God in the Dock
In 1948, C.S. Lewis penned an essay that demonstrated his perspicacity in reading the signs of the times in order to gauge the challenges to effectively communicating the Good News of Christianity to his British contemporaries. From the beginning of “Difficulties in Presenting the Christian Faith to Modern Unbelievers,” it becomes clear that the category of “unbelievers” he had in mind includes many who are in fact Christian.
The obstacles he identifies are just as relevant today as then. The first is the uncritical adherence to numerous non-Christian tenets by many presumed Christians. Those who fall into this category know so little about Christian faith that they are not even aware of the contradictions. The second obstacle is the disinterest in, ignorance of, and even skepticism with respect to history, and thus a corresponding indifference to Christian revelation, which takes place in history. The third has to do with vocabulary. An educated evangelist must exert great effort to become familiar with the common misunderstanding of Christian terms.
The fourth and “the greatest barrier … is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin.” In early Christianity, Lewis contends, “preachers could assume in their hearers … a sense of guilt.” A sense of guilt produces a fundamental disposition of need for redemption and thus openness to the gospel of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. People who know they are sick will seek a physician, but if they are unaware, they will not perceive the value of a doctor.
Lewis concludes: “We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.” The reality behind the imagery of medical practice is the need to “awake the conscience” of contemporary men and women.
Based in this perceptive diagnosis of slumbering consciences, Lewis proceeds to describe the great reversal that the lack of a sense of sin causes in man’s relation to God:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock.
Certainly, the reversal of the Judge-judged relation negates a primary tenet of Jewish and Christian revelation, which makes it inescapably clear that God is the judge of man. “The Lord judges the peoples” (Ps 7:8). “You judge the peoples with equity” (Ps 67:4). “The Father … has given all judgment to the Son” (Jn 5:22); “For judgment I came into this world” (Jn 9:39). When He comes again “to judge the living and the dead” (1 Tim 4:1), Jesus, the Lord and King, sits upon a throne (Mt 13:25)—a symbol of the king’s office to judge.
For Lewis, the terms of the drama, are, on the part of man, conscience, sin, and need for redemption, and, on the part of God, mercy and commitment to redeem by forgiving sinners and reconciling them to Himself. What God reveals about Himself corresponds exactly to what man needs. But what if man is not aware of his need for redemption? What if he has somehow convinced himself that there is no real sin or slavery to sin? Well, in that case, what God has to say about His mercy and readiness to forgive and to reconcile man to Himself is simply irrelevant. It does not correspond to a real, existential question or need on man’s part. If Jesus’s power to heal was limited to restoring only lepers to full health, then lepers might very interested in Him, but no one would be surprised if the blind and the lame paid little attention to Him. Jesus came to save sinners, but if evil powers succeed in uprooting any sense of sin, who will turn to Him as Savior?
God Is His Own Advocate or Apologist
In His wisdom, God has deliberately placed Himself in the dock. In the penultimate installment of this series, I quoted St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI on God’s decision to set a boundary to His omnipotence, to render Himself impotent before the judgment of man. By this attention-grabbing phrase, they draw attention to God’s eternal decision to make man in His own image and thus to endow him with the dignity of freedom and responsibility. He thereby decided to relate to man as one who presents arguments, who makes a case that appeals to man’s innate dynamism to seek, to acknowledge, and to conform to the truth.
God is ever-faithful to this decision. He will never disrespect man’s dignity of freedom and responsibility. He approaches man as an apologist, as one makes a case. He accepts all of the consequences deriving from His decision to make the dynamisms for truth and for love the primary dynamisms of man. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty puts this into words that formulate what can be called the first principle that governs God’s approach to man: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” This document, Dignitatis humanae, is the Church’s most mature explication of God’s eternal decision to place Himself in the dock, that is, before the tribunal of human consciences.
How far will God go in adhering to this decree of His own wisdom? Christians call it the paschal mystery, the culmination of divine revelation. St. John calls it “loving to the end” (Jn 13:1). Divine revelation, then, is God making His argument. By revealing Himself and His plan of love for man, God presents the evidence that man needs in order freely to make a judgment that leads to faith. For, man can only come to faith if he judges that God is worthy of being believed. He can only entrust himself to God without any reservation if he is convinced that this is necessary if he is to be faithful to his God-given dynamism to seek his own happiness in the truth. Divine revelation contains all the reasons that God provides so that man can freely entrust himself to God in faith.
