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What is the purpose of a Christian life?

May 26, 2011

There are many other ways to formulate this question, but, insofar as they are sincere, they all drive to find the telos of the life of a Christian, the ultimate goal and the motivating desire that guides the Christian’s life. In reply, I have often heard that the purpose of a Christian life is salvation: to be saved, to go to heaven. The Christian life, then, becomes the way one ought to live in order to attain salvation—and avoid damnation.

As I see it, the rhetoric of this evangelical narrative is deeply misguided.

The “point” of a Christian life is, in its most literally sense, to imitate Christ. It seems clear, even in this early, basic sense that Christ was not motivated by a desire for his own salvation—and certainly not his own self-preservation—but, instead, by a desire to be united to his Father. This Christ-like desire may be what some people mean by the term ‘salvation,’ but, even now, we can see that this desire for unity with God is not the same as what is often referred to as ‘salvation’ by religion teachers, evangelists, and homilists.

Furthermore, if we look into how tradition has understood and imitated the life of Christ, we see that the reply to the original question is not salvation but holiness. The purpose of a Christian life is to become holy and, in doing so, give glory to God. The rhetoric of ‘holiness’ has an inflection that avoids many of the pitfalls of the discourse of ‘salvation.’ This is because, at least in the rhetorical sense I am using the terms here, becoming holy can stand alone, apart from salvation. Surely, many would find it odd to become holy and be damned, but this is precisely the point: to seek holiness is to abandon the self-preservation of salvation for the sake of seeking God and God alone.

I often grow concerned that Christianity is sold as an insurance policy—If you died today, where you would go? Heaven or hell? If you answered heaven, then you’re in luck! We’ve got just the thing for you: Jesus, the Gospel, and more; but most of all: lots of heaven and no hell! Yippee!

In the midst of the desire for heaven and the fear of hell, we are prone to lose sight of the universal call to holiness. At the very least, we can often put the cart before the horse by making the universal call to holiness an instrument for getting into heaven and avoiding hell, a mere method for salvation.

Make no mistake, any “evangelization” that sells this cheap rhetoric of ‘salvation’ is only appealing to an ordinary human instinct: self-preservation. It appeals to the same psychology that makes people lose weight, stop smoking, and wear a seat belt. On the other hand, any evagelization that demands fidelity to the universal call to holiness makes an appeal that is extraordinary and divine.

If the Christian life is nothing more than a riff on the instincts–and politics!—of self-preservation, then, it is neither special nor of particular value. If the purpose of a Christian life is to be saved, go to heaven, and avoid going to hell, then, it is religion selling snake oil. However, if the purpose of the Christian life is to be holy for the glory of God, then, it is sacred, rare, and full of precious, enchanting (and tragic!) grace. A Christian life seeking holiness is the fruit of a religion seeking God, love, and theosis, come what may.

One quick clarification: I am not dismissing the theological business of soteriology and eschatology. I am simply referring to a way of speaking that dominates the pastoral domain—at RCIA classes, parish retreats, and in homilies. I wrote this post rather dispassionately, but lest you be misled: I am a testament to a life changed by realizing the difference between the meaning of these two different kinds of answers. I cut my teeth on the salvation narrative for all of my childhood and adolescence and, at the very moment when I thought I must abandon my faith (because of the poverty of that narrative), I found the sufficiency and beauty of the universal (catholic) call to be holy. It saved me.

Even if I am damned for it, I must be holy.

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14 Comments
  1. brettsalkeld permalink*
    May 26, 2011 7:25 am

    “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full” includes the afterlife, but it certainly is not limited to it. As I’ve written elsewhere, the afterlife is only good if this life is.

  2. May 26, 2011 7:40 am

    A man falls madly in love with a woman and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He will, if he truly loves her, do what he can to woo her and “win her hand.” Of course, his best way of doing so is by wanting to be the best self he can be. Indeed, if he places his focus only on wooing her, he will doubtlessly fail to do so. However, if he dismisses the desire of wooing her as ordinary, improper, mercenary, or whatever, then all his protestations that he loves her are just as clearly false.

