Maximus the Confessor: Knowing Christ as Breaking the Bonds of Human Knowledge

The parameters of human thought are captured in the statement, “Identity through difference reduces to sameness.” It is a plural parameter in that the first half of the statement captures the form of thought that is focused on difference. Greek dualism,[1] the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena, or the biblical portrayal of human knowledge as falling into the dialectical pairs of good and evil, illustrate some of the possible infinite pairs expressing a necessary difference. Language is structured on binaries and human entry into language depends upon the child entering into the capacity for differentiation, which is to say that identity through difference may describe philosophical or sociological possibilities all of which depend upon a more basic psychology.

Paul gives us the psychological form of the dialectic in Romans 7, in which the I is pitted against itself (I do what I do not want to do). He provides the religious form of the dialectic in his depiction of the Jewish reification of law and Jewishness (opposed to Gentiles). He depicts a sexual/psychological form of the dualism in the male/female duality, and he pictures a sociological dualism in the slave/free duality.

The second form of the parameter, the reduction to sameness, is often equated with eastern forms of monism or pantheism, which may also be a psychology, religion, and sociology. But to characterize the two forms of thought as eastern and western may be to miss that that identity through difference implies sameness. Hegel’s dialectic between death and life (or something and nothing), taken up by Heidegger, is indistinguishable from the Zen Buddhist thought of Nishida Kitaro (something Heidegger and Nishida recognized in one another). Just as with a “good” dependent on its opposite “evil” (as in the knowledge of good and evil), so too life dependent on death, or “something” dependent upon “nothing,” implicitly privileges evil, death and nothingness. Hegel, more than Heidegger, seems to recognize the inherent violence and evil (the necessity of the “slaughter bench of history”) grounding his dialectic, which the fascists (Heidegger and Nishida) served blindly. Though Sigmund Freud privileges the western notion of the ego and denigrates the drive to sameness, equating it with eastern religion (dubbing it the Nirvana Principle), in his later thought (emphasized by Jacques Lacan) he recognizes both phases of identity as part of the universal human sickness. The reality is that, though some may emphasize difference or sameness, the two are interdependent and always found together.

René Girard depicts sameness in terms of the undifferentiated violence which gripped the generation of Noah, constituting the flood. Universal destruction is a violent melding into the One. The resistance to sameness in the differentiation of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Jewish Law, and the continual slide into idolatry, intermarriage, sexual and religious indifference, is the predominant story of the Bible. Differentiation turned into “absolute difference” (reification of the Law and Judaism) is the failure of thought attached perhaps to second Temple Judaism, pharisaic religion, or the religion practiced by Paul (the Pharisee) and his contemporaries. The absolute distinctions of Judaism in its depiction of God as holy and unapproachable, is the final preparation for the recognition of the revelation of the Messiah.

The New Testament depiction of the God/man ushers in a new order of knowing, psychology, sociology, and ultimately peace, founded upon knowing Christ rather than identity according to difference and sameness. It may be that Maximus the Confessor (580-662 A.D.) works out most completely how it is that Christ surpasses difference and sameness. Maximus comes at the end of a centuries long debate in which the heretical tendency was to either overemphasize the deity or the humanity  of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon makes a bald statement about the “hypostatic” union of deity and humanity in Christ:

of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

The effort is to maintain the difference of two natures combined in one person, avoiding both difference of persons (there is a single unified person) yet maintaining difference of natures (yet “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation). What Maximus recognizes is this formula cannot be maintained on any other basis than that of Christ Jesus himself. Knowing Christ entails a new metaphysical understanding and an alternative epistemological order (knowing Christ is its own order of logic and its own order of being). To fit Christ to a Greek or any human frame of understanding will be to inevitably fall into identity through difference (an unapproachable transcendence) or sameness (immanence without transcendence). This is not simply a theoretical or philosophical danger, as Maximus recognizes that knowing Christ is a transformative knowing (involving deification or becoming united with Christ). How we know is determined, in this case, by who we know. Failing to know rightly, Maximus the Monk and ascetic recognizes, is to fail to know the love of God rightly. To enter into Trinitarian love is not a possibility available through human knowing, and human misunderstanding is not simply a failure to know rightly but this form of knowing is an obstacle to love.[2]

As Maximus explains in Ambigua (hereafter Amb.) 10 (explaining a statement of Gregory the Theologian that seems solely concentrated on reason and contemplation), true philosophy is always combined with true practice. He says “practice is absolutely conjoined with reason” as “right thinking” alone restrains “irrational impulses.” He describes the mode of human reason as clouded or veiled as it is misdirected from its telos of knowing God and is confined to “surface appearances” and is caught up “solely into what can be perceived by the senses, and so discovers angry passions, desires, and unseemly pleasures” (Amb. 10.7). He makes a distinction between knowing “polemically and agonistically” as opposed to a true rationality (Amb. 10.5). One can know through identity and difference (agonistically, polemically, dialectically), or one can know according to Christ.

True rationality will no longer play the contradictory game of imagining absolute difference as conceivable (the very ground of conception), and thus reducing it to sameness. Christ unifies what is absolutely transcendent and immanent, not in a new combination of these categories, but as their very definition.  As Jordan Wood puts it in regard to Maximus, “Divine and human natures are not only incommensurably different while perichoretically unified, but ineffably identical in Christ. . .. God is not merely transcendent, nor merely immanent, but is mysteriously the identity of both, and this renders him all the more transcendent.”[3]

Apart from Christ, transcendence is really a non-category, the equivalent of death or nothingness. That is, transcendence rendered as a mere negation, is no transcendence at all. God as an apophatic mystery is the equivalent of Heideggerian nothingness or Hegelian death. In both instances, the negation is the true power behind any positive being. By the same token, an apophatic God may serve as a reified nothingness – an absolute difference providing the background of all that is something. Though Maximus refers to the categories of transcendent and immanent or apophatic and cataphatic, these are not the basis of knowing nor do they constitute a metaphysical reality, as in Christ these categories are brought together such that Christ surpasses transcendence and immanence and apophatic and cataphatic. As Maximus writes,

As much as He became comprehensible through the fact of His birth, by so much more do we now know Him to be incomprehensible precisely because of that birth. “For He remains hidden even after His manifestation,” says the teacher, “or, to speak more divinely, He remains hidden in His manifestation. For the mystery remains concealed by Jesus, and can be drawn out by no word or mind, for even when spoken of, it remains ineffable, and when conceived, unknown. (Amb. 5.5)

Christ as the ground of true knowledge and true reason is not a ground that can be reduced or known on some other basis. This knowledge is ineffable, not in the sense that nothing or absence serves as the ground of knowing, but all knowing and all positive being gives itself in Christ as its own ground and is not apprehended on some other foundation. This is a positive transcendence – a new order of transcendence.

Beyond this, what could be a more compelling demonstration of the Divinity’s transcendence of being? For it discloses its concealment by means of a manifestation, its ineffability through speech, and its transcendent unknowability through the mind, and, to say what is greatest of all, it shows itself to be beyond being by entering essentially into being. (Amb. 5.5)

An immanent demonstration of transcendence or a manifestation of concealment or an articulation and knowability which reveals an inarticulate unknowability, is the only basis upon which transcendence is made known. It is only as Christ is beyond being that he can enter into being. What we learn in Christ is that a full transcendence is the basis for immanence. As Wood puts it, “He is not merely beyond knowability and unknowability (speech and silence, affirmation and negation, etc.). This very transcendence is what allows him to be both at once, and his being both at once is therefore the premiere index of this newly appreciable transcendence.”[4]

This seeming paradox is of the same order as the paradox that knowing does not serve as its own ground or that language arises from a deep grammar that is not itself subject to explanation. Christ is the foundation, the bedrock at which the spade is turned. Christ preserves absolute difference within the singular person he is (this is Maximus’ is), as the immanent manifestation of this absolute. This is a new order of transcendence and a new order of reason, bringing together what otherwise is radically separate, and bringing it together “without difference, without separation, and without distinction.”

As Maximus describes it in regard to Mary and Jesus’ virgin birth, the seemingly impossible is made possible and the paradoxical is rendered as part of a new order of understanding:

Thus, “though He was beyond being, He came into being,” fashioning within nature a new origin of creation and a different mode of birth, for He was conceived having become the seed of His own flesh, and He was born having become the seal of the virginity of the one who bore Him, showing that in her case mutually contradictory things can truly come together. For she herself is both virgin and mother, innovating nature by a coincidence of opposites, since virginity and childbearing are opposites, and no one would have been able to imagine their natural combination. Therefore the Virgin is truly “Theotokos,” for in a manner beyond nature, as if by seed, she conceived and gave birth to “the Word who is beyond being,” since the mother of one who was sown and conceived is properly she who gave Him birth. (Amb. 5.13)

Only one beyond being could so fashion being, providing the seed for his own flesh, preserving the virginity of His own Mother, and making her who is subject to His being, give birth to the one beyond being. “For ‘in a manner beyond’ us, the ‘Word beyond being truly assumed our being,’ and joined together the transcendent negation with the affirmation of our nature” thus His is a power “that is beyond infinity, recognized through the generation of opposites” (Amb. 5.14).

As Maximus notes, it is not as if human identity has its existence apart from the possibility of this reality found in Christ, as human “essence itself, which plainly is not a self-subsisting hypostasis, for it has no existence in and of itself, but instead receives its being in the person of God the Word, who truly assumed it” (Amb. 5.11). The identity of Christ as the God/man is not subsequent to human identity but is the very ground and source of human identity. It is only “in a manner beyond man,” that “He truly became man” and it is only due to His transcendence over nature that he came to be “according to nature, united and unimpaired” but this fact about who he is, the logic of the incarnation, is the logic of creation and of human identity. As Maximus succinctly puts it, “As God, He was the motivating principle of His own humanity, and as man He was the revelatory principle of His own divinity” (Amb. 5.18). Just as he is the ground of his humanity, he is the ground of all humanity, and this is made known in who he is. In all “that He did He confirmed the presence of the one through the other, since He is truly both” (God and man) (Amb. 5.17) and this difference is the ground of all human identity and the ground of true knowledge. “The conjunction of these was beyond what is possible, but He for whom nothing is impossible became their true union, and was the hypostasis in neither of them exclusively, in no way acting through one of the natures in separation from the other, but in all that He did He confirmed the presence of the one through the other, since He is truly both” (Amb. 5.17). Christ is the possibility and potentiality of what it means to be human. This possibility cannot be otherwise known or approached. The incarnate Christ is the very ground of human possibility, the purpose and ground of creation, and the understanding of this reality, like the reality itself, is only known though him.

Maximus is well aware that the temptation is to relinquish the absoluteness of divine transcendence or to make this absolute negation itself part of the typical dialectic constituting human knowledge: “it is not, as some would have it, “by the negation of two extremes that we arrive at an affirmation” of something in the middle, for there is no kind of intermediate nature in Christ that could be the positive remainder after the negation of two extremes” (Amb. 5.20). There is no dialectic between transcendence and immanence on the order of the Hegelian dialectic or the dialectic of the knowledge of good and evil. What is absolute remains absolute in the revelation and reality of Jesus Christ.


[1] Dualism is, of course, the wrong word, but it is a perceived dualism that functions through the contradictory notion of absolute difference (an inherent contradiction). There are no conceivable absolute differences as, if they are conceivable, they are not absolute. Absolute differences can in no way be brought together in human thought. It is also an obvious overgeneralization to simply portray Greek thought as working on this false dualism, as it too contains both forms of thought (e.g., Plato’s deployment of the chora).

[2] See Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, (London: Routledge, 1996) 25-26.

[3] Jordan Daniel Wood, “Both Mere Man and Naked God: The Incarnational Logic of Apophasis in St. Maximus the Confessor”; in Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017) 111.

[4] Wood, 117.

Introducing the Course on Sin and Salvation

A nonviolent atonement is an entry point that takes into account all of theology. The work of Christ understood as peaceable (throughout) is not a sub-point to the doctrine of God (God is nonviolent and establishing peace), to hermeneutics (peace is integral to the method), to cosmology (the universe is not a dualism but contains the harmony of the Creator), to hamartiology (sin is violence), or to ecclesiology (the church is to be a culture of peace); rather all of these (and the entire theological catalog) are determined together and to separate them is already to have made a decision about each (an incorporation of violence). How each is treated is determined by the whole and vice versa. One might argue that a violent theory of atonement will result in its own sort of coherence, making God the perpetrator of violence, dependent on a violent hermeneutic (incorporating a violent image of God into the image of Christ’s Father), and dependent on a violent cosmology (a cosmic dualism), and constituting a violent ecclesiology (the Church must make its concessions to violence in a variety of forms), but the person and teaching of Christ sticks out as the exception (though, ironically, there are a variety of ways of glossing over Jesus). But where Christ is made central (the hermeneutic key) – not only in reading the Bible but in apprehending God, understanding creation, recognizing the purposes of the church, etc., then peace is the coherent frame in which doctrine holds together.

The peculiar problem with this understanding is entry into the difference of this Christocentric understanding (depicted by Karl Barth – but which is true to the patristic understanding). How do we get there from somewhere else?

So, for example, how do we read the Bible? Do we make this decision apart from our understanding of who Christ is or is this too determined in conjunction with our understanding of the peace of Christ? Is the Bible a book of eternal trues or is it a by-product of the age that produced it (the fundamentalist and liberal choice, respectively) or can we see revelation unfolding such that the work of Christ functions as the hermeneutic key, bringing coherence where there would otherwise be contradiction? What one does with the contrast between the violence of the Old Testament and the peace of Christ is not only determinate of the view of God, of the Bible, of the meaning of Christianity, but ultimately it is an insight into how self and world are apprehended. What one does with the former picture (the God first glimpsed in revelation) in light of the revelation of the latter (the fulness of Christ), is the very question which the revelation of Christ raises. Hermeneutics must be centered on the peace of Christ or there is no coherent doctrine of revelation or of God.

Or, to take another example, how do we understand the history of the church? Does church history bear an authority that floats free of the specific work of Christ? Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” [1]  Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2]  Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it but he was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself. If Christ institutes peace in place of violence, the presumption is that the atonement is aimed at defeating violence throughout. But the extent of violence is not a fully worked out understanding in the early church so that only an unfolding Christocentrism (a gradually realized atonement) holds together the contradictions of history. 

