The “Avoidance” of Death [Billings and McGill]

Tragically a recent acquaintance of mine, Fr. Matthew Baker, just died as he was driving his vehicle in the weather (in the East Coast of North America) and had an accident; he died, but his six children were spared (please keep his wife and kids in prayer). Death is a reality we all face, even in America. I was once again just recently reminded of my own mortality as I went in for my annual CT scan to make sure that I am still cancer free; free from a cancer (DSRCT) that is typically terminal, incurable, and aggressive (as many of you know, by God’s grace I have remained cancer free, and as I write this, for five years). I also just happen to be reading a book from another theologian friend, J. Todd Billings. Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer (Multiple Myeloma) back in September, 2012; he has since undergone treatment (and continues to receive maintenance levels of chemo), a stem cell transplant, and as a result his cancer has gone into remission.

Death is an ever present reality that each and every person who draws breath on the face of earth must face it. Death is indiscriminate, and transcends racial, ethnic, geo-political, and all regional boundaries; death is an equal opportunity reality that we all must face. But living in the West, particularly in the United States (and/or Europe), we would rather not deal with reality; we would rather pretend, as much as possible that death has no reach into our personal lives and plans. In fact, we are so dedicated to avoiding the reality of death that we have created a whole society dedicated to not dealing with it; as much as possible. Todd Billings, in his recently released book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ has written this:

The Denial of Death in Western Culture, and Death in the Church

In contrast to God’s story, which includes and envelops death, the currents of consumerist, Western Culture move toward repressing dying and death. To come face-to-face with our mortality would be to encounter our frailty and limitations—showing the absurdity of our attempts to center the world on ourselves. But our consumerist culture would rather deny these limits. Western culture glorifies youth and spends billions of dollars annually to make the appearance of youth last longer and longer. The actual experience of dying and death is isolated to nursing homes, hospices, and the funeral industry, away from children and youth and the rest of the family. This cultural trend was exposed to me with particular potency while working in community development for six months in a rural area of Uganda. In that context, dying and death were thickly woven into everyday life. When I would meet a new family, I would often hear explanations like, “We have seven children, but only four are still living.” Ailing and dying members of the “extended” family were not institutionalized but lived in the same house as children and young people. And death itself was an everyday thing—not a rare incursion. I remember writing about it at the time, saying death was like “enya,” a staple food eaten at least twice a day. We should not romanticize this state of affairs in Uganda—this is not the way things are supposed to be. But we need to recognize that in the West today, we not only have better medical care but we also tend to put our elderly and sick out of sight. Intentionally or not, we isolate ourselves from the real-life dying and death of others, and we have a culture that is often so focused on positive self-esteem and accomplishing one personal “victory” after another that dying and death are pushed to the margins.[1]

In this exact same vein, Arthur C. McGill has written in his amazing little book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The Ethic of Avoidance 

As we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of near and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them?… What about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them. You’ll find no beggars on the streets of America. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls.[2]

This is heavy and serious stuff, and I think something that we can all recognize as true as those who inhabit (for the most part) the Western existence. It is true, we have not been designed by God to die, but live. But we can only live, if we are united to life itself in Jesus Christ, who is life. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, and our participation in that we can face the reality of death and life as dual realities in Christ for us. We don’t have to pretend like death isn’t happening to us; especially when it is. And when we are faced with tragic things like cancer diagnoses, or car accidents—like the one that just claimed the life of our dear brother, Matt Baker—or other terrible things, we can look to the One who raises the dead, as he raised himself for us. We do have a real and concrete hope for Matthew Baker; if I were to die from a recurrence of my cancer (God forbid it!) I have a real and living hope; if Todd Billings were to die from his cancer (God forbid it!) he has a real and tangible hope—and all of this because of Christ and the hope that his resurrection has provided for all of humanity.

But, as Billings and McGill have underscored for us, we continue to live in a Western society that will try and avoid the reality of death at all costs; this makes sense if for the ‘world’ there is no hope, if they have no hope of resurrection in Christ (personally). Life is a tragedy without a hero who can actually conquer death, and then give that victory to us as we participate in his victory, His life. But we live in a world, by definition, that will reject this even until its own death and destruction. We live in a world that will marginalize the plight of those types of people that most remind us of what we most fear, death; and so we will continue to build societies and buildings that hide what is happening all around us; death.

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.[3]

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 105.
[2] Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987 republished by Wipf and Stock Publishers), 18-19.
[3] NASB. Hebrews 2:14-15.

I. Open Theism and Cancer. J. Todd Billings and John Sanders

I was going to try and do this in one post, but it will be too long; so I am breaking these postings up into two installments (this one and creationthe next one forthcoming). In this first post I will try to give a brief and summative introduction to the Open Theism of theologian John Sanders, and then in the next installment we will engage with J. Todd Billings’ brief treatment and critique of John Sanders’ Open Theism and how we can or should think about human suffering and God without going to the extreme of positing an Open Theism.

I do not want to trivialize the book I am currently reading; it is a sober, reflective, and Christian theological engagement dealing with, in particular, an incurable cancer (like one that I had, but of a different species, although not genus). The book I am referring to is my friend’s (we have never met personally, but we have corresponded via Facebook and email), J. Todd Billings’ newly released book entitled Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). I start out mentioning the fact that I don’t want to trivialize this important book because often academic debates (like this one can become) reduce to an abstract exercise that has no contact with real life realities, and further I wanted to broach something that Todd touches upon as he is writing about (and even arguing for) the place of ‘lament’ before God in the Christian’s life, especially, in Todd’s case (and mine) when involving an incurable or ‘terminal’ cancer for which there is no real lasting treatment. The issue that Todd touches upon, on one side of a discussion he is developing in regard to God’s providence and the so called problem of evil, is the theological paradigm which has come to be known as Open Theism. So for the rest of this post I will engage with what Billings has written on this, and engage with it in a way that hopefully illustrates the real life impact that academic theology (which often stays abstract in people’s minds) has when it interfaces with life and death in the lives of real life people.

As with any identified and intentional framework of belief or theological trajectory there is a variety of nuance among those who self-identify with said framework; this is the case with what has come to be known as ‘Open Theism.’ But since Todd Billings focuses on one prominent advocate of Open Theism, I will use this advocate’s understanding of what Open Theism is in general; I will quote from him voluminously throughout the beginning stages of this post. This advocate of Open Theism that Billings refers to is John Sanders. Sanders is an able and ardent defender of this position, and so I think we will gain a good and general understanding simply hearing from him on what he thinks constitutes Open Theism. Sanders writes this in regard to his personal explanation of what Open Theism actually entails (and in a general way):

Openness Theology (commonly referred to as Open Theism and Free Will Theism) connects with the spirituality of many Christians throughout the history of the church especially when it comes to prayer. Many Christians feel that our prayers or lack of them can make a difference as to what God does in history. The Openness of God is an attempt to think out more consistently what it means that God enters into personal relationships with humanity. We want to develop an understanding of the triune God and God’s relationship to the world that is Biblically faithful, finds consonance with the tradition, is theologically coherent and which enhances the way we live our Christian lives. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, we agree, but we believe that some aspects of the tradition need reforming, particularly when it comes to what is called “Classical Theism.” We believe that some aspects of this model of God have led Christians to misread certain Scriptures and develop some serious problems in our understanding of God which affect the way we live, pray and answer the problem of evil. (source)

As Sanders understands Open Theism it is a theological trajectory that sees itself within the ambit of historical Christian orthodoxy, but it at the same time wants to critique what it thinks has become a cumbersome understanding of an overly-deterministic God in relation to human agency and contingency in the world. In other words, Open Theists want to make room for what they believe is representative of a world where human beings can make ‘genuine’ human decisions that not only affect themselves and their own personal trajectories, but indeed affect God and his relation to creation. Sanders believes that God chose to create a world like this–where God’s knowledge of future events is not exhaustive, but instead is responsive to our choices–because he believes this ensures a real dynamism in who God is in a God-world relation such that human freedom and the contingencies of this world cannot or should not be attributed to God, per se, but instead to the real contingencies built into the fabric of this world. Sanders writes further:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history. (source)

Sanders mentions ‘meticulous providence’ (what Sanders would see as the ‘Classical Theist’ position on Divine providence) versus a ‘general providence’ (which would be Sanders’ Open Theist view of God’s providential relation to history, and ‘dynamic’ relation); it is this type of meticulous providence or monocausality that Open Theists deplore with much vehemence. Open Theists, like Sanders, believe that the ostensible ‘classical’ view of providence reduces all of reality to God’s hyper-deterministic supervening over human and natural history such that there remains no space for genuine human story making, and even more negatively, Open Theists believe that this kind of ‘static’ supervening of God over history in deterministic ways ultimately can only lead us to conclude that God is the author of evil and human suffering (along with everything else in the world). We can see how the Open Theist is genuinely trying to, among other loci, engage with the purported philosophical problem of ‘God and evil’ (theodicy).

It is these issues and others (how to avoid the kind of meticulous providence, without falling into an Open Theist ‘solution’) that Todd Billings touches upon in his discussion on cancer, human suffering, and more broadly on God and evil in the world. We will get into Todd’s critique of Open Theism, and John Sanders in the next installment of this little mini-series on Open Theism and cancer.

Until then I hope this brief introduction to Open Theism has served somewhat informative. To get a the full meal deal, and John Sanders full (summative) articulation of what Open Theism entails (it is relatively short), click here.

How the concept of ‘Addiction’ can become an Idol

Addiction has become almost trendy in our North American culture; not to make light of it. But it has become a dominant component of our lexicon and how we think about destructive issues, culturally. For the rest of this short post I will briefly reflect upon ‘addiction’ and how it fits with God.

I have struggled with certain ‘addictions’ to certain patterns of behavior etc., as I am sure we all as fleshy human beings have. But what I have come to notice is that the concept of ‘addiction’ has come to take on an idolatrous kind of altitude in the way we think. We have come to identify certain behaviors and our sometimes lock-step with said patterns (whatever that might be) to a special extra-ordinary level; and then with other patterns of behavior (culturally) things that used to be considered destructive ‘addictions’ have become normalized and normative patterns of human reality and day to day existence.

My concern though, as I alluded to above, is that ‘addiction’ has been given much too much power for its own good. Do we as human beings get stuck in ‘ruts’ and enslaved to pet and particular patterns of behavior that are destructive? Yes! But when we start giving into this culturally conceived notion of ‘addiction’ I think that we kind of start taking on a victim mentality, and we attribute special statuses to certain types of addiction that are seen as addictions in our society (or at least behaviors that are evidently destructive in our lives, personally, and in the lives of others). I think that when we fall prey to this in uncritical ways we end up elevating these ‘addictions’ to levels that can become greater than God and his power to intervene, subvert, and reverse such behavior. We end up short changing the relevance and power of who God is and what he has done for us, and is doing for us through the cross and currently in High Priestly session at the right hand of the Father. In other words, I think we have created (culturally) a category (i.e. “addiction”) that annexes God from the picture, and leaves us to ourselves (and so we seek out means of overcoming our addiction that requires something more special than appeal to God’s intervention in our lives – so idolatry).

I do believe that there are patterns of behavior (sinful ones) that when cultivated and engaged in over time can actually begin to impact our physiological make-up. But, and to the point, what Jesus did at the cross is not some abstract nether-worldly reality that has no concrete or bodily impact upon our thoughts and behaviors physiologically; to the contrary! As Christians we believe in an actualized, physicalized, and bodily death, burial and resurrection of Jesus; not only that, we believe in a bodily ascension, priestly session (currently at the right hand of God), and second coming of Jesus for us. So there aren’t, then, patterns of sinful addictive behavior that are outside the bounds of his domain and control; he is Lord, and his life has so deeply penetrated our lives, that by the Spirit, this can and should have concrete and bodily impact upon us, even in our deepest and most wanton (i.e. ‘addicted’) ways.

My basic point in this post is simply to identify that there is nothing greater than God in Christ. As Christians we don’t worship a Platonic deity who lives in some perfect, mystically spiritual world that has remained untouched by our waywardness. Instead we worship a God who became flesh, took our dark, destructive hearts with him to the cross, put that to death (Rom. 8.3), and recreated us with himself in his resurrection and ascension (Rom. 6–8). This isn’t only a hope and reality for the future, but it is this future reality and hope that breaks in on us moment from moment in bodily and real life ways from moment to moment, day to day. There is no addiction greater than God in Christ; that is my point!

You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. I John 4.4

Holbein Dead Christ, detail



Theology is really dialogue with God.

Instead of thinking about theology as an analytical science such as jesuspraysphilosophical inquiry represents I think it would be much better if we started with the confessional reality that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit). If we approach theology this way our categories will be different (from the typical ways that theology is usually construed, and then even the usual ways will take on a different hue), and our capacities to think more freely and imaginatively about how we can speak to and about God will be expanded in fruitful ways; I would suggest.

I am inspired to think like this from no one less than Swiss theologian Karl Barth (I bet you’re totally surprised!). And so let’s hear further from him on this, and engage with what he calls dialectic by which what he really means is dialogue; and we could really call ‘prayer’ theologizing. He writes (at length):

What does dialectic mean? To put it innocuously and in a way that should awaken confidence, dialektein means to converse with others, to deal with them, to discuss with them. Dialectic means, then, thinking in such a way that there is a dialogue. Two are needed for this. There must be two incomparable but inseparable partners in my thinking: a word and a counter-word, for example, faith and obedience, authority and freedom, God and man, grace and sin, inside and outside, etc. How does the counter-word, and therefore the dialogue, come to have a place in my thinking? First I think pious words before God that are non-dialectically neutral, as ought to happen in the thinking of faith and obedience. I even try to think about God himself with these words of mine. But I cannot succeed. For every time, on the one side, when I believe that I have thought about God, I must remember that God is subject, not object. I have to turn around, then, and think radically, on the other side, whence I came in order to be able to do this. When this situation is seen again at any point there arises the dialectical relation of two concepts. Dialogue takes place in this relation, and to that extent, like all dogmatic thinking, it is a dialectical dialogue. Thinking nondialectically would mean in principle not thinking before God. Before God human thoughts become dialectical.

Everything depends, then, on the dialogue being conducted honestly and bravely. It must not be like maneuvers or party gatherings (mere tensions of unreal opposites, victory assured), or, as Schleiermacher, a matter of feeling. Only the object is transcendent. For the sake of this object we do not want to be transcendent. We take every antithesis seriously even at the danger of contradiction. In the movement of our thinking we point to the object. We break off the dialogue and speak a nondialectical last word [?] only when new problems come to light.

In the passage of Israel through the Red Sea [Exod. 14:19-30] the Red Sea reminds us of words without knowledge that are not God’s Word. The staff of Moses is dogmatic thinking, the thinking of faith and obedience. The waves on the right hand and the left are words and counterwords which inexplicably become still. The people of Israel suggests the knowledge of God, the Word of God which is spoken. Pharaoh is the kind of thinking that tries to achieve the same result without this object.

No one can think completely nondialectically, not Luther, Schleiermacher, or even Althaus. The only question is whether we have more or less dialectical courage, whether we are more or less ready for the true dialectic that is demanded here. The ultimate issue is very simple. To think dialectically is to acknowledge that we are in contradiction, that we are sinful and fallen, that we are people who, not on our own inquisitive initiative, but because of the Word of God that is spoken to us, cannot escape giving God glory and confessing that we are only human with our questions, but also — and here already is the dialectic — confessing God and God alone with his answer even as we confess ourselves. The dialogue with which this twofold confession begins in our thinking; the unheard-of movement, not between two poles — God is not the one pole and we the other — but between us in our totality and God in his; the dynamic which grips every word because in this dialectic it is either the divine norm or the human relation to this norm; the world of doubtful but promising, of promising but doubtful relativities that open up here, encircled both above and below by the sole of deity of God — this is dogmatic dialectic. It will no longer be needed in heaven. With the angels and the blessed we will have at least a share in God’s central view of things. But we need it on earth, and we will be thankful that we have it like any good gift of God. Let us see to it that we use it to God’s glory, not as a game, but as the serious work of the catharsis of our pious words. How are these words to be purified for the purpose that they should serve if we do not think them together with the Word of God that is to be proclaimed through them, if we do not think dialectically?[1]

To think nondialectically according to Barth is to think thoughts about God that are not first before God; thoughts that could be thought about God that have never been in con-versation with God, and brought before the bar of his Holy Word. Contrariwise to do theology ‘dialectically’ (or in dialogue, or dialogically) trades on the reality and belief that God has indeed spoken, and in a way that invites us to speak back to him in light of what he has spoken and speaks. So we are to pray; that is to theologize.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 311-12.

B.B. Warfield’s Trinitarianism. But B.B. ‘There is no God Behind the Back of God’

Here are a couple of warfielddrawingquotes from Princeton theologian of yesteryear, B.B. Warfield for your consideration:

The doctrine of the Trinity is “the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.”

-B. B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 22.

I think this short quote offers an illustration of what sounds perfectly orthodox (and it is in many ways!), but it also illustrates something that I have been after for quite some time. For Warfield, as for Charles Hodge, the informing theology behind his thinking comes from Westminster Calvinism; and in particular, as for Hodge, and thus by way of influence, for Warfield, Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology (‘Polemic  Theology’) played an indubitle role in shaping his doctrine of God and the categories through which he thought.

All I want to highlight with this quote from Warfield on the Trinity, is that if the reader pays careful attention and reads slow enough; he or she will recognize the role that so called substance metaphysics or classical theism (the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian Theology) is playing in giving expression to Warfield’s articulation of the Trinity. We have ‘unity of the Godhead’, that is good! We have ‘three coeternal and coequal Persons’, also good!! Then we have ‘the same substance but distinct in subsistence’, not good!!! What this substance language presupposes is the Aristotelian distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘accident'; the former is necessary attribution of a things constituent parts (like for Thomas Aquinas’ anthropology he believed that the intellect was the touchstone of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God), but the latter (i.e. accident) is not a necessary feature of what identifies someone as a human being—so a person can’t be a person without an intellect, but a person can still be person without having red hair or being a tennis player (these are accidents of their person-hood). If we use this dualism, this binary-code, this distinction to describe God’s oneness and threeness–as Warfield has–then we end up with a concept or thingness of Godness that stands behind the back or above the subsisting persons that flow from this thingness of Godness; one consequence of this is that there is no necessary relationship between being God (in unity) and the subsisting persons who hang arbitrarily below this essence or substance or thingness of Godness. The only thing correlating the oneness and threeness of God together in Warfield’s account is his piety and assertion; it is not his theology. [Let me add this clarification: What I am saying is that in Warfield’s account there is no necessary relationship between the person’s who subsist from the unity of God, and the unity of God. God could still be a unity without his subsistence, just as I could still be a human being without being a tennis player. Evangelical Calvinism, as construed by Myk, myself, and foremost, T. F. Torrance, offers a doctrine of the Trinity that works from what Torrance calls ‘onto-relations’. This emphasizes a subject-in-being distinction, but it is this distinction in perichoretic (interpenetrating relation) that defines the one subject of the Monarchia or God-head; so God’s oneness defines his threeness and his threeness defines his oneness. There is nothing subsisting in this schema, Godself if anything is his own subsistence in onto-relation one with the other … there is no God[ness] then behind the back of Jesus, or for that matter, behind the Holy Spirit.]

This is one of the reasons why in classic Westminster Calvinism we end up with a God who is disjointed, ruptured from within, impersonal and a host of other things when considering the theology that stands behind the beautiful piety of their classic Reformed faith. And this is why Warfield and others need to be questioned in regard to the adequacy of their relative doctrine of God, and other subsequent doctrines that follow—like theories of revelation, atonement, bibliology, salvation, etc.