Rivalry-free desire for God

GoodThief

I leave you with one last passage from Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection.

And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:17-21)

This passage begins by insisting on our ignorance. The nature of this ignorance is vitally important to understand, for it is the same ignorance that underlies the doubt and misunderstanding among the disciples throughout the gospels, both before and initially after Jesus’ recognition. It is the ignorance described in John that kept the world from “seeing” the Logos made flesh. It is the ignorance Jesus names in his prayer to the Father from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must understand that such ignorance is not a matter of insufficient information. It is not as though another piece of data would have helped to avert the crisis. When Jesus prays to the Father for his persecutors’ forgiveness, he is naming the impregnable deception buried in our hearts that distorts our field of perception so that we cannot see the truth when it appears to us. The obscurity of Jesus’ teaching and actions was not due to this attempt to communicate esoteric knowledge. His parables, aphorisms, apocalyptic utterances, and prophetic enactments were not attempts to impart secret gnosis. They were acts to jolt us out of the way we ordinarily perceive reality. They only appear oblique within our present horizons of intelligibility because our desires are disordered. “The disciples’ understanding was (and ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. Jesus’ ministry is explicitly intent upon reversing these techniques, of extracting people from building identities over against the Other, e.g., the sinner, the unclean, the maimed, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the enemy, the prisoner, the victim, “these little ones.” Jesus’ “intelligence of the victim” is one that relentlessly takes the perspective of the Other – my potential victim – as the only truly human way to be a person. This is possible for Jesus because, above all, he follows the will of the divine Other.

Here is the primordial root of Jesus’ “consciousness,” should be wish to use this term: the will of the Father. Because Jesus lives in total transparence to God the Father, Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus imitates God the Father, whose reality is utterly gratuitous, free from all rivalry as agapic Love – “unmoved” by mimetic rivalry, which is the true significance of God’s “impassibility” – Jesus is able to live among his sisters and brothers with utter freedom for them, without concern for his own identity. Jesus’ identity is not built upon contrasting relations with the Other, but in utter self-emptying (kenosis) for the Other. When Paul speaks of having “the mind of Christ” he is speaking of just this intelligence: “Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). The “mind of Christ” is one freed from rivalry with God, translucent to the divine Other, whose Otherness is received as total Gift rather than an obstacle to the project of becoming a self. Such loving kenosis resulted in Jesus’ death, not because death was positively willed by God as having value in itself, but because such unrestrained freedom is a world where rivalry and exclusion are rife is threatening and attracts resistance. The ignorance that led to the violent rejection of Jesus’ Kingdom of God ministry was at root a nexus of desires that, so far from desiring to live wholly for and from the divine Other as the possibility for living for and from the human Other, was configured to assert identity over against the Other Because Jesus set out to unmask and transform the underlying dynamics of human relations premised upon power and exclusions, drawing them out into the light through his saying and deeds of hospitality and judgment, he himself became a victim. But the faithfulness of the Father would have the last word. It is the world of resurrection: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

This is the transvaluation of “values” at its most extreme. The “victim” is “Lord.” “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone’” (Acts 4;11; Ps. 118:22). Jesus’ total fidelity to the Father results in a loving sacrifice to end all sacrifice. By raising him from the dead, God subverts the sacrificial process from within. This is the im-possible Gift: forgiveness from our victim, who is our “Lord.” “Christ shed his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions,” writes Heim. “Jesus death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.

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webkeyI love the construal of apatheia here. What is it about God that renders our desiring him free of all possible rivalry?

We can desire a food source, a spot of land, a human relationship, or any other finite commodity, resource, or provision and these all become occasions of rivalry, competition, and violence. But where we desire God completely and utterly, no rivalry emerges. Why? Not simply because the thing we desire in this case (God) is perfectly good, loving, and holy so that desiring him obligates us to conform to that standard. That sort of moralizing misses the point. Those who desire God are free from rivalry because there is no scarcity of the object desired. When we direct our desires to God, we possess (or are possessed by) what can be enjoyed by all equally without threat of loss. Rivalry becomes impossible because the end desired, being infinite, unceasingly satisfies. It infinitely exceeds our dispositions, and so God becomes “all in all” without percentage or division of distribution. Kierkegaard comes to mind: “Purity of heart is to will [desire] one thing.” St. Paul as well: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” It is the content who are wealthy.

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

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He has no power over me

Upper-Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ perspective is mind blowing. Consider three things:

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

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

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

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

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

The risen Christ as saturated phenomenon—Part 2

paul-damascus-the-bible-600

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….

paulhorse

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.

Taking it out on wrath

Godface2I’ve been enjoying a conversation with an old friend about sacred violence and the Cross and thought I’d post a portion of it here. In response to my suggestion that the Cross is not Jesus suffering the “punishment” of divine “wrath,” my friend declared, “I don’t comprehend how one can overlook so many scriptures that plainly speak of God’s anger and wrath.” Below is part of my response. I be interested in any thoughts.

What often happens is that Christians assume “Christ” and “Bible” together comprise a single, composite center from which we move outwards toward the world – interpreting and evaluating as we go. What I’m suggesting is that this is a mistake. The hermeneutical center from which we move out to assess and interpret as we go is Christ, and the Scriptures themselves are among the things that get judged and adjudicated along with all else in light of Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christians are to understand the Scriptures as just another religious text, but it does mean that the Bible does not (because it cannot) embody the character and intentions of God as does Christ. “Christ” and “Bible” are not convertible.

What difference does this make? Just this – the words the OT uses (wrath, judgment, forgive, etc.) all undergo re-evaluation in their biblical contexts in light of the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The dead-and-risen Christ becomes a kind of “reset” button by which we rethink Israel’s history and theological vocabularies. Seen in light of Christ, the OT only approximates the truth that gets revealed finally in Christ. Some of the OT portrayals of God may in fact get God wrong in some respects, respects we could only possibly be in a position to understand because we now read in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Yes, there are many passages that describe God as “burning with rage to consume the wicked” whom “his soul hates,” God as pleased with the “sweet smelling aroma of burnt offerings” and as forgiving conditionally, God as celebrating the “dashing of babies against the rocks,” as “laughing at the wicked,” and as “feeling indignation every day, ” and God as “no longer loving” a generation of Israelites because of their sin. There is no calculus that converts these into gospel truth or even anticipations of the gospel.

There are amazing exceptions to this picture as well. God is also portrayed as caring for Ninevites (even their cattle!) in spite of Israel’s racist disregard for them, loving and forgiving unconditionally, and as being disgusted by blood sacrifice. Rgarding that the generation of Israelites described by Hoseas (9:15) as “no longer loved by God,” Lamentations (3:31) assures us that “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.” We are also told in no uncertain terms that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” This latter insight cannot mean God desires sacrifice but only when it’s conditioned by mercy. The point (which we only finally understand in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection) is that sacrifice adds nothing relevant to what God desires which isn’t already present in a merciful, humble, and contrite heart.

So the OT is a mixed bag. It doesn’t offer a single, unified theology on many of these fundamental questions. It too is among the things that get judged and revealed in the light of the Cross and resurrection. That means terms like “wrath,” “judgment,” and even “forgiveness” which are variously used in the OT and which we inherit from that OT worldview, have to undergo a purging, a cleansing. In the light of Christ – the quintessential revelation of the character and intentions of God – we may have to find better words or redeploy the same words with radically new meanings.

My essential point is that there is no way to draw a straight line from the OT use of the word “wrath” (as that concept was employed in the OT by Israel) to concluding what the Cross must mean in light of that term’s OT usage. This gets the interpretive order precisely backwards. It is in light of the Cross that we are compelled to assess Israel’s theological vocabularies. That such critical re-evaluation of the Bible’s own pronouncements is thinkable is not a foreign thought we have to bring in from somewhere else. This kind of re-evaluation of the Bible happens within the Bible itself (within the OT and between OT and NT).

Pieces of the penal puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

He concludes:

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

That is called penal substitution.

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

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

WTB-Animal-sacrifice5

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

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

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

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

Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are all he cares about. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Heb 10.8, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law.

The list could go on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration the presence of final causality

divineinspirationI will end this post with the suggestion that when it comes to what Christians call the inspiration of Scripture, inspiration is the presence of final causality. But I want to explain this thought on the heels of a few reflections.

Along with recently revisiting Greg’s claim that God “takes responsibility for sin and evil,” I was thinking about how he imagines the divine inspiration of Scripture’s violent passages which falsely portray God’s character on their “surface” but which in their “depths” truthfully reveal God as gracious and non-violent. Just as God stoops to bear the falsehoods of human beings on the Cross, in Scripture God often condescends to accommodate human falsehood, and this accommodation reveals the depths of God’s non-violent love.

I like a lot about this part of CWG. The “dialectical” nature of inspiration makes good sense. But to recognize the dialectical (conversational) nature of Scripture is to re-conceive how God is inspirationally present on the human side of the conversation. In what sense does inspiration embrace human contributions that ‘get God wrong’? Does saying the Bible may get it wrong (in the explicit claims of its “surface”) mean such texts do not reveal God? Greg parses out the dialectical nature of Scripture by distinguishing between a text’s “surface” (the explicit, intended claims of its authors/editors) and its “depths.” If a text gets God wrong, it does so on its surface. These same texts, however, possess a “depth” which is brought to light by faith reading the texts in light of the Cross. Greg explores this at length and I found his discussion insightful.

I’m unsure, though, how Greg understands “surface” and “depth” to relate to one another in the composing of texts. Are surface and depth each a feature of the OT texts themselves, or are the “depths” a separate text, as it were, composed as the Church reads the OT Christologically? The latter tends toward what Greg objects to as a “dismissive” approach to the violent texts, not very different from simply denying that these texts are inspired. Greg, I believe, wants to take the additional step in making the Christological “depths” of OT violence texts a feature of those texts. Why? Because Jesus took those violent texts to be inspired (in their textual form and claims), and we shouldn’t think that Christ was mistaken in this belief. This would be in contrast to a view that identified inspiration with the light of the Cross cast upon the surface of texts enabling us to perceive in the shadows cast the extent to which texts fail to portray the cruciform shape of God’s character and intentions. But how is this any different than reading the Vedas, the Quran, or The Pearl of Great Price Christologically?

I occupy a place somewhere in the middle, I think. I do not want to dismiss OT texts that “get God wrong” as so much uninspired paganism to be cast out of the canon of Scripture. I do value these texts and I think together they constitute an inspired space where we encounter the voice of God. But I also recognize that I’m only able to value these texts this way through and because of Christ. I’ve tried to work through this in my What is the Bible? series. Permit me a quote from Part 1 of the series:

We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way…

Might some errors belonging to these persons find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.

leonardo-dicaprio-bad-news-the-great-gatsby-telephone-phone-2

What I’d like to add here is an analogy to help expresses how we might imagine the dialectical nature of God’s inspiring presence in Scripture – both in the composing of texts and in reading them Christologically. We ask students to imagine reading the Bible in terms of listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example, and find ourselves on one end of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians.

Often what a person says on the phone can only finally be understood in the context of the whole conversation. Those of us listening to one side have to construct a picture of the whole conversation as best we can. Reading the Bible is a bit like that. Its texts are dialectical. When we read 1Corinthians, we have to reconstruct the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians based only on what we hear Paul say (never mind the fact that we ourselves are conversation partners who bring our own contributions to interpreting the half of the conversation we possess).

IMG_0306_0Widen this analogy a bit and imagine the Bible in its entirety to be one side of a conversation Israel and God are having. When we read the Bible, we are listening to one side of that conversation. Right here we immediately meet a fundamental question about the Bible. When the Bible says, “And thus says the Lord” aren’t we listening to the divine side of the conversation? Isn’t the Bible essentially on “speakerphone” so that at one moment we’re directly hearing the human side of the conversation (a prophet or king) and at the next moment hearing God?

I apologize if you’re hearing it first from me, but the answer is ‘no’, that’s not what’s going on. Divine inspiration, whatever it is, does not give us God’s side of the conversation unmediated by the instrumentation of human voices. If or when we hear God’s voice in Scripture, we hear it in their voices. “And God said” means “And Israel said ‘God said’.” We are listening to Israel’s side of her conversation with God – hearing Israel speak, repeat what she thinks God is saying, disagree with other Israelites about what God is saying, cry, scream, interpret and misinterpret. All this comprises the “surface” of the text (Israel’s side of the conversation), and it’s all we have.

That’s not bad news. We have every reason to believe that Israel could and did faithfully represent God’s voice. But sometimes – and here some will become uncomfortable – we have good reason to suspect Israel did not hear God rightly but that she monopolized the conversation to promote her own agenda. The good news is that when it comes to a text’s portrayal of God, the Christian reader has in Christ a way to adjudicate the OT conversation. Why think Jesus gets God right? We think Christ faithfully embodies the drama of divine-human conversation because God raised him from the dead – and not for any other reason.

We have, in Christ then, a truthful revelation of the conversation between God and Israel. It is this conversation that brings the entirety of Israel’s recorded conversation to light – to the light of confirmation and to the light of judgment – confirmation because God can be seen to be faithfully carving out on the human side of the conversation (Israel) truth sufficient for Incarnation (where God will assume the human side of this conversation) and judgment because now through Christ we’re able to distinguish where and how human authors get God wrong.

Once we admit this much, I’m not sure how exactly to locate in the disfigured “surface” of texts an inspiration by which God renders that surface the means of accessing a “depth” which faithfully reveals God (as Boyd seems to argue). Functionally speaking, once Christ’s voice becomes the means by which we listen to the entire conversation we call Scripture, inspiration is reduced to Christ who defines the hermeneutical center, and when you’re standing at the center relating to everything in terms of its relationship to that center, it doesn’t really matter how close or distant things are from the center.

