Dear Theophilus , (Letter 88. )
Before we start to look at how God redeemed creation, we need to consider how creation arrived at the state in which it found itself. This is not going to be an easy go but it will clear up many questions that you have raised in the past.
What is exactly that Christ accomplished is where we left off yesterday and there have been two main replies to this question. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) a formal legal description was arrived at to describe the action that Christ was fulfilling. According to this interpretation of the Gospel, man’s sin is seen as a violation of God’s command and an offence against God’s system of justice. The degree of guilt, in accordance with the views of the time, was commensurate with the importance of the party against whom the offence was committed. From this, it follows that the infinite majesty and justice of God demands an infinite propitiation.
Obviously man was in no position to satisfy this requirement and hence God, Himself, in the person of His Son had to step in and pay the legal requirement. Christ was punished with his death on the cross in place of sinful humanity. What made things even worse for man is the talk of God’s wrath. Instead of God’s love, the focus was shifted to that of savage justice which demanded ‘satisfaction’. God was changed from Father and ‘passionate lover’ into an implacable judge and avenger.
This schema that was proposed is one common to all ‘natural religions’, explaining not God but the inner workings of man’s psychology. The point of this religiosity is to overcome and defeat death through meritorious behavior.
The Church now becomes transformed into a moralistic organization whose main purpose is to offer reassurance to guilt ridden humanity that through proper behavior, it will be ‘saved’. And this plants the seeds for atheism which finds a fertile soil in the judgemental god portrayed in some offshoots of Christianity.
St. Maximus the Confessor wrote: ‘All visible things need a cross, and all visible intelligible things need a tomb’. There is a mystery underlying man’s plight that easy rationalization will not answer. Everything that can be seen or is accessible to our rational faculties must be crucified and buried because rational musings are the fortress of our individual and separating ego. This is from where you are speaking when you say that nothing has really changed – you are speaking from a narrow, self-centered vision.
This is not to claim that everything is fine and well. The reality of the fall haunts each and everyone of us and we are made aware that things are not the way they should be. So, what brought this on? And here, several answers have been offered.
The Church’s answer is based on the materials presented in the Old Testament. We read in Genesis that man was placed in a garden. The image of a garden symbolizes ideal happiness, a stark contrast to the barren aridity of the desert. The garden and the fruits are offered as a means of sustenance and man develops an organic communion with the world. But how does man use these gifts that have been placed before him?
He turns away from God and seeks his ‘life’ in the dead matter of nature which cannot really give the substantial life that man thirsts for. There are two choices placed before man. As Deuteronomy says – there is life and there is death and it is up to man to elect what he will follow. And man chooses to alienate himself from God and from nature and to become focused on survival as opposed to life.
This provision of sustenance with the food of the world assures that man survive biologically but it also offers an opportunity for man to develop his relationship with God. It is God who fundamentally provides the food and man forgets this. There is no question here of an ethical or religious relationship – there is no demand made on man to keep some law or to offer prayers or to offer sacrifices. What is fundamentally described in Genesis is the choice placed before man of choosing either life or death.
Notice how every time we go to partake of the Eucharist we are in a deep sense placed back into paradise and through Christ’s sacrifice, we join in undoing what Adam did. Man again takes nourishment – bread and wine – but now as an event of communion and union with God. Man chooses life – he chooses this nourishment as a way of undoing Adam’s folly and opting for uncorruptible life and immortality. By going to the ‘forbidden’ tree, man chose to realize his life not as communion with God, but unrelated and separated from God. The whole focus is on biological survival and in this there is no lasting life.
In Genesis, God asks Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This has been interpreted in a moralistic sense. But throughout Scripture ‘good’ and ‘evil’ show the possibility of life and the alienation from life which is death.
God does not threaten man but points out to him the inevitable consequences of man’s alienation from God who is the source of all life. There is a good and evil way to realize life and this is the choice presented through the image of the forbidden fruit. The first people taste the fruit of autonomy and existential self-sufficiency and realize, too late, that this is indeed a bitter fruit that leads to death.
There is so much that is foundational in the first chapters of Scripture that it will repay us to consider some of the major themes presented there because it will also clear up some misconceptions as to the main teachings present there.
Adam and Eve hear the ‘steps’ of God and try to hide from Him. But why is Adam fearful of God? The moralists would say that Adam is afraid because he has transgressed God’s command. But how is this fear possible if God is the one who gives life and is ready to forgive. Does God not manage to do what He asks of man – to forgive? A ‘just’ God, a heavenly police constable who is obliged to some higher authority than even God – justice – is merely a figment of man fallen psychology. Christ says that God is good to the good…and to the evil and impious.
A distortion of life is an alienation and corruption of the laws by which life functions. In all examples of man’s punishment in the Scriptures we see the consequences, the inevitable consequences, of man’s alienation from God and from life, true life. These punishments have been misinterpreted as representing the image of a wrathful God. But God is not vengeful. Instead, He honors the freedom of man to the extent that He allows man to go his way and to suffer the consequences of his actions. Time and time again, it becomes clear that this world is not a triumph of justice but of freedom. Why we are granted this terrible gift of freedom is that it opens the door to our eventual deification – theosis – the eventual goal of creation.
But this freedom of man brings with it the existential loneliness that is expressed in our agony before our biological death. This loneliness haunts us throughout our lives as it reminds us of our impending mortality, the end of our life. But even within this death, there is a redemption, a saving action on the part of God.
There is a curious statement in the book of Genesis that man after the fall is given a ‘coat of skins’. After the fall, man still retains the image of God – his personhood (not his individuality, his separateness from God and the rest of humanity) – but this is now coated in skins which underline our biological dependence on the biochemical processes that enable us to have bios and to function. God limits man to his biological individuality by placing a time limit on the function of man’s ‘coat of skins’, lest, as it says in the book of Genesis evil become immortal.
And so, even in this tragedy of death, God uses it for the good of man. Death is made to remove not man himself but the corruption which enveloped him. Death does not touch the human person in which resides the image of God but abolishes the false, phantom image of man that man takes to be his real being. God performs an amazing action by turning the phenomenological triumph of sin – autonomous biological existence – and abolishes it. Death annuls the coverings of skin, the coverings of corruption, thus opening the way for man to be totally redeemed and be given immortality in his relational existence with God and the rest of humanity.
Death is then a doorway for an incorruptible and immortal life and all this has been enabled through the interaction of God with humanity in such a manner that man now can be united with the uncreated and thereby share in life without ending. This is accomplished through the Incarnation.
This is heavy going; so let’s stop at this point.