Exiles rejoicing

Ezra 3.12: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.”

Israel is here returned from 70 years in exile. They’re rebuilding their lives, including their temple. Most of those present were born in exile, so any temple at all is a reason to rejoice. But some of those present were old enough to remember the former Temple, destroyed 70 years earlier, and all they see are reasons for weeping. Why? Because they recall the first Temple. Painful memories. Memories of past mistakes. Memories of taking the wrong way and suffering the consequences. Memories of missed opportunities. Regret over what might have been. To fall under the spell of such memories is to view even blessings as a cursed reminder of the past.

Another similar passage:

Haggai 2.3: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not appear to you like nothing in comparison?”

Why ask this? Because, as we know, some are weeping. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. “We’ll never recover what we had. Our mistakes have condemned us to a Plan B that will always trail behind Plan A. We’ll live the rest of our lives weighed down by the shame of our regret.”

Eventually the pain of regret comes to the surface not just for the older generation who were around to remember the former days, but also when Ezra gathers all the people in Jerusalem to hear the Scripture read aloud. What happens? Neh. 8:9b: “All the people were weeping while they heard the Scripture being read.” Why? Because they hear described God’s historical call to Israel, his promises to Israel, his gifts and blessings, the history of his faithfulness and provision, and they’re overwhelmed. Why? Because that has not been their experience. They sit and leaf through Israel’s older photo-albums of former times rich with blessing and peace, and they mourn its loss, if they’re old enough to remember, or its absence, if all they’ve known is exile.

So what’s God say to them about the regret and pain of past mistakes and missed opportunities? Two things:

1) Through Nehemiah (8.10) God says, “Don’t grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And when Israel hears the feast of tabernacles described in the public reading of Scripture, they confess, “What? We haven’t been celebrating this,” and they all gather palm branches and tree limbs and build humble, leaky, dirt floor dwellings to celebrate the Feast of Tents/Tabernacles. Nehemiah (8.17) says there was great rejoicing. Exiles rejoicing?

2) Through Haggai (2.9) God says: “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the glory of the former house.” The Temple was destroyed in judgment, and as it’s rebuilt, it becomes clear this will not be a return to the former Temple. God asks, “Those of you who remember the first Temple, what d’ya think?” And they just weep. But God encourages them, “Don’t cry. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the glory of the former house.” Understand it correctly. The former house was larger, more impressive, a top-shelf Temple, a true denominational HQ, red carpet and all. This latter house, however, is smaller, humbler, and far less impressive. And yet God promises the glory of this latter house will be greater than the glory of the former.

Your past failures cannot foreclose upon the goodness and glory God wishes to manifest in and through you. For the glory of the house doesn’t depend on the history of the house; it depends on who occupies the house. This latter house won’t look the same as the former house. It’s less impressive to outsiders, less accommodating, less fitted for headlines and conference. It gets no invites. Hosts no celebrities.

Your life may have taken a very different path than it would have taken, but you will cross the same finish line everybody else crosses and you’ll participate in the same transforming glory and goodness of God. It matters not what you are in; it matters what is in you. The glory is his, not the house’s, and it can flow in the fullness he desires from the rebuilt ruins and losses which exile inevitably brings.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Self-Knowledge is not fully possible for human beings. We do not reside in a body, a mind or a world where it is achievable or from the point of being interesting, even desirable. Half of what lies in the heart and mind is potentiality; resides in the darkness of the unspoken and unarticulated and has not yet come into being: this hidden unspoken half of a person will supplant and subvert any present understandings we have about ourselves.

Human beings are always, and always will be, a frontier between what is known and what is not known. The act of turning any part of the unknown into the known is simply ana invitation for an equal measure of the unknown to flow in and reestablish that frontier: to reassert that far horizon of an individual life; to make us what we are – that is – a moving edge between what we know about ourselves and what we are about to become. What are we actually about to become or are afraid of becoming always trumps and rules over what we think we are already.

The hope that a human being can achieve complete honesty and self-knowledge without regard to themselves is a fiction and a chimera, the jargon and goals of a corporate educational system brought to bear on the depths of an identity where the writ of organizing language does not run. Self-knowledge includes the understanding that the self we want to know is about to disappear. What we can understand is the way we occupy this frontier between the known and the unknown, the way we hold the conversation of life, the figure we cut at that edge, but a detailed audit of the self is not possible and diminishes us in the attempt to establish it; we are made on a grander scale, half afraid of ourselves, half in love with immensities beyond any name we can give.

Self-knowledge is often confused with transparency, but knowledge of the self always becomes the understanding of the self as a confluence; a flowing meeting of elements, including all the other innumerable selves in the world, not a set commodity to be unearthed and knocked into shape. Self-knowledge is not clarity or transparency or knowing how everything works, self-knowledge is a fiercely attentive form of humility and thankfulness, a sense of the privilege of a particular form of participation, coming to know the way we hold the conversation of life and perhaps, above all, the miracle that there is a particular something rather than an abstracted nothing and we are a very particular part of that particular something.

What we recognize and applaud as honesty and transparency in an individual is actually the humble demeanor of the apprentice, someone paying extreme attention, to themselves, to others, to life, to the next step, which they may survive or they may not; someone who does not have all the answers but who is attempting to learn what they can, about themselves and those with whom they share the journey, someone like everyone else, wondering what they and their society are about to turn into. We are neither what we think we are not entirely what we are about to become, we are neither purely individual nor fully a creature of our community, but an act of becoming that can never be held in place by a false form of nomenclature.

(David Whyte, Consolations)

Going down to hell alive

rebirthWherefore, because the soul is purified in this furnace like gold in a crucible…it is conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very structure, together with the direst poverty, as if it were nearing its end, as may be seen by that which David says of himself in this respect, in these words: “Save me, O God, for the waters are up to my neck. I have sunk into the miry depths, where there is no footing. I have drifted into deep waters, where the flood engulfs me. I am weary from my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes fail looking for my God.” (Ps 69.1-3) Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that he may afterwards greatly exalt it. And if he ordained not that when these feelings arise within the soul they should speedily be stilled, the soul would die in a very short space. But there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity…so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened…and in truth [the soul] goes down alive into hell, being purged here on earth in the same manner as there, since this purgation is that which would have to be accomplished there.

(St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Book 2, Ch. 6)

A face made of faces

Face1This morning, as I sat trying to practice silence, whispering just “I am,” in my mind’s eye I saw a mirror. It became the only mirror I have and in which I see myself daily – my bathroom mirror. I stood before it slowly saying “I am.” I saw one image – mine – but I heard two voices. God, the Great ‘I am’, seeing me see myself, and me seeing God see me (which is the only way anyone sees God). My “I am” inside of his, his present in mine.

Then my image in the mirror began to change. The ‘I’ gazing at the mirror didn’t change. That remained just me, as I am. Only my image in the mirror began to change, eventually becoming everyone, everywhere. All persons were my image. My reflection spun through every type of face – every gender, every race, every age from childhood to the very old, from the sick to the healthy, the happy and the sad, those comfortable and those suffering – every human being was in the image, or rather was my image.

As this reflection constantly transfigured between the faces of all persons, it nevertheless remained a single face, and the voice, though singular, was at the same time a cacophony of distinct voices all saying “I am” – a face made of faces, a voice comprising voices – in me, as me.

Having the strength of your weakness

What a year it’s been. How many have been forced to the brink against their best efforts? How many have been driven beyond the brink into the loss of all things? What losses have we not suffered – life, love, faith, provision, possessions, savings, health, dreams, plans? Earlier this summer I found myself in 2Corinthians thinking through how faith survives the pain and grief of radical loss. Here’s the gist.

1Cor 10.1-10 speaks of Israel’s wilderness ‘testing’, the challenges of wilderness life. Then Paul moves toward an application of Israel’s history to the life of Christians (vv. 11-13):

11 Now these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall. 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide an escape, so that you can stand up under it.

Some understand the “temptation” of v. 13 to refer to temptation to sin, perhaps temptation presented by the Devil (cf. Jesus’ wilderness temptations). More commonly, however, we are tempted by our own fallen nature and dispositions. Jam 1.14-15: “Each one is tempted when by his own desires he is lured away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.”

Viewed as ‘temptation to sin’, 1Cor 10 is understood as promising us that God will not permit such temptation to overwhelm us with the force of its lure or enticement. God will always provide a “way of escape,” a kind of exit ramp off the highway, a way to flee from the lure of sin’s enticement.

We are in fact tempted to sin in this sense, obviously. And God’s grace does empower us to say no to such temptation. And usually saying no involves escaping the circumstance or situation which is, for most of us, the occasion of temptation. But I wish to suggest here that 1Cor 10.13 is not primarily referring to ‘temptation’ in this sense, but to ‘trials’ (tests, difficulties, challenges, pressures) that we all inevitably face and which more often than not we cannot run away from or escape.

The Greek word peirosmos can describe either ‘temptation’ (in the ‘enticement to sin’ sense) or ‘trial’ (as an encounter with the challenges and difficulties one generally encounters in life). Take for example Jam 1.3: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you encounter peirosmoi [trials] of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” But later in the same chapter (v. 14), using the same word, he’s clearly talking about ‘temptation’ when he says “each one is tempted (peirazetai) when his own desires lure him away.”

This raises the interesting question about the relation between the two – ‘temptation to sin’ on the one hand and the ‘trials’ of life on the other. Every ‘test’ or ‘trial’, by virtue of being a ‘test’ at all, is an opportunity to sin (to fail the test). And ever allurement of our nature’s to sin is equally a ‘test’. However, here in 1Cor 13 Paul has primarily ‘test’ or ‘trial’ in mind, the inevitable difficulties and challenges of life that press in on us, and this is clear in other statements he makes. The point of v. 13 is better read as saying something like “When you are tried/tested, when life presses in, God will not abandon you, he will provide you ‘the escape’ [literally].” And now look at the final phrase which explains this ‘escape’: “so that you will be able to endure it.”

But wait a second? What kind of ‘escape’ is this? I don’t want to ‘endure’. I want to ‘escape it’. But Paul explicitly says the ‘escape’ God provides (God’s not allowing us to be overwhelmed) is ‘a way to endure’. And this figures in later in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians when he talks about God’s having permitted a “messenger of Satan” to remain a “thorn in [his] flesh” so that God’s grace would be all the more manifest in his life. To ‘escape’ here is to ‘endure’.

I’m sharing this because many Christians assume God’s grace will always provide a means of escape or relief from life’s trials/tests, and end to our trial. But in v. 13 the escape doesn’t alleviate the pressure or pain at all. It rather sustains us in/under the pressure. We endure the trial.

This comes out beautifully in 2Cor 4.7-10:

7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. 8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

The thought is anticipated in Pauls’ opening to the same letter, 2Cor 1.8-9:

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

Let’s look then at the different perspectives between 1Cor 10 and 2Cor 1.

  • 1Cor 10.13 – God does not allow us to be “tried” (peirosmos) “beyond our ability” (hyper ho dunasthe).
  • 2Cor 1.9 – God does allow Paul and company be tried (peirosmos) “beyond their ability” (hyper ho dunamin).

Harmonize away if you feel compelled. I don’t. In the latter (2Cor) passage God allows Paul and company to be tried beyond their ability precisely because it is when our abilities are exhausted that we are broken open to the grace of God. Compare the two. What is ‘endured’ in 1Cor 10 becomes in 2Cor 1 the ‘despairing of life so God can raise us from the dead’. Something far more radical has provoked Paul’s reflections in 2Cor 1, something not in view in 1Cor.

I suggest that Paul’s experience in Asia (2Cor 1) deeply broke him and took his understanding of grace and human effort to a genuinely new level not reflected in 1Cor. And rather than attempting to harmonize 1Cor 10 and 2Cor 1 as describing the same experience from two different perspectives, I understand Paul as amending his earlier view. The Paul of 2Cor would not express himself in terms of 1Cor 10.13’s “God will not allow you to be overwhelmed.” On the contrary, God will certainly (2Cor 1.9) allow life to overwhelm you.

The “escape in order to endure” of 1Cor 10 comes in 2Cor 1 to involve “despairing of life in order to be raised from the dead.” That’s a fairly radical reassessment. In 1Cor 10 we are assured God won’t let us be overwhelmed while in 2Cor 1 we have God certainly allowing Paul and company to be overwhelmed. Why? Because such suffering is where we end and God begins, where we expire and God inspires. God raises us to living utterly in and from his grace, and only extreme suffering can realize such a perspective in one’s faith and life.

The Paul who wrote 2Cor 1 is a different Paul than the Paul who wrote 1Cor 10. 2Cor doesn’t contradict 1Cor 10 as much as it reflects a deeper experience of grace on Paul’s part, an experience that could not have informed 1Cor but does inform and shape 2Cor 1, as Paul himself confesses. In 2Cor 1 we have a new understanding of the depth of the brokenness required for the full extent of God’s grace to shine in and through us at the very lowest and darkest of circumstances. (See Psalm 46 as well.)

“On Being White…and Other Lies”

 

Baldwin1

THE CRISIS OF LEADERSHIP in the white community is remarkable—and terrifying—because there is, in fact, no white community.

