Wednesday, June 27, 2012

His Wrath

As many of you know from another recent post of mine, I have recently been concentrating very much on God's Wrath and Hatred and Vengeance. I have come to think that, throughout Revelation, this is the primary mode by which He reveals Himself to us.

Oh, you might say, that's not true; maybe that's how He did it in the Old Testament, but not the New, the New is all about Love and stuff. And yet isn't the most terrifying and violent and monstrous image we have of God actually found at the very heart of the New Testament: the God who demands His completely innocent Son to suffer and die horribly on a Cross to, essentially, satisfy His blood-lust. Albeit, it's an entirely just "blood-lust," yet one which can only be satisfied by the suffering of an Infinite Victim. Not even satisfied really; it's not like people stopped suffering afterwards, and indeed God is said to still desire more oblations in the form of martyrs (of which their have been millions in the past century). 

So personally I cannot see the New Testament as a switch to a "nicer" God; rather, it is a switch to a God who has ceased to be satisfied with the blood of animals and who now has a taste for human sacrifice. From a God who seemed concerned (if obsessively so) mainly with mundane aspects of ordinary life and merely sent dead shades to a vague afterlife in the limbo of a God who is revealed to make life itself nothing but a high stakes game for either Heaven or Hell, an extremely difficult contest for either infinite reward or infinite pain that totalizingly requires vigilance at every moment of waking life, with no way to opt out, with the playing field utterly unlevel from the start, and with Him just waiting for someone to slip up and entertain an impure thought so that He can have them hit by a bus and then cast them into the furnace forever.

And so today, with all these terrifying (and, indeed, almost repulsive) thoughts about God in mind, I was thinking about the Crucifixion. Now, there are two ways to interpret the Crucifixion in light of God's Wrath, and I realized that in the end they boil down to the same thing.

The first, of course, is that the Crucifixion is something like the supreme image of God's Wrath: here is His Justice, His Anger, His Violent Rage towards humanity...all played out on the stage or canvas of the Broken Human Body, the entire vehemence of His Hatred for The Flesh and The World expressed in just wailing on this Suffering Innocent One like a cosmic punching bag. (This is more in line with a sort of Anselmian atonement model.)

Then there is the second way to look at the Crucifixion in light of God's Wrath, the one that concentrates more on the depravity of human beings and how wicked and pernicious humanity is: we did this. Both concretely (in the form of the Roman corruption and Jewish perfidy of the representatives of our worthless race on Calvary), and abstractly (because it is all of our sin which nailed Him there.)

So which is it? Did we wrought this horrible spectacle of violence, or did God? Is the Cross a sign of how evil humans are, that we would torture and kill God? Or is it a sign of how angry God is, that He would torture and kill Man? I think the great paradox of Christian life is that it's both. 

The Cross is both the Crime and the Punishment. This truly unspeakable thing we've done, the murder of God by all humanity, is its own Punishment. Forget the melodramatic eclipses and earthquakes and torn veils; God's Wrath upon mankind for the Crucifixion is nothing other than the Crucifixion itself. It stands there convicting us. 

Likewise looking at it "the other way around." We can ask "What could we have possibly done so horrible to warrant God expressing His temper so violently against even the most perfect and innocent representative of our race?" And the answer is likewise to be found in nothing other than the Cross itself. Yes, individual sins form the remote explanation, but that merely begs the question: why is sin so bad. So the only answer that ultimately suffices is that we deserve God's Wrath for nothing other than unleashing His Wrath.

This may be hard for us to understand. But I think of a wolf standing in a cage. The keeper warns a child not to make a funny face at the wolf. The child makes the face nonetheless, and the wolf reaches out and mauls the child. I would say the child deserves this. Not because the mere act of making the funny face, in itself, warrants such a harsh result. No, the funny face was just the means or the vessel, but the real substance of the child's transgression is nothing other than the act itself of provoking the wolf. And the consequence, quite naturally, is that the wolf is provoked!

We see this likewise in the story of the Fall. Eating a fruit isn't so bad, it's the disobedience it involved. God said, "Do that and I'll be pissed." The serpent convinced them this was unreasonable, that God had no business getting mad at something silly like that. And yet, that's ultimately irrelevant. If you know someone will get angry at you for doing something, however unreasonable you may find that temper, you certainly can be blamed for the provocation if you know your action will in fact provoke them (assuming, of course, there is no pressing need or obligation to do it). And so, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, at that point you actually do deserve the response provoked.

This, I think, is something of the dark-side of Eckhart's "the eye with which I see God, is the eye with which God sees me." That God's ultimate punishment on us for killing His Son, is nothing other than the killing of His Son. Sin is it's own punishment. The death of God is the punishment that God inflicts on us for killing God. And yet, of course, He's still in control. By the very fact of infusing sin with the meaning of "punishment for sin," He thus has us carry out His own punishment on ourselves by the very fact of the sin. And by the very fact of taking the agency in His own murder by us like that and so turning it back around on us as the expression of His Anger, He is "become sin," has descended into Hell, and so triumphed over both. 

A triumph achieved by taking the very thing which is the occasion of His Wrath, the Cross, and identifying it also with the expression of His Wrath. So that "where sin abounded, grace did more abound." This is why there must needs be a certain nihilism at the heart of religious experience: because we meet God as a negation. In our sin, which is to say our meaninglessness, we encounter Meaning's Wrath in the very fact of meaninglessness. Yet the very fact of that Wrath in the nihilism implies meaning is still there, and is in fact not incompatible or mutually exclusive with meaninglessness, but are rather two masks of the same reality, like the illusion of the young and old woman:

This is where I find real appeal to the Eastern Christian insight that God, in His essence, is beyond all dualities, even the being/non-being duality. God is even, we might dare to say, beyond the God/Not-God duality. This is, perhaps, the "things contain their opposites" idea (though I prefer just to think of the old phrase "two sides of the same coin.") 

In fact, we might define sin as the privileging of either above the other. So in atheism or a fetishized "object theism." In the rejection of absolute meaning, yes, but also in an insistence on worshiping an "absolute" meaning-idol made of stone (rather, I think, we must remember something along the lines of "the only constant is change...") I think one would find that all the categories of sin condemned (and rightly so) in the Christian tradition boil down to this paradox.

This reminds me of something I read from Rowan Williams once, on this Vox Nova post, in which he refuted certain modern theologians who would question God's immutability from the perspective of either Creation or the Incarnation (claiming that either introduced essential change into God's nature). Rather, Dr. Williams explains:

God must be such as to make it possible for divine life to live in the heart of its own opposite, for divine life to be victorious simply by ‘sustaining’ itself in hell. But this directs us clearly to the conclusion that the divine identity cannot be a straightforward sameness or self-equivalence. God’s freedom to be God in the centre of what is not God (creation, suffering, hell) must not be grounded in an abstract liberty of the divine will (such a contentless liberty would only divide the divine will from any coherent account of divine consistency and thus personal dependability), but in the character of God’s life. If God can be revealed in the cross, if God can be actively God in hell, God is God in or even as what is other than God (a dead man, a lost soul). Yet that otherness must itself be intrinsic to God, not a self-alienation. [...] Once again, we cannot think of God’s presence in the otherness of death and hell as if God initially lacked something which could be developed only through the process of Jesus’s experience.
Perhaps this is why I am sympathetic to a certain type of Kierkegaardian Christian Existentialism in my Faith that can only leap absurdly. For we might even say something like "Atheism is at the heart of Christianity, and Christianity at the heart of Atheism." For "the divine identity cannot be a straightforward...self-equivalence." So nihilism is at the heart of faith, and so faith and the heart of nihilism. Meaninglessness is at the heart of meaning, and so meaning is at the heart of meaninglessness. God's Wrath is at the heart of His Love, and His Love at the heart of His Wrath. Hell is at the heart of heaven, and so heaven at the heart of hell, and thus it is the soul that clings too much to happiness who will find herself in heaven, and the soul that descends into suffering who will find herself in heaven.


Michael Lechowicz said...

My second response, here.

cor ad cor loquitur said...

ML, if you want others to read your second response, you will need to open your blog to non-invited readers.

A Sinner said...

Heck, even I can't read it, so the link is rather pointless as it stands.

I actually wonder what you find so controversial in this post. It starts rather shockingly, admittedly, but I'm only invoking the same images of God that modern atheists use as objections to His existence, and attempting to reconcile that contradiction.

If you don't think there is some explaining to do about a God who demands blood-sacrifice (or if you'd rather explain-away with traditional platitudes than explain) are the one who sounds crazy.

Saying, "God's not really like that!" is not a good answer for moderns who look around and see a world of tsunamis and starving children and general cosmic absurdity. Insisting the universe is really this Ptolemaic music-box with a rational clock-maker artisan God is simply not going to cut it in a universe that has been shown chaotic, merely probabilistic, a society pluralistic, and a logic/mathematics which has been shown (per Goedel's theorem) to always be incomplete.

The "closed system" paradigm is over.

Sanity is a good thing said...

Okay. I have changed the privacy settings on my account. Please go ahead and read it now.

While you continue to try to find sympathy in postmodernism, I think that your insistence on an outdated homiletic style is just amusing.

People will refuse to even read you post because it reads like you are crazy. That is the only reason for my continuing objection.

A Sinner said...

I'm not sure what "homiletic style" you think I'm using.

First, because I'm not writing sermons here, I'm writing an article/essay/blog-post. A sermon would need a much more stylized structure and verbal artistry.

Second, because even if this were a sermon, it's certainly NOT in typical "fire and brimstone" fashion. If you want an example of that, we can look to Chapter 3 of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I may, indeed, post soon):

Nominally Catholic said...

Perhaps not, but apocalytpic spiritualities are simply creepy. If you can sustain it without going crazy, good for you. Most of the people I have seen who turn to these kind of radical devotions, though, have something wrong with their heads. It provokes no one. It just makes you look like one of them.

A Sinner said...

Well, Michael, you've now posted in this thread with three different names.

MS said...

Reading through this, I cannot help but think of Julian of Norwich: “For I saw no wrath except
on man's side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an
opposition to peace and to love…we, because of sin and miserableness, have in us a wrath and a continuing opposition to peace and to love.”

She also writes, “I saw truthfully that our Lord was never angry, nor ever shall be, for he is God: He is good, He is life, He is truth, He is love, He is peace; and His power, His wisdom, His love, and His unity do not allow Him to be angry (For I saw truly that it is against the character of His power to be angry, and against the character of His wisdom, and against the character of His goodness). God is the goodness that cannot be angry, for He is nothing but goodness.”

And this too:“…when I saw all this, it was
necessary to agree that the mercy of God and the forgiveness is in order to abate and consume
our wrath, not His.”

Perhaps to your chagrin, I'm also reminded of Jakob Boehme, the mystic Lutheran shoemaker. He posited a dark wrath fire world at the heart of all things, including the bright love light world which constituted God's self-understanding. His explanation of the fall of Lucifer, for instance, is that he attempted to seize the fire without apprehending the light, and experienced the fullness of the wrathful dark fire world (the wrath of God) as a result. While Boehme's work is interesting (and certainly went on to influence Hegel and others), I don't know that the extreme to which your writing on wrath seems to go is explicable solely via a Catholic theological understanding--it must be supplemented by Protestant thinking which, in some ways, damages it's credibility. I do not think an argument for a righteous bloodlust in God can receive anything but a Protestant justification--or at least, one must recognize that this vision of the atonement is not seen as the only vision in Catholicism, but is the predominant vision in reformed (and more recently, evangelical) Protestantism.

A Sinner said...

Well, I'm not even sure I'm saying these are theological claims. Obviously we cannot anthropomorphize divinity literally.

Nominally Catholic said...

"Well, Michael, you've now posted in this thread with three different names."

Oh no! I've committed an unforgiveable sin! Please, sinner, tell me, how am to redeem myself? Not one reputable citation in your two posts, but you are right, my shape-shifting ways must be punished. Two lashes or three? Maybe I should start fasting for a month in atonement, no a year. You've called me out this time and I can't hide! PUH-leez.

More reasons why you cannot trust overly-religious people. Thank God that He is more liberal in charity than his followers...

Nominally Catholic said...

I'm willing to admit I am wrong. Are you?

A Sinner said...

Wrong about what?

Nominally Catholic said...

"I'm not sure what "homiletic style" you think I'm using."

You misread my comment. I wrote "...I think that your insistence on an outdated homiletic style is just amusing." I was simply laughing at the fact that you endorse fire and brimstone sermons, not that yours is one...

With regards to your blog post, however, I wrote: "All I hear when I read this is: "look at me, I'm being innovative." I disagree with your Kierkegaardian conclusions because they are nonsense. I dislike your insistence in preaching about the Cross in an overt and put-offish way, and I think that overall, you could achieve the same effect by focusing on heaven.

By all means, though, please twist my against me, let your audience see how calm and composed you are (were you the one to chide me about closed systems?) and win. It is a BATTLE after all...the ones with the most tasteful responses win!