Continuing in Sermon 1 in Benedict XVI’s What It Means to Be a Christian, section 3 is short, titled, “Are We Saved?”
In brief, Benedict takes a look at the essential theologies of the Western church and the Eastern church regarding sin, salvation, and the Christian life. He boils down the theology of the West into what most of us would recognize in American Protestantism (though with a little difference): that human sin was an infinite offense to God, an infinite satisfaction was necessary and–seeing that no finite person could give it–was offered by “Christ, the God-man,” which brings redemption to persons who receive it by faith and baptism who are then pardoned of original sin. Benedict points out, though, that when once one has been redeemed and pardoned of original sin, that “when he steps into the arena of Christian life” he finds himself ” bereft of grace” (pp. 32-33) in facing personal moral struggles. The Western system, as Benedict describes it, is solely or mostly occupied with pardon for original sin.
Eastern theology, Benedict says, “explained redemption as the victory won by Christ over sin, death, and the devil. These world powers were defeated by the Lord once and for all, it says, and thus he redeemed the world” (p. 33). The work of the cross and resurrection is a cosmic one that includes humanity and, unlike Western theology, accounts for continued Christian living in its understanding of the cross and resurrection and the work of Christ. At the same time, Benedict still puts forth the question: “But again, when we look at the reality of our lives, who would still dare to maintain that the power of sin has been defeated?”
We might summarize (in broad brush-strokes) by saying that in the Church’s understanding of sin and salvation, Western theology deals with the consequences of sin, while Eastern theology deals with the power of sin. Benedict’s point is to continue to press us to see what seems to be lacking between our theologies and our lived experience.
It is not always easy, we must admit (and this little section functions for us like the last one somewhat), to live up to our theological vision. So, how do we hold on to the truths of Scripture and the theological vision that we think we have read faithfully within it? There is some mystery to the ways of God. We should be careful about letting ourselves off the hook to quickly with the “mystery button” but it nonetheless there. One way it may function is not so much as a convenient excuse to stop thinking, but a gracious presence to give us more time and space to think, to pray, to read and listen to Scripture and Tradition, and to reflect deeper on these mysteries that seem so difficult for us. Admitting that there are deep mysteries about this stuff is not a cop-out if in doing so we are giving ourselves room to breathe for a moment before continuing our journey with Christ through the mysteries.
Incidentally, this section got me thinking also about my own Wesleyan/Methodist theological heritage, which brings together both Eastern and Western theology, boldly claiming that God’s grace deals with the consequences of sin by reconciling our relationship with God (Western) and with the power of sin by restoring the image of God in our living (Eastern). I love being a Wesleyan because of the broadness of theological vision, but it would seem that Benedict would press us Wesleyans into the mysteries that he is delving into just the same.