Who, what and how are we?

man2I’ve encouraged friends to read James Alison’s wonderful book The Joy of Being Wrong. I’m not excited about it because I agree with every claim he makes, but because he articulates so well (in Girardian terms) what human (social) nature is, what salvation amounts to, and how this is all best read in light of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it’s just because of where I am at the present moment, but I find Alison full of insight.

There will be plenty of opportunity to post passages I agree with. Let me start with an aspect of Alison’s work that I disagree with. In working out his anthropology (Ch 2), Alison rejects transcendental anthropology. A transcendental anthropology views human nature to be constituted as an implicit and irresistible orientation of desire for God. Not that God is always what we consciously or explicitly intend, but that desire is God-given and thus oriented Godward, that is to say, to find its fulfillment in God. This orientation of desire derives from the transcendent presence of God as the immediate ground and end of human being and all human desiring, as well as intrinsic teleology of created nature and the scope of every nature’s possibilities. Human rationality and desire are, you might say, hardwired for God. Think of desire as a kind of aesthetic gravity to consciousness, a ‘power of attraction’ that draws desire to its fulfillment. To say we transcendently desire God is not to say we never set our desires on things other than God; it is to say that in all our desiring, God remains the truest end and fulfillment of that desire and that all desire is truly fulfilled when we intentionally make God the end of all we do (Col 3.23-24).

That’s my understanding of transcendental anthropology at least. But Alison is suspicious of such talk. I’ll let him explain why (from various portions of his Ch 2) and then respond with a few reflections in an upcoming post. Alison writes:

This, of course, places us on a somewhat different course from any transcendental anthropology, which sees, as a matter of philosophical truth, the human being as imbued with a somehow experienced orientation toward grace and glory and therefore the concrete, contingent, historical acts of salvation (the prophets, the coming of Christ, the existence of the Church, the sacraments) as merely making explicit the universal availability of grace. In such a view, “the historical events, the human acts and images which can alone be the site of supernatural difference, are here reduced to mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence, always humanly available.

At this point it seems important to try to indicate why the transcendental element seems unnecessary in a fundamental anthropology…

I do not want to deny…that all Christian anthropology must posit that all humans are, just by the fact of being humans, called to participate in the divine life. However, it seems to me that this theological doctrine is an important human discovery made in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is part of a discovery that we are, in fact, quite different from what we normally think we are. That is to say, the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis is itself part of the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope, in which we hope to become something which we are not, or are scarcely, now.

If we detach the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis from the element of discovery in hope of something which contradicts our daily lived experience and turn it into a quasi-philosophical description of what we all are, inescapably, then we merely transform the doctrine of the security of salvation…into a universal philosophical principle. This means, in theological terms, that a subtle form of anonymous semi-Pelagianism, and thus shortcuts the way in which discovery of the universality of the call to theiosis is, for each of its participants, a radical conversion and part of the revelation of salvation.

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Let me therefore try to set out the way in which the anthropology I have been trying to set out differs from this (and the answer is, only very, very slightly). The human being is constituted by what is other than himself or herself, and is always utterly related to this other which is anterior to himself or herself. The other I’m talking about is, of course, the human, social, cultural, material, environmental other proper to our planet. It is this other than has forged language, memory, will, and the capacity to relate to the other. So much might reasonably be recognized by anyone, independent of religious conviction. However, that is not to say that the anthropology I have been setting out could have been set out except from a theological perspective. In fact, it was a very particular set of contingent historical actions, lives, and circumstances that made it possible to perceive the role of the victim as foundational to human being, contingent actions involving a reversal of perspective on the relation of any one of us to that victim. That is to say, it was a particular set of historical events which made it possible fully to recognize the other which forms us. And it made it possible to recognize this precisely in the simultaneous act of revealing that there was a different sort of other that could form us in a different sort of way: that is to say, there is a different perspective on the founding murder than that which is connatural to us.

