What does radical condemnation mean to you?
A friend to whom I had sent a draft of my last post sent me an email with the following question and observations:
I understand the descriptions of the two "mistaken ways" but I don't understand the reference to the way of the cross as "radical condemnation and yet radical grace for all."
... What does "radical condemnation" mean to you?
And having asked that, I went and looked at your revised post on the site, and found that you have added, " readers face the reality of the darkness that lurks within their own being, which can be penetrated and dispelled only by God, who is light".
That reminded me of the statement in your first piece that the first thing we experience when we open to the Light is an awareness of our faults.
Here my own experience differs profoundly from yours. My first experiences of opening were of profound joy, gratitude, and a powerful sense of connectedness and unity with other people through that light. And of course, as you know, I don't experience people as containing darkness which can only be dispelled by God. Yes, we are capable of darkness, and yes, experience of the transcendent can be healing and clarifying, but...
In some ways the question of what I mean by radically condemnation is the easy part. What it points to, for me, is there are other seeds within us besides the seed of Light. In my experience there is something in me that strives to keep me from the Light, and that it lies very deep in the unexplored core of my being. I find myself powerless to remove it or to overcome it. I do know that if, as I become aware of them, I hold pieces of it to the light, they are healed. But that is God's doing and not my doing. So the radical condemnation is the showing us our faults at a deep level. And radical grace is the healing that is available to us once we have seen our faults.
The radical condemnation, especially in situations of conflict as this passage is dealing with, is to all parties. All have taken some piece of the truth and then have twisted it to something that is not the truth, either through pride and self-righteousness, or through wanting to avoid conflict or any of the myriad ways the other seeds have of nudging us out of the Light. We have all fallen short in our own ways, and in that we are condemned. But the grace of God is also available to all of us to heal us and to show us a larger and less partial Truth. We can find unity in having been humbled and having been healed.
There is another issue here that is harder to deal with because I may have only spoken a partial truth and it may not have been congruent with the things of God that I have seen with my own eyes and touched with my own hands. I know that I have been influenced by reading Hugh Barbour's description of the “The Terror and Power of the Light” in his book The Quakers in Puritan England. Perhaps even more than the book itself I have been influenced by people talking about the book. Certainly I have experienced God showing me my faults and healing them. But this is often not our very first experience of God or the Light. Certainly it was not mine. I remember that when I was attending meeting at Cambridge that I likened my experience at meeting to being a cat curled up behind a wood stove just basking in the warmth. This lasted for quite a while and in retrospect I realize that it was a time of strengthening and rest before I began a more active period of spiritual growth.
In fact it makes sense that our first experiences of God should be positive. Otherwise what incentive do we have to stick with it through the hard parts. There is faith that it will get better but that faith is grounded on our previous experiences of the love of God. The experience of the Light showing us our faults is a first step in the process of healing and transformation. But unless we have that personal experience of God's love and care for us, it would be difficult to see love behind our being broken open and being remade. Even Jesus had the experience of being blessed at his baptism before he was led into the wilderness to be tempted.
So my talk about being shown our faults or of radical condemnation is not because I think we are hopelessly evil or incorrigible sinners. It is meant as a corrective to our pride, denial and self-satisfaction. It is similar to the first step in 12 step programs, the recognition that there is a problem and we are powerless before it. The purpose of it is to bring us to a place of humility where we can open ourselves to God's healing love and grace. A more precise formulation would probably be that when God (or the Light, or Christ or the Spirit or ...) begins the work of transforming us, the first thing that happens is that we are shown our faults.
We all create some sort of theological framework to make sense of our spiritual experience. But the frameworks can come to overshadow the experience and rather than helping us to understand what has happened to us, it keeps us from seeing other parts of our experience because that doesn't fit in our framework. This is true for any theological system. Each is limited in its own ways because each is the product of people who are by their nature limited and none can hold the fullness of the experience of God. So we need to hold our theological frameworks lightly, even as we treasure our experiences of God and we need to value the stories of other peoples experiences.
It is also helpful at times to look at our experiences through a different framework. I can look at the same process I described above through a Buddhist lens of the struggle to overcome ego. It is the same struggle but it is described in different language. The Buddhist version may carry less judgmental baggage with it. However I find comfort in the personal images of God found in the Christian tradition as opposed to the atheistic world view of Buddhism.
I don't really have a conclusion to all of this, except perhaps to note that paradox is an integral part of spirituality. It is often necessary to recognize that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true and to just be able to sit with that. Maybe life really is just a Zen koan. Oh, and even when dealing with a koan, it pays to be very careful and precise with your language.