Leonard Cohen’s Amen – how to live faithfully in the context of suffering


I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.

I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.

I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.

To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).

I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.

Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.

All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.

This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…

This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.

As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.

Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:

Treaty (pleading honesty with God)
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

If it be your will (surrender to God)
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

Show Me The Place (begging for guidance)
Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement)
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge)
From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:

and even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue
but Hallelujah

No matter what happens, we praise God.

From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.

I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Tell me again
When I’ve seen through the horror
Tell me again
Tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then
Amen

Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.

In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.

In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.

Amen leads to joy.

You got me singing
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.

Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.

This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.

The wisest man brought myrrh

Latest Courier article.

I was all set to write a jolly article suitable for Christmas festivities when the news came through about the tragedy in Connecticut. So much doesn’t seem appropriate any more, even though, in a cynical sense, there is nothing new about what has happened. One of the things that I have most come to believe over the last several years is that God is never in “the drama”. That is, whenever there is a conscious desire to attract attention – to ‘glamourise’ in other words – there is also a turning away from God, a turning away from that same source of life and vitality. Consider a previous act of slaughter, the attacks of 9/11 in the United States. These were the very definition of a spectacle, and yet – despite what was claimed – I cannot believe that God was behind the spectacle, in the sense of desiring it, or having his purposes accomplished through it.

There is something of a truism here – that evil is banal and repetitive, whereas it is only goodness that is creative and capable of bringing something new into existence. When a soul is turned away from the living source of life and vitality it often seeks to artificially induce that vitality through a quest for stimulation, like Frankenstein charging his monster from the storm. So we have the epic spectacles of terrorism and slaughter where the monsters inside people are unleashed upon the world.

There is a passage in one of my favourite works of Christian spirituality – Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ – which says this: “Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.” Souls turn to the darkness when the light which they crave is denied to them; and sometimes, which I take as the definition of evil, that darkness is embraced, justified and celebrated. The sorrow of our society is that we have become a place which has lost an awareness of the distinction between the light and the dark.

How are we to try and understand this, to regain an appreciation of the light, in order that we may, as a community, move back towards the light? One aspect is, I believe, to recognise that there is such a thing as evil and to accept that we will never be able to achieve a society which has banished sin and suffering, no matter how many well-intentioned programmes are undertaken. We need to have a greater sense of realism about the world that we live in, not to become cynical, but to recognise the cost of pursuing goodness, and the inevitable element of tragedy in human existence.

Which is, after all, the hidden side of the Christmas story. After all, we see and hear the story through the prism of two thousand years of telling; consequently, many of the most substantial elements can be missed. The point about a new king being born amongst the animals, resting in the trough, where there is no room in the inn – this is the very ‘anti-drama’ that is the sign of God’s presence. I sometimes have the sense in reading these classic stories that the original writers could not be content with God’s choice to be born as a nobody from a nothing town, and so all the elements of angelic messengers and visits from kings had to be imported to try and dignify God’s activity with human hyperbole. It is too staggering for our imaginations to believe that God might just simply be present as a naked and mewling infant.

An infant, of course, who would one day be slaughtered by the state for being inconvenient to the projects of power. This is an aspect to the story that is present from the start – the cost of standing for life and truth when the established powers are bent on a course in opposition to such life and truth. A few days after Christmas, a few days after Jesus was born, the order was sent out to slaughter the innocents – those who had done nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Holy Innocents and all who loved them bore the pain at that time, yet Jesus himself was destined for pain, humiliation and death himself. It was the wisest man who brought the myrrh – the ointment used for preparing bodies for burial, the sign of Jesus’ own fate. Right at the beginning, amidst the cherubs, nestled in the arms of his mother, the undertone of pain and suffering was present.

There is so much to be thankful for, and to rejoice in, through the Christmas season, most especially for those who have much – much family, much friendship, much good cheer and wealth to celebrate. Yet there is this hidden side of Christmas, where the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it. The story of Christmas is that the Lord came to be with those who have nothing – those who can find no place of shelter, those who hunger, those who are lonely and bereaved – those who bear the cost of tragedy in human life. For those of us who suffer – and, if truth be told, I believe that we all suffer in our different ways, we each have our own cross to bear – the message of Christmas is that God is with us. Despite all the ways in which our world distresses us, despite all the ways in which we fall short of our own hopes and desires and each other’s expectations, despite all the ways in which we are most conscious of not becoming the people that God intends us to be – the message is that God has not abandoned us, and that, mysterious though it is, the way through our vale of suffering can be found by hearing the story of a baby boy, born out of wedlock and shunted into the stables two thousand years ago. May the light and peace of the Christ-child be with you and all whom you love this Christmas time.

Tell me again – Leonard Cohen and the problem of suffering

Long time readers may recall a long and eventually fruitless argument I had with Stephen Law about the problem of evil. My concluding thoughts are here, and a link up is here.

Time and reflection haven’t changed my thoughts much. I still think that the ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering is a life lived, and that the intellectual analyses rather miss the point. Most crucially, I believe that the essential path is to be like Job – to tell God that you have a bone to pick with Him – but to accept the answer that isn’t given, and pray anyhow. Or, as Elie Wiesel describes, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something’. Then we went to pray.”

I’m listening to Leonard Cohen a lot at the moment, and this theme runs through so many of the songs – I see Cohen as articulating the only faithful response that is possible. Consider this:

I don’t smoke no cigarette
I don’t drink no alcohol
I ain’t had much loving yet
But that’s always been your call

or

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

The troubles came, I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains so I hastened to behave
There were chains so I loved you like a slave

And most clearly of all, this:

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Judith Curry on the specific nature of IPCC overconfidence (part one)

My new favourite blog, Edward Feser with a brilliant analogy for humourless atheists
and a specific rebuttal to Stephen Law’s ‘God of Evil’ argument
More succinctly, Kim Fabricius with twelve swift ripostes to atheists

Reasonable Atheism (30): some brief comments on the problem of suffering

It seems to me that there are two ways to understand the problem of suffering: the abstract question and the existential question.

The abstract question says that God has certain attributes – fully good, fully powerful, fully knowing – and that these three attributes are inconsistent with the presence of suffering in the world. (Stephen Law has a variation of this argument which states that these attributes are inconsistent with the degree of suffering in the world. I don’t find that this variation adds much to the argument; I’m with Alyosha Karamazov.)

My answer to the abstract question is to say that defining God’s attributes is a mistake. That is, we’re never in a position to give an overview of God’s attributes; in particular, attributing ‘goodness’ to God seems to presume too much, and I don’t think we’re in a position to judge whether God is good or not. To my mind God is ‘beyond good and evil’. In that assessment I view myself as being four-square in the mainstream mystical tradition of the church.

Yet, as I’ve tried to articulate before, these discussions, whilst of some interest in themselves, don’t actually address the core of the issue, which I see as existential. They are abstract and philosophical, and end up provoking more or less ‘so what?’ responses, rather like the decision about choosing one way of organising a library rather than another. The existential question is much more important, which is simply: how should one live in the face of suffering? In particular, in an environment where random events may render any person’s life-projects impossible, how are we to retain any sense in the meaningfulness of life?

Martha Nussbaum does an excellent job of describing the Ancient Greek response to this issue in her marvellous ‘The Fragility of Goodness’ – so answers to these questions by no means need to be Christian. Yet, obviously, the Christian faith also has an answer – indeed, I view the story of crucifixion and resurrection as the answer to Greek tragedy. The only perspective, in fact, that doesn’t seem to have an answer to the existential question is that of the humourless atheist – but then, they seem content to play in the abstract shallows, avoiding the muck and bloodiness of full-bodied life.

Stephen continues to believe that my answer to the problem of evil ‘does not exist’. I continue to believe that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. He could persuade me differently by, eg, discussing Nussbaum’s work and his views on it.

Transcript of Penal Substitution talk

The audio of this talk can be found here (downloadable mp3, played about 5% too fast so I sound as if I’ve just been snorting helium), but I realise that I have never actually posted the transcript. Please note that this is an unedited transcript as I want to link to it somewhere else…


Penal Substitution talk

Good morning and welcome. Today looking at penal substitution I want to begin with an apology because I am defeated by our new printer, I really wanted you to have some bits of paper in particular this chart which will come up later, but I apologise but it wasn’t going well for me up there, if I had had an extra ten minutes it might have been sorted, notes will be provided at some point, God willing. Now penal substitution, what’s penal substitution all about and why do I think it is being used as a shibboleth? My discussion of shibboleths is really focused on this issue and really then going wider into other issues about contemporary evangelicalism, but this is really where it gets sharply focused.

Well all Christians agree that Jesus saves, that’s almost axiomatic, no Christians would disagree that Jesus saves, OK, so to be a Christian is to accept the mystery of salvation in Christ. The discussion comes when we start to talk about how that salvation is accomplished, OK? So discussions on this subject are all discussions about the how, not the what. Does that make sense? I’ll come back to talking about the what next week, but there is a clear consensus, all Christians would say there is something wrong with us, there is something wrong with humanity, OK? Generally coming under the heading of sin, and Jesus puts it right, faith in Christ puts us right, reconciles us with God, etc. That’s universally accepted, so don’t talk anything I am going to say this morning as going against that, and as I say I will come back to that more strongly next week, but the issue is how is this salvation accomplished? Now the thing is the church has never actually established a set doctrine for how this is accomplished. In for example the creeds of the early church there isn’t a single way of understanding this which is prescribed. We are not told this is the way you need to understand it. Consequently there are lots of different ways of understanding it and what I want to do today is look at one particular, give emphasis, to one particular way of understanding it which as I say has become something of a shibboleth.

I should also say that as a doctrine, because that’s really what we are talking about, a doctrine of salvation, a way of understanding salvation, it’s not the most central Christian doctrine, the most distinctive and essential doctrine is that in Jesus, God became man, in other words the incarnation, the unification of the human and divine, and salvation is if you like a spin-off from that, so again all Christians would recognise the truth of the incarnation, that’s one of the things that makes them Christian, but how exactly salvation is accomplished comes on after that.

Now a quick summary of my perspective on this just to give you a bit of a steer before getting into some details, going back to my triangle with the green area being scriptural and so on, the doctrine that I am going to be talking about today is penal substitution. Now that’s very much a doctrine identified with the, well I would say it is almost a hallmark of a conservative evangelical perspective. Now I would really emphasise a distinction, it is not a fundamentalist doctrine at all, it is historically mainstream protestant, so it is not extreme even in that sense I have been describing before, it is very much slap-bang in the green section, the solid green section of my triangle. A bit like Luther, Cranmer, Calvin and so forth. Moreover, the rudiments of the doctrine can on the whole be found in scripture. In particular Isaiah 53, references to Isaiah 53 in the letter of Peter, some passages in Paul, do lend pretty clear… (well one of the things I am going to do today is look at one passage in some detail) but there is a plain reading of scripture which supports this doctrine. So Isaiah 53, he was pierced for our transgressions and so on. There is a fairly natural, certainly in terms of our culture, a natural way of reading that which lends itself to what’s called a penal substitution understanding.

However, my perspective is that this is a marginal theme in scripture, it’s there but it’s not where the main emphasis comes in scripture, it’s not the main presentation of the nature of God and in particular my concern is that an insistence that this way of understanding salvation is either the most important or the only way of understanding salvation is becoming a very divisive issue, it is being used to divide Christians, and I will flesh that out with a particular example later on.

Now as I say, this gets a little bit technical so a little word of warning, my talk this morning will get a bit more technical than usual, mainly because I want to look at the Greek in a particular passage of Paul, right with just a little bit of warning I hope to make it fairly clear. Now how are we to understand the phrase from scripture He died for us, now people are familiar with that language, Christ died for us, OK? Well let me run through half a dozen, six or seven different ways of reading that language. Is it that Christ was a martyr? This is something very much in Greek culture of the time, the heroic death that saved another group of people. I recently watched the film, “Three Hundred”, about the battle of Thermopylae where you have got three hundred Spartans sacrificing themselves so the rest of Greece might be saved. OK? Or the example used in Alpha from the “Bridge of the River Kwai” story where the nutty Japanese guard miscounts the amount of tools that the working group has and insists that someone has to be to blame, someone steps forward, is killed for it, when then they later discover the truth there weren’t any tools missing, that man saved the other group. So that’s the sort of martyr type model.

There’s a ransom model, an economic model, the language of redemption is very much part of this economic model, the language that Paul uses is language taken from the slave market. So Christ pays the price to set people free to set people free from their slavery. A diplomatic sense that we are reconciled through this death. So you have got two parties who are not at peace with each other and a reconciliation takes place. A sacrificial understanding that “by the blood of this sacrifice we are cleansed”. So the power is in the blood. A scapegoat understanding, are people familiar with a scapegoat? That He borne our sins, you know in the scapegoat ritual the priest lays his hand on the scapegoat, the sins are laid on the top of the scapegoat’s back and the scapegoat is driven out into the wilderness carrying the sins with it. And penal substitution that He the Christ died in our place, that we were condemned by a verdict and Christ steps in to receive the penalty on our behalf, so you can see the different ways of understanding just that phrase, Christ died for us.

What is this last one I mentioned, the doctrine of penal substitution? Quoting from this book, one of two of you may have come across, “Pierced for our Transgressions”, anyone heard of it? Does anyone know Oak Hill Theological College? This is written by the new Principal and a couple of the students, highly educated students, they have all got PhD’s in Science which is quite interesting. It’s a response to some of the controversy which I will come onto at the end, but it is a very thorough going through of a lot of the objections, it’s the doctrine of penal substitution. I have to say I am really not persuaded by it and most of the time it lists lots of the objections, you know I agree with the objections rather than the response, but this is a thorough an analysis and defence of penal substitution as we are likely to get in our generation. But the definition it gives at the beginning is this, “PSA, penal substitutionary atonement”, sorry I am going to use a little bit of jargon, atonement is the word given to how we are saved, atonement is a way to describe how salvation takes place. So penal substitutionary atonement says, our salvation takes place in this particular way, and this is their definition, “PSA states that God gave Himself in the person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” I’ll run through that again, because it is quite key. There are lots of quotes this morning and I will circulate these notes. The doctrine states, “God gave Himself in the person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” So human-kind has sinned against God, God’s holiness requires that sin be punished in order that we might be saved from that punishment God sends His Son and the Son accepts the punishment on our behalf. That’s penal substitution. Clear?