St. John confidently assures us that to adhere to God’s argument is our victory over the world: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 Jn 5:4). Faith conquers every argument against God’s love with the evidence that He has presented to prove His love. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8); “This is the proof of love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 Jn 3:16).
Every sin entails a rejection of God’s love. Sin is an act of disobeying a divine commandment, which God gives out of love. This disobedience is rooted in doubt about God’s love. Right here, right now, a commandment of God is preventing me from reaching out for something I desire because I am convinced it will bring me some satisfaction. Is God, then, opposed to my satisfaction, to the delight and joy that I will derive from acting on my desire? In the Garden of Eden, the serpent answered that question affirmatively, as if to say: “Yes, God is not for you, so you have to be for yourself. He did not give the commandment out of love, but out of jealousy. God serves Himself with the commandment, which He gave in order to keep you where you are.”
That is an elaboration of what our Catechism teaches in articles 397 and 399. The sin of Adam and Eve, the essence of which is reproduced in every sin, is rooted in a doctrinal error. Adam and Eve, who prior to their dialogue with the serpent, believed that God is love and based on this obeyed Him, accepted a “distorted image of God”—the heretical proposal that He is not a God of love. Based on 1 John 5:4, they would have triumphed over the serpent’s lie if they had repeated the Catechism of the Garden of Eden. That Catechism is simply the history of all that God had done for them, out of love, beginning with the first day of creation and culminating in the perfect harmony of all relationships in the Garden.
In other words, it is a Catechism of God’s Love, a recital of all of the evidence that God has given to them, His testimony to them, about His love. This evidence was sufficient for their victory, and this is why they were fully responsible for their sin. Adam and Eve were the first to harden their hearts “although they had seen all of God’s works” (Ps 95:9)—that is, although God had provided all the evidence of His love. Our victory of the world, the victory of faith, is simply to heed the call of Moses and of all the prophets and to remember all of God’s marvelous works of love in our behalf.
The truth about His love is the essential content of the argument that God makes to man in divine revelation. St. John puts it this way: “We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us” (1 Jn 4:16). In John’s Gospel, what the Jews say about Jesus when they observe Him weeping at the grave of Lazarus is tantamount to a summary of faith based on the words, actions, and signs that God gives. When those who are there see Jesus weep outside the tomb of Lazarus, they so very reasonably conclude: “See how much He loved him” (Jn 11:36).
With this, St. John is indicting those who do not follow the truth from the sign to the reality of God’s love. What could explain the refusal of so many to follow the truth of the signs of Christ’s love, which is so obvious in the miracles of healing, His forgiveness of sins, His weeping over Jerusalem, and above all in the giving of His life for His friends, if not a hardened heart? The move from Jesus’s acts of mercy—miraculous healing, teaching, forgiving sins—and His suffering to a conclusion about His love is so natural that to avoid that conclusion is a sin against human nature itself.
With all of this evidence of His love, which includes the Church of those who believe in, celebrate, proclaim, live and die for this love, “they have no excuse” (Jn 15:22). St. Paul extends this even to the Gentiles: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20).
God Before the Tribunal of Conscience
There may be any number of reasons why consciences need to be awakened, as C. S. Lewis realized. Certainly, a culture of secularism and relativism contributes to the loss of the sense of conscience, which entails the loss of the sense of God and the loss of the sense of sin. A culture of determinism and of victimization makes its own contribution by undermining the sense of freedom and personal responsibility. A culture of activity, quantification of knowledge, technology, and of institutional structures, procedures, and methods reduces man’s interaction with reality to questions of efficiency in manipulating things outside of himself. With even the domain of interpersonal relationships being subjected to this kind of analysis and ordering, the moral dimension of life has been dethroned, even charged with the crime of being an enemy of the social glue of tolerance, and sentenced to the cultural guillotine.
It is difficult to imagine a more desperate situation for God and for man. God wants to plead His case, but when is the court in session? Nothing could more effectively undermine the divine order than the destabilization and devaluing of conscience. For, the human conscience is the only place in the universe where a personal encounter between man and God can take place. Deformation of conscience is as effective a diabolical strategy as atheism. If there is no God, then man cannot encounter Him. If there is a God, but man is not able to see Him or to hear His voice, then there can be no encounter with Him.
