I’ve struggled with what to write in response to chapter 5 of The Problems of Theism and the Love of God. Why? Because, except when it comes to nit-picky details, I’m in full agreement with Ostler for once. Indeed, I applaud this chapter and am eager to see how he moves forward with it in the next chapters.
What to write, then? For fun, I think I’ll just insert here, as a kind of confirmation of what Ostler has to say, my own recent written reflections on Romans 1—a passage he cites on page 162. Here is the passage in its entirety, with my own translation:
It’s immediately within preaching, within the transfer of faith, that divine righteousness is revealed—as it’s written: “The one who’s righteous will live by faith”—while divine wrath is revealed from heaven against all lack of divinity, against all human unrighteousness, against all those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. What’s known of God is manifest among them, because God has made it manifest to them: his eternal power and divine nature—things indiscernible since the creation of the world—have been understood and discerned through the things he’s made. So they’re without excuse. Though they knew God, they didn’t glorify him as God or give thanks to him; rather, they grew vain in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened. In a word, professing wisdom, they became fools. And they have economized God’s glory by making of it so many static images—things resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God handed them over to the impurity they fantasize about, leaving them to dishonor their bodies among themselves—those who in the lusts of their heart replaced God’s truth with the lie and worshiped and served the created in the place of the creator . . . . (Romans 1:17-25.)
Obviously, there is a much to be said about this passage.
To begin, it should be noted that it opens by contrasting two distinct revelations. On the one hand, divine righteousness is immanently revealed in the work of preaching; on the other, divine wrath is transcendently revealed from heaven against human unrighteousness. With Adam Miller [Adam Miller, Badiou, Marion and St Paul: Immanent Grace (New York: Continuum, 2008), 24], I think it best “to assert that these two revelations are, in fact, one. . . . The difference between them is a question of appearance. Whether the revelation is seen as ‘good news’ or as ‘wrath’ depends on the disposition of the person to whom it appears.” There is, in other words, only one revelation, but it is experienced in two drastically distinct ways—as immanent or as transcendent, as God’s righteousness or as God’s anger—depending on one’s relationship to truth. Where truth is preached, where the “transfer of faith” takes place, the revelation is one of God’s righteousness. Where truth is suppressed in unrighteousness, the revelation is—or at least will eventually be—one of God’s anger.
What is the “truth” that human beings suppress in unrighteousness? In a word, that truth is “what’s known of God,” what “God has made . . . manifest,” namely, “his eternal power and divine nature.” It is God’s very nature that human beings suppress in unrighteousness, obscuring his grace and his nearness by regarding him only as a distant and wrathful deity—as a violent sovereign who, from afar, wills only to punish and to make miserable. [See James E. Faulconer, Romans 1: Notes and Reflections (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 73-75.] Why does this truth need to be suppressed? Because, as Paul explains, the truth is something clearly “understood and discerned through the things [God has] made.” The createdness of the world is itself “indiscernible,” but it can nonetheless be readily discerned if one attends with care to what makes up the world. Indeed, the truth is so readily available, according to Paul, that human beings are “without excuse.” Every failure to “glorify . . . God or give thanks to him” is rooted in willful refusal because “they kn[o]w God.” The consequence is that the wicked “gr[o]w vain in their thinking, and their senseless hearts [are] darkened.” Those who pretend to be wise turn out to be fools—fools because they refuse to see what is right under their noses.
The truth, then, is immanent to the world, though the very structure of the world as human beings experience it veils the truth, rendering it indiscernible except as a kind of vague threat of an eventual cataclysm to come at the end of time. Thanks to human unrighteousness—and remember that Paul will go on to claim that “there’s no one who’s righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10)—the truth is displaced into a beyond, being transformed in the process. [Note that Paul thus criticizes in unbelievers precisely what Nietzsche criticizes in believers: the displacement of goodness into the beyond. See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 60-62.] Divine righteousness manifested in the nearness of the kingdom of God becomes divine wrath eventually to be made manifest from the meanwhile silent heavens. Human beings in all their unrighteousness structure their world in a way that will leave no room for God, at least until he finally decides to plunge the world into apocalyptic disaster. People need God to dwell in transcendence so that he does not get in the way of their desires, “the lusts of their heart.” As C. S. Lewis nicely puts it, “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 31.] The truth of God’s love and grace is too much to bear because it might impose limits on one’s pursuit of pleasure, because it might speak ill of one’s impure fantasies.
Ironically, though, the world that human beings assemble in order to keep God out as long as possible can be constructed only of materials God has given to them. Hence, the fully secularized human world is a pastiche of created things, a weave of gifts that severally witness God’s love and grace but that collectively pretend that he is elsewhere and uninterested. Paul puts it this way: “they have economized God’s glory.” In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis portrays an “Intelligent Man” who journeys to heaven only with the hope of bringing back something solid enough to make a fortune: “I’m not going on this trip for my health. As far as that goes I don’t think it would suit me up there. But if I can come back with some real commodities—anything at all that you could really bite or drink or sit on—why, at once you’d get a demand down in our town. I’d start a little business. I’d have something to sell.” [C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 13, emphasis in original.] This is the very structure of the world, of the world as economy. Everything on the market is a gift from God, but it has been transformed into a commodity so that profits accrued can be employed to pursue one’s private desires. In the place of God’s infinite and immanent glory—which has been displaced into the beyond—one finds only “so many static images,” so many idols.
The idol trade human beings thus establish, desperately hoping that the supposedly wrathful heavens remain silent for another generation to allow them to continue in their beloved fantasies, amounts to what Paul calls “the lie,” the lie that replaces “God’s truth” as human beings worship “the created in the place of the creator.” But the lie does not persist and the wrath of God, it turns out, does not wait. God has, according to Paul, already “handed [the unrighteous] over to the impurity they fantasize about, leaving them to dishonor their bodies among themselves.” The event in which “divine wrath is revealed from heaven . . . against all human unrighteousness” thus happens when the prohibitions that give strength to perverse desires are lifted in response to popular demand. And the ironic result is, after a brief period of ecstatic enjoyment, disillusionment and depression. Human beings need prohibitions to enjoy their transgression. The “No!” of the taboo engenders the fantasies that make transgression genuinely enjoyable. [See Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986).] Paul himself explains this point later in the letter to the Romans: “I wouldn’t have known what it is to lust if the law hadn’t said, ‘Thou shalt not lust!’” (Romans 7:7). As one reader of Paul puts it, “the law is what gives life to desire.” [Badiou, Saint Paul, 79.]
Desire stripped of its force at the moment of its fulfillment, fantasies realized but only as utter boredom, transgression deprived of its transgressiveness as the banal order of the day—such is the wrathful revelation the unrighteous see in the messianic deactivation of the Law. Such, in other words, is what the saints in Corinth largely saw in the announcement of the gospel. Recognizing that “all things are lawful,” they were overwhelmed by the possibility of pursuing every perverse fantasy they had ever entertained. But the consequent explosion of perverse activity and frenetic selfishness gave way—or would soon have given way, had Paul not intervened—to ennui, which turns out to be the most tortuous form of God’s wrath. [As Adam Miller says: “Fantasy, fear, and boredom: the hallmarks of sin. Boredom: the hallmark of sin?” Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 12.]
So goes the basic anthropology Paul lays out in his letter to the Romans. Obviously, I have offered here only a thumbnail sketch, focusing only on the first chapter of Paul’s eight-chapters-long discussion. But I believe I have said enough to make the picture relatively clear. There is a perfect reciprocity between human unrighteousness (humans being little more than bundles of transgressive fantasies and impure desires) and the economic order of the world (that order being little more than a market for trading idols). Every idol on offer is a polished mirror in which a transgressive human fantasy adores itself, enjoying the image of transgression much more than the act. The idol, in the words of Jean-Luc Marion, “freezes in a figure that which vision aims at in a glance” and only thus “close[s] the horizon” to keep God’s supposedly wrathful transcendence out of the picture. [Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 26.] Stabilizing the economy of the idol trade, and therefore automatizing the life of transgressive desire, is a set of prohibitions: the Law. But the Law has been rendered inoperative by the messianic event of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and the result is that human beings, trapped in unrighteousness, flounder in ever more deeply affecting boredom. They do so, that is, unless they become righteous, unless they “are made righteous” (“justified,” as the word is usually translated) by faith, delivered (“saved,” as the word is usually translated) by love, and—this is the crucial point—anchored by hope.