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 in you the truth that contradicts the nightmare. That’s a rough analogy, we believe, for how it is that God awakens us from our nightmare through incarnate suffering.

“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?

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 an Orthodox two-minds Christology. Tom Morris described 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 – love 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 contrary 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 beloved of his Father. 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?.)