The Trivialization of Christianity and Its Cure in Speculative Theology and Romans

When the queen of the sciences, theology, reigned the falsehood of this rule was bound to be exposed but with her abdication the wasteland she left is obvious. The church, Protestant and Catholic, has abdicated moral authority; classicism with its notion of a mono-cultural imperialism has crumbled; scientism and the pursuit of absolute and certain knowledge has succumbed to relativity. Institutionalism, cultural imperialism, scientism, or most simply, foundationalism, were never adequate ground for Truth, leaving out of the equation, as they do, the centrality of human subjectivity. However, each of these “failures” has made the turn to the human Subject inevitable. Could it be that this is the moment theology might find her proper place? This is the argument of the brilliant book by Ryan Hemmer,[1] in which he makes the case that it may be that speculative theology (the theological engagement of the present) perished only to give way to new life in an altered form.  While Ryan is tracing the macro movements of theology in history (and I am only referencing a small part of his major work), the seed form of this understanding – its proleptic micro-form – is evident in Paul’s movement in Romans – or at least that is the case I want to make.  

In Romans Paul is trying to deepen the Romans’ understanding of the faith, or to state it the other way round, they may have a trivial notion of the faith inasmuch as it is tied to the law, and Paul would dispossess them of this obstacle to a deeper understanding.  The law as focus reduces to signs, scruples, morays, such that the letter is reified and the Spirit is by-passed and as a result, death reigns (part 1 below). Where the law is set aside there is entry into personhood – the Personhood of God and human personhood as they encounter one another in experience and human intelligence (part 2, below).

The Letter Kills

The focus on the law is what killed Christ, but so too priestly celibacy gives rise to a culture of child abuse, purity culture and male dominance in the church have given rise to a culture of sexual abuse and criminality. Where kissing dating goodbye was the focus, sex crimes have flourished. The cultural imperialism that gave rise to genocide of Native Americans, continued with Catholic and Anglican Indian schools which finalized the systematic destruction (hundreds of graves of children have been recently discovered in Canada and the United States at these “Christian” schools). Where the attempt to “Christianize” means living according to a particular cultural standard, speaking a certain language, living up to the scruples of an imagined set culture, law reigns. 

The New Yorker, this week recounts the decades long reign of terror of the “Child-Observation Station” at the Sonnenstrasse villa, aimed at eliminating masturbation, bed-wetting and sexual excitement in children. The children were injected with a regimen of drugs, including epiphysan, an extract derived from the pineal glands of cattle which veterinarians used to suppress estrus in mares and cows. Their beds and underwear, containing censors, were monitored 24 hours a day, with any infraction resulting in various punishments and beatings. Dr. Maria Nowak-Vogl, a devout Catholic, was the founder and head of the institute who spent her life and career trying to eradicate masturbation and bed wetting, which she considered the sure signs of decadence.[2]

The modern attachment to law or trivialization of the faith is not trivial in its evil consequences, but in its majoring in minors and thus giving rise to a destructive bondage, it misses the depth of salvation.

Understood in this way, there is a parallel between Paul’s depiction of the law as the trivializing captivity to signs (circumcision and the significations of Judaism), to the surface of texts (the letter of the Old Testament apart from its center to be found in Christ), or to the cultural imperatives of Judaism or Gentilism, and to the obstacles posed by modern reason, classicism, foundationalism or justification theory. That is, the unfolding of Christian history and theology repeat the failures and must rediscover the insights, in parallel terms, the obstacles and insights Paul is tracing in the course of Romans.  They are parallel as there is a universal problem – true for all time and in every place and culture – but the theological task is to realize once again, in the present, in what these barriers consist and how they are overcome. The barrier of the law poses the universal bondage from which salvation delivers.

Salvation for Paul, is not deliverance from hell, but the transformation of humans from being subjects of the law to Subjects participating in divine love.

The Spirit Gives Life to the Mind

The impetus behind Paul’s writing and the work of theology is the conversion of the mind, the transformation of the Subject, the rise of a new form of consciousness including self-consciousness.  God, the essence of reality, is not passively intuited or grasped by sight or images – which by definition remain objects – but God in Christ presents himself for the understanding, to be actively apprehended as part of human decision and judgment.

Theology is not a matter of mere logic, though in “the hands of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham it quickly became very purely logical, and while logic is a valid systematic ideal, its atmosphere is too thin to support life.”[3] This passage is movement from a life driven by eros, in which one is left desirous of life that is lacking, to one filled with divine life and love: “God effects the redemption of humanity from every consequence of sin by making the divine life the innermost constitutive element of human life.”[4] Ryan applies this realization as the answer to the failure of classicism, but recognizes this is always the movement of salvation:

it is God’s gift of God’s self to the psyche that both completes the psyche’s native transcendental erotic orientation, and elevates the psyche itself . . . Divine constitutive meaning rejects the normative claims of classicism, and liberates the psyche from the narrowness of its vision to a historically minded perspective, capable of bearing witness to the soteriological vector operative in the law of the cross at work in every culture and every age.[5]

The “historically minded perspective” taking in “every culture and age” does not seek to escape history through some immutable form (e.g., classicism), and in this, it pertains to what it means to be human. The kenotic gift of God’s self on the cross is a gift of the Divine Subject to the human Subject and psyche, God sharing himself and thus completing the human Subject (as in Romans 8).

Salvation, for Paul is not about missing punishment and going to heaven, but it is about life, having life more abundantly. Between Romans 7, where he is describing a form of damnable oppression, and chapter 8 where he is describing full participation in the life and love of the Trinity, we see the movement from despair, oppression, and death, into peace, joy, life and participation in the Trinity as God gifts Gods-self.

This gift is what theologians call the grace of charity, “and it is offered by the divine ground to the eros of the psyche.” Through the divine initiative, the transcendent measure is given to the psyche and, through the psyche, to the community. The concrete form of agapic integrity, “the revelation of attunement with the divine ground,” is “a visitation of humanity by soteriological truth.” In Christian theology, the truth of agapic attunement is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The psychic integrity that measures the integrity of the community is, accordingly, the just and mysterious law of the cross, the love that returns good for evil, that transforms evil into good, that would lay its life down not only for one’s friends but also for one’s enemies.[6]

The gift of salvation through faith is nothing less than the gift of God Himself, given to the individual. God is Abba, through identifying with the faithfulness of the Son, communicated through the Spirit. The measure of this gift is not according to law, culture, or living up to certain scruples, but is measured and recognized by “the love that returns good for evil, that transforms evil into good, that would lay its life down not only for one’s friends but also for one’s enemies.” Salvation is a “‘twofold agapic invitation,’ in which one is invited both ‘to receive the divine agape’ and to embody it in one’s own existence.”[7] 

The “problem” with agape is it is pure personhood, in both the Giver and its recipient, and it does not and cannot rely on impersonal law, static doctrine, or immutable institutions.[8]  The human tendency is to pass “beyond” the personal to that which is static and subject to control, however this “postmodern” moment calls for the suspension of any imagined impersonal essence: “As the divine ground of world-transcendent meaning is communicated to the various matrices of human culture through the incarnate proclamation of the law of the cross, all forms of cultural pretention, universality, normativity, and permanence are invalidated and undone.”[9] Relativity, even as Einstein understood, is not the relinquishing of stable truth, but it is the recognition this truth resides in personhood – or for the theologian, in Divine Personhood. Metaphysics no longer serves as the sure and certain ground, rather “cognitional theory overturns metaphysics as first philosophy, as the critical ground for epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of God.”[10] Meaning is not to be found in some objective, stable structure, but within persons, in their understanding and intelligence.

Science is no longer the “sure knowledge of things through their causes” but is a heuristic or method which takes into account both the scientist and his observations. So too, theology can no longer presume some singular point, or stable cultural foundation. “The notion of culture as the social objectification of human nature, an immutable and universal achievement crumbles with the discovery of the multiplicity of cultures. The theological task must broaden to be able to effect a mediation of revealed meaning within this multiplicity.”[11] The mediation of meaning is not institutional, structural, doctrinal, or propositional but personal. “Between the experience that elicits philosophical wonder and the certitude that follows upon true judgments of fact is the act of understanding, the operation of organizing intelligence that grasps from within data an intelligible form, a quiddity, an essence.”[12] As Bernard Lonergan puts it:

the root of the problem, I believe, its really baffling element, lies within the subject, within each one of us. For the problem is not solved merely by assenting to the propositions that are true and by rejecting the propositions that are false. It is a matter of intellectual conversion, of appropriating one’s own rational self-consciousness, of finding one’s way behind the natura naturata, the pensée pensée, of words and books, of propositions and proofs, of concepts and judgments, to their origin and their source, to the natura naturans, the pensée pensante, that is oneself as intelligent and as reasonable.[13]

The encounter with and participation in Divine Life is simultaneously the discovery of oneself in intelligence and meaning. Conversion is a transformation of the mind, “an intellectual conversion,” which penetrates behind nature, taking into account the nature of nature (natura naturans), the thought of thought (pensée pensée), as these reside, not in books, propositions and proofs, but within the mind. It is not that all of God is grasped, but the encounter with God begins within human understanding and experience. [14] Pursuit of the experience and meaning of God is an endless growth into His likeness which is initiated within human thought, intelligence, and experience.

Conclusion: The Movement in Romans is the Continual Movement of Theology

Romans begins with an argument about the law and the extent of its application, concluding in chapter 7 that the law itself is bound up with the problem. This problem is described in terms of an alienated subjectivity, an agonized intellect, and a futility of mind, in which death reigns. There is a marked Trinitarian absence, with the law of the mind serving in place of God, the ego serving the subjective position (taken by Christ in chapter 8) and the law of sin and death reigning in place of the Spirit. Romans 8 pictures the result of being in Christ rather than in the law; “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2).

The picture (in Rom. 8) is of a transformed mind and experience, the life of the mind in participation with the Trinity: “the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace . . . For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (8:6, 15). Adopted as brothers and sisters of Christ, the children take the same attitude as Christ in suffering and adoption: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (8:16–17). Here is the fulness of Paul’s transformation of the mind: Participation through the Son, by the Spirit, in the love of the Father is salvation. Anything short of this is law.

Inasmuch as modern Christians look to the law, much of Romans might be read as an indictment of Christianity as we have it: an indictment of retributive justice, of foundationalism (or the notion law is the foundation), an indictment of salvation as missing punishment (hell) and receiving rewards (heaven), an indictment of the notion that God is primarily known through law (and all this entails in classicism and the history of theology), an indictment of the trivialization of Christianity.


[1] Ryan Hemmer, The Death and Life of Speculative Theology: A Lonergan Idea (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2023).

[2] Margaret Talbot, “The Villa Where a Doctor Experimented on Children,” The New Yorker (September 25, 2023) 30-43.

[3] Hemmer, 41.

[4] Robert Doran, Theology and the Dialectics of History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990) 488. Quoted in Hemmer, 72.

[5] Hemmer, 72.

[6] Hemmer, 71-72. The quotes are from Doran, Ibid, 486 and 486-487 respectively.

[7] Hemmer, 72.

[8] Eros, in the depiction of Paul and the tradition, may have no natural fulfillment. “In receiving divine agape, one receives that which eros can only desire.” Ibid.


[9] Hemmer, 81.

[10] Hemmer, 45.

[11] Hemmer, 45.

[12] Hemmer, 38.

[13] Bernard Lonergan, “Method in Catholic Theology,” In Philosophical and Theological Papers, 1958-1964, 29–53. Edited by Robert C. Croken, Frederick Crowe, and Robert M. Doran. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 6. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) 6, 38. Quoted in Hemmer, 40.

[14] The “unification it attains cannot be explanatory in its entirety; the mind attains a symmetry, but its apex, the ultimate moment and the basis of its intelligibility, stands beyond the human intellect.” The reference is from Bernard Lonergan, Grace and Freedom: Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 1. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000) 166. Hemmer 27-28

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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