At the Bible Study on Tuesdays we began talking about Martin Luther. Thinking about Luther’s moment of conversion to ‘faith’ we naturally came upon questions of what it means to be a Christian for us. Someone said ‘Well there are lots of people out there who lead good lives who are not Christians.’ Behind this question is another question that goes ‘Well I am a Christian and I think myself ‘good’ and there are other people who are friends of mine whom I also think are ‘good’ but they are not Christians. If I am not willing to call them ‘bad’ and I think that the main point of being Christian is to be ‘good’ and you can be ‘good’ in my view without being Christian, then what is the point of being a Christian? What difference does it make?
So the first question to ask is ‘Where does the picture of what it means to be ‘good’ come from? To make a summary from our domestic situation being a ‘good person’ might mean being seen to be generous, not losing one’s temper, not being mean about other people, being seen to be a good parent and generally conforming to the norms of accepted behaviour in public.
Many people are unconscious of where their picture of ‘the good’ comes from, and sort of just absorb it from a mixture of sources like their family, and school, and workplace. The idea of the ‘good is an idea about how to ‘get on’ within the society
within which one is placed (however limited in scope the range of that ‘society is).
This is what was at stake, I think, with the referendum last weekend. The majority of people who voted to restrict people working in Switzerland had a smaller view of what constitutes the ‘our society’ than others. Employers who depend on employees from the rest of the European Union (like the SHUV in Lausanne) are alarmed because they ask ‘How are we going to find the employees we need from such a small base as Switzerland?’ But the people voting for a limitation on the movement of people were not thinking about that when they voted for the restriction. But in the French speaking Cantons, especially Geneva, for example, the knowledge of just how much they depend upon people coming who live in France to support their lives is something of which they are very conscious. Being Christian, because it represents a specific tradition and story promotes a consciousness of questions that others might not have.
But there are harder questions about the ‘good’ that can be asked. Does a ‘good’ person shift their income to a tax haven so that they don’t have to pay taxes in in a higher taxing country? Were the people who voted to restrict immigration to Switzerland ‘good’? Is it ‘good’ to keep on ignoring climate change for the sake of our carbon dependant lifestyle? Is it ‘good’ allow the disparity between the rich and poor to grow ever greater? And to use a harder case, suicide bombers have been shown to be completely sane, not crazy, and to have believed themselves to be doing a ‘good’ thing. They think that they are ‘good’. What is ‘good’ is by no means straight forward.
I think that most of what we think of as ‘good’ is first of all based around personal morality, and ignores some bigger moral questions. But second, I think that what we actually think of as ‘good’ in the West comes from the Christian tradition anyway.
In this picture, what we think of as ‘good’ is a way of life that has been so strongly influenced by the Christian tradition that we have forgotten the sources of this idea of ‘good’ and take it for granted, or call it ‘common sense’. So in this case the advantage of being a Christian is the advantage of being conscious of where our picture of ‘the good’ comes from, and second, the advantage of still being connected to this picture of ‘the good’ by being regularly connected to the reading of Scripture, and prayer, and participation in the Eucharist.
Another way of talking about ‘tradition’ is to replace the word ‘tradition’ with ‘story’. A story is a sequence of events that we tell to make sense out of those events. Take for example the observation that someone makes of a person rushing across a pedestrian crossing, and grabbing a child away from a distracted parent, just before a car is about to crash into them. Is this action ‘good’? Whether the action is good or not depends upon the story in which the action is set. If the person is a stranger who is saving the life of a child from death, then that might be ‘good’. But if this person is an angry divorcee who is snatching the child away from their parent while they are distracted in order to gain custody against the will of the courts, then that may not be ‘good’. What an action means depends upon the story we tell about that action. The differences in deciding what is ‘good’ depend upon differences in the story that one tells oneself about those actions, and whetehr or not there are enough people to agree with it to make it ‘stick.’
Being a Christian means knowing what is ‘good’ for Christians because we live within the Christian story. It is this story that tells us what is ‘good’. To follow Jesus is ‘good’. That is why it is important to be in conversation with other Christians about how the story of Jesus is having its effect upon us. To have faith in this context is to allow that we are in the Story of Jesus, and to allow that story to be the one that shapes us, as far as is possible. To be ‘converted’ is to allow oneself to ‘step into’ this circle of interpreting life.
This is the meaning of the classic Protestant riddle that goes ‘Only the one who believes can be obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes’. To have faith in Christ is to ‘step into’ Jesus’ story as the only determiner of life. But this ‘stepping into’ is an act of obedience to the call of Christ to us all to ‘follow me’. How this happens is a miracle and mystery.
But the main thing that I think is forgotten is that our primary relationship with respect to being ‘good’ is our relationship to God. This is where Luther seems hard, but true. Luther wanted to know how he could be found justified, good, able to stand before God. He was angry that not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament everyone was ‘not enough’ before God, no matter how ‘good’ they could be, but more particularly, even if they could be good. His release came when it dawned on him that being ‘good’ before God was not a matter of ‘doinggood things’ but of faith in Christ. I would say it was a matter of ‘stepping into Christ’s story as my story and letting those words be my life’. That is what Romans Chapter five says. That because we have been baptized into Christ, we are no longer in the sphere of separation from God, but in the sphere of being God’s beloved Children (in Christ). And it is that way that leads to life. That is what it means to be ‘good’. The rest is the necessary outworking of this shift in stories.