Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Death Be Not Proud



The Christian emphasis on death, which is still the backbone of evangelical belief (or theology, in a sense) in America ("Are you saved?", is the way it was expressed in my childhood; the question emphasized salvation in death, not in life; except to the extent being saved made one part of the Calvinist Elect, and therefore safe for eternity:  a happy life here, a happy life hereafter), is the emphasis that pushes away any concern for others alive now.  "Are you saved?" is a question that erases concern for life now, because eternity awaits and on balance that's the life you need to worry about.  This is why the retired pastor writing at RD announces death is the end and final, because she has rejected metaphysics in favor of science.  What she has rejected, actually, is one set of certainties in order to take up another.  Sure answers, in either case, in a world that shreds sure answers and sprinkles them on your toast for breakfast.

One reason we cling to "sure answers" as tightly as we can.

The Christian emphasis on death is the Christian emphasis on salvation, and since life here and now doesn't really change for you if you "accept Jesus into your heart" (you don't become immortal, invincible, or invulnerable), that salvation must count in "the next life."  And since "before us lie/deserts of vast eternity," death has a greater claim on our attention than this too brief existence.  Well, not as brief as once it was, but still brief; at least until you reach old age, and begin to regard death as coming too slow, or, if you're lucky and in the circumstance of the brother in J.K. Rowling's tale buried in the Harry Potter novels, you finally greet death as an old friend.  But if we break that emphasis on salvation in the "sweet bye and bye," what then?

Luke teaches a very different lesson of salvation and redemption.  In chapter 7 of his gospel a woman comes to the house of Simon the Pharisee, to a dinner he is hosting for Jesus.  Just entering a room full of men (even Simon's wife would not be allowed in, for the same reason) marks her as a prostitute.*  She then bends over Jesus' feet (he would be sitting on the floor with his feet out beside him, propped up on cushions on an elbow) and washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair.  This scene would be familiar to first-century consumers of pornography.  It would be considered highly erotic, and all the better to set up the contrast with what Jesus does about this.  "Do you see this woman?," he asks his host, having set up the question with a series of questions about forgiveness for things small and large.  His point is very clear, but we've chosen to obscure it.  The woman is forgiven not for what she's done (Jesus' statement about her show of devotion is a sardonic joke, not a literal definition), but simply because she is a person, a human being.  And her forgiveness is not meant to give her a golden ticket at the Pearly Gates even St. Peter hasn't manned yet, but to redeem her time in this life.  Jesus invites his host to see her as a person, beloved of God as all persons are, and to allow her back into the social order (from which she has been excluded, else why enter the room at all?  When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose.), to "forgive" her so she is reconciled to the community and treated as a person again.

But that means we have to do something here, and now; in this life.  We emphasize the after-life because it lets us off the hook in this one; especially if we cling even vestigially to Calvin's notion of the Elect and figure we're in that group (who doesn't?).  Or we put ourselves in a place of judgment, despite Jesus' admonitions that we not judge, so we won't be judged.  And in emphasizing the afterlife we ignore what Jesus said about the living and the dead being the same to God.  Which is less a statement about metaphysics and eternal souls, than it is about the artificial boundaries we humans insist on drawing.  If God is God of the living and the dead, if to God the division between life and death is meaningless, then what is the value of the boundaries we draw around people, around behaviors, around beliefs?  The inescapable and ultimate boundary of all mortals is the boundary between the quick and the dead, and yet Jesus erases that one in a single statement.  But we aren't ready to follow him there, so we re-interpret the statement to mean something grand about God and metaphysics and the sweet bye and bye, and go on drawing our lines and setting up our barriers and clinging as tightly as we can to "sure answers," because in this life we are sure those answers are sure.  Even when Jesus says they aren't.

Consider the parable of Lazarus and the rich man:  is this a prefiguring of the after life, of heaven and hell and the chasm between them?  Or is it about life here and now, and how we treat each other, and how justice will be done, sooner or later?  Is the lesson metaphysical, or social?  Has anything changed since that story, including the fact that even if someone were to return from the dead, we wouldn't learn the lesson we should learn?

Simon is more upset by the fact Jesus has forgiven the woman's sins than anything else.  He wants that authority reserved to the community, to the powers that be.  He wants assurances she has made the right signs of repentance, and that her confession is approved.  He wants to judge, but he doesn't want to be judged (he will judge her, she will not judge him).  He wants her redemption to come with a price tag, else what’s the point of redemption?  He doesn’t want her grace to be free, or even to occur here and now.  But if forgiveness has to be bought and paid for, what kind of forgiveness, really, is it?

Take away the metaphysics of soteriology and what objection do you have left?  That you haven’t seen God?  Have you ever seen love?  You’ve seen what people reported to be love, but you’ve seen it enacted with all sincerity by people only pretending to love each other in movies and plays.  How do you know when it is real, and when it is false?  And yet still you believe in love.  You haven’t seen God:  what matter is that?  The forgiveness of sins doesn’t require a social structure of laws and morals and categories of sin to be a real redemption.  Redemption is in the eye of the beholder:  “Do you see this woman?”  It is in the words of forgiveness:  “Your trust has saved you; go in peace.”  You have to give them a reason to feel peace is upon them; you have to signal to them the change.  You have the chance to treat them as a human being, as you yourself would want to be treated.

Death, where is your victory?  Death, where is your sting?  If you are alive in the eyes of God, what does it matter what humans see?  They see you dead, they know you dead; but they do not see as God sees.  Wouldn’t you rather see as God sees, and be seen as God sees?  God sees all as brothers and sisters and blessed and redeemed and hopeful.  Who else sees you wholly that way?  “Do you see this woman?”  No; with Simon we see a prostitute, a sinner, a “fallen woman” who should earn her way back into our good graces.  How do you earn your way into God’s graces?  Would you rather the brother of the prodigal son be in charge, angry and refusing to accept your return?  Or would you rather have the wonderful father, who needs no words from you, who runs out to embrace you on the road and slays the fatted calf for you, and calls everyone to the party, to rejoice that you are alive again?  Wouldn’t you want that for your father?  Wouldn’t you want to do that for your child?  Wouldn’t you rather see as God sees?

“Do you see this woman?”

“See” how, exactly?  How are we meant to see her; who are we meant to see?  And if we cannot see her as God does, can we at least try?  And if she is still alive in God’s sight, who are we to fear death, or even contemplate it?  Are we alive after death?  Are we extinguished?  Who knows?  It is truly that bourn from which no traveller returns, it is truly the only experience of life that is not lived through, so what can we say about it except that we don’t know?  But if God sees the living and the dead as alive to God, who else do we need to be alive to?  And if in serving each other we serve God, who else indeed do we need to be alive to, except each other as long as we are here, because the circle will be unbroken, by and by.



*I've pastored churches where the oldest members could remember when the congregation was divided:  men on one side for Sunday worship, women and children on the other.  This is not as old as you think it is.

4 Comments:

Blogger trex said...

Wow, this paragraph really turns the commonly accepted approach to Christian forgiveness on its head. Well done.

"Simon is more upset by the fact Jesus has forgiven the woman's sins than anything else. He wants that authority reserved to the community, to the powers that be. He wants assurances she has made the right signs of repentance, and that her confession is approved. He wants to judge, but he doesn't want to be judged (he will judge her, she will not judge him). He wants her redemption to come with a price tag, else what’s the point of redemption? He doesn’t want her grace to be free, or even to occur here and now. But if forgiveness has to be bought and paid for, what kind of forgiveness, really, is it?"

3:31 PM  
Blogger trex said...

Wow, this paragraph really turns the commonly accepted approach to Christian forgiveness on its head. Well done.

"Simon is more upset by the fact Jesus has forgiven the woman's sins than anything else. He wants that authority reserved to the community, to the powers that be. He wants assurances she has made the right signs of repentance, and that her confession is approved. He wants to judge, but he doesn't want to be judged (he will judge her, she will not judge him). He wants her redemption to come with a price tag, else what’s the point of redemption? He doesn’t want her grace to be free, or even to occur here and now. But if forgiveness has to be bought and paid for, what kind of forgiveness, really, is it?"

3:32 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I wrote three papers in seminary over two years on that passage, and Luke's soteriology. It got to be a running joke among the professors; one told me I wasn't allowed to write about it anymore.

3:55 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

Fine, as always.

When I was a kid it was only the children at the "children's mass" who were separated by gender, I think it was more so the nuns could more efficiently enforce discipline. I wonder if there are still "childrens masses" anywhere. It was a different world.

I generally find that people who declare they reject "metaphysics" generally demonstrate within several sentences that they've done nothing of the sort though what they have done is misunderstand what they're talking about when they say "metaphysics". I think the people who go down the kind of road that article at Religion Disptaches and her husband took define God in terms that have more in common with paganism than the Hebrew tradition. The god she stopped believing in wasn't the God I believe in

Why should it be different after death? We're sustained by the mind of God now, why should it be different later? I agree with David Bentley Hart that to say we continue in any manner, even as a memory in the mind of God, without the characteristic relationships of love we have in life is to say we don't exist in any real way. I think God must remember us, at least at our best and the mind of God must understand a lot about what made us at our worst.

There's an interesting article at the National Catholic Reporter about Pope Francis saying that the common Catholic form of the Lord's Prayer, the line "and lead us not into temptation" is a bad translation of the Greek and how the French bishops have already (after years of debate) come up with a change that is held to make more sense and which is closer to the original meaning.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/theology/does-god-lead-us-sin-new-french-our-father-says-no

5:11 PM  

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