A Fascinating But Dangerous Story

Let me tell you a story which is a kind of lure. While it is true, it is luring or leading you along by withholding the whole truth. You might be fascinated with the way the story works and miss the construct of the story, so I am warning you. Those who fall into the abyss which the story is leading you toward often never return. I want to lead you to the edge of the abyss so that you might recognize the entry points and the way out. First, the story of theology called, WHAT HAPPENED TO THEOLOGY?

The authentic period of theological understanding in the early Church was corrupted by a series of unfortunate events beginning with the Constantinian shift. With the conversion of Constantine, Church and State were fused, and this created a split from the early Church notion that Christ is a Culture and Kingdom unto himself. Instead, the Church becomes an organ of the state and state purposes and this creates an ongoing divide from which the Church continues to suffer.

Enter Augustine with his Neo-Platonic notions of human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. The failure to completely appreciate the embodied nature of truth (hints of a lingering Manicheanism here) will infest theology with a tendency toward dualism and the drift into a full blown fusion with Greek philosophy. The body soul relationship becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian and Christianity is infected with the notion of an innately immortal soul housed in the human body. The goal of Christian faith is to move beyond faith to a direct vision of God – the beatific vision. As Aquinas will lay this out, until human happiness and desire are fulfilled in the beatific vision or final union with God, there is no possibility of God, in his essence, being mediated to us. As in Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Sunni branch of Islam, melding with God or the one (what Freud would call the Nirvana Principle) is the goal and end of human desire. The desire to bridge the gap between us and God is the desire that one should not give way on. Desire itself is the life force guiding us to final union with God.

Anselm will take this a step further in that the journey toward truth is an inward journey enabled by the death of Christ. Sin is a disempowerment of the will to accomplish closure on the divine reality within but Christ’s death enables us to close the gap between us and God so that we might now think rationally and thus achieve union with the divine. Anselm describes this closure in terms of a beatific vision in which one sees God and simultaneously loses himself (in becoming self-identical). Anselm fully absorbs the Constantinian shift and gives us an alternative theory of atonement which is interior to God and human subject and which does not impinge upon or interfere with the mundane world of embodiment.

Thomas Aquinas privileges sight over faith in that Jesus is presumed not to have faith in God as he always has the beatific vision (Summa Theologiae 3a.9.2.). Thomas locates biblical knowing within the Platonic notion of the “mind’s eye” and concludes Jesus knows and sees perfectly and has no need of faith (thus faith and knowledge are separate realms, in spite of the Transcendental Thomists, and the historical development of Thomas’ understanding concludes faith falls short of knowledge).
Given the understanding that Jesus lacked faith but depended on sight, Christian faith (pistis Christou) is understood to be an objectified faith in Christ rather than the subjective faith of Christ. Christ is made the object of faith in much the way God the Father is the object of Jesus’ beatific vision. Sight is incorporated into the understanding of faith subverting the New Testament notion that the faith of Christ is to walk as he walked.

In this alternative version of Christian faith, rather than taking up the cross and obediently duplicating the walk of Christ, Christ died so that we don’t have to. The moment of supreme objectification, Jesus reduced to the objective body on the cross, is made to support a Žižekian like notion of salvation which takes death itself to be salvific. The real of the body of Christ is the empirical bearer of the symbolic vision (the vision of faith) so that Christ’s death (either continually in process as in Catholicism or in isolation from his life, as with much of Protestantism) is the ground for the final refusal of the body (or a life of obedience in the body) and the means by which the soul or the symbolic can have a first order ecstatic encounter with God.

Thomas does not (at least according to Immanuel Kant), in spite of his own protestation, really depart from Anselm but he builds rational arguments that are ultimately dependent upon Anselm’s ontological argument. The implication is that the arguments are able to deliver one across the ontological divide presumed in the analogy of being. At the same time Christ only mediates God in an analogous manner. According to Karl Barth the presumption is a displacement of true Christian faith so that the analogia entis is the Anti-Christ.

This fascinating story is delivering us to a place from which there is no return if the structure of the story is left unidentified. Restoration and return to an authentic Christianity is continually held forth as a lure as the obstacle to the return is identified. The story ultimately is taking the form of every story so that the story of everything can be narrated in this fashion. It is a truth that supports a form of deception.

To be continued

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.