Monday, May 30, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on discharging emotions against false objects)

From I:4. How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects

What causes do we not discover for the ills which befall us! What will we not attack, rightly or wrongly, rather than go without something to skirmish against? It is not those blond maiden tresses which you are tearing, nor the whiteness of that bosom which you are beating so cruelly in your distress, which killed your beloved brother with an unlucky musket-ball. When the Roman army in Spain lost those two great commanders who were brothers, Pliny says "flere omnes repente et offensare capita". [at once, they all start weeping and beating their heads.] A common practice. And was it not amusing of Bion the philosopher to ask of that king who was tearing out his hair in grief: "Does he think that alopecia gives relief from sorrow?" And how has not seen a man sink his teeth into playing-cards and swallow the lot or else stuff a set of dice down his throat so as to have something to avenge himself on for the loss of his money! Xerxes flogged the waters of the Hellespont, put them in shackles and heaped insults upon them and wrote out a challenge defying Mount Athos; Cyrus kept an entire army occupied for several days in taking revenge on the river Gyndus for the fright it gave him when he was crossing it; and Caligula demolished a very beautiful house on account of the pleasure his mother had taken in it.


Yet as that old poet says in Plutarch:
Point ne se faut courroucer aux affaires:
Il ne leur chaut de toutes nos choleres
[There is no point in getting angry against events: they are indifferent to our wrath.]

But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jesus died of being human: McCabe and Forde on atonement

In his chapter on Good Friday in God Matters, Herbert McCabe OP gives his explanation for the death of Jesus.

First, he says, it's important to remember that, as demonstrated by his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not want to die. Neither did the Father want him to die. If God is Father in any way like humans, then God wanted Jesus to live a fully human life. In fact, this was Jesus' mission:
Not Adam, but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love - for this is what human beings are for.
Unfortunately, "we have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering."

Human beings have not come to terms with the change that came to us when we developed language. (Note: Some of what McCabe says here may be thrown into doubt by later scientific discoveries and a less anthropocentric theology. Or maybe not. I honestly don't know.) We went from being an animal within nature to one who can, in some ways, stand over against nature. We became the first animals capable of love. In fact, our social organization demanded love, since it was no longer based on the dictates of genes and was capable of great destructive power. This conflict between love and both our genetic inheritance and our destructive capabilities leads to the contradictions of human life.
For this reason we are afraid and settle for being less than human. We recognize that our very nature calls us to something new and frightening; it calls us to communication, which means self-giving, self-abandonment, being at the disposal of others. We recognize, however dimly, that we are the kind of being that finds its fulfillment, its happiness and flourishing only in giving itself up, in getting beyond itself. We need to lose our selves in love; this is what we fear.
We do not want to take this risk - and the failure to do so is what we call sin. Love has a "destructive creative power" which we fear; so "when we meet love we kill it." We do not always kill love, of course. Our relationships need love, however imperfect, in order to flourish. But when it came to us fully revealed as it did in Jesus, we killed it.

Jesus' "whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human. ... As he grew up his increasing self-awareness must have been his increasing awareness of being loved - it is this, surely, that shaped his notion of the Father. You might say that the whole of his teaching was summed up in this: that the Father loved him and that his followers, those who believed in him, were invited into their love."

The love expressed in Jesus not only threatens us, it threatened the powers of the world in which he lived. All human societies are built on structures of dominance and violence. Jesus was a threat to the stability of the powers' order and so he had to be eliminated.
Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress; the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist.

Gerhard Forde says something very similar in "Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ" in A More Radical Gospel. After pointing out the weaknesses of the objective (Anselm), subjective (Abelard), and Christus Victor (Aulen) theories, he suggests that we should begin with the actual events of Christ's life; we should look at it "from below" before trying to understand it "from above". He says that God could and did forgive sins before the death of Christ. God does not need payment in order to forgive; forgiveness is about mercy, after all. Forde explains the problem to be solved by the atonement:
It is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God's honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be "satisfied" before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matt 23:37). We are caught in the act. We have first to come to grips with the fact that we did it. The victory motif also errs in this regard when it allows us more or less to drop out of the "drama" in favor the demonic forces. Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys. As it was put in a Pogo comic strip, "We have met the enemy and they is us!" We did it.
At this point Forde gives exactly the same reason as McCabe for why we killed Jesus: We were threatened by him.

God's problem is how to get through to us. This leads to two considerations. First, we remain under God's wrath because God is not satisfied. God is not satisfied because we will not allow God to be who God wants to be: the one who unconditionally forgives our sins.

Second, God can do nothing about this situation in the abstract. As we have seen, the abstract idea of forgiveness threatens us and the world we have built. We want a conditional God who offers forgiveness only after certain requirements are met. So the only way God can get through to us is to come and actually do what God wants to do.
Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is "the end" of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, "gets out of the way" for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, "that the scriptures might be fulfilled" - that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As "God of wrath" he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word.

The Trinity, says McCabe, makes sense of this for us because only in the Son does God find an equal to love. It is by our identification with Christ in baptism that we are taken up into the love of the Trinity and given a share in divinity by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Love is what caused the incarnation. That same love took the form of the cross in our world, a world that cannot accept the risk of love. But even on the cross God approaches us in love and "begins in us the difficult and painful process of transforming us into saints."

It is precisely as a human - a true, perfect human - that Jesus saves us. He obeys the Father until the end. "It is this loving obedience displayed finally on the cross that merits for Jesus his resurrection and the salvation of his followers. We are not saved by the intervention of a god but by the great sanctity of one of ourselves, a sanctity great enough for his prayer for us to be heard."

The cross is the prayer of Jesus; this prayer was answered in the resurrection.


The resurrection, says Forde, is "the vindication of Jesus' life and proclamation of forgiveness, God's insistence that unconditional forgiveness be actually given "in Jesus' name." To accept such forgiveness is to die to the old and be made new in him. His death is, therefore, our death."

We are caught in the act of murdering love. That love then catches us up into the life of the Trinity:
When faith is created, when we actually believe God's unconditional forgiveness; then God can say, "Now I am satisfied!" God's wrath ends actually when we believe him, not abstractly because of a payment to God "once upon a time." Christ's work, therefore, "satisfies" the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer "under" wrath. Christ actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete and thereby "placates" God. When, that is, we are caught in the act so that we are caught by the act, God reaches his goal.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

More on replacing the government safety net with private charity

In April I wrote a post arguing that the belief held by some conservatives that private charity could replace government safety net programs was simply wrong. A recent Ethics Daily post by Robert Parham says much the same thing (via Fred Clark). He quotes Franklin Graham, who said:
A hundred years ago, the safety net, the social safety net, in the country, was provided by the church. If you didn't have a job, you'd go to your local church and ask the pastor if he knew somebody that could hire him. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, 'I can't feed my family.' And the church would help you. That's not being done. The government took that. And took it away from the church.
In arguing against this, Parham uses WIC as an example:
WIC is a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children that feeds almost 9 million people each month. House Republicans proposed cuts of $747.2 million for the current fiscal year. It is simply dishonest to suggest that American charity can replace such a cut.
He ends the post by citing Wayne Flint:
When Flynt started making speeches about a just tax system in Alabama, he was accused of wanting government to solve all the problems.

"When people insisted that I was a socialist, that I wanted government to solve all the problems, I would offer this alternative," said Flynt. "OK, I accept your argument. There are 10,000 communities of faith – Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Baha'i, Buddhist, Shintoist – in Alabama... Let's divide 10,000 communities of faith into the 740,000 [poor] people."

He asked, "How many does your church get?"

The retired Auburn history professor pointed out that most of those faith communities had about 100 members. That meant that each faith community would get between 50 and 100 poor people to look after.

"Your private charity is going to be responsible for them. Do it. We won't have to have Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, taxes of any kind... We can abolish taxes. We can abolish the IRS," said Flynt.

