Is Nonviolence Essential to the Gospel?

Justin Martyr assured Emperor Titus that he need not fear that Christians were insurrectionists as they have, by definition, forsworn all violence. They have, he explains, turned from violence to “cultivating piety, justice, and love” and “they have turned their swords into ploughshares and their spears into farm tools.” In a recent video, the Capitol insurrectionists pause on the senate floor, led by the horned man (Jacob Chansley), to pray and dedicate their invasion to Jesus. Frank Schaeffer also released a video explaining that he and his father, the famous missionary Francis Schaeffer, were to blame for the events that unfolded in Washington. He explained that his father had declared a kind of holy war and that in his last book, A Christian Manifesto, he had called for a potential revolution against the government if Roe V. Wade was not overturned. Schaeffer blames himself, his father, C. Everett Coop (Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General), Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Ralph Reed, as leaders and creators of the religious right. He claims, “America does not have a political problem but a religious fanaticism problem.” Certainly, the Christianity which Justin defended to Emperor Titus is not that which Schaeffer describes or that of the insurrectionists dedicating their invasion of the Capitol to Jesus. Which raises the question, is there a violent form of the Christian faith, a violently insurrectionist Christianity?

Since we have just recently celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is fitting that he serve as a counter-example, as one who has enacted a revolutionary-peaceful gospel, but also as someone who gives testimony to profound personal courage provided by the gospel of peace. His life is a portrayal of the nonviolent revolution at the heart of the gospel but what may be less well understood was the depth of his personal dependence upon the peaceful gospel and the peaceable vision he gained from the Hebrew Bible.

King’s epiphany at his kitchen table, perhaps the central spiritual experience of his life, is on the order of the epiphany of Isaiah during a time when Judah faced the possibility of obliteration at the hands of Assyria. Isaiah calls for Judah to trust in God and not in weapons of war. King, like Isaiah, would realize God’s power and presence in his life, and both would recognize God’s power to determine the course of history, in spite of the terrible events of the present moment.

King’s encounter came during the Montgomery bus boycott. It had become a months long affair and he had expected it would be over in a few days. As the economic threat of the boycott began to hit home, he was receiving up to 40 phone calls and threats on his life daily. After being pulled over for speeding and taken to jail, he feared he would be lynched. In his description, he was overcome with fear. He had reached the breaking point on Friday night, January 27, 1956. Then, he once again received a death threat: “N, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”  

With the Assyrian army bearing down on the tiny Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah called on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord and not in horses and chariots. The basis of this trust is spelled out in Isaiah’s vision of a future which, to paraphrase King, Egyptian children, Assyrian children, and Jewish children would hold hands in one accord. It is a trust which came to King that night, Shaken by the continual threat, he buried his face in his hands and began to pray aloud:

I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

The great sense of comfort and courage that came to him at that moment is what strengthened him a few days later when his house was bombed. “Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” As he writes years later, “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”[1]

Isaiah’s understanding of God’s peace came from an encounter while he was officiating in the temple. Just as King’s “kitchen table epiphany” revealed God’s comforting presence and power to determine the course of history, Isaiah had a temple epiphany (in the temple and concerning Zion, the temple Mount).

And in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, and the house of the Lord on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall come unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, unto the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us his way, and we will walk in it.’ For out of Zion shall go forth a law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(Is. 2:2-3)

Isaiah 2 reflects a central theme in the Hebrew Bible, in which Zion is the center of the world and as it is lifted up this center of new creation heals the nations by removing what wounds and divides. As the nations of the earth “stream” to Zion (v. 2) they come together in a unified worship. As the “mountain of the house of the Lord” is “established as the chief of the mountains” (Is. 2:2) there is deconstruction of the counter religions – the “oaks of Bashan,” the “lofty mountains,” along with all the instruments of war – “every high tower,” “every fortified wall,” “all the ships of Tarshish,” or in summary, all “the pride of man will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be abased” (Is. 2:13-17). The instruments of war and worship or all that goes into nation building and violence are undone. With the participation of all nations in Israel’s worship, there is a simultaneous movement “up to the mountain of the Lord,” an enabling to “walk in His paths,” and a movement outward as this teaching of Zion “will go forth” downward and outward (v. 3). As a result, “the court of YHWH will replace the battlefield of the world” as “people will use the scarce and valuable materials of earth to cultivate life instead of crafting death.”[2]

God’s reign, in Isaiah’s vision, culminates in a series of reversals: where the Edenic garden-world was turned into a blood-soaked burial plot (Abel’s blood cries out and, with the generation of Noah, the earth is filled with violence), now warriors are turned into gardeners as swords are beaten into ploughshares; the worlds languages had been confused and this confusion (the etymological and literal root of war) is synonymous with the scattering and enmity of violence, but as all gather in the singular place of worship on Zion they are instructed in the singular word of the Lord.

This Temple restoration sets the cosmos revolving around a new order of peace (shalom among men and even within nature), brought about by the branch of Jesse. This messianic figure will establish righteousness upon the earth and nature herself will be relieved of all violence. It is Isaiah 40, the culmination of the prophet’s kingdom vision, which King will quote in his most famous sermon:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Is. 40:4-5). From verse 1 we understand that this straightening of the rough places and the lowering of the high places is synonymous with the fact that earth’s “warfare has ended.” 

In Isaiah’s depiction, peace is the purpose of the religion of Israel, and this purpose is fulfilled in the branch of Jesse: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse” and “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him” (Is. 11:2-3). As a result, righteousness will be established in all the earth (vv. 4-5) and “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (v. 6).

The lesson of Isaiah brought to culmination by Christ (the true cosmic Temple), is that the children of God need to put their confidence and trust in the Lord and not in violence (chariots, horses, or swords). Jesus taught that peacemakers are the children of God and he demonstrated in his wilderness temptation the refusal of violent power or the temptation to become a violent messiah; he demonstrated the peaceful healing of the nations in his healing ministry; in his casting out of the violent demons, and in feeding and liberating the hungry and oppressed he embodied the cosmic vision of peace in which each will sit under his own vine and fig tree. He called for love of neighbor and of enemies and he called for his followers to offer no violent resistance. He sent his followers “as lambs sent among wolves” to carry out a mission of peace in a violent culture. He would enter Jerusalem as a nonviolent king, “a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass…He shall banish the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem…and he shall proclaim peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10). He commands Peter to put his sword away and the command stands. He nonviolently challenged the Temple system and then submitted, without resistance, to those who put him to death precisely due to this challenge to the Temple and religion of Israel.[3]

The understanding of the early church consistently placed the nonviolence of Jesus at the center of their life and discipleship. The Christian community refused to participate in the insurrection against Rome (66-70 CE), it resisted most any form of military service. Christians refused to kill on behalf of Caesar, and discipleship was aimed at preparing followers of the Way for martyrdom or witness. The practice of forgiveness, the application of the works of mercy, the cultivation of patience, all had as their center the nonviolent, nonretaliatory, gospel of Jesus.  Prior to the conversion of Constantine there is no Christian writing supporting “Christian warfare” as such a concept would have been oxymoronic. There were a few Christian soldiers, those who converted while in the service of the emperor (as testified by discovery of eight epitaphs to Christian soldiers). Tertullian (in 197) informs us that there were soldiers who converted, but the implication is that following Jesus meant they would quit the army. Nearly a century after Tertullian, St. Maximilian refused conscription into the Roman army and he was beheaded. His testimony during his trial would become, for centuries, a standard part of the mass: “I cannot serve. I cannot do evil. I will not be a soldier of this world. I am a soldier of Christ.”

St. Maximilian is a saint because the early church sought out those modeling the nonviolent Jesus. It was understood that Jesus broken body was celebrated not simply as another religious sacrifice, but as a model that accepts brokenness rather than to break the bodies of others. Christ submitted to torture and execution so as to overcome the violence and death which has the violent kingdoms of this world in its grip. [4] Christ rose from the dead and sends his disciples into the world so as to defeat death and the violent way that deploys death.

The early Christians understood the Church as the place where Isaiah’s vision is to be enacted. According to Gerhard Lohfink, the swords into ploughshares vision (of 2:3) is the most quoted text from the Hebrew Scripture in the early church. Origen (writing in the 240’s), presumed that every catechist would be familiar with it as the text was, apparently, a part of the catechism of every candidate for baptism. Justin employs the text in his explanation to Emperor Titus that Christians could not possibly be insurrectionists: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and all wickedness have each and all throughout the earth changed our instruments of war, our swords into plowshares and our spears into farm tools, and cultivate piety, justice, love of humankind, faith and the hope, which we have from the Father through the Crucified One.” The testimony against violence and for peace is the consensus, as demonstrated by Christian writers such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Minucius, Felix, and Lactantius.[5] The peaceful kingdom of Isaiah, inaugurated by Christ, deployed by the early church, and taken up by modern disciples like Martin Luther King, breaks the chains of violence and death, the very point of being a follower of Christ.

Where this peace is not the means and end, can this be said to be the faith of Christ or the Christian religion? Rene Coste summarizes the broad consensus of church history and gospel criticism in affirming, “It is an incontestable fact that Christ did preach nonviolence, both as a condition and a consequence of the universal love that he taught us. To pretend, as is sometimes done, that his directives are only meant to be applied to individual relationships is a supposition nowhere to be found in the New Testament.”[6] Peace is the primary marker of the faith of Christ and it is unclear what remains of the religion of the New Testament in the absence of this understanding.

