In the wake of my last post, I’ve detected a certain nervous unease in one or two Christian readers. They don’t like the construction, “We can never know the full truth in this life.” On the contrary, they protest: we compelled by our faith to declare its truth with conviction. Am I joining our time’s relativists in echoing Pontius Pilate at every turn with an anemic, “What is truth?”
Of course I’m not. But part of our faith’s essential truth is precisely the obligation to remain humble in our ineradicable ignorance here on earth. Take the biblical assertion from which much of this protest emanates: “Nobody comes to the Father except through the Son.” What does that mean? That you must be a member of an organized church? Which church? Do Catholics qualify? Do Unitarians? Mormons? What if you live a hundred miles southwest of Nowhere, New Mexico, with no church of any denomination within a two hours’ drive?
Is it enough to say the right words on cue? Is faith, then, in a verbal formula? Are you purified if you recite, “I believe that we are saved by the blood of Christ, who died so that our sins might be forgiven”? Forgiven by whom? By God? By the God who made us complicated and fragile? And is He who created us, then, so shocked and angered by our infidelity that He requires our blood, like a Mayan sun god? And His own son must volunteer for the chopping block before the blood may stop flowing?
How does God come to have a son in a way analogous to the human cycle of regeneration, anyway? The Muslims call us polytheists. How do we explain the Trinity to them? How do we explain it to ourselves? If the Father and the Son are ultimately the same, then why does our Johannine/Pauline formula insist upon comparing the Crucifixion to the earthly case of a father sacrificing his only begotten son?
Are these really the propositions in which you claim to see transparent truth, Christians? To the extent that they are even comprehensible, they seem fearfully sanguinary and—I must say it—grotesquely impious in their identification of God with a vindictive fury, while also—yes—looking darned close to something a bit polytheistic.
But, naturally, I am too reductive. There is much in these mysteries of faith that we don’t understand, whatever you may say. That was my very point—that, and the necessity of committing ourselves to attempted explanation of the mysteries, which will likely always fall short but which can bring us a little nearer the truth.
God as Christ, Christ as a blood offering… does that not say, perhaps, that the true God willingly thrusts Himself so deeply into our human misery and confusion that He partakes of our suffering—that He bleeds? Is He not the very opposite of the cruel, false gods that drink their victims’ life up insatiably: the god who gives us His blood rather than requiring ours? Yet to identify God inflexibly with the Incarnation would show disrespect to His transcending majesty and inviolable serenity in accomplishing His purposes. God suffers, but does not suffer. As with any loving parent (only more so, by an infinite exponent), the anguish incurred by His children in their growing saddens Him, even as He rejoices that they grow.
I think of it this way. When men serve false gods, they torture themselves in the hope that the totally Other will accept their hatred for what they are as a token allowing brief admission into a higher reality. When the Living God touches men with His truth, they become more of what they were meant to be in Him. The departure from bestiality leaves scrapes and bruises, for contact must be made through and in the flesh—but not in a delirium of slaughtering human flesh. We recognize ourselves better in God: we do not acquire an alien identity that absorbs us into cultic mystery.
The mystery is the absence of mystery, relative to all the Dionysiac hocus-pocus that we humans try to import into our acts of worship. God is here and now, and we are in Him when we respect the possibility of His operation through others’ lives. A girl has an abortion? Damn her, the murderess! No, praise her for sacrificing at the altar of feminine independence. No, neither: impress upon her the enormity of denying growth to a new life… but comfort her in her error and point her toward her higher being.
Not clear? I’ll keep trying—and please keep pressing me and opposing me. How else shall we make this climb?