Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

My post “Jesus: On Our Side” generated a single question: Why am I so sure that the process of becoming like Christ’s idea of me will involve pain? Why will it not be, as it sometimes is, a delightful enfolding of love? I have been asked for a clear reason as to why I think the God of love will cause us suffering in the process of moving toward Him. Is God not the great healer? The great source of love? Why then shouldn’t God make the change one of, not suffering, but a kind of catharsis? When we are swallowed up in love, might we not weep away our sin until we are clean?

Intending to write a single blog post, I realized that this is in fact five posts. So I will be posting, perhaps once a week, a single reason why I believe the process of becoming like Christ involves suffering.

Week 1: The Natural and the Supernatural

Week 2: After Goodness

Week 3: Authority

Week 4: Spoken Aloud

Week 5: The Ever Higher Hill

The following is, I hope, if not a convincing argument as to why the process must involve suffering for us, a satisfactory explanation as to why I believe it must.

There is a debate, especially among my Catholic brothers and sisters, about the question of the relationship between nature and grace. If we can’t be fully satisfied by natural things, we are in some way owed God’s gracious gift of Godself (this is based on a philosophical concept from Aristotle). For a creature must be able to attain its own ends. However, if our own natural ends satisfy us so much, why should we care about God’s gracious gift? We could, it seems, reject it without any violence to our nature.

I find the debate to be difficult at best for a number of reasons, but primarily because, once you get into some of the higher philosophy and theology of it, it predicates of God distinctions that are not meaningful. The God presented in the debates is too anthropomorphic, making one decision “after” another, and setting divine freedom against divine necessity. (These are also the problems inherent in the philosophical debate about God’s freedom starting from Leibniz until today).

However, what is useful for our discussion is the focus on the distinction between human nature and God’s grace. I, siding with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others and hold firmly that the human being is made primarily for fellowship with God. Our hearts are restless until we do. Yet, I also hold that the divine call to grace is a supernatural one. Nature points us in one direction, and the gracious call of God pulls us in another. There is pain in leaving the natural path; a giving up of many of our natural inclinations for supernatural commands. Indeed, following the commands will bring joy, or, when we are at our best, are joy themselves. But that does not remove the fact that by doing them, we are giving up something we would also like to be doing.

Anyone who has come from a relatively happy family, or at least a family of love (for a loving family is not always happy), and gone away to college, knows the feeling. You know you are doing what you must, what you should; even what you want. You know that joy waits just around the corner. But there is a wrench, a tearing, and a suffering that comes from that parting. You are leaving something natural, the home, for something less natural, the dormitory. Those of us who successfully went through the process will say without question that the process is worth it, and that untold joys have been the result. But that does not make the suffering not suffering.

Indeed, all steps away from the natural involve suffering. Christianity, or even religion, is not the only one to lay claim to such things. Let us take marriage for example. The Christian position on marriage is varied, but I will consider here the view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans: that marriage is a sacrament. As a sacrament, marriage is called to a supernatural level. It not only puts two people together in a binding contract with all due legal rights, but calls them to an “unnatural” relationship. They “forsake all others” and swear that the union will end only when their mortal  lives come to an end. This is an unnatural state for humans to be in, as we are constantly reminded by our culture. On the other side, we can see the growing movement of polyamory and open marriages (two distinct practices). These lifestyles, as best I understand them, hold that having only a single partner is not the situation that makes human beings the happiest.

In the middle is the system of the old Roman Republic. Two people make a contract together, and remain together as long as that contract is profitable to them. Hopefully the profit is joy, children, and a richer life, but that is not always the case. Then, when the contract is done, they go their own way to make another contract. Breaking of the contract is forbidden, but happens too often anyway. This system is very much like our own, and is, from a natural level, preferable to our own as it acknowledges that this kind of marriage is a purely natural institution that can and should be left naturally without much in the way of suffering.

What the Christian and the Open Marriage positions have in common is that they both call us to deny certain natural tendencies. The person in the Open Marriage must find his way through the jungle of jealousies and natural reactions to his mate being with other people. Sex aside, one must deal with the touch of the cheek, the affectionate hand holding, and the private jokes that, if all is well, they will be let in on but not in the same way as the two originators. There is a killing of the self that takes place in such situations that is done with the hope that, when these parts are dead, something better will be achieved on the other side. The Christian is in the same position, but on the opposite side of things. There is a death involved every time we meet someone truly wonderful who we might have loved deeply with Eros. We look at what might have been and we say “no,” knowing that we have committed ourselves to a choice. Our partner might be the best person for us, or he might not. Perhaps he is too loud, too angry, too lazy. And yet the Christian call is a supernatural call, one that calls us to deny our natural desires at times. Instead of killing the part of ourselves that wants exclusivity, we must kill the part that wants choices after our decision has been made.

Interestingly enough, both positions claim to draw their adherents to a kind of arch-natural state. Those who insist that human beings do not naturally have only one partner are no less claiming a “rightness” to their position than the Christian who claims a “rightness” to sacramental marriage. Both say that on the other side of the death of the “natural” level, there is something more natural and more life-giving.

The differences between these two positions are obvious and need not be gone into here in detail. But where they are similar is what is important. They both draw us away from our natural state, and this involves a fair amount of self-sacrifice and suffering. For no one has seen the one they truly love looking deeply into the eyes of another with equal love and not felt pain. And, conversely, no one has looked into the eyes of another and though “he . . . he would have made me far happier” and not suffered the shock of loss.

Another way of demonstrating this natural/supernatural dichotomy is from Scripture. The story of the Garden of Eden contains within it a special commandment. The man and his wife are not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a commandment given in a mythical setting, and I am fairly certain that the tree and commandment represent some other commandment given to humanity at its inception. Perhaps it was “do not kill creature X, for in the day that you do, you will surely die”. Or perhaps it was even a command not to eat a certain fruit. But whatever it was, it was not a natural commandment. If it lined up perfectly with the nature of the human creatures, it would have needed no commandment. God did not need to tell Adam not to eat rocks, Adam’s biological tendencies had that well in had. Instead, the command was itself a call to supernatural life: trusting that God is good, and that there is more for us than the natural world.

Obeying the commandment would have been almost nothing, a small self-denial for something much greater. But the self-denial must have involved some small level of suffering, else it could not be self-denial. Something must die in the giving up of what we want, even if the desire is small. If God had told us, “you shall not wear the color yellow” it would be only a small loss for me (though perhaps for others a deep loss). Yet, on those days when wearing yellow might seem best, it would involve a small, perhaps almost (but not quite) meaningless leaving of the self.

This plays out more obviously when we think about the demon of competition. We consider a good that we want, and that is not unlawful or harmful: a job, a friend’s time, a particular book on a shelf. We reach for the thing and find that another wants it. If it is someone we love, we naturally want them to have what they want. If it is a stranger, we may feel quite magnanimous to them. If it is an enemy, we may feel exactly the opposite. But how, even in the first two situations, are we to want their good if it conflicts with our good? How can I wish you to have the same job that I wish for myself?

The commandments of Christ demand from us that not only are we to wish good for all three of these people, our enemy not less than our loved ones, but that we are to give them the very thing we desire if they desire it. It is a giving away that involves suffering because, if we truly desired the job, or the treasured hour with a friend, or the hard to find book, we cannot lose it except with some level of suffering. Having worked for years to be ready to take the job, we find that another has it. How can we not suffer? Having been parted for a year, and having endured many sorrows, we find that the coveted moment is stolen from us when we might embrace our friend, and for a time hear his laughter and bad jokes again because another needs his time more. How can we not suffer?

Yet, we are called by God to go beyond these natural inclinations into joy. They can’t help but be suffering for us, and yet we must let them go. We must not stamp our feet and insist that the job is ours, or that our friend turn his back on someone in need. We must kill that part of ourselves and grow. I do not mean here into “mature adults” who can simply bear the pain, but into sons and daughters of God who give thanks that another has received good. This all involves pain.

But the fact that it involves quite as much pain as it does is strange. Should these things not be small “almost-nothings” that we give away easily? The fact that they are not will require another blog post.

Advertisements

Fire Upon The Earth

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-RvwTaUIbDSE/UZreDXfWrRI/AAAAAAAAAIQ/GOOOeC6CP0s/s1600/Pentecost+design+by+G_town.jpg

Sermon for Hope Lutheran Church in College Park, MD 8/18/2013

Texts:  Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews: 11:29 – 12:2
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

Our age is obsessed with the natural world.  We have learned how to manipulate it, control it, and we have delved many of its secrets.

Of course there are many secrets which we have only just scratched the surface of.  But the fruits of the pursuit of scientific knowledge are obvious and abundant.

But we have become so transfixed with our knowledge of the world that we have mistaken this kind of knowledge for all kinds of knowledge.  This kind of reality for all kinds of reality.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel today do not make sense in a purely naturalistic world, where there is only nature, but no supernature.  Where only the natural exists, the Gospel fails.  For Christ did not come to organize communities, or to set up societies.

No, instead, Christ tells us exactly what he came to do in this week’s reading.  He came, it says “to bring fire to the earth.”  But no, that’s not right.  The Greek reads “I came to throw, or cast fire upon the earth.”  Christ comes with a violent intention, to burn with fire, and to break like a hammer.  He has come to cast fire on the earth.

Now, fire consumes, fire destroys.  Where there is only the weak, fire fully destroys.  But where there are things that are made, not to resist, but to be refined by fire, it purifies.  The fire that Christ comes to cast upon the earth is like this.  It burns to purify that which is eternal by destroying all that is too weak and temporary to belong to the kingdom of God.

As George MacDonald, the great Scottish Preacher and Writer announces, God “will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.”

It is a supernatural fire that comes with Christ.  For He is the supernatural man.  He is supernatural in two ways.  First, in that he is God come into humanity to stand among us while remaining the living and Eternal God.  Secondly, He is man, come into the Godhead to make a place for us women and men.  He is the bridge that lays itself down that all might come to the Father.  And like all bridges he connects the two lands, and has some share in both.

The supernatural man, then, does supernatural things.  He heals, he raises the dead, he says to the storm “be still!”  He commands the earth as its rightful Lord, for he is above it, and greater than it.

And here, he comes to cast a burning upon the earth, and how He wished in that moment that it was already kindled!  Why?  What is this burning that he wants to send into the world?  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Well, to some degree that is right, but we know that the Holy Spirit was already active in the world from the very first day.  Is it the kingdom?  He was at that time preaching the kingdom that was to be an image of the very country from which He came where love rules and peace is permanent.

If not these, then what?  What is the fire upon the earth?

Look to your left and your right.  There, in the pew ahead of you, and the one behind you.  There is the fire that Christ has hurled to the earth to burn it.  The Church, set ablaze by the Spirit who was given at Pentecost, living the kingdom that He has established, stands as fire upon the earth.

We are God’s fire, for we are in the Son, the Word that is like Fire, as Jeremiah tells us.  The fire given to us in the Holy Spirit is the same fire that was in Christ, the heart and mind of Christ that sets the world ablaze.  The Church, for whatever we think of her, her failings, her stumbles, her empty pews and petty infighting, is under all of that, the very heavenly life that God has become human to establish here.

The fire that comes is the fire of the Trinity, lived supernaturally in the lives of natural people.  The computer programmer, the bank teller, the construction worker, the lawyer, the bartender, and the retail worker all are elevated to the life of the burning fire of God.

But lest we be deceived, we must understand the nature of this fire.  It is a relentless destroying fire, for it burns away all that is natural to replace it with that which is supernatural.  It conforms that which is passing away into that which is eternal.  And what does the eternal look like?  Is it a conquering majesty of armies, of haughtiness, of those who lord it over one another?

No . . . it is a kingdom of forgiveness.  It is the reign of love and mercy.  The supernatural confounds our natural desires.  The Lord Jesus does not come like the captain at the head of his legions of angels.  He could have, but that is not His character, for it is not His Father’s Character.  Instead, he comes meekly, calling us to the same humble life of service to one another.  Come and take up his yoke, come and obey him, come and follow, taking up your cross.  God is meek and lowly of heart, He forgives all offenses, he does not repay evil for evil, he has mercy  at every turn.

Come good people and live in the life of the trinity given now to you as fire upon the earth, and burn away all enmity, all hatred, all grudges, all judgment, all jealousy.  Be fire that burns with generosity and love, and convert the world with your peace.  We are to be a blazing light of obedience.

This is the good news, that God is beyond our petty quarrels, and has called us to his life.  Do you worry if you will be justified before him?  Cast that worry aside and cling to Christ in obedience.  For the Good Master is indeed Good, and no news is better than that He is Himself, this very man, Jesus the Christ.

Rejoice, forgive your enemies, and which may be harder, forgive those you love,  and be fire upon the earth until all else is burned, and only the eternal remains!

The Relational Secret and the Eschaton

Judgment

This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year.  The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics.  This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play.  Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues.  The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference:  http://www.e-ccet.org/

Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell).  The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being.  Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).[1]

Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory).  Persons are persons, not individuals.  They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them.  From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both.  We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences.  This is the safeguard against simple collectivism.  I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.

Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive.  My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being.  In fact, they are coterminous realities.  My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived.  There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.

The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State.  (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails).  A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present.  If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person?  How can I be really myself?  And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?

While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live.[2]  We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless.  Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings.  But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.

The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person.  Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology,[3] I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God.  Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique.  MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea.  Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).

The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways.  It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier.  But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God.[4]  It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.

And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities.  For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me.  But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time.  Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost.  My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.

We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves.  God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent.  I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not.  What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”

But can God, or would God do this?  Perhaps the second question first.  Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.”  Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”?  This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.

The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it?  Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy?  Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way?  Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God?  Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way?  If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.

It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons.  This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.

Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image).  If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image.  Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth?  One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation.  If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other.  But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology.  If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.

Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things.  Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole.  Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.”  And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.


[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.

[2] We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.

[4] Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.