Is The Secular Another Form of the Symbolic?: Charles Taylor and Paul’s Gospel

Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, provides three possible meanings for secularity: (1.) a divorce between religion and politics, as public spaces have mostly been emptied of God. (2.) religious belief and practice are no longer the norm. (3.) belief in God is one option among many, and may not be the easiest option.[1] While his is the most authoritative work on the secular, and at some level is an irrefutable recounting of the emergence of the peculiarities of modernity, nonetheless each of these meanings have been challenged. As Jon Butler bluntly states it, “All three of Taylor’s “secularities” are problematic and probably wrong.”[2]

In regard to thesis (1.), Butler argues that in most of the world, including the United States, many if not all parts of Europe, most of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America, it is hard to discern the divorce between religion and politics. In regard to thesis (2.) he argues, it is not at all clear that decline in belief typifies the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, or South Asia. Butler acknowledges there have been shifts with such things as the rise of conservative Protestantism, Pentecostalism (in Latin America) and decline in mainline denominations and “irritation” of traditional Catholicism.

Butler’s main argument is in regard to thesis (3.). He argues that Taylor has not made it clear for whom “conditions of belief” have changed, not accounting for the experience of ordinary people. In Butler’s critique, Taylor tends to slide unnoticeably between the realm of ideas (the realm of intellectuals) and experience (a shared imagination), blurring the difference. He suggests a category between or beyond belief and unbelief, namely “religious indifference.” At a time when public disbelief might result in punishment or death, of course, most everyone is going to profess belief, but this may hide indifference. “After the formal Christianization of the Roman Empire and well into the early modern period, unbelief and behaviors seemingly supportive of unbelief became criminal. Paganism and heresy; not just atheism, brought gruesome punishment and death. Long before Luther or Calvin, Church and government tortured, burned, and executed critics and reformers.”[3] The Church and its political backers had to resort to force and authority to sustain Christian belief long before the 1500’s, as belief did not seem to be nearly as irresistible as Taylor imagines. Apparently, it was not “virtually impossible not to believe.”  

A wide variety of literature demonstrates, in Butler’s account, that “the Church needed the support of secular authorities to sustain even a tentative, if also powerful, hold on the religious commitment of ordinary people before 1500. Rather than belief being axiomatic, as Taylor argues, it was contingent and threatened from inside as well as outside.”[4] Belief, however, was not primarily challenged by unbelief, according to Butler, as unbelief speaks of actually caring about religion. Isn’t it as Max Weber argued, that just as some are not musically inclined most may not be religiously inclined, one way or another? “In highly different ways, Taylor misses something important about ordinary religious practice—that indifference, born of many different causes, may be more important to difficulties faced by religion in many ages, including the ages Taylor insists were axiomatic for religion in the West, than unbelief and the formal expressions of irreligion that attract great thinkers.”[5]

Taylor’s project may accurately trace the history of ideas and the thoughts of intellectuals and those working within a philosophical tradition, but this does not necessarily capture the experience of the majority.

Of course, belief; unbelief; and skepticism have been the stuff of philosophical argument for centuries. But at best, indifference receives little attention and even less analysis. It shows up mainly in accounts of ordinary beliefs, attitudes, and behavior and usually in brief discussions of lay absence from religious observance, whether formal, as in church or synagogue or mosque services, or informal, as in discussion of popular leisure or otherwise ‘secular’ culture. Typically, absence, and certainly indifference, are noted, often with some alarm, but little dissected.[6]

Part of what is at stake in the reading of secularity, is what to make of the supposed post-secular. If the secular was equated with a detached rationalism, mind/body dualism, individualism, the privatization of religion (connected to individualism), and these modern categories are now collapsing in the post-modern age, does this mean there is an opening for religion and God? Or in fact, is the indication (with Butler and others) that there was always something else, perhaps something deeper at work, which secularism and its critique only touch upon? If this is the case, then the emergence of the religious in this post-secular age, raises questions about what this might mean.

In a Pauline critique of the human predicament, the shared human problem is not irreligion, levels of religious belief, or the possibility of believing otherwise (Taylor’s secularization thesis). In spite of the Protestant notion that belief or unbelief is fundamental, which in turn has given rise to conceptions of the secular (with its notions of various dualisms and private religion), Paul does not locate the fundamental human problem with religion/irreligion or belief and unbelief. For Paul the fundamental human problem is bondage to deception due to the orientation to the law. Whether the law is from God, from nature, or from the angels, is not Paul’s concern, but the problem is this symbolic order, taken as primary, creates a gap, alienating humans from God and enslaving them to a lie. The law is not itself the problem, but the primacy given to the law. This law, or symbolic order, might be connected to the Jewish law, though Paul is specifically arguing this is not simply a Jewish problem but the human problem. In turn, the divisions and dualisms that mark every human (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female) due to their entanglement with various symbolic orders, are addressed by Jesus Christ.

Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan are among those who recognize that Paul is engaging a universal and fundamental predicament, in which the human Subject is structured by this orientation. Lacanian theory is committed to the “reality” of Paul’s description of the problem, eschewing Paul’s picture of the solution in Jesus Christ. The result of this orientation, in Paul’s description, is not unlike the isolated individualism, the evacuation of the reality of God, and the creation of a polity (the city of man, this dark world, the principalities and powers) described in Taylor’s version of the secular. None of which is to deny the value of Taylor’s project, and is even an affirmation of several of the fundamental trues he has hit upon. It is simply to qualify and set this understanding in a larger frame, along with Butler, to suggest that the impetus behind the modern shares a genealogy that is universal.

The danger is that to isolate the secular as a peculiar epoch in human history, is to pit the secular against the religious in a dialectic that is not only factually wrong, but misses the manner in which the symbolic, be it sacred or secular, displaces the divine reality. That is, the conception of secularism may be the peculiar thing about the secular, and not the underlying reality called secularism. This concept is lent a force that characterizes the human tendency to assign primacy to the law or the symbolic. The danger is in reifying the secular as if it has the power claimed on its behalf, as if it is the law ordering human reality.

This shows itself in the slowly evolving undermining of Paul’s radical gospel. Where Paul pictured the Christian believer as entering a new society in the church, where the old reigning socio-cultural order does not pertain, the rise of the “secular” is simultaneous with a caving in to the primacy of this order. For the first Christians, Christ was Lord, and it was understood that professing and acting on this faith may mean death at the hands of the state. Then in a Constantinian Christianity there was a divide, with “the religious” referring to monks, friars and nuns, devoted full time to the religious life, as opposed to the “secular clergy,” who would have to occupy two distinct realms. [7]

Skipping forward 1000 years, Henry VIII becomes head of the state church “with the power of the national state embodied in the king (the state-church). It was to the King’s ‘laws and decrees’ that the subjects made absolute submission, not to the Bishop of Rome.” This in turn led to a direct contradiction of Paul’s picture of freedom from the law. Obedience to the king was equated with obedience to God, and was thus an acting out of holiness. No longer is there a departure from the reigning social order but subsumption of the church into this order. “Obedience of a servant to a master, of a wife to a husband, of a pupil to a teacher, of a subject to a prince, of lower degree to higher degree, was analogous to the obedience of a Christian to God. The whole deferential social order was wrapped in divinity and teleologically determined by God’s scheme of redemption.”[8] This church/state order is, after all, “ordained by God” (in this understanding).

The American experiment attempted to separate what Henry and history had welded together, but this separation was based on the dualism between body and soul, the same dualism which had coopted Paul’s gospel. William Penn formulated the difference in his separation of church and state:

Religion and Policy, or Christianity and Magistracy, are two distinct things, have two different ends, and may be fully prosecuted without respect one to the other; the one is for purifying, and cleaning the soul, and fitting it for a future state; the other is for Maintenance and Preserving of Civil Society, in order to the outward conveniency and accommodation of men in this World. A Magistrate is a true and real Magistrate, though not a Christian; as well as a man is a true and real Christian, without being a Magistrate.[9]

Serving God is an inward affair, and obeying the magistrate or being a magistrate in no way impinges on this inward reality. According to John Locke, “The care of Souls cannot belong to the Civil Magistrate because his power consists only in outward force: But true and saving Religion consists in the inward persuasion of the Mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[10]

Thus in the American experiment the state controlled the body, and religion was concerned with the inward self, and the two realms do not overlap. What this meant in practice is that the church was consigned to a “spiritual realm” which was thought not to pertain to the political. “People make an ‘inward judgement’ about truth and salvation, and on such matters one cannot be compelled to believe by outward force. There is this assumption of the inner mind as distinct from the outer body, religion being aligned with the inner working of the mind, and civil society with the outer, with the body. The magistrate has nothing to do with religion in this sense, because it is harmless to the state.”[11] It works in a way similar to State Shinto in Japan, in which one Christian described being forcibly convinced that Shintoism and honoring the Emperor were non-religious, and then he says, we were all forced to bow to the Emperor as part of Christian worship. So too in a Christianity which concedes the realm of the body to the state, obeying the laws of the state is at once non-religious and bodily, and a means of coercing obedience to “God’s ordained order.”

Though the Americans attempted to throw off the domination of the state over religion, they did so in part, by conceding to the state the bodily, outward, and coercive (violent) realms. Certainly, there was a focus on the centrality of the individual, her rights, and access to the natural law of rationality, and this along with the role of religion is a continuing tension. This might be a peculiarity of the secular, but it is a peculiarity based upon the lie of absolute individualism (an isolated, self-determined autonomy), accompanied by notions that inward and outward, body and soul, mind and body, church and state, inhabit separate realms. It is the lie the gospel would expose, but more than that it is the unreality from which it delivers.  

[1] My summary of the list from Jon Butler, “Disquieted History in A Secular Age” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Craig Calhoun, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 195.

[2] Butler, 195.

[3] Butler, 200.

[4] Butler, 204.

[5] Butler, 209.

[6] Butler, 209.

[7] Timothy Fitzgerald, “Encompassing Religion, privatized religions and the invention of modern politics” in Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formation, Timothy Fitzgerald ed.  (London: Equinox Publishing, 2007) 220.

[8] Fitzgerald, 224.

[9] Penn, William. 1680. The Great Question to be Considered by the King, and this approaching Parliament, briefly proposed. and modestly discussed: (to wit) How far Religion is concerned in Policy or Civil Government, and Policy in Religion? With an Essay rightly to distinguish these great interests, upon the Disquisition of which a sufficient Basis is proposed for the firm Settlement of these Nations, to the Most probable satisfaction of the Several Interests and Parties therein. (By one who desires to give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. and to God the things that are God’s.] (microfiche). Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland. Quoted in Fitzgerald, 211.

[10] John Locke, 1689. A Letter Concerning Toleration, (2nd edn. London) 11. Quoted in Fitzgerald, 214.

[11] Fitzgerald, 214.

Achieving Synthesis Between Religious Studies and Sociology with Sergius Bulgakov

Aristotle’s cosmology is nothing but a sophiology, but a sophiology that is deprived of its trinitarian-theological foundation. This sophiology is a doctrine of divinity without God and apart from God, of divinity in place of God, in the capacity of God. We have said the same thing about Platonism as a theory of self-existent ideas, of Divine Sophia in herself. The entire difficulty and, in a certain sense, the impotence and indefensibility in this form of Plato’s theory of ideas consist in the separateness of the Divine Sophia from the creaturely Sophia as well as in the ungroundedness of the world of ideas.[1] Sergius Bulgakov

A doctrine of divinity without God or self-existent ideas absent divinity. Doesn’t this more or less cover the range of possibility within human thought and religion, absent Trinitarian reality? There is a separation focused, either on the transcendent or the creaturely. There is either Plato or Aristotle, Mircea Eliade or Peter Berger. Religion is either beyond study or it reduces to sociology. The dialectic may favor the transcendent or the immanent, the practical or the philosophical, the creaturely or divine, but there is an absolute separation, in which the divide is the constituting factor in the opposites. All that can be said never attains the essence of things, and one can focus on one or the other (the sayable or the essence). Sergius Bulgakov’s critique of Aristotelianism and Platonism might be stretched to roughly serve alternative approaches to religion. Bulgakov foresees modern religious studies and sociology, as founded by Mircea Eliade and Peter Berger (respectively), in that religion reduces to the absolutely transcendent and ineffable or it is fully explained by the sociological.

Eliade creates a unified category for study, not through any positive statement about the substance or content of religion, but by deeming all religion, in its essence, as that which is noumenal or sui generis. Eliade held that religious experience is distinct from historical pressures and influences and that religious experiences are their own cause and belong to their own unique category. Religion shares the Kantian characteristic of being beyond definition, yet all “religion” somehow pertains to what is most real. As I have described it (here), for religion to be an object of study, Eliade’s paradigm must be the case. If there is no unique essence to religion, then psychology, history, or sociology can explain religion.  The problem with Eliade’s paradigm is that a sui generis experience cannot be studied. By definition it is beyond study as it is distinct, it transcends historical, social, and psychological, causality and arises as its own cause.  Religious studies reduces to studying religion as the reaction and interpretation of an essence which is not itself open to examination.  This theoretical stance predetermines that the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference.  Religion arises from a reality which falls outside of historical factors and cultural values.  Even the psychological phenomena of religion are an after-effect of a reality that does not make itself directly available.

Here the problem is that of Platonism, in that there is no actual object to study, nothing in which to ground the study, as the essence of religion is completely removed from its manifestations. The articulation and striving of religious practices can only point toward its object, and there is no ground but only endless gesturing. In the words of Bulgakov, “The entire difficulty and, in a certain sense, the impotence and indefensibility in this form of Plato’s theory of ideas consist in the separateness of the Divine Sophia from the creaturely Sophia as well as in the ungroundedness of the world of ideas.”[2] It is impossible to bring the creaturely and divine into relationship or union, and thus there is a vague encompassing of every possibility, or every form of religion. “This world is not unified; it is not even subsumable in a higher unifying principle. The world therefore turns out to be only a speculative projection of pagan polytheism.”[3] While Bulgakov means this as a criticism, for Eliade, this is his point of departure for studying religion.

On the other hand, Peter Berger poses the Aristotelian possibility, of finding the transcendent fully explained in the immanent, but as Bulgakov notes, Aristotle is simply filling in the other half of an inevitable dialectic divide. Plato gives us the “fleshless abstractions” and Aristotle puts flesh on these ideas but only by saturating them and reducing them to the concrete and impersonal. Just as Eliade leaves us with pure abstraction devoid of empirical reality, just so, as with Aristotle, Berger reduces religion to an empirical “sacred canopy,” providing a groundless ground for sociology. That is the sacred canopy is fully explained by its empirical necessity in holding society together. Berger, the good Presbyterian, is not refuting religion, but as with Eliade, there can only be a “rumor of angels.”

In Bulgakov’s explanation, “What Aristotle did was transpose ideas from the domain of the Divine Sophia to the domain of the creaturely Sophia. He proclaimed the being of the latter without the former, as if in separation from it. He thus reduced ideas to the empirical, taken only in the category of universality (which would also require special explanation).”[4] Neither Berger nor Eliade are able to distinguish God from the world. For Berger, “God” or the sacred is constituted by the world, and for Eliade only the world is available for observation. What they both lack is the Personal God.

Just as Aristotle transposes Plato into the empirical, so too Berger transposes Eliade, but both (Berger and Eliade) reduce religion to a set of practices (and in both, the practice is removed from the divine), reproducing the divide between the abstract and concrete. Religious studies and the sociology of religion build upon and generate the difference between Plato and Aristotle, but this difference is not so much a problem, as the engine, of dualism. The divide between heaven and earth, theory and practice, creator and creation, body and soul, religious studies and sociology of religion, perform the same trick of turning the problem into the solution. To bridge the gap, close the divide, or overcome the dualism, would undermine the foundation generating the predominant form of understanding.

The thesis and antithesis of the divide condition the answer on either side of the divide but, contrary to what Aristotle or Berger or the host of pragmatists and materialists might imagine, they cannot replace or explain away the transcendent (without themselves appealing to it in the process). On the other hand, it is also true that ideas exist only in things or in the world, though the world does not exhaust or explain or displace ideas (mind or theory). “Plato and Aristotle are both right, and both wrong, in their one-sidedness of thesis and antithesis. They each postulate a synthesis, which is not contained in their theories but which must be found beyond and above them.”[5]

The Greek unmoved mover, Eliade’s sui generis, and Berger’s sacred canopy, all fit Bulgakov’s description in which God “can be likened to the line of the horizon where the earth and sky meet and appear to join.”[6] In each case, God disappears and is replaced by the world, and the divide between heaven and earth is foundational, for both religious studies and Christian theology.

Eliade needs Berger, the transcendentalists need the pragmatists, the study of religion and the sociology of religion need each other. “The creaturely Sophia is the manifestation and reflection of the heavenly Sophia. Nevertheless, sophiology, as the doctrine of the supramundane principle of the world, must incorporate these great sophianic insights of ancient thought.”[7] However, none of these systems has the means of synthesizing with or accounting for its opposite. The question of synthesis, as it applies to the study of religion, is not only an issue of bringing sociological insights to bear on the study of religion, but it pertains to Christian theology.

As I have stated it (see the above link), the sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to sui generis notions of Christianity: that the Church somehow exists apart from a particular society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence apart from Christ.  This disembodied, transcendent notion of Christianity reveals itself in an incapacity to imagine a real-world kingdom on earth.  In this form of thought the Church cannot itself be a holistic, immanent reality, constituting its own culture.  The body of Christ is spiritualized, too otherworldly, and culture is too much the essence of this world’s reality to have the two realms intersect.

There is a singular synthesis of creator and creation, of the immanent and transcendent, of God and human. Jesus Christ, the God/man synthesizes what cannot otherwise achieve synthesis. This is not an end point, but the beginning presumption, not just in apprehending Christianity, but in understanding religion. Plato and Aristotle, or Eliade and Berger, do not have the resource for appropriating the other (none of the dualisms do), but the Christian synthesis brings together and utilizes the opposed pairs. “The dialectic of Platonism and Aristotelianism in the theory of ideas is synthesized in the Christian revelation of the divine-creaturely, or divine-human, character of being, of the sophianicity of creation.”[9] Faith and practice, doctrine and action, heaven and earth, Creator and creation, and sociology of religion and religious studies have a Subject.

The end result is something on the order of James McClendon’s practical theory of Christianity and religion, in which religion is not believed, apart from practice.  It is is embodied and practiced so that it is a conviction that shows itself in a form of life.  In this “practical understanding” doctrine or belief discloses its meaning only within the practices and convictions of the culture that embraces it. This provides both a theology, and as our upcoming class on religion demonstrates, it provides an alternative ground for understand the world’s religions.

(Register now for the class in World Religions and Cultures starting the week of January 22nd: Go to to register.)

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 11). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. Thanks to Matt Welch for his constant inspiration, which stands behind this blog.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bulgakov, 12.

[5] Bulgakov, 12.

[6] Bulgakov, 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bulgakov, 14.

[9] Ibid.

Sergius Bulgakov and David Bentley Hart on World Religions

The brilliant Russian Theologian, Sergius Bulgakov, captures both the truth in the world’s religions and the possibility that, perhaps for this same reason, the various religions may hold, at a minimum, a pedagogical danger (missing the uniqueness and finality of Christ), and at a maximum may threaten captivity to the demonic (though he constantly and at length qualifies the nature of this danger, and even maintains that to reduce pagan religion to the demonic is blasphemous). David Bentley Hart, largely inspired by Bulgakov, captures the positive moment in world religions and shared humanity, but Hart is not concerned to highlight the uniqueness of Christ in comparison to the religions, and does not warn, as does Bulgakov, of the danger of misapprehension. As a result, Hart’s abstractions float free of the intimate Christocentric and Trinitarian Personalism, which pervade the work of Bulgakov. Nonetheless Hart, (in his book The Experience of God )[1], waxes so eloquent on the divinely inspired element in human religion, thought, and experience, that his work may be irreplaceable. The two thinkers, taken together, offer a balanced, broad, and generous assessment of human thought and religion. Given Bulgakov’s grounding of this understanding in Christ and Scripture, and Hart’s expansion on Bulgakov’s understanding (in my reading), this makes for a profound theology of religion and anthropology.[2]

Their shared starting premise is summed up by Hart: “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever.”[3] As Bulgakov states it: “There is no place and can be no place of its own or independent ground for the world which would belong to it alone. If there is such a place, it must be established by God, for there is nothing that is outside of or apart from God and that in this sense is not-God.”[4] Human experience, at its foundation and in substance, is living and moving and having being in God. According to Augustine (and cited by Hart), God is not only beyond our highest thoughts but is more inward to me than my inmost thoughts.

Bulgakov ties the substance of human experience, not simply to an abstract concept of God, but directly to Christ, in that all of humanity shares in the experience of the first and second Adam: “The new Adam redeemed the whole old Adam and in this sense replaced him with himself. And no pars pro toto, or series of successive and partial redemptions, could correspond to this task, which is a universal one.” Adam, “necessarily presupposes the existence of an integral all-humanity, which is redeemed by Christ in its entirety and not only in its individual parts or persons.”[5] Bulgakov pictures this as working in two directions, from Christ to each person and from each person to Christ. In the Incarnation, “The Lord took His humanity not from impersonal nature but from each of us personally. He thus became one with His humanity, introducing it into His own hypostatic being. And only on this basis can it be said: ‘Christ lives in me.’”[6]

Bulgakov grounds the most abstract concepts in the Person of Christ (personhood itself), in which Christ’s Personhood is a summing up and ground of each individual person. Christ as the all in all, is what I am most intimately in myself, and he is what I am becoming.

Every person is a point on the surface of this sphere, connected by a radius to the center. The whole and a particular variant, the genus and an individual, exist with one existence, are inwardly one. The historical chain of individual human lives with all its diversity manifests the multiplicity of the genus; far from abolishing the multi-unity, it even presupposes it. Thus, each human individual, being a generic being, is at the same time personal and all-human.[7]

Hart describes this finite experience of the eternal as the guiding substance and quality of thought, experience, and desire: “The vanishing point of the mind’s inner coherence and simplicity is met by the vanishing point of the world’s highest values; the gaze of the apperceptive ‘I’ within is turned toward a transcendental ‘that’ forever beyond; and mental experience, of the self or of the world outside the self, takes shape in the relation between these two ‘supernatural” poles.’” Rational experience continually goes beyond the immediacy of finite experience and objects, comprehending them in “more capacious conceptual categories.” The mind conceives of the world only “because it has always already, in its intentions, exceeded the world. Consciousness contains nature, as a complete and cogent reality, because it has gone beyond nature.” [8] The values providing impetus to thought and judgment cannot be accounted for within the material world, a fact immediately available in experience, which Bulgakov explicitly identifies with the deity and humanity of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Bulgakov, through a careful exegetical process, arrives at the universality of experience with which Hart begins. He poses as his point of inquiry a refutation of the notion that pre-Christian paganism was lacking in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, making the case that paganism consists of a “natural old testament” and that all people, in the words of Romans know of God: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:19–20). To imagine that paganism was totally deprived of the Holy Spirit and even the spirit of God, is contrary, as Bulgakov demonstrates, to both the Old and New Testament.[9] “In conformity with the spiritual maturity, particular gifts, and historical destinies of paganism, the knowledge of God is realized in it in multiple and manifold ways; and this knowledge is possible only because the Holy Spirit ‘bloweth’ also in the unrevealed (and in this sense) ‘natural’ religions.”[10]

We know that God has been preparing and speaking to all peoples, as the Word of Christ translates into every culture and tongue. On the day of Pentecost “every man heard [the apostles] speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). There is a deep grammar, or a shared Spirit (the Old Testament “spirit of God”), giving rise to every culture and religion. As Hart puts it, there is “a sort of universal grammar of human nature, which makes it possible to overcome any cultural or conceptual misunderstanding; and, without discounting the immense power of culture to shape and color our encounter with the one world that we all together inhabit, I also believe there are certain common forms of experience so fundamental to human rationality that, without them, we could not think or speak at all.”[11]

According to Bulgakov, not only Judaism, but the religions and cultures of the nations have prepared for Christ “by a special mode of knowledge, by their own gift, by a language proper to this natural Pentecost.” The historical religions and cultures of the world have also been “touched” by the Spirit of God, and for this reason it should not surprise us that they have something to teach, and that “we directly experience this breath of the Spirit of God” through them. “[W]e should not shy away from this experience because of an unjustified fear that the uniqueness and truthfulness of our Revelation will be shaken. On the contrary, one should rejoice in the gifts of the Spirit of God bestowed upon these ‘prophets’ as well, who came ‘from the river’ like Balaam, or upon the ‘wise men from the east,’ who came to worship Christ.”[12]

Bulgakov compares world religions and experience to Judaism, referencing the “pagan church” found in the ancient liturgy. This “pagan church” or “natural old testament,” reached a fullness or maturity, that enabled acceptance of Christ, proving “the gifts of the spirit can be present in paganism too, gifts that are diverse and ascend from measure to measure.”[13] As he argues, the gospel is founded upon the notion of its universal reception and receptivity, meaning all have been prepared by God. “What does this calling of the Gentiles, of paganism, signify? Is it merely an act of divine arbitrariness and coercion, as it were; or does it have sufficient inner justification, in virtue of which the Gentiles turned out to be receptive to the preaching of Christianity, and even more so than the Jews, except for the chosen? And how should one understand this receptivity if one believes that paganism is a realm of demonic possession?” He maintains this does not fit with biblical testimony, and “it contradicts the fact of the conversion of the Gentiles, their reception of the Spirit, the openness of their hearts to Christ.”[14]

In making his case for this universal preparation of the nations, through the Spirit, Bulgakov turns to the books of Acts and Romans. “This marvelous testimony of the apostle Paul about the common seeking of God on the part of all the brothers by blood of the one human race places before us not only the fact of the divine election of the chosen nation but also the fact of a universal divine vocation: ‘we are also his offspring’ (Acts 17:28).”[15] It is not that paganism is equal to Israel, as she is His special “vineyard,” but she too, like the pagan nations has obscured the truth with sin and “pagan contaminations”: “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful” (Ro. 1:21). Israel may have received a purer revelation but as Paul notes in Acts, God is working with all peoples and nations: “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him; and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:26–28). Bulgakov notes the contributions of the Gentiles to philosophy, art, science, and providing the “wise men,” which means “this is not foreign to the spirit of God.” “There should be no doubt about this, just as it should not be doubted that the founders of the great religions and their books were, to some extent, divinely chosen and even divinely inspired.”[16]

While the Jews may have been “chosen,” Bulgakov points out that theirs is still part of a universal experience in Paul’s description. “Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile.… For there is no respect of persons with God.… For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:9, 11, 14–15). As Bulgakov sums up, “Without in the least diminishing the election of the Jews, the Apostle equates here in a certain sense the Jews and the Gentiles as equally needing salvation and equally called to salvation.”[17]

The gospel, in Bulgakov’s estimate, is premised on this fact of a universal “accessibleness” to God and the Holy Spirit, and at the same time the “abolition of Judaism” indicates that both Judaism and paganism are limited. “It is noteworthy that the Acts of the Apostles, which tell about the establishment of the New Testament church by the action of the Holy Spirit, end and are inwardly summed up, as it were, by the definitive abolition of Judaism, which stopped being the Old Testament church.”[18] In turn, he notes that with the inception of Christianity, paganism also, poses a peculiar danger. “It became an anti-Christianity.” That is, like a Judaism which would refuse its synthesis and completion in Christianity, paganism also posed as a competitor (where its inadequacies were not acknowledged). Thus, much like Judaism in Bulgakov’s estimate, “Paganism is justified only as the past of a religion which does not yet know Christianity but which is preparing to know it.” Just as there may be a necessary separation from Judaism (as an end in itself), so too the early church and Christian apologists felt the need for a complete break from pagan religion: “The fate of the pagan old testament is the same as that of the Jewish Old Testament. Just as Judaism, not recognizing its proper fulfillment in the person of the Messiah, was transformed from a divinely revealed religion into a fierce anti-Christianity, so the natural religions too become anti-Christian in proportion to their conscious rejection of and opposition to Christianity.”[19]

Unlike Hart, Bulgakov combines deep appreciation for world religions with the sense that they pose a danger, not so much because they are demonic or untrue, but because they contain a powerful truth which should rightly find its end in Christ.

(Register now for the class in World Religions and Cultures: Go to to register.)

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, (Yale University Press. Kindle Edition, 2013).

[2] At least that is my presumption in the upcoming class being offered through Ploughshares Bible Institute, which will incorporate both Hart and Bulgakov’s reading. Go to to register. Hart does not seem to share Bulgakov’s sense of the danger of pagan religion. On the other hand, philosophical atheism is his primary target (in The Experience of God).

[3] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (p. 10). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 6). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 111.

[6] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 109.

[7] Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 110.

[8] Hart, 244.

[9] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter ( 233-234). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. He does a great deal of work with Melchizedek, and sights the case of the pagan prophet, Balaam.

[10] The Comforter, 239.

[11] Hart, 15.

[12] The Comforter, 239.

[13] The Comforter, 242.

[14] The Comforter, 235-236.

[15] The Comforter, 233-234.

[16] The Comforter, 239-240.

[17] The Comforter, 234.

[18] The Comforter, 235.

[19] The Comforter, 241.

“Maranatha”: Praying in the New Year with Sergius Bulgakov

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

“Come, Lord Jesus!” Maranatha, in the Aramaic and transliterated into Greek, is the conclusion of the whole Bible and of the New Testament in particular. The response given to “the Spirit and the Bride” is “surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:17,20). The early church understood this quickness in coming as ushering in the end of all things. According to Sergius Bulgakov, for us who live two thousand years after Christ, this coming “quickly” must be regarded ontologically rather than chronologically.[1] I believe this prayer calls for the Parousia, that is for the presence of Christ in the world even before His second coming.

This is a prayer of turning the world into the New Jerusalem, the Church. The prayer is both personal and cosmic, to “let God be all in all” in me and the world.[2] Christ is present in the Church, but at the same time is called on to come. The second coming of Christ is not merely a future event or goal. This coming of Christ into the world is an avocation or calling for all Christians. This eschatological event is to shape the direction of our life and it captures the meaning of time and history. Christ is coming, and Christians and the Church are ushering in Christ to the world. John tells us in Revelation history has an eschatological goal, and we are to play our creative part in this goal. History is a means of fulfillment of an eschatological anticipation, which human effort and individual and corporate human lives are bringing about. “Come Lord Jesus,” is our effort and prayer. The immanent outworking of our time, our lives, and of history, is the means of the coming of Christ. The coming of Christ is being realized not only beyond history, but also through history. The prayer “Maranatha” is not a task beyond our strength, it is an inner conviction prayed in unison with the prayer to the Holy Spirit: “come and dwell within us.” Through this eschatological understanding, history is seen not merely as a time of waiting for the second coming of Christ. Rather, history is a positive path, which has to be walked. History, therefore, is determined by the “readiness” and “expectation” of what is already present but still to come. We are living in this tension of now, but not yet.[3] “Come, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!” This prayer for salvation implies both the end of the world and the way to this end. We are to bring about and accomplish this end in our lives.

The entire creative activity of life, that is, the whole of human history to which God called the human race is accomplished by this creative inspiration. Our prayer, our life, our creativity, moves history toward eschatology, but at the same time does not deny history, but serves as its inner fulfillment.

As we usher out the old year, the year having passed through infancy to old age in the popular image, we are struck once again with the rapid movement of time. How do we view our time, our history, or history in general? Most of human history is tragic. Hegel calls it a slaughter bench, and Hegel of course, is the one who imagines that through this slaughter, progress occurs. Not an eschatological progress toward a transcendent goal, but an inner, closed, progress within time and history.  

As we pass through the feast of the slaughter of the innocents, a modern-day Herod is slaying the children of Palestine. As we witness the slaughter in Gaza, the slaughter in Ukraine, and remember the slaughter of Vietnam, Korea, the Great War, the Second World War, the Russian Revolution, the Maoist Revolution, the totality of which resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths, we recognize history is tragic.

I have just read a history of the American West, in which General Sherman, who conducted a scorched earth policy in the Civil War, and who was assigned finishing the Indian wars, describes the tragedy of history at a speech he gave at West Point: 

War is written into the human soul. Wars have been, are now, and ever will be as long as man is man. You cannot prognosticate that we are to be wiser and better than those who have gone before us, and that because there is now or in sight no just cause for war, that we are therefore to be forever exempt. Wars do not usually result from just causes, but from pretexts. There probably never was a just cause why men should slaughter each other by wholesale, but there are such things as ambition, selfishness, folly, madness, in communities as in individuals, which become blind and bloodthirsty, not to be appeased save by havoc, and generally by the killing of somebody else than themselves. This should not be, but is the fact, and we are no exception to the general rule.[4]

If corporate history is read as tragedy, we know that the senselessness of life can also be overwhelming on an individual level. As William Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes (1:2): “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”

History is not simply meaningless tragedy, as we know Christ has broken into history, bringing God’s eternal purposes into time, but we understand how a closed view of the world conveys this. A secular understanding, without recourse to what lies beyond history, cannot account for any apparent meaning in history, though this is the temptation. Examined within its own boundaries, even within its achievements, history turns out to be a great failure.  Christ’s entry into time and history and its rescue, is our story, the story of the Church. In the description of Bulgakov, as an inner force within history, the Church is the place for the realization of salvation – the realm of divine-human reality being joined. This reality is the moving force of history; it drives history towards its fulfillment in eschatology. Time is not “an empty passage into eternity, but is the Church’s development and completion.”[5]

History, we recognize in Christ, is open ended. It is continually open to eternity. But it is this same fact that establishes the tragedy of history when it is approached from the point of view of the expectation of its own inward progress. So too, our own lives. From one perspective every life is tragic, but from the eschatological perspective we understand life as ushering in the Parousia. History is going through a process of creation just as an individual life does. Ironically, the tragedy of life is felt because we are made for eternity. The tragedy of time is felt from an eternal perspective.

The New Testament expresses this in the notion of Kairos, the time for salvation. In Greek, the moment of Kairos was considered a particularly opportune moment for action. In Christian thinking, time is the opportunity for eternity. There is a fullness of time, a purpose for time. In Mark 1:15, for example, it is written: “And saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Similarly, in II Corinthians 6:1-2: “And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain— for He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, And on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation”” ‘The time has come’ or that ‘time is at hand’ in which eternity is breaking into time. Both imply an apocalyptic context. Our history is open to eternity, and our history is a part of the movement of Christ.

Another way to state this is, the First Adam is being fulfilled by the second Adam, and this is the meaning of history. It is the meaning of my history and corporate history.

For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:17-19)

All humanity shares in the first Adam. All share in the effects of the fall, all share the propensity for sin, and all share the Adam nature. There is a mystical unity of all humankind in the first Adam. In the second Adam, starting with the Incarnation, this mystical humanity is elevated to the notion of the Church as Christ’s Body. Every child of Adam shares a nature, which is made for redemption. This is simultaneously individual and corporate. We can glimpse how our individual humanity participates in corporate humanity and corporate salvation. We are both the subjects and objects of history.

A concrete human being cannot be conceived independently from humankind. Every human being possesses and lives in his/her own individuality and at the same time also possesses humanity in common with others, living in tension between these two realities. The human being is “as much an individual as a social being.”[6] The existence of humankind as one human family is an important presupposition for the understanding of human history as a whole. The human being is seen not only within the closed boundaries of his/her own being or as a “self-enclosed microcosm.” Rather, human beings are “a part of the whole, and form a part of a mystical human organism.”[7] Thus, Paul speaks of all humanity as the first and second Adam.

“The idea of the Church in this sense is applied to the whole world in its real foundation and aim.”[8] The Church is the meeting point of the first and second Adam, history and eschatology, that is the presence of Christ in history. But the Church exists in tension: it is within historical reality, within the first Adam, but equally in the process of transfiguration into the second Adam. This transfigured life is accomplished in history and through history. On the way to the eschaton, human history becomes the history of the Church. Not the church as an institution, but as the spiritual force of the Parousia being worked out in history. Eschatology, the coming of Christ, the coming of the Spirit, functions as the realization of history and its inner fulfillment.

As Bulgakov describes: “The Church has no continuing city on earth, but seeks one to come. Orthodoxy implies inspiration, the eros of the Church, her yearning for the Bridegroom, the feeling proper to his Bride. It is creativeness directed towards the final goal, the expectation of the End.”[9]

Thus in this new year, we pray, and creatively live out the prayer, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.”

[1] Bulgakov, Apokalypsys Ioana [The Apocalypse of John]: http:// Quoting from Marta Samokishyn, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Eschatological Perspectives on Human History” (Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 49 (2008) Nos. 3–4, pp. 235–262), 255.

[2] This is Samokishyn’s characterization of Bulgakov’s work. “Bulgakov’s main ‘theological slogan,’ I would say, can be expressed in the words: ‘let God be all in all.’” Ibid. 255.

[3] Bulgakov, The Apocalypse of John. Cited from Samokishyn, 257.

[4] H. W. Brands, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo, and the War for America (New York: Vintage Books, 2023) 362.

[5] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii: Sozertsanie I Umozrenie [Unfading Light] (Moskva: Isskustvo, 1999), 185. Quoting from Samokishyn, 249.

[6] Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 345. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[7]Bulgakov, Sviet Nevechernii, 346. Quoting from Samokishyn, 246.

[8] Sergii Bulgakov, “Social Teaching in Modern Russian Orthodox Theology,” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 280. Quoting from Samokishyn, 258.

[9] Bulgakov, “Autobiographical Notes” in Sergius Bulgakov: A Bulgakov Anthology, 19. Cited in Samokishyn, 260.

Personalism Rather than Foundationalism

Beginning with the Person of Jesus Christ as ultimate reality, the center of understanding of ourselves, the world and God, means that this particular Person, in whom reside both the divine and human, is our logic and point of departure. Though we might infinitely multiply the seeming alternatives to Christ, these alternatives boil down to one. The symbolic order, the world as we have it, natural law (or simply law), rationalism, human nature (or just nature), foundationalism, karma, being, etc., consist of the same impersonal, flat, closed system. Principles and theories replace the Person. Or in philosophical terms, the Unmoved Mover replaces Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or in more prosaic terms, in the church, grand buildings, elaborate hierarchy, ornate symbolism, (which may not be inherently problematic) tend to replace Person and personhood as primary.

What is left out of these systems or the system, is the God/man, personhood, absolute hospitality, unconditional forgiveness, unconditional love, or simply the primacy of relationship. Christ is not a first principle, a law, or a doctrine, but a Person. We do not know this Person primarily through propositions, doctrines, or theories, but in relationship. He is relational by definition, as is God the Father and the Holy Spirit. These three Persons are who and what they are in relationship. The Person, Christ, is not a type or genus or species, reducible to an already existing form, but Person is the shape and form of reality. All things hold together in him, both in heaven and earth, meaning that the incarnate Christ precedes creation. He is divine and the very definition of Creator and creation. If we do not begin with the incarnation, God made human, the danger is that we lose both God and humanity.

Beginning with being or creation subjects God to what is. Likewise, in Christology, to begin with the preincarnate Christ rather than the incarnation, the Logos is a cipher which can and has been filled in by philosophy and human speculation. God, as an abstraction, is inevitably bound up with conceptions of being. For example, there is the positing of the economic and immanent Trinity, in which we can only know of the economy and not the reality of God. The distinction between God, in God’s self and God for us, through abstraction and intellectual speculation, has effectively meant the loss of God. To affirm with Karl Rahner, that “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity,” the abstraction and speculation must be displaced by the incarnation as starting point. Who God is for Himself, He is for us.

In turn, where the image of the incarnate Christ is set aside, the human image or the human mind is made its own mirror. Rather than the historical other of Christ, interior reflexivity is presumed (explicitly or implicitly) to contain and capture the divine. It is presumed this image presents a ready coherence or access to God by virtue of human self-consciousness. Rather than God made accessible through the Person of Christ, God is equated with the structures and functions of the mind. The Platonic Forms, the Cartesian cogito, the Anselmian word, the self-positing I, the inner dialectic, or human self-awareness are divinized. Augustine’s psychological analogy of the Trinity, perhaps unintentionally, began the process of abstract speculation about God grounded in the human mind. The end result is that mind (“nous”) is equated with the being of God. Human nature becomes the interpretive means of grasping God, displacing the divine nature, the enhypostation, of Christ. There is no fully human one apart from being joined to God in Christ. Humanity is made for deity, and this is the order established in Christ.

As the council of Chalcedon defined it:

One and the same (Person) Christ only begotten Son […] acknowledged in two natures, without mingling, without change, indivisibly, undividedly, the distinction of the natures nowhere removed on account of the union but rather the peculiarity of each nature being kept, and uniting in one person and substance not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son only begotten God Word, Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

The bringing together of two natures (the human and divine) in one Person, is the very essence and end of human personhood. Human nature, in this understanding, is not a given which Christ assumed, rather he is the exemplary human. Certainly, human nature has parameters and necessities, but in Christ we recognize this finitude and delimitation is not definitive of what it means to be a person. Personhood, in its fulness is in and through his Personhood. Participation in the divine is not innate to human nature, but it is that for which human nature was made, as realized in Christ.

Christ as the “new Adam” does not simply restore the nature of the first Adam, but recreates or brings human nature to its proper end, with participation in the Trinitarian relationship. While nature may be plottable and definable, this Christic notion of personhood is beyond nature in its indefinable eternal depths. As Romans 8 describes, those in Christ take on a Divine consciousness, as in the Son, and by the Spirit we are brought into an Abba relation with the Father. The relation with the world, human nature, law, the symbolic order, are no longer definitive. God Consciousness (knowing Christ) is distinct, (for example, from knowing the Unmoved Mover). This is a holistic, subjective, personal, and relational knowing.

Knowing may be the wrong word, as this is trusting, believing and having faith. While we may commonly speak of knowing a person, there is a sense in which this is an endless process. We can know scientific facts. We can know mathematical trues, but “knowing” persons is no longer an objective but a relational order. The depths of this experience are more like trusting, relating, loving, believing. This may be inclusive of knowing, of propositions, of natural trues, but this relationship passes beyond full comprehension and is an ever-unfolding dynamic process.

This Personal constitution of reality brings a depth to all of nature, including human nature, such that psychology and physiology only begin to touch on this mystery. A person is more than their constituent parts and this form of reality is only apprehended relationally rather than rationally, psychologically, or propositionally. Thus belief, devotion, meditation, community, communion and prayer, are the proper modes for entering fully into this relationship.

This entails a continual openness to an ever-unfolding reality in which final apprehension is an impossibility. There is no end to knowing persons, and a reality that is Personal, has eternal depths for ever-renewed understanding. There is not a final knowledge allowing for a definitive set of propositions. If nature were the final “given” of reality we might expect a closed and rationalistic approach to be sufficient (foundationalism), but nature fused with Divinity, as in the Second Person of the Trinity, opens up a new order of understanding. Reality has no limit, no bottom, as it is an ever-unfolding Personal mystery to be explored and approached in a relational (Personal) rather than a foundational understanding.   

[1] Colin Patterson, Chalcedonian Personalism: Rethinking the Human (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd, 2016), n. 148.

Creation as Incarnation – A Communion Meditation with Maximus

“The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Maximus, Ambigua, 7.22). As Maximus explains: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1]

Maximus’ formula not only provides the interpretive key to creation and “everything that exists,” but it establishes the concrete mode in which interpretation occurs. The danger in describing Maximus’ Christo-logic, is to turn it into an abstraction or principle, when he is referring throughout to the person of Christ. There is the constant danger, Maximus warns against, of mistaking words for the Word. The letter, the principle, the abstraction, the form, the theory, threaten to displace the Person. On the other hand, the material, the “substance,” the elemental, threaten from the other direction, when these too are departures (abstractions of a different order). All things hold together, whether symbolic or material, in His Person.

In short, every event, every point of creation, every true idea, contains and is contained in the incarnate Christ. He is a flesh and blood person, but even flesh and blood and person are comprehended in Him. According to Maximus, He is not simply another instance of a person or individual, but personhood and individual are comprehended in Him. Creation is incarnation means that all things are framed and comprehended in the Christ-event.

One way of approaching the difference this makes, is in regard to the Eucharist. The arguments surrounding communion betray the fallacy of reducing the Christ-event to an abstraction. Here is the point at which incarnation takes hold in creation, and yet the discussion focuses on the nature of the elements and the point of transformation. Arguments about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or pure symbolism, miss the Christ-event, confusing it with the material elements. All flesh and blood, all bread and wine, every human body, begins and ends with incarnation. Incarnation is not the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood, rather here is creation as Incarnation (the Christ-Event). Flesh and blood do not constitute the person, rather Christ constitutes the flesh and blood. The Lord’s Supper is the enactment of the body of Christ – or the person of Christ within believers. Literal reduction or symbolic abstraction of blood and flesh reifies the sign and misses the person of Christ and the purpose of the meal.

The point is to destroy what would reduce and abstract (that which killed him, which was the attempted destruction of the person and a reduction to flesh and blood). The material elements do not constitute personhood, but the Christ-event incorporates these elements into Incarnation and personhood. Christ’s personhood is the condition of creation, and incorporation into this condition is not an abstraction, reduction or symbolization, but is the reality enacted, shared, and celebrated in the love feast of the body of Christ. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and Zwinglian symbolism miss the person for the sign, falling short of the person in the material form and missing the Person in pure abstraction.

The Lord’s Supper is the center of the founding of a new community, a new economics, a new ethics of sacrificial love. It is the mystery of the Incarnation actualized. “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings.”  Creation in Incarnation, enacted in incorporation into the person of Christ. This is the significance of the Lord’s Supper.

[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios abbreviated as QThal.

Escaping the Meaning that Kills

“For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” (1 Cor. 11:30).

We normally think of meaning in positive terms, as that which gives a narrative whole and goal to our lives, but what if the story that shapes our lives is killing us. A punishing, angry God, like a father who can never be pleased, a system of acquisition and consumption which can never satisfy, an isolated sense of self focused on autonomy and choice, may provide a religious, capitalistic, individualistic system of values but the system itself may be diseased. Meaning systems are necessary for survival, but they are also that which create the environment of life, potentially producing stresses and traumas as part of the system, which science is more and more linking with the increase of disease.

The first step in recognizing the role of culture, meaning, religion, and belief in physical health is mind/body holism, in which we instinctively and practically recognize that the body and mind cannot be split. What we believe, think, and experience, leave an imprint on our physical health. Physicians, such as Dr. Gabor Maté, are beginning to explore the relationship between trauma and repression and the increase of a variety of diseases. Rather than simply treating the physical symptoms (the physical disease) he began to recognize that the root cause of disease can be linked to stress or trauma. Maté realized, as coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital, that patients with chronic illness often shared an emotional history. “Similar dynamics and ways of coping were present in the people who came to us for palliation with cancers or degenerative neurological processes like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” In his private practice the same pattern appeared in patients with “multiple sclerosis, inflammatory ailments of the bowel such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, bromyalgia, migraine, skin disorders, endometriosis and many other conditions.”[1]

There is even a new field of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, tracing the link between the brain and the immune system. Emotional makeup and stress have been linked to diseases such as scleroderma, and the vast majority of rheumatic disorders, the inflammatory bowel disorders, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.[2] Maté cites a study of medical students under the pressure of examination, demonstrating that their immune system was suppressed. He notes that loneliness has been shown to have similar results in psychiatric inpatients, concluding: “Even if no further research evidence existed—though there is plenty —one would have to consider the long-term effects of chronic stress. The pressure of examinations is obvious and short term, but many people unwittingly spend their entire lives as if under the gaze of a powerful and judgmental examiner whom they must please at all costs.”[3] His description verges on the theological, with certain forms of Christianity and other religions, projecting onto God the role of examiner, making all of life a final exam. If the problem is not religion per se, it may be we do not have emotionally satisfying relationships which “recognize or honour our deepest needs.”[4] At the deepest level, the level of experience and meaning, we may not recognize that we are filtering the world through an understanding which is spiritually, psychologically and physically, sickening.

As has been widely noted, our culture is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this epidemic of loneliness as responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose. An annual mortality of 162,000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[5] It is not simply that people are not connecting with others, but the very notion of self is disconnected. As Charles Taylor describes it, “We are ‘buffered’ selves.” We conceive and experience the self, not as in traditional societies as porous and interconnected, but in an inner mental space.[6] This self-conception creates the condition for developing acute loneliness. The very concept of self, pits the self against others, and even within the self our mind is divided, with the inner self in conflict with the outer self or the “body.”

Meanwhile, theologically inclined psychologists have developed the new field called Neurotheology, which recognizes, not only does our understanding of God shape our mental health, it shapes our brain as well. Recent studies in this new field show that the view that God is angry, punishing, or loving, directly impacts the growth and shape of the brain. Andrew Newberg, a leading researcher in the new field, has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists so as to demonstrate the relationship between the brain and religious experience.[7] Timothy R. Jennings, a medical doctor, in The God Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life,compares the impact on the brain of an angry or loving concept of God.[8] As he notes, “Brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that the more time a person spends in communion with the God of love, the more developed the ACC (the anterior cingulate cortex) becomes. Not only that, the person experiences decreases in stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and risk of untimely death. Even in our mortal and defective bodies, love is healing. Conversely, the more time spent contemplating an angry, wrathful, fear-inducing deity, the more damage to the brain and the more rapidly one’s health declines, leading to early death.”[9] Not only does this demonstrate a mind/body connection, but implicitly, a God/human connection of expansive proportions (a point I return to below).

It is not simply one’s view of God, as religion may or may not enter in to our understanding and experience of reality. The tendency may be to project an image onto God, as an extension of the superego – the punishing father figure who personifies a retributive legal order, such that it is not doctrine or belief about God, but an inner bent or pattern which takes precedent. Getting rid of a punishing God, for example, through atheism may (and in my experience, often does) simply unleash an obscene superego figure which is beyond religious control. Ex-believers may continue to feel the punishing effects of the God they do not believe in. The law or father-figure of the conscience, is not subject to denial. The real issue is not so much God, but how to get rid of an oppressive experience of self and the world, which may or may not be experienced as religion.

Psychotheology, as I have developed the term, fuses Lacanian psychology with a (fuller) reading of Paul, so that psychoanalysis finds the completion of its categories and the resolution of the human predicament in theology. The Lacanian understanding develops what Paul calls “the body of death” which is the isolated, interior notion of the self, but Lacan does not counter this understanding in the way that Paul does, with being joined to “the body of Christ.” As a result, for Lacan, death drive or the superego is a constant factor in a person’s life. The only possibility is to manipulate this force for death, but there is no deliverance. As a result, the isolated sense of self, the inner dialectic between ego and superego, or between the law of the mind and the law of the body, is a permanent condition.

In Pauline terms, the “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7.23-24). The body of death does its work as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind or the symbolic and this constitutes the work of death (the death drive, in Lacanian terminology). Meaning systems, as we have them, take effect within this system (translated into religion or economics or personal striving) between the ego and superego (or the law). One scores points, gets ahead, establishes themselves, according to the zero-sum game of the score-keeper (God, the superego, the cultural imperative). The symbolic of this body of death is the very substance of meaning, and to escape this system is to escape meaning as our world constitutes it.

As Paul Hessert has described, the encounter with Christ brings an end, or should, to meaning as we know it.[10] But of course, the opposite is also often the case, as Christ is made to support our meaning systems (be they legal atonement theories, nationalism, capitalism, or some other measure of success). These systems are “meaningful” according to the point or end toward which they take us. For example, education is only judged meaningful, if at graduation a job is secured – otherwise it may be judged meaningless. Christianity may be meaningful in this context, as it serves to bolster the goals of society – a good education, a good job, a happy family. What possible purpose for a faith that does not serve, or perhaps interrupts, the accepted pattern of meaning.

As Hessert notes though, the New Testament describes culture has having an “endemic flaw” summed up in the term covetousness. The greed or desire of culture is its shaping force and value system, which according to the New Testament is definitive: ”I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10). The world is constituted by covetousness, and to be shaped by the world is to partake of this meaning system (see Eph. 5:3, 5; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:5, Heb. 13:5, 2 Pet. 2:3). This is what belief embraces and what unbelief cannot begin to fathom, as unbelief is founded in the meaning system immediately available. As Hessert puts it, “Covetousness names the dynamic of the meaningful life of self-realization, self-development.”[11] In Paul’s terms, covetousness (as in Romans 7:7) constitutes an “ethos” or orientation to the law, in which the I is ever striving and never achieving. The demands for attaining and improving are constant, as there is no achieving the illusive object behind the law. Paul calls it “the body of death” as the alienated individual in relationship to self is involved in a deadly struggle. The body or self is objectified, something one has, rather than what one is. The body is a means to fulfillment (or not). “There is no choice within the culture-body between self-fulfillment and non-self-fulfillment.” The choice is only “how self-fulfillment is to be –achieved and expressed” and the body provides the instrumentation. “In the ‘body of death,’ . . . the life of the body is only ancillary to its parts (‘members’).”[12] Modern medicine has taken this understanding to the extreme, picturing the body in terms of a mechanical apparatus (e.g., the heart as a pump, the brain as a computer, etc.,) and like much of theology, it does not address the root of sickness.

Paul’s other usage of “body” pictures not the individual, but the corporate body of the church, or the body of Christ. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). This resurrection body exceeds the possibility of meaning provided in the body of death – “resurrection is not a possibility of the body of death, as though that body destined for death might have an entirely different order of life hidden within it. While from the standpoint of the body of death there may be renewed life, there is no resurrection, no other life. Even imagination, bound to meaning, fails at this point.” Paul (in Romans 6) pictures resurrection life as death. There is a dying to meaning. “This death is not the transition to another ‘life’ within the body of death, another set of possibilities (‘life beyond the grave’). It is not the death that meaning is able to encompass and transcend. The death associated with resurrection is total and final death.”[13] In this ultimate relinquishment of meaning, resurrection occurs.

As Christ describes it, this is a completely different environment: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5, JB). This different environing does not depend on its members, on the body, or on the branches, for life. In the body of death, the body borrows its life from its members. The members of the physical body or other members of the cultural body provide life, and delivers it to others. In Paul’s imagery, it is only through being incorporated into the body of Christ, that the eye, the hand, the foot, or a particular individual has access to life. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Thus, in the celebration and realization of being incorporated into this body, to turn to consumptive desire is a return to the body of death – which is quite literally, in Paul’s estimate, deadly: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20–21). They have turned to a covetous biting and devouring one another. “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:29–30). They have traded life for death, and this impacts them bodily/spiritually/physically.

[1]Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Alfred a Knopf, 2003) 57-58.

[2] Maté, 47.

[3] Maté, 54-55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6)

[6] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves”

[7] Andrew Newberg,

[8] Timothy R. Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life (InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition).

[9] Jennings, 42.

[10] Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Inc., 1993).

[11] Hessert, 190.

[12] Hessert, 194.

[13] Hessert, 197.

What Happened to the Jesus People?

This week I watched Jesus Revolution, the story of the Jesus Movement in Southern California, and it brought back memories of what, at least according to Time magazine, was the greatest spiritual awakening in American history. I was not familiar with the characters and events in the film, yet it all seemed so familiar from my experience in Kansas (of all places). The film might leave the impression this was a local event that spread, but it seemed more of a spontaneous combustion igniting across the country. Counter-culture, drug-culture, youth-culture meet Jesus was not an isolated event; at least it seemed spontaneous with us. Which raises the question as to what it was and what happened to it?

The most obvious lasting effect in most churches is the music (which to my ears started so sweet and has now become intolerable), the vague influences of the charismatic movement (mostly reduced to hand raising), casual attire, and the lack of concern with denominational markers. As portrayed in the film, the movement was intensely evangelistic – a lot of handing out tracks and dramatic personal testimony. The tenor may have been Hal Lindsey (the end is coming) meets David Wilkerson style evangelism, but there was also a sense of return to the early church and communalism (at least we made a run at it, as did many others). But other than the rise of new forms of worship and the “new paradigm” churches such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Fellowship, the theology was more of the same. Even the focus on peace and love was gradually absorbed into the general evangelical ethos.

In the end, sociologically and politically, the movement captured a large portion of the counter-culture for the Republican Party and right-wing conservatism. The evangelical sub-culture became a social, cultural, and political force of mainstream proportions in the 1980’s, and a major contribution must have been that the Jesus Movement succeeded in preserving “traditional” values for many counter-cultural “radicals.”

The even greater irony – the anti-materialistic Jesus Movement gave birth to the church growth movement, with its pure materialism of bigger is better. The open acceptance in the Jesus Movement of youth culture, translated into a seeker-friendly anti-theological focus – not for the purposes of openness, peace and love – but for larger numbers. The unity of the Jesus Movement, in its rejection of denominational division – was a felt unity, the crossing of boundaries that has translated into bland sameness.  The radical edge (however vague it was) is long gone and is unwelcome in groups seeking the largest common denominator. No mention of hard doctrine (certainly not anti-materialism, nonviolence or views of God and atonement advocating as much), politics, or pressing social issues, are generally welcome.

The Jesus Movement came with a lot of baggage, which no one was sure how to deal with, and which subsequently was translated into an already existing evangelical theological understanding. This is partly reflected in the Jesus Revolution’s treatment of Lonnie Frisbee. Lonnie came to Jesus during an LSD trip. He assumed Jesus had come to earth on a flying saucer, and he was an active homosexual, none of which is mentioned in the film. He must have adjusted some of his doctrine, but part of his radical appeal (he was the original draw for the large crowds) was his assumption that God was speaking to him and that he was a latter day prophet on the order of John the Baptist. He would eventually contract aids, but it is clear in subsequent interviews that Chuck Smith never knew what to do with his sexuality (other than that he should repent of it), let alone his free-wheeling theology. As Smith tells it, he backslid, contracted aids, and then repented.  The bizarre, and obviously fragile human nature of Lonnie, was not simply his “weakness” but the very thing that drew the crowds.

The same thing could be said for Larry Norman, who is not treated in the film, but who claimed to be the father of contemporary Christian music. Larry came through our town in Kansas, and embodied the cool of Jesus Music. His were some of the most memorable lyrics of the period, but Larry suffered from mental illness, probably arising from childhood sexual abuse. Friends and family did not intervene or confront him; it just seemed that Jesus did not deliver him, and that he too tended to backslide. Evangelical theology was not and is not capable of accounting for the fragile, beautiful, but broken humanity with which it was openly confronted by the Jesus Movement.

The great joy of the time is the most memorable part of the period, and I think for many of us who passed through the period, that joy has been preserved, not through the focus on experientialism but through grappling at an intellectual and theological level with the deep things of God. The Jesus Movement was heavy with experience and light on theology, but many of us were naturally inducted, through thinkers like Francis Schaeffer (with all of his limitations) C. S. Lewis and others, into a deeper theological pursuit and a conversation that is unending.

This is my recommendation to this generation seeking revival (through what often seems a misplaced experientialism): the abiding experience of joy comes with an ever-deepening transformation of the mind.

“Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law”: The Deadly Misunderstanding of the Pharisees and Penal Substitution

Legal theories of the atonement, such as satisfaction theories or penal substitution, not only preserve violent notions of God and allow for human violence (as in just war, capital punishment, self-defense, etc. etc.) but keep alive Zionist notions of Israel and nationalism (e.g., the United States is a Christian nation etc.) through preserving the primacy of the law given to Israel. Not only the violence of God, the violence of humanity, and violent nationalism, are preserved but the cancer afflicting the depths of human interiority are unaddressed in legal theories of the atonement. This conception leaves human desire, rivalry, jealousy, anger and need for violence, undisturbed. Worse, legal theories, such as penal substitution, serve to aggravate self-punishing oppression, as it is presumed human conscience is the voice of God. If God would torture and kill his Son, no wonder that this violent force is unleashed in self-apprehension.

Whether or not the interior and exterior can be separated, what is clear is that legal theories, in preserving the primacy of the law, leave the human disease (exterior and interior) untouched. The war rages within and without and the predominant understanding of the cross adds fuel to the fire – providing a religious confirmation for the worst forms of evil. This dark prognosis is evident at a time when some of the worst actors on the national and world stage are evangelical Christians (e.g., with the promotion of ethnic cleansing in Gaza, the denial of the environmental crisis, the promotion of right-wing racism around the world, and the looming crisis for democracy in the United States).

The New Testament converges on the human predicament, the war within and the war without, in what it does with the law – but it is not that Jesus satisfies the law, affirms and maintains the law, or confirms the eternal purposes of the law. Jesus introduces something new. Which brings us to the exegetical contention over what it means, in Matthew 5:17, that Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Doesn’t this mean, as many contend, that Jesus is the correct interpreter, putting the final exclamation point on the commandments, forever confirming the validity of the law – and isn’t this what it means that he fulfilled it and did not abolish it? Afterall, doesn’t Jesus go on to affirm that every “jot and tittle” – the “smallest letter and stroke” – must be preserved? It all has to be “accomplished” and this accomplishment will mark those who enter in to the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming. It is clear in Matthew 5, the law is not fulfilled and its purpose is not accomplished apart from the person and teaching of Christ, who does not simply confirm the law, but brings forth something new. This new order and new kingdom Jesus describes (throughout chapter 5), was promised and anticipated by the law, but it was not contained in the law. The law of love, or Jesus statement of a new ethical order, is not a restatement of the Mosaic law, but an abrogation, deepening, redirection, and contradiction of the law, all of which is aimed at Jesus and the new kingdom he is ushering in.

Perhaps the most telling point, indicating Jesus’ intent, is the final verse of this thought: “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:21). Apparently, those most attached to law-keeping have not achieved the righteousness for which the law was intended and toward which it pointed. This indicates that “fulfill” cannot simply mean that Jesus fulfills the law as in accomplishing what it foretold (as what is missing is righteousness). Certainly, he fulfilled certain predictions and filled out certain typologies, but this verse speaks of “fulfilling all righteousness.” He is ushering in a righteousness which the law could not accomplish and which the harshest advocates of the law completely missed. How did they fail and what did the miss? What is the substance of the righteousness which they could not grasp? Is it that Jews could not keep the law, and Jesus succeeds (as in legal theories of atonement), or is it that they have missed the significance of Jesus?

It is not simply that the scribes and Pharisees fail to obey the law as their problem is more serious: “For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt. 23:13). In this passage, Jesus lays at their feet, in their attitude toward him, the history of murder: “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets” (Matt. 23:31). They would murder the Messiah, just as their fathers did the prophets. Their problem is more serious than hypocritical showmanship or a legalistic failure. In their clinging to the retributive system of the law (which seems to promote hypocrisy), they reject and kill the Messiah. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). They have stumbled over Christ, rejecting him and in so doing imagining that they were thus upholding the law and the temple.

If we imagine their problem was primarily the law, the danger is we commit the same error. In penal substitution, it is taught they could not perform the law adequately and Jesus performs it and thus fulfills it. But what this misses, is that the law always pointed beyond itself, to Jesus. Just as Jesus is the point of the temple, the sacrifices, and the priesthood, so too he is the point of torah. The scribes and Pharisees were pretty good at understanding and doing law, but what they missed was Jesus. They did not stumble over the law; they stumbled over Jesus. They clung to the sign and missed what it signified, but so too modern Christians who imagine that penal substitution – Jesus’ performance of the law and his bearing its penalty – is his fulfillment of the law.

Israel, the law, the temple, all looked forward to what they did not contain – a living temple, a peaceable kingdom, a new creation, a new birth, and a new form of humanity. As Jesus indicates, the purpose for which he came was to fulfill the law; that is to usher in righteousness and the kingdom of righteousness. In this kingdom it is not simply murder, but murderous anger that is outlawed; it is not simply adultery, but adulterous thoughts that are to be brought under control; it is not simply false promises but the very need for swearing, selfishness, or revenge that are precluded. In the bluntest manner, Jesus abrogates the law, setting forth its inherent inadequacy as an end in itself.

Throughout the passage (Matt. 5), Jesus is making direct reference to torah. “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:23–25). His summary of the lex talionas (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is not a gloss, interpretation, or oral tradition. Jesus is referencing the heart of the law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:38–39). The law is specific and Jesus quite specifically overturns it.

The law allows for and calls for vengeance, but in the kingdom of God there is no retribution. Jesus references the decalogue and the Mosaic law some six times only to overturn it each time. This is brought out in Jesus’ sharpest example, the passage from hatred to love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-33). As David VanDrunen argues, “Many claim that ‘hate your enemy’ is a clear example of an oral tradition or contemporary teaching that illegitimately added something to the Mosaic law. On the contrary, ‘hate your enemy’ summarizes a line of Old Testament teaching. In fact, ‘hate your enemy’ was such an important part of the Mosaic legal order that no one could be a faithful Israelite without doing it.”[1]

While fellow Israelites were to receive special consideration, certain alien persons were to be hated, obliterated and shown “no favor” (no compassion, mercy or love, Deut. 7:1-2). “Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies” (Ps. 13921-22). Jesus is not saying they have heard wrong (when he says, “you have heard it said”), he is saying you have heard it read from the law, but I am saying something different (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45). Keeping the law, by definition, is to fall short of the kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus.

Jesus does not question the interpretation of the law given by the scribes and Pharisees. It is true, as the Pharisees point out, one should not normally associate with sinners (Psalm 1:1), one should normally obey the rules regarding fasting, and one should not work on the Sabbath – this is all according to the law. What the Pharisees failed to recognize is Jesus as the purpose, fulfillment and accomplishment of the law. Jesus’ purpose was to heal the sick and to save sinners: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). He is the bridegroom and “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15). The Pharisees lack mercy and demand strict adherence to the law, and in so doing they break the law and miss its purpose: “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matt. 12:5–7). Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (12:8), he is greater than the temple (12:6), and he is greater than Moses and the law (Heb. 3:3-4), but all of these are indicators of who he is.

Jesus’ fulfillment or accomplishing of the law is no simple confirmation, nor is it simply a tighter or inward confirmation rather, Jesus sets up a direct antithesis between his teaching, his kingdom, and his law of love, and the Mosaic law. It is not that the Mosaic law is abolished, but its significance is now apprehended through Christ. Just as the temple and its sacrifices take on their fulfilled meaning in Jesus as true temple and true atonement, so too all of the Mosaic law is significant in its bearing witness to Christ. The Mosaic law remains significant, as it points to this new ethic and new kingdom, with its more fulsome commandments and holistic fulfillment in Christ.

This is not an ethic for worldly kingdoms (such as Israel), grounded as they are in retribution, but the “heavenly kingdom.” Jesus came announcing this kingdom at the beginning of his public ministry, and the beatitudes (meekness, peace, love, going the second mile, etc.) mark the righteous nature of this kingdom’s citizens. It is not that these kingdom members accomplish this apart from Christ, but this is what it means that he would save his people from their sins. This kingdom ethic flows from its founder, creating a new people. Jesus is the fulfillment of all righteousness and being incorporated into his kingdom means embracing his eschatological and cosmic fulness. The law is not accomplished or fulfilled in perfect performance of its strictures, but in the appearance of its purpose.

If the scribes and Pharisees can be said to have missed Jesus by clinging to the law, so too legal theories of the atonement make the same mistake. They both miss how it is that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). They miss the very meaning of his name (the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” derives from Hebrew roots meaning “the Lord is salvation”) and they miss the fact that Jesus is the salvific point of the law, and the law has no point (no salvation) without him.

[1] David VanDrunen Jesus Came “Not to Abolish the Law but to Fulfill It”: The Sermon on the Mount and Its Implications for Contemporary Law, 47 Pepp. L. Rev. 523 (2020) Available at:

Jesus’ Challenge to Christian Zionism

“Prominent Israeli officials have called not simply for the defeat of Hamas but for the annihilation of Gaza, the starving of its population, and the removal of Palestinians from some or all of its territory. The Israeli president suggested that civilians in the Hamas-controlled territory are not ‘innocent.’”[1] Washington Post

“We are the mother who is not willing to rip her child to shreds. We are the true mothers of Jerusalem.”[2] The Master of Ceremonies at an Israeli rally comprised of a quarter-million people in Jerusalem

The first quote comes from yesterday’s Washington Post and the second from an article in the same paper in 2001, when Bill Clinton proposed sovereignty over east Jerusalem be divided between Israel and a Palestinian state. For some Jews, the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem cannot be shared (it would be the equivalent of Solomon slicing the child brought to him in half in 1 Kings 3:16–28), as it is their land by divine fiat. Jewish identity is, for many, tied to the land, which in the world’s religions is not unusual. Sacred shrines, sacred groves, sacred mountains, and sacred land, are thematic in the world’s religions, and most particularly Judaism, but my concern is what role Christianity plays in the notion of a sacred land.

Cleanliness and the Temple

Ethnic cleansing is not far removed from notions of purity that are tied to sacred land. In the Hebrew Bible, Gentiles, along with blood, dead bodies, the sick, women in their menstrual cycle, certain foods, and certain religions (e.g., idolatrous and Samaritan) are a pollution to the land. In fact, God seems to condone genocide in order to cleanse the land of its original inhabitants, and thus create a sacred land and people.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. (Dt. 7:1–2)

First century Jews could agree that the problem is pollution and the answer cleansing, but what they could not agree on was how to cleanse the land. The priests would have focused on the sacrificial cleanliness of the temple, while the Pharisees considered themselves an alternative to the priests with an alternative mode of cleanliness. Many Jews, such as the Qumran community, considered Herod’s temple and its hierarchy and priesthood corrupt, and so they looked forward to the establishment of the real temple, and true purification. As Karen Wennell describes, “The Qumran community separate themselves from the Jerusalem temple and can therefore view themselves as a temple community in opposition to the institution in Jerusalem, the problem being that the temple is no longer the seat of the law, but that Israel has not followed the correct law because it was rooted in the wrong temple.”[3]

The temple was the center for cleansing, sending out concentric circles of holiness from the holy of holies to the holy place, with God’s holiness flowing through the temple, to all of Israel (Ex. 25:8-9). It is not entirely clear how literally or symbolically this may have been conceived. Isaiah or God declares, that God obviously does not dwell in temples made by man (Is. 66:1-2), and it was to be understood the temple, priests and sacrifices, were a symbolic order pointing to a reality they did not contain. Both Stephen and Paul reference Isaiah, Stephen to Jews and Paul to Gentiles, to make the case they may have all instinctively understood, that temples or any place do not literally contain God.

The temple as symbolic is accentuated with the controversies surrounding the second temple. It was clear the temple represented, not so much the power of God, but bestowed a more material power, thus it was considered by many to be corrupt at its root. The closer one could position themselves to the temple, the greater power one exercised, but this was not spiritual power (at least in the estimate of the Pharisees, the Samaritans, and the Qumran community). Priestly power flowed from proximity to Roman and Herodian power, along with the wealth afforded those receiving the tithes of Israel. The wealthiest priests lived, with their families close to the temple. “There were bridges from the western wall of the enclosure leading to Jerusalem’s upper city. Here, the prominent ruling and priestly families had homes connecting them directly to the temple building.”[4] Josephus in Antiquities (18.90-95) indicates Herod and then Rome kept direct control over the high priest’s vestments, loaning them out only as needed. In addition, Rome maintained a fortress located next to the temple, fortified by extra troops during temple festivals giving them direct control over its activities (War 2.224; Ant. 20.106-107).[5] While there may have been a more unanimous understanding surrounding Solomon’s Temple, there was a great deal of contention as to whether the second temple was accomplishing or corrupting its purpose.  

Jesus, Cleanliness and the Temple

Jesus’ kingdom, ushering in the rule and sovereignty of God, was clearly not tied to a particular land or temple, but was a message to be preached to the ends of the earth. This kingdom is cosmic and universal, and it never occurred to anyone to localize it, but each new group of believers was its own temple, living stones spreading God’s presence. As Paul describes, Christ’s rule is cosmic and all inclusive: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:19–20).

Jesus not only did not concern himself with observing the boundaries between Israel and Samaria, he did not concern himself with ritual boundaries, such as food laws, sabbath keeping, laws of cleanliness, or the special role assigned to priests, scribes and Pharisees. Among his followers, we find both zealots and those who consorted with Rome. With Paul, and many of the early Christians, the Pharisees are widely represented among his followers. We also find the Sanhedrin represented by Nicodemus. All of this to say, Jesus was not concerned with the various arguments among the Jews about what place is holy or which modes of ritual cleanliness are correct. Jesus had come to unite them all, not by litigating their arguments, but by setting the discussion in a different register. “But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness’” (Lk 11:39). The Pharisees were concerned the land and the people were polluted due to a ritual uncleanness, but Jesus dismissed their concerns, and focused on human interiority rather than spatial and ritual pollution.

The mode to purity, in Jesus’ system, is not through a sacred place, sacred rituals, or a sacred building, but through himself. At the beginning of John (as I have described it here), Jesus disrupts the Passover sacrifice in the temple with a sign which, in his explanation, points to himself as true temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The temple incident is not about cleaning up Herod’s temple nor is it about getting rid of coin exchange (it was necessary that the coins bearing Caesars image be exchanged for those with “no graven images”) or animals being sold. As Mary Coloe points out, such trade was not itself wrong; rather, “his words and actions must be seen as a prophetic critique of the entire sacrificial system.”[6] The Jewish response indicates as much, as they do not question why he did it but ask what sign he could give that he had the authority to do such a thing. They did not take his action as some sort of violent assault on the temple, but presumed it called for a legitimating sign of authority, as with Moses’ “signs and wonders” (Deut. 34:11). They knew the prophecies concerning the end of sacrifice and the limitation of the efficacy of animal sacrifice, and indeed, Jesus is declaring the end of the sacrificial system, as he is true temple and true sacrifice. As Jacob Neusner describes Jesus’ action in the temple, it “represents an act of the rejection of the most important rite of the Israelite cult and therefore, a statement that there is a means of atonement other than the daily whole-offering, which now is null.”[7]

The particular pollution that Jesus cleanses from, which temple cult, sacrifice, and law, all pointed toward but which they could not accomplish, was cleansing from death and the grave. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means by which sins are taken away.

It is precisely assignment of the sacred to a place that Jesus challenges, in that he himself now occupies and opens up life to all everywhere. The Hebrew Bible certainly places a (the?) primary importance on the “holy land” and many Jews today retain focus on the land of Israel as an essential part of Jewish identity, but the radical difference Jesus introduces is a challenge to this understanding.  Jesus and Christianity broke from Jewish attachment to sacred places, such as the temple and the land. Christ and Christianity are universalized, and so are not attached to a particular place, a particular space, a particular building or a particular land. As Jesus explains to the woman of Samaria, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23–24). Those attached to a holy building or a holy land are not the true spiritual worshipers Jesus describes.

The creation of the modern state of Israel, and the ongoing displacement of Palestinians, supported by Christian Zionists, raises once again the question of the role of Christianity in colonialism. Does Jesus challenge or confirm the fusion of the sacred with particular places or a sacred land? The clear and obvious teaching of the New Testament does not accord with the history of “Christian colonialism” in which lands have been conquered and peoples removed in the name of Christ, nor does it accord with widespread support of Israel and its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians among modern Christians. God’s purposes are not localized in a chosen land, but they are realized through the gift of his Son to all everywhere.

[1] Ishaan Tharoor, “Israel’s war in Gaza and the specter of ‘genocide’”, Washington Post, (November 7, 2023).

[2] Keith B. Richberg with Eetta Prince-Gibson, “Jerusalem Protesters Decry U. S. Proposals: Crowd Insists City Remain Undivided as Israeli Capital, ” The Washington Post; Tuesday, January 9,2001: A17.

[3] Wenell, Karen J. Jesus and land: constructions of sacred and social space in Second Temple Judaism. (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2004), 92-93.

[4] Wenell, 84.

[5] Wenell, 80-81.

[6] Mary Coloe, “Temple Imagery in John,” Interpretation (2009, 368-381)

[7] Jacob Neusner, “Money Changers in the Temple: The Mishna Explanation,” NTS 35 (1989) 290. Quoted in Coloe, ibid.