In considering the problem of evil, Robert Farrar Capon tackles creation — its very nature, how it functions, how God relates to it, and what keeps it ticking. I’ve been quoting Capon, but that’s likely to stop for a while — I returned the book I had borrowed, giving it my succinct review: “It was delicious, and it filled me up.” Anyway, he paints a wonderfully fascinating portrait of the essence of creation being fueled by that intangible desire like that which arises in the heart of one person for another. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy. He doesn’t so much just speak and conjure it up, he woos it into being. Creation meets God, and its heart is set aflutter: it is set and kept upon its axis by romance. Later on, after noticing that the “nice” desires of being that are experienced by the chicken conflict with those of the chicken hawk, he says we must deal with this tension of God having created both, despite the goodness of one being interpreted as “badness” from the vantage point of the other. He proceeds thence to talk about the incarnation.
In the Christian scheme of things, the ultimate act by which God runs and rescues creation is the Incarnation. Sent by the Father and conceived by the Spirit, the eternal Word is born of the Virgin Mary and, in the mystery of the indwelling, lives, dies, rises, and reigns. Unfortunately, however, we tend to look on the mystery mechanically. We view it as a fairly straight piece of repairwork which became necessary because of sin. Synopsis: The world gets out of whack; perverse and foolish oft it strays until there is none good, no, not one. Enter therefore God with incarnational tool kit. He fixes up a new Adam in Jesus and then proposes, through the mystery of baptism, to pick up all the fallen members of the old Adam and graft them into Christ. Real twister of an ending: As a result of sin, man ends up higher by redemption than he would have by creation alone.
However venerable that interpretation is, though, it is not the only one. As long ago as the Middle Ages, the Scotist school of Franciscan theologians suggested another. They raised the question of whether the Incarnation would have occurred apart from sen; and they answered it, Yes. In other words, they saw the action of God in Christ, not as an incidental patching of the fabric of creation, but as part of its very texture. For our purposes—in this context of a world run by desire for God—that opens up the possibility that the Word in Jesus was not so much doing bits of busy work to jimmy things into line as he was being his own fetching self right there in the midst of creation.
And there you have the bridge from a mechanical to a personal analogy to the divine help. When we say that a friend “helped” us, two meanings are possible. In the case where our need was for a Band-Aid, a gallon of gas or a push on a cold morning, we have in mind mechanical help; help for times when help was at least possible. But when nothing can be helped, when the dead are irretrievably dead and the beloved lost for good, what do we mean by telling Harry how much help he was to us in our need? He did nothing; he rescued no one from the pit, he brought no one back from the ends of the earth. Still, we are glad of him; we protest that without him we would never have made it. Yet we know perfectly well we could have gotten through it just by breathing in and out. That means, therefore, that what we thank him for is precisely personal help. It was his presence, not the things that he did, that made the difference.
So with God, perhaps. Might not Incarnation be his response, not to the incidental irregularity of sin, but to the unhelpable presence of badness in creation? Perhaps in a world where, for admittedly inscrutable reasons, victimization is the reverse of the coin of being, his help consists of his presence in all victims. At any rate, when he finally does show up in Jesus, that is how it seems to work. His much-heralded coming to put all things to rights ends badly. When the invisible hand that holds the stars finally does its triumphant restoring thing, it does nothing at all but hang there and bleed. That may well be help; but it is not the Band-Aid creation expected on the basis of mechanical analogies. The only way it makes any sense is when it is seen as personal: When we are helpless, there he is. He doesn’t start your stalled car for you; he comes and sits with you in the snowbank. You can object that he should have made a world in which cars don’t stall; but you can’t complain he doesn’t stick by his customers.
(R.F. Capon, from The Third Peacock: The Problem of God and Evil.) This opens up a fairly earth-shattering understanding of the incarnation, and one which has that annoying ring of truth that’s hard to grasp. We’re taught that Christ became human — was incarnated — as a response to sin, that the world really needed God to step back in and set things aright by calling on the “deep magic” or divine rules that he had established before things had gone so awry that it cost him dearly to set them back to rights. A God like that, I might suggest, is not a God in control. The one who says, “What are they up to now? This time they’ve gone too far!” does not have that aroma of omniscience and omnipotence that we preach. We deal with that by saying that God foreknew that man would get so “off the rails” that he’d have to step in, but he created us anyway since “it would be worth it” in the end. Somehow to my mind, this puts us at the center of creation and makes us worthy objects of divine sacrifice, which is a bit of an issue to me. We say God was in control, yet here we are with this doctrine that things got so bad that he had to show up himself in the flesh in order to fix them. In fact, as Capon makes the point, creation is inherently in tension with itself, and it is so by design and not by virtue of our rebellion. Hhmm, what’s that, you say? God actually is in control, and always has been. Turns out we just fail to understand the organization structure he set in place.
Something strikes me about the incarnation differently if it’s something that would have happened with or without sin. Sin is therefore simply dealt with within the plan of God that says, “Yes, it’ll get out of hand, but that’ll all get put right as an outworking of the incarnation anyway, so it’s nothing to fret about.” Yeah, it’s bad… sin causes death, etcetera. But if God was always going to do this incarnation thing anyway, and as a byproduct to cover off a whole bunch of things, sin included, then suddenly sin becomes a much smaller problem in the context of the divine grand scheme. A blip, that’s all. When we tell the story, it’s everything. When God tells the story and it’s but a footnote, we object, saying “What about….?” And he responds by saying, “Huh? Oh, well that was always just going to work out along the path we’d set about anyway. It’s not enough to lose that much sleep over.”
It’s not that I’m going all soft on sin or its effects… my hamartiology still tells me that it’s bad and that it separates me from God. What we’re suggesting here is that instead of God responding to the magnitude of something we as fallen beings had cooked up, he simply glanced down, said, “Yeah, I knew that would happen… but don’t worry, it gets sorted out a bit later on. It doesn’t change my plans in any way.” Of course we can’t know that God would have turned up in the flesh either way… it’s hypothetical to the nth degree. But there’s something fundamentally attractive about the idea. That God could look at humanity discovering sin and decide not to worry too much about it. “After all,” says God to himself, “We were always going to do the Incarnation anyway.” This notion sets up the inevitable question — what have we to learn, what is the message of the incarnation other than the antidote to that nagging sin problem we developed? Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it in a bit.
In the terms that Capon uses, Jesus shows up not to do the fixing but simply to be, and his being — divinely fetching as he is in the spiritual sense — sets our spiritual hearts aflutter and draws us to the fix. In other words, it comes about by his being more than by his doing. We have it all down to what Jesus did and perhaps it’s so much more about what he is. His atoning death wasn’t a reflexive act in that it wasn’t something Jesus did to himself. Rather it was a simple result of his being and in being who he is, the way he is, death at the hand of his own creation proved the inevitable result. In seeing it through, Jesus simply continued to be who, what and how he always was. The main point though is that Jesus turns up in our midst just to be himself, and to be himself among us… his favorite place to be himself, as it turns out. What I’ve called being and doing, Capon refers to as the personal and the mechanical analogy.
Once again, it is the mechanical analogy that makes the mischief. Answers to prayers for help are a problem only when you look on God as a divine cigarette machine programmed to dispense Larks, Camels, lost keys, and freedom from gall-bladder trouble to anyone who has the right coins. With the personal analogy, things are better. The Word is like Harry: Given the circumstances—given the kind of free world he has chosen to make—he will do the best he can by you. It isn’t that he has a principle about not starting cars—or about starting them. What he has a principle about is you. Like Harry, he loves you; his chief concern is to be himself for you.
Alright, let’s pause here, which is the point at which I’ve just decided to split this post into two parts and save the next 1,000 words for tomorrow when I’ll begin by speaking of the Tetragramaton and extend this notion of being and tie it in further with the concept of God’s presence. After we’ve established that, we’ll draw some further conclusions and weave it into the fabric of the missional imperative.
For now, let’s go back to that idea that the incarnation of Christ carries a message for us, something to show or teach us apart from his turning up as the sacrificial lamb just in the nick of time. I don’t mean to diminish the salvific event of his death and resurrection, but let’s explore. You needn’t accept the thesis that the incarnation was inevitable even without sin in order to draw lessons from it apart from seeing it as “a plan of salvation.” So, what can we observe and learn from the event or mere fact of the incarnation? What do you make of the idea that Jesus would have turned up regardless?