The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality

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“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.

 

 

Subjectivity and the Hypostatic Union

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One of the major difficulties in thinking through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the problem of single or dual subjectivity. The first holds that the subject of every action in the Incarnation is the divine Word of God. Thus we say that God is born, God eats, and God dies and rises. If we were to ask Jesus who He is, in His response of “I AM…” the “I” is the “I” of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.

This causes some problems and seems to lead us toward a deficient humanity in Christ. The human “I” that each of us is, seems to be lacking in Christ. There is an “I” but it is a divine, not a human self. We find ourselves slipping into a kind of Apollinarian viewpoint in which the self-determining rational mind of Christ is replaced by the Logos.

To check this, we do all we can to buttress the humanity of Christ, insisting on a human spirit and mind, but then finding ourselves in a position in which we are now very close to seeing this collection of elements that make up a human person, doing exactly that. Jesus’ humanity, it seems, must be self-determining to be really human. The “I” of the human Jesus appears to need to be the “I” of a human person otherwise we lose the full humanity of Christ.

But of course, if we follow this well trodden road, we now have two subjective elements, the divine “I” and the human “I”. This falls into the serious problem of the nature of the union between God and our nature. How is it accomplished? If the “I” of Jesus is not divine, how does his life, death, and resurrection help us?

Doctrinally, of course, the Church holds to the Neo-Chalcedonian enhypostatic formula of the human nature of Christ being personal (a person, a subjective ‘I’) in the Logos. A single subject. Yet, if we are sympathetic, we can hear the validity of the concerns of the “two-sons” theology of Antioch.

Perhaps of course, the answer to our conundrum does not lie in trying to refine our formulas to try to explain which elements are maintained and which are lost in the union. Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper mystery of divine Subjectivity.

The “I” of human nature appears to be fundamentally exclusive. It is the “I” that says that I am I and you are you. I am I by not being the “I” that you are. This is, of course, a source of terrible suffering, for selfishness, domination, and abuse all come from the over emphasis of this distinction. But it also is the opportunity for all charity, altruism, and empathy. I cannot have charity if there are no others to love.

This firm distinction of self, however, may not be what is at the base of all creation. The Triune God who is the Father’s self-giving to the Son and Spirit, dwells as the root and base of all self. In the Trinity all self is wholly given away, nothing held back, and no boundaries set up. Distinction, not separation, is the law of love in the Trinity. While we must affirm the “non est” of the Father/Son distinction, we must also more firmly hold to the Dominical mystery that “I and the Father are One.”

One God, not three Gods who share a divine nature. One mystery of three interpenetrating selves giving themselves away wholly and with abandon, patterned on the Father’s foundational gift of self to the Son.

The Self then in the divine life is wholly integrated into the other, or the one who is distinct. We can see the pattern played out Christologically in the Dominical commandments to love our enemies, to give all we have to those who ask, and to love all as brothers and sisters. The divine broadness of selfhood is also revealed in the mystery of the last judgment in which all good and evil done to the least are done to Christ.

It is through these lenses then that we must consider the hypostatic union of single subjectivity that preserves and maintains the fully humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Only by thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Trinity, and thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Christian life, can we begin to contextualize the mystery of a single subject in Christ.

The subjective “I” of the Logos does not unite itself to any reality to expel that reality from itself. Grace comes to complete, not to destroy. Far be it then that the Logos, in its most perfect union with human nature, should cast out any element, even the human way of saying “I.” Indeed, the Logos unites itself so closely to our nature that our nature can say “I” in the person of the Logos in the way that it says “I” in every other human being. It’s psychology, though unfallen, functions as a human psychology, not driven out by the Logos, but in perfect union with it.

It is a mystery. The perichoretic selves of the Trinity, and indeed the perichoretic selves of Christians, tear down the diabolical demand that I and Thou must always mean different things, while resisting the misunderstanding that they must wholly collapse into each other. Distinction without division is the rule.

These, then, appear to me to be the tools with which we must work at our understanding of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Let the doctrines of Trinity and Christian love shine a light on the doctrine of the incarnation so that it might shine greater light in return on them.

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.

