Religionless Christianity

Part of the contested legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer pertains to what he might have meant by a religionless Christianity. Both the “death of God theologians” and those who presume that, with this phrase, he was referring only to his particular and immediate context in Nazi Germany, seem to miss that Bonhoeffer is making a theological and biblical argument and not simply a cultural observation. Bonhoeffer presumes to find this religionless understanding, not simply in Germany or in a secular age, but in the Old and New Testament and particularly in the theology of Paul. My argument, made through his own statements in Letters and Papers from Prison, is that Bonhoeffer may well be working from within a German Lutheran framework, but he is picturing the emergence of a mature world Christianity which will abandon the religious sensibility, inclusive of various forms of Christianity (including those of his own immediate context), which has made impossible a true sharing in God’s suffering in Christ and thus a true experience of God. As early as 1934 he was convinced that “in the West Christianity is approaching its end – at least in its present form and its present interpretation.”[1] His development of a religionless Christianity is not a departure from his earlier vision nor is it necessarily a relinquishing of his Lutheranism, but it entails the emergence of something new in terms of fulfillment and maturity.

His first resource for speaking of this religionless conception is the Old Testament and the fact that “the Israelites never uttered the name of God.”[2] In prison he has undertaken a re-reading of the Old Testament and has read it two times. He recognizes that there is no discussion of the saving of souls or deliverance from out of this world, but the focus is this-worldly – the establishment of God’s kingdom and righteousness on earth.

Then, he finds in Paul’s depiction of passage beyond circumcision the modern-day equivalent of a passage beyond religion. Religion is no more a condition for salvation than circumcision, thus he can conclude, “Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion.” A right understanding of Paul would entail a moving beyond the defining characteristics and delimiting factors of religion.

Religion, he explains, “means to speak on the one hand metaphysically, and on the other hand individualistically.” Where religion is concerned with ontology and the saving of souls, Bonhoeffer claims, “Neither of these is relevant to the biblical message or to the man of today.” He characterizes religion as man’s attempt to find God and contrasts this with biblical revelation. The human word is pitted against the divine Word or the Logos of God.

His is an argument not simply about cultural interpretation but biblical interpretation. He asks, “fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the Old Testament at all?” And his point is that the New Testament must be read against this Old Testament background. “Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn’t it true that Rom. 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous?”

So, a religionless Christianity is not an embrace, as an end in itself, of secularism and atheism, but these eventualities afford a correct reading of the Bible. With the rise of secularism Christianity can take its proper place, not at the boundaries of society but in the center of earthly and human concerns. The world come of age leads “to a true recognition of our situation before God.” This was always where Christ pointed. “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34).”

God wants us to live in the world without the religious hypothesis of God. This is why God let himself be pushed out of the world on the cross, so that we would stand before him in full authenticity. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” He is not with us as a stop-gap or as the Big Other, present in oppressive strength. “Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” It is not religiosity Christ calls for but shared suffering. “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.” This is true conversion: “not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53.”

This is no system of belief in abstract doctrine or in comprehending God in his omnipotence, as all this accomplishes is an extension of religion. Genuine experience of God begins with an encounter with Jesus Christ. The encounter with the one who “is there only for others” transforms the world and every aspect of belief as this is a true encounter with God. This means attaining to the transcendent is not a striving after the infinite or attempting “unattainable tasks,” as the transcendence of the neighbor encounters us in any given situation. The “man for others” turns us to the neighbor to find the immediate manifestation of the transcendence of God. God in human form is the true encounter with the divine, not the remote and terrifying. “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus.”

Bonhoeffer does not hesitate to challenge what he calls the misdirection of the Apostles’ Creed (proving once again he is not thinking only about his context but the church universal). The problem with the Apostles creed is that it begins with the wrong question. “‘What must I believe?’ is the wrong question.” This does not pertain to the true faith of Christianity and we should not, he warns, entrench ourselves as Barth and the Confessing Church would have it, behind questions of doctrine and belief. We should not, “like the Roman Catholics,” let the church do our believing for us by simply identifying with the church. “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” Just as the Christian is only a follower of Christ when he exists for others, so too with the church. To make a start the church “should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.” The church and its people “must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.” It must show and tell what it means to live in Christ by witnessing to this existence for others. “It must not under-estimate the importance of human example; it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” Here is the way belief works – not through abstract doctrine but in deed and power. This is how we “believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it.” This God who bids us come and die is only disclosed in this narrow way.

