Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Jesus Not Being a Means to an End

In his book Disruptive Grace, George Hunsinger, currently professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, criticizes Christians for regarding loyalty to Jesus as a means to an end. George reminds us that loyalty to Jesus is “the supreme end by which all other ends are judged and in which all worthy ends are included, though in practice there may be times when even worthy ends will need to be sacrificed for the sake of the supreme end” (96).
In practice, this means that remaining loyal to Jesus will require us to freely embrace suffering we could otherwise easily avoid. At least at such times we have Christ’s assurance that he will be walking with us.
This conventional Christianity, in which Christians regard Jesus as a means to an end, George refers to as “utilitarian Christianity” (98). It is a “Christianity” based on the perceived “usefulness” of Jesus. We may refer to it more sharply as Christian Olympianity. Even if we see him as the very best possible means, seeing Jesus in terms of his usefulness to us is a very Olympian way of looking at him. The false gods of Olympianity are more than happy to have us do that. When we do, they have us all the more securely in their grip.
George reflects briefly on ways in which we might wrongly regard Jesus as a useful means. We might understand Jesus, for example, as a good means for responding to our psychological problems. In this case, we see him as a good source of enthusiasm and happiness. We go to church because it’s upbeat and positive and we leave feeling better about our lives and world. We judge the Bible (and preaching) using the same criteria. We reject any words that question our own sinful devotion to the gods or the real cost of any commitment to Jesus. We also judge whether the church should call on the one true god as Father, like Jesus did, in terms of how we are personally inclined to feel when such a word is used in worship.
George also points out that we wrongly regard Jesus as a means when we understand him and his Church primarily as a good means for responding to societal problems. Nuclear destruction, catastrophic global warming, and the collapse of the Global Technological System would all be harmful, but we would be wrong to love Jesus as a way of avoiding them and wrong to hate him, as an inadequate means, if we couldn’t.
We Christians also think of Jesus, traditionally but wrongly, as the superior means of gaining the best rewards and avoiding the worst punishments. So we affirm certain beliefs; do certain acts, like go to church on some Sundays, donate some money when we do, and try to be nice to some people; and avoid certain other acts, like murder, all to stay on Christ’s good side. If we are on his good side, we expect him to provide us with health and wealth here and heaven hereafter. If things aren’t going so well for us now, we either increase our self-sacrifices, hoping these will appease Jesus, or we give up on him as an inadequate means and devote ourselves more thoroughly to one or more of the six false gods adored by our society. If we give up on him, this only means we stopped being Christian Olympians and became just plain Olympians.
The meaningful alternative to relating to Jesus as a means is to relate to him as our supreme end. God the Father freely chose in love to create us in and through Jesus. Jesus freely chose in love to die in the place—and for the benefit—of every human being and all creation. God the Holy Spirit powerfully declared Jesus to be the Son of God by raising him from the dead. In response to such graciousness, our basic Christian witness is to say “thank you” to Jesus and to gratefully share his graciousness with others.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci.
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