Jesus: On Our Side

Recently a very good friend of mine, Father Ben Wallis, reposed a “Coffee with Jesus” that he liked very much. The comic strip is here:

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The strip references a few different theological ideas. First, the common perception that Jesus must be judgmental. Second, that Jesus did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save it (John 3:17). And finally, that Jesus, not coming to judge people, is indeed on their side.

Far be it from me to argue with the author of the Gospel of John. Indeed, I believe John’s gospel has a depth of understanding that comes from the decades of reflection on the man Jesus and the events of his life, death, and resurrection that the other three Gospels simply do not display.

Coffee with Jesus, on the other hand, does not quite have the apostolic authority that the fourth Gospel lays claim to. And it is their reading of the first two theological points, and their conclusion with the third that I want to consider and perhaps nuance.

First, the idea that Jesus judges people is something I’m familiar with only in Christian circles. Outside of those circles, it is Jesus’ followers that appear to be the ones whose judgment people do not want. If “Kevin” in the comic strip is meant to be a non-Christian, I think this whole message is off. He might, if he were like the non-Christians I know, say something like “Jesus, you seem OK, but your followers really suck,” or, “Hey man, I don’t even think you existed” or “strange how you and Mithras share the same birth story” (there may even be  Coffee with Jesus strips that do these very things, I don’t know). Indeed, amidst all of the criticisms of Jesus that I have heard, few if any have been about how judgmental that Jesus guy was.

However, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that “Kevin” is a Christian. He has been told that Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead (something we hold as dogmatically true by the authority of the Nicene Creed). This man, “Kevin” doesn’t want any of that. Who needs judgment?

Jesus’ response, that he didn’t come to judge the world, is certainly johannine in origin. However, it does not tell the whole story about judgment in the New Testament. Indeed, also from Jesus mouth is the coming judgment of the world from Matthew 25. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks of the judgment seat of Christ.

But more damning to this simplistic view is the rest of the Johannine witness. Jesus makes it clear that he does indeed judge in John’s Gospel. The fifth chapter speaks clearly about Jesus’ judgment coming from the authority of the Father. Even more confusing is John 9:39 when Jesus says he “came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’”

John’s Gospel then seems to have conflicting information. Jesus did not come into the world to judge it, but he also came for judgment. Clearly “Coffee with Jesus” is taking one side of a somewhat murky problem.

Another statement by Jesus in John’s Gospel adds more information, but does not really clarify the situation.

“I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” (John 12:47-48)

The word Jesus has spoken will judge. How Jesus’ word is both connected to him and distinct from him is not fully clear. However, we will leave the issue open, where it must be. Jesus judges, but has not come to judge.

So what then of Coffee with Jesus’ conclusion? Jesus’ last words in the comic “I’m on your side, Kevin” are very interesting. Those of us who do not hold to a limited atonement, who believe that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension were really for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, must believe that Jesus is really on our side.

But, while this is a beautiful truth, it is not the whole truth in a world stained and darkened by sin. Because the people we are, the people we identify ourselves as. the goals and opinions and self portraits we have, may be diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Insofar as we identify ourselves with those things, and not His love and teaching, Jesus is very much not on “our” side. Indeed, the thing we call our “self”, doing all it can to not love our neighbors as Christ loved them, to not forgive, to not hold our lives lightly, and to gather goods, money, fame, and power, and to beat down others so that they have less than we do, can never be said to have God on its side.

God must and will kill that thing. He will stamp it out; tread it underfoot even if it strikes him in the heel. He will cast it into a fire of hell until it dies the last death. All of this will be very painful to what we call our “selves”. While the process is going on, it will seem very much like God is on anyone’s side but our own.

Then, when that false self is slain, when the shade that hid the man or woman is banished by the burning light of judgment, which is to say the light of truth, for judgment is only calling a thing what it is, the true man or woman will stand forth before all of creation and declare rightly that Christ was always and everywhere on his side.

For Christ is for the woman or man as they are meant to be. He is for you in a way that you are not for yourself. He is for each person even if they would slay him to keep him from bringing out of them the good that they will be so that they can keep the evil that they are.