This marks the difference between the God of religion and the God of Christianity, as man in his distress imagines a God who can fill in the gaps in his weakness, while Christianity directs us to a God of suffering love. As long as humankind only experiences God as a security blanket he cannot know the God of the Bible. The false conception of God is exposed in man recognizing his own strength, and to fully acknowledge the godless world and by so doing share in God’s sufferings. The non-religious God is only revealed with a full acknowledgement of the godless world, and it is in this way that one comes nearer to God. So the strange paradox develops: “The world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.” This godlessness affords the opportunity to know God as he is revealed in weakness and shared suffering in Christ. In forsakenness there is a turn, in Charles Taylor’s language to the immanent frame, but this is where Bonhoeffer imagines Christianity always directed us. “It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored.”

Bonhoeffer makes it clear he is not speaking of provisional measures or from the perspective of theological liberalism but from a new theological understanding. His claim is that theological liberalism, in its demythologizing tendencies has still not gone far enough, in that it is simply attempting an abridgement of the Bible. What is called for is a “theological” re-conception of the Bible. Not a demythologization so much as a holistic re-enchantment, in which what is above this world is made immanent – the very intent of creation, incarnation, crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now there is an unfolding of the Gospel, not in Hegelian terms in which the world come of age is a historical achievement, but in biblical terms in which the Gospel is bearing universal fruit for all of the world. This fruit is the possibility of a religionless Christianity.

He describes the origins of this possibility, much as Taylor does secularism, as originating in the thirteenth century with the rise of human autonomy, the development of science, social and political developments (including art, ethics and religion), such that there is a “completion” in which man has learnt to deal with himself “without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’.” So “it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.” This God confined to religion, though, needs to be pushed out so at to arrive at a more mature understanding.

Religion limits the role of God to a stop-gap, a resource “when human knowledge has come to an end, or when human resources fail” so that the God of religion is “always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.” The world come of age is one in which human limitations are narrowed so that a place for God is simultaneously restricted. With scientific, sociological, and psychological progress there seems to be no end to human self-sufficiency, but for Bonhoeffer this is not bad news for Christianity as it affords a severing of Christianity from religion.

Rather than continually trying to preserve space for God and attempting through apologetics and metaphysics to keep human-kind attached to its adolescence, the world come of age calls for a mature faith. “The attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian.” It is pointless as there is no returning to a previous age or the possibility of creating dependence in place of an achieved independence or to create a problem where there is no problem. It is ignoble because it amounts to an attempt to exploit a weakness which secular man knows nothing about. He maintains it is “Unchristian, because it confused Christ with one particular stage in man’s religiousness, i.e. with a human law.”

Rather than exploit a non-existent weakness or attempt to smuggle God into a “last secret place,” in a world come of age humankind needs to be confronted at its place of strength. Bonhoeffer explains, “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.” Rather than setting God at the boundaries and utilizing him for a stop-gap for human weakness now the faith of the Bible can be reconceived with God at the center of the world. While there will always be the delimitations of human finitude, and those things which prove insoluble, it is better to let the religious inclination to fill in these silences cease. It is better, Bonhoeffer maintains, “to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved.”

To live with God at the center is to give up “any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.” To live in this world with God will mean “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.” Only in this way can we “throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” Here is true metanoia – a conversion from out of religion in which one becomes a mature Christian. “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

So, for example, rather than conceive of resurrection as the “solution” to the problem of death, and rather than conceiving of God’s transcendence in epistemological terms, these categories need to be read into the world. Resurrection and God are not simply future and beyond our cognitive faculties, but God’s transcendence and resurrection need to be the ordering principles of society – set not on the periphery but “in the middle of the village.” This, Bonhoeffer explains, is how to read the New Testament in light of the Old and this is the initial shape of this religionless Christianity.

This new religionless faith will disempower former ways of speaking and a new vocabulary will arise, centered on prayer and righteous human action. Bonhoeffer projects a time in the life of the next generation (the life of Bethge’s son whom Bonhoeffer would have baptized if not imprisoned and is the occasion for which he lays this out) in which “All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.”

Is he speaking here of simply provisional change or is he in fact thinking of this time as a complete reformation of the church? He says, “By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification.” I suppose one could read this as a focus on Germany and the German church, but Bonhoeffer seems to be describing a worldwide emergence of something new. “It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it.”

He does not claim to have worked out the details of this reordered world and this new humanity with its new way of speaking, but he most certainly sees it as a deep grammatical shift. “It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.”

It would seem to be an unnecessary narrowness that refuses to see this as the culmination of Bonhoeffer’s earliest, Barthian, refusal of religion, his long reimagining of God and community, and the beginnings of an enacted eschatological formation of a new sort of humanity. He says as much with his quotation of Jeremiah, “They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it” (Jer. 33.9). He concedes, “Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.” His prayer for young Dietrich Bethge would seem to be his prayer for every Christian and for the church universal: “May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day, ‘The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter till full day’ (Prov. 4.18).”

He speaks in his description of this religionless Christianity of something new emerging, something of which he only has a rough conception, but it involves a new experience of God, a new type of humanity, and a new form for the church universal. I believe his vision is one that we need to build upon as we resist the return to religion.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London, 1933–1935, ed. Keith Clements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 81.

[2] All quotes hereafter are from, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; New York: Touchstone, 1997).

A Genealogy of the Lonely Modern

In the typical scenario, which comes loaded with the modern view of history, the question is posed, “Would you smother baby Hitler in the crib, given the opportunity?” What if we discover, perhaps with the deed complete, it was actually Hitler’s reading of Nietzsche, and that in fact there were many German boys of a peculiar intellect and disposition who, given bad philosophy, could fill the role of Hitler candidates. Smothering baby Nietzsche will not really help, as he too arises with the secular age whose end he envisions.[1] The problem with the scenario is contained in the presumption that Hitler is an isolated, unique individual, and not a product of his time and circumstance.

John Milbank though, has the perfect candidate for smothering. According to Milbank, Duns Scotus is the culprit who created the theological vision that ultimately disenchanted the world which has given rise to both modern experience and modern political structure, with all of its attendant disasters. Milbank would explain the modern and secular, whether modern American evangelicalism or modern global Christianity as a “thinned out version of the Catholic faith” – all the result of the theology of Scotus.[2] In turn, Milbank imagines that if we could recover medieval ecclesial and political structures the root problem would be addressed. He puts on display both a failed understanding of the nature and depth of the human predicament and its solution.

My point here is not simply to indicate the weakness in attaching blame for all of modern thought to one medieval scholar. Milbank, after all, is simply following a long line of modern scholarship (the very thing he is critiquing) which would attach supreme importance to one individual or a particular stream of history. While it is not exactly “the great man theory of history” (in which history is biography), it is something of a “disastrous idea theory of history” which attaches a near sui generis notion to particular ideas, periods and persons. For example, Leslie Newbigin, typical of the previous generation, wrote of Rene Descartes having caused the second Fall of humanity. He presumed that if Descartes had not gone into that warm room on a cold day and composed his meditations (beginning with “I think, therefore I am”) the modern period would not have commenced or would not have been so disastrous. The tendency is to think, “That darn Descartes, he ruined it for all of us.” This, “If it weren’t for that darn Descartes-that darn Scotus-that darn Hitler-view of history,” is faulty, not simply in its simplistic view of history but is attached, I would claim, to a peculiarly thin (modernist) theology which does not presume, as I think the New Testament does, something like a negative unified field theory of sin (addressed in the work of Christ).

It is not that we cannot or should not trace the genealogy of ideas, as we really do live in a world impacted by the thought of particular individuals and there really are streams of thought or historical circumstances that shape our horizons. It is true, that basic human experience is changed up in this secular age and that our world has been disenchanted, no matter our personal (religious or nonreligious) frame of reference. There is no passing over the depth of details to be found in Scotus or William of Ockham and their part in bringing about the secular. The mistake is not in tracing the genealogy of ideas, but it is in imagining that any one individual or any one age or epoch is a realm apart and thus does not share in a common root failure. Milbank’s intense focus on Scotus could and has been argued on the details but the larger error, whatever the merit or lack in the details, is to imagine this failure is a one-off event which can then be corrected by returning the world to something like its pre-Scotus state.[3]

Conceptually modernity, for example, with its turn to nominalism and the focus on divine sovereignty (divine power) in philosophy and theology (something like a pure formalism or legalism), with its juridical-constitutional model of autonomous state authority (the government is secular and the ecclesial powers are now subservient), with its presumption of bio-political control of the human body through the body politic (the biological body is written over with secular law), seems to simply be an aggravated reconstitution of Paul’s depiction of sin as a misorientation to law. The voluntarist conception of God (focus on the will or causal power of God) was secularized in the conception of the state and in the focus on the individual, and this raw power is codified in law and by legal (state) institutions.

The steps that lead to exclusive focus on divine sovereignty (as opposed to divine love or beauty) follows the course Paul traces as the universal predicament, in which the unmediated presence of God is traded for the force of the law. For Paul, the reality of every individual is understood in light of the experience or identity of corporate humanity (unregenerate humanity) in Adam and in Israel. In Eden, the law of the knowledge of good and evil literally displaces God and is made the means to life, and the law of Sinai is made to serve the same end. Part of the point of Christianity, perhaps the main point, is to separate out this obscene orientation to the law (psychologically and religiously) so as to be able to arrive at the law of love. Sin, in Paul’s definition, fuses itself with the law so that one who becomes a servant of the law (as Paul did, and as Adam did, and as, in Paul’s explanation, everyone does) becomes a servant of sin and incapacitates agape love.

The irony is that Christianity has done its work in extracting this condition (orientation to the law of sin and death) from religious enchantment. Now the law is not presumed to have any religious (ontological) ground but is a secular establishment, a bare and open law built upon raw power, that nonetheless reigns in the psychic and social orientation. In this nominalist universe no appeal can be made to an actually existing goodness, as the best we have – all we have – is the mediating power of law and legal institutions. “Might makes right” may have always been the case, but in the medieval period kings presumed they were the channel of a divinely bestowed power (and there was a check on this power), but in the secular realm power is its own legitimating force (there is no ecclesial legitimating power) so that war is the constituting power of the state to which it will need continual recourse. Making war makes the state. In the same way money, in the early stages of capitalism, was a sign of God’s blessing and depended upon this theological construct, now money need not appeal to any outside legitimation. Money is its own legitimating power. Human life is literally and metaphorically put on the market, so that life and time become a commodity to be bought and sold.  

As Charles Taylor has described it, the immanent frame now prevails, or as Carl Schmitt (the famous Nazi jurist) has put it, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state but also because of their systematic structure.” As Schmitt describes it, “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver” and with secularization we are left with omnipotent law.[4] It is no surprise then that miracles (due to natural law), become an impossibility, and by the same token, according to Mike Pompeo, there should not even be the possibility of questioning the constitution. The modern constitutional state reigns supreme (in place of the divine). The constitution replaces commandments, the nation replaces the community of faith, and at an individual level human decision and will is the final arbiter of ethics.

Among the many consequences of modern secularism is the rise of an intense and peculiar individualism, in which the organic and communal sense of the subject is displaced by the notion that the individual is a monad – an isolated entity.  It is only with the secular that there needs to be a reaffirmation of a basic biblical understanding and an integral part of medieval culture: humans are constituted as part of a family or group. Hegel hits upon this truth as if it is a discovery. As he explains in the very beginning of “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” self-consciousness could be achieved only through being acknowledged by others. As the philosopher Immanuel Levinas has described it, at the most fundamental level, “self-consciousness is not one-sided action as people assume, but; it necessitates an other to reach it.” Facing with an “other” is not only necessary for the recognition of the self but it is also a must to have a self-consciousness.

The necessity to describe this mutuality would not likely have arisen in a traditional culture. As Taylor describes it, “One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are ‘buffered’ selves.” The traditional porous sense of self came with certain deficits in that the emotional and moral life did not exist in an inner, mental space and was thus subject to a variety of malevolent influences such as spirits, demons, or cosmic forces.[5] But the buffered individual has been removed from this world of fear at the price of a profound sense of isolation. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this as an epidemic of loneliness responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose, which is chalked up to the root cause of loneliness. 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.[6]  

Is not the destructive nature of modern loneliness an indication this is simply an aggravated condition of the objectified “I” which Paul depicts as arising in conjunction with the alienating law? In Paul’s depiction, this ἐγὼ or “I” is not subject to growth and change as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure under the law, characterized by fear and struggle. The antagonistic dialectic between the law of the mind and the law of the body is, according to Paul, the very thing that produces this isolated ego desperately grasping after life and power through the law. Freud could be quoting Paul in calling the ego “the seat of anxiety” due to its fear of annihilation under the cathected law (the superego).[7] As Lacan will describe the ego (renaming it the imaginary), “Alienation is the imaginary as such.”[8] This fully interior or self-conscious ego, or this “I” which is one’s own is, in Paul’s description (and Paul is commenting on Genesis 3) the Subject of sin.  

This is not an attempt to simply lump together all forms of sin, but it is to suggest that a true genealogy of the modern begins with a biblical diagnosis, which also promises more than a return to the medieval or artificial attempts to reenchant the world.


[1] Enough smothered babies equal a holocaust type strategy – Hitler was, after all, attempting to correct history. It is the strategy of the powers from Pharaoh to Herod to the late modern Democratic Party.

[2] See John Milbank, Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People, (Wiley Blackwell).

[3] If modernity is a turn to the individual, and society is pictured simultaneously as made up of individual monad’s, this is not an error corrected by imagining one individual has reconstituted the whole.

[4] Carl Schmitt,  1928 (2008), Constitutional Theory, transl. J. Seitzer, (Duke University Press, London), p. 36.

[5] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves” https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[6] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6) https://escholarship.org/content/qt47n6790s/qt47n6790s.pdf?t=q7c0kj

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (Standard Edition), 59-60.

[8] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III, 146

Salvation as a Realization of the Resources of Personhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]Biography – Ancient Biography – Lives, Biographical, Biographies, and Illustrious – JRank Articles https://science.jrank.org/pages/8462/Biography-Ancient-Biography.html#ixzz6hSdTeH2u

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

[3] Ibid, Alter.

[4] Ibid, Alter.

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