Christ & Horrors—Part 1

9780521686006_p0_v1_s260x420Top three books read in 2013? The top read has to be David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. The second and third are Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I read McCord last summer and I’m starting this year off re-reading her. The first time though I was just a listener. This time through I want to move slower and take notes as I go an And I’d like as occasion permits to post relative passages from the book. So they’ll pop up occasionally as Christ & Horros—Part 1, 2, etc.

Her thesis? I’ll let her describe it:

“My topic is Christology; my thesis is the coherence of Christology; my theme, Christ as the One in Whom all things hold together. Metaphysically, Christ is the center both of Godhead and cosmos. Existentially, Christ is the integrator of individual positive personal meaning; psychologically, our inner teacher; body-politically, the organizer of Godward community. Christ saves us by virtue of being real and really present.”

She poses the human predicament:

“Western theological majority reports—as asserted in Augustine and refined by Anselm and later medieval western school theologians as well as (and perhaps most emphatically) by Protestant reformers—and late twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy of religion alike root human non-optimality problems in sin, construed as the rebellion of relatively competent agents against God, and identify our psycho-spiritual disarray, our estrangement from God, our vulnerability to a generally hostile environment, and the certainty of death as natural and/or punitive consequences of the sin of free creatures.”

No doubt (she admits), sin is a problem. However, in the book she employs a different category, that of “horror” of which “sin is a severe symptom and disastrous consequence.”

“I begin with the exitentialists’ category of personal meaning, and define “horrors” as “evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) have positive meaning for him/her on the whole.”

And again:

“Participation in horrors furnishes reason to doubt whether the participant’s life can be worth living, because it engulfs the positive value of his/her life and penetrates into his/her meaning-making structures seemingly to defeat and degrade his/her value as a person….At the heart of the horrendous, what makes horrors so pernicious, is their life-ruining potential, their power prima facie to degrade the individual by destroying the possibility of positive personal meaning.”

I very much like the soteriological shift in focus from sin to horror, from acts that violate expressed commands to the degradation of personal meaning-making capacities. I think this is a right and beneficial move because sin (construed as “acts”) is itself motivated by a more fundamental misidentification of the self. This shift to the existentialist category of personal meaning opens a way to think soteriologically which, for me, confirms an already present shift motivated several years ago by exposure to Greg Boyd’s Trinity & Process and aspects of the Orthodox vision of God.

5 comments on “Christ & Horrors—Part 1

  1. Jeff says:

    Tom: I very much like the soteriological shift in focus from sin to horror, from acts that violate expressed commands to the degradation of personal meaning-making capacities.

    J: Sin per se is distinguished in scripture from violations of expressed commands. The latter is called transgression, which is merely a species of sin. Romans 5 “expressly” brings this distinction to the fore.


  2. Nelson says:

    I have not read Ms. McCord’s book, so I don’t necessarily disagree with her thesis. However, I am always hesitant to replace a biblical term with a modern equivalent. I would rather see the word “sin” recover it’s biblical meaning. I agree that in today’s western Christianity sin is define in very legal terms as acts that violate certain prescriptions. This I believe is due to the fact that many of the prominent western theologians were lawyers by training (Augustine, Luther, Calvin).

    The biblical nuances of the concept of sin as wandering, aimlessness, purposelessness, trespass and transgression (as walking beyond the boundary, going outside) all get a Christological meaning in the New Testament. These aspects of sin are counterparts to aspects of the people of God, who are described as being in Christ, following/being guided by Christ, whose purpose is reaching our fullness in Christ.

    The modern western error I believe lies in the definition of sin as “transgression of the Law”. I believe the New Testament definition of sin would be better summarized as “transgression of Christ” or “being outside Christ”. For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Nelson,

      Good points. I think Adams is also trying to avoid a purely legal way of looking at sin. That seems to be why she introduces another concept (horrors) to get at what she thinks motivates ‘sinful’ behavior. She wants to say our problem doesn’t start with sin. Sin is a fruit of a deeper issue. I think she has a point there. But you’re right. Biblical terms ought not to be abandoned. As long as we understand sin correctly (more in relational terms as you seem to do), then we can relate sinful acts to that deeper issue. I think that’s what she’s trying to do.

