The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, 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 language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. 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 and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.


[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.

Beyond the Postmodern Search for Meaning

In the search for meaning throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering, exposing indecency, or what might be summed up as naming the idolatrous powers (political, social, cultural, religious), is the singular goal in postmodern cultural theory. People are oppressed by racism, sexism, ageism, class, or simply life’s circumstance. Failed families, mental and physical disabilities, or ill health, plague us all. Life is filled with suffering, some suffer more, and this inequity and injustice is itself a source of suffering. Naming the power structures, throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering – isn’t this what makes for a meaningful life or at least a meaningful enough life?

The last film we saw at the True/False film festival last week, The Commons, and events following the film, illustrate the problem.  The film (by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky) documents student protests over a two-year period against the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The protests occasionally consisted of reasoned argument and well thought out speeches but there were also a lot of scenes of people shouting at each other. The students had prepared for the occasion by showing up with bull horns which enabled them to outshout their opponents. At one-point students attached ropes and pulled the statue down, with the eventual outcome that the Chancellor of the University was fired and the monument consigned to oblivion.  Usually at True/False at the end of a film the director or main characters hold a Q & A with the audience. This time the sort of protest we had just been watching spilled over into the auditorium.

The festival organizers had accommodated NCU student wishes and one of their own, Courtney Staton, appeared on stage to read a statement and to have a dialogue with the film makers. At the same time, a group of students went to the front of the auditorium with two of them holding up a banner reading, “Decolonize Documentary.”  Throughout the ensuing dialogue student demonstrators, in a coordinated effort, would begin chanting or shouting. Stanton presented a reasoned and sympathetic objection to the film – that seemed to unravel the more she engaged the filmmakers. They explained they had sought permission from student leaders, sought to include their individual perspective, and turned over all their film for the students to review. They had even shifted the perspective of the film to accommodate the fact that the students were preparing their own documentary with personal interviews. What Stanton and the students seemed to be saying, as Hawley brought out in a question, was that there was only one possible politically correct film and it would not be a film by white people. As I have heard it phrased more crudely and in a different context, white people need to shut-up.

The protestors “succeeded” in the film and in person after the film. The cry against white privilege and black marginalization was heard and contains a truth that needs to be heard but clearly the students wanted to shout down and cancel out other viewpoints – even those, as with the film itself, which was sympathetic to their cause. There may be a time and place when white people, men, the wealthy, the young, racists, need to be made to listen and their power and privilege exposed as an injustice. Protest, revolution, exposing injustice, bringing down the idols, or toppling monuments celebrating oppression, may be necessary. Just as yelling F.U. in someone’s ear with a megaphone (a scene in the film) can be very effective, so too protest, deconstruction, revolution, tearing down idols, may be called for – but as with the commons at NCU – the space is now empty, the protest silent, the message received. The object of wrath, at least this monument in this place is gone, and so either the protest latches onto a new object (the documentary) or the momentum and meaning will dissipate.

The Corinthian elite have made a similar discovery: the idol is nothing and they have been freed from their own version of Silent Sam. The way in which this half-truth is summed up by Paul (who seems to be quoting the Corinthians) is that the idol amounts to nothing and thus, all things are lawful (I Co 10:23 – potentially even eating meat sacrificed to idols). Especially if you were an idolater, this is indeed quite significant. If your life has been filled with fear, which in my experience in Japan characterizes idolatrous religion, to say the idol is nothing is to suspend this fear and oppression. Uchimura Kanzo (perhaps the most renowned Japanese Christian) describes how just walking to school as a child, having to walk past all the idols, filled him with fear. Each god, each idol, each shrine required something. One has to pray just right, show respect in the right way, pay homage correctly or the gods will get you. They will cause your house to burn down, they will bring sickness and disease and the gods always get you – all we can do is momentarily assuage their anger. You can never serve them enough, do enough, so that life under the gods is a form of slavery.

It is not simply the idolatrous circumstance but life under the law (which Paul seems to be equating with idolatry) that is oppressive. This is the law of sin and death, the law of suffering, the law of oppression, the law from which springs every sort of injustice and evil. Law, as Paul is using the term here, is not simply Jewish law as these people are Gentiles. They are under the weight of the universal law that constrains and oppresses all of us.

Step one in Paul’s gospel is the realization that we are free and what we are free from, whether Jew or Gentile, is the constraint and oppression that this world puts upon us (which may involve a different sort of suffering). All things are lawful – nothing constrains us – the idol is nothing. We need to recognize the law, or our orientation to the law, in all of its various modes (the principalities and powers) will cause suffering and then we need to expose the fact that the idol can be undone. Silent Sam can be made to topple, the Emperor can be exposed as naked, and power can be deconstructed.

Many things need deconstructing as we need to relieve the idolatrous oppression by which we may be surrounded. Black people oppressed by whites, women oppressed by men, those with special needs oppressed by the general population, the poor oppressed by the rich. We can enter into many of these battles and declare – the idol is nothing, the law does not define us, race and gender and class are not definitive of humanity. As the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, cries out as the crowd presses around ready to do him harm – “I am a man.” Finding meaning in relieving suffering, in helping others, in finding dignity ourselves, in throwing off the law and idolatrous oppression, offers a vortex of meaning – but is it enough?

Certainly, meaning in life begins in not letting the law, the oppression, the suffering, define oneself and others. This is the discovery or rediscovery of the psychologist Jordan Peterson: we are all oppressed and the only meaningful thing is to pull yourself together.  Do not let your circumstance define you. Reach out and make your life meaningful and relieve suffering, is Peterson’s message.

Paul brings us up short here though, as the Corinthians are verging on the demonic. To say as they are, “we are free from the law,” needs to be qualified with the fact that the law of love now applies. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:23-24).

The demonic moment of the Corinthian church is one that faces us all. The Christian truth that Marxism, socialism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have discovered is that meaning is largely a social construct. Marx noted that it was the wealthy elites who controlled the levers of power and posited law and morals. His resolution was that the proletariat (the working class) arise and take control. The outcome in the 20th century was the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people (about one hundred and ten million people, foreign and domestic, were killed by Communist democide – inclusive of all forms of murder). The constraint of the law was lifted, the idolatry of culture was exposed, but this unleashed the demonic (a more oppressive form of law). I believe we are witnessing the continued realization of the power of suspension of the law. Race, gender, even humanness is a construct that is put upon us and one means of attempting to demonstrate the plasticity and constructed nature of identity is to reshape it. We can redefine ourselves endlessly but like LGBTQ . . .  which requires an ellipsis or question mark, this is an open ended and infinite striving.

Throwing off oppression (whether of race, gender, or class identity) may simply lead to endless revolution as it did with the unprecedented human sacrifice of the 20th century. Marxism, socialism, and deconstruction may all harbor a Christian capacity for naming the idols (for undoing the constraints of gender, ethnicity, and social class). Each, in its own way, recognizes we can throw off the law. We can behead the Emperor, annihilate the Czar, obliterate the opposition, or as in psychoanalysis (Žižek and Lacan), which is simply borrowing and following Paul, we can suspend the law. Certainly, there are any number of groups that are weak like the Corinthian weak. The lesson of the age and the lesson of Corinthians, however, is not to empower the weak (the proletariat or their representatives in Mao, Stalin, Lenin, or Pol Pot) to be the new authoritarians. Paul’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, is not a call for endless social, sexual, and ethnic reordering but a suspension of this order with its oppressive law like structure. According to Paul, we do not throw off the law so as to engage the flesh but we suspend the mode of fleshly identity. This frees us up for love: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:24).

Paul warns the Corinthians that knowledge, in and of itself, is not meaningful (it simply “puffs up” with empty air, according to Paul). It is not enough to say that the idol is nothing and we are free from the law so we can now dine on the flesh of idols. We can make one of two mistakes: (1.) The fundamentalist or conservative error is to imagine that it is enough to prove that the world, due to the existence of God, through creation, through Christ, has the resources for an epistemological meaning and leave it at this. Apologetics as evangelism, Christianity as belief in doctrine, theology in which ethics is an addendum (or absent), verges on the same sort of demonic possibility in that gnosis or knowledge is made primary. (2.) On the other hand, meaning apart from this epistemological resource is negation, opposition, and protest – requiring continual revolution, continual social rearrangement, continual striving for a properly gendered identity. The first is a resource for a life of meaning without the reality and the second is an attempt at meaning without the resource.

The chief meaning or the chief end of man, according to the Westminster Confession with direct reference to I Co 10:31, is to glorify God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Co 10:31). Glory is an ambiguous term (Humpty Dumpty says it means whatever he wants it to mean) but in Paul’s explanation glory fills out meaning. Giving glory to God is to be found in the loving servanthood of Christ (Paul says that, like Christ, he has become the servant of all) as here meaning is lived out such that every act (eating or not eating meat) can be meaningful. Actually loving, actually caring for the weak does not involve taking the position of the strong but means becoming weak (Paul impoverishes himself by refusing money, he works at a trade, he takes a low social status, he is willing to become a vegetarian). Paul explains, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (I Co 10:33). Salvation, in this context, is not referring to conversion but to departure from the crushing oppression of the culture to which the weak are susceptible and from which the Corinthian cultural elites are providing no relief. Paul does not presume to displace these elites by shouting them down but he sums up his argument with, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Co 11:1).

It is not enough to name the idols, expose the power structures, tear down the high places, or suspend the law. In place of the oppression of the law the freedom of the law of love is necessary for the full realization and in order to sustain a meaningful life. True, we must fully recognize our freedom from the law as this law is always one which would oppress, cast out, demonize, scapegoat, and choose death for some that others might live. To simply expose this law, realize its weakness, recognize that nothing is there, that it is a human construct, maybe this is what it takes to then exercise the love of the messiah. Christ exposes the principalities and powers but he does not, however, leave us in a vacuum. Paul and Jesus call us to follow them or to imitate their lives and this is where meaning kicks in.

Is Shame Ruining Your Porn Experience: The Anarchism of Love

Animals and angels are apparently incapable of shame as animals lack the spiritual and angels the organic, the two ingredients which constitute humans. Shame marks the disruption of the physical and spiritual at the same time as it marks their presence. The feeling of being undone, of not enduring (shame and death are interconnected in experience and the biblical portrayal) or the attempt to isolate the physical (the drives such as sex and hunger) from its moral implications and to thus suppress shame, both point to the coexistence of the two realms in humans. Shame is a holistic physical/spiritual experience in that both human physicality (turning red with shame, the desire to cover up) and human spirituality or personhood (the desire to not be seen by others or the Other, the desire to disappear – to die of shame) are conjoined in the shame experience. Shame brings a more holistic perspective to bear, as one is made fully aware of oneself through the interdiction of the eyes of another (another person, God, or in the mind’s eye). This failure of one world, though, opens up the possibility of another.  

To truly enjoy pornography, sexually abusing children, or the services of sex slaves, requires the inhibition of shame and the momentary or permanent forgetting of human fulness (the closure of the world). The happy pornographer is able to focus on the organic and physical to the exclusion of the spiritual (self-reflection).  Through the aid of religion, wealth, and (pop) culture, one is kept busy pleasuring self so that others or the Other cannot intrude. Maybe this is always the principle or arche of culture; it is certainly at the core of our current culture. Billionaires, rap stars, preachers, priests, politicians, – the icons, leaders, representatives of the culture excel in shamelessness. One can apparently best accomplish suppression of shame, and full occupation with self-pleasure, through occupying a place of power in the culture; at least it is powerful individuals (empowered by money, position, and fame) most openly spending the coin of their success in shameless abuse of minors, children, and the enslaved. Perhaps they are simply the best students in absorbing cultural lessons – their casting off of shame is signified in both their achievement and exercise of power. Subjection to shame is, after all, to be rendered powerless.

With someone who loves pornography, as with the idolater, it is not human warmth, engagement and love but a representation, an image, that captures the imagination. The lone pornographer pleasuring himself before the simulacra of the flashing screen depends upon losing himself, forgetting others or the Other. The pornographic is deployed in the Old Testament as a metaphor for idolatry (horse sized dildo idols in Ezekiel and idolaters characterized as adulterers) as both exclude the spiritual dimension. The phallic idol as image focuses on the organic and orgasmic and displaces God as image and humans as image bearers. Pornographic religion suppresses shame and unleashes desire and drive with human sacrifice in all its forms.

Shame (in the form of the prophet in the Old Testament) is the intrusion of revelation, the personal, or the divine on this otherwise happy isolation. In this sense shame is anarchic, disrupting, disturbing, in that a world which would otherwise cohere falls apart. The idolatrous/pornographic arche is the principle around which this world coheres – as it is by definition closed, devoid of the transcendent, and reductive.

Paul, like an Old Testament prophet, is trying to shame the Corinthians at several points in his letter. He says as much in chapter 6, “I say this to shame you” (v. 5). He is trying to give them a more holistic picture so as to draw them out of their abusive relation with the weak, to prevent them from visiting prostitutes, and to halt their eating in temples (ch. 10). Shame is the moment of self-awareness, the awareness of others, and it is the moment of love’s possibility.

The question for us, as for the Corinthians, is whether the Christian faith as we have it is pornographic or anarchic?

Christian Anarchism: The Singular Weapon Opposing That Hideous Strength

That Christianity is over and against the arche (the organizing principle, the principalities and powers) of this world is a truism of the same order as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is one of those universal trues that is universally ignored.  Everyone is against the “ruler of this world, the devil” (as depicted in the temptation of Jesus and elsewhere), but to oppose position, power, authority, prestige, and wealth, as Jesus does, is another matter.  The word “anarchism,” maybe due to its association with the 19th century movement advocating stateless societies, gets at the radical nature of Christian opposition to illegitimate authority. Christian anarchism might be associated with the desert fathers, Leo Tolstoy, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Ellul, and most particularly with the work of C. S. Lewis (as I conclude below) but what all would claim (though not in the same modern word) is that in authentic Christianity God is sole authority and any authority which would usurp the place of God is illegitimate. The devil though, is in the details of the workings of illegitimate authority, as depicted in the New Testament (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) and specifically by Paul in Corinthians. The summation of Paul’s point is that illegitimate authority is coercive, shaming, filled with ambition and giving rise to strife. All of this can be summed up as a kind of violence if we understand violence is itself simply this coercive power. Christianity is anarchic in that it opposes the organizing violence which shapes people’s lives and runs the world.

Where the church would collude with the arche, as the Corinthians and the church through the ages has been tempted, the demonic, according to Paul, displaces God: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (I Co 10:21). You cannot pledge allegiance to more than one ultimate power; it is either God or mammon. The Corinthians are claiming the idol is nothing, and while Paul agrees he notes that this is not the basis for collusion. Paul explains, he does not want them to unwittingly be participants with demons (v. 20). The arche or demonic masks itself behind the apparently benign and the history of the church is one of collusion with this power: Constantinian, German, American, liberal democratic, idolatrous – conjoined with Christian has produced demonic “Christianity.” Churches have conformed, respected, and often supported state authorities and in the process have tolerated and participated in the most grievous evil.

Paul is modeling a concept of authority which sees God as the only final authority, and in this he is enacting Christ’s servant leadership – a phrase so bandied about and abused that it can become repulsive (if not recovered from those who pervert it). The leader as the servant of all, in Paul’s prolonged argument, is not violent (literally or metaphorically the super-apostles are slapping people around), or an authoritarian, or coercive, or interested in position. What is pompous, a spectacle, a hierarchy of power, an end in itself, is not Christian. Those who use Christianity (e.g. the super-apostles in Corinth) for power and position are not following Christ. The problem is this more or less excludes most all churches. To state it in the most straightforward manner, if one can be promoted, given a raise in pay, given an important title, to become one of these then this cannot possibly be what Paul and Jesus are modeling.

But has not God appointed the masters and servants, giving his sign of blessing through socioeconomic success? Aren’t the clergy consigned with knowledge and power which can be utilized as chaplains of the state and all of its various powers (military, police, government)? Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous living anarchist, has spent his life uncovering the slaughter, genocide, and human sacrifice, in the name of a Christian liberal democracy (primarily that of the United States). The blood of human sacrifice, whether overtly idolatrous or covertly so, flows from illegitimate authority (it is always illegitimate/deadly in the same way).   The sacrifice of the weak to the “knowledge” of the strong, at Corinth or in Chomsky’s analysis, is the authority of the rich, the privileged, the elites, presuming to Lord it over the poor, the powerless, and dispossessed. Paul’s and Chomsky’s analysis converge in describing the sacrifice of persons for principle (gnosis or knowledge over concern for the weak) and in the obscuring of history (Israel perished, hundreds of thousands have been killed in South America, the Middle East, Africa, etc., in the promotion of American freedom). Where Chomsky’s atheistic anarchism falls short is in the realization of the real-world corporate resistance Paul is putting into place in his establishment of anarchic Christian communities.

While the super-apostles would extract obedience through violent shaming, Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority that comes off as wimpy, cowardly, and weak, in their estimate. Paul is concerned with nurturing the weak, and so is living in relative poverty so as to identify himself with – or to be – weak as opposed to strong. Where Paul’s weakness arises from a concern for persons, the strong are centered on an impersonal gnosis. As Kierkegaard explains, the impersonal is the marker of evil power: “no mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power. Why? Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid to a person.” The sign you may be dealing with demons is when someone says you must sacrifice people for humanity – a few for the greater good. The Corinthians, as with all power elites, would sacrifice the weak and the poor for the exercise of their freedom.  So, the first mark of the devotion to idols such as rulers or nations, is the willingness to sacrifice the few. Immigrants, racial minorities, foreigners, Jews, the disabled, are the “genetically inferior” which the arche of the age have required for their use. Smell for the sulfur of hell when it is argued “we must do evil to the few, perhaps to you, that good may abound” as the devil sits before you. 

The second thing which both Paul and Chomsky describe is a certain obscuring or complete blurring of history. Every idol has obscure origins – “it just came out of the fire” (according to Aaron’s description of the origin of the golden calf); I turned to eat my lunch and this god appeared (according to the idolatrous craftsman in Isaiah); “We the people” constituted ourselves a people before we existed as a people according to the Constitution. Chomsky traces the anti-democratic intent of American origins in Madison’s and Jefferson’s concerted efforts to protect the wealthy from “majority tyranny.” The supposed democracy, from its origins, was a plutocracy (government by the wealthy) and Chomsky’s effort is to trace the human sacrifice this continues to involve. In contrast, even though the Corinthians are mainly made up of gentiles, Paul incorporates them into the history of Israel to show that their spiritual ancestor adulterated/idolatrized itself. The authoritarians would bypass history, and particularly history as Paul recounts it. They would claim a word from God, a spiritual gift, an ecstatic experience, that cannot be historically countered. Paul uses Israel as a warning that things can go wrong and did go wrong as the bodies of these Israelites are spread in the wilderness (I Co 10:5). They were given an open door to freedom from the tyranny of Egypt and its gods.  They chose, instead, to worship the arche of the age and bowed down to idols of Egypt, longing for the very fleshpots of meat that the Corinthians crave.  Of course, this is pointed at the Corinthians adherence to the organizing principle and authority of the age and by extension it is pointed at our lingering submission to this power.

The gospel has often been preached as a choice between damnation and conversion, as if salvation is snatching souls from out of the world and its history. Paul is picturing salvation through Moses, through Israel, and ultimately through Christ as part of a historical process in which one must be able to name the idols to be saved from enslavement.  The kingdom of God exists in the world but it cannot be reconciled to the organizing principle of the kingdoms of this world.

In our day for the church to be anarchic it must counter the organizing principles of materialism, scientism, technology, and economics. Jacques Ellul has described the supreme idolatry of the time as technology, technique, or information processing. As he notes, what “desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality.”[1] How to do it, how to perform, how to achieve, whether money, sex, a mega-church, happiness, or peace, the sacred principle of the time is technique. “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”[2] As I have outlined it previously (here), “becoming all things to all men” (the proof text for Church growth philosophy taken from this section of Corinthians) reduces authority and leadership to technique.

 As both Chomsky and Ellul illustrate, schools have become the focus of the sacralizing of technique. The young are indoctrinated to equate information gathering with understanding and education primarily conveys information. Intelligence is now conceived such that it could be duplicated artificially (AI) as it is pictured as mechanical. This accords with Lewis’s depiction in That Hideous Strength which portrays the demise of a little college that is somehow intimately familiar.  N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Sciences) is the acronym of the technocratic organization, geared to pure science and to elevating humanity beyond embodiment, which takes over the school. What Lewis captures is the emptying out of intellect to a bland scientism and technology.[3]

Lewis’s resolution to this hideous evil, in his space trilogy and nonfiction, is Christian anarchy. The small group at St. St. Anne’s, made up of just a few ragged individuals, poses the only opposition to the domination of N.I.C.E. Lewis, it has been noted, was obsessed with “power-over” relationships.[4] Lewis explained, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with the unchecked power over his fellows… I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” In his depiction of the unfallen world the races interact together quite freely and peacefully, trading amongst themselves, with no need for the machinations of a state structure or governing system.[5] Apart from the Fall “our race would never have featured any rulers dominating others.” Subordination of one human to another marks human failure which is erased in his depiction of the unfallen. In Out of the Silent Planet this is beautifully depicted in Professor Ransom’s research into how power and authority function on the planet. He concludes as Justin Fowler has described it, “equals are unfit to rule each other — humans are not fit to rule other humans. To try to rule another is to try to be something that one is not.”[6] What Lewis captures throughout his corpus is the anarchic nature of Christian authority, the only means of resisting pure evil.


[1] https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/29/cs-lewis-was-a-red/

[2] http://www.altarandthrone.com/anarchy-by-c-s-lewis-part-one/

[3] Even in biblical education, in my experience, students must harmonize, memorize, fill in the blanks, repeat the correct answer, summarize the doctrines, as if this constitutes learning the Word.  Administrators with their technique, their pursuit of accreditation, their total adherence to the arche of the age are displacing Truth. The truth of Christ as a person in whom we trust, is reduced to an impersonal gnosis which one can be made to espouse (think here of the history of forced conversion).


[4] https://archive.org/stream/JacquesEllulAnarchyChristianity/jacques-ellul-anarchy-%26-christianity_djvu.txt

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.altarandthrone.com/anarchy-by-c-s-lewis-part-two/

Putting Women in Their Place: From Settled Conviction to True Love

If it were not for my wife, Faith, my expertise in gender relations would have been completed a great deal sooner.  She was clearly the obstacle to my ownership of a settled position. Left on my own, the issue was mostly decided as my understanding had peeked at about age 20, at which point I had completed a Bible College degree and had learned from Corinthians that women are to remain silent in church and from Timothy and Ephesians that women are not to exercise leadership. 

How thoroughly I “knew” this is a bit unclear because in spite of the very conservative nature of my education I do not remember that this was emphasized with any clarity, as reality intruded. Ozark Bible College had a very strict rule that women were not to speak in chapel – with the clear exception of large donors (Mrs. Welshimer, heiress to the Phillips Petroleum fortune, spoke whenever she wanted). Women were not supposed to teach men – except one of the most effective teachers on campus was a woman medical doctor. Women are to remain silent except when they need to say something (important donors, highly qualified teachers, missionaries, etc.). For every verse demarcating the public roles of women there seemed to be an exception. The interpretive strictness received on the one hand was mitigated by the pressing circumstance on the other. An understanding that pertains not just to life but to reading the Bible.

  If I could have negotiated the issue of gender or perhaps, all of my theology, from a theoretical vantage (alone in a cave for example), I could have “arrived” sooner. You have to admire the ability to arrive at a full understanding of an issue early on and the willingness to stick to your guns without giving it anymore thought. This settled, unthinking, doctrinaire, ownership of an issue seems to be the most common of the spiritual gifts. I presume I too could have been so blessed. As it is, being married and having two daughters, living in Japan some 20 years and being associated with actual humans on a regular basis is very theologically unsettling. In the Japanese church if it were not for women taking the initiative there would be no church. To say life intruded on a biblical understanding may miss the fact, it was a peculiar biblical understanding geared to exclude this reality.

The Jew’s knew how to take a position and stick to it; perhaps we could take a cue from their prayer celebrating the unchanging order of things. In the synagogue the men would pray, “Thank God that he has not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” At this point the women in the congregation would answer back, “Thank you God, that you have made me according to your will.” Here is a hierarchical world in which ethnicity, religion, social status, and gender really mean something. The problem is that Paul seems to deliberately overturn this understanding when he implies this prayer is forbidden in Christian congregations (Gal. 3:28). It is precisely the notion of a set cultural order, a law of nature, the way things are, being overturned that Paul equates with salvation.

Surely when he tells women to keep silent in Church (I Co 14) this is an incontrovertible fixed order – men speak and women listen. The problem is, Paul recommends (also in Corinthians) that when the women do speak in church that they should follow cultural considerations (in 1 Co 11:2–11). I doubt Paul was simply making exceptions for the wealthy heiresses of the community who could be relied upon for serious patronage.  Paul is not making exceptions to a general, fixed, rule but is forging a new sort of society (the Kingdom of God) which accounts for the culture but does not presume it is definitive.

Isn’t it absolutely clear, however, that man is the head of woman like Christ is the head of the Church (as in Ephesians and Corinthians)? What is unclear is whether the word “head” means “boss” or “source” (as the reference in Corinthians is to Genesis in which the woman is taken from man’s side – her source). What is clear from the rest of Corinthians is that biblical authority has nothing to do with being an authoritarian boss, but as with the headship of Christ, it means being a servant who provides for growth. If one is determined to stick to stereotypes this is a passage that might serve as a proof text, but only if the gospel challenge to culture and authority is overlooked.

This sort of nitpicking can be very tiresome if one is seeking a settled position.  Isn’t it a good thing Paul tells Timothy that the men are the decision makers who run things and tell the women what to do (to be in “full submission” and to do no teaching)? To reach this conclusion, however, one must ward off curiosity and isolate this passage from its context. The slightest study indicates that Paul is commanding that women too should study and learn – and his command that they be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. As N. T. Wright notes, it is not that Paul is saying women cannot teach men, he is saying, “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men.” He might need to say this, Wright notes, due to the religious situation in Ephesus where the biggest Temple was the shrine of a female-only cult.  At the Temple of Artemis, a female deity, the priests were all women. Women ruled the show and kept the men in their place.[1] Where the passage is cut off from its life situation and the theory formed in isolation, it may be a proof text for misogyny but this is contrary to all that the gospel is about.

As portrayed in Scripture, gender problems are at the center of the human problem, so it is no surprise that gender issues are at the center of interpretive problems. How to be men and women in relationship, how to be image bearers, how it is that Christ and the Church resolve the problem of gender, is not just part of the biblical story – this is the biblical story. To callously presume an understanding of gender relationships, marriage, or the role of men and women, as absorbed from culture is to miss the point of salvation. The gospel challenged first century culture and it challenges our culture in the same way. Where oppression – the original oppression, the first sign of the Fall – is “supported” by the Bible, it may be the point of salvation has been obscured. “The two shall become one flesh and I am talking about Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32) fuses the issue of gender relations with the issue of salvation. If we miss the one we miss the other.

Life intrudes on a failed understanding in the same way it intrudes on a failed biblical interpretation. On this Valentines Day I can say the most disruptive, the most difficult thing I did to my settled understanding of gender and Christianity was to get married. The real world of relationship does not allow for the truncated understanding so often foisted off as biblical. If my life has been a salvation journey, a journey toward realizing humanity in its fullness, a journey which cannot abide this world’s notion of authority, this is an understanding worked out in marriage.

 More than 40 years ago I fashioned a tin foil heart and enclosed it with some roses and sent it to Faith. It was the best decision I ever made but it cost me my settled convictions and opened up the possibility of true love. This seems to be the necessary trade-off.

Happy Valentines Day my love!


[1] http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/womens-service-in-the-church-the-biblical-basis

Catholic or Fascist Christianity: The State of the Christian Union

I have long presumed that Peter Berger’s three step description of culture gets at (in part) the reality of the manner in which culture is at once a human creation which acts upon us. According to Berger, it is through externalization that society is a human product – humans make it, build it, constitute it. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis – culture and its products take on the appearance of being independent of humans.  Then due to internalization of culture and its products man is himself a product of society. The role of religion in this process is to falsify human consciousness so that the projecting and reification involved in objectivation are mystified – made non-human. The fact that the socio-cultural world is shaped by human activity is obscured by the religion. The sui generis nature of religion, set forth by Mircea Eliade – the father of modern religious studies, cuts religion off from the realities of culture and even the realities of any particular religion. For Eliade, the historical and social conditions play into the interpretation of the religious phenomenon but they cannot ultimately explain it: “All these dreams, myths, and nostalgias…cannot be exhausted by a psychological explanation; there is always a kernel that remains refractory to explanation. . . that, we shall never tire of repeating, is not solely ‘historical.’”  Given the Berger choice that religion is a human creation and the Eliade choice that religion transcends the human, one might think Eliade is on the side of Christianity. Eliade provides a universal experience in which to ground religion and Berger seems to reduce all religion to the relativity of culture.

The problem is that Eliade’s is a cheap universality which ultimately has nothing to say (all articulation falls short) about the transcendent (it is absolutely transcendent). The transcendent object of religion does not intersect with the realities of economics, politics, or culture and at the same time it is presumed the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference. This, of course, is simply not true of any religion of which I am aware. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, biblical idolatry, and most especially Christianity, are interconnected with economics, politics, and culture. In Japan, the rise of fascism depends directly upon State Shinto, Buddhist nationalism, and Christian accommodation to deification of Hirohito. All of these religions might be said to have maintained their universality – their transcendent orientation – but at the expense of being of no earthly value or influence.  The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to the sui generis notion of Christianity – that the Church somehow exists apart from society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence by which we are shaped and to which we are subject.

The advantage of Berger’s theory, as opposed to the sui generis notion of religion, is that religion as key to world construction ties religion into every aspect of human society. In Berger’s notion human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Objectivation seems to accurately portray the function of money and idols (intrinsically worthless and yet the most valued object). These man-made entities confront its producers as a fact external to and other than themselves. Internalization re-appropriates this same reality, transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.

 Berger, as a practicing Christian, has his own problems. In religion as a social construct there is no clear place for sociology and Christian theology to meet – there is no place from which to critique the society or to stand outside of it. On the other hand, if one understands that it is precisely a Berger like world which Christ disrupts– persons are constituted in culture – then salvation must take on an integration with all things human. The resolution to this problem posed by Richard Niebuhr, is to recognize that culture is the shaping force of humankind and Christ, then, is incarnate so as to reshape culture. Niebuhr offers a series of possibilities as to how this might be accomplished: Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture and transforming culture.  The problem is that culture is the essence around which Christ is made to work. What we recognize from Berger is that Niebuhr has also reified culture and presumed Christ is forced to work with this given. Rodney Clapp sums up a more sufficient answer which allows for the primacy of culture without succumbing to Berger’s relativism or Niebuhr’s essentializing of culture: Christ and the Church constitute a culture. “The original Christians, in short, were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.” Here Berger’s integration of the human and the cultural are accounted for without succumbing to an essentializing of culture while also allowing for a universal through culture. At the same time, the universal is not absolutely transcendent but takes on its properly biblical slant. The incarnation is an interruption of history which re-founds what it means to be human through one who is human and divine. Yet this interruption is itself historical, cultural, and social.  

Where catholic or universal is understood to be concerned not only with all people but with every aspect of life – social, political, sexual, familial, gastronomical, etc., I presume this is not only the true form of the Christian faith but the only form resistant to the manufactured reality, described by Berger, of contemporary culture. The double-sided meaning of universal, all people and all encompassing (concerned with every aspect of life), are interdependent in that universal identity manifests itself in practices inherently (political, cultural, etc.) resistant to the human “sacred canopy” always characterized by its cultural production (local and exclusive).  The politics of Jesus, the culture of Christ, the family of God, or even Christian eating habits (eating with sinners, a communion open to all), are the particular manifestation of universality and are what constitute the Church a force of opposition to the alienating and divisive reified socio-political principalities and powers.

Where the opposition has failed and the dictates of the culture, with its essentializing ethos, nationalism, regimented conformity,exclusivism, and ethnocentrism, succeed then the distinctives of Christian universality are, by definition, absent. And while no particular church (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) can exclusively claim universality (an oxymoron?) the supreme test of whether the faith is, indeed, catholic is whether it succumbs to cultural tyranny – or the reification of culture known in our day as fascism.

 Fascism is the primary and most damaging form this cultural reification has taken in the 20th and, I would claim (along with Noam Chomsky and others) in the beginnings of the 21st century. Fascism presumes there is an essence to the national ethos (the blood and soil of Germany, the unique spirit (ki) of Japan, American exceptionalism) such that individuals, as in Berger’s picture, bear within themselves this essence (e.g. Japanese citizens are depicted as the egos circulating around the super-ego Emperor which together constitute the wholeness of a person).  There may be many markers of the passage from nationalism to fascism – the rise of a cult of personality, the violent suppression of opposition, the demonization of certain ideas, the continual gearing up for war – but one of the clearest markers in Germany and Japan was the manner in which Christianity was co opted by the state. Pictures of Hirohito adorned every official church in Japan and Christians were made to bow to this god man to inaugurate the service. Japanese theologians even attempted to incorporate Hirohito into the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God Hirohito). German Christians were those who accepted the Aryan clause, which excluded Jews from holding public office, inclusive of state church offices and German Christian theology expunged the Bible of its Jewishness. In both Germany and Japan, this Christian fascism is one step beyond the Constantinian fusion of state and church (arguably most complete only with the reformation). Where the Roman emperor fused church and state by acknowledging Christianity, fascist Christianity presumes to overtly absorb Christianity into state ideology (which is not to deny this was implicit with Constantine).

Though there are moments in history where “fascist Christianity” accurately describes the church, in retrospect it would seem that genocide, all-out war, emperor/dictator worship, racism, and anti-Semitism, may not accord (to say less than the least) with the basic tenets of the teaching of Jesus. Fascist theologians, fascist Christians, fascist churches, are a historical reality (not just a pejorative description), which more than simple fascism (or any of the isms of the 20th century – communism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism) may best describe the contemporary anti-Christ (the imitation or displacement of Christ). In other words, the fascist reification of a particular culture and the violence this entails – equated with Christianity – is the most obvious enemy of Christ.

 Is it something like fascist Christianity, a Christianity absorbed by nationalist chauvinism, that threatens the Church universal in the United States?  American exceptionalism premised on America as a Christian Nation may have succeeded, some place and some time (as with the varieties of Constantinian Christianity), in escaping the complete co opting of the church by state purposes. But one wonders if there is not an evident incongruity in Trump Doctrine, summed up by a senior White House official with direct access to the president, as “We are America, bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally reported this in The Atlantic has put it, “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence” amounts to “a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world.” The exclusivism, isolationism, mistreatment of aliens, chauvinistic hostility, and sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, captured in this posturing may be good for America (though I doubt it) but can it be equated with the teaching of Christ? Could it be that “we are Christian America, bitch” or that we are holding up a Christian middle finger to the world? This is no more unlikely than “Christian fascism” but what it clearly is not is catholic Christianity.[1]


[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’ The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018.

Why Are the Sickos in Charge?

Growing up we moved about ten times to a variety of states and I never attended any school more than two years. Each move meant a different set of friends, a different school, a different church, and not simply a different natural climate but a different human climate. The lesson I learned in the moves from Arizona, to Texas, to Kansas, to New Mexico, and Oklahoma, is that, though in relatively close proximity, each social setting was unique and worked on who I was very differently (for good and bad).  As I would discover in working in a variety of jobs as a young adult, cultural differences function at a micro-level, so that working in the oil fields, as a radio announcer, or in sales, involved a very different set of values and behaviors. In selling price markers across the State of Kansas and radio advertising in Missouri and Arkansas, I recognized businesses generate an atmosphere. The toxic sort – I especially remember a chicken packing plant in Arkansas and a grocery store in northern Kansas – create a culture of fear. Ushered into the owner’s office at the chicken packing plant, I immediately understood who was generating the poison I had felt entering the plant from everyone I met. “Figured they would send me one of you long haired hippies. Now you sit down there and take note of everything I say,” he said.  I was clearly not fully human in his estimate. When he saw I was not writing down his every word and had no intention of doing so, this Scrooge demanded that his own meek and fearful Bob Cratchit take dictation. (My petty revenge, since I was writing the advertising, was to discard these notes and compose a “Chicken Man” ad.)  I am not sure what traits make for a successful chicken packer – his must have been the largest plant in northern Arkansas – so this seemingly despicable human was a chicken packing success. To thrive in such a culture, however, may not be an indicator of a highly developed human. In moving to Japan, I realized the degree to which my small-scale experience could be extrapolated.

The first-time visitor to Japan, though he will immediately notice the cultural difference, may not understand the human cost required in being Japanese. Maybe the easiest way to gauge this is to recognize those who are made to pay (those who pay through suicide, with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, offer only silent testimony). The phenomenon of hikikomori (those who isolate themselves from society) has become significant enough (estimates are between five hundred thousand to a million or more) that services have sprung up in which parents can rent a big sister to coax the young men (usually men) out of their room. In a National Geographic article and documentary, the men report on the psychological stress from bullying, the pressure to succeed, or simply the cruel and intense nature of living in Japanese society, which has sent them into years and even decades shut up in their room. The group-oriented focus of Japanese society, the emphasis on shame and honor, indulgent Japanese mothers, and the near total absence of fathers in the home, might all be sighted as contributing factors. As they interviewed the young men, it was clear that sensitivity had worked against them in making adjustments to Japanese society, which raises the question as to whether functioning successfully in this particular society makes for a better human being.  Or to reverse the question and perspective (as the group oriented, cooperative, safe, culture of Japan, also exposed the underside of my own culture), what cost is extracted by any particular culture?  

As I was thinking about this, I was also reading the story of the Jamaican writer, Marlon James who, when the other children started bullying him – calling him a sissy, also retreated into reading comics and fiction. At eighteen, he joined a Pentecostal Church and tried exorcism to get rid of homoerotic thoughts. The exorcism, in his description, seemed to have the opposite of the intended effect as he grew comfortable with his sexual orientation and uncomfortable with his church and Jamaican culture. Instead of adjusting to both (Jamaican culture and church), he found success and acceptance as a writer and professor of writing in the United States. Had he “successfully” adjusted to Jamaica, Marlon James would probably be a very different person than the “successful” writer. He expresses no regret in leaving and does not miss Jamaica, as he says he clearly remembers why he left. The resonance he feels in New York – the capacity to thrive – and the stifling nature of Jamaican culture made him aware of what remaining would have cost him.

Until you have crossed the boundaries of a micro or macro culture and felt the dissonance, it may be hard to imagine what price your culture, your circumstance, your “people,” have extracted from your humanity. Those cast off by their culture feel the cost, but may harshly (mis)judge themselves (through the only lens provided), confusing tenderness, sensitivity, or humaneness for weakness. Those counted most successful (the well-adjusted), ironically, may pay the heaviest cost in terms of their humanity with the least awareness (zero?) of the price they have paid. Those shaped by their culture, most unwittingly and least painfully, are necessarily least resistant to the twisting culture induces.

 As a professor at Temple University in Japan, the most “important” Japanese person I ever met – president of the University, Japanese Diet member, Harvard graduate, a man of great wealth, was without question the most degraded. After he accosted a female professor and propositioned her for sex the professors, innocent souls that we were, attempted to form a union. The union president (if that was what she was – as we were never organized) was threatened by Japanese gangsters on a train platform and immediately left the country in fear of her life.  The history of Temple in Japan (started by a con man who ran off with student tuition), the history of the Liberal Democratic Party’s working with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), the history of moneyed elites in Japan, would help explain this micro culture. The macro culture in which inhumanity has its rewards and costs, had clearly shaped the man. The pinnacles of success, the chicken men and women of the world, may be those who, blind to the values they have absorbed, sacrifice sympathy, compassion, and all that make life worth living. While the micro culture of a company, school, or business, can be shaped around a more benevolent or benign personality, I presume that this sort of oasis must be resistant to the macro cultures they inhabit.

I did not realize the ease with which one can be unconsciously absorbed into a corporate identify until I encountered it elsewhere – the corporate “we” in Japan (watashitachi wa). “We Japanese” was a constant refrain which explained every action, every attitude, and captured the ethnocentrism found in nihonjinron (the notion of Japanese uniqueness propagated by cultural elites).  “We Japanese have a unique language, which gives us unique brains, which can be connected to our unique islands. This means that Japanese bodies are unique – longer intestines, refined hearing and affinity with nature, and abhorrence of violence due to a graminivorous diet. Japanese cannot eat Western beef due to their longer intestine and this explains why we are like the peaceful long intestine animals – the deer and sheep.” (A Japanese friend, explained, as I was chomping away at a piece of meat that this was precisely why Americans are so violent.) The tendency of non-Japanese was to take great umbrage at this ethnocentrism, as if this diatribe of uniqueness was the most unique and strange thing ever invented.  Every tenet of nihonjinron, however, is a development of ideas borrowed from Western ethnocentric studies. Japanese nationalism is the mirror image, studied, imitated, and adapted (often with an inverse system of values – Japan at the top), from the West.  

Every culture must create a blindness to its degrading effects, such that the values and ethos of a place, like Japan or the United States, require a transcultural capacity so as to resist. The manufactured consent of “we” – once glimpsed can be seen to be destructively pervasive. One simple example is the office of President of the United States. When Americans (perhaps, half-consciously) identify with the corporate “we,” the mythos of the office of Washington and Lincoln – inclusive of honesty, bravery, and divine providence – must be included in this identity. Isn’t this office a marker of the humanitarian heights of the culture? If thriving in a culture is to be equated with success in being human, we would expect to find a unique humaneness and intelligence in the President.  Isn’t this precisely why some claim, including the man himself, that our President is the most intelligent, the greatest of leaders (biblical in proportion), and the cleverest of deal makers? If not this president, then some president, or perhaps the corporate office, is representative of the light upon a hill.

The problem, at least in Noam Chomsky’s estimate, is that the office holders, without exception in the post-war period, given the criteria of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, are all guilty of capital crimes. All the post war presidents would be hung, according to Chomsky, if tried according to the Nuremberg standard.  Genocide, holocaust, mass murder, of course, all go under a different name and are not even recognizable as such when “we” do it.  Hearing a defense of various U.S. policies in rural churches (in Sunday school no less) under the refrain of “we,” I had to ask which “we” was being referenced. Do “we” Christians want to kill, exclude, segregate and if it is “we” then aren’t at least some of those “we” want to do this to “we” Christians. Where this “we” goes unquestioned I presume Christian identity serves national identity.

The ethos of Christian institutions blind to their cultural surroundings, whether schools, churches, or businesses, may be indistinguishable from the chicken packing plant, though prayer is commonly invoked, the name of Jesus proclaimed, and the name of the place designates it as Christian. The “successful” head of these institutions, may be indistinguishable from any CEO, any president, or any Chicken Man, because a degraded form of humanity – the culturally well-adjusted – are identified with success. On the other hand, it would be clear sacrilege if the president of Temple University or Japanese xenophobes would foist their ideas, justify their crimes, or promote their racism in the name of Jesus.  So maybe the most hopeless degradation of humanity is the Christian leader who would exploit and abuse in the name of success, so as to profane the name of Christ.[1]


[1] My ongoing conversation with Jason as to our consistent discovery of “sickos in charge” led to the title and provoked this meditation.

From the Vaunted Leadership of Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald to the Deprecated Leadership of Paul

My previous claims that no authority relieves us of the responsibility of thought and agency (here) and that this is an ongoing personal realization (here), rest upon rightly recognizing the role of authority (ecclesiastical, apostolic, biblical, and divine). Authority is a necessary factor in shaping our lives, and where this authority is misused, misdirected, or misunderstood (the universal predicament), then it warps us accordingly. We are ushered into this world under failed regimes of social power (the “principalities and powers”) and this is the point of being adopted into a new family and becoming citizens of a new kingdom.  We are to be nurtured, discipled, and guided into being image bearers which requires real world models – and here is the rub. The abuse of authority and power in the church seems to have reached epidemic proportions. The endless scandals (most recently the resignation of Bill Hybels and the entire board of elders from Willow Creek Community Church following a sex scandal) along with the rise of the #ChurchToo movement for victims of evangelical church abuse indicates the pervasive nature of the problem. However, it is not simply clergy sex scandals, or what Episcopalians have dubbed “impaired communion” (the inability to line up doctrine and authority), but even the ideal notions of authority which are problematic.

 The public failures, that is, are indicative that the ideals of leadership are themselves flawed. The mega-church CEO model of authority continues to produce abusive authoritarians (e.g.  Mark Driscoll and most recently James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, in MacDonald’s case threats of physical violence, excommunication of elders who complained, financial corruption, etc. etc.). These “successful pastors” fall under scrutiny only when they take the notions of leadership which gained them numbers and prominence to extremes. They are, however, simply following the blueprint for marketing of the Church as outlined by Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner which focuses on centralized leadership (of the CEO sort). This marketing and management plan though, seems to have not simply displaced the priority of theology but has smuggled in its own unbiblical theology. As one well known proponent of the method puts it, “I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist.” Whatever the theological emphasis employed, as Os Guinness has noted, methodology and technique are at the center and in control and so constitute the theology or bend it accordingly.[1] The technique works to gain numbers and this valuation or “sign of success,” often directly equated with divine approval, is itself a sign of theological failure.  

The church-growth movement, arising from McGavran’s missionary experience in India, flows out of another missionary presumption called “contextualization.” There is the obvious need in Bible translation to adjust biblical idioms and language to fit the linguistic context but this idea can be and sometimes is, I believe, erroneously extended to the overall presentation of the Gospel. The danger in contextualization is to presume that the culture is a stable factor determinative of meaning rather than a flawed and fallen system. Likewise, the horizon of the Gospel can become isolated from the culture so that the two horizons are only related by force. If culture is the ultimate determiner of meaning and value then there is the danger the Gospel is simply made to comply to cultural norms (Don Richardson’s Peace Child, is a popular example which, however legitimate, points to the potential danger). This may result in a static notion of both Gospel and culture as one’s reading of Scripture is not impacted by the culture and one’s reading of the culture is not through the interpretive lens of Scripture.

An example from Japan is the concept of amae or dependence (the full explanation is beyond the scope of my point but is explained here), which is certainly key to understanding Japan but the question is whether the Gospel should be shaped to the concept (e.g. the novels of Shūsaku Endō in which God is our divine Mother upon whom we are childishly dependent gets at the problem) or whether the concept is one that the Gospel exposes and defeats. One of my finest students in Japan, an American missionary of Japanese descent, discovered the universal application of the concept and had a much deeper understanding than I did of its resonance throughout the culture. The problem was, perhaps due to his training as a missionary, that he presumed amae was an unchangeable cultural trait of Japanese to which the Gospel should be made to fit. My own understanding is that amae, while it is a pervasive characteristic of Japanese, entails a profound misconception of what it means to be human. Amae is a prime example of how death is taken up through culture into identity and entails precisely what it is in culture that needs overturning. I would not have developed this understanding apart from a dynamic reading of the culture through a scriptural lens and a renewed (revised) understanding of Scripture through this same interpretive process. 

The problem with contextualization, especially as applied in church-growth thought, is it privileges cultural notions of leadership that consistently subvert the Gospel.  This can be demonstrated through, what may be, the prime proof text of the church growth-movement and contextualization – I Co 9:22: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Church-growth advocates presume that this text means we must adjust to the times, be innovative, do what is effective to bring people in (e.g. “niche marketing,” the need for “audience-driven,” “seeker-friendly,” services under a forceful leader). The context of this passage does indeed pertain directly to authority and leadership but Paul is not arguing that the Corinthians should utilize their cultural norms to maximize their leadership potential. He is arguing that they need to give up on their notions of “effective styles of leadership.”

Chapter 9 is not a departure from Paul’s point in chapter 8 that the strong need to forego their rights or sacrifice their power so as to build up the weak. He first establishes the fact that as an Apostle he has the right to receive support from the Corinthians and then he explains that he has sacrificed this right. He is using himself and his apostolic authority as a case in point of how the strong should act in regard to the weak. At the same time, we are given a picture of how authority in the church is to be and not to be constituted.

Rollo May in his book, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, could be summing up both what the Corinthians admire and what church-growth methodology might sometimes seem to require in a leader.[2] May lists five ways a leader might employ power: 1. “Exploitative power” employs force or the threat of violence so that it leaves the other with no choice but to comply. 2. “Manipulative power” uses the covert methods of the con man. 3. “Competitive power” employs an I win/you lose strategy. 4. “Nutrient power” is likened to a parent’s care for a child in that it is exercised on behalf of another’s welfare. It can create dependency and become smothering by seeking to do the other good according to “our way” (as in strategies which would accommodate amae).

In the two letters to Corinth, it is clear that Paul’s rivals (the super-apostles) have been exploitative, manipulative, and competitive in their use of power. They enslave, devour, seek to gain control, put on airs, and strike the Corinthians in the face, or publicly insult them (11:20). The Corinthians not only have submitted themselves to this authoritarian domination but they figure Paul does not live up to the standard of an Apostle.[3] He is not what they would consider an effective leader. Paul, however, is attempting to develop a very different set of values in regard to leadership. Paul’s goal fits with May’s fifth notion of a leader’s exercise of power: 5. “Integrative power” works with others (instead of on them) to enable them to grow both mentally and spiritually and to abet their power. Paul is employing and developing this integrative notion of power: “we work with you for your joy” (1:24; see 13:10), and his concentrated explanation is in I Co 9. Paul is attempting to model an alternative mode of power and leadership but common readings of chapter 9, due, perhaps, to cultural presumptions about power, miss the point.

Christ did not create a monarchy, a hierarchy, a dictatorship, or a fellowship on the basis of a regime of power. He takes up the cross, washes the disciples’ feet, and is the servant of all, and this is the model of leadership and mode of power Paul is calling the Corinthians to imitate: the power to serve, the power to identify directly with the disempowered and the weak, the power to forego one’s rights. Paul is modelling what Christ modeled. Money is a direct correlate of power and though Paul says he has a right to this power or money, as a means of displaying the paradigm of leadership (apostolic leadership) he is doing manual labor (shameful, no doubt, to the super-apostles and the Corinthian elites).

In the opening rhetoric of the chapter (“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus or Lord?”) Paul is not appealing to his authority so as to Lord it over them or even that they might simply do what he tells them. He seems to be imitating their own claim to act on the basis of “rights,” “freedom,” and “knowledge” (8:1,2,4,7,9,10.11). Paul establishes these rights, makes claims of freedom, indicates his own knowledge, only to renounce these as the basis for exercising power and leadership. He is modelling what he wants them to do, and in this he is simply modeling what Christ did. Christian leadership and Apostleship thus point away from the self to Christ. It is not a relinquishing of agency but becoming a transparent bearer of the agency of Christ, that for which we were intended as image bearers.

The signs of the apostle (sharing in the suffering and death of Christ, enduring weakness as a point of strength, living out a cruciform agency) are peculiarly unpleasing to the Corinthians. One could take all of their critiques of Paul (he is weak and cowardly (10:1,10; 11:7; 13:3-4), he lacks apostolic power (12:12), he continues to work at a trade and so, in the Corinthians view he denigrates his apostleship and brings shame on them (11:7-9; 12:13-18; see 1 Cor. 9:3-18)) as clear evidence that his is not a CEO- power ministry or a ministry of miracles. He is modeling humility, self-abasement, relinquishing of rights, as the Christian mode of authority. “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (2:3); “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (4:10); “To the weak I became weak” (9:22). In comparison to the super-apostles Paul appears too weak to be effective. They would have Paul be a mega-church super-apostle but he eschews this “glory” for a cruciform leadership. In other words, the farthest thing from Paul’s notion of a leader would be ornamental robes, signet rings, crowns, royal colors, or the presentation of power as we normally think of it. He is not a rhetorician, a flamboyant preacher, or an arrogant CEO bishop. Paul asserts his authority for building up the Christian community, not himself (12:19; 13:9-10), which is the only way that authority should be employed in the church.  

One wonders if Paul’s critique of the Corinthians might be directly leveled at some contemporary notions of successful church leadership. They are guilty of disobedience (10:6); comparing and commending themselves unduly (10:12); being ignorant of the true source of authority, the Lord (10:12b, 17-18); seducing Christians as Satan did Eve (11:2-3); preaching another Jesus, spirit, and gospel (11:4); and boasting unduly (10:15; 11:12; see 5:12). Could it be that in privileging our cultures notion of successful leaders we also have to do with false apostles, deceitful workers, and emissaries of Satan who have only disguised themselves as apostles of Christ (11:13,15)?  To become a leader in the mold of Paul will probably not result in the approbation our culture gives to notable preachers and leaders but this very lack of recognition – the failure to live up to the values of the culture – may be step one in pursuit of authentic Christian leadership.  


[1] Os Guinness, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth,” http://icpnetwork.nl/members-files/fase5/evaluation-megachurches.pdf

[2] R. May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 105-113. Quoted from David £ Garland, “Paul’s Apostolic Authority,” Review and Expositor, 86 (1989) http://www.compasschurch.org/women/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/03/L16-Pauls-apostolic-authority-the-power-of-Christ-sustaining-weakness-2-

[3]See Garland Ibid.

Personal Truth Is Always in Process of Being Ascertained

In regard to my last blog I hasten to point out that Forging Ploughshares is made up of those who identify as Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Eastern leaning, Mennonite, unaffiliated, and simply Christian.  The malaise of late modernity that has caused some to consciously turn to authoritarianism (among so-called Trad Catholics or ultramontanists arguing for extreme forms of papal infallibility, the Cult of Trump Evangelicalism – i.e. there is nothing Trump could do to lose the support of Jerry Falwell Jr. and his ilk, or those who blindly entrust themselves to various episcopal forms) cannot simply be identified with Catholics, Episcopalians, or evangelicals (as if to equate these with authoritarianism) but with those (of many stripes) willing to give up on the efficacy of ordinary human agency.  The issue of authority looms large in the contemporary turn from rationalist foundationalism and autonomous individualism to various forms of relativism. The role of apostolic authority, biblical authority, church authority, and episcopal authority, is being shaped, in some quarters, by the notion that the individual is incapable of ascertaining the truth and authoritarianism is the answer. This hyper-conservative backlash to modernity, sometimes mistakenly perceived as orthodoxy, is simply the end point of the modern (late modernity).

 If modernity declared the individual, in and of himself (free of culture, tradition and authority) as adequate for attaining absolute truth, postmodernism or late modernity has declared the individual (though he be nurtured in the richest of intellectual and theological traditions) as incapable of ascertaining truth.  The turn to forms of authoritarianism, certainly not typical of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Evangelicalism, finds expression in all of the above. Young radical Catholic conservatives who would refuse the liturgical changes of Vatican II (which Pope Francis has declared irreversible) typify a more widespread millennial response to, what may seem to be the only alternative, a vacuous nihilism. Mindless evangelicalism, stunningly represented in that most mystical of the late modern religions – the Cult of Trump, does not represent evangelicalism but typifies, I am arguing, a response found across the theological spectrum (though It may be easiest to quantify among hyper-conservative Roman Catholics, which in no way amounts to a restoration of Orthodoxy but a sort of hyper-orthodoxy).     

The alternative to the turn to authoritarianism must, of necessity, entail revisiting the issue of what constitutes an individual and his capacities for truth. The role of authority (apostolic authority, biblical authority, and ecclesiastical authority) must be understood in light of anthropology. If a person consists of an innately immortal soul, a small piece of divinity, with interior access to the divine and bearing within the capacity for transcendence, then the autonomous individual need not rely on tradition or revelation as Truth is immediately accessible. This modern Gnosis might be expressed in a pure intellectualism or in the pursuit of an ecstatic experientialism but the goal is the same: attainment of the divine from within one’s own resources.  On the other hand, if a person is incapable of transcending a particular culture, a particular time, or a particular circumstance, then one is left with complete relativism and the need for a dictatorial divine intervention. These two extremes seem to mark the move of modernity but maybe this is always our choice in the absence of the New Testament possibility of participation in the divine enabled through the incarnation.

Paul succinctly sums up the possibilities by describing gnosis as either a noun or verb. Platonic, static, knowing of an object (the noun form) is suited to both objectivity (knowing it all or knowing “something” in Paul’s account) and total relativism (an impossibility of attaining the forms or knowing “nothing” according to Paul) and both extremes are represented by what, in I Co 8, Paul calls gnosis. The static knowers of Corinth have concluded that an idol is nothing and that God is known in contrast to this nothing. One knows God, the absolute something, over and against the nothing. Paul dismisses this static gnosis: if you know something (as opposed to nothing), if you have arrived at a buttoned-down knowledge, then you do not know as you ought (8:2).  Paul poses an alternative knowing, not the Greek noun form (attainment of an object), but the Hebraic verb form of knowing a person. In the Hebrew Scriptures to “know” is inclusive of sexual intimacy, the realm of love, and the knowing of persons (personal knowledge).

Martin Buber marks the same contrasting forms as I-it (knowledge as objective – mastery of an object) and I-thou (reciprocal, personal, self/other multidimensional) knowing. What will come to be called hermeneutical understanding (Gadamer, Ricoeur) or personal knowledge (Polanyi) might be identified with Paul’s reversal of knowledge: “whoever loves God is known by God” (8:3). The starting point for this knowing is not “I” but the fact that one is known and knows himself (“themselves” in the original plural pair) through seeing the self through the eyes of God. This self-involved knowledge begins, not with nothing and something, but with an outward moving love.

Paul references the shema but incorporates Christ as the means of access into the divine reality: “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6, ESV). Dynamic knowing is premised upon knowing all things, including ourselves, as deriving from and sustained by the person of Christ. Ultimate reality is personal, which pertains to Paul’s original point in regard to idols. Yes, the so-called gods are nothing but the contrast with this nothing is a completely different order of knowing – not simply knowing something. Knowing God is not to know a fact about God or the fact of God – existence as over against non-existence.  Christ as part of the shema means that knowing the oneness of God is a historical, personal process, not just in the original event of the incarnation but in the unfolding of all of our lives in a particular historical circumstance. We do not control, own, or possess this truth but participate in it.

In Corinth the catchphrase “all of us possess knowledge,” betrays the sensibility of being able to estimate who counts as all of us or who is in and who is out as if truth is delimited to those in the know. This self-selected group is imposing their values onto other Christians by viewing themselves as “all of us” or all that are strong and knowing. I presume that any Church body which presumes to say “all of us and no more” falls under Paul’s critique. Truth cannot be institutionalized, passed on through birth, or fused with citizenship. This bottled up truth, by definition, cannot be equated with the infinite unfolding depth of personal truth.

In Christ the universal intersects with the contingencies of the personal and this knowledge cannot be codified or summed up as it is continuing to unfold within our lives. As Kevin Vanhoozer has described it, Christian knowing is not a pilgrimage (directionless wandering), nor is it a crusade (conquering mastery) but it is a missionary journey in which the truth of Christ unfolds for us as we go. A self-selected group, be it Christian Church, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, etc. cannot presume to encompass, codify, or sum up universal truth (and in their orthodox origins do not presume to do so).

Truth does not have a lineage that can be traced such that we simply stand in relationship to it in a geographical, physical, relationship as if it is an object to be received or an idol to be mindlessly obeyed. Where we obey without ascertaining for ourselves the truth that is imparted, we depersonalize what we would receive and relinquish what it means to be human. Every good bureaucrat, every good soldier, every unthinking citizen, presumes authority simply calls for obedience. If this means that one disclaims responsibility for their actions or for what they know and do not know this is to give up on being human.[1] Sin, after-all, is a refusal to know as you ought (a failed notion of authority) and is thus a willful refusal of the fullness of humanness. Personal truth passes through persons not only in its origin but in its end. Persons ascertain the truth in the fullness of what it means to be a person.


[1]In Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase.