The New Testament understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ, reflected in the earliest theology, is that humankind exists under a delusion or a lie from which the truth of Christ redeems. This is an understanding largely abandoned with the turn, worked out by Anselm, to the law as the final and full explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ. An aspect of the shift surrounding the atonement (from Christus Victor or its near equivalents to divine satisfaction) is that Christian truth was no longer counter to the truth of the principalities and the powers of this world. The era of Constantine, through Anselm, Calvin, and the modernist era are characterized by the development of a notion of secular truth which parallels the truth of Christ. The New Testament depiction of the truth of Christ is that it challenges the truth offered by this world and constitutes a new world and a new order of truth.
With Anselm’s divine satisfaction and Calvin’s penal substitution, theology has been directed away from the socio-political and the psychoanalytic as a realm of conflicting notions of truth. The Kingdom of God is meant to be a socio-political alternative which allows for a reconstituted Subject founded in an alternative truth. This is an understanding which is nearly absent in the modernist climate. The failure of theology in the otherworldly focus promoted by penal substitution and divine satisfaction is the near abandonment of apprehending and appropriating a real-world redemption involving a conflicting understanding of absolute truth. The most demanding and immediate task which should be addressed by theology is a return to an examination of this real-world redemption.
Part of enabling this return is to appropriate the insight or at least the direction of those thinkers who might appear to be anti-theological but who have, in fact, worked in the vacuum created by a misdirected theology. For example, the theories of Marx and Freud, with the critique of ideology and the exposure of false consciousness, might be viewed as Christian heresies which have returned to the realm of sin and evil addressed by the cross. The critique of capitalism is of a kind with the Freudian genealogy of desire and death drive. Both are depicted as a by-product of the same false consciousness – the same construct – dependent upon the same primordial lie. The anatomy of this lie is only fully exposed by Christ, who provides an alternative consciousness and an alternative Kingdom with its own truth. Nonetheless, both Freud and Marx point to the fields vacated by theology which should be reoccupied.
Rather than understanding salvation in terms of the law (and all it entails), the primary focus of hamartiology should be on identifying the workings of this death dealing lie (which both Freud and Marx have presumed to do). In turn, soteriology should be understood as the displacement of the dynamics of the lie with the reconstituted Subject/Kingdom found in Christ. This means that theology should be traceable in its impact on the socio-personal realm. We should be able to describe in real-world terms the difference Christ makes – how one truth or logic is traded for another. The point is not to make all of the work of Christ immanent, but the immanent realm certainly is marked by the incarnation. If this can be described in terms of a lie (a false absolute) being displaced by the truth, the lie, subsequent to salvation, should stand exposed in both the social and psychological realms. Sin as a lie is subject to something on the order of an exhaustive explanation. The continued work of theology will be comprehension of this lie as it is taken up in the constitution of an order of truth – the world – sociological, political, psychological, etc. – displaced by Christ. The shift in the turn to an immanent frame of redemption will be the deconstruction of presumed absolutes and their displacement with another set of absolutes.
As I explain below, the modernist frame, which in this sense shares in the universal frame addressed by the NT, has absolutized the self (as in Descartes’ move to ground all thought and reason in the self – the cogito), the law (rationalism, laws of nature, language), and death.
The self or ego, under the lie of sin, is presumed to be either an innately immortal soul or an absolute, saved or damned, but not subject to deconstruction. In Paul’s depiction in Ro. 7 of the ego, incorporating Genesis and a Jewish understanding, the unregenerate individual consists of a tripartite negation – the ego, the law, and the power of death. The “I” or ego is no more absolute than the law over and against which it is configured. The one which “does what he does not want” is constituted as a Subject out of control. The Kantian recognition that the Cartesian “I” (I think therefore I am) constitutes itself through two irreconcilable differences is simply a restatement of Paul’s depiction of the self as inherently agonistic. The problems of the psyche and its identity, the frustration, negation and alienation inherent to the self, are the formative ground of the Subject. The goal should not be to overcome the gaps and negations but to recognize them as the origin of the Subject. As with the Cartesian cogito, the failure to account for the subject and the object of the sentence (the thinking “I” and the “I” that is thought) accounts for the rise of the Subject. The passage into subjectivity involves the necessity of withdrawal and failure that opens up the space for the Subject’s constitution (Žižek, The Abyss of Freedom, 8-9).
The regenerate self, in fact, has experienced the deconstruction of the ego or I. Paul claims it is no longer ego or “I” that lives but Christ which lives within the self. Where sin was the animating force of the ego, Christ brings to life a self which involves the crucifixion of the former self (“I” or ego has been crucified with Christ and so has been deconstructed). “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Ga. 2:20).
The law, under the lie of sin, is presumed to be an absolute which is determinative of both sin and salvation. Law, as it is conceived by Anselm and Calvin, is thought to have its explanation elsewhere – in the mind of God and the requirements of righteousness. If, instead, it is a deception in regard to the law which constitutes sin – the argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans and Galatians – then law is not an unbreakable absolute regulating sin and salvation (to say nothing of a self-grounding rationalism). Law, in Paul’s description, is not a final power which applies universally. In Christ the power of the law is suspended through the exposure of the deception of sin. It is sin which lends the appearance of absoluteness to the law. This means that theories of atonement which absolutize the law are incorporating the deception of sin into the work of salvation.
The hidden absolute is death. The Pauline description is “the law of sin and death,” which gets at the fact that sin is a misorientation to the law giving rise to a death dealing desire controlling and constituting human subjectivity outside of Christ. Rightly understood the constitution of one world, in law and ego, can be summarized as the absolutizing of death. In part, this is an understanding gained only from the perspective of salvation. Paul’s picture of the death to sin in baptism is not simply one of symbolic or subjective destitution but involves an encounter with and overcoming of death and an orientation to death. It involves being “joined to” Christ and is an ontological participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. By being joined to the body of Christ, the Pauline “body of death” (7.24) is displaced in the resurrection life of the Spirit (8.10-11).
Paul’s resolution of the alienation of the Subject of the law is a dying to death to become a child of God through the power of the Spirit. One set of absolutes is deconstructed or undone and replaced with another set of absolutes. The ἐγὼ is crucified or dies with Christ and the orientation to death constituting Paul’s ‘I’ (ἐγὼ) is displaced by the corporate identity in the body of Christ. Paul’s resolution to the fear and frustration of the ἐγὼ – living death – is life in the Spirit (8.2), experienced and conjoined to a new set of absolutes: hope, adoption as God’s children, and participation in the Trinity.