Finding Peace in a Hostile Universe

In the midst of this pandemic it is easy to believe that pathogens, germs, viruses, and disease, or the chaotic nature of the world, is the key factor in determining human behavior.[1] We live in a hostile world and it is the nature of the world that gives rise to the consistent patterns of human response (culture). It may be that it is not that this chaotic world is the cause of any particular response but it is certainly the occasion which gives rise to the range of human responses.[2] In the best of times there are limited resources, the looming possibility of natural calamities, and the inevitable onset of disease and old age, but in the midst of a world-wide pandemic the precariousness of life is accentuated and the responses  were predictable: i.e., this “Chinese” disease is the fault of the Chinese; God is punishing the wicked; life is meaningless so eat, drink, and go to the beach. Writ large this scapegoating (blaming, sacrificing, and organizing around the common enemy), rationalizing (the world operates according to law and God can be identified with this law), or embracing the futility (as in hedonism, nihilism, pantheism, etc.), might describe the predominant cultures, philosophies, and religions of the world. What all such systems share and are built upon is the presumption that the ultimate power (whether the gods, God, or the universe) is against us. The world is hostile and we might try to redirect the violence (scapegoating religion), explain it (we have been stricken by God), or succumb to it by denying or embracing the hostility under another name (presuming death is not unnatural and evil is an unnecessary distinction).

A hostile universe may not determine that we channel all of our energies into the struggle for survival or that we become bent upon explaining, controlling, and warding off death, but given this factor the basic human tendency is accounted for. Where this backdrop of hostility is made absolute, we must arm ourselves against “God” by employing violent sacrificial religion; we must arm ourselves against our enemies with weapons of war; we must arm ourselves against our neighbor through positions of power and plenty. The self-seeking need to secure ourselves makes even the drive for pleasure an obscene injunction to “enjoy” at the expense of the other (witness the crowds at the beach). The disease that afflicts us in this present moment is simply a case in point of the cause of the human disease, the one giving rise to the other.  We live in a hostile world and this explains human hostility and violence. The disease of human violence arises in the attempt to reduce the worlds hostility to controllable human proportions.

The raw fact that the natural world is deadly and that humans are deadly (for themselves, to one another, and the natural world) is not a necessary correlate, but given that the laws of the universe or that the cosmos itself are presumed to be absolute, cosmic necessity becomes human necessity. The identification of God with the law (no matter the specifics of the religion, the nature of God or the gods, or the details of the law) means that God is felt to be present only as our enemy. This condition which Paul blames on the “natural mind,” creates hostility toward God and others. This hostility is derived from mistaking the finite for the infinite (typical of idolatry) and imagining that limited power is ultimate power (the power of death definitive of nature but also taken in hand by the “principalities and powers”). A religion (call it Christian or not) which mistakes this hostility for God’s hostility is, by definition, absolutely devoted to relative causes.

 In such a belief system, one is bound to swear final allegiance and loyalty to finite and temporal causes (the self, the tribe, the nation, civilization, etc.) which commits one to absolute hostility toward the enemy. Tribal and national allegiances become religious absolutes and violent sacrifice of the enemy or the self (to kill or be killed), can be considered the ultimate sacrifice to God. Human animosity and hostility are presumed to be supernatural forces embodied by our God, and our wrath is presumed to be divine in its requirement of infinite appeasement and satisfaction. Our hostility and defensiveness become the prime creative power so that setting infinite store on our conflicts, the glory of war, the glory of a violent death, the glory of service to our finite loyalties, becomes divine glory. This lying exchange of God’s glory, in Paul’s summation of Old Testament history, is definitive of human evil (Rom. 1:23 ff.).

Under this condition, to know God as love and peace is an impossibility, as God is simply the name given to the hostile powers of the destroyer (the Satanic destroyer is mistaken for God). Though there are instances of naming devotion to the destroyer “love,” this world is so skewed that love is simply an anthropomorphism for delimited hatred (as Calvin explains his understanding of God’s love). To reconcile one to this hostility, as if it is God, is to render love empty and meaningless. In fact, one can deploy the full range of Christian vocabulary but in this world all the words take on a different meaning, though the same thing might be said of many religious systems. The Buddhist or Hindu may use the word evil without believing in it, but so too the Calvinist. The deep grammar of a world of presumed hostility is bound to mistake evil for good, darkness for light, and death as a form of life. To change up this human frame of reference, this deep grammar of human understanding, the Bible does not presume an escape from this world but a salvation inclusive of the cosmos.

Though this notion of “cosmic salvation” may sound strange to modern western ears, for Paul’s contemporaries and for the vast majority of world cultures it was and is presumed to be definitive of salvation. The stars, the alignment of the planets, fate, karma, the inexplicable will of the cosmic controlled gods, is the fixed order with which one must negotiate “salvation” (which might mean any number of things). Even temporary deliverance from the malign forces of cosmic necessity accounts for the energies and devotions of many religions. In Japan, for example, to call these forces good or evil, divine or demonic, is to misunderstand, as it seems to pose a choice. One does not choose subjection to these forces; they are simply the forces which must be dealt with. Even nirvana or moksha are not deliverance from, so much as reconciliation with, the obliterating forces of cosmic hostility under a different name.

In Judaism, by comparison, there is the weird depiction of the laws of nature being changed up, so that wolves and lambs will cuddle and children will frolic with snakes and bears. In the grand visions of this kingdom, there is simultaneously steady rain for an abundance of crops and an ending of human violence and hostility. Swords are turned into ploughshares, war is no longer a preoccupation or worry, and even animals that under the old order would have been enemies are found to be eating hay instead of one another. Interwoven throughout each of the texts, is the end of various manifestations of human violence, human greed, human want, human deprivation, human oppression, with the end of  natural calamities, the natural exposures to draught and famine, and the end of the hostility built into nature (see Is 11:6-9, 65:17-25; Job 5:20-24; Zach 8:9-12; Jer 14; Lev. 26:3-6; Ez 34:25-29). The all-inclusive peace of these passages presumes that, in the words of William Frazier, “anthropological peace germinates in cosmological soil.”[3]

This points toward the cosmic/human solution of Christ, as the presumption of the cross is that following “the course of this world” humans have taken up enmity.  Human hostility built upon cosmic hostility is a diagnosis which explains the specific nature of the intervention found in the cross, as outlined in such passages as Col. 1:19-20 and Eph. 2. Both passages are inclusive of the cosmos but depict a reordering or reshaping of the cosmic order through Christ. They depict a cosmic scope, inclusive of “all things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19-20) as Christ “is before all things” and “holds all things together” (Col 1:17). At the same time, there is the focus on the particulars of human peace worked out with this cosmic reconciliation. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, representative of all inter-human enmity, and the hostility of humans toward God, and the cosmic nature of this enmity, are simultaneously addressed in Christ (Eph 2:11-19). The cosmic order is being re-established as human order is brought into its proper service and place through his body, his Temple: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22). The cosmos as temple puts the cosmos in its proper order as it puts the human priests of the temple in their proper place. This peace which ends all hostility culminates in cosmic temple worship: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:17–18).

So, it is this root hostility, in both its natural and human phase, toward which the peace of the cross of Christ is aimed. Peace is definitive of salvation, not because God is our angry enemy (as in theories of divine satisfaction or penal substitution), but as in Paul’s explanation, because we are defined by our hostility. Christ challenges our defining presumption that presumes God has arrayed the laws of the universe, the laws of religion, the laws of the human conscience, against us. Christ is the Prince of Peace because, in a very specific manner, he disarms us of our need for sacrificial religion, for weapons of war, and for the weapons of power and control.  It is not that Christ simply persuades us of the love of God (the moral influence theory), though he may do that. The specific nature of the work of Christ is called for by the specific nature of the human predicament. There is a “dividing wall of hostility” obstructing peace and good will among all human classes (Jew/gentile, slave/free, male/female) and this dividing wall is inclusive of a “carnal hostility toward God” (Ro 8:7). It is this specific hostility which Christ came to resolve as he “broke down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) and “put to death the enmity” (v 16).


[1] Randy Thornhill has proposed that germs may be the basis for various forms of cultural formation see https://psmag.com/social-justice/bugs-like-made-germ-theory-democracy-beliefs-73958?fbclid=IwAR0icpB0wQDLcecANK7JR3Kgv8TkuOBVNGS9oDPHa1ueELK9n2IS0Nl0g6o

[2] William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace Kindle Edition. This article is part of the fruit of a prolonged encounter with and development of the work of William Frazier. Many years ago, I encountered an article in a missionary magazine which set the course of my studies and changed my theological orientation. When you find thought this profound and all-encompassing you presume it must be backed up by a host of publications. I presumed this ground-breaking thinker would be mentioned, studied, and quoted. Either I missed where this was happening or I was wrong. I looked for the big book summing up his research. He published a few articles, but he passed away last year. I just discovered this small book based on his papers and lectures. This piece is a synopsis of this book – available for 99 cents on Amazon. I wish I had let him know of the profound impact his work had on me.  Thank you, William Frazier, and thanks to Joseph Fahey, who put this little book together.

[3]William Frazier, How the God of Jesus Makes Peace (p. 72). Kindle Edition.


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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.

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