The Nth Degree (-issimum gradum)

[Incidentally: this is my 1000th post since I began this site.  I feel great joy (Matthew 10:27) and terror (Matthew 12:37) at this accomplishment!. Thank you most sincerely for reading now and again, as y’all are the primary reason I write. Psalm 115:1 gives me words of thanks: Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give the glory.” Deo gratias et gratias tibi.]

I am excited to post today the thoughts of a biblical scholar, imaginative thinker, dear friend, intellectual companion and soul-sister, Dr. Sonya Cronin. She shared them with me the other day by email. It’s her theological response to my post from last week entitled, “Paschal Providence.” I am grateful beyond words that she allowed me to re-post her work here.


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The idea of the “nth” degree began with C.S. Lewis’ “The Necessity of Chivalry” – an essay that has always been very compelling to me. In it Lewis argues that our modern notions of chivalry, which must be cultivated, comes from the medieval knight. The knight is both fierce to the nth degree and meek to the nth degree. He is mighty and courageous in battle, but also meek in the dining halls, able to go from being the man of war, to the man of peace, with grace, manners, gentleness, and civility. These ideals are not mixed, but must coexist, neither one compromised or watered down, and the combination does not occur in man naturally but must be cultivated, as most are prone to one or the other.

In a recent blog post, a dear friend of mine discussed the problem of evil in relation to hope and surrender (trust). A topic near and dear to me, I knew he had struck gold when after reading it, I didn’t want to fling my computer and vomit. There was no visceral reaction lined with intense anger, but instead it was a “balm of Gilead” which fell cool on raw vulnerability. In the blog post, he discussed holding Matthew 6’s “consider the lilies of the field… do not worry” with the latter passage in Matthew (27:46, also spoken by Jesus),  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Juxtaposed in this conversation is utter trust, with utter anguish – nth degrees.

This concept is one that I think we most of us dance around, it hovers in the back of our conscience, but perhaps is not understood as a fundamental concept of God: the extremes, that must be held lightly but with all our might, and that cannot be mixed (lest each actually negate the other), and like Lewis’ chivalry, must be cultivated if they are to exist together. It reminds me of the words in Revelation (3:15-16) to the Church in Laodicea, ““I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

As this pertains to the problem of evil, trust, and hope, we are to hope in God to the nth degree but also trust to the nth degree, especially in the moment of darkness and evil. As it has been said many times before, there is no need to hope when the sun is shining, but we are to hope when we cannot see the light, when the dark is what we see all around. “Rescue me” says the Psalmist (Ps. 71), “For YOU Oh Lord are my hope.” Here we have hope and trust, married in the stand against evil and darkness. This may seem like an obvious, but there are other systems which suggest differently. One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism states that the cause of suffering is desire. Eliminate desire and you will eliminate suffering. “Hope not” it suggests, “and you won’t be disappointed.” Here we have absolute resignation, and the submission to whatever comes. On the other side of this is hope without trust, which cannot help but be disappointed. As my hopes are dashed over and over, if I cannot trust that God does indeed will the Good, and will come through, I can only fall into eventual despair.

When they ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is, He responds with the Sh’ma, the maxim that is repeated over and over, morning and night by every observant Jew, “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and with all your veryness.” You will love him with your hope, with your trust, and to the nth degree.

Jesus Himself is the embodiment of this living, loving, and trusting to the nth degree in Phillippians 2.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

Phil 2:6                who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

Phil 2:7                but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

Phil 2:8                               he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Phil 2:9                 ¶ Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

Phil 2:10             so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

Phil 2:11             and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Notice here the extremes. Christ was in the form of God (exalted to the nth degree), and emptied himself… into human form, but not stopping there, was obedient unto death (humbled to the nth degree). Through the Cross, obedient, Christ is then exalted, glorifying the Father. There is no lukewarmness here, no middle ground.

In the Gospels, Jesus takes the law and pushes it to the nth degree.

Matt 5:21 ¶ “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’

Matt 5:22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matt 5:27 ¶ “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

Matt 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

But in the Gospel of John when the woman is found in the very act of adultery, Jesus does not condemn, He forgives. He calls us to the highest of standards, but then expects us to extend grace even beyond, nth degrees.

He is able to expect this from us, His family, because he paves the way. To quote the blog once more, “St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, ‘And going a little farther Jesus fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will”’…The Father’s answer was not preventing Jesus from ‘loving us to the end’ in the Passion (cf. John 13:1). His answer was raising Jesus from the dead. By doing this, and by not saving Jesus from our plight, God transformed the silence that envelops every human Passion into a space for trust and surrender.”

It is not by denying hope, trust, or even sorrow that we find God. It is in embracing it all to the nth degree. Hope with all your heart; trust, with all your heart, and when hopes seem dashed and God seems silent, it is okay to let your heart break (Christ sweat blood, and on the Cross, blood and water flowed). But don’t let go, and don’t give up.

In John 14  Jesus tells us:

v.1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

In light of the cross, and in light of our own passions, this passage has a certain nuance. It is not just about “getting to heaven” or understanding Jesus’ cryptic words, it is about hope and trust in the midst of evil. Jesus doesn’t just give us the hope of heaven, but the way to make it through our lives here on earth – the same way He himself did, through death to self and abandonment in trust to the Father. In the model of His life and death, His hope in God and for humanity, and the devastating reality of the impending passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ tells us we can trust Him, God the Father, and this model. Thomas asks the important question, “How can we know the way?” “I am the Way” responds Christ, as He makes His way towards His passion, the salvation of the world, and the defeat of death and darkness through death and darkness. He has shown us the way, and it is loving the Father to the nth degree, with all our veryness, embracing our own crosses and passions, not as one abandoned, but as one loving and trusting the Father, who will raise us also. God, in an absolute demonstration of respect for the human other, does not “rescue” us from the consequences of our freewill or humanity’s cooperative freewill, He allows it to play out, and then, He initiates a response. He shares the world that we have marred, dies the death that we have caused, and in His divine freedom, fulfills all and then takes us home to be with Him forever.

3 comments on “The Nth Degree (-issimum gradum)

  1. Jennifer says:

    Happy 1000th! Wow! This post is so awesome. We are about to drive five kids 1000 miles today and tomorrow so I don’t have time to write much but thank you for giving me so much to ponder as I take my turn sitting behind the wheel.

    I have been thinking lately about following God in respect to:
    -dynamic tension and the narrow path
    -when following God looks (from human eyes) like we will surely find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place he will open the sea and lead us right through in a totally unexpected glorious way
    -concept of the centre (or the “in”) as it is seen in the world (the lukewarm) vs as it is in the upside-down inside-out Kingdom in which the outliers at the extremes (often they are at multiple extremes simultaneously) are really where it’s at.

    This post was like a party-crasher that turned the quiet little refined get together in my head into a rollicking all out bash.

    Thanks Dr Sonya and Dr. Tom! What a great team!

  2. David says:

    Thanks for another excellent post. I read Neal’s blog daily and always find it valuable.

  3. nos. says:

    I have read and reread this post several times ,my abilities in understanding deep theological thinking and their message such as those found on this post, have allowed me thru GODS Grace to graduate from ,as fr. Corapi was fond of saying, kindergarten.I’m still waiting for my report card so who knows I may have to repeat.Coming from a large christian family Greek orthodox on my mum’s side and Irish Roman Catholic on my dad’s side gave me this initial ,”cultivation,” the seeds planted by this married couple of husband and wife , were nurtured with this hope given to them thru their faith and distributed to all with copious amounts of hugs and kisses, my mum especially so full of GODS LOVE . Now as we all grew older and weeds started to choke out the needed light to grow mom turned to old reliable, THE BLESSED MOTHER , And THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS. Well for this prolific sinner first mum now others pray for me .My hope and my trust in I AM took a quantum leap ,as I have shared, from an incident with my youngest daughter.the “utter trust amidst the crushing anguish” when confronted with this cross causes the ” dancing around” to become knees on the step in front of the exposed BLESSED prayer is that the many graces given to so many believers not be taken for granted and and that their crosses whether big or small their triumphs and joys are like dr kneels priest celebrant. To be brought next week or better yet upon each encounter with GODS greatest creation , and proclaim with faith hope and love JESUS I TRUST IN YOU .Dearest Thomas Neal ,PH.D. thank you for sh a ring your friend with many. P.B.W.Y. always.

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