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Reason Dependent on a Reified Nothing: From Genesis 3 to Kalām

The concept of nothing or emptiness in Scripture is connected to the concept of creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), to the idol (which Paul declares is nothing), to the concept of death (the biblical depiction is of being brought to nothing), and to the empty tomb of Christ. It is connected to evil in a twofold sense, in that Paul concludes the idol is nothing (nothingness reified) but then immediately warns that this particular brand of nothingness is demonic (I Cor. 10:19-20). The reification of nothing, or making nothing an absolute something, characteristic of idolatry, is a process that is not halted in being exposed, as it is the characteristic form of sin and evil in which nothing “comes alive.”

One way of characterizing the problem raised by natural philosophical arguments is that the category of nothing or absence is made to come alive through the form of reason in which these arguments are packaged. Nothing and darkness are made a positive experience in Anselm’s cosmological and ontological arguments (“God I have seen you, yet I have seen only nothing and darkness”), which is not just any old mysticism and rationalism, but it is the characteristic form of thought taken up by Descartes and modernity. Nothingness and emptiness have come to play a key role in the “virtual reality” (the marker of nothing, zero, illustrates the necessity of nothing behind the virtual) that is the modern, which is neither recognized as virtual nor equated with sin and evil, as it is the nihilism of foundational reason (nothing made something) that has come to dominate in theology. Below, I sketch the biblical depiction of sin and evil (revolving around nothing (death, absence) made something), which has been obscured, and explain, in part, the how and why of this obscuring as it is interwoven with the rationale of the kalām cosmological argument.

The devilish or the demonic in Scripture, from Genesis 3, is not portrayed as a positive ontological force which opposes God, but as a corrupting sub-personal entity which would alienate and empty out the presence of God. The serpent appears in Genesis 3 from among the creatures, out of creation – it appears and disappears. The perspective sold by the serpent is the immanent frame (a closed universe) in which knowing (epistemology – “knowing good and evil”) is attached to being (ontology – “you will be like gods”). Death is denied (“you won’t die”) but is displaced by the positive knowing and being which, I presume, are not exposed in the subsequent experience of shame and alienation. The isolating, alienating factor of sin, its death denial, and its exponential mimetic desire (in the first pair and their offspring) will all become part of the biblical depiction of sin. What is offered in place of life is death, in place of God shame and absence are held out as divine experience. In place of naming and knowing God, a knowing which refers back to itself (the reduplicated “I”) is taken up.  And this is always what the arche, the principle of the world does; it constitutes a closed world in which nothing is made an absolute impassable boundary. The idol is an unobtainable object which creates exponential desire which gives rise to child sacrifice.

Paul equates sin with this same idolatrous desire which comes to grip everyone, as they are confronted with the law and they find that their own “I” or ego is as unobtainable as an idol. The death connected with this desire can either be a slow masochistic struggle with one’s own body of death, or it can just turn to murder or idolatrous slaughter (Rom. 3), but the point is to gain, through death, what was withheld by desire. This is why Paul connects universal death with the spread of sin, as death evokes the response which characterizes sin.

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 and Augustine’s formula for original sin (all somehow mysteriously sin in Adam) reverses cause and effect, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned. In Paul’s original argument, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with the obvious reality that we all have the problem of death.

The human project is to extract from the mortal that which is immortal, to make the perishable imperishable and this is what Paul calls sin. Notice that the sequence of events in I Cor 15:55-56: O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Paul is describing a law, given power, through sin’s orientation to death.  This law of sin and death pertains to any law, any symbolic framework, which would reify nothing.

A different way of saying all of the above, is through a misconstrued creation ex nihilo (as Jacques Lacan first recognized), in which nothing is posited as that out of which every subject generates himself. The self consists of a three-fold dynamic in which the symbolic order (the law) names and posits an object (the ego – the “I”) which is nonexistent, and the drive or dynamic to grasp or obtain, is death or the death drive. In this depiction the human subject is a continually generated creation ex-nihilo. Like Martin Heidegger’s vision of a vase, as structured around and containing nothing, or actually creating a void, this named void describes every idol. This captures Paul’s depiction of the subject that would displace God: the law acts as father creator, and the ego is the object he would draw from the nothing, and this dynamic of death serves in place of life.  On the way to thinking and grasping after being, there is a generation of nothing. But this exercise is continually reduplicated in various human undertakings, whether religious (idolatrous religion but also every sacrificial form of religion), philosophical (Conor Cunningham runs this down exhaustively), or in the philosophical arguments for God

Many things reduce to nothing, but it is the way in which philosophical arguments providing for the initiation of the theological project have introduced nothing into the heart of theology which is my present concern. It is not so much the legitimacy of the various philosophical arguments for God but the form of reason with which they are connected and to which they give rise, which requires scrutiny. As I have previously claimed, the danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The “reason” that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is the implicit necessity which Hegel and Schelling expose. The peculiar modern form of thought, which René Descartes is usually credited as fathering would generate or identify being with thought (“I think therefore I am”).  The move is a reduplication of the lie of Genesis 3 in its claim to life through knowing, and can be directly traced to Descartes’ deployment of Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm illustrates the same move in both his cosmological and ontological arguments, as in his cosmological argument all thought ceases before the ontological divide but in the latter, there is a singular thought of God or the name of God which begins from the other side of this ontological divide in which immortal being is grasped (though this greatest thought does not allow for any other thought, such as thought of the created order).

 A more obvious and pervasive incidence of the same thing is the Kalām cosmological argument, which develops as part of the Islamic version of scholasticism as an attempt to establish and defend the tenets of Islam. The Arabic Kalām literally means “speech, word, utterance” and is derived from the expression Kalām Allāh (Word of God) and refers to a special mode of thought and argumentation. Kalām denotes then, not just one argument, but the discipline within Islam, and eventually Judaism (as in Jewish Kalām or Kalāmists), which will be absorbed by Christian scholasticism and western rationalism which will foster the same abstraction and the same gap between God and his word. The controversy surrounding the “Word of God” in Islam (is the Word created or part of the essence of God) marks the problem as it will arise in Christian scholasticism regarding the person and work of Christ. The focus on the equivocal or analogous as opposed to the univocal and propositional, describes the gap brought about in the peculiar abstractions surrounding and prompted by kalām.

Knowing God on the basis of the world is obviously very different than knowing God through Christ, which is not inherently a problem, but the first sort of knowing has historically come to interfere with the second order of knowing. It has given rise to a reason to which the Logos of Christ is made to adhere. It is not simply that the argument falls short of the personal God of the Bible, but it fosters a cause and effect notion in which God might be an extrapolated cause of reason, behind or before the universe, but is removed by the very mode of the argument from our words and world.

William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world.” Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated.[1] What is implicitly made to differentiate and divide is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates.

God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

This is not so different than imagining that God is self-caused, as if there is a division between the being of God and the cause of that being – one that allows for the thought of God. This supposition, as worked out in Schelling and Hegel, is not simply necessary for God but it is a necessary move to posit reason as its own sufficient ground. Reason as absolute – the reason of God – cannot be constrained or contingent lest it be caused by something beyond pure reason. Eternity, for Schelling, holds out absolute freedom as that which is enjoyed by a Will which wants nothing as it is wanting in nothing. It is actualized – or in the language of Craig, it becomes a causal power – when it actively and effectively wants this nothing (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Only nothing can avoid the possibility of some determinate content, but this is a nothing made something, so that God himself is produced through the creation ex nihilo of pure and perfect reason. The formal conversion of nothing into an actively sought after “nothing” accounts for the absolute “ground” of God’s coming to himself. “The blissful peace of primordial freedom thus changes into pure contraction, into the vortex of ‘divine madness’ which threatens to swallow everything, into the highest affirmation of God’s egotism which tolerates nothing outside itself” (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Otherwise nothing would ever happen. What Schelling and Hegel expose is the necessary role of negation and nothing in absolute reason.  

God serves as his own ground and posits himself in the absolute freedom and rationalism of the enlightenment. An argument which will deliver God, is an argument in which reason is posited as more primary than belief in God.  The strength of the argument depends upon the strength of the reason deployed and absolute reason depends upon a conclusion arriving at the absolute. Craig’s version of the kalām argument depicts the gap of nothingness which the argument brings to life.

The point of the incarnation, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, is to erase the reifying lie inherent, not only to modern rationalism, but surrounding the impetus to alienation and death (he who would save himself). Where the cosmological argument assumes that something exists, then argues from the existence of that thing to the existence of a First Cause or a Sufficient Reason of the cosmos, Christian believers presume to encounter God in his essence in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in. There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God, but what stands in the way of this revelation is the insistence on a sufficient knowledge apart from the act of God.


[1] “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf

The Immoral Argument for God

In philosophy of religion and apologetics the moral and religious arguments for God proceed from the universality of religious beliefs or morality to the conclusion that God must exist. As C. S. Lewis describes the moral argument, there must be a universal moral law, or else ethical or moral disagreements would make no sense, all moral criticism would be meaningless, promise keeping would be unnecessary, and no one would think to make ethical excuses.  From here Lewis extrapolates to a moral Law Giver who made us like himself, instilling a universal moral law within us. The religious argument proceeds along the same line, extrapolating from a universal or perhaps sui generis religious experience to the existence of God.  This presumption is taken up in modern religious studies in the positing of a sui generis notion of religion (all religions can be traced to the same source) and the presumption behind the moral argument is taken up in modern ethical studies in the notion that the primary work of an ethicist is to study ethical quandaries in an effort to arrive at correct decisions (reducing ethics to human decision and will). In both instances there is the presumption that the impetus to morality and religion can be extracted from the particulars of culture (in pure reason or transcendental experience), as if there is a universal reason and experience not mediated by culture.

An inherent problem to both of the arguments concerns, not just their legitimacy (which might be preserved), but the mode of argumentation or reason undergirding the arguments, which more or less reigns in both secular and religious studies. In theological studies, for example, there is a common presumption that universal understandings of religion and morality are parallel to the religion and morality of the Bible and that there is no need to challenge either the impetus behind religion or morality as they are universally experienced.  This strikes me as false at several levels: it is not true to the deadly nature of religion and morality on display all around us and it is not true to the biblical depiction of human morality and religion. What seems obvious (and we do not need atheists to make the argument, as this is the biblical picture) is that human religion is foundational to humankind and that foundation is murderous (the working premise of the theory of René Girard and of various apocalyptic theologies). In turn, morality may indeed be instinctive and innate, such that the human sense of justice, morality and law, whether corporate (giving rise to war) or personal (giving rise to murder) is directly connected to the worst forms of evil, justified as part of a righteous cause (which is not to reduce all morality and justice to immorality and injustice but simply to indicate the human bent).  

Kant’s moral argument demonstrates the potential problem with every moral argument, in that it does not conclude to any specific or definitive moral content and it has been deployed in the name of the worst sorts of evil (see here).  A specific result of the Kantian notion that ultimate moral duty is accessible through reason, is the presumption that knowing the right and recognizing evil need not be informed by Christian faith. Human reason and moral sensibility are presumed sufficient to arrive at the truth, and Christ is a prototype of what can be otherwise known by reason, though we may still need rescue from out of the world, even in Kant’s understanding.  The general result (of Kant and the Enlightenment) is a division between theology and philosophy of religion, in which certain topics, such as the problem of evil, have been partitioned off from theological explanations of the Cross, and theological explanations of sin have not engaged the possibility (which I presume is the biblical explanation of evil) that human morality and religion are (potentially?) immoral and evil. This is rather odd, considering that we live at a point in history in which it is nearly universally recognized that the worst of human atrocities, the Holocaust, was carried out by the heirs of the Enlightenment. Given the realities of history and the actual arguments which were set forth in the wake of Kant, the alternative to the received religious and moral philosophical arguments for God might begin, not from a presumed positive moral and religious understanding, but from the opposite. What I will call the “Immoral Argument” is a partial indictment of the traditional arguments but also a suggestion that the inverse of these arguments points directly to the specifics and necessity of the work of Christ.

To lay the groundwork for the immoral argument, the two notions of evil, privation theory and radical evil (a term coined by Kant), have to be considered in light of the Cross. Assigning evil, either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in philosophical theology, precludes grappling with evil as radical or diabolical (the biblical picture of what the Cross defeated).  Rather than pit these two theories against one another, radical evil (the notion that evil is its own ground) might be equated with the lie of the serpent in Genesis, the covenant with death in Isaiah, and with the prominent role of the diabolical in the Gospels. It is not simply a theory to be judged true or false, but in the Bible it is a false possibility, as it is a lie that is posed and acted upon as part of human reality. Interestingly, Kant hits upon the notion of radical evil as part of his depiction of human freedom and autonomy, which fits with the biblical lie of sin (the drive to human autonomy and an alternative knowledge).

In defending perfect freedom, Kant requires both a will acting without constraint or contingency (so as to be free) and reason, which is self-evident and self-grounding. It is this combination of free will and reason which gives rise to his categorical imperative: “It is there I discover that what I do can only be unconditionally good to the extent I can will what I have done as a universal law.” The will contains the possibility of the good as it enacts the universal moral law uncovered through reason. His concise formula of this imperative, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” is the compelling force behind duty and morality.  He concludes that “If one finds the right and acts on it from the motive of a purely good will this is to walk the path of perfect moral duty.”

Even in Kant’s own explanation, the possibility that one is committing evil, under the compulsion or conviction that he is doing the good, poses itself. Given the moral maxim that one should always tell the truth, he can find no exception, even when it might mean the death of an innocent person (a murderer asking after a hidden victim must be answered truthfully, according to Kant). “I must not lie – confronted with the temptation to do so, I sense the categorical imperative as the claim upon my will. I ought to tell the truth for the truth’s sake. With that pure motive, without self-interest, I decide to tell the truth; morality has prevailed.” Kant is prepared to let the chips fall where they may on behalf of moral duty.

 The truth for truth’s sake seems to have taken flight of any earthly consideration or particular contingent circumstance. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “Only an ethics based on such an imperative can be autonomous, that is, free of all religious and anthropological presuppositions. Only by acting on the basis of such an imperative can an agent be free. Such an ethic is based on reason alone and can therefore be distinguished from religion, politics, and etiquette.”   Jacques Lacan claims, in his critique of the Critique of Practical Reason, that Kant displays “a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no worth. [Man] lives only because it is his duty, not because he has the least taste for living. Such is the nature of the genuine drive of pure practical reason.” 

To arrive at a non-contingent necessary reason, the basis for true freedom, reason cannot be grounded in anything else; it must be its own ground. But this self-grounding reason also poses the possibility of a self-grounding evil. His imperative does not specify any particular context or content but poses itself as a self-evident and absolute duty. Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem and the Marques de Sade both appeal to the categorical imperative to justify genocide and murder, which coincide with their sense of moral duty. That is, much like Kant, they arrive at radical evil through the categorical imperative, with the difference that they choose to act upon it.

So, what we call the “moral law” may be nothing more than the superego or the law of sin and death. What Kant calls the categorical imperative can and has been read as a form of moral masochism in which one would serve the father, which could be mistaken for God or God’s law, but which is nothing other than one’s own father image (Freud’s superego, the source of the drive to masochism and sadism). Kant’s moral imperative (or something like it) has been taken up by societies and individuals as a pure form of deadly desire, which Paul sums up as the dynamic of the body of death.

The incapacity of the will Paul describes (doing what he does not want and not doing what he wants) is not due to a lack of a sense of duty or an ignorance of the law. There is no one more duty bound or more steeped in moral and legal imperatives than Pharisaical Paul, but this duty drives him to arrest Christians and consent to their death. It is precisely the Pauline categorical imperative which makes him the chief of sinners, but Paul assumes everyone is subject to the same desire and the same law which give rise to universal immorality. So if we were to make a moral or religious argument of Paul’s theology of salvation, it would be an argument beginning from immorality: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1). The exposure of universal moral and religious failure in the Bible would seem to weigh against appeal to an an innate positive moral capacity but this also seems to pose another possibility.

Something is displaced in both the moral and religious experience of most people, but this displacement or negation also points to what is hidden from the understanding. When the Hebrew prophets confront idolaters, this is depicted as a lifting of the covers or an exposure of something hidden, which is meant to shame them and bring about repentance. This means the hiding must include repression or hiding from the truth which the prophets bring to consciousness. The hiding of the first couple, the hiding of the Jews behind false idolatrous religion (or ancestor worship and necromancy in Isaiah), or what Paul describes as a hiding behind the Law in Galatians, is dependent upon the repression and negation of what must be available at an unconscious level. Paul’s argument is not that this is a peculiar experience, as all are called to repent from what at some level, they must know to be a falsehood.

Neither the typical religious or moral intuition point, in and of themselves to God, but in their positive form they constitute a self-grounding system (on the order of the categorical imperative and the presumptions behind radical evil). The experience of Paul in Romans 7, for example, depends on the negation and absence of God. God the Father is negated by an orientation to the law (the law serves in place of Abba); the experience of life in the Son is negated by the “I” or the ego; and life in the Spirit is negated by the dynamics of “this body of death.” This trinitarian negativity constitutes an identity in which God is unavailable but indicated, even in his absence. Trust in this system, in Paul’s explanation, is exposed in the agony (Ro. 7) and evil (Ro. 3) it produces. To stick to the law, to the categorical imperative, or to the lie of radical evil, ensures that one will never encounter the God of the Bible, but the danger which Paul warns of and implicit in the moral and religious argument, is that one will mistake the absolute of the moral law for God.

Perhaps this pertains to the legitimacy of the moral and religious arguments only to the extent that they depend on the notions that there is universal access to the moral law and a universally positive religious experience from which one can extrapolate by means of a neutral, objective, and universal reason to an understanding of God. This may not be a wholesale invalidation of some form of the arguments (a weak form?), but it would seem to call for an alternative understanding of reason, and a relinquishing of the notion that there is access to a universal and definitive moral law.

Maybe all my argument amounts to is that there is access to God only through Christ but even this understanding contains its own moral and religious argument as even in his absence, in immorality and false religion, God leaves his trace.

(Registration will be open from Friday the 16th for the next class with Ploughshares Bible Institute, “Imaginative Apologetics,” go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/about)

Knowing God’s Essence

The danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The reason that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is as good as it gets. (To tell the story as if it is the fault of the philosophical arguments or the philosophers, is a slight miss-telling, as it presumes philosophy or philosophers are the movers and shakers in society when they may simply be the markers of a general failure.) It is not that the arguments or their purveyors generate this dualistic epistemology, but the gap, difference, or alienation, inherent to a common understanding, articulated and explained by Kant, presumed by Hegel, followed by Heidegger, becomes the epistemological frame for generations of theologians. The dichotomy between spheres of knowledge (science/humanities, sociology/religion, theory/practice, etc.) marks modern theology, which even at its best is modern because it presumes the mind is stuck in apriori Kantian spatio-temporal categories. Biblical studies focused on the historical critical method (whether of a liberal or fundamentalist bent), or theology focused on satisfying the mind of God, going to heaven, the apophatic, or the God beyond being, all betray this dualistic epistemology. Whatever else it might have spawned (e.g. the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation etc.) the modern is this shared epistemological starting point presumed to be more basic than religion or particular convictions about God. It is presumed that people know in the same basic way; it is just that they have journeyed to different places along the same road. Thus, the philosophical arguments (to say nothing of Christianity so engendered) do not challenge, but utilize what everyone knows to be the case (as the arguments explicitly state it).

Natural theology as the theological prolegomena (the philosophical arguments about God serve to introduce classical forms of theology and it was this beginning point Barth was attempting to sidestep), indicate that this problem is not external but internal to the modern theological project. Given the epistemology of the philosophical arguments, as Kant saw it, Christ is simply a prototype of what can be accomplished by reason and reason cannot get us to either the noumenal or to God. Though most theologians would not want to state it so bluntly, Jean-Luc Marion’s notion that God is unknowable is the theological conclusion to working within the Kantian framework (God is without being and beyond knowing). His is only one example of a long line of theological systems which would seal off God’s essence from the incarnation (cordoning off the economic Trinity from the immanent Trinity, or disconnecting the pre-incarnate Logos from the incarnate Christ, or suggesting, with Barth, that human language is inadequate, though it can be specially appropriated for and by revelation).

The solution (let’s not go there but start elsewhere), may seem to be no solution at all in its unwillingness to engage the starting point, but my understanding is that Christianity begins elsewhere. The fittingness of the world as a dwelling place for God is where the Bible begins (creation, God walking in the garden) and ends (heaven come to earth) and it is the point of the incarnation (Emmanuel – God with us). There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God in his essence.

As I have described it elsewhere (here), we identify who God is through incarnation because this is really who God is. The Logos is the incarnate Christ and, though we can ask other questions and raise other issues, the main point (God is with us in Christ) should not be subjected to some other mode of understanding or some other speculative questioning. We may ask after the pre-incarnate Christ, but the Bible and the early Church fathers equate the Word, of John’s prologue, with the Word of the Cross and the Word of the Gospel. It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from the Word of the Gospel (the crucified and risen Lord and not the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel). We begin as believers with the presumption that we encounter God a se (in his essence) in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in and what sort of creatures we are, who bear the image of God.

As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, in her “theological compatibilism,” God’s being is not remote but is known in “our earthly words and world and signs.” In what she considers a paradigmatic case, the appearance of God to Moses, “The bush burns with divine fire; yet the bush remains unconsumed. . . This event and truth simply is the mystery of the cosmos itself. . . This is the gospel. And every reflection upon epistemology and metaphysics must be in its turn gospel, rendered in formal analysis.”[1] God has revealed his nature and his name in an unapproachable light (Moses both sees the light and turns away), that both reveals and conceals God. To call this revelatory theophany a “paradox” would be to impose a prior framework, while what is unfolding in this event fits no frame. It is not idolatry, it is not an affirmation of absolute transcendence, and it is not some sort of paradoxical contradiction, but provides its own frame of understanding. God’s transcendence does not preclude his immanence as, on many occasions culminating in Christ, God is present, without mediation, without distance, without analogy, in creation.

God manifests himself in the world and this need not be balanced out, as Aquinas would have it, with negative concepts extrapolated from his transcendence. Aquinas reasons that humans can speak of God on the basis of the divine name (Ex. 3:14) but this negativity falls short of apprehending God in his simplicity, indicated by the name. As Matthew Wilcoxen describes it, Aquinas strips away false understandings of God’s being so that his existence is shorn of all composition. No relation to creation (inclusive of the elements of human understanding) can penetrate or approach divine simplicity – God’s essence within his self-relation.[2] This will become such standard fare in theology that it nearly goes without saying. Aquinas will set the stage for apprehending God through both the way of negation and the positive mode of revelation, and of course, subsequent to Thomas, these will become competing modes in which philosophical negation and certainty will co-opt the faith of Christ.

Understanding Jesus as Logos (as opposed to a pre-existent Christ) and recognizing with Sonderegger, God has chosen in his transcendence to be immanent/present in human history and human language, means that the world is perfectly adequate to reveal God in his essence. Humans, in their sinfulness, may not be up to this adequacy and may prefer to cling to dualism, antagonism, and a violent epistemology, but this human failure is not a delimiting factor for God. This is the point of the incarnation (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). God does not need protecting or defending through mediating categories which preserve his transcendence. Christ is truly human and divine.  Certainly, this does not mean that we know all of God in Christ or even all of Christ in Jesus. It does mean we can really know God in his essence as revealed in Christ which, in turn, points to divine hiddenness and transcendence. However, this hiddenness is forever being revealed and this transcendence is not an impassable barrier. As Sonderegger puts it, “We are never done with this invisibility and hiddenness, never done with this exceeding light, never far from this scorching fire. It is communicated to our hearts and to our intellects; yet never identified with them.”[3]

As she maintains, we do not need to be able to spell out how God can be poured into our world and into our understanding, it is enough to report that he has and to extrapolate from his act (in Christ) how we are to interpret and receive this mighty deed.[4] There is no end to the theological quest, no end to the questions and applications, given this compatible epistemological starting point, which forecloses on Anselm’s incomparable difference (the end point of his cosmological argument and the starting point of his ontological argument), which bequeathed to the world, not only philosophical arguments for God, but an epistemology devoid of the essence of God.  


[1] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 81-83. I am quoting from the Dissertation, Morally Perfect Being Theology: A Doctrine of Divine Humility by Matthew A. Wilcoxen.

[2] Wilcoxen, p. 182.

[3] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid, p. 127.

The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.

Theo-ecology: Western Wildfire’s Prophetic Cry

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Smoke choke. Two words I never heard before. Two words I now know intimately, like a dial on the stove top turning up the heat.  “Smoke choke” seared in me a desire for theological action regarding creation care and climate change. 

The mega-wildfires of the West had sent their foreboding herald. In the sleepiest moments of night an ominous smoke crept over the entire West Coast and into communities of the Olympic Peninsula. Our town is situated near the northwestern-most point of the contiguous United States. We were caught unaware. 

Smoke Choke, September, 11, 2020:

Setting the fan on low I welcome the cool air from nearby Salish sea. My kids will sleep well tonight. 

The morning light peeps through our window’s edge. A burning courses down the length of my throat. Stinging tears perch on the creases of my eye lids.  There is a strange haze highlighted by a 7 A.M. burnt orange sun. Our home smells slightly of some odd aroma. It smells of sharp and sweet burnt plastic. My lungs constrict. Fumbling for my inhaler, I puff the stuff of pulmonary salvation. 

Seattle’s news update explains our air quality is now hazardous. Mega fires with their own weather system send their message: Hazardous. What does it mean? It means the air my daughter and son breathe is poison. Each breath could deliver poisonous microscopic particles deep into their lungs.

September 12, 2020

Seattle’s Komo news demonstrates making homemade filters out of box fans. One HEPA filter and copious amounts of duct tape forms the makeshift adaptation. It is too little, too late for our drafty home. Words of complaint fall from my lips, “My throat is still on fire.” The asthma attack tightens its vice. “Do you think the hotel will have clean air?” Andrea asks.

Driving away, the car mirror reflects a hazy image of the neighborhood. The radio blares the height of a smoke plume on top of Western Washington–6,0000 feet. A meteorologist explains, “It’s called an inversion– meaning the clean air is trapped above 6,000 ft of smoke.” 

At the hotel Sophia and Ty spill their toys over patterned carpet. There are no advertisements regarding Quality Inn’s air quality. A few breaths in and it’s clear; we escaped the poison air.

“Hazardous,” is the message of mega-fires from the chaparral mountains in California. “Poison” is the message from the evergreen mountains of Oregon. Beyond the flames, what does the message communicate?

It communicates the prophetic witness of fire. In ecology, or the study of Eden, fire is a renewing agent. It burns through the old and worn out stands of forest–a function often thwarted by mankind’s forest management. Pioneer species and other plants dominate recently burned areas. These pioneer plants–sometimes forming wildflower meadows–renew the soil. 

As time passes, newly conditioned soil begins transitioning to larger, more nutritious plants. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when commenting, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:49

Let’s lean into the interpretation of Jesus wanting fire for dramatic renewal. Consider the ecological function of forest fires coupled with the mind-boggling size of West Coast wildfires. What are the forests pleading? What is the earth asking? What is creation groaning?

The earth is asking for renewal. The forests are asking for a restart. Perhaps creation …

waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

-Romans 8:19-22

The initial devastating destruction of wildfires mirror society at large. Society is dependent upon a death-dealing transaction of negligent thinking translated into a fiery blaze of irresponsible human industry. For example, technology’s codependence on manufacturing promotes exploitive resource extraction which harms the earth and props up unsustainable carbon industry. 

It is a global societal pattern akin to the early and chaotic stages of a spreading fire. 

Wildfires also tell us that gluttonous earth consumption is hazardous and ignoring the earth is poisonous. Within the literal smoke the fate of creation and humanity become united.  The smoke is burnt particles of industry: cars, gasoline, non-renewable materials and pollutants. The smoke is also burnt homes, animals, plants and human life. Prophetic fire warns us and smoke compels us to change. 

Fire is a startling teacher and yet it heralds good news too. After the flames arrest our attention we can choose to start anew. We can choose a new relationship with creation by working with the ways of the earth (ecology), not against it. We can renew our relationship with God as cultivators instead of consumers. We can forge new relationships with each other as fellow cultivators, not destructive competitors. Yes, it’s hard work. But don’t worry; we have help.

“One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Luke 3:16

Do-ology Challenge: Get some dirt in the game! Replace smart phone time with planting real trees via a conservation app.  https://www.forestapp.cc/

What Does the Death of Socrates have to do with the Death of Jesus?

I had not been back in this country very long until I was frustrated with the teaching profession. At the time, I doubt I would have blamed it on the caliber of students, because I had not yet been able to discern any caliber, other than one. Then one day in a theology class a towheaded eighteen-year-old (Ryan, as I would learn), who I had not noticed at all in the large class, posed the question, or something like it, in my title above.[1] There is no aspect of the Christian faith to which this question does not pertain. For example, the word from which we get “apology” (apolegein in Greek) means defense, as in the defense Socrates would present in his trial in Athens and the word specifically applies in the New Testament to the trial of Jesus. How we understand these two trials and the two deaths, or how we understand the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, law and salvation, is determinative of our understanding of the Christian faith. What I slowly recognized in Ryan’s question, is that the way in which Jesus’ trial and death contrasts with that of Socrates brings out the peculiar nature, not only of the defense of the gospel, but of the gospel itself. So here is a succinct answer to the drawn out course of study Ryan’s question demands.

The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt on two charges: impiety against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state. His answer to both charges is to show that it was in devotion to Apollo that he sat out on his course of dialogic questioning. He had been told by a friend that the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi had revealed he was the wisest man in Athens, which caused him to try to prove the Oracle wrong by finding someone wiser. He was simply on a mission to sort out what people actually knew as he assumed he had no great wisdom. He acknowledges his own ignorance but is surprised that this insight alone set him above his contemporaries, most all of whom presumed to have special knowledge. It was in searching for a man wiser than himself, someone who knew his limitations, that he earned the reputation of being a social gadfly. His argument is that he is a good, pious citizen, and not guilty of either of the charges. He is, nonetheless, found guilty and he accepted death by suicide rather than fleeing into exile.

Socrates clung to the city, with its laws, religion, and even its right over his own life and death.  It was his attachment to the city which explains his acquiescence to drinking the hemlock; he could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. He died secure in his citizenship without questioning the laws, tradition, or religion, of the society into which he was born. His final words demonstrate as much; “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it and don’t forget.” Asclepius is the god of health and Socrates presumed, as every good Greek would, his prayer was answered in being cured of the disease of life.

In summary, there is no argument about the role of law, religion, or about the foundational role of the city in the trial of Socrates. To read Socrates’ trial and death as parallel to that of Jesus is to misread Christian apologetics and theology (and this is the way it is often read). Jesus trial, and certainly his death, is not an affirmation of the laws and reason of the city but is a challenge to both, so that a Christian defense and theology would undo and reorder human thought and imagination.

In the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John no judgment is ever formally declared. Beyond this, there is an ambiguity as to who is acting as judge. Jesus is not being judged by Pilate, at least in any formal sense, as Pilate is going to refuse to pronounce judgment.  Pilate attempts to follow his wife’s advice, to “have nothing to do with this man,” and so he “washes his hands” of the affair by simply turning the matter over to the Jews. He suggests to the Jews, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (19:6, NASB). This is more of a taunt on the part of Pilate, for he knows they have no power to crucify and are precisely forbidden by Roman law to try capital cases and their own law forbids crucifixion.  Pilate repeatedly claims there is “no case against the man” and so he cannot pass judgment and there is to be no trial. When the Jews begin to yell, “Crucify him,” Pilate reiterates that there is “no case against the man.”  The Jewish leaders then suggest that, though he may not have broken Roman law, Jesus has broken Jewish law by claiming to be the Son of God.  For Pilate, this is one more turn of the screw, he becomes “even more afraid.”  Pilate, seems to suspect he is the one undergoing trial and judgment. 

After Pilate declares there is no case and he cannot judge, he has Jesus paraded out in his royal purple robes and his mock crown and declares, “Behold the Man.” Jesus has been beaten and is bleeding, and  Pilate seems to be attempting to reduce Jesus’ importance in the estimate of the crowd, perhaps to save his life through his humiliation. Of course, it is Pilate’s own life that has now slid onto the scale of judgment. The Jews explanation that he claimed to be the “Son of God,” Caesar’s own claim as to source of his authority, directly pits the claims of Jesus against those of Caesar and Pilate.  Pilate’s attempt to reduce Jesus to bare human life, devoid of the dignity accorded the “real” sovereign, and his use of the royal robes and mock crown works against his purpose.  The “mock king” raises questions as to the power and claims of the “real thing.”  “Look at the Man, there is nothing there – right?” The trick not only does not work but seems to backfire.

Pilate asks, when he returns to the Praetorium, “Don’t you understand I am the one with the power in this situation,” and the question behind the question is who is really calling the shots? Jesus clarifies, “You have no power over me whatsoever that is not given to you from the very source from whence my kingdom comes. Your powerlessness is evident, so the ones who delivered me to you bear the greater guilt.” Pilate’s concerted effort not to pass judgment stands in contrast to Jesus’ ready willingness to pronounce judgement. His judgment concerns not just human law, he presumes to announce eternal decrees as to who is more guilty of sin. As he has claimed throughout his ministry, judgment is determined by what you do with him.  “Certainly, those who have delivered me to you are worse off according to eternal judgments, but Pilate, your claims to power are clearly illegitimate. Beyond that, all claims that follow in your stead (those of every human sovereign) are now thrown into question.” At least, this might be implied from the conversation.

When Pilate asks if Jesus is King, Jesus replies, “You are the one who has said I am a king,” and Pilate’s every move says as much.  Jesus acknowledges that his kingdom is not from this world. The tradition surrounding this statement, from Augustine to Aquinas, is not that Jesus is establishing his kingdom elsewhere; rather, it is not established in the mode of this world’s kingdoms.  It is a heavenly kingdom in its origins, but the incarnation and this very moment in the trial are witness to the earthly nature of the kingdom. Their brief exchange leaves Pilate in a panic and he attempts to have Jesus released. The Jews then pull their trump card: “If you release this man you are not a friend of Caesar.”

What happens next heightens the ambiguity as to Pilate’s response.  Jesus stands robed in royal purple and a crown of thorns as a prolonged debate about sovereignty unfolds.  The one who is supposed to represent Caesar is now threatened with the power of Caesar.  Subsequent to John 19:13 (the verse in question), Pilate will change his, “Look at the Man” to “Look at your King.” Pilate, Caesar’s representative, provides the strongest testimony as to Jesus sovereign identity.  At this point, the Jews seem to grow frantic and drop all pretense of a Jewish legal proceeding: “We have no King other than Caesar.” The words on the lips of the chief priests, the representatives of the theocratic government of Israel, is nothing less than blasphemy – the charge they are bringing against Jesus.  Here is the final denouement of their turn from God to kings, as now God does not figure at all into their view of sovereignty. They are abdicating their Messianic hope so as to excel even Pilate in their singular loyalty to the god-king Caesar.  The implication is that they would set aside Jewish tradition and law in their blasphemous absolutizing of Caesar. 

Following the Textus Receptus, John 19:13 is usually translated as, “He [Pilate] brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (NASB). However, there is an alternative reading which says, “He led Jesus outside and sat him [Jesus] on the judge’s bench.” In this reading Jesus, and not Pilate, is seated so as to exercise judgment.  Pilate is not simply refusing to judge but is declaring Jesus the rightful judge as well as king, which fits his statement at this point: “Behold your king” (19:14).  Though the people began to shout for his death Pilate is not dissuaded as to Jesus identity, “Shall I crucify your King?” he asks. The one who has been seated in the place of judgment, the one declared “King of the Jews” by the representative of the earthly sovereign, the one pronouncing judgment on both the Jews and Pilate, is the one “handed over” in lieu of judgment.  No judgment is passed by the earthly judges but the succession of people to whom Jesus is handed over declare him innocent (repeatedly in all four Gospels). Ultimately, at the crucifixion, in three different languages, Pilate pronounces Jesus is “King of the Jews.” When told that the sign should read, “he claimed to be King of the Jews,” Pilate refuses to change it.

This reading fits with the accounts of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus is also dressed in a purple robe, given a scepter, hailed as the “King of the Jews,” and it fits the sign Pilate has affixed to the Cross in all four Gospels. It explicitly fits with the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (c. 190 CE), in which the people “put on him a purple robe, and made him sit upon the seat of judgment, saying: ‘Give righteous judgment, thou King of Israel’” (3:7). In each of the Gospels Pilate declares him innocent and refuses to declare a judgment. Jesus is crucified outside of the City of Jerusalem and outside Roman and Jewish legal codes and no judgment is ever passed.

The trial of Jesus serves as a marker of two types of interpretive frames and two types of theology. A theology built upon the notion that Jesus is legally sentenced to death (a strange but common understanding) cannot discriminate between the intent of Pilate, the Jews, and Christ, so that good and evil are fused into a singular purpose. In this understanding, Roman law and God’s law are united to bring about the death of Jesus. God is simply working out his providential intent to punish Jesus under the law so that he might be punished for all. Rome, with its god-Caesar is not being judged, but Rome’s law and justice are perfectly adequate for God’s purposes.  After all, Rome and the Church will unite under Emperor Constantine and this Constantinian Christianity imagines that human law, justice, and government, are in accord with God’s purposes in Christ. In this understanding the economy of salvation works within the economy of human cultures and nations so that salvation comes through Constantinian Rome or Christian America. As Dante will describe Jesus’ trial, it was under a lawful procedure bringing about a just punishment, therefore, one cannot pronounce its proceedings evil. 

Luther, as representative of this understanding, imagines that when Pilate wants to free Jesus and when he declares there is no case against Jesus, this is a temptation posed by Satan. He explains Pilate’s wife’s dream (as a result of which she tells her husband to have nothing to do with this man) as a demon’s intervention seeking to impede the crucifixion. That is, to halt the trial or prevent the death of Christ would be to subvert the divine economy of salvation. In this understanding, Pilate, Judas, the Jews, the Romans, all line up as part of God’s effort to have Jesus punished. Rather than seeing the trial of Jesus as a clash of powers, this reading presumes that God is the puppet master pulling the strings and human law is the instrument he employs. Good and evil are not really opposed to one another, as “all things are working together for good” (to misquote Paul). In this understanding, God’s sovereign purposes are always being worked out, regardless of the particulars, as the eternal trues of heaven render the particular facts of history largely irrelevant. All of history is a revelation of the divine and no particular events can be pivotal.

This Constantinian, Roman, American, Christianity, will account for evil as a necessary outworking of law. For example, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for playing a key role in the holocaust, uses as his primary defense that he was just a bureaucrat following Hitler’s orders. When pronounced guilty his last words were, “I had to obey the rules of war and of my flag!”  Law is law, and in this very German-Lutheran version of theology, even Jesus death will be explained according to this absolute. The divine economy is not an intervention into, what appears to be unmitigated evil (Hitler is hailed by German Christians as God’s spokesman); rather, salvation is being worked out according to codified human moral standards. Given the theological understanding that human law and God’s law are one, there is no end of “divinely sanctioned” evil.

The alternative interpretive frame and theology is to see the human economy, human government, human notions of law and justice, and human reason as coming into conflict with the divine economy of salvation. If ever there were a point in history where two worlds (two notions of truth, two economies, two notions of justice) stood opposed, it is the trial of Jesus. In this understanding, there are pivotal or significant events in history which pertain to eternity.  Christ is confronting evil in the form of Pilate (Rome’s representative), in the form of the leading Jews (representing Jewish law and religion), and all of these forces unite in the death of Jesus. This is not the law of God but is the culmination of the outworking of the law of sin and death. Christ has not come to fulfill this law but to expose it for an abomination. Under this law, man passes judgment on God incarnate, but the very purpose of the incarnation and this “trial” are to overturn human judgments.

In the trial then, two kingdoms are clashing, two notions of sovereignty are being contested, and truth itself, as it relates to kings and kingdoms, is argued by the defendant and the Roman Prefect.  Pilate’s “What is Truth?”, given this context, reflects, a failure to grasp that truth is not an impersonal, eventless, “what.” With the preponderant claim of Rome upon his sense of order and justice, Pilate could not discern that Jesus was Truth incarnate. His misdirected question betrays his incapacity, despite his prolonged subsequent attempt, to assess the truth of the case. What is ultimately tried and found wanting in the trial of Jesus are human notions of law, justice, and truth.

In contrast to Socrates, Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Unlike Socrates, Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. Socrates accepted his death according to the law while Jesus questioned the authorities and he did not die according to, or within, the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection.

The failure to grasp the contrast is evident in arguments, such as those I was taught in seminary, which would presume a universally shared rational foundation (Athens leads to Jerusalem). One need not rely upon revelation to follow Anselm into his greatest thought that can be thought, and Kant suggested that all of the arguments for God were founded in the same ontological presumption. By the same token, a theology which works within the parameters of the law (Jewish, Roman, or a universally shared morality) will interpret the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion (a central part of the gospel), as a direct outworking of a conjoined human and divine will, rather than a clash between the human and divine. Those who take up the cross and follow Jesus, however, do not share the Socratic acquiescence to the city of man and its laws, but join Christ outside the city gates in an alternative kingdom, an alternative logic, and an alternative imagination.


[1] This changed many things in my teaching. I began to notice the occasional bright spots and Ryan helped Faith and I develop an honors program and went on to conquer the world of academia and academic publishing, another story, but we have remained friends over these past 15 or so years. His question was not unlike that of Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” with similar implications.

Apocalyptic Apologetics


As covid-19 deaths continue to mount, as fires burn in the western half of the States, as injustices against immigrants are compounded, as the jobless numbers accumulate and the economy falters, one might conclude things are not working. Things are not working for the environment, for the poor, for immigrants, for the jobless, for those who are sick and dying, or for anyone. I suppose things are working fine for Jeff Bezos and his kin. Some will thrive on the chaos and destruction but clearly there is a limit, even for those who are benefitting from the destruction. There is a limit to consumption, a limit to pollution, a limit to the “acceptable” number of deaths, a limit to a system which appears to be breaking down. The desired outcome of the present crisis would be recognition of this limit so as to see beyond it. The crisis calls for a conversion of the imagination, for doing things differently, for a different life-style and a different system of values. There will always be those who double down on destruction but the case, an apologetic, has to be made that things are bad because the roots are rotten and there needs to be a holistic conversion.

This is always the conversion an apocalyptic Christianity calls for, as the mode of this apologetic is not reliance on the system, on common sense, or reason alone. This apologetic points to the dystopia, the violence, the failure, the evil, the lie, not in order to justify it or use it, but to transcend it. The old order of apologetics (the one in which I was trained), ontotheology (an idolatrous foundational argument), theodicy (a justification of evil in place of its defeat), moral arguments (which actually point to universal immorality) are, by definition, a grounded vision (grounded in the way things are), but the small points of light, of grace and peace, always stand in contradistinction to the way things are and indicate there is a better way. To transcend the system is to recognize its inherent limits; it is to recognize the evil it entails and the destruction upon which it relies. There has been a rejection of traditional apologetics in many quarters (I believe, rightly so), but this simply follows from the rejection of a limited notion of Christianity. An apocalyptic re-conception of Christianity calls for an apocalyptic sort of apologetics. If this apocalyptic apologetic is correct (correct about the apocalyptic nature of Christianity (a breaking in with a new Kingdom and new system) and correct about the necessity of demythologizing and deconstructing so as to apprehend the alternative order), then it would seem the Christian apologetic is only beginning.  

The holistic critique and demythologizing on the order of the theory of René Girard, demonstrates the sort of movement I have in mind. War and violence were once thought to fit within a rational political frame (“war is politics by other means”). War was once between warriors, knights, samurai, the aristocrats, in the same way sacrifice was once tied to religion. Christianity, according to Girard, removes the safety valve of the scapegoating mechanism (the third way), as the truth of Christ exposes the lie behind the mechanism of sacrificial violence (which once delimited and controlled violence) and the unfolding of this demythologized history gave rise to the total war of the previous century. As a result, a stark choice presents itself.  The choice is to either double down on commitment to inevitable progress, on the possibility of political containment of global destruction, on the consumption and destruction of the environment, or one can become a Christian (of the apocalyptic sort). Girard’s theory might be termed the first holistic apologetic in its demonstration of how violence (in religious myth in ancient society and in “containment” etc. in modern society) is the structuring mechanism of society to which Christianity offers an alternative. Recognizing the destructive apocalyptic reality of the age is the first step in accepting an apocalyptic answer.