This is a real problem for inerrantists who want every explicit claim of the text to be the center. Every “surface” has to be its own “depth.” It is a view of the drama of divine-human relations utterly void of any real appreciation for transcendence and teleology. It is a shallow approach to understanding the Bible; but if God is truly transcendent, and all things tend toward their final end in Christ, and God is covenantally united to Israel to carve out space for his own Incarnation – then we’re free to let the Bible be the mixed-bag that it is. I suggested previously:

We prefer that every part of the Bible [on its “surface”] be a perfect, inerrant conclusion to some aspect of the human struggle and journey. Girard’s phrase [“texts in travail”] suggests that the Bible itself is that journey. The texts of Scripture are Israel in process, in travail, trying to figure the world out. At times Israel lunges forward with the profoundest of insights, while at other times she conscripts God into the service of her own religious violence and apostate nationalism. Sometimes she gets it right. Other times she gets it horribly wrong. The texts we call the Old Testament are not just neutral, third part records of observations of events. They are one of the events. They participate in and constitute Israel’s up and down journey of faith. They lay bare the heart and soul of the human journey in its best and worst. They are “texts in travail.”

All that said, let me bring back the suggested axiom I opened with. I’ll probably hack this up fairly well, so be patient. Don’t laugh too loudly. This is tentative and speculative.

I’m suggesting that when it comes to understanding God’s inspiration of the Bible:

  • Inspiration is the presence of final causation.

We can express this as a formula. A what? Yes, a formula.

e-mc-squared-einstein

As I pondered how a God of constant truth would give us a book whose portrayals of God are only relatively accurate, I found myself back and forth between this ‘constancy’ and ‘relativity’. Now, don’t laugh too loudly, but Einstein’s E=mc2 came to mind. The relativistic mass (m) of a body times the (constant) speed of light squared (c2) is equal to the energy (E) of that body. Notice the presence of both a relativistic factor (the mass of a body) and a constant (the speed of light). I’m not transposing this into a theological axiom. It’s just an analogy that got me thinking. But for those of you who love logical notation, we can express the dialectical nature of the inspiration of biblical texts as:

I=tc2

The biblical text (t), relative in the extent to which it approximates the truth (that is, all texts are relative), times (the constant of) final causality squared (c2) expresses the divine inspiration (I) present in/as the text.

What the heck?

Start with the constant, final causality (c). By final causality I mean God as the final end of all things. I’m not thinking of Greek philosophical arguments here. I’m contemplating Christ as the ‘telos’ or ‘end’ (of the Law, Rm 10.4, and of all things created “through and for” Christ, Col 1.15-20). I’m thinking especially of the risen-crucified Christ as in himself embodying the telos or fulfillment of creation. I’ve previously suggested that the Bible be understood in the context of Incarnation being the means of achieving God’s unitive purposes for creation, and this context makes it relatively easy to understand the inspiration of texts:

Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of one’s understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop his sense of a unique identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficiently truthful to inform that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation. Creation is the context for incarnation to begin with, yes, but beyond that the construction of a suitable context for identity formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.

By ‘final causation’ (c), then, I mean the final union of creation with God in Christ, the conformity of all things to the character and intentions of Christ. I view inspiration teleologically, not just in the sense that OT narratives anticipate their fulfillment in NT realities (a kind of rhetorical teleology that any inerrantist would affirm). I mean something that demonstrates the ability of a transcendent final end to be present to and in every religious aspiration, even when they miss the mark (a compositional teleology, something no inerrantist would agree to). Previously here:

bibleartIn a word, [Scripture] must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this…

Scripture’s…function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness…

In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with.

Why is final causality squared (c2)? It is squared to represent the function of final causes in both opening creation up to the future and, interpretively, clarifying the past. The Spirit of God is present both in the authors of Scripture orienting and opening them toward the future, toward some realization of the truth, and, realized in Christ, orienting them toward the past as explaining, judging, and confirming the history of its own conversation with Israel in her texts. Final causation is squared as an expression of its presence both in texts prompting and calling them forward and in Christ (the final cause/end embodied) judging and calling texts to account. As final end, God both opens texts to the future as they are composed (dialectically) and closes the question of their truth value as they are read in light of the fulfilled embodiment of that final end – Christ. This is the way I understand inspiration (I) to be fully present at work in the composition of texts (which I think Greg will appreciate) and also present in the Christological reading of those same texts.

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 godforsakeness, 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 time, 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 alone. 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 another lens, a resurrection hermeneutic. 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.