Not what you suppose

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Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction is shorthand for the entirety of Ps 22 for which it is the opening line. Psalm 22 is a scapegoat psalm about an innocent servant abandoned and persecuted by his contemporaries but not abandoned by God. For Christ to reference this particular psalm on the Cross is for him to say quite the opposite of what many take his cry, divorced from its context, to mean. Many see here evidence that the Son is in fact abandoned by the Father, that the crowds are right in believing God to have abandoned and forsaken him. For these, this abandonment of sacred scapegoating defines God to the nitty-gritty of triniarian deity itself, that God’s own experience of himself, his own trinitarian oneness, was shattered as God forsook God. Nothing in God was not defined by this separation.

This is theological madness, of course. Seen in its proper context (see Rikk Watts on the use of the Psalms in Mark’s gospel), Jesus’s cry says just the opposite. By calling upon Psalm 22, quite literally Jesus is declaring:

“I am not forsaken by God — as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God — as you all suppose. God will vindicate me, just like he did the innocent servant of Psalm 22! Wait and see.”

All Jesus needs to say in order to declare this is what he actually says, Psalm 22’s opening line. Resurrection proved Jesus right, of course. God is not on the side of the scapegoating crowd abandoning Jesus. That’s not the what the Cry is about. Where is the Father while Jesus is on the Cross? He is right where Jesus said he would be — “…with me.” (John 16.31-33). I only wish my own (evangelical) tribe believed it.

The happiest, most wonderful Resurrection Sunday to you all!

When you talk it gets light

Darkness

For friends I know who are in a dark place.

I promised a passage from Benner’s Presence and Encounter, which I’m presently (pun intended) reading. Just a paragraph or two:

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me?” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.” This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us. (Emphasis mine)

A couple of pages later Benner adds:

Because humans are hardwired for presence, we will always be vulnerable to absence. Even Jesus knew this vulnerability. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in his cry of anguish from the cross when he sensed God having forsaken him. Jesus, like us, had to learn that the apparent absence of God is actually a face of the real presence of God. If the stable knowing of the presence of the one he called Father—the presence that so characterized the rest of his life—could be threatened at such a point as this, who are we to expect that we will ever be immune from such vulnerability?

Carefully then. I don’t really know Benner’s theology, specifically his Christology, well enough to draw any final conclusion from this. One could read him here as agreeing that the Son is abandoned by the Father in some absolute sense that rends the divine nature itself. That would not be a view I’d share. But one can also read him as affirming simply that the Father gives Jesus over to the same circumstances we universally associate with such abandonment. Why would the Father do that? As we’ve suggested: to demonstrate not that in Christ God becomes to the truth of our despair, but to expose that despair as illusory and false, to “talk to us in, or from, the dark.”

I suggest this is what the Cross is (among other things): God talking to us in/from the dark, a darkness we are afraid of but which Jesus faced on our behalf without surrendering (as we do) to the belief that the darkness can become all there is.

What does Jesus say of his immanent suffering? John 16:31-33 (which I’ve explored before):

“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)

Crucial verses. On these I earlier offered:

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Let us remind ourselves, lastly, of Hebrews 12.1-3, which describes Jesus as enduring the Cross, even despising its shame. What kind of presence of mind could possess such a perspective on such suffering as to despise its shame? If Jesus is despising the shame of the Cross, he’s not succumbing to its threatening narrative. “For the joy set before him” he endures. Permit me another quote from an earlier post:

“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

This is how I take Benner’s second quoted paragraph there, as warning us that we are not exempt from experiencing within the created ordering of things every possible evidence for the truth of our worst fear, namely, that we really are, or we can be, alone and abandoned. But Jesus, rather than becoming the truth of such despair, disarms the power of the darkness to impose such a narrative upon us and he talks to us from the darkness. And when he talks, it gets light because his talking is light.

A cry of dereliction?

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Jesus’ questioning cry “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (MK 15.24|MT 27:47) is known in theological circles as the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (of abandonment, rejection, or forsakenness). For now let’s call it ‘the Cry’. But frankly, to call the Cross the Father’s dereliction of his Son is already to have interpreted the Cross in a way (not only) we think not possible.

I ran across a post by Barth scholar Darren Sumner (from 2012) that considers the Cry. Sumner considers (but rejects) the possibility that Jesus is not rejected by the Father but that the Cry is an allusion to Ps 22 (which, by the way, doesn’t describe divine abandonment but reassurance in suffering). But I don’t want to engage Sumner’s post or the reasons for preferring a reference to Ps 22 here (though I’m convinced that’s what is behind Jesus’ words). I’m more interested in the comments section of Summer’s post. Among those comments you’ll find two responses, one by Nick Norelli. (His linked name there takes you to his blog, not to his comment on Summer’s post.) Do take advantage of reading Norelli’s response on Sumner’s post though. I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing here, but it’s a blog post in itself.

After Norelli’s response, consider the response by a certain PD there in the comments section. Short and sweet, but good. I never picked up on the passage (John 16.31-33) he cites regarding the impossibility of thinking the Father actually rejects Jesus on the Cross:

“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.”

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

I’ve also been reflecting on Heb. 12.1-3, a passage I’m convinced makes the divine abandonment view of the Cry impossible:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Now, juxtapose this description of Jesus’ experience of the Cross with the Cry. What do you sense?

The Cry is interpreted by many as describing the Father’s rejection of his Son. But the author of Hebrews believes Jesus “endured the Cross for the joy set before him.” What can it mean to say he “endured” the Cross? Clearly it can’t mean he “survived” the Cross. Why not? Because Jesus obviously didn’t survive the Cross. He died on it. So “enduring” the Cross has to mean something other than “surviving” it, something other than not dying on it. But if not survival, then what? (Never mind the additional comment in Heb 12 that Jesus “despised the shame” of being crucified, hardly a perspective one who believes himself a derelict rejected by God would be in a position to embrace.)

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“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

The “endurance” in question is thus the enduring belief in his identity as the Father’s Son and his mission as sent by the Father contrary to a world from which every evidence of the Father’s love and faithfulness had vanished. It meant maintaining that belief and defining his sufferings “from within a framework of meaning” the Cross could not deconstruct. To not endure the Cross would have meant allowing the Cross to define him out of his identity and purpose. It would have meant his believing about himself what those who crucified him believed about the crucified—that he was utterly forsaken of God. We suggest that it is Jesus’ enduring perspective on himself as beloved Son, as suffering purposefully in obedience to his Father and not as abandoned by him, in precisely those circumstances Jews believed were evidence of God’s having cursed him, that renders his suffering a saving act.

God enters our nightmare

MarkChagallIt’s a scene you’ve experienced if you have children. Your young daughter screams out in the night. You rush to her side and find her semi-awake, still trapped inside a nightmare, and crying out, “Daddy! There’s a monster chasing me!” What do you say? Do you say, “Run faster, Hunny, faster!” or perhaps “Hide behind a tree or under the staircase!”? Do you confirm the reality of her nightmare this way? Or perhaps you let her nightmare define you as well and pace the floor feeling as desperately forsaken as she does.

Here’s what you do. You hold her in your arms and say, “It’s alright my love, Daddy is here! Don’t be afraid; Daddy’s here,” and you gently rock her in your arms until her reality conforms to your reality, that is, until your reality defines her reality by putting the lie to her nightmare. You save her from her nightmare by exposing it as false, not by letting it falsify you. That’s a rough analogy, we believe, for how it is that God awakens us from our nightmare.

“But this doesn’t require incarnation,” you say. “To save us,” you insist, “God didn’t speak into our world from outside.” Quite right. To save us from our nightmare, God enters our nightmare. Or if we’re talking about my daughter who is stuck in a bad dream, then I enter her nightmare to rescue her. So let’s extend our analogy of the dream to include this. How might some such model be possible and maintain anything like an Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology?

Actually, pretty easily.

Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomenon. A lucid dream is a dream you have in which you’re aware that you’re dreaming but you don’t awaken from the dream, and the dreamer even has a measure of control over her participation in the dream. Lucid dreams can be extremely vivid. Just because the dreamer is aware she’s dreaming doesn’t empty the dream-world of its vividness or the experienced, first-person perspective of the dreamer from within the dream. Lucid dreaming has even been used to treat persons who suffer from nightmares. It’s not yet known how it is that the technique of lucid dreaming and lucidity exercises address the problem of repetitive nightmares, but it has been documented to work.

Analogy time. Let us offer lucid dreaming as an analogy or model for understanding the Orthodox two-minds Christology. Tom Morris suggested this back in 1986 in The Logic of God Incarnate. In this lucid dream analogy of the Incarnation, the dreamer (the divine Son/Logos) is aware — outside of his own incarnate participation in the dream — that he’s having this dream. That places him both outside and inside the dream (of creation). You might say he transcends the dream. There’s more to ‘him’ than there is to ‘him-in-the-dream’. He’s in the dream, he’s just not exhausted by it. Applied to my daughter, I choose to enter incarnationally into her nightmare. I’m in the bedroom holding her in my contented, peaceful embrace and I’m also in her dream being crucified by monsters.

Cross3But what about that cry of dereliction? “Why? Why have you forsaken me?” Surely there’s no way I could be on the Cross feeling forsaken, inside the dream asking this particular question, and yet also be outside this cry holding it all in existence, sustaining it in triune joy and contentment as its dreamer. Surely with this cry of dereliction the knife is plunged into God’s heart and there’s no transcendent space for God to hide from it.

To this we reply, Why think that? In lucid dreams the dreamer transcends the dreamt. The dreamt does not, within the constraints of the dream, transcend the dreamer. This is just an analogy, of course, but it does what analogies are supposed to do, and that is to make claims conceivable. We are able to conceive of the Son’s experiencing the Cross and also having an experience outside the Cross. The Son was born, named Jesus, ate, got tired, became hungry, and finally was hung on the Cross. But the Son need not be reduced to this finite history. He is in the nightmare, but the nightmare does not exhaust who and what he is.

Even when the epistemic distance (to borrow Hick’s term) inherent to the context of the nightmare is increased so greatly and the absence of the Father’s felt presence presses him so intently to despair, to sin, to embrace the nightmare as the truest thing about who he is, Jesus refuses. He refuses to step outside his relationship to his Father as the Son. As far as Jesus is concerned, he is still his Father’s son, and he self-identifies as the Father’s son all the way though the Cross until he dies with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

We are meant to view this, to see it, to see human nature put to the test again, to again entertain those doubts born of the epistemic distance inherent to our finitude (as in the Garden) or born of suffering, to wonder and question again, to be in a context void of every evidence of the Father’s love and presence. But this time humanity loves in return. In Christ, humanity trusts in the face of all evidence to despair. There is only unquestioning obedience and trust: “I am my Father’s Son right here, right now, on this Cross, no matter what this nightmare says I am.” Thus it is in Christ’s filial self-identification on the Cross that the absence and rejection of God are revealed to be myths of a false and despairing perception, not the truth that saves us.

Question. By whom is Christ empowered not to step outside his identity as the Father’s Son? If the Father has decided, as some say, to absolutely abandon his Son on the Cross thus withdrawing from him every spiritual resource, by what means was Jesus then empowered to self-identify as his Father’s Son, so contrarily to his pain? By the Spirit of God of course. If the Son is forsaken by the Father as absolutely as some think, apparently the Spirit refused to go along with the program, for the Spirit is present empowering Jesus on the Cross to self-identify as Son, as beloved and begotten of his Father, within the pain of his circumstances and contrary to them. The Spirit empowers Jesus to reject that interpretation of his circumstance which concludes he is no longer his Father’s beloved Son. THAT is how his coming into our nightmare sets us free. Christ’s transcendent choice to self-identify as the Father’s Son (and thus to identify God as his Father) on the Cross tells us that the nightmare is not the truth about us. We are not rejected. We couldn’t possibly be. To “wake up” from the nightmare of our sinful misrelating and despair is just to perceive that nothing about the nightmares that define our despair is ultimately true about us.

Welcome to the truth of apatheia.

(On the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ see Not what you suppose and A cry of dereliction?.)