Children of wrath

Children of wrathRandom observation. I work with a Bible Society dedicated to publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. It’s wonderful work. Love it. I recently tripped over the phrase “children of wrath” in Eph 2.3. Nearly every translation I looked at understands this phrase to describe human beings as either born under divine wrath, or deserving of wrath, or subject to wrath on account of their own actions, etc. As a rule I’m extremely reluctant to disagree with unanimity when it comes to long-standing translations. But it does rarely happen that the unanimity one faces is not that of free minds each of which having independently become convinced of the same truth, but rather that of a majority unthinkingly assuming that what’s gone before is right, a bit like sheep rushing en masse off a cliff following an original clumsy move. The persistence of Augustine’s understanding of Rom 5.12 to say “in whom all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned” (cf. the ἐφ’ ᾧ) would be an example.

“Children of wrath” in Eph 2.3 does not, I submit, mean ‘deserving of wrath’ or ‘subject to wrath’ or ‘born under wrath’ but rather ‘characterized by wrath’, that is, a wrathful or angry disposition or temperament. The wrath is ours here, not God’s. I’m not suggesting the phrase “wrath of God” describes a fiction as if God in fact does not will that there be painful consequences for actions. Divine wrath is a realty, but it is not what Paul has in mind here.

There are several ways to take the genitive “children [tekna] of….” Used figuratively (as it is here), one may be a “child of _______” (fill in the blank) to the extent one is characterized by that quality or property described. Consider some examples:

(1) “children of Zion” (Joel 2.23) meaning those who inhabit Jerusalem,
(2) “sons of thunder” (Mk 3.17) of James and John’s angry, violent temperament,
(3) “children of wisdom” (Lk 7.35) describing those who are wise,
(4) “children of disobedience (Eph 2.2; 1Pt 1.14) meaning those who are disobedient,
(5) “children of the light” (Eph 5.8) describing those who love and live in the light,
(6) “children of cursing” (2Pt 2.14) describing people who curse others (not those “cursed by God”),
(7) “children of the flesh/promise” (Rom 9.8) describing characteristic behavior of those living “according to” the flesh or spirit.

It makes much better sense of our passage, given Paul’s description of the actual behavior of the Ephesians (including “sons of disobedience” in preceding verse v. 2), to take “children of wrath” as describing their formerly angry-violent disposition (roughly equivalent to the more descriptive “sons of thunder”) and not their previously being by nature “subject to divine wrath.” Wrath/anger does not always refer to divine wrath. But observe Paul’s instruction in this same letter (4.31) that we “get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger…” (cf. Col 3.8; 1Tm 2.8; Jm 1.19f). Paul describes what Rene Girard called the escalation of mimetic violence characteristic of human social behavior, the natural tendency to default to angry, wrathful, and violent modes of discourse and relating.

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“Inasmuch as”: impartation & participation

SRI LANKA-ATTACKSPredictably,  the attacks upon Sri Lankan Christians while they worshiped last Easter Sunday (both pictures in this post are of shrapnel-ridden, blood-stained statues from those attacks) have again brought front and center conversations about God’s goodness in our world. Tell us again exactly how it is God is perfectly and unfailingly benevolent and powerful in a world awash in such evil (natural and moral)? Each tragedy sees the same debate points posted and argued. With every renewal of this discussion it seems there are some from the ranks of every view on offer who defect to some other viewpoint. I’m not here to review the options or argue for a benevolent theism. Instead, I’d like to try to express an aspect of my own faith journey. Atheists, you’re excused for the time being. This is ‘siblings talk’ for the moment.

As I say, all I want to offer here is a description of how these attacks got me and Dwayne into considering as aspect of the Christian story and experience that I hadn’t previously contemplated. As Dwayne and I recently talked through these issues something dawned on me.

Let me begin a couple of curious passage that describe the intimacy of Christ’s identification with those who suffer. In Mt 25.31-46 (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats), Jesus bases God’s eschatological judgment of us on the loving service we render to the destitute (i.e., the hungry, the poor and the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned). You know the conclusion: “Inasmuch as” we provide food, clothing, care, etc., to the destitute and imprisoned, we “do it to Christ.” And equally, inasmuch as we do not care for the poor and needy, we do not care for Christ. In loving and caring for those in need, we love and care for Christ – actually, personally, really.

The same identification is behind Paul’s admonition (Col 3.23-24) that Christians do all they do “as unto the Lord,” and here Paul surprisingly adds “not unto men.” Not unto others? Surely we do unto others what we actually do unto them, even if Christ is also therein served (or not). But the adversative “not unto men” turns the tables on our priorities and the direction from which we view things. It is Christ who is first served or not, and others are therein implicated. Christ is the truer, more significant object of our intentions and actions than are others who are by virtue of Christ implicated in our actions. But who views themselves and the world this way?

This relating to Christ as the object of our actions (good or bad) is evident in Christ’s confrontation with Paul in his conversion experience (Acts 9). The risen Christ appears to Paul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” and declares “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This is not unlike the Matthew 25 passage. The risen Christ identifies with his body – those who follow him (in Acts 9), but equally, even if more broadly, he identifies with all poor, all needy, and not, as some mistakenly read it, “poor Christians” (but not poor Muslims), or for dispensationalists (if there are any left) “poor Jews.” Does Jesus participate in the innocent suffering of the world? It would seem so. He is more truly present as the object of our actions than the poor and needy we perceive. This shouldn’t surprise us. Christ is, after all, more truly present in every sense than any person allows him/herself to be present. He is present fully/completely, without diminishment of intention or perception due to selfishness or compromise. None of us is able to ‘show up’ so genuinely and unreservedly. In this way, our suffering becomes his own. But faith opens our eyes to this  presence and opens it to our participation.

This brings me to the second set of curious passages. If the first set of passages describes the sense in which Christ is present in our suffering by virtue of his own participation in the innocent suffering of the world he loves and sustains, the second describes the sense in which our suffering becomes a transforming-redemptive participation in his own historical suffering. I’ve commented on these passages here and here, but let me quickly mention them. First, in Phil 3.8-11 Paul views the Cross as participable, as sufferings we are able to share in. Paul’s desire to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death.” Secondly, in Col 1.24 Paul views his own suffering as “filling up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” a very curious perspective, but incomprehensible as participation if the Cross be understood in penal-substitutionary terms. Then in Rom 6.3-5 Paul again views the Cross as participable, and lastly in Heb 13.13 we are instructed to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore” which, whatever else it may be, invites us to participate in Christ’s sufferings. Participation, not substitution, is the transforming logic of the Cross.

Sri 5

I’d like to suggest that these two realities (Christ present in our sufferings, on the one hand, and our presence in his, on the other) form a single, transforming-redemptive unity – an asymmetrical relational unity which is itself the saving power of the Cross. We participate in the sufferings of the Cross by intentionally introducing the narrative of the Cross into our own meaning-making structure. This brings both the guilt and despair of sinners and the true nature of innocent suffering to light for transformational meaning-making as each receives its truth from Christ’s suffering. For the latter (the innocent victims) in this case, how Christ suffers becomes how we see ourselves as suffering, and so how the Father was with Christ in his sufferings (Jn 16.31-33) becomes how God is present with us in our suffering. It’s a relational unity because two subjects (Christ and us) are intimately related, so much so that both are objects of the same victimization. But the relationship is asymmetrical because one subject’s experience (Christ’s) alone has the power to define and transform the experience of those who interpret their suffering within the (transcendent) framework of meaning-making established by and offered to all in Christ.

However, participation in Christ’s sufferings defines not only how we self-perceive within our suffering (as essential as that is), it defines how we perceive and respond to others who persecute and victimize, i.e. forgiveness. Forgiveness is a necessary fruit of participation in Christ’s sufferings, and we have not participated in his sufferings until we, like him, extend forgiveness to our persecutors. It’s not enough to know I suffer innocently and to come to possess in Christ an enduring identity that no worldly suffering can deconstruct. What is this new identity if it is as unforgiving as the old? To participate in Christ’s sufferings is to be given his suffering as a place in which to experience my own, to suffer inside of his suffering, and what can this be but to suffer as he suffers, i.e. for others, in love, and to know that every victimizer is forgiven within the very event that establishes my own freedom from the victimizer. I am free from him and united to him at once, in Christ. So to not forgive is to have misrelated myself to Christ, and so to have failed to participate fully in his sufferings.

Of course, none of this is possible if one views the Cross in either penal-substitutionary terms (God pouring out our wrath-as-punishment upon Jesus) or in terms of God abandoning us existentially to suffer the consequences of sin as despair and godforsakenness (viz., Boyd’s view), for neither of these perspectives on Christ’s sufferings invites us to participate in the Christ’s sufferings. Both write us out of participation in the Cross, and to that extent they deliver not good news, but the worst news of all.

Risen indeed

rise

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, and yet
The face of Christ is also seen in the neighbor in need, may the
Power of resurrection come to kill all the greed, help us to
See those who bleed, help us to
Free to be freed, help us to
Really receive, believe, achieve, and conceive of the Spirit
Who breathes, retrieves, relieves, and intercedes; he
Movin’ like a centipede, got us
Lovin’ all our enemies, got us
Flowin’ in his energies, while he
Showin up in our inner me’s.

(Dwayne Polk)

Jesus re-creates humanity with a Cry

Still feeling this strongly, as true as ever…

An Open Orthodoxy

the-view-from-the-crossWatching the sunrise this morning on this Good Friday, I had a thought inspired by recent discussions of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Here’s the thought I had.

God creates ex nihilo or out of nothing. This ‘nothing’ isn’t a certain sort of something out of which God creates; we are not assembled into being from other more fundamental parts or created events. From the finite perspective of our conscious experience, this nothingness represents the Void whose absolute closure threatens to consume our present existence with final meaninglessness. The Void represents the nothingness from which God calls us to be. But it occasions a necessary and fundamental choice to relate to existence in one of two ways – either peacefully, giving our finitude to God in trust, or despairingly, anxiously, in the fragmenting narratives of self-assertion and fear.

I…

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Vampires and Crosses

Cross 2019I recently started following Ethan and Wes’s Youtube channel ‘Mysterion’. They’ve just had Fr. Silviu Bunta (from Romania – hence “Vampires,” otherwise I would’ve never figured the title out).

I’m pondering how my own understanding of the Cross has radically changed the past decade or so. I haven’t run into anyone who publicly expressed things as well as Fr. Bunta. I hope you enjoy his comments (video below). If you grew up Evangelical, as did I, you’ll recognize how very different this view of the Cross is from anything you heard on Sunday growing up.

Being Holy Week, every pulpit in America is devoting its voice to proclaim the mystery of Cross but not all are sharing the same Cross. Not even close. Some will exalt this perspective:

…the Father had imputed to [Jesus] every sin of every one of his people…the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse… It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you,” because that’s what it meant to be cursed and under the anathema of the Father… [and] every person who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God. (R. C. Sproul)

I faintly remember believing such things. Jesus’ view of his own cross began to redefine it for me. On the eve of his crucifixion:

Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “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. (Jn 16.31-33)

Interesting, no? Jesus wants his disciples to understand from how he suffers how they shall possess his peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is thus how God is with us in our suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view Jesus’ as experiencing utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

Again, on the evening of his betrayal (Jn 14.30-31), he lets his disciples know that:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

Of course, some prefer to suppose Jesus was mistaken, that he in fact encountered on the Cross a horror he did not expect, namely, the realization that the Father had abandoned him, that the Father was not “with him” as he anticipated (Jn 16.31-33 above). Such a view has to assume Jesus is being described (after the fact, by John and others who believed in the resurrection) as having fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his own passion.

Jesus also makes the curious statement in v. 27:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

When is this true? Where is it true? How is it true? It’s true on the night of his betrayal when he utters these words, but will it be true for Jesus a few hours later as he hangs on the Cross? Here, I proposed, is an assurance Jesus leaves his disciples on the eve of his lynching, an interpretation on the Cross which we fail to connect to the Cross, or if we do make a connection it’s only to point out that the Cross is the one place where this assurance fails to define for Jesus the truth of his existence. We think this because we believe its failing to be true for him is the cost he must endure so it can be true for us.

Please take a fresh look this week. Approach the Cross this week from Jesus’ own perspective. Consider: What he promises on the eve of his crucifixion, his Cross actually demonstrates; that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he himself actually possesses and embodies as he is murdered, and that only if his own assurances are true for him then and there can they be true for us here and now.

You will leave me, but he won’t.
You feel abandoned, but I don’t.
You’ve heard it said “Cursed is he
who judged by us hangs on a tree.”
“Father, forgive!” is what I said.
You expect despair instead.
But the gospel there was writ by me
in the language of Our unity.
“But,” you ask, “What sort of diction
would utter cries of dereliction?”
“He hangs abandoned!” you surmise.
But I was ne’er alone — surprise!
Come closer then and take a look,
I got those words from your own Book!
I suffered what drives you insane,
drank it down, all the pain,
from inside it all to say,
“I am my Father’s anyway!”
Did you really think that Hell
would God’s defeat know how to spell?
Not in all eternity could conceivability
conjure up a way to severe
Son from Father. No, not ever.

A relevant post of my own that touches on this is The Cross: Substitution and Participation.

The evil of golf

golf2[G]olf is not in any meaningful sense a sport, and golfers are not in any meaningful sense athletes (that is why they almost never really have to retire). It is true that to play the game at the highest levels requires skills that few persons could hope to attain. But the difficulty inherent in any given activity is not an index of that activity’s value or creditability. Indeed, the more difficult an intrinsically worthless pursuit is, the more morally lamentable it becomes. If anything, the extraordinary effort required to master the game of golf is its most damning feature.

More importantly, though, golf is utterly “utterly” devoid of all the virtues of genuine sport. There is nothing daring, sudden, inspired, or splendid in the game. It is not a game of strategy, as are the best team sports (baseball supremely), except in the trivial sense that a golfer has to think about how to make each shot. Agility, speed, and strength are largely absent from the field; there are no moments of sublime physical artistry or fortuitous grace, no grand displays of heedless courage, no astonishing instances of the triumph of spirit over the limits of the flesh. Golf requires amazing physical precision, of course, but of so absolutely inconsequential a kind that it can scarcely be regarded as anything more than a laboriously acquired daintiness.

Moreover, unless one is cursed with a peculiarly morbid sensibility, and so can be excited by occasional changes of lead on the course, it is impossible to find any drama in the game: there are no great contests of will, no hopeless struggles, no breathtaking peripeties, no advances and retreats, no amazing or heartbreaking last acts. (“Oh, yes there are!” the querulous golf enthusiast will protest, but he can be silenced with a threatening glare.)

And, of course, whereas a professional sports franchise represents a local population, and is therefore an essential part of the fabric of community “a source of common aspiration, of festivity, of shared leisure, of fellowship in triumph and defeat, of celebration and mourning” a golfer represents only himself. And, quite unlike athletes in genuine individual sports, such as track and field, a golfer is engaged in a form of activity that does not test the limits of the body’s native powers or gloriously reveal the heights of perfection to which human movement can be brought, but only demonstrates how grotesquely hypertrophied a pathologically odd behavior can become when the person who suffers from it neglects just about everything else in life.

All of which is only to say “as if we needed to say it” that professional golf is essentially evil. I use the word here in its venerable Platonic and Christian metaphysical sense. If evil is, of its nature, a privation of the good “a steresis agathou or privatio boni” lacking any substance of its own, but subsisting solely as a kind of umbratilous negation of the real, then professional golf, by virtue of its complete lack of any of the good things proper to true sport, must be accounted the “ideal” embodiment of evil in matters athletic: it is the malum in athleticis , the perfect reverse image of all that is wholesome and ennobling in sport, the shadow produced when the light of the good is thwarted by the perversity of human will, an artifact of depraved desire. It is an absolute wickedness, and we must hate it absolutely.

David Bentley Hart (First Things, 2011)

Darkness reflected in the mirror

crosslight

It is not without some hesitation that I share my recent struggles. Don’t panic for me when you read this. I’m not crying out for help, and I’m in no danger – not any danger you aren’t in as well without knowing it. I want to try to make something of my journey available to others in a more personal, less 3rd person way. It’s easy to post the joyful moments, or to discuss the meaning of this or that doctrine or philosophical claim. It’s harder to climb up on the examination table and invite others to observe whatever sickness is working in you.

I have written a bit about the Void (here, here, and here). I’ll leave you to check those out if you wish. I don’t mean to sound like Morpheus, but the Void is everywhere. It’s all around you. It’s every place and occasion where we are confronted by the truth of our nothingness. Anyone can perceive it. It does not take an act of faith to see and experience it. It takes an act of faith to transcend it, and not everyone succeeds at transcending it. The Void is our absolute ontological poverty, and any experience can be an entry point into its realization.

Forgive me if I’m unable to narrate it for you, but in recent months the Void has been my new ‘internal’ address, its gaping maw beneath me like a spectral Dementor consuming every thought. The Void is existential bankruptcy, a foreclosure upon life’s promises from the inside out, where the difference between life and death is nominal and the two words name the same emptiness. I’ve been in dark places before, but always in sight of life’s light at the entrance of the cave, a light that illuminated the Void’s insides. The Void imposed itself from without. Now it emerged from within me. I want to call it a ‘presence’, but it’s more like the presence of absence, on the inside. Its depths immeasurable. Its appetite insatiable. Its silence absolute. The will to live evaporates.

Not long ago, unable to sleep, I rose and went to the living room sofa. I don’t how long I laid there praying the Jesus Prayer. Crying out Groping for a reason to wish the world’s continuing existence, or mine in it. Hours perhaps. But they were empty words without any apparent effect. I went between the Jesus Prayer and repeating “I know my Father loves me” over and over, just out of habit. I don’t know if I was dreaming or I was just awake but lost in the darkness of the experience. I was suspended in pure darkness, utterly alone. I was embodied but couldn’t make out my own limbs. All I did was repeat the Jesus Prayer.

At some point the faintest light appeared at a great distance. I gravitated toward it. As I approached it, it took the shape of the Cross. When I say it was a light, I don’t mean it emanated its own light. Its light was different. As I got up to it, I saw it was simply a mirror, a cross-shaped mirror. It had no thickness at all. It was pure surface, in the shape of the Cross. I could make out the darkness all around it still. But there the cross-shaped mirror remained in front of me. I couldn’t look behind it, and I couldn’t turn my back on it. As I turned to move in a different direction, it maintained its position in front of me.

More amazingly, it was a mirror that reflected where I was. When I looked at it I saw myself and my surroundings reflected. To look at it was not to look through it or into it. Rather, it was to see all else by means of it. All I saw in it was myself and my surroundings. “But how’s a mirror reflect anything in the dark? That’s not possible.” Obviously. Stand in front your bathroom mirror at night and turn the light now. You see nothing. This was like that, except with the lights out the mirror still reflected clearly, perceivably, all that was there. “I’m in complete darkness here. I can’t touch anything and I’m not touched by anything. There is nothing in this Void with me. So whence the reflection?” But as I looked at this mirror, my own reflection and the reflection of the entirety of the space I was in became clearly perceivable, and what I saw was a beautiful, sunny day. Blue skies above, the birds I visit every day in my backyard, my garden flowers, my favorite chair, and a healthy looking me, a contented me, staring back from the reflection. It was my reflection to be sure, not a vision of me somewhere else, for if I moved, or raised my right hand, or stepped back or forward – all my movements were perfectly reflected in the mirror. But none of the despair of life I felt was in my reflected face that I viewed. If I looked slightly left or right of the mirror – all was a consuming blackness. The only thing to see, and the only way to see it, was to stare at the cross-shaped mirror. There was no viewing the world around me directly. Things were only perceivable when perceived indirectly as reflected in the Cross. So the light that came from the Cross which I saw from a distance was the sunlight of my own surroundings reflected in the Cross. The Cross was just telling me what was there.

This is the opposite of how we typically view the Cross. We can easily imagine our surrounding world with us, nature, and other people all fully present as our lived experience. Then we plant the Cross over top this vision, and it’s the Cross in this context that is a black and ugly thing, a cross-shaped horror which, you might say, introduces the Void into the real world. In this case you can get a moment’s distraction from the horror of the Cross by looking away to the real world around. My experience in the Void through this night was the opposite. My body, and the whole world I was apparently in, were a horror of darkness, a consuming Void, on their own, and it was the Cross that brought the world to light and relation.

I apparently fell asleep or into a deeper sleep at this point and woke up in the morning.