Right, a few things just to pick out from this just to really bring out, it’s a western emphasis of understanding, the eastern church it’s completely foreign to their spirituality, it doesn’t exist really in the Eastern Orthodox church. So it is very much a western model and part of the way in which it links into western culture is the emphasis upon the judicial process, the impact of law and the importance of law and the processes of law, which stems really back to the way in which western culture, especially after the split in western empire really emphasised law, Roman law, so it is one of ways in which it is a western understanding.

It comes in most strongly after the Reformation, so with people like Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and so on. Now the thing to really emphasis is that it’s not simply about substitution, it’s not just about Christ being in our place, because I will come on to explain various models talk about Christ being in our place, the key bit where the weight of it comes is on the penalty, that there is a punishment, Christ takes a punishment in our place. So it is not just substitution, it’s penal substitution, alright? And one of the elements of it is that God is required to punish else His holiness is impaired. God’s holiness is such that it cannot be as the same place as sin, and so to allow sin to go un-punished is to make God less holy, so if you like where some of the weight lies in this doctrine is the emphasis upon God’s holiness, understood in this way that sin must be repudiated. Does that make sense?

And the other element I would pick out just for now, is that the punishment comes from God, God is the one doing the punishing, that sin offends God, breaks His laws, therefore God must punish. Alright? Now get onto the technical bit which I hope won’t be too scary. Right Romans Chapter 3, first half of verse 25, which I am sure many of you are crucially familiar with, I’ll give you some different translations. New International Version says, “God presented Him (Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” King James version, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation,” which is strictly speaking, propitiation is about appeasing God’s wrath. “God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” The New Revised Standard version, “Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith”, but has a little note, the note by the phrase “sacrifice of atonement, says, “could read ‘place of atonement’.” Now what I want to focus in on is the word which is translated as “sacrifice of atonement”, or in the new RSV, possibly, “place of atonement”. Now the word is Hilasterion, I apologise it’s getting a bit technical, a Greek word, Hilasterion, that is the word that is translated in those different ways. OK? Sacrifice of atonement, propitiation, place of atonement, can you see that they are similar sorts of words, but much of the weight of understanding the text comes in quite how you take Paul’s argument to be developing.

Now this book has an analysis of this text and it says, “The undeniable teaching is that the Lord Jesus Christ was set forth as a propitiation to turn aside God’s wrath from his people by suffering it in their place.” In other words this is one of the key texts used to defend the doctrine of penal substitution, what’s claimed is that Paul is arguing very specifically that Christ’s death is this sacrifice which gives propitiation, in other words, it appeases the wrath of God. Does that make sense? That’s the weight which this passage is carrying. Now the issue is, is that the right way to understand this word? Now this is a source of intense academic debate and I am really just dipping into the surface here, but to say, which that book, those defenders do, that this is indisputable is simply not true, it is not at all indisputable. It is highly disputed. Now what I want to do is run through a different way of reading this text.

Now this word Hilasterion, there are really two environments in which that word is used in the time of Paul. One is in the wider Greek culture, where it does have this meaning of propitiation as used in the NIV. Now for example there were commentaries on Homer at the time that talk about the Trojan Horse being an Hilasterion that this was how in terms of the story Acclahysa and the Greeks offered appeasement to the Trojan’s to say sorry for attacking them. Make sense? So the Trojan horse is a Hilasterion, it is a means of appeasing the wrath. Alright, understand the image?

The other way in which the word Hilasterion was used was in more Jewish circles, in particular in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it refers specifically to something called the mercy seat. This is the Ark of the Covenant which was central to the sacrificial rights in Solomon’s Temple, before it got stolen and destroyed, and these are the two cherubim, the mercy seat is here, this is the place of God’s graciousness, and what happens in the sacrifice, in various sacrifices is the blood is placed on here as the means of atonement. But the Hilasterion is this place, it’s the mercy seat. Now it is a rediscovery of this which is why the Revised Standard Version has “place of atonement” as a possible translation. Now can you see there is quite a significant difference between something being the means of atonement, the means of reconciliation, like the Trojan Horse, this is the offering to appease wrath, and something being the place of atonement, this is where the reconciliation happens. Does that make sense as a distinction? Because a lot hangs on understanding that difference. There is the means of accomplishing reconciliation and there is the place where it happens. So Hilasterion in the Septuagint in Silas, people like that, it refers the mercy seat.

Now, there is something quite crucial about this, which I think, for me is really the key for why I don’t think that penal substitution reading of this text works, there is another description in scripture. This is the Ark of the Covenant, you have got two angels with the mercy seat in between. There is another rather important episode in scripture in the New Testament which involves two angels with a place between them – the empty tomb. My suspicion is that this is what Paul is referring to. He is referring to the empty tomb, this is the place where reconciliation happens, in other words if you accept the resurrection, if you enter into the resurrection, you are reconciled, because you have got one angel here, one angel here and the gap in between, that the resurrection is the place where reconciliation happens. Does that make sense?

So one of the key texts used to explain and support the doctrine of punishment, or the element of punishment, Christ was the sacrifice, can be read in a different way, that’s really what I want to say, I don’t want to say, this must be the way it’s read, I just want to say it can be read differently, it can be read so as to talk about resurrection as the most important element rather than crucifixion for example.

Now I want to say a little bit more about the Old Testament sacrifices and how to understand them, and again a little chart which you will get. I want to discriminate between sacrificial language, the language of sacrifice, and the language of the scapegoat because the underlying logic of them is really very different, so the language of sacrifice is whenever we have the language of blood, you know , “we are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb” for example, that is using sacrificial language. It is drawing its meaning from the way in which Old Testament sacrifices were conducted and the meaning of them, whereas the scapegoat one is the burden of our sins was laid upon him. Does that make sense? You have got two different routes for the language, one is in the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, one’s in the scapegoat ritual, so just drawing some distinctions. In sacrifice what is important is what is being sacrificed is pure, OK, it must be without blemish, whereas with a scapegoat it doesn’t matter, the one on which the sins are laid doesn’t have to be pure, there is no regulations about it. The sacrifice is offered up to Yahweh whereas the scapegoat is absolutely not offered up to Yahweh, it is cast out into the wilderness. Sacrifice is a very careful and controlled process that happens in the most sacred space in the community and there is no sense in which the object of the sacrifice, the bull or whatever is being punished. So in the notion of sacrifice there is no notion of punishment, whereas it is in scapegoat, that the goat is literally punished and abused, before being driven out of the community. So can you see how they are really very different logics going on. That the sacrifice is all about the purity being offered up to God within the most sacred space in the heart of the community. The scapegoat is all about this is the vehicle to carry our sins away from the community. It is all about expulsion and punishment. Does that make sense, the distinction, there are two different logics being involved?

Right this is a red Heffer. One thing I was reading yesterday they only managed to in Old Testament times sacrifice 8 red Heffers, but the red Heffer was sacrificed to cleanse and purify the people and so the red Heffer was burnt, the ashes mingled with pure water, the water was sprinkled, that purifies. But the red Heffer had to be absolutely perfect, you couldn’t have hairs of a different colour. It had to be young, you couldn’t have one that had had for example a yoke on it’s neck. They only managed in the whole of Old Testament times, eight times to get a red Heffer that met all the requirements. You know Moses did it once, Joshua did it once, and so on. So just a little bit about the red Heffer.

There is in the Old Testament a progression in how sacrifice is understood, that when you go back to the earliest descriptions, for example Noah, after the flood, it is very explicit that what is going on is that literally the sacrifice appeases God. There is reference for example to the smell. God likes the smell and therefore his wrath quietens down. Now as the story of the Old Testament progresses, this understanding of how sacrifice works slowly becomes less literal, less anthropomorphic, OK less as seeing God as a big human being, and more spiritualised. So for example you get in Isaiah we had it the other day, Sunday morning, do you think I drink the blood of bulls and so forth? All the language that says “Don’t treat me like a big human being”. In the Prophets, in the Psalms. OK, you start to get within the Old Testament itself, a critique of what’s called the cult. Now cult here is not prejudicial, it’s not saying, “It’s a cult therefore it must be really, really bad”, it’s a technical terms describing the way in which sacrifice, the whole process in the temple hangs together, it’s the cultus. It’s a cultic practice. And what you have got within scripture as the story progresses is an on-going critique of what goes on in the temple, that the temple processes aren’t getting the understanding of God correct and that what is needed is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, for example, that right action is the sacrifice demanded of God, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love kindness, to walk humbly with your God and so on.” So within the Old Testament you have got this gradual change of understanding in the Old Testament sacrifice, so it’s not so much about appeasing an entity that likes the smell of burnt bull, it’s about God of the whole world demanding a righteous life, that’s within the Old Testament.

Now of course you could say that that’s about what’s going on in the Old Testament from “do it like this”, “to do it in the right spirit”, “to make sure you get the right spirit whether you do it or not.” Can you see that as a progression, you must do it like this, in other words “if you don’t perform the ritual in this exact manner God will be offended,” very much part of you know the Hebrews in the wilderness, to “it doesn’t matter if you do it right, if you do it in the wrong way.” Think of 1 Corinthians 13 which we did in the housegroups recently, you know, you can speak in the tongues of heaven and of men, but unless you do it with love – it’s that sort of thing. To the emphasis in the end it is actually doing it with love, getting the spirit right which is the essential thing. Does that make sense within the Old Testament. Because of course what you then have is Jesus as the culmination of that process, Jesus who abolishes the temple and thereby the whole system of sacrifice and replaces it in three days. Again you have got this link back to the resurrection. “After three days He will rebuild it.” And it ties in with Paul’s language for example in Romans, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship, in other words finally with Christ you have a letting go completely of that sacrificial system. That in Christ we see what God is really like and we see that He is really not that interested in the blood of bulls, and so on. Does that make sense that Jesus is the culmination of growth through the New Testament? This change in the understanding of God, that finally in Jesus we see God clearly revealed. Whereas in the Old Testament we have got this gradual process of refinement in the understanding in the Jewish community as they slowly get to know what God is like. And in particular that the prophets who criticised often really radically criticised the processes that go on in the temple, that Jesus is the culmination of that. Make sense? Happy?

Right, well let’s leave that there because that was really all about whether this language of sacrifice has to mean penal substitution. The thing about the sacrifice and the scapegoat is that you have really got two metaphors, you have got two metaphors to understand what Jesus accomplishes. I really want to get at the logic behind those two metaphors is very distinct and actually if you really push it the logic of those metaphors is incompatible, but I’ll come back to that. Now, something about the early church, that Jesus criticised himself, one of the things which this book claims to do is to show how penal substitution is fully supported in the early church. They have one reference to a text from the first three hundred years of the churches history, as might go unsaid the interpretation of that text might be disputed but really what I wanted to get at there, if you imagine the writings of the first three hundred years put together with text the same as one of our Bibles, the amount of material there is six Bible’s worth. So three hundred years of writing about Christianity, about what Christianity means, about the wonders of the incarnation, salvation, etc., etc., etc., out of six Bible’s worth there is one sentence which might mean penal substitution, so effectively penal substitution is unknown in the early church. So what did the early church think about how our salvation is accomplished. Well one of the most common images and metaphors that they used is a light shining in the darkness. Simple as that. John 1, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” We were in the dark, Christ comes into the world and now we can see. That is probably the single most common image in the early church.
But there are a few others and these are, the next one is very much the way the Eastern Orthodox church primarily understands salvation, and that is that Christ is our medicine, we are sick, if we receive Christ, and of course explicitly the eastern church emphasises communion, if we literally take Christ into our bodies we will be healed. To really bring out, can you see how what we have got here is a metaphor, Jesus is not actually a pill, but the metaphor of healing and medicine is being used to articulate the truth that Jesus saves. Now hang on to that healing as a metaphor and come back to we are in the law court, we are condemned and Jesus takes the punishment. Can you see how that’s also a metaphor? It is using a different framework to understand what’s going on, I’ll come back to that because that is really my major theme.

Now another one often called Christus Victor, that Christ conquers the devil. We are in bondage to Satan, Christ conquers the devil and sets us free. We are free from the principalities and powers that previously held us captive. That is one of the most dominant images. Another one, a second Adam, in Adam we all sinned and we therefore all share in the brokenness of Adam, what God does when he sees that we are broken is that we have a second Adam which allows humanity to be restored and in a sense improved, according to God’s design. That’s something called recapitulation, that God is creating something new again. You see it’s different languages, different images. And the thing to really emphasis is, it’s all metaphorical. There are lots and lots of different ways to understand how salvation works but they are all metaphorical. This is Aslan, speaking to Edmund. No-one would say that C S Lewis’s discussion of salvation is literally true, it is an image, a way of understanding what is going on.

What I want to get at is particularly in Paul’s writings he is using metaphorical language, often through a flaw in the same sentence. He is cramming metaphors together because he is trying to testify to this overwhelming experience of salvation, and he is drawing in language from where ever he can find it, from the slave market, from the old temple sacrifice, from the scapegoat ritual, and he is bundling them all up together, which of course, in the context of the time was rhetorically seen as excellent. These days we think, “Oh well that’s a mixed metaphor, you can’t do that.” Well of course Paul is the master of the mixed metaphor. He bundles them all up together because he can’t think of any other way to express how wonderful it is. He is using everything he can and cramming it all together, often in the same passage. So to say for example, we are redeemed by his blood, is a mixed metaphor, you have got redemption, which is about a monetary payment and specifically in Paul, it is often talking about the slave market, we have been bought at a price, but we have been bought with the blood, and the blood is a sacrifice metaphor. So he is putting two metaphors together to try and explain what’s happened. Of course we two thousand years later have got so used to hearing, “redeemed by the blood” as simply a single very specific and often literal meaning, that we don’t hear the mixing up of the metaphors. Paul is jamming all these different metaphors together, because he has got something wonderful to share, something wonderful to say and the language isn’t quite adequate, so he is cramming it all together.

Now what worries me about the insistence on penal substitution is that what seems to happen is that it’s status as a metaphor is missed, and that this way of understanding how salvation works is taken as the literal truth. That this is literally what happens. So first step, the metaphor becomes literal and the second step is that this literal taking of Paul’s language becomes the single way of understanding what is going on, around which all these other ways of understanding it have to shift and adjust themselves. So think of a diamond, lots of facets to a diamond, it is a bit like saying one of the facets which is gleaming, not only is there only one way of gleaming the diamond, but the gleam is more important than that diamond. Does that work as an image of what I am trying to get at? It’s taken one metaphor and it’s saying this must be literally true and it’s really the most important thing, way to understand it, so as a diamond, diamond has lots of facets, no this one facet is the most important, this one gleam, and actually it’s the gleaming which is key, not the diamond itself. That’s what I think is slowly starting to happen. Does that make sense?

