The Perverse Core of Atonement: Sacrifice or Relationship?

Redeemed Jesus Passover Lamb

For me, all doctrines and dogma are “fair game” and worth critical examinination.  A faith that is not able to withstand questions is an antique to be admired, not a faith that dares to walk and encounter the world with us.  The atonement, by virtue of its function in faith and theology, cannot be an antique!  It must be an idea that we carry with us…even when we are not sure what we are carrying or how it “works.”  So I wish to continue thinking atonement under a different rubric than my last post: the rubrics of sacrifice or relationship.

The old line on atonement theory/theology is that Jesus had to die to “atone” for our sins…and because of this act God is now able to be in relationship with the world, his anger being subdued by Jesus’ blood.   If you’ll revisit my previous post, I outline this in greater detail.

Most Christians would gladly agree with this simple statement of faith and the Catholic Church re-acts this very idea each time it performs mass and sanctifies the host.  But can relationship and sacrifice both be equal ends leading to the same goal of salvation or do they occupy different ends and different goals?  Is God primarily interested in being appeased or being in relationship?  Can both sacrifice and relationship be the goal of God killing Jesus  (this last phrase will make more sense a bit further down)  or does a blind embrace of a satisfaction theory of the atonement (and also its penal substitution relative) possibly contradict the at-one-ment that Christians testify in the very act of affirming Christ and him crucified?  Can God be both firstly loving yet also firstly burning in anger and does the vision of God cast by the life of Jesus lead us to believe that Jesus would have believed human sacrifice to be God’s answer for saving the world?

If we contend that God had to kill Jesus in order to save the world, then we are saying that relationship with the world is an accident of the substance of Jesus’ death.  In other words, Relationship was not God’s primary goal; It is the byproduct of this horrible event of propitiation. First and foremost, God’s honor had to saved and the only way to do this was to make someone else pay the price.  We are brought into relationship with God not because God first desires relationality with the world, but because God was first so offended that he had to kill Jesus to pacify his blood lust…and only consequently, as a result of this action, we are then brought into relationship with God…back into that edenic state into which we were first created.  So of primary importance is not that God desires to be in relationship with the world.  The primary object of importance is that God cannot be offended, and that such offense can only be pacified by blood.  If this is not the case, then please explain to me why animal sacrifice (and even human) was so central, not only in Judeo-Christian traditions, but in a myriad of other faiths.

Timothy Gorringe in his book, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, violence and the rhetoric of salvation, talks about how blood propitiation emerged in Israel, and then by extension, would also be a useful paradigm through which the early Christians interpreted the violence done to Jesus.  He writes,

Propitiatory sacrifices sought to turn away God’s anger.  In seeking to understand the bulk of the texts which deal with this form of sacrifice we need to bear in mind that the emphasis on the rites of atonement characteristic of the Pentateuch derives from the period after Exile, which was the most traumatic event in Israel’s history.  God had made a covenant with the House of David, and was understood to have made an eternal commitment to Zion.  Now Jersualem was destroyed and the Davidic Kingship at an end.  What had gone wrong?  The answer was that Israel had sinned and was being punished for its sin.  In order to avoid another such catastrophe sin had to be avoided, but if it could not be avoided…, then the Priestly writers believed, sacrifice was available as a means of atonement” (p37)

(This is a dense paragraph and requires more attention than I can give it for this topic.  Paramount to my thoughts here is the origin of sacrifice and the “why” and “how” of its development.  I would strongly encourage you to peruse this book if you don’t have time to read its entirety)

This is the goal of killing Jesus.  The world has obviously not avoided sin, so Jesus, who is interpreted as God God’s self in later Christian councils and in the Gospel of John, kills God’s self.  This is important because the reason we don’t think about Jesus as a sacrifice of human proportions is because to many of us Jesus is not a human, he was God.  And it’s no big deal to us humans when God kills God’s self; its just what we’ve come to expect God to do.  It’s as if we give God a pass on human sacrifice because we have lost to history the reality that Jesus was a human.  YET, there is no evidence that Jesus was God, this is a category of faith, something that we believe in without any historical veracity… yet there is ample evidence that Jesus existed and he did so as a human being in ancient Palestine, yet the fact that he was human is lost in this debate because to bring up the humanity of Jesus is to raise some heinous questions of God, questions we’d rather not go near.

Jesus has been interpreted as HAVING to die to be a propitiation for the wrong humanity has collectively done against God via the first sin of Adam and Eve.  The relationship that creation has with God, as a consequence, is unambiguously perverse.  For surely if God were all loving to the degree that he desires relationship above violence, one would think that a God who is inscribed with all the “omni’s” (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient) could somehow in his mightiness be able to forgive by tapping into one of his omni-powers and bypass condoning  human sacrifice.  If God desired relationship with the world, one would think God could accomplish this however God would like, yet if the primary point is not right relationship, but restoring God’s honor, then Divine narcissism precedes Divine love…and the primary point is not a relationship, but punishment and incarnate hubris prior to any relationship.  But what if this is exactly what God was condemning on the cross??  What if they very thing we think the cross affirms is the very thing God is condemning in this event??  What if the cross means the exact opposite of what it is popularized to mean and THIS was the Gospel intention?? (I will write an entire blog making this argument in the future).

Oddly, this whole mechanical way of viewing salvation seems in stark contradiction to some of the very parables spoken by the very Jesus this very God verily needed to kill: the Beatitudes (see esp Matthew 5. 38-48, wherein Jesus teaches an inverted from of the Mosaic Lex taliones…yet God cannot follow the very teachings of God’ self when it comes to sin??  I’m just asking), the parables of vineyard workers (Matthew 20.1-16), and the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32) to name a few.

This is precisely Slavoj Zizek’s critiques Christian belief and describes it as having a “perverse core”.  In his book, The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek describes the current façade of Christianity to be one of a perverse God that circumvents around a perverse core.  The perverse core is this: God’s plan of salvation is pointless because God has no one with which to contend but Gods-self.  In other words, all the mechanizations of Christian salvation that begin with Adam and Eve (following the usual Christian profession of God’s powers…God presumably “knew” what would happen with the garden debacle) are strange because God has no one to impress but God’s Self.  Why would God “have” to do this, or “have” to do that as a part of creation or salvation of a creation he created but then somehow lost?  What is it that forces God to “set up” the world in the fashion that God did in order to get himself to forgive the world that he knew would falter?  Why even start this game of cat and mouse in which millions of people will make the wrong “choice” or be born into the wrong culture…and thereby be damned?

Some might say that God would do this to be in relationship to some of us, yet, is it really worth creating because of a hedonistic need to have objects to worship yourself when you are quite capable of existing apart from the worship of those said objects, aka, creation?  And if it is about having “some”people respond in freedom, if one had never created for the sake of not having millions/billions of people damn themselves by not rightfully worshipping yourself, then those who do respond would have never had a conscious mind to know what they were missing out on precisely because they would have never had bodies within which their minds could function.  As a consequence, no harm would be done…And as Jacobus Arminius rightly notes, if God creates with the intention of damning creation, then the very act of creation is a great evil perpetrated by God…and since God is good, God cannot do such evil acts.

For Zizek, If God is God (as countless Christians profess, “God is God and I’m not”), then God can forgive without a blood sacrifice, a human sacrifice, because God is the maker of the rules, not one who must submit to the rules created elsewhere.   God can set the parameters… so why parameters of such infinite violence and suffering?   So what is the “end game” of atonement?  Relationship or blood sacrifice?

I can hear a quick rebuttal, “but God had to perform discipline on humanity for our offenses.  It would not be justice if God let ALL of creation off the hook.”  Ok, but why?  Because the Bible says so?  Could it be that our own inherent need for justice, and the relationship of justice and violence, shades the biblical text to such a degree that we have clouded the text with what justice means in anthropomorphic terms rather than in strictly transcendent terms, so that God looks an awful lot like our desires rather than desires that are totally other than ours?  * Ludwig Fuerbach has now left the building.*  What does God gain by having justice performed on a much inferior, lesser grouping of beings known as human?  How is it justice when the plaintiff is infinitely more resourceful than the defendant and indeed the outcome of the trial is immaterial to the plaintiff?  And this is Just??  Never mind conspiracy against creation that would surely arise if God has all the “omni’s” yet remains inculpable.  Does God possess justice ontologically or does God need justice performed for him, by himself, upon himself, in order to have a part of himself he would not otherwise have if not for the performance of the much needed justice?  So now we’re saying the perfect God lacks??

Let’s go further, maybe this is our response, “God had to punish Jesus because to just forgive creation out of mercy apart from violence would show God to be weak and not just.”  To whom would God look weak?  Who does God have to impress?  The Devil?  If embarrassment is a category of being, a necessary category that sits along side of dishonor and honor (key concepts in classical atonement theology), then amongst whom is God worried of being embarrassed by not having his honor restored through the punishment of a victim that symbolizes the offense that dishonored him?  If God’s primary goal is salvation (healing) and relationship with creation, why would God choose to do so through an endless amount of violence when God can have just as easily chosen to simply forgive the offense without the need for a sacrifice…you know, the same kind of forgiveness that Jesus teaches in the NT?

What I really want us to consider, at a much deeper level than normal, is what our theology of atonement says about our doctrine of God.  If we continue to reinforce a substitutionary or satisfaction type theory of atonement, what type of doctrine of God does this reinforce and why are we comfortable with conceiving of God so?  Is our doctrine of God, that flows through and from our theology of the atonement, consistent with the Word we see in Christ or do we see something different here…and, like my previous post argued, should we begin to re-articulate a theology of the atonement that seeks to bring people into relationship with God via their theological worldviews rather than cast a vision of the God of Jesus that makes this God a highly suspicious character with a severe personality disorder?

I am sure there are ample hesitations and rebuttals to my thoughts here.  This essay is not meant to be a thesis defending my argument at every turn from possible detractors…yet these are initial remarks as I continue to think the atonement during this Lenten season.  I am sure that someone out there is wanting to chime in and tell me about “free will” (to name just one objection).  I have anticipated some of these remarks and will post a response in my next blog.  But I also encourage you, the reader, to respond to where you think I may have gone astray or where you think I may have been frustratingly correct in offering some food for thought on atonement.  I will respond and might even write a post specific to your reaction or request…but if I have succeeded in at least making us think about God’s intention: relationship or sacrifice…I would have been pleased.  At the end, however, I have no greater desire than to think about God and Christ and to do so honestly as a fellow quester of truth…wherever it may be found.

Other-Wise Atonement: Thinking about the Human Sacrifice of Jesus

What-is-the-Atonement lamb pic

 In the past week I have had three conversations with fellow Brothers in Christ in regard to our ideas of atonement and its relationship to ministry and life.  Chief among these concerns has been the reality that more and more folks, especially folks under 30 (I am 31 FTR) are abandoning organized religion and churches.  It is my belief that such is not happening because the present generation is irreligious or lack faith.  To the contrary, they are very motivated by faith and mystery, it’s just that they seem to be embracing newer philosophies of faith found elsewhere because the way Christianity has been taught, preached, etc, has seemed to them quite bankrupt.  If I reflect on my own teenage years and youth group experience, many of the folks in my youth group are not interested in the faith and if they are, they are not very active.  Most have left the fold of the church.  Why?  Well, I think a large factor is because the church is not speaking to them anymore, and what it has said in the past has been shallow, totalitarian and just an extended version of Aristotle’s Ethics.  Their impression of the faith is kiddie pool theology, where everyone stays in the 3 Ft section because Christianity occupies no other section…and in this 3 ft section we swim continually, never venturing beyond the buoys that separate us from the scary “deep end.”  This, coupled with our horrible ways of reading the Bible as a flat story that simply contains maxims for life and ethical advice…wedded with our biblical literalism at every turn of scripture, has given the impression that our faith is shallow, overly experiential, and has little to offer after we say a prayer of forgiveness.  This is tragic and it saddens me.

As per my recent conversations, I have decided to post a practice in theology of thinking out loud (with you the reader as my company) on the subject of atonement.  I have recently argued amongst friends that the atonement should speak to the existential lack that is inherent in our context…that the atonement is still powerful but not in a uni-dimensional kind of way.  For us to speak to the generations of Christians that have left the church, and to those who will never come to our churches because of their impression of Christianity, we need to do as the church has historically practiced and ask how the atonement functions, what it does, and why that matters for people who don’t feel the weight of Luther’s guilt nor do they really desire God to wring the blood from Jesus beaten body over their head so they can be camouflaged when God peers their way.

So, I want to mention the most popular theories of atonement, or theories of how we understand what Jesus did by dying on Calvary, and how we might shift gears a bit to think the atonement differently.  This essay is not meant to be extensive, and much finer minds have done a better job of descandalizing the cross as some of you might interpret this blog to be doing, but it is my attempt to do theology in an honest way and wrestle with the Cartesian mind that we all possess, if we would only be so honest and not hide behind the fear of where our inquiry might take us.  To my brothers that have occassioned these words, I give thanks for your friendship and treasure your dialogue…and I pray others might find these musings more than useful.

 Let’s get started.  First, the substitutionary theory of the atonement has not been the king of the Christian block since the time of Christ.  There are several theories of atonement, or ideas about the “why” of the passion, that have had prominence in our faith: Ransom, Moral/Love, Satisfaction, and Penal.  Scripture testifies to ALL of these…and ALL of them are problematic, even scripturally, but most traditions accentuate one of these or combine them…but in the theology and faith of the church they were separate and did not emerge at once.

Ransom: Introduced by Origen 3rd century.  This is the idea that Satan, the prince of the world (so Origen was a dualist, sue him and sue most Christians alive today who are equally dualistic), had to have a payment from God for control of creation.  God decided to Kill Jesus as a ransom payment to Satan.  BUT, the trick was resurrection.  God let Satan receive payment and then took his payment back on Easter.  God tricked the devil.  This idea coalesces nicely with Christians who hold that creation is in a Struggle between God and Satan and that Satan is indeed the controller of earth…yet through this act God has no usurped Satan and defeated him again.  So I’m not sure what Pentecostals are still getting excited about with this spiritual warfare stuff; the battle is over, so to speak.  God paid the ransom in this theory because we did not have the “money” to make the transaction…and the rest is history.

Moral/Love: Abelard introduced this 12th century.  Abelard contended that Jesus died to show how much he loved the world and died as a perfect sacrifice expressing what it means to fully love creation…offering a model for how we should love one another even to our own deaths if need be.  The implication is also that as a supreme act of love God let Jesus suffer and die as an example of God’s ability to let evil happen to us so that we might be able to live into the resurrected reality of Jesus and be better people, hence the “moral” part.  He argued that Christ’s Life and death were examples of God’s supreme love to us so that all humans will be able to respond in return by loving God and finding salvation through the intercession of Christ.  Violence is allowed in the world because we are refined by fire and made holy in its furnaces, turning our hearts to God because of his example and being made holy as we live through the violence we all encounter.  There is more to this idea in Abelard’s work, but he wrote this AFTER the next theory by Anselm.

Satisfaction: This is the idea that Jesus was killed to satisfy the honor of God.  It really emerged from the way society was structured during the period of feudal Lords, etc, and was patterned after such societal norms of dishonor, honor and glorification.  God’s honor had been violated in the fall of Adam and Eve (ent), and as such, his honor had to be restored.  However, nothing is great enough to restore God’s honor but the sacrifice God’s self…ENTER Jesus the God-Man;  So God’s wrath was satisfied through the human sacrifice of Jesus.  This is also consistent with the practice of Jewish Temple in killing animals to satisfy God’s anger.

Penal Substitutionary:  This emerged most thoroughly in the Reformation and was crystallized by Calvin.  It is the idea that humans are utterly depraved and cannot be saved except that God would take a substitution for our sin; the old addage is “Jesus took my place” and many of us sing songs to this effect each Sunday in worship.  We are deserving of death; the only way we can experience life is for Jesus to die for us and then IMPUTE his righteousness upon us…so that after the death of Jesus when God looks at the world….he no longer sees our horrid sinfulness, but he sees the blood of Jesus covering our transgressions.

 These are the major theories, but there are others.  I encourage you to read the theologians mentioned above for the finer workings of their atonement theology.

The testimony to multiple understandings of atonement mean thinking the death of Jesus is not nearly as clean and neat as most Christians think…but the other thing that makes atonement a sticky issue is that we are heavily influenced by the Western Church.  Origen was part of the Alexandrian school, so too was Augustine (where one finds substitutionary ideas fit right at home)…Anselm was West also, so too was Thomas Aquinas (transubstantiation)…Abelard was Western but he was bucking the system during his time.  He was often criticized by other theologians, but he attracted many students and was a “go to” theologian for philosophers during the Enlightenment period.  However, in the East, substitution and penal theory did not reign the day…many of the Fathers from the Antiochene school placed a much heavier emphasis on incarnation and theosis because of resurrection, not because of a hyper penal idea of atonement.  So as for Christianity, the witness is actually split and there are theological, and biblical, problems with espousing any one idea/theory.  This is why I am inclined to be more existential in regard to the atonement and be open to multiple meanings that speak to our world, not dictate one method over another.

But the Gospels did just this; they interpreted the atonement within paradigms that made sense, and then translated that to their contexts from out of the story of Jesus they told.  The Gospels are telling the story of Christ and making sense of the crucifixion of Jesus…narratively attempting to make an appeal to how one might understand atonement.

Allow me a brief Gospel of John Excurses.

