Resurrection as Escape from the Mud Swamp of the Nation State

Shūsaku Endō, in his novel Silence, portrays Japan as a mud swamp in which Christianity cannot take root.  Endō’s mistake, of projecting onto the Tokugawa period (the novel is set in the 17th century) a “Japanese” sensibility which developed much later with the Meiji period (beginning in the 1860’s), is itself an illustration of the strength of the ideology of the modern nation state. As odd as it sounds, the “Japanese people” with a supposed mud swamp essence (a distinct religion, language, and cultural identity) is a development which arises as Japan seeks to become a unified nation, prior to which identity would have been tied to the local clan and religion (making the country susceptible to both foreign religion and foreign invasion in the estimate of the ruling elites). The manner in which Christianity rapidly inundated 16th century Japan, one of the most rapidly Christianized countries in Asia, demonstrates that Japan was fertile soil for Christianity (and the Shogun was warned this was the first step in a colonial take-over).  The notion that Japan consists of an essence, a capacity for absorbing and reshaping every influence, is a modern development, demonstrated by the fact that the religion was driven underground, not because it could not take root in Tokugawa Japan, but because tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were martyred by a Shogunate fearful of Western invasion aided by subjects loyal to foreign religious powers. It was not simply, as in first century Rome, that Christians posed an internal threat. The links of the religion to colonial powers posed a political and military threat which would eventually give rise to Japan’s pursuit of British-like imperial power.

The ideology which would make Japan a mud swamp, warding off Christianity and foreign domination, was erected as a purposeful imitation of the modern nation state geared to meet foreign power with an equal and opposite force. The invention of the “Japanese people,” constituting a unique religious identity (State Shinto), a unique language (there was no shared language prior to the modern period and the language is still marked by mutually unintelligible dialects), a unique racial identity (Japan is a DNA melting pot of the Asian mainland) is a relatively modern innovation on the same order as the American, the British, or the French people.  What is obvious to the foreigner visiting Japan is how the culture shapes individuals so as to forge a “unique” national identity.

What may not be so obvious to the Western, specifically American or U.S., observer is that this identity is a mirror image. The identity and counter-identity have both been forged by the same imperialism, colonialism, patriotism, and nationalism, which constitute the corrosive and overwhelming force of the modern nation state. If Japan is a mud swamp which has successfully warded off Christianity (which it is and has for the most part), it is by virtue of the same power which has shaped Christianity so as to fit modern Western identity.  Where we might recognize Endō’s mud swamp, the corrosive effect of those same forces on modern Christianity may be less obvious.

A test, formulated by Paul for the Corinthians, to gauge the distance between the modern American form of the faith and New Testament Christianity is the role of bodily resurrection. The danger is we might imagine Paul is too heavy handed or is being hyperbolic when he suggests it is a choice of either belief in bodily resurrection or belief that the apostles are liars, God is untrue, and a Christianity without resurrection is worse than paganism. Eat, drink and be merry, for death reigns (I Cor. 15:32), he declares. It seems Paul has not considered the more sophisticated notion of disembodied souls going to heaven, which would separate out the earthly kingdoms from God’s heavenly focus. To say resurrection is salvation and that without it Christianity is futile; well, hasn’t Paul forgotten the main point about Jesus taking our punishment so we can go to heaven?

Paul says either embrace bodily resurrection or acknowledge the nihilistic darkness of an empty faith (along with lying apostles, remaining in sin, and being consigned to oblivion (I Cor. 15:12-19)).  He offers no room for dualism or for the notion that a disembodied soul going to heaven is Christian salvation. This dualistic division (dividing faith from ethics, history from eternity, material reality from spiritual reality), apparently would mean Christians are left in their sin (even though they acknowledge “Christ died for my sins”). He indicates this is the delusion resurrection defeats.

In the following verses (20-28) Paul equates resurrection with an embodied this-worldly sort of salvation. Christ’s resurrection is defeating the powers (the dominion, power, and authority of this world’s kingdoms, v. 24), it is bringing about the reversal of all that occurred in the 1st Adam, and is the inauguration of a universal resurrection in which the reign of God will be made complete (with the establishment of the kingdom of God – his reign, his people, according to the principle of life).  Christ’s resurrection will bring about the defeat of the final enemy and this defeat is in process (I Cor. 15:20-28). How can all of this be true?

It is the case only if the primary enemy is death and an orientation to death deployed by the “dominions and authorities” (human modes of reign and rule) defeated in resurrection. It is only true if the dualism which would split up body and soul, the City of God and the City of man, is not simply a theological or philosophical error but the lie of sin itself.

Resurrection as salvation (as an anti-dualism) makes sense where the “body of death” or the “body of sin” is constituted in a lie that divides (perceived as the self, divided between “body” and “soul”) in which the symbolic order of the law (the soulish, the spiritual) is pitted against the physical body. Sin, in Paul’s picture, is focused on the struggle and sacrifice of life within the “I.” The battle within the “I” is self-destructive and potentially violent – should “I” give way to the ever-present possibility of evil (Ro. 7:21). Sacrifice (masochistic or sadistic violence aimed at gaining life) is inscribed into the sinful economy – it is the agonistic struggle constituting the “body of death” – a Subject engaged in a struggle for life which kills. 

Paul’s “body” (σῶμα) is not referring to only the physical body but to the Subject, with sin and death describing the orientation or existential reality of the Subject. Body denotes the full reality which comes with embodiment: humans embodied in a particular environment, the body being that which constitutes them social beings, a being who relates to and communicates with her environment.  As in a Wittgensteinian understanding, the Subject is a body such that self-alienation might be experienced as “having a body” rather than “being a body” (Paul’s body out of control, as Bultmann describes it, means a Subject out of control).  So, to be joined to the body of Christ in baptism is to close the gap within the self. Sin is an apparent dualism defeated in salvation.

The gap within the self (self-antagonism between body and soul) constitutes a myriad of possible worlds and alternative means of constituting the self through opposed pairs (dualism). John notes this same world order so as to show in these apparent dualisms light defeats darkness, truth defeats the lie, and life overcomes death. The knowledge of good and evil is the deep grammar of sin dependent upon an apparent dualism (Hegel references the fall into the knowledge of good and evil as a cognitive necessity to inaugurate his dialectic). Jew and Gentile, male and female, thought and being, soul and body, East and West, inside (Japanese) and outside (foreigner), all pose the possibility of identity through difference. Or as Paul puts it, 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). Sin is a way of being, an epistemology, a world, constituted in what Paul describes as a death dealing lie.

A modern contractual Christianity tied to the lie in the name of Christ (life is in the law because Christ meets its requirements) might favor a Cartesian version of modernity (the discordant dualism of “I think therefore I am”). In this philosophical individualism truth is apprehended within (thought, one side of the dualism, provides being, the other side of the dualism, and thus faith is its own reality). The modern theological conservative might trust empirical apprehension of reality (laws of nature, laws of science, laws of reason, over and against the mind), in which faith is a cognitive affirmation of historical reality. Both, though, begin with a given reality as posited through a modern Western frame of knowledge and modern notions of self (a self divided between empirical reality and inward essence). It is presumed one has access to an already posited reality, and Christian faith, ethics, and truth works within this framework (as I summed it up here). What is obscured is Paul’s third law – the law of sin and death – the divide within the Subject which secures this reality and the resurrection which defeats it.

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8.2). Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  The “body of death” is put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is the ontological alternative to the “body of death” as the Subject of baptism, instead of being joined to negation and death, is joined to the resurrected body of Christ. This is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (‘the redemption of our bodies’ (8.23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8.21)). This truth cannot be bent by the mud swamp of modernity as it names the lie of dualism, of doing identity in the law, in the state, in human religion, or in modernity.

The modern nation-state constitutes identity through difference in its own dualism (Orient/Occident, Eastern backwardness/Western progress, etc.) and modern contractual theology with its focus on Western notions of individual faith (constituting the modern self), tied to Western notions of democracy, patriotism, and nationalism, is precisely what Japan’s ruling elite sensed – the ideological forerunner to colonization. The question is if an American faith subject to this same colonizing power can escape its grip?

The way of escape is clear: “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (I Cor. 15:24) as resurrection is the counter-power to a world built on death. “He has put all things in subjection under His feet . . . so that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:27-28) as resurrection defeats the apparent dualism by closing the gap of a failed identity. 

Universal Salvation Through Resurrection: The Answer to an Unasked Question?

After many years in the classroom the questions of students on any given topic became so predictable so as to seem almost mechanical, indicating a certain predetermined orientation of thought. I came to see my role, in teaching theology, as necessitating a shift of focus in which a particular line of questioning is abandoned or at least suspended so as to raise an alternative perspective. Poorly conceived questions or questions which are secondary, when made primary, are not harmful because an answer may or may not be available but because the question and potential answer are misdirected.  Sometimes no answer or a suspended answer allows for a different emphasis. Questions about the problem of evil and suffering, the intermediate state of the dead, the necessity of violence, or available light, given the wrong focus or emphasis have the potential of impoverishing the Christian faith. As Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated, paradigm shifts occur not so much with the gathering of new data as with the rise of a different set of questions aimed at answering a different set of problems (the answers to which may in fact be inadequate in answering former questions). What we might call “contractual theology” is primed to provide a theory of evil, to explain suffering and the necessity of violence, what happens at death, and has an answer concerning those who have never heard the gospel, but the cost, as Douglas Campbell has shown, is an inherently unstable theology which cannot be completely reconciled with the New Testament. But the simplest criterion for testing the adequacy of a theological understanding, according to Paul, is bodily resurrection.

