Reversing Theology—A Personal Reply to Torres and Roberts, by David Congdon

By David W. Congdon

I am grateful to both Juan C. Torres and David Roberts for their thoughtful responses to my book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (hereafter TGWS). I wish to repay their generosity by offering some further reflections on my work.

This was a very personal book to write, and it has become even more personal to me in the months since publication. The book cost me my job, forced my family to relocate, and has been the cause of great, enduring pain. In a way, the book’s theme of cocrucifixion and existential abandonment has become more real to me since writing it. But I do not regret a single word. It was something I had to write; the words were almost drawn out of me, as if I were more their amanuensis than author.

Roberts suggests that TGWS might have been a kin to the book that Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed writing at the end of his life. This observation means more to me than Roberts could have realized, for it was reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers in Prison—which contains the “Outline for a Book” (DBWE 8:499–504)—as a junior in college that convinced me to study theology. Indeed, those prison writings, more than anything by Rudolf Bultmann or Eberhard Jüngel, are the animating center of TGWS. Bonhoeffer’s letters reject the idea of a competitive, supernatural deus ex machina, propose a nonreligious interpretation of the Bible, describe God’s transcendence within the secularity of human existence, suggest the idea of unconscious Christianity, and argue for a strongly cross-centered understanding of God and faith. Reading Bonhoeffer launched my theological imagination, and it is no accident that the decisive elements of TGWS can all be found in Bonhoeffer’s posthumously published prison writings.

But there was another thread that went into TGWS: the question of universalism. I discuss the way my thinking changed on that topic in the prologue, so I will not repeat that history here. What has become more apparent to me since publishing the book is the need to articulate why a universalist theology is necessary in the first place. I largely took that for granted in TGWS, since there are already other books that explore the why, and I was far more interested in the how. I wanted to explain how a universalist soteriology was possible on systematic theological grounds. But this presupposes that a universalist soteriology is something we should explain in the first place. Obviously, for many people this is the key issue.

I should clarify here, for those who have not read the book, that universalism is no longer the concern it once was for me. I contracted the book because I was a convinced universalist, but by the time I wrote it, I had serious misgivings about all universalisms and no longer believed in a conscious afterlife anyway, so the driving question of most Christian universalisms—will everyone be saved from damnation and live with God for eternity?—had become moot for me.

What I set out to do instead in TGWS is rethink salvation from the ground up. As both Torres and Roberts point out, I define salvation existentially as the divine act of interruption that places us outside ourselves in solidarity with our neighbors, and specifically in solidarity with those who have been abandoned by the world and so participate in the Christ who died in God-abandonment. To be “saved” is to ally ourselves with those who already participate in Christ. Salvation already belongs to them in the sense that God is already with them and for them. Faith thus calls each person to follow the way God has already trod and continues to tread in each moment. Discipleship has nothing to do with moral purity, biblical knowledge, or theological correctness; it is in fact a willing abandonment of all such religious achievement and spiritual security in pursuit of the one and only thing that matters: a life shared in community and solidarity with others. Such a life alone counts as Christian, since such a life alone is faithful to the crucified one.

But what does universalism have to do with this? Simply this: universalism is not fundamentally about who is going to live for eternity in heaven—since that assumes ideas about the afterlife that not everyone shares—but rather it concerns questions like: Where is God present? Who lives in conformity with God’s will? Who participates in Christ? The problem for all traditional accounts of salvation is: how do we handle the fact that the vast majority of humanity either never encountered the message of Jesus or only encountered it in a deeply problematic form (e.g., a form that destroyed their way of life and violently forced them to conform to a foreign religion)?

The monstrous version of Christianity says that, if someone failed to believe, then this was God’s electing will; logical rigor is what matters and all catastrophic moral consequences be damned. I take it for granted there is no purpose in rehearsing the arguments against this position. It is self-evident to anyone with an ounce of human empathy. But there is a more inclusive version that attracts most people, which says that those who have not heard or have not believed the Christian message may yet be saved by God. This position leaves the salvation of the vast majority of humanity up to God; it is a mystery and we can only hope that God is as generous as we would be. This position is ultimately just as monstrous as the other position, since it is willing to entertain the moral travesty that God would condemn even one of those who never heard of Christ so long as God is generous to at least some (most?) of them.

The failure of the inclusive position is an instructive failure, because it shows with painful clarity where the real problem lies: namely, in the assumption that those who quote-unquote “believe” in Jesus and belong to an established Christian church and live a stereotypically moral Christian life are somehow guaranteed their salvation and participation in God. But as anyone with any experience around Christians knows, this is a ludicrous assumption. It simply flies in the face of all experience, which is probably why conservative Christians go to such lengths to reject experience as a source of theology, insisting that only a certain reading of the Bible and Christian theology—carried out in studied ignorance of the surrounding world—has any eternal truth or ultimate significance.

The only available option, as I saw it when I embarked on writing TGWS in earnest in 2015, was to reverse this picture entirely. The ones who can be most secure in God’s saving presence are those without any worldly or spiritual security, those abandoned by both secular and ecclesiastical powers, those sacrificed on the altars of history for the “higher goods” of civilization and Christendom. The real question is not whether non-Christians are saved, but whether Christians are saved. If they are, it is only insofar as they put their Christianity at mortal risk, ready to abandon every security in order to find their security in God alone.

TGWS is my attempt to explain how this position makes sense of scripture and the Christian tradition. It is not the final word—no work of theology ever could be—but it is the word I was compelled by God to write, and I would write it again.

In the second chapter of TGWS I remark: “We find ourselves in the midst of an ongoing dialogue about God. We are not the originators of this conversation, nor will we bring it to a close” (p. 22). I am grateful to Juan Torres and David Roberts for continuing the conversation and look forward to future dialogues, both critical and constructive, not only about my work but more importantly about the fundamental question: what is the gospel for us today?

Related posts:

God Saves Us from Ourselves for Others: Juan C. Torres on "The God Who Saves"

Ents, Hobbits, and Salvation in the Shadow of Charlottesville: David Roberts on "The God Who Saves"


Subscribe to Die Evangelischen Theologen


Anonymous said…
If there is no conscious afterlife, why should anyone care much what Jesus said about anything? He believed in it and according to you He was wrong. Logically then he was just a strange and brilliant man in some provincial corner of the Empire who said some interesting things. There are plenty of secular lefties one could read on social justice issues and secular philosophers who have grappled with the question of what we owe our neighbor. Clinging to some remnant of Christian belief if you toss out the supernatural just seems like sentimentalism to me.

If faith only has meaning insofar as it gets us miracles in this life and eternal rewards in the next, then it seems to me this isn't faith at all but magic. Whereas faith is about encountering something beyond ourselves, being conformed to an unexpectedly new reality, and living a new existence of life and freedom, magic is about controlling and using powerful forces for our own personal benefit. When we say a prayer and expect it to influence God's will for our benefit, this is magic. When we expect that believing in Jesus will ensure everlasting benefits after death, this too is magic. Such ways of relating to the divine turn God into an object, a talisman for good fortune.

Jesus was a man of his time and believed a lot of things we don't today. He had beliefs about the coming of God's kingdom that the early church had to grapple with when they did not come to pass as expected. But Jesus' message is hardly reducible to such ideas. The issue is where we locate the essence of Christianity. I locate it in the existential significance of our encounter with the divine, a significance that shapes how we see the world and relate to others. I do so for reasons that I explain in my book. But I steadfastly believe that faith cannot compete with reason, and any faith that requires me to sacrifice my intellect or ignore history is not an acceptable and meaningful faith; indeed, it seems to me such faith is actually idolatry and should be rejected as such by the faithful.

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

Types of Theology