Monday, 18 July 2011

The prism in the prison: a short tour of reality

I feel like apologising for a rather long article, but on the basis that this blog is supposed to be documenting a spiritual journey, I thought I’d include it. Hope it's encouraging. So here goes...

The great divorce
The effect of the Fall — however one conceives that primordial divorce of humankind from the divine — was to close us off from eternity: we were exiled from the Garden of Eden. (6) At first sight it might seem as though we were sent out into an eternal night, a limitless expanse of time and space — exiled wanderers, banished for ever from the ‘island’ Garden, now guarded by angelic sentinels. (The picture that comes to mind is that of an impoverished local populace excluded from some a lavish health resort built by a foreign investor.) This picture though, in many senses, reverses reality, for is it not the Garden that is the threshold of eternity, and the ‘exterior’ that is bounded?
The ultimate boundary, the threshold, if you like, of the carceral realm in which we live, is death. Space and time may well stretch beyond the horizons of infinity, but for fallen mortals this is of little comfort if the end of our travels, the destination of the journey, is oblivion. The irony is that The Fall was an attempt to become god-like; a sudden dash for freedom —  to flee from the ‘tyranny’ of subservience to God. Ironic because we exchanged an infinite divine horizon for a finite one, and found ourselves trapped in what philosophers optimistically call ‘totality’, an immanent sphere divorced from the transcendent. (SEE NOTE 1)

Outside eternity?
So in this strange land in which we live, we find ourselves ‘outside’ eternity, in a ‘totality’ that is bounded. The ultimate boundary is death, and yet within this ultimate horizon are many concentric circles of binding power, thresholds guarded by lesser powers, each anxious to maintain rule in their small corner of totality. The individual’s desire to be free of subservience to God is a decision of antagonism — rebellion against the power of the Other — a demand for autonomy, for control. It is to become the sentinel of one’s own small ‘garden’, a defiant stance against those — human or divine — who would dare to challenge the right to self-rule. And from this single seed, empire grows: systems of control and coercion necessary to protect from the incursion of ‘others’ and to maintain power. Here we must agree with Nietzsche for whom the ‘will to power’ was the driving force behind reality. So rather than being exiled from a ‘garden’ within totality, humankind is cursed to wander in a totality that is itself cut off from transcendent reality — a quarantined, bounded reality from which there is no escape. It is no wonder that pessimists like Schopenhauer viewed reality as a ‘pimple floating on a sea of cosmic puss’.

The arc of the incarnation and the circle of violence
Against this backdrop of bounded darkness — the prison of existence — there was a sudden, blinding flash of lightning, for such was the incarnation. (2) The incarnate Christ made his home within this totality, but refused to obey its rules — refused to bow to the tyranny of control. There are some who suggest that, as part of the rescue package, God invented the cross — a subversive plan by him to somehow placate his own just nature and break the circle of violence. But can violence ever be overcome by violence? To suggest that God planned the cross is to suggest that God is the source of evil. The cross must surely be viewed only as a tool of empire: an invention to subdue dissenters in the most horrific way. Thus it would be false to suggest that in some way the resurrection validated the cross, or that somehow it was the ‘consummation’ of the sacrifice. The resurrection did the opposite: it invalidated the cross and all that it stood for, and supremely validated the crucified. (3) Furthermore, the presence of the crucified standing peacefully on the other side of the ultimate ‘control circle’, death, illustrated the comprehensive shattering of what was until then the ultimate barrier, the ultimate horror.

The empire cannot strike back
This lightning-strike of the eternal Son shattered the power of empire so completely that it will never recover. Thus Paul talks about Jesus having ‘disarmed the principalities and powers’ (Col.2:15). The disarming was really a decisive, irreversible puncturing of the boundary of totality, opening it up once again to commerce with the transcendent, the divine, and throwing the border controls into disarray. The power of the incarnation, and the efficacy of the passion of Christ, lies not. therefore, in the appeasement of an offended deity, but the offending, ridiculing and disarming of lesser controlling powers.

Laser love?

It is pertinent to note the substance, trajectory and scope of the lighting-strike. The substance — the stance, if you like — of the Logos was supremely self-effacing. Again and again scripture affirms the servant nature of the divine: a humble birth, a servant life, but most supremely the refusal to wield power for selfish ends, ‘even unto death — death on a cross’. It is a trajectory nevertheless of decisive intervention, a unilateral emancipatory act. It arced from heaven to the deepest hell (4) — no territory is now out of the jurisdiction of the Logos. As John succinctly put it: ‘the light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ An obvious statement, perhaps: does not light always overcome darkness? John makes this statement, I believe, not because of the dimness of the light — for surely it was the brightest arc of lightning ever to fall from heaven to earth — but to encourage people to look. Those who want to find the rupture — the doorway from death to life — will find it if they have eyes to see, if they choose to turn away from the guardianship of their own selfish empires.
Through this rift in totality, eternal light is pouring in, and it shines on the prism of the incarnation. This is no single-wavelength, mono-chromatic laser that will only touch a point on the margins; this is a fierce whiteness which is prismated into a rainbow of shards that pierce the darkness in every sphere, every direction. It is the light of affirmation: the Father speaks to the Son and says, “this is my Son in whom I am well pleased”. Totality is no longer subject to the boundaries of darkness.

An open door
To become a Christian — a follower of Christ — has therefore very little to do with believing the right things, or saying the right creeds. It is a choice to walk through the door of death towards life, and this is the ultimate paradox of faith — that it is in laying down one’s life and choosing to follow the way of the cross (which means renouncing the ways of empire) that life is won.

Walking out of prison
I finish this meditation by considering the story of Peter’s escape from prison in Acts chapter 12. We read that prior to this incident the church was praying for Peter’s release, and inasmuch as the church today is praying for release (in whatever sense that is understood), Peter may be seen as a picture of a bound church, chained between Roman soldiers (agents of empire), and incarcerated in an inner cell, far from the light of day. Yet God answers: in a dramatic re-enactment of the arc of incarnation, light coruscates in the cell, and Peter  - in a trance-like state — is led by a divine messenger towards the city. Here he wakes, knowing in his heart that God has truly freed him from the tyranny of empire and certain death. Yet soon he finds himself knocking on a small wooden door at the threshold of a praying church: ‘You must be mad’, is the response of the fervent intercessors to the servant girl who would open the door, ‘it must be his angel.’ This little wooden door is primarily kept closed, therefore, by unbelief. (5)

I close with a quotation from Revelation (3:8): ‘See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength…’.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that — like George MacDonald (see my last blog) — we are facing an ‘Apollyon of unbelief’ in these dark days. There is an avalanche of criticism from an ‘enlightened’ world which is, of course, to be expected, but more worryingly there is strange species of unbelief growing amongst believers. I will save comments on this subject for another day, but in the meantime I would like to remind you there truly is an open door before you that no man can shut. The transcendent realm is not illusory, however much the fallen powers in the ‘totality’ would have us believe the contrary. It is because these powers are being shaken that the pressure is on.

‘So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.’ (Heb.10:35)

(1) To speak of ‘totality’ as if was a bounded physical space would, of course, be naive. The concept of ‘divorce’ is perhaps more helpful in that what we are considering here is primarily a moral rift between two parties.
(2) The symbolism of light is a recurring theme. John describes the fundamental mission of Christ to be one of revealing the God ‘in whom there is no darkness’ (1 John 1), and the incarnation is seen as Christ revealing that light in a dark world: ‘the people living in darkness have seen a great light.’ (Matt.4:16) We also, if we claim to follow Jesus, are called to shine in a dark world. (Matt.5:14)
(3) Obviously there are many scriptures where ‘the cross’ is referred to in very positive terms as being used by God as part of his plan of salvation. I am not disputing for one moment God’s ability to use even such a horrific means of torture for his own ends, but we must be careful on three counts: firstly, to suggest that the cross was ‘invented’ by God is to make God the author of evil. Secondly, we need to note that the NT term ‘the cross’ is often used as a shorthand for the whole ‘package’ — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thirdly, for example when Jesus challenged us to ‘take up our cross’, the term is clearly being used to denote a life of submission and servanthood. The idea that the cross is a human invention which God ultimately rejects in favour of the crucified is perhaps best illustrated by Acts 5:30,31 — ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Saviour, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.
(4) On the universal scope of Christ’s territorial claims, see Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:18-20. This is echoed in the Apostle’s Creed which talks of Jesus having ‘descended into hell’ or ‘descended to the dead.’
(5) See Pierre Cranga, Quelqu’un a-t-il soif?, Editions J.F. Oberlin, M√Ęcon, 1996.

(6) To force the myth of the Fall into literality is, is my view, to do it damage and to rob a rich metaphor of much truth. Whilst ‘Adam’ may be used to refer to an individual (the father of Seth), the Hebrew ’adam speaks of humanity in the collective sense, and Adam and Eve are ‘types’ which speak of the relationality of humankind rather than any individual couple, or indeed as speaking of the ideal state of marriage. (See G. O’Collins, Salvation For All, Oxford University Press, 2008 and H. Seebass in Colin Brown (Ed.), Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Vol.I, p84), Zondervan, 1986.) It is through relationship in its widest sense that we find identity. (See for example A.I. McFayden, The Call to Personhood, Cambridge University Press 1990.)

1 comment:

  1. For the first thousand years of it's existence the church understood the cross and redirection of Jesus as victory over powers that held mankind in bondage and separated them from the life of God. They recognised the dark controlling powers behind empire, the legalism that spins the lie that once saved by grace we must be sanctified by law, and the superstitions and ungodly cultural norms that give us a measure of freedom to express our faith, but delineates false boundaries for it's expression. The cross, so understood, reminds us of the need to confront these 'powers' wherever we find them, and bring into experiential reality the victory of the cross.