The Traveler’s Guide to Jesus

Due to my own love affair with travel adventure, fifty years ago, in the summer of 1969, I took a five-day trip on horseback covering about one hundred twenty miles of the Texas Panhandle. It may seem odd, that fifty years later I am still thinking and writing about this trip, but it has been woven into my imagination and I continue to ponder the meaning of the experience. I assume this sort of questioning of experience, to find its meaning, is the only sort of experience worth having and the only sort of recollection of merit. Raw historical experience or simply the recounting of facts, or arrival at a final meaning apart from the possibility of further reflection, point to either a poor quality of experience or poor powers of thought. I would never presume to write a quest for the true camping trip of 1969, as there was not a trip apart from my original understanding, though I have never stopped expanding upon that understanding.

Being a connoisseur of travel adventure, reflective recollection I would point out, has precedent in the great journeys that mark 19th and 20th century literature and much of which I had already absorbed at the tender age of 13. Jack London’s year long trek into the Alaskan wilderness becomes fodder for reflection and stories which he will continue to mine throughout his life. Even his late tell of Martin Eden, though it is not set in the wild, will reflect the “survival of the fittest” understanding he develops in Call of the Wild. The dog, Buck, and the characters that will come to inhabit London’s novels, were a development of the people, the animals, and the wilds he encountered in his one and only trip to the far North. As I made my own journey, I had London on my mind, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Pathfinder, and my early foray into the adventures of Davy Crockett and his autobiography which I had purchased at his boyhood home.

Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden, would completely capture my imagination and after whom I would begin to pattern my own wilderness journeys, took almost ten years to reflect on and write about the two-week trip he and his brother, John, would take on the Merrimack River. Even his time at Walden Pond was encouraged and arranged by his friends, poet Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson (upon whose land Thoreau would build his cabin), so that he could reconstruct and write about his river trip with John. It may be that the trip would hold such poignant memories for Thoreau, as these would be some of the last days he would spend with his brother, who soon after the trip cut his thumb and died of lockjaw. This later event, the death of his brother, must have forever tinted the lens through which he would remember the trip. This in no way fictionalized his account but it gives it the sort of depth of meaning which would cause him to always cherish this two-week trip.

I imagine if I had a dear brother or close friend with whom I travelled and shared life, if he were to meet a tragic end, I suppose certain memories would be sharpened. Those times where he asked me to pass the salt or to do other mundane things would be long forgotten, but those occasions in which his character shown through or in which our bond was molded, these I would cherish, reflect upon, and turn over and over in my mind.  

 I did not have a clear idea who John Steinbeck was when I picked up his Travels with Charley. I knew he was a famous author, but I was more interested in his real-life tales of travel than I was in his fiction, which if I remember I tried, and perhaps at that early age found too difficult. Steinbeck takes this journey at the end of his life, as he is dying of cancer and is afflicted with heart disease. He has a specially made camper built, and takes Charley the poodle as his only companion. The warning of Steinbeck’s son and of others who have tried to reduplicate the trip, is that it is the work of a novelist and cannot possibly be a true account, as the geography and the sequence of events are out of place. I for one did not want to know exactly when he gassed up or exactly when he stayed in a nice motel or when he might have received a visit from his wife.

 As any good seminarian knows, the historical accounts are only the basis upon which the theological unfolds, so that sequence, summary, rearrangement of events, all serve the meaning and not the other way around. One does not read the Gospels for history but for the theological meaning that unfolds from that history. I remember how incensed I was at a high-school teacher that criticized Thoreau for not staying on in his cabin more than a year. I felt, and still do, that she missed the point and was not in a position to critique. The critic that does not appreciate the literature, the story, or the experience being related, exposes their own stilted world.

Those that would critique Thoreau for reducing a two-week trip on the Merrimack to one, or London for his anthropomorphizing his wilderness, or Steinbeck for taking his liberties with geography, are the sort of factualists that cannot interrupt their search for the historical Jesus long enough to take stock of their theology. We do not turn to tales of travel because we want to know just how many birds and rabbits were sighted and their exact location. Which is not to say that every story or every interpreter is equal. Those that imagine they are simply relating the facts reveal by their revelation an incapacity to actually travel or see what is before their eyes, as they are too caught up in their own prejudices.

Paul Theroux, one of the few travel writers who seems highly unlikeable, cheapens every landscape and commodifies every circumstance, though his fiction, as in the Mosquito Coast, is an insight into human depravity. One might be suspicious, however, that Theroux, in describing his sexual exploits with African women and then complaining of colonial attitudes, is blind. It would be like an Irishman, John Dominic Crossan say, who writes about Jesus as a first-century Galilean peasant resisting Roman imperial injustice in the name of Jewish tradition who fails to notice that he has created his own mirror image: an Irish peasant resisting British imperial injustice in the name of the Catholic (or Celtic) tradition.[1] The poor travel writer, like the poor theologian, is too full of himself to take in the vistas, let alone being changed by them. Crossan, in response to this criticism, presumes one can only struggle between narcissism and positivism.[2] In this world one cannot even leave home, let alone leave it behind.

The notable characteristic you get from Jack London, and most of the other travel writers, is that they are completely sympathetic characters, open to the impressions of the world around them. The inferior travel writers, who may be momentarily entertaining and then turn out to be somewhat suffocating, tell us more of their own small world, no matter the landscape. Like Joseph Conrad, who bases his Heart of Darkness on his journeys into Africa, there is more of the colonizer’s darkness than Africa in his story. At a certain stage, I very much enjoyed the angry Japanologists such as Peter Dale, who railed against the ethnocentrism, the nationalism, the racism, of the Japanese, but then with a little more study and a bit more time, I realized Japan is simply a mirror image of the West, an image I bore and resented in “others.” It’s like the Jesus of Robert Funk who is not coming again, who is not Lord, who does not save, and who is clearly nothing of the fundamentalist Jesus Funk is rejecting. We learn of Funk’s prejudices and practically nothing of Jesus from Funk’s search for the historical Jesus.[3]

I enjoyed William Least-Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, but nonetheless it was his personal struggles and marital troubles which colored all of his highways. I suppose this would be my critique of Dale Allison’s book. He has now gained great insight into the limited role of searching for the historical Christ apart from the theological Jesus, but his skepticism – his personal struggle with Christian commitment – colors every page. A straightforward teaching about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, loving the enemy, perhaps the clearest teaching of the New Testament, is subjected to a barrage of questions. He asks, “what Jesus might have meant by these sentiments,” after all “we do not know the occasion” – “was it spoken to his partners in ministry,” mere “sympathizers,” “a crowd of Galilean villagers?” The “original audience has dispersed, and we remain in the dark about its makeup, which means that we do not know exactly what Matt. 5:38-48 might have meant on Jesus’ lips.” The result is, we must remain in the dark, forever “uncertain how the evangelist wanted readers to respond.”[4] Better not pack the suitcase or make another move, as this sort of highway is black and impassable, forever frozen by skeptical questioning.[5]

As a travel guide, Allison sometimes reminds me of Alan Booth’s, The Roads to Sata, ultimately a journey too far, as every Japanese village seems to be filled with the same children taunting him with calls of “gaijin” (foreigner) and the entire effort seems to be to arrive at the goal of Sata. One can march through a country or through a story carrying his own pack of provisions and prejudices, but perhaps it is better to have never left home, as the writer is left unchanged and he never really sees anyone or anything.

Booth should have followed the example of Peter Jenkins who is forever changed by his five-year walk, recounted in Walk Across America. Jenkins takes his time and writes in the best tradition of looking for himself as he searches out the country. In the beginning, Allison is a better guide to the Jesus Seminar than he is to Jesus. He gets off on the wrong foot in his quest for Jesus, but as in many of the best travel adventures, it is the near calamity of the trip that makes for the best ending.  

He writes the book with the conviction that the search for the historical Jesus is mistaken in its focus, and this is reflected in the title, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. The search for the historical Christ apart from the guidance of the theological Jesus is simply testimony to the fact that everyone is bound to find their own face in Jesus, apart from being guided by a comprehensive theological insight. His final chapter is made more beautiful by the struggle of the journey, thus I quote at length:

Persuaded that the true nature of things is not obvious, Jesus, in word and deed, sets out with gusto to fracture the hypnotic hold of life-as-it-has-always-been. He endeavors, in Coleridge’s words, to awaken our minds “from the lethargy of custom” and to remove “the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude that covers our eyes.” He seeks to shift attention, to alter perception, to expand awareness, to change behavior. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). This is a call to abandon rote behavior, to forsake reflexive ways.

My own trek, across what most consider a desolation, has made me realize that the hardness of the journey, the difficulty in seeing the beauty, is the best preparation for learning to look closely and differently. The beauty of the Staked Plains is one that an elite few have come to realize but it is a beauty that requires imagination to comprehend. I am not sure how many miles I travelled but the memory of that particular time is firmly woven through the journeys I made. I could never have worked from the being of the prairie to the being of God, as it was too desolate and empty, apart from the eyes of faith, to see its beauty. Barth said he could not become a Catholic due to the analogia entis and he develops analogia fidei as a counter to the analogy of being. As he describes it, the analogy of faith presumes that human “reality” is a desolate nothing and the Word of God “aims at us and smites us in our existence” (CD I, 1, p.14). Perhaps it is only in seeing the desolation, the desert of our own imagination, that the altered perception of the journey is impressed upon us.  

