I Am Not Me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope Against Hope: The Ground of Faith and Love

Of the three enduring pillars of Christianity (faith, hope and love), hope is often neglected in light of the more obvious qualities of faith and love. The three, though, are necessarily linked, as faith and love exist in hope. Without hope, faith and love are unbalanced and ultimately rendered impossible or, at least, of a different order of meaning than biblical faith and love. Hope transports the realm of faith and love beyond the temporal and its limited possibilities. Hope is unseen because it defies earthly, mortal, deathly, expectations, bringing the eternal into faith and love.

While there are earthly versions of all three, it is hope which specifically contains the biblical element of a continual dying to the world, of passing through death, to an expectant life in God which is no longer grounded by the delimitations of death. Thus, the curative element: the cure of fear, the cure of the curtailments of reason and the earthly perspective, which might be attached to all three, are ensured by hope.

Faith and love might speak of an ordinary finite degree of possibility but hope surpasses what is possible and clings to the otherwise impossible. This can be easily demonstrated in the qualifiers which could be potentially added to faith and love but which are excluded when combined with hope. Limited, temporal, finite, faith and love may be the norm but hope extends faith and love to the unlimited, the a-temporal and the infinite.

We might speak of a dogmatic faith but never of a dogmatic hope. Hope, by its very nature, cannot be paired with hard-headed knowing. This is why David Bentley Hart’s dogmatic universalism, as compared to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s hopeful universalism, seems to miss the point. The point of biblical end time imagery is not to illicit rational certainty or exhaustive explanation, but hope. Hope is the reworking of the imagination on the basis of what is not approachable by sight. Rational sight-bound categories may give us a deity driven by the necessity of human reason – but hope relieves us of such necessities at the same time that it frees the imagination. Hope takes us beyond the temporal and its suffocating rational possibilities. The danger of Hart’s dogmatism is that it would make universalism bear an explanatory weight which would relieve the imagination of doing any work. But this is the entire point of the Christian end-time kingdom imagery – to bring about a reworked imagination which is not bound by temporal-rational possibilities.

Faith and love might be conceived of apart from anticipation but there is no hope without expectation. Rightly understood, faith and love are grounded in this expectation of hope. Both speak of a future in which they are proven to have been true and worthy. Hopeless love would be a quickly passing malady, as there is no expectation of a brighter, fulfilled future for the beloved. Hopeful love presumes this expectation of the best for the beloved. So too, hopeless faith would be a static, time bound belief which does not presume to transport the believer elsewhere. Hope brings an eternal dynamism (the future ever-transforming the past and present) into faith and love. Hope speaks of a living possibility imputed into faith and love. Living by faith and love is the dynamism hope delivers. Living out this hope (the certainty or assurance of faith in Hebrews 11) brings the eternal into time, not as a fully realized achievement, but as an actively lived possibility. It is in hope that human experience of time is transformed by eternity – as the eternal possibilities open a way forward, where time presented impenetrable obstacles.

Where faith and love might be qualified or constrained by the possible, hope makes for unqualified-impossible love and a seemingly impossible faith, as with God there is nothing that is impossible. Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26) – an understanding Jesus connects directly to belief in goodness. Given the circumstance of the world camels cannot be threaded through a needle, the rich are hopeless, and goodness is unachievable. Reason cannot resolve the problem of evil even in its conception of the goodness of God. Hope leaps over this impossibility – having faith in goodness and unqualified hope in love. Though bad faith and ill-conceived love may be the norm, hope is hope in an “impossible” goodness. Hope implies a confidence in a good outcome which is not constrained by bleak necessities.

Abraham, as the case in point of hope beyond hope (Ro 4:18), is faced with an impossible, irresolvable situation, apart from divine intervention. His is a journey in which the earthly expectancy of propagating his name is foreclosed (faith rendered impossible) and this is where hope begins. It is not simply his faith isolated from hope that is exceptional, as his hope translates the future expectation into the possibility of moving forward – going into the unseen far country. Faith apart from hope would remain a static possibility, but hope enlivens the eternal possibility in the present so that the journey is energized now by the possibilities of its end.

What is relinquished in the process are not simply the possibilities of earthly hope but with it the weight of earthly desires and necessities. Apart from hope, Abraham’s childlessness, homelessness, and old age, would constitute a final despair – and that is precisely where hope begins. The divine hope (the hope beyond hope), over and against human hope, begins at that point where there is no natural, rational, earthly way forward. At that point where earthly expectations have been exhausted and despair would kick in, eternal hope begins.

The presumed obstacles to Abraham’s faith – hardships, frustrations, suffering, failed expectations – are the ingredient of the hope beyond hope. The impossibility of his circumstance may appear as an obstacle to his faith, but if it is understood that his faith is grounded in the hope of eternity, then the obstacles can be seen as moving him from hope in time to hope in eternity. Hopelessness, despair, and death, prompt the living hope which leaps beyond the world to presuming one’s own incapacity and the necessity of divine intervention.

Maybe this is why faith and love, apart from hope, not only do not imply suffering but seem to be challenged by suffering. Hope presumes suffering but the suffering itself is rendered secondary. As Paul describes it in Romans 8, the suffering with which the creation is infused is on the order of childbirth. “We ourselves,” he indicates, “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (8:23). This suffering is an expectant suffering which presumes there is a point to the suffering.

As Paul pictures the contrast between two types of suffering, suffering, apart from hope arises from within the individual (their desire) and there is no relief from this hopeless desirous suffering closed up within the self. This self in relation to itself – pursuing and desiring itself, only further isolates itself in its turn inward.  Paul’s despairing cry, “Wretched man that I am, Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:24), gets at the isolated hopelessness. The specific element giving rise to suffering in the midst of hopelessness is the futility of this unfulfillable pursuit. There is an incapacity to persevere in the midst of this desire, which seems to empty out any positive, outside possibility. As Kierkegaard describes it, imprisoned air develops a poison all by itself.”[1]

 On the other hand, Paul pictures varieties of suffering (tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword (8:35)) but these outward forms of suffering are no obstacle to the love of God grounded in hope. Thus, the perseverance of hope presumes that what it is persevering in is suffering but the suffering points beyond itself. Faith and love do not seem to have this presumption of a persevering through suffering apart from hope.

It is not too much to claim Christian faith and love require hope.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2009. Works of Love, ( trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong. New York: Harper Perennial), 231.

Apocalypse as Overcoming the Deception of Misenchantment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] McCarraher, 3-5.

[3] McCarraher, 5-6.

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

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

[6] Adams, 124.

Christian Anarchism: The Singular Weapon Opposing That Hideous Strength

That Christianity is over and against the arche (the organizing principle, the principalities and powers) of this world is a truism of the same order as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is one of those universal trues that is universally ignored.  Everyone is against the “ruler of this world, the devil” (as depicted in the temptation of Jesus and elsewhere), but to oppose position, power, authority, prestige, and wealth, as Jesus does, is another matter.  The word “anarchism,” maybe due to its association with the 19th century movement advocating stateless societies, gets at the radical nature of Christian opposition to illegitimate authority. Christian anarchism might be associated with the desert fathers, Leo Tolstoy, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Ellul, and most particularly with the work of C. S. Lewis (as I conclude below) but what all would claim (though not in the same modern word) is that in authentic Christianity God is sole authority and any authority which would usurp the place of God is illegitimate. The devil though, is in the details of the workings of illegitimate authority, as depicted in the New Testament (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) and specifically by Paul in Corinthians. The summation of Paul’s point is that illegitimate authority is coercive, shaming, filled with ambition and giving rise to strife. All of this can be summed up as a kind of violence if we understand violence is itself simply this coercive power. Christianity is anarchic in that it opposes the organizing violence which shapes people’s lives and runs the world.

Where the church would collude with the arche, as the Corinthians and the church through the ages has been tempted, the demonic, according to Paul, displaces God: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (I Co 10:21). You cannot pledge allegiance to more than one ultimate power; it is either God or mammon. The Corinthians are claiming the idol is nothing, and while Paul agrees he notes that this is not the basis for collusion. Paul explains, he does not want them to unwittingly be participants with demons (v. 20). The arche or demonic masks itself behind the apparently benign and the history of the church is one of collusion with this power: Constantinian, German, American, liberal democratic, idolatrous – conjoined with Christian has produced demonic “Christianity.” Churches have conformed, respected, and often supported state authorities and in the process have tolerated and participated in the most grievous evil.

Paul is modeling a concept of authority which sees God as the only final authority, and in this he is enacting Christ’s servant leadership – a phrase so bandied about and abused that it can become repulsive (if not recovered from those who pervert it). The leader as the servant of all, in Paul’s prolonged argument, is not violent (literally or metaphorically the super-apostles are slapping people around), or an authoritarian, or coercive, or interested in position. What is pompous, a spectacle, a hierarchy of power, an end in itself, is not Christian. Those who use Christianity (e.g. the super-apostles in Corinth) for power and position are not following Christ. The problem is this more or less excludes most all churches. To state it in the most straightforward manner, if one can be promoted, given a raise in pay, given an important title, to become one of these then this cannot possibly be what Paul and Jesus are modeling.

But has not God appointed the masters and servants, giving his sign of blessing through socioeconomic success? Aren’t the clergy consigned with knowledge and power which can be utilized as chaplains of the state and all of its various powers (military, police, government)? Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous living anarchist, has spent his life uncovering the slaughter, genocide, and human sacrifice, in the name of a Christian liberal democracy (primarily that of the United States). The blood of human sacrifice, whether overtly idolatrous or covertly so, flows from illegitimate authority (it is always illegitimate/deadly in the same way).   The sacrifice of the weak to the “knowledge” of the strong, at Corinth or in Chomsky’s analysis, is the authority of the rich, the privileged, the elites, presuming to Lord it over the poor, the powerless, and dispossessed. Paul’s and Chomsky’s analysis converge in describing the sacrifice of persons for principle (gnosis or knowledge over concern for the weak) and in the obscuring of history (Israel perished, hundreds of thousands have been killed in South America, the Middle East, Africa, etc., in the promotion of American freedom). Where Chomsky’s atheistic anarchism falls short is in the realization of the real-world corporate resistance Paul is putting into place in his establishment of anarchic Christian communities.

While the super-apostles would extract obedience through violent shaming, Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority that comes off as wimpy, cowardly, and weak, in their estimate. Paul is concerned with nurturing the weak, and so is living in relative poverty so as to identify himself with – or to be – weak as opposed to strong. Where Paul’s weakness arises from a concern for persons, the strong are centered on an impersonal gnosis. As Kierkegaard explains, the impersonal is the marker of evil power: “no mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power. Why? Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid to a person.” The sign you may be dealing with demons is when someone says you must sacrifice people for humanity – a few for the greater good. The Corinthians, as with all power elites, would sacrifice the weak and the poor for the exercise of their freedom.  So, the first mark of the devotion to idols such as rulers or nations, is the willingness to sacrifice the few. Immigrants, racial minorities, foreigners, Jews, the disabled, are the “genetically inferior” which the arche of the age have required for their use. Smell for the sulfur of hell when it is argued “we must do evil to the few, perhaps to you, that good may abound” as the devil sits before you. 

The second thing which both Paul and Chomsky describe is a certain obscuring or complete blurring of history. Every idol has obscure origins – “it just came out of the fire” (according to Aaron’s description of the origin of the golden calf); I turned to eat my lunch and this god appeared (according to the idolatrous craftsman in Isaiah); “We the people” constituted ourselves a people before we existed as a people according to the Constitution. Chomsky traces the anti-democratic intent of American origins in Madison’s and Jefferson’s concerted efforts to protect the wealthy from “majority tyranny.” The supposed democracy, from its origins, was a plutocracy (government by the wealthy) and Chomsky’s effort is to trace the human sacrifice this continues to involve. In contrast, even though the Corinthians are mainly made up of gentiles, Paul incorporates them into the history of Israel to show that their spiritual ancestor adulterated/idolatrized itself. The authoritarians would bypass history, and particularly history as Paul recounts it. They would claim a word from God, a spiritual gift, an ecstatic experience, that cannot be historically countered. Paul uses Israel as a warning that things can go wrong and did go wrong as the bodies of these Israelites are spread in the wilderness (I Co 10:5). They were given an open door to freedom from the tyranny of Egypt and its gods.  They chose, instead, to worship the arche of the age and bowed down to idols of Egypt, longing for the very fleshpots of meat that the Corinthians crave.  Of course, this is pointed at the Corinthians’ adherence to the organizing principle and authority of the age and by extension it is pointed at our lingering submission to this power.

The gospel has often been preached as a choice between damnation and conversion, as if salvation is snatching souls from out of the world and its history. Paul is picturing salvation through Moses, through Israel, and ultimately through Christ as part of a historical process in which one must be able to name the idols to be saved from enslavement.  The kingdom of God exists in the world but it cannot be reconciled to the organizing principle of the kingdoms of this world.

In our day for the church to be anarchic it must counter the organizing principles of materialism, scientism, technology, and economics. Jacques Ellul has described the supreme idolatry of the time as technology, technique, or information processing. As he notes, what “desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality.”[1] How to do it, how to perform, how to achieve, whether money, sex, a mega-church, happiness, or peace, the sacred principle of the time is technique. “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”[2] As I have outlined it previously (here), “becoming all things to all men” (the proof text for Church growth philosophy taken from this section of Corinthians) reduces authority and leadership to technique.

 As both Chomsky and Ellul illustrate, schools have become the focus of the sacralizing of technique. The young are indoctrinated to equate information gathering with understanding and education primarily conveys information. Intelligence is now conceived such that it could be duplicated artificially (AI) as it is pictured as mechanical. This accords with Lewis’s depiction in That Hideous Strength which portrays the demise of a little college that is somehow intimately familiar.  N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Sciences) is the acronym of the technocratic organization, geared to pure science and to elevating humanity beyond embodiment, which takes over the school. What Lewis captures is the emptying out of intellect to a bland scientism and technology.[3]

Lewis’s resolution to this hideous evil, in his space trilogy and nonfiction, is Christian anarchy. The small group at St. St. Anne’s, made up of just a few ragged individuals, poses the only opposition to the domination of N.I.C.E. Lewis, it has been noted, was obsessed with “power-over” relationships.[4] Lewis explained, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with the unchecked power over his fellows… I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” In his depiction of the unfallen world the races interact together quite freely and peacefully, trading amongst themselves, with no need for the machinations of a state structure or governing system.[5] Apart from the Fall “our race would never have featured any rulers dominating others.” Subordination of one human to another marks human failure which is erased in his depiction of the unfallen. In Out of the Silent Planet this is beautifully depicted in Professor Ransom’s research into how power and authority function on the planet. He concludes as Justin Fowler has described it, “equals are unfit to rule each other — humans are not fit to rule other humans. To try to rule another is to try to be something that one is not.”[6] What Lewis captures throughout his corpus is the anarchic nature of Christian authority, the only means of resisting pure evil.


[1] https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/29/cs-lewis-was-a-red/

[2] http://www.altarandthrone.com/anarchy-by-c-s-lewis-part-one/

[3] Even in biblical education, in my experience, students must harmonize, memorize, fill in the blanks, repeat the correct answer, summarize the doctrines, as if this constitutes learning the Word.  Administrators with their technique, their pursuit of accreditation, their total adherence to the arche of the age are displacing Truth. The truth of Christ as a person in whom we trust, is reduced to an impersonal gnosis which one can be made to espouse (think here of the history of forced conversion).


[4] https://archive.org/stream/JacquesEllulAnarchyChristianity/jacques-ellul-anarchy-%26-christianity_djvu.txt

[5] Ibid

[6] http://www.altarandthrone.com/anarchy-by-c-s-lewis-part-two/

The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy

Both Abraham and Sarah respond with laughter to their absurd plight.  Sarah laughs privately and Abraham “fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen. 17:17).  The absurd situation of being promised a child, though Sarah is barren and Abraham is so old he is as good as dead, is laughable as it is absurdly hopeful.  The laughter is not simply doubtful, though it encompasses doubt. It is, as one might say at the unforeseen but happy resolution of an impossible situation, “Unbelievable!” Their laughter is acknowledgement of the absurdity but it is not bound by mere impossibility or tragedy. The fact that they memorialize the laughter in naming the child Isaac (He Who Laughs) indicates this laughter is integral to their faith. Since Abraham, in Paul’s explanation, is the prototype of faith, this indicates our own faith is to be caught up in the same laughter. More than that, Isaac or He Who Laughs is a type of Christ, meaning that the divine and human are melded in laughter personified. Continue reading “The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy”

I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death

Total freedom and the possibility of total destruction are not simply global phenomena (the “free” possibility of ending organized civilization through nuclear warfare or global warming) but are conjoined in a “despairing” Subject. Progress toward attaining the self, whether it brings down the world or simply destroys what is, marks the present world order but also the despairing, fear bound Subjects emerging at the end of late modernity. This despair, in Søren Kierkegaard’s depiction of it, might be despair at not being conscious of having a self, or despair at not willing to be oneself, or despair at willing to be oneself, but all three reduce to the same predicament.[1] There is a disease of the spirit (the spirit of the age or the individual human spirit) a dividedness and fear in which unity is sought (becoming or attaining the self) in negation of the self. Kierkegaard calls it “the sickness unto death.” Continue reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death”

Why “Walking Theology”

kierkegaard walking quote

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Why “Walking Theology””

Denial of the Sickness Unto Death as Definitive of Sin

Before Freud and Lacan, Søren Kierkegaard (SK) provided us with a depth psychology which exceeds secular psychoanalysis in both its powers of diagnosis and its prescription of a cure. SK arrives at a definition of sin which Lacan recognizes is the precursor to his own theory focused on the dynamics of a lie. In Lacanian theory the Subject can only exist under the dynamic (antagonistic) interplay of the symbolic (language or the law) and the ego. The real or the death drive, which describes the inherent alienation of these two realms, is something like the continual negation of a lie as part of the constitution of human subjectivity. There is no dispelling the lie in Lacanian theory as the Subject literally depends upon this deception for existence. SK offers an alternative understanding to the infinite negativity of deception. Continue reading “Denial of the Sickness Unto Death as Definitive of Sin”