In a recent “Skeptic’s Collection” column, I used the “Vergangenheit” episode of the critically acclaimed Netflix series The Crown as a springboard to a broader discussion of the relationship, within the Christian tradition, of forgiveness and trust. Implicit in my discussion was a critique of the conception of this relationship among, not all, but broad segments of the progressive-Christian community, which seems to often believe that the two are, if not strictly synonymous, then at least closely related. I argued to the contrary: that trust is always, at best, conditional, even on those occasions when forgiveness is absolutely required. My question is this: if we transpose that transaction between the Queen and the former King (now Duke) from a human to a theological key, is the Queen’s justification still valid? Is there a point beyond which trust in God, like the question of the Queen’s trust in the former King Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor, becomes, not only optional, but forbidden? I believe the answer is “Yes” and that that point of inflection is determined by context.
This is obviously a fraught question, and even so I will address only a simplified version. In particular, I will assume that it is always possible, and even required, to forgive God. There is a vast literature on this subject, far vaster than orthodox Christians’ reticence on the subject would suggest. Raise the question of forgiving God, however tentatively, and you are virtually guaranteed to elicit a kind of embarrassed, toe-scuffing, nervously-laughing, direct-gaze-averting embarrassment, the kind of reaction you would expect if you farted in the presence of Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) while attending high tea at Downtown Abbey. Everyone just pretends that the question that was posed, like the flatulence that was emitted, just simply did not occur, and therefore was unheard because there was nothing to hear.
A few examples of such theological farts will illustrate what I mean. An excellent example is an article in a 2013 issue of Patheos “Learning How to Forgive God (When Jesus Wrecks Your Life”). Another such is C. S. Lewis’ brutally honest journal of his grief during the slow death from cancer of his wife Joy Davidman Gresham in Lewis’ A Grief Observed. (Grief was originally written pseudonymously, and an Oxford colleague at one point recommended that Lewis read it as an antidote to Lewis’ all-consuming grief!) The main flaw with Grief is that Lewis rather explicitly maintains that a grieving person must maintain a positive view of God – but does not explain this “must”: why must I always maintain a positive view of God? Then there is Peter DeVries’ harrowing novel The Blood of the Lamb – a lightly fictionalized autobiographical account of the death from leukemia of DeVries’ own daughter – and the antiseptically detached, and therefore all the more horrifying, protest theology of Prof. David Blumenthal’s Facing the Abusing God. And Phyllis Trible’s eye-opening treatment of certain biblical passages in Texts of Terror. Not to belabor the point: at the tea party of orthodox theological discourse, many more people have been farting than the scholarly establishment seems willing to acknowledge.
But, as I promised, I am going to hold all the above in abeyance and, summarily ignoring the ambient stench, nevertheless concentrate on a question that, both logically and theologically, is subsequent to forgiveness: trust. After an experience of catastrophic trauma incurred by one’s intent to maintain fidelity to one’s religious faith, is one categorically required to retain one’s trust in God under literally all conditions and circumstances?
When I was teaching systematic theology and Church history to adults during my internship for my theology degree, I would always tell my students that, whenever anyone asked them a really “deep” theological question, there was always one answer that was virtually guaranteed to be unassailably right: It All Depends. Similarly, the most honest answer I can give in this case is also It All Depends. Obviously, the question being begged it “It all depends … on what?” The short answer is “What one stands to lose, what one has already lost, and the consequences of dealing with that loss”. Depending on how one answers those questions, even forgiveness may turn out to be impossible, let alone the rebuilding of trust. Furthermore, either one may turn out to be, not only impossible, but would be catastrophically unhealthy, even if they were possible. It All Depends means, in practical terms, that Context Is All.
Consider casino gambling. I have no taste for any kind of chance-related gaming. I know next to nothing about it and care to know even less. In fact, one of the few advantages of being a pessimist, a skeptic, and a cynic, all of which I am, is that one's pessimism, skepticism, and cynicism inoculate one against the possibility of developing a gambling addiction. I figure that my chances of winning are so small that I could inscribe the probability on a Higgs boson and have enough room left over to write the Magna Carta.
So when I go to Vegas, as I did a month or so ago, I only play the dollar slot machines, at most, just for the sake of being able to say "I gambled in Vegas last week". Now, when I am stuffing the dimes and quarters into the machine, if I discover hard evidence that the casino, or even this particular machine, is rigged, I will probably go on playing. The stakes are negligible; the consequences of loss, not worth mentioning. I am just killing time until they bring fresh pizzas out to the buffet.
But if I am playing poker for middle-seven-digit stakes and discover that the dealer is crooked, or that the pit boss is on the take, or that the casino itself is rigged -- see the movie Casino -- I will walk away from the table and never frequent that casino again, especially if I am wagering my house, both our cars, and our children's college fund on the outcome of the game. In both cases, I will have lost faith in either that particular slot machine or in the casino itself. But in the latter case -- because the stakes are so astronomically high -- my loss of faith will be both radical and permanent. To continue to gamble at a casino that is rigged to take my children's college tuition, and to do so knowing that such is the case, would be unforgivably irresponsible of me and a further betrayal, both of myself and of my loved ones. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
I would argue that true religious faith, i.e., faith in the sense of unqualified trust in God and not in the sense of the “prosperity gospel” or of some quid pro quo bargain with God — faith in any sense worthy of being called such — is “always already” much more similar to the high roller scenario above then to its quarter-slot-machine counterpart. In “Little Gidding”, one of his great Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot echoes Julian of Norwich’s 14th-century definition of faith in Shewings of Divine Love: “A condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything”. Faith that complete requires a commensurate degree of trust. In fact, faith just is such trust. There can be no compromise, no hidden agendas, no head games, no fine print. In authentic faith, both parties must stand before one another in the utter nakedness and absolute vulnerability of pure relationship. As Kierkegaard said in Fear and Trembling, the person of faith stands in “an absolute relation to the Absolute”. Any fig-leaf qualification of such radical candor, any Clintonian caviling about "what 'is' is", is instantly fatal to faith.
This requirement is as binding on God as it is on the human party. Faith is not a legal contract like an agreement with a gardener to mow one's lawn. Faith is a covenant like one's marriage. So if, at some point in the relationship, God pulls an Edward VIII through some kind of Divine bait-and-switch, as was the case with my wife and me in our "vocations jag" of the middle 1980s or as was the case with Benjamin Corey and his wife in the Patheos story, that is an instance of the Divine Casino using loaded dice at its craps tables or weighting the roulette wheel or marking cards at its poker tables: the game is no longer fair, and therefore one is free -- and, speaking for myself, I personally would argue, even morally obligated -- to stop playing the game. The covenant is broken.
The solutions that have been offered to this traumatic situation are varied, but all have in common a fatal compromise of humans' innate moral sense. Perhaps most destructive is any appeal to the Bible. (Analogous remarks perhaps hold within, e.g., the Muslim and Hebrew traditions, but that is 'way outside my discursive and theological wheelhouse.) For example, there is the classic appeal to Romans 8:28 -- And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose. Or there is Proverbs 3:5-7 -- Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes ... Especially among sincere conservative Christians, it is doubtful that any biblical texts have done more harm than these two. For this argument amounts to saying that the offended party must renounce all indigenous moral sense and believe blindly, thereby abdicating all individual responsibility in favor of obedience to an imperative that has already ex hypothesi proven destructive. This is also the argument of Blumenthal in Facing the Abusing God: the covenant is the covenant and is therefore subject to neither abrogation or renunciation, regardless of how abusive God has proven to be. It is one thing to be martyred for one’s faith, but something else altogether to be martyred by one’s faith. I have quite severe ethical reservations about the morality of religious martyrdom per se, a subject for a separate rant. But I certainly have no use whatsoever for martyrdom in deference to a covenant that has already been broken.
That is the ethos underlying Her Majesty's wisdom in “Vergangenheit”. Her Majesty and her Government were profligately generous in not arresting the now-Duke, trying him for high treason, and summarily executing him. He left the UK alive only by reason of the grace and sufferance of the Sovereign and the Government thereof. Women -- it is almost always women -- who are the victims of an abusive marriage are absolved of all allegiance to their marriage vows. Presidents who throw their subordinates under the bus forfeit all claim to the latters' loyalty. Blumenthal notwithstanding, Gods Who abuse their devotees no longer deserve the latters' belief, deference, worship, or love.
We should all be as wise as Queen Elizabeth and altogether unapologetically exercise our own indigenous sovereignty.
James R. Cowles
"I Believe In Me" ... MaxPixel ... Public domain
Linked hands ... MaxPixel ... Public domain
Thread-connected hands ... MaxPixel ... Public domain
Trust as religious faith ... MaxPixel
"The Betrayal of Christ" ... Jacopo Bassano (1510–1592) ... Public domain
"The Betrayal of Christ" ... Ugolino di Nerio (1280–1330) ... Public domain
"Silence is betrayal" ... Daniel Lobo ... CC by 2.0