December 13, 2018

Another Look: Merton – Before We Can Become Gods We Must Be Human

December Frosty Morning (2018)

Thomas Merton contended that human beings have lost a great deal in modern, technological society. What we have gained in efficiency and productivity has, in many ways, sucked the humanity and spirituality from our inner beings. In this meditation from Seasons of Celebration, the monk laments that we have separated ourselves from intimacy with the cycle of seasons. No longer do these annual patterns exert much influence over the course of our lives. Instead, we simply “keep moving.”

He suggests that the first step for many of us is not to seek spiritual formation through religious practice, but rather to get reacquainted with our humanity by restoring our connection to the natural world. Perhaps then, we can begin to appreciate the “cycle of salvation” reenacted in the liturgical year.

The modern pagan, the child of technology or the “mass man,” does not even enjoy the anguish of dualism or the comfort of myth. His anxieties are no longer born of eternal aspiration, though they are certainly rooted in a consciousness of death. “Mass man” is something more than fallen. He lives not only below the level of grace, but below the level of nature—below his own humanity. No longer in contact with the created world or with himself, out of touch with the reality of nature, he lives in the world of collective obsessions, the world of systems and fictions with which modern man has surrounded himself. In such a world, man’s life is no longer even a seasonal cycle. It’s a linear flight into nothingness, a flight from reality and from God, without purpose and without objective, except to keep moving, to keep from having to face reality….

To live in Christ we must first break away from this linear flight into nothingness and recover the rhythm and order of man’s real nature. Before we can become gods we must first be men. For man in Christ, the cycle of the seasons is something entirely new. It has become a cycle of salvation. The year is not just another year, it is the year of the Lord—a year in which the passage of time itself brings us not only the natural renewal of spring and the fruitfulness of an earthly summer, but also the spiritual and interior fruitfulness of grace. The life of the flesh which ebbs and flows like the seasons and tends always to its last decline is elevated and supplanted by a life of the spirit which knows no decrease, which always grows in those who live with Christ in the liturgical year. “For though the outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. . . . For we know if our earthly house of this habitation be dissolved that we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” (II Cor. 4:16; 5:1)

Transaction or Sacrament?

Photo by Mario Marti

Tuesday with Michael Spencer
from 2007

Debates about “transactionalism” have often been debates about the atonement. The Bible places the death of Jesus as the apex of a scriptural thread of sacrificial theology. Sacrifice is plainly transactional. No one can deny that, and I wouldn’t try. But is the death of Jesus a transaction, or is it a sacrament that allows us to think about the unthinkable and unknowable in a way that can be understood humanly and temporally?

Classical theologians argued about who received the “payoff” from Christ’s death on our behalf. Satan? The Father? When did the payment go into effect? Was the transaction between members of the Godhead, or does human faith and/or obedience effect the transaction? Did the atonement’s benefits extend to those who lived before it happened? Transactional questions are endless, leaving some persons weary and wondering, “Is this what the death of Jesus is all about? How many sins can be forgiven by how much blood? The calculation of worth?”

Such debates assume a temporal and transactional understanding of the atonement. They are built on the idea that, at some point in time, our reconciliation in Christ did not exist, but was in the future. Some Christians writers in the early history of the church, giving up the temporal aspect of the atonement, wondered if the “transactional” language of sacrifice was obscuring eternal truths about God. Was the death of Jesus a temporal sacrifice, and therefore a transaction, or was it something else? If God were dealing with another race in another galaxy, would the death of Jesus be the same, for the same reasons? Or could it be different because, in actuality, that death is a sacrament, and not a transaction at all.

Theologian Robert Capon has put forward an alternative to traditional ways of looking at the atonement, one that moves beyond the transactional language by introducing another familiar concept from Christian theology: The death of Jesus as a sacrament of God and the Gospel. This controversial proposal will upset some readers, but it has persuaded me to rethink not only the death of Jesus, but the reality of God as presented in Christ

By sacrament, Capon means a sign of reality. A sign that points to, and allows understanding of reality. The sacrament is not the totality of the reality, but participates in the reality. When a person interacts with a sacrament, he or she participates in the reality on the “other side” of the sacramental window.

Most Christians associate Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with sacraments. Capon says these are true sacraments of Christ. Christ is really present in these signs, but those participating in the sacrament are not “transacting business” with God, but are experiencing the grace of God that is always present for everyone. Those with faith perceive the meaning of a sacrament, and see the reality it presents, but the power of a sacrament is always true, no matter what the circumstance.

The “always present” aspect of the sacrament is the most controversial. Capon is saying that God’s forgiving grace is always present in Christ, always and for everyone who recognizes and believes it. Grace does not “appear” in the sacraments or in preaching and then vanish until the next transaction.

This sacramental understanding goes beyond just those signs mentioned in traditional theology. For Capon, all of reality, all of life is sacramental. The grace of God is part and parcel of creation, according to Capon, because Christ is always mediating the grace of God to His creation. We cannot escape the mediating love of God in Jesus unless we simply ignore it. Even then, Capon muses controversially, our escape from grace may prove to be futile.

Capon suggests that the cross, in fact the incarnation itself, are sacraments through which we see and experience the ever-present grace of God. Creation is a sacrament. All human life and experience is a sacrament. Jesus is the apex of sacramentalism. Once a Christian begins to think sacramentally, there is, in reality, no separation between existence and the love of God.

