Lent and Death

Nothing says Lent like a good book on death.

So, as a sort of Lenten discipline I’m going to be blogging through Richard Beck’s latest book The Slavery of DeathThere are two reasons why I want to blog through the book:

  1. Re-reading and summarizing each chapter will help me to process the content of the book and reflect a little bit on how it relates to my own life.
  2. I am loving this book and think that it’s well worth a read or, at the very least, more exposure. So if you’re not going to read the book then hopefully these posts serve as a small window into his ideas which, I think, are absolutely worth reflecting on.

If you’ve never read Richard Beck, you should. He’s a psychologist who also happens to have a passion for theology so much of his writing deals with the intersection of these two disciplines. You can familiarize yourself with his thinking by reading his blog which can be found here.

So, onto the goods.

The Slavery of Death begins with a challenge to reconsider how we view the relationship between sin and death. Traditionally for Protestants sin came first and is what corrupted God’s good creation and so led to death. This idea, that death is a consequence of sin, is reinforced by the account of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent exile and separation from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3). Paul seems to affirm this idea in Romans when he famously declares that the “…wages of sin is death” (6:23).

As I mentioned above, if you’re a Protestant you are more than likely familiar with this way of thinking. Interestingly, however, the Eastern Orthodox church tends to emphasize death as the center of the human predicament. For our brothers and sisters in the Eastern church sin is a result of our slavery to the fear of death. A great deal of Beck’s project in this book aims to reclaim the Eastern perspective on this issue and to shed light on many of the passages in the Bible that are usually neglected by Protestants–those that seem to affirm the notion that death, rather than sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. Take a look at these passages for instance: 

  • 1 Cor. 15:24-26 — Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
  • Rev. 20:13-14a — The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
  • Romans 7:24 — What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
  • Hebrews 2:14-15 — Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

In each of these passages death seems to be showcased as the main enemy of humanity. In 1 Corinthians death is the “last enemy to be destroyed” before God becomes all in all. In Revelation, death and Hades are the last things to be thrown into the lake of fire. In Romans, Paul attributes his struggles with sin to the fact that he has a body that is subject to death. The author of Hebrews understands salvation as a liberation from the “fear of death.”

Rather than do away with the Protestant formulation (sin leads to death) and replace it with the Eastern formulation (death leads to sin), Beck is aiming to give us a more balanced perspective, one that will allow us to make more sense of the wealth of biblical material that speaks of death as humanity’s main problem. In his own words:

The Bible presents us with a dense and complex causal matrix in which sin, death, and the devil all mutually interact. Consequently, an exclusive focus on sin tends to oversimplify the dynamics of our moral struggles. I argue that a fuller analysis is critical as it will present us with a clearer picture of Christian virtue–love in particular. By exposing the dynamics of “the devil’s work” in our lives, works produced by the “slavery to the fear of death” [Hebrews 2:15], we will be better positioned to resist the satanic influences in our lives, better equipped to do battle with the principalities and powers of darkness, and better able to love as Christ loved us.

It’s no surprise that when you begin to reconsider the foundation of the problem then how we understand the solution changes as well. Thus, salvation becomes more about liberation from our fear of death rather than exclusively focused on the forgiveness of sin. Beck: “Salvation…involves liberation from this fear [of death]. Salvation is emancipation for those who have been enslaved all of their lives by the fear of death. Salvation is deliverance that sets us free from this power of the devil.”

As it turns out, there has been a great deal of ink spilled in the field of psychology over the wealth of negative behaviors that result from our fear of death. This is why I find Beck’s perspective so illuminating: he puts psychology and theology in dialogue with each other and the results are more than interesting.


Coming Next: Ancestral Sin or Original Sin?


Rethinking Scripture

I’ve always loved the story behind the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It’s said that in the third century BCE Demetrius of Philerum, director of the renowned library of Alexandria in Egypt, petitioned King Ptolemy Philadelphus to have the sacred Jewish writings translated into Greek in order to fill an apparent gap in his library’s shelves. King Ptolemy, having a passion for the world’s religions himself, granted the request and so had a delegation sent to Jerusalem in order to recruit the most learned of the Jewish scholars and scribes. The tradition has it that 72 men in all agreed to undertake the colossal task of translating the sacred scriptures. Each of these 72 scribes, it is said, translated the text independently of one another, waiting to compare their finished products until all of them had completed the task. By what could only have been an act of God himself, each of the 72 translations are said to have been identical. The Septuagint, as this great literary work would be called, was clearly a divinely inspired translation.

From a historical perspective this story is suspect for obvious reasons. Most scholars posit that, rather than emerging at the behest of a gentile librarian, the Septuagint (which is abbreviated as “LXX” – the Roman numeral for 70) was probably developed over the course of a few hundred years primarily by Alexandrian Jews who were increasingly desirous of a more readily accessible body of Scripture in light of the fact that Hebrew, the language of the ancient texts, was no longer spoken. The lingua franca, thanks to the Hellenization of the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great, was now Greek.

Despite being developed in the Jewish community which no doubt found considerable use for it, the LXX would be far more influential in the Christian community that would emerge some 300 years later (a reality that would cause later Jews to regret the fact that their Scriptures, having been translated into a language that was spoken throughout the gentile world, had fallen into the wrong hands). The “Bible” that all of the writers of the NT would have been familiar with is the LXX. Paul’s famous statement about Scripture being “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) is a reference to the LXX, not the Hebrew original. All of the OT references we find in the gospels intended to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law are quotations from the Greek LXX.

This last point is especially interesting when one considers the disparity between the LXX and the original Hebrew text. For example, the Hebrew of Isaiah’s famous prophecy about Immanuel can be rendered this way:  “Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel” (7:14). The scribes responsible for translating the LXX took the liberty of translating the Hebrew word for “young woman” into the Greek word parthenos which means “virgin.” Not knowing the original Hebrew and convinced that this prophecy was foretelling Christ’s birth, the gospel writers concocted a fabulous story about Jesus being born of a virgin. You may have heard of it. It could be argued that the entire doctrine of the virgin birth, a doctrine that is now forever enshrined in the creeds of Christendom, is based on a mistranslation!

A brief survey of the history of the LXX raises some questions about the way we view Scripture today. For example, is the LXX inspired Scripture even though it’s a translation of a more original textual tradition? If not, then are the fragments that have made it into our NT inspired? Were the scribes who translated Isaiah, for example, quickly taken up in the Spirit while contemplating how to translate the Hebrew word for “young woman” only to have the Spirit leave them shortly after the translation of that single verse?

To make matters even more complicated, the earliest copies of the Hebrew text we have are those of the Masoretes from the 7th to 11th centuries CE. The Masoretes, being faithful preservers of the oral tradition of the Scriptures that were passed on from generation to generation, decided that it was time their tradition be put on paper and so they transcribed the documents that we use today for the translation of our own English Bibles. The fact that we consider the Masoretic Hebrew text to be the authoritative version of the OT is based on the (not small) assumption that the Hebrew oral tradition was indeed successfully passed down from generation to generation completely untarnished. In fact, modern Christian translators are so committed to this assumption that we overlook the fact that the LXX predates the Masoretic Text (MT) by over 1,000 years! Could it not be argued that even though the LXX is a translation of a more original textual tradition it nevertheless ought to be considered more reliable than the MT simply because of its much earlier date of composition?

Many Evangelical Christians today claim that we ought to defer to the tradition of the Church when faced with difficult matters such as the status of homosexuals in the community of faith or the nature of the atonement. But if we are going to claim tradition as a source of authority then should we not be translating our English Bibles from the LXX since that is what the early church (not to mention the writers of the NT!) considered inspired? Some of these same Evangelicals boldly proclaim that every book that we have in our canon as Protestants (and only the set that we have in our canon) is without error. Again, where does that leave our sisters and brothers from the early Church (or the Eastern Orthodox tradition which uses the LXX)?

Personally, what I would advocate is not that we choose one of the two ancient textual baskets to put all our interpretive and lexical eggs in (although I think, if this is the route we are going to continue to travel, a strong case could be made that it ought to be the LXX over against the MT) but rather that we adopt a more fluid and organic understanding of what Scripture is to begin with. Doctrines like the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible (but especially inerrancy) become increasingly difficult to hold the more one digs into the history of what we now call the Bible. Not only does one have to assume the original authors were inspired but also that each scribe, redactor, compiler, translator, and Church official responsible for ultimately making the Bible what it is for us today were inspired as well. That’s a lot of fallible and errant human beings involved in making up what some consider to be an infallible and/or inerrant group of texts. Indeed, that’s the stance some choose to take which I find not only incredibly difficult to defend but also completely unnecessary.

The doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy both attempt to protect the divinity of the Bible in the face of its all too human of origins. To say that the Bible is divine and is, therefore, without error is to make the same mistake as those throughout Church history who asserted that Jesus was so utterly divine that some part of his human nature must have been done away with and replaced with pure divinity, be it his will, his ego or whatever.  Luckily, the councils did away with such thinking and the Church continued to affirm the paradoxical union of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus. The point of the incarnation, at least as I see it, was not to show us that humanity could be replaced with divinity, as if the two were at odds, but rather that to be fully human is precisely what it means to be divine. The two categories are two sides of the same coin. God is to be found no where but right here in the midst of this chaotic, messy and complicated story that we call human history. Thus, the fact that the Bible is complicated and does indeed have mistakes whether historical, scientific or even, dare we say, theological, is precisely the point! We ought to expect nothing less (or perhaps, more) of a book that bears witness to this messy, mysterious and complex God.

To say that Scripture is inspired is to say that, in a unique way, it bears witness to the God we believe was fully revealed in the person of Jesus. To say it is authoritative means that as a body of believers we are committed to reading the text and rereading it, both devotionally and liturgically, wrestling with it, discussing it over a meal, and maybe even at times disagreeing with it but never, despite all the frustrations it may cause us, doing away with it. In other words, the authority of the Bible is not something it inherently holds but is something we grant it as the Church. The Bible is authoritative because we say it’s authoritative and we need no reason beyond that. And none of this has anything to do with whether or not there are any mistakes in the Bible or if it’s scientifically or historically accurate or if the virgin birth was based on a mistranslation.

To close I’ll say this: I have a love-hate relationship with the Bible. For so many reasons I am frustrated to no end with what I find in it–the violence, misogyny, exclusivism, etc. Most of the time these frustrations keep me from even cracking it open as much as I probably should (and when I finally do I’m usually left cursing under my breath). But regardless of my frustration I remain fascinated by the story this book tells. I think it has the potential to allow us to catch a glimpse of a reality that is much greater than the status quo. When it is enacted liturgically I think it offers us an opportunity to take part in something bigger than ourselves, something that calls us beyond the as-is structures of the societies we live in today.

Trayvon Martin and the Event of Justice

In his book The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event  John Caputo introduces the reader to the idea that words like “hospitality” and “God” contain within them an undeconstrucible event that calls into question the way we regularly use those words. In a discussion about the difference between laws and true, undeconstructible justice he says it like this:

To deconstruct the law means to “negotiate the difference” between the law and justice, where the law is thought to be something finite, and “justice” calls up an uncontainable event, an infinite or unconditional or undeconstructible demand. Deconstruction is…a negotiation undertaken between a conditioned name and an unconditional event. To deconstruct the law is to hold the constructedness of the law plainly and constantly in view so as to subject the law to relentless analysis, revision, and repeal, to rewriting and judicial review, in the light of the unconditional demand of justice (27).

What Caputo is getting at is that the laws of the land, laws that are intended to uphold and defend justice, are actually called into question by the word justice itself. Justice is an uncontainable event, something that can only be dreamed of and when we dream of it we realize that our so-called “just laws” fall short of embodying the true nature of justice. Deconstructing the law in light of the event of justice helps us to critique the status quo and dream of a more just world and as we dream of it we begin to look for ways in which we can make our dream come true.

The disparity between the event of justice and the deconstructible laws of our land is clearly illustrated by the story of Trayvon Martin. The trial of George Zimmerman allowed both sides of the story to be told.  Zimmerman was, it is said, given a “fair” trial. The final verdict of the jury to acquit George Zimmerman was given in the name of “justice.”

But the very word “justice”, as Caputo points out, stands in judgment over our entire judicial process. True justice, the event contained within the word “justice”, does not leave an unarmed black boy dead.

True justice does not lead to rioting in the streets.

The event contained within the word “justice” is not satisfied with a simple verdict that says we can all forget about Trayvon Martin now, that it’s been settled, that Zimmerman killed in self-defense and so we can all relax and go on living our lives in peace knowing that “justice” has been served.

True justice asks why opinions about the Trayvon Martin incident are sharply divided along racial lines.

The undeconstuctible event stirring within the word “justice” calls into question the notion of “Stand Your Ground” and causes us to realize that a world in which excuses are made for people to kill each other, a world in which murder is legalized, is really no just world at all.

May we not confuse our “justice” system, which is really a pseudo-justice system, with the true event of justice.

May we be haunted by the true event of justice, always aware of the fact that what we call “justice” in this nation pales in comparison with what the prophet Amos imagined when he said “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24) or when Isaiah speaks of “seeking justice, reproving the rulthless, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow” (1:17).

May we never be satisfied with the ruling of a six person jury as if that’s all that’s required by justice.

Justice calls us to go deeper, to dream bigger, to continue questioning the status quo so that our laws may begin to do justice to the event stirring within the word itself.

The Ground of All Being – High Gravity Pt. 4 (Tillich)

Last week we discussed Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity–a Christianity that rejects pat answers and easy solutions to life’s complex problems and opts to, instead, embrace life’s messiness, affirming the inherent meaning of life without having to baptize it in religious language and concepts that often serve as an attempt to escape the world. Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity is, at it’s most basic,  life lived for the other.

This week we look at the German existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. The notion that I want to explore a bit is Tillich’s “Ground of all Being.”

To begin this exploration it would help us to understand Tillich’s framework. For Tillich there are ultimately two forms of reality: conditional and unconditional. Conditional reality is what we all live in and know intimately without even having to consciously recognize it. To live in conditioned reality is to live in a particular place within a particular tradition (religious or otherwise). This living, of course, takes place at a particular time in history with other particular people with whom you communicate with by means of a particular language.

Conditioned reality is, you may have noticed, all about particulars.

Unconditioned reality is, on the other hand, what is brooding beneath conditioned reality. What is unconditional is not bound by the particulars that constitute conditioned reality and is thus universal.

God, for Tillich, is unconditional. In other words,  God transcends the particulars of conditional reality. This means that whatever characteristics we attribute to God will ultimately fall short of describing the reality of God because all language is conditioned and finite.

How then are we to understand God?

It was his belief that God is unconditional that led Tillich to famously declare that God does not actually exist as being among other beings (like you and I) but rather that God is the Ground of all Being. Tillich says the following:

If we say ‘God is a person’, we say something which is profoundly wrong. If God were person, he would be one being alongside other beings, and not He in whom every being has his existence and his life, and who is nearer to each of us than we are to ourselves. A person is separated from an other person; nobody can penetrate into the innermost centre of another. Therefore we should never say that God is a person.

So for Tillich God is ground of our own existence or that which allows us to be in the first place. We could say that  it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.”

God as the ground of all being is, then, universally experienced and intuited by everyone below the level of consciousness.

Thus, we could say that it is not the form that our discourse about God takes (whether it’s Christian in form or Islamic in form or atheistic in form) that matters. Indeed, all our discourse about God is, at the end of the day, conditioned discourse–it’s all made up of language that is finite and concepts that cannot ultimately grasp the ineffable, unconditional Ground of all Being. Rather, what matters is our posture from which we engage the question of God. It is in our wrestling with matters of ultimate concern that God is testified to as the Ground of our Being. Therefore Tillich can say that the honest atheist actually testifies to God in her very rejection of God (which is nothing more than a conditioned manifestation of God from a particular human tradition). In his own words:

In such concern the God who is absent as an object of faith [in the honest atheist] is present as the source of a restlessness which asks the ultimate question, the question of the meaning of our existence. This God is not seen in a particular image by him who is in doubt about any possible image of God. The absent God, the source of the question and the doubt about himself, is neither the God of theism or pantheism; he is neither the God of the Christians nor of the Hindus; he is neither the God of the naturalists nor of the idealists. All these forms of the divine image have been swallowed by the waves of radical doubt. What is left is only the inner necessity of a man to ask the ultimate question with complete seriousness. He himself may not call the source of this inner necessity God. He probably will not. But those who have had a glimpse of the working of the divine Presence, know that one could not even ask the ultimate question without the Presence, even if it makes itself felt only as the absence of God. The God above God is a name for God who appears in the radicalism and the seriousness of the ultimate question, even without an answer.

There are a ton of implications of thinking about God in this way. I’ll highlight two that Tillich draws out.

First, this means that the sacred/secular divide disappears. Tillich argues that religion exists because we feel threatened by the finitude and transitory nature of our own existence. We create a sphere of life called “the sacred” which is characterized by infinity and eternality and we attempt to ascend to this sphere by means of religion in order to give our lives meaning. But, Tillich says, if we became united with the Ground of our Being then we would have no need for religion–all of life would be recognized for what it is: sacred.

Second, we must transcend the symbols of our own religious tradition. To hold too tightly to our own traditional way of talking about God is to mistake the conditional for the unconditional. This does not mean that we ought to be embarrassed of our inherited tradition, whatever it may be. It means, rather, that when we talk about God using the symbols that our particular tradition hands us we understand our language for what it is: conditioned. It means that we hold our understanding of God with open hands, acknowledging that there are other ways of talking about the divine. It means that we are generous towards those who do talk about God using different symbols or those who reject the notion of God all together. It means we recognize that the plurality of perspectives of the divine testify to something brooding below all the varying symbols and traditions, something unconditional, namely, the Ground of all Being.




Living As If God Did Not Exist: High Gravity pt. 3.5 (Bonhoeffer)

We ended our last discussion of Bonhoeffer by noting that the end of religion or the death of the religious god understood as the deus ex machina is a prerequisite for the emergence of the radical essence of Christianity.

Thus, I want to ask the following question in this post: What might the Church look like without religion?

I want to highlight three things about Bonhoeffer’s vision of a religionless Church: the first one has to do with our theology (how we understand God) and the second two have to do with our praxis (how this theology or understanding of God is enacted in the world).

So theology first.  According to Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis, society lives without any need for God. Another way to say this is that our society has become thoroughly secular (this claim definitely reveals Bonhoeffer’s cultural and temporal context, although to some extent it still applies to our own). A great deal of modern people live as if there were no God. The way the Church has traditionally responded to this secularization is by attempting to carve out sacred space in a world that’s proving to be utterly profane. The Church has continued trying to find some area of life that is ‘unknowable’ or ‘mysterious’ to us and place God in this ‘gap’ of human knowledge or experience. For Bonhoeffer, this approach is doomed to failure. Instead of attempting to defend the god of the gaps, the deus ex machina, Bonhoeffer argues that the Church should, along with society, begin to live as if there were no God. In his own words:

And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

It becomes clear at this point that Bonhoeffer’s theology is thoroughly Jesus-centered. Specifically, the suffering of Jesus as described in the four canonical gospels is very important for his understanding of God. For Bonhoeffer, the cross forces us to acknowledge that the God of Christianity is a God of weakness and powerlessness. Ours is a God who suffers with humanity rather than standing far above the earth in utter transcendence, immutability and omnipotence.

So, if God has let himself be pushed out of the world and exists in the world only by means of his suffering with us then how are  we to live in the world in light of this fact?

One of the ways forward that Bonhoeffer suggests is that we must begin to talk about God without religious language. He brings up the work of New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann at this point who’s project was to “dymythologize” the New Testament. In essence, Bultmann believed that the truth of the gospel was couched in mythological language (resurrection, ascension, miracles, etc.) and so the task of the modern theologian was to get behind the culturally-bound myth in order to unveil the irreducible and universal truth behind it all. For Bonhoeffer, Bultmann’s project did not go “too far” (something that many conservatives accused Bultmann of doing) but rather, did not go far enough. Bultmann attempted to chuck language of miracles, ascension, etc. out the window but he kept language of God. Bonhoeffer suggests that God, too, must be demythologized.

[Aside: Pete mentioned something interesting at this point in the lecture. He said that people love to demythologize hell but that we hesitate to do the same with heaven. In other words, it’s in vogue to talk about hell as a “this-worldly” reality, something that should be understood, not as a place that bad people go to after death, but as a way of life in the here and now that people choose to live in; a life of selfishness, suffering and pride (think Rob Bell in Love Wins). But heaven? Are we willing to demythologize heaven? Are we willing to give up heaven as a place that we go to after we die? The same could be true about Satan who, in many liberal circles, is not understood as a metaphysical being but rather as more of a force or a set of systems and structures that work to create division, rivalry and war between various people groups. But God? “Oh yeah,” say the demythologizers, “God is still a metaphysical being.” Could there be a double standard operating here?]

To demythologize God, I think, is to speak of God in a way that has everything to do with this world. We cannot relegate God to an other-worldly or heavenly realm. Bonhoeffer connects with Heidegger here as they both call us to move away from abstraction and metaphysical speculation.

This leads to the last thing I want to highlight from Bonhoeffer: the Church after religion is utterly “this-worldly” and must exist for the world. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the incarnation is that God has, once and for all time, taken up residence here on the Earth in all its suffering, messiness and dirtiness. Additionally, the resurrection, rather than being an escape from this world, is God’s way of sending a renewed humanity back into the world. Again, Bonhoeffer in his own words:

The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope [that saves humanity to an other-worldly paradise] is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary-experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.

Thus, to be Christian is not to rise above this world but to be fully human in the world. The Christian recognizes the divine in the here and now, in mundane, every day tasks and in encounters with our neighbor. The Christian suffers with the world to the very end rather than retreating to a paradise in an attempt to escape from  the world. The Christian lives without using religious language to describe God because God, rather than being a metaphysical capital ‘B’ Being of omnipotence up in the sky, is to be found in the depth of human experience right here, right now–in suffering and table fellowship and folding laundry.

The way Bonhoeffer puts it, “God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him.” Once we accept this, we are freed up to fully embrace life with all its imperfections and as we do so we find God in the midst of our daily living.

Religion, as it is defined by Bonhoeffer, has us looking for God in a blissful heaven that’s out of this world. The radical  Christian affirmation, however, is that God forsook this heavenly bliss to come and dwell among us. God isn’t to be found anywhere but right here in our midst. The transcendence of God is immanently present.

Religionless Christianity: High Gravity Pt. 3 (Bonhoeffer)

Before diving into week three of our exploration of Radical Theology we would do well to review what we’ve discusses thus far. Week one we looked at Paul Ricoeur’s essay on the critique of religion where he highlighted the necessity of wrestling with the critique of religion leveled by the three masters of suspicion (MoS), Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. At their core, all three MoS showed us that underneath religion, something unhealthy or oppressive is often going on whether it be a lust for power, a deep-seated and unacknowledged hatred of people who are different than us or an attempt to cover over our fear of death. In week two we looked at Heidegger who, in his examination of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, attempts to discover the primordial Christian experience. For Heidegger Christianity is, rather than mental assent to a set of doctrines,  primarily a way of being in the world. We took a look at Heidegger’s rejection of abstraction when it comes to thinking about God. Rather than speculating about the metaphysical nature of the capital ‘B’ Being of God, we ought to temporally enact God in the here and now.

This week we are discussing excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison. These were letters that Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend of his while he was detained in a prison prior to his execution by the Nazis. The fact that these are letters makes them incredibly personal and intimate; the reader really gets a glimpse into the heart of Bonhoeffer, his deepest reflections and struggles.

It is in these letters that Bonhoeffer introduces an idea that has come to be known as “Religionless Christianity.” Nine themes were highlighted by Pete in our lecture, three of which I would like to discuss here.

First, Bonhoeffer argues that the God of religion, Christian religion included, is often imagined as a deus ex machina, which is a term used in theater or film to describe a character that is lowered down onto the stage as an angel or a god in order to resolve some sort of problem or tension in the plot before being lifted back up out of the scene. In his own words:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.

Thus, for Bonhoeffer, the god of religion is also the god of the gaps. In other words, God exists in the areas that we do not understand, the “gaps” of our knowledge. This is best illustrated in the religion-science dialogue. The more scientists figure out about the world, God is increasingly pushed out of the picture. As our knowledge increases, the “gaps” that we place God in become smaller and smaller. In some areas it seems that the gap has disappeared altogether. For example, when evolution became the scientific community’s primary way of understanding how life on earth came to be as it is today God or, as Bonhoeffer would put it, the deus ex machina, was rendered unnecessary.

The religion-science debate is not the only area in which the deus ex machina functions . For Bonhoeffer the deus ex machina is being worshipped where ever God is affirmed as the “answer to life’s problems, and the solution to its needs and conflicts.” The God of religion, then, is a conceived of as a cheap answer to all of life’s difficult questions, that which provides us satisfaction in a world that can often leave us feeling less than satisfied. In short, the deus ex machina is our guarantor of meaning.

It’s not difficult to identify the deus ex machina at work in the church today. The four spiritual laws are a way of trying to convince people that they have a problem so that they can then accept the god who is the answer to that very problem. Or, to use another example, our testimonies can often fit into the following template:

  • [Insert story about how awful your life was before you met Jesus]
  • [Insert story about how you met Jesus]
  • [Insert story about how awesome your life is now that you’ve met Jesus]

Bonhoeffer noticed that, and this is the second point, in his own time it seemed as if people were moving away from a need for the god of religion or the deus ex machina. As scientists continued to explain more and more of how the world worked and modern political theorists developed ways for society to order itself in an equitable manner there was no more felt tension that needed to be resolved by inserting God into the equation. Thus, Bonhoeffer argued that the religious epoch had come to an end.

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind. ‘Christianity’ has always been a form – perhaps the true form – of ‘religion’. But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that that is already more or less the case – what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?

This leads to Pete’s third point (and our final one…for now):  for Bonhoeffer the end of religion does not spell the end of Christianity. In fact, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the religious god as a necessary phenomenon, something that needs to take place, in order for the true essence of Christianity to emerge.

So what might a religionless Christianity look like? How might we conceive of God without falling back on the deus ex machina?

These are, I think, incredibly important questions for the Church to consider. They will have to wait for another post.

Until then some questions for reflection:

In what way have you seen the deus ex machina functioning in the Church or, even closer to home, in your own life?

Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis when he says that the religious epoch has come to an end?

The Faithfulness of God and Christian Hope

The following is a link to the audio of a sermon I preached last Sunday at College Community United Church of Christ here in Fresno. The recording starts a little late so you miss my nerdy theology joke at the beginning as well as a bit of my miniature autobiography but the body of the sermon is all there. If, for whatever reason, the file doesn’t work on your computer then I’ve also provided the transcript below. The text was Romans 8:28.



And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 (NIV)

Good morning. I’m excited to be here this morning among the UCC-ers. One of my favorite theologians, John B. Cobb Jr., a United Methodist himself, recently said that he was hopeful about the future of the UCC because you, unlike most other denominations, have figured out the sexuality issue which, Cobb hopes, will free you up to take on other pressing issues like joining God in bringing about the salvation of the world in the face of the ecological crisis that threatens the very existence of our species. So no pressure.

I myself, despite my recent growing attraction to the way the UCC embodies the gospel, did not grow up in the UCC. I was actually born into a family that practiced Catholicism which meant that I was baptized as an infant, attended catechism from a very young age, partook of my first holy communion and first confession…the whole bit. But when I was in elementary school my parents decided to pursue membership at a Mennonite Brethren church here in Fresno, not because of doctrinal reasons but simply because a few friendly people in their social circles invited them to do so at a time in my parents life in which they were looking for a different expression of the gospel. I was still quite young when we began attending this MB church so most of my memories of church and faith growing up are embedded in this community. These were formative years for me as my faith deepened and I began to develop a passion for reading and studying the scriptures which led me to, upon graduating high school, pursue and education in Biblical Studies at a small Mennonite Bible college in Abbotsford, British Columbia which, for those who haven’t brushed up on your Canadian geography in a while, is about an hour east of Vancouver, just north of the border. These four years affected everything about the way I viewed my faith. Nothing was left unchanged for me—the nature of God, Jesus, the Spirit, heaven, hell, eschatology, the Church, ethics, salvation, sanctification, justification, the atonement, the resurrection, sexuality…the list could go on and on.

An issue that I’ve returned to again and again over the years is that of Christian hope which is what I would like to discuss this morning. Specifically, I want to ask the following question: On what grounds do we as Christians have hope? I want to address some of the flaws of the way Christians have traditionally answered this question before presenting us with an alternative perspective.

The question of hope is no doubt a relevant one for Christians living in the 21st century. We’ve just emerged out of a century that many claim was the most violent in human history. If it wasn’t the most violent quantitatively speaking, it certainly was creatively speaking. The 20th century saw the advent of modern warfare which was accompanied by various technologies that allowed us to kill large swaths of people with incredible efficiency. The 21st has not shown any signs of bringing peace. We live in a time marked with the devastation of war, increasing tribalism and, as I mentioned a few moments ago, an ecological crisis that threatens not only the future of our species, but all of life on earth, at least as we know it. Thus, we could say that as Christians we hope for a better global future. We hope in an eschatological sense or, in other words, we hope that this grand story that we’re living on this floating celestial sphere we call Earth will end on a good note. We hope for the final consummation of God’s Kingdom.

Hope is not only needed in a global, distant future sense but in a personal sense. We all find ourselves in the midst of situations in which we long for a sense of hope. For some, it may be a forboding depression that can’t be evaded. For others, broken relationships with those who we love the most. Some of us face health issues that make us feel anxious and powerless. Thus, hope is needed for us each day as we face the brokenness that comes with life.

In what or whom do we hope for a better future? Of course the Biblical narrative responds resoundingly, “It is God in whom we place our hope!” But in what sense do we hope in God?

It seems to me that many Christians today place their hope in an omnipotent god that, despite the looks of things, is in control of the destiny of creation down to the minutest detail. It is this all-powerful god who micro-manages the events that transpire in our lives and in all of creation so that all things ultimately work out for good (which is one way of translating our passage this morning). Thus, the evils of our age, it is said, are really not evil at all for if we could some how see things from a divine perspective we would realize that all things are being worked out for good, that everything is unfolding just as God has planed. God is in complete and utter control of everything that takes place in the world and in our lives. Within this framework we look forward with hope to the day on which God will snap his fingers and, in a grand display of divine power, do away with all the evil that we have dirtied things up with in our own lives and in the world at large.

You may be able to tell from the hint of sarcasm in my tone that omnipotence, or the belief that God is all-powerful, is not my favorite doctrine. In fact, I think it is a doctrine that we would do better without unless we drastically redefine what we mean by “power.” Typically, the word “power” is associated with the ability to affect change from without usually by means of force or coercion. This is a unilateral power that is used in an attempt to affect others without being affected oneself. In this sense, a large military or that guy who spends more time at the gym than anywhere else is “powerful.” If something stands in the way of a large military or the aforementioned gym rat, physical force is exerted in order to achieve the desired results. This is the type of power that is typically attributed to God when we imagine him returning at the end of history to dramatically do away with the evil that is bound up in creation. God’s action in this scenario is unilateral (God acts alone) and coercive (God will get what God wants whether we like it or not).

But does this type of power really achieve what we think it will achieve? Does coercion, ultimately an act of violence, not simply beget more violence? Indeed, if America’s war against terror has taught us anything it is that when a country acts unilaterally and forcefully, the very terrorism that we are attempting to eradicate is simply perpetuated. Thus, we would do well to stop our imagining God in such ways. Contrary to popular belief, there is no hope found in an all-powerful God that acts unilaterally and coercively. It’s high-time we give up divine omnipotence in this sense.

Is there another way to conceive of power? Indeed there is. What if we began to understand power as a relational word rather than a word that denotes shear physical dominance or coercive strength? What if true power was the ability to persuade someone to behave a certain way by means of a gentle lure or a call, the ability to affect change from within rather than from without? What if power was understood as a relational term rather than a term that denoted the ability to forcefully dominate another?

The difference between these two types of power is illustrated in the following story:

The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.

The point of the story is, of course, persuasive power, the ability to affect change by means of a lure or a call, is more effective than coercive power.

It is my belief that the power of God is the power of persuasion and not the power of coercion. Our passage today is from Romans chapter 8 which many believe to be the climax of this masterpiece of Paul’s in which he discusses the role of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. The Spirit is an excellent example of what I mean when I say that God has persuasive power. The Spirit of God—rather than exerting it’s will forcefully onto the believer from outside of ourselves—inhabits us and acts on us from within. We experience the Spirit of God in each moment as a gentle lure or a whispered call towards the beautiful, Shalom-filled life that is God’s vision for us and our world. The Spirit is God’s persuasive power at work in us.

There are a number of implications of understanding God’s power as persuasion rather than coercion. First, we acknowledge the fact that God’s power is better understood as weakness, lowliness or, ironically, powerlessness. To act coercively is to impose one’s will on another whether they desire it or not. This is what the doctrine of omnipotence suggests about the way God relates to the world. God will get what God wants no matter what. However, if God’s power is actually a weak call or a lure, a gentle whisper that acts on us from within then we are faced with the reality that it is indeed a possibility that God does not always get what God wants. It is possible that a call not be answered or a lure ignored. The gentle whisper of God that is aimed at you and I as well as the whole of creation can be resisted.

But is this not a deeply Christian affirmation? Indeed, the point at which we as Christians say that the glory of God is made most manifest is in the cross of Christ. The cross shows us that God would rather die than coerce. The cross is a revelation, not of God’s power but of his weakness. German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes this point in the following way: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” [Mt. 8:17 – “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘He himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.”]. For those who do not have eyes to see, the cross is an utter failure, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The world worships coercive power and is enamored with the shear strength of armies and empires. In fact, it was the coercive power of empire that nailed Jesus on the cross. It is no wonder, then, that the world considers the despicable death of a Palestinian peasant rabbi 2,000 years ago to be utterly inconsequential. But, Paul says, for those who have eyes to see, the cross is the power, or we could say, the weakness of God made manifest.

So then we are left with a problem. If God does not get what God wants then, to return to our original question, on what grounds do we hope? If the lure of God in each moment of our lives can indeed be resisted then how can we hope for a better global future or, a bit closer to home, that the brokenness that we experience every day will be redeemed? It is my suggestion that our hope, rather than being grounded in the omnipotence of God, should be grounded in the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God is God’s promise to the world that no matter how bad things get, no matter how broken our relationships, no matter how depressed we are, no matter how bleak the future of humanity seems in the face of our ecological crisis—the faithfulness of God is God’s promise to continue to lure us towards a more beautiful, adventurous, and Shalom-filled future.

Paul’s way of putting this in our passage today is that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.” This is different than saying that all things work out for good. In order for that to be true God would need to act coercively, to force things to work out in a certain way. That misses the point. Paul’s point—which is highlighted in the crescendo of our passage in which he lists the trials of the early church (trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword)—is that no matter what we face in the present moment, no matter how bleak things look, God in his enduring faithfulness will continue to call us towards a more just and beautiful reality. Our affirmation of the resurrection is our way of saying that there is no circumstance that is beyond the reach of God’s enduring faithfulness. Things looked utterly bleak for Jesus as he laid in the tomb for three days but even here, God’s creative faithfulness made a way out of no way. Thus, no matter what your present circumstances are you can rest assured, you can find hope in the fact that God is dreaming a beautiful dream for the next moment. Even when we fail to actualize that dream, when we fall short of embodying God’s call for the next moment, even still God is faithful to take what we offer and, in his infinite creativity, dream up a better future and lure us towards it. God’s faithfulness to do so is eternal and it is in this faithfulness that we hope. Amen.