In this way, we can say that every human being is, in fact, constituted by and with an in-built relationality to the other which formed him or her. This other constituted the very possibility of human desire. We can also say that owing to the way in which we are in fact constituted, that desire is rivalistic and builds identity, to a greater or lesser extent, by denial of the alterity, and the anteriority, of the other desire. That is to say, human desire, as we know it, works by grasping and appropriating being rather than receiving it. In this sense, we are all always already locked into the other which forms us in a relationship of acquisitive mimesis, that is, in a relationship of violence which springs from, and leads to, death.

It became possible to understand this (in fact) not from natural rational deduction (though there is nothing inherently incomprehensible about it), but precisely because of the irruption of a novum into the midst of the social other which forms us, a novum which is a revelation of a different sort of Other, and Other that is completely outside any form of rivalistic desire and that made itself historically present as a self-giving and forgiving victim. This self-given victim, from outside human mimetic rivalry, revealed precisely that the death-locked lie of mimetic rivalry flowing from culture’s hidden victims is not the original mode of desire, but a distortion of it. That which was chronologically original (and seemed to us to be simply natural) is discovered to be logically secondary to an anterior self-giving and creative desire.

…The transformation of our “self” via our constitutive alterity happens not through some universal transcendence, but exactly through the givenness of certain particular historical actions and signs, moving us to produce and reproduce just such historical acts and signs.

…Can we then talk of a universal desiderium naturale, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them. The disiderium naturale is “there” as something that can be recovered.

In this sense I am completely in agreement with J. L. Segundo when he insists that it is quite wrong to see any human construction of values as implicitly pointing toward God simply because they are a human construction of values. Human desire is a good thing because it can in principle be drawn into the desire of God, precisely as human desire, and indeed we know from faith that it was for this that it was created. That does not stop the very condition of possibility of our desire of God (the human structure of desire) being lived without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us into receivers of our being. It is possible for human desire to be lived as idolatry, as complete missing of the point (a “falling short of the glory of God”), an exacerbated desire for metaphysical autonomy, and thus a seeking to appropriate (rather than receive) life for the self, a living from death to death – running from our own death and causing that of others. In this way I hope it is possible to see that the theological anthropology which I have been setting out is in fact well suited to the basic insight of the liberation theologians that the choices is not between theism and atheism, but between the true God (the God of life) and idolatry. This is rather better suited, I would suggest, than a transcendental anthropology, which effectively pre-pardons idolatry without transforming the idolater, without giving him or her the chance of a real restructuring of heart.

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One can see Alison’s main concerns:

  • First, a transcendental anthropology reduces the historical events of salvation history to “mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence” which are “always humanly available.”
  • Second, if grace is constitutive of created nature (defining its end and delimiting the scope of its possibilities), then theosis fails to be “the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope” in which we “become something we are not.” That is, Alison believes transcendental anthropologies reduce the gospel to a “quasi-philosophical description of what we all [already] are” which he takes to be Pelagian. What we are meant to become, Alison maintains, requires events (Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection) that intrude within the natural order. They are not truths derived philosophically from what can be rationally deduced from contemplating nature, an “unaided outworking of a human dynamic,” for “nothing human could have revealed the constitution of the human consciousness in human victimization.” A radical novum is needed, a divine act which constitutes salvation as a gracious intrusion from outside the scope or reach of human rationality, as opposed to the natural unfolding of dispositions already present in us.
  • Third, it is obviously the case that we do in fact exhaust our desires idolatrously upon false ends “without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us.”
  • Lastly, Alison suggests that a transcendental grace constitutive of nature would “pre-pardon idolatry” and leave us “without…the chance of a real restructuring of the heart.”

I’d love to hear what folks have to say about Alison’s objections to transcendental anthropology. I think he fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by those who see nature sacramentally as shot through with grace from beginning to end, but I’ll try to explore that in an upcoming post.

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The Joy of Being Wrong

alison

Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.

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We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.

treegift

What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only which in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.

He took it away, nailing it to the Cross

HieronymusCross

You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.

I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.

Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:

There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.

Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…curical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.

The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us

…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.

Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…

Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).

It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.

The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).

By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.

…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…

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jesus-on-a-tree-crossThere’s a lot to engage here, e.g., Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.

