Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)
Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, was one of my favorite authors and theologians. He died last night.
I first read Capon when I was studying for my PhD at Emory. My advisor, Walt Lowe, turned me on to Capon and assigned him in numerous courses, for which I was his teaching assistant, at Candler School of Theology. Now that I teach my own classes, I assign Capon’s work.
Capon wrote about the radical grace of God in a way that kept me sane while I was deep in academic theological studies.
Here are a list of some of his books. Below are quotes and excerpts.
- Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parable of Jesus
- Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology
- The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel Against the Wisdom of the World
- The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It
- Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace
- The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good NEws from the Lost-and-Found of Church History
- The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect Through a History of Images
Quotes & Excerpts
“The cross is a sign of the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems.” -Robert Capon
“The church’s job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it.” -Robert Capon
“The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” -Robert Capon
“Jesus came to raise the dead. He didn’t come to teach the teachable, improve the improvable, or reform the reformable.” -Robert Capon
“The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands. The world is drowning in religion. It is lying full fathom forty in the cults of spiritual growth, physical health, psychological self-improvement, and ethical probity—not to mention the religions of money, success, upward mobility, sin prevention, and cooking without animal fats. But it is scared out of its wits by any mention of the grace that takes the world home gratis.” –Robert Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 105
“Christianity is not a religion; it is the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however—the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over—period.” – Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It, page 62
“The reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two hundred proof grace—of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started. Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale, neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.” –Robert Capon
“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment. The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into ‘nice people’.” -Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 120
“Marginality, in short, leaves the church free, if it is faithful, to cherish its absurdity; establishment just makes it fall in love all over again with the irrelevant respectability of the world’s wisdom and power.” -Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 64
“Just remember that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the cancer cell, the liver fluke, the killer whale, and the loan shark–that if God is holding all things in being right now, he’s got some explaining to do if he hopes to maintain his reputation as the original Good Guy. Or, more accurately (since God steadfastly refuses to show up and explain anything, except by announcing mysteries and paradoxes), we’ve got a lot of explaining to do if we are to go on thinking of him in terms of his reputation. The point is this: if God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe — all theodicies and nearly all theologians to the contrary — evil is where we meet God. Maybe he isn’t bothered by showing up dirty for his dates with creation. Maybe—just maybe—if we ever solved the problem, we’d have talked ourselves out of a lover.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word
“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff Why don’t 1 go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.
It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word
“Let me tell you how God redeemed the world. On the eve of the Big Bang, over single-malt scotch and cigars, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were making a final run-through of their plans for the event. The Son was enthusiastic. ‘I think we’ve nailed it,’ he said to the Father. ‘I’m going to speak everything into being as your Word, and the Spirit here is going to breathe life into it. Then the two of us toss it back to you, and the cosmic party dances itself right into our Trinitarian lap. Elegant! Tov meod! Kala lian! Valde bona, and all that!’
‘I have a problem, though,’ the Spirit says. ‘I’m the one responsible for the PR in all this, especially when it comes to the fail-safe gambit of the Incarnation we’ve planned to cover both creation and redemption. The Son really does make the world, right? But with the human race locked into time and space, it’s going to look as if we haven’t seriously tried to redeem the mess they’ve made until Jesus shows up late in history. The fact that we’ve had the Son in there tidying things up from the beginning is the last thing they’ll think of. How do I convince them that the Incarnation isn’t just an afterthought?’
‘Easy,’ says the Father. ‘Sure, it will look as if the Incarnation of my Word is simply a response to sin. But since all three of us will have been intimately present to everything from square one, all you have to do is give them images that show both creation and redemption going on full force from the start. From before the beginning, in fact, since we’re talking about it right now. What’s the problem with that?’
‘The problem,’ the Spirit explains, ‘is precisely with the images. However many mysterious, right-brain images of the Word’s age-long presence I give them, they’re going to dream up transactional, left-brain ones and view him as something you inserted late in the day. Think of the damage they can do to your reputation as the Father who creates or even to the Son’s, as the one who redeems if they decide to think of you as the coach in a football game and the Son as the quarterback. Since you’re not going to reveal the Word’s Incarnation until some two-thirds of history has gone by, how do I stop them from thinking you kept him in the locker room until the fourth quarter? We three may know he’s been in there right from the first possession, but no one else will. Even your biggest fans are going to be hard put to sell that as brilliant management.’
‘Listen,’ the Father says. ‘I decide what’s brilliant management, not the fans. And as for my reputation, that’s your department, not mine. Besides, haven’t we talked about this practically forever? You know the drill. All through the process of revealing my Son in history, you keep slipping them images of the hiddenness of his Incarnation – of the mystery of the Word’s activity in the world even before you arrange for him to be born of Mary. You’re going to hang images like the Paschal Lamb and the Rock in the Wilderness in their minds. After that, all you’ll have to do is get somebody like Paul to say that those things were presences of Christ before Christ – that the Lamb and the Rock are in fact my Incarnate Word anticipating himself. What’s so hard about that?’
‘Plenty,’ the Spirit answers. ‘I’ve been doing simulations of human thought in my mind. I think we’ve underestimated the effects of cooping people up in four dimensions. Look at it from my point of view. You plunk Jesus into the world at one spot in history, and then you expect me to convince them he’s present as your Word in all of history – before, during, and after Jesus?’
The Son interrupts him. ‘But I really am going to be present. Or to put it their way, I really will have been all along. So I don’t see…’
The Spirit’s patience is wearing thin. ‘Give me a break! Since I’m the one who has to take everything that’s yours and get it across to them, I’m trying to solve your problems here too. Just think about what they’ll do with a Jesus who stays in history for only thirty-three years. Even if I get John to say that he’s the Word who made everything from the beginning, they’ll probably imagine him as a pot of holy soup we delivered too late for a good many of our customers. And after they’ve jumped to the conclusion that the Word wasn’t present to anyone who lived before Jesus, they’ll leap to the even more dreadful notion that nobody who lived after him can have his benefits until their assorted churches get him canned, marketed, and distributed to them.’
The Father tries to break in. ‘But what about the Pentecost party we’ve planned to get the church going? Won’t that…?’
‘I’m sorry,’ the Spirit insists, ‘but I’m afraid Pentecost will be just one more thing for them to misread. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally on board with both of you. But suppose I do give you the rushing mighty wind and the party hats made out of fire. Even suppose I throw in the mystery of speaking in different languages in order to get the universality of the Son’s work into the picture. They’re still going to think the church is in the world to sell clam chowder to customers who never had it before. I mean, think of the possibilities for ecclesiastical arrogance. Jesus takes away the sins of the world, right? In him, everyone who ever lived gets free forgiveness for whatever went wrong in full, in advance, and all in one cosmic shot, no strings attached. I’m even going to get the church to include ‘one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ in the Nicene Creed so they’ll see that the Baptism of Jesus himself does the whole job, even if no one else ever gets baptized. But do you know what they’re going to do with that? They’re going to paint themselves into a corner and say that the unbaptized go to hell or even that sins after Baptism make forgiveness flake off like a bad paint job, and that unless Christians go to confession for a second coat before they die, they’ll go to hell too. Oh, sure. We’ve also agreed on this Reformation business where I convince them that nobody has to do anything to be forgiven except trust the grace that Jesus has already given everybody. But give them a hundred years after that and they’ll manage to turn faith itself into a requirement for grace: no faith, no forgiveness. Out the window again goes the free gift we’ve given them once and for all; and back in comes forgiveness as a deal that’s good only as long as they behave themselves.’
‘But why on earth,’ the Son wonders, ‘would they balk at getting something for nothing like that? Free grace and dying love isn’t enough for them? Would they rather we dealt with them on the basis of accountability?’
The Spirit just keeps pressing his point. ‘I don’t understand it any better than you do; all I know is what my simulations tell me. Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it. If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, they cry “Unfair!” That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation. Remember? I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not. Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don’t trust the gift, of course, it won’t mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces anyone ate, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea.’
Finally, though, the Father has had enough. ‘I understand your difficulties,’ he says; ‘but after all, somebody’s got to be in charge here. In my mind, we’ve come up with a revelation that does the work of your chocolates without making us look like candy-pushers. The Son and I have every confidence in you. If you want to inspire the odd Christian apologist here or there to come up with images like that, be our guest. As I said, it’s your department. But we’re coming down to the wire here, so let’s call this a wrap. We have a big day tomorrow’.” –Robert Capon, The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images, pages 1-4