The myth of ‘divine withdrawal’

Recent conversations bring me back to this truth: The scandal of the Cross is that it is not the narrative of (divine) withdrawal that many make it out to be. I’m convinced the time has come to withdrawal from all talk of divine withdrawal, to abandon all talk of divine abandonment, and to forsake the myth of godforsakenness.

“The Cross is a narrative of approach, of nearness, of presence. It is where God, in the full simplicity of triune love, insists upon being with us, thus judging (viz., rendering) all narratives of divine withdrawal, from within the circumstances that create those narratives, to be myths and fabrications of despair and dereliction. The real ‘cry of dereliction’ (as theologians have named it) is not that cry Jesus utters on the Cross (“My God, My God! Why?”). On the contrary, the real cry of dereliction is ours: “Crucify him!” There is the only despair and dereliction connected to the Cross, the dereliction that hangs Jesus on it, while the only real sanity in view is Jesus’ confidence in the Father’s love. The dereliction is heard in a thousand other cries – cries that give up altogether, but also cries that scream their despair all the louder. Much of our despairing dereliction gets published as Christian theology.”

An Open Orthodoxy

crucifixionWhy the gruesome picture? Because sometimes theology gets in the way.

I continue to contemplate the crucifixion. Where was God? What was he up to? What was his part in this? What happened there that day which God gives to faith to perceive that so radically transforms the world? God-talk these days is full of references to ‘divine withdrawal’, and to the Cross as the quintessential manifestation of divine withdrawal. I’d like to reflect here a bit upon that idea.

• If we understand God to be inseparably present to creation (as its creator and sustainer – a fairly unobjectionable reading of Scripture), then talk of God “withdrawing” from can only be a figurative expression for the phenomenological aspects of our suffering. We experience ourselves and the world in ways we explain by removing God from the scene. If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so…

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Jesus re-creates humanity with a Cry

Still feeling this strongly, as true as ever…

An Open Orthodoxy

the-view-from-the-crossWatching the sunrise this morning on this Good Friday, I had a thought inspired by recent discussions of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Here’s the thought I had.

God creates ex nihilo or out of nothing. This ‘nothing’ isn’t a certain sort of something out of which God creates; we are not assembled into being from other more fundamental parts or created events. From the finite perspective of our conscious experience, this nothingness represents the Void whose absolute closure threatens to consume our present existence with final meaninglessness. The Void represents the nothingness from which God calls us to be. But it occasions a necessary and fundamental choice to relate to existence in one of two ways – either peacefully, giving our finitude to God in trust, or despairingly, anxiously, in the fragmenting narratives of self-assertion and fear.

I…

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God on Antiques Roadshow

AR2

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3.14-21)

My wife and I enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow on TV. The show moves around from city to city, and at each public gathering people are invited to bring in items they think are valuable. People bring in all sorts of items—furniture, old paintings, pottery, jewelry, old posters, civil war trinkets, and much more. Experts in the relevant fields do the appraising. Some bring in things they’re sure must be valuable and are disappointed when they find out their item is a worthless fake. Others bring in things they’ve had in their family for generations, things stuffed in boxes in the attic, or items picked up unsuspectingly at a garage sale, only to discover that what they thought was of little or no value is worth a small fortune. There’s always that moment when the owners are told the true value of what they possess. The reactions are priceless.

I’ve included one of my favorites for you to enjoy:

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Some of us are in possession of treasures we don’t appreciate
because we don’t perceive their value. Others of us are holding onto
things we think are valuable but which in fact are worthless.

There is a crisis of faith within the Church today, and it’s a crisis of value perception. I’m not talking about the failure of some Christians to enlist in the culture wars over ‘traditional values’, like getting prayer back in schools, legislating the traditional understandings of gender and marriage, reversing Roe-v-Wade on abortion, or protecting the Church’s tax-exempt status. No, I’m talking about committed Christians who live their faith without the transforming experience Paul describes here in his prayer, a vision of the true value of things – the infinite value of God at the heart of all things, and then the immeasurable value to God of all creatures.

