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The Evident Reign of Death vs. The Actual Reign of God

November 16, 2010

Click below for the complete handout for Part 2 of our “How Can We Know God?” series. Again, all quotes come from William Stringfellow’s Count It All Joy. Here’s my favorite bit:

To ask God in faith for the knowledge of God—knowledge that embraces the profound knowledge of self in relation to the rest of creation—is to enter upon an estate of utter helplessness. Utter helplessness: it is an experience in which all is given up, in which all effort and activity of whatever sort ceases, not only in which all answers are unknown, but unattempted, and also in which all questions are inarticulated and abandoned. It is a condition in which, as it were, a person stands totally alone in the world—naked, bereft, transparent, immobile, absolutely vulnerable in each and every facet of one’s person. It is the event in which the alienation and brokenness of all relationships, including a person’s relationship with oneself, is actualized within a person’s own self. It is the existential realization of fallenness. It is the time in the wilderness. It is the crisis of that unqualified helplessness which is death.

“In the Gospel, faith is about the evident reign of the power of death in this world and the possibility of the transcendence of death in this life. It is thought vulgar to mention death so blandly. Death is not even accorded the honor due death at funerals, much less being recognized unabashedly as the apparent ruling idol of life. Yet it is obvious that death survives all powers, apart from God, in this world. By death, I refer, of course, to biological extinction and to death as the destination of life, but, at the same time, much more than that.

Death, both biblically and empirically, denominates the moral reality in this world that is greater than any other reality to which people attach significance for their existence, leaving God aside. Death not only outlasts money, virtue, fame, sex, religion or the other idols but death is the idol of the other idols. Death is the obvious meaning of existence, if God is ignored… Death is so great, so aggressive, so pervasive and so militant a power that the only fitting way to speak of death is similar to the way one speaks of God. Death is the living power and presence in this world which feigns to be God.

“This death is not the same thing as despair. The person who suffers despair worships death as an idol in place of God; such a person is not yet utterly helpless. One’s idolatry of death as the ultimate and immediate reality of existence is the means by which one seeks to justify oneself.  Despair, in this sense, is a perverted kind of hope. The person in despair may be pathetic, but she has not yet acknowledged the futility of her search for meaning—though the religious quest has brought her to the point of regarding death as god. The person in despair is still protesting, in his idolatry of death, that he is not helpless…

“To be helpless in the sense which is the inauguration of faith involves a person’s confession that one cannot even help oneself by destroying one’s own life, any more than one can help oneself through the fantasy existence of trying to justify oneself by learning much, acquiring property, grasping power, raising a family, making money, being loyal, honest, charitable, kind or otherwise virtuous, abstaining from the popular vices, or indulging in good works.

On Listening to the Word of God

“I am no Biblical scholar; I have neither competence nor temperament to be one. The ordinary Christian, lay or clergy, does not need to be a scholar to have recourse to the Bible and, indeed, to live within the Word of God in the Bible in this world. What the ordinary Christian is called to do is to open the Bible and listen to the Word. Listening is a rare happening among human beings… You cannot listen to the word another is speaking… if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable… Listening… is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives oneself to another’s word, making oneself accessible and vulnerable to that word.” (16)

On Wisdom as Knowledge of God, Given by God—Not Acquired by Humanity

“If any of you lacks wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously…” – James 1:5

“Wisdom means knowledge of God… The knowledge of God in which the truth of all existence inheres is an authentic gift and not something earned through diligence or piety, or rewarded for sacrifices of any description, or dependent upon any human initiative, or contingent upon the beliefs of people. It is a gift, and as with any genuine gift it originates wholly in the disposition of the donor and is accomplished entirely by the voluntary action of the donor…

“All forms of religion [including those under the heading, ‘Christianity’] hold a common methodology… All consider religion as the human quest for God. All have confidence in the capacity of people, or, at least, some people, to breach the mystery of God. All emphasize human initiative in establishing relationship with divinity…

It is exactly at this point—not necessarily in content, but in method—that the Gospel is radically distinguished from all religions. The theme of the Gospel from the first moment of the Fall is God in search of humanity. The emphasis is upon the initiative God takes toward humanity in the world. God volunteers relationship with humanity. God gives God’s self for all humankind. What people may know of God is only that which God discloses for people to know… What is audacious in the Gospel is the enjoyment of God’s presence here and now, whatever the circumstances; what is radical about the Gospel is the news that religion [the human quest for God] can be now discarded, by virtue of God’s grace.” (25-30)

On Doubt, and the Gift of Faith as God’s Transcendence of the Power of Death

“But let him ask in faith…” – James 1:6

“To ask God in faith for the knowledge of God—knowledge that embraces the profound knowledge of self in relation to the rest of creation—is to enter upon an estate of utter helplessness. Utter helplessness: it is an experience in which all is given up, in which all effort and activity of whatever sort ceases, not only in which all answers are unknown, but unattempted, and also in which all questions are inarticulated and abandoned. It is a condition in which, as it were, a person stands totally alone in the world—naked, bereft, transparent, immobile, absolutely vulnerable in each and every facet of one’s person. It is the event in which the alienation and brokenness of all relationships, including a person’s relationship with oneself, is actualized within a person’s own self. It is the existential realization of fallenness. It is the time in the wilderness. It is the crisis of that unqualified helplessness which is death.

“In the Gospel, faith is about the evident reign of the power of death in this world and the possibility of the transcendence of death in this life. It is thought vulgar to mention death so blandly. Death is not even accorded the honor due death at funerals, much less being recognized unabashedly as the apparent ruling idol of life. Yet it is obvious that death survives all powers, apart from God, in this world. By death, I refer, of course, to biological extinction and to death as the destination of life, but, at the same time, much more than that.

Death, both biblically and empirically, denominates the moral reality in this world that is greater than any other reality to which people attach significance for their existence, leaving God aside. Death not only outlasts money, virtue, fame, sex, religion or the other idols but death is the idol of the other idols. Death is the obvious meaning of existence, if God is ignored… Death is so great, so aggressive, so pervasive and so militant a power that the only fitting way to speak of death is similar to the way one speaks of God. Death is the living power and presence in this world which feigns to be God.

“This death is not the same thing as despair. The person who suffers despair worships death as an idol in place of God; such a person is not yet utterly helpless. One’s idolatry of death as the ultimate and immediate reality of existence is the means by which one seeks to justify oneself.  Despair, in this sense, is a perverted kind of hope. The person in despair may be pathetic, but she has not yet acknowledged the futility of her search for meaning—though the religious quest has brought her to the point of regarding death as god. The person in despair is still protesting, in his idolatry of death, that he is not helpless…

“To be helpless in the sense which is the inauguration of faith involves a person’s confession that one cannot even help oneself by destroying one’s own life, any more than one can help oneself through the fantasy existence of trying to justify oneself by learning much, acquiring property, grasping power, raising a family, making money, being loyal, honest, charitable, kind or otherwise virtuous, abstaining from the popular vices, or indulging in good works.

“There is a parable of this issue in the motion picture, ‘The Seventh Seal,’ one of Ingmar Bergman’s films. The story is about a young knight obsessed with his own search for God… The film recounts certain adventures and experiences the knight has as he perseveres in his search for God. The episodes are various and the knight’s moods are too—sometimes he is depressed, sometimes defiant, sometimes desperate, sometimes demanding, sometimes confident that he is close to his destination. In the climax of each episode he always comes back to his obsession: ‘Where is God? What must I do to find God? If God is, let Him show me His face!’ And each time that, in a variety of ways, he asks his question, he does indeed see a face, but each time the face he beholds is the face of death and not the face of God.

“The movie dramatizes the essential issue of asking in faith for faith. The knight is an earnest and deeply religious man. He devotes his life to the religious quest. Yet his search discovers only death because the very pursuit of God presupposes that God may only be known in response to human initiative of one sort or another. Any image of God which is, thus, dependent upon human enterprise is not the living God and, even thought literally true in its insight into the nature of God, is, in fact, the image of death.

The knight, the sincere religious man, is, in reality, a profound atheist because the very search for God is a denial of God’s existence and of God’s integrity as God. The affirmation of the quest is that God exists only in the mind, imagination or hallucination of human beings. In order to behold the face of God, the knight must give up his question, abandon his search for God, forsake religion. He must become and be utterly helpless: he must acknowledge and know in his whole being, intellectually, viscerally, physically, that there is nothing at all that he can do to establish relationship with God, nothing that he can do to save himself, and that all attempts to the contrary end in the appearance of death in the place of God…

“It is in this way—in dying to the preposterous arrogance of trying to save one’s self, in surrender of each and every futile anxiety to justify one’s self, in the risk of the loss of life altogether, the midst of the awful militancy of death, in utter helplessness—that life is restored to a person. Faith is a charismatic gift. Faith is that most peculiar gift of God acting in this world which is offered to every human being and is the synonym of life itself. No person may receive that gift who supposes it is, in any sense, deserved, and who, therefore, doubts that it is a gift in the first instance. No person welcomes such a gift who has not become forlorn of any hope in every other promise of salvation. No person suffers such an awesome and generous gift who has not already endured all that death can do. No person is established in faith (and thus renewed in life) who has not descended into that utter helplessness in which only God can render help…

(47-52)

 

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