Discuss Life and Religion with Tan Tai Wei

Salvation: Becoming “Children of God”.

with 2 comments

Within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the contradiction of seeking salvation for oneself  in a quest towards what would amount to the annihilation of the self in identification with Ultimate Reality seems to be acknowledged.  Within each has developed  a major  “bhakti” or “devotional” wing where the Ultimate is worshipped and adored in some form of its manifestation, with the implication that the worshipper remains distinct as self. So, the Absolute, “Brahman”, is worshipped in its incarnation in Vishnu or Shiva, etc., and hymns of praise  are sung in worship, and prayers recited. And Buddhism has developed into its “larger vehicle” and in some variety of that form has spread across Asia into China, Korea and Japan, with devotees worshipping and making  supplications to Heavenly Buddhas and Buddhisattvas, who had merited so much goodness as to be able to confer it on their devotees, and would so confer, being full of grace and mercy, and bring them upon death to their heavens wherein conditions are most favourable for achieving Nirvana. Nirvana too has undergone transformation, and become in the East the Absolute, the numerous Buddhas being its manifestations. So, in worshipping a Buddha, one worships ‘Transcendent Being” or “God”?

In China, Taoism too has tempered its  quest for seeming individual effacement in merging along with the Tao, especially when cross-fertilized with the coming of larger vehicle Buddhism. But even before that, Confucianism (Moism, also, in its own way) had balanced that escape tendency with its affirmation of personality and interpersonal relations with its overarching principle of “Ren”, or human-heartedness, to be practised with due reverence towards Heaven, conceived, if not yet as personal, as ultimate cosmic purposive Force with consciousness sufficient to endorse  rightness and punish injustice.

It has been the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition that asserts uncompromisingly the human person as a distinct being. As HD Lewis points out, that has been the  import of the creation stories compiled in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. We are not to be identified with God; we are neither emanations from nor destined to be absorbed into Him. In the latter conception, we eventually cease to be, and only He would exist. He made us, and so we are distinct from Him as creatures must be from their Creator. And there can be no escape from our creatureliness; escaping the constraints inherent in our selfhood would be self-defeating – we cannot cross over into the consciousness of other persons to know them and God, as God knows. The only route for us to relate to the world, other persons and God, and avoid the unrelieved loneliness that our finite state can imprison us within, is the way He has arranged for us. We have to, from within the only mode of experience we are capable of, so sensitise ourselves, by careful attending, education and training, to the “revelatory” inroads which things, other persons and God make upon our consciousness, and then, through equally careful responding, impacting the consciousness of our fellow humans (not God, for He knows us directly, as we know ourselves,  without the mediation of impressions) in order for them to also know and  understand us.

“No man is an island”. If we are to be sensitized to the realities each of us is confronted with, rather than remain imprisoned within our own warped imaginings within our “romanticised”, unreal world (wherein  we  become lunatic centres of our nightmarish presumptions), we have, in our age and cultural clime, to get ourselves educated and initiated into the  multi-cultural human consciousness that comprises the human mind today. For the “Spirit of Truth”  must have been “revealing” Itself all through the ages,  from within the variegated world cultures and sub-cultures, and It should not begin “from square one” at teaching the lazy soul who will not “seek” in order to “find”.  How would that teaching be possible, in any case, within each person’s limited lifetime? In past times, and even some remote places today, where inhabitants of culturally primitive and secluded peoples and tribes could have only the resources available within their domains, the Spirit of Truth would have to do with “revealing” only that they could be sensitized to, and being gracious would appreciate that level of “salvation” their worship in culturally infant modes enabled. But where opportunities have arisen for cross-cultural fertilisation, one should expect peoples to “seek” and “find”  across boundaries. This is surely the justification for purportedly higher cultures to “spread the good news” even if at risk of  “cultural colonising”.

