Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Salvation in Holy Week

It's the only thing that would bring me out of my shell. Fr. Jake takes up the question of atonement, and I feel compelled to put my two cents in.

If I only knew where my two cents was.

Compulsion is stronger than reason, though, so I plunge in anyway. Actually, my thinking about it starts with the reading from Palm Sunday last:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phillipians 2:5-11)
If memory serves (and if I'm wrong, please correct me) this is one of the earliest doxologies in Paul, derived from the earliest proclamations of the meaning of the cross. We have to understand that death on the cross was a fiercely shameful act, and to even think of starting a group praising such a criminal, a political criminal; well, imagine trying to convince people to exalt an executed prisoner as a holy person, and then, even more bizarre, as equal to God! But notice that Paul doesn't say anything about blood, or sin, or redemption, in that passage (Fr. Jake does a fine summary of the major theories). Which is another reason I like this passage; it gets us as near as we can to the Absolute Paradox Johannes Climacus wrote about. Why drag Kierkegaard into this? Because atonement (pace C.S. Lewis) has to do with love; or it is about nothing at all:

Suppose, then, that there was a king who loved a maiden of lowly station in life. The king's heart was unstained by the wisdom (loudly enough proclaimed) unacquainted with the difficulties that the understanding uncovers in order to trap the heart and that give the poets enough to do and make their magic formulas necessary. His resolution was easy to carry out, for every politician feared his wrath and dared not even to hint at anything. Every foreign country trembled before his power and dared not to refrain from sending a congratulatory delegation to the wedding. And no cringing courtier, groveling before him, dared to hurt his feelings lest his own head be crushed. So let the harp be tuned; let the poets' songs begin; let all be festive while erotic love celebrates its triumph, for erotic love is jubilant when it unites equal and equal and is triumphant when it makes equal in erotic love that which was unequal.

Then a concern awakened in the king's soul. Who but a king who thinks royally would dream of such a thing! He did not speak to anyone about his concern, for if he had done so, anyone of his courtiers would presumably have said, "Your Majesty, you are doing the girl a favor for which she can never in her lifetime thank you adequately." No doubt the courtier would arouse the king's wrath, so that the king would have him executed for high treason against his beloved, and thereby would cause the king another kind of sorrow. Alone he grappled with the sorrow in his heart: whether the girl would be made happy by this, whether she would acquire the bold confidence never to remember what the king only wished to forget-that he was the king and she had been a lowly maiden. For if this happened, if this recollection awakened and at times, like a favored rival, took her mind away from the king, lured it into the inclosing reserve of secret sorrow, or if at times it walked past her soul as death walks across the grave--what would be the gloriousness of erotic love then! Then she would indeed have been happier if she had remained in obscurity, loved by one in a position of equality, contented in the humble hut, but boldly confident in "her love and cheerful early and late. What a rich overabundance of sorrow stands here as if ripe, almost bending under the weight of its fertility, only awaiting the time of harvest when the thought of the king will thresh all the seeds of concern out of it. For even if the girl were satisfied to become nothing, that could not satisfy the king, simply because he loved her and because it would be far harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her. And what if she could not even understand him-for if we are going to speak loosely about the human, we may well assume an intellectual difference that makes understanding impossible. What a depth of sorrow slumbers in this unhappy erotic love! Who dares to arouse it! (Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard) Philosophical Fragments, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Unversity Press, 1985, pp. 26-28)
What does this have to do with atonement? The parable doesn't end there. Climacus goes on:

Now if the moment is to have decisive significance (and without this we return to the Socratic, even though we think we are going further), the learner is in untruth, indeed, is there through his own fault---and yet he is the object of the god's love. The god wants to be his teacher, and the god's concern is to bring about equality. If this cannot be brought about, the love becomes unhappy and the instruction meaningless, for they are unable to understand each other. We probably think that this may be a matter of indifference to the god, since he does not need the learner, but we forget--or rather, alas, we demonstrate--hwo far we are from understanding him; we forget that he does indeed love the learner. And just as that royal sorrow is found only in a royal soul and most human languages do not name it at all, likewise all human language is so self-loving that it has no information of such a sorrow. But the god has kept it to himself, this unfathomable sorrow, because he knows that he can push the learner away, can do without him, that the learner has incurred utter loss through his own fault, that he can let him sink, and he knows how nearly impossible it is to maintain the learner's bold confidence, without which understanding and equality disappear and the love is unhappy. Anyone who does not have at least an intimation of this sorrow is a lumpish soul with as much character as a small coin bearing the image neither of Caesar nor of God.
"Render unto Caesar," if you're wondering.

After examining the possible solution by an "ascent" of the learner (but then the learner forgets himself), and a solution Socratically (wherein one learns to become sufficient in oneself), but this too, fails:

The truth, then, is that the learner owes him [the teacher, the god] everything. But that which makes understanding so difficult is precisely this: that he becomes nothing and yet is not annihilated; that he owes him everything and yet becomes boldly confident; that he understands the truth, but the truth makes him free; that he grasps the guild of untruth, and then again bold confidence triumphs in the truth. Between one human being and another, to be of assistance is supreme, but to beget is reserved for the god, whose love is procreative, but not that procreative love of which Socrates knew to speak so beautifully on a festive occasion. So a descent must be attempted, since ascent will not work.

For this is the boundlessness of love, that in earnestness and truth and not in jest it wills to be the equal of the beloved, and it is the ominipotence of resolving love to be capable of that which neither the king nor Socrates was capable, which is why their assumed characters are still a kind of deceit.

Look, there he stands--the god. Where? There. Can you not see him? He is the god, and yet he has no place where he can lay his head, and he does not dare to turn to any person lest that person be offended at him. He is the god, and yet he walks more circumspectly thatn if angels were carrying him--not to keep him from stumbling, but so that he may not tread in the dust the people who are offended at him. He is the god, and yet his eyes rest with concern on the human race, for the individual's tender shoot can be crushed as readily as a blad of grass. Such a life--sheer love and sheer sorrow. To want to express the unity of love and then not to be understood, to be obliged to fear for everyone's perdition and yet in this way trulty to be able to save only one single person--sheer sorrow, while his days and hours are filled with the sorrow of the learner who entrusts himself to him. Thus does the god stand upon the earth, like unto the lowliest through his omnipotent love. He knows that the learner is untruth--what if he made a mistake, what if he became weary and lost his bold confidence! Oh, to sustain heaven and earth by an ominpotent "Let there be," and then, if this were to be absent for one fraction of a second, to have everything collapse--how easy this would be compared with bearing the possibility of the offense of the human race when out of love one became its savior!
The heart of the Christian proclamation is this paradox: God became human (how?). God loved us so much God became us, because how else, finally, could God love us? And in that love we find our salvation. Was the death really a necessary part of it? I think so, but not for the reasons usually posited. I think it demonstrates, once and for all, the power of powerlessness. After all, there is no power without resistance. And being faithful to God, even to death--death on a cross!, is the first fruit of the new life, of the basiliea tou theou, of the love that made God our saviour. It is about the vulnerability that saves us, the wound that heals us, the paradox that is in fact the truth. Perhaps we could say the atonement is not about blood and death and sin, but simply about living backward:

I'm about to write a lecture on the challenge of God, and the key to my thesis is that if we were to "live backward," worship would be the most challenging part of our week, as we would stand fully in the awesome and awful (in the oldest sense of that word, i.e., awe (also the old sense of that word) inspiring) presence of God, and after that, the week would be a piece of cake. Not because we'd eaten that live toad for the week, but because the presence of God that would fill us would put the rest of our world into proper perspective. So even worship can be seen as making us vulnerable, if it is truly and properly approached. Hospitality, justice, diversity, contemplation, discernment: is there any doubt those make us vulnerable? Is there any doubt John Yoo would gladly scrap justice, just to let us imagine we have increased our security? Is there any doubt the paradox of vulnerability, just like the paradox of powerlessness, is at work here, and our very willingness to accept risk in the name of justice, is what makes us stronger than any enemy who denies justice to us?
Probably ought to go re-read that lecture. In the meantime, you can re-read Kierkegaard. Been reading that passage for years, but typing it as I thought about it's application to soteriology, I finally understood it. Maybe the context here will help you. I hope so. Think of it in terms of the paradox of powerlessness, of there being no power without resistance, of the crucifixion and the resurrection (one without the other is meaningless, even in the harshest atonement theory) teaching that lesson, finally and for all time.

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