July 2, 2017

Half An Inheritance


The lessons appointed for this day may be found at this link.

Text: Romans 6:12: “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies,
to make you obey their passions.”

Dear friends, it is well and truly the summer, a time of hot Sunday mornings braved by only the most stalwart and devoted of God’s people. We come for worship, as we always do, but we come in with the summer’s pervading sense of informality—and we bring the hope that the liturgy will manage to be both dignified and lightweight, and above all not a moment longer than necessary.

I know all that, and I am the one in more layers than anyone, so I share in some of those hopes. But I plan today to level a heavy charge against Saint Paul, and that is a thing that can’t be done quickly.

This morning’s reading from the Epistle comes from Paul’s great theological treatise, his letter to the church in Rome. It is the most profound, and certainly the most eloquent, of all the writings we have from the first great theologian of the faith.

All throughout the length and breadth of Paul’s letter to Rome he makes the case that we who place our faith in the crucified and risen Christ are rightly regarded as children of God—and, because we are, the ones who have come into the inheritance of the work of the Cross.

In what we have heard today, however, Paul considerably discounts the full extent of that inheritance. Because he effectively excludes from it practically half of what makes us human—our emotional lives, our affective selves, or—as Paul insists on minimizing them—our passions.

It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the long, long story of Western civilization’s insistence on seeing reason and emotion as opposed, conflicting aspects of human nature owes a very great deal indeed to Paul. He did not invent this division, of course, but he did make certain that it was built into the very foundation walls of our faith. Our Western inclination to cast our emotional lives in the role of villain—that thing about us most likely to lead us astray, to get us off course, to carry us off into temptation—draws deep from the well of Paul’s letters, and especially the letter to the Romans.

Unhappily the force of Paul’s letter throughout the history of the church has been in some ways to wall off the whole life of human emotion from the work of salvation. At the very least it makes out our emotions to be something irrelevant to God’s concern; at worst it makes them out to be an obstacle in our path to deeper faith and the grace God intends for us.

But to see it this way is to leave out of the picture a lot of what makes us who we are. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that far from being a source of distraction or temptation, our emotions are necessary to a fundamental human task—the task of making sound judgments about how we ought to behave and what things, what ideas, what qualities we ought to value and devote ourselves to.

If we flip the argument around a moment we can see that Paul is missing something essential about how it is God has created us. Because it is not the case that our rational, dispassionate minds, our cold and calculating reasoning selves, always lead us into the better expressions of our nature. Step by step, little bit by little bit, we can reason ourselves into very poor decisions indeed, and what is worse be convinced that they are righteous. Reason seems just as capable of leading us along a confident path into a sinful fix as our emotions can.

By speaking as he does of the emotional dimension of our lives, Paul is leaving out a large part of what makes us human. On the evidence of the gospels we know that Jesus felt sorrow and anger; and from that we can say without fear that the man from Nazareth, in the fullness of his humanity, did not live a life somehow without what Nussbaum calls the urgency and heat our emotions make real to us.

In arguing for the fullness of Christ’s humanity, Gregory of Nazianzus famously wrote that nothing not assumed is saved—nothing, that is, that is not fully present in the person of Christ is presented to God for redemption. But in sharing our human nature, Christ clearly did not stop short of sharing our affective life. So Paul seems to be on pretty thin ice ruling out our emotions from the scope of our inheritance from God. After all, Jesus had them.

Father Abraham surely had them, too, and we may be thankful that he did.

Last week in the gospel reading we heard Jesus talking about divisions between mother and daughter, between father and son—the idea being that the claims of faith might even come into conflict with the apparently self-evident claims of reason, or even morality. Here, in the story of Abraham’s obedience even to the point of sacrificing his son, we are given the sharpest possible example of what Jesus was talking about.

There are countless things we might say about this troubling story. But for today’s purpose, just reflect on what must be the battle between Abraham’s reason and his emotions as he spends three days climbing the mountain with that precious boy, not telling him why they are going or what they must do when they arrive.

Every counsel of reason would make him turn back—indeed, would have never allowed him to go. Something else must be at stake here, something that at one and the same time keeps him moving forward and, with each step, makes his anxiety deepen and his heart grow heavier.

It is Abraham’s love for his son that makes this story something much more than simple reflexive obedience to bewildering and even outrageous things God asks of us sometimes. It is his love for God, his desire to live out his covenant with the one who has promised, that makes this story a vivid example of something we encounter every day in our walk up our mountains—the tension between what seems reasonable and what seems faithful. It is his perplexity, his confusion, his sorrow, his despair, that makes this a human story—a story that brings all of Abraham, and all of us, into our relationship with God.

We, like Isaac, are children of Abraham. We, as Paul teaches, are the children of God. Our inheritance does not exclude from God’s grace the passions that move us beyond the bounds of reason, not least because it takes unreasonable people to do the work of justice and bring in an order governed by the law of love. Amen.