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A Meditation on Atonement

Language inscribes us into the world but what we would do with the letter, the word inscribed over the body, is escape. We would sink into language like a good Hindu loses himself in “OM” or soar heavenward on the wings of the letter. The word opens the third eye of entry and escape, it energizes the chakras of the body, transports to the essence of the universe, as it delivers from “ordinary reality.” Like the Babelites climbing heavenward the mystic, the philosopher, the engineer, the Don Juan, would sink into, climb upward, construct, or erect, his way to transcendence. The word is interwoven with desire as invisible vehicle and substance giving rise to fantasies of divine ecstasy. The mode of transport is the hidden letter, the invisible word, which brick by brick lures toward divine fullness.

 Fundamentalism of every brand clings to the word – an intonation dripping from the heavens – which has to be preserved in its original essence and repeated obsessively. Behind this compulsion to repeat is Being, substance, essence, endurance, which requires a neurotic grip on certain sounds, precise words, exact rituals, which repeated often enough will deliver the divine essence of self to self.  Like a snake consuming its own tail, the self-consumptive feeding on self presumes to fill itself with the word – the inner essence of self. This Borromean knot constitutes passage beyond “nature” to the pure symbolic order in which copulation, consumption, and desire are written over with (unnatural) eternal significance. The finite world is taken up as part of a divine symbolic order in which flesh would transform into spirit through subjection to the word.

An imagined lost innocence intrudes – a cut in nature to be healed. The drive to return, to achieve synthesis, to close the gap, to return to nature, is the Subject of desire. Achieving Nirvana, eternal return, Moksha, enlightenment, heaven, peace, is the dissolution of the subject. The word holds out the essence of being through a closed wound – the wound of self. Healing is disappearance, silence, dissolution, melding, ecstatic coupling, fantasmic flight. Ultimate meaning is paid for by the annihilation of its empirical vessel. The soul is paid for by the death of the body, heaven requires cosmic dissolution, peace demands absolute obliteration.

In the words of the theologians, first order reality is impassible, apophatic, unmoved, beyond. God is made to sustain a disincarnate symbolic order and the Sisyphean task is to ascend beyond on what is below. The fixed upward gaze can only tread on this incarnate stairway to heaven.

The biological body is refused and speaks only through the unconscious – as erogenous surface, inexplicable trauma, excessive enjoyment. The perceived center consists of organs – the heart, the brain, the bowels, the genitals – without bodies. No longer serving the body but the symbolic order, blood, excrement, thought, semen – the issue of each is an enduring letter – a point of infinite meaning, a sui generis whole. Identity with this production is a passage beyond the body, “outpassing myself into death,” in order to avoid death. The dead letter bears immortality as it cannot die.

 The choice is thought over being, the symbolic over the real, the soul over the body, absence over presence, alienation over love.

If sin names the gap, the struggle towards closure, the self as wound, will salvation accomplish the desire of sin? Does the death of Christ dissolve difference into sameness, satisfy the death dealing orientation to the word, or does Christ expose the delusion behind this murder? Is the Logos on a continuum with this word so that he accomplishes the obscene demand for infinite sacrifice (the body, the cosmos, God) or is Logos sent from God an intervention into this word and world?

The atonement comes to this: The Subject is structured around an absence, and the reification of this absence in the fundamental fantasy (“I am my own essence”) marks the origin and core of the Subject put to death in Christ. The tomb is exposed as empty; the essence is an absence. It is not the supposed noumenal real that harbors danger and promise for the Subject; it is the exposure of this fundamental fantasy that threatens the consistency of the existence of this Subject. This is the primal fear cast out in the perfect love of Christ.

God as love revealed in Christ means the body is raised, renewed, made available. The incarnation is the dissolution of the body as an orthopedic of the soul, as the bearer of the symbolic. The dissolution of the Other (God as apophatic, immovable, impassable, law giver) suspends the world as sign, as law, pointing toward a transcendent signified.

Salvation does not accomplish the desire of sin; rather, communion, koinonia, love, are the signified order fusing flesh and spirit, soul and body, heaven and earth. The body as bearer of the symbolic (law) is dead. As a result, John tell us, “In this world we are like Jesus” (I John 4:17, NASB).

“God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

(I John 4:15-18)

John is pointing believers to an immediate realization of the truth in love. The capacity to love (to walk as he walked in obedience to his example), and the mindset of belief (to put on the mind of Christ) as part of this love are immediate existential proofs (as I’ve written about it here). Where the human word opens a gap (marked by fear and alienation), agape love does not simply close the gap but displaces it with the connectedness to neighbor, God, and self.  Where the distance between sign and signified (the law of the mind and the law of the flesh) disables the will, love is an enabling of human agency, an experience of belief (without dependence on distance or difference or fear), and an immediate realization of the goodness and beauty of God. This is the undeniable accomplishment of the Christ!

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained 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.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid

God is Dead and What a Relief

We have reached a peculiar moment in this country in which a form of conservative evangelicalism is proving empty personally and nationally. The strange convergence of evangelical subculture with a crude political populism disdaining kissing prior to marriage on one hand but allowing for “pussy grabbing” porn star sex on the other, may be proving unsustainable. The thin film of the evangelical bubble, of Jesus camp, witnessing to strangers, and rescuing souls from hell, constitutes a universe which seemingly depends upon the hard-shell counter orbit of building the wall, imprisoning children at the border, and relentless capitalistic greed. Is it the notion of two kingdoms, one in which the obscenest cruelties are required while the other is all heavenly bliss, or is it that the character of this God who requires infinite torturous punishment of the many is falling into question? The misogynistic cruelties, the inherent racism and classism of the megachurch (attempting to grow by being attractive and entertaining), the manipulations of the super-preachers in gaining more members and more money (and, frequently, more sex), the hothouse of anti-intellectualism and a ghetto of disengagement, may in fact align with racist, populous politics. At the same time, the latter may be the blaring sign of the emptiness of the former. Being a part of this particular in-group requires a disproportionate out-group, a narrow engagement with reality, and the tendency to reduce every person to a potential customer for Jesus, and to become an exalted Tupperware salesperson. Max Weber’s secularization hypothesis, that secular values are creating a break with the once absolute authority of the church, would clearly seem to be at work. Whatever the cause, the bubble of evangelical belief is bursting for many. For the generation of Joshua Harris and now for Joshua Harris himself, who literally wrote the book on purity culture, this sort of God and faith are proving implausible.

Ultimately, I think it is the psychological burden of belief in this God, which is so punishing and constrictive that it may not be enough to “be saved,” elect, chosen, special, in his sight. The fact that one has built his life, constituted his reason for being, or more intimately – constituted his very subjectivity in the reality of this God, means that being liberated from his clutches is not reducible to any of the above – though each may be a contributing factor.  

Harris seems to have kissed both his God and his wife goodbye simultaneously, indicating this is not merely a crisis in his belief in transcendence. Marriage is the prototypical religious and social obligation (the foundation of the family and of society) but normally one would think it is the prototypical love relationship. Clearly the two stand in opposition for Harris, who acknowledges, fear was a primary impetus in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. His evangelical upbringing caused him to pass on fear and suspicion of the opposite sex (of God?).[1] This is the natural outworking of a belief where the one stands opposed to the other – social obligation against love – society against the intimate self – the intimate kernel of self against the imposition of God. The mistake would be to imagine that this self exists apart from this imposition.

It is precisely the move to divest oneself of God or law and to experience true (transgressive) love which Paul deploys in Romans 7. In the case of the woman whose husband is alive but who has fallen in love with another man (Rom. 7:1-4), she experiences God or the law (the same thing) as that which opposes her love.  In fact, her love, her identity or self, is synonymous with the force of opposition. Paul will describe this self, constituted in an oppressive self-punishment, as one given over to the law. The God perceived as synonymous with this law is not God at all but a self-imposed law and by extension a God, as in Feuerbach’s and Freud’s explanation, which is a self-projection or a God conceived through the lens of sin.

 A self and God constituted in opposition depends upon a double logic of exception – the God prohibits the things he does (violence, genocide, continual anger, the demand for human sacrifice) and the ego or “love” is a symptom of the prohibition (God and ego stand in the same relation to law). Paul’s discovery of the law and his discovery of the “I” are simultaneous with his having broken the law – all of which accounts for his skewed Pharisaical notion of God (prior to his conversion). This means the prohibition only has its force in the exception or in standing outside of it.  Or conversely, the exception can be seen as creating the rule. As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself.  The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it (and this fits Paul’s description of the sinful orientation to the law).

The point is that this sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment in which the obstacle (God or law) constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband as representative of God or the law, is a necessary part of identity, as he is the obstacle that makes relationship with some “other” an imagined possibility. In this construct which Paul calls sin, sin is the resistant core (love, ego, “I”) on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which God or the law is experienced as a foreign crushing power. It is precisely this God and this law from which Christ delivers (“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4)).

The question is if the evangelical religion reduplicates this sense of self and God constituted in exclusion, with its imputed or theoretical righteousness (a righteousness that is never achieved), of a mostly future salvation, of a continual sense that the self is pitted against the self? The God who demands infinite satisfaction, continual repentance, absolute purity, must be felt as an oppressive force. The punishing sense of guilt seems to constitute the dynamic of the religion and the sense that the law/God is in effect. Could it be that this law is no longer God’s law but the sinful means of gaining life, love, fulness, or divinity?

Christ, rightly understood, overcomes false notions of the infinite identified with God and the law.  The positing of this bad infinite (the lie of sin, the guilt of the law, the punishing superego) gives rise to a living death (women are fearful, my body is not me, love is transgressive).  The infinite in this sense is a negation of the finite and material, so to negate this negation is the first step in bringing a return of the world. Luther’s phrase that God died on the cross, passed through Hegel to Nietzsche to the effect that God is dead. The God of the philosophers, the God constituting modernity, the God of reason, the constrictive God of the law, is indeed undone by Christ on the cross. Nietzsche’s error was to presume that this God was the Father of Christ. The death of this God in atheism, whether in the religion of Marx or Hitler, makes it clear that atheism has not “rid us of his shadow.”

In this sense, forms of evangelicalism may only be a practical atheism in falling short of the tectonic shift in identity, in a renewed understanding of God and the universe, introduced by Christ. It is questionable whether a religion which reduces to political populism, self-realization, or to a punishing purity, should survive. One can only expect that the freedom and relief realized in the death of this God is an opening to the faith of the One who displaced him.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Hello Goodby,” Slate, Aug. 23, 2016 accessed at https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/08/i-kissed-dating-goodbye-author-is-maybe-kind-of-sorry.htm “What I was writing about was ‘Avoid this pain, avoid these mistakes, don’t do these things.’ Is that really how we grow as human beings?”

A Week in the Life of Forging Ploughshares

Helga had lost four husbands, though I never inquired specifically how or when she had lost them, an oversight I soon regretted.  “Leaky pipe,” she said when she called. “Don’t try to keep me from crawling under there,” she said. So, I drove into the country to try to persuade her to let me crawl into the two-foot space under the floorboards of her house. It was breathtaking how easy it was to persuade her: “Ok, you do it,” she said as soon as I got there. Only it came out “jew do it.”  Though in her 80’s she was clearly in charge. “You are quite macho,” she said and I was sure she was mocking me. She could have searched the five-county region of northern Missouri and not found someone less qualified to fix a leaky pipe. I told her, “When you call the water company tell them you have a PhD on the job.” She found this terribly amusing and repeated it several times to let me know how clever she considered me. Being a foreigner and well educated she clearly had refined sensibilities. Missourians – I learned after 15 years in their native habitat – are highly un-amused with life and are a hard people to impress.

I was feeling appreciated – until I saw where she was having me crawl. I am not given to claustrophobia and have squeezed through the tightest spots in caves but I got a sick feeling looking into the cobweb covered hole. I barely managed to twist around the beams head-first into the dark mud-filled hole. “Crawl toward the var zide,” she shouted.  I barely fit under the floorboards and I had to crawl on my elbows and it was hard to slide forward in the sticky mud. “Go vurther back,” she coaxed in her East Berlin accent. Then I realized there was no light from where I had crawled in.  I was surprised she had managed to close the heavy trap door but she is quite athletic – a former coach. Then it occurred to me where I would find Charles, Obed, and Hans, the former husbands no longer with us. The call had been so urgent I had not told Faith or anyone where I was going and I had left my phone in the car.

The feeling was that of being trapped in a coffin. But I could breathe and after the initial panic I accepted my fate. Of course, I was sorry that they would never find my body and no one would gather to say nice things about me.  Faith would be mad that I had so irresponsibly disappeared.

I wished I could have gone to the shore and enjoyed a final visit on the beach with Jason and Vangie. Jason’s beautiful vision of heaven which he has written about (here and here) came to mind – a little community of people gathering, sharing, enjoying one another’s company – I realized it was something we had enjoyed together these last days.

 It had been a good week. Mazie made a fine pasta and a dozen of us gathered and we sang “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” and “The Vine and the Fig Tree.” Louis, a good Quaker, joined our group as well as Mary Jane and Dorothy. I met Gary and Mary Jane when I was 18 and Gary went, “To see Jesus first,” as he put it. He had so enjoyed our little group and I think spent some of his happiest final days in our fellowship.

At the end, a few of us travelled down to Joplin to see him – Mazie, David, Chris, and Kelsi had prepared some really bad jokes to try to cheer him up. It was his jokes that had gotten us started on joke nights. Gary had been my prayer partner for over 40 years and I had often depended upon his faith to bolster my own. We laughed, reminisced and prayed. David, one of the most sensitive souls I have ever met, grew sentimental but I knew Gary would have none of it. “You going to return my hand or take it with you,” he asked. He survived a few more days and we met up with Mary Jane and Dorothy at his funeral. The group was able to help Mary Jane move into her new house in town and it was wonderful having them here the past few weeks.

In thinking about resurrection, our discussion as we ended I Corinthians, we had all described the simple pleasures of the week and the little things we could do to make it resurrection like. David had described his work with the suicide hotline and veterans groups. I had decided to join him on a veterans kayak trip. Most everyone in attendance suffered some form of PTSD – some bearing visible scars but most suffering mentally. David has a wonderful gift of affirming people and I very much enjoyed our float trip.  

Kelsi’s younger sister, Jaycee, was visiting and we had spent a brief time pulling weeds in the garden – Kelsi’s resurrection work.  She has a Japanese-like sense of neatness and presentation, and though our garden is smaller this year, the cucumbers, tomatoes, sage, and basil, are thriving. I had spent several evenings admiring the garden while watching the hummingbirds coming in to the feeder. We had celebrated Jaycees thirteenth birthday and Mazie presented her with the only mochi birthday cake I have ever seen.  Mazie and Chris’s resurrection work is all around them in their kindnesses to people. Chris came and looked at the leak in the Carpenter’s House roof and repaired it temporarily before taking on the task of replacing the windows.

Though Frank is far enough in the country that he does not make it in often, he had come to fix the garage door but ended up installing two ceiling fans and a light fixture – something I could have spent months attempting and failing at. His expertise makes everything we do possible – I should have told him that. Little Frankie, Andrew, and Chelsea entertained us for the day while Frank fixed everything. The little guys were such a delight to be around that I wished I could have seen my grandson more often.

It had been a good week and as usual one of the highlights was the Romans class in which six guys from Mexico, Canada, and between, meet up online. I had been encouraged by Matt’s great enthusiasm and energy. His blog on resurrection (here) coincided with the theme we were pursuing in both the class and in house church. We had phoned him in on Tuesday, David and Michael figured how to put him on the tv, and he joined the discussion as I quoted him at length. He described his work with the girls in Uganda through 91/Four and the fellowship of men he ministers to coming out of addiction – his resurrection work. Sharon sparked conversation with references to Richard Rohr – whom she was having me read and I remembered we had planned a podcast. The Cosmic Christ was on my mind as I heard Helga banging on the floor.

“What do you see,” she shouted. It was then I realized she had not closed the trap door. I did not bother to explain that I had been dying in the mud – enjoying my final week on earth.   

(Names and events have been altered and rearranged for narrative purposes).

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Enjoy Your Symptom

The following is a guest blog by Archbishop Apollyon Creed.

Dying is such a pleasure. In fact, the stain of death evokes final pleasure, ultimate fulfillment, ecstatic disillusion, final and full release. The full satisfaction of death will relieve the tension, complete desire, resolve the pain, and the very hope evokes pleasure. Satori, nirvana, desire, fuses life with death so that the pleasure of living is in the dying. Life without death is a weariness, a too muchness. Life reduced by death is manageable, commodifiable. With only so much to go around the very stuff of living, the gusto, the being, the value, the pursuit of more, is made possible. Where would be the living in any but a zero-sum economy, creating the value of more – more money, more power, more importance, more esteem, more fame? What is the point without this surplus value?

This excess evokes desire – the life force itself. The child is drawn into the world, beyond womb and breast, into a fulness of life only where this excess is sparked. The first couple are drawn East of Eden toward heaven’s gate, toward a fulness of cognition and the heights of personhood, only through this weight of glory. The greatest pleasure, the most efficient healing, is the unrelinquishing pursuit of desire. The pearl of great price, the fundamental reality, that which gives coherence to love, passion, and ambition, is pursuit of this excess. By definition, to keep love alive, to maintain the power of life, passion must increase and not dissipate. Every thesis needs its antithesis, every entity a non-entity, every something its nothing, as synthesis and balance is the obliteration of the force and counterforce of desire. The ultimate hope is that there is no reconciliation, no harmony, no peace. The irreconcilable, the eternal war, the ongoing struggle, is salvation.

So it is, all obstructions, every prohibition, each obstacle, in its punishing effect, evokes the possibility of pleasure – keeping desire alive. Rightly understood, the punishment is the pleasure as it is the final end – the short-circuit to ultimate enjoyment. Every pleasure is accentuated, heightened, filled with an eternal weight of meaning, where gallows await. Each of us must take rope in hand, become our own obstacle – law giver and executioner – so that the full pleasure of pain is meted out and enjoyed in our happy compulsions, our splendid depressions, the delights of madness. Resist or do not resist the compulsion to repeat – it is the same. Do not step on the crack, or step on the crack that will break your mother’s back, it does not matter. It is the compulsion, the creed, the prohibition, in its punishing effect, which will deliver you to your savior.

Every young aesthete must learn the first and only rule: do not give way on desire! To obtain the object of desire harbors the grave danger of despair, or worse, boredom.  The young Don Juan must calculate, tabulate, and fixate, not on mere humans, but on the realm of the infinite. Apart from the eternally enduring realm of more, lurks the danger of enduring choice, wholehearted commitment, serious relationship, the death of freedom. To slip from the bonds of earth’s gravity personas, relationships, character, cannot be fixed or settled as desire needs infinite choice – the only true freedom. The gravity of friendship, the weight of marriage, the earth’s material pull will tend to ground the young Jeffrey Epsteins before they take flight. Or the boring additions of the flesh: another mark in the journal, another passion spent, more effort expended, and it may not add up. Indeed, as the Great Master has taught, “the body is meant for fornication and fornication for the body,” but eventually the candle burns low. “I do not feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding—the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking—it is too tiring. I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything” (E/O I, 20).

It is best the aesthete learn the discipline and punishment of the ethicist who bears his cross of guilt and delights in moral masochism, his true religion, no matter the name of his God. The lack of being giving rise to desire is the Law Giver, who holds out the possibility of total unity and mergence through law. This religion of lack serves as the ultimate obstacle, the final prohibition, before which God himself must sacrifice. The God is immutable, unmoving, impassable, stone faced, or merely stone, it does not matter.  Death is the coin of this divine realm and all must bow and pour out life to the true divine and in offering the blood of sacrifice his desire is ensured. The God is, of course, the by-product of desire (the true life-force) but better reify and dub divine lest one balk at the eternal sacrifice required by death and desire. No greater delight is there than to do “evil” in the name of God!

All who are weary come, find rest and peace, an end of pain and the fulfillment of pleasure. Every illness bears its own cure, every sickness and suffering its own end. Do not give way on the death of loneliness, the death of lovelessness, the death of friendlessness, the death of neurosis, as judgment has been passed, punishment is extracted and, in the exchange, the immortal soul feels the pleasure of his God. The heightened moral conscience, the intensification of meaning, calls for a propitiating death. The dying may be a dying of self or other, but the world is soaked in the meaning of this sacrifice. Come, bow and worship the drive to death. Enjoy your symptom, while you can.

(From the Editor – Please note that Forging Ploughshares does not endorse the work of today’s contributor, Archbishop Apollyon. The Hebrew term Abaddon, and its Greek equivalent Apollyon appear in the Bible as both a place of destruction and an angel of the abyss. In the Hebrew Bible, abandon is used with reference to a bottomless pit, often appearing alongside Sheol, meaning the realm of the dead. The Archbishop is portrayed as the “King of the Locusts” in Revelation and is also called “The Angel of Death.” In Latin he is known as “Exterminans” or “Destroyer.” Though he has achieved great heights in his religious order, and though his advice is followed throughout the world, we at Forging Ploughshares have chosen to follow one not so well known or popularly heeded.)

The Certainty of Resurrection

The following is a guest blog by Matt Welch[i]

One way of looking at things is: “The only certainty we really have in life – is death.” From this point of view, death is the central fact of existence, the only fate we can be sure we all share; the lone shadow under which we all truly live and move and have our being; the one, final truth binding us all together under the darkness of its cruel, unstoppable power. Death is, no doubt, a terrible, sobering thought. Because we know deep in our hearts that even the people and things we love most, both young and old, are subject to death’s tyranny. We know that, eventually – and possibly sooner rather than later – we and everyone else we know, will die. And, what’s more, none of us can ever know when or where or how any of us will meet our always untimely demise. And so, in a life filled with anxious worry and restless uncertainty, of this one fact all of us can be sure: death is coming. Of this, and this alone, we can be certain. But this, of course, is only one way of looking at things.

And we should probably at least respect the courage of those brave souls who valiantly hold to such a position. At least they have the nerve to admit the brutal fact that death (and therefore nothingness) is the ultimate reality which all of us must face, along with the obstinacy to continue forging ahead through life undeterred, nonetheless. Despite their unwavering belief that death reigns supreme as the undefeated, undisputed, omnipotent king of the universe, before whom each of us must finally, silently, bow down to as lord and master, they not only press on through life but – in an almost heroic act of defiance – even “grab the gusto” in the process.

At any rate, there is, thankfully, another very different (and infinitely more beautiful) way of understanding things. And this very different way of understanding things is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ, the Truly Human One, has been raised from the dead, then resurrection life – not death – is the central fact and fundamental truth and essential reality for human beings and for all human history. And this is precisely why the resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the true form of the Christian faith.[ii] No other form of the faith will do. If the victory of life over death is, in truth, the central fact of history – then death is only what we imagine (apparently through some sort of deception) to be certain. If the resurrection is true, then death only seems to be the ultimate reality of things. Because, if Jesus truly rose from the dead, then death no longer reigns as the sovereign King. Jesus does. If the resurrection is true, then life is the most absolute certainty because, if Christ has been raised, then death does not have the final word. Life does.

If God brought the crucified Jesus back to life then, in Christ, everything has been reversed: the only certainty we have in life, as it turns out – is the resurrection. In the truly Christian understanding of things, only resurrection life in Christ (the life of God) is the central fact of all existence: the one shared destiny uniting all mankind and in fact everything else under the sun. The beautiful truth – over and against the lie of death – is that, in Christ, the absolute freedom of the resurrection has been made an actuality and therefore all of creation can know the sovereign, unstoppable power of life and therefore of love and peace. Through faith, we can know (and faith is, indeed, a higher form of knowing) that, despite all appearances to the contrary, resurrection life is truly “the real.”

Death and resurrection are not just one more dualism among many others. In fact, there is no dualism in Christ. Death is not and indeed cannot be “the real” on the order of, say, God, who has life and being in and of himself. Death is a privation of life; it is a failure to be. The whole story of Christianity is that, in Christ, death has been “swallowed up in victory” by life (1 Cor. 15:54). The resurrection life of the Son of God, then, in order to be what it most fully is, must actually be the real: the central, defining event of all human history. And if the resurrection of the Son of God is truly “the real” – then everything outside of resurrection life is comparable to the well-known analogy of The Matrix. And The Matrix is of course nothing more than a construct which, for those with eyes to see, can be exposed for the false reality that it is. It is only what seems to be real; that which only has the appearance of the ultimate. But it does not have the final word because there is a truer Word, a truer reality, which runs deeper than appearances. And so it is with death and resurrection: one (death) only has the appearance of being the ultimate reality – and the other (resurrection) is the actual reality. One is potentially true; the other is actually the Truth.


And so, in this view, the fundamental truth and ultimate reality of all existence is that, since Christ has been raised, resurrection life is our salvation because death has been exposed as a lie; an imposter, dethroned, abolished and displaced forever by the love of the Father, in the life of the Son, through the power of the Spirit. Viewed in the light of the resurrection, the certainty of death as the central fact of all existence is, as it turns out, only a terrible lie from which Christ has saved us all.[iii] And, since, properly understood, the Lordship of Jesus Christ over death is the central fact of existence, we can (again, by faith) have a new, higher and infinitely deeper form of certainty,[iv] This form of Christian certainty may be properly understood as “resurrection faith” – a faith (or faithfulness) which, as the writer of Hebrews put it, is “the assurance of things hoped for…”[v] For the early Christian writers, it would seem, faith is an epistemology grounded in the faithful certainty of God’s victory over sin and death.

This Christian notion of certainty of course may sound suspicious or even ridiculous to our post/modern sensibilities. But it is difficult to imagine St. Paul having much patience for such modern “sensibilities” grounded – not in the knowledge of the resurrection – but in a human logic he would consider already oriented towards death. For the apostle – who met and communed with the crucified and risen Christ – nothing could be more certain than resurrection. For perhaps the greatest Christian thinker in the history of the church not named “Jesus,” there is no more central fact, no more fundamental reality, and no other greater certainty than that of Christ’s total victory over death:

“But now the Anointed has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For, since death comes through a man, resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life.”[vi]

For St. Paul, resurrection life is a certainty. And not merely a potential reality for some – but an actual reality for all. A reality to be appropriated, to be sure, but a reality, nonetheless. For Paul, one form of certainty (that of death) has been displaced by another form of certainty (that of life): “Just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life.” Through the resurrected life of Jesus, we come to know the Truth which is stronger than death: that, because of God’s great love for us, death has indeed lost its sting since, after all, death’s sting was its certainty.


[i] I dedicate this, along with all future contributions to FPS, to my dear friend, Dr. Paul Axton.

[ii] The false form of Christianity has at its idolatrous heart, of course, the logic of sinful desire, violence, deception, and exchange (the law of sin and death): “Let us do evil so that good may come.”

[iii] See 1 Timothy 4:10, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (ESV).

[iv] For instance, most days, the only thing I am certain of – is that hope that we have in Christ.  

[v] Hebrews 11:1, (ESV). Emphasis (of course) mine.

[vi] 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, from David Bentley Hart’s (magisterial) “The New Testament: A Translation.” Emphasis mine.

Christ Against Salvation

In attempting to comprehend the “semantics of desire,” as Paul Ricoeur has put it, do we need to read Scripture as addressing an unconscious register to which we would otherwise not have access? Could it be that what compels, what distracts and lures, what would destroy, follows a logic which has us in its grip precisely in that it only achieves speech or consciousness by the same semantic loop which blunts access to consciousness? If desire and death are dealt out and marked by what cannot be said, then what is denied or repressed, what is unspeakable, requires a counter-hermeneutic or an alternative means of comprehension so as to follow and counter it. I presume putting this interpretive frame into place is the point of reading the Bible. It is not only that we are to meet Christ or learn about Christ but we are to put on the mind of Christ and this mode of thought must expose in the world and ourselves the matrix of death muting love and life.

The content of this hermeneutic of life is specifically summed up as a counter to a “salvation system” which kills. In various pithy sayings, so succinct that we tend to overlook their import, the point is conveyed that the mortal attempt to put on immortality is the juncture at which death becomes definitive of human identity. Jesus warns in all four Gospels, the human project of saving life ensures its loss. Taking the perishable for the imperishable posits life through means of death.  Mortality, per se, is not the human problem but the positing of an immortal essence as part of mortality.

In Paul’s description, the ego would establish itself through the law of the mind and, in this way, death becomes a definitive force in the self. The “I” is involved in a struggle for life which kills – this is the human sickness. More accurately, this “I” is a being of and for death in that the dynamics which first give rise to this speech formation (in Gen. 3 and Rom. 7 and in Lacanian psychoanalysis) is a dynamic of death. Life is not in the law nor in the symbolic order of language and the sign of the turn from life to death, in Adam (“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Gen. 3:10)) Paul (“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law” (Rom. 7:14-16)) and every human, is the attempt to inscribe the self into being through this order.  In Cartesian terms, the declaration “I am” (that is “my being is established by virtue of this statement”) would attribute being to a symbolic order without ontological ground and thus signals a being of death.

Paul sums up the problem in another phrase which, again due to its familiarity, we tend to reverse or misread: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). Doesn’t Paul have this exactly backwards? Isn’t death the sting of sin – that is, we sin and then we die – and this is according to the law? In this understanding sin gives rise to death and death is an outworking of the law. The problem, given that the law is the first principle, is death (due to sin). One must pay off his guilt for sin, according to the law, and then death is avoided. This is religion as we have it in contractual theology and in pagan religion. But what Paul says is a reversal of this: law is the power of sin, not because it is the first principle but because, in sin, we would make law (the symbolic order) primary.

Sin is the sting of death because sin is the taking up of death so that one’s life is a living death. Law is the opportunity of sin, as sin misuses the law as the source of life to escape death, and thus death is taken up with the law. This moral masochism, in Freud’s phrase, inscribes itself into the law – or the identity provided by the law. The human project of gaining life through the law is the premise of a contractual theology which depicts Christ as meeting the requirements of the law by paying off the penalty of sin (a misreading of Rom. 8:4). Every pagan sacrifice follows this logic – the god is angry because his law has been broken and requires death or sacrifice. Death is the means to life through the law. This formula, summing up the sin problem, precisely sums up human religion, even in its various Christian misconstruals. The profound tragedy is this reinstitutes the problem as if it is the solution.

Resurrection annuls the power of sin in death and the law (the law of sin and death), not because God works in this economy, but because this human economy is displaced by the divine reality of life. Through resurrection we conceive of God and reality differently, as it is clear death does not constrain God but only our conception of final reality. God does not deal in death and has nothing to do with death.

As Christ demonstrates, an understanding grounded in death cannot begin to comprehend God: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? . . . have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:18-27). According to the thought of the Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection) God, not seeing fit to keep his once living creatures alive, is indeed the God of the dead. The Sadducees understood God was not subject to death, but in their imagination, if God would deal with humans death would factor into the equation – he would, indeed, be the God of the dead. Jesus’ point is that mistaking death as an anthropological absolute is not simply to misunderstand humanity but is to misunderstand God.

Resurrection destroys this dialectic with death and every dualism, in that with God death is not.  As James Allison sums it up, “If God is not the God of the dead – death is nothing to him – it is not to be taken into account.” Death is not the controlling factor for God, and where it is imagined he finds death satisfying, or that he reigns over a vast host of creatures consigned to death, this marks the thought as human or sub-human. As Jesus puts it, “You are greatly mistaken.”

Every human economy circulates around death as its standard of exchange (this is obvious in idolatrous religion in offering up death to the gods but this is the Marxist critique of ideology and capitalism) and the human subject, in the attempt to possess life (the “I”) through the law is possessed (λαβοῦσα) by the law of sin and death. Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver as this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφορμν), and “came upon me” (λαβοῦσα) and reduced me to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death.  The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7.23), and “I” is at war with himself in a losing battle.  “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing life and “I died.” In this economy we need guilt, we need to make ourselves sick, we need to extract the sacrifice so as to pay off the law – the law we institute, the law we enact, and the penalties we require.

People are neurotic because they live in an economy where the pain of neurotic sin, of neurotic religion, is paying the dues required by guilt. Our morality is our immorality in that in this “moral factor,” this sense of guilt, satisfaction is found in an illness which refuses to give up the punishment of suffering (The Ego and the Id, 49). Jesus just becomes an extension of the human neurosis where it is thought he is paying off the guilt – suffering for the pleasure of God.

Realization of resurrection breaks open history and human knowing displacing death as the necessity determining human reality and perception. Where sin transforms death into a personal, cultural and religious reality, resurrection relegates death to a biological reality, and opens personhood and human community to the dynamic of life. In resurrection a new order of humanity, the 2nd Adam humanity has commenced, in which the perishable has put on the imperishable.  The resurrection inaugurates the conversion of the imagination calling us to expand our categories and to reconceive our humanity according to a new order of understanding we could not otherwise know. This salvation stands over and against salvation conceived in the first Adam.

Everything Hinges on the Flesh

“The truth is that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen for the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service.” Tertullian

Sin and salvation and the logics, theories, and worlds attached to each are centered in orientations to the flesh.  Sin takes hold in the flesh and Christ came in the flesh so as to address sin. Which raises the questions as to what the flesh might be (is it the sinful nature or does it refer simply to the physical body), what happens to the flesh at resurrection and what is its relation to Spirit? David Bentley Hart has re-raised the issue of the flesh, suggesting that resurrected bodies have no flesh and that the writers of the New Testament were, indeed, denigrating the flesh and did not hold to the notion that flesh was a designation for the “sinful nature” (the NIV rendering). As much as I might enjoy Hart’s cheekiness (“I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV”),[1] the entertainment value is diminished as it becomes clear his is an extreme version of the system he critiques.

Before I get to critique though, it may be helpful to attempt an appreciative word of what I think Hart may be up to. In countering N. T. Wright’s heavy focus on all things earthy and material it may be that Hart simply hopes to ground theology and understanding firmly in Spirit as a first order reality. A healthy dose of German idealism and basic Aristotelian philosophy mixed with the New Testament tells us that matter ultimately eludes understanding and that the true essence of things is in the Mind of God and is to be discovered by tracing his thought with and through the Spirit. Flesh, matter, and physicality, are not the ground of being but the Word of God is true Ground and substance. The turn to the material and empirical may have gone too far Wright and Hart, in pushing it left, is aligning himself more with German idealism rather than a naïve critical realism.  This may account for his focus: “Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” [2] Setting aside for the moment the anachronism and dialectical contrast with spirit, the notion that soul and flesh are a compound (presumably separate entities), this is an affirmation we (or he) might wish Christians appreciated (even if it has nothing to do with common philosophical thought in the first century).  

 As James Ware points out in his not unappreciative critique, Hart is wrong in presuming that the ancient world held to a notion of spirit that would accommodate (even Hart’s) resurrection (the resurrection was shocking and unbelievable even for those who eventually believed); Hart is wrong in presuming that it is Protestants who have innovated the notion that Jesus was raised and ascended in a fleshly body (it is the overwhelming position of the early Church as Ware demonstrates); he is wrong; and he is “egregiously” wrong in presuming that Paul’s contrast between spirit and soul (in I Cor. 15) is typical of the ancients.[3]  Hart’s factual errors though, point to a more deeply rooted hermeneutical problem.

 I presume that Hart’s determined misreading is rooted in something more than a momentary lapse, but is connected to his more eloquent and less unorthodox groundings in Neoplatonism, versions of natural theology, and notions of God’s absolute impassibility. That is, Hart’s error springs from the same well he imagines has poisoned Protestant theology; he too drinks of the presumption that there is a given understanding (knowledge of God as creator and law giver) available to all persons (whose capacity for reason remains largely intact in spite of sin) and that salvation does not pertain to the source of this epistemological putrefaction. Hart’s efforts to read the New Testament in the context of contemporaneous thought and philosophy is more Protestant than the Protestants (strange for an Eastern Orthodox theologian) in that he presumes Paul and John are mostly reflecting and not critiquing the received understanding. The conceptual world of the New Testament, he claims, is not to be found in a distinctive Hebrew or Christian form of thought but intertestamental apocalyptic literature fused with Platonism informs New Testament cosmology and gives meaning to words such as “spirit, soul, and flesh.”

Hart blames Descartes for modern Protestant failures and presumes that by being steeped in knowledge of intertestamental literature, ancient cosmology, and Greek philosophical thought, he has access to what Paul really meant. Thus, “In the New Testament, ‘flesh’ does not mean ‘sinful nature or ‘humanity under judgment’ or even ‘fallen flesh.’  It just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense. . ..” (He goes on to say “flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death” (and yet he maintains flesh does not mean “sinful nature,” making death a natural outworking of creation, and salvation deliverance from what God calls good and a “shedding of flesh.” All of this is so problematic as to bear no further scrutiny).)[4] When Paul describes the “body of death” and connects it to the working of the flesh he certainly does not mean that this flows naturally from what God has created or that sin is an inevitable result of creation.

Paul says that “I” “of the flesh” is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Not everyone is given to this condition but only those deceived by sin in regard to the law are afflicted with “the body of death.” Paul describes the “body of death” as constituting a split within the “I” with one half of the self pitted against the other in a struggle in which human agency is entirely relinquished to sin: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17).  The flesh as descriptive of this dynamic, is not a stand-alone force (the physical body as Hart would have it) but is the combination of law, deception, sin, and an orientation toward death.

The “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:23-24). The body of death does its work, as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind (that world which is presumably without extension, as with Descartes), and this constitutes the work of death. Death is not simply mortality, and the principle of the flesh is not simply the fact that one has fleshly members. The members of my body are out of control (or “I” am out of control). “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18) but this is not because of God’s good creation but because of sin. The precise place which sin dwells is not in “my members” alone but in the law of the mind pitted against the members of my body. The entire dynamic of mind against body (dualism) constitutes the problem.

In presuming Paul is just an extension of his time (more of the same), Hart misses the deep nature of this Pauline critique of human wisdom (inclusive of both Descartes and Hegel, as Žižek notes), such that he falls into the very dualism constitutive of this wisdom (flesh/spirit is no advance over soul/body or mind/body).

Descartes is not the innovative genius giving rise to modernism (it is modernism and not Paul that is more of the same) but Descartes succeeds in giving formulaic expression to the dualism Paul describes as inherent to human wisdom. “I think therefore I am,” (the ground of Descartes’ certainty and the point of departure of modernity) pits the law of my mind (thought without extension into my body) as separate from being (leaving no room for the biological body). The transaction works itself out in a distancing from the biological body, such that the body becomes a medium for the “soul” – the “true essence of the self.” One does not identify immediately with the physical body but it is a screen or orthopedic for the soul. This gives rise to two bodies, as the biological dimension is refused and yet the symptoms of embodiment begin to speak and intrude, such that the soul cannot recognize itself.  Paul calls this second body the flesh (sarx), as it is not the actual physical body (soma) but it is a principle or orientation which has taken on a force and significance that is out of control. Hart seems to repeat sin’s delusion in imagining a body without flesh (without itself) is salvation.

In I Corinthians 15, around which much of this controversy revolves, Paul uses a series of analogies (several employing a positive notion of “flesh”) from nature so as to enable conceiving of the resurrection as on a continuum with the fleshly body. A seed has continuity with the plant that springs from it. Though it may cease to be a seed, this same entity transforms into something else. The person that dies is the one that is raised as it is the same self, though the same self will assume a different form. Paul declares not all flesh is the same flesh. Human flesh differs from that of animals, and so too the sun, moon, and stars vary. Resurrection, it would seem, is not a departure from the created and fleshly order but an addition to it.

The “soulish body” does not become the “spiritual body” by ridding itself of flesh. Pneuma (Spirit) conveys immortality but this immortal kind of pneuma is from God. Spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν) does not mean composed of nonmaterial spirit (God alone is Spirit); rather, Paul is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit. The raised body is characterized by the uninterrupted, transforming power of the Holy Spirit as there will be no frustrating of the work of the Spirit. Paul’s contrast is between the body energized by either the soul (and thus subject to death), or the risen body infused with the Holy Spirit. The body does not become the Holy Spirit but is energized and enlivened by an undisrupted divine power.

Paul has already indicated that if the Corinthians do not hold to bodily resurrection they might as well be nihilists – “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (15:32). He has already said the soulish human (the psychikos person) does not receive the things of the spirit, because they are spiritually discerned, while the pneumatikos person discerns everything (I Cor. 2:14-15). This passage and others like it do not speak of the human soul and spirit, but contrast the human soul with the divine Spirit of God (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14-15; Jude 19).[5]  They could easily have conceived of souls or spirits going to heaven and leaving physical bodies behind (as the Gnostics will soon demonstrate). Paul says this is not good enough. One can presume the Corinthian problem is just more of the same, more identity through difference – mind against body – heaven against earth – light against dark – being over against nothingness – or spirit against flesh, but to presume Paul concurs precludes the very need for such a letter and such harsh warnings.  

While one can appreciate that prime reality is Spirit, part of realizing this essence is not to subtract matter or flesh as an obstacle to the One who conceived it but to realize the physical body is fully itself when joined to Spirit.

 As Tertullian(160-220 A.D.) puts it, “Shall that very flesh, which the Divine Creator formed with His own hands in the image of God; which He animated with His own Spirit, after the likeness of His own vital vigour; which He set over all the works of His hand, to dwell amongst, to enjoy, and to rule them; which He clothed with His sacraments and His instructions; whose purity He loves, whose mortifications He approves; whose sufferings for Himself He deems precious; — (shall that flesh, I say), so often brought near to God, not rise again? God forbid. God forbid, (I repeat), that He should abandon to everlasting destruction the labour of His own hands, the care of His own thoughts, the receptacle of His own Spirit, the queen of His creation, the inheritor of His own liberality, the priestess of His religion, the champion of His testimony, the sister of His Christ!”[6]


[1]David Bentley Hart,  “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients,” in Church Life Journal (July 26, 2018), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-spiritual-was-more-substantial-than-the-material-for-the-ancients/

[2] My source on this paragraph is Ryan Hemmer whose incisive insight came right as I was writing this blog thus I added this paragraph. Here is the key idea for Hart and the entire quote: “Spirit,” by contrast—πνεῦμα or spiritus—was something quite different, a kind of life not bound to death or to the irrational faculties of brute nature, inherently indestructible and incorruptible, and not confined to any single cosmic sphere. It could survive anywhere, and could move with complete liberty among all the spiritual realms, as well as in the material world here below. Spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements of a coarse corruptible body compounded of earthly soul and material flesh.” If his focus elsewhere was on continuity and transformation of the flesh and not discontinuity, and was not factually and theologically suspect, and if he had recognized the peculiar application of Spirit by Paul, this particular passage might have had insightful elements.

[3] James P. Ware,  “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection,” Church Life Journal (June 21, 2019), https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-incarnation-doesnt-end-with-the-resurrection/ Ware provides extensive counter examples. One example, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) – “They who maintain the wrong opinion say that there is no resurrection of the flesh; giving as their reason that it is impossible that what is corrupted and dissolved should be restored to the same as it had been. And besides the impossibility, they say that the salvation of the flesh is disadvantageous; and they abuse the flesh, adducing its infirmities, and declare that it only is the cause of our sins, so that if the flesh, say they, rise again, our infirmities also rise with it.” (Fragments, 2).

[4] A less generous assessment is to be found here: https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/08/09/ancients-resurrection-david-bentley-hart/

 [5] According to Ware, “This is something that never occurs in pagan literature, and is contrary to the usual collocation of “soul” and “spirit” in Jewish and Christian texts. Graeco-Roman thinkers did not use “spirit” (pneuma) in contrast with “soul” (psyche), as Hart claims. Platonists and Peripatetics used pneuma (Latin: spiritus) straightforwardly of the “breath” and “air” exhaled by the lungs. The Stoics used the word in this way as well, but they also used it of the divine spirit or pneuma that they believed pervades the universe and subsists as the soul (psyche) within each person.” 

[6] Tertullian, De Resurrectione Carnis, 8 – 9. http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000908_tertulliano_en.html?fbclid=IwAR3ov2nIWwUnB4XIg1MjL8RmRR-nrnxC97OrLEDHrjsTU44MVRS-78FhbmM Thank you for pointing me to this quote Joelle.