I, not I, but Christ

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“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
(Galatians 2.20)

There’s a difference between seeing the Cross from where you are and seeing where you are from the Cross.

What would you say the difference is? What’s the difference amount to? What difference does it make?

Getting out of yourself

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I finally got around to reading Adrienne von Speyr, a promise I made to myself a few years ago. I’m so thankful I did. Von Speyr was a Swiss medical doctor, Christian mystic, author of several dozen works, and a well-known support to and confidant of Hans Urs Von Balthassar. She shares such wonderful and convicting insights that connect to where I am in my own faith journey. I’ll be sharing some of them from time to time. To being, here is a portion from Man Before God.

…[M]an’s nothingness represents a state of deficiency. Man lacks something. His sin has moved him away from the place where he should and could stand. He can, of course, fool himself into thinking that through sin he merely has strayed onto a bypath from which he still sees the right way. But deep down he knows better. He no longer sees the right way. He has become entangled in a thicket that his eye can no longer pierce in any way. Reflection alone cannot help him find the way out. He does not know how best to use his remaining strength. He needs grace for this, and therefore he must first of all submit. He must make himself so light that grace outweighs everything else in him. He must forget himself—this is the only true conclusion that follows from the recognition of his nothingness—in order to allow grace to stream into the empty space that he is.

As far as he is concerned, then, he is incapable of imitating the Christian hero. He cannot set off on his own to follow him. And nevertheless the image remains, the example with its radiant, inviting appeal. On the one side, he stands with his failure, his doubts, and with the need to make plans for his life that he knows he cannot sustain. On the other side stands the round deed of the apostolic man that shines upon him, challenges him, and fascinates him. Yet he realizes that he cannot leap over the intervening gulf by imitating from this side the deeds of a person who is on the other side. Rather he must get out of himself. The first comprehensive deed concerns the “I” itself. He must go out of himself; he must step outside of his own self. And this is a sort of annihilation, a forgetting and losing of himself, and a call for a new solitude. It is a bursting of his own center in order to free up space for God, who enters into this center and from there makes something new out of him. Who above all takes him into his service. This possession must become the unifying point in him, but he will not be able to occupy, fix, or experience this point himself. He is catapulted out of the limits of this nothingness, but he cannot trace this described trajectory, because he has surrendered and lost himself.

___________

In similar fashion, the one who prays can suddenly become uncertain before God, because finitude has been pulled away. But this is a healing uncertainty that brings knowledge. All that has contributed to his “I”—everything spatial, temporal, and psychological—has vanished and will not have any replacement. No other obstacles, no other spaces or times or character traits are put in its place. A genuine void has to be formed so that God’s fullness can pour into it. And yet this fullness is totally other than the void; it is not the counterpart of the contrary of the void, since God is not the contrary of the world, nor is fulfillment the contrary of the expectation. It is something “other”; it is the otherness of God, that overwhelming reality beyond all the creature hopes for and has the power to conceive. It is that absolutely unmistakable quality that upon arriving does not first have to prove that it is divine. This is the first characteristic of the divine life. When the Son of God becomes man, this is not a No coming out of a Yes, nor is No said to God so that Yes can be said to man. The Son does not disavow his divine nature by taking on his human nature. It is impossible to place either a plus or a minus sign before one or the other form of God—man, not-man. We can say only that in his humanity the fullness and his “otherness” become near and are revealed to believers. The Son is the Word of the Father and expresses this otherness of God in all that he is and does.

The wrong paradox

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Permit me one final quote from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. I heartily recommend this book to you. Coupled with other Girard resources I’ve been looking at, this Lent/Easter season is turning into a kind of second conversion to Christianity for me. I quite serious, but more on that later. I’d like to close out looking at Mark Heim’s book with a quote from chapter ten in which he summarizes the various arguments he’s been making. In this passage he brings a non-sacrificial (Girardian) reading of the Cross into conversation with the standard sacrificial reading among Christians.

