Fighting Fire With Fire

1,

John the Baptist refers to Yeshua’s baptising in terms of Redemption’s Fire of Spirit, and contrasts it with his own baptising in terms of Salvation’s Water of Life.

“As the people were in expectation, and all persons questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, ‘I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire” [Luke, 3, 15-16].

Yeshua tells the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well what the ‘living waters’ in Salvation are really like= “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I will give.. will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John, 4, 5-14].

Yeshua cryptically refers to the coming ordeal which is necessary to kindle the Fire of Spirit in the world and on earth when he speaks of his own ‘baptism’ into the Daemonic Fate of the Cross= “There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress until it is over” [Luke, 12, 50].

Though Yeshua has consented to be subject to the old Way of Salvation, in allowing John the Forerunner to baptise him in the Jordan River, the new Way of Redemption is the baptism in Fire that looms over him, and distresses him until it is finished. His words on the Cross, ‘it is accomplished’, refer to this finish. Only then has he done what had to be done. Yet it is so distressingly hard, he asked to be spared it in Gethsemane, and almost buckled under it as he went up the hill to Golgotha.

Even for the Messiah, this deed would not have been possible unless he had been immersed in the Fire of Spirit. Unbeknownst to the world, he was fighting the flames of hell not with the Light of the Logos, not with heavenly brightness and glory, but with the Fire of Spirit, the Daemonic God who is “a consuming Fire” [Paul, Hebrews, 12, 29].

2,

Dostoyevsky’s novels more than ‘give the devil his due’, indeed, these supreme stories of the ‘lower depths’ allow the devil to speak in multiple voices of doubt, despair, and nihilism, putting the case against God with stunning power [Ivan in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is only one example], a power so great, intellectually such voices cannot be answered.. No religious doctrine can address, much less confront, these abysses that open up beneath our feet as we walk over seemingly solid, but in actuality, flimsy ground.. Dostoyevsky, whose faith fathomed every nook and cranny of dark and abysmal places in human existence, constantly asked, can anything in religion embrace and dent ‘the worst case scenario’ that he honestly exposed and explored? In his novels, Dostoyevsky found that no Light, mystical or rational, could penetrate the mystery of what in the world is so terrible, it defeats every attempt at reclamation, reform, repair.

Dostoyevsky was already disturbed by, and wrestling with, a numinous sense that even the very best of humanity, indeed precisely the very best, will inevitably be laid low in the world when he visited the Bale Gallery and saw Holbein’s painting of Christ being taken down from the Cross.

This depiction affected him profoundly. “No hint of resurrection: no hint of anything but the obliteration of the best thing that had ever happened. There is a replica hanging in Rogozhin’s house, of which Myshkin observes that it might cause people to lose their faith. Ippolit saw it there and was overcome by it. ‘It suggests the conception of a dark, insistent, unreasoning, and eternal power to which everything is in subjugation.’ [The painting conveys] the hopelessness of it all.. a this-worldly despair” [p 120, A. Boyce Gibson, ‘The Religion of Dostoyevsky’, 1973].

There is something real in this fatal ‘blow’ to faith. The description of a ‘dark, insistent, unreasoning and eternal power to which everything is subjected’, without any hint of resurrection from its devastating obliteration of the best that can happen in this world, is true. It is a moment in time and an aspect of existence that hits everyone.

It is the end of the line, and in the passionate who go all the way, it comes sooner rather than later. For the many people who eschew passion, it comes later, in the dread of death, when they desperately try to see something in the abyss below, and find that the terrible reality of nothing is all that is staring back up at them.. Whether immediately, or postponed, the point comes when all hope in life in this world crashes into a huge and implacable obstacle opposing it, literally not permitting it..

Like Myshkin, we can retreat into madness to avoid facing the icy clear reality of final defeat for the best in us, yet this tragedy comes to everyone irrespective of any and all attempts to deny it. In the quiet moments, it is there, whispering to us out of alien shadows with no source.

Not even the blind frenzy and sick fantasy of consumerism in the false earthly paradise can expel the ghost at the feast, turning it into a crazed dance of the dead.

3,

The tragedy is real. It is more real than anything else in the world.. In a certain sense, it is the world.

The only question is in regard to its finality.

Is it the last word which will be pronounced on the world?

Or, could this end of all hope for the world paradoxically become the start of a new chance for the world?

One thing is undeniable. No difference to the way things are, the way things work, is possible that bypasses this chillingly remorseless reality of the world, this most heart-destroying truth.

To stay in the world, and endeavour to change it, means coming face to face with this nameless and faceless force that ‘subjects’ us and everything to its destructive purpose. If it is evaded, then spirituality has to abandon the world. Some spiritualities hope to retreat into nature as the cities burn= but the toxic smoke will kill all of the earth.

For anyone of heroic temper, for any spirituality gambling on the human heart, the reality that killed the Messiah is the sticking point.

Face it, and we can remain on contested ground.

Refuse to face it, and we are not really here, but in various kinds, and stages, of retreat.

Flee it, and it comes after us, and we expend our substance in trying to get away from it..

Falling to our knees to demand a divine rescuer to ferry us out of ‘here’ to some better place ‘there’ is the most ignominious defeat of human nobility..

The sticking point is the reality conveyed by Christ’s defeat on the Cross, his broken body taken down, stripped of life, its fire put out.

This is the sticking point for passion.

If we run from this via religious or secular escapes, then we are swept away by terror. The hostile reality has ‘put the run on us’, as my grandmother would put it. Our life becomes running to get away from the pitiless force right behind us, always catching up.

We cannot run.

What is mocking the world’s possibility?

For many people, the very existence of evil – however they explain it, or fail to explain it – is the deal breaker with any God.

Father Zosima= God has made himself like us from love.

What love can defeat the power of evil in the world?

4,

The Fire of God has different roles over time, it changes in its activity. There are at least 3 different ways in which the Fire ‘deals with’ the evil power. Each is necessary, yet only the last is decisive.

[1] Isaiah, 10, 12; 16-18=

“Yahweh.. will punish what comes from the king of Assyria’s boastful heart.. Yahweh is going to send a wasting sickness on [the Assyrian king’s] stout warriors; beneath his stout plenty, a burning will ignite like a consuming fire. The [God who is the] Light of Israel will become a Fire, and [Israel’s] Holy One a Flame burning and devouring thorns and briars.. [This Fire] will destroy the luxuriance of [the Assyrian king’s] forest and his orchard. ..his soul and body.. will be like a sick man passing away..”

In this passage — referring to the much feared Assyrian Empire and the harsh armies that spread its reign of terror all over the Middle East — the Fire of Spirit attacks the evil in the hearts of those doing evil, and vitiates them from within, so that they can no longer keep going in their crimes.

Paul Tillich argued something similar= that evil contains the seed of its own downfall.. In the Jewish Bible, there are times when God repays evil with evil= hellish fires are met with destruction by the Fire of Spirit. As in 1 Samuel, 16, 14-15, God ‘sends an evil spirit’ to wreak havoc on certain evil doers. This means the Fire of Holiness will in fact do evil to the agents and servants of the evil spirit. God, seen or unseen, thanked or unthanked, will push hard against the edifices of evil, to topple them.

But this is no real answer to the pre-eminence and pre-dominance of evil in the world. At best, as happened in World War Two with Hitler’s Nazi Empire, it puts a stop to the advance of evil at a certain time and place, but the fall of the Assyrian king did not protect against the rise of Hitler, and the fall of Hitler will doubtless not protect against future evil doing that, for a season, takes over the world.

Further manifestations of evil will keep rising up to plague the world until the end of time.

Such ‘giving of evil for evil’ draws a line in the sand, to protect the world from complete take over by evil; none the less, necessary as it is, it cannot get rid of evil with any finality..

Every small boy wants God to zap the evil doers, and the evil spirit who has mastered them, ‘once and for all.’

But it does not happen.

This ‘solution’ does not face the existential crisis brought by the sheer freedom of evil ‘to do its thing’ in the world. Getting rid of evil by superior force meeting its force virtually descends to its level of operations, and even if protective in motive, fails to answer any of the questions and challenges that evil’s operation in the world puts to the heart.

God requires a more inward wrestling with evil. The heart is fated to have to confront evil more interiorly, as David does in the Psalms. He says to Yahweh= “You require truth in the inward parts” [Psalms, 51, 6].

[2] Isaiah, 33, 14-16=

“..horror and fear seizes the godless. Which of us can live with this devouring fire? Which of us exist in everlasting flames? He who acts with integrity, who speaks sincerely, and rejects excessive profit got by extortion and oppression, who waves away bribes from his hands, shuts suggestions of murder out of his ears and closes his eyes against crime.”

Contrary to the theologies, East and West, that see heaven as Light, and hell as burning, devouring, consuming, Fire, so that fieriness and hellishness are equated, this passage in Isaiah presents a different reality.

Even the righteous must be, and will be, burned in the Fire of Spirit, as well as the unrighteous; this burning does not spare the former, and confine itself to the latter.

The Fire of Spirit tests and proves what mettle of strength and truthfulness of intent we are made of in the heart. The steel of its backbone, and the raging of its love, is forged in Flame= or, the trials of existence causes meltdown and discouragement; or a more positive sell-out of uprightness to weakness and falsity of heart.

Such burning scorches righteous and unrighteous no different, because its task, as can be seen in so many psalms of David, is to alert people to ‘what heart is within them.’ The burning confirms and intensifies the righteous heart within, yet it also exposes and disquiets the unrighteous heart within.

This burning is necessary, because it helps the person differentiate the good and ill, truth and falsity, within their heart, and wrestle with its active impulsions, its conflicts, its ins and outs, its ups and downs. The person begins to understand the motives, and dynamics, of the heart that drives their action.

Some commentators interpret the process of differentiation brought by the Fire of Spirit as an eternal division. Those proved worthy, go to heaven, those proved unworthy, go to hell. There is a final accounting. Worthiness is like earning wages= if you earn big wages on earth, that is what you have in the afterlife; if you earn little or no wages on earth, that is what you have in the afterlife.

Yahweh declares that, in Redemption, there is no such accounting. Our sins, indeed our tragedy, does not determine, like cause and effect, our eternal ‘station.’

Paul, 1, Corinthians, 3, 12-15=

“The foundation.. is Jesus Christ.. on this foundation you can build in gold, silver, precious stones, or in wood, grass and straw, but whatever the material, the work of each builder is going to be revealed by fire.. That day will begin with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If his structure stands up to it, he will get his wages; if it is burned down, he will be the loser, and though he is saved himself, it will be as one who has gone through fire.”

St Paul is more merciful than the view which insists upon strict accounting, because he says that the Fire of Spirit which assesses the worthiness of our work will never the less still save the person, even if their action in the world has been proved unworthy. Thus heaven is open to the worthy and unworthy alike, yet the worthy ‘have something to show for their time on earth’ whilst the unworthy have ‘nothing to show.’

But that is only true if God honours the righteous, and dishonours the unrighteous, eternally.

Whilst there is certainly a difference in heart between the one person who has spent their life ‘fighting the good fight’, and the other person who has spent their life ‘giving in to evil, within and without, and giving up on the good, within and without’, would God really want the former eternally celebrated and the latter eternally shamed?

This is not a possibility, given the Reversal brought by the Cross. The redeemed are given over to a mystery more big and more profound than even the truthful revelation of whose heart is true and whose heart is false. There is something more than the revealing of righteous and unrighteous.

A truer way to understand purgation by the Fire of Spirit is that it is not eternal, but is focused on this life, and even if it continues into the afterlife, it does not go on forever. There is no cut-off at which point we are stuck with the high wages/bright jewels or low wages/burned up wood that we have attained up until then.

But the more important point, entirely focused on this life, is the realisation that in each and every one of us are the ‘two hearts’, and that means in every righteous person there is unrighteousness, and in every unrighteous person there is righteousness. Therefore, purgation is to help us become aware of these contrary hearts, and take responsibility for them, so that we more consciously stand up for the one and with-stand the other.

We do need to feel, and understand, the very different burning in our heart when we are true and worthy and when we are false and unworthy. This, in turn, will lead us into unexpected abysses, recesses, mansions, of the heart.

What the purgation by the Fire of Spirit really inaugurates, and makes us aware of, is the need to reach singularity of heart. But no person attains this singular heart simply through the admirable, and very laudable, endeavours to walk the good road and fight the good fight, or loses the singular heart through the despicable, and very condemnable, walking and fighting on the evil path.

The paradox of the Cross ends all such contrasting, division, duality, as everlasting. It inverts the prior need for differentiating, by going an unexpected route towards the new heart that is singular. This final crowning of the heart is not attained through the necessary, but temporary, difference of righteous and unrighteous.

For if only the righteous could attain singularity, then the unrighteous would never attain it.

The Cross will not tolerate this ungenerosity, this judgemental separating, as final.

The Cross attains the new singular heart more mysteriously.

The Fire of Spirit does not kindle the human heart at the level where some people’s work is proved worthy whilst other people’s work is proved unworthy, but at the more fundamental level underneath that valid, but relative, differentiation= the level where we are all broken.

It is this brokenness which the Cross joins suffering hands with and lays powerful hands on.

The Fire of Spirit kindles us in our brokenness of heart, our final defeat, not our temporary victory.

This might offend the righteous, because they justly claim they have ‘made an effort.’ But it is not that straightforward. Yes, they have – and the unrighteous have not. But, we are all inter-dependent. The righteous were helped by many others in making their effort. The unrighteous were hindered by many others in not making any effort. We infect each other, limit each other, and no one simply, out of nothing, decides to not try the heart, whilst others, out of nothing, decide to try the heart. We carry things for each other, and let down each other. No person is a moral island and a ‘purely’ individual moral agent.

Some people get a chance to shine in Eros whilst other people get no chance. Some people get a chance to burn in the Daemonic whilst other people get no chance.

To those to whom more Light, more Fire, is given, from them more is asked..

But so intricate is the inter-weaving of sanctity and sin, holiness and tragedy, among all people affecting and affected by one another, any attempt to keep accurate accounts of who is big and who is small are doomed to failure. We do not see into the human heart as God does. An unrighteous person may be carrying damage from his past we cannot ‘calibrate’ in its burden on him, and so some small deed he does out of true heart might be more worthy of respect than the ostensibly bigger deed of the seemingly bigger heart. How hard is it for this person? We do not know, really.. What if more temptation were placed on the righteous, would they crack? What if less temptation were placed on the unrighteous, would they improve? Only God knows..

The Fire of Spirit is Truth, and it will differentiate the Truth from the Lie, yet this same Fire will do more, it will Suffer and it will Love to the bottom of fathomless Abysses.

Yahweh in Psalms, 82, 6-7= “I have made you like gods, but you will die like men, and fall as princes.”

We were created for divinisation, but tragically fell in our primal nobility, and hence die like any ordinary human animal.

This is why divinisation not only proves the heart in righteousness, but in redeeming it, accepts its tragedy. We are divinised not in spite of, but through, our physical, creaturely limitation, and the tragedy of the crown we threw into the dust.

We will be raised in our brokenness.

This brokenness, and its consequences, are in everyone. The unrighteous manifest it directly, the righteous manifest it indirectly= if they descend further into the heart, they will confront the lost god-likeness, the tragic fall of our nobility, the worm food we are fated to become. The paradox, at depth, defeats everyone.

At this underlying, profound level, we are all in the same boat.

We must all rise together.

[3] Paul, Romans, 5, 5-8=

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.. While we were still weak, ..Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps even for a good man one will dare to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

While we were yet defunct, all of us no different in foundation, the Fire of Spirit accomplished a new and ultimate deed through the Cross of Christ.

5,

The new Fire of the Spirit is a power of depth, not a power of height.

In the height, the things of divinity are impregnable, radiant, joyous.

In the depth, the things of divinity are put at fundamental risk, black, suffering.

Depth is for life or death, heaven or hell.

Depth is the life risked to death, the heaven risked to hell.

Depth is the life only won from death, the heaven only won from hell.

In this process, the losers become the victors.

That is all of us.

6,

Only the Cross can defeat the evil power ruling this world.

We need to undergo its mysteries, to demonstrate its muscle.

The Light-Bringer= the sanctity of the past.

The Fire-Bearer= the holiness of the future.

If we don’t try it, how can it happen?