The electing God: Barth and beyond

Karl Barth - the Answer is JesusEugene Rogers, in his book Sexuality and the Christian Body (which I’m currently reading), has an interesting discussion of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. I don’t have any particular deep conclusions to draw from it: I just found it fascinating and stimulating, and wanted to share some of it in this post.

Rogers begins by describing the central place that this topic has in Barth’s theology:

Barth’s most famous and successful innovation in all the Church Dogmatics is his reformulation of the doctrine of election. Barth diagnoses traditional doctrines of election as suffering under a twofold abstraction: an unknown electing God, a Deus absconditus whose ways are past finding out, whose freedom abstracts from love, and whose character abstracts from the revelation in Jesus Christ; and an unknown elected human being, the object of God’s caprice and therefore at sea. (p.163)

He continues by quoting Barth himself:

In the doctrine of predestination we have to do with the understanding both of God and of the human being in particular: in the particular relationship in which God is the true God and the human being the true human being.

[The doctrine of election] must begin concretely with the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as both the electing God and the elected human being. (Church Dogmatics II/2, 76; emphasis Rogers’) (p.164)

It is this profoundly christocentric approach to election that enables Barth to subvert the traditional Calvinist account of “reprobation”: the teaching, rejected by Lutherans (among others), that God eternally elects the unsaved to damnation.

Barth reformulates the doctrine of election by taking up all the traditional examples of individual elect and rejected human beings and even animals, setting them into pairs, and referring both, the elected and the rejected member, to Jesus Christ as their typological reference, since he is elect and the rejected human being in one, the rejected human being elected. It is a glorious change of subject from the usual elect-and-reprobate division, a brilliant unasking of the question. All the things the orthodox predestinarians said are true, even about reprobation – if only they all apply first and paradigmatically not to individual human beings, but to Jesus Christ, and to others only “in him.” (p.164)

I love that phrase, “a brilliant unasking of the question”. Rogers continues by describing Barth’s “litany” of such predestined pairs:

Barth finds pairs of elect and rejected everywhere in the Bible, all pointing to the rejected one elected, Jesus Christ. […] So we hear of the following pairs: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah, Ephraim and Manasseh, Tamar and Judah, Perez and Serah, the offering goat and the scapegoat, the slain bird and the released bird, Saul and David, the man of God of Judah and the Prophet from Bethel, and finally Judas and Paul.

The strength of this approach is that it “gives one a taste for rich biblical exegesis, from Cain and Abel to Judas and Paul,” and encourages a “relentless christocentric focus.” However, it has its limitations:

It does better with character than with plot. It does better with dialectic than with complication. It does better with individuals or groups treated individualistically, than with individuals in community. Even as it evokes and incorporates biblical narratives as no theologian has done since Luther, it also suppresses and flattens parts of them. (p.165)

Specifically, Barth’s dialectical approach can fail to deal with the richness of the social context in which his pairs were situated:

It does not tell Christians how to talk about the means by which God works among others — third parties, circumstances, communities — to hold up the twinned pairs for display. Think of Rebecca tricking Isaac into blessing Jacob, Jonathan allying himself with David, the costuming of Tamar lying in wait for Judah, the dozens or thousands who surround and support the pairs. Barth can evoke these details — but he cannot exploit them. (p.165)

To account for these elements of the biblical narrative, Rogers argues, we need to to take greater account of the Holy Spirit, “that trinitarian person to whom Christians appropriate the movements of hearts, the providence of circumstances, and the gathering of communities, who blows where it wills, and thus resists reduction into twofold categories, however skillfully plied” (p.165).

What we want is not to reject Barth’s christocentric pair-forming, but to supplement that with:

…the overplus that the Spirit supplies, never apart from the Father and the Son, but enriching and celebrating them. It is the Spirit to whom Christians appropriate the plots and turns of biblical narrative, the circumstances and communities of biblical characters, the secondary causes that move their hearts in this world. Barth is richly open for this sort of elaboration, though he does not pursue it. (pp.165f.)

Rogers quotes with approval Robert Jenson’s proposal that Barth’s great insight that “Jesus is the electing God” needs to be supplemented by another: “the Holy Spirit is the electing God.” 

