Sin, Death, And The Devilby Carl E. Braaten
Sin, death, and the devil, called "the unholy trinity" by Martin Luther, are the classic biblical tyrants. This volume, which takes its cue from John Paul II's description of Western society as a "culture of death," unveils the faces of sin, death, and the devil in modern culture. Far from being pessimistic, however, these engaging chapters by eight recognized… See more details below
Sin, death, and the devil, called "the unholy trinity" by Martin Luther, are the classic biblical tyrants. This volume, which takes its cue from John Paul II's description of Western society as a "culture of death," unveils the faces of sin, death, and the devil in modern culture. Far from being pessimistic, however, these engaging chapters by eight recognized theologians take care to affirm God's victory over the diabolical forces that oppress humanity--a victory continually realized through the proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments of the church.
Contributors: Gary A. Anderson, Carl E. Braaten, Vigen Guroian, Stanley Hauerwas, Robert W. Jenson, Gilbert Meilaender, Richard John Neuhaus, and A. N. Williams.
- Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Much Ado about Nothingness by Robert W. Jenson (from pages 1-6)
We cannot deny it: the negatives came first. No one at this end of modernity and of history's bloodiest century can think seriously about either church or world without apprehending the actuality of the classic biblical tyrants; and the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology has from its inception been dedicated to serious thought. Sin, death, and devil have therefore been much on our minds. Indeed, John Paul II's description of a "culture of death" provided the original germ of planning for the conference at which all but one of the following papers were delivered and discussed.
But we quickly decided it would not do to give such mere nihilities (to steal Karl Barth's coinage) even so much reality as to follow their lead in structuring our conference. So, despite the title, it is the sacraments of God's victory over the tyrants that shaped the conference and this book. There are three pairs of papers; within each pair is one on a sacrament and one on the tyrant it most specifically undoes. A seventh paper became available and fits so well that we decided to include it.
For indeed God's opponents share one defining feature: since they are not willed by God, indeed are his opponents, their ontological status is nil, and it is to that point that this introductory essay will be devoted. The only question about the devil is what ails him; sin is always a rejection of the good; and death is of course a sudden absence.
Sin first. Since history is mostly made by our sinning, one might suppose that sin must be a very active thing. But the theological tradition is nearly unanimous in perceiving that sin's apparent agency is a fraud. History's whole dismal armory of sins, so impressive from a distance, is only a selection of ways not to be one thing, righteous. We are created to be righteous, that is, to form one community with each other and with the persons of the triune God, in which each of us takes her or his unique place and uses that place as an opportunity to love the rest of us. Any sin humanity can think of is simply one or another way of refusing to do this.
Indeed, since our location within the triune life and with each other is our very being, since I exist at all only in that I am given a location at which to serve community, sin is always a diminution of being, a declension from reality. St. Augustine set the terms of Western theology in this matter when he conceived all being as a sort of ladder, with the refulgent being of God at the top and the darkness of sheer nothingness at the bottom, and conceived sin as any movement of the soul by which she directs herself downward instead of upward. To sin is to achieve precisely...nothing.
And then there is death. Death is a double negativity.
Death is impossible to conceive, and not just because we are reluctant to face it. Late modernity has generally supposed it brave to say that death is the simple cessation of the person; and apart from the gospel this supposition would doubtless be the part of valor. Historically, however, humanity has found the sheer cessation of a person literally unthinkable, for death so conceived is the termination of consciousness, and that turns out to be an impossible thought.
I can, of course, affirm and as a matter of mere language understand the proposition, "My consciousness will some day cease." But if I try to summon what Hegel called a "representation," that is, a depiction of possible experience to go with the proposition, all I can conjure is a consciousness of darkness and emptiness or the strange consciousness of sleep, all of which of course are still consciousness. Moreover, the present nothingness of a consciousness would be constituted by memory: I, the erstwhile such-an-one, am nothing. Thus when I try to think my own death simply as cessation, the best I can do is to think of myself as remembering that I used to be and so being conscious that I now am nothing and am conscious of nothing. To the concept of truly vanished consciousness, no projected experience, no representation, can correspond.
There is perhaps one way in which I can think the cessation of my consciousness: I can try to think general nonexistence. For to abolish consciousness, we must abolish not only immediate present perception, but memory and anticipation as well. With respect to any particular consciousness, its extinction is therefore exactly the same as there never having been or being or going to be anything at all; nor does this merely mean that for that consciousness it is the same as if there had been nothing at all. The vanishing of a consciousness is the—even retrospective!—non-existence of the world. Israel had a clearer grasp of this matter than other nations, just because she had a clearer grasp of life itself. Indeed, Israel's grasp of death was a sheer refusal to grasp it at all.
For pre-exilic Israel, the dead are shadows of former selves, resident in the grave as a realm of what precisely used to be. In Israel, this conception left what Gerhard von Rad called a "theologically strange vacuum" in her interpretation of reality, a negative fact not interpreted by Exodus or creation, and so not within the Lord's domain: a psalmist could presume that "those who go down to the Pit...you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand." This psalmist's question, "Is your steadfast love declared in the grave. ..,or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?", was intended as bitter rhetoric—though it is open to a different answer than his, which in time was given.
And finally there is that incarnation of vacuity, the devil. Karl Barth puzzled normal minds by saying that the devil was a myth. Folk were alarmed: Barth, they said, doesn't believe in the devil. But of course that was just the point: one believes in God, and in another sense in such things as salvation, and just possibly sometimes in other persons or even in certain facts about the world, but assuredly not in the devil. Barth's point was that not believing in the devil is the appropriate relation to the devil's mode of existence. That the devil is a myth doesn't mean, in Barth's thinking, that he doesn't exist; it means that he exists in a particular way, as the ordained object of denial.
Putting it my way, the only description possible of the devil is a description of what is the matter with him. The only predicates of the devil are his deficiencies, for the devil is the angel who refuses to be one.
So—the common reality of all faith's adversaries is their nothingness. And that is to say that the permanent opposite of faith is nihilism, the position that takes sin, death, and the devil as the final truth. Nihilism believes in nothing because it believes there is nothing to cling to, and so clinging to nothing is all there is—and if the move from the one to the other is a logical fallacy, that too is part of the matter.
Nihilism is the specifically Christian opposite possibility. It is not possible for the fallen natural man to be a nihilist, because he is too captive to idolatry, to worshipping the creature instead of the Creator, and so, of course, to worshipping something or other. The creature is available on our terms, as the Creator is not. So long as we worship the creature instead of the Creator, so long as the creature is for us the ground of its own being and of ours, the ground of being seems to be right there available to us, and the nihilistic suspicion does not arise; there is divinity, available for our invocation; Father Sun and Mother Earth and all the rest are visibly up and down there, and that is that. But when we know that the creatures are not divine, that the ground of the creatures—if any—is a Creator not immediately available, and if moreover that Creator is presented to us in a despised nation and a crucified man, then room opens for the fear that being may be groundless. The threatening nihilism of late modernity is specific to a culture that used to be Christian.
The story of the West's secularization precisely by the Bible has been told so often that I do not need again to rehearse it at any length. Where the Bible comes, the creatures are stripped of their pretenses to divinity. Neither Jews nor Christians are permitted to "bow down to the host of heaven," or invoke spirits, or luxuriate in the great Goddess's Earth-womb. For the Lord is first, last, and foremost a jealous God, the Creator who tolerates no creaturely pretensions to be other than creatures.
In Tom Stoppard's great play, Jumpers, a chief character is a torch singer who abandons her career when men walk on the moon. How can one sing of Aphrodite, the divine power of Romance, when clumsy men in funny suits are trampling about on the goddess?
But what if a culture, having under the impact of the Bible become unable to worship the creature, then ceases to believe there is a Creator? Then there is precisely nothing to believe in. And that, it seems, is what our culture is coming to.
This does not mean there is not all manner of desperate scurrying around, for religious figleaves to cover nothingness. So in the bookstores under "religion" the celestial calendars of archaic civilizations appear again, teaching how properly to reverence the host of heaven. The shamans, once known as "witch doctors," reappear as gurus to the middle-class. The great Goddess, Mother Earth, is once again worshipped—sort of.
But we should not be deceived: the postmodern return to paganism is a fake. That is, it is nihilism redoubled, emptiness trying to cover itself with pretense known, deep down, to be pretense. It is all empty; it is about...nothing. We will know that the great Goddess is really back when "re-imaging" conferences feature temple prostitution and mass male castration to provide priests; until then, prattle about the Goddess, celebrated with children's ring-games, in fact reduces the terrible old deity to triviality, in fact secularizes her yet again.
So what is the pay-off of this diagnosis of our situation? Two steps, and I am done.
The first step is the serious one. Surely it is important for the church to know the opposition. Whether actual nihilism, flat-out disbelief in everything, is a real human possibility, remains perhaps to be seen. But the threat of nihilism is the defining evil from which the church has to rescue the inhabitants of Western late modernity.
Why cannot our nation, and indeed the people of our churches, rid themselves of the horror of infant slaughter on demand, and perhaps soon of senior-citizen slaughter on demand? Because, I suggest, Americans finally do not know how to distinguish human persons from the beasts of the field, because they are unwitting anthropological nihilists.
Why could not our people summon any moral outrage about a corrupt and indeed quite openly nihilistic president? Early in the Monica-saga, there was a television interview with a young man-in-the-street. He was pleased with the news, since it showed that someone just like him could become president.
Why cannot we have good schools, except where the church or heroic or charismatic individuals maintain them? Because, I suggest, the culture at large has precisely nothing to teach.
What ails Christians in this nation and this time, and ails also those who fancy themselves and indeed are called to be leaders of the faithful, is the infiltration of nihilism, the infiltration of that mere nothingness which sin, death, and the devil have in common, and which emerges in its own nonentity in an ex-Christian culture.
Nihilism is one enemy we cannot co-opt. Nothingness is just that, a black hole of being, and like an astronomical black hole sucks in everything that approaches it. Accommodation to the empty thud of late-modern pop music, to the short attention span of the baby boomers, to decadent Americanism's horror of distinctions and decisions, will only further damage the souls of those the church pursues by such accommodation. Pastors and church leaders in our time must be wary indeed, lest we turn out to be nihilism's agents.
The second step is serious too, but only in its specific way. There is nothing more suited to levity than nothing; laughter is finally the necessary response to anything pretending to be what it is not. In the case of our three villains and their joint nihility, laughter is the doubly necessary response to nothing pretending to be something. Luther famously threw an inkwell at the devil, and people have always thought the story funny—and that, of course, is the point. You can't throw an inkwell at the devil. Why not? Because wherever he is he isn't! And there have been few guides for the avoidance of evil as effective as C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. It is notorious: the devil cannot stand to be laughed at, because laughter reveals that this emperor not only has no clothes but doesn't even have a self to wear clothes if he had any.
As to sin, let us take sexual sin for our example. There is no telling how many persons, in the grip of a supposedly overwhelming grand passion and about to throw family and faith and integrity to the winds for its sake, have been saved by recall of the great quip that the pleasure is fleeting, the cost exorbitant, and the position ridiculous. And even as to death, its terrorism is for those in Christ's care pompous to the point of hilarity: the author of this introduction will indulge in just so much personal self-revelation as to say that when I wake in the night sure my coronary hour has come, I usually resist all Blanche's attempts to save me from my terrors—also by quoting my own theology to me—until she threatens actually to call 911 and evokes the image of arriving at the emergency ward to have my heart attack there, "presenting," as they say, the feeling that it has to happen sometime so why not tonight?
The sacraments overcome the tyrants. God's sacraments are real, and the tyrants finally are not. So go ahead: it's safe to read this book.
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