Monday, May 14, 2012

Wrath and Love as Divine Consent -- by Brad Jersak

Wrath and love as divine consent
by Brad Jersak

“God does no violence to secondary causes in the accomplishment of his ends.”[1]

In this article, I will attempt to creatively apply George Grant’s theology of the Cross or ‘divine consent’ towards a metaphorical reading of wrath back into those Scriptures that so repulsed him and Simone Weil. If God operates in the world by consent, they might have seen wrath, not as the retribution of a wilful God, but as a metaphor (as they saw power) for the consequences of God’s consent to our non-consent. That is, I will appropriate Grantean consent to ‘demetaphorise’ wrath.        
Said another way, I intend to apply Simone Weil’s ‘cosmology of consent’ to the problem of how we read ‘wrath’ in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The texts where God intervenes with smoldering vengeance were an offense to Grant and Weil as they portray a God of personal wrath through violent force—the willful uber-Gott (my term) they rejected. Grant and Weil warn us not to literalize metaphors or personalize anthropomorphisms, only to dismiss many of those passages for speaking metaphorically. Why not apply their theology of the Cross and cosmology of consent as a hermeneutical lens for demetaphorising the Bible’s judgment narratives, and so retrieving them?[2]

And so, in the Bible, where we see or hear of God’s wrath, we are usually, actually seeing God’s nonviolent consent to the natural and supernatural forces of the world and of human freedom. God’s wrath is consent to allowing, and not sparing, the powerful consequences of these forces to take their course. We say natural and supernatural, because (a) God’s order of secondary causes extends beyond our empirical or rational categories, and (b) the natural and supernatural interrelate beyond observation or comprehension. And they mysteriously inter-relate with our own power of consent to ‘bind and loose’ (Matt. 16:19) through love and prayer, to intercede in ways that might spare someone the consequences of these ‘laws.’

The following is a Grantean attempt to do so, specifically as I would address it sermonically to Evangelicals,[3] who tend to be most entangled in literalism, though it might also be beneficial to skeptics who, like Grant and Weil, find the Bible repulsive because they too read it overly literally. I will also apply Grantean consent to model how one might preach a love above and beyond wrath, where “mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13).
Sermonic application

God is good.
God is love.
God is not violent, because he never does violence directly.

In His love, God will not bring about his ends through directly violent means. But in refusing to exercise such violence, God consents to our violence. His love consents to our violence against each other. And against God. God’s consent is not complicity.

But God appears complicit in our violence because God allows it. That is, when God refuses to apply force, might, and violence but instead, consents to our free rebellion and its bitter and violent fruit, God seems violent in His consent.

In love, God consents to our wrath on the Cross.
He consents to our wrath against ‘Rome.’
He consents to Rome’s wrath against us.
His consent is wrath.
His consent is love.[4]

What of God’s wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?

And Yes.

First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).
Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6).

But in Romans 1 (possibly picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe.

Still, what of those who challenge God: “How can you allow this? Is your permission—your giving over—not tantamount to complicity?”

And the answer is probably yes—if not complicity, ultimate responsibility as first cause—such that some biblical authors use the phrase ‘wrath of God’ to describe what are technically secondary consequences. Ultimately, this is God’s good order and God is finally responsible for all that is.

This is the great and terrible price of choosing to save the world through love. Saving the world through love means allowing horrible things that make God look both wrathful and weak all at once.

God’s nonviolent consent extends to the whole of natural and spiritual reality. It includes nonviolent consent to human freedom, for good or ill. It includes nonviolent consent to the laws of nature, for beauty or tragedy, creation or destruction. It includes nonviolent consent to spiritual laws of sowing and reaping, blessing and cursing. In this sense, God’s consent means that God has renounced the exercise of his Almighty capacities in this world.

The Lamb already slain before the foundation of the world died to being all-powerful before Creation. This kenotic self-renunciation has made space for creation. For freedom and for violence. For genocide and hurricanes and car accidents and pedophiles.

But also for love.

God’s nonviolent consent and self-emptying space makes room for God’s love in the universe and in humankind.

God has sown supernatural love into the very fabric of the world; a love that not only consents to violence but also subverts and overcomes violence. Far from feeble in this nonviolent consent, God’s love is powerful—the only conceivable power—that can make all things right and new. God’s love does not need to violate the freedom or the laws of that which exists through interventions that suspend natural and spiritual order, because love is the ground of all that exists. Love is part of that order—its essential heart. At the top of that order is humanity, with the created capacity to be like God, that is, to consent to bear and seed God’s supernatural love throughout all of creation.

Somehow, though, we know—we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears—something is broken, has ruptured. All of creation and, most of all, humanity groans under an affliction whereby God’s consent to violence seems to enslave us rather than free us. Or perhaps that God’s loving consent to our freedom has born the fruit of violence rather than love. Our very freedom has become the violent means of our slavery.

From that point of view, God seems cruel, whether through absence or complicity. God seems impotent, for how can God possibly mend a breach that God’s love and our freedom ultimately created?

Thanks be to God, at the pinnacle of humanity stands Jesus Christ. His nonviolent consent to the Cross—the intersection of humanity’s affliction (our freedom-to-violence) and God’s radical forgiveness—becomes the occasion whereby supernatural love flows through God’s own wounds into the world. That love, far from being weak or impotent, will eclipse violence, might, and force as the relentless catalyst for the renewal of the world. 

The Lordship of Christ (or the Kingdom of God) over the world and the universe is not contradictory to God’s nonviolent consent. In fact, consent is precisely (and only) how God’s love is released in the world. One example: in the Gospels, Christ did not operate in the power of miraculous interventions (the magical suspension of laws), but in the authority of supernatural love (the application of God’s highest law). 

We have suggested that God’s Kingdom does not advance through violence, freedom-violating force, or law-breaking interventions. God’s kingdom reign is the advance of supernatural love in and through those who consent to being indwelt and transformed by Christ-mediated love. Here we are not just talking about enthusiastic activists performing good and loving works. But neither is this consent restricted to Christian churchgoers. Rather, this consent is defined in 1 John 4:7–8: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Through their own nonviolent consent, such lovers may appear as torn veils or cracked vessels (2 Cor. 4:7–18), but through their wounds, supernatural love pours its healing light into natural realm, permeating the world.

God consents to our reluctance to consent, resulting in this painfully slow but inexorable transfiguration of our violent world.

Love will have its way, because while it may look like passive consent to extreme violence, it is nevertheless “stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, more vehement than a flame. Many waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:6–7). The death and resurrection of Christ are the firstfruits of the destiny God’s love has arranged for the whole universe.

Sermonic explanation

By way of explanation, Grant and Weil are right in seeing many hegemonic descriptions of the Kingdom of God in the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., examples of the violent and willful God of wrath). Instead of dismissing them immediately, as Weil often does, a Grantean hermeneutic invites investigation into three broad possibilities. I will illustrate these with the phrase, “God, the king who is angry” and comment on each approach.

a. God may literally be an angry King. God actively decreed that Israel should go to war, obliterate, and enslave their enemies, or suffer God’s wrath through those enemies. In this view, Jesus comes to introduce a New Covenant, altering how God deals with people in the New Kingdom. This typically Evangelical interpretation falls short of Grant’s God who was, is, and always will be the perfection of goodness and love. Such texts are sufficiently toxic to be discarded or valuable and inspired warnings of how God’s people continue to worship their own shadows and baptize their own violence.

b. God may not be an angry King at all. The Old Testament characters and authors infer emotions, reactions, and destruction through hegemonic filters that misrepresent the nature of God as love. In this view Jesus comes to reveal the true nature of the Kingdom of God as shalomic. In truth, God has never been hegemonic but has been reduced to an idol through our anthropomorphisms, even in our Scriptures. This comes closest to Grant and Weil’s view, and they have little patience for extracting divine truth from errant human projections. Jesus, on the other hand, made use of such texts by way of contrast, “You have heard that it has been said … But I say to you” (Matt. 5:21, 38) to demonstrate the superior authority of his teaching.

c. God may be a metaphorically angry King. In the above sermon, I take up Grant and Weil’s suggestion (but not their example) concerning the wrath texts, conceding that God’s so-called anger is a metaphor, whereas God’s loving rule includes consenting to our self-destructive ways and their consequences. God is not actually angry, but we experience God’s wrath as God’s passive and indirect consent to destructive forces of necessity. The wrath texts thus serve as valuable warnings of real destruction but ought not be literalized into direct threats from a hateful God. In this view, Jesus also freely but advisedly uses the metaphor of an angry King in some of his parables—a concession to our phenomenology of wrath—but through the New Covenant, trumps that metaphor with a better one—Father of unconditional love—to which the sermon finally points.

My broader point is that an informing theology of consent makes sense of both God’s wrath and love without the pitfalls of providential intervention, even where they are described that way in the Bible.

[1] Weil, IC, 97.
[2] Reading the Old Testament violence texts is once again a going concern. I am not aware of any applications of Weil’s approach to these texts, even in Grant or Weil.
[3] Hence the sermonic tone and format.
[4] “Love is consent to authentic otherness.” (Grant, TJ, 38).

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