Saved from Sacrifice

51FQZ2wZv+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Move Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, to the top of your to-read list. Read it slowly. Read it all. Then read it again. That should do it.

It’s been out a decade, but I have little money and a long list of things to read. For some reason, though, it got moved to the top of the list, and since it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (no pun intended, given the subject matter), I picked it up. Here’s Heim’s summary of the book from his preface –

The event of Jesus’ death, his condemnation, suffering, and execution, is a bad thing. The Gospel accounts emphasize this. Christians remember it, retell it, and even celebrate it as a unique and saving action. The day of Jesus’ death is Good Friday. The New Testament emphasizes that too. This is odd. The main, first thing is not to miss that fact. Everything worth learning has its hard parts, the tricky passages, like math problems where there’s one point where it’s so easy to go astray. The difference between being right and being wrong is both small and enormous, like performing one last multiplication and remembering whether it should come out negative one billion or positive one billion (and that’s a difference of two billion!). We have to add up all the oddities or it won’t come out right. Jesus’ death is that passage in Christianity. The answer balances on a razor’s edge.

Is this God’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’t have to destroy us instead? Is it God’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’s the wrong side of the razor. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.

We humans took a terrible thing – scapegoating violence against the innocent (or against those who are guilty of something, but not the demonic effects we claim) – and made it a good thing. It brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We overcome our differences and make peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. We restrain violence with violence. Satan casts out Satan, and becomes all the stronger for it. This isn’t a random, pointless evil. It is woven into the way our communities work, and the problem it solves is real.

Is there any point in Jesus dying this particular, specific kind of death? Is he dying for our sins, in order to save us? Yes, because his death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it. In so doing, God made that occasion of scapegoating sacrifice (what those who killed Jesus were doing) and occasion of overcoming scapegoating violence (what God was doing). It is the same event, but what is happening in that event for the people who kill or accept the killing or fail to oppose it (in short, for all involved) is not what’s happening in that event for Jesus, for God, and hopefully for the church. God used our sin to save us from that sin. And the result, uneven but real, is that victims of such acts become harder to hide. They look too much like Jesus. The challenge, all too failed, is to build another basis for peace than unity in violence. That is what the gathering around the communion table attempts to do.

There is a saving act of God in the cross, and there is a sinful human act. The two are so close together that it is easy for them to get mixed up in our understanding, and in our theology. The saving part is so real that it exercises and effect even when distorted almost beyond recognition in our interpretations. The sinful part is so ubiquitous that even the best theology is subject to a kind of gravitational degradation. Without the language of sacrifice, innocence, guilt, punishment, substitution, and blood, we can’t tell the truth about our situation and what God does to liberate us, a truth that the cross makes available to us in a new way. With it, we always run the risk of taking the diagnosis for a prescription. Sacrifice is the disease we have. Christ’s death is the rest result we can’t ignore, and at the same time an inoculation that sets lose a healing resistance. The cure is not more of the same.

This is why Christian theology has what sounds like the same language overlaid on this event twice, once for what it means according to our sacrificial usage, once to turn it around. Christians say the cross is a sacrifice…but to end sacrifice. They say “blood shed for us,” but blood shed once for all. They say, “We are reconciled in his blood,” but they mean we have been freed to live without the kind of reconciliation that requires blood, the kind Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod had in mind.

That is what this book tries to explain


I’ll definitely be back with more on this wonderful book.

To my right and to my left


I’m walkin’ in the parking lot and I got my hood up.
Feelin’ like a lottery winner, got that good luck;
Smiling as I stroll, a King in the Pride Lands,
But then I catch some side-eye contact in a wide glance.
The lady looked at me, then she locked all her doors;
Nervous smile, passing me with fear comin’ out her pores.
Maybe it’s the good, maybe it’s the melanin,
Passing me, still rubber-neckin’ like a pelican.
Stuff like that use to tend to enrage me,
But now they have my pity, afraid to engage me,
Trapped by unchecked notions they proceed to preconceive,
Unaware of the lies they proceed to believe.
So I bless the poor woman under my breath
And people who may be like her, to my right and my left.
Why? Because I see Jesus in their faces,
Seeing God in each puts all things in their places.

(Dwayne Polk)

What doesn’t exist can’t be known

91HvBls+5-L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_You Aquinas experts out there, help me out. I know Aquinas held God to be timeless and to have timeless knowledge of the world’s entire history of becoming. But there’s an interesting passage in the Summa ( that has me stumped. For those unfamiliar with citing the Summa, that’s Part 1, Question 89 [on the knowledge of the separated soul], Article 7 [on whether local distance impedes the knowledge in the separated soul], and then Aquinas’ reply to Objection 3).

The Objection:

Further, as there is distance of place, so is there distance of time. But distance of time impedes knowledge in the separated soul, for the soul is ignorant of the future. Therefore it seems that distance of place also impedes its knowledge.

Aquinas’ reply

The future, which is distant in time, does not actually exist, and therefore is not knowable in itself, because so far as a thing falls short of being, so far does it fall short of being knowable. But what is locally distant exists actually, and is knowable in itself. Hence we cannot argue from distance of time to distance of place.

Aquinas seems pretty matter-of-fact about the unknowability of non-existent/non-actual entities, and obviously I want to agree with him. Future events and objects are simply not actual, and are thus unknowable. They have no ‘being’. This has obvious consequences for one’s knowledge of the future. We don’t know the future not because there is in fact something to know of which we’re ignorant. We don’t know because there’s nothing there to know. I was surprised to find this passage though. John Sanders mentions it in an article on his site.

My guess is that Aquinas qualifies all this when it comes to God. God is not limited in his knowledge of creation to creation’s own temporal perspectives. It’s only finite knowers who exist at a time who cannot know future actualities because those actualities do not exist at the knower’s time. But God is not a finite knower located at a time. If anything, he’s at all times and so is immediately present to Creation’s entire timeline (as it were). So God doesn’t fall within the scope of Aquinas’ comments.

Yes? No?

You experts out there?

Not Alone

600x600bb-85Anita and I have been enjoying History Channel’s Alone series. Just finished Season 3 recently. Each season documents ten new pre-approved survivalists who are dropped off in remote locations and left to survive on their own. Seasons 1 and 2 were held on Vancouver Island. Season 3 was in Patagonia, Argentina. Each contestant is given a few essential tools to take along, but all have to eat, drink and survive alone. No human contact. They’re given video equipment to set up and record their thoughts and activities.

It’s very interesting to observe the gradual effects of solitude upon each contestant. The quiet breaks and whittles them down, brings them face to face with themselves. If you want to call it quits, you tap out by calling a Sat Phone and you’re extracted. As people tap out, 10 becomes 9, then 7, then 4, etc. If you’re the last one standing, you win half a mill. Season 1’s winner lasted 56 days. Season 2’s made it to 66 days. Season 3’s winner won on day 87. Amazing show. Check it out!

That said, my thoughts on being alone brought to me thoughts of the Cross. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples (John 16.32-33):

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

It’s just because Jesus says this before the awful events that end with him on the Cross that its truth gets separated from the Cross and altogether forgotten when you get to the Cross. But the truth Christ here affirms should be included in what we have traditionally considered Jesus’ “Final sayings from the Cross,” for Jesus himself insists that what he here says embraces his suffering to come and so will be true when he hangs on the Cross. Think about it. We should learn to hear Jesus say from the Cross not only “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but also “I am not alone; my Father is with me.”

Earlier we offered:

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Consider also –

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree
A cell made of diamonds?

Crucifixion of the Warrior God

GregMore books to order, more money to spend. I’ve got this pre-ordered. I read a pre-published working copy, but knowing Greg, things continued to get worked out and worked in right up to the final moment. One thing I will say about Greg – even when I disagree, I come away thinking long and hard about things. We’ll see where this goes.

What reading metaphysics should be like

0268037078.01.LZZZZZZZKudos to Fr Aidan for sending me a copy of Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many (2001). I’ve read essays and chapters by Clarke and enjoyed him. Clear, easy to follow, well-informed, and – and this is what inspired this post in the first place – “godly.” I mean that in the classical sense of having an explicit awareness of God’s presence. I picked up on it earlier in Clarke, but not like I sense it in The One and the Many, which is a major philosophical work on metaphysics. Finding writers who are clear and genuinely helpful is rare. Finding one who makes it impossible for you to read without coming into an explicit awareness of the subject matter, whether God as so-named or God under any of his transcendental names (the Good, the Beautiful, the True), is priceless. You don’t get past the first chapter of Clarke without encounter his deep humility, his sense of dependence, and most of all, his infectious sense of ‘wonder’ (which, as we know, is the first true philosophical intuition), wonder that there is anything at all. Clarke doesn’t relay information. He shares an experience of the intelligibility and goodness of ‘being’. Come to think of it, I pick up this same sense of wonder when I read Hartshorne – and you can’t get any more non-Thomistic than Hartshorne!

Since I’m talking about Clarke for the moment, let me share a passage that slowed me down and brought me into this reflection:

Personal awakening to the wonder of being. To be a good metaphysician…one must move beyond the merely abstract understanding of the meaning of being toward an existential “awakening” to experience what actual existence means in the concrete for the whole person – mind, heart, imagination, feeling, all together. In the light of this intuitive experience one can then take reflective possession of its meaning, generalize it to the whole realm of actual existents, and develop it into the fully explicit metaphysical understanding of being as that which is. Various personal experiences have been found apt for leading us to such an existential awakening to what it means to be. Examples are:

1) The threat of loss of one’s own existence or that of a loved one: realization of existence through contrast with its absence.
2) And intense love experience: the wonder and delight that so and so is truly real.
3) Experience of an intense hope, longing, at last realized: “At last it’s real, not just a dream.”
4) The contemplative wonder of a child, a poet, an artist, or a scientist at the beauty and order of the universe, and, even deeper, at its presence at all.
5) A profound religious experience of gratitude for creation as gift (Jews, Christians, Moslems in the revelation of creation tradition, and, mysteriously, Buddhists).
6) The experience of radical boredom, despair, existential anxiety, total loss of meaning or significance of the universe as a whole and of my life in it: this puts existence itself in question by awareness of our radical contingency, precariousness, as poised over nothingness, “surrounded” by nothingness, e.g., Heidegger, for whom the awareness of being is inseparable from the awareness of nothingness, Das Nichts.

If you’re familiar with what Dwayne and I often reflect upon here, you’ll recognize in Clarke’s statements the role of what we (following Loder and others) call ‘The Void’. I haven’t read everything there is to read on metaphysics, but I can count on one hand those I’ve read who manage in their opening pages to stand me before the mirror to perceive in myself the wonder of being at all, and, in addition, to appreciate this wonder precisely in light of its gratuity and givenness in the face of my nothingness – Le Vide, Das Nichts. This, I think, is what reading metaphysics (by Christian authors) should be like.

To end with a thought on this in a very different context (e.g., origins and evolution), this is why I think humankind was created mortal from the get-go. There’s no coming into the fullness of being that is not a coming into to truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God, and that means embracing the truth of our utter nothingness; and you don’t get that without mortality. To the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace.