© Marilyn McCord Adams
Presented at Logos 2014, Center for Philosophy of Religion, Notre Dame, IN
I. God, Aiming To Be Friendly:
Godhead is a friendship, an eternal friendship among the persons of the
trinity. God included humankind in creation, made us individually for friendship
with God and one another. God gets what God wants eventually. In Anselm’s words,
God’s purpose must be fulfilled.<1>
Etymologically, ‘at-one-ment’ signifies harmonious personal relationship.
Legally, it refers to restoring, making right, or reconciling relationships
through some kind of restoration or compensation.
In an Augustinian trinity, no obstacles, no disruptions, no fallings out are
possible, because they are literally of numerically the same mind and will with
numerically the same will. In a Swinburnean trinity of three numerically distinct
divine souls, there won’t be any conflicts or breaches of relationship either,
because each and all will be fully informed and let right reason be their guide.
Perhaps in some Lutheran theologies that forego a two-natures Christology, there
is a period of alienation when the Father appears to abandon the Son to a ritually
cursed death on the cross. Christian soteriology emphasizes that it is
Divine-human friendship that is fraught with difficulties, threatened with
disconnection or with not getting forged in the first place. Omnipotence loves a
challenge, and God gets what God wants eventually. God’s at-one-ing work is the
way the obstacles to Divine-human friendship are decisively and ultimately
Twin obstacles to Divine-human friendship loom large. First, the “size-gap”
between what God is and what we are, makes it hard to see how God can be friends
with us any more than we can be friends with worms or lady-bugs. God is
essentially infinite and eternal. Humans are by nature finite, temporal and
temporary. Anselm reminds, by comparison with God, creatures are “almost nothing,”
“scarcely exist.”<2> True, we are persons, made in God’s image, intelligent
voluntary agents who ideally act for reasons, organize our activities around goals
and purposes, and in general try to lead meaningful lives. But Divine personal
capacities, both cognitive and conative, out-strip ours. The difference is much
greater than that between infants or toddlers and their adult care-takers. Good
parents love their babies, but there is not yet enough to the babies to love them
back. Notice: this difficulty for Divine-human friendship arises from the
difference in our natures, and would therefore exist even if God had created us
and somehow kept us in Paradise!
The second difficulty is due to the fact that the environment in which God
has in fact created us is one in which we are radically vulnerable to horrors–to
prima facie life-ruinous evils, evils the participation in which makes it prima
facie impossible for us to have lives that are great goods to us on the whole and
in the end. Because friendship is paradigmatically personal relationship, it
presupposes personal functional capacities. Meaning-making is an essential
function of persons. But horror-participation prima facie disables meaning-making
capacities. In many cases, horrors wreck the participant’s ability to connect with
other people, to relate to them at all or to interact in wholesome ways. In
relation to God, our personal capacities are feeble to begin with. Horrors do
serious damage to what little we have by nature. God gets what God wants
eventually. God’s at-one-ing work must remove the obstacles to Divine-human
friendship that horrors cause.
My claims–that Godhead is friendship, and that God’s aim in creating human
beings is friendship all around–require clarification. Overviewing differing
models of friendship will be provocative and suggestive for getting a fix on what
I mean. Given the size-gap, God must take the initiative in obstacle-removal. In
the second and third sections, I will then sketch ways for Divine resourcefulness
to deal with the size-gap and horrors to reach at-one-ment after all.
II. Models of Friendship:
The term “friendship” signifies persons in relationship. It is
border-line equivocal, maybe an analogical or family-resemblance word,
because it has been used to pick out relationships and institutions of so
many different kinds. Ancient Institutions: In antiquity, friendship was a
family of institutions for the mutual exchange of benefits, be it material
assistance, advice and support, or promotion of one’s aims. Life is too
uncertain to rely exclusively on fee-for-service transactions. In this
world, we need to be connected with people on whose benevolence we can rely
(as they can on ours) in good times and bad, even when they (we) have
anything to lose, whether or not they (we) have something to gain. Such
relationships require reciprocity, in many cases a growing willingness to
take the other’s needs as seriously as one’s own. They require trust that
counts on the other to follow through, and that–in the face of evidence to
the contrary–gives the other the benefit of the doubt. They involve
loyalty, which is all the stronger where ties are permanent. Such
need-based friendships may be forged between unequals (e.g., in the family,
between parents and children, who are expected to reciprocate by providing
for parents in old age; between marriage partners; in society, between
patron and clients, king and citizens, among citizens) as well as peers
(e.g., business men in different towns, relying on each other for lodging,
introductions and recommendations, etc.).<3>
Ancient Ideals: Living in societies with such institutions, philosophers came
to regard as sub-par friendships based on economics or pleasure or networking
towards preferment. Instead, they maintained that ideal friendships were forged
between male peers and based on virtue. Ideal friends were already virtuous and
offered each other intimate companionship that brings joy. Philosophers inferred
that because ideal friends would be shaped by the same character, they would share
a common outlook, would see and evaluate each situation the same way. Their
agencies would be equivalent, so that one could almost speak of “one soul in two
bodies,” and each would be in a position to act on the other’s behalf. Persons
committed to the same values but not yet perfected in virtue, could approximate
ideal friendship by forging a relationship in which each could–through advice and
candid constructive criticism–help the other grow. Ideal friendships called for
reciprocity and trust, even for coming to love the other as oneself. Ideal
friendships also aimed for permanence, but with a condition: if one or the other
should turn away from virtue, they should be broken or allowed to atrophy.<4>
Viva la difference! Ancient philosophical ideals focus on peer relationships
and so stress harmony of outlook and values as to homogenize friends, as if they
were interchangeable clones of each other. Contemporary criticisms query whether
good and healthy friendships can be formed on the assumption that the friend is an
alter ego, a copy of myself or at least of the self I aim to be. Derrida counters
with a strong antidote: to love a friend is to honor in her/him the enemy s/he
might become! <5> Less radical versions insist that respect for the other would
recognize that s/he might see the world very differently, that s/he might embrace
a conflicting range of values, or that s/he might prioritize common values in
contrasting ways. Within limits, difference is not an enemy of friendship but
stimulating and provocative, the spice of life! “Friends with a difference” do not
aim at homogenization, but commit themselves to reciprocal stretching exercises,
to entering into each other’s perspective deeply enough to experience what it
would be like to see and value the world that way. Such intimate knowing and being
known requires trust and candor. It flourishes in the soil of stability. It
fosters flexibility that puts friends–despite their differences–in a position to
give each other advice and feedback, because each would so understand the other’s
perspective as to be able to work out what range of responses to a situation would
have integrity for her/him.
Divine-human Friendship, Strenuously Bicultural? The size-gap guarantees that
Divine-human friendship will be lopsided. It is metaphysically impossible for God
and humans to be peers. Mainstream Christian theology also makes clear that
Divine-human relations can never be free from need-based considerations. To be
sure, God does not need creatures. From God’s side, creation is a free and
gracious choice. But creatures depend on God for their being, their well-being,
and their activity, by metaphysical necessity. Metaphysics guarantees Divine-human
friendship cannot perfectly conform to ancient philosophical ideals.
Divine-human friendship is in many ways like human parent-child
relationships, where much more competent persons rear infantile potential up
through many developmental stages. In both, growing up involves long periods of
inequality and engenders many rooted personal entanglements. Even if peer
relationships are metaphysically impossible, God does share with human parents the
goal that the child should reach its full adult stature and with peer friends the
desire that it become all that it can.
In purposing Divine-human friendship, God is aiming for a very high level of
phenomenological intimacy. From the Divine side, this is metaphysically
inevitable, because God is essentially omniscient, the one to whom “all hearts are
open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” But God wants to rear
us up to a high degree of phenomenological intimacy from the human side. In this
respect, Divine-human friendship is more like ancient and contemporary ideals than
the need-based institutions of ancient society. Difference is metaphysically
necessary, but Divine-human friendship involves a determination to enter into and
appreciate the other’s experience and point of view. God takes this commitment to
extremes, when God the Son becomes incarnate in Jesus, the Word made flesh. The
bible’s God also evidences a desire for mutual advice and consultation (see Gen
18:17-33; John 15:14-15). God can’t help being the senior partner, but Divine
strategies and objectives are influenced by human preferences (e.g., Lot’s bias
towards city-dwelling, Gen 19:12-23; David’s confidence that falling into God’s
hands would be better than punishment by enemy armies, II Sam 24:10-14).
Still, Divine-human friendship is strenuously bicultural. On the one hand,
friendship with God is what human beings were created for. On the other,
stretching to get to know God whose ways are higher than our ways, demands more of
us than human powers can reliably deliver, as the bible stories tend to show!
III. Bridging the Size-Gap:
Unperceived Presence: The friendship God hopes for, involves personal
intimacy, which requires friends to be present to each other, not only
metaphysically, but phenomenologically. Metaphysical presence is easy for God,
because God is omnipresent by nature. Nothing could be anywhere if God were not
there. God is also omniscient by nature. Even those who worry about open futures
should grant that whatever is happening now is phenomenologically present to
Divine consciousness. A condition of the possibility of friendship with God is
that we have by nature or at least are the kind of thing that could acquire (say
by infused virtues) capacities to perceive God as phenomenologically present to
us. Calvin speaks of our being endowed by our Creator with a sensus divinitatis.
Bonaventure and Scotus imply that we have innate passive capacities to receive
acts of beatific vision of the Divine essence. Scotus contends: if we didn’t, we
would no more be suited for seeing God than a cow or a rock is!
Yet, experience shows that in the world as we know it, God is not obvious.
God is hidden, or at least seems to play “hide and seek.” Many people never, most
people only rarely or episodically catch a glimpse, hear the voice or feel the
presence of God. This datum violates our expectations and requires an explanation,
if we want to avoid the conclusion that Divine hiddenness is strong evidence
against the existence of a friendly God. Traditional theology declares that we
have been blinded to Divine omnipresence as a punitive and/or natural consequence
of Adam’s fall. Before their disobedience, Adam and Eve enjoyed intimate
fellowship with God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. But after they
ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were driven out of the
garden, and threby deprived of the phenomenological evidence of Divine presence.
Calvin speaks of the sensus divinitatis being covered over with impiety, so that
we are no longer being able to read the Book of the World, no longer sensitive to
hear it sing its Maker’s praises. This is why God causes the Book of Scripture to
be written, to say in so many words what we were created to see, but now can only
If traditional theology accentuates the negative, John Hick’s emphasis is
positive.<7> Hick’s God wants us to make a free response to Divine offers of
friendship. But–God knows–an experience of naked Divinity would be both
intimidating and irresistible (mysterium tremendum et fascinans). So God
deliberately sets up “cognitive distance” between us, places us in an environment
that is religiously ambiguous, one that can be reasonably interpreted either as a
self-contained natural system or as awash in Divine presence. Whether or not to
believe, to strike a posture of faith, to pursue a friendship with God, is ours to
My own hypothesis is that the size-gap explains Divine hiddenness. Our
cognitive and affective capacities have evolved to deal with the material world,
and are already activated at some point in foetal development. But our capacity to
perceive God is latent, and–in the material world in which we live–is awakened
only with difficulty. Its inactivity means that we suffer under a perception
disorder, so that we cannot perceive the world as it really is: God-infested. We
cannot perceive our surround as personal. We cannot read divine intentions or
recognize God’s hand at work in our lives. To borrow contemporary jargon, we are
spiritually autistic. Even for many who believe in God, God is more like a
theoretical entity, an explanatory posit, at best someone known “by the hearing of
the ear” second or third hand.
