Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2a.Catastrophe


We are, however, not the way we’re supposed to be. We all know it. Something’s out of sync. We don’t function like we should. We looked a bit at evil in the creation above. Now we tighten the focus to look at what’s gone wrong with humanity. Traditionally we call it the “Fall.” I think the term “catastrophe” better catches the widespread and tragic character of what has happened than Fall. Whatever we call it, though, Gen.3-11 narrates the moment of catastrophe in the Garden of Eden as well as the catastrophic ripples of this event that engulf the entire planet in chaos (uncreation). This litany of horror sadly remains most relevant to our lives today suggesting that as much as the world has changed over recorded history human beings have not changed at the core of who they are.

We Start with Original Sin.

But to start with original sin does not mean starting with Adam and Eve in Gen.3. Rather, it means starting with Jesus Christ. “Compared with Him we stand there in all our corruption … The untruth in which we are men is disclosed … We are forced to see and know ourselves exposed and known.”[1] But if we only truly know our sin in light of Christ, we learn this terrible truth in the light of him who is forgiveness and mercy. Thus this knowledge does not destroy or break us, but instead invites us to return to him in joy.  Jesus Christ is the “original” and only in comparison with him do we know the “sin.”

One of the great virtues of A Declaration of Faith is that is follows just this form of thought.

Jesus was what we should be.                                                           He served his Father with complete trust                                                        and unwavering obedience.                                                                                He loved all kinds of people                                                                     and accepted their love.                                                                   In CONSTANT DEPENDENCE UPON THE HOLY SPIRIT,                                        JESUS ALLOWED NO TEMPTATION OR THREAT TO KEEP HIM                                     FROM LOVING GOD WITH HIS WHOLE BEING                                                                       AND HIS NEIGHBOR AS HIMSELF.                                                            We recognize in Jesus what God created us to be.                              He exposes our failure to live as he lived.                                                             He demonstrates the new humanity                                                      God promises to give us through him.[2]

Though they were made to be like God,                                                           man and woman broke community with God,
refusing to trust and obey him.

Their community with each other was broken
by shame and murder, lust and pride
.                                               We confess that in all generations
men and women have REJECTED GOD AGAIN AND AGAIN.
AT TIMES WE SEEK IN PRIDE TO BECOME GODS,
DENYING THE GOOD LIMITS THAT DEFINE US AS CREATURES.
AT OTHER TIMES WE DRAW BACK IN APAPTHY,
REFUSING TO FULFILL OUR HUMAN RESPONSIBILITIES.
The antagonisms between races, nations, and neighbors,
between men and women, children and parents,
between human beings and the natural order,
are manifestations of our sin against God.[3]

The key elements are bolded, underlined, and capitalized.

-Jesus exhibited “complete trust and unwavering obedience”; we refused that trust and obedience breaking our grace-given relationship with God.
-Jesus loved and was loved by all kinds of people; our creational community was shattered by “shame and murder, lust and pride.”
-in constant dependence on the Spirit Jesus allowed nothing to deter him from loving God and humanity; in self-dependence we strive for our own deity denying the limits proper to us as creatures or withdraw and fail our human responsibilities.
Original sin, then, in light of him who is the intrinsic image of God (Col.1:5), involves broken relationships. First and most importantly, with God, the Creator. Whereas Jesus, “what we should be,” maintained filial love and loyalty to the Father through everything, humanity did not (from the first transgression till the present day). He displayed God’s love indiscriminately and promiscuously to all and everyone. He allowed nothing (except perhaps religion!) to come between himself and other people. Utterly dependent on the Spirit (as are we if we live truly and faithfully) he defied the pride that makes us grab more and farther than we should or the sloth that keeps us from attending properly to the work to which we are called. Original sin, therefore, is primarily a relational failure. Or in more theological terms, a covenantal failure. The family is fractured and all manner of broken relationships emerge from it.

This emerges most clearly with the one prohibition God places on Adam and Eve. When the first couple take and eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil two things happen. First, God casts them out of the Temple garden away from his presence. Second they are cut off from their source, the Tree of Life. Both of these are primarily relational, covenantal, family issues. Their act is a legal infraction only secondarily (though it is clearly that too). The great fissure, the great and tragic fissure between God and humanity is relational. And is seeking to reclaim and restore humanity God is seeking to reestablish and renew that relationship above all else.

The picture of “original sin” in Gen.3 wants to tell us how and what we are as post-Fall human beings not how we got that way. Similar to the presence of evil, scripture does not search for the origins of sin, because like evil sin is irrational. It shouldn’t have happened and there is no rational or revealed explanation for why it did. And yet it did. Paul speaks of the “mystery” surrounding Satan’s works (2 Thess.2:5-8). And a “mystery” in the Bible is something that always eludes the best human efforts to grasp it. That’s why we finally run into a wall we can’t surmount pursuing understanding of these matters.

I have struggled to come up with a brief expression that captures what we can say about sin while respecting its ultimate irrationality (non-explainability). The best I’ve come up with is this: we come into a world with a “past,” that is, into a diseased environment that tempts, encourages, nudges, cajoles, and frightens us into seizing the reins of control for our own lives and as many others as will follow us. And we all do.

And that’s as much as I can do with “original sin.” It’s vital but not easy to say both that we sin of our own will and volition, and yet we seem not to able to avoid sinning because of the environment we are born into. Yet that’s the conundrum, the intractable mystery, that places us in mortal danger save but for the boundless love and grace of God.

The Abounding Love and Mercy of God in Response to Sin

That indeed is the overriding point on the litany focused on the spread of sin in Gen.1-11. Have you ever noticed that in this section as bad as sin is, and as terrible as the judgments God pronounces against them, God’s bark is worse than his bite? He never quite lowers the boom in a thoroughgoing way. God always leaves a way out or a way beyond the crisis of sin.

-Adam and Eve are to die, yet they don’t, at least physically anyway. This leaves them on the scene to continue to play a role in the unfolding of God’s plans by birthing Seth (Gen.5:3-4).

-God protects Cain from the vengeance he deserves (Gen.4).

-God saves Noah and his family from the flood (Gen.6-8).

-Babel tries to consolidate all its powers against God in one place but God’s judgement on their arrogance cause them to disperse and spread across the earth, as God intended his human creatures to do (Gen.10-11).

When Paul wrote “where sin increased, grace abounded (or super-abounded) all the more” (Rom.5:20) many centuries later, he captures this emphasis perfectly. Imagine that, in spite of all the caricatures of God as an eager avenging deity smiting transgressors every chance he gets, the Bible presents us with one whose, as I said earlier, bark is worse than his bite.

How Sin Corrupts God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement

Sin corrupts us by eroding our capacity to function as the human creatures God created us to be. Five aspects of our humanity are especially crucial for faithfully bearing the divine image.[4]

1.    Agency – our ability to act with imagination and creativity in the world. Such agency depends on our relationship to God whose life in us makes our agency possible and fruitful. 

2.    Time – our ability to craft our lives in the present between God’s future and Israel’s past. Promise, God’s promise that he will act in unimaginably liberating ways in future as he has in the past grounds our subversive, counter-revolutionary activity on his behalf. This future becomes our present as we are shaped by it into people who live from it and for it and the God who authorizes it.  

3.    Voice – our ability to embrace and articulate our particularity and unique gifts. We learn to tell our life stories truthfully as sinners who have also been sinned against and yet have been reclaimed and restored by God to a new life and a new future that is open to all. 

4.    Permission – our ability to accept and offer forgiveness which allows us and others to move ahead toward progress not perfection.  

5.    Call – our ability to engage in our vocation (as the royal priests we are created to be).

Sin’s effect on these aspects of selfhood:

1.    Agency – rejecting our inability for genuine agency apart from God we lapse and lurch between overweening pride which gives rise to fantasy and sometimes to utter powerlessness with no future or ability to imagine self as actor. 

2.    Time – creates amnesia, robbing the past of its potency and renders the future sterile, no expectation, just empty space. 

3.    Voice – with no past or future we dissociate from our experience and lose an authentic witness.  Nostalgia (“the good old days”) and utopia (life will be better in another place and time) become surrogates for genuine witness. Sin dissolves our sense of God’s presence and purpose and our identity as participants in it.

4.    Permission – we then default to performance for our sense of self and faithfulness which quickly devolves in legalism, anxiety, self-centeredness, and fractious community. 

5.    Vocation – lacking sense of direction and grace-centered intentionality, we have a hard time forming relationships and trusting others to join community.

Sin’s chief effect, then, is clearly a breaking of the Creator-creature relationship. Royal priests mutate into compliant representatives of other lords and powers (idolaters) and worship of God is falsified. God’s SCRM is virtually defunct.

The Seven Deadly Sins and Idolatry

The church through the centuries has discerned that sin, the alien power that has us in its deathly grip, is a seven-headed hydra that as a whole winds and binds us into the weak and broken creatures we have become.[5] The diagram below pictures the mutually reciprocal and reinforcing relationship of these seven sins:

Sloth – says “meh” toward God. Adam and Eve in the garden failed to attended to their priestly task of protecting the garden Temple by allowing the talking snake entry to it and access to them.
Pride – says “me, large and in charge.” The talking snake is our clue here. Though it seems exotic and bizarre, to Israel this image bore terrible practical significance. They had actually seen and heard it! Written in the aftermath of their rescue from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Israelites has seen and heard Pharaoh wearing his royal headdress bearing the image of enraged rearing cobra.[6] That’s what a talking snake meant to them, the Pharaonic seduction of total power and control over others, in short, a godlike pride.
Envy – “I’ve got to have what you’ve got.” The Snake cast God as a being who kept all his “goodies” for himself and asked Eve why she and Adam shouldn’t have them for themselves. (Adam is still in a sloth-induced torpor and stands idly by silent and unhelpful to his wife as she undergoes this ordeal with the snake.)
Anger – “I’ll get what I want by any means necessary.” Incited by envy, driven by pride, inattentive to God, it is a short step to reach and take what we want whatever we have to do to get it or strike out against those who frustrate us. Cain and Abel is the prototype here. The former desperately wanted God’s acceptance and didn’t get it. Abel did. Cain kills Abel in his angry desperation.
Greed – “I want.” The worst four-letter word in English. A bottomless pit of self-centered desire - insatiable, never-ending, and knowing no bounds. Immensely destructive.
Gluttony – “I want more, more, and more. Similar though with a particular emphasis on transcending limits, particularly related to over-consumption of food and drink.
Lust – “I will have you in any way I desire.” Desire for sexual gratification regardless of propriety, limits, or respect for the other.

From these brief descriptions we can get a sense of how overwhelming, interrelated, and comprehensive these “deadlies” are. They draw the biblical material and the best reflection on it so we can know, in part at least, what afflicts us and how we may by grace make our way through them.

Together the “deadlies” point us to the deepest inexplicable malady of the human condition – we have become idolaters. For that indeed is the primal human malfunction. We seek to be more than creatures, gods, or at least better than all other creatures. This drive is ruthless and relentless. It takes the creatures intended to be straight but now “bent”[7] and turns them into pretzel or worse shape.

This deepest truth about humanity, I think, is best rendered as I-dolatry. The imperial “I” contests with the true and living God – this is the dynamic that drives human history. Sin can best be spelled s-I-n to reflect this dynamic. It’s never really about sins in the Bible and between God and humanity. It’s always about the alien power of sin that has invaded and trussed up creation and creature in bonds of despair and destruction. Martin Luther described this I-dolatry or s-I-n as the human heart-curved-in-on-itself. What is required is a power that can straighten out our hearts to be other-directed.

God’s SCRM in a Me-Saturated World

Embedded in a I-dolatrous world saturated with every variety of “me-ness” (on both individual and corporate levels) and engaged in a mission to declare and demonstrate to the world Gods intent for “one anotherness” for his creatures, we will look a little closer at some of the dynamics we will encounter in the effort.

Identity is the key category here. We receive our identity from God as a gracious gift or carve one out for ourselves as those alienated from God. Those really are the only two choices, however many variations there undoubtedly are. Gift or gained. Either God-centered or me-centered.[8]

          Me-centeredness is not necessarily banal, crass, or crude. It can be quite refined, educated, and subtle. But whether crass or subtle, the self, that I-dolater/I-dol, posits itself as the source of all that makes it what it is. Autonomy is the chief operating principle of this self. Everything we encounter is run through the filter of my perspective, my values, my preferences, and my options.

          Such autonomous I-dolater’s evidence various responses when confronted with God’s claim and call on their lives. They typically respond with defiance, subservience, or indifference.

-defiance: God is viewed as the enemy, a competitor with us for the good things in life, an “almighty tyrant.”[9] Philosopher Charles Taylor notes "The dignity of free, rational control came to seem genuine only free of submission to God..."[10] This is the “No thanks, God, I can do myself” response parents hear from their two year-olds.

-subservience: God is viewed as the “God with a Scowl” with whom we parley, negotiate, or beg to gain his good will. This is the religious response. “Default religion does not understand God as the good we need; rather is sees God as enjoying these goods in an unlimited way and only grudgingly sharing them with us. We have to beg,” notes Highfield.[11] This form depends on viewing God as a manipulable diety who we hope can be pacified by flattery and promises.

-indifference: Here, whatever thoughts or ideas of God we may entertain, make no difference in our lives. We can call this “practical atheism, if we like, of the sort made famous in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.[12] Highfield notes four type of indifference we may well meet in others:

1. the esthetic: the person who immerses him or herself in "esthetic experience," in "feeling without the interruption of thought" with the goal of sensual stimulation, leaving little room for thought about other matters. 

2. the conformist: one whose goal is success as defined by the dominant culture.  

3. the celebrity: one whose goal is public praise, "a longing to be known and to exist in the thoughts of others.” Neither of these leave room for thought about God.  

4. the agnostic: which is a justifying of indifference toward God in thought. It’s focused on the world and its values, not on God. If God is recognized at all, he is seen as inactive, and if inactive, indifferent to us.[13] 

Autonomy, authority, freedom, and dignity are central assertive themes of a Me-Culture. Each has a shadow side, though, mainly seen in those who do not feel or believe they can assert themselves the ways just noted. Rather, their flight from a God-centered identity shows in passivity, obedience, helplessness, and often a good measure of self-hate.

“At times we seek in pride to become gods,
           denying the good limits that define us as creatures.
           At other times we draw back in apathy,
           refusing to fulfill our human responsibilities.”[14]
 

In either assertive or passive mode a further factor makes the reality even more complex. And that’s that not only are we all sinners but we are all sinned against too. Or in other words, we are victimizers and victims at the same time. And the two are inextricably and ultimately unfathomably bound up with one another. To understand our victimizing means also understanding (as best we can) how we have been victimized. The latter does not excuse the former but does promote understanding and empathy. The ripples of sin embrace all of us in different ways and create a multitudinous network of destruction that defies description even as it does our best efforts at rectification.

          Seeing others empathetically not simply as sinners who are sinned against but as the royal priest each of them is called to be by God has implications we will look at later when we consider the shape of the gospel.



[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2, 387.
[2] A Declaration of Faith, ch.4, ll.36-48.
[3] A Declaration of Faith, ch.2, ll.111-125.
[5] Though the lists vary in content and order, the seven listed here have become standard since the work of Pope Gregory in the 6th century.
[6] “The Uraeus, the rearing cobra symbol was one of the most important Egyptian Symbols and frequently seen in images and pictures of ancient Egypt. The word Uraeus derives from the Egyptian word "iaret" meaning "risen one" from the image of a cobra rising up in protection. The Uraeus the cobra symbol was an emblem ancient Egyptian Gods and Pharaohs and strongly features in the paintings, images and Hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, gods and goddesses. The Uraeus, cobra symbol was a potent emblem of sovereignty, royalty and divine authority in ancient Egypt.” http://www.landofpyramids.org/uraeus.htm.
[7]In his space fantasy novel Out of the Silent Planet C. S. Lewis portrays creatures gone wrong as “bent eldils.”
[8] The work of Ron Highfield, God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (Downer Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013) is very helpful on the material in this section.
[9] Highfield, God, Freedom and Human Identity, 43.
[10] Cited in Highfield, 47.
[11] Highfield, God, Freedom and Human Identity, 50.
[12] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[13] Highfield, God, Freedom and Human Dignity, 67-75.
[14] A Declaration of Faith, ch.2, ll.118-121.

No comments:

Post a Comment