The Unique Opportunity

I've been driven back to CD III.4, section 56, entitled "Freedom in Limitation," by re-reading my old exam work. And fruitfully so, I think, so I'm going to run through my meditations on at least part 1 here: "The Unique Opportunity." This material is the set-up for talking about vocation in the next part.

Our obedience -- even and especially our apostolic obedience -- is conditioned on the restoration of the right ordering of our creaturely being. We are disordered in sin, pieces in the wrong places, functional blocks improperly connected to one another, inputs and outputs not communicating properly.

Barth's strategy is not to take the disorder of the world's order and call it good, let alone to call it God's -- this is the sort of approach that leads to Barth's statement that ethics is sin. No, it is not the order we find in creation-the-noun that shows us the will of God; it is the order we find in creation-the-verb. Creation, the act. The creature who receives the divine command discovers because of it an impossibility -- a flaw with respect to the totalizing orders of the world. A basic contradiction at the heart of reality. And it seems to be this because we participate every day in the demiourgia by which the orders of this world perpetuate themselves. We have been raised in them, and by acting as agents under them we demonstrate that we approve of them -- whether or not we like their consequences! We help to craft and re-craft them.

This is the depravity of the creature -- that we are apparatchiki of the world, shaped by its apparatus. As Billington said, people "not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details." This is the root cause of the declaration that God came to what was his own, but it did not know him. We belong to the world.

But the alternative is the basis for Christian ethics: to see the contradiction at the heart of the world and acknowledge who truly is the Lord of creation. And this does not happen because we do it; it happens because the resonance of the command of the creator in the creature sets to work restoring that original order of ktisis. And as the scriptures show us, it happens most readily in those in whom the world's orders are least firmly set -- those on the margins, who have the least holding them to the apparatus. Those whom this world has called sinners and outcasts. Those the world either expels or utterly subordinates. Tax collectors and prostitutes -- who are getting in ahead of the Pharisees. (Note -- ahead of, not instead of.) Gentiles recognize Jesus as Lord of creation -- and Jesus recognizes true faith in them, the genuine article, in ways he doesn't find it even in the apparatus of piety.

Paul was a harder nut to crack. He was zealously invested in the apparatus of Pharisaic Judean piety. The command of God the creator had to take on an exceptional form to do it, but Paul recognized the Lord of creation and therefore his own place as creature. He received the command to obedience in apostolic duty. And yet Paul did not cease being a pious Judean, or abandon his Pharisaic training -- these were providence, even if temporarily disordered and misdirected. He did not leave the givenness of his existence, but he became free and properly directed within it. The command of God disordered his world, first from outside in the persons of those in Christ before him, and then from inside by direct revelation. And in that divine disordering, all of the functional blocks of his existence fell into line with his essence. To be sure, he did not become Christ, in whom alone there is no conflict -- but he became properly Paul, and his mauvaise foi became simply, faith. The faith of the creature self-revealed as creature by and in response to the self-revelation of God as creator. As this precise creature, in these precise limitations, before this precise creator -- a situation out of which, at any moment, the right direction for the circumstances may be prayerfully derived.

The knowledge of the world alone does not show us this. As Barth says of astrology and horoscopes, "even at best they can comprehend only the determination of man within the world, only his connexion with the cosmos, and not his freedom, far less the decree of God concerning him." (574) It's a frame-of-reference limitation. We ask the question of the meaning of our limitations, within and guided solely by the creation as it today stands ordered. And asked in this way, the question can only receive an answer stating our relative position and momentum by comparison with other things. Occasionally, if the frame is drawn well enough, it may even prove startlingly accurate -- but it is of no use for absolute measurement, and can say nothing at all of ethical necessity. The "is" cannot generate the "ought." Only the "is" as it stands before God receives its proper "ought." And only this precise obligation demonstrates its true being.

As such, the whole of the question is not about position; position is providence. The question is about orientation, disposition, and direction. Orientation toward the grace of God, on the basis of the covenant of the creator with the creature -- the internal basis of the creation, as we remember from III.1.

That orientation, disposition and direction, given within the determined positional limits of a human life, take on eschatological import -- because the limits are too small for this, and anything else. Too small, if the promise of this opportunity is not grasped firmly. In short, too small for this orientation, disposition, and direction, and also sin. One of the two must lose.

And yet God, the Lord of creation, is our frontier, as Barth says. This God is our original and ultimate boundary. The terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of each life are the creature's perfect beginning and ending in the creator. But the terminus ad quem of death is not the telos of the creaturely life. It is not necessarily the perfect completion and fulfillment of the unique opportunity -- only in Jesus Christ do they so perfectly align! Death is the eschaton of life even as it is the telos of the creature. And this is the ethical challenge; this is the urgency of the command.

And yet I do not see peril here, where Barth seems to. Indeed, every human life will meet the final "too late." I see here, instead, the return of the Prodigal Son to his Father. The eschatological necessity is driven by the needfulness of the work itself, not the needfulness of our salvation, which has been accomplished.


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