Secular Salvation: Repentance And Works Righteousness Interpreted For Non-Theists

‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’ Jesus (Matthew 3:8 NRSV)

It could be that sentimentality clouds my judgement, in that I continue to find in the Bible and the Christian tradition useful resources for approaching the challenges of life. This despite the fact that a few years ago I discarded all belief in the supernatural. Even without a deity, a devil, or the countless angels and demons, there is a fundamental framework in Christianity that still seems applicable.

Central to what became very early on the predominant form of the Christian faith is the concept of repentance and renewal. Over the centuries this has been refined, especially in the crucible of the Protestant Reformation, to define salvation as something that comes about through a genuine change of heart, and not through self-improvement efforts. Early American Unitarians rejected the former and embraced the latter, generally affirming ‘salvation through character.’ In my mind, this is simply nonsense.

Consider Corine, a white woman in her 60s who is very active in her local church and who regularly volunteers at the local hospital. Since the time she was a young mother she’s been a Sunday School teacher, teaching children to sing about how Jesus loves the little children, ‘red and yellow, black and white.’ After her husband died about a decade ago she also began helping out at the hospital, trying to bring a little cheer to people facing illness and injury. It would all be very noble, were it not for the fact that she is bitterly opposed to interracial relationships and believes that ‘Mexicans’ and other foreigners have no business in the United States. 

Not long ago, Corine encountered a dark-skinned man in the room of a sweet, blonde woman who had just given birth. Startled, she rushed to get security, and in her frenzy she let slip a few racial epithets. It turned out that the man in the room was the young woman’s husband, someone she’d met in Brazil where her missionary parents had raised her. Patients and staff alike had heard the ugly things she said, and the dye was cast. Corine was shown the door and asked not to return to volunteer at the hospital any longer. She was bitterly convinced that her opinion of immigrants was right, as one had cost her a beloved service opportunity. It made her furious that all her good work at the hospital hadn’t been taken into account.

Then there’s Jason, a man who was raised to believe that real men watch sports, never cry, and take pride in their sexual prowess with women. He considered gays to be a plague on society, a threat to children in general and boys in particular, and made his opinion on the matter well known. After all, look at all the boys those homosexual priests had raped in the Roman Catholic Church, right?

A new head of marketing started working at the company where Jason had been employed for several years. Andy was about Jason’s age and very athletic. Aside from that he was a craft beer hobbyist, and that scored him quite a few bonus points with Jason. It wasn’t until he and a couple of other co-workers were over at Andy’s house to try a new brew after work that he discovered that Andy was married…to a man. 

Jason excused himself early, claiming an upset stomach, and went home angry and confused. The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that his notions of what gay people are like were based on ugly old stereotypes. It took a few weeks of research and introspection, but eventually Jason set aside his bigoted attitude.

Corine worked and worked at doing good things, and yet her heart was unchanged. Jason did nothing outwardly, but experienced a profound change that transformed his way of thinking and dealing with others. It should be clear at this point that I’m affirming the essential notion of Christianity that real change takes place through humility and repentance, resulting in a better way of life. A person can do all the good deeds they like, and as long as they hold on to racism, homophobia, misogyny, or something similar, they are in no way improved as a person.

With or without a god or a gospel, true change comes from the heart.

The Slippery Slope of Southern Slaver Statues

I’ve long been dubious of the slippery slope argument in any context.

‘Well what if this leads to that?’

I remember well my old, white, Southern ministry professors telling my classmates and me that if musical instruments are included in worship, they’ll lead to ‘terrible things’ like women serving communion. Also the Bible would eventually stop being taught at all in such churches.

Give me a break.

Washington treated his slaves terribly. Jefferson raped at least one slave. Bellyache all you want. That’s actual factual history. You didn’t hear it in 8th grade history, but that doesn’t mean it was made up by scheming ‘leftist’ historians.

Still, statues of these and other founding fathers of questionable character were not put up to memorialize their defense of slavery or to intimidate people of color.

In the South, Confederate memorials have a long history of being set up to assert white supremacy. Just use a little empathy and imagine how you would feel as a black person in the South being surrounded by these idols.

In any case, as I’ve said, the slippery slope argument has no traction with me (try to pardon the pun). If calls start to be made to take down the various monuments in Washington DC, we can talk about that then.

In conclusion: White supremacy bad. Multiculturalism, empathy, and inclusion good.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Book Review)

At some point many years ago, one of my brothers bought a reproduction of a 1901 Sears Roebuck catalog at a school book fair. Like so many hand-me-downs, I inherited this volume after my brother’s were grown but I was still in grade school, and I spent quite a bit of time digging through its contents. Everything from carriages to linens to medications of dubious quality were available through this catalog, and I actually found myself dreaming of what it would be like to buy some of these things. In one section I a listing for a book entitled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and I remember vaguely that the description mentioned something about it being controversial. That was the first I ever heard of the book, and at the time that catalog was originally published, it had already been in print for a few decades. It was only in the past few weeks that I finally bought a copy of it for myself and took the time to read it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852, reflects very much the sentiments and prejudices of the time in which it was written. Its author, a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe, forcefully opposed slavery using some of the most condescending and racist notions. In this book she often described people of African decent as being more emotional, earnest, and even better cooks by nature. There were points in the book that I laughed out loud and her cringe-affirmations, all of which I took to be sincere, and most of them apparently intended to be complimentary.

Religion in this book centers entirely on Christianity. It was difficult at times to discern which denomination was involved, except in the case of the Quakers. There were references to Catholicism that were made in passing, and surprisingly none seemed negative (given the anti-Catholic sentiment among many Protestants in the US at that time). The slaves who were Christians were universally described as Methodists. The alleged emotionalism of blacks was seemingly what Stowe thought attracted them to Methodism, as this was portrayed as a more agitated and expressive form of Christianity.

Personal piety and a focus on the afterlife are what seemed to be the strongest characteristics of Stowe’s idealized Christianity. From time to time the question of the pro-slavery passages of the Bible came up in the narrative, and overall it seems to me that though she wrestled with the issue, Stowe failed to bring it to any satisfactory resolution. There was one death in particular that was extraordinarily over-the-top, which the person passing away making florid and lengthy appeals to those around to love one another and become Christians. Even so, that particular death affected me to some extent.

While this book follows the story of several blacks, it is told almost exclusively from the perspective of the whites. This makes sense in that Stowe herself was white, and thus unable to really see things through the eyes of an enslaved black person. That didn’t stop her from trying at points, and the result was generally disappointing and often offensive.

Towards the conclusion of the story it becomes clear that Stowe favored the eventual ‘return’ of blacks to Africa, though she wanted them to receive reparations before going, particularly n the form of education and the learning of trades. It is little known outside of academia that this was a constant theme among abolitionists of the time, including Abraham Lincoln, in that they wanted the blacks to be liberated and ‘sent back’ to Africa. I put that in quotes because, obviously, someone who is descended from generations of people who themselves were born in the United States cannot be ‘returned’ to anywhere else. They could be deported, but certainly not ‘returned,’ to what to them is a foreign land.

As I said above, this book reflects its times, and it apparently served its purpose. Where in our day social media brings us live and nearly-live scenes of famine, war, and human rights violations, in those times the printed word was the principal means for disseminating information. Despite its many and enormous flaws, this book proved useful in changing hearts and minds, furthering the national discourse against the continuation of slavery. For that, Harriet Beecher Stowe deserves all the credit she’s ever received, having done the best she could given the period in which she lived.