What is necessary for a person to be saved? This has been a common question that gets asked and opined upon within Christian circles. What are the minimum necessities of Christian faith? On the surface of it, this question seems noble in intentions, as it tries to not make Christian faith too inaccessible or exclusive and it tries to take seriously that we come into the life before God through faith and not some prior accomplishments for our record. However, lurking under this question is darker idea that can get inculcated by it: what I labeled min-max Christianity.
What is min-max Christianity? Min-max Christianity is the pattern of religious belief and behavior that is focused on the getting, than the giving, that is focused more on the rights and privileges rather than commitment and servant hood. Central to min0max Christianity is a focus on defining the benefits of “membership,” whether the membership being in the people of God, a specific denomination, etc. that are considered to inalienable, obligatory, and binding while keeping expectations low. When we talk about the minimum requirements of the Gospel, we are often explicitly expressing the minimizing part of the min-maxing.
What if someone asked “What is the minimum I have to do to become a pastor” or “What is the minimum I have to do to be a scholar” or “What is the minimum I have to do to have a long, happy marriage?” (All things that I myself aim for that I am most familiar with; you can insert your own equivalent examples) What would I tell them? Don’t expect to be a pastor, don’t expect to be a scholar, and don’t expect to get a happy marriage. Why? Because each of those three things entail the whole person being set and formed for those things. If you try to get by with only the “necessities,” you will likely fall short of the goal. Having been a pastor, having engaged in scholarship, and having studied relationships and marriages, you can not successfully min-max your way to being an effective pastor, a learned scholar, and a continuously warm marriage. You will fall short, flame out, or become overwhelmed time with that attitude.
Now, there is a different way to frame the original intention of the question about the minimum necessities: what is the starting point? How does one start towards being a pastor? Prayer, Scripture reading, service, and learning theology years before you even step foot in a pulpit. How does one starts towards being a scholar? Reading, researching, and focused reflection long before you are a scholar. How does one start towards a happy marriage? Building warmth and passion through kindness, affection, and attentiveness from the first date. But here is the secret about those three things: the starting point is also what keeps you going as you get closer and closer to the goal and keeps you sustained once you have intially reached the goal. The starting point is not a bare minimum, but it is the very attitude, it is the very practices, it is the very way of approaching your future that enable you to receive and be changed to be those type of people. However, if one has a min-maxing attitude, then once the goal seems to be reached, then one begins to rest on their laurels and may even develop a sense of entitlement about those things.
I would teach the same about the Christian faith. Our journey with God is not something we min-max, where we do what is necessary to get an exchange from God, the church, etc. Rather, there is the starting point of faith that God is showing us the way to Him in Jesus Christ, and it is this starting point that guides and leads us to run the race set before us to the finish. The gift of eternal life is living in the journey, which we can not just readily min-max. This doesn’t mean we need to be perfect or achieve some high standard of performance before God to continue to enjoy eternal life, but it means that a min-maxing attitude may leave us precariously short as we leave behind what started us on the journey for other things, which will take us on different journeys towards different destinations, but not the future God has willed for us. This faith forms how we understand our life circumstances and how we are called to love God and love others in the midst of them, but if we are simply min-maxing, we will not be long for continuing to see with faith.
Perhaps the best analogy to frame this is a child and learning. How does a child grow up to be a nuclear physicist? He starts by learning how to read and write, how to add and subtract. But then, as he masters those materials, he begins to learn new materials, such as how to understand stories and how to multiple and divide. After mastering that, he learns something new at the next level, and so on, until she or he finally reaches the type of learning and research that a nuclear physicist has. A min-maxing attitude will never allow them to run the race. However, the way they start is the way they trudge forward and is the way they finish and they as a person and their memories are formed towards the telos of nuclear physics.
There is no minimum of the Gospel. Rather, it starts, continues, and finishes in us where it all began, but with progress from where one started. Min-maxing cuts off progress at some point.