Tuesday, April 17, 2012

deus absconditus

The other night, shortly before the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I happened to watch the 1958 film, A Night to Remember. It was hard to miss, given the amount of media attention to the anniversary and all the documentaries that flooded cable t.v. Not as technologically innovative as the blockbuster by Cameron, and lacking the strong romantic sub-plot, the earlier film nevertheless is surprisingly good. It focuses more on what happened--and didn't happen-- that fateful night in 1912, and it stresses the common humanity of all involved (on the actual ship, in the film, on the couch watching the film). In my opinion, some scenes are better than any in the later film.

One such scene that I think is particularly memorable is the first glimpse one gets of the iceberg that will eventually sink the "unsinkable." All of a sudden, it's just there, a kind of unexpected white mountain, mysterious, yet majestic, fascinating, and yet terrifying. It is the kind of image that Otto might have used to describe "the mysterium tremendum" in Das Heilige (The Holy), published in 1917 (and translated six years later as The Idea of the Holy by John W. Harvey [Oxford University Press]). A kind of shudder came over me at that moment, even though I've seen the film many times. I suppose it is not unlike the first time one witnesses "the white whale" in Moby Dick, a figure that many readers of Melville's novel have likened to God. We, the reader or film viewer, know that the mysterious object, whether iceberg or whale, is going to doom people, to bring them under the cold water. Are we not overcome by awe and wonder and fear?
The Scriptures also point to this experience when they make reference to the almighty and holy God, whose ways are mysterious and "hidden" from the reasoning and control of human beings. Martin Luther thus spoke of the deus absconditus, "the God who is hidden," whose majesty and unfathomable power are concealed to all of creation. This is the God who creates "weal and woe" and who causes fear to arise in human hearts, who fills them with wonder and perhaps dread in the face of the Wholly Other, who suddenly comes upon human beings when they least expect. This is God in wrath and judgment, whose jealousy is absolute, whose ways are not our ways. Humans experience "the hidden God" both as God's numinous, tremendous presence that confronts the sinner (how God is a consuming, devouring, raging fire that makes of us dust and ashes) and as God's absence (how God seems distant, cold, uncaring, mixed up with irrational "fate"). Luther thought that in such situations God and Devil seem to be one and the same: "For God deals with us and brings us to ruin with power, smites and hammers us and pays no heed to us... In his majesty He is a consuming fire... From whom no one can escape: if he thinks on God aright, his heart in his body is struck with terror... Yes, as soon as he hears God named, he is filled with trepidation and fear" (Sermon on Exodus 20). This is why Luther interprets the First Commandment to mean, "We should fear, love, and trust God above all things."

God "who dwells in unapproachable light" is nevertheless approachable through the promising word of mercy, the Word that became incarnate in Jesus. Here, in Christ, the Holy One is pure goodness and compassion. Here, in Jesus, God's infinite majesty has condescended to us in love, has become familiar, intimate and, more to the point, merciful and forgiving. Here, in Jesus Christ, is God's great "nevertheless," God's promise of forgiveness for the ungodly, God's promise of eternal life for mortal sinners, God's promise of salvation for the condemned and the doomed.

This good news is always a "counter-factual promise" because the one so forgiven still experiences sin and senses mortality in this life. The one so loved still lives in a world of "fate," of evil and injustice, in a world marked seemingly more by the absence of God and the realities of sin and the universality of death than by God's gracious and uncanny presence. Thus, the gospel is always and only a gracious promise of divine mercy and forgiveness for the sake of the crucified and risen Christ, with no apparent, visible support in the world of sense experience, save the preaching and announcing of that promise, which is also attached to Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

The intended aim of the promise is "faith," since faith alone can receive the promise. We live by faith "against appearances" (Werner Elert), not by sight, since there is much that contradicts the message of the gospel in the world of appearances. Against appearances and doubts and, yes, even against the deus absconditus, one trusts the divine promise, that it will be fulfilled eschatologically, in the end. So we live and wait in hope.

Both "fear" and "trust" mark the Christian life, mixed up with "love," but ultimately it is the summons to trust that overcomes our fears, even our fear of almighty God, whose judgments remain an ultimate mystery, but less so in view of Christ. In that faithful view, the summons to love as Christ has loved is also again possible to heed and to follow. Thus the Christian of today joins St. Paul in confessing: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ  who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).