In this fourth and final of our review series I outline my response to vol. 2 of CWG. First some Pro’s.
PRAISE AND POINTS OF AGREEMENT
● Asks the right question
There are several things to admire in vol. 2. The first I’d point out is the refrain that forms Greg’s basic line of approach: “What’s going on behind the scenes?” This highlights the hermeneutical process well, and it gets at the struggle people have reading the violent portrayals of God in the Bible. And of course, for Greg it also is the key question to ask of the Cross itself. What really is going on here? If Christ (whether broadly understood as incarnation, life, death and resurrection or exclusively as merely that moment of Christ’s cry of dereliction) is the centered from which we are to read the Bible, then something like the cruciform thesis is needed to express the fundamental/quintessential narrative within which one is to read the Bible. And this is what vol. 2 sets out to do – bring a cruciform hermeneutic to bear upon specific texts through asking “What’s going on behind the scenes?” I generally admire the clarity that Greg is able to bring to complex issues, and this line of approach is a case in point.
● Driven by pastoral concern
A second point I admire (true of the entire work, not just vol. 2) is the pastoral heart that drives this work. I’ve brought troubled individuals of my own acquaintance to Greg for coffee and meals and he’s always found time to help people process the intellectual side of their faith struggles. Greg has a huge heart for hurting, struggling people and it shapes CWG from start to finish. If I didn’t think this was true of Greg, and if I didn’t believe the existential despair and struggles that people face could be better addressed through a more Orthodox Christology, I wouldn’t bother reviewing this work at all.
● Not afraid to dive in
A third thing I admire about vol. 2 is Greg’s willingness to dive into the deep end of the pool. As relentless as he was in vol. 1 to catalogue divine violence through the Bible, he’s as thorough in bringing those same passages under the review of his cruciform hermeneutic. He wants to demonstrate that this hermeneutic can do the heavy lifting he claims it can do. So he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mess. This gives Greg’s work a fresh, honest appeal that people like. You can study gardening in a book sitting in your living room, or you can ‘do’ it by actually doing the work of gardening – digging and planting. To his credit, Greg doesn’t shy away from the latter.
CRITICISM AND POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
● Shelley’s opening analogy
Greg opens vol. 2 with an imaginary story about seeing his wife Shelley on the opposite side of a street launching into a panhandler. She screams at the panhandler, slaps him around, kicks his wheelchair over and storms off with something of the panhandler’s. Greg observes her behavior and, knowing what a loving, non-violent individual Shelley is, reasons that there must be something else going on here that he doesn’t perceive, something that explains how her behavior is in fact loving and non-violent. But if you recall, this perfectly illustrates the truth of the Synthesis Solution which Greg rejects in vol. 1. In Greg’s view, God only appears to do violence. But Shelley isn’t appearing to slap the panhandler. She’s actually slapping him, kicking him over, etc. That this would be viewed as something other than loving and good for her to do is due to our limited perspective. But this is the Synthesis Solution straight up. So the analogy Greg opens vol. 2 with undermines everything.
● Misses Rene Girard
A good deal of online interaction (blogs and online forums) has chided Greg for adopting a non-Girardian, penal-substitionary model of the Cross/atonement (PSA). Greg found his way into these conversations and was, as he describes it, dumbfounded at how so many could read him as promoting PSA. He went on to clarify his position in a recent ReKnew post. You’ll have to read him and judge for yourself. I think the deeper issues remain unaddressed, and the persistent absence of any attempt to define what he believes constitutes ‘violence’ in the first place makes reviewing this work a stab in the dark.
● The Father abandons the Son
Much of our objections to Greg’s view of abandonment is based on the reigning evangelical Kenoticism, true. The idea that the triune experience that defines the divine relations in their full actuality can be severed such that Father, Son and Spirit all become estranged from one another (ad intra) is not historical, orthodox Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. But I don’t have to argue on Chalcedonian grounds that it’s impossible. Assuming Kenoticism were true, one still has solid theological, exegetical/biblical grounds for rejecting the notion that the Father abandoned Christ in the sense Greg argues our salvation requires. Thus – it really is a question about which Cross is at the center, defining a cruciform thesis.
To simplify – Greg distinguishes between God’s triune “existence” (Greg’s choice of word, by which he means, I think, God’s unchanging, necessary “essence”) and God’s triune “experience” (the content of God’s lived, experienced actuality). God’s “existence” is just his essential, immutable, triune relations – the unbreakable (ontological) unity of the Father, Son and Spirit. The most important thing about this essential, unbreakable unity? It grounds the unchanging nature of God’s character as love. When St. John says, “God is love,” this is the ultimate divine reality behind that. But – and this is key to Greg – the triune persons do not have an equally unchanging “experience” of this essential oneness. So though the three are (ontologically) united as one, their experience of their own oneness (that is, God’s experience of himself as triune), a oneness that constitutes God’s nature as love, is subject to cessation and diminishment.
How so cessation? For example, when the Incarnate Son is gestating in Mary’s womb. What of the triune “experience” constitutive of God? Well, the Son is offline, so to speak. In Greg’s words, he’s taking a nap. Greg’s example: He still loves his wife Shelley when he’s sleeping. So – by parity of reasoning – Father, Son and Spirit can also be the one triune God whether or not they are awake to each other. There is a cessation, a hiatus, of the lived-experienced reality of triune existence.
How so diminishment? As well, for example, when Christ cries “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” For Greg this moment represents God “becoming his antithesis,” the mutual “estrangement” that pervades and envelops God’s “experience” of himself utterly and completely. Underneath (so to speak) this estrangement that defines God’s triune “experience” of himself, there lies the immutable divine essence which is God as love.
It does give one a headache – essence, existence, experience, actuality, existential fullness, dispositions, and so forth.
One desperate problem with this – as Greg himself reviewed against Hartshorne and Whitehead – is that the loving “character” of God is itself not identified with any experience God has of himself. God’s character – which Greg argued (long ago) prescribes the consistently loving nature of God’s actions – is itself the character of God’s triune experience. Greg argued at length against Hartshorne and Whitehead on this very point, insisting that the predictably loving nature of God’s character had to be understood as grounded in the lived, relational fullness of God’s triune “experience” (as mutual knowing and loving). Greg’s present idea that God’s nature as “love” is not itself convertible with the nature of God’s triune “experience” of himself is another departure of his earlier (well-argued) work for which he offers no line of reasoning. Nothing about God’s experience of himself as essentially triune constitutes the loving character of God’s actions. Everybody seems cool with this. Nobody (sauf moi et quelques fidèles) is crying BS on this.
Finally, as Greg has recently made clear, this mutual estrangement of the three divine persons, this “becoming sin,” this “stooping to become God’s antithesis,” is what does the work of salvation. To be sure – Greg makes it clear this is no penal-substituionary divine rage needing its pound of flesh so that it can forgive. Nor is there in fact anything in God that requires God inflict upon himself his own triune estrangement. The necessity of it proceeds, argues Greg, entirely from “the nature of our bondage” and not anything in God. It is we (viz., the peculiar requirements of our bondage to sin) who require that the “death consequences of our sin” which are “intrinsic” to our own choices have to be suffered by God as his own internal estrangement from himself.
It all falls apart in the end. If the consequences of godforsakeneness (estrangement from God) are intrinsic to our sinful choices, then by definition they aren’t something that can be borne by another. They’re intrinsic to our choices. And in point of fact, we do experience the consequences of our choices. Our lives are without peace, without the transforming enjoyment of the knowledge of God’s love, without the joy that embracing his forgiveness brings, etc. – the absence of all these are the natural consequences of our falleness, and so long as we persist outside the truth of them we suffer the consequences. God doesn’t bear them. We already are bearing them.
Nor is it at all clear how God’s triune experience being reduced to the estrangement that is the consequence of our sin actually does the work of saving us from that estrangement. Greg doesn’t explain. What happens objectively when God’s experience of himself is reduced to our despair and estrangement? Is something paid for? Is there a transfer? An imputation? If the necessity for God’s triune self-estrangement derives from the nature of our bondage to sin and not from anything about God, then we should expect some explanation of how that estrangement grounds our release from sin and freedom to grow in love.
Consider too – Greg admits God’s actually forgiving us precedes the work of atonement. God doesn’t need to suffer to forgive. That’s good news. Divine self-estrangement isn’t about forgiveness. So why should the estrangement from God that I suffer because of my sin, which is already forgiven by God, have to estrange God from himself to make my acceptance of that forgiveness possible? Greg doesn’t say. But as it forms the core truth of God’s cruciformity, I expected some explanation.
Greg, some time ago here:
“If the Trinity experienced no disturbance whatsoever when Jesus cried out ‘My God, My God’, — if they just went on in the unbroken bliss of their moment-by-moment experienced unity — then pray tell: a) what did the Trinity sacrifice in saving us — for it looks like it costs them nothing? and b) how was Jesus’ cry of abandonment not a charade?”
But if God forgives without sacrificing – which Greg has already granted – what’s the point? What kind of knotty, confused metaphysics supposes that God can forgive us without sacrificing his own internal triune happiness, but cannot be present in our lives in transforming ways without having our sin wrest his happiness and beatitude from his heart and reduce him to our despair and godforsakeness? I think of Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee as an analogy. If Jesus walks to a sinking Peter on the surface of the waters that are drowning Peter but not threatening Jesus, is Peter supposed to feel it’s all a charade? Jesus isn’t sacrificing anything to save Peter. Is Peter supposed to complain that Jesus is ‘up there’ while he’s ‘down here’? Is Peter’s rescue not loving or objective?
The cry of abandonment as a declaration per Psalm 22 that Christ is not abandoned by God as the taunting theologians cried, is only a charade to somebody who needs God to be reduced to his own suffering before he’ll let himself rest in the forgiveness that’s his. It reduces to pagan scapegoating whether it’s framed in terms of suffering the consequences of our sin or in Moltmannian terms of solidarity with our godforsakeness.
I think I’ll wind down here. I had responses in hand to Greg’s particular view of Satan’s relationship to the material order (his principle of cosmic warfare) and some thoughts on his principal of semi-autonomous power (i.e., that Peter murdered Ananias and Sapphira through his violent abuse of God-given spiritual gifts), both of which are problematic. But – I’m personally spent on these issues. I hope readers will understand.
Exposing the problems inherent in supposing God can fail to experience himself in terms of mutually reciprocal knowing and loving has been a recurrent passion of ours here. But for those who can’t do faith standing in front of a Cross that does not shatter God’s experience of himself and reduce him to their despair and estrangement, God bless you. I can’t see it as anything but pagan mythology. Greg’s not a Cross I can stand in front of and see salvation in. But the feeling is probably mutual. I can only stand in front of a Cross in which death and violence are from beginning to end shattered by the infinite joy and delight of God’s triune life.