[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, recounted in his Stride Toward Freedom, quoted from

[2]Ralph P. Smith, Micah–Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary 32. (Waco, TX: Word, 1984)

[3] Fr. John Dear and Ken Butigan, “An overview of Gospel nonviolence in the Christian tradition,” in Nonviolence and Just Peace 11-13 April 2016 Rome, Italy at The understanding of Lohfink is found in •Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 92). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

The Love of Knowledge and Why Josh Hawley Can’t Think

Prominent among the many incapacities on display in the Capitol and country this past week, the incapacity for thought is most striking. It was not just the rioters in favor of the Holocaust (according to their shirts), in favor of murdering the vice president, willing to do violence to the media, and demonstrably willing to kill police and politicians, but the impenetrable and apparently imperturbable presumption that the election was stolen. The long line of conspiracy theories circulating among Trump supporters: that the coronavirus is a hoax or a Chinese lab product, that a group of Satan-worshipping elites running a child sex ring are in control of our politics, that there is no climate change, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, and most recently, that the insurrectionists invading the Capitol building were Antifa radicals imitating Trump supporters, compounds the stupidity. Given this exuberance of stupidity, it is futile to hope distinctions might be made between legitimate protest (e.g., against racial injustice and police brutality) and insurrection and violence. From my perspective in rural Missouri, it seems futile to even imagine that there might ever be a consensual willingness to wear masks, to socially distance, to take active measures to end this plague. But the core and more enduring problem is not COID-19, but the epidemic of stupidity which is proving to be the deadliest foe this country has faced.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

While there are multiple (endless?) sources for stupid, conservative Christians are clearly the key resource for energizing the base of stupidity.  Since I am speaking from inside the problem of conservatism, it should be clear, it is not a matter of my prejudice against the orthodox tenets of Christianity.  In fact, I would suggest that Christian orthodoxy is the remedy for the stupid that has gripped evangelicalism and that there is an incapacity for thought linked to a particular theological failing. Which brings me to the case of Missouri’s native son, Josh Hawley.

Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale, is not lacking in mental capacity but his inability to distinguish truth from fiction is, I would argue, connected to his version of the Christian faith. His clenched fist support of the pro-Trump rioters and his objection to the results of the election on the floor of the Senate, can, to a large degree, be chalked up to the peculiarities of his reformed fundamentalism, though, certainly, his own craven ambition has played a role. His Lutheran/Calvinist understanding of the role of government and his convoluted notion of the protections required against “free will,” go a long way in both demonstrating a lack of depth and something like a religious commitment to shallow forms of thought.

In his widely circulated Christianity Today article, it is the Augustinian/Pelagian debate, or the argument over the role of free will to which Hawley attributes societies present problems and it is here that he sees his special contribution. For the uninitiated, this may seem like an obscure reference but for the initiated it is an even more obscure reference, as the true role of Pelagius (as the loser, heretic, in the argument) has undoubtedly been exaggerated and mythologized and the position of Augustine was inconsistent. To connect modern notions of freedom and individualism to Pelagius is a stretch, which conveniently passes over the true source of the problem. The hardening and reaction against free will, as occurs with Martin Luther and John Calvin, is in response to Catholic and Anabaptist notions of free will more than any survival of Pelagius and his doctrine. So, Hawley’s true point of reference is a thousand years removed from what Hawley imagines is the point of origin, but this also enables him to ignore contemporary scholarship which would credit the Reformation with key elements of individualism, capitalism, and modern notions of freedom. Nonetheless, he lays at the feet of Pelagius blame for most all modern ills surrounding the notion of freedom and individualism. It is his “particular philosophy of freedom” with its “liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community” that Pelagius got going some 1700 years ago, that is bearing fruit in America today.

Hawley points to Pelagius’ notion of perfection as the root cause of the problem, but he misses both Pelagius and the New Testament. He exaggerates even the myth of Pelagius, in maintaining “Pelagius believed he could save himself” (he is a Christian Monk, after all) and he misunderstands the notion of perfection. Jesus, in fact, commands perfection (Matt. 5:48), but in Hawley’s Christianity this is to lend too much credibility to human capacity. Hawley and evangelicals imagine God uses necessary evils, such as Trump and all this entails, precisely because people are not to be trusted, as original sin has stolen their true agency.

It is the Reformed concern to separate out the heavenly kingdom and the role of the earthly civil government (Luther pictures it as God doing one thing with his left hand on earth, and another with his right hand, kept busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom), which requires governmental restraint (e.g., against globalism, for protectionism, and isolationism) and utilization of worldly oppression by God and his human instruments (capital punishment, war, trust in chariots and horses). The fallen nature of humanity means that human nature requires the guidance and constraint of civil government, and certain key teachers and civic leaders who are saved, will be the best choice. On the other hand, it is this sort of two-kingdom separation that has allowed evangelicals to give up concern with the morality of leaders like Trump. God can use a tyrant for his purposes, and thus the foibles of Trump can be overlooked. They would maintain, we need a strong force for God, and morality is beside the point, and as has been argued by some (e.g., Robert Jeffress), it will only get in the way.

The logic of his argument escapes me at key junctures, but the conclusion is that Pelagian individualism “leads to hierarchy” and his notion of individual responsibility “produces elitism” and though he “proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.”[1] Overlooking the leap to modern notions of freedom from Pelagius, the leap from free will to hierarchy and the destruction of liberty, Hawley seems to be using theology, not in any serious engagement with history or the issues, but as the vehicle for his populist political realism (or his own form of elitism).

In the end, Hawley seems to be saying that only those with his interpretation of Christianity are to be trusted. Only Christians, like himself, can speak for the masses. There is no room for an open society, religious or cultural pluralism, or notions of equality, but, of course, the implicit argument is that only a religious elite, like Josh Hawley, has the correct theology so as to control society from its ever-present impulses. Evangelicalism, with its view of an ineradicable evil, an ever-angry God, a looming eternal hell, and total human depravity, requires the sort of hidden elitism that Hawley is promoting. There is a limited atonement allowing salvation (going to heaven) only for those elected by God, the rest are damned, and human will and agency do not figure into the calculations of God. Hawley’s peculiar trick is to finesse this into anti-elitism.

What Hawley and his evangelical cohort are missing is the Gospel message: real-world salvation, not just in some future kingdom, but in an-all embracing cosmic salvation. The notion that human agency or human freedom (even the false kind) is the source of all our problems does not exactly accord with Hawley’s notion of original sin, and inasmuch as the Gospel teaches that there is a restoration of human freedom and agency, his notion that there is no such thing misses the goal of salvation. The problem, as portrayed in Scripture, is not connected with an absence of human agency, but it’s opposite. It is willful self enslavement and deception – belief in a lie – from which Christ delivers. Christ does not give up on freedom and agency but aims for their restoration. Unfortunately, Hawley’s gospel preaches against what Christ presumes: the human capacity for freedom. This is not Pelagian or American or modern, it is simply the teaching of the New Testament rejected by the Reformed tradition.

His belief in the stolen election is obviously a lie aiming to establish his own power, his own potential run for president, but it is a lie easily incorporated into a gospel which does not concern itself with real world morality and salvation. The shape of the “gospel” that Hawley believes is the shape this lie always takes. Given special knowledge (the presumed elite understanding of salvation given to a few select individuals) these chosen individuals are in a place to dictate truth and to take the reigns of power. Hawley, in his drive for power, misses a key point of Christianity, which outside of its Calvinist enclave, is aimed at producing freedom, to enable human agency, and in the words of Jesus to bring about perfection or fullness (human thriving), especially the fullness of knowing God.

In his gospel lite anti-elitist, anti- intellectualism though, Hawley is true to his roots. As has been noted by a series of authors, the scandal of the evangelical mind (Mark Noll), in which there is no place for truth (David Wells), is a long simmering crisis which has led to the anti-intellectualism and formulaic populist notions of American evangelicals. Worst of all, I believe it can be directly connected to the epidemic of stupidity literally killing our fellow countrymen.

I have spent most of my life in pursuit of education, a transformation of the mind, and one of the great obstacles, which took me many years to overcome, is that posed by certain (I would claim heterodox) forms of the Christian faith. Systematic theology, especially of the Reformed bent, can be such a neat package, a closed case, a doctrinaire understanding that no further thought is allowed or called for. No one puts it like that, but that is the way that dogmatic religion functions. It is dependent on perverse forms of authority, it cannot extract itself from the heavy weight of tradition or an imagined tradition, and the end result is a deadening of thought. Christianity, for many, functions as a closure of thought, a departure from reality and facts, and may require, as with Calvin, a violent confrontation (burning some 50 heretics at the stake) so as to establish the “truth.” This violent grab for power so as to establish an alternative truth exposes the lie. The force for unthinking violence, the promotion of the necessity of evil, and the embrace of the abomination of immorality and violence (e.g., Donald Trump), as if it is the way of God, is antithetical to the loving knowing engendered by Christ.

The Love of Knowledge and Freedom

The Gospel truth shows itself as that which establishes peace and love, and the way of violence (according to Paul) it does not know. A personal universe created by a personal God means that all true knowing is further entry into the freedom of interpersonal relationship. “It is for (this) freedom that Christ has set us free” (Ga. 5:1). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). Far from a lack of free will or agency, the whole point of Christ’s message is the full restoration of human freedom and agency.

All of this is summed up in a few verses in James 3, which describes what course to pursue for wisdom or right understanding. The reason for Luther’s disdain for the book of James (“it is,” he claimed, “a book of straw”) is evident in its clear teaching that people can rid themselves of sin and that they are on the road to fullness/perfection (the same biblical concept) through their works and agency. The straightforward teaching of James (and the New Testament) is that people can be righteous, they can produce good works, they have the capacity for freedom of thought. Certainly this freedom can be perverted, but that is part of James’ point.

Step 1, the one who has understanding will demonstrate this in his gentleness and good behavior (v. 13). But jealousy, selfish ambition, and arrogance are a lie against the truth and this sort of knowledge is not from God but is “earthly, natural, demonic” (vv. 14-15). The disorder that results from selfish ambition and jealousy exposes the evil origins of this false wisdom (v. 16). Step 2, the wisdom from God shows itself in that there is no admixture with immorality. It is pure and purity, without evil, is a real possibility, where the earthly sort of wisdom shows itself in its immorality and impurity (evil is a necessity).

Step 3, this heavenly wisdom is peaceable (v. 17). Violence is not true and cannot contain the truth. Step 4, heavenly wisdom is gentle and humble as it is accepting of the other and can listen and receive from the other (v. 17). Humility is its own epistemological method.

Step 5, heavenly wisdom and knowledge are reasonable (v. 17), which means that this sort of knowing is not contradictory, it is not a dialectic, but it coheres into a singular frame of understanding and does not collapse into two contradictory logics for two different kingdoms. Step 6, this wisdom is full of mercy and grace as it is a gift to be received and given, circulated without expectation or cost. Mercy or grace is characteristic of this knowing as it is a personal giving. God gives himself and every one who would know receives himself in the gift. Grace is not a limited possession given to a few by a stingy God, but is the characteristic form in which God comes to all of humanity in the knowing that is characteristic of this gifted reality.

Step 7, this knowing produces good fruit as it is an integrated, growing knowing (v. 17). There is a knowledge that is truncated, which halts thought, which dampens curiosity, and which is mere impersonal information. Good fruit or good works is salvation. Step 8, this knowledge is unwavering in that it contains no double mindedness (v. 17). James warns about the double minded man who seems to be pitted against himself or to wear an actor’s mask, depending on the occasion (hypocrisy). One need not switch roles or moralities or methods, depending on the kingdom.

Step 9, the summary and sign of true knowledge is that it produces righteousness (v. 18) which is often equated with salvation. This righteous knowing is out of court in a Calvinist system, yet it is the summary of both James’ and Paul’s picture of the end goal of the Gospel. This is no imputed righteousness but one literally knows it and experiences it. Step 10, James triples down on peace in that he has already mentioned it above (step 3) but here (v. 18) he mentions peace two more times as both the method (the means of sowing) and what is sown by those who make peace.

Freedom, peace, and virtue are not delayed for a future heavenly kingdom, they are the goal of this present earthly life. Further, this loving sort of knowledge gives rise to community as pursuit of true knowledge draws us together into a fellowship of those who would pursue understanding together. Rather than the sort of alienating community of dissent, or communities drawn together by what they oppose, loving knowing integrates us into the lives and thought world of other people. Just as God is ever moving outward in the processional love of the Trinity, so too pursuit of his sort of wisdom integrates us into an ever-expanding community of persons.

As a picture of how true knowledge functions, I conclude with what would normally be a footnote but which deserves to be front and center – how a community of knowing works. The adventure in peace and love that is the community of Forging Ploughshares, is to an equal extent an adventure in communal knowing. This blog is the direct fruit of class and conversation with Tim, Matt, and Tyler. Tim suggested the passage in James and gifted me with the book, A Little Manual for Knowing, by Esther Lightcap Meek, from which I drew some of the ideas on knowing. Tyler suggested the understanding of integration and Matt made the point, on several occasions about humility. My friends are my best teachers from whom I draw understanding. This is a concrete example of how love and knowledge must go together.

[1] Josh Hawley, “The Age of Pelagius,” Christianity Today –

The End of Naïve Evangelicalism: Exposing the Word of Death

With the storming of the Capitol building, it is clear that we have reached the end of a naïve era: a four-year long indulgence of right-wing politics, and a decades long linking of evangelical religion to nationalism. The exposed underbelly of this religion has shown it to be antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The President’s deployment of his Christian base and the fact that it serves his strategy, indicates the shape of the religion that would serve him. It exceeds guilt by association, as the very possibility of association (with white nationalism, the KKK, or the raw grab for power) is a blasphemous implication of the Prince of Peace in violent nationalism.

 I cannot help but link recent events to an emptying out of the religion, which Faith and I have witnessed personally, since we returned to this country 15 years ago. We came back to work for a Christian College here in Moberly, and it was there we recognized that the religion had morphed into something unrecognizable. The microcosm of the rule by fear and intimidation witnessed at the national level, we witnessed in this institution. The misogyny and maltreatment of women, the commitment to a hellish Christianity built upon fear, and the commitment to a violent God and violent faith, produced systemic abuse which we did not encounter in twenty years in Japan. The forms of violence directly pitted against the rule of law in the Capitol, in this little institution were pitted against basic humane and legal treatment. The same forces that put up a JESUS sign during the storming of the Capitol, the forces that put Donald Trump into office, have transformed what is called “Christianity.” The religion has been turned inside out, along with the nation state, set to destroy what it is meant to uphold and protect.

 In other words, the deployment of the religion in support of the nation state is imploding. The endless sex scandals, the attachment to the cult of personality, the commitment to consumerism over principle and ethics, describes both church and state. It is as if the worst elements of the religion have come to a head in this political period, and the religion connected to the political right has been exposed for the misshapen anti-Christianity that it truly is. The lawlessness of the rioters on Wednesday did not arise in a vacuum, as they were clearly egged on by the President, but this President has been egged on by religious supporters and advisers.

I have pointed to the broad, two-kingdom sort of theology which enabled national socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and which is embraced by American Christian nationalists (here), but I think there is a more specific element in Nazi ideology which coincides with American evangelicalism. The escapism, the “going to heaven when you die,” the otherworldly nature of the American form of the faith, allows death and alienation to reign here upon earth. This was accomplished for Germans in many ways, but archetypically by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the premiere philosopher of the Nazi period, might as well have been declared “Official Nazi Theologian” for his subtle separation of the insights of the Christian faith from the tenets of the teaching of Jesus. He deploys key vocabulary of the New Testament in a negation of the religion. This negative Christianity, instead of trading in resurrection life, presumes the primacy of death and the strategies that deal in death. The religion and philosophy might be summed up in Heidegger’s conclusion that the defining characteristic of humans is death:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought. It can, however, beckon us toward the way in which the nature of language draws us into its concern.[1]

Heidegger’s linkage of language and death may be a flash of insight worth dwelling upon – he continues to dwell upon it and little else – but left in isolation this focus supports and coincides with one of the most destructive periods in human history. At the same time, Heidegger’s singular focus reveals the shape of a Christian theology which allows death to stand in this life as the controlling factor.

Heidegger’s singular link of death and language, which is certainly serious and worth developing, is only one instance of an infinite number of similar links with language. “Humans are they” who can experience life as life because they speak. Humans are they who can tell jokes because they speak. Humans are they who can experience sex as more than mere animal copulation because they speak (etc. etc. ad infinitum). Certainly, humans appear as “mortal and speaking” but they also appear as liars and speaking, as jokesters and speaking, as lovers and speaking, and as potentially immortal and speaking.

The point is not to trivialize the link between language and death but to recognize the many faceted nature of this relation so as to draw out what it must mean to be “constantly delivered to death” (2 Cor. 4:11), or to defeat death through the peculiarity of the Christian orientation to the word.  Heidegger seems to picture deliverance to death as a one-way street, but Paul is here recognizing and moving beyond where Heidegger stops short. More than that, he is describing an impetus behind language – to take up the word and speak – where Heidegger seems to make the case for silence. Paul is describing a reconnection to the world, to human relationships, which is not obstructed by death, due to participation in the death of Christ. The power of the word of the cross is the power of fellowship, the power for life, the power for preaching.

In contrast, a faith which pictures the cross as a death to benefit God (divine satisfaction, penal substitution) or a deliverance from hell, and not a defeat of death and an opening up of the world, leaves death and violence as a world orientation and strategy. Heidegger and evangelicalism share a singular, flat link to death. Heidegger maintains that death is the main thing about humans and evangelicalism allows this singular emphasis to stand.  

Paul is suggesting that all of life is opened up in rightly understanding the link between the word and death, not because the orientation to death is denied, but because it is displaced. In one instance (in both Paul and Heidegger) language and being human might appear deadly and death dealing but in the other (the Pauline alternative to Heidegger), every facet of life, including death, takes on the aura of revelation. Christ’s death defeats death, baptism inaugurates this victory for all, and communion in the body of Christ describes a life that continually overcomes death. As Paul describes the Christian life: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Christian embrace of immortality is not meant to be an escape from the connection to death, language, and the world, but it is meant to reverse the sinful orientation to death and to open up life and love in the world.  

Think here, again, of my previous reference to Helen Keller (here), who pictures her entry into language as an opening to the world on the order of a divine revelation.  “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” For the first time Helen experiences “water,” “earth,” “teacher,” “baby,” and some 30 odd things she names in an afternoon. Language acquisition, for Helen, is on the order of divine revelation, but what Heidegger demonstrates is the human barrier to this equation. There is a link between language and death which may characterize people and which is spelled out in philosophy and psychology, but the point of Christianity and even the possibility indicated in language is the opposite of this stunted link.

 I do not mean simply that people have the possibility for future eternal life, but that there is a specific orientation to law and language which is deadly and death dealing and that there is an alternative orientation implied even in this stunted negative orientation. Christian engagement with death is aimed at defeating this deadly orientation here and now.  The point of Christianity, the power conveyed through resurrection faith, takes us beyond he word of death to the word of life.

Heidegger does not note the necessary positive side, which makes the negative appear. He only recognizes the negative aspect, the absence and negativity, and he imagines this absence and nothingness is final ground. Heidegger’s philosophy concludes to a pure negativity and nothingness, which presumes with Hegel that to be human is to be founded on negativity. Heidegger is following Hegel, for whom the human is a negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.” He is a “placeholder of nothingness” as death is definitive. I would suggest, Heidegger and Hegel are partly correct in their assessment. Absent a Christian reorientation to the law of sin and death, humans are driven by death as if it were the force of life.

Paul presumes death, like the word, holds out a series of links and possibilities. His understanding of the truth of death, is that death, like language, is peculiar for humans because it holds out a different, an enduring, possibility. Just as mortality is constituted by the possibility of immortality, death is only death where it is presumed to be something other than ground or end. What I mean here is not that death is necessarily linked in reality to immortality, I just mean that human death is constituted as death because the peculiarity of language necessarily opens up another possibility.

Paul is describing a reorientation to both death and language in which neither is presumed as its own end, and he is presuming upon this inherent possibility within language. This might be taken as a trivial reference to a future possibility, but Paul is describing a present actuality, in which death threatens but this very threat opens the mortal to the immortal. He is linking the inherent possibility of language to the realization of a different reality. Certainly, this is realized through Christ, but this should not be separated from everyday life. Paul is describing the “mortal flesh,” the feeling of being “abandoned,” of being “destroyed,” or of “slowly dying,” with the life of Jesus being revealed. As he puts it, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is focused on both sides of the valence of the word – it is joined with death in one instance so as to be joined to life in the other instance.

What Heidegger misses, is that while death and mortality appear as primary in human orientation, it is on the same basis that their opposites also “flash before us.” Immortality, too, is not a consideration for unspeaking animals and it is precisely this possibility that constitutes the peculiar human experience of mortality and death. Death taken as life, immortality folded into mortality, or the enchantment of religion lent to nationalism, describes the human tendency to immortalize the tomb and the religious and “secular” systems which worship the tomb. In a pervasive but bizarre reversal, death takes on the patina of life and immortality, as the human condition is not simply bent to death but to immortality – to immortalizing death. What the Bible calls the covenant with death and links to the lie of the serpent and the lie of idolatry, Heidegger identifies with Dasein, with the house of language, with “being there” or waking up to being, which only death and nothingness can make shine. Heidegger is selling his philosophy on the basis that death and nothingness serve in place of life.

This is not simply the accomplishment of a subtle philosophical mind, but I believe it is the articulation of the human condition outside of Christ. It is the reality that is left standing, one way or another, where death is not dethroned as the point of life. A Christianity focused on the problem of God, the problem of hell, the problem of the law, and which misses the way in which the world is entangled with the lie oriented to death, lets death have the last word. It has failed to enact the reign of the living word.

The sign that authentic Christianity has been traded for a counterfeit is the violence this entails, as violence is the necessity where death reigns. As Heidegger’s philosophy fits national socialism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, in the same way evangelicalism is a fitting theology for American nationalism and the death of hundreds of thousands sacrificed to Mammon, as both transfer the glow of life and truth to death and violence.

As Hitler needed Heidegger and German Christians, so Trump is dependent on evangelicals to lend a religious aura to his violent grasping after power. Heidegger was Hitler’s favorite living philosopher precisely because of his nihilistic embrace of violence and death. Nazi Christianity (the German Christians who embraced Hitler and the Nazi party as opposed to those who did not) was shown up as hollow and empty, just as the religion which led to the storming of the barricades at the Capitol is now exposed in its promotion of death and violence in place of life and peace. This exposure of the religion, spent as it has been on the coin of the realm of a deadly nationalism, is clearly an empty word, a bankrupt form of the faith.  

[1] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, (trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York, 1971), 107-108.

Helen Keller and the Discovery of a Trinitarian Reality

The story of the world opening to Helen Keller through her discovery of words and language, the discovery that everything has a name, contains the movement from indiscernible objects and sensations to a connectedness to the world, to other people, and to a profound spirituality. It also contains the discovery of herself as a particular subject and actor, as she becomes self-conscious (guilty) for the first time. In short, Helen Keller’s story (which I assume most are familiar with but which is related below) describes not only passage, in her words, out of the darkness of slavery into the freedom of the light, but it describes what must be the “common” passage into personhood, and my presumption throughout is that the complete realization of this personhood is fully Trinitarian in scope. As with the Trinity, so with the story of Helen Keller, the entire event is mysterious, and yet out of this mystery arises every form of awareness and knowing. Reality – the reality of God, I presume, is not only accessible but is the means and mode of all access and all experience.

The Sacrifice  

The first movement in Helen’s opening to the world of language, to her realization that letters spelled out in her hand related to the world, occurs prior to where many would take up the story, but she, no doubt, felt that the sequence of events was interrelated. At first, she had enjoyed the new game that Anne Sullivan, her new teacher, was playing, trying to spell out words in her hand, and she describes trying to imitate this – she compares it to a monkey’s imitation. But then she became tired of the game and takes it out on the doll Anne had given her and which was the word (d-o-l-l) she was spelling out in her palm:

I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed.[1]   

The doll had not really been special to Helen, prior to her breaking it apart. As with an infant, her world did not contain the sort of differences and differentiation resulting in affections and attachments, which language introduces. Helen describes it as a world without sentiment or tenderness, and explains that she had not really loved the doll. With the doll’s shattering the concrete and undifferentiated world will also explode and become animated with significance – the signs of language.

Helen, two times over, remarks on the “keen sense of delight” she felt at the shattering of the doll. As Lacan and Freud will describe, there is an imaginary violation the child passes through, in which there is a relinquishment of a sort (the castration complex) in the process of language acquisition. Though Helen felt neither sorrow nor regret at having broken the doll, as soon as she makes the leap into language, it will be the doll that she remembers. Even at this early stage in the story, Helen feels “satisfaction” at Anne sweeping the broken pieces of the doll into the hearth. There is already a foreshadowing of the full subjectivity that is slowly arising.[2]

Every child seems to pass from an original, undifferentiated state, in which mother and child and the child and the world are all part of a monolithic whole. An infant slowly discovers its own hands and limbs, but they seem to appear, at first, as objects somehow part of and yet removed from the child, and then with the acquisition of language the integrity of the body and the individual take shape. But prior to recognizing the body as the self, is the realization of separateness and the possibility of disintegration and dismemberment (the first stirrings of death). The linguistic medium, connecting the child to the world, establishes at the same time the subject/object or self and world between which an exchange is made possible. Helen’s passage into the symbolic world is not a displacement so much as an opening, and it would be hard to name what she has relinquished or out of what stuff any sort of choice is constituted.

Religious sacrifice hints at the economy of language acquisition, as in sacrificial religion there seems to be a replaying of the child’s entry into the world of signs. Animal sacrifice, which is already a symbolic displacement, perhaps of human sacrifice, violates the integrity of the animal body, splitting it open either for a reading of the entrails or for setting up a path to negotiate with the gods. Meaning is quite literally, in this instance, in the murder and dismemberment of the thing. Sacrificial practices seem to reduplicate passage into the establishment of signification with the goal of manipulating, pleasing, appeasing, etc. This reentry or reestablishment of meaning seems to objectify and reify (divinize) the symbolic system, but it is this reification which Freud and Lacan presume are present in the child. The Oedipus complex will reify the father, representative of the symbolic order, and service of this father describes the dynamic interplay between the superego or symbolic and the ego or imaginary.

 There may be a difference between the child’s entry into language and the religious attempt to reorder and manipulate the signifying economy, or perhaps sacrificial religion illustrates the characteristic mistake of the child. This is the Freudian assumption, which explains his great interest in primitive religion (along with early childhood development) as an insight into human neurosis and sickness. He presumed the religion reenacts the presumptions of the child. The father the child admires and imitates, is taken up into the child’s own self-consciousness, but both the inner child or the ego that serves this father figure and the father that is served, are mere fabrications, a primordial deception, which gives rise to the split within the human psyche (ego/superego). Sacrificial religion, Freud presumes, reifies both the father figure, as god, and the service that can be rendered by the child worshiper.

What is clear is that the acquisition of language is a necessary step in the constitution of human reality. There is no option, no alternative reality, but the question is if there is a characteristic mistake which marks humanity. Freud’s answer was to provide a scientific escape from religion, while both Lacan and Slavoj Žižek are content to manipulate, apart from religious mystification, the various sacrificial drives set up within the symbolic order. But what if the problem is not so much in the medium of language the child or the religionist takes up or even in the general contours of the economy? What if they have in fact stopped short in their constitution of reality, so that by delimiting it they might control it?

Could it be that in a biblical depiction of sacrifice what is being illustrated is not an economy of exchange, in which worshippers can simply appease and make amends, but more than that, the order of the divine reality and human participation in that reality is depicted as an open possibility. As Jacob Milgrom notes, it is God who is playing all the parts in the Hebrew sacrificial system. As in the story of Abraham, God himself provides the animal, lights the fire, and receives the gift. Entry into the Hebrew sacrificial system, or into the world represented by the Temple, is not simply a point of exchange between God and humans but is an invitation to full participation in the kenotic Trinitarian reality of divine life. It is not that humans can manipulate the exchange and that the exchange impacts them like an object, but they are, like God himself, constituted in the movement of giving, pouring out, donation, self-emptying.

Helen describes a rapidly expanding world which had once been closed off to her. She illustrates her life prior to meeting Anne, as if she were a ship at sea, enclosed in a fog and without means of navigation. Even upon meeting Anne she describes an initial “barrier” or something holding her entrapped. It is unclear what barrier held her back, but perhaps it was the fear of losing the little control and integrity which her isolated world afforded her.

Ironically, her blind and deaf isolation describe the typical understanding of God’s relation to the world – apophatic, impassive, immoveable, and unreachable. Typical sacrificial religion, even that which has come to describe the sacrifice of Christ, is an attempt penetrate some wall or barrier that seems to mark the very character of God.  One may need to get his attention, arouse his desire, break him free of his antipathy, or redirect his anger. The presumption is that God is in his own closed world and that the only way of breaking into this world is to somehow break down the barrier behind which he is hidden. But what if is not on the God side of things that something is required? What if, like Helen, the obstacle that needs to be broken open is one’s own (willful?) isolation.

This is the paradigmatic question which God and God’s prophets continue to raise. In Psalm 50 the worshippers are frustrated because God remains silent (v. 21). Israel has made the childish mistake of assuming God needs sacrifice and God corrects this characteristic misunderstanding: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats?” (Ps. 50:12-13). The point of sacrifice, in the Psalmist’s explanation, is not to feed or to satisfy God’s hunger. They need to offer, not blood and meat, but thanksgiving: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. And pay your vows to the Most High; Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me” (Ps. 50:1-15).

Where their sacrificial economy allows for the sacrifice of the neighbor, God would enact an ethic of sacrifice for the neighbor and thanksgiving to God. As Katherine Sonderegger describes the lesson of Levitical sacrifice, God is not one who would maintain his integrity, like an unbreakable or impenetrable object, but God is continually open and moving outward in the processions of the Trinity, portrayed in sacrifice. Israel is invited into this circulating economy of mercy, gifts, and thanks, as this is who God is. It is through this opening that Israel is established, and it is in this the model in which the full constitution of Personhood is modeled.[3]

The Words of Life

As Helen describes it, the sacrifice and dismemberment of the doll was her entry point into a world of signs and significance:  

She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure. We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As a cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

As Helen walks down the path her sense of warmth and smell seem to be heightened. She feels a certain joy. As the “cool stream” of water gushed over her hand, simultaneously her teacher spells out w-a-t-e-r into her other hand. Her graphic portrayal is of one who was formerly dead to the world being brought into freedom as the “living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” This one who is literally blind and in the darkness is enabled to see and to enter into a new freedom. Her “misty consciousness” is delivered to a capacity for thought as “the mystery of language was revealed to me.” What has broken open for Helen is the wall of separation between her and reality.

Helen begins to literally reach out to the world once the “barrier” was broken down. In the description of Anne Sullivan, she began to reach out and touch and name all the objects and persons around her.

I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “Teacher.” Just then the nurse brought Helen’s little sister into the pump-house, and Helen spelled “baby” and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty words to her vocabulary.

Her world is growing exponentially, as she describes, her “soul is being brought to life.” She has entered into the possibility of exchange with the world which very much resembles the divine invitation to Israel to share in ultimate reality, the life of God. This is the very metaphor Helen utilizes: “Thus I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, ‘Knowledge is love and light and vision.’”  The gift of reality opened to Helen, something like the voice of God. The question might be, why not the voice of God or something on a continuum with revelation?

 It is precisely at this point that there are hints that something might potentially go wrong.

The Subject

The destruction and loss of the doll has somehow opened up the symbolic dimension. Helen has entered a world of differentiation in which she is literally reaching out and touching and realizing the nature of the world, the objects, and the people surrounding her. At the same time, Helen enters a depth of self-awareness and subjectivity she had not yet experienced. In her description the chain of signification linked her to the world and gave birth to an unending series of thoughts, until she came back onto the porch and through the door where she had shattered the doll and then she turns inward:

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

Strangely, the broken doll has seemingly ushered her into the human world of full personhood, subjectivity, and morality. Her first notion of repentance and sorrow and her attempt to put the doll back together seem to indicate that in her own mind there has been, in Lacanian terms, a “murder of the thing.” Her own isolated and individual world seems to have splintered and opened with the shattering of the doll. The smashed doll may be functioning as the violation of Helen’s previous sense of wholeness, closed off as she was in her own world. Her attempt to recover this lost object may hint at the primitive religious impulse, the desire of the child, which haunts human subjectivity.

The interchange with the world holds out a lost object of desire, which Lacan will identify with the ego. The ever-elusive object of the self, held out in the mirror image or in the bodily image of others. Helen has no capacity to gaze into the mirror or to witness the bodily integrity of others offered up by sight, but what she has now realized is the breaking open of a former integrity or completeness which she had attached to the doll.

Helen describes her former life as a kind of animal like existence. She was fully enmeshed in the darkness of her immanent, silent, world like an animal, fully enmeshed in the immanent order so that it can be said to be in the world like water in water.[4] This must describe Helens unseeing, unhearing world, but doesn’t every human begin in this completely integrated order? The broken doll seemed to enact a space of separation into which the world of language entered. For the first time Helen desired to put together that which has been broken.

Earlier, she describes how she had become attached to a doll and enjoyed putting the doll in its crib. One day she discovers her baby sister in the crib, and in a fit of rage she overturns the crib and indicates the child might have been killed had her mother not been there to catch her. Helen feels no remorse or sorrow, and yet she seems to have some awareness of what she has done. Strange then that this doll, which unlike her own baby sister was hers alone, would evoke remorse.

The moment of guilt and the attempt at payment, in the explanation of Freud and every biblical indication, seems to become a permanent aspect of failed human subjects. The pervasive, if not universal bent toward masochism indicates a self-induced suffering offered as immediate punishment for the pleasure of the symbolic father figure. The symbolic enacts a price paid through masochistic sacrifice and heightened desire.

In the mode of desire, as the Psalmist explains on behalf of God, “You thought that I was just like you” (50:21). The cycle is one in which there is giving and receiving but the interchange gives rise, not to satisfaction, but to heightened desire. They honor thieves and adulterers and they practice deceit, and in their mistaken focus they have forgotten God (v. 22).

 The point of Psalm 50, and in Sonderegger’s portrayal, the point of Leviticus and the point of Jewish cultic sacrifice, is a direct portrayal of the immanent life of God as a resolution to the corrupt economy of sin. “In Trinitarian Sacrifice, Almighty God gives Himself, His Life as the Distillate, the Concretion, of Deity. He is Molten Gift.  The costly Breaking, the Plunging Down, the Life that is Blood: that is the Divine Generation, the Hiddenness poured out and made Manifest.”[5]

The great exchange which the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible may be opening up, is not simply a transaction between God and humans, but the exchange of a mode of subjectivity built on immanent wholeness (a self-contained punishment and pleasure) to one built upon an ever-expanding reception and gratitude. In Sonderegger’s description, “Israel’s cultus is an exchange, a rescue, just because it follows and imitates the Holy Life of God: the life of the sinner and the Divine Life of the Holy God meet on the altar of Israel.”[6]

Hellen Keller’s journey seems to indicate that there is a potential direct trajectory from the house of language to recognition of the person and work of God. According to Sonderegger, Helen illustrates how the child’s acquisition of language may take on a theological tone as “in the encounter of the intelligible in the concrete, the mastering of that explosive relation, we are brought into the house of language but also, and more powerfully, into the House of Being.”[7] She will spend a good portion of her book demonstrating that Being simply is the Being of God, and in Helen’s ever-expanding realization of the essence of things through language, the recognition of God is natural and immediate. We seem to have more than language acquisition demonstrated in the life of Helen Keller’s memoir, as the spiritual richness “tells us that we stand in a larger domain,” something on the order of spiritual enlightenment.

It is a spiritual enlightenment that flows naturally from the orientation that Helen demonstrates, subsequent to the singular sacrifice of her doll. She describes her expanding world granted through the capacity to name and then the passage into abstraction and community: “the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” She remembers distinctly her first encounter with and growing capacity for abstraction and her realization of a capacity for love: “The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.” This connecting Spirit of Love would seem to be none other than the all-powerful Divine Love of God.

What every child, every person encounters in their growing awareness must be this same Divine order opening up to them.

[1] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, (New York, Doubleday) available online at,%20by%20Helen%20Keller.pdf All quotes of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan are from this source.

[2] The shattering of the doll is similar to the cooing satisfaction Freud first notices in his grandson as he learns his first words, here/gone, as he plays with a spool.

[3] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, Fortress Press.

[4] Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology After Lacan, (Routledge) 187.

[5] Sonderegger, 465.

[6] Sonderegger,464.

[7] Sonderegger, 280.

Salvation as a Realization of the Resources of Personhood

Nestled within the Christmas story are a series of presumptions that may have come to order our own lives, such that we do not notice how strange they are. The overwhelming and most obvious accent of the Christmas story concerns the notion of who and what are important. Historically we have no record of peasant life, poor life, teenage girl life, or carpenter life. It is kings and warriors who live lives worth recording, and even here the accent falls upon public life and not interiority. There is no record of Darius I struggling with a guilty conscience after his ill treatment of Bardiya, about whom he fabricated the story that he was an imposter king. Being important was always a function of hierarchy, and if you were at the top you got to make the rules. Those at the top of the hierarchy were accorded all of the attention, and meaning (ethics, value) was garnered from the same circumstance. Public deeds of valor or heroism were not only what were important but in a scale of enduring meaning, this was all that was important.

In the birth story of Jesus this is reversed, as God visits a teenage girl in a country town, Nazareth, of a backwater region, Galilee, of a people that have no political importance on the world stage. We know as readers that there is no more important event in world history and by extension, at this moment the weight of meaning of world history falls upon this one who is all but a non-person by any standard measure. Something strange and subtle happens as we focus in on Mary, as even her thought life is opened to us and we are clued in to her reactions to this circumstance which is being revealed to her. “Mary was greatly troubled” at the angel’s words “and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). The drama takes an inward turn, we are so used to, that we may miss its significance.

The earliest biographical records, hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian monuments (c. 1300 B.C.E.) and cuneiform inscriptions found in Assyria (c. 720 B.C.E.) and Persia (c. 520 B.C.E.) for example, say nothing like, “The slave Asclepius wondered about the futility of life. Do this, do that, run here, run there, and he wondered what it all means.” There is no such inscription, no such record. What we have instead are commemorations of the deeds of the kings. Whether runic inscriptions in England or anecdotes or character sketches in ancient China, they follow something like the work of Homer in recording archetypal subjects. There were biographies of great men’s deeds, but they were men and it was their deeds that was the sole focus. No biographer of the great men bothered to record their misdeeds and no one recorded the inner life of the great men.

Among the earliest surviving biographical literature are those contained in De viris illustribus (On illustrious men), by Cornelius Nepos (c. 100–c. 25 B.C.E.), which would become a model for subsequent serial biography. Though not too far removed from the life of Christ, the literary technique unfolding in Scripture and the focus of concern on the inner life, the obscure, the poor, are completely absent. Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 C.E.), who comes after Christ, is perhaps the most famous ancient biographer, and he is unusual in his focus on his subject’s moral character, but what is lacking is both the technique and the focus on internal thought life.1

The question is whether the technique and the sense of agency are somehow being changed up before our eyes in Scripture and particularly in the birth narratives? There is a significance attached to human agency and choice which is set before Mary as she is presented with God’s plan, which seems incomparable even in biblical literature. Perhaps the scenes in which God is trying to persuade Moses to go to Egypt, or the opening episodes in Genesis in which the singular decision of Eve is weighted with world consequence, might compare but with Mary we are concerned with the redemption of the world. She is quite literally the means by which God is going to be incarnate, and as never before there is a focus on human agency as history is turning on the thought life of a teenage girl.

The text does not indicate that her consent was required but it is notable that she presumes that her approval of and obedience to God’s plan is one that she is expected to offer up. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). The story seems to require her consent or at least willing acquiescence, which is much more than ancient societies ever record granting to a teenage girl. As my daughter indicated when I told her the subject of my blog, maybe there were many girls who said no to God’s plan prior to Mary. Given the choice of the red pill or blue pill, maybe a return to the matrix of culture, to following the rules, is the common outcome.

It is not simply that there is an undeveloped literary technique outside of Scripture which, as in painting, has yet to capture any but two-dimensional figures. What is unfolding around Mary is both a unique technique and sensibility. Literary specialist, Robert Alter, suggests these developments can be partially traced out in the literary developments of Hebrew Scripture, which he was surprised to find resembles modern literature more than the parallel literature of the time. Biblical narrative, from its opening chapters makes use of interior monologue. He notes that this was expected in modernists such as Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, where the monologues run on for pages, but it was a surprising technique and sensibility to encounter in ancient literature. He points to the example of how Saul devised a scheme to have David killed on the battlefield as recorded in the interior monologue of I Samuel 18:17: “And Saul had thought, ‘Let not my hand be against him but let the hand of the Philistines be against him.’” Instead of the characters being marionettes pulled by the web of expectation of the culture, Alter finds plot development, the evolution of character, and exposure of human interiority. We are told that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved David (the only woman in the Bible of whom this is said), that the people loved David, and we are given detailed descriptions of the thought life and jealousies of Saul – a dangerous transparency, Alter notes, in the Machiavellian political world of the Book of Samuel.[2]

A consistent element Alter does not explicitly name, but which he seems to be tracing, is that as long as characters are following the rules and doing what is expected their personhood remains closed to us. David remains largely opaque until he too, having fallen for Bathsheba, plots to kill Uriah. As David’s life and his family’s life fall apart, we are let in on the lusts, murderous plots, and failed expectations of David, his children, and his commanding general. His adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband unleashes a series of dark tragedies: David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; her brother Absalom exacts a bloody vengeance; Absalom flees and returns to court, only to usurp the throne; his death is engineered by the cold pragmatist, general Joab; and the strangeness of David’s reactions are notable and a deep insight to his personhood. He never stops loving Absalom and refuses to give up on him until Joab forces his hand. David mourns inappropriately (washing his face and ceasing mourning at the death of Bathsheba’s first child), he loves excessively, he is an embarrassment to his wife, an object of jealousy to Saul, and like most of the characters in the Bible and unlike the characters in the surrounding literature, he is deeply flawed, profoundly contradictory and a complexly realized individual. The question this begins to evoke is, how is this full development of personality pertinent to the religion as it is presently practiced?

In the short sketches we have of Joseph, the initially revealing information given to us is that he is of the line of David. Perhaps this is the needed hint as to how his story is to be read. We might imagine, here is un-David, but there is a similar opening of the personality of the man, in contrast to the expectations of the culture. However, a reverse course begins to be traced.

The bulk of the Christmas story is about God getting the human agents to cooperate with his plan, but his plan does not in any way fit with the law or Jewish expectations. Joseph does not need to consider whether or not he will go ahead with the marriage when his bride turns up pregnant, as the dictates of the society are clear. Matthew only need inform us, Joseph “was faithful to the law.” Joseph is willing to bend the law and to silently end his engagement but he has not yet broken free of the constraints that are placed upon him. We have indications he was a kind soul, but his only choice was whether to halt the marriage quietly or publicly. It would not have occurred to him to enter into an illegal marriage, and it certainly would not have occurred to him that God wanted him to marry illegally. “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). This challenge of law and cultural norms frames and fills out the life of Christ: it begins through an illegal marriage, culminates in a law defying death, and ends with the breaking of the seal of Roman law placed upon his tomb. With Christmas and Christ, we are stepping outside of a rule governed cosmos in which persons are but an extension of the cosmic order.

Matthew tells us what Joseph has “in mind” or what his internal dialogue and intention are. In turn, the concern of God and his angel is not only with what Joseph plans to do but the attitude or emotion attached to his plan: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 1:20). We enter into Joseph’s internal thought life – what he had “in mind” and his “consideration” – and this is all exposed in sharp contrast to God’s intention expressed to him in a dream. Much like his son’s future challenge to the law, Joseph’s kindness, his love for Mary, and his humanity are not revealed to us because he fits the pattern expected of him, but because like his forebear David, he begins to defy expectations – only in a different direction. Both Joseph and Mary are disclosed to us internally and in the fullness of their personhood, not because they are exemplars of their culture, but because they are God’s human agents involved in overturning cultural expectations.

 The problem with this literary/personal focus is that it does not fit with either the way that we normally read sacred literature nor with our expectations of how it functions in the religion. David is no spiritual example and it is hard to imagine how he prefigures the Christ, except in the vaguest sense as a king who was promised an eternal reign. This does not explain the need for the fullness of his story and of the other stories of the Hebrew Bible. Of course, the same problem is going to repeat itself with the coming of Christ, in that doctrine, especially in which Christ is simply a sacrifice, has no real need for the full story of the life of Christ.

What gets passed over in the focus on doctrine and propositions is the peculiar literary art, the development of fully embodied personhood, the rise of human agency to a central level of importance. In Alter’s description, the Hebrew gift to the world does not reside in material culture (archeology, ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, or painting) but in its literary art. He maintains “the ancient Hebrew writers altogether eclipsed their neighbors, producing powerful narratives that were formally brilliant and technically innovative and poetry . . . that rivaled any poetry composed in the Mediterranean world.”[3] He does not presume to know how or why this literary achievement came about, but what is strange is that the purveyors of the religion have traditionally not even noticed. This overwhelming fact about the unique nature of the Old and New Testament is the one element that the religions, Jewish and Christian, have not traditionally accounted for or even accommodated.  

The thing that links Christ to Joseph and David and to the peculiar nature of the Hebrew Scriptures, and apart from which only the vaguest doctrine can seem to apply, is the full-blooded nature of a shared humanity. That is, it is not just that there is a deep literary portrayal of an already present humanity, but what Eric Auerbach may have been the first to recognize, the Bible unleashes a new literature and a new form of human sensibility. The Bible is not apart or simply a part of the Western literary tradition and its new sense of humanity but it is a generative force within it. As Alter describes Auerbach’s contribution, it is his recognition “that it is not Homer but the Bible that is the precursor of the representation of problematic quotidian reality that passes through Dante and Shakespeare to culminate in the realist novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”[4] Add to this the insight of Charles Taylor, who traces out the sources of the modern self, and we see the unfolding fulfillment of the words of Simeon to Mary in regards to the work of Jesus: “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). This revealing of what was formerly concealed unleashes not only a new sense of freedom and equality (all have equal and free access to the saving work of Christ) but a new sense of what it means to be human as human choice and agency takes on an added depth of meaning.

Maybe this new sensibility is revealed as much in the range of negative possibilities it opens as in its immediate positive benefits. It is doubtful the ancients struggled with the existential questions that seem to be a by-product of the sort of freedom and egalitarianism which develop out of a Judeo-Christian heritage. Taylor, suggests that the notion that we are deep individuals with hidden well springs of feeling and perhaps of talent, is a late development occurring somewhere toward the end of the eighteenth century. Certainly, in the typical traditional society meaning and value are a direct by-product of a tightly woven web in which it could not have occurred to someone to chart a completely alternative course. As a result, all sorts of identity crises and the recognition of chance and fate and human choice will all be seen in a different light.

It is hard to imagine, even in the near modern setting, say a warrior under Cochise (stories with which I was fascinated as a boy) having an identity crisis. “Chief, I am just not feeling the whole raiding and stealing and macho warrior scene. I may sit this raid out and lay back at the teepee and play my flute and reconsider my options in life.” There were official contraries and clowns among the Plains Indians, yet theirs was a highly regulated opposite to the norm. The weight of searching out one’s true identity and living an “authentic” life true to an inward reality seems to require a different order of humanity.

This is not simply a literary device but, in the description of Charles Taylor and others, what unfolds from the biblical understanding is a new concept of personhood, a new focus on the importance of human interiority, and this will have ramifications great and small, good and evil, which constitute our present reality. This was first brought to my attention in the case of the Japanese novel, called the “I” novel, as it explored the heightened emphasis put upon inner dialogue (which is all that some of these novels consist of) and personal suffering as in some way inherently meaningful. All of this unfolds in a very short time span in Japan as the traditional culture gives way to Western and an inadvertent Christian influence. The destructiveness this new art form and new sensibility had on its first practitioners in Japan (with very few exceptions suicide is the common fate of early Japanese novelists), indicates that the focus on interiority is not neutral, but holds out both potential freedom and harm.

It is in the modern period, Clifford Geertz tells us, that we all begin with the capacities to live a thousand kinds of life, and this can be taken as a great opportunity or call for endless crisis and questioning. Choice of career, choice of spouse, choice of identity, are open as endless possibility and endless doubt about the “proper” course. The philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, notes that people now have the freedom to have “crosscutting identities” in what she describes as new levels of freedom. “At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home, or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains?”[5] She asks if this is not what it means to be free in the modern period?

At the same time, both the cataclysmic and utopian possibilities of human choice are laid bare before our eyes. We now recognize that Chin Woo or some obscure individual in Wuhan must have had a hunger for pangolin steaks or fried bat, such that his dinner choice will unleash a global pandemic. What might have once been assigned to the gods or to karma, we now recognize is a product of human choice. If Adolf Hitler had been just a little bit more confident as a painter, is it possible he would have pursued mixing water colors rather than dictatorship? Is it possible that World War I and even World War II could have been avoided if Gavrilo Princip, who would shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, had died only a few years earlier of tuberculosis?

On the positive side, we now recognize that what was once presumed to be the cosmic order or the natural state is the product of human culture and hierarchy which can be manipulated or changed up entirely. Freedom is a possibility which can, in part, be manipulated and controlled. But this does not mean tragedy and futility are easier to take, knowing they are the product of human choice. As Simeon tells Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). The depth of human suffering is perhaps only aggravated in recognition that most all of it can be laid at the feet of human cruelty. At the same time, the reality of a salvation focused on revealing the full depth and possibility of human personhood, can be seen as holding out realization of a different cosmic order.

[1]Biography – Ancient Biography – Lives, Biographical, Biographies, and Illustrious – JRank Articles

[2]Robert Alter, “A Life of Learning: Wandering Among Fields” Christianity and Literature, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Autumn 2013)

[3] Ibid, Alter.

[4] Ibid, Alter.

[5] Nathan Heller, “The Philosopher Redefining Equality”, in an interview and article in The New Yorker (December 31, 2018).

Apocalypse as Overcoming the Deception of Misenchantment

It has been suggested (here), from a variety of sources, that the problems and solutions posed within an apocalyptic theology (hereafter “AT”) are either contradictory or ambiguous. The unified difference of AT with contractual theology or a salvation historical approach, focused as it is on cosmic bondage and liberation rather than personal guilt and payment, is clear but what, exactly, constitutes the cosmic element of this bondage and liberation? Is it literally demonic or does the demonic serve as a metaphor for the systemic nature of a humanly generated enslavement and, in either case, does the demonic serve in place of articulation and understanding? What role is there for faith or human agency in a system that puts the emphasis on superhuman agencies (demons and God). AT has been accused of being so cosmically minded that it is of no individual good? So, what role for faith and individual agency and precisely what power is it that Christ defeats and how?

I have suggested that the ambiguities and questions raised by AT might be addressed in development of the notion of self-deception, which, in the abstract, may seem either unlikely, or if duly considered, may seem inescapable. That is, to claim that we are fostered in deception and darkness might seem to be a religious abstraction of such magnitude that it is a sort of meaningless metaphor, but then descriptions of how we are captive to culture or to capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, might paint a picture of inescapable determinism. This parallels the proposal of the demonic in apocalyptic theology: it may seem unlikely that satanic forces (literal or metaphorical) control the world and if they do, best leave that mysterious predicament to an equally mysterious in-breaking of God. The recognition that this enslaving force consists of the elementary principles of the world, thrones and political powers, spiritual and human forces, the very way we think and are constituted in our thinking, might result in the counter-inclination to claim this matrix constituting the Subject is impenetrable and irredeemable. In describing the problem, however, isn’t there already the sense that we may have become enmeshed in a lie which does not have us completely in its grip, as we have named it and, by extension, through our own agency we may be part of its generation.

To illustrate how self-deception might help negotiate the problems posed in AT, let me propose the work of Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, as an example of the machinations of a cosmic-like deception and active human agency. McCarraher’s starting proposal is that the world is the “sacrament” through which the power and presence of God were meant to be mediated. This opening recognition simultaneously approaches how it is that a failed religion or a failed imagination might “misenchant” the world, as the power of God is assigned to subordinate or created powers (as in Paul’s description in Romans 1), and how it is that this failure is overcome only through rightly recognizing God.

McCarraher is following and refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism and secularism have disenchanted the world, so that in ridding the world of spirits and deities, reason and science now rule. Haven’t we broken the shackles of dutiful worship, the subordination to the past, the slavish subjection to this vale of tears in hope of a future reward, so that now we are set free to fulfill the self? In the words of Michael Lewis, capitalists are “practitioners of liberty” who “do not suffer the constraints of their private ambition” and who “work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraint.”[1] Has capitalism evacuated sacredness from material objects so that the enchanted forces which were once revered no longer structure our devotion and desires?

McCarraher musters a long line of witnesses to suggest there is no difference between the enchantments of mammon and religion.  Journalist Naomi Klein writes of the “the contemporary religion of unfettered free markets” and claims, “corporate business has always had a deep New Age streak,” with branding as the most advanced form of “corporate transcendence.” These neoliberal totems of enchantment (the Nike swoosh, the Starbucks siren) indicate, in the estimate of Barbara Ehrenreich, that despite its reputation for focus on the bottom line, corporate business is “shot through with magical thinking,” inspired and mesmerized by New Age quackery and bunkum. Jesus Christ, Lao-tzu, Buddha, or Carl Jung, provide the keys to the “seven habits” or “four competencies” or “sixty-seven principles of success,” as arcane as end-times prophecy. According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[2]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. He proposes that that capitalism, with its perversion and parody of enchantment is not a disenchantment but a misenchantment. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[3]

Though “secularists” imagine they are free of the enchantments of ideology, in Slavoj Žižek’s estimate, which accords with McCarraher, there is a very particular reason that the world, sacred or secular, glows with the same ideological enchantment. He maintains that in capitalism and not religion, resides the “archideological” fantasy, in that one might imagine he can simultaneously play this game and withhold commitment. Where the religionist may bow down in fear before his gods, the modern ideologue imagines that his is a voluntary consent to enchantment.[4] Žižek argues that the most successful ideology makes room for this “distancing” (even the religious sort). We all know money has no intrinsic value, but this supposed distancing allowing for an “inward conscious freedom,” is itself part of being fully interpolated into the ideology. In religious ideology there is an obscuring of the origins of the idol which closes off the supposed freedom of choice. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship. Where religion played the role of obscuring the reification of the symbolic, capitalism proves the lie still works even when exposed.  Everyone may know that money has no intrinsic value but, according to Marx, “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.”

The fetishist knows full well that the shoe is only a shoe, but this does not dissolve the need or pleasure of the fetish. In the Matrix, Cypher knows that the Matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality but this does not subtract from the pleasure of his virtual steak or for his desire to “be someone” virtually important in the virtual world: “someone like an actor.” The Matrix is the big Other, and in the end, there may be nothing more satisfying than to be reinserted into a warm vat of embryonic fluid and to once again become part of its ordering of reality. To be “somebody” in the Matrix will mean being literally reinserted (interpolated) into its energy of enchantment.

In the Lacanian version of misenchantment, misrecognition (méconnaissance) of the self is engineered through the register of the symbolic order (the law, the father). One “sees” himself, the ego or “I” as an object through the matrix of the Other or the symbolic order. Whether this Other is God, the Party (as in Stalinism), the People (as in communist China), or the State, the Subject is only constituted in the struggle to be recognized by this agency. (The struggle before the law described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7.) To be interpolated into the law or to find satisfaction through whatever “master signifier” one may serve, is the peculiar form of human enslavement. This master signifier works by holding out the glow of enchantment (its being, its significance) to its Subjects, but this god must be obscure, unknown, or mute as the master signifier works by simultaneously withholding and promising meaning.

To be a Subject in this order is to “make one’s mark,” to leave a legacy, to accumulate significance, whether that of zeros and ones or just the accumulation of numbers (Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction makes direct appeal to both money and a heavenly calculus in which there is a limited space creating a quantifiable amount). Though they “do not know what they do” in a first order of belief or understanding, the significance of enchantment is that the Other (God, the heavenly calculus, the symbolic order) knows and sees. The worshipper presumes the priest understands the Latin of the mass/matrix, and if neither priest nor laity comprehend, the magic/enchantment still registers with God/the big Other. Every society depends upon this structuring symbolic order, whether it is presumed to be ordained by God or “secular” powers is not determinative of the degree of misenchantment.

If knowledge, whether self-knowledge or knowledge of God, is to be freed from ideology or misenchantment, it must be freed from the dualism between self and Other or between the ego and law/superego by knowing the unified Subject of God.  Where alienation is the structuring principle of the failed Subject and her world, knowing God as the living, personal Word, cannot accommodate this mute deity. Knowing God overturns this impenetrable Other and its alienated subjectivity. The true Subject, the self-communicating God, in the act of communication frees from the bondage of dualism – the servitude of striving to be interpolated into the law – as there is no distance between the subject and object of knowledge. God as the object of knowledge is also the Subject who knows, first in Christ but in all who are “in Christ.”

Do we learn this truth, Kierkegaard asks, as if we are constituted a learning Subject prior to the founding of this subjectivity? This knowing does not reason to the truth but from the truth. The truth determines the form of reason. The truth, Kierkegaard concludes is in the relation to God, who constituted the whole relation, and falsehood or the sickness unto death is to imagine that this one who relates would found the relation within himself. In Lacanian terms he would create a subject-object relation within himself through the Other of the law. Kierkegaard comes closer than any other thinker prior to Lacan, in The Sickness Unto Death, in laying out the empty death dealing nature of this relationship to an empty Other. At the same time, he points to the apocalyptic nature of knowing God. His so-called “fideism” is simply the refusal to subject God’s self-revelation to a method incapable of receiving knowledge of God. God has acted in his Self-revelation to make us (complete?) Subjects, so that this revelation is the act of reconciliation and this soteriology is an epistemology.

As Thomas Torrance describes a Barthian approach to AT, both “how God gives Himself to be known” and “how one receives and knows what is given” are revealed in Christ.

“In short Jesus Christ is Himself both the Word of God as spoken by God to man and that same Word as heard and received by man, Himself both the Truth of God given to man and that very Truth understood and actualized in man. He is that divine and human Truth in His one Person.”[5]

If, as Samuel Adams puts it, “we prioritize the theological sense of ‘apocalyptic’, then we (methodologically?) subject all worldviews and contexts to the freedom of God’s sovereignty over his own self-revelation. This event of self-revelation is the apocalypse, in subjectivity and objectivity, of Jesus Christ.”[6]

The alienated subject/object relation is a misenchanting lie, empty in both poles of the relation, and only overturned and filled out by Christ. This seems to clarify the hue of the supernatural (the seemingly demonic) in every form of human enslavement while tracking human agency in the generation and overcoming of the lie through the truth.

[1] Eugene, McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon (p. 3). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] McCarraher, 3-5.

[3] McCarraher, 5-6.

[4] But even this description is not entirely accurate or always the case. It is very doubtful that an upper-class Roman of the first century directly believed in the Roman gods, anymore than a modern-day Japanese directly believes in his religion. He does not believe it, but he does it anyway as it seems to work.

[5] T. F. Torrance, Theological Science, 50. Quoted from Samuel Adams, The Reality of God and Historical Method: An Examination of Theological Historiography in Critical Dialogue with N. T. Wright.

[6] Adams, 124.

Sorting out Apocalyptic Theology

Apocalyptic theology, as an alternative to what is referred to as a Lutheran (a useful misnomer) reading, or a salvation history approach (represented by N. T. Wright and others) to Paul, presents a largely unified front in what it is not. While this departure is key, there has not been as much work done in providing a full coherence to an apocalyptic approach. Beverly Gaventa’s criticism of Douglas Campbell, that in throwing out the tepid bathwater of justification theory or Lutheranism, he seems to have forgotten the baby altogether, is not altogether accurate or fair but the point is well made that in doing the hard work of showing the failings of other theories, a great deal of work still has to be done in describing exactly what sort of force sin, death, and the devil constitute. Is the problem primarily anthropological or does the emphasis fall on the satanic and demonic, and exactly how is it that Christ breaks in and undoes this system?

While apocalyptic theology has a genealogy through Albert Schweitzer and Wilhelm Wrede, which emphasized demonology as the problem and eschatology as the solution, this sort of reduction has mostly been abandoned. There is still an appreciation of the cosmic nature of this focus but there has been a mass departure from reduction of the power to demons and the solution as future. However, the present emphasis on an inaugurated eschatology and a folding of demonology into an animate sin and death, does not mean that there is a unified or clear agreement on the meaning of apocalyptic theology. Disagreements and ambiguities prevail in both descriptions of the problem and solution. What I will suggest in the conclusion is that my work on Romans 6-8 may provide a bridge between disparate descriptions of the problem and solution and how, specifically, the plight of sin is addressed by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Following the format, which I have already criticized, it seems necessary to begin to describe apocalyptic theology by describing its departure from other approaches. The failures and inconsistencies in salvation history, Lutheran theology, and the insufficiencies of the new perspective on Paul, point to the need for something like an apocalyptic understanding.

As Douglas Campbell explains it, an apocalyptic understanding stands in sharp contrast to a contractual or Lutheran theology. (I have explained this in some detail here.) A Lutheran Plan A/Plan B approach is one in which one must travel through Plan A to get to the better plan B. In this understanding, trying to observe the Law teaches one that she is a guilty sinner and so needs to move on to plan B with Jesus. This contractual or Lutheran approach has inherent contradictions (e.g. there is the simultaneous need to rationally recognize one’s failure yet this sin entails rational incapacity), it contradicts Paul (e.g. Paul, as a Pharisee, had a clear conscience and never seems to pass through Plan A), and it seems to entail inherent anti-Semitism (Jews are the prototypical sinners and Judaism is the archetypical failed religious system, and they should be smart enough to realize their sinfulness so they must be the most recalcitrant or most unreflective of people).[1]

The New Perspective on Paul has attempted to mitigate several of these elements in that “works of the Law” are not equated with works righteousness but with boundary markers of being Jewish, such as circumcision and food laws. Wright has attempted to take this insight and apply it to his own version of the problem, in that his Plan A is not about the individual but it pertains to all of Israel. His salvation history project does not so much reject, as expand upon the Lutheran project. For Wright, Plan A is now the story of Israel’s historical and corporate journey to arrival at Plan B, the church. He attempts to fully incorporate the Old and New Testament, intertextually and progressively, making the Old necessary for the New: the church’s story is told in relation to Christ’s story; Christ’s story is told in relation to Israel’s story; Israel’s story is told in relation to Adam’s story. The focus on knowledge of God’s presence and activity within history imagines history must always be read in one direction – from Adam forward till we come to Christ. As Campbell points out, there is no clear explanation as to how a still unstable Plan A, now focused on sociological boundaries in the new perspective, points to belief in Jesus. The Lutheran model, with its relief of guilt from sin etc., at least made sense.

The critique of Wright by other apocalyptic theologians, beyond his overdependence on the particular unfolding of Israel’s history, is that he seems to bypass the need for God to break through the world so as to give his own person as the subject of knowledge. Jesus claims that he is the way, the truth, and the light, yet Wright has collapsed divine self-disclosure into history, identifying that disclosure too simply with the objective consideration of the historical events behind the texts of Scripture. God is known by our “critically realist” knowledge of his historical activity, given to us by the accounts of Scripture, behind which it lies. Scripture records and bears witness to these events, but the question is if its own disclosure and communicative character are obscured?[2] The New Testament, in an apocalyptic understanding, reads history and reality the other way round, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ, who is not explained by history but serves as the interpretive key for history.

In the American context, the work of Louis Martyn has been central in setting up the parameters upon which most apocalyptic theologians will agree. In his work on Galatians, Martyn maintains Paul’s argument is not intended to describe the progress of salvation history but to say you can live in one of two relationships: a relationship with law or a relationship with God. You can be a slave to the law and what is the same thing, to the fundamental principles of the world, or you can be a son or daughter of God (4:6-7). The focus is not on history but on what world a person occupies, and transference from one world to the other depends upon God’s intervention into the first world and delivery to the second.

Though historical or temporal categories are present in Galatians they serve the purpose of illustrating the problem of cosmic bondage. Paul recounts his personal history and alludes both to the history of Israel and to the history of the Galatians to illustrate the problem of slavery in each instance. Paul conflates the history of Israel and the history of the Galatians, as he and his fellow Jews were enslaved under the elementary principles, and he associates these same elements with the Galatians’ former life in idolatry. If the Galatians were to embrace circumcision, it would constitute a return to the very same elements to which they had been enslaved when they were pagans.

Paul was transformed through a direct intervention by God on the road to Damascus, revealing his Son to him, just as the Galatians were transformed as God intervened and gave his Spirit when Christ was portrayed as crucified before their eyes (3:1). Paul’s purpose is not to provide an overview of salvation history, but to explain the nature of the Galatians’ transition from slavery to freedom as they have been transferred to a new world “in Christ.” Paul is not interested in the history of Israel for its own sake, and he is not trying to show how Israel’s salvation history would benefit either Jews or Gentiles. Paul may think Israel was in a different situation than the pagans in that he distinguishes between the child and the slave but this is in no way a description of some sort of intermediate state, as is revealed in his focus on explaining the similarities. All suffered a form of oppression and all in Christ have received adoption as children.[3]

Sigurd Grindheim maintains, time in relation to world history, salvation history, or cosmic history is not interesting to Paul. The Galatians’ history, their move from slavery to freedom is the only history Paul is interested in. Paul’s references to his personal history and to the history of Israel serve to illustrate the nature of this transfer and to describe the two domains that the letter intends to contrast: slavery under the law and adoption to sonship.[4] The Galatians and Paul have been liberated from slavery by God’s direct intervention through Christ’s act of redemption and, by extension, so have all Christians.

To summarize Martyn, in his own words, and the parameters he lays out:

Paul’s view of wrong and right is thoroughly apocalyptic, in the sense that on the landscape of wrong and right there are, in addition to God and human beings, powerful actors that stand opposed to God and that enslave human beings. Setting right what is wrong proves then, to be a drama that involves not only human beings and God, but also those enslaving powers. And since humans are fundamentally slaves, the drama in which wrong is set right does not begin with action on their part. It begins with God’s militant action against all the powers that hold human beings in bondage.[5]

•J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 87.

In Campbell’s depiction, “The unconditional, revelatory, transformational, and liberational aspects of this event mean that it is appropriately described as ‘apocalyptic.’”[6]  The world has been taken captive, and Christ is the liberator from this captivity.

In the words of Beverly Gaventa;

Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death).  

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: John Knox, 2007), 80.

Apocalyptic clearly refers to cosmic bondage and liberation but what, exactly, is the identity of the cosmic power that has enslaved? Where Ernst Käsemann assumes Paul means the demonic, in a literal sense, Martinus C. De Boer assumes Paul speaks of sin in this way to make an anthropological point.[7] Though Martyn speaks of “real enemies” and “genuine powers,” Shaw suggests the phrases are ambiguous. As he says, “he identifies the curse of the law as chief among them, which, given his account of the law, can hardly be a demon by another name.”[8] There is an “ontological incompetence,” in Campbell’s words, but its cause is not clear or agreed upon. As Shaw concludes, deploying the words of Colin Gunton, the contemporary apocalyptic interpreters appeal to the demonic for its power of metaphorical characterization “which would otherwise defy expression.”[9]

Demonizing sin may at times serve in place of explanation of both the problem and its solution. The role of faith, for example, and how an individual comes to faith are not clear. As the question was put to  Käsemann, “If God’s intervention on the human stage, exorcising the world of its demons, is 100% of the equation, where is human subjectivity in any recognisable form?”[10] As Gaventa has put it in her critique of Martyn, “Martyn’s avoidance of conversion language and earlier individualistic readings of Galatians has taken us too far here, so that even the function of Paul’s self-reference in the letter’s argument (or re-proclamation) does not become clear.”[11]

As long as the demonic is in view the tendency is to see the solution in terms of a purely future eschatological solution (e.g. Schweitzer, Wrede). Where sin and death are the focus, as in contemporary apocalyptic theology, there is focus on a realized eschatology in the death and resurrection of Christ, but the burden becomes one of saying how the work of Christ defeats these powers and how the individual incorporates or is incorporated into this victory.

There is a near equal divide among the apocalyptic theologians with some suggesting there is an ontological release (e.g. Gaventa) from the powers and the others suggesting it is a revelational epistemological release (e.g. Martyn), but even here the explanation is considered wanting. According to Bruce McCormack, readers “are left with a rich battery of images and concepts. But images and concepts alone, no matter how rhetorically powerful, do not rise to the level of adequate explanation. How is it that the ‘rectification’ of the world is achieved by Christ’s faithful death?”[12] While participation in Christ through the Spirit (e.g. Campbell) and revelation or an epistemological release (e.g. Martyn) are pointers, explanation is left wanting.  

What I would point to in conclusion, is that the role of deception which has certainly been noted in an apocalyptic understanding, can potentially bring together the ontological and epistemological divide. I believe sin as a lie, oriented to death by deception in regard to the law, can also go some way in detailing exactly how Christ’s death is a defeat of the power of sin and death and it can help resolve the continuing question and divide over the law.

In the original debate between Käsemann and Bultmann, part of what was at issue was the role of the body and the corporate or individual implications of embodiment and language. As Käsemann would note, in a very Wittgensteinian mode, communication of the self with the self is rendered possible by an already existing communication with and in the environment (language is an embodied capacity). At the same time, this poses the possibility for a simultaneous disruption within the self and between the self and the environment, where communication is broken through deception. The biblical term “body,” as with Wittgenstein, is inclusive of the linguistic capacity that sets man simultaneously into communication and poses the possibility of confrontation or a split within himself, with others, and with God.

In Paul’s depiction, within deception lies the simultaneous possibility for cosmic and personal alienation and enslavement. The fact that the satanic and demonic are consistently linked with the lie of Genesis, but also the lie of religion (the covenant with death, in Isaiah), and that this lie is equated with sin, points to how Christ’s exposure of this lie is both ontological and epistemological in its cosmological import.

In brief, Paul pictures creation and the Creator as containing an infinite depth of communion and communication that has been displaced by a world of deception. In my next blog I will spell out in detail how this understanding fills in the gaps in contemporary apocalyptic theology.

[1] Campbell spells this out quite brilliantly in Deliverance, but is available in his review of Wrights Volumes on Paul and The Faithfulness of God –

[2] “History, Providence and the Apocalyptic Paul” –;jsessionid=FA0FD8F9F020B597D401884CE00C1150?sequen

[3] Sigurd Grindheim, “Not Salvation History, but Salvation Territory: The Main Subject Matter of Galatians,” New Test. Stud. 59, pp. 91-108 © Cambridge University Press, 2013, doi:10.1017/S0028688512000264 accessed here –

[4] Ibid, Grindheim

[5] I am here utilizing the fine dissertation by David Anthony Bennet Shaw, The ‘Apocalyptic’ Paul: An Analysis & Critique with Reference to Romans 1-8, Fitzwilliam College.

[6][6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 66.

[7] Shaw, 139.

[8] Shaw, 143

[9] Shaw, 144

[10] “A Tribute To Ernst Käsemann and a Theological Testament,” 391. Shaw 145

[11] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Review of Galatians by J. Louis Martyn,” RBL, 2001, Ibid

[12] Bruce L. McCormack, “Can We Still Speak of ‘Justification by Faith’? An In-House Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul,” in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter, ed. Mark W. Elliott et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 167. Shaw, 160.

The Traveler’s Guide to Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Allison, Ibid.

[3] Allison, 18.

[4] Allison, 102.

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

Time for Discerning the Counterfeit Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the group Christians Against Christian Nationalism have put it,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] The Statement can be found here:


Apocalyptic Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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