It had been a hard day for the minister, this third day of a week-long retreat. He had looked forward to this week as a break away from his hectic parish schedule. He had felt the need to stop for a while and reflect on what he had been doing in his ministry, what it meant to him, and where it seemed to be leading him. But instead of a relaxing and peaceful review of his life, he found himself facing questions he could more easily avoid in the active ministry: Was this really a valuable service to others? Was he just giving people what they wanted, or was he challenging them, helping them to grow and mature in their faith? Was he growing? Did he feel really close to anyone, or was his work consuming him?
He was mulling over these things after dinner when word came that the parish deacon was there to see him. He could think only that something had happened in the parish because the deacon was covering for him while he was away. Typical, he thought, even when you try to take some time off, something always comes up that only you can handle. He felt the parish and his ministry tightening in on him as he went to the front of the retreat house. What the deacon had come to tell him was that the minister’s younger brother had committed suicide.
The brothers came from a family of four boys. Their father worked two jobs and their mother was often ill. She had to be taken care of by the children more often than she could take care of them. As a result, the boys grew up to be very self-reliant and independent. They didn’t experience a great deal of personal attention or favor from either parent. The boys’ determination paid off. The oldest son excelled in school and won a full college scholarship. His success put pressure on the rest of the boys to do likewise.
After high school and a couple of years working, the next son decided he would enter the ministry. In his family such a choice was highly valued because they were very devout Christians and tried to live faithful, hard-working, humble lives. Everyone was very proud of him and reinforced his decision all through the seminary years. Everyone except his younger brother, but then he seemed to react against all his brothers. He did not do well in school; he couldn’t keep a job; and he didn’t seem to want to. He had some friends but none of the relationships lasted. Now in his mid-twenties, he had been drinking more and more and was suspected of getting into drugs as well.
The minister-brother felt a special responsibility toward him. After all, he had dedicated his life to helping people in crisis, and he had acquired both skill and experience in doing so. And yet, it was more difficult to approach his own brother. He didn’t want to invade his privacy, and he didn’t want to come on as a moralizing clergyman. If the truth be told, he really didn’t know what to say anyhow. Most of the things he heard himself saying when he imagined talking to his brother felt like artificial piety or religious jargon. You ought to have a purpose in your life; God has a destiny or plan for each of us; you don’t do yourself or anyone else a favor by taking drugs; you’re a good person with many gifts.
Imagining himself saying those things made the minister-brother realize how much he had been resisting, sometimes even rejecting, the typical style of ministry he had been trained in. He wondered if he was also rejecting the Christian way or style of life. The two were so closely connected for him, and he was not sure where he stood with either one right now. So he hesitated to speak to his brother because he wasn’t sure he could be helpful, and he might have to face some things in his own life that he would rather avoid.
Recognizing all this, he decided to make this retreat. He felt it would give him the chance to sort out his feelings, to claim what he saw as valid and meaningful and leave the rest aside. That might even mean leaving the ministry altogether and he was prepared for that. He was prepared for just about anything except the news of his brother’s suicide.
The deacon sat with him while the minister tried to sort through his reactions. He couldn’t believe that his brother felt so badly about himself. He asked the deacon if he was sure it was suicide; maybe he had accidentally overdosed if he were using drugs. There was no accident. The brother had left a clear suicide note explaining that he could not find any purpose in his life to keep going. He knew he was troublesome to others; so why make or keep everybody unhappy? The shock of the news alternated with strong feelings of guilt. The minister kept asking himself why he didn’t recognize that his brother was so bad off. Did his preoccupation with his own ministerial crisis blind him to the signals his brother was sending? He knew from his training and from some occasional experience that people inclining to suicide usually give indications before they act. Why didn’t someone pick them up in this case? Why didn’t he?
His feelings of guilt made him aware again of how responsible we are for one another and how much we depend on one another for support, guidance, truth, purpose. He knew he was in need of some reinforcement in his ministry, and he looked to others to provide it; but he seemed to miss his brother’s need, or if he sensed it, he didn’t respond adequately. It made him feel very fragile and helpless.
His thoughts also turned to God and especially to how God would judge his brother. He never did believe that God was a stern, demanding judge who would punish people if their wrongs deserved it. (One of the views discussed in chapter two.) On the other hand, to take his own life, the brother had to feel pretty worthless. Had he rejected God? Did he turn his back on the opportunities God may have offered him to find meaning? His suicide was deliberate, a choice he had made. How responsible was he for that choice? How accountable before God? Just then the minister realized that he’d better head for home.
As the minister reflected on his feelings about his brothers suicide, two thoughts kept recurring: our responsibility for one another and God’s judgment of how well we fulfill that responsibility. People who believe in immortality may think about God’s judgment when any death occurs, it’s part of the unknown dimension of death that makes us suspenseful, nervous, anxious, fearful. But a suicide makes us aware, in a way that other death experiences don’t, how interdependent we are. Like it or not, we are tied in with each other and we affect the way another person lives — and dies.
This responsibility moves between two extremes. At one extreme each person is considered solely responsible for every choice, action, decision, etc., that is made. This attitude presupposes a very self-contained, isolated, almost stoic understanding of the human person and works against any involvement or influence from outside the person as through family, church, society. On this end of the spectrum, there is not much chance for community or sharing or relationship.
At the other extreme no one has much personal responsibility for what happens. Indeed, individuals aren’t allowed to make personal choices or decisions. The community or church or society predetermines everything. Individuals are one with the larger group; their identity coincides with the identity of the whole. Everyone is responsible and no one is responsible.
Most people find themselves between these two extremes. There are shaping influences from outside of us that minimize our responsibility, either for ourselves or for others. We cannot usurp another person’s responsibility for self-direction. While no one of us is completely autonomous, neither are we completely determined. In the realm of interaction, interrelation, interdependence, we face the difficult question: How responsible are we for one another, not in the abstract, but in the concrete, with this person, for this action or decision?
Our ambiguity oftentimes about our responsibility gives greater weight to God’s judgment. Presumably, God is not ambiguous. God knows exactly what our responsibility is in every situation. Maybe we should have known more clearly too. Or maybe we were very clear but wrong. How understanding is God? And how merciful? If we have shirked our responsibility, if we have simply not developed our sense of responsibility, if we have failed to carry it out fully, what will happen? What will God do about it?
So the question of God’s judgment ultimately is, for us, a question of reward and punishment. If there were no personal outcome, we wouldn’t care that much what God’s judgment is. Or if we felt that everything would be worked out in this life, we could expect to “get what we deserve,” and we would have a pretty good idea what that would be in terms of human experience in this life. But things don’t seem to work out completely in this life. Too many good and innocent people suffer while too many dishonest and selfish people get what they want. These observations, coupled with a belief in immortality, give rise to the expectation that right and wrong, responsibility and irresponsibility will finally be taken care of in the next life. And that means that God’s judgment has everlasting effects.
For some, this prospect is a major stimulus for the way they live. For others, it has no bearing at all. Underlying either view is a particular understanding of God and how God operates. It is preeminently the task of theology to express our best understanding of God and how God operates in order to clarify what our responsibilities are and what we may expect to happen when we fulfill them and when we don’t.
A typical theology of judgment presupposes that we are responsible for our actiondecisions. (This strange word is used here to convey the idea that our decisions must be enacted to become actual, and also to avoid looking at actions as isolated acts, apart from the whole context of deciding which produces them.) This in turn presupposes that we are free to act even though our freedom is conditioned by the influence of both limitation and sin (as discussed in chapter two). When we fail to exercise our freedom responsibly, we sin. When this actually is the case and when it is not must be decided through moral discernment. The intent of this reflection is not on deciding when freedom is used responsibly in given instances and when it isn’t. The interest is rather in clarifying how God judges our actiondecisions and what results from that judgment.
A typical theology of judgment affirms that the ultimate judgment of a person’s life, like the brother who committed suicide, is made by God, but that God exercises this judgment through Jesus. This is part of what is implied in the title, Jesus as Lord. To be Lord means that Jesus is the embodiment, the fulfillment, the perfection of God’s relationship in human life. Because of this, Jesus as Lord is the norm by which everyone else is judged, for we are all meant to be as fully the embodiment, the fulfillment, the perfection of God’s relationship in our human life as Jesus was in his. None of us can be more perfect than Jesus; therefore, Jesus is the standard by which our perfection is measured.
Typically, theology tries to express this by drawing upon both philosophical and biblical sources, just as it does when explaining immortality and resurrection. Corresponding to the immortality of the soul, as depicted by the Greek philosophers, there is a particular judgment immediately after death. Because of the image of the soul leaving the body, this judgment seems to be a judgment of the soul only. And yet, it is the final, unchanging, everlasting judgment rendered by God through Jesus as Lord. Presumably, the soul enters the state it is judged worthy of, even though the body is yet to be resurrected and reunited with it.
Corresponding to the resurrection of the dead, as depicted graphically by the Jewish Scriptures, there is a general judgment at the end of the world. Because of the imagery of resurrection, this judgment clearly appears as a judgment of the whole person and of all persons together. It, too, is final, unchanging, and everlasting, rendered by God through Jesus as Lord, as narrated in Matthew 25:31-46.
Borrowing in this way from these two sources obviously creates some problems. There appear to be two judgments: the particular judgment at the end of each person’s life, involving the soul only, and the general judgment at the end of the world, involving the whole person and all people. The latter appears to be a duplication of the former with nothing essentially added to the judgment, although there is the addition of the resurrected body to the soul and the public character to the previous, private judgment. These are not insignificant additions to the event, but they do not add to the judgment unless the immediate, particular judgment is incomplete without the general, public judgment. But in that case, what state is the soul in, separated from the body between the particular and general judgment? It would seem more consistent to say with the biblical Jews that the whole person dies and awaits resurrection and judgment.
The heart of the problem is trying to make compatible two different views that really are not compatible. If theology follows the Greek notion consistently, then the body is not included in the afterlife, and trying to find a way to keep the soul in readiness for this reunion just won’t work. On the other hand, if theology follows the Jewish notion, the bodysoul is kept in readiness for the final resurrection, but that doesn’t seem compatible with our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection as an immediate event and its implied promise that we too are united with him when we die. It is clear that theology wants to affirm that each person and all people are judged by God through Jesus as Lord. When and how this takes place is not as clearly worked out when both the philosophical and biblical traditions are put side by side,
In one sense this is not the primary concern with judgment. It is the outcome that counts. Here, typical theology affirms two ultimate possibilities: heaven or hell, with some prospect of an interim state (purgatory) between the time of our death and our full entrance into heaven. For many people today neither the interim state nor hell are taken seriously as possibilities.
The notion of an interim state never did achieve complete acceptance in the church’s history and is not widely affirmed at the present time. Partly this is due to the way it has been depicted and partly due to its rationale. The depiction of the interim state as hell-with-an-end strikes most modern people as fanciful. The standard graphic images are not very fearsome and do not constitute the essence of this view in any event. For that reason, some contemporary theologians have tried to recast this notion in terms more compatible with our outlook on life today.
We all experience change through maturation, crisis, choice, accident, etc. Changing from one condition to another is often painful, as when a child goes through adolescence, or when a spouse adjusts to the death or divorce of another, or when adults enter the aging process. Extrapolating from these experiences, some theologians envision our transition from this life to the next as another painful movement. The experience may not be radically unlike those just mentioned. The degree of pain involved depends on our whole past life. We move more or less easily into the afterlife depending on how we moved through our present life: generously or selfishly, inclusive of others or exclusive, open or closed to newness, freely or predetermined. In experiencing this interim movement, we are experiencing the outcome of our lives, and the passage is a kind of purgation or cleansing of the aspects of our lives that in fact keep us from entering fully into God’s relationship with us.
In this way, theologians try to preserve the meaning of the interim state without being bound to some of the imagery associated with it in the past. At the same time, they are trying to recover the rationale for the interim state in the first place. That is, we are responsible for what we do in this life. If we don’t fulfill our responsibilities now, we will have to later. This was originally proposed in terms of temporal punishment due to sin. Some abusive practices grew up around this notion, and the impression was given that people could buy their own or another’s way out of the interim state. Moreover, the whole idea seemed to undercut the universal salvific effect of Jesus (which shall be discussed in chapter seven).
Theologians who are rethinking the interim state are trying to integrate this part of the tradition with insights from modern psychology and human-development studies. If we are responsible for what we do in life, how do we compensate for irresponsible actiondecisions? What do we do about those acts of irresponsibility that we can’t really reverse or can’t adequately make up for once they’re done? Does God merely overlook them? Are we cut off from heaven forever because of them? Some kind of interim solution would seem called for if these acts are neither to be simply dismissed (which would call into question how responsible/accountable we really are) nor to deny us our destiny forever.