Now, it is indeed “cultural colonising” in the bad sense when purportedly “higher cultures” transmit also the bad and untrue. During my many years at teacher education, I had had to contend with bad psychology and philosophy, such as behaviourist and materialist conceptions of mind, and I had often wondered if teachers would have done better, with their own commonsense understanding of their pupils as persons, had they not been required to attend “teacher training” where they had to pass exams by ticking so-called “objective test” questions on Skinnerian psychology, not unlike those rats and pigeons of Skinner’s  experiments picking and opening doors to cheese! What appreciation of and respect for other persons as minds would that training effect? And we have noted that even within established religious traditions there had been the  leads through blind alleys of seeking salvation in what amounts to self-annihilation.

Nevertheless, such blind alleys are byways along the path to truth, and could be taken as a temporary diversion, but only by those already along the true path,  lifted above the instinctive and unreflective mindedness of primitive living, and engaged somewhat in what has been called “the Great Conversation” of humankind. This conversation must finally reach the level of wonder about Ultimate Reality indicated in my first four postings, especially the third and fourth. It must rise above mere trainings in the physical  and human sciences, and their utilities, to include education about them and in the arts, and how all these cohere, enlightening us about  humans and their physical and social environments, reaching out eventually to the asking and answering of ultimate questions. Such is the “liberal education” that might eventually bring the person out of himself and his imprisonment within  untruthful or less than truthful grasps of other persons and things. He thus perceives the objective worlds of his experiences justly, and is enabled to truly relate and come to terms with other persons and the world – the only effective relief  from that solitude mentioned above, and one that preserves his personal identity whilst bringing him into healthy commerce with others.

Such an education must eventually bring the person up to the level of wonder about ultimate issues, the precincts of metaphysics and the great world religions. Initiation into this universal human consciousness, participating in and through all its levels and their multiple facets, eventually involving pondering over ultimate issues, all along taking cognisance of the contributions of cultures across the world, is what our becoming as human and rational beings must mean, in our age and clime. To evade this and not face up to the claims on our due attention would be to remain fenced-up from the objective worlds and their rightful demands on us, an evasion that imprisons within ourselves.

Now, into this human consciousness has entered the prophetic awareness of the “living God” of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, worshipping Whom the self would preserve, indeed enhance its identity and distinctiveness, in a precious, potentially interpersonal relationship. We may presume that, having pondered, even if only subconsciously,  on those ultimate issues of Reality, and having entered into the religious  consciousness we delineated, the prophets had found themselves sensitised, in a variety of life situations, to what seemed “the mighty hand of the living God” making inroads and leaving “messages” in those situations. They had felt left with no choice but to declare, as said in the Old Testament book of Daniel, that “the Most High is sovereign in the kingdom of man”, despite seeming personal and national disasters they had suffered, which had turned out, for them, to be precisely those occasions for discerning the love and graciousness of the living God of their deliverance. And so they saw that God is not only just, but also compassionate and merciful. Their sense of justice was still confused with their animal crave for vengeance, and so they were too prone to interpret personal, national  and natural disasters as enactments of divine punishment and justice. But they were also acutely sensitised to a God who must also be love, as God’s nature must surely exceed supremely any known goodness in man, such as the prophet  Hosea’s finding himself  still loving his adulterous wife. So Hosea was enabled to discern that God must surely be supremely loving and forgiving, and His lovingkindness must endure forever. So also, it is asked in the Book of Isaiah, “Can a mother abandon her sucking child?” Likewise, God, only supremely so.

So into the stream of human consciousness has entered this prophetic awareness that, far from Ultimate Reality being only a vague be-all, He is personal Deity who relates to humans in judgment, mercy and love. And it behoves us all, if we are to “become”  as humans at all, to engage in this  consciousness that is among those that define us as human, conversing with the prophets and testing out their insights, including crucially trying ourselves to relive their experiences within our own life situations. Whilst so doing, we might bear in mind that even idealist philosophies, in their regard of Reality as the One, “Brahman” or Mind, and also Taoism, would not say the Ultimate is utterly inanimate and oblivious. Mind must be somewhat conscious and has volition.  The Tao also, for it is surely a force for justice, besides its “acting by inaction”. Confucians, we have noted, have somewhat similar awareness to the prophets’, although not so fully rounded, with their perception of  “Heaven” as having mandatory power, and willing the right, and accordingly conferring or withdrawing its “mandate”. Even so-claimed “atheistic Buddhism” depicts Nirvana as “fullness” and “bliss”, and bliss is  experienced, implying an experiential centre of consciousness.  It would seem, therefore, that there has been a universal tendency not to see Ultimate Reality as blind and oblivious, and the prophets  had blown this insight to fullness in seeing God as “Heavenly Father”. And we have seen that larger vehicle Buddhism and devotional Hinduism have come quite near prophetic religions in singing hymns of praise to divine incarnations, and heavenly manifestations of Buddhahood, full of grace and mercy.

Then why am I Christian (whilst appreciating, in the prophets and other religious traditions, those  insights delineated above as to personality of Ultimate Reality and its call to us for worship)?  Before Jesus, and even after Him, prophets had failed to reconcile, for the human consciousness, divine justice (which they with the rest of humankind thought in terms of punishment  by inflicting pain), with the infinite love, mercy and forgiveness they rightly perceived in God. Jesus did that, and therefore, as He claimed, came to “fulfil the law and the prophets”. He did that by, as CH Dodd put it, “speaking the Word (of God) and being it”.  And so, as Austin Farrer ponted out,  John in his Gospel begins by boldly identifying Jesus with what “the Word (or Mind) of God” was, and then through the rest of his Gospel depicts His life as enshrining all that He preaches, and so provides proofs for His authentic “Sonship” with “the Father”.  What is this “Mind of God”? It is, as John says in his first letter in the New Testament, that God is not just loving but is love. Far from requiring vengeance against the sinner, He, as St Paul says, “justifies the ungodly” and “whilst we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. Revenge isn’t justice, and the pain of punishment inflicted on the sinner alienates rather than reconciles (unless well-handled towards some useful end, which we will see below). It is to bring the sinner out of his self-imprisonment, and to acknowledge other persons, and the supreme Person, God, and achieve the healthy personal relationship with other persons under God, the supreme Person, “in the bond of love”, that the work of salvation effected by Jesus Christ  is all about.

Jesus modelled His life on “the suffering Servant” depicted especially in Isaiah 53, with which the unknown so-called second Isaiah sought to explain the pains the Jews, “people of God”, had suffered. His suffering was the way of bringing reconciliation of persons  with the Holy God, and thus with one another. Somehow, the suffering, sacrificially borne by Israel, would serve to expiate sin and present  the sinner in true personal relation with the Holy God. So, “surely, He has borne our grief”. “He was wounded for our transgression and the chastisement of our peace was upon Him”. We must not make a travesty of this, as many “evangelical” preachers have, today as in the past. It cannot be as if God were blood thirsty for vengeance and so, in that sense,  “without shedding of blood, there can be no remission of sin”.  What justice are we talking about if we represent Jesus as being literally tortured on our behalf, assuming the torture were really required by justice for our sins?  Surely, justice would require “individual responsibility”, and no one else other than the sinner himself can “pay the price of sin”?   The insight  Jesus brought into the world is that justice is not vengeance, and does not require the pain of punishment. A wall had collapsed and some people were killed. His disciples, assuming the olden conception of justise, asked whose sins was that punishment for, the victims’ or their ancestors’. Jesus brushed aside that question as irrelevant, and said the incident was an occasion for us to “manifest the love of God”. Israel’s sufferings were not due to their sins, as many past prophets had misinterpreted, but might  serve a pedagogical purpose, as that insightful prophet saw, depicting the “suffering servant”. If the suffering borne as punishment could serve to correct the sinner, and if it were possible that another, out of love and grace, could bear that for him and still achieve the same, then Jesus would so bear, like that “suffering servant”.

