Faith of the Forsaken

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages several groups of interlocutors in discussions about justice, what it is and whether it is always desirable. Socrates will take a long time to answer the question of what justice is, but he maintains that it is intrinsically valuable. It is always better to be just than unjust. One of Socrates’ friends, Glaucon, wishes to know whether Socrates really believes so.

Glaucon proposes a test. Consider two people, one man perfectly just, and the other perfectly unjust. The unjust man is a virtuoso in his profession and all the external advantages of wealth, friends and power; the just man is the mirror opposite. Glaucon proposes an additional twist, since some of the disputants have claimed that it is better to appear just to others than really to be just. The unjust man is so clever that he is able to convince all onlookers that he is in fact a just man, so that he is lauded and rewarded by all, not only for his deeds but also for his virtue. On his dying day he is enthroned on the praises of the multitude. The just man lives a mean life and is thought unjust by all. Though he does no ill, he is taken for a monster. Universally hated, he is scourged, racked, bound, his eyes gouged out, and finally impaled. What benefit, Glaucon demands, did that man derive from his justice?

Glaucon poses the question hypothetically, but for Plato the issue is factual. The just man deemed unjust is a mildly exaggerated picture of Socrates, his beloved teacher. In Plato’s eyes, Socrates was a godsend, a man of singular wisdom, pure devotion, and unshakable conviction—a just man. Yet, he aroused the ire of the Athenians and was accused of corrupting the youth of the city. Throughout the trial, he refused to compromise his principles or flatter the jury. Sentenced to death, he refused to escape, even though his friends had made arrangements and begged him to flee.

Even as Plato penned Glaucon’s question and Socrates’ answer, he was answering a deeper question burning in his readers’ minds. Knowing all that happened to Socrates, why should anyone want to follow in his footsteps? How can anyone take up the mantle of Socratic philosophy when it seems to have died with him? Appeals to fame, glory, riches, or comfort are ruled out by the historical facts. Justice is its own justifier. The just person is the one who reorients his desires so that nothing is more desirable to him than justice itself. That just man is impervious, because whatever else may be stripped away from him, he retains his justice to the end.

Christianity, no less than Platonism, must give a reason for its existence. Judging from the shelves of Christian bookstores, the prevailing evangelistic strategy is to convince unbelievers that Christianity will make you happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Recently, I saw two books sitting next to each other whose titles may sum up the contemporary Christian experience: Your Best Life Now for Moms by Joel Osteen and 10 Lessons from a Former Fat Girl by Amy Parham. Such an approach may be effective at recruiting followers. The sophists who opposed Socrates were numerous and confident.

Yet, anyone familiar with the historical claims of Christianity will notice a discrepancy. Jesus perfectly exemplified his own teaching. He healed the sick, championed the marginalized, and taught God’s truth. At the end, he was betrayed by a comrade, abandoned by friends, cursed by his people, mocked by his enemies, nailed to a cross, and forsaken by God.

Nor was Jesus’ fate entirely unique. He warned his disciples that they were not above their master, that they too would face persecution. The author of Hebrews devotes a segment of his work to praising faith. After listing magnificent deeds done in faith, he (or she) abruptly changes tone:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Poverty, torture, even death are potential consequences of fervent faith? Glaucon’s challenge echoes in our ears. What good was faith to those saints? What benefit was faithfulness to Jesus?

The Christian answer contains two elements. The first is righteousness. Man was created to walk in perfect righteousness, and in doing so to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Thus, the worst ruin that can befall a man is the loss of righteousness. John Calvin spoke of the twofold grace of union with Christ. In justification, each Christian is immediately reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to his account.  This righteousness is always external to us, divorced from our performance.

But the second grace is sanctification, the process by which our bent, broken souls are restored to an unfallen state. In this process, each believer takes up his or her own cross and walks in Christ’s footsteps. As we are betrayed and abandoned, we take comfort, knowing that we can remain faithful to those we love. As we are maligned, we may speak truth. Tortured, we may heal. We may die hated, but we do not have to die with hate in our hearts. Cursed, our lips may speak forgiveness. Spurned by God in every visible way, we trust him still. Ours is the faith of the forsaken.

The second part of the Christian answer is resurrection. The world returned a guilty verdict on Jesus Christ, but Heaven would not let that stand. The resurrection overrules the world’s judgment and displays the just man as he is. Christ was “raised for our justification.” His verdict reversed is the source of our verdicts reversed and our eventual resurrection. In heaven, there are streets of gold, food in plenty, and the complete lack of misfortune. How then are we not back to the sophists’ argument that one should pursue justice (or faith) for material rewards? The two pieces of our answer, righteousness and resurrection, are not co-ordinate but consequential. Resurrection presupposes righteousness, and not merely because God says so. The message of Eden is that paradise is of no good to unrighteous people. Sooner than later, by greed, pride, and hatred, it will be ruined, and again begins the cycle of Paradise Lost. Paradise is only as good as the people who inhabit it.

In this fragile age between ages, Christians are strangers and pilgrims. Many will find wealth, comfort and happiness by practicing their faith. Others, by the same faith, will meet with unspeakable ends. We can promise unbelievers nothing but righteousness and resurrection. Who would accept such an offer? Those into whom the Spirit of God breathes, convincing them that Christ’s righteousness is all that matters.

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Published in: on August 22, 2011 at 8:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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