Distinctively Christian Faith

What makes Christian faith distinctly Christian? From the most ancient times, Jews knew that God’s reign is eternal, God’s steadfast love endures forever. Jhwh keeps his covenant with Israel through all vicissitudes. God is with us: Immanu-el. Christian faith might seem little different from this, but for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

During his journey from Anglican to the Roman Church, Cardinal Newman first thought he would find a clear basis for faith in the teachings and practices of the ancient church. But the more one studies the ancient church, the more one might question whether it had a coherent understanding; how much Jewish and Gentile Christians had in common during the time of Paul. The more Newman studied it, the more diversity he found. Knowing these things, he was driven to conclude that the authoritative thing is the Church in and of itself.

In our times and places, we make our best efforts to live out, interpret, and rationalize the faith. However far we may succeed, there is still some irrationality about it as it comes to us. God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who says “Follow me,” then goes to his death. Still the resurrected Christ issues individual callings to us, each one unique, and some replete with painful ironies. Whatever might have made easier sense to us, we have to take the gift in the way God gives it. It is for us to take up our crosses as they befall us.

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Here is how Resurrection faith operates in everyday life. Somewhere along the line, a seeker says, My work isn’t as successful or meaningful as I hoped it would be. Then, if that person has the inner resources, he or she says, OK, it isn’t; that’s that. Life is still a gift; it isn’t the end of the world. —Or Suppose it is the end of the world, so what? At some level one knows there is another world. The present one is a crucible not a green pasture beside sill waters; it’s a question of how we lose the game, not that we win it.

That thought would be impossible unless we had seen God rise and depart from this world, saying he was going to prepare a place for us; not leaving us orphans. Maybe the absence of that hope accounts for Jewish devotion to the Holy Land. But that cannot be the whole picture, for Jewish tradition also embraces fatalism along with brilliant humor, irony and chicanery.

Even martyrdom as a tangible expression of faith is not distinctively Christian. Ancient Hebrew soldiers fought with Jhwh at their head. Jewish soldiers gave their lives for their comrades in the battles of the twentieth century. We take them as witnesses to faith in God. But martyrdom need not be so dramatic. Quotidian Resurrection faith simply endures: the workaday acceptance of our humiliations over the course of a career, whether that career be in social service or manufacturing consumer products. Oddly enough, this version of faith looks from the outside like fatalism. That acceptance would not be possible, or at least would not have the same meaning, unless Resurrection stood behind it.

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