Truth about God lies beyond human values

It is stupid to argue whether Jesus' death was for theological or political reasons, for what we discover of God in Jesus Christ integrates both and transforms all our knowing and all relationships, Selwyn Yeoman writes.

Ian Harris (ODT 11.3.16) suggests that Anselm's account of the significance of Jesus' death was a new development.

He is not the first.

In the culture of emerging early capitalism and changing social relationships, there developed a highly contractual understanding of relationships, including our relationship with God.

Dues were owed.

Things had to be paid for.

Where there had been failure, somebody had penalties to meet.

Somebody had to pay.

The projection of this human view of relationships on to ideas about God is a concrete example of what Mr Harris controversially argued only four weeks earlier.

Such a view remains widely held by most of us, even outside the realms of Christian theology.

One need only consider penal policy, the work of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, feel-good stories on television or widely advocated ideas about karma.

Contemporary arguments for atheism are frequently based on the belief that there must be proper payment made for evil in the world and since this obviously does not happen, there must be no God.

All involve some conviction that failure must be met by some kind of payment and goodness by reward.

It is probably one of the most deeply ingrained human values by which social order is imagined to be maintained.

If God is indeed a projection of our most deeply held values and beliefs about life, it is no surprise that contracts, payments, penalties, punishments and rewards should come to feature.

But on what possible grounds can Mr Harris suggest that this is wrong?

It is simply the way things are and, for social order, the way they need to be.

To suggest otherwise is to suggest there might be some objective truth about God which lies beyond our projections and our personal or social self-interest.

The idea of a generous, self-giving God does not represent our highest values (as earlier advocated by Mr Harris) but rather deeply troubles us.

If we cannot guarantee payment, neither can we manipulate nor demonstrate our autonomy.

If we can't hold debts over others, neither can we exercise control.

The generous, self-giving God is not a projection of human values or desires but a revelation, a surprise, a gift towards us, anticipated in Jewish faith (as Mr Harris reminded us) and made known in Jesus Christ.

The liberation described by Mr Harris, which Jesus proclaimed, practised and focused upon himself in the "last supper'', was deeply unsettling of established order, as well as clarifying things about the nature of God.

It was a key factor leading to his death.

Around Easter, some will discuss Jesus' death in religious terms that will puzzle most secularised New Zealanders.

Some will discuss it in terms of politics, which a few more may relate to.

But it becomes stupid to argue whether Jesus' death was for theological or political reasons, for what we discover of God in Jesus Christ integrates both and transforms all our knowing and all relationships.

Mr Harris' argument is correct, but only because it is also wrong.

The Rev Dr Selwyn Yeoman is a minister of the Presbyterian Church working with the St Andrew St Church of Christ community.


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