Life is lived between death and the hope to beat it. When the walls close in it’s always the impending power of death tapping, whispering, and on rare occasions, pounding on our shoulder. Death doesn’t need to shout. Death doesn’t need to strut. Every time we lose something, something we really cling to, death smiles. Whether it’s a job, a friend, a pet, a spouse, a child, a hope or a dream, when we lose it it’s as if death callously makes the maching chalkboard motion in the air “score one more for my team”.
The only hope in the face of such overwhelming and unmatched odds is the death of God.
On this Holy Saturday morning I spent some time re-reading sections of Alan Lewis’s masterful book on the subject. This quote was worth the time spent:
…Easter Saturday determines not only how we handle our mortality as such, whether we are cowardly or courageous in the face of termination; it is also the measure of our maturity as individuals anywhere upon life’s spectrum. To be mature is not just to live authentically with decay, disease, and bodily death, but to be a person who at any age or stage has died already and so has been raised to life anew, and who keeps growing, through every age and stage, by learning more deeply how to die each day.
I’ve been re-reading Love Alone Is Credible, something I do somewhat regularly. It’s a short monograph about the Church’s perennial struggle to make the Gospel make sense. Von Balthasaar makes a great observation about the connection between what we love and what we find beautiful, which sets the stage for his understanding of revelation:
Already in the realm, of nature, eros is the chosen place of beauty: whatever we love—no matter how profoundly or superficially we may love it—always appears radiant with glory; and whatever is objectively perceived as glorious—no matter how profoundly or superficially we experience it—does not penetrate into the onlooker except through the specificity of an eros. Both reciprocally related poles are transcended in the realm of revelation, wherein God’s kenotically condescending Logos expresses himself as Love, Agape, and thus as Glory.
False doctrine corrupts the life of the Church at its source, and that is why doctrinal sin is more serious than moral. Those who rob the Church of the gospel deserve the ultimate penalty, whereas those who fail in morality have the gospel to help them.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Roger Olsen, one of the deans of North American theology, recently posted some thoughts on the greatest heresy besetting the American Church. As a self-confessed theological nerd I clicked on the link with great anticipation. I was surprised at what I found.
The heresy is a new one, not ever officially condemned by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Confessional Protestant churches. The sin is “repectabilism”. Olsen defines it as follows:
Can we give the heresy a name? I think so: the desire for respectability and domestication of the gospel and the church. If you need a single word, then I suggest “respectabilism.” We want our churches to be respectable.
What is the sign that you are in a heretical church? Does your pastor not challenge you enough? Do the sermons not convince you that you’re living a godless lifestyle? If you are not afflicted in the sermons as much as you are comforted, you’re in a heretical church. Another sign that your church is beset with heresy is if it has a disproportionate number of businessmen on its board. Does your church rely on staff leadership for key roles in community life. This too is a sign of heresy. Does your pastor have an honorary doctorate, and is he or she called “Dr.” on your church’s signage or in your church’s literature? You’re probably in a heretical church.
Generally in the past “heresy” has been a term reserved for ideas advocated by individuals or communities that so distort the story of the God of Israel revealed in and as Jesus Christ that those professing it can no longer really be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. Sin doesn’t do this. Sin is us falling short of God’s glorious and lavish grace and love. But sin has been defeated in the cross of Christ. That redemption accomplished 2,000 years ago in the backwaters of the Roman Empire can be applied in the here and now and all things can be made new. Unless of course the good news of that grand old story can’t be told anymore because of doctrines and beliefs that so contradict it at the ideological level that there is no hope. This is why Bonhoeffer said that doctrinal sin is more serious than moral sin. Moral sin can be overcome by the Gospel. You get the doctrines wrong because of heresy, you’ve lost the source of life that can overcome the worst of failures. What Olsen calls heresy strikes me as sin. Perhaps there is still hope for the American Church.
During a period of severe depression I was watching a fundamentalist mega-church pastor on TV, one with whom I had numerous and deep theological differences. His church no doubt is heretical by Olsen’s standards, and thus no church at all. But I was so moved by his sermon that I called the hotline for prayer. The volunteer talked with me compassionately and patiently, prayed for me, then covenanted to continue praying for me for 40 days. I asked her to personally thank her pastor for me. Despite our deep disagreements, I realized just what a brother at that moment he was, because he graciously pointed me to our mutual heavenly Father.
Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor in Florida, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post concerning the seeming decline of the church in our culture. His diagnosis is markedly different than Olsen’s, and his church’s size and staffing profile might land him in Olsen’s heretical category:
Sadly, the church has not proven immune to performancism. An institution theoretically devoted to providing comfort to those in need is in trouble because it has embraced the same pressure-cooker we find everywhere else.In recent years, a handful of popular books have been published urging a more robust and radical expression of the Christian faith. I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers. The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifices we make rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us — our performance rather than his performance for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.
Furthermore, too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, “Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.” The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior.When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?
As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.
Grace and rest and absolution with no new strings or anxieties attached now that would be a change in substance.
Sin and idolatry will beset the Church until our future hope becomes the presence of one eternal day. Until then heresies threaten to cut us off from the source of living hope, while sin and idolatry provide the occasion to run into His open arms.
Reading more in Volume IV of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in part 2. There Barth talks about the way that the Church is part of the totus Christus, or the whole Christ. It is popular today to talk about the Church as the extension of the Incarnation. Barth denies this, but doesn’t shy away for talking about the way the Church is included in Christ:
Similarly the formula ἐν (Ἰησοῦ) Χριστῷ*, which is so common in the Pauline Epistles, indicates the place or sphere in which (determined absolutely by it) there takes place the divine working, creating and endowing which moves the apostle and his communities, and also the divine revealing, questioning, inviting and demanding, and the corresponding human thanking and thinking and speaking and believing and obeying. The ἐν Χριστῷ* denotes the place where the sancta* are proffered and the sancti* are engaged in the realisation of their communio* with them and therefore with one another. Jesus Christ is, and in His being the apostles and communities are. For this reason, directly or indirectly everything that is said about the being of Jesus Christ can be only an explication of the being of Jesus Christ, and everything that is said about the being of Jesus Christ applies directly or indirectly to the being of Christians. A single presupposition emerges, and for Paul and His communities this is not a hypothesis or theory (and therefore not a problem); in the light of Easter, and in a present because renewed confrontation with the revelation of Easter Day, it is as self-evident as the air which they breathe. For this presupposition is simply the fact that the crucified Jesus Christ lives. But He lives—and this is now the decisive point—as the totus Christus*. And this means that, although He lives also and primarily as the exalted Son of Man, at the right hand of the Father, in the hiddenness of God (with the life of Christians), at an inaccessible height above the world and the community, He does not live only there but lives too (in the power of His Holy Spirit poured out from there and working here) on earth and in world history, in the little communities at Thessalonica and Corinth and Philippi, in Galatia and at Rome. He does not live primarily in their knowledge and faith and prayer and confession, or in their Christian being, but as the place in which all this can and may and must and will happen, in which they are Christians; as the air which they breathe, the ground on which they stand and walk. As we are told in Jn. 15:4f., they have no being or life apart from Him, just as the branches are nothing apart from the vine but can only wither and be burned: “Without me ye can do nothing.” But they need not try to do anything without Him. He is the vine, and they are the branches.
Was doing some re-reading today in Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1. Barth is remarking on what it means for Christ’s work to be “for us”. He makes clear why the Church is not an extension of the Incarnation:
But we must be careful that the strict “for us” that we have to do with here does not become a “with us” which unites our existence with that of Jesus Christ, in which He is simply the author and initiator of what has to be fulfilled in and through us on the same level, in His discipleship and in fellowship with Him, as though the redemptive happening which has to be proclaimed and believed under His name were something which embraces both Him and us. It is true that Jesus Christ is the fellow-man who goes before us as an example and shows us the way. It is true that there is a discipleship, a fellowship with Him, and therefore an existence of Christians. It is true that what took place in Him, the redemptive happening which has to be proclaimed and believed under His name, does embrace Christian existence and in a certain sense all human existence. But if we are to look and think and speak more precisely it is not a redemptive happening which embraces both Him and us, but the redemptive happening which embraces us in His existence, which takes us up into itself. He is the fellow-man who goes before us as an example and shows us the way because and in the power of the fact that He is “for us”: in a “for us” which cannot be equated with any “with us,” by which every conceivable “with us” is established—as it were from without, from which all discipleship must derive its meaning and its power. Discipleship, the being of the Christian with Him, rests on the presupposition and can be carried through only on the presupposition that Jesus Christ is in Himself “for us”—without our being with Him, without any fulfilment of our being either with or after Him—on the contrary (Rom. 5:6f.), even when we were without strength, godless, and enemies. He does not become “for us” when there is some self-fulfilment either with or after Him, but He is for us in Himself, quite independently of how we answer the question which is put to us of our fulfilment with or after Him. The event of redemption took place then and there in Him, and therefore “for us.” In Him, as that which p 230 took place then and there, it embraces us, it becomes the basis of fellowship, it calls us to discipleship, but not in such a way that it becomes an event of redemption only through our obedience to this call, or is not an event of redemption through our disobedience, but in such a way that as the event of redemption which took place for us in Him it always comes before the question of our obedience or disobedience, it is always in itself the event of redemption which took place for us, whatever may be our answer to that question.
Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics, Volume IV: The doctrine of God, Part 1 (pp. 229–230). London: T&T Clark.
The Christian faith is thus ecclesial because it is evangelical. But it is no less true that it is only because the Christian faith is evangelical that it is ecclesial; that is to say, its ecclesial character derives solely from and is wholly dependent upon the gospel’s manifestation of God’s sovereign purpose for his creatures. The church is because God is and acts thus. It is, consequently, an especial concern for evangelical ecclesiology to demonstrate not only that the church is a necessary implicate of the gospel but also that gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows. Much of the particular character of evangelical ecclesiology turns upon articulating in the right way the relation-in-distinction between the gospel and the church-“relation,” because the gospel concerns fellowship between God and creatures; “distinction,” because that fellowship, even in its mutuality, is always a miracle of unilateral grace. It is this particular modality of the encounter between God and creatures-what Christoph Schwobel calls a “fundamental asymmetry’ between divine and human being and action-which I suggest is to characterize both the church’s constitution and its continuing existence.
Evangelical ecclesiology is concerned to lay bare both the necessary character of the church and its necessarily derivative character. Two consequences follow. (1) An account of the gospel to which ecclesiology is purely extrinsic is thereby shown to be inadequate. Much modern Protestant theology and church life has been vitiated by the dualist assumption that the church’s social form is simple externality and so indifferent, merely the apparatus for the proclamation of the Word or the occasion for faith conceived as internal spiritual event? Among some strands of evangelical Protestantism, assimilation of the voluntarism and individualism of modern political and philosophical culture has had especially corrosive effects, not only inhibiting a sense of the full ecclesial scope of the gospel but also obscuring much that should have been learned from the magisterial Reformers and their high Protestant heirs. “So powerful is participation in the church,” wrote Calvin, “that it keeps us in the society of God. Ecclesiology may not become “first theology”; that is, the ecclesiological minimalism of much modern Protestantism cannot be corrected by an inflation of ecclesiology so that it becomes the doctrinal substratum of all Christian teaching. In mainstream Protestant theology of the last couple of decades, this inflation has been rapid and highly successful: among those drawing inspiration from theological “postliberalism 4 among Lutherans who have unearthed a Catholic Luther and a catholic Lutheranism;’ or among those who describe the church through the language of “practice.”‘ The attempted reintegration of theology and the life of the church which stimulates such proposals is, of course, of capital importance; but, as we shall see, the underlying ecclesiology is commonly set out in such a way that it threatens to distort the asymmetry of gospel and church. Annexing much of its basic conceptuality from nontheological theory, it is often underdetermined by exegetical or dogmatic description, so that what is produced can appear more of an exercise in ecclesiality than an ecclesiology. A consequence (or perhaps a cause) is a rather immanentist account of the church which lacks strong interest in deploying direct language about God, since the church is the historical medium of divine action. A further consequence is heavy investment in the church as visible human communion. The derivation of the church from the gospel is, accordingly, rather remotely conceived; at best it forms a background affirmation, but one which exercises little critical or corrective force upon the way in which church practice is conceived. In short: Schleiermacher, not Barth.
John Webster, in Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier. The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology
Robe Bell says he isn’t interested in controversies over traditional and long held conceptions, but in the possibility of regaining the meaning, mystery, love, and hope that go with God.
