by Robert Farrar Capon
I suggest, therefore, that we take a much closer look at the connection between Mystery and transaction—that we reexamine the assumption that the operation of the Mystery can be equated with a series of schticks which God did at various times in the history of creation. My thesis is that transactional views of Christianity have caused more problems than we suspect, and that if we can manage to correct them, a lot of heretofore unresolvable conflicts may well just disappear. On with it then, beginning, as always, with a distinction.
The Mystery does indeed manifest itself through transactions; for this is, after all, a totally transactional world. Nothing happens here that isn’t done somewhere, sometime, somehow, by somebody. If the Mystery wants to tip its hand among the likes of us, it’s going to have to work up its shtick just like everything else. And it has. The covenants—from Adam to Jesus, from the Tree of Life to the Tree of Calvary—are all pieces of business. So there is no way of escaping transactional language when we talk about the Mystery—or transactional behavior on our part when we respond to it.
On the other hand, the Mystery is not only in the world, busy with piecework. It is also in God, totally busy just being. The Mystery as it is in God, however—before, during and after all worlds—isn’t inching its way toward a goal it hasn’t reached yet. In God, the end is fully present at the beginning; the beginning is fully realized in the end. God, in his mysterious relationship with the world, never changes his mind or his manners, never does anything he didn’t have in mind before, never drops a stitch, pulls out a row, reverses engines or slams on the brakes. And therefore, while in one sense, everything he does in creation involves doing business with somebody, in another sense, he never does business with anybody. He doesn’t trade. He doesn’t transact. He doesn’t haggle. He doesn’t ever really do; he just “be’s.”
That sounds strange until you look at the Gospels. Then, suddenly, it sounds right: Salvation as a gift given, not a bargain struck. A father who does not trade forgiveness for good behavior, but who kisses the prodigal son before he gets his confession out of his mouth. A vineyard owner who pays what he pleases, not what the laborers earn. A shepherd who allows no sensible business considerations to keep him from leaving ninety-nine sheep in jeopardy to bring one to safety. A wheat grower who runs his farm, not for profit, but for the sake of letting everything grow as it pleases till the end. An Incarnate Word who won’t talk to Pilate, a Carpenter of Nazareth who saves the world by nailing down his own hands; a risen Lord who runs everything by going away. A God, in other words, who does all things well by doing practically nothing right, whose wisdom is foolishness, whose strength is weakness—who runs this whole operation by being no operator at all and who makes no deals because, in the high Mystery of his being, he’s got it made already.
There is, perhaps, no topic in theology on which more barbaric, fatuous, dumfounding things have been written than on predestination. I am not about to add to the confusion here, but I do want to insist that, in spite of its wretched history, the subject must be kept in the hopper for discussion. At the very least, it keeps before our minds this incomprehensible intractability of God. Much more than that, of course, needs to be said about it—and a good deal of it will have to be in paradoxical opposition to anything that predestination could possibly mean. But the impossible doctrine itself must never be skipped over. It is theology’s star witness to the non-transactional nature of the Mystery at its deepest level—to the truth that even though creation may be mightily out of hand, he’s got it all together from the beginning, without moving a solitary muscle or trading a single horse.
But enough. That’s another hunt, and another beast. Time now to draw a bead on the Mystery through our newly purchased one-hundred-power non-transactional sight. Aim high and bring the gun down slowly on the subject.
Consider first how the act of creation is not a transaction, even though we ordinarily imagine it to be one. When we think of God as the cause of the world, we almost invariably figure the Mystery involved by forming a sentence whose main verb is in the plain, unvarnished past tense. We speak of his creating as if it were a piece of business he once did: Last summer, I made a boat, closed on a house, played a gig. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
But that isn’t really the case. It is a usage which conceives of the act of creating as an act of starting up—which seems to say that all you need God for is to get things going, and that once he has created, the world needs no more causing. He could, of course, destroy it, but short of that, it continues to be on its own steam.
As St Thomas pointed out, however, that’s not so. If God wanted to destroy the world, he wouldn’t have to do anything; he would have to stop doing something. God is not only the initial cause of the world at its beginning; he is the present and immediate cause of the world at every moment of its being. Things exist, not because he made them, but because he makes them, everywhere and everywhen: Of course he made them at the beginning; but that’s only one moment in the billions of instants of time to which the Mystery of his creative act is eternally contemporary.
Examine next, therefore, what that means as far as his relationship to the world is concerned. It is not as if he once made the world and then turned it loose. That is a view which allows you to see history as something the world did largely apart from God. And it allows you to see his repair and rehabilitation of history as a superadded transaction—a new shtick by which he gets back into a show from which he was mostly absent after the opening night.
Once again though, that can’t be right. God creates everything at every moment. The freedom of the world to wander at will is a freedom it has, not after it gets loose from God, but while it is locked forever in the viselike grip of his creative power. That means that all its sins, all its enormities, all its bloodshed, all its savagery, occur right in the palm of his hand because his hand is what lets it be. (The phrase, you will note, is pregnant. In its prim and proper sense, it refers to his actively creative power: Let there be! “Light! Firmament! Sun! Moon! Stars!” But the divine Wisdom also makes a fool of himself with creation. He leaves it free. Within the aggressive Let it be! he includes a slangy, laissez-faire Leave it be. “Whales? Birds? Cattle? Men? Leave ’em be. Anything they want is O.K. by me.” The Infinite Card Sharp, the master of every deal, is also just the Infinite Kibitzer, hanging around doing nothing. The Ultimate Agent is also the Ultimate Patient.)
But notice what kind of world that produces. The ordinariness we see around us and take for granted turns out to be an illusion; and the strangeness, the fingerprints of the Mystery, turn out to be the reality.
There are three possible views of the world, each of which is true. The first is that the world consists entirely of winners: Every single thing that is, is a triumph of being, shouting from the housetops its praise of the Mystery by which it stands extra nihil and extra causas. The second view is that the world, at any given moment, consists of fifty percent winners and fifty percent losers: The river is wearing down the rock; the weasel is doing in the goose; these shoes are killing me. The last view is that the world is all losers. The shoes go to dust, the dust goes down the river, the river is evaporated by the sun and the sun itself goes cold. The last course at the banquet of creation is frozen entropy—with no chocolate sauce.
On any given day, of course, you and I will be in such a mood as is appropriate to one or the other of these Weltanschauungen: Exultant, as we and the surf frolic together. Game, as we take up arms against slings and arrows. Or stone-cold sad, when we sit by the waters of Babylon and the songs of Zion stick in our throats.
But on every given day, with every given thing—and on all the ungiven, unending days of eternity—God is in all three moods at once. Do you see what that means? He is always winning, always struggling and always losing. He doesn’t win and lose by turns in transactions. He doesn’t simply win on Sunday, simply struggle on Thursday, simply die on Friday, and simply rise again on Sunday. He does all three on all days. He loses on the first Sabbath, because creation is free to defeat him at the Tree. And he reigns from the Tree on Good Friday, because in the Mystery of predestination, it is precisely by losing that he wins.
Therefore, the transactions by which he seems now to win, now to lose, are not, at their deepest root in him, transactions at all. They are rather revelations by degrees of what the Mystery is all at once. They are not bits of business which God transacts in order to get somewhere. They are sacramentalizations, outcroppings—effective and real manifestations under the form of transactions—of the one, constant, non-transactional Mystery by which he sets the world as a seal upon his heart, and forevermore has no place else to go.
The supreme outcropping of the Mystery, of course, is Jesus. But what happened in and through Jesus was not something new that God finally got around to plugging into the system. Rather it is what God was really up to all along, finally and effectively sacramentalized. In Jesus, we see thrust up before our eyes what has always worked below the surface of the world. Looking at history without Jesus in it is like looking at the Great Plains and trying to figure out what the earth is made of: You never really catch on to the fact that, except for the surface, it’s mostly stone. But when you come to the Rockies, you understand: There before you is a clear outcropping of what lies beneath the plains.
Follow that to the end and see how it eliminates once and for all the problem of tagging up with those who somehow miss the Incarnation. We call Christ’s dying and rising the Paschal Mystery, the Passover Mystery. But seen in the light of a non-transactional view, this isn’t just typology anymore. It’s a flat assertion that the Passover and the Resurrection are, beneath the surface, the same thing. You don’t have to work up some system for getting the Israelites in the wilderness in touch with Christ: They already were, long before Jesus turned up on the scene. And so were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And so, to take it all the way, is everybody and everything that is.
Christ wins in every triumph and loses in every loss. Christ dies when a chicken dies, and rises when an egg hatches. He lies slain the the wreckage of all Aprils. He weeps in the ruins of all springs. This strange, savage, gorgeous world is the way it is because, incomprehensibly, that is his style. The Gospel of the Incarnation is preached, not so that we can tell men that the world now means something it didn’t mean before, but so that they may finally learn what it has been about all along. We proclaim Christ crucified, the formless, uncomely Root Out Of A Dry Ground, in order to show men, at the undesired roots of their own being, the Incarnate Word who is already there, making Jerusalem to flourish. We do not bring Jesus to people or people to Jesus. We preach the Word who sends their roots rain, whether they hear or whether they forbear.
And so at last, the theologial Rube Goldberg contraptions go into the trash can. At Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Jews died in Christ and Christ in them. No limbos. No bookkeeping. If the church never got around to them—or if it did, but put them off with rotten manners—Christ still draws all men to himself. He descends into every hell. The Incarnate Word preaches on all days, to all spirits, in all prisons. The Good Shepherd has other sheep, and he flatly refuses to lose a single one.
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(Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox (1974), pp. 108-115; this out-of-print title is available in the Robert Capon anthology The Romance of the Word.)