This would reduce the tendency to force complex biblical narratives (with their “lots of detail and lots of characters and lots of complication”) into a formulaic structure:

It would mean a greater openness to the complications and details of the stories, the ways in which the Spirit moves not just pairs of people, but the communities and environments around them, to construct typological relationships, so that supporting actors and circumstances and growth and reversal and plot come into play — or, to put it into more theological language, so that one attends more to community or Church and providence and sanctification and resurrection, not just “the rejected” and “the elect.” (p.168)

That’s not, Rogers emphasises once again, to reject what Barth has done in his own work, but to develop it further:

I am not proposing to give up the typological majesty of Cain and Abel, sacrifice and scapegoat, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, David and Saul, Judas and Paul. But I am proposing that a reference to the Spirit helps Christian theologians to complicate the typology in a way at once more biblical, more communitarian or ecclesial, and more trinitarian in execution as well as in program.

But when we read about Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, David and Saul, we also need to be taking into account “Rebecca and Laban and Jonathan”. To fail to do so “sheers the biblical stories of half their characters and most of their circumstances, the Spirit’s painful, complex work.”

As I said at the start of this post, I don’t have anything particularly to add to what Rogers is saying here (and nor am I going into a discussion of the wider thesis of his book at this stage). I found his account of Barth’s theology of election, particularly Barth’s reading of all those biblical “pairs” as types for the rejected-and-elected Christ, exciting and stimulating, but I was also grateful for Rogers’ further development into appreciating the rich complexity of the Holy Spirit’s work among the “supporting cast” – a.k.a. the People of God. Both these are things which will enrich my own reading of the Bible.

Are Lutherans “literalists” about the Supper?

I was reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian last night, and at a moment of mild exasperation in his chapter on the Eucharist tweeted the following:

Ron Swanson on Moby DickThis prompted a bigger flurry of responses than I’d been expecting. One person suggested this was a “biblical fundamentalist” hermeneutic (albeit reaching a conclusion rarely reached by “biblical fundamentalists”). Others drew my attention to Jesus’ frequent use of “figurative language” and metaphors. Another simply replied, “parables”.

Now, my aim in this post is not to argue for the Lutheran doctrine of the Supper over that of other Christians, but to address a narrower point from those two responses: does the Lutheran teaching – namely, that the Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ himself” – depend on a “literalist” or “fundamentalist” reading of Scripture, one which ends up overlooking the metaphorical and figurative aspects of the text?

The discussion last night was helpful in clarifying my own thoughts on this issue. The question is, what type of statement is Jesus making when he says “this is my body”? Is he being metaphorical, as when he says “I am the door”? Or is he using figurative or parabolic language, as when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”?

The answer, I think, is: none of the above. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said (as compiled in the Small Catechism):

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” … “Take this and drink of it, all of you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The point is that Jesus isn’t just imparting information in these words; he is making a promise, above all a promise of “the remission of sins”.

When Jesus imparted information to people, then yes, he very often used figurative language – though even then, we are told he “explained everything in private to his disciples”. But when he was directly addressing God’s promises to people, especially the promise of the forgiveness of sins, he spoke in clear terms intended to create faith in the listener: “Your sins are forgiven; stand up and take your mat and walk”; “I am willing: be clean”; “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and so on.

The Lutheran belief is that when Jesus says “this is my body, which is given for you,” he is declaring a promise rather than merely imparting information. That is, “this is my body” is in the same category of statements as “your sins are forgiven” rather than statements such as “I am the gate of the sheep”. He wanted his disciples in the upper room, and wants us, to believe those words of promise; to take, eat and drink.

Not all Christians will share that understanding of Jesus’ words, and I don’t expect (though I can always hope!) to have changed many of their minds with this post, But I hope at least to have demonstrated why taking a “literal” view of Jesus’ words of institution (“‘is’ means ‘is’, on this occasion at least”) isn’t a rejection of metaphor generally, and doesn’t commit us to a flat, “literalistic” reading of Scripture as a whole.

Devouring the widow’s mite

This morning’s gospel reading included the famous account of the “widow’s mite”: a text which has been much sentimentalised, not to mentioned used to manipulate and guilt-trip Christians (“See how Jesus commends this widow!” *wipe tear from eye* “And what do you think he’d say about how much you’re dropping into the collection plate?”).

In context, the story comes across very differently. Here’s Mark 12:38-13:2:

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

In that context, it’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t commending the widow as a role model for self-sacrificial giving. Rather, he’s holding her up as a victim of the exploitation of the poor by a religious establishment that “devour[s] widows’ houses”, and whose greatest achievement – the Jerusalem temple – was under God’s judgment and doomed to utter destruction.

In other words, we’re not meant to read Jesus’ words with a warm sentimental glow that makes us dig a little deeper – but not too deep, eh? – into our own pockets. Rather, we should share his mixture of anger and sorrow at any religious-political system that would leave a widow with virtually nothing to live on – and then extract even that from her for its own purposes.

Note: for more on this, see this post by Jeff Meyers.

“Watch and pray”: Jesus’ call to “revolutionary patience”

In my post last week, we were looking at Boris Gunjević’s interpretation of the Gospel according to St Mark, in his final essay in God in Pain. We saw how St Mark’s purpose in the first half of his gospel was to demonstrate that Jesus was “the apocalyptic Son of God” (rather than just another “apolitical charismatic healer”), so that his readers would not misunderstand his account of Jesus’ suffering and death in the remainder of his book.

Mark was “deconstructing the Messianic scenario by refusing to endorse any version of Jewish Messianism”, says Gunjević. He argues that Mark was doing so against a very specific backdrop: the Jewish rebellion against Rome between AD 66 and 70, and the would-be Messianic figures who arose (and competed for recognition) during that period.

Gunjević describes the three main contenders for the role of Messiah during the revolt:

  • Menahem, leader of the Sicarii, supposed grandson of Judas of Galilee, who captured Jerusalem in AD 66. “Through his remarkable organisational skills … he drew together what is known as the Zealot coalition, … and quickly proclaimed himself ‘king’.” His followers killed the high priest Annas at the start of the uprising, and Menahem ordered the Temple records to be burned – thus releasing the people from the debt-slavery in which the religious establishment had held them.
  • Simon bar Giora, commander of Jerusalem’s defence against the Romans. He became “a renegade, a robber and a despot”, and “captured Idumea and Judea without a fight”. However, he lost control of Jerusalem, leading to an internal struggle between Simon’s supporters and those of the third contender…
  • John of Gischala, who “mustered a considerable band of disgruntled peasants in northern Galilee and formed them into a respectable military unit” before his own entry into Jerusalem.

All these Messianic pretenders were following a script established in the Book of Maccabees:

On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year,the Jewsentered [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51)

Mark, however, shows Jesus following a very different script, in which the Old Testament prophecies are deployed as “a subversive model of resistance to the dominant ideology of nationalistic Messianism”. Specifically, Jesus’ own entry to Jerusalem is modeled not on the triumphalism of Maccabees, but on the prophecy of Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Gunjević interprets this as a form of “political street theatre”, in which Jesus:

…ridicules, parodies, trivialises, and takes to the absurd the political symbols of the “earthly kingdom” … In this madcap way, within a “liturgical carnival”, the carpenter from Nazareth is not merely mocking the title of emperor but bringing into question the very notion of Messianism…

Mark’s Jesus “rebuffs any vestige of Messianic identification” in order to “suggest a new notion of Messianism”: one which rejects the religious and political elites and identifies with “the disempowered and the multitude”, who are currently oppressed by a system doomed to destruction – as exemplified by the poor widow donating “all she had” to the Temple. The “Messianic practices” of “hearing and seeing, watching and praying” to which Jesus calls his disciples:

…are an anticipation of that destruction and a model of how to live when the old structures are in ruins and there is nothing new on the horizon.

That last sentence is surely the heart of Gunjević’s argument throughout his contributions to God in Pain. For Gunjević, our present-day situation is also one in which “the old structures are in ruins and there is nothing new on the horizon”, and we’re called to a similar practice of “revolutionary patience”: “hearing and seeing, watching and praying”.

Not that this is a call to passivity and quietism. Gunjević concludes by looking at Jesus’ call in Mark 9:43-50 to “cut off” your hand, foot or eye if it “offend thee”: the hand being the organ of charity, of labour, of care for those around us; the leg and foot being “a metaphor for hope, with which we stride forth into the future”; and the eye being both the means of our first contact with others, and a metaphor for faith. Hence the Messianic lifestyle of “hearing and seeing, watching and praying” is one of active involvement in working with, and caring for, others.

St Mark’s subversive Jesus

As I mentioned in my previous post, Boris Gunjević’s final essay in God in Pain looks at the Gospel according to St Mark, which Gunjević describes as “the first text in Antiquity written by someone from the margins about someone on the margins and for marginalised readership.”

