Monday 16 April 2007

Failed humanity

“If salvation is for any, it is for all…. The ‘return’ to the lost, the excluded, the failed or destroyed, is not an option for the saint, but the very heart of saintliness. And we might think not only of Jesus’s parable of the shepherd, but of the great theological myth of the Descent into Hell, in which God’s presence in the world in Jesus is seen as his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation. It is the supreme image of his freedom, to go where he is denied and forgotten…. He comes to his new and risen life, his universal kingship, by searching out all the forgotten and failed members of the human family.”

—Rowan Williams, The Truce of God (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 30.


Anonymous said...

For the most recent take of Rowan Williams on the descensus ad inferos, see his new book, just published, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007), where he refers to "the way in which Eastern Christians have long depicted the resurrection - not as Jesus rising from the grave but as Jesus breaking down the doors of a prison . . .

"Once again, the theme is the open door that exists in the heart of every situation because of God's freedom. Even for those who didn't have the opportunity of literally meeting Jesus, the work of God in Jesus can be real; there is a way to peace and praise from any imaginable place, even the prison in which the dead live. Jesus has 'filled all things' [Ephesians 4:10]; he is there in every human experience, opening the door. And so every place has changed" (p. 90).

The maiden said...

These words from Cantaur are especially good to read for those of us in the States who are reeling from a horrific massacre at a Virginia University. Thanks for them.

Aric Clark said...

horrific massacre indeed. There can be no question, but humanity has failed. Praise God for breaking down the prison doors or else we are all incarcerated for eternity.

Anonymous said...

Please find an oblique comment.
Why only tokens?
I find the title of the book to be exceedingly wishy-washy.

Anonymous said...

There can be no question, but humanity has failed…

God’s creation. God’s failure. Entirely. We’re to become misty eyed because “He has broken down prison walls?” Please. I don’t know about you, but this God who needs a suffering humanity just so he can break down walls scares the b’jasus out of me. And what particularly pisses me off is that intellectually dishonest poseurs who go on about the horror in Virginia, a horror that is outdone each day in Iraq, and for which all Americans are culpable, what pisses me off is that these people think that not having any answer to explain how grotesque a masochistic creator God is before a suffering humanity is somehow in itself an answer. It’s a mystery. No, it’s not a mystery. It’s unacceptable. By the standards of all suffering humanity and all that cries out for justice, God’s action is unacceptable.

The maiden said...

To a certain extent, I agree with Anonymous' anger. Christians in general and clergy in particular HAVE to step up to the institutional sin of violence:

Looney said...

Anonymous thinks Americans are responsible for suicide bombers in markets. I don't think he is capable of any moral reasoning.

Regardless, if the theologians can't accept the gospel's clear message regarding sin and hell, why should anyone else?

Anonymous said...

And how many were dying in the markets before the Americans arrived? The “moral reasoning,” fatuous phrase, employed by the likes of Looney is that unleashing a firestorm of hatred is without culpability as longs as it is done with the best intentions by the good guys. That God, the good guy par excellence, created this vicious little world with the best of intentions is no excuse. He is culpable. And not one of you can tell me why he isn’t.

Anonymous said...

It does not seem that anonymous is angry with Christians in general and clergy. `Anonymous` words are against god, a god who is suppose to have created a world which could not have evil. A world without free will, without responsible people. Perhaps a world where we all stay in our cribs and god plays our mommy for the rest of eternity, protecting us from skinny our knees and hurting our neighbors.
Since we can not grow up and be responsible in anonymous world I would not want his god nor his world. A god who is not free and persons who are not free.

Anonymous said...

And another thing. God not only creates a beastly world but populates it with the likes of Jimmy Gilbert! I wonder how many little Gilberts ever skinned their knees in the market places of Belfast or Basra? If God is so powerful and “infinitely loving,” why couldn’t he have created two worlds. One to populate with all the Looneys and Gilberts and Fabricius’s and all the other assorted psychopaths and Calvinists and the other to populate with the likes of me. Let the first world be as free as it can be, but let the second one be unfree to the extent that people can’t brutalize, exploit and commit acts of vileness towards others.

Anonymous said...

What do you want "anonymous?" I'm not sure why you're here, except to badger. If you have something constructive to offer, I'd love to hear it, but it seems all you can talk is guff. Hmm.


Aric Clark said...

There is a place, maybe even a prominent place, for a protest theodicy as anonymous expresses. At times we should all be like Job, shaking our fists at the heavens for unjust suffering. The sheer overwhelming suffering which characterizes this world demands it, and saying that God is a "mystery" is definitely not an answer - but then the intent is not to provide an answer. Any answer would ultimately be unsatisfactory, because nothing can justify millions upon millions of unnecessary deaths.

