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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

I know I’ve been incredibly silent recently and that might continue for a while. Nonetheless, I thought I’d record some of my favourite insights from the course I’m doing this semester on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s quite prolific so we don’t cover everything, but it’s been exciting to get to know someone who really strived to know Jesus and make him known in his own context and trace the development of this guy’s thought. Bonhoeffer came from an upper-middle class family and showed a greater interest in Jesus as he advanced throughout his teens, desiring to become a minister. I love this: “[His family] sought to dissuade him, claiming that the church was not really worthy of his commitment; it was, they insisted, ‘a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’ To which Dietrich replied: ‘In that case I shall reform it!’¹ Anyway, he’s famous for his theological innovation coupled with his involvement in the Confessing Church, the German church which sought to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, and his imprisonment and later execution just before the close of WWII for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

On the the person of Christ:

From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

(DBWE 6:54).

I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.”

(DBWE 12:314).

The concept of the body as applied to the church-community is not a functional concept referring to the members but is instead a concept of the way in which the Christ exists who is present, exalted, and humiliated.”

(DBWE 12:323).

On grace abstracted from the person of Jesus:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby conveys such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God.”

(DBWE 4:43).

On the suffering of Christ:

The fact that it is Peter, the rock of the church, who makes himself guilty [of attempting to hinder Jesus’ suffering] just after he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ … shows that from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ.”

(DBWE 4:85).

On Christian community:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies.”

(DBWE 5:27).

[Christians] need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation… The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.”

(DBWE 5:32).

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will often be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.”

(DBWE 5:35).

On denominations:

The concept of denomination is not entirely clear. It is not a theological concept. It says more about historical, political, and social conditions.”

(Green and DeJonge, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 571).

On fundamentalism. Yes, that fundamentalism.

At the beginning of this year, the journal Christian Century published a series of essays on the topic: ‘How my mind has changed in the last decade.’ … A common thread in all these essays–with the exception of the fundamentalists, who deliberately declare that nothing essential could have changed in their thinking since they espouse the same teaching then and now–is the admission of a decisive theological turn in the last ten years.” Nonetheless, “The failure in Christology is characteristic of all current  American theology (with the exception of fundamentalism).”

(Bonhoeffer Reader, 589-590).

Although this is pretty standard Reformation theology it’s been interesting being introduced to it via Barth and Bonhoeffer:

[A]t Pentecost, too, one preaches about Jesus Christ, the one who is present in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else.”

(DBWE 15:552).

On idolatry and nihilism:

The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, lust, pride’ doesn’t seem at all biblical to me. That is moralizing. Idols are to be worshipped, and idolatry presupposes that people still worship something. But we don’t worship anything anymore, not even idols. In that respect we’re really nihilists.”

(DBWE 8:447).

On the ethical failure of duty:

[D]uty is so circumscribed that there is never any room to venture that which rests wholly in one’s own responsibility, the action that alone strikes at the very core of evil and can overcome it. The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty also to the devil.”

(DBWE 8:40).

On ethics and Christian freedom:

[I]t is the arena of everyday life that presents the fundamental difficulties, and which one has to have first experienced in order to sense how insufficient, inappropriate, and unsuitable it is to address it with general moral principles.” Thus “[Human beings] are not essentially and exclusively students of ethics. It is part of the great naivete or, more accurately, folly of ethicists to overlook this fact willfully, and to start from the fictional assumption that human beings at every moment of their lives have to make an ultimate, infinite choice.”

(DBWE 6:365).

The ‘ethical’ merely identifies the limits formally and negatively, and thus can only become a topic at the boundary, and in a formal and negative way. God’s commandment, on the other hand, is concerned with the positive content and with the freedom of human beings to affirm that positive content.”

(DBWE 6:386).

On this-worldliness:

It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

(DBWE 8:51).

OT faith differs from other oriental religions in not being a religion of redemption… To the objection that redemption has a crucial importance in the OT as well (out of Egypt and later out of Babylon, cf. Deutero-Isaiah), the reply is that this is redemption within history, that is, this side of the bounds of death, whereas everywhere else the aim of all the other myths of redemption is precisely to overcome death’s boundary… The Christian hope of the resurrection is different from the mythological in that it refers people to their life on earth in a wholly new way, and more sharply than the OT.”

(DBWE 8:447).

* * *

¹F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The quotes are translated from Eberhard Bethge’s lengthy biography in German.

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funny-pictures-fighting-cats-constructive-feedback

This passage is often used to point to general revelation, the idea that there are aspects of creation which point to God’s nature, at least existence:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

(Rom 1:18-23, NRSV).

Firstly, this needs to be read in context. Paul was a major figure involved in Gentile inclusion in early Christianity. Contemporary Jews would boast of their righteousness through the law that God gave them and look down on the unrighteous, unclean Gentiles. If some people could come to accept that Gentiles were to be included in the new movement, the next biggest difficulty was being convinced that Gentiles did not need to abide by the Torah. Here Paul speaks of the unrighteousness of the Gentiles, a theme his contemporaries would be familiar with. But then, surprisingly, he goes on to speak of the unrighteousness of the Jews, “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'” (2:23-24), moving onto the universality of sin in chapter 3.

Interestingly, even though Paul makes these statements, he says quite the opposite regarding the gospel: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?… So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (10:14, 17). Additionally, I wonder if Paul’s critique is not merely noetic, but ethical. He is concerned that the Gentiles “suppress the truth” (v.18) and exchange “the truth about God for a lie” (v.25). But perhaps he is more concerned with the life of vices to which he connects it: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv.29-31). It is not so much denial in itself but denial so that people can cut themselves off from their creator, both objectifying and deifying features of creation in accordance with their desires.

In any case, contemporary religious/secular pluralism should at least hold some interpretative sway for this passage! It remains unfortunate that Christians have used this passage to condemn those who have legitimate doubts about God’s existence or a completely different understanding of God altogether. Perhaps more worrying is its application to non-Christians who may very well be more “ethical” than the Christians condemning them! How do you understand this passage hermeneutically?

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

* * *

Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

http://www.toonpool.com/user/398/files/ethics_333515.jpg

* * *

Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

* * *

Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

* * *

In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

* * *

¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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“What good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed?”

(2Esdras 7:120 NRSV).

* * *

After a short recess due to some unexpected lack of inspirations, I’m returning with a follow-up post on grace after It’s not easy being evilWhereas the former focussed on the necessity of entering grace through law, this will focus on some difficulties in law persisting after grace. I apologise ahead for the lack of footnotes and overuse of brackets. WordPress is not ideal for essay-like writings.

What makes grace possible? Certain passages in the bible that stress God’s omnipotence point out how nothing we do can ultimately sway his plan; because of God’s complete sovereignty, all redemption that a fallen world requires originates in him. For example, take the classic sermon attributed to Paul in Acts:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

(17:24-27 NRSV)

A photo of John Milton on Instagram.

If God is God then he has no need for us to contribute to the success of his plans. He’s got it sorted. In one of my favourite Milton poems (ie. in one of my favourite poems), Milton explores his now relative inability to serve God after becoming blind:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed[¹]
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

He complains that as he grows closer to God in his old age, his body prevents him from serving the Lord more fully. Yet his conclusion is akin to the description of God in Acts: The Lord is able to fulfill his will without the great works of Milton (cf. Paradise Lost, which is a great work, above that of Paradise Regained, ironically and quite tellingly making the Fall more central to being human than Christ’s redemption), only now requiring that Milton wait faithfully.

Isn’t this omnipotence partly what enables God to forgive sins? If freedom allows us to do otherwise than God intends (ie. sin) then the Lord’s omnipotence allows him to allow for that freedom independently of the fulfillment of his will. Paul expresses this asymmetry in a popular verse:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NRSV).

* * *

This alone makes me cynical of Zizek and Rollins’ atheistic enthusiasm towards the Christian legacy. God or the infinite, the Beyond, etc does not exist; he died on the cross. All we have now is the material Christian community, and the agapeic love thereof, which accepts us unconditionally (love the sinner, hate the sin). How then is this grace possible? The immutable alternative to sin and death, God’s ultimate and unchanging plan which exists in the infinite, has been shown to be wishful thinking, an illusion. Grace always was, and now knowingly, expressed in finitude, through imperfect believers.

