Kevin Rudd and the problem of evil

kevin-ruddAndrew Hamilton has this good piece in Eureka Street:

After both the bushfires and the recent explosion on the asylum seekers’ boat, Mr Rudd expressed himself with uncharacteristic vehemence. In the first case he spoke of the evil of arson, and in the second he said that people smugglers could rot in hell.

This kind of language echoes the tabloid characterisation of people who have done particularly foul deeds as monsters. Such strong language serves many purposes. It insists that there is a clear difference between right and wrong, and that moral standards are objective, not subjective. It cuts through moral complexities and through arguments that would diffuse or minimise the moral culpability of the perpetrators of monstrous deeds.

It also separates evil-doers from ‘people like us’, and effectively excommunicates them from society. Arsonists and people smugglers have abandoned themselves to an evil that is alien to the rest of us. By denouncing and excluding them we keep ourselves untainted by their evil.

This view, for all its uses, contrasts with the Christian view of moral evil. The Christian view is more complex and holds together under tension three different insights.

First, it sees sin as pervasive, present in every human heart, and as distorting every relationship and institution of society. Because sin is so pervasive, the crucial line of separation does not lie between monsters and ordinary human beings. It lies between movements of the human heart that are open to God and others, and those that are selfish and possessive. The difference between Hitler and ourselves is one of degree, not of kind.

Of course, simply to insist that sin is ordinary and universal risks domesticating it. If there is a little Hitler in every human being, then what Hitler did could also seem to be of little significance. The second strand of the Christian view of sin is to recognise its destructiveness. When we choose our individual interests over our relationship to God and to others, we incalculably harm both our world and ourselves.

The BrisConnections business illustrates this. The greed of the parties who structured the deal, lured investors into it and served their own interests in resolving its conflicts is ordinary enough. But its drabness may cause us to neglect the potential damage done to society when it leads observers sensibly to decide that neither the parties to the dispute nor similar financial organisations are trustworthy. Such withdrawal of trust led to the Recession and its diminishment of human lives.

To recognise simultaneously the havoc that sin wreaks in individuals and society, and its pervasiveness in all human lives and relationships is challenging. It seems to encourage a grim view of the world. Indeed it is no wonder that people associate negativity and repression with Christianity and with any emphasis on sin. So the third strand of the Christian view of sin is also central. It is that God has overcome evil. So we can look honestly at our own lives and realistically at our world, confident that the Good News has outrun the bad.

The Christian attitude to people who have done monstrous deeds is complex. It encourages us to begin by seeing them as people like ourselves who are held in play by God’s love. We recognise the twisted knots of motivation in them and the factors that lessen moral culpability. We also give weight to the harm they have done. That does not deprive them of the respect to which they are entitled by their shared humanity.

Seen in this light, the incident involving people smugglers and asylum seekers requires a more complex view than that taken by the Prime Minister. We should look carefully at all the people involved. They are human beings like us, and the line of sinfulness runs through them as for us.

But they are also caught up in the sin of others — embodied in the Russian occupation, the initial encouragement of the Taliban for geopolitical ends, the current military action, and the ethnic hostility between different tribal groups in Afghanistan.

We should also give full weight to the selfishness that has led Australians to evade the claims that asyulum seekers make on us by virtue of their shared humanity. This is embodied in the artificial devices used to exclude asylum seekers, the pressure previously put on asylum seekers to return to their death in Afghanistan, the forced separation of refugees from their families through Temporary Protection Visas and so on.

But our focus throughout ought to be on the people caught in this story who are like us. They include the asylum seekers, the people smugglers, the officials administering an unjust policy, and Mr Rudd himself. Each makes claims on us that should be heard and judged. All are entitled to receive a hearing and a just judgment.

[Source: Eureka Street]

Forsyth on measuring sin

sin‘Sin … is not measured by a law, or a nation, or a society of any kind, but by a Person. The righteousness of God was not in a requirement, system, book, or Church, but in a Person, and sin is defined by relation to Him. He came to reveal not only God but sin. The essence of sin is exposed by the touchstone of His presence, by our attitude to Him. He makes explicit what the sinfulness of sin is; He even aggravates it. He rouses the worst as well as the best of human nature. There is nothing that human nature hates like holy God. All the world’s sin receives its sharpest expression when in contact with Christ; when, in face of His moral beauty, goodness, power, and claim, He is first ignored, then discarded, denounced, called the agent of Beelzebub, and hustled out of the world in the name of God’. – PT Forsyth, Missions in State and Church: Sermons and Addresses (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 56-7.

Scott Cairns: ‘The Entrance of Sin’

Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plentifully, glazed with dew of a given morning. And there had been some talk off and on—nothing specific—about forgoing the inclination to eat of it. But sin had very little to do with this or with any outright prohibition.

For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.

In this way, the beginning of our trouble came to the garden almost without notice. And in later days, as the man and the woman wandered idly about their paradise, as they continued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and drink and spirited coupling even as they sat marveling at the approach of evening and the more lush approach of sleep, they found within themselves a developing habit of resistance.

One supposes that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: Every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.

– Scott Cairns, Philokalia: new and selected poems, p. 52.

Luther on being a sinner

‘If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner’. – Letter From Luther to Melanchthon. Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg (Segment). Translated by Erika Bullmann Flores from: Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche Schriften Dr, Johannes Georg Walch, Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15,cols. 2585-2590.

Chesterton on original sin

‘Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Rev. R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannnot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and Man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.’ – Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 19.

Chesterton on crime

‘You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it. You think of it as something like an eruption of Vesuvius; but that would not really be so terrible as this house catching on fire.’ – G. K. Chesterton, G. K. The Penguin Complete Father Brown (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 587.

Barth on Judas

‘Was it not Judas, the sinner without equal, who offered himself at the decisive moment to carry out the will of God, not in spite of his unparalleled sin, but in it? There is nothing here to venerate, nor is there anything to despise. There is place only for the recognition and adoration and magnifying of God.’ – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 (ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F Torrance; trans. G. W. Bromiley et al.; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), 503.

Barth–Brunner Revisited 7 (final)

In this final post of this series, I simply want to make some concluding comments. Thanks for the feedback/thoughts I’ve received, particularly from Chris TerryNelson who looks after the Karl Barth Society website.
So here goes the final post in this series:

The long-lasting debate between Brunner and Barth, enmeshed in the broader and more fundamental issues of grace and nature, Gospel and law, and love and wrath, reveals that we are left with either an immanent-structural or a transcendent-relational understanding of what it means to be a human person. The choice, therefore, is between a rational-Unitarian or a Christological-Trinitarian understanding of human personhood. I consider that human personhood, both theologically and existentially, makes no sense apart from the Triune God in whose Image we are made.

With Brunner, I maintain that there is a moral element to the imago Dei, for since the Fall, as before, the imago lives in the demand of the Law. For although no-one has kept the Law (Rom. 3:23), God’s redemptive purposes remain unthwarted and unfrustrated (Jn. 3:16). However, there is no redemption outside Jesus Christ. In Him, every demand of the Law is met, and in Him the imago Dei is again a fulfilled reality. Barth was right to interpret Genesis 1:26 in terms of Christ. The imago Dei is the imago Christi (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15) and the imago Christi is an imago Dei mediated through the person of Christ. Barth states,

He was man as we are. His condition was no different from ours. He took our flesh, the nature of man as he comes from the fall … His sinlessness was not therefore His condition. It was the act of His being in which He defeated temptation in His condition which is ours, in the flesh … He emptied Himself … placing Himself in the series of men who rebelled against God in their delusion … In so doing, in His own person, He reversed the fall in their place and for their sake.

In Him, God draws near to fallen humanity freely offering the restoration of that relationship of obedience and service that is simultaneously the demand of the Law and the essence of the imago Dei. In Christ we are offered that which we can never achieve – the reversal of the Fall! The question of the imago Dei, therefore, can only be satisfactorily answered when it is brought into the theological arena of the doctrine of justification by faith (Phil. 3:9; cf. Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 9:30; 10:3, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21). Because of this righteousness, which has its origin in the righteous act of Christ, and comes to the believer as a gift (Rom. 5:17-19), those in Christ are justified. They become, always by grace, ‘new creatures’ (2 Cor. 5:17) and this ‘new man’ is one who is ‘after the image of him that created him’ (Col. 3:10). Hence, justification by faith and restoration of the imago are correlative terms. As T. F. Torrance affirms,

It is in Christ that we can really see that the original purpose of the works of God in creation is to reflect and image his glory … It is only in Jesus Christ, who is both the image and the reality of God, that we can think and speak of God in such a realist way that our human forms are not an empty shell but are filled from above with the Truth of God.

This means that the imago Dei is never an inherent possession, capacity or potentiality of the human creature but rather is always the gift of God through the Holy Spirit.

The issue revolves around the question of whether or not fallen humanity, dead in its sins, has a capacity for revelation and redemption; not in the material sense that we have anything other than our sinful and fallen life to bring to God, or indeed our rebellion and repeated attempts to put God to death – not, therefore, the capacity which the acorn has to become an oak, but rather, as Hart puts it, ‘the capacity which a gnarled and twisted piece of timber has to become – only through the creative fashioning skills of the woodworker or artist – something beautiful and pleasing to the eye’.

I consider that Barth, notwithstanding his strong denials, cannot, as long as he adheres to a doctrine of Incarnation or to the belief that God has revealed Himself to humans, avoid positing a point of contact in this second, carefully qualified, sense. The Holy Spirit may well be the ‘subjective possibility’ or ‘condition of revelation’; but He comes, as such, to fallen humanity who, while dead in their trespasses and sins, nonetheless are capable of being acted upon by Him in this redemptive and creative manner. This makes no claim for any inherent ability in the human creature to respond to God (it is the ‘Yes’ of the Man Jesus who vicariously responds for us). However, I consider that whatever Brunner thought of it, the distinction between a formal and a material imago Dei in fallen humanity, providing there is no split in the imago, is one which not only provides a very useful framework for discussion, but is something which Barth himself cannot ultimately avoid, although he never addresses it satisfactorily. And so the imago Dei in the human creature, although distorted, remains a ‘point of contact’ not because of our innate disposition but because of the Incarnation of the Word.

Humanity has certainly taken its inheritance, wished the Father dead, broken horizontal ties with sisters and brothers, and run away from home. But the imago Dei is not dead, however distorted, perverted and existentially, although never ontologically, uprooted from its Source. The imago Dei is a sinner. The imago Dei is a sinner. The imago Dei has robbed God. As Barth says, in the Fall, God is ‘deserted and denied by men; He suffers and is robbed. Sin is robbing God of what He is’. Also, as Brunner helpfully reminds us, ‘It is as a whole that a person commits sin; this is not due to some part of the personality. I am a sinner, not this or that aspect of my nature’. Sin, furthermore, has brought contradiction into the being of the human person: ‘not simply “something contradictory” in man, but … a contradiction of the whole man against the whole man, a division within man himself’.

Although sin is a devastating problem for humanity, and so for the creation (because humanity functions as creation’s priest), it is death that is the greatest dilemma. Yes, sin infects the human race. Yes, sin makes our goggles dirty so that we can’t see clearly, and yes, it makes our ears full of wax so that we can’t hear clearly, and even mishear, but death is humanity’s antithesis because it ‘makes clear the relationship of man to God – the negative, broken relationship under judgement’.

The divine warning to ‘the man’ was not, ‘for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely become a sinner’, but, ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). Even if sin is forgiven, the forgiveness remains null and void apart from resurrection (1 Cor. 15:17). It is nothing short of resurrection from the dead, resurrection in the man Jesus and His own triumph over death, which restores the imago Dei into life, and that ever in Christ. This is the great ex nihilo which refuses to allow the human creature to be nothing more than a sinner. While sin leaves no part of human nature uncorrupted, the ex nihilo protects human nature from becoming inhuman nature. This is because the essential nature of being human remains under the determination of God, not of sin. The dignity of the human creature cannot be relinquished or destroyed, thanks to the presence of God through which human persons continue to witness to Him even in their ‘condition of darkness and estrangement from the Source of [their] life.’ Before the new creation is consummated, opposition remains, but grace wins – that grace which lays the axe at the root of the whole of human existence and slays us so that we might be made alive! Anderson reasons this is because ‘even the disorder of human being through sin does not destroy the covenant basis on which the human exists. Indeed, the covenant becomes even more explicit as the gracious provision by which human life is supported’.

The only validity and hope of the imago Dei’s ontological existence and telos lies in God. So we live, with veiled faces, in faith, hope and love, and in the process we experience what it means to be human. We live, here and now, in the completed work-in-progress of the Cross–Resurrection experiencing ourselves as accepted and whole. Ultimately, the concept of the imago Dei is an eschatological one. It is our God-given destiny, and as such the implications for our understanding of ethics, relationships, and the church, indeed all of life, are enormous.

Kierkegaard on sin

For those who may be interested, Joshua from Theologoumenon is planning to post a series on Søren Kierkegaard’s view of sin. Sounds worthwhile. Also, Ben, over at Faith and Theology is running a poll on Reformed theologians. Don’t you just love theoproxy. The candidates are Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Barth and Moltmann. So far, Barth is winning (I’m sure he’d love to know that) and poor ol’ Friedrich is yet to get a vote. A bit sad really. Anyway, to cast your vote, check out Ben’s blog.