Absurdity of Faith

Albert Camus and “The Myth of Sisyphus”

What if there’s no reason or purpose to anything? What if being alive necessitates an awareness that life is rather pointless? What if all there is, all we can actually know is the absurdity of our existence? And, what if that’s okay?

“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But , on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divest of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stetting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.”[1]

I have an entirely new respect for the absurd after reading The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. In fact, Camus gave me words to identify something what has followed me most of my conscious life: what is the purpose? Not merely: What is my purpose? But: What is the purpose of anything? There are times I contemplate beauty and question its reason for being. Think of the multitude of flowers–the vast variety of not only classification but of variations of color, form, size, and smell within each classification—there’s some absurdity there. I get that there’s something explanatory embedded in the theory of evolution, but at the same time the sheer multiplicity of variation betrays that not even the theory of evolution can address why this rose is this way and that one that way any better than just cuz.

Even all of our best efforts to explain all the nuances of creation (of our and the world’s) through the apologetic of the existence for God have never satiated the question. Every apologetic for God and for our purpose has consistently left me with my question still in tact and on my lips, …but why? The only explanation that has ever made any sense was that none of it makes any sense. Even with the notion that God is love and God loves and thus that love–being dynamic and creative–created this world as an object of God’s love, and all that is in it and of it is representative of that love…the reason for God’s love movement is still baffling and doesn’t make sense. It’s alway and everywhere: just because.

One of my very bright and capable of students made reference in one of his papers to the idea and the certainty of the Christian claim that God is love and loves us specifically: why would an almighty being like God deign to care about puny humans? He’s right; it’s rather absurd to think and to make this claim as true. But maybe the underbelly of God’s activity and presence is less about sense-making, but absurdity. Maybe God is absurd. The gift of God’s grace to people who do not earn it (justification by faith in Christ alone)[2] and the righteousness of God that is righteousness that makes righteous,[3] are absurd. The gospel is offensive because of its absurdity and not because it makes sense.

“Any though that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.”[4]

Rather than being the fodder of an existential crisis, absurdity, as Camus presents it, is the stuff of radical living. It’s like being able to give up all of your coveted doctrines that you cling to as reason for believing in whatever God you believe in and just believing in that God. It’s scary as hell, but once embraced the freedom is unparalleled. The dark night of the soul is the wrestling with the pointlessness of life and the nonsense of existence and finding in that moment sense and point: just because. The question shifts from …but why? to …why not? The former slows to numbing slumber upon slumber while the later propels into existence upon existence (in quantity[5]). The way Camus plays his philosophy out, the person who sees and performs the absurd of existence is the one who is liberated and thus the one who is given a present defined through revolt, freedom, and diversity. The mundane and banality of the everyday becomes glorious, because that’s the paradox of the absurd, the paradox of grace.

“All that remains is a fate whole outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics—in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the territorial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”[6]

 

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Trans Justin O’Brien. New York, NY: Vintage International, Vintage Books (Random House) 1955. Le Mythe de Sisyphe France: Librairie Gallimard, 1942.

[1] Camus 6

[2] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians vol. 26 LW pp. 113-4, “I am saying this in order that we may learn the doctrine of justification with the greatest diligence and distinguish most clearly between the Law and the Gospel. On this issue we must not do anything out of insincerity or yield submission to anyone if we want to keep the truth of the Gospel and the faith sound and inviolate; for, as I have said, these are easily bruised. Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, b of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business. The Law, too, deserves a hearing, but in its proper place and time. When Moses was on the mountain speaking with God face to face, he neither had nor established nor administered the Law. But now that he has come down from the mountain, he is a law giver and rules the people by the law. So the conscience must be free from the Law, but the body must obey the Law”

[3] Eberhard Jüngel, Jüngel, “Living Out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency.” Theological Essays II. (Ed. J.B. Webster. Trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 243. “What follows will therefore try to explain the extent to which the message of justification brings light and life not only into our hearts and our church but also equally into our world. It is no doubt for this reason that the synod has placed its work under the title: ‘Living out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency’. Yet already at this point I stop short. The subtitle of this theme can potentially blind us to a decisive point of the message of justification at the outset. For it suggests that human agency directly and exclusively corresponds to divine action. Thus one is given the impression that the relevance of divine action for humanity is ethical and only ethical. But thereby something decisive of what the gospel of justification of sinners has to say is lost. If God’s righteousness brings forth life, new human life, then the question of our being has priority over the question of our agency. And prior to both questions is certainly the question of God himself.

[4] Camus, 116.

[5] Ibid, 72ff. I’d argue that it is both quantity and quality as long as quality doesn’t mean scarcity but substance. I see quality playing out with the reference to Don Juan. And quality is not antinomy to quantity.

[6] Ibid, 117-8

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.

Frankenstein’s Requiem: A Sermon on Romans 6:1-11

Introduction

I’d like to open with a quote from one of my favorite theologians, Eberhard Jüngle,

“That Jesus Christ was made sin for us by God means that the destruere et in nihilum redigere [to destroy/demolish/tear down and to reduce/drive back/render into nothing/ness] which is enacted in and with our sin is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he and he alone dies the accursed death which we live. Jesus’ death on the cross is grace, since it reveals that in the midst of life we are in death. He makes manifest the nothingness which the sinner celebrates under the illusory appearance of being. Or at least Jesus’ death on the cross reveals this when we allow it to speak for itself (that is, according to the law).” Eberhard Jüngel[1]

The best way for me to explain what Jüngel is saying is: apart from Christ we are the walking dead. I think Paul in Romans 6:1-11 is saying something similar (and lucky you, that’s the passage we’ll be looking at this morning). St. Paul writes, “Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, in this manner we also might walk in newness of life” (v.4; translation mine). If we are in Christ as the living, walking in the newness of life, then apart from Christ we are the dead, but yet we move and exist in this state, thus, we’re the walking dead. Yes, we’re essentially zombies apart from Christ.

Let me quote Jüngel once more here,

“For part of human actuality is our striving to realize ourselves and thus to determine our own being through our own achievements. Expressed in biblical terms, the whole of our life-context is qualified by the reality of sin, which does not just simply make the human person bad—that would be the moralistic understanding of sin!—but rather which exposes human persons to the illusion that they can make themselves good.”[2]

While I think the image of zombies is a good one, I have to confess: I think our state apart from Christ, apart from the event of justification is actually far worse than merely a zombie existence. It’s a sham existence. Let’s be clear, in no way shape or form are zombies giving any thought about making themselves good, and they are certainly not trying to strive to realize themselves through their own achievements. They are the dead, the barely animated, they just act from a primal, base, neurological response from the bottom of the brain-stem.

We, on the other hand, are worse off because we are actively trying to self-realize (striving to do so), to make ourselves good. A better image maybe be: we’re hack humans, random parts thrown and sewn together, products of the scientist Frankenstein gone mad who is locked in our minds, who is each of us. Apart from Christ and on our own, we stumble about, alone, turned inward, bent on our own justification.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)

Paul begins chapter 6 in the book of Romans by asking a question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v.1b). In other words, should we desire to do evil in a way that causes grace to abound? And before anyone gets the chance to reply, Paul answers his own question, “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (v.2). Very literally, the Greek here means: hell no; absolutely, positively not; in no way shape or form is this a plausible thought; never, ever, ever think this.

Paul has such a strong response to the question, because, as Martin Luther writes, “…this idea [desiring to do evil to make grace abound] is absolutely contrary to the work of grace”.[3] God’s grace given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit by faith (also a gift) doesn’t manifest itself in our lives as that which desires to do evil; rather its presence brings about the opposite. For Paul, that which participates in the realm of death has no business meddling in the realm of life.[4] And if we’re taking the Easter story seriously, which I believe we should, then those of us who are Christ’s own by faith and who have received God’s grace are the resurrected thus the living and the living aren’t dead.

It’s simple logic, but let it sit in.

Not only does Paul give a fixed “Ah, hell no!” to his question, he furthers the intensity of his response with a “how”, a “how” that is a densely packed argument that illuminates that the train of thought—that we should continue in desiring to do evil in order for grace to abound—doesn’t have an engine. Paul’s argument: that thing that you’ve died to and have been resurrected from you can never go back to because your resurrection in Christ has defeated it, returning is an impossibility.

Also, nothing we do makes grace abound; we weren’t the ones who caused it or brought it in the first place. Grace, divine grace, is strictly divine territory. When it comes to making grace abound, He got this.

But before I move on, I want to add that Paul isn’t arguing that now as Christians we are never sinning or are without sin, that would be a lie (1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”). “We,” according to St. Augustine, “…are in sin until the end of our life…‘Until our body is raised to life and death is swallowed up in victory, our evil desires will afflict us’.”[5] There is always the war that wages between that which we desire to do (the good) and that which we do do (the evil). The brilliant aspect of the divine deposit of faith and the Holy Spirit lies in the shift in our desires; in Christ, we now desire to do the good although we still do evil. Paul will drive this point home (in a number of places) but specifically in the very next chapter in the book of Romans, chapter 7, when he writes,

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. retched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv.15, 21-24).

Jesus himself says, “‘…the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Mt 26:41b; also, Mk 14:38b). The desire to do good should not be brushed off, counted as nothing, for here in this desire of the spirit to do good by the Spirit is where good works are born.

And we can have assurance of this spiritual deposit because, as Paul says vv.3-4, returning to our text in Romans 6,

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Luther writes, “…the threefold dipping of Baptism signifies the three-day death period and the burial of Christ, into Christ Jesus, that is, by faith in Christ Jesus, were baptized into His death, that is through the merit and power of his death”.[6] This is why baptism is tantamount for Luther, this is why throughout his life he returns to his baptism (recalls it) in times of trial because in this simple act, what seems like a simple act, is the outward sign of an inward reality: we have died with Christ and in dying with Christ we are raised with Him; as He dies we die, and as he lives we live. In baptism, in this death,

“is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is released and separated from sin and the body is separated form corruption and through grace and glory is joined to the living God.…For to this kind of death alone belong in an absolute and perfect way the conditions of death, and in this death alone whatever dies perishes totally and into eternal nothingness, and nothing will ever return from this death because it truly dies an eternal death. This is the way sin dies; and likewise the sinner, when he is justified, because sin will not return again for all eternity, as the apostle says here, ‘Christ will never die again’”[7]

This is Luther’s way of explaining the “destruere et in nihilum redigere” mentioned by Jüngle at the beginning of the sermon. What occurs in our baptism, what occurs by faith, what occurs by Christ’s advent and death and resurrection is the destruction, the demolishing, the tearing down and the reducing and driving back and rendering to nothing/nothingness all that belongs to the realm of death. All of our suffering, grief, sorrow, pain, fear, sin, condemnation, and death itself receives the divine verdict: no, no more. And over that verdict, in a louder voice do we receive our divine verdict: yes. In this yes to us and no to death we lose our (old) lives and thus receive our (new) lives, we find our lives in Christ by faith “‘and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).

So, Paul Continues…

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:5-8)

Through what Christ has done for us, by his advent and death and resurrection (and ascension) and our encounter with the living God, by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we escape death, and, to quote Luther again, this “…means to enter into a life which is without death.”[8] Though our body dies, for now, we live as those who walk in the newness of life because that which has been sentenced to death–not us–is dead (for good) because it has not been raised–like we are. We have been “spiritually” planted “with Him who was planted bodily” by a death like his which is signified by baptism.[9]

We’ve not been sentenced to death in Christ, but to life: we’ve been given life, and life abundant not only in the future, but, more importantly, in the here and now.[10] Because, our old selves have been “crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6); thus, we are no longer slaves to sin in that our old selves and the sinful nature no longer have dominion over us.

By the grace of God, we are free, in the truest sense of the word: free, liberated, loosed from that which has bound us, healed (albeit imperfectly now) of the “extremely deep infection of this inherited weakness and original poison, by which a man seeks his own advantage even in God Himself.”[11] By the grace of God, we are united together with Christ in his death and thus in his resurrection and life, and we are free from sin and its accompanying threats and condemnation. (vv.7-8).

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:9-11).

Now that death has no dominion over Christ (he will never die again), death ought not and does not have dominion over us.[12] According to Luther, “[Christ] is our life, and through faith He flows into us and remains in us by the rays of His grace. Therefore, just as Christ is eternal, so also the grace which flows out of Him is from His eternal nature.”[13] And this is what it means to be justified by faith apart from works: our eternal reception of God’s eternal grace.[14] The event of justification, that word of absolution heard (perpetually) by the hearer, parts space (like God did through Moses parting the sea) and stills time (like Jesus did the tumultuous stormy waves with one word) and the hearer is reborn (created out of nothing) into the present by the word of promise and sustained therein by the words of promise.

The past can no longer condemn you and your future is secured, rooted in the one that defeated future’s condemnation which is death. And this gift of the present, new life, and the word of promise by faith in Christ is given to you every day; this is what is actually given to you daily and, once for all (v.10); it will never be taken away from you (cf. Lk 10:38-42). “Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me” writes the Psalmist (Psalm 69:18). And God has answered us; God in Christ has answered us once and for all.

Having the entirety of what Christ offers to us by his life, death, and resurrection by faith alone, we walk in the newness of life. And this newness of life is not particularly simply and merely for us ourselves alone. Justification unifies with others, with our neighbor—my justification doesn’t occur in a vacuum, isolated from other people. This unifying event of justification with our neighbor means that not only are we united to Christ but we are also no longer on our own, stumbling about, alone, turned inward, bent on our own justification. Justification is a social event, the tie that binds me and you to each other in an intimate way. Make no mistake, this is the vital and manifested aspect of walking in the newness of life.

Correspondingly, just as Jesus suffered as His people were being persecuted by Saul (Acts 9), so to do we suffer when our neighbor suffers. In that we are bound to our neighbor in the event of justification, their pain is our pain, their oppression our oppression, their injustice our injustice. “From now on…regard no one according to the flesh…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16-17).  Not only is our relationship with God under a new heading, reconciled, so is our relationship with others. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not merely just for me, but for you and thus for me and for us and between us.

Being a new creation—remade by the work of God alone by faith alone—and walking in the newness of life means not only that which is of death has been sentenced to death and that which is of life shall live, but also that we have been given new eyes, new ears, a new heart, and new words to speak. In other words, to be a new creation walking in this gift of the newness of life is to have a radical and altered perspective that is rooted in the spirit and not in the flesh. There is (now) a radical discontinuity between who we were outside of Christ and who we are in Christ. When we used to see/think of only ourselves, we now see/think of/act and fight on behalf of others.

We are now no longer monstrous creations of the scientist Frankenstein. We are not thrown and sewn together, brought to life by the happenstance of nature’s electrical current. We are beautifully and wondrously remade by the intentional and consistent and life-giving word of God in Christ Jesus. We are, in every sense of the words, new creatures. Because, in light of being reconciled to God and our neighbor through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in light of the things of death (our old selves) being sentenced to death we have received our lives, our very new selves marked not by condemnation and slavery to sin but by divine grace and freedom and union with Christ and our neighbor.

And with this reality our voices can join with Jeremiah’s, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of the evildoers” (20:13).

[1] “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. (108)

[2] “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. (231)

[3] Luther’s Works: Lectures on Romans, vol 25 Hilton C. Oswald ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1972. 50.

[4] Ibid, 50.

[5] Ibid, Augustine qtd in Luther 308-9.

[6] Ibid 50.

[7] Ibid 310

[8] Ibid 311

[9] Ibid 51

[10] Luther “…that is, in resemblance of His death, because we have been buried into a mystical death” thus, “we shall certainly be raised, to a spiritual resemblance with Him, in a resurrection like His, that is, we shall become like it” (51)

[11] Ibid 313

[12] Ibid 52

[13] Ibid 315

[14] Ibid “…this expression ‘once for all’ (semel) does not determine the number of acts of repentance, but rather it is a commendation of the eternal nature of grace, and it denies the possibility of some other kind of righteousness, so that the meaning is that whoever has been baptized o has repented has already so escaped sin and acquired righteousness that never again for eternity is it necessary to escape sin or to acquire another righteousness. But this single and only righteousness is sufficient forever” (315-6).

The Indefatigable Regret of the Sham Existence

“The sinner’s relationlessness and the judgment of God’s wrath upon the sinner which takes place in and with sin is not revealed, however, as sin is enacted but only as it were in retrospect, within the brackets of the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel. Only in the one who knew no sin and yet was made sin for us (2 Cor 5.21) is the sinner revealed in relationlessness and sin. That Jesus Christ was made sin for us by God means that the destruere et in nihilum redigere which is enacted in and with our sin is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he and he alone dies the accursed death which we live. Jesus’ death on the cross is grace, since it reveals that in the midst of life we are in death. He makes manifest the nothingness which the sinner celebrates under the illusory appearance of being. Or at least Jesus’ death on the cross reveals this when we allow it to speak for itself (that is, according to the law).” Eberhard Jüngel[1]

Apart from Christ we are the walking dead; this is probably the most concise way for me to sum up what Jüngel is articulating in the quote above. Most of you may be thinking about zombies at this point; I don’t blame you, I am too. While I think the image of zombies is a good one, I have to confess that I think our state apart from Christ, apart from the event of justification is actually far worse than merely a zombie existence. It’s a sham existence. In the sham existence, we are “alienated from ourselves…a ‘corrupt nature’, that we, expressed in biblical language, are sinners.”[2] To push the definition a bit further,

“For part of human actuality is our striving to realize ourselves and thus to determine our own being through our own achievements. Expressed in biblical terms, the whole of our life-context is qualitied by the reality of sin, which does not just simply make the human person bad—that would be the moralistic understanding of sin!—but rather which exposes human persons to the illusion that they can make themselves good.”[3]

Let’s be clear, in no way shape or form are zombies giving any damn about making themselves good, and they are certainly not trying to strive to realize themselves through their own achievements. They are the dead, the barely animated, they just act from a primal base neurological response from the bottom of the brain-stem. We, on the other hand, are worse off because we are actively trying to self-realize (striving to do so), to make ourselves good.  And in trying to self-realize and make ourselves good, we have every opportunity to suffer under the immense weight of regret. And this type of regret makes me wish for nothing more than to be a zombie.

Regret is a relentless and indefatigable beast and it goes hand in hand with the sham existence. And by “regret” i mean that self-destructive, inwardly directed anger over events and circumstances of the past (distant and immediate). The area between what should have been or what could have been and what was or is is where regret lives. We regret things both inside and outside of our control: our bad choices and the bad things that happened to us. Let’s be clear, regret is different from conviction that is brought on by the Holy Spirit. Regret would rather work itself out unto destruction; conviction will always bring life. The feelings that course through one’s veins under the duress of regret are shame and condemnation; the feelings that make you wish for everything to end. The feelings under conviction, on there other hand, are feelings of being exposed yet comforted and accepted; the feelings that drive you toward life. It’s worth noting that the internal monologue of the mind is vastly different when experiencing regret and conviction; the difference being between self-focused and self-loathing language (death) v. other-focused (God and neighbor) and (thus) self-affirming language (life).

And the rather cruel part about regret is that it’s not easily silenced, especially from within the sham existence. That’s because when we go to silence this cruel voice within the sham existence our knee-jerk reaction is to correct it with good deeds, thus trying to nullify the voice of regret with the voice of approval. Pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps, doing better, and (maybe) turning a blind-eye to the past and blocking the memory of the failure in order to press on into the future, is akin to putting a band-aid on a major flesh wound. Maybe the louder approval sounds, the more I won’t hear regret’s condemning tirade. But it’s a lie; there’s no silencing the voice of regret…by our own power.

“However, Jesus’ death on the cross by no means only speaks for itself. It speaks in the gospel as the word of the cross. And precisely as the word of the cross, the gospel is the proclamation of the lordship of the risen one. More precisely: the gospel proclaims that the risen one lives as the crucified. And in this the death of Jesus comes to have its real meaning, namely as the event of the love of God (Jn 3.16). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies. The Christian is accompanied by this nothing ness in the double form revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection: as the end of the old and the beginning of the new, as a reminder of the judgment enacted in the sinner, and as the promise which surpasses judgment in the same way that grace has surpassed sin (Rom. 5.20).” Jüngel[4]

This is where proclamation of the Gospel becomes absolutely crucial. Unless an external event occurs to us (via hearing the Good News) we’ll continue to circle the proverbial drain that is our sham existence drowning in the water of regret. Our eyes and ears need to be opened.

Thus, the proclamation of the event of the cross causes the sinner to be made aware that she is a sinner but also that, by faith, she is created anew (simultaneously). In seeing the event of the cross and being made aware of her sham existence (“Justification”) the sinner dies to the self (he cannot die to herself until she is made aware of her sham existence); also, in the event of the cross and in being made aware of this sham existence she is made to die to herself, and thus to rise anew with Christ, created out of nothing since the former existence, the former person was brought to death. As is the way of the sham existence, so goes regret. Regret can only be dealt with by the cross and the event of justification. We can’t silence regret’s voice, but Christ’s “this is my beloved!” can. The words, the names that regret whispers to us in the dark of night are only undone by the words declared to us about us in the bright light of day, Christ himself, through the proclamation of the Gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner, of those alienated from themselves, those who are corrupt…you and me.

While I wish I could say that the death of the sham existence and with it regret’s tyranny is a once and done thing, it’s not. Yes, there is the initial encounter the human person has who hears the proclamation of the Gospel (for the first time newly) and suffers that initial death of the sham existence and the birth of the new life out of nothing. However, death to life is daily, sometimes even hourly, in the life of the believer. “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’” (Lk 9:23-4). The call to take up my cross demands a daily response, and to take up my cross is essentially to be brought to death of self and my sham existence. Taking up my cross necessitates a confession that I am not my own and that I am Christ’s. It demands that I admit that I’ve, once again, believed the lies of my sham existence and let regret regain its domination over me. In this taking up of my cross and in this confession is my death but in this death is life, life abundant, life true, where our ear is inclined to Christ’s voice and not that of regret.

Media vita in morte sumus, in the midst of life we are in death; but even more media morte in vita sumus, in the midst of death we are in life.” Jüngel[5]

[1] “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. (108)

[2] “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. (230)

[3] Ibid, 231.

[4]Possibility, 108-9.

[5] Ibid, 109

The End of Toil; Work Restored

What follows here is a concept/are concepts I’ve been wrestling with and have decided to put down on “paper”. I won’t claim that this post will bring you the standard comfort that I aim to bring in many of my posts; it’s not intended to do or be that word. Rather I’m looking at the concepts of rest and work, toil and work, the believer and work; I’m looking to process those words of rest and work. And, to those who have eyes to see, you may even see a deeper question I’m examining.

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26)

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15)

We were created to work.

I know this statement sounds odd coming from someone who often emphasizes the rest we have in Christ. So, I’ll reassure you upfront: there is no better word to me than the word of comfort that is the word of promise, who is Christ Himself, that grants, nay, creates rest for those who have the ears to hear. We have rest in Christ because by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are united to God and in Him is true rest and peace (with God, with others, and with self). We have rest because Jesus’ word never falls to the ground, it never comes back empty. God’s promises are facts because His word creates the very thing it desires: rest for the heavy laden; comfort for those who are burdened by suffering and sorrow; peace for the anxious. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28); because He is rest and He’s called us to Himself we therefore have (actual) rest.

Rest (and peace with it) is a significant word (and theme) not only in the first few chapters of Genesis, but throughout the biblical narrative. It’s notable that according to the Genesis story, humanity was created and ushered into its first day which was God’s day of rest. God worked then rested on the seventh day; we were created on the sixth and rested (on the seventh, our first day).

But rest isn’t the only word; as we contend with the word “rest,” we must also contend with the word “work.”

So, moving on along the story line: we rested and then we worked. Rest came first and work flowed forth from that rest.  The trajectory of the movement of work from rest is important for a few reasons, but for our purposes immediately this one reason will do: the work and dominion-having of our foreparents was built on and not merely towards the day of rest. (They weren’t “working for the weekend,[1] but out of the weekend.) Rest is the foundation of our work.

We weren’t created for rest but into rest; we were created to work.

“But it is appropriate here also to point out that man was created not for leisure but for work, even in the state of innocence” – Martin Luther[2]

The command to have dominion over the earth as uttered in Genesis 1 and again in 2, was not yet an odious word (that sad fact comes in Gen. 3); we were to have dominion over the earth and to work it (joyfully and obediently). Work, for Adam and Eve, was a pleasure, something that brought joy.

“…greater than these was the fact that Adam was fitted for eternal life. He was so created that as long as he lived in this physical life, he would till the ground, not as if he were doing an irksome task and exhausting his body by toil but with supreme pleasure, not as a pastime but in obedience to God and submission to His will” – Luther[3]

Work was to be a blessing, and as far as we know with the little information we have from the story it was. And to have this dominion was a uniquely human attribute for no beast was given or heard and understood the command that was uttered to the Adam and Eve.[4] (To work being an aspect of the imago dei so imprinted on humankind.)

But something happened and the humans together transgressed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, curses ensued that plagued humankind.

“‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.’” (Gen 3:17c-19)

In one quick word, work—that which was to bring joy and pleasure and to be done willingly and obediently—becomes toil; and in becoming toil, it will be done without joy, lacking pleasure, and it will impose itself as a demand on us which we will fight against. Working the ground will be a pain, a toil. And in this transition of work turning into toil (a pain), there is also a transition from working the ground being a part of the dominion humanity had over the earth to that work, being toil, now having domination over us. It is a labor and a toil to bring forth life and it is a labor and a toil to sustain life from the earth and on the earth. Humanity was cursed and so was our work.

But only for a period of time.

The promise of the Seed of the woman crushing the head of the snake hangs in the background (ref. Gen 3:15). And just as we were held under the custodial authority of the Law until faith (until Christ, the Seed) (ref. Gal 3:25-27), so we were held under toil’s domination…until faith, until Christ. And Christ has come because “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15); to save them from death and unto life, life abundant. And that abundant life that we are given incorporates our person, our being, and our activity. In Christ we are given true life and true existence; in Christ work ceases to be toil and becomes work again.

But for me to now say something like, “now that you have life, go work!” would be coarse at best and futile at worst. I can sit here all day and speak of how work and activity are now not toil but work to be enjoyed and seen as a blessing and a pleasure; but those words will fall on deaf ears if those doing the hearing haven’t first been impacted by the external-to-themselves event that is the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner.

So, for the person to see work as work (dominion-having) and not as toil (work dominating), two things need to happen: I need to be brought to death (by the Law) and be recreated (by the Gospel), and I need work to be transformed from toil. In hearing the word of the Law, I am brought to death because I see that I am toiling trying to justify myself by my works, that I am finding my identity, purpose, and self in my works; from this I need rest and that rest is wrought through the death that comes from the word of the Law. But not only from the word of the law, but also by the second and final word, the word of the Gospel, which brings me (as a new creation) into new and full life in union with Christ by faith in Christ apart from my works. (And this union with Christ is true rest; rest reminiscent of that seventh day of creation into which humanity was created, from which humanity worked.) By hearing the word of the Gospel, I am given a true rest (in Christ) that births a true existence and a true identity that is mine always apart from my works because my identity and purpose is found in the One who died for my sins and was raised for my justification (Rom. 4:25). In being given true rest in Christ by faith in Him in alone, and in having my works separated from me in death and re-creation, I am given my works back. In the event of justification (hearing the word of absolution proclaimed to me) work (toiling) is removed from me and from the seat of judgment over me (domination) and put in its proper place: under my dominion (ref. Eberhard Jüngel);[5] toil becomes work and is a blessing to the creation and my neighbor and to me.

In Christ, we have been given rest (true rest) and out of that rest we work and no longer toil; in Christ, we are re-created to work.

____________

[1] Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend” on the album Get Lucky

[2] Luther’s Works Vol. 1 Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958. 103. Luther is commenting on Gen 2:15

[3] Ibid, 65. Luther is commenting on Gen 1:26.

[4] Ibid, 66. Luther commenting on Gen 1:26, “Adam and Eve become the rulers of the earth, the sea, and the air. But this dominion is given to them not only by way of advice but also by express command. Here we should first carefully ponder the exclusiveness in this: no beast is told to exercise dominion; but without ceremony all the animals and even the earth, with everything brought forth by the earth, are put under the rule of Adam [and Eve], whom God by an express verbal command placed over the entire animal creation. Adam and Eve heard the words with their ears when God said: ‘Have dominion.’”

[5] This paragraph is a modified version of a paragraph written for a book review submitted to Modern Reformation that will be published in their Nov/Dec issue. Of important note is that in the book review I forgot to mention the influence I’m operating from here in this discussion, specifically these immediate thoughts. When I caught the error, I contacted the journal, but it was too late to add the reference. So, I’ve added the reference here. The omission was by no means intentional; as can happen when one studies a particular theologian for a while their language becomes your language and that’s really what happened here. Anyone who knows me well enough has heard me verbally give credit to Jüngel when I mention this particular transition of domination to dominion; however, when I wrote the book review I wrote it fast and rushed to submit on time and, thus, my editing was paltry. Here is where I believe the reference is coming from: Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. Translated by Jeffrey F. Cayzer. London: T&T Clark, 2001 (I’m drawing from memory and my book is out on loan). You can also find aspects of this in a few essays here: Theological Essays. Translated by J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989; and: Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. Please forgive the oversight.

What is “Justification”?

The following is my manuscript from the Dropping Keys dinner held at the Liberate Conference (last week). I’m posting “as is” because it will be insynch with the recording that Dropping Keys will post of the whole event. But here is my breif “teaching” about Justification.

What is “Justification”?

In talking about justification, there are two things I want to talk about.

The first is language.

How we actually speak of justification is very important because the event of justification occurs because something has been said, a word has been spoken, which has been heard by a hearer. So language, what we say, becomes crucial. Too often we speak of justification in shorthand: I’m justified. The problem there lies in that fact that “to be justified” isn’t a particularly Christian thing. You can be “justified” by works. Don’t panic, stay with me for a minute.  If you’ve ever been promoted at work, it’s probably been “justified”–you worked hard, you earned it. I work out 6 days a week, when I go to eat a cookie, it’s “justified.”  If I were to NEVER EVER do what was required of me at work or in school, I’d fail and that failure would be “justified”.

So what IS special about justification when Christians speak of it is not particularly the word “justified”, but the über important prepositional phrases that follow: “by faith” and “in Christ”.  Once you throw “faith” into the mix, justification is on a radically different ground than what we were just talking about. And then add: “in Christ” and now you’re square in the middle of Gospel territory. You aren’t just justified; you are justified by faith in Christ.

But what does that mean? It means that trying to achieve a right standing before God cannot be done through obedience to the law or good works because the means by which you stand right before God hinge on having “faith”—that’s all you need.

And don’t worry; faith itself is no work of your own, but a gift, from God himself that boomerangs back to its proper object, God himself. But it also means: that by the power of the Holy Spirit, who has opened your eyes to see and ears to hear the truth, have uttered an “amen” a “so be it” in agreement to this: that Jesus Christ–fully man and fully God– was born and lived the life you couldn’t and can’t, that he died the death that you deserved, that he was raised to give you life (in the fullest) that you don’t deserve, that he ascended into heaven to give you both assurance and hope that death and sin have neither power over you nor can they ever separate you from the love and favor of God, and that He is seated at the right hand of God, perpetually interceding for you and proclaiming your absolution.

That’s what we’re saying when we say: I’m justified by faith in Christ. It’s one of the smallest creedal statements I know of; when we say it we are, for all intents and purposes, rejecting any notion that there is another way to be justified, to be right before God. Those two small prepositional phrases make a huge difference, don’t they, like the difference between life and death.

How does “justification” impact me and my life?

But still, that’s kind of abstract, isn’t it? I mean, it’s up here, heady; how does this “being justified by faith in Christ” affect my daily existence? What happens to me or for me when I’m justified?

And this is my second point I want to make, this is what we refer to as the “event” of justification. It is an event, something actually happens in time and space for you, the hearer. Something is taken and something is given.  What’s taken from you when the gospel of the justification of the sinner by faith in Christ is proclaimed and heard? Your works. Being justified by faith necessitates that you cannot also be justified by works (what we just considered above). This is surely very good news. And worthy of full attention! But it’s only the tip of the iceberg; the event of justification is WAY bigger than we realize.

Too often our dialogue stops at what’s been taken from us. The cessation (the stopping) of works is important, but a vacuum is created if there is nothing there to take the place of the thing that was taken; and that vacuum will suck just about anything into it. Thus, we should incorporate in our dialogue about the event of justification what is given to us alongside what is taken. What’s given to you is Christ himself. But that’s too abstract. In that Christ has given himself to you you’ve been given the gift of the present.

We are hurled from the past to the future in the blink of an eye, over and over and over, through out all of life. When you think about time, there is no “present”; there’s a present era, an idea of the present, but no actual, concrete: this here and now is the present. Time doesn’t stop long enough to allow for a present.

Take a moment and think about it; there’s no present.

We run from the past and strive toward the future, exhausted, because there’s no possibility for rest. We run from mistakes made in the past eager to promise that we’ll never make them again in the future; even when we’ve had success in the past, we’re terrified of the future because the future demands we do it again…and again…and again. And so we are in this exhausting collision course between the past and the future.

But by being justified by faith in Christ apart from works, means that your past can no longer haunt you (you’ve been absolved by faith in Christ) and your future is silenced because it’s secured in Christ (because you will be absolved by faith in Christ and nothing can separate you from the Love of God, NOTHING).

The event of justification, that word of absolution heard (perpetually) by the hearer, parts space (like God did through Moses parting the sea) and stills time (like Jesus did the tumultuous stormy waves with one word) and the hearer is brought into the present (which was created out of nothing). And this gift of the present in Christ by faith in Christ is given to you everyday; this is what is actually given to you daily.

And it is here, in the event of justification, in the gift of the present where there is real rest, where there is peace; where you can locate a “here and now” existence, where access to knowing others and yourself materializes; where there is a place to pause, to breath, a place to live, a place where works are given back to you but now they are under your dominion rather than in domination over you; where condemnation is exterminated; a place where you can be utterly and truly free, free to laugh and mourn, free to confess and to be forgiven, free to be loved exactly as you are.

In the event of justification, you, the sinner–justified by faith in Christ–have been brought into the verdant and fertile garden of the present and you have been given life and freedom to its fullest.