What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s even the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal (if there’s a better word, help me find it), it seems to me, because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).

This has been a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest – which is why I’m still working through all this. But Greg has sent mixed messages as well. We could easily produce clear examples of Greg’s explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections I have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?

What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” that constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Long story short – Jesus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. True, God freely forgives, and this forgiveness is antecedent to, and the motivation for, the Cross (which your standard penal-substitutionary theorists won’t concede). But the narrative doesn’t end there. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakeness to redeem us. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.

Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. There is no emotional angst which God vents upon Jesus. But I suggest that regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness which our sins deserve (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced. But this intuition seems to be behind the view that God must “become his antithesis,” be “cursed,” and suffer his own godforsakenness to secure our reconciliation.

Consider this as well. If God’s loving intentions for those for whom he experiences the consequences of their sinful choices preclude all punitive connections simply because God loves those for whom he suffer godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory can be said to affirm a punitive theory of the atonement, for such theorists all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve out of love and with the intention to redeem, just like Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, and that God does this out of love in order to redeem, just like Greg says. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving and redemptive intention absolves Greg’s theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal? They all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem.

I think that what both the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common, what makes them equally objectionable, is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from what transpires in God (between Father and Son) in terms of God’s withdrawing from God (Father from Son) in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) seems entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. It is present in the notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends. That this constitutes a mythological contagion is, I take it, one of Girard’s fundamental insights.

One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:

…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this passages as well. It’s a classic Christus Victor passage. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.

If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God wherein God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. He must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.

My peace I give you, as I hang here

crucifixionIconGeorgia12thCenturyJohn’s Gospel has been a wonderful resource of insight into Jesus’ perspective on his own Cross. I’ve commented on John 16.31-33:

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

And on John 14.30-31 as well:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

From these we gain an invaluable insight into the one person’s perspective on the Cross that many writing on the subject today tend to ignore, that of Jesus, and into the transforming assurance that how God is with him in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

There’s no getting around the presence of mind and sense of purpose that Jesus possesses on the eve of his crucifixion. Some argue that Jesus comes to despair of these same truths when he encounters what he did not expect, namely, the reality of godforsakeness, that moment on the Cross when Jesus realized the Cross was something he did not plan for, that the Father he trusted would be “with him” in fact abandoned him and that he was wrong to have thought the Prince of this world “had no hold on/in [him].”

I want here briefly to introduce two further statements Jesus makes in Jn 14 which I previously failed to engage. First, in Jn 14.29 Jesus expressly mentions the fact that he has decided to give his disciples such assurance “before it happens” (i.e., before he was to be crucified) so that when it happens they “might have faith.” Every evidence of God’s faithfulness was to disappear from the horizon – society, country, covenant community, family, followers, life itself. Nothing within the created order would remain as a resource for Jesus to know that “peace” which he was promising others when they hung on their crosses.

That’s what the Cross does – for Jesus and for all of us – it takes ‘what is created’ to the absolute end of its resources where the Void of our created nothingness cannot be escaped. It cannot be a-voided. Only an uncreated source, an uncreated voice from beyond the horizon of finite nature can assure the human heart that it is loved, that it is not alone, and that it is secure.

Jesus knows exactly what conclusion the Cross will press upon his disciples (and which many theologians today conclude), and so he mentions “before it happens.” Mentions what? He mentions what will soon seem unbelievable to imagine. And what is that? Only this – that contrary to every evidence of Jesus’ godforsakenness, “I am” is with him, the Father has not abandoned him. He says it now “so that” when he suffers, we will have faith.

Jesus makes a second astonishing claim just a moment earlier, in v. 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” When is this true? Where is it true? It’s true tonight, but will it be true tomorrow when Jesus is hanging on the Cross? Here’s the point I think we race by in these assurances Jesus leaves with his disciples on the eve of his lynching. We don’t connect these sayings to the event of the Cross. If we do, it’s only because we think the Cross is the one place where these assurances fail to define for Jesus the truth of his existence, perhaps because we think their failing to be true for him then and there is the cost God must pay so that they can be true for us here and now. I can’t imagine a more despairing account of the Cross.