Whether an interim state described in terms of a personal passage, which is more or less easy depending on how responsibly we have lived our lives, is convincing or not is an open question. Certainly the imagery and rationale for such a transitional state is more coherent than the typical understanding of purgatory. In any event, this is an interim state. It is the final state that people are really concerned about, and many find it hard to take hell seriously. The primary reason for this is trying to understand how an all-good, loving, merciful God could condemn a person to hell forever. A secondary reason is, once again, the imagery often used to depict hell.
A typical theology affirms the possibility of hell because it takes with utmost seriousness our freedom to act responsibly or not. This freedom seems to imply that we are free to say yes or no to God. If we say no, that is our choice. And God respects our freedom. Consequently, hell is a logical and necessary implication of freedom. While affirming this point in this way, theology typically hastens to add that there is no certainty that any human being actually is in hell. However it is depicted and however necessary it seems to be as a corollary to our freedom, hell is only a possibility for typical theology — a real possibility, but not necessarily an actualized one. That knowledge is finally God’s. But if there is anyone in hell, it is not because God put the person there. God’s judgment is only a ratification of the person’s actual life. We are not consigned to hell; we choose our way into hell . . . and into heaven.
A typical theology is more assertive about people being in heaven, Some persons are designated as saints by name, and there is a long-standing reference to the communion of saints. That affirmation is very appealing. The description of heaven, however, often is not. Like the general description of immortality in chapter three, heaven as it is usually imaged seems uneventful, abstract, unappealing, boring. The most concrete references are those that are least likely to be real: pearly gates, St. Peter’s list, trumpet blasts, angel wings, etc. Even the beatific vision seems rather static, like looking at something bright for all eternity.
To be sure, there are other attempts to describe the experience of heaven that are more exciting and draw upon our best human experiences in this life. But so much of our thinking is influenced by the Greek ideals of contemplation, changelessness, spirit, transcendence that we find it hard to imagine heaven in other ways. A relational view can help us do that, and maybe see judgment, responsibility, the interim state, and hell a little differently too.
In a completely relational approach, such as the one being developed in this book, God is involved in everything that happens. As described in chapter one, this means that God knows completely everything and everyone that is actual, e.g., the brother who committed suicide. God’s complete knowledge is operative at two levels. God knows everything there is to know about the brother, and God relates that knowledge to everything else that is actual. This twofold knowledge frames the understanding of immortality and resurrection, as presented in chapters three and four. It also grounds the explanation of judgment.
God’s judgment is God’s perfect knowledge of the brother and of the brother’s relationship to everything else God knows. God’s knowledge or judgment of the brother is a particular, immediate, personal judgment. It is God’s experience of this man both at every moment of his life and as a completed, finalized, definite person at his death. This judgment of God is couched in the context of all the possibilities that the brother had for becoming who he finally turned out to be. As explained earlier, God experiences every event fully and sees in that event all the possibilities that could flow from it for subsequent, continuous experience. When God sees these possibilities, they are ranked from the best to the worst.
God’s ranking may be called a valuation. God offers it in various forms of communication and awaits the actual response, in this case of the brother. Whatever the response is, God experiences it completely, draws all the next possibilities from it, ranks them, and offers them for future enactment. The actual response of the brother is more or less compatible or congruent with the ranking God envisioned. God’s determination of whether a given response is more or less harmonious with God’s valuation may be called an evaluation or judgment.
God’s particular judgment is comprised of both the valuation and evaluation. The valuation of possibilities is what God sees and desires for the brother; the evaluation is what the brother actually chooses, including all the particular factors involved in how he chooses and enacts this possibility rather than that one. Two points are worth noting in this explanation. One is that what God wills for each person is ongoing and constantly developing. It is shaped in and by the relationship God has with the brother. What God wills is partly determined by what the brother does. That is, God always wills what is best for the brother given the brother’s actual development up to that point. Only God always sees what is best, but God sees only what Is best relative to actual conditions. The second point in this view is that God’s judgment is inclusive. God relates to everything that is actual. Whatever the brother does, God experiences it as it is. Nothing is rejected or discarded or pushed outside of God’s experience. God evaluates it for what it is and for what it can lead to (valuation). One of the attributes of God is that God can draw out of every experience and every event some new possibility for life. Obviously, some events yield very little (as we saw in chapter two). God can see, do, feel only what is actually present in any given relationship, but God does see, do, feel all that is present. The relative degree of what is present varies, but God’s evaluation of it is always inclusive. In this sense, it may also be said to be positive, as long as “positive” covers a range of degrees.
The evaluation of the brother’s actiondecisions relative to God’s prior valuation of the brother’s possibilities expands when it is put In relation to everything else God knows and evaluates. This may be considered as the general judgment. It is general in the sense that God sees the value of this event, the brother’s actiondecision, in relation to everything else which is actual, i.e., everything else that has ever happened. It is also general in the sense that this event affects to some degree the general accumulation; it affects it quantitatively by adding one more experience to the whole, and It affects it qualitatively by being the actual experience it is.
Clearly, only God can form this type of general judgment. If we were to speculate, we might say that the brother’s actiondecision to commit suicide was not the best possibility God envisioned for him. Nonetheless, it was one possibility that God also envisioned and presumably ranked as the least desirable. The brother is free, however, and once he has actualized his choice, God experiences everything that makes it what it is. From our perspective, it has minimal value and yields minimal possibilities for new experiences. It has a minimum evaluation.
Relative to everything else that has happened, this minimal event may have slightly more value. That is, it is conceivable that some action decisions have been worse and contributed less to God’s experience and the world’s. In that case, the general judgment might yield a different result, and an event with minimal value in itself (i.e., in relation to its own possibilities) might have greater value in relation to the whole. The complete judgment includes both levels.
It should be noted, however, that the general judgment as described here is never absolutely final. As new events occur, their actual experience is added to the whole. The general evaluation or ordering of actual events to one another is constantly changing, both quantitatively and qualitatively. So the general judgment is always all-inclusive and ongoing. This is simply the equivalent notion regarding judgment that we saw in the last chapter regarding general resurrection.
The evaluation, although changing, is always positive. This means that its value (such as it is) can never be decreased or diminished. It can only be Increased. If a less valuable experience is added, relative to that, the previous experience is evaluated more highly. If a comparable experience is added, It reinforces what value Is already there. And if a more valuable experience is added, it accentuates the value that is there in the previous experience; it affirms all that is in that experience even though there is more of value in the new experience. The more pertains only to the new experience; it does not give a corresponding “less” to the previous experience.
One further point to note here. God’s general judgment includes everything that has already occurred, but this is not confined to those who have died. Every experience in a person’s life once the experience occurs is included, even though the person is still living. This has an important implication for the notion of intercession and leads to a discussion of the interim state.
The brother’s evaluation relative to his own possibilities is set, but his evaluation relative to everything else is always open to change as long as there are new events occurring that are added to the whole. One source of new events in this case is the minister’s feelings and response (actiondecisions) to his brother. If he has negative responses, anger, exclusiveness, etc. (as the woman in the previous chapter), he will not contribute much to the general evaluation of his brother. However, if he is accepting, understanding, caring, then he will contribute more to the general evaluation of his brother.
In the first instance, the brother’s own minimal contribution would be reinforced. In the second instance, the brother’s minimal contribution would be put in a different relation; whatever its positive value, it would be enhanced, strengthened, affirmed. In terms of the explanation of immortality in chapter three, the minister would be giving the brother back to himself in a way and to a degree that the brother had not himself chosen to do. In this light, the value of praying for the dead, of remembering others positively, of uniting ourselves with one another in the best sense we are aware of, all have real, contributing value. In this same light, we can begin to see how a relational view might interpret the intercessory role of Jesus’ earthly life, a topic that will be discussed in chapter seven.
Does the same type of influence work the other way? Do those who have died intercede for the living, as the grandmother in chapter one expected to do? This is more difficult to affirm in a relational view because those who have died do not generate new events. And yet, in terms of the explanation of immortality in chapter three, after death a person exists for the world. What does this mean? God derives new possibilities from the actual world that has already occurred. Included in that actual world are those who died, with their personal evaluation and (changing) general evaluation. Each new event is a response to possibilities that God offers from the actual world. Usually this means from the actual world most relevant to the new event.
In the case of human persons, those who were directly in relationship with one another while alive would be some of the most relevant sources of new possibilities. Their actual relevance would depend, of course, upon their value in God’s total experience. But it is conceivable that the grandmother’s life, which had already been a source of possibilities for the couple during their lifetime together, would continue to be so, and perhaps even more so if the grandmother’s evaluation in God’s general judgment were greater now than when she was alive. In this case, it is God who is actively involved mediating the intercession of the grandmother.
This same pattern of influence could be drawn out for other types of relationships: heroes, well-known persons, namesakes, those whose influence is mediated indirectly, patrons, etc. In a relational world, everything is connected, with varying degrees of influence. The actual degree of influence in a given instance depends on God’s particular and general evaluation. God’s particular evaluation is God’s experience of who the person has actually become, relative to the person’s possibilities in life; God’s general evaluation is God’s experience of who the person continues to be, relative to everything else that happens. One of the things that happens is that the living can enhance God’s general evaluation of the dead, while the dead can intercede for the living by providing God with their actual experience from which God can offer new possibilities to the living.
In this approach, is there anything like an interim state? It does not seem so. As explained here, the transition through death from this life to the afterlife is immediate. When a person’s becoming ceases, God at once experiences that person fully. This is the basis for understanding immortality, resurrection, and judgment. There is a sense in which the afterlife as conceived here, continues to be related to the still-developing world of the living. Within that dynamic relationship, the dead are given back to themselves in a continual way by the experience of the living, and the relative contribution of the dead to the living does shift from one occasion to another. But this is not really an interim state. It is rather the permanent state of reality as interpreted relationally. There is not some other kind of state of existence still to come that makes this situation an interim one. This aspect of the total view will be discussed in the next chapter on eschatology.
Likewise, this view does not envision a condition like hell as it is typically understood. A thoroughly relational view is all-inclusive, at least in reference to God. We may and do exclude from our experience certain things or people. In fact, we probably exclude most of what is realistically available to us. This act of exclusion Is another way of saying we are limited; we simply cannot experience everything, nor do we experience what we do in a complete way.
This leads to a relational view of freedom. As was stated above, the possibility of hell seems to be required by our understanding of freedom. The understanding assumes that freedom is a choice between mutually exclusive alternatives. A relational view does not see freedom this way because it does not see things as mutually exclusive but mutually connected. Our freedom means we choose what we experience and to the degree we decide. But every choice is a renewal of relationship with the whole, with God. We don’t have the freedom to eliminate all relationship because freedom is for relationship.
So God’s judgment is not inclusive of some and exclusive of others. God’s judgment is a graded or ranked evaluation of everything and everyone. The ranking means that there is a spectrum of most to least valuable. The least valuable experiences or events or persons are those from which God can derive virtually nothing that will contribute to the future development of his relation to the world. What would such a minimal experience be? In the case of the brother who committed suicide, it might mean that his experience of life and of himself turned out to be so empty, so undesirable, so negative that very little can be gleaned from it to offer as a stimulus or as new possibilities for others.
On the other hand, his struggle to find meaning, the liberation he may have felt in finally choosing to end his life, the benefit he may have felt by removing himself as “troublesome” to others could actually be valuable experiences that God can use positively to stimulate more meaningful actiondecisions in the minister-brother, for example. In general, a person’s life is valuable, a contribution to God to the degree the person’s experiences include freedom, novelty, choice, decision, feeling. A person who tends to conform, be repetitious, obey, go along, repress has less value to contribute.
Obviously, these general characterizations must be nuanced with particular circumstances and qualifications, but the general orientation of value is between creativity, novelty, decision and repetition, sameness, conformity. The former way of life is more valuable because it generates more possibilities, a wider range of experience, greater versatility. The latter perpetuates what already is and weakens the thrust toward newness. Nonetheless, whatever one’s life experience, It is a contribution to God and through God to the world. Nothing is excluded.
On the other side of this consideration, to anticipate being with God, while God goes about the divine activity of drawing new possibilities, is to anticipate a constantly changing, new, dynamic process to which we continually contribute ourselves. This is a far cry from a rather static contemplation of a perfect and changeless God. Further, if we live by such a vision in this life, it means we are seeking the most creative, novel, stimulating, intense experience in virtually everything we do. No situation is trivial or useless in this perspective because every situation is a contribution to God, more or less valuable depending on how we live it, what experience we actually make of it. Obviously, some situations have more potential than others. Every case we’ve looked at in this book has far more inherent value than going grocery shopping, taking a shower, reading the newspaper, or going to sleep. But even these ordinary events can be invested with as much feeling, meaning, self as they are capable of.
This approach clearly stresses the value of the present. In every moment the relational question is: What is the potential of this situation and how can that be experienced most fully? This question is not originally ours. It is our way of trying to get in touch with what God is offering us. God’s offer is always complete, i.e., it includes all the possible answers and communicates them in the priority God sees. Thus, every situation is charged with the dynamism of God’s relationship to us, which lays before us the challenge of our freedom and the possibility of making our contribution to God.
Heaven is not a completely new state of existence; it is a constantly new realization of the contribution our lifetime makes to God and through God to the world. For a truly theocentric faith, there can be no delight, no satisfaction, no awareness more desirable, more appealing, more exciting. And at that point we may ask: Why would we want it to end? Why would God want it to end? Does it end? These are questions for chapter six.
The minister was disturbed by the sense of responsibility his brother’s suicide aroused in him, and he was concerned about God’s judgment. The relational view presented here would certainly affirm our responsibility for one another, but that responsibility is not limited to our activity with others while both we and they are alive. In a relational approach, there is a continuing influence, mediated through God, between the living and the dead. Put another way, the minister’s responsibility for his brother doesn’t end at the brother’s death. By his continuing relationship (through prayer, memory, example, story, etc.), he goes on contributing to God’s evaluation of his brother by adding new, actual experiences that affirm the brother’s value. These contributions are, of course, put in relation to everything else, so it is not a question of our trying to tell God something God does not already know, or persuading God to change the evaluation of someone, like the brother who commits suicide. God’s evaluation is God’s experience of what actually is, but what actually is keeps happening and we contribute to it. In this way, our continual, new contributions are an extension of our responsibility to others.
This view should not undercut our responsibility to others while they are alive. The minister’s contribution to his brother after the suicide is severely reduced in comparison to the contribution he could have made before the suicide. The reason for this is that be-fore the suicide the brother was still an active, relating, becoming person. He had a range of choices before him and his action-decisions were still to be determined. None of this is true after death. The brother has become who he is; the possibilities for his further actual development are ended. The value of his actual life might increase as other events occur and are added to the accumulation of the whole. But that is a slight advance when compared to the possibilities during life. So, the extension of responsibility beyond death and the contribution we can make in this way is not equivalent to what we can and should do before death; there is no safety valve here to catch up or make up for our irresponsibility during a person’s lifetime. Opportunities missed are missed; new opportunities are relative to actual conditions. After death, there are still opportunities to contribute to another person, but those opportunities are severely limited to the actual condition of the one who has died. In a relational view, the present is always of paramount importance.
A second practical implication of this view is that it can relax anxiety about God’s judgment of us. If everything and everyone is included in God, then there is no reason to fear condemnation in the classic sense of exclusion from God. Even if we think we are capable of choosing against God, God accepts that very choice and draws from it something new. We cannot annihilate our relationality; we simply do not have that power. Despite our most deliberate acts of opposition, we cannot move outside of God’s relationship to us. Our freedom is not a power to choose between absolutely exclusive alternatives; it is a power to choose among related options. We can choose more or less freely, more or less valuably, but we cannot opt out absolutely. God won’t let us do that because God sees in every experience some possibility for contribution to the future. And God’s vision/experience of itself draws us back into relationship with God.
Thus, in a relational view, freedom is more limited than in another view, i.e., our freedom does not extend to the possibility of acting in a way that absolutely contradicts the nature and purpose of freedom. As pointed out above, this does not mean that all free choices are equally valued. Just the opposite is the case. No two choices are ever exactly equal. Each one is new and generates new possibilities. It is true, however, that every free actiondecision is more or less valuable relative to God’s prior valuation of possibilities and God’s subsequent evaluation of actuality. A continuum of degrees is thus produced that is the actual world and that is God’s judgment. Everything is included in its proper place, i.e., where it actually belongs relative to everything else. Only God can see what that order is, which is why all judgment is ultimately God’s.
Robert L. Kinast teaches pastoral theology at the Catholic University of America. Ordained a roman Catholic priest in 1968, he served for nine years in pastoral ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, while earning a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Emory University. Published by the Crossroad Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.