DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Myths of Christianity - 3
The Myth of Justification by Faith (Continued)
Richard Holloway

I think it is more useful to try to figure out the psychological dynamic in this moment of liberation than to be too painstaking about the theology. The theology, in any case, seems to shift around, as have the theories that have been built upon it.

For example, the verses just quoted easily lend themselves to the development what is called satisfaction theory, which holds that human sinfulness has built up a colossal debt towards God that we were incapable of paying. Christ can be thought of as offering God satisfaction, though the idea swings between being punished instead of us and offering to God the sacrifice of a perfect human life.

In describing the experience, Paul sometimes switches from the law court to the slave market, from the forensic metaphor of acquittal or justification to the metaphor of redemption. Slaves could be freed in a number of ways, including being bought out by a redeemer, the way the poor used to redeem on a Friday night, when the pay packet came in, what they had pawned on Wednesday, when there was no money in the house.

Leaving to one side the precise meaning of the metaphors he used, what is beyond dispute is that something radical and liberating happened to Paul which brought him charging into the Christian movement. He associated his sense of liberation with the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than, explicitly, with his teaching. Implicitly, however, there is present in the theology of Paul a link between his own liberation from religious compulsion and the teaching of Jesus.

In his turn, Luther was to achieve a similar catharsis by a similar route. He seems to have been another sick soul, earnestly searching for an elusive perfection through monastic observance. We left him in the monastery privy, meditating on Paul's Letter to the Romans. He could not get himself out of the predicament he was in. By definition, he was his own problem: he was a sinner, incapable of achieving righteousness and the spiritual peace it would bring. Instead, the struggle for perfection brought torment. He knew the law's demand was righteous, but he was foul, unable to find peace by following it. Who would rescue him from this captivity?

It was the same question that Paul had asked and he received the same answer: what he could not achieve by his own efforts was freely made available to him by the grace of Christ. Standing in the dock, guilty as charged, waiting to hear the sentence of death, he is staggered to hear the words of acquittal from the judge that let him out of jail free with no penalty. Another has paid the fine, served the sentence, changed the heart of the judge - pick your metaphor.

Note that we get the result, the verdict - but what we do not get from either Paul or Luther is a real understanding of the psychological revolution within their own hearts. We get the formula they used to express the catharsis they had experienced, the conclusion of the drama, but we are not let in on how it was psychologically worked out within them. If we can look at another sick soul who went through similar torments we might get a clearer picture of what was going on.

Paul Tillich, the German theologian who emigrated to the US in 1933, where he did his best work, was another troubled religious genius. He struggled unsuccessfully against compulsive sexual relationships that would have had him driven from the American university scene were he alive today. We do not have to guess at the effect this struggle had upon his own inner life, because he has told us in his own words in a famous sermon on a verse from Paul's Letter to the Romans,

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.

For Tillich, in this sermon, the concept of sin is about separation. We experience sin as something that tears us away from our best sense of ourselves, from those we love and from God. This, according to Tillich, was Paul's experience:

In the picture of Jesus as the Christ, which appeared to him at the moment of his greatest separation from other men, from himself and God, he found himself accepted in spite of his being rejected. And when he found that he was accepted, he was able to accept himself and to be reconciled to others.

The title of Tillich's sermon is 'You are accepted' and there can be little doubt that we are looking in on his agonised struggles with his own nature and its compulsions. He uses the phrase 'struck by grace' to capture the justifying moment, the moment that tells us we are accepted in spite of everything we know against ourselves.

He writes:

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

In this raw and honest passage, Tillich has laid bare the struggles with the self-hatred that afflict many troubled souls. And it is precisely at the moment of deepest helplessness, when we have given up the pretence that we are other than we are and are not likely to change, that the moment of grace comes, the moment Paul and Luther associated with the work of Jesus, but a moment that comes in many ways to many different people in many different places. It is the moment of acceptance or justification.

This is how Tillich puts it:

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later; do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace. We may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

In this passage Tillich found the words to convey a liberating human experience that should be more frequent than it is, the moment not of rueful self-acceptance, but of joyful self-acceptance, almost of love of the self.

We are well aware today of the deeps and twists in our nature. There is, for instance, the scapegoat phenomenon or what psychologists call 'projective identification' which, if undetected and un-admitted, can be so deadly. There is an ugly example of it in the film American Beauty in the person of the tough, manly, fascist American Marine Captain who lives next door to the Kevin Spacey character.

It is obvious that the tightly-coiled soldier is a deeply conflicted person, whose self-hatred shows itself in violence towards his son and contempt of anything approaching liberal or hippie values. His son is supplying the Spacey character with the happy weed marijuana, but the captain thinks their relationship is sexual. Persuaded that Spacey is gay, he makes a pass at him and is gently rebuffed. Unable to live with the truth that has just been revealed, he kills the man he has just tried to make love to. He kills in his neighbour what he cannot live with in his own nature.

Homophobia is not the only example of this phenomenon, but it is an extremely powerful one, particularly in religious institutions. There is no sadder figure in Christianity than the self-hating gay priest, often allied to reactionary movements that stand for virulent opposition to everything he himself longs for, but refuses to admit.

One of the most disfiguring aspects of the Church of England at the moment is the way its gay brigade has become, with many honourable exceptions, captive to this kind of inversion.

During the campaign for the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church of the US a close alliance developed between the women's movement and the campaign for gay and lesbian liberation. It was acknowledged that human liberation was indivisible and had to be accepted in total. Self-owning and self-respecting gay men had no difficulty in making alliances with other groups who were victims of prejudice.

That did not happen in England, where one of the groups most virulently opposed to women's emancipation was the closeted gay fraternity, many of whom are allied to reactionary movements such as 'Forward in Faith'. Divided within themselves, they lead painfully unjustified lives.

Justification or grace comes when we fully acknowledge who and what we are. We say the words to ourselves that define our condition, beyond all denial and dishonesty, just as we will one day have to say "Yes" to our own dying, another human reality that provokes panic and flight.

There is, I think, an important distinction to be made here.

The moment of grace or justification is a moment of self-acceptance, though not necessarily of everything that we have done. We may have done terrible things and there will be a time when we have to come to terms with that. For the moment, however, it is ourselves we must accept unconditionally: 'This is who I am and I must say Yes to myself'.

We have to act towards ourselves like the insanely loving father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a story of grace and justification. We can still hope and pray that one day we might change and be all the things we long to be, but for now there is only this moment of grace, this moment in which we must run to meet ourselves as we trudge away from the far country of self-hatred and say "Yes" to ourselves.

And all of this is consistent with public exposure of our shame, with imprisonment, with the loss of those we love: in the depth of our hearts we have to accept ourselves utterly. We must remember here what Tillich says about not seeking or intending anything other than the moment of self-acceptance. The way I would put it is to say that this moment of grace and justification must not be submitted to for prudential or instrumental reasons, in order to lever change into our lives to bring them up to the required standard. There must be no ulterior motive. The moment of grace and justification has to be absolute and single, bearing only its own meaning and integrity. Even on the scaffold we must be able to say an absolute "Yes" to this self that is the gratuitous mystery of life in me. To deny that is to deny the closest life gets to me. My life has to be celebrated, utterly accepted.

As a matter of fact, however, it seems to follow that people who have made this peace with themselves do seem able to live more peacefully and tolerantly with others. You can tell the edgy, conflicted souls, because they are likely to be edgy and conflicted with everyone else.

Justification is a universal human experience, even though it expresses itself within different contexts and takes on the colour of the particular vessel that contains it. In the Christian tradition it is particularly associated with the life of Jesus. We can find liberation in the wisdom of his approach to human systems and the way even the best of them can become tyrannical.

The Church has gone further than that, mainly because of the influence of Paul, and has gone on to suggest that the death of Jesus was a forensic act that achieved objective ends. This is the mythic vehicle which bears, for Christians, the universal human experience of justifying grace.

Unfortunately, what was a particular way of defining a universal experience has turned into its profoundest limitation. And what was meant to celebrate our freedom has become another way of imprisoning us, this time within a theological formula that turns the experience on its head.

Paul did genuinely acknowledge that his moment of liberation was a moment of grace, of sheer gratuitous joy that he was accepted. It is a tragic irony that justification as a theological formula was later required as a qualification for the acceptance of free grace. What is poured out freely is expropriated by religious monopolists and doled out only to their adherents. It's a confidence trick, however. Air cannot be privatised, nor can grace. And, in our hearts, we all know that. If I am already free, I do not need your bail money.

I'll end with a poem by Davna Markova that I read as a poem of justification:

I will not die an unlived life,
I will not go in fear
Of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living to open to me,
To make me less afraid,
More accessible,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing,
A torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance:
To live.
So that which came to me as seed,
Goes to the next as blossom,
And that which came to me as blossom,
Goes on as fruit.

Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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