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Mercy, Part II

Yesterday, I began a discussion of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. Today, I continue the discussion beginning with Kasper’s treatment of mercy in the New Testament. My reason for undertaking this assignment is simple: Many have voiced their disquiet, or worse, at Kasper’s talk to the cardinals at the consistory in February, in which he addressed the family, and this prior book of his seems to me essential reading for anyone who tries to wrestle with that talk.

Kasper sets the table for the New Testament’s treatment of mercy the way two books of the Gospels do, with the narrative accounts of Jesus’ birth. These accounts, in Matthew and Luke, are often sneered at by sophisticates, troubled by the miraculous tale of angels appearing to shepherds, a virgin birth, and the obvious fact that, unlike other sections of the Gospels, these narratives are obviously not historical accounts. But, as Kasper makes clear, these objections either miss the point or are superficial in the way only sophisticates can be superficial. “[T]he prehistory of the Gospels is anything but an idyllic, folksy legend,” Kasper asserts. The story “subverts human categories; it represents a transvaluation of the usually operative human rules: a barren woman like Elizabeth and a virgin like Mary become pregnant (Luke 1:7, 34), the powerful are toppled from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good gifts while the rich depart empty (Luke 1:52ff.).” The story looks back to the Hebrew Scriptures’ history of Hannah the mother of Samuel and, looking forward, the story “anticipates” the Sermon on the Mount. “If we look at the theological content of the story in detail, we see that all the essential concerns, motives and themes of Jesus’ public history and his message are intimated in it, as in a prelude,” Kasper writes. “The real miracle here is not the virgin birth; that is only the physical sign and, so to speak, the divine gateway into history. The miracle that is much greater and more astounding than the virgin birth is the miracle of God’s coming and his incarnation. ‘Jesus’’ name makes this point: God helps; he is Emmanuel, God with us (Matt 1:23).” The subversion of human categories is the essential characteristic that will make it possible for us to understand God’s mercy at work.

If the Synod Fathers were to read only a few sentences of this book, I would suggest that they read these:

Jesus’ entry into public life and his message initially aroused an enthusiastic response. Masses of people flocked to him. But soon there was a reversal. His opponents criticized him for doing good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:6; Matt 12: 14; Luke 6:11) and for daring to forgive sins. How can a mortal say and so such things (Matt 2:6ff; Matt 9:2ff; Luke 5:20-22)? More than anything, it was his message and his deeds of mercy that aroused opposition; they were regarded as scandalous and ultimately brought him to the cross.

The reader will readily see why this insight is so important as the Synod Fathers discuss the state of the family in today’s world and, specifically, the Church’s pastoral practice towards the family. It is part of the psychology of religion that we crave certainty, but we can only achieve that certainty in theology once removed. We cannot put ourselves into the situation of Job’s friends, trying to explain God’s sovereign deeds. We understandably create the things we humans need, such as laws, to guide us on our path, and laws are especially suited to determinations of justice. But, the essential proclamation of Jesus’ ministry is not justice, but mercy, and we humans have never been very good, individually or collectively, at mastering mercy.

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Indeed, Kasper’s treatment of the idea of substitutionary atonement demonstrates the ways we humans have, over the centuries, made a hash of the Gospel. He rightly notes that the idea that God intended to sacrifice His son for the redemption of the human race is seen still as a “moral reproach and a fundamental argument against Christianity.” He asks, “What kind of God is that…who walks over a corpse, over the corpse of his own son?” Kasper notes that:

liberal theology attempted to interpret the idea of substitutionary atonement in terms of the idea of Jesus’ solidarity with humanity, especially his partisanship on behalf of the oppressed and the disadvantaged; and it sought to replace the former idea with the latter….This “soft” interpretation, however, does not do justice to the profundity and force of the biblical statements. The potency and intensity of the biblical testimony is revealed only when one considers the full depth and gravity of not only the social, but also the metaphysical misery – and, concomitantly, the total alienation and complete loss of well-being – into which we humans have fallen through sin.

Anyone who wishes to dismiss Kasper as just another liberal theologian, trying to soft-peddle the Gospel must acknowledge the accuracy and the power of his criticism of liberal theology in this book.

What then are we to make of the idea of substitutionary atonement? Kasper writes:

With the idea of substitutionary atonement, it is not – as a prevalent misunderstanding suggests – a matter of a vengeful God needing a victim so that his wrath can be assuaged. On the contrary, by willing the death of his son on account of his mercy, God takes back his wrath and provides space for his mercy and thereby also for life. By taking our place in and through his son, he takes the life-destroying effects of sin upon himself in order to bestow upon us life anew. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: see everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). It is not we who can reconcile God with us. He is the one who has reconciled himself with us (2 Cor 5:18).

Substitutionary atonement is, of course, not an act of replacement, in which God in Jesus Christ effects our salvation without our involvement. God reconciles us with himself to such an extent that he reestablishes the covenantal relationship. Augustine says very clearly: the one who created us without us does not want to redeem us without us…..

…God actually enters into the opposite of himself, he takes death upon himself and subjects himself to the power of death. God himself is dead. But death could not hold God, who is immortal. Death itself, so to speak, petered out on the cross.

I quoted such a large section of the book for two reasons. The first, because it is key to understanding how mercy works but, second, because this, and other, sections of the book show theology at its best. Kasper is not only erudite and thoughtful. He not only probes deeply into the intellectual realities about which he writes. But, he writes in a way that makes the reader believe more deeply. Much is made about the difference between theology and catechesis, but the best theology is catechetical and the best catechesis is theological, provided the theology be, as it is here, inviting the reader to a deeper sense of faith, a deeper commitment to the truths of the Gospel.

In treating the systematic implications of his focus on mercy, Kasper does not aim at “throwing overboard the traditional determination of God’s essence [drawn from Greek philosophical concepts of being].” He instead wishes to forge a proper relationship between the biblical understanding and the philosophic. He has ample warrant in the tradition. Kasper notes that “Augustine could never detach his understanding of God from his trinitarian conception of God, that is, from his understanding of God as love.” He walks us through Bonaventure and Aquinas, finding further support for the idea that we must not be tempted to confine God in our human categories and, in this context, that we humans tend to notions of justice while God tends to an exercise of mercy. He writes:

The determination of mercy as the basic attribute of God has consequences for determining the relationship of mercy to God’s justice and omnipotence. If mercy is the fundamental attribute of God, then it cannot be understood as an instance of justice; on the contrary, divine justice must rather be understood from the perspective of divine mercy. Mercy, then, is the justice that is idiosyncratic to God. That was the critical insight that lay at the basis of the agreement between the Catholic Church and Lutherans concerning the doctrine of justification.

Kasper correctly diagnoses the loss of the centrality of mercy in Catholic theology in part because of an inflated attention to Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and the massa damnata which “cast a dark shadow over the biblical message of God’s mercy and, in place of the biblical understanding of the saving justice that makes one righteous (Rom 1:17, 3:21-22, 26), it places a juridical understanding of punitive justice.” Kasper looks at Hans Urs von Balthasar’s provocative flirtation with universalism, agreeing with Balthasar that the difficulty of reconciling the divine will to reconcile all to himself, with the clear warnings about eternal damnation do not admit of an easy synthesis. And, critically for the issue of the Church’s pastoral practice towards the divorced and remarried, Kasper notes that in the early Church “When the question arose whether Christians, who have committed serious wrong after the baptism, thereby breaking their baptismal promises, could receive a second chance, reference to the infinite mercy of God was decisive and led to the introduction of the ancient church’s penitential praxis.”

Finally, in this section, Kasper confronts theodicy, the age old question: How can a merciful, loving God permit so much suffering. Kasper examines the many intellectual proposals to resolve this conundrum but chastises us against putting too much confidence in our modern ideas at the expense of biblical understanding:

The Bible is not familiar with the modern issue of theodicy or anthropodicy. The Bible does not proceed from a postulate; it proceeds from the primordial experience of Israel, which was also the experience of the first Christians, namely, the fidelity of God in difficult and humanly hopeless situations, a fidelity that was experienced anew in history over and over again.” Again, we have recourse to the story of Job and his friends. The experience of suffering does not call forth a postulate, a neat and tidy explanation that we humans can devise and, just so, manipulate to our own purposes. The experience of suffering, like the experience of love which is the obverse side of the coin of suffering, calls forth faith. We confess ourselves as Christians, believers in Him who came but will come again, and for whose coming we wait in faith. “Such hopeful certainty and serenity is not theoretical, like what is found in the different proposals for a theodicy. It is an assertion and disposition of faith, of which we can speak only in the same way as the psalms, namely, as a lament and plea for mercy and also as praise-exalting doxology of God’s infinite mercy…..[The psalms] are statements of hope, which are convincing only in faith and which will remain foreign to non-believers. Even for Christians in difficult situations, they do not trip easily over the lips….We must practice mercy. That is the only persuasive answer we can give….Hope for the coming of the salvation that is still pending is not a vacuous longing and an empty promise. It gives light and strength here and now. We are in this world, not as if we are sitting in the waiting room of eternity, waiting only until the door to life opens. Hope is an active force and an activating power. The experience of divine mercy encourages and obliges us to become witnesses of mercy and to deploy on behalf of mercy in the world.

It is in passages such as this that we can easily see why Pope Francis said “This book has done me so much good.” The Catholic world will look to the Synod Fathers not for answers so much as for mercy, not an easy relaxing of the rules, but a divinely inspired accompaniment of men and women and children whose families are broken or challenged, for hope in the face of despair. This is not an intellectual enterprise, although the intellect must play its part. It is existential: Do we really believe what the Bible tells us about God’s mercy? And, if so, how then should the Church minister to a broken world?




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