Death and Memory — November 30, 2016

Death and Memory

First posted on Episcopal Cafe, October, 2016.

In my generation, Joan would have been a history professor.  Her mind was sharp; her critical edge for weighing evidence, instinctive.  Reading the bible had been enough for her to reinvent the higher criticism.  Because she was a minister’s wife in sometimes conservative congregations, she usually kept such thoughts to herself.  Instead, she fine-tooth-combed libraries and archives, sifting evidence to trace multiple branches of her family tree back to the old countries.  Sometimes, over dinner, she would regale her children and grandchildren with tales about colorful and scurrilous ancestors, whose misdeeds were tucked safely in the past, over two centuries ago.

In her late eighties and early nineties Joan’s memory began to fade, slowly at first and then more rapidly.  One day, she asked her daughter, “how many husbands did I have?”  Anne got out photo albums, put names to faces, identified the relatives: parents, brother, husband and in-laws; aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.  Unable to take it in, Joan fell silent.  Then she exclaimed: “you are my memory now!”

It is one thing for the body to stiffen and atrophy, wear out, “dust to dust” returning.  But it is another when the mind has such difficulty pulling itself into focus enough to pay attention, when it becomes such an effort to connect one thought with another.  Dementia carries this process to its logical conclusion.  Not only does it make us forget our life stories.  It robs us of the recognition that we are anyone at all.

If ageing and Alzheimer’s “fade out” the person before our very eyes, what happens in death?  Not only do we want people to remember us after we die.  We want someone to remember being us.  We want to go on being us.  But what sense does it make to speak of our surviving death?  How can we be us, the very persons we have become, if we can no longer remember the most significant factors of our past lives?

Despite her condition, Joan sensed the answer.  “You are my memory now!”  God is our memory.  God is the one who gathers up the fragments, all of the episodes of our lives, and holds them all together, lest any be lost.  When our brains can no longer preserve the traces or make the connections, God remembers us–everything we have been and done, all of our experiences, our successes and failures, our significant others, what projects and purposes we have pursued.  God appreciates what we have suffered, what we have meant to other people, and what we have achieved in our lives.

Certainly, because we do not want to vanish without a trace, it is comforting to think that we will be eternally preserved as objects of God’s memory.  But our hopes were greedier.  We not only want other people to remember us.  We want to remember being us, so that we can keep on being us!

Yet, even if we are not God and God is not us, it is a mistake to think of God as if God were just anybody else.  For human beings, God is a significant other.  Willy nilly, we live and function as human beings only in partnership with God.

Once again, Joan’s interaction with Anne is suggestive.  As adults, the two women were distinct persons, each with her own views and values.  Each deliberated her own choices and made up her own mind.  Yet, Joan and Anne were not strangers but mother and daughter.  When Anne was first born, Joan was her memory–keeping track of when she had been fed and changed, when she had gone out in the buggy or smiled her first smile.  Joan was also the interpreter of Anne’s desires and the anticipator of her needs.

Throughout childhood, Joan continued to be the one who organized the wider frame within which Anne lived her life.  Joan and her (one and only) husband Sam decided where they should live, maintained the household, provided clothing and food and transportation, located the most suitable schools.  As Anne grew up, Joan handed more and more of Anne’s life over to Anne, until she emerged as a fully autonomous adult.  Because–even after Anne married–they lived in adjacent towns, they were in each other’s homes on a weekly basis.  There was a track-record of counting on each other for things large and small.  Their knowledge of each other was deep and intimate.  Trust was well-grounded, and trust levels were high.

The later stages of senior citizenship reversed that process.  Little by little, Joan handed over, and Anne became responsible for organizing the frame of her mother’s daily life: arranging for yard work and roof repairs, advising on business decisions, negotiating with live-in help, eventually signing the checks to pay the bills and doing the accounting.  Joan’s exclamation–“You are my memory now!”–crystallized what had been happening for some time: she had been handing over her life to Anne for safe-keeping.

The infant, safe and content in mother’s arms, is only just becoming a self.  Its dependence is natural.  It experiences it, but it doesn’t conceive of itself as giving up what it has not yet acquired.  The other end of life is different.  Joan had decades of adulthood behind her, during which she had become a person of distinctive virtues and skills, not least of which were high degrees of discretion and self-control.  Ageing made it necessary to let go of one thing after another.  It is a tribute to Joan and to Anne, the extent to which Joan was able to surrender gracefully, entrusting herself into loving hands.

So also, and all the more so with God.  Godhead is really present everywhere and always.  Nothing could be if God were not there holding it in existence.  Nothing could do anything if God were not acting together with it.  With personal creatures this means that Holy Spirit is with us always, moving over all dimensions of our personality, drawing out our capacity to be personal, to enter into one another’s points of views, to give and receive love, drawing out our capacity to be spiritual, to traffic with God.  Indwelling Godhead does not aim at the impossibility of making us peers, but at something equally radical.  God draws us up into conscious and intentional lived partnership, to such an extent that our personalities are restructured, so that friendship with God becomes the core of who we are.

The mother indwells the child’s person only for a few months, but God is our eternal life partner. God is the One Who holds the fragments of our lives together when we forget.  God is our memory not only now when we do remember, but in infancy when we were too immature to remember and in old age when we lose our ability to remember.

Once again, we are material persons.  It is amazing that material is able to evolve structures that can host personal life.  But these structures are fragile.  The storage capacity of our brains and muscles is limited.  There are only so many neural connectors available to support our ability to put things together.  There is no time in our life when we can keep track of everything we have experienced, consciously or unconsciously, even the meaningful experiences we have had.  Indwelling Godhead is our back-up storage, that moves over our depths, aware of unconscious as well as conscious contents and dynamics.  So God always knows us better than we know ourselves.

God is the One in Whom we live and move and have our being.  God holds all the fragments that none may be lost.  In various stages of our lives, God makes some of them available to us, works with us to spark connections.  The Good News is that even when we lose our grip, God is holding all in readiness.  For the faithful like Joan, who have entered into that lived partnership consciously and voluntarily as adults, fading memory and weakening grip evoke an act of trust, that hands over more and more of herself to God for safe-keeping.

One day, a year or so before her death, son-in-law Bill asked Joan: “what do you think comes next?”  She replied: “I don’t know, but I’m sure it will be good, because God will arrange for it.”

Death is the ultimate act of trust, trust in God, who created us, in God, who has all along enabled us to be material persons.  Without fully understanding how, lifelong familiarity convinces us: God can be counted upon to reshape material stuff into structures that can receive a download of our memories.  God is resourceful to rebirth us into remembering being us, so that we can continue to be us again.



© Marilyn McCord Adams

Presented at a Society of Christian Philosophers session at the Central APA 2014

The Glories of Self-Determination? We tend to think of freedom as a good-making
feature in human beings. To hear free-will-defending analytic philosophers and
theologians tell it, libertarian free will, a self-determining liberty of
indifference, is essential to human persons and so something that characterizes
the human race throughout the up’s and down’s of its salvation-historical career.
Back in the middle-ages, Scotus and Ockham were champions of freedom as a
self-determining power for opposites, insisting that–despite Adam’s misuse of it
in the fall–we are still capable of exercising it to become persons of heroic
virtue, choosing to love God above all and for God’s own sake, electing to do
whatever right reason dictates because right reason dictates it. Courage of their
convictions required them to face the soteriological problem: how can the drama of
salvation permanently resolve into a happy ending if the saints still have the
liberty of indifference in heaven? What assurance do we have that history will not
repeat itself with Adam’s race freely and deliberately falling again?

Like Ockham, Kant saw libertarian freedom as a condition of the possibility of
moral responsibility. Only autonomous agents, capable of rational self-government,
can be fully responsible for their acts. Interestingly, some developmental
psychologists take a page from philosophical ethics. Empirical observation forces
them to deny that human beings are fully competent agents right from the start;
rather, they take autonomy to be characteristic of human being in its maturity.
Autonomy is a goal of human development, something we grow up into if all goes
A variety of scales are offered to map and norm the individual’s progress.

According to psychoanalytic versions, the human infant begins as a booming
buzzing confusion of inputs and impulses, but by the age of three months or so has
the cognitive capacity to differentiate and center its psychic field on a human
face. A few months later, its cognitive skills progress enough to recognize that
the face goes away, and so cannot be relied upon to hold the self together. The
infant differentiates itself from the face and begins a long process of ego
development over the course of which the ego deploys a variety of self-management
strategies that organize, structure and restructure the personality. Therapy
assists the ego in consciously identifying, sorting, and discarding dysfunctional
defenses and–when successful–brings the individual to the goal of rational

Lawrence Kohlberg<2> charts the evolving structures of moral functioning, from
punishment/reward to instrumental hedonism, onto local peer-group (tribalism) and
then societal orientation, and finally to principled self-government according to
universal and universalising ethical principles (Kantian). Robert Kegan<3>
envisions the human individual structuring and restructuring its personality
through a sequence of stages in which the self is first embedded in a
matrix–maternal, familial, peer group, social institutions–and then disembeds,
then re-embeds, culminating in differentiated autonomy. Kegan contrasts the
earlier self-constructions that identify and fuse with authority figures or social
groups from the goal of autonomous differentiated individuals entering into
intimacy with others differentiated from themselves.

Philosophers conceive of freedom metaphysically; psychologists analyze the
functional dynamics of personality. Despite differences of conceptuality, many in
both groups seem to agree: the freedom that is a good-making feature in human
being is differentiated autonomy, that is and recognizes itself to be functionally
independent when it comes to its beliefs and choices. Differentiated autonomy does
not “follow the leader” no matter what–whether that leader is parent, teacher, or
mentor; neither does it invariably “go along with the crowd”–whether it be a high
school clique or company headquarters or the Marine corps. Differentiated autonomy
maintains boundaries between itself and other individuals and groups, keeps its
own counsel, and from that posture decides to whether and how to relate to them.
And–many Christian analytic philosophers and theologians would insist–it is
differentiated autonomy that will stand before the great judgment seat of Christ
on the Last Day, differentiated autonomy that will be rewarded or punished for its
self-determined choices for or against God!

Traditional Cautions: Before we jump to conclusions, however, we need to remember
that the Western Christian theological tradition is far from unanimous in
promoting self-determining power for opposites as a permanent possession or its
autonomous exercise as the goal whether of human development or of the saving work
of Christ. According to Augustine, power for opposites–posse peccare, posse non
–characterizes human beings only before the fall in Eden. In this present
state, the scope of the human will is restricted to the bad option–non posse non
–while the elect in heaven have power only for the good–non posse
. In speaking of freedom, Augustine slides back and forth between two
understandings–freedom as a self-determining power for opposites, and freedom as
a stable orientation to the good–with the former as our beginning, non posse non
as the interruption, and the latter as the goal.

In De Libertate Arbitrii and De Casu Diaboli, Anselm is, if anything, more
emphatic when he defines “freedom” as “the power to uphold justice for its own
sake.” So understood, freedom is an excellence (what would later be called a pure
perfection–a good-making feature that involves no bad-making features) that
belongs to God by nature. God is justice by nature and so is power to uphold it.
By contrast, Anselm denies that the power-for-opposites Augustine mentions–posse
peccare, posse non peccare
–is a pure perfection. Power to sin is not an
excellence, and power to sin cannot belong to God. God builds a
power-for-opposites into rational creatures at their beginning only because
temporary possession of it is a necessary means for giving rational creatures the
opportunity to be somehow self-determined in their stable orientation to the
good–which is as godlike as it is possible for a creature to be. For both
Augustine and Anselm, created power-for-opposites plays a role in salvation
history. But power-for-opposites is not salvation’s goal.

Freedom as Perichoresis: In my judgment, the freedom that is the goal of
salvation is succinctly described in the Collect for Peace included in the morning
office of The Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal
life, and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants in all
assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear
the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The prayer is steeped in the soteriology of John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel,
freedom is characterized, not so much metaphysically–e.g., in terms of
compatibility or incompatibility with causal determinism–but rather
psychologically or functionally in terms of the dynamic organization of
personality. For John’s Gospel, freedom is not a natural endowment. Freedom is
something that human beings are called to grow up into. It involves our becoming a
certain kind of person, a person whose functional core is friendship with God.

In John’s Gospel, the paradigm free person is Jesus, the manifestation of what
harmonious life-together with Godhead should be. Jesus abides with the Father, and
the Father abides with him. Jesus’ partnership with the Father is conscious and
voluntary. Jesus spends time in prayer with the Father (Jn 6:15; 17:1-26): they
share points of view and harmonize perspectives. Jesus has entered into the
Father’s purposes, is at one with the Father about his soteriological role. Jesus
follows through by doing what the Father wants him to do and saying what the
Father wants him to say. He voluntarily cooperates with the Father in carrying out
the plan upon which they have agreed (Jn 5:19-23, 30; 6:38; 10:14-30; 12:27-28).
Jesus trusts the Father. Because of their intimate acquaintance and lived
partnership, Jesus is confident of his power to lay down life and take it up again
(Jn 5:24-29; 6:38-40; 10:17-18). Jesus’ own life is so entangled with indwelling
Godhead, that he sees the cross as a moment of glory. He looks forward to it,
predicting it by turning to water into wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11), with veiled and
winking references foretells it in his discourses with Nicodemus (Jn 3:13-15) and
more hostile Pharisees (Jn 7:19, 33-36; 8:28; 12:31-33). The cross is a triumph
also in the sense that it is the culmination of Jesus’ faithfulness, because with
crucifixion and ascension Jesus has accomplished the special work he has been
given to do (Jn 12:27-28; 13:31-32).

To be sure, John’s Jesus is presented as a mature person. So far as the
psychological development of his human nature is concerned, Jesus has moved beyond
identification with human authority figures, peer groups, or social institutions.
John’s Jesus teaches without footnotes (Jn 7:15: is learned although he never
studied). John’s Jesus is not narrowly tribal: he takes the initiative to convert
Samaritans (Jn 4:7-9, 39-40), welcomes Greeks (Jn 12:19-23), and reassures Pilate
that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36). What is important is not social
location here below, but how you respond to Truth and Light. Certainly, John’s
Jesus does not hesitate to contradict the religious establishment who retalliate
by plotting his execution. In relation to other human beings, he has reached
Kegan’s stage of functionally differentiated autonomy.

Nevertheless, in John’s Gospel, God does not create human beings for functional
autonomy. The goal of salvation is to turn us into persons whose functional center
is friendship with indwelling Godhead: not a solo-act, but a duet; or–given that
Godhead is a Trinity–a quartet. Arguably, other characters in John’s Gospel have
also reached Kegan’s stage of differentiated autonomy: at least the disciples and
religious leaders; perhaps also some that Jesus heals. The Divine Word becomes
flesh to issue the challenge: the freedom for which God sets us free is not
functional autonomy, but perichoresis. Jesus confronts Nicodemus: to reach the
goal of salvation, he must be “born from above/born again” (Jn 3:3). This means
undergoing a developmental process to restructure his personality, one at least as
messy and confusing as adolescence.

The bible stories show how–because of the size-gap–God uses a multi-media
approach to get through to human beings and rear us up into lived partnerships.
Theophanies present naked Divinity on the outside (think of God descending on Mt.
Sinai (Ex 19:7-25), of God showing Moses the Divine backside (Ex 33:17-23), of
Isaiah’s vision in the temple (Isa 6:1-13), and of YHWH’s confrontation of Job
(Job 38-42)). Confrontations with naked Divinity have the merit of re-sizing
reality for human participants, but a steady diet of them would not be helpful for
learners, because our capacities have not evolved to cope with naked Divinity.
Naked Divinity scares us of our wits. Happily, Godhead is omnipresent by nature.
God is always present to human persons, interacting with us at unconscious levels,
fostering familiarity willy nilly. Being born again, growing up into friendship
with God will involve our coming consciously to recognize our surround as
personal, the good things that happen to us as God’s friendly gestures, thoughts
and ideas that occur to us as attempts at communication, etc. John’s Gospel
details God’s third approach: the Word-made-flesh, Jesus manifesting Who the
Father is by epitomizing friendship with God.

Among other things, John’s Gospel is a tract of initiation. 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 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 disciples, life-together, abiding with Jesus on the outside is a preparation
for being born again, a rehearsal for the stage transition which restructures
their personalities around life-together with indwelling Godhead (Jn 14:15-26;
15:26; 16:7, 12-15). 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). Jesus is paradigm friendship with God. 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. The disciples can get to
know what the Father is like by getting to know Jesus, because everything that
Jesus says and does flows out of his friendship with the Father.

Put otherwise, to know God is eternal life. But getting to know who God is, is
not simply a matter of “wow” experiences on the one hand and intimate personal
presence on the other. Both of these have to be interpreted. 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. But there is more. 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.

To be sure, the language of “commandments” smacks more of “master/slave” than it
does of friendship. Jesus explains the difference when–on the eve of his
crucifixion–he proleptically pronounces the disciples friends (Jn 15:14-15).
Friends differ from slaves insofar as they are taken into the master’s confidence.
Think of the interchange between God and his friend Abraham over the destruction
of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-33). God gives Abraham advance warning of what
God is planning to do, and creates space for Abraham to offer a candid reaction.
Abraham steps into the friend’s role of reminding God to be true to Godself and to
behave in a way that befits the Divine station. The judge of all the earth should
do right, and the judge of all the earth should be magnanimous and show a bias
towards mercy. Friendship with God is very lop-sided; God is inevitably the senior
partner. It is natural to speak of “service” and “commandment-keeping.”
Nevertheless, talk of “commandment-keeping” is also misleading. For starters, it
is too oppositional for friendship. When we become friends of God and carry out
Divine intentions or go along with God’s program, we will be like John’s Jesus:
participating in projects regarding which we have given input (Jn15:26; 16:23-24)
and about which we have been consulted, taking up agreed roles and carrying out
common objectives. Such “service” will be perfect freedom!

Talk of commandment-keeping leads us astray another way. It suggests division of
that it is God who commands and the creature who carries out Divine orders.
The Gospels’ lists of commandments ought to convince us: there is not enough to
autonomous ego’s to obey them; compliance can reliably happen only in the context
of friendly collaboration.
Thus, the Synoptic Jesus makes clear: would-be
disciples will have to move beyond lex talionis “do-as-you’re-done-by” to the
“do-as-you-would-be-done-by” Golden Rule (Mt 7:12). On another occasion, Jesus
forwards the first and second great commandments: to love God with our whole
selves and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:37-40). Torah had already
specified that reference to “neighbor” reaches beyond tribe and nation to include
resident aliens (Lev 19:33-34). Torah makes clear: to love in this sense is to
behave as though I have nothing to gain by denying you the necessities of life or
access to life-giving resources and opportunities. The Good Samaritan midrash
universalizes that injunction (Lk 10:25-37). Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus goes
further, commanding disciples to love their enemies and bless those who curse
them: that is, to act as if they had nothing to gain by denying arch-enemies (Mt
5:43-45). John’s Jesus refocusses on friends but ups the ante: for the disciples
to love God is–among other things–for them to love one another as Jesus has
loved them. It is to be persons prepared to lay down their lives for friends (Jn
15:12-14; cf. 10:15-18). What God expects of us, what Jesus demands of disciples
goes beyond garden-variety moral virtue. Disciples are called to become saints and
martyrs, whose whole manner of being and doing bears witness to who God is.

Experience shows that the vast majority of people are unable to lay down life for
friends, much less to love arch-enemies as themselves. Indeed, it is a rare few
that show any inclination to do so. John’s Gospel bears witness to what is even
more shocking: merely living at close quarters with Jesus on the outside, while
attempting to learn the lessons he was teaching, was not enough to enable most of
his disciples (perhaps the beloved disciple is an exception–Jn 13:23; 19:26-27;
20:28) to (in Thomas’ words) go die with him (Jn 11:16). Judas betrayed; Peter
denied; the rest scattered in terror (Jn 18:2-27; 16:31-32). John’s Gospel is
show-casing how–even with the religiously serious and
well-intentioned–differentiated autonomy is not a center that will hold.
disciples’ integrity went to smash in a developmental crisis of horrendous
proportions. Happily, the risen and ascended Jesus reappears on Easter Sunday
evening to resurrect them. “I AM the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). Jesus
breathes Holy Spirit into them (Jn 20:19-23), and they become sites of indwelling
(cf. Jn 14:15-28; 17:23, 26). Put otherwise, they are born again with
restructured, perichoretic personalities.

Friendship with God is a center that will hold, because “to know” God “is eternal
life.” John’s Jesus declares that the Father is eternal life, that the Father is
and endows Jesus with power to lay down life and take it up again (Jn 10:18).
Intimate acquaintance, lived partnership with indwelling Godhead convinces us of
this. The more we entangle our lives with the eternal life of the
Father-Son-Paraclete Trinity, the more we live out of that friendship, the greater
our assurance that even if we die, we will live forever (Jn 6:40, 44, 53, 58, 74).
Eventually, our friendship with God could become so strong that lethal opposition
would have no power to intimidate us. When our hour came, we would hesitate no
more than Jesus did (Jn 12:27-30) to welcome it and finish our work. “To serve”
God “is perfect freedom.” Because stable friendship with God thus defends us “from
all assaults of our enemies,” it fosters security and constitutes the foundation
of the Lord’s peace (Jn 20:21; cf. 14:27, 16:33, 17:12).

Concluding Queries: My thesis–that the freedom that is the goal of salvation is
friendship with God–may be faulted for deliberately changing the subject.
Surely, the organizers of this session–like most analytic philosophers and
theologians–were interested in the metaphysics of freedom in the context of
salvation. But I have treated freedom in John’s Gospel in psycho-dynamic
categories, which may seem to raise more problems than they solve.

I plead guilty to the charge of shifting attention off the metaphysics of
freedom. I did so on purpose, because I think the issue of psycho-dynamic
functioning is more illuminating theologically, when it comes to the freedom that
is salvation’s goal. Christian attachments to incompatibilist freedom have three
roots. Two are theoretical–the sense that incompatibilist freedom is a condition
of the possibility of moral responsibility, and the notion that it is necessary
for free-will accounts of the origin of evil. Remarkably, Scotus and Ockham hold
that–while self-determining power for opposites cannot be demonstrated–it can be
certified by introspection. Lucky them! Most developmental psychologists would
probably opt for compatibilism, once they understood the question. While I find
much of what they say metaphysically neutral on this point, I do agree that once
one adopts an interactionist model and appreciates the many and various factors
that shape the self, incompatibilist liberty of indifference is not the hypothesis
that leaps most readily to mind. Just for the record, John’s Gospel does not seem
concerned to preserve an incompatibilist picture. More than once, the evangelist
appeals to Divine predestination to explain why people who should know better
reject Jesus (Jn 6:44, 65; cf. 10:25-30).

Metaphysics aside, psychologists might find my thesis–that friendship with God
is salvation’s goal–developmentally regressive. After all, I am suggesting
that–after all that work to achieve adult differentiation–we are called to
re-embed in the matrix of the Trinity, to let our words and deeds be the resultant
of communal interaction. Why is this a developmental advance, rather than
backsliding into a construction of the self that “follows the leader” or “goes
along with the crowd”? In fact, Kohlberg and Kegan borrow their bias towards
differentiated autonomy from Kantian philosophy. But Christians have positive
reason to reject it: viz., that Godhead is a Trinity of persons, a personal matrix
of identity conferring relationships. The Western theological tradition holds that
the persons of the Trinity are metaphysically distinct, and that it is
metaphysically impossible either that they should exist separately or that they
should fail to agree with one another. Of metaphysical necessity, They are
socially embedded in harmonious society. Anselm tells us: one of God’s goals in
creation is that some creatures should be as godlike as possible. Anselm insists:
Divine purposes must be accomplished, no matter what. Certainly, the all-wise
Creator has no interest in stunting human growth. God wants us to grow up to full
stature and work our way through to differentiated autonomy in relation to other
human beings. But friendship with God does not force us to step backward from
that. It is that fully differentiated adult self that is ripe to be born again.
Embedded in the trinitarian matrix, becoming someone whose life is tangled up in
the Trinity, mutatis mutandis seeing as They see and loving as They love, is as
godlike as it would be possible for a personal creature to be!

