Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 2

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In Part 1 I picked up on Paul’s thought in 1Cor 4.7 that the vessel is fragile and vulnerable — the treasure is not. Today I’ve just finished Kristine Culp’s wonderful book Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account in which she focuses on how devastation and transformation are related in creaturely existence and before God. She describes vulnerability as finitude’s capacity to bear the glory of God. Early on in the book Culp tracks how early Christians related to and integrated suffering and martyrdom into their faith and self-understanding, how suffering manifested both their weakness as earthen vessels and their God-given resiliency as possessing and possessed by the treasure of God’s transforming presence and power to bear the glory of God. I hope you enjoy the following passage (pp 18-20):

Irenaeus insisted that Christians “gradually become accustomed to receive and to bear God.” The martyrs of Lyon, especially the young slave woman Blandina, received and bore the glory of God in an exemplary manner. Note that glory was associated with luminosity and vitality, with an evident life-giving power. For Paul, God’s power was manifest particularly in creation and new creation; here Blandina’s luminous endurance attested to God’s transcendent power over against the empire’s prosecution of death, “Blandina was filled with such power that even those who were taking turns to torture her in every way from dawn to dusk were weary and exhausted.” The crowd was “bloodthirsty” and the Roman governor eager “to please the mob.” Blandina survived ordeals of whipping, being mauled by wild animals, and being seared by fire, before dying in a ring with a bull, “while the pagans themselves admitted that no woman had ever suffered so much in their experience.” After being tortured to death, the martyrs’ dead bodies were guarded and denied burial for several days, presumably also to deny them resurrection. In effect, imperial authorities claimed power to determine life and death and also to obliterate everlasting existence in God. In response, Christian testimony about the martyrs of Lyon circumscribed the limits of imperial power with the power of God and also with the powers of language and communal faith. Attestations to the martyrs’ exemplary power rose in the memory of communities of believers.

If we turn for a moment to the word of contemporary theorist Elaine Scarry, we can develop another perspective on persecution and the inversion of power that will eventually return us to Irenaeus’ concern with strengthening Christians “to receive and bear God.” Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain, begins with the observation that intense pain not only resists expression—how does one convey the pain that one has?—but that it “actively destroys” language. Pain is certain to the person suffering it, even if it cannot easily be shared with another. “For the other person,” she explains, “it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt’….”

In the account of the martyrs of Lyon, there is no doubt that Blandina suffers intensely: “the pagans themselves” admitted the extremity of it. Her pain traverses the gap of unreality to find expression in Christian testimony. According to Scarry, torture involves an inversion whereby an increase in the prisoner’s pain diminishes the prisoner’s world and thus increases the torturer’s power. The torturer not only gains control over the prisoner’s physical and mental state and survival, but also power to describe “reality” and circumscribe the prisoner’s world. Interestingly, the early church recounts that “Blandina was filled with such power” that her torturers “were weary and exhausted.” Their exhaustion foreshadows how God’s transcendent power, attested in Blandina’s endurance, and the power of her testimony and that of other martyrs will ultimately be increased, not diminished, in response to persecution. Through the martyrs’ testimony, the glory and power of God will rise in the faith of the early church.

The account of the martyrs’ ordeal and endurance is preserved against the language-destroying, world-destroying power of torture. Scarry observes that torturers deconstruct their prisoner’s world by turning ordinary domestic acts and objects—a chair, water, “ovens”—into weapons of torture. Early Christians, by contrast, transmuted torturer’s weapons into domestic utensils that produce testimony and community. For example, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch after the turn of the second century, wrote while he was on his way to Rome to face execution, “I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” In this Christian “domestication” of torture’s weapons, the horror of being mauled to death and the deconstructive power of torture are not minimized. Rather, their terrible reality makes all the more powerful the inversion that takes place in the domestication of weapons of torture. Acts of torture that unmake the world become acts that create symbols of bread and water and voice; these, in turn, build up the church. The church becomes the artifact made by articulating and confessing the unmaking that reigns in torture, by preserving the agency of victims of torture, and by preserving in them the agency of the church against the Roman authorities. The world-creating power of God is affirmed over against the claims of empire to determine life and death. This affirmation is also at the heart of early Christians’ confession that God has repaired the world in the resurrection of a tortured Savior.

When Blandina is executed, the narrator interprets, “She too was sacrificed.” She too is placed with Jesus and others as a victim of imperial power and as a witness to the sovereign power of God. Historian Elizabeth Castelli notes that “martyrdom and sacrifice are integrally linked” in these and other early Christian texts. The experience of persecution was interpreted “within a framework of meaning that drew upon broader metanarratives about temporality, suffering and sacrifice, and identity.” (emphases mine)

blandina_000There are so many points of departure here for profitable discussion. I think the bold portions (sorry there are so many!) provide a way to express how it is we (here at An Open Orthodoxy) conceive of apatheia’s transformative power in human experience, i.e., as that experience of God’s defining presence in the present moment which releases the glory of God within earthen vessels and which empowers vulnerability to bear the glory of God (as we’ve addressed in the case of Juilia de Beausobre and Richard Wurmbrand) — all without suffering the diminishing of joy centered in the possession of an identity shaped by a Christ-centered narrative which transcends the powers of empire and all manner of created attempts to deconstruct. What is apatheia? It is the gospel’s power to define our circumstances and not be defined by them at the deepest core of our identity, the gift of divine identity itself which cannot be deconstructed by worldly suffering, powers or tortures since it does not derive from these in the first place (Rm 8.15). It is, to borrow Culp’s phrase, the “itinerary of delight”’s journey in and through a fallen world. It is what transforms the world as a vessel for bearing the presence of God’s glory and goodness. It is that about God, given to us and which we bear as earthen vessels, which makes true Dostoevsky’s claim that “beauty will save the world.” (2nd picture here.)

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One comment on “Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 2

  1. […] Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory – Part 2 […]

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