Learning to Prophesy from Jean Vanier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mirror Stages in Psychoanalysis and the Apostle Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Training in Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forsaking Membership in Magical Church

Imagine a meal set out before a starving crowd. It is obvious someone must take control as there is only so much food to go around and people are eager to grab the food first. To avoid a stampede, stronger individuals or those who get there first, through “altruism,” take control of the food.  They put the food in a sealed room and limit access to qualified members. Those able to sit properly can receive preliminary training so as to enter the Civilized Eaters Society (CEASE). Those who show themselves sincerely interested in eating through their willingness to submit to the authority of Trained Eaters (TEATS) are considered as Candidate Eaters (CANEATS). Through a 12-step program including Forkery (history and use of the fork), Knavery (use of the cutting tool), Spooning (information only for members), one can attain to Novice Eater, Eater Ordinanaire, Eater in Residence, and for those called not only to eating but food control they might be considered for Vocational Eating. These special individuals, called to CEASE Leadership, undergo years of training in food preparation, secret recipes, and incantations, in which ordinary food is rendered eatable.

According to CEASE tradition, an unfortunate eating incident with the Food Supplier resulted in the death of the first eaters. Now the only reliable food source is through CEASE TEATS. CEASE controls unwarranted eating from other sources (small garden plots) by declaring it poisoned ordinary food (POOF).  Only CEASE TEATS have the power, training, recipes, and incantations, necessary to provide life-giving sustenance from POOF. POOF is transformed into the eatable kind at special Bake Offs, presided over by Top TEATS, shrouded in special aprons and tall hats which, according to size and color, mark the Order of TEATS Extraordinaire. 

For some reason this special treatment of the TEATS helps satiate the anger of the Food Supplier who requires that TEATS be highly honored and well fed – at least according to CEASE Tradition which only Top TEATS have authority to understand. To appease the anger of the Food Supplier, food has to be specially blended, baked, and chanted over, by Top TEATS – who, it goes without saying, eat first and most at the Bake Offs. TEATS insist that POOF kills and they point to the fact that the Food Supplier himself came to demonstrate how angry he was by eating POOF, which killed him.

Not everyone is convinced the Food Supplier is placated by the Bake Offs and some have even suggested that there is nothing wrong with the food and that the Food Supplier is not angry at all.  These DEPOOFERS say it was not the POOF, nor that the Food Supplier is angry (let alone committing suicide), but that the very attempt to seize control of the food supply by CEASE and its predecessor (PRECEASE) left everyone starving. The Food Supplier came to feed the hungry and declare the food free and unlimited but was killed by those who wanted to control supply and demand. His death was the seed for an endless food supply. CEASE, according to the DEPOOFERS, cut off access to the true message of the Food Supplier by creating the myth of limited supply which they control through their magic.

Now imagine a different community gathered around another table: Come eat, it is not our food that is offered and it is not our place to debar or keep anyone from eating nor is it our place to invite. It is the Lord’s Table and he is the Host who says to all, come eat and drink all of you.[1]  


[1] For Cash and Sarah.

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World) was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seem to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.

The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned (in Paul’s language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. It is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.


[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.

Beyond the Postmodern Search for Meaning

In the search for meaning throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering, exposing indecency, or what might be summed up as naming the idolatrous powers (political, social, cultural, religious), is the singular goal in postmodern cultural theory. People are oppressed by racism, sexism, ageism, class, or simply life’s circumstance. Failed families, mental and physical disabilities, or ill health, plague us all. Life is filled with suffering, some suffer more, and this inequity and injustice is itself a source of suffering. Naming the power structures, throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering – isn’t this what makes for a meaningful life or at least a meaningful enough life?

The last film we saw at the True/False film festival last week, The Commons, and events following the film, illustrate the problem.  The film (by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky) documents student protests over a two-year period against the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The protests occasionally consisted of reasoned argument and well thought out speeches but there were also a lot of scenes of people shouting at each other. The students had prepared for the occasion by showing up with bull horns which enabled them to outshout their opponents. At one-point students attached ropes and pulled the statue down, with the eventual outcome that the Chancellor of the University was fired and the monument consigned to oblivion.  Usually at True/False at the end of a film the director or main characters hold a Q & A with the audience. This time the sort of protest we had just been watching spilled over into the auditorium.

The festival organizers had accommodated NCU student wishes and one of their own, Courtney Staton, appeared on stage to read a statement and to have a dialogue with the film makers. At the same time, a group of students went to the front of the auditorium with two of them holding up a banner reading, “Decolonize Documentary.”  Throughout the ensuing dialogue student demonstrators, in a coordinated effort, would begin chanting or shouting. Stanton presented a reasoned and sympathetic objection to the film – that seemed to unravel the more she engaged the filmmakers. They explained they had sought permission from student leaders, sought to include their individual perspective, and turned over all their film for the students to review. They had even shifted the perspective of the film to accommodate the fact that the students were preparing their own documentary with personal interviews. What Stanton and the students seemed to be saying, as Hawley brought out in a question, was that there was only one possible politically correct film and it would not be a film by white people. As I have heard it phrased more crudely and in a different context, white people need to shut-up.

The protestors “succeeded” in the film and in person after the film. The cry against white privilege and black marginalization was heard and contains a truth that needs to be heard but clearly the students wanted to shout down and cancel out other viewpoints – even those, as with the film itself, which was sympathetic to their cause. There may be a time and place when white people, men, the wealthy, the young, racists, need to be made to listen and their power and privilege exposed as an injustice. Protest, revolution, exposing injustice, bringing down the idols, or toppling monuments celebrating oppression, may be necessary. Just as yelling F.U. in someone’s ear with a megaphone (a scene in the film) can be very effective, so too protest, deconstruction, revolution, tearing down idols, may be called for – but as with the commons at NCU – the space is now empty, the protest silent, the message received. The object of wrath, at least this monument in this place is gone, and so either the protest latches onto a new object (the documentary) or the momentum and meaning will dissipate.

The Corinthian elite have made a similar discovery: the idol is nothing and they have been freed from their own version of Silent Sam. The way in which this half-truth is summed up by Paul (who seems to be quoting the Corinthians) is that the idol amounts to nothing and thus, all things are lawful (I Co 10:23 – potentially even eating meat sacrificed to idols). Especially if you were an idolater, this is indeed quite significant. If your life has been filled with fear, which in my experience in Japan characterizes idolatrous religion, to say the idol is nothing is to suspend this fear and oppression. Uchimura Kanzo (perhaps the most renowned Japanese Christian) describes how just walking to school as a child, having to walk past all the idols, filled him with fear. Each god, each idol, each shrine required something. One has to pray just right, show respect in the right way, pay homage correctly or the gods will get you. They will cause your house to burn down, they will bring sickness and disease and the gods always get you – all we can do is momentarily assuage their anger. You can never serve them enough, do enough, so that life under the gods is a form of slavery.

It is not simply the idolatrous circumstance but life under the law (which Paul seems to be equating with idolatry) that is oppressive. This is the law of sin and death, the law of suffering, the law of oppression, the law from which springs every sort of injustice and evil. Law, as Paul is using the term here, is not simply Jewish law as these people are Gentiles. They are under the weight of the universal law that constrains and oppresses all of us.

Step one in Paul’s gospel is the realization that we are free and what we are free from, whether Jew or Gentile, is the constraint and oppression that this world puts upon us (which may involve a different sort of suffering). All things are lawful – nothing constrains us – the idol is nothing. We need to recognize the law, or our orientation to the law, in all of its various modes (the principalities and powers) will cause suffering and then we need to expose the fact that the idol can be undone. Silent Sam can be made to topple, the Emperor can be exposed as naked, and power can be deconstructed.

Many things need deconstructing as we need to relieve the idolatrous oppression by which we may be surrounded. Black people oppressed by whites, women oppressed by men, those with special needs oppressed by the general population, the poor oppressed by the rich. We can enter into many of these battles and declare – the idol is nothing, the law does not define us, race and gender and class are not definitive of humanity. As the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, cries out as the crowd presses around ready to do him harm – “I am a man.” Finding meaning in relieving suffering, in helping others, in finding dignity ourselves, in throwing off the law and idolatrous oppression, offers a vortex of meaning – but is it enough?

Certainly, meaning in life begins in not letting the law, the oppression, the suffering, define oneself and others. This is the discovery or rediscovery of the psychologist Jordan Peterson: we are all oppressed and the only meaningful thing is to pull yourself together.  Do not let your circumstance define you. Reach out and make your life meaningful and relieve suffering, is Peterson’s message.

Paul brings us up short here though, as the Corinthians are verging on the demonic. To say as they are, “we are free from the law,” needs to be qualified with the fact that the law of love now applies. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:23-24).

The demonic moment of the Corinthian church is one that faces us all. The Christian truth that Marxism, socialism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have discovered is that meaning is largely a social construct. Marx noted that it was the wealthy elites who controlled the levers of power and posited law and morals. His resolution was that the proletariat (the working class) arise and take control. The outcome in the 20th century was the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people (about one hundred and ten million people, foreign and domestic, were killed by Communist democide – inclusive of all forms of murder). The constraint of the law was lifted, the idolatry of culture was exposed, but this unleashed the demonic (a more oppressive form of law). I believe we are witnessing the continued realization of the power of suspension of the law. Race, gender, even humanness is a construct that is put upon us and one means of attempting to demonstrate the plasticity and constructed nature of identity is to reshape it. We can redefine ourselves endlessly but like LGBTQ . . .  which requires an ellipsis or question mark, this is an open ended and infinite striving.

Throwing off oppression (whether of race, gender, or class identity) may simply lead to endless revolution as it did with the unprecedented human sacrifice of the 20th century. Marxism, socialism, and deconstruction may all harbor a Christian capacity for naming the idols (for undoing the constraints of gender, ethnicity, and social class). Each, in its own way, recognizes we can throw off the law. We can behead the Emperor, annihilate the Czar, obliterate the opposition, or as in psychoanalysis (Žižek and Lacan), which is simply borrowing and following Paul, we can suspend the law. Certainly, there are any number of groups that are weak like the Corinthian weak. The lesson of the age and the lesson of Corinthians, however, is not to empower the weak (the proletariat or their representatives in Mao, Stalin, Lenin, or Pol Pot) to be the new authoritarians. Paul’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, is not a call for endless social, sexual, and ethnic reordering but a suspension of this order with its oppressive law like structure. According to Paul, we do not throw off the law so as to engage the flesh but we suspend the mode of fleshly identity. This frees us up for love: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:24).

Paul warns the Corinthians that knowledge, in and of itself, is not meaningful (it simply “puffs up” with empty air, according to Paul). It is not enough to say that the idol is nothing and we are free from the law so we can now dine on the flesh of idols. We can make one of two mistakes: (1.) The fundamentalist or conservative error is to imagine that it is enough to prove that the world, due to the existence of God, through creation, through Christ, has the resources for an epistemological meaning and leave it at this. Apologetics as evangelism, Christianity as belief in doctrine, theology in which ethics is an addendum (or absent), verges on the same sort of demonic possibility in that gnosis or knowledge is made primary. (2.) On the other hand, meaning apart from this epistemological resource is negation, opposition, and protest – requiring continual revolution, continual social rearrangement, continual striving for a properly gendered identity. The first is a resource for a life of meaning without the reality and the second is an attempt at meaning without the resource.

The chief meaning or the chief end of man, according to the Westminster Confession with direct reference to I Co 10:31, is to glorify God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Co 10:31). Glory is an ambiguous term (Humpty Dumpty says it means whatever he wants it to mean) but in Paul’s explanation glory fills out meaning. Giving glory to God is to be found in the loving servanthood of Christ (Paul says that, like Christ, he has become the servant of all) as here meaning is lived out such that every act (eating or not eating meat) can be meaningful. Actually loving, actually caring for the weak does not involve taking the position of the strong but means becoming weak (Paul impoverishes himself by refusing money, he works at a trade, he takes a low social status, he is willing to become a vegetarian). Paul explains, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (I Co 10:33). Salvation, in this context, is not referring to conversion but to departure from the crushing oppression of the culture to which the weak are susceptible and from which the Corinthian cultural elites are providing no relief. Paul does not presume to displace these elites by shouting them down but he sums up his argument with, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Co 11:1).

It is not enough to name the idols, expose the power structures, tear down the high places, or suspend the law. In place of the oppression of the law the freedom of the law of love is necessary for the full realization and in order to sustain a meaningful life. True, we must fully recognize our freedom from the law as this law is always one which would oppress, cast out, demonize, scapegoat, and choose death for some that others might live. To simply expose this law, realize its weakness, recognize that nothing is there, that it is a human construct, maybe this is what it takes to then exercise the love of the messiah. Christ exposes the principalities and powers but he does not, however, leave us in a vacuum. Paul and Jesus call us to follow them or to imitate their lives and this is where meaning kicks in.