This Lent, a group of around 20-25 people from my three churches are studying Life Conquers Death, the Archbishop of Canterbury’ s ‘Official 2008 Lent Book’. It’s written by John Arnold, Dean Emeritus of Durham Cathedral. We will focus on the more Lenten themes using chapters 8-12 over the next five weeks. I thought I would publish my reflections on the book here.
My feelings for chapter 8 started well. He begins with a story about Hitler and the Berlin Cathedral Dean, Gruber, who challenges Hitler on what he’s doing. He suffers imprisonment, but Hitler spares his life. Telling the story years later, when asked if Hitler was the ‘devil incarnate’, Gruber responds that Hitler was a man like anyone else, just like Jesus. This story allows Arnold to point out the difference between God and the devil, namely, God became incarnate, but the devil cannot. The devil can only rely on what he is able to do only partly through humans. Therefore, no one is completely evil, or no person can become completely non-human. I like the metaphor here, but this is where things seem to turn.
He takes what I see as a shaky exegetical stab at John 17.12 that calls Judas literally a ‘son of destruction’ (most translations follow the wordage used in the link). He takes this to mean not ‘the one destined to be lost’ but one who is the product of mischief. He picks up the Hitler analogy again, telling us that Hitler lived nightly with the terrible memory of his abusive father. This, and I agree, invites us to look at anyone who we would be quick to condemn and see them for who they are and what they have experienced. We are indeed the product of what has happened to us, but Arnold never comes back to whether or not we have any accountability for our actions. In fact, with this image of the abusive father, we have to look at how Arnold answers the question why did God in Jesus have to die.
The argument Arnold makes is not really new: God made the world and made it with the potential to delve into the mess that it is in. He furthers his case when he reads John’s story of the passion and offers this assessment:
When [the crowd] cried out: ‘Crucify him, crucify him’, they were acting on that very same insight, expressing our vexation with God, our primordial rage and revolt against the Father, our righteous indignation at a Creator, who has made the world in which pain and suffering and grief are a possibility, let alone an actuality, and who has put us in it with no way out but death” (p. 121).
Jesus was not crucified, Arnold summarises, for lying when he said he was God, but because they knew it was God. Later, he enlists psychologist C.J. Jung for support to say that ‘God was in Christ making reparation to man for a world in which sin and suffering are not only possible but inevitable’. God, Arnold argues, had to be the one who died because it would appear it’s God’s fault the world is in the state it’s in.
Perhaps it’s my challenge to my orthodox theology – the one that says that God is not to blame for humanity’s fall – that causes my discomfort and my unwillingness to hear Arnold out. But there’s something inside of my that says to blame God feels like blaming the builder of the house for putting it where he or she did if I run my car into it. Also disturbing is Arnold’s ‘son of destruction’ image, supported by the image of Hitler’s father (who presumably would have been the product of whatever happened to him): it leaves God as the first principal with no way to explain how God, who is now to blame, came to be who God is. For me, this ultimately leaves God a monster because we cannot in turn explain away God’s fault for creating such a situation.
I would welcome anyone else who is reading this book (or really anyone!) to shed some light on this chapter, perhaps giving a better understanding of Arnold’s proposal rather than the God as monster one I end up with.