Last week, I enjoyed the rare chance to have some decent theological discussion on Twitter (of all social media platforms) which was sparked by a Tweet from the Archbishop of Canterbury arising from an event with Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields. Here is my response in case you want to follow the whole thread:
I don’t think I understand this. Can anyone help? Do I encounter the holy presence of God in the atheist? In those who reject him? So do those people need saving? And what then does the Body of Christ mean? Is God’s presence different there? https://t.co/puuRGBUen8
— Dr Ian Paul (@Psephizo) November 21, 2018
In amongst the discussion, some responded by applauding what they saw as the ‘universalistic’ stance of the original statement:
Good questions. I’ve certainly encountered the presence of God in atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans. In fact every human being I encounter has something to teach me about the nature of God if my eyes, ears and heart are open to receiving.
Others roundly rejected the statement for similar reasons—either because it was ‘universalistic’ or because it was just ‘wooly theology’. Still others offered more nuanced theological reflection, as is often the case, Andrew Davison, Mike Higton and Zachary Guiliano led on this. From Davison:
Maximus the Confessor approaches it in terms of logos/tropos: the human logos or basic nature is not changed by sin but out tropos or manner of living or expressing it is….God is also present to each creature as a cause is present to its effects: not as part of any creature, as Aquinas says, but “as an agent is present to that upon which it works”, being the source of the creature’s being at every moment that it exists (ST I.8.1).
I think that distinction between being present ‘as a cause is present to its effects, not as part of any creature’ is really key, as we shall see. Mike Higton offered a fuller account:
Well, as Justin Welby says, everyone (even those who reject God) is made in the image of God, so when I see them I am (in some sense) seeing something of the image of God. But if you want to fill that out, try this:
Everyone – even those who reject God – is loved by God, so when I see them I am seeing an object of God’s love. If I can’t learn to see them with the same love, I am missing something of God’s love. If I can, I am learning something more of God. I learn more of God by learning to see what is loveable – what reflects God – in each person. There’s no conflict between saying any of this and also speaking about people needing saving; there’s no conflict between saying this and also talking about the Body of Christ.
As I responded at the time, that’s precisely the language I would use—and precisely not what the original statement said. The image of God is not the presence of God; loving our neighbour is about emulating the indifferent graciousness of God, not finding his presence in the other.
Others, (including Guiliano) pointed to Roman Catholic teaching on this point, and in particular the teaching emerging from the Second Vatican Council in the document Gaudium et Spes (‘Joy and Hope’) section 27:
27. Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all His life and the means necessary to living it with dignity,(8) so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.(9)
In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).
Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.
There are at least three very interesting things to observe about this statement. The first is that it is very useful to have these kinds of authoritative statement from a Church, since it can be appealed to in resolving misunderstanding or ambiguity arising from isolated statement. Secondly, the following paragraph addresses exactly the kind of misunderstanding that can arise from the statement I was questioning: Gaudium et Spes 28 immediately addresses the possible tension between treating all with dignity, and speaking the truth of the gospel and its call to repentance and faith.
28. Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.
This love and good will, to be sure, must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness. Indeed love itself impels the disciples of Christ to speak the saving truth to all men. But it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions.(10) God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone.(11)
Whilst I am not suggesting that we should move to a Catholic-style magisterium, the Church of England could certainly be helped by having this kind of clarity of statement of its teaching and understanding!
But the third thing to notice is that the statement here leans quite heavily on the widespread (mis)reading of Matthew 25.40 ‘the least of these my brethren’ as a reference to the poor in general, the ‘marginalised’, and (without knowing the full discussion between Justin Welby and Sam Wells) I suspect that their discussion might have owed something to this reading as well. I have explored briefly why this reading is mistaken in another post, agreeing with R T France that the reference is actually to those who follow Jesus, becoming as they do so like their master who ‘had nowhere to lay his head’. France points out that the common reading is actually fairly novel, against those who claim it goes back to Augustine. US evangelical Denny Burk helpfully looks at the evidence here, as gathered by Sherman Gray is his monograph on the subject.
Gray argues that commentators over the centuries have interpreted “the least of these” in one of three ways: (1) a narrow reference to Christians, (2) a general reference to the poor, or (3) an unspecific identification of “the least of these.” Here’s a closer look at each historical period:
In the Patristic Period, you can find the narrow interpretation in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, and (most notably) Augustine. Augustine’s towering influence is well-known. He refers to “the least” 44 times in his writings, and “nowhere does Augustine specifically state that ‘the least’ are the poor in general… it is obvious that the Christian poor are meant” (p. 69). Whereas some of the patristics are inconsistent in their references to “the least,” Augustine is consistent in identifying “the least” as Christians. Thus, “Augustine comes down clearly on the side of those who hold a restrictive viewpoint” (p. 71).
In the Medieval Period, the narrow interpretation is found in Anselm of Laon, who says that “the least” are not the poor in general, “but only those who are poor in spirit who, having put aside their own will, do the will of the heavenly Father” (p. 168). It is also in Bonaventure, who “clearly identifies ‘the least’ as Christians” (p. 175). The most influential theologian of this period is obviously Aquinas, and he also comes down clearly identifiying “the least” as Christ’s disciples (p. 180).
In the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, you can find this interpretation in a number of figures including Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Of course, the latter two are the towering figures of the Reformation, and so it is significant that both Luther and Calvin are clear that “the least” are Christians (pp. 203-206, 208).
Returning to the original statement, I was struck by how attractive the claim is in our current social context. If God is present in the marginalised, that is a strong stand against both the active exploitation of others that we find so commonplace, but (perhaps even more importantly) the insidious devaluation of people that is inherent in the utilitarianism of the dominant models of economics, culture and government. If, for example, the importance of education is about ‘adding value’, and that this ‘adding of value’ is measured in the improvement of exam grades, then the assumption is that those with lower grades have had less value added, and so must (educationally at least) be of less value.
I was also struck by how this statement makes people attractive in the care with which they approach others. If, indeed, we ‘see the presence of Christ in the marginalised’ then we will naturally treat people with care and dignity, and in my experience those who make this kind of statement are indeed people of compassion whom I wish to emulate.
But neither of these factors makes the statement true. To think more clearly, we need to reflect on the theme of the temple in Scripture, since the temple is consistently seen as the place of God’s presence in the world.
There is now widespread agreement that the shape of the creation narrative can be understood as depicting the world as the temple of God’s presence, with the implication that humanity as the ‘image and likeness’ of God (Gen 1.27) take the expected place of the statue of the god in the temple of the world. But the narrative of the ‘fall’ in chapter 3 (and in fact running on to chapter 11) disrupts this intension, and introduces a radical discontinuity between the presence of God in the world and the presence and activity of humanity. In God’s plan of restoration, he calls Abraham and his offspring into renewed relationship with him, and as part of that plan there develops a recognition of particular places which resonated with a distinctive sense of the presence of God in his holiness. This develops into the theology of the tabernacle in the wilderness, which becomes (as the people settle the land) the settled presence of God in the temple. These places of holiness have a double function, as both connecting the heavenly presence of God to the earth and drawing God’s holy people to himself, but also has making clear the continued disjunction between a holy God and a sinful humanity.
In the New Testament, the incarnated presence of God begins to displace this understanding of God’s presence in the temple, so that both the kingdom of God and the King of that kingdom are found in the ministry and person of Jesus. To reject God’s presence (his ‘visitation’ in Luke 19.44) in the person of Jesus means, ultimately, rejecting the tabernacling and ‘templing’ presence of God amongst his people (John 1.14) which is why the New Testament writers consistently see the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as connected with the rejection of Jesus by the people he first came to. But now, as those who acknowledge that Jesus is indeed Lord become, in some mystical way, incorporated into him, so that believers are the ‘body of Christ’ or are simply ‘in Christ’ (see all of Paul’s letters!), then they are built into a new, living temple of God’s presence in the world (1 Peter 2.5). And our final destiny is to be a temple people, reunited with the templing presence of God in a New Jerusalem; the cube-shaped city (12,000 stadia long and wide and high) is both completely filled with the people of God but also (replicating the holy of holies in the original temple) completely filled with the presence of God, restoring the unity of creation that was destroyed by human sin.
There are, of course, a good number of ‘universal’ statement about the presence of God in the world, all through the Scriptures. The psalmist sees the whole of the created realm as testifying to the truth of God in Psalm 19, where nature is one ‘book’ of testimony set alongside the other ‘book’ of testimony found in the law, and Paul picks up on this idea in Romans 1. In the consecration of the temple by Solomon, the king realises the tension in suggesting that God’s presence is located in one place (1 Kings 8.27, 2 Chron 2.6). And Paul is aware of the all-pervasive power of God sustaining the world (Acts 17.24–28, Col 1.15–20), as is the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 1.3). But in all these cases, the tension between the universal and the particular is not collapsed—and indeed the universal power of God functions as a call to respond to his particular presence, in temple, in Messiah or in the people of God.
All this means that is it in the people of God that we encounter the presence of Christ, whether we recognise this or not—and it is the fit between this large narrative and the ‘narrow’ reading of Matt 25.40 which is the most convincing argument for this reading.
There are many objections to this reading of what the Bible says about the connection between the people of God and the presence of God, not least that many outside the church find it objectionable, since it appears to be a claim to superiority. As one person responded on Twitter:
Disturbing post – the idea that God doesn’t rest /abide amongst “believers “ and “non believers” is so alien to my understanding of God TBH it’s this sort of stuff that turns so many away from God – the us and them etc
And this objection is quite right insofar as Christians claim this truth as a privilege and merit, rather than a sign of God’s gift and grace which is available to all. But this theology of God’s presence is consistent throughout Scripture, and it is impossible to make sense of the teaching of Jesus or the letters of Paul (and other New Testament writers) without it.
Coming back to the original question: we should be moved with compassion when we encounter the marginalised not because we see in them the presence of Christ, but because we feel in us the presence of Christ by his Spirit, and that presence stirs us up to have compassion on those created in the image of God, whom God loves and for whom God gave us his Son—and whom God longs to invite into his temple presence.
I think that should be motivation enough.
The main picture at the top looks like a photograph, but is described as a charcoal drawing. It is by a US artist called Dean Wittle, whose work (in painting and photography) looks really interesting.
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