The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free/, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now, in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1

[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.

The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s “Incomprehensible” Anti-Gospel

That which was once hidden (“hidden since the foundation of the world”) but which has been revealed is not an esoteric secret on the order of Scientology (how to “go clear” of the body) or Mormonism (induction into the secrets of the Mormon Temple), or a secret on the order of the Gnostic mystery cults (a secret knowledge or experience), but it is a secret like Poe’s purloined letter – hidden in plain sight. It is a secret hidden in plain sight in the Old Testament, in the parables of Jesus, and in human experience. This mystery is one we inhabit in the way we organize ourselves into nations and religions, it is a mystery of interpretation (of the Old Testament but of reality in general), it is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator. Paul depicts the opening of this secret or the passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” as marking a new historical consciousness as to the purposes of creation.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). This reference to the breaking of a literal wall in the Temple taken as a cosmic representation, such that divided people will be made one but also that the divide between heaven and earth will be broken down, is itself a deployment of the revealed hermeneutic apart from which the mystery remained. Paul’s allegorizing or spiritualizing interpretation of the most sacred precincts (the literal inner core) of Judaism (a mode he will apply to Hebrew Scriptures) pertains cosmically and personally. People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. This new family fulfills the temple purposes of the cosmos in which heaven comes to earth: “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22). Gentiles and Jews are no longer divided, the individual is no longer divided and heaven and earth are no longer divided in this fulfilled cosmic arrangement. As Paul describes it in Galatians, the binaries (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female), which are not simply a convention of language but a mode of identity and understanding, no longer pertain in this new mode of identity and thought.  

The scheme of “once hidden” and “now revealed,” in taking in the full scope of history, may encompass “the age of the cosmos” in which people were “dead in their trespasses” (Eph 2:1-2), but is the mystery of that former age constituted by “the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:2). Is the mystery simply a result of sin’s deceit or darkness? If the mystery is equated with the darkness of sin, then the mystery revealed would be reduced to the overcoming of sin (the reduction of some theological systems). But Paul connects the mystery to two epochs of history inclusive of creation and its fulfillment, such that the mystery or the concealment disclosed by the revelation of the Gospel is part of the divine plan.

 In Ephesians 5 Paul connects the mystery to a primal goodness which precedes sin; which is not to say that Paul equates the mystery with the one-flesh relationship of marriage (described in Gen 2:24 and which he quotes) but the unity or oneness of the marriage relationship partakes of the mystery unfolded or fulfilled in Christ (5:31-32). Like the valence between creation and fulfillment, the once hidden significance of marital oneness is disclosed in the relation between Christ and the Church – an order inclusive of all humanity. It is not that the union between Christ and the Church, like the unity of marriage, is incomprehensible. What is revealed in this union, is the cosmic breadth of the marriage like unity brought about in Christ. Creations purpose remained an undisclosed and unfulfilled mystery which is now disclosed (made known, preached, realized, in a new unity) and realized in the Spirit.

This “Spiritual” understanding penetrates or unveils the mystery at two key junctures: the mystery of the Anointed “has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph 3:5); and this revealing works on the inward person “who is strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16) so as to plumb new depths of comprehension (3:18-19). Spirit is interwoven with the realization of the revealed mystery in each of its appearances in Ephesians (1:11; 3:16; 5:26 speaks of a spiritual washing; and 6:19 evokes the power of the Spirit to work in Paul in making the mystery known) so that it is clear that the Spirit is the means to unity – inward and outward, cosmic and local.  The unity of Christ and the Church, the unity of Jews and Gentiles, the unity realized in “the inward man,” is a reconciliation in Christ sealed by the Spirit summed up as peace. This peace is not simply an interlude between wars but is a state of unity and participation in God.  Being “in Christ” means participation in the cosmic plan unfolding in a unified humanity founded in peace.

All of this seems to refer back to the fact that, “He made known to us the mystery of His will” (Eph 1:9). The Gospel is nothing less than an opening up of the will of God to human understanding. We now understand what God has foreordained or predestined for the world through his Son. Strange then that there is another gospel which claims that God’s plan or his reasons for predestination are wholly internal to his being and are opaque to humanity – completely incomprehensible.  

Calvin maintains that God’s predestination is mysterious and “utterly incomprehensible.” He believed this impenetrable mystery will inspire wonder and reverence in that confounding people, God’s mysterious decrees will be revered in their “wonderful depth.” Calvin warns in the opening of his chapter on predestination that we must restrain curiosity and not ask after the secret things of God, as these are forbidden. “Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning. Rather let us willingly abstain from the search after knowledge, to which it is both foolish as well as perilous, and even fatal to aspire.”[1] In this alternative gospel, Calvin determined (from Ephesians 1:4) that there is no passage from hidden mystery to mystery disclosed; rather God’s mysterious predestination is to elect some (and to damn others) and this election is equated with holiness. There is no room for living out this inward and outward unity, lest these achievements be confused with meritorious works. For Calvin then, the gospel is not so much a mystery revealed as a mystery compounded. The question is if a gospel that misses Christ’s disclosure and fulfillment of cosmic purposes, preordained before the foundation of the world, qualifies as Gospel, or is it in fact a counter-gospel or anti-gospel?

In Paul’s depiction the Gospel is a revealing of God’s purposes for all of creation. In Romans, Paul equates “the Gospel of God” with that “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Ro 1:1-2) – the Hebrew scriptures. In the scriptures the Gospel was present but concealed until Christ retroactively brings out or delineates their prophetic element. As T.J. Lang puts it, “This does not diminish the revelatory function of the scriptures; it simply means that the Christ event is hermeneutically determinative, restructuring the perception of reality on either side of its occurrence.”[2]  In Paul’s depiction, what Christ does for the Hebrew scriptures, is what he does for all of  creation and for the Temple (a microcosm) and its religion. Just as the secret of the Old Testament is disclosed in Christ, so to Christ becomes the hermeneutic key for understanding human and cosmic purposes. It is not only the scriptures but God’s will for time, for all reality that are summed up or opened up in Christ: “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:9-10). The mystery disclosed pertains to all things and this is the Gospel.

[1] Calvin, Institutes Book 3 chapter 21.

[2] T. J. Lang, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness: From Paul to the Second Century,

Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.

[1] 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Phillip Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.

[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

Are Calvinists Saved?

The question of the title (above) is, in the first instance, a Calvinist question which Calvinists have about themselves. While some have assurance of salvation, where this assurance fails or is lacking, the results can be torturous or deadly. When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle slit his own throat in the absence of this assurance, this demonstrated to Edwards himself that the “devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts.” Soon after, many in the community of Northampton were reporting suicidal ideations. The existential realization that one is predestined for eternal damnation, selected as a vessel of wrath, the object of sovereign hatred bound for an eternity of torture, has proven unbearable for many. To imagine that the all-powerful, omnipresent, power of heaven hates you, must be several times worse than a simple, atheistic nihilism which holds that the universe is indifferent toward you. In fact, to be able to rid oneself of belief in this monstrous God and achieve a more harmless atheism would seem to be a positive moral and mental achievement.  A good friend, who concluded that he was one of the objects of wrath, a vessel of destruction, describes his descent into drug addiction and two overdoses and near-death experiences, not as a departure from God or a descent into unbelief, but due to his belief in God. It was his belief that God hated him, the living proof of which was his poverty of spirit, his condition of feeling hated and not loved, which drove him deeper into self-destructive behavior.  If salvation is entry into the benefits of the love and goodness of God, the assurance that the true, the good and the beautiful, are determinative of ultimate reality and the determinative factor in human life and destiny then Calvinism, in the second instance, is indeed an obstruction to salvation. It specifically opposes this understanding and is an obstruction to the practical realization of this reality, as God’s decisions are rendered arbitrary and unpredictable. So, my question is not polemical or sectarian but a question evoked by Calvinists and a true concern that this may be one form of the Christian faith which most effectively obstructs the core teaching of the New Testament. Far from good news, this is the worst news possible.

Calvinism is not an assurance of love, a defeat of death or the destructive drive toward death, but it inscribes death and destruction into the eternal fabric of creation and into the very nature of God. Instead of Christ defeating death and undoing death’s fatal hold upon us, Calvinism would turn the creator into the eternal source of an everlasting living death in eternal hell, made a necessity so that his glory might shine forth. In his commentary on I John, Calvin states that God is not love in his essence. Love is an anthropomorphism while wrath is an attribute flowing from God’s definitive justice.  In book 3 of The Institutes, Calvin explains that even the Fall was predestined by God – so that the fate of both the saved and the damned are preordained by God. The implication is that God is beyond our comprehension to such a degree that he might be said to be both good and evil or merely a sovereign force that makes nonsense of such categories, and anyone who experiences God as love cannot be said to have entered into a realization of the true divine essence but it is simply descriptive (in Calvin’s explanation) of human experience. If one were to make Satan into one’s God, this might be an improvement over Calvinism, as we can at least read a singular intent and goal into evil personified in the devil. Satan is not arbitrary, unpredictable, all-powerful. God in Calvinism becomes an overwhelming and unavoidable malignancy, undefeatable, imperturbable and immovable in his wrath and hatred.

The logic and mechanical like structure reflected in TULIP, even in Calvin’s own estimate, is not so much a reflection on Scripture as it is a turn inward. The presumption is that “knowledge of God and of ourselves” are “connected together by many ties,” such that to examine the self is to arrive at God: “because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”  Good lawyer that he was, and being largely innocent of the countervailing tradition of the church in its reading of the New Testament, Calvin gives us the doctrine of sin as if it is the means to salvation. Sin is an orientation to the law, captured in Paul’s phrase “the law of sin and death,” in which life is presumed to be in the law which is presumed to be determinative of God and humans. Calvin turns to himself to find the logic of the law; the incontrovertible logic needing violence and blood, made up of vengeance and wrath. The predestined damnation of the derelict needs both the derelict and the damnation to prove the power of God. Just as Napoleon once called upon one of his officers to shoot himself in the head to demonstrate his power to a visiting dignitary, God depends upon damned derelicts to demonstrate his sovereignty. Calvin explains, in Book III of the Institutes, that this is why God predestined the Fall of man so that his greatness would show forth in both arbitrary salvation and damnation. Like death itself, this arbitrary divine power cannot allow for any competing liberty or freedom. God is the power behind all that happens to people, blessed be the name of God, the great unadulterated power.

Calvinism does not speak of the undoing of death but succumbs to a worship like that of Mot, Thanatos, Santa Muerte, or the worship of death itself in that in defending the absolute sovereignty of God, transcendence collapses into identity with the realities of the world (clearly ruled by death). Tsunamis, viruses, accidents, homicides, suicides, or the inevitable march to the grave are all the will of God. The world does not possess its own liberty, people have no freedom, but everything is a product of divine power and divine power most superbly expresses itself in death, destruction, and wrath, with love reduced to a human fabrication. As David Bentley Hart notes, “God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.”

The law of sin and death taken as God’s law, results in a religion which takes on a resemblance to various cults of the dead but also to a Lacanian psychoanalytic orientation which presumes the real or death drive is the unchangeable reality of the human condition. The infinite struggle with sin posed by Calvinism is precisely the Lacanian picture of the symbolic order of the law pitted against the imaginary or egoistic order. As in Paul’s explanation, law is felt as the inexorable controlling power in life so that all of one’s desires, all of one’s mental and bodily effort, might be described as a working out (an agonistic fight with oneself) of this seemingly sovereign power in one’s life. God is mistaken for the law in Paul’s definition of sin, and this means that one must reinforce the good through the evil. Paul gives some four formulas for this perverse understanding each of which might be mistaken for Calvinist doctrine: evil establishes the good, sin makes grace abound, or the law is sin itself. This dualism is read into God and is lived out in the struggle for salvation – a continual grasping after an ultimately unattainable object – which Paul describes as being subject to the “body of death.”

A mind conditioned to imagine this wickedness is Christianity is in a worse estate than a sincere pagan who has never heard but may still hear of the good news. The good news of God’s love falls on deaf ears as this Calvinist mind has been twisted to believe that a moral hideousness is a paradox that one must swallow so as to be saved. Only the blessed have this insight, and I suppose as with the satisfaction of belonging to the most elite club, part of the satisfaction (as Calvin testifies) is to delight in the suffering of the masses. This translates into the health and wealth notion that the blessing of possessing wealth is made clear by those who are dispossessed – after-all money only works in a zero-sum game. So too Calvinist salvation, the few, the elect, possess at the expense and through contrast with the damned.  

The price of admission to this elite club is to believe in the contradiction that this morally hideous God is good and then to submit to the notion that ultimate injustice is justice. This was demonstrated on Sunday to Faith and I in a documentary, I will not name, for fear someone may watch it. In this portrayal there are two options: one can either accept the basic tenets of Calvinism or one can give up on the true Christian faith. As John MacArthur puts it, if a person does not hold to penal substitution he cannot be saved. He acknowledges that one might not understand penal substitution and still make it in, but a clear sign that one is damned is if they reject this damnable doctrine. The focus of the documentary is to suggest that there are those (e.g. Rob Bell, Richard Rohr) who do not accept the Calvinist version of God’s justice and wrath, but they apparently do so on the basis of their own willfulness. No mention is made of the large majority of Christians in the world who are not Calvinist and who do not accept penal substitution. In place of this, one Calvinist after another gives us a “universal” opinion gained by sheer repetition and multiplied singular opinion.

The result was a feeling that these people were either dishonest or profoundly ignorant of world Christianity and Christian tradition. What the documentary succeeded in demonstrating to me, is the large population that imagines that their moral idiocy might only be appreciated by those who might mistake contradiction and incoherence for profundity. For the first time I appreciated how Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, or Bart Campolo (who is an honest atheist), might be taken as a breath of fresh air or a positive relief from the stifling religious nihilism being passed off as a more nuanced faith. Any voice, any counter narrative, any note of objection, came to be a relief from the noxious smugness and presumed moral superiority of the heretical proselytizing. Given the options posed by the film, I understood how happy flakiness is certainly preferable to moral and spiritual insipidness. If this is the actual option posed to most people, I think I better understand this cultural and political moment. But of course, this is a false choice.

The primary doctrine of biblical Christianity is that the law of sin and death and all that it includes – evil, suffering, violence, the orientation to death marking human moral failing – are not the tools of God but precisely that which Christ came to destroy and that which God opposes. The person of God made manifest in Christ reveals the life, love, beauty, and goodness of God, without admixture of evil. Where Calvin does not allow for any clear distinction between what God wills and what he permits (though he speaks of God’s permissive will it is still the will of God), the New Testament pictures a world in which human choice has profound consequences for both good and evil. God in Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to deliver it from willful evil, sin and death. In the words of Hart, “For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Be assured the choice is not that maybe Jesus died for you or maybe he didn’t. In this understanding, statistically your chances are poor and experientially you may one day realize you are damned – or maybe you already have this confirmation. The good news is that God loves you, and there is no question, no qualification, no obstacle that can obstruct this love (Romans 8:38-39).

[1] The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

A Week in the Life of Forging Ploughshares: Movies and Pizza in Quarantine

Faith and I woke up to the realization that we have the Coronavirus, again. I noted that the children are raised, the cars are paid off, so we need not prolong the end. After several strong cups of coffee, I shake the disease, one more time. By the end of the day we are both recovered but morbidity cycles through on most days.

After two weeks of intense not dying, Faith was determined to celebrate by actually leaving the house and getting carry out pizza.  Not wanting to dampen her enthusiasm but also wanting to subtly point out the risks, I compared it to the fun of eating Japanese fugu – also a potentially poisonous meal requiring a respirator, I pointed out. She thought I was joking, so I noted the great cleanliness we could expect from Moberly teenagers. “I am sure they wipe their hands thoroughly on the pizza boxes after sneezing on the pizzas,” I assured her. She was determined to eat pizza, even if it killed us. So, we donned gloves, masks, and drove to Dominos to die.

 I cracked the window slightly at the drive thru and I could detect the amusement of our Pizza Attendant. We live in a bright red state in what is proudly advertised as Little Dixie, so just a hint of precaution marks you as communist. Two old people wrapped in masks and gloves and driving a Prius clearly was opportunity for red-baiting fun. He leaned out the drive thru window and twisted his head so that he could breathe into my face through the crack, “How are you folks today,” he leered. I quickly turned my head to limit the viral load, which only caused him to lean closer to spray me as I ordered. When he brought our pizza, it required that I lower the window and he squeezed the upper half of his body through our window and pretended to cough.

 Faith did not notice any of this but just seemed delighted to have pizza, so I muted my “pie of death” musings.  She took the pizza out of the box before bringing it into the house, as Dr. Fauci had apparently ordered us to do (a procedure only top immunologists must understand). We decided we would take a break from all of the bad news and cheer up with a documentary – Tiger King, sounds like Lion King, only in Oklahoma. There is a certain comfort in watching total chaos in the midst of a pandemic while eating Corona with extra cheese.  

Joe Exotic may not fit most people’s image of Oklahoma but, at least in my experience, he is pure Oklahoma.  The Barnum and Bailey Circus used to set up near our house in Ponca City, where we lived just off the runway of the airport (my father would taxi his little purple Stinson home to our front door). Some of my earliest memories are of playing with the circus children and eating breakfast with the tallest man in the world, the sword swallower, the fat lady, and the human cannon ball.  A guy with a mullet and tigers is a perfect, even nostalgic, distraction from the pandemic, pointing to normal chaos – murder for hire and feeding the tigers old meat and husbands.  

The fragile nature of the human condition may be the singular lesson of the moment, accentuated by what became our docuseries binging. McMillions traces a happy enough sounding scam – the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam – which lasted from 1989 to 2001 and implicated the million-dollar winners in the McDonalds promotion. Some 50 different winners and middle men were implicated when it was discovered Jerry Jacobson, the head of security for the agency that ran the promotion, was stealing and selling the winning tickets. No one noticed the early winners were all from the East coast, of Italian extraction and interconnected with the Colombo Family. The obvious lesson of the series: ill-gotten gain wrecks the life of everyone involved – even the lives of the innocent. The entire economy now feels like a failed Monopoly game.   

The singular story of moral hope we watched is portrayed in a morally hopeless setting.  True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, follows Bryan Stevenson’s saint-like endeavor to rescue death row inmates from execution through his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. His summing up of the criminal justice system is that it “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” The film’s depiction of slavery, lynching, mass incarceration, and the wrecked lives, even of those Stevenson rescues, speaks of the enduring two-hundred-year-old disease of racism.  The film also documents Stevenson’s role in the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the more than 4,400 African American victims of lynching. The American legal system and the American economy are clearly a rigged game – perhaps too dirty not to fail.  

 We have maintained a degree of normalcy through the little screen, with Zoom church, Zoom classes, and Zoom book club. The constraints of electronic fellowship accentuate the loss of a group dynamic, no shared atmosphere, no eating together, but there are also advantages. Erin and Beret in Hawaii and Jino and Beshia in India are able to join us for book club. Jino described the extremes of police chasing him with a bamboo cane one week and the next week they dressed up in Coronavirus costumes to try a gentler approach. “That’s India,” he explained cheerily. They have succeeded in clearing the streets, but Jino looked out his front window to discover water buffalo have now replaced the people. When I told Jason this, he said he could relate as the yaks and polar bears are now a real problem in Atlanta – he may have been thinking of Lost and the days we could still share together in fictional apocalypse.  

Now the only person, besides Faith, that I see is Michael, who still comes to work in the Ploughshares community garden. We are judging the success of the garden by Michael’s health as he is determined to live on what grows in our little plot. So far things are looking pretty slim but strawberries, lettuce, onions, and potatoes are springing up and have survived two freezes. Michael walks across town to get to the garden and I was glad to see he was wearing a full mask – not that I thought it would protect him from the virus but it would hide his Asian features from local Dixie confederates.  In the few days he has worked in the garden he has cultivated relationships all around – sipping tea on the porch with the neighbor, daily talks with the preacher walking his dog. His generosity of spirit shines all around. Maybe truth and fiction are being sifted; maybe people are already more considerate.

Jino says the air in India is cleaner than ever, and I hear Los Angeles is now smog free.




Resurrection as Sign or Substance of Salvation?

There are two primary ways of narrating the human predicament and its resolution in Christ and these two ways involve the two broadest forms of Christianity found in East and West (categories that are ultimately inadequate). The question that divides is whether sin is the problem which gives rise to death or is death the predicament which gives rise to sin? How one views this choice is determinative of the role of resurrection but it is also the move which will either posit a gap within or organically fuse the sign of the work of Christ with what it signifies.

The problem, giving us two forms of the faith, can be traced to the 3rd century with the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Romans 5:12 (which describes sin’s universal spread resulting in death rather than death’s spread resulting in sin, as a consequence of Adam), which will not only give rise to Augustine’s notion of original sin but to varying interpretations of the death and resurrection of Christ which will infect even those theologies which may not hold to either Augustine’s theory of original sin or Calvin’s rendering of Augustinian theory. While there are some 20 different “theories” of atonement (which are not necessarily opposed – though some are) there are two basic approaches to understanding the work of Christ: the life and death of Christ are either a direct reversal of sin (a healing or deliverance) rendered directly available through resurrection, or his life and death are a step removed from the primary problem and his resurrection is a sign pointing to the resolution of the problem (as a sign of righteousness (sin defeated), rather than the thing itself). To state it in this broad way I am intending to capture an array of understandings characteristic, in the first instance, of what we might call Augustinian Christianity (in characteristic forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, but also the range from fundamentalism to liberalism) and Eastern Christianity. The ultimate goal (which can only be gestured to in this introduction) is not simply to distinguish forms of Christianity which separate or do not separate the sign and what it signifies but to describe how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ directly reverse the human predicament which is not clear at this point in theories East or West.  This will entail beginning with the person and work of Christ as the interpretive frame for understanding the solution and the problem toward which the solution is directed (an apocalyptic hermeneutic).

There are texts in Scripture which might support either of these understandings (e.g. the cross as a sign or as an organic solution), so it is not enough to demonstrate that his death is a sacrifice, a consequence of sin, or a pathological result of evil. His death might be all of these things but to make it simply any one of these is not an end of explanation nor does it arrive at the fullness of an organic solution. Certainly, his death was at the hands of evil men (as Peter tells it in the first Christian sermon) but does this mean, as Edward Schillebeeckx maintains, “that we are not redeemed thanks to Jesus’ death but in spite of it.” Or does this mean that, as Donald Smythe has put it, “We revere the cross as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means?” What Schillebeekx and Smythe are rejecting is the notion that the death of Christ involves an exchange between the Father and the Son, removed from the human context (as in theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution), but then they too are guilty of reducing the cross to a sign. The cross is indeed a sign of many things, but is it simply a sign of consequences? It is not enough to reject vicarious satisfaction and with it to reject the centrality of the cross, nor are ancient formulations of Christus Victor (the cross as the defeat of the devil) in and of themselves adequate to rescue this centrality. Just as Nicaea and Chalcedon would develop and extend the New Testament understanding of the Trinity, so too we must develop and extend our understanding of the doctrine of salvation.

This will entail not simply a reordering of proof texts (all 20 theories of the atonement have their texts) but beginning from an apocalyptic presumption that the work of Christ not only provides an answer but also unveils (the root meaning of apocalypse) the problem. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand, as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception. To begin with sin is to begin with a complete mystery, even in Augustine’s estimate, which will leave salvation mysterious as well.  The diagnosis and remedy entail a holistic inclusion of epistemology, as the life that one relinquishes so as to gain true life (Mt 10:39; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25) is inclusive of the life of the mind. Our addiction to one sort of life is characterized by an addiction to a foundational knowledge (our knowing), which is not simply a modern philosophical method. Augustine is not simply mistaken in his creation of his distinctive notion of original sin but in his hermeneutic which presumes to work out Romans 5:12 apart from Romans 5:10 in which the life of Christ is set up as the interpretive frame for understanding sin and death. Our desperate addiction to a form of life that kills is inclusive of a deadly, lying, interpretive frame. The sure sign of this mode of thought is that it begins explanation apart from the cross and presumes sin and death are accessible apart from his death and resurrection.  

In this sense Augustine’s mistake is the mistake of sin. Death as the occasion for sin is always obscured or denied in sin and instead it is made a result to be voided or avoided (through the law). Contractual theology negotiates a way around death, presuming as it does that the law marks the way even for the work of Christ (he keeps the contract where we could not and he pays the price required by the law). Rather than the law marking an orientation to death the law is thought to be the means of life which Christ fulfilled. The lie of sin, that there is life in the law which voids the role of death, is the mark of failed humanity and religion. You won’t die (as the serpent tells Eve) as death is unreal – a doorway to the unfolding of immortality. So too in a failed Christianity, death is made peripheral by either shuttling the work of the cross off to heaven or getting rid of it entirely. A theology which misses the very thing the cross was meant to heal bears the mark of sin. To reverse the problem, as in an Augustinian reading, and to imagine sin has some sort of mysterious coherence apart from its orientation to death (the grab for life) and its disruption of resurrection life, is to not only miss sin (it is made original, mysterious, genetically conveyed, sexual, pertaining to guilt) but to miss how the cross frees from sin (it too is made mysterious, heavenly, pertaining to the mind of God, or simply particular forms of oppression). 

 Given the starting point of the resurrection and our participation in that resurrection (Paul’s starting point in such passages as Ephesians 2) we come to understand how dying to one form of life is actually a dying into life or a dying to death. That is, resurrection as our starting point also tells us that death does not simply pertain to our morality but to an orientation which is death dealing in the living (the opposite of resurrection living). The reason that the death of Christ leads to resurrection is the same reason that our dying with him leads to our resurrection life. Jesus describes it as a germination sort of dying, bearing the fruit of life. To hold back this planting and germination, so as to keep a grip on the life one loves, is to halt life before it begins. To follow Jesus manner of life, in which he takes up the cross, is already to live out the resurrection (to die with him is to be raised with him (Jn 12:24-26)). In this understanding, death need not characterize a person’s life, so death as the controlling orientation is overcome. Death, in fact, is no longer a negative factor orienting life, but dying to this orientation by embracing the death of Christ is the means to life.  

Joseph Fahey recently shared his class notes with me from a course taught by William Frazier. Frazier used a series of questions to bring out the radical but sometimes subtle difference in these two forms of Christianity. In order to accentuate this distinction and to locate one’s own understanding I have copied, sometimes in revised form, a few of these questions below. I provide an explanation below that might aid in drawing out the difference.

1. Death is a mystery that   A. necessarily destroys life    B. potentially enables life.

2. Death is a result of   A. sin     B. creation.

3. The Father saved us     A. in spite of Jesus death    B. by way of Jesus death.

4.  According to Christian belief the Savior saves mainly by    A. bringing about a real change in the world     B. showing the world how to change itself.

5. God accomplished salvation through Christ by   A. reconciling the world to himself   B. reconciling himself to the world.

6. The Christian life is related to death as   A. oil is to water   B. night is to day    C. flower is related to seed.  

7. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that    A. sin germinates in the soil of mortality    B. mortality germinates in the soil of sin.

8. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that death    A. is something that happens to human beings    B. the way human beings happen.

9. Resurrection means deliverance   A. from death    B. through death.

10. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that the resurrection of Jesus   A.  did away with his death   B. derived from his death    C. reversed his death.

Finding Peace in a Hostile Universe

In the midst of this pandemic it is easy to believe that pathogens, germs, viruses, and disease, or the chaotic nature of the world, is the key factor in determining human behavior.[1] We live in a hostile world and it is the nature of the world that gives rise to the consistent patterns of human response (culture). It may be that it is not that this chaotic world is the cause of any particular response but it is certainly the occasion which gives rise to the range of human responses.[2] In the best of times there are limited resources, the looming possibility of natural calamities, and the inevitable onset of disease and old age, but in the midst of a world-wide pandemic the precariousness of life is accentuated and the responses  were predictable: i.e., this “Chinese” disease is the fault of the Chinese; God is punishing the wicked; life is meaningless so eat, drink, and go to the beach. Writ large this scapegoating (blaming, sacrificing, and organizing around the common enemy), rationalizing (the world operates according to law and God can be identified with this law), or embracing the futility (as in hedonism, nihilism, pantheism, etc.), might describe the predominant cultures, philosophies, and religions of the world. What all such systems share and are built upon is the presumption that the ultimate power (whether the gods, God, or the universe) is against us. The world is hostile and we might try to redirect the violence (scapegoating religion), explain it (we have been stricken by God), or succumb to it by denying or embracing the hostility under another name (presuming death is not unnatural and evil is an unnecessary distinction).

A hostile universe may not determine that we channel all of our energies into the struggle for survival or that we become bent upon explaining, controlling, and warding off death, but given this factor the basic human tendency is accounted for. Where this backdrop of hostility is made absolute, we must arm ourselves against “God” by employing violent sacrificial religion; we must arm ourselves against our enemies with weapons of war; we must arm ourselves against our neighbor through positions of power and plenty. The self-seeking need to secure ourselves makes even the drive for pleasure an obscene injunction to “enjoy” at the expense of the other (witness the crowds at the beach). The disease that afflicts us in this present moment is simply a case in point of the cause of the human disease, the one giving rise to the other.  We live in a hostile world and this explains human hostility and violence. The disease of human violence arises in the attempt to reduce the worlds hostility to controllable human proportions.

The raw fact that the natural world is deadly and that humans are deadly (for themselves, to one another, and the natural world) is not a necessary correlate, but given that the laws of the universe or that the cosmos itself are presumed to be absolute, cosmic necessity becomes human necessity. The identification of God with the law (no matter the specifics of the religion, the nature of God or the gods, or the details of the law) means that God is felt to be present only as our enemy. This condition which Paul blames on the “natural mind,” creates hostility toward God and others. This hostility is derived from mistaking the finite for the infinite (typical of idolatry) and imagining that limited power is ultimate power (the power of death definitive of nature but also taken in hand by the “principalities and powers”). A religion (call it Christian or not) which mistakes this hostility for God’s hostility is, by definition, absolutely devoted to relative causes.

 In such a belief system, one is bound to swear final allegiance and loyalty to finite and temporal causes (the self, the tribe, the nation, civilization, etc.) which commits one to absolute hostility toward the enemy. Tribal and national allegiances become religious absolutes and violent sacrifice of the enemy or the self (to kill or be killed), can be considered the ultimate sacrifice to God. Human animosity and hostility are presumed to be supernatural forces embodied by our God, and our wrath is presumed to be divine in its requirement of infinite appeasement and satisfaction. Our hostility and defensiveness become the prime creative power so that setting infinite store on our conflicts, the glory of war, the glory of a violent death, the glory of service to our finite loyalties, becomes divine glory. This lying exchange of God’s glory, in Paul’s summation of Old Testament history, is definitive of human evil (Rom. 1:23 ff.).

Under this condition, to know God as love and peace is an impossibility, as God is simply the name given to the hostile powers of the destroyer (the Satanic destroyer is mistaken for God). Though there are instances of naming devotion to the destroyer “love,” this world is so skewed that love is simply an anthropomorphism for delimited hatred (as Calvin explains his understanding of God’s love). To reconcile one to this hostility, as if it is God, is to render love empty and meaningless. In fact, one can deploy the full range of Christian vocabulary but in this world all the words take on a different meaning, though the same thing might be said of many religious systems. The Buddhist or Hindu may use the word evil without believing in it, but so too the Calvinist. The deep grammar of a world of presumed hostility is bound to mistake evil for good, darkness for light, and death as a form of life. To change up this human frame of reference, this deep grammar of human understanding, the Bible does not presume an escape from this world but a salvation inclusive of the cosmos.

Though this notion of “cosmic salvation” may sound strange to modern western ears, for Paul’s contemporaries and for the vast majority of world cultures it was and is presumed to be definitive of salvation. The stars, the alignment of the planets, fate, karma, the inexplicable will of the cosmic controlled gods, is the fixed order with which one must negotiate “salvation” (which might mean any number of things). Even temporary deliverance from the malign forces of cosmic necessity accounts for the energies and devotions of many religions. In Japan, for example, to call these forces good or evil, divine or demonic, is to misunderstand, as it seems to pose a choice. One does not choose subjection to these forces; they are simply the forces which must be dealt with. Even nirvana or moksha are not deliverance from, so much as reconciliation with, the obliterating forces of cosmic hostility under a different name.

In Judaism, by comparison, there is the weird depiction of the laws of nature being changed up, so that wolves and lambs will cuddle and children will frolic with snakes and bears. In the grand visions of this kingdom, there is simultaneously steady rain for an abundance of crops and an ending of human violence and hostility. Swords are turned into ploughshares, war is no longer a preoccupation or worry, and even animals that under the old order would have been enemies are found to be eating hay instead of one another. Interwoven throughout each of the texts, is the end of various manifestations of human violence, human greed, human want, human deprivation, human oppression, with the end of  natural calamities, the natural exposures to draught and famine, and the end of the hostility built into nature (see Is 11:6-9, 65:17-25; Job 5:20-24; Zach 8:9-12; Jer 14; Lev. 26:3-6; Ez 34:25-29). The all-inclusive peace of these passages presumes that, in the words of William Frazier, “anthropological peace germinates in cosmological soil.”[3]

This points toward the cosmic/human solution of Christ, as the presumption of the cross is that following “the course of this world” humans have taken up enmity.  Human hostility built upon cosmic hostility is a diagnosis which explains the specific nature of the intervention found in the cross, as outlined in such passages as Col. 1:19-20 and Eph. 2. Both passages are inclusive of the cosmos but depict a reordering or reshaping of the cosmic order through Christ. They depict a cosmic scope, inclusive of “all things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19-20) as Christ “is before all things” and “holds all things together” (Col 1:17). At the same time, there is the focus on the particulars of human peace worked out with this cosmic reconciliation. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, representative of all inter-human enmity, and the hostility of humans toward God, and the cosmic nature of this enmity, are simultaneously addressed in Christ (Eph 2:11-19). The cosmic order is being re-established as human order is brought into its proper service and place through his body, his Temple: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22). The cosmos as temple puts the cosmos in its proper order as it puts the human priests of the temple in their proper place. This peace which ends all hostility culminates in cosmic temple worship: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:17–18).

So, it is this root hostility, in both its natural and human phase, toward which the peace of the cross of Christ is aimed. Peace is definitive of salvation, not because God is our angry enemy (as in theories of divine satisfaction or penal substitution), but as in Paul’s explanation, because we are defined by our hostility. Christ challenges our defining presumption that presumes God has arrayed the laws of the universe, the laws of religion, the laws of the human conscience, against us. Christ is the Prince of Peace because, in a very specific manner, he disarms us of our need for sacrificial religion, for weapons of war, and for the weapons of power and control.  It is not that Christ simply persuades us of the love of God (the moral influence theory), though he may do that. The specific nature of the work of Christ is called for by the specific nature of the human predicament. There is a “dividing wall of hostility” obstructing peace and good will among all human classes (Jew/gentile, slave/free, male/female) and this dividing wall is inclusive of a “carnal hostility toward God” (Ro 8:7). It is this specific hostility which Christ came to resolve as he “broke down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) and “put to death the enmity” (v 16).

[1] Randy Thornhill has proposed that germs may be the basis for various forms of cultural formation see

[2] William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace Kindle Edition. This article is part of the fruit of a prolonged encounter with and development of the work of William Frazier. Many years ago, I encountered an article in a missionary magazine which set the course of my studies and changed my theological orientation. When you find thought this profound and all-encompassing you presume it must be backed up by a host of publications. I presumed this ground-breaking thinker would be mentioned, studied, and quoted. Either I missed where this was happening or I was wrong. I looked for the big book summing up his research. He published a few articles, but he passed away last year. I just discovered this small book based on his papers and lectures. This piece is a synopsis of this book – available for 99 cents on Amazon. I wish I had let him know of the profound impact his work had on me.  Thank you, William Frazier, and thanks to Joseph Fahey, who put this little book together.

[3]William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 72). Kindle Edition.

Apocalyptic Story Time in the Midst of the Plague

President Trump has recently been repeating that there are much worse things that might result from social isolation, in the attempt to halt the coronavirus, and the implication is that this ultimate worst thing is the failure of the economy. R. R. Reno, in First Things, has chimed in with a full-bore theological support of Trump, explaining that we need to recognize that the sacrifice of a small percentage of the population may be necessary to save the system as a whole.[1] Like Trump, he never specifically names the ultimate catastrophe (perhaps it is too fearful and unimaginable to even utter), but he ridicules the “sentimentalism” which would attempt to save a small number of lives concluding, “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives.’”

The Eucharist, in Reno’s version, is on the side of hard free market choices, which he describes as a system of triage. Doing triage, or choosing who must be sacrificed, always “requires the hard moral labor” of rationing “healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion.” The unspoken message, that the present economy requires human sacrifice, is articulated as, “Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage.” Reno seems to recognize he is near to defining Eucharist (what he calls the “no to the reign of death”) in the same way Paul defines sin, so he clarifies, “We must never do evil that good might come.” But he hedges and qualifies his way back to embracing Paul’s formula for evil, as if it is the good: “But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.” In other words, the zero-sum game of capitalism (the life of “finitude”) embraces the necessity of sacrificing the few for the many.

To not embrace this individualistic survival of the fittest obscenity is, in Reno’s estimate, to miss the imperative of the Gospel, which he rightly pinpoints as overcoming the fear of death. What he misses in the Gospel, is that the fear of death reigns through the lie that proposes death as the solution to life, so it need not be feared (the ultimate result of fear is believing this lie). Every good samurai, every devout religionist, every fervid nationalist, would follow the Satanic injunction to embrace death as the means to life. Reno has confused Satan and God, the Truth and the lie, evil and the good.

He demonstrates this through the unfortunate example of the Spanish flu epidemic. “Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” It was for this reason that this generation threw caution to the wind, “bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.” As a result of this robust refusal to be turned aside from work, worship, and play, between 20 to 50 million people lost their lives. Reno could be paraphrasing the serpent in the Garden in urging us to embrace death. “We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life,” and the way we do this is to embrace death.

Reno warns us not to believe what is most obviously true: “They abandoned the weak to the slaughter of the disease for no good reason.” No, he says, rather, “They insisted that man was made for life, not death.” The way one really lives is not to take precaution but to continually fuel life with the reality of death. Life, in this view, is structured by death. This is the impetus behind every form of violence, every justification for war, every turn to defying death through death. Death, war, and violence, are presumed to be made controllable through embracing them. As Sue Mansfield has put it, through active violence, death and destruction “are forced into an ordered gestalt that human consciousness can encompass because it is commensurate with human limits and meanings.”[2] Reno would turn the death of Christ into a fellowship of death, in which life is a limited commodity ordered by death (resurrection does not enter into it). Saving lives is not important in Reno’s religion, as life seems to have little intrinsic value.

The additional lie surrounding the Spanish flu epidemic, is that out of concern of appearing weak before their enemies during WW I, government officials suppressed reporting on the number of deaths and the seriousness of the disease. In other words, they were advocates of doing evil that good might abound; better to lose a few thousand citizens than to risk losing the war. Of course, fear of death looms behind this willing sacrifice of tens of thousands. Reno portrays this same unspeakable fear in advocating business as usual. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity for reevaluating life’s chief concerns, Reno seems to be recommending “family reunions,” “visiting the elderly,” and “serving the Eucharist,” all in death defying support of not turning from routine. A moment alone, a time of boredom, a period of reflection, may contain the chief fearful realization: the ordering principles of the American Way, of liberal democratic capitalistic society, are inadequate and subject to failure.

 Reno (perhaps, along with his magazine and its ideology, fleshed out in this political moment) is living proof that Eucharist, Gospel, or Jesus, might all be so twisted so as to serve the most profound evil. The structuring principle backing his ready willingness to secure the system at the expense of its people, concerns the guiding philosophy, not only of his right-wing Catholicism, but the undergirding thought of right-wing evangelicalism. Richard Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal “covenant” under God. The political and theological implications may be most simply expressed in his understanding that “when he died and stood face-to- face with his creator, he expected to do so as an American.” He holds that the American experience is a “sacred enterprise.” As Michael Novak (a fellow traveler) has described it, the market economy mirrors the will of the divine Trinity, meaning the spread of democratic capitalism is “the greatest story ever told.” Or as Attorney General William Barr would have it, “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” is under threat as secularism threatens the United States. Each would conflate the story of the United States with Christianity. Where the system of the United States is threatened so is the Christian moral system. Christ and Christianity are made to fit the American story and are understood in this context.[3]

In the Christian story, the recognition is that we are all in this together, and this is an all-inclusive “all,” without geographic (space) or historical (time) boundaries. It is not enough to add Christ to an already existing story or to imagine the community from which the story of the United States arises is the Christian community. In this sort of virtual reality, actually existing lives count for very little. By the same token, it is not enough to simply imagine that foregrounding the story of Christ with the story of creation, the story of Abraham, or the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, will adequately contextualize our understanding of Christ (as illustrated with Catholic/evangelical ideology). Christ is not added to or understood in the context of other stories, even the unfolding narrative of Scripture.

In the New Testament, time and space bend around the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As in Ephesians 2:6, God has already “raised us up with him.” His past resurrection accounts for a present experience which will be realized in the future. In I Corinthians Paul states, “our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Christ was present with Israel in their exodus and wilderness journey. As Paul says a few verses later (detailed in Numbers 21 and Psalm 77), it was Christ that they had put to the test and the Corinthians should avoid doing the same. The incarnate Christ as the pre-existent Christ bends all of history around the incarnation. He “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) and “all things have been created through him and for him.” The same one that is “head of the body, the church” is the one that is in the beginning.” This narrative simultaneously focuses on the historical Christ as encompassing the beginning and end “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:16-18).

The saving work of Christ does not abandon the physical, the historical world, as in Reno’s theology, nor does it abandon the many or the few for the benefit of the saved. Any version of the story which is not centered on the singular story of Christ (his life, death and resurrection as context) will, of necessity, produce the dead wood of the expendable darkness so as to provide the fuel for producing the light. As Chris Tilling depicts it, this sort of narrative time (“stretched over a sequential template”) “locks key truth claims about the whole into the beginning” so that the problem is determinative of the answer. The hero or heroine is constituted by an already determined task. The beginning, the particular historical context, a moment in time, preceding or separate from Christ, “by force of being first, contains key or axiomatic truths for the articulation of the whole.”[4] A beginning, history, or Fall, which is read as unfolding toward Christ will be determinative of the meaning of Christ, so that sin will be determinative of salvation and creation will contextualize and control incarnation.  Just as the beatific vision of Augustine, Calvin, and Aquinas, is dependent upon an eternal delight in witnessing the tortures of the damned, so too the poor unfortunates sacrificed in Reno’s Catholicism do not require sentimental consideration but are the necessary expendables of a faith, contextualized by this present moment.

It may turn out that love of neighbor, in these unsettling times, results in full realization of what it might mean that we are all in this together. This simple but apocalyptic realization may best be learned in the midst of this global pandemic, in which we realize GDP, money, the market economy, do not really count for much in the face of recognition that my good cannot be purchased at the expense of my neighbor. This common place assumption cannot be absorbed where the values of the of the market reign supreme.

It is time to find ourselves a different ordering principle, an alternative hermeneutic, a different story. As my friend Matt Welch has written, “This awful situation is also an opportunity for us to learn something deep & mysterious & wonderful & telling about the world God created for us: that the good of each individual human being is bound up with the good of every other human being. We each *need* the well-being of our neighbor for our own well-being. Our good depends upon the good of our neighbor. The human race is a family and God is our Father.”

As Tilling notes, where “the revelation of God is conditioned by something other than the reality of God in Jesus Christ, then that which conditions it has become the real lord.”  Due to “human sinfulness and rebellion, such constructed interpretative lords are prone to idolatry,” and as in all idolatry (every market economy) human sacrifice is the unfolding necessity.[5] Where the interpreter contextualizes herself in the revelation of God in Christ, and not in their time, their country, their narrative, the necessity of the moment is overridden by the power of resurrection and an entirely different “necessity” – love for the neighbor.

[1] R. R. Reno, “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion,” First Things (3/23/20),

[2] Sue Mansfield, The Gestalt of War, quoted from William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 23). Kindle Edition.

[3] I have written of all of this here –

[4] Christ Tilling, “Paul, Christ, and Narrative Time,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science, Andrew Torrance and Thomas McCall, eds., (Zondervan, 2018) 162. Thank you Tim for putting me onto this.

[5] Ibid.


Liberty, our little Church, is officially located in the township of Cairo (pronounced kayro), formerly known as Fairview. Either the view was judged not so fair or the name was not exotic enough. So far as I know, there are no actual Egyptians associated with the village. At any rate, Liberty is not really near the village but is several miles up 63 and some 4 miles east. Turn right onto the dirt road under the American flag and the big bill board (which has recently carried messages trying to prevent suicide or trying to preserve fuel), and just beyond the Unlimited Supply Company (a contradiction in messages). You will pass a ranch on the left, which for inexplicable reasons has four long horn cattle in a front pen, then you will go by Rita’s house on the right. Rita is not able to get to church often due to her sister Nita being ill, though she is a fine baker and will be happy to cater your next event. On the left you will pass a sign for the Jim and Betty Mather Goat Farm with Award-Winning Goats (not having seen their exceptional goats I am not clear in what manner they win awards). Liberty is over the rise behind the cemetery.

 We recently buried Imogene (who passed away at age 97) and her grave is still fresh, two rows back. Right after her funeral Larry pointed out the oldest part of the cemetery in the northeast corner where Edgar Crew is buried and who, though the marker does not indicate it, was hung in 1891. The clientele of the cemetery, in Larry’s telling, are not closely scrutinized on the finer points of doctrine. The cemetery is largely occupied by Robucks, Larry’s people, and while we are liberal in our burying practices, Larry is concerned that interlopers will learn of the cheap burial plots in the pristine surroundings and buy them all up.  

One grave evokes the story of Jessi Miller, the son of the closest neighbors to the Church. The Millers, like several families spread out in the countryside around the Church, attended Liberty until a hardnosed preacher insisted that Leroy Olsen, son of Rose Marie (who still attends), could not serve as deacon as he had married a divorced woman.  The Millers, along with about half the members, quit. So young Jessi and the Millers were no longer associated with the Church. At age 16 Jessi acquired a particularly nice automobile and a girlfriend, and on the same day as his girlfriend broke up with him there was a flood on highway H, and Jessi ran the car into the flood waters near the power substation. He managed to get out of the car but he walked the 3 miles home, found his deer rifle and finalized the bad turn of events.

Woodrow (a name used by Larry McMurtry in his novel, Lonesome Dove), who passed on before my arrival, is the name stamped in all of our hymnals along with his wife Fern, also memorialized by a bush in front of the Church. Occasionally stories of Woodrow come up, but I just imagine Lonesome Dove’s Woodrow Call as a Missouri farmer and a peculiarly hard-headed Elder. I am always slightly amused by the memorial Fern Bush as I walk into the building.

Between the Church and the cemetery is a wide rolling green lawn (Doug Cider comes out each week to mow) sloping into thick woods behind the Church, which during deer season sounds like an artillery range. Last Sunday, as I walked into the Church (which is on what Missourians call a knob and so affords an expansive view), I counted 10 different bird calls. Rose Marie figured there would have been Killdeer, Robins, Warblers, and Field Sparrows, but she suggested I may have overestimated in my count.

 As usual, the men gathered in the foyer for a rundown of the week’s events, and I asked Dell why he drove his truck rather than the car he usually uses for Sunday.  Dell recounted the most prolonged tale I had ever heard from him. His daughter had bought a new Audi and was driving up to visit when she had a flat tire and discovered the Germans had so precision engineered the car that the spare is deflated so as to fit into the spare tire well. The story involved dim witted tow truck drivers that could not change or fix a tire, several visits by the highway patrol, and ended with Dell loaning his car to his daughter for the week and driving the truck to Church. Larry had not arrived yet and when he did, he also noticed Dell had driven his truck. Dell faithfully recounted, without a single abridgement, this fine chronicle (a good story deserves retelling). Each week Nina ends our conversation with a rousing chorus on the piano of “To God be the Glory,” and we move up front.

Besides raising cattle, Larry had a career as a science teacher, a basketball coach, and for many years was an elected representative on the local rural electric coop.  I once pointed out to him that by Texas standards he owned more cattle than most and yet he did not dress the part (big hat, boots, etc.). He said that his father had taught him to never be presumptuous and for that reason was hesitant to even wear a cap, as it might seem as if he were trying to be what he is not. Uppity would be the last word I would associate with either Dell or Larry. Dell, retired for many years, is a skilled woodworker, though the missing fingers on one hand testify to a major mistake. I explained to him that in Japan the missing digits would mark him as a particularly mean mafioso, but in his quiet humility he may have missed the incongruity.

 Sunday School this week, on “Consequences for Injustice,” brought out a predictable turn in which Lois, our Quaker member who also follows the Unity movement out of Kansas City, clearly has the brightest perspective. Larry pointed out that a nation cannot survive where basic honesty and human decency are no longer honored. There is nothing worse than a liar, according to Larry, and he presumes America cannot continue on its present path.  An early sign of this (which I am not sure I completely comprehend as I do not follow basketball) is, as Larry explained, the defection of Lew Alcindor to the Muslim religion. Lewis Alcindor, in Larry’s book, is one of the most morally upstanding of human beings and when he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this was a sign the universe was out of kilter.  I pointed out that we could add a long list of black Christians turned Muslim, but Larry seemed unimpressed with my examples. No one, apparently, is in the same orbit with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lois brought a more positive note, pointing out that “the Christ within” does not depend upon this particular political moment. Even Hitler, she explained, would be given many chances in his multiple reincarnated states.  I am never quite sure if we are all exactly on the same page, but everyone seemed satisfied.

Michael has recently constructed the FP lasagna garden, as he calls it, consisting of a layer of paper, manure, mulch, and composted soil. Rose Marie shows little interest in most subjects, but the mention of gardening so transforms her countenance – it is the only sure subject that elicits a smile.  So, I mention our gardening progress just to witness the transformation and to receive whatever advice she might have.  I would guess it is only in this peculiar sacred space that she receives a bit of conversation, signs of interest, and quiet solicitude and solace.

Likewise, our little Church provides a place for Dell’s storytelling, Larry’s theologizing, and Lois’s exhortations. It is the root of this little community, providing a core sense of place, where all have a voice. The humble little white building is so unpretentious that it serves as a levelling device, much like the tiny entrance to a Japanese tea room (all are made to bow equally). There is no financial or political gain in this levelling place. Those interested in the vestments of power, the presumption of self-importance, would feel ridiculous in this society with the singular prerequisite of willing acceptance. I have never heard an angry word spoken, as even the most serious topics are approached with great good humor and regard for the feelings of others. The homely surroundings, by definition, do not admit snobbery or exclusion. In other words, a piece of all its members is rooted in this little country chapel.  Smoke and mirrors may entertain the masses but spiritual well-being requires a heavier investment.

If you could be buried in this lovely obscurity, this place out of time, without longing for bigger and better, there is an open plot South of Edgar Crew, about 2 yards West of Imogene. The price of entry is $60 and a life.

 I think I can assure Larry he need not worry about a mob of interlopers.