Monday, May 03, 2010

Jesus Christ: "Not to Make Bad Men Good, but Dead Men Live"

The following was sent to me by a friend from a Fr. Stephen, an Orthodox priest producing a web-site called “Glory to God for All Things” and, in this case, his “The Nature of Things – And Our Salvation.” In it, he writes:

“1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

“2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

“3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.”

The person who exposed me to the above was stunned by point 2: “Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.” Connected with point 1, “man does not have a legal problem with God,” it would be valuable to connect this with the mind of Benedict XVI, who, if I may, “stormed” at the universal misunderstanding and reduction of Catholic Soteriology (theology of Redemption) to a legality between us and God. Here’s the quote from Joseph Ratzinger (1968) in his “Introduction to Christianity:”

“Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) had been concerned to deduce the work o Christ by a train of necessary reasons (rationibus necessaries) and thus to show irrefutably that this work had to happen [my underline] in the precise way in which it in fact did. His argument may be roughly summarized like this: by man’s sin, which was aimed against God, the order of justice was infinitely damaged and God infinitely offended. Behind this is the idea that the measure of the offence is determined by the status of the offended party; if I offend a beggar the consequences are not the same as they would be if I offended a head of state. The importance of the offence varies according to the addressee. Since God is infinite the offence to him implicit in humanity’s sin is also infinitely important. The right thus damaged must be restored, because God is a God order and justice; indeed, he is justice itself. But the measure of the offence demands infinite reparation, which man is not capable of making. He can offend infinitely – his capacity extends that far – but he cannot produce an infinite reparation; what he, as a finite being, gives will always be only finite. His powers of destruction extend further than his capacity to reconstruct. Thus between all the reparations that man may attempt and the greatness of his guilt there remains an infinite gulf which he can never bridge. Any gesture of expiation can only demonstrate his powerlessness to close the infinite gulf which he himself opened up.

“Is order to be destroyed for ever, then, and man to remain eternally imprisoned in the abyss of his guilt? At this point Anselm hits on the figure of Christ. His answer runs thus: God himself removes the injustice; not (as he could) by a simple amnesty, which cannot after all overcome from inside what has happened, but by the infinite Being’s himself becoming man and then as a man – who thus belongs to the race of the offenders yet possesses the power, denied to man, of infinite reparation – making the required expiation. Thus the redemption takes place entirely through grace and at the same time entirely as restoration of the right. Anselm thought he had thereby given a compelling answer to the difficult question of `Cur Deus homo,’ the wherefore of the incarnation and the cross. His view has put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of Western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence which had been committed and in this way to restore the damaged order of things.”[1]

Now Ratzinger fulminates against this legal reductionism. As Fr. Stephen succinctly puts it above: “man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.

I offer this because, as Benedict XVI is saying here, the universal mind of the West has been deformed by such an impoverished relation to God as the legal-forensic. Consider the following as not only reversing the legal impropriety of sin, but God goes about a total ontological reconstruction of the human person out of Love to remake him in Love. The capital “L” because Agape (Love) is what it means to be God. He becomes man with a human will that He uses as His own make Heaven of human nature. He “has prepared a place for us” (Jn. 14, 3) which is His human nature, which is ours. We are now capable of loving “not with our hearts only, but with His.”[2]

“This picture is as false as it is widespread [my emphasis]. In the Bible the cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love which gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does, and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others. To anyone who looks more closely, the scriptural theology of the cross represents a real revolution as compared with the notions of expiation and redemption entertained by non-Christian religions, though it certainly cannot be denied that in the later Christian consciousness this revolution was largely neutralized and its whole scope seldom recognized. In other world religions expiation usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of men. Almost all religions center round the problem of expiation; they arise out of man’s knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God. The expiatory activity by which men hope to conciliate the divinity and to pout him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.

“In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him. He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy. His righteousness to grace; it is active righteousness, which sets crooked man right, that is, bends him straight, makes him right. Here we stand before the twist which Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since after all it is they who have failed, not God. It says on the contrary that `God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5, 19). This is truly something new, something unheard of – the starting-point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the incarnation, of the cross.

“Accordingly, in the New Testament the cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It does not stand there as the work of expiation which mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s which gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called `Eucharistia,’ thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord. We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him. Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would to have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice.”[3]

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” Ignatius (1990) 172-174.

[2] St. Josemaria Escriva Furrow 809.

[3] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction…” op. cit. 213-215.

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