Thursday, October 30, 2008

Temporality (Dis)continuity and the Reformation of our Mental Furniture

Two weeks ago I attempted to sketch some of the pastoral implications of the resurrection in critical conversation with Wright. The essay was also posted at another blog set aside for a course on Wright's work. A student in that course wrote the following lengthy reply, to which I offered a lengthy response below. I have decided to post this discussion here because it brings out in more detail some of the issues pass over in the original post.

Keas writes:

Impressive summary of Wright’s view of resurrection. I think you’re right by honing in on the continuity/discontinuity of creation and redemption in Wright’s presentation. 1 Corinthians 15:58 is a godzilla verse for him.

I especially liked your paragraph on discontinuity, and you definitely “sounded it loud and clear”. I’m interested in the last line or two of that riff, the bit about eternal life not simply extending time and space but transcending them – and how this is “a distinct and essential note of discontinuity between creation and redemption in the fundamental structure of Christian hope.” I hadn’t thought of ‘time’ in new creation in terms of such radical discontinuity. Wright definitely emphasizes the continuity of time in the eternal state since he fears the average churchgoer images eternity to be when “time shall be no more” (p. 162-163). Why do you feel it’s important at this point to sound the note of discontinuity of time in eternity? Isn’t that what the majority of us were fed large doses of growing up? And are there other authors (e.g. Torrance) you feel stress this better?

I know you’ve also been working through Wright’s big boy, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Does he do a better job there of articulating the “proper symmetry and proportion” of continuity and discontinuity or do you sense this emphasis lacking in his eschatology overall? In other words, is his timidity with the discontinuity of new creation in Surprised by Hope the result of a short book or a shortcoming of his theology?

You really started revving up when you got to your third proposal for funeral reform. I found your comments there, as well as in your fourth, to be incredibly helpful in how we might begin evaluating and tweaking our current funeral practices. I think you yourself have a nice dialectical tension of the continuity/discontinuity of funeral practices that Wright’s resurrection theology should bring about.

Having said that, I want to pose a question in response to your 3rd proposal, “Add Resurrection Language to Already Existing Forms.” There you said, “We can still talk about grandpa going to heaven and being with Jesus. We just need to also talk about grandpa coming back with Jesus to reign with us in the new heavens and the new earth.” I was surprised to hear you using this “up there, down here” language. Wright spends an enormous amount of his book ranting against the dualistic Gnostic worldview that manufactured such language and mental furniture. I really appreciate your pastoral concern here, by the way, and that’s why I’m interested to dialogue more. Do you think it’s wise for us to leave intact the “up there, down here” mental furniture and only add resurrection language to it?

Along those same lines, I’d like to bring the myth of the immortality of the soul into the discussion. I would contend that the church’s borrowing of this idea from Greek philosophy is chiefly responsible for muddling up Christian hope and the New Testament’s teachings on the after-life. Wright is obviously not happy about it either, but I’m not sure if he’s offered much in its place (the intermediate state, that is). What he does offer is Polkinghorne’s analogy that, “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again” (163). In my mind such word pictures come awfully close to what Wright had been combating in the previous 162 pages: the inadequate and simplistic body/soul dichotomy which always prioritizes the soul, or something like the soul, as the real essence of a person. Has does the software/hardware analogy paint a different picture for us?

So to reintegrate my question with the addition of the above paragraph, I’m wondered how much we, as pastors, should challenge notions of dualism and the immortality of soul at funerals. You are clear that communicating resurrection should be our fundamental concern rather than addressing all the “speculation” surrounding the intermediate state, but how much of this speculation should we try to deflate or rework while bringing the focus back on resurrection? Are there valid pastoral concerns that might lead us to keep alive some of the folk theology so popular today?

And, of course, brilliant way to cap off your essay with your fifth and final proposal. A Christocentric focus is the way forward as we continue to rethink and reform our funeral practices. Your Barthian blood is showing through!


John replies:

Thanks for the opportunity to post here and the props you gave in your comment. You raised at least three issues: (1) temporal discontinuity, (2) Wright's other works, and (3) the reformation of our mental furniture. The third contains a number of interrelated material issues: (a) dualism, (b) the immortality of the soul, and (c) the intermediate state, all of which were aimed at (d) the pastoral question of whether, when and how to challenge such assumptions. I will treat each of these issues in the order they were raised.

(1) Temporal Discontinuity.

Although the issues under (3) are more numerous and more popular, let me try to say enough here that my response to those questions can be briefer. I say this not just to save time but because I think the issue of time itself is the most complex and most fundamental among the issues you raised.

You referenced a line towards the end of my riff on discontinuity. Let's get that in front of us first so I can comment on it, then I'll address your questions directly.

"The gift of eternal life includes within itself time and space, so it is not strictly timeless or spaceless. But the gift of eternal life transcends time and space, so it is not simply the infinite extension of time and space."

Note the note of continuity: eternal life includes time and space. So I would join Wright in critiquing concepts of eternal life as timeless and spaceless. [I'll focus on time since that's what you asked about, but most of the logic of my answer can be transferred over to space, as we'll see when we come to souls and bodies.] Eternal life is not a state of timelessness. Eternity is not simply the negation of time. This is one of the lessons God teaches us in raising his son Jesus from the dead. If we cease to inhabit time and space, we would cease to be human, for the human category of time is basic for self-consciousness and time is basic to creation as historical in character. What God has made has purpose and meaning and therefore has history. Redemption is the end of history, but "end" in the sense of consummation and goal, not in the sense of ceasing to be. Creatures are by definition temporal, so to cease to be temporal is to cease to be creatures, and that's not good news.

To cease to be temporal would also not mean that we become divine, for God himself has permanently taken on temporality in Christ and so, in light of God's immutablity, God's eternity cannot be sheer timelessness. God's eternal triune life must be ready for this assumption of time. God's eternity is God's self-sufficient possession of an interminable life. God is the living God, and this God has time for us. God's time is not our time. God's time embraces our time so that our time might be enveloped in God's time.

With the talk of God's eternity in front of us, we can begin to see where the discontinuity comes in. At first it seems as though we have read temporal continuity all the way back into God's being. And in a sense we have. But in reality the arrow runs the other way. God in his eternal life creates us in our temporal life. So there is a fundamental distinction between God and creation. But God purposes to share his eternal life with us, giving us something beyond our temporal life. We will receive this gift of eternal life as a gift, and will continually receive it as such. Eternal life is not the actualization of a potential inherent in human beings. Eternal life is the determination given to temporal human beings in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Now (most of) all this is very conceptual in form. So let me recast it back into the narrative terms from which it arises: God raised Jesus from the dead. God does not remove Jesus from the space-time continuum (that would be discontinuity without continuity). But neither does God simply extend Jesus' life further along the space-time continuum (that would be continuity without discontinuity). Rather, God gives to Jesus a life that has death behind it; God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus has death in his past. That is unprecedented, so unprecedented that it is hard to conceive of a "life" without "death" as its end-point. This is why we tend to think of "heaven" as boring, which in fact it probably would be if resurrection was merely the infinite extension of time as we know it. But the gift of eternal life is a life re-defined with death not as its end-point, but as a piece of its past. This relocation of death in the narrative logic of human life underlines the birth-and-death word games found in the New Testament (e.g., "unless it dies, it cannot bear fruit," "firstborn from the dead," etc.). Such a relocation entails a radical transformation of the experience of time as we know it, and so the note of temporal discontinuity which I believe must be sounded in a Christian doctrine of resurrection.

Okay, with that sketch in front of us, let me answer your questions directly.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important at this point to sound the note of discontinuity of time in eternity?

A: By understanding our future time as a new act of God, this note of discontinuity helps secure the gift-character and finality of eternal life. In other words, resurrection is grace and glory. Resurrection is grace: it is an act of God to which we contribute nothing. Resurrection is glory: death will be defeated so that it no longer determines human life. He is the light of life; in him there is no darkness at all.

Q: Isn’t that what the majority of us were fed large doses of growing up?

A: Probably not if the discontinuity is construed as I have sketched above. And if what I suggest bears some resemblance to what you were fed growing up, then that may just point to the grain of truth in all that stuff and therefore identify a pedagogical point of connection.

Q: And are there other authors (e.g. Torrance) you feel stress this better?

A: Big surprise: Karl Barth, Robert Jenson, T F Torrance, and Hans urs Von Balthasar have all contributed to my thinking on this matter.

(2) Wright's Other Works.

I won't say much here, as I cannot comment on the entirety of his corpus nor do my critiques so require me to do so. When one writes a book on a topic, one is responsible for what one says on the matter. If I were making an argument from silence, then Wright's other works would be germane. But I do not in fact claim that he has no discontinuity, but rather that his argument is so formulated to reveal that continuity is more basic. It is a matter of accent and emphasis (or, better yet, the function of concepts), which can be ascertained by a careful reader from even the smallest of books. But everything else I have read from Wright has confirmed that this is where the accent lies. He affirms discontinuity almost always within the greater continuity, which is his dominant note. That's his driving point, and again perhaps justifiable given the church's tendencies of late and perhaps warranted on the basis of a different doctrine of creation that the one to which I am committed. Note: this fits his historiographical orientation, as an emphasis on the continuity of the created order under-girds an evidentialist apologetical enterprise such as Wright's. In other words, you would only try to "prove" the resurrection on the basis of historical evidence if you understand resurrection according to the terms set by creation as such, rather than as an event that happens to creation.

(3) The Reformation of our Mental Furniture.

(a) Dualism.

Q: Do you think it’s wise for us to leave intact the “up there, down here” mental furniture and only add resurrection language to it?

A: Briefly: “up there, down here” language is inadequate, but so are all such world-pictures. The language itself is found in the New Testament, so I wouldn't stress out about the imagery for relating heaven and earth. The point is how you fill out the conceptual content and the way you work out the narrative. Perhaps some such imagery must go, but the alternative imagery will have its troubles too. Better to be on constant guard to explain yourself than to purify yourself of all potentially misleading imagery. That's a puny answer, but it will have to do for now. A fuller answer would make analogous moves with regard to space as made above with regard to time.

(b) The Immortality of the Soul.

Q: Along those same lines, I’d like to bring the myth of the immortality of the soul into the discussion...

A: This is of course a huge topic, and I have written on it elsewhere, though not to my satisfaction. See my eschatological musings at drulogion (click here) and my article entitled "Gregory of Nyssa's Dialogue with Macrina: The Compatibility of Resurrection and Immortality" in Theology Today 62:2 (Jul 2005) pp. 210-222. I'll just put a few things out there for now:

(i) Immortality and resurrection are not mutually exclusive concepts.

(ii) Soul-talk is not necessarily dualistic, inasmuch as we can attain a concept of "soul" that is conceptually distinct from the body yet materially existent only as that which animates the body. In other words, a commitment to embodiment does not require rejection of soul-talk.

(iii) The soul as materially existent (i.e., embodied) is not in itself immortal. Any immortality attributed to the human person is a divine gift and permanently retains its gift-character. Note: the soul as a concept may be spoken of as immortal, but only in the dull sense that concepts don't die. So the soul is only as immortal as the triangle or the number four. It is not ontically immortal in the robust sense of an existent that defies death, ala God.

(iv) Immortality is a function of resurrection. All theoretical talk of an immortal soul must serve and submit to the sure faith in the resurrection of the dead. The idea of the immortality of the soul is only a theory to explain whatever kind of existence we may have in the intermediate state, and that's all it is. Which brings us to our next point.

(c) The Intermediate State.

Q: Wright is obviously not happy about it either, but I’m not sure if he’s offered much in its place (the intermediate state, that is)...

A: You have raised a crucial question here. Needless to say, what I said about temporal continuity and discontinuity above has direct implications for the notion of an intermediate state. In my original post, I stuck with Wright's "two-stage post-mortem narrative" because it is so clear and is able to account for most of what needs to be said. But my own constructive inclination is to abandon the notion of an intermediate state altogether. Doing so would require thinking through the implications of the gift of eternal life and what they might mean retrospectively for the dead in the time between the times. One of the disappointments I felt with N. T. Wright's work is his lack of imagination on this front (see my comments to that effect here). This is a place where one must engage in the difficult but rewarding work of revisionist ontological reflection, the sort of thing N. T. Wright avoids because, among other things, he is too locked in to the continuity of created time to imagine the kind of discontinuities at work here. But I must heed my own warning to tread lightly with such major revisions. Don't cast out the intermediate state until you are ready to fill its place with something positive that can perform its theological function, or the demon will return bringing seven more demons with it and you'll be worse off than before (cf. Lk 11:24-26). It takes time and care to figure out what function a concept has performed in the tradition, which I am still sorting out. But once I have a better handle on the theological function of the intermediate state and I've found something else to perform that function, I'd be happy to dump it entirely, since it consistently proves distracting to resurrection hope.

(d) Pastoral Implications.

Okay, now to your final questions:

Q: How much should we, as pastors, challenge notions of dualism and the immortality of soul at funerals?

A: I don't think a funeral service is the setting for direct challenge. Perhaps this just comes from my own pastoral experience, but my tack was to teach clearly and critically on this matter as we went through the bible and/or topics, but when someone got sick or died I gave the people freedom to speak in their own familiar language even while I followed through on mine. Pastors are not theological or liturgical police officers. They are teachers and guides. We cannot control people's thoughts or language, nor should that even be our goal. We can, however, discipline our own thoughts and language, and thereby model to others and guide them over time. But a funeral service seems an inappropriate setting for a frontal attack. Better to prepare them all along than to hit them all at once.

Q: How much of this speculation [concerning the intermediate state] should we try to deflate or rework while bringing the focus back on resurrection?

A: As indicated above, I am not interested in reworking the intermediate state other than finding what function it performs and finding other things to play those roles. But I am also not interested in deflating it either, because I find it superfluous rather than pernicious. I am confident that the beauty and truth of the resurrection of the dead is more than sufficient to compete with the potential distraction of the intermediate state. Keep the main thing the main thing, and let it crowd out all else.

Q: Are there valid pastoral concerns that might lead us to keep alive some of the folk theology so popular today?

A: Well, there's always the pastoral concern of not being a jerk. Also, listening to the linguistic habits of a congregation is a crucial pastoral skill. One can only shape clay that one has felt and dug one's hands into. When you have a sense of the inner logic or grammar of a community's theological speech, then you can start to tweak and adjust. So the professionally-trained pastor must become a kind of folk theologian if he or she ever wishes to shape the thoughts of his or her people. In the process, one may discover that the folk have some insights one might have missed, so listening is not just a trick to get a hearing of one's own, but a genuine openness to be taught by the people as you also teach them.

Thanks for your thorough engagement, Keas. I hope these responses are somewhat satisfying to you and keep the conversation moving forward.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Political Implications of Resurrection Hope

Last week I addressed some of the pastoral implications of the resurrection in conversation with N. T. Wright's new book Surprised by Hope. This week I would like to address some of the political implications of the resurrection. If Jesus is risen, then how should we live, not only in relation to those in and around our churches, but also in relation to those in the wider human community to which the church has been called to serve? In order to answer this question, I'll follow a similar pattern to last week's post by (1) sketching briefly how Wright approaches the sociopolitical implications of his doctrine of resurrection, (2) identifying some points of criticism, and (3) laying out some points of orientation.

So, first, how does Wright squeeze something political out of resurrection hope? It seems odd at first that the resurrection would have anything to do with contemporary sociopolitical realities. Wright sets his sights on this apparent oddity, exposing that our inclination to separate eschatology and public policy is a reflex of our confused views of the afterlife. If we understand resurrection as a code word for life-after-death, some other-worldly spiritual destiny that has no continuity with our life lived here and now, it is no wonder that we would think of resurrection hope as irrelevant to issues of state and society. Wright's move is to suggest that the element of continuity between creation and new creation entails a responsibility for the structures of society and the care of creation. If resurrection means new creation, then what we do now matters later. So this should expand our understanding of the church's mission to include not only evangelism but also works of justice and beauty as God begins to restore his creation through us and we build for his coming kingdom.

Now N. T. Wright is careful to remind us of the element of discontinuity between the work we do now and the divine judgment to come. This is why he harps on the distinction between building the kingdom and building for the kingdom -- a linguistic distinction the adoption of which I would strongly recommend. But nevertheless, the argument is controlled by the element of continuity. Discontinuity primarily functions in his argument as a limit concept: it keeps us from overstating the significance of our human efforts. But it does not seem to provide any substantial contribution to his political theology. Rather, his doctrine of creation (confirmed by God's resurrection of Jesus) is doing most of the work. We are obliged to work for justice in the world because we are responsible to the created order. This is a responsibility carried in hope, and so we do not carry it alone. But it is a responsibility first and foremost owed to God as the creator, and so not defined from the start from the redemption wrought in Jesus Christ.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me identify a symptom of this creation-centered continuity argument, and then say a word about what is provided by more substantive attention to the element of eschatological discontinuity. It is symptomatic of Wright's overall orientation that he treats justice and evangelism as two categories that need to be related. His intention is great: namely, to overcome any false dichotomy between the two, which a purely spiritual interpretation of Christian hope leads to (i.e., justice is either irrelevant or strictly subordinated to evangelism, as the former concerns our bodies in space and time while the latter concerns our immortal souls). But his attempt to overcome this dichotomy fails because he continues to treat them as two poles to be related rather than challenging their separation at the root. Note: I am not suggesting that merely discussing justice and evangelism under distinct headings is an error. We must create sub-topics in order to move discursively through an argument. Rather, I am suggesting that Wright's fundamental orientation toward the continuity of the created order lends him to define justice primarily in terms of the preservation and restoration of the created order, which necessarily separates it from evangelistic activity that by definition points forward to the new and different work of God beyond the potentialities of God's good creation. So justice and evangelism from the beginning of his argument point in different directions, and therefore all his moves to unite them are bound to fail. In my view, it would be better simply to start with the radical discontinuity of Christian hope, and then speak of the calling of Christian witness to hope in Jesus Christ which takes form both as word (aka "evangelism") and deed (aka "justice"), both of which are parables of God's reconciling love and neither of which can be strictly identified with the word and work of God for us in Christ.

The separation of justice and evangelism is just one symptom that highlights a more fundamental problem of dominance of created continuity Wright's theology. What's the alternative? I believe that we can relocate many of Wright's moves and goals within a framework that gives proper attention to the radical discontinuity in God's redemptive purpose in such a way that we can say much of what he says without some of the problems. Of course, I can't do such relocation in a comprehensive fashion here. But I can point to the central benefit that comes from a greater emphasis on discontinuity with specific reference to the political implications of resurrection hope.

The central benefit of an emphasis on the element of discontinuity is the critical focus given to Christian thinking and action. When the element of discontinuity functions as a limit concept (as I suggested it does for Wright), then it only serves to curtail the optimism of an otherwise generally reformist agenda, one which takes the realities of civic life for granted and seeks adjust the systems in such a way to favor the victims of the current status quo. Wright does a very good job of curtailing such optimism in favor of realistic Christian hope, and should be commended for it. But if the element of discontinuity played a more critical role in his eschatology, then his political theology would move in the direction of a more radical agenda, one which calls into question the potentialities of all social systems. If God's resurrection of his son Jesus from the dead tells us not only that God has confirmed himself as creator and sustainer of all things but also that God has revealed himself as the reconciler and redeemer who makes all things new, turning on their heads even the "realities" of the created order, then God's politics is not merely reformist but radical in orientation. Thus we who believe in the resurrection of the dead will challenge the adequacy of even the most progressive sociopolitical agendas, for our hope is found in nothing less than the living Jesus Christ. The political implications of resurrection are progressive in their leanings, but even as such these progressive implications cannot be identified with the word and work of God. They are at best parables of God's reconciling and redeeming work, and should be treated as such from beginning to end, and not merely limited as such from time to time. This is not a call for cynicism in the face of the evils and injustices of this world, but rather for a deep criticism sensitive to the idolatry of all worldly political arrangements.

As with the pastoral implications of Wright's work discussed last week, my critique of Wright does not undermine his key insights, but rather modifies them by placing them in a different conceptual context. So, with these critical lenses firmly in place, we can still draw on Wright to sketch some of the political implications of resurrection hope. I will identify three points of orientation to direct us in our political thinking, deciding and acting. It should be evident that these points, while by no means neutral, keep at a distance from endorsing particular parties or candidate. This is first of all a result of the critical distance appropriate to any exercise in sketching the political implications of Christian theology. But it is also an exhibition of the kind of political reasoning Christians can and should engage in -- one that is both affirmative and critical, creating alliances without strict loyalties. Finally, the breadth of these points is a reminder that political life includes much more than merely casting ballots. So, here goes:

(1) The hope of resurrections points us toward a critical appropriation of the politics of life.

By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God has shown himself to be the God of the living, not of the dead. In the living Jesus Christ, God has taken humanity to himself in order to make and keep life human. The resurrection of the dead is the ultimate act of humanization: the gift of eternal life. So God falls on the side of life against death.

The politics of life in the U.S. and elsewhere is tragically divided into divergent "issues," ranging from the protection of life at its beginning and end to the taking of life for the sake of security. Very few politicians have found a way to take the side of life in every issue, those some have tried harder than others. Those who hope for the resurrection of the dead should have an unwavering bias towards life. How this works out at a policy level can and should be debated and discussed. But the overwhelming orientation must be towards the affirmation of all human life: both our unborn and dying friends and near and far away enemies.

This political orientation must be self-critical, eschewing all strict identification of the exercise of political will with the reality of the living God. It also must materially criticize the creation-centered argumentation of much Christian reflection on these issues. What we owe to a fellow human cannot be reduced to her rights or sanctity or goodness as a creature. Such reflection needs to be re-ordered toward the telos of human life in fellowship with God, and thus concerned not only with the protection of life but also with the flourishing of life. Most importantly, the critical edge of resurrection provides a firm basis for a bias against death and its powers in this world. Too much public policy treats death as just a part of life. The resurrection of the dead teaches us that death is the last and greatest enemy of God. Those who hope for resurrection take sides with those who fight against the forces of death in their myriad of forms as a parabolic witness to the resurrection.

(2) The hope of resurrection points us toward a critical appropriation of the economics of generosity.

By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God has shown himself to be the God of grace. God gives to the creature beyond its inherent merits and resources. Resurrection is not merely the affirmation of the goodness of the created order but the gift of eternal life beyond any inherent potential. The resurrection of the dead is the ultimate act of generosity, giving what is undeserved and unattainable and unimaginable without the gracious initiative of the living God. So God falls on the side of generosity against scarcity.

Economic thought and policy in the U.S. and elsewhere is dominated by the logic of scarcity. The common assumption is that there is one pie, and the debate is usually only over who or what should get which piece. Such zero-sum thinking does not have to be greedy in its intention to foster greed as its result. So attacks on greed (often in the context of quasi class warfare) do not get beyond the logic of scarcity, and thereby only perpetuate the problem. Those who hope for the resurrection of the dead should have an unwavering bias towards generosity. This means not only personally seeking opportunities to share one's blessings with a neighbor but also contributing to expand the common goods shared by the wider human community. This requires thinking outside the scarcity box and so seeking to develop forms of economic life that entail the sharing of common goods. Of course, this means we need to stop thinking of the economy in reductively financial terms. In doing so, however, we may rediscovery the classical theological sense of the term "economy" as God's household, which is revealed by the resurrection to be run according to the logic of generosity, not scarcity. (Check out 2 Cor 8-9 for more on the complex interplay of God's grace, human gifts, and the Christian virtue of generosity, all of which turn our usual economic thinking on its head. Also, check out Kathryn Tanner's book, Economies of Grace, which develops this line of thinking in great detail.)

Any appropriation of the economics of generosity must be critical, and the key critical move that must be made here is the realization that the created order itself does not have the infinite resources God has. Remember: resurrection is not an inherent possibility within creation, but a transcendent transforming gift. So we may very well encounter scarcities, especially of natural resources. So we must be aware of our limits even as we pursue renewable and sustainable common goods. More fundamentally, we must not identify human giving and sharing with God's act of grace in Jesus Christ. This means that we should resist absolutist systems that promise generosity, for they are idols--false images of the true God of grace. But we nevertheless seize every opportunity not only to act generously but to develop generous ways of life in the wider community. Those who hope for resurrection take sides with those who develop systems of generosity as a parabolic witness to the resurrection.

(3) The hope of resurrection points us toward a critical appropriation of the rhetoric of hope.

By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God has shown himself to be the God of hope. In the living Jesus, God speaks a word of promise to the whole creation that by his Spirit he will make all things new. Resurrection hope is not a vague desire for progress or a path of escape from this world, but a sure and certain promise that God is for us and not against us and that he will triumph in the end. The resurrection of the dead is the ultimate word of promise, giving confident hope to the fearful and hopeless. So God falls on the side of hope against fear.

Political rhetoric in the U.S. and elsewhere all too often degrades into an appeal to our fears. Whether our woes are fiscal, cultural or military, politicians exploit our fears in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Such appeals are electorally effective, and so will not go away any time soon. But occasionally, politicians break out of this mold and realize that what people need in times of crisis is not more fear but hope for something new. This is part of the reason why Barack Obama has captured the imaginations of so much of the American public, for like FDR and Reagan he offers hope rather than fear in the face of crises and challenges. Those who hope for the resurrection of the dead should have an unwavering bias towards hope. This should not mean we are gullible to those who speak in platitudes, but it does mean we will give a fair hearing to those who ask us to think beyond our own self-interest and look to the future for new possibilities. Such rhetoric befits the orientation of resurrection hope.

As with the politics of life and the economics of generosity, the appropriation of the rhetoric of hope must be critical. Perhaps here more than elsewhere the criticism needs to be penetrating, for the rhetoric of hope can so easily turn out to be mere rhetoric, mere words, mere talk of things to come without genuine transformation. But the danger of mere words should not undermine our appreciation for the formative power of words. Our political rhetoric contributes significantly to the moral formation of the civil community. So we should take seriously the kind of rhetoric employed by leaders and would-be leaders. But there's a deeper level of critical consciousness that we must keep in mind with regard to the rhetoric of hope. We must never identify our hope in the living Christ with our hope in this or that politician or political program. This does not mean politics should be more "realistic" or even "pessimistic," but rather than we keep a critical distance between the hope to transform a society and the transcendent hope that transforms the world. Such critical distance has no patience for messianic civil religion, even as those who hope for resurrection take the side of those who speak a word of hope into a hurting world as a parabolic witness to the resurrection.

Any thoughts?
  • Where have I missed Wright's point? Where have I got him right?
  • Does the continuity/discontinuity issues apply in the same way here as it did for the pastoral implications of resurrection last week? Or are there some important differences?
  • Are there some points of direction that you would add to the three listed here? Do you have any concerns with the way these points where put?
  • What attitudes does Christ's resurrection commend to us when engaging in political discourse and action?
  • Although electoral politics is only one aspect of a wider democratic life, given the timing of this post I gotta ask: what parties and/or candidates might one support who followed these points of political orientation?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Five): What Happens to Funerals if Wright is Right?

I have been asked to contribute the following post for a blog used by a group of three bright Princeton seminarians doing a directed study on the work of N. T. Wright under the supervision of J. Ross Wagner. I thought I'd post it here too as a contribution to my recent series of reflections on N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope.

What happens to funerals if Wright is right?

What happens to funeral practices if Wright is right about resurrection? That is the question I have been assigned and to which this post will attempt an answer. Answering this question requires that we answer two prior questions: (1) What does Wright teach about resurrection? (2) What, if anything, does he get right about it? These prior questions are necessary because only practical implications that flow from constructive engagement are worthy of pastoral consideration. In other words, if Wright is wrong then we ought not "apply" his theory to our practice. And we can't know if Wright is right or wrong unless we know what he really says. So, I'll briefly answer these two questions, then identify some implications for the concrete practice of Christian funerals that flow from this constructive engagement. Just to get my cards on the table now, my central claim is that Wright is right inasmuch as his understanding of resurrection can be incorporated into a vision that accounts for both the continuity and discontinuity between creation and redemption. This broader vision implies specific proposals for the reform of funeral practice, but does not necessarily imply a revolutionary overhaul.

So, what does Wright teach about resurrection? Well, to know what Wright teaches we need to understand how he teaches it. Any Christian understanding of resurrection worthy of the name addresses two distinct but related elements: Christ's resurrection from the dead and the general resurrection of the dead. In terms of the traditional division of theological topics (i.e., loci), resurrection straddles both Christology and eschatology. As Wright argues in chapter three of Surprised by Hope, the temporal distinction between Easter and the End is one of Christianity's fundamental modifications of Jewish resurrection hope (44-45). This distinction underlies the structure of Wright's book: the first part addresses the historical event of Christ's resurrection while the second part asks what Christ's resurrection tells us about our own future hope for resurrection. The third and final part traces the implications for the present mission of the church, including questions of liturgical reform with which we are concerned in this essay. Since it gives priority to Christ, this structure is spot on in my mind.

So, following Wright's movement of thought, what does Christ's resurrection tell us about our future hope? "Life after life after death" is the hook with which Wright grabs the attention of his reader and on which he hangs his central insights. Initially, this hook is simply a short hand definition of "resurrection" as it was used in the ancient world. When Jews and Pagans said "resurrection," they were not referring to some kind of ghostly afterlife. Rather, resurrection entailed a two-stage post-mortem narrative: first you have whatever sort of existence one has after dying, then second you have a renewed bodily life. On the whole, pagans only brought the term up to deny its possibility, while some Jews made it the centerpiece of their hope. So when the first Christians (most of whom were Jews) came along and said, "Jesus is risen," it meant that this man had experienced not only life after death but life after life after death: a renewed bodily life. So, broadly speaking, Christians fell on the Jewish side of the spectrum of views regarding the afterlife, yet with the major modification that they believed the first-fruits of resurrection had already been reaped in Jesus Christ, the first-born from among the dead. This means that for Christians, not only has the reality of our future hope been secured in the one who has stepped forward from beyond, but also the character of our future hope has been revealed in him.

There are at least five such characteristics germane to our discussion. Although each one is worthy of detailed discussion, I will merely enumerate them in order to identify a common theme. Although the form of these statements reflects my idiosyncrasies, these characteristics emerge clearly and repeatedly throughout Wright's book. (1) Just as Jesus was raised to never die again, so the dead will be raised into eternal life and thus will never die again. In other words, death will be defeated. (2) Just as the risen Jesus was and is embodied, so the dead who rise will be embodied. In other words, we won't just be ghosts or souls, but bodies in time and space. (3) Just as the embodied risen Jesus speaks and acts, so the dead who rise will speak and act. In other words, we will live. (4) Just as the living Jesus speaks and acts in created space and time, so the dead who rise will inhabit space and time. In other words, we will not ultimately leave earth to go to heaven but rather heaven will come to earth as all things are made new. (5) Just as Jesus has a two-stage post-mortem narrative (Easter Sunday is preceded by Holy Saturday), so the dead will pass through two stages of their own (resurrection preceded by an intermediate state of some sort). In other words, the dead who will rise are "with the Lord" in the meantime. But the meantime is not the point, but rather a time of waiting for the resurrection of the dead. Eternal, embodied, active life is what awaits us in God's new creation. That's the character of Christian hope as revealed in Jesus Christ.

A common theme running through all these elements is the continuity between creation and redemption. For Wright, the resurrection of the dead will be God's final confirmation of the goodness of his creation (cf. esp. pp. 93-97). God will not give up on his creation. That's what makes Easter hope such good news. Resurrection is only good news for us if it is really us who are raised. The concept of continuity supplies not only thematic unity to Wright's doctrine of resurrection but also the hinge for Wright's transition from the character of Christian hope to its present tense practical implications. The creation in which we find ourselves now will be the creation God will renew then. So what we do in and with creation is given eternal significance. We will not just be held arbitrarily accountable for our deeds in this life which have no real bearing on the next life. Rather, we are called to participate in God's renewal of creation both now and then, so we might as well get started now.

With the basic contours of Wright's view of resurrection before us, we may now briefly assess its adequacy. In terms of its basis, Wright is certainly right to ground the character of Christian hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By following the logic of first-fruits, he helps us fill out the picture of Christian hope without engaging in futuristic speculation. In terms of theme, Wright is right to emphasize the continuity of creation in God's redemptive plan. So much Christian discourse describes future redemption in terms so discontinuous with creation as we know it that we are left with the impression that God saves us from his creation. This implies that God gives up on his creation, which calls into question whether our identity is contingent on anything but sheer divine fiat. But God did not raise a horse and call it "Jesus," but raised the Jesus who had died -- nail marks and all. So the element of continuity is crucial to Christian hope.

But continuity is not the only crucial element in Christian hope. There is also an essential note of discontinuity that must be sounded. Wright sounds this note periodically, but it is certainly not the dominant one. So I will sound it here loud and clear. Dead people don't live again. Creation as we know it is not so ordered to produce eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus Christ does not imply otherwise. It's not that eternal life was always hiding there as an inherent potential in the created order and Jesus just pointed it out to us. Eternal life is a gift bestowed by God. And since it is a gift bestowed to the dead, it is a gift bestowed without any participation of the recipient. Dead people don't contribute to their resurrection. The gift of eternal life includes within itself time and space, so it is not strictly timeless or spaceless. But the gift of eternal life transcends time and space, so it is not simply the infinite extension of time and space. There is a distinct and essential note of discontinuity between creation and redemption in the fundamental structure of Christian hope.

Given the situation in which Wright writes, he is right to emphasize continuity. We have lost this element. But this should never be anything more than a matter of strategic emphasis. A coherent and comprehensive Christian eschatology must sound both the note of continuity and of discontinuity in proper symmetry and proportion. In Christ we hasten and await new creation in both its newness and its createdness. And so we must restore this balance before we too quickly initiate reforms that merely overcompensate. Overcompensating inevitably leads to head on collisions with those who came before us and equal and opposite over-compensations by those who will come after us. So we are better off just getting our focus right than constantly consuming ourselves with corrective maneuvers.

Thankfully this is a matter of emphasis, so it is easily dealt with. We can affirm nearly everything Wright says about resurrection hope, while at the same time casting more light on elements he does not mention much and adding elements he does not mention at all. By so taking into account both the discontinuity and continuity in God's redemption of his creation, we can finally turn to the pastoral implications of Christian hope. If Wright is right, which for the most part he is, what happens to funerals? I'll enumerate five guidelines and proposals for reform, briefly commenting on each.

(1) Tread Lightly.

Although all reforms of church practice can be tricky, tinkering with funerals is perhaps the most tricky. This is not only because the wishes of the deceased are regarded as sacrosanct. It is also because those giving pastoral care to the bereaved have no desire to be theological cops. But there is something even more fundamental than these pragmatic hurdles. Ministers must seriously consider that the faith of the people of God has come to expression in the funeral practices we encounter today. There is an old rule of thumb in the church: lex orandi, lex credendi, or the law of prayer is the law of faith. Piety for the most part precedes doctrine. This does not mean that doctrine can never guide piety, but it does mean that doctrinaire proposals for reforms must seriously consider the faith of the people before running rough-shod over their preferences. And given the complexity of Christian hope with all its entailed continuities and discontinuities, there is every reason to think that there is at least something to affirm in any Christian funeral. So, when instituting reforms, be sure to tread lightly, both out of love for people and out of a desire for truth.

(2) Welcome both Grief and Hope.

If God's redemption of all things stands in both a deep continuity and a radical discontinuity with God's good creation, then the human encounter with death may be greeted with both grief and hope. Grief is appropriate, for death continues to condition human existence. Death is encountered as the great canceler of all human hopes, and so it is entirely appropriate and healthy to grieve. No Christian should rebuke another Christian for grieving. Grief is both an affirmation of the goodness of a fellow creature who was lost and a serious expression of the radical end that death really does bring even within the context of Christian hope.

But grief is not the only expression we should welcome from one another. There is also a place for genuine hope, even and especially in the face of death. Hope is appropriate, for although death still conditions human existence, in the light of Easter death no longer determines human existence. Rather, human existence is determined for life, and life eternal. So it is fitting that Christians would express their hope and even joy in the context of funeral ceremonies. No Christian should rebuke another Christian for hoping. Hope is both an affirmation of God's promised gift of restoration and an expression of the desire for God to transcend the sinfulness and weakness of our current condition.

So both the continuity and discontinuity of Christian eschatology support the place of both grief and hope in the Christian encounter with death. Thus we should welcome expressions of both in funeral practices, in pastoral care of the bereaved, and in the general life of the church in its regular encounter with death.

(3) Add Resurrection Language to Already Existing Forms.

If Christian hope is for life after life after death, then talk of mere life after death is not so much wrong as inadequate. Therefore, most of the necessary reforms do not need to replace so much as add important language and perspectives. We can still talk about grandpa going to heaven and being with Jesus. We just need to also talk about grandpa coming back with Jesus to reign with us in the new heavens and the new earth. This reform-by-addition approach can help guide the selection of hymns, biblical passages, and other liturgical forms that bring to the fore the general resurrection of the dead as our final and ultimate hope. Wright's book identifies a number of these, and the many on-line hymnody and liturgy resources can help search for appropriate selections. But this reform-by-addition approach also calls for the production of new songs, texts, and activities that bring to expression Christian hope for life after life after death. The five characteristics of Christian hope identified above can perhaps supply patterns of thought to guide such creative endeavors.

(4) Prioritize Resurrection by Transforming Completion Language into Interim Language.

But addition alone is not enough, for the intermediate state and the general resurrection are not two equal pieces of the pie. Rather, the former is fundamentally ordered to the latter. This is why there is so very little in the New Testament about the former, whereas the New Testament is consumed with the latter. Furthermore, the best theological speculation concerning the intermediate state has always been controlled by and in service to the more fundamental belief in resurrection. "Speculation" is the key word here, because we do not have a lot to go on about the intermediate state (i.e., what kind of life does a disembodied identity lead?). We are left to speculate precisely because Christian hope does not have a lot to say about the matter, but rather is concerned primarily with the final hope of resurrection.

This biblical priority seldom comes to expression in Christian funeral practices, which often construct a vision of the intermediate state into which the dead person is now entering in such a way that any additional element like resurrection is rendered superfluous. This must be remedied by more than mere addition of resurrection language, which simply cannot on its own compete with the ingrained one-stage picture of life after the death. One must also transform the language describing the present state of the person to express its interim character. We can still say they have gone to a better place, but we must then immediately modify this by saying that they will one day enter the best place of all, the new creation. We can still say they have entered into rest, but we must then immediately modify this by saying they are resting in the sense of waiting, waiting for the final act in God's story. These are just some of the ways to transform language that implies immediate completion into language that implies an intermediate time between the times, and thereby give priority to the resurrection of the dead.

(5) Bear Witness to the Risen Christ.

Finally, however we talk about the life, death, rest and resurrection of those who have departed, the center of a funeral service should be the risen Christ. He is the one in whom we hope. He is the one who characterizes our hope. He is the one in whom all eschatological continuities and discontinuities find their reconciliation. He is the one who holds together past, present and future. He is the one about whom we need not nor may not speculate concerning his destiny, for he has ascended to the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end. Funeral services should celebrate the life and grieve the death of a loved one. Funeral services are also opportunities to express Christian hope in both its present and future dimensions. But most of all a funeral is a service of worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. A funeral that does not bear witness to the risen Christ is not a Christian funeral. It may be many other wonderful things, but it is not that. As we debate over and experiment with funeral practices, we at least all agree that we could use more of the risen Jesus in them. This alone would be a giant leap in the right direction, and might take one small step toward guiding more specific reforms like the ones suggested above.

In the second chapter of Surprised By Hope, N. T. Wright states, "I hope that those who take seriously the argument of this present book will examine the current practice of the church, from its official liturgies to all the unofficial bits and pieces that surround them, and try to discover fresh ways of expressing, embodying, and teaching what the New Testament actually teaches" (25). In this essay, I have attempted to heed these words, taking seriously the argument of Wright's book -- serious enough even to engage in some constructive criticism -- and have offered some guidelines and proposals for contemporary funeral practice. If you have any further points of criticism (for Wright or for me), or any further suggestions for church practice, please comment on this board and/or contact me through my email: JohnLDrury at

Any thoughts?
  • What other relevant characteristics of our future hope are entailed by Easter faith?
  • What are some of the consequences of emphasizing the continuity between creation and redemption?
  • What alternative lines of critique would you put to Wright?
  • What are some further pastoral implications of Wright's general line of thinking about hope?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Anselm's Cur Deus Homo

I'm going to interrupt my series on N. T. Wright's Surprise By Hope to post a lecture I prepared and delivered this week in an introductory course in Systematic Theology at PTS. I'll return to the fifth and final installment of my series on Wright next week, which will address the pastoral implications of his argument, specifically as it relates to funeral practice. But this week, enjoy a taste of Anselm.

Text: Romans 5.6-11
[6] For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [7] Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. [8] But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. [9] Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. [11] But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Most merciful and just God, we praise you for being a God of mercy and thank you for showing your mercy to us even while we were still sinners. In your son Jesus Christ you have shown your love for us, saving us from the threat of wrath and reconciling us to you as your dearly loved children. Through his death we have been reconciled and through his life we will be saved. Lord, teach us this hour to boast in you and you alone. Teach us through your son's example to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with you. Equip us with knowledge and wisdom so that we may speak your word of reconciliation and do your work of reconciliation. We eagerly anticipate what you will teach us as we converse with your servant Anselm, relying on your Spirit to guide us into all truth. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I was 11 years old, I drove my mom's Honda Accord through our garage door. A few months earlier my dad had taught me how to start a car, and so my folks would let me start it when I was waiting for them in the morning before school or after church while they talked to their friends. The car needed to warm up, especially during the winter. You'd start it and it would be all revved up for a few minutes and then eventual drop to a normal idle. So I thought I was really helping out by starting it, even though I suspect they were just trying to get me off their backs. One morning I thought I would help my mom out even more by putting the car in gear. Needless to say, I had no idea a car in reverse would just go without pressing the gas, but it did. And unfortunately this particular morning I apparently forgot to open the garage door, and so the neighors saw a 4-door maroon sedan crash through our garage door that morning, eventually coming to a screaching halt in the middle of the road.

Now the crash woke my father, who ran out terrified. That was his first response: fear. But fear quickly turned to a combination of disbelief and anger that I had done such a thing. There was no immediate consequence, other than showing up a little late to school. But eventually my father approached me with a plan: I would work so many hours of new duties and projects around the house to help pay for the new garage door. The amount of hours seemed astronomical to me, an impression I imprudently shared with my parents. They explained to me that my hours of work did not come close to paying for the new door. In fact, they did the math and showed me I was theoretically getting paid $60 per hour. My folks had required a justifiable payment from me which I could not pay in full, and so they found a way for me to learn a lesson about responsibility and restitution even while they foot the bill.

This is my story. But you all have stories like these. Stories of the strange interplay of justice and mercy. And many of you have heard these stories in sermons as a way of illustrating the saving significance of Jesus's death. These stories of justice and mercy highlight a certain line of soteriological thinking, embedded in refrains such as "Jesus died for your sins," "Jesus took my sins away," "Jesus was punished in our place," and "Jesus paid it all."

Our task today is twofold. First, I want to show you where this line of thinking comes from. Out of respect for Anselm, we must acknowledge this deep influence he has had on Western Christian soteriology even today. And out of respect for other streams and movements within Christianity, we must acknowledge that this is not the only way of thinking about salvation in Christ, but rather a particular formulation with its own particular genesis and development.

Second, I want you to see that much of what passes for a representation of this line of thinking today is a distortion of a rich tradition, even as we learn to acknowledge the problems inherent in this tradition. Earlier this week, my brother-in-law saw me reading Anselm on the shuttle. He asked me what my take on Anselm was. I said, "He's not as bad as everyone says he is, but there certainly are some problems." My hope is that those of you who have acquired a prejudice against Anselm and all he represents will begin to respect and even enjoy him, while those of you who consider yourselves champions of Anselmic soteriology will take pause and engage in some self-criticism.

To achieve these ends, let's engage in an analysis of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, deploying the skills you have been honing in your weekly papers. In order to get a sense of the big picture, I'll organize my analytical commentary today around a narrative analysis of the text. Instead of just walking you through this rather long text, I have asked, "What story is Anselm telling us?" This is a good question to ask, provided one's reconstruction of the narrative is and remains rooted in the text itself and that one's reconstruction does not over-determine the interpretation of the text. With this big picture narrative in front of us, we will be able to engage in a conceptual analysis of selected passages along the way. Also, and especially in our discussion of the later stages of the story, we will seek to open ourselves up to be formed spiritually by the text. We'll do this by means of a rhetorical analysis, asking: "What is Anselm trying to do to us?" So, we begin with a narrative analysis to provide an overall structure within which we will also engage in conceptual and rhetorical modes of analysis. The pay off for employing these modes of analysis in tandem with each other is not only a deeper understanding of the text but also a deeper understanding of the God of whom the text speaks. Specifically, the honor of God, the justice and mercy of God, and the beauty of God will all come to the fore at key intervals within our commentary. So, without further ado, let's get into it.

In order to get a bird's eye view, let's transpose Anselm's argument into a story. Three basic elements of a story are character, setting and plot.
Who are the characters in Anselm's story?
• God.
• Angels, both good and bad (fallen).
• The Devil, chief among the fallen angels.
• Humans.
• Christ, the God-human.

Where does the story take place?
• Heaven, God's created abode where Christ and the Angels come from and where humans are destined to enjoy eternal happiness
• Earth, where both the fall and the incarnation take place.

What is the plot? Here we need to take a little more time. Remember Freytag's five stages of drama from high school English lit? Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement. Let's use those stages to get a skeleton of the story before us, and then walk through each of stage in order to engage in a closer analysis.

1. Exposition: Humans are created for immortal happiness.
2. Rising Action: Humans fail to give honor to God but can’t repay it.
3. Climax: Christ, the God-human, dies to pay humanity's debt.
4. Falling Action: Christ gives his reward to humans, who imitate him in humble obedience.
5. Denouement: Humans enter the heavenly city, restoring order to the cosmos and enjoying divine blessedness forever.

Okay, with that in front of us, let's go through the story step-by-step, stopping along the way to assess the coherence of the narrative, clarify the concepts of the argument, and open ourselves up to the formative influence of the God of whom Anselm speaks.

1. Exposition: Humans are created for immortal happiness.

In the opening scenes of a dramatic narrative, the characters are introduced. God populates heaven and earth with angels and humans in proper proportion and harmony with each other and God. God as creator deserves the honor of his creatures, expressed through absolute obedience to his will. Such honor and obedience is not demanded arbitrarily, but precisely as the means to human happiness (II.1). Humans are destined for immortality, but their immortality is not guaranteed; they are able to die (I.18). They must persist in choosing the good to achieve true immortality, being not able to die, and so enjoy God's blessedness forever. Note the opening note of beauty, order, and harmony. Following the tradition, the beginning and end rhyme for Anselm. The beauty, order and harmony of the cosmos in relation to God and to itself is the goal that drives the narrative. This is easy to lose track off when we get into the ugliness of sin and atonement (note: the ugliness of the latter is only apparent). This is one of the benefits of narrative analysis: it keeps our mind on the big picture in the context of which we should understand the details, many of which are troubling at first glance and even at second glance. Well, on to those juicy details.

2. Rising Action: Humans fail to give honor to God and cannot repay it.

The exposition concludes with the inciting action: the first humans fall from grace by not giving God his due. The bad angels fall as well, but that's not the main line of the narrative. Although under the devil's influence, humans are culpable for dishonoring God. Now Anselm goes out of his way to say that God's honor cannot in fact be besmirched (I.15), as his honor is a se and immutable [review these terms]. But the revelation of God's honor on the world's stage can be besmirched. And this is not just a problem of appearances, because so dishonoring God wreaks havoc on the created order. And as Anselm repeatedly reminds us, God does not let anything go unregulated in his kingdom (I.12). So God must restore his honor on earth.

How does God restore his honor? Per his custom, Anselm lays out a couple options for rational consideration. Either (a) God can annihilate humans, (b) God can punish humans, or (c) humans can repay the debt of honor owed to God. So: (a) annihilation, (b) punishment, or (c) satisfaction. Now it is not hard to see the influence of Anselm's sociopolitical context here. In the context of medieval feudalism, the vassal owes honor to the lord of the realm. A lord cannot simply overlook a snub or insult from a vassal, because the security of the whole hierarchical system would be undermined. And so the lord would either punish the vassal or the vassal would find a way to make it up to the lord through assorted acts of devotion.

But here is where the analogy breaks down. For, contrary to many of his critics, Anselm does not paint God as a demanding thug consumed with his reputation. Rather, God's concern for his honor is good for us. The restoration of God's honor is the means by which human happiness is restored. This can be seen in the way Anselm sets aside option (a) annihilation. Anselm argues that if God annihilated his creatures then they would have been created to no avail. But God created humans with a purpose: namely, to attain blessed happiness in the vision of God (II.1, II.4). This reasoning is important because it reveals that Anselm is not solely concerned with the restoration of God's honor; he is also deeply concerned with the restoration of humanity to its destined happiness in God. So the divine dilemma is not only self-referential but concerns us and our well-being.

Having set aside the annihilation option, the only remaining options are punishment or satisfaction. Punishment versus satisfaction. That's the basic dilemma that drives the first book of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. [Note: not penal substitution; cf. Hieb] Since this is a crucial conceptual pair, let's take a closer look at a particular passage. Turn with me to book I, chapter 11.
- question: logic of forgiveness
- sin = not giving God his due (i.e., injustice)
- debt = absolute submission to God's will
- sinner's debt: repay honor ... with interest! (restitution)

That's our problem. But now let's view this problem from God's perspective. Turn the page to the next chapter (I.12):
- divine forgiveness is not by mercy alone
- because of divine righteousness, sin is either punished or satisfied.
- the means of forgiveness must befit God's nature, which is just
So God must either punish or be repaid on account of his justice. Unregulated forgiveness is not an option. Now this may seem strange to your ears because you have heard that God loves you unconditionally. But the language of satisfaction as internal to the process of forgiveness would be familiar to Anselm's readers. The term “satisfaction” in fact comes from the practice of penance. The three acts of the penitent: contrition, confession, satisfaction. The act of the priest as God's representative: absolution. So satisfaction was seen as a natural part of the process of absolution or forgiveness.

But this sacramental background to satisfactionary thinking is not the whole story. For the sacramental system of penance itself rests, at least in Anselm's mind, on the doctrine of God. The reason that satisfaction is internal to forgiveness is because God is a just God. Now Anselm could affirm the grain of truth in the statement that God loves us unconditionally, inasmuch as the just requirements of the law are not imposed on God from without. But Anselm would argue that there are restraints that are internal to God's own nature. What is "necessary" for God is only what befits his consistent character (1.12; II.5). The one God is both merciful and just (I.24; II.20). So, unlike human judges, God need not and cannot choose between mercy and justice when God forgives. Divine forgiveness must be both merciful and just, or it is it not divine forgiveness. One of the ironies of the Anselmic tradition is the tendency to pit God's mercy and justice against one another, when Anselm's whole point is that they go together. There is a divine dilemma, but it's not between mercy and justice, but between punishment and satisfaction. Anselm's point is the God seeks a just means of satisfaction so that we might be shown mercy.

Shifting gears back from a conceptual to a narrative mode of analysis, we can see that this divine dilemma supplies the tension or rising action of the second act of the drama of salvation. The tension rises in Anselm's account by showing the impossibility of humans paying God back for their sin of dishonor (I.19-25). Unlike offences on the creaturely plane, a single act of disobedience to God is of cosmic proportion, on account of God's infinite worth. So nothing we can give God is sufficient to pay the debt we owe. Unless some alternative means of recompense presents itself, the only option left is punishment, which in this case means death and therefore the loss of eternal blessedness. The last portion of Book I is designed to let us hang for a little while in this suspense. Anselm is not only setting up for his argument in Book II, but also getting us to take a serious look at the problem that we have got ourselves into. By what means can we be saved? There seems to be no way out. Punishment awaits us. Who can save us? Enter the God-human, whose action constitutes the climax or turning point of the story.

3. Climax / Turning Point: Christ, the God-human dies to pay humanity's debt.

Look at II.6 with me for a moment: "If, therefore, as is agreed, it is necessary that the heavenly city should have its full complement made up from members of the human race, and this cannot be the case if the recompense of which we have spoken is not paid, which no one can pay except God, and no one ought to pay except man: it is necessary that a God-Man should pay it." Salvation comes through recompense, paying humanity's debt to God. Only a human ought to pay. But on account of the enormity of the debt, only God has the infinite worth at his disposal to pay it. And so the only means of recompense is a mediator who is both God and human.

In Anselm's narrative, the cross is the turning point. He talks a lot about the incarnation, and that's because he is trying to prove that the incarnation is the necessary precondition for the cross. But Christ's ontological constitution is not itself saving, as it was for, say, Gregory of Nyssa. Rather, Christ's ontological constitution makes him to be the kind of person who can save us through his death as a distinct act. [This is the crucial difference between D-soteriologies and A-soteriologies, despite the many motifs (restoration, imitation, etc.) they may share.] How does Christ's death save us? By sharing in our humanity, Christ is able to die. By sharing in God's divinity, Christ is unable to sin and so does not strictly have to die. On account of the infinite worth of this one divine-human person, the giving up of himself in death is a sufficient recompense for any and all dishonor shown to God. In other words, Jesus paid it all.

Now we need to stop here to assess what Anselm has accomplished. First of all, he has presented a masterful argument for the coherence of Chalcedonian Christology with the larger body of Christian thought (cf. I.8; II.7). He has shown that the incarnation is not some sort of oddity attached to the Christian faith, but a logically necessary belief for those who believe everything else Christianity teaches. [FQI] Of course, the irony is that he has turned the doctrinal tradition on its head by arguing from his own idiosyncratic soteriology to the dogmatically secured doctrine of the incarnation. He thereby gives the impression that his soteriology is more dogmatically secure than Chalcedonian Christology, when the reality is opposite. Now I say "impression," because in the context of Anselm's procedure of faith seeking understanding no one doctrine forms the foundation for all the others. Rather, this is a coherence argument. But the impression is nevertheless there. I, for one, find the argument to be both powerful and beautiful, so much so that it lends credence to his soteriology. But we must be careful to not grant it dogmatic status too quickly.

In the process of making this masterful argument, he has made two major shifts in the way the story of redemption is told: one regarding the characters and the other regarding the plot. Regarding the characters, he has found a way to sideline the devil's role in the story. The devil is still there, but his role is significantly diminished. This move is not an accident, but a direct though respectful critique of Augustine. Augustine and other patristic theologians would also say that in the death of Christ God rendered a payment. But they understood this payment as a ransom, with the devil as its recipient. Anselm says No to this whole way of thinking, because it gives the devil too much authority and turns redemption into a gladiator game. Instead, the payment is an act of devotion and obedience, with God as its recipient (I.7; II.19). The positive consequence of this shift is that the mythological cosmic battle with the devil is de-centered so that the moral encounter between God and humanity may take center stage. The negative consequence is that dual protagonists in this story (God and humanity) are at the same time the antagonists, God in terms of his wrath and humanity in terms of its sin. This is one of those points where the tradition flowing from Anselm becomes so easily distorted, painting God as a bloodthirsty tyrant who thinks being human is a capital crime. I believe these distortions can be overcome, but it requires considerable care and constructive energy.

Regarding the plot, by making the cross (as a distinct act apart from the incarnation) the climax of the story, Anselm managed to forget the resurrection. Now observing what is missing is always a tricky endeavor. I've encouraged my preceptees to beware of arguments from silence. Why? Because Cur Deus Homo is not the only treatise Anselm wrote, and so he may say much about the resurrection elsewhere (in documents either extant or lost, or in his undocumented preaching and teaching). Furthermore, noting a missing element in a text does not imply that the person does not believe in it, but only that it performs no function in the text at hand. Lastly, an argument from silence places on the one making it a heavy burden of proof to demonstrate that the missing element should be there. With these caveats in place, however, we can justifiably ask: Whatever happened to the resurrection? If atonement is finished on the cross, what is the purpose of the resurrection? Now many answers have been provided to this question throughout the development of second millennium Western Christian theology. But the fact that it even needs to be asked shows that Anselmic soteriology can be fully formulated without reference to the resurrection. I, for one, consider this a problem. [And in the interest of full disclosure, my dissertation research is focused on the doctrine of resurrection in conversation with the modern Anselm, Karl Barth].

Okay, enough assessment. Back to the story.

4. Falling Action: Christ gives his reward to humans, who imitate him in humble obedience.

Although Anselm does not spend much time explicitly addressing the here and now appropriation of salvation, he does directly address the effects of the climactic action of Christ in terms of reward and imitation in book II, chapter 19. Here's a revealing quote: "On whom is it more appropriate to bestow the reward and recompense for his death than on those for whose salvation, as the logic of truth teaches us, he made himself a man, and for whom, as we have said, he set an example, by his death, of dying for the sake of righteousness? For they will be imitators of him in vain, if they are not to be sharers in his reward" (II.19). Since Christ's life is of infinite worth, he not only can give up his life to God the father as a recompense on our behalf but also is in no need of a reward from God the father for this great act of self-sacrifice. And so the reward of eternal blessedness, which Christ deserves but does not need, is shared with his human brothers and sisters. But with which of his many brothers and sisters is this reward shared? Well, obviously those who are like him, those who imitate him in his love for justice.

Cast in the light of this concluding call to imitate Christ, the whole of Cur Deus Homo can be read as a description of divine pedagogy: the life and death of the God-human teaches us how to live. Why did God become human? The answer is not only "to die for our sins," but also "to teach us how to live." In Christ God has taught us to be merciful in our execution of justice and just in our acts of mercy. In Christ God has taught us to obey him in all things whatever the circumstance. In Christ God has taught us to live righteously not for the sake of reward but out of sheer love for God. In Christ God has taught us to give of our own self for others. Now all the proper caveats need to be introduced here: we are not God, and so we cannot punish sinners justly, demand infinite restitution for dishonor, subsist in two natures, die for the sins of the world, or give and receive honor within a communion of three persons in one being. [Note: response to 'divine child abuse' line of criticism]. Anselm introduces such caveats from time to time (e.g., I.12). But the caveats are not the point. The point is that in Christ God has introduced us to his character and calls us to "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:1-2). May it be so with us.

5. Denouement: Humans enter the heavenly city, restoring order to the cosmos and enjoying divine blessedness forever.

In the final stage of a comedic drama, we find the protagonist in a situation as good as, if not better than, where they started. Humans are in a sense restored, but not in the sense of a do-over (and so with the potential of falling again) but in the sense of finally reaching the destiny for which God created them. What is this destiny? To be forever happy in the enjoyment of God. It is impossible for a sinner to enter into happiness, both because of the affront to God's honor within the created order and because the debt owed to God would spoil the enjoyment of God. So the recompense paid by the God-human is the means by which this barrier is removed. But salvation is completed not in the removal of the barrier but in arriving at the goal.

Having come to the end of the plot, you can see how the "death of Christ" and "going to heaven" are so closely tied in contemporary preaching and evangelism. But the reduction of salvation to these two foci is a distortion of Anselm's intentions, even if he left the door wide open to it. Anselm understands the salvation of humanity as instrumental to God's restoration of the cosmos. He makes this point by means of his claim that the number of restored humans makes up for the number of the fallen angels. The excursus on angels (I.16-18) is not irrelevant to his soteriology, and the conclusions of that section reappear at crucial moments (e.g., II.6). In sending Christ to atone for our sins, God is restoring order to the universe. So the restoration motif provides the context for Anselm's atonement-driven soteriology. Losing sight of this will inevitably lead to a reductionistic "die and go to heaven" understanding of salvation.

As we come to the end of the story, we see that it rhymes with the beginning. The original beauty, order and harmony of the cosmos are restored. With this goal in mind, everything else takes on a different hue. The work of God in Christ is the rational and just means by which the wise God skillfully orchestrates the masterpiece of his creation. The human works of humble obedience bring us into harmony with Christ as his imitators and into harmony with God's good creation. By our little acts of submission to God we are "maintaining the beauty of the universe" (I.15). And even the work of theology because an aesthetic exercise. As Anselm explains in the opening lines of this treatise, Christians seek to perceive the logical coherence of Christian doctrines, the "utility and beauty of its logic," "in order that they may take delight in the understanding and contemplation of the things which they believe" (I.1). This aesthetic appreciation for Christian doctrine is not only enjoyable in itself but also useful for training us to be "ready always to give satisfaction to all who ask the reason for the hope that is in us [I Pet 3:15]" (I.1). May our time spent wrestling with Anselm today help you to catch a glimpse of the beauty and utility of theology.

Any thoughts?


Aulen, Gustaf. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama. Vol. IV. Ignatius Press, 1994. Cf. ch. 3, esp. pp. 255-261.

Browning, Don S. Atonement and Psychotherapy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966. Cf. ch. 3.

Charry, Ellen. By the Renewing of Your Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Cf. ch. 7, esp. 168-172.

Eckardt, Burnell F. Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was it "Necessary"? San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

Fortin, John R., ed., Saint Anselm: His Origins and Influence. Lewiston, N.Y. : E. Mellen Press, 2001. Cf. esp. chs. 1, 4, 6.

Heyer, George S. "St. Anselm on the Harmony Between God's Mercy and God's Justice," in The Heritage of Christian Thought, eds. R. E. Cushman and E. Grislis. New York: Harper & Row. Pp. 31-40.

Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Hampton, Jean. Forgiveness and Mercy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Steindl, Helmut. Genugtuung: Biblisches Versöhnungsdenken, eine Quelle für Anselms Stisfaktionstheorie? Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag, 1989. An English-language book review by Colin Gunton can be found in Journal of Theological Studies 43:1 (Apr 1992), pp. 283-286.

Williams, George Huntston. Anselm: Communion and Atonement. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1960.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Four)

At the end of the second part of Surprised by Hope, Wright turns his attention to the personal dimension of Christian hope. Here he addresses the New Testament teachings on bodily resurrection of individuals at the coming of Jesus (ch. 10) as well as the question of an intermediate state and the final destiny of the damned (ch. 11). I have a brief comment on each of these chapters.

The material in chapter 10 is pretty straightforward and quite helpful. I recommend that chapter alone as an excellent treatment of personal Christian hope. I just want to comment on one particular exegetical move Wright makes that I find fruitful. He argues that the "spiritual body" of 1 Cor 15 does not imply a spirit/body dualism but rather that the resurrected human body will be animated by God's Spirit. The contrast is not between two types of bodies but the between two animating principles, and he offers grammatical support for this. So the risen body will be one driven by God's Spirit rather than the flesh (i.e., fallen powers). If accurate, I think this is a helpful and fruitful approach. Although it fits Wright's tendency to emphasize the note of continuity with the created order, this view helps affirm the bodily character of resurrection without avoiding "spiritual" categories when talking about future hope. And it is fruitful because it grounds this new bodily life in the activity of God's Spirit, thereby providing raw material for developing a more thoroughly trinitarian account of Christian hope. In fact, the whole of Part II of Surprised by Hope can be organized under a trinitarian rubric: the cosmic dimension as the confirmation of God the Father's good creation, the central figure of Jesus Christ as the Son of God coming in glory, and the personal dimension of resurrection as the outpouring of the Spirit of life on all flesh. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that this re-framing of the material brings it closer to the form of my recent catechetical reflections on eschatology.) Anyway, that's just a riff off Wright in order to tease out the dogmatic detail of his argument.

Regarding chapter 11, I must register a bit of a complaint. Although his critique of purgatory is strong and his argument on behalf of God's justice is a helpful response to critics of eternal damnation, his use creative imagination appears in the wrong place. He is decidedly uncreative and unimaginative in his description of the intermediate state, while he is overly creative and overly imaginative in his speculations regarding the fate of the damned. Regarding the intermediate state, he does an excellent job undermining traditional problematic concepts of purgatory and paradise. But when he comes to his own position, he ends up in the same place, speaking of disembodied human identities subsisting in God's presence for the meantime. His view does not seem to be fundamentally different than the alternatives he rejects. It is rather just a tinkering with the details. What he needs is to apply his creative imagination (displaced elsewhere!) to explore what kind of "existence" and "identity" we might have between our death and our final resurrection. Do time and space really operate in the same way here as the do in other discourses? Could it be that the dead have an immediate experience of their future resurrection? Could it be that the whole notion of an intermediate state can be overcome with some creative thinking in light of Easter and New Creation? Again, Wright's emphasis on the continuity of creation (in this case, it's temporal categories) limits his openness to the otherness and newness of our future hope.

This lack of creativity can be set in stark contrast with the creative imagination he employs to speculate about the kind of sub-human existence the damned might have unto eternity. I think he is right to avoid falling into the trap of too easily emptying hell in order to make God look good. But such a stance does not require that one comes up with a speculative model of hellish existence that befits God's justice. This just seems to me to be a misplaced use of imagination. Where was this imagination when trying to wrestle with the pressing practical issue of "where we go when we die"? It seems to me that the intermediate state requires the best creativity to overcome confusion, while the threat of hell should remain a dull point, warning us simply to avoid going there and not consuming our speculative energies. That's how I would prioritize the matter at least.

Well, these are just some explorations and some picky things about chapters 10-11 of Surprised By Hope. The book as it stands is on the right track and remains a strong defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and its implications for our own bodily future. Next week we will turn with Wright to discuss what this all means for the present.

Any thoughts?
  • Does Wright's exegesis of 1 Cor 15 work?
  • What are some of the implications of our resurrected bodies being wholly animated by God's Spirit?
  • What do you think of Wright's speculations concerning hell? Am I right to identify a misplaced use of creative imagination?