Conceiving God: The Veneration of Mary and the Denigration of the Spirit

Privileging The Feminine Work of the Spirit

Romans 8 pictures a birth in progress, in which the Holy Spirit, all of creation, and humanity share in the groanings of travail which culminate in the incorporation of the children of God into the divine family. There is a conception in progress, the prime reality Paul is conveying, and his readers are simultaneously being conceived and conceiving. The two conceptions are interwoven, as incorporation into the divine order is inclusive of human realization. There is a dynamic of prayer, in which those praying do not know rightly; they cannot formulate their requests but the Spirit intercedes in the communion-communication-conception, so that engendering them into the divine intercommunication is birth in progress. The imagery is of the Spirit interpenetrating, indwelling, coalescing, incorporating, empathizing, so as to bring about the fulness of a love relationship. This binding together in the Spirit of love is an unbreakable bond in which all of created and uncreated reality converge, and while God is beyond gender, the imagery here privileges the feminine-like role of the Spirit. Even the fatherhood of God, or the Abba relationship enabled through the Son, is accessed and completed through the Spirit.

Confusing the Law with God

Chapter 8 contrasts with the masculine, commanding, principled, punishing, alienating, depiction of the law in chapter 7 (vs. 7-25). The implicit question of chapter 7 (answered in chapter 8), concerns the role of the law in perceiving God. Where God is known through the law, he is separate and dangerous. He dictates, prohibits, proscribes, and inscribes on stone and there is no sharing or incorporation. His Theophanous appearance is repellent to the senses, such that he cannot be looked upon, and only through special permission can Moses, from the cleft in the rock, view his trace.  He then disappears behind an impenetrable veil, leaving nothing for the eyes or the senses.

So too in chapter 7, everything proves ungraspable: the good or right action, the enactment of the will, understanding “what I am doing,” even the principle of the law. Though desire or coveting concerns the senses, the only object of desire which presents itself is the law. In verse 23 he sees this law, or at least its effects in his body, but even here it is not really an object of sight or any positive object for the senses, as it is felt only in its antagonism with the law of the mind. The depiction of 7 is of an ego who would reappropriate himself through the law, yet the law divides even from his own body. Where chapter 8 depicts an incorporating unity of all creation into the life of God, chapter 7 lacks any space other than the law and the law acts only as a point of division. The only portion of the created order to appear in chapter 7 is the body, but even this body is written over with a law that makes it inaccessible. Where chapter 8 is infinitely expansive and incorporative, chapter 7 describes the opposite movement of reduction, restriction, dis-communion, and uncommunication. Nothing is conveyed, nothing is grasped, and nothing is seen.

The key turn in chapter 7 is perhaps, verse 10. The expectation of this law was that it would produce life, but this proved to be the entry point of the deception of sin, which “killed me.” In Genesis 3, the deception of sin was that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would produce life, and so could displace God. The prohibition was not to eat of this tree, but this prohibition was not life-giving per se, as the tree of life, representing the presence of God, was the source of life. In Paul’s argument, the Jewish and Gentile type of person constitutes a singular form that can be summed up under Adam (so that the Jewish encounter with the Decalogue also falls under Adam’s encounter with God’s prohibition).  Due to sin the Jews attempted to establish their own righteousness through the law and failed to combine it with faith (10:3ff).  Paul’s argument throughout the letter is that the law is not an end in itself; at its origin is the faith and example of Abraham and at its end is the fulfillment of Christ.  Law alone, apart from this faith, is void and nullifies the promise (4:14). The work of sin is to skew the perception of the promise of life in the law, so as to remove the necessity of God and leave only the reality of the law. The Mosaic law, like the prohibition in the garden, may have been a pointer or guide, but to imagine that it contains life is to confuse the law with God.

The Law and Gospel as Masculine Incompleteness

This principle of life in the law reduces life to a singular principle which, if one can grasp or obtain it, enfolds all of reality into this singularity – which is, of course, the lie of sin.  This mistake is gendered masculine in the story of Babel and Abraham, in that Abraham is turned away from the Babel notion that he can make a name for himself through his towering (pro)creative powers. Circumcision marks the spot of the accepted incompleteness and dependence on God. This castration cut short exposes the satanic lie (you won’t die), which might otherwise have been repressed. The function of the law and of circumcision was to open the reality of death and mortality and to point to God as the source of life.

The law stood against idolatry but idolatry simply enacts the proclivity to displace God with human creative powers. The typical idol was phallic; a male ordering of reality. The problem is not maleness or procreation, but it is to imagine this alone produces life.  In turn, to imagine that circumcision or the law contains life is to make the law into an idol. It is to miss the counterpoint of the mark of circumcision. The mark means life, procreative power, endurance in the face of death, is only possible with God. For Abraham, this was a reality he committed himself to in his journey of faith.

The question Paul raises in Romans 7:7, might be translated as, “Is the law the Thing? Can’t all things be summed up in this Singularity? Aren’t all things reducible to this Symbolic Order?” Here is a disavowal of the meaning of the mark of circumcision and a return to the original sin. By giving oneself completely over to the symbolic order of law (the knowledge of good and evil), death is denied and sexual difference refused. The naked and ashamed condition of the first couple must relate to their genital difference which exposes the lie, “You will be like gods.” Likewise, beneath the denial of the meaning of circumcision (law) is the denial of death and a refusal of the contingencies of sexual difference. Nothing is lacking as the law is sufficient and “I” can enact the law (the law of sin and death). The question Paul poses is impossible for those who have already presumed that they have life in the law. The law is sin; it is the denial of death and sexuality, and there is no questioning of the all-encompassing order of the law. In this law ordered reality, God is masculine, singular, transcendent, and hidden behind and accessed through the law. This traditional masculine account of God subordinates any trace of difference – difference within the God-head and difference between the sexes (the bearers of the image of the Godhead).

This indifferent God is displaced in Trinitarian difference. As in Romans 8, this difference is an enacted realization in which “the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (8:11) and the law of life in the Spirit displaces the law of sin and death (8:2). The image is of the Father’s Spirit raising Jesus and incorporating believers into an egalitarian unified Trinitarian community. The Trinity incorporates difference into unity, so that male/female, slave/free, and Jew/Gentile are all given an identity that surpasses former modes of identity. Romans and a large portion of the letters of the New Testament, are written to ward off the legal, idolizing tendency, of Judaizers who would make the law absolute and so return Christians to this former mode of doing identity. This continued struggle with the masculine principle of idolatry characterizes the subsequent Christian age.

 Though there are abundant signs that in the early church women were apostles, prophets, deaconesses, missionaries, ministers, and were counted equal to men, the tendency was to gradually subordinate the feminine aspect of God, and this was marked by the simultaneous denigration of women.[1] Where God is masculine the male is most divine-like, and women are completed by men, so that theirs is a complementary role lacking its own substance. Patriarchy, monarchy, the privileging of fathers and sons, and a society premised on male sameness flowed from this masculine God. At the same time, the incorporating, birthing, empathetic groaning, qualities of the Spirit, tended to be written or drawn over (literally in iconography) by masculine images of God.

The Iconographic Subordination of the Spirit

When the Greek East and Latin West began to divide, primarily over their different understandings of the processions of the Trinity, Western iconography focuses on the Father and Son with the near loss of images of the Spirit. As Sarah Coakley describes it, “The simultaneous ‘feminization’ of the Spirit in some paintings, and the regular replacement of the Spirit by the Virgin Mary, represent important implicit relocations of female power and presence, but arguably serve more to shore up cultural stereotypes of ‘femininity’ rather than dissolve them.”[2] While it could be argued that the adoration of Mary, reflected in the art, represents an appreciation of the feminine, Coakley’s point is that it seems to reflect a reduction in status of feminine characteristics from the divine to the human.[3] The reduction of the power of the flaming Holy Spirit, first to a soft cooing dove and then to a woman, indicates that the greater the feminization the more the redundancy. The focus is no longer on God giving birth, incorporating, and indwelling as part of his saving action, as these attributes are relegated to a human female stand-in.

With the emphasis in the West on substitutionary atonement, in which Christ’s death satisfied the Father and secured forgiveness, male images of the Father and Son complete the edging out of the Spirit. The dove, where it does make its appearance, is often small and hard to find so that one has to go dove hunting to locate the Spirit. As Coakley notes in typical British understatement, this “witnesses to a less than vibrant pneumatology in the theological thinking that attends the type.”[4] For example, in Hans Holbein the Elder’s memorial for Augsburg (on the eve of the Reformation), punishment and pain are accentuated with the vengeful Father sheathing his sword only upon the pleadings of the wounded Son and the Virgin, who is baring her breast and begging (above her are the words): “Lord, sheathe thy sword that thou hast drawn and see my breast where the Son has sucked.” Here the Virgin has displaced the Spirit and even in this reduced role she only pleads to the Father on behalf of the Son.

Coakley’s comments on a miniature in an eleventh-century Winchester manuscript serve to sum up what she calls “the subterranean pathology of Western ideas of inner-trinitarian relations.” The Father and Son huddled together on the right side of the picture are trampling on the devil, Arius (a heretic) and Judas, while all things feminine (i.e., a dejected looking dove and the Virgin holding a fragile baby) are excluded from the inner divine council. Coakley concludes, “For it is clear where the real power, the real locus of salvific activity, resides in this remarkable manuscript miniature: the left-hand figures, in contrast, strain to gain entry into that salvific realm of eternal male spiritual authority. Has the sense of ‘feminine’ exclusion from the realm of male divinity ever been more masterfully expressed?”[5]

Reconceiving God

Those images which best represent a Romans 8 mutual reception and procession, often depict a circular incorporating movement. In the mystical vision of Hildegard of Bingen, a silver outer circle, representing the Father, and a golden inner circle, representing the Spirit, encompass the figure of Christ. In her theology and iconography, the Spirit is a central theme – picturing, perhaps, Jesus’ explanation to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and Paul’s understanding, “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12. 3). Likewise, William Blake depicts the Father humbly bending to embrace the Son, who is lying as if on the cross (the cross or any orientating feature is absent). The Spirit forms an all-encompassing background, with outstretched wings mirroring and extending beyond the Son’s outstretched arms. The lack of any grounded perspective, makes it seem “the turned-around Christ is veritably leaping into the Father’s arms, in an ecstasy of simultaneous joy and costly gift.” The movement is from death into the waiting arms of the Father and the enfolding wings of the Spirit and thus a leap into life.[6] A final modern sketch that, in Coakley’s opinion best captures the imagery of Romans 8, depicts a Christ like pray-er with his palms turned upward in supplication, with a flaming dove receiving the prayer from the heart and channeling it into the vortex of the “Father,” represented in arms reaching toward a downward embrace. In Coakley’s words, “The downward movement is thus returned – balanced – by an upward one; and both are taken up into the ‘apophatic’ whirl of a circular tunnel reaching out and up to the unknown.”[7]

The biblical depiction of the law as a warning against and displacement of phallic idolization, and then the New Testament deliverance from the idolatry of the law (Paul equates the turn to law to a return to idolatry) directs us to an incorporating Trinitarian conception of God. The danger, illustrated in the iconography, is of returning to the masculine idolizing principle and of losing the birthing, indwelling, interpenetrating, bond of love, enacted by the Spirit.


[1] Noteworthy here is the recent find of a cathedral, dating to the 5th century, honoring women ministers. “The Holy Mother Sophronia. Theodosia the deaconess. Gregoria the deaconess. These are some of the women lovingly memorialized at a magnificent Byzantine basilica that Israeli archaeologists have uncovered in the southern city of Ashdod.” https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/MAGAZINE-byzantine-basilica-with-female-ministers-and-baffling-burials-found-in-israel-1.10387014 Thank you Matt.

