Monday, September 7, 2015

The liturgy as theodicy

Here's a paper I wrote for my Prayer and Worship class at Fuller. In it I argue that theodicy -- a concern to maintain faith in God's goodness and in the moral order of his universe  in spite of the ubiquity of evil in the world -- ought to be a central concern of our worship as a body at church. I touch on the regular preaching of the gospel and on iconography.

Psalm 73 tells the story of Asaph’s moral dissatisfaction with perceived injustices in the world. He says “my feet had almost slipped… For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vv. 2, 3). Ethical protest at the apparent failure of the just God’s providence to maintain an intelligible moral order is present in various places throughout Scripture. The paradox is that, on the one hand, God’s holiness is perfect and supreme, calling to account everyone who sins “upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 34.7); on the other hand, we see plainly that the wicked “have no pain… they are not plagued like other people” (Ps 73.4, 5). Habakkuk formulates the problem strikingly: “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1.13).  So also Asaph felt within his spirit that something was not right about the successes of the lives of the wicked, in comparison with the travails the righteous. “Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches” (v. 12). The well-being of the wicked compromises the moral order and neutralizes any manner of moral motivation: “All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning” (v. 14). When wickedness doesn’t immediately meet with its just reward, what reason can there be for maintaining a righteous life?

These are ancient problems and questions which afflict every believer in God. (Of course, different problems of a related nature afflict those who reject that God exists.) And there is no coming to an easy answer, so Asaph throws up his hands in exasperation: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task” (v. 16). Yet Asaph ends his psalm with a word of praise for God: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25-6). What changed his mind? What could have moved the thoughtful person from flirtation with moral nihilism to a new devotion to the one true God? He tells us: “…it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end [viz., that of the wicked]” (vv. 16-7). This is a profound insight that merits further contemplation: a visit into the sanctuary of God, an approach of God in the house dedicated to his worship, proved a profound and transformative event for Asaph. He became newly convinced that, on the one hand, “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart” (v. 1), and on the other, “Indeed, those who are far from you [i.e., God] will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you” (v. 27). His faith and conviction in a moral order was reaffirmed because of his experience of God in the sanctuary.

Now it is clear that Asaph’s agonized questions about the injustices which pervade human experience are pressing for numerous people in our times, as well. Indeed, in light of the realities of globalization and the recent “shrinking” of the world, we are more aware than ever before of the atrocities and injustices which in numerous quarters have become positively quotidian and mundane, expected and ordinary and routine. On the other hand, the Christian religion proposes a hope of the restoration of this cosmos, which groans in anticipation of a coming liberation (Rom 8.19-22), and the atonement of all human sins in Christ’s self-sacrifice (Col 1.19-20); indeed, it dares to speak of what the Apostle Peter called the apokatastasis panton, “the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3.21). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the problem of evil and all skepticism about the moral order of God’s world have been defeated definitively: through the gravest injustice, the murder of the Son of God, the greatest possible good has been accomplished—the salvation of the whole world (1 John 2.2; cf. 4.14)—an evidence that God can and will redeem every evil which in his providence he saw fit to permit. Consequently we can see that Christian theology has answers for the questions which seem so insurmountable to many a doubting spirit. Yet even within Christian churches, many find themselves at a loss when confronted with this question of evil. Recall that Asaph’s worries were resolved when he went “into the sanctuary of God.” I infer from this that corporate Christian worship, too, ought to address the problem of the apparent moral disorder of the universe by a constant reminder of Christ’s sacrifice which reestablishes this order and gives us hope.

There are a number of ways in which this can be concretely put into practice, all of which more or less involve the use of scripture: it may be regular scriptural readings, or it may be singing songs inspired by various scriptural texts dealing with Christ’s passion. Consider for example what Paul tells the Corinthian church: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2.2).  It seems to me that reminding ourselves of the passion of Jesus Christ often through our preaching is one particularly effective means by which we may be confirmed in our faith in God. Too often preaching falls into one of two extremes: it may be that some sermon or series of sermons fails to address Christ’s passion and the moral order at all, touching instead upon issues of financial responsibility or some other “practical” issue; or it may be that a sermon is excessively moralistic, amounting to little more than extended exhortation to living uprightly, perhaps especially in light of a scrutinizing and unforgiving impending judgment of God. Neither such message adequately addresses the problem of evil which can so deeply and profoundly plague the conscience of the believer: the first fails because it doesn’t take the moral problem of evil seriously at all, refusing to acknowledge its existence; the second fails because it gives listeners no hope or reassurance that God is on their side when it comes time to set things right. On the contrary, preachers must always emphasize and uphold the love of God, both as an assurance of God’s goodness in the face of evils as well as an anchor and stable foundation for the person who senses evil within her own heart, as well. A Christian message ought to sound like this: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4.10-1).

Only the firm conviction that God loves us—and this in spite of what we experience, in spite of the world as we often find it—can give us strength to live in the world in spite of evil. And only through the self-offering of Christ on our behalf to die for our sins can we be confident that God loves us: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4.9). Apart from the evidence which Jesus Christ offers, the notion that God is love—in the face of a world in which children are murdered and masses of miserable, impoverished peoples can be killed by senseless natural disasters—can be little more than a comforting delusion by which some number of primates on planet Earth attempt to make their hellish terrestrial existence more tolerable. Indeed, when many people try to think about the goodness of God in the face of so many evils, they find themselves without an answer and come to precisely this pessimistic conclusion, because they do not try to think about God through his self-revelation in Christ. For this reason, for the sake of edifying the Church “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4.13), we must constantly remind ourselves of God’s tremendous love for the entire world in Christ. Paul says that it is “in view of God’s mercies” that we are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom 12.1). To do this, we must “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (v. 2), which means we must begin to think in terms of God’s self-revelation in Christ, rather than independently and abstractly. This can be accomplished through the regular preaching of the good message of Christ’s death on our behalf.

There is yet a further way in which we may be reminded of God’s mercies and kindness and love in our worship services. Here I wish to make reference to the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. At the front of every Orthodox church, above the iconostasis or perhaps above the altar, and likewise above the altar of a Roman Catholic church, is an icon of the crucified Christ. There in the sight of the entire congregation stands a concrete, embodied reminder of the central message of the Christian religion: Jesus Christ and him crucified, by which we know that God is love (1 John 4.8). It is one thing, of course, to be reminded of Christ’s death through a sermon or through a song, but is another thing altogether to be confronted with a profound and impressive visual reminder of his death. When we look upon the limp body of Christ with nails piercing his hands and feet, with blood and water leaving his body through a piercing in his side, and the look of utter anguish and desperation on his face, then we are more deeply aware of the gravity of his sufferings and consequently of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3. 18, 19).

Now icons are controversial, especially among most Reformation Protestant churches, because some are convinced that the scriptures unambiguously proscribe the use of images in any worship setting. But this is too quick. Moses is clear: “Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure” (Deut 4.15-6). The motivation behind the prohibition of physical images is this: the Hebrew people had not seen God’s form when he appeared to them, and so therefore they could not assume to create a form for him out of what they knew. Perhaps the worry was that they would inevitably misrepresent God in some way or other, because they had not been entirely confronted with his character and his true form. Likewise the Jews misrepresented the Messiah, thinking he would be a political liberator and a destroyer of the Gentiles. For this reason, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus insists numerous times that others not spread the word about him as Christ (e.g., Mark 1.24-5, 43-4; 5.43; 7.36), because inevitably they would misunderstand what his true calling as the Messiah would be. Only after he has taught the disciples that he must die in Jerusalem as a ransom for the sins of many (Mark 10.45), and after he has been publicly crucified and resurrected from the dead, does he commission anyone to spread the message about him far and wide. Now in the same way, in Christ we find the true nature of God revealed: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1.18). And Paul says that Christ is “the image [eikon] of the invisible God” (Col 1.15). Therefore, since God himself has taken flesh and made himself seen in the person of Christ, who is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1.3), we can rightly claim that we have seen God—in the person of Jesus Christ, who is homoousios with the Father. For this reason, icons and depictions of Christ are valid. And above all, an icon of Christ crucified is the most fitting attempt to depict God in his human nature, since this image of the crucified God is the anchor and essence of the Christian religion and the message of the gospel itself. I see, therefore, no problem with Christian iconography and its use in worship; moreover, it seems to me there is a perfectly good reason in favor of its application, in light of the preceding discussion regarding the problem of evil and the gospel message.

What I am suggesting, then, is that we must take seriously the theodicy of liturgy: through our experiences of corporate worship, reminding ourselves by various means, visual and intellectual and otherwise, of the guarantee and proof of God’s goodness and love through the self-sacrifice of Christ, we can provide a concrete and impressive response to the questions of those troubled by the ubiquity of evil in the world. Christians and non-Christians alike wonder how it is that God might exist, in light of all the suffering that we see about us and experience for ourselves. The Christian response is that in the person of Jesus Christ, God himself has assumed human nature and all that means—suffering, disappointment, alienation, pain, agony—and has experienced the very things that trouble us, yet through his death has made atonement for our sins, because of which we suffer in the first place; and through his resurrection, death has been defeated and life has been promised for all, since “all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15.22). This is something that is arguably suggested to us by the scriptural texts themselves. And it is clear that a conscious use of some of the relevant scriptural passages—be it from the psalms or the prophets, or from the gospel texts or the epistles—can prove especially effective. There is significant freedom, it seems to me, in the manner in which they may be utilized: our sermons may reference these texts; our icons or images may have these texts written upon them, our songs may quote them or we may even sing the texts themselves. What is more important is that they are used in an intelligible way, that the problems of evil and suffering and injustice and moral disorder may be addressed and the resolution thereof in the revelation of Christ be heralded persuasively.

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