Pierre Maury – “Look towards the light by which our lives are enlightened”.

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In his sermon “The Ultimate Decision” taken from the 1937 edition of Le Grand Œuvre de Dieu (“Je sers”, Paris) in Election, Barth and the French ConnectionHow Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Simon Hattrell, editor and translator, 63-5, Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019), Maury returns to one of his great loves – Blaise Pascal. See his Trois Histoires Spirituelles. (Three Spiritual Stories) Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1962 in which he devotes a third of the book to the author of Les Pensées.

“Here a misunderstanding of grave consequence could come into play: this would consist in forgetting the first sense in which Jesus Christ is a decision, and therefore to define the choice that we make concerning him as one of multiple human possibilities which are offered to us. Becoming the disciple of this master would therefore be one option among others, neither more nor less serious than one in which we are recruited into a political group, or ranked among the faithful of one of the great modern religions[1] (race, class, nation, etc.). There is no lack in the world today of men, of parties, of doctrines, who demand that we choose them exclusively, that we submit ourselves without discussion to their slogans or to their myths. The time has passed where we made freedom of thought and the dignity of the person consist in the refusal of any choice, under the pretext that to choose is to renounce, and to narrow one’s future[2]. Our contemporaries hardly worry about safeguarding this state of mind. On the contrary, we see them eager to commit, be they blind or hasty, provided that they are wholehearted, or as we say, totalitarian.

If the Christian decision were of this kind, it would not be more solid or more lasting than all these human possibilities of decision. But it is not of this kind! Jesus is “not of this world” (John 8:23), as he himself said, even though he had lived in this world. And that is why we cannot choose him as we would choose a worldly master. Here again, we need to remember that he is unique, in the strictest sense incomparable, and that the faith that we place in him does not resemble any other trust, any other devotion that we would be able to consent to here below. We will not try, therefore, to show that we could know Christianity except in total submission, for it is an absolute.[3] For one could say just the same about everything that people think or decree as absolute. We are not going to go on about the necessity of choice with regard to moral considerations. What would be the purpose anyway? These proofs and analyses have never lastingly convinced anyone. It is because he is who he is, that is to say, not an absolute, but the absolute, the unique Son of God, who demands the obedience of faith. In order to choose him, we need to know more than just the motives behind our choice; we need to know by him who we choose in choosing Him.

~

And here we are immediately constrained not to argue with ourselves about the legitimacy of Christian claims—a tiring and sterile monologue—but constrained to listen to a message. St Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17), that is to say, it never comes from what we say to ourselves. What therefore do we need to hear said when someone speaks to us of Jesus Christ? What is the “the mystery of Jesus” of which Pascal spoke in his famous piece?

I think you have all been taken by the uncommon singular transaction which led the author of Les Pensées, after having contemplated the agony of Gethsemane, to that dialogue where the Christ disclosed to him the sense of his redemptive work: “Take solace, you would not look for me if you had not found me. I thought of you in my agony … your conversion is my business, don’t be afraid, and pray with confidence as if for me.”[4] Whatever our opinion on the right of a Christian to cause his master to speak in words we don’t find in the gospel, even if they are only paraphrases of sacred texts, one fact is incontestable: as soon as faith is fixed on this person of past history, it is quite naturally brought to discover in him a personal intention; an interaction has begun. This is not a literary procedure here, but the conviction that Jesus Christ, who never exists only for himself, wants to speak to us and wants us to speak to him. Just as long as, like all the heroes of history, he remains for us an object of reflection, of admiration or curiosity, we do not know him; he is not him; he is only that which he wants to be, when we sense his scrutiny and “are called by our name” (Isaiah 45:4). He is, as the Gospel tells us with regard to his conversation with the Samaritan woman, “a man who knows everything that we have done” (John 4:29), and tells us so. This characteristic is decisive. The incredulous can object: mystic exaltation! The fact remains that millions, for 1900 years, have discovered that in Jesus Christ a unique relationship has been established between them … and another thing in their favour: the relationship of a dialogue, the “you” and “me.” This relationship has such a strength, such a precision, that sometimes, in the most absolute solitude, we can detect a movement of flight, a gesture of repulsion towards this invisible presence: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man,” we say, just like Peter (Luke 5:8), or we even cry out, as we throw ourselves at his feet, “My Lord and my God” like the apostle Thomas (John 20:28). This experience is what is designated in advance by the prologue of St John’s gospel when he calls Jesus the Word, not because this term was current in Greek or Judeo-Alexandrian philosophy contemporary to the gospel to designate an idea or metaphysical being, but because the evangelist, so nourished by the tradition of the Old Testament, knew that God is a God who speaks, who speaks to us, and that, when he becomes flesh in this world, it is not in some dumb impersonal reality, but in a living voice. Jesus Christ for the believer is the Word made flesh.

Is this to say that only the discourses of Jesus to the crowd and his private interviews are this divine summons which faith receives? Could we reduce that which we need to hear of him, of his teaching, to that which he says in phrases and words? Would he not just be a supreme prophet, even unique? Certainly not! When God speaks to us in Christ it is not in order to display a truth, but to reveal to us our situation before him, and the attitude that he adopts before us. Language more mysterious and more complete than that which exists to express truths susceptible to be taught! Living language, not only in the sense that it is spoken by a living man; but also in the sense that it is the language of the whole of the life of this man—yes, of all his life, just as he knew it and makes us know it, his eternal and temporal existence, his 33 years on this earth and his presence before the Father “before Abraham was” (John 8:58), and right up until the day of his return and of judgement. It is not the words of Jesus which are the Word of God, it is he himself.

I know that this affirmation will always appear to be incomprehensible to those who have not heard the voice of God in Christ; I know that there are very few who are ready to consent to study, to examine the words of Jesus, they declare inadmissible and crazy the pretension of the church to base revelation on his person heard in such a fashion. But the fact is that such is very much the pretension of the church and that it is in this totality of Christ that his work of salvation is involved. Without doubt a mystery! But without him, which is precisely the mystery of Jesus, Christianity is no more than a doubtful and empty religion. In any case, whether we accept this mystery or not, it is worthwhile reflecting on what it sets out to signify, and to look towards the light by which our lives are enlightened.”

 

In a discussion on the universal offer of salvation in his essay “Jesus Christ the Man” French Theologian, Henri A. G. Blocher[5] cites the same passage from Pascal as Maury (“I was thinking of you in my agony, I shed such drops of my blood for you”) also referring to Paul in Galatians 2:20 “..the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me..” He then goes on to raise the vexing issue of personal assurance:

How to reach personal assurance is a delicate issue. It is not bound to the extent of the atonement. As the Reformers warned, as soon as one starts speculating on one’s election, one stands on the brink of a deadly abyss. There is no fixed point apart from faith in Christ.”

Yes, Maury was right to insist that “any affirmation of Jesus (John 8:58) will always appear to be incomprehensible to those who have not heard the voice of God in Christ.” May God give the grace to many to “look towards the light by which our lives are enlightened.”

[1]. Translator’s note: Literally “cult.”

[2]. Translator’s note: Or “prospects.”

[3]. Translator’s note: Or “an uncompromising truth”.

[4]. Translator’s note: Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Section VII, Morality and Doctrine, article 552. Translated by W.F. Trotter. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc., 1958.150.

[5] From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson. Wheaton: Crossways, 2013, 568-9.

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