Ted Grimsrud—May 6, 2021
I have titled this post “Metaphysical Therapy.” When I look up the word “metaphysics,” I read this: “the term is not easily defined.” So, I thought maybe I should find a new title. But I read on: “metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions—‘what is there?’ and ‘what is it like?’” I thought, well, that is what I want to write about.
We who believe compassion, nonviolence, and restorative justice should be central for social life face challenges. Our American culture doesn’t seem hospitable to these beliefs. Our culture tends more toward cruelty, violence, and retributive justice. A lot of the problems may stem from our metaphysics. That is, the problems may stem from what we believe reality to be like. Is the world ultimately a friendly place or unfriendly? Is life to be lived with a mentality of abundance or of scarcity? Is violence part of our nature or not? Is this “little round planet,” as Bruce Cockburn asks, “blessed” or “cursed”?
If the nature of the universe points toward scarcity, we can’t but be required to be stingy, to cling to what we have, and to view human relationships in conflictual terms. Our basic stance, with good reason, will need to be fearful. But, if the nature of the universe points toward abundance, then it makes more sense, and is more natural, to be generous, trusting, and vulnerable in our relationships. “Metaphysical therapy,” then, seeks to heal our understanding of reality—to move us from fearfulness to trust. I will suggest that such metaphysical therapy is a central part of Jesus’s ministry. His message always challenges our view of the nature of reality.
The way things are
Here are a few passages that illustrate how Jesus’s portrayal of the way things truly are fits with the rest of the Bible.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice! If you should mark our sins, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you. In your word I hope; my soul waits for you more than those who watch for the morning. For with you there is steadfast love, and with you is great power to redeem. Psalm 130
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Yet Israel kept sacrificing to idols. It was I who taught Israel to walk. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. But they may return to the land of Egypt because they have refused to return to me. Still, how can I give you up, O Israel? How can I treat you like Sodom? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. Hosea 11
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming in lofty words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet we do speak wisdom, though not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age. We speak God’s wisdom. None of the rulers of this age understood this wisdom; if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed to us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by the wisdom of this age but taught by God’s Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2
There was a man who had two sons. The younger said, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” The father did so, and the son traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered it all on wild living. Then a severe famine hit, and he was in need. He hired himself to feed pigs. When he came to himself, he said, “My father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will ask him to hire me as a servant since I am no longer worthy to be called his son.” So, he headed home. While he was still far off, his father saw him. Filled with compassion, the father ran and embraced his son and kissed him. The son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quickly, give him a robe—the best one—and sandals. Get the fatted calf and let us celebrate; my son was dead and is alive; lost and is found!” When the elder brother approached, he heard music and dancing. He asked what was going on. “Your brother has come, and your father prepared the fatted calf to celebrate.” This brother became angry and refused to go in. When his father came to plead with him, he responded, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours comes back, who has devoured your property, you prepared the fatted calf for him!” The father said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we must celebrate; your brother has returned from the dead.” Luke 15:11-32
Is our only response to evil to be violent?
Some years ago, I learned all I could about World War II and its legacy and wrote a book about it, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters. I found myself filled with grief—certainly for all the lives destroyed or severely damaged by that war, but also that that terrible, terrible event has such a positive image in our society.
Kathleen and I went to Oregon while I was writing to visit family and friends. We talked a lot about my research. One person, when I said I was working to understand World War II, and that it’s challenging, kind of snorted and said, “What’s so hard? Responding to evil is not that complicated.” He meant, obviously the Nazis and Japanese were evil. We had no choice but to wage total war on them and stop the evil. What seems too obvious to my friend seemed less and less obvious to me the more I learned. Is it obvious that when evil acts occur massive violence is the best response? Must we destroy big chunks of the world in order to save the world?
Partly, this is about metaphysics. How do we understand reality? Is the universe the kind of place where we simply have to fight evil with evil? Is it the kind of place where goodness is scarce and the little bit of freedom and truth we can achieve requires brute force to protect it? Is it the kind of place where, when our leaders say, fight!, we must simply say, “let me at ’em”?
There is a famous story in philosophy. It’s actually one of those stories that no one really knows whether it truly happened. But it conveys something important that makes it truthful even if it’s simply a myth. Some big time philosopher is lecturing and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.
This is the issue with mercy and compassion. Can it possibly be mercy all the way down? In many views of reality, both theistic and atheistic, mercy must rest on something else—call it retributive justice or holiness, the notion that wrongdoing requires punishment or else the very moral fabric of the universe will be torn apart. Let’s call this a metaphysics of redemptive violence. With such a metaphysics, the only way to find salvation from evil is to destroy it with force. The nature of the universe leads us to imitate Lamech’s logic from Genesis 4: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (4:23-24).
Lamech’s logic found expression in President Harry Truman’s justification for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II: “Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.” Truman’s statement is full of terrible irony. The bombing of a defenseless Japan in 1945—not only the nukes but also unlimited firebombing of almost all of Japan’s main cities (for example, 80,000 residents of Tokyo were burned to death in one night)—this bombing probably actually exceeded Lamech’s seventy-sevenfold revenge.
This “good war,” nonetheless, remains the moral centerpiece of American history. As President Obama himself asserted in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the need to wage total war in World War II validates the belief that war and the preparation for war remain necessary today (even if sadly so).
I think these convictions reflect a metaphysics of redemptive violence (which is actually a metaphysics of bondage to violence; as one old friend of mine, a great warrior for peace, used to say, “in the end, a just war is still just war”). These convictions underscore the importance of Jesus’s witness to something very different. We pay attention to Jesus—we must pay attention to Jesus—most of all because he provides us with therapy to heal our death-dealing understanding of reality.
Jesus challenges the violent metaphysics
Jesus’s alternative metaphysics provide the angle I want to take as I reflect on his story about the two sons and their merciful father. Let’s start with the context for Jesus telling this story. The gospel of Luke tells of the early days of Jesus’s public witness. He heals, teaches of God’s great mercy, brings together a community of peacemakers. And then bumps up against some powerful forces of resistance.
At the end of Luke nine, it’s as if the background music moves to a minor key. A sense of foreboding becomes palpable. “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). He set his face to head toward the cross. The focus of the story changes. Jesus centers his energies on preparing his followers to live with persevering love, to live lives of resistance to the violence of empire and established religion, and to live with clarity about the nature of Jesus’s messianic work—not revolutionary violence but revolutionary compassion.
He repeats over and over: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus’s way is to share his fate—persecution, hostility, and even death at the hands of the rulers of this age who accept a metaphysics of redemptive violence and do not hesitate to destroy any who challenge their status.
This conflict provides the context for the story of the two sons. In Luke 14 Jesus speaks of the cost of discipleship. We must notice what’s at the center of discipleship—compassion and welcome, not judgmentalism and self-righteousness. We read at the beginning of chapter 15: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus” (15:1). The point is not: you will suffer because of how you condemn sinners. Rather, it’s this: You will suffer when you share in Jesus’s compassion and welcome.
We next read: “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (15:2). Not one to back down from confrontation, Jesus challenges this grumbling head on. He jumps right into it and tells two stories to make his intentions clear. His mission is mercy. He exults at the healing embraced by outcasts. You have the lost sheep and the lost coin; in both cases when what was lost is found people are delighted. Note here something else about “taking up the cross.” It is linked with joy and celebration!
A profound expression of compassion
To make sure he’s not being misunderstood, Jesus then launches into a longer parable. The two sons of a merciful father. Let’s read this parable in light of its conflictual context. And remember the other great parable I wrote about, the “good Samaritan.” In that parable, Jesus provokes the grumblers by making an objectionable character (a member of the hated Samaritan people) the model of neighborliness. Here, Jesus does something similar. He gives his listeners a character they would be certain to find outrageous—the younger son who essentially spits in the eye of all believers in the established religious tradition.
This younger son pushes his father’s metaphysics to its limits. He gives the father every excuse to write him completely out of the family. You can imagine an adolescent feeling his oats, feeling also perhaps a bit repressed by the traditions of his family. He wants out, to spread his wings, finally to have a good time.
However, the younger son crosses several lines in leaving the family. He asks his father for his inheritance—in effect, treating his father as already dead to him, as nothing more than merely a bank machine, a source of wealth to empower the young man’s narcissism. The father relents, and the son heads for the bright lights and before long meets with disaster. He squanders the wealth and, equally offensively, ends up wallowing with the pigs (a final repudiation of the traditions of his people who saw pigs as inherently unclean).
Then the key moment comes—the son turns back toward home. We aren’t given details, just that the son “comes to himself.” Mainly, it seems, it’s just that he hits bottom. In his misery, he realizes he has an alternative to starvation: go back to his father’s estate and live as a servant (he recognizes he has forfeited his status as his father’s son). Amazingly, though (and remember how this would offend so many sensibilities), the father’s metaphysical assumptions were stressed to their limits, but they were not changed. The father rejects a metaphysics of redemptive violence. He denies the need to repay his son’s evil with punishment and retributive justice.
“While the son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him…. Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate” (15:20-24).
Yes, an amazing story. The father’s metaphysics are not about mercy resting on the back of some deeper bedrock of justice-as-fairness and the need to punish wrongdoing to re-establish the moral equilibrium. No, the father’s metaphysics are about mercy all the way down.
A challenge to the metaphysics of mercy
Edifying and challenging as the father’s embrace of the wayward son is, we must nonetheless remember that the story does not end there. We must remember that Jesus tells this story in the context of an intense, even life-and-death, conflict. The older brother now enters the scene. He’s really a stand in for the “grumblers”—and probably most of us, at least part of the time, truth be told. He insists that the welcome of his brother is unfair. The old brother has truly been faithful. He stayed home, treated his father with respect, and he feels taken for granted. Worse, he feels disrespected and offended. What kind of world will this be if the younger son can do whatever he wants, with impunity, and still be welcomed back into the father’s embrace?
The father pleads with the older brother, trying to reassure him. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31). Can’t you join with me in celebrating your formerly dead brother’s return to life? Here the story ends. We don’t know how the older brother will respond.
To the extent that the older brother stands in for the rulers of the age in Jesus’s day, we know their response will be to execute Jesus. They will reject his metaphysics of mercy. And the cycle of violence continues in our day. However, the story—like all great stories—comes anew to each successive audience. None of us are bound to respond with callousness to the mercy offered to prodigal sons. None of us are bound to remain within a metaphysics of redemptive violence.
We each have our own mixture of motives for paying attention to Jesus. Hopefully one reason is that we recognize that we too need his therapy. We too need the strength his message and his Spirit offer us to help us break free from the dynamics of death in our world and to turn toward life.