SASKATOON — Every year the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon hosts Study Days for leaders across the diocese. During this two-day event, various theologians are brought in to discuss different topics. The audience is primarily made up of the pastors, parish life directors and parish staff of the diocese. This year, Randal Rauser, a Baptist scholar from Edmonton, was the speaker.
Associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Rauser hold a doctorate in theology from King’s College in London, England, where his dissertation was titled, Trinity, Mind and World: A Theological Epistemology of Mediation. Rauser is also an author, whose most recent book is: What’s So Confusing About Grace? He has written extensively on the issue of discussing faith with atheists.
Rauser’s topic over the two days in Saskatoon was “The Five Great Pillars of Christianity.” Under this heading, he discussed five topics that he felt allowed the Roman Catholic and Baptist churches to dialogue.
Rauser described the five binding doctrines as a diamond — an object that can be turned in the light to discover different aspects of the faith. He defined these teachings as: the Trinity, sin, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection.
He began by setting the stage of the contemporary milieu. He noted how there was a growing awareness and acceptance of the “new atheism,” initiated by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other vocal atheists.
“While there is more being written and shared,” Rauser said, “the percentage of non-religious people has not increased significantly in recent years.”
God, by nature of being trinitarian, is also a community, said Rauser, exploring the Trinity as the first pillar of Christianity.
This topic contained the recurring theme that God is personal: God is an “I.” Rauser argued that we can be in relationship with God because God is “an Other” and that God, in God’s personal, trinitarian reality, is communal: “a They.”
“This is intimidating to some people,” he said, “because, if there is a God, then we are accountable.”
Rauser was supportive of people asking difficult questions of their church and their faith: “It is people who ask hard questions who force us as Christians to expand our thinking and understanding of God.”
On the topic of sin, Rauser started lightly by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, who once said, “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Rauser discussed many of the classical theological perspectives on sin, but also referred to serial killers, the Simpsons, and conservative radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
“Sin stems from our instinct to survive and compete,” Rauser opined. “Sin is — in the words of Stanley Grenz — our failure to be God’s 'image bearers.' ”
In his reflection on the incarnation, entitled, “God Became Meat,” Rauser discussed the various implications of an eternal, omnipotent Creator taking on flesh.
“What does it mean for an eternal, impassable, omniscient, sovereign, immortal God to become like one of his creatures?” he asked. “To take on pain, uncertainty, time, and even death, is too difficult to comprehend. It is scandalous, but imperative. If you were a soldier, would you respect and follow a general who had never seen battle? That is the incarnation.”
In the segment on atonement, Rauser discussed the many different theologies of soteriology, attempting to address how Jesus saved humanity through his death on the cross.
“The crucifixion can be seen as penal substitution, as scapegoating, as a ransom, or as simply redemption,” he said. “The cross can be interpreted as healing or as an example that we are expected to follow.”
Rauser shared the image that Christ took on flesh so that he could become “bait on the hook of the devil, who reeled him into the bowels of hell. The devil swallowed Jesus and that is where the battle took place.”
Jesus’ sacrifice and loving willingness to embrace the cross can be seen as a “lifestyle complement for youth” who are challenged to follow Christ as an exemplar, a person who will take on their cross and challenge evil with love in their day-to-day lives.
In the final section of his presentation, Rauser discussed the resurrection. He was not afraid to discuss the topic in a physical, historical manner. He quoted various modern writers, but also historical, non-Christian texts that allude to the idea that Jesus had indeed risen in a corporeal way.
“The resurrection is essential; the tomb was found empty,” Rauser proclaimed. “The death of Jesus should have been a criterion for embarrassment, so if there was a body in the tomb, why tell the story?”
Nearing his conclusion, Rauser described the resurrection as “a glimpse into our future salvation” and broached the interesting reality that most Christians indeed proclaim a belief in “the resurrection of the body but frankly only expect heaven.”