Except for Jesus, this sort of friendship with God is mostly an eschatological
goal. We see something approaching it in shiny saints–Francis of Assisi, Mahatma
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, the Dali Lama, grandma,
our family doctor or high school teacher, the store clerk down the block–people
who, whether or not they use the name of Jesus, have been converted until who they
are, what they say and do, become remarkable expressions of Divine Love.
Developmental transitions are not “all at once” “in the twinkling of an eye,” but
prolonged and messy combinations of two steps forward and three steps backward, of
confused advance and compromising failure. Having achieved one sort of stable
integration of self, it is scary to strike the set for restructuring towards a new
play. In the meantime, John’s Gospel reassures: God calls us into entanglement
with the Trinity. God gets what God wants, eventually. The freedom that is
friendship with God is salvation’s goal.


<1>:James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment: Understanding Convictional Experiences (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).

<2>:Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Essays on Moral Development
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981 & 1984), vols.1-2.

<3>:Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge,
MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1982). See also James W. Fowler, who draws on
work by Piaget, Kohlberg, and others, to chart stages of faith (Stages of Faith: the
Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning
(New York: Harper Collins,




Advent I 2016

Preached at Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, NJ.

Advent expects a new world order.  Messiah will come and establish God’s own utopia, where there will be no more competition for well-being, where we’ll all be better off because everyone is well off, because the good of each is part and parcel of the common good.

Advent warns: cosmic upheaval will be required to get there.  Stars will fall.  Violent earthquakes will level mountains and raise valleys.  Climate change will flood deserts and dry up fertile farm land.  The very foundations of society will have to be shaken down to clear the ground for dramatic reversals.  Every human society privileges some at the expense of others.  When the gap between rich and poor becomes too wide, when unjust systems become too brittle for midcourse corrections, there’s nothing for it but “comes the revolution” that destroys the old to start again.

Advent warns: things will get worse before they get better.  Powers- that-be will do their damnedest (I use the word advisedly) to hold on to power and privilege.  The more desperate they get, the more ruthless they’ll become.  Advent warns: God’s strategy will be to let the powers of darkness play themselves out and do their very worst until they have exhausted their strategies and resources.

Advent expects: Christ will come in judgment to establish a new world order.  Advent warns: Whenever there is dramatic social change, for better for worse, there will be chaos in between.  Advent is that “in-between” season.  How are the people of God to keep faith when the world flies apart at the seams?

Most of us are old enough to have had a taste of chaos, when the pillars of our lives crumble or disappear, when the basics that we took for granted crash and burn.  Children lose parents, partners lose spouses to death, divorce, or jail.  Hard working bread-winners suddenly lose jobs, because the company moves or is bought out and downsized or because treacherous colleagues wanted them out of the way.  One way and another benefits get cancelled, and there is no money to pay the rent and buy food.  Our bodies let us down so that we can no longer do the very things that we thought made us useful and gave zest and purpose to life.  Or, we are confronted with that medical death sentence.  Some here at Trinity even know what it’s like to be caught in the middle of a violent civil war surrounded by slaughter and dismemberment.  When the world as we know it goes to smash, how can we to avoid falling apart with it?

Many of us here have learned the answer.  It is precisely in the midst of chaos that we come to know and feel what is always a reality:  God is the ground of our being.  Christ is the sure foundation.  In the midst of chaos, we must cling to God for all we’re worth.  We must hold fast to Christ our rock, so that we experience at the core of our being why “all our hope on God is founded!”  God loves us with an everlasting love that will not let us go forever.  We are safe in the clutches of Christ’s crucified and resurrected hands!

Biblical chaos is not brief.  The bible warns: the old world order will hang on “for a time, a time, and half a time.”  The bible teaches: the only way to retain our integrity is to root and ground ourselves in God and–by who we are and what we do and say–to keep on bearing witness to those core values that life together with God, companionship with Christ, have taught us to share.

Which values?  Archbishop Tutu, that veteran of chaos, of faithful testimony to entrenched but collapsing old world orders, makes them plain:

“Good is stronger than evil.

Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours through Christ Who died for us and rose again!”

In the midst of conflict and chaos, Archbishop Tutu faced up to the apartheid prime minister and grinned the invitation: “why not come over to the winning side?”

Love is stronger than hate.  Most hatred is defensive.  It credits the other with being a real threat to who we are and what we mean.  Hatred easily believes that we will not be safe unless those others are destroyed, or made to go away, unless their style is cramped so that they cannot live into their full potential.  But God is Boundless Love.  What makes us all safe at bottom is that there is enough life to go around and enough love to go around, because Divine love is generous, has a positive tendency to share itself out, to create room for us to be.  Rooting and grounding in God’s love, is what enables us to love family, friends, and neighbors.  And rooting and grounding in God’s love will make us strong to love our enemies, too.  We come to realize that because in God there is enough life and love to go around, God can be good to our enemies without being any less good to us!

Light is stronger than darkness.  Truth is stronger than lies.  We all know, lies can be persuasive.  We have all watched people get ahead by lying and playing false with others.  Because lies don’t correspond to anything real, they allow us more flexibility.  The current flack about “Fake News” on the internet shows how lying allows us to make up whatever we want.  All the same, Truth is stronger than lies.  Compared to Truth, lies are ephemeral, flimsy and fleeting, there’s nothing to them because they aren’t grounded in reality.  Besides, God is Truth.  Lies may hold sway “for a time a time and half a time.”  But Christ the Truth will come to judge the world.  Lies will be exposed for what they are.  Lies will not be allowed permanently to stand.

Rooting and grounding in God’s Truth, safely planted in the really Real reality of God, we learn that we afford to face the world as it really is, that we have nothing to gain by trafficking in lies.  Whether or not we can do something practical to stop them, we are nevertheless called to bear witness to the Truth, to frustrate complacency and cover-ups by calling a spade a spade, to keep it up “for a time a time and half a time,” for all seasons.  The Gospels assure us: bearing witness to the Truth is even a way of loving the liars, because it is a way–like Gandhi and Martin Luther King–of recalling them to their own true selves.

Life is stronger than death.  Divine life is creative.  Life-forces build up.  St. Paul says that Death is the Creator’s enemy, because it tries to tear down and destroy what God has made.  Rooting and grounding in Divine life, convinces us that we have to stay constructive.  The old may have to go to make way for the new.  But we will not be on God’s side when we make wreckage and ruin our principle aim.  The bible’s God has no permanent commitment to flawed and twisted human institutions.  But “God hates nothing that God has made.”  The Love of God is powerful and persistent to fit each and all of us for Christ’s eternal reign.

Victory is ours through Christ Who died for us and rose again.  To the extent that we are rooted and grounded in God, to the extent that we let Love and Truth and Life take hold of us, we have come over to the winning side.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus encourages the disciples with the seemingly ridiculous idea that faith moves mountains.  Geologically, mountains are among those stable features of the environment, the ones from which we get our bearings.  Our dysfunctional criminal justice system can seem immovable as a mountain.  The culture of lies and cover-up in high places can seem as fixed and unbudgeable as sunrise and sunset.  Death-dealing policies that deprive people of food and housing, meaningful work and medical care, that slam the door on asylum-seeking refugees, can seem to have an iron grip.  Jesus challenges: a mustard-seed’s worth of faith can move those mountains.  Staying rooted and grounded in God, relentlessly bearing witness, doing what we can to make nuisances of ourselves and turn things around–this is the stuff that moves mountains.  One day when we least expect it, the Son of man will come like a thief in the night, and we will wake to discover that ominous mountain range is no longer there.

In the in-between time, we can make Archbishop Tutu’s declaration our creed:  “Good is stronger than evil.  Good is stronger than evil.  Love is stronger than hate.  Light is stronger than darkness.  Life is stronger than death.  Victory is ours through Christ Who died for us and rose again.”  Thanks be to God!

QUESTIONING AND DISPUTING AUTHORITY: Medieval Methods for Modern Preaching — November 25, 2016

QUESTIONING AND DISPUTING AUTHORITY: Medieval Methods for Modern Preaching


A version was published in the Expository Times.

Modalities of Preaching:

Christian preaching conveys the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist, Jesus, His apprentice disciples were heralds of a happening, who announced the coming Kingdom and exhorted people to prepare the Lord’s way.  Post-pentecost preachers proclaimed what had already begun to be: how God had fulfilled Divine promises to Israel by raising Jesus from the dead.  From earliest times, Christian preaching also had a textual dimension.  We proclaim the Good News as contained in, transmitted through the lens of Holy Scripture.  Arguably, discourse that is not somehow based on, got to do with the Bible, is not preaching, because the Bible is a medium of God’s Word to us.  Notice, I did not say, “the, one and only medium.”  On the contrary, Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, was, is and ever shall be the principal medium of God’s message.  Likewise, there are centuries of tradition and Christian reflection, our own prayerful encounterswith the Holy, and the whole earth filled with the glory of God.  But–for Christians–the Bible is the pre-eminent textual medium.  As Scripture says, it is written for our learning, as a primary tool in our spiritual formation and a vehicle of Divine communication with us.  For every Christian, it is both daily bread and duty–as the Advent-II collect says–to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” Holy Scriptures.  As Bishop Charles Gore declares, we must put ourselves to school to it, especially to those parts we find least palatable.  We are to keep at it every day of our lives.

This means that the preacher’s job is not merely to herald–to relay the simple message, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!”–but also to edify by explaining what it means, the better to bring it to bear on our own lives.  This was necessary at first when Christianity was new-fangled: Luke 24’s post-resurrection Jesus gives the disciples a Bible study lesson; the Acts of the Apostles represent Paul as arguing the Scriptures sabbath after sabbath, to figure-ground shift hearers into fresh interpretations in every town to which he goes.  It is all the more necessary now that Christianity is old-fashioned, guilty by association with the establishment, with centuries of failure to effect substantial improvements in the way human beings behave (e.g., to bring an end to genocidal tribalism, global economic injustice, racism, sexism, and homophobia).  Centuries of intra-Christian controversy prove, for us not-yet-fully-sanctified humans, the sense of Scripture is far from plain.  But this fact is exacerbated by the lost familiarity with the bible in the current generation.  My conclusion is that today’s preacher needs–among other things–to be a teacher, who first builds up knowledge of the canon, and then models how to question and dispute authority.  Medieval methods for modern times!

Beginning with Lectio: “Read, mark, learn!”

Even nowadays, fields of inquiry have a canon, which every professional must learn and know her way around.  Ancient education was no different, except that it could not rely on the easy access of on-line materials and printed books.  This meant beginning with lectio, with lectures, literally with reading out the text for students to commit to memory or copy down.  Ancient and medieval literal commentaries were riveted on verbal detail.  After outlining the structure of the passage, the the teacher would examine textual difficulties, compare one manuscript with another, perhaps suggest emendations.  The teacher would highlight unusual words, offer etymologies, comment on distinctive grammatical or literary constructions.  Finally, the teacher would sum everything up by paraphrasing the meaning, before moving on to the next line.

One goal of homiletical explication de textes is to get the text into the hearers’ memory, to get the work as a whole into their psycho-spiritual “blood stream,” to imbed it in their unconscious, so that it will come back to them in time of need.  My generation know how this works: we spent our childhoods learning our memory verses, reciting John 3:16, the ten commandments, the beatitudes, I Corinthians 13, Philippians 2, etc.  Public and private bible reading, regularly sung canticles and metrical psalms contribute to the same project.  Evidently, Jesus was drawing on memory verses when He cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) or when He yielded, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” (Lk 23:46)  So, too, Pope John XXIII on his death bed: his mind was gone, but his lips kept saying, “Ego sum resurrectio et vita!”  “I am the resurrection and the life!”

This kind of Biblical preaching also rends the veil of elementary misunderstandings.  I remember how surprized we children were to learn that the King James words of institution–”Drink ye all of it!”–didn’t mean that God would be angry if we failed to drain to the dregs our plastic cups of grape juice; again, that “Study to show thyself approved unto God” (2 Tim 2:15) wasn’t warning us to work hard in school.  Explication de textes puts pupils in a position to avoid stupid, silly questions and to focus on matters of substance instead.

Inward Digestion: Many Kinds of Questions

Reading itself gives rise to questioning and disputing, once interest moves beyond ipsissima verba to the meanings that the text is trying to convey.  (1) Puzzled questions about what the author intends seek answers in other parts of the same work.  This effort gives rise to disagreements about which other passages are most relevant, and disputants mount arguments to defend both sides.  (2) It also begets queries about the internal consistency of the work in question.  Matthew’s Jesus says that not one dot of an ‘i’ or cross of a ‘t’ shall perish from the law (Mt 5:18); yet Jesus heals and the disciples thresh wheat on the Sabbath day (Mt 12:1-14).  More difficult, Matthew’s Jesus says (Mt 5:22) that whoever is so angry as to use contemptuous language, to call a brother a fool, is liable to hell fire; yet later (Mt 23:13-36; esp. 17), Jesus calls the Pharisees blind fools and other insulting names.  In Acts 9, Saul’s companions hear a voice but see no one; in Acts 22, they see the light but don’t hear the voice.  John’s Jesus says both that flesh is of no avail (6:63) and that eating His flesh and drinking His blood are necessary and sufficient for eternal life (6:53-58)–passages much disputed in Reformation sacramental theology.  Within the same discussion, St. Paul both forbids and permits Christians to eat meat offered to idols (I Cor 10:14-30; cf. 21 & 25-27).

Not only are there prima facie contradictions within works.  (3) Because the Bible is a library, there are clashes across books as well.  Which is it?  Ezra and Nehemiah insist that God commands ethnic cleansing (the putting away of Samaritan wives and half-breed children), while Ruth advertizes how King David had a Moabite great grandmother and Jonah dramatizes God’s concern for people of all nations.  Which is it?  Deuteronomy and many prophetic passages understand foreign conquest as Divine punishment on national apostacy, but deutero-Isaiah casts Israel as the Suffering Servant who will make God’s glory known world-wide.  Which is it?  James warns against saying that anyone was tempted by God (1:13-14), but Synoptic temptation narratives agree that it was the Spirit of God Who drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mk 1:12: Mt 4:1; Lk 4:1), and the Lord’s prayer begs God not to lead us into temptations of the same kind (Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4).  Which is it?  One epistle declares that the Kingdom of God does not come through anger, while another merely cautions: “Be angry, but sin not.”  Which is it?  Jesus forbids divorce except on grounds of porneia (Mt 19:3-9), but St. Paul allows a Christian converts to divorce if that is the wish of their pagan spouse (I Cor 7:15).

(4) Still other questions arise because the texts underdetermine their application to life situations.  The Gospels themselves forward examples.  Does the decalogue’s prohibition against graven images (Ex 20:4-6) mean that Jews should never handle coins stamped with Caesar’s likeness?  or only that they shouldn’t use them to pay the temple tax? (Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26)  How could standard legal interpretations of levirate marriage be correct if there were a resurrection from the dead? (Mt 22:23-33; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40)  Are some of God’s commandments more important than others, or are they all on a par? (Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28)  Fast-forwarding, we might ask in the same fashion, does the command against murder (Ex 20:13) apply to foetuses or to infants under a week old?

(5) Where canonical texts are concerned, inquiry presses beyond issues of internal coherence and consistency, to whether they fit with the rest of what we believe.  Once I preached a homily that made an assumption about the historical location of a given Bible story.  Sitting in the congregation was a colleague who was an expert on this period.  Afterwards, when I asked whether I had got it right, he replied: “Oh, I assume that in worship we use ‘church-speak.’  I have no expectation that it will correspond to anything historical!”  John Chrysostom begged to differ: commenting on Matthew’s story of the wise following a star, he protests, “We know real stars don’t behave like that.  It must have been a rational spirit producing a star-like appearance!”

Certainly, medieval authors were not content to leave the Bible floating loose–like fiction, fairy tales, or mythology–from their other belief systems.  Medieval theologians held that Truth is one, and that the Bible–if true–should be compatible with what reason and experience teach.  The structure of the medieval quaestio was designed to begin the process of integrated understanding.  First, a “yes or no” question is posed; then pro and contra arguments are mounted using premisses from canonical texts or traditional authorities; then an answer is formulated that often takes the form of a via media that learns something from both sides.  “Can the predestinate be damned?”  An affirmative answer seems to be demanded, because philosophy teaches us that free choices are contingent, and (some) theology insists that eternal destiny corresponds to the individual’s moral record, which can flip-flop in and out of mortal sin right up to the last gasp!  The witness of the Bible seems to demand a negative reply: “the call of God is irrevocable” (Rom ); and Divine predestination is certain.  Again, “will any humans be reprobate?”  Matthew 25 would suggest that some will, because it has God separating sheep from goats and herding the latter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels (25:41).  But according to Acts, God wills that all humans be saved, and the Divine will cannot be thwarted.  Again, did the world have a beginning in time?  The Vulgate of Genesis 1:1 seems to say so, but Aristotle offered powerful philosophical and scientific arguments that time could have neither beginning nor end.  A more recent puzzle of the same sort would be whether human beings evolved from lower life forms, given the geological record on the one side, and Biblical witness on the other–that God is said to have made us in God’s image (Gen 1:26), by making mud-pies and breathing into us His breath of life (Gen 2:7).  For medieval school theologians, beginning and intermediate-level inward digestion of canonical texts, was a matter of questioning and disputing authority.  Medieval universities made questioning and disputing the medium of instruction for all subjects, and thereby institutionalized disagreement as a tool of analysis, of discovery, and of reintegration.

A Strategy for Preaching: Impudence or Honor?

My thesis is that this medieval method of questioning and disputing authority is an effective strategy for Christian preaching today.  Every teacher knows what Anselm pointed out in the eleventh century: questions, arguments pro and contra are more provocative than line-by-line exposition, more apt to shift pupils at their desks and people in the pews out of a passive into a more active posture, the better to win through to spiritual truths for themselves.  Many in our congregations are already asking themselves such questions, sometimes pointedly, sometimes in an inchoate way.  As professionals, we preachers are supposed to have the knowledge of Scripture and the competence in theology to focus them, to marshall the relevant texts, to lay out and weigh alternative solutions.  When we question and dispute Scripture and tradition, we demonstrate how to do it effectively.  However penetrating our analysis, the most important thing is not that the congregation should be convinced by our conclusions but that over time they should be thrust into the adult role of questioning and disputing authority themselves!

Reformed and reforming Christians may protest that this is just one more theologically scandalous medieval idea.  Don’t Calvin and Luther–like Augustine their mentor–often insist that–given Who God is, given that God’s ways are higher than our ways–it is impudent to question them?  If our sensus divinitatis were not clouded by sin, our trust in God would be unreserved, we would not dispute God’s Word but defer in humble submission.  Even now, the preacher should stick to explication de textes, use a hermeneutics of harmony to render the plain sense.  Secular learning should not be allowed to stand in judgment of the Bible.  Preachers should give themselves over to Holy Scriptures to be read, interrogated, and judged by the Bible, not the other way around!

Medieval school theologians would protest that their method has been misunderstood.  They question and dispute authority, not to mock or reject or refute it (medievals all believed the Bible, the creeds, and the pronouncements of early ecumenical councils to be infallibly true), but to pay it the honor of active attention, to dig down deeper into it, the better to understand it.  As Anselm says, faith seeks understanding, and understanding is the mean between faith and sight.  We begin with faith that receives God’s Word and takes it in.  Questioning and disputing chews instead of swallowing whole; like cud-chewing cows, chews again and again to derive the maximum nourishment.  So far from dismissing, questioning and disputing honors the truth-claims of Scripture: it is because we assign them presumptive weight that we bother trying to discover how they can be consistent with the deliverances of reason and experience, with the settled claims of history and natural science, with arguments from ethics and philosophy.  Why shouldn’t it be the preacher’s job to to question and dispute authority with the goal of theological clarification, with the aim of teaching his congregation how to work their way towards an integrated, God-governed, Christ-centered world view?

Put otherwise, questioning and disputing–like asserting, exhorting, and exclaiming–are forms or modes of speech.  Any of them can be deployed with different motives for contrasting purposes.  There are the child’s puzzled questions, raised with openness and curiousity: “How is God my daddy, when I already have a mommy and a daddy?”  “Does Jesus get wet when I put His Body in my mouth?”  “Why did God drown the Egyptian chariot drivers?  Why does God let people kill animals to eat?  Doesn’t God love them, too?”  There are school theology’s analytical questions, pressing towards a coherent world view.  Common in academic and polemical contexts is the challenge and riposte of competitive questioning that hopes to score, even humiliate the presenter.  The Gospels instance loaded or trick questions posed to double-bind the respondent into convicting himself out of his own mouth.  For instance, Jesus’ enemies demand, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:22) “Is it lawful to divorce for any cause?” (Mt 19:3)   But Jesus Himself is champion in this genre: “was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men?” (Mt 21:25; Mk 11:30; Lk 20:4)  “If the Messiah is David’s son, how does David call him ‘lord’?” (Mt 22:41-46; Mk 12:35-37; Lk 20:41-44)  The Gospels also narrate borderline accusatory questions: “why don’t Your disciples fast or wash?” or “why does this man eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man [= Lazarus] from dying?” (Jn 11:37)

The Gospels frown on malicious trap questions.  What Luther and Calvin find incompatible with faith are accusatory questions that blame God or charge God with wrong.  Matthean and Lucan temptation narratives (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-12) show how disputation can turn diabolical.  But preaching that questions and disputes in the medieval manner, motivated by eagerness to learn and a desire to process honest puzzlement, why, what could be objectionable about that?

Daring Blasphemy: Friendly Questioning?

Nevertheless, we Christian preachers will be derelict in our duty if we venture only so far as courteous, if energetic and vigorous, analytical questioning and disputation.  For the Christian Gospel cuts to the heart of what is at stake between God and human beings: does God love us?  Does God even care about us?  Can we relate to God in ways that are appropriate to God and wholesome for us?  The Bible insists that God has a history of covenant-making–with the patriarchs, with Israel, with the human race; that the heart of Who God is, is revealed in covenant love and faithfulness.  The Bible also is unflinching in its acknowledgement that horrendous things happen to God’s people.  The Bible equivocates but we know, not only do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, millions of people lead entire lives of unrelieved misery and degradation.  Catastrophes happen–9/11, the Boxing Day tsunami, hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Pakistan–which kill and maim whole communities without regard to individual values, accomplishments, or contributions.  While AIDS orphans multiply by the millions in Africa, and genocide continues in Darfur, family violence–physical and sexual and emotional abuse–thrives in outwardly respectable European homes.  These big issues prima facie contradict the Bible’s claims about Divine goodness and make debates about biology and the virgin birth look pathetically academic.

My contention is that–in a world such as this–we cannot be true to our callings as Christian preachers without pressing those accusatory questions banned by Luther and Calvin–ones that challenge the character and purposes of God.  Faithfulness demands that we question and dispute, not only the Bible, but the authority that is Godself.  Happily, the Bible urges us on, with role models reassures us: when we do so, we are not inciting rebellion; we are demonstrating how to be friends of God in troubled times!

Questioning and disputing God’s authority is the privilege and responsibility of God’s friends.  Among other things, a friend is an alter ego, one who is granted standing to call the other to account, to speak up to say whether–by engaging in a given action or behavior–the person can be true to him/herself.  Friends are also committed to exchanging, so far as possible to entering into one another’s points of view, to appreciate how the other sees and values their surround.

