Full, perfect, and sufficient

It’s funny how you read something referencing a particular text or situation, and then lo and behold, you run into another reference to that thing soon after. There’s a word for this, a Greek one, I think, which basically says that the only thing funny about it is that you noticed it. But never mind that.

So last month I picked up Fleming Rutledge’s massive book on the Crucifixion — which includes a whole section devoted to rehabilitating Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? — and yesterday I ran across a link to this article by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian I greatly admire, dismissing both Anselm and the whole theory of substitutionary atonement, root and branch.

Now, I’m not sure I really want to get in the middle of this. I like both Rutledge and Johnson, and I agree with much of what each has to say, and enjoy engaging with the rest, and if they were guest speakers on a panel together I would happily sit in my seat and not trouble myself to go to the audience mic with a question.

But this is my blog, and it’s Holy Week, and not only have I been thinking about the exigencies of forgiveness for a long, long time, it’s baked into the original story I told myself that then eventually became Ryswyck. So I guess we’re doing this. If theology is not your thing, feel free to jump back onto the platform before this train pulls out.

One of the arguments that Fleming Rutledge made so powerfully was that when we talk about sin in this context, we’re not talking about an aggregate of discrete and somewhat arbitrary infractions, to which God’s wrathful response is equally arbitrary. No, what we’re talking about is the Power that moves us to gloat over others’ misfortunes, to torture, dehumanize, and deface — in defiance, seemingly, of social and mental health — both collectively and in the secret of our own hearts. I could pull ten headlines at random from today’s news in illustration of this, so I won’t belabor the point. Today and every day, things are being made horribly, infuriatingly wrong: and on more than one level we are helpless to put them right.

I doubt Johnson has a serious disagreement with this. But Johnson isn’t the only one to find the narrative theme of substitution-as-atonement dissatisfying, arbitrary, and facile. It’s made worse by contemporary evangelistic churches who insist that this narrative theme is the only theme of the cross that has any theological meaning. If you don’t acknowledge that Jesus died for your sins…well, you know what awaits you.

So far so obvious. But one of the problems I wound up having with Rutledge’s book is her dismissal of “forgiveness” as an ineffective response to the gravity of the evil we are wreaking on this world and on one another. And “forgiveness” as generally understood really isn’t adequate: but even before reading Rutledge’s book I have long thought that the general understanding of “forgiveness” leaves people not knowing what forgiveness really is.

So for this here blog I am going to outline the narrative theme of forgiveness as I’ve worked over in my mind for twenty years.

It started with a reread of Hannah Hurnard’s allegory Hinds’ Feet on High Places. In this story, Much-Afraid is brought by the Shepherd’s path to the Precipice Injury. At first she refuses in panic to try to climb it, but eventually she obeys and toils her way upward. Halfway up the cliff she rests in a cleft, where she meets a small flower growing from a tiny crack in the rock. When she asks the flower its name, it says, “My name is ‘Bearing the Cost,’ but some call me Forgiveness.”

That name stuck with me, more than anything else in that story did. I hadn’t really thought of forgiveness as bearing the cost before, but I could see that it was true, that when someone wrongs another, it’s the hurt one who has to pay the damages. Even on the grossest monetary level, if you empty my bank account, you may be sorry and give the money back later, but in the meantime I still have to figure out how to pay my rent and buy my groceries. And if you do harm to my soul with physical or psychological abuse, it might make things easier if you were sorry, but it would still have to be me who cleans up the inner mess.

Forgiveness isn’t anything to do with repairing a relationship with the wronger, or finding a sense of compassion for them, or even acknowledging the wronger in any way; it isn’t about devising a comfortable way to think about the situation, or superficially dismissing the charges, or contorting oneself into believing it’s one’s own fault after all. No, it’s definitely the wronger’s fault. To forgive is to say, “I am not going to wait for an apology; I’m going to own this mess and get on with cleaning it up.” It is entirely possible to forgive a wrong and still be angry at the person who did it. And sometimes the hurts we do to one another are so great that we just don’t have the wherewithal to repair the damages. We seek for help wherever we can find it, with varying success.

We can’t hurt God in the same way we can hurt one another. But sin is damage that God cares about and has to fix. So then, narratively speaking, it makes complete sense to understand the cross, “an instrument of shameful death” that takes to an extreme all the public degradation, dehumanizing, humiliating, torturous abuse we humans can devise, as God’s way of “bearing the cost” of not just our “sins,” our discrete and piddling infractions and dishonesties, but the power of evil that has roots in every one of us.

So why doesn’t Anselm discuss the resurrection in his treatise? I don’t know, maybe because it’s implied? How many thousands of people were tortured to death on crosses? To take all that cost upon oneself and then rise victorious — that is what the Christian draws upon for hope. Not just hope for the wrongs they have done, but for the wrongs done against them, that they are too poor to pay the damages of. Our insurance policies are a mockery of this divine subsidy; there are no premiums, no deductibles, no schedules of benefits. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s all one thing.

So I don’t subscribe to crude notions of arbitrary sacrifice, no. But anyone who’s ever had something to forgive knows that it is a labor and a struggle, even without the question of reconciliation. This is how the story goes.

It’s a story that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and it’s the kernel of the story that Ryswyck is now. When I first conceived this story, I sketched the character of General Barklay as a simple monster, and the story as being about the struggle of various characters to forgive his wrongs. But as I wrote, Barklay himself refused to be that simple. He insisted on being a mix of decency and selfishness, honesty and mendacity. He wanted both to repent and to hold out for justification. His wrongs are both personal and systemic, not his fault and entirely his fault. No mere substitutionary sacrifice could address his situation. Yet the costs are really there, and have to be borne.

There are endless stories to be written on this theme. Because it’s written on the walls of the world itself.

A Gnosticism Taco

For numerous reasons, this Sunday blogging is brought to you by my dear friend and fellow community member V. I have, in the past, shared living space with her for longer than I have anyone else except family, and she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together, so I reckon that as the mark of a good friend.

It was V who recently recommended Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, and since I already knew Rutledge to be a fine writer and preacher, I bought it on Kindle — and am finding it just as amazing as advertised. It has the kind of academic rigor and respect for ecumenical reality that you would hope for from a 21st-century treatment of the topic, and just my kind of humor as well. (To people who argue about whether to focus more on Good Friday or Easter, she retorts: “If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich.” This occasional flippancy is just the right leavening for a serious and complex topic.)

What really got me thinking, however — at least as far as this blog post is concerned — is the way she begins her approach: with a serious and thorough critique of gnosticism as it has leached into our beliefs and practices even in churches, displacing the importance of the cross. I know, I know: we’re supposed to think of gnostics as the good guys — after all, “gnosis” is knowledge, and knowledge is better than ignorance, right? “I thought I was all set to read a blog by a smart person. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

No one ever does.

I mean, I get it. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in New Age shops, read Jung and learned Tarot, fought my way free of the creeping despair of fundamentalism; my friends constellate the widest varieties of belief and nonbelief, and I have no reason or desire not to honor that, even enjoy and affirm it. But Rutledge is right about one thing: gnosticism is not actually democratic in nature. It seems like it might be: though the cross is a picture of abject helplessness and degradation, we know instinctively that we are more done-to than doing when we face God in a Christian arena. To take the initiative into our own hands, to go out and seek knowledge or to hold still and grasp it from within: that’s more like it. It certainly is more appealing to me.

But democratic it is not. Some people are better equipped for meditation, get more out of walking labyrinths, find more opportunities of learning from teachers. Transcending the difficulties of the body — being spiritual — is a matter of becoming adept. And if you don’t make the grade, you roll down the bank as the train barrels past.

I think we’re supposed to care about that. Not least because I’ve rolled down any number of spiritual banks myself; but also because in some limited areas I have impressed people far more than I deserved to, better people who were not aware as I was that it ought to be the other way around.

So naturally my thoughts turned to the worldbuilding I had done for Ryswyck. As a secondary-world speculative story, it doesn’t carry the same factual history of our world but is an analogue to it. In the story we only meet people from two countries in a backwater region of a global community more or less united against nuclearization anywhere in the world. The two peoples of the story share, with some differences, a religious tradition — a worship of wisdom without resort to images. As I feigned it, destruction and loss on such a massive worldwide scale led to an iconoclasm similar to the Simplification of A Canticle for Leibowitz: it is better to know nothing than to know how to harm people. For my world, the axiom is that it is better to worship no image than to identify the image only with ourselves.

My characters stoop to enter the low lintels of meditation halls; they burn lights in witness to their prayers; they pray alone and they chant together; they consider themselves more or less adept in comparison with others. I questioned myself: did I feign a gnostic religion for my world?

I mean, I don’t think I’m going to hell if I did. But on consideration…I don’t think so. I think what I did was a photo negative to what I experience in this world. After all, I wrote Ryswyck because I wanted to read a story that I couldn’t find out there six years ago. I wanted to read a story driven by friendship, ensconced in community, making use of Charles Williams’s concept of substitutionary love but anchoring a truly feminine point of view: plus all my favorite SFF tropes and the kitchen sink. It makes sense that if my daily fare is a Christian pita with a gnostic filling, I would serve up substitutionary love in a gnostic taco.

So pour me a Dos Equis and pass the hot sauce.