[1] Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, (Eerdmans, 2009) 19. Once again, thanks to Tim for gifting me this book and trying to keep me informed.

[2] Allison, Ibid.

[3] Allison, 18.

[4] Allison, 102.

[5] Black is the color bead cast in the vote against Jesus’ authentic words used in the Jesus Seminar Allison is describing.

Time for Discerning the Counterfeit Gospel

If the gospel is the most powerful force for good ever unleashed on the world, would it not follow that the most powerful force for evil is a perverted gospel? Isn’t it the case that in the wake of Christianity there has been an intensification of both good and evil, ever increased possibilities for the preservation and destruction of life, such that humankind has taken its longest strides simultaneously in both directions? The works of healing, the spread of agencies and individuals that would relieve suffering and poverty, the heightened focus on humaneness and preservation of life, has been shadowed by systemic genocide, systemic disregard for life, wanton destruction of entire civilizations, and an ever-increased capacity and willingness for global destruction. Passing over objections for the moment (which might argue either that the religion has only produced good or evil), if the best of times and the worst of times have their genesis in Christianity, this would mean that the seemingly internecine disputes within the New Testament pertain universally.

The disputes about eschatology, the nature of salvation, the nature of authority, the diagnosis of sin and its remedy, will turn out not just to pertain to those within the church but will ultimately be of concern to the world. That is, the Jews killed by Germans, the natives slaughtered all over the world by Portuguese, Spanish, English, and American Christians, the Palestinians being displaced on a daily basis due to the support of Christian Zionists, or on this Thanksgiving Day – the natives subjected to Christian’s theft of their food, land and lives, had or have a vested interest in whether Christians see salvation in terms of an “inward spiritual peace” or actual nonviolence.

It turns out that evangelical eschatology is of profound consequence to Palestinians, and that notions of Church unity such as that of Pope Boniface VIII (“it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”) would result in the death of millions of native peoples. The “Christian Doctrine of Discovery” sought to subjugate indigenous peoples through a combination of military power and conversion to the Christian religion. Pope Nicholas V theologically supported the taking of land and the subduing of all non-Christians, so that Muslims, infidels, and other enemies of Christ could be reduced to perpetual slavery and their lands and goods seized to support the Christian religion. Colonialism, slavery, and genocide developed from the movements and decisions that, in the beginning might have seemed to pertain only to the church. Just war theory, for example, traces its origins to the manner in which Augustine dealt with Christian heretics in North Africa, and future generations would extrapolate from his advocacy of coercion in the church to coercion outside of it. Forced compliance with orthodoxy within the church led to forced conversion and crusades without.

 The people inhabiting “discovered” lands were counted as enemies of the faith so that conquest meant dominion over the land, which as it would develop in Manifest Destiny in the United States, did not allow for Indian ownership of land or any sort of humane self-determination. As late as 1946, Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, upheld the notion that sovereignty coincided with being Christian:

This distinction between rights from recognized occupancy and from Indian title springs from the theory under which the European nations took possession of the lands of the American aborigines. This theory was that discovery by the Christian nations gave them sovereignty over and title to the lands discovered. While Indians were permitted to occupy these lands under their Indian title, the conquering nations asserted the right to extinguish that Indian title without legal responsibility to compensate the Indian for his loss. It is not for the courts of the conqueror to question the propriety or validity of such an assertion of power. [1]

The genocide of native peoples, the taking of their land and their lives, became the legal precedent or proof of Christian sovereignty which continues to undergird white supremacy and Christian nationalism. This presumption of a Christian nationalism, of Christian privilege, of equating being a good American with being Christian, overlaps with racial subjugation, showing itself in this political moment.

The fusion of right-wing politics and Christian nationalism pervades evangelical Christianity and has a history reaching back to the Puritan notion that the United States was a “city upon a hill,” which easily morphed into American exceptionalism or “America First.” World War I may have served to permanently forge the notion of America as a Christian nation, as Woodrow Wilson could equate the American cause against Germany with humanitarianism and evangelist Billy Sunday equated the war with Hell against Heaven.

Though there is a long history of ties between the Republican Party and Christian nationalism (see here), Donald Trump has tapped into this understanding with his consistent themes of God and country, calling the U.S. “a nation of true believers” which constitute “one people, one family, and one glorious nation under God.” Echoing his evangelical supporters, he has repeatedly argued that if America remains true to its faith, God will bless the country and defeat its foes. The conclusion of many evangelicals is that the loss of Donald Trump to Joe Biden marks the spiritual demise of the Nation.  

On the other hand, the forces opposing evil can often be traced to a Christian impetus, including resistance to Christian nationalism. Early Christian opposition to violence, abortion, euthanasia, warfare, also had a worldwide impact in the gradual abolition of slavery, the rise of world-wide peace movements, the rise of anti-colonialism, and a trend to a recognition of a universal humanity.  If slavery and colonialism had their Christian justification, it is also true that abolitionist movements and anti-colonialism also had their Christian justification. The famous stories of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., women’s liberation, black liberation, third-world liberation, can be matched by less well-known stories of Eastern Christians such as the Thomas Christians of India, the Nestorian Christians who travelled the silk road as far as Japan some 1,400 years ago (long before Xavier’s arrival in the 1500’s), all of whom put the lie to the notion that Christianity is Western, colonial, or tied to national sovereignty.

During the same period in the 1930’s in which Christian nationalism was arising, a counter understanding arose among American Protestants who began to think of Christianity as a global community. This was a natural outgrowth of the global missions movement and the recognition of an international Christian community which was intertwined throughout the world. Even the Presbyterian hawk, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, began questioning nationalism as it portrayed itself in the League of Nations, which he had helped establish. Dulles would mobilize American churches in the 1940’s on behalf of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by which he hoped to curb Christian nationalism. Though he backed American involvement in World War II, it was on the condition that the United States begin building a permanent peace “along internationalist lines of global interdependency, as a nation among nations.”[2]

With the election of Donald Trump, it is Christian believers who have most clearly resisted evangelical, Trump-like Christian nationalism. American clergy united to issue the “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto which has declared that we are indeed in a fight for the soul of the nation, but claiming Trump’s “America First” is “a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” The statement reads in part,

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).[3]

Michael Curry and 22 other clergy reminded Americans: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries.” They went on to say, “We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.”

As the group Christians Against Christian Nationalism have put it,

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation. [4]

Nationalism and globalism, colonialism and anti-colonialism, slavery and abolitionist movements, or a full range of modes and means of oppression and liberation, might claim a Christian impetus. There is no sorting out the vast movements of history without turning to the New Testament to discover whether it is primarily promoting inward peace or holistic world peace, a violent or non-violent God, a violent or non-violent atonement.

 This puts a renewed importance on one of the major goals of the epistles of the New Testament and on the work of Forging Ploughshares, to clearly delineate the Christ from the anti-Christ and the gospel from its counterfeit, as Christianity has been deployed to promote the worst sorts of evil and the greatest of the good. The problem may be in discerning the difference and developing the tools for discernment, but this seems to be a time in which discernment is made easy.

Forging Ploughshares is committed to the belief that the key mark of an authentic Christianity and Church is its dedication to nonviolence and peace and that the false gospel does not know the way of peace (Romans 3:17). It may be that the false form of the faith has never been made more evident than at this moment in which thousands have been sacrificed to mammon under the guise of Christian nationalism. There is no question that we are at this moment overwhelmed with a false gospel promoting violence and pledged to narrow nationalistic interests. The false church reigns and bears the mark of the nationalistic beast it serves, but there is at the same time a clear exposure of the motives and means of this false religion.

Is it not now more evident than ever that Christian belief might be put to serving evil apart from taking up the cross and implementing the true peace and love of Christ?  

[1] United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks, 329 U.S. 40, 67 S.Ct. 167, 91 L.Ed. 29(1946). “United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks Et Al.,” The University of Tulsa College of Law, Newcomb, “The Evidence of Christian Nationalism in Federal Indian Law,” 315. Quoted from Ruehl, Robert Michael, “THOREAU’S A WEEK, RELIGION AS PRESERVATIVE CARE: OPPOSING THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY, MANIFEST DESTINY, AND A RELIGION OF SUBJUGATION” (2014) at file:///C:/Users/Paul%20Axton/Downloads/Thoreaus_A_Week_Religion_as_Preservative.pdf

[2] Gene Zubovich, “The Christian Nationalism of Donald Trump,” in Religion and Politics (July17, 2018)

[3] The Statement can be found here:


Apocalyptic Epistemology

The power of faith, as Paul presents it in Galatians, is evoked by the gospel and does not depend upon something one might already have in mind or on powerful rhetorical arguments. The gospel evokes its own order of understanding as it deconstructs or breaks into the old-world order. Paul’s depiction of his death to the cosmic order so as to enter the new creation of Christ sets up a new set of opposed pairs (between enslavement and liberation or flesh and Spirit), not as in the cosmic dualisms in which the warfare was within the cosmos, but such that new creation is displacing the old cosmic order. This means law, tradition, fine sounding arguments, religion, and even ethics of the old order are finished.

The encounter with Christ is not an improvement on the present human situation. It is not simply the attainment of forgiveness or relief from guilt, nor is Christ’s death a vicarious payment for sin. In this understanding the law, the cosmos, or the old order provide an entry point into the new creation. Paul is arguing that no one has any ground left to stand on. In fact, all of these explanations of Christ, in Galatians, could be framed as part of the false gospel being taught by the teachers Paul is opposing. They want to make of the gospel a covenantal nomism, in which Christ has met the requirements of the law, so now righteousness has been obtained on the basis of keeping covenant through the law. Paul’s gospel opposes this partial gospel with the pronouncement that the malevolent grasp of the old-world order is finished. Christ has liberated from slavery through his cross. The lie is displaced by the truth as by the cross the cosmos has been crucified to me and I have been crucified to the cosmos (Gal. 2:19; 5:24; 6:14). Circumcision is nothing, Jewishness is nothing, Gentileness is nothing, gender is nothing, ethnicity is nothing, philosophy is nothing, as what is taking place is on the order of creation from nothing, but the nothing is exposed in light of the new creation: “For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (6:14–15; Anchor Bible translation slightly modified).

This is not a dialectic between something and nothing in which the nothing gives forth to something, but it is on the order of creation ex nihilo. The nothing of circumcision, the law, and Jewishness, was formerly a basis for boasting, but now these are excluded as a basis for boasting. This cosmic order “has been crucified.” As Louis Martyn has put it, “We have in this paragraph a stunning declaration from which the word “should” is altogether absent. Paul speaks about what does and does not exist, not about what should and should not exist.”[1] The cross has rendered one world dead and buried as the new world is now commenced.

This new world order contains a new epistemology, which both in Galatians and Corinthians, is contrasted with a fleshly way of knowing: “Therefore from now on we recognize no one by the flesh; even though we have known Christ by the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).[2]

The dead and buried fleshly epistemology might have included something like that proposed by Alexander Aphrodisiensis, which presumed that the flesh or something within it provided for the power of perception. The demand for circumcision, by the false teachers of Galatia, is clearly a dependence upon the power of the flesh. Knowing Christ by the flesh and knowing in the new creation seems to describe an all-inclusive shift, which is already counted into every possibility Paul covers on either side of circumcision and law-keeping. Law observance or non-Law observance counts for nothing in this new epistemological order. Neither counts as anything actually existing, but simply constitutes a dialectic on the order of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no end to the dialectic pairs (light/dark, good/evil, life/death) but the point is that this sort of dualism is characteristic of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).

The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing in 6:15, is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs. As Martyn notes, “He is denying real existence to an antinomy in order to show what it means to say that the old cosmos has suffered its death. He says in effect that the foundation of the cosmos has been subjected to a volcanic explosion that has scattered the pieces into new and confusing patterns.” The cosmos founded on opposed pairs (which for Paul was universal), no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ, in rightly recognizing the condition, have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ.

Of course, what is lost is not God’s good creation but an order of understanding and experience that would constitute itself in unreality and which would obscure reality. The work of the cross breaks the captive power of the old age (which might be characterized as the age in which death and law reigned). Just as creation is portrayed as a speech act in Genesis and John, the gospel of Christ is an act of that same order. This Word spoken into the world liberates in a continual movement of revelation or an ongoing speech-act. The power of darkness and death or the power of futility or a lie is defeated by the light and truth unleashed in the gospel. This is no mere encounter with new information or additional propositions layered on top of the old understanding. The power of the presence of God is unleashed, on the order of “let there be light,” as the good news of new creation (creation from nothing or resurrection) has broken into the cosmic order. The old order is exposed as a mirage, a play of shadows, and to imagine that it is approached through law, reason, or the old order, is to miss the unifying element at its center. God is calling into existence from out of that which does not exist, as in the original creation event. It is not a rescue attempt or an effort at repair. It might be thought of as completion but it is a completion that replaces an order fixed upon the immanent frame of the incomplete.

Part of recognizing the nature of the power of this word involves following Paul’s argument as to how he received it. Paul’s gospel does not depend upon anything else. It does not come by way of tradition or even by way of the apostles in Jerusalem. As Paul presents it, this gospel is counter to religion, law, human wisdom, or any precursor, and this is made evident in the manner in which it was given to him. “For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not of human invention. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). This is important, as the false teachers want to put the gospel on a foundation of law, but Paul’s point is that the gospel is an encounter with God. To set it on another foundation is to abandon its liberating power from the forces which enslave: religion, tradition, law, ethnicity, or the orders of the cosmos.

Paul is repeating in his own words the Johannine picture: the gospel is with God and is God manifest. Paul’s gospel is not an objective report of what happened in the past; rather his gospel unleashes the Christ-event in the present. What happened in Jerusalem happened to Paul and it happened to the Galatians: “before your eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1 – NASB amended from a question to a statement).  “God confronts you in the gospel,” Paul pleads, “so why would you so easily abandon it for an imitation.” The point is that Paul’s conversion and reception of the gospel is repeated wherever the gospel is preached. The encounter with the risen Christ is an experience contemporaneous with the proclamation of the gospel. That is, the Jerusalem experience is the Pauline experience is the Galatian experience. The gospel is not history, or an objective report of the past, but it is the present and continuing action of God in Christ.[3]

Hearing in faith is to pass into this effective present. It is to pass from the epistemology of the flesh (locked out of the presence/present) to the understanding of the Spirit. Paul wants to secure the Galatians in the epistemology of the Spirit: “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (3:2). He does not want them to be persuaded by mere rhetoric but by the very power of God, which they have known and experienced. In Martyn’s translation, Paul asks “Am I now engaged in rhetorical arguments designed to sway the crowds” (1:10). His answer is that this gospel is not normally the good news human beings have in mind, “For I did not receive it from another human being, nor was I taught it; it came to me by God’s apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12). The argument of Galatians is, the gospel by definition is this sui generis apocalyptic revelation of Christ.

[1] Louis Martyn, “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians” (Interpretation 54, no. 3 (2000): 246–66). A portion of it is quoted here:

[2] From Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, Chapter 6 is “Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages” and deals with this passage in Corinthians.

[3] Thank you, Tim, for gifting me Martyn’s commentary on Galatians. You keep providing me with and pointing me to the profoundest of materials. A nice summary and review of the commentary is available at

On the universal necessity of our crosses

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

The faith I grew up with had a singular notion of the meaning of the cross: it was simply the necessary price that someone had to pay in order to satisfy God’s need to punish us for our sins. This “vicarious” sacrifice ensured that God’s retributive justice was satisfied so that his forgiveness could be extended on an individual basis to each sinner. As such, it was done for me as something I could not do for myself. Jesus “took your punishment,” he “lived the life he lived and died an innocent man so you don’t have to.” Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo established for us this principle: Jesus is God become human because no mere human could do what God could do, but a human must do it–hence “why God became man.” And, because he did something which was not possible for us, we reap the benefits at no personal cost.

My oversimplification here is intentional. At Forging Ploughshares, Paul and the rest of us who have contributed have written, interviewed, and podcasted extensively on the problems of penal substitutionary atonement.

To my mind, though, the brilliance of penal substitution as it is developed in the centuries post-Anselm is its simplicity and ease. The problem Jesus came to solve? Well, we’ve committed “sins,” actions God didn’t want us to do that, once done, irreversibly give us a mystical mark as “sinners,” prohibiting our entry into heaven and destining us to eternal suffering or destruction. The “defeat of death” in the resurrection spoken of throughout the New Testament is simply the promise of eternal life, post-mortem in heaven purchased entirely by someone else.

Because of the mystical nature of what this salvation is, the real question for the reformers who ran with Anselm’s initial theory was always “what then must be done to apply the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the individual sinner?” And, because of their rightful distaste for the corrupt Roman Catholic church of their day, they became convinced that nothing was required but a nebulous “faith.” Ultimately, while Luther and Calvin transitioned Anselm’s initial medieval analogies to more contemporary court analogies, the thrust remained the same: Jesus had done something for you that you are incapable of doing.

As far as I could tell from my conservative (one-step-removed-from-Reformed) Bible college education, the only issue left for the church to resolve was to kibitz over the details of who qualifies to receive the mystical “salvation.” Is it anyone who repeats the magic words “I believe?” Are there other requirements, such as baptism? How many sins can I still commit before I lose that salvation? Can it be lost? Are there just a few people who are saved? Or, does it sort of automatically apply to everyone, universally?—an idea that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past year or two. From the perspective of a Gospel predicated on something Jesus does for us, the people who argue all of these positions must feel that concepts like universalism and infernalism are polar opposite. But they are both predicated on the same assumption: that the problem of evil and death is mystical, otherworldly, and that it is defeated by someone else for you.

About fifteen years ago (around 2005, give or take a year), my friend Paul Axton began to drop hints to me that there were other ways to look at the cross. Maybe the cross wasn’t something that was done for us, but something that we were invited to share. It’s still not entirely clear to me whether to thank Paul or curse him, because the question changed everything for me—and there is no doubt in my mind, it did so at great cost to both of us.

What happened for me was a shift to what I now consider a much more practical, physical, and human understanding of the point of the cross. I no longer believe that the cross solved some mystical problem for God that prevented him from allowing us to live with him forever after we die. The removal of the sting of death has literally nothing to do with moving on to a disembodied heaven. The problem of sin isn’t that it prevents escaping the planet. The problem of sin is that it corrupts God’s good creation.

This means that the problem the cross resolves is more complicated than “going to heaven.”

In the creation narrative, we are told that humans were created to live and thrive on this planet as physical “images,” representations of the divine creator who made it. In this story, God is portrayed creating the universe through a cosmic speech act (he speaks and it comes to being). When people (the images) are created, he calls them to mimic the speech act by naming what is created. Thus, the role of the images of God is to partner with God in the ongoing work of caring for one another and that creation, to be co-participants, co-creators in the ongoing creation of the universe. As John Walton has stated, God’s “resting” on the seventh day is his sitting on his throne in his new cosmic temple so that the real work of partnering with his new friends in the joyous work of his kingdom could begin.

In the story, the created “images” weren’t satisfied with their image-hood and chose to know what was not for them to know. They chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil, to be other than little copies of God—and in fact, to make God in their own image. And, since they were no longer living as God’s images, they began naming things improperly. The earth, its creatures, and one another were all named for exploitation. For this, they were cursed—but we must carefully understand this.

The curse, of course, was death. But this was not the carrying out of some divine ultimatum or threat. He didn’t kill the people in the story. All of God’s statements in the fall narrative seem to be God’s observations about the state of things, rather than punishments. That they would now “die” seems to have deep implications: rather than having work to do, they would now have to work simply to survive. Rather than having loving relationships like the persons in the trinity, they would rule over one another. Rather than having access to the Tree of Life, their lives would be predicated on, and ruled by, their deaths. All of life had now become a competition to avoid death, a zero-sum-game of chasing power through violence. As a symbol of this new defining characteristic, they were now even clothed with death.

And there it is. The problem of sin and death isn’t some mystical problem which must be undone in the mind of God to allow entrance to heaven after we die. The problem of death is that it has become the defining characteristic in our lives. And sin is the violence we do to the world, to the people, to ourselves, and to God in order to try to get as much life lived as we can in view of our death, even if it means killing someone else, before we ourselves die. This, we call “evil.”

Again, the problem of death isn’t about what happens after. The problem of death is always the evil we are doing before because of our impending deaths. The problem of death is real world evil. Something that is intended to be resolved before we die, not after.

Enter Jesus into this understanding and you find the core problem which penal substitution attempts to resolve is dismantled. Jesus is not solving some meta-cosmic problem, but the real world problem of evil. His death on the cross is the undoing of the necessity of power by the acceptance of death made possible by the resurrection. As such, the cross was the ultimate undoing of the pursuit of power through violence. How so?

If the problem of evil is the attempt to escape death, salvation from evil is the acceptance of our own death–the acceptance of the cross and a cruciform life.

Death isn’t defeated in such a manner that we no longer have to die. No, we are promised that we all still die. Death is defeated in that it no longer rules over us while we live.

Which means, Jesus didn’t “do it [die] so that you don’t have to.” He died to restore to us the image of God by our acceptance of our death by participation in the cross. Jesus restored divine image-hood by demonstrating death’s defeat and calling us to follow. When Jesus bore the cross, he was saying, “Here is God.” When he quoted Psalm 22, crying, “why have you forsaken me” he was calling to mind the psalm’s own solution: he hasn’t forsaken the suffering one. He is here in the suffering with us because he has always been a suffering God. To be like him is to suffer, with him. And being like him is the entire point of this.

Salvation is not a status purchased for us. Salvation is the lived reality of the cross. It is the return to true human image-hood by the mimicking of God. On the cross God was showing us that this is the God he is—and to be human is to be like him. Therefore, his call for us is to pick up that cross and follow. “If you want to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross.” “You will share in his glory, if indeed you share in his suffering (Ro 8).”

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

This is the entire point: dying on our crosses is salvation, not a mere eternal destination. Salvation is the lived reality of a restored image-bearing done by sharing the cross of Christ. That means that Jesus’ cross wasn’t the only one that is necessary to “be saved.” Carrying our cross is what being saved is.

If, then, as some are saying, “Jesus defeated death for all, no matter whether they share the cross of Christ or not,” they are actually saying Jesus has not defeated the problem of evil and death in this world but in the next world. If it is not necessary for us to bear our crosses, then we are left with some mystical understanding of what Jesus died for, and we are left with the same problem of real-world evil and death.

In fact, real world evil is ultimately dismissed by the universalist’s claims as nothing more than “foolishness.” This, I take to be a denial of even the necessity of the cross of Christ. Was it merely people’s foolishness that crucified Jesus? Were they just tricked? If the problem in this world was nothing more than foolishness, could it not have been cured by a divine critical thinking skills course? No, on the cross, Jesus faced true evil. And we face it as well on our crosses.

Again: to deny the necessity of carrying our cross is to deny the real-world solution to the real-world problem of sin and evil that murdered Jesus. It is to say it was not necessary for 2nd and 3rd century Christians to face the lions in the arena. It is to tell the martyrs that their sacrifice was in vain, that it was unnecessary. It is to say to me and my friends who’ve lost jobs and dreams and livelihoods that, “You didn’t have to do that. It was done for you no matter what.”

I am frequently told that unless I believe that all people are saved regardless of their participation in the cross, I am just not loving or “hopeful.” But a mystical escape from the world is simply not the kingdom my imagination has been taken captive by–I find no hope in it. My hope is in a kingdom defined by a people who are willing to bear the cross of Christ. This I take to be a beautiful kingdom of those willing to live like God by dying like God. It is a kingdom with a real solution to real evil right here in this real world. And a resurrection peopled by those who never understood the cost of this cross would be a resurrection of the fallen earth in which we currently reside.

And in this real world, where millions of people who call themselves Christians are willing to cause harm to anyone else in the name of “freedom, security, and the economy” the notion of changing that theology to one that says “You actually can be his disciple (or share the benefits of the cross) without carrying the cross,” is one I gladly, wholeheartedly, and passionately–even angrily–reject.

The Sublime Experience of God

If there were a singular term which could include the moral, rational, cosmic, and divine as part of a realization or part of an experience, the term “sublime” may come closest. At any rate, I want to build on the term, to name the ultimate Christian experience or to locate the point of Christianity. To call this an “experience” may already be problematic due to the way we presently divide up our world, but this is also part of the point. There is the need to reunite fundamental human experience with an explicit moral and cognitional content which accounts for the individual before God in the world.

In common usage, the sublime is a combination of experiencing fearsome, overwhelming phenomena such as a raging storm at sea, threatening cliffs or mountains, towering thunder clouds, before which we are normally reduced to insignificance in comparison to their power, but in the sublime experience, instead of feeling diminished, we are able to take it in and feel our own soul or imagination enlarged. As a boy in Texas, there were several occasions in which on a long ride, alone on the prairie, I was surrounded by distant thunder storms, an endless expanse of wilderness, and rather than being frightened I felt a great thrill, which I equated with an experience of God. I could not name this sublime experience, but I presumed correctly (I am now convinced, fifty years later), it was the center of my newfound faith.

There is a terrible beauty that makes of the fearful something attractive the more fearful and powerful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety. As Immanuel Kant describes the situation,  “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.”[1] The sense of safety and wellbeing is at once physical (involving all of the physical senses) and yet it is centered in our soulish or cognitive capacity.

The problem with Kant is that he identifies the safety of the sublime with objective reason. He equates it with suprasensible reason or the recognition that it is through cognitive capacities or powers of reason that humans can count themselves above nature. It is not just that he may be confusing reason with God, but I believe he fails to understand the experience of God inherent to the sublime.

I think we can go beyond Kant, but Kant himself points beyond what he calls reason, by describing the pleasure of the sublime experience as mixed with something like displeasure or what he calls negative pleasure. Where he characterizes experience of the beautiful as a positive pleasure, the sublime calls forth an admiration or respect which he characterizes as a negative pleasure. What he did not have the psychological vocabulary to describe, but which he seems to be aiming at, is the notion of a limit experience.

A limit-experience is what it feels like to be undone, or to have the notion of the self as a unified subject thrown into question. A limit-experience according to Michel Foucault, is that which wrenches the subject from herself and which throws into question the notion of a unified subject. If we think of Freud’s reading of Kant, in which the reason behind his categorical imperative is identified with the superego, this negative pleasure might be mistaken for a simple masochism or what Freud called a moral masochism. That is, by not acknowledging the supreme limit which the sublime might be challenging, Kant neither faced the limit experience of death, nor the manner in which ultimate unity is linked to the divine. In other words, he fails to connect the sublime experience to the limit experience definitive of Christianity and in this failure, he fails at both ends of his description of the sublime.

He does not recognize that the ultimate experience of nature is to take it in all at once, either in the simple wonder at the fact that a world exists or in recognition of creation ex nihilo. His picture of the world and of human imagination limited it to a priori, necessary, and stable structures which he considered inherent to the world and necessary to the mind. His thought about the world (there are absolute and necessary laws) structured his depiction of the powers of human imagination.  He allowed a role for intuition, but it was an intuition dependent upon an already existing framework of the mind. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, “the imagination remained bound to functioning in a pre-established field in Kant’s theoretical work.”[2]

Castoriadis turns specifically to creation ex nihilo to suggest an alternative understanding of the human capacity for creation. He acknowledges that there may be a set of historical or natural conditions linked to creativity in general, but these conditions are not sufficient to account for that which is truly creative. Kant’s notion of the sublime only points to a derived realization. Much like the problem of cosmological arguments for God, the God that might be conceived within these arguments tends to be fit to the pattern of reason which implies his existence from the world.

Kant not only limited the extent of the human imagination in its positive mode, he also did not account for the height of the obstacles it might overcome. It is not simply creation from nothing, but the human experience of this creation power in resurrection faith, which he misses. He maintains that the sublime gives one a sense of immortality, but what should be posed against this intimation is the simultaneous recognition of one’s mortality. As in Paul’s definition of Abraham’s resurrection faith, he had faith in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17). The existential realization of the reality of death and God’s ability to give life to the dead is the personal realization of his power to create from nothing. In other words, Paul is depicting the limit experience of death (as in the living death of being old and unable to have children) with the capacity to conceive of creation from nothing.

Kant is instructive as, in his failure of thought, he helps locate the distinctive difference contained in the Christian experience of the sublime. The overwhelming power and danger of the world are not subdued by an innately immortal soul, or immortal reason, but by the specific death dealing work of Christ. Just as the most powerful force in the world is the big bang behind creation from nothing, so too the personal realization of this power is to be had in Christian resurrection faith.

This is the Christian sublime: the simultaneous recognition of the overwhelming power and danger of the universe exploding into existence and the existential recognition that this power is unleashed in our own life in resurrection power. The ground of sublimity lies within each of us as we reflect upon what might be taken as fearsome, formless colliding galaxies and planets coming into being. Or as it says in Genesis, the world was a chaos in the beginning but in verse 2 the Spirit hovered over the waters and brings order out of the chaos. The same hovering, indwelling Spirit brings order out of the chaos of the human mind. This chaotic power brought to order within ourselves and in the world describes the ultimate sublime experience.

 Being quite young, and having no name or developed understanding of Christian doctrine, I had no way of putting flesh on my first experience of the sublime.  I thought it enough to reproduce the situation, returning continually to the prairie, so as to re-experience the wonder.  As the years went by and I was taught to be more rational, and not to confuse faith and experience, my moments of bliss were whittled down. If I had been properly discipled, properly indoctrinated, I would not have been turned from these early experiences but I could have been turned to exploring and understanding them. Of course, we cannot live in continuous wonder and joy, but by putting a name and understanding to this experience, we can at any time or place experience the epiphany of the sublime.

[1] Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 261–262. I am referencing the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Kant’s notion of the sublime.

[2] (Castoriadis Reader 319-337).  See

Resurrection as the Personal Realization of Creation Ex Nihilo

The understanding of the world against which Christianity is pitted is one which begins with the world as we know it, as its starting point. This “world as we know it” sort of understanding might explicitly postulate the world as absolute (an infinite uncreated universe or a universe unfolding from a preexistent material) or it might, in its misconstrued Christian form, implicitly give final weight to the present cultural moment. An example of the latter, giving rise to the presumed order of the logic of Christianity, begins with creation (as “naturally” conceived as in the philosophical arguments). It is assumed that we have access to creation and that we build upon this understanding sequentially till we add in the order of salvation. Like the traditional prolegomena, it is presumed a basic knowledge of God and the world are given together and the story of salvation can be added on to this foundation. The influence of this distorted beginning shows itself, almost as bluntly as Greek philosophical understandings, in its treatment of the doctrine of resurrection. Of course, bodily resurrection made no sense in any of the Greek philosophical understandings, but it is shunted to one side even among Christians focused on creation ex nihilo. For example, creationists’ reaction to evolutionary biology, focused as they are on proving a First Cause sort of creator, seem to miss a key point of the resurrection: biology is not the primary human problem. Creation ex nihilo, then, if it is not paired with resurrection, misses the existential import it bears in the Bible and early Christian preaching.

There is some debate as to how explicit or fully realized the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is in the Old and New Testament, but what is clear is that Christian apologists of the 2nd century A.D., in defending the doctrine of the resurrection, fleshed out the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in its fullness.[1] Resurrection would require of Platonists, such as those encountered by apologists like Tatian (120-180 A.D.), a complete reconception of their world. It would demand a rethinking not only of God, but of humans, and of the material world (which was its own sort of absolute). The scoffing reaction of the Areopagites to Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 17.32) indicates the overwhelming change the Gospel called for.

It was not just a matter of accepting resurrection, which would have been seen more as a damnable condition than salvific, but it was a matter of changing up the dominant world view in such a way as to make resurrection seem either plausible or desirable. Within a Greek frame, flesh involved a necessary corruption which could only be escaped by shedding the body and becoming an immaterial soul (not so unlike the continued understanding of a Greek influenced Christianity). Later, Celsus (as recorded by Origen) will mock the despicable lengths to which Christians are willing to go so as to make it seem any human soul would want to occupy a body that had rotted and which will continue to rot. “God in no way is able to do shameful things, neither does he wish things contrary to nature.” As Celsus will explain, God is reasonable and being reasonable he would not preserve the body, which Heraclitus tells us, “is more to be cast off than refuse.” The material and the corporeal are subject to chaos and corruption, and are subject to unreason, thus the reasonable soul must be rid of them.  “God is not willing or able irrationally to make everlasting the flesh which is full of things which are not beautiful. He himself is the reason of all things.” [2]

Seen from the stand-point of resurrection, it is obvious that death and corruption were the primary factor in the Greek conception of both God and the world. God cannot overrule the primary law of death and corruption which mark the material universe, and are separated out from his order of reason. God, equated as he was with reason, was eternally opposed to the discord and disorder of matter and this opposition constitutes an eternal dualism.

To be on the side of God would mean being part of the Greek polis, the counter-ordering of the city of man, built upon the implicit absolute of death. Controlling death, warding it off through religion, disciplining its chaotic inclinations through law, religion, sacrifice and the counter violence of the city, constitute(ed) the imposition of reason in this chaotic world. Much like the doctrines of penal substitution and divine satisfaction in Christianity gone bad, the price of not controlling the violence through violence, is to succumb to it.  But of course, these doctrines have arisen like pagan sacrificial cults on the presupposition that God must negotiate with and attempt to defeat the corrupting power of death, which controls the universe and which opposes him. This is a misreading of the universe, a misunderstanding of God, and a perversion of the Judeo-Christian hope.

The Jewish Scriptures are founded upon God’s creative control over the universe, and though there may not be a full development of creation ex nihilo, there is an explicit counter to divinizing any element in the world or to making any element of the world, divine or material, its source. Genesis seems to counter the violent Babylonian creation myth (or its equivalents), the Enuma Elish, in which the body or blood of the god, Tiamat, slain by Marduk, is the raw material of the created order. As a story of origin, Genesis purposely subordinates the chaos. Though it mentions the “confusion and emptiness,” it is subject to God and his organizing rule. The gods of the Enuma Elish were born from Tiamat and Apsu, the salt and fresh waters (Enuma Elish 1.1-12), but it is God who separates and organizes the chaotic waters of Genesis. The mythological sea and its chaotic waters always threatened, but in Jewish understanding the threat is eliminated. The waters are subject to God’s ordering and are a part of his creative artifice in Genesis. As Job explicitly has God inquire:

“Or who enclosed the sea with doors When it went out from the womb, bursting forth; When I made a cloud its garment, And thick darkness its swaddling bands, And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, And I said, ‘As far as this point you shall come, but no farther; And here your proud waves shall stop’?

(Job 38:8-11).

 It was also a common belief that the heavens are of a different, divine order, than the sublunar world. This notion is also completely thwarted.  The Hebrew texts picture God as the originator of heaven and earth: “Thus says God, Yahweh, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, who hammered out the earth and its produce. Who gave breath to the people upon the earth, and spirit to those who walk on it” (Isaiah 42.5). The oneness of God, as opposed to a duality between God and the gods or the principles of the world, means there is a uniform order between heaven and earth.

“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’ I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.”

(Is. 45:18-19, RVSCR)

As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[3] Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos, is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world. His personified wisdom precedes all of the elements of the world and there is nothing dark or threatening but all of creation is an ode of joy at the display of his wisdom: “The Lord created me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From eternity I was established” (Proverbs 8.22-23). Reason or wisdom does not stand opposed to the created order nor does it illicit escape from this order, rather it is on display throughout creation. This wisdom from eternity is linked with all of creation; the springs, the hills, the fields, the heavens, the skies, and the clear depiction of a boundary put upon sea.  Throughout the Proverb, culminating with human creation, wisdom is described as the master workman (v. 30). So, what is prior to creation is God and the personified wisdom of God.

Here there is no dualism between the created order and reason, or between heaven and earth, or between the realm of God and the realm of the world. In fact, the world is consistently depicted as a fit dwelling place for God:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is the footstool for My feet. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, So all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord.”

(Is. 66:1-2)

Only God can prepare his dwelling place and he has done so by calling the world into being.

While this and many other verses seem to teach creation ex nihilo, it might be denied that they do so, as this doctrine is not a developed or universal understanding among Jews or even among early Christians. (For example several of both faiths view Plato’s creation account in the Timaeus, which depicts the world as created from a preexistent chaos, as borrowed from Moses.) Creation ex nihilo is implied and perhaps it is present in certain texts, but it will not become a definitively developed doctrine apart from belief in resurrection.

The development of the doctrine is clearly tied to the advent of belief in the resurrection, even as it developed among Jews during the Maccabean revolt. A mother encourages her son to submit to submit to martyrdom by looking to the origin of creation, and she ties this to the assurance of resurrection:

“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.  And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”.

(2 Maccabees 7:28-29)

As Alison describes it, two things come together here, as for the first time we encounter the concept of creation ex nihilo and with it a conception of resurrection. With creation there came into being the human race, and so one can challenge the present social order, even upon pain of death, knowing that the social order is itself contingent. God is alive and exuberant and has nothing to do with death or the social order, such that it is a light matter to die rather than become subject to social purposes. What is coming into view is the implication of the work of Christ.

This is as close to an explicit teaching of creation ex nihilo as is to be found among the Jews, and yet it is also tied to an implied resurrection. The question is why this should be the case?

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible serves as an antidote to violent creation myths and it even provides explanation as to how these myths arose. The early chapters of Genesis supply ample material, which Paul calls upon in Romans 1, to describe the turn from worshipping God to deifying parts of creation. The notion of creation ex nihilo, or its near equivalent, is typically called upon in refuting idolatrous religion, and yet this is not enough, as Paul will point out. Though the people Paul is describing had ample knowledge of God and his relationship to creation, this knowledge is inadequate as a point of resistance to death dealing practices. “For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed” (1:25). The specific cause which Paul points out,“they became futile in their reasonings” and in “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Ro. 1:21-22). Their problem is not that they have insufficient information about the First Cause. As Paul will work it out in the course of his explanation in Romans, their acceptance of false views of creation are tied to their orientation to death. As he says at the end of this first chapter, knowing that these things deserved and were tied up with death was no deterrent. They approved of wicked deeds, and knowing they were tied to death was perhaps, an impetus to do them anyway (1:32).

The specific triangulation which he comes to in chapter 4, with the depiction of the faith of Abraham, is that Abraham came to near simultaneous conclusions concerning death, creation, and his being the father of a new sort of nation: “(as it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist (Ro. 4:17). The capacity to believe God can call into being that which does not exist is a direct correlate to believing he gives life to the dead. These two beliefs are at the center of a new identity, based on resurrection faith. This faith, which recognizes the gratuitous nature of God in creation and in regard to rescue from death, is very much tied to Abraham’s relationship to the law. The law has no hold on him; it does not pertain to his benefits and holds out only wrath (4:15), yet faith renders it irrelevant.

All of this though, comes to Abraham as part of his own existential journey into a reorientation to death.  His faith became a realization as “he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old” (4:19). Likewise, it was the recognition that Sarah’s womb was dead, combined with his faith that God could bring life from out of death, that brought him to “being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform” (19-22).

What Abraham, as the prototype of Christian faith comes to, is the understanding that his is not primarily a biological or material problem. Death reigns only for those who, in their sinful orientation, imagine they must negotiate life on the basis of death. Death is put in its place by faith in God, and the faith which is no longer oriented by the sinful orientation, is enabled to put the material order and the corporeal body in their proper place (along with the law).

Even in the sequence of the writing of Genesis, it is the realization of Abraham that precedes the writing of the early chapters of Genesis, so that proper access to creation is enabled by the disabling of death and the idolatrous reification of death, by which Abraham is surrounded. The access to creation is always enabled in the same way. In this sense, creation ex nihilo and resurrection are not simply book-ends at the beginning and end of time, but pertain to this present moment. Where matter, death, biology, and time might be experienced as barriers which block out ultimate reality, faith recognizes that the world, the body, the material order of the cosmos, are the conduits for presently participating in the life of God. Creation understood in light of salvation turns out to be an unfolding of God’s eternality to his human offspring.

 The danger, even with a misconceived creation ex nihilo, would be to imagine that there is a sequence from nothing to something, as if nothing is an actually existing stage in the order of things or a stage which accompanied God prior to creation. The sequence upon which we depend is not marked, as William Lane Craig, has pictured it, as God shifting from his eternal intention (in which nothing accompanies God) to his causal power. The existential encounter with God in the reality of death, empties out the tomb and empties out this reified conception of nothing. The recognition of the power of resurrection in the midst of death opens up recognition of God’s abiding presence in and through creation.  

[1] This is the claim and explanation of James Noel Hubler in his dissertation Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas which can be accessed at

[2] In Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.14

[3] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, Herder & Herder (April 1, 2004

Reason Dependent on a Reified Nothing: From Genesis 3 to Kalām

The concept of nothing or emptiness in Scripture is connected to the concept of creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), to the idol (which Paul declares is nothing), to the concept of death (the biblical depiction is of being brought to nothing), and to the empty tomb of Christ. It is connected to evil in a twofold sense, in that Paul concludes the idol is nothing (nothingness reified) but then immediately warns that this particular brand of nothingness is demonic (I Cor. 10:19-20). The reification of nothing, or making nothing an absolute something, characteristic of idolatry, is a process that is not halted in being exposed, as it is the characteristic form of sin and evil in which nothing “comes alive.”

One way of characterizing the problem raised by natural philosophical arguments is that the category of nothing or absence is made to come alive through the form of reason in which these arguments are packaged. Nothing and darkness are made a positive experience in Anselm’s cosmological and ontological arguments (“God I have seen you, yet I have seen only nothing and darkness”), which is not just any old mysticism and rationalism, but it is the characteristic form of thought taken up by Descartes and modernity. Nothingness and emptiness have come to play a key role in the “virtual reality” (the marker of nothing, zero, illustrates the necessity of nothing behind the virtual) that is the modern, which is neither recognized as virtual nor equated with sin and evil, as it is the nihilism of foundational reason (nothing made something) that has come to dominate in theology. Below, I sketch the biblical depiction of sin and evil (revolving around nothing (death, absence) made something), which has been obscured, and explain, in part, the how and why of this obscuring as it is interwoven with the rationale of the kalām cosmological argument.

The devilish or the demonic in Scripture, from Genesis 3, is not portrayed as a positive ontological force which opposes God, but as a corrupting sub-personal entity which would alienate and empty out the presence of God. The serpent appears in Genesis 3 from among the creatures, out of creation – it appears and disappears. The perspective sold by the serpent is the immanent frame (a closed universe) in which knowing (epistemology – “knowing good and evil”) is attached to being (ontology – “you will be like gods”). Death is denied (“you won’t die”) but is displaced by the positive knowing and being which, I presume, are not exposed in the subsequent experience of shame and alienation. The isolating, alienating factor of sin, its death denial, and its exponential mimetic desire (in the first pair and their offspring) will all become part of the biblical depiction of sin. What is offered in place of life is death, in place of God shame and absence are held out as divine experience. In place of naming and knowing God, a knowing which refers back to itself (the reduplicated “I”) is taken up.  And this is always what the arche, the principle of the world does; it constitutes a closed world in which nothing is made an absolute impassable boundary. The idol is an unobtainable object which creates exponential desire which gives rise to child sacrifice.

Paul equates sin with this same idolatrous desire which comes to grip everyone, as they are confronted with the law and they find that their own “I” or ego is as unobtainable as an idol. The death connected with this desire can either be a slow masochistic struggle with one’s own body of death, or it can just turn to murder or idolatrous slaughter (Rom. 3), but the point is to gain, through death, what was withheld by desire. This is why Paul connects universal death with the spread of sin, as death evokes the response which characterizes sin.

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 and Augustine’s formula for original sin (all somehow mysteriously sin in Adam) reverses cause and effect, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned. In Paul’s original argument, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with the obvious reality that we all have the problem of death.

The human project is to extract from the mortal that which is immortal, to make the perishable imperishable and this is what Paul calls sin. Notice that the sequence of events in I Cor 15:55-56: O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Paul is describing a law, given power, through sin’s orientation to death.  This law of sin and death pertains to any law, any symbolic framework, which would reify nothing.

A different way of saying all of the above, is through a misconstrued creation ex nihilo (as Jacques Lacan first recognized), in which nothing is posited as that out of which every subject generates himself. The self consists of a three-fold dynamic in which the symbolic order (the law) names and posits an object (the ego – the “I”) which is nonexistent, and the drive or dynamic to grasp or obtain, is death or the death drive. In this depiction the human subject is a continually generated creation ex-nihilo. Like Martin Heidegger’s vision of a vase, as structured around and containing nothing, or actually creating a void, this named void describes every idol. This captures Paul’s depiction of the subject that would displace God: the law acts as father creator, and the ego is the object he would draw from the nothing, and this dynamic of death serves in place of life.  On the way to thinking and grasping after being, there is a generation of nothing. But this exercise is continually reduplicated in various human undertakings, whether religious (idolatrous religion but also every sacrificial form of religion), philosophical (Conor Cunningham runs this down exhaustively), or in the philosophical arguments for God

Many things reduce to nothing, but it is the way in which philosophical arguments providing for the initiation of the theological project have introduced nothing into the heart of theology which is my present concern. It is not so much the legitimacy of the various philosophical arguments for God but the form of reason with which they are connected and to which they give rise, which requires scrutiny. As I have previously claimed, the danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The “reason” that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is the implicit necessity which Hegel and Schelling expose. The peculiar modern form of thought, which René Descartes is usually credited as fathering would generate or identify being with thought (“I think therefore I am”).  The move is a reduplication of the lie of Genesis 3 in its claim to life through knowing, and can be directly traced to Descartes’ deployment of Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm illustrates the same move in both his cosmological and ontological arguments, as in his cosmological argument all thought ceases before the ontological divide but in the latter, there is a singular thought of God or the name of God which begins from the other side of this ontological divide in which immortal being is grasped (though this greatest thought does not allow for any other thought, such as thought of the created order).

 A more obvious and pervasive incidence of the same thing is the Kalām cosmological argument, which develops as part of the Islamic version of scholasticism as an attempt to establish and defend the tenets of Islam. The Arabic Kalām literally means “speech, word, utterance” and is derived from the expression Kalām Allāh (Word of God) and refers to a special mode of thought and argumentation. Kalām denotes then, not just one argument, but the discipline within Islam, and eventually Judaism (as in Jewish Kalām or Kalāmists), which will be absorbed by Christian scholasticism and western rationalism which will foster the same abstraction and the same gap between God and his word. The controversy surrounding the “Word of God” in Islam (is the Word created or part of the essence of God) marks the problem as it will arise in Christian scholasticism regarding the person and work of Christ. The focus on the equivocal or analogous as opposed to the univocal and propositional, describes the gap brought about in the peculiar abstractions surrounding and prompted by kalām.

Knowing God on the basis of the world is obviously very different than knowing God through Christ, which is not inherently a problem, but the first sort of knowing has historically come to interfere with the second order of knowing. It has given rise to a reason to which the Logos of Christ is made to adhere. It is not simply that the argument falls short of the personal God of the Bible, but it fosters a cause and effect notion in which God might be an extrapolated cause of reason, behind or before the universe, but is removed by the very mode of the argument from our words and world.

William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world.” Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated.[1] What is implicitly made to differentiate and divide is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates.

God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

This is not so different than imagining that God is self-caused, as if there is a division between the being of God and the cause of that being – one that allows for the thought of God. This supposition, as worked out in Schelling and Hegel, is not simply necessary for God but it is a necessary move to posit reason as its own sufficient ground. Reason as absolute – the reason of God – cannot be constrained or contingent lest it be caused by something beyond pure reason. Eternity, for Schelling, holds out absolute freedom as that which is enjoyed by a Will which wants nothing as it is wanting in nothing. It is actualized – or in the language of Craig, it becomes a causal power – when it actively and effectively wants this nothing (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Only nothing can avoid the possibility of some determinate content, but this is a nothing made something, so that God himself is produced through the creation ex nihilo of pure and perfect reason. The formal conversion of nothing into an actively sought after “nothing” accounts for the absolute “ground” of God’s coming to himself. “The blissful peace of primordial freedom thus changes into pure contraction, into the vortex of ‘divine madness’ which threatens to swallow everything, into the highest affirmation of God’s egotism which tolerates nothing outside itself” (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Otherwise nothing would ever happen. What Schelling and Hegel expose is the necessary role of negation and nothing in absolute reason.  

God serves as his own ground and posits himself in the absolute freedom and rationalism of the enlightenment. An argument which will deliver God, is an argument in which reason is posited as more primary than belief in God.  The strength of the argument depends upon the strength of the reason deployed and absolute reason depends upon a conclusion arriving at the absolute. Craig’s version of the kalām argument depicts the gap of nothingness which the argument brings to life.

The point of the incarnation, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, is to erase the reifying lie inherent, not only to modern rationalism, but surrounding the impetus to alienation and death (he who would save himself). Where the cosmological argument assumes that something exists, then argues from the existence of that thing to the existence of a First Cause or a Sufficient Reason of the cosmos, Christian believers presume to encounter God in his essence in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in. There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God, but what stands in the way of this revelation is the insistence on a sufficient knowledge apart from the act of God.

[1] “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at

The Immoral Argument for God

In philosophy of religion and apologetics the moral and religious arguments for God proceed from the universality of religious beliefs or morality to the conclusion that God must exist. As C. S. Lewis describes the moral argument, there must be a universal moral law, or else ethical or moral disagreements would make no sense, all moral criticism would be meaningless, promise keeping would be unnecessary, and no one would think to make ethical excuses.  From here Lewis extrapolates to a moral Law Giver who made us like himself, instilling a universal moral law within us. The religious argument proceeds along the same line, extrapolating from a universal or perhaps sui generis religious experience to the existence of God.  This presumption is taken up in modern religious studies in the positing of a sui generis notion of religion (all religions can be traced to the same source) and the presumption behind the moral argument is taken up in modern ethical studies in the notion that the primary work of an ethicist is to study ethical quandaries in an effort to arrive at correct decisions (reducing ethics to human decision and will). In both instances there is the presumption that the impetus to morality and religion can be extracted from the particulars of culture (in pure reason or transcendental experience), as if there is a universal reason and experience not mediated by culture.

An inherent problem to both of the arguments concerns, not just their legitimacy (which might be preserved), but the mode of argumentation or reason undergirding the arguments, which more or less reigns in both secular and religious studies. In theological studies, for example, there is a common presumption that universal understandings of religion and morality are parallel to the religion and morality of the Bible and that there is no need to challenge either the impetus behind religion or morality as they are universally experienced.  This strikes me as false at several levels: it is not true to the deadly nature of religion and morality on display all around us and it is not true to the biblical depiction of human morality and religion. What seems obvious (and we do not need atheists to make the argument, as this is the biblical picture) is that human religion is foundational to humankind and that foundation is murderous (the working premise of the theory of René Girard and of various apocalyptic theologies). In turn, morality may indeed be instinctive and innate, such that the human sense of justice, morality and law, whether corporate (giving rise to war) or personal (giving rise to murder) is directly connected to the worst forms of evil, justified as part of a righteous cause (which is not to reduce all morality and justice to immorality and injustice but simply to indicate the human bent).  

Kant’s moral argument demonstrates the potential problem with every moral argument, in that it does not conclude to any specific or definitive moral content and it has been deployed in the name of the worst sorts of evil (see here).  A specific result of the Kantian notion that ultimate moral duty is accessible through reason, is the presumption that knowing the right and recognizing evil need not be informed by Christian faith. Human reason and moral sensibility are presumed sufficient to arrive at the truth, and Christ is a prototype of what can be otherwise known by reason, though we may still need rescue from out of the world, even in Kant’s understanding.  The general result (of Kant and the Enlightenment) is a division between theology and philosophy of religion, in which certain topics, such as the problem of evil, have been partitioned off from theological explanations of the Cross, and theological explanations of sin have not engaged the possibility (which I presume is the biblical explanation of evil) that human morality and religion are (potentially?) immoral and evil. This is rather odd, considering that we live at a point in history in which it is nearly universally recognized that the worst of human atrocities, the Holocaust, was carried out by the heirs of the Enlightenment. Given the realities of history and the actual arguments which were set forth in the wake of Kant, the alternative to the received religious and moral philosophical arguments for God might begin, not from a presumed positive moral and religious understanding, but from the opposite. What I will call the “Immoral Argument” is a partial indictment of the traditional arguments but also a suggestion that the inverse of these arguments points directly to the specifics and necessity of the work of Christ.

To lay the groundwork for the immoral argument, the two notions of evil, privation theory and radical evil (a term coined by Kant), have to be considered in light of the Cross. Assigning evil, either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in philosophical theology, precludes grappling with evil as radical or diabolical (the biblical picture of what the Cross defeated).  Rather than pit these two theories against one another, radical evil (the notion that evil is its own ground) might be equated with the lie of the serpent in Genesis, the covenant with death in Isaiah, and with the prominent role of the diabolical in the Gospels. It is not simply a theory to be judged true or false, but in the Bible it is a false possibility, as it is a lie that is posed and acted upon as part of human reality. Interestingly, Kant hits upon the notion of radical evil as part of his depiction of human freedom and autonomy, which fits with the biblical lie of sin (the drive to human autonomy and an alternative knowledge).

In defending perfect freedom, Kant requires both a will acting without constraint or contingency (so as to be free) and reason, which is self-evident and self-grounding. It is this combination of free will and reason which gives rise to his categorical imperative: “It is there I discover that what I do can only be unconditionally good to the extent I can will what I have done as a universal law.” The will contains the possibility of the good as it enacts the universal moral law uncovered through reason. His concise formula of this imperative, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” is the compelling force behind duty and morality.  He concludes that “If one finds the right and acts on it from the motive of a purely good will this is to walk the path of perfect moral duty.”

Even in Kant’s own explanation, the possibility that one is committing evil, under the compulsion or conviction that he is doing the good, poses itself. Given the moral maxim that one should always tell the truth, he can find no exception, even when it might mean the death of an innocent person (a murderer asking after a hidden victim must be answered truthfully, according to Kant). “I must not lie – confronted with the temptation to do so, I sense the categorical imperative as the claim upon my will. I ought to tell the truth for the truth’s sake. With that pure motive, without self-interest, I decide to tell the truth; morality has prevailed.” Kant is prepared to let the chips fall where they may on behalf of moral duty.

 The truth for truth’s sake seems to have taken flight of any earthly consideration or particular contingent circumstance. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “Only an ethics based on such an imperative can be autonomous, that is, free of all religious and anthropological presuppositions. Only by acting on the basis of such an imperative can an agent be free. Such an ethic is based on reason alone and can therefore be distinguished from religion, politics, and etiquette.”   Jacques Lacan claims, in his critique of the Critique of Practical Reason, that Kant displays “a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no worth. [Man] lives only because it is his duty, not because he has the least taste for living. Such is the nature of the genuine drive of pure practical reason.” 

To arrive at a non-contingent necessary reason, the basis for true freedom, reason cannot be grounded in anything else; it must be its own ground. But this self-grounding reason also poses the possibility of a self-grounding evil. His imperative does not specify any particular context or content but poses itself as a self-evident and absolute duty. Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem and the Marques de Sade both appeal to the categorical imperative to justify genocide and murder, which coincide with their sense of moral duty. That is, much like Kant, they arrive at radical evil through the categorical imperative, with the difference that they choose to act upon it.

So, what we call the “moral law” may be nothing more than the superego or the law of sin and death. What Kant calls the categorical imperative can and has been read as a form of moral masochism in which one would serve the father, which could be mistaken for God or God’s law, but which is nothing other than one’s own father image (Freud’s superego, the source of the drive to masochism and sadism). Kant’s moral imperative (or something like it) has been taken up by societies and individuals as a pure form of deadly desire, which Paul sums up as the dynamic of the body of death.

The incapacity of the will Paul describes (doing what he does not want and not doing what he wants) is not due to a lack of a sense of duty or an ignorance of the law. There is no one more duty bound or more steeped in moral and legal imperatives than Pharisaical Paul, but this duty drives him to arrest Christians and consent to their death. It is precisely the Pauline categorical imperative which makes him the chief of sinners, but Paul assumes everyone is subject to the same desire and the same law which give rise to universal immorality. So if we were to make a moral or religious argument of Paul’s theology of salvation, it would be an argument beginning from immorality: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1). The exposure of universal moral and religious failure in the Bible would seem to weigh against appeal to an an innate positive moral capacity but this also seems to pose another possibility.

Something is displaced in both the moral and religious experience of most people, but this displacement or negation also points to what is hidden from the understanding. When the Hebrew prophets confront idolaters, this is depicted as a lifting of the covers or an exposure of something hidden, which is meant to shame them and bring about repentance. This means the hiding must include repression or hiding from the truth which the prophets bring to consciousness. The hiding of the first couple, the hiding of the Jews behind false idolatrous religion (or ancestor worship and necromancy in Isaiah), or what Paul describes as a hiding behind the Law in Galatians, is dependent upon the repression and negation of what must be available at an unconscious level. Paul’s argument is not that this is a peculiar experience, as all are called to repent from what at some level, they must know to be a falsehood.

Neither the typical religious or moral intuition point, in and of themselves to God, but in their positive form they constitute a self-grounding system (on the order of the categorical imperative and the presumptions behind radical evil). The experience of Paul in Romans 7, for example, depends on the negation and absence of God. God the Father is negated by an orientation to the law (the law serves in place of Abba); the experience of life in the Son is negated by the “I” or the ego; and life in the Spirit is negated by the dynamics of “this body of death.” This trinitarian negativity constitutes an identity in which God is unavailable but indicated, even in his absence. Trust in this system, in Paul’s explanation, is exposed in the agony (Ro. 7) and evil (Ro. 3) it produces. To stick to the law, to the categorical imperative, or to the lie of radical evil, ensures that one will never encounter the God of the Bible, but the danger which Paul warns of and implicit in the moral and religious argument, is that one will mistake the absolute of the moral law for God.

Perhaps this pertains to the legitimacy of the moral and religious arguments only to the extent that they depend on the notions that there is universal access to the moral law and a universally positive religious experience from which one can extrapolate by means of a neutral, objective, and universal reason to an understanding of God. This may not be a wholesale invalidation of some form of the arguments (a weak form?), but it would seem to call for an alternative understanding of reason, and a relinquishing of the notion that there is access to a universal and definitive moral law.

Maybe all my argument amounts to is that there is access to God only through Christ but even this understanding contains its own moral and religious argument as even in his absence, in immorality and false religion, God leaves his trace.

(Registration will be open from Friday the 16th for the next class with Ploughshares Bible Institute, “Imaginative Apologetics,” go to

Knowing God’s Essence

The danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The reason that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is as good as it gets. (To tell the story as if it is the fault of the philosophical arguments or the philosophers, is a slight miss-telling, as it presumes philosophy or philosophers are the movers and shakers in society when they may simply be the markers of a general failure.) It is not that the arguments or their purveyors generate this dualistic epistemology, but the gap, difference, or alienation, inherent to a common understanding, articulated and explained by Kant, presumed by Hegel, followed by Heidegger, becomes the epistemological frame for generations of theologians. The dichotomy between spheres of knowledge (science/humanities, sociology/religion, theory/practice, etc.) marks modern theology, which even at its best is modern because it presumes the mind is stuck in apriori Kantian spatio-temporal categories. Biblical studies focused on the historical critical method (whether of a liberal or fundamentalist bent), or theology focused on satisfying the mind of God, going to heaven, the apophatic, or the God beyond being, all betray this dualistic epistemology. Whatever else it might have spawned (e.g. the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation etc.) the modern is this shared epistemological starting point presumed to be more basic than religion or particular convictions about God. It is presumed that people know in the same basic way; it is just that they have journeyed to different places along the same road. Thus, the philosophical arguments (to say nothing of Christianity so engendered) do not challenge, but utilize what everyone knows to be the case (as the arguments explicitly state it).

Natural theology as the theological prolegomena (the philosophical arguments about God serve to introduce classical forms of theology and it was this beginning point Barth was attempting to sidestep), indicate that this problem is not external but internal to the modern theological project. Given the epistemology of the philosophical arguments, as Kant saw it, Christ is simply a prototype of what can be accomplished by reason and reason cannot get us to either the noumenal or to God. Though most theologians would not want to state it so bluntly, Jean-Luc Marion’s notion that God is unknowable is the theological conclusion to working within the Kantian framework (God is without being and beyond knowing). His is only one example of a long line of theological systems which would seal off God’s essence from the incarnation (cordoning off the economic Trinity from the immanent Trinity, or disconnecting the pre-incarnate Logos from the incarnate Christ, or suggesting, with Barth, that human language is inadequate, though it can be specially appropriated for and by revelation).

The solution (let’s not go there but start elsewhere), may seem to be no solution at all in its unwillingness to engage the starting point, but my understanding is that Christianity begins elsewhere. The fittingness of the world as a dwelling place for God is where the Bible begins (creation, God walking in the garden) and ends (heaven come to earth) and it is the point of the incarnation (Emmanuel – God with us). There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God in his essence.

As I have described it elsewhere (here), we identify who God is through incarnation because this is really who God is. The Logos is the incarnate Christ and, though we can ask other questions and raise other issues, the main point (God is with us in Christ) should not be subjected to some other mode of understanding or some other speculative questioning. We may ask after the pre-incarnate Christ, but the Bible and the early Church fathers equate the Word, of John’s prologue, with the Word of the Cross and the Word of the Gospel. It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from the Word of the Gospel (the crucified and risen Lord and not the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel). We begin as believers with the presumption that we encounter God a se (in his essence) in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in and what sort of creatures we are, who bear the image of God.

As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, in her “theological compatibilism,” God’s being is not remote but is known in “our earthly words and world and signs.” In what she considers a paradigmatic case, the appearance of God to Moses, “The bush burns with divine fire; yet the bush remains unconsumed. . . This event and truth simply is the mystery of the cosmos itself. . . This is the gospel. And every reflection upon epistemology and metaphysics must be in its turn gospel, rendered in formal analysis.”[1] God has revealed his nature and his name in an unapproachable light (Moses both sees the light and turns away), that both reveals and conceals God. To call this revelatory theophany a “paradox” would be to impose a prior framework, while what is unfolding in this event fits no frame. It is not idolatry, it is not an affirmation of absolute transcendence, and it is not some sort of paradoxical contradiction, but provides its own frame of understanding. God’s transcendence does not preclude his immanence as, on many occasions culminating in Christ, God is present, without mediation, without distance, without analogy, in creation.

God manifests himself in the world and this need not be balanced out, as Aquinas would have it, with negative concepts extrapolated from his transcendence. Aquinas reasons that humans can speak of God on the basis of the divine name (Ex. 3:14) but this negativity falls short of apprehending God in his simplicity, indicated by the name. As Matthew Wilcoxen describes it, Aquinas strips away false understandings of God’s being so that his existence is shorn of all composition. No relation to creation (inclusive of the elements of human understanding) can penetrate or approach divine simplicity – God’s essence within his self-relation.[2] This will become such standard fare in theology that it nearly goes without saying. Aquinas will set the stage for apprehending God through both the way of negation and the positive mode of revelation, and of course, subsequent to Thomas, these will become competing modes in which philosophical negation and certainty will co-opt the faith of Christ.

Understanding Jesus as Logos (as opposed to a pre-existent Christ) and recognizing with Sonderegger, God has chosen in his transcendence to be immanent/present in human history and human language, means that the world is perfectly adequate to reveal God in his essence. Humans, in their sinfulness, may not be up to this adequacy and may prefer to cling to dualism, antagonism, and a violent epistemology, but this human failure is not a delimiting factor for God. This is the point of the incarnation (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). God does not need protecting or defending through mediating categories which preserve his transcendence. Christ is truly human and divine.  Certainly, this does not mean that we know all of God in Christ or even all of Christ in Jesus. It does mean we can really know God in his essence as revealed in Christ which, in turn, points to divine hiddenness and transcendence. However, this hiddenness is forever being revealed and this transcendence is not an impassable barrier. As Sonderegger puts it, “We are never done with this invisibility and hiddenness, never done with this exceeding light, never far from this scorching fire. It is communicated to our hearts and to our intellects; yet never identified with them.”[3]

As she maintains, we do not need to be able to spell out how God can be poured into our world and into our understanding, it is enough to report that he has and to extrapolate from his act (in Christ) how we are to interpret and receive this mighty deed.[4] There is no end to the theological quest, no end to the questions and applications, given this compatible epistemological starting point, which forecloses on Anselm’s incomparable difference (the end point of his cosmological argument and the starting point of his ontological argument), which bequeathed to the world, not only philosophical arguments for God, but an epistemology devoid of the essence of God.  

[1] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 81-83. I am quoting from the Dissertation, Morally Perfect Being Theology: A Doctrine of Divine Humility by Matthew A. Wilcoxen.

[2] Wilcoxen, p. 182.

[3] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid, p. 127.

The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.

[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.