Famous last words

commit1On the Cross, Jesus dies. But how does he die? The Psalms he read throughout his life are in his head, informing his interpretation of his own suffering, shaping his experience, ‘opening a new and living way through his flesh’ (Heb 10.19-20). That new and living way is here, on the Cross, Christ opens it. His experience of suffering is that way ‘open’ to us – hence our call to participate in its sufferings (pace Moltmann who insists Christ died alone and that our crosses are not a participation in his). We’ve explored Ps 22 (My God, My God, why?), Ps 42, and now Ps 31. From Ps 31.5 Jesus lifts “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Verse 14 (“I trust in your, Lord, I say ‘You are my God’) is interesting in light of some (including Cyril of Alexandria) who suppose Christ’s use of “My God” instead of “My Father” indicated a loss in him of a sense of the latter and a reduction of his faith to the former, i.e., God had become Christ’s “God” and not his “Father.” But this is nonsense. Even in the Psalms “God” articulates faith and trust. It’s not what one calls God because one is without the belief that God is also Father (cf. Jn 20.17, “I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”).

I present Ps 31 here in its entirety because from it Christ takes his last words (“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” v. 5). We know this psalm, along with Ps 22 and Ps 42, are where Christ went in his darkest hour to define himself. The contexts explain why Christ came here to die – and there is nothing of the despairing modern pathology that understands the Cross as divine withdrawal or abandonment.

Psalm 31 (NRSV)

1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
     do not let me ever be put to shame;
     in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
     rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
     a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
     for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
     for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
     you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
     but I trust in the LORD.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
     because you have seen my affliction;
     you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
     you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
     my eye wastes away from grief,
     my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
     and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
     and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
     a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
     those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
     I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
     terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
     as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O LORD;
     I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
     deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
     save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD,
     for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
     let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled
     that speak insolently against the righteous
     with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness
     that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
     in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
     from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
     from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the LORD,
     for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
     when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm,
     “I am driven far from your sight.”
But you heard my supplications
     when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the LORD, all you his saints.
     The LORD preserves the faithful,
     but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
     all you who wait for the LORD.

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Soren got it

pearlBasically everything we’ve been trying to say about the unbroken nature of Christ’s knowledge of the Father’s affection throughout his suffering and its saving-transforming power in us:

“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity.” (SK)

That happened on the Cross – for all of us.

Thank you Soren Kierkegaard – you genius you.

Rachel Held Evans & God Held Rachel

RHELike others, I was shocked by the unexpected death of Rachel Held Evans – Memory Eternal. Rachel’s love for Christ was evident despite the controversy she provoked. She raised her voice sincerely in good faith, and Lord knows we need more, not less, of that. I admired her passion, her courage, her brute honesty, and the relentless clarity of her message. Nobody agrees with another person on absolutely everything, of course, so there are points of disagreement to be sure. But those differences are not relevant to what I want to say here.

Before I get to my comments, let me say that I was appalled by the uninspired comments of one person who responded to the news of Rachel’s death with a piece entitled “Heretical Author, Rachel Held Evans, Dead at Age 37,” in which the author included Rachel among the wicked in whose destruction the Lord takes no pleasure. I don’t care how orthodox your beliefs are, if the first word out of your mouth at such a moment is “heretic,” then heretical is what you are, for loving and compassionate Christlikeness is what sound doctrine are for, and the willful lack of it is a heretical betrayal of true doctrine, however faithfully one holds to it.

That said, I want to reflect on a something written by an ardent admirer of Rachel, a comment made by author and pastor Jonathan Martin. As most will know, Jonathan is lead pastor of The Table in Oklahoma City. He’s a gifted writer and speaker with an influence as wide as Rachel’s. The times I’ve read Jonathan (not a lot I confess), I’ve been blessed and challenged. Not knowing him, I have some hesitation about writing, but the scope of his influence and the nature of his comments regarding Rachel motivate me to share. To be specific, after the news broke of Rachel’s untimely death, Jonathan wrote (his Facebook page, May 4th, 5:09 PM) the following:

I have not caught my breath today since I heard about the passing of my friend Rachel Held Evans. I am upended. I am nowhere near anything close to “meaning” in this yet. I keep thinking of Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, how the wisdom of God in pain is not in wise words—but wordless grief. There is a pain so sacred, even for God to proffer an explanation would be to blaspheme. There is a grief so profound, God falls silent. Jesus offers no explanations. The closest thing to an answer we are given is God…with…us, God’s face disfigured with sorrow. (Emphasis mine)

JonathanI don’t want to misunderstand Jonathan, nor do I wish to be misunderstood. I do understand the painful silence that death evokes in us. I’ve been there. I appreciate also that such silence is not the time to turn the pain of others into a soapbox to argue for one’s own theodicy. When we do that, theology itself becomes part of the suffering people seek relief from. To the extent Jonathan speaks from such silence, I’m entirely with him. The more silent and vulnerable we allow ourselves to be, the better off and healthier we are. Indeed, it is only in the silence and vulnerability which death evokes that God is to be found. We must each experience this for ourselves, and as one who has stood in the deafening silence of the Void with plans to dive into it headlong, the advice I wish to offer Jonathan is no mere academic exercise or soapbox opportunism. It is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.

What concerned me about Jonathan’s comments was not the honesty of his pain, nor his call to an appropriate silence, nor the sincerity of his love, but the despair (and I use the term intentionally in something like a Kierkegaardian sense) in his reducing God to the silence that death evokes. To suggest that God himself is struck silent by Rachel’s death, or that God is silent because he is reduced to the same failure of “meaning” we fall into on such occasions, or that for God to speak within our silent grief would be blasphemous even for God – this is deeply wide of the mark, and to hear it from someone of Jonathan’s caliber is concerning. I’m sorry to say it, because I respect Jonathan a great deal, and I respect the pain from which he speaks, but there is nevertheless a misperception at work here which is worth addressing.

God is not grief-stricken into silence by Rachel’s death, however we may feel, and this should come as a great comfort rather than an offense. Yes, God is “Emmanuel” (God with us). He is with us in our suffering, pain, and loss. And yes, the Incarnate God took the human journey from the womb through the grave to undying, resurrected life, so he knows intimately the conditions we face (Heb 2). But the Void did not reduce God to the silence of despair. “Emmanuel” does not mean “God commiserates with us.” That is not the logic behind the saving power of Christ’s suffering. On the contrary, as Christ, God speaks within the Void, unceasing in his speech, uttering his own triune identity and filial affection within the depths of human loss and abandonment.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcIf God is present in our silence at all (which he is, completely), he is present as God, that is, as the Father who speaks/utters his own Word, his Logos, his beloved Son, in and as and through and for all things. That is the Emmanuel who is with us. The Cross, then, is where God is this God on our behalf in the conditions of the Void, conditions that produce within us the silence of despair from whose deconstructing powers we are saved precisely because the Cross could not deconstruct Christ’s “Abba, Father” or wrest from Christ’s heart the filial affection that defined him to the end. But this is the very speech which, it seems, Jonathan makes out to be blasphemy were God to utter it in the face of Rachel’s death, the speech that God is, i.e., the Father uttering the fullness of his love in the Image of his Son, and the Son in the power of the Spirit replying “Abba, Father” within the conditions which in us occasion silent, existential foreclosure. But whatever else is lost, God cannot lose the utterance of himself in his own Son, nor do we lose our identity in that utterance (given us by the Spirit to know in Rachel’s death and in all our suffering, Rom 8.31f) when life suspends us over the empty abyss of the Void. Even there God is speaking, for God just is his speech, the uttering of himself – simply, infinitely, ceaselessly, completely, delightfully – as the mutual love of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is always saying at least that, but that is enough (2Cor 1). It is not an explanation, a theodicy, to be sure, but it is God uttering himself in us, for us, and through us.

I hope folks will not take me to be nitpicking over a minor, irrelevant point of trinitarian theology while we suffer Rachel’s loss. For in such circumstances, how we are in pain, and what constitutes our pain in light the gospel, are not irrelevant to our suffering. Obviously, Jonathan doesn’t think it’s irrelevant, for he chose to address it, to offer to us his perspective on the loss of Rachel, and even to speak for God by declaring the effect Jonathan cannot but imagine Rachel’s death has in God, namely, the same effect it had in him. So I feel permitted to raise my own voice (however insignificant it is) and offer a different perspective on where God is, and how God is, with us in our pain and loss. God is neither shocked, nor grief-stricken into silence, nor is he at a loss for words, nor is he like us waiting for the “meaning” of such loss; nor can the infinite delight of God’s undying life be blasphemous to a suffering world. On the contrary – if God were grief-stricken into silence at the death of every person he loves as infinitely as he loves Rachel (which is every person who dies, and which is every moment of every day), he would never open his mouth so much as to address humanity at all, ever. But he did, and he does – all the time.

“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.

Lost in translation—Part 3

language-brain

Best wind this down. The main substance of this post is from a comment I made that’s buried somewhere in the comments section of Part 1. I was summarizing my thoughts on the knotty issues that shape the Scotist-Thomist debate over theological language. I’m grateful to Jeff, Robert, John and Fr Aidan for giving us so much to think about. If you’re not familiar with the debate between Scotists (fans of John Duns Scotus, d. 1308 CE) and Thomists (interpreters of Thomas Aquinas, d. 1274) over the question of how our theological language captures the truth about God, Lee Faber’s blog is a great place to jump in. It’s deep at both ends of the pool, but I’m enjoying Lee’s stuff very much. The debate surrounds the difference between ‘univocal’ and ‘analogical’ predication, and part of the disagreement, it seems, includes how the two groups (mis)understand the terms ‘univocal’ and ‘analogical’ to begin with.

It seems to me that Scotists (rightly understood) make good points about the continuity of meaning for theological terms within the embrace of the infinite difference between God and Creation. Thomists (to the extent he was represented in the comments section of Part 1) make good points about the nature of divine transcendence and how this difference between God and creation renders God-talk unique and needing its own logic. Whether I use ‘univocal’ (associated with Scotus’ approach) or ‘analogical’ (with Thomas), would depend I suppose entirely upon what my conversation partner thought these terms meant. I confess I’m not entirely clear myself, since part of the debate between the two sides involves disagreement over what they mean, and each side seems to want its definitions to be operative for the other. (If you’re confused, welcome aboard.)

At this point I think I’d avoid introducing either word when. What I would do is:

(1) Point out the infinite difference between God and creatures. Both sides in the debate agree that God is the fullness of those perfections we call the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness, unity/diversity as such) which are present in all created realities as the end toward which they ‘become’ but which in God are perfectly convertible with his very being.

(2) Where creatures such as us are essentially a movement of temporal ‘becoming’ toward a telos/end outside ourselves and which end is never perfectly convertible with what we are, God’s existence is ‘being as such’. I like Hart’s suggestion that the ‘infinite difference’ between God and creation is like the difference between ‘truth as such’ and ‘truths’ or between ‘beauty as such’ and instances of beauty, ‘goodness as such’ as opposed to an instances of goodness. I find this a really helpful way to capture the ‘transcendent immediacy’ of God to all things, where transcendence is an excess of presence not of absence.

(3) The first and second points above have to shape how our language expresses the truth about God as it maintains both likeness and difference in our talk, so that our terms never equivocate into a despairing nihilism nor make God out to be just another being among beings by denying (1) and (2) above. We bear God’s image, and the original transcends the image within and as ‘difference within likeness’ (the way any image is reflected in a mirror). The original can’t be reduced without remainder to the image. So the trick is to respect the difference without falling into equivocation. After the extended discussions in Parts 1 and 2, my sense is that our God-talk is more poetic (i.e., meant to arouse desire that rests in God’s transcendent immediacy) than mathematical.

incarn2

(4) This brings language to its cataphatic responsibilities (we must speak as much as we can about God, cf. Denys Turner here) and its apophatic limitations (respecting the final failure of language to comprehend God as an object), and thus to a “glorious and unspeakable joy” (1Pet 1; please note the biblical status of ineffability), to a “knowledge of love that is beyond knowing” (Eph 3), to “see him who is invisible” (Heb 11), and to a “transformation from glory to glory” (2Cor 3), etc. Language’s ultimate failure is its success inasmuch as it names (without traversing or owning) the inexpressible and transforming embrace of divine love in Christ.

(5) I should think Christology is where the solution to the tensions surrounding theological coherence are to be found, not in the sense that in Christ these tensions are resolved because in Christ language can finally come to rest in supervening upon God the way it supervenes upon any created object in the universe (Poof, mystery be gone), but because Christ is where those tensions cease to pose a threat. How so? Because Christ is where God reveals his benevolent opinion of us (and our language), where in uniting creation irrevocably to himself, God shows transcendence is not an absence that abandons us, but a presence and immediacy that fulfills and perfects us, where ‘love’ spoken of God cannot mean what we call ‘hate’ or ‘indifference’ because “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” So language can stop thrashing about in the presence of what it cannot finally ‘say’ and rest instead in saying what it must. Christ is the “image of the Invisible God,” says Paul (Col. 1). Hence any worries we have about language not properly reflecting its invisible/divine source and ground are laid to rest Christologically. Love, goodness, truth, beauty, unity/diversity as such are personally incarnate in Christ, God’s (theological) “word” to us – manifesting the being of the invisible (the transcendentals – truth, beauty, goodness as such) in the visible-creaturely without being reduced to it. We know our language works, that it can be trusted to describe God truthfully (as love, as goodness, as beauty) because in Christ God has become creation without denying himself, has spoken himself in our nature and language without ceasing to be what he naturally is as the uncreated God.

__________________________

So then, I don’t know whether to call this ‘univocity’ or ‘analogy’. Some assure me it’s analogical predication. Others think it univocity (properly restrained in light of transcendence). A rose by any other name? For now I prefer: …means the same thing without making God out to be an infinite history of becoming who determines himself passibly within the world’s chaos.

The Crucifixion—Part 3

prodigal

I’m still thinking through whether or not I understand Rutledge (or Anselm for that matter). When Anselm says “justice must be seen to be done,” I sense there is an important truth being expressed, but I don’t think this equates to an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime. I’m sure I’m going against the mainstream.

Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. God is infinitely valuable, of course. But does the severity or magnitude of a finite agency’s offense derive from the value of the offended party? Get caught stealing from a poor beggar and justice is satisfied with you’re being reprimanded. Get caught stealing from the King and you pay big-time. How much you deserve to suffer is proportionate to the value of the one you offend. That’s certainly the sense of justice in much of the world, certainly the Middle East I lived in for many years. Steal from me, do public service. Steal from King Hussein, go to jail. So, as the logic goes, steal from God and suffer infinitely.

I think this is wrong-headed. I agree all value is God’s, diversely reflected in created things and that, ultimately, it is God against whom we sin. But it seems as clear to me that the severity and magnitude of an offense is judged based on the understanding and context of the offending party. The magnitude of my offense against God derives (at least in part) from the depth of my understanding. It is not simply convertible with the value of God. And since no finite perspective could possibly comprehend the infinitude of God’s value, no offense against God can be as great as God.

This is important to Anselm, because he understands our inability to make satisfaction as derived from the infinitude of our offense. But it isn’t obvious to me that only infinitely offensive failures render us helpless before God. The view I’ve propounded here for some time is that we’re helpless by nature. Sin doesn’t render us unable to satisfy our calling to “honor” God (to go with Anselm’s word), we are by nature absolutely in need of grace to participate in the happiness God created us for. We are poverty stricken as such. That we are also fallen and wrecked certainly complicates our predicament, and it does call for a just and proportional moral order that links consequence to choice, but it is not our sinning that marks the point at which we begin requiring the grace of God to satisfy our destiny. It is our finitude that constitutes that need.

I suppose one could argue that the only offense against God that approaches being infinite would be the utter rejection of God by one in possession of the beatific vision, for only here could one be thought of as sinning “with eyes wide open” so to speak. But it’s also true that the beatific vision makes offending God inconceivable, for in order to misrelate to God responsibly one has to be able to construct some reason for doing so. The beatific vision, however, is epistemic closure regarding the ends and values of things. So, I take it that infinitely offending God is in fact impossible. But there’s no need to think this a Pelagian mistake. We are by nature absolutely destitute of the ability to secure our truest happiness apart from the undeserved grace of God.

That said, what’s it then mean to say that in “setting things right” (“rectifying” the fallen world, to go with Rutledge’s translation) justice “must be seen to be done”? Rutledge writes:

Forgiveness is too weak a word to embrace the full scope of what Christ has done and what he calls us too. How can we begin to speak even of forgiveness, let alone transformation, in the worst of the worst situations? The extermination of millions does not cry out for forgiveness. Never mind millions; what about just one baby burned up in a microwave over by its own father? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too…

Something is owed to the victims of such atrocity. No one needs to have it explained to them what is meant by the language. It is common human expectation that there should be justice, and that justice should be in some way related to the magnitude of the loss…

If when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God.

forgive

I sense something amiss here, because what is also “common human expectation” regarding justice is that forgiveness is not part of the deal. What’s expected is that those guilty for the most heinous crimes ought to suffer the equivalent to what they’ve done to others. This is no different than (lex talionis) ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ justice Christ calls us to not participate in. He calls our “common human expectation” and “blood boiling” into question. It is also not a part of our “common human expectation” that someone else suffer on my behalf what I deserve to suffer, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to question our common human expectations.

What about justice for all the innocent babies abused and monstrous evils done to the poor, the weak and the defenseless? How is that “put right”? How’s it accounted for? It gets accounted for by Christ who is the only truly Innocent One suffering torture and rejection, not as a substitute for the punishment perpetrators of violence deserve, but as the consummate instance of the violence they perpetrate – consummate on account of Christ’s unique innocence – being forgiven in this case by the victim. As David Hart says, it is Christ’s innocence that saves us. Let us consider saying in addition that this would remain true had we, hypothetically, never fallen. It’s not only sinful human beings who are united by grace and faith to God through Incarnation. We don’t need God more as sinners than we needed him in any imagined, originally righteous state. Christ’s humanity was perfected by grace too. Let that sink in.

Moreover, it is what Christ does as innocent victim that sets the world right. Because he suffered as did all innocent scapegoated victims, he is in a place to offer us a means of both receiving and extending forgiveness through participation in his suffering. Only Christ as the Innocent One can offer victims a mode of identification with him that can contextualize their victimization within his own (rather than, as typically understood, by contextualizing his victimization within theirs) and thus empower victims in the forgiveness of others. At the same time, only Christ as the “forgiving victim” (thank you James Alison) offers victimizers a mode of identification in his suffering which identifies and exposes both their guilt and forgiveness. But the world is not, I don’t think, “put right” by Jesus suffering “what the persecutors deserve.” Justice is served when Jesus suffers what victims experience and forgives in return. So to answer Rutledge’s passionate call to the “boiling of blood” over evil and to the call for a suffering that is “owed” victims – which sounds very like retribution to me – I don’t know how analogously to conceive of the boiling of the blood of the impassible God of delight, and if God’s blood isn’t boiling, why should ours boil? Right here I suspect that if we consider this to be a pitiless disregard for the suffering of victims, it may be due to lack of our own participation in God’s impassible delight.

So does Jesus suffer what is “owed” the victims? God forbid. I rather suspect he suffers in a manner that is able to free us from such equations. Forgiveness – if it’s real at all – suggests an entirely different economy of relations, and so must the justice we embrace challenge our shared expectations, especially if those expectations require our blood to boil or ask us to make proportionate compensation of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. I may be missing Rutledge’s point here. My apologizes. But if not her, there are others who do adopt such a view of things.

If we construe forgiveness as Christ’s suffering the ultimate consequence we deserve, then our indebtedness is not in fact “canceled” or “erased” (Col. 2.14). Rather, it is stamped “paid,” which is not what Paul says. Nor was it true (2Cor 5.19) that “God was in Christ…not counting our sins against us.” Rather, God was counting those sins, prosecuting the case against us, making sure justice was seen to be done. That an innocent man suffered rather than us creates a drama that hides the fact that nothing is actually forgiven. Is not the point of Paul’s language here to subvert the very economy of indebtedness under which Christ dies? That the indebtedness is “canceled” (Col 2) shows its power is mythological and not of divine origin. I think this post is entirely lost on Rutledge.

Let me offer this as carefully as I can – the innocent victims of injustice are not “owed” anything (in terms of proportionate justice), they are infinitely loved which is much better, and they are called to free themselves from proportional economics by participating in Christ’s gratuitous suffering and forgiving response. What of the victimizers? They too are infinitely loved by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus, who calls them also to the same participation in an infinite impassibility that suffers without being harmed and forgives without needing compensation for the wrong done. Both victim and victimizer escape the violent math of proportional justice through the same Cross – approaching Christ either as his victimizer (which we all are on some level), or as a victim alongside him.

Is justice pure fiction, then? Are we not longing for the good and the true when we cry out to see justice done? We are indeed! But the reality we long for is not what we get when we possess our desire in terms of proportional suffering. When the parents of a murdered child see the perpetrator die in the electric chair, the relief they feel is not the satisfaction of justice God intends (not if the gospel is true). This is not to say that the renewed grief we experience when the guilty are acquitted is not a genuine longing for that justice which leaves nothing unreconciled. It is simply to say that justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ.

Let me suggest that justice be thought, then, simply as being brought to acknowledge the truth about one’s choices. The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims. The Cross makes this possible not by satisfying the deserved punishment, but because God in Christ suffers victimization and forgives. As James Alison says, Jesus becomes the “forgiving victim.” This “rectifies” the world. How? By creating space for both victimizers to be forgiven and victims to extend forgiveness. But there’s no suffering that compensates for wrongs. What compensates, if we must speak in such terms, is the beatitude of Christ’s sufferings where victimizers and victims meet each other within an the impassible economy of God’s delight. What we need, then, is not proportional justice, i.e., victims seeing that their perpetrators are suffering a pain equal in magnitude to their crime, but proportional forgiveness, i.e., the consummate Innocent One forgiving his perpetrators and so empowering both victimizers (to take responsibility for their actions) and victims (to extend forgiveness in Christ).

(Prodigal Son by Oleg Korolev)

The Devil’s March—Part 2

skeleton-mirrorIn his opening to “The Devil’s March,” David Hart paints a grim picture of the world and our existence in it. “All the things about the world that enchant us,” he urges, “are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness,” a darkness filled with the torments of disease, the blood of the innocent, war, conquests, enslavements – the list goes on. “Everything we love vanishes,” he laments, “and so do we.” If God does exist, and if we do owe him our gratitude for the gift of being, Hart cautions, “this is no obvious truth of reason, but a truth more mysterious than almost any other.” Our knowledge, left to its natural limitations, “instructs us principally that we owe God nothing at all, but that really we should probably regard him with feelings situated somewhere along the continuum between resigned resentment and vehement hatred.”

Surprisingly, the first words that follow this portrait are “And yet Christians must…believe in the goodness of all being.” But Hart is in no hurry to get there and neither should we be. We reduce faith to facile and glib sentimentality if we don’t truly experience the Void and allow it to deconstruct and dismember us, but few of us are that patient. One has to face the nothingness of existence in all its finitude and the violence that Hart rehearses. Whatever essential goodness there is to the world, it cannot be discerned by cordoning off this or that particular good from the world’s pain so that the voice of suffering isn’t heard. After all, if we have to “shout down” evil, we affirm no essential good. The only good worth having is a good that is as immanent within the whole of a suffering world as it is transcendent of the world, and that means affirming the good in full view of the world’s evil. But most treatments of the problem of evil resolve themselves miles before they get to this place.

Here is that following portion of Hart’s piece that affirms the goodness of existence. I’ll meet you on the other side with a few reflections in fear and trembling.

And yet Christians must, of course, believe in the goodness of all being, with a certitude that even the most sanguine Platonist could not match, because they are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence. And so certain affirmations—metaphysical, moral, and narrative—prove inevitable for any coherent Christian reflection on the problem of evil, not only to answer the question of evil’s origin, but also to defend the innocence of God against the evidences of finite experience. One of these affirmations is that evil possess no proper substance or nature of its own, that it exists only as a privation boni, that though it is real—exorbitantly and ubiquitously real—it is so only in the way that cancer is real: as a corruption and perversion of something that in its own proper nature is essentially good. Thus we may say that, in a purely metaphysical sense, God is implicated neither as substance nor as direct cause in the existence or effects of evil. Another equally indispensable claim is that evil possesses a history, one composed entirely of contingencies and compromising both a first and a last moment. Thus we may say that evil, in all its cosmic scope, is still only an episode, with no share in God’s eternity. Another is that the proximate cause of sin lies in the mysterious difference between rational creatures’ natural wills (which necessarily seek the one Good in which all things have their true beginning and end), and their deliberative wills (which, under the transcendental canopy of the Good, can nevertheless be diverted toward lesser goods and false ends). Thus we may say that evil is the creature of our choices, not of God’s creative will. Yet another is that the moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Dreamtime or the supercelestial realm of the pure forms or the Origenist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you.

In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other. From the outset, Christian doctrine denies that suffering, death, and evil in themselves, have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. They are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may, under the conditions of a fallen order, make them the occasion for accomplishing his good ends. It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “power” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

voidI’m working through two issues/questions here. The first has to do with how we bring together the world’s beauties and its evils into the kind of broad assessment we make about the ultimate meaning of existence. The second has to do with the intrinsic evil of death and mortality.

In the first case, Hart argues that our experience of the world’s evil and suffering leads naturally to the existential void he describes in Part 1. Christians, however, believe the world to be good “because [we] are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence.”

I may be over analyzing things or just missing the point altogether, but something seems off here. We know the world is evil based on our experience of the world, but we believe the world is essentially good because of our belief in a particular doctrine? Christians do share the doctrinal convictions Hart names, but it seems to me these convictions just are our belief in the goodness of creation, not why we believe in this goodness. I’d like to suggest that if we know the world to be evil because of our experience of it, it can also only be the case that we believe it is good because of our experience of it.

Might we be falsely defaulting in our valuations of the world to a preference for evil? By this I mean the way we reason that since the world is a world in which innocent children are abused and trafficked as sexual slaves, the beauty and goodness of a child’s loving prayer, or some some very great shared beauty or good, or, to pick a couple of Hart’s favorites, Bach’s final fugue or Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, are all swept out to sea by the force of evil – the idea being that whatever beauties there are, they can’t abide the presence of evil. I’m wondering why this is so. Why do we tend to reason that ‘this’ beauty is reduced to the meaninglessness of ‘that’ evil. Why must our aesthetic valuations run in that direction? In this instance, evil is so consuming that we (unintentionally) settle for the belief that evil is the substantial reality and love is the privation, as if by some default of logic evil becomes the gate-keeper for our evaluations of experience and history. Evil gets to say what beauty and goodness are, or whether they are. Hart doesn’t believe this of course, but it seems to me that in his opening call to sobriety, goodness and love are relativized by evil in the world.

I don’t mean to sneak in a conviction of faith into the conversation as the basis for questioning the way love and goodness in the world are related to evil in our valuations. On the contrary, I mean simply to observe the nature of aesthetic experience per se. Why should the many obvious acts of loving kindness and creative beauties that litter the world not be the final arbiter of our overall response to its evils? I’m not sure exactly how to answer this question myself, except to say that the a priori transcendental shape to all our experience prevents the sort of rise to preference which evil seems to enjoy in treatments of the problem of evil. There is a problem of evil, yes. But there is also the problem of beauty and goodness; and the latter defines, even makes possible, the former. That we approach all our experience of the world within a prior transcendental framework of truth, beauty and goodness is what makes possible our viewing evil and suffering as something objectionable. Our affirmation of beauty, truth, and goodness – apart from any developed doctrines – forces itself upon us. I’m suggesting that its force is categorically greater than the world’s evils, for no objection to the evils Hart describes is even possible apart from the prior transcendental orientation of all experience as essentially good, true, and beautiful. These are the measure of evil; they say what evil is, or that it is, and they shape the conclusions we come to regarding the ultimate meaning of the world.

My point is that it is not experience of the world that tells us it is meaningless because of its evils and doctrines of faith, on the other hand, that tell us the world is good. It is experience that tells us both, and experience of world’s good and beauty that tells us its evils cannot arbitrate the final truth of things. Doctrines make sense of those convictions and organize them into a faith. We don’t always navigate this split in the road rightly, but it’s a split in one and the same experience of the world. I apologize if I’m articulating this poorly.

Secondly, I struggle with the notion that mortality is an evil that has perverted the goodness of creation through a primeval catastrophe occurring outside the history of this world, in the unsearchable foundations of its coming to be. Let me suggest something less other worldly: humankind was created mortal by God – from the get-go. This world, its material becoming, and us in it, were created subject to the decay and entropy by which the earth absorbs the energy of the sun and seeds die to give us vegetation, etc. Mortality isn’t itself a privation.

Why do I suppose this? For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. Mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy,” when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude and to respond to it by turning our attention and energies to securing a meaningful existence this side of the Void.