|The Myths of Christianity - 3
The Myth of Justification by
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing,
A torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance:
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
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