This problem is compounded with the conversion of Constantine (under whom violence is still equated with sin, but is now allowed) and the developments of Augustinianism (dualism, original sin, etc., which make violence inevitable) which feed into Anselm’s rational theology (the ground of a violent atonement), culminating in Lutheranism and Calvinism (giving rise to penal substitution and endorsement of state violence). It becomes nearly impossible to begin with a positive theology of atonement without deconstructing this error. To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation (of Ro 5:12) gives rise to sin as a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which, in each of its parts, has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints). Where Christ is removed from the center it is questionable if what survives can be called Christianity.

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. But in another sense, this simply returns us to square one – humans have been deceived and religion plays a primary role in that deception. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand apart from his exposure of the problem (again, Christocentrism as opposed to beginning with Augustine’s original sin and all that follows), as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception.

Strangely, the theological explanation is, as Anselm and Calvin recognized, in regard to the law, but they make the law explanation of sin and reduce the work of Christ to satisfying a law. Salvation is reduced to payment of a debt or penalty (rather than defeat and deliverance from evil). The biblical picture is that sin involves a misorientation to the law, grounding itself in the very lie that Anselm and Calvin promote. That is, the lie is that the law is the arbiter of life (there is life in the law) and death. This is not only the depiction of sin but gets at the root of evil (the outworking of the law of sin and death) defeated in Christ’s suspension of the law. He does indeed suspend the punishment of the law, but this law and punishment are not from God but is at the root of human evil in its destructive power.

Once the ground clearing is complete, it is obvious the biblical conception of sin and the sinful Subject is built upon a very specific deception, detailed in Genesis, renamed the covenant with death in Isaiah, described as a poisonous lie, a throat shaped sarcophagus, and a bloody path of violence in the Psalms. Paul’s summation of the sin problem calls upon the fulness of this Old Testament depiction, both to describe the problem and Christ’s defeat of the problem. Being baptized into the death of Christ directly confronts the sin condition because sin is entangled with the primordial deception regarding death which amounts to an active taking up of death (Ro 5:12 rightly understood). Death as a lifestyle speaks not only of outward violence but of an inward destructiveness (a psychology of death), and salvation from this orientation to death (death-in-life) is through life in the midst of death.

With a long nod to René Girard, who explains how violent sacrifice/death is projected onto the gods as the genesis of all things, the myth/lie of sacred violence can be dispelled through Christ (even in its Christian form). With the exposure of the lie a series of modern idols (nationalism, capitalism, racism) are exposed as part of the same reifying lie. To put it in the context of Genesis, there are endless means and material for creating a false covering (leaves, sacrificial religion, nationalism, capital, race, etc.) all of which involve a turn to death and violence. Christ does not participate or succumb to sacred violence, but exposes and defeats it. 

Enroll in the course, Sin and Salvation: An in-depth study of sin and salvation with a focus on the meaning of the atonement (2022/1/31–2022/3/25).


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

Quilting Points Versus Being Clothed in Christ

Maybe it is, as Adam Philips has noted, that the most important fact about us is that we are born helpless, totally dependent upon others.[1] As Freud noted, the child’s experience of hunger, separation, and excitation is overwhelming and the drive to gain control marks all of human life.[2] We begin as helpless, overwhelmed by the chaos of uncontrollable emotions and desires, and we would hold together by attaching ourselves to defenses against this condition. Identity (individual and corporate) serves this purpose, and it is out of the web of associations (means of cohering), large and small that we attempt to ward off fear. Total vulnerability gives rise to pursuit of total invulnerability or total mastery. Being subject gives rise to the drive to subject. What the world offers is various means of quilting together the fabric of our lives so as to resist the continual threat of unravelling.

Jacques Lacan captures this process in his notion of the quilting point, which attempts to explain how the historical and social reality one inhabits become subjectivized. Contained within his explanation there is a picture of a two-fold process explaining how the social world becomes comprehensible and how I become comprehensible to myself, having an identity or unity as one experiencing the world. It is not as if the social world offers meaning that coheres differently than the individual, but both come to bear the semblance of coherence through the same process.

As Slavoj Žižek explains it, the quilting point sutures the field of the signifier (the sign, language, etc.) and the signified (what the word indicates), but in the Lacanian frame, these are not really two realms apart, as “the signifier falls into the signified.” That is the word or name seems to suture together a realm of disparate things by being included or counted as a thing itself. Žižek captures this in a series of jokes: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs: from tribal society, it took barbarism, from Antiquity, it took slavery, from feudalism, it took relations of domination, from capitalism, it took exploitation, and from socialism, it took the name.” That is the name, in the old Polish anti-communist joke, stitches together things that should not be held together and do so only in sharing the name. So too with the anti-Semitic image of the Jew: “From the rich bankers, it took financial speculation, from capitalists, it took exploitation, from lawyers, it took legal trickery, from corrupt journalists, it took media manipulation, from the poor, it took indifference towards hygiene, from sexual libertines it took promiscuity, and from the Jews it took the name.”[3] The point of the joke is precisely the quilting point – these things do not really hold together but are contradictory and disparate and are given the appearance of holding together through the name.

Maybe it can be stated even more sharply in that the contradiction inherent to the quilting point is not simply conveniently covered over but is necessary (the force) to the internal (il)logic of the system. From out of the chaos arises unity, not because there is any actual coherence but because the world threatens and this very threat or violence must be tamed. The entry into a coherent or unified understanding, the ability to name and control the chaos, depends upon the continual threat of the chaos. That is, the unity that we would impose on the world is a desperate fiction in which our own survival is at stake. Whether it is the child gazing in the mirror and arriving at the imagined I by means of which it will hold all of the appetites, desires, and urges at bay, or the Nazi who needs the Jew to give a focal point to threat and control by which his world holds together.  

The Germans, for example, after the defeat of WW I arrived at the singular explanation which would give new life to the nation: “following their ‘undeserved’ military defeat, the German people were disoriented, thrown into a situation of economic crisis, political inefficiency, and moral degeneration— and the Nazis offered a single agent which accounted for it all: the Jew, the Jewish plot.”[4] So too the world of the white racist is given coherence through the black other, the post 9/11 American nationalist requires the Muslim other, but so too every identity depends primarily on a quilting point. Nothing new is added by the name, but now this nothing (the meaningless signifier) unites disparate features and properties into a singular thing – the name. So ultimately the signifier is the signified. The sign is reified so that it functions as an actually existing object, when in reality it is a forced fictional unity. But beginning with the child’s earliest reflexive identity, isn’t this always the role assigned to language?

As in René Girard’s scapegoating theory, the scapegoat is perceived to contain both the disruptive element to the culture or tribe, but then upon being sacrificed, the group coheres around the sacralized scapegoat/victim who has warded off danger (the very danger he bore) and brought about unity. The scapegoat functions as a master signifier, simultaneously containing and holding at bay a perceived chaos. In post Christian society, in which the scapegoat mechanism is no longer effective, the chosen trauma and chosen glory, in the description of Vamik Volkan, does not fold into a singular person or group but the same process is at work.

In a real or perceived past event, in which a group suffered loss or experienced helplessness and humiliation at the hands of a neighboring group, this trauma may become the “trauma of choice” – the shared traumatic event marking a people and linking them together. In Lacanian terms, the chosen trauma is a quilting point, inseparable from group identity, and leaders may call upon the trauma, reactivating it during times of conflict or crisis. For example, “Czechs commemorate the battle of Bila Hora in 1620 which led to their subjugation under the Hapsburg Empire for nearly 300 years. Scots keep alive the story of the battle of Culloden in 1746 and the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore a Stuart to the throne. The Lakota Indians of the United States recall the anniversary of their decimation at Wounded Knee in 1890, and Crimean Tatars define themselves by the collective suffering of their deportation from Crimea in 1944.”[5]

The idea behind calling upon the trauma in times of conflict is to legitimate inflicting suffering on those (or their stand ins) who have caused the trauma. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry for slaughter of Mexicans. On the other hand, September 11th is justification for the slaughter of a people that had nothing to do with the event. The Jewish Holocaust is justification for Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. The Serbs’ chosen trauma, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, was the rallying cry connected to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bombing of a military installation at Pearl Harbor, would result in the firebombing of Tokyo and the complete devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Likewise, the Nazi slaughter of civilians would result in the allies also targeting civilian populations. Through the twisted illogic of trauma as a node of identity, there is an intrinsic clinging to the perceived “necessity” of making the other suffer. In Girardian terms, a country takes on the look of its enemy in a large-scale mimesis.

By the same token, large groups have ritualistic recollections of shared success or triumph which function as chosen glories. According to Volkan, “Past victories in battle and great accomplishments of a technical or artistic nature frequently appear as chosen glories; virtually every large group (i.e., ethnic) has tales of grandeur associated with its creation.”[6] As with chosen trauma, chosen glory may be recent or ancient, real or mythological, but it also serves to bind groups together. Though chosen trauma and chosen glory cannot neatly fold into a singular scapegoat, nonetheless it is clear the two are tied together. The humiliation of Pearl Harbor and German aggression is integral to the notion of the “good war” and the “greatest generation”; “taxation without representation” is tied to the Boston Tea Party and George Washington triumphantly crossing the Delaware; the destruction of the Twin Towers and the killing of Osama bin Laden, are inextricably tied together. The chosen trauma gives substance and justification to the chosen glory.

This is not to suggest that character and personality are simply a by-product of this process, but the quilting point (a master signifier) or a shared trauma and shared glory provide the material (the quilt, or in Volkan’s terminology, the tent) from out of which we cover or clothe ourselves. We find ourselves as parts of large groups in which the nation, tribe, and extended family are determinate. Individually, we may think of career or artistic or athletic ability as unique to our identity, but what holds us together on a larger scale is incorporation into a shared core identity. While one might lose their job, their spouse, their talent or athletic ability, when one loses this core identity there is complete decomposition into what Volkan calls “psychological death.” The result may be schizophrenia, total anxiety and terror, or escape into a new core identity. One must be clothed with an identity, as to be unclothed is intolerable.

Genesis depicts this unclothed trauma, this shame, as an experience of death. The first couple deploy language (the knowledge of good and evil) as something like a quilting point (a new master signifier), deploying signs as if they could provide identity (God-likeness). So far as we know this is the condition of their offspring. Not that they bear some Augustinian Original Sin, but they pass on to their offspring the clothing problem and the language problem, as is evidenced in the psychopathic killers of the generation of Noah and the Babelites. This attempt to quilt a new cover gives rise, not only to their own experience of death, but to a series of murders and eventually to a chaos of signifiers.

The only resolution to this clothing problem and language problem, in Scripture, is the depiction of being clothed in the Word of Christ. In one of the final scenes of the Bible, the Messiah or rider on the white horse, comes with a new form of clothing.  “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God (Re 19:13). The language problem, the clothing problem, and the inherent violence involved are addressed by the Word who provides each of his followers new clothing: “And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses” (Re 19:14).

Could it be that the story of redemption is this: the recognition of the failed quilting point, the chosen traumas and chosen glories out of which we would fabricate a violent identity, and that in the recognition we are simultaneously provided an alternative Word and identity so as to clothe ourselves in the garments of peace?  


[1] Joan Acocella, “This Is Your Life: A psychoanalytic writer urges us to just deal with it.” The New Yorker (February 17, 2013), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/this-is-your-life-2

[2] See Simone Drichel, “Reframing Vulnerability: ‘so obviously the problem…’?” in SubStance, Volume 42, Number 3, 2013 (Issue 132), pp. 3-27. https://www.otago.ac.nz/english-linguistics/otago596051.pdf

[3] Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 13288-13300). Norton. Kindle Edition.

[4] Žižek, 13307-13311.

[5] Vamık D. Volkan “Transgenerational Transmissions and ‘Chosen Trauma’: An Element of Large-Group Identity” (Opening Address XIII International Congress International Association of Group Psychotherapy August, 1998),

[6] Volkan, Psychopolitical Concepts, Paper presented at the European Association of Transcultural Analysis Workshop, Budapest- May 25-28, 2006. https://www.academia.edu/24667252/PSYCHOPOLITICAL_CONCEPTS

The Origin of Language and the Nature of Salvation

The theory of Noam Chomsky and of René Girard set forth a different focus on the origin of human language, with Chomsky focused on the necessary preexistence of a “language module” (a black box containing the capacity for language) and Girard focused on mimetic rivalry, and through the scapegoat the rise of a symbolic and sacred order. For Girard the capacity for language would be driven through the need or circumstance in which symbolization resolves or suspends generalized violence, while for Chomsky the leap to language and symbolization requires an already existing innate capacity. For Girard, the societal need would give rise to the capacity, which should be traceable through its unfolding grammatical impact, but (as discovered in the wake of Chomsky) syntactic complexity is equal across all known languages and there is no residual sign within language of an evolving capacity or complexity. There are no “primitive” languages, which supports (though not decisively) Chomsky’s picture of an already existing capacity necessary to language. This may be a long way around to posing the question of whether, with Girard, we can trace the origins of language to its implication in violence, or whether as with Chomsky, there is no determined origin for language, violent or otherwise? Are humans always negotiating the problem of violence as part of what it means to speak, or is violence subsequent to and not a necessary part of human language?

 In theological terms, are humans stuck in a violent metaphysics because their language fosters this singular orientation? Are we so steeped in a meaning derived from violence, whether conscious or unconscious, that there is no conceptual ground from which to make out or discern an alternative? Or can Girard be supplemented with Chomsky so that, as in the biblical depiction, humans begin with an uncorrupted capacity for language which is corrupted by what is done with this capacity.

 In Anthony Bartlett’s depiction, Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry and the discovery of the scapegoating mechanism, are a necessary step in evolutionary development,[1] which would seem to be on the order of Hegel’s depiction of the necessity of the fall for cognition or the Calvinist notion that sin and evil are a necessary step in salvation. The nearest equivalent is Lacanian psychoanalysis which attaches human personhood to a primordial but necessary lie. Is Girard’s depiction of human deception, in mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism, a necessary step in human evolution or a misstep in human de-evolution? It is a question that Bartlett makes worthwhile, but even his own cumulative evidence points to a more nuanced Chomsky-like biblical depiction. In fact, his book can be read as giving clearer support to this slightly different premise.