If there’s an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ moment in the NT, it’s the short letter to the Ephesians. In this letter (and let’s assume Paul is the author for now), Paul is like the expert appraiser pointing out the rare gifts that define our faith, as if saying “Notice this about your salvation,” “Now check this out,” or “Look at what’s over here” in an attempt to open our eyes to the treasures we possess in Christ, to the treasures that we are in Christ.

Let me suggest that part of the importance of Paul’s prayer is its location in the center of this short letter. Part of what the prayer means, part of the key to the experience of God that it describes, has to do with its place between Chs 1-3 and 4-6.

Roughly speaking:

  • Chs 1-3 are about ‘believing’
  • Chs 4-6 are about the ‘doing’
  • Chs 1-3 describe the truths that form the heart of Christian faith and belief
  • Chs 4-6 are about living that faith

Where are we in Chs 1-3? We’re “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” (2.6):

  • we’re freely chosen by God in love to be his (1.5)
  • we’re saved by grace through faith (2.8f)
  • we’re one body in Christ who is the head of all things (1.22)

Where are we in Chs 4-6? Our feet are firmly planted on the ground:

  • we’re urged to walk worthy of our calling (4.1)
  • to bear with one another in love (4.2)
  • to ‘make every effort’ to maintain unity (4.3)
  • to ‘put on’ the new self (4.24)

Chs 1-3 describe what is true about you in Christ:

  • whether you realize it or not
  • whether your faith is hanging by a thread or you’re doing better than you ever imagined you could

Chs 4-6 on the other hand describe what ought to become true about you, what it looks like to choose to live out the truths of Chs 1-3.

And that brings us to the all-important question: How do we move from Chs 1-3 to Chs 4-6? How do we go from ‘knowing these amazing truths’ to ‘living in the freedom they describe’? Paul’s prayer in 3.14-21 answers this question.

Before I comment on Paul’s prayer, I want to point out that many of us try to bridge the gap between ‘believing the right things’ and ‘living the right way’ without experiencing what Paul’s prayer describes. As a result we know only constant frustration and failure. Only by passing through the experience described in this prayer, an experience of immeasurable and unconditional love, are we empowered to ‘live’ exceptionally.

AR4How many Christians today are attempting to live their spiritual lives as ‘law’? How many believe (if only unconsciously) they’re loved and favored by God when they perform well but not when they screw up? Or that they’re loved more the better they perform? We turn the gospel into another “law,” a way to recommend ourselves to God.

I totally get why we do this. Think about how we grow up. For the vast majority, there was nothing but conditional love around us 24/7. We are socialized into it, so it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time noticing or trusting unconditional love when it shows up. This is the importance of this prayer’s place here in Ch 3 prior to the commands and obligations that come in Chs 4-6.

Rest in this prayer. Park your weary soul right here. Memorize it, pray it, explore it—run up and down its length, try to stretch your arms around its width, climb its heights, dig underneath its depths – all the dimensions of love this prayer talks about. But do it before you take one step toward attempting to live out the commands of Chs 4-6. The order is crucial, because the order is what opens to us that moment each of us must have within the deepest narratives of our heart, where God awakens us to what he is worth, what we are worth in him, and what the worth and beauty of life really are. And like the girl in the Antiques Roadshow episode who couldn’t believe the value of what she had in her possession all time, this encounter Paul refers to will have profound transforming effects. “You’re kidding! I’m worth that to you, God? I’m accepted that unconditionally? You went through that to make me yours?” We feel differently and relate differently to things based on what we believe their worth or value is. When the true value of things presents itself to us in Christ, our hearts embrace it and we reconstruct or reorganize our whole life. The motivation and strength to live come not from rules and regulations, not law-keeping, nor from threat of punishment, but directly from the experience of oneself as unconditionally loved by God, when the value of the treasures presented in Chs 1-3 are realized not just in us, but as us.

