_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 2 – The Great Dilemma
Posted by joespencer on June 13, 2012
The first of Robinson’s chapters is short enough that I’ll deal with it in a single post. It’s short because it’s meant only to set up the problem without beginning to spell out the solution. Indeed, it says so little about the solution that Robinson has to say, with emphasizing italics, on the second page: “Now whatever you do, don’t stop reading here.” This chapter doesn’t inspire much hope, but it’s short, and it itself pleads with the reader to go on to the good news.
So how does Robinson set up “the great dilemma”? He calls it a “dichotomy” consisting of “two simple facts.”
The first: God can’t “look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). Robinson spells this out a bit, emphasizing absolute strictness: “God’s standard, the celestial standard, is absolute, and it allows no exceptions” (p. 1). That’s fine, but one might get a bit nervous when Robinson goes on to translate this first fact in the following way: “God cannot, will not, allow moral or ethical imperfection in any degree whatsoever to dwell in his presence” (p. 2). Wait, “sin” here amounts to “moral or ethical imperfection”? What does that mean? And then he says: “If there is even one sin on our record, we are finished” (p. 2). Hang on, is this a matter of actions and events or of traits and characters? Is this about moral or ethical imperfection or identifiably transgressive acts? I realize, as I said in my last post, that this book isn’t meant to be rigorous theology, but this looseness is a bit dangerous. I wonder if it doesn’t play into all the misconceptions that lead to the problems Robinson means to overcome. Hadn’t we better spend a bit of time clarifying the nature of sin?
Robinson, however, goes on to the “other horn of the dilemma”: “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Robinson summarizes: “all human beings, even the best among us, have committed sins or have displayed imperfections that are incompatible with the celestial standard and that God cannot tolerate” (p. 2). He oversimplifies a bit: “After all, one little sin was sufficient to get Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden and out of God’s presence. While they were totally innocent, they could walk and talk with him–one transgression, and they were gone” (p. 3). I’m not sure that’s really the message of Genesis 2-3, but perhaps that can be forgiven. At any rate, there’s little reason to disagree with what Robinson’s saying about this second “fact.” We’re sinful (whatever it means to be sinful).
The problem comes, of course, when these two facts are taken together. If sin in any degree excludes us from God’s presence, and if we’re sinful, then we’ve no way out of the dilemma.
But I think there’s good reason to come back to the first of these two “facts.” What exactly does sin mean? And what does it mean when God says that He makes no “allowance” for sin? These are questions worth thinking about a bit more carefully. And frankly, it seems to me that Robinson entirely overlooks a third possible way of thinking about sin, one that is arguably more scriptural. Sin is neither a matter of moral or ethical imperfection nor a matter of identifiably transgressive acts. Sin, at least according to the Paul on whom Robinson himself draws, is a certain relationship to God. Sin is less a question of what we ourselves are or have (or have not) become, or a question of what we do or have (or have not) done, than it’s a question of how we are vis-a-vis God. Do we fight against him, “chang[ing] the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Romans 1:23), or do we “live by faith” (Romans 1:17), “thankful” as we glorify God “as God” (Romans 1:21)? Sin is a question of suppressing God’s truth, of transforming Him into something other than what He is, of denying our createdness before Him. Sin is, in a word, already a rejection of grace.
Why is that clarification important? Because Robinson’s way of setting up the dilemma is already, I think, a problematic move. He sets up the dilemma as if grace, still to come in the next chapter, were the way out of the dilemma, when the dilemma itself is constituted only by assuming a certain sort of relation to grace. Grace isn’t the solution so much as the source of the dilemma, and the dilemma is less the reality we face that might drive us toward grace than the imaginary situation we create for ourselves in order not to have to face up to the nature of God’s gracefulness. If God can’t tolerate sin, then, it’s not because sin has an ontologically positive status that somehow conflicts with God’s nature. It’s because sin is explicit rejection of God’s gracefulness. God’s refusal to make allowances for sin is nothing but His refusal (or inability?) to force anyone to be happy.
Robinson closes the first chapter by telling a story about punishing his son, Michael. He sent him to his room and then promptly forgot about him. Hours later, when his son came haltingly out of his room asking whether they could ever be friends again. He then explains: “Spiritually, we are all in the same boat that Michael was in. We all know what it feels like to be ‘sent to our rooms’ spiritually, that is, to be alienated from our Heavenly Father, to be cut off and alone” (p. 5). We know that feeling, but we have to be very careful here. That feeling is part of our own self-deception. We tell ourselves that we’ve been sent to our rooms, when we’ve actually locked ourselves in there, screaming through the keyhole at God that His love is something we don’t want to deal with. Del Parson got it wrong, in other words. Christ doesn’t stand calmly outside a door without a handle, knocking patiently to see if we’ll open up. He pounds on the door with one fist and tries desperately to open the handle with the other while we cower in a corner of the room inside with all the furniture pushed up against the door. We couldn’t be more afraid of Jesus, more worried that He’s going to take away all our private desires, frustrate all our beloved fantasies, cancel all our hopes and dreams and wishes. We don’t want His love and grace because they’re too demanding. We want something else: to be left alone.
So let me conclude by introducing the theme I’ll be harping on over and over and over in this series. Robinson ends the first chapter by saying this: “In the grip of such sins and in the midst of guilt and despair, in our terrible aloneness, cut off from God, we raise our eyes to heaven and cry out, ‘Oh, Father, isn’t there any way we can ever be friends again?’” (p. 5). What Robinson makes difficult to hear, due to the way he frames “the great dilemma,” is God’s crucial answer. In response to our over-dramatic plea to the heavens, mostly offered in order to pretend that it’s God who has cut us off, there comes a voice that simply asks: “Are you ready to stop pouting yet?”