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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf

The Immoral Argument for God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Registration will be open from Friday the 16th for the next class with Ploughshares Bible Institute, “Imaginative Apologetics,” go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/about)

Knowing God’s Essence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Wilcoxen, p. 182.

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

[4] Ibid, p. 127.

The Conversion of the Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What Does the Death of Socrates have to do with the Death of Jesus?

I had not been back in this country very long until I was frustrated with the teaching profession. At the time, I doubt I would have blamed it on the caliber of students, because I had not yet been able to discern any caliber, other than one. Then one day in a theology class a towheaded eighteen-year-old (Ryan, as I would learn), who I had not noticed at all in the large class, posed the question, or something like it, in my title above.[1] There is no aspect of the Christian faith to which this question does not pertain. For example, the word from which we get “apology” (apolegein in Greek) means defense, as in the defense Socrates would present in his trial in Athens and the word specifically applies in the New Testament to the trial of Jesus. How we understand these two trials and the two deaths, or how we understand the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, law and salvation, is determinative of our understanding of the Christian faith. What I slowly recognized in Ryan’s question, is that the way in which Jesus’ trial and death contrasts with that of Socrates brings out the peculiar nature, not only of the defense of the gospel, but of the gospel itself. So here is a succinct answer to the drawn out course of study Ryan’s question demands.

The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt on two charges: impiety against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state. His answer to both charges is to show that it was in devotion to Apollo that he sat out on his course of dialogic questioning. He had been told by a friend that the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi had revealed he was the wisest man in Athens, which caused him to try to prove the Oracle wrong by finding someone wiser. He was simply on a mission to sort out what people actually knew as he assumed he had no great wisdom. He acknowledges his own ignorance but is surprised that this insight alone set him above his contemporaries, most all of whom presumed to have special knowledge. It was in searching for a man wiser than himself, someone who knew his limitations, that he earned the reputation of being a social gadfly. His argument is that he is a good, pious citizen, and not guilty of either of the charges. He is, nonetheless, found guilty and he accepted death by suicide rather than fleeing into exile.

Socrates clung to the city, with its laws, religion, and even its right over his own life and death.  It was his attachment to the city which explains his acquiescence to drinking the hemlock; he could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. He died secure in his citizenship without questioning the laws, tradition, or religion, of the society into which he was born. His final words demonstrate as much; “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it and don’t forget.” Asclepius is the god of health and Socrates presumed, as every good Greek would, his prayer was answered in being cured of the disease of life.

In summary, there is no argument about the role of law, religion, or about the foundational role of the city in the trial of Socrates. To read Socrates’ trial and death as parallel to that of Jesus is to misread Christian apologetics and theology (and this is the way it is often read). Jesus trial, and certainly his death, is not an affirmation of the laws and reason of the city but is a challenge to both, so that a Christian defense and theology would undo and reorder human thought and imagination.

In the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John no judgment is ever formally declared. Beyond this, there is an ambiguity as to who is acting as judge. Jesus is not being judged by Pilate, at least in any formal sense, as Pilate is going to refuse to pronounce judgment.  Pilate attempts to follow his wife’s advice, to “have nothing to do with this man,” and so he “washes his hands” of the affair by simply turning the matter over to the Jews. He suggests to the Jews, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (19:6, NASB). This is more of a taunt on the part of Pilate, for he knows they have no power to crucify and are precisely forbidden by Roman law to try capital cases and their own law forbids crucifixion.  Pilate repeatedly claims there is “no case against the man” and so he cannot pass judgment and there is to be no trial. When the Jews begin to yell, “Crucify him,” Pilate reiterates that there is “no case against the man.”  The Jewish leaders then suggest that, though he may not have broken Roman law, Jesus has broken Jewish law by claiming to be the Son of God.  For Pilate, this is one more turn of the screw, he becomes “even more afraid.”  Pilate, seems to suspect he is the one undergoing trial and judgment. 

After Pilate declares there is no case and he cannot judge, he has Jesus paraded out in his royal purple robes and his mock crown and declares, “Behold the Man.” Jesus has been beaten and is bleeding, and  Pilate seems to be attempting to reduce Jesus’ importance in the estimate of the crowd, perhaps to save his life through his humiliation. Of course, it is Pilate’s own life that has now slid onto the scale of judgment. The Jews explanation that he claimed to be the “Son of God,” Caesar’s own claim as to source of his authority, directly pits the claims of Jesus against those of Caesar and Pilate.  Pilate’s attempt to reduce Jesus to bare human life, devoid of the dignity accorded the “real” sovereign, and his use of the royal robes and mock crown works against his purpose.  The “mock king” raises questions as to the power and claims of the “real thing.”  “Look at the Man, there is nothing there – right?” The trick not only does not work but seems to backfire.

Pilate asks, when he returns to the Praetorium, “Don’t you understand I am the one with the power in this situation,” and the question behind the question is who is really calling the shots? Jesus clarifies, “You have no power over me whatsoever that is not given to you from the very source from whence my kingdom comes. Your powerlessness is evident, so the ones who delivered me to you bear the greater guilt.” Pilate’s concerted effort not to pass judgment stands in contrast to Jesus’ ready willingness to pronounce judgement. His judgment concerns not just human law, he presumes to announce eternal decrees as to who is more guilty of sin. As he has claimed throughout his ministry, judgment is determined by what you do with him.  “Certainly, those who have delivered me to you are worse off according to eternal judgments, but Pilate, your claims to power are clearly illegitimate. Beyond that, all claims that follow in your stead (those of every human sovereign) are now thrown into question.” At least, this might be implied from the conversation.

When Pilate asks if Jesus is King, Jesus replies, “You are the one who has said I am a king,” and Pilate’s every move says as much.  Jesus acknowledges that his kingdom is not from this world. The tradition surrounding this statement, from Augustine to Aquinas, is not that Jesus is establishing his kingdom elsewhere; rather, it is not established in the mode of this world’s kingdoms.  It is a heavenly kingdom in its origins, but the incarnation and this very moment in the trial are witness to the earthly nature of the kingdom. Their brief exchange leaves Pilate in a panic and he attempts to have Jesus released. The Jews then pull their trump card: “If you release this man you are not a friend of Caesar.”

What happens next heightens the ambiguity as to Pilate’s response.  Jesus stands robed in royal purple and a crown of thorns as a prolonged debate about sovereignty unfolds.  The one who is supposed to represent Caesar is now threatened with the power of Caesar.  Subsequent to John 19:13 (the verse in question), Pilate will change his, “Look at the Man” to “Look at your King.” Pilate, Caesar’s representative, provides the strongest testimony as to Jesus sovereign identity.  At this point, the Jews seem to grow frantic and drop all pretense of a Jewish legal proceeding: “We have no King other than Caesar.” The words on the lips of the chief priests, the representatives of the theocratic government of Israel, is nothing less than blasphemy – the charge they are bringing against Jesus.  Here is the final denouement of their turn from God to kings, as now God does not figure at all into their view of sovereignty. They are abdicating their Messianic hope so as to excel even Pilate in their singular loyalty to the god-king Caesar.  The implication is that they would set aside Jewish tradition and law in their blasphemous absolutizing of Caesar. 

Following the Textus Receptus, John 19:13 is usually translated as, “He [Pilate] brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (NASB). However, there is an alternative reading which says, “He led Jesus outside and sat him [Jesus] on the judge’s bench.” In this reading Jesus, and not Pilate, is seated so as to exercise judgment.  Pilate is not simply refusing to judge but is declaring Jesus the rightful judge as well as king, which fits his statement at this point: “Behold your king” (19:14).  Though the people began to shout for his death Pilate is not dissuaded as to Jesus identity, “Shall I crucify your King?” he asks. The one who has been seated in the place of judgment, the one declared “King of the Jews” by the representative of the earthly sovereign, the one pronouncing judgment on both the Jews and Pilate, is the one “handed over” in lieu of judgment.  No judgment is passed by the earthly judges but the succession of people to whom Jesus is handed over declare him innocent (repeatedly in all four Gospels). Ultimately, at the crucifixion, in three different languages, Pilate pronounces Jesus is “King of the Jews.” When told that the sign should read, “he claimed to be King of the Jews,” Pilate refuses to change it.

This reading fits with the accounts of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus is also dressed in a purple robe, given a scepter, hailed as the “King of the Jews,” and it fits the sign Pilate has affixed to the Cross in all four Gospels. It explicitly fits with the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (c. 190 CE), in which the people “put on him a purple robe, and made him sit upon the seat of judgment, saying: ‘Give righteous judgment, thou King of Israel’” (3:7). In each of the Gospels Pilate declares him innocent and refuses to declare a judgment. Jesus is crucified outside of the City of Jerusalem and outside Roman and Jewish legal codes and no judgment is ever passed.

The trial of Jesus serves as a marker of two types of interpretive frames and two types of theology. A theology built upon the notion that Jesus is legally sentenced to death (a strange but common understanding) cannot discriminate between the intent of Pilate, the Jews, and Christ, so that good and evil are fused into a singular purpose. In this understanding, Roman law and God’s law are united to bring about the death of Jesus. God is simply working out his providential intent to punish Jesus under the law so that he might be punished for all. Rome, with its god-Caesar is not being judged, but Rome’s law and justice are perfectly adequate for God’s purposes.  After all, Rome and the Church will unite under Emperor Constantine and this Constantinian Christianity imagines that human law, justice, and government, are in accord with God’s purposes in Christ. In this understanding the economy of salvation works within the economy of human cultures and nations so that salvation comes through Constantinian Rome or Christian America. As Dante will describe Jesus’ trial, it was under a lawful procedure bringing about a just punishment, therefore, one cannot pronounce its proceedings evil. 

Luther, as representative of this understanding, imagines that when Pilate wants to free Jesus and when he declares there is no case against Jesus, this is a temptation posed by Satan. He explains Pilate’s wife’s dream (as a result of which she tells her husband to have nothing to do with this man) as a demon’s intervention seeking to impede the crucifixion. That is, to halt the trial or prevent the death of Christ would be to subvert the divine economy of salvation. In this understanding, Pilate, Judas, the Jews, the Romans, all line up as part of God’s effort to have Jesus punished. Rather than seeing the trial of Jesus as a clash of powers, this reading presumes that God is the puppet master pulling the strings and human law is the instrument he employs. Good and evil are not really opposed to one another, as “all things are working together for good” (to misquote Paul). In this understanding, God’s sovereign purposes are always being worked out, regardless of the particulars, as the eternal trues of heaven render the particular facts of history largely irrelevant. All of history is a revelation of the divine and no particular events can be pivotal.

This Constantinian, Roman, American, Christianity, will account for evil as a necessary outworking of law. For example, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for playing a key role in the holocaust, uses as his primary defense that he was just a bureaucrat following Hitler’s orders. When pronounced guilty his last words were, “I had to obey the rules of war and of my flag!”  Law is law, and in this very German-Lutheran version of theology, even Jesus death will be explained according to this absolute. The divine economy is not an intervention into, what appears to be unmitigated evil (Hitler is hailed by German Christians as God’s spokesman); rather, salvation is being worked out according to codified human moral standards. Given the theological understanding that human law and God’s law are one, there is no end of “divinely sanctioned” evil.

The alternative interpretive frame and theology is to see the human economy, human government, human notions of law and justice, and human reason as coming into conflict with the divine economy of salvation. If ever there were a point in history where two worlds (two notions of truth, two economies, two notions of justice) stood opposed, it is the trial of Jesus. In this understanding, there are pivotal or significant events in history which pertain to eternity.  Christ is confronting evil in the form of Pilate (Rome’s representative), in the form of the leading Jews (representing Jewish law and religion), and all of these forces unite in the death of Jesus. This is not the law of God but is the culmination of the outworking of the law of sin and death. Christ has not come to fulfill this law but to expose it for an abomination. Under this law, man passes judgment on God incarnate, but the very purpose of the incarnation and this “trial” are to overturn human judgments.

In the trial then, two kingdoms are clashing, two notions of sovereignty are being contested, and truth itself, as it relates to kings and kingdoms, is argued by the defendant and the Roman Prefect.  Pilate’s “What is Truth?”, given this context, reflects, a failure to grasp that truth is not an impersonal, eventless, “what.” With the preponderant claim of Rome upon his sense of order and justice, Pilate could not discern that Jesus was Truth incarnate. His misdirected question betrays his incapacity, despite his prolonged subsequent attempt, to assess the truth of the case. What is ultimately tried and found wanting in the trial of Jesus are human notions of law, justice, and truth.

In contrast to Socrates, Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Unlike Socrates, Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. Socrates accepted his death according to the law while Jesus questioned the authorities and he did not die according to, or within, the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection.

The failure to grasp the contrast is evident in arguments, such as those I was taught in seminary, which would presume a universally shared rational foundation (Athens leads to Jerusalem). One need not rely upon revelation to follow Anselm into his greatest thought that can be thought, and Kant suggested that all of the arguments for God were founded in the same ontological presumption. By the same token, a theology which works within the parameters of the law (Jewish, Roman, or a universally shared morality) will interpret the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion (a central part of the gospel), as a direct outworking of a conjoined human and divine will, rather than a clash between the human and divine. Those who take up the cross and follow Jesus, however, do not share the Socratic acquiescence to the city of man and its laws, but join Christ outside the city gates in an alternative kingdom, an alternative logic, and an alternative imagination.


[1] This changed many things in my teaching. I began to notice the occasional bright spots and Ryan helped Faith and I develop an honors program and went on to conquer the world of academia and academic publishing, another story, but we have remained friends over these past 15 or so years. His question was not unlike that of Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” with similar implications.

Apocalyptic Apologetics


As covid-19 deaths continue to mount, as fires burn in the western half of the States, as injustices against immigrants are compounded, as the jobless numbers accumulate and the economy falters, one might conclude things are not working. Things are not working for the environment, for the poor, for immigrants, for the jobless, for those who are sick and dying, or for anyone. I suppose things are working fine for Jeff Bezos and his kin. Some will thrive on the chaos and destruction but clearly there is a limit, even for those who are benefitting from the destruction. There is a limit to consumption, a limit to pollution, a limit to the “acceptable” number of deaths, a limit to a system which appears to be breaking down. The desired outcome of the present crisis would be recognition of this limit so as to see beyond it. The crisis calls for a conversion of the imagination, for doing things differently, for a different life-style and a different system of values. There will always be those who double down on destruction but the case, an apologetic, has to be made that things are bad because the roots are rotten and there needs to be a holistic conversion.

This is always the conversion an apocalyptic Christianity calls for, as the mode of this apologetic is not reliance on the system, on common sense, or reason alone. This apologetic points to the dystopia, the violence, the failure, the evil, the lie, not in order to justify it or use it, but to transcend it. The old order of apologetics (the one in which I was trained), ontotheology (an idolatrous foundational argument), theodicy (a justification of evil in place of its defeat), moral arguments (which actually point to universal immorality) are, by definition, a grounded vision (grounded in the way things are), but the small points of light, of grace and peace, always stand in contradistinction to the way things are and indicate there is a better way. To transcend the system is to recognize its inherent limits; it is to recognize the evil it entails and the destruction upon which it relies. There has been a rejection of traditional apologetics in many quarters (I believe, rightly so), but this simply follows from the rejection of a limited notion of Christianity. An apocalyptic re-conception of Christianity calls for an apocalyptic sort of apologetics. If this apocalyptic apologetic is correct (correct about the apocalyptic nature of Christianity (a breaking in with a new Kingdom and new system) and correct about the necessity of demythologizing and deconstructing so as to apprehend the alternative order), then it would seem the Christian apologetic is only beginning.  

