Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (15)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

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BEN: You give an excellent example on p. 135 of the ‘gospel of self-esteem’.I was blown away that this is actually an articulation of a student’s credo or prayer in your secondary schools. That deserves a wow!! How does a Christian, in love, deconstruct what is wrong with such formulations without sounding like Dr. No, or some sort of cosmic meany that wants to squash our children’s hopes and dreams of self-expression and accomplishment?

PATRICK: I remember listening that creed being read at a school graduation and looking around wondering was anyone else finding it as off-the-wall as I was. It ends with the lines “I now realize my infinite potential, thus, my burden lightens. I smile and laugh. I have become the greatest student in the world.” Yet, you’re right, it’s easy to sound like Scrooge if ‘Bah Humbug’ is all we have to say in response. I actually think many children and students see right through such nonsense – my daughters and their friends certainly did. They know not everyone can be the greatest, and they know it is only setting nearly everyone up for a fail. Children who do believe the hype up are going to end up disillusioned or conceited, with artificially inflated opinions of their own ability. That isn’t a loving thing to do, so maybe that’s the angle to critique it from.

BEN: I see that you also have been influenced by John Barclay’s landmark book, Paul and the Gift, and I like the stress on the notion that God’s love doesn’t have preconditions (see the quote from Furnish in a previous question) but it is not unconditional, or undemanding. In what way is God’s love demanding? In some churches things are so bad that you hear pastor’s cynically say things like ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing of God, for they will not be disappointed’. What’s wrong with the way we look at God’s grace and love???

PATRICK: I remember a wise teacher of mine saying ‘Grace is not opposed to works, it’s opposed to merit’. Barclay’s point is connected – God’s grace is ‘unconditioned’ (not dependent on anything we bring) but non unconditional (it is conditioned on a response of faith and obedience). The whole purpose of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is to bring them to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:4) and his overriding concern in his letters is for the moral transformation of those first churches. Where this emphasis is lost we’re heading towards what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ – ‘grace without price, grace without cost.’

Ephesians beautifully brings out this tension. A key theme of the letter is ‘walking’ (unfortunately obscured in the NIV by the way). They are to ‘walk in good works’ (2:10) not as the world walks (2:2) or as pagan Gentiles walk (4:7). Believers are to ‘walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’ (5:2). That’s a pretty demanding vision. But its rooted in our identity as ‘dearly loved children’ (5:1). It seems to me that’s the task of pastoring and preaching – not to be afraid to aim high while envisioning people with the good news of God’s grace and love.

The gospel of self-esteem on steroids

Here is a Student’s Creed used for real in an Irish secondary school prayer service.

Today, this new day, I am a successful student. Overnight my mind and body have produced thousands of new cells to give me the greatest advantages possible. I am born anew, revitalized, and full of energy.

I am rare and valuable; unique in all the universe. I am nature’s greatest miracle in action. I have unlimited potential. I believe in my abilities, attitudes, and goals. I am worthy of greatness because I am the most important person in my world.

Today I push myself to new limits. I use my skills and knowledge every day. I begin the day with a success and end it with a success. My goals are being reached every day and I seek them eagerly.

I act positively and happily, fully accepting myself and others. I live to the fullest by experiencing life without limits. I embrace life. I approach each class, each book, and each assignment with enthusiasm, happiness and joy. I thirst for knowledge. I look forward to reading and believing this creed each and every day.

I am a positive and successful student. I know each step I must take to continue to be that way. I am clear on my goals and see myself reaching them. I now realize my infinite potential, thus, my burden lightens. I smile and laugh. I have become the greatest student in the world.

No, really, I jest not. This was not written by Tom Marvolo Riddle in training to be “he who shall not be named”.

This is the gospel of self-esteem on steroids.

The good news is, quite simply, ‘ME’.

I am marvellous, successful, ambitious, focused; a miracle, unique, worthy of greatness, the centre of my own universe. There are no limits to my wonderfulness, joy, potential and stupendous significance (cue megalomaniacal laughter).

This is the gospel where I am my own saviour, guide and god. I am without fault, a specimen of perfect humanness (move over Jesus).

There is no Fall in this gospel. There is no need of salvation either. How can perfection be improved? I only need fully to accept myself as I am.

Neither is there any humility.

Or reality. With enough positive thinking, we all can be ‘the greatest student in the world’ – which dilutes greatness just a tad (Cue link to The Incredibles. Elastigirl tells her son, Dash, not to run so fast so he won’t stand out. We are, she says, all special. Dash replies with the immortal line, ‘Which is just another way of saying no-one is.’)

And precious little humanity. It is a ‘gospel’ that leaves no room for doubt, for failure, for struggle, and, ironically, for learning and discipleship. What have I to learn when I am already the master of my destiny, the lord of myself and my world?

All this is a stark contrast to the first preaching of the real gospel.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 finishes with the magnificent good news – not of our own infinite all round splendidness – but that Jesus the Messiah, who was crucified, is the risen living Lord.

The men of Israel’s response was not to congratulate themselves on their successful achievements and healthy self-images; their hearts were cut to the quick and they repented, put their faith in the resurrected Lord, and were baptised as a sign of dying to themselves and being raised to a new life in the Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome.