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The Gospel vs. Religion

November 16, 2010

Click below for the complete text of the handout for Part 1 of our current Adult Ed series, in which we ask, “How Can We Know God?”

Part 2 of this series will be offered again this Thursday, Nov. 18 at 6 pm. Part 3 of the series will only be offered this Sunday, Nov. 21 at 9 am (due to Thanksgiving on Thurs, Nov. 25, we it will not repeat in the usual manner).

All the handouts for this series contain quotes from the William Stringfellow book, Count It All Joy and offer Stringfellow’s intensely counter-cultural view that knowledge of God is a pure gift we encounter through helplessness, suffering and temptation. Here is, for me, the money-quote of this first hand-out:

For all their variances, all forms of religion [including those under the heading, ‘Christianity] hold a common methodology; all share in the same essential approach to the religious issue. All consider religion as the human quest for God. All have confidence in the capacity of people, or, at least, some people, to breach the mystery of God. All emphasize human initiative in establishing relationship with divinity. All focus upon some conception of God as the object of devotion, the source of meaning, and the determination of moral behavior.

It is exactly at this point—not necessarily in content, but in method—that the Gospel is radically distinguished from all religions. The theme of the Gospel from the first moment of the Fall is God in search of humanity. The emphasis is upon the initiative God takes toward humanity in the world. God volunteers relationship with humanity. God gives God’s self for all humankind. What people may know of God is only that which God discloses for people to know…

My conception of you, whether true or false, in any degree, is not you. In religion, a conception of God, whether true or false, in any degree, is not God. Upon this very issue, religion is superseded by the Gospel. In this way, all religions of humanity of whatever sort in whatever circumstances are fulfilled in the Gospel. On this count, the Gospel cannot even be classified as a religion. What dignifies any religion, even the false and idolatrous, is an inherent apologetic for the existence of God, somehow or other defined; what is bold in any religion, including those vain superstitions, is the ambition to explain God; what is audacious in the Gospel is the enjoyment of God’s presence here and now, whatever the circumstances; what is radical about the Gospel is the news that religion can be now discarded, by virtue of God’s grace.

(Click below for text of the complete handout.)

Wisdom

“Wisdom means knowledge of God. Wisdom is the knowledge of God given to people in this world which embraces all other knowledge within the limits of human awareness and comprehension, particularly the profound knowledge of self in relationship to all people and all things in this world.” (25)

Knowledge as Gift

“The knowledge of God in which the truth of all existence inheres is an authentic gift and not something earned through diligence or piety, or rewarded for sacrifices of any description, or dependent upon any human initiative, or contingent upon the beliefs of people. It is a gift, and as with any genuine gift it originates wholly in the disposition of the donor and is accomplished entirely by the voluntary action of the donor…

“In American society, integrity in giving is rare. Giving has come to designate all sorts of transactions that bear little resemblance to gifts. People ‘give’ out of a sense of obligation; they describe exchanges of chattels as ‘gifts’; they contribute to charities to purchase a sense of satisfaction; they ‘give’ presents to one another in almost automatic reaction to commercial stimuli; they observe days and seasons with ritual ‘giving.’ Such vulgarities are no gifts.

“The real gift is always voluntary, spontaneous, free of expectancy either of equivalent return or gain of any kind, and representative of the giver. Actually the only thing that can be given by a person to another is oneself. Any authentic gift is a means by which one offers to another knowledge of oneself in a way that affirms the identity of the recipient as well as declares who the donor is. A gift is a sacrament of existence in a relationship established by the initiative of the giver. The prerogative in the relationship belongs wholly to the act of giving. No one can really know me unless I give him knowledge. I cannot truly know another unless she gives that knowledge to me…

“The wisdom that constitutes knowledge of God and within that, all knowledge, is verily a gift, given to humanity by God in this world. Jesus Christ is the epitome of that gift… God is neither shy nor modest in giving knowledge of God’s self to people, for this gift is given to all people whether one welcomes or ignores it… The gift is offered in the first instance, as it were, in the event of Creation itself; but the gift is renewed in the Fall. No matter how terrible the emptiness people endure within themselves and the alienation people suffer from all other people and all things in their estrangement from God, that does not blot out the gift.” (25-27)

Knowledge of God and Religion

“But if wisdom is the knowledge of God as a gift and if Jesus Christ epitomizes that gift, what is to be thought of the historic religions of humanity? Are they to be dismissed because they do not so regard and honor Christ? …Or, as some would have it, is the Gospel of Christ essentially undistinguished from the religions? …And what of all the other varieties of religious belief and commitment common to humanity—the personal conceptions, notions, motivations and, sometimes, superstitions, even hallucinations—which constitute the actual faith of many persons? …

“For all their variances, all forms of religion [including those under the heading, ‘Christianity] hold a common methodology; all share in the same essential approach to the religious issue. All consider religion as the human quest for God. All have confidence in the capacity of people, or, at least, some people, to breach the mystery of God. All emphasize human initiative in establishing relationship with divinity. All focus upon some conception of God as the object of devotion, the source of meaning, and the determination of moral behavior.

“It is exactly at this point—not necessarily in content, but in method—that the Gospel is radically distinguished from all religions. The theme of the Gospel from the first moment of the Fall is God in search of humanity. The emphasis is upon the initiative God takes toward humanity in the world. God volunteers relationship with humanity. God gives God’s self for all humankind. What people may know of God is only that which God discloses for people to know…

“If you and I have never met, I may be nevertheless persuaded of your existence because I have heard others mention your name, or describe how you look, or report something that they claim you have said. I may read something that purports to be either by or about you. I may see a photograph that is said to be of you. There may be certain evidences of work that is attributed to you. I may meet someone who asserts that he has met you. From this and similar data, I may conclude that you do exist and may go further and construct in my imagination an idea of what you are like; I can make for myself a concept of you.

“But then if the day comes to pass that I meet you I learn by my own sensibilities of your actual appearance that you do exist, that you look like you look and say what you say and act as you act. As persuaded by your existence and attributes as I might have been from my conception of you based upon data that had come to my attention before you confronted me in the flesh, I could never know for sure either whether you are or who you are without meeting you. But being met by you both confirms your existence and identity as such and establishes a relationship between us. In our meeting the conception that I had of you becomes obsolete. Knowing you, now, I no longer have need to suppose who you are…

“My conception of you, whether true or false, in any degree, is not you. In religion, a conception of God, whether true or false, in any degree, is not God. Upon this very issue, religion is superseded by the Gospel. In this way, all religions of humanity of whatever sort in whatever circumstances are fulfilled in the Gospel. On this count, the Gospel cannot even be classified as a religion. What dignifies any religion, even the false and idolatrous, is an inherent apologetic for the existence of God, somehow or other defined; what is bold in any religion, including those vain superstitions, is the ambition to explain God; what is audacious in the Gospel is the enjoyment of God’s presence here and now, whatever the circumstances; what is radical about the Gospel is the news that religion can be now discarded, by virtue of God’s grace.” (26-30)

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