Time Travel

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On NPR yesterday, I heard about a recent indie movie by Peter Emshwiller called “Later That Same Life.” The writer had taped a video of himself asking the cosmos various questions when he was 18. Now he, at 56, has a conversation with that 18-year-old self. It is an evocative case of time travel for anyone, but may have a particular resonance for those with children, who have stirred up a memory of themselves at the same age as their offspring. What would you want to say to your earlier self (who is after all lurking inside you at all times anyway), and how would he interrogate you back? There is that old philosophical question about how things stay the same over time - how is it still you? And now this question takes on a pertinence and insistence in such an imagined encounter.

All this made me think of another example of “time travel” in my own experience. The great theologian of dialogue with Islam, Bishop Kenneth Cragg, once stayed in our house when he visited to receive an honorary doctorate. One afternoon over tea I asked him about the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. It turned out he had a bone to pick with Ramsey, who had, fifty years earlier, closed a program for young global scholars run by Cragg at Canterbury. The bishop was 90, and after a few moments he forgot he was speaking to me, and in the fading afternoon sun, was debating once more, directly, with Ramsey, as if his shade were there with us in the room. He had some sharp things to say. I was left wondering with whom I would have such hard questions to ask, were I to reach my ninetieth year. While this is not a debate with myself, it too was one taking place ‘later that same life,’ one that finally came to expression. With which shades is your life a running interrogation? For there is always such debates within us, whose reality is assumed when therapists have their clients talk to a pillow as the form of a parent or sibling years later. It may be that what we call ‘personality’ is in large measure just such running arguments, ‘later that same life.’

All of this made me think of a point made by St. Augustine in his Confessions. As moderns we easily think of that book as a spiritual journey of discovery. But that is not how he thought of it at all. The young Augustine sought just that, as he tried first one philosophy then another, one intense relationship after another. But he remains, in his famous expression at the beginning of the book, ‘restless.’ He finds God, and when this happens he realizes that his own search was incoherent. He was simply wandering, about the landscape, his own imaginings about himself too faulty and deluded to amount to a truly coherent self that could be found. The inner debates of which we have spoken were interminable and irresolvable (though they retain their own fascination). But Augustine also thought that, when we consider our lives, God turns out to be the prime actor throughout, drawing us to Himself by means of our responses to, and even our resistances to, Him. The source of coherence and the resolution of the debates are only found, retrospectively, from the vantage point of grace. The 18 and 56 year-old need both, and equally, to be interrogated by God, and the complaint we harbored for half a century will be answered, as with Job, before the throne. We are indeed one, whole person, at peace with our neighbor, ‘later that same life’ in a more radical a way than we might first have imagined.

+GRS

Substitution?

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     How do newcomers get to the Episcopal Church? Maybe someone friendly when they visited, or the beauty of the liturgy, or the desire for roots in something ancient. Sometimes a Catholic with a Presbyterian spouse finds her or her own ‘middle way.’ For some in our context they are trying to make sense of their own conservative Protestant background.

         It is in the context of the latter reason that I recently had a conversation with a thoughtful member of our diocese. She had been reading Tom Wright, with his questions about the individualist account of redemption and heaven she had grown up with, as well as his stress on the kingdom coming to the whole world on account of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright asks good questions, and one can see how they would inform her own. But she went on to wonder about the whole idea of substitution. Isn’t the idea that Jesus paid some account owning to a demanding God so that I can get to heaven just what Wright to helping us move beyond?

       This question is more important than whether you are a Baptist or an Episcopalian. One way to answer the question is to think about one of the most influential books of theology in the 20th century. The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Gustav Aulen wrote a book about the atonement (Jesus’ work on our account) called Christus Victor. It has been much criticized, but for our purposes it is useful. Aulen says there are three ways to think about what Jesus did for us on the cross: first, that he won a victory over our enemy (Satan, the powers and principalities). The second answer he gives is called ‘satisfaction’: Jesus makes right what we owe. The third answer is that of the moral example: Jesus’ self-giving inspires contrition and love in us. (A great deal of what we hear in preaching in our time and church would fall under the third rubric).

     There is much we could say about these three. There is a great deal of victory talk in the New Testament, though the victory model assumes we are victims only, and not also perpetrators of our predicament. The third, moral example, type leaves the onus on us, to change, to improve, which doesn’t alone sound like good news. Perhaps victory is what Jesus does, satisfaction is how he does it, and moral improvement is a hoped-for result.

     Back to my main point: in both the victory and the satisfaction models, Jesus does something we could not do for ourselves. That is the first thing to say. Furthermore, if you probe further, you realize that He wins the victory by taking on death, and not any death but one that suffering the result of our alienation from God. (the early Church Fathers even talk of baiting a hook to catch Satan on by submitting Himself to this). In other words, in both the victory and the satisfaction ways of talking about the cross of Jesus, He stands in our place. He dies because we will, He suffers because we deserve to; Paul does so far as to say, amazingly, that he ‘became sin who knew no sin.’

     The long and short of the matter is this: there are different ways to talk of what Jesus did for us. You can find a variety in the New Testament. You may have felt that an exclusive use of the image of paying a debt, or of being acquitted in a law court, such as you heard in another denomination, was too limiting. Fair enough. But also be clear that any account of Jesus’ work involves His doing what we can’t, And His dying in our place and suffering in our stead. Whatever language you use, being-in-our-place is substitution, ‘for us and our salvation.’ This is not Baptist, or Catholic, or Episcopal, but Christian. And his doing so, his dying in my place, makes it possible for you and me to live in His, by grace.

Peace, GRS

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