This may seem an enormous statement—and it is. I’m willing to be challenged. I’m also willing to attempt to spell it out.

My frame of reference is, of course, America, or that portion of the North American continent that calls itself America. And this means I am speaking, essentially, of the European vision of the world—or more precisely, perhaps, the European vision of the universe. It is a vision as remarkable for what it pretends to include as for what it remorselessly diminishes, demolishes, or leaves totally out of account.

There is, for example—at least, in principle—an Irish community: here, there, anywhere; or, more precisely, Belfast, Dublin, and Boston. There is a German community: both sides of Berlin, Bavaria, and Yorkville. There is an Italian community: Rome, Naples, the Bank of the Holy Ghost, and Mulberry Street. And there is a Jewish community, stretching from Jerusalem to California to New York. There are English communities. There are French communities. There are Swiss consortiums. There are Poles: in Warsaw (where they would like us to be friends) and in Chicago (where because they are white we are enemies). There are, for that matter, Indian restaurants, and Turkish baths. There is the underworld—the poor (to say nothing of those who intend to become rich) are always with us—but this does not describe a community. It bears terrifying witness to what happened to everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket. The price was to become “white.” No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.

It is probable that it is the Jewish community—or, more accurately perhaps, its remnants—that in America has paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white. For the Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here, in part, because they were not white; and incontestably—in the eyes of the black American (and not only in those eyes)—American Jews have opted to become white; and this is how they operate. It was ironical to hear, for example, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin declare some time ago that “the Jewish people bow only to God” while knowing that the state of Israel is sustained by a blank check from Washington. Without further pursuing the implication of this mutual act of faith, one is nevertheless aware that the Jewish translation into a white American can sustain the state of Israel in a way that the black presence here can scarcely hope—at least not yet—to halt the slaughter in South Africa.

And there is a reason for that.

America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men—from Norway, for example, where they were “Norwegians”—became white by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping black women.

This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all—privately or publicly. The multitudinous bulk of them sit, stunned, before their TV sets, swallowing garbage that they know to be garbage, and—in a profound and unconscious effort to justify this torpor that disguises a profound and bitter panic—pay a vast amount of attention to athletics, even though they know that the football player (the Son of the Republic, their son!) is merely another aspect of the moneymaking scheme. They are either relieved or embittered by the presence of the black boy on the team. I do not know if they remember how long and hard they fought to keep him off it. I know that they do not dare have any notion of the price black people (mothers and fathers) paid and pay. They do not want to know the meaning, or face the shame, of what they compelled—out of what they took as the necessity of being white—Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson or Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) to pay. I know that they themselves would not have liked to pay it.

There has never been a labor movement in this country, the proof being the absence of a black presence in the so-called father-to-son unions. There are, perhaps, some niggers in the window; but blacks have no power in labor unions.

Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre. I will not name names—I will leave that to you.

But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen. And how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading themselves that a black child’s life meant nothing compared with a white child’s life. By abandoning their children to the things white men could buy. By informing their children that black women, black men, and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.

And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable population, cheerful natives, and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.

However—! White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people), the crisis of leadership for those of us whose identity has been forged, or branded, as black is nothing new. We—who were not black before we got here, either, who were defined as black by the slave trade—have paid for the crisis of leadership in the white community for a very long time and have resoundingly, even when we face the worst about ourselves, survived and triumphed over it. If we had not survived, and triumphed, there would not be a black American alive.

And the fact that we are still here—even in suffering, darkness, danger, endlessly defined by those who do not dare define, or even confront, themselves—is the key to the crisis in white leadership. The past informs us of various kinds of people—criminals, adventurers, and saints, to say nothing, of course, of Popes—but it is the black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people. It is a terrible paradox, but those who believed that they could control and define black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.

(James Baldwin, 1984 – Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

New Covenant: new law, new priest, new sacrifice

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It’s been nine months since my last confession. I apologize for the absence.

I’d like to pass along some reflections regarding the NT letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews has been the grounds for a certain argument in favor of a substitutionary understanding of Christ’s death about which I’ve found myself recently in conversation.

How are we to read Hebrews?

