From “Who Will Be Saved?”
by William H. Willimon, b.1946
Plato noted, and Freud reiterated, that the human animal, from the first, seems to have this insatiable longing, this great yearning. The infant demands attention from the world, insists on being noticed. The human is a fragile animal who cannot survive alone, who must make connection first with the mother, then with one human being after another. Plato said that this was the beginning of all human thought and culture, the explanation for all human achievement, and most human misery too. We must connect.
Yet here’s the great mystery: The God of Israel and the church also connects. It is not so much that God must connect but there is something about this God that seems, from the first, exuberantly to desire us, to want to communicate with us, abundantly to self-reveal to us. God’s generativity doesn’t end with “Genesis 1.” The kingdom of God comes near. in his “Miscellanies,” Jonathan Edwards marvels that though the Son is the complete, self-sufficient image of the Father who wants for nothing, the Son is for us a vivid sign of the Father‘s determination never to be completely alone.
Edwards says, “The Son has an inclination to communicate himself and this was the end of creation, even the communication of the happiness of the Son of God. And humanity is the immediate subject of this.”
The point of the whole world is to be the Creator’s dialogue partner in conversation, in connection. Calvin said that God could have created us for God’s usefulness but the great thing about God is God created us for God’s sheer delight. God delights in having conversation partners, even poor dialogue partners like us. The Revealer who delights in revelation desires recipients for the revelation. So a first response to the question, “Who shall be saved?” might be, “Well, who is created? What creatures are so beloved by the Creator that the Creator cannot let them alone? Who is God’s favourite conversation partner? These are the ones God saves.”
God’s got this thing for us? God is determined (through Creation, the sagas of the Patriarchs, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law, and the birth and death of the Christ) to get close, very close, too close for comfort, in fact. Sorry, if you thought when we said “God” we had in mind an impersonal power, a fair-minded, balanced bureaucrat who is skilled in the dispassionate administration of natural law from a safe distance in eternity. Our God is intensely, unreservedly personal. The God of Israel and the church refuses to be an abstraction or a generality. In the Bible. God gets angry, repents, threatens, promises, punishes. takes back, and resumes the conversation. Only persons do such things and, when we do them, it is a sign of our personal worth, the highest of our personhood, our passionate valuing of something over nothing, not of our grubby anthropocentric imperfection.
The most important decision in Christian theology is to decide whether you will speak of God as a person or as a concept, as a name or as an idea. Talk about God as, to use Paul Tillich’s term, “ultimate reality,” and you will get a safe, dead abstraction that you can utilise in whatever salvation project you happen now to be working. Name God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and God will enlist you in God’s move upon the world. That’s one of the things we mean when we say that “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is God’s only Son.” ‘His God is shockingly personal, available and present. It’s also what we mean when we say that “Jesus is Saviour.” This is in no way detraction from the Father’s immense deity. There are gods who could not risk getting close. We are killers who tend to resent our would-be saviours. Anybody who would love me risks great pain because of me. So most “gods” are careful to keep their distance through abstraction and idealisation. “Gods” are, by definition, distant, high and lifted up.
The one whom Israel calls Yahweh and the church knows as Trinity is so great as to be utterly personal, available and richly present to us. This God is against detached reserve. “God never rests,” says Luther, constantly pursuing, presenting to us. You can’t get much closer to us, to the real us, than a cross.
Christians are witnesses to a great cosmic incursion, an invasion in which God, rather than being distant from the world. has daringly entered the world (Gal 4:4). The world is God’s contested territory in a vast program of reclamation.
Furthermore, God not only refuses to be God alone, not only makes a move on Pilate and on all the principalities and powers of this world but also enlists us in God’s salvific work. Whereas God is author and agent of our salvation, God refuses to work alone. John Wesley shocked the Calvinists and Lutherans of his day by asserting divine-human energy in our salvation. God graciously saves us and graciously invites our active participation in the drama of salvation. Salvation and vocation are thus linked.