In studying a subject or procuring a skill there is generally a movement from mystery to familiarity, from the unknown to the known. For example, I remember when I first began learning Greek, when all shapes of the alphabet were strange to me and each page of text an unknowable riddle. As I painstakingly studied, the sound of each letter would soon come as second nature and each word would become a system of recognizable parts. As I ran enough text through my fingers, I began to get a feel for the language; it became familiar and known to me. Whereas before I could only discern shadows on the ground, now I could look up and see the cathedral that cast it—in all its architectural grandeur and geometric complexity. Yet, at the point at which one has memorized every nook and cranny, the degree of every angle, the length of every line, the point at which one has run one’s hands over every square inch a thousand times over, at this point the mystery and the enchantment begin to fade into familiarity and mundanity. It seems that in the process of knowing there is inevitably the risk of disenchantment. (Is it mere coincidence that the West’s struggle with the disenchantment of the world came concomitantly with modernity, the rise of the scientific and rational mind?)
However, the more I delve into the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, the more it eludes familiarity, the stranger it becomes. It resists demystification and disenchantment. It brings one to the beginning of the cosmos, to its end—at the cross one climbs into the dark recesses of the depths of the earth and ascends to the azure heights of the daylight sky.
Karl Barth on the Handing-Over of Jesus Christ
Recently I have been reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2. (Though, “attempting to read” is almost always more accurate with Barth.) His theology is intriguing, challenging, often labyrinthine, and always explosive. His treatment of the election of Jesus Christ, God’s decision to be for and with humanity in and through His death and resurrection, is deeply insightful and moving.
In a long discussion of the theme of “handing-over” (παραδοῦναι, paradounai) in the New Testament, Barth writes this of God’s handing-over of Himself in Jesus Christ. It is a long excerpt and difficult (the first sentence is eight lines; that is German style for you), but very much worth reading and comprehending.
If it is truly the will of the Father to send His eternal Son, and the will of the Son to obey His eternal Father in the execution of this mission; if it is truly the will of God to give Himself to man in such seriousness and fulness [sic] that He Himself becomes what man is—flesh, a bearer of human unworthiness and incapacity—then this means that it is the will of God to deliver Himself into the situation of impotence in face of the power by which man is overborne, giving Himself not merely to the constraint of the limitations of creaturely life, but to the curse of human guilt, to the rejection of the life of man as it is ruled and determined by his sin, abandoning Himself to the utter opposite of His own divine form of existence. It is to this man, whose existence is so diametrically opposite from His own, that He directs His eternal love. It is this man who He wills to make participant in eternal life. It is he whom He intends and seeks and desires. He is the one with whom He has determined to ally Himself. And if this is what He wills—in all the seriousness and fulness in which He actually wills it—then He wills His own handing over. He wills to deal with Himself as Judas dealt with Jesus. And it is His utter love for us actually to have done this. “He loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Regardless of Himself, He has taken our place, not sparing His own Son (Rom 8:32). He has taken upon Himself all that existence in our situation brings with it. He has made it His own. He did not think his divinity too precious to disguise and eclipse it, even to cast it in the mire, by Himself taking on humanity and becoming one among men, one of the people of the Jews, and as this One the promise for all, for the men of all nation. He brought this offering and presented this sacrifice (Eph 5:2); the offering of His freedom to His love. So great is His love that He regarded it as worthy of this offering.1
The story of the incarnation and the cross and resurrection, all of which are really inseparable and mutually interpreting, is the story about the One who, entirely self-sufficient and self-existent (the theological term here is “aseity”), allowed Himself to be determined and limited by a dependent, finite, and accursed creation bent on its own destruction. The story of the cross is the story of One who loved so greatly that He was willing to giving up His absolute, divine freedom, to cast his divinity in the mire, in order to destroy the guilt, destruction, sin, and death that held such small, weak humans captivated. In becoming human, the Son of God became shaped by the limitations of human flesh. In climbing atop the cross, the Son of God became constrained by the nails that held him there. He was bound in complete immobility by the hatred and guilt of the entire world, concentrated at one point in ancient Palestine two millennia ago. What else does it mean that Jesus was resurrected in an eternal body other than that for our sakes He allowed Himself to be eternally determined by our form? What else does it mean that He carried His wounds on His resurrected body other than that for our sakes He allowed Himself to be eternally determined by the curse of our guilt?
Wytsma and the Aristocratic Itch
So, what does this mean for the world and for ourselves on a practical level? If the heart of God has revealed itself in the One who was willing to cast his divinity in the mire, to limit Himself by binding Himself to our accursed flesh in order to purify it—if this is the heart of the One who created the cosmos, who made us, what does it reveal about us and this world?
Ken Wytsma reveals at least part of the answer in his excellent book on (mostly American) racism, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. In a chapter entitled “The Aristocratic Itch” he examines the secret desire for aristocratic superiority in the American social context, deriving from our feudal European roots. He writes:
The small group of people who controlled the trajectory of the world, and often the very lives of peasants, have so captured our imagination that we have somehow turned them into good guys….We love the character of Tom, the family chauffeur on Downton Abbey, because even though he rails against the oppression of the ruling class, he is able to transcend his poverty and station and join them. And we love the nobility for welcoming him into their family and think: “That’s how I would be if I were noble. I would be accepting and loving and gracious.” The other side of that story is, of course, that while they were loving and accepting and gracious, the family continued to spend money on lavish parties, expensive clothes, and rich food while an entire household of people lived and worked as servants one floor below.2
Wytsma’s main point is that in American culture, despite our historically unprecedented esteem of equality, there is an underlying desire for aristocratic privilege. This is the American irony (and perhaps the root of our racism), but I think that Wytsma is onto something deeper and more universal, that is as humans we desire to be aristoi, self-determining, self-sufficient, above all the rest.3 We desire to be like God, but we only become cheap and twisted imitators.4 In this we become at our worst Pharaohs, genocidal maniacs who purport to be gods, and at our best we become a benevolent nobility. But even these latter have privilege while the servants toil and suffer on the lower floor.5 No matter how benevolent the nobility is, they will always have skeletons lying under the floorboards. It will always be that they stand on the broken backs of the poor. The grand irony, the sharp and biting irony, is that as we strive to be our own gods, we become the exact opposite of who God has shown Himself to be.
The story of the cross, however, is the story of the God who willed to suffer as a servant on the lower floor while the well-off, even in their benevolence, lived lavishly on the floor above. It is the story of how He invites us to find life with Him on the lower floor, to give up our dreams of freedom and self-sufficiency, to give up the aristocratic itch, realize it for the lie it is, and become servants of others, to become determined by Him and His character.
How does the Church become a lower-floor Church? In America at least (my context), perhaps the Church can cease to vie for cultural relevance and power, for organizational efficiency and success, for wealth and prosperity. It can stop selling itself out to buy itself into a cheap aristocracy. It can cease striving for political power, for the nicest buildings, nicest properties, striving to be popular, to be in the “in” group. Perhaps it can learn in humility to regard others as better than itself, to not look to its own interest, but to the interest of others (Isn’t this the mind of Christ?).6 And whatever the answer to racial issues in America, it also must flow from this, and unfortunately, I believe that both the left and right have by and large ignored this. The right tends to ignore its power/privilege, while the left tends to utilize victimization and identity politics as just another power play.
Further, how does one become a lower-floor individual? How does one give up power but accomplish that to which God has called one? The answer has been given, but the path is not easily trod; it speaks against all of our biological and cultural tendencies. We are expected to succeed, to rise to the top, to have influence and an impressive home and salary, a good name for ourselves, even to avoid the poor and shun the failures.7 But the way of Jesus Christ is very different:
“On the way the disciples had argued with one another who was the greatest. Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’”8
This is the Christian way, not arbitrarily, but because it flows from the very heart and character of Jesus Christ Himself,
“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”9
1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2/2, The Doctrine of God, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 491-2.
2 Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 89.
3 ἄριστος (aristos; the plural is “aristoi”) is the Greek word for “best,” and it is where we get the English word “aristocrat,” rule of the best. It is related to the Greek word ἀρετή (arete), which means “excellence” or “virtue.” The inherent irony here is that those considered aristocrats are generally far from virtuous.
4 Perhaps this is really the essence of Adam and Eve’s sin in Gen 3, to be self-determining, to be as gods?
5 Is this why the story of Jesus and the rich young man will always haunt us? Jesus seems to acknowledge and affirm the man’s virtue, and by all accounts the man seems to be a benevolent aristocrat. However, in this he still is lacking. He still exists on the upper floor while Jesus invites Him to the lower. The disturbing aspect of the whole episode is how closely Jesus seems to relate being within the Kingdom of God with this so-called lower floor and being outside it with the so-called upper floor.
6 Phil 2:3-5
7 Isn’t this more or less what the self-help books tend to teach us, even the so-called Christian ones?
8 Mk 9:34b-35
9 Phil 2:6-8