The love that created you
The love that chose you
The love that values you
The love that wants you
The love that adopted you
The love that charted the course of the whole universe to find its fulfillment in Christ through you

I am specifically not talking about holding the proposition “Christ loves me” to be true, but rather an experience of being loved beyond the propositional. To ‘know the love of Christ’ is to ‘experience myself as loved and accepted unconditionally by Christ’, where who and what “I” am just is that act in which he gives and I receive. It’s simple to say. It’s not a complicated equation. But it is profound beyond all imagination, for being loved this way means standing transparent in my fallenness, in all my sorry history, in all my brokenness, in all the conditions that I think disqualify me, and—with all of that present—hearing Christ address me to say “I love you more than you realize and I accept you in spite of all that you think disqualifies you,” and (here’s the kicker) in that moment agreeing with Christ that what he says about me is true, because it’s only when I embrace my truest identity as unconditionally loved and accepted by Christ that the fundamental exchange takes place. That’s where life is born. That’s where the commands of the gospel become joy and love instead of burdensome duties.

AR3We have a difficult time with this. It’s our fundamental struggle. Some are so shamed into believing they’re unlovable no matter what they do, they give up. Others of us are so drunk on the consolations of law-keeping—the high we get from achieving a sense of acceptance because we’ve ‘done well’—that when we hear we’re loved by God regardless of what we do, we actually become angry at the idea. It boggles our mind that God does not pay his love out as a wage for our doing right.

Let me share a second thought about this prayer. It may seem to present several requests, but there’s really just one thing Paul prays for. All that Paul describes builds together to one and the same experience. Three descriptions combine in a single prayer:

  • First, that Christ may dwell in your hearts (or ‘inner being’) through faith
  • Second, that you know the love of Christ that transcends knowledge
  • Lastly, that you be filled with all the fullness of God

Knowing the love of Christ that transcends knowing is not a different reality than being filled with the fullness of God. Each description offers us a different perspective. The first (‘that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith’) describes how we enter (through faith in Christ) and where this treasure is possessed (in our ‘heart’ or ‘inner being’). The second phrase (‘that you know the love of Christ’) describes the nature or content of that experience. It’s an experience of value-affirmation, which is what love is and what it does. With the third phrase (‘that you be filled with all the fullness of God’) Paul has reached the summit of his reach. God ‘all in all’. God’s fullness in us is our experience of the immeasurable love of Christ.

Paul adds something amazing. He says that though we know the love of Christ, that love transcends knowledge. It is beyond knowledge. We know that which exceeds knowing? How can we actually know what is beyond knowing? And if we truly know it, what’s the point of mentioning that it’s beyond our knowing? Let me suggest an answer: the love of Christ is never reducible to our experience of it. No experience of ours can exhaust the love of God in the human heart. There will always be more to Christ’s love for you to experience than any particular experience of yours can contain, no matter how deep and indescribable your experience may be.

pearlA final question. Is this possible? Do we really believe that it’s possible to experience ourselves, our truest self, as the free gift of unconditional love and that this love can define the social identity of human beings in increasingly transformative ways? To be so defined by Christ’s presence that it becomes impossible even to imagine ourselves as anything other than infinitely loved by God? I think Paul suspected that some of his readers would think he was describing something that was impossible or that he had lost his mind, and that this is why he concludes: “Now to him who is able to do….” To do what? “…to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory….” In other words, “to him who is able to do what I’ve been praying for and describing.” This isn’t just a comparative statement about how much muscle God can flex in comparison to us. The point is that God’s actually doing ‘more than we can ask or imagine’ happens through our ‘imagining it’.

I worked for several years in the Recovery community. I love this community because people in recovery don’t pretend they’re not broken and desperate. There’s a prevailing and honest shared awareness of brokeness and hope that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in any church on Sundays. As it happened in our Recovery gatherings, I focused on the importance of perception and self-talk, the need to ‘re-imagine ourselves’ in terms of the truth about us per the gospel, because if you don’t see it, you can’t become it. Seeing that version of yourself is the first step to becoming that version of yourself. A vision of myself healed, loved, healthy, connected, free—that vision has to appear on the horizon of what I see for myself. Otherwise I’ll never move toward it. And if you’re to have a hope and identity which nothing in this world can define away, it will have to come from someone or something not of this world. That’s what Paul is praying.

The immeasurable nature of Christ’s love that this prayer talks about isn’t rhetorical excess. It is metaphysical excess. It presents metaphysics of an infinitely adventurous love, of ‘ever-moving rest’. Our end in Christ is to forever experience the novelty and adventure of God’s love where there will always be something to look forward to, always something surprising just around the corner and where we will always be perfectly at rest with what we have and who we are. That’s how we’re filled with the fullness of God. God doesn’t get crammed into us, we keep on expanding into him.

So yes, God can do more than we can imagine. That will always be true. But what’s equally true is that what God actually does in us he does through our imagining/envisioning it. He will give us more to imagine as we grow into what we can see, but the first reason we’re not who we could be is that we don’t imagine who we could be.

The thought that God is love contains all the joy in the world

celloOne last passage from Christopher Ben Simpson’s survey of Kierkegaard’s thought – just to close out on a note of joy, as Kierkegaard would have it.

For Kierkegaard, joy in the midst of suffering is evidence in the present temporal world of something other than this world (BoA 186) Such joy does not make sense within a finite frame – it is ordered beyond it. This joy is paradoxical – ‘the Christian is poor, yet not poor but rich’ and ‘“Life begins at death,” says the lowly Christian’ (CD 22, 46). It is a higher joy that seems absurd to the lower because ‘God’s thoughts are eternally higher than the thoughts of a human being, and therefore every human conception of happiness and unhappiness, of what is joyful and what is sorrowful, is faulty thinking’ (UDVS, 284). It is to be ‘happy’, to be ‘joyful’ ‘out on 70,000 fathoms of water’ – where suffering ‘is the 70,000 fathoms of water’ (SLW 470; CUP 140, 288). It is to be suspended over nothing, suspended from the higher.

There is joy in the Christian life that comes from one’s being with God, from one’s relationship with God. For Kierkegaard, different qualities of joy can be discerned relative to the central characteristics of God – relative to God as eternal, as the good, and as loving. The Christian has the joy of resting in God’s changelessness. To him, the changelessness of God is ‘sheer joy and gladness’ (MLW 269). Here, one enjoys God’s eternity as the ground of one’s existential security. To rest in God’s changelessness as an ‘eternally safeguarded’ and ‘happy home’ (MLW 279) as a beloved spring’s ‘faithful coolness’ that ‘is not subject to change’ is to find security in God’s availability; God for the Christian is ‘everything to be found’, ‘always to be found and always to be found unchanged’ (MLW 280-1). The Christian also has the joy of relating to God as the good end that they desire as their ‘happiness’, or ‘blessedness’ (CD 222) – the blessing that is ‘the good in itself; it is the one thing needful, is infinitely more glorious and blessed than all success’ (CD 297). Finally, the Christian has joy in God’s love for them. ‘The thought that God is love’, Kierkegaard writes, ‘contains all the joy in the world’ (UDVS 282, emphasis mine). Our ‘unconditional joy’ is ‘worshipfully to dare to believe “that God cares for you”’ (LFBA 43). God’s love to us is joy as light from the one sun radiating.

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BoA The Book on Adler
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
LFBA The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air
MLW The Moment and Late Writings
SLW Stages on Life’s Way
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits

So cruel is the knowledge of our waste

tomtI’m setting my sites on a steady pathway through Thomas Traherne’s Centuries. It seems that no one who reads Traherne comes away disappointed or unaffected. I hope not to be the sole exception. I did love this paragraph from Hilda Vaughan’s Introduction:

But so cruel can be the knowledge of our waste, our self-deprivation, that we wonder why mediaeval man felt a need to invent gloating devils and everlasting tortures. It is hell enough to guess what our contrition may be in the brief, interminable instant of death, should we see, like a trampled map spread below us, the fair, God-given life we spoiled. Traherne would save us from this by persuading us to look upon the beauty of our gift until we grow ashamed to spoil it. In our arid seasons, too, he refreshes our spirits, as our bodies are refreshed after long drought by the sound, sight, touch, and taste of clean, running water. Unlike most mystics, after he regained the vision of his infancy, he himself seems never to have suffered from droughts of the soul, but so to have trusted the Shepherd of his green pastures as not to have strayed beyond reach of the living waters. Yet it is pity, not impatience, which he feels when he finds that most men thirst because they will not drink.

I know the cruelty of such knowledge, but I’m not yet as confirmed as Traherne in so saving a vision of the beauty of our gift as to shake off the hellish regret and contrition of my waste and self-deprivation. I’m all ears, though, Traherene. Talk to me.

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Walking

To walk abroad is, not with Eys,
But Thoughts, the Fields to see and prize;
Els may the silent Feet,
Like Logs of Wood,
Mov up and down, and see no Good,
Nor Joy nor Glory meet.

Ev’n Carts and Wheels their place do change,
But cannot see; tho very strange
The Glory that is by:
Dead Puppets may
Mov in the bright and glorious Day,
Yet not behold the Sky.

And are not Men than they more blind,
Who having Eys yet never find
The Bliss in which they mov:
Like Statues dead
They up and down are carried,
Yet neither see nor lov.

To walk is by a thought to go;
To mov in Spirit to and fro;
To mind the Good we see;
To taste the Sweet;
Observing all the things we meet.
How choice and rich they be.

(Original spelling!)

From Nothing—Part 5

mortalityIn Part 4 I suggested (with McFarland and Eikrem) that mortality (entropy/decay) per se is not an evil consequence of creation’s fall from a primordial perfection but that it constitutes the minimal basic necessary context in terms of which conscious embodied beings such as us must negotiate the choices necessary to becoming what God intended – one with God in love and partnership in the cosmos.

My friend John (comments section) writes that he recognizes that our finitude “might conceivably require…epistemic distances and ontic privations in order to be exercised and realized.” Precisely. But he asks “But what length of distance? And what depth of privation?” Good questions.

A few weeks ago I found myself in conversation with an Eastern Orthodox believer who, strangely, insisted that God’s purposes for us (i.e., our union with him in love and our partnership with him in the cosmos) include not only our mortality, but also our actual moral depravity, and that evil itself is required for creation to find its home in God. I got the feeling this gentleman was speaking from the edge of the edge. In any case, it’s fatally (pun intended) overstating the context in terms of which we must travel the pathway to our end in God, and it’s certainly not reflective of Orthodoxy’s general vision. John’s questions, though, got me to thinking again about the necessity of mortality.

Why think mortality (by which I mean entropy and decay, and thus death) is the necessary context in which human beings find their way to fulfillment in God? To risk offending readers with a needless repetition, let me repeat what I’ve said:

For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. So, mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy” (in the existential/theological sense of Heb 2.14) when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude….

To John’s questions then: What length of [epistemic] distance must define the space in which we make our way Godward? And what depth of privation must define our existence for that existence to arrive to the fulness God intends? For me the answer is bound up with the nature of created finitude, on the one hand, and privation, on the other. Finitude is no privation, obviously. If finitude were a privation, then creation would come privated and evil from God, and we don’t want to say that. When we are all God created us to be, in the full light and enjoyment of God as our end, we shall remain finite. Privation is another matter. Privation is privation of the good. And if finitude is the nature of creation in its goodness, then our privation is misrelation precisely to the truth of our finitude.

What of the epistemic distance that qualifies our finitude? Well, it can’t be that believing falsehoods and lies is a good thing, or even a necessary thing for us. But the ignorance of finitude is no privation. The question is what kind of epistemic distance has to define the context in which we make responsible choices Godward? We have to know enough to choose rightly, not step into it accidentally. But if choice is to be the means of a responsible self-determination toward our end, then we can’t be so overwhelmed with the obvious truth of things that deliberation becomes rationally impossible. The epistemic distance has to be greater than 0 but less than 1.

The end of such distance, its purpose, is its own final closure achieved over time through the exercise of the will. We experience this tendency now as habituation, the solidification of the will. But we’re talking here about the necessary starting point, about what has to be in place for us to make the journey toward final union with God. We can’t start out at the end – obviously – but the beginning, though less than the end, also cannot be “privation” or evil. This is where we locate mortality as entropy and decay. Apart from the experience of mortality (entropy, decay, death) we would have no grounds upon which to perceive the truth of our own finitude and our movement to final union with God would be impossible, for that union is predicated precisely upon our choosing to relate rightly as created, as finite.

So – how much “epistemic distance”? Necessarily, enough to make truly responsible choice possible. That varies. But to what depth of “privation”? If by privation we mean privation of the good, then none at all necessarily. Finitude is the goodness of being created. Privation is the evil of refusing to acknowledge our finitude.