Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity

Paul seems to be identifying the deep grammar of a system antithetical to his Gospel in the question “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” This is not a simple aside (he repeats it and reformulates it 4 times) but may represent what some are teaching in the name of Christ. It goes to the heart of Paul’s argument and counter-argument in Romans in which he is laying out the sinful logic of both Jews and Gentiles. Whether judged by the Mosaic law or the law of the heart, all are unrighteous and this unrighteousness is not simply a failure of will but a failure of thought. That is, the conscious or unconscious logic of sin is to transgress the law so as to attain the good.  The very point of the Gospel, in Paul’s explanation in Romans and elsewhere, is deliverance from the misorientation to the law due to sin. If I am correct, this means that where this misorientation is incorporated into the religion, though this religion may call itself Christian, it is in fact antithetical to the Gospel. This is not simply a technical argument in that this un-gospel will show its true nature in the presumptions it makes and the fruit it produces. Just War Theory, Calvinist notions of predestination and the necessity of evil, penal substitution, or whatever doctrine or theology allows for evil, is operating according to the logic of Paul’s sin formula. There are forms of the faith that justify systemic evil (violence is a necessity, the Fall was part of God’s plan, Jesus is punished by God, or I am justified in hurting some for the greater good, etc.) and this self-justifying engagement with evil (whether personal or corporate), embraces Paul’s depiction of what is absolutely forbidden (“God forbid, it shall never be,” he says in Ro. 7.7).  Unfortunately, this failure of thought definitive of sin gets at the controlling logic of multiple forms of perverse Christianity. Recognizing this bleak reality though, comes combined with the possible realization of a faith that involves total (psychological and corporate) recreation. Continue reading “Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity”

The Delights of Dante’s Hell: Paula White and Oral Roberts Meet Robert Schuller

Gauging progress in the faith depends upon how one perceives the race. Another jet and a bigger mansion for Robert Tilton, more Rolls Royces for Creflo Dollar, and for their followers perhaps a desperate last attempt to be miraculously healed or to escape perpetual poverty.  In Dante’s definition of inverse progress in hell (hell being the “realm … of those who have rejected spiritual values by . . . perverting their human intellect for fraud or malice against their fellowmen”) it would seem that Bob and Creflo would land at the 8th ring. Dante reserves the depths of hell for those who have committed fraud – with spiritual fraud qualifying for the inner portion of the 8th – 9th circle. Those who “pervert and falsify ecclesiastical office, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence” or those who made money for themselves out of what belongs to God: “Rapacious ones, who take the things of God, / that ought to be the brides of Righteousness, / and make them fornicate for gold and silver! / The time has come to let the trumpet sound / for you.” The violence done to the dispossessed (Kenneth and Gloria Copeland rail against modern medicine as the money is better spent on their jets) certainly puts them at the 7th circle. Kenneth and Gloria and all who have “plundered” their neighbors, according to Dante, will apparently be immersed in boiling blood forever. Oral Roberts, the father of seed-faith (promise of prosperity in return for giving) televangelism, televised faith-healing, can probably now report whether his “head is twisted around such that he is compelled to walk backwards for eternity,” but Dante would consign all false-prophets to the 8th circle of hell where they are “blinded by their own tears.” Continue reading “The Delights of Dante’s Hell: Paula White and Oral Roberts Meet Robert Schuller”

Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death

One of the key confrontations in human thought (philosophy/religion/psychology. . .) occurred in Denmark with the clash between the thought of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (or SK). In that Hegel is summing up the possibility of human thought (not only the history of thought in philosophy and its various forms but its future) and SK is positing his own Christian understanding as the alternative to Hegel, it might be said that one has the choice of either being Hegelian or Christian.[1] Overlooking for the moment the questions this might raise, I would like to blunder along with the two-fold assumption that Hegel sums up the possibility of human thought and potential under a fallen perspective and SK provides a summation of the Christian diagnosis of the problem (represented by Hegel) and the alternative to Hegel (authentic Christianity).  Hegel, in this reading of SK, is not simply wrong but is a summation of how we have all gone wrong and of how Christ addresses the primordial human problem (represented and articulated best by Hegel). At the same time that Hegel offers deep psychological insight gone bad, SK builds upon this insight – providing at once an alternative analysis and resolution. We are sick (with a sickness unto death) and we need to be clear about the diagnosis so as to understand Christ’s intervention into the disease through his death.[2]  At the same time, the contention between Hegel and SK is over the meaning of the death of Christ – Hegel’s understanding poses the problem as the cure and SK sees the cross as specifically confronting the Hegelian cure. Continue reading “Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death”

Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation

The Forging part of Forging Ploughshares presented itself due to my work on a forge as a teenager. My academic career in high school indicated to everyone involved, but especially to my father, that heavy thinking might not suit my abilities. He contacted Kansas State Farriers College, a rather inflated title attached to a barn, farmhouse, and a mobile home/dormitory which had been started by the last full-time Army farrier upon his retirement (or so he told us). Bob Bechdolt, a larger than life character in many senses (he must have been approaching about 400 pounds and was at that point involved in a battle with the State of Kansas to have his school officially recognized) came to visit us on our small farm in Kansas and my father was convinced I should learn horse shoeing.  This would include learning to forge horse shoes (using hammer, anvil, and forge, to make approximate half circles out of strips of metal) as well as all that is involved in getting shoes on horses. So, between my junior and senior year of high school I spent many hours using a forge attempting to craft horse foot wear. The use of the forge, I came to learn, is an art unto itself[1] and so too the art of living which would produce ploughshares – representative of the peaceable Kingdom. Continue reading “Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation”

The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin

The humor of Slavoj Žižek continually makes the singular point that the law or the symbolic realm is an oppressive force, so pervasive in its power, that it is inescapable. A man who fears chickens thinks he is a grain of corn and likely to be eaten. He is institutionalized and undergoes years of therapy. On the day of his release he runs back into the hospital as he has encountered a chicken. His doctor patiently insists that he must now understand that he is not a grain of corn. The man readily agrees that the years of therapy have paid off, he says, “I know I am not a grain of corn. “But,” he asks, “does the chicken know this.” Is escape from the “big Other,” God, the law, or fate, possible? For Žižek, the category may be subject to manipulation but ultimately the mind of the chicken cannot be changed. Continue reading “The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin”

Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part II

Where can we look to find the enduring impact of Christ upon culture and society? This is a “big picture” question but it is also a very personal existential question. Where can we trace God’s providential working in history,universal history and our individual lives, without admixture with evil (as in my case with Texas religion)?  The rather shocking conclusion (at least for one emerging from Christendom): Christ made no permanent or enduring impact on culture. Human culture has certainly been impacted at various points and by various means but culture is not itself an enduring medium. Cultures come and go so that the enduring redemption of Christ is not to be found in an enduring human social structure or city. As Hebrews 13:14 states it, “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”

What is a city other than a particular social arrangement, a hierarchy, an institution, an enduring structural entity? Is there no fully formed, immanent, enduring City?  The primary exhibit in a counter-argument was/is Christendom – the fusion of Church and State which produced what seemed to be a new form of culture. Christendom gave us, it could be argued, the rule of law, a new improved social moral compass, modern medicine and the hospital, and it contributed to unmatched artistic, scientific, and technical achievements. All of this came attached to a new understanding of human dignity that tended to end various forms of slavery, the details of which can be seen to have not only undermined Christendom but points toward the “outside the city” perspective of authentic Christianity.

Katharine Gerbner, author of Christian Slavery, notes that the fusion of Christianity with colonizing and enslaving produced a combustible situation. The slaves, rather than what is often presumed, were refused admittance to the Church, as the condition of their slavery was premised on their pagan status. As the slaves became Christians, in spite of the effort of their masters, the incongruity of the faith of the masters with the New Testament was obvious to the slaves. Typical is the story of Marotta, an African woman, who writes to the Queen of Denmark pleading that she intervene on behalf of black Christian women being beaten by white people for carrying Bibles and attending worship meetings. Gerbner describes the fact that the slaves presumed, like Kierkegaard, that the established church of the masters was not Christian.[1] Gerbner traces the rise of white supremacy as the alternative to what she calls “Protestant supremacy” as the justification for slavery.

It is no great strain to locate the more authentic form of the faith in this situation. The slaves, like the first century Christians, have no enduring city, no enduring political structure, no social organization in which to find a home. Isn’t this precisely the point of the writer of Hebrews? This is the way Christianity is supposed to be. Those in the city who have the power serve at the top of a hierarchy (ecclesial or secular) and are enabled to enslave, dispossess, and control, cannot possibly be part of the authentic Kingdom. The likelihood of this, according to Jesus, would be on the order of a camel passing through they eye of a needle. Paul warns Christians not to be bound by the principalities and powers of this world, Jesus tells us to give away all that we have, and the writer of Hebrews depicts both Judaism and Christianity as upsetting and subversive – to Babel, to Egypt, to the orders of human power. Christ, Paul, and the entire New Testament describe a faith that is not bound by law, by social expediency, by established religion, or by human government. “My Kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus explains to Pilate. Christians are to be outside of every city, every system of power, every form of life which accrue wealth and power.

Christendom, while it held out the promise of an immediately accessible enduring city, is primarily a warning of the evil to which this confusion gave rise. The inquisitions, genocide, Antisemitism, and the new technical capacity to slaughter and torture in the name of doctrinal purity, all of this adds to the case that the light that was produced was not worth the candle it required. Two things to note about Christendom: it failed – the churches of Europe are emptied, modern atheism and agnosticism reign wherever Christendom was strongest. Christendom failed largely due to the weight of the corruption and evil it produced. The modern period is post-Christian or at least post-Christendom. The Church no longer shares in political power, and the majority in most of the western world do not count themselves Christian. It may seem that as Christians we are left with nothing to cling to. Certainly, we have no enduring city, no enduring political structure, no social organization in which we can find ourselves at home. This is precisely the point of departure to an authentic Christianity which would endure the shame with Christ outside of the city.

When Christianity coalesces into settled structures with hierarchies which can produce safety for the majority, perhaps, this is precisely when it is not Christianity any longer. Where Christians are bound to institutions, political or social orders, then they are clinging to the cities of man. The eschatological city is not from this world. The guerrilla band gathered outside the city is the only place that the city from God can be enjoyed. The eschatological break with the world is an ongoing condition. All things are continually being made new and Christians are strangers and pilgrims.

Think again of the confrontation of Christ with Pilate. The Jews had coalesced into a single body, uniting themselves with Rome: “We have no King but Caesar.” One man must die that the nation might be saved. They had caved in to the logic of empire. In this logic we need to continually be offering up human sacrifice outside the walls of the city. Where the Church has wed itself to secular power it has needed its various Pilates in the same way the Jews needed Pilate. The Jew must die that the nation be preserved. The Muslim must die that we be given our safety. The Stranger, the alien, the poor, the naked, must be kept out, they must be sacrificed. Don’t we need Pilate, Rome, or America, to harbor us safely inside the City?

To the contrary, salvation in Christ is a complete liberation not only from the constraints of elemental existence (the stoicheia), but also from the death dealing power of the city.  Both Hebrews and Paul describe the most powerful of institutions – Mosaic law, religion, and culture, as insufficient: having been delivered only by an angel through a mere human mediator (Moses), and had operated only, in the words of David Bentley Hart, as a kind of probationary “disciplinarian” (paidagogos) till Christ had set us free.

“For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews12:18-24)

Christianity is primarily the announcement of this New City, this New Kingdom breaking into – invading – the normal course of time and history. Christianity so reverses the sacred truths of the established religions that Christians were considered irreligious atheists. They did not uphold Rome but counted it an honor to be found on Roman crosses. Where this apocalyptic vision is traded for a settled way of life with its own institutions and structures, whether they are Roman, English, American, Texan, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or “simply Christian” (as in the Restoration Movement motto), then it seems we have entered a new sort of Christendom. One world must be relinquished, given up, abandoned, and I assume this is a prolonged process. This life-style of departure, of going outside the city marks an authentic follower of the one who calls us to join him outside the city gates.

I am not sure I can escape Texas, but isn’t this the Christian task; to unmix the admixture of faith as we have received it, to render ourselves homeless, to depart, to denationalize, deinstitutionalize, to go outside the city?

 

[1] Here is the link to the interview with Gerbner http://readingreligion.org/content/interview-katharine-gerbner-author-christian-slavery.

Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part I

This past week, Faith and I delivered our daughter, Joelle, to Waco Texas for school and I once again experienced my ambiguity concerning Texas. The brand of Christianity I inherited was Texan Restoration Movement and this remains my point of departure, though departure is most definitive of my faith journey. James Robison, the Texas evangelist, came to our high school in the late 60’s and this determined my path. This Christianity came fused with nationalism and cultural peculiarities, such that I have been trying to sort out New Testament Christianity from Texas religion ever since. The task to move from a religion of triumphalism and supremacy (e.g. white supremacy and protestant supremacy) to the militant faith of the New Testament, something I could not have articulated at age 13, immediately posed itself. Continue reading “Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part I”

Why “Walking Theology”

kierkegaard walking quote

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Why “Walking Theology””

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

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

Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment

Part of the attraction of neurotheology, with its focus on chanting, prayer, meditation, and various spiritual exercises (rapid movements of head, body, arms, etc.) is that this a direct route to interrupting negative habits of thought without having to deal with the particulars of belief. Those who achieve “enlightenment” experience a shift in consciousness that seems to open up their world beyond everyday consciousness. They report feelings of greater peace and compassion that pervade every part of their life. The feeling is so intense that it exceeds belief, or at least any particular form of belief, so that it may result in the suspension of belief. Andrew Newberg (the leading researcher in the field) equates the experience of enlightenment with a “shaking up” of cherished beliefs. He maintains, “Beliefs are principles that you formed in the past, and enlightenment — going by the dictionary definition — means ‘to bring new light to ignorance.’”[1] Add to this the hard science of brain scans and the literal reshaping of the brain by means of “intense ritual,” and the recommendations of Newberg seem irrefutable.  Experience trumps belief such that the experience contains the truth that will bend or shape belief accordingly. Isn’t this precisely what is needed in this moment in which Christian belief is proving to be one more degraded ideology subject to the manipulations of the most recent demagogue?  Do not belief and doctrine simply serve as justification for cruelty? While every religion may be effective in describing a particular portion of reality, as with the story of the five blind men and the elephant, error enters in when one imagines that his description precludes the description of the others. The wise man can see what the blind religionists cannot, the various religions affirm a common core of reality (they all have hold of the same elephant) they simply approach it in different ways (the trunk, the tail, the leg, etc.). Is it not the case that the various religious traditions are more or less “true” to the extent that they have a piece of the elephant and help human beings overcome self-centeredness and become open to love?  But when religionists insist upon particular doctrines and beliefs it is like a blind man claiming an elephant is all snake-like trunk. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment”