What is Christianity for?

I’ve been reading Infinite Jest of late and therefore naturally thinking a great deal about questions of addiction and recovery and more specifically thinking the probably very unoriginal thought that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provides a good, if anachronistic, model for understanding a “religion of salvation” such as Christianity.

As presented in IJ and in the many, many other cultural products that present it, AA is both about salvation from and salvation for. It provides salvation from addiction, from a pattern of behavior that has been destroying and will relentlessly keep destroying the addict until it kills the addict. AA uses the addicts natural self-obsession as a kind of leverage for getting them to renounce the destructive pattern of behavior out of self-preservation, but it’s clear that the real target of AA, once the substance abuse is under control, is that very self-obsession. Its salvation for is therefore a salvation for a real life with others — a salvation that also provides a natural training ground for those who will be the next generation of leaders in AA (sponsors, staff at halfway houses, etc.), as the most obvious target of one’s salvation for is precisely the kind of people who most need that salvation.

The cult-like aspects of AA provide something to latch onto, some regular routine that enables continual exposure to stories of recovery and continual encounter with others who can help the addict in that recovery (mainly through simply being there and listening). The ritual is necessarily arbitrary in some respects, developed both out of a simple need for some structure and perhaps also to provide the appearance of a “program” outside of the simple act of meeting together — a meeting together that already in itself provides an experience, whether consciously “experienced” or not, of what salvation will be like.

My tendency to think of Christianity in these terms may stem from my upbringing in a more radical Wesleyan sect. Clearly in all variations of actual existing Christianity, the salvation is from sin (however defined), but the Church of the Nazarene took the bold step of claiming that recovery could be total, that relapse was not inevitable. Now already, it’s unclear to me what this “sin” thing is supposed to be, especially given its supposedly universal sway over all human beings from birth. Yet it’s even more unclear to me what one is supposed to be saved for in practice.

In early Christianity and perhaps also in the early Wesleyan communities and perhaps in other attempts to “reboot” Christianity, it seems that there was a definite consciousness that one was being saved for a life of face-to-face community with others, attending to their needs and weaknesses but also deriving a real joy from their fellowship (a joy supposedly unavailable within the purview of whatever is called “sin”). But what does actual-existing contemporary Christianity profess to be saving you for? What new and hitherto unexpected possibilities in the here and now does salvation from sin open up?

One might answer that no such possibilities exist or are to be expected, as the true salvation awaits us after death or after the consummation of all things — one might even be proud of such a total evacuation of earthly expectations, regarding it as the most radical and awesome message possible. All our expectations, all our hopes, all that we do or can recognize as good is, in this view, thoroughly undone by the inconceivable transcendence of God, and this undoing is or should be experienced as a profound relief. In my mind, however, frankly embracing such a stance is actually the most robust and thorough-going way of failing to provide a “salvation-for,” by effectively turning the “salvation-from” into a salvation from everything, from life itself.

What, then? If we’re not going to completely evacuate the world, what other possibilities exist? I think that Roman Catholicism is perhaps the most straightforward institutional form of Christianity, insofar as it provides one earthly locus of salvation: the Church itself. In being saved, one is saved for the preservation and upkeep of the Church, meaning that “sin” is in retrospect essentially “failure to be Roman Catholic.” In joining the Catholic Church, one is given a certain minimum set of requirements (in the modern age totally optional, like the “suggestions” of AA) for participation in and support of Church functions. Higher levels of achievement are possible, however, including certain paths that will lead to one becoming a leader in the church’s process of self-preservation.

I don’t want to single out Roman Catholicism in this regard, because I believe that it’s just a clearer example of what Christianity effectively has become in the modern world. It’s like an AA that has lost all sense of a mission outside itself, an AA that exists solely in order to convince people to join and remain in and serve AA. The “sin” you are saved from is failure to be a Christian, a sin you never would have detected or even had the faintest inkling of if a Christian hadn’t come along to tell you about it — as though, continuing the AA analogy, one had been shocked to find out that there was some substance one had been addicted to for one’s entire life without ever being even remotely conscious of its existence.

Where AA is using the addict’s self-interest as leverage to ultimately free the addict of his or her self-obsession, Christianity is using a vague idea of salvation-from to cover up the fact that it has no salvation-for, no payoff whatsoever. It’s not as though the unclarity of what the salvation-from (sin) is and the lack of a salvation-for are separate problems, then — by lacking a clear salvation-for outside the preservation of Christianity itself (in one of its particular institutional forms), Christianity must perforce present an obscure and inchoate concept as its “salvation-from,” because if they came out and said it, the scheme would never work. (This, perhaps, is where one can locate the poetic justice in the fact that the USA, a “Christian nation,” cannot find a way to exclude the transparently fraudulent Church of Scientology as a genuine “religion.”)

7 thoughts on “What is Christianity for?

  1. Penetrating thoughts.

    Your critique reminds me of a place in “After Virtue” where MacIntyre’s relating virtue to laws. He writes that, in contrast to laws, virtue has to do with the characteristics desirable for members of a community to render them fit to pursue the common goods of that community. But in a “community” without clear common goods, often all that remains are laws—the maintenance of the prohibitive structure of the community. Sounds like your description of actually-existing contemporary Christianity.

  2. Where would you locate the NT idea of freedom from ‘principalities and powers’ in all of this?

    I think the issue is more about obsession with *personal* salvation at the (violent) expense of neighbor-love.

  3. I’d say that the principalities and powers are the object of “salvation-from” and a new and different way of living together is the “salvation-for” in the NT.

    Maybe we can reverse your second statement — it’s the failure to see life together as the “salvation-for” that necessarily winds up getting everyone trapped in individualism.

  4. I think you’re question on what exactly the ‘salvation-for’ in Christianity is what regularly confuses those who don’t claim to be religious. Considering that most of those non-religious folks tend to disavow any belief in sin or the after-life they see no difference in how a Christian lives their life and how they themselves live in the world. Essentially, when I have a friend who shares all of the same ethical convictions that Christians stand by (fighting for justice or the liberation of the oppressed) they have no reason to ‘become’ Christians. Especially if the only other reason is preserving the church in its institutional form, which from their perspective isn’t often worth saving.

  5. I suppose one might say that Christianity saves you for everything. When one is saved from oneself, from sin, from the ‘cor curvum in se’, one is not saved for some new, novel activity, or a more intense version of some particular current human activity; rather one is saved for everything, but everything in a new light. At least, that’s how I’ve often thought of it. God makes all the difference, yet no difference at all.

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