We Are What We Do

There is an adage oft repeated by professors of history, theology and bible: form and content, form and content…are two sides of the same coin.

To a fledgling student of these disciplines this statement sounds strange, even awkward.  As people in cultures, we have preconceived ideas of the meaning of history, what we believe about God and the world, and whether we even care about the bible.  We are good on the content side; we have content.

But what about form?  How is content affected by form?

Many of us know what we believe but many of us fail to consider how what we believe is demonstrated in our lives, the latter being an expression of the former prior to any sort of verbal acknowledgment.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek would like to remind us, we are not what we say…we are what we do.

There are many ways to answer that question but I want to answer it from a theological and ecclesiastical position, a classical confession that is nearly as old as the church.  Its dictum can be found in the Latin phrase “Lex Orandi (the way we worship), Lex Credendi (what we believe), Lex Vivendi (how we live).”

Translation? The way worship is reflective of our faith and so in turn is reflective of how we live.

Regarding religious communities this dictum is typically accurate.

For example, a church that has a strong theological conviction (lex credendi) to work for social justice will embody that conviction in their worship (lex orandi).  It will be a church that prays for social justice, that preaches sermons challenging its people to be inclusive in their ministry, and urges people to confront oppressive cultural structures that alienate others.  It will have an open table for all who wish to dine with Christ, a table that will not discriminate based on baptism, sexuality, gender, race, etc.  It will most likely be a diverse church, one that is urban centered where racial, ethnic and cultural differences are spanned by a common urban experience.  It will value community more than individuality.  Its confession and worship being intimately, and intentionally, linked.

Thus, its faith (credendi) is exhibited in its worship (orandi), which in theory should extend to the way its members participate in the world ethically, politically, economically, etc.

Another example might be the relationship of form and content in regard to the average Americans opinion, or convictions, regarding religion.  

Many Americans acknowledge a strong commitment to ideas such as God, even considering themselves religious.  When they are polled we see a fantastically religious group of people in the United States.  However, when we observe actual practices and probe further, we find that the form of their lives does not connect with the content of their confessions.

Recent studies show us that about ¼ of Americans attend a religious service once a month.  Dogma is on the decline, knowledge of sacred texts and traditions is waning, and acts of service seem to stem from humanitarian desires rather than theological conviction.  People are praying but their prayers do not seem to indicate a dependence on a transcendent personality given the prevalence of practical atheism, even among those within a religious community.

Admitting that the above is a general and broad description, it is clear that the form of many American lives is not connected to the content of their confession.  The form (orandi)  is disclosing the real content regardless of what they confess (credenda).

This is a troublesome reality for many Christians who have for so long believed that their confessions “save” them.

Catholics, for example, have believed that the liturgical act of Eucharist can supersede who they are because who they are is lost in an Augustinian abyss.  Imputed grace is the word of the day.  Yet, if the content of the kenotic Christ does not take root in the person than the form (orandi) is anemic, never fully connected to a confession (credendi). 

 To further complicate the issue for Catholics, it is as if there is an artificial separation between publics, one holy and one secular.  In the holy public of the church building confession and worship go hand in hand, yet in the secular public outside its walls lies a huge disconnect between confession and act.
Protestants have it no better.  

Protestants have placed such a heavy emphasis on confession that we have entire traditions of Christians who believe their words, or silent thoughts in their minds at an altar, carry eternal consequence.  With Luther as their theological grandparent, action is eschewed for confession, form becoming separated from content as the Letter of James was from Luther’s theological confession.  

We sincerely hope we can tell ourselves who we are without actually being that person…and all thanks to the generous theological idea of grace.

This should make us all wary.  

It doesn’t mean that our theological traditions, be they Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are poor traditions, mistaken metanarratives of no use to us.  Rather, it is the opposite: these theological worlds exist in the delicate balance between form and content, their very survival and efficaciousness dependent on people able to live them out instead of betray them.

Jesus knew of this delicate balance and of participants in religious systems that seem to have forgotten the necessary relationship between form and content.  He said as much when he said

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? (Matthew 7. 15-16)

The philosophical issues that surround the relationship between form and content are literally endless.  Entire treatises and lectures have been written on the subject.  

Nuances aside, there is one thing that remains and it is a terrible thing to consider: Say what we will and think what we may, our lives may not be what we say and we may not be who we think.

I leave you with a poem.

The Human Abstract by William Blake

Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor;

And Mercy no more could be.

 

If all were as happy as we;

 

And mutual fear brings peace;

Till the selfish loves increase.

 

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.

 

He sits down with holy fears.

 

And waters the ground with tears:

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.

 

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the Caterpillar and Fly

Feed on the Mystery.

 

And it bears the fruit of Deceit.

 

Ruddy and sweet to eat:

And the Raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.

 

The Gods of the earth and sea,

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain

 

 

Jesus and Islam: The Perfect Scapegoats

jesus-islam

 “Christ is not divinized as a scapegoat.  Those who take him to be God – Christians – are the ones who do not make him their scapegoat,” writes Renee Girard in his text Quand Ces Choses Commenceront.

Girard’s work attempts to reveal the role that violence and victimization play in the organization of human society and his research, particularly in his Violence and the Sacred, contends that humanity needs violence and uses violence to create peace and harmony within communities.  Without violence as an organizing principle,, and therefore without a subject upon whom violence may be directed…a victim, people groups cannot maintain peace or establish tranquility.

Not only does violence organize secular communities, it also unites and organizes religious communities.  Arguably, violence is never absent religious overtones.

Violence acts as the glue of communities because it allows the majority in the group to direct their animosity and hatred toward a “sacred” object upon which they can uniformly direct their aggression.  This object or person is what we call the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is also a person that is believed to have violated the taboos of community, so aggression toward this person is justified.

Yet, the scapegoat is not sacred in and of itself; it is “sacred” precisely because it brings reconciliation.

When the community identifies a scapegoat to fill its need for harmony she becomes the target of a unifying animosity.  The only way to keep peace in the community is to destroy the “presumed” problem, the scapegoat, as a response to the conflict.  The community unites around this cause and directs its aggression upon the violator, sacrificing it for the good of the community. The people who were once threatened by disharmony are now united in cause and purpose through violence.

As Mark Heim notes in atonemental work, Saved from Sacrifice, “In the train of the murder the community finds that this sudden war of all against one delivers it from the war of each against all.”

This process of uniting around violence, finding peace in the death and annihilation of another, is not limited in its scope.  It also lies at the center of the Christian story: the Crucifixion of Jesus.

I do not presume to be able to descandalize the Cross or Passion event of Jesus the Christ with such brevity.  Such, in my opinion, has already been handily accomplished by Mark Heim, Renee Girard and others in their seminal works.  But it is not too far a stretch to say that however Jesus is understood, mimetic violence is a part of his narrative…and it’s a narrative that does not cease upon the nails entering the hands of Christ.  We continue to employ its mechanizations into the present.

Jesus is not to be the scapegoat of Christians; this, however, is precisely what we often make of Jesus.

The crucifixion is the event in which Jesus is killed by the people for the benefit of the people.  The story of the Gospels shows us characters that kill Jesus in order to establish peace.  Christians, rather than confronting Pilate’s medium of peace as sinful, condone this violence against Jesus and write songs and hymns reveling in the gory details of a victim known as Jesus.   Mark Heim reminisces, “I attended worship services all my life…and sang about the blood shed for me…If I was comfortable with the abstract idea, why did I shrink from the reality?”

Christians deplore the technology of sacrifice, except in the case of Jesus, wherein his sacrifice was necessary to forgive our sins.  Our sin problem becomes the problem of Jesus and we gladly accept him on the cross in order to give us the peace and harmony we need in the Church community.  His death unites us and hides us from our own selves in the process.

Jesus becomes the scapegoat whereby we can not only pacify our ethical guilt, but in so doing alleviate ourselves from the threat of an angry God.  It’s a “win win”: peace with ourselves and peace with the Holy Other.

And if it works with Jesus, why not continue to unconsciously pursue this mimetic verbal and physical violence into the present to make us feel more American, more Christian?  After all, if God destroys Jesus to bring peace, surely we can destroy lesser humans to accomplish the same.

Along with Jesus, we American Christians are now doing the same thing with a major world religion: Islam.

Our present, and decade old phobia of Islam, is the continuation of an unfolding drama that for most Americans began on 9/11/01 in lower Manhattan.  The country had experienced a rupture to their worldview that morning.  The instantaneous refrain that was heard throughout the nation was revenge: to paraphrase President Bush, “I hear you, the world hears you, and soon the people responsible for this event will hear us all.”

At that point in history, polls demonstrated the nation was united in purpose and violent pursuit of the criminals.  This was scapegoating in action: directing hate and violence toward an agreed upon enemy in order to restore order, unity and peace.  We sought salvation in violence.

We sought to kill those who were not guilty to rebuild the worldview that was taken away from us from the actual guilty parties.  Only through violence could we seek peace.  It was the dialectical impossibility of American politics to somehow be the bearers of peace with one hand, while holding an anvil in the other.

The scapegoating that began almost a decade ago has now spread to the religion in general.  Most Americans have very poor ideas about Islam and many have no problem condemning it as religion of hate and death.  The hatred that is brewing against Muslims in our nation is astounding, even while many Americans spewing Islamophobic rhetoric have never read the Koran or spoken with a peace loving Muslim.

Islam has become an easy scapegoat.  Americans have figured out a way to make Islam their sacrificial victim and kill it for the good of the many.

It works, it unifies and it gives us a common enemy to hate.  Rather than engender Deuteronmistic hospitality as Moses and Jesus taught, American Christians are ready to put Islam on a cross.  Can we not see what we are doing?  Do we not see that we are using the same sinful violence that killed Jesus to give us excuse to kill an entire religion and culture (physically and verbally)?  Did Jesus not suggest that if we hate someone in our heart, we have already committed murder against them?

A question in the spirit of Girard would be apt to ask, “Does Jesus die in order to affirm the peaceable kingdom that is brought through violence, or does Jesus die as a testimony against violence in order to establish the peaceable Kingdom?”

Is Jesus’ death an affirmation of violence as a unitary principle or is his death the swallowing and ending of violence as a currency whereby we should attempt to establish harmony?>

Some of my fellow brothers and sisters will, and have objected, saying, “Do you see Muslims showing your type of tolerance?  Do you see Muslims wanting to understand your faith and love you?”

My reply is, “Yes”. I have experienced hospitality and love from Muslim strangers.  I have been with them in Syria and walked the streets of Damascus, sipped Turkish coffee with them in Jordan and put my arms around Bedouin wanderers.  I have felt the hospitality of peace loving Muslims that have saved money for years in order to take their family on Hajj to Mecca.  I have seen their smiles and heard their children laugh.  I have been at home in their presence and have eaten dinner at a common table, even talking about things like Jesus and Mohammed in a place called Sinai.

So “yes,” I have been with Muslims who have “tolerated” my Christianity and attempted to “understand” my faith.

But even if I hadn’t, I still serve a Christ that teaches, “You have heard it said You Shall Love Your Neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you in order that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven.”

We’ve already made Jesus a scapegoat…must we make an entire religion and ethnic group one also?

God is Nothing: Lacan Wrestles with Thing 1 & Thing 2

thing one and two

“In the symbolic order, the empty spaces are as signifying as the full ones; in reading Freud today, it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of his dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness”

-Jacques Lacan in his “Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung.’”

Everyone wants something.  They strive for something…some-thing.  We as a society are fixated on the things, the little ‘beings’ or objects to which our attention is directed and for which our work is given.  When we look at the world we see it through the lens of things, of a bunch of somethings, and we turn all of our ideas, hopes, aspirations and longings into various things that we can pursue, participate in or master.  The world is full of things, and as Hannah Arendt is apt to tell us, we have given the world around us the thing nature that it is; the world and its things are “thing-ified” (if I can so gently make that word up) because we have taken the world from what it is and we have conceived of the contents of the world within the limits of what constitutes thingness…what constitutes possession for only a thing can be possessed.

We work for homes, for cars, for piles of things.  We work to secure our lives through the things of our investments…we secure our relationships by the things we invest in them and we derive all meaning from the fact that we are able to take our ideas, generate an imaginary world and then divest ourselves of what is real in search of the always illusive thing.  This quest keeps us questing, keeps us defining, keeps us pursuing the thing/things.

We have made the world so dependent upon the idea of thingness that we cannot even conceive of anything that is not a thing.

I am here reminded of Dr. Seuss’s story The Cat in the Hat.

In this quaint little tale, all of everything (the state of affairs within the children’s home if you will) are fine.  Everything (which is really nothing if you remember…more on this in a few more paragraphs) is fine.  UNTIL someone comes into the life of the children and begins to give the room a “thing” nature.  The Cat in the Hat releases “things” into the house, which ironically disrupts everything (which was really nothing as the Mother left the children alone).  The Cat brings in the thing nature…even brings in real characters known as Thing 1 and Thing 2…and they do things, they play with things, they value the fun they are having with “every-thing” and it is this chaos of thingness that is valued…that even the children valued.

For a short while the “things” happening were a new creation, a new way of being, a new diversion from the nothing they were really experiencing.  They valued this new “thing” and they did not listen to the goldfish swimming in his bowl that was full of nothing and going nowhere, yet somehow the fish in the nothing place that goes nowhere was able to see what happens when “things” get out of control and usurp the space of nothing.  These things were valued, that is, until after several attempts by the goldfish sternly reminded the children that these “things” need to stop and “everything” needs to be cleaned up and ordered aright once again.  In other words, we need to get back to the real that is nothing.

The releasing of everything and its chaos into the nothingness of the empty home wreaked havoc even as it also preoccupied the children for a short time with new “things” to watch, see and do.  Into a room of nothing, everything was created…and everything that was created was shown to be nothing more than a diversion from the Real of life that happens apart from “thingness”…the  mundane space which conditions who we are…the space that is more determined by nothing than by the false ontology of thingness.  The children thought the “things” were fun and properly teleological in orientation, yet by the end of the story they discover it is a teleology that goes nowhere and does nothing more than distract us from what really conditions the spaces inhabited by our lives.

We have not given the world a thing nature for purely entertaining reasons as these children were so apt to do (though we have done this), but this thing nature has occurred because of our misdirected sense that what is and what will be is constituted more by the presence of a/the thing, than by nothing.  We have filled our worlds with things to rid ourselves of the nothing…yet the joke is on us.  We cannot rid ourselves of nothing even with the thing as Lacan so aptly notes above.

We have done this, not only in regard to the physical things we enjoy, but also into those metaphysical realities to which we give allegiance and service.  Of course, in our late capitalist culture, the world has taken on the very nature of the thing.  That is why we live.  But why has the thing nature also dictated how we think our faith, our God and the meaning of our lives?

Because we have so thoroughly conceived of the nature of reality as the nature of the thing, it seems that God, Jesus, faith, the ecclesiastical community, our salvation, etc., have all become nothing more than a long list of things; a long list of possessions that give us identity.  They are things that are, things that matter, things that will be…God is nothing more than the thing to which I pray or the thing I fear.  The church is the thing I do on Sunday to ensure I am in proper relationship with the Thing I call God so that this God will bless me with another thing.  My faith is the thing that makes me who I am and conditions how I engage the world…and my salvation is the thing I have because so long as I have it this thing is mine…and because I have all these things, I AM SOMETHING.  To be without these ultimate metaphysical things, things that are grossly conceived as all other things in our language and habits, is to mean that I am nothing, no one, not a something.  These things make me who I am.

I can “see” them.

I can “feel” them.

I can experience them.

I can “touch” them.

I can think them.

These things have become concretized into our thing schematization because we can think the world only in relation to the thing.

But this is where we are wrong.

The thing does not make us who we are or create our worlds.  The thing has no ontological purchase of its own; its only purchasing power comes from us who invest the currency of the thing with value.   The thing is not an end and it is not a beginning.  Thingness is not realness and it is not absoluteness.   We think our lives, worlds and faith(s) are all about being properly directed toward the right thing, but what Lacan discloses to us is that it is not the thing that shapes who we are or where we are going; it is the nothing that does all this.  We want to think there is something, yet our lives are all really the result of the reality of the nothing…the nothing that is disguised as some-thing via the thing that is really nothing apart from the nothing that makes it a thing.

All that may sound a bit circular, confusing even.  I promise I am not writing to confuse.  So let me break this down and then argue the point a bit further:

There is not anything other than nothing.  Nothing is…there is no such thing as a thing apart from the nothing which gives rise to the world in our vision, though this is a world that rests its things on nothing; it’s not a world that ends nothing with a world of things.

We have so conceived of the world via a thing nature, or a particular type of ontic character, that we have left behind the role that nothing plays in making us everything we are…even as this idea of absence and nothing is still nowhere to be found.

Nothing conditions how we speak, what we value, what we pursue, those “things” we are fearful to pursue.  Nothing is what places us where we are and it is only relation to that nothing that meaning can be created or generated.  This is one of the main thrusts of nihilistic philosophy.  It is not a philosophy that argues for some sort of black hole abysmal reality where there is no meaning; on the contrary, it is only because nothing is that everything can have meaning for a thing only has meaning in relation to nothing.  Apart from this frame of reference, a thing is lost in itself without any analogous referent from which it may make sense.  Apart from nothing a thing is not even a thing…and therefore, apart from nothing we too are nothing.  Thus, nothing is.  So while we strive to forget nothing by thinking everything, we lost in the process an important part of ourselves and what makes us who we are.

Lacan goes well beneath Heidegger’s own idea of Geworfenheit here…

Lacan notes, “But the subject has a no less convincing sense if he encounters the symbol that he originally excised from his Bejahung.  For this symbol does not enter the imaginary, for all that.  It constitutes, as Freud tells us, that which truly does not exist; as such, it ek-sists, for nothing exists except against a supposed background of absence.  Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

He goes on to the quote at the beginning of this essay, “it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of the dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness.”

What Lacan is observing in his response to the famous psychoanalyst Jean Hyppolite is that our lives are negotiated more from the gaps of nothing than by the imaginary worlds we have built for ourselves.  Nothing is the condition of meaning because the symbolic order rests on this negation of things in order for meaning to be construed.  It is only  because there is an absence that a presence appears.

The bejahung that Lacan mentions is Freud’s term for our original primordial inception into the symbolic order.  It is the original affirmation that we did not affirm.  Our place in this order, an order which does not exist but exists apart from itself, is really nothing…it’s a place we cannot place anywhere, it is nowhere, yet its constitution as nowhere means that it is the nothing that is somewhere.  The bejahung is our inception into that order (language, symbols, sounds, meaning, body language, ideas,etc.), an original inception that is no longer available to us but surfaces in us at moments of repressed desires, visions, déjà vu, dreams, etc.  It is the place into which we are plunged and emerge with the symbolic, with language, yet we cannot recount the making of the symbolic or its highs or lows.  We are people of symbols yet the genesis of the symbols have long been lost in ek-sistence of the bejahung that’s nothingness allows for the existence of other symbolic things, which really do not exist.  Or as Lacan notes, “Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Thus, our worlds and the things we fill them with are really nothing and they reside nowhere but the places we have granted them to reside.  The emptiness of our minds, the places where we do not think but where we really are, is more indicative of our condition then are all the things we create and all the imaginary’s we fabricate.

So if our worlds are really conditioned by nothing and the foreclosure of our language into a specific symbolic order, what does this mean for those things that mean most to us…those things that we can place our in our hands, our heart and our minds?

It means that we are not driven from or toward the places we can grasp, but we are perpetually the creation of what has grasped us even as it has nothing to grasp us with.  The gap between there and here, where and there, is the gap and nothing that makes us as much who we are as all the fabricated things we have created to hide from the gap that is nothing, yet has made us everything.

These spaces that are nothing are really the spaces that fill our lives…it is the nothing of the lives we wish we could have that surface in our consciousness and produce the world we think we see.  Only because the fabrications of our worlds do not really exist, because they are nothing, do they present themselves into the symbolic order as an imaginary thing.  The fact that things appear to us in the present and we aim for them in the future, only do so because they are nothing and do not exist anywhere, thus our very “thing” nature of the world is really driven by the world we do not see toward the place we do not know with “things” that aren’t really there…meaning they are the things that are not really us or the real that remains allusive.

If the thing nature of the world we have created is merely that which has taken us away from the place of nothing, and nothing…or that which is no longer available to us, is that which constitutes our moving, thinking and being, than what does that say for our faith and its objects if we continue to call them things?  Perhaps, to begin this conversation aright…we should begin not by saying all those things that are things and then seek about defining them in our possession…but perhaps with Lacan, we should take a more apophatic approach.

For if as a people of faith we claim that God is where we come from, where we are and where we are going…perhaps we are not discussing a thing known as God…

Perhaps what we are saying is that God is nothing

Zizek reads the Bible: Thoughts on Incarnation

nietzsche quote/

The incarnation is the perverse core of Christianity and the perverse core of the perverted god’s that desire the absolution of a person for the sake of their own divine egos.

When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us: “I want nothing from you!” fails miserably – we should not forget that these are the exact words used by the Priest to designate the court in Kafka’s Trial: “The court wants nothing from you.” When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us: “I don’t want anything from you!,” we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification “…except your very soul.” When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being. (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 170).

The incarnation has historically been the doctrine of the divine overtaking the human form in the person of Jesus and using this medium to exact divine revenge and quench the thirst for the apparent ontological masochistic necessity that the God of the Bible seems to display. The recent History Channel Series on the Bible shows at least this much…but let’s ask a few questions:

What sort of God is this that takes over our way of being, the form of our human flesh, and uses it to appease his own ineptitude of not securing a tree in the Garden that would not be violated?

Could we not have saved our flesh had this God not created this obvious temptation?
This is what a pervert does and this is the practice of perversion. The pervert sacrifices the innocence of another person in order to gain something from them, typically sexually. Sex and violence have always been partners, even when it comes to ideas of salvation.

How useful is a doctrine of the incarnation if it is continually used to reinforce a theology of perversion and furthermore place the object that it sacrifices, humanity, into the debt of the God that asks for the sacrifice, while simultaneously setting it up? This is the string that is attached. Christ has died, and in this required death, we are in debt, even though God does not need our currency.

If this is the case, than why require the currency of flesh? Sigmund Freud was right, we do owe death a debt. Only the debt we owe, as so finely articulated by Zizek above, is the debt of our being, our flesh, because the Christ figure has given us his being, his flesh. There must be an alternative way.

For Zizek, questions of divine culpability go to the heart of the Christian God.

Zizek writes, “God as omnipotent is a perverse subject who plays obscene games with humanity and His own son: he creates suffering, sin and imperfection, so that He can intervene and resolve the mess He created, thereby securing for himself the eternal gratitude of the human race.” He later asks, “For which authority above Himself – is God himself forced to sacrifice his son?” (The Fragile Absolute, 157-158). For this reason, Zizek argues for a radically different approach to a doctrine of the incarnation than may be found in Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. Zizek spots the perverse core of Christianity, and in so doing the pervert Christianity historically calls God, and calls for the forging of a new direction not located in transcendence.

Zizek’s questions are strikingly difficult, emotionally stressful and piously challenging…yet the questions remain despite our incessant need to hide behind the pages of scripture that actually raise these questions through an honest reading of text.

For Zizek, the incarnation is not a statement about the importance of transcendence, but a statement about the importance of the body, the immanent reality of living people caught in living structures of truth seeking and fulfillment. God needs the world and drains transcendence in the process. Jesus, known as the Christ, is the desublimation of the transcendent God of Judaism. Judaism could never bring God to where it was/is, thus it negated any sort of anthropomorphic identity to the Supreme Creator. Zizek argues that this negation of anthromorphic concepts, however, necessarily places Judaism on the road to making God man, on the road to Christianity.

Zizek describes it thus,
“it is the Jewish religion which remains an “abstract/immediate” negation of anthropomorphism, and as such, attached to, determined by it in its very negation, whereas it is only Christianity that effectively “sublates” paganism. The Christian stance is here: instead of prohibiting the image of God, why not, precisely, allow it, and thus render him as JUST ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, as a miserable man indiscernible from other humans with regard to his intrinsic properties?” (The Fragile Absolute)

For Zizek, what occurs in the incarnation is not the propitiation of sins in the form of a human being or the restoration of the divine image that was lost at the fall (contra St. Athanasius) but the handing over of the world to humans. When Christianity asserts that the divine THING has come in/as Jesus of Nazareth, the THING that is beyond, known as God, is shown to be absent because Jesus is present.

Zizek interprets Jesus as a figure within the symbolic order or the drive/thing/law schemata, wherein the drive toward rest is always directed toward the thing that is supposed to give rest, i.e., God, but such rest is always prohibited from fully resting because of the prohibitions from the Law separate a person from the THING or destination. Jesus, however, traverses the Law and makes the divine present and therein ends transcendence. He makes the destination of the drive apprehensible, thus offering a place of rest and an end to the excess of sin that is produced in seeking the relationship with the divine via attempts at becoming divine. This means that the event of the Christ is not an event that brings one into relationship with the BIG OTHER God. Christ does not do our work for us and pay our debt through his divine threshold of pain. Rather, the incarnation, the coming of God to humanity, is the shrinking of transcendence, is the event that gives us the chance to be free from our excessive quests for the unattainable THING, God, for in Jesus, says Christianity, God is with us.

Zizek writes, “Christ is not the contingent material embodiment of the supra-sensible God: his “divine” dimension is reduced to the aura of pure Schein.” (On Belief 95).

The Incarnation, therefore, is a statement about the end of transcendence into immanent descendence in the Christ figure, Jesus. Jesus, as the incarnation, is not the living apprehension of an ontological other but the dismissal of that Other and the freeing of humanity from its haunting and obsessive quests toward something else. Zizek is basically arguing that freedom from the excess of looking for the THING (God) that is present in Jesus allows a person to love and act ethically. When we are no longer looking for the BIG OTHER, we are free to look at one another as Christ does his disciples. What is most important in the incarnation, therefore, is the possibility to embody agape and to act in loving ways toward others. The power of the incarnation to release one from metaphysical whims and produce a reality wherein there is no Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. No wonder the “Christ was a traumatic scandal.” (The Fragile Absolute)

In reading the incarnation as such, Zizek offers readers an alternative reading of this important theological concept. He offers readers a different kind of incarnation resulting in the adaptation of an ethic of agape that destabilizes dominant worldviews and begins a constructive theology. The incarnation is the event that makes true ethical behavior possible because God is with us…and for Zizek we are therefore released from God. Perhaps the mystics were right. The only prayer we should fully pray is “God rid me of God” so that I can be released to myself and the world…Just as Christ was so released into humanity.

The Christ Aporia: his last name is not Christ and he’s not your friend

untamed Jesus

Aporia…confusion is of the devil, but aporia is of the Father -this is the least one can say about a definition of the Christ, a symbol as rich as it is dense, as familiar as it is foreign.

Or one can say it as John Milbank does in his seminal text, The Word Made Strange, “The Name ‘Jesus,’ does not indicate an identifiable ‘character,’ but is rather the obscure and mysterious hinge which permits shifts from one kind of discourse to another” (p149).

Yet Christ is not conceived this way, at least not by church folk.  Christ is not complex; it is (he is?) domesticated, weakened and too cozy to emit the sort of mysterium and holy fear that should accompany the utterance of the aporia Christ.  While we have gained a friend in Jesus Christ, we have lost the “Word made Strange” (to use John Milbank’s quaint phrase), and have forgotten that the very idea with which we become cozy is the very idea that wishes to perplex, challenge and leave us at a loss.  The Word is no longer Strange; it is now all too familiar to the point of catatonic proportions.

Yet, Christ is not an idea with which we should be comfy; it is an idea that should be strange, disquieting and disturbing.  You know the kind of idea that makes guys like Herod kill a bunch of 2 year old’s kind of disturbing.  To invoke the Christ is to invoke a theophany of magnificent magnitude, for the symbol Christ upsets the very metaphysical structures of the world.  It challenges anything that is counter-christ and it challenges our fabrications of order and prescription.  These structures have been shaken to such a degree that the very ordering of the world is not as it seems because of the presence of the Christ.  For Christ to mean anything it is to mean that our familiarity with the world has been inverted and lost.  If we know the place in which we live, than we live not in the place that is occupied by the Christ.  Christ is not normal; it is not routine; it is not profane.  It is abnormal; it is traumatic; it is holy.  These characteristics mean that if the foundations be not shaken and crumbling than Christ is most likely not operative…not anywhere, but especially not operative in our idea of Jesus.  No wonder so many people think Jesus and Christ dead symbols!

This is because Christ is aporia, and aporia negates what we know, even about the much said object to which Christ points: Jesus.  In this case it negates our idea of Jesus precisely because we call Jesus a/the Christ.  The Christ known as Jesus attracted followers not because he was familiar, but because the strangeness of his life left the world around him undone…and only in undoing the world is one able to resurrect it anew.  Perhaps this is why there is no resurrection amongst those most devout…their world is not undone by the perplexity of the Christ known as Jesus.  The Word is no longer strange; it is impotently familiar.

Ironically, the very Christian idea that might now leave us standing confounded and challenged now leaves us with a gain in the eyes of many.  We have lost the strangeness of Christ, but at least we have gained a personal friend in Jesus (I feel like inserting a Teddy Ruxpin Commercial here as an example of carrying Jesus Christ with us everywhere and him even telling us what we want to hear by inserting a new tape in his back).  The Horrible transcendence of God has been sublimated via the incarnation of Jesus…when in fact the opposite should have happened theoretically, and thereby Christ is not a strangeness that leaves us feeling more strange, Christ is now a pillow that makes us feel more at home.  Isn’t it funny how Divine kenosis has such a non-effect on those that profess its dogma?  Putting a leash on Christ has never been so popular and taming the content of this symbol never more rampant!  The very people who say there is power in Christ have helped reduce such power by defining Christ in narrow and restrictive ways, ways that make the leash holder comfortable…not realizing they have just grabbed the whirlwind!

So, unfortunately, for many today Christ is conceived in very personal, up close, familial kinds of ways.  Perplexity, uncertainty and awesomeness is no longer a part of the equation.  Buddy Jesus exists all around us, yet very little thought is given to how the theological construction around the historical Jesus and the symbol of Christ eventually merged together forming a linguistically synonymous relationship.

Jesus is often interpreted through the New Testament as “Christ” but the symbol of Christ is independent Jesus…at least this would have to be the case in order for the early Church to appropriate the symbol “Christ” upon the person Jesus.  Even characters in Gospel stories seem to know a difference between the person of Jesus and the idea of Christ.  Peter proclaims to Jesus “you are the Christ” (note the definite article there).  The Woman at the well in the Gospel of John notes a belief in the Messiah while Jesus and her are talking about her life…and she returns to her village not believing Jesus is the Christ, rather she asks her kin folk, “might he be the Christ?”  Clearly, during the ministry of Jesus it was not evident that he was THE Christ.  He was interpreted to be the Christ after Easter, and this dogma makes its way into the Gospels a generation later, but there is little in the gospels that would lead one to believe that a pre-Easter Christological pattern had even begun to emerge (indeed what would a pre-Easter Gospel even look like???  It most likely would not exist).  This is not a radical Jesus Seminar conclusion, even more conservative Catholic scholars who profess full ideas of the immaculate conception, trinity, etc.,would agree on this point.

Thus, the powerful symbol of Christ has been lost in the sea of Jesus, even becoming nothing more than Jesus’ last name.  Whatever we conceive of Christ, we conceive of Jesus…whose name is in fact Jesus “Christ.”  The confusion of these two terms and the assumption of their linguistic marriage lead me to prefer to talk about Jesus and Christ in Tillichian terms whenever I invoke these names.  Following Tillich, one should note that it is Jesus whom we call the Christ…not Jesus Christ…and it is Jesus that may only be granted such Christological status because his life takes on Christic significance, not because he was born with a last name that identifies who he is as Christ.  Jesus is only Christ because the story of his life is worthy of a designation as Christ.

The reason this parsing of concepts is important is because in understanding the terms separately one may, thereby, begin to actually appreciate any Christological significance bestowed upon Jesus.  When Christ is just an assumption of identity by the historical wonder worker from Nazareth, the loaded concept of Christ is lost amidst our domesticated faith…thereby emptying the Christ of the very power that many folks testify the person of Jesus Christ to represent.  Only by freeing Christ from Jesus can we fully appreciate what it is that is about Jesus that makes him Christ, and therefore, makes him significant.  Thus, if one is to understand Jesus, one must understand that Christ is an aporia (a confusion, a loss, a perplexity at every turn)…only by freeing Christ from our structured comfortable faith might the actual person of Jesus whom we call Christ become a symbol of strangeness that is anything but something that can be overly conceptualized on a rationalistic level and then stuffed into our hearts…our chest being the cozy threshold of a Jesus that is no longer strange enough to change anything…let alone change us. 

Who needs the death of Jesus? We have Facebook

social-media-jesus

The widespread use of twitter, tumblr, Facebook, etc, and the past success of the movie “Social Media” and the accolades it received across various Hollywood awards shows should have gained the attention of the church and thoughtful followers of Jesus. Yet, this is not the case. Normally, us self-professed Christian folk can dismiss the latest entertainment and internet phenomenon as a fad, but not this time. Indeed, this time, we are co-opting it for our “biblical” purposes and our sense of “evangelism”…too bad we are not thinking critically about co-opting these mediums and the theological statements being made in doing so. Moving right along, if the success of social media in the movies hasn’t gotten our attention, the explosion of social media as a way of relating and communicating most certainly should, yet when was the last sermon you heard on the relationship between the Gospel and Social media or the Gospel Facebook style? In a connected world, it seems that thoughtful Christian thinking is disconnected from the purposes and the impact social media is making on millions of people around the globe. What is occurring before our eyes is a new way of creating community and belonging. Hollywood and internet media has successfully tapped into the desire that people have to be a part of something greater than themselves…and if atonement is about anything, it is about connecting people something greater than themselves.

The church, however, is not failing to take advantage of social media or even having a Facebook or Twitter presence. In fact, more and more churches are connected to the abyss of social media. Yet, the reality is that few churches are asking the hard theological questions that Facebook and social media creates. For millions of people that use Facebook, and other social media, these mediums are their community. These mediums are the ways in which a generation of people are learning the skills of communication, and ironically losing their ability to communicate in truly human ways at the same time. The connections people are finding are taking the place of the real communal connections. In our attempt to be a part of an online community we are sacrificing real community; we seeking at-one-ment, yet the very means by which we are seeking is creating the very opposite desire that drives us to embrace artificial connectivity.

So are Christians really thinking about what makes Facebook work? What is it about Facebook that keeps users returning daily, coming back for more, again and again, only to find the same website exactly where they left it? In other words, what essential human need does Facebook fill that makes it “work” for thousands of people across cultural and international boundaries? What need is the church neglecting? What does a social media community have, promise and do that draws people unto itself? Might I suggest that Facebook works not because of what it is, but what it does. Let me repeat, Facebook works not because of what it is, BUT WHAT IT DOES. If any of my past posts on atonement have said anything thus far, I trust that the function of the idea of atonement, and our subsequent theology thereof, is pivotal to its importance, development and continual hermeneutical applications in the present context of human need.

What Facebook does is connect people. Facebook works for so many people because it taps into the primordial need all humans have to be in community with others. It fills a vacuum of emptiness and loneliness, making people feel part of something larger than their daily mundane existence. Facebook, and other forms of social media, has the power to orient lives and wrap them into a larger narrative with an agreed upon location, agreed upon communicational norms and agreed upon taboos that can get one kicked off a friends “friend list.”

For thousands of years human community has been created around sacred objects and the creation of boundaries to identify participation in a particular community. These agreed upon and understood objects and boundaries gave the participants a sense of belonging and a connection, in many cases, to a God from which the community had been gifted. In the past, meaning was often found as people learn to commune around the center known as God, the ultimate object of our attention, our “ultimate concern.” God was the supreme sacred object around which community was created…whether a specific commitment to the Christian idea of God was sustained is immaterial to this observation.

In our contemporary situation, we no longer need to connect to one another through sacred norms in the name of God or scripture. God and text, due to a multitude of factors, have been usurped as the most reliable means that teaches folks how to relate to themselves and that which transcends themselves. Blame it on liberalism, the scientific revolution, the failure of Christians to actually act like Jesus, or whatever, our generation no longer perceives at-one-ment as something solely experienced within a religious context…we now have social media to connect to others in mysterious ways, this satisfying our human need for belonging and hope amidst a community of others.

Now, its Facebook that makes these rules of community and takes the initiative of establishing how we connect with others, the world and ultimately fills a sense of void that generally only happened within the context of religious communities. When we need to connect, need to talk, or need to cry, we do so on cyberspace with our Facebook “friends,” all the while keeping real physical community at the distance of the keyboard. We no longer sink into contemplation, prayer or questions about the nature of what it means to be human. These questions are obsolete because of we have new communities that give us a sense of purpose (even if purpose is now defined as staying connected ALL THE TIME to everything that doesn’t matter…it’s the connection and perception of belonging through that information that now makes us –at-one with our disperate selves.) We are so serious about our Facebook connections that those on our “Friends List” that may not connect with us as often as we like could be excommunicated from our circle of friends.

If millions of people are now looking for community via Facebook, what is driving this phenomenon? Why do so many people find real connection here and not in real authentic community, such as the Church (please suspend all criticisms that the church is often not the church…just work with me that the church IS the beachhead of the Kingdom of God)? Why do so many people neglect family, and the coherence of Church family, for the facsimile relationship of Facebook? Could it be that the church and our families have ostracized many individuals through judgment or prejudice? Have we kept people away by our rules, laws and doctrines, building a hedge around our sacred communities rather than opening doors for those looking to belong somewhere? What happens when the primary means of connection is no longer God in Christ, but a Facebook icon on our smartphones?

Ultimately, is the success of Facebook partially due to the inability of the church, and many Christians, to be an open community who embraces the outcast rather than subdue them through doctrinal obligation, dry moral commitments or even extreme religious laws?

Just as Jesus accepted the marginal, the poor and the wayward of society, so too is there a place for these people at the table of Facebook. Facebook is the new community wherein anyone can belong, be loved and find friends. Mark Zuckerberg has offered a new narrative wherein our faces and books can be read by others. In the at-one-ment of Facebook, there is no judgment, there is no demonization and there is no prejudice. All are welcome to participate and be at-one…atoned of their separation and lostness through social media. Can we eerily hear Facebook echo John 8.10 to the outcasts, “where are your accusers?”

The connection that Facebook provides, however, is artificial. We do not interact with people on Facebook, we interact with images, pictures and statements. We learn how to relate to symbolic stimulus as a means of identifying with others, rather than learning the simple need we have to speak and hear one another. The result is a world that is “plugged in” and addicted to a form of hyper-connectivity, yet very disconnected.

How might Christianity speak to this reality? What central Christian event is the connecting event of history and the event that acts as the glue of Christians everywhere around the world? In what way does religion, specifically Christianity, connect us to one another? An answer may be found in the story of the Gospel and a renewed understanding of the atonement of Jesus and it offers a far deeper connection than facebook can imagine or re-narrate. Fortunately, the problem of connecting people is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus has always been about. The Gospel is about connecting others to Christ, to God, to one another and to the world.

A primary means of connection in Christianity is through the atonement action of the Christ. The atonement is generally wrapped into the gory details of the death of Jesus and how his death bestowed forgiveness into creation.

There is, however, another often neglected aspect.

While the atonement may be the vehicle of how God redeems humanity, it is primarily, at its basest function, a means of connecting people to God, each other, themselves and the world. The atonement, or at-one-ment of Jesus, does not happen in a vacuum. Disciples are gathered around the cross, the world beholds it, and community is created after this event. In other words, the atonement of Jesus is as much a vehicle of connection and the genesis of community as it is an event wherein we debate the love theory of Abelard or the substitutionary theory of Anselm.

Jesus Tweets Gospel of John Style

Jesus Tweets Gospel of John Style

The Gospel of John beautifully demonstrates, through the words of Jesus, the events of the atonement through the “lifted up” sayings that occur in 3.14-16, 8:28 and 12.32. In 12.32 Jesus says, “And if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people unto myself.” As the Christ is lifted up before us, he draws all people to himself and connects that which was never together. He creates a community out of chaos and a sense of belonging out of despair. In the act of at-one-ment, Jesus makes us one, connecting us with himself, his God, one another, ourselves and the world. The result is a connected community we call the Church.

The second function of the atonement is forgiveness, but even this acts as a connecting, community making reality.

The first “lifted up” saying in John 3.14-16 indicates that forgiveness is primarily accomplished in the lifting up of Christ in the passion narrative. Jesus says, “even so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes may in him have eternal life.” The atonement of Jesus is the act wherein we are made at-one with one another and God, but this is chiefly accomplished because we share the identity of forgiven people. Our forgiveness and acceptance by God in Christ connects us. Forgiveness is important due to the sense of belonging it fosters in the forgiven, creating a new family and new relationships.

Forgiveness creates identity in the community of Jesus. We share the bond of having encountered God incarnate in Jesus, demonstrating to us what forgiveness looks like and how to extend love and grace to others. The incarnation of God in Christ, and the atoning work of this Christ for humanity, is a physical means of connection that could not have been accomplished by an aloof God. Real connection happens when God is incarnated in Jesus for us and we are then the incarnate atoning Christ to one another and the world.

There is no grander connection than the one created wherein a true friend has laid down his life. After this event, we gather together as a group not sure of what happened, only to find the Christ come into our presence and breathe upon us the spirit that binds us. We are a community that was created by the Christ and, subsequently, are called to bring this community into the brokenness from which we came.

For generations, people have shared real life and found real meaning because this one was lifted up for us, creating a community that can never be torn asunder. Surely, the community wherein the Holy Spirit resides should be a community committed to sharing what real connection looks and feels like in the presence of a social media that narrates a very different form of community and connection. The Gospel event of atonement is the place wherein we can really see one another’s faces and wrap ourselves into a book full of stories that teaches us how to live in community and create a better creation as God takes it to the place that is Christ shaped…a place that begins as we stare one another in the eyes, kneeling at no other place, than the foot of the cross.

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.

“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.

Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

Front Cover of Book

Front Cover of Book

On occassion I will also post reviews to ParanormalChrist…Here is the first of many installments.  This is a book review I wrote  and was published in Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Theological Journal over James Dunn’s little monograph, “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?”   This an edited and amended version so as to make my points, and the text, more clear.  I hope you enjoy this debate about First Century Christianity and New Testament.  But even more, I hope it deepens your faith and creates a passion for critical inquiry into the paranormal reality of the Christ.*

Here is a question that very few Christians ever get around to asking, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?”  This may seem like a strange question upon many eyes and ears, yet it is one that has a diverse witness across the New Testament.  Jesus did not worship himself nor did he ever promote himself as an object of worship.  So at what point did the Christian church quit proclaiming the proclamation of Jesus, i.e., the “Kingdom of God” and start proclaiming, “Jesus is God so let’s worship him”? At what point did worship shift from being directed to the God of Jesus (as even Jesus taught), to worshipping Jesus as God?  What was the historical transition?  What was the role of Jesus in early Christian worship and how was devotion to Jesus understood in the very fluid context of the first century?  To these questions, James D. G. Dunn, attempts to provide some clarity using a text that is most near and dear to many practicing Christians: the New Testament.

In so doing, Dunn, who is a Pauline scholar by trade, resumes his recent scholarly forays into the tradition of Jesus in this fascinating discussion of early Jesus devotion.  Dunn has written extensively on the theology of Paul and early Christianity, proving himself to be well qualified for the delicate task of handling the content of Christian dogma.  As an addendum to his larger works, Jesus Remembered and Beginning from Jerusalem, Dunn is here focusing his attention directly to the topic of the worship of Jesus within the context of early Christian monotheistic convictions; the issues are many, and the questions difficult, but the result is a brief text with great implications for those who are not deterred by the very provocative title.

On the surface it would appear that the tradition of Jesus as God, and as an object of worship, would be the presumption of the New Testament authors, yet such is not necessarily the case.  Dunn asks at the outset, “Would Jesus himself have welcomed his being confessed as equal with God?”  In other words, did Jesus want to be worshiped?  He continues, “The way to an answer may be more difficult or challenging than at first appeared, and the answer to the question may be less straightforward than we like.”  Indeed, as Dunn will point out, an objective look at the New Testament is not uniform on this question and pluralistic approaches to Jesus devotion is the only singularity in this sacred text on Jesus.

In searching for an answer to the problem of Jesus devotion, Dunn structures his text around the topic of worship within the context of monotheistic belief.  If one is to understand whether or not Jesus was worshiped  one should first understand the various rubrics of worship within the first century.  So Dunn explores the idea of Jesus being worshiped by studying the means, and objects, through which early Christians worshipped.  Thus, the four chapters of the book are formed by Dunn’s understanding of what constitutes essential worship, and theistic persuasions, within the canonical witness of both Old and New Testaments.

First, he defines what worship is and secondly moves on to discuss the practices and sacred places of worship.  Thirdly, he explores the question of to whom worship was given or directed.  The final chapter examines the role of Jesus within these three areas of worship and explores in brief detail the New Testament witness on the matter. He concludes with a summary of the entire text and his findings.

A strength of Dunn’s investigation is his attempt to not only engage the New Testament text and its diverse witness on this subject, but it’s attempt to engage the text while maintaining constant dialogue with two of his theological contemporaries and New Testament authorities Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.  Both of these scholars have also recently published monumental works on early Christianity and the tradition of Jesus.  The personal interaction between these three scholars proves as the larger academic conversation from which Dunn is working.  Through constant conversation with the New Testament, and his colleagues, Dunn notes areas of weakness and strengths across their various positions, offering an alternative approach to their conclusions when necessary.  At every turn, however, Dunn is gracious, even in disagreement

An unexpected strength of the text is Dunn’s erudite handling of orthodoxy and the history of early Church dogma.  He is comfortable using the Greek metaphysical language of the councils and offers insight into how these ancient formulations may cause more confusion than clarity.   He is aware that his results will have implications for how we understand historical doctrines such as the Trinity, and also how we understand various heresies, such as modalism.  With brief warning, Dunn points out that if we misidentify Jesus and his relationship to the Father, we could again fall into the trap of Modalism, a belief that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus is the same being.  This leads us to “Jesus-olatry,” turning the icon into an idol and fails to be consistent with the witness given to us in the New Testament.

For Dunn, the New Testament offers a range of meaning and images that the authors felt necessary to talk about Jesus and their devotion to him.  He ultimately concludes his book asking for reserve on the question of whether Jesus was worshipped and points his readers to embrace the New Testament concept of Jesus as a means through which worship is directed to God, rather than the object at which our worship stops.  For Dunn, this is the New Testament evidence summarized.

While many would read the title of this text and assume this is a scholar with an agenda, Dunn is really attempting to let the New Testament speak for itself on the matter of Jesus as an object of worship.  Dunn is not promoting any specific Protestant perspective, nor is he attempting to deconstruct Catholic orthodoxy.  The book is about seriously engaging the plurality of the New Testament witness on an area that is pivotal to contemporary Christian witness, faith and practice.  Thus, this is an excellent, concise and clearly written text for anyone who takes the bible critically and seriously…and wants to deepen their faith by more than emotional appeal.  And for all Christians who affirm the tradition of the priesthood of all believers, this book is important as we daily do ministry in the world and attempt to understand the role Jesus played in ancient worship and the role he must play for each of us as we offer praise to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.

Dialectical Thinking is Paranormal

Hegel-dialectic

When it comes to thinking, dialectical thinking IS definitely paranormal.  There is no other philosophical method that has the ability to show us that what we consider normal is actually not normal at all…that alongside the normal trapped in its web is something more true, more normal yet also allusive.  Dialectic is the constant reminder that what we think we see in our world is actually not what we’re seeing…it truly is thinking about the world in such a way that another reality begins to emerge from the stable reality we have created and assumed for ourselves.  What makes it most paranormal is that we have seen it and lived amongst it even while we have never noticed it.  In short, dialectical thinking contradicts our ideas from within our ideas…no liberal science necessary.

Dialectic is one of those great philosophical words/concepts that is often thrown around but very little understood. Perhaps this is because most folks just don’t see the world dialectically…paranormally.  Dialectic doesn’t have any practical import in our daily lives in order for it to be a concept that makes sense; at least this is the perception. For many, the world is not something that requires dialectic to understand it rightly. The world is plain and flat; it’s black and white. The world is what we see and what we see is what the world is. All the while, this view of reality is very much dependent upon seeing the world from “somewhere,” from “someplace,” a “where” and a “place” that we did not create ourselves…a where and a place from which we cannot so easily move. To use the language of Martin Heidegger, we have been “thrown” here against our will and we have been silly enough to think it was our “choice”. We’re such good Americans.

The basic premise that what one sees is what is…and that our sight is the full production of ourselves is itself one of the greatest lies of modernity. It certainly doesn’t consider the place from which our desire to know and understand comes (i.e. The Real)…the place that cannot be assimilated into the symbolic order of our language. It doesn’t take into consideration that no one has chosen the language in which they participate and how that language is organized, which in turn leads to being able to see and interpret what one sees …and it certainly doesn’t take into account that the very premises we all hold dear are also susceptible to corrosion within the ideas themselves.

Phenomenology and Dialectical thinking brings all this to awareness.

As Sean Homer writes in his book on Lacan, “the paradox of dialectic is that the positive always turns into a negative.” But naturally, most people do not want their positive ideas of things or opinions being turned into a negative or shown to not be true. We like to be right and we don’t want to find out that our “right” is really wrong. If this is the case for you, stop reading now.  What dialectic does, at its basest most functional level, is couch the ideas of the world that we have (think religion, politics, economics, society, etc) within a paradigm of logic that dares to take logic to its ultimate ends.  Dialectic shows that ideas are never the whole story, that under the idea is a another more true idea or form yet to be seen because it lies just beneath the surface, encouched in what we can call dialectical tension.  This is a tension that, ironically, once it is discovered, forces us to realize it has really been on the surface all along…thus, revealing the world we apprehend and see to be totally other than what we apprehend and see.  At bottom, dialectic is a way of seeing the world as it really is, not a way of seeing the world as we think it to be.

To take this step just a bit further, dialectic is the process whereby all of reality: its concepts, ideas, structures, etc, are displaced in the very ideas that make them what they are.  In other words, the very thesis of an idea or an object also contains the counter-idea that shows the initial thesis to be nothing and empty. This may seem like the foundation of nihilistic philosophy, and to a degree it is, yet nihilism actually stretches at least as far back as medieval Christian theologians such as Miester Eckhart.  Nihilism, or the nothing that dialectics generally discloses about the structure of the world, is not a philosophy of crude, critical scholars who want to have their cake and eat it too; it is a philosophy that sees nothing in every idea because every idea is inherently unstable in its logic. Ideas (and the worlds built around them as all worlds are) are not impregnable or absolute.

Dialectics is a natural philosophical fit with phenomenology because phenomenology posits that nothing exists functionally apart from the idea of the thing. Idea and object go hand in hand. Phenomenology is the premise that objects do not exist independently from the perception of those things in human consciousness. This was the basic premise of the entire work of Edmund Husserl; it is the attempt to simplify the material world by saying the phenomena we encounter matters.

A classic example of this is Hegel’s “Master/Slave dialectic.” The idea of Master and Slave are lost in reciprocal relationship. In order for the Master to be as such, he must be recognized by the Slave for this signification and vice versa. The Master is then free to live life as Master because he is recognized by the Slave as Master. But dialectics disrupts this “universal truth.” For since the Master needs the slave’s recognition for his identity he can never be a free Master, whereas the slave doesn’t need the recognition of the Master to be a slave because the slave’s status is affirmed through something else: his work/labor as a slave. Thus, if the slave’s identity is independent the recognition of the master for his identity it is not the slave who is enslaved to the Master but the Master to the slave. Subsequently, it is not the Master who is free; rather it is the slave who is free. So the Slave is really the Master; the truth is really a lie.

With dialectics, one does not need to deconstruct an idea to show that it is nothing; its own deconstruction is inherent in its very existence and definition. I hope you can see how this proposal and idea of dialectics can offer a whole other world of theological inquiry than the one that is “mastered” to us via orthodoxy. I’m not so sure what this means about the very famous words in the Gospel of John, 8.32, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” but it probably means these words don’t mean what they seem.

I wish to utilize Hegelian dialectical philosophy as theological method because of the seriousness with which it approaches the material world. Many theologians and biblical scholars avoid dialectics but such has not always been the case.

Dialectic has traditionally been employed within theological circles in very benign, though helpful ways. Indeed, it was the dialectical theology of the mid 20th century that paved the way for neo-liberalism and post-liberalism, two very necessary movements that have shaped theology into the present. A school of dialectical theology was reinforced by larger than life theologians such as Karl Barth, Emil Bruner, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Rudolph Bultmann and to a degree even Paul Tillich. But this mode of dialectics, with the exception of Paul Tillich’s latter Systematic Theology, was content to not push dialectic far enough. Barth, for example, was content with a very simplified definition of dialectic that was employed as a symbol of tension between the world as received and the world as is, the already and the not yet. Barth’s famous, and also very helpful, idea of the Word of God and Word of Man for understanding scripture is dialectical thinking…that in the Bible we have both the words of Man and God…The words of man not being the same as the word of God, yet the word of God being expressed in the words of man. This is dialectic, but it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t take Hegel’s method seriously. It attempts to see the world as it is currently understood within our liberal and conservative biases; it doesn’t seek to see that the world we engage might not be the real world after all.

For a full Hegelian method to be appropriated, one must learn anew that the negative, or nothing, is not something to fear but constitutive of reality. Conservative scholars often say that this theology or philosophy of nothing as championed by folks like Sarte, Derrida, Lacan or Zizek is nothing more than tearing away at reality and faith as we know it. It is argued that all they wish to show is that there is no meaning anywhere so that everything is permissible behavior for a humanist society. But the problem is these characterizations are not true.  Most of these critiques are made by those who have never read, or understood, any of the respective thinkers they wish to criticize.

If anything, dialectic is NOT reductionistic. It does not seek to say there is no meaning to life; in fact, it argues for a proliferation of meaning and truth in many places and especially those places where we least expect to see it! Dialectics affirms that life and our worldviews are products of a very complex relationship between object and thought…and that as all objects are somehow the precarious existence of their substance and our thought about them their truthfulness is then necessarily contingent upon our language and consciousness. No “Truth” is able to rise above this logically. The world of ideas presents to us the world in which we live; the only way to change the world we live is to see how very unstable our ideas about the world in fact are. This is the task of dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

All dialectic does is analyze via phenomenological awareness that life is comprised of a constant tension within the very life we think we live without tension. It’s not an attempt to “throw away the faith” or “deconstruct Jesus,” but it does very much show that our world is not as tidy, neat and complete as we think it to be. And the benefit of seeing this opposite/negative in the supposed positives of life is that we can then evaluate ourselves, our faith, our world more carefully and begin to live in more authentic ways.