A Us Without Borders | Commonweal Magazine

Let me cut to the chase: this book is an astonishing achievement. Brian D. Robinette, associate professor of theology at Boston College, has given us a deeply thoughtful work on God’s utterly unnecessary gift of creation, redemption, and fulfillment in Christ. The difference that nothing makes meditates on the loving God for whom ‘nothing’ is fruitful with possibilities. Drawing on thinkers such as William Desmond and René Girard, Karl Rahner and Sergius Bulgakov, Elizabeth Johnson and Thomas Merton, Robinette has produced a masterful collection in which theology and spirituality are woven into a seamless whole.

Robinette writes with clarity and passion, leaving the reader hanging on sentences that both nourish and challenge. After all, a reviewer is tempted to provide just a catena of quotations to let their richness speak for themselves. Here’s an example.

The event of Easter, itself an eschatological transfiguration of memory, opened up for Christians a perspective on God’s creation in a significantly new light. The theology of creation from nothing is logically coherent with, and in Christian theology historically dependent on, a vision of God who brings to life what has succumbed to the nil of death…. By raising Jesus from the dead… what is revealed is a God of forgiving hospitality, a God whose boundless generativity is not agonistic or contrasting with creation, but peaceful, forgiving, and self-propagating.

The subtitle of the book presents the triptych that Robinette will carefully paint: creation, Christ, contemplation. The central panel shows the Easter mystery of Jesus Christ: his crucifixion at the hands of us sinners, his resurrection and ascension into heaven, into which all created reality is drawn into. But the three panels interpenetrate each other mystically, so that creation reveals itself in Christ and evokes a “Christian” contemplation – the profound realization that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters in Christ.

What then is the ‘difference that nothing makes’? First of all, it is the consciousness of the utter contingency of the being of creation, of its complete dependence on God’s unnecessary actions. At the same time, the phrase underlines the transcendent otherness of God, who is neither bound to creation nor a rival to its flourishing. As the old Thomistic axiom says: ‘Deus non est in genere”: God is not just one being among many. This adds a dark apophatic color to Robinette’s palette, an awe-inspiring reverence for the mystery that transcends all our verbal forays.

But this is not empty apophatism. For as the center panel of the triptych proclaims, Christ is the anchor and sustainer of creation. His Easter mystery is based on the rhythms of the cosmos and provides not only the cantus Firmus, but also the basso continuo. For creation always proceeds from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit and returns to the Father in the Spirit through the Son. The risen, ascended Jesus leads believers into this Trinitarian dynamic, which is nothing other than their active and conscious participation in God’s own life.

A striking feature of Robinette’s performance is the maintenance of apparent contradictions in dynamic tension. Transcendence, for example, does not compete with, much less cancel out, immanence. Instead, both gesture to the Magic: the realization that only radical transcendence makes radical immanence possible. Only a God who is completely different can fully incarnate.

Central to Robinette’s goal is

to explore how the deepest insight into our human contingency – our coming ‘out of nothing’, or the total gratitude of God – is in fact a contemplative insight of the highest significance, and that only by ourselves through loving expropriation in this gracious ‘ nothing’ to free we can begin to discover, in the felt depths of our being, what it is to be created.

But the very awareness of contingency that should inspire gratitude often instead encourages pernicious rivalry with God and others. For example, the second panel of Robinette’s triptych draws on René Girard’s “phenomenology of redemption” to clearly highlight the predicament from which Christ as “concentrated creation” liberates humanity. Girard skillfully exposes the strategies by which people camouflage their insidious anger as ‘justified’ anger or contempt towards the other.

At the same time, Girard brings the innocent victim who absorbs and transforms all hostility into new enlightenment. Robinette emphasizes the point: “(T)he entanglements and conflicts of human desires are loosened and set free by Christ to enable true human flourishing.” Girard’s work helps Robinette to outline a robust soteriology in which Jesus does not passively endure death, but actively frees humanity from the fear of death that captivates us. For through Jesus’ self-emptying death and life-giving resurrection “the power of empire, the power of acquisition, the power of prestige, even the power of death: all are found to have no power. Real ultimately the power.”

Robinette shows that the cross and the The resurrection are inseparable dimensions of the one Paschal Mystery. On the cross, Christ takes on the burden of humanity’s sin, whose perverse “logic” even seeks to eliminate God. And through the unimaginable new of Christ’s resurrection, God creates new life out of and beyond the apparent nil of death. Then there appears in our midst “the seductive presence of the Crucified and Risen One who continues to call others to a ‘Christomorphic’ way of life.”

Robinette emphasizes the transformative cost of this gracious newness, exploring God’s invitation through Christ “to discover ourselves as part of a dramatic unfolding in which we might learn, however slowly and painfully, to live in a ‘we’ without boundaries” :

The God who creates from nothing and who gives all things their existence from pure gratuity… is the God who communicates through total self-emptying to tempt us to live from this gratuity, from this ‘nothing’, with no hoarding of being, without clinging to our individual self or group identity, but with the freedom of radical, inclusive love.

One of the constants in Thomas Merton’s work is his emphasis on the fact that we are called beyond the limitations of the ‘ego’, to the limitless horizons of the ‘true self’. Robinette agrees: “This giving up is not an act of nihilistic despair.… It is a primal naked trust in which we slowly allow ourselves to be reconfigured, even ‘reborn’, in accordance with the loving freedom of divine life itself. ”

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