Let me suggest that what Jesus promises on the eve of his crucifixion his Cross actually demonstrates, that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he actually possesses and embodies as he is crucified. “My peace I leave you” essentially means “I’m going to show you how to have the peace that only God can give when the world takes everything else from you.” What Jesus promises his disciples the night before he dies he gives as he’s being murdered – but only faith will see it that way because, as Jesus said, it is “not as the world gives.” It is only found through participating in Christ’s sufferings, traveling with him to the brink of the Void and learning there from him how to hear the assurances of an uncreated source, how to live ex nihilo (out of nothing).

Three truths that define Jesus view of his Cross before he died:

“I am not alone, my Father is with me.”
“The Prince of the world has no hold on/in me.”
“My peace I leave you, not as the world is capable of giving. Don’t be afraid.”

If they’re not true of him as he hangs on the Cross, they’re not true the night before, but if they do define his deepest sense of identity as he suffers, then they can come to define ours as well.

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 5

crossvisionSomeone recently shared with me a review of Greg’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God written by Emory U grad student Collin Cornell and published by the Christian Century. The sheer size of CWG (1,400 pages) places high demands upon any reviewer. Ted Grimsrud over at Peace Theology is 15 posts into his review and he’s just over half way through it. Cornell, however, reviews Cross Vision, a condensed version of CWG published a couple months ago. He comes at things from an interesting perspective that I haven’t run into in any of the reviews I’ve read thus far, and I thought I’d like to engage that perspective a bit. I’m not, however, taking this up to further review CWG.

Cornell expresses admiration for Greg’s vision and pastoral concern as well as his Chris-centered focus, and he does a good job of summarizing Greg’s main points, but it is his responses to Greg that interest me. As I read him, Cornell’s main points are these:

First, on the whole, Greg’s view doesn’t comport with Cornell’s experience of reading the OT. Greg often shares the story of a woman who found it impossible to love and worship the violent God depicted in the OT and whose faith was saved after learning from Greg of a way to avoid attributing such violence to God. Without wanting to ignore the problem passages, Cornell nevertheless feels that Greg represents a very one-sided vision of God as he’s depicted in the OT. Cornell explains:

To this charge of theological error on a nearly testamental scale, my first objections is simply this: I have found the God of the Old Testament stunning—beautiful and worthy of worshipand not just in the handful of passages that Boyd approves. I got into studying the Old Testament by reading a mentor’s paper on the golden calf story. In that debacle of human idolatry at the very moment of covenant making, in God’s rage and Moses’s intercession, in God’s final, precipitous new commitment to stay loyal to God’s people—I met a God I recognized: the one who absorbed the anguish of ultimate rejection and then, three days later, moved toward impossible new loyalty yet stronger than death. More than that, I felt I understood more deeply the tempestuous drama of divine long-suffering and human recidivism at the core of the Christian confession. The same held true for other texts of this older testament: far from being false and sub-Christian, I perceived in them a vast, continental theological consonance with the God made known in Jesus Christ.

Fair enough. There are many religious believers whose view of God is not disturbed by the violence attributed to God in the OT. But in fairness to Greg, part of his vision in CWG is precisely to provoke or awaken a sense of disturbance about these passages. How successful Greg is at this depends in part upon how readers respond to God contemplate as doing and commanding such violence. If no discontinuity is generated on an affective level, then so be it. But for those who can’t integrate such violence with the truth of God revealed in Christ, the question of how God is present within Israel’s Scriptures is acute. Cornell continues:

This is not to shrug off the troubling theology or ethics of the Old Testament. But it is to contend that the Old Testament holds more (and much more) than just such troubles. This is more than Boyd seems to grant…he treats these books and the Old Testament at large as an almost unrelenting train of horrors….

