On not Imagining Redemption

Jacob's Ladder by William Blake, sort of how I try (not) to imagine redemption

Blake, Jacob’s Ladder. Like the redemption you can’t imagine, you can’t see where the ladder is going.

All the “me toos” on Facebook remind me of certain aspects of Judaism I admire and sometimes envy, particularly the willingness to let evil and suffering just be evil and horrible without trying to fit it into a narrative of redemption, or at least not any redemption that one presumes to be able to imagine yet. Because there is nothing good, beautiful, or redemptive about any of this.

It takes a very appealing sort of courage and hope to live with evil that is just evil, and still say baruch atta adonai. I think this is why, for example, there’s never been much enthusiasm for rebuilding the temple, quite apart from the practical difficulties that would attend such a project. Until the Messiah comes, rabbinical Judaism doesn’t presume to know what a redeemed world would look like (and the Messiah could probably rebuild the temple without destroying the dome) [Jewish friends: please feel very welcome to offer correction to this characterization of your religion, should you find it warranted].

It’s not that we Christians are incapable of that sort of hope and courage, or that we’re wrong to say that an event in the past has truly redeemed the world, even if that redemption is not visible yet (otherwise I’d be deciding whether to convert to Judaism or Islam). Our scripture (Jesus and Paul to be sure, 1 John,, and even Revelation–the images of the New Jerusalem seem designed to thwart any attempt at visualization) and our best theologians (the Cappadocians, the eastern desert and western vernacular mystical traditions, Augustine and Luther in their better moods, pretty much all of black theology), poets, and preachers know that redemption is a way through the horror of the universe as we see it, not a way out, and that whatever we imagine God wanting to give us is too little. But it is (perhaps for good reasons) not usually the dominant theme, especially in American Christianity, which was always destined to birth the prosperity gospel.

The prosperity gospel is an abomination, perhaps the abomination that maketh desolate. But its flaw is not that it proclaims that God wants us to have something, or even everything we could possibly want. Its problem is that it doesn’t want enough. It wants a nice house, a high-paying job with prestige and influence, and a spouse from a fashion advertisement. It’s like wanting some nasty packaged cracker mostly made of high-fructose corn syrup, when God “should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat: and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee” (Ps. 81:16). The real food doesn’t even appeal when all you know is processed crap. Likewise, God offers us hope and courage to wait for redemption that is more than all we can ask or imagine, but we–and not just the prosperity crowd–want a Disney-fied Happy Ever After so that the story will have been heart-warming. But that makes the suffering necessary for the happy ending. (And even the German fairy tales don’t promise a happy ever after, just the much more equivocal “And if they haven’t died yet, then they’re still alive today.”)

There is nothing redemptive about sexual assault, or earthquakes and hurricanes, or even the cross. There is only redemption in the one who was crucified, and who now lives, and death has no more dominion over him. So yes, there will be redemption of some unimaginable sort. But while the world still lies in the power of the devil (1 John 5:19), there is just survival and resistance, courage and hope.