At a later time when I get around to reviewing Greg Boyd’s new work Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2 vols), Girard will figure significantly into my assessment. In the end, in spite of Greg’s desire to establish a non-violent (non-sacrifical|non penal-substitionary) reading of the Cross, all goes well until he insists that the Father himself must abandon his Son who has become sin and that Jesus must suffer the punishment we deserve (Godforsakenness). This is essentially a sacrificial reading of the Cross. As Heim describes Anselm’s view, the parallels to Greg are clear. One need only adjust a few terms (Heim’s “blow” which the Father “strikes” Jesus with to Greg’s “withdrawal”) to accommodate Heim’s critique of Anselm to Boyd’s theory of the Father’s visiting upon the Son the Godforsakenness we deserve. The logic between the two is the same.

Often opponents of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement summarize what they dislike about this view in terms of its making God “bloodthirsty,” picturing the Father wanting his “pound of flesh” or needing “more blood,” of of Jesus “saving us from the Father,” or the Father’s feeling for Jesus the hatred he has for sin. But as Heim’s passage here shows, these extreme claims can be rejected while leaving one essentially within the grip of their sacrificial-scapegoating logic. Heim writes:

22879What I have tried to say in this book is that there is a concrete rescue in the cross. There is the rescue and vindication of a victim of scapegoating sacrifice, and more broadly, there is a rescue of all of us from the thoughtless bondage to that violent way of maintaining peace and unity. This is a saving transaction, in which God is willing to be subjected to our persecution in order to deprive it of future victims and end its power. That is the simple rescue, on which the other meanings of the cross are built.

Critics of atonement theology see in the account of Jesus’ death no literal redemptive example. And in a sense they are exactly right, for the Gospels themselves make this point. They dramatically emphasize that the crucifixion is wrong. The Gospel presentations stress that it is an evil act, and make no effort to soften that fact. As critics see it, the theology of the cross seems to suppose that the heavenly value of Jesus’ death increases in direct proportions to tis failure to do any earthly good. The cross does not present us with a parable of behavior that is admirable in some general sense. Rather than the concrete demonstration of a rescue, the passion narratives give us Jesus’ predictions of his death, an assurance that it will be offered for us. Critics do not find here any meaningful explanation of why that death would help. It is an “empty” death, and seems to invite or require the postulation of some hidden divine transaction to give it the meaning it lacks on the face of things

The Wrong Paradox
The classic penal substitutionary theology of atonement (we will take Anselm as its representative) constructs the terms of just such a hidden transaction. It posits a cosmic bargain that takes place on a plane quite distinct from the historical reality of the crucifixion. This mistaken move has decisive consequences. But before we explore those results in detail, we need to register the many authentic elements of the passion that Anselm incorporates in his vision. These are factors that account for the many positive effects that the teaching has had, despite its deep flaws. If the result is faulty, it is because the elements are misaligned, not because he starts with the wrong material.

In developing his theology Anselm fixes on a few details as crucial cues. Nearly all of them figure significantly also in the reading of the cross that I have been advocating. His doctrine of atonement builds around many of the key antimythical elements of the Gospels. He assumes, as scripture does, the injustice of the crucifixion, the falseness of the accusations, the innocence of the victim, and the uniqueness of the divine act that takes place in this event, separate from the intentions (explicit and implicit) of its human actors. On all these points Anselm is in line with the fundamental critique of historical sacrifice present in the Gospels. He stresses that it is not humans’ offering of someone else’s blood that is saving. That ancient human path is identified and condemned in the passion accounts. It is not the crowd’s thirst for Jesus’ blood, for a third party’s death, that saves us. It is God’s willingness to suffer in our place that is the unique and only transformative meaning for “sacrifice.” Anselm rejects any repetitive practice that exchanges some people’s suffering for others’ benefit…

Anselm clearly breaks with the foundational mythic scenario that assumes victims must be regularly offered to assure peace and harmony. He condemns that idea, because in his view this task can belong to only one person, the incarnate Word. All of Anselm’s arguments that are aimed to point up the human need for just such an extraordinary savior serve to make this point well. On the only point that matters, atonement for sin, human sacrifices are of no avail. They cannot redeem us. Our offering of others in sinful and in vain. Even our offering of ourselves, any self-immolation, would be equally futile. Like the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, Anselm firmly grasps this point. Without Christ, no amount of self-sacrifice, no amount of innocent suffering offering in any way could save us. With Christ, not even the smallest increment from any others is needed.

imagesIn the wake of Christ, no innocent suffering can be propounded as required by God. Suffering may come. It may even be occasioned by obedience and faithfulness to God. But it has no role to play in “satisfying” God. That was done once for all. Insisting on the necessity of divine initiative and divine action for reconciliation, Anselm rejects the assumption that human action alone may be sufficient. One good reason to deny this assumption is that whenever it is granted it tends to lend support to the common human procedure for effective atonement – sacrifice and scapegoating. In these fundamental ways Anselm recognizes and affirms the antisacrificial trajectory of the passion narratives. It is the presence of all these elements in his theology that accounts for its many liberating as well as destructive effects. So, for instance, even a very sacrificial reading of the cross that treats Jesus as a divine scapegoat, often still powerfully deflects our tendency to cast our own guilt onto a human scapegoat, allowing it to be discharged instead by Christ. Those who have opposed sacred violence from within the Anselmian perspective have done so on the basis of these resources.

But the Anselmian view of the cross is defined by two major additional steps. The first is the decision to privilege legal images to represent the basic dynamic of “death for us.” Anselm senses the magnitude of God’s action in the cross. It is something unexpected, gracious, and of universal vicarious effect. It has the immense dimensions that earlier Christian writers often describe in the terms of a unique and final sacrifice. Anselm sought to define the scope of grace through a legal quantification of our moral debt and Christ’s merit.

The second step is to conflate this legal framework with a vision of divine justice that dictates God’s purposes in suffering death. If Christ steps in to intercept a blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasions by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general traditions). Anselm’s departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful and so God becomes the one to be punished on behalf of us all. God strikes the same blow that God protects us from.

In response to the criticisms of atonement in his day, which complained that only a weak or incompetent God would be compelled to go to the unseemly lengths of incarnation, and especially death by crucifixion, to redeem a wayward creation, Anselm explained the necessity of incarnation by focusing on the magnitude of the human offense, something only the infinite merit of God’s undeserved suffering could overbalance. The paradoxes of Anselm’s satisfaction theory attempt to reflect the paradox in the Gospels. The scriptural presentation of the crucifixion as both a bad thing and a good thing is translated to mean that the bad (undeserved) suffering of an innocent victim is finally a good thing, which it provides the merit to allow God to remit the punishment rightly due humanity. The debt to God can be paid only with what is not already owed. Jesus’ death can cover the bill because God’s justice cannot demand it, because it is so purely undeserved. The cross is necessary because it is not required. It works only because it is wrong. The wrongness is part of the solution.

This vision draws its power from points of genuine contact with the Gospel narratives of the cross. But it has gone badly astray, at a point where even a small difference can do great harm. The wrongful suffering Jesus is subjected to, the evil the passion is meant to end, becomes the essential good to be celebrated in it. The key error is to refer both the meaning and need of Jesus’ death to its character as an offering to God. What Anselm rejects at the level of human community, he re-creates at the level of community between God and humanity, a community whose reconciliation depends on the offering of an innocent victim. Most important, Anselm presents God as the one who requires this sacrifice and also as the one to whom it is offered.

Scapegoating is a human practice, and Anselm is clear that such a practice cannot solve our estrangement from God. But in his view God has taken over a human scapegoating sacrifice (the execution of Jesus) and turned it into a unique scapegoating sacrifice of unimaginable magnitude. God is doing what human sacrifice does, but on a much larger scale, and one time only. God has not stepped into the process to oppose it, but to perfect it. Sacrifice to end sacrifice is an accurate and biblical way to describe Jesus’ death, but it is an ambiguous and delicately poised idea. Anselm has taken it to mean that God does the same thing that human scapegoaters do, taking it to an ultimate extreme. Instead of God throwing a wrench into the gears of human sacrifice, Anselm’s God has endorsed that machinery, borrowing it to perform the biggest and most effective sacrifice of all. Jesus has become our all-purpose scapegoat, whose suffering generates an infinite reservoir of merit that, like his shed blood, can be dispensed through the sacraments.