NO Gospel works/refines an idea of atonement in great detail, yet John goes to greater lengths here than any Evangelist, but it makes sense for him to do so.   John argues that Jesus IS the sacrificial lamb.   The importation of a fairly developed atonement theology in the Gospel of John makes perfect historical sense considering the historical context of the Johannine community that had been expelled from Temple post-70AD and were trying to make sense of being a Jewish Christian without a Temple…what better Christological affirmation than that we don’t need a Temple, we have the lamb sacrificed at the same TIME ON PASSOVER as it would have been happening in the Temple in the 30’s whichever specific year you prefer…but the Synoptics have Christ crucified BEFORE Passover…not during…clearly John is making a theological point.  So John is constructing an atonement theology, but it is within his context not outside of it.

Origen, Anselm, Abelard, the Reformers, they are all wrestling with how to understand how the work of Christ brings humanity into relationship with God; how does it restore brokenness to a sense of wholeness through the broken and bloody body of Jesus…and they did so in language and metaphor that was a.) biblical …but also b.) could speak to their listeners.  They did not speak past their listeners, but they proclaimed why the death of Jesus matters and why it should matter to their hearers and in their context.  The Spirit led them to do so.  From an existential perspective, I call for doing nothing but the same: speaking Christ to the world in such a way that they hear, listen and have an “aha” moment about how the at-one-ment of Jesus brings them to at-one-ment in God.  This doesn’t mean that classical understandings are mute.  They are still important and still carry currency for many, but to preach the lifting up of Christ to a world that feels separated from itself and others…is not to proclaim that you need to take a shower in the blood of Jesus, but to preach that through the act of his death he has put an end to sin and violence…he has swallowed death into his body and thereby all those things that seek to wreck our lives and create disharmony.  Yet the death, and massacre of Jesus, would not be complete without a resurrection to say that such violence and sin does not win; it is swallowed up in the grave thereby meaning so too has the sin (think hamartia here…missing the mark), death and utter lack that seeks to wreak havoc in our lives been laid to rest the with grave cloths of the paranormal Jesus who comes to all us Thomas’ who still think death is still an issue.

What I am arguing, albeit with an existential bent ( I am heavy on Kierkegaard and Heidegger here), is that while we may want to say that the work of Jesus is primarily this, or mostly that, and then tell people “no, this is your problem and here is your answer”…the better approach is to discover what it is that keeps folks up at night, what concerns them, where do they sense lack in their lives.  If Christ matters than it matters to them and the world in which they live; we do not need to tell them they live in a false world and then attempt to renarrate their lives with a story and concepts that are utterly foreign, and therefore, would be devoid of meaning.  We do this not to relativise the gospel but to be aware that people will seek for truth according to the questions that plague their being. And my argument is that the atonement of Jesus contains the answer, but the theological world that drives a person may be different from one individual to the next, and necessarily so too will be their questions, and so too must be the appropriation of the Christ event into their lives.

William P. Jones, in his book, Theological Worlds: Understanding the Rhythms of Alternative Christian Belief, talks about it as we all have different OBSESSIOS (problem, lack, brokenness in us) and therefore we all have different EPIPHANIA (an awakening to our angst and its solution) that show us our problem, what we need, and how to become whole through various answers that is offered by the Christ in his work.  The theological worlds in which most folks live, according to the work of Dr. Jones, are the following…and my experience also seems to validate this:

Separation…Reunion

Conflict…Vindication

Emptiness…Fulfillment

Condemnation…Forgiveness (this model gets a disproportinate amount of attention in our Churches)

Suffering…Endurance

By extending our understanding of atonement past a purely penal or substitutionary model (and thereby by extending our willingness to see why Jesus STILL matters to the world), we are actually able to see how Christ connects people to God through his death…and we do so beyond the realm of pagan blood ritual, though biblically we may still find meaning here.  It may be, in fact, that many folks are connected through the theological world of condemnation and forgiveness…but more and more people, in our context, are typified in the other 4 worlds.  The solution is not to tell those folks they’re wrong, and therein tell them their concerns and questions about faith are wrong, but to say, “well, the work of Christ can heal that part of your life and here is how.”  By appealing to the existential angst in an individual we are doing the same things as the Gospels, and the church Fathers: we are speaking into the lives of people and proclaiming why exactly the news of Jesus is good.  It’s good because whatever their malady, whatever their internal struggle, the atonement of Jesus is more than satisfying a primordial God who got his feelings hurt; the atonement of Jesus restores creation through violence as God’s statement that creation is no longer to use violence and sin as a means of negotiating the world.

This reality is affirmed, not because we are part of the Western Church and affirm all the theological baggage therewith, but precisely because we believe in the Resurrection.  The Resurrection makes these things true and it is what makes the Christ event relevant to folks in the now.

To conclude, I mention a brief Pauline excurses.  It is telling that even Paul, the one who paved the Roman Road, placed much greater emphasis on Resurrection than Passion.  He did address Passion elements, but did not hinge his entire theology thereon.  His famous chapter in First Corinthians 15 is not a perpetual statement on Passion and a Mel Gibson esqe love affair with violence in his movie titled “The Passion.”  (FTR, I really like the movie).  It does not read “If Christ be not slaughtered than our faith is in vain…If God be not appeased than our faith is nothing…”  (forgive me for too much liberty if you feel I have taken it there) but Paul over and over again says, “If Christ be not raised…”  The Resurrection is the difference maker…not a particular view of the atonement;  The atonement is utter meaninglessness if not for the peculiarly paranormal event of a Jesus not staying dead.  The resurrection is what places us in right relationship with God because in order to overtake death and sin…God does not need a human sacrifice, God just needs to overcome death through the only means possible: the loss of life in a physical body and the raising of that very body to end death’s residence in human history, in time.  Thus, if there is any doctrine or dogmatic stance one needs to take to be firmly Christian, it is the paranormality of resurrection, not a refined idea of atonement that has a diverse witness in text, tradition, reason and experience…a concept that while appearing to stand on the “solid rock of faith” is actually a bit more like nailing Jello to the wall.

“I See Dead People”: Zombie Apocalypse or Resurrection of Jesus?

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601-1602

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio, 1601-1602

At the core of Christianity is a belief in the para-normal; there is nothing more para-normal than resurrection. Can we at least agree on this one point before you read the rest?

The recent craze over the “zombie apocalypse” has got nothing on dead people coming out of tombs.  Long before Woody Harrelson and “Zombieland,” is the Gospel of Matthew and its witness to the walking dead   These same dead people were not content to walk out of their tombs and look around, they actually walk into the city being passively revealed to mothers buying groceries, priests giving offerings and children playing in the streets without adult supervision. What a leery and smelly scene.   And believe it or not, if a person takes the resurrection seriously, as an event in time and, therefore an event in language, then the Entire New Testament is predicated on nothing more, and nothing less, than the paranormal. There you go, the Witch of Indor and a dead Samuel smack dab in middle of  your New Testament (figuratively speaking). You can thank me later.

The events that are witnessed to in Matthew 27 are not available to us. In this chapter, one is able to find the betrayal of Judas, Jesus before Pilate, his condemnation and mockery, the crucifixion, dead people walking (dead people who are not Jesus…Jesus rises in chapter 28) and his burial. We do not have the ability to ascertain its contents, its meaning, or its historical veracity.  Matthew, in true 2nd Temple resurrection theology fashion, tells of the holy ones rising from their graves and being revealed to many in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Matthew is the only Gospel that catalogues this very paranormal event.  If a person is looking to feed a peculiar paranormal fetish, quit watching TLC and read the Bible.

Yet Matthew gives us a unique picture of how disruptive the event of the death of Christ truly is…that in his very death surrounding graves in Jerusalem are opened and creation gives birth to a new space, a new time, a new set of rules, a new people who were once dead are very much not so dead. Resurrection is not a testimony of the norm; its a testimony that the para-norm has arrived and creation cannot be sewn back together along its perceived seems.

Resurrection is the very act of inscribing creation with the language of permanent aporia. It is a permanent strangeness that cannot be reduced to anything but anxiety and perplexity, a fond attraction of the strange that flavors our existence, both secular and sacred. Dialectical paradox has entered our ability to speak about the truth. What we thought was untrue has now happened, and what was untruth has become the truth. Creation has lost control of itself, its metaphysical rules and boundaries have been infringed upon through the very testimony of the impossible…making the impossible the new norm for a world of supposed possibilities that lie to us about their true boundaries and dictatorial control. To say that we believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to say that we believe in a new creation, where reality is re-construed, judgments are not so neatly Kantian, Hume is not so doggedly correct and scientific empiricism must bow at the feet of the irreproachably impossible possibility of “real” writing and existence. The Resurrection is not a belief in a historical “fact” as much as it is the Gospel statement that creation is not what it seems…there is an Other who is raised among us. For Christians, this other is Jesus…none other than the Word itself.

The Christ event, in its inception at the resurrection and in its concurrent reflection in the Gospels because of the kerygma of resurrection, is para-normal both in the sense that it is a reality alongside the normal…dependent upon the normal for a sort of analogy to make sense of its non-analogous testimony; and it is also paranormal in the sense that Jesus initiates some serious paranormal activity in his subsequent “appearances” in all the Gospels (except Mark where there are no post-resurrection appearances…but in John Jesus makes a Casper like appearance and even makes breakfast through the aporia that is his body) not the least of which is Matthew’s telling of dead people coming out of their graves. These stories are weird. We should not be used to them, but unfortunately they have lost their para-normal flavor because truly brilliant people are those who dismiss this paranormality with pretentious disdain rather than wrestle with what Resurrection is and how paranormal our lives really are.

What these events testify to is that resurrection is an event of ambiguous paranormality that sets the stage for a paranormal world in which our lives are predicated upon actions we did not chose, spoken to us by words we did not create and testified to us through stories we never told. This must be why modern people are so averse to reading these stories, since us liberal American and European types are so convinced of the ontology we possess through our mere choosing.

To believe in resurrection is not only to believe in the story of Jesus at a historical level, but it is to believe that embedded in a universal story of humanity is something that is beyond our grasping or comprehending, yet this something is equally normative of what makes us who we are, something that allows us to transcend our mere mortality. In other words, there’s more to us than what we see and there is certainly more to Christ than what one can know. The resurrection is the kergymatic utterance that we don’t control our words or our world…and the Ascension is the theological statement that such will forever be the case…the closer we get to understanding in the post-resurrection scenes of our lives, the further our attempts at harnessing creation float away.

If the Resurrection is able to make anything clear…it makes abundantly clear that our apprehension of reality and our relationship to what is “real” is vastly different than most folks imagine. The relationship between space and time, matter and the ethereal, sight and perception, experience and experience, are all blurred as the Gospel witnesses to a resurrection that not only must contain the physical body of the Christ, but in carrying the load of the Christ, it also carries our words about the Christ into uncharted territories. The Word that was made Flesh in John Chapter 1 has now been resurrected to a space that is not allowed to constrict our language or the description of the world that exists through our speaking. The Resurrection has to be more than a statement of raw “fact” about Jesus coming back to life. If that’s all it is, then that is pretty boring…thank you Apollonius and Honi the Circle drawer (google them). Instead, what the resurrection does is make a declarative statement about para-normal reality/activity and usher in an age in which anastasis is the sign of God’s present Kingdom, not a precursor to a stroll down the streets of gold. Anastasis happens IN creation, not outside of it.

Precariously enough, the resurrection is that singularly ambiguous and para-normal event upon which the New Testament rests, and subsequently, most Christian dogma produced thereafter has a flavor of para-normal reality. Visions of a victorious Christ, a blood laden final battle at Armageddon, a community meal that is the very essence of an absence of Jesus’ body and bodily fluids, and a testimony that darkness and light compete on opposing levels in a struggle for creation…these are all paranormal. They are not the content of life as “seen” or “verified” or even…”ex”-perienced on a daily basis, but they are generated out of a belief that the paranormal is an intimate part of creation that connects humanity to its ground in God…that there is something on the other side of the symbols that occupy our lives that continue to beckon us as we desire to connect to that which connects us to the world, yet it still unavailable to us. That science even claims to do this just means that many folks have bought the lie that they control the language. Resurrection, on the other hand, allows the paranormal to set the stage for mystery, ambiguity, and true anastasis…a reality above the static existence of perception and apprehension…and alongside of the “real” world reminding us that what is real is more than we know; its more than we see; and its more than we can control regardless of the specificity of our language or the logic of our ideas/ideology.

To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to say that which we keep in the tombs of our worlds, thinking them dead and non-substantive, are the very things that are trying to free us from a life of such horrible certainty and the burden of believing you know everything. Even more so, it is to believe that the “nothing” that can’t happen and the “impossible” that is not available is the new “something” with which we must contend. As Lacan was apt to note, “We think where we are not, therefore we are where we do not think.” We are not what we are; we are not who we’re going to be; yet we move further from ourselves as we get impossibly closer to the place from which Resurrection comes/happens. This is why I believe in the resurrection, the paranormal movement of the New Testament, and a Christ that is nothing more, nor nothing less, than the paranormal Other who calls us into the Kingdom Of the “real” God.

What is Paranormal Christ?

Stown hewn tomb at the base of Mt. Carmel, 1st Century

Stown hewn tomb at the base of Mt. Carmel, 1st Century

Google “paranormal Christianity” or simply “paranormal” and see what happens…the perverse core of christian fascination with a reality more than the physical world will immediately become apparent. Our culture is fascinated with what happens “when we die” and where “we” will go when our bodies are no longer full of life. In general, this fascination takes the inquisitive mind in one of 3 major directions: atheism, theism in the form of a structured religious expression or an agnostic embrace of an alternative reality known as “paranormal activity.” Most people fit in one of these three categories, while the most zealous among us argue their “belief” with impassioned rhetoric if little else.
The common denominator of the above is one’s attempt to teleologically define the world; they are not simply offering a view of the world, and especially its aftermath, that is objective. Objectivity is not part of the equation when it comes to thinking our non-existence into a form of paranormal existence. The goal is to tell ourselves a story about ourselves that allows us to engage our current story with structure, security and hope. This is true even for an atheistic persuasion. If the hope one has is an atheistic embrace of nothingness…I would dare say that the atheist is more comfortable thinking the world absent God and God’s relation to the paranormal (irregardless of the plethora of “scientific” reasons for engaging such reflection), than she is including God in the equation for such configurations…at least the atheist hopes this to be the case.
The most striking aspect of this phenomenon is the utter lack of definition being found in these discussions and the apparent either/or, false binary distinction, that gets imputed onto the issue of paranormality. Either one believes in souls or one believes in ghosts. Either one is Christian and believes in some ethereal bliss for all believers like heaven or one is atheistic believing our bodies to be natural compost at the end of their course. A third option is that one may believe in all of it, expressing complete agnosticism toward the issue of the paranormal activity, but being perfectly happy to say “yes” to just about any theory of what the paranormal may be by virtue of the host of probabilities.
Symptomatic of this explosion of paranormality is the universalizing conceptually of what cannot be universalized. One is given “concrete” description of what comprises the paranormal and what the paranormal MUST exclude. The paranormal has come to include a rigid set of shallow criteria rather than truly be a concept of reality that functions at its most basic level: Para-Normal…that which is alongside of, beside, the normal (never mind the host of linguistic and psychological problems that confront a concept of the “normal.”) In other words, we have taken our scientific form of epistemology and subjected the “science” of paranormal studies to the rigid dogmatism of certainty and patterns that typifies science as a discipline and our subsequent ways of apprehending the world as modern and post-modern people. But the problem is…paranormal activity, by its very description, cannot be fully described, totalized or fully understood. It refers to a reality that is outside the norm but somehow also intermingling with it. The paranormal cannot be anything more, or anything less, than the awareness of a unique reality that exists alongside the normal, with the normal, in dependence on the normal, not something that rises above it or is a higher form of existence.  The paranormal cannot be so easily defined, some groups so easily excluded. We need a new operative understanding of the paranormal, especially in relation to faith, belief, religion, and philosophy; one not so restrictive, shallow or lost in cultural fluff.
In fact, as I will argue in this blog and through the multiple kinds of reflection and inquiry that will take place here, the paranormal IS the only description of reality we have…even the reality that we think to be the most empirically concrete form of realness available to our precious little Kantian senses. Notice I did not just say that the “paranormal” and its popular conceptions is our bearing of reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I did say, however, is that life is best described in that in-between place of where we know, with where we don’t…what we think, with where ones thoughts originate, what we say, with the genesis of our words, what we experience as “normal” …with that normal alongside all of us that alludes apprehension.

It is this conception of paranormal that I wish to explore and engage at a theological, philosophical, biblical, cultural, psychoanalytic, linguistic, etc, level on the pages of this Blog.

Along the way I will employ the services of books you know, like the Bible, with books you may not know, like Slavoj Zizek’s “Enjoy Your Symptom” or Marion’s  “God without Being.” I will explore orthodoxy in heterodoxical form at points and subject sacrosanct doctrines to linguistic and socially constructive analysis.  This is where paranormal takes on a new life, and our obsession with taming this word is relieved of itself and able to de-center our certainties.

Misty Overgrown Cemetary

I invite you, the reader, on this journey. Rest assured, this blog will not be passe musings on “paranormal activity” and ghosts and goblins nor will it be fanciful evangelically Gnostic christian reflections on the pearly gates or the streets of gold.  If you search for such bastardazied mystogogy you need to search elsewhere. If, however, you are interested in questing for truth, for virtue, for what is real, and especially engaging these maxims around the centrality of the meaning of the Christ (and all the linguistic luggage associated therewith) then you have come to the right place.  The domain is of philosophical and theological inquiry is not relegated to strictly religious areas because the religious and the secular are always intermingling and informing the other.  Thus, what is at work here is a Renaissance of sorts wherein the world is eclectically engaged via the unlimited nature of its own content.  I’m not totally sure where the journey will lead, but I, like you, hope for the epiphany that can only come through catching a glimpse, and encountering, the most singularly neglected paranormal event to inhabit creation and redefine being as we know it: the resurrected real of the paranormal Christ.