Gerhard Forde and “On Being a theologian of the Cross”

The following is a post I’ve thrown together from notes and underlines made for preparation to teach on Luther’s conception of the bound will using Gerhard Forde’s On Being a theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. I figured: why not share it with you, Beloveds 🤓

Gerhard Forde,[1] considering theses 13-17 in “The Problem of the Will,” asks the question, “If we are overwhelmed and captivated by grace alone, can we claim to play a part in the matter?”[2] In discussing the role of the will of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith, he contends with the notion that we do a “little bit,” which, for Forde, is the claim of the theologian of glory. The idea: if we do our best, God will give us the desired grace.[3] “Can we or will we by our own natural powers, doing our best, prepare for the reception of grace? Are we free to will that?”[4]

Forde’s answer to the question posed is a resounding: no. There are reasons for this:

“If there is to be salvation, it cannot come by the will’s own movement. That means that there must be a death and a resurrection. The cross stands behind the question of the will. The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16).”[5]

For Luther, and thus for Forde, the idea of the electing God is—at its roots—abhorrent to us. We abhor the good; unlike Aquinas’s argument that we are always in search of the good and are ontologically connected through our intellect to the being of God (thus seeking God)—Luther strikes a different chord. We aren’t looking for the good or God and we are content to do as we please. In other words: we are very content to keep ourselves as Lords of our small kingdoms. “We can’t accept an electing God. We will not will it.”[6]

Thesis 13 “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin.”

“Free will” at best is a concept and not an empirical truth and certainly not a “God gave us free will it’s in the bible” type of claim. To argue for the actuality of “free will” is to argue, according to Forde, against the electing God. Even just a “miniscule” amount will work against the electing God and this proves Luther’s point that we abhor the idea of the electing God (and are in bondage of the will). That the will does not will to hand itself over to death, it is, since the fall “an empty name.”[7] It is free to will what it wills (itself) but not what it will not will (the electing God), thus it is not free.[8]

And this gets us to:

“Thesis 14: Free will after the fall has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”

As is the case with anything that or anyone who is bound, they need liberation that comes from the outside. When we are stuck, we are in a passive capacity and need help from a non-stuck source (i.e. not ourselves).[9] This coincides with the dialectic of death and life prominent in the kerygma of Christ. Christ does not resurrect himself from death but is resurrected; same to for the Christian in the encounter with God in the event of faith: she is brought through death into newness of life not of her doing but of the Lord’s.[10]

“Thesis 16: The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty”

“Thesis 17: Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”

Forde highlights that we grow uncomfortable as the theses drive home that we are not free not to sin but very much free to only sin and do “evil.”[11]

“The theologian of glory in us is beginning to cry out in frustration and despair! There is nothing to hold on to, no support left, nothing to do. Then the last-ditch defense is tried. ‘If all I do is sin, why not just quit? Why not just forget it all and sink into complete indifferent?’”[12]

For Luther and for Forde, there is a deep need to let God be God. There’s no claim we can put on God by our works as if we can hold God to a deal: If I do my part then you will *have to* do your part.  This is an objectification of God. If God is to be wholly other and we are to throw ourselves completely and totally depend on this wholly other God, then we cannot bring anything to the table. (And are we even at the table? Or, do we need to also *be* encountered by God?)

 

So, we obtain Grace through humility and not by “doing what is in one.” Humility is when we do not plead our case or try to self-justify but when we just confess and wait for justice (faith) which never comes in the form we expect. It arrives in absolution in grace in life—we are brought *out of* death in *into* new life. This type of humility must be differentiated from the “humility piety” (i.e. the “humbling the self” in an effort to save the self); this would render humility to be a work.[13]

One could argue that self-inflicted humility piety is not even humility. Humility is a death of the self and needs an active action of God for resurrection. We can be humbled; we don’t actually humble ourselves.[14]  “Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”[15] And, “The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.”[16] Humility is coming to the end of the self and the self’s ability to justify the self but it is here where we are encountered with mercy and grace. When the self (and with it the will) is brought to the end of itself it is free to confess and in this freedom to confess it is—for the first time—doing what it should: being honest. Or, in good Luther terms (what it means to be a good theologian of the Cross): calling a thing what it is.[17]

“Thesis 18: It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”

The distinction here is how to properly define “despair.” Forde explains, that this despairing is despairing of the ability of the self to receive God.[18] Forde,

“It is itself possible only because the grace of Christ has brought new hope…At the same time it is true that such preaching brings about the final surrender of faith in self, the ‘utter despair of our own ability’ that is inspired by and prepares to receive the grace of Christ. Ultimate despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so lead to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.”[19]

In this “utter” despairing we are brought to the foot of the cross in confession and are received and receive Christ as absolution/forgiveness. “Utter” despairing is not “ultimate” despairing, which leads to death unto death (the domination of toil and “actual”). “Utter” despair brings life out of death (the dominion of work and “possible”). If we are using our works as a means to self-justify, we are entering further into the realm of toiling (works in domination over us) and this is a battle we will not win. But to come to, to be brought to the end of ourselves and confess is to gain the entire world including ourselves in fullness and freedom and our works back as just works in their right place under our dominion.

 

[1] This is a book I’ve been reading since I’ve been teaching it to a group of students, introducing them to the concept of the bound will as it comes from Luther. Most of my students are more exposed to the concept of the free will and are briefly exposed to determinism. So, I thought it would be helpful to dive in a bit deeper to nuance some of these claims more. What follows here are from my underlines and notes made in the book in preparation to teach the class.

[2] Gerhard Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation 1518 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 49.

[3] Forde 50.  “Luther’s teachers were from a particular branch of late medieval scholasticism (Nominalism) that held that if we ‘do what is in us,’ that is, if we do our best, we can be assured that God will not fail to give us the desired grace.”

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

[6] Forde 52; Determinism rejected because of willing the things below in free choice. We do what we want no matter what we hold philosophically speaking.

[7] Forde 52-3. “There must be some free will, no matter how minuscule. But the very claim is itself evidence of bondage over against the electing God…The theological of the cross…sees that that is exactly the problem, and therefore recognizes and confesses that, since the fall, free will does not exist in reality. It is an empty name.”

[8] Forde 54. “The will is bound to will what it wills. After the fall, it is bound by sin, hence not free.” And, “…when the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. It commits deadly sin because it refuses to recognize the power of God to save and cuts off from grace…We refuse to live by the cross.”

[9] Forde 55. “In its passive capacity the will can do good when it is acted upon from without but. Not on its own, not in an active capacity.”

[10] Forde 55. “Since will after the fall is dead and bound to do deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death but could only be commanded from without by our Lord.” Same concept applies, for Forde, to Thesis 15 and remaining in innocence in the Garden.

[11] I’d like to add that this “evil” in relation to our actions of our bound will is about our desire to add to the vertical realm our activity and actions as a means to participate in a type of self-justification either in the place of or alongside of the grace of God which justifies us with God. This is not that our horizontal works are “evil” and thus should always be avoided, but when we try to use those as a means for our justification with God is when they become “evil”.

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

[17] Forde 64. “Despair would rather come if one is falsely optimistic and tells them that they don’t need a physician while they steadily decline toward death. …The theologian of the cross knows that we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.”

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

Jesus of Nazareth the Christ: A short post on Gerhard Ebeling’s views of Christology.

The following is something I wrote for an advanced theology class I’m cultivating/forming, and I tasked my self with completing the first assignment. The text assigned was from Word and Faith by Gerhard Ebeling, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” which is an essay written in Honor of Rudolf Bultmann’s 75th birthday. It’s fun to participate in a project like developing this type of class, and putting yourself on the spot. The students have the opportunity to critical engage my work; I stand not above them, but with them. I wanted to share here what I wrote because 1. I’ve been meaning to process the concept of the Historical Jesus specifically from Ebeling’s view for my own work; and, 2. why not? Enjoy, Beloveds. 

 

Proving Jesus existed cannot be the sole foundation for faith. Making an apologetic for faith out of Jesus the man is a mere throwing words into the wind. Faith extends beyond that which can be discerned by the five senses—that is the realm for science or religion. To actualize by scroll and parchment the humanity of the Jesus of Nazareth merely means that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, existed at one point in time. If the Christian claim was only Jesus as a great moral exemplar, well, then, maybe we’d have something to go on. However, that’s not the laudatory aspect of the gospel proclamation; there’s nothing substantially good or new about another good man being a good human. Yet, the proclamation of the gospel is both good and new; as it pertains to Jesus of Nazareth something else must be at work especially if, christologically speaking, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the communication of faith.

 

In his chapter, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” Gerhard Ebeling makes this statement, “The encounter with Jesus as the witness to faith, however, is without limitation an encounter with himself. For the concentration on the coming to expression of faith—and that alone!—is the ground of the unity of ‘person’ and ‘work’, but for that reason also the ground of the totality of the encounter,” (298). And then Ebeling adds, “Faith’s view of Jesus must therefore assert itself as a furtherance to the historical view of Jesus. For faith itself is the coming to its goal of what came to expression in Jesus. The [one] who believes is with the historical Jesus,” (298). There was a man Jesus of Nazareth and the early church recorded and proclaimed very specific things about him. Thus, seemingly opposing my first comment: Jesus’s existence is everything for faith. It is in encounter with Christ (both then and now through the proclamation of the Word of God) that is the beckoning of the event of faith. There must be a man named Jesus who is of Nazareth to make the claim that this particular man is God.

 

Faith is not strict intellectual assent to the actuality of the human person named Jesus who is of Nazareth. Rather, faith asserts something about this particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. (This is the same distinction Ebeling highlights between the claims about the historical Jesus and the early church’s proclamation of Christ (300-301).) Faith is that event by which the person is encountered by God through the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised. In hearing the word the person is seized by the proclamation and faith assents: behold God. Ebeling, “To belong to Jesus means to believe, and to believe means to belong to Jesus. Faith is not a form that can be given any content at will, but is the very essence of the matter, the thing that came with Jesus Christ, the content of revelation, the gift of salvation itself,” (303). Faith explains how one moves from the demand, crucify him! To surely, this was the son of God.

 

To have faith in Christ is not because of any one thing or picture or idea presented about Jesus (304). Faith’s grounding is this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God. To quote Ebeling, “…the sole ground of faith is Jesus as the witness to faith in the pregnant sense of the ‘author and finisher of faith’,” (304). Ruled out here are any claims to reason and will or even to fear as the basis for one believing in Jesus as the savior of the world. Faith is new every morning because it asserts new every morning what came to expression in Jesus (304). It is timeless because it is the event of the encounter with God who is unrestricted by time. The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sins and raised for justification is the means by which the hearer is beckoned into the encounter and thus into faith and grafted into the universal and eternal message of God’s dealings with the entire world.

Robert Vosloo on Bonhoeffer, Human Life, and Time

Since I’m not on any form of social media right now, I don’t have access to tweet out what I’m reading. So, I’ll be providing interesting quotes from work I’m engaging with for my dissertation via blog post (for the foreseeable future).

I’m very intrigued and have been deeply invested in comprehending Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his conception of the created orders (what he refers to as the divine mandates) and how he employs (or doesn’t employ?) Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. (I very literally read every essay and journal article that comes across my radar pertaining to these topics.) Comprehending Bonhoeffer’s doctrines here helps with my engagement with Friedrich Gogarten since he’s employing in his work the same concepts yet in different ways. Bonhoeffer and Gogarten are (for a bit) contemporaries. While there’s a near 20 year difference in age between them (Gogarten being older), there’s a decent chronological overlap with their work–until the 40s when Gogarten gets sick and doesn’t write for about a decade and Bonhoeffer dies in 1945. Anyway, while the overlap is breif (located more in the 20s and 30s), there’s still an overlap…one I’m fascinated with.

There are times when I read something off topic to round out my view to Bonhoeffer. And that’s where Robert Vosloo comes in. I cam across his article, “The Feeling of Time: Bonhoeffer on Temporality and The Fully Human Life” (found in Scriptura 99 (2008) pp 337-349). I loved it. I feel the title captures the essence of the article, and I don’t need to explain too much here about the content of the article. However, I’m offering the following quotes, which I found striking and worthy to share. Be sure, the entire article is definitely worth the time to read and it’s very well written.

(fwiw: the internal quotes within the quotes below are pulled from various works of Bonhoeffer.)

“[Bonhoeffer] wants to think about time with regard to the ethical demand arising from the confrontation with another person. The self enters a state of responsibility and decision at the moment of being addressed by another person. The person that is being addressed is not the idealist’s person of mind or reason but ‘the person in concrete, living individuality.’ This is the person that does not exist ‘in timeless fullness of value and spirit, but in a state of responsibility in the midst of time.’ It is the moment of responsibility in the midst of time that gives birth to the ethical.” (340)

“The temporal intention of a community is to reach the boundary of time (grenzzeitlich) and that of society is time bound (zeitbegrenzt). The eschatological character of community is the basis of the ‘holiness’ of human community life. this holiness reveals the fundamental indissolubility of these life structures. Over against this, society remains time bound and thus the end of history is for society a real end, not merely a boundary. For Bonhoeffer this is the reason why only a community (and not a society) can become a church. Thus the grappling with the concept of tie is for Bonhoeffer important in order to understand the concept of the church. For Bonhoeffer the church is no an unattainable ideal, but a concrete and present reality. The community is in time, but also transcends time. This dialectic s at the hart of Christ’s relation to the church. This relationship is to be understood in a dual sense: ‘(1) The church is already completed in Christ, time is suspended. (2) The Church is to be built within time as the firm foundation. Christ is the historical principle of the church.'” (341).

“For Bonhoeffer, revelation should be thought of in reference to the concept of the church as constituted by the present proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christian revelation is not something that has happened in the past, but as something in each ‘present’: ‘Christian revelation must occur in the present precisely because it is, in the qualified once-and-for-all occurrence of the cross and the resurrection of Christ, always something “of the future.”‘ Bonhoeffer’s plea is not merely for the importance of the ‘present’, but he also understand the present Christologically.” (344)

“‘…The church must not preach timeless principles however true, but only commandments that are true today. God is “always” God to us “today.”‘  And he continues by emphasizing that these words need embodiment. The gospel becomes concrete in the lives of those who hear and preach.” (345)

“Throughout Bonhoeffer’s Ethics we see Bonhoeffer’s commitment to concrete reality and historic existence. If the question of the good is abstracted from life and history, it becomes a static basic formula that transposes humans into a private and ideal vacuum. This leads either to private withdrawal or misguided enthusiasm. Bonhoeffer’s ethics is a critique of the abstract and the timeless and a plea for the concrete and timeful. This finds it [sic] deepest motivation in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the interrelation between theology and life. Reflection on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of temporality cannot be separated from his concern for living a fully human life in the face of God’s presence. For Bonhoeffer ‘ethics’  is tied to a definite time and place…Bonhoeffer wants to guard against what he calls the ‘unhealthy takeover of life by the ethical.’ Such a pathological overburdening of life by the ethical destroys the creaturely wholeness of life.” (345)

“In the beginning of this essay, I remarked that the challenge is not merely to reflect on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of time, but also to think with Bonhoeffer (and Levinas) about a more fully human life amidst what can be called an economization of time. Something of the economization of time is reflected in the uncritical embrace of phrases like ‘time is money.’ Time is viewed as something people ‘spend’ or ‘save.’ Time becomes a valuable commodity that one looses if you go to slow. Life becomes a matter of the survival of the fastest. In the process, those who are not fast or mobile enough are marginalized and often suffer materially and emotionally. ‘Economic time’ often infiltrates life in such a way that time for the other, time for hospitality, time for friendships or leisure, is view, often unconsciously, as an unproductive waste of time. Time becomes a valuable possession of the individual to be managed and protected. Such an economization of time robs humanity of its humanness and compromises the witness of Christians to the God who became time and flesh in Jesus Christ.” (347)

“Bonhoeffer’s theology and life testifies to the importance of making and receiving time for the other, time for friendship, time for responsible hospitality and time for peace. The gift of time is what makes us vulnerable, but it is also what enables us to live a full human life….In his reflection After Ten Years…Bonhoeffer writes about the value of time and the pain of lost time. He continues, ‘Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer; it is time that has not been filled up, but left empty.’… ‘We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.’ In an economizing and polarizing global society of societies, the kairos for Christian witness may reside in the ability to find time for and through the suffering other.” (348)

Bit of Bonhoeffer

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, “Heritage and Decay” pp. 128-31

 

“Faced with the abyss of nothingness, the question about a historical heritage that we must make our own, use in the present, and pass on to the future is snuffed out. There is no future and no past. There remains only the present moment rescued from nothingness and the desire to grasp the next moment. Already yesterday’s concerns are consigned to forgetfulness, and tomorrow’s are too far away to obligate us today. The burden of yesterday is shaken off by glorifying shadowy times of old; the task of tomorrow is avoided by talking about the coming millennium. Nothing is fixed, and nothing holds us. The film, vanishing from memory as soon as it ends, symbolizes the profound amnesia of our time. Events of world-historical significance, along with the most terrible crimes, leave no trace behind in the forgetful soul, gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking. Every inner development, every process of slow maturing in personal and vocational life, is abruptly broken off. There is no personal destiny and therefore no personal dignity. Serious tensions, inwardly necessary times of waiting, are not endured. This is evident in the domain of work as well as in erotic life. Slow pain is more feared than death. The value of suffering as the forming of life through the threat of death is disregarded, even ridiculed. The alternatives are health or death. What is quiet, lasting, and essential is discarded as worthless. ‘Great convictions’ and the search for one’s own way are replaced by a frivolous sailing with the wind. In the political sphere, taking ruthless advantage of the moment is labeled Machiavellianism, and betting the bank is called heroic, a free action. What is neither Machiavellian nor heroic can be understood only as ‘hypocrisy’ by those who no longer comprehend the slow, hard struggle between knowing what is right and what is necessary at the time, that is, that kind of genuine Western politics, which is full of concessions and of really free responsibility. So strength is disastrously confused with weakness, loyalty [Bindung] to history with decadence. Because there is nothing that lasts, trust, the foundation of historical life, is destroyed in all its forms. Because truth is not trusted, specious propaganda takes over. Because justice is not trusted, whatever is useful is declared to be just. Even unspoken trust in other people that is based on constancy turns into mutually suspicious hour-by-hour observation. To the question, What is left? There is only one answer: fear of nothingness. The most astonishing observation one makes today is that people surrender everything in the face of nothingness: their own judgment, their humanity, their neighbors. Where this fear is exploited without scruple, there are no limits to what can be achieved.”

An Intersection of Marx and Jesus: A (very) brief examination of the two through the book of James [by William Brien]

The following was written by a student of mine, William Brien, and I found the content quite insightful. As a caveat, Brien writes “I submit this piece with only a limited understanding of Marxism, therefore if I am panned for misconstruing it I yield my position to the experts.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Also, I’d like to add that these insights are merely those: insights. He is, “giving credit where credit is due.” He’s a true intellectual who does not have to profess allegiance to something in order to see what value it may offer. None of the following determines his religious or political inclinations.

Never in the history of humankind has a doctrine been so viciously contorted as that of Christianity. It has been used as justification for atrocities ranging from the Holocaust, to Apartheid, and even Jim Crow. The symbiotic relationship between Russia’s Orthodox Church and the Tsarist regime served as a bulwark of aristocratic rule amid the mass killing and famines of the early 20th century empire. Yet the egalitarianism promoted in the Christian scripture itself directly contradicts the oppressive status quo it has been used to preserve. The Epistle of James condemns the hypocrisy of elitism, saying,

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?… Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? (2:2-6).

Perhaps the radical Marx could have found a friend in James. Indeed, the apostle’s contrast between the “dishonored” poor and the “rich who oppress” and “drag [the poor] into court” is very much reminiscent of The Communist Manifesto’s elite bourgeoisie guarding the means of production and subjugating the proletariat. The perpetuation of injustice, in accordance with this passage, is not the fulfillment of God’s plan, but a crude imitation designed to protect tyrannical authorities. Though these distortions led Marx to adopt a vehement opposition towards religion, ironically enough, the greed-filled class struggle which he proves to be the driver of socio-economic development towards socialism runs parallel to the greed and sin which drive the actions and thoughts of human beings as they work to become good Christians. It is the death of self-serving pursuit and the preservation of equality, whether through political and economic revolution or through compassion blind of class, which both doctrines wish to bring about.

The Toxicity of Toxic Language: When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.