      I’d also disagree with what I think Adams believes, and that is that all sin is preceded and motivated by horror. It can be that. But I much prefer Kierkegaard’s notion of ‘despair’. If all Adams means by ‘horror’ is what SK means by ‘despair’ then fine. But I think she means something else.

      I shared with Jeff somewhere earlier around here that I think she comes up short on integrating biblical concepts like expiation and propitiation into her view. And her downplaying the explanatory value of ‘free will’ essentially turns into an abandonment of it. So I get the feeling that since we’re created by God with inevitable vulnerability to horrors, nobody is “really” responsible or blameworthy for their choices. She makes one statement to the effect that this is not what she’s implying. That’s it. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion—when you marginalize free will, you marginalize responsibility, and when you marginalize responsibility you end up dismissing just accountability.



  3. Jeff says:

    Rom. 5 seems, to me, to clearly distinguish between the “transgression” of Adam and those many later sins, that were not transgressions, of his descendants. And yet Rom. 5 tells us that a sin is not “reckoned” (by which I take Paul to mean conceivable particularly) where there is no law PER SE. I.e., sin is indeed the violation of the divine intent (which is the relevant law), and the divine intent is for one’s greatest good. But one can sin thus and be clueless about it. In that case, it is not a “transgression.”

    To transgress against God is to KNOWINGLY violate God’s intent. And God’s intent is for us to act consistently with and conducively to the highest possible (at that time) good of all sentient beings. This is the moral order – that such action was possible in God’s original design. And even now, what we call justice is that approach which still renders a moral order intelligible, so long as post-mortem consequences are possible to render it rational.

    Per Genesis, the world could have had a sufficiently low epistemic distance for moral perfection to be possible. But the first couple (and a chief angel) sinned before having any independent offspring on the earth. And it seems that the author of Genesis is indicating that God could not kill them immediately without losing some integrity to the “order” of creation, which may include the way that “order” relates to human, inductive thought. On the other hand, to leave them in paradise with access to perpetual life may have created a similar loss of integrity. This is one of the reasons why I think Genesis is telling us that God didn’t originally intend infants to die inevitably in a world of “horrors.”

    My guess is that the way the Fall occurred limited God’s options (in terms of maintaining the integrity of the “prime directive” or TELOS of creation) such that now, as Boyd has argued, the epistemic distance is much higher than was necessitated by the initial conditions of the moral order. And yet we have hints, such as God starting over with Noah when the earth became “filled with violence,” that God is always maintaining creation in a state consistent with the generic “prime directive” such that He will not ULTIMATELY “repent that He had made man.” Some “bottom line” of creation will be satisfied, consistently with God’s benevolence. It may render only one conceivable theodicy consistent with a plausible scriptural Christology when all is said and done, but it will be satisfied.


    • Jeff says:

      J1: And God’s intent is for us to act consistently with and conducively to the highest possible (at that time) good of all sentient beings. This is the moral order – that such action was possible in God’s original design.

      J2: I wasn’t sufficiently clear, there. The idea is that a moral order requires that one’s own greatest possible good (at any given time) can be attained by means consistent with and conducive to the greatest possible (at that same given time) good of all sentient (or at least volitional) beings. The greatest possible good for some future time for those beings is being changed all the time by the bad choices volitional beings make. Of course, weighed against an eternal bliss, all such “loss” is relativized into oblivion. But we live now, and motivation is properly affected by more short term perspectives. This is why I think scripture speaks of post-mortem rewards.

      This is the sense in which to be eternally-minded is to be of no “earthly” good — it is to be UNmotivated. In fact, scripture speaks of age-abiding (not eternal) reward against relatively short-lived suffering. This allows for real motivation. It also allows for the intelligibility of Christ’s own motivation (“he endured the shame for the joy set before him”). Clearly, eternal bliss was not a “reward” for Christ. Rather, a temporal KINGDOM was. And that kingdom will be delivered to the Father, per 1 Cor. 15, after Christ has subjected ALL things under his feet.


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