Christmas, and not lying about the world

Ghouta chemical attack.jpg
Ghouta, Syria, 21 August 2013
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.16–18)

 

I think a lot these days of those perpetually incomplete lives, beautiful and made tragic; and I wonder how they speak for God, or not for God; how they participate in the divine pathos, or at least the divine silence; and how their parents have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, sharing in the divine labor itself.

Often, hope leads to just despair – of faith, of the church, of God, of life itself. This too, it seems, is part of the kind of faith that Christmas makes possible, and that threatens to be transformed in the fullness of time.

Speaking of that horrible text in Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas is right to turn to Donald MacKinnon:

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.

A prayer:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon:
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.

Hope is the strangest protest

Beach pollutionThe poet and novelist George Mackay Brown is well-known for his love of place, and for his laments about their destruction with the advent of stuff like concrete, plastic bottles, portable transistor radios, and what he describes as the ‘menace of cars’, indeed with all signs of industrialization.

In a piece penned for The Orcadian and published on 23 March 1972, he (again) recounts feelings of deep grief about the prevalence of contaminants – oil slicks and junk – that he finds on his sojourns along the coast of his beloved island home. But the piece concludes on a different note:

We must have faith that somewhere, deep down at the very roots and sources of life, there is an endless upsurge of health and renewal. (If there were not, the earth would have shriveled like a rotten apple millenniums since.) A hundred years ago the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, troubled by the pollution of industrial England, consoled himself with the certainty that ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things …’. We can only hope that that primal unsullied source will be strong enough to wash away the frightful poisons that men are pouring into the air and earth and oceans every hour of the day and night. So, nowadays, when I take an afternoon walk around the coast, I am not offended any more by the empty sauce bottles and syrup tins on the rocks below. They seem to be simply human friendly objects. The freshness of nature, that lives ‘deep down things’, passes over them, and they are gone.

Hope is the strangest – and the most unbelievable – protest.

[Image: source]

‘Chorus’, by Seamus Heaney

The Cure at TroyA word (for today), from Seamus Heaney:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

– Seamus Heaney, ‘Chorus’, in The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 77–78.

Remembering hope in the work of Changi artist Des Bettany

I was delighted to discover that an Australian TV show ran a wee story this week on Changi artist Des Bettany. Des’ work – which his son Keith, in an incredible labour of love, has made available on a beautiful website, The Changi POW Artwork of Des Bettany – bears witness to the enduring nature of hope and the healing power of art, and celebrates the joy which is shot through creation even under travail and which dares to announce that something more permanent than violence and the fears which give rise to such shall have the last laugh. The story that tells of the discovery of Des’ ‘book’ also speaks – of hope’s surprises.

Beyond cynicism and credulity

Watts Hope

Just read a really wonderful reflection here on Hebrews 11.1, ‘Beyond Cynicism and Credulity: On the Meaning of Christian Hope’, by Douglas John Hall.

And now I can’t wait to preach on Hebrews 11!

Hope: a late-winter reflection

Watts - Hope 2The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” – Lamentations 3.19–24

To be human is to be a creature of hope, to be orientated towards something which or someone who transcends the boundaries of our own history and experience, and to see our life as anchored somewhere beyond view. I was reminded of this again recently when I was reading Václav Havel’s wonderful book Disturbing the Peace wherein he writes:

… the kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons …

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. (pp. 181–82)

Christians, and people of other faiths too, will want to give a particular name to this ‘elsewhere’ of which Havel (who was an agnostic) speaks, and the ‘love’ and ‘mercies’ and ‘faithfulness’ of the Lord of which the writer of Lamentations (possibly Jeremiah) speaks, but the basic conviction here will be shared by all. For Christians, this ‘elsewhere’ has a name – Jesus Christ – and it has a particular shape – the cross and resurrection. And St Paul reminds us that to call upon this name, and to embody this cross-resurrection shape, and to participate in this hope – in this ‘elsewhere’ orientation – is something that we do not do alone, for the patient Spirit of God hopes along with us too, perhaps especially when things feel the most hopeless, and waits with us for all things to become new.

And this hoping also takes a particular kind of shape in our world. And it is important that it does, for as Edward Schillebeeckx reminds us, ‘Who could believe in a God who will make everything new later if it is in no way apparent from the activity of those who hope in the One who is to come that he is already beginning to make everything new now?’

Hope, in other words, does not allow us to remain unmoved, but the Spirit of hope ‘leads us into life, into the whole of life’, and encourages faith so that it does not degenerate into faintheartedness, and strengthens love so that it does not remain enclosed within itself and with those who are like it.

Hope leads everything.
For faith only sees what is.
But hope sees what will be.
Charity only loves what is.
But hope loves what will be –
In time and for all eternity. (Charles Péguy, as cited in Jürgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, 189)

♦♦♦

Prayer (modified from Terry Falla, Be Our Freedom, Lord, and Rowland Croucher, ed., Still Waters, Deep Waters, 127–28)

O Lord our elsewhere, be for us the truth on which our life and death are built, the hope that cannot be destroyed, the freedom from which love and justice flow, and the joy that has eternity within it.

God of hope, we confess that we have fallen prey to false hopes; hopes of success, prestige, influence; we have invested ourselves emotionally in them only to be disappointed.

We pray for those we see deceived by the illusions of false hope; led by false shepherds, political and psychological messiahs who promise much, but deliver little.

We praise and thank you for our true hope, a sure and certain hope in your Son, and pray that even today we might live in the light of the last day. Help us not to be nostalgic for the past nor possessive of the present, but, with the Spirit’s help, to hold today and each day open to the future heritage of your Kingdom. Amen.

Hope and Memory (Job 14.1–14): a sermon

Oldřich Kulhánek - Job 2

There’s a scene in Terrence Malick’s film Thin Red Line where a young soldier gives voice to a series of imponderable and ancient questions about meaning, about the ‘thin red line’ between life and suffering and death. In what is essentially a prayer, he asks:

This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?

These questions haunt human history and seem to give lie to the claim that the earth is good, that behind and before history, that behind and before our life, that behind and before our agonising questions, stands one whom the NT calls ‘love’. It is little wonder then that we ask ‘why’ – why, if the Creator is good and powerful and loving, are there tsunamis and earthquakes? Why, if the Creator is on the side of life, will 29% of New Zealanders die of cancer? Why, if the Creator is the one who brings shalom, do 20% of us suffer from anxiety and mood disorders on a daily basis?  Why, if the Creator is a father who knows how to give good gifts to his children, are there 925 million people who share life with us on this planet hungry? Why, if Jesus is the bringer of a new thing, is the world so unchanged? If this is how a good God governs the world, and because our cry for answers seems to illicit no response, it is little wonder that we lose hope and we begin to wonder not only do I have a future, but also does creation itself have a future, and even does God have a future.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell spoke for not a few when he wrote:

I can imagine a sardonic demon producing us for his amusement, but I cannot attribute to a Being who is wise, beneficent, and omnipotent the terrible weight of cruelty, suffering, and ironic degradation of what is best, that has marred the history of Man in increasing measure as he has become more master of his fate.[1]

And so we come to the ancient Book of Job, a book which begins with these words:

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants … (Job 1.1–3)

Such fertility represents signs, in the Semitic world, of a family under the blessing of God. But not for long. Soon Job is robbed of every iota of financial prosperity and security that was his familiar lot, his children all die in a tragic accident, his livestock are stolen from him, he himself falls victim to a painful and disfiguring chronic disease, and then even his wife turns against him with the words, ‘Curse God and die’. And, perhaps most terrible of all, the book suggests that all of these things happen by God’s permission.

And then for the next 36 or so chapters, Job’s so-called friends – the would-be theologians – instead of waiting with Job for God to speak, they rush in to defend God with their moronic and ignorant theological speculations and they try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong to bring about this state of affairs. On the other hand, Job, for his part, rather than engage in philosophical speculation about the meaning of suffering – as if there might even be such meaning – turns to address God; first by cursing the day of his birth, and then later by challenging God to a day in court where the injustices of his life might be evaluated before someone or something manifestly less prejudicial than God. And what strikes me about this litany of complaints is that rather than jump onto some ancient equivalent of an online social networking site and whinge to others about his loss, Job turns to prayer. He is completely in the dark as to the reason for his suffering, but again and again and again he commits his cause to God. Consider these words from chapter 13:

See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face … Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy? Will you frighten a windblown leaf and pursue dry chaff? For you write bitter things against me, and make me reap the iniquities of my youth. You put my feet in the stocks, and watch all my paths; you set a bound to the soles of my feet. One wastes away like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten. (13.15, 24–28)

This theme is further developed in chapter 14 where we are invited to ask, ‘In the midst of such tragedy, in the midst of our agonies, in the midst of living with our demons and black dogs, in the midst of so many unanswered questions, “Can we hope?” And, if so, what might possibly be the basis of such hope?’

The chapter begins with a sober description of the experience of human life:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. (vv. 1–4)

And then we hear something of Job’s bitterness towards God as if he is addressing the schoolyard bully:

Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. (vv. 5–6)

In other words, ‘God, since you have already planned all our days, and even our deaths, why can’t you just leave us alone to live out whatever life we have been given, because it seems like every time you come near, my life just falls apart’.

According to Job, our fate is hopeless. We all die, and when we breathe our last, we lie down and never get up. In fact, Job says that even the trees have more hope than we do:

For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. (vv. 7–12)

Now most scholars argue that the real turning point of this chapter is in v. 14 when Job asks the question: ‘If mortals die, will they live again?’ (v. 14). And many commentators highlight how Job’s question here whispers that something else might be possible; that despite all evidence to the contrary, some crack might appear in an otherwise closed door and let in some fresh air, some crack which suggests that despite every appearance we are creatures not of chance but of One who has orientated us towards a hopeful future. It’s a fine way to read the passage, though I wonder if it too quickly closes our ears to something else that is important here.

For it may be that the real turning point in this passage actually lies on either side of these words – in v. 13 and in the second half of v. 14 – where Job speaks of both remembering and of waiting:

O that you would hide me in Sheol (i.e., in the underworld, the hiding place from God’s scrutiny and anger), that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! … All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.

The language of remembrance and of waiting is, of course, familiar language around the church. It’s the language that we hear not only around Advent, but also during Lent and during Easter, and during so-called Ordinary Time. But if there’s one day in the church’s calendar when the language of remembrance and of waiting is most intense it is on the quietest day of the Christian year – Holy Saturday. And the story of Job is the story of one faithful person’s experience of Holy Saturday, just as the book of Lamentations recalls on a corporate level the whole community’s journey through its own experience of God abandonment. And Holy Saturday reminds us that there’s waiting and then there’s waiting. For whereas the quality of Advent waiting brims with expectation and preparation for hope to ring and joy to arrive like having warm bread in the oven, the air of Holy Saturday reeks of stale smoke, as though something was burned the day before. The silence of this day is not like the silence of restoration and anticipation and peace. The silence of Holy Saturday sounds more like the buzz of a lonely streetlight on a dark deserted road in the middle of nowhere. It’s the silence of paralysing shock. It’s the silence of shattered hopes. It’s the kind of silence when nothing feels safe or dependable anymore.