 Either way, revelation would necessarily entail a radical departure and breaking in, and to the degree that theology has girded itself with a Greek philosophical understanding it has a hidden and necessary violence at its origins. This is the charge Bartlett levels at the Thomistic understanding of God (along with Anselm or any theology which would employ Greek philosophical thought). As first cause of everything (being), according to Bartlett, “God here reinforces a hierarchical order of origin, authority, and, necessarily, violence.”[2] Only the unadulterated Word intervenes so as to foster transformation beyond scapegoating and violence, and it is only the cross which brings about this semiotic transformation (an alternative meaning with an alternative center).  In Bartlett’s description, the concept of god carries the metaphysical baggage of violence (with all this entails in terms of religion and human institutions), while the God of revelation infiltrates and challenges this conception.

Bartlett lines up the linguistic turn in 20th century thought to make the case that semiotics, or the study of signs, reveals a dependence on negation, otherness, absence, or nothingness, which is inherent to the sign system. The theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and John Deely, converge on the notion that “being,” which cannot be posited apart from its apprehension in language, already contains the antagonistic otherness of the sign. There is no being apart from its sign, and the sign contains or sets forth meaning in its separateness from the biological world. Both being and the sign refer to an extended, infinite, otherness. “The world itself is the ‘other,’ rendered present in a sign, yet strange, infinite, congenitally open itself, by virtue of the mysterious, ‘nihilating’ event of the sacred.”[3] In Girard’s terms, the original murder is hidden in the sign as that which is negated and this compelling emptiness or otherness requires another sign, so that the signifying chain covers over the original absence (murder), as in Derrida’s “deferral” of meaning (to define one word requires a multiplicity of words – ad infinitum), or Heidegger’s and Hegel’s nothingness (the other over and against which all else, something, derives its meaning). The conclusion: to imagine God on the basis of the sign of being is to project violent mimetic desire and sacrifice onto God.  

The question is whether Bartlett’s notion of the origin of language actually fits his Girardian reading of the Old Testament, or does it fit better with Chomsky’s model combined with Girard and a more traditional reading of Genesis. Is there room in violently determined language for the understanding that the Old Testament already fosters, in part and in shadows, the understanding culminating in Christ (e.g., in the story of Joseph and his brothers, in the depiction of Solomon’s wisdom)? Bartlett pictures the creation account in Genesis as containing an original peace which stands in contrast to other creation myths and he quotes from the prophetic tradition depicting the revelation of God as completely over and against human understanding. As he puts it, “How could the experience of violent mimetic crisis leading to sacrifice give any authentic sense of the God who said, ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isa 55:9).”[4] The question is, how can God’s voice break through to his human prophetic vessels? If, in the words of Giambattista Vico, the world of human beings, including their deployment of signs, is made by human beings, then what room for the voice of God in human language.

A differently nuanced understanding, which would accommodate both Girard and Chomsky, is to picture the human predicament, not as endemic to the origins of language, but concerning, rather, the orientation to language. The biblical picture poses the possibility of an original image or an original language untainted by violence (an image we can see in every child). The original connection to nature and to God, however one might read Genesis, points to something other than a total incapacity or a total lack of access to reality. This fits what we find in both people and the Bible. Humans are inherently capable, no matter their race, religion, or place of origin, of developing deep and abiding insights about reality, though they are still given over to violence and the world of unreality indicated by Girard. The biblical nuance is of a capacity that is obscured by assigning to language (the knowledge of good and evil) an inherent capacity for the divine (for being like God and escaping death) that displaces God. But what the biblical picture (aligned with both Chomsky and Girard) allows for and points toward is human agency (self-deception) at work in the deception and displacement.  

Bartlett’s theory, like the notion of total depravity, considers human understanding tainted at its source. In turn, what God has brought about is not simply a reorientation to or within language but a whole new mode of code making. “If there is a God and this God cares for the world, then it is by changing the actual root dynamic of our codes that God intends to save us.”[5] If he means by this that the orientation to law and language, and not language and law per se, are the root problem from which we are saved, this is a deep insight that accords with the New Testament. But if he means that language per se is the problem, one wonders if this fits his own semiotic picture of meaning as something which arises between signs (within language) as part of the dynamic of language.

As both Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss conclude, it is not the signs or the terms themselves, but the relationship between terms which bear meaning. This moveable or transposable middle (between terms) allows for meaning in the opening to the possibility of a lie. Both possibilities arise as there is no necessity, biological or ontological, in the arbitrary sounds or signs that make up language. There is an arbitrariness to language and human culture which is “inevitably” codified into laws, which make the arbitrary “essential” to the culture and to what it means to be human. The big lie is to imagine this arbitrary and ever dynamic sign system can be frozen into law and made to serve as an unchanging stairway to heaven. The biblical depiction of a stone tower reaching to the heavens captures the notion of language set in stone as the avenue to God and life. It is not a problem that people speak, make laws, and build towers, it is that they imagine their arbitrary and limited understanding is of eternal, life-giving significance.

 Lévi-Strauss applied Saussure’s insight to kinship relations, to indicate that what was important was not any specific relationship but pairs of relationships or oppositional pairs which control other pairs in endless correlations and inversions. For example, a familiar relationship between father and son was paralleled by a rigid taboo between brother and sister; or this could be inverted among a different people with a close relationship between brother and sister and a rigid one between father and son. As Lévi-Strauss explains, “A kinship system does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals. It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.”[6] Yet, by definition the arbitrary kinship system of a particular culture is protected by sacred immovable boundaries definitive of a people and equated with what it means to be human.

 In biblical terms, the problem is not a particular law or set of laws, but the problem arises when these laws are equated with sacred boundaries marking off life and death or “we the people” from the surrounding non-people. These laws, by their very nature, were subject to being inverted and subverted among other people or tribes. This arbitrariness and human origin of law is a continuous refrain among a segment of the prophets. The laws regarding sacrifice, marriage (polygamy, divorce), food laws, or the code surrounding the Temple and its priests, are pronounced non-essential in this minority report. “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.  But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me” (Ho 6:6-7). The covenant concerns a loyalty and knowledge which cannot be codified, and the failure to keep covenant involves mistaking the arbitrary for the essential and losing what is essential.

Bartlett develops this semiotic nature of language, or the relation between terms, as key to his understanding of the work of Christ. In a meditation on John, the book of signs, he demonstrates that Christ reconstitutes the human sign system by emptying it of violence. This culminates in his intervention into the sign or taboo of consuming human flesh and blood. “The primitive semiotic boundaries against eating human flesh and drinking blood could only be undone by a revolution in human and theological meaning, when a particular flesh and blood became an event of absolute nonviolence and peace.”[7] The shift from a sacrificial system which would feed God (human flesh, animal flesh, etc.) to one in which God is the food, marks the ultimate intervention into human prohibitions. The point is to overturn a fixed, law-bound meaning attached to violence and to open a semiotic register free from violence. “’Eating and drinking Jesus’ are signs then of an entirely new semiosis and anthropology, and it is only by meditating continually on the total collapse of the old human way that they are saved from being simply an outrage.”[8] As Bartlett points out, this was quickly returned to the sacrificial form of sacred by Anselm and a major portion of the Western church, so that the gospel is veiled. (This veiling seems to fit with a truth that was not an impossibility, which Paul describes as veiled by the law, but which is permanently unveiled by Christ (2 Cor 3:14).)

