The Existential Cross

1,

The worst error in misusing the distinction of Apophatic and Cataphatic is expressed by the Italian monk Bonaventure [1221-1274 AD], and many others walking the path of Eros, and wishing to avoid the Daemonic.

Bonaventure sees the Cross of Christ as merely a symbol of entering into the darkness of divinity by the mind. So, he says that we too “must die and enter this darkness. Let us silence all our care and our imaginings. Let us ‘pass out of this world to be with the Father’ [John, 13, 1], so that when the Father is shown to us, we may say with Phillip, ‘it is enough for us’ [John, 14, 8]. For he who loves this death can see God, for it is absolutely true that ‘men shall not see God and live’.”

This is not the existential realism of the Cross. The Cross is a far more savage reality.

A Jewish holocaust story — mentioned by Karin Armstrong — captures it.

“Ellie Wiesel believed that God died in Auschwitz. ..He relates how one day the Gestapo hanged a child with the face of a ‘sad eyed angel’, who was silent and almost calm as he climbed the gallows. It took the child nearly an hour to die in front of the thousands of spectators who were forced to watch. Behind Wiesel, one of the prisoners muttered: ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him saying in response: ‘Where is he? Here he is — he is hanging here on this gallows’.”

What is peculiar about the Jewish Bible is precisely that its texts are not just another example of what Karen Armstrong, in ‘The Case For God’ [2010], calls ‘mythos.’ Armstrong is right to say they are not ‘literal’ in the usual historical sense, because they are something ‘more’ than history. They tell a story, but the story conveys the sufferings and burnings of the dynamic Daemonic as it impacts humanity, and humanity affects it. There is a kind of literalism to this narrative, an existential literalism, or better, a harsh existential realism that is a ‘given’ of existence in this world. What the term ‘literal’ is not quite the right description for is the ‘given-ness’ of the existential exactions, and existential fate, ‘all flesh is heir to.’ The existential blow, wound, depth, of our thrown-ness into the world is entirely ’empirical’= more real than the mechanical processes of nature that science pins down, manipulates, explains. These existential-empirical givens cannot be penetrated by thought, they have to be borne and endured, gone through, in the heart. They make no sense, material or spiritual. Thus their darkness is deep. This impenetrable darkness will ignite fire, divine-human, or it will kill all possibility of fire.. Its danger is ‘real.’

The Jewish Bible, and the Christian Gospels in their ‘end-game’ drama of telling the story of the Passion of Christ, are at once ‘both’ existentially empirical ‘and’ existentially profound. They are literal existentially, concrete, on the ground, in time, at a specific hard place on a specific day of trouble, but their deep meaning both exceeds that literalness yet is only fully revealed by it. This is the paradox of the ‘Biblical Narrative.’

2,

For many mystical theologians of Eros, the existential poetry of the Daemonic storytelling in the Jewish Bible is to be ridiculed as inferior symbols, crass myths, forcing us by their very absurdity to look beyond them. St Dionysus falls into this error, as does St Anthony of the Desert and many monastics in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Dionysus dismisses out of hand the physical and ‘obviously inadequate’ images of God in the Jewish Bible, because they are full of ‘so many incredible or fictitious fairy tales.’ Thus, the Jewish Scripture supplies God “with horses and chariots and thrones and provides delicately prepared banquets and depicts him drinking.. And what about God’s fits of anger, his griefs, his various oaths, his moments of repentance, his ..wraths, the manifold and crooked reasons given for his failure to fulfill promises.”

Dionysus — so adept in articulating the mystical knowing of love — is simply ‘in over his head’ trying to understand the Jewish Biblical story-telling, and indeed, simply cannot bear the Daemonic Truth of the Ultimate Love revealed in its peculiar existential poetry. Abraham Heschel, in his work on the meaning of the Jewish prophets, makes it very clear that such Greek Orthodox mystical and monastic sneers at the Biblical ‘pathos’ fail entirely to be ‘moved in heart’ by its telling of the existential story of passion, divine and human.

In the Midrash, these stories are commented upon, to get at their distinctive meaning. They are in time, addressed to time, and thus existentially concerned with repairing the time= redeeming the time of humanity’s existential freedom to make a world. The very word ‘Midrash’, according to Armstrong, means to investigate something deeply. This is what the Biblical Narratives require from us. To understand them in the heart, and to act on them from the heart. Both are existential, not mystical; both are the Daemonic, writing its poem in sweat, tears, and blood, not the song of silence in Eros.

Rudolf Bultman [1884-1976] sought to ‘de-mythologize’ the Biblical Narrative by pointing out its existential [Daemonic] meaning. Karin Armstrong sums up Bultman’s approach to the Jewish, existential meaning of the Biblical story-telling= “Religion was only possible when people were ‘stirred by the question of their own existence and can hear the claim that the [Biblical] text makes.’ ..Jesus did not see God as ‘an object of thought or speculation’ but as an existential demand, a ‘power that constrains man to decision, who confronts him in the demand for good.’ Having lived through the Nazi years, Bultman knew how frequently, in such circumstances, men and women are confronted by an internal demand that.. comes from outside themselves and which they cannot reject without denying what is most authentic to them. God was, therefore, an absolute claim that drew people beyond self-interest and egotism into transcendence” [p 269].

This is a description of the Daemonic, shooting its arrow into the human heart, which is only wakened and roused by this pain= ‘confronted by an internal demand that.. comes from outside themselves and which they cannot reject without denying what is most authentic to them.’ This is how the Jews encountered the Daemonic Wound of existence.

The Bible tells the story of the divine heart come to the human heart in this world, and the human heart’s struggle with God’s coming for the sake of the world. This story does not really begin with the creation, nor does it rely upon metaphysical and cosmological questions. It asks a different, more pained question. Is there any return from tragedy, or is it all for nothing, finally?

The Biblical story begins where the human venture in time begins= in our tragic falling down. This story wrestles with all the realistic and lengthy vicissitudes involved in the redeeming of that tragedy. St Paul, First Corinthians, 4, 2-7= “What is expected of stewards [entrusted with the mysteries of God] is that each one should be found worthy of God’s trust. Not that it makes the slightest difference to me whether you, or indeed any human court, find me worthy or not. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted: the Messiah alone is my judge. Therefore, let there be no premature passing of judgement before the time, before the Messiah comes: he will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.”

Redeeming the human tragedy takes on the gamble of time, but to do this, it asks us to accept complicity for the failure of that gamble at its first test, its first confrontation with existential temptation, its first encounter with the adversary, the hinderer, who will push us ‘to pull out all the stops.’ Redemption is extreme, and operates beyond the limit where everything has hit the wall, and come to nothing.

3,

But even the Jews, despite their own ‘passion’ of the holocaust, baulk at its most extreme, and new, existential realism.

No theology, not even mystical theology, can be made out of the Cross. It tells an existential story, but we must commit to its ‘inexplicable pain’ to understand it. We must accept our own childlike innocence put on the Cross, with Christ.

The holocaust brings to an end the ‘nice god’ of reform liberalism. The holocaust brings to an end the ‘punishing god’ of reactionary conservatism.

The former is too ‘anodyne and antiseptic’, and ignores the tragedy inherent to existence in the world.

The latter is too judgmental and accusatory, and tries to moralize the tragedy inherent to existence in the world.

Karin Armstrong rightly says that a modern understanding of God “must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness” [p 267].

The ‘heart of a great darkness’ will only be found in the Cross.

Only in the Cross will all existential meaning be forfeit, really defunct, and reignited.

Only in the Cross does the existential venture of God with humanity embrace a conjoint defeat, in order to uncover in that very ruination, the second chance.

This is what all the Biblical story-telling is pointing towards.

But the Cross is foolishness to Greeks, who think they do not need such a suffering and defeated God, given they have mysticism in its dark and its bright, its emptiness and its fullness. This is why it is very hard precisely for ‘the best’ of the Greek spirit to embrace the worst case scenario that the human tragedy has fallen into, long, long ago.

And the Cross is a stumbling block to Jews because it is, quite starkly, ‘a step too far’, a divine heart suffering and sacrificing too much for humanity, a human heart suffering and sacrificing too much for God. The moral boundary keeping divine heart and human heart distinct is transgressed.

God trusts too much in the human heart, entrusting too much to it, by bringing it through hell, to a new divine-human mystery on the ‘other side.’

Karin Armstrong rightly points out that “human beings had thoughts and aspirations that exceeded their rational grasp, and they had traditionally expressed these in the mythos of religion” [p 234].

But the holocaust ends it all.

Eros shrinks before the holocaust= it has no resources with which to respond to such calculated evil.

The Enlightenment optimism about human rationality and scientific progress is shown up as facile, glib, superficial, by the holocaust.

Only the Cross embraces the holocaust of innocent suffering we all repudiate and have fallen victim to not in spite of, but because of, rejecting it.

In the Cross, God is where we cannot go, where we will not go, where we must go, if any second chance is to be existentially realistic.