However, to stay in the protest - to live there and not move on is a tragedy. When all you can see is the suffering you have made evil itself into your God and the only possibility for you is to do and endure evil.

I choose to be a part of a different story. I choose to be a part of a story about redemption. Suffering is. Salvation is what may be.

Anonymous said...

Tired of the ad hominems of anonymous... Back to Rowan Williams and Ben's comment "his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation" and god's supreme freedom.
Why is it that the really oppressed and abused rarely have this superior attitude of shaking their fists at god? I have not encountered this attitude.
Job was tempted by his conselors to shake his fist at god but only questioned god.
From the first "fall myth" Abel passed the responsibility to the nearest person. I agree it is not an option for the saint to descend into the Basras and Belfast and Rocinhas of this world.
And thats what I see over and over many followers of Christ doing, and not some abstract world suffering debate, they make a difference in many individual lives, communities, and they choose to go (or follow).
Is this what Rowan Williams is talking about?

Derek said...

Why create anything of lasting value if it's only function is to go in circles? The toy train my friend's son received for his birthday was really fun at first, but as it goes around and around, never diverting, never doing anything but what the buttons say, it gets boring. Not necessarily for the two-year-old son, but certainly for the mature mind. Do we 'create', i.e. have children, in order that we can direct their every movement, never allowing them choices of their own? Have I failed as a parent when my son makes a choice that is against my wish, even after directing him not to and telling him the consequences of doing do?

But a good Father does not abandon his child as soon has it's gone astray. He keeps the early morning watch, and goes searching in the night.

Anonymous said...

Yes, James, that is exactly what Rowan Williams is talking about in Tokens of Trust. He talks about biblical characters like Abraham, Moses, and Paul, about the "angst and struggle they bring to their relation with God"; and he suggests that for many people that's where faith starts from: from "a sense that we 'believe in', we trust some kinds of people. We have confidence in the way they live; the way they live is a way I want to live. . . Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, and we can see in some believing people a world we'd like to live in," people who "take respons-ibility for making God credible in the world." And William's example: Etty Hillesum, the young German-Dutch Jew - not a Christian - who though able to leave for safety, chose to remain with her family and community and died in Auschwitz, bearing "her witness as a Jew" (in Marc Ellis' words) "to a broader humanity, a humanity under assault."

Which, by the way, Aric (aka "the Miner"!) - and I suspect you'll agree - is the only credible answer to legitimate, serious protest atheism - as Dostoevsky memorably portrays it in The Brothers Karamazov, in Father Zossima, and Alyosha, as the embodied responses to Ivan's rage: "joy over the abyss" (Barth) in practice of the cross.

Pace Anonymous, is that psychopathic?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anon -- thanks for all your comments. I really appreciate your point of view here -- and I think you're making a profound and very relevant point. As Aric said, the attitude of moral protest against God already features prominently in some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Job, Psalms).

I wonder if you also know Ivan's moral denunciation of God in Dostoyevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov? I for one think that this kind of protest is not only acceptable, but morally necessary -- and it's especially necessary as a protest against cheap Christian "solutions" to the realities of evil and suffering.

If you're interested, an excellent little book about all this is David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005). Hart builds constructively on Dostoyevsky's moral protest against God -- and he rightly observes: "It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome" (p. 99).

Of course, for Christians, the story doesn't end there. According to Christian faith, God is not the one who explains or justifies evil (much less endorses evil, like some right-wing supporter of Bush's "war on terror"!) -- rather, God is the one who enters into the hell of human history in order to judge it and overcome it (and so liberate it) from within.

Anonymous said...

"How can one work for the living without by that very act betraying those who are absent? The question remains open, and no new fact can change it. Of course, the mystery of good is no less disturbing than the mystery of evil. But one does not cancel out the other. Man alone is capable of uniting them by remembering." (from A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1968) - Elie Wiesel

Certainly Christ remembers better than we do. Was it Elie Wiesel (?) who responded to the question in the concentration camp, "Where is God?" by pointing to someone being executed?

There is suffering, and there is suffering alone. Suffering alone is worse.

Ben, you say "rather, God is the one who enters into the hell of human history in order to judge it and overcome it (and so liberate it) from within." As I understand it, the early Church understood by 'judge' to mean 'diagnose'. God does not judge except to heal. Is that Rowan’s point as well?


Aric Clark said...


I 100% agree - and that is why Jesus, not just in his crucifixion, but in his life and resurrection is the answer to this moral protest, because his is the ultimate moral example of how to live in "joy over the abyss".

Anonymous said...

"It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome"

It is strange. But stranger and more loathsome still to render God morally intelligible by betraying the misery suffered through the ages by refusing to see it for what it is. We are moral beings capable of moral judgments. God is morally culpable. Tell me why to claim anything other than this is not dishonest and not in itself morally culpable. Tell me why you are not morally culpable when you talk of God entering the hell of human history while ignoring God’s role in the creation and maintenance of this hell of human history.

And while Dostoyevsky presented a real charge with Ivan he never did manage a real response. How could he? The best he could do only amounted to a fictionalized embodiment of glorious, but wishful thinking. A story. A story pathologically and offensively titled “Joy over the abyss for all the skinned children in Belfast and Basra.” Stories are dangerous things. They can distract one from the truth. Shostakovich once noted that the more intense and obvious the Stalinist pogroms in his time became, the more the people around him cleaved to the notion that Stalin would save them. “If only he knew what they were doing,” they said. They couldn’t accept the fact that Stalin himself knew what was actually going down. But he did know and he was responsible and he was loathsome. God does know, and he is responsible.

Anonymous said...

Anon ... we agree that God does know. If God is responsible what does that mean? I am putting this in your context that we are moral and intelligent beings. What should be done about it? What should God do about it? Does that take away all the guilt of our moral choices?

Anonymous said...

Anon ... we agree that God does know. If God is responsible what does that mean? I am putting this in your context that we are moral and intelligent beings. What should be done about it? What should God do about it? Does that take away all the guilt of our moral choices?

That God is responsible means that he is not benign. What should be done about it? What, by us? Well, I don’t suppose there is a lot that we can do beyond facing up to the fact rather than lying about it. At least this honesty seems preferable to me. What should God do about it? Well, facing up to it means not addressing pointless questions like this any more. I mean, you tell God to put us all out of our misery and see how far it gets you. Does the fact that God is unbelievably callous relieve us of moral responsibility? I don’t see why it should. I don’t see why we can’t try to treat each other decently, even if he doesn’t choose to do so. I don’t think it is practical to forgive our neighbours unconditionally. But I do think we have the basis for working out and applying some ground rules.
But all of this is only surface stuff. The fact is we are all effectively atheists today. And this won’t change going forward. What should change is our acknowledgment that as far as we know we may be the only hope for any goodness in this universe, and of course that’s up for mockery at every moment.

Anonymous said...

Walter Dirks tells of a visit to Romano Guardini, when the latter already bore the marks of
his fatal illness:

“To hear what the old man confided on his sick bed was an unforgettable experience. At the Last Judgment he would not only allow himself to be questioned, but would also in his turn ask questions. He firmly hoped that the angel would not deny him the true answer to the question which no book, not even the Bible, no dogma and no teaching authority, no ‘theodicy’ or theology, not even his own theology, had been able to answer for him: Why, God, these fearful detours on the way to salvation, the suffering of the innocent, why sin?”

All that we want to say here and now is that Guardini rightly could not discover any answer to this question, that the question can certainly be answered only by the angel at the judgment, and even then the true answer must still be only the incomprehensible God in his freedom and nothing else. In other words, this answer can be heard only if we surrender ourselves in unconditionally adoring love as answer to God. If we do not achieve this love, forgetting itself for God, or, better, if we do not accept it as given to us, there is nothing left but naked despair at the absurdity of our suffering, a despair which is really the only form of atheism that must be taken seriously. There is no blessed light to illumine the dark abyss of suffering other than God himself. And we find him only when we lovingly assent to the incomprehensibility of God himself, without which he would not be God.

Anonymous said...

Anon wrote "The fact is we are all effectively atheists today"
Needs some unravelling. It sounds like a Eurocentric statement? (I live in Brazil) Most of the world believes in some god and /or a spiritual world, even communist nations like China have large numbers of god-believers.
If atheist means the non-ultility of god, the uselessness of god, then I would probably side with you that even Christians, Jews, and Muslims among others do not comply, do, act as their religion says or as their god says, thus in a real sense useless.
Complying without acting seems to be, probably is what Rowan WIlliams may have menat in part by "failed humanity". We all say, or most say it is wrong to kill. Then we have to put in some clauses, well except for those neighbors. You mentioned that you do not think it is practical to forgive our neighbors unconditionally.
Then we make a mockery of ourselves as you say. What interests me is; what is the basis for working out and applying some ground rules? Then we are back to failed humanity.

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