For Godforsakenness’ Sake
There’s no question about religion on the 2010 Census, so I’ll say it here: I’m a provisional Christian. Raised among evangelical-leaning American Baptists, I’ve embraced many orthodoxies and gospels since Youth Group. I’ve called myself conservative, liberal, traditional, progressive, evangelical, emergent, post-Christian. But this Holy Week, I know I remain what I’ve been for some time: a seminary grad who doesn’t like church, a father concerned about what my son hears in Sunday school, a postmodern person who suspects that God—if God’s there—is known more through experience than exegesis, a Christian-ish skeptic who can’t finally shake the feeling that at least some of what the Christian tradition says about Jesus might not be infinitely wrong. If the census had religion boxes, I’d probably check every one.
I had good Lenten intentions. On Ash Wednesday, a mass of marked subway foreheads seemed like proof of many people like me, busy people trying to believe something, hoping for something as Lent started. I found a sign for “Imposition of Ashes” when I got to street level and joined them. The charge that the United Methodist bishop at The Church of the Village gave as he smeared a black cross on my forehead—“Repent. Believe. Live.”—was freeing and confounding. Repent is a heavy word, even (and maybe especially) for reluctant church people. Repent forces me to think about everything I have to be sorry for in any season, and I don’t mean ego-bound guilt over personal failings. I mean sinful contexts I’m part of by default where the final consequences of my consumer, political, or spiritual choices go unknown. A prerequisite for sinning by omission is being able to omit. All of us do that in spades. We are not omniscient. We are not omnipotent. Christians hope for a God who is both, and on good days we try to prove this hope makes a difference.
I haven’t been to church since Ash Wednesday, but I have been working on the bishop’s challenge to repent, believe, and live. I have been thinking more than usual about what it means to repent before, believe in, and live because of a God most Christians say is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy, all-loving and, in Holy Week, all-betrayed, all-forsaken, all dead and buried—gone—all back.
I was moved in the context of traditions and church rhythms as Lent started, but I won’t get sad come Good Friday. I can’t feel pathos in the part of the narrative that stresses how hard it was for God to give up God’s son and pour the full measure of God’s wrath out on Jesus. Is it because if Easter (let alone omnipotence) is true, Good Friday is kind of not so dramatic? Is it because I expect a God worth having to leave things like wrath to us? Is it because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jesus it’s to want more from God than retribution? Is it because I suspect that if God is all the “alls” we say God is, the calculus of Atonement doesn’t work? That God could, indeed, forgive us, even in our default, lazy sin, without blood sacrifice? That we could, indeed, have Sunday without Friday? I’m starting to think so.
But I still wrestle with the Crucified and the Crucifixion, the dramatic exit of this, the most confounding of all people ever born. The execution of an itinerant preacher-peasant for blasphemy, for challenging the standing order of religion, economics, and empire—this is cathartic enough for me on some social-justice, existential levels. But there’s that part of me, somewhere between my heart and my gut, that thinks the Crucifixion also must mean more. That if any sublime thought or experience I’ve ever had means anything, there must be something cosmic about this Jesus, something eternally profound about his life and death.
When it came to these kinds of questions, Martin Luther was known for a special kind of melancholy most of us can only ever mimic. (German has amazing nouns for things that end up sounding just like those things feel.) Luther used the word Anfechtung to describe, as Roland Bainton said, “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.” Total and consuming Godforsakenness. While preparing for and giving his first Mass, Anfechtung is what Luther realized Jesus went through on the cross, a kindred feeling of unworthiness and terror before God. In this way, the cross was a means through which God could and did feel Godforsaken. Human. You may or may not know holy terror, but you do know despair, defeat, anguish, sorrow, loss. I’ll bet you know Godforsakenness.
This next part I made up, but it’s kept me tethered to the Christian planet at various heights at various times. If Jesus on the cross actually is God on the cross, and if God on the cross is Godforsaken, if God comes to the cross to feel what it’s like to be us at our most human, then what if the cross is also God’s mea culpa? What if the cross is God’s apology for our suffering, what if it’s God’s self-imposed sentence for allowing entropy, sickness, disease, moth and rust and flame when God, in God’s omnipotence, could have set the rules our universe is bound by very differently? What if the Crucifixion is the end of God’s aloofness? What if the cross isn’t our absolution but God’s?
In the end, I can’t believe a well-adjusted God actually needs to pour wrath out on the weak, infirm, and finite. I can’t believe the point of the story is Jesus’ carnal sacrifice or God’s great despair over losing, for a little while, God’s son. I can’t believe God requires blood oblation for the remission of sins. I expect more from God, and I blame Jesus for that. I can believe God wants us to live better than we do. I can believe God wants us to give a damn about real justice and real change. I can even believe God cares about old words like repent. I really can. I also think that in the narrative of Christian faith, the cross is God’s credibility, not because of God’s flaying, but because of God’s Anfechtung.
I want to believe that God’s on the cross, in the tomb, in the rubble of Haiti in ways that matter. But I can’t hold those hopes without believing that an all-loving, all-powerful God could achieve God’s ends without brutality, entropy, evil, or bloody payback justice. Give me all-loving over all-powerful, always. And if God is omnipotent? Omnipotent without the acrobatics of theodicy that place limits on the “all” in all-powerful and concede that there are just some things God can’t do? Give me all-mourning, all-sorry, all-commiserating, all-Godforsaken. Give me the powerless Christ of the cross, give me the poetry of God’s most human moment, of God’s great apology, and give me, in Easter, hope that this redeemable God repents, believes, lives so that we might.
Christopher Cocca is a Pennsylvania and New York City-based writer. His work has appeared at The Huffington Post, Brevity, elimae, Pindeldyboz, Geez Magazine, and elsewhere. He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in 2005 and is currently a Master of Fine Arts student in The New School’s graduate creative writing program. He blogs an almost-daily journal of provisional faith at Orthoproxy and is finishing his first novel.