Sunday, August 19, 2007

Oswald Bayer: Faith and Lamentation

In my last post, I mentioned that for Luther faith means "against God to force its way through to God and call upon God, ... to break through to God through his wrath, through his punishment, and through his disfavor." I take this to mean that one must strive with God, wrestling with him until he gives us a blessing. As the Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer writes in Living by Faith: "Faith does not conduct a debate about God and God's righteousness, as does the natural, the redeemed, or the presumably already glorified reason before its own forum. It conducts a dispute with God in prayer and lament." Indeed, Bayer understands lament against God as one of the most profound expressions of faith. This is because the foundation of lament is belief in the essential goodness of God and his creation:
"Lament is only possible because of the promise that it will be heard. Without promise there is no cause for lamentation... Lament is an eminent way of perceiving and experiencing the world. For it never surrenders the faith that the creation is 'very good,' nor does it make evil and suffering harmless, regarding them as nothing. In lament pain is felt in all its profundity. Our most profound testing is that God, who has promised us life and external communion, who has guaranteed them, is still the God who does not lament death or destroy it, but who is at work in life and death and all things."
Faith allows space for lamentation, but comprehensive systems do not. Here, Bayer contrasts the theodicies of Hegel and Luther. Hegel's "contemplative theodicy" tries to rationalize evil, to locate its place in the larger picture in such a way that it serves the greater good. In the System, "the misery and suffering of this world are ultimately regarded as irrelevant. This contemplative theodicy supposes the painful difference between the promise of life and all that contradicts it to be already resolved. The passion of lament, which perceives this difference, dissolves and gives way to 'the passionless stillness of knowledge that only thinks'." Suffering is not real or serious for Hegel - it's merely a principle. By contrast,
"Luther never downplays or treats as harmless the situation of temptation and testing when God withdraws and conceals himself. He confronts it in all its depth and sharpness. He does not ignore experiences of suffering. Yet he refuses to accept their finality. He flees from the hidden God to the revealed and incarnate God. He presses on 'toward God and even against him calls upon him.'"
It seems to me that the spirit of striving and lamentation are sorely lacking today. Not that there is no suffering in the world -there surely is, often on an unprecedented scale. It's just that most people, whether they believe in God or not, have their preferred method of explaining away evil and suffering. Even in the church, there is a sense that we should never protest against God, that God is our friend and he only wants the best for us. Like Hegel's system, our theologies absolve God and try to erase the pain by explaining that "it's all for the best." But this is simply not biblical (just read the book of Job!).

Bayer's book reminds us that "Luther's Reformation theology does not mean to justify the world as it is." Honest Christians are compelled to admit that "we cannot demonstrate the goodness and the love of God... The nexus of the world [is] no nexus at all, but foremost an embattled and lacerated world in which creation is 'rent and torn from top to bottom.' There is no agreement, no harmony in the world. It rings out like 'cracked bells.'" Such a world requires faith and lamentation. It requires that we strive with God, holding fast to existence and remaining in the flux, accepting both joy and suffering from his hand, and trusting his promises in Christ.


Jeremy said...

Excellent. Thanks so much for posting it. And it reminds me that Bayer still waits for me unread on my shelf. Must remedy that.

CPA said...

I've posted something about this at Three Hierarchies. (This is my crude way of doing trackback, the sophisticated versions of which I could never master.)

Dave S. said...


I really appreciate the insight of the prayers for the dead post you linked to. I have heard in the past the Lutheran reluctance to engage in such activity, but I think you shed the proper light on it.

The main point is that because God is master of time, he need not have another Gospel in order to save those already dead.

I think a similar hope exists for those with stillborn/early death infants. If God wanted to open an unborn infant's heart and count him among the saved, why would that be impossible for him?

John said...

Thanks, Thomas, for this post.

I found you via eclexia.

I cite it in a series I'm doing. I hope you will check it out.

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