The truth that can be known from creation and that God has confirmed and deepened by revelation is that God hands Himself over to the judgment of man’s conscience. St. Paul expounds this in the first two chapters of his Letter to the Romans, especially in Romans 1:17–21 and 2:1–16. It is present in his understanding of what he calls the “rational worship” of God (Rom 12:1). The most extensive elaboration on this comes in chapters eight through ten of the Letter to the Hebrews, in which the New Covenant and the gift of redemption in Christ are shown to consist in the gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ, so that we can worship the living God (Heb 9:14). Baptism, which initiates believers into the liturgical worship of God in this Church, confers this gift of a purified conscience (Heb 10:20–22; 1 Pt 3:21), so that entirety of one’s life, guided by this purified conscience, becomes a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God (1 Pt 2:5).
For God to deliver Himself up to man’s conscience is to invite man to judge Him. It is to invite man to weigh all of the evidence of His love prior to making every moral decision. Since we are constantly engaging our freedom in moral decisions, this means that faith is alive to the extent that the man of faith is constantly renewing his judgment of God. The just judgment of God that leads to faith must be constantly confirmed, revalidated by man submitting to the judgment of his conscience. This is that “rational worship” of St. Paul and the worship of God in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23–24).
Knowledge of the truth about God’s love becomes worship of God when man yields to its implications in his own acts of love. This is the act of the virtue of religion, acknowledging God’s excellence by submitting to His truth. It is to honor God and to give thanks to Him in an act of obedience to His will (Rom 1:21). This results in the fulfillment of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself and thereby to fulfill all of the commandments (Rom 13:9–10; Gal 5:14). This is why Pius XII was so accurate in calling conscience man’s sanctuary, the place where God is worshipped in spirit and in truth.
The Paschal Mystery: God Rests His Case
Through Isaiah, the Lord invites His people to think of Him as a wise and industrious owner of a vineyard, and of themselves as that vineyard. He has done everything that He can to assure that the vines will yield the best grapes, but they do not. Was there anything lacking in God’s dealings with His people, that there should be no fruit among them worthy of God’s glory? And so the Lord asks, “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not done?” (Is 5:4).
The Reproaches of Good Friday are inspired by this line of argument. In this way they seal the preceding considerations of divine revelation as God’s apologia, His case to man. God recounts His great acts of love in behalf His people and punctuates them with questions designed to spur consciences to realize that, indeed, what He has revealed is compelling evidence, sufficient evidence of His love. Has God left anything undone? Are lack of faith and dullness of conscience due to something insufficiency in what He has revealed? Each piece of evidence that God places before the tribunal of men’s consciences is accompanied with a confrontation of how God has been repaid for His acts of love.
My people, what have I done to you?
Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!
Because I led you out of the land of Egypt,
you have prepared a Cross for your Savior.
Because I led you out through the desert forty years,
and fed you with manna and brought you into a land of plenty,
you have prepared a Cross for your Savior.
What more should I have done for you and have not done?
Indeed, I planted you as my most beautiful chosen vine,
And you have turned very bitter for me,
For in my thirst you gave me vinegar to drink
and with a lance you pierced your Savior’s side.
I scourged Egypt for your sake with its first-born sons,
and you scourged me and handed me over.
My people, what have I done to you?
Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt as Pharaoh lay sunk in the Red Sea,
and you handed me over to the chief priests.
I opened up the sea before you,
and you opened my side with a lance.
I went before you in a pillar of cloud,
and you led me into Pilate’s palace.
I fed you with manna in the desert,
and on me you rained down blows and lashes.
I gave you saving water from the rock to drink,
and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.
I struck down for you the kings of the Canaanites,
and you struck my head with a reed.
I put in your hand a royal scepter,
and you put upon my head a crown of thorns.
I exalted you with great power,
and you hung me on the scaffold of the Cross.
With this, His closing argument, His summary of the evidence of His love, delivered, the Eternal Word of God has said all that He has to say, and rests His case. Yet, the case is so compelling that it remains alive in the memories and consciences of members of Christ’s Church. The Holy Spirit, the Church’s living memory and definitive Gift of God’s love, assures that the convicting power of the evidence of God’s love will remain forever in the consciences that have been purified by the blood of Christ, in those believers who celebrate the love of Christ in the liturgy of His Church and who know they are sent to bear their own witness to His love and thereby serve the world by providing others with the evidence that they need in order to fulfill their vocation to pass judgment on God.
• Related at CWR:
• “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of King David” (March 12, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
• “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of St. Paul” (March 19, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
• “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of St. Peter” (March 27, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
• “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of the Prodigal Son” (April 2, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
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