Religious PTSD: Escaping Toxic Religion

Faith, my wife, is a supervisor of mental health workers so, though we live in a small town, we are continually aware of the suicides, child abuse, murder, spousal abuse, drug abuse, and all-around hellishness of peoples lives. The hard reality is that those who are mentally ill have usually experienced terrible trauma, the effects of which will consume much or all of their life. David, who is part of our community, works with those traumatized by their experience in the military. He is able to tap into a network of services for those suffering from PTSD connected to military service but his experience, like that on the national level (a veteran suicide every 65 minutes), is often a losing battle. In the past few weeks he has lost two friends to suicide. My previous work in Japan and then in the States, with Bible colleges, exposed the reality that there are many levels of mental illness that are not addressed by the usual theology and which are, in fact, aggravated by forms of the Christian faith. Various groups of former evangelicals have formed, like many of those who meet as part of Forging Ploughshares, that have been traumatized by evangelicalism.[1] People are sick and what has made them sick is usually quite obvious and very often the culprit is Christian religion.

 While it is certainly the case that religious meaning is meant to be therapeutic, Christianity often fails to address mental suffering and, instead, creates trauma which aggravates mental suffering.[2] The great exodus from evangelicalism is partly, informants and statistics indicate, because the religion can cause depression, obsessive compulsions, suicidal self-loathing, child abuse, and is giving rise to sexual abuse equal to or more pervasive than that in the general population.[3] The causes are not difficult to trace: notions of authoritarianism (male chauvinism/female subordination), perverse notions of child discipline (in the worst cases children are disciplined to death[4]), fear (e.g. fear of hell), and isolation and separation (e.g. children cut off from parents due to their choice of spouse or their sexual orientation). The misogyny and racism seem to have been made obvious in white evangelical support for Donald Trump and the recent election seems to be the catalyst for the exodus or public notice of the exodus in such groups as #exvangelical. People are sick and suffering and Christianity is aggravating the disease for many.

To put all of this in the third person, projecting the problem “out there,” may miss the shameful reality that I am personally acquainted with mental disease. I am never far from a rabbit hole of obsessive compulsion, which has motivated my particular theological focus.  It is important to begin with confession, as apart from the acknowledgement that disease grips me in a particular fashion and that I am aware of its grip, the case cannot be made as to the aetiologia of what, I would claim, is the universal human sickness and its cure. There is a force that can be named but the very process of naming it reduces one to a feeling of shame. The thing that I struggle with is banal repetition, such that if this force were personified it would make for the most insipid of persons.

What Freud calls the super-ego should not be mistaken for a healthy conscience as this creature only accuses of one or two things – endlessly repeating and through the repetition punishing its victims. It is obscene, not in some interesting diabolical way, but in its continual insistence of something lacking. As Adam Phillips has described it, “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.”[5] If embodied this creature would appear as damaged and needing to be euthanized. To mistake this thing for the self, certainly would involve self-hatred, but this seems to miss the point that it is the self that is traumatized by this obscenity. Better the world breaks out in all-out war, better that one is obliterated, then continue to be ceaselessly tortured by this unrelenting fault-finder. Indeed, Henri Bergson describes his great relief when world war broke out and the world matched his inner suffering.

The fault is not so much a moral failing as a failure to be complete or whole or substantial. In Hamlet’s soliloquy one is torn with whether to be or not to be. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a punishing conscience or to find rest in death? As with the children’s story, “The Missing Piece,” in which a large circle, missing a pie shaped wedge, goes looking for what is missing, what keeps one rolling along is an aching search for filling in what is absent. The felt lack of being and the compulsion to attain it through endlessly running the maze of accusation is an unbearable form of life. It is death dealing, the drive to death, in Freud and Lacan’s depiction. Lacan is darker than Freud in that he acknowledges that there is no cure but only the possibility of momentary survival. The only way of filling in the missing piece is through death and then one will have achieved the perfect circle of nothingness that constituted his drive in life. Whatever the form of the taunt of this obscene superego, I am convinced it is precisely not morality but immorality and evil (a true banality).

To confuse this punishing superego with the voice of God makes of religion the greatest possible evil as division, dialectic, and antagonism constitute the religion. There is a “Missing Piece Christianity” in which the true Jesus is hidden, the real kingdom is elsewhere, the final reality transcends us, and the true self alludes us.  The entire impetus is to find the truth “behind the text” in a higher critical analysis. The Constantinian divide separates us from access to the Kingdom, the Augustinian divide with its Neo-Platonism separates reality and experience, and the Anselmian/Calvinist divide posits an ongoing separation within the self. “Oh I’m looking for my missing piece looking for my missing Jesus, the missing Kingdom, the missing self, the missing life.”  There is a gap between us and God or within God himself and every effort is expended to close the divide. This accounts for major versions of the faith but is most clearly attached to notions of total depravity, penal substitution, and depictions of life as endless struggle with sin.  Rather than the religion healing, delivering, saving, it is geared more toward condemning, devaluing, traumatizing, and ultimately consuming life in mental illness mistaken for the faith of the New Testament.

The first step in any cure will mean ridding oneself of this God so that abandoning religion, for many, is the only alternative short of suicide. But as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, atheism per se is not an answer as there are many authorities and stand-ins for the role of this perverse superego God. The lack in human life becomes the power that controls and orders life and perverse religion accentuates an already existing problem. What is ultimately lacking, as examination of Romans 7 indicates, is life itself, as giving oneself to the pursuit of life through the conscience or through the law is a kind of living death (Paul’s “law of sin and death”) on the order of the death drive. Theology often repeats the story of the missing piece and accentuates or even constitutes elements of the disease.

The key note to Freudian psychology shared with biblical Christianity is to recognize that conscience (the sinful orientation to the law) or the superego does not provide access to the truth about ourselves but obscures, deludes, and deceives in regard to self-knowledge. The guilt (Freud calls it unconscious guilt) that weighs us down and which is accentuated and formalized by perverse religion is that which obscures the truth. The law of sickness, sin, and death, functions in the unconscious (obscured by a lie) so as to produce a punishing self-consciousness.  

To imagine this deluded punishment is a necessity enacted by God and fulfilled in Christ is to reify the human disease as religion and to make of the cross the culminating point of the disease. Death as cure, punishment as divine necessity, trauma as healing, confounds the cure and the disease and it is precisely this confounded religion that is traumatizing so many. The great mental struggle is to nail this thing down, to get a handle on it and throttle it, as if it is an objective reality. The moment of supreme objectification, Jesus reduced to the objective body on the cross, is made to support a notion of salvation which takes death to be salvific. If the body of Christ is the empirical bearer of necessary punishment, Christians are made to revel in his death like those at the foot of the cross, fascinated by the torture that duplicates and satisfies their own pain. God himself is at war with himself and this somehow matches and legitimates inner suffering and turmoil. Here the cross is the sign that God himself is the origin of the human disease.

A healing faith begins by recognizing that mental suffering is addressed by the great physician. The therapeuo or therapy of Christ is precisely aimed at the experience of mental suffering. In Paul’s explanation, perverse desire gives rise to punishing suffering as the law is presumed to be a means of achieving the self and actually involves painful loss of self. The pursuit of life in the law enacts a loss in which the ‘I’ observes or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7.23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7.20-21). Freud described it as the ambiguity between love and hate, desire and frustration. The same object gives rise to opposed feelings in which one is pitted against the self. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis the register of the imaginary (the ego) and the symbolic (the superego or law) are necessarily antagonistic as one revolves around vision (imaging) and the other around the auditory (the symbol system of language). There is no possibility of reconciliation between being and knowing, between the law of the mind and the law of the flesh. These registers are composed in opposition to the other. To imagine Christ satisfies this antagonistic law, as if this divide constitutes God himself, is to posit the sinful delusion as ultimate reality.

Authentic faith does not play into this “necessity” but exposes it as a delusion. Where this delusion arises through lack (lack of self, lack of life), the ground of faith is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (Ro. 8.29). This image is auditory and, in Paul’s depiction, is not an object of sight (ego). So achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of hearing and obeying, of walking as he did (8.4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8.5), of active submission (8.7,13), and patience (8.25). One works out this healing salvation as “the law of life in the Spirit” displaces the punishing law of sin and death.

The human tendency is to create an obstacle (an idol) that would serve to keep antagonistic desire alive.  The history of theology can be posited as a series of obstacles which have obscured an authentic Christianity. The trauma of perverse Christianity is doubly tragic in its displacement of a healing faith which eliminates the gap or divide in which we are traumatically pitted against ourselves.

“But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation”

(Ro. 10:6-10).


[1] The #exvangelical and Liturgist podcasts are hosted by several former evangelicals and focuses on evangelical trauma.

[2] Though it was not directly addressed at this year’s International Conference on Missions, from which Faith and I have just returned, Jeff Fife, the president of the conference, described his sexual abuse as a child and then his entry and traumatization in the military. The final talk of the conference was given by a hospice nurse observing that the manner in which people die, at peace or in turmoil, is indicative of the life they have lived.

[3] See my podcasts http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/the-passage-beyond-complementarianism-in-restoring-the-image/, http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/seromon-oppression-of-women-a-curse-of-the-fall-undone-in-christ/, and blog http://forgingploughshares.org/2019/10/17/salvation-as-freedom-from-sexual-abuse-and-oppression/

[4] In her book, Breaking Their Will, Janet Heimlich traces instances of child murder to notions of Christian discipline.

[5]Adam Phillips, “Against Self-Criticism” https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n05/adam-phillips/against-self-criticism

The End of an Era: Reflections on the Closing of Cincinnati Christian University

My wife and I met at CCU as did her parents, Mark and Pauline Maxey, and two of her brothers and their spouses. Faith’s extended family including 3 uncles and an aunt attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary (CBS) before it was designated a university and her uncle, Victor Maxey, was the school librarian for much of his life and much of the life of the school. Her Aunt, Isabelle, attended the school in its third year of operation. Isabelle’s father, R. Tibbs Maxey, drove her there in a Maxwell touring car from Boise Idaho and the old car had to be backed up Price Hill as it could not otherwise make the steep grade. Tibbs had experienced the divisiveness of liberalism up close, with Disciples’ organizations taking over two of the churches he had organized and he had watched the liberals capture his alma mater, the College of the Bible in Lexington, so he had a vested interest in the new school.   After hearing J. Russell Morse’s appeal for workers in China, Isabelle used her preparation at CBS in a lifetime of missionary service in Asia.

Faith’s father would make the journey to the school with his brother Tibbs and with Max Ward Randall from Minnesota Bible College. Mark was impacted at CBS by the teaching and preaching of Ira Boswell. During the Memphis convention, in which it was clear the liberals were making their move to capture the convention and the brotherhood, when the chairman had tried to quiet the objectors by intoning, “Let us pray,” Boswell had jumped up on a bench and shouted, “Pray nothin! I feel like fighting.” As Mark described him, “that was only part of his nature. He was at the same time one of the wittiest and most inspirational men I ever listened to.”

The outstanding class, in Mark’s memory, was a course on the Campbell debates taught by R. C. Foster. Cincinnati had been the sight of two of these debates and was in close proximity to the third, the debate on baptism with Nathan Rice, which had taken place in Paris Kentucky. This proximity to history and the sense that the tides were changing marked the atmosphere of the school. In Mark’s description: “The battle had not yet been won so the events related to the struggle were vigorously debated both in the classes and in the assemblies. The students knew what the issues were and why.” The “war” in Mark’s depiction and in his life-time of work had as much to do with allowing for freedom within brotherhood organizations as it did with higher criticism and theological liberalism.

Cincinnati was also the location of the United Christian Missionary Society and, due to World War II, two key informants of the Philippine struggle for independent missions, Juan Baronia and Ben Allison, were available. CBS became the center of a movement of independent missionaries and missions and Mark’s work for his B.D. thesis would detail the struggle against the UCMS as it occurred in the Philippines.  

Part of the significance of this depiction is its close ties to a specific historical projection, key personalities, and the story as it was being experienced. The Campbells and Stone had so grounded their reading of Scripture on reasonable interpretation that the broader sweep of Church history, inclusive of creeds and tradition, were largely brushed aside. Their own struggles, their deep intellectual engagement, their approach to Scripture and their particular experiences came to constitute its own significant history. This sense of continuing the historical struggle was passed to the early heirs of the movement.

The second-generation teaching at the school and the third generation of students, of which I would count myself, were bound to have a very different experience and sensibility. Neither Stone nor the Campbells hesitated to pose novel interpretations of Scripture and they were not anxious to establish a systematic theological understanding. The first generation at CBS were also practitioners of a new form of organization which was dependent upon a sense of individual freedom and the powers of individual interpretation.

 I may have gotten a distilled version of the anti-theology, anti-clergy, and anti-credentialing, in the person of Seth Wilson. Wilson (who made a point of his lack of ordination and credentials) had served as R. C. Foster’s teaching assistant at CBS, and though he never received a graduate degree, he was one of the founding faculty of Ozark Bible College. Ozark was in the mold of CBS, but specifically in the mold of R. C. Foster through the person of Seth Wilson. At that time, Ozark had no courses in theology. In its place we studied Acts, the life of Christ, and the New Testament, and of course we had a class in Restoration History. One of my memories is of John Relyea, who would serve and die in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea as a missionary, arguing with Seth in class that it was nonsense to be against a systematic theology as we all had one, either consciously or by default. Seth dismissed him, accusing him of thinking like a German.

The passage of CBS into the hands of a second generation of teachers is perhaps most notable in that with the hiring of Jack Cottrell, the school would undergo its first shift away from the inclinations against establishing a systematic theology. George Mark Elliot, who taught theology to Cottrell at CBS, like the Campbells and Stone had engaged the theological enterprise in an ad hoc manner. Cottrell would set out his understanding of the theological catalogue in his own three volume systematics, which is the most extensive systematic theological statement by a single individual to come out of the Independent branch of the Movement.

Cottrell does not often appeal to Stone-Campbell resources but largely affirms basic evangelical beliefs. Unlike the Campbells and Stone, he fully embraces Calvin’s version of penal substitution. (Stone had completely rejected the doctrine while the Campbells qualified it with a governmental notion of atonement.) Cottrell depicts Christ’s suffering on the Cross as the literal experience and payment for the penalty of eternal torturous existence. (R. C. Foster had warned that this sort of literal reading of hellish punishment as occurring in the suffering of Christ would reduce to contradiction.) In an innovation on original sin, Cottrell acknowledges that Romans 5:12-18 may depict a theoretical original sin wiped out by “Original Grace” given universally through the death and resurrection of Christ. Though he is pitting his Arminianism against Calvinism, as Elliot had understood, Arminianism is working within a Calvinist notion of sovereignty (seemingly reflected in this semi-Calvinist reading of Romans).

When it came time to write my Masters thesis under Cottrell I hit, innocently enough, on the worst of possible topics. Unbeknownst to me he had entered into discussion with Clark Pinnock and a group of “Open Theologians” who were reacting against notions of divine impassibility and an Augustinian understanding of God’s timelessness. I chose to write on and to defend some version of the traditional orthodox doctrine, though I had hoped to critique the Augustinian version of timelessness. It was not until I had initiated the research that I came to understand Cottrell believes (or did at that point) that God exists along a timeline or is temporal and that time is not created. I spent hours in discussion with Jack laying out the implications of suggesting God did not create time and that he is temporal. I equated it, in our conversation, with a Newtonian understanding with deistic implications. Needless to say, I never completed this thesis.

In the spirit of the founding of the school, Cottrell carried the fight against liberalism into theology, but with his emphasis on penal substitution, the unusual focus on the nature of God’s sovereignty, along with his teaching on women’s subordination and the notion that the Holy Spirit works only through the Bible, Cottrell’s articulation of theology is of a fundamentalist evangelical bent and is uneven at best. As George Mark Elliot had reportedly put it, “Cottrell may save us from attacks on biblical authority, but who will save us from his Calvinism?”

The early reactions against theological liberalism at CBS were mainly through New Testament scholarship, largely in the persons of R. C. Foster and his son, Lewis Foster. The tenor and quality of the argument changed with the shift to the battleground of theology. In my view theology was and is the way out of the morass of controversy between theological liberalism and fundamentalism. The moderate, Barton Stone-like tack of another Cincinnati graduate, James Strauss, whose tenure at Lincoln Christian Seminary is parallel to Cottrell’s at Cincinnati, indicates that the Restoration Movement and CBS had theological resources that could simultaneously resist both liberalism and fundamentalism. Strauss provided the impetus for a theological scholarship that moved beyond the modernist battles over authority and higher criticism and Lincoln has been marked by a steadier stream of orthodoxy. Theological fundamentalism simply does not contain the resources to counter the sort of rank liberalism that would eventually mark the demise of the original spirit of CBS. The history of the school followed a predictable pattern in the absence of these richer theological resources, so that the liberal biblical scholarship taught in the final years of the school was already outdated, a century behind, rendered passé by a variety of theological movements.

The closing of CCU marks the end of an era. [1] Its founders and the first generation of students were indeed in the midst of history making events. The Great Generation that went out from CBS changed the shape of missions and had a worldwide impact on the Church. The battles of the first generation, and their manner of engagement in the only way they knew, resulted in a school that had an international impact and defined a generation of ministers and missionaries.


[1] The “Historical Agreement” with another Bible College confounds the sad note of the school’s closing. The basic dishonesty in not addressing the needs of students and trumpeting instead an agreement with a school that has followed the same trajectory as CCU is an added blight. This school also recently received a rejection from the Higher Learning Commission and the reasons must be approximately those outlined in the HLC letter to CCU. Fifteen faculty and staff, mainly those teaching Bible and theology fired (the founding faculty retired or phased out), replaced with a focus on sports (4 full time coaches at a school of less the 200), the position of Registrar phased out, multiplication of administrative salaries and positions, mission drift, etc. etc.

Progress in Conversion: From Charles Manson’s Brainwashing to Cultivating Discernment

In my last blog (here) I made the point that peaceful non-violence was the goal, but not yet an established or fully worked out ethic in the patristic period. Tertullian could imagine delighting in watching his enemies suffer in hell from his perspective in paradise, though he was adamant that one should not even be associated with violence by accepting a military honor. Origen failed to see that beating slaves was a form of violence unworthy of his explanation of God’s discipline; a form of violence which he otherwise abhorred. This does not mean that for the first 400 years nonviolent peace was not the goal, it simply indicates obvious blind spots. The point is not that the fathers willfully tolerated and accepted certain forms of violence; rather they could not fully discern what constitutes violence. What we can readily identify as unworthy of Christian thought and behavior, they were somehow blind to.

This entails several implications for how we are to go about the Christian life. First of all, there is no golden age in which the Christian tradition is adequate, in which the kingdom of God on earth is a fully worked out reality. Clearly the Constantinian compromise is one in which we are still enmeshed but it is not enough to “get beyond” Constantine. Restoration or return to the practices and understanding of the first Christians is an inadequate goal and a passive notion of salvation (salvation as return, as simply ridding ourselves of innovations, of passively entrusting our mind to the culture of the church) is sub-Christian. Conversion is not a singular moment but a process to be cultivated and applied as part of an expanding reality. Progress in conversion, in passage from being blind to seeing and to continued exposure of blind spots, must consist in cultivating capacities for discernment. This discernment must consist of several layers, objective and subjective, such that our understanding of God and objective reality will be a coordinate working in tandem with subjective experience. In other words, putting on the mind of Christ through the work of the Spirit is not an abandonment of reasoned effort or of concentrated self-reflection.  

Certainly, there is a model to be had in Christ, there is the supposition of guidance through the Spirit, and there is corporate molding in the Church, such that cultivation of dawning insight is not simply given over to rational thought, the power of dialectic, or the phenomenology of mood and emotion. There is also the original awareness in conversion of an enabling capacity to see. What is it precisely though, that one sees subsequent to having been blind? Beginning with the constituent pillars of blindness, its inevitable convergence with violence, its dependence on oppression, I believe it is possible to identify the dynamic of darkness (to name the violence) and to cultivate discernment of the light (to expand upon peace).

 Paul’s conversion from belief in a God who prompted him to kill, to belief in the Father of Christ which prompted him to lay down his life, contains the prototypical elements of every conversion. The sinful orientation to the law posits a punishing authority (call it god, father, the nation, Charles Manson (see below), or simply the superego) which holds out the possibility of life (presence, being, authentic existence, safety) at the expense of masochistic sacrifice (formal religious sacrifice, oppressive self-sacrifice, or sadistic sacrifice of others). Life is to be had in death and the structure of this dynamic of death consists of a perfect absence or a full darkness. The Pharisaical religion but any human religion, any human salvation system or neurosis, contains the same structure.

For example, Charles Manson, nearly illiterate and almost completely unschooled, might be confused with a gnostic high priest or new age guru: “Time does not exist. There is no good and evil. Death is not real. All human beings are God and the Devil at the same time, and all are part of the other. The universe is one and all that is.” In this world, according to Tex Watson (one of Manson’s “family” members), it is fine to kill because human life is worthless. To kill someone is the equivalent of “breaking off a minute piece of some cosmic cookie,” Watson explained. Death is to be embraced because it exposes the soul to the oneness of the universe. How Manson learned to manipulate people is not exactly clear. Some say it was through reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Tom O’Neill suggests that Charlie was trained by the CIA (a seemingly conspiratorial claim that he partially backs up). We know he was introduced to Scientology in prison. The mixture of his manipulative powers, LSD, sexual humiliation, reduced Tex and his friends to obedient automatons who killed 9 people at Manson’s arbitrary bidding. Cult, nation state, or run of the mill neurosis, will serve up the necessity of violent sacrifice, an oppressive depiction of god or reality, and a fundamental incapacity for discerning life.

There is an inverse relationship between what Paul (or anyone) is converted from to what he is converted to in Christ. The difference is that the refinements of death and the emptying out of evil blandly converge on violence (a limited prospect by definition) – there is no art, no refinement of sensibilities, no cultivation of discernment, as one simply learns, in Manson’s phrase, to be a “mechanical boy.” The swami on his bed of nails, the monk emptied of self and transformed into a statue, the soldier trained to stifle his humanity, the neurotic compulsively bound by repetition, or the Pharisee set to destroy his enemies, describes those hemmed in by death. Though this death like experience might be confused with self-transcendence, the isolating fixation within the self and the circumstance is definitive.

It is a more difficult task to describe how one subscribes to life and cultivates love and peace, not because these are less tangible but because here there is an infinite breadth of transcendent possibility. Knowing and loving others and the capacity to appreciate their value is the inverse sign of a developing capacity to judge the self and to escape the confines (the law) of a “given” circumstance.  The New Testament links conversion with a refocusing of values as one’s sense of worth is shifted. The pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in a field brings about an exchange, costing all that one has. The discerning pearl merchant, those well trained in the value of things, perceive what the undiscerning and untrained fail to perceive. One must undergo a “training in righteousness,” not merely to instill a new ethic but to be shaped by a new value and valuation system. To perceive God’s Kingdom, to be shaped by its values, will mean shedding the oppressive top down power of the law for a “power-under” or “bottom-up” perspective in which the subtleties of fine pearls and hidden treasures are exposed.

 A primary difference is that there is a substantive reality to be obtained as this treasure is precisely not an unobtainable object (as with the image of the idol or the ego) but is prime reality. There are substantial realities of love, peace, goodness and beauty, that do not depend upon nor are they ultimately overcome by insubstantial evil. As Robert Doran has put it, “this world is intelligible, things do hold together, we can make sense of the universe and of our lives, we can overcome the fragmentation of knowledge, we can make true judgments, we can make good decisions, we can transcend ourselves to what is and to what is good.”[1] The contrast with blindness gives no substantive or necessary role to evil or darkness but it does demonstrate that perception, sensibilities, discernment, and progress are the entry way into an alternative understanding which we must cultivate.

Maybe it is with this moral sensibility that one might appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s reworked ending for the Manson killers in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Instead of wiping out the innocent goodness of the world, represented by Sharon Tate, a true believer might reimagine a universe in which the good turns out to be the more enduring reality.


[1] Quoted from Byrne, Patrick H. The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics (Lonergan Studies) (p. 29). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.

The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.

Clothed in a Gentle Spirit – I Am A Cat

Today we are burying Imogene, who was 97 years old, and who as a girl rode her horse to the Cairo schoolhouse. At 15 she was a champion milker, winning the milking contest at the local fair. Imogene was always of good cheer. When I would ask after her health, she would explain that she felt no pain, and she indicated she still got around pretty good, and she would always remind me that her mother lived to be over a hundred years old. She would usually tell me some little story of what her cat had done, often the same story, and now I am a bit dim on the details. The cat had noticed that, since Imogene’s fall, she was especially weak and the cat, Suzie, knew that things were not right. Suzie being worried about her well-being would go to great lengths to be of comfort, making sure to sit near-by lest anything bad should happen. The cat apparently has special powers of empathy and was worried as Imogene grew weaker. She seemed to be her guardian – so I was only mildly surprised to encounter Suzie on her death-bed and in her coffin.

I always felt that I already knew Imogene, but I had known her in her Japanese incarnation. Yakashigi was our children’s Japanese stand-in for a grandmother and she could not have been much more than 4 feet tall when standing straight, and she never stood straight, as she was permanently bent over. She wore the finest of colorful Kimonos, and for all the years she was able, never missed church.  She was one of the early converts of David Tsugio Tsutatda, “The John Wesley of Japan,” whom she described with great respect but she said sensei was quite strict. I had come to know one of his sons, the head of the Immanuel Church at the time, as his son (the grandson) had come to study at our small Bible College. The famous grandfather, at the outbreak of World War II, refused to erect a Japanese flag in front of his church and bow to the Emperor. He said, “Only God in heaven is divine. We worship Him alone.”  Tsutada was arrested, along with about 130 others who also refused to comply with the regulation, but after two years he was released on probation. As Yakashigi told the story, he took to the streets preaching and she encountered him there and became a member of his church.

Each week she would prepare pickled vegetables, as after church in Japan the custom is to drink green tea and eat a few pickled vegetables or a small meal. She found great amusement in watching me, a foreigner after-all, eat whatever she prepared. I took it as something of a test.  I suppose if she had presented me lawn clippings sprinkled with soy sauce, I would have dug in and remarked how good they were. I can’t say I particularly disliked her pickles, at first. But I noticed as the years went by the pickles took on a decidedly fermented taste, and often I seemed to be the only one who truly appreciated “all things” Japanese, even among the Japanese. I ate them till she was no longer able to make them.

  As our children came along, we discovered Faith would always develop a debilitating sickness during pregnancy.  When this first occurred, we were visiting Yakashigi and told her this. She excused herself and went outside, where I followed her.  She dug around underneath the house and came out with a huge liquid filled jar bulging with bright red orbs. She explained that she had pickled these plums more than 50 years ago and was waiting for just such an occasion. At first, Faith was quite skeptical of eating this ancient, salty, fruit. But after hesitantly eating one she found them quite tasty and they turned out to be the only cure she ever discovered for morning sickness.

Imogene, like Yakashigi, was the Dorcas of her community, making hundreds of quilts in her life-time, sewing clothes for her children, and lining up all of the relatives and measuring them so as to make them flannel shirts. The “best shirt I ever had,” her grandson told me.  One of her daughters estimated that she had made hundreds of quilts and afghans and passed them along as gifts.

It is strange, when you consider all the moving deaths in Scripture, it was with the death of Dorcas (also known as Tabitha), that the disciples of Lydda, near Joppa, were inconsolable. Her dying caused them to send for the great man Peter. “‘Do not delay in coming to us.’ So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them.”  The best tunics they ever had, I bet. It is interesting the disciples of Lydda, sought out Peter only so as to get Dorcas back – it was Dorcas who had held their world together. “But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, ‘Tabitha, arise.’ And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive” (Acts 9:38-41).

It is said that when Napoleon was on Elba island that he explained to a visitor that there was no one in the world that was his friend, no one that he loved, not even his own brothers. There are those who pour themselves out for others, and those who would suck up everything and consume it. If we are adorned in the afterlife with the love clothing we have ourselves stitched together – many “important” sucking folks will go about in the buff. If adorned with the stuff woven in “the hidden person of the heart, the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (I Pet. 3:4) then I know a couple of old ladies who will be luxuriously outfitted.

When Faith and I stopped in, the cat was there in the nursing home, lying on the bed next to her. I prayed, not addressing the cat, but aware she was probably listening. I prayed a simple prayer – “let the pain stop, let her quickly find rest in the arms of Jesus.” She died within two hours.

 When we went to the visitation last night, Suzie was curled up near Imogene’s head in the coffin, watching over her very carefully.

Salvation as Freedom from Sexual Abuse and Oppression

Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, are in the midst of the exposure of pervasive sexual abuse and scandal. While sexual abuse is a problem in the culture as a whole, Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham says, abuse occurs as much or more in the church as outside of it. Tchividjian, whose organization (GRACE – Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) addresses the issue of sex crimes in churches, says sexual abuse in evangelicalism rivals that of the Catholic Church, so that churches as a whole are in the midst of an epidemic. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime. 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. A study by Abel and Harlow revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. Considering that, “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing — both in and outside the church — that exists,” according to Tchividjian, and the fact that those churches promoting women’s subordination to men create what has been described as a “rape culture,” the troubling statistics are only the tip of the iceberg.

