The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Does your tradition believe in saints?

I'd like to know the different ways Christians see saints; and I'd also appreciate hearing from non-Christians about their traditions and whether or not they have a concept of sainthood.

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Barbara L. wrote the Ethics and Religion Talk panel at [email protected] to ask:

“Growing up Protestant I was always under the impression that Catholics have saints but we do not. As an adult I learned that it's more complicated than that. I'd like to know the different ways Christians see saints; and I'd also appreciate hearing from non-Christians about their traditions and whether or not they have a concept of sainthood.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Reformed Christians have long protested against venerating deceased saints with prayers, images, and feast days. The mediation of Christ as our only High Priest (Hebrews 7:25) is all-sufficient, and needs no augmentation or assistance from others, living or dead. Every Christian is called to be a saint, living by faith in Christ and pursuing holiness in the fear of God.

“Even so, the Bible devotes considerable space to the lives and deeds of ‘heroes of the faith;’ for example, see Hebrews, Ch. 11. Protestants should labor to know more about this ‘glorious company,’ ‘goodly fellowship,’ and ‘noble army’ (Te Deum). That knowledge should extend to all periods of church history, which has much to teach us about the challenges of life as a Christian in such a world as this. Every Christian will profit from the memorials of “inter-testamental” Jewish saints, such as the Maccabees, recorded in the pages of the Apocrypha.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“The most significant difference between the tradition of saints in Hinduism and in Christianity is that there is no formal process that canonizes a person. A person is considered a saint if he or she lives a sanctified, unselfish, compassionate life. Also, in Catholicism sainthood his reserved for those who have died.  We consider ourselves very blessed to have saints living amongst us. As you would expect, having such a democratic process can get messy. One person’s saint could be another’s fraud. Sometimes we find that ‘saints’ are far too human that we like to admit. But a proverb from our tradition states, ‘The existence of fool’s gold does not diminish the reality of pure gold.’ ”

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“Christians do not worship saints but view them as inspirational. Their lives were not perfect. ‘For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23). What sets them apart is their love and commitment to God. They lived for God, loved God, and devoted their entire lives to serving him. We are called to learn from the way they lived their lives but we are not called to put them on a pedestal. The only one who deserves a pedestal is Jesus. He alone is perfect and holy!”

Ty Silzer, a former pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, responds:

“Well, I can only speak from your vantage point, Protestantism. Growing up, I was taught ‘we were right’ and ‘[Catholics] were wrong.’ And I was given just the bullets points (but not any reasoning) so I could be a good ‘Protestant’ (I didn’t know I was one) boy (at best, I was Presbybapist) and defend the faith from ‘them’ (which, I’ve never had to do). All of this a position I no longer hold.

“One of the big topics of defense was ‘sainthood.’ Because of this built-in defense, ‘saint’ was virtually a dirty word in my circles. Yes, we believed that Peter was a head of the Church, that Paul spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean, but we would never refer to them as ‘saints.’ And long lists of names that don’t appear in the Bible? We’d steer clear. 

“But as I read and grew in my own faith, I had certain realizations. Saint is connected to the word ‘sanctify’ which means ‘to separate’ or ‘to make holy.’ And the word appears repeatedly throughout the New Testament, in fact, in one location (Matthew 27.52) it's used to describe people who could not yet have been part of the Christian movement. Half of Paul’s letters are addressed to ‘the saints…’ (which, to add to my confusion, he was speaking to living persons). While my understanding has expanded past this, for the average Protestant, saints are simply those who have walked with God before us (though technically ‘we’ are, too).”

My response:

Judaism has no concept of sainthood, However, we do look to figures from our past to inspire and from whose merit and relationship with God we might draw. In our Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) liturgy, we tell the story of ten 2nd century martyrs who were put to death by the Roman government for teaching Torah and ordaining disciples as rabbis. And in the central daily prayer of Jewish liturgy, we invoke Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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