us to the question of salvation.  The Jews believed that salvation required obeying the Ten Commandments and all the laws of Leviticus. Catholics connect salvation with baptism. Protestants require saving faith in Jesus. What do you think is required for salvation to occur?

 

Wendy MacLean:  This is something I don’t think about a whole lot, which may sound shocking to some people.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Many Christians spend a lot of time thinking about who is saved.  Fundamentalists believe their primary duty is to warn lost sinners that they need to be saved.

 

Wendy MacLean:  I see faith as a gift that allows us to have a deep relationship and profound trust in something beyond ourselves.  It provides freedom to be fully engaged in this life. That’s salvation. God is good, and wants goodness for all of creation.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   What about salvation as a gift that frees us from the temptations and actions that cause suffering?

 

Wendy MacLean:  Everyone suffers, even good people. Faith makes it possible to endure suffering by believing there is something beyond this reality. Does faith free us from temptations? We pray in the Lord’s prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” Faith gives us perspective. We learn not to be dominated by our needs or wants. When we are not caught in, captive to, or obsessed with something. We have a deep freedom. When we have been torn apart by something, and we find ourselves free from it, we recognize that as salvation. Salvation restores us to be fully ourselves, with God and in God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition, whether natural disasters or diseases.  There is also an entire category of suffering that we cause by our own choices. We harm our neighbours and we harm ourselves.  How can salvation free us from that?

 

Wendy MacLean:  I think that’s what forgiveness is. That’s how we can be made free from all that garbage and we can start again. We find ourselves in the Christ-spirit.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Forgiveness frees us from the past but it does not free us from present and future suffering.  Salvation would operate on a different level. It would require transformation of our nature so that we cease to harm one another and ourselves.

 

Wendy MacLean: Even if we stop hurting one another, the consequences of past damage are not going to go away. In forgiveness, we are set free. We find ourselves as “new” - newborn- ready to get back on the path.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  This is where we enter the realm of eschatology. Forgiveness allows us to turn the page on past suffering.  The sort of permanent transformation expected in complete sanctification would prevent future suffering. We don’t see in this world, but it is what many people expect of heaven.

 

Wendy MacLean:  That is part of the Amazing Grace which promises freedom from addictions.  I have see this happen in 12 step programs like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) which free people from life-destroying addictions. I’m not sure what you mean by “turn the page on past suffering”.  We have glimpses of the redemption that comes with “turning around”. Our lives are different. We don’t talk much about ‘sanctification’ in the United Church. In our liturgy we do proclaim the assurance of pardon, which reminds us of the abundant grace of God. If we were to speak about sanctification, it would likely be in the context of valuing creation and honouring God in the way we treat our earth and each other.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: In Evangelical circles where ‘personal testimonials’ are witnesses to the power of faith, the great stories come from people who endured suffering, or caused suffering, then underwent a profound change in their behaviour. Their lives were being destroyed and they were set free from those destructive forces. These are powerful testimonies that have caused many to become believers.

 

Wendy MacLean:  I believe that people can experience profound changes and the testimony is a wonderful way to proclaim God’s presence. The heavens proclaim the glory of God, and so do we.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Augustine, Luther and Calvin were all opponents of freewill. They were almost exclusively preoccupied with how to be saved from original sin. The on-going problem of personal sin was secondary.  Augustine addressed the problem of personal sin with sacraments and Purgatory.  Luther and Calvin addressed it with predestination and irresistible grace.  Whenever sanctification is brought into the foreground, someone is quick to bring an accusation of Pelaginism or Arminianism.  Christians have been far less concerned with seeking sanctification of their own sin than with warning non-Christians that they need to be saved. And what are they being saved from?  Directly or indirectly it is original sin, past sin. It has little to do with overcoming sin in any real way.    

 

Wendy MacLean:   Some Christians have been very concerned with sanctification of their own sin. I understand and believe in this charismatic experience of being saved. There are other devout and faithful Christians who have followed the way of Christ all their lives. I have a problem with the religious idea that you have to know the time and place you were ‘saved’ for it to be real.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That is the problem with viewing salvation as past. Whenever the emphasis has been on seeking holiness in the present, surrendering to the Holy Spirit, and living in a community of believers who encourage one another, tremendous things are possible. 

 

Wendy MacLean:  I believe in that and I long for it in our churches.  It is a wonderful boon to have that as the compass that sends us on our journey.

 

10) Who is Saved? 

 

 Westminster Confession  -    Of Effectual Calling

I. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit,  out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ;  enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God,  taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh;  renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good,  and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ:  yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit,  who works when, and where, and how He pleases:  so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

IV. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit,  yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved:  much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess.  And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Now let’s talk about who is saved.  Augustine placed the emphasis on damnation inherited through original sin.  Calvin also began with the starting position that we are all worthy of damnation but God predestines an elect few for salvation. Even the most hard-line Fundamentalists disagree with Augustine on infant damnation, and they part company with Calvin on the idea of predestination for the elect and the damned. Where does the United Church stand?

 

Wendy MacLean:  We believe that God calls everyone. We all have the opportunity to respond. Just as we have many languages, there are many ways of hearing God’s voice. “If today you hear my voice, harden not your heart. ” (Hebrews 4:7) This voice may speak in the wind or in the wee small voice of conscience.  The United Church would not put out blanket statements about who is saved and who isn’t.  Of course, we can’t be saved by Jesus if we aren’t in relationship with him.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If salvation is dependent on something as concrete as knowing Jesus and having faith, then how can everyone have the opportunity to respond?

 

Wendy MacLean:   We do well to speak of the faith of Jesus. This Christ-spirit permeates much more than our conscious understanding.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: the Westminster Catechism states quite bluntly that ‘They who never heard the gospel, and do not know Jesus Christ and believe in him, cannot be saved...’  There might be a loophole here for children with Down’s Syndrome but none whatsoever for non-Christians in the modern world, or for Pagan people in remote times and places, no matter how sincerely they worshipped nature as they understood it.

 

Wendy MacLean:   How can we presume to say who is saved and who isn’t? Jesus said, “Don’t do that!”  It is not for us to decide who is worthy and unworthy. We do not hold up the Westminster Confession as an authority. We do look to the gospels and the living word of scripture to help us understand. Who has authority? Love in action: the Christ-spirit made incarnate in living the way of Christ.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Augustinian/Calvinist theology denied salvation to multitudes who were not baptised as Christians or predestined to receive a free gift of grace.

 

Wendy MacLean:   The opposite, which I’m more familiar with, is that no one’s salvation is questioned.  I do not buy into the notion of who’s in and who’s out. Eternity is in this minute: the kingdom of God is in our midst. The danger of proposing universal salvation is that faith ends up having no real meaning.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: These are very complex issues. Calvin’s theology was anchored in original sin, which forced him to interpret grace and salvation in a narrow manner. Even he admitted his theology was horrible, but it preserved God’s grace. The gospel provided a wonderful undeserved gift for the elect, and the rest of humanity was only getting what they deserved for their sins.  

 

Wendy MacLean:   That is where we need to think of salvation as healing that is available to all.  It begins with reconciliation with God. We were made in his image and we find ourselves in God when we see the glory of God around us. We realize that we are participating in it. That is salvation to me.

 

Questions or Comments?

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Part II of interview with Wendy MacLean, here

 

11) Does divine love and justice ensure that salvation is available to all? 

12) What role does human freewill play in salvation?  

13) How does salvation bring an end to sin, suffering and death?  

14) Does supernatural power intervene in the natural world to answer prayer? 

15) What is the eternal state?

 

Tags: Brian Swimme, John Newell, Matthew Fox, ‘Original Blessing’, Teilhard de Chardin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Neil Douglas-Klotz, ‘Prayers of the Cosmos’, Beatrice Bruteau.