I Am Not Me!

My children bought me a birthday present in which each week I am given a writing prompt and then at the end of the year my responses will be put together in a book. I have written about my favorite dog (Mr. Magee, who could open his own cans of dog food, politely wiped his feet when entering the house, and who stole our Thanksgiving Turkey), memories of my grandmother (Grandma was a drag racer), my first job (a circus), etc. but this week the question, “Are you the same person you were as an adolescent?” seems to strike at the very notion of subjectivity, and yet it was an issue that occurred to me very early. Everything is changing so what of me endures? I presumed, instinctively, that memory must be the singular enduring thing about us, so I performed memory experiments. As the car was speeding down the road, I would look at a particular rock or telephone pole or tree and try to retain the object in my memory. “There’s a rock, a rock, a pole, a tree.”  The high rate of speed made it difficult to pick out any particular object, but I presumed this accelerated condition reduplicated, in brief, everyday experience. I ran the experiment repeatedly, trying to remember any particular object. The unwritten rule I had formulated is that the ordinariness of the rock was part of the issue. A spectacular rock, by definition, would not qualify because if memory is to have any continuity it cannot be one spectacular thing after another (an inherent contradiction). If our own being depends upon the continuity of our memory, it must be in the continuity of ordinary memory. The issue of speed also, I presumed, should not in any way be an obstacle – whether fast or slow, memory should not be affected. Things happening quickly should not obstruct our being. Yet, no particular rock or pole proved to have an enduring image, so it seemed the details of memory are continually lost.  

Around this time, I hit upon a formula which proved quite satisfying, and it seemed to resolve the issue: “I am me.” I don’t know if I literally pounded my chest at the discovery, but that is the spirit of the sentence. The existential realization, at least upon initial discovery, was a sort of alignment which proved very satisfying. I had only to repeat the formula to feel once again a profound feeling of coinciding with myself (I did not yet know the term “ipseity” though I had discovered the desire for achieving it). The pronouncement itself, at least initially, seemed to accomplish this coincidence and affirmed my being. That is, I did not experience it as an abiding reality which I had discovered, but the feeling came only as I made the pronouncement.

This very soon brought a moment of despair, as I realized that the “I am” and “me” were only held together in the sentence, and by repeating the sentence. I recognized that even in the sentence there was not complete coincidence or convergence between the two major terms. I tried saying the sentence with force – “I am, me.” Then I tried thinking it rapidly, as if I could close the gap between the “I” and “me” through force of thought or speed. What had initially appeared as a discovery or capacity proved to be the opposite. On the heels of feeling great satisfaction with my new formula I realized the formula (the need for it and the need to repeat it) was itself an indicator of a third term between I and me which disrupted my unity with myself.

I presumed that this third element between “I” and “me” was simply there, but I could not say it. I could pronounce “I am me,” but the discord or gap between the two could not be closed. To say that I literally attempted to access or posit this third element is not exactly correct but I turned, perhaps instinctively, to the unconscious. As I have described it elsewhere:

Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off.

The ordinary family into which I was born had their abilities – special even – among mortals. I did not question their earth boundness, nor could I articulate the equation of flight with immortality, but this is how it functioned.   I was not grounded by the contingencies of bipedalism. Flight was incomparable with the local means of achieving immortality – throwing a fastball or running bases – it constituted an ontological difference. My apparent incapacities as the youngest and smallest were simply a foil. The three-foot frame housed an ego temporarily fallen from the heavens. Though the slightest talent at anything might have tempered the necessity, but as it was, flying was my Kant and Plato – the equivalent of a philosophical proof of being – of innate immortality.

I assume that my slow development must explain my memory of what must be a universal passage – the passage through a growing awareness of self-identity and yet the unease and dissatisfaction inherent in the incompleteness of the process, and then some compensatory move in which we posit a third element. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” must describe a universal passage to a presumed absolute knowledge – a foundation, and Kant’s notion that the thought (“I think”) and thinking thing (“I am”) actually constitute a disjunction, a felt noncoincidence, within the self. Isn’t this simply a description of the passage through adolescence and the dissonance this creates  

As Søren Kierkegaard (or SK) describes it, there is a passage into despair in the self’s relationship to the self. “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal (there is no continuity) or failure (there is incomplete continuity) to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what SK calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease and SK assigns primary importance, not to any one element of the relation (soul or body) but to the dynamics of the relation which might be a kind of negative incapacity to cohere.

SK suggests that this absence can be accounted for. “If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation.” He acknowledges that the relation can be constituted in a negative unity but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

The unease or disease of not being fully a self, an I that cannot arrive at its me, turns out to be the fundamental problem, the ultimate prompt which, if we do not take flight, points to the constituting Power of “I am.”

Saved From a Perverse God

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Bob Dylan[1]

Bob Dylan’s, “With God on Our Side,” describes how one’s name or age or distinctive characteristics may not be a primary mode of identity, but having God on your side is an identity that overrides individual details. The song recounts the various wars of the United States, beginning with the slaughter of native Americans and ending with the necessity of launching weapons of mass destruction, with each verse describing a particular war and each refrain of the song assuring “God is on our side.” The conclusion, “And you never ask questions When God’s on your side,” certainly raises questions about the nature of this God and his subjects.

 Dylan has captured in an uncanny manner the pervasive identity in which one’s life is defined by service rendered to an ineffable Other. Service to God and country describes a regional ethos, but it also fits exactly how identity can be had through being an object-instrument of this Other (God, country, the law). Dylan’s lyrics sum up what psychoanalysis describes as perversion and it depicts a predominant form of human subjectivity and the reigning view of deity throughout history. In technical terms, the pervert locates himself as object of the drive rather than being himself the subject (the subject who directly enjoys). The degree to which one is caught up in perversion may or may not be put on display in perverse acts, as psychoanalytic perversion refers not to acts but to a structure in which, as Dylan describes it, questions are rendered impossible. This structure may lead to evil acts, though this is not what qualifies it as perverse, but these acts, as with the perverse structure, cannot be questioned.

One may not buy the psychoanalytic explanation of how this structure evolves (a denial of the mother’s missing phallus or a denial of sexual difference and the attempt to cover over this difference or to fill in what is perceived as lacking) but there is no question that the perverse structure of serving and establishing the law (or the reigning symbolic order) is the predominant form of human subjectivity.

As Julian Jaynes has described it, we can mark the point at which a new sort of subject appeared in which the law began to be questioned. Historically, prior to this questioning, it was as if the left side of the brain existed as an unquestioned authority through which the various cultural authorities spoke. The burial of the important dead, as if they still lived and spoke, is common to almost all ancient cultures. The Egyptian pharaohs, preserved in their pyramids, the kings of Ur entombed with their entire retinues buried (sometimes alive) for continued service, along with food and drink and even yoked draft animals, point to a static (unquestioning) entombed culture.[2] The undead, and the authority they represented, continued to speak through hallucinated voices or through the gods (often the dead are simply deified). In Assyria, Mesoamerica, and Japan, the dead are directly called gods and the various mystics or priests might be possessed by the dead so as to give them voice. Hesiod speaks of a golden race of men who became the “holy demons upon the earth, beneficent, averters of ills, guardians of mortal men.” Four centuries later, Plato refers to heroes who after death become the demons that tell people what to do and he has Socrates mention that in his own time “God-possessed men speak much truth, but know nothing of what they say.”[3] Socrates marks the point before which the human condition is to listen and obey but not to question or discern.

 Jaynes is tracing a time when, in the bicameral period with its bicameral brain, everyone heard the voice of authority, but as the brain shifted only the possessed, idols, oracles, or mediums give voice to the gods. Cuneiform literature often refers to god-statues speaking, and the Old Testament refers to speaking idols (Terap) and depicts the king of Babylon consulting with several idols (Ezekiel, 21). Aztec history began, according to their reports to Spanish conquistadors (following their own perverse God), when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders and commanded them to set out across the lake so as to come to a new land. They were sent zigzagging here and there, following their own Moses, into a new land. In Peru the conquering Spaniards presumed the voice ordering the culture was the Devil. The first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.”[4] It did not occur to the Spaniards to question their own genocidal authority.

Whether or not Jaynes is correct in his description of brain development, there is no question that the world has gone and is going through a shift in notions of subjectivity and personhood in which the old voices of authority, the authority of the law in Paul’s description, once unquestioned and absolute have now grown silent. In psychoanalytic terms we might say that human history has been predominantly perverse in its service of God and the law, and perverse unquestioning personalities have certainly been in the majority. The individual who protests, who questions, who challenges, is usually in a small minority. In fact, in most cultures the notion of questioning the order of the culture is a near impossibility. It is hard to imagine someone from a traditional culture, say an Apache brave in the old American Southwest, objecting to the whole “macho-warrior image.” I supposed it never occurred to any brave to say, “Chief, I am going to hang back at the teepee today to play my flute and think about life. I am just not feeling the whole raiding and pillaging thing today.”   

Perversion functions at both a corporate and individual level, but what is obvious is that corporate perversion, while more socially acceptable and even socially commendable, is also likely to be more profoundly evil as one is incapable of challenging authority and presumes the law, the father, or God, justifies one’s actions, no matter how evil. Corporate perversion is the most compelling and predominant, as the oxymoronic nature of “individualistic Nazis” gets at the point, murderous perversion is most easily mass produced. But whether corporate or individual, to challenge the evil deeds would be on the order of questioning the authority of God, whether it is participating in genocide in an unjust war or publicly exposing oneself in a theatre, the act is rendered in unquestioning service of the structure (the Other).

If this predominance of perversion is the case, then could it also be true that Christianity and Christ are primarily aimed at defeating a perverse notion of God and a perverse subjectivity? Isn’t it precisely the leading Jews’ notion of God which would result in the death of Christ and isn’t it this notion that he defeats? He defeats it, first of all in the incarnation and the fleshing out of what God is really like, and then defeats death and the perverse orientation in his death and resurrection. Perversion depends upon being able to project upon God whatever human structure, personal or corporate, needs support in the symbolic order. God as the ambiguous Other who justifies the worst forms of human perversion is defeated by God in the flesh. Flesh itself is changed up in Christ, no longer written over with a perverse orientation to the law.

The Apostle Paul describes himself as one who excelled in the law and law-keeping and this excellence was precisely what made him the chief of sinners. He only had access to God and himself on the basis of this perverse orientation to the law. The problem is not, of course, with God or the law but with the orientation to both, produced by the deceit of sin. Christ’s defeat of sin in the flesh is precisely aimed at the overcoming of this universal perversion. As Paul argues, the Jewish problem of doing identity in accordance with the law is universal. All people suffer from some form of the prototypical sin of the Jews and of Paul himself, at least that is the thrust of Paul’s argument.

The tragedy we are living through at the moment is that Christianity, through penal substitution, Christian nationalism, and a fusion of right-wing politics and religion has become the main support of a perverse form of the faith. In this understanding, Christ died to meet the demands of the law, and God’s righteousness is equated with the law. This translates, in response to such issues as white supremacy and critical race theory, into a literal unwillingness to question the constitution and the laws of the land.

According to Mike Pompeo, “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That’s really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” To question the construct of race or whiteness or to question the law, is anathema in this religion. Yet, the recognition that this country’s law and legal institutions not only privilege one race but served to establish that race is simply another manifestation of the biblical depiction of the function and malfunction of the law. Jewish privilege and Gentile exclusion constitute the hostility built into the law (the wall in the temple was a concrete representation of the law as a dividing wall of hostility). White privilege (or receiving unwarranted advantage) and black and brown exclusion from privilege, it should not be a surprise, is structural and legal. It is not those who receive the privilege but those who are denied it (Gentiles, slaves, and women, in Paul’s description) or those made to suffer under the law which notice its disparities. As long as the Jews insisted on law keeping, entailing their privileged position, and as long as they insisted on the primacy of the law, this excluded them from Christian salvation (freedom from the law).

Where the religion is reduced to the law, the constitution is not to be questioned, the powers that are ascendant are not to be questioned, lest the foundation of the country be undone. The sexual perversions of this religion, on continual display in the failings of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr., Ted Haggard, Ravi Zacharias (etc. etc.), the perversions of evangelical political leaders in their devotion to the most obscene of presidents, and their devoted unquestioning followers, are simply a pointer to this perverse structure. In other words, rather than Christianity doing the work of saving from perversion, the faith is made the primary support of a perverse religion on the order of that which killed Christ.

Christians should be the most sensitive to the hostile divisions incorporated into law, undone only in Christ, and the fact that it is evangelicals protesting the loudest, seems to indicate the perverse structure of their religion. The notion that justice and righteousness (life) are enshrined in law, the very definition of sin in Paul’s depiction, is a case in point of the universal deception and perversion. Christians are those who are no longer deceived by this sin in regard to the law (Romans 7:8), but where Christianity is made the support of deception and perversion there is a doubling down on perversion in making the problem the supposed Christian solution.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the suggestion of this song, several other suggestions, and the editing of this blog. Also, thanks to our Tuesday night class for the inspiration behind the blog.

[2]Even the ordinary dead were often treated as if they still needed feeding.  In Mesopotamia it is recorded a dead person was buried with 7 jars of beer, 420 flat loaves of bread, 2 measures of grain, 1 garment, 1 head support, and 1 bed.  

[3] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (p. 161-341). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[4] Jaynes, 174-175.

Living in the Desert of the Real

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
    finding no way to a city where they could settle.
 They were hungry and thirsty,
    and their lives ebbed away.
 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

Psalm 107:4-6

A theme of scripture, seen in Israel’s exodus from Egypt, is the longing to return (a topic I began to address last week here). We see the same thing in Abraham’s exit from his home and people, as God’s taking him to a new home and a new place requires that he never go back, though the temptation is to return to a Babel-like (self-propagating) horizon of meaning. Literal slavery or slavery to a delusion offers its protections from the realities of finitude (death in the desert or a death in childlessness). Faced with the harsh wilderness conditions, the Jews began to grumble and say, “Let us go back to Egypt where, it is true we were slaves, but at least we had plenty to eat” (Exodus 16:3). In The Matrix, Cypher (the Judas figure of the film) knows that the Matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality but this does not subtract from the pleasure of his virtual steak or for his desire to “be someone” virtually important in the virtual world: “someone like an actor.” There may be nothing more satisfying than to be reinserted into a warm vat of embryonic fluid and to once again become part of a simulated ordering of reality. The slavery and delusion are a temptation, largely because reality turns out to be cruel and deadly. Morpheus refers to the harsh, crushing reality outside of the Matrix as the “desert of the real.” Once taken out of the Matrix, returning (as Cypher chooses to do) is portrayed as a Judas-like forsaking of the fight for freedom, though this fight seems to be a lost cause. In the case of the Jews, Abraham, or The Matrix, there is no unseeing the reality of enslavement but the vision is necessarily had from the desert, in which the old horizons of meaning have been deconstructed and homelessness ensues.

The church in Hebrews is compared to Israel and the admonition is not to return to slavery and thus fail to enter into rest. The danger, which came to pass in Constantinianism and Christendom, is that the church would settle for the false rest of an Egyptian-like slavery. The end result of this false rest has been exposed in the secular nihilism which is now predominant in our culture. This historical moment, in which Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God is for most a fixed reality, is also an irreversible vision from the desert. The inherent nihilism of Christendom, Enlightenment, and modernity have been exposed but it may be hard to comprehend this failure from within.

As Mark Colville, one of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven serving time for his actions in protest of nuclear weapons (they cut a hole in a security fence and entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base singing and praying and spray-painted slogans and hammered a replica of a Tomahawk missile), reports from his imprisonment:

An authentic Christian faith practice, in other words, is not centered on doing good works; it is centered on resisting evil. Little wonder, then, that the bulk of the New Testament itself was written either in prison, underground, or from political exile. And on a personal note, no wonder my own discernment seems to become so much clearer when it is undertaken inside the U.S. empire’s hellholes. I guess that’s why I always end up coming back![1]

There is no returning (though the temptation is pervasive) to imagining there is an American Christian culture in which being well-adjusted is synonymous with being Christian. At this point, those of us who are not in prison, or those who are not in exile from a comfortable institutional-cultural Christianity, may need to answer for ourselves.

We have passed out of that womb like existence, or as Friedrich Nietzsche described it, “Our world has been unchained from its sun.” The God of the law, the God of the philosophers, the God of Christendom, is no longer with us. Modern culture’s loss of ultimate meaning in the loss of Christendom, in the loss of scientism, in the loss of philosophical rationalism, in the loss of the God of the philosophers, is a loss that does not touch upon the truth of Christianity. It is Christ who calls us into exile outside the walls of the city.

It is Christ who does away with the comforting structures of his culture in his assault on the Pharisees and the ruling authorities. He assaulted the mediating structures of Temple, Cult and Law, and the impetus to throw off the kingdom and empires of Christendom was made of the claim that we all have equal access to God through Christ. Those made in his likeness can also throw off the old encrusted patriarchies. We may long to retreat to Christendom, to the premodern, to the 1950’s or before, but we have set out on a journey into the desert. The God who comes to us in Christ has indeed died upon the cross, but this means he is a God who can travel with us in the desert amongst the crumbling horizons of meaning.

For most of our contemporaries in Europe and for a growing number in North America, religious belief is culturally and psychologically spent. The old man in the sky, the law giver, the God of reason is mostly dead, though as Nietzsche noted, not everyone has heard of his demise.[2] Modernity has given rise to nihilism and the danger is that of retreat in the face of the harsh reality of the desert, but this is the same sort of ambiguity Abraham and the Jews and the early Christian’s faced. Secularism reigns, and the world cannot be reenchanted with fairies and demons, but this is not a condition to be lamented but calls for a coming to terms with the irreversible nature of history and a continual unfolding of the meaning of Christian revelation.

If we would break down human history into Paul’s psychological categories, historically we have passed beyond the age of the law, that comfortable time in which the church ruled culture, in which even the emperor begged at the gates of the Pope. In our culture’s psycho-historical journey we have passed into a questioning of the law, a questioning of the God of the philosophers. The culture passed into the notion of rational individualism in which for a brief historical moment the “I” or ego reigned. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, were all given impetus by the desire for individual freedom. They all signaled that the old religious and cultural authorities were no longer adequate. They all attempted to throw off inquisitions and the murderous authority of religion. Christendom had become corrupt in tying itself to tsars, and kings, and popes, but this throwing off of Christendom (as Hart points out), is a continuation of the Christian story, which is irreversible.

The danger is that the deconstructive power of Christ will only leave us harking to return, to retreat once again into the protective realms of the womb, of the law, of nationalism, of Christendom. We are surrounded by right wing fundamentalists, right wing Catholics, right wing nationalists, right wing atheists and religionists. For some it may be the comfort of psychotherapy or drugs – we are a country plagued by mental illness and drug addiction. As the old religion fails the new forms of retreat have taken a variety of forms. If we have passed from the age of law to the age of the ego, the ego is besieged by an unconscious drive toward death.

We need a world to inhabit but many of our contemporaries would craft the new world in the mold of the old. They may call this world that of the Republican or Democratic Party, that of Nationalism, or simply that of rational autonomy. The desire to return, the impetus behind the fascism which surrounds us arises, as for many it as if they have been turned out into the darkness in an inhospitable desert. The exodus toward freedom – the pursuit of freedom as its own end – has cleared out a host of demons, only to create a more binding spiritual enslavement. We understand now that spiritual forces surround us in a certain psychological-political orientation which has possessed our neighbors and which has perhaps tempted all of us.

We cannot escape the reality of the desert we occupy. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of God’s death is a fact, as Plato’s God cannot be resurrected and the attempt to revive dualism through fundamentalism, religious nationalism, fascist authoritarianism, are all signs of retreat and return to an age that cannot be restored and to a form of faith which Jesus confronted in his contemporaries. There is no returning to Egypt, no returning to the law, no return to the enlightenment. The epochs of human phsyco-history are not reversible. The re-founding of human subjectivity undertaken by Christ is not reversible. We cannot rebuild the idols of scientism, pre-critical rationalism, or of a naïve individualism. The contradictions are exposed and the idols are toppled, but this is an outworking of what Christ implemented. Christendom fell because of Christianity and the attempt to restore the notion of a Christian nation, to imagine that secularism is not the case, has become dangerous.

The answer is not retreat or return. The sickly nostalgia and resentment of the right, the political and religious right (the Catholic right, the evangelical right) – but maybe just the notion of some sort of final restoration or return infects us all. We of the Restoration Movement should not imagine that we can restore New Testament Christianity by turning back the clock. New Testament Christianity is precisely that which has driven us to this moment in which the idols are fully exposed. I do not mean that we are mere products of this history, as it was an apocalyptic form of the faith that has always been delivering us from mere genealogy and history. History is not historicism but it is a ground of learning and moving forward, resisting the nostalgia for a womb-like security and the resentments of a failed age. We are not journeying back to Eden, there is no lost golden age, but we are called out of the impulse to return so as to move forward. It is not God that has died but a certain image of him, which is tied to the past, is dead and we should not mourn his demise.

What we see in Scripture is an unfolding of a new kind of human – a born again, new Adam type of human. From Abraham to Christ, we see the depiction of a new type of human subjectivity. The dynamic Word at work in the world is unfolding or enfolding new meanings as the old Egypt, as the law, as Babel, is displaced with Jerusalem. But we must acknowledge we are in the desert, between two places.


[1] https://kingsbayplowshares7.org/2021/07/mark-colville-the-discernment-of-spirits-in-mdc-brooklyn-july-8-2021/?fbclid=IwAR1RGm0cmGmWbwkVH41EJybThUvOwr0LpO_A3eVgbmHeIFc-9y2-c9u_O5M

[2] As David Bentley Hart has recently described in, “No Turning Back,” in Commonweal which partly inspired this blog.

Truth as Resisting the Longing for Return

Yeonmi Park, in telling of her escape from life in North Korea, describes the depth to which she was shaped by North Korean propaganda. Though starvation and cannibalism were commonplace at the time of her birth, Park says she presumed she was living in the best country on earth, a socialist paradise. She presumed that all countries and peoples worshipped the Dear Leader, and that North Koreans had nothing to envy but were the envy of the world. She describes the great pride and gratitude she felt in being among the chosen. She viewed the Dear Leader with pure love and knew nothing of what she was deprived. She had never seen a map of the world and had no concept she was Asian – she just knew she was of the race of Kim. Time is not marked by B.C. and A.D. but begins with the birth of the Kim dynasty. There is no history before this beginning. Concepts such as love or freedom, which one might assume are instinctive, she claims are nonexistent in North Korea. She says, there is no concept of romantic love but all affection is directed to Kim Jong-un. So not only love between wife and husband but between mother and daughter or between family members or between friends is forbidden. Even love for the self is denied. The Dear Leader is the center and definition of all affection. Thus, when she saw the film Titanic, an alternative world began to open to her. She describes North Korea as if it existed on another planet. Good and evil, in this Animal Farm like society (the book that opened her eyes), are subject to engineering and manipulation, such that it becomes clear that human thought can be shaped to any mold by the form of life to which it is subjected.[1]

In this political moment many have been made aware of this “manufactured consent” (left and right) on the part of cultural elites – and she compares what she encountered at Columbia University and the promotion of political correctness with North Korean tactics, but it is not just that we are all susceptible to deception but there is a shocking depth to the degree deception might be at work upon us. What the North Korean experiment reveals, like the Stalinist and Nazi experiment before it, is that there is no human concept that is not open to manipulation.  One’s basic humanity, experience of the world and of self, what is seen and heard is subject to manipulation and interpretation.

Park quotes the other George Orwell classic, 1984, “He who controls the language controls the thoughts.” Where there are no words for liberty, justice, or human rights, these concepts do not arise – they have to be taught. There is no direct access to a world of truth apart from the filter of language and cultural-political-religious construction. There is no built-in or biological world of instincts and concepts which we might fall back upon. The objects and ideas which make up subjective experience are enmeshed in a world which can be undone or redone. Park says she feels as if she now exists on a different planet and that she is completely disconnected from the person and experience which defined her in North Korea. But then surprisingly, she does not indicate that she completely likes having left this other world and other self behind. She says she longs for home. She longs for this lost world and this lost self but she feels the only way she could return to it is by returning to North Korea and certain death.  

Her ideological shift describes what Helen Keller reports at an even more fundamental level. Where the words are absent the objects of water, doll, teacher, and mother, are also absent. It is only upon learning the names for objects that they become a distinct entity in experience. The world opens for Helen with her discovery of words and language including the world of other people and her own sense of self. Strangely, she reports the sensation of guilt as the first of experiences which comes with her discovery of her sense of self. The specific guilt is over having broken her glass doll, which she reports as coming with a feeling of delight, as it seemed to be the breaking apart of the world she formerly inhabited. Helen, two times over, remarks on the “keen sense of delight” she felt at the shattering of the doll but then she feels guilty for this lost world.

Park reports a longing for home which she saw in her father, who decided he would rather go back and be executed in North Korea and be buried in his home country. The interviewer suggests to her that the United States might be this new home for her but she indicates it is an idea to which she is still adjusting. Is her reported longing of return made of the same stuff as every child’s feeling of having given up one world at the expense of another?

As Lacan and Freud describe, there is an imaginary violation the child passes through, in which there is a relinquishment of a sort (the castration complex) in the process of language acquisition. It is not that sight or sensation provide a first order experience to which language is then attached but the objects of sight and sensation, up to and including the self, become recognizable only with the acquisition of language but with this acquisition there is also the sense of a relinquishing of a world. Prior to recognizing the body as the self, there is the realization of separateness and the possibility of disintegration and dismemberment (the first stirrings of death). The linguistic medium, connecting the child to the world, establishes at the same time the subject/object or self and world between which an exchange is made possible.

 As we pass from one world to another, from one home to another, the longing for return (repetition) may be the most pronounced of sensations. Is it not a longing for unfreedom for an absence of ambiguity and choice (the longing for the North Korea of the unconscious – a return to the womb of pre-subjectivity)? To refer to this as a false consciousness may be slightly inaccurate (are their false sensations?) but are the stirrings and sensations, which may sometimes overwhelm us, to be trusted? Does the discovery of truth entail also a capacity to recognize and name that which would block us from entering the truth? Are our basic desires reliable guides or is our conscience to be trusted?

I have previously referred to this initial human subjectivity, following Lacan and Žižek, as a deception, but maybe this seemingly necessary passage is only a deception where the impulse to return or the compulsion to repeat or the longing for home overwhelms. The truth would be to forge ahead and to not give way to death drive (the compulsion to repeat), to the longing for the indistinguishable sensations of a loveless pre-subjective existence.


[1] Yeonmi Park: North Korea | Lex Fridman Podcast #196

Philosophy with Paul and Freud

Before laying out the philosophical possibilities of Paul and Freud, it should be noted that both provide a peculiar impetus for engaging in philosophical discourse: people are sick and philosophy is a means of aiding the diagnosis. Philosophy is not a realm apart from what it means to be human but is a concentrated articulation of this predicament. The reason for taking up philosophy with Freud and Paul is not the reason with which philosophy tends to justify itself – as a quest for ultimate reality, the articulation of what is ontologically the case. Philosophy puts on display the failures we all experience but it also provides an alternative means of understanding the needed cure. So, the point of delving into philosophy in this instance (which is not every instance), is primarily theological. Philosophy provides alternative access, a well-articulated demonstration, a clear presentation of the human disease addressed by the Great Physician.  

The Apostle and the founder of psychoanalysis describe the human subject as consisting of three registers, which are simultaneously interdependent and antagonistic, and these registers not only pertain to the (sick) individual but describe the three possibilities of philosophy. This philosophy in three parts revolves around three facets or three surfaces created by language functioning as prime reality. Philosophy, like the human subject, consists of language as a medium, language as providing an object, or language as a mode of negation. Paul refers to these three parts as the ego, the law, and the body of death, and Freud references the same basic parts as the ego, the superego, and the id (or it). The English word “ego” is a transliteration of the Greek word Paul deploys to refer to himself, and he situates this “I” as an effect of its relation to law and death (thus he will speak of the dissolution of the “I” as a cure).

Freud, in his final period, arrives at his three-part construct with his recognition that Eros (sex, life, pleasure) is inadequate to explain the sickness of the subject, so he posits Thanatos or death as a second instinct, and with his positing of this death instinct he arrives at the tripartite subject. This would amount not only to a new topography of the Subject but a different understanding of the energetics at work in the Subject. No longer did Freud see mankind as controlled by one goal, rather man seemed bound towards death in and through the detour that is life. It was not that death as a force (independent of man) overwhelms man, but that man stands opposed to himself and brings about his own destruction. He takes death up into himself, all the time imagining that it is the means to secure or save the self (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 54). Jacques Lacan will note that with this positing of a second instinct, all of Freudian theory can be translated from the biological into a linguistic realm. He pictures the three parts of the subject as three sides of a primordial or founding linguistic construct (a lie). In this sense (and Lacan notes as much), it is a spreading out of the Pauline category of law, and the human problem with the law, to include language per se.

How we read Paul in regard to the law will determine the role accorded to language and philosophy. If we read Paul and the New Testament as primarily concerned with reconciling us to the law, this is an indicator of the philosophical stance that will result. It is no accident that it is Anselm, who posits the definitive nature of the law in our approach to God and in the meaning of the atonement, while at the same time incorporating Platonic philosophy into theology. The point is not to blame Anselm but to point to his founding of scholasticism (the fusion of theology with Greek thought) as the end point of a process in which language per se (in the law, in his description of the subject, in his description of reality) becomes primary. Thus, the philosophical/theological task is, like the job of every good lawyer, to describe/prescribe the law of the Father (Anselm pictures it as a zero-sum game in which there is a precise logic at work). This is the Aristotelian Philosopher king sort of philosophy in which there is an unquestioning wisdom attached to this order of knowing, not perhaps so much in the details as in its very authoritative status as an order of wisdom.

In this understanding, determining reality and how it is to be negotiated is the joint undertaking of philosophy and theology as both are engaged in the same discourse (law, logic). The law of the Father gives us metaphysics, Newtonian science, and consists of a singular (conscious) surface which prevails from Plato to Descartes. Anselm’s law of the cross is precisely a philosophical, legal, requirement and his approach to God is through a linguistic formula (the ontological argument). Everything is ontological, or in Freudian terms “phallocentric,” so that theology is an extension of philosophy (ontotheology) as language puts all things in our grasp. The law is the logos is the Logos without interruption.

On the other hand, if we recognize that Paul is actually suggesting that the law is in no way normative or even regulative but is, in fact, enmeshed in contradiction (due to sin), our philosophical stance will be a turn from metaphysics (concerned as it is, primarily, with how to describe a harmonious reality). Now we have to do with a discontinuity, a questioning of the law, and a turn to the human subject. Paul describes two contradictory laws at work in the mind and body and we are, according to Paul, ruled by a law that, by definition, we do not know. Sin has deceived us with regard to the law and we do not any longer have control or understand what law is at work within us. Now our concern is not so much with keeping the law, describing the law, extending the law, but there is a questioning of the law.

With the passage through Luther and the philosophic shift from Kant to Hegel, philosophy as psychology comes to this second element of the subject. Prior to Kant it was just a matter of looking into the mirror of nature and allowing Being to disclose itself but now the categories of perception receiving the phenomena of the world are removed from the thing in itself (the noumena). Just as Kant notes that Descartes’ “I think” in no way discloses “the thing that thinks,” he notes that there is a necessary obscuring in perception of the reality which stands behind it. It is not that perception is an illusion but it contains apriori categories (the ontic) which do not coincide with the ontological. This difference is illustrated in a series of unresolvable antinomies: time and space are limited by a perceived beginning and yet are infinite and necessary categories; the world is composed of simple parts and yet these simple parts are nowhere in existence; spontaneity is part of the causality of the universe and yet the world takes place solely in accord with the laws of nature and without spontaneity; there belongs to the world a being that is absolutely necessary and yet this being nowhere exists. Where pre-Kantian philosophy would mark this up to the illusion of false appearances, which it is the task of philosophy to get beyond, Kant does not denounce this appearance of reality as secondary but he raises the question as to the very possibility of appearances.

With Hegel there is the presumption that the Kantian antinomies are not mere gaps in understanding but pertain to reality. Reality itself is incomplete, built on antagonism, and dependent on death and absence. God himself, in Hegel’s taking up of Luther, is made complete only in his dying on the cross. Sin and salvation, or good and evil (among other contrasting pairs), have the same ontological ground (to which there is no alternative), so the same structure and categories inform each. The goal is not to overcome the gaps or difference (to defeat evil) but to conceive the gaps, which seem to keep the subject from arriving at full self-identity, as the origin of the Subject (and thus to reorient the Subject).

Philosophy up to Hegel is seeking to harmonize reality, presuming that the gaps or antinomies can be explained or covered over. Kant posits the impossibility of this overcoming while Hegel begins with the necessity of this difference. Hegel too is presuming a comprehensive program for philosophy, but he presumes it is just a matter of counting in the antinomies, gaps, death, and nothing, as not only part of reality but productive of reality. The antagonism at the heart of identity through difference, the dialectic, is at the very center of the negative force generating reality.

In Lacanian terms, we pass from the masculine identity with the law to a feminine questioning of the law. The masculine-superego-metaphysical attempt to say it all is ruled out of court as the thing that thinks – the subject herself – eludes us. Thinking of Richard Rorty, nature turns out to be a mirror that excludes us from its reflection. The history of philosophy might be mostly reduced to one long gaze in the mirror, and with post-Kantian philosophy the mirror comes up for examination. The philosophic mirror stage was a long time in coming but now the phenomena of knowing becomes the primary concern as “taking a look” turns out to be inadequate.

Between this masculine, superego, law-based register and the feminine, ego, contradictory and inaccessible law-based register there stands the id or the real or the third phase in philosophy.  Here the focus is upon what underlies the difference between the masculine and feminine – the pure absence or nothing.  The Freudian, Lacanian place in philosophy would assign this idic or real the primary role.  If there is a positive unfolding of nous or spirit in Hegel, here there is no question that primacy is given to death and the power of death taken up in the negating power of a lie. Thus, this third phase is the necessary pointer to that which lies beyond the subject and the powers of philosophy. The atheism of Lacan and Žižek is a full-blown Pauline sort of recognition of the necessity of suspending the law and the God associated with this sinful orientation. The punishing effects of the sinful orientation to the law, or the disease of being caught up in the antagonism of dialectic, is the domain of this idic third phase in philosophy. Here philosophy becomes most theological as this diagnosis of the human condition is the proper realm of theology – a realm relinquished by theology and which thus made room for and gave rise to psychoanalysis.

I do not mean to suggest these three possibilities are exhaustive of the relation between theology and philosophy. This clears the ground though, for a different sort of exchange, neither masculine nor feminine nor idic, between philosophy and theology. This fourth way begins where Romans 7 and where Žižek and Lacan leave off, in that it proposes a dissolution of the real and a suspension of the power of death as the controlling third term in the subject and in philosophy.

Reading Paul with Nietzsche

A key Nietzschean concept, which parallels the Apostle Paul’s picture of the orientation of sin, is ressentiment. With both there is the notion of self-deception in which there is an inversion of values and a resulting attack on the persons or power of oppression under the guise of morality. The Freudian notion of repression, which several scholars believe Freud adapted from Nietzsche, gets at the same structure. Freud’s denial of this borrowing may be a case in point of the phenomena itself – he repressed the fact that it was Nietzsche that coined the term das Es (the id) and that his own borrowing of the role of the super-ego and guilt feelings relied upon Nietzsche’s notion of resentment, bad conscience, and false morality. Freud and Nietzsche undermined any notion of stable subjectivity, intelligible knowledge, or accessible coherence to human experience. Freud’s talking cure and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence would prove incapable of overcoming ressentiment or the repressed forces which enslave. One always arrives too late, as their reaction to the powers that control are masked as a first order moral response but they are negative powers – a supposed humility, patience, and love that represses and produces a self-induced suffering. The resentment is, ultimately, directed against time and finitude so that one becomes morbidly obsessed with one’s own impotence in the face of death and this obsession amounts to its own dying. One pays for life with their own enforced dying and this acquiescence shows forth in a self-punishing payment.

Nietzsche’s reading of Paul follows the standard misreading, which pictures Paul’s motives in turning to Jesus as the result of sublimated ressentiment which needed relief from the crushing demands of God’s law. So, Paul projected his self-reproach onto Jesus, having Jesus accomplish atonement through his execution. The suffering deity found in Christ meets the need of attacking the oppressor – God. Nietzsche’s is a telling indictment of this standard Lutheran misreading of Paul.

Paul, in this understanding, suffers from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

But isn’t Nietzsche correct, that this puts on display a certain ressentiment against God and the law and isn’t the true depiction of Paul an overturning of ressentiment? The presumed access to a right understanding, present in Luther, and denied by Nietzsche is also overtly denied by Paul. Paul, with Nietzsche, presumes he was completely deceived.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. A deceived understanding is displaced. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings. But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. Not as Nietzsche depicts Christianity, as life-denying. Paul depicts the enduring goodness of the material world and God’s purpose is the transformation of the cosmic order, including the body.

Where for Nietzsche, the struggle is all there is, forever, for Paul to die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). For Nietzsche the only hope is to break through the unreality by continually going out in eternal return. Only through knowing and conquering fear of the abyss of suffering is there the possibility of realization of a break through. For Paul Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.

The Necessity of Nietzsche: An Apocalyptic Philosophy for an Apocalyptic Theology

One’s philosophical orientation and preferences are reflected in their theology and vice versa but it may be that a particular theology inevitably requires or depends upon its philosophical expression, apart from which the theology would not exist. Whether one is Platonic or Aristotelian (in Nietzschean terms they are both fallen post-Socratics) may make a slight theological difference but the presumption is that “ordinary avenues of philosophic reason” are adequate for Augustinian, Thomistic, or certain Protestant theological leanings. One may need to tweak his Plato or Aristotle but the presumption is that the philosophy and theology are more or less interconnected if not exactly interchangeable. There is no questioning of reason, language, or human psychology, at least not enough to bring the enterprise to a halt. Thus, the Augustinian shift is guided by Neo-Platonism (Augustine equates Plato to Moses) in the same way Thomism is Aristotelian (for Thomas, Aristotle is “the philosopher”). Anselm of Canterbury, in both his philosophic arguments and his atonement theory, is the proper father of scholasticism in his pure distillation of a theology guided by Platonic philosophy. Modern philosophy and theology, in its Cartesian presumptions, will follow a predictable, interlocked pattern (Platonic and Anselmian). So too, Nominalism might as well name both a theology and philosophy as the theology is determined by the philosophy.

It is only in recognizing that theology and philosophy became inextricably interwoven in shared presumptions and foundations (summed up in the term “ontotheology”) that Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God can be taken as both theological and philosophical. For Nietzsche Christianity was “Platonism for the masses,” so his pronouncement is prophetic (the spirit in which his Zarathustra makes it) of the coming collapse of Western thought and religion. The demise of the God of the philosophers is implied in the demise of the Christian God, but the death of God is not simply a metaphor for Nietzsche. This death simultaneously points to the role of Platonism and Platonic Christianity in its denial or obscuring of the role of death.

The death of God in Christ on the Cross was, for Luther, the point for challenging scholasticism (the fusion of Greek and Christian thought) and what Luther called “the theologians of glory.” Hegel will take up the Lutheran refrain, not simply as a challenge to the Aristotelian God of pure thought, but also as a new founding moment in the understanding of how God and those created in his image must take up death in the founding of an authentic subjectivity. Hegel’s tarrying with the negative is a zeroing in on the Lutheran challenge to the God of the philosophers but it is also a challenge to modern (Cartesian) notions of an ego-based reason and subjectivity. Nietzsche takes the refrain one step further to declare God and the philosophy and morality attached to him as dead. As with Hegel, his is a call for a new form of radical subjectivity.

There is a shared recognition of the orientation to death that is thematic in Hegel and his heirs. Though Nietzsche is often pitted against Hegel – Hegel is philosopher of the system and Nietzsche is anti-system – yet they share reaction to Kant and the uncovering of a new form of subjectivity centered on the exposure of mortality and death. In the end, Hegel and his disciples (Marx, Freud, Lacan, and Žižek) are the arch-conservatives who brilliantly recognize the darkness of nihilism and imagine its mechanisms can only be manipulated (death drive – the real can be toyed with but must ultimately be submitted to) so as to provide a less painful outcome. Nietzsche names the nihilism and calls for a new religious order – a new myth. Where Hegel and his followers will privilege philosophy and presume it takes precedence over religion, Nietzsche shares with Kierkegaardian existentialism and theological apocalypticism the recognition of the need for the breaking in of a new world order.

His depiction of himself as the singular Antichrist, the marker of a new age on the order of B.C. and A.D., may not be accurate in his sense that he was alone but the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, (the French postmodern turn) but also of Martin Heidegger, all take their inspiration, if not their existence, from Nietzsche. He considered himself (as depicted in his autobiographical work Ecce Homo) philosophical dynamite:

I know my lot. One day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous—to a crisis like none there has been on earth, to the most profound collision of conscience, to a verdict invoked against everything that until then had been believed, demanded, held sacred. I am no man, I am dynamite.

Whether or not he was the match, the fuse, or the beginning of the explosion, (or is he only, as Bertrand Russell portrayed him, a literary figure) there is no question that the modern world begins to come undone in his wake. It is not just his appropriation by the Nazis, but he is linked with a new form of thought – apocalyptic in its import – (an ironic characterization as he sees religious apocalypticism as the problem). It is this apocalyptic element (the world unchained from its Sun and the need for a new religious myth) that distinguishes him from the mainstream of post-Kantian thinkers.  

What he calls “Socratism” is the refusal to deal with human finitude and his return to mythology, his uber man, his will to power, and especially his myth of eternal recurrence are his attempt to recreate the pre-Socratic dynamism. He recognizes that the success of human artifice – the Apollinarian (culture, art, literature, science) is in direct proportion to its direction and control of the Dionysian (passion, tragedy, emotion, revelry). The rise of the Over Men must freely move “beyond good and evil” with its notion of an objective or divine standard. Violence may be a necessity but the goal is that these new heroes, by whatever means, must lead humankind into accepting they are free spirits who can, of themselves, create a new order.

In his return to Dionysus, obscured by Plato, Nietzsche presumes the Platonic project to control the passions through reason is squelching the power of creativity. The Greek tragedian’s full acknowledgement of the Dionysian was an art form that gave inspiration to the shining light of Apollo. Plato’s reason repressed the tragic Dionysian truth (that we live to die) and simultaneously dismantled the Apollonarian manner of dealing with it in human culture.

Plato pictures passion as a black horse, which the charioteer or reason is to subdue by teaming with the white horse (spirit), the very imagery Freud will deploy in his depiction of the tripartite psyche:

…in its [the ego’s] relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who hast to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces (e.g., the superego). The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.

 Freudian psychoanalysis is founded upon the notion that the ego, as the center of reason, can gain control over the passions of the id. Though Freud grows less confident in his belief that his “new science” can control the unreasonable idic forces, nonetheless his enterprise of psychoanalysis is dedicated to the prospect that the drives can be manipulated if not subdued. Lacan and Žižek, in this sense, are the true arch-conservative Hegelian-Freudian thinkers as the real of death drive is the final power of good and evil. The emptying out of the Cartesian subject in Marx and Freud takes on a laborious technical odor of politics and the clinic, while Nietzsche represents the call for an apocalyptic break beyond good and evil.

In this he represents the break that inspired the last great metaphysician, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger too presumes authentic existence has to confront the negating power of nothingness and death with a new power of freedom.

Anticipation…unlike inauthentic Being-towards-death, does not evade the fact that death is not to be outstripped; instead, anticipation frees itself for accepting this. When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped. Anticipation discloses to existence that its uttermost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence one has reached.

Facing the fact of death is transformed by Heidegger into its own metaphysical freedom, which in his taking up of National Socialism demonstrates the bloody aspect of the Nietzschean enterprise he saw Hitler achieving. The Dionysian forces require sacrifice – and as Freud, Lacan and Žižek recognize and Heidegger did not, the rider of the black horse ultimately takes his orders from his mount. I would prefer, if these were the only choices, the more or less self-conscious nihilism of the latter thinkers to Heidegger’s enacted naïve nihilism, which brings us back to Nietzsche’s perception of his project as a resolution to nihilism.

Ironically, Nietzsche located the heart of this nihilism in what he perceived as the apocalyptic approach in Western religion, which set its hope on an ideal world to come or on the otherworldly heavens. For Nietzsche, apocalyptic Christianity was Platonic and he did not know of a Christianity focused on the redemption of this world. But as I have described it (here) this is the very definition of what is now called apocalyptic theology. With its inaugurated this-worldly eschatology, its deceived law of sin and death, and its recognition of God breaking into the world so as to give his own person, in Christ, as the subject of knowledge, apocalyptic theology is now anti-Platonic. Part of this apocalyptic understanding is the recognition that death denied is definitive of sin, and this is the power Christ has come to defeat. The point of this revelation is the realization of freedom from slavery to the controlling principles of the human order. God has invaded the world, not to eventually abandon it, but to reclaim it.

In other words, Nietzsche in his recognition of the pervasive nihilism inherent in Platonic and modern thought, in his focus on the Platonic/Christian obscuring of death, and in his recognition of the need for an apocalyptic break from the prevailing orientation, represents the shift that would give rise to a return to the original New Testament notion of apocalyptic salvation.  

If you would like to learn more register for our upcoming class (June 28th through August 20th), Philosophy for Theology, which will use my book, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, as the text.

Hope Against Hope: The Ground of Faith and Love

Of the three enduring pillars of Christianity (faith, hope and love), hope is often neglected in light of the more obvious qualities of faith and love. The three, though, are necessarily linked, as faith and love exist in hope. Without hope, faith and love are unbalanced and ultimately rendered impossible or, at least, of a different order of meaning than biblical faith and love. Hope transports the realm of faith and love beyond the temporal and its limited possibilities. Hope is unseen because it defies earthly, mortal, deathly, expectations, bringing the eternal into faith and love.

While there are earthly versions of all three, it is hope which specifically contains the biblical element of a continual dying to the world, of passing through death, to an expectant life in God which is no longer grounded by the delimitations of death. Thus, the curative element: the cure of fear, the cure of the curtailments of reason and the earthly perspective, which might be attached to all three, are ensured by hope.

Faith and love might speak of an ordinary finite degree of possibility but hope surpasses what is possible and clings to the otherwise impossible. This can be easily demonstrated in the qualifiers which could be potentially added to faith and love but which are excluded when combined with hope. Limited, temporal, finite, faith and love may be the norm but hope extends faith and love to the unlimited, the a-temporal and the infinite.

We might speak of a dogmatic faith but never of a dogmatic hope. Hope, by its very nature, cannot be paired with hard-headed knowing. This is why David Bentley Hart’s dogmatic universalism, as compared to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hopeful universalism, seems to miss the point. The point of biblical end time imagery is not to illicit rational certainty or exhaustive explanation, but hope. Hope is the reworking of the imagination on the basis of what is not approachable by sight. Rational sight-bound categories may give us a deity driven by the necessity of human reason – but hope relieves us of such necessities at the same time that it frees the imagination. Hope takes us beyond the temporal and its suffocating rational possibilities. The danger of Hart’s dogmatism is that it would make universalism bear an explanatory weight which would relieve the imagination of doing any work. But this is the entire point of the Christian end-time kingdom imagery – to bring about a reworked imagination which is not bound by temporal-rational possibilities.

Faith and love might be conceived of apart from anticipation but there is no hope without expectation. Rightly understood, faith and love are grounded in this expectation of hope. Both speak of a future in which they are proven to have been true and worthy. Hopeless love would be a quickly passing malady, as there is no expectation of a brighter, fulfilled future for the beloved. Hopeful love presumes this expectation of the best for the beloved. So too, hopeless faith would be a static, time bound belief which does not presume to transport the believer elsewhere. Hope brings an eternal dynamism (the future ever-transforming the past and present) into faith and love. Hope speaks of a living possibility imputed into faith and love. Living by faith and love is the dynamism hope delivers. Living out this hope (the certainty or assurance of faith in Hebrews 11) brings the eternal into time, not as a fully realized achievement, but as an actively lived possibility. It is in hope that human experience of time is transformed by eternity – as the eternal possibilities open a way forward, where time presented impenetrable obstacles.

Where faith and love might be qualified or constrained by the possible, hope makes for unqualified-impossible love and a seemingly impossible faith, as with God there is nothing that is impossible. Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26) – an understanding Jesus connects directly to belief in goodness. Given the circumstance of the world camels cannot be threaded through a needle, the rich are hopeless, and goodness is unachievable. Reason cannot resolve the problem of evil even in its conception of the goodness of God. Hope leaps over this impossibility – having faith in goodness and unqualified hope in love. Though bad faith and ill-conceived love may be the norm, hope is hope in an “impossible” goodness. Hope implies a confidence in a good outcome which is not constrained by bleak necessities.

Abraham, as the case in point of hope beyond hope (Ro 4:18), is faced with an impossible, irresolvable situation, apart from divine intervention. His is a journey in which the earthly expectancy of propagating his name is foreclosed (faith rendered impossible) and this is where hope begins. It is not simply his faith isolated from hope that is exceptional, as his hope translates the future expectation into the possibility of moving forward – going into the unseen far country. Faith apart from hope would remain a static possibility, but hope enlivens the eternal possibility in the present so that the journey is energized now by the possibilities of its end.

What is relinquished in the process are not simply the possibilities of earthly hope but with it the weight of earthly desires and necessities. Apart from hope, Abraham’s childlessness, homelessness, and old age, would constitute a final despair – and that is precisely where hope begins. The divine hope (the hope beyond hope), over and against human hope, begins at that point where there is no natural, rational, earthly way forward. At that point where earthly expectations have been exhausted and despair would kick in, eternal hope begins.

The presumed obstacles to Abraham’s faith – hardships, frustrations, suffering, failed expectations – are the ingredient of the hope beyond hope. The impossibility of his circumstance may appear as an obstacle to his faith, but if it is understood that his faith is grounded in the hope of eternity, then the obstacles can be seen as moving him from hope in time to hope in eternity. Hopelessness, despair, and death, prompt the living hope which leaps beyond the world to presuming one’s own incapacity and the necessity of divine intervention.

Maybe this is why faith and love, apart from hope, not only do not imply suffering but seem to be challenged by suffering. Hope presumes suffering but the suffering itself is rendered secondary. As Paul describes it in Romans 8, the suffering with which the creation is infused is on the order of childbirth. “We ourselves,” he indicates, “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (8:23). This suffering is an expectant suffering which presumes there is a point to the suffering.

As Paul pictures the contrast between two types of suffering, suffering, apart from hope arises from within the individual (their desire) and there is no relief from this hopeless desirous suffering closed up within the self. This self in relation to itself – pursuing and desiring itself, only further isolates itself in its turn inward.  Paul’s despairing cry, “Wretched man that I am, Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24), gets at the isolated hopelessness. The specific element giving rise to suffering in the midst of hopelessness is the futility of this unfulfillable pursuit. There is an incapacity to persevere in the midst of this desire, which seems to empty out any positive, outside possibility. As Kierkegaard describes it, imprisoned air develops a poison all by itself.”[1]

 On the other hand, Paul pictures varieties of suffering (tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword (8:35)) but these outward forms of suffering are no obstacle to the love of God grounded in hope. Thus, the perseverance of hope presumes that what it is persevering in is suffering but the suffering points beyond itself. Faith and love do not seem to have this presumption of a persevering through suffering apart from hope.

It is not too much to claim Christian faith and love require hope.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2009. Works of Love, ( trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong. New York: Harper Perennial), 231.

Atonement

The primary human problem is not, as John Calvin portrayed it, the wrath of God. It is not as Anselm pictured it, that God’s honor is impugned by the breaking of the law. The biblical focus is not on future punishment in Gehenna nor is it that some necessary punishment is required to satisfy or propitiate God. Neither God nor his wrath, nor his punishment, nor his righteousness, nor his law is the problem. God is not the problem. Sin and evil are the problem, but the confusion concerning law, righteousness, punishment, etc., is in how each of these relate to the definition of this primary problem. We all recognize the destructiveness, violence, and harm we call evil but what is this thing at its root and how does the work of Christ address this root problem?

Paul sums up the biblical depiction of the anatomy of sin as the reign of death (Ro 5:14).  However, even to say that death is the primary problem may miss that sin and death cannot be equated – though they are aligned. The emphasis should fall upon the reign of death – the orientation to death included in its “reign.” As Paul subsequently explains, “sin reigned in death” (5:21), so that the reign of death is inclusive of the response to this primary limit. Human mortality, the limits of life, the biological destiny of the body, is not the problem, but the human response to death is the problem. The reign of death (inclusive of the human response) may manifest as political, social, or interpersonal. It may be experienced as the antagonism between the sexes, between races, or tribes, or religions. Or it may be experienced as between the individual and God or the corporate body and God. But again, the manifestation of the problem is not the thing itself.

It is difficult to describe a negative – the negating power of death which we come to embody – which may be why consequences of the problem so often stand-in for the problem itself. The absence of peace (violence), the absence of life (death), the absence of love (hatred), the absence of relationship (alienation), has its punishing effect but to imagine this punishment or wrath is a destiny, a primary attribute of God, or an ontological condition of the universe is to miss the secondary quality of sin and evil. The possibility of the parasite of evil is to be found in the goodness it perverts, the life it destroys, the peace it violates, and the grace it refuses. 

Maybe this negativity is easiest to grasp and recognize at the corporate level. It is on the order of the image of the idol – that which is essentially nothing invested with supreme importance. The idol marks the spot where nothing would be transformed into an absolute something and yet it is also the point of absolute frustration and desire. The idol never gives up its secrets, never makes immanent the promised transcendence, but it stands as an impossibility to achieve what is desired.

Many things can serve in place of the idol: money in the modern economy is a purely imaginary value as it signifies no actually existing entity and yet it marks the supreme value in capitalism; nationalism requires continual human sacrifice so as to ensure freedom and to lend it final substance; modern democracy or even pop culture distills the acclamation of the crowd into a glory or “power” which is a palpable (non) existence and ultimate reality. Each object is not an actually existing thing and yet it marks the final goal, the ultimate value, or what people “live” to attain. This living death holds out its impossible object of desire as the true source of life, substance, or existence. Maybe this is easy to understand, and in the understanding, there is already the recognition that this negativity is a delusion – this proposed “knowledge of good and evil” never gives the god-like life it promises.

What is more difficult is our personal and individual participation in this structure.  The ultimate incomprehension must pertain to how the object of desire can be one’s own image (the self-image and the idolatrous image are the same Hebrew word). This interior logic reverberates and confounds so that it is no easy task to describe how the pursuit of self (saving one’s life) is actually the loss of life, but this is the theme of the New Testament.

Usually, Paul will pair the negative with its positive element, so that we understand alienation through reconciliation, hostility through peace, etc. In Romans 7, however, Paul sustains a prolonged description of the dynamic of sin without appeal to its opposite. The negative force, from within this sinful perspective, bodies forth in an unreality, an un-birth, an “essence” which is the place between two antagonistic laws or two parts of the self. These two laws, one centered in the mind and the other centered in the body, create the struggle which causes Paul to cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7.24).

This wretched ego (“I”) arises with a lack of self-consciousness and only becomes gradually cognitively aware as part of a negative process (there are no cognitive verbs in 7:8-11). The ego makes its appearance only in coming up against, or in resistance to, the law, but this law is not an externally imposed force. Subjectivity arises as subjection to a force within, so that it is not mere subjection to an exterior authority. It is self-subjection, such that one part of the self stands opposed to another part of the self, so that the struggle for existence is from out of a not yet existent reality.

In the Freudian picture, the ego emerges from and continues to be partially situated in the id (the place of drives and the unconscious), which may be a complicated way to say the ego is an imaginary construct – a fiction. But it is a fiction which one would make true; it is an imaginary entity one would give birth to. The subject takes itself as an object and this object needs to be established, needs to be brought to life, or given substance. The self as object must be brought into oneness as there is a failure to completely be the self. Self-difference or self-objectification must be overcome, yet this self-antagonism is the very definition of self-experience.

All of this simply articulates the feeling of incapacity inherent to the ego. The self is its own symptom, the primary mental illness in being human.  As in Genesis 3, the ego becomes an articulate consciousness only as the center of fear and shame, as if it is loss and death incarnate. Alienation not only marks the ego; the ego is this alienation. It is a purely negative entity – an absence which would be made present.

One way of approaching this negativity is by recognizing the impossibility put upon the self in the prohibition of desire in Romans 7:7. The command not to covet seems to allude to the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, but the question is why Paul shortens it so that the objects of desire named in the Law are absent? The original commandment has a fairly exhaustive list of things that are not to be desired, but desire itself is not forbidden. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20.17).  But as Paul pictures his discovery of the commandment, he comes upon it too late. “You shall not desire” causes what it forbids.

Paul formulates v. 7 in such a way that both the prohibition in the Garden and the Law of Sinai are echoed but these laws are not inherently problematic. They do not necessarily generate their own transgression. Yet in Paul’s description, sin and law (at 7:7) have already been fused in an obscene or perverse desire. As he puts it, desire is the force of sin as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (7:8).

Paul’s shorter version of the command lends itself to being readily applied to two alternative distortions of the law, in pursuit of either good (zeal for the law) or evil (transgressive desire), but these two generate their opposite – and this is Paul’s point. The more zeal the more desire and the more desire the more zeal. One can try to gain life through the commandment (zeal for the law) but one’s zealous desire is already a transgression.

Forbidden desire literally isolates the letter of the law or a portion of the command (which Paul explains elsewhere is death dealing). It is as if “Kill” is isolated from “Thou shall not.” Covetousness is isolated from particular objects and from the intent of the law. Sinful desire reduces the law, voided of its context and purpose, to a deadly letter which prompts the transgression it would forbid. Where the law is sin (7:7), sin will establish the law (7.23).

Doing evil is a means of establishing the good, and doing the good is realized only in its identity with evil – “evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (7:21). Paul recognizes throughout that he cannot actually split his mind from his body as he is this mind/body. Nonetheless, one who embodies this law is split in an agonizing struggle of law keeping and transgression: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7:19). Paul depicts subservience to this law as a war in which the law of the body is a separate entity or “another law waging war against the law of my mind” (7:.21) as the law divides and pits the self against the self.

The mind/body split is an instance of the inherent antagonism of any dualism. The mind does not and cannot exist apart from the body and the body cannot exist apart from the mind, nor can there be an absolute incomparable difference or there would be no point of comparison. Just as (in the knowledge of good and evil) the evil must inhere in the good and the good in the evil, so too the law of the mind and the law of the body must be an interwoven opposition. The opposed pairs are necessary to one another, so that one side of the pair is in the service of the other.

The imagery is not of possessing (though to embody or possess the law may describe the desire) but of being possessed by a force that kills (ἀπέκτεινεν) and deceives (ἐξηπάτησέν). Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver; this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφoρμν) and “came upon me” (λαβoῦσα), reducing him to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death. The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7:23), and Paul (“I”) is at war with himself in a losing battle. “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing the “I” and “I died.”

Paul has already provided the solution to the problem in Romans 6. To die with Christ in baptism is to be joined to Christ and it is to reorient oneself to death and the law. The likeness or form of Christ in his incarnation mediates or makes possible a “joining to” which defeats the death dealing attempt to be joined to the law or to be joined within the self. The idea of being joined or “united with him” is of being “knit together” or being made to “grow together” or to unite as in fusing or healing a wound or to “plant along with/together.” This being “united with his likeness” ends the alienation characterizing sin.

Here the gap is closed between subject/object (the image or likeness of the idol) as there is no gap between the subject and the image of Christ. The alienation is overcome in this likeness or participation in the form or likeness of Christ. The gap within, the gap with God, and the objectifying gap with the world is healed. To die with Christ is to be joined to a form which will bring about a conformity without alienation or objectification. The form of the subject in Christ displaces the form of the subject under the law. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8.2).

There is a suspension of the alienation of the law and a reorientation to death: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8.1). Paul proclaims victory over the forces of evil that work through the force of law and sin’s deception.  The “condemnation” (katάkrima) or the curse (Rom. 5.16-18; Gal. 3.10; Deut. 27.26) is suspended as the orientation to death is displaced by life.

In Paul’s description, sin may be abundant but grace is “super-abundant” (Ro 5:20). “If by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many” (5:15). The reality of God and his grace (his gift of life, peace, and unified wholeness) has the final word.

This is the work of atonement.

Did John Calvin Invent A New Religion?

I concluded in my previous blog (here) that John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead (hades) to eternal punishment (Gehenna) and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution. In this blog, I indicate how this shift changes the meaning of Christianity. By changing the meaning of the death of Christ, making punishment of an innocent man the payment for the guilty and calling this justice, tying it to future eternal suffering or eternal death and making this suffering a legal requirement of God, and by then equating this with mercy, forgiveness and salvation, there is almost nothing left of New Testament salvation. The biblical focus on a practical deliverance from a real-world problem, the ordinary understanding of justice, punishment, forgiveness, and the understanding of Christ and God as united, loving and good, are obscured. More troubling is the depiction of a God who requires and delights in suffering, and who, by any normal standard, would be judged positively evil. Where this God is called good and the methods he deploys considered merciful, all standards of meaning and value are turned on their head.

Suffering does not right a wrong.

The gold standard for Calvin, the line that he moves and which even non or anti-Calvinists have acceded to, is his notion that punishment, as suffering, is tied to justice. The two terms, punishment and justice, abstracted from their biblical context and tied together in his depiction of pure suffering (in Gehenna), completely misses the biblical depiction of justice or righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), which is not simply a legal abstraction but a description of the personhood of God shared with humans in Christ so as to make things right. It misses the biblical depiction of punishment as a loving correction geared toward achieving rectitude. Both terms are obscured in being tied to suffering, as if suffering is equal to punishment enacted and justice achieved. While these are equated in pagan religion and Roman law, and have been preserved in modern notions of legal retribution (a maze of confusion between rehabilitation, revenge, and deterrence), it is Calvin’s fusion of the suffering of the Cross with the suffering of Gehenna which paganizes biblical justice.

The suffering of a thief or a murderer, or the eternal suffering say, of Adolph Hitler, does not restore what has been lost. If my precious android phone is stolen, having the thief imprisoned does not make it right, as far as I am concerned. No matter what suffering the thief may be put through, I am still out one phone. Maybe I derive a certain pleasure, as Calvin depicted it, in seeing the thief suffer but this points to my human perversity. We may have the tendency of delighting in seeing those who have wronged us suffer, but in the biblical framework, this is counted as evil not good (let alone as God-like).

In our human perversity we may link our sadistic sense of seeing our enemies suffer (having their teeth broken, as in David’s prayer) with justice, but this is completely removed from the biblical concept of restoration (restoration of relationship, restoration of the kingdom, restoration of fullness). The way of this restorative justice necessarily involves the one who has done the wrong and the wrong committed. It involves not only their reform, but the setting right of all that they have made wrong. God does not impute honesty where there is none. He does not presume the possibility of theoretical or legal reform apart from the person. The slaves are not theoretically set free and the healing is not a future legalistic reordering of the books.

Where in Calvin, punishment and suffering accomplish atonement, this is a non sequitur.  It does not follow that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes atonement for the wrong done. It does not restore the lost phone or the lost lives if the thief or the murderer is punished. Maybe he should be punished or jailed but this has nothing to do with atonement. It does not help the situation that the man suffers or that he volunteers to suffer or even that he, Luther-like, takes a whip to himself to induce suffering. Suffering per se does not address the problem.  Should the man’s innocent brother volunteer to serve his time or suffer the lash (maybe for a more expensive phone than I own), and I say this is very satisfying to me, this would not reflect well on my character.

Does it help the situation if it is God that finds satisfaction in suffering – the eternal suffering of a completely innocent man? Calvin argues from the incomprehension and mystery of things eternal, but shifting this sort of behavior onto God projects onto God the image of evil humans.

Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.

Calvin pictures forgiveness as enabled by Christ bearing the equivalent of eternal suffering in hell on the Cross. The demand of the law, according to Calvin, is that the offense against an infinite God receive the due payment of an infinite penalty. Only when the penalty is paid can the offense be forgiven. Only when God’s wrath is completely satiated (and it never is for Calvin) can he find it in himself to forgive. This is an odd notion of forgiveness and mercy, subsequent as it is to infinite wrath being propitiated.

The biblical depiction is the opposite of that of Calvin, as God’s love and mercy endure forever but his wrath quickly passes.[1] Mercy is a key attribute of God, but Calvin subsumes mercy under the attribute of wrath, as if wrath is an attribute – the prime attribute of God. Most of us would not consider it merciful to demand that those who have wronged us be executed first, and it would be considered diabolical should we desire that those who have transgressed against us be tortured forever prior to our offer of mercy. Is it that we are too merciful, too forgiving, and once we learn the ways of God, we too will demand our pound of flesh before the debt is forgiven?

We expect tyrants to punish every wrong and to revenge every transgression but we do not call it forgiveness should they grant pardon to an already slaughtered enemy. Again, it is presumed by Calvin that locating this evil in the mysteries of God somehow makes it good. The presumption is that humans are more able to be merciful than their maker due to their less strict code of justice (but this has nothing to do with biblical justice).

God’s punishment does not buy mercy, it is his mercy.

Punishment gets a bum wrap in Calvin as it is equated with eternal suffering which in no way restores, rectifies, or reforms. In the Bible God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6) and this is the point of the punishment that comes with sin. The presumed split between mercy and wrath, a necessity brought about by Calvin’s insistent misreading of the Bible, so eternalizes God’s wrath as to make it of no earthly good. The question is not simply, how could God be just and not punish sin, but how could God be loving, merciful, restorative, and kind, without punishing sin. His is a cleansing, purifying punishment which is synonymous with his mercy and love.

God is not split between anger and love, but his anger flows from his love. We all “were by nature children of wrath,” but this does not stand opposed to the love of God but explains how his “being rich in mercy” extends the love of God so as to solve the real problem (Eph 2:2-5). “Being dead in trespasses and sins, walking according to the course of this world’s prince, being disobedient sons, following the lusts of the flesh,” is the problem – being children of wrath is a consequence of the problem.  The wrath is not the problem, but sin is the problem, and God is concerned with the problem not the consequence. God does not hate us in his wrath but like the much loved children of the Father being described, his wrath is an element of his love.

If the solution (being made alive) tells us what the problem is, clearly our problem is not simply that God is angry with us, as this verse tells us that his wrath or anger is no obstacle to his life-giving love, but indeed seems to be subservient to his love. Where in Calvin, wrath describes the prime destiny which Christ is dealing with, for Paul wrath is not describing a destiny or an end point. Paul does not mean that people were destined for wrath, since he is talking about himself and in this case other Jewish Christians. He means that they were acting in a fallen way like those who deserved God’s wrath. In fact, wrath is part of the solution.

The phrase “children of wrath” or “sons of death” is a Hebrew expression which occurs in several places in the Old Testament. As in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its citizens purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The way to enter this dwelling is not, as in penal substitution, through by-passing or foregoing the divine wrath (directed somewhere else).

Where Calvin absolutizes wrath, he splits God the Father and Son between wrath and love. But the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love. God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. As George MacDonald puts it, “For Love loves unto purity, and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.”

Calvin’s Religion?

The notion that infinite wrath can be equated with God’s justice (the first perversion), and then that this justice demands suffering as punishment to achieve forgiveness (the second perversion), as God’s wrath stands over and against God’s mercy, and God is split between his love and wrath (the third perversion), all of which perverts justice and mercy and God (the ultimate perversion). This God that demands infinite suffering as justice would cause us take refuge from the Father in the Son. As MacDonald describes it, this is “to take refuge with his work instead of with the Son himself; to take refuge with a theory of that work instead of the work itself; to shelter behind a false quirk of law instead of nestling in the eternal heart of the unchangeable and righteous Father.”[2] Is it possible that Calvin’s interpretation of Christianity might cause some to miss the revelation of Jesus?

Perhaps the question is itself a perversion, imagining that knowing the Son is dependent upon proper theology, but we all know those who are much better than their theology (hopefully myself included). As each of us follow Jesus, we make progress in recognizing evil and extracting ourselves from falsehood. That certainly describes my understanding of my own journey. But as MacDonald points out, there must come a point where those who have believed a lie must abandon it as they come to a fuller knowledge of the truth. Otherwise, “They yield the idea of the Ancient of Days, ‘the glad creator,’ and put in its stead a miserable, puritanical martinet of a God, caring not for righteousness, but for his rights; not for the eternal purities, but the goody proprieties.” Surely, knowing and following Jesus is a faith that will not and cannot be thwarted, no matter what obstacle should be thrown in the way. On the other hand, false prophets such as Calvin “take all the glow, all the hope, all the colour, all the worth, out of life on earth, and offer you instead what they call eternal bliss–a pale, tearless hell.”[3]  


[1] Psalm 30:5 For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning. Psalm 106:1 “Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever”; Psalm 118:1 “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting”; Isaiah 12:1 “Then you will say on that day, “I will give thanks to You, O LORD; For although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, And You comfort me.”

[2] George McDonald, “Justice,” in Unspoken Sermons. I am loosely following MacDonald in the sections and concepts “Suffering does not right a wrong” and “Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.”

[3] McDonald, surrounded by Scottish Calvinism, makes the point.