Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Seventh Seal (2 of 2)


What good that does exist in the world is in the realm of the world arts, as incarnate especially in the film’s holy family: Joseph and Mary, and their son Michael – who is named for the Archangel Michael, who fights on the side of God during the war in heaven, causing Satan to be hurled down to earth (Rev. 12:7-9). It is while dining with this blessed family – who have an earthy, innocent spirituality of visions and love free from the marks of formal religion – that the knight has his one moment of moral clarity while enjoying a Eucharistic meal of wild strawberries and milk. His search for God, he tells the Holy Family, was “like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.” Now the entire quest, he tells Maria, “seems meaningless and unreal while I sit here with you and your husband. How unimportant it all becomes suddenly.” And the knight does finally accomplish his one meaningful deed, by allowing the family to escape from Death – and thereby escape from God.

The theology that emerges from The Seventh Seal is one in which God is not only dead, but God is Death. God is silent – indeed the very words of Revelation 8 with which the film opens are “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” – and communicates only through punishment and death, never through love. This is a religion of the cross without the resurrection: everywhere Christ is crucified and suffering; nowhere is he risen and triumphant. Although the film is set before the time of the Protestant Reformation, Bergman’s own religious background is Lutheran – as we have seen, his father was a Lutheran minister. Two points from the history of theology in the West are relevant to our discussion: the development of the doctrine of atonement and Luther’s thoughts on the Passion. In the early Church Christ’s passion and resurrection were always considered together; there is clear evidence, for instance, that in the second century there was a single festival celebrating both the passion and the resurrection of Christ; the separate observance of Good Friday arose only in the fourth century as the liturgical year developed. Beginning with Anselm (c. 1033-1109), however, the emphasis in the doctrine of atonement shifted away from the power of the resurrection in favor of the idea of Christ’s passion providing satisfaction to God the Father to pay for man’s infinite offense against God in his sin. Luther left the core of this tradition intact, while developing it in a different direction, emphasizing instead that Christ, in voluntarily accepting the man’s punishment, was reckoned by God a sinner in man’s place. Luther explicitly contrasted “a theology of glory,” characteristic of the false theologian, “who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened,” with “a theology of the cross,” held by the true theologian, one “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” Luther continues by claiming, “God can be found only in suffering and the cross,” so that “he who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.”[5] The result of both theories of atonement – satisfaction and substitution – is that Christ’s redeeming work is accomplished entirely on the cross, making the resurrection itself something of an afterthought.

Luther begins his “Meditation on Christ’s Passion” by stating, in Timothy F. Lull’s words, that the “true contemplation of the cross begins with seeing it as a judgment against oneself. Here Luther shows the cross as the revelation of the wrath of God not only against those who crucified Jesus, but against all humanity.”[6] The following excerpt from Luther’s contemplation could well have been included in Bergman’s script to describe the religious posture of the penitents lashing themselves under the image of the cross:
They contemplate Christ’s passion aright who view it with a terror-stricken heart and a despairing conscience. This terror must be felt as you witness the stern wrath and the unchanging earnestness with which God looks upon sin and sinners, so much so that he was unwilling to release sinners even for his only and dearest Son without his payment of the severest penalty for them. Thus he says in Isaiah 53 [:8] “I have chastised him for the transgressions of my people.” If the dearest child is punished thus, what will be the fate of sinners? It must be an inexpressible and unbearable earnestness that forces such a great and infinite person to suffer and die to appease it. And if you seriously consider that it is God’s very own Son, the eternal wisdom of the Father, who suffers, you will be terrified indeed. The more you thing about it, the more intensely will you be frightened. You must get this thought through your head and not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ thus, for your sins have surely wrought this… We must give ourselves wholly to this matter, for the main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he be terrified and crushed by this. Unless we seek that knowledge, we do not derive much benefit from Christ’s passion. The real and true work of Christ’s passion is to make man conformable to Christ, so that man’s conscience is tormented by his sins in like measure as Christ was pitiably tormented in body and soul by our sins. [7]
As can be seen from this extended passage, the passion itself is seen as God’s punishment of Christ, and believers can gain the benefit of this passion only by internalizing their own guilt for God’s punishment of an innocent Christ. It is this Lutheran theory of atonement, I would suggest, that lies at the foundation of the theology of The Seventh Seal.

A theology in which Christ’s suffering and passion of Great Friday are separated from the triumph and resurrection of Easter Sunday and, moreover, one in which the effectiveness of Christ’s sufferings are made real by the suffering conscience of the individual is a theology in which God is indeed silent. If God punishes His innocent Son in place of guilty humanity, then it is perfectly reasonable that the plague be seen as the punishment for sins. If evil is everywhere present, but God is absent, then it is reasonable to suspect that Satan rules the world while God remains silent. If God is Death, and Death is God, and religion is the fear of Death, then one understands why the knight would prefer the non-religious spirituality of the secular Holy Family of actors to that of the terrifying priests and monks trading on the fear of death. From Luther to Bergman is a logical development from fear and guilt to hatred and alienation.

[5] Heidelburg Disputation, 19-21, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 155-156.

[6] Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), 151.

[7] Martin Luther, “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” 4-5, 8. In Lull, Ibid, 166-168.

1 comment:

F.G.S.A said...

Very interesting. Thank you. The script of the film is also worth reading.