Thursday, June 24

Preaching Repentance To God: The Gospel In Reverse


Back in late March, just before Easter, I published a “Skeptic’s Collection” column in which I posed the following question that generated quite a bit of (civil, moderate, thoughtful, and sophisticated) reaction on the part of my readers, to wit:

The Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the full Incarnation of the God of the Hebrew Bible (Col. 2:9) logically entails the consequence that, in addition to being a Baby in a manger and a Man Who loves playing with little kids, Jesus Christ, as God’s full Incarnation (Heb. 1:3), necessarily means that the Person of Jesus also incorporates the Hebrew God’s tendencies toward vindictiveness, violence, vanity, and abusiveness.

If we take the latter seriously as actual attributes of God qua God and not as mere human projections, then we also have to take them no less seriously as attributes when they are incarnate in the Person of Christ. The never-ending scandal of child abuse by priests is therefore eclipsed by the potential for similar abuse on the part of Christ:   man has slain his thousands, and God His tens of thousands. (The fact that God, in the Person of Christ, never did so does not mean that the potential did not exist, and the traditional definition of "person," both Divine and human, is formulated in terms of potential.) However, the following is a possible way out, a possible reconciliation, and it is all the more ironic because the following strategy utilizes the two great categories of the Christian Gospel itself:   repentance and forgiveness. But … spoiler alert … it does absolutely require some rather significant and at-least-heterodox cutting, trimming, and tweaking of historically orthodox Christian theology.

Face of God by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (detail)

Perhaps the most difficult step, the least orthodox, and the most fraught with at least the possibility of heresy is to admit up front -- the more intentionally and the more explicitly the better –that the entire Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole enterprise of Christian theodicy has been, and continues to be, an utter and abysmal and morally bankrupt waste of time.

Before I go any farther, I must make a critical distinction. I say “Christian theodicy” in order to distinguish Christian theodicy from its Jewish, specifically post-Holocaust Jewish, counterpart. With the former, the justification of God is, usually covertly, a foregone conclusion, e.g., C. S. Lewis’s God on the Dock; Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God; et al.. Without exception, every Christian theodicy I have ever encountered has been, almost always implicitly, “pre-engineered” to ensure that God is absolved of all blame for evil. The magician puts the rabbit in the hat so she can pull it out at the end. (Atypically explicit is the preamble to Paradise Lost, where John Milton avers, prior to any argument, that his purpose is “to justify the ways of God to man” – which rather explicitly presupposes that the “ways of God” are a priori justifiable.) Much Jewish theology is similar, of course. But in the wake of the Holocaust, a powerful “theology of protest” movement arose in Judaism that has no Christian counterpart. For post-Holocaust Jewish theologians in the “protest” stream – David Blumenthal, Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits, Zachary Braiterman, Elie Wiesel (granted, not a theologian), Emil Fackenheim, et al. -- the (shared) guilt of God for the Holocaust is, at the very least, a live possibility. For Blumenthal, Rubenstein, Berkovits, & Co, the rabbit is not in the hat from the get-go. In fact, there may well be no rabbit.

I make bold to include “morally bankrupt” because the entire Christian-theodical enterprise amounts to a two-millennia-long effort to defend the Great Indefensible … a large-scale version of trying to defend Hannibal Lecter as a nice old man with a rather too passionate taste for fava beans and chianti, except that, unlike Lecter, with theodicy one cannot even avail oneself of the fig-leaf defense of barking insanity – since we must presuppose sanity on God’s part, if for no other reason than to get the whole enterprise off the ground. I.e., if God is crazy, then discourse is impossible (which -- I would argue -- is sorta-kinda the whole point of the Book of Job, especially at the end, anyway, but let's not get lost chasing that rabbit).

"Job" by Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat

Post-Holocaust Jewish “protest” theology is anything but monolithic. But, as diverse as these various theologies are, they all have one element in common: they engage in a serious and even-handed -- not merely pro forma, as with Christian theodicy -- critique of the Hebrew texts describing God’s behavior vis a vis Israel, not because they necessarily believe these texts to be factual historical records, but because of the ethic implicit in those narratives as theological parables. E.g., when the biblical text says that God slaughtered 70,000 Israelites to punish King David for having taken a census of the Hebrew army, regardless of the story’s historicity, the narrative is taken as at least indicative of the moral character of God, i.e., that the character of God is such that God is occasionally – by no means all the time or even consistently, but sometimes – subject to fits of rage and violence of a degree human beings would find unconscionable, often to the point of being criminally culpable. Yes, there is literary symbolism in the mix; yes, there probably is a place for a psychoanalytic consideration of these stories of violence and abuse as projections of the human , as Fr. Ron Rolheiser insists; yes, it is almost certain that we read these narratives through a hermeneutic screen of projection. All these are worthy of being taken into account. But post-Holocaust “protest” theologies are unanimous in their insistence that the stories be taken seriously on their own terms for what they reveal about God qua God, and all refuse to “psychoanalyze” away this significance.

I find Prof. (and Rabbi) David Blumenthal’s critique most accessible, not only or even primarily in terms of theory, but because, of all the “protest” theologies with which I am familiar, it is the most down-to-earth tangible in terms of praxis. And it is precisely the issue of praxis that is most problematical. How are religious believers -- Jews and Christians -- to comport themselves toward God, once they refuse to dissipate the significance of the "violence / abuse narratives" of God's rage against God's people by recourse to psychoanalytic and postmodernist exegeses that were not available to the original writers, redactors, and readers? E.g., the authors of Fr. Rolheiser's "difficult" texts could not have intended a Freudian interpretation. I would argue that, vis a vis the Christian tradition in particular, the ascription of abusive behavior to God is a radical, radical game-changer, because such an ascription fundamentally alters, cannot help but alter, the Christian view of the character of Christ and the whole purpose of the Incarnation -- and that it does so in ways that at least border on the blasphemous, as measured by historical criteria.


In terms of orthodox theology, going at least as far back as St. Anselm and Cur Deus Homo in the mid-11th century, the purpose of the Incarnation was to effect the Sacrifice of an innocent Victim Whose death would recompense God for the effrontery of man in besmirching God's dignity through sin. The consequences of man's sin would be borne by the very Person of Innocence incarnate, thereby propitiating man's radical guilt by Christ's equally radical innocence.  Christ's innocence would substitute for man's guilt, so that God would see the former, impute it to man, and by proxy punish -- and thereby forgive -- the latter. Notice how this entire Anselmian scenario hinges on the sheer innocence of Christ, i.e., the innocence of God incarnate.

Taking seriously the critique of "the abusive God", however, fundamentally alters the terms of this transaction. Once admit that God is -- even arguably, let alone conclusively -- no longer innocent, and Anselm's account is no longer tenable. In that account, man did all the sinning, so it was also up to man to do all the repenting and up to God to do all the forgiving. But once we adopt a "protest"-theological perspective that insists on seeing the violence of God in the "difficult" texts as actual aspects of God's behavior, there is repenting and forgiving to be done on both sides. (Note that one need not deny that man is morally tainted in order to affirm that God shares such a taint.  Rather, there is ample blame to go around.) Under this conception of the Incarnation, there are 2 key questions, not just 1:  (1) the traditional question of God's ability to forgive man; but now, (2) the transgressive question of whether man can forgive God.

Seen in the light of questions (1) and (2), the Incarnation just is the Trial of God that Elie Wiesel wrote so movingly about -- a trial about an actual crime.  In an abuse-sensitive culture in which the violence of God in the Bible is taken seriously as a reflection of God's actual character, the Passion narrative can be re-read transgressively as God's delivering of Godself up to the judgment of man, a kind of cosmic version of the Nuremberg Trial of God's propensity toward abuse and violence.  One could even argue that the Crucifixion is the supreme Example of retributive Justice, the ultimate culmination of the lex talionis, i.e., the very principle Jesus repudiated. Seen  from this perspective, what is at issue in the Easter narrative is not only "Can God forgive man?", but also, and equally, "Can man forgive God?"

So the Empty Tomb of Easter becomes the Chamber where humans and God meet, each with H(h)is / H(h)er own wounds still fresh and bleeding, each confronting the O(o)ther, each awaiting a response, the Infinite analogue of a marriage / family therapist's consulting room. The appropriate response is not joy but Silence.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Head of Christ ... Albrecht Durer ... public domain
"Job" ... Leon Bonnat ... public domain
God ... Michelangelo ... Sistine Chapel (detail) ... public domain
Spanish flu hospital ward ... US Army ... public domain


  • Well done. I think this could actually preach.

    It does, however, hinge on how we think about God. As a being, force, energy, movement, relationship. But for sure, if God is the author of all good then God is de facto author of all evil. Often times we preach against the text, if we are doing our willing to go there.

    And also, the whole view of Jesus as the blameless victim ala Anselm is not the view of the crucifixion throughout history. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock address the historical movement of atonement and the cross.

    The ultimate question is, what do we do with God as divine abuser? It is why I state that the Bible is people’s understanding of their interactions with God not an actual record of God. We might see glimpses of God in the text but the text is not God.

    • Sorry to be so late replying … Sometimes WP is very proficient at concealing comments. Well … it’s a bit of a conundrum. If you conceive of God as (what I call) an “efficient cause”, i.e., that God actually “does stuff”, and if you accept the idea that God, per orthodox Christian theology, can do ANY-thing, then you have the Problem of Evil. OTOH, if God is an impersonal Force or Energy or Movement, then the Problem of Evil disappears — at least if you conceive of that Force / Energy / Movement as a kind of elemental entity like an earthquake or hurricane. (How would you have prayed to Hurricane Katrina?) But then there remains the issue of praxis: why do churches include prayers for the sick as part of their liturgy? I quite agree with the issue about the Crucifixion. God whacking Jesus instead of me I find revolting, quite frankly. Many Jewish theologians of the Holocaust, e.g., Prof. Blumenthal, say that EVEN IF GOD IS SOMETIMES ABUSIVE, we must maintain relationship with God. My question: why “must” I? His answer to my “Why” is that you can no more sever your relationship with your Heavenly Parent than you can with your earthly parent. Well, from the standpoint of pure consanguinuity, that’s true. I got the DNA I got. But relationally … like hell I can’t! Sorry for the vehemence. This is a matter of some personal relevance.

      • Hey, no worries on the vehemence. If God is abusive, then God should not be honored. Easy enough.

        I think there is an in between the “first cause” God and the impersonal force/energy. That is what Process Theology gets into. That God is a wooer towards good. The wooing is personal and responsive. But God is not a causer of good. And totally setting aside that God is anywhere near like a human in form or substance.

        Process theology describes it as “creative, responsive love.” Panentheism as God in the world, God beyond the world. I also take that as God beyond description. PT also would say that God and the cosmos came into existence simultaneously, just to break people’s brains. 🙂

        Here’s the wiki summation:
        For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to affect and be affected by temporal processes, contrary to the forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal (will never die), immutable (in the sense that God is unchangingly good), and impassible (in the sense that God’s eternal aspect is unaffected by actuality), but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible.

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