HD Lewis tried to indicate  what it might have been. When a little boy, he was with his father, a Presbyterian minister, visiting a disturbed woman, who thumped at his chest, agitated and exclaiming “Why me, why me?!” Then the woman calmed down. And when Lewis and dad were on the way home, Lewis looked up, and saw tears streaming down father’s face. “The chastisement of her peace was upon him”, Lewis wrote. And so, also, a woman I knew, her husband  stricken down by stroke at 40, who was his nurse and “lifeline” all the while until  he died at seventy five, had  also to be beaten by him ever so often.  Once, he was sitting in bed (his legs remained atrophied all his life) and, demanding repeatedly that she stood with her back close enough for him to punch,  punched her repeatedly, each punch landing with a deep thud making her to fall a few steps forward  panting, but only for her to back up to him again to punch, for he shouted repeatedly “Come again!”, until he was satiated. Days after that,  whenever briefly free from nursing him and caring for their many children, she was seen rubbing her painful back, as far as could be reached herself,  with some leftover cheap medicated oil still available at home. Another time, she had filled up a bowl with hot soup and brought it to him in bed. He took it and poured it on her. And so it went on throughout his entire life, and I have not yet mentioned the psychological onslaught of a lifetime of nagging, nay scoldings and insults.”The  chastisement of his peace was upon (her)”, assuming her patient and loving bearing of it all  did go someway to soften him towards his soul-making and salvation. And, indeed, there also were periods of his better moods in his relations with her and their children, when he  seemed  remorseful, even prayerful.

If Jesus had to bear all the suffering just so that, among other insidious agenda His enemies had, Pilate could placate the Zadducees, whose power conferred by Rome depended on that tight balance of goodwill with Rome Jesus’s teachings and followings threatened to upset,  and just so that “the law”, which the Pharisees interpreted in their great details of the letter, would not be undermined and their prestige  as their interpreters and teachers usurped, or the extremism and violence the zealots, such as Judas Iscariot, wanted would not be thwarted, He bore it all, rather than deviate and compromise, and thus blur that unique consciousness of God no one else before and after Him could open up for humankind.  God is “Abba, Father”, and not, despite the prophetic insights of a God of love, nonetheless the remote promulgator of the law, the exact compliance with which, on pains of personal and national  disasters as punishment for failure, laid the  hope of mediation between man and Him. Once, the Jewish religious authorities wanted to stone Jesus for claiming “God was His Father”.

The Psalmist, for instance, had asked that God would bless His own and curse their enemies. Jesus said “love your enemies”, for God is your heavenly Father who seeks the lost sheep until He finds it, and rushes out to embrace the prodigal son even before he reaches home. And so, even on the cross, we are told, He told the thief “today you will be with me in paradise”, and prayed “Father, forgive them (who prosecuted and judged me unjustly, and those who carried out the orders, and nailed me here to die this cruel death) for they know not what they did.” He had said before all this, that “God sends the rain to refresh both the just and unjust”, and who pays the labourer the same whether he had started early or late. For justice and restitution is bringing the sinner to see his wrong and repent, and to bring himself to positively right the wrong, and seek reconciliation, rather than adding to the suffering of humankind through causing the sinner pain, as “payment for crimes”  which is no real payment at all.

The pain of punishment is in itself no payment for crimes. But it connects with justice in its possible function as a teaching aid, say to impress on the sinner the distinction between evil and good in the only way he can appreciate at the moment before he develops towards seeing the intrinsic evil of sin and the intrinsic worth of good. And so we saw in a previous posting that whilst there might arguably be a “purgatory”, there cannot rationally and morally be everlasting hell. So, then, since the suffering of punishment serves only to correct the offender, and justice does not require it in itself, it becomes no longer unjust if such suffering is borne vicariously, not by the sinner himself, but by some other, provided it achieves the same effect, in some circumstances even more effectively.

