A Theology of Despair
Despair – a Prolegomena
“ Wednesday, May 31, 2006 1:00 pm
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” – Hebrews 13:8
What may come to us as a shock, does not shock the One who made us. We have some hard news to share with you today. Our hearts are aching as we have learned that the young woman we have been taking care of over the past five weeks has not been our dear Laura, but instead a fellow Taylor student of hers, Whitney Clark. ”
And so was another great shock made known to the world, yet another blow in the ongoing tragedy that had unexpectedly unfolded yet another painful revelation: a terrible accident, five students from Taylor College killed when their bus was hit by a semi five weeks prior; confusion and then a subsequent race to save lives at the bloody scene; virtually identical friends: one dead, the other alive – their identities unknowingly switched to both caregivers and friends…until now.
How often we live our fanciful Christian lives full of joy and hope, mirroring the joy that we have in Christ to a hurt and doubtful world… until tragedy strikes, and a chasm of despair opens up before our feet that at first we seem so prone to deny, get frustrated with and blame on everything from the devil to bad luck. The story of Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn and how their identities were switched; how 1,200 people came and mourned at the funeral of a girl who lay still alive – battered beyond readily apprehendable recognition in a nearby hospital, attended to by a family and staff who thought they were nursing their now dead daughter back from the brink of death – it’s a vapid, dank apprehension of things best left unthought: the very stuff of nightmares – the dispensations of utter despair. And yet these things can and do happen; each and every day albeit with less entangled circumstances and shock, yet with equateable grief, horror and sadness to those who lose a loved one in circumstances less press-worthy.
How are do we react to such a thing? Natalie Grant in her song Held, sings
Two months is too little.
They let him go.
They had no sudden healing.
To think that providence would
Take a child from his mother while she prays
All to often the Christian lifestyle is portrayed and offered as one of ongoing joy and hope; ironically all the while while being based on a cannon composed of books – a significant portion of which the writers within are crying out in agonized palmistry and prophetic lamentations; Oh dear God where are you in this dark, present hour? An uncomfortable reality for many made for TV preachers is that an integral part of Christianity is not just a theology of hope, but also one of despair: that while we may blind our selves to the potential brokeness of life and a fallen world; it yet still exists, and sometimes in the form of disease, tragedy or sin – it reaches out with it’s wrenching abrupt, painful grasp and takes hold of our lives – usually unexpectedly and without any warning. And whereas an inauthentic stab at building shiny happy doctrines may in it’s immediacy – a span of time of sufficient length to preach a self-help sermon, broadcast a teeming television broadcast, or compose a double-spaced, fourteen point typeset 100 page best seller – seem to avert a disconnect with reality, an authentic theological system must not just come to terms with the reality of despair but must recognize, absorb and integrate it systematically throughout the whole of it’s scope of thought and practice. Many churches in an organized fashion seek relevance with culture and man through form and fashion; forgetting the foundations that persist when art and presentation are swept away in pain and desolation.
Despair – It’s Diverse Manefestations, 1: Theological
The scintillating, German-born American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) – often demonized by conservatives for his potentially distractory emphasis on the existential over the centrality of the Cross; examines the issue of relevance with life in regards to theology, stating in the opening paragraphs of the first volume of his tripartite Systematic Theology entitled the same; that theology is a fabric that is woven between the dimensions of God and and that of man; and that the challenge for both the believer and the exhorter is to entertain the idea of a garment that is neither ruffled nor torn at either edge; compromised on neither of it’s sides. Liberal traditions traditionally compromise and/or oversimplify on the side of God; while conservatives (fundamentalists, in his words) do likewise, yet on the side of man – the state of having neither compromise nor oversimplification on either side; however, seemingly impossible – because of the vast difference between the two in a sundry of natures – yet this goal ever being the ongoing task at hand, for both common men and exegetes; for generations, past, present and future.
Theology, as a function of the church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation. Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of it’s foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance these two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak to the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. (Paul Tillich, Introduction to Systematic Theology, Vol. 1)
It is worth noting, that a frequent adage purveyed amongst fundamentalists faithful is the notion that “it is better to compromise on the side of man, then that of God” and surely these same words have graced more then a few sermons on the subject; assuredly with rousing response. And while this may be great material for energetic, rousing preaching – it must further be further noted that a “safer” preference towards oversimplification and compromise on the side of man is a dangerous and indeed severely flawed machination: the idea, for instance, that the granting of liberties where they were never given is far worse then the forbidding of those that were – this is both an absurd and a blasphemous notion; and remains such as long as the believer in question, weighing the giving balances in given positions, holds their religion and it’s attending faith in it to be something that is a construct not of their own making. Otherwise, were it not so – were Christianity a revelation of man unto man; and were he (man) the founder and finisher of the work of that faith, such a compromise on his own side (or pole, as Tillich references it) could and would be a justifiable endeavor availably dispensable at anyone’s discretion – but he is not. Christ and Christ alone is the author and the finisher of both the religion of Christianity and it’s necessary and congruent faith – not man. And what brazen mason would boldly challenge the master architect after his arrival to a job site, saying – I took it upon myself to change your design and implement my own; I have placed more foundation under this part of the building and less on that. It may be true that the outward working of a rebellion against the faithfully and fearfully worked out balance of faith, one compromising seemingly on the side of God, might potentially have distinctly dire and disastrous consequences – a compromise on the side of man; yields equally ruinous results; albeit ones more discreet and easily overlooked, but likewise ill-inducing, far reaching and just as excellence-depriving as the former. Indeed – a degree of Tillich’s writings can be seen as a venting of frustration with conservative Christianity’s oversimplifications/compromises on the side of man; with seemingly little or passing reference to the likewise tendency of Christian liberalism; of which he is regarded as somewhat of a foremost spokesperson/apologist theologian/philosopher towards, at least to some – a friend of mine once referred to him as “the Schuller of theologians”.
Today, this same tug of war between the divine and mortal goes on in the logical out workings of modern theology; perhaps articulated in different ways; same band – different tune; yet the song ever remains the same. The same concepts ever in the tug of war between excellence in implementation and compromise in apologetics: liberty, free will, hope and despair. Of all of these that we have at the core of our theology, the issue of despair is the one which we are ever seemingly trying to evade and deny; compromise or oversimplify, and despite the best of our intentions or excogitations, ever remains a bothersome reality we can generally afford to ignore – until once again – as it always does, it presents itself once more for it’s inevitable, loathsome perusal.
Who told us we’d be rescued?
What has changed and why should we be saved from nightmares?
We’re asking why this happens
To us who have died to live?
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries a tremendous amount of theological extrapolation and exploration found it’s expression in the German tongue; a great deal of which could be traced back to the Great Grandfather of Christian Liberals, F.D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834); who with On Religion, Letters to It’s Cultured Despisers set himself as the theological pace car for generations of thought to come. Adolph Von Harnack, Bultman, Barth – in his early years of theological formation – and even Tillich himself, find themselves situated in Schleiermacher’s long shadow. And for all the great thought and brilliant expositions that found their way onto paper through the writings of a long line of influential Christian theologians – one small detail, one small tear in the fabric of theology between God and man; one that began with Schleiermacher – made it’s long, dark, path deep into the ideas of many of his disciples: the idea that the resurrection of Christ had to have been a purely spiritual operation – that it could not have really actually happened in the physical – began, grew, and through the detailed exposition and enforcement of supposedly logical thought and philosophical apprehensions, became entrenched, enforced and openly accepted. Those who adopted it; where never short in brilliance; but they were indeed short in sight: to recognize that theirs was the very compromise/oversimplification that Tillich would, later, in his own writings, warn about: the idea that the resurrection could never have really happened, and was only a spiritually manifest event; it was played off as the end result of careful historical analysis and as Bultman’s catch phrase became, ‘demythologization’: but it was not such at all. It was – despair. A despair that the very God of the universe could never do such a thing; that it was possible – they would in their self-imposed anguish, the very idea, ever vehemently deny. The social satirist G.K. Chesterston speaks to them in the chapter Escape From Paganism, from The Everlasting Man.
“What the denouncer of dogma really means is not that dogma is bad; but rather that dogma is too good to be true. That is, he means that dogma is too liberal to be likely. Dogma gives man too much freedom when it permits him to fall. Dogma given even God too much freedom when it permits him to die. That is what the intelligent skeptics ought to say; and it is not in the least my intention to deny that there is something to be said for it.”
And the irony to be beheld is that while the ‘liberal’ theologians languished in their despair that the resurrection ever really took place – those ‘conservative’ theologians on the other side of the ideological isle – always quick to point an accusatory finger across the way – themselves indulged themselves in yet another form of likewise denied despair; one, rather then having an excogitory, philosophical flavor, had a decidedly Manichaen inclination. We, I speak thus being one myself, have always found difficulty in the apprehension of integration with this present world, our own compromise/oversimplification being that we so quickly paint it as utterly alien and best to be avoided; deciding that our ‘salt’ is best shaken in internal exploits and not so much into the highways and byways of a lost and dying world. In no single subject is this more easily seen – a veritable Rorschach test of sorts – then with the issue of wine and alcohol. The reader will forgive me, being that you may unpredictably fall into either Prohibitionary, abstentionist or moderationist camps on the issue, that I will carefully avoid a full force theological exposition on the issue, as more then a passing emphasis on the issue would preclude the centrality of the present discussion. Suffice to say 1900 hundred hears of Christian history are seeped in the production and moderate ingestion of said beverage. Only for the past 100 years has the idea of drinking alcohol as evil been made exponentially popular, especially in the southern fundamentalist church. There is no doubt that consternation towards such thought is unavoidable and irrevocable in the minds of some readers – but at the end of the day, such an idea is itself, yet another form of despair. Whereas the liberals engage their despair in the doubt of a physical resurrection, conservatives engage theirs despair of select physicalities; such as that of alcohol as a creation of God given to man to gladden both His heart and the heart of Man for his enjoyment and through likewise mental mediums; arguing for a case of logical wisdoms that seem true and easily acceptable, and yet in the full light of scripture are exposed as yet more foolishness passed off as wisdom. Fundamentalists – though they be so in theological label – they jump social when the topic of wine or beer is brought to the table. The scripture teaches a resurrection that took place both in the spirit and the physical; regardless of how foolish such may sound to the intellectual elite, and it teaches responsibility and wisdom of all aspects of creation and not outright avoidance; regardless of how emphatic or convincing likewise luminaries through cultural secessionism and avoidance would propose. It was G.K. Chesterton who said “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” – ILN 9/11/09
The despair towards the resurrection of the Lord Christ Jesus by the Liberal Theologians of the past and present centuries and the despair of the notion of the resurrection speaking to the pleasures of the world around us by the Manichean-leaning fundamentalists of modern and past eras can be fitly framed as theological/philosophical forms of despair; despair worked out and manifest in the exogitory outworking of ideas, doctrine and philosophy. This is a form of despair, and it is crucial, for the growing believer, in reaching towards a point of deeper maturity, to address and have it spoken to by that same thing that is the source of it’s very denial.
This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held.
Part of the Manichean/gnostic dualist doctrinal inheritance that the church still struggles with, is that there is some kind of huge disparity between the flesh and the spirit: that the bulk of the scripture somehow only speaks to one dimension and the other is best forgotten or eliminated all together. An even passing perusal of the old testament gives ample evidence of a God that ordained, oversaw and worked into the very framework of worship under the old covenant an elaborate and comprehensive schedule of festivities feasts and celebrations. In these He is found to expereince delight at seeing His people enjoy them; but only when they were done within the frame of reference of relationship: relationship with Him as the source of the blessings and joy. It was when they were conducted outside of a distinct connection back to Himself that he became wrathful and stated that He hated them. Can a God that is only interested in our spirit have such an inherent interest also in our own going partying? Indeed the early church Manichean/Gnostic Dualist wrote off the Old Testament as the ravings of a different God from that of the New; one who was an angry, evil, fallen God himself. In their dividing of flesh and spirit they continued the endeavor, finding fair game God himself; and where they pursued false means and methods in the former, they found likewise in the later. The God of the Old and New testaments is the same, at the risk of sounding Sabellian – the same substance, yet framed within a different revelatory light; likewise – are the dimensions of spirit and flesh; same yet different; apart yet indivisible – of different natures yet of the same individual.
A large part of the history of Christian theology is framed within this very struggle; that of a despair against the physical aspects of the human compositional state: that matter is somehow inherently evil whereas it’s supposed natural opposite, the spirit, is proposed to be diametrically good. This is a despair of Creation – and today, we frame it in yet another way; in the before mentioned notions of philosophical and/or theological despair; which is a latter, logical outworking/consequence – in ways directly, and in others indirect – of the former intimated despair: that of a despair of creation. Theological despair manifests itself in others ways, as well, not just in the seeming lofty creation of doctrines and wherein such despair as that of Manicheanism/gnostic dualism a.k.a the creational despair of the conservatives/fundamentalists and the resurrectional despair of that of the progressive/liberal camps – it strikes not just in the creation of doctrinal notions, but also in the implementation of them.
Many an aspiring student of Tillich, the before mentioned oft bedeviled theologian of the conservatives – finds out it was more then just his existential tendencies and seeming marginalization of the Cross, that gives him such a distinction in the minds of many, but also that the man who brought so much illumination to the theological studies of his day, also had a dark side in the implementation of his own theology. Tillich, it is said, feared his own death. When his widow, Hannah, went to unlock his desk after his death, she found there amongst his published and unpublished theological memoirs, years and years of love letters – to other women. It should not have come to that much of a surprise, as it is also reputed that the Tillichs’ had ‘perfected’ the notion of the ‘open marriage’ long before it became popular in today’s marital culture. How could a man who loved the Word of God so much – that he spent most of his life learning, writing, and teaching about it – have lived a life so seemingly divorced from it? Early in his life, his first wife left him for his best friend – and had a child by the same. Tillich – like so many of his fellow Germans, fought in the trenches in WWI, and then watched his beloved native nation come under the rule and reign of the Nazi party, all the while while the vast majority of the church he grew up in, studied under, and worked in, supported Der Fuhrer, along with all of the eventually attending inhumanities. Did a failed marriage along with watching his nation slip into political and theological madness and then oblivion rock his own world and dislodge him from the anchors of stability and confidence? Tillich the theologian – is so much like many bible characters we read of – Tillich the man, was in fact – a man of struggles and despair. On his death bed, he called for his copy of the Greek Septuagint; which he kissed as he lay dying. His love for the Word of God persisted into his last moments – but the life he lived; rarely ever going to church, having lovers on the side, and embracing an existential focus over a Christologic center in his soteriology – dims his great light in contrast to others of the faith who left brighter beacons for us to illuminate our own theologic paths. Is there something worthwhile and deeply challenging in what Tillich left behind – in the mind of this writer – certainly. But is it more then just a great theological legacy and insight that one can glean truth from – there is also the legacy of Tillich’s despair; one that serves warning to the potential we all have of not sticking to the straight and narrow admonitions of the Word, because so many of those we trudge along with in the faith to do likewise.
This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held.
Despair – It’s Diverse Manefestations, 2: Emotive
If it were not enough to struggle with the doctrinal heavy lifting of dealing and understanding the despair of creation, and then it’s direct descendent theologic-philosophic despair, and then just simply the process of righteous living; these things seemingly the domain and playground of the theologian and philosophers, there is also the manifestation of despair that strikes both the lofty excogitator and the lowly commoner: that of emotional despair. You can close a book of theology and philosophy or doctrine and chose with walk in ignorance of despairs both direct and implied, but it is impossible to walk through life unscathed from the despair that saturates the human emotional condition. Here all men wake up to find themselves on common ground with all other men who breath and look up to see a sky both alternatingly full of light and then darkness.
In her myspace.com blog, Hollie, a.k.a. fifthrowfocus, writes in telling and poetic prose, in a submission entitled Thoughts Heretofore Unspoken;
I have a flawed body, a damaged heart, and an average mind.
I have been called beautiful by women, but never by a man.
I have not felt pretty or graceful or poised since I was a child.
I am human; I know imperfection.
I have experienced many heartbreaks, tragedy, and pain.
I have seen my dreams dashed and my wishes unfulfilled.
I have revised my goals to diminish further disappointment.
I am human; I know failure.
I have compromised my standards and accepted inferior substitutes.
I have satisfied legitimate needs with illegitimate desires.
I have pawned my emotional integrity for physical intimacy.
I am human; I know misery.
I have seen friends find the love and happiness I crave.
I have watched others find success in careers I admire.
I have witnessed promotion by less qualified peers.
I am human; I know envy.
I have been hurt, rejected, and betrayed.
I have caused hurt, rejection, and betrayal.
I have loved deeply and lost much.
I am human; I know pain.
I have stayed up all night to avoid going to bed lonely.
I have woken with puffy eyes from crying myself to sleep.
I have sought comfort in food and drugs and alcohol.
I am human; I know despair.
I have tried in vain to escape my problems.
I have conquered few of my bad habits.
I have battled depression nearly all my life.
I am human; I know defeat.
I have isolated myself from family and friends.
I have questioned the need for my existence.
I have rejected beginnings and contemplated ends.
I am human; I know hurt.
I have loved you since before time began.
I have known you since before you were born.
I have given you every breath you have drawn.
I am your Father; I know you because you are mine.
I have guided your steps since you learned to walk.
I have watched over you every day of your life.
I have protected you through every circumstance.
I am your Father; I protect you because you are mine.
I have seen you fall and fail and lose and love
I have watched you cry and scream and doubt
I have known your fears and hopes and dreams
I am your Father; I comfort you because you are mine.
I have given you hope when you thought you had none.
I have wiped away your lifetime slate of mistakes.
I have accepted you despite all your flaws and scars.
I am your Father: I claim you because you are mine.
I have poured out my love unconditionally.
I have given you new life abundantly.
I have never left you nor forsaken you.
I am your Father: I love you because you are mine.
It seems such a grand idea that the world could indeed potentially be a utopian synergy of like-minded forces; but the opposite is by far the truth. We wake up to a day full of light that is defined by the forthcoming night; where there is light, there will soon be darkness, and this will once again give way once again to light. In a given space of time, one will hear of a member of one’s extended family giving birth: bringing life into the world – and then also hear of another loved one’s passing. The opportunity of a new life beginning is made valuable, open and full of potential, by the comparison and contrast of one that utilized the fullness of life and it’s opportunity or – in the case of a life cut short – was denied the fullness thereof. Immutable mutual definement; where something is always most adequately described not just by it’s own qualities, but also by those of it’s natural opposite. We are all faced with emotional despair; and while we can run from the specter of sudden appearing; regardless of how far we fly or push it out from our minds; the awful potential for it’s sudden unexpected emergence is always a specter waiting in the wings – and that it did not, we give gracious thanks, hopefully, for another birthday, another christmas, another healthy cancer-free year. We know joy – because we have so often, it seems, known the opposite of it.
Life has the potential to deal crippling blows regardless of how much faith we have, or how perfect we have made our own sinless endeavors to be in our own mind. Pastors get cancer and die, church busses crash in flames, little children drown on church sponsored trips. Like the kid who treats his car with the greatest of care because he worked hard to get it by bussing tables every night vs. the spoiled brat that destroys everything he pulls out of the driveway almost immediately after being given it carte-blanche from a parent ever dispensing their delinquent progeny yet another vehicle. We have had a lack – and the fullness of joy is all the more apparent for it. In reading Thoughts Heretofore Unspoken, one person might say – wow that dame has issues; others might say – these issues are indeed mine own. The cultural christianity that is proffered by the teeming modern masses to themselves is just that: a cultural endeavor. Authentic Christianity – while interacting and responding with wisdom and salt with culture is not just something played out culturally; but it is something that irrevocably is pressed upon the mind and heart. God I am worthless and hopeless outside of you. I have no hope in and of myself; my only hope for identity, purpose, and salvation in physical and spiritual dimensions comes through your only begotten son and his shed blood on calvary. I have no hope for anything otherwise. If, as a Christian, you have not had these thoughts, perhaps it is time to reconsider having them…
This hand is bitterness.
We want to taste it, let the hatred NUMB our sorrow.
The wise hands opens slowly to lilies of the valley and tomorrow.
Despair – It’s Diverse Manefestations, 3: Spiritual Frustration unto Salvation; Coming to the End of Oneself to Find Christ
In grieving – there are established points through which a person faced with a tragedy moves through: denial, anger, blame, and then acceptance. Whereas these points of movement may seem adequate to describe the mind’s way of dealing and properly digesting and moving past unsavory events; there is a likewise process that takes place in the spiritual growth of an individual: denial, acceptance, repentance.
In becoming an authentic Christian there are also established points through which a person comes in their apprehension of their proper state in the physical and spiritual universe. Denial, anger, blame and then acceptance. I am good enough on my own, I don’t need God or any crutch-like religious poppycock, it’s not my fault I made these mistakes; I’m a disadvantaged person – it’s the fault of my parents; no, wait, my financial status; no, wait, my race. And then, when we exhaust all the possibilities – we finally surrender. We give up. We both accept and surrender to Christ.
In most – if not all – belief systems, outside of Christianity, there is very naturalist-inclined outlook on life. Whatever befalls you or what ever you face; you pretty much have all that you have ever had in terms of how to deal with it. If you are an addict; then you have to pull the desire and ability to over come your addiction from within yourself and from within the construct of your own power/abilities. If you get rich or lose your wealth, then you have just had a run in with potentially obtuse darwinian realities and your either just lucky and/or smarter and faster then those around you – or – in the bug vs. windshield world, your just the bug today and/or your just stupid, slow and weak; and that is why the bully of life ate your lunch and left you bleeding on the social playground. This is not Christianity. Christianity says that the sooner you stop looking at fate or yourself for you your solutions – and the quicker you begin to rely on something outside yourself: Christ; the better off you are. A despair of natural and self potential and a hope placed elsewhere is the quickest route potential physical/spiritual success. You have to lose your life to gain it. You have to not just stop searching for a lucky break or the potential to be anything great within yourself but actually give up the notions altogether. To find hope and joy in Christ – you have to embrace hopelessness and despair regarding your own self. Cultural Christianity is nothing more then a mindless exercises of feel good practices that are like the movie sets in any given movie; they look real from the street, but if you knock on the door, you’ll find it’s just painted plywood framed by a prop. You can’t really live inside it, at least any longer then the feel good movie your trying to script for yourself will last. You can’t always the goings on – a wind will come, and it will push your one dimensional self-centered playground to the ground.
When a believer has moved passed the shallowness of self-inhered faith and found a foundation in Christ; then when the unthinkable comes, there is a transcendent reality that is beyond the scope of any of your capacity or talent. You don’t matter – neither does anything greater then you – because there is an eminent transcendence that is beyond yet even that which has come to your door step. In moment of greatest pain – when everyone else is disintegrating in hopelessness there is a hope for the Christian that is beyond not just despair but beyond belief. We just don’t think that God is in control – we know. The hope of naturalism or self-capacity is transcended by the reality that no matter what; God is in control and He is sufficient to meet our needs. Let pain, disappointment and calamity come if they must; we welcome them – the worthlessness of the world will be washed away, and God’s children will shine in the darkness with a light that will be seen as a hope to those who have chosen other remedies which in turned failed them. In the finality of their eventual despair, the lost can yet still find transcendent hope in the realization of the futility of their own capacities and the recognition there is a transcendent hope that they too can have.
This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held.
Despair – It’s Diverse Manefestations, 4: Sustenancive; Pockets Full of Lint and other travails of Lack
As if it were not enough to have to deal with the various permutations of despair in regards to ideas and faith, and then those of emotive natures, there is a third type of despair which is born not of ideas, nor of feeling but from that of sustenance; generally speaking – specifically – of a fear of a lack or inadequacy in regards to it; a despair of sustenance. Anyone who has stood in front of a news paper vending machine and read alluring headlines of what is going on in the world, only to pull out pocket lint rather then the appropriate coinage – has experienced a despair of monetary sustenance; not having enough of what is felt, perceived or actually needed – and in the case of a lack of monetary sustenance, a lack of moolah. Almost everyone has experienced a despair of financial sustenance. Most people have experienced a despair of spiritual or emotional sustenance as well, and everyone – going all the way back to when they first cried for milk as newborns – has experienced a despair of nutritional sustenance. A situation wherein we are confronted with the lack of something that we want or need: in various scenarios and situations – it happens to us all. We are born and literally thrust into a world where we cannot fend for ourselves, and unlike the horse or giraffe, that in the moments after their birth can find the skill and ability to stand up and move on their own, we are literally born into a despair of motile sustenance: we are not even able to provide ourselves the ability to move on our own – we are completely dependent upon a caring mother to provide for us in every dimension of our sustenance.
This present generation continues to deal with the aftermath of what is oft referred to as the “Sexual Revolution;” that time in American history when people of all ages shed their inhibitions in exchange for an open form of sexuality based on what feels right vs. social/religious conventions. More often then not – this ‘what feels right’ idea found more traction in the notion of “what I want” more then anything else. Sex is an intersection of the spirit, emotion and physical; and was created as thus by the creator – and for this reason protected and sealed for use only within marriage by two people under a covenant to be only with one another. By nature of life, not everyone finds themselves within the comfort of such a blessing; and those that eventually do – they must deal with the span of time in their life that precedes it. This time ‘outside of covenant’ is one wherein one is subject to a despair that involves all of these same dimensional interactions with another individual. The desire for sex transcends and operates in both the spirit, the emotion and the body, but fulfilling the needs of one dimension through a giving into temptation does not necessarily fulfill the remainder – outside of it’s established place in creation, marriage, the wonder becomes a terror, and will more often then not – if not always – wreak havoc and destruction upon them.
The despair of sexual sustenance is but one manefestion of a despair that involves a need or a want. Long before we wake up hormonally at the age of puberty, we wake up to despair of nutritional sustenance that first time we grow hungry and cry and get irritable by nature of the instinct given by God and manifest in our infancy so that our mother would in fact know of our despair though we were incapable of extrapolating any excogitory lamentations toward the fact. I am born with this despair and fear, uncertainty and distress are my first reactions to it in hopes that in this travail – I might find hope.
We need money – so we get a job. We need a better job – so we go to college. We need to study better – so we invest in paper, pens, and computers. I am going to need more money… yet right now.
The path to spiritual maturity is marked by many things. More books then this eager young author will ever be able to read, and most of them better written then anything this same fledgling scribbler will ever be able to write about are available for perusal at the local Barns & Noble about them. One of the most important things, though, is an acknowledgment that we can, do, and will despair either theologically & philosophically, emotionally, or sustenance-wise; and having acknowledged this despair – as all the world eventually does – we also acknowledge, embrace and proclaim that which is defined by, but also that which transcends the same: Christ. The despair that we encounter serves only to remind us of the fullness that we can find in Christ; not just financially; though we may possibly remain poor in wealth, not just health-wise; thought we are all dying since the day we were born,
If hope is born of suffering.
If this is only the beginning.
Can we not wait for one hour watching for our Savior?
Despair – Towards a Solution, 1; Apprehending the Transcendence of Christ and The Lack of a Thing Defining the Fullness Thereof: Relationally Quantitative Dynamics Referenced
Ideological/Theological, Emotive Despair, and Sustenancive Despair; the bumper sticker on the truck in front of me earlier today said Fear Nothing – but how often do we really do that? And those that claim to – do they really? And those who do – are they really all that brave? Is not the lack of fear, a fear of the same? It is a short-lived fool the man who does not fear the fear of at least something; gravity, microbial agents, financial issues; laid up in a hospital bed, infected with AIDS, and bankrupt: you have to fear somethings – unfortunately both the world and believers often misplace their fear, and the results themselves can be a fearful thing. In Romans 8:15 we are told that we are not given over to a spirit of fear unto bondage; but rather a spirit of adoption wherein we cry Abba Father – ‘Daddy, Daddy’.
Colossians 1:26-27 states [Even] the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. In understanding that it is Christ in us and manifest in us that overcomes despair; we tap into an understanding of a reality that speaks to the very core of the understandings of ourselves and speaks through both ourselves and our lives. In realizing – through despair – that we have an awareness of finitude and resultant frustration we realize that there is a fullness of something because we have experience and understood the corresponding lack thereof: the lack thereof defines the fullness of a thing. Regrettably, and with great consequence – many christians give into the temptation to experience the power of sexuality outside of marriage – abandoning the abstentionist stance in lieu of one wherein boundaries and limitations are explained and reasoned away. In the end the glory of the institution of marriage; it itself best explained as a sexual contract between two people ordained before God – is radically diminished. In this present time; marriage is just a legal and a social formality: the bride and groom already live together, and have already had sex – the only difference is a piece of paper legit before men for tax purposes or the allevement of guilty conscience if they have not already been seared beyond recognition.
This same principle of exclusion elaborating the fullness thereof is seen in the abstinence from alcohol of the priests, and the same in the Nazzarite Vow as well as John the Baptist and a host of other biblical characters. The notion that abstinence towards holiness was grounded in a culturally-successionary removal from something vs. a defined metaphorical time period removal, is the centerpiece of the prohibitionist stance against alcohol. Alcohol was not abstained from because it was evil – but rather because of what it represented to man as a gift from God; one that was given to bring joy to the heart of both man (Psalm 104:14-15) and God (Judges 9:13). It represented rest and a time of relaxation: it is present in times of blessing (Isaiah 25:6,Psalms 104:14-15), and taken away in times of rebellion (Isaiah 24:4-12). When we are connected to the fullness of Christ, through wisdom and responsibility, the despair of the physical is transformed into joy. But this comes not through the Law – but only through Christ. The practicing of the law, the priests, John the Baptist were never able – until Christ – to see this fullness and were commanded to walk in the metaphorical lack of rest; they walked in a lack – specifically – of wine. Before Christ, when the priests entered the Holy of Holies, they entered with ropes tied around their legs as to be drug out – were they killed instantly in the presence of God. Neither could they – when performing the duties of the law – have anything to do with something that represented rest metaphorically as their work was never done in the law; but the promised Messiah; the very embodiment of the rest and grace of God was soon to take on flesh and walk amongst men. It is no small thing; that the very first miracle of Christ was creating the very thing that all practitioners of what He was the very incarnation of (The Word) – had been expressly forbidden to do. There had been an abstinence. There had been a lack of grace. There had been the despair of an unattainable law – and suddenly there was Jesus Christ. The introduction of Christ radically scandalized the epistemological paradigms of all modes of human compositional existence: the physical, the intellectual, and the spiritual – all are subject to despair – and all were transcended in a massive and profound ontological shift from the realized-to-be-finite self into a realized-to-be-infinite God; this all by His taking on of humanity and His death on the Cross. No longer did it mean that to be human meant to be lorded over by death and despair – creation beheld its redeemer.
The abstinence of the priests, the lack of grace, the unattainability of the law and the inherent despair of the human condition: they are soteriological markers – diminishments – that serve to point to the fullness of Christ. His reality transcends every aspect or our apprehension of human existence and gives it depth and meaning, therefore we can be truly relevant to a lost and a dying world who become aware through despair that they lack something and are in need of something more. Those of who have fully surrendered themselves into Christ and His ongoing transformational and renewing power through Christ begin to taste the transcendence of everything. They discover not just their own lack – but that God is, not just the God of sustenance, but also the God of the lack thereof: he is the supreme God of all, and to not be a God in the face of anything, would make that thing superior to his transcended eminence. We experience our own finitude and discover that while God is a God of sustenance, He yet speaks, transcendently and authoritatively, to even our own lack; and we can experience a fullness even when – in the eyes of a lost world – we appear to have nothing. In the midst of even our greatest trial; when despair comes against us with the greatest force we have ever felt – we can realize in that moment too, that Christ is yet Lord of the same no more and no less. His transcendence is total; and what may have been a mental notion – becomes something that is set forth and lived out – lived out to produce Glory for God.
This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
Despair – Towards a Solution, 2; The Transcendence of Christ: The Adoption of the Finite by the Infinite: when the Wholly Other is engaged with the Completely Present, and the Spheres of Our Compositional State in relation to it
It may be the last, hardest concept for any christian old or young to really understand; if there is such a thing as a last concept to be learned. We can understand a God that can transcend this or that – but can we understand a God that transcends everything completely? Tillich pushed this notion beyond most peoples comfort zone when he proposed the idea of “The God above the God of Theism” – an idea indirectly espoused by Barth’s radical divine “otherness” notion; that the fullness and totality of God, both in is revelation and actuality was something beyond the capacity to be revealed or to be demonstrated as actual. It is imperative that we formulate doctrines and both teach and when necessary defend them – any system that proposes the lack of such need will be revealed in time to be useless against the trudge of time and the machinations of the enemy.
A Divine Transcendence, Part One: A Relationally Transcendent God: Fellowshipping in His Divine Wholeness, and Not That of Our Own
But for all our endeavors; the idea must be held in tension with it’s natural opposite: we can never be fully related to God, although we know him as a father; we can never walk with Him on his level – although we are seated at His right hand. God is beyond our formulations, revelations and constructs of Him. This is the harder of the ideas to swallow, for both purposeful and inadvertent dyed-in-the-wool religionists – even after the idea is accepted and walked out: that Christ is indeed also beyond our hopes and our fears. He is utterly and completely transcendent of both. If this tension is broken – then we either embrace a God who is just like ourselves – falling perhaps into a New Age notion that we are all God ourselves, amongst our own kind – or (in the opposite direction), we surrender the faith to a deity that is functionally meaningless, subjectively hollow, objectively intangible, inanely abstract, and will invariable begin practicing far-from-our-own-existential-context-removed religious rituals, which are themselves far too remote and alien to ourselves to be of any value to us. All but the most obstinate will see the pointlessness – and depart for something they can ‘hold on to’ – which is almost always a path towards spiritual destruction. When the golden calves we built for ourselves are realized to never really be capable of speaking to us – we will just build other idols that we think will.
But if we understand that if God is both completely here with us – and yet also completely beyond our situation – we hold a ‘tension’ between Total Relationship and Total Transcendence. It is also within this ‘tension’ that we find a kind of fellowship – within which we can participate in His wholeness; especially when our own wholeness (in a given situation) is seemingly lost…lost because we came to understand the tenuousity, fragility, and ultimate invalidity of our own ‘wholeness’ at a given time in our lives prior, perhaps at a church altar, while praying, or in a moment of spiritual clarity – and we subsequently gave our lives to God: abdicating in that act any presumption of our own innate strength, and therefore chose to fully predicate any further understanding of ‘self-wholeness’ or ‘personal/spiritual existential strength’ upon Him – when we made a decision – for Him.
It might be said that it is wonderful and beautiful to feel helpless before God.
Feeling helpless is the first step in understanding the how in the process of fully fellowshipping in the Strength of Christ – rather then blithely walking in our own (perhaps) inadvertently presumed own.
He is always completely here in every situation. In the face of the paradox of how God is both completely here and yet also completely beyond (within this ‘Tension’ of a ‘Relational Transcendence’) despair evaporates…and it becomes a paradox itself; a puzzle that we all must not just all walk though but also one that defines and points to the solution; if we gather up the will to exert faith in the face of doubt.
A Divine Transcendence, Part Two: A Subjective & Objectively Transcendent God; Going Beyond the Three Spheres of our Existence, The Ideological, The Natural & The Spiritual
Naturalistic philosophers offered nothing more then chance and survival of the fittest as their ideal world view – existential philosophers followed and stated that the despair of such situations was a common foundation to actualize and authenticate the idea of “the self”. The naturalist expressed a despair of the natural, entropic-leaning state of physicality, the existentialist expressed a despair of ideology and thought. Once physicality and ideology are transcended with despair, a third despair is brought into light; one that is unique to the human experience – that of spiritual despair and it is into the spiritual arena that the light of Christ shines a soteriological ray of light, one that shines and cuts through the darkness of the spiritual, the ideological and even that natural – and pushes aside the darkness and despair seeped into them from the left over drippings of the machineries of self-awareness. A whole and complete christologic ontology is the next step for The despair of Existentialism – and it can only be understood in it’s full transcendence of the despair of the Spiritual, the Ideological and the Natural. Indeed the first step of the sinner about to make a decision is to confess that they themselves in their own existence have no hope in and of themselves; the despair must be embraced and then it must be transcended to authenticate the soteriological work of Christ upon the soul. Outside of this affirmation and acknowledgment – salvation is not affected. The issue that we face is that we do not hold the idea of a relationally transcended paradox in it’s appropriate tension across all three spheres of our compositional state: the natural, the ideological, and that of spirit. To pursue anything else other then this paradox is to pursue error. We allow allow the fires of faith to die down and the despair to seep back in. We lose sight that God is bigger then our physical situation, or bigger then our mental constructs, or even bigger then any religious practice however well doctrinally constructed can paint Him as. He is beyond all three spheres and it is in this very ‘beyondness’ that we are seen to demonstrate the authenticity of our own imparted ‘otherworldliness’. This state is not achieved by denial and social secessionism or cute mental tricks or elaborate religious legalisms that put themselves into play in lieu of the beformentioned “soteriological ray of light” to pierce the despair of the before mentioned spheres of the natural, ideological and spiritual. The transcendence is a pure work of faith, begun and finished in us by Christ and Christ alone. Full compositional-state transcendence comes only through a full faith in the full transcendence of Christ. This full transcendence comes when we resolve to persue and hold to the idea of The Adoption of the Finite by the Infinite; when the Wholly Other is engaged with the Completely Present. This is the only solution for despair in all of it’s dispensations; any other solution is eventually revealed as finite and cannot fully remedy an infinite problem. Man is a finite creature created to be in fellowship with the infinite creator: the curse of Genesis is exactly this: the revelation of the finitude of man and the futility of his existence outside of his separation from an infinite God. I believe that it was Karl Barth who wrote that man was never supposed to know and understand his own finitude; our joy and hope and existence was always supposed to come through our relationship with the infinite: our God. This is why we preach Christ and Christ crucified; that man must be reconciled to God through Christ and Christ alone; and his acceptance and belief in his own finiteness outside of God must be grasped and integrated in the whole of his compositional state: his physicality (his substance and culture), his ideology (his theology and philosophy, and his spirituality (his emotions and awareness of his divorce from the infinite); all these things must be understood and embraced through faith, and through the faith and the resultant paradox of relational transcendence: that we have a full relationship with a fully transcendent God we are daily transformed into new Creatures in Christ. In the end – it is the only solution; anything else will eventually lead back down the path that led to the brink of the revelation; back down the path of despair.
As stated before, Many churches, politicians, organizations and individuals will inevitably in an organized fashion seek relevance with culture and man through form and fashion; and they will forget the foundations that persist when art and presentation are swept away in pain and desolation. That which we are so quick to run from is the very thing that defines and points us back to where we belong. Tillich, who struggles with doubt and despairs himself, says it clearly and succinctly in the closing words of his book, The Courage to Be, “ the courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
When we are stripped of all assurance and surrounded with despair – the God that is revealed as trancendendent to the situation is the God we may have never met but had always been looking for and knew to be there all along fully and all along transcendently.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held.
This is what it is to be held
And to know, that the promise was when everything fell, we’d be held
It may come as a natural question to those who plow through what I have written here – just exactly why Tillich seems to dominate the discourse of thought throughout these paragraphs when the issue at hand is proposed to be despair and a theology thereof. Tillich embodies both as a person and a thinker the true and proper state of many issues in life: things that are only true together, which on their face are seemingly opposite. In his personal life; Tillich failed to live up to a degree of what I and many Christians would consider an ideal level of personal holiness; and yet so many of his writings revolve around these same struggles and despairs, and one cannot adequately look upon his proposed theological derivations and methods without understanding who Tillich was as a man. In his theological endeavors as a theologian he was full of tensive contradictions also; being both a Theologian of Culture and a Theologian of the Church. Tillich was flawed as being what most of us would consider being a ‘good’ Christian; and it is my suspicion that it was an awareness and a despair in this falling short that made him aware of a necessity of excellence in his academic endeavors; he sought to address the despairs of theological constructions – he understood the failings of the liberal church to address the issues of Holiness and righteousness before God: realities in his own life of which he was no doubt painfully aware – and the conservative/fundamentalist failure to address the issues of society and culture; which he also watched in the church’s failure to stand against Imperialism/Nazism in his own native Germany in WWI/WWII and the failures of his contemporaries such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who both failed and often died as a result of it. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church echoes modern failings in an interview with Christianity Today entitled Men are From Mars Hill,
Traditional churches have either leaned toward being fundamentalist and separated from culture, which has led to legalism and irrelevance; or they have leaned toward being liberally synchronized with culture, which leads to compromise and irrelevance. Either way, many traditional churches are irrelevant, whether they lean to the Left or the Right theologically and politically. Most contemporary churches are not very theological beyond a few evangelical basics, because they are guided more by pragmatism and programming than theology. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/127/52.0.html)
Despair – Further Towards a Solution, 3; Dialectic Truths and a Theonomy of Despair: Relationally Qualitative Dynamics Referenced
But what does conservative vs. liberal and traditional vs. contemporary church ideas/methods have to do with the issue of despair? In previous paragraphs this present writer stated that the lack of a thing often defines the fullness thereof. In terms of relational definement this is a quantitative relation. There also exists a qualitative relational definement: when something is placed out of context or relation of another thing, that it may actually it’s lose it’s proper definition. In previous paragraphs this was referenced as Immutable Mutual Definement; where something is always most adequately described not just by it’s own qualities, but also by those of it’s natural opposite. When this oppositional relation involves opposites held in tension between each other, the relation is referred to as being a “Dialectical” one: or opposites held in tensive truth; only true when held together in a mutual frame of reference. (It should be noted that ‘Dialectical’ can mean/has meant many different things in the history of philosophy, and its use here, as a tool, is as described). Tillich argued with with respected freind, Karl Barth, the father of “dialectical theology,” that his theology, in practice, was not actually dialectical at all; that in light of his understanding of God as completely separate and infinite, Barthinian theology always left a vacuum in God’s relation to man. Barth had become known as a ‘Dialectical Theologian’ because he advocated the necessary understanding that there was a ‘crisis’ created when man was radically confronted with the revelation of God. Barth had made the radical distinction that the fullness and totality of God’s revelation of Himself was completely encapsulated within the revelation of Christ. All of the ‘feelings’ and ‘reasonings’ of Liberalist Theology were wholly inadequate and it mattered little what you could see or know, from your own mind (Philosophic Idealism), or the world around you (Natural Theology) – and then Barth further confronted Conservatives by saying that scripture itself was only the record of this revelation of Christ, and therefore the endless discussions of so-called ‘Textual Criticism’ of the scriptures (where theologians investigate the scriptures from historical sourcepoints, and argue about how and why it may or may not have been changed or come from) was essentially a huge waste of time. It was said that his book Der Römerbrief (1919; The Epistle to the Romans), was a “bomb” set off in the “playground” of theologians – in that he send both liberals and conservatives, literally running for cover. Barth was radical and uncompromising: if you did not understand Christ – your religions was worthless, and everything and anything other then Christ was in no way a proper foundation for Faith, even the scripture itself, to him, was a revelation of The Revelation – a word about The Word. To this day, liberals, conservatives; evangelicals and those who think themselves as a something else – all have to wrestle with Barth. He is not a mountain to go around – if you are to do honest theological work – you must take your time, and you must go through him.
In Barth’s own time – Tillich did just that when he argued that a whole and complete theological understanding was not just dialectical in name but also in actual nature: that God was both Remote and infinite – yet at the same time Fatherly and accessibly finite in terms of metaphorical relatory terminologies, both qualative and quantitive – employed by Himself to relate himself to us. A proper understanding of the framework of what “church” is supposed to be must fall along dialectical lines culturally also – not just tensive theologic ones; but also politically or structurally as well: it must have oppositionally related truths held in tension in its identity and function: it must be both conservative and liberal, traditional and contemporary. The business and practice of “Church” must embody a tensive dialectical state, if it is to preach and demonstrate a tensively dialectical God. Anything less potentially disassociates it from the the truth of a fullness of itself, as it truly is, truly in the world: self-contained (not needing politics or personalities, only The Word/Scripture), oppositional on the surface; yet integrated and defining in the full context of its different states and notions, and full of people who both believe and worship differently in ‘minors’ – but agree on ‘majors’. Conflate and over-simplify – and it all becomes a lie. If I embrace a God that is only a judge and a remote arbitrator – I embrace a lie. If I embrace a God that is all about love and acceptance – I embrace a lie as well, as God is both… and truly cannot be fully understood without an integrated conceptualization. In the life of the church, ‘all theology and no culture’ is likewise a lie – and ‘all relevance and no truth’ is a likewise pursuit of error and fallacy.
Life must be lived – if it is to be lived thoughtfully in terms of authenticity – dialectically as well. All joy is a lie. All despair is a lie as well. If one understands the Christian faith from a biblical standpoint, the same dialectic reality bears out over and over – Fall and Redemption, Rejection and Acceptance, Sin and Salvation, Brokeness and Healing, Libety and Responsiblity – Pain and Joy.
Unfortunately, much of the church both historically and in modern terms, embraces a subtle sophistry, which claims sophistication and authenticity – but in it’s pursuance of singularities, is actually void of truth and in the end sophomoric both philosophically and more importantly – in the light of eternity – spiritually. A proper theology of despair must be framed within a theology of Dualisms. We are both created by the hand of God and yet live our lives as fallen creatures in a fallen world. We are both separated and rejoined with God – we have great despair and and at the same time great joy. Outside of the other – neither of these things carry the full weight of their authentic portent. Tillich saw the church of his day and it’s tendency to disregard the humanity and reality of the human condition and described it as an act or tendency toward what he defined as “Heteronomy.” Tillich watched as those both inside the church and outside react to the built in ambivalence to such and described the consequential reaction as “Autonomy;” or as Mark Klein Taylor in Paul Tillich, Theologian of the Boundaries describes it “a culture’s celebration of itself, of it’s own structures and dynamics, against all imposed, alienating laws.” Standing amid the ruins of European civilization at the end of WWII, Tillich believed it was the champions of Heteronomy and their natural reactionary opposites – those espousing Autonomy – who were largely to blame for the chaos and destruction wrought as it was upon mankind. Whereas Barth, a fellow German Theological luminary, felt it was the total and unquestionable transcendence of God that had been compromised – Tillich believed it was both this, and the reaction of man asserting his rebellion against theologies both wrong and right. Having been a German Army Chaplain in the trenches of WWI and then watching his books burned in the opening days of WWII; having fled his own country to save his own life – he was painfully aware of realities we ourselves may well have become so sleepily unaware of. Tillich felt that history would merely repeat itself endlessly if Faith continued to divorce itself either willfully or inadvertently from culture; as man would always respond to the same with likewise reciprocity; the very humanity it (the church) would seek to serve – in pursuance of singular realities, it would always oppresses it and harvest an equally tragic consequence. An absolutely critical understanding is that how the church deals with despair – has implication far beyond the individual – but also into the community of the same; into the nation – into the very history of the humanity it may or may not adequately try to address. Tillich spent much of the remainder of his life trying to speak both a Theologian of the scripture and a Theologian of the culture. He strove to try to describe what he termed as “Theonomy:” the integration of the really of infinite faith with finite humanity. Where Barth saw a huge chasm – Tillich saw a vibrant tapestry. He strove to find and write a method wherein both could be true – because we was aware that apart from one another each were lies.
All the fine inner workings of an authentic dialectic theonomy will never be fully written down or adequately described. It will never be completely described or finished; because the interaction of the finite and the infinite is by nature of the exchange an infinite one: there will never be a finished and complete understanding of the full paradox that exists between God and Man. In detailing a Theology of Despair – one consequently uncovers a theonomy of the same: a Theonomy of Despair; we have to incorporate into our theologic and philosophic engagements a proper understanding of the full possibilities of this life- the joyous ones and the tragic; those with both physical and spiritual implications and realities. Christianity should never try to explain away the pain of life – because it risks doing away with the fullness of Joy as well. It should never try to eliminate the emptiness that we feel when we encounter our own humanity – because we will lose sight of the fullness of the divine in it’s relation to us. When we experience the greatest pain and loss – we have a choice to rebel and be autonomous whether it is within the framework of theologic concepts authentic or not – or we have a choice to experience the fullness of God speaking to depths of our despair the heights of divine ecstasy; that we matter to God, that He took on the flesh of these same hands, was mocked, degraded, torn apart, and pierced for you and me. That he died on a cross so that we might live.
Despair – Further Towards a Solution, 4; A Scandalous Grace, The ‘Cheap’ and The ‘Furious’
In preceding paragraphs the present writer has exhausted considerable time and verbosity in earnest attempts to clearly define the relational dynamics of things that are seemingly opposite in nature, but both true – and truest when they are together. Numerous examples have herein been given, but the best example in the Christian lexicon of ideas and in the discussion of Despair has heretofore been left out – purposefully – as it warrants an exacting and thorough discussion and analysis lest its full glory and wonder be left with a partial portent: God’s Grace. If we are to attempt to distill the two seemingly opposite natures of God’s Grace – though such an attempt would be limited in it’s value, due to the full complexity and wonder of the term; this essay is, in the end, only a scratch upon the surface of it’s fullness and depth – then these would no doubt be the “expense” and the “Furiousness” of it.
Many Christians and Theological writers live relatively obscure and boring lives – never being confronted with controversy and challenge in terms of anything larger then their own day to day existence’s. One unsuch man – who’s fame grows with each passing generation, made difficult decisions that in the end cost him his very life; walked naked to the gallows and hung by the Nazis in the closing days of WWII: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was ‘rescued’ by fellow German Theologian Reinhold Neihbur; and joined many of his other theological brethren, Barth, Tillich and others – but felt like he could not abandon those he was called to serve. He returned to Germany, was arrested and eventually hanged. Bonhoeffer understood that regarding certain things there was a distinct cost. His understanding of the grace of God was that it involved a cost as well. Whereas Tillich and Barth looked upon the calamitous despair of the war and came to conclusions, some detailed in previous paragraphs, Bonhoeffer added to these a separate – yet joined consideration; that though distinct in it reasoning – is without a doubt also one of the core reasons for it’s (the war) occurrence as well: the church had failed to account for the cost of grace and was dispensing it freely and without regard. Without consideration for the necessary ramifications thereof; it had become “cheap” – essentially useless; and a church empowered by cheap grace had in fact become a cheap church – devoid of power and authority. The consequence of this reality had come to have far, far reaching implications.
“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Throughout this essay, this present writer has explored the various permutations of despair and offered distinct realities in regards to it’s presence in a theological epistemology. No ‘expense has been spared’ in terms of theological or philosophical extrapolation – at least within the fledgling capacity of this present scribbler. Regardless of the inclusion of high-flung theological or philosophical concepts, or the purposeful exclusion of them – were I to radically reedit and excise them; be this presentation complex or simple – this one thing must be central and must be the common crux and focal point of any discussions regarding any issue regarding life in the world or the spirit: we simply must fixate ourselves upon the goal of apprehending an authentic understanding of – in the end – one thing; God’s matchless grace.
Brennan Manning writes
“Justification by grace through faith” is the theologian’s learned phrase for what Chesterton once called ‘the furious love of God.’ He is not moody or capricious; He knows no seasons of change. He has a single relentless stance toward us: He loves us. He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods – the gods of human manufacturing – despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do. But of course this is almost too incredible for us to accept. Nevertheless, the central affirmation of the Reformation stands: through no merit of ours, but by His mercy, we have been restored to a right relationship with God through the life, death, and resurrection of His beloved Son. This is the Good New, the gospel of grace.” (The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning, Multnomah, page 22.)
All other religions of the world and secular thought structures eventually fail in attempting to speak to either the Spiritual or the Physical. They fail because they do not have within their toolsets the most powerful of things in within the scope of the entire Universe both known and unknown: God’s undeserved Grace.
Grace is something priceless that comes with a price. It is something that is unconditional but that comes with necessities. It is freely given – but it is not universal. It is everywhere and yet rare. It gives you everything – and asks for everything in return. It is scandalous and costly – and can be understood best when it is approached from the angle of a knowledge of just how much we don’t deserve it, how much it costs, and how wonderfully scandalous and unconditional it really is.
Tillich, in The Shaking of the Foundations speaks of despair and reality that while Grace is undeserved and yet while connected to and defined by our theology; it is -in it’s foundation, something infinite – something beyond our finite abilities: constructions, definitions, ideas – to grasp it; that it is an Adoption of the Finite by the Infinite: the Wholly Other engaged with the Completely Present: there is nothing we can do to deserve it; you are accepted in the depths of your despair regardless of anything and everything.
We always remain in the power of that from which we are estranged. That fact brings us to the ultimate depth of sin: separated and yet bound, estranged and yet belonging, destroyed and yet preserved, the state which is called despair. Despair means that there is no escape. Despair is “the sickness unto death.” But the terrible thing about the sickness of despair is that we cannot be released, not even through open or hidden suicide. For we all know that we are bound eternally and inescapably to the Ground of our being. The abyss of separation is not always visible. But it has become more visible to our generation than to the preceding generations, because of our feeling of meaninglessness, emptiness, doubt, and cynicism — all expressions of despair, of our separation from the roots and the meaning of our life. Sin in its most profound sense, sin, as despair, abounds amongst us.
“Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”, says Paul in the same letter in which he describes the unimaginable power of separation and self-destruction within society and the individual soul. He does not say these words because sentimental interests demand a happy ending for everything tragic. He says them because they describe the most overwhelming and determining experience of his life. In the picture of Jesus as the Christ, which appeared to him at the moment of his greatest separation from other men, from himself and God, he found himself accepted in spite of his being rejected. And when he found that he was accepted, he was able to accept himself and to be reconciled to others. The moment in which grace struck him and overwhelmed him, he was reunited with that to which he belonged, and from which he was estranged in utter strangeness.
Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance. (Excerpt from Chapter 19, The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich)
To fully understand Grace we must understand what an inauthentic “cheap” grace is in Bonhoefferian terms, yet also understand the unconditional freely given “furious” love and grace as it is illustrated by G.K. Chesterton – complete with the truth of absolute, undeserved acceptance in Tillichian terms. Here again, are two completely true things – that seem very much to be opposites; dialectical truths – that if we ignore one we break the other, and vice versa. This understand of the price of costly Grace and the “furious” “acceptance” of the same is not a unity but a tension, no compromise on either side; but opposites held in tension: a true and proper understanding of grace cannot be held without understanding that it both costs you everything and nothing at the same time. To fall on either pole is to compromise. Those who preach merely a “love” Gospel without repentance and without a centrality of the Cross or it’s atonement for sin – preach a lie. Those who teach only a harsh, legalistic version of the same issues preach a lie as well.
Without the notion of a costly, yet free and undeserved Grace – Grace can never authentically speak to despair. And if it cannot speak to despair – it cannot speak to life itself. This tension between the cost – and the free dispersion of it upon the most undeserving of it finds it’s anchor not in a logical argument or craftful prose. It is made real and triumphantly transcendent by nothing but the very blood of God flowing down a tree at a place called Golgotha.
Despair – Solutio, Summa Summarum, 5: A Trancendent,Triumphal Despair to Ever Walk in: “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body;” The Intersection of The Despair and Hope of Both Spirit and Physicality: The Cross – “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us”
2nd Corinthians 4:6-12 says
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. [We are] troubled on every side, yet not distressed; [we are] perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 says
The thing that hath been, it [is that] which shall be; and that which is done [is] that which shall be done: and [there is] no new [thing] under the sun. Is there [any] thing whereof it may be said, See, this [is] new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
…indeed there is nothing new under the sun – and the ancient heretical notion of Manichaen Gnostic Dualism; that there is oppositional tension between the flesh and the spirit and the flesh rather then a unifying one: that authentic holiness is better defined by the removal and isolationism and social secessionism – is alive and well today as well. “…But life in you” – speaks against this; that we celebrate the death of Christ on the cross speaking to our lives both spritually and physically: a Dialectic Tension that serves us though Immutable Mutual Definement. Manichaen Gnostic Dualism is a false understanding that is itself a heteronomy that the church often engages in and in seeing the despair of humanity from a point of despair results in that same humanity rebelling and reacting in it’s own in a likewise autonomy – there is a subsequent physical divorce that results from the spiritual divorce. Yet in truth, and in the end – the spiritual and the physical are not as far apart in the eyes of God as they are in our own. Both are corrupted – and both are spoken to through the Intersection of Dispair and Hope, Sin and Salvation, The Infinite with the Finite: The Cross. Through Christ – we have hope in the despair of humanity that works joy in the same. Through Christ we have life in the death of our flesh that works a resurrection in the same as well.
“That the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body;” in placing hope in tension with the despair of life we achieve what endless tomes by the greatest of theological and philosophical minds ultimately fail to do: we live in the intersection of the finite with the infinite, with the reality of the truth of God and the humanity of culture, and experience the closest interaction with authentic divine transcendence we as fallen Creatures can, while trapped in this mortal plane, we can both see and understand, experience and appropriate; something, possibly, that angels in heaven never do – see and experience God’s majesty and power perfected in weakness.
And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me (2 Corinthians 12:9, King James version).
It is my sincere prayer for you, dear friend, that in the time that shall come, when you are encompassed by pain and despair, that even yet in this present earthen vessel, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of you. That though you be troubled on every side, that you would be yet not distressed; that though you be perplexed, you would not be in despair; that though you be Persecuted, you would not feel forsaken; be cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
…That you would never forget the Despair of God that bought and brought you enternal Joy…
For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you.
“ Wednesday, June 7, 2006 1:00 pm
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you…. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold.. may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. – 1 Peter 1:3-7
This will be our last post from this website and we want to thank you for your prayers and the support you’ve shown throughout this entire situation. We continue to lean on the Lord for our strength and will need your prayers throughout these coming days, weeks, and months. We know and trust that God will take care of us – he is always faithful and will remain so as his Word tells us.
Our final encouragement to all is this: Do not hang on to the things of this world too tightly. Life here is but a vapor and there is an eternity ahead. Consider what God calls us to do – “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where theives break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where theives do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Let us continue to reach out to those around us who need prayer, love, and encouragment. As you remember the Van Ryn and Cerak families, let us encourage you to look to your neighbors as well. God calls us to love.
Within the next 24 hours we will be getting rid of this blog. How the Cerak’s choose to update on Whitney’s progress is up to them.
Posted by the Van Ryn family.”