In an attempt to put the election season in an eternal perspective, I’ve been listening to a wonderful (if not somewhat depressing) podcast from PBS called “God in America,” which chronicles the entire complex history of American self-identity with respect to religion. Repeated throughout the show is the argument that America–through its unique blend of religious piety and baptized self-reliance (infant and adult)–has become “the most religiously diverse nation on the planet.” However, despite this outward diversity, over the six hours of listening , what struck me was how uniform the underlying American religious impulse is. Sure, there are countless denominations and churches and religions, but deep down, are they really that different? I’m not so sure.
400 years or so before Jesus, Aristotle argued that hard work, determination and the cultivation of the virtues would result in a new hexis—a new state of being—that would result in eudemonia: “your best life now.” This cultivation, otherwise known as mimetic participation in the good—practicing a pleasant expression, for instance—would actually create this good within you, and was the key to happiness.
Therefore, when Jesus is read as a good Aristotelian, his otherwise damning pronouncement in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” becomes the great cosmic finish line in the sky, thus setting the boundaries for our so-called “Faith Journey”(or some other similarly meaningless phrase). And, since this Greek word that is often translated as “perfect”—telos—can be understood as an end, culmination, as the “acme of perfection,” it is almost universally argued, that Jesus is pointing people towards the end, towards Dante’s Beatrice and the Beatific Vision. The Good Life, then, becomes a process of progression towards that goal. What looks like religious diversity is really more of a disagreement over direction and emphasis, but within the same system of eudaimonistic salvation, the same religion: faith + works=happiness.
Today, it seems as if the main distinction between many competing Christian denominations, not to mention other religious institutions, is not found in contradictory ideas about the way God and humanity are related, but only disagreements about the telos. For Spiritual Hippies, the end will be realized in community and inclusion, for Preps, purification and cleansing, but they both agree on one thing: we participate with God so we can become something: better, cleaner, more loving, less judgmental, less materialistic, more spiritual, more holy, less individualistic, more aware of our brokenness, more hospitable, less angry, etc and so forth and so on—ad nauseam.
1st Church/Temple/Ashram/or E-Center of Wherever—in this system, whether through the sacraments, spiritual encounters, social activism, labyrinths, aestheticism, sweat lodges, mystic encounters and/or, proscribed obedience—becomes the place where the path is laid out, the goal set before us, and our wills are prodded, pushed and pulled towards the beautiful, towards the telos. Sound familiar? It should; this is our lives under the law.
From our perspective, this is why the distinction between law and gospel is so important, because otherwise the means and the ends are are confused and mixed, and we begin to believe that the “good news” is that we are on our way rather than the end has come. Under this misconception, we begin to worry about our “spiritual growth” by viewing the cross as an entry to a Christian life understood as “practice makes perfect,” rather than seeing it as the necessary (and inescapable!) death of that very idea.
While sin remains, the law—no matter how beautiful or lofty—will never be something to which we conform, but will be always accusing, always condemning, always a curse. Not because it is evil, but because of its very beauty. Under this curse, driven by the “greater good,” we are condemned to work towards our own telos with Jesus playing the ever stern but caring Mick to our Rocky. Slavery to the law condemns us to reliance on our jobs, our families, our ethnicities, our looks, our socioeconomics, our education, our politics, our churches and whatever else we can think of to defend who we are and what we do before God. Naturally, we will work tirelessly towards these ends; mercifully, the end has already come in Jesus.
The Gospel, as distinct from the law, is not a path, a system, a journey or a partnership to be joined, but a proclamation that is true and worthy of all people to be believed: Christ is the the end—the telos–of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Thanks be to God.