After becoming an Adventist in high school, I struggled to understand the precise relationship between salvation and liberation, grace and human wellbeing in the Christian gospel. No matter which church I attended, I was repeatedly told that, unlike other churches, Adventists reject the dualistic understanding of mind and body, spirit and matter. “Adventists have a holistic understanding of human beings,” many pastors insisted. Why else would they tell us to rest on Sabbath and become vegetarians? This is what I have always appreciated about the Adventist Church. This attitude is also profoundly biblical. Human beings are indeed worldly, material, embodied beings. Anyone who denies this can prove me wrong by stopping eating.
Yet it is quite easy for us to read the Christian gospel as something that is only relevant for our interior spiritual lives. For instance, I would often hear, at the end of a sermon about the importance of human well-being, the paradoxical conclusion that I should passively wait in faith for Jesus’ return. According to this perspective, human history, the world, and well-being are derivative concerns at best. So what is the Christian position on the relationship between mind and body, salvation and history?
While it is true that some biblical texts may seem to suggest our private spirituality takes precedence over other concerns, other texts suggest otherwise. Take, for instance, Matthew 25:34-36: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” Verse 40 continues, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
So our salvation would seem to be intimately bound with our efforts to meet the needs of our suffering brothers and sisters. Instead of thinking about salvation and human liberation as two opposing dimensions of Christianity, we might try to think about them as internally related to each other as a harmonious package.
More evidence can be found in Jesus’ preaching. When Jesus began his ministry, he made his goals pretty clear in a synagogue: “He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). In the same gospel, Jesus proclaims that “the Kingdom is in the midst.” If we look carefully, we would find a lot of scriptural gems bearing witness to our hypothesis that there is an internal, as opposed to external, relationship between earth and heaven, salvation and liberation. Jesus is not returning because he is absent, Jesus is returning because he is already here, part of our historical movement toward the kingdom.
I believe part of the reason we tend to miss the intimate relationship between human material well-being and Christian spirituality is due to the current culture of radical individualism. Society constantly emphasizes that religion is a private affair that has nothing to do with how we should relate to each other in real life and that our sole focus is our personal relationship with Jesus. What this perspective misses is that human beings are embodied, material beings, whose interior life is inextricably bound with their external life.
Just think about it. Do not the subliminal messages we see in television commercials affect us in ways that we cannot understand? Does not our consumerist culture foster a society of chronic shoppers? Does not systemic racism make us into racists often without our awareness? Does not rampant poverty, violence, and inequality create a climate of desperation, crime, and deceit? Nothing in our interior life is immune to the external forces that make us who we are. This is why Paul says that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” As human beings we live in the situation of “the flesh.” This is why if there is truly going to be salvation for us, it will have to be a total salvation. God’s grace cannot simply transform our private spiritual lives, if it were to be efficacious. Grace must also transform everything that makes us who we are, including the space within which we live and move and have our being---our civil, political, and economic life. So our effort to struggle for a better world is itself constitutive of God’s redemptive activity in the world. There is, therefore, no opposition between spirit and matter, body and mind as many of my pastors rightly taught. After all, as Christians, we believe in the resurrection of the body, not just the soul.
Yi Shen Ma is a third year Ph.D. student in Claremont School of Theology. He is the Development Director of Adventist Peace Fellowship. Prior to his service in the United States Navy as a religious program specialist, he worked as a young adult pastor. He blogs with Matt Burdette and Shane Akerman at Interlocutors: A Theological Dialogue.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6164