Bill Placher’s Words Still Teaching
Steve Charles—A college doesn’t need a denominational affiliation to be a place of faith, and Wabash honors and respects many different faiths and denominations, believers and doubters, seekers and questioners.
This Sunday morning in my own place of seeking, listening to the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, I was reminded of the late Bill Placher’s book about the Trinity—one of the most difficult to understand concepts in Christianity. Published in 2007, The Triune God is the book Bill called “as close to ‘my theology’ as I can get right now.” As many of you loved Bill, I thought you might like to read his words about this passage, regardless of your beliefs. Just a way of being reminded of a friend and the beauty of his work.
This morning’s Gospel reading was the story of Jesus on the cross, that moment when the man whose followers believed was the Son of God looked death in the face, and for a moment, it seems, is abandoned by God. The void between them opens like oblivion; father and son seem infinitely estranged.
Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Here’s what Bill wrote:
“We trust that the distance between Jesus crying out in abandonment on the cross and the one he had always before called his Father mirrors some sort of distance within God—though we cannot imagine what terms like ‘distance within God’ can mean. A kind of space lies within the triune God—a space potentially inclusive of the space of sinners and doubters…. There is always within God a space large enough for the whole world, even all of its sin: the Word’s distance from the one he called Father is so great that no one falls outside it, and the Spirit fills all that space with love.
“A Moltmann puts it, ‘In the event between the surrendering Father and the forsaken Son, God becomes so ‘vast’ in the Spirit of self-offering that there is room and life for the whole world, the living and the dead.’”
The author Charles Williams wrote, “The famous saying ‘God is love,’ it is generally assumed, means that God is like our immediate emotional indulgence, not that the meaning of love ought to have something of the ‘otherness’ and terror of God.”
For me, this moment in the Gospel of Mark is the archetype of that "terror of God." Not many of any faith choose to look so closely and clearly at such a moment. Bill did, and his writing enables us to look as well.
In The Triune God, Bill also wrote:
“But grace is like mercy. It drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. All our efforts to domesticate the wholly other are doomed to failure, and we should not…try to hold back despair by pretending that the desert is really God. As Oswald Beyer writes of Luther’s views, “Whoever shuts himself off to the reliable word, the promise, loses the world as a home and trades it in as a wasteland …If the world is not believed as something promised, then it becomes, as Nietzsche appropriately said, ‘a thousand wastes, silent, cold.’
“A loving God, however, might unexpectedly reach out to us.”
I once asked Bill if he received much feedback on this particular book and another of my favorites of his, Jesus the Savior. He said, referring to my position as editor of Wabash Magazine,“Magazine editors get letters; authors of books like this do not.” Which seemed unfair to me, but didn’t seem to faze Bill. He wrote for reasons that remind me of Thomas Merton’s words about writing: "If you write for men, you may make some money and give someone a little joy and you may make noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for God, you will reach many men and bring them joy.
As we move into the week of Passover and Easter, Bill’s writing not only continues to reach many men and women and bring them joy, but continues his legacy of teaching, as well.