The Outrage of the Cross
Following the ongoing discussion about the scandal of the crucifixion, and developing a proper understanding of just what this means, I have received another excellent comment from my interlocutor. In an attempt to be as thorough as possible, and due to my answer exceeding the comment box character limit, I have posted my response to his or her latest erudite comment here. I trust it is not considered verbose, but rather a thorough exposition of the subject, which demonstrates my respect for his or her intelligent and pertinent questions. This is the latest response which can be read in context here:
It seems to me that this account of the value and meaning of the life and death of the godman makes salvation out to be a matter not of objective propitiation for wrong done, but an act of inter-subjective communication which, in order to be effective, can only work on an individual-by-individual basis and demands in each case not only that there be one who wills the form of what is communicated (God through Jesus) but one who, by virtue of that form, understands the communication. In other words, it is all very well that God allows Jesus to be nailed to death on a cross, but if I or you or anyone else fails to understand what God is communicating by this permission, then this nailing is without meaning.A very intelligent and impressive response, thank you! I think that you have understood the universal and particular dimensions of God's work of salvation speaks for itself. Your point about communication is equally valid and interesting as it is one of the many criteria that separates Christianity from the melee of world religions. In my reply, I will rely heavily on the work of Joseph Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity, Roch Kereszty Jesus Christ Fundamentals of Christology and Romano Guardini's The Lord which I would urge you to read if you would care to develop your understanding further. To begin:
An immediate objection comes to mind. If sin has distorted our view of God, how could we receive a demonstration from him without distorting it? And if we do distort the meaning of the demonstration and so miss its intention, how are we culpable for that? After all, we were born with inherited sin that distorted our view and this distorted view did not allow us to appreciate the meaning of the demonstration.
Given that our reason remains “intact” despite the other distortions of our nature due to our sinfulness, in what way does reason accord allowing an innocent to be horribly executed as being a sign of infinite compassion? You know, if Abraham told me that he loved God so much that he would be willing, if God should ask him, to kill his only son to demonstrate it, I might think this a pretty powerful and effective expression on Abraham’s part of the degree to which he loves God. But if I actually met Abraham on his way off with his son to commit such an act I would be horrified, think him mad, and surely see to it that he was restrained. Such an act does not at all seem to be reasonable. In fact, doesn’t St. Paul point out as much when he talks of the cross as an offense to the Greeks?
In other words, it is all very well that God allows Jesus to be nailed to death on a cross, but if I or you or anyone else fails to understand what God is communicating by this permission, then this nailing is without meaning."Faith comes from what is heard", says St. Paul (Rom 10:17). This assertion contains an abiding structural truth which illuminates the fundamental differences between faith and mere philosophy, a difference that does not prevent faith, in its core, from setting the philosophical search for truth in motion again. One could say epigrammatically that faith does in fact come from "hearing", not—like philosophy—from "reflection". Its nature lies in the fact that it is not the thinking out of something that can be thought out and that at the end of the process is then at my disposal as the result of my thought. On the contrary, it is characteristic of faith that it comes from hearing, that it is the reception of something that I have not thought out, so that in the last analysis thinking in the context of faith is always a thinking over of something previously heard and received.
In other words, in faith the word takes precedence over the thought, a precedence that differentiates it structurally from the architecture of philosophy. Philosophy is a product of reflect: this means that the thought precedes the word. Faith, by contrast comes to a person from outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it. it is not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me, which hits me as something that has not been thought out and could not be thought out and lays obligation on me. Faith cannot and should not be a mere product of selection. The idea that faith really ought to arise through our thinking it up for ourselves and finding it in the process of a purely private search for truth is basically the expression of a definite ideal, an attitude of mind that fails to recognise the intrinsic quality of belief, which consists precisely in being the reception of what cannot be thought out—responsible reception, it is true, in which what is heard never becomes entirely my own property, and the lead held by what is received can never be completely wiped out, but in which the goal must be to make what is received more and more my own, by handing myself over to it as the greater.
Can you see how this makes faith corporeal and social? A call to community through the unity of the Word. Unity because the Word cannot be treated and exchanged as I please because it is foreordained and always ahead of my thinking.
So yes, exactly, communication of the truth about these events (what we call evangelisation, or, preaching the Gospel) takes on a whole new meaning when understood in this context doesn't it? One feels like the clown in Kierkegaard's famous story of the clown and the burning village.
in what way does reason accord allowing an innocent to be horribly executed as being a sign of infinite compassion?I suppose my first response to this question is that, when you put it like that, it doesn't. But we understand it differently. To understand it as an act of a god who is a kid with a magnifying glass is a choice which involves closing your ears to the history and message of the Bible. This message is one of infinite forgiveness irrespective of the errors of and turning away of humanity. The picture of God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of His own Son, rightly would cause you to turn away in horror from such a righteousness whose sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible. The Cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right in the Bible. On the contrary, it is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and 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, where it usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of humanity. Almost all religions centre around 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 with the Divinity and to put him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.
One of the incredible things about the New Testament is that this 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 creative mercy. His righteousness is grace; it is active active righteousness, which sets crooked man right, that is, bends him straight, makes him correct. Here we stand before the twist that 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 centre of the 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: From above to below. The Cross stands as the expression of that foolish love of God's that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order to save man; it is His approach to us, not the other way around.
If we look how the Bible speaks of the Cross, we need to realise that to the disciples Jesus crucifixion seemed like the end, a total failure. They thought that in Jesus they had found the king who could never be defeated but had ended up as the companions of an executed criminal. The Resurrection presented them with the certainty of Jesus' kingship, but they had to learn the point of the Cross over time, and through Scripture (that is, the Old Testament) where, in the light of these events, they were able, for the first time, to understanding what the Old Testament was really all about. Thus, the NT explains the Cross in ideas taken from OT cult theology, and an overview of this could be summarised as follows:
All the sacrificial activity of mankind, all attempts to conciliate God by cult and ritual—and the world is full of them—were bound to remain useless human work, because God does not seek bulls and goats or whatever—these belong to Him anyway (see Psalm 50 :9-14). What God seeks is man: man's unqualified yes to God could alone form true worship. Everything belongs to God, but to man is lent the freedom to say Yes or No, the freedom to love or to reject; love's free Yes is the only thing for which God must wait—the only worship or "sacrifice" that can have any meaning and this cannot be represented by the blood of bulls or goats "for what can a man give in return for his life" (Mk 8:37). The answer can only be that there is nothing with which he could compensate for himself.
But as all pre-Christian cults were based on the idea of substitution, of representation, and tried to replace the irreplaceable, this worship was bound to be in vain. Religion runs aground. However, in Christ the idea of the substitute acquires a new meaning. His death, which from a completely historical perspective constituted a completely profane event—the execution of a man condemned to death as a political offender—was in reality the one and only liturgy of the world, a cosmic liturgy, in which Jesus stepped, not in the limited arena of the liturgical performance, the Temple, but publicly before the eyes of the world, through the curtain of death into the real temple, that is before the face of God Himself, in order to offer, not things, the blood of animals, or anything like that, but Himself (Heb 9:11ff).
So, to sum up, what we are noting here is a fundamental reversal; what from the earthly point of view was a secular happening is the true worship for mankind, for He who performed it broke through the confines of the liturgical act and made truth: He gave Himself. He took from man's hands the sacrificial offerings and put in their place His sacrificed person. When Hebrews 9:12 says that Jesus accomplished the expiation through His blood, this blood is again not to be measured as a material gift, a quantitively measurable means of expiation; it is simply the concrete expression of a love of which it is said that it extends "to the end" (Jn 13:1). It is the expression of the totality of His surrender and His service; an embodiment of the fact that He offers no more and no less than Himself. The gesture of the love that gives all—this, and this alone was the real means by which the world was reconciled; therefore, the hour of the Cross is the cosmic day of reconciliation, the true and definitive feast of reconciliation. There is no other kind of worship and no other priest but He who accomplished it: Jesus Christ.
if I actually met Abraham on his way off with his son to commit such an act I would be horrified, think him mad, and surely see to it that he was restrained.You may find the Chief Rabbi's teaching on this interesting.