Jesus Creed

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Australian Consolation: Despair

posted by xscot mcknight

Many know the experience of despair, the sense that there is “nothing ahead but emptiness and ruin.” The third study of how theology can console in The Consolations of Theology takes on the theme of despair.
How common is Luther’s sense of despair, his Anfechtungen, in the Christian life? Will the brokenness of the world and the crackedness of the Eikon lead to a Christian life that at one time or another, or quite often, lead to this experience?
The chp begins on a wide-ranging sketch of forms of despair in our world and then dives into the experience of Luther with despair, his Anfechtungen. If the first few pages show some pastoral sensitivities, the rest of the chp becomes (too much in my view) a more academic study of Luther’s own experience of Anfechtung. There is little here for anyone other than the one who is going through a conscience-stricken struggle before God. I do think the chp helps us understand Luther; I’m not sure it leads us into the consolation that theology brings for the one sunk in despair.
In other words, the chp is shaped for the one who experiences despair in a spiritual key, who thinks he or she has been abandoned by God, who thinks he or she stands condemned before God, whose theology is narrowly shaped by the justice of God, or the one who sense God is not on your side (from p. 54).
Despair, Thompson states, is the “loss of all hope” (55). Luther experienced this, though Thompson’s sketch of Luther seems to reveal that Luther found his way through each of one of them. So the loss of all hope is more the “seeming” loss of all hope.
Thompson sketches Luther’s famous existential struggle, which he describes as “nothing short of torture” (56). But Luther was offered the sacrament of penance: this was “the legalistic framework in which this opportunity for consolation was presented.” Luther discovers as a lone light in the Reformation that God’s righteousness is a gift. He experienced persecution because he would “oppose the system that long obscured and even contradicted his wonderfully liberating truth” (60).
What comes through strong in this chp is that the existential struggle of Luther (Anfechtung) was that such struggle was normal for the Christian, and Luther questioned the one who had not had this sort of experience. Without it, he said, one does not know the spiritual life. This experience is both the work of God and the work of Satan in Luther’s mind.
Furthermore, this experience led Luther to argue that genuine theology can only emerge out of such experience.
Finally, Thompson suggests that Luther’s response to the Anfechtung was to have a Scriptural word for the accuser and to recognize that a day is coming when the forces behind despair will be eliminated and joy will be our eternal possession.
The problem I had with this chp is that the expansive and pastorally-important themes of despair so prevalent in our culture were sketched and then abandoned for a much more narrow sense of despair, the despair of Luther. I would have liked to see the Luther portion sketched in fewer pages and then a study of how Luther can help Christians who experience various forms of despair.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted July 29, 2008 at 1:46 am


Yes, such could help the likes of me as reflected in my post yesterday.
But reading I. Howard Marshall’s book, “Kept by the Power of God” right now, does give me a sense of danger and adds a bit to a sense of dread. Though I don’t think this mirrors the despair that is prevalent or at least existent in our culture. It is more of a despair of purpose or hope. Involving living as broken Eikons in a broken and lost world. And feeling all of that. And coping with it in all kinds of ways.
Certainly a different form than what Luther experienced.



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RJS

posted July 29, 2008 at 9:41 am


I don’t think that Luther’s form of despair – despair arising from conviction of guilt and judgment is very common in the church today – at least not in affluent North America and similar environments. This then colors our appreciation and understanding of theology, gospel, and atonement. I would guess that despair arises more from a deep sense of futility, isolation, and abandonment, than from conviction of guilt and fear of judgment and punishment.
Is there any reason to expect a uniform Christian experience and understanding of gospel?



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Scot McKnight

posted July 29, 2008 at 11:05 am


RJS,
I don’t think we should experience a uniform experience, but the fact is that several pockets in the evangelical church today — charismatic, neo-Reformed, holiness types, convertive evangelicalism — do expect a uniform experience. And, in fact, often look askew at anyone without that experience.



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RJS

posted July 29, 2008 at 11:48 am


Does the lack of a uniform experience also lead to different understandings of gospel and atonement – not radical differences but differences in flavor or emphasis? Perhaps, in fact, this ok, only to be expected, and part of the plan.
On the topic of “Losing Faith” (ok from yesterday not today) — I think that the expectation of uniform experience is often a factor that leads to loss of faith – because the reality of the faith is tied to the expected experience. Something I’ve wrestled with anyway.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 29, 2008 at 12:01 pm


RJS,
Yes, there are correlations between expected experience and gospel presentation and atonement. The Reformers, in order to create the sense of the need for grace and an abject sense of unworthiness, often preached sin, law, and the holiness of God. This framing of the gospel has its impact on what one sees as important in the atonement. Charismatic, mutatis mutandi.
Yes, there is some correlation — not a big one though — between expectation and loss of faith. It operates more often than not at the teenager level where the one without the experience does not fit. I could go on.



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RJS

posted July 29, 2008 at 12:32 pm


Well this conversation is way off the topic of “despair” but came up because of the comments in the post (from the book I assume) that:
(1) Luther thought such struggle was normal
(2) Luther questioned the one who had not had this sort of experience.
(3) Without it, he said, one does not know the spiritual life.
(4) Luther argued that genuine theology can only emerge out of such experience.
While Anfechtungen was not the issue, the theme was rampant in the form of evangelicalism in which I was raised. The overwhelming theme was more like:
(1) A warm fuzzy emotional conversion experience is normal.
(2) One who has not had one is probably not a Christian.
(3) Without the concrete experience of conversion one does not really know the spiritual life.
(4) Genuine theology only emerges from the conversion experience.
This caused frequent doubt or magnified other troubling factors. I am sure that we could come up with other variants. Personally, I think it may be a larger factor in loss of faith than you realize – at least for those from some kinds of traditions. And of course I know that you did discuss this in Turning to Jesus.



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Abby

posted July 29, 2008 at 8:44 pm


Having done a bit of studying on anfechtungen, I think understanding how despair informs and is consoled by theology begins with a recognition of how Luther’s theologia crucis was so intertwined with his suffering.



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