The holistic critique and demythologizing on the order of the theory of René Girard, demonstrates the sort of movement I have in mind. War and violence were once thought to fit within a rational political frame (“war is politics by other means”). War was once between warriors, knights, samurai, the aristocrats, in the same way sacrifice was once tied to religion. Christianity, according to Girard, removes the safety valve of the scapegoating mechanism (the third way), as the truth of Christ exposes the lie behind the mechanism of sacrificial violence (which once delimited and controlled violence) and the unfolding of this demythologized history gave rise to the total war of the previous century. As a result, a stark choice presents itself.  The choice is to either double down on commitment to inevitable progress, on the possibility of political containment of global destruction, on the consumption and destruction of the environment, or one can become a Christian (of the apocalyptic sort). Girard’s theory might be termed the first holistic apologetic in its demonstration of how violence (in religious myth in ancient society and in “containment” etc. in modern society) is the structuring mechanism of society to which Christianity offers an alternative. Recognizing the destructive apocalyptic reality of the age is the first step in accepting an apocalyptic answer.

The job of Christian apologists is not to refine Enlightenment style rational arguments but it is to demonstrate that the fires, metaphorical and literal, consuming our world were lit, not by some external force, but by the logic inherent to the arguments which would claim to save us. That is, our salvation system (inclusive of the modern sensibility, including modern religion and modern fundamentalism which reads violence as divine will) is destroying our world. Girard’s depiction of religious violence (the scapegoating mechanism, religious myth) turned into secular violence (the “idea of progress,” nuclear containment), locates the human problem in humanity – humans are responsible for their destruction and violence. An apocalyptic apologetic makes the case, first, that we are bringing on damnation, and second, that this fate is not inevitable. There is a vision, a faith, or imagination, which holds out hope. But as Girard puts it, “hope is only possible if we dare to think the perils of our time” (Girard, 2007: 16).[1]

A true Christian apologetic must begin then, with thinking and recognizing the deep perils of our time. This accords with the Greek meaning of Apolegein, which means “to tell fully.” John Milbank imagines the “apo” of the word might be connected to apophatic or a sort of objectivity, but it fits better with the notion that this narrating apologetic pertains, at least in its initial move to “standing apart,” “away from,” the peril of our world.[2] It is not a simple objective detachment. The apology is not an attempt to hold one’s ground in the city, being objective, by the logic of its system.  Milbank’s, mainly harmonious, comparison of the death of Socrates and Jesus seems to miss the stark difference of the Greek apologetic (offered by Plato on behalf of Socrates) and the Christian apologetic. Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. The failure and peril of the one, points to the other. Socrates clung to the city, the very reason for his suicide, and could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Not, as Milbank would have it, according to the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection. Socrates died secure in his citizenship. The difference is important in recognizing the wall the Christian apologetic cannot accommodate.  The wall of hostility which would separate the inner workings of the Temple, the inner workings of Jew versus Gentile in the city, constitute the law or wall or logic that is undone in Christ.

Millions of innocent victims have been sacrificed on behalf of this barrier, first on the sacred altar and then, more dramatically and destructively, on the secular altar. Christian revelation demystified the role of sacred violence, and according to Girard, if the lie of archaic religious sacrifice had continued, the holocaust of secular violence would have remained bottled up.  The truth of violence is exposed, however, and as Girard puts it, “We are not Christian enough.” Half Christian has turned out to be more dangerous than totally deluded, and thus, according to Girard, Christianity may have unleashed the very apocalypse which would ensure its failure. Now there is scapegoating without the myth (which would contain the violence), and so the Jews must be completely destroyed as in Nazi Germany, the demonization leading to lynching in the American South continues unabated, the “total wars” of the previous century are the new norm, and mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the reigning logic. War and violence are limitless where the minimal exposure, the half Christian, is not completed by an apocalyptic vision displacing this world’s order.

In terms of my own work, traversing the fantasy, recognizing the lie, is not itself adequate.  One can question the law or manipulate the law but there really is no alternative to the law of sin and death (the mode of redemptive violence), apart from its displacement. Exposure of this primordial order, as in Marxism, or its manipulation, as in fascism and capitalism, unleashes an untold and unlimited violence. There may be a recognition that the victim is innocent (as Robert Doran points out, “the very calculated nature of Nazi propaganda shows that its inventors did not completely believe it”), that the object or the lure of our desire will not satisfy, but in the hands of capitalist marketers this exponential desire can be unleashed for total consumption (absolute capitalism).  The minimal recognition of the dystopia of consumptive desire and violence is only the beginning. Insight (the real insight of Hegel, Marx, Freud, and psychoanalysis) may be deployed to control desire and violence or simply to unleash it but it cannot cure it. Without an apocalyptic displacing of the law of the father (the conscience, the punishing superego) with the Father (Abba), without displacing death with life in the Spirit, without ridding ourselves of the image in the mirror with the image of Christ, we are doomed to repetitive violence and death drive. As Doran sums it up, “A minimal recognition that the victim is innocent inflames the passions of the persecutors who thereby seek to validate themselves by seeking out more and more victims.”[3]

Of course, the apocalyptic vision is not limited to rightly viewing the destruction but refers to the breaking in of an alternative apocalyptic kingdom. As in Paul’s demonstration of an apologetic (in Acts 26), the two apocalyptic orders (the dystopic and salvific) have to be simultaneously envisioned. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul depicts his own religion and belief system, when he was simply a Pharisee, as driven by destructive violence:

“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities”

(Acts 26:9-11).

This pursuit of violence and the death of Christians is not simply Paul’s story; it is the culmination of the story of what it means to be a true Pharisee. He is not apologizing for his Pharisaical commitments (as Milbank would have it), he is demonstrating to Agrippa that he once would have stood with those, like Agrippa, who would arrest, judge, and kill. Paul’s Pharisaical world was not a platform he would save and accommodate but it was a world that needed exposure and repudiation, as it was a singular manifestation of the self-destructive world order. Everyone walked according to the course of Paul’s previous world, thinking they served God while subject to the subversive powers of this world (Eph. 2:2). This is not simply Paul’s personal problem. His story contains the universal passage from out of violent darkness into the light:

“While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”

(Acts 26:12-15)

The drama of Paul’s conversion is one we tend to locate in inward personal conversion, but Paul is relinquishing one world order for another. Sticking to his former identity, the system of his world, constitutes “kicking against the goads” of truth. To stick to this failing order would amount to a commitment to blindness, to violence, to causing blasphemy. It is the same sort of persecution which killed Christ (and every innocent victim).  The light of Christ breaks into this darkness so that Paul’s former world is undone and this is the passage he pictures every Christian as undergoing – passing beyond darkness to light.

He prays that all may develop a sanctified imagination, with eyes which can envision a different world order: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). The vision which interrupts his journey is the apocalyptic revelation which interrupts, deconstructs, and reconstitutes all who share in his Gospel vision. Paul’s apologetic is apocalyptic in its depiction of this passage through perilous violence to a liberated, transcendent vision. It is an apologetic, as this story and the worlds it entails, both dystopic and salvific, is universal.  

(To learn more, plan to join our upcoming PBI class “Imaginative Apologetics.”)


[1] This is quoted from Robert Doran’s reading of Achever Clausewitz (literally: Completing Clausewitz) in his article, “René Girard’s apocalyptic modernity,” in Comunicação & Cultura, n. 11, 2011, pp. 37‑52, which I am following here.

[2] From the Forward of Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Doran, Ibid.

Nonviolent Atonement: Beyond Christus Victor to Expanded Recapitulation

I was explaining to my 81-year-old friend that, though it may be surprising, the very center of Christianity, the meaning of the work of Christ, is under contention. I was saying this, assuming the uninitiated presume that those on the inside of this religion are in agreement on what it is about. I explained that there are multiple theories which are in complete disagreement. She replied that it was not surprising at all. I knew she considered profession of Christianity an uncertain predictor of anything. She asked me what I think. We were swimming laps at the time. We swim a lap between the major points of our discussion and so I swam and considered.