The waiting of Job and the waiting of Holy Saturday are like waiting for a teenage son or daughter who has missed a midnight curfew to come home, or like waiting for the surgeon to emerge from the hospital operating room, or like waiting for the phone to ring with a report of biopsy results. Like Job’s questions, Holy Saturday is a day of suspense. It is the boundary marker between the undeniable and the inconceivable. It is, in the words of one theologian, what ‘appears to be a no-man’s land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel’.[2] And it is the space all too familiar to those of us who grieve the loss of one whom death has claimed prematurely. It is the space all too familiar to those of us who live with the burden of unreconciled relationships. It is the space all too familiar to those of us who live with the anxiety of not knowing whether or not we will always be recognisable to our loved ones.

And I want to suggest that what holds that space together – what fills the boundary between death and life, between despair and hope, between love experienced and love unimaginable – is the divine memory. It is God’s memory of us which makes it possible for us to neither abandon our sorrow nor to surrender the horizon of hope. It is God’s memory which places a boundary to our hopelessness and our dislocation. It is the memory of the God who remembered Rachel and filled her barren womb (Gen 30.22). It is the memory of the God who heard Israel groaning under the burden of cruel slavery and remembered an ancient promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the memory of the God who heard the desperate cry of a frightened thief and made a promise to accompany him even beyond death. And it strikes me that the dead Jesus is resurrected too precisely because he is not forgotten by the Father and the Spirit.

Job knows that one day all who know him will pass away and that his achievements will be long abandoned. He knows the futility of trusting in what will only return to dust. He knows the futility of trusting in those shrines of remembrance that we erect in our lives and in our churches and in our communities. But as fragile as he is, he is not finally without hope, and his hope is not that he will be faithful enough to remember God but that God is faithful to remember him, that he will be kept alive only by God’s memory of him. Job’s hope is that despite all appearances, God’s memory outlasts this creation which is passing away. This is great news for those of us who have ‘lost’ their memory, and for those of us who live with those who have ‘lost’ their memory – for it announces that our dignity and hope and humanity are not to be found finally in our ability to remember and to love but rather in the promise of one who both remembers and loves and who does so beyond the boundaries that death itself would seek to erect.[3]

When pain torments our body; when unwelcome fantasies invade our sleep; when friends unite to condemn or to abandon us; when death hovers on our doorstep – then, it is not finally a kind word or a new resolve that we need but rather an encounter with the God who remembers us, who remembers that we are dust; who is, in the words of Psalm 8, ‘mindful’ of us; who remembers that our history is not something that can be discarded willy-nilly, and who, in Jesus Christ, enters into the boundary of our dislocation and into the emptiness of our long-abandoned memories and who publicises to and for us that we are not forgotten. The reason for our hope is that we are remembered in life; we are remembered when disaster engulfs robbing life of joy and peace; and we are remembered in our graves. The reason for our hope is that we are remembered by God when all other memories have dried up, when all has passed away and the creation itself undone, when (as in v. 19) the waters wear away the stones and the torrents wash away the soil of the earth and all human hopes are extinguished.

And, finally, in the crucified God, we hope together with those who do not share our hopes, and with those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, and with those who are disappointed and indifferent, and with those who despair of life itself, and with those who have been the enemies of life, and with those who for whatever reason have abandoned all hope. In and with Christ, we hope and we remember them before God. In the crucified God, we hope together with the God who remembers us and who, in remembering us, is our hopeful end. Amen.


[1] Bertrand Russell, Last Philosophical Testament: 1943–68 (ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner; The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 2; London: Routledge, 1997), 87.

[2] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 2–3.

[3] No wonder that John Calvin once said that ‘there is nothing [human beings] ought fear more than to be forgotten by God’. John Calvin, Sermons from Job (trans. Leroy Nixon; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952), 78.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV

‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never’. (Elie Wiesel. Night, 45).

So penned Elie Wiesel in the moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, homosexuals, or others – meant the death of faith and of God. In fact, as John de Gruchy perceptively notes in his Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God. Yet, paradoxically, the problem can only be handled from the perspective of faith’ (p. 102).

There can be no real argument that ‘suffering is built into the fabric of human existence’ (Ibid., p. 97), and that questions of suffering pose the most real and existentially-alive challenge to belief in God. Suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’ (Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross, p. 28), is both a challenge and opportunity for Christian belief as well as for pastoral ministry because it is held to demonstrate the logical incoherence of Christianity.

One of the most influential novels of last century was The Plague (1947) by the French-Algerian author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus (1913–1960). The Plague recalls a plague (oddly enough) which is causing untold suffering and death, underscoring the universal condition of humankind. Dr Reuss, the main character, a compassionate physician, says at one point, ‘Since … the world is shaped by death mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?’ (p. 128.). Elsewhere there is a scene where a priest, an unbeliever and the doctor surround the bed of a little boy who is dying. He suffers in pain. The priest asks God for help: ‘My God, spare this child’ (p. 217). The boy dies. Later the priest declares, ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand’. The doctor responds: ‘“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture”’ (p. 218).

At another time, Camus was returning home from church when a six year old girl asked him why little girls starve in Africa while she has plenty to eat: ‘Doesn’t God love them as much as he does me?’ His inability to provide an answer birthed the conclusion that there was no God. To this, C.S. Lewis may have replied (as he did in The Problem of Pain) that

‘The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased”. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled, by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable’. (p. 36)

On 4 June 1886, T.H. Huxley penned a letter to a Sir John Skelton. The letter concluded with these words: ‘… there is amazingly little evidence of “reverential care for unoffending creation” in the arrangements of nature, that I can discover. If our ears were sharp enough to hear all the cries of pain that are uttered by men and beasts, we should be deafened by one continuous scream! And yet the wealth of superfluous loveliness in the world condemns pessimism. It is a hopeless riddle’ (Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, in Three Volumes, 2:353). Again, the question of suffering is unquestionably among the most difficult for faith, and so for pastoral ministry. So Jürgen Moltmann in The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God: ‘It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’ (pp. 47, 49). So too Lance Morrow, in a Time Magazine article entitled ‘Evil’:

‘The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell asks, ‘What kind of God is this? Any decent religion must face the question squarely, and no answer is credible that cannot be given in the presence of dying children’. Can one propose a God who is partly evil? Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz as a child, suggests that perhaps God has ‘retracted himself’ in the matter of evil. Wiesel has written, ‘God is in exile, but every individual, if he strives hard enough, can redeem mankind, and even God himself’’.

This situation is, in Moltmann’s words, ‘the open wound of life’ in which honest pastoral ministry happens. In the post-Auschwitz world, questions of suffering and theodicy have determined, dominated and challenged theology. As Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein put it in After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism:

‘I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept’. (p. 171)

And others too have asked:

‘You will sooner or later be confronted by the enigma of God’s action in history’. (Elie Wiesel, in One Generation After, as Cited in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy, p. 327)

‘Given the classical theological positions of both Judaism and Christianity, the fundamental question posed by the Holocaust is not whether the existence of a just, omnipotent God can be reconciled with radical evil. That is a philosophical question. The religious question is the following: Did God use Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as his agents to inflict terrible sufferings and death upon six million Jews, including more than one million children?’ (Ibid., p. 327)

‘The God of Holy Nothingness is ‘omnipresent’, although not in the usual sense meant by theologians. This God resides within destruction. The Holy Nothingness generates this-world and its vicissitudes from out of its own fecund plenitude. Yet, a God so involved in the world and its attendant suffering becomes deeply complicit and can only invite the wrath and enmity of her aggrieved children’. (Zachary Braiterman, (God) after Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, pp. 99–100)

And Martin Buber, in On Judaism, asks, ‘How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?’ He acknowledges that one might still ‘believe in’ a God who permitted the Shoah to happen, but he questions the possibility of hearing God’s word, let alone entering into an I-Thou relationship with God: ‘Can one still hear His word? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?’ (p. 224).

And we could go on, citing proposed responses from Epicures, from David Hume, from Gottfried Leibniz, from John Stuart Mill, from Richard Dawkins, from C.S. Lewis, from Thomas Aquinas, from David Bentley Hart, and from others. But the intro to this post has been long enough to introduce the point that one of the surprising features of life for many when they enter the ministry is confrontation with grief and suffering of immense depth. The pastor dare not trot out glib answers which only increase the suffering and betray her or his lack of understanding. But does this mean that pastors can only, and/or must, remain silent? Yes and No.

Enter one qualified to help pastors out at this point – the Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). And I want to draw here upon John S. Conway’s fine essay, ‘A Meditation upon Bonhoeffer’s Last Writings from Prison’ in Glaube – Freiheit – Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburtstag (ed. Katarzyna Stokłosa and Andrea Strübind; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 235–44.

One of the most radical challenges to the traditional views of God’s omnipotence and of divine impassibility has come from Bonhoeffer’s pen. On 19 December 1944, from his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, Bonhoeffer sat down to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer (For more on their correspondence, see Love Letters from Cell 92). In what was to be his final greeting, Bonhoeffer included in that letter a poem to be shared with his parents. The poem, which has been made into a wonderful hymn known as ‘By Gracious Powers’, reads like this:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
And pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate to thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal pæan [song of triumph], in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day! (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

These seven short verses bespeak of Bonhoeffer’s trust in God’s enduring and comforting presence during what was the sixth Christmas season of the war and a time of impending and overwhelming disaster. By this time, Bonhoeffer had already been in Tegel prison for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees into Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on without resolution for a year and a half. But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo’s main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more severe charges of abetting the conspiracy which had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Reich, and was to do the same to Dietrich’s brother, Klaus. In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God’s powers of goodness?

In this context, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts revolve around the cumulative and appalling suffering of so many people at this crucial stage of the war. From his contacts with the anti-Nazi resistance, he had learnt of the dreadful crimes committed by his countrymen against millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies and the mentally handicapped. He was equally aware that millions of his own countrymen, including members of his family, had been misled into losing their lives in the service of the Reich’s machinery of violence. How could this suffering be reconciled with a loving Christ? Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God intervene to put a stop to it? It was just at this critical juncture that Bonhoeffer heard the news that the planned assassination of Hitler had failed. The likely consequences were all too clear, and the tone of his thinking and writing was from then on increasingly filled with foreboding. His preoccupation with suffering and death becomes even more forceful. The imagery and significance of Christ’s crucifixion became ever more real. Out of this came his shortest, but perhaps most memorable, poem, written in the same month, ‘Christians and Others’:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead [placed],
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving. (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

This poem arose out of Bonhoeffer’s bible readings and meditations on the subject of suffering. He was certainly not just preoccupied with his own fate, but rather overwhelmed by the lethal prospects which all his friends in the resistance movement now faced. He knew enough about personal anguish to give authenticity to his statements on suffering. His purpose was to clarify his understanding of a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross.

The poem opens with the universal human desire for relief, for removal of pain, for cessation of suffering, for an end to hunger, for the cleansing of a guilty conscience, for deliverance from death. This makes their religion a form of spiritual pharmacy. But all too often these prayers are not answered. By 1944 the mass murders seemed unstoppable. And Bonhoeffer interpreted the events as Christ being tortured and crucified anew but this time on Nazi Golgothas. Why did God not respond to such heartfelt petitions? Why does it seem that heaven is silent?

Bonhoeffer proposed something of a response to these kinds of questions in his letter dated 16 July 1944:

‘The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and this is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 [‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”‘] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 134)

Bonhoeffer argues that to be a Christian is to stand by Christ in his hour of grieving, on the cross, in jail, in the bombed-out streets and concentration camps. This is a reversal of what ‘religious’ people typically expect.

So Bonhoeffer:

‘Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age … opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness’. (ibid)

Abraham Heschel, in his brilliant work The Prophets, helpfully reminds us that for the Hebrew prophets, ‘divine ethos does not operate without pathos … [God’s] ethos and pathos are one. The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in their sympathy with divine pathos’ (1:218). So we read in Isaiah 63.9–10,

In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.

God suffers because God is holy love. If God were incapable of wrath, of being moved to grief by injustice and oppression, God would not be holy; if God were incapable of suffering, of being moved to grief by the pain and agony of the victims of society, God would not be omnipotent love. In his The Crucified God, Moltmann draws out the connection between the wrath and the love of God as grounded in the life of covenant:

‘[If] one starts from the pathos of God, one does not think of God in his absoluteness and freedom, but understands his passion and his interest in terms of the history of the covenant. The more the covenant is taken seriously as the revelation of God, the more profoundly one can understand the historicity of God and history in God. If God has opened his heart in the covenant with his people, he is injured by disobedience and suffers in the people. What the Old Testament terms the wrath of God does not belong in the category of the anthropomorphic transference of lower human emotions to God, but in the category of the divine pathos. His wrath is injured love and therefore a mode of his reaction to men. Love is the source and the basis of the possibility of the wrath of God. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. Indifference towards justice and injustice would be a retreat on the part of God from the covenant. But his wrath is an expression of his abiding interest in man. Anger and love do not therefore keep a balance. ‘His wrath lasts for the twinkling of an eye,’ and, as the Jonah story shows, God takes back his anger for the sake of his love in reaction to human repentance. As injured love, the wrath of God is not something that is inflicted, but a divine suffering of evil. It is a sorrow which goes through his opened heart. He suffers in his passion for his people’. (pp. 171–2)

 

God grieves, then, because of the rebellion of his people; God grieves because of the broken relationship between himself and his creation; God grieves because of the inevitable consequences of human sin and rebellion; God grieves because he remembers what might have been; God grieves because love always hopes! Moltmann talks about the way that God is ‘injured by disobedience and suffers in the people’ who deserve their suffering, but what of the victims of their injustice? What of those who because of the faithlessness of the people of God find it difficult to believe in God?

de Gruchy is helpful here. Again from Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis:

‘… it is not so much God who is beyond belief, but the church which has lost its credibility. Indeed, if God has become a problem it is precisely because those who claim to believe in God have too often denied him in practice. The credibility of the church’s testimony today is bound up not so much with its intellectual ability to defend the faith, to solve the theodicy problem as traditionally stated, … but far more with the willingness of the church to participate in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world. And this means to share in the struggle for justice. To be sure, the justification of God can only be resolved eschatologically, but that takes place penultimately in history through authentic witness to the kingdom of God. The God in whom we believe, the God revealed in the crucified Messiah, the God who is present even when he is experienced as absent, and absent when we think he is present, this God has opted to be on the side of those who suffer because of the oppression of others’. (p. 123)

And de Gruchy helpfully reminds us that the suffering of God described so poignantly and powerfully in the Old Testament is not just grief caused by a sinful and disobedient people; it is also suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer as a result of Israel’s sin – the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lowly and innocent ones (see p. 113). And he cites from Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, p. 108: ‘The human cry becomes God’s cry, God takes up the human cry and makes it God’s own’. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship, called God’s ‘hour of grieving’, an hour in which and a grieving of such that God invites his people to participate. The church is not simply the community of Christ which suffers vicariously for others. It is also itself the suffering church and itself the victim of oppression.

Certainly Bonhoeffer knew well that the sufferings and deaths he was daily made aware of could not be ascribed to the moral failings of the individuals concerned. Rather these tribulations had, and have, to be understood as the result of collective human willful sinfulness. But God has not withdrawn into a remote impassivity. Rather, God suffers alongside his creation. To repeat:

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread …

 

The depths of divine suffering are reached in the cross where God finds himself ‘whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead’.

 

So what should the responses of Christians, and of pastors, be? Not like others, who merely pass by, to whom the sight of a dead Jew on a cross is nothing. But Christians in this situation of crisis have a particular and significant calling. As Bonhoeffer notes in the last line of verse 2: ‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving’. In a letter written to his friend Eberhard Bethge shortly after the poem was completed, Bonhoeffer expanded on this line:

‘This is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’. That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘worldly’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53 now …

This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners, in ‘conversions’ in the narrower sense of the word (e.g. Zacchaeus), in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) – an act that she performed without any confession of sin – in the healing of the sick (Matt. 8.17; see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are. The centurion of Capernaum (who makes no confession of sin) is held up as a model of faith (cf. Jairus). Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) are not standing at the edge of an abyss. Nathaniel is ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile’ (John 1:47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith’. There is nothing of religious method here. The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life’. (Letters and Papers from Prison), pp. 135–6)

But where shall we find the strength and the grace to become such disciples? Verse 3 of the poem boldly asserts that, despite the sins we have all committed, despite the barriers we have all erected, despite all our efforts to behave like others, religiously, nevertheless God visits all people in their distress:

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

The second line here draws our attention to the eucharist where by sharing with us his body and his blood, Christ draws us into his pain and suffering. To repeat from the poem which we began our discussion on Bonhoeffer with:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

Here we are reminded of what Bonhoeffer explores more fully in Discipleship, namely that in his total identification with humanity in incarnation, and then by calling us into fellowship and discipleship with himself, Christ bids us to ‘come and die’.

‘The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him to deliberately run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. But there is another kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city. But he would certainly break down under this burden, but for the support of him who bore the sins of all. The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them. He becomes the bearer of other men’s burdens – ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2). As Christ bears our burdens, so we ought to bear the burdens of our fellow-men. The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Chrislike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.

But how is the disciple to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will soon find out as he begins to follow his Lord and to share his life.

Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passive, suffering because we have to suffer. That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the Church as the community of those ‘who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake’. If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow Him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train.

Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. It is a joy and token of his grace. The acts of the early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for his own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of his presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for his sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him’. (pp. 43–6)

In October, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the far more ominous and menacing Gestapo prison in central Berlin. But the evidence that we have is that his own faith and trust in his crucified Lord led him to identify more and more with the future hope of resurrection beyond death. So he could therefore face the inevitable testing through suffering by affirming his belief in God’s guiding hand, and the assuredness of God’s nearness. In his final poem ‘By the powers of Good’, the central verse takes up this issue:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand’ (A Grief Observed, 23). And yet the task of providing consolation has always been a significant part of the work of a pastor. It is, in many ways, a task among the most difficult for the pastor. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering.

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderfully-moving Lament for a Son:

‘What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with wNicords of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.” (pp. 34–5)

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Church takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff again:

‘Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench’. (p. 63)

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Church is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word! Moltmann’s The Crucified God is characteristically helpful here:

‘The cross of Christ is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when [human beings] are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they wish to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology … Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence … In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian’. (pp. 1, 3, 7)

‘We must not only ask whether it is possible and conceivable that one man has been raised from the dead before all others, and not only seek analogies in the historical structure of reality and in the anticipatory structure of reason, but also ask who this man was. If we do, we shall find that he was condemned according to his people’s understanding of the law as a ‘blasphemer ‘ and was crucified by the Romans, according to the divine ordinance of the Pax Romana, as a ‘rebel.’ He met a hellish death with every sign of being abandoned by his God and Father. The new and scandalous element in the Christian message of Easter was not that some man or other was raised before anyone else, but that the one who was raised was this condemned, executed and forsaken man. This was the unexpected element in the kerygma of the resurrection which created the new righteousness of faith’. (p. 175)

‘This deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation, in the godforsaken and accursed death of Jesus on the cross’. (pp. 243–44)

‘The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being’. (pp. 204, 205)

So in the face of death, suffering and grief, the Church is called to:

  1. point to Jesus, the Crucified God, who reveals God’s endangering goodness and suffering love;
  2. participate in God’s cruciform life by suffering with those who suffer and working to relieve and eliminate suffering. Such cruciformity constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and the Christian tradition. Paradoxically, because the living Christ remains the crucified one, cruciformity is Spirit-enabled conformity to the indwelling crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, life-giving love of God that was displayed on the cross. Although cruciformity often includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity – like the cross – is about faithfulness and love.

Many of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

But there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’ (cited in John W. de Gruchy, Cry Justice: Prayers, Meditations, & Readings from South Africa, 23). A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision. Only to the extent that we can confess that nothingness has been vanquished in the self-nihilation of Christ, and met with, struggled with, and overcome may we say that we ‘know’ something of sin and evil’s reality, and be able to speak hopefully of its end.

Finally, for now, the continuity/discontinuity of Jesus’ resurrection provides the ontological basis for Christian hope, promising that of whatever post-resurrection life consists, it is hope in something other than endless continuity. And as meaningful as life’s plots and subplots might be, it is the end (and the more improbable the better) that confers meaning on the whole. It is to bear witness to this end that pastors labour.

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Other posts in this series:

Hope: a mid-winter reflection

Psalm 88

A Korah Prayer of Heman

1-9 God, you’re my last chance of the day. I spend the night on my knees before you.
Put me on your salvation agenda;
take notes on the trouble I’m in.
I’ve had my fill of trouble;
I’m camped on the edge of hell.
I’m written off as a lost cause,
one more statistic, a hopeless case.
Abandoned as already dead,
one more body in a stack of corpses,
And not so much as a gravestone—
I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
blinded by tears of pain and frustration.

9-12 I call to you, God; all day I call.
I wring my hands, I plead for help.
Are the dead a live audience for your miracles?
Do ghosts ever join the choirs that praise you?
Does your love make any difference in a graveyard?
Is your faithful presence noticed in the corridors of hell?
Are your marvelous wonders ever seen in the dark,
your righteous ways noticed in the Land of No Memory?

13-18 I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help,
at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?
Why do you make yourself scarce?
For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting;
I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it.
Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life;
I’m bleeding, black-and-blue.
You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side,
raining down blows till I’m nearly dead.
You made lover and neighbor alike dump me;
the only friend I have left is Darkness.

There are a number of striking things about this psalm:

First, there is the honesty: ‘Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce?’

Then there is the fact that cries penned here are not the cheap and thoughtless rage of people who use their darker moments to denounce God from afar. Rather, these cries actively engage with God. In his darkness, Heman the Ezrahite turns not to his friends, nor to the propaganda of the theologians or the atheists. We are here reminded of Simon Peter’s words to Jesus in John 6: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).

And, finally, there is the fact that there is no relief. Heman the Ezrahite begins by crying to the Lord, and he ends in gloom and despair. Most so-called ‘psalms of lament’ begin with discouragement and despair but end in light and joy. But this one begins in gloom and ends in gloom. Along the way, Heman has wrestled with God. And the fact that he brings his lament to God is a reminder that lament, even at its most extreme, might still be an affirmation of faith, a refusal to let go of God.

Despite his crying out to God, Heman feels unheard (vv. 2, 14), he feels that he is near death (v. 3), that he is doomed (vv. 4–5), that he has lost all of his friends (v. 8), even that he is under God’s wrath (vv. 7, 16). Worse yet, Heman is convinced that his whole life has been lived under the shadow of death: ‘For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting; I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it. Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life; I’m bleeding, black-and-blue’.

The psalms ends with the seemingly hopeless declaration: ‘the only friend I have left is Darkness’ (v. 18). Not God; only the darkness.

I’ve been reflecting on this psalm in light of the winter that is now upon us. The heaters and electric blankets in our homes seek to hide the awful reality that we have entered the season of dying, of the end of life, and of the overcoming of light.

And, of course, the Apostle Paul was consistent in his claim that part of the reality of the Christian existence is that we live with a ‘body of death’ (Rom 7). And in 2 Corinthians 4, he talks about the way that we carry the gospel in ‘jars of clay, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power that we carry belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh’.

It seems that whether we like it or not, this is just the way it is. And especially so, perhaps, for ministers of the gospel who carry a unique burden. This was, at least, the view proposed by Ronald Gregor Smith is his unpublished lecture given at the University of Glasgow in 1938 and entitled ‘Preparing for the Ministry’:

‘There are dark times in everyone’s life, times when the terror of being alive comes swooping down like an evil thing, compassing the poor mind with unimaginable tortures, shaking questions from its wings before which the established habits cower and shrink away, and leaving the victim exhausted and apathetic. If these times come only once or twice in a person’s life, then it is possible still to continue with the accustomed things, or if that time first breaks through the crust of routine at the crucial moment of death, it does not matter that the routine is smashed for ever. But to one who is studying for the ministry, these times come not once or twice, but again and again, storming like a black wave breaking on an island fortress, till his defences are battered in and he is utterly exposed to the mercy of the attack … And the pity of it is that from the first day of preparation the young man [as they all were in those days!] is deprived of the only succour he might have: the terror of the Spirit’s visitation. When He comes to him in the night – while the applause of teachers and comrades is still ringing in his ears – and whispers dread simple questions in his ears, then all this training has taught him t5o deny the rightness of these questions. This is mere melancholy, this is useless idealism, this is not how souls are saved. And he turns to his books again, and if he cannot sleep, helps himself with an anodyne, and slays the ghost which came in the guise of the Spirit. But that ghost is truly the Spirit. The young man who abandons this fight is doing a week thing. But if he does not abandon it, he must be prepared to face a living death and a martyrdom of the spirit untold in the lives of the saints. For he is no saint, yet he must fight the fight which only the Spirit can win … it is a fight whose strength is weakness, whose life is the utter nonentity of the person. For the life of it is the Spirit, always and only the Spirit’.

Something of this same truth is picked up too by Frederick Buechner in A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces:

‘“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” As Christ speaks those words, he, too, is in the wilderness. He speaks them when all is lost. He speaks them when there is nothing even he can hear except for the croak of his own voice and, when as far as even he can see, there is no God to hear him. And in a way his words are a love song, the greatest love song of them all. In a way his words are the words we all of us must speak before we know what it means to love God as we are commanded to love him … This is the love that you and I are called to move toward both through the wilderness times on broken legs and through times when we catch glimpses and hear whispers from beyond the wilderness. Nobody ever claimed the journey was going to be an easy one. It is not easy to love God with all your heart and soul and might when much of the time you have all but forgotten his name. But to love God is not a goal we have to struggle toward on our own, because what at its heart the gospel is all about is that God himself moves us toward it even when we believe that he has forsaken us’. (pp. 44–5)

The Bible tells us that death is the great enemy, not only ‘our’ great enemy, but God’s too. The Bible also tells us that Christ succumbed to death, allowed God’s great enemy to bring him into the nothingness which is humanity’s greatest fear, and all the time he trusted in God. Through the nothingness, he trusted in God. The Spirit was there enabling him to trust in God … to make trust possible.

We, of course, live in this time between the times, a life which is – because of the resurrection of Jesus – constituted by hope. Like Jesus, we too face the full brunt of death’s power. And, like Jesus, the Spirit enables us to face the winter of human existence trusting in God … come what may.

A piece of music like Bach’s Suite No.3 In D/Air on a G String oozes with the hope of God, a Romans 8 kind of hope, the kind of hope that enables us to cry out ‘Abba! Father!’, the kind of hope that considers that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us’, the kind of hope that joins with all the creation in waiting ‘with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’, the kind of hope that joins with all the creation as it waits to be ‘set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. St Paul writes:

‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified’.

It’s that hope which enables us to live in the Winter as if the Spring is coming. And it’s a hope that is witnessed to nicely in Joyce Rupp’s ‘Prayer 49: Winter’, published in Prayers to Sophia: Deepening Our Relationship With Holy Wisdom (p. 114):

Source of Courage for my Soul,
your season of winter teaches me
about the dark season inside of me.
All the old external props fall away in winter,
nothing to rely on except the whisper of faith.

In the light of a summer’s brilliant day,
it is easy to be brave and confident,
but inside of winter, I stumble blindly,
seeking what I so easily fed on in the light.
This winter journey demands steel courage,
firm determination, fierce boldness,
a heart unyielding to the phantoms of fear
and the menacing moans of despair.

When I stay on this inward road,
true abundance becomes known.
Winter shows what summer never could:
the core of what I believe and value,
the sum of who and what I love.
I learn the enormous power of endurance
and the gift of accepting and loving
who I truly am.

Wise Spirit of the Darkness,
take my hand and teach me to be unafraid
of the wild winds of my inner winter.
Lead me through the gloomy valleys
and teach me how to walk in the dark.

A hopeful vision

‘In the final chapters of John’s vision, we might expect to discover that the sinners, who clearly do not escape the apocalyptic judgment described in 18:1–20:15,59 are either in the lake of fire or have now been annihilated by it. But instead, we actually find them outside the city (Rev 22:15). Furthermore, this “exclusion” is one that must be read in the light of the fact that there is still a mission to the nations (Rev 21:24; 22:2). John’s vision reveals that because sin has no future in God’s world, the impure may not enter the city (Rev 21:27). Yet this provides no ammunition for those who want to preach the “final” judgment of hellfire and damnation as “On no day will [the] gates [of the New Jerusalem] ever be shut” (Rev 21:25). Against the openness of God, the evil that would annihilate God’s creation, close down history and shut the world off from its Creator, does not have a hope in hell’. – Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 210.

Praying with Camus

Tonight I watched Breaking the Silence: Burma’s Resistance by Canadian filmmakers Pierre Mignault and Hélène Magny. It documents the continuing resistance to Burma’s military junta by political and humanitarian activists.

And when I got home, Camus led me in prayer:

‘Hope had returned and with it a new zest for life. No man can live on the stretch all the time, with his energy and willpower strained to the breaking-point, and it is a joy to be able to relax at last and loosen nerves and muscles that were braced for the struggle’. – Albert Camus, The Plague (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), 229.

Henri Blocher on evil, the cross, and hope

Recently, I’ve been posting on the mystery of suffering and evil (see here, here, here, here and here). And then Kim Fabricius reminded me of Henri Blocher’s Evil and the Cross, a book that I had placed on my bibliography but hadn’t read for many years. It was good to revisit it (thanks Kim!). Here’s a few snipperts:

“The agony of the Christian mind wrestling with the problem of evil seems at first sight a sign of weakness. Is it not an admission of its inability to resolve the principal objection, its powerlessness even to begin chipping away at the ‘rock of atheism’? On reflection, however, we would suggest that things appear differently.

If we bowed to the incomprehensible as a way out every time that we found ourselves in difficulties, there would be grounds for suspicion about such a procedure – it would be sheer irresponsibility, the abdication of reason. People are too ready to fall back on the action of ‘mystery’, and also to confuse mystery with the absurd – which Scripture never does. But we would argue that the mystery of evil is the one unique inscrutable mystery, as unique as evil itself, sui generis. Far from being absurd, it corresponds precisely with the experience of evil, with its two facets: unjustifiable–reality …

We may take these thoughts further. The sense of evil requires the God of the Bible. In a novel by Joseph Heller, ‘while rejecting belief in God, the characters in the story find themselves compelled to postulate his existence in order to have an adequate object for their moral indignation’. Moltmann too has perceived that you suppress all protest against suffering, if you suppress God: ‘Since that time no atheism can fall below Job’s level’. When you raise this standard objection against God, to whom do you say it, other than this God? Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?

We do not understand the why of evil. But we can understand that we cannot understand. Human reason is made to trace the connections in God’s created order, and to weave harmonious patterns from them; to understand means to integrate. A rational solution to the problem of evil would necessarily imply that evil was an integral part of the harmony that came forth from God! Similarly, to go back from sin to its ‘real possibility’, before it came into the world, means applying to it the logic of continuity which obtains in the processes of the creation. But evil is disruption, discontinuity, disorder, alienness, that which defies description in creational terms (except negatively!). Seeking its causal explanation, its ontological reason, its why, is tantamount to seeking, by the very nature of that seeking, to reconcile it with the rest, in other words to justify it. (The ‘rest’ is in fact what is ‘just’.) To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil. The French have a saying, that to understand all is to forgive all; here, understanding all would mean to excuse everything.

Evil is not there to be understood, but to be fought. The absence of any solution to the theoretical problem of the emergence of evil is one side of the coin; the other side, something still more precious than righteous indignation, is the solution to the practical problem of the suppression of evil. What you appear to lose on the speculative level you gain on the existential level. And we have in mind particularly the far horizon of the practical task, the end of evil, something of far greater interest than its origin. Then will end the cries of ‘How long?’ which express a far heavier burden than the cries of ‘Why?’ … If beneath the outward appearance of evil there were hidden something good, why would anyone want to see it disappear? If God were not sovereign, how would he bring under his control what is not dependent on him? If God concealed darkness within himself, how would it not be eternal, like him? But ‘God’s solid foundation stands firm’ (2 Tim. 2:19). When wild hopes disappear into thin air, the foundation of hope comes into view, the sovereignty of the God who fights against evil, and who invites us to join him in the battle.

God battles with evil, and will conquer it. Or rather, God has battled with it and he has conquered it. We have kept the supreme consideration to the end: that other ‘T’ formed by two small beams of wood on the hill called Golgotha, Skull Hill. There the darkness of the mystery deepened, from the sixth hour until the ninth, the place from which shines forth the light.

In the light of the cross, how could there be any doubt about the three propositions [the evil of evil, the lordship of the Lord, the goodness of God; see p. 100] at the heart of the Christian position? The sheer and utter evilness of evil is demonstrated there: as hatred in the mockery of the criminals who also hung there; as hateful in the weight of guilt which could be removed only by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Even if I think of the benefits for myself, when I see my Lord suffering there, I cannot say: Felix culpa. Rather, I feel shame and indignation, against evil and against myself. The complete sovereignty of God is demonstrated there: all this happened ‘by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23), for it was necessary that the Scriptures be fulfilled, those which bore witness to the destiny that the Lord had assigned to his Servant. If there is a revolting ‘scandal’, it is unquestionably that of Judas’s betrayal, and like the squalid reconciliation of Herod and Pilate it accomplished ‘what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ (Acts 4:28). Of no other event is it attested so fully that God ‘willed’ it. The unadulterated goodness of God is demonstrated there. At the cross, who would dare entertain the blasphemy of imagining that God would, even to the slightest degree, comply with evil? It brought him death, in the person of his Son. Holiness stands revealed. Love stands revealed, a pure love; there is no love greater. Because of the cross we shall praise his goodness, the goodness of his justice, the goodness of his grace, through all eternity. At the cross, God turned evil against evil and brought about the practical solution to the problem. He has made atonement for sins, he has conquered death, he has triumphed over the devil. He has laid the foundation for hope.

What further demonstration do we need? …

Just as evil still torments people, casting a dark cloud over their happiness, polluting and plaguing their mind and conscience, so too the problem of evil remains without any rational solution. It is stuck fast in their mind like a thorn, even when that mind has been renewed by grace and belongs to the most faithful disciple … If we look to remove the thorn completely, we simply drive it in deeper, and a poisonous abscess forms, that of some kind of deceitful Gnosticism. The explanations put forward by theologians with the very best of intentions simply amount to concealing the real evil of evil and titivating its ugly horror, even when they do not go so far as to insult the pain of the victims by providing the criminals with excuses. Holy Scripture alone completely resists this temptation. The Bible says nothing which might in the least measure diminish the offence of evil; it refuses any attenuation, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Such faultlessness … is nothing short of miraculous and deserves our notice; it indicates a source of inspiration which is of a different kind from human reflection. What have we discovered?

At the heart lies the inscrutable mystery of the first appearance of evil. Why? How? Where does it come from? It cannot be explained by being made an initial ingredient of existence, or the price that has to be paid, on our microscopic scale, for universal harmony. These so-called solutions, which cut the nerve of human indignation and give cheap relief to the sense of guilt, run straight into the testimony of Scripture. The Lord God is preparing to judge a world that is overflowing with all kinds of abomination – he does not underestimate the gravity of what is intolerable – but on the sixth day of the creation he had rejoiced to behold a created world which ‘was very good’. It contained not the slightest embryonic presence of evil, since it was in its entirety ‘from him and through him and to him’. From the source of goodness there could not flow anything that was bitter (cf. Jas. 3:12). Even less could it be conceived that God would become the accomplice of evil by raising it up for the purpose of acting as his instrument or as a convenient foil.

Then, if it is true that evil arises from the misuse of created freedom, that of the devil and then that of human beings, that does not give us any final explanation either. How was evil born of a freedom that was good? To argue that evil is there and therefore was possible, and that doing evil was a real possibility arising from that freedom, is to cover up the discontinuity of that singular fact – singularly singular. It is completely to pass over its monstrous unwarrantedness; evil is already interpreted as a natural ingredient of existence, if it is taken as something that is consistent with goodness. Scripture bears the opposite testimony, and denies that the human will may ever become independent of God. It is God who rules his creation as sovereign, in accordance with his own design, according to the revelation he has given us in his Word written, even the choices that are aimed against him. The sovereignty of God, which is affirmed times without number in his own revelation, makes his permission of evil an impenetrable mystery.

Divine sovereignty, however, is indispensable to the denunciation of evil, for it alone can guarantee the order with respect to which evil is denounced as disorder. It is short-sightedness together with an absent-minded dash of anthropomorphism which plays with the empty notion of a form of divine sovereignty to which God himself has set limits. It is better to observe that the three branches of the capital T of the biblical doctrine, i.e. the abhorrent nature of evil, the goodness of God, and his absolute sovereignty, assign to evil its position of utter loathsomeness, of being an unjustifiable reality, and ratifies our initial, wholesome reaction against it of shame and indignation.

When we join the book of Job and the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans by forgoing the rational explanation of the origin of evil, we find ourselves moving on to the answer to the question, ‘What is evil?’ It is, of course, formally defined as something that is contrary to the will of God and yet permitted by him; but if we ask what is its ‘essence’, its ‘nature’, the elucidation runs up against the impenetrability of the mystery. The phenomenon does not belong to the order of the creation; neither is it an independent principle, for it draws its force from the created realm that it corrupts. It is neither really ‘something’ (for it is not from God, from whom all things come forth), nor really ‘nothing’. It is neither a metaphysical datum nor a surface effect that can be easily dispersed. Georges Florovsky commented on this radically disturbing alienness in these terms:

Evil is divided within itself; it is a discord and a disharmony, inordinatio. Evil is ambiguous, unstable, variable. It has no character of its own … Nature itself is affected, nature itself is no longer pure. It is a dynamic disorder, a dynamic or functional perversion which is not yet consolidated in a metaphysical transformation … The existence of evil is a parasitic existence, evil lives by means of good, ex ratione boni. The elements are the same in the original world and the fallen world. But the organizing principle has changed. And although it is dynamic, the perversion is irreversible. Whoever has gone down into the abyss of evil, of his own will, is unable to climb back out.

Here again, theological analysis agrees with the simple experience of ordinary people.

The absence of any theoretical solution … opens the way for the practical answer to the question: ‘Lord, how long? The three inseparable biblical truths form the springboard of hope. They alone authorize us to expect the suppression of evil. But the inscrutable enigma puts forth a horrifying new shoot, which lengthens into the persistence of evil, even its revival, after the death and resurrection of Christ. If the Messiah has come, the Saviour, if he has won the victory over evil, if he has set up his kingdom, how are we to account for the succeeding nineteen centuries? Could the kingdom not have reached us, in spite of Matthew 12:28?

A ray of light pierces the gloom. It comes from the cross. The impenetrable mystery of evil meets the paradoxical mystery of the cross. The mystery of Golgotha is that of the darkness which turns to light, as the Psalmist said, for God and for us – for us by God (Ps. 139:11f.). We understand that we cannot understand, and even a little more. At the cross we find the verification of God’s mastery over evil, of his incorporating it within his plan, of his using evil men, and of his freedom from all suspicion of complicity in it. The mere mention of this last hypothesis, even though it is made in order to brush it aside, is profoundly disturbing, as if we were on the verge of blaspheming. At the cross we find confirmation that evil does not belong metaphysically to the condition of the human race; to a catastrophe in history, God reacts in human history. At the cross is revealed how his kingdom comes about: not by might (of weaponry), or by power (of worldly means), but by the Spirit of sacrifice (Zc. 4:6); not by the subjection of multitudes to slavery, in the manner of the great rulers of this world, but by the service of the Son of Man (Mt. 20:25–28); for the kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). The way of the kingdom requires that it spread most unobtrusively, by spiritual influence. It conquers people’s hearts, by their unconstrained acceptance of, and adherence to, the Word, its preaching and its call. Hence the stay of execution for the old world, the permission of continuing evil, and the margin of freedom left to the devil who is giving vent to his great fury, for he is aware how little time he has left (Rev. 12:12). Hence the association of the kingdom with the suffering and the patient endurance in Jesus (Rev. 1:9).

But why is the kingdom set up in such a way, if another way could have spared so much weeping, so much bloodshed? We have come to the threshold of the secret and hidden wisdom, revealed by the Spirit, in words taught by the Spirit, and that none of the rulers of this age understood, what has not been conceived by any human mind (1 Cor. 2:7ff.). We have a special wisdom to seek out in the mystery of the cross. Not that this mystery gives us leave to overturn the concepts of orthodox Christian doctrine, such as downplaying the omnipotence of God as stated in Holy Scripture (after the death of Christ, as well as before it), and promoting a ‘powerless God’; that is the kind of ‘wisdom’ that the rulers of this age endorse. The Pied Piper philosophers of our world will gladly take that path, reflecting as it does the vagaries of their humanism, their ideological manoeuvres and their all too human resentment. The wisdom of God in the event of the cross maintains its unique, concrete character, spelt out with total clarity by what the cross achieved: perfect redemption and propitiation. In short, at the cross evil is conquered as evil.

The wisdom of the way of the cross is that it attacks evil according to the ambiguity of its unique nature, and its illegitimate status. If evil simply boiled down to the ‘local’ imperfection of every finite being, exaggerated by an optical illusion, Christ would have had to do no more than teach, or else initiate his disciples into the liberating vision, like a Zen master; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner. If evil were a substance, an entity, comparable to some great power in the created order, it would have been sufficient to deploy a superior force against it, assuming that the opposing parties had enough in common for such a meeting to be conceivable; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner.

At this point a misunderstanding arises for some people. They imagine Christ overcoming the devil at the end of a spiritual duel by his superior strength; or they speak of the elimination of evil, swallowed up by love, as if it were some kind of chemical operation of absorption and dissolution. Scripture is careful to avoid these misleading images. It speaks of the evil one being disarmed by the expiatory blood which alone washes away sins. The power of the devil over human beings is that of accusation, as his name, Satan, the accuser, indicates (Rev. 12:10ff; Col. 2:14f.).

Lastly, if evil corresponded to a necessary moment in the forward movement of a dialectical sequence of events, it would be left behind by its own progression to a higher synthesis. But evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered. Good Friday is anything but speculative. The free sacrifice, unique and once for all, is the reverse of the illustration of the fruitfulness of the Negation in a universal chain of logic. At the cross evil is conquered as evil: corruption, perversion, disorder, a parasite, and yet also weighed down with the load of the people it has led astray and deep in debt from the responsibility incurred.

Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The manoeuvre is utterly unprecedented. No more complete victory could be imagined. God responds in the indirect way that is perfectly suited to the ambiguity of evil. He entraps the deceiver in his own wiles. Evil, like a judoist, takes advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent. So is fulfilled the surprising verse: ‘With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse’ (Ps. 18:26, NRSV).

It is exactly this, the sin of sins, the murder of the Son, which accomplishes this work in a double manner. It provides the opportunity for love to be carried to its very peak, for there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends (Jn. 15:13). And as this gift contains no element of a romantic suicide (like Tristan or Romeo), the death unjustly inflicted becomes the ‘wages’ earned by the sin of the world, borne by the Lamb of God. It constitutes the ransom paid to liberate sinners, for they are prisoners of the law of God, the One who is Son of God and Son of Man, the head of the new humanity taking upon himself the debt of his own people (Mt. 20:28; Gal. 3:13, 21; Col: 2.14, etc.). It is in this way that he triumphs over sin, guilt and death. It involves a double coincidence. Evil culminates in murder; by taking away the life of the other person, sin brings about the successful conclusion of its essential intention, the rejection of the Lord and of whoever bears his image. By contrast love, which is ‘being for the other person’, culminates in the gift of one’s own life in favour of someone else. Furthermore, the requirement of right order, which is the order of love according to God, is that evil be punished by death, but it permits the brother and head to intervene in love and take over the debt in place of the guilty party. Here lies the mystery of the victory:

I see the depths of my pride, curiosity, concupiscence. There is no link between me and God or Jesus Christ the righteous. But I he was made sin for me. All your scourges fell upon him. He is more abominable than I, and, far from loathing me, feels honoured that I go to him and help him. But he healed himself and will heal me all the more surely [Pascal].

The secret and hidden wisdom of the Lord has caused to coincide the ignoble murder and the act of supreme love of the righteous for the unrighteous, the expiation, by his death in their place, of their sins. At the cross, evil is conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

A more elaborate treatment of evil would expose, in addition to its reversal (the suppression of the other person), the twisted leer of counterfeit love, false love, love in which the warped outlines are still recognizable. It would also show how death, the secret goal of sin from the very beginning (Jn. 8:44; Rom. 8:6), is of necessity the retribution that befalls it, rather than any other punishment; and also how the primacy of love, which is the foundation of humanness, permits the transfer of responsibility. It would thus further elucidate the connection between Calvary and the problem of evil. But we have seen enough to recognize in the mystery of the cross the divine answer to the unanswerable question of evil: de profundis, ‘out of the depths’ (Ps. 130:1), springs light, despite the impenetrability of the enigma.

Such is the glory of the cross that one would be tempted to explain the permission of evil by this end, that love, put to the test, reveals itself in its ultimate intensity. One last time, we must resist the attraction of this thought, for it would cause us to fall back into a pseudo-rational Gnosticism; it would attribute to a holy God a calculating mind which would utterly appal him. We have no other position than at the foot of the cross. After we have been there we are given the answer of the wisdom of God, which incenses the advocates of optimistic theodicies or of tragic philosophies. God’s answer is evil turned back upon itself, conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

This answer consoles us and summons us. It allows us to wait for the coming of the crucified conqueror. He will wipe away the tears from every face, soon“.

– Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (trans. David G. Preston; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 102–4, 128–33.

‘To believe means …’

Van Gogh - The Raising of Lazarus 1890I wish to follow up on my previous post on A Liturgy for a Miscarried Child with some words from the ‘Introduction’ to Moltmann’s groundbreaking thesis, Theology of Hope:

To believe means to cross in hope and anticipation the bounds that have been penetrated by the raising of the crucified. If we bear that in mind, then this faith can have nothing to do with fleeing the world, with resignation and with escapism. In this hope the soul does not soar above our vale of tears to some imagined heavenly bliss, nor does it sever itself from the earth. For, in the words of Ludwig Feuerbach, it puts ‘in place of the beyond that lies above our grave in heaven the beyond that lies above our grave on earth, the historic future, the future of mankind’. It sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth. This hope struggles for the obedience of the body, because it awaits the quickening of the body. It espouses in all meekness the cause of the devastated earth and of harassed humanity, because it is promised possession of the earth. Ave crux – unica spes!

But on the other hand, all this must inevitably mean that the man who thus hopes will never be able to reconcile himself with the laws and constraints of this earth, neither with the inevitability of death nor with the evil that constantly bears further evil. The raising of Christ is not merely a consolation to him in a life that is full of distress and doomed to die, but it is also God’s contradiction of suffering and death, of humiliation and offence, and of the wickedness of evil. Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering. If Paul calls death the ‘last enemy’ (I Cor. 15.26), then the opposite is also true: that the risen Christ, and with him the resurrection hope, must be declared to be the enemy of death and of a world that puts up with death. Faith takes up this contradiction and thus becomes itself a contradiction to the world of death. That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope. This hope keeps man unreconciled, until the great day of the fulfilment of all the promises of God. It keeps him in statu viatoris, in that unresolved openness to world questions which has its origin in the promise of God in the resurrection of Christ and can therefore be resolved only when the same God fulfils his promise. This hope makes the Christian Church a constant disturbance in human society, seeking as the latter does to stabilize itself into a ‘continuing city’. It makes the Church the source of continual new impulses towards the realization of righteousness, freedom and humanity here in the light of the promised future that is to come. This Church is committed to ‘answer for the hope’ that is in it (I Peter 3.15). It is called in question ‘on account of the hope and resurrection of the dead’ (Acts 23.6). Wherever that happens, Christianity embraces its true nature and becomes a witness of the future of Christ’. – Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, 1967), 20–22.

Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

I read a delightful essay today by Jürgen Moltmann entitled ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000): 592-603]. In this essay, Moltmann recalls that Jesus was ‘not merely a “gentle friend of children,” as the sentimental nineteenth century liked to picture him’ but a revolutionary contrast to the Roman world of antiquity wherein children were undervalued and where their legal status (alongside that of women and slaves) was very low; indicative of the fact that as the property of the paterfamilias, they could be sold or abandoned, and often were, particularly girls. Moltmann then offers some helpful commentary on key NT verses concerning children:

(1) “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10: 14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:19). The disciples view children as unworthy and therefore try to keep them from their master. After all, they are not children anymore. Jesus reprimands the disciples; embracing and blessing the children, he proclaims what he embodies, that the kingdom of God is already theirs. According to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God already belongs to the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying,” In the same way, it also now belongs to children, children are made partners in the covenant with God. Why? Did they deserve it? No. it is exactly because they do not deserve it and are unable to effect it, but in fact receive it like their own birth.

On the other hand, the kingdom “where peace and justice kiss” (as the psalm says) does not appear at the heights of human progress, among the clever and just, rich and beautiful of this world. Rather, it appears among the oppressed, the powerless, the poor, and the children, turning the status quo of human value systems upside down. If the kingdom comes into the world “down below,” those “up there” have been deprived of any religious legitimacy supporting their presumption to dominion. Just as the blessing of the poor was complemented by the lamentations over the rich, the benediction of children belongs with the curse pronounced over the violators of children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). If God’s kingdom comes into this world by way of the poor and the children, so does the judgment of God.

(2) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes rne, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). And the one who sent Jesus, as we know, is the Father. By way of these identifications, Jesus declares children his representatives in society: Just as the God of his messianic mission is in him, so Christ is present in every child. Thus, whoever takes in a child, takes in Christ. This is exactly how Matthew describes the great judgment day: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:40, 35-36). The one who will judge the world identifies with the lowly. He is hidden and present in them already now and will eventually judge how the just and the unjust treated the least among humans. Children and the lowly are not, unlike the apostles, agents sent by God. Rather, in them, the poor, powerless, and imprisoned Christ is waiting for his followers to act. Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is also the spontaneous impression the image of the child in the manger awakens in us.

(3) “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:3, 1) By saying this, Jesus underscores the point that whoever wants to be the greatest of all will have to be everybody else’s servant, “deny themselves,” and become “like a child” (18:4). He asks the disciples to accept themselves not in their power, but in their weakness, not in their wealth, but in their poverty: not as grown-up children, but as the children of their adulthood. He asks the disciples to reclaim the facets of their own being, which had been repressed by development and education. We can only come into the kingdom of God if we receive it like a child with empty hands. That does not mean one has to go back to being a child (which would be childish) but become upon analogy “like a child.” We don’t have to imitate children to become part of God’s future, rather we must be in solidarity with them, respecting their intimate proximity to God’s future. The point is not that children are closer to the kingdom of God because of especially childlike properties (like innocence or naivete that adults have lost), but rather that the kingdom of God is closer to them because they are loved, embraced, and blessed by God. We could also say: Whoever experiences God’s closeness in the community of Christ — as humans experienced it in the proximity of Jesus – will become like a child. Another, later way to phrase this is: Gotteskindschaft – “the community of God’s children.”

This stirred a number of questions in me that I’ll go to bed tonight thinking about:

  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s identification of children with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) regarding the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying”?
  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s claim that just as the God of Jesus’ messianic mission is in him, so too ‘Christ is present in every child’, so that ‘whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God’?
  • What might it mean for us to ‘reclaim the facets of [our] own being, which [have] been repressed by development and education’? Are there implications here for pastoral leadership?

Later on, Moltmann unsurprisingly draws on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope:

“Jesus is himself present among the helpless, as an element of this humbleness, standing in the dark, not in brightness … This is why the child in the manger becomes so important, along with the humbleness of all the circumstances in the out-of-the-way, cramped stable. The unexpectedness of finding the redeemer as a helpless child.” Christian love therefore “regards the helpless as important, that which is discarded by the world as called” and “gathers up its own in their out-of-the-wayness, their incognito to the world, their discordance with the world: into the kingdom where they do accord.”

sinead-1I was reminded of another essay that I recently read by Tony Kelly where the author suggests that in a world of violent competition and the exponential growth of problems and responsibilities, the child calls for the rebirth of wonder, trust and playful contentment within the great womb of life and time. Where the harried adult might see only problems, and become weary in mind and heart, children live otherwise. ‘They breathe another air, content to play within the inexhaustible mystery of what has been so uncannily given. Every child is a call to return to the gift that was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’.

So too does this same refrain echo through Moltmann, who concludes his essay with three reasons for why children remain metaphors of hope:

(1) With every child, a new life begins, original, unique, incomparable. And while it seems that we always ask, who this or that child looks like (apparently because we seem to think we can only understand the new in the comparison with what is already known or similar), we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future.

(2) With every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance. It is important to see children in their own transcendent perspective and so to resist forming them according to the images of our world. Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

(3) The last reason to see “a new beginning” or a “beginning of the New” in the beginning of a child’s life is the fact that, for me, children are not only metaphors of our hopes, of that which we want, wish for and expect, but also are metaphors of God’s hope for us: God wants us, expects us, and welcomes us. Humanity is God’s great love, God’s dream for God’s earthly world, God’s image for God’s beloved earth. God is “waiting” for the “human person” in every child, is “waiting” for God’s echo, resonance, and rainbow. Maybe that is the reason God is so patient with us, hearing the ruins of human history, inviting one human generation after the other into existence. God is not silent, God is not “dead” – God is waiting for the menschlichen Menschen the “truly humane human.” “In all of the prophets, I have waited for you,” Martin Buber has the Eternal One speak to the Messiah, “and now you have come.”

Markus Barth on the triumph of God’s cause

‘A Christian hope that yearns only for the Christians’ own personal perfection, peace and happiness, looks deeply suspicious to all who crave for a hope in promises that are greater than those of egoistical and meritorial systems. Paul’s message in Ephesians is not one of individual perfection, wholeness or happiness. It rather is Jesus Christ “filling all in all (1:23; 4:10); it is the hope to attain to the stature of his fullness and perfection (4:13); it is the manifest triumph of God as Father “of all, over all, through all, and in all” (4:6). By the Spirit, a hope and a triumph are granted that go far beyond some egotist’s private concern. If God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15: 28), there is no need to be anxious about individual post-existence. Ephesians does not promise heavenly pastures, but it promises the triumph of God’s cause. The Holy Spirit given now is the seal that cannot be removed’. – Markus Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Collins, 1960), 63.

James K. Baxter: ‘Song to the Lord God on a Spring Morning’

The guitar is playing in the morning
And the tame goat browses on heads of grass
Close to the sawing block. I hear the voices
Of many friends on this spring day
Like music to me, because God has lifted
A mountain from my soul, and the winter has gone.

Alleluia. Adonai.

I need not complain that youth has gone
Or that the sins of morning
Haunt me at noonday. Whoever has lifted
The burden of Christ will find that an armful of dry grass
Is the same weight as the cross. Man only lives for a day
Yet he can hear the singing of strong voices.

Alleluia. Adonai.

Love is the answer to the dark voices
Of the demons that trouble us when youth has gone,
Saying, “You fool, you have had your day
And wasted it.” The spirit of a spring morning
When the wind moves gently over the grass
Is enough to tell us that the stone at the door of the tomb has
been lifted.

Alleluia. Adonai.

I have seen the boulder lifted
From the back of the tribe. I have heard their singing voices.
I have felt their hands like the wind on the grass
Stroking my cheek, when it seemed all hope had gone,
“Piki to ora ki a koe. The morning
Has come. E koro, be glad and eat a kai with us today.”

Alleluia. Adonai.

Therefore, whatever another day
May hold for meexile, darkness, and the rod of Pharoah lifted
to scourge my backthis brightness of morning
Cannot die. The murmur of many voices
Will stay with me when the light has gone
And my days are like an acre of burnt grass.

Alleluia. Adonai.

So small a price to pay! The Maori bones beneath the grass
Of the graveyard sing of the resurrection day
When chains of darkness will be gone
And the yoke of sorrow will be lifted
From the necks of the poor. A choir of many voices
Goes with me into the blood-red morning.

Alleluia. Adonai.

The light of a new morning is bright on the grass
And the voices of the poor are welcoming the day
When the cloud of night will be lifted and Pharoahs kingdom gone.

Alleluia. Adonai.

– James K. Baxter, ‘Song to the Lord God on a Spring Morning’ [1972]

Denney on prayers for the dead

Recent days have seen a turning of my attention towards James Denney who was a good mate of PT Forsyth’s and an extraordinary NT scholar. One thing that impressed me today in my reading were his comments on praying for the dead. While Forsyth defends the practice on christological grounds, Denney does so on grounds creational and experiential.

I do not think it is any use telling people not to pray for the dead; you might as well teach them not to think of them or love them, or indeed tell them roundly that after death there is nothing at all. I think most people who pray at all do pray for the dead … Certainly the absence of any example of it from the Bible is remarkable, especially taken with the life and death urgency of all the Bible does say: but a great many things must be lawful that the Bible says nothing about – things covered by the word of Jesus, “If it were not so, I would have told you” – a saying which always seems to me to justify yielding … to any instinct of the nature which is made in God’s image, and cannot be simply delusive in the things of God.

It seems to me odd that the long-held practice of praying for the dead has all but disappeared in Protestant circles (or at least in the circles in which I move). No doubt there are decent historical reasons for such abandonment, but understanding history never justifies history’s poor actions. [As an aside, recall that Denney’s comments – ‘I think most people who pray at all do pray for the dead’ – were not only made by a staunchly-Reformed Protestant, but were written just over a hundred years ago].

What both Denney and Forsyth are seeking to urge is that in Jesus Christ, the living and the dead remain unforgettably and indestructibly united in love for each other, and in a common hopeful sharing. It is not anthropology, therefore, that holds the communion of saints together on both sides of death, but Jesus Christ as Lord of both the living and the dead. Therefore, do not the saints on earth have an obligation in the gospel to pray for those who have died, and who indeed form the largest part of the race? Such prayer helps to bear witness to the Church’s unity and catholicity, and indeed to the theo-organic unity of the race itself under its new Head, himself risen from the dead. To pray for the dead signals a refusal to believe the lie that the state of a person remains fixed at death, and functions as a sign of hope in the God who raises the dead to life. To pray for one who is dying, and then to continue praying after they die – without missing a beat – is not to deny the reality of their death so much as it is to faithfully trust in the God who knows his way out of the grave.

Theodicy: The Justification of God – 11

THE CONQUEST OF TIME BY ETERNITY

Study 11

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

Take courage; I have conquered the world! – Jesus (John 16:33b)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… (Hebrews 11:1)

‘…eternity is doing far more for time than time is doing for eternity’ (P.T. Forsyth)[1]

Aware of the complexities of life, the tragedy of war on a global scale, satanic power, and the blindness of humanity among nations, faith sees Jesus! The Justification of God is written that the church might re-establish a renewed confidence in Jesus Christ, and the gospel, on a grand scale. P.T. Forsyth confidently asserts his gospel convictions:

Faith is more than an individual calm; it is the Church’s collective confidence on the scale of the world for the destiny of the world. The evil world will not win at last, because it failed to win at the only time it ever could. It is a vanquished world where men play their devilries. Christ has overcome it. It can make tribulation, but desolation it can never make.[2]

ALL THINGS ARE YOURS[3]

The writing of P.T. Forsyth continues to be a highly valuable gift to the church. Forsyth belongs to us. Our appreciation of Forsyth’s enduring theodicy, should serve us well in our ministries – bearing faithful witness to Christ, in the face of all things.

All things are ours, even that victory, that elevation over a world’s sin in us; and our very relapses cannot rob us of it. It is easy to believe with a poor sense of what the holy is, of what it makes sin to be, of what the world is, and can do, for the devil. But it needs the supernatural courage of the Cross to believe (at such an hour as this, say,) in the completeness of the Cross and its eternal victory. But there, the more horror, the more hope. The most damning light is the saving light. Therefore, the more holy fear, the more the Cross is working in us; and the sense of the Cross’s judgment is the effect of its grace.[4]

In 1 Corinthians 3:21, Paul – having warned his hearers against following party or theological factions – reminds the church that we can learn from and make good use of all things – For all things are Yours! Forsyth may not say everything well.[5] However, he belongs to us. And we can learn much from him. Forsyth himself, skillfully attributed measured praise to the negative, critical work of the German philosopher – Friedrich Nietzsche,[6] who felt as millions feel, that life culminated in its tragic experiences, and that whatever solved the tragedy of life solved all life.[7] Sadly Nietzsche, a vehement critic of Christianity, suffered debilitating mental illness towards the end of his life. Forsyth comments upon this influential man’s failure to find his answers in the cross of Christ (a salient warning, I think):

To grasp the real, deep tragedy of life is enough to unhinge any mind which does not find God’s solution of it in the central tragedy of the Cross and its redemption.[8]

Our plethora of ‘why’ questions concerning injustice and the matter of evil, are resolved in the action of Christ’s cross.  For especially here, Jesus gives active praise to the Father, for the rightness of his just and true judgments, as he personally and willingly enters the furnace of God’s holy judgment upon sin, and bears the guilt and evil of humanity. We can replicate the observations of Jesus early ministry, now applying them to his cross, and the fruit of that event for all eternity: ‘He has done everything well.‘ (Mark 7:37).

FAITH IN CHRIST FOR ALL CIRCUMSTANCES OF LIFE

In the light of:

  1. The worst evil – murdering Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Author of Life, and
  2. The best news of all – the resurrection of Jesus as Man, which opened possibilities, and a reality, not previously dreamed of,

the early church knew that all things were working together for good for those who loved God and were called according to his purpose. They learned to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Through the cross, understood by faith, in the power of the Holy Spirit the church down through history is assured that nothing is outside of God’s control, nothing is exempt from being used for the purposes of God.[9]

Life begins as a problem, but when it ends well it ends as a faith: a great problem, therefore a great faith. Ordinary experience gives us the first half, it sets a problem; but the second half, the answer of faith to us, comes from God’s revelation of grace. As we here pass from the one to the other it should be on large lines, not that we may simply descant on life in a literary way, but that we may magnify the greatness of Christ.

FORSYTH’S CLOSING RÉSUMÉ

The final chapter is a résumé of all that Forsyth has been writing about in this book. He expands upon the following 9 essential points:

  1. ‘Life, then, is a problem. If offers a task rather than an enjoyment. The soul must be achieved. The kingdom is above all a gift, but it is also a conquest. We are here to fight the good fight rather than to have a good time. The people to whom life is only an excursion, a picnic, a stroll, or a game grow more and more outlanders in society.[10]
  2. The problem of life is tragic, and no mere riddle. It is not a war game. ‘We are in no Kriegspiel,[11] but in the real thing always. It touches the nerve.’[12] ‘Life is not a seductive puzzle; it is a tragic battle for existence, for power, for eternal life’.[13]
  3. There is a solution to the problem. Our battle is not a sport for heaven. The solution is given to us rather than won by us. Already done and not merely shown.
  4. The solution is practical, not philosophical. It is not really an answer to a riddle but a victory in a battle. A life problem cannot be thought out but lived out. Man conquers by faith and not by philosophy.[14]
  5. The practical solution of life by the soul is outside life. The destiny of experience is beyond itself. The lines of life’s moral movement and of thought’s nisus converge in a point beyond life and history.[15]
  6. This world is only complete in another; it is part and prelude of another, and runs up into it, and comes home in it as body does in soul. What is meant when we speak of another world? We do not mean only one that begins at death. We do not mean a new tract of time beyond the grave, but another order, another dimension, of things, that both haunts the precincts and fills the spaces of this life always.
  7. All the crises of His [Jesus’] life, I have been saying, had themselves a crisis in His death, where the victory and the solution was won once for all. He did not cheer the disciples with the sanguine optimism of the good time coming. It was not a sanguine optimism, but an optimism of actual faith and conquest. It was not the hope of a conquering Messiah soon. ‘He is here,’ was the Gospel.[16]
  8. The solution in the Gospel is wrought once for all because it was on a world scale, an eternal scale, because He, and He alone of all men, was on such a scale. He was on a scale, which made the New Testament writers give Him not only a human and historic influence but a cosmic, nay, an absolute. He was to command not only the race but the universe, and save not only the soul but the whole groaning and travailing creation.[17]
  9. Trust God. ‘We cannot solve life by moral thought or effort but by trust, which unites us with the invincible, eternal, moral act of God in Christ. Christianity is not the sacrifice we make, but the sacrifice we trust; not the victory we win, but the victory we inherit … Christ crucified and risen is the final, eternal answer to the riddle of life. One day, when we sit in heavenly places in Christ, we shall see the tangle of life unroll and fall into shape. We shall see death as the key of life. Our own dead could tell us so already. We shall see guilt destroyed; and, with that, death, wrong, darkness, and grief’.[18]

FAITH GREATER THAN THOUGHT

Forsyth’s profound thought rouses us to give our own thought process a solid workout. However, the relationship between thought and faith, is an important one to understand:

Thought is a mighty and precious power, but on the last things it does more to enlarge our field than to steady our feet. It gives us range, not footing; a horizon rather than a foundation. It does not establish the soul, but widens its vision. It extends our reach more than it fixes our grasp. It therefore often magnifies the problem rather than solves it. Truly, that is a great service. To greaten the problem is to prepare for a great answer. Faith is not there as an asylum for those who are too lazy or shallow to think. But, though thought may tax faith mightily, it cannot do its work. It gives it a grand challenge, but it has not faith’s final word.[19]

Rich thought can certainly expand our horizons, but faith steadies our feet, causing us to stand firm, securely, in the strength of the Lord’s power (Ephesians 6:10-18):

There is something that gives us power to live and conquer, where thought may only raise challenge and doubt. Thought opens a world ahead of us, but faith forces us back into the soul and its case. Faith must be more conservative than thought; for it is deeper. The vaster the world that thought opens, the vaster is the question it puts; and the answers, the solutions, that fitted a small world, go out of date in a large. But the solution, the secret, of the soul, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is Christ dead and risen that has the key of life. It is living faith in His living, giving, and saving God.[20]

It is good to finish our study book! Faith fortified. Yet, of making many books, there is no end. Much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl. 12:12). Jesus said: You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (John 5:39-40).

TO THE LAST WORD – LET US COME!

We only ever say second-to-last words; God, the Word always has the last Word. So then, let us come to the Word, Jesus Christ in faith, in prayer, in praise and thanks, resting in His finished work, assured of the glorious future, glorified in Him: Thank you Lord, for your servant, P.T. Forsyth! May his writing and insight continue to be a blessing, to many! Jesus you said: be of good cheer. Jesus, you have overcome the world, triumphed over the power of evil, and secured eternal life. You are our future, and our Life. Amen.


[1] P.T. Forsyth, This Life and the Next, London Independent Press Ltd., 1918 (1948), p. 81.

[2] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, Blackwood, 1988, p. 223.

[3] For the wide application of this short biblical phrase, I am very grateful to Geoffrey C. Bingham, All Things are Yours, NCPI, Blackwood, 1991 (1996).

[4] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, pp. 222-223.

[5] Indeed Forsyth’s final book commends prayers for the dead, and displays a troublesome tendency towards Universalism:  See P.T. Forsyth, This Life and the Next, London Independent Press Ltd., 1918 (1948). It is worthwhile reading it. But many will have strong reservations about some of his statements. [NB. Not all of Forsyth’s readers are as dismissive and unappreciative of his insights in This Life and the Next as Faggotter is here.]

[6] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a significant influence in the establishment of an understanding of life known as Existentialism. This is a movement in philosophy that says that it is not God, bur rather individuals, that create the meaning of their own lives.

[7] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 210.

[8] P.T. Forsyth, p. 210.

[9] P.T. Forsyth, p. 4.

[10] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, pp. 208ff.

[11] Kriegspiel: A full-scale war game between two nations.

[12] P.T. Forsyth,, p. 209.

[13] P.T. Forsyth, p. 209.

[14] P.T. Forsyth, p. 211.

[15] P.T. Forsyth, p. 212.

[16] P.T. Forsyth, p. 219.

[17] P.T. Forsyth, p. 219.

[18] P.T. Forsyth, pp. 220-221.

[19] P.T. Forsyth, p. 211.

[20] P.T. Forsyth, pp. 211-212.

Jürgen Moltmann – “Horizons of Hope: A critique of ‘Spe salvi'”

In hope we were saved” (Spe salvi facti sumus). Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe salvi, released in late 2007, begins with this quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:24). Benedict goes on immediately to speak of redemption: “According to the Christian faith, “redemption” – salvationis not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present.” Commenting on this encyclical is the German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who has for years pondered a theology of hope.

If we compare Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, with Vatican II’s 1965 document on “Joy and Hope,” or Gaudium et Spes (also known as “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), the peculiarity of Benedict’s encyclical immediately catches our eye. Benedict’s encyclical is intended for church insiders; it is aimed spiritually and pastorally at the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and “all Christian believers.” It limits Christian hope to the faithful and separates them from those in the world “who have no hope.”

By contrast, Gaudium et Spes begins with the church’s deep solidarity with “the entire human family.” This solidarity is described as follows: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.” The Vatican II document addresses and responds to the concerns of today’s world: human dignity and human rights as well as peace and the development of an international community.

None of these concerns is discussed in Benedict’s encyclical, which begins neither with the solidarity of Christians with all people nor with the universal “God of hope.” Rather, it subjectively and ecclesially begins with “us”: “in hope we are saved.” We and not the others; the church and not the world. This is a stark distinction indeed between the believing and the unbelieving or otherwise-believing: we have hope – the others have no hope.

“Faith is hope” is the first heading following the introduction and is the encyclical’s primary expression of confidence. What is meant, however, is actually the reverse. “Hope is synonymous with faith.” With this formulation, the distinctive character of Christian hope falls away. The encyclical could also have been called “Through Faith We Are Saved.” One wonders why Paul and the entire theological tradition of faith and hope have thus been altered.

The encyclical positions itself apologetically in response to modern complaints that Christian hope is “individualistic” and in contrast calls it communal. Salvation has always been seen as a “social reality.” “While this community-oriented vision of the ‘blessed life’ is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world.” Yet the section ends with a warning: “Are we perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?”

What is lacking in the papal writing? What is missing is the gospel of the kingdom of God, the gospel that Jesus himself proclaimed. What is missing is the message of the lordship of the risen Christ over the living and the dead and the entire cosmos that we find in the apostle Paul. What is missing is the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come” as it appears in the creeds. What is missing is the salvation of a groaning creation and the hope of a new earth where justice dwells. In short, what is missing is the hope of the all-encompassing promise of God who is coming: “See, I am making all things new.” By limiting hope to the blessedness of souls in eternal life, Benedict also leaves out the prophetic promises of the Old Testament. Christian hope then becomes hard to differentiate from a Gnostic religion of salvation.

The encyclical criticizes the modern world’s faith in the idea of progress and human delusions of grandeur. Because faith in progress was finished off by the catastrophes of both world wars in the 20th century, the papal critique resembles the killing of a corpse. The same applies to the critique of the modern Age of Reason and the modern bourgeois and socialist revolutions of freedom. The enthusiasm of the philosopher Immanuel Kant for the Enlightenment is discarded while feudalism and its absolutism that granted no rights is ignored. The corpse of Marxism is subsequently convicted of “fundamental errors.” Marx’s real error is materialism. “He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil.” Late-born anti-Marxism is rarely more smoothly put!

The pope appropriates the “self-critique” of modernity that came to expression in Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s treatment of “the dialectic of enlightenment”: “Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” That will not convince modern, thinking persons, however, since they have already absorbed this self-criticism, and for it they need no theology.

Supported by the Second Vatican Council, Catholic and Protestant theologians entered into Christian-Marxist dialogue in the 1960s through the Catholic PaulusGesellschaft. The participants tried to bring the humanistic Marxists, who were acquainted with evil and knew the power of death, near to grace and the hope of the resurrection. Milan Machovec and Roger Garaudy understood very well the deficiency of the immanent hopes of the modern age, and we theologians, for our part, took up their passion for the liberation of the oppressed and for the rights of the humiliated. The “theology of hope” and the “theology of liberation” arose from a cooperative-critical engagement with the situation of modernity. “Political theology” shaped greater frameworks for the deepest solidarity of the church “with the entire human family.”

The statement that “a world without God is a world without hope” is in its simplicity empirically misleading, for a world with God is empirically also a world with resignation and terror in the name of God. Hope depends on the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ, on the God of the resurrection of the coming kingdom on earth. Only this One is the “God of hope.” Only this God is expected to be the “One who comes.”

The encyclical does well to name “settings for learning and practicing hope.” “Prayer as a school of hope” is named first. That is certainly correct. But prayer is just as much a school of faith. What joins hope to prayer? It is watching. In the temptation of Gethsemane, Jesus asks the sleeping disciples only this: “So could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation.” Prayer is always linked with waking up to the world of God and the awakening of all the senses. In prayer we hear and speak, in watching we open our eyes and all our senses for the arrival of God in our life and in the world. Praying with Christ belongs to the spirituality of watchful senses by which we “see” Christ in the poor, sick and imprisoned. That watching is the setting for the learning of hope.

Finally, the encyclical names “judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope.” That too is not false. But I want to direct the view of the end toward the beginning. The origin of hope is birth, not death. The birth of a new life is an occasion for hope. The rebirth of lived life is an occasion for even greater hope. And when the dead are raised, they enter into the fulfilled hope of life. The setting for learning hope in life, therefore, is the possibility of starting anew and a new beginning, the true freedom.

Benedict XVI closes with a hymn to Mary, the humble and obedient handmaiden of the Lord, who becomes the mother of all the faithful and is named “the Mother of hope.” This is in the Bible, but so too is the other Mary, the Mary who rejoiced in God her Savior: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). She takes the song of Hannah from the book of Samuel and praises the revolutionary God of the prophets. Paul saw this God at work in the community of Christ: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, the things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are … Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:27b-28, 31).

The God who creates justice for those who suffer violence, the God who has raised up the degraded and crucified Jesus, that is the God of hope for Mary, the prophets and the apostles.

[Source: The Christian Century]

Hope for our Children

Grant Thorpe is an experienced parent and Baptist pastor from South Australia who is currently presenting a series of 5 talks based on his helpful book Christian Parents & Their Children. I will post them here as they are made available.

1. Hope for our Children (45 mins)

2. Children of the Covenant (36 mins)

3. Representing Our Father’s Authority to Our Children (42 mins)