The test Paul provides (in I Cor. 15) for an authentic Christianity is the centrality of belief in the bodily resurrection. Denial of bodily resurrection, or even of its desirability, is the primary marker, in Paul’s explanation, of a futile faith worse than paganism and not worthy of the name of Christ. Some of the Corinthians have concluded bodily resurrection is not a necessity. Paul warns that a Christianity that would displace bodily resurrection as the core of salvation is a lie. Why would they, or maybe more pertinent, why do many Christians today believe in a Christianity in which bodily resurrection is a non-sequitur (even where acknowledged it is often only as an addendum to the saving work of the cross)? As Justin Martyr explains as early as the second century, in his debate with Trypho the Jew, there are “some who are called Christians. . . who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.” These are “godless, impious heretics,” Justin warns Trypho: “Do not imagine that they are Christians” (Dialogue with Trypho, 80). Justin continues, “I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead” [literally, resurrection of the flesh]. This heresy is probably the same that Paul is refuting (a Greek dualism of body and soul) and, of course, by this definition most of what is popular Christianity today is a false religion.

It may not be important in the contemporary scene to trace the cause of bias toward bodily resurrection – is it the influence of Greek philosophy, the same striving for wisdom (identity through difference evident in Corinth and a universal phenomenon according to Derrida), is it new ageism with its Eastern influences, or is it simply the natural human tendency? I have encountered it in a supposedly conservative campus ministry (the campus minister acknowledging it would not matter to him if they found the body of Jesus and the board, made up primarily of elders and ministers, concurring); it is obviously denied in certain strands of theological liberalism, and ever-present in fundamentalism (in more or less the form Justin condemns). The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity presume that Christianity (like Gnosticism) addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death, such that resurrection would answer a problem they have not conceived.

To make the point that putting resurrection in the center constitutes an alternative Christianity, I summarily offer eight key ways (following Campbell, in part) in which a different emphasis on resurrection completely alters doctrine:

1. Epistemology – One reading of Romans is that God is known from the cosmos through reason and conscience. God’s ethical demands are clear to Jews through the law and innately by everyone else, so that reward and punishment are determined on the basis of keeping the law, which will happen on the day of judgment. Humans are sinful and everyone violates the law or fails to meet its ethical demands, and honest introspection reveals this fact so that everyone knows they are damned (all rational people are afraid and want a way out). Luckily, Christ offers a resolution to the double problem of knowing God in his omniscient justice, knowing the law, knowing of one’s incapacity to keep the law, and being afraid of one’s deserved punishment. One is able to attain to a philosophically sophisticated knowledge of God and yet there is a profound incapacity to do what one knows she should (a misreading, I would argue, of Romans 1-4 and 7).

The problem is this does not fit Paul, who testifies that his conscience was clear and that he kept the law perfectly prior to becoming a Christian. In twenty years in Japan, and I worked among cultural elites and every class of people, I failed to meet one individual that had either this natural understanding of God or of themselves. From my own education, I presumed that I would meet depressed people, agonizing over their sinful incapacity, and all I would need to do is show them a way out of their dilemma. In the entire history of philosophy and ethics it is not clear that the finest minds arrived at anything approaching what is often taken to be Paul’s starting point of human knowing.

The alternative to this misconstrued natural light is what Paul describes as resurrection knowing. As he describes in both Romans and Philippians there is knowing grounded in the law or what he describes in II Cor. 3 as knowing from ourselves and resurrection knowing. Apart from knowing the resurrected Jesus one is bound by sin and death (the law of sin and death) in which state one has believed a lie (Rom. 1:18ff, 7:7ff; Philippians 3:10-11).  There is no available light, no possibility of arriving at truth as one is given over to a lie. Resurrection knowing (knowing by the power of resurrection) is guided by the Spirit and Paul contrasts this with knowing according to the letter of the law which kills (II Cor. 3:6).

2. Anthropology – People in typical contractual theology are thought to be individualistic, rational, and cognitive, (perhaps innately immortal) and yet ethically incapacitated. The focus is on a spirituality or soulishness that is not dependent on the body. In this understanding resurrection either is not helpful or is an imprisonment in the body and the material world. In a theology in which resurrection is salvation, people are subject to death and futility and their apparent individualism is a symptom of sin. In this understanding people are not innately immortal, nor are they isolated individualistic souls. Bodily resurrection as salvation speaks of plurality (male/female, family) community and corporateness (as part of being corporeal). The incapacity of being subject to death is obviously holistic when we die – but death has a grip prior to physical death (prior to one’s actual demise) so that living out the resurrection now is equated with life in the Spirit.

3. Theology – In contractual theology God is known as a just, law giving, angry judge such that a theodicy (the answer to the problem of evil) is extrapolated (by Calvin) as flowing out of the character of God. Paul says, the death and resurrection of Christ is the vindicating act of God “who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). God’s justice in this understanding is not focused on application of law but deliverance from death. God is deliverer, sovereign over chaos and death, and loving (the source of help and rescue and not the source of hate and anger).  The helper, the Holy Spirit, enables living out this alternative understanding.

In Christ’s resurrection God is Lord over the powers: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Co 15:21–24, NASB).

4. Revelation – Where resurrection is the reconstitution of all things, including the human capacity to know, “natural revelation” (whatever that might be construed to be) is obscured by sin and death. There is no cognitive, philosophical approach to God. We know this because revelation is life breaking into death, light breaking into darkness, understanding breaking into ignorance, truth as over and against a lie. Revelation is retrospective from resurrection – from which we can see the grip death has had upon us (Rom 7); again, life in the Spirit leads into all truth as opposed to a living death based on a lie.

5. Law – Where resurrection is the answer to the problem law is not a primary category but secondary in that it pertains to death, the real problem in human orientation (the deception is to imagine there is life in the law). It is originally a marker, as with the Jewish law, of the covenant between God and Abraham. In the prohibition in Eden we can see that law is doubly obscured in that the knowledge of good and evil is a law unto itself, not referencing God or life but as Paul describes it, referring to that which comes from the self (II Cor. 3:6). Law in the lie is a means to life and this “life in the law” is a living death. Yet the economy of salvation in contractual theory is presumed to operate on the basis of law.

6. Atonement – Contractual theory does not explain (in any comprehensible manner) why Christ must atone as against other people or things, and especially, in place of the established temple cult. The atonement that is offered involves a legal fiction in which an innocent victim dies to satisfy God’s righteousness. As George McDonald describes it:

“Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous; neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not justice. Be sure that the thing that God gives, the righteousness that is of God, is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me, Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to be made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.”

Paul says that apart from the resurrection of Christ you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17) because sin reigns through death and death no longer reigns only where resurrection has defeated death. Without the resurrection the redemptive, atoning, liberating effect of Christ’s death remains ineffective, for his death and resurrection are two sides of the redemption from the bondage to sin and death. New life (resurrection life) is the direct correlate of this delivery from bondage.

7. Faith – In contractual theology faith is a cognitive affirmation which somehow saves (the connection to salvation or deliverance is not clear). Resurrection faithfulness speaks of trusting obedience in the face of death. So, it is interconnected with a life giving, rather than a death dealing, ethic.

8. Soteriology – A Christian faith which poses the wrong problem (God’s anger), gives us the wrong answer (law is satisfied and law is the main thing), concludes death and resurrection are secondary to the main problem (God’s wrath), divides out ethics and says righteousness is merely theoretical and does not bring about a real or necessary change (it is imputed), does it deserve the name “Christian”? A religion which imagines God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it; then says he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, and attributes the righteousness to the sinner, so that this is justice, I would say this is the devil’s religion that has been substituted for the Christian faith. Resurrection as the center of salvation makes it obvious that death and a death dealing lifestyle are the problem. Being saved is cosmic, apocalyptic, and not conditioned on our ability to bring it about.

The question is not whether Paul believes in a cosmic, all-encompassing, universal salvation, through resurrection. That is, we might debate exceptions, degrees of exclusion, or qualifications but such questioning and debate must be subsequent to understanding Paul’s primary and driving image of salvation. There are certain questions we must temporarily suspend lest they obscure or derail the main point: universal salvation through resurrection is the resolution to the problem of sin and death.

Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom

(Reposted from July 26, 2018)

In an interview with Time George Lucas explains the fall of Anakin Skywalker as a failure to live up to the way of th(e Jedi (“pop-Buddhism” or, as Lucas describes himself, “Methodist-Buddhist”) teaching: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”[1]  If Anakin could have remained detached from his passions, Lucas indicates, he would not have become the evil minion of the Dark Side. Think here of the fully enlightened Obi-Wan Kenobi floating in the ether urging Luke to “Let go.” He has already been struck down, willingly, by Darth Vader but having passed through the veil of death he has come out on the other side, devoid of the hindrance of a physical body and fully in possession of his true essence.

Buddha’s original insight into the human predicament (suffering, disease, and death) was to lay the blame on desire or attachment. It is not that detachment gets rid of suffering and death—but the point is to posit a reality which is untouched by suffering and death and, so, relinquish a grip on the material world in a way that takes hold of this alternative reality. In actual practice in Japan, this has not meant a refusal of violence but a fearless embrace of death—as in Bushido. To be struck down or to strike down (by light saber or sword) is of no great concern as death is a passageway into a more substantial reality. Isn’t this the teaching of the Bible and Christianity? Consider the hymns we have sung for decades: this “world is not my home I am just passing through,” “I’ll fly away,” and “we will meet on that heavenly shore.” Those who accept Jesus into their heart have the assurance of a spiritual heavenly home and this is why Jesus came. Now we can see that death is not a reality and this material world will soon be burned up.  Our souls will depart for heaven, upon separation from our bodies at death, and we will spend eternity in disembodied bliss.

The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism (see the fine blog and podcasts with Bret Powell) is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity (see Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics) presume that Christianity addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death.  This understanding was never far from the Gnostic Christ or from the Star Warsportrayal of Anakin as a Christ-like figure (his immaculate conception, his Ben-Hur like chariot/pod race). The New Age pagan universe is not so different from the second century pagan universe, as in both good and evil are not really opposed forces but each is a necessary part of the other. The point is not to rid the world of the dark side but to keep all things in balance. The serpent and Judas are joined to Christ in the same way that Anakin, a Christ figure, is joined to Darth Vader.  The neo-Gnostics, like the originals, presume that the serpent represents a feminine principle which has been demonized and so we need to hear this voice which would have us imbibe in the fulness of knowledge.  Those with true insight, as the Zen Buddhist philosopher Kitaro Nishida puts it, recognize that the principles of good and evil, God and Satan, can be conjoined and harmonized within the self so that the enlightened individual is greater than God and Satan. The goal is to achieve balance and harmony through detachment from both principles.

Within this pagan horizon, one who claims to be the “way, the truth, and the life,” or one who advocates selling everything, not simply to become detached but so as to become attached to Him, must be the ultimate devil. Christ explains that he did not come to bring balance and harmony, but a sword. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” Christianity is not paganism precisely because it opposes, divides itself from, and does not presume to explain and incorporate the “necessity” of evil. Darkness is not a counter-balance to light, and death is not a doorway to life; death is the final enemy and darkness will be penetrated and overcome.

On the other hand, the sign of a Christianity turned Gnostic (whether by post-evangelicals or evangelicals) is the willingness to accede to the necessity of evil as a tool in bringing about righteousness. Violence, nationalism, or personal betrayal (in my experience “raising up new servant leaders for the Church” requires that the old ones be expendable) in which doing evil to singular individuals is justified in bringing about the greater good for the kingdom (an actual theological explanation I received). There is no end to the evil (war, keeping the foreigners out, imprisoning children, or simply doing evil to a friend) which may be required to usher in the kingdom. Calvin maintains the Fall, Judas, and evil, are a necessary part of God’s plan, so it should be no surprise that, in the name of this sort of Christianity, some are willing to play the role of Judas so as to advance the kingdom.  After all, don’t we need Judas to betray Christ so that the world revolution can begin? Maybe Judas recognized he was the necessary cog in fomenting a showdown.

In its exclusiveness, orthodoxy is intolerant of this sort of evil because the kingdom established on this principle (“Let us do evil that good may abound”) is itself evil. (Which is the interesting part of Star Wars – the Republic turned Empire – “we ourselves have become evil” – to which I will return below.) To state it differently, there is the possibility of defeating evil and not simply the presumption that Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin, false opposites to be harmonized in a higher principle. Christ presumes to separate good and evil and not reduce them to mere appearance. His harsh judgments of the Pharisees (“You are of your father the Devil”), of his own disciples (“One of You is a devil”), and even his chief apostle (“Get behind me Satan”), are meant to divide and separate the good from the evil. Where paganism would obliterate differences – good and evil, male and female, darkness and light – Christ draws lines and distinguishes elements, such that the imbalance is not undermined but accentuated.

This sort of intolerance is counted the source of evil in New Age paganism. How can one achieve peace if continually caught up in this agonistic struggle? The quietism of the East accepts the inevitable cosmic conflict but presumes one can withdraw to a higher plane. Where Christ demands a definitive belief, the New Age principle would suspend belief and revel in non-duality, non-thought, and a primal Ground in which substantive reality is enfolded into Nothingness. The Force needs its “Anakins” as much as its “Lukes” and it is no surprise that the same principle should give rise to both. What I have argued in my previous two blogs, as with the Kyoto School, Martin Heidegger, and the head of Shambhala International, is that this form of enlightenment may “positively” impact the brain (as determined in the valuation system of neurotheology) while actively promoting evil. The Gnostic, in reply, would point to the relativity of terms such as “good” and “evil” and valorize the role of the serpent and Judas. What is a bit of groping, fascism, National Socialism, murder, betrayal, in light of the cosmic balance, the Empire, or the kingdom of God? (Perhaps Anakin should be made to realize the Emperor only appears evil through the limited perspective of the archaic league, the Jedi, and he is the true master.) Both the Gnostics and orthodox Christians would accuse the other of being deluded. (As I have argued, neurotheology does not have the tools to look at the brain and make a determination one way or another.) The precise nature of reality is under contention.

The Bible and Christianity (in its pre-Gnostic form) accounts for the drive to detachment and non-duality, not as acceding to the primal ground, but as a delusion arising from rejection of the divine perspective. The Fall consists, as Bonhoeffer describes it, of humans displacing the divine role and becoming the arbiters of their own ethic. Paul describes the cathecting of the law into the self so that both law and the subject are transformed in the process. The law, taken up into the subject, divides the “I” against itself so that the individual is simultaneously constituted and consumed in the ensuing struggle.

The law is not something distinct from the self but is that part of identity – that punishing voice within which would obliterate the ego. The key point is that the agonistic struggle is not something which happens to the “I” or ego; rather the ego is constituted in the struggle with the law. To succumb to the law (or to what Paul describes as a deceived orientation to law definitive of sin) is to give death full sway. Thus, Freud dubs it the Nirvana principle, as in a masochistic self-relation ultimate pleasure is to be had in a death dealing dissolution.  Obi-Wan’s succumbing to death, or the enlightenment goal of dissolution of the ego, succumbs to the deluding power of the super-ego or the law (which in the revised Star Wars would be the Evil Emperor).

Paul’s resolution (unavailable in psychoanalysis) is a deconstruction of the entire dynamic. The ego is identified as a spectral unreality, the law (superego) is one’s own voice given final authority, and the positing of these two realms denies the reality of the mortal body and death. The serpent, Obi-Wan, but every form of paganism, whispers, “You won’t die, you will be gods knowing good and evil.” Paul’s cry in regard to the real of the death drive, “who will rescue me from this body of death,” is to be found in the specific work of Christ in exposing the death dealing orientation of sin (the death drive). Death and desire, the controlling forces of sin, are displaced by life and hope. The “I” can be said to have been crucified with Christ, but it is not that the placeholder of the “I” remains empty. It is now, Paul says, Christ that lives within me. What this means in experience is detailed in his depiction in Ro. 8 of taking on the perspective of Christ in relation to “Abba Father” through the Spirit. Paul fills in each part of the tri-partite identity with a depiction of the work of the Trinity.

In place of the law (the punishing superego) is a first order relation with “Abba – Father,” and in place of the ego is the perspective and relational identity of Christ (“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives within me”), and in place of the orientation to death (id, death drive) is the life-giving work of the Spirit.  The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law” (ἕτερον νόμον), but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.  The key difference between the living death of 7.7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates (giving rise to the three parts of a lie – what is denied (death), what is posited (the ego), and the controlling medium (the law), while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8.3) who leads by his Spirit (8.14).  The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8.4), has their mindset (8.5-8), sonship (8.15), endurance of suffering (8.17), and saving hope (8.20, 24).

The pertinent question/objection, in conjunction with Star Wars, is not simply why one individual became evil but why the Republic became the Empire and how Paul’s prescription amounts to a political intervention? In the end Lucas’ (or what has become the Star Wars franchise) portrayal of the fall of Anakin is not consistent. If Anakin had been portrayed as one who pursued the good or peace, such that like Judas he was willing to do evil to bring on the final confrontation which would bring about peace, this would have followed the trajectory from Republic to Empire. (As it is Anakin proves simply to be weak willed and drawn to power for its own sake.) Hardt and Negri sum up the problem of Empire: “the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace—a perpetual and universal peace outside of history.” This fits Lucas’ explanation that the Empire did not conquer the Republic, but the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’” The pursuit of peace through evil, at the individual and corporate level, produces Empire on the macro and micro scale. Anakin becomes Vader (and this would have been the more authentic portrayal) in the same way that the Republic becomes the Empire; not through attachment to the good but a determination to achieve peace by any means. Anakin should have become a monster through his commitment to fight evil by any means. A democracy becomes a dictatorship in its commitment, as Žižek puts it, “through the very way we, the ‘good guys,’ fight the enemy out there.” The war on terror endlessly reduplicates terror as it functions according to the presumption generating evil.

The enemy which Christ exposes, as Paul explains, is precisely this principle of doing evil that good may abound. The political alternative is the enactment of the good, in every circumstance and at any personal cost (laying one’s life down for the brethren), without falling back on evil. Though “necessity” may demand an immediate violence, a slight moral modification, a temporary suspension of peace, the Kingdom founded on the Cross refuses to succumb to the principle of Empire. The Peaceable Kingdom declares the struggle and its principle, “shall we sin that grace may abound,” as the delusion undone in an original peace devoid of the necessity of conflict.

[1] This was from a 2002 Time Magazine interview. I am employing Slavoj Žižek’s account from his article “Revenge of Global Finance” In These Times at http://inthesetimes.com/article/2122/revenge_of_global_finance.

Saving Romans from Contractual Theology with Douglas Campbell

The hijacking of Christianity can be traced to readings of Romans which would separate Paul’s gospel from the Gospel(s) by making salvation contractual, righteousness a legal fiction, and by reducing sin to a breaking of the law. The focus on guilt (a partial problem measured by law and resolved through payment) displaced shame (a wholistic problem resolved through a reconstituted humanity) in an economy of salvation obscuring Paul’s depiction of sin as linked to a holistic deception and salvation as cosmic or universal. Christ’s death, justification, sin, punishment, or simply the language of the New Testament, severed from Christ’s universal re-creation, becomes equivocal, as demonstrated not only in the Christianities of East and West but in the Protestant fragmenting of the faith. Augustine’s rendering of Romans 5 most sharply marks the divide between East and West, with his notion of original sin and the various innovations which reach full bloom in the peculiar abominations of John Calvin. The sharp divide between German liberalism/spiritualism and the contractual theory of penal substitution, in their readings of Romans, demonstrate the instability of Protestantism in pitting one side of Paul against the other. The tension between participation in the Trinity of Romans 8 and the focus on the law in 1-3, reproduces, in Protestantism, something like the East/West split.

My work, aimed at resolution to the apparent tensions in Romans, focuses on a rereading of chapters 6-8, which involves a reworked understanding of the human problem as defined by Paul and its resolution in Christ. The problem is not that the obligations of a contract have not been met, and Christ keeps the contract. The problem is that humans are in bondage and Christ frees from this bondage. It is the specifics of Paul’s description of this bondage, as slaves to a death dealing (deceived) orientation to the law, that make sense of the peculiar deliverance enacted by Christ.

By focusing on and developing the concept that sin is a death-dealing deception in regard to the law, which accounts for the human Subject (as well as the human project) outside of Christ, the work of Christ (the entire movement of his life, death, and resurrection) can be understood as reconstituting humanity in the Truth (Trinitarian participation as in Rom. 8) as opposed to a lie.  This will then lead to a theological understanding which accounts for the focus on the revelatory nature of the death of Christ, as sin is understood primarily in terms of a death denying and death dealing deception.

The revelation of Christ is part of salvation, not because it addresses the rational soul allowing for a measured decision, but revelation, in part, exposes the unconscious work of sin as in a lie the conscious work of sin is dependent on what it negates. The specific content and dynamic of the lie is worked out in detail in Rom. 7, among other places. That which is by definition unconscious consists of the basic ‘human project’ or the ‘founding gesture’ of the conscious Subject. 

For Paul, the truth of Christ (found in facing the reality of death in resurrection faith as in Rom. 4) stands over and against the lie of sin (the resistance to death of the fundamental fantasy and the impenetrable mystery of the real –which is the power of negation of the death drive).  Christ exposes the lie of sin (death as life at the foundation of subjectivity) in his acceptance of death and reverses the orientation of sin (slavery to the fear of death) in which the denial is absolute.  Christ relegates death and the law of sin and death to a secondary category and displaces them with the truth (resurrection life).  The depth of the mystery of the truth of Christ displaces the unconscious structured as a lie; that is, sin as a false mystery is displaced by the true mystery and transcendence of Christ at work beyond human consciousness (the reconstituted unconscious).  So, on this account, the truth of salvation necessarily addresses the Subject at both a conscious and unconscious level as the work of sin is exposed as an identity grounded in the dynamics of a specific deception and orientation to death. 

The implication of my argument regarding Romans 6-8 that Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law, is that it is not the law which provides insight into his death, but sin as it is oriented to the law. Paul introduces an economy in salvation which can account for the law but which is not mediated by law.  Salvation, in his understanding, is not gauged in terms of the law but as a counter to sin and the establishment of an alternative identity and an alternative economy in Christ.  The law, for Paul, mediates and governs the economy of sin, but law is secondary in the economy of salvation ushered in through Christ. The law could not deliver life but God has done what the law could not do by sending his Son, and Christ has ushered in the life promised by the law (Rom. 8.3).  The way God did this was to condemn sin, not Jesus, though it was in the flesh of Jesus that sin was put to death.  ‘By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh’ (8.3).  As N. T. Wright puts it, ‘this is some way from saying, as many have, that God desired to punish someone and decided to punish Jesus on everyone else’s behalf’.[1]

Paul’s understanding of the law introduces a series of categories in chs. 6 and 8 which demonstrate that the law mediates sin but, in contrast to Anselm’s (along with the line of theology leading up to the Protestant Reformation) understanding, for Paul, the law does not mediate salvation (so law has a narrower sense for Paul than it does for Anselm).  Salvation destroys the law of sin and death and introduces the economy of life, in which there is no end of resources.  Anselm’s ‘divine satisfaction’ works within a closed economy of law and Christ meets the demand of the system.  There is, however, no relief from the system of exchange and payment but only a meeting of the demands of the law.  In Anselm’s system (and the major part of the Western tradition) the purpose of the law plays a primary and enduring role so that even in Christ it is the economy of exchange that is determinative.

In Paul’s picture of an alternative economy,  the promise of the law is fulfilled (the promise of life which it could not deliver), and the law itself has taken on its correct place as secondary to what God has done in Christ to bring life and restore relationship to God by dispelling the lie of sin with the truth of life in the Son.  The law only has an enduring role in condemning sin in sinful man (Rom. 8.4).  The alienation (between the law and the ‘I’ (ἐγὼ) or the individual) produced by a misperception of the law is overcome in the understanding that the proper role of the law is to point to life in Christ. Participation in Christ inaugurates resurrection life which is inclusive of a manner of life which presumes control over the body and an end of alienation (the ‘I’ against the law) – as ‘by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body’ (8.13).  The split between the individual and the social or between the ἐγὼ (I) and the law can be viewed as part of the problem from within the ‘body of Christ’ which denotes individual and social coherence and unity.  

My work on Romans is primarily theological and I have relied on New Testament scholarship, not my expertise, to support the details of my reading of Romans. What I could not have known is that at the same time I was completing a PhD in theology, with a dissertation and book dealing with Romans 6-8, Douglas Campbell was completing work in New Testament studies arriving at conclusions which support my primary thesis. Campbell has provided a reading of Romans that in general (if not in particular details), accords with my own work in rejecting a contractual reading, rejecting a foundational understanding (what Campbell links to Arianism) or the notion that humans can reach God through creation and reason, and in recognizing the centrality of a participatory soteriology throughout Romans. In the upcoming class on Romans, while we will not deal with all the specifics or bulk of Campbell’s reading, we will work out the details of an understanding that is at once universal, noncontractual, participatory, and unconditional.

Sign up by or before May 27th .
You can register for the course here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings.


[1] See Wright, Romans, 578.

The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism

It is not entirely clear how justice might be rendered and the world set right but this is the Christian hope. By “not clear” I mean that the proper understanding of the biblical images of a narrow way, cosmic redemption, punishment of the wicked, eternal fire, the defeat of sin and death, etc., does not resolve into anything approaching full explanation and, I presume, is not supposed to. Part of what hope consists of, in its admitted (and by definition) incapacity to see, is that there are impenetrable categories posing resolutions to overwhelming problems that escape finite imagination and articulation. Biblical imagery of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state of the dead, is simply that – imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation. It is not only that the abyss runs white hot and cold (outer darkness) or that its opposite includes the entire cosmos (all, everyone, everything) narrowed down to a few select individuals, but these categories made to bear too heavy a weight corrupt the explanation, clarity, and primary point of the Gospel. The New Testament is focused on a practical, present tense, explanation of salvation, inclusive of an ethic – life in the body – and an insight into the human predicament, which is evacuated of meaning when the primary focus is put on future categories whatever they might be (which is not to deny the necessity of better understanding these categories).  This is clearest in the case of infernalism (eternal, conscious, torturous existence) but the same point holds for every position regarding the future estate.

Infernalism is connected to various images (it is mistakenly connected to hades – which is the place of the dead) but usually with Gehenna or the Lake of Fire. The problem is, the New Testament nowhere describes the Cross as addressing the category of Gehenna or the Lake of fire. Yet conceived as the primary human problem, Christ is thought to bear eternal suffering in hell on the Cross.  This makes suffering and death otherworldly spiritual categories, and since Christ suffering in this understanding is inward (eternal, heavenly/hellish suffering for and before God) he could undergo this spiritual suffering without incarnation. To follow this logic will land one just short of the antiChrist position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.

Though the innate immortality of the soul need not be posited along with infernalism it usually is, for obvious (and less so) reasons.  To imagine God simultaneously sustaining and torturing in hell forever may be disturbing to those not weaned on Calvin’s understanding that God’s love is an anthropomorphism of the saved trumped by his hate toward the damned.  Indestructibility is apparently our fall back position as portrayed in both the Bible and psychology. Though the serpent or Satan is behind the idea (in Genesis, Hebrews, Romans), better (so goes the lie) to bear a spark of immortality rather than to imagine God alone is immortal (though Paul says as much to Timothy). Freud maintained there is no mortality in the human unconscious.

Infernalism displaces the biblical focus on Christ’s actual death and his encounter with real world evil of the human kind (that killed him). Salvation, love, heaven, election, or nearly any other key biblical term will bear a very different semantic load if God is eternally angry and salvation is from his wrath for a few luckily chosen or choosing individuals. The goodness of this God is suspect and the redemption proposed would be blissful only for those who delight in the torture of others.  In hell, as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, though Scripture tells us just the opposite.[1]

Annihilationism is an improvement, in many respects, over infernalism: Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation like the “burning of chaff or brambles in ovens,” or the “final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Paul indicates as much: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:11–17). Peter concurs: “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Peter 2:12, KJV). The predominant O.T. picture is of the wicked being brought to nothing (a few examples must suffice): “For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2). “Evildoers will be cut off . . . the wicked will perish . . . They vanish—like smoke they vanish away” (Psalm 37:9,20).” “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Malachi 4:1).

Annihilationism fits into a continuum with the living death of sin, with death as a visible result of the Fall – finalized in the annihilation of judgment and Christ’s defeat of death. Infernalism creates a cosmological dualism in which the victory of Christ brings resolution for some but leaves evil and rebellion in place in hell. The eternally burning inferno would seem, as Calvin supposed, to make God’s wrath primary and to throw into question the “cosmic” fulness of Christ’s victory. Augustine proposes that it was a necessity to have an eternal torturous hell so that one could understand the difference of being in heaven. Tertullian, before him, speaks of the saved relishing the sight of the destruction of the reprobate.  Aquinas asserts that the vision of hellish torments increases the beatitude of the redeemed. As Augustine describes it, looking upon the punishments they have evaded helps the redeemed to more richly realize divine grace. It seems there is no place for mercy, pity, empathy, or human decency in a heaven dependent upon hell. Strangely, none note that it is precisely this knowledge built on difference (the knowledge of good and evil) that is fallen.

 With annihilationism, death as being cut off from life with God, has its definitive end in Christ’s defeat of death or in the obliteration of dying. Is there a contradiction though, in saying death is definitively defeated if some are dead forever? One might object that annihilation partly shares in the problem of infernalism, in that Christ’s victory cannot be said to be decisive and complete for all. God might be said to be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) but not for all. Perhaps nonexistence is not a counter to all in that it is a discontinuous category, though this doesn’t seem to quite work.

This leaves the option of universalism, which would seem to have its support in the continual New Testament refrain that salvation has come to all: God is the savior of all people (I Timothy 4:10). “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). “. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV). There are some 40 verses that clearly indicate the cosmic, universal, all-inclusive nature of salvation. Some form of universalism would seem to be undeniable, and I do not mean those forms that squeeze “all” down to a few. 

The danger with universalism is that it would seem to reduce to insignificance the struggles, suffering, choices, and injustices, involved in the reality of life. Certainly, a fluffy, cheap universalism, which would overlook the oppressive nature of evil for bromides of sentimental morality reduces the Christian religion to chicken soup for the soul. Wouldn’t it have been better to save the candle of human struggle if the flame of salvation brightens all? What is the point, the explanation, the reason? Universalism may set forth some sort of soul-making explanation – a grand lesson with no real consequences – but this will not do.

My point with annihilationism and universalism is not to simply dismiss them as inadequate. Infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism (either the cotton candy gnostic kind, or a morally responsible kind), are certainly not equal and need to be sorted out, but the danger is that the imagery of future things is made to bear explanatory weight where the New Testament offers imagery and not explanation. There is progress to be made in recognizing the perversion entailed in infernalism, the role of annihilation, and the clear teaching of a cosmic/universal salvation. The danger though, is to confuse a more just biblical imagery of future eternal categories with explanation. A better understanding may explain more but it is not the role of any image of the future estate of the damned and saved to sum up explanation and understanding.  In fact, a key criterion in arriving at the best understanding is that it allows for the fulness of the biblical focus on a lived salvation.

The end of discussion on the teaching of the New Testament about the intermediate state of the dead, future rewards and punishment, the extent of salvation, should not confuse a better understanding with a full understanding or imagine that this sums up the focus of the New Testament. For example, it may be that one concludes that annihilation is the primary teaching of the New Testament and better fits a loving image of God and best explains biblical imagery of final destruction. This may be a better explanation, but does annihilation provide final resolution to issues of justice or play the role of a theodicy? Does universalism serve any better? The death of six million Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers is not going to be explained, justified, or understood, whatever future estate you might imagine for Adolph, be it conscious torture in hell forever, annihilation, or redemption. Meningitis, rat lung worms, tooth decay, cancer, the suffering of the innocent, the existence of evil, or Hitler, do not fall within the spectrum of understanding and practical action which is the primary explanatory point of the New Testament – though it may touch on all of these issues. Of course, this practical salvation is best served by correctly delineating end time imagery but this image does not serve in place of a lived deliverance from the shackles of sin.


[1] “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Isaiah 54:7-8). “In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:9,17). “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him” (Hosea 6:2).

Learning to Prophesy from Jean Vanier

As Jean Vanier confronted death, he wrote of it as a “descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me.” He confronted life in much the same way, living in community with the intellectually disabled, his was a life spent in essentials, without pretense. In Vanier’s picture, living in community is a stripping away of the extraneous and confronting human brokenness and poverty. Apart from this openness community, he maintained, is not possible, so that those least prepared to live in community are those who bear the heaviest pretense of importance.

Henri Nouwen describes the move from the heights of academic success to living in Vanier’s L’Arche community where no one cared whether he had written a book: “L’Arche is built upon the body, not the word. Words are secondary.” Holding someone’s hand as they cry, saying “I forgive you for annoying me” and “I will also work on my own patience” – it’s about “a spirituality of love through small things.” It is not about idealized notions of community or love, but a communication reduced to the basics of heart and body.

Living in community and Vanier’s preparation to meet God seemed to consist of the same reduction: “That will be all that remains when the rest is gone: my naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God.” In community and before God it may be that “our groanings” or our deepest essence exposed is the point of contact with others and the Other.

There is an isolated and suffering part to all of us which, in Paul’s description, is the opening to the deepest communion: “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Ro 8:26-27, NASB). In Bonhoeffer’s echo of Paul, we cannot live in community apart from the capacity to be alone and we cannot be alone apart from the capacity to live in community. The openness of the one feeds into the opening to the other: the deep spiritual private communion with God which passes beyond articulation, and the human connectedness able to deny self for the building up of other.

Could it be that Paul’s “groaning” (of Ro 8) and his picture of a prayer life which passes beyond intelligible communication (I Cor 13-14) consist of the same exposure Vanier describes in his imagined final encounter with God? The passage beyond “success and shadow” to the deepest part of the self to the isolation of the individual, in Vanier’s description (in his 10 rules for living), is a passage beyond finite language: “We are very different from birds and dogs” as there is a “sort of cry of the infinite within us. We’re not satisfied with the finite.” Paul too, encourages the reach beyond articulate language into communion with the divine. What the “species of tongues” might consist of is unclear, other than that it is unintelligible and, if correlated with Ro 8, it is individual participation in the Trinity; private communion with the infinite.

At the same time, this informs us that the private is not synonymous with being isolated, as if we cannot get outside of ourselves so as to share the deepest part of who we are. This private interiority which passes beneath or beyond the intelligible is the place God meets us, “searches us” (Ro 8:26-27) and communes with us in the Spirit (I Cor 14:14-16). Paul describes this prayerful, unintelligible experience, as the encounter with the Spirit, which he presumes can be made intelligible. This “mystery” (14:2) does not pass beyond the possibility of symbolization, but is to be interpreted. The species of tongues describes private communication with God as, perhaps, everyone’s experience before God is unique. It must be that the Word woven into the fiber of our being is a “species of language” or communication that refracts, reflects, groans, as part of our unique identity. This communion is as specific as the name – the secret name by which God calls us.

Vanier, speaking at Nouwen’s funeral, captured this familiarity, shared anguish, shared yearning and understanding with a simple comment: “Henri was always Henri.” Our name spoken by our closest friends bears a familiarity marked by shared experience, a shared journey. When loved one’s speak our name it comes not only with a knowledge of our identity but as part of a joint identity. When God says our true name, when we have overcome and received the name inscribed upon the white stone (Rev 2:17), we enter fully into the identity by which he conceived us and has known us. When we learn our name, I presume, it will be from out of the private language in which we commune with God. Daily entry into this communion, must be as Vanier imagined it, a continual dropping off, cutting away, being reduced to the essence of who we are.

Noam Chomsky posits the necessity of a universal grammar shared by all languages and built-in to language users such that any particular language lights up a portion of this deep grammar. As image bearers communing with the Logos, perhaps this deep grammar is ignited in the peculiar image each of us shines forth.  It is not only that God communes and communicates with us appropriate to who we are but this communication uniquely shapes us. God must reveal himself through our individual hearts and minds but as this revelation flows it refracts differently, shaping the character of the receptor, the reflector, the heart and mind into and through which this revelation passes.

In Vanier’s description of his first experience of living in community he thought that he would come and help those with intellectual disabilities, then he realized it was working the other way around. His paradigm shifted away from separation between the helped and helpers to recognizing all are called to share their gifts – to speak a unique word from God to one another.  In the words of George McDonald:

“Each will feel the sacredness and awe of his neighbor’s dark and silent speech with his God. Each will regard the other as a prophet, and look to him for what the Lord has spoken. Each, as a high priest returning from his Holy of Holies, will bring from his communion some glad tidings, some gospel of truth, which, when spoken, his neighbours shall receive and understand. Each will behold in the other a marvel of revelation, a present son or daughter of the Most High, come forth from him to reveal him afresh. In God each will draw nigh to each.”

From out of the peculiar communion with God, the unique tongue, each is to bring a prophetic word from God.

“Come and prophecy” is the call to all of us, not so as to compare to our neighbor, but because the word we bear brings our unique identity before God into the body. In this body we always count the other better, the point, the purpose of our own aspiration to make ourselves intelligible, as our own well-being is tied up with this other. Vanier said, “People come to community because they want to help the poor. They stay in community because they realize they are the poor.” There is no ambition, no competition in the openness of love as each is dependent on the gifts of the other (Paul’s point to the Corinthians). God has made me for the body, for himself, so that my most private groanings and brokenness, which joins me in communion with God, joins me to the body.  Life together opens a space and purpose for our private groanings, which made intelligible is our prophetic word.

Jean Vanier – what a marvel of revelation – would that we each could so prophesy.

The Mirror Stages in Psychoanalysis and the Apostle Paul

Paul distinguishes two uses of mirrors in his two letters to the Corinthians (Corinth is a center of mirror manufacturing) depicting the incomplete and fragmentary (I Cor 13:12) and the completion and fullness being brought about in Christ (2 Cor 3:18). His deployment of the mirror metaphor in I Cor 13, linked to the tendency among the Corinthians toward disunity and mistaking the present and partial for the complete and whole, aligns with the psychoanalytic mirror stage. In Jacques Lacan’s depiction, the mirror stage is the point when the child is able to recognize its image in the mirror while simultaneously entering into language. The formation of the ego, which occurs at this stage, requires the capacity to objectify and name what is seen: the presumption that “I” am the object in the mirror. The location of this mirror, outside of the self and reflecting back only a surface image, gets at the “enigma.” The problem is that the image, as with the gifts of the spirit, taken for the end in itself fragments the self. The visual image of the self, and the symbolic/linguistic “I,” creates the problem of the split subject described by both Paul and Lacan. The “I” of the body and mind, which cannot be coordinated in Ro 7, is like the uncoordinated body of Corinthians in that both depict a body in rebellion against itself. The parts (the two “I’s” or the various organs), in their misorientation and misfocus, would destroy the body (Paul calls it “the body of death” and for Lacan it is death drive).

In both the mirror stage and in I Corinthians 13, the fallacy is to take a part (me, mine, I) for the whole (the corporate), so that my gift or treasure (“my” spiritual gift or the treasure of the ego) is presumed to be an end in itself. For both Paul and Lacan the fundamental error is found in a static object-knowledge, which would reduce self-identity to the object (the mirror image or the spiritual gift). Paul deploys the noun form of knowledge (gnosis) to depict the Corinthian tendency to make knowledge an end in itself (knowledge without love). Paul’s law and Lacan’s symbolic consist of this same stasis. The Jewish mistake, to take the law as an end in itself (the source of life), illustrates the universal orientation in regard to the law or the symbolic order (a point Paul develops in conjunction with his second mirror metaphor in 2 Cor). The specific linguistic gifts Paul focuses on (prophecy, tongues, knowledge (13:8)), create the same exclusiveness and arrogance as the law where they do not serve love. The Corinthians are repeating this error (sin itself) by not recognizing the partial, dependent, fragmentary, nature of their knowledge or giftedness.

Paul uses the verb form, “knowing,” to capture the fact that knowledge comes bit by bit and is provisional, fragmentary, and only enough to get to the next step. If one does not recognize the condition of mirror knowledge, but takes an immature attitude, the present and partial will be taken as the goal. To seek integration, wholeness, and unity, through the fragmentary is, in Paul’s illustration, the equivalent of wanting to be all eye-ball or all ear, and in Lacan’s theory, describes the inherent frustration in wanting to fuse with, or obtain, the ego. The image in the mirror, the visual reference, the sign, the gift, taken as final is to confuse sign and signified. As with Narcissus loving his image in the water, absorption by the image, or in Paul’s depiction of giving the body to be burned in martyrdom, apart from love, amounts to nothing. Death by drowning or by fire, as a loveless self-absorbed act, sums up Paul’s point. Paul’s “body of death” (Ro 7:24) and his description of the body parts attacking and refusing to work in harmony in Corinthians, or loveless religion up to and including martyrdom, seem to be a diagnosis of the same condition. Struggling to find the whole in a part is the inherent frustration and agonistic struggle of a living death.

The difference between immaturity and maturity pivots on the issue of love. Love changes up everything in that all else falls into its relative, partial, temporary, momentary, place in relation to love. Love’s infinite endurance is the purpose of the temporary gifts and the substance of the gift of the Spirit. The difference between the two (gifts and their culminating point) is, as in Paul’s illustration, the difference between seeing in a mirror and seeing face to face. The key is passage beyond simply seeing. The dynamism of the two (face to face) is interpenetrating, so that before God, total vulnerability, total openness to the other, seeing and being seen, constitutes the self in the mutuality of love.

Paul here (in I Cor 13) provides clues to his second use of the mirror in that the mirror of 2 Corinthians allows for a present experience of elements of this beatific vision. Both get beyond a unidirectional seeing to a multidirectional relationship: “But all of us with face unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the Lords Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18, DBH). The unveiled face is now continually absorbing and reflecting, taking in and being taken in, seeing and being seen. The mirror is still at work but the difference is it is in the image and is reflecting Christ. Reflection of Christ in the human face or human image produces an eternal change in contrast to the Mosaic reflection of glory.

Moses used a veil (we are not sure whose idea this was) to hide that his vision of God did not bring an enduring change. This same veil, Paul explains, prevents the children of Israel from seeing that the law is not an end in itself but has its end in Christ (3:14). The Jewish problem is the Corinthian problem, which is the human problem. The veil causes the Jews to imagine that life, God, glory, is in the law. Perhaps the veil serves its purpose, as it does in Paul’s explanation, of specifying the nature of human blindness. The veil hides the transitory nature of the symbolic order, but isn’t every cover up, every fabricated identity, beginning with the first couple’s cover up, aimed at obscuring what is passing or to be abolished. Pride covers this shameful condition and Moses veil marks precisely what is hidden.

If the veil functions in the Jewish heart to hide the transitive, partial nature of the law this explains why the letter, the gramma, the written document, or most closely scripture, kills (3:6). The letter or scripture kills as it is an object taken for the subject, a sign taken for the signified. “Death’s ministry” is by way of “scriptures engraved in stone” (3:7, DBH) as the words are stone cold objects. The law is an epitaph and not of the Spirit/life which brings about real transformative imaging (3:18).

Where for Lacan the mirror stage is irresolvable (it gives rise to the only subject possible), and I Cor 13 focuses primarily on a future resolution, here (in 2 Cor 3) Paul depicts the Christian as the mirror in which the face to face encounter is already begun (in a present progressive “being transformed”). The removal of the veil in turning to the Lord, is a turn from enslavement to death, and initiates the founding of a free subject (2 Cor 3:16-17). The transformation of this subject into Christ’s image, “from glory to glory” (3:18), is a dynamic and eternally ongoing process. It deals not primarily in one’s own image or dead scriptures, but the living Word, through the Spirit, who transforms us into his image.

What Lacan missed and what Paul provides is passage beyond the mirror stage into mirroring the glory of the Father in the image of the Son by the Spirit. This is not merely a psychological analogy for the Trinity, this is identity through the Trinity.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The extraneous nonsense becomes starkly clear in life when you find love where it was formerly absent.  As missionaries in Japan we had attempted, haltingly, stupidly, blindly, to bring a little light and love into a place where it was sometimes achingly absent. Eventually the effort, constant work, and for me the hard effort of navigating in a language in which I had very little facility (to put it mildly), wore on us. People live in certain registers of experience and emotion, and while there was much that one could admire in the gentleness and sometimes inherent kindness of Japanese, there was also the isolation of being foreigners and living in a muted or at least differently timbred emotional range. One example of the quiet desperation prevailing among many Japanese: when I would survey my university classes on issues like suicide, it was common that for more than half suicide was a continually open option.  The school secretary at our Bible college found her son hanging in his room. I performed the funeral for a family in our church (a very small church) in which the grandfather had killed himself. All of this to illustrate, joy was often in short supply. We had put our effort into building up a church and working to build a Bible college in Tokyo and we felt the former work was complete and the latter had come to a halt. We decided to return to teach in a Bible college in the States, thinking we would find a network of friends and fellowship – and of course the unarticulated thought: to find a bit of the love and joy we had been missing.

The rest of the story (below) follows the pattern Jesus laid out in the story of the Good Samaritan – we were robbed and left for dead, betrayed by brothers. The point is not the injustices suffered, or the fact the thieves arose from among those we counted on most, but the vulnerable condition in which this sort of betrayal leaves you. One way of understanding love is to eliminate what it is not or, worse, to experience what it is not, and then as we did with the Forging Ploughshares community, find that absence filled.

The experience can be summed up in the following biblical syllogisms which, in delineating love from what it is not or from that with which it may be confused, gets at its all-encompassing nature. (1.) The purpose of the gifts of the Spirit are fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled in the gifts. (2.) The purpose of the law is fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled by the law. (3.) The purpose of salvation is fulfilled in love in that love, in its most precise definition, is the undoing of shame, overcoming of pride, and defeat of death.

(1.) In Paul’s explanation (I Cor. 13), love serves the other and this service is through the gifts of the Holy Spirit but one must not confuse this giftedness with the thing itself. Knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, or any of the gifts of the Spirit without love, Paul explains, are a pointless nothing. The inverse of this is that all of these gifts have their point only as they serve the purpose of love. The gifts are not inherently attached to love, as exercise of the gifts may provoke burning envy, inflated importance, or pride and arrogance, in the face of which love is absent. The contrast between love, on one side, and the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and faith, each without love, on the other side, points to Paul’s earlier contrast and warning that knowledge inflates but love builds up. Prophecy or supposed knowledge received or exercised without love ministers to a false self-importance as “without love, I am nothing” (13:2).

Pride and selfishness can apparently be fed by gifts of the Spirit, so that even our spirituality may feed our self-protective, sinful experience, over and against love. Our power, our self-promotional interests, our thirsty pursuit of life, in a zero-sum sort of economy cannot afford love. Love, in contrast, rejoices in the truth, it never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up (I Cor. 13:4-7). This is not a zero-sum economy but one in which there is an infinite supply of life and resources. As Paul says at the conclusion of the chapter, love never ends. It is enduring; it is spreading; it is inclusive; it is not seeking to horde the glory or the resources of life and the light.

(2.) Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) when he sums up the law and his own purpose in Mt 22:39. Jesus is not the origin of this idea but he is the fulfillment of its possibility. Love, per se, is not an impossibility before Jesus or without Jesus but neighbor love, which Jesus will define in his story of the good Samaritan broadens the scope of neighbor to include, as Jesus explains elsewhere, enemies.  Such an idea was not considered, let alone put into practice, prior to Jesus.

Kenotic love, or giving up life (“he who loses his life”) to find life and love (restated in all four Gospels as Jesus summation of the salvation he is inaugurating) fulfills the law and neighbor love in that it meets and moves beyond mere justice. This love means giving up on securing the self against the neighbor, preserving the self by means of the law, or sustaining the self through the supposed life in the law. Kenotic service of the neighbor, in which one finds life, is the movement of love. It is modeled in Jesus forsaking power and position (“legal rights” of one with equality with divinity) so as to take the role of a servant (Philippians 2:7ff).

Paul, along with Jesus, says love is fulfilling the law (Romans 13:8-13) but what becomes clear in Paul’s explanation, while love will fulfill the law, the law will not fulfil love. In George McDonalds description, if a man keeps the law, he loves his neighbor but he is not a lover because he keeps the law but he keeps the law because he loves. The law cannot fulfill itself apart from love any more than gifts of the Spirit, in themselves, fulfill love. We are made for love, not law, and love fulfills and keeps the law only because it is infinitely more than law.

(3.) Love is the very point of the Christian faith in Paul’s explanation, but how or why this is the case can best be understood with a shift of focus from guilt to shame as the underlying problem. God is love and salvation is being restored to divine fellowship in love while sin obstructs this fellowship, but the problem is not merely a guilt which requires a price be paid, but shame which requires a remaking of human identity. While Western theology focuses on guilt (as if the obstruction is ultimately with God), what became clear in my reading the Bible in the Japanese context, is the role of shame as the primary descriptor of the loss of self. The self, in Japan, is depicted as consisting of an outward self (tatemae) that serves as a mask to protect an inward self (honne), the exposure of which will provoke the worst sort of shame (equated with death in popular literature). As James McClendon describes it, “In genuine presence I am with another and she or he with me, and there is a Wholeness in shared act or fact of our being there. But shame is a failed Wholeness. Thus, face to face with one another, but ashamed, we sense a loss of presence.” Where one cannot be present for the other, love is an impossibility. The primal emotion of the fallen self is shame (as depicted in Genesis, reiterated in the wisdom literature, and taken up by Paul). Shame compels us not merely to hide from others, to hide the body, but involves hiding the true self behind a mask in the attempt to be invulnerable – creating the incapacity for love.

Pride is directly connected to shame as pride is the identity, the structure (individual, national, tribal, etc.) behind which we would ward off shame. Our greatest gifts and abilities may feed into the cover up. We may organize our entire religion, the Christian religion, as a kind of façade behind which we might remain invulnerable, protected, unexposed. Isolation, invulnerability, self-protection, is not simply a mask we wear, but is descriptive of human experience outside of love.

Romans 7 focuses on this universal incapacity (the dynamics of the body of death (7:24)) in a counter series to what Paul proposes in Corinthians. The “I” covets – burns with envy – but love does not envy. The “I” is deceived about the law due to sin but love rejoices with the truth. Sin is caught up in fear of death; a zero-sum game in which the self cannot establish itself (arrive, find unity, obtain life). The problem of the “I” is precisely that it is isolated in the struggle to constitute itself. “I am I,” not only describes human experience but describes a self-consumptive desire (“I do what I do not want. . . who will rescue me from this body of death”).

In I Cor 13 and Ro 6-8 Paul’s “I” is undone in a corporate identity – “baptized into Christ.” Envy, desire, and conflict are displaced by love, described as making a unity of a plurality, ultimately unifying and drawing in all creation (Ro 8:38-39; I Cor 13:13). If sin involves a dividing and alienating orientation to death (a cover up in pride that kills), then the death of Christ as a confrontation with death denial and slavery to fear of death, removes the obstacle to loving sacrifice. The love of Christ enables entry into love as we can lay down our lives in agape love as Paul, and Jesus before him, defined and modeled it.

In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the key story illustrating neighbor love, it is clear the religious leaders who pass by on the other side do not qualify as good neighbors. What is also notable is that the thieves are identifiable in their creating the need for a neighbor – putting the poor man in the ditch, beaten, robbed, and half dead. It is enough to note that the thieves who robbed us, though “Christian leaders,” were identifiable in that they played this role for us. “Bad neighbor” would be a promotion for those who put us in desperate need of the love of a neighbor.  In Paul’s description, the proud, arrogant, rude, those burning with envy, longing for power and position (in Corinth or the pitiful conditions of a little Bible college), may only be identified with the absence or “nothing” they generate as if it is an absolute something (Paul’s definition of idolatry).

I would name the loving Samaritans who found us, but as with all great lovers, I know they prefer anonymity. I believe though, that love has to be narrated, as one must either be the neighbor pouring the healing oil, curing thirst with precious wine, binding up wounds, or one must experience having his burden lifted, and the price paid at the inn, so as to know love. It does not matter what the original intent might be or whether it is mixed with duty or reluctance. Love is such that the performance of it is unmistakable and the truth of it requires nothing in addition, just as its opposite is unmistakable.

All gifts find their purpose in love; love fulfills the law; love is the purpose of salvation; love is the substance of life. Without love there is nothing but where it is present one experiences the summing up of the meaning of all things.[1]


[1] I dedicate this piece to the members of our little community sharing love and forging peace.

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Training in Resurrection

Matthew describes a jarring post-resurrection scene in which the 11 remaining apostles “saw him, worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28:17).  Some of them are stuck between two epistemic orders, hovering on the edge of a new understanding but unable to escape the gravity of their former world. It is not only Thomas who presumes he can apprehend the resurrection through a measured, proto-Lockean accumulation of facts – “seeing the nail marks, put my finger where the nails were, put my hand into his side.” The perspective of an alternative epistemic order comes late to Peter, even after the women report the resurrection: he “got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Jn 20:12). The women told him what had happened but as John explains, “their words seemed like nonsense” (Jn 20:11). As with Thomas, and perhaps the entire modern epoch, Peter is left “wondering,” just short of an epistemic shift.

 As with the doubting among the 11, it is not simply that more data must be collected, more apologetic arguments presented, so that a preponderance of evidence will tip the scales toward grudging belief. This bland, earthbound, Humean religion is a possibility even in the resurrection appearances, but what we also see, first in Mary Magdalene, is an alternative way of knowing. She is having a discussion with a local gardener when this man speaks her name, and she turns again and she would cling to him as she seems to recognize, not only the grave but earth will no longer hold him. Her own understanding, perhaps the first instance of resurrection faith, is ascended or suspended from heaven to where he would ascend. As with the two on the Road to Emmaus, the transformation is not in what she sees but in her comprehension. As with some of the 11 though, it may be that this epistemic transformation momentarily falters, so that one needs to undergo a sharpening of perspective, a growing understanding, of how the world coheres where death no longer reigns.

The various witnesses grow into this alternative epistemic order. When we first see the women at the tomb, the two on the road to Emmaus, the apostles gathered and hiding, Jesus is still accursed in their sight, death has won out, the grave has consumed him, and their understanding is bound by this reality. They are so constrained by their earthy, Euclidean, cause and effect ordering around the absolute of death, that the risen Jesus, even as he stands before them, is a stranger, a gardener, unrecognizable. With Mary it is him saying her name, with the two disciples it is his breaking of the bread, with Peter it is not simply the miraculous haul of fish; John identifies for Peter the stranger on the shore as the Lord. The flesh and blood intonation of a name, the sense filled breaking of the bread, the dawning of a new day on the shore of a lake, get at the embodied, creation encompassing, shift. The earthy, salty, fleshly, focus of their new insight is at once commensurate with their world and ours. Seeing the resurrected Jesus, where the vision was previously obscured, casts everything in a new – heaven suspended – Jesus is Lord – perspective but it is not simply that the Kierkegaardian leap or the Barthian strange new world vision is fixed or incommensurate with the world that came before.

Nor is their reconstituted insight simply the popularly predicated “historical truth of the resurrection.”  As Wittgenstein puts it, theirs is not the belief appropriate to a historical narrative. Belief simply in the historical truth of the resurrection, Wittgenstein maintains, still rests its weight on the earth. There is a growth in their perspective such that one sort of belief, even though it sees the resurrection, leaves them doubting, mis-recognizing him (he had already appeared prior to the miraculous catch of fish), looking into the sky, as they are still confined to horizontal and vertical symmetries short of the asymmetrical, fully developed, resurrection faith. The bonds of an earth-bound knowing cloud their vision and comprehension – even in the midst of worshipping Him they doubted.

It is important to say both things: there is a shift in perspective but this shift is one they grow into. It is not that they did not firmly believe but then collected more data, examined the testimony, made a thorough analysis of the eye witness testimony, compared notes, and came to a belief in the historical truth of the resurrection. Their belief is not this sort of speculative calculation; it is not simply the capacity to entertain a dispassionate historical truth, or to arrive at a singular isolated conclusion. But neither is it that they saw and instantaneously everything changed, such that what came before and after is such a sharp disjuncture that we cannot trace the second glance of Mary or the burning realization of the two on the Road to Emmaus. Even in the upper room in which Jesus suddenly appears, their understanding follows his greeting and his showing them the scars of the crucifixion. They “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (Jn 20:20) but the seeing is noted subsequent to explanation and seems to dawn gradually. By the same token, the implication of the resurrection (full resurrection faith) has yet to be worked out, and is clearly miscomprehended by Peter (not yet sure about the cost of feeding sheep), at the close of the Gospels. It is precisely the possibility beyond historical affirmation and an incommensurate realization which opens us, who have not witnessed the resurrection, to the epistemic reconstitution of resurrection faith.

Paul, in I Cor 12:3, contrasts two orders of knowing orbiting around either the core affirmation, “Jesus is cursed” or “Jesus is Lord.” The difference marks the understanding granted by the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit which, in all their variety, promote a practical realization of Christ’s resurrected Lordship. If the accursed Jesus is the crucified, rotting in the grave, dead Jesus, and Jesus as Lord is the resurrected, death defeating, ascended Jesus, then the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of life and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, enable a resurrected order of knowing. Paul describes this heaven ascended/suspended knowledge as participation in the Trinity: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (I Cor 12:4-6, NIV). The Holy Spirit distributes or bears the gifts, which serve Christ’s body (they are service gifts, or servant gifts for the body of Christ) and in this they are the embodied, creation redeeming work of the Father.  It is heavenly knowledge in that it is divine but it is God come to earth incarnate knowledge. It is an understanding not bound to earth but which addresses and overcomes the earth binding condition of death.

There is a modernist Christianity that believes the resurrection on the basis of a preponderance of historical evidence – which seems to coerce the possibility of belief, with doubt always hovering, as there is no change of epistemic order. Here one might think of the spiritual gifts as accentuated capacities enabling belief in the resurrection as one sifts through historical consideration, scientific validation, or accumulated apologetic argument. On the other hand, there is a Christianity that imagines the gifts enable an ecstatic, incommensurate, heavenly vision which does not engage practical, lived out, realities. Both are a far cry from the belief “Jesus is Lord” and the practice of this realization in the incarnate body through the spiritual gifts. The gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, power, prophecy, tongues and interpretation are all communicative/communion gifts to be used in cultivating the different epistemic order extrapolating from and returning to “Jesus is Lord.” Here is the communion of the Trinity opened to us through the communicative reality of knowing the risen Christ.

Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement

If salvation is a harmoniously functioning body (a body “at one” with itself) in which we are united under the head, who is Christ (the thematic picture in the New Testament is of being “in Christ” as part of his body), then the image would seem to also account for the entire movement from damnation to salvation. Sin as discord, disharmony, sickness, or the cancer to be rooted out rules out not only the predominant notions of salvation (salvation from the effects of sin), but the prevailing understanding of punishment, wrath, suffering and damnation.  A good doctor wants to get to the root cause of the problem and so too the Great Physician does not simply address our symptoms but the disease disrupting and destroying the body. Our root problem is not the result of sin. Our root problem is sin itself and yet the prevailing understanding is that sin has caused a series of unfortunate events (God’s honor impugned, the wrath of God unleashed, the law broken, the prospect of hell, suffering, etc.) toward which salvation is directed. Yet, none of these are themselves the cancer of sin which Christ destroys and a Christianity solely focused on dealing with symptoms is inadequate and devastating to the Gospel message (the great insight of George MacDonald). A doctor who only treated symptoms and not the disease would be no doctor at all, so too the primary New Testament picture of Christ as the Great Physician is lost in an understanding focused on the effects of sin rather than the problem itself.

The shift of focus onto sin itself explains how suffering, punishment, anger, and damnation are part of salvation as part of the same process. The destruction of sin, something on the order of radiation treatment destroying cancer, might give rise to suffering but to confuse the suffering with the cure would be the worst sort of doctoring.  A doctor who insisted on making his patients suffer would be a sadist or psychopath and such a notion is certainly not worthy of God. Suffering is not curative, nor is it a means of meting out justice. It is an odd sort of justice or righteousness which imagines suffering “makes right,” the very point of God’s rightness or righteousness given to humans. Suffering is a symptom of sin and increasing it does not address sin nor satisfy anyone but the sadist. Every sort of suffering is a futility (Ro 8:20), even that suffering to which the creation is subjected in redemption. Suffering does not satisfy God nor justice, any more than suffering figures into the cure for any disease.  Suffering may play a part in the destruction of the cancerous sin and one might speak of a doctor punishing a disease or of God destroying sin, but only the worst sort of doctor or judge imagines that punishment or suffering is inherently restorative.

To say God’s honor is restored by extracting a pound of fleshly suffering is already odd, but then to say he punishes someone unconnected to the crime and finds this satisfying, falls short of the goodness of God and in no way addresses sin. Evil is precisely the pursuit of this sort of satisfaction – the pursuit of a human sense of justice. The way we would make things right and what we project onto God is the notion of getting our pound of flesh.

If a theft occurs, punishing the thief does not restore what was stolen, even if it is the honor of God that has been taken (as in Anselm’s picture of atonement).  Neither would a good doctor imagine that receiving radiation for his patient will help the cure. A good judge would not presume that punishing someone other than the criminal is justice. Where God is presumed to be satisfied and penalties meted out in his anger, punishment, and inducement of suffering (whatever one makes of it) this has nothing to do with the work of Christ in making people right by incorporating them into his body.

Part of the issue is to specify how and why sin disunites, alienates, and separates (from the self, others, and God). If salvation is a body united, sin is the resistant core, the alienating power, which as Paul depicts is the turning of self against itself. In the corporate body the foot might refuse to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or the ear might refuse its place as it wants to be an eye (I Cor. 12:15-26), or as in Ro. 7, it may be that the individual experiences this turning against the self as the mind pitted against the body. This violent turn is a taking up of death as if it is life, as the darkened mind is deceived, given over to “lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) so that humans violently turn on one another and themselves (James 4:1-2). The deceit, to which the self-deceived do not have access, is to imagine theirs is a pursuit of life or a lusting after life (being, power, gratification) when the desire itself is death dealing (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro 7:11) as it is alienating and isolating (it is “I” alone in Paul’s description). Sin is interwoven with death as it is always violence against life together; it is always a sin against the body. What would have us be lone rangers, Marlboro men, individualists in the worst sense, is simply that which causes us to take up death into ourselves. Sin is death because it is a turning from life together (in Christ) and life together is the only kind of life there is.

In Christus Victor, Christ defeated sin, evil, and the devil, by resisting the lie in his manner of life (he resists the temptations as a grab for life through material gain or powerful status) and undoing or defeating the lie in his death (death and the devil are made powerful in death resistance or the grab for life), and in exposing the lie in his resurrection (death is not absolute, the grave is empty and emptied of its power). The fruit of this defeat, though, is the emergence of a new form of humanity which puts on Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection). In this way, the law of sin and death is displaced by the law of life in the Spirit. The defeat of evil and the overcoming of death must be combined with all of the positive atoning (at one-ing) or incorporation into his body through the Spirit.

The gift of the Spirit is life, shared life, and all of the gifts of the Spirit are aimed at promoting this communal reality. These gifts are not bottled separately so that we have the Spirit apart from being in community. The Spirit indwells us communally. There is no such thing as a private gift of the Spirit. The entire point of exercising a gift is for the community, whether that of the body of Christ or participation in the intra-Trinitarian community. God’s grace is channeled to us in community or not at all.

The whole point of grace, gifts, indwelling Spirit is to bind us together. God does not care about individual souls drifting in isolated units up to heaven any more than God cares about torturing individual souls forever so that he might delight and find satisfaction in their suffering. The entire problem of sin is that we are cut off from God and others and the whole point of salvation is to bring about incorporation into the body of Christ.