Saturday, September 26, 2009

on Otto's Mysterium Tremendum: Dissonance

Finity is potency. Creation is God’s creating power made manifest and incarnate. In the beginning was what, potential? Not much power, either power with or power over. Power manifest is more perfect than power unrealized, no? “We are nothing” says Paul Tillich, standing over a battlefield. One imagines Mary the mother of God cocking an eyebrow, perhaps in bemusement. The little children, they are certainly something.

They can do so little, the children. But they can do something. They can bring about the kingdom of God, or at least belong in it. That too is something. No one can do everything; no one can do nothing. Everyone can and must do something. Go forth and multiply, says God. Nietzsche stares into the darkness and contemplates the abyss. A young mother stares into the darkness and perhaps contemplates a womb. These are all analogies. This is precisely why they matter.

And one does not wish to be too glib. Socrates is a mortal and Socrates must die. We’re all going to die. One recalls the story of a prophet who wonders into an American shopping mall. “You’re all going to die!” shouts the prophet. The customers, unfazed, continue. Soon the mall is hit by a meteor and utterly destroyed, the Americans never having missed a beat. Men have almost certainly died in combat this very day. In Rwanda, 25 to 50 thousand children have stepped on land mines since the conflict ended. We are fragile. We are worms, if you like that language. All the inclinations of our hearts are evil, if you prefer those words instead.

And yet, Socrates, a mortal, must have once been born. Mortality is vitality. There is no other kind of life to have – not for us, and so it seems, not for God, who died and rose again. Ye must be born again, says mortal God. Let the little children come to me. If a kernel of wheat abideth alone…but if it dies, it produces much fruit. The point is not to obliviate death or life or law and grace but to erode the line between the two because it suggests that one follows another or that they are necessarily distinct as Otto’s categories would have them be.

Rather the numinous experiences of those described in William James or, I would hazard, those described in the Hebrew and Christian bibles remain essentially much more simultaneous and inextricable from each other. Punishment comes with grace, is in some ways grace itself. Life comes through death, not simply after it. Law itself is grace because it reveals us for who we are and who we very much are not. That we are not God means also that we are not nothing.

One senses in Luther a certain rhetorical theology: if you tell them they are nothing, they will accept the gospel, the word of grace. But this does not mean that they are essentially nothing, and one wishes for a more complete and less manipulative description, say that we are all something, bound somethings, certainly, but somethings nonetheless.

One notes that the capricious and personified God of the Hebrew scriptures is indeed also the God of all nations. The point was not that YHWH was everywhere, but that YHWH would always go with them and that there was nothing so wonderful that YHWH could not do it. Personed, perhaps, but certainly not less powerful for being so – and no less dangerous – and present everywhere that mattered.

One wonders: does wonder necessarily come after dread? Might it not come with, or even before? Need the gospel come after and critique the law, or might indeed, the good news of life be the new law for heaven and for earth?

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