[2] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (197-198). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] The feminization of the Spirit may already indicate relegation to a secondary status.

[4] Coakley, 211-212.

[5] Coakley, 247-248

[6] Coakley, 255-256.

[7] Coakley, 258-259.

I Am Not Me!

My children bought me a birthday present in which each week I am given a writing prompt and then at the end of the year my responses will be put together in a book. I have written about my favorite dog (Mr. Magee, who could open his own cans of dog food, politely wiped his feet when entering the house, and who stole our Thanksgiving Turkey), memories of my grandmother (Grandma was a drag racer), my first job (a circus), etc. but this week the question, “Are you the same person you were as an adolescent?” seems to strike at the very notion of subjectivity, and yet it was an issue that occurred to me very early. Everything is changing so what of me endures? I presumed, instinctively, that memory must be the singular enduring thing about us, so I performed memory experiments. As the car was speeding down the road, I would look at a particular rock or telephone pole or tree and try to retain the object in my memory. “There’s a rock, a rock, a pole, a tree.”  The high rate of speed made it difficult to pick out any particular object, but I presumed this accelerated condition reduplicated, in brief, everyday experience. I ran the experiment repeatedly, trying to remember any particular object. The unwritten rule I had formulated is that the ordinariness of the rock was part of the issue. A spectacular rock, by definition, would not qualify because if memory is to have any continuity it cannot be one spectacular thing after another (an inherent contradiction). If our own being depends upon the continuity of our memory, it must be in the continuity of ordinary memory. The issue of speed also, I presumed, should not in any way be an obstacle – whether fast or slow, memory should not be affected. Things happening quickly should not obstruct our being. Yet, no particular rock or pole proved to have an enduring image, so it seemed the details of memory are continually lost.  

Around this time, I hit upon a formula which proved quite satisfying, and it seemed to resolve the issue: “I am me.” I don’t know if I literally pounded my chest at the discovery, but that is the spirit of the sentence. The existential realization, at least upon initial discovery, was a sort of alignment which proved very satisfying. I had only to repeat the formula to feel once again a profound feeling of coinciding with myself (I did not yet know the term “ipseity” though I had discovered the desire for achieving it). The pronouncement itself, at least initially, seemed to accomplish this coincidence and affirmed my being. That is, I did not experience it as an abiding reality which I had discovered, but the feeling came only as I made the pronouncement.

This very soon brought a moment of despair, as I realized that the “I am” and “me” were only held together in the sentence, and by repeating the sentence. I recognized that even in the sentence there was not complete coincidence or convergence between the two major terms. I tried saying the sentence with force – “I am, me.” Then I tried thinking it rapidly, as if I could close the gap between the “I” and “me” through force of thought or speed. What had initially appeared as a discovery or capacity proved to be the opposite. On the heels of feeling great satisfaction with my new formula I realized the formula (the need for it and the need to repeat it) was itself an indicator of a third term between I and me which disrupted my unity with myself.

I presumed that this third element between “I” and “me” was simply there, but I could not say it. I could pronounce “I am me,” but the discord or gap between the two could not be closed. To say that I literally attempted to access or posit this third element is not exactly correct but I turned, perhaps instinctively, to the unconscious. As I have described it elsewhere:

Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off.

The ordinary family into which I was born had their abilities – special even – among mortals. I did not question their earth boundness, nor could I articulate the equation of flight with immortality, but this is how it functioned.   I was not grounded by the contingencies of bipedalism. Flight was incomparable with the local means of achieving immortality – throwing a fastball or running bases – it constituted an ontological difference. My apparent incapacities as the youngest and smallest were simply a foil. The three-foot frame housed an ego temporarily fallen from the heavens. Though the slightest talent at anything might have tempered the necessity, but as it was, flying was my Kant and Plato – the equivalent of a philosophical proof of being – of innate immortality.

I assume that my slow development must explain my memory of what must be a universal passage – the passage through a growing awareness of self-identity and yet the unease and dissatisfaction inherent in the incompleteness of the process, and then some compensatory move in which we posit a third element. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” must describe a universal passage to a presumed absolute knowledge – a foundation, and Kant’s notion that the thought (“I think”) and thinking thing (“I am”) actually constitute a disjunction, a felt noncoincidence, within the self. Isn’t this simply a description of the passage through adolescence and the dissonance this creates  

As Søren Kierkegaard (or SK) describes it, there is a passage into despair in the self’s relationship to the self. “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal (there is no continuity) or failure (there is incomplete continuity) to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what SK calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease and SK assigns primary importance, not to any one element of the relation (soul or body) but to the dynamics of the relation which might be a kind of negative incapacity to cohere.

SK suggests that this absence can be accounted for. “If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation.” He acknowledges that the relation can be constituted in a negative unity but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.”

The unease or disease of not being fully a self, an I that cannot arrive at its me, turns out to be the fundamental problem, the ultimate prompt which, if we do not take flight, points to the constituting Power of “I am.”

Resurrection as the Personal Realization of Creation Ex Nihilo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Job 38:8-11).

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

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

(Is. 45:18-19, RVSCR)

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

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

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

(Is. 66:1-2)

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

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

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

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

(2 Maccabees 7:28-29)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] This is the claim and explanation of James Noel Hubler in his dissertation Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas which can be accessed at https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2119&context=edissertations

[2] In Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.14

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

Imitation as Death Dealing or Life Giving

The anthropological fact to be extracted from the biblical portrayal of fall and redemption, an understanding supported by both observation and recent developments in brain science, is that we are human by imitation. In biblical terms, damnation is imitation of evil (Heb. 6:12; III Jn 1:11) and salvation is imitation of Christ (I Cor. 1:11; Ephesians 5:1; Hebrews 13:7) and this basic concept properly informs the movement from fall (the first Adam as model or head of the race) to redemption (the 2nd Adam as model). Imitation accounts for the peculiar form that evil takes (the turn to violence, the experience of desire, jealousy and shame) and the necessary form that redemption takes (faith as the imitation of the faith of Christ, and corporate redemption). What it means to be human (freedom from mere instinct, freedom from the rule of brute strength), in both the extremes of evil and goodness, is due to the role of imitation or mimesis.  

The original image (God’s self-image) includes the corporate mirroring of Trinity. The work of the Son is a reflection of the Father enacted by the Spirit. Reflection shared (seeing oneself through another’s eyes) (Gen. 1:26-27) accounts for the corporate identity of God and the necessary plurality of humans (male and female) who bear this image. This also means the imaging part of image bearing depends upon the presence of the original image. The image of God shared with humans simultaneously includes the capacity for imitation and the necessary presence of God as the model to be mirrored.

The fall of humans is a turn from the Divine model, and as Paul describes it in Romans is, in the first instance, a turn to the human self-image (1:23). What can it mean that humans provide their own model? The self’s relating to itself in the relation (to paraphrase Kierkegaard), or the caving in of the individual, is witnessed in shame and hiding, but also in a new role for language. The deployment of language to name, apprehend, and connect with God and creation, collapses in upon the self, indicated in the new word coined for the occasion – “I.” This I is constituted in a bundle of new emotions – shame, fear, alienation, antagonism, and then murder. The circulating system of one sign referring to another (the knowledge of good and evil) is ultimately empty. Desire seems to endlessly follow the signs with no signified in sight.