It is wrong to say that Christ is for the slightest sin done with the best intentions by the holiest of saints. Insofar as that saint is allied with the sin, Christ would pay the dearest price to have the sin out, and the woman who committed it no longer linked with its evil. He will have it dead and cast into hell. And insofar as she identifies with it, she must go to hell as well until it is out.

But it is right to say that Christ is for even Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers, and every rapist, child molester, and murderer. He is for the very humanity in these people and their dearest friend, for no power can save them from the evil that they have made themselves but His.

And as far as it goes, all who allied themselves with the sins of their fellows, which is all of us, are not really on the sides of those we call our closest friends. We are against them when we help them to become less themselves, which is to say less God’s idea of them, and become more the sin. In fact, insofar as we are all broken, all falling short, all complicit, we have never really been on each other’s sides. No one has ever had a true friend in the sense that every movement of every action was always for their good.

Except for this man, Jesus.

So yes, though it is over simplified, and perhaps easily misunderstood, Coffee With Jesus gets at one of the deepest truths of reality. Jesus is on our side. But we must remember and tremble at remembering, that while he is on our side, we may not be.

 

You can find all of the Coffee with Jesus strips here: http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php

We Won’t Stop


The Lyrics are pretty simple and shallow.  They are all about partying, dancing, getting high, and basically living for pleasure.  They are about a sense of self-ownership and freedom, with a repletion of the phrases “we can x” and “this is our x”.  “We run things/Things don’t run we.” We can’t stop. We won’t stop.

It is an anthem of youth that is concerning itself with asserting that it will not be stopped in its pursuit of the party.  At a very basic level, this is a song about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

But it points to something more. Everyone who has ever been to a truly great party knows that the party is the people.  It’s the spirit that moves the gathering, the crazy friend who is busting out his dance moves too early in the night, the three or four people on the balcony who are getting too deep for everyone else, and the group getting way too loud.  It’s the moment when that song that everyone knows comes on, and, which is rare in our culture, all of a sudden our voices are one, singing together.  And anyone who has been in that moment knows that more often than not, we sing together against something.  This song has it.  If we sing along we are singing together against . . . what?  Responsibility?  Age?  Waste? Authority?

Death?

There is something wildly pagan about a good party.  There is the uplifting of the senses to the higher powers, the elevation of pleasure, the worship of the wild gods of drink and sex.  The little lights of men and women lift up their fierce celebration against the unknown and the solitude of individuality.  And, if they so deign, the natural gods descend to move amongst us with the spirit of the bacchanalia, and the orgy.

“We Can’t Stop” is another summer party song.  It’s a song that has been sung generation after generation.  As flagons, wine skins, red cups and 40’s are lifted up across time, the spirit of the party moves.  It rages.  We sing.

Many in the history of the church would condemn it all.  Others would simply dismiss it as harmless youth.  Neither is the right answer as far as I’m concerned.  Instead, we must ask what God can make of it.  What can the Incarnate One who has made use of the very small things of hands and legs and eyes and ears, make of the party?  What if the spirit that moved the party was, not replaced, but crowned with a new ruling Spirit of harmony and a new kind of elevation?  The Erotic, not cast aside, but transformed, still called us to each other.  The false high replaced with the true ecstasy too intense for the small imitations of our little drugs.

What if the Spirit reworked it all into something truly beautiful?

What Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, and the Roots do here is only a sign, only a hint, only the merest suggestion of the mystery that is the God who will take our human lives and shoot them through with eternal arrows of burning joy.  Something small is made large.

I imagine that the pleasures of this life are not even to be compared with the pleasures of the next, and yet they are a shadow.  This is so far from us when we understand the kingdom only as a set of laws, or a legal or forensic transaction between the Legal God and Himself.  The kingdom is ecstatic, each of us going out from ourselves in total love for one another. What we saw as the spirit of the party will be seen only to have been its herald.  The Spirit comes to make us love with a raging love and acceptance that brings us into wonderful harmony.  Not just one voice singing, for there is the hell of self.  But a harmony of voices, affirming and elevating, loving and healing.

