At perhaps the pivotal moment in the Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth poses the question Cur Deus homo? He discusses the incarnation and what it meant for God “to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction” (184). Continuing with these questions, Barth goes on to ask about the how the perfect, eternal, and omnipotent God could become limited, lowly, and impotent. Barth considers what it meant that “His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be “God against God” (184). Further on he writes, “God in His incarnation would not merely give Himself, but give Himself away, give up being God. And if that was His will, who can question His right to make possible this impossibility?” (184). This rift, this gap in the Godhead for Barth culminates in cry of dereliction on the cross. With fear and trembling, Barth wonders if this cry ultimately is a temptation that would encourage the notion that there is a “contradiction and conflict in God Himself” (185). Barth comes very close but ultimately rejects this idea because “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away” (185). Also, God is a God of peace not confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the fact that God experiences this contradiction, “He acts as Lord over this contradiction even as He subjects Himself to it” (185). As Barth approaches the mystery of Christian theology, he stops short. He looks over the cliff but refuses to jump. At the very moment where he could ultimately embrace the death of the sovereign God, he pulls back. The sovereign God ultimately never left the control station even at the cross. Altizer once said that the death of God could help us finally come to terms with what the cry of dereliction actually meant for the Godhead. Radical death of God theologians seem to be the only theologians who actually take this question seriously.
This very conversation arose a couple of months ago over at DET when Adam dialogued with Barthians about Hegel and Zizek. Hegel’s basic point was that God did give Godself away. Nothing was held back in the Godhead in the incarnation and at the cross. As Jennings writes in Transforming Atonement, “[o]ne of the things I have learned from Thomas J. J. Altizer is that the movement of God into the world cannot be stopped, even by the church” (55-56).
Some of these thoughts led me back to revisit Soelle’s work on the death of God.
Here’s some quotes from her work Christ the Representative:
“Because God mediated himself into the world, all immediacy has come to an end since Christ. God now appears in mediation, in representation. Christ plays God’s role in the world-that and nothing else is what incarnation means. With this way of mediation, there is of course no longer any room for lordship, or power, or any of the other kingly attributes to God.” (141)
“Only in Christ does it become clear that we can put God to death because he has put himself in our hands. Only since Christ has God become dependent on us. Christ did not identify himself with a calm spectator of all our troubles. Christ, by his teaching, life and death, made plain the helplessness of God in the world; the suffering of unrequited and unsuccessful love. (151)
“When time was fulfilled, God had done something for us for long enough. He put himself at risk, made himself dependent upon us, identified himself with the non-identical. From now, it is high time for us to do something for him” (152)
If the incarnation means that Christ assumes God’s role in earth, what did the incarnation mean for God? Something I’ve been thinking more about is the fact that this was a leap of faith for God. This was an actual risk; God has put Godself in our hands. And if the Pauline message of reconciliation is that God took the first step towards reconciliation then we need to be reconciled to God because we have enmity towards God. Contra Jonathan Edwards, it is in fact God who put Godself in the hands of angry sinners. Why did God take the risk? As we know God in Christ was ultimately executed. Christ’s mission was a failure. Of course, the crucifixion was simultaneously a resurrection because of the Spirit’s reception at Pentecost.
Perhaps, we can answer the question why God took the risk by asking a similar question: why did Satan fall from Heaven? Most theologians reject this event as mythical, or in Barth’s case he refuses to engage this idea in the Church Dogmatics because it lacks Biblical merit. Tillich asks a very provocative question, “[it] (the fall of Satan) introduces an even darker riddle, namely, how “blessed spirits,” who eternally perceive the divine glory, could be tempted to turn away from God” (Systematic Theology Volume II, 40). Although theologians in the past have speculated that Satan rebelled against God because he envied God’s authority and power, might we offer another explanation? What if Satan and friends left heaven because they pitied God’s loneliness? Unfortunately, Satan’s relation to man has always been one of domination and oppression. In some sense, the incarnation is a repetition of Satan’s original fall. This kenotic movement of the Godhead however had a different intent. God in Christ wanted to set up a new type of relation with man, one of sharing and solidarity. We should not be surprised that God would come down to creation because God names creation as good, as desirable. Ultimately, Satan triumphed by killing Christ, but on the cross Satan’s obsession with violence and power is exposed as impotent and weak.
Obviously, this is speculative but I think the conclusion is interesting. We often speak as if Christian belief in God requires some leap of faith. However, believing in God is easy and quite natural. Freud was right in denouncing belief in God as an illusion, as wish fulfillment. What perhaps takes more faith and is an actual risk is believing in one another. The incarnation seems to speak to the fact that God trusted us and took a leap of faith because God finds us desirable although we do possess the potential for destructiveness. It seems to suggest that humanity is perhaps even enviable. However, trusting in one another and working together is dangerous. We open ourselves up to rejection and violence. However, the Christian gospel proclaims that God denied sovereignty and power to enter into interdependent relationships with us (otherwise a sovereign God cannot be loved which is precisely opening oneself to the Other), and we ought to follow suit. The most trying task is to maintain hope in another. Perhaps Christian resurrection can ground that hope in the fact that the community of believers failed to let go of the memory of the crucified Christ. They failed to fall into despair and continued to trust and depend on one another just like Christ had depended and trusted them. Despite the fact that Christ was abandoned and rejected, God in Christ had opened a path for a new way to be together. The No of the cross was not only a No to Satan but also a No to all suffering and evil. However, the community’s response is finally a No to humanity’s initial No to the crucified Christ that reverberates in an ultimate Yes to being together in communal relations just as God in Christ said Yes to us ultimately in the incarnation by denying His sovereign power and control and coming to earth.