Saved by joy

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Sometimes questions arise that enable us to see the meaning of theological claims with practical clarity. I’ve always sought to pursue this practical-existential side of things, believing that the meaning of our claims is, in the end, just the difference they make to how we appropriate their truth in all the transforming ways that we give the name “salvation” to. It was this level of appropriation or integration which, if I’m not mistaken, most informed the early Christological debates that produced the Nicene and following ecumenical expressions of faith. How does this or that theological claim (whether it’s made by Arius, or Nestorius, or Barth, Moltmann, Boyd or whomever) explain, inform, and empower the particular experience of worship and personal transformation in Christ which the early generations of believers gave the name ‘the Faith’ to? This is at least one level, an existential stage, upon which we can put theological claims to the test.

Greg earlier asked me in the comments section of a recent post, what I made of of 1Cor 5:21 (God made him who knew no sin to “be sin” for us) and Gal 3.13 (Christ “became our curse”). Greg takes these as evidence of a particular understanding of atonement (i.e., what actually is happening in the Cross and how it does the saving work of freeing and transforming us). The logic behind such a view is a certain entailment between choice and consequence. As Greg argues it, Jesus has to experience the “death consequences” of our sinful choices (which consequences are the despair of godforsakenness). These consequences must be experienced because they’re “intrinsic” to the sinful choices we make. But it makes little sense to say that experiencing the existential despair of godforsakenness is “intrinsic” to my choices and argue that someone other than me can experience those consequences on my behalf.

kafka_comic_400On the contrary, if the consequence of existential despair is “intrinsic” to one’s choices (and I agree it is), it has to be experienced by the subject of those choices, not an innocent, scapegoated subject. This is where Greg’s view of atonement shows the essential penal weave to the fabric of its logic. Against this logic it should be acknowledged that those who sin already know the despair their choices result in, for no choosing of one’s way through life outside one’s truest identity in Christ is going to result in anything but despair. So the consequences that are intrinsic to our choices are invariably experienced – by us who make those choices. As Kierkegaard said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are” (in Christ). One is saved, then, from the “death consequences” of his sinful choices by making different choices, but there’s no saving merit in someone who knows who he truly is (i.e., Christ) suffering the despair of being confused about who he is – as if that’s going to restore us who don’t know who we are to our truest identity in Christ. On the contrary, Christ shows us who we are by enjoying who he is on the inside of the pain, rejection, and violence we fabricate false identities to deal with. Christ saves us from the despair of not knowing who we are as loved by God in a fallen world by himself becoming who we are meant to be, loved by God, in that fallen world. That – not the tragic passibilism of a shattered divine consciousness – unlocks the door.

As I earlier suggested, Christ’s “being made sin by God” (1Cor 5.21) can hardly be thought to represent any transformation of God the Son into sin substantially, since sin is not a quantifiable ‘stuff’ that can move from the guilty to the innocent. We ought to understand this, rather, as Christ’s having stepped into our scapegoating violence. Christ is “made sin by God” in the sense that God turns Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms in which we identify the innocent victim with our sin. Gal 3.13 makes the same claim. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God.

What’s this have to do with the practical-existential challenge of integrating particular beliefs and models into our lives in transforming and saving ways? Some (Greg included, as he’s made clear) struggle with integrating into their lives in saving and transforming ways any vision of God that doesn’t have God giving up his happiness (beatitude) by identifying with our particular despair. Knowing this comforts and frees an enslaved mind. 1Cor 5 and Gal 3 represent for Greg the Pauline perspective on the divine abandonment to godforsakenness that frees and heals us. But as I’ve been laying out in this and other recent posts, the logic doesn’t work.

How might this older, more traditional understanding of the Cross be appropriated practically-existentially? The short version is – we’re saved from sin and death by God’s life manifest in resurrection and from despair by God’ abiding beatitude. I can only describe it in terms of being on one side and then the other of the truth of our created finitude, testified to consistently by the experience of generations of Christian believers and ascetics.

First – stepping into the Void on its created side as embracing the truth of finitude. There’s no final perfection of our happiness and truest identity that is not cognizant of the truth that we are created, and that the truth of being created is the truth of finitude, of our nothingness apart from God’s gracious creative act. We are painted into being. And this is experienced on the front end as an experience of the Void. Apart from an experience of our created finitude in terms of the Void, we can only continue attempting to establish a meaning and significance for ourselves that is over-and-against God and not a participation of finitude in the undiminished infinite beauty, goodness, and truth that God is. If we balk and complain about being nothing and want our existential healing to be purchased at the expense of God’s own existential fullness and not convertible with that fullness, we are only refusing to come to terms with the truth of our finitude.

Second – stepping through the Void on its divine side as participating in God’s life. The first step through the void of one’s finitude and nothingness into personal existence on the other side is a step into a life of participation. When you no longer view your existence as a product of your own, you also realize you can’t view your own meaning and significance as your own accomplishment. You see, too, that meaning and value are, like being itself, God-given, and enjoyed through participation in God’s life, and you’re OK with this. In fact, you celebrate it because it opens up vistas of existential fullness.

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If the first existential moment is “I am nothing,” the second is “I, not I, but Christ am everything.” Here “I, not I, but Christ” (having become a single, indivisible substantive) replaces “I.” There is no longer any “I” that can be spoken without speaking “Christ.” Descartes’ “I” doesn’t survive the Void. It gets crushed under the weight of creation contemplated independently, seeking first to establish itself as free, and only then to relate itself to God.

God is the only value, meaning, and personal identity on the other side of the Void. The diversity of created values and beauties exist, truly exist, as participations in God, the highest value and truest good. What do I mean by participation? I mean the asymmetrical relational unity of the true ‘Cry’ (not that of abandonment, but that of Sonship: Rom 8.15). We are given, via the Spirit, the Son’s very own cry of filial identity: “Abba, Father.” Because one is ‘given’ it and possesses it as a son/daughter “in the Son,” one participates in it. This is where one experiences – not studies, not agrees to the truth of, but becomes an embodiment of “all things are ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ God” (Rom 11.36). The flip side of this truth is that God is ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ nothing.

The bad news is there is no “cross” on the divine side of the Void, within the fullness of the divine life that becomes our life – no scapegoating violence manufacturing even a moment of negation within its infinitude, no privation of the true, the good and the beautiful, no falsifying abandonment or forsakenness to darken the divine consciousness. There is most certainly a kenotic giving-and-receiving of all one is to the other, but this is God’s delight and beatitude. The good news is that this is true in the darkest of circumstances and upon every cross.

The beatitude of sacrifice

“Th5179290237_63633e1bd7_bis, then, is the sacrifice of Christ – this is its infinite extravagance and its essential peace. The saving exchange that occurs for us in the incarnate Word is perfectly expressed for Cyril in John 20:17, when the risen Christ says, “I am going to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God”: for here we see how the Son’s Father by nature has become our Father by grace, precisely because our God by nature has become his God through condescension. Indeed, for Cyril, whenever Christ calls upon his Father as “my God,” He does so on our behalf and in our place: especially in the cry of dereliction from the cross. And this is our salvation: for when the infinite outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit, enters our reality, the apatheia of God’s eternal dynamic and replete life of love consumes every pathos in its ardor; even the ultimate extreme of the kenosis of the Son in time – crucifixion – is embraced within and overcome by the everlasting kenosis of the divine life.  Because divine apatheia is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God – sin, ignorance, death itself – is always already exceeded in him: God has always one infinite further in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this trinitarian impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot change or suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound – indeed, bear it more fully than any other could, in absolute depth – not as wrath or defeat but as an act of saving love: as Easter. And while God’s everlasting outpouring, which is for him a life of infinite joy, in assuming the intervals of our estrangement from God, appears for us now under the form of tragic pain and loss, the joy is the original and ultimate truth of who he is, is boundless, and cannot be interrupted – and so conquers all our sorrow; he is already higher than the vaulted heavens of the gods and lower than the most abysmal depths of hell – as bliss, as love; our abandonment of God, and the abandonment of the Son and of every soul in death, is always already surpassed by the sheer abandon which the Father begets the and breathes forth his being. And the terrible distance of Christ’s cry of human dereliction, despair, and utter godforsakenness – “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” – is enfolded within and overcome by the ever greater distance and always indissoluble unity of God’s triune love: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

– David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite)

As I thought about this passage, about the way God’s trinitarian beatitude cannot be divided or estranged from itself in the triune act of God’s self-knowing and love, I thought of fractals – the whole in every part – every part the whole. It’s impossible to fragment a fractal, to disrupt its infinitude. If you break off a piece, the whole is present in it. Even if the contentment of the divine identity is subjected to the horrors of human crucifixion, even in this apparently fragmented moment, the whole truth, beauty and goodness of God are fully present.

Zosia did you know?

cfdcb44dd87bd90b4e1db36fc5226663Reading through Greg’s CWG got me into Greg’s stuff again, and I ran across this quote from a podcast (May, 2013) of his. Consider:

“I seriously believe that if you caught one momentary glimpse of how much God loves you and the delight he has over you, every burden you carry, every grief you bear, would instantaneously be dissipated and be vanquished forever. And you would be filled with a lightness and a joy and a peace that passes all understanding. Just a glimpse. Lord, give us a glimpse of what is true.”

Greg recognizes the effect upon us (in our grief and suffering) of the vision of the depth and undying nature of God’s love and delight. A mere glimpse of it would “instantly vanquish” our pain forever.

We couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to ask Greg to expound on this a bit. Truth is, I’d love to see him write a book on just this. I say this because having finished CWG recently, it doesn’t seem to me that he consistently believes what he says in his podcast. For example, when is it true of our suffering and pain that were we to perceive a glimpse of God’s truest delight, our pain would be vanquished forever? It has to be true of God and of us as we suffer. And for whom is it true? These questions lead to conclusions very different from those Greg reaches in CWG.

We completely agree with Greg’s podcast comment, of course. It’s essentially what Paul describes in Rom 8, that experience of God’s glory-beauty that is so immeasurable and defining of our experience that suffering and pain become comparatively meaningless. I previously commented:

In Romans 8.18 Paul writes that “no present sufferings are worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” the glory that will thoroughly define us when our embodied selves are properly glorified by the beatific vision, the vision of God’s glory. What surprises are in this passage. How is it that our experience of God’s glory will render all conceivable suffering incomparably beside the point, not even worthy of being compared to the experience of God? Is God really that beautiful? Is the beatific vision really that defining?

If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours by virtue of this vision, what does this say about the God who always perceives his own beauty, about the very joy and delight God presently gets from seeing himself? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings when we participate in it, what must be the case about God’s present transcendence of all suffering in light of the fact that he eternally is this glory?

wurmbrand-mugshotWhat about Zosia? Is it true for her?

What about Romanian Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) who was tortured for Christ in prison for years? Is it true for him? He actually believed what Greg says in his podcast. Wurmbrand confessed: “We were with Christ; we didn’t know that we were in prison.” He described his experience of Christ while being tortured as so profound that it seemed to him the walls of the prison were made of diamonds.

So my question for Greg would be:

Is there any human suffering too great to be vanquished by the realization of God’s undying love for us?

If yes, then what Greg is saying in this podcast would seem to be sentimental rubbish. If no, then does Greg not see the consequences of this for the relationship between our pain and the beatitude of God’s triune love and delight, and how we understand “what’s going on behind the scenes” on the Cross?

Dancing debris

0320c07f49bcc209af673b9e6c210231I happened upon this portion of a David Bentley Hart interview and it brought me back to the center – to the truth of God’s immeasurable and undiminished delight accessible in and to all things.

Question to Hart: So where was God in the tsunami?

Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.

Almost all the reviews of The Doors of the Sea that I have read have recognized that, at the heart of the book, is a resolute insistence upon and adoration of the imperishable goodness of creation, an almost willfully naive assertion that it is the beauty and peace of the created world that truly reveal its original and ultimate nature, while the suffering and alienation and horror of mortal existence are, in an ultimate sense, fictions of fallen time, chains and veils and shadows and distortions, but no part of God’s will for his creatures. This is why, at one point in the book, I grant the Gnostics of old the validity of their questions, though I go on to revile the answers at which they arrived.

To see the world in the Christian way – which, as I say in the book, requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter – is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality (I almost sound Kierkegaardian when I say it that way). But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. I’m waxing quite Eastern here, I know, but that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.

The pain of spiritual liberty

3024663674_21f73c1864A friend, the brilliant Dr. Brian Moore, commented over at Eclectic Orthodoxy:

“There is not enough attention to the philosophical and theological importance of unhappiness.”

I’ve been inclining to similar thoughts for months. Of course, as a believer in God’s undiminishing beatitude, how am I to articulate a theology of ‘unhappiness’ as ever being a proper participation in God’s life? I have an idea of where an answer might lie, but I was curious, so I asked Brian to elaborate. He did, and his response is one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

Charles Williams had a favorite dictum, “This is Thou, Neither is this Thou.” Unhappiness is the whole person which is desire…trapped in anguish, incomplete, finite; in heightened states, a kind of terror before the suffocating limitations of the finite, resistance to the closure of ideology, the vulgarization of nature into banal truisms and cheap cleverness utilized to create desire for false goods or inordinate desire for lesser ones. Unhappiness can be a protest and refusal against the society of Nietzsche’s “last men.” It is the freedom of the soul that prefers the pain of spiritual liberty to the slothful contentment of a “success” that is merely a form of cowardice, resignation to the prescribed limits of a “trousered ape,” the wisdom of a mere “shrewd animal.” In some ways unhappiness can be akin to holy poverty, a marginalization engendered by a search for integrity and the holy. Unhappiness is an enduring awareness of transcendence as intrinsically necessary for human life.

Though it is not a simple moral equation. Unhappiness can also be whining and solipsistic protest against the real, the despairing egotism that wants to retreat into a lonely independence because lost in ingratitude, refusing the gift of being, unable to grow into the courteous receptivity that allows a gift to be given. Theologically, unhappiness can be both of Christ or anti-Christ, just as happiness may be either profound, mysterious, dynamically open with child-like wonder or it can be a shallow, emotive condition indifferent to virtue, a kind of blissful living death, what Glaucon called a “city of pigs” in the Republic, but also the “fevered city” he prefers, though the latter is equally sick as Socrates understands.”

Vita ex nihilo

val-hammond-coeurFor a moment, think of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) as vita ex nihilo (“living out of nothing”). It might let some light in on the what I’ve been trying to get at in exploring the Void.

In a comment intended to clarify the relation between the ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ will (between our ‘will’ as given and sustained by God as its ‘natural’ end, on the one hand, and its ‘deliberative’ capacity to determine itself relative to God, on the other), David Bentley Hart writes:

In the interval between these two movements [natural and gnomic] – both of which are rational – the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with that glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us – through our [gnomic] refusal to submit to love – becomes the unnatural experience of reprobabtion. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace.” (emphasis mine)

All I want to pick out from this is its perspective on hell as the unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence from God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him. Hell is unwelcomed intimacy. (Think of Sartre’s play “No Exit” which tells the story of three people bereft of eyelids and condemned to spend eternity together in a single room, hence Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”) Similarly, hell is how those who refuse God’s beauty in this life experience the revelation of it within themselves in the next. Their posture with respect to God, not God’s with respect to them, is their self-determined agony.

I think this is a kind of general principle true of all our struggles and difficulties throughout life. I’m not interested here in the doctrine of hell per se. I’m more interested in the idea that we create torment for ourselves by misrelating “within” a certain truth of God’s glory and beauty. I’m wondering if some of the difficulty that my passibilist friends (those who believe we are in a position to diminish and improve God’s experienced beatitude) have with the notion of an undiminished divine beatitude might be a reluctance to embrace the Void, i.e., the truth of our nothingness and contingency. It’s a very peculiar sort of self-awareness that goes beyond any academic recognition that we are not eternal, or self-sufficient, and that we depend upon God as Creator.

We want to mean something, to be something permanent. Fair enough. That’s our ‘natural’ will/desire at work. But for passibilist believers, this natural desire precedes rather than follows the truth that grounds it, and when that happens we misconstrue our ‘meaning’ as the difference we make to God rather than the difference God makes to us and so misinterpret our God-given desire to make-meaning. We may recognize that we “live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17.28), but we live by construing our fullest meaning otherwise, partly at least, as the sense or measure in which God lives and moves and has his being in us. So to be in the presence of a beauty and delight that doesn’t need us, that isn’t improved upon or completed by us, ends up being viewed by passibilists not as the fulfillment of desire but as its denial and so as a kind of torment. Such was my own experience.

This all makes me think of hell as passibilism’s last stand, as the experience of wanting to mean something prior to and independent of what God means (to himself and to us), of wanting one’s meaning to be a meaning one introduces into the Meaning-Maker (God) who is source and giver of life, as opposed to an utterly receptive mode of meaning-making as vita ex nihilo, i.e., as accepting and celebrating one’s existence as a mode of divine self-expression. When this is thought not to be enough, glory and beauty become torment.

Being painted into being

beingpaintedintobeingAnita and I spent a few days on Minnesota’s north shore on Lake Superior. Everything we imagined wanting to be the case for those days was the case. The weather was unbelievably perfect. Zero humidity, the clearest and bluest sky imaginable, the Milky Way alive enough to reach out and touch, Aurora Borealis on display, the air, the trees; what can I say? Well, one morning as we hiked the High Falls on the Canadian border, I was overwhelmed and said, “It’s like stepping into a painting.” Not just seeing a beautiful painting on the wall, but the world actually becoming a living work of art, and you’re in it. I could no longer separate myself from what I saw, from the world I was in. I was the world I was in.

As hideously as the graphic from the previous post approximates the truth of the Void, this picture depicts the plenitude that lies beyond it – but only beyond it. Beyond the horizon of our absolute nothingness and our acknowledgment that existence is given, and that the only work there for us to do is say that it is so, there is the truth of the giver, a truth that is as satisfying in its power to define us meaningfully as the Void is consuming in its meaninglessness. Once that painful journey is taken, life erupts out of nothing, breath fills your lungs, form and substance emerge from the dark, light fills the mind, and colors spill into the landscape. “All things become yours” (1Cor 3.21b-23), says Paul, “whether the world or life or death or the present or the future [what else is there?], all things are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.