I didn’t get the sense that Greg painted a picture of the OT as cancerous through and through with a merely violent view of God. Greg recognizes within the OT a portrait of God as good, merciful and loving, and he’s eager to grant that this comports entirely with the character of God revealed in Christ. But since Greg’s task is to awaken people to to the discontinuity between this portrait and violent portraits, it’s only natural that his emphasis falls on the latter and how such passages cannot, in any simple or straightforward way, be harmonized with the gracious portrait of God found in the OT. That’s part of Greg’s project, to establish the incompatibility between God’s being the kind of God revealed in Christ, on the one hand, and also the subject of the violence and genocide attributed to him by OT texts. So for Greg it’s not whether the OT contains both motifs or themes (it does); it’s whether being found in the text alone tells us that both types of passage reveal God in the same way.

Secondly, Greg’s view has unacceptable consequences for our understanding of Judaism. Cornell comments:

Besides the fact that this view of the Old Testament does not comport with my own reading experience—nor that of many Christians in many generations—it may also yield unsettling results for a Christian theology of Judaism. Boyd considers all of God’s instruction given to Israel on Sinai and gathered up in the Pentateuch as a sprawling instance of divine condescension: “the law-oriented portrait of God, which constitutes a foundational aspect of the OT, is a divine accommodation”—and so a product of human projection that God did not in fact do or reveal. Boyd radicalizes, as it were, Paul’s claim that the law was “ordained by angels” (Gal. 3:19) and ascribes it in effect to those “a little lower than angels.” So, too, does Boyd humanize “all depictions of Yahweh as uniquely belonging to Israel.” For him such depictions are theological falsities, which God with Christlike humility deigned to tolerate.

…Boyd is alert to the problem; the final appendix of his two-volume work defends his approach against the accusation of supersessionism. But Boyd seems to understand the term narrowly: he condemns the idea that Jews are under God’s wrath and he renounces replacement theology. What he does not comment on is the extent to which Judaism knows God—or does not. Could it be that in Boyd’s view, Judaism knows God only slightly, since it treasures a testament so saturated with theological untruth?

From my own reading and review, I didn’t sense that Greg denied OT believers truly knew God, or that God is not truly revealed in the OT. However, the extent to which – and, indeed, how – Israel’s Scriptures reveal God is something determined Christologically. In one sense, there really is an inherent incompleteness to the OT. The OT cannot stand alone. Christ is where Israel’s calling and history tend. The OT is meant for Christ, and until it is read in/through Christ, its meaning remains unfulfilled, uncovered. For Paul there is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ (cf. 2Cor 3.7-18 where Paul contrasts the OT with Christ). This usefulness for teaching, rebuking and correcting is, thus, Christologically shaped. The OT can contributed to the formation of Christlike character and to empower the doing of good works when read Christologically. That’s its purpose. So in response to Cornell, yes, God is “slightly known” prior the advent of Christ and the bestowal of the Spirit in the sense that any anticipation fails to embody the fuller reality of what is to come.

Lachish-battering

Thirdly, Greg’s view undermines our ability to trust God’s promises. Cornell expresses a further concern:

Boyd means for his book to cleanse the theologically polluted imagination of Christian readers and to catalyze a breakthrough of trust in God. But trusting in God means trusting in God’s faithfulness to abide by God’s promises. And Boyd has placed a large question mark—if not a strikethrough—over God’s promises to Israel. Boyd’s regimen of Sachkritik systematically doubts the veracity of the Old Testament vis-à-vis the character of God. This makes it nearly impossible to utter an “Amen” to all God’s past promises that are “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). For Boyd, Christ does not so much fulfill God’s promises and match God’s character, known already from Israel’s scriptures, as reveal a previously unknown (or half-unknown) God.

Boyd’s proposal also casts a shadow over God’s faithfulness to New Testament promises. The fires of theological criticism, once kindled, will hardly stay contained to one testament. Boyd realizes this. He writes: “Since we are dependent on the NT for our knowledge of God’s definitive revelation in the crucified Christ . . . one [might] question how we can be assured that God did not have to accommodate aspects of the NT authors’ fallen and culturally conditioned worldview.” In fact Boyd admits in principle that God could have made such accommodations: perhaps the New Testament, too, falls into theological error, which God endures with Christlike silence. But Boyd does not in actuality think that this occurred, and he apologizes vigorously for New Testament texts that appear to promote chauvinism or violence.

