How, then, shall we live?

2004-11-17 01:01

(Another copy from ChristianForums: the original thread is here.)

One of our regular posters has adopted the habit of responding to theological claims with a simple question. “How, then, shall we live?”

This is a good question. It is an excellent question. It is sometimes the only question that matters.

How, then, shall we live?

This is the ultimate question of nearly all philosophy, and the basic question that religion mostly answers. A claim which does not change our answer to this question may be interesting, but it is a different kind of interest, and the answer has a different kind of importance.

I frequently respond to questions that would not affect my answer to this question with simple apathy. Why should I care? What will it change?

Jesus says to love your neighbor. We have a discussion on what He means by “neighbor”. This, I think, affects how I will live. Is the person across the street from my my neighbor? How about a friend of a friend who happens to remember that I live in the Twin Cities, and wants a ride to the airport? This person doesn’t liive near me, and I’ve never met her… So it matters how I understand the term “neighbor”. Am I called to love this person? Is giving her a ride a good way to express that?

For an example of something that, perhaps, has less of an effect on me: Consider the question of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Imagine the heated debate; did Mary go to Heaven in the normal way, leaving a corpse behind, or was she assumed bodily into Heaven? Well… What am I going to do differently if I decide one way or the other? I’m not much for trying to track down two-thousand year-old bodies, so it’s not clear to me that any decision I ever make will be affected by this. When would I need to know? What would I do differently?

One problem we often see with theology is that it ends up giving us no practiical advice. Worse, it can take away perfectly good practical advice. One objection I’ve seen made to naive interpretations of Calvinism is that it removes any basis for making any decisions, by asserting that we won’t make any. Well, if we won’t make any decisions, why does it matter how we talk about them, or think about them? (Note that not all Calvinist views run into this problem.)

So… This is something to keep in mind when discussing theology. Some of us are mostly concerned with the pragmatic question. How, then, shall I live? I don’t really understand the future, I don’t have any conceptual grasp on “eternity”. Those, I am willing to leave in God’s presumably capable hands. What difference would it make? How could I change my life if there were possible problems? So I don’t worry.

But I pay a lot of attention to theological questions that will tell me how to live, because that’s sort of the name of the game.

Now, someone’s probably going to come in and talk about “works”. Salvation, we are assured, is not through works. Indeed. You cannot follow a book of rules and end up saved. You cannot take an action to force God to make you happy. No amount of taking actions will fix these problems… But that isn’t the same as living a given way. A lifestyle goes deeper than a set of actions; it’s an entire way of approaching the question.

Shall I give my neighbor a ride to the airport? I should. This follows from love… But the other way around doesn’t work. I could wear out three cars giving people rides to the airport without loving any of them. How shall I live? Not by resenting people, not by begrudging them the charity I feel I must give to be worthy… But by actually loving them. That’s a way to live.

It’s not that these things are rewarded by salvation. God isn’t a salvation machine that requires exact change. It’s that these things are a way of expressing something, and that something matters.

This is the danger of confusing faith and belief. We talk about faith, and faithfulness, and we sort of understand what we mean. A faithful spouse does not resent another spouse’s occasional impositions. Believing that you’re married is not the same as being faithful. You can assert the Nicene Creed until you’re blue in the face without loving anyone. It does not tell us how to live, only what beliefs would lead us to looking at the words of Jesus in a way that will lead us to the knowledge of how to live. It is the start of a journey, not the end. It is the milk we eat until we are ready for the meat.

How, then, shall we live? In love.

Peter Seebach

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