These are fatal steps. Once these points become fixed, the dramatically deform the theology of the cross. To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God’s wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. In contrast, I have argued that the actual transaction at the cross is one in which God is handed over to our redemptive violence in order to liberate us from it, not the transaction between God’s left hand and right hand that Anselm pictures…

images (1)Anselm’s mistake is to make primary what is derivative. God did not become human only to die. And Christ did not die as he did to cancel an infinite of deserved punishment for humanity with the infinitely undeserved suffering of innocent divinity. The legal apparatus around the crucifixion is not there because God has a satisfaction case to prosecute and a punishment to enforce on humanity, but because the machinery of false accusation and political and religious legitimacy are part of the way sacred violence works. The death of Jesus follows the script of human persecution because that is the ongoing evil into whose path Jesus steps, to rescue us from sacrifice, to open the way to new community.

Anselm’s doctrine preserves paradox, but the wrong one. He has made the cross a celebration of the sacrifice it meant to overcome. We have seen in earlier chapters how two things are stereotypically overlaid in the passion narrative: a bare description of scapegoating sacrifice along with the rationale of its practitioners, and then a counterscript of criticism, rejection, and reversal of that practice. The second is the distinctive meaning of the cross. At a crucial point Anselm has crossed these wires and taken over part of the sacrificial rationale that was being rejected. In his vision there is a crisis of conflict that threatens to tear creation permanently apart. It is the conflict between humanity and God. Sin has put them at irreconcilable odds. The only way peace can be restored is for God and humanity to unite together in sacrificing an innocent victim. God, Judas, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, Peter – all join in one unanimous crowd. This is straightforward sacrificial logic, borrowed from the script followed in the Gospels by those who kill Jesus. And Anselm has enlisted God on its side. But it is a logic the passion narratives subvert and the resurrection denies.

The obvious change Anselm must make when this sacrificial scenario migrates into his thought from the realm of mythical sacrifice is an inescapably Christian one. Given his commitment to scripture, the true nature of the sacrificial logic cannot remain invisible. It must be directly faced. In classical sacrifice the guilt of the scapegoat and the validity of the charges against him or her are assumed. The crowd celebrates the killing because they do not recognize any victim. Innocent suffering works to bring peace because it is invisible as such. For Anselm, since the Gospels have made the victim unavoidably visible, it is the acknowledged innocent suffering of the victim that becomes the hinge of the whole process. The effectiveness of Jesus’ death in reconciling us with God depends on our knowing full well that it is unjustified persecution. The Gospels pulled back the veil of unanimous accusation to show the hidden truth of sacrifice, the undeserved suffering of the innocent victim. What was revealed was what was wrong, and what must be changed. But Anselm insists that what we see behind the veil is right. God has become the proprietor of redemptive violence, and by that very act made it a good thing. This injustice becomes the whole purpose of the incarnation, and not one of the prime evils Christ came to defeat. Thus, at the last minute, things are turned backward. Rather than a strategic act of resistance to overthrow sacred violence, the cross becomes a divine endorsement of it. This is the missed connection, so close to the truth and yet so fatally far, that has tangled our thinking about substitutionary atonement.

Not what you suppose

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Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction is shorthand for the entirety of Ps 22 for which it is the opening line. Psalm 22 is a scapegoat psalm about an innocent servant abandoned and persecuted by his contemporaries but not abandoned by God. For Christ to reference this particular psalm on the Cross is for him to say quite the opposite of what many take his cry, divorced from its context, to mean. Many see here evidence that the Son is in fact abandoned by the Father, that the crowds are right in believing God to have abandoned and forsaken him. For these, this abandonment of sacred scapegoating defines God to the nitty-gritty of triniarian deity itself, that God’s own experience of himself, his own trinitarian oneness, was shattered as God forsook God. Nothing in God was not defined by this separation.

