Reflecting on Christian discipleship from my new position as one “employed” (if not until Saturday ordained) as a minister I’ve found the paralympics very helpful. The great question, for me, of Christian (or indeed any morally self-aware) life is by what standards one judges oneself. For ministers in the URC there is a move towards the kind of “competency framework” with which I was familiar from both sides of the appraiser/appraisee relationship in my former professional life but this (useful though it may well be) somewhat misses the continuity between those of us who are ministers and all who are called to follow Christ.
For all of us there is a sense in which the heart of our vocation is the impossible demand to be like Christ. This demand seems inescapable, he is our model of what it is to be human, yet at the same time impossible, he is also our revelation of what it is to be God with us. We, on the other hand, are sinful, fallen human beings. We are separated from God by original sin and its outworking in our lives. The demand to be perfect is (potentially) cruel in being constitutionally beyond us.
This painful dilemma has always seemed to me inescapable for any serious ethical person. Before my conversion to Christianity it already formed the centre of my thinking about the foundations of morality, and this reflection was, in turn, central to the process of my conversion. There can never be a point, for us, at which we have done and become all that ethics demands of us. This was the heart of Kierkegaard’s critique of all Enlightened thought and is present as an agonising wound within that thought from its beginning.
That one cannot honestly evade the knowledge of one’s own failure is the secret of the Enlightenment’s bad faith (to borrow Sartre’s term for the self-deception he diagnosed as the existential condition of the human subject). One can either feel the guilty pain of being unable to conform to standards one knows to be legitimate or try to suppress the knowledge that the standards one adopts make no sense and have been concocted by oneself precisely to fit what one is willing to do. Neither is sustainable with any comfort and the anxiety and despair that is so universal is the symptomatic manifestation of this situation.
The good news (gospel) is that in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus there is a way out of our suffering. God has let us see that the standards for our living are not autonomously set by us after all (the great myth of Enlightenment thought is exposed as radically and tragically misleading). Rather those standards are set for us by our creator and therefore there is a court of judgement beyond our selves.
Further we are promised that this court is not bound by the standards set by its founder, who is also the judge. The judge has power of clemency, can not only waive sentence but can actually acquit those who are guilty under its law. Not only that but we are promised that this power will be used. I don’t wish here to explore the vexed issues of how and why that power of clemency is instituted (especially not the question of “penal substitution) nor that of how widely we should expect it to be applied (the question of “univeralism”).
What I’m interested in here is the relationship between this good news and the setting of moral standards. For me Jesus doesn’t, first of all, show or teach a new law or ethical code (which is not to say he doesn’t have a moral teaching) rather it is to put us into a new relationship with all such codes. He tells us that while we are right to feel the gap between what we are and what we should be (our sin) we should rest assured that what we can do is enough, in God’s eyes. We do and will fail but God stands ready to forgive and redeem.
Which brings me to the (admittedly partial and shaky) analogy with the paralympic games that I have been finding helpful. While in many of the events people with various levels of disability are achieving times and distances that would have beyond me even when much younger and fitter than I am now none of them would have won medals in the Olympics. The winners can triumph because they are matched against people whose performance is hampered by conditions comparable to theirs. As a result there are (for example) fifteen different men’s 100 metre races.
One way of thinking about God’s judgement of us as moral beings is that for each of us the race (using Paul’s metaphor for Christian life) takes place in a category designed specifically for our disabilities. The judgement made of us is not the unforgiving one that brings us under the rule of objective reason. Rather God’s knowledge of us enables all that holds us back to be brought into the reckoning. However our transition from “able souled” to “moral paralympian” competition is brought about by God the effect is that we are promised that we will each run in a category of our own and thus win the prize of eternal life.
This idea (which I recognise will fail the test of careful examination but nonetheless believe helps to get some sense of the gospel) is proving very comforting as I finally face the reality of pastoral ministry. I have an ideal of what that ministry should be and I now sense just how far short of that ideal I’m likely to fall. My faith is that, in the end, that falling short will be forgiven and that, if I trust God’s Spirit to guide me, my ministry will be good enough in the eyes of the judge and that I will be helped to accept that generous verdict.