There’s a fountain flowing ‘deep and wide’

Rom,_Santa_Maria_della_Vittoria,_Die_Verzückung_der_Heiligen_Theresa_(Bernini)I have three friends, each in a different US State, with whom I’ve enjoyed a private online conversation that has run non-stop for several years. We discuss everything under the sun. A lot of the time we agree, but we often disagree passionately. Nobody’s been banished, and none has decided to leave. One recent topic – one we return to often – has to do with whether or not God actually can or does speak to us. If he does, what’s that say about divine freedom to act in the world? If he doesn’t, what’s that say about all the personal and specific ways religious believers attest to having heard/experienced God, not to mention the biblical descriptions of God “doing stuff”?

I’m probably not summarizing the dispute well. There is a concern among some that if God can act in the world outside the constraints of the finite laws of the material cosmos, then he ought to be able to do pretty much anything, including prevent every evil. By “outside the constraints” I mean to describe divine acts in the world which are not themselves a function of, or inherent in, the world’s causal structures. What God says and does is a natural product of dispositions inherent to nature. On this view, the idea of God’s “speaking” – freely, specifically, and personally (hypostatically) – in the immediate act of human consciousness and awareness, presents a problem for some.

Explaining to my buds why I think this is not the case, and why we ought to affirm as real those occasions in which believers testify to “hearing God,” has been an on-and-off conversation. One of our number recently mentioned “mysticism” (particularly the Christian mystical tradition) and asked about the criticisms of mysticism by some Christians who “believe” but have not “experienced” God. I offered some thoughts in reply which I thought I’d share here:

The relationship between “belief” and “experience” is too complicated to warrant an absolute divide between the two. Everything we ‘believe’, we believe based on ‘experience’. You mentioned William James. Well, that’s James straight up I think. We believe what we believe because of the difference that believing makes, and that difference is by definition a difference in experience. So, with James, I’d agree that “experience” is the reason why (or the mode in which) we believe anything at all. If anyone “believes” God exists, it’s because of their “experience” (of themselves, of the world, of the intelligibility of faith, of the explanatory value of God, etc.).

With that in mind – what about the mystics? Given my limited exposure and experience, I’d say that for the mystic it’s not that there are discrete moments or particular experiences that cannot be explained by the reasoning and categories that explain other things (mundane things outside those ‘special moments’), it’s that the experience of all those “other things” gets so inseparably mysticidentified with God that experience of those things becomes experience of God. All the world, all of being, becomes a venue and occasion in which God is experienced. That would follow from a proper understanding of standard theism, right? God creates, sustains, and is present in the immediacy of every act of being – every thought, every choice, etc. “Believing” this connection rationally may not blow one away with feelings of ecstasy, but the more truly one perceives it present in, as as the ground of, every truth – a ground not reducible to any one truth or the totality of truths – the all-encompassing beauty and truth that God is can, my experience suggests, translate simply and wonderfully into experiencing God.

Perhaps those Christians who “believe” but haven’t “experienced” God have not perceived the nature of what it is they “believe.” When I talk about “believing,” for example, I mean something more active and engaging, akin to “contemplating.” In the end, mysticism isn’t going deep at some particular point and that depth takes you farther away from other things. It’s going wide, redefining all particular points as equally constituting an experience of God. Mysticism is the show eradication from one’s horizon of all that is ‘mundane’ – God ‘in’ and (cautiously stated) ‘as’ all things (i.e., “God all in all“; 1Cor 15.28), and to see (viz., to believe as in contemplate) the world that way cannot but transform one’s experience. So to your friends who believe but have not experienced – I’d ask them to describe where God is relative to their beliefs. Maybe they’ll discover they’re missing the forest for the trees.

The risen Christ as saturated phenomenon—Part 2

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I’m nearing the end of Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection. Wonderful book. I’m slow, so it will take me a second reading through, and a third for some portions, to process what are theologically rich and practically challenging insights. In Part 1 I presented a portion of Robinette’s appropriation of Marion’s notion of the ‘saturated phenomenon’ as a way to understand the resurrection of Christ. In this Part 2 I’d like to finish that summary. Robinette’s comments are indented. Mine are not.

[T]he resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the saturated phenomenon par excellence in being unforeseeable, unbearable, unnamable, and unconstitutable by the subject [Marion’s four marks of the saturated phenomenon]…

Unforeseeable: The Resurrection as Unexpected Fulfillment
Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of salvation history, the eschatological fruition of creation. And yet Easter does not always conform to prior expectations. Its truth comes by way of transforming our expectations, by opening up hitherto unknown horizons of possibility and meaning. The revelation of the risen victim is a reality to which we must accustom ourselves. It summons us. It offers new expectations and desires. What it would teach us is something we cannot fully grasp on our own, even if we may glean aspects of it here and there. To put a fine point on it, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is something we must learn. The gospels consistently present Jesus’ appearances as events that catch their recipients off guard, in various modes of misunderstanding, surprise, and sometimes fear. However much enthusiasm attended the early Christian proclamation “He is risen; he is not here,” its initial in-breaking upon the hearts and minds of Jesus’ earliest followers came as a jolt that initiated a shift in understanding. This shift is evident in the story of scripture itself. Though eventually regarding by Christians as the fulfillment of salvation history (the ultimate antitype to the exodus), the irruption of Easter was not wholly foreseeable but only subsequently seen as “necessary.” As Marion puts it: “The phenomenon of Christ gives itself intuitively as an event that is perfectly unforeseeable because radically heterogeneous to what it nevertheless completes (the prophecies).”

Robinette does foresee certain objections to the idea that the resurrection was not foreseeable. The earliest Christians regarded the resurrection as the fulfillment of scripture. Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures” (1Cor 15.4). That doesn’t look like the resurrection was beyond anticipation. He also addresses at some length Jesus’ explicit anticipations of his own resurrection. Surely Jesus’ resurrection was not unforeseeable to him. But even at this junction, Robinette wants to maintain some openness and ambiguity to Jesus’ expectations. Robinette explains:

…Jesus’ resurrection is not…the inexorable outcome of a prior narrative context. Neither is its meaning exhausted by the preceding metaphorical elements that nevertheless help us to make sense of it…[A]s the early Christians searched the scriptures for illuminating the meaning of this novum ultimum [ultimate new thing] in terms of creation, exile, and restoration, they were very much reinterpreting these terms from the new perspective given by this novum ultimum. The resurrection established for them a new hermeneutic that helped them to creatively re-envision the governing plot of the Jewish scriptures.

What of Jesus’ own expectations regarding his vindication? Here Robinette recognizes the link in Christ’s teaching between the Kingdom that he preached and his own personal destiny. The Kingdom’s arrival and eventual fulfillment, Jesus believed, are inseparable from his fate. Robinette:

…though there are good reasons [to be confident] that Jesus believed his death and hoped-for indication were central to his Kingdom message…the passion predictions…faithfully portray Jesus’ own sense, however, inchoate, that his personal fate was utterly bound up with the Kingdom of God—that his person was intimately connected to Israel’s final restoration from exile…

But even if we take a maximalist position on this issue and argue that Jesus explicitly hoped God’s vindication would take the form of his resurrection, and furthermore that this unprecedented act would deliver God’s eschatological judgment and salvation for Israel; even so, his resurrection—its actual occurrence, its incident and attestation to others, its impact and history of effects—would necessarily remain unforeseeable to Jesus himself. Let this be properly understood.

