“Now it is no accident that for us the Virgin birth is paralleled by the miracle of which the Easter witness speaks, the miracle of the empty tomb. These two miracles belong together. They constitute, as it were, a single sign, the special function of which, compared with other signs and wonders of the New Testament witness, is to describe and mark out the existence of Jesus Christ, amid the many other existences in human history, as that human historical existence in which God is Himself, God is alone, God is directly the Subject, the temporal reality of which is not only called forth, created, conditioned and supported by the eternal reality of God, but is identical with it. The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself. Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. And marked off in regard to its goal: it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. It is to that mystery that these limits point – he who ignores them or wishes them away must see to it that he is not thinking of something quite different from this.” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.182)
Archive for March 2011
“It was an unhappy truth, he told himself, that nearly all people in the world behave badly when there is something really big at stake.” (Mr. Willy Wonka, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator)
“As Adam refused to preserve the order of Paradise, i.e., the limits of his creatureliness, man as Adam’s child refuses to fit into the order of restoration. He will not understand and admit that he is flesh, stands under judgment, and can only live by grace. He will not admit that God is right in His verdict upon him, and then cling entirely to this God’s mercy. At the very least he insists upon still standing and walking on his own feet. He wants, at least in co-operation with what God does, to ‘save his life’ (. . . Mk. 8:35). By that very process he loses his life. On that very rock he suffers shipwreck. For by that very process sin in the flesh is not judged, but rather is committed afresh. By that very process man does afresh what Adam did.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.157)
“We beseech thee, almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
A part of great preaching is to be able to say something once and have it stick, to say it so vividly and well that it is instantly memorable. The preacher who has to say the same thing four times to make the lights go on is wasting three attempts, which suggests the lights are dimly lit in his own mind. Lacking a scalpel, he must flail about with his machete, and his audience is in for a very long sermon.
“Almighty God, which dost see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; keep thou us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, &c.”
In my last post, I noted in passing the MSNBC interview between Martin Bashir and Rob Bell. Here is a quite interesting follow-up in which Bashir comments at length on that interview.
I wish to say from the start, I feel a sense of revulsion at what I’m doing. Human lives are being shattered in Japan in ways unimaginable to me in the comforts of my situation, and I’m about to take their anguish as an occasion for a blog post. Kyrie eleison.
That said, and at the risk of sounding petulant, I wouldn’t be doing this were it not that it never fails, when such tragedies score the earth, but someone points an accusing finger at the Christian church and thunders imperiously: “Which of these is true: either God is all-powerful but He doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore their suffering, or He does care about the people of Japan but He’s not all-powerful?” (We heard exactly this question when Martin Bashir channeled David Hume in a recent interview with Rob Bell – I should note that Bell’s “answer” was as fatuitous as anything I’ve ever heard.)
There’s no point in trying to answer such a question, because it’s knocking at the wrong door. Hard as it may be for an unbeliever to understand, we Christians aren’t sitting around trying to dream up a God who fits the clothes we make for Him, whose ways are readily found out, and who gives polite and tidy answers whenever we demand. We worship a God who has revealed Himself to us (His self-revelation is rather basic, actually, to our religion); we have no say in who or how He is. And He has told us unequivocally that He is absolutely sovereign (inclusive of omnipotence) and perfectly good. If Hume’s disciples wish to pound at the door of the Christian church, they need to revise their question: “Given your God is both sovereign and good, how do you respond to tragedies such as this one in Japan?” Now that’s a fair question.
It’s not a question, moreover, that the unbeliever has any business raising. If, as the atheist wants to believe, God doesn’t exist at all, then a powerful force in Japan (the tsunami) has encountered some weaker forces in the cosmos (human strength and ingenuity), and swept all before it. This stuff happens. It’s a harsh reality in the evolution of the cosmos, perhaps; it’s certainly not one to which any moral value can be assigned. So everyone needs to stop complaining and clean up. If, on the other hand, one wants to talk about some god other than the Christian God who is crying himself to sleep every night because of things that happen in his cosmos, well, too bad for him. We can hate him as we hate ourselves for our inability to stop tsunamis. Or we might think of a god who is strong enough to stop tsunamis but doesn’t want to: well, if this is “his” universe in any meaningful sense, then it’s not a good universe, and who are we to complain? On what basis are we going to make a case for “goodness” in what is most basically an “evil” universe? We need to catch up on our cosmology and get with the program. After all, do you really want to contend with a god who takes pleasure in tsunamis?
But these are childish questions, representing childish ideas. They have nothing whatever to do with the Christian religion. We Christians take our stand squarely within the bounds of our God’s revelation, and here two things comfort us. First, our God is sovereign. This means that tsunamis do not stalk the earth out of control (neither, thankfully, do rapists and thugs). We sleep at night knowing that nothing can happen that is not in the hands of our God; to live in any other cosmos would be a mind-warpingly terrifying experience. Evil, we know, is not simply “there” in some kind of dualistic competition with our God; He reigns over it, and will in time destroy it. Which brings us to the second thing: our God is good. He has told us what goodness and righteousness mean, and so we can look at the evils of the world and call them exactly that – evils. We can hate them because He does. How can it be that God sovereignly permits and ordains in His universe things that He declares He hates? That is a mystery of the Christian faith (it is not a mystery to which an atheist or deist has any access), but it is not an open-ended mystery. Our God has told us that one day He will judge the living and the dead. This hope of the final judgment assures us that evil will one day be vanquished, condemned, and eradicated from the earth. We do not know why God allows and ordains certain things, but we know He will judge them all in righteousness – and “shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just” (Gen 18:25)?
Put another way, the question of the “problem of evil” can be asked within the boundaries of the Christian faith, and we can give an answer of faith within those boundaries. The question really cannot be made intelligible outside the Christian faith in the gloomy marshes of atheism or deism. In these marshes there are only the imaginations of men; there is no one to whom such a question may be reverently addressed, nor anyone from whom an answer may be trustingly heard.
I say it again, Kyrie eleison.
“O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy Godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth, &c.”
I’m also including here Cranmer’s collect for Ash Wednesday:
“Almighty and everlasting God, which hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that be penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ.”
Here’s another great article from David Bentley Hart, this time on the recent free speech ruling by the Supreme Court. To whet appetites all around: “when personal liberties become absolute, they also become simply another form of tyranny.” I have a short treatise brewing on this subject, but I doubt it’s appropriate material for a blog.