And so Jesus, functioning within that cultural setting (where, in order to effectively live out “the Word” of such a God as His “Abba”, He had to “fulfil” the “prophecy” His contemporaries had assumed about the “Messianic” onslaught on Jerusalem and the Temple), approached Jerusalem riding in upon an ass “as it had been prophesied”, thus performing an “acted parable”, like prophets were wont to do in that culture’s great tradition. Thus “suddenly appearing in His temple” as “prophesied”, He cleansed and reclaimed it from usurpers for His Heavenly Abba as “a place of prayer for all the nations”. He was not quite the sort of worldly Messiah the Jews  had been expecting, but neither could He repudiate the role and title without compromising His mission and its new and unique consciousness of God as Father. So, He could not deny it when asked by Pilate if He was “the king of the Jews”, and not to do so was technically treason, providing the legality for imposing the only penalty for that, ie  the Roman cross. Even before that, when being judged by His own kind, He could not, for the same reason, deny the so-charged “blasphemy” of His calling God His Father. He could have swayed a little, and still seemed to most to be still remaining largely within the  correct stream, as worshipper of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But had He done that, He would have betrayed that initiative for knowing the true God that was His mission to bestow to humankind, and subsequent humanity would be deprived the participation in that consciousness of God, and the relation to Him as Abba. We today have probably become too used to His conception of the loving God to appreciate fully the extent of the initiation He had brought within the human consciousness. A cousin of mine once protested, when asked, that he was not a Christian even though he believed in God. I suspect  he did not know how much his idea of God owed to Christ’s understanding and teaching!

Indeed, so new was His revelation of God that even His immediate learners and Paul, and those of the schools they gathered, had not totally learnt of Him, and so we noted in a former posting how Jewish “apocalyptic” literature, with their fantastic imageries of end things and the “grand assize” that brings about eternal punishment on those who know not God, continued to influence their interpreting of their Lord’s teachings. Thankfully, we have their due correctives in the best of their writings, especially the later Paul’s. And in Islam there has seemed to be much reversal to the old Jewish conception, despite the Koran’s revering of Jesus as a great prophet .

I quoted above CH Dodd’s “Jesus spoke the Word (of God) and was the Word”. Fulfilling this, He remained true to His revelation of the Word, and lived it. Not only was He not swayed, on pain of the cruellest dying the human imagination had ever created, from His presenting His Abba to humankind, He went willingly and sacrificially through it all, living out that divine fatherly loving which would take whatever it cost to impress  human awareness and bring man within that consciousness of God,  thus enabling them to truly relate with Him as “children of God”. His Abba would not withdraw rain from the evil if that would not heal, indeed He would bear whatever it would take, climbing mountains and falling down ravines, or dying of thirst amidst desert sands, just so that that one lost sheep could be rescued. And so Jesus  enacted in life this love of God, bearing the worst  man’s misunderstandings and  evil motives could inflict on Him, just so that that healing and reconciling love,  bringing about true restitution, justice and peace, might be demonstrated, and just so that, perhaps having seen that uncomplaining, unvengeful and still loving acceptance of the worst torture man’s hatred could inflict, evil hearts might soften, and like the Roman centurian in command of His crucifixion, be moved to exclaim “Surely, this is the Son of God”.

As that knowing and relating to God as Abba is made possible for us through participation in that unique God-consciousness enacted in the living and dying of Jesus,  we have in all this an important, if not the meaning of the saying “He died (and lived) for us”.  Had He not lived the life and died the death, that ‘gift” to humankind of that truthful knowing and personal relating with God would not have been. As it turned out, what theologians have termed “the Christ event” indeed occurred, irreversibly, in human history, behoving all humankind to become “grafted into” it (using Paul’s metaphor) and share that experience. And so that “sacrifice” was divinely accepted. Immediately following it was the affirmation of the Resurrection and Pentecost, giving rise to the “body” or commonwealth of so-grafted “children of God”.

In that eventuality that “eye had not seen, nor ear heard, neither had it entered the mind of man, the things that God has prepared for them who love Him” (a saying Paul approvingly quoted), justice will be very clearly reconcilable with mercy. For punishment and the pain it inflicts will no longer be needed as an aid for moral developing, since all will have developed, God’s being there “all in all”.  “The lion” will then be able to “lay down by the lamb”, as all evils will be acknowledged, remorsefully so by those responsible, and due restitution and just differentiation volunteered. Peace and goodwill will prevail, as persons, still finite and having their distinct existences, and therefore  remaining in being, and lovable by God and other persons, unite in the “bond of love” under our loving God.


Written by Tan Tai Wei

June 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. wow ttw rock


    July 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

  2. well written reflection

    God bless
    from SG

    gentle lamb

    February 19, 2012 at 9:23 pm

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