Thus, YHWH counts Abraham a friend, takes Abraham into His confidence and shares the Divine plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham girds up his loins and disputes YHWH’s policy of collective punishment.  “Far be it from You to slay the righteous with the wicked!”  “Should not the judge of all the earth do right?”  YHWH concedes: to be true to Himself, He must instead show a bias towards mercy; instead of destroying whole cities because of a wicked minority or even a perverse majority, He should spare whole cities for the sake of a small number of righteous persons.  Abraham keeps disputing: fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten!  (Gen 18:17-33)

If Abraham intercedes on behalf of strangers, Job claims patriarchal privilege to plead his own case.  After two chapters of Stoic resignation that would make Calvin proud–”the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21); “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10)–Job pours out his complaint, for anguished chapters details how things look to him.  He insists on the facts as he sees them: that his record is righteous, that his suffering is incommensurate with any wrongdoing, that his woes are so pervasive that he wishes never to have been born.  Job experiences himself as one friend betrayed by another, deeply wounded and angry but still holding out hope that God is Who Job had thought Him to be.  Job still trusts God enough to dispute God’s wisdom and goodness and to call God to account.  Job’s discourse is saturated with bitter irony that twists the texts of Scripture to hurl them back in God’s face.  Job “sins with his lips”: “You slay the innocent with the guilty!”  “You are more a chaos monster than a creator!”  “What is man that You are mindful”–so delight in torturing–”him?”  “Go pick on someone Your own size!”  Job’s human friends are afraid of Job’s blasphemous accusations and–despite their initial good intentions (Job 2:11-13)–back off, defend God, blame the victim, and emotionally abandon Job to his own devices.  By contrast, God counts Job a friend, beginning, middle, and end: in the beginning, when He praises Job to the Satan (Job 1:8); in the middle, when God veils His presence so that Job will not “melt down” into incoherence and be unable to articulate his case (cf. Job 9:27-35); and in the end, when God condemns Job’s human friends for not telling the truth about God the way Job did (Job 42:7).  Job told the truth about how the situation looked and felt to him.  God reciprocates, favors Job with the intimacy of face-to-face vision, and shares with Job Godhead’s contrasting point of view (the YHWH speeches of Job 38-41)–all of which leaves Job dumbfounded (42:5-6) as he predicted it would.

The book of Job as we have it re-presents a God Who is in favor of questioning and disputing, One Who recognizes the “size-gap” between God and creatures, One Who contrives (by holding back) to make space for His tiny human partners to make their case and say their piece.  Once again, it is Job, and not his sychophantic theological friends, who sees God; Job, the quintessential patriarch who presses the blasphemous question, who disputes the Creator’s competence and goodness.  Job is the one who experiences how suffering can penetrate to the core, and Job is the one who experiences the God Whose ways are higher than our ways.  And so Job is the literal expert–among humans, the one who knows whereof he speaks.

The book of Job makes clear how Christian preachers are called into a ministry of double identification.  Like the patriarchs and prophets, we cannot back off from trafficking with the God Who drafts us into service.  We cannot preach unless we–like Abraham and Moses–say our daily “yes” to God’s claim on our lives.  No more than Moses or Jonah, do we have the option of backing off from the people to whom God sends us.  When our parishioners sink into affliction and begin to rail at God, we dare not play the part of Job’s friends.  We need instead to follow God’s lead in giving them permission.  We should already have imitated Job’s chutzpah in our preaching, to inspire courage to engage the conversation, to furnish examples of how to mount the arguments and vent with full candor, how to give God a piece of our minds the way–when something outrageous happens–a real friend would do.

Put otherwise, John’s Jesus explains how God invites all of the elect into the Father-Son-Paraclete friendship circle (Jn 14-15).  But because of the size-gap and because of the kind of world in which God has placed us, God has always had severe communication problems, difficulties in reaching an understanding with His merely human would-be friends.  To overcome this, God has chosen patriarchs, formed a people, called prophets and preachers; moving on from oral tradition, God has caused Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; and God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ.  However much we Christian preachers are called to explication de textes, we are above all a medium of God’s message, called to question and dispute authority, the better to demonstrate what it is to be friends with God!




Presented at a Templeton Conference on Analytic Philosophy and the Problem of Evil, Frankfurt, Germany, 2015

I. God and Evil, Framing the Problems:

God and evil pose lots of problems. Framing a particular problem restricts
our attention and encourages us to focus on some issues rather than others. 1.1.
God and Evil, Philosophically Framed:
Analytic philosophy of religion has dealt
with the problem of evil according to a now-familiar recipe. Begin by conceiving
of God as the “omni-God” or perfect being–essentially omniscient, omnipotent, and
perfectly good. Draw on philosophical resources to analyze the attribute terms.
Then ask whether evil–any evil at all, or evil as found in the world as we know
it–is logically or evidentially incompatible with the existence of God.

Working out the details of this approach has spawned an energetic
research-program. Any course in analytic philosophy of religion will teach how
omnipotence is plagued by logical puzzles about stones too big to lift, about
essentially uncontrollable agents, about embodied actions (e.g., walking on water
or eating an ice cream cone) that essentially immaterial agents cannot perform.
The analysis of omniscience is also vexed, not only by the old problem of whether
it includes knowledge of future contingents and the more recently noticed
difficulties with indexical knowledge (e.g., I can know that I am MMA, but God
cannot; God the Father can know that He is the Father, but God the Son cannot),
but also about whether omniscience is merely conceptual and propositional or
instead includes sensitivity to feelings (like Charles Hartshorne’s God who feels
all our feelings) and omnisubjectivity (like Linda Zagzebski’s God who knows
what it is like for me to be me and knows what it’s like for a bat to be a
bat). In what follows, I will side with Hartshorne and Zagzebski and assume for
the sake of argument that the other puzzles can be solved.

What concerns me here is the unnuanced conceptions of goodness imported from
philosophical ethics. Consequentialism wins support because of its apparent
tractability. Thus, despite Robert Merrihew Adams’ trenchant critique in his 1972
article “Must God Create the Best,” there is currently a burgeoning industry
around the thesis that–since an agent is obliged to perform the action that has
the best consequences–a perfectly good God would be obliged to produce the best
of all possible worlds. Others take for granted William Rowe’s “Moral Necessity
Condition”: that a perfectly good being would cause or permit evils only if they
were necessary to produce a greater good or to avoid an equal or worse evil.
Richard Swinburne’s tone of voice is deontological as he calculates what God’s
moral obligations do and do not rule out. Still others speak of Divine love,
but once again allow morals (John Hick, John Bishop and Ken Perszyk) or
morals and metaphysics (Aquinas) to dictate the analysis.

The thrust of many arguments from evil is that any omniscient and omnipotent
agent who produced this world would not measure up morally. The retort is to
defend God’s existence and good name by contending that–for some otherwise
overlooked reason–an omni-God could create us in this world and still count as
morally perfect.

Unfortunately, following this recipe tends to make both God and evil too
small. Skeptical theists protest that our epistemic position is too poor to be
giving God a moral report card. They accept the need for God-justifying reasons,
but insist that given who God is and who we are, we cannot know that evils as we
find them are morally impermissible for God. Taking a page from scholastic
theology, I have insisted that the metaphysical “size-gap” between God and
creatures means that God is not a moral agent caught in the web of rights and
obligations in which we find ourselves. Divine agency is not a candidate for moral
evaluation, but in many and various ways its source. The religiously salient
problem with evils is not–pace Swinburne–that God has seemingly violated our

At the same time, the need to keep evils morally manageable has driven many
analytic philosophers to shrink down evils to kinds for which there could be an
excuse. Following Alvin Plantinga’s lead, they assume that the only further
problem would be the quantity of evils, which they then dismiss with Sorites
arguments and/or appeals to ignorance. In my books, I have tried (mostly in
vain) to rivet attention on the worst evils (which I subsume under the rubric of
horrendous evils, or evils participation in the doing or suffering of which
constitutes prima facie reason to believe that the horror-participant’s life
cannot be a great good to him/her on the whole, or prima facie life-ruinous evils
for short).

Unfortunately, philosophers who do take horrors to heart have concluded that
horrendous evils settle the non-existence of an omni-God once and for all. Thus,
Stewart Southerland and D.Z. Phillips charge that no one who thinks the
worst evils can be justified takes them with full moral seriousness. John Roth
identifies the Nazi holocaust in particular, the slaughter-bench of history of
which it is characteristic in general, as “waste” beyond justification. Any
omnipotent and omniscient creator and governor our world may have is certainly not
good! For John Bishop and Ken Perszyk, the verdict is clear, because
horror-permission is obviously incompatible with perfect loving relationality.

1.2. Mid-course Correction? After sixty years or so (dating from J.L.
Mackie’s article “Evil and Omnipotence”), this gets tiresome. For those of us
who have been around for much of it, it begins to feel like young or
midlife-crisis adults imagining the perfect parent and complaining that no one
like that was “there” for them, instead of discovering creative ways of getting
along with the parents that they have. My suggestion is that–where God and
evil are concerned–it is time for us analytic philosophers of religion to
interrupt such “business as usual” long enough to make a mid-course
correction–one that will redirect our efforts to encompass salient religious
issues that we have mostly ignored.

Happily, theology sets us an example. At least until recently, theology has
taken the existence of God as a given, both because the Bible is–among other
things–a record of the lived relationship between God and the people of God and
relationships presuppose the existence of their relata, and because the existence
and excellence of the Ultimate Explainer are deemed metaphysically necessary.
Theology begins with the world as we know it, the human condition as we experience
it, and Divine-human relations in the mess that we find them. Theology asks what
the present and future relationship possibilities are for God and the people of
God, given the way things have and have not worked out so far

Theology is clear: these are questions for soteriology and eschatology that
are not sufficiently settled by the doctrines of creation and providence. Even if
God has not violated any moral obligations to creatures by creating us in a world
like this; even if sceptical theists were right that nothing we experience could
have any tendency to show that there are no God-justifying reasons for proceeding
in this way; even if Aquinas were correct that perfect providence would accept
defects in the parts for the sake of a more excellent universal whole; there
would be relationship issues left over. Is God for us or against us? Does God love
us or hate us or simply not care? Can we, how can we learn to get along with the
God that we’ve got?

In what follows, I forego a survey of the history of Christian doctrine to
concentrate on a biblical sketch of the God that we’ve got. I do this, not because
I am a sola scriptura biblical inerrantist or because I am convinced that the
Bible stories are all historically true, but because the Bible is the primary norm
for Christian theology and as such ought to command sustained and careful
attention by analytic philosophers of religion. Family stories often get some
facts wrong while accurately capturing the way personalities were experienced by
close relatives. My other reason for beginning with the Bible is that it paints
neither God nor evil too small. The Bible is bluntly realistic, unafraid to wash
the family’s dirty linen in public. Once that portrait is before us, I will ask,
whether there is any way for the Bible’s God to be good to us, whether and what
sort of relationship with the Bible’s God could be good for us, given the way
things have and have not worked out so far.

II. The Bible’s God:

2.1. Retrieving a Portrait: Using biblical texts to figure out who God is and
what God means for us is a task to which, not only preachers and professional
theologians, but all God’s people are called. My suggestion is: it is a research
program to which analytic philosophers of religion would do well to turn. Of
course, it would be naïve to suggest that there is a single portrait of God in the
Bible. The Bible is, after all, not a single book, but a library. Its narrative
span stretches over 1800 years, and its volumes–written down at different
times–reflect the conceptual and social frameworks of their human authors and
oral sources. Different passages evoke contrasting impressions. Moreover, it is
hermeneutically controversial whether to harmonize across different parts of the
corpus, or to dig into the differences and ponder the contrasts. Nevertheless, to
get us started, I propose to “sin boldly” by lifting up ten theses that
characterize the Bible’s God.

(T1) God is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Compared to creatures, God is of a different, out-classing kind. God is holy;
creatures are unclean–like humans and earthworms, unfit to inhabit the same
social space (Job 4:17-21). What God is, is too much for creatures’ natural
faculties to cope with. When God appears, waters part, mountains skip like rams
(Ps 114:3-7), volcanoes vomit smoke (Exodus 19:7-25; 20:18-20). Close encounters
with the Divine kind are dangerous to human health (Isa 6:1-7; II Sam 6:6-11).
God is of surpassing knowledge, wisdom, and power: when God’s word goes forth from
his mouth, it does not return empty, but accomplishes that which God has purposed
(Isa 55:11).

(T2) God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth; God is the One
who is responsible for conquering the chaos monster, and for governing the course
of the world.

God creates by ordering chaos (Gen 1:1-2:3). The wider Bible story suggests: this
is not a one-time thing, but something that requires continuous activity (Ps
89:10; Is 51:9). For the human authors of the Bible, natural disasters and social
instability bore witness to the omnipresent need for God’s sustaining
cosmos-ordering power.


God cannot be controlled or manipulated. God’s name is not a magic word that puts
God at human disposal, like a genie in a bottle (Exodus 3:14). There are no
intrinsic constraints on what God might purpose.

(T4) God’s projects in creation prominently feature life together, God
with the people of God.

God creates Adam and Eve for intimate life-together in Paradise (Gen 2:4-24). In
the patriarchal period, God begins the work of forming a people to showcase to all
the world what the ideal society would be like. In Christ, God shifts strategies
to gather a people from all races, tribes, and nations into the Church.

(T5) God is covenant faithfulness (chesed and emet).

God establishes covenants as frameworks for Divine-human relations, for life
together, God with the people of God. Covenants are outward and visible signs of
God’s faithfulness to God’s people, of Divine determination to make the
relationship between God and the people of God work. Even though Israel repeatedly
fails to keep the covenant, and at the time of the Babylonian exile drives God to
the point of divorce, God breaks God’s own marriage law and takes Israel back (Dt
24:4; Jer 3:8; cf. Isaiah 43:1-7).

God is determined to make the relationship work. The Sinai covenant and its
legal elaborations lay out a framework for fruitful life together. Because it is
important that the people of God do their part by keeping the covenant, the Sinai
covenant is sealed with blessings and curses (Dt 27-28; Joshua 24:1-28).
Likewise, God’s character is two-sided (Exodus 33:17-34:8; Dt 32:39). God has a
bias towards mercy, and has a particular concern for the least advantaged (Ex
23:6-9; Dt 10:18-19; 14:29; 24:14-22; Mt 25:31-46). God knows that the human heart
is evil from its youth (Gen 8:21). Within limits, God is patient and forgiving.
But entrenched injustice and idolatry wreck God’s social experiment. Israeli
failure to keep the covenant will bring down individual and corporate ruin. God
will destroy the corrupt society and its institutions, deport its leadership, and
scatter its people. This is the Bible’s explanation of what happened when
Jerusalem was destroyed the first and second time.

(T6) God is Emmanuel.

Since God’s aim is life-together, it’s no surprise that God should be Emmanuel.
God promises Jacob to go with him and to keep him wherever he goes (Genesis
28:18). It is God’s going in and out with Israel that makes them a people (Exodus
33:16). God leads them through the wilderness with a cloud by day and a fire by
night (Numbers 9:15-23). God accompanies deportees to Babylon and protects
law-abiding Daniel and Shadrack, Meshak, and Abednego from pagan plots (Daniel
3:1-30; 6:1-28). And God will prepare the way and accompany the exiles when they
return (Isaiah 43:1-7)

(T7) God is Jesus and Jesus is Emmanuel.

Jesus is the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14). Jesus heralds the arrival of the Kingdom
of God. Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus lays down the Messianic Torah, which signals the
dramatic reversals that the ideal society will bring (Mt 5-7). Jesus dramatizes
the new order by removing impediments to full social participation. He welcomes
outcastes (e.g., tax collectors and fallen women); cures mental illness by
exorcising demons; cleanses lepers; heals the blind, deaf, and mute; restores the
maimed and the lame to wholeness, and raises the dead (Lk 7:11-17; Jn 11). Jesus
also acts out God’s aim by sharing life with the disciples. He works to educate
them, to rear them up to Kingdom values, to prepare them for partnership in his
work. Jesus proleptically counts them friends, even though they still do not grasp
his meaning (John 15:12-17).

Yet Jesus also brings then present and future leaders of the people of God
into times of trial for which they are not prepared. Despite repeated
forewarnings, the disciples are not ready to handle the realities of crucifixion
(Luke 22:28-34, 39-46). Jesus’ prophetic ministry attacks the meaning-making
system of both Pharisees and Sadducees and provokes them into betraying their
deepest loyalties by getting the Roman governor to crucify the messiah whose way
they had meant to prepare. Jesus’ words and deeds bring them to the point of
nullifying their vocations by goading the people of God into demanding (however
unwittingly) the death of God (Mt 27:22-26; Jn 19:12-16). For their part,
Pharisees and Sadducees plotted to defeat any positive meaning for Jesus as
messianic pretender by arranging for him to die a ritually cursed death (Dt 21:23;
Galatians 3:13-14). How could Jesus be God, or even be God’s special agent if he
is definitively cut off from God and the people of God?

(T8) God demands more of human beings than we can deliver.

God calls human beings into a lop-sided friendship; insists that we go along with
God’s program when we cannot understand it; expects us to trust that God’s
purposes are good despite our incomprehension and our experience of ruinous
reversals; overall, insists that we be faithful come hell or high water the way
prophets and martyrs (Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Eliezar and the seven brothers
under Antiochus Epiphanes) do. God demands that all Israeli males obey the law
when only a small minority ever manage it (Dt 27:26). After the second destruction
of Jerusalem, the seer in IV Ezra registers his complaint: God knows that the vast
majority will not be able to keep the law perfectly. If covenant curses are the
penalty for such failure, the covenant itself is a set-up for horrors and not a
blessing (IV Ezra 3, 4:22-25). Jesus’ acted parable focuses this feature of Divine
policies perfectly: Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season
(Mk 12:12-14, 20-21)!

(T9) God cannot be counted upon to keep the worst from happening.

God lets human perversity play itself out with apocalyptic consequences (wicked
humanity before the flood; the Roman empire before its fall). God appears to
abandon Israel for 400 years and let her descend into slavery. God arranges for
foreign powers to raze Jerusalem, twice over. God lets the religious establishment
blind themselves to “the hour of their visitation” (Lk 19:41-44) and mislead the
people into double blasphemy: demanding the crucifixion of God’s Messiah (Mt
27:20-26) and idolatrously proclaiming Caesar as their only king (Jn 19:12-16).

God risks the integrity of the faithful by exposing them to trials too severe
to withstand. God’s wager with Satan sets Job up to experience horrors first hand:
material ruin, wrecked health, loss of reputation, social alienation, one on top
of another (Job 1-2). God lets Jesus’ closest disciples “go to smash,” abandon,
deny, and betray their deepest loyalties (Mt 26:14-16, 30-3, 47-56, 69-75).

(T10) God shows Godself mighty to save after it is already too late.

With plagues and parted waters, God leads Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus
3-14). Jesus raises Lazarus after waiting four days until rot had set in (Jn 11:5,
17, 39). God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead to the right hand of

2.2. Split Personality? So, is God for us or against us? To hear the Bible
tell it, the evidence is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the Bible does not
euphemize. It is not only (T1) the metaphysical size-gap that should make us
tremble. It is not merely what God is by metaphysical necessity, but (T2 & T8 &
T9) the policies God has chosen that make God seem dangerous to our health. For
(T2) God is in charge. And God has set us up for horrors by creating us in a world
like this. God (T5 & T8) set Israel up for horrors by imposing a covenant that she
could not keep and enforcing it with curses. The Bible admits: (T9) God does not
do God’s utmost to prevent the worst from happening. Not only does God permit
horrors that God could forestall. (T7) God provokes horror perpetration by others,
and (T5) God actively perpetrates horrors on blasphemous individuals and corrupt
societies. The Bible’s God adopts providential policies that mean prima facie ruin
for created persons on a grand scale. Nor (by T7 & T8) does Divine discipline seem
pedagogically apt. Clearly, perfect benevolence is not the right rubric for the
Bible’s God!

On the other hand, the Bible is full of promissory notes for a happy future.
(T4) God’s project in this world includes life together with us. (T5) The Bible’s
God is relentlessly determined to make the relationship work, to make the plot
resolve into happy-ever-after joyful life together, God with the people of God.
(T6) The Bible’s God is already living into that wish as much as possible by being
Emmanuel, with us all the time wherever we go; more extravagantly still (T7) in
the incarnation, by joining Adam’s race (Lk 3:38), Abraham’s family (Lk 3:34), and
David’s line (Mt 1:6; Lk 1:32). The Bible insists that (T1) the bigness of God
wants to be on our side, and (T10) in the Exodus and resurrection advertises God
as able to make good on anything.

So, does the Bible’s God love us or hate us? Bishop and Perszyk accentuate
the negative: no lover sets the beloved in the way of horrendous harm if s/he can
help it. Once that line is crossed, there is nothing the partner could do to make
up for it, to restore perfect loving relationality. Taking both sides at once
suggests something even worse: Divine determination to hold onto relationships
with people whom God has personally set up for horrors, makes the Bible’s God
sound like the abusive husband of a battered wife. Moreover, there are no “safe
houses.” Creatures can’t exist independently of their Creator. There is no escape
from God’s providential power, no hiding from God’s all-seeing eye. What horror
participants can do is withhold personal reciprocity and cooperation. Wouldn’t it
be at best neurotic to play the battered wife and fall for God’s promises that
things will be better in the future? Wouldn’t a horror-participant be on the way
to recovered self-respect if s/he followed Ivan Karamazov’s example and “return
the ticket”?

III. Can the Bible’s God Be Good To Us, Horrors Notwithstanding?

3.1. Paradoxical Reconciliation? Happily, there are other ways to bring the
two sides together that take horrors with full seriousness but allow for positive
plot resolution. (T1) The Bible’s God means to be for us, and (T10) the Bible’s
God can make good on anything. It follows that the Bible’s God should be able to
make it up to us, to compensate us even for the prima facie personal ruin due to
our participation in horrors. This is because (T1) God is infinitely more than we
can ask or imagine. The currency of compensation is appropriate relation to great
enough goods. Beatific relationship with God is incommensurately good for us. If
horror-participation could be integrated into our overall and in the end beatific
relationship with God, horrors would be not only balanced off but defeated within
the frame of the individual horror participant’s life.

However promising, this proposal turns paradoxical because of its seeming
circularity. To win our trust, God will have to prove that God is for us. To prove
that God is for us, God will have be good to us by defeating any horror
participation and compensating us for our costs. But God can defeat horrors only
if the relationship between us is beatific, and the relationship can become
beatific only if God wins our trust in the first place. Horrors will be finally
defeated only if we trust without reservation. But it is reasonable for us not to
trust without reservation so long as horrors have not been decisively defeated.

This circle would be vicious, if relationship-development in general and
reconciliation in particular were not a process. Given who and what God is,
harmonious relationship with God will make everything alright. God will have to
find many and various ways for the horror participant, wittingly or unwittingly,
consciously or unconsciously, to experience Divine Goodness. God will have to
coach a dialectic that puts experienced goodness up against experienced horror,
and struggles to articulate what this can all mean within the context of a single
life. Starting with the datum of horror-participation, there are four initiatives
that the Bible’s God can take to get the process going and bring it to completion.

3.2. Solidarity as Foundation: (T6-T7) the Bible’s God is Emmanuel, with us
all of the time wherever we go, with us for better for worse. Philosophers would
say that the Divine nature is essentially omnipresent. It is metaphysically
impossible for God to be absent. The Bible’s God is passible, experiences
emotions. If we take a page from Hartshorne and Zagzebski, we can conclude that
God is not present as an aloof bystander. It is metaphysically impossible for God
not to feel our feelings or not know what it is like for us to feel our feelings.
In the Divine nature, God sympathizes with our plight, vibrates with our feelings
and so absorbs some of their violent energy. Should you object that any sympathy
that God can’t help having doesn’t speak to God’s care for us as much as voluntary
and avoidable engagement would do, the appropriate reply is that an all-wise God
who is for us and aims at life-together with us, counts it an advantage that
creation cannot suffer without God’s suffering, too.

Incarnation takes a step beyond omnisensitivity and omnisubjectivity. In
Christ, God owns a human nature and a human career, not to get more information,
but to share our life, human being to human beings. God is not content to
sympathize or know what it is like for us. Incarnation is a free and contingent
relationship move. It is God’s way of declaring, “I am not asking more of you
than I ask of myself.” The world as we know it is God’s project. It carries
horrendous costs for humankind. The Word made flesh hands himself over to the
chances and changes of this world and shares our human exposure to horrors. God
Incarnate joins us in our ownership of the horrors perpetrated by our leaders and
spawned by the systemic evils of the bodies-politic of which we are a part. Like
prophets down through the ages, God Incarnate risks the horror-perpetration
involved in smashing the meaning-making frames by which members of unjust
societies and corrupt professions organize their lives. Crucifixion piles horror
upon horror. Not only is it physically torturous and symbolically degrading.
Death by crucifixion was meant to contradict Jesus’ messianic pretensions, prove
him a false prophet, and nullify the positive meaning of his ministry.
Ironically, the manner of Jesus’ death put God Incarnate in solidarity with all of
the cursed, people who–by what they suffered, were, or did–were cut off from God
and the people of God. But if God takes God’s stand with the cursed, the cursed
are not cut off from God any more!

3.2. Appreciating Our Costs: When someone’s actions and omissions cause us
significant harm, it can be helpful if they at least acknowledge that it happened.
Denying that the holocaust even occurred erases the personal testimony of its
victims. It degrades all over again by declaring that there isn’t enough to them
to be credible witnesses. Military reports that write off enemy and civilian
deaths as “collateral damage” acknowledge costs and admit responsibility, but
still degrade by disguising the fact that it is persons who were destroyed. It
helps more if acknowledgement comes with some sign that the gravity of personal
costs is recognized and appreciated.
There are many ways to do this.

(i) One is by offering apology or expressing regret. Regret normally involves
the wish to have done otherwise, or at least the wish that per impossibile aims
had been achieved without the costs. Think of the doctor who wishes he could have
saved the child’s life with something less harrowing than open heart surgery. If
deliberate harm prima facie sends the message that there is not enough to the
individual for her/his suffering to matter, apology or regret contradicts that

(ii) In The Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich never speaks of
Divine regret for our sufferings. According to her showings, God was open-eyed in
embracing a plan for life together with us in this world. Julian’s God does not
overall wish it had been otherwise. As she sees it, God is fully satisfied with
God’s choice. Nevertheless, Julian’s God counts our costs a different way.
God is all along contemplating how to make it up to us and is looking forward to
the great deed that God will do on the last day to make everything alright.
In her visions, Julian sees God welcoming us to heaven with gratitude: “Thank you
for your suffering, for the suffering of your youth!” In other words, “thank you
for getting through a human life!” As she pictures it, Divine gratitude will be
public and permanent. So far from being covered up, our past sins and hardships
will be eternally acknowledged with thanksgiving to us for enduring them. Julian
reckons, such a friendly welcome from God will be to us a source of everlasting
joy, enough finally to convince us that God has been for us all along.

(iii) By contrast, the Bible’s God counts costs with ambivalence. Certainly,
in some stories, the Bible’s God expresses regrets. Human perversity makes God
sorry to have made human beings on the earth and brings on the flood, which undoes
creation and destroys all but Noah and his ark (Genesis 6:5-8). The Golden Calf
episode makes God regret trying to form a people from the slaves in Egypt. Only
with difficulty does Moses dissuade God from destroying them all and starting over
with Moses’ line (Exodus 32:9-14). The Bible’s God is furiously angry about
systemic social evils. Callous disregard for the least well off is not God’s plan
for life together! Synoptic Jesus is so moved by compassion for real and present
wretchedness that he reverses it. Synoptic Jesus is mobbed by people with humanly
irreversible conditions, and he heals every disease and every infirmity (Mt
8:16-17; 9:35-37). Synoptic Jesus laments over Jerusalem, wishes that it had not
come to the impending horrors of national apostacy and the second destruction of
Jerusalem (Lk 13:34-35; Mt 24).

Nevertheless, Jesus warns but does not apologise for the costs of
discipleship. Saints and martyrs are encouraged to persevere through end-time
terrors with promises of unimaginable compensation (Mt 10:5-42; 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk
9:23). The Bible’s God shows appreciation, not with “thank-you’s” but with
commendations (“well done, good and faithful servant”) and rewards (Mt 25:21, 23).
Synoptic Jesus proleptically addresses the disciples as “you” who “have been with
me in my trials” and promises that they will sit on thrones judging the tribes of
Israel (Lk 22:28-30), even be served dinner by their Master (Lk 12:37-38).

3.3. Reversing Our Damages: God’s third relationship-initiative is to reverse
our damages. Human beings will be safe and sound in heaven. Because they will be
sound, they will be able to experience how safe they are. This will make it easy
for them to believe that God is, always has been, and always will be for us. By
contrast, human beings in the world as we know it do not experience themselves as
safe. Horror participation roots and amplifies our sense of danger by bringing us
to a state of prima facie personal ruin. For God to achieve Divine purposes, God
will have to reverse our ruin and heal the impediments to fruitful interaction,
God with the people of God. Jesus’ healing miracles signal some of what this

Jesus healed the blind and deaf. This was an outward and visible sign of how
Kingdom-coming will involve healing of the perception disorders that keep us from
recognizing Divine Goodness as the environment in which we live and move and have
our being. The size-gap means that even in ordinary-time, even without individual
horror-participation, we do not consciously experience Divine presence except
episodically. We have to work at recognizing good things that happen as God’s
friendly gestures. Only a few saints and heroes move forward in the confidence
that the worst that we can suffer, be, or do is no match for God. Jesus teaches
his disciples through word-and-deed ministry, but midway they still see human
beings as walking trees (Mk 8:22-25). Only the Triduum rite of passage through
crucifixion to resurrection, followed by the infusion of Holy Spirit, enables them
to see properly. So also, ante-mortem or post-mortem, even apart from individual
horror-participation, God’s healing human blindness to Divine presence and
deafness to Divine goodness will be a messy and confusing process.

Jesus healed the Gerasene demoniac and restored disintegrated personalities
to their right mind
(Mk 5:1-20). Neurotic upbringings, dysfunctional work places,
the rough and tumble of human life bottoming out in horror participation–all of
these distort our perceptions and disable us from making good sense of the world
and our lives. God’s general strategy for re-forming us into people who can trust
God to be for us, involves finding many and various ways for us (wittingly or
unwittingly) to experience God’s goodness, whether in the startling beauty of
music or in the wonder of a child or in the breaking of the eucharistic bread.
Jesus healed the mute (Mt 9:32-33). Horror-recovery makes us articulate, as we
assess and reconfigure the meanings–as we use experience of Divine goodness and
our growing sense of God as Emmanuel to re-sort what was really happening and how
we and God were related in the worst and best of times.

There is no single treatment plan for horrendous ruin, because horror
participation damages its victims in so many different ways. Horror participation
(e.g., in the Holocaust) can leave us able to calculate, but with data that won’t
allow us to make any positive sense of life. Horror participation (e.g.,
schizophrenia or PTSD) can damage our faculties so that they produce only twisted
calculations. Worse still, horror participation can “blow our minds” to the point
that we can’t make any sense–whether negative or positive–at all.

Horror perpetrators do not form a single species either. Some serial killers
and sex offenders have biochemical disorders that produce impulse control problems
(especially rage and sexual desire), while sociopaths find themselves incapable of
affective empathy with human suffering. By contrast, post-World War II studies
show that many Nazi leaders manifested no unusual personality disorders. They
became who they were by choosing into an evil ideology and deliberately
habituating themselves to callous behaviours. For still others, horror
perpetration was bad luck, a non-negligent accident, a matter of being in the
wrong place at the wrong time. For God, healing personality-distorting
biochemistry is the easy part (like Jesus’ mud-pie and saliva cures). Helping
unlucky perpetrators to live with themselves requires delicate therapy culminating
in confidence that God has made everything alright for their victims (see sec. 3.5
below). To be fit for heaven, perpetrators with evil core beliefs and entrenched
vices will have to learn a contrary way of being in the world. This will require a
long and painful therapy in which they are brought to cooperate in bringing about
drastic character change, through cycles upon cycles of repentance and amendment
of life.

3.4. Removing Us from Danger: The Bible does not try to conceal it: the world
as we know it is dangerous. According to the Bible story, one false move in
Paradise landed humankind in the world as we know it (Gen 3:1-19). Even in
Paradise, we were radically vulnerable to horrors. biblical apocalyptic (found
quintessentially in the books of Daniel and Revelation, and transmogrified in the
Synoptic Gospels) sponsors a two-age theory. During this present evil age, things
will go from bad to worse culminating in social horrors and cosmic dissolution.
When the powers of darkness have exhausted themselves by doing their damndest, God
will sound the trumpet to usher in a new world order. The age to come will feature
the ideal society in a remodelled environment, where neither death nor horrors
threaten God’s people. Meanwhile, apocalyptic works urge the faithful to persevere
to the end come what may.

Some saints and martyrs can manage it because they have experienced enough of
God to know that God is our safety. (T2) the Bible’s God is powerful to create and
to recreate. (T9) the Bible’s God cannot be counted upon to keep the worst from
happening, because–when something is destroyed–the Bible’s God can restore it as
good or better. Torah tells us: God is life, for all else the source of life and
its only reliable sustainer. John’s Jesus confidently asserts, “I have power to
lay down life and power to take it up again” (Jn 10:17-18). (T4) God’s purpose is
life together, God with the people of God. If Israel as a nation is conquered by
foreign powers, its cities razed, its institutions destroyed, and its people
scattered, God will breathe Holy Spirit over those dry bones and bring the nation
back to life (Ezekiel 37:1-14). If individual horror participants (such as Jesus’
first disciples) fall apart, God can breathe them full of Holy Spirit and
resurrect them with power (Jn 20:19-23; Acts 2:1-4 and passim). Jesus did not
amputate but straightened twisted limbs and fleshed out withered hands (Mk 3:1-6).
So the Bible’s God can take those who have perverted the image of God in
themselves through greed (Gospel tax collectors) or misplaced ideological zeal
(the Jewish religious establishment, Saul of Tarsus) and straighten them out.

Nevertheless, the Bible’s God knows that death and horror participation are
devastating for the troops. The Bible’s God exposes God’s people to horrors only
for a time and a season (this present age). The Bible’s God promises to remodel
the heavens and the earth and transform relations between matter and spirit, so
that human personality is no longer threatened by death and horrors.

IV. Getting Along with the God that We’ve Got:

(T4) The Bible’s God purposes joyful life-together, God with the people of
God. Over and above creation and conservation, (T5) Divine determination to make
our relationship work expresses itself in four initiatives: solidarity with our
horror participation; permanent and public appreciation of our costs; restoration
of horror participants to soundness of body, mind, and spirit; and transformation
of our habitat into a horror-free zone.

Relationship is a two-way street, however. No matter how much God wants to be
reconciled with horror participants, the plot cannot resolve into “happily ever
after” without appropriate relationship moves from us. What is required in
particular is for horror participants to quit holding horrors against God.
I do
not say “forgive God,” because forgiveness is usually taken to imply that the
offending party has done something wrong or violated the victim’s rights. But even
if, strictly speaking, there is nothing to be forgiven because God has not
violated human rights by creating us in a horror-studded world, a neighboring
issue remains: can it ever be reasonable for the horror participant to quit seeing
horrors as a barrier to trust, as sure signs that God is not for
us but against
us, does not love us but hates us?

The horror participant quits holding horrors against God when s/he accepts
her/his life as it was and is, horrors and all. But acceptance is a tricky
manuveur. Depending on timing and context, its significance can range from healing
to self-betrayal. Not all forms of acceptance are advisable or universally
salutary. 4.1. The Perils of Stoic Resignation: Consider, for example, Stoics who
counsel acceptance here and now. They reason from experience: the world as we know
it does not cater to human well-being. They reason from the size-gap: we have no
right to expect God to create a world that caters to us. Humility resigns itself
to our own unimportance. Sufficient humility may even be thankful, count it an
honor to have been included in God’s project even though it ruins us. Consummate
humility lends dignity when we praise our Maker, all the same.

In a way, Stoic resignation speaks well of the saints and heroes who are
capable of it. It presupposes that there is a core selfhood, an integrity that
cannot be touched by hell and high water on the outside. Torture does not degrade
the seven brothers who are butchered and fried for refusing to eat pork or burn
incense at pagan shrines, because it does not succeed in breaking them as persons
(II Maccabees 7:1-42).

Nevertheless, Stoic resignation is not even an option for everybody. Horror
participants are crushed. Their personal integrity is compromised so badly by what
happened that it is beyond merely human powers to put Humpty Dumpty back together
again. And Stoic resignation is not what the Bible mostly recommends. For one
thing, Stoic resignation “settles for less.” I agree: the size-gap means that God
doesn’t owe us. But the Bible’s God doesn’t aim at joyful life-together out of any
sense of obligation. Bizarre as it is, we are told, God simply wanted to. Life
together with us is the project God chose. God does not tell Abraham: “leave home,
let me be your God, and I will see to the ruin of you and yours.” God holds out
hope of land and dynasty, even more remarkably, that all nations will bless
themselves in Abraham’s line. Jesus assures the faithful that they will be with
him in Paradise (Lk 23:43), that they will inherit the Kingdom prepared for them
from the foundation of the world (Mt 25:34) and enter into the joy of their Master
(Mt 25:21, 23).

For another, Stoic resignation fosters quietism. If we acquiesce in our own
degradation, we will find it easy to acquiesce in the degradation of others as
Among the privileged who have not confronted horrors in their own person,
Stoicism can remain theoretical, and as such easily breeds callous indifference
towards the worst off. Stoicism from the pulpit demands that the wretched
“quick-fix” their problems and stop complaining, so that the pious can avoid
facing how deeply complicit in horrors the Bible’s God is.

4.2. End-Time Acceptance: For most horror-participants, acceptance will be an
end-time goal. We come to accept our lives, not by giving up any hope of
integrity, but when we have come to a point when horror participation no longer
threatens our integrity.
Think of John’s crucified and resurrected Jesus, who
appears to his disciples with wounds gaping yet glorified (John 20:19-29).
Acceptance lets go, not of the belief that horrors were prima facie personally
ruinous, or–where human interactions are concerned–that others have something to
apologise or make amends for, but of the demand that things have been otherwise.
Acceptance does not say that the bad, the wrong, the prima facie ruinous episodes
do not matter, or that we no longer care about them. On the contrary, such events
and situations may have shaped our lives profoundly, affected the places we have
lived, the people we have loved, the careers we have chosen, the causes we have
embraced–in general, formed our perspective on the world and the place of human
beings in it. It is rather that the plot has sufficiently resolved that what
happened no longer has the ability to disrupt or compromise our integrity. We have
arrived at a place where we no longer have to struggle with what happened, no
longer experience that touch-and-go difficulty in pulling ourselves together
enough to pursue our goals constructively and energetically. We have finally come
to a stable sense of self that incorporates what happened into a functional

This sort of acceptance will be possible and reasonable, to the extent that
horrors have been made good on, to the extent that horrors have been worked around
and defeated and made to pay for good. Acceptance will be reasonable when we no
longer need things to have been otherwise, or others to have done otherwise, in
order to maintain our present sense of worth and integrity.

God set us up for horrors by creating us in this world. And God alone has the
resources to defeat horrors. It is reasonable to see horror-participation as a
barrier to trust in God, so long as one has not experienced enough of who and what
God is to become convinced that God is always working to make good on everyone’s
horror participation and that God is power to finish what God starts. Victims
loosen their grip on accusation as they more and more experience Divine defeat of
horrors within the context of their lives. Horror perpetrators get closer to being
able to live with themselves, the more they recognize how their worst did not
separate them from the love of God, the more they experience Divine power and
determination to make it up to their victims.

4.3. Getting Along in the Meantime: There is no single recipe for how to get
along with God in the meantime. For convinced atheists, getting along with God is
not an issue, because belief in God is not a live option for them. For unsettled
agnostics, wrestling with the question of God is their way of getting along with
God, however unwittingly. Moreover, horror participation comes in degrees.
Because human beings are politically challenged, all humanly devised social
institutions spawn systemic evils. Everyone who participates in a society and
enjoys its benefits is at least complicit in any horrors to which that social
system give rise. Those of us who go farther and express ownership in an
institution or body politic (as when I say, “we dropped napalm on the
Vietnamese”), dig themselves deeper into collective responsibility, even if they
were opposed (as anti-war activists were) and even if their individual agency
played no role in bringing about the pernicious consequences (because they were
either unborn or too young at the time). Some are lucky enough to leave it at
that, so that their involvement in horrors is merely collective. Millions of
others become individually involved as victims and/or perpetrators of horrors.

4.3.1. Ironic Reconciliation: For individual horror participants who have not
given up on God but have not made peace with God either, the Job of the discourses
(Job 3-31) charts the way. In these chapters, Job sets us an example of unsparing
that rubs God’s nose in just how bad things seem from a human point of
view. Job strikes a posture of protest–that God has handed Job over to horrors,
despite Job’s faithful cooperation with God’s agenda. Job has the chutzpah to
accuse God of betrayal and to demand that God do better. In the end, Job sees God,
who compensates his losses, restores health and wealth, surrounds him with
beautiful children, and vindicates his reputation (Job 42:7-17). It is only from
the latter vantage point, we are given to understand, that Job accepts his life.

Cradle-to-grave, it is reasonable for us not to trust God to the extent that
we do not see horrors being defeated.
Even if we come to some peace about our own
lives, we are not in a position reasonably to trust without reservation so long as
horrors are happening to someone else, indeed to millions of others every day.
Even when we become reasonably confident that God loves us, not protesting their
horrors would be like the wife and children of a mafia boss living in denial about
the murders and mayhem he causes outside the home. Job begins with complaints
about his own predicament. But his agony brings him into solidarity with suffering
humanity (Job 24:1-12). Protest and demand take on the added dimension of priestly
intercession: high time for God to prove faithful to the people of God!

Here is a second paradox of reconciliation. Protest and demand are
adversarial postures. In the book of Job, they have a legal flavor. Job is
bringing a charge and pressing his case. Yet, what gives Job the confidence to
gird up his loins and speak his piece is that he has already experienced how God
has given him standing, because he has already known God to have been friendly to
him in the past. The greater his implicit confidence, the more vehement his
protest, the more insistent his demand, the more adversarial he seems. Likewise
for us. We begin with candor about our own case. When we experience that protest
and demand to not call down fire from heaven, we have the chutzpah to bring a
class-action suit, to press complaints on behalf of millions of horror
participants who have given up on God or never experienced themselves as touched
by God in the first place.

The happy irony is that protesting horrors and demanding that God do better
digs us deeper into the heart of God. Our protest and demand are fueled by
Emmanuel’s sympathetic vibrations with our outrage and sense of betrayal. as
Julian of Norwich says, God is the ground of our praying. Divine solidarity
empowers us to protest our own ruin and demand that God set things right.
Widening our scope to demand that God set things right for others, enters into the
compassion that marked Jesus’ ministry. Protest and demand, willy nilly,
recognized or unrecognized, are something that we and God do together, and so take
us closer to reconciling with God.

4.3.2. “Lucky” Disciples: For people who are “lucky” enough to escape
individual horror participation, or who–for whatever reason–are gifted with an
unshakeable trust in God, ante-mortem life together with God will take a different
shape. The spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola invite Christians to turn their
trust in God into solidarity with Jesus Christ, who is God showing solidarity with
us, especially with the worst that we can suffer, be, or do. The Gospels tell
how Jesus Christ spent his ministry confronting horrors, reversing the damages and
challenging the system that produced them. The Gospels proclaim how Jesus Christ
accepted the horror of crucifixion as the price for such testimony, and how God
raised him from the dead. So those who turn sure trust in God into solidarity with
Jesus Christ, take up their cross daily. Like the Jesuits martyred in Central
America for championing the poor and starting base communities, they risk
individual horror participation as the price of exposing horrors, relieving
concrete misery, and working to change the system. Sure confidence that God is our
safety, finds individual horror-participation daunting (cf. Jesus in Gethsemane)
but affordable. Our Creator is our Recreator: even if we are destroyed, not only
physically (like the Maccabean martyrs) but personally (like the disciples
unravelled by Triduum events), God can remake us as good or better.

V. Methodological Coda:

Years ago, Plantinga distinguished the theoretical problem of evil–whether
evil is logically or evidentially incompatible with the existence of God–from a
religious or pastoral problem of evil–how in the face of evil it is possible to
trust in God. He declared that only the former, not the latter, is a philosopher’s
concern. How wrong he was! Here and elsewhere I have argued that the logical
problem of evil cannot be solved unless horrors can be defeated within the
framework of the individual horror participant’s life. But–and this is the first
paradox of reconciliation–horrors cannot be thus defeated unless and until the
horror participant can come to trust in God, horrors notwithstanding, and to do so
in a non-pathological way. Put otherwise, an apt solution to the theoretical
problem presupposes that an apt solution of the pastoral problem is at least
metaphysically possible. Conversely, for trust to be non-pathological, it must be
reasonable. It is reasonable to reserve trust unless and until one experiences how
God is defeating horrors. But no one can experience God defeating horrors unless
it is metaphysically possible for God to defeat horrors. Solving the pastoral
problem presupposes that a solution to the theoretical problem is possible.

Plantinga thought otherwise, because he was convinced that the logical
problem of evil could be solved by his free will defense with its postulate of the
logical possibility of universal transworld depravity (the claim that no matter
which possible persons God created in which circumstances, each would go wrong at
least once). His focus was on evil as an obstacle to the feasibility of God’s
cosmic project of creating “a very good world.” “Going wrong” was left
unelaborated, allowing his free will defense to remain neutral as to which (if
any) theory of wrong-doing is correct. By contrast, putting relationship-issues
front and center exhibits the interconnection of the theoretical and the pastoral.
It is also a hedge against our philosophical theories about God and evil becoming
religiously obtuse.

Works Cited

Adams, Marilyn McCord. Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology
(Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

________________________. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca &
London: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Adams, Robert Merrihew. “Must God Create the Best?” The Philosophical Review
81 (1972); reprinted in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 51-64.

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty
(New York: Basic Books, 2011).

Bishop, John. “How a Modest Fideism may Constrain Theistic Commitments:
Exploring an Alternative to Classical Theism,” Philosophia (2007) 35, 387-402.

_____________. “Towards a Religiously Adequate Alternative to OmniGod Theism,”
Sophia [2009] 48, 419-433.

Bishop, John and Perszyk, Ken. “The normatively relativised logical argument
from evil,” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 70, 109-126.

_______________________________. “Concepts of God and Problems of Evil,” in
Alternative Concepts of God, ed. by Yugin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff, 106-127.

Dostoevski, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. C. Garnett (New York:
Modern Library, Inc. 1950).

Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany:
University of New York Press, 1984).

Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love, rev. edn. (New York: Harper & Row,

Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love, trans. by Clifton Wolters
(Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK: Penguin Books, 1966).

Levenson, Jon. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: the Jewish Drama of
Divine Omnipotence
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Mackie, J.L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64 (1955), 200-12. Reprinted in The
Problem of Evil,
ed. by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1990), 25-37.

Phillips, D.Z. The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (London: SCM Press,

Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity (Oxford at the Clarendon Press,

_______________. “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’,” in Christian Faith
and the Problem of Evil,
ed. Peter Van Inwagen (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge,
UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 1-25.

Roth, John K. “A Theodicy of Protest,” Encountering Evil, ed by Stephen T.
Davis (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981), 7-37.

Rowe, William L. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American
Philosophical Quarterly
16 (1979), 335-341.

Southerland, Stewart. “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” Proceedings
of the Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Issue
63 (1989), 311-323.

Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: The Clarendon
Press, 1998).

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, ed. Petrus Caramello (3 vols: Turin and
Rome: Marietti, 1952-1956).

Van Inwagen, Peter. The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Zagzebski, Linda. “Omnisubjectivity,” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of
vol.1, ed. by Jonathan Kvanvig (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2008).

________________. “Omnisubjectivity: A Defense of a Divine Attribute,” The
Aquinas Lecture 2013 (Marquette, WI: Marquette University Press, 2013).

________________. “Omnisubjectivity: Why It Is a Divine Attribute,” Nova et
14.2 (2016), 435-450.


:This paper was presented at a Templeton conference at Sankt-Georgen Theologische
Hochschüle in Frankfurt, DE, and at the 2015 Brackenridge lectureship at the Philosophy
Department, University of Texas, San Antonio. Thanks for incisive comments go to
participants in those conferences, as well as to Professor Shannon Craigo-Snell.

:Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: University of
New York Press, 1984), 14, 27-28, 31, 37-38, 81.

:See Linda Zagzebski, “Omnisubjectivity,” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion,
vol.1, ed. by Jonathan Kvanvig (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2008); “Omnisubjectivity:
A Defense of a Divine Attribute,” The Aquinas Lecture 2013 (Marquette, WI: Marquette
University Press, 2013); and “Omnisubjectivity: Why It Is a Divine Attribute,” Nova et
14.2 (2016), 435-450.

:Robert Merrihew Adams, “Must God Create the Best?” The Philosophical Review 81
(1972); reprinted in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 51-64.

:William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American
Philosophical Quarterly
16 (1979), 335-341.

:Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: The Clarendon Press,
1998), ch.1, 3-10; ch.8, 138-140, 145; ch.13, 237-240.

:John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, rev. edn. (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

:John Bishop, “How a Modest Fideism may Constrain Theistic Commitments: Exploring an
Alternative to Classical Theism,” Philosophia (2007) 35, 387-402; “Towards a Religiously
Adequate Alternative to OmniGod Theism,” Sophia [2009] 48, 419-433; John Bishop and Ken
Perszyk, “The normatively relativised logical argument from evil,” International Journal
of the Philosophy of Religion
70, 109-126; and “Concepts of God and Problems of Evil,” in
Alternative Concepts of God, ed. by Yugin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff, 106-127.

:Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q.6, aa.1-4; q.20, aa.1-4.

:Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1974),
ch.IX, 164-195; Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press),
chs.6-7, 95-134. In “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’,” (in Christian Faith and the
Problem of Evil,
ed. Peter Van Inwagen [Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 2004], 1-25), you can watch Plantinga struggling but failing to get his mind
around Stump’s and my worries about horrendous evils.

:See my Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca & London: Cornell University
Press, 1999) and Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2006).

:Stewart Southerland, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Issue
63 (1989), 311-323.

:D.Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (London: SCM Press, 2004).

:John K. Roth, “A Theodicy of Protest,” Encountering Evil, ed by Stephen T. Davis
(Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981), 7-37.

:J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64 (1955), 200-12. Reprinted in The
Problem of Evil,
ed. by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1990) [hereafter AAPE], 25-37.

:I owe this comparison to the Reverend Dr. Deborah Meister, rector of St. Alban’s
Episcopal Church, Washington D.C.

:Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q.23, a.5, ad 3.

:For a thorough and fascinating development of this theme working with Hebrew bible
texts, see Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: the Jewish Drama of Divine
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

:Besides the conditional Sinai covenant, the Hebrew bible records unconditional
covenants with Noah, with the patriarchs, and with David.

:Fyodor Dostoevski, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. C. Garnett (New York: Modern
Library, Inc. 1950), Book V, ch.4; reprinted in God and Evil, ed. by Nelson Pike
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1964), 6-16.

:Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love, trans. by Clifton Wolters
(Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK: Penguin Books, 1966), ch.11, 80-82; ch.35, 114.

:Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love, ch.31, 107-108; chs.35-36,
114-117; ch.51, 144-146.

:Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love, ch.14, 85.

:See Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty
(New York: Basic Books, 2011), ch.3, 68-87.

:James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

:Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ch.41, 123-125; ch.48, 128-130.

:For a deep and detailed discussion of how the Ignatian exercises function, see “Leid
und Übel in der ignatianischen Spiritualität” in this volume.

:Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, ch.IX, 195.



©Marilyn McCord Adams

Presented at Logos 2016, Center for Philosophy of Religion, Notre Dame, IN

I. Identifying the Doctrine:

According to patristic, medieval, Calvinist and Lutheran theologies, all
human beings on earth (except for Jesus and possibly his mother) are born into a
condition of original sin. Original sin is contrasted with actual sin, where
‘actual sin’ refers to an individual’s own voluntary acts and free choices
contrary to God’s will. For Christians, actual sin is all too familiar. But what
is original sin? How is it original? What makes it sinful? Why does it pertain to
us? What does the term ‘original sin’ even mean? In this talk, I want first to
boil down the doctrine to its bare bones and then rehearse traditional Western
attempts to flesh it out so as to answer these questions. After rejecting key
traditional moves, I will do reconstructive surgery on the doctrine to achieve a
smoother fit with my own soteriology.

The Skeleton: Pared down to essentials, original sin reduces to
non-optimalities and responsibilities. The human condition in the world as we know
it is non-optimal along at least three dimensions: [a] human empowerment, [b] the
environment in which humans live and move and have their being, and [c]
Divine-human relations. On any accounting, the first two non-optimalities [a & b]
stand as obvious empirical facts. In millions of cases, human coping power has
proved insufficient to secure human flourishing in the world as we know it.
Recognising this does not require theistic conviction, much less commitment to
(what has come to be called) the personal omni-God of majority-report Christian
theology. Believer and unbeliever, grappling with the meaning of life, have to
ponder why we exist so non-optimally empowered in a world such as this. Christian
soteriology adds the third non-optimality [c] in Divine-human relations and tries
to weave these factors into a plot that not only explains the data but holds out
hope of a way forward towards–if not optimality–at least some significant

Some Varieties of Responsibility: Besides non-optimalities, original sin
involves responsibilities. Responsibility is a social notion: agents are
responsible because they are answerable. Full coverage of this topic must be left
to other times and authors, but I want to register a few salient distinctions on
which I will draw.

First, there is a variety of things for which persons may have
responsibility: actions or failures to act, outcomes of actions or failures to
act, and situations or conditions in which one has ownership.

Second, there is a contrast between desert-laden and no-fault responsibility.
Desert-laden responsibility carries with it the prospect of praise and blame.
Among humans here below, paradigm cases include an agent’s responsibility for her
or his free choices, voluntary actions, and for some of the consequences of those
actions. Failures to live up to desert-laden responsibilities render the agent

By contrast (and here I take a page from Robert Merrihew Adams), no-fault
responsibility for a bad state of affairs is not acquired through some faulty act,
but involves a forward-looking responsibility to set or at least participate in
setting things right. Among humans here below, paradigm cases include those in
which an agent owns risks which turn out badly. For example, when one contracts to
deliver an outcome by a certain date (say, to complete a building or a road), one
takes ownership of the risk that through no individual fault of one’s own (whether
through bad luck or circumstances genuinely beyond one’s control), one might fail
to meet the deadline or complete the job on time. Here one may incur a financial
penalty, because–by signing the contract–one has put oneself forward as one who
can be counted on to deliver the outcome. Alternatively, when one’s projects or
plans necessarily and reasonably involve small risks of significant harm to others
(say, the construction of high-rise buildings), one has a no-fault responsibility
to compensate the victims and/or reverse the harms (workman’s compensation schemes
are invented to fulfil such responsibilities). Here, one is responsible, not
because one directly causes the harm, but because one has set up the wider frame
that houses the risk. One is no-fault responsible to set things right, even when
it was morally permissible to undertake the project.

Third, there is the distinction between individual and collective
My own view is that there is such a thing as collective
intentional action, especially where institutions and bodies-politic have
decision-making procedures and machinery for policy-implementation. Taking another
page from Robert M. Adams,<1> I also hold that individuals share in collective
responsibility for the actions and policies and/or their outcomes of collectives
in which they take ownership. Take the United States’ action of dropping atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though I was a toddler at the time and so
had no direct or indirect causal role in that policy decision, still–to the
extent that I identify myself as an American, to the extent that I say, “we
dropped the bombs,” not “they dropped the bombs”–I share in no-fault collective
responsibility for the outcomes. It is not that some past act makes me guilty, but
that I own a share of the responsibility to set things right for those who were
harmed. For example, I have a responsibility to pay my fair share of taxes
involved in the reparations and rebuilding.

If original sin involves responsibilities, the open questions are why and for
what, whose and to whom?

II. “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All!”

Positing the Prequel: Non-optimalities raise worries, because God is supposed
to be above reproach. The rabbis, Augustine and Western theology, perhaps even the
P-redactors of Genesis 1-3 reasoned that if God’s “Plan A” were to create us in
the world as we know it, the Creator’s performance might seem somehow defective.
Clearly, the doctrine of creation makes the existence of the world with a variety
of species including rational free creatures a necessary consequence of God’s
efficacious volition. To distance God from responsibility for the origin of
non-optimalities, traditional authors appealed to principles in the neighborhood
of Double Effect, Doing-Allowing, and New Intervening Agent, which partition the
consequences of an agent’s action into those for which s/he is more or less
responsible. The only other agents available to shoulder responsibility for the
origin of non-optimalities are creatures. The only created agents eligible to bear
desert-laden responsibility are rational free creatures. Surely angelic sin would
not, all by itself, be the reason why humankind is subject current
non-optimalities. Such serious consequences would have to be, at least partly, a
function of human performance. Yet, such non-optimalities have been with us
throughout human history. Traditional solutions posit a pre-historic prequel in
Paradise and assign desert-laden responsibility for the origin of evil to Adam’s

We are all familiar with the narrative. In the beginning, God created
everything very good. Paradise was idyllic. Human beings were functionally fit and
well-informed. Divine-human relations were intimate. But Adam and Eve spoiled
everything by misusing their free choice to disobey God’s command. The world as we
know it, with its attendant non-optimalities, is the natural and/or punitive
consequence of Adam’s fall!

Assigning the Responsibilities: Traditionally, Adam and Eve were taken to
bear desert-laden responsibility for their own individual actions in choosing to
eat the forbidden fruit. Though their sins were original in the sense of being
human first’s, Adam and Eve were seen to deserve punishment for (what later came
to be called) their actual sins. But Adam and Eve were also taken to be primal
progenitors of all actually extant humans. The doctrine of original sin assigned
responsibility to each and all of their descendants, simply on the basis of their
origin–i.e., simply on the basis of being members of Adam’s race. The condition
into which Adam’s descendants are born counts as sin because Adam owed it to God
to preserve human being in the excellent condition in which it was created.

Two ways of understanding this inheritance were proposed. The Stern View:
The later Augustine maintains that every member of Adam’s race not only endures,
but deserves the punitive consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s actual sin. Moreover,
they deserve, not only non-optimalities in this present life, but eternal
damnation in the next. The best way I can think of to reconstruct Augustine’s
thinking is this: with biblical warrant, Augustine is taking the corporate person
(this time, not Israel, but the Adams family) as primary. The pater familias acts,
not only in propria persona, but as a personification of the body-politic, so that
Adam’s act is the act of the collective. (Think of the way the monarch personifies
the nation and acts in certain contexts as the personification of the nation.)
The punitive consequences–the requirement to undergo punishments and/or to
compensate God for the offense against Divine honor–are assigned primarily to the
corporate person, to Adam’s race. Other members of Adam’s race own the acts of the
corporate person and so own Adam’s act, because they participate in the corporate
person, because they are incorporated in it: “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
(Compare the way the monarch acts on our behalf. Her action is our action, because
her person deputizes for us. I think also of members of the General Synod in the
Church of England who argued that we ought “to let our betters make our decisions
for us”!) Consequently, every member of Adam’s race bears desert-laden
responsibility for the fall and desert-laden liability for its punitive
(Think of warring clans or gangs. The feuding parties are primarily
the corporate persons, but each clan/gang member owns the offenses and the
grievances of the clan. If a Hatfield kills a McCoy, then the McCoy that gets
killed as vengeance deserved it, and the Hatfield who does the killing is entitled
to it.)

A Moderated View: The Stern View asserts individual liability for corporate
action and so in effect denies that the Adams family is a limited liability
corporation. A less stringent position denies that Adam’s descendants are guilty
for Adam’s sin or deserve the punishments. Nevertheless, it is fitting that Adam’s
descendants should participate in the consequences of Adam’s fall. (Think of the
way the family of a disgraced courtier participated in his social and financial
ruin. Think of the way Germans and Japanese who were babies when World War II
ended still participated in the punitive consequences of their country’s loss.)
On this view, Adam’s individual descendants may own his sin because their
collective owns his sin, but they do not have desert-laden ownership of his sin.
Their responsibility for their fallen condition is no-fault. That is, they do
not–in the first instance–acquire it as a result of any faulty action of their
own. But geneaology still gives them ownership in the consequences.

Characterizing the Consequences: A little more should be said about
traditional assessments of the non-optimalities. Abelard features a three-fold
of the self from itself, from others, and from God. Where non-optimal
human empowerment is concerned, Augustine points to ignorance, difficulty, and
Difficulty is a natural consequence of psychological disorder: when the
soul refuses to submit to God, the senses rebel against reason’s rule. This makes
it difficult to follow through and carry out what reason commands. Moreover, the
soul lacks power to love God above all and for God’s own sake. As for ignorance,
Augustine stresses how our psycho-spiritual disarray clouds our judgment of what
is right and wrong, good and bad. Finally, the soul lacks power to keep body and
soul together, which leaves us vulnerable to diseases, shortages, and death.

Anselm expands on the nature of difficulty. The soul by nature has an
affection for its own advantage (an inclination to love things insofar as they are
good for the agent itself), but in the beginning receives an addition affection
for justice (an inclination to love things for their own intrinsic worth). As a
punitive consequence of the fall, the affection for justice is lost (one didn’t
deserve to have what one refused to keep). Since no unmotivated willing is
possible, the loss of the affection for justice hands the agent over to
self-interested willing, which precipitates a downward spiral into psychological

Analysing the Disempowerment: Traditionally, three accounts were advanced of
what human dis-empowerment metaphysically involved. The Damaged-Nature Hypothesis
(held by Augustine, Anselm, and Henry of Ghent) maintains that the fall damages
human nature itself, so that it loses some of the powers that naturally belong to
it. On this view, the soul naturally has power to keep body and soul together and
naturally has power to subordinate sensory appetites to reason, but these powers
are lost and/or damaged as a natural and/or punitive consequence of Adam’s fall.
The Lost-Upgrades Hypothesis: Scotus protests that death and lack of appetitive
harmony is natural to all animals, to humans as much as to sheep. In the prequel,
God provided supernatural habits to make it easier for the will to master sensory
appetites and for the intellect to carry out wise practical calculations. Apart
from the fall, God would have kept on systematically obstructing corrupting
causes, so that–while humans are naturally mortal–they would not in fact have
died. Aquinas perhaps thinks that both jobs were accomplished by the infused habit
of original justice. The punitive loss of supernatural habits and/or a change of
Divine obstruction policies, both of which leave human being to its natural
devices–go a long way towards explaining our current non-optimal empowerments.
Added Damage from Misuse: Aquinas holds, not only that supernatural upgrades are
lost, but also that natural soul-powers are damaged by the fall. Anselm emphasizes
how the loss of upgrades yields dysfunction that produces further damage. Both
Aquinas and Scotus agree that misuse gives rise to bad habits that further distort
human functioning.

Fatal Flaws: The Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise is forwarded as an
explanatory hypothesis to account for current human non-optimalities without
assigning God direct responsibility for the origin of evil. I have argued
elsewhere that this strategy is theoretically deficient. Doing-Allowing and New
Intervening Agent apply, only where the “new agent” is at least a near-peer so far
as personal competence is concerned. But the size-gap between God and creatures
makes that impossible. Moreover, there is a limit to how bad a side-effect
Double-Effect can excuse. Put otherwise, even if there are morally significant
differences between means and side-effects, agents are still responsible for
counting the costs of the side-effects as well as the means to their ends and for
eliminating options where the collateral damage is too high. Yet, even traditional
theology recognizes, God’s projects with human beings in this world carry
horrendous costs. If so, there is no point in positing the
Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise to lessen Divine responsibility for the origin of
non-optimalities. One may as well bite the bullet: when it comes to responsibility
for the world as we know it, the buck stops with God!<2>

Others contend that the Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise hypothesis is
empirically deficient. Evidence about the evolution of the cosmos and the origin
of the species leaves it at best empirically ambiguous whether the human race
descended from a single pair. Current theories favor the idea that homo sapiens
evolved in multiple spots in Africa and then migrated to the rest of the world.
This multiple-origins theory would at least complicate the traditional story into
multiple simultaneous falls precipitating a universally worsened human condition.
More serious is the overwhelming evidence that cousins of our present
non-optimalities afflicted life forms long before the appearance of hominids and
homo sapiens on the scene and so did not originate with erring human choice. Many
conclude that the Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise hypothesis has been empirically
as good as falsified.

III. The Original Condition, Responsibilities Reassigned:

Natural Non-Optimalities: My own view is that the
Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise is not needed to explain our current
non-optimalities, because they are just what you would naturally (always or for
the most part) expect from human beings in a world like this. Theologically noted
and regularly experienced non-optimalities are naturally consequent on what it is
to be human together with the natural dynamics of this world, the world in which
humankind evolved and which is therefore our natural home.

To my mind, this-worldly human non-optimalities are rooted in Divine
hiddenness, “Darwinian”-biased motivations, and our radical vulnerability to
horrors. [1] Divine Hiddenness: Theists hold that the world is God-infested. God
is omnipresent: nothing else could be or do anything without God’s concurring
presence. If–like the scholastic human soul of Christ–we had continual beatific
vision, we would be clear about God’s pre-eminent worth. We would also be
thoroughly convinced of God’s will and power to preserve us in life and secure our
individual and collective flourishing. In short, we would not doubt that we are
safe and loved, and that God means to be everything to everyone. This would go a
long way towards dispersing the fog that obscures our discernment of values and
confuses our practical calculations.

The empirical fact is, however, that human beings in this world have at most
episodic cognitive access to Divine real presence. Tradition saw beatific vision
as a (mostly) future gift and chalked up biblically referenced mounting
difficulties in “hearing a Word from the Lord” to the cumulative punitive
consequences of the fall. John Hick celebrates the epistemic religious ambiguity
of the world as strategic: if God made Godself too obvious, that would interfere
with our free choice.<3> My own contrasting view is that Divine hiddenness is
easily explained by the fact that our cognitive capacities have evolved in this
world to cope with small, medium, and large objects of our ordinary experience. I
think that–whether or not we also have a “God-module”–we do have a sensus
in the form of a variety of built-in cognitive capacities that can be
trained and coordinated so that we can learn to perceive God better. (Perhaps–as
Tanya M. Luhrmann suggests–it is like acquiring the skill of wine-tasting.<4>)
But–given our evolution as personal animals in the world as we know it–these
capacities are difficult to awaken, and usually require long and deliberate,
assisted religious practice to “kick in.” Moreover, the coordinated exercise of
these faculties is easily obstructed, aborted, and/or interrupted as much by
resolute horizontal preoccupations as by trauma and horrors.

[2] “Darwinian-”Biased Motivations: It is an empirical fact that
always-or-for-the-most-part human motivation neither begins nor arrives at such a
level of fine-tuning as to be able reliably to keep the First and Second Great
Commandments. Thus, the BCP scripts devotees regularly to confess: “we have not
loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves”
(where the category of neighbor is extended, not only to immigrants and resident
aliens, but to all human beings).

Once again, I find such motivational misfits an unsurprising natural
consequence of our being personal animals, who evolved into what we are in this
material world. “Pop” evolutionary theory explains natural empowerments in terms
of their contribution to individual or species survival and reproductive success.
This most readily serves up a moralty of tribalism in which we privilege the
interests of those closest to us on whom we depend for survival. Some<5> argue
that altruistic action and motivation might arise as a by-product generalization
of our natural instinct to care for young. Still others<6> reduce morality to
solutions to coordination problems that must be solved in the groups upon which we
depend for survival.

It is an empirical fact that, in the world as we know it, virtues and wider
moral sympathies are fragile and readily trumped in harsh circumstances.<7>
Studies<8> show that in certain kinds of social surrounds, the vast majority of
individuals can be brought to participate in mass killings. Others<9> show that
acquired virtue is highly situational: tendencies to behave decently and
generously do not reliably transplant to radically different contexts (e.g., good
manners and readiness to share from refined society to the concentration camp).
Stabilizing in love of God above all and neighbor as self, readiness to lay down
life for friend or stranger requires not only good upbringing, lucky
circumstances, and Divine helps. It is necessary to be so sure that God is for us,
so certain that one is safe and loved by God, that one can afford to risk
anything. Just as–always or for the most part–sufficiently hostile circumstances
override altruism (as during the seige of Jerusalem, when starving mothers ate
their children), so evident really present Divine good will would eventually
override and be needed to override desperate self-seeking and competition for

[3] Radical Vulnerability to Horrors: Paul declares that Death is our last
enemy. Hebrews insists that fear of Death is what twists our motivation away from
sainthood. Augustine chimes in with his declaration that mortality is a
consequence of the fall. Elsewhere, I have argued that horror is the broader
category, where horrors are evils the participation in the doing or suffering of
which constitutes prima facie reason to believe that the horror participant’s life
cannot have overall positive meaning.<10> I have singled out meaning-making as a
central personal function, and pointed to the empirical fact that human beings in
this world are radically vulnerable to horrors. In millions of cases, horror
participation, not only damages, but effectively breaks the person’s
meaning-making capacities and so stymies natural functioning. Once again, my own
analysis has been that human radical vulnerability to horrors is a function of
natural misfits: a misfit of what we naturally are and what the world as we know
it is; and a misfit between what we naturally are and what God naturally is. My
own view is that millions of individual horror participants, almost universal
complicity in horror perpetration on others, is just what we should expect from
the nature of things.

Sourcing the Power Shortage: Western tradition explains in terms of prequels
and punishments. God made everything excellent, but actual sin results in natural
and punitive damages to what God has made and/or in a loss of supernatural
upgrades that abandons creatures to their own natural devices. My position begins
with undamaged natures placed in a world where they naturally interfere with one
another to such an extent that an individual’s natural functional capacities may
be wrecked and ruined. In the human case, this predicament is exacerbated by the
fact that human beings are developmental by nature: we are born immature and take
a long time to grow up, a highly vulnerable process that goes well only with
sustained and benevolent adult care-taking. Immaturity and haphazard development
make non-optimal functioning inevitable and (in the rough and tumble) damage to
individual’s natural capacities likely. Pace Peter van Inwagen,<11> it would help
a lot if God were more obvious. The sad irony is that it belongs to our nature
that our sensus divinitatis can be fully functional only in the mature state that
we are scrambling in semi-darkness to achieve.

How Original? Thus, on my view, human non-optimalities are original to us,
not because we are inheriting the punishments of our primal progenitors, but
because they go with the turf of being a human being in this material world, where
homo sapiens evolved. We own this condition with its non-optimalities, such
non-optimalities belong to us, they are ours, not because human beings originally
caused them, but because being human beings in this material world is what we are.
Note: On Anselm’s view, it is genealogy that implicates us. Accordingly, he
maintains that if God were to start another human family, they would not be
partakers in Adam’s fall and its consequences. My own view makes exemplification
key and so generalizes to any material persons (whether or not of the human kind)
in a surround that afflicts them with the threefold non-optimalities or their near

Sin, Reassigned: The sinfulness of the human condition involves two factors:
norm-deficiency and responsibility. Non-optimalities mean that human being in this
world falls short of its norms–the natural norm of human flourishing, and the
supranatural norm of Divine aims for it in creating it. Calling it sinful implies
responsibility for human being to be such as to satisfy such norms. My own view is
that we share the original non-optimalities with every other human being born into
this world. But we share the responsibility to be otherwise (i.e., for
norm-satisfaction), not only with one another, but with God!

Obliging Godhead? I join patristic and medieval theologians in denying that
God has obligations to creatures. Patristic and medieval authors find this so
obvious that they rarely argue for it. To give a feel for their motivation, let me
mention two that come up from time to time. (1) The first roots obligation in
dependence. More precisely, it assumes that agents have obligations to those on
whom they depend for their existence. Humans tend to survive only in social
groups. Accordingly, humans have social obligations: since they owe their being to
society (because it originates and sustains them), they owe it to society to do
their part by performing well in a variety of social roles. Anselm reasons by
analogy: since all creatures owe their being to God, they owe it to God to be that
for which God made them. But God is utterly independent, so far as being and
excellence are concerned. God has obligations to no one.

(2) The second focuses on obligation to love or do well by someone or
something. since everything has good-making features, there is always some reason
to love it. But creatures are only finite goods. Where finite goods are concerned,
the reason to love and benefit is always defeasible. Only infinite goodness (=
Divine Goodness) is compelling. Scotus concludes that God has no obligation to
love or benefit creatures, but creatures have an obligation to love God above all
and for God’s own sake.

Both arguments assume that where obligation is concerned, the fact that an
agent is personal is not the only relevant consideration. Divine aseity and
infinity are also relevant and–in the minds of medieval and early reformation
thinkers–keep God from having moral obligations to us. Medievals conclude that
Divine actions in relation to creation are not desert-laden: no matter what God
does in relation to creation, God will not be unjust or deserving of blame.

Divine Responsibilities: Immunity from obligation and blame does not
automatically free God of responsibilities, however. According to the Honor Code,
patrons are not obliged to take on clients, but if they do, they put themselves
forward as someone to be counted on to secure life and well-being. In raising
relational expectations, they acquire “no fault” responsibilities to follow
through. Where clients have suffered because the patron has–for whatever
reason–not yet delivered, the patron has “no fault” responsibility to set things
right by compensating the client, reversing the damages, and moving the clients’
standard of living towards what they had been led to expect.

So also, and all the more so, with God. God is the ultimate patron.
Creatures, especially but not only personal creatures, especially but not only
human beings are God’s clients. Creation is God’s project. God makes this material
world, especially but not only because God wants to enjoy life together with human
beings in this world, which is our natural home. In doing so, God puts Godself
forward as someone who can be counted on to deliver. The bible tells us: nothing
in the universe is surer than God’s Word! Thus, Divine projects and action in
creation put God in a position analogous to that of the high-rise builder. Not
only does God’s project set human beings in harm’s way. Given what we naturally
are, our life in this world is beset with the three-fold non-optimalities of
Divine hiddenness, “Darwinian”-biased motivations, and radical vulnerability to
horrors. Even if the material world is not utterly deterministic, the world as God
made it with us in it is sure to serve up horror-participation for millions.
There is no need to speculate. Ab esse ad posse valet consequentia. It is an
empirical fact. Not unlike the high-rise builder, God has no-fault responsibility
to set things right by compensating horror participants, by reversing the damages,
and by remodelling our environment so that we can be safe and secure. Mutatis
with those of us who labor under non-optimalties but suffer lesser harms.

God’s responsibility for human non-optimality is trivially “no fault,”
because desert-laden, guilt-making actions are impossible for God. God violates no
obligations, does nothing wrong by making us in this world. God does nothing wrong
by nudging the material cosmos to evolve forms that can host life, violates no
obligations by nudging it again to evolve forms that can host personal life. But
(as Anselm noted) launching the project carries with it a forward-looking
responsibility to make good on it, among other things to work to bring human being
up to a norm-satisfactory condition. Compensating victims and reversing their
damages is no distraction from God’s objective. On the contrary, it is a condition
of the possibility of achieving God’s purpose, which includes harmonious life
together with them.

“No-Fault” Responsibilities of Human Beings: Human beings in this world own
the non-optimal human condition, because we exemplify it. That is what makes the
non-optimalities ours. Ownership-by-exemplification brings with it “no fault”
responsibility for the human condition, a forward-looking responsibility to
participate in moving human being towards norm-satisfaction. Unaided human beings
such and where we are, do not–all by themselves–have what it takes to bring
human non-optimalities to an end. So the first responsibility of human beings in
this world is metanoia, literally to repent, to turn again. More precisely (as
Augustine already noted), our first responsibility is to turn to God to ask for
help, to clear up our moral confusion, to work in us to will and to do God’s good
pleasure. Our second responsibility is to cooperate with God as God works to
overcome our dysfunctions, to bring our Darwin-biased motives under control, to
train and coordinate the faculties lumped together under the rubric sensus
, so that we become ever more sensitive to the real presence of Divine
Goodness. Put otherwise, we have a responsibility to cooperate with God’s attempt
to heal and rear us up through the developmental cycles, up into the adulthood of
autonomous egos, and beyond that into perichoresis, into the restructuring of our
personalities around friendship with God. Our third responsibility is to partner
with God in root and branch reform of human society. Our fourth responsibility is
to work with God to reorder human relations to God’s other creatures, to do our
part to move individually and collectively away from rapaciousness towards
courtesy. Nor is this list of responsibilities temporally ordered. Rather, because
human being is developmental, we should expect to be working on each and all of
them at every developmental stage.

IV. Savior and Sacraments:

Christ, Originally Sinful? Stern fall-theorists maintain that if Christ were
born in original sin, Christ would not be able to be our Savior. According to
their soteriological plots, it is crucial (pun intended) that Christ lead a
cradle-to-grave sinless career. If the Divine Word assumed a damaged human nature,
then His human will would be no more able to will what God wills us to will, no
more able to keep the First and Second Great Commandments, than any other member
of Adam’s race. Moreover, if Christ were born into original sin, He would be
guilty for Adam’s fall, and so–in His human nature–would stand as much in need
of salvation as anyone else. Even moderate fall-theorists insist that Christ’s
human career has to be sinless. Accordingly, they move to exempt him from our
non-optimalities as well as any individual liability to make satisfaction or to
pay the penalty.

My own soteriology licences the opposite answer. Original sin involves
norm-deficiency and responsibility for norm-satisfaction. According to my account,
God has present and backward-looking no-fault responsibility for human
non-optimalities, because God set up and maintains the frame in which they are
sure to occur. For the same reason, God has forward-looking no-fault
responsibility to compensate us and to bring us up to norm-satisfactory condition.
We own the present non-optimal human condition by exemplifying it. Such ownership
assigns us a forward-looking responsibility to repent and cooperate with God
through a process that keeps transforming us until we are norm-satisfactory. God
and we own our current non-optimalities in different ways and acquire
responsibility for them for different reasons. But at the deepest level, we are in
this together. Original sin is something that we share, not only with one another,
but with God.

The obvious next question is: does God in the Incarnation also own human
non-optimalities by exemplifying them? Certainly, it is uncontroversial that Jesus
shared [b] our non-optimal environment, both natural and social. I have
elsewhere<12> insisted that Jesus thereby has no-fault responsibility for the
systemic evils spawned by the Roman Empire and Palestinian protectorate as well as
the Jewish religious and cultural institutions of his day. Gospel passion
narratives make clear: Christ crucified was not only [3] radically vulnerable to,
but individually participant in horrors. But what about [1] Divine hiddenness and
[2] Darwinian-biased motivation? Did Christ in his human nature participate in

My answer is a qualified “yes.” Qualified, because tradition is right: Christ
couldn’t accomplish his saving work so long as–for him–God were utterly eclipsed
or so long as his motivational structures were tribal or ego-centric. Tradition is
also wrong: Christ does not have to be utterly sinless to be our Savior.<13>
Among other things, salvation involves transforming non-optimal into
norm-satisfactory human being. Even for those of us whose agencies have not been
wrecked and ruined by individual horror-participation, introspection readily
prompts Mary’s question: “how can this be?” Among other things, we need
reassurance that this is even possible. Arguably, John’s Gospel shows us the
developmental goal at which we are aiming, when it presents Jesus in his human
nature as a paradigm of perichoretic personality. What if the Divine Word assumed
human nature in its non-optimal condition, what if Jesus owned our present
non-optimalities the way we do, but cooperated with the Father through a messy
developmental process to reach spiritual maturity? Wouldn’t that be just the
encouragement we need?

Sacramental Remedies: Scholastic soteriology saw sacramental
participation–perhaps circumcision under the Old Law; under the New Law,
baptism–as the Divinely ordained method of original-sin removal. Rites of
initiation make us party to Christ’s merits. On the Stern View,
circumcision/baptism cancels original guilt; on both Stern and Moderated Views, it
cancels the need to pay off the devil (the Ransom Theory) and/or our liability to
compensate God for Adam’s fall. Baptism and other sacraments (particularly,
penance and the eucharist) also bring on a Divine infusion of virtues (grace,
faith, hope, and charity) that raise the level of human empowerments.

On my reconstruction, we do not have guilt-laden but no-fault responsibility
for our non-optimal human condition. We do not owe God compensation for the
norm-deficiency into which we are born. Rather God has no-fault responsibility to
compensate us and reverse our damages. Nevertheless, sacraments loom large as
scenes of augmented empowerment and double attestation that we are in this
together, as focal dramas that “act out” what is at stake between God and
humankind. Godhead is the cause of augmented empowerment. The Spirit of God blows
where it will, working with and without our knowledge to heal us and to grow us up
into functional competence. But–because [c] Divine-human relations are
non-optimal–human beings are understandably insecure about God’s intentions. God
institutes sacraments to reassure us. Christ puts Himself forward as One Who can
be counted upon to be really present in the eucharist, in His Body and Blood.
Godhead puts Itself forward as reliable to provide extra helps to devotees who
participate in the sacramental rites. Instituting the sacraments, making the Body
and Blood of Christ really present, pouring down graces and virtues, God bears
witness to God’s intention, shows off Divine resourcefulness eventually to
accomplish God’s purpose of harmonious life together with humankind.
Participating in the sacraments, we exercise our responsibility to repent, to turn
again and seek God’s assistance. Participating in rites that God has ordained, we
are already cooperating, signalling our desire to be healed and to go along with
God’s program. Sacraments already celebrate life together, God and human beings
fulfilling their no-fault responsibilities in harmonious ways.

Grimness or Good Cheer? In the Pelagian and somewhat sentimental religious
context of my childhood, original sin was seen as a grim papo-calvinist doctrine
that is sure to be false. How could you believe that an innocent little baby is
guilty, much less liable to eternal punishment unless and until baptized? My own
reconstruction makes the doctrine of original sin resolutely realistic yet
appropriately optimistic. For–as I see it–the doctrine of original sin reduces
to non-optimalities and responsibilities. Our present non-optimalities are as grim
or grimmer than Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity envisioned. For millions of
individual horror participants, personal agency has been stale-mated or shattered
in ways that make it impossible to see how to go on. Cause for optimism comes with
the no-fault responsibilities that we share with God and one another to set or to
participate in setting things right. Tradition joins experience to bear witness:
we human beings lack power on our own to manage, much less reverse our current
non-optimalities. But for those of us who are not wrecked and ruined by individual
horror participation, the doctrine of original sin identifies our ante-mortem
vocation: repeatedly to turn again and to cooperate with God’s own efforts to move
us from norm-deficiency towards norm-satisfaction–to heal, restore, and rear up
each and all of us into fit citizens of the Kingdom of God.


<1>:Robert Merrihew Adams, “No-Fault Responsibility for Outcomes,” The Harvard Review of
vol. XXI (2014), 4-17. In this piece, he concentrates on no-fault
responsibility for bad outcomes. I extend his notion to consider no-fault responsibility
for conditions or situations, and–in God’s case–to Divine actions and their consequences

<2>:See Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca & London:
Cornell University Press, 1999), ch.3, 31-43.

<3>:John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
1978), ch.13, 280-291.

<4>:T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical
Relationship with God
(New York: Vintage Books, 2012); see esp. ch.7, 189-226.

<5>:C. Daniel Batson, Altruism in Humans (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press,
2011), esp. ch.2, 46-55.

<6>:Ben Fraser and Kim Sterelny, “Evolution and Moral Realism,” draft online.

<7>:Despite his extensive argument for the place of empathy-induced altruism in human
motivation, Batson recognizes that it is easily overridden and does not always result in
moral action. See Altruism in Humans, ch.8, 188-206.

<8>:See James Wallter, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass
(Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

<9>:John M. Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002).

<10>:See Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, ch.2, 26-28.
See also Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2006), ch.2, 29-52.

<11>:Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), Lecture 8,

<12>:See Christ and Horrors, ch.3, 66-79.

<13>:As I argued in Christ and Horrors, ch. 3, 53-79.




© 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
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
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
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.
[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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
, 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
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
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
Publications, 1977).

<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
(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’
College, Oxford.




Published version is found in Modern Believing, 2010.

I. Evident Entitlements?

1.1. “Bad Loser” Bishops: In July 2008, the General Synod of the Church of
England met at York to consider, among other things, how best to proceed towards
making women bishops a real possibility. The options were [1] a single clause
measure by which parliament would replace relevant occurrences of ‘he’ with ‘he or
she’ etc., or [2] such a parliamentary measure supplemented by “protections” for
objectors who could not in conscience receive the ordained ministry of women in
the Church. There were two kinds of protection to choose from: [2a] the stronger
that would write clauses into the law passed by parliament, and [2b] the weaker
that would consist in an Act of Synod to establish a Code of Practice to which
everyone would presumptively conform but which would not have the same force of
law. Parts of two days were devoted to the issue. On the second, after seven hours
of debate, General Synod voted for the weaker Code of Practice option.

This was not the result that a significant minority in the House of Bishops
wanted. The Bishop of Dover rose to say that he was ashamed of Synod for not being
more generous to the conscientious objectors. Both sides in the debate had at one
point or another called for a vote by houses (which means that the item must pass
each house separately and not simply get a majority vote of the two together).
The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds rose to suggest that since the stronger protection
would have passed had that rule not been invoked, the Church should not consider
itself bound by the actual vote. Reportedly, the bishops’ “morning after”
breakfast boiled over with indignation. Later in session, the Archbishop of York
declared that General Synod should “forget governance”, that General Synod was
“just a group of pilgrims.” He quipped, “See what happens when you try to govern
with 500 people! You get a mess!” Later, the Bishop of Chicester was heard to
remark, “General Synod sounds like a good idea, but in fact it’s a mistake.” In
late 2009 or early 2010, the legislative drafting committee was hard at work
formulating the Code of Practice version voted by Synod, when the archbishops
intervened and asked them to draft legislation for the stronger parliamentary
protection instead. After consultation and protests by members of parliament, the
committee reported itself unable to do this. The legislative drafting committee
has now completed a Code of Practice version, which will be laid before the York
General Synod in July 2010.

1.2. Tyranny in Tanzania: In July 2003, the General Convention of TEC voted
to ratify the election of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New
Hampshire. Outrage within the wider Anglican communion prompted the Archbishop of
Canterbury to appoint the Windsor Commission whose 2004 report proposed a new
pan-Anglican polity, according to which national churches would be bound to submit
any changes in doctrine or discipline (including those regarding whom to ordain
and whom to bless) to the pan-Anglican “instruments of union” for approval or
veto. The idea of an Anglican covenant was floated, and it was suggested that each
of the legally independent national churches could pass a local canon committing
it to comply. Although the report was hailed as “a way forward” at the Dromantine
primates’ meeting in 2005, its proposals still have no legal status in any
national church. To this day, despite three circulated draft covenants, no one has
officially signed on to anything. Nevertheless, the primates’ meeting in Tanzania
2007, not only accorded Windsor polity pre-emptive legitimacy by acting to serve
TEC with a series of ultimata,<1> but also gave Windsor polity a distinctive
interpretation. The pan-Anglican “instruments” that would serve as judge and jury
would be the primates themselves. The series of covenant drafts have flip-flopped
over what role any non-primatial Christians might play in pan-Anglican
gate-keeping. Frequently voiced has been the view that the primates’ meeting is
the only feasible choice (although the Ridley draft covenant backs off and puts
this function in the hands of the Joint Standing Committee of the primates’
meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council<2>).

II. Theological Rationales:

These episodes illustrate a wider phenomenon, in which English bishops betray
their sense of entitlement to set institutional policy for the Church. Their
feeling is that though they might “take note” of what non-episcopal clergy and
laity say, Synod’s votes (or any other of majority-rule democratic process) should
not be allowed to settle such matters. This sense of propriety dominates behavior,
even when they know that parliament has by law assigned General Synod certain
legislative functions in relation to church affairs. Many other Anglican Communion
bishops take this “right to rule” so much for granted that, at the Tanzania
primates’ meeting, they could wonder whether TEC has real bishops, if its primate
cannot commit the Church all by herself.<3> Nor are such sentiments unprecedented.
On the contrary, episcopal entitlements seem to be multiply underwritten by
Anglican ecclesiology which promotes bishops as essential to the integrity of
Christ’s Church.

2.1. The Doctrine of Apostolic Succession: Bishop Charles Gore did not
invent, but forcefully restates and vigorously defends this theory that bishops
receive distinctive spiritual powers through a chain of consecrating bishops that
stretches back to the Apostles, who were themselves directly commissioned by
Christ.<4> Gore contends that [1] not only did Christ commission the Apostles,<5>
[2] He intended to found a visible human society, the Church.<6> Not only did
Christ found a visible human society to be His Body, [3] Christ founded a ministry
in the Apostles, and empowered them to appoint and ordain successors. Moreover,
Christ did not leave organizational details to merely human social instincts. [4]
Christ specified “in germ” different offices and functions. Christ Himself
purposed that bishops should be responsible for governance, not only guardians of
doctrine and discipline, but also the fontal source for reproducing Christians,
the only ones empowered to ordain, the ones best suited to confirm and baptize.<7>
[5] Nor was this to be a temporary arrangement. Christ’s election of bishops for
special spiritual empowerment is permanent.<8>

Gore explains that because the Church is a visible historical society, one
that is not held together by ethnicity or language, it needs some other connecting
link to hold it together through different times and places. Christ Himself chose
bishops to be instrumental causes of Christian unity by virtue of being the ones
who pass on the spiritual empowerment, creating apostolic successions of
episcopally ordained ministry.<9> Gore concludes that the episcopacy is–by
Christ’s own design–essential for the Church (pertains to its esse and not just
to its bene esse).<10> At the turn to the twentieth century, Gore insisted on the
obvious corollary that in ecumenical discussions, Anglicans could not and should
not recognize the ministries of the non-episcopally ordained.<11>

2.2. Gospel-Expressing Polity: Roughly five decades later, Archbishop Michael
Ramsey tries to reconcile Anglo-Catholic preoccupation with church structure and
Evangelical emphasis on the Gospel of God by arguing that the outer structure of
the Church should express by institutionally embodying the Gospel of God.<12> The
heart of the Gospel is the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus died twiceover.
In his literal death on the cross, God-Incarnate identifies with the human
condition, with the pain and suffering and death of human beings in this
world.<13> At the same time, the crucified God exposes and judges human sin and
the desperation that drives it to commit such brutal acts. Throughout His human
career, Jesus daily died to self another way, “morally,” through “the abandonment
of all of its claims,” “the losing of His will and His whole being in the Father”
and in humankind. Ramsey here alludes to John’s Gospel, where there is such mutual
indwelling and abiding of the Father with the Son and the Son with the Father,
that Jesus frequently says, “I say only what the Father gives me to say, I do only
what the Father commands me to do.”<14>

Ramsey sees Christian discipleship as a call to die this second way. If the
functional center of the human self is the ego, following Jesus means dying to
self-centered living and requires one to own “that one is, of oneself and in
oneself, nothing.” The gift of indwelling Holy Spirit not only breaks “the
self-centred nexus of appetites and impulses” but resurrects us into life of
fellowship that has “a new centre and a new enviroment, Christ and His Body.”<15>

The Church is the body-politic–the new Israel, the new humanity–of which
Christ is the head. It is “a continuous, visible, historical society,”<16> an
organism that “grew inevitably through Christ’s death and resurrection.”<17>
Conceptually, Ramsey interprets this within the framework assumptions of British
idealism. The whole is prior to its parts, which depend on the whole for their
existence and identity. Just so, the Church is not a collection of individual
human beings (so that the parts are prior to the whole). On the contrary,
Christianity is “the extinction of individualism.” Disciples die daily to any
notion of themselves as “separate and self-sufficient units.”<18> Rising, they
“merge” into the one Body and share in the Spirit’s identification with suffering
humanity and Its efforts to relieve and transform it.<19> What is true of
individuals is true for Christian groups. Christ has one Body. Denominations and
factions must die to their own distinctive identities and rise as members of the
one Body on which each is utterly dependent.<20> The whole Body of Christ is prior
to local churches that represent it.<21> The real union of Christ’s Body is
grounded first of all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and
ultimately in the unity of God.<22>

If the Church’s outer structure is to express this Gospel of one Body into
which all Christians and Christian groups rise by dying, Ramsey reckons, there
must be a figurehead to symbolize the unity and continuity of the Church by
linking present Body-parts with the historic events that ground that unity. This
function, Ramsey argues, is filled first by the apostles and then by the apostolic
succession of bishops to whom distinctive spiritual powers have been passed
on.<23> Surveying Christian history, Ramsey concludes that “each type of ministry
found its right relation to the whole, and the backbone of the whole was and is
the Episcopate, succeeding the Apostolate.”<24>.

2.3. Trinitarian Ecclesiology? More and more, partly under the influence of
the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue and the writings of Archbishop John Zizioulas,<25>
Anglican documents pledge allegiance to a Trinitarian ecclesiology. It begins with

Relational Trinity Assumption: Godhead is a system of persons
differentiated by ordered relations and joined together in loving communion.

It continues with the

Assimilation Assumption: The outward and visible institutional
structure of the Church should mirror that of Godhead,

just as its activity is to share in the life of Godhead and to spread the love of
God abroad in the world.<26> Moreover, it forwards the

Personal Priority Assumption: The personal is prior to the institutional.

Institutions exist to nurture and sustain the relations of the persons thus

Once again, bishops, by virtue of their distinctive ordered personal
relationships, are identified as foci of Church unity. There are three planes:
that which relates a bishop to his/her people in the local eucharistic community;
that which relates contemporary bishops to one another; and that which relates
bishops of this present age to past predecessors all the way back to the apostles.
Thus, the outward and visible structure of the Church is said to be held together
by episcopal persons-in-relation.<28>

The Kuala Lumpur report, Communion, Conflict, and Hope,<29> addresses itself
to current Anglican Communion sex-and-gender crises, and draws further corollaries
from the Trinitarian model. Perfect unity in the Godhead combines with the
Assimilation Assumption to commend the

Maximum Visible Union Assumption: Christians have an obligation to seek
the highest possible degree of visible union.<30>

The fact that the persons of the Trinity live together in perfect harmony so that
they will one will,<31>combines with the Assimilation Assumption to yield the

Urgent Resolution Assumption: Conflicts within the Church must be

Relational Trinity, Assimilation, and Personal Priority Assumptions seem to imply
that the conflict-solving “instruments” within the Church must not be
“bureaucratic” or consist of institutional due process, but rather of
persons-in-relation.<33> Which persons? You guessed it! The bishops who relate
downward to the priests and laity of their diocese, and collegially to one another
in a world-wide personal network–one would not be far wrong to style it “the
bishops’ club.”<34> Anglican Communion governance by primates who meet together
regularly and get to know each other, who are positioned and disposed to work out
“gentlemenly” agreements with one another, would seem to be just what this
Trinitarian model commends (although the Kuala Lumpur report notes hesitation
within the Communion to draw this conclusion<35> and the Cyprus Agreed Statement
is more focussed on Orthodox repudiations of Roman Catholic world-wide

2.4. Comparisons and Convergence: The Gospel-Expressing and Trinitarian
theories both embrace versions of Apostolic Succession. Ramsey’s claim that
individuals are nothing apart from the Body could be taken as Trinity-imaging,
insofar as the Divine persons cannot exist independently of Trinitarian communion,
neither apart from one another nor from their distinctive relations of mutual
self-giving love. Thus interpreted, the three theories are logically compatible
with one another. No inconsistency would be involved in subscribing to all of them
at once. Nevertheless, the Gospel-Expressing and Trinitarian theories are also
logically independent of each other. No contradiction would be involved in
embracing Ramsey’s theory and not the Trinitarian theory, and vice versa.

All three theories assert that Divine authorization and covenanted
supranatural power attach themselves to human institutional structures. More
recent adherents of all three recognize that these institutional structures were
not “everywhere and always” and are content with the idea that the “three orders
of ministry”–bishop, priest, and deacon–get properly distguished as distinct
orders by the end of the second or perhaps as late as the fourth century.<37> All
agree that the office of bishop has taken on cultural coloring in different times
and places. Dom Gregory Dix is particularly vivid when he observes:

“ In England there is first the stage in which the bishop is a missionary
monk. Under the Heptarch he is not very distinguishable from a tribal wizard;
under the Saxon monarchy a royal counsellor, one of the witan passing by slow
degrees into a great feudal landlord and then a national noble. Among the Tudors
he is the great civil servant, and in the eighteenthcentury a torpid grandee
expected to pay attention to the House of Lords. In the nineteenth he became a
victorian philanthropist and a modern bureaucrat…”<38>

All admit that down through the ages the episcopacy has been embodied in ways
that definitely send unChristian messages: e.g., from sometime in the middle ages,
feudal lord/prince bishops embody the idea that God loves oligarchy and that the
Church is an exclusive club or an oppressive tool of the upper class.<39>

Nevertheless, all three theories insist that the Body of Christ is to be
identified with a visible historically continuous body, and that covenanted
supranatural power has been attached to the office of bishop especially and–at
least after the early post-apostolic developmental period–exclusively. The
episcopate is said to possess Divine authority to ordain, and to be the guarantor
of sound doctrine and practice. These supranatural powers are seen to be conferred
on bishops and not on other Christians. The nature of this apostolically
transmitted power and commission is variously characterized. Dom Gregory Dix says
that the Apostles received and apostolically descended bishops inherit the
commission to act as Christ’s shaliach: that is, not only to act as
representatives of Christ, but to act in the person of Christ,<40> which resonates
with Roman Catholic claims that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth!

III. Body of Christ versus Visible Historical Society:

I stand opposed to this picture of the Church and the place of episcopacy
within it. 3.1. Over-Identification: The first point I wish to attack is its
over-identification of the Church as Body of Christ with the church as visible
historical society acting through humanly devised institutions. Such
over-identification encourages Gore to reason by analogy: just as the human body
is animated by a soul that floods its organs with distinctive vital powers (vision
to the eye, hearing to the ears, digestive powers to stomach and intenstines), so
the Body of Christ is animated by the Holy Spirit Who infuses distinctive
functional powers into the various institutional offices of the visible historical
society. Such over-identification leads Ramsey to think that just as the whole
body is prior to its parts, in such a way that a hunk of flesh really counts as a
stomach only when it is part of the body, so human beings should die to the idea
that they are anything apart from the ecclesial body-politic, should daily die to
any imagined identities as self-sufficient individuals and rise to exist only as
functional organs of the Body of Christ. Such over-identification gives rise to
the Assimilation assumption that the structure of human institutions can and
should mirror the structure of Divine life. Such over-identification makes the
Vatican confident that Roman Catholic institutions are just what God wants and
that they afford the only (or at least the only reliable) access to supranatural
spiritual benefits. And such over-identification drives ecumenical movements to
the Maximum Visible Union assumption, which takes–not mutual understanding and
cooperation–but reunited institutions as its goal. Even when Anglican authors
equivocate in the face of historical realities, the momentum of their arguments is
that “outer should express inner,” that outward institutional order should express
and/or reflect Godhead and Gospel!<41>

3.2. Drawing the Right Distinction: When Gore and Ramsey identify the Church
with the visible historical society, they mean to reject Calvin’s distinction
between the invisible church known only to God that includes all of the elect from
the beginning of the world, and the visible church which includes a mixture of
good and bad.<42> Gore and Ramsey want to identify the Body of Christ with the
visible Church which we recognize. When they insist that the Church is a visible
historical society, they mean to distance themselves from J.B. Lightfoot’s
contrast between “the Kingdom of Christ, the Ideal of the Christian Church” and
messy realities of human societies and ecclesial institutions, which always fall
short of this Ideal by which they are regulated and towards which they ought
continually to strive.<43> Gore and Ramsey want to insist that the Body of Christ
is real, a somehow continuous historical society founded by Christ Himself.

I also want to focus on realities. My first step is to observe that the same
realities can be simultaneously organized in different ways and infused with
contrasting meanings. What I have in mind is the contrast between Divine
providence and human intentions, projects, and purposes. Think of the Joseph
story, how when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he calms their fears with
the assurance, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20; cf.
45:5-8) Even where our aim in life is to grow in the knowledge and love of God and
work for Kingdom-coming, the things which we think will most promote it may be
those which in fact obstruct our goals. Gospel Pharisees mean to prepare Messiah’s
way by scrupulous Torah observance, but they defeat their purpose by plotting the
juridical murder of the One God sent. Conversely, incidentals–the cup of cold
water or visit to the sick and imprisoned (Mt 25:31-46)–that failed to loom large
in our plans, may turn out to be the most significant contributions we actually

What I want to urge is that the Church as a historical reality is both human
and Divine. That is, the historical realities of which the Church is constituted
are and always have been simultaneously organized both by God and by human beings.

My contention is that–in thinking about ecclesiology–it is crucial to keep the
two distinct.
We may grant–for the sake of argument and for the sake of agreement
with St. Paul–that God is organizing these realities into the organic Body of
Christ.<44> Divine power and imagination guarantee its unity. Divine wisdom
oversees its development towards a not yet reached maturity (the Kingdom is both
already and not yet). Making sure that the Body of Christ survives and flourishes
is not our job. It is something that God alone is able, something that God is
already willing and working to do. Moreover, it is God’s way of organizing the
Body of Christ, not ours, that is essential to Its being what it is. This is
because the Body of Christ is God’s creation, founded by (let us suppose; or if
you prefer, grounded in) God Incarnate, and animated by Holy Spirit.

By contrast, the human institutions through which the Church carries on its
life and work in the world are inessential, context-dependent, and at best
skillful means. [1] The Assimilation assumption–that human institutions should
mirror the inner life of God–is a bad idea, because it underestimates the
“size-gap” between God and creatures. Merely human capacities for personal
relationship and mutuality are vastly inferior to those of the Father, the Son,
and the Holy Spirit. To whatever extent they might be approximated within a
life-partnership or among brothers of a small monastery or the clergy and
congregation of a small village, it is beyond human psycho-spiritual competence to
enter into such levels of intimacy and mutuality cross-culturally on a global
scale. One suspects, even a world-wide club of bishops (such as the Lambeth
Conference) is much too diverse and too large.

[2] No better is the suggestion that human institutions should try to mirror
God’s way of organizing the Church. God’s ways are higher than our ways. Divine
organization of the Body of Christ is part of Divine providence, which we are
neither smart enough nor good enough to comprehend. Medieval theologians
recognized this when they warned believers not to try to will what God wills (we
are not capable of the knowledge that informs Divine volition), but rather to will
what God wills us to will. God is able to organize anything into a cosmos full of
positive meaning. But to cooperate with God’s purposes for the Church means
housing Christian formation and living in institutions that nurture and enable us
to live out our more limited call.

[3] Likewise pernicious in human hands is Ramsey’s picture of the organic
body-politic in which individuals lose themselves by merging into a group identity
headed by the bishop. To put it bluntly, this is fascist polity, in which
individuals renounce themselves to follow der Führer. Christians are called to
leave everything to follow Jesus immediately. But the merely human bishop who
participates in our not yet fully sanctified human nature? Surely as an
archbishop, Ramsey knew that not even bishops are good enough or wise enough to be
trusted with that kind of power! Had he been writing ten years later, he would
have had cause to ponder how fascism could come out right in church politics, when
it had proved so disastrous as a way of organizing state. In any event, one
wonders how this thought could have survived in the face of his own harsh
criticisms of the way individuals dying and rising into monepiscopal rule plays
out in the Church of Rome?<45>

Overall, then, the conflation of Divine and human ways of organizing the
Church is idolatrous. Assimilation assumptions at least flirt with idolatry by
vastly underestimating the size-gap between Divine and human organizational

3.3. Visibility? Yet, if the Church is a historical reality organized in both
Divine and human ways, the question of whether it is also visible has to be
reconsidered. [1] On the one hand, God’s way of organizing the Church is not
naturally visible to us any more than other details of Divine providence are. We
depend on revelation for our organic-body model and for a general sense of God’s
purposes, ways and means. [2] On the other hand, human ecclesial institutions
should be as visible or invisible as human civil institutions are. Human beings
are politically challenged. All but the simplest political systems spawn side
effects that we don’t recognize, much less anticipate or intend. Human
institutions vary in transparency, depending in part on how explicit and
bureaucratic its policies and procedures are. They are partly visible and partly

To say that human beings are politically challenged is to point to a
dimension of human fallibility. Merely human beings are universally fallible,
cognitively fallible and morally fallible. And human fallibility gets worse rather
than better when we shift from the arena of individual morality to the political
sphere. My contention is–though there is not space to defend it fully here–that
a realistic appraisal of human being as we find it–or to put it theologically, a
sufficient appreciation of human sin and propensities to sin–furnishes a
pessimistic argument in favor of transparent, bureaucratic liberal institutions
for Church as well as state. This is not because democratic majorities are wiser
or make better decisions than benevolent despots would, but rather because human
beings are neither smart enough nor good enough to be trusted with despotic power.

3.4. Permanence? The fact that Gore and Ramsey conflate Divine and human ways
of organizing the Church makes it easier for them to believe that God is committed
to the permanence of episcopacy in institutional forms continuous from the second
or fourth centuries right up to their day. When Divine and human ways of
organizing the Church are clearly distinguished, their case seems underwhelming.
Even if–as Christian faith tells us–God is permanently committed to work with
human beings and so through some human institutions or other, it would not follow
that God is permanently committed to work through anything like the present
English episcopate. There are many kinds of reasons to expect human
societies–even conservative religious societies–to undergo radical upheavals.
For present purposes, it will be enough to return to the fact that humans are
politically challenged. All humanly organized institutions spawn–among the
unanticipated, unintended, and for a time unrecognized consequences–systemic
evils that privilege some at the expense of degrading others. The Gospel of God
calls on Christians to be vigilant in spotting them and vigorous in uprooting
them. Moreover, the Hebrew bible represents God as willing to destroy social
systems in which patterns of injustice have become too deeply entrenched. (This is
one prophetic explanation of Israel’s being overrun by foreign powers.) Luke’s
Gospel contends that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed a second time because
the hard-hearted religious establishment failed to recognize the hour of its
visitation. History shows how abusive and subversive of the Gospel human ecclesial
institutions can become. Is it really credible that God has made a
for-better-for-worse pledge to stick with an English style episcopate no matter

IV. Indwelling Supranatural:

The Church is Divine as well as human. The Anglican theologies referenced
above explain how the Church is not just one more merely human institution by
identifying the second-to-fourth century episcopate as the office through which
covenanted supranatural power is made available. Dix thinks that where apostles
and bishops are concerned, it is necessary to distinguish between the supranatural
benefits pertaining to their own office distinctively and those transmitted to all
Christians empowering them to do battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
According to Dix, what is peculiar to apostles and bishops is shaliach: Christ’s
own authorization, not just to represent but to act in the person of Christ.

I agree that the Church is Divine as well as human, and that for two reasons.
First, Christ the head is one person with Divine as well as human natures.
Second, the Holy Spirit of God is the ésprit de corps. That is, the Church is holy
because God is holy, and Godhead is really present in the Church, both because
Christ is really present in the eucharist and because the Spirit of God takes up
residence in every human heart.

Put otherwise, I agree with Dix that something like shaliach is essential to
the Church. But shaliach belongs to the Divine-side of the Church, to the way God
is organizing it. It does not fundamentally pertain to social roles in humanly
devised institutions, but to human persons incorporated into Christ’s Body. Nor do
we have to trace the details of Divine providence to learn from John’s Gospel and
New Testament epistles that being “born again” into Christ’s Body involves Godhead
indwelling human persons at the core of their being. Ramsey makes these texts
central to his articulation of the Gospel of God that he thinks the outer
structure of the Church should express: to be a member of Christ’s Body is to
share His death and to be raised into His life. With this biblical
characterization I also agree. But Ramsey reads these passages through the lens of
British idealism and so characterizes the process as one of “self-sufficient
individuals” realizing that they are “nothing” and “merging” into the
body-politic. By contrast, John’s Gospel speaks of Divine-human friendship.
Friendship requires at least two partners. God cannot be friends with a cipher! I
want to relocate shaliach in the status of Jesus’ disciples as friends.

Ancient ideals of friendship (epitomized in Cicero’s treatise On Friendship)
identify paradigm friendships as between peers, who so share a way of seeing and
valuing the world that their agencies become interchangeable. They will one will
(idem velle, idem nolle), they can act on one another’s behalf, so much so that
one could almost say that “there is one soul in two bodies.” Ancient society also
recognize a variety of friendships among unequals–among family members (husband
and wife, parents and children, father-in-law and mother-in-law, uncle, cousins
etc.), teachers and students, kings and subjects, patrons and clients. With
parents and children, teachers and students, it is not a question of equivalent
agency, but of elders nurturing the formation of immature agency towards competent
performance in relevant social roles. Throughout the Gospels, Rabbi Jesus
patiently trains his disciples who display a stereotypical range of failures to
“catch on.”

Where friendship with God is concerned, what is involved is something much
more radical than friendship “on the outside” with an unequal other. It involves
the restructuring of human personality into lived partnership with Godhead.
Psychologically, humans move out of the booming buzzing confusion of original
infancy into self-consciousness, and then trace a long period of development
towards adulthood in which the ego acquires ever greater skill in managing and
directing the self and its interactions with the world. Nevertheless, humans were
not designed for “solo” living. No creature can do anything “all by itself.” God
is omnipresent by nature, everywhere and always acting to influence creatures,
both to enable them “to do their thing” and to order them to providential designs.
Where human personality is concerned, indwelling Godhead is required to evoke our
capacity to be personal and to be spiritual, to be able to reach out and connect
with other persons and to enter into relationship with God. Ego-development into
adult competence is key to human personal flourishing. What Jesus’ call to be
“born again” into Divine-human friendship signals is that the self-sufficient ego
as functional center of human personality is not what mature humanity really
consists in. It is not the final developmental stage. We were designed to be
persons in relation to live-in Godhead. We become what we were meant to be the
more we consciously and intentionally allow that friendship with God to be the
functional center of our lives. John’s Jesus models human personality restructured
into partnership, when time and again He insists, “I-not-I-but-the Father do these
things, I-not-I-but-the-Father declare this to you.” Likewise, St. Paul speaks of
“I-not-I-but-Christ in me.”

The language of rebirth, of death and resurrection is appropriate. Just as
the teenager dies to childhood and rises into adolescence, so also and all the
more so Jesus prepares His disciples for the ultimate stage-transition in which
they die to personality managed and directed by their own egos and rise to
personality recentered on friendship with Godhead. In fact, for merely human
beings, this is not a once and for all change. Disciples are called to take up
their cross, to die daily, to rechoose it moment by moment, as gradually
friendship settles in as the habitual way to be.

Friendship with God does not make for interchangeable agency, twice over.
First, because our living into it is always partial and imperfect. Second, because
of the size gap, there is a vast difference in our competencies. God is very much
the senior partner. Merely human beings cannot know the mind of the Lord. To work
with us, God–like the mother baking Christmas cookies with her three year
old–has to over-simplify Divine projects into fragmentary portions, suggestions,
and directives. Even John’s Jesus speaks of obeying the Father’s commands, not
because God is bossy and dictatorial, but because commandments digest Divine
purposes into something humanly understandable and put us in the picture enough to
shape our action towards cooperation.

My contention is that friendship with God is as close as any human
personality can come to shaliach. It is what puts human beings such as St. Paul
and Archbishop Tutu in a position to speak and act on God’s behalf. Not, once
again, that their agency is equivalent to Divine agency. Rather, to the extent
that their personalities are managed and directed by an
I-not-I-but-Christ/I-not-I-but-Godhead-in-me partnership, God is the senior
partner behind what is said and done. Moreover, friendship with God is not
essentially connected with human institutions, but is in principle prior to and
independent of them. God calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into friendship when they
are wandering Arameans. Human institutions come into the picture afterwards
because God’s freely chosen plans are social, which itself may be a friendly
accomodation to the fact that humans are political animals. Friendship with God is
the way God organizes human individuals who were functionally ego-centered into
the Body of Christ. And so–pace Ramsey–the parts are prior to the whole!

V. The Episcopacy of All Believers:

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the preface to ordination rites declares,

“ It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient
Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in
Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”<46>

While twentieth century defenders of apostolic succession and the necessity of
episcopacy acknowledge that historically this is not quite true, Gore can still
insist on “the ministerial principle” “that Christianity is the life of an
organized society in which a graduated body of ordained ministers is made the
instrument of unity.”<47> Even though they recognize that the office called
‘episcopus’ has varied considerably through the chances and changes of Western
Church history, they insist that it is the same office (as opposed to a family of
different ones) criterially identified by the power to ordain, to hand on and to
hand on power to hand on Christ’s own authorization to others. In any and every
age (after the second to fourth centuries), an office that possesses that power
counts as episcopate, according to them.<48> For present purposes, I am happy to
go along with this usage.

Dix says that what is important is not episkope, which refers merely to a
somewhat variable package of functions, but shaliach. What makes a bishop a bishop
is Christ’s commission to act in Christ’s name.<49> But if indwelling Godhead
makes shaliach universal, then the three orders of ministry abstract and condense
into distinct roles what are in fact three dimensions of the ministry of every
Christian. Take away the historical contingencies of human institutional
arrangements, and what we have is the diaconate, the priesthood, and, yes, the
episcopacy of all believers!

Personality restructured into functional partnership with live-in Godhead is
the ontological basis of any human being’s acting in Christ’s name. There is,
therefore, no ontological deficit that would prevent any and all Christians from
functioning in any and all liturgical functions now assumed by ordained clergy.

Within TEC, especially in parishes with no assigned permanent deacons, we see lay
persons setting the table, perhaps less frequently but still sometimes reading the
Gospel and distributing the bread. Baptism is long since recognized as a rite that
can be performed by any Christian in extremis. In dioceses with far flung rural
parishes, Title 9 priests have been raised up to preach and preside at the
eucharist within that congregation only. Congregational involvement in confronting
and confessing wrongs is consistent with if not suggested by Matthew 18:15-20.
Once again, since shaliach is universal, it is not ontological deficits that would
stand in the way of members taking turns presiding at the eucharist or in
congregational ordinations in which the whole assembled body as it were laid on

To be sure, context may generate practical reasons for packaging functions
together and condensing them into distinctive roles. Indeed, the above-cited
Anglican authors give extensive attention to the way this happened in the early
centuries of the Church. Again, I am happy to admit that habitual cooperation with
live-in Godhead in certain tasks will give rise to habits, which could be
called–since they involve ways of working with God–supranatural characters.
Conscious and intentional collaboration with Godhead gives us distinctive personal
formation and molds us into saints. What I wish to stress is that ontology alone
does not put it beyond the range of possibility that context should make it
practical for people to exercize diaconal, priestly, or episcopal functions
This is already happening on more or less ad hoc basis. My point is
that ontology furnishes no reason to resist should it seem more practical to
restructure our human institutions this way.

Certainly, the institutional office of bishop seems ripe for reorganization.
The traditional episcopal portfolio includes governance, guardianship of sound
doctrine and practice, liturgical functions and visitations. It is widely
conceded, not least by incumbants, that in today’s world, this job description
loads on more than any one person can do. Already back in 1946, Bishop Kenneth
Kirk could joke about the administrative efficiency of the episcopal office.<50>
At the end of the twentieth century, a TEC bishop lamented how his positive
projects were frustrated by the time he had to spend dealing with clergy sexual
harrassment cases. Many dioceses have abandoned the ancient model of monepiscopacy
(one diocese, one bishop) to appoint suffragans and/or assisting bishops to cover
the visitations and confirmations and to tend to the pastoral care of clergy.

Moreover, if the sheer volume of work is crushing, the range of required
expertise is daunting. To some extent, this is dealt with by out-sourcing, where
the expert is treated as a consultant, or–if a permanent employee–the analogue
of a civil servant. Thus, when General Synod needs to make a decision about the
church pension scheme, financial advisors are brought in. When the question is
about prisons, the director of her majesty’s prisons comes to advise. When the
issue relates to the media, lifelong employees of the BBC appear; to the arms
race, generals; etc. Present institutions maintain the hierarchical division
between the archbishops who summoned their services and the laypersons or lower
clergy who respond. But how soon will it make more sense to say that when the
financier or prison director or media specialist or military officer is exercizing
her/his episcopacy in providing these services to the Church? Is s/he not thereby
overseeing the household of God?

Again, in the midst of current sex and gender controversies within the
Anglican communion, some bishops want to reassert episcopal prerogative to dictate
what Scripture really means and to rule on what sorts of sexually active
lifestyles are compatible with holiness of life. It has been like pulling teeth to
get language into the draft covenants that acknowledges the obvious: scholarly lay
persons, priests, and deacons may know more about the bible than the sitting
bishops. Any notion that ordination confers supranatural expertise about sex and
gender, is belied by the content of Vatican documents written by celibate priests
telling married people what it is godly to do!

Examples like these are signs that the institutional role divisions we have
inherited from the past are dysfunctional. The Church cannot afford to pay enough
clergy to do all of the work. To carry out its mission to live and spread the
Gospel, the time is coming–maybe now is–when it can ill afford to suppress the
episcopacy of all believers!

VI. Symbolic Function:

All three of the above-referenced Anglican theologies see episcopacy as
essential to the Church as a symbol of unity. Moreover, the symbolic function of
the office is said to depend on concentrating such powers in the hands of the
bishops as enable them to be instrumental causes of the union of which they are
signs. Thus, the bishop’s powers of ordaining and confirming, in some Anglican
provinces, of appointing the clergy to their livings and otherwise taking
responsibility for governance, makes him/her a symbol that the diocese is not
merely a collection of congregations. Likewise, the bishop’s participation in
national and global networks and councils of bishops makes her/him a symbol of
Church union worldwide. Finally, his/her apostolic succession makes him/her a
symbol of the unity of the Church down through the ages, through the chances and
changes of history. Even if dispersed expertise weighs in favor of scattered and
episodic authority, isn’t this consideration obviously trumped by the Church’s
need for unifying focal symbols?

In my judgment, this argument points, not to a merit, but to a danger in the
episcopacy, and that for Durkheimian reasons. Bodies politic are personified by
their heads, willy nilly. But bodies politic inevitably tend to regard themselves,
their survival and well being as sacred. Implicitly and explicitly, they take
themselves as entitled to do whatever it takes to guarantee their security. The
bumper sticker “America, love it or leave it!” says it all: the body politic is
above reproach. To one degree or another, this sacral character rubs off on its
personifying leader. Just how pernicious this is depends upon the relation the
polity sets up between symbolic caché and real power. Henry VIII had both, so that
might made right. Elizabeth II is above reproach but has scant real power, while
the prime minister has enormous real power but is regularly and rigorously
reproached at every question time! At the other end of the scale, Scandanavian and
Dutch royalty have little of either.

Clearly, the notion that bishops should be above reproach is alive and well
in current Anglican communion sex-and-gender controversies. When–at York
2007–the agenda committee put forth the motion that General Synod leave the
Church of England’s response to the Nassau draft covenant to the archbishops, the
Bishop of Durham insisted that Synod “owed this to Rowan,” while lay delegates
rose to declare, “I trust me archbishops!” Two years later, the archbishops were
affronted that a quiet indication–“I would prefer more robust forms of
protection” (for the conscientious objectors against the ordination of
women)–without accompanying arguments, did not deliver the outcome they desired.
Certainly, Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria considered himself to be beholden to none
when–ignoring requests from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop
of TEC–he crossed provincial lines to interfere in the North American churches.
My unsurprizing first reaction is that archbishops should be forced to choose
between real power and symbolic caché. If they–like prime ministers and
presidents–use real power to effect controversial policies, they should expect to
face energetic opposition and criticism. This is not the sixteenth century, and
they should quit trying to have it both ways.

The best remedy for the Durkheimian danger of turning bishops into idols, is
to undermine our idolatry of the institutional church itself. Knee-jerk human
symbol reading takes the head to be above reproach because the body-politic is
sacred. My contention is that holiness pertains to the Church insofar as God is
organizing it, not insofar as humans are organizing it. God is holy, and the real
presence of the Spirit of God in every human heart organizing us into a Church
makes the Church holy. Such “holiness by association” does not, however, rub off
onto the human institutions through which the Church does its work in the world,
in such a way as to make it or any of its offices or office-holders above
reproach. God’s presence within the Church does not award any Divine seal of
approval to ecclesial institutions, any more than God’s real presence with Israel
gave Divine blessing to the policies and practices of Israelite kings. The human
leaders of the humanly devised institutions remain fallible. Indeed, all of the
merely human beings who belong to the Church remain fallible, both individually
and together. In matters of Church governance, all alike are best subjected to the
rough and tumble of approximation and correction. Likewise, humanly devised
institutions best exhibit Christ’s life, not by clinging defensively to what they
have traditionally done, but by repentance and amendment of life. Ecclesia est
reformata et semper reformanda!

Human fallibility implies a further corollary of equal importance: viz.,
that–contrary to the Maximum Visible Unity assumption–the institutional unity of
different ecclesial communions and denominations may not always be a timely goal.
Even God’s friends have difficulty discerning what God really expects from us
(remember Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac). The best way forward at any given
time may be vigorous differentiation that tries incompatible positions on for
size. Contrary to the Urgent Resolution Assumption, a season of spirited
disagreement, questioning and disputing incompatible points of view with
unstinting analytical rigor, may help us arrive at a more complex and nuanced
position that winnows wheat from chaff on both sides. What we need to seek is not
a common mind (so longed for by the Kuala Lumpur report)–usually, there is no
such thing, and when there is it remains fallible–but the mind of the Lord that
always dances out ahead of us with greater subtlety and complexity than we can
grasp. In any event, human beings are politically challenged. Global
empire–whether civil or ecclesial–stretches our competence to the breaking
point, leads to bad government in the middle (consider Vatican authoritarianism),
and collapses under its own weight at the end.

What allows me to view Christian institutional divisions with equanimity, is
my own belief that human ways of organizing the Church are not fundamental. The
integrity of the Church is a function of how God is organizing it. The real
guarantee of Christian unity is the consistency of Divine purpose, and Christ is
the only sacrament (outward and visible sign) of unity that the Church needs.


<1>:The Communiqué of the Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam 19 February
secs.17-35, pp.4-7. See also its appendix, The Key Recommendations,

<2>:An Anglican Covenant–The Third (Ridley Cambridge) Draft, Section

<3>:Disturbingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury leant credence to these
criticisms in his Advent Letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion
14/12/07 (ACNS4354).

<4>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919), which appeared in first edition in 1888.

<5>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919), V.211-214.

<6>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919), VII.298.

<7>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919),II.53, 56-57, 60-61, 92; VII.299.

<8>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919),II.54; IV.208-209; VII.301.

<9>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919),VII.298, 310.

<10>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919),VII.312-314.

<11>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919),VII.298, 310.

<12>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990). Originally published in 1936.

<13>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), I.4-5.

<14>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), I.4-5.

<15>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), III.32-33; IV.51-52.

<16>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), XII.196.

<17>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), V.66.

<18>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), III.36,38.

<19>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), III.41.

<20>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), IV.44.

<21>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), IV.47.

<22>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), IV.49-50; XI.175.

<23>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), V.61; VI.74-81.

<24>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), VI.81.

<25>:John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985). See also
Episcopal Ministry: The Report of the Archbishops’ Group on the Episcopate
(London: Church Publishing House, 1990), Part II.ii.17.7. Zizioulas’
theology likewise infuses The Church and the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed
Statement of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological
Dialogue 2006
(London, UK: The Anglican Communion Office).

<26>:Episcopal Ministry, I.ii.5.2; II.iii.22.9; II.iii.25.110. See also
The Church of the Triune God, I.3-12.13-15; I.22-26.18-19; V.8.61.

<27>:Episcopal Ministry II.ii.19.8; The Church of the Triune God,

<28>:Episcopal Ministry I.ii.6-7; The Church of the Triune God

<29>:Communion, Conflict, and Hope: The Kuala Lumpur Report of the third
Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission
(London, UK: The
Anglican Communion Office, 2007).

<30>:Communion, Conflict, and Hope, IV.121.50.

<31>:Episcopal Ministry II.ii.19.8.

<32>:Communion, Conflict, and Hope, For.5, III.110.46, IV.118.49.

<33>:Communion, Conflict, and Hope, Pre. 10.10; III.104-105.45;
III.110.46; IV.124.51; Appendix Two, T4.61.

<34>:Communion, Conflict, and Hope, III.113.47, 115.47.

<35>:Communion, Conflict, and Hope III.105.45; III.112.46.

<36>:The Church of the Triune God, V.22.65; V.25.66.

<37>:Charles Gore, The Church and the Ministry (London: Longmans, Green
and Co., 1919), III.99,148-150, 178, 194; VII.299. Dom Gregory Dix, “The
Ministry in the Early Church c.A.D. 90-410,” in The Apostolic Ministry:
essays on the History and Doctrine of Episcopacy,
ed. by Kenneth E. Kirk
(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946), 185-303. Michael Ramsey, The Gospel
and the Catholic Church
(Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1990),
VI.63-69. Episcopal Ministry: The Report of the Archbishops’ Group on the
Episcopate 1990
(London: Church House Publishing, 1990), Part I, 13-154.
More nuanced estimates are also found in The Church of the Triune God,
V.3.59, V.12.62.

<38>:Dom Gregory Dix, “The Ministry in the Early Church c.A.D. 90-410,” in
The Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History and the Doctrine of
ed. by Kenneth E. Kirk (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946),
ch.IV, 185-303. See also T.M. Parker, “Feudal Episcopacy,” in The Apostolic
Ministry: essays on the History and Doctrine of Episcopacy,
ed. by Kenneth
E. Kirk (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946),ch.VI, 351-385.

<39>:Charles Gore, The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919), II.82-91. See also T.M. Parker, “Feudal Episcopacy,” in The
Apostolic Ministry: essays on the History and Doctrine of Episcopacy,
by Kenneth E. Kirk (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946),ch.VI, 351-385; and
Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA: Cowley
Publications, 1990), XI.162-164, 172; XIII.207, 218-220.

<40>:Dom Gregory Dix, “The Ministry in the Early Church c.A.D. 90-410,” in
The Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History and the Doctrine of
ed. by Kenneth E. Kirk, (London: Hodder and Soughton, 1946),
ch.IV, 185-303; esp.287, 292-293, 297-298.

<41>:Thus, Gore, in The Church and Ministry (London: Longmans, Green and
Co., 1919), I.36-37, answers “in one way, yes; in another way, no” to the
question whether the Church is simply identical with the kingdom of heaven.
Likewise, Ramsey, in The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), recognizes that institution sometimes breaks
apart from organism, when he notes how Erastianism tended to represent
church as an English institution, even the religion department of the state
(XIII.206-207) and warns that “institutionalism fails, unless it is mindful
of the Gospel which gives it meaning” (XIV.218).

<42>:John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T.
McNeill, trans. by F.L. Battles (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press,
1960), IV.1.4.1016, IV.1.7.1021-1022.

<43>:J.B. Lightfoot, “The Christian Ministry,” in Saint Paul’s Epistle to
the Philippians: A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes, and Dissertations

(London: Macmillan & co., 1878), 181-269; esp.181-182.

<44>:I cannot, however, agree that the Church is an organic body the way
the cosmos is according to British idealists. See Christ and Horrors: The
Coherence of Christology
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006),
ch.7, 191-198.

<45>:Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA:
Cowley Publications, 1990), V.65; XI.162-164.

<46>:The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and
Other Rites and Ceremonies according to the Use of the Church of England
together with The Psalter or Psalms of David Pointed as they are to be sung
or said in churches; and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and
Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons
(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1969, 633.

<47>: Charles Gore, The Church and the Ministry (London: Longmans, Green
and Co., 1919), II.78-79.

<48>:Dom Gregory Dix shows sensitivity to the fact that the same name does
not imply the same office and reckons that power to ordain is the heading
under which the differing historical manifestations of episcopate hold
together (“The Ministry in the Early Church c.A.D. 90-410,” in The
Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History and the Doctrine of Episcopacy
ed. by Kenneth E. Kirk (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946), ch.IV,
185-303; esp.189, 296-298. After reviewing medieval developments, T.M.
Parker concludes that “it is the same office that undergoes transformation
and that its essence is sacramental and supranatural and does not change”
(“The Feudal Episcopacy,” in The Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History
and the Doctrine of Episcopacy
, ed. by Kenneth E. Kirk (London: Hodder and
Stoughton, 1946), ch.VI, 351-385; esp.385).

<49>:Dom Gregory Dix, “The Ministry in the Early Church c. A.D. 90-410,”
in The Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History and the Doctrine of the
ed. by Kenneth E. Kirk (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946),
ch.IV, 185-303; esp.228-230, 268-274, 297-298.

<50>:Kenneth E.Kirk, “The Apostolic Ministry,” in The Apostolic Ministry:
Essays on the History and the Doctrine of Episcopacy
(London: Hodder and
Stoughton, 1946), 3-52; esp. 3-6.




The Great Vigil of Easter 2013

Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill.

We begin in the dark, because God is dead.  The dastardly deed was done yesterday, when we, the people of God, killed God.  Our crime was suicidal.  God is the Maker and Maintainer of all things.  If the Creator is dead, creation must be dead, too!

We have listened to the lessons.  In the bible, creation isn’t ex nihilo, and death doesn’t mean annihilation.  God creates the world by ordering chaos.  Chaos isn’t nothing.  Chaos is stuff in a mess, stuff that lacks any inward power to give it shape or definition, to pull it into regular patterns of being and doing.

Animals have souls, forces that work in secret to form limbs and lungs, nerves and brains, mouths and claws.  Sheep are animated by power on the inside that gets their organs moving “in synch”–teeth for chewing, stomachs for digesting, eyes for peering, legs for frolicking and running away from wolves–all working together to enable sheep to “do the sheep thing.”  When the animal dies, its body gets disconnected from the soul that held it together as a functioning system.  The stuff out of which it was made loses integrity.  The corpse rots.  Dust returns to dust.  Just as often, animals get eaten, so that what was their stuff becomes part of, gets taken up into the being and doing of something else.

The world as we know it is full of many and various things.  For them to make a cosmos–a universe–they have to be organized into interactive systems.  Not only do they have to be spatially arranged–Mercury closest to the sun, then Venus, then planet Earth before Mars.  Their activities need to become regular and predictable.  Think of the inverse square law, elliptical orbits, water dissolving sugar, Einstein’s matter into energy conversion, the speed of light…  The bible tells us, right from the start: an orderly world is no accident.  Divine power exercised on purpose is what holds the universe together.  God is the force operating on the inside to persuade all things to work together for good.

In the bible story, God proceeds methodically: first separating the elements and setting up distinctive environments; then making all kinds of living things and welcoming them into their homes–birds to the air, fish to the sea, plants and cattle to the solid ground.

Making arrangements for human beings made in God’s image, was and is more challenging.  God invites us into harmonious life together with God and other creatures.  God calls us to experience the whole universe as a society, a body-politic held together and animated by God, its esprit de corps.  God is the One, the only One, Who can underwrite this project.  This is because God is life, life that is self-sustaining, life that does not depend on the existence or the destruction of anything else.  For all else, God is the source of life and its only reliable sustainer.  We are meant to receive life, not as a thing to be grasped, but as a gift from a Boundless Source.  Because God recognizes that animal life is not self-sustaining, God cuts a covenant, setting out a life-style of courteous consumption: human beings will be generously provided for so long as they honor God as the source of life and show respect for God’s other creatures.

Because courtesy does not come naturally to human beings, God works hard to civilize us into harmonious living.  God prescribes liturgies in which we “act out” the fundamental truths of our existence.  Old-time sacrifices of first fruits and first born acknowledge that all life belongs to God by voluntarily offering life back to God, the source of life.  Eating and drinking sacrificial foods reminds us how we are entitled neither to life nor to the necessities of life, but receive both as gifts from a Boundless Source.  God also guides us with the gift of God’s law.  Ten commandments reinforce the message that God is the vital organizing center of the universe and that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect.  Warnings not to over-use–to give the land a sabbatical from planting, to allow the livestock time to rest; in harvesting, to leave rows of grain and fruit on the tree so that the landless poor, immigrants, and travellers will have something to gather–all of these teach courtesy towards God’s other creatures.

Courtesy does not come naturally to us, because we are animals in a world of real and apparent scarcities, animals who have a “darwinian” counter-credo written into our genes.  Animal-instincts insist that we are entitled to life and to the necessities of life, that preserving life is entirely up to us, and that we are therefore entitled to do whatever it takes to secure it.  Our very flesh drives us to live “darwinian,” which leads to the proverbial “struggle for existence” in which only the fittest survive.

Because animal life by nature is not and cannot be self-sustaining, because animals by nature are mortal, our efforts to secure immortality for “us and ours” becomes a desperate effort to control–the better to consume–life-sustaining resources.  Its logical conclusion is the demand that “us and ours” be the unifying principle of the universe, the organizing principle that presses everything and everyone else into service to meet our needs.  Aristotle and how many other humanists down the centuries declare: “Man”–ahem, yes, they meant ‘man’–“is the measure of all things.”  The cosmos is anthropocentric.  The whole material world–its basic earth-air-fire-water elements and all other life forms–were created for the sake of human beings!  With tribes and clans and nation-states down the centuries, we take our turn in imagining that we are God’s chosen people, that we are the climax of world history, that all of those earlier civilizations rising and falling have been leading up to us!  The bible bears witness how civic religion goes further to press the gods into service as mascots, genies in the bottle who exist to grant our wishes and promote our aims!  Friday consummates the blasphemy, when the people of God kill God, murder the heir so that the vineyard may be ours!

We have had a day to ponder the consequences.  God is dead.  But God was the animating principle, the organizing force of creation, of human personality, and of harmonious society.  God is dead, and they have reverted to chaos.  Top soil has thinned, waters are fouled, the air is full of toxic chemicals, the climate has gone crazy.  Individually, we caricature God’s image, while human society oozes injustice like sewage into polluted streams.

The bible makes its diagnosis explicit.  God is a center that will hold, because Divine life is self-sustaining.  God keeps on being and doing without needing to gobble up anything else.  By contrast, human life is not self-sustaining.  Making human life the center of all things is life-wrecking, life-devouring, life-destroying.  It is a recipe for medium-run chaos.  It is a recipe for death.  Vigil lessons rehearse: everything is dead, because human beings are slow of heart to believe that God can be trusted to keep on giving the gift of life forever.

The Vigil dramatizes this verdict.  Easter is not simply about bringing a worthy individual back to life without the magic tricks of ICU.  The scale is cosmic.  Easter is about the resurrection of all things.  The Vigil “acts out” God stepping back in as organizing principle and center, to order chaos, to bring all creation–earth-air-fire-water elements, human personality and society–back to life.

In the bible story, God’s first words in creation were ‘let there be light!’  Therefore, the Vigil begins by striking new fire.  Just as primal time was organized by the heavenly bodies–day and night divided by the sun’s regular motion, weeks and months counted by the waxing and waning of the moon–so in the new world order time is marked by Christ, the alpha and the omega, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.  Christ is the context within which we hear our history of Divine dreams wrecked and ruined, of rising hopes that God will intervene to re-order chaos again.

We continue with the blessing of the water.  Just as the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep, so we call down breath of God to rout the demons, to blast away the halitosis of man-is-the-measure-of-all-things self-centeredness.  We hover over the deep, blow a psi for ‘psyche’, purifying what was poisoned into the water of life.  We plunge the phallic pascal candle into the water three times as outward and visible sign of Divine-life-giving fertility.  We sprinkle holy water towards the four points of the compass, to wash away the violence with which we have polluted the earth.

Holy water is a solvent.  We plunge candidates for baptism into it, we soak ourselves with healthy doses of it, to die to the old world order centered as it was on “us and ours,” vowing to live into God’s new world order that centers in Christ.  We come at last to the eucharistic feast that feeds us with food fit for the reborn, risen, and re-organized.  We eat Christ’s Body and drink Christ’s Blood as proof of our intentions: from now on to let Christ be our functional center, from now on to live by His Life!



2 Cor 8:7-end,  Mark 5:21-end

Preached at Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, 2009

Mark’s Jesus strides out of the wilderness into ministry saturated with holiness and pulsing with power.  Holiness is out-of-bounds power, a total cleanser on a mission to ‘wash the dirt’–that is to say,  any and every kind of dysfunction–‘right down the drain.’  Given who we are, what we are, and where we are, we human beings need to traffic with out-of-bounds power to flourish in life.  Mark’s Gospel warns, like it or not, out-of-bounds power is the environment in which we live and move and have our being.  And so the evangelist tells stories to give us a clue as to what we might expect from it, to drop hints as to how we might go about getting the Good out of it.

Consistently and repeatedly, Mark’s episodes drive home the obvious point that out-of-bounds power so outclasses creatures that it is impossible for them to control it.  Disease-and-madness producing demons recognize its approach as their eviction notice: ‘We know who You are, Jesus of Nazareth.  You are the Holy One of God!’  They may try plea-bargaining.  Like the Gerasene demoniac’s Legion, they may be reduced to begging: ‘Don’t make us homeless!  Give us sheltered housing!  We’ll vacate the humans if You let us possess these pigs!’   Out-of-bounds power concedes only to outwit: the pigs stampede off the cliff into the end-time abyss, into the mouth of hell, right back home where demons belong!

More strikingly, Mark represents out-of-bounds power as something that Jesus Himself is unable to control, at least in His human nature.  In today’s story, the bleeding woman believes, and is right to believe, that she can ‘catch’ it by contact.  Jesus perceives power flowing out of Him, but–like static electricity–the transfer is triggered without His prior knowledge or consent.

Second, relative to human standards of propriety, out-of-bounds power is rude.  It can almost be counted upon to misfit human priorities and sense of timing.  In today’s story, Jairus wants Jesus to come and prevent the worst from happening: ‘heal my little daughter before she dies’.  ‘Ain’t no hurry!’  In the bible, out-of-bounds power regularly fails to respond to our human sense of urgency.  Even merely created powers can sometimes prevent disasters (e.g., cautious driving averts the traffic accident that causes paraplegia) that they would be unable to turn around.  Occasionally, out-of-bounds power does come through with ‘nick of time’ rescues and ‘skin of the teeth’ escapes.  Remember the Exodus: how Israeli’s were pressed up against the sea and Pharaoh’s horses and chariots were advancing from behind, almost breathing down Israeli necks before God parts the waters to allow Israel to pass over and then floods the path when the Egyptians follow in pursuit.

More often than not out-of-bounds power forgoes prevention in favor of reversal.  In today’s story, Jesus interrupts his walk to Jairus’ house to have a conversation with the bleeding woman who touched Him.  During the delay, Jairus’ daughter dies with the result that Jesus arrives after it is already too late.  This is a rehearsal for the passion narrative at Gospel’s end, when Jesus is not ‘escaped’ from the cross by hosts of descending angels; out-of-bounds power does not excuse Him from drinking His cup of wormwood and gall.  From the perspective of out-of-bounds power, why bother to prevent what it can more than make good on?  Why rush in to keep someone from dying, when–after a few minutes, the proverbial three days, or the closing age–out-of-bounds power can so easily–‘speak the Word only’–make us rise?  (Of course, from our side, there could be an answer to that question!)

Out-of-bounds power is unique and has its own etiquette.  Because out-of-bounds power is out-of-bounds, it cannot be counted upon to meet, but it is sure to exceed our expectations.  Jairus believes that Jesus can keep his daughter from dying.  But what Jesus actually does is raise her from the dead.  The bleeding woman is confident of a cure for her bodily ailment.  But Jesus is not content to barge through crowds letting His out-of-bounds power scatter effects where it may.  With Jesus, out-of-bounds power is in service of a personal transaction.  Jesus demands to know, ‘who touched me?’, not to scold but to extend a Kingdom-welcome: ‘daughter, your faith has saved you!’   Hemorrhaging shows that she is not self-contained, make her ritually unclean because she symbolizes a leaky society in danger of losing vitality and definition.  Levitical rules have ostracized her from polite society, classified her as ‘untouchable’ for twelve years.  Jesus is determined to make explicit what her bodily cure symbolizes: she is God’s own daughter, a legitimate heir to covenant promises.  Like passport control to returning travellers, Jesus proclaims, ‘Welcome home!  Welcome to the Reign of God!’

Out-of-bounds power is humanly uncontrollable.  But Mark shows how, because out-of-bounds power is personal, it can be approached in more and less promising ways.  The stories immediately before and after today’s reading illustrate bad strategies.  When Jesus crosses the lake to Gentile territory, exorcizes Legion demons from the raging madman, and rehouses them in a herd of pigs, the locals request–politely but firmly–that Jesus get out of town.  Jesus is an alien saturated with alien power.  He has already upset the applecart.  Who knows what He will do next?  High time for Him to take His out-of-bounds power and go back where He belongs.

When Jesus does go home, acquaintances and neighbors react with jealous resentment.  Jesus is a local boy, but out-of-bounds power now makes Him out of the ordinary, and so ‘alienates’ Him from His roots.  Locals move to cut Jesus back down to size.  But this means pretending His out-of-bounds power isn’t really there and and so deprives them of its benefits.

By contrast, Jairus and the bleeding woman come to Jesus because they believe that Jesus has wonder-working power, and because they hope that they will be able to connect with its wholesome effects.  Their contrasting strategies reflect their different social positions.  Jairus is a well-respected ruler of the synagogue, who reasonably believes that he can win access to Jesus’ out-of-bounds power through personal networking.  Unlike most religious establishment characters in the Gospels, his faith is genuine and his request humble, because he thinks Jesus’ out-of-bounds power puts Jesus higher on the spiritual totem pole than ordinary-but-faithful, faithful-but-ordinary synagogue rulers.  Jesus responds to Jairus’  straight-forward sincerity, but challenges him to believe even more.  By contrast, the bleeding woman is wily.  She has no social connections that could win her an audience, but she is confident that she can steal a cure by touching him in the hustle-bustle crowd.  Jesus surprizes her with the news that healing was hers for the asking, that wholesome social networks are to be grounded in Him.

Today’s morals from Mark’s stories are many: first, that out-of-bounds power is for life, but it will not prevent our deaths because resurrection is in our future.  Out-of-bounds power is alien to our nature, but not alienating because it is personally possessed by a member of the human family.  Because out-of-bounds power is personal and for us, it strikes a balance between the stability our sanity requires and extravagant interruptions that do better for us than we can ask or imagine.  That’s why we should approach with confidence, whether with humble petition or wily indirection; that’s why we should accept Jesus’ invitation to become the media of its manifestation, modern witnesses to out-of-bounds power making itself at home with human beings.