Twenty years ago this spring my father died from Alzheimer's disease. It had been a slow, agonizing end to a good, long life. The worst part of it was a stage, two or three years into the decline, when Dad realized that something terrible was happening, but could no longer fathom what it was. As I was visiting one night, he paced back and forth from wall to wall, anxiously insisting that there was somewhere else that he was supposed to be-a forgotten meeting or appointment. Desperately, he pleaded with me, "Can you help me?" I said, "Dad, I wish I could, but I don't know how." And at that, for the first time in my life, my father looked at me with something like contempt. At breakfast the next morning with my mother, just the two of us, I said, "We are living in a nightmare." Mercifully, as the disease progressed it became easier to live with--until death came, finally, as a friend.
Preaching at his funeral, I spoke to the problem. Here lay the body of a good man: kind, intelligent, devout--a respected bishop and beloved father. "Alzheimer's slips in on cat feet," I said. "He never quite knew what got him. I tell you this disease is as fully terrible as advertised. My father suffered torments of the damned."
Then I quoted scripture.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour....Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads...."He trusted in God; let God deliver him if he delights in him"....In the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, "Eli Eli lama sabbacthani?" that is to say, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
"There it is," I said, "the paradox from which his faith was nourished. In the core of Christian mystery, in the heart of darkness, darkness turns to light."
In the nightmare of my father's illness, I found hope in the nightmare of the cross.
Once I asked a group of children what God looked like. The kids rounded up the usual metaphorical suspects: old man with white beard, king on throne, etc. Then a shy little girl, almost too afraid to answer, slowly raised her hand. She said, "I think he has a thorn in his head."
I was eleven years old in 1966, when Time Magazine's Easter cover story asked, red on black: "Is God Dead?" Driving home from church, we discussed it with our father. He wouldn't allow us to dismiss the question without reading the article. Someone apparently was claiming "God is dead," but what did they mean?
Friedrich Nietzsche had said it, and for him it meant that in the modern world the thought of God had lost its power. We see his point. In the United States, concern for separating church and state holds public talk of God to a polite minimum. In universities, the God hypothesis has been banished from science and history, and pretty widely ignored in ethics and philosophy. Nietzsche's contemporary John Henry Newman spoke to the trend: lecture halls were now reserved for secular knowledge, leaving religion "to the parish priest, the catechism, and the parlor." If that's not death, it is at least cultural senility. The death of God crept in on cat feet.
Long before Nietzsche, Martin Luther had also said that God was dead, but meaning something else entirely. Luther meant that in Jesus Christ the Lord above had descended into history. As a human being, God lived by history's rules. One of those rules is that in one way or another, everybody dies. Jesus Christ was no exception. On the cross, God died. To Luther's point, I recommend a book by Richard Bauckham: The Crucified God. Rather than gloom, this is gospel.
Nietzsche did not believe in God, but in the death of the idea he found no cause for celebration. Nietzsche doubted that civilization would endure without God because deep down, he thought, godlessness is moral mayhem. As Dostoevsky put it, "Without God, everything is permitted." Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, one an atheist and the other Christian, agreed that God's death was dangerous for humankind.
In church today I seldom hear that anxiety expressed. I often hear complaints about our culture--that it is too warlike or money-minded, for example--but not that it is godless. In my church circles, that seems to be generally regarded as an inconsequential social fact that can be passively accepted.
Cardinal Newman thought otherwise. In his magnificent book The Idea of the University he warned that in schools where God was forgotten, there would be an unwholesome trickle down effect on other subjects.
He said, "If there be Religious Truth at all we cannot shut our eyes to it without prejudice to truth of every kind, physical, metaphysical, historical, and moral; for it bears upon all truth."[i]
Newman is obviously right, and the opposite is also true: if there is religious truth, whatever that truth may be would shed light on truth of every other kind, from physical to moral. About the gospel, Karl Barth said that it draws all other knowledge into the darkness and light of its mystery.[ii]
For example, let's think for a moment about biology. My doctoral work was in the field of theology and science, and my dissertation was a defense of my belief that traditional Christian faith is compatible with evolution. For that defense, one of the problems is the amount of waste and suffering in nature. In a famous comment in a letter to his nephew, Charles Darwin himself called this problem to our attention. "What a book a devil's chaplain might write," he said, "on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature."[iii]
In a book titled Genes, Genesis and God, the philosopher Holmes Rolston studies Christian faith and evolutionary theory side by side. Rather than conflict, he finds harmony. To both faith and science, the problem of pain is important. In both, we see that pain, while terrible, can be creative. Reflecting on the problem of evil, Thomas Aquinas had pointed out that much of the good in the world would be lost if all evil was prevented. Lions were his example. Lions are good, and they exist only by killing other animals for food.[iv]
Rolston expands on that point in his study of evolution. Across the board, nature "uses pain for creative advance." Physical and emotional suffering evolved because they increased creatures' chances of survival. Pain has served evolutionary progress, paving the way for human beings, adding bit by bit to our inherited capacities to think and love. Those too would have been lost if all evil were prevented.
Rolston sees this creative, natural suffering as Christ-like: "cruciform." It reflects the painfully creative death at the center of the gospel. As Isaiah wrote, foreshadowing the cross, "By his stripes, we are healed."
My father often said God speaks to us through paradox.
The cross is exactly what it seems--terrible and evil, red and black--the nightmare. Nothing in the gospel dissipates the nightmare; rather, it is as a nightmare that it serves God's purpose as a means of our redemption. Without the evil of the cross, great good would have been prevented. Thus, Paul called the darkness of the cross the foolishness that is also wisdom and the weakness that is power. Barth praise God's vulnerable omnipotence and omnipotent vulnerability.
By the light of this religious truth, we see how nature has a Christlike aspect in its pain and struggle. Rolston concludes, "The cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly, just because of this element of struggle, not in spite of it" and "the secret of life is that it is a passion play."[v]
Long ago, the Bible brought this secret out into the open. As Paul writes to the Colossians, "The mystery hidden throughout the ages has been revealed."[vi] In Mark, a minor player is the first to see the paradox. Looking on as Jesus dies, a Roman centurion declares to no one in particular, "Surely this man was the Son of God."
This downside-up confession, voiced at just the moment when all seemed lost, gives our faith a place to wait when even hope seems foolish. Hope is a good thing. Without the cross, my hope through my father's illness would have been prevented. The paradox gives Christian faith its almost indestructible resilience.
I know that some say hope is nothing more than wishful thinking. They may reasonably ask what evidence supports our strange conviction. There is evidence enough, spread through morals, metaphysics, science and history---which is why modern atheists have to come to faith from all directions. To name some notable examples: Leah Libresco came to Christian faith through morals and Alasdair MacIntyre through metaphysics, Craig Keener through history, and Antony Flew got halfway there before he died, based on evidence in astrophysics.
Granted it is faith, not certainty, that we and they have come to. Mysteriously, the evidence for religious truth rises just to a level that reasonably supports belief without compelling it.[vii] In the gospels, Jesus, having given evidence enough, turns requests for further proof back to the inquirer. "So who do you say that I am?"
So for you, dear listener, a choice: Faith today lives side by side with Nietzsche and the hopeless world as he imagined it, the one idea that God is dead co-existing with the other. For the one idea the cross is simple, brutal anguish--blundering low, horridly cruel, and wasteful.
For the rest of us, that is why it's gospel.
Almighty and Everliving God, in your tender love for the human race, you sent your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, to take upon him our nature and to suffer death upon the cross giving us the example of his great humility. Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering and also share in his resurrection. Through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
[i] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Kindle edition, location 903 of 7431.
[ii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, 471.
[iii]Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), 269-70, where Keynes cites George Foote, Darwin on God (London, 1889), 20. The "Devil's Chaplain" comment, now a title of a Richard Dawkins book, is cited from The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 6.178.
[iv] Aquinas, ST 1a. 22. 2. reply obj. 2.
[v] Holmes Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God, 305-307.
[vi] Col. 1:26.
[vii] C.S. Lewis, finishing an argument for Christian faith, allows: "Why this assurance seems to me good, I have more or less indicated. It does not amount to logical compulsion" Lewis accepted that one might disbelieve, "if not without violence to his own nature, then without absurdity." C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Kindle edition, p. 14.