Continuing our review of Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors.
As a reading note, I'm not going to address the Big Question--Why did God make us so vulnerable to horrors?--until the last post in this series. Until that post, I'll be selecting aspects of her model that I find to be either interesting or important given the concerns of this blog.
We've already noted one important aspect of Adams' work: The union of soteriological and theodicy concerns. We now turn to a second aspect where I think Adams "gets it" better than some other theologians.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I pound away on free will models in theology. It is not that I deny that in some ways we might be free, it is just that I see, as a psychologist, our will, our volition, as highly contingent. (I call this vision weak volitionalism as opposed to the strong volitionalism of free will models. For more, see my posts about Preparing for the Cartesian Storm.) In short, as finite, biological creatures we are not radically free. Our volitional range and scope is a humble and fragile affair. And I've argued that this realistic appraisal of human volitional capacity has important, if largely ignored, implications for theology and ministry.
Well, happily, Adams takes a weak volitional approach in Christ and Horrors. Thus, my admiration from last post continues as Adams adopts and works with a realistic model of human agency. As a psychologist I can pay a theologian no higher compliment.
Adams is weak volitional because she correctly notes that free will approaches crash on the rocks of horrors. As Adams writes (p. 49), "Radical vulnerability to horrors arises because human psycho-spiritual powers are not reliably great enough to achieve and sustain an appropriate functional coordination between [the] two dimensions [i.e., physical and spiritual] of human being in a material world such as this."
The reason is that our minds are physical organs and, as such, radically vulnerable (p. 38): "There is a metaphysical mismatch within human nature: tying psyche to biology and personality to a developmental life cycle exposes human personhood to dangers to which angels (as naturally incorruptible pure spirits) are immune...[this] makes our meaning-making capacities easy to twist, even ready to break, when inept caretakers and hostile surroundings force us to cope with problems off the syllabus and out of pedagogical order. Likewise, biology--by building both an instinct for life and the seeds of death into animal nature--makes human persons naturally biodegradable. Human psyche is so connected to biology that biochemistry can skew our mental states (as in schizophrenia and clinical depression) and cause mind-degenerating and personality-distorting diseases (such as Alzheimer's and some forms of Parkinson's), which make a mockery of Aristotelian ideals of building character and dying in a virtuous old age."
The conclusion: "Starting with the horrendous predicament of humankind, I have painted a more pessimistic picture of human agency than traditional free-fall approaches draw of Adam and Eve in Eden...I insist that human agency could not have enough stature to shift responsibility for the way things are off God's shoulders onto ours. I deny our competence to organize personal animality into functional harmony, much less to anticipate and steer our way clear of horrors" (p. 50).
One reason Adams takes such a dim view of human agency is that horrors can volitionally ruin us: “By definition, horrors stump our meaning-making capacities. Individual (as opposed to merely collective) horror-participation can break our capacity to make positive sense of our lives, can so fragment our sense of self and so damage our agency as to make authentic choice impossible" (p. 207).
I think this insight is critically important. Specifically, theologians need to recognize that horrors can so ravage and damage the human psyche that, as Adams says, the ability for authentic choice is destroyed. And if this is the case God has to pick up the slack. Think of a child traumatically abused by a "religious" parent or leader. This horror can wholly damage the child's (and later adult) ability to ever think positively about religion, God, and Jesus. The person is volitionally ruined.
This is not to say that people cannot transcend horrors and find positive meaning in their midst. Some people are able to accept horrors in a stoic fashion and overcome volitional ruin. But Adams is clear that to expect this outcome to be the norm is both silly and elitist. (p. 269-270): "I find these stoic paradigms deep and worthy of great respect, but elitist. Even if the martyrologies exaggerate, I have no wish to deny that some humans put in some truly impressive individual performances. But experience shows such perseverance to be out of psycho-spiritual reach for many (perhaps even most) human beings in sufficiently desperate circumstances. Wartime horrors expose deeply rooted ordinary-time virtues as ineffectual defenses against betraying one's deepest loyalties. Even if the Spirit of Christ indwells us, many-to-most of us have not learned to cooperate well enough to offer the sacrifice of heroic martyrdom either in this world's torture chambers and death camps or on the alter of our hearts."
I think this is right on target. It is simply ridiculous to expect heroic stoicism from the abuse victim or the death camp inmate. To expect this is simply to compound their horror. For not only are they victims of horror, we also accuse them of moral weakness for not being able to "get over it" and respond appropriately to the gospel during their mortal lives.
The implications for all this is that God has to carry the lion's share of the burden regarding horror defeat. Humans, volitionally speaking, are just not up to the task. Horrors ruin us. Thus, although parts of humanity can and do participate in horror defeat, the task is largely one of Divine initiative and competence.
How will horror defeat occur? Adams suggests that there are three stages of horror defeat:
Stage 1: Divine Solidarity
In Stage 1 God's presence and participation in horror allows for the possibility for moments of intimacy/unioin with God in the midst of horror whether we know it or not. Stage 1 horror defeat was accomplished in the Incarnation. That is, by entering into the horrors, God has built a route for personal horror defeat. That is, due to the Presence of God the ability to make meaning out of horrors becomes, theoretically, possible.
Stage 2: Healing and Mothering
Although Stage 1 implies that, post-Incarnation, it is possible to find meaning in the midst of horrors, many, due to volitional ruin, will not have the capacity to make that move. Thus, in Stage 2 God must work within the individuals developmental history creating meaning-making capacities from the inside out. This involves intensive Divine healing and coaching. Or, as Julian of Norwich says, mothering.
Stage 3: The End of Horrors
During the final Stage all the prior work in Stage 2 must be brought to fruition for every person and the entire cosmos must be reconfigured to allow for an existence that no longer is radically vulnerable to horrors.
As we look at these stages, we see the burden on the Divine Initiative. I'm particularly struck by the weak volitional themes of Stage 2. For example (p. 160, 161): "There is metaphysical mothering in that God is the ground for our being...There is also functional mothering. The Trinity/Jesus provides the loving personal environment in which we are always enfolded, before and whether we are actually aware of it or not. The Trinity/Jesus indwell us, make their home within us at the core of who we are. The Trinity/Jesus exercise that omnipresent influence, below as well as above the level of conscious awareness, without which our capacity to be spiritual persons could not be awakened and evolved...I agree with Julian of Norwich that the emergent capacities of human spirit are at every stage too meager to harmonize [our physical and spiritual natures], and that this power deficit would be a design deficit if human beings were intended--given Divine creation and conservation--to be always-or-for-the-most-part left to its own devices. My understanding of God's purpose in creation--focused by Divine desire to sanctify the material--motivates the hypothesis that God's design for human agency essentially involves functional collaboration with Divine agency, which has not only the wisdom, power, and resourcefulness to harmonize matter and spirit, but also the pedagogical imagination to rear us up into conscious and willing participation."
Continuing our review of Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors.