Wednesday, June 25, 2014
From My Book CONVERSATIONAL THEOLOGY: On Atonement
So why did God identify with Jesus and save us through Jesus? Put simply, there was no other way to do it. What we really have in the conversations about messiah are continuations of conversations we found in the prophets, particularly surrounding the prophetic problem and the problem of evil, or put another way, we have two kinds of sin we have to find a cure for, in order to effect salvation for mankind: moral sin and metaphysical sin (notice how all our earlier conversations now seem to come into close contact in these New Testament messianic dialogues). Metaphysical sin, the not rightness of the universe, makes belief in God difficult. How can we believe in God in this evil world, how can we love Him if He abandons us to this terrible darkness? Paul's answer is eschatological, John's is to make Jesus' death the beginning of a cosmic transformation, an idea I think has merit and I'll return to later. But none of these answers is really satisfactory to the question of theodicy. I find more substance in the Church Fathers' fascination with God's kenosis, His self-emptying (Philippians 2:1-11) into the man of Jesus Christ, as a central reason for maintaining Christ's Divinity. Certainly, they did not posit this as the answer to cosmic evil, and instead adopted eschatological answers as did the prophets and Paul did, but for us it can serve as an answer to that pressing problem. Paul sees the darkness in the world, and posits Jesus as central to answering the question 'why is everything so bad'...the answer I glean from that meditation on the man Jesus is this: God is far different than what we expected Him to be. God is not like the Babylonian king, but is much more like the suffering servant, the Crucified Carpenter. God reveals to us this: I identify with this man Jesus. If you want to understand Who and What God is, and how God operates in the world, look at the whole of Christ's life. No doubt, the resurrection represents triumph, an act of creation and redemption. But look at what it takes to bring that creation and redemption about: suffering and death. God is that which exposes itself to the evils of the world, shows it undeserved love, and thereby ultimately transforms it. God's acts of creation are in and through His self-exposure to suffering and evil, and the taking on the consequences of evil into Himself. God is more like the woman in labor pains, than the sculptor or clock maker. God's power is suffering love, and that being the case, there are some things we just cannot expect God to be able to do. One of those is to ensure that we will be able to escape life without suffering.
We cannot expect more from existence than God gets. Bonhoeffer said once "cheap grace is grace without the cross...costly grace is the gospel. Grace cost God, it cost God the life of His only Son, and nothing can be cheap to us that is costly to God". I would expand this to say that we cannot expect to exist, to be, especially to exist in the midst of goodness, without suffering, since even God cannot exist without it. Jesus could not have known it, but even in His greatest moment of defeat, when all He thought was going to happen failed to, He was fulfilling a salvific role. I have already mentioned the moment on the cross when Jesus cries out "Eloi Eloi, lama sabacthani", or "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Traditionally, Christianity has tried to paint this moment as a moment of Jesus greatest humanity, but I say no, in this moment you get the clearest image of what Divinity really is all about. Understand God as a man turning to God in defeat, and you'll understand the whole of the gospels. We now can get a clear view of how Jesus can be all God and all man. Jesus is God's Word come to life, God revealing who God is through a human being. In much the same way I can give you a diary that will show you who I am and what I'm about...a way of getting to know me perhaps even more effective than direct contact with me, God gives us a human being who shows us what it really means to be God. So in one sense Jesus is, just a man, just as my diary is just paper and ink. But in another sense, it is the very heart and soul of God revealed, as well as God's activity in the world explained. Just as that diary in a real sense is my very self, my very soul, poured out on paper.
In this context, the juxtaposition between political messianism and Jesus' messianism takes on an important role. Christ's appearance was not incidental, He came at a time when many had adopted the view that Caesar was Divine, and Roman Power was something like "The Kingdom of God" made manifest. God's decision to self-identify with the carpenter on the Cross is a decision also to DIS-identify with the Caesar and with all political and military power. It is as if God said "is that what you think God is? I'll show you what God is, but you're probably never going to be able to accept it fully". Jesus' self-identification with the suffering servant was His living out God's Nature within Him. It was His revealing who God was, however unconsciously. And there is also a lasting moral relevance to all this. One can find it in Matthew 25. God's identification with the lowest and the weakest brought with it a call to treat these people as continued manifestations of God on Earth. To live in service to the weakest is to live in service to God, in that sense Jesus death also reinforced His call to a new moral community, which was radically different from the other human communities He encountered. This is what is known as the 'transvaluation of human values', the transformation of rational ordering of values into something IRrational, where the lowest is made highest, and the least important is made most important, it is an inevitable result of God's decision to reveal Himself in Christ.
This kind of Being, One who creates through suffering and by self-exposure to evil and danger, One who redeems us by taking the consequences of evil into Himself, is not one we can rightly get angry at for the evils of the world. To do so is to blame the victim. Now we understand the prophetic insight that we can discover God through our sufferings without resorting to the absurd formula that therefore God sent our suffering. Reconciliation after the prophets had to be two-sided, we needed God to be something we could accept and love, and we needed to be made acceptable to God. This kenosis idea is a hint of the answer the first half of that formula.
Before I begin talking about the second half, our own reconciliation to God, I want to address one issue that probably is bubbling under the surface. Often I am asked how we can worship a God that is not omnipotent, not like that Babylonian King in terms of power. I have had some put the question this way: well in what sense is that God at all, in what sense is such a god "worthy of worship"? Whenever I hear these comments I cannot help but think of the Romans putting a crown of thorns on Christ's head, and mocking the idea that He is a king. I do not know what 'worthiness of worship' amounts to, what I do know is that knowledge of a love this great forces me into a position of worship, and prayerfulness, even more than the idea of some omnipotent Divine potentate. "Amazing Love, how can it be, that you my King would die for me?" God doesn't have to bother with us, He doesn't have to relate to us intimately, and share in our own pains, but He does, because He loves us and wants to help us make of ourselves something meaningful and valuable. God as Christ is the source of all love, and the very ground of meaning and value. The very idea commands my worship, the very thought of this suffering love calls me to worship and prayer. Indeed, God as this man also means more responsibility for me, and less guarantees in life, it may mean that life in a world with God is harder, rather than easier, than the alternative. We must now take up our cross and bear it. I think we get angry at Christ; we get angry that God isn't what we thought He would be. We wanted someone who would give us political prestige, a Divine Potentate who could tend our every whim and smite our enemies. Christ frustrates human concerns and desires...a fact that is in itself concomitant with the important prophetic experience. Christ just isn't the kind of king we wanted. But, I would argue, He's the King we need. The God we yearn for, in our deepest hearts.