    So, by analogy, with the desire for salvation. Human beings, as we are now, are fallen, and the desire to be in right relation with God includes, necessarily, the desire to be saved from the consequences of one’s sin and indeed made acceptable to God the Father, having been conformed to the image of his Son by the power of the Spirit. If all we are seeking is not to suffer hellfire, then our desire is, at least, not a bad one, but it is not what the Gospel is about. Likewise, if we desire an eternity of joy, this may not be precisely what holiness is, but it is a right response to the God-implanted desire in us for everlasting, integral and fully-flourishing existence. We ought to want, of course, to be madly in Love with God, and be madly loved by him. Even so, not to want those very things in which he has chosen from all eternity to express his love to sinful men, viz. to be freed from Hell and enjoy heaven/the new Creation, is really not to want to love God at all.

    This is why there is great wisdom in the beginning of the old Act of Contrition: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are worthy of all my love.”

    • bekkos permalink
      May 26, 2011 10:06 am

      Thanks, Fr. Holtz!

    • May 26, 2011 12:17 pm

      Fr. Holtz,

      I hope you can see from my replies below that I am in agreement with your kind and helpful reply here. I would also hope that you can see the rhetorical and discursive issue that I am at present attending to. Thanks for reading!

      Pax,

      Sam

  3. The Pachyderminator permalink
    May 26, 2011 11:23 am

    I find C.S. Lewis’s analogy very helpful here: A boy could be said to be insincere who is learning Greek only to earn an arbitrary reward from the schoolmaster. But if he studies Greek because he wants the pleasure of reading Sophocles and Aeschylus and Euripides, he is right, even though he is still studying in order to attain something else and not for the sake of the studying itself. The difference is that in the latter case, the reward is not arbitrarily assigned, but is the natural result of the work. So desiring to live in the presence of God (which is just what salvation means) is a good and acceptable reason to be a Christian.

  4. May 26, 2011 11:56 am

    Thanks to those who have commented thusfar. One quick, but important, clarification:

    The sense in which I am discussing the term ‘salvation’ is very, very limited. It (i.e. the term ‘salvation’ as I am using it) should be understood within the confines of what I have called an evangelical rhetoric or discourse, occurring primarily at the pastoral and ministerial level. This is not to try and exclude the deeper, and true, theological meaning and mystery of the term, but it is to recognize that the full richness of the term ‘salvation’—a richness that surely is not at odds with the term ‘holiness’—is often absent from the kind of rhetoric employed in literature, signs (see above), pedagogy, and homiletics that are often employed in parishes, prayer meetings, conferences, and are sometimes referred to as “hellfire and brimstone.”

    My only point and purpose here is to propose a mild correction that would replace such rhetoric with a rhetoric of holiness—or an equivalent term—and allow things to follow from that point forward.

    Hopefully, with this clarification, you can see that I am not after a refutation of people’s intentions, Pascal’s wager, or the field of theology—I am simply writing about a small, but very real, part of the life of the Church that employs a way of communicating wrought with dangers and mistakes. The greatest danger, in my own experience, is that it prevents the convert from accessing the deeper mysteries of the faith, including the deep, profound mysteries of the economy of salvation.

    I should have made this more explicit, and may even add it to the post later on today…

    Thanks again!

    Sam

    • May 26, 2011 12:02 pm

      Sam writes, “I am simply writing about a small, but very real, part of the life of the Church that employs a way of communicating, that is wrought with dangers and mistakes.”

      I must say that I very, very rarely hear about hell from the Church. Even at the TLM I attend fairly regularly, it is hardly ever mentioned. Your experience may vary.

      • May 26, 2011 12:10 pm

        Fair enough, Agellius. I grew up in, and still am in contact with, the charismatic renewal movement and its outgrowths. In that movement, the “gospel” is largely defined and promulgated in the style of the Campus Crusade for Christ—the “four pillars” approach. This is the tradition I was raised in and I have found others who, even in different traditions (especially protestant ones), have had the same experience. Most recently, in an entirely different venue, I came across this in a talk given at RCIA (where I was attending as a sponsor). The facilitator gave a talk on the purpose of being a Christian, and conceived of it entirely as a matter of salvation (in the narrow sense of getting into heaven and avoid hell). My dearest friend has told me of how his own faith was formed as a sequence of making sure one was not in mortal sin, so as to avoid going to hell—that was the extent of his devotion. As I grew out and back into my faith in this little way, he found the same move edifying too. These are some of the reasons and motivations for this view I posted today.

        Peace,

        Sam

  5. May 26, 2011 11:59 am

    What Fr. Holtz says I consider right on the money: There is no conflict between the two. We want to avoid the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but even more, we want to love God as he deserves to be loved and as we are meant to love him.

    There is room for both. When someone is committing grave evil and is apparently non-repentant, often he has no interest in knowing or loving God. To someone in that state you can say, “I warn you to knock it off or face God’s wrath for all eternity!” It’s a bold, confrontational statement which in my view is appropriate to the situation and the man’s state of mind. People need to hear that their evil will not go unpunished.

    On the other hand, someone who is not committing deliberate evil, and is apparently genuinely interested in seeking truth, might find the message of holiness and the fulfillment to be gained through knowing and loving God and neighbor, very appealing.

    The first message to the second person, and the second message to the first, likely would not be helpful.

    • May 26, 2011 12:15 pm

      As I wrote earlier: I agree with Fr. Holtz too. I am simply not referring to the term ‘salavation’ in the exact same way. I think that what you describe here is rather utilitarian. For me at least, the rhetoric of holiness (or some equivalent such as love or beauty or what have you) is the only way to advocate for the gospel. One might, ironically, do this by using the term ‘salvation’ in a way that faithful to its unity to the universal call to be holy, but then one would be doing precisely what I am advocating for here.

      Sam

      • May 26, 2011 4:46 pm

        I get the idea of not preaching the gospel exclusively in terms of of gaining and losing salvation, i.e. heaven and hell. I can understand why it can be helpful to set that aside at certain times in order to focus on other aspects of the gospel such as holiness, truth, beauty, etc. But I hope you’re not saying that salvation in terms of heaven and hell should not be preached at all.

  6. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    May 27, 2011 9:33 am

    Sam,

    I am interested in the fact that you have seen this in Catholic settings. I am aware of this reductionist rhetoric in evangelical circles, but not in Catholic. I imagine that the Catholic Charismatic movement, having more contacts with evangelicals, might have picked it up, but it strikes me as so foreign to even the baseline Catholicism I grew up with.

    • May 27, 2011 10:12 am

      David

      Well, you can begin with Michael Voris and his following. He said the only concern should be “the salvation of souls” and he uses this to dismiss social doctrine when he doesn’t like it. As I’ve pointed out, from a Catholic standpoint, that is messed up, because the salvation of the soul includes the person being saved into a servant of Christ, one who does what social doctrine explains is to be done. But, again, just like at what surrounds Voris and you will find this sentiment is behind much of his criticism of the USCCB.

      Yes, it is very foreign to Catholicism. However, it is not foreign to our culture, and most Catholics follow the culture more than the Church, which is why they confuse political party positions as how one defines orthodoxy.

      • May 27, 2011 1:12 pm

        HK writes, “… from a Catholic standpoint, that is messed up, because the salvation of the soul includes the person being saved into a servant of Christ, one who does what social doctrine explains is to be done.”

        If you’re saying that salvation requires holiness and good works, including charity to the poor, I’m willing to bet that Voris would agree with you.

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