But isn’t that like saying as a radical interventionist, “I’m not concerned with your family history, with the language, patterns and symbols that have landed the family here. I’m concerned with moving the family forward today!”
The thing that bonds liberals and evangelicals tighter than Jacob and Esau in the womb is a loathing of the tradition.
There is a reason self-awareness escapes us all. True moments of insight into ourselves, normally the cloud of unknowing, are rare. We want to get a sense of the whole that we are, not to be confused with who we hope to be or who we try to convince ourselves we are. But the prerequisite of such insight is a fundamental posture of gratitude, which can only come as a result of an overpowering experience of acceptance that reverberates so deeply in our proverbial bones that the calcified deposits and shards that grind and cut us in our most sensitive spots are shaken loose and made manifest before us. In the absence of this kind of acceptance, we’re constrained to fragmentation, disintegration, covering up, deceiving and hiding, with some occasional successful attempts at diversion thrown in, rare as they may be. It all adds up to continual exasperation, followed by dreaded expiration.
In The Idolatry of God, Pete Rollins suggests that we have an insatiable longing, restlessness and uncertainty, all stemming from the emergence of the self in the infancy stage. The mistake the church makes is legitimizing the quest for the end of this restlessness, rather than seeing it as the womb of the Spirit. Rollins wants to articulate an understanding of salvation that takes place in the very place of our unknowing and dissatisfaction.
Frank Lake, a British psychiatrist writing in the 1960’s, expresses a similar notion:
The nature of the help God gives through His Church is to make what cannot be removed, creatively bearable. Paul’s thorn of weakness in the flesh remained. Resting in the power of God, he could glory in his infirmity. It is natural, and it is, I think, spiritually desirable, that we should at first strive and pray, as Paul did, to have our weakness and negativities removed. But the utmost of personal effort and of professional skill may disappoint our hopes in this direction. What then? There are no lectures in the medical course to inform the doctor of that paradoxical movement of the spirit which can turn decisively away from the evidently vain hope of a cure, to a courageous bearing, and more, to a creative using of the pain and loss that cannot be cured. There is a strength which is made perfect in weakness. Without the prior weakness this particular endowment of strength could never be experienced. Medical practice must extend itself to prevent the outward man from perishing. Pastoral practice, recognizing a certain inevitability of failure in this entirely laudable object, extends itself to ensure that the inward man is concurrently renewed from day to day.
The natural man in us tends to reject the paradox that mental pain and spiritual joy can exist together in us, without diminishing either the agony of the one or the glory of the other. The whole personality may be afflicted by a sense of weakness, emptiness, and pointlessness, without diminishing in the least our spiritual power and effectiveness. This is possible because Christ is alive to re-enact the mystery of his suffering and glory in us. So far as our own subjective feelings are concerned, any inner-directed questioning of our basic human state may produce the same dismal answer as before; the cupboard is bare. While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time as it turns it into a satisfactory channel.
-Frank Lake, Clinical Theology
In one of his Advent homilies, Bernard of Clairvaux offers a stirring presentation of the drama of this moment. After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free “yes” to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable “yes” of a human being. So Bernard portrays heaven and earth as it were holding its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes? She hesitates … will her humility hold her back? Just this once— Bernard tells her— do not be humble but daring! Give us your “yes”! This is the crucial moment when, from her lips, from her heart, the answer comes: “Let it be to me according to your word.” It is the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made.
Mary becomes a mother through her “yes.” The Church Fathers sometimes expressed this by saying that Mary conceived through her ear— that is to say: through her hearing. Through her obedience, the Word entered into her and became fruitful in her. In this connection, the Fathers developed the idea of God’s birth in us through faith and baptism, in which the Lógos comes to us ever anew, making us God’s children. For example, we may recall the words of Saint Irenaeus: “How shall man pass into God, unless God has first passed into man? How was mankind to escape this birth into death, unless he were born again through faith, by that new birth from the Virgin, the sign of salvation that is God’s wonderful and unmistakable gift?” (Adv. Haer. IV 33,4; cf. H. Rahner, Our Lady and the Church, p. 60).
I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke’s annunciation narrative: “And the angel departed from her” (Lk 1: 38). The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger— in which her whole life is changed— comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments— from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3: 21; Jn 10: 20), right up to the night of the Cross. How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.
-Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives