Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"The Righteousness of God"

I've had some recent conversations (and disagreements) with the Mockingbird crowd, about some of their theology - and I'm finding many of the disagreements fruitful.  Even puzzling over the reason that Evangelical Protestants tend to be much, much worse than Catholics (or even the Orthodox) on Topic H has given me a lot to think about.  Of course the "presenting issue" is the Bible, so they say.  But that's not really what's at the core, since Protestants ignore the Bible - erm, "re-evaluate Scripture" - whenever they feel like it,  too, if it suits their fancy.  More on this sometime, I promise!

And of course, along with many other gay people I've been suspicious of evangelical Protestants for a long, long time - and quite manifestly not without reason.   MBird itself, unfortunately, recommends blog posts from evangelicals who take as the default assumption the sinfulness of homosexuality (although they might qualify this by saying that "it's no worse a sin than any other" and/or that "the church should not point to this sin at the expense of others, which it often does").  This is, apparently, what passes for enlightenment on the topic; there's no real discussion of the core issues - and of course, no attempt to deal with the real people involved.   Besides that:  I've heard things from people I trust, about this.  Too bad, too; I hate it when reality loses out to fantasy (which is the very topic of this post!).

I'll probably continue to go over there and talk, because I think they're really onto something theologically (outside of Topic H) - and I do like David very much.  But I'm more ambivalent than ever about it; nobody seems, ever, to want to address the issue directly; "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is obviously still the rule in many places.  I mean, this is one of the big church issues of the moment, yet there is not a peep about it over there.  I'd be happy to talk about it (some more!) myself, if it were ever addressed.  But in fact at present I've completely ended my posting on other blogs and boards, too, because I'm very, very tired of the topic.  At some level, I guess, I can't believe people are simply going to carry on with their "beliefs" in the face of everything that's happened; the whole thing seems so last century at this point.   On one board I used to frequent but do no longer, they're still shunting discussion about the topic onto its own, separate space!  How are we supposed to move on - to grow and learn - when ridiculous things like that are still going on?   People justify this by saying that "the topic overwhelms every discussion" - but that is not our fault at this point, really.  I'm just unwilling to humor people on this subject anymore, I guess.  It's really long past time to move on - and so I'm just going to go ahead and discuss the real issues and leave the other, retro stuff behind at this point.  It's not important anymore.  (Victoria Matthews, (Anglo-Catholic) Bishop of Christchurch, NZ, has just written about her own incredulity and impatience when being asked to "defend" the idea of the Ordination of Women!)

Anyway, the latest disagreement was about this post:  "Beyond Imperatives:  A Must Read on the Law."  So much of what's said in this post - or, rather, the source it's quoting - I find simply incomprehensible.  And not for the first time.  As I wrote over there: 
I can hardly follow what’s being said sometimes – particularly when we get to things like “third use of the Law,” and “unconditional context[s] within which ‘go and sin no more’ is not an ‘if.’”  I just don’t understand what these things mean. Perhaps it’s me, and I’m not constitutionally able to grasp these ideas. But I don’t get it.

So that's to start.  But then we get to another idea:  Pastor Ed, a Lutheran, helpfully tries to explain things to me using this formula:

Luther considered the proper distinction between Law & Gospel to be the highest theological art, and the one who achieved the mark deserved a Doctorate in theology. He knew that our natural human theology is one governed by law and that we will continually gravitate back to it. We learn it as children; good boys and girls are rewarded and bad boys and girls are punished. In other words, “we get what we deserve.” 

When this theology creeps into the church L&G are mixed together and neither is properly understood. When L&G are mixed forgiveness is used like a carrot on a stick, to motivate us to do “good things” or avoid “bad things”. When L&G are mixed assurance is erased because I will never know if I have done enough to deserve forgiveness. But, when L&G are properly distinguished I am see myself for who I am (a wretched sinner without hope – Romans 7:24) and then I am pointed once again to the One who provides hope (Jesus Christ – Romans 7:25). When L&G are properly distinguished assurance is conveyed because it is not about what I have done but what Jesus did and has given to me. Grace is double blessing. Not only do I not get what I deserve (punishment), but I am given what I do not deserve (the righteousness of Jesus). Luther called this the Great Exchange.

 So that sets the scene.  I've heard this before over there:  the discussion of Atonement as a mystical acquisition of a state of "righteousness before God."  And I thought the first time I heard it, and I think now:  "This is really bizarre.  But more than that:  this is a big error, one that creates a disastrous psychological problem."

It's true that Luther did argue this:
“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.
Pastor Ed says this argument is Biblical, too; he cites 2 Corinthians 5:21 as the source for this argument:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I'm not sure what Werke is, or how developed this idea is elsewhere in his writings - so I can't say whether Luther above is giving us a bit of one-off rhetoric or a fully-blown and defended theological position.

But I do think that such a position could cause real psychological mischief - and I believe that it has already done so and continues to do so.  This is not a good idea, truly.   It involves, in effect, the adoption of a complete and total fantasy as a principle for living:  that God "sees us as righteous" when we are sinners.  (Why would God need this fantasy, I must also ask?  Doesn't this God seem a bit - well, loopy and pitiful?)

Take it from people who know most of what there is to know about fantasy as a way of life:  A.A. members.  The very first order of business for a recovering alcoholic is to get a small grip on the reality of our situation - and that involves recognizing what sorts of problems we actually do have.    That's the First Step folks:  "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable."

It sure doesn't sound like there's any sort of "righteousness" being "imputed" to us there, does it?   No - and the point gets driven home again and again as the years go on and the Steps continue.  "Ego deflation at depth," is what Bill Wilson called it:  we must let go of our fantasies about what remarkable people we really are, and be simply "one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society."

James Alison, who came from a Protestant Evangelical background, once said that "Curiously, a strong belief in 'Justification by faith alone' seemed to have as its psychological counterpart an extreme need to justify oneself."  I have no background at all in this, but it certainly seems that this "psychological need" could possibly have its origins in the "wondrous exchange" idea.

I'm not at all saying that this is what people think they are doing at the outset  I'm simply saying that reality is not achieved by pretending that something is true when it manifestly isn't.  I'm saying that mere human beings can't make psychological sense of this idea; we can't digest it in a way that's meaningful for us.  We will always make the mistake of thinking that if God sees us as righteous, we therefore are righteous.    If you need proof - why, it's everywhere around you.  Take a look at the history of the church for the past 400 years if you don't believe me.
And, I mean, let's face it:  Luther was nuts.  Really, he was.  That's not meant to be a casting of aspersions; it's just a fact.  He was saved by Grace - no small thing in an era before Xanax - but he was bonkers.  (Listen:  I was bonkers, too!  I identify with him, in fact - but nuttiness takes awhile to work itself out, if it ever does, and we shouldn't hang on his every fanciful notion.)

Let me also point out that, after Pastor Ed mentioned the 2 Corinthians verse above, I did a little reading in commentaries - because while I know the pastor was trying to be kind, and while I do have deep respect for what I know of Lutheran theology, well:  this is just a proof-text, really.  One of the commentaries I found, N.T. Wright's piece called "On Becoming the Righteousness of God," (that's a PDF) kind of shreds the idea above to little, tiny bits.   His very straighforward argument consists of just a few points:
  1. Paul uses the phrase "the righteousness of God" elsewhere in his writings (specfically in Romans and Phillippians) - and it never has the meaning attributed to it by Luther here.
  2. Paul does not do "theology" detached from argument about the practical matters he's addressing.  He's making a chapters-long argument here about the nature of Apostleship (his, in particular), and about salvation history.  He's arguing that "the righteousness of God" has more to do with Abraham's faith before the Law came into being, than with individual soteriology.  (Big theology word!)  This verse is a summing-up of that argument, which has as its base the historical and contemporaneously continuing "covenant relationship."  Wright says:
    Verse 20 then follows from this as a dramatic double statement of his conception of the task: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” That is to say, when Paul preaches, his hearers ought to hear a voice from God, a voice which speaks on behalf of the Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. Astonishingly, the voice of the suffering apostle is to be regarded as the voice of God himself, the God who in Christ has established the new covenant, and who now desires to extend its reconciling work into all the world. The second half of the verse should not, I think, be taken as an address to the Corinthians specifically, but as a short and pithy statement of Paul’s whole vocation: “On behalf of Christ, we make this appeal: ‘Be reconciled to God!’”

    In the light of this exegesis of chaps. 3-5, and this reading of 5:11-20 in particular, the thrust of 5:21 emerges into the light. It is not an aside, a soteriological statement thrown in here for good measure as though to explain how it is that people can in fact thus be reconciled. It is a climactic statement of the whole argument so far. The “earthen vessel” that Paul knows himself to be (4:7) has found the problem of his own earthiness dealt with, and has found itself filled, paradoxically, with treasure indeed: “for our sake God made Christ, who did not know sin, to be a sin-offering for us, so that in him we might become God’s covenant-faithfulness.” The “righteousness of God” in this verse is not a human status in virtue of which the one who has “become” it stands righteous” before God, as in Lutheran soteriology. It is the covenant faithfulness of the one true God, now active through the paradoxical Christ-shaped ministry of Paul, reaching out with the offer of reconciliation to all who hear his bold preaching.

    What the whole passage involves, then, is the idea of the covenant ambassador, who represents the one for whom he speaks in such a full and thorough way that he actually becomes the living embodiment of his sovereign — or perhaps, in the light of 4:7-18 and 6:1-10, we should equally say the dying embodiment. Once this is grasped as the meaning of 5:21, it appears that this meaning fits very well with the graphic language of those other passages, especially 4:10-12. This in turn should play back into our understanding of chap. 3: the paradoxical boldness which Paul displays in addressing the Corinthians is organically related to his self-understanding as the “minister of the new covenant,” the one who has “become the righteousness of God.” Indeed, we can now suggest that those two phrases are mutually interpretative ways of saying substantially the same thing.
  3. This would be the single example of the "wondrous exchange" to be found anywhere in the Gospels or letters.  And that means that there simply isn't enough evidence to construe "imputed righteousness" at its heart.  In actual fact, there isn't any such evidence.
So now we have arguments against it from two different, unrelated directions.  (Granted, my own personal opinion may not carry much weight - but I did attempt to back it up with some facts.  And there is a perfectly coherent theological argument above, anyway.  (And Look, Ma!  I'm fighting with Evangelicals via Evangelicals sources!  Yay!)

The upshot here is this:  I'm of the opinion that Christianity IS quite a bit about "healing."  It really is and must be; Christ was incarnate as a healer, after all - not as an accountant or a king.   And it doesn't seem to me that the church has ever been very good at healing; certainly it hasn't been recently.  To repeat myself (I'm sure), William James said the same thing over a hundred years ago, in pointing out why the "mind cure" movement had gained hold even as the churches were emptying out:
On the whole, one is struck by a psychological similarity between the mind-cure movement and the Lutheran and Wesleyan movements. To the believer in moralism and works, with his anxious query, "What shall I do to be saved?" Luther and Wesley replied: "You are saved now, if you would but believe it." And the mind-curers come with precisely similar words of emancipation. They speak, it is true, to persons for whom the conception of salvation has lost its ancient theological meaning, but who labor nevertheless with the same eternal human difficulty. THINGS ARE WRONG WITH THEM; and "What shall I do to be clear, right, sound, whole, well?" is the form of their question. And the answer is: "You ARE well, sound, and clear already, if you did but know it." "The whole matter may be summed up in one sentence," says one of the authors whom I have already quoted, "GOD IS WELL, AND SO ARE YOU. You must awaken to the knowledge of your real being."
The adequacy of their message to the mental needs of a large fraction of mankind is what gave force to those earlier gospels. Exactly the same adequacy holds in the case of the mind-cure message, foolish as it may sound upon its surface; and seeing its rapid growth in influence, and its therapeutic triumphs, one is tempted to ask whether it may not be destined (probably by very reason of the crudity and extravagance of many of its manifestations[53]) to play a part almost as great in the evolution of the popular religion of the future as did those earlier movements in their day.  ...  The ideas of Christian churches are not efficacious in the therapeutic direction to-day, whatever they may have been in earlier centuries; and when the whole question is as to why the salt has lost its savor here or gained it there, the mere blank waving of the word "suggestion" as if it were a banner gives no light. Dr. Goddard, whose candid psychological essay on Faith Cures ascribes them to nothing but ordinary suggestion, concludes by saying that "Religion [and by this he seems to mean our popular Christianity] has in it all there is in mental therapeutics, and has it in its best form. Living up to [our religious] ideas will do anything for us that can be done." And this in spite of the actual fact that the popular Christianity does absolutely NOTHING, or did nothing until mind-cure came to the rescue.[55]
Whether you agree with this or not - I don't, in fact, with quite a bit of it - there are a few simple ideas that argue in favor of what he's saying:

  1. The human condition, even here today with all our riches and our lives made so much easier as a result, has not changed much in thousands of years.  We are all still subject to doubts, fears, inadequacies, addictions, etc.  The Seven Deadly Sins (to put it another way) haven't gone anywhere.  Failure is still a reality.  Loneliness is still a reality.  Poverty is still a reality.  Death is still a reality. 
  2. People are left very, very angry without spiritual help and succor, despite all those riches.  Take a look at any anonymous web forum to see the depth of the fury that's out there.  And there is nowhere to go with all this anger - no relief, and noplace that even pretends to offer it, other than the therapist's office.
  3. Is there anyplace that has seemed less like a place of healing over the course of its history than the church?
I'm going to end this now, because it's getting too long.  I will end by saying that I'm more convinced than ever that the church could - should - recognize its own message to be a source of healing of the mind and heart and spirit.  And, equally important:  there is, simply, no place else except religion that offers such a thing to anybody who wants it, free for the asking.   People should be beating down the doors to get in - and if they are not, it's because we're not offering them anything important.

More later - and, I think, back to the analysis of the Twelve Steps.  A.A., of all things, is a mind-cure if it's anything, and it's actually a healthier place on average than most churches.  We've got to do something about that, because most people won't go to A.A., even if it was designed for them - which it's not.   And A.A. was started by a crackpot Lutheran pastor, BTW.....

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