I met G.R. hepped up on coffee and a late night of reading Hebrews. Glen and I had been discussing the necessary finitude of time as a delimiting factor in evil. The insight we arrived at – which we considered quite significant (too much coffee) – has been obscured by the more than 40-year interval. We assumed that there was a consumptive element – thanatology – connected with God which is itself an effect of God’s presence. Alone that early morning, reading Hebrews 12:29 – “our God is a consuming fire” – I felt I had hit upon scriptural verification of this principle. I entered Glen’s room after 1 a.m. with, “OUR GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE.” G.R., Glen’s roommate, had only recently returned from refueling helicopters for the Army in Vietnam. . . Continue reading “Curing Despair Through a Community of Love”
Well, it depends on what you think Jesus came to do. Let me explain.
If you think Jesus came because God is obligated by nature to punish sin by sending people to hell but he didn’t want to…instead sending the second person of the Trinity (the Son) to experience a type of hell in your place such that, if you claim a certain religious belief or perform a certain religious rite you are now forgiven and freed from eternal punishment…then sure. Most folks whose view of sin and salvation can be boiled down to this have no problem with doing violence—in fact—most folks who think of sin and salvation this way seem to assume that to be unwilling to do violence is immoral. The reason is the whole theology is wrapped up in a simple exchange between the Father and the Son on our behalf. Jesus’ life and teaching have little bearing on what it means to actually “be saved.” Salvation is all about having a certain status (that of “being saved”) and that status is achieved through the actions of someone else (Christ on the cross) and a simple religious affiliation (the sinner’s prayer or baptism) on my part. One might go so far (and many have) as to say that the central assumption in this theology is that God is, at his heart, a violent God who must atone for the sins of his people violently. And people emulate the God they claim to follow. Therefore, violence is the normative reality for these folks, rather than love.
This is the reason that people who think differently than these folks are often stymied when saying, “But what about Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies?” The blank stares and mystified looks of those who hold to this view are a way of saying, “What does being a Christian have to do with any of what Jesus said? We like our view of the God of the Old Testament better anyhow. There’s a God who knew how to make things happen.”
However, if you think (as I do) that what Jesus came to do was not just a simple exchange, then…no. I (and many others like me) don’t believe that Jesus came to die in our place in the sense that people often think. He didn’t stand in between God and me, facing God’s wrath. He stood in between God and me, facing mine. Jesus on the cross was not man being killed by God, but God being killed by man. Yes, in the Old Testament, God worked around violence and sometimes acquiesced to violence. But, as Hebrews 1:1-3 says,
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3 NIV).
In other words, “Jesus is the complete revelation of God. This is what God always wanted us to know about him. It supercedes what we take God to be in the Old Testament because God hadn’t revealed himself to us fully until Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see a God who would die himself rather than kill you to defend himself from you. Jesus is God dying in our place, but in a way different than we thought. He died because he loved those who hated him.
In this view, salvation is not about a simple exchange to keep you out of hell. In fact, the idea of salvation is full and robust. It is about the coming of God’s full kingdom to the earth, his will on earth as it is in heaven. Salvation is met out through a group of people who believe that Jesus’ way of doing life (a cross-shaped life) is the solution to all of the sin of this world (and all sin is a type of violence we do to ourselves, one another, or God).
“Salvation” for folks who believe this is about following Jesus on the way of the cross. It’s about saying, “If Jesus is God dying because he’d rather die by his enemy’s hand than kill his enemy, then I’m supposed to be a person who’d rather die by my enemy’s hand than kill my enemy—because I love my enemy the way Jesus loved me.”
And, yes, that means even someone who comes into your home to steal, rob, and destroy. And, yes, even if you have a family whom you love…because if we love our family we’ll want them to follow Jesus, too.
We believe this because we believe that it is the only hope for a world torn apart by violence. We believe that Jesus demonstrates that love is the true normative reality, not violence. And love is enacted on crosses, not with swords. And crosses are a daily way of life, where people serve one another rather than take advantage of one another; and those with little status are held in high esteem because God cares for all people, even those who the violent world has marginalized.
We can do all of this because we believe what the apostle Paul told us in Romans 8,
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:14-17 NIV).
We believe that those who die with Christ will be raised with him.
The first view of salvation is about hell and retribution.
The second is about cross and resurrection.
The first about violence and fear.
The second is about love and trust.
The first assumes violence is necessary and nonviolence has nothing to do with Christianity.
The second assumes that violence is unnecessary and that Christianity is about nonviolence in all forms.
The first is about a violent God who takes out his violence on the innocent to save the guilty.
The second is about a loving God who innocently receives the violence of the guilty and beckons them to follow him.
The first sees no tension between being a Christian and the pursuit of power of the Empire.
The second sees these two things in mutual exclusivity.
These two views are inherently incompatible.
A rift is coming.
So, what does this say? Can someone be a Christian and be violent? The answer depends on what you think Jesus came to do. If you are of the first camp, you say “yes.” In the second, “no.” But here’s the thing: a rift is coming. There is little about these views of Christianity that can be harmonized. I’m not sure I’m willing to say that those who believe in the first view “aren’t Christian.” But what I must admit is that I think what they believe “isn’t the Gospel.” And I suppose that what they must admit to themselves is that what I believe isn’t the Gospel to them either. And I don’t know what to do about that other than keep asking them to consider the Gospel I’ve discovered. And I keep doing so, and nearly all of them reject it.
Someone will say that this is judgmental. I don’t think so. Here’s what I think, though. As our world becomes more violent and as fear motivates people to think darker thoughts…as the country we live in turns more and more to guns and war…I think it will not be those who claim that Jesus calls us to active peacemaking who will be the judging aggressors.
We live in the most well-armed, richest, most well-defended society in the history of this planet. And I believe most people are more terrified than they’ve ever been. “More guns, more soldiers, more violence” is what I feel I see Christians saying over and over and over. I think the time is coming when those who believe in the first Gospel will take up arms against those who believe in the second. And those who believe in the second will have an opportunity to prove their faith as well. It will come when a peacemaker comes to the aid of someone perceived to be “the enemy,” and the violent Christian cries “traitor!” It’s coming.
Historically, it was certain Roman Catholics and certain Protestants who teamed up to torture and murder the early pacifist Anabaptist Christians.
This post is dedicated to my close friends who taught me the second view of the Gospel; that Jesus came to instate his peaceful kingdom here. I dedicated it at a time when they were enduring a type of crucifixion, being, in a sense, killed by those who have publicly stated that they believe that the heart of the Gospel is the will do violence, to harm the other to save self. Like Cain, they had wielded their hateful rock and killed the people they were supposed to call “brother and sister.”
The Gospel is something that we are told will divide us, so perhaps we should not be surprised that it often does. I may be wrong in my view and I’m sure there are some who will think so. And I love my brothers and sisters who disagree with me. And I pray they will be moved. But let those who believe in a peacemaking Messiah and those who believe in a war-making Messiah understand that, though they may both call their Lord “Jesus,” they do not believe in the same God.
Hans Urs von Balthazar has formulated what he calls the “theological law of proportionate polarization” in which “the more God intervenes, the more he elicits opposition to him.” Love and sin, intervention and opposition, work in reciprocal relation: sin escalates in the presence of love and ever-greater mercy arouses ever-greater anger.” What is most holy and pure, such as the Tabernacle and the Temple, will draw to itself—like a magnet—what is least holy and what is least pure. This is why the day of atonement requires two goats, this is why evil accumulated in direct opposition to Christ, and this is why the Church is peculiarly conducive to the growth of both wheat and tares. Great evil and great good will grow up together and tend to accumulate in one time and place. It is the story Scripture tells and it is a life principle which calls for a peculiar discernment. Continue reading “The Story of Frank and Two Goats”
The place where Faith and I found God’s people is, I suppose, where they are always to be found – at the very bottom of things – the low point – the pit. There are people who put you in pits and there are those who rescue from the pit. It is sometimes hard to know which are which until one group has thrown you in the pit and the other is pulling you out. Faith and I were choking on the dirt until this fine group of saints dug us out. The resulting ministry is something of a pit rescue team. A Christian community has come together (I cannot determine exactly how) which is seeking to do life together and to share love and learning locally and beyond. Continue reading “A Friend Who Sticks Closer Than a Brother”
Stephen Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, describes the YouTube video entitled “Jesus Loves You,” which brings to the forefront the contradictions inherent in a theology focused on guilt. The video begins with Grey Bloke (a sort of grey blob) telling us he received an anonymous e-mail saying, “Jesus loves you.” Grey Bloke then says, “Well I thought, that’s nice. But then I read the rest of it which says, ‘If you don’t worship him, you’re going to burn in hell forever.’”
He acknowledges this is a “conditional form of love,” and that most forms of love are like that, but he expected something more from Jesus since he “should be more noble” than the rest of us. He asks the anonymous e-mailer, “If Jesus loves me, why does he want to send me to hell?” The reply came back, “He doesn’t want to, but unless you accept him, he’s just going to have to.” Grey Bloke then was confused — “doesn’t Jesus make the rules? He is God after all.”
The response was, “Jesus loves you, but his dad thinks you’re a shit.” That doesn’t seem “fair,” he adds, but “at least it’s clear.” But then he was utterly confused by a response, which said, “P.S., Jesus is his own dad.” Continue reading “Dueling Theologies: Choosing a Theology of Life or a Theology of Death”
One of my early childhood memories is of an afternoon spent fishing with my father at a small lake in a park. Actually, I do not remember much about the fishing trip (and whether we caught any fish isn’t the point!), but what I do recall, most vividly, is the thought that occurred to me while I cast my fishing line into the water.
“What if this is a mere dream? What if my dreams are reality and what I take to be my reality is only my dreams?”
At my young age of six or seven years, I was not able to cope with my own thought, nor was any adult I confronted interested in pondering the concept of reality. However, some years later I now have many more books than fishing poles, and I want to revisit these questions.
Questions about reality, and our existence (or even non-existence) within reality are parts of a much larger theological story. That is the story of “Modernity” and the “Secular.” You may be suspicious that I would label these concepts as theological. Or, perhaps, you are now thinking, “Only a theologian would claim the history of the last seven hundred years is theological.” Yet, that is exactly my claim (and the claim of many others). The terms “Modernity” and the “Secular” have a genealogy that originates in the theology of the late middle ages. Now, before I explain, I need to first define a few concepts and terms.
Before the advent of Modernity, there was a Medieval Renaissance, which is now often referred to as part of the “lost world,” also known as the “classical world.” Thomas Aquinas lived during the twilight of the lost world, and provides what is arguably the best example of the classical synthesis. For Aquinas, the world was an ordered whole created by God that was permeated with God’s truth. In other words, being, beauty, and truth were real universal concepts present in humanity and the world, and these concepts had meaning because of God. God was not merely the cause of creation, but, for Aquinas, God was intimately and actively involved in the existence and creativity of creation itself. God gave order to His creation continuously. Aquinas presented reality as paradoxical harmony of God as present in every aspect of life, and humanity as truly free beings when they participate in God and, thereby, the reality of creation of which they themselves are part of the ordered whole.
When Thomas Aquinas died in 1274, the reality that he described as an ordered whole created by God was displaced by wars, plagues, and schisms. The combination of the Hundred Years War between the rulers of England and France, the Black Death, and the Great Schism between the Avignon and Roman Papacies shook the conceptual foundations of the classical world. In the midst of this chaos arose the concepts of nominalism and voluntarism as well as the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.
Nominalism is a philosophical and theological framework that has dominated Northern Europe and, later, the whole of Western Civilization even until today. William of Ockham is generally regarded as the founder of nominalism and has had a lasting impact on western philosophy and theology. Nominalism, simply put, is the idea that universals cannot be found in the particulars of existence. According to nominalism, universals are merely names that we give things out of convenience and nothing more. Thus, there is no universal concept of being, beauty, or truth.
Voluntarism is closely related to nominalism, and is the result of a nominalist philosophy and theology. Voluntarism describes an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and power concerning efficient causality. Whereas, in the time leading up to and including Aquinas, God was understood in terms of the attributes of his wisdom and love, voluntarism conceptualized God as the primary efficient cause. An efficient cause is the cause of an effect distinguished from material, formal, or final causes. Aquinas had described God as a primary cause with reference to these four kinds of causality in the context of a genuinely humble and apophatic theology, yet with the advent of nominalist and voluntarist modes of thinking, causality was reduced to efficient causality. Thus, God was reduced to the first and primary all powerful (via voluntarism) cause of a universe that need not cohere into an ordered reality (via nominalism).
Nominalism took hold of Northern Europe, and by the time of Martin Luther was the dominant thought paradigm. Luther was, himself, trained at the University of Erfurt, which was thoroughly of the nominalist persuasion. So, it is no surprise that the theology of the Reformation is also nominalist and voluntarist in nature. For instance, imputed righteousness has no reality in the particular individual, and is only theoretically real in the mind of God (nominalism). And, the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty and predestination (voluntarism).
I contend that the turn away from the classical synthesis, and the advent of nominalism and voluntarism set the conditions for Modernity and the Modern Secular Age. The Reformation provided the occasion for the emerging nation state to create public space that either controlled the voice of the church or silenced it. Thus, a nominalist-voluntarist-reformed theology directly contributes to the both Modernity and the Modern Secular Age.
So, what does this theological narrative have to do with dreams and reality? Imagine you are in the midst of a cold winter, the only instance of relief from a long war spanning about thirty years. Imagine your entire world is turned on its head; you are Roman Catholic, but the Church’s authority is subject to criticism and speculation. You find yourself sitting in a warm room, an escape from the blistering cold outside. Then, warm and cozy, you begin to think about the nature of reality. Who can you trust? What can you trust? Because you are a nominalist you know that the real does not exist in the particulars of this world. Thus, you feel free to doubt the actual real existence of the room in which you sit. Perhaps it is all a dream. In other words, imagine you are Rene Descartes. The cogito ergo sum is often thought to be a summary description of the philosophical and theological revolution taking place in the 17th century, but it did not originate with Descartes. Instead, it had a long theological genealogy dating back to the 14th century. If Descartes is the Father of Modernity, then he is the heir of a nominalist and voluntarist theology.
If you have read my theological narrative of the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age, then you have read what I hope will serve as an introduction to a planned conversation between Paul Axton and myself. In a series of podcasts, we will explore the origins of Modernity and the Modern Secular Age by discussion of the work of Charles Taylor and John Milbank. And, we will discuss theological responses to modernity in Catholic theology and Radical Orthodoxy. I hope I have piqued your interest, and that you will enter this engaging theological conversation with us.
Simpson, Christopher Ben. Modern Christian Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Milbank, John. Beyond the Secular Order. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.
I suppose there are easier ways to make progress in theology, but it took me some twenty years in Japan to recognize the inadequacy of a theology focused on guilt (a concept all but lacking in Japan). There is no equivalent for the concept of “sin” in Japanese, where sin has to do with a guilt plagued conscience. There is crime (tsumi – used to translate “sin”) and shame but these both have to do with a serious corporate transgression. Sin and guilt, as we have conceived them in the west, do not get at the root of Japanese self-identity – which is group oriented and corporate. Where the group serves as the ground of identity, shame and not guilt, best describes the experience of a failed identity. The question is if there are actually two such very different modes of doing identity; one which takes account of relational reality and one in which there is a non-relational essence at the center of personhood? Or is one of these simply a mistaken understanding of the root human condition? Continue reading “Are Christians and Christianity Shameless?”
The implication of evangelicals in support (implicit or explicit) of notions of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and the KKK raises the question/accusation that it is Christianity itself that is complicit in evil. In terms of the broad sweep of history and the core teaching of the New Testament this is, I believe, a false claim and a misunderstanding. Nonetheless, I understand the accusation and see the necessity of disclaiming any association with a faith that, in certain forms, has become evil. A passing familiarity with the New Testament seems to make it clear that oppressing, enslaving, denigrating, murdering, or doing violence to others is not Christian. At the same time, it is also clear that in various periods, such as the present time, Christians and certain forms of Christianity have been implicated in and have even been the basis for promoting these very same evils. Continue reading “Is There No Shame: Or Is Christianity Inherently Evil?”
I have no label to describe my present understanding of Christian Truth and its function. Twenty years in Japan taught me that my own static (“modern” ?) apprehension of Christ could not be made to address the Japanese heart and mind. When it occurred to me how the Gospel does address Japanese, it did not leave me with a new static truth but with an understanding of how Christian truth is necessarily dynamic, as it unfolds only in its engagement of the world. Continue reading “Beyond the Postmodern to Christ”
Organized acts of evil, such as those witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville, demonstrate the unleashing of ethics turned on its head. Organized evil driven by an ideology endorsed (with a wink and a nod) by the Commander in Chief means evil serves in place of the good. This is not the lawless evil of a random act; rather it is “radical evil” in which a perverse moral law is officially endorsed. The drive toward a pure race, the perfect socialist revolution, or making America great again, may not overtly promote genocide, mass murder, and white supremacy, but the latter is implicit in the former. The walls must be built, the foreigners expelled, and the “inferior races” subdued in a world in which the ultimate good is a moral law constituted in the reigning ideology. The neo-Nazis and the white supremacists are at the service of an ethic that has now been voted into place and which indeed hearkens back to an earlier era. The American electorate has created the space, through the election of this administration, for these groups to do the dirty work of maintaining the very atmosphere which we breathe – the implicit presumption of white supremacy which is at the foundation of the American idea. Continue reading “The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump”