Giving thanks this Thanksgiving

landphilharmonic

“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1The 5.17-18)

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5.19-20)

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17)

I can hardly believe some of these convictions of St. Paul. Rejoice “always”? Pray “without ceasing”? Give thanks “in all things”? But I’ve drawn a drink often enough from the flow of this living stream to know this is the sort of thankful, grateful being is possible and that it is what I wish to be. As we head into the packing, the traveling, and the stuffing of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to reflect a bit, not on what “thankfulness” is in any deep, metaphysical sense (no metaphysical talk allowed during Thanksgiving!), but instead on what characterizes thankful people.

(Before I get into my reflections, I want to ask you to take a moment to ponder this miracle of thankfulness, gratitude and the undying creative imagination and desire for beauty (all of which are just the name we give to ‘human being’ as we know it is intended to be).

To be thankful is…

…to know I need others. If I give thanks, I’m acknowledging my need of others, and of God. I’m not Atlas, on any conceivable level. I’m incomplete through and through. I’m learning to appreciate how deeply and profoundly connected to others and to all things we are. No one of us accomplishes anything independently of God or independently of the contributions of others. All our stories are interwoven. No story is sealed off from the rest. Who I am is on the inside of who others are in whose lives I’ve participated and who are on the inside of who I’m becoming. I am not first somebody – sealed up, self-contained, having arrived, having accomplished, having believed – only then to step into the connections and relationships of life. No – from the start we are connected, we need God and others, and our lives and especially our success are a participation in, and an expression of, the lives and successes of others.

For some, just acknowledging this is torture. For to need others is to be “vulnerable” and thankful people are vulnerable people. They know they need. Moreover, the more thankful one is, the more one knows one needs, not just on some levels, but on every level of existence. Name something of value, some cherished desire. Whatever you have in mind involves you in some relationship of need and dependency. Being thankful means seeing that essential connectedness and the dependencies upon the presence and contributions that form a web of living relationships which are your life.

…to know I have something to be thankful for. To be thankful, secondly, is to realize that something specific I need, something I’ve desired, has come to me, has been provided me. Being thankful requires us to be specific, to be thankful for something or someone. Name it. Describe it. Then say why that for which you’re thankful is valuable and important to you. That kind of thoughtful openness and responsiveness is mature godliness. Thankfulness opens our mind and heart up to the world, to others, and to God. Thankful people live in that openness. That’s why, if you notice, open-hearted and open-minded people are thankful people.

…to know I am not alone. Thirdly, not only is thankfulness the acknowledge of my need of others, and not only is it acknowledgement of the provision of something I need, but it is also the discovery through these that I’m not alone. I cannot be thankful for something and believe I am alone and godforsaken. That’s not possible. If I need God and others, and if God and others are where and how something I need has been provided, then this can only mean I am not alone. God is here with me – in the all things in which St. Paul urges us to be thankful. God sees, he provides, and even if all others happen to forsake me, he will not leave, and so I am not alone. How do I know this? I know it primarily because it happened to the man, Jesus, whose confidence that God was with him in the darkest hour was confirmed by God’s raising him from the dead. “You will all forsake me and leave me alone,” Jesus told his own disciples on the eve of his Crucifixion (Jn 16), “but I am not alone, for my Father is with me.”

Thankfulness in all things, at all times, is therefore forever possible because of the Cross, where one innocent victim, stripped by the world of the world he loved, died without ceasing to be thankful. The Cross is the ground of the possibility of undying thankfulness because (“for the joy set before him he endured”) it was where the worst that could happen to a human being happened and it didn’t involve God abandoning that person. Jesus made the Cross something that redeems rather than just a way to perpetuate our violence and despair.

…to think of what I can do to be a reason someone else realizes these things, that is to say, lastly, to be thankful is to embrace a vocation, the call to attend to the needs and possibilities of others as others have attended to mine. Because thankfulness begins with the awareness that I need God and others and that I’m connected to them, it ends with me wanting to be for others what they have been for me. I can’t be truly thankful and not open myself up to becoming a reason someone else may become thankful.

Enjoy Thanksgiving this week, connecting to the depth of your need, to the gracious givenness of life, to the inescapable presence of the Giver, and to the call to be for others a reason to be thankful.

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He took it away, nailing it to the Cross

HieronymusCross

You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.

I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.

Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:

There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.

Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…curical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.

The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us

…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.

Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…

Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).

It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.

The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).

By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.

…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…

_____________________________

jesus-on-a-tree-crossThere’s a lot to engage here, e.g., Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.

What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s even the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal (if there’s a better word, help me find it), it seems to me, because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).

This has been a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest – which is why I’m still working through all this. But Greg has sent mixed messages as well. We could easily produce clear examples of Greg’s explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections I have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?

What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” that constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Long story short – Jesus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. True, God freely forgives, and this forgiveness is antecedent to, and the motivation for, the Cross (which your standard penal-substitutionary theorists won’t concede). But the narrative doesn’t end there. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakeness to redeem us. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.

Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. There is no emotional angst which God vents upon Jesus. But I suggest that regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness which our sins deserve (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced. But this intuition seems to be behind the view that God must “become his antithesis,” be “cursed,” and suffer his own godforsakenness to secure our reconciliation.

Consider this as well. If God’s loving intentions for those for whom he experiences the consequences of their sinful choices preclude all punitive connections simply because God loves those for whom he suffer godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory can be said to affirm a punitive theory of the atonement, for such theorists all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve out of love and with the intention to redeem, just like Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, and that God does this out of love in order to redeem, just like Greg says. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving and redemptive intention absolves Greg’s theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal? They all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem.

I think that what both the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common, what makes them equally objectionable, is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from what transpires in God (between Father and Son) in terms of God’s withdrawing from God (Father from Son) in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) seems entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. It is present in the notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends. That this constitutes a mythological contagion is, I take it, one of Girard’s fundamental insights.

One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:

…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this passages as well. It’s a classic Christus Victor passage. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.

If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God wherein God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. He must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.

He has no power over me

Upper-Room

In my post “How Jesus viewed his Cross,” I explored statements Jesus made about his own suffering, statements which make it impossible to consider Jesus ‘godforsaken’ (“cursed” by God, per one reading of Gal 3.13, and “made sin by God,” per 2Cor 5.21). One stunning statement Jesus made on the eve of his lynching which makes this abandonment reading particularly suspect is relayed by John in 16.31-33:

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

Translate “leave me alone” for what it is: “abandon” or “forsake.” The passage is perfectly clear:

“You will all abandon me. Yet I am not godforsaken, for my Father is with me.”

This makes available for our transformation the saving truth that how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God is with us in ours.

This week I ran across an equally stunning statement by Jesus, a statement I had earlier missed, in Jn 14.28-31 (esp. v. 30b-31),

You heard me say I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (emphasis mine)

Jesus’ perspective is mind blowing. Consider three things:

First, Jesus takes the time to place his disciples’ despair and worries into proper perspective: “If you love me, you’d be glad that I’m going to the Father.” That they are overwhelmed with concern for their future reflects a certain failure of love. It is stunning to imagine that on the eve of his murder, Jesus expects his disciples to have a perspective on his departure that inspires joy; but only a love for Christ that is deeper than the world itself could see it this way. In any event, this is not a text you’re likely to hear preached on Good Friday, though Jesus preached it on Good Friday.

Secondly, the more instructive statement comes in v. 31b: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has no power over me.” He has no power over you? Really? He is getting you crucified, he will insert himself into the very essence of God and separate Son from Father, and will blow the divine mind by submerging it beneath the sum total of all the despair and godforsakenness creation has ever known. Sounds like “power over you” to a lot of folks. One interested in Jesus’ own perspective on his suffering, then, should take time to contemplate this passage (along with Jn 16.31-33). As horrific as Jesus’ suffering is, we misunderstand it completely when we construe it in terms of Satan’s enjoying any ‘hold’ or ‘power’ over Jesus, and yet a good deal of passibilist reflection upon the Cross, it seems to me, proceeds in precisely such terms.

Lastly, why does the prince of this world close in? Why does Satan descend with all he has upon this moment? I’m sure he has his own reasons. But from Jesus’ perspective, Satan comes – don’t miss it – “so that the world may recognize that I love the Father and do what he commands.”

I don’t know what to say. This has to be one of the strangest things you’re likely to hear in response to the question, “So, why did Satan close in on Jesus?” Had Jesus not made it explicit, I can’t imagine any theologian arriving at the conclusion that Satan’s role in silencing Jesus would be seen by Jesus simply as an opportunity for God to demonstrate through his life and death, within and in spite of the world’s fallenness, that God both knows and loves, and can be known and loved, unconditionally as Father in the worst imaginable places. Again – how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

Imagine – it if you dare (some don’t dare) – that on the eve of his lynching when Jesus contemplates the ordeal to come, he is first of all “glad” (certainly as “glad” as he expected his disciples to be) to be returning created being (via his own humanity) to its home in God, and secondly, he sees the ordeal to come as the quintessential opportunity for him not to be deconstructed by godforsakenness, but to deconstruct godforsakenness and free us from the power of every narrative of abandonment.

Pieces of the penal puzzle

sacrificed-animal-clipart-7Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering ‘instead of us’ (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just ‘punishment’ (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins (death as well as the despair of estrangement from God).

I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is to through one of the following ways:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

He concludes:

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.

That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises (the third prop in each set).

WTB-Animal-sacrifice5

The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation.

God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. Stated similarly, the Cross doesn’t make it possible for God to forgive us. Instead, God’s forgiveness of us makes the Cross possible. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.

A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” That, however, is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.

There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. If the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to the choosing, they’re intrinsic to the chooser and by definition aren’t the kind of things that can be borne by another. We should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t suffer these “instead of” us. He saves us from them not by experiencing them as such (i.e., not by being forsaken or cursed by God), but by making possible a relationship to God whose consequence is life and joy. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us and as a consequence of our evil and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers “the consequence of” our sin.

Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us 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 all he cares about. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

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.”

Heb 10.8, “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.

The list could go on.

My own sense is that God had to work with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.

lambI suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.

One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”

Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.

Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. Fine. But 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 will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer is: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from the dead to expose once and for all its failure and impotency.

Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.

The road to Emmaus — and to better theological grammar

grammarsI’m enjoying Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection (2009). It’s confirming suspicions I’ve had about recent works on the Cross (its meaning, theological centrality, hermeneutical dominance, etc.). The Cross is most certainly a “saving event.” But I continue to reflect on the attempt to make the Cross “the” theological-hermeneutical center in light of which other events are to be understood. I’ve felt this move to be a mistake since reviewing Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but it was James Alison’s Knowing Jesus that gave expression to what I was feeling. The center – to the extent there is one – is Christ as ‘the risen-slaughtered one’. Crucifixion and resurrection constitute together a single perception of faith which opens up to us the whole range of Christian belief and transformative practice. Alison first expressed this insight for me, and now Brian Robinette expands the insight into a more substantial set of convictions.

Robinette writes:

In soteriological matters, the only reason why Jesus’ death could be thought of as in any way salvific, rather than the colossal failure of a world-be messiah, was the radically new perceptual field  imparted to his earliest followers by the Easter event…

Now, as is evident in the history of Western Christian theology especially, the cross, rather than the resurrection, would eventually come to dominate how Christians thematized salvation. This did not occur all at once, or with such comprehensiveness that the resurrection was wholly abandoned as a source for soteriological reflection. And yet, it is abundantly clear that especially since Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, who emphasized the juridical themes of the Latin patristic tradition…and reinterpreted them in the context of his own feudal culture, Western theology became dominated by a sacrificial atonement theory centered on the cross…The consequence here is that whereas the resurrection was front and center in the soteriologies of the first, second, and third centuries, it eventually receded into the background to other foci. Although the resurrection is what gives  Jesus’ death its meaning…it would eventually become subordinate to sacrificial atonement theories that essentially isolate the cross as the precision instrument through which God offers us reconciliation. A broad survey of the atonement in Scholastic, Reformed, and post-Tridentine theology makes it difficult to determine how the resurrection is materially involved in God’s offer of salvation. Once redemption is secured by an act of reparation through the cross, Easter is made to seem a kind of aftereffect, significant primarily in terms of the private destiny of Jesus, or, as Karl Rahner puts it, “honored at best as a confirmation of the fact that our interpretation of Good Friday is correct.”

zheny_mironosicy_u_groba_gospodnjaChristologically speaking, a similar process occurs as the resurrection takes an increasingly diminished role relative to the incarnation for articulating Jesus’ identity. As will be explained more thoroughly later, the experience of the risen Christ in the paschal community is both historically and logically prior to the development of incarnational theology. In tracing the historical course of the christological process, we discover a shift of emphasis from resurrection to incarnation to express the identity and full ontological reality of his man from Nazareth. Whereas first generation christology (pre-50 C.E.) highlighted Jesus’ resurrection as the moment of his investment of lordship over creation — the climactic point at which he “becomes” or is appointed “Son of God” — subsequent generations of christology reveal a backward projection of this Son of God language. Although we should avoid thinking of this too simplistically, generally speaking, the ongoing reflection on the nature of Jesus results in a retroactive movement of resurrection theology so that his identity as Son of God, first fully manifested in his post-mortem appearances to the disciples, is associated with decisive moments further and further back in his life-story — his death, his transfiguration, his baptism, his conception, and finally, as we find most explicitly in the Logos poem of John, to a timeless origin antecedent to creation itself. This process is entirely logical When properly thought through, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead demands that we reflect upon the relationship between Jesus’ function and person. As we do, we will find that God’s work of salvation is intimately connected with Jesus’ very “being.” By raising him from the dead for the definitive salvation of humanity, the Proclaimer (Jesus) and Proclaimed (the Kingdom of God) become so conjoined that Christians cannot adequately articulate the meaning of one without the other…

The present work represents an effort to retrieve the resurrection of Jesus as a central site for thinking theologically. I have already spoken of soteriological and christological matters. Regarding for former, we will examine the drama and dynamics of human salvation under three related aspects that together flow from the Easter event: justice, forgiveness, and divinization. This is the primary objective of Part Two. It is my contention that the eventual marginalization of the resurrection from soteriological reflection, especially in the Latin West, where sacrificial atonement theories have long dominated, has led to truncated, and in certain important respects distorted, views of salvation. Among the most problematic distortion is the implication of God in the violence that led to Jesus’ death. When the cross is isolated from the broader narrative sweep of the Christ event, there is frequently a failure to understand the resurrection as anything more than a kind of ratification or postlude, when in fact it is God’s dramatic in-breaking into and unmasking of the cyclical violence that led to Jesus’ lynching. Indeed, often enough sacrificial atonement theories imply or explicitly affirm God’s complicity in the violence so graphically displayed on the cross, quite as though God were underwriting the very human disease that the gospels in fact would name, demystify, and abolish – the production of victims. Only if we see the meaning of the cross in light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which is nothing if not the vindication of a victim from unjust death, will we grasp that God is a God of victims; that, in point of fact, God has become our victim in order to liberate us from producing and becoming victims (justice), to offer us pardon for our continued and frequently unconscious production of victims (forgiveness), and the draw us into active participation in the inner life of God through the imitation of the crucified and risen victim, who is the image of the invisible God (divinization).

It should be observed here that the retrieval of the resurrection deepens our understanding of the cross while also drawing us into further reflection upon Jesus’ life-ministry. The resurrection is precisely an act of memoria, God’s transformative memory. Resurrection purifies and redeems memory. As with the story of the travelers to Emmaus, the presence of the risen stranger facilitates an act of recollection in which the disciples are capable of remembering Jesus’ life from a fundamentally new perspective. They remember what he said and what he did, but they now do so in light of a transformative experience, brought to consciousness in the breaking of bread, that purges and deepens memory.

_______________________________________________

roadtoemmaus

The picture to the left is slightly cheesy. I apologize. I’ll get to that in a sec. The reference by Robinette to the two on the road to Emmaus caught my attention. I typically speed through this story as just another story demonstrating Jesus was raised. Simple. But Robinette’s point struck me. Here we have an event that demonstrates the point of Robinette’s book – the central place the resurrection occupies (even if we don’t recognize it) in every genuinely Christian experience and which it must again occupy (intentionally) in theological reflection. You can see the transformation take place in the two disciples. The Cross has no saving effect – is nothing but a disgrace and failure (for Christ and his followers), and a perpetuation of the rivalry that produces victims (for the culture that lynched him) – until one perceives it within the presence of the risen Jesus. Only the risen Jesus can tell you what the Cross means, and that is why the Cross cannot occupy or define the theological or hermeneutical “center” of the Christian faith in light of which other events (incarnation, resurrection, etc.) are interpreted. Previously:

If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) is the hermeneutical center Boyd is looking for – i.e., the hermeneutical center isn’t a set of propositions as such but a confluence of the truth-making realities that inform human transformation – the whole life and death of Jesus as they are mediated to us by the risen, living Jesus. When the death and resurrection become a single experienced personal reality – the ‘risen-slaughtered’ one (Phil 3.10f), the center becomes a living dynamic…

Speaking of “truth-making reality that inform human transformation,” let me say why I chose this strange picture of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two are blackened out. Only Christ is fully present, fully alive, not fragmented, not partial. But it is Christ who has been crucified. The two disciples are quite alive. One would expect, then, that Christ should be blackened out it is him they do not perceive. What gives? The story reveals their transformation, not Christ’s, and therein we see the point. The two are the ones who come alive, who wake up, who see what is truly there but which they had not perceived. They do the ‘appearing’, not Jesus. As such, they are what the Cross makes of us until we view the Cross with and within the risen Jesus.

Recall, Paul makes it clear (1Cor 15) that “if Christ is not raised…we are still in our sins.” So the resurrection is a “saving event.” But how, if the Cross took care of all that? Doesn’t Christ disarm the spiritual rulers and authorities by shaming them publicly “by his victory over them on the cross” (Col 2.14f)? Yes and no. Ask yourself how the cross becomes a victory. When does it become this victory? Where does the Cross “disarm” the powers?

Only in rising does Jesus’ dying become any of this. Heb 2.14f states as much: “He too shared in [our] humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free [us] who all [our] lives were held in slavery by [our] fear of death.” Interesting. One could reply here that there is no mention of resurrection in the Hebrews passage which states explicitly that it is “by his death” that Jesus “destroys the devil.” There you have it – the unique centrality of the Cross. But think it through. Our being “freed from slavery to fear of death” is also explicitly linked to his death with no mention of the resurrection. And yet it’s obvious that there is no freedom from the fear of death found in another person’s dying. We see such death all the time. That’s what constitutes our fear. But there is complete freedom from such fear found in a person’s rising from the dead. It is the resurrection, then, that “destroys the devil,” “disarms the powers,” and “frees us from our fear of death.” Taken together (thank you James Alison!) as “the risen-slaughtered one,” cross and resurrection constitute a single living presence (not a proposition) that accomplishes all that gets variously attributed (propositionally) to one or the other. But both are always present.

One final thought on the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. I do not mean this disparagingly at all, but these two can be analogously compared to certain passibilists eager to reduce God to the pain and tragedy of the Cross and to see (as Rahner lamented) in the resurrection only a vindication of their view of the Cross (composed entirely before the sun rises on Easter Sunday) rather than the meaning of the Cross.

I feel as if my own journey the past 10 years has been taken along the Emmaus road, slowly waking up to a resurrected view of things.

Hidden with Christ in God

blog-featured-image-iam-1_1I reconnected with with a friend and colleague in missions who works in the Middle East with Muslims. We haven’t spoken for a decade. I asked him what sort of response to Christ he’s seen from Muslims in his country during that time period. Last I knew there were maybe two dozen Muslims who had come to faith in Christ. He said that today they’re working with 5,000 small groups of such believers. I was astounded. He added that in the last fifteen months eleven of their number have been killed on account of their faith, two having been killed this last week. All of a sudden I realized that I don’t really have any problems. I sit comfortably in the United States contemplating life from the security of my home and office while many others know faith only as a life-threatening choice.

I moved on prayerfully after that conversation but haven’t gotten this amazing explosion of faith in the Muslim world out of my head, and these 5,000 groups are a small part of a much bigger story from the Muslim world which you won’t hear about on the evening news. As I contemplate the cost which faith presents to so many in the world today, I come back to three passages around which I revolve like a satellite, kept in obit by the gravitational pull of their truth.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)
There’s a difference, someone said, between ‘seeing the Cross from where you are’ and ‘seeing where you are from the Cross’. In the first case, I’m not crucified with Christ. How could I be? I’m ‘here’ observing Christ living, dying, and rising ‘over there’. I observe the Cross from a distance. And at a distance it cannot be my death, my crucifixion. I might love Christ. I might believe that what I see on ‘that Cross over there’ achieves my salvation. I have faith in it. And I don’t doubt that God knows how to honor sincere but incomplete faith wherever he finds it.

We all start here in our faith journeys. But eventually we’re meant to adopt a new perspective as we draw closer, closing the distance between ‘seeing the Cross from where we are’ and ‘seeing things from the Cross’. At some point you move from that location to seeing the world from within the event of the Cross. I think the failure to travel this distance is part of what accounts for dysfunctional penal views of the Cross. As long as the Cross is Christ suffering what I don’t have to suffer, I observe the Cross from a distance and that distances is viewed to be my salvation. In this case I can’t join with Christ in that suffering. I can’t cross the distance to make it my death. Problem is – it is my death and I am meant to participate in it. Salvation isn’t the distance, it’s the collapsing of the distance.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3.2-3)

It might seem at first that “setting you mind on things above” means contemplating those things “from where we are below” and thus is born ‘the distance’ that defines a two-storied worldview. Whatever the “above” is, it’s not where I am. It’s above where I am. For me to set my mind on the above, I have to leave behind, in a manner of speaking, the “below” where I actually live my life. But too many things Paul says make it clear that he didn’t think of that sort of distance between us and Christ. Whence the distance if we are “hidden with Christ in God? If I’m hidden with Christ in God, then my everyday mundane life is hidden with Christ in God. “Below” is only a mistaken way of perceiving the ‘here and now’, falsely identifying it as separated somehow from God. Setting your mind on “things above” is not to escape the ‘here and now’ in our minds. It is to uncover the ‘here and now’ through contemplation into the ‘above’, to remove the distance. We can be anywhere and be “set on things above” because the above things are everywhere and are the truth of all things.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8.15)
Who cries “Abba, Father!”? Only the Son. And we are given his cry as our own. We are given his own identity for our own. Now we relate to God, to ourselves, and to the world from within the cry that defines God the Son. The power of the gospel to heal and transform us is its power to include us within the Son’s own identity, a cry which cannot be deconstructed or undone by any severity of pain or suffering. It has already endured death and rose on the other side.

See here, Thomas

Doubting+Thomas

I’m anxious to chat with St. Thomas someday. Besides the name, we have other things in common, ‘doubt’ for instance. And if the tradition of him is accurate, we were both also missionaries in cultures very different than our own.

I love this painting by Caravaggio (16th cent). Thomas the ‘doubter’. Jesus (Jn 20.27) says to him, “Put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” There are several directions in which one could take this. Today I’m thinking about the nature of the resurrected body (something Paul discusses in 1Cor 15).

Start with what should be an uncontroversial statement: The resurrected Jesus is the Eschaton. He is what we shall be. His body is the only created reality that is already on the other side of death in its fulfilled, glorified state. And when we see him we shall be like him. And yet here in Jn 20 Jesus’ body bears its “wounds” for Thomas to inspect. A glorified, perfected, immortal body that bears the wounds of mortality? Resurrected perfection makes the lame walk and the blind see but it cannot heal scar tissue?

Hear me out. I don’t think this passage is evidence that Jesus’ “wounds” endure the way most people are likely to read the story of Thomas. Consider the possibility that Jesus presents his risen embodied self to Thomas in a way Thomas required, in a manner determined by Thomas. He doesn’t believe. Why? He can’t get past the Cross. The Cross is speaking the “last word” for Thomas. Jesus really did die. Thomas needs to see the Cross in the resurrected Jesus so Thomas’ faith can connect the real world he lives in to the real God in whom the world lives. That moment opens his capacity for faith to embracing the resurrection. Jesus is happy to manifest himself in a way Thomas requires, but I don’t think Jesus’ resurrected body permanently bears the wounds of death – holes in his hands and side, scar tissue down his back from flogging. (Folks will not hobble around or limp when perfected in God’s presence.) I think we (in part) determine what it is we see, and I suspect that when his faith finally rested secure, there were no holes for Thomas to see.

Just a thought.