It won’t be abstract.  The people who were in a line in the bathroom trying to get a line in the bathroom will find the very thing they were looking for.  It will look very different, of course.  But what they will find, what they will do in that coming party, will have been hinted at in the drug.  What we sought in sex and drunkenness will appear for real before us.  There will be newness and resurrection, but it is these old paltry things that will be made new.  One remembers the lizard of lust that becomes a stallion in The Great Divorce.

That coming feast which will be the biggest blow out that the universe has ever seen.  For we will not merely be stoic drones shuffling around talking about how Holy God is.  We will be our very selves made new, leaping and dancing with the divine life.  We will be gods whose music will take up the songs of earth and transform them into the anthems of immortal joy which they only hinted at here.

And then truly will we say we can’t stop.  Because there will be no end to the joy and ecstasy. The great enemy death will be cast away, and hell will be overcome.

Truly then we won’t stop.

Fire Upon The Earth

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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.

The Hidden Pattern: Jesus and The Harlem Shake

It’s a really simple model. You take a room full of people who are just going about their normal lives, sitting, reading, eating, or whatever. Then music starts, and at first it’s low but noticeable. More notable is the one figure dancing in the room. He has a strange helmet on, or a mask. He is dancing to the music, even though no one else is. The music plays for about ten seconds. Then the beat, as they say, drops.

The whole scene changes, and all of those normal people doing normal things, disappear and are replaced by the same people in insane costumes doing their best worst dance moves. Everybody is going nuts, and the first guy…he’s still doing that dance.

This my friends, a microcosm of every major Christian theological category dressed up in Darth Vader helmets and Spider-Man costumes. It contains the Incarnation, the preaching of the Gospel, the coming new Creation, the Eucharist, the Liturgy, the Trinity, the first Creation, and the Church. It displays Revelation, Interpretation, community and individuality. It’s a pattern that sits at the bottom of all things Christian.

It’s easy to see once you look. Let’s take the most obvious connection, the incarnation. The world, going about its business, looks rather normal. All of a sudden there is a man saying and doing something new that stands out from everything else. And then we are off like a shot, the scene jumps forward and human lives are changed from the mundane to the divine. The dance goes outward and sets normal respectable people off doing crazy, wild, and unpredictable things fueled by joy and informed by that man’s life and joy.

Consider the Church, that same community, all looking at the one man, his oddity and his difference, and patterning itself on him. Do you see his dance, his moves? You pattern yours on his, not as a simple copy, but as the interpretation of him that is your own very self. He might be Douggieing, but you are doing the Lawnmower, because that’s what he’s inspired you to do. And you’re not alone, that guy over there doing…um…something, is doing that something with you. He’s flailing about in what you think might be an attempt to do the running man in a way that is both in desperate need of correction and beautiful at the same time. Don’t worry, he’ll get it, and so will you. You, flailing man, and those three girls who all know exactly the same moves in perfect sync are all in this together. It’s the church patterned on the One. It is also a bunch of people that look totally crazy to everyone else. This is to be expected. If you won’t follow that one man’s crazy dance, then the people who do look really silly to you.

Or let’s consider the end of all things. There are the people in the world, going about as if it will never end. Then, in the blink of an eye, the world is changed, and their true selves are revealed. They are all images of that one who had been dancing the whole time, ignored by them, and now showing them how to be in a totally new and exciting way. The old is gone, and the Son of God’s words “Behold, I make all things new” break out in an eternal rapturous dance.

Again and again, from the boring nothing of pre-creation to the explosion of joy in the world’s making to the humdrum of life suddenly infused with the ecstasy of the Eucharist, the pattern of this passing (and probably very close to already passed) fad, unfolds and reveals the key to the Christian message. As well the fad itself, patterned on a single parody video, mirrors the Gospel. For each person can now be that silly one dancing amid the rigor and blah of the world, and can ignite a fire of foolishness that is wiser than all we can think up.

Such is the Gospel, not too proud to be boiled down to a simple YouTube Fad, not too great to become small and silly. But that shouldn’t be surprising, and should not offend those who think that the Gospel is too noble for this. For the Gospel is none other than the One who, though being God, thought it was best to become a silly awkward creature with arms and legs and hair who can dance Gangam Style.

Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.

The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.