THE CHRISTIAN MISSION IS NOT ‘THE SALVATION OF SOULS’; IT IS THE SALVATION OF THE WORLD
[For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? (Mark 8:36)]
12 May 2016 | by Carmody Grey | www.thetablet.co.uk/columnists/3/8384/the-christian-mission-is-not-the-salvation-of-souls-it-is-the-salvation-of-the-world
The Christian mission is not ‘the salvation of souls’; it is the salvation of the world
The resumption of meat-eating after Easter was met with rejoicing and relief in my university chaplaincy. Abstaining from meat in our community is an ascetical rather than an ethical practice: we give it up because we enjoy it. The idea that abstaining from meat might be a positive sign of God’s kingdom provokes resistance and even derision among many Christians I know.
This is not surprising when you so often hear people express the purpose and meaning of Christian faith in terms of “the salvation of souls”. I don’t understand how we have got away with this language for so long when it is really bordering on the heretical. In modern English, it inescapably implies that God’s purpose in salvation is to retrieve from the mire of earthly existence a spiritual essence of each human being, which will be whisked away to somewhere called “heaven”, where it will float in a blessedly immaterial manner for all eternity.
As though God’s first creation, this world, was simply furniture, a pleasant setting for our brief sojourn; as though its manifold non-human lives are just passing entertainment, the sea and sky, mountains and forests a pretty backdrop to the true drama, which is conducted in a vaporous realm of soul and spirit.
Where this fits with the Lord’s coming again, the resurrection of our bodies and the renewal of all creation, I don’t know. In the Scriptures, the purpose of God is to save the world, the “kosmos”. In that peerless expression of the Gospel of John, Christ is given “for the life of the world”.
These thoughts came to me rather indignantly as I reviewed some of the devotional fare on offer for Ascension Day, which sometimes gives the impression that our spiritual destination is to kick off the dust of this world with a sigh of relief. But Ascension focuses our eyes on that which it presages: Jesus’ return. He departs in order to come again in a new way, because it is this world, the world God made, that God intends to save. Jesus does not snatch away into a Gnostic bliss those who are his own. He leaves with the promise that he will return to make God’s dream come true.
As long as we persist in thinking that salvation is fundamentally about being taken somewhere else forever, while God scrunches up the scrap paper of the first creation, we will never really commit to this world and its creatures, which is the world God has committed to saving.
In this mentality, the flourishing or suffering of animals will remain morally and spiritually irrelevant. It is no wonder we have difficulty motivating ourselves to care about the environment or about the lives of animals, not to mention political and social change, if we think spiritual purposes are restricted to “souls”. This terminology can only lead us to neglect non-human creatures, human bodies, material lives and concrete situations.
The Christian mission is not “the salvation of souls”. It is the salvation of the world. We are called to commit to this earth and all its contents: natural, social, political, environmental, human and non-human. What this means for our practices of consumption deserves particular attention in a globalised economy. At the very least, we should acknowledge that few Christians seem to take note of the fact that in paradise Adam and Eve do not eat the flesh of God’s creatures, or that in Isaiah’s prophecy of the new creation there is no predation at all. In the great biblical visions of peace that bookend our salvation history, no creature kills to live. Flesh-eating is a sign of the Fall.
But, abstaining from meat in the twenty-first century is not just a statement of Christian hope in God’s promise of the new creation. It is a prophetic political witness that the vile industry of incarceration, cruelty and slaughter, in which human beings thrive on the misery and defacement of non-human creatures, is a gross offence against God’s will for them and us. This appalling desecration of the human vocation and of nature’s dignity calls for Christian resistance and refusal.
Regardless of how we respond to this ethical question, Ascension is a call to confront not only Jesus’ mysterious bodily absence from this world, but God’s commitment to come back and finish what he began – a commitment we experience both as threat and as promise, as frightening and reassuring. We are not just “passing through” and picking up souls on the way. We are readying the world for the return of the king.
Carmody Grey is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Bristol.