In this rejection of transactional language, Capon is not belittling the cross, but magnifying it as the epitome of the incarnational sacrament. While Capon does not believe a “transaction” occurred, he does believe the sacrificial- and transactional- imagery of the cross powerfully presents the grace of God in Christ, though it does not exhaust or limit that grace simply to the death of Jesus. Christ himself- God the Son- is the eternal sacrament and the very substance of the grace God extends to us in the Gospel.

I’m quite drawn to this as one who has grown weary of the debate between “limited” and “universal” atonement. Was the atonement effectual for a predetermned number? Or potentially for all, actually for none? Capon says the death of Jesus shows that God, in Christ, reconciles the world, i.e. creation, to himself. At his cost; in Chirst, effectually and graciously. Lift that up and believe it.

By suggesting that the atonement is not a temporal transaction, and that we do not conduct transactions with God as much as we come to realize what God gives us in the Gospel, Capon has helped me greatly. In the “altar call” of my evangelical Baptist tradition, transactions with God were proclaimed right and left, and sincere seekers believed that participation in the “sacrament” of coming to the front of church to pray would move God to do what we would not do otherwise. I now believe this is a profound misunderstanding of the God of the Bible, dishonoring the greatness of the Gospel of Jesus victorious, ever-present love for me.

I now believe the “Gospel” has been there since before the foundation of the world. It is the “eternal Gospel.” It is the Gospel of the Son who eternally offers himself up to God as our mediator. The cross of Jesus is the great “window” through which we see this reality, but all of Christ’s incarnation, and all of the church’s sacraments that point to him are also “windows” through which we see the eternal, unchanging kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

• • •

Photo by Mario Marti at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Randy Thompson: Advent — Waiting for the Lights to Come on in a Power Outage

Advent: Waiting for the Lights to Come on in a Power Outage
By Randy Thompson

Winter has arrived early here in our part of New Hampshire.  On the plus side, the final stages of leaf raking and fall clean-up were taken care of  by the snow.  However. . .

We’ve had three significant snow falls in November, and it’s now just barely December, and who knows what December has to offer us. The last snowfall, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, was memorable for several reasons. First, we had nine inches of snow. Secondly, it was the wettest, heaviest snow I’ve ever had to contend with; even our snow thrower, which usually dispatches snow effortlessly thirty feet into the woods, had a hard time with it. Finally, this particular storm was memorably because the power went out for eleven hours.  Besides no lights, radio, TV or internet, that means there’s no water from the well and no heat from our propane boiler. (Thank heaven for our woodstove!)

 I was able to keep busy for much of the day by removing fallen tree limbs from our driveway so the plow guy could clear it and by digging out the driveway in front of the garage and a walk way to the back door. (The trees took a beating from the wet, heavy snow.) With my work done, or at least as much of it as I could do that day, I came inside. Of course, by then, the sun, short-lived as it nears the winter solstice, was setting, and it was dark and gloomy.  The oil lamps helped a bit.

As I sat in the dusky shadows of our living room, trying to read using a flashlight, my thoughts wandered off from my reading.  When will the lights go back on, I wondered.  How much longer?  I knew they would go back on, but had no sense as to when. The power company had been vague on this point, when we reported our outage. There were trees and electrical wires down all over the place, and they had a lot of work to do.

When you sit in the dark, your chief concern is,  when will the lights come on again? You still have things to do, of course, and life goes on, but it goes on differently. It goes on in the dark, and you find yourself thinking about–hoping for–the power outage to be over.   You want the lights on. You want your radio and TV. You want your internet service! You want hot water or any water at all from the tap.

And, when you sit in the dark and there’s no internet, TV, or  radio, and it’s hard to read, you find yourself with fewer distractions, and what distractions there are, you can’t see them in the gloom.

This is the positive side of sitting in semi-darkness.  Distractions are not plentiful. You’re forced to come to grips with the shadows that surround you.  Yet, God is able to speak in and through shadows.

Sitting in the dark, it struck me that I was unexpectedly experiencing the meaning of Advent, the season of the church year when John the Baptist figures prominently with his call to repent, and when we look ahead not so much to Christ’s birth but to his Second Coming, and when we realize we are living in the time between Christ’s first Advent, which we celebrate at Christmas, and his second Advent, for which we now hope. It is the season when we are repeatedly reminded of the words from John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or “overcome”] it” (John 1:5).   In short, it’s the time when we hope for the lights to come on, that Christ will return, and there will be light, and a new heaven and a new earth.

We live in a world experiencing a long-term spiritual power outage. The lights are out, and people walk in darkness, alone, hopeless. The lights are out; people too often prefer this darkness. The lights are out, and we are alone in our selfishness, arrogance, greed, and hard-heartedness. We all have eyes, but many see nothing.  At least, not God.

Yet, we are not alone, not really. There is a light, shining in this present darkness, shining in the lives of those whose hearts have been warmed by that light and in whose lives it is reflected, shining like oil lamps in dark places. There is hope, as the Gospel of Matthew reminds us:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, along the Jordon,
Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people living in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

(Matthew 4:15-16, Isaiah 9:1-2)

So, there is a light, and though it’s dark out, that light is a dawn light.  It’s dark now, but more light is coming, and that light is a person, who was raised from the depths of death’s darkness and will, someday, light up the world, making all things new.

And so we live expectantly, sitting in the shadows of our lives, going about our daily business. We live in the glow of oil lamps, in the certain hope that it’s dawn not dusk, and that the lights will indeed come on, and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Lady Julian of Norwich, 14th century).

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