Let’s say a bit more about punishment, because one of the things I want to say is that I don’t think it really matters, I don’t think which way you understand salvation to take place is something that should divide Christians one from another. I think there are lots and lots of different ways in which you can understand it, all of which are acceptable. If someone says that God so loves us that He forgives us our sins through faith in Christ, that is fairly generally accepted as a Christian understanding, God loves us therefore our sins are not allowed to get in the way of that love. People are happy with that as a core Christian teaching? Change that to “God so loves us that He gave His Son to be a sacrifice for our sin so that He might forgive those who are in Christ.” In other words, you have still got God loves us, we are forgiven in Christ, and there is an extra step in the middle which is what penal substitution does. God so loves us He forgives us, God so loves us that He sends His Son to be the punishment for our sins so that we might be saved. The question I want to ask is what is that extra bit doing? Is is actually carrying any weight? Can you just say “God so loves us, black box, we are forgiven our sins.” because if you take the black box out you’ve got something which all Christians can unite around. But if you say, “God so loves us, this whatever is in the black box is the most important thing,” then it starts to get a bit divisive. What is it that penal substitution the doctrine, the defence of it, what is it actually accomplishing, what’s being emphasised? If we say the way in which God’s love for us and our salvation is accomplished it has to be this, what is being emphasised?

This brings us to Steve Chalk. There has been a lot of controversy in evangelical circles the last couple of years about this doctrine, triggered by a book by Steve Chalk, called “The Lost Message of Jesus” which is really good, there is a copy in the library upstairs if people want to read it, I would recommend reading it, it is very readable, and it really is a book about the Kingdom. Most of Jesus’s teaching is about the Kingdom, what it means to live in the Kingdom and the argument of the lost message of Jesus is that we have forgotten that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom so much, and it’s really just a popular presentation of that. But there is one part of it where he starts talking about this doctrine of penal substitution and he describes it as a barrier to mission. He says it gets in the way, it gives people the wrong understanding of God and, this is one of those classic examples of misquotation, he says, “Salvation is not about cosmic child abuse, that is a caricature, it’s not like that,” and of course he then is taken to be arguing that this doctrine on penal substitution is cosmic child abuse. Can you see how he is being negative about something, and he is saying “salvation is not this distortion.” Anyway it all gets a bit complicated and redundant really. He accepts substitutionary atonement, he accepts I think what is called the Christus Victor model, that Christ conquers the devil or God conquers the devil through Christ, and in many ways Christ is a substitute for us, Christ suffers where we ought to be suffering, but what he doesn’t accept is the penal bit. Now this is the source of the controversy.

I want to share some quotations with you. This is from the Evangelical Alliance, “It may be true as Steve has claimed that evangelicals are often perceived to be harsh, censorious and ungracious and that this can hamper evangelism, however, we do not accept Steve’s assertion of a causal or necessary link between affirming penal substitution and being harsh, censorious and ungracious.” Steve Chalk thinks if you go on about penal substitution all the time you end up being really harsh and judgement, because at the centre of the doctrine of penal substitution is this harsh judgement. That’s Steve Chalk’s critique. Now this is something which has been very much divisive, it is something which is separating out people in the evangelical community. For example on one side, have people heard of Wayne Gruden, he is a American theologian, very much in the conservative, evangelical stable, and he says, “There is a returnable, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for.” There must be someone to bear the penalty of sin. This is an eternal and unchanging requirement, no way round it. Let’s read from the passage in Jonah who is in Nineveh, “When God saw all their deeds that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which he had declared he would bring upon them and he did not do it.” Now of course, what Gruden would say is that the punishment was foreseen at this time and the punishment that was due to Nineveh went on Christ. I think that is quite a creative reading of the text. I think that if you just stick with the text throughout scripture you have a different understanding of God being presented. That God is perfectly capable of forgiveness.

There are lots of examples in human society of forgiveness taking place. One that came to mind the other day is Enneskillen, remember the bomb twenty odd years ago, and one of the survivors, I think the father lost his daughter, and the father comes out and says “I forgive those who did this.” To me that is him participating in the nature of God. That God is capable of forgiveness, full stop. That there doesn’t have to be this mechanism by which forgiveness takes place. This is a picture of people waiting for a verdict of the Court, I thought it was quite Dickensian, this seems to be to be, if you like, the son waiting to try an alter a verdict which he has taken on for someone else. I don’t think that is a good way of understanding how our salvation takes place. But the thing is, this question about boundaries, which is really my emphasis, the shibboleth, and this is really where I am going to finish with, just some more quotes, from this book, “If those who impune penal substitution refuse to reconsider their position, there comes a comes a time when we have no alternative but to part company, for the critics are right in this, differences over penal substitution ultimately lead us to worship a different God and to believe a different gospel.” One of the things I vehemently disagree with about that.

Another one, this is after Steve Chalk had an open meeting with the Evangelical Alliance in Westminster where I think something like a thousand people turned up and he was grilled about his acceptability as an evangelical and Joel Edwards who is the leader of that group said, “The question we have to ask honestly and biblically together, is whether or not someone could deny penal substitution and legitimately remain in the Evangelical Alliance.” This is becoming the marker about, you have got to accept that particular doctrine or else you are not an evangelical. Here’s another one, people have heard of Spring Harvest, a group called Word Alive, which is the youth work element in Spring Harvest and there has been a division, a parting of the ways between Spring Harvest, which you might think of as mainstream evangelical and the people behind Word Alive, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, UCCF, this is a very widespread ministry to college age kids. UCCF as a result of this controversy over Steve Chalk and his views and so on said, “UCCF believes it can no longer work with those whose understanding of the nature of the gospel and the distinctive of the atonement is so different to theirs, and mainstream evangelicals and across the world.” They think that mainstream evangelicals have to have penal substitution. “There comes a point when loyalty to gospel as we believe it to be clearly set out in Scripture, and the drive for unity with others can come into conflict and we have reached that point”. So Word Alive and all that section of Spring Harvest no longer wants to have anything to do with Steve Chalk and the people associated with him in Spring Harvest. So this boundary is getting set.

This is the chart I wanted to print out for you in particular, I will just run through it extremely quickly because we are running out of time, these are just the different ways of understanding how salvation is accomplished, they all agree that there is a problem and the solution is Christ. That’s universally agreed, but quite how it’s done is different, so the only church, it is all about the light in the darkness, the incarnation is the light of God revealing us to ourselves. What’s called the Christus Victor, Satan holds us captive, so God either conquers Satan, or God pays Satan a price to redeem us, again early church but also quite common in a lot of contemporary theology, that’s pretty much the one I like, although I think there is truth in most of them. Recapitulation, we share in Adam’s sin, humanity is recreated in Christ. Satisfaction theory, this is the medieval one, in an honour society, an honour based society where honour is seen as the most important thing, our disobedience dishonours God and there must be a gift to restore God’s honour and the gift is Christ’s obedience. Can you see how the metaphor is what works in that culture of the time. Penal substitution which is the Reformation one, that what we need to be saved from is God’s wrath and so Christ is punished in our place.

Another one which runs really throughout a lot of the writings but is associated with a medieval chap called Abelard, is that it is all subjective, our hearts are dead, we have got hearts of stone and it’s the crucifixion which breaks open our hearts and reawakens our moral sense, our sense of what is right and good, so it is an inward conversion. These are all different models held by Christian’s throughout history, and what seems to be happening is that this one is seen as the most important to hold. And that if you don’t hold this, we are not prepared to be in a church with you. And that’s what I think is really wrong.

Anyway, pressing on rapidly, a final question. What are we set free from? This is the end of Shawshank redemption that I am sure you have all seen, you have got this wall and you are set free by getting past the barriers, and penal substitution seems to be the establishment of a barrier. I think the barriers need to come down. I think that the other models of the atonement often fit much better with biblical evidence taken as a whole. There are distinct passages which support something like penal substitution, but there are lots of other passages which support the other models of atonement much more clearly, they emphasis God’s gracious character, his forgiving mercy and so on. The other models can fit better with the early church, they emphasis the resurrection as much as the crucifixion which I think is really key, that don’t divide the communions, that don’t divide churches. The thing is ultimately, it’s a mystery, we are trying to describe how God has done this, and of course we will use the language of our community to do so, but if you look through Christian history that language which has changed over time, lots of different ways of understanding it have been used and deployed and I am sure it will continue to develop. The church has never said “this is the way you have got to understand it.” We are free to explore different ways of understanding it. I think that what Steve Chalk is putting his finger on is that this particular emphasis, that this is the only way possible to understand it can become distorting. You end up talking so much about the wrath of God that there isn’t enough room to talk about the God of love. That’s his worry. Because it’s the God of love which is primary and needs to be emphasised. Now neither he nor I would want to drop language of God’s wrath but if you like God’s wrath fits in underneath, the overarching of God’s love, it is not the other way round, it is not that God’s wrath is the most important thing we need to understand and then if we get that right there is a little pocket of God’s love available for us, it’s the other way round.

A final quotation which will set up next week. This is from John Piper, have you heard of John Piper, American theologian, he wrote the foreword of this book, he says, “If God did not punish His Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.” I think that is profoundly wrong. And I will say more about that next week.

Any questions, thoughts?

Q: You are quoting from Jonah and the fact that God doesn’t visit his wrath on Ninevah, I wonder if you perhaps remind us of Jonah’s reaction to this.

A: Indeed, indeed it is half past ten by the way so if people want to head off, please do. Jonah’s reaction to the mercy shown by God is to lose his temper and get really fed up because his understanding of justice of the wrath of God is more important to him than the notion of the God of love. Exactly.

Q: What strikes me about penal substitution is that Christ didn’t to be divine, he only needed to be sinless and there is a great flaw there, a huge flaw there, and I think what I like about Erinais is that creation is a part of the cross as well, the work of the cross, creation is restored and I think that’s where penal substitution comes in.

A: One of the downfalls of penal substitution is that it tends to emphasis the cross above everything else. I think the cross is central, I don’t think you can really understand the cross properly without the Last Supper before it and the Resurrection after it, the whole package ties together, that is if you like the Christ event. You need to talk about his life, you need to talk about his teaching, who he was, what sort of God he showed us to be. Whereas this singular emphasis upon the cross ends up being distorting. If you hang on to the resurrection as at least in equivalent in importance to the crucifixion you are more likely to end up getting what God is like. Because the resurrection is all about gratuitous mercy and forgiveness. That’s the heart of what the resurrection means.

Q: What do you think Jesus was saying when he talks about the story of the rich man and Lazarus, was it too late then after death to go God’s way?

A: Can you be a bit more specific?

Q: Just what was he getting at in that story, the rich man who from the grave ..

A: Oh Dives and Lazarus? I don’t see the link, sorry I’m being a bit dense.

Q: Well it’s just about being too late isn’t it, after death, that you have got to come to God first in life and that’s coming to believe in Christ first which is our message as Christians.

A: Fine but I don’t see the link between that and penal substitution.

Q: No perhaps not.
A: It’s about the reality of hell. I’m quite happy to run with the reality of hell. That might be another whole session. I think there is something eternal at stake.

Q: Yes, and isn’t it the wrath of God then that puts us there because we haven’t accepted his calling on our lives? I mean there is some punishment there surely?

A: Next week I’m looking at the language of being born again. I will talk much more about that. And remember saying to me right at the beginning between what salvation means and how salvation is accomplished. This week is all about how salvation is accomplished. Next week I am going to talk about what salvation means. I might even start off with a quote from Jonah because it is all about repentance, what is repentance, what does it mean.

Q: Sam, I am worried that you are dividing what the Lord God has joined together which I believe in certain rituals in the Church of England you are not supposed to do, can I start off by saying that the central doctrine is the incarnation, I was always brought up that the real doctrine was the cross, this was heavy emphasis in my upbringing. The position I am now coming to is slightly different. It might be helpful to look at what our Lord said before he died in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said, “What shall I say? Shall I say Father take this cup from me, but for this reason I came forth?” In other words the purpose of the incarnation was the cross and we should not divide the two and one of the mistakes that modern theologians are making that they are dividing things which in fact stand as a heap and we really cannot understand the cross without the incarnation.

A: I would agree with that, in particular I would say all the different bits join together. It is the seamless robe. You know, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, for example, the whole sacramental process of Last Supper and so on. It all fits together it all coheres. Now actually I think the problem is the reverse that the cross has been over emphasised compared to everything else going on in the Christian story with this doctrine as it’s being done now and I suspect for example in Luther and Calvin’s time it worked as a way of telling people about the love of God, because it fitted so naturally with the wider culture. I think it is because our wider culture has changed that this model, this metaphor is no longer doing the work it was intended to do and the insistence of hanging on to it is starting to distort the faith. Does that make sense? I think when Calvin and Luther were describing this they wanted to emphasis the love of God, and within the culture of the time this image worked to do that, but I think that because our culture is so distinct from that of the Reformers, it can no longer do the work they wanted it to do, which is to share the love of Christ. Any others?

Q: I’m desperately trying to find a way of getting this lectures to mean anything to me when I sort of walk out of the door, and go home and what I do next week, and I find it all terribly academic really.

A: This morning’s was the most technical and academic I’ll do in this sequence.

Q: One of the things that you talked about today was the black box in the middle of God and the sinners. I feel that that black box contains the recognition of the people that they have done something wrong. I mean God didn’t kill Christ, the people did, and they had to recognise their folly and it’s no good them just being forgiven and walking away, if they don’t actually see what they have done and this really we can relate to in our lives all the time, we are all the time making mistakes and unless we actually see the biggest mistake it doesn’t help.

A: I agree with you. I will tie in much more strongly with that next week, when it will become a bit more practical, but I just want to pick up one thing when you said, “we killed Christ, it wasn’t God who killed Christ”, one of the inferences of penal substitution and sometimes it is a distorted way of putting it, but one of the inferences is actually, God is responsible, whereas I think very much that we were responsible, it is sin who executes him, it is the actions of sinful humanity which cause him to be killed. But that is disputed. We’re hitting twenty to, thank you very very much for coming, next week I am going to be talking about what it means to be born again and repentance. Thank you.

God and human rights

Andrew Brown has a new blog on the Guardian. Go and discuss this with him:
“if there is no God, then we cannot be made in his image, and we cannot be his children: in that case there is nothing which it is wrong to do to a human being simply because they are a human being. Note: this isn’t a claim that no atheists can believe in human rights. That would be absurd. It is a claim that the atheist who believes in human rights must believe that they are no more than a socially constructed reality and that if no one believed in them, they would not exist. Otherwise, Rowan would say, if you reach to some standard of humanity independent of actual humans, you are reaching for something that makes sense of a lot of talk about God.”
(He’s channelling Rowan)

Discussions with Stephen Law

This is going to be one of those ‘central posts’ where I’ll gather some threads together, principally about the problem of suffering, and the relative merits of atheism and Christian faith.

For those who don’t know, at two of the establishments where I studied Philosophy and Theology I was tutored by Stephen Law, who I found to be a great teacher and a very nice man. He’s also a very intelligent and committed atheist, which gives rise to more or less helpful discussions!

My first post on the problem of suffering here.
Stephen responds here and here.
I respond here.

Stephen takes up Hart’s essay on theodicy here, my explanation of Hart here, and he takes up some of my comments here, here , here and here.
I comment on this blog here.
And I offer a more substantial response here.
When Stephen responds to that I’ll link it in.

Even though I end up being abused rather a lot (eg ‘bullshit artist’!) I find the process helpful and it helps to clarify my own thinking, even if that clarity doesn’t seem to get shared very far.

Meaning, Suffering and Integrity

Returning to the discussion about suffering. This is long (c 3700 words).


We had an interesting reading from Romans in our last Sunday service:

“…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Rom 5.3-5, NIV)

~~~

What does it mean to believe in God? Specifically, what does it mean for a Christian to believe in God? As I understand it, the essential element is about meaning or purpose – to believe in God is to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference, it is something that stands outside of our desires and it is something to which we need to conform in order to flourish. The Christian claim is that this meaning became manifest in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who taught, was crucified and rose again on the third day two thousand years ago. This is what is meant in the prologue to John’s gospel: the Word became flesh. The logos (meaning, purpose) took human form, lived amongst us, full of grace and truth. Thus, there may be many ways of describing meaning in human life; the Christian claim is that this meaning is explicitly revealed in Jesus yet (if a Christian accepts that all things were made through Christ) we can expect to find meaning outside of the Christian tradition. No genuine human meaning is incompatible with Christianity.

~~~

Consider what happens at a church wedding, and specifically the contrast with a state service. At both of them legal vows will be exchanged, yet in the former the language and liturgy of God is foremost; in the latter all references to religion are forbidden. Specifically, in the vows spoken in a church service there is the phrase ‘in the presence of God I make this vow’.

What is being referred to with this language of God is precisely the larger purpose, the larger framework of meaning, within which the vows have their place. There is an acknowledgment of several things: that the desires of the couple are not sovereign; that they are dependent upon God’s grace for the health of their relationship; that the commitment is sacred involving the most profound elements of the personality; that the process is open-ended, may involve drastic change to one or both parties, but that the covenant being made in the sight of God is being set up above whatever individual choices and preferences the parties bring to the agreement.

In other words, a marriage is not just a contract. To say that the marriage is being made ‘in the presence of God’ is to place the relationship in that larger framework of meaning and purpose from which all other meanings and purposes (in a Christian culture) derive their sense. It is about rooting the relationship in a much longer and deeper pattern of life than personal choice and desire.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to have a non-Christian wedding service that partakes of this same character, eg Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist wedding services. What I do not perceive to be possible is to have an explicitly atheist wedding service which partakes of the same sharing in a wider purpose, independent of human choices. The difference I perceive between humourless and sophisticated atheism is that the former doesn’t recognise there to be any problem here; the latter does, and offers alternatives. It is not so much the word ‘God’ itself that matters, it is the acknowledgment of something higher.

~~~

How does human suffering fit in with this context of meaning? How does this understanding of the word ‘God’ fit in with “the problem of suffering”? There seem two ways to address this issue, one academic, one more personal.

The academic issue is to point out inconsistencies between supposed attributes of God and the presence of suffering, either as a logical problem (see here) or as an ‘evidentiary’ problem (see here). The greatest problem of these academic approaches is that they mistake the nature of (in particular) Christian faith in God. There are three inter-linked problems:

i) it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position – that’s part of what the word ‘God’ means – something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God’s attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis;

ii) related to this is the axiom that I have mentioned several times before about idolatry. This can be defined in several ways, one of the simplest being ‘God is not a member of a set’ (including the set of things which are not members of a set!). This is a rule of thumb – a grammatical rule – determining how the word God can be used. What it means is that nothing definable in the human realm can be given an absolute meaning. All things are subject to change;

iii) a third implication is that it is blasphemous to try and justify God to humanity – what is technically called theodicy – because the attempt necessarily violates points i) and ii) above, and therefore runs counter to the meaning and purpose that the word God refers to. This doesn’t mean that the problem can’t be considered and clarified further through discussion – it does mean (and this is something that is slowly dawning on me personally) that the faithful not only cannot provide an intellectually satisfactory answer, but that they mustn’t. This is one of the points I take from the Hart article.

~~~

One of the problems that I have experienced in discussing this issue is that many theologians explicitly pursue theodicies. The implication of my argument above is that they are faithless. I do not believe it to be an accident that Modern Protestants are over-represented amongst such thinkers.

A Modern Protestant might agree that ‘There is an x such that x is God’. More traditional Christians cry out with Augustine ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee’.

~~~

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

(Leonard Cohen, Anthem)

~~~

The more personal problem of suffering relates to what people actually do when they are faced with suffering. When a person’s world crumbles around them because of a particular turn of events is it still possible to claim that life is still meaningful? Does the language about the world having meaning and purpose, apart from our own choices, still make any sort of sense when confronted with life-shattering circumstances? The question could be: when we are in the pit of despair, is there a ladder that can be used to climb up out?

There are at least three options:

i) a nihilist answer: there is no ladder. Life is bleak and meaningless. There is no higher purpose. Get used to it! Stop indulging in lily-livered sentimentalism and self-deceit. The trouble I see with this sort of answer is that it destroys everything that makes humanity distinctively human – there is no longer any human Quality available. There is nothing to build a life around.

ii) an enlightened existentialist answer: make the ladder yourself, out of your own resources. Where I think this line of thought breaks down in this context (it breaks down elsewhere too) is that it is appealing to resources of character and moral strength that may be precisely what have been exhausted by the suffering.

iii) a Christian (or other religious response) which, ultimately, ends up talking about mystery. That which was thought to be God – a stable source of meaning and value – turns out now to be no such thing. Either there is no God (options i) and ii) open up) or else God is not what God was thought to be. In other words the context of suffering is one where we are brought closer to reality and closer to God. For they are the same thing in the end. Option iii) is essentially a declaration of faith.

~~~

This was a sermon I gave at the funeral of a teenage girl who had taken her own life:

We have come and gathered in this church today to mourn the death of _____; to lament for a life lost all too soon; to seek some measure of understanding of what has been, and perhaps, some hope for what will be.

In all of the tragedies offered up in our human life, very few are as severe or as painful as the loss sustained by ________’s family. It is a loss which shatters all the foundations on which a family is built up – the bonds of love and trust which hold a family together. As the reading from the book of Lamentations puts it – “In all the world has there been such sorrow?” And this shock and grief is not confined to ________’s own family, for it is something which affects the entire community, all of us gathered here today. For we do share life with each other. We are not separate from each other. We are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper. And so this wound, which is so overwhelming for _______’s family, is also a wound in our community, our fellowship of neighbours and friends. Where do we go from here?

When someone takes their own life, we who are left behind are confronted with questions. The pain inside demands an answer, and so the mind tortures itself with doubt and worries. Was there something that I could have said differently that might have prevented this? Was there something I could have done that would have eased the pain in _______’s heart? If only I hadn’t done this or said that. This is our natural reaction, it is a reaction of care and concern which demonstrates the love we had for _______. But ultimately, there can be no final answers; there certainly cannot be any final blame. We are confronted, in _______’s taking of her own life, with a deep and a very painful mystery. And all we can ask is ‘why?’ Perhaps most of all, we ask, ‘Why God? Where were you in all this?’ For it seems to me that when we are faced with pain that we do not understand, when we come close to being overwhelmed by it, what is most painful is the meaning of what has happened. We ask the question why. Why God? Why?

In our gospel reading we heard the story of the death of Lazarus, which also gathered a community together in grief. When Jesus comes to Mary and Martha he is too late to prevent Lazarus’ death – Lazarus, whom he loved and befriended. And it wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t get there in time – he chose to delay for a few days. And both Mary and Martha ask him why, saying “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We don’t know why Jesus didn’t come immediately. Just as we don’t know why nothing prevented _______’s death. We do know that Jesus was terribly upset by the death, and by the grief of the community. And in consequence, Jesus acts to raise Lazarus from death, to unbind him from his shroud and release him from his tomb. Lazarus is set free from death – a promise of resurrection that is extended to all who trust in Jesus.

But why couldn’t Jesus just have prevented the death in the first place? Why couldn’t God make a world which doesn’t have suffering in it? Why can’t he tell us how and why it all makes sense – why is it that this world is the sort of place that _______ couldn’t cope with, when she had so much to live for, and there was so much love available for her? I have no easy answer for that question. We live within the world that He has created, where we must wrestle and struggle with this mystery of human pain and suffering. But in the face of that suffering, I do believe that there is the possibility of hope; and that hope is the only answer we can find, which might heal our wounds.

For Christians follow an innocent man who was hung to death on a cross; and a representation of that event hangs above me now. And his cry from the cross was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Jesus also felt abandoned by God, even he couldn’t understand what it was that was happening. And yet on the morning of the third day, he was raised to life again, which is why we still talk about him over 2000 years later. This might seem just to replace one mystery with another, but what has changed is that we can hope. For when we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject everything that God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross. We remain rooted in our pain and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t, although I can’t understand how this tragedy can make sense, I trust… I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that no one who is truly loved is ever lost. For love is eternal, it is what the world is made of, and it is what the maker of this world is made of.

In the face of the pain of this tragic event, if we can trust in God, if we can hold on to hope, we can trust that one day we will share in that resurrection when, finally, we will understand how and why it all makes sense. On that day we shall be reunited with those we love, and then there will be no more pain, there will be no more grief and sorrow, and God will gently wipe away every tear from our eyes.

~~~

I see the personal problem as much the most important and significant question to address. That is why I want to know what (humourless) atheists would say to people in concrete situations. Do they choose option i) or ii) or do they choose different ones? It’s not a trivial request and the discussion will forever share a certain abstract and unreal quality until answers are provided.

“Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don’t mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the ‘existence of this being’, but, eg, sufferings of various sorts. They neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, – life can force this concept on us.” (Wittgenstein, 1950)

Why is it that it was the highly educated in Paris who were so shocked by the Lisbon earthquake, whereas those who had experienced the suffering carried on with their prayers? Could it be that for all their intellectual refinement they were not as in touch with reality as the poor Portuguese? It is, after all, part of the logic of belief in God that non-belief is evidence of delusion, of a failure to properly grasp the nature of reality.

~~~

Can the ladder be climbed up? Or is it simply delusional to think that life is meaningful?

One of the things that I feel is often missed in discussion with atheists is the necessary connection between ‘God’ and ‘meaning/purpose’. From my perspective you cannot have one without the other – which means that if meaning and purpose are accepted as part and parcel of human life then that necessarily implies a belief in God.

Of course, the word ‘God’ is not the crucial thing here. The attainment of union with that meaning and purpose could be called Nirvana and still be referring to the same thing. The language that has been developed in our culture happens to be drawn from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The way in which we talk about things that are worthwhile, indeed, what sort of things we count as being worthwhile, are inherited from this Christian context.

What is important is not the words or rituals that are used but the life that is lived. And where the life is lived with hope, integrity and purpose – there is God.

“What can we bring to the Lord?
What kind of offerings should we give him?
Should we bow before God
with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.6-8 NLT)

~~~

I was profoundly struck by Scott g’s comment (here)”pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of ‘quality,’ both by what it is and what it isn’t, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with ‘god.’ this is the difference between what you do, and what pirsig does. what pirsig does is enlightening, and what you do is frustrating. pirsig wants us to get it. you seem to not want us to get it.”

I think I have been at fault in these discussions. The first fault is one which the interlocutors at Stephen’s site have picked up on, describing me as having a strategy “of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority.” I am culpable of intellectual arrogance. Specifically: I do believe that no open-minded person with a genuine curiosity about the issues could remain a humourless atheist; I do see it as an intellectual backwater driven more by a polemical agenda than a heartfelt pursuit of truth. Which is why I enjoy engaging with sophisticated atheists so much – they recognise, inter alia, that a) there is more to Christianity than Modern Protestantism; b) that the rhetoric of science doesn’t match up with the reality; c) that the heritage of Christianity is still dominant in Western societies; d) that Christianity and other religions engage in certain humanly essential pursuits which need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

I think I need to repent of some intellectual arrogance, and that repentance needs principally to take the form of listening more attentively to interlocutors. What went wrong with the recent conversation at Stephen Law’s site would seem to be that I lost track of what was actually being asked.

There is a second fault flowing from this, and from the above. I have been engaging in the argument on secular terms and it is becoming more and more clear to me that the framework of the debate is inherently atheistic. That is, it is impossible to explain the word ‘God’ and all that it means whilst accepting a secular frame of reference (and by secular I mean the late Modern Protestant framework that most Philosophy of Religion is pursued within).

Scott correctly identifies the solution: ‘pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of ‘quality,’ both by what it is and what it isn’t, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with ‘god.’

I think this is exactly right. I need to talk positively about what God means – God as understood and explored within the mainstream Christian tradition. God is not a concept to be defined but a reality to be explored. And I have no desire to hide that in a smokescreen.

~~~

What I am really thinking about is a discussion of ‘the way’. Protestant cultures have a high reverence for words – it is a legacy of the technological revolution which put the Bible into every household, as the immediate source of authority. Yet words are ultimately useless. Another Wittgenstein reference: ‘it has been impossible for me to say one word in my writings about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

I do need to talk about the way – about how meaning and purpose are integrated into a life – about how the presence of suffering not only doesn’t destroy that meaning but is tied up with it, in that the most profound understandings of meaning and purpose come on the far side of the suffering, not before.

And the way is not something reducible to words. It has to be shown in order to make any sense. Which brings us back to where I began – with Jesus. Christianity makes no sense without him, without what he taught, how he lived, how he died and rose again. The way I would want to describe is the way that he walked. It is not a matter of words but of the Word – the logos. The logic which animates Christian life, and which can’t ultimately be wrapped up in neat and tidy definitions. It can only be shown with a life.

~~~

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

Wittgenstein, 1948