Gunjević argues that Mark’s purpose in his gospel is to challenge the preconceived notions of “Messiahship” held by his first readers – and by us today. To do so, Mark uses a variety of techniques, “characterised by irony, repetition, and understatement”, including:

  • the dramatic irony of Jesus’ being known as the Son of God only by the demons – and by Mark’s readers;
  • the “good news” announced in verse 1 being news of the crucifixion of an innocent man;
  • the subversion of “family”, with Jesus’ relatives thinking he is out of his mind and his opponents insinuating that he is a bastard, while Jesus in contrast points to “the community of the radically equal, the Messianic emancipatory collective”;
  • the urgency of Mark’s account, with repeated use of the word euthys: “immediately thereafter, quickly, that same moment”;
  • Jesus’ use of questions directed at “his disciples, his opponents, and, in fact, his readers”: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? Who is my mother, or my brethren? Whom say ye that I am?”, and so on;
  • the irony seen, for example, in blind Bartimaeus’ being the only person who can see who Jesus is;
  • the depiction of women as “paradigmatic models of Messianic practice”; and
  • the disciples being not only those who “literally” follow Jesus without understanding him, but those (“sitting by the way”, like Bartimaeus) who understand Jesus without following him.

Why does Mark do all this, in the first half of his Gospel? He is preparing the reader for the second half, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. He needs to ensure that his readers will understand that story correctly:

Mark’s readers need to be convinced that Jesus is the apocalyptic Son of God, and not an apolitical charismatic, merciful healer.

Which, of course, is how most people outside the church see Jesus today. As Dick Lucas is fond of pointing out, a crucial text for this is Mark 8:27-30:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

As Lucas points out, the highlighted words show us that the one thing that people who witnessed Jesus’ ministry did not say about him was that he was a “great moral teacher” or a “charismatic healer”. It was as if he had landed from another planet: people were struggling to find a way to categorise him. The one thing he couldn’t possibly be, given his refusal to follow the appointed script for the role, was the Messiah.

Gunjević continues:

With their miracle-working, the healers of Antiquity legitimised the political and social status quo, and in doing so secured for themselves economic and political privileges.

(and wouldn’t it be awful if the church did this…?)

This is altogether the opposite of the Messianic practice on which the carpenter from Nazareth insists. If Jesus had been an apolitical charismatic, a wandering healer, of whom in Antiquity in the Middle East there were far too many, there would have been no reason whatsoever for the unprincipled coalition of Herodians and Pharisees to conspire against him.

In short, Mark is helping us to follow Slavoj Žižek’s call, in the preceding essay, to:

focus on what a strange beast, what a scandalous monstrosity, Christ must have appeared to be in the eyes of the Jewish ideological establishment.

The Beatitudes and true happiness

Fr Robert Barron has an interesting analysis of the Beatitudes in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith. Fr Barron begins by observing that “Blessed” is the first word uttered by Jesus in his role as “the new Moses” (as St Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount presents him):

The Greek term in Matthew’s Gospel is makarios, which is probably best rendered with the simple word “happy.” The law that the new Moses offers is a pattern of life that promises, quite simply, to make us happy.

To see how the beatitudes set out “a pattern of life to make us happy”, Fr Barron suggests an analysis which distinguishes between the “positive” and “negative” beatitudes. Working out from the centre, the four “positive” beatitudes are:

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The four “negative” beatitudes (those which can strike us as “confounding and counterintuitive) are then:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Fr Barron suggests that these four beatitudes address the ways in which “the mysterious curvature of the will that we call original sin” cause us to “deviate from the very actions and attitudes that will make us happy”: in particular, the way we try to satisfy our hunger for God with created things. Following Thomas Aquinas, Barron identifies these as wealth, pleasure, power, and honour, which he describes as four “addictions”.

So “blessed are the poor in spirit” is “neither a romanticizing of economic poverty nor a demonization of wealth”, but rather “a formula for detachment”: for freeing ourselves from our addiction to wealth and material things.

Similarly, “blessed are those who mourn” can be expressed, Fr Barron suggests, as “how blessed you are if you are not addicted to good feelings”. Pleasure is a good thing in itself – and Jesus is not calling us to a puritanical renunciation of all pleasant sensations – but when we treat pleasure as an absolute good, it becomes an addiction that can rule our lives.

“Blessed are the meek” is about breaking our addiction to worldly power. Again, Jesus is not saying that any exercise of political power is always wrong, but about being detached from the drive to power that can be “the strongest, most irresistible temptation of all”.

Finally, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” addresses our addiction to personal honour, to being well thought-of. “Many people who are not terribly attracted to wealth, pleasure, or power are held captive by their desire for the approval of others,” Fr Barron observes. To be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, by contrast, is to face mockery and dishonour for the sake of the crucified Christ.

And it is this crucified Christ who best exemplifies what he teaches in the beatitudes:

Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. The saint specified this observation as follows: if you want beatitude (happiness), despise what Jesus despised on the cross and love what he loved on the cross.

On the cross, Jesus despised the four worldly addictions of wealth, pleasure, power and honour, as he was stripped naked; suffered physical, mental and spiritual agony; rendered helpless and powerless; and exposed to the ultimate of dishonour through suffering the death of a common criminal.

What did Jesus love on the cross? “The will of his Father.” And loving the will and mission of his Father to the end, he was able to live out the beatitudes to the full, with what he loved and what he despised on the cross being “in a strange balance”:

Poor in spirit, meek, mourning, and persecuted, he was able to be pure of heart, to seek righteousness utterly, to become the ultimate peacemaker, and to be the perfect conduit of the divine mercy to the world. Though it is supremely paradoxical to say so, the crucified Jesus is the man of beatitude, a truly happy man.

The four gospels: contradiction or mystery?

One of the criticisms often levelled at the four gospels in the New Testament is that they contradict one another: events are reported in a different order in one gospel than in another, Jesus’ (and others’) words are reported differently, and so on.

In his book, Prayer, Hans Urs von Balthasar puts forward an interesting explanation for this: namely, that it is part of how “I live my life by faith, i.e., my vision is veiled”:

In contemplating the gospel and the history of salvation in general, I am astonished, again and again, at the degree of this “veiling”. It is as if God is not particularly interested in our attaining any kind of systematic grasp of his revelation. How much there is that we do not know about Jesus! How dependent we are on a knowledge of the laws of literary composition when we wish to approach his word, his Person! We find the same or similar words put in different contexts by different evangelists, we find the same events recounted differently. It is as if the Holy Spirit, the author of scripture, has actually placed a veil in scripture itself over the mystery of the Lord’s earthly life, a veil we cannot lift. (p.175)

However, this veil is not impenetrable; we are not left without clear knowledge of the Lord’s life and ministry. On the contrary:

 He is there, attested beyond doubt in portrayals which no mere man could ever have invented. His image springs from the page, pulsating with life. But he himself escapes from all the conceptual snares we lay for him: “transiens per medium illorum ibat” (Luke 4:30).

This should be something we recognise in our own contemplation of Christ and his gospel: that we cannot attain a perfect knowledge; that much will remain a mystery to us:

The contemplative will come to love this mystery. It is part of Jesus’ secret, part of his will, that he is flesh and not a ghost; that he is neither sage, ascetic, mystic, nor theologian, but Son of Man; that he is content to be regarded as Joseph’s son. There is much in Christianity which can be subjected to exact analysis. But the ultimate things are shrouded in the silent mysteries of God. What is ultimate in Jesus is turned, not toward men, but toward the Father; it is itself contemplation, and action within contemplation.

Useful, yes, comforting, yes: but is it true?

The recent spats about “church vs state” and “militant secularism” – prompted, in particular, by the Bideford ruling stating that councils could not include prayers on their official agendas – have led to a number of defences of religion, and of the Church of England in particular, from people who are not themselves believers in any religion. See, for example, Mary Ann Sieghart’s recent column in which she argued that You don’t have to believe in God to cherish the Church.

Matthew Parris cites a couple of other examples in a great column in this week’s Spectator, in which he warns: Beware – I would say to believers – the patronage of unbelievers. He writes:

Real Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jewish believers are being patronised by kindly agnostics who privately believe that the convictions of those they patronise are delusions. A lazy mish-mash of covert agnosticism is being advanced in defence of religion as a social institution.

But as Parris points out, “Jesus did not come to earth to offer the muzzy comforts of weekly ritual, church weddings and the rhythm of public holidays”:

One of the reasons we can be pretty sure Jesus actually existed is that if He had not, the Church would never have invented Him. He stands so passionately, resolutely and inconveniently against everything an established church stands for. Continuity? Tradition? Christ had nothing to do with stability. He came to break up families, to smash routines, to cast aside the human superstructures, to teach abandonment of earthly concerns and a throwing of ourselves upon God’s mercy.

