Monday, October 31, 2011

On Judgment and Grace

I spoke on the Book of Revelation yesterday in a day-long study – taught, preached, taught. It was a long, tiring, but a very satisfying and enriching experience. The audience was receptive and engaged, and I enjoyed the exchanges that took place around this marvelous, but often misunderstood, New Testament book.

During the final Q & A, a very thoughtful and perceptive person who had been listening with care as I traversed the mysteries and metaphors of the Apocalypse asked a question that, quite honestly, brought me up short. Overwhelmed with “information overload” of images and scenes of final judgment and the reckoning “The End” inevitably brings, the individual asked, “But where’s the grace?” I perceived this person to be expressing their long-held but largely unexamined conviction that at bottom Christianity is about grace and that all the images of final judgment and reckoning and “score settling” that fill the pages of the Book of Revelation stood at some distance from what they had come to believe that Christianity was all about.

I tried to answer the question as honestly as I could. I reminded them that nobody lives in a world where there is only light and no shadows, that in order for God to be pa◊nta e∆n paÇsin, “all in all,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, He must fully and finally subdue all the “forces” that are destroying His world, that there is an eschatological dimension to the Christian faith that cannot be expurgated without doing violence to its very essence. Then I tried to be less theological and more pastoral and reminded the audience that no parent, worthy of the name, ever chooses between their moral standards and the ones they love. You lay before your children the highest ethical and moral standards you know, knowing full well that in due course they will violate them. But when they do, parents do an amazing thing. They don’t reject the child for violating the standard. “Out of my house, you little liar! I’ll have no liars in this house!” But neither do they reject the standard: “Well, I know I said lying was wrong, but what’s a little lying where there’s love?” No, the parent keeps both the child and the standard.

I did the best I could to try to resolve the cognitive dissonance created by the disconnect between what this person had believed Christianity to be all about and what they had discovered, after having actually read the Bible, that it was about.

Then I remembered something G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy. In the chapter titled “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton points out that modernity (and even more so postmodernity) has distorted the essential virtues by isolating them from other virtues that were intended to be checks and balances on them. As a result, an unhealthy and destructive reductionism has taken place which distorts the meaning and purpose of the virtues. “Some scientists care for truth,” he says, “and their truth is pitiless.” However, he continues, “some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.” Indeed.

In Christianity this moral reductionism has found expression in the modern penchant to reduce all Christian virtues to one – kindness or “grace.” God becomes the over-indulgent Grandfather figure whose love is always expressed in terms of “There, there, it wasn’t really important anyway.” In the view of some, Christianity is this wonderfully fortunate religion in which happy dispensation of our foolishness and wickedness and rebellion are dispatched with the syllogism: “God loves to forgive sins, and I love to sin! Hey, is this a great world or what?”

But virtues were never intended so to be abstracted and isolated from each other. Love without the concomitant virtue of justice to constrain and correct it produces a doctrine of forgiveness that makes forgiveness easy merely because there are no longer any “sins” to forgive.

Take it out of morality and move it to medicine and the destructiveness and myopia of this kind of reductionism becomes clear. Imagine going to a physician and, after the examination, she says, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad. First the bad news: You’ve got cancer. Now, for the good news: You don’t say anything about it, and I won’t say anything about it, and nobody will know!” Of course, that’s stupid. It isn’t knowing about the cancer that’s the problem; it’s the cancer that’s the problem. And sin is like cancer. It will destroy you even if nobody ever knows about it.

Or again, imagine going to your physician and she says: “Well, you’ve got cancer. Now, get out of my office; I’ll have no sick people in here!” Again, how absurd. Rather, the physician says: “You’ve got cancer; now, let’s see what we can do about it.” She both accepts you as a patient and rejects the cancer that is killing you and does her best to eradicate the cancer from your life. Funny, isn’t it, how her judgment sounds just like grace.

C. S. Lewis, Chesterton's long-time colleague and friend, put it this way: “It is the essence of love to perfect the beloved.” 

5 comments:

laurab said...

wayne, oh how i miss the days when words like "eschatological" were part of my every day vocabulary! wonderful post (as always). hope you and cheryl are well. :) lb

laurab said...

wayne, oh! how i miss the days when words like "eschatological" were part of my every day vocabulary! wonderful post (as always). i've missed you on the blogosphere and hope there will be more to come this Advent season. Hope all is well with you and Cheryl. Please send her my best and enjoy the coming season! best, lhb :)

R. Wayne Stacy said...

ευχαριστώ,Laura. Best to you and Lyle. wayne

armed_and_christian said...

Take it out of morality and move it to medicine and the destructiveness and myopia of this kind of reductionism becomes clear.

That's a fantastic analogy, Dr. Stacy.

armed_and_christian said...

Take it out of morality and move it to medicine and the destructiveness and myopia of this kind of reductionism becomes clear.

That's a fantastic analogy, Dr. Stacy. Too bad that we often do not think of sin as worse and more dangerous than cancer.