Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Some Reflections on a Memoir by Frank Schaeffer

This week I came across an excerpt from Frank Schaeffer's forthcoming book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Create Beauty, Give Love and Find Peace. This particular snippet concerned an experience he had in church with his granddaughter while waiting to partake of the Eucharistic elements. Schaeffer writes:

I was shuffling forward in the communion line, with my five year old granddaughter Lucy in my arms. I was lost in gloomy thoughts, brooding on my past and on my doubts, failures, and my past meanness to my wife Genie (we’ve been married 44 years) when I was young, stupid and so woefully controlling as a teen “father.” I was feeling that going to church was a waste of time. I was feeling unworthy in every sense of the word and sinking into a gray depression.
Lucy is always in and out of my arms in church as she has been since she was born. So I’d actually forgotten I was holding her. (These days I hardly know how to be in church without a grandchild riding on my hip.) With my head bowed and my eyes closed I shuffled forward to the chalice to receive the “body and blood” through a ritual I don’t comprehend and that seemed entirely pointless that day. I was adrift in my melancholy. Then I felt the touch of Lucy’s hand on my face and—startled—opened my eyes.
It took me a moment to remember where I was. Lucy was gazing into my face. She wasn’t smiling, just gazing at me in that straightforward way that only a child achieves: with serious concentration and offering me a transparent “look” that had no agenda. She wanted nothing from me. All I saw in Lucy’s expression was unconditional trust. All I saw was a child who knows me now and who never expects anything but kindness from me. She did not know of my past sins, failings and bitter self-accusing regrets. Lucy was not judging me. I was accusing myself while she was just gently touching her grandfather’s cheek, checking to see why my eyes were closed.
Lucy inclined her head and kissed me. This thought crashed into my brain: I am being seen as I’d like to be perceived, not as I see myself. I have seen the face of God.
Our best hope is not found in correct theology, but in the love we express through action rather than words. Our best hope is that love predates creation and thus that the Creator sees us as ever young. Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is.
I am not one of those Evangelicals who despises Schaeffer and has written him off as an Esau for his (at least partially justified) criticisms of Evangelical Christianity—in particular, its often unreflective and corrupting forays into right-wing politics—and, one suspects to be his greater "sin," his realistic, warts-and-all portrayal of his great father, Francis Schaeffer, in his fascinating memoir, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. To be sure, I remain frustrated by Schaeffer's impatience with, and in many respects his rejection of, the theology that undergirds traditional Protestant belief. Nevertheless, much of what he writes resonates deeply within me. In part that is due to the shared experience of having been raised by a father of some repute in American fundamentalist/Evangelical circles. As is also the case with another of similar experiences, Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer, such experiences can breed cynicism and existential confusion because of first-hand experiences of the movement's multifarious worldly failings, often hidden from the faithful's view, to which we were privy.

They also can breed sadness, a trait I find running as a constant undercurrent in Schaeffer's writing. To be sure, much of this, in his case, can be attributed to his regret for having played a leading role in the early days of the politicization of the religious right. Yet one suspects his melancholy runs deeper than that. Indeed, in the excerpt cited above, Schaeffer explicitly recalls his regretful ruminations—at the Eucharist!—of his mistreatment of his wife forty years in the past. As one whose tendencies include the combination of a long memory and melancholy due to brooding introspection, Schaeffer's narrative hit me square in the face. The theologian in me knows that salvation is by grace alone—sola gratia; how could it be otherwise?—and that perfectionism is a baseless chimera. Nevertheless, empiricism constantly provides evidence that I am not what I should be, and that indeed I am not much better than I was thirty years ago: bad husband, bad father, bad Christian. Martin Luther's famous statement that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator—at the same time righteous and a sinner—has long been a favorite theological catch phrase. But, truth be told, it still remains existentially unsatisfying for a Calvinist who all too often fails miserably to, as St. Paul puts it, "mortify" or "put to death" the "deeds of the body," that is, the misdeeds committed in the sin-wracked mortal body that characterizes the present evil age (Rom 8:13).

It is at this point that Schaeffer's intensely personal memoir provides the needed corrective, a corrective more effective because it comes from the pen of an artist, not a theologian. What shook Schaeffer out of his melancholy, depressive torpor was his observation of the way his granddaughter simply gazed at his face. As he puts it, "I am being seen as I’d like to be perceived, not as I see myself. I have seen the face of God." It is this same feeling I often get after a hard shift at the factory, when I have not lived up to my profession, and I am greeted at the door by my beloved Westie, Louisa, ears back, tail-a-wagging, and howling in glee just to see me. It is the face of delight, the face of love. Of course, Schaeffer's granddaughter knows little if anything about the sins of her grandfather's past, just as my dog is incapable of such knowledge about mine. But that's the point, isn't it? The Christian gospel teaches that the all-knowing God, despite the fact that we are unworthy sinners in defiance against him, demonstrated his love for us in the very act of Christ's dying for us (Rom 5:8). The implicit Christology in such a statement is hard to miss for those well-versed in the Apostle's thought. And that is why Good Friday—the significance of which is so beautifully pictured in the Eucharist, the "ritual" Schaeffer for some reason can't comprehend—remains so important in the Christian calendar: The passion of Jesus the Messiah is, in reality, the self-substitution of God himself in judgment for the sins his people have committed, procuring forgiveness for their sins and thus securing the ultimate "glorification" of all those on whom he set his love before time even existed (cf. Rom 8:28-30). As a result, in one of Paul's greatest and most comforting claims, "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Messiah Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:39).

For Paul, Jesus the Messiah acted as what I like to refer to as the "inclusive representative" of his people. Indeed, not only were his people chosen "in Christ" before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), they were crucified, buried, and raised with him as well (Rom 6:3-6; Gal 2:19-20; Col 2:12-13, 20; 3:1, 3). The apostle can even say that believers in Christ are now seated with him in "the heavenlies" (Eph 2:6), that their lives are now "hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:2), and that they will appear with him in glory when he is made "manifest" at his return (Col 3:3). This status of being "in Christ" is not redolent of a vague "mysticism" (as Albert Schweitzer misinterpreted it), but, as the late New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos wrote, is to be understood objectively as "an abiding reality determinative for the whole of the Christian life (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 59). Thus, when Christ hung from Calvary's tree, it was not only the case that he died instead of me and for my benefit (representing the Greek prepositions anti and hyper); I was deemed to have died as well. As the Apostle wrote elsewhere, "One died for all; therefore all died" (2 Cor 5:14). As a result, having been crucified with Christ, the benefits of that death accrue to me both forensically (the forgiveness of sins due to his death as a sin offering [Rom 8:3]) and existentially (sin's power over my life has been decisively abolished [Rom 6:6]). Union with Christ in his resurrection likewise grounds the definitive change of the believer's status ("justified" as a result of sharing in the Messiah's "vindication" [1 Tim 3:16]) and lifestyle (Rom 6:4). And this is the basic fact to which this discussion leads: When God metaphorically looks at my face, he doesn't see Jim McGahey, the loud-mouthed, temper-prone sinner. He sees the face of one who is inseparably united to his only Son, Jesus my Lord. And the glory and grace of this is that he knows full well every sin of commission or omission, in thought, word, or deed, that I have ever done and will do until he graciously takes me home.

This recognition leads to the second observation, only briefly hinted at by Schaeffer at the end of his story. For twenty centuries Christians have wrestled with the issue of the "divinity" of Jesus or, better, how to place the confession of Jesus' Lordship within the non-negotiable, fundamental Jewish confession that the god of Israel, YHWH, is the sovereign Creator, the only true God. At times, such as in the present day because of Bart Ehrman's seriously flawed How Jesus Became God, this discussion has come to the fore in the cultural Zeitgeist. But one serious weakness historically has been that people approach the issue as if the term that needed no definition was the titular term "God." In such cases, all too often alien notions, some derived from Greek philosophy rather than the Bible, have hindered genuine understanding of who God is and what he is like, in both ontological and relational terms. Indeed, if philosophical speculation about the unitary nature or simplicity of God's inner being were essential to monotheism, then trying to understand how Jesus fits in such a scheme would be difficult if not futile (thankfully, it is not, as Richard Bauckham has forcefully demonstrated). Likewise, the so-called "New Atheists" (for example, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins) have made much of the apparent moral atrocities committed and commanded by YHWH in the Old Testament in order to heap scorn on Christians who would take such texts seriously.

It is not the time to engage such writers (for a popular level response, see, e.g., Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster?). Yet Schaeffer points to the best way out of the traffic, when he writes, "Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is." Is this not precisely what St. John said in what may surely be considered the capstone of New Testament Christology?
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18, NET Bible)
The relevant text is verse 18. The essential invisibility of God as a spiritual Being is a biblical commonplace (cf. 1 Tim 1:17). When he is "seen," it is in a variety of "forms" (e.g., Gen 32:24-30; Exod 24:9-11; 33:9-11, 18-23; Isa 6:1-6). Here, however, John not only calls the incarnate Word, Jesus Messiah, "the only God," he says that this "only God," who resides at the Father's side/in his bosom, has "made him [the first referent of "God" in the verse, i.e., the 'Father'] known." The verb here is exÄ“geomai, which carries the sense of "expounding" or providing a definitive exposition of something. At the risk of committing the fallacy of reverse etymology, one could say that the incarnate Jesus was the definitive exegesis of the invisible God (cf. also Col 1:15). In other words, if you want to understand who God is and what he is really like, look at Jesus.

What this means is that the event on Good Friday, (probably) 3 April 33 CE, was not merely a gross travesty of justice. It emphatically was not the grotesque caricature of a bully God sending his only Son to death in the ultimate case of child abuse. Even less was it the case of a loving Jesus trying to appease the insatiable wrath of his Father by dying as a sacrifice for human sin. No, the one hanging there was, in a very real sense, the one whom Luther provocatively called "the crucified God." It was God himself, out of incomprehensible love, taking upon himself the weight of human alienation, shame and, yes, sin in order to condemn sin in human flesh. And it is because of my union with the crucified and resurrected Lord that I can be assured of an ultimate future in his presence on the new earth. That, my friends, is very good news indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria!