The End of Naïve Evangelicalism: Exposing the Word of Death

With the storming of the Capitol building, it is clear that we have reached the end of a naïve era: a four-year long indulgence of right-wing politics, and a decades long linking of evangelical religion to nationalism. The exposed underbelly of this religion has shown it to be antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The President’s deployment of his Christian base and the fact that it serves his strategy, indicates the shape of the religion that would serve him. It exceeds guilt by association, as the very possibility of association (with white nationalism, the KKK, or the raw grab for power) is a blasphemous implication of the Prince of Peace in violent nationalism.

 I cannot help but link recent events to an emptying out of the religion, which Faith and I have witnessed personally, since we returned to this country 15 years ago. We came back to work for a Christian College here in Moberly, and it was there we recognized that the religion had morphed into something unrecognizable. The microcosm of the rule by fear and intimidation witnessed at the national level, we witnessed in this institution. The misogyny and maltreatment of women, the commitment to a hellish Christianity built upon fear, and the commitment to a violent God and violent faith, produced systemic abuse which we did not encounter in twenty years in Japan. The forms of violence directly pitted against the rule of law in the Capitol, in this little institution were pitted against basic humane and legal treatment. The same forces that put up a JESUS sign during the storming of the Capitol, the forces that put Donald Trump into office, have transformed what is called “Christianity.” The religion has been turned inside out, along with the nation state, set to destroy what it is meant to uphold and protect.

 In other words, the deployment of the religion in support of the nation state is imploding. The endless sex scandals, the attachment to the cult of personality, the commitment to consumerism over principle and ethics, describes both church and state. It is as if the worst elements of the religion have come to a head in this political period, and the religion connected to the political right has been exposed for the misshapen anti-Christianity that it truly is. The lawlessness of the rioters on Wednesday did not arise in a vacuum, as they were clearly egged on by the President, but this President has been egged on by religious supporters and advisers.

I have pointed to the broad, two-kingdom sort of theology which enabled national socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and which is embraced by American Christian nationalists (here), but I think there is a more specific element in Nazi ideology which coincides with American evangelicalism. The escapism, the “going to heaven when you die,” the otherworldly nature of the American form of the faith, allows death and alienation to reign here upon earth. This was accomplished for Germans in many ways, but archetypically by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the premiere philosopher of the Nazi period, might as well have been declared “Official Nazi Theologian” for his subtle separation of the insights of the Christian faith from the tenets of the teaching of Jesus. He deploys key vocabulary of the New Testament in a negation of the religion. This negative Christianity, instead of trading in resurrection life, presumes the primacy of death and the strategies that deal in death. The religion and philosophy might be summed up in Heidegger’s conclusion that the defining characteristic of humans is death:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought. It can, however, beckon us toward the way in which the nature of language draws us into its concern.[1]

Heidegger’s linkage of language and death may be a flash of insight worth dwelling upon – he continues to dwell upon it and little else – but left in isolation this focus supports and coincides with one of the most destructive periods in human history. At the same time, Heidegger’s singular focus reveals the shape of a Christian theology which allows death to stand in this life as the controlling factor.

Heidegger’s singular link of death and language, which is certainly serious and worth developing, is only one instance of an infinite number of similar links with language. “Humans are they” who can experience life as life because they speak. Humans are they who can tell jokes because they speak. Humans are they who can experience sex as more than mere animal copulation because they speak (etc. etc. ad infinitum). Certainly, humans appear as “mortal and speaking” but they also appear as liars and speaking, as jokesters and speaking, as lovers and speaking, and as potentially immortal and speaking.

The point is not to trivialize the link between language and death but to recognize the many faceted nature of this relation so as to draw out what it must mean to be “constantly delivered to death” (2 Cor. 4:11), or to defeat death through the peculiarity of the Christian orientation to the word.  Heidegger seems to picture deliverance to death as a one-way street, but Paul is here recognizing and moving beyond where Heidegger stops short. More than that, he is describing an impetus behind language – to take up the word and speak – where Heidegger seems to make the case for silence. Paul is describing a reconnection to the world, to human relationships, which is not obstructed by death, due to participation in the death of Christ. The power of the word of the cross is the power of fellowship, the power for life, the power for preaching.

In contrast, a faith which pictures the cross as a death to benefit God (divine satisfaction, penal substitution) or a deliverance from hell, and not a defeat of death and an opening up of the world, leaves death and violence as a world orientation and strategy. Heidegger and evangelicalism share a singular, flat link to death. Heidegger maintains that death is the main thing about humans and evangelicalism allows this singular emphasis to stand.  

Paul is suggesting that all of life is opened up in rightly understanding the link between the word and death, not because the orientation to death is denied, but because it is displaced. In one instance (in both Paul and Heidegger) language and being human might appear deadly and death dealing but in the other (the Pauline alternative to Heidegger), every facet of life, including death, takes on the aura of revelation. Christ’s death defeats death, baptism inaugurates this victory for all, and communion in the body of Christ describes a life that continually overcomes death. As Paul describes the Christian life: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Christian embrace of immortality is not meant to be an escape from the connection to death, language, and the world, but it is meant to reverse the sinful orientation to death and to open up life and love in the world.  

Think here, again, of my previous reference to Helen Keller (here), who pictures her entry into language as an opening to the world on the order of a divine revelation.  “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” For the first time Helen experiences “water,” “earth,” “teacher,” “baby,” and some 30 odd things she names in an afternoon. Language acquisition, for Helen, is on the order of divine revelation, but what Heidegger demonstrates is the human barrier to this equation. There is a link between language and death which may characterize people and which is spelled out in philosophy and psychology, but the point of Christianity and even the possibility indicated in language is the opposite of this stunted link.

 I do not mean simply that people have the possibility for future eternal life, but that there is a specific orientation to law and language which is deadly and death dealing and that there is an alternative orientation implied even in this stunted negative orientation. Christian engagement with death is aimed at defeating this deadly orientation here and now.  The point of Christianity, the power conveyed through resurrection faith, takes us beyond he word of death to the word of life.

Heidegger does not note the necessary positive side, which makes the negative appear. He only recognizes the negative aspect, the absence and negativity, and he imagines this absence and nothingness is final ground. Heidegger’s philosophy concludes to a pure negativity and nothingness, which presumes with Hegel that to be human is to be founded on negativity. Heidegger is following Hegel, for whom the human is a negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.” He is a “placeholder of nothingness” as death is definitive. I would suggest, Heidegger and Hegel are partly correct in their assessment. Absent a Christian reorientation to the law of sin and death, humans are driven by death as if it were the force of life.

Paul presumes death, like the word, holds out a series of links and possibilities. His understanding of the truth of death, is that death, like language, is peculiar for humans because it holds out a different, an enduring, possibility. Just as mortality is constituted by the possibility of immortality, death is only death where it is presumed to be something other than ground or end. What I mean here is not that death is necessarily linked in reality to immortality, I just mean that human death is constituted as death because the peculiarity of language necessarily opens up another possibility.

Paul is describing a reorientation to both death and language in which neither is presumed as its own end, and he is presuming upon this inherent possibility within language. This might be taken as a trivial reference to a future possibility, but Paul is describing a present actuality, in which death threatens but this very threat opens the mortal to the immortal. He is linking the inherent possibility of language to the realization of a different reality. Certainly, this is realized through Christ, but this should not be separated from everyday life. Paul is describing the “mortal flesh,” the feeling of being “abandoned,” of being “destroyed,” or of “slowly dying,” with the life of Jesus being revealed. As he puts it, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is focused on both sides of the valence of the word – it is joined with death in one instance so as to be joined to life in the other instance.

What Heidegger misses, is that while death and mortality appear as primary in human orientation, it is on the same basis that their opposites also “flash before us.” Immortality, too, is not a consideration for unspeaking animals and it is precisely this possibility that constitutes the peculiar human experience of mortality and death. Death taken as life, immortality folded into mortality, or the enchantment of religion lent to nationalism, describes the human tendency to immortalize the tomb and the religious and “secular” systems which worship the tomb. In a pervasive but bizarre reversal, death takes on the patina of life and immortality, as the human condition is not simply bent to death but to immortality – to immortalizing death. What the Bible calls the covenant with death and links to the lie of the serpent and the lie of idolatry, Heidegger identifies with Dasein, with the house of language, with “being there” or waking up to being, which only death and nothingness can make shine. Heidegger is selling his philosophy on the basis that death and nothingness serve in place of life.

This is not simply the accomplishment of a subtle philosophical mind, but I believe it is the articulation of the human condition outside of Christ. It is the reality that is left standing, one way or another, where death is not dethroned as the point of life. A Christianity focused on the problem of God, the problem of hell, the problem of the law, and which misses the way in which the world is entangled with the lie oriented to death, lets death have the last word. It has failed to enact the reign of the living word.

The sign that authentic Christianity has been traded for a counterfeit is the violence this entails, as violence is the necessity where death reigns. As Heidegger’s philosophy fits national socialism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, in the same way evangelicalism is a fitting theology for American nationalism and the death of hundreds of thousands sacrificed to Mammon, as both transfer the glow of life and truth to death and violence.

As Hitler needed Heidegger and German Christians, so Trump is dependent on evangelicals to lend a religious aura to his violent grasping after power. Heidegger was Hitler’s favorite living philosopher precisely because of his nihilistic embrace of violence and death. Nazi Christianity (the German Christians who embraced Hitler and the Nazi party as opposed to those who did not) was shown up as hollow and empty, just as the religion which led to the storming of the barricades at the Capitol is now exposed in its promotion of death and violence in place of life and peace. This exposure of the religion, spent as it has been on the coin of the realm of a deadly nationalism, is clearly an empty word, a bankrupt form of the faith.  

[1] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, (trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York, 1971), 107-108.

The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.

[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.

Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: Does Enlightenment Promote Moral Idiocy?

Building a playhouse for my children I ran a rusty nail into my hand; I was being cheap and trying to reuse nails. The next day, in the midst of teaching, I noticed the veins in my arms had turned a bright red.  I clearly had blood poisoning. A trip to the local doctor cured the blood poisoning but he sent me to the university hospital where they let me in on some terrible news. My blood platelets were over-sized and too few. They told me I could not risk travelling into Tokyo on the train and that I would have to cease working and check into the hospital in the next few days. They made it fairly clear my time was up. They didn’t give us a clear diagnosis but Faith, my wife, and I narrowed it down to two possibilities, both of which were irreversibly fatal. So, I stayed home and began to feel the weight of death descend. I did indeed feel my energy running out. I began to shuffle about the house, moving slowly as life seemed to be ebbing away. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: Does Enlightenment Promote Moral Idiocy?”