The Lie of Modernity and the Truth of Christ

Some things can be missed, not because they are small or inconsequential, but because they are pervasive and all-encompassing. The forest of modernity obscured by the trees (scientism, ontotheology, rationalism, etc.) has been the focus – perhaps even the discovery – of postmodern philosophy and cultural theory. Jean Baudrillard has described it in terms of simulacra – which “is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” As the psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Jacques Lacan has described it, the truth is that which inheres in a lie. Jacques Derrida has summed up his understanding with the idea that there is nothing outside of the text. Slavoj Žižek has described human subjectivity as founded in a primordial deception, but as with Baudrillard, the lie is the necessary primordial condition for the human subject to arise. Peter Berger has described culture and religion as a process of projection or externalization, reification, and internalization, in which culture is simply the continually generated environment which humans create and which, in turn, shapes them. What these thinkers share is the notion that reality, culture, religion, human subjectivity, and even truth, are ultimately a human construct and this is made absolutely clear in their deconstruction of modernity.

This is an understanding that should be easily absorbed into an orthodox Christian theology. In the New Testament, there are, in fact, two worlds; the cosmos of darkness constituted by human rebellion (a human construct) and the cosmos of light (the good gift of God) which exposes this darkness and is a complete alternative. The problem is that a Christianity and theology invested in modernity (in the very method of theology, biblical exegesis, and in notions of truth) has so ordered its understanding of the New Testament that this understanding cannot be distinguished from the spirit of the age. To state it in the language of Cyril O’Regan, modernist Christianity is a simulacrum of the faith of the New Testament. The vocabulary and concepts overlap but just as early Gnosticism coopted the New Testament, so too with modernist Christianity. O’Regan argues that modernity is, in fact, genealogically linked to this early Christian Gnostic heresy. One need not extrapolate backward, using the fine and necessary sort of work like that of O’Regan’s Anatomy of Misremembering. I think we can take it as a matter of faith that the New Testament already describes the deception, misrecognition, misremembering, and displacement of God which not only constitutes modernity but which constitutes every world constructed by man. The underlying grammar and dynamics of a lie may manifest itself in an infinite variety of languages but the deep grammar of the lie is provided, I am convinced, in Scripture.

The central aim of my research and writing has been to bring back into focus this theme, largely obscured, but very much central to Scripture and the theology of the early Church. Sin is a systemic lie – a human construct – which can be accounted for in and through the person and work of Christ. This may be so abstract as to be unhelpful or unconvincing. Or one might presume in the abstract that this is the case but be unable to say specifically how this is working itself out in the present context. Let me, in a very short space, make the case a bit more concrete.

There are several approaches to deception in Scripture. John provides the cosmic point of view in which an entire world with its religion (both Jewish and Roman), political powers (the Jewish rulers and the various Roman rulers), and sacrificial economy, make up what John calls a world of darkness. There is the primal scene of Genesis 3 in which Satan posits a lie regarding death and knowing. Partaking of the fruit of rebellion, it is promised, will result in a knowing (good and evil) which will establish being (being like God). The biblical narrative concerning Lamech, Babel, and Joseph’s brothers, continues to present sin as a murderous lie which would sacrifice the other for the self and which would presume to storm the heavens on the basis of a human construct. In other words, there is a theme in the Bible and it is a theme that is repeated, explained, and worked out in great detail. The sacrifice of Christ on behalf of Israel is still part of the deceptive lie used to justify the sacrifice of the other so as to attain salvation. The difference is that Christ exposes the lie and displaces it with the truth. To the degree that one has already missed this theme, she is unlikely to recognize it when Paul takes it up and summarizes it.

One of the conclusions of New Testament scholarship in regard to Romans 7– 8, is that Christ does not die for a general wrongdoing but to address the particular work of sin (sin as a deception) as it appears in Romans 7. This sin, which works through deceptive desire and willful ignorance, brings about disobedience unto death, and this death-dealing deception is at the foundation of the universal Subject outside of Christ (the first Adam). In Paul’s depiction, the split “I” (the “I” that wants to do the good but cannot and which knows the law but cannot carry it out) demonstrates how the law holds out a fullness of being – promising life (wholeness or completeness as the object cause of desire) but ending only in an agonistic struggle to the death (7:16-20) which Paul describes as a life of slavery to fear (8:15).

In Paul’s description, the deception is on the order of a law (the law of sin and death). In the deception, the law is a means of establishing the self, but it is precisely the self that has become the sight of destructive death dealing desire. Desire is the first order experience of deception as it arises from within a Subject which would constitute itself, through the law, apart from relationship to God. If one reads Romans 7 (as with a majority of commentators) as a detailed analysis of Genesis 3 it becomes clear Paul is simply reworking this major theme of Scripture. The deception produces an inverted economy of exchange. The “promised life” (“You won’t die, you will be like gods” or in Paul’s summary, the lie that there is life in the law) is death, which in the serpent’s lie (or the lie of sin in Ro. 7) is the special knowledge enacted (the dynamic he puts into play does not end in Gen. 4 or beyond). The attempt of the “I” to possess the commandment turned back on the Subject and sin possessed (λαβοῦσα) “I.” Where sin lies dead in Ro. 7:8 apart from the law, under the law the “I” lies dead in v. 9 and sin becomes an animate force in the exchange.

