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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Judas Iscariot: a seasonal digression

That still leaves me wondering whether there isn't something theologically problematic about seeing those who do great evil as the agency of divine providence. Are there not other, better ways?

- from normblog, a follow-up to this posting prompted by a news item about an apocryphal 'Gospel of Judas'. This is a fairly big question for someone who is at best an amateur theologian to take on, but as Norm is evidently genuinely interested I couldn't resist trying to come up with a posting-sized answer of sorts.

First, a word about a media phenomenon. The great frustration facing biblical scholars is that most of the time the most honest thing they can say is 'we know sod all'. Which is of course not what the media want to hear. So there's always the tempatation to give them what they want, i.e. the secret document that tells the Real Truth About Jesus (otherwise known as What The Pope Doesn't Want You To Know About Jesus).

There is limited information about Judas in the four canonical gospels, some of it almost certainly mythical. On the other hand, anyone wanting to dispute the basic claim that Jesus was betrayed by one of his chosen disciples needs to explain why his followers would have made it up. The gospels which are no more than a generation from the eyewitnesses to Jesus's life are likely to remain the most reliable sources we have. A document written 100 years later holds about as much promise of supplying us with better information as the latest offering from Dan Brown (the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon is good on this, and indeed generally).

Now for the theology. I take it Norm would agree that, whatever his historical status, Judas represents a truth about the human condition. So the question becomes one about whether the Judas in all of us is necessary to God's plan.

I start from the belief that God has created humans as beings who are free to make morally significant choices - that is, choices between good and evil, where the wrong choice means that people get hurt. He didn't have to - he could have made the human condition akin to eternal infancy - but in fact he created freedom, and it was good. So the possibility of evil is a facet of something which is itself good.

Next: it is a matter of fact that humans consistently choose evil over good. Theologyspeak for this is sin. The fact that, whilst social deprivation, poor parenting etc. certainly can exacerbate this phenomenon, it can't ultimately be explained away in those terms, is what is meant by original sin. [At this point I should bring in Norm's query about the Holocaust, and stress that I see its perpetrators in no way as the agents of divine retribution, but quite simply as sinners. The Jewish Holocaust-as-retribution theology to which Norm refers is an understandable attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible, but it seems to me to have forgotten the story of Job, who suffered in spite of his righteousness. I am convinced that God can and will right the wrongs of the Holocaust. I just don't know how.]

Next: although sin is an expression of human freedom, since God is omniscient he must have created us in knowing that we would in fact exercise our freedom this way. This is a hard one to grasp, and I think one simply has to accept that there are things about God which we can't expect to understand. The best I can come up with in the way of an analogy is this: when a baby is born, it is predictable that twelve or so years later it will start to be interested in sex and to engage in behaviours that express that interest. But, whilst the parents know this, it is obviously not the case that their foreknowledge is what makes the child behave this way.

So God faces the paradox that something bad - sin - predictably results from something good - freedom. And as for us, we tend to want it both ways. We reproach God for failing to prevent Auschwitz and at the same time cling jealously to our freedom to be 'transgressive'. But God is not prepared to resolve the paradox either by laissez-faire acceptance of sin or by turning us into automata. Either way the relationship with God for which he created us is broken.

The core of the Christian faith is that God resolves this paradox by incarnation - by total involvement in the human condition. Christ lives out human freedom in a way that makes him completely open to God's purpose, and in doing so faces the full force of the human capacity for evil. He allows it to nail him to the Cross, and in doing so breaks its power, overcoming it with a love stronger than death.

And the role of Judas's betrayal? Remember that he is not the only one - Peter too betrays Christ, denying him three times. But the difference is that Peter's repentance and readiness to accept forgiveness frees him to preach the new gospel, eventually at the cost of his life. Thus he models the way good can be brought out of our sin. Judas's despair shuts him off from these possibilities.

But maybe even for Judas the suicide that sets the seal on his betrayal is not the last word. These are the closing lines of Edwin Muir's poem 'The Transfiguration':-

But he will come again, it's said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled--
Glad to be so--and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From the darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother's knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.

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