Recently I’ve worked on an upcoming book edited by Kent Dunnington, collecting essays published by Arthur C. McGill. McGill was a Yale educated theologian who taught in his later years at Harvard. He died young in 1980, at the age of fifty-four. He published only three books, all now in print with Wipf and Stock. The best known is Suffering: A Test of Theological Method.
McGill had a gift for cutting to the bone of the matter, and for writing with acute theological insight. His recurrent themes included the inherent neediness of all persons and an insistence that the power of God is not crushing but donative, at its theological core in the perichoretic Trinity, and in God’s self-giving work through the cross. McGill was impressed with how death pervades all of life, and how the call of the cross is a call to die to self and in service of others.
Dunnington’s essay collection is entitled The Uncertain Center. The following excerpt displays McGill’s ability to synthesize broad swaths of thought, and cut to the heart of the matter. In it he discusses the power of demonic in our lives, and Jesus’ dual responses of exorcism and the work of the cross. It may be important to note that McGill’s deployment of the category of the demonic is not literalistic. For him the demonic are those powers that transcend individuals and even societies, and work destruction in them. Here’s the excerpt.
In this connection I would remind you that two very different approaches to the demonic are presented in the Gospel accounts about Jesus. There is one way of exorcism, where demonic powerfulness is driven away and people are liberated from bondage to disease or insanity. But this way is not given great attention. It does not carry any crucial value. In fact the New Testament makes absolutely clear that no one is going to exorcise the demonic out of this world. On the contrary, demonic inhumanity will increase. The present power and pervasiveness of demonic forces in the world is too extensive to imagine that they will be removed by exorcism.
The other approach is the way of the cross. Jesus calls upon people to take up his cross—that is, in some sense to enter into the arena of demonic suffering rather than to flee from it. This is the approach that receives primary emphasis in the New Testament. But what is this approach? What does it mean to take up Jesus’ cross and to let oneself be attacked by inhuman dreadfulness?
The fundamental issue at stake here is the mode in which we discover the Lordship of God as an actual fact. It is easy to mouth the creed about God being almighty, but in the face of the powers that seem to rule this world such a belief remains unreal. Where and how do we actually discover for ourselves, as the truth of our own existence and of the existence which we share with our fellow humans, that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the only authentic power in all reality?
The only place we really discover this is where we are being attacked by demonic forces. It is one thing for God to rule by removing these dreadful forces from the scene, in the manner of exorcism. It is another thing for him to vindicate his rule precisely when, and as, these ferocities are in full activity. But what does it mean to say that he “vindicates” his rule at the very moment that the demonic displays its power in full force? What does this vindication amount to? As I see it, this is one of the meanings of Jesus’ death. For on the cross Jesus did not submit to the demonic—that is, did not act as if it, and not his Father, were the master of his destiny. He refused to fear, to defend himself, to imagine that this dreadful destructivity had any final power over him. In short, while on the cross Jesus was sustained in his human way, in his confidence in his Father and in his compassion and care for those around him. God vindicated his rule in Jesus, not by removing the powers of destruction and death from him, but by maintaining in Jesus that supremely human condition of trust and love even while these powers worked their fullest.