"And all you have to do is for your congregation to adopt 50 to 100 poor people, and mentor them, and love them, and educate them and nurture them," he said.

"And I'll guarantee you that if you do that, it will be closer to what Christ intended than Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. And they will never do it," said Flynt. "They will never do it...[T]he churches will not do it."

He's right.

It's time for some honesty in the pulpit and public square about the dishonest national discourse that churches and charities can take care of the poor, those in ill health and the ones suffering from natural disasters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anselm on paying the debt of obedience

In I:11 Anselm states that obedience is the debt we all owe to God:
Every wish of a rational creature should be subject to the will of God. ... This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.
He goes on to say that this debt must not only be paid, but the guilty party must (as we might say now) pay punitive damages.

In I:12 and I:13 Anselm denies that it would be proper for God "to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him." If sin is remitted without punishment then:
  • There would be no difference between the guilty and the innocent and "this is unbecoming to God"
  • Sin becomes subject to no law and is therefore more free than justice
  • God's dignity and honor is violated
Then he argues (I:14) that in punishing the sinner God is actually exacting payment for the debt of obedience:
It is impossible for God to lose his honor; for either the sinner pays his debt of his own accord, or, if he refuse, God takes it from him. For either man renders due submission to God of his own will, by avoiding sin or making payment, or else God subjects him to himself by torments, even against man's will, and thus shows that he is the Lord of man, though man refuses to acknowledge it of his own accord. And here we must observe that as man in sinning takes away what belongs to God, so God in punishing gets in return what pertains to man. For not only does that belong to a man which he has in present possession, but also that which it is in his power to have. Therefore, since man was so made as to be able to attain happiness by avoiding sin; if, on account of his sin, he is deprived of happiness and every good, he repays from his own inheritance what he has stolen, though he repay it against his will. For although God does not apply what he takes away to any object of his own, as man transfer the money which he has taken from another to his own use; yet what he takes away serves the purpose of his own honor, for this very reason, that it is taken away. For by this act he shows that the sinner and all that pertains to him are under his subjection.
Perhaps he may go on to reinforce this argument (I haven't yet read much beyond this point) but, as it stands, I don't see it. The debt is obedience - but God, according to Anselm, is forcibly subjecting the sinner. I do not see how forcible subjection is the same thing as obedience. The big kid on the playground may beat up the smaller kid, but that does not mean the weaker is in any way made obedient to the will of the stronger. Anselm is (rightly) concerned with God's dignity and honor. I suppose it's possible to see a certain honor in God "showing 'em who's boss". It's not a very honorable honor, though.

Far more satisfying is the idea of universal reconciliation, where sinners are indeed brought to a state of loving obedience. Universal reconciliation sees punishment as having a redemptive, reforming effect, e.g., not merely vindictive. But universalism isn't the focus of this post. I'm only interested in pointing out the difficulties in Anselm's argument at this point.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Anselm on the devil's rights and the punishment of sin

I'm not familiar enough with Christus Victor to say for sure, but Anselm's criticism in Cur Deus Homo I:7 sounds like it is aimed at a version of that theory:
Moreover, I do not see the force of that argument, which we are wont to make use of, that God, in order to save men, was bound, as it were, to try a contest with the devil in justice, before he did in strength, so that, when the devil should put to death that being in whom there was nothing worthy of death [i.e., Jesus], and who was God, he should justly lose his power over sinners; and that, if it were not so, God would have used undue force against the devil, since the devil had a rightful ownership of man, for the devil had not seized man with violence, but man had freely surrendered to him. It is true that this might well enough be said, if the devil or man belonged to any other being than God, or were in the power of any but God. But since neither the devil nor man belong to any but God, and neither can exist without the exertion of Divine power, what cause ought God to try with his own creature (de suo, in suo), or what should he do but punish his servant, who had seduced his fellow-servant to desert their common Lord and come over to himself; who, a traitor, had taken to himself a fugitive; a thief, who had taken to himself a fellow-thief, with what he had stolen from his Lord. For when one was stolen from his Lord by the persuasions of the other, both were thieves.
Anselm describes an argument that states that humanity belonged to the devil because humanity voluntarily placed itself in the devil's service. The devil, therefore, owned humanity. God could not violate this right, so God sent Jesus into the world to trick the devil into having him killed unjustly (since Jesus was free from sin and divine). By this act, the devil would lose his right to humanity.

The obvious objection to this is that God owns both humanity and the devil, since they exist only at God's pleasure. The devil is only a fellow-servant with humanity. It would not, therefore, be unjust of God to "snatch" humanity from the hands of the devil.

Then he makes an even more interesting argument:
For man merited punishment, and there was no more suitable way for him to be punished than by that being to whom he had given his consent to sin. But the infliction of punishment was nothing meritorious in the devil; on the other hand, he was even more unrighteous in this, because he had not led to it by a love of justice, but urged on by a malicious impulse. For he did not do this at the command of God, but God's inconceivable wisdom, which happily controls even wickedness, permitted it.
Anselm assumes that humanity's sin is punished by the devil (in this life? in hell? both?); whether that is true I leave to the side. The punishment, however, is justly deserved by humanity. Nevertheless that does not mean the devil is doing a praiseworthy thing. He does not torment humanity out of a desire to obey God, but out of his own malice. God is leaving the fellow-servants to themselves - and that is punishment enough.

As I read this I was reminded of Saruman and Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Wormtongue voluntarily placed himself in the service of Saruman, to aid in the destruction of Theoden. After his restoration Theoden offers a way of redemption to Wormtongue: ride to battle with him and prove his loyalty. Wormtongue refuses and flees to Saruman. After the battle at Helm's Deep Gandalf confronts Saruman and Wormtongue at Isengard, where they are both offered a path to redemption. They both refuse. Gandalf says, "Small comfort will those two have in their companionship: they will gnaw one another with words. But the punishment is just. If Wormtongue ever comes out of Orthanc alive, it will be more than he deserves." Wormtongue deserves his punishment but that does not mean Saruman is a force for good in administering it. They will be a misery to each other.

This is further illustrated by the saying of Jesus in Matthew 18:7: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" Some evils may be necessary or just but that does not make the instrument of evil blessed, e.g., Judas Iscariot.

In several biblical texts we are warned that sin is its own punishment. Paul says in Romans 1 that God punishes some by leaving them to their own sin, allowing it to work itself out in their lives. Again, an evil does not become a good simply because it is used as the means to a good.

We can't know whether any one occurrence is actually the judgment of God upon any particular sin. Evil things happen to both "good" and "bad" people. But even if we could we do not need to celebrate that occurrence or pretend that it isn't an evil. Our reaction to all evils should conform to the words of Jesus in Luke 13:
Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on delaying duties beyond death)

From I:7. That our deeds are judged by the intention

I have seen many men in my time smitten in conscience for having withheld other men's goods who arrange in their testaments to put things right after they are dead. But it is valueless to fix a date for so urgent a matter or to wish to right wrongs without feeling or cost. They must pay with something which is truly theirs: the more burdensome and onerous their payment the more just and meritorious their atonement. Repentance begs for burdens.

Worse still are they who reserve for their last will and testament some hate-ridden provision affecting a near one, having concealed it during their lifetime. By stirring up against their memory the one they have offended they show scant regard for their reputations; and they show even less for their consciences since they cannot, even out of respect for death, make their animosities die, prolonging the life of them beyond their own. They are iniquitous judges, postponing judgement until they can no longer take cognizance of the case.

If I can, I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on why he began writing the essays)

From I:8. On idleness

Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.

But I find -
Variam semper dant otia mentis
[Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind]

- that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

New weekly feature: Excerpts from Montaigne's essays

Steve Douglas has a weekly feature called "Mondays with MacDonald" in which he posts excerpts from the writings of George MacDonald. I'm going to steal that idea and start posting excerpts from Montaigne's essays every Monday ("Mondays with Montaigne", geddit?). I'll be drawing from the Penguin Classics edition of the complete essays translated by M.A. Screech.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.