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Posts Tagged ‘sin’

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This is a theme that has been developing in my theology over this year. Romans 8:18-23 I think demonstrates it well:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Here the imperfections and sufferings of creation, although they are tied to sin (5:12), are also “not of its own will.” I respect the theological qualifications of this passage that attempt to distance God from having any direct connection with sin, but the theme is prevalent throughout Romans, no doubt understanding that the same qualifications may apply: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). He sent the law, knowing that it would incite sin, yet that his grace would increase (5:20-21). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart for his purposes (9:17). And he used the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as part of his plan to include the Gentiles (11:15).

When God creates, the possibility of fall is intrinsic to his creation. God wills that his creation will freely respond to him so he must also allow free rebellion. Sin is not merely the individual breaking the moral law, delivered from this through repentance, but the failure of the cosmos to respond to God, of which creation is both perpetrator (sin) and victim (suffering).¹ Is God’s redemptive work in salvation history a response or always originally intended? I’m of the opinion that God creates with the plan to redeem, knowing sin is necessary to a free creation. Additionally, suffering may even be necessary for redemption to be fully realised: That which is created and freely loves God knows something of this love, but that which is created good, suffers and rejects God, and then is reconciled and redeemed, knows something else: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20).²

* * *

¹Anthropocentric accounts of the fall must first explain why the Genesis story includes a snake.

²Not that I am involved in any great suffering so that I can give meaning to it. This at the moment is a merely intellectual exercise, although I do appreciate that when Paul speaks of suffering, he means it.

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In the process of convincing his audience of the sufficiency of faith after law, Paul presents some interesting critiques. Here is one:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

(Romans 7:14-20).

Now my biggest difficulty with this psychologically penetrating passage is that Paul separates the will of his mind from that of his flesh. He wills do good, but, as a sinner, he wills to serve his flesh and thus does otherwise. I wonder how much of a separation exists in my own life. If I do something, how accurate is it to claim that I will to do otherwise? Of course, there are infinite factors acting upon a will, and what we name will is not singular but composed of infinite ambiguities and always undergoing changes, however subtle. I can say that reflecting on past actions produces a will that wishes to have done otherwise. Then it pledges to do otherwise should it find itself in a similar situation in future. Yet when in that situation it does not do otherwise. The possible arrived at in reflection bows to the actual of the immediate. Does this capture what Paul is communicating? Does he do evil and say “I do not will this yet I will do it anyway,” or “Some part of me at some time has willed otherwise than I will now”?

Maybe this is a further problem with sin: From the perspective of the sinner the will is obscured and indistinct from good-will. Yet with the redemptive power of the Spirit, the will begins its journey towards completion, that which is willed in reflection consistent with that which is willed in experience (8:5-8; 12:2).

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Guilt may be good or bad or both or neither. I’m often of the opinion that it’s good, at least my own personal guilt. Maybe its a punitive fascination. I know I’ve done something bad so feeling bad about that something serves as punishment. But this is not ideal. The something disappears into the consequent feeling of guilt. Alternatively, guilt may be more practical. The bad feeling that follows some unsavoury action moves the offender to focus on their offence and attend to any damage they have done.

But I’m here especially interested in the feeling divorced from any restorative action. Part of the problem is to call feeling guilty about something and not doing anything about it a problem. If I’m guilty and become fearful of attempting amends then I develop a second order guilt: Guilt for feeling guilty. The offender indulges in the feeling of guilt to punish their self for their actions, but, then, realising the selfish orientation of their guilt, plunges into more guilt and inaction.

Of course, action which has been lost in the process of guilt can be recovered at the point of realising this, but it requires a decisive break with the current cycle of accumulative guilt. The problem with this is that an offender familiar with their selfishness cannot source their subsequent action from the hurt of the offended; it inevitably rises out of a response to inner self-oriented guilt.

Well! I haven’t written anything so dark and existential for a while. Enjoy! Perspective matters. I’m probably completely wrong so let me know!

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One of my recent posts explored the possibility of God’s particularity. With some more time to think about it, I was assailed by a host of further thoughts yesterday at the laundromat. I’ve never had so much fun waiting for my undies to get clean. Before starting, I should mention that this is really just a bit of fun, although it would be awesome to explore it properly one day. I’m constrained firstly by my classical approach, employing Greco-German categories. If anyone can figure out a way of looking at this sideways then I heartily welcome you. Secondly, although research would undoubtedly be helpful, this is a lazy attempt to create my own solutions and problems to problems and solutions I have come across where I may very well be misrepresenting the concepts so much that I am in actuality saying nothing. Onwards!

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Is God particular or universal? Clearly it would be helpful to first define these two terms. If I’m right, a universal is that which encompasses a set of particulars. So I can say that a particular friend is a friend only with reference to the concept of friendship, though that friend is only a particularised expression of that universal. They are not equal to friendship but occupy some part of it. However, friendship is not the universal, that is, not all things can be defined as a part of friendship. It is therefore necessary to find a universal which encompasses both friendship and that which is not friendship. This is probably an imperfect suggestion but we’ll roll with it for example’s sake: Love. Is it possible to say that love is a universal as all things friendship and all things romance, though they cannot be completely referred to each other, can both be completely referred to love? (For example’s sake just say yes. Thanks). And onwards until all things are under one universal. It might be being. All things are. So love and hate, for example, are particulars of the universal being because they both exist.

The problem with being as the universal (and here’s where some Heidegger or Hegel would have probably helped me!) is that it excludes non-being, that which is not. But in that case, how can non-being even be referenced? If there is nothing then there is nothing to reference. Being is the universal for all that is. It sounds too simple. Non-being, paradoxically is being. It is potential being, possibility. Non-being exists, for example, as that which can be thought or posited though it does yet exist. But not only is its possibility in human reason but in all that is becoming. When being through becoming moves towards non-being then that non-being is actualised into being. Thus being is a universal insofar as non-being is exists within it as possibility.¹

In sum, being is the universal; all else, in reference to being without exhausting its totality, is particular.

* * *

God, then, must be defined in terms of the universal as he encompasses all things and all things have their being in him. The first difficulty with this is that if God is free and sovereign then is he constrained by his being, thus negating these, or does he choose it freely, which apparently would first require being…? In other words, to define God in terms of being is to reduce him to something, so that this designation is always provisional.

If God is universal then whence cometh creation? Creation is a collection of particularities which occupies a space on God’s universality. The problem with this is that creation as finite occupies the spatio-temporal whereas God occupies the eternal. If creation operates within time then when in eternity did God create? If creation operates within space then where in eternity did God create? In creation, God moves from being to becoming. God as the I am, changeless and eternal, brings change and temporality through the act of creation, birthing a history to accompany his being. God as being, all that there is, brings non-being into being, and it occupies a space. This is the pantheistic problem: That which is not is brought into being to occupy a space within/outside all that is (God). How can God, when he is all that there is, bring that which is not him into being? The only, probably heretical, suggestion I have is that God withdraws from or extends a part of himself and calls it not-God.

Both further create the problem that being moves into becoming, and becoming is a problem because it is change. If God is being then at what point (there is no point!) does he become? But if God is eternally becoming then this is essential to his nature and is not change. God’s becoming is rooted in his being, which always is, and thus he is changeless. As Anti-Climacus put it: “The being of God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means the being of God.”² If only being then there would be no possibility, only actuality. Possibility requires becoming. This nuances the main problem with God as particular: At any given time not all things make reference to him; there is that which is outside of him. But this is God only as actuality; as regards possibility he is a universal because all things are possibile, yet he is in actuality possibility so that, paradoxically, as regards his actuality he is both universal and particular.

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Here are some further thoughts, addressing mainly the problem of sin in terms of what has just been stated. God creates in freedom. He is under no necessity to create but enters into necessity through the act of creating. As Hosea records, the dual pain and love of God:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

(Hosea 11:5-9).

Israel has forsaken Yahweh so he too will forsake them. But even after the hurt they have caused him he cannot give them up. In creating, God limits himself to a necessity within that creation, the necessity to care for it and even depend upon it. Ostensibly the freedom to forsake creation is ever-present, but, rather, God has already forsaken his freedom through the choice to create. In creation he loves and cannot do otherwise. God freely creates and creation freely loves him.

For creation to love freely there must be the possibility of not loving, which is not in accordance with God’s will, and therefore sin. God cannot sin because sin is that which is against his will. He can do all things but none of them are sin because he only does what he wills. In creation, however, God enters into covenant, a covenant inherent to the act of creation itself. God loves his creation and is thus obligated to it. He does not sin, but that which he does in accordance with his will is not only understood on his own terms but mediated through creation. No interaction with creation is sin yet creation may ask him otherwise. He freely forsakes his will that creation may take some part in it. This is prayer, the construction of God’s will mediated through his creation. Creation, however, sins because he has given it freedom to do so. It is not himself that sins but that which is not-God, which has been given a share of God’s freedom yet acts otherwise to this freedom.

* * *

¹It is very optimistic of me to suggest that all non-being can be actualised. As this is all speculative at this point, this definition excludes that which can never be actualised. Yet if it cannot be actualised it probably cannot exist as possibility either (imagination doesn’t count, contra Anselm!).

²Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

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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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Nothing is more readily evident than that the greatest attainable certainty with respect to anything historical is merely an approximation. And an approximation, when viewed as a basis for an eternal happiness, is wholly inadequate, since the incommensurability makes a result impossible.

–Søren Kierkegaard

* * *

Kierkegaard, aware of the advances in history and archaeology during his time, argues that that faith needs an objective basis, but because the objective is constantly under question and development then this objective basis is thus impossible and all objective content that we base our faith on — Jesus’ death and resurrection — is merely an approximation. The divide between subjective (our approximation) and objective (what we are approximating) should also be called into question: Truth that is fully subjective has no content because the approximation is the subject’s reading of the object and truth that is fully objective is obviously inaccessible because we access objects through our subjectivity. Truth is therefore always in the relationship between the subject and its object¹. Truth is a verb.

* * *

To make use of some other terms widely utilised by Kierkegaard, approximation also occurs between the finite (here subject) and infinite (here object). There is a bias in which particular finite activities are the sites of interaction with the infinite (Of course, all of finitude is in perpetual interaction with the infinite, but this is referring to Kierkegaard’s concern for eternal happiness of the individual, and more widely, the site where the finite is redeemed from evil/suffering by the infinite.). For example, take Paul’s words in one of his sin lists: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5 NIV). The key word here is idolatry, which brings to mind the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Sin is sin because it is a form of idolatry; it puts something that is not God above him. The first commandment could occur first because the following commandments are just variations on it. Alternatively, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v.1) can be seen as the first commandment, and the prohibition of idolatry is just a variation on the reality of God’s identity, the most rudimentary truth. Thus even if the penitent’s words in psalm 51 are applied to David and Bathsheba, therefore sidelining David’s poor treatment of his good friend Uriah, they still make sense: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). Sin is idolatry and idolatry hampers the redemption of the finite through the infinite because the finite persists in it’s finitude, without acknowledged need for its definition in relation to infinitude: Idolatry is the relation of the finite to the finite, whereas worship is the relation of the finite to the infinite.

Idolatry somehow never appealed to me…

* * *

This, then, is the hypocrisy: Christianity privileges some finite means over others:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

(Hebrews 4:15-16).

Prayer is the relation of the subject (believer, etc) to its object (God). Prayer is an approximation, and cannot approach God as he is because this requires objectivity, which is impossible. Only Calvinism can overcome the idolatry of prayer by having God pray to himself through the believer as an instrument rather than subject. Is the answer to idolatry then relativism, that since prayer depends on a much closer approximation of God by treating him as he is due, as opposed to gluttony which involves a lot less conscious acknowledgement of God, the two swing back into their absolute categories and prayer remains worship while gluttony remains idolatry? Is prayer only worship or acceptable because it is less idolatrous than gluttony and vice versa?

* * *

This is the wisdom of Peter Rollins’ landmark book, How (not) to speak of God, where he examines the story of the Israelites and the golden calf. Actually, you should read the book, which is a lot more conclusive than this post. The Israelites were worshipping God, though through the medium of a golden calf, as is indicated by the almost laughable-from-our-perspective address to the calves:

He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

(Exodus 32:4-6).

Put aside the last sentence with seems to be the author also encouraging us to laugh at the naivety of the Israelites (as also the writers of the gospels encourage us to laugh at the continuing of-course-I-wouldn’t-do-that faux pas (plural) of the disciples), and you could almost have the same religion with just a different approach. The only other difference would be an almost purely linguistic one, where God, instead of residing in the ark of the covenant, is the golden calf. That overt idolatry is linked with revelry only seals the deal. The revelry arises because God is met on our terms rather than his own, allowing Rollins to say, “it is the way one engages with an object or idea that makes an idol an idol rather than some kind of property within it”. Idolatry is not objective but relational. God is not an idol but our relation to him is.

I think this adequately demonstrates the connection between the golden [rabbit] and feasting and revelry².

* * *

The problem is that idolatry and worship co-exist within relationality. The gap between subject and object can adequately be called worship (everything is within God’s will, inclusive of sin, that to barely exist is to worship him) or idolatry (everything falls short of acknowledging God as he is, therefore acting in response to an approximation of him, which is idolatry). The latter is to be preferred. Freedom/human agency to some mysterious extent is necessary because otherwise God redeems only himself, which means pantheism, which is itself a cover for non-existence. How then do we overcome the idolatry of relation, continuing to relate as subjects, which is entirely necessary to redemption?

* * *

¹This insight was refined for me in Žižek’s second essay in The monstrosity of Christ, appealing to previous trends in philosophy, of which Kierkegaard is also a part.

²My study bible notes that the language around ‘revelry’ suggests an orgy. Maybe it was a rabbit, and the later interpolation of ‘calf’ was a polemically motivated attack on Hindu merchants…

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It’s a hard knock life for us. And I’m not just talking about lame movies. However much Solomon Kane bordered on the lame when I watched it not too long ago, I was half-overjoyed by the profundity of insight it offered on the human condition: Solomon Kane is a bit of a treasure hunter in the early 17th Century, violently and mercilessly making his mark on the world and receiving some decent bounty. One misadventure in Africa takes him into a fortress; notably, his enemies that were guarding it refuse to follow him in. As he ascends, his men slowly disappear, until he eventually reaches the throne room, entering in alone with the doors closing behind him. A short introduction and Solomon Kane is before the Devil’s Reaper, who has appeared to claim his soul after his life of violence. Solomon quickly displays some sophistic sword action, managing to elude the supernatural and later return home to England. I apologise for the necessity of recalling the opening of the film in it’s almost entirety, but let me continue. Clearly affected by this experience, Solomon commits to being a man of peace by spending the rest of his life in isolation at a monastery. Later on in the film he meets a small party of pacifist Puritans. One of them, Mr Crowthorn, reveals his military past:

“I fought in the Queen’s Army once, before I found my faith. Taking another man’s life, that’s not an easy thing to do, don’t you agree?”

Solomon replies:

“I must confess Mr Crowthorn, I was never more at home than I was in battle. Killing came easily to me”.

Solomon Kane in the film

That’s it right there. Mr Crowthorn and Solomon Kane approach Christian lifestyle completely differently. For Mr Crowthorn, his conversion and subsequent faith provide the necessary out and over, the new standpoint of meaning from which he can now view his old life of violence as completely without meaning. His faith is not a means to an end but an end in itself. If we take Mr Crowthorn for a type and read the entirety of his faith in this sense then even any hope beyond the grave is completely subordinated to the present, a live lived in the footsteps of Jesus. For Solomon, however, he does not know violence as empty and meaningless, but it remains to be the highest point of meaning he has yet experienced in his life, as the words at home indicate. His faith does not come naturally as a result of his conversion, but his faith and non-violence are the burdens he bears to withhold his damnation. He would much rather be exercising his bloodlust than living out the peaceful remainder of his life waiting for death, yet he knows he will be vindicated by maintaining this peace. Solomon’s lifestyle, if typified, is a more primitive, milk-and-honey faith, one that is only the means to an end and sacrifices the present for the future.

* * *

How does one make the move from the Solomon Kane faith of unwillful self-denial to the Mr Crowthorn faith of willful obedience? To realise and seek to overcome this disconnect is a part of the Christian tradition. One example is of Francis Xavier, a 16th Century Jesuit missionary, who challenges his own motivations:

Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Shall I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward–
But as thyself hast loved me,
O everlasting Lord!

To love for love’s sake is a higher expression and truer definition of love than one that gives thought to the self. I cannot discount this beautiful prayer. But what must be asked of all of these movements is, where ethically are they situated? With what motivations does Francis seek to change his motivations? Once Francis discerns the selfish nature of his faith, what dark-between must he enter into to complete it? In other words, why exactly does Francis desire to love for love’s sake (or for God’s sake)? If he desires to do so without thought of heaven and hell, and this includes in an implicit sense where he gives thought to any kind of reward, for example, more of God’s presence, then he need not desire to have a complete love because his desire is already an expression of selfless desire. If, however, he unwittingly seeks to be justified by moving from selfish love to complete love then he must necessarily arrive at this through incomplete love, his selfish love. In either case his primary desire annuls the destination desire. To put the words of Paul in another context, “Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8 NIV).

* * *

If we ourselves cannot legitimately make the move from selfish to selfless faith (and I cannot talk of these in absolute terms, of course; each progressive move is from a less so to a more so, rather than a no to a yes), then the obvious prophetic answer must be that the cause must lay outside of ourselves. In one of the best games of all time, Ocarina of time, Link the protagonist must symbolically face himself half way through the game. Up until now he has slain various forces of evil that have been reclaiming his homeland, Hyrule. Half way through the water temple, Link finds himself in a seemingly endless, desolate, mirror-like room, with a tree and a pond in center. After looking around, a figure appears beside the tree. On approaching, the figure appears as Dark Link, a shadowy version of himself. Before Link proceeds any further, before he can confront Ganondorf, the source of evil who has been oppressing Hyrule, he must confront and overcome an entirely different opposition, himself. Naturally, this is impossible. We are ourselves; how then can we overcome ourselves? Link nonetheless proceeds… only to find that each strike is countered with equal force, and each raising of shield is mockingly mirrored. Could it be that Link cannot land a hit on his other self because he is in actuality aiming at nothing at all? Is suicide his only out?

This picture should give an indication of Link’s predicament. Note the player’s excellently good choice of having the war hammer equipped on c-down, which will make sense as you read on.

Yet self-overcoming depends on this: that our two selves are not identical. A chess master who plays the most honest game with himself can only finish in a stalemate, a technical non-event. Yet if the player had access on one side of the game to an extra couple of queens, this would throw out of balance the identicality of his selves and allow for greater variance in the outcomes of the game (as also does the turns-based element of chess, but for a master this would make little difference). Thus in Ocarina of Time, Link is matched with sword and shield but not fire or a war hammer. When Link wields the war hammer, Dark Link cannot counter with the same, engendering immediately non-identicality, and consolidating the partition of the self.

In Christian theology, grace is God’s way of giving us a war hammer. As before shown, it is impossible to legitimately love selflessly, as it must be arrived at through selfish love, or it is already arrived at. If the latter is the case it is because the Holy Spirit has reoriented my desire.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws”

(Ezekiel 36:25-26 NIV; cf Jeremiah 31:33-34).

Back to the example of Solomon Kane, he cannot legitimately make the move from salvation-oriented self-denial to contentment and meaning in peace, as his desire for the latter is an expression of the former. His completed faith must arise independently of his struggle for it, as he will only eternally lock swords with his selfish desires. The Holy Spirit must take his own initiative and act as a war hammer upon Solomon’s desires, thus redefining and redeeming them. From a Calvinist perspective, even Solomon’s asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is mediated by the Holy Spirit, so that God can complete Solomon’s salvation without flawed human involvement.

* * *

Yet what if Solomon is not blessed enough to receive this providence? What if he remains, to use the proper Calvinist terminology, truly reprobate? Must we depend entirely on divine caprice for the redeeming of our desires? Is there a way, in Jesus’ words, to enter the sheep pen without going through the gate (John 10:1,9)? Speaking of Jesus, what are all these conveniently passed over mentions, just a few examples from Matthew’s gospel alone, of reward (Matthew 5:12, 46; 6:1-18; 10:42; 16:27; 25:14-30)  and punishment (Matthew 8:12; 14:32; 22:13)? Is Solomon justified in missing half the point of the Gospel message just so he can secure his own salvation? Opportunistic hecklers of the Gospel miss the wisdom in Jesus’ admonishments based on reward and punishment: It is impossible to freely break from this orientation without the intervention of an external cause. If we remain selfish, let us continue in it and strive against it to eventually become selfless.

While causality blesses some, it is not yet impossible to attain the selfless orientation on your own means; it only requires a kind of coup d’état with selfish means. Further, this is only completely seen as selfish with a strictly prospective view of desire. Actions judged by their motivations through self-reflection may often be discounted, “I have been giving a lot of my time to that volunteer group, but originally only because I knew I needed to look beyond myself and that girl was pretty sexy too”. This requires some slaughtering of the literal meaning of motivation, but consider if motivations can not just be prospective (anticipating) but retrospective (reflecting). The previous example is one of prospective motivation. The volunteer group could have at the outset appeared unappealing, so the subject appeals to his responsibility and relationship opportunities to engage in something that requires self-sacrifice. These are the rewards. Retrospective motivation in this case is where reflection on completing the activity supersedes the original motivations, “I honestly had no interest in making soup for homeless people but after doing so I feel it’s more important than justifying my middle-class indifference and engaging casual flirting”.

The initiation of the Holy Spirit is not exclusive to Calvinist thinking but may be implicit in other evangelical/Protestant theologies. These theologies may allow for the movement Solomon makes with his selfishness into selflessness, but the assumption is also that Solomon makes the movement from asking help of the Holy Spirit to being moved by/moving with the Holy Spirit. This is to view conversion, as with Mr Crowthorn, as something drastically life-changing, a redefinition of all desires of the heart and patterns of the mind, in accordance with New Testament theology (eg. John 3:5-6; Romans 8:5, 12:2; 2Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24; Hebrews 8:10-11). The full conversion of Solomon would retroactively annul his original selfish desires with which he enters into it.

What is missing in this account of the Gospel is the progressive nature of faith. A few weeks ago somebody asked me to grow my hair. To grow my hair means I must decide every day to maintain my commitment, but to cut my hair I can decide on a whim. Not for everyone is faith like cutting your hair, which is once-off and can account for large changes; faith may also be like growing your hair. Therefore sometimes a life lived always asking for the help of the Holy Spirit is more of a reality than a life lived with the help of the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit, the constancy of always having to ask for his help and the commitment required to live out faith in his absence make faith more reminiscent of works-based salvation than Paul probably intended. But what out is there? Contrariwise to the film, if Solomon had maintained his unwillful life of self-denial, possibly he would have come to a point where his legalism would have been usurped by his greatest yet experience of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The eventual meaning arising from the call to peace would act as a retrospective motivation upon the call, replacing his prospective motivation of self-preservation. Or maybe he would have continued to suppress his desire for violence until he died, without the real inner change testified to in the Gospel, and hoped that the Lord would look gracefully upon his self-righteousness.

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