This is theological madness, of course. Seen in its proper context (see Rikk Watts on the use of the Psalms in Mark’s gospel), Jesus’s cry says just the opposite. By calling upon Psalm 22, quite literally Jesus is declaring:

“I am not forsaken by God — as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God — as you all suppose. God will vindicate me, just like he did the innocent servant of Psalm 22! Wait and see.”

All Jesus needs to say in order to declare this is what he actually says, Psalm 22’s opening line. Resurrection proved Jesus right, of course. God is not on the side of the scapegoating crowd abandoning Jesus. That’s not the what the Cry is about. Where is the Father while Jesus is on the Cross? He is right where Jesus said he would be — “…with me.” (John 16.31-33). I only wish my own (evangelical) tribe believed it.

The happiest, most wonderful Resurrection Sunday to you all!

Hopelessly two-storied

C9BF6uFW0AAG1PnGreg Boyd had a Q&A at Woodland Hills this past Sunday evening (with Dennis Edwards and Bruxy Cavey) about his new (2 vol) work The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I couldn’t make it, but Dwayne did. We’ll get around to specifics in a future review, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the Q&A since the opening portion of it is available on Youtube. Quite interesting. Greg has Bruxy and Dennis provide their own summary of what they think CWG is about, then Greg responds. Questions follow. I want to be clear up front that in spite of deep disagreements, Greg says many things that we agree with and the work he put into CWG reflects a deep passion to address the violent portrayals of God deeply entrenched in western Christianity. So I hope CWG gets reviewed widely.

Canadian pastor/author Bruxy Cavey begins with his own summary (or criticism?) of CWG. He appears to read (or criticize?) Greg in Girardian terms: God hands himself over to the false, violent views of others to expose that entire scapegoating economy as false and impotent and in doing so frees us from its violent assumptions. Thus the Cross is a demonstration of love in that God submits himself to our fallen structures to disarm them and free us. Bruxy gives several examples from Acts (beginning in ch 2) that make the point explicit. “You killed him,” Peter says to his fellow Jews, “but God (note the adversative) raised him from the dead.” (Cf. minute 8:30 to 9:00). “Where,” Bruxy asks, “does God enter the crucifixion narrative? At the resurrection.” “You” crucified him. “God” raised him. I like that. All the agony/torture, Bruxy says (minutes 10:00 to 10:30) is “our” doing. That’s how Bruxy reads things. I love what Bruxy says and sense he’s moving from and toward a position we can get with.

Were this what CWG is about, that would be very good news indeed. But it’s not what CWG is about. It’s contrary to Greg’s entire project. How so? Because Greg makes it clear that there is an agony that Christ suffers on the Cross – the only agony that does the real saving work – which is not due to anything people do to Jesus. On the contrary, it’s the one thing that only the Father can do, and that is to abandon/forsake his Son. For Greg, the Father is intimately involved in the crucifixion narrative (not just the resurrection) in a highly specific and saving way, namely, forsaking his Son, and it’s the suffering of this abandonment, Greg believes, that saves us, not suffering crucifixion per se. Lots of people were crucified.

In addition, there’s something Greg says re: God’s glory being “the distance God is willing to go” to “become his antithesis on our behalf.” He talks about God’s “going the distance” a lot. This strikes me as very two-storied. God’s over there. We’re down here. God’s got to get up and cross the distance that separates us and that means vacating his present location and occupying ours.

This seems hopelessly two-storied.

Maybe that’s where we differ. I think an essential aspect of a proper understanding of the Incarnation and the Cross is it being the case that “there is no distance,” and any perception of distance or separation is an illusion. It is what God is in himself, fully and actually triune, antecedent to the world (i.e., not defined by the world but defining the world’s very ground and being) but always already fully present in it, that dispels the illusions of separation that empower scapegoating and which fullness becomes the “beauty that glorifies” (Rom 8.18). God doesn’t have to “leave what he is” and “turn into something he’s not” (his “antithesis”) to travel the distance between God and a fallen creation. In the end, salvation doesn’t rest in God’s conforming to our fallen reality anyhow (God’s being defined essentially by alienation, separation, abandonment). It rests in our conforming to his reality. Incarnation is the ‘how’ of bringing creation into himself, yes, but there’s no “departure across a distance” for God in this (which is why Chalcedon is so important, but never mind that for now).

I get the feeling that Greg simply reduces how God saves to God’s being defined by the content of our fallen structures (which is precisely what Girard suggested isn’t the case). What Dwayne and I (and Orthodoxy as we understand it – could be wrong) take to be “illusions” (of distance, separation, abandonment, etc.), Greg sees as having independent reality. “Sin” is taken to be substantial and the triune relations must be defined by it (hence, the Father has to reject/forsake his own Logos who “becomes sin”) to secure our salvation. All this – i.e., Greg’s view – as opposed to God’s stepping into the circumstances (the victimization and abandonment of scapegoating) which we interpret as distance/separation from God in order to reveal that these interpretations are false and to demonstrate from within those same circumstances that God doesn’t abandon us, that there isn’t any ‘distance’ between us and God, and that nobody (not even God) needs to be ‘punished’ with God’s abandonment to secure our salvation. Penal substitution (even qualified the way Greg affirms it) is just Scapegoating 101 because it assumes God must ‘punish’ to save. So in the end, the ‘violence’ Greg wants to expose as unlike God and unnecessary to creation becomes necessary to God and creation in the worst kind of way.

(Part 2 of the Q&A)

Cowper’s “Truth”

400b243d3301f6278b47302bf954df6cI love the poetry of William Cowper (d. 1800). He struggled with doubt, dealt with bouts of depression, and was even institutionalized (in the pictured asylum of St. Alban’s). His poetry is honest, insightful, and full of desire and longing for God. But he can be confrontational and prophetic as well. I’ve shared his poem about his mother. Here I’d like to share portions of his poem “Truth,” a lengthy but wonderful meditation that I come back to now and then. Portions memorized years ago remain clear in my mind today. Here are the opening and closing stanzas. Enjoy!

Man, on the dubious waves of error toss’d,
His ship half founder’d, and his compass lost,
Sees, far as human optics may command,
A sleeping fog, and fancies it dry land;
Spreads all his canvas, every sinew plies;
Pants for it, aims at it, enters it, and dies!
Then farewell all self-satisfying schemes,
His well-built systems, philosophic dreams;
Deceitful views of future bliss, farewell!
He reads his sentence at the flames of hell.
Hard lot of man—to toil for the reward
Of virtue, and yet lose it! Wherefore hard?—
He that would win the race must guide his horse
Obedient to the customs of the course;
Else, though unequall’d to the goal he flies,
A meaner than himself shall gain the prize.
Grace leads the right way: if you choose the wrong,
Take it and perish; but restrain your tongue;
Charge not, with light sufficient and left free,
Your willful suicide on God’s decree.

___________________________

Hark! Universal nature shook and groan’d,
‘Twas the last trumpet—see the Judge enthroned:
Rouse all your courage at your utmost need,
Now summon every virtue, stand and plead.
What! Silent? Is your boasting heard no more?
That self-renouncing wisdom, learn’d before,
Had shed immortal glories on your brow,
That all your virtues cannot purchase now.
All joy to the believer! He can speak—
Trembling yet happy, confident yet meek.
Since the dear hour that brought me to thy foot,
And cut up all my follies by the root,
I never trusted in an arm but thine,
Nor hoped, but in thy righteousness divine:
My prayers and alms, imperfect and defiled,
Were but the feeble efforts of a child;
Howe’er perform’d, it was their brightest part,
That they proceeded from a grateful heart:
Cleansed in thine own all-purifying blood,
Forgive their evil and accept their good:
I cast them at thy feet—my only plea
Is what it was, dependence upon thee:
While struggling in the vale of tears below,
That never fail’d, nor shall it fail me now.

Angelic gratulations rend the skies,
Pride fall unpitied, never more to rise,
Humility is crown’d, and Faith receives the prize.