Christ and Horrors

If you are a long time reader you know that one of the distinctive theological moves I tend to make is to conflate soteriology with theodicy, seeing the problem of salvation as being entwined with the problem of pain and suffering. I call this move "distinctive" as it's not typical. But there are a few theologians who make this move. One of favorite examples of this is Marilyn McCord Adams book Christ and Horrors, a book I interacted with many years ago.

According to Adams, horror, rather than sin, is our fundamental predicament. Thus, salvation is less about forgiveness than the defeat of horrors. Adams writes:
[T]aking 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? They are all sorts of extreme human suffering, and Adams focuses upon their existential impact, how horror radically disrupts our ability to make meaning from our lives:  
[H]orrors 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...

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.
Again, these experience disrupt us existentially, they render life meaningless and empty life of any positive value:
[Horrors create] 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...the heart of the horrendous, what makes horrors so pernicious, is their life-ruining potential.
While it true that few of us experience this psychological, physical and existential damage, Adams goes on to point out that we are all complicit in horrors. If not victims we are perpetrators or, at the very least, we are the beneficiaries of horror perpetration:
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.
To return to the key point that Adams makes, horror overwhelms our capacity to make meaning of our lives. Horror ruins our ability to name life as "good" and "worth living." A part of his is how horror destroys our volitional capacities, our ability to make positive choices and decisions:
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.
Our vulnerability here is rooted in the fact that our meaning-making capacities are so tightly tethered to our material bodies, bodies radically susceptible to damage and decay:
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.
In the face of all this, what is salvation supposed to look like and accomplish? What is Christ--as Savior--supposed to do?

Well, if our predicament is our inability to, in the face of horrors, make positive meaning of our lives, to judge life as "good" and "worth living," then the work of the Christ must be involved in some sort of existential rehabilitation. Christ must stand in the place of horror victims and from there begin a process of existential reconstruction. Adams borrows from Julian of Norwich and calls this process "mothering."

And the key aspect of this "mothering," according to Adams, is that God's healing and grace is extended universally to everyone. We must not think that God will create and perpetuate more horror by torturing people forever and ever. As Adams notes, this earth is hell enough.

In short, if God is to defeat horrors God's love will necessarily be universal in scope:
Traditional doctrines of hell err again by supposing either that God does not get what God wants with every human being ("God wills all humans to be saved" by God's antecedent will) or that God deliberately creates some for ruin. To be sure, many human beings have conducted their ante-mortem lives in such a way as to become anti-social persons. Almost none of us dies with all the virtues needed to be fit for heaven. Traditional doctrines of hell suppose that God lacks the will or the patience or the resourcefulness to civilize each and all of us, to rear each and all of us up into the household of God. They conclude that God is left with the option of merely human penal systems--viz., liquidation or quarantine!

Traditional doctrines of hell go beyond failure to hatred and cruelty by imagining a God Who not only acquiesces in creaturely rebellion and dysfunction but either directly organizes or intentionally "outsources" a concentration camp (of which Auschwitz and Soviet gulags are pale imitations) to make sure some creatures' lives are permanently deprived of positive meaning.

My own view is that ante-mortem horror-participation is hell enough. Horrors constitute the prima facie destruction of the positive meaning of our lives; a destruction that we lack knowledge, power, or worth enough to defeat; a destruction that reasonably drives many to despair. For God to succeed, God has to defeat horrors for everyone. We have all been to hell by being tainted by horrors ante-mortem. We all meet the horror of death at the end. For some, life has been one horror after another between the dawn of personhood and the grave. In millions of cases, these horrors have been spawned by the systemic evils of human societies. To be good-to us, God will have to establish and fit us for wholesome society, not establish institutions to guarantee that horrors last forever in the world to come!

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16 thoughts on “Christ and Horrors”

  1. I think that something very close to this is orthodox, and wish that it were universally celebrated as orthodoxy. It makes me think of Hebrews 2:14-15, as a gloss on Genesis 2: "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." Here, we might apply "slavery" metaphorically, but I think we should first apply it literally. The fear of death - horror - is used to dominate and control, and this form of domination fundamentally threatens to destroy our humanity at the same time that it empowers unjust rulers. Rather than suggest that "horror" is an alternative to "sin," or that Job presents an alternative starting point to Genesis, I would like to suggest that this is very much at the core of the Genesis account, and that we are misreading Genesis if we read it any other way. I would add that Genesis gestures toward a counterintuitive notion that I think is true: it is our knowledge of good and evil, understood as our moral capacity and moral knowledge, that enables us to fully experience this kind of horror. And because we experience it, we can use it to enslave people. I think the experience of horror, combined with our other moral senses, are also essential to our ability to create collective bodies (kingdoms, nations, corporations) that often survive through, and perpetuate, these kinds of horror. (Either through a legitimated monopoly on violence, or the implicit threat of starvation that is associated with unemployment/ejection from the body). I think this lets us see another aspect of Christ's overcoming of horror, sin and death: it is how he is redeeming our collective bodies as well as our individual bodies.

  2. I like this. Two quick points:

    1. I'm struck by your offhand assumption that "few experience" the level of existential damage that makes life not worth living, but that most/ all of us are complicit in it. I could imagine reversing those two.

    2. I'm not entirely sure that God-against-the-horrors is that tied to universalism. On the one hand, it makes sense that God's ultimate victory would not involve continuing to perpetrate horrors. On the other hand, the fact that God is currently unable/ unwilling to simply wipe away horrors (hell on earth) may suggest that God will never be able/ willing to wipe away horrors, but only to amputate them in a sort of cosmic triage (hell in hell). I'm not arguing against universalism here--simply saying that it needn't be an essential part of thinking that God's salvation-struggle is a cosmic struggle against horrors.

  3. True, there is no necessary connection to a universalistic solution. It's just the solution McCord Adams (and I) think makes the best theological sense, all things considered.

  4. Dr. Beck, Do you think God allows pain and suffering?  Can he intervene in this world to stop an accident that will take an innocent child's life?

  5. Truthfully, I have no idea. Nor do I know how one would get answers to those questions. All I know is what life looks like right in front of me. And I think the best that we can hope for, theologically speaking, is to talk about God in ways that are truthful to experience, particularly the suffering of innocents. And this is why I gravitate toward any theology that identifies God with that suffering. That alignment is how I judge "orthodoxy."

  6. I often find myself fixating on particularly horrific stories in the news. I struggle (maybe the wrong word) with an almost obsessive empathy. I simply can't handle thinking through the feelings of those who have lost loved ones, especially in senseless or "evil" circumstances. 

    I struggle with the tension presented: is this a healthy embracing of the realities of the world that enables me to become a more life-full person, or is this an unhealthy fixation that can only lead to depression and anxiety? It's almost debilitating sometimes.
    Oh...did I mention I'm a seminarian? Just your average soon-to-be chronically depressed pastor.

    Works like Dr. Adams' are very refreshing...however, I'm far more moved by stories recounting how exactly the knowledge of God as co-sufferer (as in Paul Fiddes' "The Creative Suffering of God) serves to energize or comfort those who have experienced the most profound of horrors. We need more of that in combination with profound theological works.

    What do you think, Dr. Beck?

  7. Thank you once again Dr. Beck.  This author's take potently hits the spot - very timely.  What makes things tougher theologically speaking is what's already documented   (i.e. all 2 year old [and younger] boys slained by Herod in search for this boy "king") - all the recorded collateral damage  - it's tough to read God's heart over these events (to the point I wonder if God ordains these horrors).  Most of us, having grown up with eternal torment in a fiery hell as a docrtinal given, can't help having secret conflicts with "trusting God". 

    Matthew 10:28
    "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."

    Is God our Deliverer from horror, or does He become the Originator of our ultimate and final horror?  I'm grateful to have stumbled into UR as being a viable possibility (if only to maintain sanity). I don't think soteriology and theodicy are conflated at all.
    Gary Y.  

  8. I have a similar struggles. But, for reasons likely due to how I'm emotionally wired, I can shake off existential funks. Some can't and live with lifelong, chronic angst that can affect mental health (e.g., contribute to a dysthymic disorder).

    Regardless, I agree with your final move that, regardless of our wiring, the most positive thing we can do in the face of massive suffering in the world is focus on being agents of grace in the darkest of places.

  9. Beyond UR, a very different take on all this the one Caputo's sketches out in his book The Weakness of God. I've finally been pushed to read it, and it's very good. For Caputo the only theodicy that gets God off the hook is the belief that God isn't powerful but weakness. God stands in solidarity with the suffering, brings grace into it, but cannot stop it by an exercise of power/force. Otherwise, God would. But doesn't. Etc.

  10. not related to this post, but since you've done theology of calvin & hobbs, and gospel according to lady gaga, i think you might be interested in this  ~20minTED talk.  ostensibly about how music is paid for, it's really about connecting with people, building community, and trust. 
    Amanda Palmer: The art of asking

  11. I like your honesty here. I'd much rather read "I just don't know how this works" instead of "it's a mystery. God's ways are not our ways, but it all works to good for those that love him" or what not. I'll confess that Newtown CT has slain me to the core. I'm stuck at "God COULD stop suffering, but won't." So.....meh...... I atleast can get on board with "heck if I know!"

  12. Replying to myself to say I know that 'I don't know" and "it's a mystery" seem similar. But, to me, one allows for further pondering whereas the other seems to just shut it down and say " do not meddle there".

  13. have you come across rowan williams' critique of adams theodicy? it raises from serious questions marks for me about the value of introducing aesthetics into theodicy and the extent to which this commits adams to a non-classical view of god's impassability... would be interested to hear your thoughts in the light of it...

    (the essay is called redeeming sorrows and is found in the wrestling with angels book. a taste of his critique can be found here

  14. I read that essay a while back. If I recall, Willams' main point was that McCord Adams's theory showed how everything was going to work out in the end. Willams' concern was that that vision of a "happy ending" would undermine our sympathy for those suffering horror today. Better to sit in ashes today with mystery than theologically posit some future horror defeat.

    That's certainly a good point. There are temptations to be monitored if you are going to engage in theodicy, any theodicy. It is, I guess, theologically safer to stay with mystery. Still, I do think there is room for theodicy and of those on offer I think McCord Adams' has a lot going for it.

  15. Theologically speaking, my wife and I don't always agree on things. She's Pentecostal, while I attend a United Church of Christ. But one of the things we do really agree on is this notion of our responsibility to end suffering. Over the past year or so, I've been struck by the deep connection between the questions in the Book of Job and the answers that come through the Gospels and Jesus. It's a theme that keeps coming up again and again for me. A tall white pine in our side yard fell during "Superstorm Sandy," and before Christmas we cut the top off, set it out on or deck and put lights on it: hope for a tree cut down.

    We  live in  Connecticut and when the Newtown massacre occurred,  it  was particularly disturbing. We knew lots of people who were directly affected.  And that tree took on even more meaning.  And lighting it at night took on an almost metaphysical importance.

    I hadn't heard of Marilyn McCord Adams book until today and I am definitely going to seek it out. My personal theology is that "The Fall" is only half an explanation and that Job is the other half. 

  16. I've never been able to swallow her aesthetic sort of theodicy but Mother Adams is a theological rock star.  Hearing her lecture or preach is amazing, and she's a powerful spiritual presence (or at least was back in the 1990s when I was a student)

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