03 May 2017

Dying as Ultimate or Definitive Decision for or Against God

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for posting your reflection from Wednesday of Holy Week. Also, I wanted to say thank you for posting the additional paragraphs you put there recently on death as "radical, definitive, and final decision". I wondered if you would consider posting these paragraphs separately though? I have never heard of death defined as "a definitive decision we make for or against God." It makes so much sense of saying "God willed Jesus' death!" --- something I guess I "took on faith" because I have always had trouble believing God could do such a thing. I mean, as you have written yourself, how could an infinitely loving God have willed the torture and death of his beloved one?]]

Yes, here are the paragraphs I added to the earlier blog post. Responses to your further comments or considerations are posted below these.

[[a central and defining dimension of death is the final decision one makes for or against God. It is possible to say that God willed this dimension of Jesus' death but not the circumstances that occasioned the death or the manner in which this whole event comes about. In Christian theology this decision is the very essence of death; it is a final and definitive decision for or against God. For this reason to speak of "willing one's death" is to speak of "willing one's final decision"; from this perspective the word "death" means "definitive decision". The two terms are interchangeable or synonymous. 

When we consider the question of "What did God will and what did God NOT will?" through this lens, what God willed was not Jesus' torture and crucifixion, but his exhaustive self-8emptying --- his definitive decision for God and the sovereignty of God. In Jesus' death this kenotic decision was realized in ultimate openness to whatever God would be and do ---even in abject godlessness. Understanding death in this way allows us to tease apart more satisfactorily what was and what was not the will of God with regard to Jesus' passion and death. In referring to this defining dimension of death we are allowed to say, "God willed Christ's death." It is also by forgetting this very specific definition of death (i.e., death as radical or definitive decision for or against God) that we have been led to tragically and mistakenly affirm the notion that the torture Jesus experienced at human hands and as the fruit of human cruelty and injustice was the will of God.]]

I was first introduced to the notion of death-as-decision during a course on Eschatology (c.1972 or 1973) as we read through Karl Rahner's book  On the Theology of Death.  At the same time we were reading through Ladislaus Boros' The Mystery of Death where Boros raises the philosophical question of "what happens to the whole [person] at the moment of death?" We can speak by observation about the person before death and after the separation of soul from body has occurred, but what happens "between" these two "moments"? What is the active dimension of death, that dimension marked by human agency and not simple passivity or "being done to?"  Boros goes on here to speak at length about "the hypothesis of a final decision." As I understand it it is the work of Boros and Rahner (primarily Rahner) that has provided cogent articulations of the notion of "death as final decision". 

Unfortunately, I never directly applied the theology of death-as-final-decision to the entire question of what is willed or not willed by God until this Easter. Specifically, I had never worked out in my own mind how it was possible to say, "God willed the death of Jesus" without at the same time making of God some sort of monster in whom it would be impossible to believe. (Some have decried the Christian God as one vindicating child abuse and therefore being a God whom they had to reject. This sense that death is a final decision is the key to disassociating God from the inhuman treatment Jesus received at the hands of so many Human beings and human institutions.) When I look at what made it both critical and possible for me to finally apply this definition of death to the question I realize it was the inner work I have been doing this past year. At every turn I was required to ask what was the will of God with regard to this or that event or series of events in my life --- and what was not! Again and again I saw that some things were the will of God and some things were emphatically not!

As Holy Week approached, these iterations of the distinction between human actions and Divinely-willed reality were especially raised again by the question of Jesus' death. Was this an exception? Was God "a monster" who willed inhuman cruelty and torture only in this case? I had "used" or at least suggested this limiting solution in an article I had published a decade or so earlier but had never been entirely comfortable with it. I had explained things to myself as analogous to a military commander who does not will the death of those under his command but who must put them in harms way to accomplish a mission; additionally I used the idea of a Peace Corps administer who must do something similar with volunteers but who does not will the injury of volunteers in accomplishing the mission of the Corps. Neither was entirely satisfactory but both were steps along the path to explaining how we could say that God willed Jesus' death.

It was the inner work I have been doing with my director that was decisive for my making the connection to what God did or did not will during Jesus' passion. This was because it was very clear that a number of things in my life were NOT the will of God but God DID will that I remain open to life and love (that is, to God) during these events (because there is no doubt that God accompanied me throughout them). Similarly God willed that I decide for and commit to Him in the healing work undertaken this year --- though God, I am sure, did not will the pain and suffering associated with this healing work. These decisions involved death --- all of them more and less "little deaths" to be sure, but forms of death nonetheless. They reminded me that ultimately dying or death itself, as Rahner says, is an act of radical and final decision for or against God. Dying is the  final and irrevocable decision we each make for the source of all reality as we choose either life or death. Lent made this choice explicit; it set the key in which the entire season was to be heard , "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live." "Dying to self" in a final and definitive way (or refusing to do so) and thus similarly choosing God (or not) is the heart, the essential nature, of the event we know as death.

Death to self means opening ourselves to falling into and resting in the hands of God as opposed to clinging to the (limited) security of self; it means entrusting ourselves more and more wholly to God, living into God's love and thus, into the power and presence of God. We spend our entire lives learning to give ourselves over into God's hands more and more completely or radically. Death is the event in which we finalize the choices we have made throughout our lives for life, for truth, for love, for God. How ever death comes to us it never loses this quality of decision. While we may never accept a particular kind of death and dying as the will of God for us or for those we love, we must accept that the ultimate or definitive moment of decision for God this (or any) death represents is indeed the will of God.

In Jesus' passion we see the truth of this theological perspective worked out in ultimate clarity and depth. What Jesus revealed (showed and made real in history) on the cross is an authentic humanity which decides exhaustively for God even as Jesus enters into the profoundest depths of suffering, loneliness, and godlessness. Jesus dies a godless death but he remains open to God even when he cannot find or experience God's presence in the depths of sin and godless death. While Jesus made decisions to go to Jerusalem so that eventually he could not avoid execution, once he had fallen into the hands of those who would torture and kill him he made decision after decision to remain open to the presence of Love-in-Act, the same decisions we know as his "obedience unto death, even death on a cross", the same decisions to trust God even in the realm of sin and godless death where God had, by definition, no right to be. These decisions are the very essence of faith and prayer, of dying to self --- indeed, of dying per se.

At the same time we must recognize that everything Jesus was subjected to at the hands of human cruelty, venality, insecurity, will to power, and so forth --- none of this was, strictly speaking, the will of God. God in Christ brought incredible good out of them through Jesus' "Yes"; God in Christ through Jesus' decision for radical openness and trust in God was allowed to enter fully into the depths of sin and the consequences of sin and to transform these with his presence. In Christ God both entered into godless sinful death and destroyed it with His presence; God could also be said to have brought this reality into himself without being destroyed by it. He has made these realities a part of his own life, embraced them with --- as it proved in Jesus' death and resurrection --- a love that death cannot overcome.