I wonder if Greg does think this has happened in the NT. Would his reading of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and the blinding of Elymas (Acts 13) count as an example? Cornell continues:

I say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: theological criticism cannot be set loose on one testament and muzzled for the other. Rather we must acknowledge that in whatever ways the Old Testament is caught up in human fallenness and cultural specificity, the New Testament is also.

Cornell is quite right. The NT authors are just as fallible and culture-bound as the OT writers, and so are not exempt from the limitations and constrains of a ‘dialectical inspiration’. And though I don’t pretend to speak for Greg, I think Greg would agree. So Greg will have to explain how he integrates that fallibility into his view of NT texts. For myself, I’d suggest that where the OT witnesses to divine acts of deliverance and judgment, the NT witnesses to a fundamentally different kind of divine act (Incarnation). Christ is God-incarnate, personally present. Nothing roughly parallel to this is being testified to by any OT text. The revealing act in the NT, then, is not a text per se, but the personal presence of God as Christ. This in turn shapes something of the ‘dialectic’ at work in NT vs OT texts (see my Inspiration the presence of final causality). As Heb 1.1 suggests, God spoke in many different ways in the past, but now he has spoken [finally, definitively] to us in his Son. While NT authors remain fallible and not exempt from individual errors, the apostolic deposit reflects an entirely different sort of relationship between those who testify, on the one hand, and the divine act being witnessed to, on the other. God incarnated, in part, because the divine voice in the OT was dependent upon human fallibilities in a way not so dependent in Christ. In Christ, God ‘speaks for himself’, we might say, and that closes the interpretive gap at play in the ‘dialectic’ that defines divine inspiration.

Moreover, I don’t think Greg is guilty, as Cornell suggests, of “placing a question mark over God’s promises to Israel.” What I read Greg as saying is that Christ defines what God’s genuine promises in the OT even are. Christology redefines the question. No longer do we simply ask ‘What the the OT text explicitly promise?’ Rather, on what basis do we determine the nature and scope of God’s promises in the OT texts? Greg is arguing that Christ is how we define Israel’s traditions as divine promise. Christ reveals how well the OT approximates that promise and where it gets that promise right. Cornell and Greg may just disagree on this, but I’m not sure it means Greg doesn’t think we can trust God’s promises. It just means Greg limits God’s promises to Christ. “Christ is the end/telos of the law for all who believe” (Rm 10.4), and “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘yes’ in Christ.” (2Cor 1.20) That said, even those OT texts that ‘get God wrong’ function as promisory notes that anticipate a revelation of God (Incarnate) who ‘gets God right’.

In the end, though, I’m unsure what Cornell does with the violence attributed to God in the OT. He explains:

“I can’t love the God who ever demanded massacre,” the woman in Boyd’s story said. But if God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these other, particular texts as promissory, then the same may hold for violent passages; even texts about divine aggression could then signify something enduringly true about God and life before God. Such an approach would not bypass the difficult plain sense, but would look expectantly through it and beyond it.

I’m not sure what it means to say “God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these [violent] texts as promissory.” How would Cornell retrieve that “something enduringly true about God and life” without appeal to Christ? How would the final truth “not bypass the difficult plain sense” when that plain sense is a divine command to commit genocide? How does one “look through and beyond” God’s actually commanding genocide? Cornell suggests, I take it, that the answer lies in spiritualizing the violent texts and reading them as a motivation to spiritual warfare:

Here, too, the history of interpretation furnishes precedents. As the Israelites traveled out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the Amalekites accosted them, and YHWH swore to make war against Amalek forever (Exod. 17). Jewish tradition saw in this seemingly very local occurrence the outline of a far larger and more persistent conflict. Amalek became an archetype for evil, such that the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, could advise, “We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever he attacks.” And when I myself pray the psalm that asks God to “strike my enemies on the jaw” (Ps. 3:7), I do not think of concrete individuals—but of “our ancient foe, who seeks to work us woe” (as Luther’s hymn puts it).

But this leaves the problem unaddressed. The problem, as I understand Greg, is not how we can take God’s having actually done and commanded gross violence to be an “archetype” for the believer’s non-violent struggle against evil. The problem is God’s having actually done and commanded such violence. Does Cornell think God actually commanded Israel to commit genocide? I’m not sure. If yes, then spiritualizing the texts after the fact doesn’t address the fundamental problem Greg is concerned to awaken folks to.

Rivalry-free desire for God

GoodThief

I leave you with one last passage from Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection.

And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:17-21)

This passage begins by insisting on our ignorance. The nature of this ignorance is vitally important to understand, for it is the same ignorance that underlies the doubt and misunderstanding among the disciples throughout the gospels, both before and initially after Jesus’ recognition. It is the ignorance described in John that kept the world from “seeing” the Logos made flesh. It is the ignorance Jesus names in his prayer to the Father from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must understand that such ignorance is not a matter of insufficient information. It is not as though another piece of data would have helped to avert the crisis. When Jesus prays to the Father for his persecutors’ forgiveness, he is naming the impregnable deception buried in our hearts that distorts our field of perception so that we cannot see the truth when it appears to us. The obscurity of Jesus’ teaching and actions was not due to this attempt to communicate esoteric knowledge. His parables, aphorisms, apocalyptic utterances, and prophetic enactments were not attempts to impart secret gnosis. They were acts to jolt us out of the way we ordinarily perceive reality. They only appear oblique within our present horizons of intelligibility because our desires are disordered. “The disciples’ understanding was (and ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. Jesus’ ministry is explicitly intent upon reversing these techniques, of extracting people from building identities over against the Other, e.g., the sinner, the unclean, the maimed, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the enemy, the prisoner, the victim, “these little ones.” Jesus’ “intelligence of the victim” is one that relentlessly takes the perspective of the Other – my potential victim – as the only truly human way to be a person. This is possible for Jesus because, above all, he follows the will of the divine Other.

Here is the primordial root of Jesus’ “consciousness,” should be wish to use this term: the will of the Father. Because Jesus lives in total transparence to God the Father, Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus imitates God the Father, whose reality is utterly gratuitous, free from all rivalry as agapic Love – “unmoved” by mimetic rivalry, which is the true significance of God’s “impassibility” – Jesus is able to live among his sisters and brothers with utter freedom for them, without concern for his own identity. Jesus’ identity is not built upon contrasting relations with the Other, but in utter self-emptying (kenosis) for the Other. When Paul speaks of having “the mind of Christ” he is speaking of just this intelligence: “Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). The “mind of Christ” is one freed from rivalry with God, translucent to the divine Other, whose Otherness is received as total Gift rather than an obstacle to the project of becoming a self. Such loving kenosis resulted in Jesus’ death, not because death was positively willed by God as having value in itself, but because such unrestrained freedom is a world where rivalry and exclusion are rife is threatening and attracts resistance. The ignorance that led to the violent rejection of Jesus’ Kingdom of God ministry was at root a nexus of desires that, so far from desiring to live wholly for and from the divine Other as the possibility for living for and from the human Other, was configured to assert identity over against the Other Because Jesus set out to unmask and transform the underlying dynamics of human relations premised upon power and exclusions, drawing them out into the light through his saying and deeds of hospitality and judgment, he himself became a victim. But the faithfulness of the Father would have the last word. It is the world of resurrection: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

This is the transvaluation of “values” at its most extreme. The “victim” is “Lord.” “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone’” (Acts 4;11; Ps. 118:22). Jesus’ total fidelity to the Father results in a loving sacrifice to end all sacrifice. By raising him from the dead, God subverts the sacrificial process from within. This is the im-possible Gift: forgiveness from our victim, who is our “Lord.” “Christ shed his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions,” writes Heim. “Jesus death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.

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webkeyI love the construal of apatheia here. What is it about God that renders our desiring him free of all possible rivalry?

We can desire a food source, a spot of land, a human relationship, or any other finite commodity, resource, or provision and these all become occasions of rivalry, competition, and violence. But where we desire God completely and utterly, no rivalry emerges. Why? Not simply because the thing we desire in this case (God) is perfectly good, loving, and holy so that desiring him obligates us to conform to that standard. That sort of moralizing misses the point. Those who desire God are free from rivalry because there is no scarcity of the object desired. When we direct our desires to God, we possess (or are possessed by) what can be enjoyed by all equally without threat of loss. Rivalry becomes impossible because the end desired, being infinite, unceasingly satisfies. It infinitely exceeds our dispositions, and so God becomes “all in all” without percentage or division of distribution. Kierkegaard comes to mind: “Purity of heart is to will [desire] one thing.” St. Paul as well: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” It is the content who are wealthy.

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

He has no power over me

Upper-Room

In my post “How Jesus viewed his Cross,” I explored statements Jesus made about his own suffering, statements which make it impossible to consider Jesus ‘godforsaken’ (“cursed” by God, per one reading of Gal 3.13, and “made sin by God,” per 2Cor 5.21). One stunning statement Jesus made on the eve of his lynching which makes this abandonment reading particularly suspect is relayed by John in 16.31-33:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (emphasis mine)

Translate “leave me alone” for what it is: “abandon” or “forsake.” The passage is perfectly clear:

“You will all abandon me. Yet I am not godforsaken, for my Father is with me.”

This makes available for our transformation the saving truth that how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God is with us in ours.

This week I ran across an equally stunning statement by Jesus, a statement I had earlier missed, in Jn 14.28-31 (esp. v. 30b-31),

You heard me say I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (emphasis mine)

Jesus’ perspective is mind blowing. Consider three things:

First, Jesus takes the time to place his disciples’ despair and worries into proper perspective: “If you love me, you’d be glad that I’m going to the Father.” That they are overwhelmed with concern for their future reflects a certain failure of love. It is stunning to imagine that on the eve of his murder, Jesus expects his disciples to have a perspective on his departure that inspires joy; but only a love for Christ that is deeper than the world itself could see it this way. In any event, this is not a text you’re likely to hear preached on Good Friday, though Jesus preached it on Good Friday.

Secondly, the more instructive statement comes in v. 31b: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has no power over me.” He has no power over you? Really? He is getting you crucified, he will insert himself into the very essence of God and separate Son from Father, and will blow the divine mind by submerging it beneath the sum total of all the despair and godforsakenness creation has ever known. Sounds like “power over you” to a lot of folks. One interested in Jesus’ own perspective on his suffering, then, should take time to contemplate this passage (along with Jn 16.31-33). As horrific as Jesus’ suffering is, we misunderstand it completely when we construe it in terms of Satan’s enjoying any ‘hold’ or ‘power’ over Jesus, and yet a good deal of passibilist reflection upon the Cross, it seems to me, proceeds in precisely such terms.

Lastly, why does the prince of this world close in? Why does Satan descend with all he has upon this moment? I’m sure he has his own reasons. But from Jesus’ perspective, Satan comes – don’t miss it – “so that the world may recognize that I love the Father and do what he commands.”

I don’t know what to say. This has to be one of the strangest things you’re likely to hear in response to the question, “So, why did Satan close in on Jesus?” Had Jesus not made it explicit, I can’t imagine any theologian arriving at the conclusion that Satan’s role in silencing Jesus would be seen by Jesus simply as an opportunity for God to demonstrate through his life and death, within and in spite of the world’s fallenness, that God both knows and loves, and can be known and loved, unconditionally as Father in the worst imaginable places. Again – how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

Imagine – it if you dare (some don’t dare) – that on the eve of his lynching when Jesus contemplates the ordeal to come, he is first of all “glad” (certainly as “glad” as he expected his disciples to be) to be returning created being (via his own humanity) to its home in God, and secondly, he sees the ordeal to come as the quintessential opportunity for him not to be deconstructed by godforsakenness, but to deconstruct godforsakenness and free us from the power of every narrative of abandonment.