The animating force of Paul’s “I” (ego) is made of the same stuff as Berger’s culture and Baudrillard’s simulacra. The truth of Paul’s “I” is that it is a self-generating concealment of the absence and death constituting the “I.” The ego is the objectification which becomes the force (the dynamic of death) constituting internal life (desire). According to Žižek, “We arrive at the most concise definition of the subject: the subject is an effect that entirely posits its own cause” (Slavoj Žižek, Metastases of Enjoyment). Žižek and Lacan have provided their own extended commentary on how their theory of the self and the world is simply an outworking of Ro. 7. According to Lacan, “The ego is structured exactly like a symptom. At the heart of the Subject, it is only a privileged symptom, the human symptom par excellence, the mental illness of man” (Jacques Lacan, Seminar I).Man, in this understanding has not contracted a disease, he is a disease. His Subjectivity is what ails him. With Derrida and Lacan, Paul would also say in the dynamic of the fallen Subject there is nothing outside of the text of the law of sin and death.

Add Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger and their interpreters and it becomes clear that the pursuit of being through knowing is not simply neurotic but it is a philosophic description of the establishment of the Subject and his project of being. Theologically one can account for the psychoanalytic and philosophic projects as closed – death drive and sin are an exhaustive explanation within themselves. Paul’s and John’s point is that one need not appeal to the light to found a self and a world.

A Christianity that cannot discern two-worlds (of darkness and light) has inevitably consigned itself to working in the dark. The light that penetrates the darkness, at a minimum, will enable one to discern with postmodern thinkers how the darkness is generated. The form of Christianity that consigns itself to one world without discerning the world which John describes as darkness – is itself necessarily generating darkness and obscuring the light. This Christianity contains the same agonistic struggle, the same willingness to lay down the life of the neighbor, the same bigotry, hatred, and violence which characterizes the darkness. It is compelled by the same necessity and logic of violence. There is nothing outside of the text for this Christianity – but the text is that of modernity which has displaced the text of Scripture. In short, this Christianity is deceived and of the Deceiver. It is a religion from hell – a simulacrum of an authentic Christianity. (Harsh words that echo John’s description of the perverted Christianity of his day – the religion of the Anti-Christ – and which continues to be echoed in Irenaeus confrontation with the Gnostics.)

Here Kierkegaard aligns with Irenaeus in warning that the perversion of the truth unleashes the demonic in a more hellish fashion than a simplistic paganism (witness the 20th Century or simply the holocaust). Kierkegaard foresaw in Hegel, as his predecessor Hamann had in Kant, the murderous nihilism spawned by “enlightened” thought. Those who call darkness “light” will commit evil to attain the good. They will, in Paul’s description of a perverse Christianity, sin that grace may abound. This radical sort of evil, which imagines that evil is an ontological resource for the good, is first proposed by Kant and incorporated into the philosophy of Hegel. Fascism (through the philosophy of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) and Marxism/Communism (through Hegel and Marx) are the direct heirs of this Hegelian Gnostic Christianity. Hegel reads the Fall and the advent of evil as necessary to the fulfillment of the Good (God). Far from challenging evil, this form of Christianity sees it as a necessity.

The history of why theology has not sufficiently linked sin, as Christ addresses it on the cross, with the problem of evil begins with the Constantinian shift and the beginnings of the misreading of Paul and Romans 7 (the relinquishing of Christus Victor for a theory of divine satisfaction and ultimately penal substitution). Paul, I believe, like John, is posing an absolute contrast between the Subjects of Romans 7 and 8: one completely given over to deception (Žižek’s self-positing and self-grounding Subject) and the other ontologically grounded in Christ and a co-participant in inter-Trinitarian life. In this understanding, radical evil is posed as an objective possibility for the Subject (as developed in Žižek’s reading of Romans 7) though it is not an ontological reality (as realized in Paul’s description of Christ as counter to evil and sin in Romans 6 and 8), as total freedom and radical evil are part of the lie of sin. An understanding of sin as a partial problem (the problem of the will, the heart, the law, etc.) cannot account for the Pauline Subject of Romans 7, which would (re)constitute itself and the world through a lie. With the understanding that sin is not partial but all-inclusive comes the recognition of the holistic nature of salvation: the Subject and the world are recreated in Christ. The lie of sin is undone in the Truth of Christ and this amounts to a new birth and a reconstituted world (new creation). The passage from the lie of modernity (rationalist foundationalism), I believe, is one that every Christian must make to realize this all-inclusive “foundational” difference which Christ makes.

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.