Friday, February 3, 2012

Conversion or Catharsis?

There’s a lot of debate in my denomination right now about the impact and influence of Calvinism, the theological legacy of the 16th century Swiss Reformer whose emphasis on human sinfulness and Divine sovereignty left an indelible mark on Protestantism in all its forms including Baptists. That debate has usually coalesced around the doctrine of election, or more specifically, predestination. But I don’t think Calvin’s doctrine of election is the real issue facing Baptists right now. Rather, I think it’s his soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and his insistence on a “regenerate church membership;” that is, that the church will insist on salvation actually changing a person rather than merely saying they’re changed when they’re clearly not. While most Baptists would agree with  Calvin on the necessity of the regenerate life for the believer, actual church practice is often quite different. Talk to most pastors and they’ll tell you that the number one issue they deal with day in and day out is an unregenerate church membership - pagans masquerading as Christians and wreaking havoc in the church. A “salvation” that leaves me just as pagan as I was before I was “saved” isn’t worth the trouble.

To be sure part of the problem is language. I sometime hear pastors and evangelists brag: “Eighteen people got saved last night” as though (1) it was their doing; and (2) salvation were a momentary, ephemeral, and exclusively emotional experience, this despite the fact that Baptist theology (see The Baptist Faith and Message, Article IV) clearly describes salvation as an on-going process that involves regeneration (conversion), sanctification (maturing in one’s discipleship), and glorification (the final transformation achieved only at our death or Christ’s Advent). There are three problems with the language “Eighteen people got saved last night”: (1) it “front-loads” the entire experience of salvation and reduces it to “regeneration” while ignoring “sanctification” and “glorification;” (2) it smuggles in a pagan notion (catharsis) and substitutes it for the biblical idea of conversion; (3) ten years from now, put out an APB on those eighteen and many will be nowhere to be found; they will have moved on to the “next big thing.”

There was indeed in the ancient world the idea that “salvation” was achieved in a purely emotional “release,” but it was Aristotle’s not the Bible’s. Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued that the purpose of the theater was to draw the audience into an experience that achieved an emotional release he called “catharsis.” After the performance, everybody goes home feeling better but largely unchanged. That is not the biblical idea of “conversion” which has at its core the idea that a person is changed, transformed; indeed, left so different that one can never feel quite so “at home” in the world again. Note: it does begin in an event, a moment, an experience, but it does not end there. It takes a lifetime to track the transformation through the convert’s life.

Premier Chou En-Lai of China was asked once what he thought of the French Revolution. He paused for a moment and then said, “Too soon to tell.” He was bearing witness to the fact that the Chinese culture had been around for centuries and that perspective was needed to judge the impact of something as “ephemeral” as the French Revolution. That’s why when people say to me, “Eighteen people got saved last night,” I often think to myself: “Are you talking about genuine conversion or merely catharsis? If you mean conversion, too soon to tell. Give it some time; we’ll see.”

No comments: