When Morpheus attempts to explain to Neo “the truth” about the Matrix, Neo asks, very much in the spirit of Pilate, “What truth?” Morpheus tells him, “That you are a slave … born into … a prison for your mind.” Morpheus explains, “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” The notion that perception of reality is actually the flat grid of zeroes and ones of a computer program resonates with a generation eager to take the red pill and to escape the banal reality of a flat modernism. To refer to it as “secularism” may miss the fact that this pervasive notion of reality is promoted by a religiosity which has succumbed, whether conservative or liberal, to a mind-numbing matrix. Max Weber, in tracing the rise of a capitalistic/secular mode of valuation described it as the “disenchantment” of our world. He lays the blame for this disenchantment, and with it the rise of secularism, on Protestant theology. Continue reading “Escaping the Matrix of Disenchantment”
In the creation of humans in Genesis, male and female are the mode in which the image bearing capacity of God is conveyed to humankind. Gender and embodiment seem to function for humankind as part of the essence of who we are in imaging God. The ontological nature of gender is affirmed by Paul when he references Genesis and the mystery of marriage as referring to Christ and the Church. The mystery of sexual union between male and female is on the order of the union and oneness between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32). Gender is not something we set aside in being joined to Christ but is taken up even in this ultimate of relationships. Whether Paul is speaking literally or metaphorically, gender seems to carry enduring metaphysical importance. Continue reading “Gender Restoration”
Billy Graham relates, to his own shame, his low point in mixing politics and religion. After seeing President Truman for the first time, the press waiting outside the White House asked him to reenact what he had done with the President. Graham obligingly knelt on the lawn, as if in prayer, for a photo op. The tall preacher in his white suit and out sized Bible, kneeling at the behest of reporters, captures the willing eagerness of American evangelicals to gain entry into the centers of power. Graham’s biography reveals his long and close association with Richard Nixon and his near disillusionment at the revelations of Water Gate. Graham is shocked at the vulgarity of Nixon (revealed in the White House tapes) – someone he considered to be the best of Christians. Graham, in spite of his disappointment with Nixon, never quit the pursuit of power through association but modeled it throughout his lifetime. Continue reading “Donald Trump and the Hollow Truth of American Evangelicalism”
The misdiagnosis of the human disease is itself a manifestation of the disease. Jesus dies at the hands of those who need and require death as a part of their religion. The great travesty of a failed theology is to employ the logic of those who killed Christ as an explanation of the atonement. To conflate atonement with the death of Christ is to imagine that death itself is efficacious and redemptive. This is precisely what the death of Christ is aimed at dispelling. This reversal of the meaning of the death of Christ is itself a manifestation of the evil which he came to conquer. From Genesis 3 the reversal which the serpent brings about in the mind of the first pair is to have them confuse life and death and to imagine that they are innately immortal (“You won’t die) and that death is only a doorway or transition to “being like God.” Death and violence with Cain and Lamech are a demonstration of how this original deceit works out in practice. Cain would gain access to God through the sacrifice of his brother. Lamech would institute the righteousness of God by sacrificing the one who has transgressed against him by “wounding him.” The logic of pagan religious sacrifices is that of Cain and Lamech – death is assumed to be efficacious and “righteous slaughter” institutes immediate redemption. The Judeo/Christian faith is aimed at undoing this death dealing orientation. Continue reading “Jesus’ Death Does Not Save”
Twenty years in Japan provided me an alternative perspective on the fusion of religion and nationalism as it occurs in this country and as it must have felt in the first century. Hirohito was once regarded as a living deity, directly descended from the Sun Goddess, and all citizens were required to acknowledge this, though, given their acquiescence this need not interfere with their own private religion. As in Rome, private cults were allowed so long as they did not interfere with public acknowledgment of the power of the State in the form of the Emperor. Christian worship was allowed, in the period leading up to the Second World War, with the proviso that all the Christians, at the beginning of any worship service, first acknowledge the Emperor by bowing to his photograph (which every church was required to display). Continue reading “Deny Christ and Make America Great Again”
Scripture provides two frames which, when aligned, give us a view of the world. Much like getting the two lenses of a telescope aligned, the lens provided by the person and work of Christ accounts for and is aligned by the frame of the law and Judaism so that the socio-political and personal realms of the present (with its various idolatries) are exposed. Looking through the aligned lens of Christ and the law (with all that the law entails) is the means of diagnosing the present predicament – personal and cosmic. In terms of understanding the human predicament, the depth of the disease of sin, and the cosmic implications of evil, the law and Judaism are inadequate but it is precisely the realization of this inadequacy which sets the work of Christ in the proper frame. Continue reading “Naming the Idol Through Christ and the Law”
Huck Finn knows for sure his soul is damned to hell should he choose to help the runaway slave Jim. He pens a letter to Miss Watson (Jim’s “rightful owner”), explaining where Jim is and figures in this way to save his soul. Then he begins to have second thoughts about the two of them “a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing” and he weakens in what he knows is his Christian duty. As he examines the letter he knows he must choose forever between two things: heaven and hell. He pauses for a minute, then declares “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” and tears the letter to pieces. Helping Jim means a betrayal of the society of Hannibal, a betrayal of the law, and ultimately a scorning of his religious duty.
Adolph Eichmann, in defending his organization of deportation of Jews to the death camps, explained he was simply obeying orders and following the law. He appeals to the Kantian categorical imperative (“Act only on the maxim that you would will it become universal law”). He argued, that no one could argue that law breaking or disobeying orders should become universal. Therefore, he was compelled to do his duty so as to uphold universal morality. Huck is the creation of a quite imaginative intellect which recognized that rules, religion, and convention do not necessarily prescribe what is good. Huck defies the universal convention in order to do what he feels to be the right thing while Eichmann obeys that convention.
The evil of Eichmann is captured in Hannah Arendt’s depiction of a man who lacked imagination or simply the capacity to think. His thought and his life were completely shaped by the norms and standards of his society so that in becoming a colorless bureaucrat he became radically evil. Arendt established links between a debased Kantianism and the co-operation of many of the German people with the implementing of the final solution. The liquidation of the Jews was viewed as “rational,” given that the objective was to secure a German power untainted by socialism and the influence of international commerce. As John Milbank points out, Nazi concepts of universal power and legality were compatible with, and even derived from, the Kantian categorical imperative. The Nazi affirmation of a Kantian notion of free will, and law derived from free will as their good, explains precisely how evil can become good. The presumption of a free will genuinely willing the good and codified into law is a relinquishing of the powers of discrimination.
In the oldest story of the Bible, Job is something of the Huck character writ large in that he would defy every known religious understanding to claim that justice is not immanent or contained within the world (or within the understanding of his friends). His friends, and they are in the beginning good friends in their willingness to sit alongside Job in his suffering, are Eichmann-like in their insistence that justice works within the norms and standards – the law – of the world. The friends of Job argue for an immanent justice (5:16; 11:12; 8:20; 5:2; 18:7; 5:12-14; 12:17) that eternalizes the world as it is. Theirs is the Kantian categorical imperative which would identify their understanding and will with the rational norms of the law.
For the friends of Job, for Eichmann, and for all that would provide a perfectly good reason for the existence of evil (a theodicy) there is no need for appeal to transcendent categories or to the possibility of a different sort of world. The present horizon of the world and the ability to enclose this world within human thought is not only adequate but existentially satisfying. Angst, uneasiness, sorrow, and evil itself, can be sealed off. The price: Job’s claim of innocence is blasphemy, Jim was born to be a slave, and doing one’s duty in regard to the Jews is necessary and even “satisfying.” Job’s friends do not need to identify with Job as he is clearly a blasphemer and they are satisfied in their own sense of righteousness. Huck, in his moment of weakness in which he decides to turn Jim in, has the momentary comfort of knowing his soul will go to heaven. Eichmann claimed that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
Living within the domain of the law is intellectually satisfying as the worst evil can be accounted for and it is existentially satisfying as it separates one out, as a law-keeper or even law-enforcer, from those who experience evil. The pure pleasure on the face of the one terminating our employment, the camp guard delighting in his work of torture and death, the eager willingness to inflict “due punishment,” points to the “satisfaction” of serving the (underside of the) law. The mafia don is not burdened with the murders he is “forced to carry out” nor are politicos usually conscience stricken with the killing of innocents – legal murder or “righteous slaughter” is the ultimate exercise of power. Lonnie Athens has coined the phrase, describing the explanation of those imprisoned for murder. He reports that the killers describe the feeling that killing was a necessity and that they were simply obeying the dictates of righteousness. Lamech, in Genesis, describes himself as the embodiment of the law and presumes to enact the vengeance of God promised to Cain. Lamech puts on display the notion of a law immediately enacted within himself, a “righteous slaughter,” which is the presumption of the murderous generation of Noah. Righteous slaughter describes the deep satisfaction of those who have inured themselves to killing, those who have learned to enjoy their work (as soldiers, politicos, or enforcers of righteousness), those who have completely identified with the purposes of the state, the purposes of the mob, or who presume to embody the avenging power of the law. The problem, as Paul explains, is not with the law but with our orientation to the law.
Theodicies and law-keeping point to a deep psychological tendency to find refuge in law, morality, and religion as the means of justifying the most radical evil. The lawless men who killed Christ were precisely those who were the law keepers and enforcers of the law. As the psychoanalyst, Scott Peck, points out in his dealings with what he considered to be those among his patients who had given themselves completely over to evil – they tend to be the most religious and those who have achieved leadership in religious institutions. It was, after all, the religious and political leaders who presumed to murder Jesus. Likewise, Paul describes himself as simultaneously faultless with regard to the law, a leader among the Pharisees, zealous for the law, and the chief of sinners. History is, as Hegel informs us, a “slaughter-bench” in which the divine purposes are fully worked out. “Yes, there is what might be called evil, but it is just enough for its perpetrators, its power brokers, to contain it within a law in which it is the means of bringing about a greater good.”
For Job, Huck (or Samuel Clemens), and the survivors of the holocaust, there is an excess of evil in the world. This excess of evil indicates that the world does not carry within itself its own legitimacy. The friends of Job want to account for everything according to the working of the righteous requirements of the law. What they cannot forgive, in Philip Nemo’s description, is Job’s illness, which projects the image of their own imminent demise into plain view. The law separates them from those so afflicted – those sinners – who clearly had it coming. Their world is a system or economy in which they stand within the protection of the law. For Job, as for all who have experienced evil or who have sympathized with those who do, this law is in tatters. There is the realization of an excess of evil which can in no way be accounted for by some explanation, theory, or law.
If the Word of God is to be heard or the presence of God is to be understood it will be a word heard and a presence felt in this clearing that opens up within the being of the soul in its encounter with evil. Those who mourn, those who weep, those burdened by fear and anxiety, are put in pursuit of a truth built upon the presumption that “normal life” and the order of the world is made possible by the error of obliviousness to evil. With Job, who hoped for happiness the reality of sorrow overcomes (30:26). Though we may look for the light darkness prevails. The numb disconnectedness that ensues in mourning, in the wake of tragedy, or subsequent to the betrayal of those we counted as friends, is an unendurable truth.
To fail to weep or to feel the sorrow of those that weep is to be the cause of weeping. To fail to recognize the darkness is to be at its source. The encounter with evil forever separates the perpetrators of the lie and laws of normalcy from their victims. Those who would sustain the laws of normalcy take it as obvious that one man must die, that sacrifices are necessarily made, that some must be trodden on, that evil must be done that good will abound. Those sacrificed to sustain the lie are cast out of the city and their voice is annihilated, yet it is only beyond the pale that perspective is gained and their blood is heard to cry out.
Job records the earliest messianic prophecy as an extrapolation of one who stands in the clearing opened up by the encounter with evil: “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). God is not found in the outworking of evil but is the go’el or advocate for those who lament due to evil. He is the one before whom tears are marked out as a plea (16:19-21).
To know good and evil – to be able to sort them out and balance the books – is to miss knowing God. It is precisely in being confronted with an evil beyond explanation or justification that the logic of the city, the culture, the frame of reference of this world is shattered. The encounter with evil should turn us from the comfort of the city and the gods and christs worshipped there to the one who was crucified outside of the city. The goodness of God is not to be found in a justification of evil but in the realization that evil is an insistence beyond reason, theory, and law. The clearing opened in our encounter with an excess of evil is the only way to the cross.
The scholarly conference shared by the three branches of the Restoration Movement (from which I recently returned), The Stone-Campbell Conference, seems to reflect the character of the Restoration Movement (RM) itself. The weight of attention at the conference is not theological or philosophical (though the conference now boasts study groups involving both) but historical and, to a lesser degree, exegetical. Theological reflection built on the Campbells’ modernist/rationalist assumptions has found expression in theological liberalism and fundamentalism on the left and right, and perhaps in the middle the mega-churches (and those churches captured by the same ideology) are simply a reflection of the RM’s openness to evangelicalism, American pragmatism, and capitalism. None of these three choices (fundamentalism, theological liberalism, or evangelicalism) will presently accommodate the theological scholarship reflected, in a budding fashion, at the Conference. That is, the theological reflection that occurs does not do so as part of the inherent impetus of the theology of the RM (primitivism, restorationism, etc.), but in spite of that theology and the ideas entailed therein. Continue reading “Reflections on the Stone/Campbell Conference and the Restoration Movement”
The problem of human violence is clearly a problem that begins within each of us. But I believe we can state it and describe it in a way stronger than this. As Subjects, we are constituted in a violence that is definitive of us. Violence is a necessity for us in an outward sense because our very nature is one that is fostered in a root antagonism that is necessary to our subjectivity. Continue reading “The Anatomy of Violence”
In the work of Thomas Kuhn (allegedly) and taken up in a sort of broad, unquestioning way in what is called postmodernism is the notion of incommensurateness. Given a certain culture or language, a certain paradigm, a particular worldview, is it not the case that the experience, the theory, or the reality of one set of persons is beyond the ability or capacity of another set of persons to grasp? In fact, isn’t that precisely the claim of Christianity? Those outside of the faith cannot know, understand, or grasp, what it is that those who are part of the faith have. The good postmodern would just point out that this is always the case with human religions and human experience. Where the modernist would appeal to proofs of evidence and apologetic arguments the postmodernist maintains that all these proofs and evidence are based on a shared metanarrative that is in no way an established (or common sense) notion of reality. The tendency has been to fall back on one’s personal experience or personal testimony as the most compelling Christian proof in this postmodern age. We seem to be caught in a closed circle in which someone on the outside cannot penetrate the circle as there is no continuity with the truth that they hold or the world that they live in? One inside the circle is simply asked to believe and obey without anything lying outside this circle of belief and obedience (a ghetto of belief is the charge leveled at Karl Barth). This is a rather depressing conclusion which I believe can be improved upon through the Johannine understanding of proof or testimony. Continue reading “If the Proof is in the Pudding, Where Is the Christian Pudding? Three Proofs of Christianity”