In conclusion, Bartlett explains the work of God is to bring about a semiotic shift, “Because human meaning is constructed originally out of violence, its inversion and subversion in the nonviolence of the cross constructs at once a new fundamental relation and, therewith, a completely new possible universe.”[9] This conclusion does not make allowance for human agency as portrayed in the OT (indicated in the arbitrariness demonstrated in language and culture) and it assigns a necessary role to violence in the development of meaning and language. I would question whether Bartlett requires this origin story for the key part of his argument. One could concur with the latter half of his statement (which includes most of the argument of his book), that it is the inversion and subversion, a necessary possibility within language, which Christ enacts in his incarnation. Perhaps this is not “a completely new possible universe” but the completion of creation realigned with its foreordained purpose found in the original Logos.

To state it plainly, Girard’s theory still holds in my understanding, but not omni-competently (an explanation of everything) so that it may describe universal historical developments which are not tied to syntactic or semiotic evolution (an explanation for language) but to a universal human failure overturned by Christ.


[1] Anthony Bartlett, Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard (Cascade Books, 2020). I have to thank Tim, again, for the gift of this fine book. Bartlett unifies and makes accessible the turn to semiotics as itself a significant theological indicator. So, this initial critique is in no way a dismissal of the book or even the theory Bartlett is setting forth, but I think the theory needs slight revision.

[2] Ibid. 91

[3] Ibid. 97.

[4] Ibid. 98

[5] Ibid. 129

[6] Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, 50. Quoted in Bartlett, 35.

[7] Ibid. 171

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 162

The Immoral Argument for God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apocalyptic Apologetics


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Acts 26:9-11).

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

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

(Acts 26:12-15)

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Doran, Ibid.

The Gospel of John Lewis Versus the Gospel of Trump and Barr

As John Lewis lay in state, steps away Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive treatment of protestors by federal law enforcement officers. The accusation of the judiciary committee, before which Barr was defending himself, is that he and Trump are acting unconstitutionally in suppressing protests and fomenting their own violence. It is not at all clear that in the world of Barr there is room for peaceful protest (he seemed to equate protest with violence) of the kind which Lewis spent his life leveraging to expose injustice. Barr claimed the force used against peaceful protesters (he acknowledged some were peaceful but nonetheless deserving of violent suppression), using pepper spray and clubbing protestors, was warranted. The methods of the civil rights icon and the methods of the President and Attorney General are of two different worlds. The way the New Testament characterizes these two worlds is through the two logics on display in the Capital: in one world we must do evil that good may come (peace is obtained through violence), and in the other the end and the means are tied together.

Lewis taught that the means of violence and peace will bring about their own end. The means of violence fosters violence and the means of peace fosters peace. According to this understanding, the turn to violent protest and violent suppression of protest dilutes the message of peaceful protest – and this may be the goal of some. Extremists on the right or the left (or perhaps both) may have reasons to foment violence, and it may be that the Attorney General and President would prefer undiluted violence. The goal, as is evident in their method, is not peace. As Lewis maintained, there is one “immutable principle that you cannot deviate from. If you want to have a good end, your means must be good and noble. Somehow, some way, the end must be caught up in the means.”

This most obvious principle may be the least noticed and least practiced tenet of the gospel. The way of the world, the necessary logic which orders politics, nations, and individuals, is the presumption that peace can only be obtained by war, that violence can only be halted with more extreme violence, and that force must be meant with more force. This, let us do evil so as to achieve a good end, is the counter-gospel. The method of Trump and Barr is the message of the world and the message of history. In this understanding, if the enemy bombs civilians than we will drop bigger and better bombs on civilian populations. If the enemy resorts to cruel torture we will duplicate and exceed this torture. The federal agents escalating the violence on the streets are following the logic of their masters and their forebears. It is this logic that set state troopers to clubbing and bloodying Lewis on the Edmund Pettus bridge. It is this logic by which we arrive at the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, and the destruction of civilian populations – even by those who had only a few short years before forsworn such action.

The one thing world history should teach but the lesson it cannot get across, is the message of John Lewis: war does not end war and violence does not stop violence. What is most obvious is that violence begets violence and is most dangerous when it seems to succeed, as it becomes the lure to imitation. The way in which we have arrived at mutually assured destruction, the way which would club down the John Lewises of the world, is the way of world destruction. The truth of Lewis is the living exposure of the contradiction toward which history has been moving. Barr is part of a long history in his escalation of violence. It is this logic in which we are grounded personally and corporately by dint of being enculturated into this world. The dominant force in the world, religious and personal, is not that which animated the life of John Lewis, but the opposite: violence and evil are the way to peace and goodness.

In this world human beings are thought to be incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must be violently imposed: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, the elite over commoners, rulers over people, and the police over citizens. It is necessary to dominate (“We must dominate the streets,” according to Trump) as to do anything less is weakness. The powers of state, of religion, of logic, call for dominance and unquestioning acquiescence. To cause trouble is by definition bad trouble, as the highest virtue, the supreme religious value, is obedience to the dominance of the powers. In this world, there is no such thing as Lewis’s “good trouble.” We are trained not to resist, not to challenge, as the dominating system is thought to be God’s system. We are not to exercise dominion but we are called to serve it, die for it, sacrifice our sons and daughters for it. In serving the dominating system, after all, don’t we serve God and his earthly representatives? Where violence is the norm, in the words of Walter Wink, “The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city Babylon, and to fight and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.”[1] Where the President is God’s chosen representative, in the characterization of Barr, there is no other legitimate or legal force.  Peaceful protest against the powers is an oxymoron in this world.

This singular world of legal violence is not new, as the myth of redemptive violence constitutes the oldest form of religion and is the organizing principle, according to René Girard, of human society. For example, in the Babylonian creation myth violence is the primordial condition from which life arises. The god, Marduk, murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. Order arises from a primordial disorder and chaos. Evil precedes the good and the gods themselves are violent. This basic structure is shared by the myths of Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, Japan, and China. Girard maintains that the violence of the myth, whether hidden or obvious, is what generates the mythic form and it constitutes the violent organization of society. As Wink describes it, “Typically, a male war god residing in the sky— Wotan, Zeus, or Indra, for example— fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element).” Once the enemy is vanquished by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. In Japan (a myth with which I became acquainted partly because I lived at the base of the Mountain where the gods descended) the various gods are formed from the body parts of Izanagi while Izanami was shut up in to the place of the dead. As Wink notes, “Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.”[2] Girard’s point is that myth, or the very structure of religion, is framed around the notion of redemptive violence and murder. The murder mythologized channels violence and organizes society around sacrifice and oppression. The murdered scapegoat becomes the redeeming mythological deity, making all things possible (warding off the chaos of violence and its various representations).

This tendency toward murderous myth indicates the deep psychological ties to the necessity of violence. It constitutes religion because it is already the substance in which we seem to live and move and have our being. It is the personal necessity, Paul describes, in which we experience our own ego. We are continually subject to an agonistic struggle apart from which we cannot imagine our own existence. We are set over and against ourselves, doing what we would not and incapable of doing what we would, and this reality seems to define us. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, to resolve the conflict would be to destroy personhood, as we are born and have our being in chaos and conflict.  The myth and logic of redemptive violence, the world of Barr and Trump, speaks with the voice of God and cannot possibly recognize a prophet, such as Lewis. The deep grammar of deploying evil and violence to gain peace finds the message of peace incomprehensible and totally impractical.

Christianity, rightly realized, is the counter to the world constituted by violence and the logic of doing evil to gain the good. Once violence is identified as the force which would rule and destroy us, biblical redemption can be read as the counter to this all-pervasive dominating force. Beginning with an alternative creation, not by means of chaos but the good ordering the chaos, the anti-myth of Genesis can be read as a direct rebuttal and counter to Babylonian myth and all creation myths. Rather than a primordial chaos and violence, the Bible portrays a good God who creates from an original peace and goodness (he is the good and peaceful origin). God pronounces creation good and this goodness reigns prior to the existence of evil, murder, and violence. Violence is not the means to something else in Genesis but is a product of the Fall and is posed as the primary problem.  

The culmination of the gospel, like the powers that presently divide this country, pits the religion, the law, the powers, of the world against the religion of Jesus. The war that is still being waged is between those who put Jesus on the cross in the name of power and religion (“to save the nation, for the greater good, our religion requires it”) and those willing to take up crosses (to counter the religion and powers of the day). It was the equivalent of the president and the attorney general, not rabble rousers, not protesters, but the religious and political powers, who put Jesus on the cross. What we can now perceive, because of Christ, is that the violence done to Jesus follows the age-old rule of redemptive violence. This violence has always been an attack on God, which would displace him with the god of violence. The peace of the gospel is the counteraction of God, in which the war on God is exposed and is being defeated, through the cross and its warriors.

It is this reality which Lewis’s principle puts into play. Paul describes the enactment of peace, truth, and righteousness, as their own weapons their own means and end. The armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20) does not consist of secondary means or material: truth, righteousness, and peace, are their own armor. The movement called “salvation” is the deployment of weapons of nonviolence which constitute the word of God. These are not simply defensive weapons but are part of the offense against the lie, the unrighteousness, the way of violence which Paul describes in Romans 3. In this world, understanding is obscured as all have given themselves over to the lie of violence. The organs of speech deal in death: throats are graves, tongues deceive, and lips spew poison, and this culminates in the shedding of blood and mutually assured destruction (Ro. 3:10-18). Paul sums up this deadly logic as the perversity of doing evil for the good (Ro. 3:8), establishing the law through sin (Ro. 7:1), and committing transgressions to gain grace (Ro. 6:1). Where the undergirding logic, the feet or the moving force of this way, is bloodshed, Paul describes the gospel of peace as its own moving force (an inherent “readiness”). Only peace can counter the contagion and logic that has gripped the world and only peace brings together means and end. It is not by evil that good shall come but the means to the good – peace, righteousness, truth – foster the end through the means.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (47). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 45-46.  

Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree


Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees1

The photograph of the lynching in Marion Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith haunted and then inspired Abel Meeropol to describe the event in verse. His poem, set to music and recorded by Billie Holiday, is a poignant depiction of the American Holocaust.

It was 16-year-old James Cameron, accused and strung up with Shipp and Smith and then given a last-minute reprieve, who would found America’s Black Holocaust Museum. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, echoes the poem in his concerted attempt to view the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” Cone’s Theology has been criticized for its too narrow focus and exclusion, but in this time in which Christians seems to be supporting widespread oppression of the poor and oppressed, Cone points us in a definitive direction away from evil.

It may be difficult to place ourselves amidst the crowd at the foot of the lynching tree. Difficult, not in the sense that we can never imagine doing such a thing but precisely because this is near enough that we understand this crowd. Living in Little Dixie here in Missouri, the rebel flag is still proudly displayed, racists abound, and the majority of white Christians are stumped as to why the emphasis should be on black lives. One can hear the echo of Caiaphas in the comeback: rather than “all lives” or “blue lives” how about “Roman lives” or “Pharisee lives” matter – therefore this man must die. It is possible to imagine the sway of the crowd and being caught up in the moment – the blind hatred is too near not to recognize its potential. As Ted Peters has stated it, “What is there about striking out violently and killing others that makes us think we can quell the pangs of anxiety, overcome our frustrations. Relieve our rage, regain a sense of self-worth, and thereby conquer death? Killing others seems to relieve our own fear of being killed.”3 When the crowd turns, in a moment of scapegoating, the cowardice and instinct for survival may be strong – but stronger yet is the blind hatred for this victim who is disrupting our lives, harming our religion, and threatening our nation. Through this “righteous slaughter” we can attain some eternal, universal form of the good.4 “Lynch him so that our nation might be saved! Lynch him so that law and order will return and righteousness be served!”

It may be that we have to equate the two – the lynching tree and the Cross – to recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose.

In a strange twist, “Christian” hatred of the stranger, the refugee, and the oppressed, silences the one who exposes the reality of this hatred: “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). While we often sing and theologize about being at the foot of the Cross, our theology is such that the horror of the occasion is mitigated by the imagined fact that God is pulling the strings. We might, in a cavalier fashion, place ourselves at the foot of the cross but the lynching tree does not afford easy association. Cone’s point is that Christians, who so easily stand with the oppressors and cannot identify with the oppressed, have been desensitized by their Christianity. Instead of curing blind hatred this Christianity seems to induce it.

Christianity, with the lynchings of African Americans, the crusades, American slavery, Nazi genocide, oppression of women and minorities, etc, has been implicated in evil. Christians have not just been innocent by-standers but have many times been a force for evil.5 I believe, with Cone, that it is time to begin to definitively identify this false Christianity (which even the Apostle John calls the religion of the Antichrist) and distinguish it from an authentic Christianity. Can we can locate the evil, which is not part of an authentic Christianity? Can Christians identify and rid themselves of evil?

Our theology has so tamed the event of the crucifixion that preachers are forced to go to excruciating lengths to recount the pain of the Cross. No one needs to explain the humiliation and suffering of Shipp and Smith. Details only add to the horror of the photograph: both of the arms of Abram Smith were broken to keep him from trying to free himself; police officers participated in the lynching; there was no rape; none of the crowd were ever convicted of a crime. Even without commentary, the photograph conveys the evil. The lynching tree is a revolting horror from which we would turn away. The Cross, on the other hand, is a common piece of jewelry. Equating the lynching tree and the Cross focuses the attention on the evil and violence. The question is, how does the Cross address the evil of the lynching tree? Cone’s work brings out the specific role of atonement theology in disabling this equation (though he has not, I believe, given a full explanation to this question).

In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction, has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that this is not an equation we normally come to. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 6

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constanitinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate. As I will demonstrate in this series of blogs, Anselm’s “logic” building toward the need for the death of Christ is the logic of those who killed him. God is in one accord with Christ’s executioners. He does not refuse or resist the violence but is the ultimate perpetrator and the one who reinforces or generates its structure.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”7 

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community. Sign up here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings)  

1 Written by Abel Meeropol.

2 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

3 Ted Peters, Sin and Radical Evil, 41.

4 After extensive interviewing and analysis sociologist Jack Katz concludes that criminals in general and killers in particular seek to embody, “through the practice of ‘righteous slaughter,’ some eternal, universal form of the Good.” The form it typically takes is that of righteous rage to which someone else has to be sacrificed.

5This is not to argue, with the New Atheists, that Christianity and religion are to blame for all evil and violence in the world. 20th Century secularism, Marxism and Fascism, have unleashed a radical evil that outdoes the problematic history of Christianity. What is clear is that the human heart is evil and where Christianity is so perverted so as not to address or confront this evil it has become complicit with evil.

6 J. Denny Weaver. The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 144-145). Kindle Edition.

7Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 101.

The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now, in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.

Are Ultimate Evil and Ultimate Goodness in Confrontation in Alternative Christianities?

What precisely might it be that first century Christianity opposes in pagan religion or simply non-Christian religion? Given the multiple positive references to Greek and pagan thought in both Testaments, it is clearly not a wholesale rejection of human wisdom and religion per se. Religion was not itself a realm apart from everyday life such that one could separate it out and thus avoid it. To be a citizen, to go shopping in the market, to own a home, would necessarily overlap with the realm of the sacred. But two specific acts, participation in pagan sacrificial rites and in occupations of war and violence, were beyond the pale for the first Christians and seemed to demarcate the Christian faith from the surrounding world. Pagan sacrificial rites, as Bruce McClelland describes it, “exemplified quite unequivocally a resistance to the Christian message, if for no other reason than that Christ was presumed to be the ultimate and last sacrificial victim.”[1] Non-participation in the military and limited participation in the rites of Rome were, of course, not necessarily two separate realms.  Given René Girard’s interpretation of sacrificial religion as a process in which the realm of the sacred is created through violence (the sacrifice of the scapegoat covered over in myth), then the early Christian refusal of pagan sacrificial religion can be read as part and parcel of its overall rejection of violence.

By the same standard, contemporary nationalism and capitalism (the reigning “religious” ethos) may constitute the world of our everyday life but as with archaic religion, if violence is beyond the pale the Christian must recognize the line of demarcation. The difference in the modern period is that the violence of archaic religion has been demystified by Christ, which means the genesis of religious myth has ceased. However, a Christianity aligned with nationalism and materialism has separated itself from archaic violence only to engender an un-circumscribed violence. The scapegoating mechanism no longer functions but at the same time violence is no long regulated or delimited. Nationalism and capitalism, in their potential for global destruction are unprecedented and if left unchallenged, extinction of all life on the planet is not simply one possibility but the only possibility.  

As Girard has described it, only sacrificial religion “has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans.”[2] Christ has forever exposed the true nature of sacred violence but where Christians are not Christian enough(?), this exposure may simply unleash an unopposed violence.  If Christ is the final sacrifice, the exposure of the scapegoating mechanism, the alternative to sacred violence, then nationalism and capitalism too must be overtly resisted at their point of violent sacrifice and only a fully functioning form of the faith offers the necessary resistance. This is not merely a matter of personal piety or concern for the preservation of an untainted religion, rather it is the means of exposing the anti-Christ, defeating Satan, and redeeming the cosmos.

The mode of resistance, the unfolding subject of biblical revelation culminating in Christ, is not on the basis of violence but is found in a reorientation to even the presumption of violence. There are a group of “power words” deployed throughout Scripture which characterize the violence and sacrifice which Christ opposes and defeats. Knowing (as in the “knowledge of good and evil”), grasping (grasping the forbidden fruit or “taking hold” of Christ), being (“I am and there is no other”) describe the Fall and fallenness in terms of the deployment of power. The attempt to “stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life,” to become the grasper (Jacob) of the blessing, to make a name and storm the heavens through a grand tower, to grasp and seduce (Genesis 39:12), as with the slave granted forgiveness but who then “seized and began to choke his fellow slave,” all describe the attempt to grasp life or substance through violence. As Mathew describes it, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Mt 11:12).  It might be summed up in Jesus warning that he who would grasp life, he who would save his life, by that very act loses it.

 The nature of this power is exposed in the ultimate power grab: “Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.’ After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. They laid hands on Him and seized Him” (Mark 14:44-46). The seizing, delivering, and handing over, encompass the ultimate sin, often laid at the feet of Judas. But Judas starts the chain reaction of “delivering” or “handing over” (παραδίδωμι contains both the gift, δίδωμι, and its destruction) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Matthew 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified.  John equates this handing over or delivering up with darkness, with Satan entering into Judas, and with the uncleanness that clings to the Apostles feet. Jesus is delivered over to the Gentiles or Romans through the Jews by means of an Apostle, such that every class of human is involved in this deliverance. Darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, are encompassed in the movement which delivers Jesus unto death.

Simultaneous with the grab for heaven is the inauguration of the mode in which the kingdom will be established through one “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). It is specifically not by violent grasping but by non-grasping nonviolence that Jesus is characterized and that he is to be imitated (imitation of Christ is the point in this passage). The will of Christ in his surrender is identified with the new law, inscribed on the heart through the final sacrifice (Heb. 10:14-18). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on hearts; it came about also “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The breathing out of the Spirit is specifically connected with the non-grasping, relinquishing mode of Jesus death. “And Jesus cried loudly, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit'” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrendering and handing over the Spirit to the Father. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father come together in the singular event described by Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus’ judges and his executioners wanted to punish a criminal, to grasp him and hand him over; he wanted to give himself, as the Last Supper sayings show, for the many.

Maximus the Confessor says that Christ on the cross altered the “use of death.” He means that death, which was brought by God after the fall into Eden as punishment, was transformed by the crucified one into a means of salvation from sin.  Maximus compared the scene of the garden of Eden and the cross, suggesting one is a grasping and one is a relinquishing. As Girard has described it, whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life may have its limits, but at the moment of dying these limits can be broken down. Death is passage beyond an inexorable limit, beyond all previous limits. Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) and in imitating his death, in taking up his cross and dying, we too are entrusted in the Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). Death becomes the mode of surrender which endures sacrificial violence and overcomes it.

The ultimate destruction aimed at Christ is deflected through a direct confrontation with and exposure of violence. This is the sacrifice that reverses sacrificial violence – it sanctifies, it is the means of character change involved in inscribing the law on the heart, and it is an alternative mode of knowing written on the mind (Heb 10:14-18). As Graham Ward describes it, “Jesus’s life is the performance within which the salvation promised by God is made effective for all; just as the narration of Jesus’s life, work and teaching is the performance (re-enacted by each reader/listener) by which the salvation effected by God in Christ is made available to all.”[3] The Word made flesh is an alternative “representation” or a new mode of inscription. Where in violent sacrifice the flesh is transposed into a semiotic, a grasp for meaning, in the incarnate word flesh becomes the bearer of meaning. As we make the word flesh, taking up Jesus’ way of thinking and perceiving we enter a (metanoia – noeo – a knowing) mode which is not simply a moral category but an epistemological one in which the living word cannot be grasped or possessed or fully comprehended. There is no end of reading, no end of repeating the story as we take up this word which never accommodates grasping ownership.

Life cannot be had through our word, our knowledge, our grasping, our violence. We must give up on this grasping of life. Redemption means a (re)turn to the word of God but the way we get there pertains to our method. The Word must now be inscribed upon the heart and we must be enscribed in the word.  We must be entextualised and take up this word and walk. We must be animated by the narrative force of Christ which is precisely enacted in a non-violent relinquishing of life.

In summary, a “Christianity” wedded to nationalistic and materialistic violence is bound toward an apocalyptic destruction which can only be interrupted by a true form of the religion. It is the confrontation between this anti-Christ and Christ which Scripture depicts as the final confrontation between good and evil, a confrontation now unfolding in two forms of the faith.

(Register for the Module on Religion and Culture on Monday the 27th at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org.)


[1] Bruce McClelland, Sacrifice and Early Christianity (Ph.D. Dissertation Chapter 5).

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/on-war-and-apocalypse

[3] Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Blackwell Publishing Ltd), p. 45.