Rearing Us Up to Recognition: Animality guarantees that human beings are
developmental creatures. The human infant’s capacities to be personal are also
latent at birth. They require to be evoked by a personal surround. In the
beginning, the personal presence of the adult care taker hovers over the infant,
drawing the booming buzzing confusion of its psyche into focus, eventually evoking
its capacity to be a person, to recognize others as persons with their own points
of view and desires. Through years of daily interaction, the adult rears the child
up, first into specifically human, then into its individually distinctive
capacities. Good teachers and parents want the child to grow up to peer status,
into an adult person with whom they can still be friends.
So, too, omnipresent God moves over our depths drawing out our potential to
be spiritual, our capacity not only to encounter other human beings
spirit-to-spirit, but to traffic with God. Like a mother with her baby, God is
really present to and in many and various ways interactive with human persons,
before and whether or not they ever become consciously aware that the presence
that surrounds them is personal and Divine. Like good parents and teachers, God
aims for conscious recognition, for voluntary trafficking, ultimately for chosen
friendship and harmonious life together. To rear us up into it, the bible’s God
uses a multi-media approach.
Willy nilly, omnipresent Godhead works secretly on the inside, indwelling
each and every human person; like mothers with their foetuses and newborns,
fostering an unconscious sense of familiarity; later on but still below the
conscious level nudging, provoking “aha” insights and sparking creativity.
Augustine, Anselm, and Bonaventure follow St.Paul and St. John in recognizing
indwelling Godhead as our Inner Teacher. For them, both intellectual activity
(doing mathematics, philosophy, or theology) and our judgments about what is more
or less worth loving involve trafficking with God who is the eternal truths and
norms. Our minds were designed for this sort of collaboration. Augustine, Anselm,
and Bonaventure emphasize: our mind’s highest functions are inevitably
God-infested, even if we are not consciously aware of it, whether or not we ever
admit it. My own view is that such interaction spreads across the personality to
cover all of our functional dynamics, once again, whether or not we notice.
Unconscious collaboration is fundamental, but it is not the friendship with
us Godhead aims for. God wants to be explicitly recognized. The bible’s God works
towards this in two ways. Most obviously, there are theophanies in which God
crashes through our ordinary horizontal worlds to give human beings a glimpse of
naked divinity. The size-gap makes this both terrifying and instructive.
Instructive, because–as Anselm emphasizes–Godhead is immeasurably more than we
could ask or imagine. Experience of naked divinity makes awareness of this more
than propositional. Theophanies shrink both this world’s goods (“the many and
various goods discernible by the senses and reason”) and “the sufferings of this
present life” down to size. Devotees come away from theophanies empowered, because
they experience how the One who is for them is much greater than the forces
arrayed against them (2 Kgs 6:15-17). Nevertheless, naked theophanies will not do
as a steady diet for relationship-building, because most people find them too
scary. The bible’s God tends to reserve them for special occasions: the call of
leaders (e.g., Moses [Ex 3:1-6], Isaiah [Isa 6:1-13), Jesus, the fisher brothers
[Lk 5:2-11], Paul [Acts 9:1-9; 22:4-11; 26:12-18]), covenant ceremonies (e.g., to
Abraham [Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-8: 22:1-19] and Jacob [Gen 28:10-17;
32:22-32; 35:9-15], at Sinai [Ex 19:7-25]), and dramatic rescues (e.g., the Reed
Sea crossing [Ex 14:10-31]).
God’s other strategy for self-disclosure is to meet us on our level by
recruiting prophets and teachers, pre-eminent among them God Incarnate, the Word
made flesh in Jesus Christ. Prophets and teachers on the outside work with
indwelling Godhead on the inside to help others get acquainted with God, by
articulating who and what God is (the All-powerful and All-wise Creator, the God
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.), by word and example demonstrating what Divine
intentions towards us are. With their help, God wants us to wake up to recognize
indwelling Godhead, to begin to coax us into working together willingly. The
company we keep “rubs off on us.” God hopes that living at close quarters with
Godhead, we will more and more be shaped by God’s lifestyle, little by little,
more and more, as much as possible given size-gap adjustments, come to see as God
sees and to love as God loves.
God is All-Wise. God does not aim for peer relations with us, because the
size-gap makes that metaphysically impossible. (Perhaps Moses and Elijah on the
Mount of Transfiguration represent near-peers of Jesus’ human side.)
Nevertheless, God is out for something radical. God wants our lives to be
consciously and deliberately tangled up in the back and forth of Trinitarian
society. God calls us to a restructuring of our personalities, so that friendship
with Godhead–conscious, voluntary, lived partnership–is the core of who we are,
the central organizing principle of lives.
Gospel Illustrations: In John’s Gospel, friendship between Jesus (in his
human nature) and the Father is presented as the paradigm of what Godhead has in
mind. Paradigm friendship means that there is continual trafficking between Jesus
and the Father. Jesus knows the Father in the biblical sense. The Father has
brought Jesus on board as to Divine plans and projects with which Jesus is in full
agreement. John’s Jesus can claim such harmony of purpose as to declare: “I do
only what the Father gives me to do, say only what the Father gives me to say.
I-not-I-but-the-Father perform this work. I-not-I-but the Father have this word
for you.” Jesus’ lived partnership with the Father expressed in words and deeds
are an explication on the outside of who God is and what God means.
John’s Gospel show-cases the pedagogy by which Jesus prepares his disciples
to “be born again” into such restructured personalities (Jn 14:15-26; 15:26; 16:7,
12-15). The disciples ask, get to come and see where Jesus is abiding (Jn
1:37-39). Jesus abides in friendship with the Father. That is the core of his
human personality. That is where he makes his home. Disciples begin by believing
in Jesus under superficial, first approximation titles (‘Rabbi’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Son
of God’, ‘King of Israel’ [Jn 1:41, 49]). Life together with Jesus, hearing what
he says, seeing what he does, catapults them into deeper levels of recognition of
who he is. In other interactions (e.g., with the woman at the well [Jn 4], with
the crowds at the feeding [Jn 6], with the healed blind man [Jn 9], what Jesus
says or does provokes a series of good-guess identifications (‘a prophet’, ‘the
Savior of the world’; ‘king’, ‘rabbi’, ‘Lord’), all culminating in Jesus’ own
self-disclosure (‘I AM the Messiah’ [Jn 4:25]; ‘I AM the bread of life’ [Jn 6:35,
41, 51, 53-58]). Other times, John’s Jesus makes explicit public declarations: ‘I
AM the light of the world’ [Jn 8:12, 9:4]; ‘before Abraham was, I AM’ [Jn 8:58];
‘I AM the door of the sheep’ [Jn 10:7]; ‘I AM the good shepherd who lays down his
life for the sheep’ [Jn 10:11, 14-15]; ‘I and the Father are one’ [Jn 10:30].
For the disciples, believing in Jesus is key, because Jesus is the divinely
authorized manifestation of the Father [Jn 5:30-47; 7:16-29; 8:12-30; 12:44-50;
14:8-11]. Moreover, our grasp of Divine intentions moves from the outside in, from
the abstract to the concretely embodied when we obey their commandments (Jn
14:15-24). We get to know what Jesus and the Father are like as persons by joining
in their projects, by “acting out” their intentions, by becoming more and more
like them ourselves.
Good parents and teachers show themselves friendly to their charges by
rearing them up and educating them to become mature persons. Along the way, they
impute what we may call “proleptic friendliness” to the child, as over time they
more and more relate to the child as the friend they hope it will become.
Likewise, Jesus, on the eve of his passion, calls his disciples friends (Jn
15:13-15), even though–(with the possible exception of the beloved disciple–they
are still unstable, even though Jesus knows that Peter is about to deny him (Jn
13:38) and that the others will scatter (Jn 16:32).
IV. At-one-ment, Wrecked and Ruined?
Horrors seem to give the lie to Divine professions of friendship, because
setting us up for horrors does not seem like a very friendly thing for God to do.
By creating us as material persons in a material world such as this, by allowing
or nudging material stuff to evolve structures that can host personal life, God
has placed and–experience shows–always-or-for-the-most-part left us in the way
of horrendous harm. What makes horrors so pernicious is that they eat their way
into the core of human personality to disable meaning-making capacities beyond
human powers to fix them.
Horror-damage comes in many varieties. War traumas and other violence can
cause people to lose their ability to establish a narrative order on their
memories (e.g., soldiers who return with PTSD). Schizophrenics can produce
narratives with plots, but their understanding of the world is twisted and
distorted and out of touch with reality. Some horror participants can function
effectively on the outside, but lose their capacity to make connection with other
people.<8> For others, depression takes away their ability to experience anything
as worth living for. Others are driven by perverse tastes and desires (“Let evil
be my good!”). Still others are left with roughly normal capacities to narrate, to
connect and appreciate other people, and to enjoy this world’s goods. They just
don’t see how–given horror participation–any of it can add up to a life worth
living, to a positively meaningful life. Individual horror participation makes
belief in God psychologically impossible for some. For others, the via negativa
becomes the only live option (e.g., many Jews who survived the Holocaust).
Whatever God is, God is not–they insist–the kind of thing that could be a
personal friend, not a person who could hear prayers, make, break or keep
Even where belief in God does survive, horror participants will have serious
trust issues with the God who set them up for horrors. Even if God were to heal
meaning-making capacities and make God’s existence obvious, even if God somehow
ushered horror participants into endless bliss, that would not–John Bishop and
Ken Persyk<9> argue–be enough to make it reasonable for them to enter into the
kind of personal intimacy that is supposed to be God’s goal. Bishop and Persyk
contend that it would be a failure of perfect loving relationality, for “personal
omni-God” (their term) to place us and leave us in the way of horrendous harm. If
we take horrors with full moral seriousness, they think that we will have to
agree: there is nothing personal omni-God could do to atone for setting us up for
horrors or to remove this blot on our relationship. Since Bishop and Persyk take
perfect loving relationality to be essential to Godhead, they conclude that since
horrors exist, personal omni-God does not. John Roth rivets attention on the
slaughter bench of history in general and the Holocaust of Jews in Nazi Germany.
He allows that God may exist, but insists that God has permanently forfeited any
title to perfect goodness. In conversation, Roth once quipped, “Sure, we might
still have some sort of relationship with God, but we might not like God very
Such objections are powerful and intimidating. No one wants to be caught out,
not taking horrors with full moral seriousness. No Christian wants to be accused
of reneging on the goodness of God. Fool rushing in that I may be, I beg to
differ. As Anselm argued long ago, it is the size-gap, who and what God is that
makes atonement possible. In what follows, I want to explain how this can be so.
V. Atoning for Horrors:
When powerful friends fail to protect us, worse yet, seem significantly
responsible for suffered harms, we scramble for explanations. We want to
understand their reasons. Even where the explanation does not immediately justify
their failure to prioritize our welfare, it is reassuring to know that their
behavior was not capricious, that they have not become utterly unpredictable.
Likewise, we may hold open the possibility of at-one-ment with the person who let
us down, the more so if s/he does something to make it up to us, to compensate us
for what we have suffered and to help us win through to lives that are great goods
to us on the whole and in the end. I want to argue that personal omni-God can
atone for horrors by outlining a strategy that God might pursue to make it up to
us and so eventually to make up with us.
Back-story Understanding: Human beings in this material world are radically
vulnerable to, inevitably collectively complicit in horrors. Since God is our
creator, God has knowingly set us up for horrors by creating us in a world like
this. The biblical Two-Age theory divides human life together with God into this
present evil age in which the powers of darkness do their worst while the elect
hang on by their finger nails, and the age to come in which the elect enter into
the joy of their Lord. This idea can be adapted to provide, not a justification
for present horrors, but a framework of understanding, a glimpse into Divine
purpose that offers a ray of hope.
God does mean to be friendly by creating us for life together, and God does
aim for plot resolution in which we all live together harmoniously in friendship
with God and one another. First, God makes us for life together in this material
world for multiple reasons: because God loves this material world and loves it
pre-eminently by loving us; because we are material persons and this is our
natural home; and because God wants to live together with us on our home turf.
Then–after the proverbial time, a time and half a time–because life together in
this material world is so harsh and demanding, God proposes future life together
in a modified environment where we will no longer be vulnerable to horrors, where
evident Divine presence will convince us that we are safe and loved and so to
enable us to live together in peace and harmony like–because together with–the
Trinitarian society of friends.
Put otherwise, God purposes life together with us, for better, for worse.
God’s plans are genuinely bi-cultural. God proposes first to move-in with us in
our natural home. Then God will invite us to move into God’s dream home. In this
“present evil age” millions have died without believing in God; millions more
without ever feeling friendly, much less being “born again.” Full at-one-ment will
be achieved in the age to come when God acts decisively to make everything
alright. The story is one of upward mobility and happy endings. But it can be
true, only if–pace Bishop, Persyk, and Roth–there is something God can do to
atone for horrors after all.
Atoning Solidarity: A friendly God would want created persons to flourish.
Consequently, a God friendly to horror participants would not only restore
meaning-making capacities and guarantee to created persons lives that are great
goods to them on the whole and in the end. A friendly God would see to it that
horror participation was not merely balanced off but defeated within the context
of the individual horror-participant’s life. A friendly God would go further
still, to make friendship with God the connecting link that gives positive meaning
to horror-studded lives. Mainstream Christian theology suggests how. Contrary to
appearances, God does not abandon us, but becomes Incarnate, not only to share in
our radical vulnerability to horrors, but to join us in actual individual horror
participation (pre-eminently on the cross). This solidarity with human beings in
horror participation is a friendly gesture on God’s part, one that catches up our
horror participation into the warp and woof of our relationship with God.
Moreover, the size gap means that what God is, is immeasurably valuable.
Likewise, beatific relationship with God is immeasurably good for us. Integration
into such a relationship would give horror participation a positive aspect that
would defeat its negative aspect. Prima facie, horror participation ruins our
lives, but ultima facie they turn out to be episodes in our life together with
God, who is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. What God is, is the
value-capital on which the possibility of atonement relies.
Elusive Appreciation: Divine solidarity in horror participation is the
objective basis of horror defeat. But for horror participants to make positive
sense of their lives, they would have to recognize it and appropriate it in their
meaning-making. For this, it wouldn’t be enough for them to agree that God had
died on the cross as an act of solidarity. Jesus’ solidarity with the thief on the
cross didn’t keep him from protesting: “Being on the cross is so bad that
togetherness doesn’t help me. If you really are the Son of God, why don’t you do
something to get us both down?” (Lk 23:39) Divine solidarity couldn’t make lives
of unremitting horrors good-for us. What is said to be immeasurably good for us is
relationship with God that is beatific on the whole and in the end. To appropriate
the datum of Divine solidarity into their meaning-making calculations, horror
participants would have to become convinced that–pace Bishop, Persyk, and
Roth–intimacy with the God who set them up for horrors could be beatific on the
whole and in the end.
Put otherwise, even if God’s existence is not hidden, Divine goodness towards
horror participants may be far from obvious. To become friendly towards God,
individual horror participants will have to quit holding it against God that God
has set them up for horrors. They will have to let down the defenses they put up
to keep God at a phenomenological distance. God is metaphysically omnipresent by
nature. The objective fact–that God died on the cross as an act of
solidarity–does not automatically dispel the fear that to open up to
phenomenological intimacy with God is to set oneself up for horrors, is to give
God the chance to be abusive again.
Owning Up and Letting Go: When powerful friends fail to prioritize our
interests, one thing they can do towards atoning for this is to “own up” to our
costs, not only acknowledging them but accepting responsibility for them. Of
course, this won’t help much if the powerful do so with a sense of entitlement
that reinforces the message that–from their point of view–our interests were
easily over-balanced or not worth considering at all.
Julian of Norwich paints a contrary picture. She imagines God’s welcoming us
to heaven by greeting us with gratitude: “thank you for your suffering, for the
suffering of your youth!”<11> So far from covering up what being a human being in
this world costs us, Julian’s God eternally makes a full public disclosure,
eternally expresses Divine gratitude and publicly honors us for it. Taking a page
from Julian, I suggest that this dramatic and continuing gesture will launch a
spiraling process of letting its implications sink in. Trust levels don’t have to
be very high to act out civic friendship towards a powerful leader or the servant
friendship of a butler or house maid behaving in ways loyal to the family. But God
isn’t satisfied with outward actions. God wants intimate, harmonious (mutatis
mutandis, adjusting for the size gap, idem velle, idem nolle) cohabitation of the
sort epitomized by John’s Jesus. For that level of intimacy, trust levels do have
to be very, very high.
God’s public acknowledgement and gratitude on the outside is the framework
for a process of inward transformation in which God convinces us of what Divine
solidarity in horror participation really means: viz., that God does not ask more
of us than God does of Godself! God shows us what God has made of horrors. God
lures us into Divine projects that capture our imagination, so that we can
experience what it is like to work together. God gives us glimpses of naked
Divinity, allows us to taste and see the Goodness of what God is.
God wins us over, little by little. The more we trust, the more we taste and
see that God is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, the closer we come to
experiencing our relationship with God as immeasurably good for us, the more we
realize that God has been for us all along, the more convinced we become that
God-with-us in horror participation is the horror defeater that enables us to make
positive sense of our lives.
VI. Atonement, Already and Not Yet:
Omnipresent Friendliness: God purposes at-one-ment, but the size gap and
horrors make achieving it doubly demanding. To be sure of getting what God wants
eventually, God is always doing as much as possible from the Divine side.
God fills our cradle-to-grave careers with friendly gestures. God creates us
for friendship. God purposes life together with us in this world, which is our
natural home. God works constantly to rear us up and wake us up into conscious
collaboration with indwelling Godhead. God shares our human life by becoming
incarnate in Jesus, our horror participation most blatantly by dying on a cross.
God’s choice to create us in this material world is not exotic, because this
material world is our natural home. But the Christian God is more friendly than
Job’s God: Job’s God is above the frey, but the Christian God descends to the
trenches to prove that God does not ask more of us than God does of Godself.
Yet, experience shows that God’s cradle-to-grave friendliness is not obvious
to everyone during their ante-mortem careers. A post-mortem sequel full of
friendly gestures is required to get and hold our attention, and thereby
eventually to resolve the plot. God welcomes us as permanent guests in God’s home
(whether heaven or a radically remodelled “new heaven and new earth”). God
publicly owns up to Divine complicity and our costs with eternal gratitude and
honors. God heals our personal capacities and coaches our process of making
positive sense of our lives. God helps us to make something positive out of horror
participation. And God reassures us by letting us in on what God has made of the
worst that we can suffer, be, or do.
Imputed Friendliness: At-one-ment is a two-way street. Harmonious life
together requires reciprocity. God aims at actual friendship. But even an
open-future God could reckon in advance: no human being is going to be always
actually friendly. Size-gap immaturity guarantees it. Size-gap plus latency make
the world seem religiously ambiguous, and leave friendship with God latent for
many throughout their cradle-to-grave careers. Tragic to say, in some cases,
horrors prevent friendships with God from ever being forged. Worse yet, horrors
abort Divine-human friendship formation that was already in progress.<12> Even
worse, horrors turn people into conscious and unconscious God-haters and
sociopaths, into people whose twisted conceptions lead others astray.
Julian of Norwich suggests that Divine solidarity enables God to get more of
what God wants in the meantime, in advance of actually bringing us all around.
Interpreting the parable of the Lord and the servant, Julian explains that God
counts Adam’s agency (and that of every human being to be saved) as equivalent to
Christ’s.<13> Christ, in his human nature, is our paradigm of structuring our
entire personality around friendship with God. Taking another page from Julian, I
suggest that God imputes proleptic friendliness to the immature and spiritually
dozing (e.g., the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane) and to those whose horror
participation leaves them dazed and disabled. Divine imputation of friendliness to
the God-hating, God-defaming, and socio-pathological, has a further basis in what
they have actually become.
VII. The Knowledge of Good and Evil:
Even where friends are different or unequal, friendship involves each in
trying to enter into, to understand and appreciate the other’s way of seeing and
valuing the world. Likewise, friends are committed to giving each other honest and
constructive feed-back on the way their aims and how they pursue them. The bible
suggests that this is true also of human friends of God.
The size-gap makes it generally difficult for creatures to see where God is
coming from (Is 55:8-9; Ps 139:6, 17-18). But to appreciate God’s providential
plans requires a knowledge of good and evil–not merely knowledge by description,
whether of the abstract sort in which philosophers traffic, or the narrative type
treated in literature; but knowledge by acquaintance which tastes and sees how
really, really good and how really, really bad things in this world are.
The trouble is that where the best goods and worst evils are concerned, there
is a real and present danger that human capacities are not robust enough to
experience them without being destroyed in the process. Remember Hebrew bible
warnings that no human being can see God and live. By definition, horrors prima
facie destroy for horror participants any possibility of positive meaning.
The Pedagogy of Friendship: Unsurprizingly, the God of Genesis 2-3 knows this
and warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
(Gen 2:16-17; 3:2-3). It is the serpent’s temptation that invites Eve to become
like God, knowing good and evil (Gen 3:4-5). Adam and Eve are still children.
Life in Paradise creates the illusion of safety, of everything being laid on and
no dangers looming. Protecting children from harsh realities, introducing them to
real-world problems gradually as their growing capacities become more able to
handle them, is good pedagogy to this day.
Nevertheless, numerous bible stories suggest that mature friendship with God
requires a rite of passage in which God’s human partners are forced to “get real”
about what life together with God in this world really means.  Adam and Eve
fall from naïveté, lose their illusions about what it means to be personal
animals, material persons in a world like this.<14> Childbirth is painful. Hard
labor is required to earn bread. Nature is inhospitable. So far from being
friendly, relations among humans and God’s other creatures are hostile. (Gen
3:14-19) And–contrary to the serpent–personal animals all die.
 Abraham is a friend of God, one with whom God shares plans and from whom
God takes council (Gen 18:17-33). God blesses Abraham with companionship, wealth,
and power. But God tests Abraham by delaying fulfillment of the Divine promise of
star-numerous offspring until he was 100 years old (Gen 21:5) and then commanding
Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Gen 22:1-14). The reality is that
trafficking with God demands not only being willing to leave home (Gen 12:1), but
to sacrifice the people one loves the most; not only being willing to lose earthly
prizes, but–at God’s behest–to destroy what looks like the only means of God’s
fulfilling Divine promises.
 Job is introduced–at the beginning of the story–as a paradigm
patriarch, a friend of God, full of reverence and gratitude. Job has tasted and
seen this world’s goods: he is rich and prosperous, the father of ten children, a
wise and respected community leader. He has played the patron’s part, noblesse
oblige, befriending widows and orphans, etc. (Job 1:1-5; 29-31) His happy
situation in life gives him knowledge of Divine goodness at a remove: from Its
effects on him and by the hearing of the ear. But he has not seen God. (Job
42:5-6) Likewise, Job’s knowledge of evil is second hand. He has not tasted and
seen just how bad life in this world can be. Job’s crash course acquaintance with
horrors, followed by the theophany in which he sees Divine Goodness, deepens his
knowledge of good and evil and in consequence his friendship with God. Throughout
his chapters-long torment, Job retains enough integrity to play the part of the
seemingly betrayed friend calling God to account for letting him down. God takes
Job’s performance for what it is–viz., friendly–and rewards him by catapulting
Job into the role of priestly intercessor for the friends whose knowledge of good
and evil was so superficial that they knew not what they said. (Job 42:7-9)
(4) Likewise, Jesus’ earthly career is for the disciples a period of bonding
and trust-building, filled with signs and wonders, public teachings and private
tutorials. But they do not rise to maturity as Jesus’ friends (John 15:14-15 has
to be proleptic) before they undergo crucifixion-resurrection rites of passage.
Triduum events first force them to drain their cup of spiced and foaming wine,
rudely awaken them to their own moral flimsiness and failures, to the treachery of
their nation’s leaders who vow no king but Caesar (Jn 19:15) and misguide the
people into calling down Messiah’s blood on their heads (Mt 27:25), to the
brutality of crucifixion and to the crush of imperial power. Following Jesus leads
to much worse than they had asked or imagined. Resurrection is equally disruptive
as it explodes their pathetic underestimation of Divine resources to make good on
the worst things.
Friendliness, Unrecognized and Imputed: Unfortunately, the material world in
which we find ourselves is no respecter of human learning curves or pedagogical
order. Horrors crash in to wreck, ruin, and caricature human agency. Adapting
Julian of Norwich’s insight, I suggest that God counts horror participation as a
friendly gesture, because horror participation shares deeply in God’s knowledge of
evil. To be sure, in his Godhead, Christ shares the Trinity’s knowledge of good
and evil. In His human nature, Christ both tastes and sees Divine Goodness
(according to scholastic Christologies, has the beatific vision throughout His
human career) and participates in passion week horrors. His Godhead and His human
tasting and seeing of Divine Goodness strengthen Him to look evil in the face and
stare it down, so that Christ’s human-nature knowledge of good and evil runs deep.
Perhaps some saints (e.g., Polycarp) actually approximate such dialectical
knowledge, where their glimpses of Divine Goodness enable them to confront evils,
and, conversely (as in Job’s case), their experience of evil catapults them into a
resizing of Divine Goodness, which has to be at least good enough to swamp evils
here below. For the saints, such knowledge of Divine goodness cushions their
encounters with evils. They are able more and more to face how bad things can be,
because they more and more experience how Boundless Goodness is there to overcome
Ghastly and distorted as it is, horror participation also shares deeply in
God’s knowledge of evil. It tells truths that Christ’s human career or the seven
brothers in the Maccabees (II Maccabees 7:1-42) or St. Francis of Assisi can’t
declare. Once again, their knowledge of evil was counter-balanced, and according
to the stories they retained enough integrity to remain faithful to God to the
end. What wrecked and ruined horror participants are, is in a way a more radical
exposé of the virulence of evil to prima facie destroy the image of God in human
beings. In at least this dimension, it approaches more closely to Divine knowledge
of evil. For God created this world with eyes wide open to its ruinous potential
for human beings. My contention is that God imputes friendliness to these wrecked
and ruined horror participants also, willy nilly, whether or not they actually
meant it, even if they actually meant the opposite.
According to Julian, God will make it up to us for all that we have
suffered–not least, the scourge of being the messed up agents that we have
been–by playing the part of a grateful friend. For just by being material persons
in this material world, we have, willy nilly, been part of God’s project of life
together in the material world that is our natural home. Like Julian, I imagine,
God will thank us for getting through it. Even among wrecked and ruined agencies,
costs may be higher or lower. It is worse to be perverted into a moral monster–to
be a Hitler or a Stalin or a Pol Pot–than to be one of their victims shovelled
alive into the crematorium. It is worse to be Judas than to be Mary Magdalene at
the foot of the cross or even one of the twelve who runs for his life. My
suggestion is that Divine love will award greater honors to those who paid higher
prices for God’s project of life-together in this world.
Retrospective Friendliness: Since horror participation wrecks and ruins
agencies, horror participants will likely require numerous post-mortem therapeutic
stages of personality reform and restructuring, before they are capable of
harmonious life together, indeed before they are capable of trusting that
friendship has been God’s meaning all along. My notion is that–because God gets
what God wants eventually–we will all, sooner or later, wake up to Divine
friendliness. Like Julian (but pace Miroslav Volf), I imagine that God will never
cover-up our past careers, not because God will be out to blame or to shame us,
but because they constitute a judgment on God’s project. Each human life will have
told some truth about what life together in this material world was really like,
what it would cost human beings. I suggest that God counts our being the media of
such verdicts as a friendly gesture. Like Julian, I imagine that God eternally
honors us for these truths that we have willy nilly told.
My final and perhaps most daring thought is this: that–convinced of God’s
perpetual friendliness and seeing enough of how God has made good on everything
and how God compensates everyone for horror participation–we will not only accept
ourselves and the lives that we lived, but also become retrospectively glad to
have lived them. Not glad about the harm to others or glad to have been agents of
their prima facie ruin, not glad to have caricatured God’s image in ourselves and
others, but glad for what God has made of it, and glad to have played a part in
God’s project. Perhaps eventually we will offer all that we are and have been in a
restrospectively friendly gesture to God.
VIII. Methodological Coda:
At-one-ment is God’s goal. It is a project in which God takes and retains the
initiative. Because friendship is a relationship that involves reciprocity,
at-one-ment is a goal that involves our participation.
God gets what God wants, eventually. Because there are major obstacles,
“eventually” is not “immediately.” The size-gap between what God is and what we
are, brings with it a vast difference in personal competencies. As the
immeasurably more competent partner, God has to take the initiative to rear us up
to recognition, to teach us how to love what is worth loving by luring us into
collaboration. Divine initiative is all the more saliant where horrors are
concerned. Individual horror participation damages personal functioning beyond
merely human resources to repair. But Divine initiative to heal our
psycho-spiritual capacities will not, by itself, pave a smooth path to
at-one-ment, because God took the initiative that set us up for horrors by
creating us as material persons in a material world such as this. God’s plan of
life together in this world, which is our natural home, exposes us to horrors and
therefore gives us reason not to trust God. To win our trust, God has to atone for
our horror participation.
The at-one-ment plot is fundamentally ontological. As with Anselm, the
size-gap both deepens the problem and enables its solution. For Anselm, God’s
being “a being a greater than which cannot be conceived of” both makes any offense
against God immeasurably culpable, and turns the God-man’s saving work into
something worthy of immeasurable compensation. My account is structurally
analogous. Immeasurable Goodness makes friendship with human beings a major
challenge. Immeasurable Goodness makes friendship with God immeasurably worthwhile
for human beings, horrors notwithstanding. As with Anselm, what human beings are
also cuts both ways. For Anselm, the fact that we are persons made in God’s image
helps to explain why God takes an interest in us, and why we are somehow better
suited than worms and lady bugs for life-together in the heavenly city. But the
fact that we are created persons with limited and damaged personal capacities
explains why friendship with God is so difficult, why it never ceases to need
Divine assistance, and why it requires us to strive into God with all of our
powers. Once again, my account is structurally analogous: the fact that we are
essentially persons made in God’s image seems to be a sine qua non for
Divine-human friendship. But the fact that what we are essentially is material
persons whose natural home is this material world, also explains why our lives in
this world are radically horror-prone.
As with Anselm, the ontological dynamics are decorated with quasi-legal
manuveurs. Anselm’s theory appeals to quasi-legal Divine policies to explain how
Adam’s descendants do but the God-man does not inherit the primal ancestor’s
liabilities to punishment and/or satisfaction. Liabilities and incapacities
continue for Adam’s fallen race until the Judgment. But God the Son’s becoming a
member of Adam’s race and for once rendering to God what Adam’s race always owed,
means that God has interim gratification, even though our full and final
transformation is delayed. My account reaches for the quasi-legal notion of
imputation. God aims for actual friendship. John’s Jesus is the paradigm of what
God wants from us. But winning the vast majority of us over to restructured
personalities will require delicate pedagogy and a post-mortem sequel. Divine
solidarity is the objective ground of imputation. God anticipates actual
at-one-ment and so gets satisfaction in the meantime by imputing Christ’s
friendliness to each and every human being.
<1>:Anselm, Cur Deus Homo II, ch.4; Schmitt II.99, 1-13.
<2>:Anselm, Monologion, cc.xxviii & xxxi; Schmitt I.46, 3; 49, 5.
<3>:For a discussion of ancient institutions, see Mary Whitlock Blundell, Helping Friends
and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles on Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 1989). See also John T. Fitzgerald, “Friendship in the Greek World Prior to
Aristotle,” in Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, SBL Resources for Biblical Studies
34, ed. John T. Fitzgerald (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), 13-34.
<4>:See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII-IX, and Cicero, De amicitia. Aelred of
Rievaulx gives a Christian development of Cicero’s ideal in Spiritual Friendship, Trans.
by Mary Eugenia Laker SSND with intro. by Douglas Roby (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian
<5>:Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. by George Collins (London & New
York: Verso, 2005).
<6>:John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill, trans.
by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), Book I, chs.3-6; vol.I,
<7>:John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), ch.14, sec.7,
<8>:This is vividly portrayed in Aaron Appelfeld’s true-to-life fiction The Immortal
Bartfuss (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).
<9>:John Bishop, “How a Modes Fideism may Constrain Theistic Commitments: Exploring an
Alternative to Classical Theism,” Philosophia 35 (2007), 387-402; “Towards a Religiously
Adequate Alternative to OmniGod Theism,” Sophia 48 (2009), 419-433. John Bishop and Ken
Persyk, “The normatively relativized logical argument from evil,” International Journal of
the Philosophy of Religion 70 (2011), 109-126; “Concepts of God and Problems of Evil,”
forthcoming in a volume from the Templeton conference on “Exploring Alternative
Conceptions of God” at the University of Birmingham, UK (July 2012).
<10>:John Roth, “A Theodicy of Protest,” Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy
(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 7-37.
<11>:Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters
(Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), ch.14, 85.
<12>:See Eli Wiesel, Night (Toronto: Bantum Books, 1982).
<13>:Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters
(Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), ch.51, 141, 149, 157.
<14>:I take this reading of the Genesis fall story from a conversation with my friend
Christopher Rowland, the Dean Ireland Professor of New Testament Studies at Queens’