Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Santorum Gets Wrong

When I decided some months ago to start blogging again, I intended to avoid politics; I was just going to write responses to the lectionary.

However, when the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination feels that it's appropriate to criticize President Obama for a "phony theology" that is "not based on the Bible," I can't help myself.

When Republicans in Congress can summon an all male panel of clergy to complain that their rights are threatened by insurance coverage for women's healthcare (and simultaneously deny an opportunity to speak to a woman who was prepared to speak to how the laws impact her), something has gone off the rails.

When I say "what Santorum gets wrong," I don't plan to do a point-by-point rebuttal of his various statements and claims. The last thing the world needs is more Christians pointing fingers at each other and saying, "I'm right, you're wrong."

Today, however, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. While there is a heightened focus on sin and all our various collective and individual failures, there is also necessarily an emphasis on forgiveness and salvation. What Santorum and people like him appear to have not understood - perhaps conceptually, intellectually, but clearly not in their hearts - is that salvation isn't up to us.

Oh, we can have a long argument about salvation by faith versus salvation by works, but that misses the point, too. It's not up to us. It's salvation by God.

The writers of the New Testament reached a pretty clear consensus that grace is a gift, freely given. We don't earn it, and in fact, we can't earn it. There is no person so good, so pure, so virtuous that they can enter into eternal life by their own efforts. No one deserves to go to Heaven. The astonished disciples asked Jesus, "Well, then who can get into Heaven?" He said, simply, "For mortals, it is impossible." Remember, this is the guy who also said, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell a mountain to uproot itself and fall into the ocean." But Heaven? "For mortals, it is impossible."

And then he says, "For God, all things are possible."

A lot of people - hopefully most people - concede this, even if they maybe don't really believe it. The most self-righteously pious, judgmental blowhard televangelist will also probably be the first person to say he's a sinner, but he's also a lot like that pharisee in the classic parable, pointing at the tax collector and saying to God, "I may not be perfect, but at least I don't sin as much or as badly as that guy." That's really where we find ourselves. "I may not be perfect, but at least I do not have sex outside of marriage/I do not use birth control/I have not had an abortion/[fill in the vice of your choice]." That's basically Rick Santorum: I assume he wouldn't dare say (and doesn't believe) that he's not a sinner, but at least his theology is "based on the Bible," not like that other guy's. It is a classic case of "holier than thou," in the most pathetic and literal (if illiterate) sense.

So it begs the question: if no one is perfect, then just how imperfect can we be, and still get into Heaven? And if that sounds like we're framing the question too much in a "works-based" theology, then let's rephrase: no one fully understands God or gets everything right, so...how wrong can we be and still be "right enough"?

But there again we fail to remember it's not up to us.

The Bible, which is sometimes described as a record of the history of salvation, is not a book full of inspiring, feel-good stories about virtous people, or, at the very least, that would be a grotesque oversimplification. It's a book full of troubling - but ultimately inspiring - stories about a whole lot of very real human beings who say and do all kinds of dumb, mean, fearful, selfish things. What we're meant to take away is that people are complicated, and that God can work with us and through us even though we screw up in ways big and small, all the time. Our brokenness is not an obstacle for God. Paul strenuously insisted that nothing can separate us from God's love, one of many verses the literalists prefer to pretend come with an asterisk.

And so, even laying aside the incredibly sad state of affairs that a self-professed defender of the Constitution does not understand why it's irrelevant, inappropriate and offensive to comment on whether the president's "theology" is sufficiently orthodox for the office, Santorum's own biggest mistake is failing to understand that no one's theology is sufficient.

You just can't legislate people into heaven, Rick.

4 comments:

tully said...

Andy, this is the artist formerly known as "little cicero." I'm glad you're blogging again! I take heart in seeing that you're still living through your faith! For my part, I never was much of a believer, although I lied to myself sufficiently well to harangue you and your readership for a while! For that, I am genuinely repentant. There wasn't much in those discussions I really believed in, except of course my argumentative skills. Hell, if my high school had offered a proper debate club, perhaps our ships would never have passed to begin with! At any rate, I wanted to thank you for your patience and good will. You certainly can suffer a fool gladly, now and then, and perhaps your Christian grace is to be partly thanked!

Anyway, Santorum is a Catholic, so his theology is not based on the Bible either. Next!