Jesus came to challenge precisely what today’s unbelieving believers in belief so prize in what they presume to be faith: its supposed ability to ‘cement’ the established order of things, and bind one generation to the next.

So religious believers should beware of “patronising” unbelievers who “want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith”. Rather:

It is the atheists, who think this God business matters, who are on your side.

It is the “fundamentalists” with whom Parris’s sympathies lie, as they seem to him “to represent the source, the roots, the essential energy of their faiths”, rather than accepting the “insulting” message of “never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people”:

To those who really believe, it is because and only because what they believe is true, that it is good.

Parris concludes:

As I get older the sharpness of my faculties begins to dull. But what I will not do is sink into a mellow blur of acceptance of the things I railed against in my youth. ‘Familiar’ be damned. ‘Comforting’ be damned. ‘Useful’ be damned. Is it true? — that is the question. It was the question when I was 12 and the question when I was 22. Forty years later it is still the question. It is the only question.

I agree. In fact, almost the only thing on which I disagree with Matthew Parris in this article is his conceding to “fundamentalists” their claim to occupy, alone, the ground of truth. “Fundamentalism” (to the extent the word has any usefulness at all, which isn’t much) seems to me to be a pathological reaction against both outright atheism and the patronising “whatever floats your boat”, and often seems motivated by a fear of the truth as much as a love of it.

Ever since St Paul declared that “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile”, true faith has acknowledged that the only question that matters in the end is: “But is it true?”, and that if it is not true then it is not good. I’m grateful to Matthew Parris for the reminder.

What and where is God?

In his introduction to the Summa Theologiae (see previous post), Timothy McDermott points out that one of the things which separates us from Thomas Aquinas are that our questions about God are different from those of Thomas’s time.

For Thomas and his contemporaries, as they rediscovered Greek philosophy, the great question was “What is God?” For us, the question is “Where is God?”; “what (if anything) in our world betrays his presence?” And Christians today give a very different answer from that of our medieval forebears, seeing God as showing himself “not in the prudence and power of the rulers of this world, but in the powerlessness and foolishness of the poor” (p.xlvi).

McDermott argues, however, that while Thomas was “a man of his time”, he was also “a giant of his time”, who “laid the foundations for the questions to come”. So while Thomas shared the medieval view of God as being at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of power, he recognised that our picture of power contains elements which “must disappear from from our assertions about God’s power”. God is not a “powerful manipulator”, imposing his choices on his world from outside:

He is neither a God from above, nor yet a God from below led by the events, but he is a God in the events as we and the world determine them, because he is a God within our and the world’s determining of them. … The fundamental insight as always is that every natural doing and every chance doing in the world, and every free doing of man, is a tool of the doing of God. (pp.xlvi f.)

This leads Thomas to his understanding of God’s grace as “not simply the external favour in God, but something residing in us and empowering us”. Grace is:

the loving favour of God operating and cooperating with man’s doing, so that the intent of man and the intent of God become one. For Thomas this is the true place where God’s power shows itself, this is where God is. (p.xlix)

This grace is seen most fully in “the great act and symbol of Calvary”, whose meaning Thomas describes as follows:

Christ’s sufferings, considered as something done by God, can be said to effect our salvation, but as willed by Christ with his human soul are said to earn it; and as something undergone in the flesh are variously said to be amends made for us if thought of as freeing us from liability to punishment, our ransom if thought of as freeing us from slavery to sin, and our sacrificial offering if thought of as reconciling us to God. (ch.14 p.529, quoted on p.li)

God’s love calls to us from the cross of Christ, and this call (and the opportunity to respond to it) are spread throughout the world in the sacraments (above all the eucharist), where “we make present to ourselves the presence of God through Calvary; and God uses our celebrations as his tools to introduce himself and his intent into our lives, and continually reinforce that presence” (p.lii)

And so we have our answer both to Thomas’s question, “What is God?”, and to our question, “Where is God?”:

What then is God? The love revealed on Calvary calling to men. Where then is God? In the acts of love by which men respond to the call, and so keep God’s love alive and calling today: actions which are themselves kept alive by God’s eternal love. (p.lii)