I’m no scholar but humour me here. Say what Paul is saying in Romans is that it is impossible to fulfill the law through obedience to it, for various reasons, one being the universal sin of humanity (Romans 3:9ff), made known through the law (3:20), even taking the opportunity given by this knowledge to further assert itself (7:7-8). I think this can be possibly erroneously supplemented (in a good way) by some passages from the Messiah himself, and some good, commonsense examples. The Sermon on the Mount is a helpful place to start:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire[…]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(Matthew 5:17-23, 27-30 NRSV).

Jesus cannot be seen here as just creating other absolute categories. The problem with law here is that its requirements are never absolute. Jesus points this out by relativising them. A lot of people could boast that they never committed adultery or murdered anyone. But how many could say they never indulged feelings of lust or hate for anyone? The temptation of people approaching this passage is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying by creating new absolute categories: No longer is it just wrong to sleep with the newlywed next door, it’s wrong also to think about doing so. I cannot dismiss that Jesus’ words righfully challenge smug law-abiders who think they’ve ticked all the boxes, yet in reality they missed the point of the law. Yes, taken. But we need to take our hermeneutics one step further. But what can also be taken from this passage is that Jesus is asking of us something impossible. It’s now wrong to think about committing adultery. What if it’s wrong also to want to think about doing so? This is all to easily dismissed as an untouchable depth of the depraved heart, which is not equal to ‘willful sins’ simply because we wake up with it in the same way we wake up hungry. Anger and lust are part and parcel with our humanity. Jesus asks us to not be something which cannot not be.

Perhaps this is why Paul cites ‘covetousness’ as an example of failure to live up to the law (Romans 7:8). With the possible exceptions of worshipping Yahweh alone and honouring your father and mother, covetousness is the law in the Decalogue most immediately obvious as an internal sin. As is already evident in the Torah, and then in later Rabbinic literature, case law and a whole range of imaginative possibilities were devised to determine what was and what wasn’t transgression in externally measurable circumstances: “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12 NRSV). Coveting occurs internally where things like husbands, genitals and hands don’t exist. It is not entered into with externally measurable circumstances but lurks in the infinite subconsciousness and coexists with the desires to drink water, yawn when you’re tired and scratch an itch. Of course, you don’t need to respond to those desires, but to be told not to desire in the first place, this is difficult.

Coming back to Jesus’ sermon, what is worrying (although I tend to always feel not somehow worried but inspired when I read this passage) is that he calls us to live so highly, to “be perfect” (v.48), as a part of adhering to the law, to the extent that if we neglect to live up to this perfection then we “will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.20). Jesus presents a potential disciple with a similar conclusion, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV). The same language of perfection is used here. Although this “someone” had kept all the commandments (v.20), Jesus required yet more of him. The same/a similar theme appears elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel (12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1ff).

Not only are the requirements of the law infinite for internal things like lusting and coveting, both of which cannot be measured empirically (this is why psychology is a soft science; real scientists make conclusions about gravity and the structure of atoms, etc), but there is no way to way to live up to external requirements either. The Sabbath is for resting but that doesn’t mean you can neglect your bone-brokened donkey. If you’re walking along and see a piece of rubbish on the ground, you can put it in the bin nearby, but then you might see another, and then another. Is it right to spend the rest of your life cleaning up the streets or is it right to pick up one piece, ignore the others, and move on? Using violence to solve problems goes against who Jesus is, but what about in self-defense? It’s not needed. I can forgo the protection of my body to maintain my peaceful ideals. What, then, about defending vulnerable individuals? How do you intervene between an adult smacking up some kid? When do your actions become no longer defense on the part of another but unneeded violence? What we need now is a bunch of Rabbis to take Jesus as the new Torah, and then to meditate on the infinite extensions of “turn the other cheek”, producing a two volume commentary on Christian non-violence and every conceivable situation where the moral responsibility of the subject would be called into question. Peter Rollins’ parable, The third mile is useful here:

* * *

Back into the big picture, Jesus is pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious elite who hold a privileged place in society, along with access to the interpretations of the law, and therefore access to God. Paul takes the same kind of idea and shows how not just the religious elite but wider Israel had an exclusive status through the law that barred the Gentiles access to God (I’m here indebted to N T Wright for his gloss on Romans 2 — not hearers of the law (Jews) but doers (some Jews and Gentiles) will be justified at the judgement). What Paul and Jesus have in common here is that they are both criticising groups who bar others from access to God, which is not just an abstract, between-me-and-God spiritual superiority but a social superiority with far-reaching material consequences (eg. Matthew 15:5-6; John 4:9, 8:1ff; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:12). It’s easy to get off topic when discussing the proper context of the passages. But Paul and Jesus’ presentation of an alternative to the law (while, of course, upholding the law) needs to be understood with what that offers, universal access to God and the material reality that comes with that.

Can Paul’s universality of sin and Jesus’ infinite requirements of the law then be removed from this context? I’m not qualified to give a proper answer. But, I can’t see, after first acknowledging the bigger picture, why not. Universal sin and impossible obedience are just that, universal. Paul sees this and presents an alternative, namely trusting/believing/having faith in God (Romans 3:21ff, 4:16ff; cf. Galatians 3:5) and living life in the Spirit (Romans 8; cf. Galatians 5:16-26). As Kierkegaard notes, in Christianity the definition of sin has shifted, “This is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith” (making reference to Romans 14:23, where Paul has now put his theology into a practical context).

Faith, after Abraham and the passages cited above, appears to me to be believing that God will fulfill his word(s). I tread carefully in giving a definition of life in the Spirit because of my Pentecostal background, which focusses on the response of the individual to the internal leading of the Holy Spirit, immediately connecting both faith and Spirit, although I will mention that this individualism² is not without biblical support (eg. Romans 14:5-12; Exodus 25:2; 1Corinthians 12:4-11). I am also aware of the emphases of Calvinist pneumatology, which hold some stakes in this definition, that is, that because of our total depravity (I actually get some sort of sick kick out of ascribing that to humanity, which no doubt some will cite as itself evidence of the doctrine) we cannot do good, let alone accept the message of the Gospel in faith, so that it is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and enables us to believe, also connecting two of Paul’s qualifiers for life in Christ. What appeals to me here is not our absolute dependence on God even for faith (which I disagree with, because it leads to determinism) but the framing of the Holy Spirit as God’s initiative, the topping up of what is incomplete in faith.

This brings us back to where we started, which is to acknowledge that Paul’s sermon in Acts continues with the words, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30 NRSV). And this is to acknowledge that while Milton could not serve God as he previously could with his sight, the Lord asks him now to “stand and wait”. These are expressions of faith, universal access to God through simply believing what he says. But faith in itself is art for art’s sake. It falls to the same fate as our flawed obedience to the law. This then is the Holy Spirit, who works with us through faith to overcome the infinite requirement, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV). God is pleased with what we do. Under law we were incited to sin, yet under faith the Lord uses us through his Spirit to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31 NRSV), even, as with Paul, become a necessary part in his plan by sharing the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). Now the asymmetry of the omnipotent Creator and the finitesimal created is topped up and mediated through Holy Spirit in faith.

Under the new dichotomy of faith/sin against the old of virtue/sin (better, obedience-to-the-law/sin; Kierkegaard was dismantling Socratic, not Judaic understandings of sin), we are protected from the accusations of the law because by our faith God declares us righteous. This is not simply being acquitted from the responsibility to uphold the law, especially justice, but that through faith we now enter, with the Holy Spirit, into a new expression of law (Romans 8:2; 1Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). We uphold the law. Yet we fail in obedience to the law, as cited before:

If, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (2:17 NRSV).

Under faith/sin, sin is redefined as unbelief. Christians remain believing, being justified through faith, yet remain sinners naturally in accordance with the Mosaic criteria (when we remove Jesus and faith and all that and judge ourselves again from the start). We remain disobedient, as does everyone, yet we are declared righteous; there is an absolute, finite requirement, one that can be met with: Faith.

* * *

The transcendent God then does just what atheist criticisms accuse him of doing, making meaningful something truly meaningless and securing hope in something truly hopeless.  Who is on their side? Who adheres to this incompleteness of grace, the absence of redemption, which originates in some fantasy non-material world? One unlikely place to look would be Israel’s prophets. The truth of a finite expression of grace can be understood like this: What we do matters. Material actions matter. Although God will ultimately judge the world, our sins still affect those around us. It was not enough for Israel to be called by God apart from the nations to know him and be loved by him; Israel was also to serve him. Thus Ezekiel can say, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV). Amos, speaking also of the neglect to provide for the poor and needy, writes of the Lord:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24 NRSV; it is worth reading the whole chapter (or the whole of Amos) to get a better idea of where exactly Israel had screwed up)

The offense of Israel’s actions is that they assumed their election overwrote social responsibility. Are there any similarities between Israel’s complacency under election and ours under faith? Yes. As with faith/sin, you could almost apply an election/sin to Israel, as to which Paul and Jesus also make reference (Galatians 2:15; Matthew 3:9; Romans 2:3). When faith or election fulfills the law then obedience becomes secondary. Although, with the Holy Spirit, we are led into obedience, disobedience maintains its consequences (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:21). The absolute finite requirement of faith has become relativised and infinite, like its predecessor, the law. Thus Paul can say that he has not yet fully attained to the goal of his faith (Philippians 3:12). This verse can easily be read in the sense that Paul hasn’t died yet (cf. 1:21), as he’s speaking of the resurrection, but he’s also speaking of faith, righteousness before God, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being found in him and knowing him (3:7-11), all of which are in the process of being attained in the present (this relationship of present incompleteness moving towards a complete future is elsewhere in, for example, Philippians 1:6 and 2:13-14, present salvation anticipating future). Elsewhere Paul can speak of his weaknesses, not just from suffering as a Christian, but facing responsibility (2Corinthians 11:28-29³).

Faith is now doubly incomplete. Firstly it privileges trust over obedience. Secondly, in the same way Paul cites scriptures to say there is “no one who is righteous” (Romans 3:10), he rightfully can say that there is no one who believes. What is more, if we embrace death of God theology to its end then there is no Holy Spirit, no perfect-ultimate will to top up our mistakes and bring cosmic redemption. We are left to our own devices where material action is both necessary and impossible. Yet even with God, material action is both necessary and impossible (improbable, without determinism or complete ‘sovereignty’, etc).

* * *

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).

As with most things in life, this ends in despair. People looking for happier times should return to the days of Mario Kart, picnics and puppy love. Although the conclusion is decidedly un-Christian, I’m not yet ready to take some pat answers. Something about denial being the first sign of guilt. Antinomianism is the heresy where grace is like a license to do whatever you want, and you want to sin. Ironically, it comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. When grace allows you to do whatever you want, you’re operating under the heresy that literally means to be without the law:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NRSV).

We will always fall short of our material responsibilities at the same time as faith’s ultimate inability to hide us from them. The obvious answer is that at least you can try. Try to be obedient. Strive towards perfection. And whether you’re a theistic Christian and your failures are contrasted to the work of the Holy Spirit and the absolute condition of your heart, or you’re an atheistic Christian and Jesus’ challenge to live always beyond the law impels you to a radical life of helping others, note this: Striving is not being. Trying is a form of failure. This is the truth of human depravity: We have miserably failed.

* * *

¹”speed” here is a verb. I always tripped up on this until I realised that.

²When I say individualism I don’t mean it in the existential sense of the individual making meaning for their self out of their personal relationship with God/existence, nor do I mean it in the consumerist/prosperity gospel sense of serving God for the benefits he provides you as an individual, but I mean it in the sense of the community with emphasis upon the individual: We are individuals, separate people, and our individual actions contribute, for good or for bad, to the Kingdom of God.

³The NRSV translates the Greek pyroumai as ‘I am indignant’, which ignores Paul’s use of it in 1Corinthians 7:9, denoting the fire of lust. I’m no translator, but the NRSV doesn’t even provide a footnote with an alternative translation, where it is possible, and, I think, important.

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