No, I suppose more must be said, by someone...for a Catholic, Grace itself is more works-based than the pure gift of Protestantism. Starting with Augustine (though, as the Church grasps for power this becomes nailed in less delicately) Grace falls on the side of the Son/Love/Mercy, in the Trinity, and is in perpetual interaction with the Holy Spirit/Faith/Will and Father/Reason. If there's a Trinity of which Grace is an intricate part, you can't go calling it a pure gift...it is shot-through with the ways in which the community of faith/will/spirit comports itself toward the father as it commits itself to receiving this Grace. It's hard for me to believe that Santorum has a sophisticated reading of Catholic theology behind him (I don't pretend to have had any such reading), but his Satan-talk reveals his overall warped reading: We have to elevate the entire nation, in defiance of the devil (I should add, I've never heard a Catholic priest talk about the devil), and his gay-Muslim agendas, as we would elevate the community of the Holy Spirit, to commitment of faith such as will invite the grace of God to fall upon us. Yep, that's the bat-shit crazy agenda I fully suspect from his corner.

But my problem with all this is: Of course salvation isn't up to us, but it's not up to some holy benefactor either. Even if such a benefactor exists, he is allowing murder on a massive scale, he is allowing centuries' old colonialism/neocolonialism to persist, and when people across the world are risking their lives in a struggle to end what God won't lift a finger to change, by spending our time talking about grace, waiting for grace, we spit on their efforts, we choose to remain complicit with those who silence and destroy these people.

Andy said...

Wow...well, THERE'S a blast from the past. You're too kind...I wasn't always terribly charitable, you did always know where my last nerve was and how to work it! : )

Yes, I realize the RC thoughts on grace/salvation are a little more complicated and more "works" based. One of my very, very favorite books is the 1962 Roman Missal -- there's so much in it that I just think is wonderful, and then I read things like, "If said silently, partial indulgence; if said out loud, plenary indulgence" and I think...WHA??? LOL.

At any rate, I just stick with "no one has it 100% right" (and I wonder...is it possible to get it 100% wrong?) and so as long as we're just having conversations along the lines of "here's what I think," EXCELLENT, but when we start heading down the path of, "I disagree with you, therefore you clearly are not a Christian" we are wasting God's time.

"Anyway, Santorum is a Catholic, so his theology is not based on the Bible either. Next! "

That's hilarious coming from you -- your last few years must have been interesting. : )

"It's hard for me to believe that Santorum has a sophisticated reading of Catholic theology behind him"

Rick Santorum doesn't have a sophisticated anything behind him.

Anyway, I'm not really "blogging" again -- I meant to try as a discipline, to force myself more regularly to deeply engage with Scripture and just put SOMETHING down as a concrete response, but I am awfully busy and while I'm good at the prayer discipline, it actually takes HOURS to write anything that I'd want anyone to see. So usually I don't.

Hope you are well -- truly, great to hear from you!

Jess said...

Nice to see this commenter reunion! Truly!

Regarding your post, Andy, as you know I'm not very religious. Although raised as a Jew--and still identifying as Jewish--it has been a long time since I went to temple, except for others (someone's bar mitzvah, wedding or funeral). I'm agnostic, as I concede that God may exist, or some great spirit, or perhaps even nothing at all, although I find it hard to believe in "nothing at all." Rather, I think it's more likely that whatever is out there is so far beyond the grasp of puny mortals like us that we can't know it, at least not from our current vantage point.

If God exists, I don't worry for my soul. I don't pretend to know what awaits us, but I firmly believe that concepts such as Hell are the cruel creations of humans. A truly divine creator doesn't dabble in torture. Also, our Father would know that we're flawed; He made us. Like all good parents, He would forgive us our flawed ways and merely show us the right way.

Setting aside what He might do for all, I will speak for myself. Am I perfect? Hah! Far from it. I can be selfish and thoughtless, and I've done many things over the years that I wish I could undo. But I try. I try to be a good person, fair and generous. I think I do well, on balance, and, most importantly, if God is out there (and among us & within us, as I was told as a child), then He knows what's in my heart. He knows my flaws, but He also knows what's good in me. Overall, I can live with that, and I hope He at least would say, "Jess did okay."

Andy said...

: )

Yes, I think Heaven & Hell are absolutely human constructs, our best collective guesses at what happens when we die, our intuitive responses to what we sense or, as Christians might put it, to what we believe the Holy Spirit is telling us. But I am fairly confident that if there is a Heaven, there will be rugby there, and you will be there taking pictures.