…This, according to Marion, is “expectation without foresight”… Jesus may hope, even expect this vindication via resurrection, but such expectation was without foresight, for its intention could have no perceptible terminus. It could only extend indefinitely into the non-doing and non-being of death, and ultimately into the silent incomprehensibility of the Father. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

I’m less convinced that we have to subject the scope and depth of Jesus’ own insights into his fate to the precise limitations of his disciples. Jesus does not come to faith or a genuinely new perspective or awareness of himself on the other side of his own resurrection. That is, the resurrection is a saturated phenomenon for us to whom Christ appears and who by faith live in and to its fullness. That’s not to say Jesus sustains the same relationship to his own resurrection. I appreciate Marion’s point here – viz., as Christ approaches and endures the Cross, his consciousness cannot be so supernaturally flooded with certitude regarding his vindication that he has no need to ‘trust’ and ‘hope’. As the representative human, Jesus endures the Cross by faith. But this is said easily enough without supposing his faith and hope could not have taken the shape of an expectation of vindication close at hand. Given the convertibility in Jesus’ mind (and not his disciples) between the ‘Kingdom’ and his ‘personal fate’, shouldn’t one assume Jesus expected vindication rather immediately? Could Jesus have imagined the Kingdom advancing indefinitely in his absence? I should think not.

blindUnbearable: Easter and “Bedazzlement”
The eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be borne by those who are its witnesses, but saturates and “bedazzles” their capacities of perception and comprehension. “In terms of quality, writes Marion, “the figure of Christ obviously attests its paradoxical character because the intuition that saturates it reaches and most often overcomes what the phenomenological gaze can bear.” Easter’s unbearable character is evident in two related modes: the empty tomb and the appearances.

The Empty Tomb as Christological Apophasis
In the empty tomb stories, the saturation of intentionality (the “gaze”) occurs through a striking absence. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel (16.1-8) we are told that upon their discovery of the empty tomb the women were seized by ‘terror and amazement.” Instructed by the mysterious “young man” in a white robe to tell the disciples in Galilee what they see, or rather what they do not see, they leave post-haste, saying nothing to anyone “for they were afraid”…

The narration of bodily absence in Mark is constructed to provoke its readers. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (v. 6). It may be, as Robert Gundry observes, that Mark’s Hellenistic-Gentile audience would have been sufficiently impressed with an immortalizing of Jesus without bodily resurrection. “But no, compensation for crucifixion demands and gets more. The [soma], ‘body’, and the [ptoma], ‘corpse’, that was taken down from a cross and entombed has been raised to new life with the result that Jesus is going ahead of his disciples in re-embodied and therefore visible form.” The ostensible crudity of such bodiliness “is exactly what Mark wants his readers to understand”…

But this “nothing” the women “see” is no mere lack. It is the negative impress of an excessive “something” that cannot be borne by intentionality. In verses 6 and 7 we are introduced to an oppositional structure in which geography functions as a kind of phenomenology. “He has been raised; he is not here…But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The “there” of Galilee, which is where the risen Jesus is, is opposed to the “here” of the tomb in Jerusalem, where Jesus is not. What stretches from Jerusalem across to Galilee is more than a geographical distance. It is a perceptual and affective distance, a “space” that elicits anticipation and yearning, an attitudinal openness for beholding the as yet unrecognizable form of the bodily risen Lord…

Francis Watson warns against reading the fragmentary character of this “ending” as somehow accidental to Mark’s overall meaning. Helpfully, Watson calls for a style of interpretation that reads all of the resurrection narratives “precisely in their fragmentariness, and not in spite of it.” Such a view, so closely aligned with my own, presumes that the narratives and the traditions from which they stem are “included within the sphere of the event itself, so that the generation of an appropriate testimony to itself would be integral to the event.” In the case of Mark 16.1-8, the reticence in not narrating the resurrection is complemented by the non-narration of the post-resurrection encounters. The story of the women at the tomb is thus framed by two non-narrated events – “events” that nonetheless stand as the gospel’s climax. What we are left with is not an “object” that would satisfy intentionality but the hollowing out and intensification of desire for the crucified-and-risen One who becomes “present” by “going ahead” of them. That is to say, we are left without stable images or concepts that would comport with the capacities of the intending subject, but only the phenomenological attitude appropriate to an event that manifestly overwhelms those capacities—“terror and amazement.”

The Appearances as Christological Kataphasis
If the empty tomb story in Mark performs a contemplative and critical distance, we should not conclude that the appearance traditions, which narratively permit us to “see” the transfigured Christ, enclose or negate this distance. If the Marcan empty tomb is more apophatic in character, and the appearances more kataphatic, we should understand both of these modes as very closely linked. They are distinctive yet complementary attestations to the one eschatological Gift of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Just because the risen Jesus becomes communicative and interpersonally “present” to Mary Magdelene, the disciples, Paul, and the five hundred, revealing himself in ways that include visual, auditory, and even tactile aspects, never is this presence something ready-to-hand or fully comprehensible. For all their diversity the appearance traditions are remarkably coherent in articulating that the witnesses “see” and “touch” precisely in the midst of their “not-seeing” and “not-grasping.” They recognize the risen Jesus as a “stranger.” They identify him through a process of mis-identification, frequently coming to faith through doubt, and thus through the purgation and transformation of their surface desires. In each of these vignettes, and through the sum of them, the risen Christ becomes epiphanous while overshadowing their perceptual and cognitive horizons. The perceived absence here is the result of an excessive presence, and extreme surplus of givenness that cannot be anticipated or absorbed by those who will nevertheless become its transformed witnesses…

But we should not understand this “both-and” dynamic as implying some sort of equality between these two sets of terms. The relationship is not linear, as though presence stands “side by side” with absence in equal measure, or with the same significance. The mis-understanding and mis-identification described in the narratives result from an unreservedly positive givenness that, by its antecedent and extreme intensity, produces a “negative” impress due to the perceptual limitations of the witnesses who cannot fully absorb it. Like the blindness that results when unadjusted eyes are flooded with intense light, the appearances of the risen Christ in his glorified corporeality “bedazzles” witnesses. The perceptual obscurity here is the subjective correlate to the objective surplus of givenness. Apophatic “formlessness is a modality derivative of the inexhaustibly beautiful “form” of Christ. This in essence is what Jean-Luc Marion means by “bedazzlement”…

On the one hand, the empty tomb and appearance traditions together will not permit us to speak of the risen Jesus as simply returning to his former state of existence. The resurrection is not resuscitation. That Jesus first appears as a stranger, as one not limited by the partitions of ordinary space-time existence, as one who ascends from view in glory, etc., reveals the error of this extreme—one that would simply annul Jesus’ death. The resurrection is more-than-historical. It cannot be plotted within history without remainder.

On the other hand, the risen Jesus has not been transposed into a reality completely discontinuous with this embodied history, as though his humanity were only the penultimate stage in his bid for a formless eternity. His resurrection is not a disembodiment but the admission of his total historical-embodied humanity into eschatological fullness. The empty tomb tradition makes this point abundantly clear. That we are instructed to speak of continuity in the midst of discontinuity is evident in the narratives’ insistence on the familiarity and tactility of the risen Jesus, in ways that even include the identifying marks of his death.

Jesus’ resurrection is and is not historical, and this requires simultaneous acts of saying and un-saying. With this “both-and” structure, the narratives present us a set of grammatical rules to help us speak of the resurrection with relative adequacy, with proper ballast. We are not granted a stable and definitive mental picture that would allow us to identify the risen body’s quiddity. But this we do not need, nor should we expect it…

Though it may be difficult to grasp, the risen Lord is “simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord.” As James Alison observes, “the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time….[T]he resurrection life…is able tot include both the life and death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both”…this simultaneity is exactly what makes Jesus’ resurrection God’s definitive and non-violent offer of forgiveness. It is also what makes the resurrection God’s victory over death as opposed to its mere negation. But what Jesus’ resurrection and ascension most radically mean is “the introduction of a novelty into heaven: human nature. Being human was from then on permanently and indissolubly involved in the presence of God.” This insight, which is the very boldest of Christian insights, means that the body, particularly the flesh (caro) is the hinge (cardo) on which salvation turns….

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Unnamable: The Resurrection Pluralizes Horizons
As I have argued thus far, the empty tomb and appearance narratives are “eschatological signs”: historical vestiges and afterimages, revelatory traces of an “event” which, because of its historical and trans-historical reality, leaves its impress upon history, imbuing it with eschatological promise and dynamism, yet transcending the historical effects it continually shepherds. Such a reality could only be signified with relative adequacy to the extent that it includes complementary acts of saying and un-saying, rendering while not-grasping, disclosing while self-effacing. The presence-absence structure of the narratives echoes and analogizes the historical aporia of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Their style of presentation (their form) is marked unmistakably and uniquely by the sui generis “event” they seek to reveal (their content). Far from reflecting a deficiency in the risen Christ’s self-attestation, the tensions, ambiguities, and plurality of the resurrection narratives result from a brimming excess that produces harmonic, serializing patterns in the oral and textual traditions that enshrine without ever encompassing it.

While it is customary for apologetic defenses of the resurrection to emphasize the points of convergence between the resurrection narratives, no doubt because non-contradiction and multiple attestation are regarded as among the most important criteria for historical attestation are regarded as among the most important criteria for historical reliability, the differences and asymmetries between the narratives are just as important for appreciating their peculiar nature. Certainly patterns across the traditions do emerge. For example, most of the appearance traditions describe a process that works something like this: (1) the disciples find themselves in a state of desolation and shattered expectation; (2) Jesus appears to them, typically under the aspect of initial obscurity and shock; (3) Jesus greets his followers, offering them a word of shalom; (4) the disciples come to recognize him, sometimes worshiping, sometimes still doubting; (5) Jesus gives the disciples a word of command and/or mission; and, finally, (6) Jesus withdraws from their field of perception. Despite this general coherence, however, important differences emerge, just as they do with the empty tomb narratives…While some of these differences are open to some harmonization, overall the various traditions resist a single sequence. This is by no means a concession to incoherence, as if he sometimes-irreconcilable aspects of the narratives yield unreliable testimony. Indeed, several critics have noted that the divergences and disagreements serve to support their reliability, historically speaking, since they show the witnesses are not in collusion to make it up…this is what eyewitness testimony looks and sounds like. And in such cases the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened; rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion… [E]ven in their final redactions, the gospel writers allow the asymmetries to stand “warts and all: this was how their community had told the story from the very first days.” But this plurality is more than a consequence of surface factors of historical and textual transmission. We will find in it a deeper theological significance.

In the Philippians hymn, God is said to have exalted Jesus, giving him “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2.9). As Marion observes, this exaltation above every name reproduces “the property of God himself admitting all names and refusing each of them…the property of summoning an infinity of nominative horizons in order to denominate he who saturates not only each horizon, but the incommensurable sum of the horizons.” Christ, just as the Father, cannot be properly named within a single horizon, or the sum of them, but draws all perceptual and linguistic horizons towards himself, transcending and pluralizing them. His Kingdom remains “not of this world,” even if it is always irrupting within and through it. He neither conforms to our categories, not do the christological titles finally manifest his essence. Citing the end of John’s gospel, where we are told that the whole world cannot contain the books necessary to describe all that Jesus did (21:25), Marion points to the plurality of the gospels and christological titles are traces of an eschatological excess. If the New Testament canon is “closed,” it remains internally diverse and inexhaustible…

The incommensurability of the gospels may create certain difficulties for their historical valuation, at least the kind of valuation that is the hallmark of so much modern criticism, but no independent substrate can be extracted. No homogenized version of the gospels is possible, even if it were desirable. Such pluralization does not however lead to deconstructive undecidability, as through the differences in scripture result in endless différance. Viewed post-critically, and in recognition of the semantic surplus involved in all interpretation, the plurality within the canon is theologically pregnant. In the multiplicity of textual bodies that arise in the “space” of a gracious withdrawal (Christ’s bodily “resurrection” and “ascension”), we glean something of the boundless fecundity of their ultimate referent. The multitude of imagines in the appearance traditions, rather than providing different pieces for a single, puzzle-like image that would work together to satisfy our desire for conceptual stability, instead generate an ungovernable turbulence that renders each and every image incomplete and overexposed. Here apophasis and kataphasis are virtually indistinguishable.

paulUnconstitutable: Resurrection as the Giving of a “Self”
We have at last reached the fourth and final characteristic way Jesus’ resurrection reveals itself as the saturated phenomenon par excellence

The fourth and final aspect is directly related to the first three, but allows us now to focus more clearly o the ecclesial and apostolic dimension of the resurrection narratives. We may put it this way: Easter faith is not constituted by the “subject” who believes, but rather gives birth to a new “self” that may be received only in hospitality to the crucified-and-risen Other. The emergence of this new self follows a process of conversion within a new contextual setting, a new habitus in which Jesus’ resurrection is embodied through proclamation, worship, and ethical praxis. This habitus is the church—the “body of Christ.” And it is only in the realm of the church, through participation in the community’s mission of “being sent” into the world, that Jesus’ resurrection “makes sense”…

Coming to know Jesus as risen implies participation in a social-theoretical-practical space where Jesus is already affirms as the risen One and were the act of knowing Jesus as risen is sourced through a constantly renewed memory, materialized in performance, and propagated through the instruction and “showing how” by its more competent members. In short, knowing Jesus as risen means knowing ecclesially, as church.

God takes responsibility for sin – or not

spider2 - CopyBack in late spring/early summer of this year reviews of Boyd’s CWG began to surface and online discussion of the book took off. Of the reviews that were published online at the time, I don’t recall any that gave CWG all-around thumbs up. Some who passionately defend a non-violent view of the atonement nevertheless had serious concerns about core arguments and implications of Greg’s project. I suspect that has changed some, I don’t know. I’m not following the reviews at this point. I posted my own support for points I thought Greg made well alongside criticisms of weakness.

However, Greg is a friend whose ideas – even those I disagree with – I don’t mind returning to on occasion, if only because the concerns that motivate them and the passion that propels them are inspiring. Here I’d like to reflect a bit upon a particular phrase Greg uses to describe the Cross as God’s “taking responsibility for the world’s evil.” For example:

[T]he fact that the Son took responsibility for all the evil that he as Creator allowed to come to pass in his creation entails that the Father and Spirit, in their own unique ways, also took responsibility for all this evil, though they are no more morally culpable for any of it than is the Son.

Or here:

God assumed responsibility for all that he allowed to take place in his creation.

The idea derives ultimately from Greg’s belief that God creates freely, unnecessarily. That’s important, because the question of why God would take responsibility for a necessary God-world relationship (as proposed by standard Process metaphysics) never really arises. But for someone like Greg who espouses the (quite orthodox belief in the) utter gratuity of God’s choice to create, the question of God’s “taking responsibility” for the absolute mess the world introduces a challenge. Consider:

  • God creates freely and unnecessarily.
  • Creation freely corrupts itself and becomes overwhelmed by violence and suffering.

The freedom involved in the latter would be explanation enough for some, maybe most. But Greg believes that though we are endowed with the freedom to self-determine (which makes us and not God morally culpable for our individual choices), there remains an additional factor that we need to account for:

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

Over top all of humanity’s particular free choices stands the all-embracing statistical inevitability of sin and violence. Given the precarious condition of our origins (human weakness, finitude, ignorance, basic appetites and drives, the influence of socialization, the Satanic corruption of matter, and more), sooner or later creation would go off the rails. Greg may be an open theist who holds the future to be (partly) open, but he maintains the causal closure of the world’s descent into evil given these factors. God knows human sin and vice will inevitably erupt, and it is this inevitability that God freely creates and (I will suggest regarding his view) what God takes responsibility for.

van-gogh-pietaIt’s true of course, in an almost trivial sense, that God takes responsibility for what God does if by that we mean to say that God’s actions are fully informed, fully intended, fully acknowledged, fully his own, utterly embraced – entailments and all. But this is not news. The staunchest classical theist would affirm it.

But this is not what Greg means by saying God “takes responsibility for evil.” What Greg means, I gather, is that God assumes something approaching a moral responsibility for the world’s evil and suffering. In suffering the despair of godforsakenness, God suffers his own free choice to create, and this responsibility has a definite moral shape to it. God didn’t have to create but he did so knowing things would go desperately wrong. Thus (and this “thus” reveals the logic of God’s “responsibility” in Greg’s view) God suffers for us by suffering for having freely created us. That is at least part of the logic at work. Greg explains further:

[O]nly by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [cf. Moltmann] In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.” [cf. Moltmann] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

A few thoughts in response. First, it’s important to note that such claims as Greg makes in this last quote are nowhere found in the New Testament. Are they legitimate inferences drawn from biblical passages? Examining this question would take me outside the narrow interest of this post, and I’ve already reviewed CWG elsewhere and responded to key biblical passages (2Cor 5.21’s “God made Jesus to become sin”; Gal 3.13’s “Christ’s became a curse”; the Cry of Dereliction in Mk 15.34|Mt 27.46). Such passages needn’t imply that the Triune relations suffer the curse of godforsakeness which is the intrinsic consequence of our sin.

I am, secondly, more interested in exploring the nature of this suffering as a “taking of responsibility for evil” and the assumptions behind viewing it in such terms. True, Greg notes that God cannot be morally culpable for any of the particular evils of free agents. However, over top our particularity is the inevitability of sin and evil as such. Though God may not be responsible for the former, he is for the latter, and this gives every appearance of being moral in nature. Consider the gravity of the consequences God suffers and why. What constitutes this gravity in Greg’s project? What reality makes God’s suffering godforsakeness a “responsibility”? It would seem that since the inevitability of the depths of evil and suffering derives from God’s free choice to create, God owes it to the world (morally, not logically – given the gratuity of God’s choice to create and the wretched mess we made of ourselves) to suffer the godforsakeness we suffer.

It is important to say that this responsibility is beyond the fact that our salvation requires a demonstration of love sufficient to address our addiction and bondage to sin and violence. Here things get interesting inside Greg’s view. Certainly our created and fallen state presents natural conditions God must accommodate to rescue us from that state, (God’s redemptive manifestation to us must be embodied, human, finite – as opposed to be incarnate as a cow or a porpoise). Greg recognizes these. However, these include the particular extent and nature of God’s suffering (the reducing of God’s ad intra triune experience to the fragmentation and despair of godforsakeness). That God suffer so is entirely dictated by our condition.

But this leaves the “taking responsibility for sin” ungrounded. There’s no truth of human fallenness that makes it obvious that our rescue requires that God suffer the particular godforsakeness and despair which are the consequences for us of our evil. It appears that what ultimately grounds the necessity that God suffer in this particular godforsaken sense is the gratuity of creating a world bound inevitably to do great violence and suffer immeasurable evil. Because God is not culpable for particular human evils but must suffer infinitely to assume all human (and animal) suffering and godforsakeness, the responsibility God assumes in suffering so would be grounded antecedently in the very inevitability that supervenes upon the entire “the whole uproar of history.” This, not anything human beings require per se, appears to define why God must suffer so.

For Greg everything rides on it being the case that on the Cross God assumes this responsibility through suffering the despair of godforsakeness intrinsic to our sinful choices. The very “authenticity” of Jesus’ suffering as a redemptive act, its very ‘saving efficacy’, requires that God experience the combined sum of the world’s godforsakenness. We get a clue toward the end of the previous quote from Greg into what constitutes the link between God’s godforsakeness and our godforsakeness in terms of “responsibility.” God’s suffering must be “authentic” relative to our need. And it is only authentic if it is equivalent (same despair, same godforsakeness, same crisis of identity, same loss of hope, same pain), but infinitely so for God of course because he has the entirety of human and animal suffering to assume). Only if we perceive the Cross as being this may we have “confiden[ce] that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.” This “confidence,” for Greg, is how faith appropriates the healing, reconciling work of the Cross.

But why suppose any of this? It’s not an explicit claim of any NT writer. And it isn’t obvious that our being reconciled to God or healed from our own godforsakeness requires that God be equally as godforsaken as us. Why must our healing from godforsakeness require the multiplication of godforsakeness in God? We don’t universally assume that acts of saving or healing of an inter-personal, loving nature are only authentically transforming and redeeming if the gracious saving party shares every consequence intrinsic to the offending party’s choices.

We do agree, with Greg, that it is not anything human beings do to Jesus that saves us, rather it is what the Father is doing “behind the scenes.” But where Greg sees the Father abandoning Jesus behind the scene of the the human abandonment of Jesus, we see the Father doing something else, namely, not abandoning Jesus but empowering him to endure human rejection “for the joy set before him,” to forgive those lynching him, to offer paradise to those who entreat him. On the Cross, Jesus still “does what he sees the Father doing.” But on Greg’s view, as I understand it, Jesus sees the Father abandoning him but does something else, namely, not abandon others but forgive and offer paradise instead.

The more I’ve pondered these differences with Greg, the more I come to recognize the more fundamental difference from which our other disagreements derive. Surprisingly, it is not that Greg is a Kenoticist and we are not, nor is it that we believe in God’s undiminished triune delight and Greg does not. It is, I believe, our very different views of the human predicament. Just what is the “fallen human condition” the rescue from which we give the name “salvation” to? And how does Jesus’ dying and rising together heal that condition? For us, the notion of godforsakeness (viz., that God must, objectively speaking, become “cursed” [Gal 3.13] by experiencing the despair of ‘forsaking’ and ‘being forsaken by’ God) that informs Greg’s whole project, is the very myth we need saving from. Where, for Greg, God’s own godforsakeness constitutes our salvation, for us godforsakeness is what Jesus’ death and resurrection expose to be the myth that enslaves us – and one doesn’t expose myths by believing them.

All that said, let me shift directions here —

Part of Greg’s project involves a hermeneutical re-centering, a cruciform hermeneutic. The cruciform hermeneutic makes what happens on the Cross the hermeneutical center (or “lens”) through which everything else in the Bible is read. I’ve already reviewed why I think this is impossible, but I though I might find it helpful to turn this entire dilemma of Greg’s on its head. Instead of God taking responsibility for creating, what would happen if we view God as taking responsibility for being created? That is, in Christ, God the human being fulfills humanity’s responsibility before God to present itself humbly, obedient and trusting in the face of all the vicissitudes inherent in that nature, and fulfills human nature’s calling and purpose. In this case Jesus’ death fulfills created nature, loving and trusting God within the constraints of created finitude. Christ, the God-Man, represents creation to God, takes responsibility for being creatED (not for creatING), unites creation to God, and in so doing reconciles the world to God, not God to the world.

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting (following James Alison) that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically one.

vgflowersWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many times, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth). But to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood. Yet this, it seems to me, is precisely what Greg attempts theologically, and it is aesthetically violent. There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross. There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives to say “Peace.” But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through the resurrrection. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus. So all of Greg’s descriptions of the Cross as God’s love stooping to accommodate us in our weakness, etc., – all true – are by definition post-resurrection readings of the Cross.

So, the hermeneutical center cannot be a single proposition or event, but rather must be faith perceiving itself as apprehended by the risen-slaughtered One, and so not taking responsibility for having created if that means God must become cursed and share in the despair of godforsakenness. There is only need for that (and arguably not even then) if one insists on a reason to believe, or for the meaning for faith, or for redemption, that derives solely from the Cross (i.e., the Cross interpreted linearly with its doors closed to the resurrection). But that would be like looking to the weight required to press organic raw materials until they yield their beautiful reds, yellows, and blues as “the” explanation for everything else that goes into a Van Gogh painting, including why it’s beautiful.

The difference between “appearing to” and “being seen”

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Alex Grey’s artwork can be unsettling. I keep coming back to it, however, not in a freak-show kind of way, but because his work silences me and makes me reflect in such positive ways (on the meaning of existence, the essential connectedness of all things, the transcendent presence of the One doing the seeing, etc.). Sometimes a work of art will inspire my thoughts. Other times I have thoughts that inspire the choice of a particular picture. With this post it’s the latter. I went looking for an image that would capture my thoughts and – no surprise in this case – Alex Grey came to mind.

There is a difference between “appearing to” and “being seen.” The latter is consistent with being a passive object of perception. I can be seen without permitting it, without even knowing it. God cannot be seen (objectified) in this passive sense.

The only way to see God is to see him seeing you

…to have him “appear to” you, to apprehend him in the experience of being apprehended by him. But radical, gracious givenness infinitely precedes every progress we make toward beatific vision, which is always a “being seen.” It’s meant to unsettle us. If it doesn’t, then you’re mistaking something created and finite for God, which is what we give the name idolatry to.

We are thought by him, not he by us. Our best ‘third-person’ reflections (what we call “God-talk”) are really only vestiges of a divine invitation preceding our first thought, crumbs left to guide the hospitable and seeking heart on a journey that ends with us in full view of him, not him in full view of us, where we discover that finding him is to find oneself apprehended by him.

The same is true with the resurrected appearances. Christ “appears to” but is not passively observed. Christ gives himself to be seen. He is, to borrow Robinette’s phrase, “tactile and transcendent.” Because the resurrected Christ is the end and fulfillment of Creation, because he is the Age to Come, because the resurrection does not return him to his former state of existence, the entirety of his embodied existence becomes the Eschaton. He cannot “be seen” passively by this present age, “uncovered” by us. The Eschaton cannot be spied upon. This reversal is a spiritual exercise – a learning how to “be approached” instead of “approaching.”

The loss of control is unsettling. Like a Grey painting, it overwhelms our horizons and perspectives. When you see that your seeing is a ‘being seen’ (graciously and benevolently), there remains no place or location in the painting that affords your perspective any measure of autonomous control. You are beheld, and in being beheld become beholden to the immeasurable love that sees you and all things.

This is what I take ‘apophaticism’ to be, without which being seeing gets reduced to our seeing, and that gets the creator-created order of grounding, nature and grace, creation’s freedom and final end, entirely (and despairingly) backwards.

The risen Christ a saturated phenomenon—Part 1

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Adam Friedman

Robinette (Grammars of Resurrection) appropriates Marion’s work in understanding the resurrection of Christ. I’d like here to share Robinettes’ summary Marion’s notion of “saturated phenomena” and then follow up with a second post showing how Robinette understands the Resurrection to be a “saturated phenomenonpar excellence. Robinette:
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Always in the encounter with the risen Christ is he acknowledge in the midst of alterity, as a stranger, in the mode of transcendence, and thus in the mode of “absence.” But again, this “absence” is not a result of a weakness in the given. It is the result of an excess. In the same way unadjusted eyes see darkness when flooded with light, the perceptual absence in the resurrection narratives is the correlate to the eschatological surplus of Jesus’ risen presence, which cannot be objectified or reduced to a single horizon of perception. This paradoxical relationship is the ultimate key for understanding the resurrection narratives in their extant form… [Bold mine – love the analogy]

Here I enlist the work of Jean-Luc Marion whose study of givenness and sketches of saturated phenomena will prove helpful in exploring the eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e., how they are uniquely disclosive of a “presence” that, in its eschatological (excessive) givenness, remains “absent” from the witnesses whose capacity for representation remains saturated.

In setting up a strategy for sketching the characteristics of saturated phenomena, Marion adopts Kant’s categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality to show how each becomes overexposed. A broader concern for Marion is to show how the a priori conditions for experience and thought in Kant’s philosophy (and by extension much modern thought) are too restrictive to account for phenomena that, rather than conforming to the subject’s power of knowing, greatly exceed it. Marion is troubled by how the “turn to the subject” so frequently valorizes the knowable over the un-known, the visible over the in-visible, the objectifiable over the non-objectifiable, the conditions of the possibility over the im-possible.

The saturated phenomenon, according to Marion, refers to “the impossibility of attaining knowledge of an object, comprehension in the strict sense,” not “from a deficiency in the giving intuition, but from its surplus, which neither concept, signification, nor intention can foresee, organize, or contain.” [“In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology’” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (1999).] As a result of its excessive givenness to perception and intuition, the saturated phenomenon makes definitive and stable conceptualization impossible. It is always “more than,” disclosive of a depth dimension or in-visibility that cannot be fully grasped by the subject’s objectifying intentionality. Such phenomena would require rethinking the “subject” as our primary starting point—particularly its pretension to self-constitution and conceptual mastery—and to begin instead with the givenness of phenomena as they given themselves to intuition.

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But what phenomena might we imagine as saturating the subject in this way? Kant himself provides an initial clue with the experience of the beautiful. Whereas Kant typically regards intuition the weaker in arriving at conceptual knowledge, aesthetic experience is said to engulf the power of thought so that the “representation of the imagination furnishes much to think, but to which no determinate thought, or concept, can be adequate.” Marion comments: “The impossibility of the concept arranging this disposition comes from the fact that the intuitive overabundance no longer succeeds in exposing itself in a priori rules, whatever they might be, but rather submerges them. Intuition is no longer exposed in the concept; it saturates it and renders it overexposed—invisible, unreadable, not by lack, but indeed by an excess of light.” [Marion, Being Given]

Take the example of listening to music. In the opening moments of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, even though the listener has settled in to enjoy the musical performance, and while the listener may already be quite familiar with the piece, the first reception of its givenness to the senses is truly magical. A sudden upsurge of intuition floods comprehension and leaves the listener without the ability to fully comprehend, though the effect is delight. The “sonorous mass…comes upon me and submerges me,” leaving me “belated” to the “deployment of this becoming.” [Being Given] The actual event of music is always surprising, something I cannot fully anticipate. It is something to which I respond and follow. “I” am not coincident with the piece as listener but a witness to its givenness. To be sure, I discern patterns and intelligence. I follow the musical story it tells through tonal and temporal tensions and resolutions. Without being able to describe it in the least, the piece of music may be remarkably satisfying in its supreme musical sense. It is not unintelligible but inexhaustibly intelligible. It generates much greater intuition than I can possible objectify through concepts and words. Herein lays the delight of its astonishing, beautiful unfolding. I am “caught up” in the piece, “outside” of my self in ek-stasis. What is occurring is an event in which I am transported. In the “play” of music I am moved to a kind of “self-forgetfulness,” with self-forgetfulness being the “positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”

Or consider the event of beholding the beautiful form presented in painting. Although it may be possible to consider a painting as a “thing,” made up of elements like wood, gold leafing, canvas, paint, and so forth, it is not primarily the painting’s thingness in which the beauty consists. The beautiful form does not present itself as merely something ready-to-hand, an object for instrumental use, but gives itself as an appearing of unsuspected depth Beauty discloses itself in the visible but never as strictly visible or completely objectifiable. It remains in-visible in its “crossing of the visible”:

060502-01015075[T]o see it as a painting, in its own phenomenality of the beautiful, I must of course apprehend it as a thing (subsisting, ready-to-hand), but it is precisely not this that opens it to me as beautiful; it is that I “live” its meaning, namely its beautiful appearing, which has nothing like to it, since it cannot be described as the property of a thing, demonstrated by reasons, or hardly even be said. What is essential—the beautiful appearing—remains unreal, an “I know not what,” that I must seek, await, touch, but which is not comprehensible. [Being Given]

The beautiful, writes David Bentley Hart, is objective, not in the sense that it concerns “things,” but in its precedence to the response it evokes. “There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply.” [Hart, Beauty of the Infinite] Beauty appears in “distance,” or better, it gives distance. What is beautiful opens up a space for its inexhaustible beholding, an infinity of perspectives. “And because the surplus of ‘meaning’ in the beautiful consists in and urges attention toward this infinite content of distance, it allows for ceaseless supplementation: it is always unmoored, capable of disrupting stable hierarchies of interpretation, of inspiring endless departures and returns, and of calling for repetition and variation; it releases a continual distribution of meaning across the distance.” [Beauty of the Infinite]…

There are many other examples of saturated phenomena Marion examines in his works, including memory, birth, death, the experience of one’s own body, erotic love, and the interpretation of a text. But we should briefly consider one more, since it strikes important ethical keys.

Drawing upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Marion shows how the encounter with another person, “the face’ of the Other, is saturated in its givenness. Visible yet inexhaustible in its irreducible depth, the face of the Other (his or her alterity) breaks in upon my egoic self-sameness (ipseity) and calls me to hospitality and responsibility. The Other is no objectifiable thing, something to be comprehended within a conceptual category such as humanity, society, ethnicity, gender, or nationality. To reduce the Other to strict visibility or comprehension in this way constitutes an act of violence. Persons are not “things, “commodities,” or “parts” within a broader totality. The Other is an unsubstitutable revelation, illimitable and irrepressible in his or her self-gift. The Other reverses my gaze in a “counter-experience.” In beholding the Other, I see one who sees me, as thus one who returns my gaze through different eyes. Here I am not a self-constituting “subject” regarding some “object,” but a “witness” to an Other who calls me into an ethical relationship. “For as face, he faces me, imposes on me to face up to him as he for whom I must respond…. I have received (and suffered) a call [un appel]. The face makes an appeal [un appel]; it therefore calls me forth as gifted. My very sense of self is in fact given to me by the Other. My “being” is a “being given.” The pretension to immediate self-presence is an illusion. I encounter myself only in mediation, in a multitude of face-to-face relations with Others who call me from the confines of egoic existence. Despite our persistent efforts to think of ourselves in terms of a transcendental ego gazing upon the world from a position of nowhere, the order of manifestation which phenomenological research unveils shows again and again that alterity precedes and radically conditions every sense of “mineness.”

(To be continued)

Nous Christou

imageThe Spirit so radically expands the horizons of awareness, of space and time, of life and death…that such reductionistic notions become almost trivial. Thus it should be stressed that the main thrust of 1 Cor. 2 is not negative but overwhelmingly affirmative. It is not to denigrate nous or mind but to proclaim what is in the nous Christou [the mind of Christ]. It is here that one sees and participates in “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” What has not entered into the human mind, God has prepared for those who love him. This is open to those whose spirits, in agreement with the Holy Spirit, search out the deep things of creation and of God, and whose relationship to God preserves the vital relationality that marks them as bearers of the image of God. To be endowed by the Holy Spirit with the nous Christou is not other-worldly, but it is instead to perceive and to behold this world as if for the first time because it is knowing the world through the Logos, the One through whom all things have been made. The natural order then becomes, remarkably, the creation of God in which every moment is sustained by God’s grace alone.

James Loder, The Knight’s Move

The coincidence of loving and being loved

unity-rhiannon-marhiFellow Californian Rhiannon Marhi combines captivating colors and themes that settle the heart down and help it find its center where all is gift – where one experiences oneself most fundamentally as graciously gifted. It’s popular (and correct, I think) to argue that beauty describes a more fundamental, more primal mode of knowing than language. That’s why ‘ineffable’ doesn’t imply ‘irrational’ or ‘meaningless’. When I find a great quote, I think of what it would look like if it were painted. Nicholas of Cusa’s quote here speaks of self-knowledge as coincident with knowledge of being loved by God. I thought that quote sounds like Marhi’s painting appears.

“The likeness which seems to be created by me is the Truth which creates me, so that in this way, at least, I apprehend how closely I ought to be bound to You, since, in You, being loved coincides with loving. For if in You who are my likeness I ought to love myself, then I am exceedingly bound to do so when I see that You love me as Your creature and image.” (Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464 CE)

The risen-slaughtered one

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I was recently introduced to James Alison, Catholic theologian and author, well-known for his interpretation of Rene Girard’s thought. To get acquainted with him I picked up his first book, Knowing Jesus (1994), which addresses the question of what it means to know Christ. We’re associate knowing Christ with talk of a ‘personal relationship’ with God or with agreeing to fundamental beliefs about who Jesus was. Alison pushes through and beyond these to expose what he feels knowledge of Christ involves.

The book is full of profound insights. I do not intend to review them all, but I’d like to explore a portion of his first chapter in which he discusses the relationship between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and how these remain united in the transformative knowing of Christ.

As I picked up this book, I had in mind 2Cor 2.2 where Paul tells the Corinthians that when he first came to Corinth he “resolved to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” I’ve been pondering this statement of Paul’s coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG in which Boyd refers to this statement as evidence of a particular cruciformity, but having discovered important weaknesses in Boyd’s work didn’t mean Paul’s statement didn’t continue to occupy my thoughts and challenge me. So I was happy to find Alison’s first chapter at least in part concerned with how Christ-crucified figured into knowing Christ. I’m not sure I understand Alison’s insight, but I hope thinking out loud on it here will bring some clarity. Feel free to offer your comments:

Now what that means is that the risen Lord is simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord. Jesus as he appeared to the disciples was not, as it were, the champion who has showered down after the match; he appeared on a completely different level. If there’s any phrase that comes near expressing this, it is ‘the living dead’. Not, obviously, in the Hollywood sense of someone caught in a time warp between being dead and going to an eternal rest, whether up or down, but in the sense that the resurrection life was the giving back of the whole human life, leading up to and including that death has been conquered, that the resurrection life isn’t on the same level as death, just cancelling it out, as it were. The resurrection life includes the human death of Jesus. He is always present after the resurrection simultaneously as crucified and as risen Lord.

Just in case you think I’m making this up, may I refer you to the Easter Preface number III in the Roman Missal. There we are told that Jesus is ‘still our priest, our advocate who always pleads our cause. Christ is the victim who dies no more, the Lamb once slain who lives forever’. What the Latin of the Preface is fact says is, ‘agnus qui vivit semper occisus’, which literally means ‘who lives forever slain’ – closer to the idea of the living dead than the English translation. The same idea comes up in all those hymns in the book of Revelation, where the seer sees Jesus as ‘a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6). This is well captured in certain medieval pictures, such as Van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ [opening picture of this blog post], or Grunwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (second picture of this blog post). The artists represent the living Lamb, standing with a banner, or an empty cross, to symbolize the resurrection. Out of the Lamb’s slaughtered neck blood flows into a chalice. That is about as good an image of the simultaneously crucified and risen Lord as we can manage. It is the slaughtered one who is made alive, given back in the resurrection. It is not as though the resurrection cured him of being slaughtered – (he was in a bad way but God bandaged him up) – the gratuity of the resurrection is what gives him back as the slaughtered one. It is here that the devotion to Christ crucified has its place in the lives of some of the saints. It is here that stigmatists like St. Francis or Padre Pio bear witness to the life of the risen Lord. The mistake is when people oppose the crucified Lord to the risen Lord, imagining perhaps that ‘a true spiritual life requires a balance between these two’. There is no opposition, for the presence of the crucified Lord is within the presence of the risen Lord It is as crucified Lord that Jesus is risen. As we will see, the presence of Jesus as [the] risen-slaughtered one is key to the sense in which the resurrection is the presence of forgiveness, is the forgiveness of sins.

The last of the resurrection appearances to a person, making of that person an apostle, an authentic witness to the resurrection, was the rather strange, sui generis, appearance to Paul. Strange and sui generis because Paul had had, as far as we know, no contact with Jesus of Nazareth before his death. That is, he had no personal historical recollection of the life of Jesus, or his teaching, to be deepened, transformed and authenticated by the appearance of the risen Lord. Paul’s relationship to Jesus was simply that of trying to wipe out, out of zeal for the Lord of hosts, the false ‘Way’ that was spreading in the wake of Jesus’ death. Saul, as he then was, would have been convinced that when it came to persecuting, it mattered entirely whose side you were on. It would be, for instance, wicked to be part of a foreign persecution of, say, the Maccabees, because that was to persecute God’s own faithful ones. On the other hand, it was certainly right to persecute, in the name of the Lord, those who were undermining the true faith in the God of Moses.

Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus as the persecuted one. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9.5). That was the impact of the risen Lord on Paul – not the triumphant one, the victorious one, but the persecuted one. The dynamic is the same as I have been describing with relations to the appearances to the disciples in John and Luke. The risen Lord is the persecuted-and-risen Lord. Or rather, the impact made on Paul is that when he perceives that it is God whom he has been persecuting, in the name of God, it is the presence of God as persecuted that is, to him, forgiveness; that is to him the possibility of an entirely new life, a radical reordering of everything he had believed. The gratuitous presence was that of the crucified one. Not as accusation, but as forgiveness. Because of the persecution in which he was involved, Paul was able to perceived his involvement in the persecution of God, and was thus able to receive a huge change of life, a change by which he came to worship God as victim: to preach Christ crucified, and to know only Christ, and him crucified. Again, the risen Lord has risen as the crucified one.

lamgods_gent modifiedNow that, the simultaneous presence of the risen life in the crucified one, is what is called a mystery. Please notice that a ‘mystery’ is not here something obscurantist, or intellectually dubious, as when someone runs out of logical things to say, and retreats into talking piffle as a cover-up I think I’m saying something that is making reasonable use of categories we possess, but to indicate something of a density that is not part of our normal experience. I’m saying that the risen Jesus is risen simultaneously crucified to death, and living, both of which are categories we can understand separately, but which it would never normally occur to us to imagine together. It is not merely a question of simultaneity, as if I were claiming that two mutually exclusive states were simultaneously present – some sort of paradox, like a room which is simultaneously noisy and silent. I am saying that the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time. If you like, the resurrection life is not on the same level as ordinary life, which is annihilated at death, rather it is able to include both the life and the death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both. Once again, it is the element of pure gratuity in the giving and giving back which is what is not on the same level as life or death, and is thus able to make both present simultaneously.

I ask your patience if this appears to be bizarre. It is, I would suggest, the experience that is at the center of the Christian faith, from which starting point the other pivotal doctrines – of the Incarnation and the Trinity – were discovered. (Bold emphasis mine)

As I said, coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG, I had been thinking on 2Cor 2.2 (“resolved only to know Christ and him crucified”) as a proposed cruciform center to reading the Bible (per CWG). I described in that review why I think the Cross cannot comprise any sort of center (at least not in the terms proposed by Boyd). A wider, more inclusive center comprising the entirety of the incarnate career seemed to me to be more in line with the NT’s apostolic train of thought. In light of that, I take Alison’s insights to suggest that when Paul says he resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, defining a hermeneutical center to reading the Scriptures was the last thing on his mind. If we read Paul in light of other similar statements he makes (Phil 3.10), and in light of his issues with the Corinthian believers, it becomes increasingly clear that his resolve ‘to know nothing but Christ crucified’ describes the transformational experience of NT faith/gospel (as we receive it from apostolic witness) and not a conviction about how to read the Bible.

If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) just 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, a ‘reactor’, or (thank you James Loder) an asymmetrical relational unity in which the God who doesn’t need us (i.e., who creates freely, ex nihilo) refuses to be without us:

Needing nothing, you create me.
Wanting nothing, you desire me.
Full beyond measure, you pursue me.
Absolute, you invite me in.

As I read Alison, I began to wonder what it would even mean for a Christian believer to know and relate to Christ – a living person – solely (or primarily, or centrally) within the event of his death. One can’t “know” a dead person. One only “knows” the living – as living. So we only ‘know’ Christ crucified by knowing the risen Jesus. This is not merely to say that we only know what his death means as we contemplate it from his resurrection, though that is true. It also means it is only in experiencing him as risen and living that we experience the virtuous reality of his death.

I’m not sure how to unpack this for any so-called cruciform hermeneutic, but it seems to me that “knowing Christ and him crucified” doesn’t at all amount to making a particular understanding of the Cross the center around which one reads the Scriptures. Perhaps I’m missing the point because I’m more teleological-minded and more concerned with the concrete (existential) nature of transformation. When I read 2Cor 2.2 I see Paul resolving upon a kind of experience in light of alternatives being pursued by some Corinthians (some gnostic-leaning, some with an over-realized eschatology, some believing they had already realized an angelic-resurrected form of existence). It doesn’t seem to me that he is here thinking of a way to interpret the Old Testament as much as he is simply identifying the Jesus of his experience to be the real, historical Jesus. The Corinthian gnostic might claim, “I know Christ who ____” and fill in the blank with an attempt to define who Jesus is and what his life means apart from the event of his death. To this Paul resolves (2Cor 2.2) upon identifying the real, historical, embodied, Jesus as the living Jesus he worships and knows. He’s not advancing a hermeneutic per se. He’s advancing the identity of the risen Jesus of the Church’s faith with the historical, crucified Jesus. It is the Church’s experience and worship of the risen-slaughtered One which forms the center of how we read the Bible.

While I think Alison’s points address my concern regarding 2Cor 2.2, I think he says far more which I hope to reflect upon in due course.

Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 3

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I hope those interested in Balthasar ponder Karen Kilby’s reflections. Here is the third and final portion of her Ch. 5 response to Balthasar’s views on the Trinity and the Cross.

Too Integrated?
The previous section focused on how Balthasar knows all that he seems to know, how indeed any theologian could possibly be in a position to make the claims that Balthasar does. We turn now to a more critical consideration of what he says. In other words, even if one might accept in principle that any such detailed and intimate portrait of the inner life of the Trinity could be acceptable, there is an aspect of Balthasar’s account which ought still, I will suggest, to give significant pause. I will argue that we find in what Balthasar says of the Trinity the apex of a tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency at other points, here it is distinctly troubling.

What is this tendency? Suffering, loss, and self-abasement get a strong press in Balthasar’s works. A proclivity to case suffering in a positive light, and to link faith, love, and obedience with self-loss, self-abasement, even something like annihilation of the self, is something that constantly makes itself felt.

One can see this first of all in Balthasar’s treatment of the Cross, and the extension into Holy Saturday. There is here a dwelling upon suffering, a concern to bring out the depth, the immensity, the all-exceeding quality, of Christ’s agony. The interest is not primary with Christ’s physical suffering, nor with his suffering of injustice, humiliation, and betrayal on the part of authorities, disciples, and so on. Balthasar’s concern pivots rather on Jesus’ suffering of God’s wrath, his suffering the betrayal and abandonment by the Father, the hell of absolute God-forsakenness. And he is very concerned to insist on the intensity, the unbearable, unspeakable, unthinkable enormity, of this suffering. Because of Christ’s “filial intimacy with the Father,” Balthasar writes, he can “suffer total abandonment by the Father and taste that suffering to the last drop.” Balthasar affirms at a number of points that the experience of Holy Saturday is timeless; Pascal is right to say that “Jesus’ agony lasts until the end of the world” as is Be’rulle to speak of the eternal openness of Christ’s moral wounds. Balthasar represents Christ’s sufferings as exceeding and so in some sense containing all other suffering; he endorses Barth’s claim that “All that happened to Israel then [in the Old Testament] and since in terms of divine judgment is ‘only a faint reflection compared with the infinitely more terrible happenings that took place on Good Friday’,” and writes elsewhere of “wounds which transcend all inner worldly hurts.” Christ’s suffering “towers far above chronological time,” he writes in his collection of aphorisms, and “Never will an individual man or the totality of all humanity even approximately grasp and encompass these sufferings.”

If the salvific suffering of Christ, and an instance on its eternity and enormity, is important in Balthasar’s theology, then so is the fact that this is something which Christ can graciously “share” with his followers, Balthasar affirms at a number of points the existence of a mystical participation in Christ’s Passion, in Holy Saturday, in Christ’s experience of abandonment and God-forsakenness. He is interested in the mystics’ “dark night of the soul” in general, and in the experiences of Adrienne von Speyr in particular.

The importance in Balthasar’s theology of Christ allowing others a share in his suffering leads at some points to the distinctive and rather surprising exegetical moves. Why does Jesus weep at the death of Lazarus? This is a traditional conundrum, since, if one supposes that Jesus knows that he will raise Lazarus, there seems little cause for tears at his death. One solution that has been given in the tradition is that Jesus wept for the suffering of Martha and Mary, and on this Balthasar puts an unusual spin of his own:

He must have been deeply moved at the inner tragic dimension in which he had to share his God-forsakenness on the Cross (eucharistically and by way of anticipation) with those he loved in a special way.

In the delay of his arrival, in other words, through his temporary “abandonment” of them, Jesus has allowed Martha and Mary to share in his own experience of divine forsakenness, and it is for this, according to Balthasar, that he weeps. Or, perhaps even more startingly, Balthasar suggests that in the words to Mary from the cross, “Woman, this is your son,” Jesus is not so much providing for his mother as rejecting her and so allowing her a share in his forsakenness.

If, for some, an aspect of the Christian life may be the “gift” of a share in unimaginable suffering, in Christ’s Passion and God-forsakenness, this Christian life for all is fundamentally to be characterized as surrender. Self-abnegation, loss of self, and sacrifice of the self, are constantly to the fore in Balthasar’s presentation of faith and the Christian life – and these not just as the vocation of some, or as things that faith might sometimes require, or as things that the Christian must when necessary embrace willingly, but as essential, constitutive, defining components of Christian faith and life.

It is instructive here to consider Balthasar’s treatment of Mary’s fiat, her consent to the angel’s message in the annunciation. This Balthasar takes to be the perfect and archetypal response of faith. “Let it be done to me according to thy will”: allowing oneself to be molded and stamped by God, allowing oneself to become as wax is, for Balthasar, the perfection of faith. He is keen to insist that this is not passivity, but what he calls “active receptivity.” Nevertheless, it is construed very much in terms of self-abnegation. Mary’s achievement, the “highest…made possible by grace,” is “unconditional self-surrender,” “pure transparency. Pure flight from self. Pure emptied space for the Incarnation of the Word.”

The sense that suffering, self-abnegation, and indeed humiliation carry some sort of positive valuation for Balthasar is confirmed at almost every turn in his writings. If we limit ourselves to a single, relatively slender volume of essays in ecclesiology (the second volume of Explorations in Theology), we find reference to the Church as “borne by the suffering members” to the “inner mystery of suffering” that the Constantinian church of glory hid; to the true Christian spirit as “the will to poverty, abasement and humility”; to the “real, fruitful humiliation” of Peter, which was not a “mere exercise in humiliation”; to a humility which, because we are sinners, must be “instilled into us by humiliation”; to “self-abnegation in the service of Christ” as the only way to reveal Christ’s own self-abnegation; to a self-abnegation that liturgical piety requires – one which indeed Balthasar describes as “this violent, this often ‘crucifying’ sacrifice of the pious subject to the ecclesial object”; and to “complete self-abnegation and obedience to the hierarchy” as something Charles de Foucauld rightly commended.

Even when Balthasar expresses thanks to his family, this same alignment of love and suffering makes itself felt. In a retrospective essay written in 1965, after a paragraph on the impossibility of properly acknowledging all that one ought to be thankful for, we find the following:

And where would a man end, if he wanted to begin thanking those of his fellow men who accompanied him on his way, formed him, protected him, made everything possible? Left and right the greetings would have to go: to the nameable and the nameless. A mother is there, who during the course of a long fatal illness dragged herself to Church each morning to pray for her children. Other close relatives, of whom (to what ends God knows) fearful sufferings were demanded. Only in the light of God will one really know what he has to be thankful for.

He is of course thanking his family for nurturing, loving, and educating him – this is presumably all covered in the first sentence cited. But what particularly calls out for granted here is, first, the painful prayers of one suffering and dying, and then simply sufferings whose purpose is unknown.

retablo_of_the_holy_trinity-by_alcario_otero-2001What are we to make of all this? Opinion will perhaps divine. Balthasar is not alone in this sensibility which aligns on some very fundamental level love and sanctity with suffering, and faith with self-abnegation. Something similar can be found in late medieval thought and practice, and in strands of Counter-Reformation and nineteenth-century piety. On the other hand, to develop such alignments is by no means an instinct which has characterized the whole of the Christian tradition: it is largely absent from the Fathers and from Thomas, for instance. It is a sensibility which some will take to be an authentic, developed expression of a theology of the Cross, and element of the mystical tradition that Balthasar laudably retrieves and revitalizes in the fact of the shallow optimism and activism of his time and our own; and which others will find alien, and see perhaps as a masochistic distortion of Christianity.

Whatever one makes of this alignment as it pertains to the characterization of Christian faith and the Christian life, however, there is a fundamental problem when a similar alignment is imported into speculation about the inner life of the Trinity – and this is in fact what we find in Balthasar.

I write of a “similar alignment” rather than “the same alignment” because Balthasar does not – quite – bring suffering into the Trinity. But he does speak of something in the Trinity which can develop into suffering, of a “suprasuffering” in God, and, as we have seen, of risk, of distance, and of something “dark” in the eternal Trinitarian drama. We have seen that he consistently construes the giving internal to the Trinity in terms of giving away, giving up – in terms suggestive of loss. And we have seen that he has a kenotic understanding of the giving which makes up the Trinitarian life, so that he can speak of the Father letting go of his divinity, giving it away, surrendering himself, going “to the very extreme of self-lessness.”

By bringing together in his depiction of God self-loss, self-abnegation, something that comes very close to self-annihilation on the one hand, and love on the other – or again, by bringing bliss together with something that can be described either as supra-suffering, or as that which can develop into suffering – Balthasar is fundamentally blurring the distinction between love and loss, joy and suffering. If love and renunciation, suffering (or something like it) and joy, are linked, not just in the Christian life, but eternally in God, then ultimately suffering and loss are given a positive valuation: they are eternalized, and take on an ultimate ontological status. And then, it seems to me, it becomes hard to understand how Christianity can possible be “good news.” [66]

Donald MacKinnon, an early and highly influential Anglican admirer of Balthasar, reads Balthasar as a theologian who, more than many others, reckons with the Holocaust. In an essay dealing with the Christological of the Theo-Drama, MacKinnon, writes:

In the pages of his work with which we are here concerned there is comparatively little that treats directly of these horrors; but the nervous tension of the whole argument bears witness to the author’s passionate concern to present the engagement of God with his world in a way that refuses to turn aside from the overwhelming, pervasive reality of evil…[Balthasar] insists on a vision that can only be won through the most strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption.

MacKinnon is certainly right about Balthasar’s insistence on a “strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption”: as we have seen, Balthasar insists on stressing the enormity, the infinite weight of what took place on Good Friday and Holy Saturday – where Christ in some sense plunges into the experience of all that is most wrong with the world and bears it himself. But we have also seen that Balthasar is concerned to root the Cross firmly in the immanent Trinity, so that there is no question of God at this particular stage taking on something new, something previously unknown (this is what Balthasar believes must be rejected of Moltmann): instead there is the working out on the Cross of something always true of the immanent Trinity. The blurring that I have described in Balthasar’s thought, between bliss and suffering, between love and loss, necessarily follows from these two moves: if Christ is to take into himself all that is most wrong, and if this is not to be something new, but something always in some way anticipated in the Trinity, then it seems that there is no way to avoid importing into God’s eternity something of all that is most wrong and so introducing a sort of fusion of the highest love and the greatest bliss with (something like) the greatest suffering and the profoundest loss. In Balthasar’s hands the effort to grapple in full theological seriousness with tragedy seems in great danger of finally flipping over into something like a divinizing of the tragic. [68]

This section is entitled “Too integrated?” and we are now in a position to see why. On the face of it, Balthasar is impressive, perhaps unsurpassed, in the integration he achieves between soteriology and Trinitarian theology. But the cost turns out to be high. The way in which Balthasar brings together reflection on the immanent Trinity and reflection on the world’s horrors involves, in the end, an introduction of elements from the latter into the former, elements of darkness into the divine light. The highest love of God and the greatest misery of the world are reconciled in his thought by introducing elements of misery, destruction, and loss into the conception of love itself.

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[66] I would, in other words, be inclined to judge exactly the reverse of Balthasar about the relation between darkness and God. He writes that “we have no right to regard the Trinity one-sidedly as the ‘play’ of an absolute ‘blessedness’ that abstracts from concrete pain and lacks the ‘seriousness’ of separation and death.” (The Action, p. 325) I would suggest to the contrary that Christians have no right to overcome their incomprehension of evil by introducing pain, separation, and death (or something like them) into their talk of God, no right to the intellectual resolution that comes from knowing of some happening in God that “justifies the possibility and actual occurrence of all suffering in the world” (ibid., p. 324).

[68] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s Light in Darkness picks up well on these or closely related dangers in Balthasar’s thought. In contrast to the tradition, she writes, “Balthasar seems to ascribe a positive value to suffering and death in themselves in virtue of their likeness to the suffering Redeemer, not to mention the Trinity” (p. 133). She argues very effectively, too, that although Balthasar may maintain that sin has no place in the Trinity, “this position remains on the level of assertion” (p. 238), in that the whole weight of his thought, both in making sin a reality in itself, and in relating it to the distance between Father and Son, in fact points in the opposite direction. In her conclusion Pitstick insists that “Christ has come that we might have life, not death, and that we might have it in its fullness (see John 10:10). It would be the worst betrayal of this age (not to mention of Christ) to offer it elaborate theological platitudes suggesting its woulds are its life, thereby remaking God in its image” (p. 347). The characterization here of Balthasar’s theology as platitudinous is surely rather polemical, but in other respects I would concur with Pitstick.