The Power of Resurrection Knowing Demonstrated in its Defeat of Death Dealing Knowledge

From Genesis there unfolds the picture of two modes of knowing and two objects of knowledge. God was at the center of human understanding prior to the Fall, and with the Fall human language, in the knowledge of good and evil, simply referred to itself, serving to displace the role of God (as life-giver and as the center to the determination of ethics). The lie of the Fall is that knowledge of a certain kind holds out life and defeats death. Note the necessity of dialectic, difference, and the real-world alienation and murder this produces. The reality is that this sort of knowing is death dealing in its immediate experience and in the experience of those who take it up. The feeling of exposure and shame experienced by the first couple (the picture of what it feels like to die), the murder of the second son by the first, and the rise of a generation of psychopathic killers, can all be traced to a trade in knowledge. Here is the experience of entrusting oneself to human power and human language.

The question of how and what we know is not set aside in Scripture but is thematic and it is a theme taken up in the New Testament.  The Gnostic tendency, which the Gospel of John and several of the New Testament epistles address both directly and indirectly (in its proto or incipient form) seems to be a particular manifestation of how a certain form of human knowledge is interwoven with evil. Gnosis or knowledge as the direct experience of the absolute might seem harmless but it is associated in John with the anti-Christ. Knowing as an end in itself apparently cuts one off from the love and knowledge of Christ in a very similar manner to the way in which knowledge of God was traded for the knowledge of good and evil.

The modern psychological and philosophical experience of this failed knowing reduplicates the problem and might be described in the same manner. G. E. Lessing’s divide between the eternal truths of reason and the contingent truths of history seem to reduplicate the Platonic divide between the absolutely transcendent forms and the world of time and matter. But it also might describe the psychological divide between the law of the mind (static, unchanging, impossible) and the law of the body (subject to the contingencies of embodiment). The philosophical divide reduplicates the psychological predicament and this can be traced throughout human experience and philosophy. The tendency of failed human knowledge is to work one side of this divide against the other: the subjective or the objective, the immanent or the transcendent, the historical or the eternal, the social or the universal, the inductive or the deductive, ad infinitum. In the theological realm the historical Jesus is pitted against the eternal Christ, natural theology is detached from revelation, and personal piety is pitted against realism (as in Niebuhr’s political realism). This has resulted in a split Christianity, which in one form is focused primarily on going to heaven and in the other on the Social Gospel. In each instance, there is a discord between thought and practice or ultimately between God and the world.

Deism may simply describe the experiential reality of living in a secular world in which belief in God is not integrated into the realities of the everyday world. It is not simply cosmology and science that are free of the necessity of God but psychology, sociology, human sexuality, economics, and politics are presumed to be self-ordering arrangements. Christian belief often fails to engage the realities of the secular world as it is presumed the secular is an adequate ground in itself.  The cutting loose of the world from the constraints of God is not reversed by an intensity of belief or piety. That is, the evangelical, the theological liberal, the agnostic, or the atheist, seem to breathe the same air and experience this “freedom” as a sort of trauma. The angst, mental illness, violence, and sexual perversion of the age are of epidemic proportions inside and outside of churches. This form of freedom seems to generate new forms of enslavement and it is not clear yet that this same angst will not bind itself to the worst sort of political tyranny (in the name of freedom).

This divide, if we understand that it is of the same order as the problem addressed in Scripture, is simultaneously identified with evil (sin and death, violence and hostility) and is what Christ rescues us from. Paul pictures it as the “dividing wall of hostility” in which humanity is pitted against itself in an enslavement to the law of sin and death. The history of murder (Matthew 23:34-36), hostility among people, self-directed violence (Romans 7), and the ultimate evil of crucifying the son of God are all pictured as flowing from this same divided knowing. But the enmity which resulted in the death of Christ is also transfigured – “abolishing in His flesh the enmity . . . that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,  and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:14-16, NASB).  The great mistake of a Christianity captured by modernity is to picture this abolished enmity, this new humanity, this defeat of death, as if it is occurring in a world that is still divided. That is Christian thought is often not cosmic or Christian enough in its proportion. Ephesians depicts the closure of the gap as occurring between heaven and earth and resulting in a restored cosmic order and a new form of humanity through which this restoration work is channeled.

At the same time, evil as arising from a divided humanity, a divided knowledge, a divided social order is exposed in the manner of Christ’s restoration work through an alternative community, a Temple community. The Jewish Temple was representative of the coming together of heaven and earth, and Christ as the true Temple accomplishes what the earthly tabernacle represented. The hope of Israel was that God, who had abandoned the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile would come back. The post-exilic prophet Malachi said, ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple’ (Mal 3:1). The story of creation culminates in Christ coming to the Temple (John 1, Ephesians) as the Temple always pictured this cosmic reconciliation, accomplished in the incarnation. The living God and the living human – Christ, and a new form of humanity constituting the body of Christ – the Church, bring together what was separate and give rise to a new form of knowing and a new way of being human (re-creation). Christ appearance in the Temple inaugurates the accomplishment of this final reconciliation and New Testament theology is predicated on the belief that this primary promise has come true in Christ.

Christ’s death and resurrection can be seen as achieving this reconciled knowing and being if it is understood that dividedness and death work hand in hand. Resurrection is where Christ takes control of the principalities and powers (1:21-22), as cultural and political powers are founded on hostility (antagonism, dividedness, and death). “Through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers” as they are now disempowered – denied the power of death and dividedness. True wisdom is not dependent on division as it is from and “in the heavenly places” (3:10). As in Romans 8 so in Ephesians, the inheritance is heaven and earth come together. Both depict something like the fulfillment of Isaiah 11:9: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Now there is the hope that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (1:18) as in Him is “the message of truth” which has been made manifest (1:13). This was realized when “He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” (1:13). The resurrection power of Christ is now being shared, as one age is breaking into another as in the Temple community are those “raised up with Him and seated . . . with Him in the heavenly places” (2:6). Heaven and earth are bridged in the resurrection power of the body of Christ. Where resurrection power is put into place the power of death, the orientation to death, is undone and this constitutes a new order of knowing and a new sort of community.

Ephesians depicts this community as foundational and perhaps, counter-foundational, as this foundation takes precedence over world-historical foundationalism: it is “before the foundation of the world” (1:4). The mystery hidden since the foundation of the world has exposed the inadequacy of the immanent foundations constituting a world divided. The clash of foundations may be most evident in the common sense treatment of Christ’s resurrection. For conservatives the resurrection is a miracle disconnected from cosmic recreation and for liberals it is not to be taken literally and is inconsequential to the faith. But in the New Testament resurrection is the inauguration of cosmic redemption as it is a reversal of cosmic failure. God affirms the goodness of the created order, making it over, starting with the physical body of Jesus Himself.

Step one in appreciating the all-inclusive ramifications of both evil and its resolution in resurrection, is to recognize the peculiar social and cognitive working of evil, countered in resurrection community. Evil is corporate, social, cognitional, and thus we cannot think ourselves free of the world, the history, the culture, or the knowing that binds us where death reigns. As Bernard Lonergan has noted, common sense is not up to the task of thinking on the level of history as it is itself a product of a particular history. The surd nature of “common sense” is made evident in the continual irruption of war and violence in human history and in the story of decline of Western civilization and every civilization. Death reigns in multiple senses in this sort of knowing. God is not going to show up on the wings of human progress. Though it has brought an abundance of blessing, it has also given rise to holocausts, global destruction, and the possibility of omnicide (the obliteration of the human race). It is inherently dependent on violence and death. In gnostic thought, or maybe just human thought, this is no cause for abandoning the course upon which we are set, as escape through the possibility of total destruction, or death and dividedness, are the sole means to life. Christ, in addressing this culture and knowledge of death, sums up (in the depiction of Ephesians) all things.

There are many approaches to summing up the failure of human knowledge (psychology, religion, sociology, philosophy) but the summing up that frees from any particular historical moment is found in Christ: “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” as all things in a world divided are brought together (Eph. 1:10). The incapacity for any other mode of summing up (any alternative epistemology), gets at Paul’s holistic depiction of the new Temple community found in Christ. Knowledge of him is revelation and the foundation of an alternative wisdom and knowledge (1:17).  A new power has been unleashed as “you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:1). The new Temple community, the Church, is a direct challenge to the Temple of Diana of the Ephesians, the temple culture and wisdom at the Areopagus, and the modern temple of secular knowledge. It is a challenge to every order, sacred and secular, derived from the immanent frame of dividedness.

Catholic or Fascist Christianity: The State of the Christian Union

I have long presumed that Peter Berger’s three step description of culture gets at (in part) the reality of the manner in which culture is at once a human creation which acts upon us. According to Berger, it is through externalization that society is a human product – humans make it, build it, constitute it. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis – culture and its products take on the appearance of being independent of humans.  Then due to internalization of culture and its products man is himself a product of society. The role of religion in this process is to falsify human consciousness so that the projecting and reification involved in objectivation are mystified – made non-human. The fact that the socio-cultural world is shaped by human activity is obscured by the religion. The sui generis nature of religion, set forth by Mircea Eliade – the father of modern religious studies, cuts religion off from the realities of culture and even the realities of any particular religion. For Eliade, the historical and social conditions play into the interpretation of the religious phenomenon but they cannot ultimately explain it: “All these dreams, myths, and nostalgias…cannot be exhausted by a psychological explanation; there is always a kernel that remains refractory to explanation. . . that, we shall never tire of repeating, is not solely ‘historical.’”  Given the Berger choice that religion is a human creation and the Eliade choice that religion transcends the human, one might think Eliade is on the side of Christianity. Eliade provides a universal experience in which to ground religion and Berger seems to reduce all religion to the relativity of culture.

The problem is that Eliade’s is a cheap universality which ultimately has nothing to say (all articulation falls short) about the transcendent (it is absolutely transcendent). The transcendent object of religion does not intersect with the realities of economics, politics, or culture and at the same time it is presumed the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference. This, of course, is simply not true of any religion of which I am aware. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, biblical idolatry, and most especially Christianity, are interconnected with economics, politics, and culture. In Japan, the rise of fascism depends directly upon State Shinto, Buddhist nationalism, and Christian accommodation to deification of Hirohito. All of these religions might be said to have maintained their universality – their transcendent orientation – but at the expense of being of no earthly value or influence.  The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to the sui generis notion of Christianity – that the Church somehow exists apart from society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence by which we are shaped and to which we are subject.

The advantage of Berger’s theory, as opposed to the sui generis notion of religion, is that religion as key to world construction ties religion into every aspect of human society. In Berger’s notion human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Objectivation seems to accurately portray the function of money and idols (intrinsically worthless and yet the most valued object). These man-made entities confront its producers as a fact external to and other than themselves. Internalization re-appropriates this same reality, transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.

 Berger, as a practicing Christian, has his own problems. In religion as a social construct there is no clear place for sociology and Christian theology to meet – there is no place from which to critique the society or to stand outside of it. On the other hand, if one understands that it is precisely a Berger like world which Christ disrupts– persons are constituted in culture – then salvation must take on an integration with all things human. The resolution to this problem posed by Richard Niebuhr, is to recognize that culture is the shaping force of humankind and Christ, then, is incarnate so as to reshape culture. Niebuhr offers a series of possibilities as to how this might be accomplished: Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture and transforming culture.  The problem is that culture is the essence around which Christ is made to work. What we recognize from Berger is that Niebuhr has also reified culture and presumed Christ is forced to work with this given. Rodney Clapp sums up a more sufficient answer which allows for the primacy of culture without succumbing to Berger’s relativism or Niebuhr’s essentializing of culture: Christ and the Church constitute a culture. “The original Christians, in short, were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.” Here Berger’s integration of the human and the cultural are accounted for without succumbing to an essentializing of culture while also allowing for a universal through culture. At the same time, the universal is not absolutely transcendent but takes on its properly biblical slant. The incarnation is an interruption of history which re-founds what it means to be human through one who is human and divine. Yet this interruption is itself historical, cultural, and social.  

Where catholic or universal is understood to be concerned not only with all people but with every aspect of life – social, political, sexual, familial, gastronomical, etc., I presume this is not only the true form of the Christian faith but the only form resistant to the manufactured reality, described by Berger, of contemporary culture. The double-sided meaning of universal, all people and all encompassing (concerned with every aspect of life), are interdependent in that universal identity manifests itself in practices inherently (political, cultural, etc.) resistant to the human “sacred canopy” always characterized by its cultural production (local and exclusive).  The politics of Jesus, the culture of Christ, the family of God, or even Christian eating habits (eating with sinners, a communion open to all), are the particular manifestation of universality and are what constitute the Church a force of opposition to the alienating and divisive reified socio-political principalities and powers.

Where the opposition has failed and the dictates of the culture, with its essentializing ethos, nationalism, regimented conformity,exclusivism, and ethnocentrism, succeed then the distinctives of Christian universality are, by definition, absent. And while no particular church (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) can exclusively claim universality (an oxymoron?) the supreme test of whether the faith is, indeed, catholic is whether it succumbs to cultural tyranny – or the reification of culture known in our day as fascism.

 Fascism is the primary and most damaging form this cultural reification has taken in the 20th and, I would claim (along with Noam Chomsky and others) in the beginnings of the 21st century. Fascism presumes there is an essence to the national ethos (the blood and soil of Germany, the unique spirit (ki) of Japan, American exceptionalism) such that individuals, as in Berger’s picture, bear within themselves this essence (e.g. Japanese citizens are depicted as the egos circulating around the super-ego Emperor which together constitute the wholeness of a person).  There may be many markers of the passage from nationalism to fascism – the rise of a cult of personality, the violent suppression of opposition, the demonization of certain ideas, the continual gearing up for war – but one of the clearest markers in Germany and Japan was the manner in which Christianity was co opted by the state. Pictures of Hirohito adorned every official church in Japan and Christians were made to bow to this god man to inaugurate the service. Japanese theologians even attempted to incorporate Hirohito into the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God Hirohito). German Christians were those who accepted the Aryan clause, which excluded Jews from holding public office, inclusive of state church offices and German Christian theology expunged the Bible of its Jewishness. In both Germany and Japan, this Christian fascism is one step beyond the Constantinian fusion of state and church (arguably most complete only with the reformation). Where the Roman emperor fused church and state by acknowledging Christianity, fascist Christianity presumes to overtly absorb Christianity into state ideology (which is not to deny this was implicit with Constantine).

Though there are moments in history where “fascist Christianity” accurately describes the church, in retrospect it would seem that genocide, all-out war, emperor/dictator worship, racism, and anti-Semitism, may not accord (to say less than the least) with the basic tenets of the teaching of Jesus. Fascist theologians, fascist Christians, fascist churches, are a historical reality (not just a pejorative description), which more than simple fascism (or any of the isms of the 20th century – communism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism) may best describe the contemporary anti-Christ (the imitation or displacement of Christ). In other words, the fascist reification of a particular culture and the violence this entails – equated with Christianity – is the most obvious enemy of Christ.

 Is it something like fascist Christianity, a Christianity absorbed by nationalist chauvinism, that threatens the Church universal in the United States?  American exceptionalism premised on America as a Christian Nation may have succeeded, some place and some time (as with the varieties of Constantinian Christianity), in escaping the complete co opting of the church by state purposes. But one wonders if there is not an evident incongruity in Trump Doctrine, summed up by a senior White House official with direct access to the president, as “We are America, bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally reported this in The Atlantic has put it, “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence” amounts to “a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world.” The exclusivism, isolationism, mistreatment of aliens, chauvinistic hostility, and sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, captured in this posturing may be good for America (though I doubt it) but can it be equated with the teaching of Christ? Could it be that “we are Christian America, bitch” or that we are holding up a Christian middle finger to the world? This is no more unlikely than “Christian fascism” but what it clearly is not is catholic Christianity.[1]


[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’ The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018.