Christ and Horrors, Part 1: Horrors and the Work of Christ

There are some big questions theological systems try to answer. Two of the biggest are:

1. What is our situation / condition / ailment / predicament / problem?

2. How are we rescued from our Condition?

Basically, What's broken? and How is it fixed?

These are the soteriological questions (i.e., How are we saved?) and, given that the Son is the aspect of the Trinity that acts as Savior, the answer to these questions defines the work of the Christ.

Modern Protestants tend to see our main problem as Sin, and all it entails (e.g., separation from God). Thus, in most Protestant churches Jesus overcomes the problem of Sin by laying down his life as an atonement sacrifice. (Along with the Sin-is-the-Problem formulation there is a secondary aspect of Christ's work: Jesus as Moral Teacher/Exemplar. That is, another way Jesus defeats sin is by showing us how to live morally virtuous lives. This is why Protestants emphasize Sunday School and bible study. However, the Moral Teacher/Exemplar model plays a second fiddle to the Atoning Sacrifice model in most churches.)

In contrast to these formulations, Marilyn McCord Adams begins Christ and Horrors with a refreshing soteriological move. That is, she sees horrors, and not sin, as our fundamental Problem/Condition. Thus, salvation is about the defeat of horrors. Christ is a horror-defeater.

Adams (p. 32) writes that she is "taking my cue from the book of Job rather than stories of Adam's fall. I want to explore what shape Christology takes if the Savior's job is to rescue us, not fundamentally from sin, but from horrors!"

What are horrors? Adams (p. 32) centers them upon existential concerns about meaning: "horrors as evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant's life could (given their inclusion in it) have positive meaning for him/her on the whole."

Just to be clear, Adams (p. 32-33) gives examples, "Paradigm horrors include the rape of a woman and axing off her arms, psychological torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration of personality, schizophrenia, severe clinical depression, cannibalizing one's own offspring, child abuse the sort described by Ivan Karamazov, parental incest, participation in the Nazi death camps, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas, being the accidental and/or unwitting agent in the disfigurement or death of those one loves best."

These events are horrors because they furnish "reason to doubt whether the participant's life can be worth living, because it engulfs the positive value of his/her life and penetrates into his/her meaning-making structures seemingly to defeat and degrade his/her value as a person" (p. 33). Adams summarizes (p. 34): "the heart of the horrendous, what makes horrors so pernicious, is their life-ruining potential."

Two further comments about horrors are in order. First, even if we do not participate in horrors (either as victim or perpetrator) we are all complicit in horror. Adams (p. 35-36, emphases hers) makes this clear: "Virtually every human being is complicit in actual horrors merely by living in his/her nation or society. Few individuals would deliberately starve a child into mental retardation. But this happens even in the United States, because of the economic and social systems we collectively allow to persist and from which most of us profit. Likewise complicit in actual horrors are all those who live in societies that defend the interests of warfare and so accept horror-perpetration as a chosen means to or a side effect of its military aims. Human being in this world is thus radically vulnerable to, or at least collectively an inevitable participant in, horrors."

A second point that Adams makes later in the book (p. 207) is that "death itself is a horror!" She continues (p. 208-209): "Death proves that there is not enough to us to maintain integrity, to hold body and soul together...It is in our nature and our calling as human beings to strive against the forces what would undo us, and it is in our nature surely to lose...Death mock our personal pretensions...If death is a horror, and death is natural to human being, then to be human is to be headed for horror. In cultic conceptuality, human being is a prima facie cursed kind of thing to be."

In sum, this is our Condition: God made a world where we are radically vulnerable to or complicit in horrors. The world is saturated in horror. Thus, the Work of Christ must be, fundamentally and foundationally, involved in horror defeat (p. 52): "If non-optimality is construed in terms of God's setting us up for horror-participation by creating us personal animals in a material world such as this, then the Savior's job is to be the horror-defeater. Our next question is: Who would Christ have to be, what relation to God and humankind would Christ have to have, to accomplish this saving work?"

I'll sketch Adams' answer to that question in coming posts. Today, I just want to reflect on the genius of Adams' focus on horrors.

In my last post I said that my first response to reading Christ and Horrors was "Finally, a theologian that gets it." What did I mean by this? What does Adams, in my opinion, get?

The genius of Christ and Horrors is that it links soteriology (i.e., salvation) with theodicy (i.e., the problem of evil or pain). The two become one. Salvation becomes about horror defeat! This union is a masterstroke.

Let me clarify. When soteriology and theodicy are decoupled, soteriology, in my opinion, becomes laughable. It becomes a silly, thin, ridiculous project. Let me give a personal example. In my church we work with the classic Protestant soteriological scheme: Our problem is sin and our separation from God. Thus, we accept Jesus as our Savior and become concerned about our moral lives. Sin and its management becomes paramount.

I find this focus appalling. Constantly in church I'm fighting the impulse to scream the following: "People, this world is a hellhole. The human predicament is monstrous. And we are sitting here arguing about if homosexuality is a sin or if a woman can be in a leadership role/clergy in the church? Are you kidding me? Are you FREAKING kidding me!?"

As Adams repeatedly points out, our situation is ruin; wreaked, horrifically painful lives. And that ruin, in my humble opinion, trivializes the common soteriological impulses of the church. Who really gives a damn about doctrines of justification, election, or atonement? God has got to fix this mess! And if your soteriological scheme doesn't address the massive ruin of Creation, doesn't speak directly to Rwanda, or Darfur, or the Nazi Death camps, or the child nursing a parent ravaged by Alzheimer's, then your soteriological scheme is simply ridiculous, given my sensibilities. I refuse to participate in a church life preoccupied with hand-wringing over our moral peccadilloes and the quest for assurances that we are, indeed, going to heaven. As I once said to a classroom of students, "Given your beliefs about salvation, God promptly sent those six million Jews, killed in Nazi Death camps, to hell. And, given that hell is both much worse and longer in duration than a death camp, I refuse to believe that God is worse than Hitler." That is to say, if we separate issues of salvation (e.g., Are Jews going to heaven?) from the issue of horror (e.g., the death camps) we get this appalling disjoint where God compounds the horror. Horror for horror. What kind of God is that?

So you can see my great relief upon reading Christ and Horrors. The linking of soteriology and theodicy makes our most important concern the central work of Christ. And that, to me, is an amazing theological insight.

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18 thoughts on “Christ and Horrors, Part 1: Horrors and the Work of Christ”

  1. Richard,

    It sounds like a book we all should read. I also think your remark about God being worse than Hitler is appropriate.

    I wanted to repost part of one of my earlier comments because I think it speaks to that remark.

    I think James Allison in his book RAISING ABEL says it differently (and, I think, presents a better way of speaking about the way God responds to God's "anger" and "need" for his own justification): "When we speak, then, of God as love, it is not as if he loved us by throwing Jesus to us as if we were a pack of hungry crocodiles. No, God's love for us is the love by which Jesus was empowered as a human being to create for us -- which means to understand and imagine and invent for us -- a way out of our violence and death. There is a certain piety which imagines Jesus on the Cross, with the Father observing from above. In some versions the Father is pleased, because he is being offered a sacrifice which will wipe out our sins; in another sort of piety the Father is horrified by the cruelty which we are showing towards his Son. Neither of these seems to me to be adequate. The Father was present at the Cross not as a spectator, but as the source of the loving self-giving which was bringing into existence the possibility that we humans might overcome death and its dominion in our lives: God was not attending our show, but was busy in making of a typical show of ours a revelation of Himself to us. (pp. 59-60)"

    Otherwise, often, if unwittingly, we communicate a "bad news" God, one complicit in the torture and death of his child. And that is not the God Jesus embodies.

    George Cooper

  2. As usual, this is a fascinating post. I am interested in reading Adams’ work. Yet from this introduction, while Adams does seem to give some nominal credance to the notion of human agency in ‘the horrors,’ this notion is not nearly as developed as it would need to be. Despite her apparently limited language to the contrary (though maybe she covers this more in her book), under her construal humans seem merely to be the victims in need of changed circumstances, rather than actual agents genuinely causally involved in the creation of those horrific circumstances. If agency is not firmly established, but is mere ‘vulnerability’ to circumstances which engulf humans, serious soteriological and anthropological difficulties emerge. If soteriology becomes merely the ‘saving’ of non-agents ‘from’ these circumstantial horrors, then that salvation changes us accidentally and not substantially (I use Aristotle’s terminology here merely as an heuristic device). That is, if the primary change is not in who we are and in the way that we are, then it does not seem to be precisely humanity that is saved, but merely that which is accidental to humanity. And I am all for finding bridges over the accidence/substance divide, as well as finding ways to integrate facets of agency into broader physiological, psychological, sociological and other modes of discourse, however her treatment of horrors sans agency seems to preclude that type of move, actually furthering the divide.

    Also, there are many theologians that have argued both genuine human agency AND an emphasis on the theodic aspects of soteriology. For instance, read Alvin Plantinga on the problem of evil, or J.R. Lucas’ (another Oxford philosopher) essay “Atonement and Redemption.” Also Carol Newsom’s work on the book of Job, and Joel Green and Mark Baker’s “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross.” Additionally, most of the early church Fathers (as well as later figures like Anselm), though they didn’t go as far as others regarding the notion of God’s complicity and responsibility in and for suffering, they read sin ontologically as “separation from God” not as the angry God’s parental wrath, but precisely BECAUSE they believed that such separation entailed suffering and further read God’s decisive action as the movement to restore unity and concomitantly rescue us from those horrors. I’m with you on the misleading emphasis in SOME Protestant circles on utterly personalized (usually sexual) ‘sin’ as the primary woe for which we need divine assistance. However I would hesitate to characterize all of Protestantism, much less all of Christian theological history, in such terms.

  3. I was listening with an old friend to Jackson Browne a few years back and he (Greg Ross, writer for Landon Saunders) was saying that Browne understands the question but does not know the answer and yet so many in the church know the answer but are clueless as to what the question experience with the church right now as I go through divorce is that many would much rather avoid any horrors in others lives but would much rather sing Blue Skies and Rainbows...its been a bit of a disillusioning experience to find that it seems in people's ignorance as to "what to say" they do nothing and say nothing except for an occassional "I am praying for you." gee thanks or "You have been on my heart" really..hmmm how do I know this..maybe that makes them feel, the most beautiful words I have heard in my horror has been.."Man, I don't know what to say but can I butter your cornbread" or "Here's a casserole..all I know to do is cook for you" ...

    random comment..sorry

  4. "Who really gives a damn about doctrines of justification, election, or atonement? God has got to fix this mess! And if your soteriological scheme doesn't address the massive ruin of Creation, doesn't speak directly to Rwanda, or Darfur, or the Nazi Death camps, or the child nursing a parent ravaged by Alzheimer's, then your soteriological scheme is simply ridiculous, given my sensibilities."

    Rant seconded. Can I go to church with you sometime? ;)

    And to repost a response to George's repost:

    "Otherwise, often, if unwittingly, we communicate a "bad news" God, one complicit in the torture and death of his child. And that is not the God Jesus embodies."

    Yes. And I'm not sure I can express my relief at that observation: the God complicit in the torture and death of God's child is not the God Jesus embodies.

  5. Beverly,

    Yours is not a random comment. Hurting with those who hurt and providing comfort is a challenge when we cut ourselves off from all but the sunniest of life. Butter on cornbread is closer to the balm in Gilead than blue skies and rainbows. You are a person of courage.

    George Cooper

  6. Hey everyone,
    Heavy stuff today so I want to respond to you all. But I won't be able to until tonight. Until then...

    P.S. There was some emotion in this post, so thanks for responding to the content over the tone. I was hoping you all would do that. I have very charitable readers.

  7. it was definitely nice to see a discussion of soteriology move away from the limited idea of sin to the more circumspect issue of horror; however, i could not help but think that God is actively trying to save us from himself.

    from this perspective, it is not that "God has to fix THIS mess" but rather that "God has to fix HIS mess"

    does adams address this issue? or is there some aspect of her argument i am misunderstanding?


  8. "Likewise complicit in actual horrors are all those who live in societies that defend the interests of warfare and so accept horror-perpetration as a chosen means to or a side effect of its military aims. Human being in this world is thus radically vulnerable to, or at least collectively an inevitable participant in, horrors."

    If that doesn't scare you shitless...

  9. 'I refuse to participate in a church life preoccupied with hand-wringing over our moral peccadilloes and the quest for assurances that we are, indeed, going to heaven.'

    (Amen, Richard!)

    Jesus is coming soon,
    Morning, or night, or noon;
    Many will meet their doom...

    Many of us were raised up in an American church life that loved to stoke fears and rate everyone's level of righteous comfort strokes.

    We forget – or for those who have not been outside the American church culture – just how harsh the realities for most lives are in this day and age. When a toddler dies of dysentery and is placed in an open grave on the same day, the last thing on most minds standing around that hole is why some American protestant is flogging themselves because they have issues with the way some ministry programme is being run.

    There's a lot of whinging going on in either direction (to heaven or to hell). If the stroking can cease and people can just get on with it and move forward.

    Sometimes, the tone in Jesus' voice seemed to be one of sheer impatience. How often did he roll his eyes because people just could not 'get it', because they refused to see beyond religious obstacles they put in motion themselves?

  10. George,
    Thanks for the quote. Yes, through all these conversations, we need to hold fast to the Trinity, that Jesus and God act as One and act in love.

    You and I together would screw up a church:-)

    I hear your concerns and actually my next post on this deals with agency. Adams' focus on horrors does marginalize agency. As she argues, strong Aristotelian notions of agency run aground on the shoals of horrors. Why? Because horrors can volitionally ruin us. Thus, in the end, the burden rests squarely on God to fix. This does change some things, big things. But Adams sees "shrunken agency" (her term) as a necessary consequence if horror defeat is the work of the Christ.

    Not a random comment at all. Despite what I said to Mark, Adams does recognize that some people in this life will see the work of the Christ and will be able to join in his work of horror defeat. And the first step is communion/participation in the horror. This is the purpose of the Incarnation and the proper movement of the church as you poignantly note.

    Yes, that is the Big Question. I'm going to turn to it last in this series. P.S. Shouldn't you be working on your thesis? :-)

    I agree wholeheartedly. It seems we've got our heads in the sand all too often.

  11. One of my formative experiences in determining a philosphy of life was reading a book about the Nazi concentration camp known as Treblinka. It was the only such camp that was toppled by an inmate rebellion. It was my first year of grad school, my first year out of Harding, and discovering the capacity for cruelty of my fellow human beings was an unwelcome surprise to my sheltered view of reality, yes a real horror. Following it up with the book Exodus, also about the war and the founding of Israel, I could not see how Jewish people could possibly be, shall we say, objective about the religion of their persecutors. And if not, how could a good God condemn them? Such has never been adequately addressed in any Church of Christ class I've been in. I couldn't see my way to sanity without being a universalist.

  12. quick question:

    for the most part is adams' term "shrunken agency" describing the same concept you do when you talk about "weak volition"?

    should i be working on my thesis? yes. but why do today what you can put off til tomorrow?

    words to live by.


  13. One of the best books I've EVER read, and certainly the best book on theodicy.

    I'm looking forward to your series -- and will comment accordingly. So far, so good (however, it appears that we're on the same page).



  14. Hi Richard,
    just coming to this thread anew (after having been directed to it via Keith DeRose by way of Prosblogion), and I haven't been keeping up. I just read this post and the fourth one, and scanning the comments here, I didn't see the obvious question asked, so I'll ask it: where do horrors come from, if not sin (construed broadly, of course, not simply "moral peccadilloes")?

  15. Hi Micah,
    In her book Adams marginalizes notions of sin, seeing horrors as primary. In fact, in a couple of places she suggests that horrors are the root cause of sin. For example, we generally say sin is the result of human selfishness. Adams turns this view on its head. She asks, why are we selfish? Answer: Because we are biodegradable creatures in a world of scarcity. That is, it is our biological vulnerability that causes us to act in a Darwinian, selfish, and aggressive manner. Thus, sin isn't the root problem, it’s just a symptom of our existential condition: Vulnerability to horrors.

  16. Horrors (death) and sin ( selfishness) seams to be like the chicken and the egg. The church mostly teaches sin came first. I think it is more complicated than that.

  17. I greatly admire Marilyn McCord Adams' work as well, bravo to post about it.   I agree with the shift in emphasis from theodicy (trying to answer why is there evil?), to soteriology (what can be done about it), and I also agree with the refreshing emphasis on suffering horrors inflicted on us (not forgetting perpetrated by us), than on sin as personal peccadilloes. 

    But I disagree with combining theodicy with soteriology.  If that means that we need to say soteriology is more important than theodicy, so be it (seems a Biblical priority).  Nevertheless worrying about the problem of evil is also an important concern. 

    Why are they not the same?  Well an answer in soteriology often cannot fit as an answer to theodicy.  The sacrifice of Christ is upheld as the overarching horror defeater but I dont think it can be the explanation for the horror in the first place.  If it was purposed as an explanation (theodicy) then it would radically undermine the alturistic nature of the salvation in the first place.  A God who permits or perpetrates horrors for the purpose of defeating them later is not loving.  Traditional theodicy, whether workable or not, is still required to look at this mystery. 

    By the way I suspect Adams herself is aware of this.  She certainly looked like she tried to link them earlier in her writings but she also wrote a few comments to pull away from thedociy in the book.  Sorry I dont have the book in front of me to check this and quote.  

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