Thursday, July 15, 2010

Words and Things

We easily mistake the word for the thing, the theory for the reality. In many ways, we prefer to. Words are malleable; things are substantial. Theories may be spun and re-spun at will, but reality is – well, reality is intransigent; it cares not one whit what we think of it or say about it. Objects still fell before the word gravity was applied to their falling. They accelerated at a constant rate before Galileo expressed the mathematics. No cosmic gravitational change rippled outward when Einstein reformulated Newton’s earlier notions: curved space-time and not action at a distance. We are free to accept or reject any theory of gravitation we wish. But, jump from a ten-story building and – well, don’t, because gravity is operative regardless of words and theories and cares not one whit what we think about it or say about it.

Words give the impression of understanding, though, as often as not, they mask our ignorance. “Why do things fall?” a child asks and we respond “Gravity,” as if we understood, as if the word actually explained anything. At their best, words are a shorthand or code for a deeper understanding that we share in common – a sort of inside joke. At their worst, words are mere cover-up or hedge about our ignorance. We use words because they are the commonest tools at hand – mallets for brain surgery, perhaps, but the best tools we have. We honor words because in the beginning God spoke and because the Word that was in the beginning became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. But, the limitlessness of the Word made flesh always reminds us of the limits of our flesh-made words.

I return to these thoughts often as I ponder the mysteries of our faith, particularly the central mysteries of Christ: the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. We stand before the cross, in some ways the central mystery of our faith, and use our most heavily-freighted words – words like propitiation, sacrifice, ransom, reconciliation, and atonement. We somehow know we need large words, important words. And, in the end, while none of these words is without importance, while none of these words is small, they are merely words – Spirit-inspired, human-penned words – but merely words nonetheless. And the words are not the thing; the theories are not the reality. The thing is the cross, the hard wood on which Jesus of Nazareth – son of man and Son of God – stretched out his arms for us and for our salvation. The reality beyond our theories is simply this: that in this way – God alone knows why and how – God reconciled the world to himself, brought forth light from darkness and life from death, and made from his enemies sons and daughters. If asked why, we too quickly and too easily respond love. But love is not the explanation for the cross. The truth lies in the opposite direction; the cross is the explanation of – the very definition of – love. Nothing, absolutely nothing, explains the cross. The cross explains absolutely everything: no words, just hard wood.

Scripture and tradition offer us many metaphors for atonement, perhaps because none is sufficient to capture the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I treasure these biblical images, I ponder them, and I will be most happy to discuss them with you over coffee, should we have the pleasure of meeting. But, with God’s help, I will not mistake our atonement theories – our mere words – for the atonement itself. I might not even try to convince you that my theory is better than yours.
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