Having just had my first week away since I began my full-time ministry I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in that first six months. What I find is that I think that the single most important thing is about what I believe is the “point”, the central message of Christianity; the good news I have heard and continue to hear and feel compelled to proclaim. This message, put simply is that it IS all about us but only about us as worshipers of God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, the 1647 document produced by the central ideological core of the English Reformers in their struggle with the King and with the kind of Anglicanism he represented to them, starts with this question and answer:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
In this context I would just like to note two things about this (which I have loved deeply ever since I discovered it when studying the Westminster Confession as part of my theological preparation for ministry).
1) The Catechism starts with a question about the “end” or purpose of human being
2) This end or purpose is found in God (in glorification and enjoyment of God)
This decision about where to begin and response to the starting point are both absolutely correct, it seems to me. There is often, though, a temptation to proceed in the opposite direction in answering the doubts or hostility of a post-Christian world. Thus one gets
Q) What is the point of God (or religion)
A. God’s (or religion’s) chief end is the salvation (or happiness) of human beings
People are urged to faith on the basis it will save their souls from damnation or they are urged to action on the basis it will save the world from misery or destruction. The point of Christian faith is a glorious afterlife for the believer with God, or guidance on how to behave such that the world is made a better place. These views of what Christianity is seem to me to be basically mistaken and to arise from reversing the question the Catechism asks.
Christianity is, in the end, all about our relationship with God, a relationship in which God is glorified, not us, and which the enjoyment is enjoyment of God, not of anything or anyone else. We have a purpose in this scheme but we are not, ourselves that purpose, that purpose is found solely in God.
This message is one that should, I think, be repeated and elaborated constantly since it is so contrary to contemporary common sense. An essentially humanist position is the default, it seems to me, even among the most committed and vocal Christians. This puts human beings, their happiness and/or their behaviour, at the centre of attention. What we should be doing instead is insisting that while human beings are indeed the most important creatures (so I am radically anthropocentric in relation to creation) creation itself is meaningless and worthless seen separately from it creator.
Human beings (and the whole created order) has its value from God and in relation to God and from nowhere else and in no other respect. Neither what we do nor what we feel, neither what we think nor what we know have anything intrinsic in them that makes them worth anything. This worth comes from their relationship to the single being that has and confers value, God.
Once this basic re-orientation takes place it becomes possible, indeed necessary, to value human beings very highly indeed. What precisely it means to say that human beings are “made in the image of God” is not easy to understand, let alone to express, but this is the heart of things for us. That is the point of us and the point of our faith.
It’s not about us; it’s about God.