The job of Christian apologists is not to refine Enlightenment style rational arguments but it is to demonstrate that the fires, metaphorical and literal, consuming our world were lit, not by some external force, but by the logic inherent to the arguments which would claim to save us. That is, our salvation system (inclusive of the modern sensibility, including modern religion and modern fundamentalism which reads violence as divine will) is destroying our world. Girard’s depiction of religious violence (the scapegoating mechanism, religious myth) turned into secular violence (the “idea of progress,” nuclear containment), locates the human problem in humanity – humans are responsible for their destruction and violence. An apocalyptic apologetic makes the case, first, that we are bringing on damnation, and second, that this fate is not inevitable. There is a vision, a faith, or imagination, which holds out hope. But as Girard puts it, “hope is only possible if we dare to think the perils of our time” (Girard, 2007: 16).[1]

A true Christian apologetic must begin then, with thinking and recognizing the deep perils of our time. This accords with the Greek meaning of Apolegein, which means “to tell fully.” John Milbank imagines the “apo” of the word might be connected to apophatic or a sort of objectivity, but it fits better with the notion that this narrating apologetic pertains, at least in its initial move to “standing apart,” “away from,” the peril of our world.[2] It is not a simple objective detachment. The apology is not an attempt to hold one’s ground in the city, being objective, by the logic of its system.  Milbank’s, mainly harmonious, comparison of the death of Socrates and Jesus seems to miss the stark difference of the Greek apologetic (offered by Plato on behalf of Socrates) and the Christian apologetic. Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. The failure and peril of the one, points to the other. Socrates clung to the city, the very reason for his suicide, and could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Not, as Milbank would have it, according to the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection. Socrates died secure in his citizenship. The difference is important in recognizing the wall the Christian apologetic cannot accommodate.  The wall of hostility which would separate the inner workings of the Temple, the inner workings of Jew versus Gentile in the city, constitute the law or wall or logic that is undone in Christ.

Millions of innocent victims have been sacrificed on behalf of this barrier, first on the sacred altar and then, more dramatically and destructively, on the secular altar. Christian revelation demystified the role of sacred violence, and according to Girard, if the lie of archaic religious sacrifice had continued, the holocaust of secular violence would have remained bottled up.  The truth of violence is exposed, however, and as Girard puts it, “We are not Christian enough.” Half Christian has turned out to be more dangerous than totally deluded, and thus, according to Girard, Christianity may have unleashed the very apocalypse which would ensure its failure. Now there is scapegoating without the myth (which would contain the violence), and so the Jews must be completely destroyed as in Nazi Germany, the demonization leading to lynching in the American South continues unabated, the “total wars” of the previous century are the new norm, and mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the reigning logic. War and violence are limitless where the minimal exposure, the half Christian, is not completed by an apocalyptic vision displacing this world’s order.

In terms of my own work, traversing the fantasy, recognizing the lie, is not itself adequate.  One can question the law or manipulate the law but there really is no alternative to the law of sin and death (the mode of redemptive violence), apart from its displacement. Exposure of this primordial order, as in Marxism, or its manipulation, as in fascism and capitalism, unleashes an untold and unlimited violence. There may be a recognition that the victim is innocent (as Robert Doran points out, “the very calculated nature of Nazi propaganda shows that its inventors did not completely believe it”), that the object or the lure of our desire will not satisfy, but in the hands of capitalist marketers this exponential desire can be unleashed for total consumption (absolute capitalism).  The minimal recognition of the dystopia of consumptive desire and violence is only the beginning. Insight (the real insight of Hegel, Marx, Freud, and psychoanalysis) may be deployed to control desire and violence or simply to unleash it but it cannot cure it. Without an apocalyptic displacing of the law of the father (the conscience, the punishing superego) with the Father (Abba), without displacing death with life in the Spirit, without ridding ourselves of the image in the mirror with the image of Christ, we are doomed to repetitive violence and death drive. As Doran sums it up, “A minimal recognition that the victim is innocent inflames the passions of the persecutors who thereby seek to validate themselves by seeking out more and more victims.”[3]

Of course, the apocalyptic vision is not limited to rightly viewing the destruction but refers to the breaking in of an alternative apocalyptic kingdom. As in Paul’s demonstration of an apologetic (in Acts 26), the two apocalyptic orders (the dystopic and salvific) have to be simultaneously envisioned. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul depicts his own religion and belief system, when he was simply a Pharisee, as driven by destructive violence:

“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities”

(Acts 26:9-11).

This pursuit of violence and the death of Christians is not simply Paul’s story; it is the culmination of the story of what it means to be a true Pharisee. He is not apologizing for his Pharisaical commitments (as Milbank would have it), he is demonstrating to Agrippa that he once would have stood with those, like Agrippa, who would arrest, judge, and kill. Paul’s Pharisaical world was not a platform he would save and accommodate but it was a world that needed exposure and repudiation, as it was a singular manifestation of the self-destructive world order. Everyone walked according to the course of Paul’s previous world, thinking they served God while subject to the subversive powers of this world (Eph. 2:2). This is not simply Paul’s personal problem. His story contains the universal passage from out of violent darkness into the light:

“While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”

(Acts 26:12-15)

The drama of Paul’s conversion is one we tend to locate in inward personal conversion, but Paul is relinquishing one world order for another. Sticking to his former identity, the system of his world, constitutes “kicking against the goads” of truth. To stick to this failing order would amount to a commitment to blindness, to violence, to causing blasphemy. It is the same sort of persecution which killed Christ (and every innocent victim).  The light of Christ breaks into this darkness so that Paul’s former world is undone and this is the passage he pictures every Christian as undergoing – passing beyond darkness to light.

He prays that all may develop a sanctified imagination, with eyes which can envision a different world order: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). The vision which interrupts his journey is the apocalyptic revelation which interrupts, deconstructs, and reconstitutes all who share in his Gospel vision. Paul’s apologetic is apocalyptic in its depiction of this passage through perilous violence to a liberated, transcendent vision. It is an apologetic, as this story and the worlds it entails, both dystopic and salvific, is universal.  

(To learn more, plan to join our upcoming PBI class “Imaginative Apologetics.”)


[1] This is quoted from Robert Doran’s reading of Achever Clausewitz (literally: Completing Clausewitz) in his article, “René Girard’s apocalyptic modernity,” in Comunicação & Cultura, n. 11, 2011, pp. 37‑52, which I am following here.

[2] From the Forward of Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Doran, Ibid.

Nonviolent Atonement: Beyond Christus Victor to Expanded Recapitulation

I was explaining to my 81-year-old friend that, though it may be surprising, the very center of Christianity, the meaning of the work of Christ, is under contention. I was saying this, assuming the uninitiated presume that those on the inside of this religion are in agreement on what it is about. I explained that there are multiple theories which are in complete disagreement. She replied that it was not surprising at all. I knew she considered profession of Christianity an uncertain predictor of anything. She asked me what I think. We were swimming laps at the time. We swim a lap between the major points of our discussion and so I swam and considered.

 She has very eclectic spiritual tastes and a variety of physical ailments, so she tends to judge her spiritual consultants according to their practical results. She receives treatment from an Amish Masseur (I never knew there was such a thing and there may only be one) who is also a first-rate carpenter. She speaks highly of foot massages from a native shaman (just paroled), and acupunctural care from a fine Mormon (who has had marriage difficulties, but this may not pertain). She recently changed chiropractors, not because of religion but due to overall philosophy. Apparently, there are crunchers and adjusters but, as far as I know, these are not religious descriptors.

 I formulated my concise statement, and I want to point out that I was mostly underwater and low on oxygen.  “The atonement,” I said when we came to the end of the lap, “is an intervention by God into the human predicament, inclusive of the psychological, social, and historical trajectory of human beings.” I pointed out, “The atonement has nothing to do with changing God or solving God’s problem. People have the problem and the work of Christ addresses the human problem.” I was fairly pleased with my succinct, practical, summation.

Though she may not have been aware of it, I had separated out atonement theories which pertain to harmonizing the mind, satisfying the honor, or appeasing the anger of God. In other words, I had eliminated the theories of Anselm, Calvin, and, though it is subtle, I had also eliminated theories which project violence onto God, theories focused on the wrath of God in future eternal punishment, and law-based notions. But I gathered from her reply that she may not have fully appreciated the subtle, surgical like precision, of my finely honed statement. “You could make picking your nose complicated,” she said as she kicked off for another lap.

So, here is my attempt to formulate, if not a nose pickingly simple, at least a less complicated description of the central point of Christianity. Prior to this simpler presentation, let me make some general observations about what is and is not happening in this simpler explanation. The biblical explanation can be simple, but is mostly complicated by extra-biblical theories. In the explanation below, neither God nor the devil require the death of Christ (as in the most widely accepted notions of atonement), but his death plays the role of defeating the orientation inherent in the law of sin and death. So, this does not fit with ransom theories or forms of Christus Victor that presume the devil receives the payment. There is a ransom from slavery but no person (God or the devil) can be said to be doing the enslaving (sin and death enslave) nor receiving the payment. It does not fit with Anselm’s satisfaction theory that imagines God’s honor is satisfied by Christ’s death, nor does it fit with Calvin’s penal substitution that presumes Christ’s death pays the eternal penalty of hell required by God. In both of these theories there is a notion of retributive punishment, which is of medieval origin (existing yet today in our criminal justice system) which imagines righteousness requires punishment. The biblical concept of righteousness is of making things right in the world and there is no notion of abstract righteousness that must be satisfied. Neither does the understanding  presented here really fit with Abelard’s notion that the cross is some sort of moral influence, in that the cross is depicted as playing a much more specific role in regard to human sin and the human predicament (the orientation to death is undone and life in the Spirit is inaugurated). Both Anselm and Abelard wanted to remove the devil from the equation as he is seemingly given too much power in their estimate. Thus, they rejected Christus Victor and attempted their own explanations. If Christus Victor can be rescued from notions that the devil killed Jesus and that God handed him over as a ransom to the devil, then the description given here might be taken as an expansion on Christus Victor. Christ is victorious over sin and death but specifically he defeats the lie connected to sin and death. There is a law of sin and death which reigns through deception (inclusive of human violence and not God’s violence), and it is this law which Christ came to defeat.

In what might be taken as the theological heart of the New Testament, Paul says it most succinctly and simply: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8.2). There are two sorts of conditions (two laws), or two sorts of people attached to these conditions, and Paul describes these two types in Romans 7 & 8, respectively. The law of life frees the individual as it displaces the law of death in the individual (“me”).

Chapter 7 describes an individual who is isolated and focused on himself, with repeated reference to “I” or “myself” and this occurs in the environment of “the body of death” which Paul describes as a life of slavery to fear (8:15).  The suffering of the “I” is a suffering implicit in the use of the word, as this “I” (grammatically and experientially middle voice) is at once active as the cause of the suffering and passive in that it is the object of this suffering. Paul describes a painful desire working through a split in the “I” (ἐγὼ/ego), between mind and body, and sums up his problem with a question in 7:23: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

Chapter 8 speaks of rescue from this “condemnation” through a corporate identity (in Christ, in the Holy Spirit). The environment of these two types informs the contrast between them: the isolated individual is isolated in the environment Paul calls the “law of sin and death” or the “body of death” and the corporate individual is “in Christ” and this being in Christ will bring about a series of cosmic (creation wide) and divine connections (inclusive of all three persons of the Trinity).

The Holy Spirit does not appear in chapter 7 but is the theme of chapter 8 (mentioned 19 times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11) and with the introduction of the Spirit, Paul’s question (of 7:24) summing up his problem and the human problem, is definitively answered. The rescue from the body of death and the law of sin and death is through the Spirit of life brought about by being in Christ.  The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law” (ἕτερον νόμον), but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) who ushers in the law of life in the Spirit.

Everything remaining or everything beyond this basic explanation of the move from death to life, is filling in the details of the how and why.

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of chapter 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the living death of the identity of “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14).[1] Paul differentiates two Subjects which might be dubbed “the Subject of desire” and “the Subject of hope.” The Subject of desire, deceived as it is, makes the law a means of achieving the self and so enacts a loss in which the “I” objectifies or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7:23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7:20-21).

Hope counters this spectral relation to the self: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all” (8:24). If the object of hope is within sight then it ceases to be hope. Hope, by definition, falls outside the static spectral relation (the bodily image or the image in the mirror or the image of others) as it reaches forward to that which does not appear. Where the split “I” focuses on fulfilling or finding the self in and through a self-relation (the bodily image of self or other), hope is focused on the prospect of conformity to the unseen image of Christ (8:29) and it does not mis-recognize the mortal body but it presumes that through the Spirit the body is resurrected (8:11). Where desire arises through lack (lack of self), the ground of hope is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (8.29).

Achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of walking as he did (8:4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8:5), of active submission (8:7,13), and patience (8:25). The hope of resurrection (8:11) displaces the static orientation to death (the negation or denial of death ) in the acceptance of the mortal body (8:11) without slavery to fear of the punishing effects of the law (8:15) (or the punishing conscience or superego), for through the Spirit of sonship a direct relation to God has been opened (8:15).

Put simply, one Subject is the Subject of life and the other is the Subject of death. Though this could and needs to be filled out and explained, what may be most noticeable in this explanation is what may seem to be missing.

Where is the devil? The devil is present in Paul’s explanation as the deception in regard to the law. In his particular explanation in Romans 7, Paul is making specific reference to the role the serpent in Genesis plays by creating a misorientation to God through a deception in regard to the law (or prohibition in Genesis 3). This power of the devil is a deception that Paul depicts being deployed by the principalities and powers, which presume God’s authority and rule in this world are challenged by the powers, but it is not simply a singular personal force.

Where is the wrath of God? The punishing effects of the law of sin and death are an admixture, in Paul’s explanation, of divine wrath and human wickedness. The judgment passed on sin brought condemnation (from God but also from the inherent nature of sin), so that death reigned from the time of Adam (5:16-17). God condemned sin through death but the condemnation Paul is describing in chapter 7 is the active human implementation of death in which death is the inherit outcome of sin.

Is there substitution? Certainly there is not substitution in a Calvinist or Anselmian sense, but Christ has intervened and taken up the sort of condemnation meted out by and inherent to sin, so that it can be said, God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (ἁμαρτίας κατέκρινεν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐν τῇ σαρκί) (8:3) so that it no longer deals out death by deception. As a result, there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). In chapter 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας) (8:3) so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20).

What is the role of the law? Paul links the capacity behind the cry “Abba” to an ontological shift which manifests itself in the move from a previous incapacity to obey the law to the capacity to now meet the righteous requirements of the law (8:4-11). This is not simply a forensic shift or imputed righteousness, as Paul proceeds to explain how the previous incapacity has now become not only a possibility but an obligation (8:12). The law is not definitive of either the problem or solution but it marks both.

I am not sure what to call this explanation, as it does not fit precisely with many of the theories of atonement, though it may fit best with the picture of atonement found in Justyn Martyr and Irenaeus. It might be deemed a form of recapitulation in which focus on the nature of the deception, the form of its exposure (not worked out by either Justyn or Irenaeus), are filled out in a new form of Christus Victor. Dying with Christ can be understood as the death or victory over investing life in the alienating lie (the defeat of the law of sin and death) and the beginning of a new kind of life in communion with Christ and his body by means of the Spirit of Life (the law of life in the Spirit).


[1] The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20) who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28) who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3) and who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) as he died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in the Spirit and in whom the Spirit dwells (8:9) as the Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13) and through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and who helps in weakness and prayer by interceding for the saints (8:26- 27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17), and saving hope (8:20, 24).

Traversing the Fantasy of Jerry Falwell Jr. and American Politics?

Fantasy is what obscures or covers over the inherent antagonism or contradictions in our personal or national identity. This antagonism is the force which pits one race and class against another culturally but it is also the antagonistic force at work within the individual. The fantasy of personal identity covers over the incongruence and contradiction which plagues us, and the fantasy which holds a culture together functions like a mass delusion to hide the inherent contradiction of a people. Every individual and culture is structured around its fantasy, covering points of contradiction or impossibility. When the fantasy fails, the points which might seem to have been disrupting the culture, are exposed as the structuring principle of the culture. Fantasy does not resolve or reconcile but obfuscates the inherent antagonism. For example, the fantasmatic Jew in anti-Semitism (hoarding the wealth conspiring against and blocking the Aryan race) covers class antagonism, in the same way the phantasm of black jouissance in American racism projects onto blacks or people of color the disturbance of what would otherwise be a harmonious social organism. The foreign element (the Jew, the black, the foreigner, etc.) “disrupting the harmony” creates the lure of this harmonious fantasy. The pain, disruption, disharmony, which we are now experiencing might evoke a “traversing” or exposure of the fundamental fantasy or it might result in the compounding of commitment to the lie. To put the question in perspective we can turn to a more controlled and limited instance, a smaller instantiation, of what plagues the nation. What is wrong with Jerry Falwell Jr.?

The success of Jerry Falwell Jr. has far exceeded the vision cast by his father, and there is a sense in which his vision brings together the inherent antagonism erupting around us.  It is not just that his support of Donald Trump was key in swaying evangelicals to support Trump, it is not just that his school and family have been key in the rise of the rise of the religious right, but his vision fixed upon the figures of his father and Donald Trump explains not only his own contradictions but the unfolding national implosion. As the president of Liberty University (the most ironic of names) Falwell Jr. unleashed the business, sports, and political potential of an institution founded upon the repression his father institutionalized in the school, in the Moral Majority, and in the wedding of right-wing politics and religion. Falwell’s embrace and promotion of Donald Trump is a natural, if not necessary, extension of his father’s vision but it is also speaks of his private perversity.  It is no accident that law and order, racism, and sexuality of the repressed and transgressive sort, have taken center stage in the man and in the movement, which characterizes a large portion of the country.

As Paul (and Žižek) describe it, there is always a split in the law in which the law would repress or forbid jouissance and in the process creates the seeming possibility of a transgressive enjoyment. In Paul’s description it is this very prohibition that brings about jouissance or forbidden desire (“I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET” (Ro. 7:7)). In turn, the repressive figure of Jerry Sr. does not preclude but entails the necessity of a Trump like figure (the restriction of the one points to the enjoyment of the other). Trump, with his wealth, transgressive sexual practices, racism, and open agitation of violence, is the tangible empowerment of those who support him. (As I have described elsewhere (here), the power to discipline, punish, penetrate, demarcate, and procreate, whether by judicial decree, military might, or sexual prowess, is, by definition, physical; a pure biopolitics in that it is synonymous with an incarnate power.) Trump is the incarnation of evangelical desire for power. The inherent racism (the original impetus of Jerry Sr. to form a political lobby so as to maintain both racial discrimination and tax-exempt status for his school), the repressive sexuality (no prolonged hugging, anti-homosexuality) leading to sexual perversion, the promotion of violence and guns, and the financial and business success, describe not only Liberty but the dynamics driving evangelical’s support of Trump.

Jerry’s perverse sexual activity is no more a betrayal of his father than his support of Trump. His is an unquestioning acquiescence to the fantasy of an absolute law. By the same token, the transgressive life Jerry seems to have enjoyed was his means of establishing the puritanical law.  He would establish this binary law (doing evil that the good may come) in the same way he would establish the law of his father through Trump. Of course, just as black people, foreigners, and liberals are the perceived gap or enemy of a balanced culture, the enemy in Jerry’s world was the transgressive desire of his wife for Giancarlo Granda.  This foreign sounding name, of this almost colored pool boy, provided prohibited pleasure (jouissance) from the underside of the law. All blame lies with the pool boy in the same way the Jews, blacks, people of color, or the foreigner, are to blame. These foreign elements simultaneously disrupt and indicate there is more pleasure to be had.  

For his admirers like Falwell, Trump is representative of the obscene pre-Oedipal father partaking directly of the jouissance or excess enjoyment of the law they are denied. As the very embodiment of law, Trump need not hesitate (he can directly “grab them by the pussy”), while Falwell requires a mediator (a pool boy) to enjoy for him, as he has access to jouissance only through the “big Other” behind the law. The repression of the father means repression is part of his own possibility of phallic enjoyment, which is to be had in the simultaneous pleasure in pain or guilty enjoyment. His father, Jerry Senior, serves as the prime figure behind the public presentation of the law but Trump provides the sort of access to the powerful underside of the law that Jerry Jr. embraced.

As in the Fall, the knowledge of good and evil is itself an indicator that there is more to the prohibition of the Father than appears on the surface. As the serpent indicates, it is not death but life that is accessed through transgression. The perverse orientation presumes the law is itself the indicator that something more is available – it points to the opportunity for more (excess) life and knowledge. The perceived disruption, lack, or absence must be filled in on the other side of the law. Pursuit of forbidden desire is the force of lack (sin) as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (Ro. 7:8). The command not to covet or desire gives rise to desire. “Thou shall not,” is the imperative to enjoy (to really live) by means of transgression.

The theology of Jerry Falwell, like the theology of evangelicals, seems to follow, and not contradict, the logic of the serpent. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals indicated as much, when confronted with the inconsistency of preaching against homosexuality while having a homosexual affair (see here). Haggard explained to Larry King that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” The sin confirms the grace; the evil establishes the good. Pat Robertson has confirmed in his vision of heaven, Donald Trump sits in the place of Jesus, at the right hand of God, and in his description of his approval of Trump, it was precisely his lurid sexual adventures Robertson smilingly approved of.  As Dallas megaChurch Pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress has put it, Trump is preferable to a candidate like Jesus (or Jesus-like) for President as Christ’s Lordship and ethics (as described in the Sermon on the Mount) do not pertain to governance of an earthly nation. We need an unrestricted ethic to engage the realities of the world; one that is not bound by the inherent weaknesses of mere love of neighbor and God. The exposure of the sexual perversity in Falwell and Trump are not then, an obstacle, but a perverse sort of confirmation.

It is evangelical theology that partly sustains the fantasy (a future heavenly harmony disconnected from earthly ethics) obscuring the antagonism erupting before us. Doubling down on the racism, squelching the protestors (equating all protesters with rioters), and reinforcing the demand for law and order, is the equivalent of blaming and punishing the pool boy. The evocation of fear on the part of President Trump is precisely what is called for in warding off the choice being posed in this moment. Fear of immigrants, fear of open borders, fear of an uncontrolled black population, fear of rioters and violence, are the only thing inhibiting confrontation with the antagonisms constituting the social body. It is a real question whether the culture can hold together without its fetishes of fear, but clearly the lie (the fantasy) can no longer contain the antagonism, so that this moment is providing the opportunity to traverse the fantasy and expose the lie. At the least, we need to turn to face reality, and abandon a politics that continues to obfuscate the antagonism of racism, classism, and sexism (the structuring principle of this social order).

Lessons from Canada’s Poet: How Cohen’s Beauty Outlasts Fear

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims. 

Canadians are in an uproar. Much to their dismay, Trump used their beloved Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah, twice over.  Leonard Cohen was a singer-songwriter and poet who died in 2016. I happen to be a huge fan of both his poetry and songwriting. He is a subversive figure who champions beauty. Trump is a divisive figure who champions fear. Cohen is an eloquent poet, Trump a brutish tweeter.

On Thursday evening of August 28th Trump’s campaign appropriated the lifegiving music of Cohen for the purposes of fear. The RNC used Cohen’s music to woo an audience and soften Trump’s rough image. The contradictory pairing of the venerated poet and Donald Trump calls for an examination of Cohen’s work. President Trump, his supporters and all of us would do well to learn from Canada’s muse.

The majority of Cohen’s songwriting is not explicitly subversive.[1] His honest beholding of beauty and pure expression of art, is itself, subversive to the powers.  He gently holds the beauty of humanity and of the created world while simultaneously witnessing the complexity of love’s suffering.

 Unlike the fast-paced consumption of modern media and politics, Cohen encourages somber yet pleasurable reflection. In the act of beholding beauty through poetry, our often-violent impulses for legal rights, guns, security and wealth dissolve. Marveling at beauty soothes us toward our more vulnerable selves. If society could simply be in awe of beauty, vulnerability might lead to compassion.

Imagery of Cohen’s “The Window” demonstrates the beautiful and vulnerable condition of humanity.

Now why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side?

And leave no word of discomfort
Or leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host, gentle this soul

The tension of beauty and pride, chosen love and frozen love, broken hearted and gentle soul evoke an exquisite tenderness for human suffering and love. Cohen is of Jewish descent and in several early writings he incorporated imagery of the suffering Jesus Christ. The first stanza brings to mind not only the spear in Christ’s side but also the spear in the side of the listener. For the spear “of the age” and the “powers that be” harm all of us in one way or another. 2020 is a stark reminder of how powerful entities harm people – black civilians, immigrant families, the poor. Cohen’s art touches the listener through beauty and inspires one to empathize with the wound in the side rather than extort it.

Works such as “The Window” cultivate empathy and reflection. Such practices are deeply needed in American culture. Cohen’s poetry stills the human heart and fixes our attention on beauty. His work calms fear and beckons our hearts toward peace. Like a mother gently rocking a baby to sleep, Cohen’s music woos listeners into a vulnerable surrender of beauty. The listener relaxes in a willing embrace. In contrast, Trump’s rhetoric to his base is like a parent exposing their child to a horror flick before bed time. Consequently, the child embraces the parent in white-knuckled fear.

One could say, “submission to beauty” is the power or spirit of Leonard Cohen. Evident in his poetry, written in “The Flame,” he submitted to beauty with raw vulnerability. This poetic spirit calls the listener, voluntarily, to bended knee before the sacred.[2] Conversely, Trump rhetoric orders people, often the marginalized, to bended knee via the smoke grenades of “law and order.”

During the convention Donald Trump and his political team, consciously or not, sought to harness and manipulate the spirit of Cohen – the power of submission to beauty – by using the song Hallelujah. Trump’s campaign emptied the meaning of Hallelujah by using it as a signifier or symbol for a faulty unity based on fear.[3]

The RNC used one of the most revered artistic songs of modern times, Hallelujah, and emptied it of its meaning by pulling on the spiritual strings of the conservative base. Consequently, a hollow Hallelujah becomes an empty signifier used for manipulation. The original song cues and signifies feelings of love. Unfortunately, the masses of the RNC mistakenly associate Hallelujah’s positive feelings with Trump’s spirit of fear.

The unparalleled beauty of Cohen’s melody disarms the hearts of listening Republicans and calls to the audience’s inner desire for beauty. Potentially, they opened their hearts with vulnerability and received not the healing of the artist, Leonard Cohen, but the poisonous lies of a con man, Donald Trump.

Cohen’s song Hallelujah typically ends with listeners awed into a profound solidarity and reflective silence. Cohen teaches we are all lonely and we all love. We are not alone in the exquisite pain and joys of love. Trump’s performance ends with raucous applause widening the chasm of division. Teaching not solidarity in existence but wealth in division.

Unfortunately, for fear filled power structures a paradox remains. Trump’s appropriation of the music, in effect, propagates Cohen’s message of beauty. Playing the song deposits its truth in the subconscious of listeners. Cohen’s expression of pervasive beauty is subversive to power structures by simply being in existence and Trump’s use of Hallelujah perpetuates Cohen’s
healing work.

His poetry is detached completely from consumerism, patriotism and other forms of power. To be in awe of Cohen’s art is to temporarily experience freedom from struggle while beholding beauty. Unwittingly, Trump’s campaign further propagated the humble yet eternal truth of Hallelujah. Unbeknownst to them, as Hallelujah wafted in sound waves to the ears of thousands of people, it carried sacred beauty and it’s unifying elements. However long it takes, no matter the loss, the disappointment, the suffering, beauty and love will out last.

The oppressed, the suffering and wide eyed cross bearers can find solace and enduring beauty in Hallelujah’s final lines:

I’ve told the truth
I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah [Praise Yaweh]



[1] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018 Although his song Democracy is an explicit example of subversion: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cohens+song+onamerica&docid=607993096676966909&mid=4E E0A854F88A4B8CF3A74EE0A854F88A4B8CF3A7&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

[2] Paul Axton explains the coercive use of signifiers in his blog:Forsaking Chritian Ideology.
https://forgingploughshares.org/2020/08/27/forsaking-christian-ideology/

[3] Cohen, Leonard. The Flame. Old Ideas LLC, 2018