Thursday, October 2, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Seven: The Voice of God

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that with Scripture “the things signified by the words also have a signification.”1 And, “That signification whereby things signified by the words also have a signification is called the spiritual sense…”2 But Scripture tells us that Jesus was God’s self-expression, the divine Logos, given human form. (John 1:1-18) Applying St. Thomas’ view of Scriptural meaning to Jesus, then, we get a quadruple significance: (1) the words of Scripture, (2) their spiritual meaning, (3) the life of Jesus, and (4) the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life. Using this demarcation, it is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life that we are considering. What, precisely, is that significance?

Naturally one expects the Logos to appear as a symbol of divine mastery and power. And again, given that assumption, the message of the cross contradicts expectations. We have already seen that the message of the cross forms a foil to our—ex hypothesi—false view of God which has its scriptural origin in the story of the fall, and we now consider whether the voice of conscience may act as Jesus’ voice in a way that supplies the answer to the enigma of Jesus’ silence in the face of Pilate’s famous question. These perspectives, however, cannot eliminate the need for language to preserve its meaning when applied to Jesus as the divine Logos.

So once again we confront the challenge that this controlling principle of the universe in human form certainly does not seem to be in control—being sentenced to death by hanging on a cross. Yet to be the divine ordering principle of the universe, Jesus must nevertheless express God’s will and be in control. Nothing less preserves the meaning of the terms used to describe Jesus in the Gospel. How are we to surmount this difficulty?

Frankly, either there is a rationale for Jesus’ silent acceptance on his way to the cross, a rationale that allows us to maintain that he was in control despite appearances to the contrary, or no sense can be made of the claim that the message of the cross depicts the divine Logos, the divine controlling principle of the universe. An honest approach to the text demands nothing less, and no spiritual sense can be derived from a text that makes no primary sense. What, then, is the rationale for claiming that God expressed his control in the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion?

The textual rationale is manifold. For one thing, it contains this exchange: “Pilate …said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him. ‘You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above…’” (John 19:10, 11) The first and most direct evidence in the text, then, is Jesus’ assertion that Pilate’s power to crucify him was God given.

Second, we have the claims, some of them already noted, that Jesus willingly participated in the events that led to his crucifixion. Examples include stopping Peter’s attempt to prevent his arrest, calling the impending events leading to the crucifixion “the cup that the Father has given me,” and the very silence before Pilate that we are considering, since answering Pilate’s questions compellingly would likely have prevented the crucifixion. (John 18:10, 11, and 19:10) Moreover, the entire narrative of the crucifixion story in the second half of the 19th Chapter of The Gospel According to John proceeds so that the writer can repeatedly claim, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled…” (John 19:24, 28, 36, 37) Accordingly, the second rationale from the text is that the story portrays the crucifixion as the manifest will of God the Father for his Son.

Third, the text preserves a domain in which God’s will is manifest. In Pilate we have a man who must confront the cost of doing the right thing; he stated, “I find no case against [Jesus.]” (John 19:4) And yet he failed to do the right thing: “…he handed [Jesus] over to be crucified.” (John 19:16) And as we have already noted, under the circumstance Pilate would have had to have been a very stupid or a very bad man for his conscience to have remained silent. Since we can be sure from the text that he is not to be perceived as either, the only reasonable alternative is that he was troubled by what he was compelled to do. In fact, as noted earlier, the text directly states at one point that Pilate was afraid. (John 19:8) Clearly, the narrative paints Pilate as fully aware of the unconscionable nature of his acquiescence in Jesus’ death. We know, then, that Pilate would have been dealing with the voice of conscience at precisely the time that Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) It has become difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, as depicted in the narrative, used the opportunity of Pilate’s moral dilemma to impress on him that to do the right thing—to listen to the voice of conscience—was to listen to his voice.

Of course, it strains credibility for a man under the duress of arrest and false accusations and beatings and the threat of crucifixion to have maintained the presence of mind to focus on the fact that Pilate would be in the clutch of a moral dilemma, and to understand that the moral dilemma would press the voice of conscience upon Pilate in a way that would coincide with Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth about God, and to understand that the trial scene would coalesce precisely as needed to set up Scripture’s broadest and most central theme, and—thus to express the truth about God; in fact, it strains credibility to the breaking point, unless one has faith that Jesus was the divine Logos, the Son of God incarnate; the very claim which got him crucified.

Very cleverly the Gospel sets up the same choice for the reader that Pilate faced when he heard Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth: What to make of the claim that Jesus is the Logos, the eternal Son of God incarnate? (I assume here, of course, that Pilate would not have had Jesus crucified, if he had believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Thus, the question of belief in Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth about God would have been inherent in Pilate’s decision.) The virtuosity of the text here unfolds from its simple prose like a tulip from a humble bulb.

So what does one make of Jesus’ claim to bear witness to the truth about God? We have noted that it comprises a Supreme Irony. We have seen that placing the message of the cross beside the story of the fall adds tremendous depth to the claim’s meaning. And we are now able to consider how, given this fully informed context, the claim forces a choice between Paul’s “Godly wisdom” on the one hand and “worldly wisdom” on the other: the Serpent’s view from the fall, or the message of the cross. Furthermore, the text confronts the problem of how to make sense of the divine Logos about to be crucified, and it does so in a way that places the question of whether conscience can be interpreted as the voice of God directly in the reader’s lap. One can choose to make sense of the scene, because one can choose to believe that Jesus intentionally subjected himself to the trial and crucifixion in order to portray the truth about God. And that means one can choose to believe that God was in control, that the Logos—the divine controlling principle of the universe—was working out his will in the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, with the full force of the Supreme Irony that that entails reverberating in a conscientious reader’s mind. A prodigious intelligence works its way through the words of our Gospel text.

Returning to the opening question of this chapter—“What is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life?”—we see that it is a question that cannot be separated from Jesus’ death, since he chose to sacrifice his life. We also see that it is a question that the text of the Gospel strongly suggests is inseparable from the voice of conscience. Putting those pieces together, we can hypothesize that sacrifice—here the divine sacrifice portrayed in “the message of the cross”—has a central and essential role in forming the voice of conscience. Further, the voice of conscience certainly made itself heard in Pilate’s mind as the dialog with Jesus played out, in accord with a full understanding of the text, as we have seen. To arrive at a fully formed hypothesis the following must be added. When Jesus spoke the words that prompted Pilate’s famous question, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” the truth to which he referred was this: The voice of conscience is Jesus’ voice and those who listen to his voice will understand that the central and essential role of sacrifice as portrayed by the message of the cross represents the truth about God. (John 18:37)

1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, I, 10.
2. Ibid.

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