 She has very eclectic spiritual tastes and a variety of physical ailments, so she tends to judge her spiritual consultants according to their practical results. She receives treatment from an Amish Masseur (I never knew there was such a thing and there may only be one) who is also a first-rate carpenter. She speaks highly of foot massages from a native shaman (just paroled), and acupunctural care from a fine Mormon (who has had marriage difficulties, but this may not pertain). She recently changed chiropractors, not because of religion but due to overall philosophy. Apparently, there are crunchers and adjusters but, as far as I know, these are not religious descriptors.

 I formulated my concise statement, and I want to point out that I was mostly underwater and low on oxygen.  “The atonement,” I said when we came to the end of the lap, “is an intervention by God into the human predicament, inclusive of the psychological, social, and historical trajectory of human beings.” I pointed out, “The atonement has nothing to do with changing God or solving God’s problem. People have the problem and the work of Christ addresses the human problem.” I was fairly pleased with my succinct, practical, summation.

Though she may not have been aware of it, I had separated out atonement theories which pertain to harmonizing the mind, satisfying the honor, or appeasing the anger of God. In other words, I had eliminated the theories of Anselm, Calvin, and, though it is subtle, I had also eliminated theories which project violence onto God, theories focused on the wrath of God in future eternal punishment, and law-based notions. But I gathered from her reply that she may not have fully appreciated the subtle, surgical like precision, of my finely honed statement. “You could make picking your nose complicated,” she said as she kicked off for another lap.

So, here is my attempt to formulate, if not a nose pickingly simple, at least a less complicated description of the central point of Christianity. Prior to this simpler presentation, let me make some general observations about what is and is not happening in this simpler explanation. The biblical explanation can be simple, but is mostly complicated by extra-biblical theories. In the explanation below, neither God nor the devil require the death of Christ (as in the most widely accepted notions of atonement), but his death plays the role of defeating the orientation inherent in the law of sin and death. So, this does not fit with ransom theories or forms of Christus Victor that presume the devil receives the payment. There is a ransom from slavery but no person (God or the devil) can be said to be doing the enslaving (sin and death enslave) nor receiving the payment. It does not fit with Anselm’s satisfaction theory that imagines God’s honor is satisfied by Christ’s death, nor does it fit with Calvin’s penal substitution that presumes Christ’s death pays the eternal penalty of hell required by God. In both of these theories there is a notion of retributive punishment, which is of medieval origin (existing yet today in our criminal justice system) which imagines righteousness requires punishment. The biblical concept of righteousness is of making things right in the world and there is no notion of abstract righteousness that must be satisfied. Neither does the understanding  presented here really fit with Abelard’s notion that the cross is some sort of moral influence, in that the cross is depicted as playing a much more specific role in regard to human sin and the human predicament (the orientation to death is undone and life in the Spirit is inaugurated). Both Anselm and Abelard wanted to remove the devil from the equation as he is seemingly given too much power in their estimate. Thus, they rejected Christus Victor and attempted their own explanations. If Christus Victor can be rescued from notions that the devil killed Jesus and that God handed him over as a ransom to the devil, then the description given here might be taken as an expansion on Christus Victor. Christ is victorious over sin and death but specifically he defeats the lie connected to sin and death. There is a law of sin and death which reigns through deception (inclusive of human violence and not God’s violence), and it is this law which Christ came to defeat.

In what might be taken as the theological heart of the New Testament, Paul says it most succinctly and simply: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8.2). There are two sorts of conditions (two laws), or two sorts of people attached to these conditions, and Paul describes these two types in Romans 7 & 8, respectively. The law of life frees the individual as it displaces the law of death in the individual (“me”).

Chapter 7 describes an individual who is isolated and focused on himself, with repeated reference to “I” or “myself” and this occurs in the environment of “the body of death” which Paul describes as a life of slavery to fear (8:15).  The suffering of the “I” is a suffering implicit in the use of the word, as this “I” (grammatically and experientially middle voice) is at once active as the cause of the suffering and passive in that it is the object of this suffering. Paul describes a painful desire working through a split in the “I” (ἐγὼ/ego), between mind and body, and sums up his problem with a question in 7:23: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

Chapter 8 speaks of rescue from this “condemnation” through a corporate identity (in Christ, in the Holy Spirit). The environment of these two types informs the contrast between them: the isolated individual is isolated in the environment Paul calls the “law of sin and death” or the “body of death” and the corporate individual is “in Christ” and this being in Christ will bring about a series of cosmic (creation wide) and divine connections (inclusive of all three persons of the Trinity).

The Holy Spirit does not appear in chapter 7 but is the theme of chapter 8 (mentioned 19 times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11) and with the introduction of the Spirit, Paul’s question (of 7:24) summing up his problem and the human problem, is definitively answered. The rescue from the body of death and the law of sin and death is through the Spirit of life brought about by being in Christ.  The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law” (ἕτερον νόμον), but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) who ushers in the law of life in the Spirit.

Everything remaining or everything beyond this basic explanation of the move from death to life, is filling in the details of the how and why.

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of chapter 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the living death of the identity of “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14).[1] Paul differentiates two Subjects which might be dubbed “the Subject of desire” and “the Subject of hope.” The Subject of desire, deceived as it is, makes the law a means of achieving the self and so enacts a loss in which the “I” objectifies or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7:23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7:20-21).

Hope counters this spectral relation to the self: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all” (8:24). If the object of hope is within sight then it ceases to be hope. Hope, by definition, falls outside the static spectral relation (the bodily image or the image in the mirror or the image of others) as it reaches forward to that which does not appear. Where the split “I” focuses on fulfilling or finding the self in and through a self-relation (the bodily image of self or other), hope is focused on the prospect of conformity to the unseen image of Christ (8:29) and it does not mis-recognize the mortal body but it presumes that through the Spirit the body is resurrected (8:11). Where desire arises through lack (lack of self), the ground of hope is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (8.29).

Achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of walking as he did (8:4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8:5), of active submission (8:7,13), and patience (8:25). The hope of resurrection (8:11) displaces the static orientation to death (the negation or denial of death ) in the acceptance of the mortal body (8:11) without slavery to fear of the punishing effects of the law (8:15) (or the punishing conscience or superego), for through the Spirit of sonship a direct relation to God has been opened (8:15).

Put simply, one Subject is the Subject of life and the other is the Subject of death. Though this could and needs to be filled out and explained, what may be most noticeable in this explanation is what may seem to be missing.

Where is the devil? The devil is present in Paul’s explanation as the deception in regard to the law. In his particular explanation in Romans 7, Paul is making specific reference to the role the serpent in Genesis plays by creating a misorientation to God through a deception in regard to the law (or prohibition in Genesis 3). This power of the devil is a deception that Paul depicts being deployed by the principalities and powers, which presume God’s authority and rule in this world are challenged by the powers, but it is not simply a singular personal force.

Where is the wrath of God? The punishing effects of the law of sin and death are an admixture, in Paul’s explanation, of divine wrath and human wickedness. The judgment passed on sin brought condemnation (from God but also from the inherent nature of sin), so that death reigned from the time of Adam (5:16-17). God condemned sin through death but the condemnation Paul is describing in chapter 7 is the active human implementation of death in which death is the inherit outcome of sin.

Is there substitution? Certainly there is not substitution in a Calvinist or Anselmian sense, but Christ has intervened and taken up the sort of condemnation meted out by and inherent to sin, so that it can be said, God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (ἁμαρτίας κατέκρινεν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐν τῇ σαρκί) (8:3) so that it no longer deals out death by deception. As a result, there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). In chapter 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας) (8:3) so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20).

What is the role of the law? Paul links the capacity behind the cry “Abba” to an ontological shift which manifests itself in the move from a previous incapacity to obey the law to the capacity to now meet the righteous requirements of the law (8:4-11). This is not simply a forensic shift or imputed righteousness, as Paul proceeds to explain how the previous incapacity has now become not only a possibility but an obligation (8:12). The law is not definitive of either the problem or solution but it marks both.

I am not sure what to call this explanation, as it does not fit precisely with many of the theories of atonement, though it may fit best with the picture of atonement found in Justyn Martyr and Irenaeus. It might be deemed a form of recapitulation in which focus on the nature of the deception, the form of its exposure (not worked out by either Justyn or Irenaeus), are filled out in a new form of Christus Victor. Dying with Christ can be understood as the death or victory over investing life in the alienating lie (the defeat of the law of sin and death) and the beginning of a new kind of life in communion with Christ and his body by means of the Spirit of Life (the law of life in the Spirit).


[1] The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20) who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28) who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3) and who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) as he died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in the Spirit and in whom the Spirit dwells (8:9) as the Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13) and through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and who helps in weakness and prayer by interceding for the saints (8:26- 27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17), and saving hope (8:20, 24).

Traversing the Fantasy of Jerry Falwell Jr. and American Politics?

Fantasy is what obscures or covers over the inherent antagonism or contradictions in our personal or national identity. This antagonism is the force which pits one race and class against another culturally but it is also the antagonistic force at work within the individual. The fantasy of personal identity covers over the incongruence and contradiction which plagues us, and the fantasy which holds a culture together functions like a mass delusion to hide the inherent contradiction of a people. Every individual and culture is structured around its fantasy, covering points of contradiction or impossibility. When the fantasy fails, the points which might seem to have been disrupting the culture, are exposed as the structuring principle of the culture. Fantasy does not resolve or reconcile but obfuscates the inherent antagonism. For example, the fantasmatic Jew in anti-Semitism (hoarding the wealth conspiring against and blocking the Aryan race) covers class antagonism, in the same way the phantasm of black jouissance in American racism projects onto blacks or people of color the disturbance of what would otherwise be a harmonious social organism. The foreign element (the Jew, the black, the foreigner, etc.) “disrupting the harmony” creates the lure of this harmonious fantasy. The pain, disruption, disharmony, which we are now experiencing might evoke a “traversing” or exposure of the fundamental fantasy or it might result in the compounding of commitment to the lie. To put the question in perspective we can turn to a more controlled and limited instance, a smaller instantiation, of what plagues the nation. What is wrong with Jerry Falwell Jr.?

The success of Jerry Falwell Jr. has far exceeded the vision cast by his father, and there is a sense in which his vision brings together the inherent antagonism erupting around us.  It is not just that his support of Donald Trump was key in swaying evangelicals to support Trump, it is not just that his school and family have been key in the rise of the rise of the religious right, but his vision fixed upon the figures of his father and Donald Trump explains not only his own contradictions but the unfolding national implosion. As the president of Liberty University (the most ironic of names) Falwell Jr. unleashed the business, sports, and political potential of an institution founded upon the repression his father institutionalized in the school, in the Moral Majority, and in the wedding of right-wing politics and religion. Falwell’s embrace and promotion of Donald Trump is a natural, if not necessary, extension of his father’s vision but it is also speaks of his private perversity.  It is no accident that law and order, racism, and sexuality of the repressed and transgressive sort, have taken center stage in the man and in the movement, which characterizes a large portion of the country.

As Paul (and Žižek) describe it, there is always a split in the law in which the law would repress or forbid jouissance and in the process creates the seeming possibility of a transgressive enjoyment. In Paul’s description it is this very prohibition that brings about jouissance or forbidden desire (“I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET” (Ro. 7:7)). In turn, the repressive figure of Jerry Sr. does not preclude but entails the necessity of a Trump like figure (the restriction of the one points to the enjoyment of the other). Trump, with his wealth, transgressive sexual practices, racism, and open agitation of violence, is the tangible empowerment of those who support him. (As I have described elsewhere (here), the power to discipline, punish, penetrate, demarcate, and procreate, whether by judicial decree, military might, or sexual prowess, is, by definition, physical; a pure biopolitics in that it is synonymous with an incarnate power.) Trump is the incarnation of evangelical desire for power. The inherent racism (the original impetus of Jerry Sr. to form a political lobby so as to maintain both racial discrimination and tax-exempt status for his school), the repressive sexuality (no prolonged hugging, anti-homosexuality) leading to sexual perversion, the promotion of violence and guns, and the financial and business success, describe not only Liberty but the dynamics driving evangelical’s support of Trump.

Jerry’s perverse sexual activity is no more a betrayal of his father than his support of Trump. His is an unquestioning acquiescence to the fantasy of an absolute law. By the same token, the transgressive life Jerry seems to have enjoyed was his means of establishing the puritanical law.  He would establish this binary law (doing evil that the good may come) in the same way he would establish the law of his father through Trump. Of course, just as black people, foreigners, and liberals are the perceived gap or enemy of a balanced culture, the enemy in Jerry’s world was the transgressive desire of his wife for Giancarlo Granda.  This foreign sounding name, of this almost colored pool boy, provided prohibited pleasure (jouissance) from the underside of the law. All blame lies with the pool boy in the same way the Jews, blacks, people of color, or the foreigner, are to blame. These foreign elements simultaneously disrupt and indicate there is more pleasure to be had.  

For his admirers like Falwell, Trump is representative of the obscene pre-Oedipal father partaking directly of the jouissance or excess enjoyment of the law they are denied. As the very embodiment of law, Trump need not hesitate (he can directly “grab them by the pussy”), while Falwell requires a mediator (a pool boy) to enjoy for him, as he has access to jouissance only through the “big Other” behind the law. The repression of the father means repression is part of his own possibility of phallic enjoyment, which is to be had in the simultaneous pleasure in pain or guilty enjoyment. His father, Jerry Senior, serves as the prime figure behind the public presentation of the law but Trump provides the sort of access to the powerful underside of the law that Jerry Jr. embraced.

As in the Fall, the knowledge of good and evil is itself an indicator that there is more to the prohibition of the Father than appears on the surface. As the serpent indicates, it is not death but life that is accessed through transgression. The perverse orientation presumes the law is itself the indicator that something more is available – it points to the opportunity for more (excess) life and knowledge. The perceived disruption, lack, or absence must be filled in on the other side of the law. Pursuit of forbidden desire is the force of lack (sin) as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (Ro. 7:8). The command not to covet or desire gives rise to desire. “Thou shall not,” is the imperative to enjoy (to really live) by means of transgression.

The theology of Jerry Falwell, like the theology of evangelicals, seems to follow, and not contradict, the logic of the serpent. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals indicated as much, when confronted with the inconsistency of preaching against homosexuality while having a homosexual affair (see here). Haggard explained to Larry King that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” The sin confirms the grace; the evil establishes the good. Pat Robertson has confirmed in his vision of heaven, Donald Trump sits in the place of Jesus, at the right hand of God, and in his description of his approval of Trump, it was precisely his lurid sexual adventures Robertson smilingly approved of.  As Dallas megaChurch Pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress has put it, Trump is preferable to a candidate like Jesus (or Jesus-like) for President as Christ’s Lordship and ethics (as described in the Sermon on the Mount) do not pertain to governance of an earthly nation. We need an unrestricted ethic to engage the realities of the world; one that is not bound by the inherent weaknesses of mere love of neighbor and God. The exposure of the sexual perversity in Falwell and Trump are not then, an obstacle, but a perverse sort of confirmation.

It is evangelical theology that partly sustains the fantasy (a future heavenly harmony disconnected from earthly ethics) obscuring the antagonism erupting before us. Doubling down on the racism, squelching the protestors (equating all protesters with rioters), and reinforcing the demand for law and order, is the equivalent of blaming and punishing the pool boy. The evocation of fear on the part of President Trump is precisely what is called for in warding off the choice being posed in this moment. Fear of immigrants, fear of open borders, fear of an uncontrolled black population, fear of rioters and violence, are the only thing inhibiting confrontation with the antagonisms constituting the social body. It is a real question whether the culture can hold together without its fetishes of fear, but clearly the lie (the fantasy) can no longer contain the antagonism, so that this moment is providing the opportunity to traverse the fantasy and expose the lie. At the least, we need to turn to face reality, and abandon a politics that continues to obfuscate the antagonism of racism, classism, and sexism (the structuring principle of this social order).

Forsaking Christian Ideology

It was a hot summer night in Texas when my family, including my grandmother, went to hear the evangelist, James Robinson.  He was holding a city-wide revival on the high school football field and had spoken in an all school assembly earlier in the week. The country had just passed through the most turbulent and traumatic year of the 20th century, with the Vietnam War heating up (with the Battle of Khe Sanh and Johnson’s increase of U.S. troop levels to half a million), with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and with the eruption of violent protests across the country. The underlying antagonisms within the culture were erupting, and though it was partly beyond my conscious awareness and seemed to be a world apart from this little town in Texas, our move from Phoenix to Dalhart had set our family into the midst of this rift. Culturally and ideologically this revival marked my point of separation from my brothers, who had not made the move to Texas. I believe the political/cultural split of 2020, is the culmination of the divide that was opening up in the country, in our family, and within myself, in 1968.  

Personally, and for the culture as a whole, the full-blown ideology of today would come gradually throughout the ensuing decades. The fusion of right-wing politics with Christianity was still a work in progress for the culture and for me personally, as I was only thirteen years old and I would remain mostly unchurched and unindoctrinated for several years. The journey of James Robinson points to the fact that the ideological trajectory we have reached was not a foregone conclusion. At age 25 in 1968, his was a powerful and ecumenical message of redemption. In the 1970’s, like many others nationally but especially in Texas, he began to focus on homosexuality (for which he was forced off his television station). By 1980 he declared he was “sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet,” and called for “God’s people” to fight back. But then in the mid-1980’s he withdrew from this sort of rhetoric, only to be drawn back into right wing politics with the rise of Barack Obama. When I went forward at his revival, religious nationalism, the John Birch Society with its anti-communism, the anti-Civil Rights racism, were there as background but these were the days before Jerry Falwell (to say nothing of Junior) and the Moral Majority, before Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right. The religion I imbibed in the 1960’s was far from uncorrupted but in my naïveté, I remained innocent for several years of the ideology that was overtaking evangelicalism. I say this, as I presume that mine was an eventual recovery of a faith that was gradually and only partially corrupted by ideology (which I admit, may be too presumptuous).

This ideology is like every other in its basic shape, and the point of Christianity is to name this idol, not to worship it. The problem is that the very nature of ideology blinds us to the fact that we are believers and practitioners of ideology. My education in bible college and seminary had largely numbed me to any distinction between Christianity and nationalism. It was only as a missionary in Japan that I became fully aware that my religious faith had been subverted. I began to recognize that the basic elements of Christianity, the doctrines which many would claim are at the core of the faith (e.g. inerrancy, America as a Christian nation, conversion, personal faith) had been hijacked.  

This became clearest to me in my encounter with Japanese nationalism, in which I began to recognize my own religious nationalism. The religion of Japan, inclusive of Shintoism and Buddhism, was a support of Japanese nationalism and the resurgence of the Japanese economy after the War. In an oversimplified but true illustration of this, in the case of a shoe manufacturer in Tokyo, the company got its start by working young country girls, sometimes literally to death, under the guise of serving the nation. The propaganda was something like, “All good Japanese people want to better their country and it is their patriotic duty to work for low wages, seven days a week, without benefit of health insurance or benefits, so that together we might make Japan great again.” This is a simplified version of this trickle-down economy deployed throughout Japan in the postwar period. Enriching the owners of the company was equated with enriching Japan and this was part of one’s patriotic duty as a good Japanese citizen. I was familiar with this nationalistic call to work for God and country and this trickle down economy. (On my return to the States, I was surprised to see the same propaganda put out in “right to work initiatives” in Missouri. In short, the bill threatened unions and was supported by corporations in a cynical move to limit collective bargaining.) These crude ideologies point to the same basic structure.    

The simplest way to understand ideology is to take note of all of its elements as it first appears in the biblical story in Genesis 3. (The point here is illustrative, so that as we come to the ideologies which have a grip on evangelicalism, we can begin to identify the same elements.) The serpent inspired ideology in Genesis, “You will know good and evil and you will be like gods” seems to be saying something positive and grand, but of course it is a lie, and as with any lie, this one covers over what is absent in the lie. It is this negation or absence that stands at the center of ideology, and this is key. What does not appear or what is directly denied and displaced is death. Good and evil and being like God are known primarily on the basis of this absent center. So too, the “right to work” is a positive way of saying no union. It is primarily identified through what it is not.  In Stalinist Russia, the will of “the Party,” is on the order of the way “Freedom” is deployed in America, or the way “Jesus” is deployed by the National Prayer Breakfast (the “Family” – see here). A word, concept, or master signifier can be imagined to have a profound significance while it is an empty center which provides the object around which people can unite and to which they can provide their allegiance. The resulting group might be considered political or religious, but the sure sign that it is an ideology is that the signifier is so malleable as to be empty.

For example, prayer, in the National Prayer Breakfast, takes that most pious act and detaches it from any particular notion of God, Jesus, or petition, so that an all-inclusive group of believers, non believers, atheists, and concerned citizens (i.e. those seeking political influence) can be joined together under the master signifier of prayer. To whom prayer is directed or the purpose the prayer might immediately have, is secondary to the fact that this master signifier unifies. The ideological and empty core is covered by a master signifier (which might be called “I,” “freedom,” “Moloch,” or “Jesus”) which seems to promise something positive but is empty. Key elements of evangelicalism have been made to play the role of a master signifier where the faith functions ideologically. Biblical inerrancy, which displaces “mere” inspiration, is a negative statement (no errors) which signifies nothing. Accepting Jesus into your heart, devoid of ethics and church, is made into an amorphous inward event signifying nothing at all. The biblical significance is displaced with a sign unattached to its original signified (significance).[1]

The classic biblical and secular example is the signifier “I,” which might seem to be the most concrete thing in existence. In the Cartesian phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” the thinking thing, as pointed out by Kant, is an inaccessible placeholder which is only known through what it is not – thought itself. Adam is the discoverer of this absent “I” in that with the Fall, he can only identify himself through what he does: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). What this signifier “I” signifies has been lost, and the repetition tied to a verb seems to be the attempt to obtain what has gone missing. Yet, this absence is given the sign “I,” which does not appear in the Bible prior to Adams first fallen sentence. Adam is a bundle of conflict, much like Paul will describe his “I” (in Rom. 7). This antagonism or conflict is not a secondary part of ideology, the antagonism is at the core of ideology.

The knowledge of good and evil names nothing other than the fact that one thing is defined over and against the other. It is not that the original pair discover truth in their knew knowledge but just the opposite; they have relinquished access to truth (God, or the fact that life is in and from God) for a lie. Where their original relationship to God was a relationship to ontological truth, their new truth is a circulating system of differential signs. Good is known through its Other, evil, and evil is known over and against its Other, the good. The mistake would be to assume that the trauma they experience (shame, alienation, antagonism, internal dividedness) is an exposure of the emptiness of this lie. Rather, the lie, with all of its antagonism and trauma now functions as truth. Fear and insecurity, the “I” against the Other or the “we” against God, now constitutes their system of identity; so too every ideology.

The great Other for American evangelicals was communism, which posed a threat so vast that it became the primary defining element against which Christianity came to be defined. Communists are tricky, as they may pass themselves off as trade unionists, black people in favor of civil rights, liberal academics, or as women libers. The war on “cultural Marxism” (a term not coined until the new millenium) had begun in the 1950’s and 60’s with the presumption that liberalism, socialism, the civil rights movement and atheism were all part of a unified communist front opposing the Christian Nation.

A key example (but one of many) of this anti-communist form of the faith is William F. Buckley, a conservative Catholic and eventually the best-known public intellectual of his day. He accused liberal historians of a “conspiracy” and he outlined how academic freedom was a shield for left-wingers, and thus an open door for the communists. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and had written in 1957 the “advanced” white race in the South was justified in taking “such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” in areas where “it does not predominate numerically.” Like nearly every conservative politician of the day, Buckley defended Joseph McCarthy for recognizing that “coercive measures” were necessary to enforce a new anticommunist “conformity.” His publication, National Review, suggested the civil rights movement was communist inspired, riddled by communists and composed of communist front organizations.[2]

A few highlights of the ensuing decades makes the point which is now glaring. In 1961, the American Medical Association produced an LP by Ronald Reagan, warning that the domino effect (one country after another going communist) could also play out in the realm of ideas. Any fragment of the socialist program, such as the passage of Medicare, would lead to adopting the whole socialist program.[3] Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Francis Schaeffer (perhaps driven right by his politically conscious son), codified this religion, defined by its antagonism. The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion under Ronald Reagan (coinciding with the rise of the Christian Coalition and with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), was finalized by George W. Bush who, three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” What he meant, as indicated in his rhetoric, was the Christian Nation was now involved in a religious crusade – a literal war (as I describe it here). This is a story that could be told in multiple volumes with countless examples (e.g. the John Birch society, Anita Bryant, Robert Bork, Cecil Todd), with the characters and causes changed only slightly. The point is evangelicalism devolved into an ideology defined by its antagonisms.  

In addition to a master signifier (freedom, prayer, democracy) and the inherent antagonism between opposed poles (good/evil, communists/Americans), the real power of ideology is the force which it seems to ward off but which it unleashes. Shame and death were taken up and contained as part of the original ideology, but this is not simply the first of many kinds of ideology, this is the heart of every ideology. Death denied, negation negated, makes of an absence a seeming positive presence. The problem becomes the solution under a different name, but the inherent antagonism and the empty center cannot endure. The “I” of Adam is an empty identity; a name that refers to nothing. As Paul explains, this body of death shows itself in the struggle and the suffering. The slave, in every master/slave relationship, will struggle against normalizing this identity. The Civil Rights Protestors, the draft age youth, the veterans of the Vietnam War, erupted in the 1960’s. The failure of the ideology was made apparent and is always made apparent in its eruptions.

The problem is that even when it erupts, even when practitioners of ideology know what they are doing, they continue to do it. Cain is a naive murderer who does not seem to understand the import of what he is doing. God exposes the murder of Cain, along with a mark to protect him from revenge. Lamech takes this promised revenge, displaces God, and enacts the divine promise. He bragged of his enactment of his own justice and his killing power, celebrating it in verse, and this led to the sociopathic killers of Noah’s generation. Those seeking revenge replace and become the new sociopaths. The slaves may revolt only to become the new masters. The Marxist exposure of capitalism as the exploitation of the working class gives rise to a new form of the ruling class, the Party elites. By the same token, the anti-communism of the Cold War culminates in the weaponizing of the world and the possibility of mutually assured destruction. The anti-brand of Christianity needs its evil enemy – the communists, the Muslims, the liberals, the homosexuals, so as to define itself, but it unleashes the antagonism which defines it, and even the awareness of this false consciousness does not bring it to a halt. A good therapist can expose the antagonism, which is preferable to the continued reinforcement of the normalizing lie, but the psychoanalytic cure is simply a manipulation of the same structure (the master signifier, the antagonism, and the reality (the real) of death).

The promise of Christ is that the blood of Abel, which cries out through the generations in the voice of all oppressed peoples, will be heard. His promise fulfilled is when the cry of those on the underside of ideology, or those who are lied about and suppressed by the antagonism, are relieved of their suffering. This is the core factor which separates Christian ideology from an authentic form of the faith. Does the form of belief challenge or support the cultural status quo? Does it side with the oppressed or the oppressors? Does it support putting people on crosses or does it identify with the crucified? Anti Communist Christianity and right-wing political Christianity have as their underside the cry of black suppression, the open oppression of immigrants, and the destruction of budding democracies and popular movements throughout the world.

Fifty-two years from the time I became a Christian, after the most turbulent year in the 20th century, the turbulence of the inherent antagonism of a false faith is decisively boiling over. Donald Trump is, in many ways, the ultimate embodiment of this long-standing antagonism and emptiness. The false center of an ideological faith will no longer serve to suppress some and comfort others. For those who can read the signs, it is time to relinquish the ideological form of the faith for the religion of the Crucified One.


[1] David Fitch demonstrates in The End of Evangelicalism? how key elements of the evangelical faith have been reduced to ideology.

[2] https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2018/how-the-right-wing-convinces-itself-that-liberals-are-evil/

[3] Ibid.

The Unraveling and Remaking of American Religion

According to the democratic party convention, America is engaged in an existential battle for the soul of the nation and a moral crusade for a return to basic decency. Eric Trump responded that the democrats are crazy and will return the country to socialism, higher taxes, and unfair trade agreements. The covid-19 crisis has only sharpened this political divide, offering focus on economic survival with Donald Trump or biological and cultural survival with a future democratic party, focused on science and common decency. In one party, the death of a few is called for by the economic welfare of the many. There are always those (according to Rusty Reno, see my piece here) who will inevitably be culled by disease, and we must offer up the susceptible for the survival of the many. The fact that black people are dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans is the price many (white?) people would allow for. The counter accusation is, democrats would reduce us to socialism and would subvert the key doctrine of American individualism. It as is if two religions or two alternative world views were vying for the soul of the nation, and maybe they are.

The brokenness reflected in this political moment reflects a personal journey for Faith and I. As the country was beginning to split more sharply four years ago, we were fired, on the same day fifteen minutes apart, from a Christian college. This college and its personnel would fall on the hard right of this political/cultural moment, but at the point we began working there this chasm was still bridgeable. Our dismissal opened a gap with former colleagues and those we once counted as friends, not of our making, which has remained firmly in place. In the intervening years, I have seen the same divide open up with several of my students (maybe my fault) and have witnessed it with acquaintances, who have lost jobs and relationships with family, not just because of politics but due to the religion which attaches to the politics. This period of division in our country reflects an expanding chasm opening up within the Christian faith (both Roman Catholic and Protestant). There are two interpretive frames, one in which economics outweigh the focus on social inequities and human welfare, and I am not referring to political parties but to two theological understandings.   

In the conservative wing of theology (and I use conservative here to refer to a failure to engage the liberal nature of the gospel), Christianity is primarily concerned with correcting a failed economy of a divine order. In this familiar story, God created everything good and human sin spoiled this goodness. The focus, though, is not upon what went wrong in the world but how sin offends the justice of God. Given his prerogative of justice, in his offended honor God could have simply wiped out the human race, but since he is also merciful, God decided to work out a solution within himself. The two-fold problem is how to meet the obligation of his offended justice, as God could not simply forgive as this would violate his justice (the controlling factor in the economy), and how to receive this payment from the quarter (within humanity) in which the offence arose (the debtor must pay the debt). Thus, the incarnation and the cross, in which humanity in Christ offers up the required infinite payment, which was an amount they could not have engineered, but which God arranges through the death of his divine Son. Those who choose or are chosen to be covered by his infinite payment meet the requirements of God’s justice and are enabled to go to heaven and miss hell. An infinite payment is made to meet the infinite debt of God’s offended honor and justice. Thus, the books are balanced in the divine economic order.

This tight focus on payment and exchange, which its inventor, Anselm, thought of and illustrated in monetary terms, becomes literally concerned with money and savings with the Protestant Reformation.  Now that all are priests, their vocations are also a calling (whether shop keeper or banker), in which the accumulation of wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Now one does not depend upon priests or the church to assign blessing, as grace comes through hard work and shows itself in accumulated wealth. That is, an economic order of salvation translated into a primary focus on economics in which the literal accrual of wealth reflects a grace that can been cashed in and credited to one’s account. Capitalism, in this very brief synopsis of its rise as outlined by Max Weber, is already interwoven with a religious belief in which economics is primary, so it should be no surprise that this form of the religion would become narrowly focused on a leader concerned with boosting the economy. The limited dimensionality of this religion, I believe, accounts for the narrow focus of its present political attachment.

The problem with this theory is that, as a theory, it allows for abstraction or a distancing from the lived-reality of what happened to Jesus and what happens to all people. It abstracts from the human circumstance and puts primacy on the heavenly economy shadowed forth in the earthly market. The fact that people crucified Christ and that it is human and not divine wrath which killed him, are rendered inconsequential. One keeps score in this system, not by correcting social injustices like crucifying or killing unjustly, but by meeting the requirements of the law which reflect God’s own character. Fighting injustice (helping the poor, ceasing to steal, cessation of war and murder) though one might choose to do such things, are not primary. In spite of the biblical depiction of the law with its death dealing letter being set aside, in this understanding the economy of salvation is according to the demands of the law. And besides, don’t the poor already bear the signs of missing God’s blessing? Aren’t they deserving of their lot in life by dent of their not doing the hard work which would show forth God’s favor? As a youth minister explained to my daughter, the poor show they are not blessed as they are poor (which seems to have bypassed one of the beatitudes).

This economy of exchange, of debt and payment, is attached to a peculiar and singular ethic: the Protestant work ethic. Virtue pays cash dividends, according to Benjamin Franklin, and the wise investment of time shows itself monetarily in a value system in which “time is money” (Franklin’s phrase). This translates directly into virtue is money and money a virtue. If every calling is a sacred calling, then every occupation deserves holy or whole or complete devotion. Piety is work and eventually one is left with work and money in place of or in conjunction with religion and blessing. This rise of a capitalistic religion seems to explain its culminating attachment to the vacuity of virtue that is Donald Trump.

In that this is the American story and religion, this may be the part we are most familiar with, but let me propose a more orthodox reading of scripture, which is not a theory so much as a direct engagement with the first order problem we face as humans. The root problem behind poverty, social injustice, war, and racism, pertains to the zero-sum economy enacted by the fact that people die. Time is money and both are valuable commodities only where there are limited amounts of each, and so too the ensuing problems of poverty, greed, racism, and injustice. The gospel is not about working within this limited economy of death, but in opening up to life in the fullness of God, creation, and other people, through the defeat of death. Rather than setting us to work to prove we are saved in an economy of death, the gospel call is to act as if death is not a final reality, which opens up an order in which we can address the real-world problems associated with the fact that people die.

James Alison pictures this contrast as that between theory (a disengagement with reality) and liturgy (a direct engagement with reality or something we can immediately grasp).[1] In his description liturgy is something “that happens to you” and it does not depend upon an intervening theory. We need not speculate about the movement or mind of God in theory, as reality is engaged. A way of approaching the difference is in contrasting pictures of sacrifice. In the artificial economy of sacrifice (shared with pagan sacrificial systems), what gets sacrificed (the enemy, slaves, or women, in paganism) saves the one who sacrifices. God’s justice, and in a sense God himself, is preserved or saved from the divide between his wrath and love, in penal substitution. Sacrifice can also depict a personal event in which it is not the other but the self that is sacrificed. Sacrifice to the economy preserves the self and the economy. Where the economy itself is sacrificed the theory of sacrifice is replaced with the reality of self-sacrifice (taking up the cross).[2] This frees up from the work of economic sacrifice so that the implements of the economy of death (i.e. swords) are utilized in a different order of reality as farm implements, the growing of food, and the welfare of people (Isaiah 2:4).

The Jewish Temple sacrifice is often read as if it serves the economy of death, with the priests and people sacrificing animals to save themselves. According to Alison, this needs to be reversed and read in light of the sacrifice of Christ. The imagery of the Temple sacrifice, like the event of the cross, is not that something is sacrificed to God but that God is sacrificing himself. The goat, which was the Lord, is taken into the Holy of Holies and sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest puts on a phylactery when he emerges (on his forehead or wrapped around his arm) which identifies him as YHWH, the unpronounceable name of God.  In this reversal, the atonement is not about bringing the priest and people before God, but it brings God into the world. It is the Lord which the priest represents, who emerges to set the people free from the result of their sin. From out of the place before or beyond creation (represented by the Holy of Holies) the priest would emerge as God himself emerging through the veil of the material world (he would don a robe made of the same material as the veil) so as to cross the divine human divide created by humans. Then he would sprinkle the rest of the Temple, representing the cosmos itself. The life of God (“life is in the blood”) is unleashed onto creation so that the healing of redemption is not an inward and upward heavenly departure of humans but the earthly, outward movement of the arrival of God. God is acting to save his people from sin and death and they are freed up to participate in his redemptive, seventh day, activity.[3]

Of course, it is Christ who is the true high priest who fulfills God’s emergence from out of the origins of creation, before time, into the world. This is the portrayal of Hebrews and the Gospel of John, in which Christ is the true mediator, the true Temple and the true sacrifice. John pictures Jesus as sacrificed on a Thursday, during the sacrifice of the Passover lambs (without a bone being broken) but, as Alison points out, wearing the seamless robe of a priest. Here is the true sacrifice and the true high priest, who upon his death repeats the finale to the days of creation from Genesis, “It is finished.” The beginnings of creation are complete, and this culminates John’s opening chapters, with Christ portrayed as both creator and as re-inaugurating creation in the opening of his ministry. Now the eternal seventh day of rest is made an open reality for all. This is made clear as the tomb is pictured like the arc of the covenant or like the holy of holies with its mercy seat, where Mary Magdalene “saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet” (John 20:12). The Holy of Holies has been opened up to the world.

The implication is that we have to do, not with an economy of death set in heaven and reflected on earth, but with creation and its completion in salvation. The contrast with the economy which devolves into the Protestant work ethic is passage out of the legal six-day economy of work. In the imagery of the writer of Hebrews human toil is transformed into the leisure of the seventh day of rest. The contrast between the two religions of the day, is a continued working to escape death in an economy of substitutionary sacrifice and the presumption that self-sacrifice is afforded by God as the zero-sum economy is defeated. The former demands work and consumption, presuming that the wrath of God and divine justice are primary, while the latter abandons this zero-sum game in its recognition that it is human wrath and injustice that are defeated in the death of Christ. God does not require satisfaction or substitution but only people do. It is this human wrath and violence projected onto God, which imagines human sacrifice assuages God’s anger. God does not benefit from the death of Christ; we are the beneficiaries and this is the realization taken up in an alternative form of life.

I believe, in this political/cultural moment, we are indeed faced with a religious choice. The religion of the day, joined to a politic preserving this world’s economy, has divided itself off from Christian orthodoxy. This division and the chasm that has opened up in our culture and which reflects the splintering of the Christian faith, is not entirely negative. The emptiness of heterodoxy is being revealed throughout our nation, though, at the steep price of hundreds of thousands of lives. There is a clear division, however, being made between a false and true gospel. Forging Ploughshares and many other individuals and organizations are teaching the gospel of peace, without hindrance or admixture. Religious division is resulting in the emergence of a certain clarity for many. Orthodoxy is showing itself in its creation care and is revealed in its embrace of a politic aimed at human well-being in which the physical is not set apart from the spiritual. It is revealing itself in a faith that regards social justice as synonymous with the establishment of the true church, as this is the politics of Jesus. God himself has entered creation to redeem it, and as we engage this redemptive creation care we recognize salvation engages and defeats death and the death dealing nature of the human economy; it does not divinize or project this economy onto God or seek to sacrifice to preserve it, but it moves beyond it to the real-world relief and salvation of suffering humanity.   


[1] http://jamesalison.com/some-thoughts-on-the-atonement/?fbclid=IwAR088AjIDc3R1-96QWybIPTFknpWV2bZfAV5-YEJPZUZU67xqOrC1xkTqfI

[2] Murder, as René Girard has taught us, stands behind all sacrificial systems and Jesus reveals the intention of the Pharisees and priests and of all religions of sacrifice. “You are from your father the devil . . . a murderer from the beginning . . .  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44-5).

[3] Alison, Ibid.