Taking it out on wrath

Godface2I’ve been enjoying a conversation with an old friend about sacred violence and the Cross and thought that I’d post a portion of it here. In response to my suggestion that the Cross is not Jesus suffering the “punishment” of divine “wrath,” my friend declared, “I don’t comprehend how one can overlook so many scriptures that plainly speak of God’s anger and wrath.” Below is part of my response. I be interested in any thoughts.

What often happens is that Christians assume “Christ” and “Bible” together comprise a single, composite center from which we move outwards toward the world – interpreting and evaluating as we go. What I’m suggesting is that this is a mistake. The hermeneutical center from which we move out to assess and interpret as we go is Christ, and the Scriptures themselves are among the things that get judged and adjudicated along with all else in light of Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christians are to understand the Scriptures as just another religious text, but it does mean that the Bible does not (because it cannot) embody the character and intentions of God as does Christ. “Christ” and “Bible” are not convertible.

What difference does this make? Just this – the words the OT uses (wrath, judgment, forgive, etc.) all undergo re-evaluation in their biblical contexts in light of the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The dead-and-risen Christ becomes a kind of “reset” button by which we rethink Israel’s history and theological vocabularies. Seen in light of Christ, the OT only approximates the truth that gets revealed finally in Christ. Some of the OT portrayals of God may in fact get God wrong in some respects, respects we could only possibly be in a position to understand because we now read in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Yes, there are many passages that describe God as “burning with rage to consume the wicked” whom “his soul hates,” God as pleased with the “sweet smelling aroma of burnt offerings” and as forgiving conditionally, God as celebrating the “dashing of babies against the rocks,” as “laughing at the wicked,” and as “feeling indignation every day, ” and God as “no longer loving” a generation of Israelites because of their sin. There is no calculus that converts these into gospel truth or even anticipations of the gospel.

There are amazing exceptions to this picture as well. God is also portrayed as caring for Ninevites (even their cattle!) in spite of Israel’s racist disregard for them, loving and forgiving unconditionally, and as being disgusted by blood sacrifice. Rgarding that the generation of Israelites described by Hoseas (9:15) as “no longer loved by God,” Lamentations (3:31) assures us that “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.” We are also told in no uncertain terms that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” This latter insight cannot mean God desires sacrifice but only when it’s conditioned by mercy. The point (which we only finally understand in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection) is that sacrifice adds nothing relevant to what God desires which isn’t already present in a merciful, humble, and contrite heart.

So the OT is a mixed bag. It doesn’t offer a single, unified theology on many of these fundamental questions. It too is among the things that get judged and revealed in the light of the Cross and resurrection. That means terms like “wrath,” “judgment,” and even “forgiveness” which are variously used in the OT and which we inherit from that OT worldview, have to undergo a purging, a cleansing. In the light of Christ – the quintessential revelation of the character and intentions of God – we may have to find better words or redeploy the same words with radically new meanings.

My essential point is that there is no way to draw a straight line from the OT use of the word “wrath” (as that concept was employed in the OT by Israel) to concluding what the Cross must mean in light of that term’s OT usage. This gets the interpretive order precisely backwards. It is in light of the Cross that we are compelled to assess Israel’s theological vocabularies. That such critical re-evaluation of the Bible’s own pronouncements is thinkable is not a foreign thought we have to bring in from somewhere else. This kind of re-evaluation of the Bible happens within the Bible itself (within the OT and between OT and NT).

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Pieces of the penal puzzle

sacrificed-animal-clipart-7Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering ‘instead of us’ (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just ‘punishment’ (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins (death as well as the despair of estrangement from God).

I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is to through one of the following ways:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

He concludes:

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.

That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises (the third prop in each set).

WTB-Animal-sacrifice5

The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation.

God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. Stated similarly, the Cross doesn’t make it possible for God to forgive us. Instead, God’s forgiveness of us makes the Cross possible. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.

A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” That, however, is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.

There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. If the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to the choosing, they’re intrinsic to the chooser and by definition aren’t the kind of things that can be borne by another. We should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t suffer these “instead of” us. He saves us from them not by experiencing them as such (i.e., not by being forsaken or cursed by God), but by making possible a relationship to God whose consequence is life and joy. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us and as a consequence of our evil and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers “the consequence of” our sin.

Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are all he cares about. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Heb 10.8, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law.

The list could go on.

My own sense is that God had to work with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.

lambI suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.

One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”

Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.

Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. Fine. But where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary. It is to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer is: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from the dead to expose once and for all its failure and impotency.

Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.

Inspiration the presence of final causality

divineinspirationI will end this post with the suggestion that when it comes to what Christians call the inspiration of Scripture, inspiration is the presence of final causality. But I want to explain this thought on the heels of a few reflections.

Along with recently revisiting Greg’s claim that God “takes responsibility for sin and evil,” I was thinking about how he imagines the divine inspiration of Scripture’s violent passages which falsely portray God’s character on their “surface” but which in their “depths” truthfully reveal God as gracious and non-violent. Just as God stoops to bear the falsehoods of human beings on the Cross, in Scripture God often condescends to accommodate human falsehood, and this accommodation reveals the depths of God’s non-violent love.

I like a lot about this part of CWG. The “dialectical” nature of inspiration makes good sense. But to recognize the dialectical (conversational) nature of Scripture is to re-conceive how God is inspirationally present on the human side of the conversation. In what sense does inspiration embrace human contributions that ‘get God wrong’? Does saying the Bible may get it wrong (in the explicit claims of its “surface”) mean such texts do not reveal God? Greg parses out the dialectical nature of Scripture by distinguishing between a text’s “surface” (the explicit, intended claims of its authors/editors) and its “depths.” If a text gets God wrong, it does so on its surface. These same texts, however, possess a “depth” which is brought to light by faith reading the texts in light of the Cross. Greg explores this at length and I found his discussion insightful.

I’m unsure, though, how Greg understands “surface” and “depth” to relate to one another in the composing of texts. Are surface and depth each a feature of the OT texts themselves, or are the “depths” a separate text, as it were, composed as the Church reads the OT Christologically? The latter tends toward what Greg objects to as a “dismissive” approach to the violent texts, not very different from simply denying that these texts are inspired. Greg, I believe, wants to take the additional step in making the Christological “depths” of OT violence texts a feature of those texts. Why? Because Jesus took those violent texts to be inspired (in their textual form and claims), and we shouldn’t think that Christ was mistaken in this belief. This would be in contrast to a view that identified inspiration with the light of the Cross cast upon the surface of texts enabling us to perceive in the shadows cast the extent to which texts fail to portray the cruciform shape of God’s character and intentions. But how is this any different than reading Vedas, the Quran, or The Pearl of Great Price Christologically?

I occupy a place somewhere in the middle, I think. I do not want to dismiss OT texts that “get God wrong” as so much uninspired paganism. I do value these texts and I think together they constitute an inspired space where we encounter the voice of God. But I also recognize that I’m only able to value these texts this way through and because of Christ. I’ve tried to work through this in my What is the Bible? series. Permit me a quote from Part 1 of the series:

We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way…

Might some errors belonging to these persons find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.

leonardo-dicaprio-bad-news-the-great-gatsby-telephone-phone-2

What I’d like to add here is an analogy to help expresses how we might imagine the dialectical nature of God’s inspiring presence in Scripture – both in the composing of texts and in reading them Christologically. We ask students to imagine reading the Bible in terms of listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example, and find ourselves on one end of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians.

Often what a person says on the phone can only finally be understood in the context of the whole conversation. Those of us listening to one side have to construct a picture of the whole conversation as best we can. Reading the Bible is a bit like that. Its texts are dialectical. When we read 1Corinthians, we have to reconstruct the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians based only on what we hear Paul say (never mind the fact that we ourselves are conversation partners who bring our own contributions to interpreting the half of the conversation we possess).

IMG_0306_0Widen this analogy a bit and imagine the Bible in its entirety to be one side of a conversation Israel and God are having. When we read the Bible, we are listening to one side of that conversation. Right here we immediately meet a fundamental question about the Bible. When the Bible says, “And thus says the Lord” aren’t we listening to the divine side of the conversation? Isn’t the Bible essentially on “speakerphone” so that at one moment we’re directly hearing the human side of the conversation (a prophet or king) and at the next moment hearing God?

I apologize if you’re hearing it first from me, but the answer is ‘no’, that’s not what’s going on. Divine inspiration, whatever it is, does not give us God’s side of the conversation unmediated by the instrumentation of human voices. If or when we hear God’s voice in Scripture, we hear it in their voices. “And God said” means “And Israel said ‘God said’.” We are listening to Israel’s side of her conversation with God – hearing Israel speak, repeat what she thinks God is  saying, disagree with other Israelites about what God is saying, cry, scream, interpret and misinterpret. All this is comprises the “surface” of the text (Israel’s side of the conversation), and it’s all we have.

That’s not bad news. We have every reason to believe that Israel could and did faithfully represent God’s voice. But sometimes – and here some will become uncomfortable – we have good reason to suspect Israel did not hear God rightly but that she monopolized the conversation to promote her own agenda. The good news is that when it comes to a text’s portrayal of God, the Christian reader has in Christ a way to adjudicate things. Why think Jesus gets God right? We think Christ faithfully embodies the drama of divine-human conversation because God raised him from the dead.

We have, in Christ then, a truthful revelation of the conversation between God and Israel. It is this conversation that brings the entirety of the Israel’s recorded conversation to light – to the light of confirmation and to the light of judgment – confirmation because God can be seen to be faithfully carving out on the human side of the conversation (Israel) truth sufficient for Incarnation (where God will assume the human side of this conversation) and judgment because now through Christ we’re able to distinguish where and how human authors get God wrong.

Once we admit this much, I’m not sure how exactly to locate in the disfigured “surface” of texts an inspiration by which God renders that surface the means of accessing a “depth” which faithfully reveals God. Functionally speaking, once Christ’s voice becomes the means by which we listen to the entire conversation we call Scripture, inspiration is reduced to Christ who defines the hermeneutical center, and when you’re standing at the center relating to everything in terms of its relationship to that center, it doesn’t really matter how close or distant things are from the center.

This is a real problem for inerrantists who want every explicit claim of the text to be the center. Every “surface” has to be its own “depth.” It is a view of the drama of divine-human relations utterly void of any real appreciation for transcendence and teleology. It is a shallow approach to understanding the Bible, for if God is truly transcendent, and all things tend toward their final end in Christ, and God is covenantally united to Israel to carve out space for his own Incarnation – then we’re free to let the Bible be the mixed-bag that it is. I suggested previously:

We prefer that every part of the Bible [on its “surface”] be a perfect, inerrant conclusion to some aspect of the human struggle and journey. Girard’s phrase [“texts in travail”] suggests that the Bible itself is that journey. The texts of Scripture are Israel in process, in travail, trying to figure the world out. At times Israel lunges forward with the profoundest of insights, while at other times she conscripts God into the service of her own religious violence and apostate nationalism. Sometimes she gets it right. Other times she gets it horribly wrong. The texts we call the Old Testament are not just neutral, third part records of observations of events. They are one of the events. They participate in and constitute Israel’s up and down journey of faith. They lay bare the heart and soul of the human journey in its best and worst. They are “texts in travail.”

All that said, let me bring back the suggested axiom I opened with. I’ll probably hack this up fairly well, so be patient. Don’t laugh too loudly. This is tentative and speculative.

I’m suggesting that when it comes to understanding God’s inspiration of the Bible:

  • Inspiration is the presence of final causation.

We can express this as a formula. A what? Yes, a formula.

e-mc-squared-einstein

As I pondered how a God of constant truth would give us a book whose portrayals of God are only relatively accurate, I found myself back and forth between this ‘constancy’ and ‘relativity’. Now, don’t laugh too loudly, but Einstein’s E=mc2 came to mind. The relativistic mass (m) of a body times the (constant) speed of light squared (c2) is equal to the energy (E) of that body. Notice the presence of both a relativistic factor (the mass of a body) and a constant (the speed of light). I’m not transposing this into a theological axiom. It’s just an analogy that got me thinking. But for those of you who love logical notation, we can express the dialectical nature of the inspiration of biblical texts as:

I=tc2

The biblical text (t), relative in the extent to which it approximates the truth (that is, all texts are relative), times (the constant of) final causality squared (c2) expresses the divine inspiration (I) present in/as the text.

What the heck?

Start with the constant, final causality (c). By final causality I mean God as the final end of all things. I’m not thinking of Greek philosophical arguments here. I’m contemplating Christ as the ‘telos’ or ‘end’ (of the Law, Rm 10.4, and of all things created “through and for” Christ, Col 1.15-20). I’m thinking especially of the risen-crucified Christ as in himself embodying the telos or fulfillment of creation. I’ve previously suggested that the Bible be understood in the context of Incarnation being the means of achieving God’s unitive purposes for creation, and this context makes it relatively easy to understand the inspiration of texts:

Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of one’s understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop his sense of a unique identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficiently truthful to inform that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation. Creation is the context for incarnation to begin with, yes, but beyond that the construction of a suitable context for identity formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.

By ‘final causation’ (c), then, I mean the final union of creation with God in Christ, the conformity of all things to the character and intentions of Christ. I view inspiration teleologically, not just in the sense that OT narratives anticipate their fulfillment in NT realities (a kind of rhetorical teleology that any inerrantist would affirm). I mean something that demonstrates the ability of a transcendent final end to be present to and in every religious aspiration, even when they miss the mark (a compositional teleology, something no inerrantist would agree to). Previously here:

bibleartIn a word, [Scripture] must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this…

Scripture’s…function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness…

In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with.

Why is final causality squared (c2)? It is squared to represent the function of final causes in both opening creation up to the future and, interpretively, clarifying the past. The Spirit of God is present both in the authors of Scripture orienting and opening them toward the future, toward some realization of the truth, and, realized in Christ, orienting them toward the past as explaining, judging, and confirming the history of its own conversation with Israel in her texts. Final causation is squared as an expression of its presence both in texts prompting and calling them forward and in Christ (the final cause/end embodied) judging and calling texts to account. As final end, God both opens texts to the future as they are composed (dialectically) and closes the question of their truth value as they are read in light of the fulfilled embodiment of that final end – Christ. This is the way I understand inspiration (I) to be fully present at work in the composition of texts (which I think Greg will appreciate) and also present in the Christological reading of those same texts.

God takes responsibility for sin – or not.

spider2 - CopyBack in late spring/early summer of this year reviews of Boyd’s CWG began to surface and online discussion of the book took off. Of the reviews that were published online at the time, I don’t recall any that gave CWG all-around thumbs up. Some who passionately defend a non-violent view of the atonement nevertheless had serious concerns about core arguments and implications of Greg’s project. I suspect that has changed some, I don’t know. I’m not following the reviews at this point. I posted my own support for points I thought Greg made well alongside criticisms of weakness.

However, Greg is a friend whose ideas – even those I disagree with – I don’t mind returning to on occasion, if only because the concerns that motivate them and the passion that propels them are inspiring. Here I’d like to reflect a bit upon a particular phrase Greg uses to describe the Cross as God’s “taking responsibility for the world’s evil.” For example:

[T]he fact that the Son took responsibility for all the evil that he as Creator allowed to come to pass in his creation entails that the Father and Spirit, in their own unique ways, also took responsibility for all this evil, though they are no more morally culpable for any of it than is the Son.

Or here:

God assumed responsibility for all that he allowed to take place in his creation.

The idea derives ultimately from Greg’s belief that God creates freely, unnecessarily. That’s important, because the question of why God would take responsibility for a necessary God-world relationship (as proposed by standard Process metaphysics) never really arises. But someone like Greg who espouses the (quite orthodox belief in the) utter gratuity of God’s choice to create, the question of God’s “taking responsibility” for the absolute mess the world plunges itself into poses a challenge. Consider:

  • God creates freely and unnecessarily.
  • Creation freely corrupts itself and becomes overwhelmed by violence and suffering.

The freedom involved in the latter would be explanation enough for some, maybe most. But Greg believes that though we are endowed with the freedom to self-determine (which makes us and not God morally culpable for our individual choices), there remains an additional factor that we need to account for:

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

Over top all of humanity’s particular free choices stands the all-embracing statistical inevitability of sin and violence. Given the precarious condition of our origins (human weakness, finitude, ignorance, basic appetites and drives, the influence of socialization, the Satanic corruption of matter, and more), sooner or later creation would go off the rails. Greg may be an open theist who holds the future to be (partly) open, but he maintains the causal closure of the world’s descent into evil given these factors. God knows human sin and vice will inevitably erupt, and it is this inevitability that God freely creates and (I will suggest regarding his view) what God takes responsibility for.

van-gogh-pietaIt’s true of course, in an almost trivial sense, that God takes responsibility for what God does if by that we mean to say that God’s actions are fully informed, fully intended, fully acknowledged, fully his own, utterly embraced – entailments and all. But this is not news. The staunchest classical theist would affirm it.

But this is not what Greg means by saying God “takes responsibility for evil.” What Greg means, I gather, is that God assumes something approaching a moral responsibility for the world’s evil and suffering. In suffering the despair of godforsakeness, God suffers his own free choice to create, and this responsibility has a definite moral shape to it. God didn’t have to create but he did so knowing things would go desperately wrong. Thus (and this “thus” reveals the logic of God’s “responsibility” in Greg’s view) God suffers for us by suffering for having freely created us. That is at least part of the logic at work. Greg explains further:

[O]nly by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [cf. Moltmann] In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.” [cf. Moltmann] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

A few thoughts in response. First, it’s important to note that such claims as Greg makes in this last quote are nowhere found in the New Testament. Are they legitimate inferences drawn from biblical passages? Examining this question would take me outside the narrow interest of this post, and I’ve already reviewed CWG elsewhere and responded to key biblical passages (2Cor 5.21’s “God made Jesus to become sin”; Gal 3.13’s “Christ’s became a curse”; the Cry of Dereliction in Mk 15.34|Mt 27.46). Such passages needn’t imply that the Triune relations suffer the curse of godforsakeness which is the intrinsic consequence of our sin.

I am, secondly, more interested in exploring the nature of this suffering as a “taking of responsibility for evil” and the assumptions behind viewing it in such terms. True, Greg notes that God cannot be morally culpable for any of the particular evils of free agents. However, over top our particularity is the inevitability of sin and evil as such. Though God may not be responsible for the former, he is for the latter, and this gives every appearance of being moral in nature. Consider the gravity of the consequences God suffers and why. What constitutes this gravity in Greg’s project? What reality makes God’s suffering godforsakeness a “responsibility”? It would seem that since the inevitability of the depths of evil and suffering derives from God’s free choice to create, God owes it to the world (morally, not logically – given the gratuity of God’s choice to create and the wretched mess we made of ourselves) to suffer the godforsakeness we suffer.

It is important to say that this responsibility is beyond the fact that our salvation requires a demonstration of love sufficient to address our addiction and bondage to sin and violence. Here things get interesting inside Greg’s view. Certainly our created and fallen state presents natural conditions God must accommodate to rescue us from that state, (God’s redemptive manifestation to us must be embodied, human, finite – as opposed to be incarnate as a cow or a porpoise). Greg recognizes these. However, these include the particular extent and nature of God’s suffering (the reducing of God’s ad intra triune experience to the fragmentation and despair of godforsakeness). That God suffer so is entirely dictated by our condition.

But this leaves the “taking responsibility for sin” ungrounded. There’s no truth of human fallenness that makes it obvious that our rescue requires that God suffer the particular godforsakeness and despair which are the consequences for us of our evil. It appears that what ultimately grounds the necessity that God suffer in this particular godforsaken sense is the gratuity of creating a world bound inevitably to do great violence and suffer immeasurable evil. Because God is not culpable for particular human evils but must suffer infinitely to assume all human (and animal) suffering and godforsakeness, the responsibility God assumes in suffering so would be grounded antecedently in the very inevitability that supervenes upon the entire “the whole uproar of history.” This, not anything human beings require per se, appears to define why God must suffer so.

For Greg everything rides on it being the case that on the Cross God assumes this responsibility through suffering the despair of godforsakeness intrinsic to our sinful choices. The very “authenticity” of Jesus’ suffering as a redemptive act, its very ‘saving efficacy’, requires that God experience the combined sum of the world’s godforsakenness. We get a clue toward the end of the previous quote from Greg into what constitutes the link between God’s godforsakeness and our godforsakeness in terms of “responsibility.” God’s suffering must be “authentic” relative to our need. And it is only authentic if it is equivalent (same despair, same godforsakeness, same crisis of identity, same loss of hope, same pain), but infinitely so for God of course because he has the entirety of human and animal suffering to assume). Only if we perceive the Cross as being this may we have “confiden[ce] that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.” This “confidence,” for Greg, is how faith appropriates the healing, reconciling work of the Cross.

But why suppose any of this? It’s not an explicit claim of any NT writer. And it isn’t obvious that our being reconciled to God or healed from our own godforsakeness requires that God be equally as godforsaken as us. Why must our healing from godforsakeness require the multiplication of godforsakeness in God? We don’t universally assume that acts of saving or healing of an inter-personal, loving nature are only authentically transforming and redeeming if the gracious saving party shares every consequence intrinsic to the offending party’s choices.

We do agree, with Greg, that it is not anything human beings do to Jesus that saves us, rather it is what the Father is doing “behind the scenes.” But where Greg sees the Father abandoning Jesus behind the scene of the the human abandonment of Jesus, we see the Father doing something else, namely, not abandoning Jesus but empowering him to endure human rejection “for the joy set before him,” to forgive those lynching him, to offer paradise to those who entreat him. On the Cross, Jesus still “does what he sees the Father doing.” But on Greg’s view, as I understand it, Jesus sees the Father abandoning him but does something else, namely, not abandon others but forgive and offer paradise instead.

The more I’ve pondered these differences with Greg, the more I come to recognize the more fundamental difference from which our other disagreements derive. Surprisingly, it is not that Greg is a Kenoticist and we are not, nor is it that we believe in God’s undiminished triune delight and Greg does not. It is, I believe, our very different views of the human predicament. Just what is the “fallen human condition” the rescue from which we give the name “salvation” to? And how does Jesus’ dying and rising together heal that condition? For us, the notion of godforsakeness (viz., that God must, objectively speaking, become “cursed” [Gal 3.13] by experiencing the despair of ‘forsaking’ and ‘being forsaken by’ God) that informs Greg’s whole project, is the very myth we need saving from. Where, for Greg, God’s own godforsakeness constitutes our salvation, for us godforsakeness is what Jesus’ death and resurrection expose to be the myth that enslaves us – and one doesn’t expose myths by believing them.

All that said, let me shift directions here —

Part of Greg’s project involves a hermeneutical re-centering, a cruciform hermeneutic. The cruciform hermeneutic makes what happens on the Cross the hermeneutical center (or “lens”) through which everything else in the Bible is read. I’ve already reviewed why I think this is impossible, but I though I might find it helpful to turn this entire dilemma of Greg’s on its head. Instead of God taking responsibility for creating, what would happen if we view God as taking responsibility for being created? That is, in Christ, God the human being fulfills humanity’s responsibility before God to present itself humbly, obedient and trusting in the face of all the vicissitudes inherent in that nature, and fulfills human nature’s calling and purpose. In this case Jesus’ death fulfills created nature, loving and trusting God within the constraints of created finitude. Christ, the God-Man, represents creation to God, takes responsibility for being creatED (not for creatING), unites creation to God, and in so doing reconciles the world to God, not God to the world.

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting (following James Alison) that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically one.

vgflowersWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many time, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth). But to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood. Yet this, it seems to me, is precisely what Greg attempts theologically, and it is aesthetically violent. There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross alone. There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives to say “Peace.” But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through another lens, a resurrection hermeneutic. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus. So all of Greg’s descriptions of the Cross as God’s love stooping to accommodate us in our weakness, etc., – all true – are by definition post-resurrection readings of the Cross.

So, the hermeneutical center cannot be a single proposition or event, but rather must be faith perceiving itself as apprehended by the risen-slaughtered One, and so not taking responsibility for having created if that means God must become cursed and share in the despair of godforsakenness. There is only need for that (and arguably not even then) if one insists on a reason to believe, or for the meaning for faith, or for redemption, that derives solely from the Cross (i.e., the Cross interpreted linearly with its doors closed to the resurrection). But that would be like looking to the weight required to press organic raw materials until they yield their beautiful reds, yellows, and blues as “the” explanation for everything else that goes into a Van Gogh painting, including why it’s beautiful.

The difference between “appearing to” and “being seen”

eyes1

Alex Grey’s artwork can be unsettling. I keep coming back to it, however, not in a freak-show kind of way, but because his work silences me and makes me reflect in such positive ways (on the meaning of existence, the essential connectedness of all things, the transcendent presence of the One doing the seeing, etc.). Sometimes a work of art will inspire my thoughts. Other times I have thoughts that inspire the choice of a particular picture. With this post it’s the latter. I went looking for an image that would capture my thoughts and – no surprise in this case – Alex Grey came to mind.

There is a difference between “appearing to” and “being seen.” The latter is consistent with being a passive object of perception. I can be seen without permitting it, without even knowing it. God cannot be seen (objectified) in this passive sense.

The only way to see God is to see him seeing you

…to have him “appear to” you, to apprehend him through the experiencing of being apprehended by him. But radical, gracious givenness infinitely precedes every progress we make toward beatific vision, which is always a “being seen.” It’s meant to unsettle us. If it doesn’t, then you’re mistaking something created and finite for God, which is what we give the name idolatry to.

We are thought by him, not he by us. Our best ‘third-person’ reflections (what we call “God-talk”) are really only vestiges of a divine invitation preceding our first thought, crumbs left to guide the hospitable and seeking heart on a journey that ends with us in full view of him, not him in full view of us, where we discover that finding him is to find oneself apprehended by him.

The same is true with the resurrected appearances. Christ “appears to” but is not passively observed. Christ gives himself to be seen. He is, to borrow Robinette’s phrase, “tactile and transcendent.” Because the resurrected Christ is the end and fulfillment of Creation, because he is the Age to Come, because the resurrection does not return him to his former state of existence, the entirety of his embodied existence becomes the Eschaton. He cannot “be seen” passively by this present age, “uncovered” by us. The Eschaton cannot be spied upon. This reversal is a spiritual exercise – a learning how to “be approached” instead of “approaching.”

The loss of control is unsettling. Like a Grey painting, it overwhelms our horizons and perspectives. When you see that your seeing is a ‘being seen’ (graciously and benevolently), there remains no place or location in the painting that affords your perspective any measure of autonomous control. You are beheld, and in being beheld become beholden to the immeasurable love that sees you and all things.

This is what I take ‘apophaticism’ to be, without which being seeing gets reduced to our seeing, and that gets the creator-created order of grounding, nature and grace, creation’s freedom and final end, entirely (and despairingly) backwards.

The risen Christ a saturated phenomenon—Part 1

Adamfriedman

Adam Friedman

Robinette (Grammars of Resurrection) appropriates Marion’s work in understanding the resurrection of Christ. I’d like here to share Robinettes’ summary Marion’s notion of “saturated phenomena” and then follow up with a second post showing how Robinette understands the Resurrection to be a “saturated phenomenonpar excellence.

Always in the encounter with the risen Christ is he acknowledge in the midst of alterity, as a stranger, in the mode of transcendence, and thus in the mode of “absence.” But again, this “absence” is not a result of a weakness in the given. It is the result of an excess. In the same way unadjusted eyes see darkness when flooded with light, the perceptual absence in the resurrection narratives is the correlate to the eschatology surplus of Jesus’ risen presence, which cannot be objectified or reduced to a single horizon of perception. This paradoxical relationship is the ultimate key for understanding the resurrection narratives in their extant form… [Bold mine – love the analogy]

Here I enlist the work of Jean-Luc Marion whose study of givenness and sketches of saturated phenomena will prove helpful in exploring the eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e., how they are uniquely disclosive of a “presence” that, in its eschatological (excessive) givenness, remains “absent” from the witnesses whose capacity for representation remains saturated.

In setting up a strategy for sketching the characteristics of saturated phenomena, Marion adopts Kant’s categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality to show how each becomes overexposed. A broader concern for Marion is to show how the a priori conditions for experience and thought in Kant’s philosophy (and by extension much modern thought) are too restrictive to account for phenomena that, rather than conforming to the subject’s power of knowing, greatly exceed it. Marion is troubled by how the “turn to the subject” so frequently valorizes the knowable over the un-known, the visible over the in-visible, the objectifiable over the non-objectifiable, the conditions of the possibility over the im-possible.

The saturated phenomenon, according to Marion, refers to “the impossibility of attaining knowledge of an object, comprehension in the strict sense,” not “from a deficiency in the giving intuition, but from its surplus, which neither concept, signification, nor intention can foresee, organize, or contain.” [“In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology’” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (1999).] As a result of its excessive givenness to perception and intuition, the saturated phenomenon makes definitive and stable conceptualization impossible. It is always “more than,” disclosive of a depth dimension or in-visibility that cannot be fully grasped by the subject’s objectifying intentionality. Such phenomena would require rethinking the “subject” as our primary starting point—particularly its pretension to self-constitution and conceptual mastery—and to begin instead with the givenness of phenomena as they given themselves to intuition.

mosque

But what phenomena might we imagine as saturating the subject in this way? Kant himself provides an initial clue with the experience of the beautiful. Whereas Kant typically regards intuition the weaker in arriving at conceptual knowledge, aesthetic experience is said to engulf the power of thought so that the “representation of the imagination furnishes much to think, but to which no determinate thought, or concept, can be adequate.” Marion comments: “The impossibility of the concept arranging this disposition comes from the fact that the intuitive overabundance no longer succeeds in exposing itself in a priori rules, whatever they might be, but rather submerges them. Intuition is no longer exposed in the concept; it saturates it and renders it overexposed—invisible, unreadable, not by lack, but indeed by an excess of light.” [Marion, Being Given]

Take the example of listening to music. In the opening moments of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, even though the listener has settled in to enjoy the musical performance, and while the listener may already be quite familiar with the piece, the first reception of its givenness to the senses is truly magical. A sudden upsurge of intuition floods comprehension and leaves the listener without the ability to fully comprehend, though the effect is delight. The “sonorous mass…comes upon me and submerges me,” leaving me “belated” to the “deployment of this becoming.” [Being Given] The actual event of music is always surprising, something I cannot fully anticipate. It is something to which I respond and follow. “I” am not coincident with the piece as listener but a witness to its givenness. To be sure, I discern patterns and intelligence. I follow the musical story it tells through tonal and temporal tensions and resolutions. Without being able to describe it in the least, the piece of music may be remarkably satisfying in its supreme musical sense. It is not unintelligible but inexhaustibly intelligible. It generates much greater intuition than I can possible objectify through concepts and words. Herein lays the delight of its astonishing, beautiful unfolding. I am “caught up” in the piece, “outside” of my self in ek-stasis. What is occurring is an event in which I am transported. In the “play” of music I am moved to a kind of “self-forgetfulness,” with self-forgetfulness being the “positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”

Or consider the event of beholding the beautiful form presented in painting. Although it may be possible to consider a painting as a “thing,” made up of elements like wood, gold leafing, canvas, paint, and so forth, it is not primarily the painting’s thingness in which the beauty consists. The beautiful form does not present itself as merely something ready-to-hand, an object for instrumental use, but gives itself as an appearing of unsuspected depth Beauty discloses itself in the visible but never as strictly visible or completely objectifiable. It remains in-visible in its “crossing of the visible”:

060502-01015075[T]o see it as a painting, in its own phenomenality of the beautiful, I must of course apprehend it as a thing (subsisting, ready-to-hand), but it is precisely not this that opens it to me as beautiful; it is that I “live” its meaning, namely its beautiful appearing, which has nothing like to it, since it cannot be described as the property of a thing, demonstrated by reasons, or hardly even be said. What is essential—the beautiful appearing—remains unreal, an “I know not what,” that I must seek, await, touch, but which is not comprehensible. [Being Given]

The beautiful, writes David Bentley Hart, is objective, not in the sense that it concerns “things,” but in its precedence to the response it evokes. “There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply.” [Hart, Beauty of the Infinite] Beauty appears in “distance,” or better, it gives distance. What is beautiful opens up a space for its inexhaustible beholding, an infinity of perspectives. “And because the surplus of ‘meaning’ in the beautiful consists in and urges attention toward this infinite content of distance, it allows for ceaseless supplementation: it is always unmoored, capable of disrupting stable hierarchies of interpretation, of inspiring endless departures and returns, and of calling for repetition and variation; it releases a continual distribution of meaning across the distance.” [Beauty of the Infinite]…

There are many other examples of saturated phenomena Marion examines in his works, including memory, birth, death, the experience of one’s own body, erotic love, and the interpretation of a text. But we should briefly consider one more, since it strikes important ethical keys.

Drawing upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Marion shows how the encounter with another person, “the face’ of the Other, is saturated in its givenness. Visible yet inexhaustible in its irreducible depth, the face of the Other (his or her alterity) breaks in upon my egoic self-sameness (ipseity) and calls me to hospitality and responsibility. The Other is no objectifiable thing, something to be comprehended within a conceptual category such as humanity, society, ethnicity, gender, or nationality. To reduce the Other to strict visibility or comprehension in this way constitutes an act of violence. Persons are not “things, “commodities,” or “parts” within a broader totality. The Other is an unsubstitutable revelation, illimitable and irrepressible in his or her self-gift. The Other reverses my gaze in a “counter-experience.” In beholding the Other, I see one who sees me, as thus one who returns my gaze through different eyes. Here I am not a self-constituting “subject” regarding some “object,” but a “witness” to an Other who calls me into an ethical relationship. “For as face, he faces me, imposes on me to face up to him as he for whom I must respond…. I have received (and suffered) a call [un appel]. The face makes an appeal [un appel]; it therefore calls me forth as gifted. My very sense of self is in fact given to me by the Other. My “being” is a “being given.” The pretension to immediate self-presence is an illusion. I encounter myself only in mediation, in a multitude of face-to-face relations with Others who call me from the confines of egoic existence. Despite our persistent efforts to think of ourselves in terms of a transcendental ego gazing upon the world from a position of nowhere, the order of manifestation which phenomenological research unveils shows again and again that alterity precedes and radically conditions every sense of “mineness.”

(To be continued)

Bedouin Rublev

Bedouin Trinity

Just hung this painting (by a Jordanian artist) in my living room. Our daughter picked it up in Jarash (Jordan) a few years ago and gifted it to us. We have a fair number of items in our home that we picked up through the years living overseas. This painting – which I call “Bedouin Rublev” – is one of my favorites. It’s not an official icon of the Trinity, but that’s all I see when I look at it.