If you’ve been an evangelical very long (as I have), you were probably raised on a substitutionary (perhaps penal-substitutionary) understanding of the Cross, and Hebrews was Exhibit A in defense of such a view. Hebrews, according to this reading, was a systematic interpretation of a Levitical understanding of the Cross, a reading of the Cross in the values and terms and logic of Israel’s sacrificial economy. Christ was this system’s final and perfect instantiation of this economy of sacrifice, its success, because it finally brought its logic to bear upon the right offering. Thus Israel’s sacrificial economy, established by God, finally ended because in Christ it finally succeeded. It was a fairly simple matter of mapping Jesus’ death onto Israel’s sacrificial system, particularly its logic of exchange, to arrive at an understanding of how the Cross is able to bring God and humanity together. See in this light, Jesus is the perfection of the kind of sacrificial exchange which is the OT/Aaronic sacrificial system established by Mosaic law.

This is no longer how I read Hebrews. Contrary to the substitutionary view, let me suggest (with others, I’m not inventing this) that the Cross is not Israel’s sacrificial system finally working because it finally gets a sacrifice (Jesus) that makes it work, confirming its design and logic of exchange. On the contrary, the Cross is where and how that system finally failed and where it is rejected by God.

How then do we read Hebrews as a repudiation of the standard substitutionary view? And if Christ’s death is such a repudiation, how are we to understand his death and our need for it?

The relevant material is Chs. 7-10. Note the following:

1. The Contrasts. A substitutionary view of Christ’s death understands Hebrews to be interpreting his death in light of a fundamental comparison between the OT sacrificial system and Christ. That is, by virtue of the fundamental similarity between the two, Jesus is viewed as that system’s chief instantiation, the perfection and fulfillment to its logic of exchange (forgiveness and acceptance for suffering and death).

But when read carefully, I suggest, we see that the author’s apologetic proceeds not upon a comparison between Jesus and the OT sacrificial system, but upon fundamental contrasts, not upon on a similarity that binds them together and which understands Christ’s death as an instantiation of the Levitical kind, but upon a dissimilarity that makes it impossible to interpret Jesus’ death according to the values, logic, and terms of Israel’s sacrificial economy. It is in the essential contrasts which Hebrews makes where we see the contradiction between the values and logic of each.

sac31.a Contrast of Origins. The logic of the OT sacrificial system requires (7.12) that priests be of the tribe of Levi. Hebrews contrasts Jesus with this, for Jesus is of the tribe of Judah (7.11-14), not Levi. Note the dissimilarity. Jesus does not even qualify for priestly service (7.5, 11) according to the Mosaic law which maintains the integrity of Israel’s sacrificial system.

1.b Contrast of Priestly Order. It was Ch. 7 that first suggested to me a real disjunct (contrast) at the heart of the relationship between OT sacrificial economy and how we are to understand Christ’s death. Not only is Jesus not born of the tribe of Judah (7.14), but his priesthood (his service to God and humanity) is after the order of Melchizedek (Ch. 7). He performs an altogether different service. Jesus is not a member of Israel’s priestly cast, and his death not a species of “Levitical sacrifice.” He is its contradiction.

As ‘high priest’ (in identification with and representation of us) Jesus is not doing the same thing Israel’s high priests do but doing it perfectly, efficaciously. As a priest after the order of Melchizedek (7.11-28), Jesus is doing something entirely different, something not located within Israel’s Levitical logic. His is a new priesthood of a different order.

1.c Contrast in Legal/Covenantal Grounds. The “law” (7.12) defines the terms of relation and exchange, consequence, forgiveness (9.22), a way of relating to God. For “when there is a change of the priesthood there has to be a change of the law” (7.12). Jesus’s priestly act (via his life, death, resurrection, and present intercession) is thus not exemplary of the established Levitical regulation. He embodies an entirely different approach to God enacted within an altogether different law. In contrast to an Aaronic mediation of death and blood, Christ’s ‘Melchizedekian’ service mediates “on the basis of an indestructible life” (7.16). That is its logic, its law. Jesus’ death does not confirm Israel’s sacrificial logic/law (7.12). He is where that logic finally fails, and a new and living way, a new priesthood (mode of representation) established upon a “new law” (terms of relation, exchange, consequence, forgiveness, etc.) is revealed. Christ is thus where and how “the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless” (7.18) and “a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God.”

How much clearer could the fundamental contrast be? The crucifixion is what the Mosaic/Aaronic sacrificial systems does to the new covenant’s “new and living way.” The Cross is where two diametrically opposed orders of sacrifice meet. Israel’s entire economy of sacrifice (its priesthood, its legal/contractual grounds, its terms and logic) is “useless” (v. 18), not useless until it finds in Christ a kind of victim whose blood will make it useful. Rather, he once and for all exposes Israel’s economy of sacrifice to be inherently useless. “If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (8.7). This is not the sort of language one employs if one wishes to say that Jesus’ death is the embodied perfection of the logic that defines Israel’s sacrificial economy.

1.d Contrast in Kind/Mode of Sacrifice (i.e., ‘Blood’). Why should Jesus’ death/blood be necessary at all if it was not a sacrifice of the Aaronic order of relations? Doesn’t blood (i.e., death) as such entail something like a penal-substitution? Why else would Jesus’ life of loving surrender to God culminate in so violent a sacrifice of his life? Two answers come to mind:

1.d.1 First, the contrasts thus far establish the need for Christ’s violent death. This is not to somehow condone the logic of Israel’s sacrificial order. Nor does it contradict the fact that Christ’s priestly service is based on the power of an “indestructible life” (7.16). Rather, the contrasts, which are real, must be revealed. The first covenant, with its sacrificial logic (“weak and useless” as it was, 7.18) required explicit defeat of its terms, and defeat of its terms meant defeat in its terms. Thus, Israel’s weak and useless system must exhaust itself in its own ideal terms and circumstances. It must scapegoat and offer to God a truly (infinitely) innocent victim, on behalf of the very survival of the nation (Jn. 11.51), thus operating at its best, under ideal conditions, and according to its quintessential logic. Only in such an event could its failure be made plain and the whole system “set aside” (10.9). This is precisely what we find in the Cross (Col 2.13-15).

Christ’s resurrection is thus to be viewed the same way, as God’s verdict upon a Levitical understanding of Christ’s death. How so? Because Israel’s offering is rejected. God gives back to the world its sacrifice. He rejects the blood that Israel’s sacrificial economy required. To be sure, a sacrifice acceptable to God is made by Jesus, but it is a sacrifice of an entirely different order, the loving surrender to God of his whole life, sharing our humanity and our experience of death. What Israel does on the Cross is thus not what God is doing there – as the Resurrection reveals. The Cross is what Israel’s sacrificial economy does to the (loving/peaceful) sacrifice Jesus makes of his whole life to God in identifying with our condition. Identification, not substitution, is the logic of atonement.

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1.d.2 Second, 9:16-28 relates the necessity of blood (9.16) in the enforcing of a “will.” Notice that talk of ‘wills’ places us within the domain of civil, not criminal, law. That is, blood here is not the satisfying of any punitive demands of the law. On the contrary, it has in view only the terms in which humanity can be effectually comprehended within the promises of God – promises that extend unending life to those embraced by its terms. That comprehension must involve Christ’s death, his blood, but not the blood which Israel’s sacrificial system requires. Rather, it is the death which is our “shared humanity,” in order to “become an effectual high priest” of a new and living way. Death as such must be negotiated to ratify the new covenant ‘will’ in the mortal experience of those governed by that new will. Mortality and death are the terms in which Christ must introduce the ‘new law’ of a ‘new covenant’ that grants us indestructible life. Ch. 2.14-15 makes this clear: “He shares their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The blood Jesus must shed to establish our destiny under the new covenant is thus not the blood which Israel’s economy of sacrifice demands. Rather, it is the blood that represents humanity’s futility, its mortality, death itself, the “fear of which enslaves” human beings (2.15). Notice there is nothing peculiar in 2.14 about tabernacle, altar, or sin offerings per se. In 2.14-17a Christ is to free us from our fear of death, and of course ultimately death itself. He does this by (2.9) by “tasting death for everyone” (that is, by dying). When 2.17b introduces “making atonement for the sins of the people,” this atoning work follows, and is followed by, no mention of tabernacle or altar. Rather, atonement appears within the whole scope of Jesus’ incarnate career. He atones (here in Ch. 2) by being made like us, by being tempted like us, and by suffering like us. Suffering what precisely? Here it is not the crucifixion, but rather “being tempted,” i.e., suffering the conditions of a mortal human existence, including death. The “because” linking v. 17 and 18 is interesting: “…that he might make atonement for the sins of the people…because he himself suffered when he was tempted….” Wouldn’t we expect “because he suffered when he was crucified” as a description of suffering that atones and reconciles? How does Jesus suffering the common lot of human temptation define the “atoning” work of Christ as high priest (17b)? And consider, high priests are not ‘substitutes’, they are ‘representatives by virtue of a shared nature.’ Christ’s lived sufferings (which of course extends to the end of his life in a violent death), under the conditions of (“because” of) our shared humanity – these all together constitute the ‘blood’ (viz., the life of Jesus in its total surrender under the violent conditions of the world he came to reconcile) of Ch 9.16-28, the blood of the new covenant, united by Christ to God himself (the heavenly realities of 9.23-24). It is the blood of the “new covenant” after all. The blood of penal-substitution is precisely not this, but is instead the same blood of the old (weak/useless) covenant.

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2. Use of OT Prophetic Critique. Note the use of key OT passages critical of blood sacrifice. This critique is widespread in the Prophets, including a repeated emphasis 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 his concern. Several passages make this clear:

  • 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.”
  • Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial system had its origin in divine command at all (7.21-22): “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Emphasis mine)

One could go on. Take Heb 10.8:

  • “First he said, ‘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.”

Notice the tension here. Burnt offerings and sin offerings were offered “in accordance with the law.” Thus, Mosaic legislation establishes the integrity of the sacrificial system. Presumably God wanted and ordained blood sacrifice. This would need to be the case if Christ’s death is to be understood as the perfection of that system’s sacrificial logic. On the other hand, we’re told God “did not desire” this system and “was not pleased” with its offerings. Note Jeremiah’s stunning declaration (Jer. 7.21-22) that God never in fact commanded or instructed Israel to institute blood sacrifice. It wasn’t his idea.

What sense are we to make of this? Did God or did God not institute blood sacrifice to ‘set the stage’ for the greatest blood sacrifice of all? My answer will not please everybody. I suggest that God worked with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require such sacrifice. Consider Israel’s demand for a king, which God took to be a rejection of him. God went with it, even incorporated Israel’s monarchy into their prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. At best, God tolerated it.

Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never wanted or endorsed this (Mt 19.8). God only tolerated it because of Israel’s hard heartedness. We mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggestive of his endorsement of those positions.

sac5I suggest we view Israel’s entire system of blood sacrifice this same way – as something Israel insisted upon but which God tolerated. It’s difficult to imagine God commanding Israel’s blood sacrifice as such when you consider that blood sacrifice is older than Israel and was the common mode of worship for all Israel’s pagan neighbors. We should view OT regulation of blood sacrifice as God managing for the best what Israel was intent upon but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for providing us terms of similarity upon which to map our understanding of Christ’s death.

Back to Heb 10. Consider vv. 5-6:

  • “Therefore when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me’….”

The mention of “a body you have prepared for me” might suggest that Jesus is being identified as a sacrifice of the Levitical order. But this is impossible. It asks us to imagine God not being pleased with sacrifice and offering but being pleased with making Christ just such a sacrifice. 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 must go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to him. See 1.d.1 above. How can God get it across to Israel that he is not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer: By submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to that sacrificial economy – antithetical to him in every way – letting it exhaust all its resources upon him, and then rising from its death as a rejection of it, exposing once and for all its failure and impotence.

Space won’t allow me to explore at length Israel’s Second Temple mystical apocalyptic tradition of a heavenly court as a possible context for Heb 9, where spiritual realities and transactions are mirrored in earthly rituals. One should examine how this argument functions. All the instruments of the earthly tabernacle have heavenly counterparts where Jesus presented his blood in God’s presence. I can see how the language of ‘shadow/substance’ and ‘heavenly copies’ lends itself to seeing the relationship between the two in strongly similar terms, so the challenge is to read this language as mapping essential differences, for however one takes the language, it cannot contradict the contrasts which the letter makes in explicit terms.

It’s not as though there are zero similarities though. The author is after all bringing Jesus’ death into conversation with Israel’s law and priesthood, not with the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities. There has to be some shared context, some genealogical connection. But this is not difficult to see, given Christ’s place within Israel’s history. Also, the relevant terms obtain on both sides: ‘priesthood’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘law’. And both attempt to bring worshippers near to God. And yet priesthood, sacrifice, and law are not the same in each, hence the irreconcilable contrasts.

I hope we have enough here to disenchant those who view Christ’s death as the perfection of the sacrificial logic operative in Israel’s sacrificial economy and reason enough for them to leave the substitutionary reading behind.

Divine freedom

art

Forgive the infrequency of my posts. For me blogging is like the tide – it swells up and down under the force of issues that bring their urgency to bear upon me at a regularity I can’t make out. But here I am.

The most vexing theological question I’ve been confronting for some time now is the question of divine freedom relative to Creation. As I dance around it, its different aspects come out to greet me, but I can’t resolve them into a contradiction-free view. I know the options on offer but am not completely happy with any of them.

On the one hand:

• God creates ex nihilo (out of nothing) and so freely and unnecessarily.
• This has to at least mean that God’s triune fullness (God as infinite love and beatitude) is not achieved in or through his determination to create, for per ex nihilo the determination to create expresses that triune beatitude; it cannot also constitute it. So it cannot be that the determination to create is co-terminous with the begetting of the Son (as John Milbank recently tweeted) if that means the Father begets the Son ‘with a view to’ creating. This would effectively write the determination to create into the Triune relations in and as their content and telos, as sharing in the content of that act by which God is the God he is. (McCormack and Jenson are already here; God determines himself as Trinity in and via the determination to creation. I’m unable to say this, for it obviously denies creation ex nihilo and the triune plentitude implied therein.)

On the other hand:

• The logoi (God’s creative intentions for the world) of the Word/Logos/Son are uncreated and abide essentially in the Word. This constitutes for me the vexing question regarding divine freedom. For though the determination to create as free and unnecessary does not define the begetting of the Son (and I don’t see how it can), the logoi (which are the very possibility of creation) do have their shape and form in that begetting. If we say creation ex nihilo means the divine logoi may abide unrealized/unactualized in the creation they envision, what’s that really mean? The possibilities of creation define the Word within the scope of his begotten filial identity, but the fullness and beatitude of that identity is indifferent to the realization of these logoi?

You may see the problem. And I’m not uploading unsavory assumptions about some temporal before and after here. Let’s leave that aside for now. We need only contemplate the relationship in God between his triune fullness and his free determination to creation.

Enter divine teleology. What is the ‘end’ of these logoi if not Creation? But if they’re realized freely and unnecessarily, what can their realization in creation be unnecessary to but God’s own triune fullness and beatitude? I wonder if we may imagine the ‘end’ for which the logoi subsist as fulfilled ad intra. After all, we say the end/purpose of all things is God. If Creation is unnecessary, then its very possibility in God has to have God, always and already, as its satisfaction. This may seem strange, but what about any of this isn’t? It would mean the logoi are fulfilled in the Word, as the Word, as possibilities, but the possibility they represent for us is in God a fulfilled end, and that the Word as begotten is that end fulfilled.

In any event, I can’t imagine the divine fullness (or my own salvation in Christ) apart from creation ex nihilo, but I also find it increasingly difficult to imagine the generation of creative potentialities (logoi) in the Son that logically entail nothing whatsoever about God’s determination to create, as if the fullness that begets the logoi is indifferent to their actualization as creation – and yet they must be so. (I’m not entirely satisfied with this, but McCormack and Jenson only exacerbate the problem.)

All I can think to say is that in begetting the Son, the Father constitutes himself as an infinite disposition for creative self-expression ad extra and that this just is God’s freedom, not a reflection of it, but that freedom itself, and that as freedom it must be the case that creating is unnecessary to it, but that as teleological it must be the case that every creative act realizes ends constitutive of it. Hence, God creates freely/unnecessarily in the sense that the ‘end’ for which he acts expresses rather than realizes his own plentitude. Whichever aspect we confess, we confess a mystery and paradox.

Divine Location

For my friend Al Kimel, inspired by his lack of interest in Bulgakov.

Dr. Kimel’s in the house, rhymin’ on toppa Classical,
Ain’t no fugitive runnin’ scared, but he ain’t too elastical,
But at’s OK cause his heart is seekin’ the right place to go,
Passionate bout the glory of the Master’s face. You know,
Al is all about Dionysius and his apophatic trill,
Ain’t got no analytic use, but it’s existential skill,
Transcendence all up in yo face, got no place to hide,
Can’t reduce it to a syllogism, but we gonna let that slide
Cause the heart is made for more than logical notation,
Desire’s final end? The divine location.

O Anchoress

norwhichI stumbled into Malcome Guite’s site and am loving his sonnets. This one, written for Julian of Norwhich (on the occasion of her feast last month, May 8), first drew me in:

Show me O Anchoress, your anchor-hold
Deep in the love of God, and hold me fast.
Show me again in whose hands we are held,
Speak to me from your window in the past,
Tell me again the tale of Love’s compassion
For all of us who fall onto the mire,
How he is wounded with us, how his passion
Quickens the love that haunted our desire.
Show me again the wonder of at-one-ment
Of Christ-in-us distinct and yet the same,
Who makes, and loves, and keeps us in each moment,
And looks on us with pity not with blame.
Keep telling me, for all my faith may waver,
Love is his meaning, only love, forever.