Stripped to Nothing

5 July 2018

My friend and advisor Rich Bedsoe offers a powerful reflection on how Jesus impacts history in Principalities and Powers, part 1 and part 2. They’re long pieces, but worth your time.

The question that occurs to me is, what now? The Incarnation founded a new civilization when it destroyed Caesar’s power to rule by right of divinity. Justification by faith founded a new church when it destroyed the Roman Church’s power to rule by condemnation. So what now? Something like theosis–the re-animation of the naked/dead ego by the Holy Spirit founds a new…what? when it destroys…what?

Of course the sensible answer is, “Ask again in another 150 years or so.” But in the meantime, let’s speculate.

A friend suggests that the re-animation of the naked ego by the Spirit founds a new kind of human by destroying autonomous man. This new human is no longer animated by justification alone, but by glory.

I want to chase that idea a little further, and cash out something I think is implicit in Bledsoe’s articles. Ideas have the ability to shift culture, sometimes very powerfully, but Christianity makes a substantially greater claim for itself than just some transformative ideas. I want to suggest (and I think Bledsoe would agree) that in each case, it is not simply the idea operating upon the culture. The transformative effect on the culture comes from people animated by the experience which the idea describes.

The ancient kings’ right to rule as divine was not overturned simply by the idea that men cannot be gods. It was overturned by a critical mass of people whose authentic experience of actual divinity rendered Caesar’s pretensions an obvious sham. Providence makes the contrast even starker by providing real-life satire in the person of emperors like Caligula, and in due course, Julian the Apostate.

Likewise, the Roman church’s power to rule by condemnation and contempt was not simply overturned by the idea of justification by faith. It was defeated by people who were no longer vulnerable to human manipulation through false guilt, because they had experienced for themselves the freedom of being justified by faith. In the harsh light of their new experience, the guilt-manipulations of the Roman church stood revealed for what they truly were, and again, providential real-life satire in the person of Tetzel and his ilk only served to further highlight the problem.

Today, our suspicion of all authority strips the self bare. We have succeeded in divesting ourselves of anything that would interfere with our autonomy, and as a result, we have rendered the most mundane relationships impossible. Every relational overture is interpreted as a power play, and therefore treated with suspicion. The real-life satire is all around us, if we have eyes to see. We are headed toward a world where it won’t even be possible to share a cup of coffee except by the power of the Spirit, because everything is overwhelmed with suspicion, and we’re scared we’ll be taken in.

The autonomous self, “liberated” from constricting relationships, discovers it has also rendered its much-vaunted power of choice completely meaningless. Those same substantial relationships that once constricted our choices also provided context within which our choices had meaning. Apart from that context, our choices are wholly arbitrary, and therefore meaningless.

Autonomous and alone, the self craves absolution, but recognizes no authority that might offer it; craves glory, but hates any standard by which glory might be recognizable. Everywhere people gather in elective tribes, collectives, and fandoms in hopes of re-creating a context for themselves–only to abandon them when relational problems crop up, as they always do. As substantial communities, our churches are rarely better than any other affinity group–Jeep Owners, Juggalos, or Jubilee Baptist, take your pick.

But the Spirit broods over humanity, incubating a new people. As Caesar fell before the Incarnation and the church of Rome before the Cross, autonomous man must fall before the power of Pentecost.

United with the indwelling Holy Spirit, the self automatically enters into relationship with the Father and the Son. All who thus enter are in relationship with each other as well, invited into the perichoretic triune dance. We receive this relationship not as something we might possibly earn, but rather as a gift already accomplished for us. We could not, and by God’s grace need not, manufacture such relationships; we need only steward them and harvest their bounty.

We can quench the Spirit; we can grieve the Spirit; we can prefer the flesh’s works over the Spirit’s fruit–and we often do. When we refuse the Spirit’s bounty, our benefit from one another is as insubstantial as if we were just fans of the same band, car, or TV show. But there’s a crucial difference. You can stop liking that band, and just leave the group.

You can’t escape the new birth so easily. Unlike a fandom, the new birth is a historical event, and nothing you do now can make it didn’t happen. You are a child of God forever, and your only choice now is to be a good one or a bad one. Our culture, and even most of our churches, will tell you that being a good child of God means being a great person, possessed of the kind of cleanliness everyone at the country club pretends to have, but doesn’t really. (Pro tip: they’re all wrong about that. Abraham ran off to Egypt; Samuel was a bad father; David was an adulterer and murderer, Elijah sulked in a cave, and so on. Don’t worry; you’re in good company.)

Being the child God calls you to be isn’t about moral perfection. It’s about refusing to hide your faults and flaws (what 1 John aptly calls “walking in the light”), owning what God shows you. It means being seen by the people around you and refusing to project a nice, clean image. You live in the light, and God will grow you into a great person over time.

If you hide, then you miss all the relational benefits God is offering you, and you’ll get worse every day. You’re one of those friends invited to the wedding feast who never shows up. But if you live in the light…ah, my friend, what relationships you will have!

In the context of these relationships, already provided for us, our choices become meaningful again. When we invite the Spirit to move in power and allow Him to follow through, we are not only united to God in fact, but we reap the benefits in practice. The fellowship of the triune life (into which we enter vertically) is mirrored horizontally in our fellowship with one another. In the triune dance, we find our freedom in the ability to grow into who and what we were built to be, in relation to others who do the same.

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