A joint investigation by two Texas papers resulted in a report revealing that over 200 Southern Baptist pastors, youth pastors and deacons were convicted or took plea deals for sex crimes over the past 20 years — creating over 700 survivors. Considering the vast majority of rapes in the United States never lead to a felony conviction, these numbers suggest astronomical levels of violence. Women and girls, in particular, can be silenced in hierarchic churches that teach “complementarianism” — the belief that God ordains male authority especially in the church and the home. Having been conditioned not to question men, some women struggle to stand up to male misconduct, and when they do are often dismissed. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Paige Patterson, described a young man’s lewd comments toward a teenage girl as “biblical” and said the proper response to abuse within marriage “depends on the level of abuse to some degree.”

 Beth Moore, a Southern Baptist speaker and author, reports years of misogynistic treatment.[1] Her descriptions of abuse sound verbatim like my wife’s treatment by an administrator at a Bible College where we were employed: “I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of.” Her encounter with “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women,” she says, was one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life.” Faith, one of the smartest people I have ever known (and not because she married me), experienced being continually shut down in meetings, yelled at in private, and otherwise being ignored. Moore says, “I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged.” In one especially grievous encounter, a theologian she admired and looked forward to meeting immediately reduced her to an object. “The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, ‘You are better looking than (he named another woman speaker).’” She concludes, “Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason.”

 “Evil” may be the correct word, at least in our experience and the experience of countless others. Abuse of women, in comparison to the “important” work of Christian leaders, is often not considered worthy of preventive action. Tchividjian, who as a prosecutor dealt with thousands of accusations against churches says, “It was just amazing how many church leaders and church members had no problem coming to court and testifying on behalf of the character of the defendant, and how few came in defense of the victim” (a 9 out of 10 ratio, he says). Though the abuse my wife suffered was legally actionable, her complaints were sidelined as, like that of thousands of women, her abuse was deemed acceptable by “Christian” standards. As Tchividjian describes it, “The powerful and the influential, the perpetrators, those are the ones that we embrace.” Instead of imitating Jesus, always taking the side of the wounded and marginalized, illegitimate “Christian” authority is deployed to abuse.

While the issue of “complementarianism”versus “egalitarianism” touches upon the problem, I fear that what may be missed in reducing it to “gender roles” is the holistic nature of both the problem and solution.  Biblical salvation is directed toward defeating sin and a primary result of sin is oppressive alienation between men and women and oppressive notions of authority.  One of the curses of the Fall, part of what it means to have forfeited the image of God, is that man shall oppressively rule over women and women will masochistically succumb to this rule: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). What is demonstrated in the early chapters of Genesis is that this alienation extends to God, creation, and even to alienation within the self. While we can categorize these various forms of alienation, they are all constitutive parts of the same problem, experienced as oppression: toilsome oppression in work, murderous relations with others, and shameful/oppressive self-awareness, and ultimately institutionalized religious oppression in idolatry (resulting in human sacrifice).  The ultimate sacrilege occurring in churches today is the sacrifice of women and children, the outworking of the Fall characteristic of Moloch worship, in the name of Christ.  

Authentic Christian salvation cures this oppressive curse, specifically as it relates to gender. The wedding feast of the lamb, Israel and the Church as bride, the depiction of the oneness of marriage fulfilled in Christ and the Church, or the resolution of male/female alienation, depicts final reconciliation. Gender problems are at the center of the human problem and salvation is depicted, in this key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh.” Egalitarianism versus complementarianism, in isolation, does not capture the fact that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from a right understanding of God and how gender reflects the divine image and how this has been lost. The failure of the image and its restoration, or the human predicament and its resolution, certainly pertains to the role of women in Church leadership and the relations between husband and wife, but these latter issues are only the end point of the narrative sweep of Scripture.

Gender, along with class and ethnicity (male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile (Gal. 3:28)), functions through binary opposites creating a meaning foundational to the identity of a closed cosmos and economy. Maleness, freedom, and Jewishness are the privileged basis lending meaning to femaleness, slavery, and Gentileness, in a mode in which power is gained through dominating the other. Authority is that which can penetrate, oppress, and exclude, creating the privileged identity – the authority. The ultimate sexual act, the final ethnic determination, the height of economic privilege, entails extreme violence. In this sense, death is always the coin of the realm circulated in an economy Paul will dub the “law of sin and death”; the operating principle of this world.

Christ followers are freed from the law of sin and death through a reconstituted ethnicity (no Jew nor Gentile), an alternative socio-economic order (no slave nor free), and through a reworked orientation to gender (no male or female – directly and pointedly referring to Genesis), by being joined to Christ, though it is only the latter category which will have an enduring ontological meaning.  Ephesians (5:31-32) pictures salvation as the fulfillment of the original promise of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Image bearing capacities are brought to completion in a dissolution, not of male and female per se, but of oppositional difference. The power of the law working in and through degrees of separation is undone through the “one flesh” relationship in Christ.

Continued abuse, oppression, and mistreatment of women in church and in the name of Christ indicates misapprehension of the narrative force of Christianity – a complete obscuring of the point of salvation.


[1] https://blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html

Does Complementarianism Undermine the Gospel?

In Genesis humans are depicted as bearing the image of God as male and female. God speaks in the first-person plural, “Let us,” and humans are created as a plurality. This means image bearing is integral to human relations of every kind: sexual relations, family relations, marriage relations, but also in relation with God (that is the human image presumes relation to the Origin). Male/female is of course a characteristic running throughout creation – so it is simultaneously that which humans share with other creatures. While human spirituality (bearing the divine image) and human created/creatureliness cannot be reduced to gender, gender pertains throughout, so that both human depravity and the heights of spirituality find expression in human sexuality. Idolatrous religion, in its Old Testament depiction and in Paul’s summation of that depiction in Romans 1, manifests itself in human sexual misorientation, while the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the culmination of human spirituality, is depicted in terms of a fulfilled marriage relationship. This culminating wedding feast is the reconciliation of humankind with God, but simultaneously the restoration of right interpersonal, intrapersonal relations, and relation to creation (Revelation 19-21). In other words, resolution to the problem of gendered relations (through Christ as groom and the Church as bride) is not just part of the biblical story, this is the biblical story.

Gender problems are at the center of the human problem (male dominance and female desire, Gen. 3:16) and salvation is depicted, in a key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:32). Salvation depicted as the fulfillment of marriage must mean that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from understanding who God is, what the human predicament is, and the manner in which we are delivered from that predicament. Which is to say, the role of women in Church leadership or the relation of husband and wife cannot be isolated from the narrative sweep of Scripture. A typical error of isolating these issues is to misread the curse of the Fall, male domination and oppression of women (Gen. 3:16), as if God is accommodating or even encouraging this oppression, and then to read this into particular New Testament passages.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender, failed and successful marriage and male/female relations in the church respectively, but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) are to be realized by being “joined to Christ” or being “in the Lord.”

In I Cor. 11, the image restored in the body of Christ calls upon a direct correlate between male/female relations and the Father’s relation to the Son (the key to understanding “headship). Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man (ontologically and universally). Identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations.  Just as subordinationism is a Trinitarian heresy, the same applies to the relation to men and women (part of Paul’s prolonged argument against oppressing other people).

Romans 7:1-4 depicts the universal misorientation to the law as a marriage problem. The woman who would consort with a man, other than her husband, while her husband is still alive is representative of failed humanity. The resolution is not to kill off the living husband or wait around for him to die (abolish the law). Two realms of knowing, knowing the law with the mind and knowing in the Hebraic sense (knowing in the flesh), have come into conflict and cannot be coordinated. The woman’s troubled love life (legally married to one man and illegally consorting with another) is not simply her singular problem, but represents the human predicament.  The point of the illustration, deploying the conflict between sex and marriage, is that the law dictates and determines every aspect of this relationship. Knuckling under to the law (a submissive or passive relationship to the husband or law) or transgressing the law, are not the resolution.  The problem is the oppressive axis of the law (authority, the husband, the punishing law) coordinates even the most intimate relationship. Domineering authoritarianism (the husband or law calls all the shots), passive self-effacement or open rebellion, describe life under the law, which Paul equates with sin.

The resolution is to be found in coordinating the two kinds of knowing (mind and body) by becoming the bride of Christ: “you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another” (7:4, NASB). This enables a joining to another in a fruitful relationship (“in order that we might bear fruit for God” vs. 4). Redeemed humanity is the bride of Christ, pregnant with the fruit of true love. The attempt to “gain control” as an orientation to the law, in either the typical authoritarian or submissive role, is suspended.  Christ, as husband, represents a suspension of the force of the law and being found in Christ as bride brings an end to agonistic domination and submission, as authoritarian rule is suspended.

Self-alienation and alienation from others, are not ultimately resolved apart from this reconciliation to be had in Christ. In both Ephesians and Romans this discord overcome in Christ directly pertains to human sexuality: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32, ESV). In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

The New Testament accommodates culture in certain instances, and does not seek to simply overturn the law or kill the husband, as in Paul’s illustration. For example, the church came to decide that the institution of slavery, though widespread in the ancient world, was incompatible with the New Testament’s vision of the freedom and dignity of human beings. Those New Testament texts that seem to support slavery (such as Eph. 6:,5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; I Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10, I Peter 2:18) must be coordinated with the clear undermining of the institution of slavery by other passages and by the whole of the Gospel narrative. This undermining is accomplished not through directly attacking slavery, but through a revolutionary subordination, which even those passages seemingly allowing for slavery point to. As in Philemon, radical subordination to Christ (on both the part of Onesimus and Philemon) is a mode of undermining the accepted cultural norms. The slave or servant of all is now the position to be sought as the servant is following the example of Christ. Texts which accommodate slavery should not be used to perpetuate slavery in the church nor should those passages accommodating the traditional role of women be allowed to distort the point of salvation. Freedom in Christ is not simply a metaphor for release from authoritarian oppression, it is breaking the bonds of oppression in every form (but most especially in male/female relations).

The nature of the Christian revolution is an undermining of the Powers (slavery, marriage customs, powers of the state) through submitting but not succumbing. Jesus refuses to remain in the grave, though he willingly went there. Paul offers up his head to Rome, not in defeat, but knowing that “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21, NASB). Scriptures commanding subordination of women and slaves, or subordination to the power of Rome, are not meant to preserve authoritarian roles but to undermine them. Paul is beheaded, Jesus is crucified, and the apostles are martyred, not because they obeyed and hoped to preserve cultural norms, but because they submitted in such a way as to overturn those powers through an alternative Kingdom.

The story of Fall and redemption is to be read as pertaining directly to overcoming of authoritarianism, forms of subordinationism, oppression and alienation.   There might still be slave/free, male/female, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories are suspended (Gal. 3:28), as with the law. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and one can treat these categories, in Paul’s explanation, as “if not” (I Cor. 7:29-30). They are no longer definitive, they do not pertain, as this symbolic order is displaced with an alternative “Spiritual” grammar.  To miss this deep grammatical shift, from the letter that kills to the Spirit which gives life, (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) is to miss the transvaluation of Christianity.

 While there is undoubtedly accommodation behind male/female instruction given in the New Testament, I am afraid Christian complementarianism, focused as it is on a few verses, is missing the narrative force of the story of salvation.  Though Paul commends a woman apostle, women evangelists, deaconesses etc. he also recommends male elders. Is the conclusion that women are excluded from Church leadership, or is this a dogged commitment to the oppression the Gospel is overcoming? In Timothy, is Paul commanding a peculiar submission of women to men or is he commanding that women too should study and learn? N.T. Wright claims, that his command that women be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. In the most perverse of examples, where Christ is portrayed as “head” who sustains and serves all, it has been presumed that a husband as head is the one who is the authority figure. As in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men has led to reinstituting of the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). (I have dealt with this here). The Godhead has been redefined, and one fears that the role of the Son as true head is lost.

Where these passages are cut off from their life situation and where theory is formed in isolation, some of these verses may be deployed as proof texts for complementarian forms of female subordination but this would seem to contradict the suspension of the law and its oppressive authority. This is the potential tragedy connected with reifying traditional roles captured in complementarianism. It misses the fact that the Gospel is overturning fallen norms of what it means to be male and female.

When I Am 64 – Life’s Lesson

Today, on my birthday, Jason and I had a long discussion about the nature of salvation – sort of a meaning of life lesson. I must admit that David Bentley Hart’s universalism makes perfect sense at one level and at another seems to empty the world, humanity, and the particulars of our individual history of meaning. Jason, my earth bound, Wendell Berry loving, poetry making friend, sent me back to a strange reminiscence. I was relating the simple story of Wacky Cake, my traditional birthday cake, and its meaning (which I warned him I was making up). Then he began to question if my mother really was a Mississippi shrimp boat captain and I realized the key element of our discussion is how we see meaning woven into our own lives and history.

At birth, like baby Moses, they put me in a Singer Sewing Machine lid as we floated out of Kansas City, stopping for a time at a trailer court on Dixie Highway in Louisville Kentucky. A few blocks away a missionary family, the Maxey’s from Japan, kept a small house for furloughs and Pauline Maxey gave birth to my wife. Faith and I must have crossed paths at the local Safeway, where I would have nodded and cooed, “I will be back.” Our ancestors had sailed from Maxey and Harlaxton, only a few miles apart in England, to converge in both Virginia and Kentucky and our lives would eventually merge to produce an ongoing stream.

But my father had called the trip a “vacation” and a trailer court along Dixie Highway did not fit the bill. We moved on to Biloxi Mississippi to the Ever Breeze trailer court where Mama ran a shrimp boat and Dad headed back north while we vacationed – the next four years. Hinkle, a family friend, owned a cypress shrimp trawler named “Shirley,” built in 1928 and requiring three crew members captained by my mother. They hired a young man out of the Air Force, Jim Slayton, who could nurse the engine along, and a very religious first mate, Joe Dee, whom my father said devoutly made the sign of the cross on all important occasions – according to Mom he must have “double crossed” when stealing the days catch and tools . High winds beached the Shirley just out of Gulf Port. My memory is of hard rain beating down on a flimsy trailer roof along the wind-swept coast. Luckily, the hurricane of 59 sank the Shirley before Joe Dee could completely bankrupt the family and before my mother was lost at sea.

So, we headed to Page, Arizona where my father would build the Glen Canyon Dam (it was not clear to me if he required help). We were leaving the “gween gwass” of Mississippi for a miserable desolation, and my only consolation, as I explained to my mother, would be in catching a small Indian. Dad wore a hardhat and carried a metal lunch pail with a thermos, so as to build the dam. My first memory of a present, I presume it was my fifth birthday, was a miniature pail with a miniature thermos, my Rosebud. Objects invested with a weight of meaning, a magic C. S. Lewis describes in his boyhood garden contained in a dish, from which Narnia would spring.

At 7 I acquired a beagle who was my own hound of heaven. My father was running for mayor, promising to close down all gambling in Parsons Kansas and promising to rid the town of its arch villain, Ed Thompson. Ed was a political operative all over Kansas and my father was in the basement printing off anti-Ed literature when huge Ed Thompson knocked on our door at midnight, and my father at about 5 feet 4 inches confronted the meanest man in Kansas. Ed followed my father to the basement and helped create more anti-Ed Thompson literature and helped run Dad’s campaign, which my father won.

Much later, my father and I met Ed downtown, and I remember feeling important that I was in on this special meeting, which was about Mr. Magee, Ed’s beagle. For some reason Mr. Magee wanted to abandon political life with Ed, and required a country home. Ed and I walked with Mr. Magee and I noticed the dog was eating grass and Ed explained the medicinal effects of grass. Meeting Ed and his dog became a warm memory – a living sort of magic.

Mr. Magee, who would politely wipe his feet when coming inside and could open his own cans of dog food, became the center of my life. I remember a long morning in which we had a rabbit trapped in a pipe and I was trying to slide the rabbit my way to rescue him from the jaws of death at the other end of the pipe. After hours of struggle I grabbed the rabbit by the ears and took him home as a pet – but something happened that morning.  Part of it was that Mr. Magee must have gotten the point, as he later gingerly carried a baby rabbit unharmed and set it at my feet. The patterns of memory I have with this dog are tinged with a deep spiritual sensibility. My first great trauma in life and my first religious experience, prayer, occurred when Mr. Magee disappeared.

Could it be that this little piece of history, trivial, nearly nonsensical, bears meaning?  Isn’t the world and our passage through it somehow enchanted? Is there one point where we can say, here eternity intersected time, so that this moment is weighted forever as part of the life of God and it now pervades all things. If the cross, the life of Christ, the resurrection, is such a moment in time, then why not a similar significance interwoven throughout life. The old woman hidden behind a mound of plastic flowers whom I have come to help make artificial flowers at age 7. Her small kindnesses, our quiet conversation, the sheer delight of my first ice cream sandwich, my salary. Hours and days spent alone on the Texas prairie; are they empty or lost or woven into my eternity.

What weight does any history bear and what dignity? Aren’t we to be about creating, constructing, weaving eternity throughout the moments of time? We are not simply the passive recipients of the divine future presence, but are to be conduits of eternal purpose as co-creators here and now. The great danger in notions of post-mortem universal correction is that creations purpose is denied its eternal weight – its intersection with the divine worked out in the history of the cross and all history. Justice will amount to nothing. None of it will have mattered one way or another. The devil will be saved according to Origen, and Hitler, Himmler and Stalin are on the same level as Mother Teresa.[1] The world enchanted by eternity, or left un-created, unmade, unfulfilled, is part of the weight borne in the responsibility of Imago Dei.




[1] Clifford Dull in correspondence. See the Patheos article by Geoff Holsclaw https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2019/10/02/reviewing-david-bentley-hart/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm


Does Hart’s Dogmatic Universalism Miss the Real World Engagement of Christian Hope?

David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, arrives at an unquestioning universalism which he poses against the “hopeful” but “timid” universalism of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and concludes that to be timid simply springs from being muddled. Either everyone will be reconciled to God through the work of Christ or some human beings will never be reconciled – both cannot be true. If Hart’s argument has a target audience, beyond those who already agree with him, it must be to nudge the hopeful universalists toward his dogmatic universalism. Hart blends philosophical and biblical argument and concludes that the notion of “tension” between two irreconcilable positions is simply a way of eliding “contradiction” and, the ultimate Hartian insult, this timidity is just giving way to a “post-Hegelian dialectical disenchantment, as well perhaps as a touch of disingenuous obscurantism” (p. 103). It is his blending of modes of discourse which I want to question: Is biblical certainty of the same order as philosophical certainty and do these modes of discourse position us differently in regard to the work of Christ, history, and most especially the problem of evil?

It is not that philosophy and theology are absolutely discreet, but the incremental difference between “hopeful” and “certain” universality pertains to tone and perspective. That is, Hart’s tone, his wonderfully entertaining arrogance, is not a side light of this work but is gained from a perspective he would have everyone adopt. Here we have not so much to do with the hard work of explaining how justice can possibly be meted out or how evil can be resolved. This tone of certainty smacks more of the perspective of a philosophical transcendence, which need not bend to the limited perspective of a mere human. The categories are dealt with, the formal causes and problems engaged, while there is really no comprehension of how this really works. I certainly believe in a final justice but the comprehension that this is so is far different than understanding how it is going to be made the case. The justice enacted in Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, by way of contrast, deals in the realm of human history, human experience, and allows for human understanding. This too is a certainty, but it is a certainty in progress, working itself out in history, and engaged not in terms of an absolute philosophical certainty but the “hopeful” certainty of faith. The former need not take into account the realm of evil or the contingencies of history. The latter is a humble “hopeful” certainty which deals in the reality of human perspective and the existential fact of suffering and evil.

The argument for humility may sound like a niggling critique, but it makes all the difference in terms of the problem of evil. We can, in portions of Hart’s argument, momentarily set aside the real-world overcoming of evil in the Cross of Christ – the engaged position of those responsible men and women called to action in the face of evil[1] – as we our now given a God’s eye view above all of the sound and fury.  It turns out that the weight of God’s action is in the future, far removed from real-world engagement with evil, beyond history and on the other side of death. Isn’t the danger of this absolutely confident universalism that, like infernalism, it so weights future categories so as to empty out the necessity of the Cross and our taking up the Cross?

The objection is not that Hart does this permanently or all the time, he is too good of a theologian for that, but the entire argument is geared toward adopting a tone warranted, not so much by a Christocentric perspective as by arguments from formal cause. Both may give rise to what we call “certainty” but the former brand of certainty is an engaged certainty, which looks to the gradual triumph of the work of Christ and the Cross. The latter certainty can skip over all mere historical, known categories, and invest its trust in an incomprehensible future. For example, purging fire (a perfectly sound idea) is as metaphorical as punishing fire, how either works is beyond comprehension. Unlike the Cross, which we can ascertain, comprehend in part, witness to, the certainty imbued by this future work is made of the same stuff as purely formal analytical arguments (of which Hart is so critical).

Hart’s confident universalism functions in this book much in the same way that divine apatheia functions in The Doors of the Sea. In order for God to not be implicated in the problem of evil, the mode of rescue is through an apatheia beyond comprehension. A book spent on disclaiming theodicy reverses course in the case of God so as to provide Him, if no one else, a way out. The Cross in turn, rather than being a real world unfolding of the defeat of evil (as an ongoing battle) is “a triumph of divine apatheia” (p. 81). Hart’s formal cause is protected from evil, in both instances, by formally dismissing the contingencies of evil as entering into the equation. This is accomplished not by focusing on what is knowable about God in Christ, but by trusting primarily in what is apophatic, a-historical, and ultimately unknowable. One might speak of this trust as “certain” as part of a formal and flawless argument but it is a certainty that almost certainly has nothing to do with the real world-defeat of evil found in the historical Jesus. The fault is not in the logic of the argument but in the perspective it affords.

The Christocentric perspective, as with the evil which it takes into account, primarily deals in the concrete and specific and is not aimed at protecting formal arguments nor an abstract understanding. While one might be certain of one’s formal statements about God, does this form of certainty give rise to ethical behavior, to resistance to evil, to assuming personal responsibility or does it, in fact, have the opposite effect?

As with the discourse of the friends of Job, the heirs and guardians of infallible arguments, their knowledge is dispensed from a height which could lord it over the evil that plagued their poor, muddled thinking, friend. Their knowledge is pure and positive and does not rely upon taking into account momentary evil. While their thought takes flight from the world, Job’s hope is that God would show up in the midst of the world.

“This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).

There is a certainty in Job’s statement, but it is not the certainty of his friends in their apprehension of formal cause. It is a hopeful certainty that takes into account his present suffering. It is not through denying or turning away from suffering that we see the presence of God in Christ; it is by entering into the truth of these realities that we best apprehend God.

In his deployment of creation ex-nihilo Hart notes, “God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly.”[2] While God does not determine himself in creation, is it the case that this is sufficient revelation for his human subjects? Contrast this with Luther’s critique of scholasticism:

Thesis 19: ‘He is not rightly called a theologian who perceives and understands God’s invisible being through his works. That is clear from those who were such ‘theologians’ and yet were called fools by the apostle in Romans 1:22. ‘The invisible being of God is his power, Godhead, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and so on.  Knowledge of all these things does not make a man wise and worthy.’

Thesis 20: ‘But he is rightly called a theologian who understands that part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world to be presented in suffering and in the cross. That part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world is opposed to what is invisible, his humanity, his weakness, his foolishness…For as men misused the knowledge of God on the basis of his works, God again willed that he should be known from suffering, and therefore willed to reject such wisdom of the visible, so that those Who did not worship God as he is manifested in his works might worship him as the one who is hidden in suffering (I Cor. 1:21).  So, it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross. Thus, true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.’[3]

Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critique of theological liberalism, which mostly served the Nazi cause, took its strength from their engaged form of Lutheranism. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). Hart’s form of certainty stands in danger of foregoing the necessity of reconciling the two forms of discourse he engages and thus produces a philosophical certainty in place of the hopeful assurance of faith. The formal realities of God known through creation take precedence, in his dogmatic universalism, over the hopeful universalism of faith in Christ.  The danger is in missing the prime reality of the world engaged by Christ; the basis for a responsible ethical overcoming of evil.


[1] In Bonhoeffers description.

[2] David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho, in Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, (Vol. 3, Number1 (September 2015): 1-17) p. 5

[3] Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

Hell and Universal Salvation

If one has never questioned infernalism (the belief that some or many will experience eternal torturous punishment in a future after-life), David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven Hell and Universal Salvation is probably too large a pill to swallow. On the other hand, those who have never questioned infernalism are probably not the target audience of the book, which is part of the problem and Hart’s opening point; “I know I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity” (p. 4). Those who follow the argument will simply agree that it “successfully expresses their views,” while those who disagree will either dismiss his argument out of hand or presume to leverage the same old tired counter-arguments. “The whole endeavor may turn out to be pointless” (p. 4). The feeling of futility may be peculiarly irksome as the gravity of eternal torturous punishment pulls every other doctrine into its orbit, even and most especially the doctrine of God. If God is eternally angry (in spite of the Biblical teaching that he is not), if eternal torture of finite humans is part of his plan and necessary to his ends, and if it is by this means that God demonstrates his sovereignty, one might become suspicious, Hart argues, that Satan has taken the place of God and that worship of one or the other is an arbitrary choice.

 The problem is, if one pulls out the infernalist thread, then atonement theory, anthropology, and doctrine of God, in the common Western understanding will also unravel. Hart’s hard-hitting volume raises the question, given “the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment” and the “absurdities and atrocities” it entails (p. 78), whether we are still dealing with the same God and faith as that of the New Testament? Given the “moral hideousness” (p. 79) of infernalism, given that like God one will be required in eternity, according to Tertullian, to learn to relish “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” given that, according to Martin Luther, “the saved will rejoice to see their [former] loved ones roasting in hell” and that according to Thomas Aquinas “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven)”  (p. 78), given all this (and more) do we still have to do with the religion of love of the New Testament? Hart does not put the question exactly like that, but this gets at the enormity of the shift for which he is arguing. In short, eternal hell distorts the character of God, changes the nature of salvation, puts human will at the center of eternity, creates a feeling of elitism, diminishes the value of the vast majority of humanity, and shifts the focus of the New Testament and the work of Christ away from salvation from sin and death to salvation from eternal torturous existence.

Several pages of the book are given over to simply listing those New Testament passages which seem to describe an unqualified universality. The opening epigraph sums up the idea of some 25 passages Hart deals with: “Our savior God. . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4, Hart’s rendering). Hart’s translation of the New Testament, which he considers the required starting point (he sees the book as a companion to his translation), at a minimum, “restores certain ambiguities” (p. 3) read by the early Church as entailing universal salvation. The evidence indicates, “that the universalist faction was at its most numerous at least as a relative ratio of believers, in the church’s first half millennium” (p. 1). This did not rule out belief in hell, rather; “to them hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of I Corinthians” (p. 1). Hart maintains, “There have been Christian universalists . . .since the earliest centuries of the faith” but the theological influence of Augustine has given rise to two millennia of misunderstanding in the West (“if only he had died twenty years earlier,” Hart laments elsewhere).

A significant part of the book is spent refuting the notion that the integrity of free will requires belief in infernalism. Hell allows some to be in eternal rebellion while others use their free will to choose God. In either case, the main thing is the integrity of human will (unblighted by coercion or by circumstance). Hart’s point is that this entails a faulty view of free will.  Is free will total freedom from any constraint, any authority, any tradition, so that nothing constrains? What would total lack of constraint look like, presuming it a possibility? We might describe someone who jumps off a bridge or who runs into a burning building for the sheer fun of it as exercising their unconstrained freedom. Maybe the individual wants to feel the freedom of flying off the bridge or maybe they want to experience the exhilaration of being burnt alive. This person may be exercising a kind of liberty, but it seems they are slaves to delusion, that they are experiencing a poverty of rational freedom. Pure choice, free of purpose, and free of a goal is simply “brute fact” and has nothing to do with free will.

Our choices (or will) are always exercised on the basis of some rationale and this reason depends upon circumstance. In the Bible, humanity is depicted as deluded, held captive by a lie, enslaved to sin. This means understanding and knowledge are bent by circumstance and will is deluded by sinful contingencies and capacities.  Sin is a marring of reason, an obscuring of the truth, and a perversion of reason. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free, so that freedom requires truth. To imagine that free will is at work in the state of sin is to misunderstand both the nature of free will and sin, as well as salvation

Salvation is the exposure of the delusion and the displacement of a lie with the truth so that one puts on her right mind by having the mind of Christ. The more one is in her right mind, the more she is conscious of God as Goodness that fulfills all beings. The more she recognizes that human nature can have its true completion and joy only in him, to that degree she throws off the fetters of distorted perception and is freed from deranged passions. Seeing the good in God is simultaneously a reshaping of the will, so that rightly understanding and rightly willing are synonymous with total freedom. Liberated from crippling ignorance and emancipated from the impoverished condition of sin, the rational soul can freely will only one thing – its own union with God. Seeing the good, the true, the beautiful in God, draws us inevitably toward God. As John depicts it, “When I am lifted up, I will drag all men to myself” (John 12:32). God’s will is being enacted in creation, in history, in all of our lives culminating in universal worship: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).

The compelling necessity of the light is not a constraint on freedom, as demonstrated in the truly human one. The “integrity of Christ’s humanity entails that he possesses a full and intact human will, and that this will is in no wise diminished or impaired by being ‘operated’ . . . by a divine hypostasis whose will is simply God’s own willing” (p. 189). True freedom in no way necessarily entails the possible choice of rejecting God, as Christ could not have been fully human. This lack of choice is no constraint upon the freedom of the will. It is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good; a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.

Hart’s dogmatic universalism raises the question of focus (is it, like infernalism, weighted heavily toward the future) and balance (where is justice to be found), which I will address next week.