What Words Cannot Express

The Christian Century, one of the few worth-reading Christian magazines of our time, has proposed an interesting exercise in theology.  They have given some authors the challenge to express the gospel into seven words or fewer.  “It’s instructive to see what Christian proclamation boils down to when someone is put on the spot and has only a few words.  What is the essence of the essence of Christianity?” (Christian Century, September 5, 2012, p. 20.  To read all the efforts to put the gospel into seven words or fewer, go to http://www.christiancentury.org/7words).

An interesting exercise, indeed.  It is quite illuminating, for instance, to read how Carol Zaleski defines the gospel as “He led captivity captive,” M. Craig Barnes as “We live by grace,” and Ellen T. Charry as “The wall of hostility has come down,” just to mention the first three theologians that offer their distillation of distillations in the magazine article.

There is something disconcerting in the reading of the answers, though, beginning with the natural instinct of the reader to say: “Yes, that’s true, but the gospel is also…”  Of course, after reviewing the 15 “essences” of the gospel that are portrayed in pages 20-25 of the magazine –and the many others in the web page–, one gets a “broader” picture.  Then, the question comes to mind about the purpose of the compilation of these 7-worded manifestos of “the essence of the essence,” as the editors call these declarations.  What is the function of reducing the gospel to seven words if in order to understand it fully you need a compilation of declarations?

I have to agree that in the age of Tweeter, the Christian Century’s challenge is a commendable one.  Commendable, yet futile.

If the gospel is about words, it is about just one word, one strong four-lettered word: LOVE.

Anything of the gospel that is worth mentioning can be related in one way or another to love.  But gospel-love itself cannot be reduced to a word.  The theological issue of the centuries has been how to subsume Christian love into words.

Whatever we have learned of the gospel, it is that the gospel is not about words.  “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:20 NAS) .

The gospel is not about words, but about the incarnate Word.

The “essence” of the Word is about incarnation.  The gospel is about the imitation of that incarnation.  The gospel is not about what we say, it is about what we do.  There are no words that can replace incarnation.  It’s like a kiss: If you have to explain it, it loses its meaning.

The Jesus Christ event was not important for what Jesus said, but for what Jesus did.  “Though he was rich,” writes Paul, “…for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9 NRSV).  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” he said of himself (Mat 20:28 NRSV).

Jesus was a great teacher, indeed, and a captivating speaker.  His most important teachings, however, were not conveyed in words, but in action.  In the evening of the Last Supper, he taught a last enduring lesson to his maverick disciples by wrapping a towel around his waist.  None of the great apostles he had gathered had been ready to be the feet washer of the others that evening; then Jesus taught them the unforgettable lesson of the humility and service that is required to be worthy of the gospel by washing one-by-one their dirty feet.

Jesus did not need words.  He taught in deed something completely unexplainable: The essence of the gospel is being the loving servant of the others (Eureka: it’s seven words!).

Perhaps the time has come for us theologians to learn how to express our theology without words.  Traduttore, traditore.  When we “translate” the non-verbal essence of the gospel into words we betray the most sacred essence of the gospel, we betray love.  Perhaps it is time for us to learn that theology is not something that we declare, but something that we do.

The gospel is a work of love.  Entering the kingdom of love is entering the kingdom of something that words cannot express.  Not even our most distilled theology.

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Divine Grace

There is a form of human compassion that can evoke wonder, which I believe the Catholics call a “special grace.” This form is recounted by Ray Gaita, the well-known Australian philosopher, in his book, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice.  The wonder of which I speak, Gaita experiences when as a young man he is working as an assistant in a psychiatric hospital.  While at the hospital he witnesses a nun who in her interactions with the hospital’s patients (and these patients are persons who have lost much of what passes for the prima facie dignity of human beings) conducts herself in a manner that evokes in Gaita a special kind of wonder and awe.  The nun, as Gaita describes her, interacts with her patients in the absence of any condescension whatsoever.  Her love is so pure that it compels Gaita to affirm, as he puts it, “its rightness.” Gaita isolates this experience because for him its singularity forces a kind of recognition upon reflection that must acknowledge that in this person, this nun, virtue, in a sense, shows itself as beyond virtue – a goodness that is not merely good, but Goodness itself.  Other expressions for it may be: supererogatory action, infinite goodness, divine goodness, etc.

I would like to say that such experiences or epiphanies are the kind of recognitions that set a limit to our moral reflection.  And when they are so recognized, we are left with the distinct impression that their application is not susceptible to replication.  There is no sense in which I or anyone else can decide to try and improve on our Goodness.  We can try to be more good than bad. We can seek to be good in certain circumstances.  But to achieve moral purity or perfection is a kind of non-sense.  “I think I will be infinitely Good today”.  In fact, that anyone should strive to be good is a sure indication that the Goodness of which I speak is not in him or her.

And yet Jesus says to his followers, “Be ye perfect, as your Father is heaven is perfect.”  Sounds like Jesus has just uttered complete nonsense.  And in one sense he has.  As a prescription for future action, no sense can be given to what the Lord has declared.  (OK, this morning I am going to embody the Truth, exemplify Goodness, and in all things act in perfect Love).  But must all moral interests be considered as prescriptions for “right living”?

What if that to which Jesus has alerted his disciples is not a radical prescription for the sake of serious moral endeavor, but a description of the astonishing contours of divine goodness when reflected in some corner of the created order.  What if our Lord is giving a nod to how Goodness, Truth, Love, Purity, Honesty, Sincerity, etc., might look if recognized in someone who says they belong to God.  It is one thing to avoid killing someone who deserves it.  It is quite another to call someone a “fool” and thereby kill him anyway.   Perhaps, because these astonishing virtues are said to be in Jesus is why we see that awe and wonder are so natural to the believer’s experience.  Perhaps it is part of what believers mean when they speak of Jesus as “God”.  Perhaps, it is part of what we mean by the word “God” — theologically speaking.

by: Dr. Jeffrey G. Willetts

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