If imitation is what makes us human – language learners lifted beyond instinct, it also accounts for the degraded form humanity can take. Where Adam had been created in God’s image, Adam “had a son in his own likeness, in his own image” (Gen. 5:3). Following the logic of Romans 1:18-32 and the early chapters of Genesis, the capacity to imitate God, turned into the desire to be God or to take his place, makes of mirroring and imaging a relation of the self to the self (the mind’s mirror) – a capacity for imitation turned around to mimetic desire. The subject looks to other persons, creation, himself, the law, for the object that will provide being, life, self-possession. The model may seem to be endowed with superior being – but this imagined plenitude only accentuates the lack in the self. There is no end to this jealousy as it leads to an ever-heightened desire. Every jealous child would bring down the world to get what they want. The near absolute role of the mimetic in humans has no instinctual brakes, no instinctive subordination to alpha males, no limit to its destructive desire. The jealous adult, unlike the jealous child, may have no subordinating power to control the murderous instinct.

Taking the place of the other, obtaining what they have, gives rise to the first murder (Cain slays Abel in a twisted bid to obtain his acceptance by God) which turns into an ever-snowballing epidemic of violence. Lamech, after what is perhaps a double homicide, and with his penchant for murder poetry, is representative of the new sociopathic race. Adam as model gives rise to Lamech at the head of the generation of Noah with its epidemic of violence from which even God cannot redeem.  

How Babel is an improvement over the generation of Noah is not completely clear but the confusion of languages precedes the first appearance of idolatry and the rise of homosexuality. The events of Babel seem to inaugurate a very different symbolic universe. The Sociopathic murder (all out chaos) of the pre-flood generation is replaced by tribalism, organized violence, and rampant idolatry. Even in the household of Abraham, Terah (Abraham’s father), was an idolater who also made and sold idols (according to Midrash Genesis Rabbah 38).

Abrahamic religion, at each step, seems to counter the idolatry spawned by the Babylonians. Like every good idolater, they would open heavens gate and obtain their own transcendence through their ability to stack bricks while Abraham is made to trod the earth and embrace his mortality. They would storm the heavens while God speaks to Abraham on earth; they would make a name for themselves while God’s promise is that he would make Abraham’s name great; they would engineer their own salvation through an enduring tower while Abraham is dependent upon God and faces the reality of his dissolution; they refuse to be scattered from the land while Abraham is set to wandering.

The slow extraction of Abraham from mimetic religion may describe his entire life-course. His departure from his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, is a departure from potential human models. Everything familiar was to be left behind including mimetic religion. Abraham hears the voice of God, but he imitates Melchizedek in calling Yahweh “the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:22).

The identity of God as the source of all life pertains to his circumcision. In Jewish understanding this cut inscribes God’s name on the flesh. In the words of Derrida, “Circumcision is to be thought in terms of the cut that severs the circle of the same, as the cut that opens the same to the other, which cuts a very different figure.” It is the cut that turns from the immanent creation to God as model. In Gen. 17 it establishes the covenant in which Abraham turns definitively to worshiping God. Where mimetic desire is the pursuit of wholeness for and within the self, circumcision renders the body fragmented or incomplete but depending on the life or completeness of God – a different order of desire.

Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac may be the final counter to a religion which would sacrifice the other so as to obtain life. When Isaac asks his father: “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s answer is “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22.1-8). The allusion is not simply to the ram Abraham finds, but to Christ. As René Girard puts it, “God, in this sense, will give the one who will sacrifice himself in order to do away with all sacrificial violence.”[1] Abraham’s journey from what was probably a religion of human sacrifice, involves the turn from presuming life is within his capacity or his power to produce. His acceptance of his own mortality, the realization he was “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19) and thus completely dependent upon God, marks the final turn from the mimetic grab for life at Babel.

The basic negative emotions – shame, jealousy, envy – can be understood as arising with mimetic rivalry – desiring life and wholeness and feeling its absence. With the faith of Abraham made complete and available in Christ, imitating his faith saves from blind sacrificial violence. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Eph. 5:1; Heb. 6:12). Rivalry, jealousy, and violence, are displaced by hope, love, and peace in the saving imitation of Christ.


[1] René Girard, Evolution and Conversion, pp. 203-04.