Ultimately the most interesting “god question” is not existence but goodness. As Kenneth Burke and Richard Weaver and James Berlin have taught me, even where the Anglo-Saxon root “god” is denied, every rhetoric, in other words every complex system of speech and written discourse, has certain “god-terms,” ideas that define the rest of the system. Whether it’s history or nature or freedom or even chaos, some sort of ultimate term (or terms) arranges (or arrange) the rest of any linguistic around itself (or themselves). Thus, as Berlin most clearly taught me, every such rhetorical system has built-in ideas of what’s real, what’s good, and what’s possible.
The Christian God in particular, the Father and the Son and the Spirit, comes to us in a rhetoric of gift, a reality in which goods at the moment unimaginable are always possible because God gives all good gifts, and the giver’s capacity for such good lies beyond mortal horizons. My hunch is that such unimaginable, unspeakable good gifts lie somewhere behind Marx’s conception of historically-contingent consciousness that’s unable to imagine the next historical revolution. The goodness that always lies on the horizon is one of the hallmarks of Christian theology, one that the powerful certainly have abused in various moments of “pie in the sky when we die” propaganda but also one that the prophetic have seized for the good of the faithful when the world around us has pressed down, inhospitable, tempting us to cosmic despair. Against such flavors of fatalism, tragic and nihilistic and materialistic alike, Christian confession has always held out something beyond.
That the universe always leans towards unimagined goodness means something when we think about what makes for a good human life. James (I’ve been writing about the James reading, I realize I should have mentioned) pits the logos, in Stoic fashion, against anger in verse 20, but in verse 21 he’s quick to insist that this logos is not inherent but implanted. Thus there is never a moment for arrogance or self-importance in this rhetoric; the reality is that even the goodness of the particular believer is always a gift, that overcoming anger is a good but never a good for which one can boast. Thus when a Christian says that only God can save our souls, certainly the picture there includes baptism, but the salvation, the giving of health, always extends beyond the moment of conversion and through whatever span of time the Christian keeps living on earth, always being saved at every moment. Once again reality remains a gift, what’s possible knows no limits because of the character of the giver, and what’s good we learn in more complexity and more bounty as the moments pass precisely because no gift is exactly like the one that came before it.
And that, I think, is why James turns to threskeia at the end of today’s reading. The practice of rituals for the sake of the gods, usually translated “religion” in modern Bibles, is at the heart of many ancient lives. To keep the gods from getting testy is a survival skill when one’s gods are Venus and Juno, and the Romans knew well enough that the minor gods could just as well ruin one’s life. James, of course, is no Roman polytheist, and he’s also not interested in a plurality of goods. One God is the source of all good gifts, and thus rituals never make that one good God even one whit better disposed towards us. Instead, in a gesture that I have to read as satirical, he holds up care of the orphan and widow as a ritual that will please God, one that’s not for the sake of God’s favor at all but for the sake of our neighbor’s good. To please God is to participate in the boundless generosity of our God, and to keep from being sullied by the world-systems (the kosmos) that would have us forget the goodness of God.
Thus the epistle of James, though it’s no Aristotelian treatise on the excellent human life, nonetheless evokes a striking and compelling vision of human existence for the one willing to believe: all good things are from one God, the same God who calls on the faithful likewise to give graciously and generously to one another. To overcome the passions that distort goodness is never to look within but to receive cheerfully the logos whose logic is to give cheerfully. And our own birth as the first-fruits of creation testifies to the grandeur of divine possibility, the unimagined but always-promised New Jerusalem that will always be a gift of God.
May our worship always reach to where our imaginations end, and may our hope never stop where our eyes can no longer see.