Category Archives: Theology

Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

Pilate’s job was to make sure that an uprising would not happen. There was enormous pressure on him to maintain order.

How does the conversation between Pilate and Jesus go? When asked if he’s a king or what he has done to upset the Jewish priests, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of the world.”

Pilate, who only knows of one world, this world — not Jesus’s world — doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, and only manages to grab hold of the word he does understand, and asks him: “So you are a king?”

So he totally misses it. “My Kingdom of not of this world.”

Friends it doesn’t matter how many times we hear this. Christians have always struggled with how to interpret Jesus’s statements about the Kingdom of God. Even if we think we’ve got it nailed down conceptually — practically, we’re never quite sure how to work it out. What does this mean, we want to ask Jesus? Many of us have probably heard the saying, “in the world but not of the world,” but the implications of this are rarely clear. Most of the time, we take choose one or the other — in or of — and run with it!

Because, on the one hand, when we’re looking for redemption, as Israel certainly still was, the temptation is to trust in their effort to acquire or benefit from worldly power. The power of Rome’s political and military might. The religious leaders were trying to manipulate it for their own purposes so they could keep the Temple life and Jewish community the way they wanted it to be!

I mean, how many times do we do this! Obviously, it’s happening right now in the political arena in our country. But it also happens in every area of life. We resort to manipulation, deception, passive aggression, resentful treatment of each other in order to get our way. We make power moves and play these political games to fight over getting our share of the pie. This is human nature. Or, on the other hand, we want a savior, a messiah, who just goes and gets these things for us! Gives us what we want.

And finally, there is also the path that lets us check out altogether when it comes to concern for the kingdoms of this world. It’s a way that we look for escape, so that we can create our own separate, uncontaminated space in the world on the sidelines, where it’s safe from harm. It’s how we can sometimes mistakenly understand what it means to not be of the world — by looking to escape it.

Now, Pilate doesn’t seem too alarmed at first, when Jesus says he’s a King, because he doesn’t appear to be very threatening. He doesn’t have armed followers. He’s not talking about a political revolution. But then the religious leaders say that “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” Again, they’re playing the power game.

And then we’re told that Pilate becomes afraid. And when he asks them, finally, “shall I crucify your king?” What is there response? “We have no king but Caesar.”

The question that I think this poses to us is fairly straightforward: whose Kingdom are we living in? Because how easy is it, to want Jesus to be a king that looks more like Caesar? I mean do we not want that? Of course we do. We want Jesus to be in control, and in charge of everything that’s happening. We want him to command everyone’s attention and allegiance and worship because of how grand and majestic his works are on the earth. We want Palm Sunday, but without the donkey. Let’s put Jesus on a high horse!

Yeah, because what we don’t want… is the call that comes with citizenship in his kingdom. And that is the call to follow him. It makes me a think of story from earlier in the Gospels.

If you look in your booklet at the beginning in the section that walks you through the stations of the cross, I want to call your attention to two statements in the liturgy there. First the passage underneath the heating of the Fifth Station — the second half of that first paragraph.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels at all, you’ve probably heard these words from Jesus, so I’ll read them:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Stopping there for just a moment.. (Jesus says this in Mark 8, Matthew 14, Luke 9)

Jesus says this to Peter right after what’s called the transfiguration. It’s the turning point in Jesus’s public ministry.  He’s been teaching and healing people, and now he’s turning toward Jerusalem with a mission to go to the cross. But Peter doesn’t want him to do this, does he. What does Peter want. Peter wants to build an altar, a place of worship, to stay there and probably have some good church services every week in this sacred and holy place, where he can always be reminded of what happened and what he saw there, when God showed up in a powerful way. This is what the Temple had become!

But honestly, Jesus seemed much more interested in teaching people to follow him than to worship him. But I think what we actually learn from the passion narrative is that we are supposed to worship Jesus, and the way we do that, is by following him. We do not follow Jesus, by worshiping him, we worship Jesus by following him.

Ok but then look what it says after that: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now, this is not the next verse in any of these passages. Whoever worked to compile this liturgy pulled this verse, from a totally different place (three chapters earlier in Matthew 11). Which can be a little bit misleading, because as you’re reading this, you might think the verses are right next to each other in the Bible, but they’re not.

But actually, I think this is very good theology. See this is what theology does. It backs up a little bit from the zoomed up view, and tries to connect the idea in one revelation in Scripture, with another, and from what is often a very different place — one that might even seem to contradict the first one!! But it tries to then make sense of how the two can be part of one and the same  truth.

The truth is paradoxical, in this case. Y’all know what that means, if something is a paradox, right? It’s not a contradiction rather an apparent contradiction. In fact, there is a deep resonance between them! It’s like hitting a high and a low note on a musical instrument at the same time. As long as they’re in the same key, they be can octaves apart and still sound good together. And they can be different notes too! Because they make a chord! That’s what harmony does. The beautiful harmony that we enjoyed from the band last night and today.

Flip back one page now to the write-up for the First Station of the Cross in your bulletin to the prayer portion in the middle of the page — it’s the second paragraph. Halfway — about three lines down:

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Friends, this is the scandalous claim that the whole Christian faith hangs on: somehow, in mysteriousness of God’s wisdom and love, the way of the cross, is also the way of life and peace.

And we actually, like Peter, don’t like that. We don’t want it. We don’t really understand it. Most of the time we reject it. It scares us, it disturbs us… so we turn the cross into something else. We make it into a mechanism, and a means, rather than the path itself that we’re called onto.

We heard this last night too: when Jesus washes the disciples feet. Aren’t we supposed to wash Jesus’s feet?! This doesn’t make any sense. The God of all creation, comes to us, to serve and unconditionally give of himself.

This the good news of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Pilate has no way of understanding, because he lives in a world of fear and preoccupation with power and control. This is the world that God’s love subverts and undermines — not with worldly force, but with divine love, which, as the cross shows, is more powerful than worldly force. This is the way of the cross, and somehow, it brings peace and life. It feels like dying at first, and it is a kind of dying. But it’s what produces transformation.

There is no transformation without great love or great suffering. On the cross, Jesus embraces both, and calls us to be ready to do the same. That’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and that’s the good news.

Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.

More Atonement Talk: Some Clarification and Application

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 19, 2015.

According to its founding documents, Missio Alliance is committed to two things regarding the doctrinal issue of the atonement: 

[First, asking] what is God’s salvation in Christ in the world and how might we understand it in a way that honors substitutionary atonement yet places it within the whole context of God’s work to set the world right? [And second,] working out what this means for conversion and sanctification of the individual believer as well as his/her participation in the Mission of God in the whole world.”

It is in this spirit that I wrote my post “Payment or Forgiveness?: Putting the Gospel back into the Atonement.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t done to the satisfaction of some. In this post, I’m going to try to make a few clarifications concerning the push-back I have received, and then go on to consider the second task mentioned above, which is to say something about what this doctrine means on the ground for individuals and churches participating in God’s mission.

With respect to Michael Bird’s criticisms in particular, I plan to respond in more detail in the comments section of his post. As far as my own interaction with Bird and knowledge of his work, I listened to the Seminary Dropout interview with Bird about his latest book, which was great, and I recently enjoyed reading an older essay of his in a book about the authority of Scripture. But that is it. We do not know each other, and I sense that Bird read my post with a somewhat suspicious lens. I trust there are reasons for this, but, along with what was probably my own failure to disambiguate some things, I think this caused us to miss each other.   

At the same time, the subject of atonement is at the heart of evangelical and Christian identity, and despite my best efforts to write charitably, the argument in my post was unavoidably polemical.  It is therefore perfectly understandable that someone like Bird would offer a fairly spirited retort. However, Bird did not simply comment on my original post by asking pointed questions or seeking clarification on key issues. Instead, and in a manner that is consistent with the larger phenomenon of people talking past each other on the theological blogosphere, he made significant assumptions and rather sweeping judgments about both my thinking and Missio Alliance in general.

I would like to think our discourse could be a little less accusatory. Assume the best, you know? 

For instance, based solely on Bird’s response, one would think I was unreservedly recommending that everyone in the world should buy and read Tony Jones’ latest book! In actuality, all I did was note that Tony has recently written a book that also emphasizes the urgency of the atonement question. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the whole book yet, so I withheld any further evaluative remarks. So far though, in terms of critical responses, it does look like both Geoff Holsclaw and J.D. Kirk, to name two, have given fair-minded reviews of it.

So I do hope that there is less disagreement between Bird and I than his tone suggested. I also felt that he could have more seriously considered the last three paragraphs of my post, wherein I explicitly name the problem of assuming that “penal” texts (still hate that word!) are somehow self-interpreting. Bird is of course justified in calling attention to several passages that, following the usual evangelical view of them, raise difficulties for a non-penal view of substitution. I just don’t think the mere mentioning of these texts comes even close to settling the matter. The whole question about the logic of Trinitarian forgiveness remains outstanding, which was the primary impetus for my post to begin with. It’s hard not to detect an unspoken, fideistic hermeneutic underlying Bird’s rhetoric, and one that is locked in to a supra-textual line of reasoning. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the exchange and for Bird’s willingness to engage what I wrote. I also wonder whether some of the discrepancy here can be chalked up under the heading of “why biblical scholars and systematic theologians hardly ever get along.”

Atonement Further Clarified

There was a review of Simon Gathercole’s book Defending Substitution recently in First Things. He was another one of the New Testament scholars that Bird insisted people read before critiquing penal substitution, yet interestingly, Peter Leithart’s review actually says this about Gathercole’s position: “[Gathercole] makes it clear that he is not necessarily defending penal substitution (though he sees some support for it in 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. 73, fn 33).”

Indeed, while the Christus Victor and moral influence theories stand squarely within the rich heritage of Christian theology, I do believe the atonement has to be substitutionary[1]. According to a number of places in Scripture, the severity of sin does seem to require that Christ suffer a brutal death if humanity’s relationship with God is going to be reconciled. Christ died in our place, for and because of our sin. So whatever culpability the Romans, the Jewish leadership or the crowds had in the crucifixion as described by passion narratives, it was also a divinely orchestrated event.

Yes, Jesus died instead of us! He was divine, he was innocent, and he was righteous, so in him we have justification. This we believe, as Paul and the rest of the New Testament declares.

I simply think, however, that when punishment or payment language becomes the hinge upon which forgiveness swings, the formulation of penal substitution loses its deep theological coherence. Does God do violence to himself, in Christ, in order to forgive us? This is where I believe the intelligibility of penal substitution hits a wall. In other words, penal substitution breaks down when it’s not Trinitarian. [2] It’s easy for New Testament scholars to lose sight of the creedal forest while focusing on the textual trees. A thoroughgoing Trinitarian theology renders penal substitution contradictory at a certain point, namely, where God and Christ are pitted against each other as if they were somehow separate beings with separate wills. [3]

Atonement Proclaimed

Now, in the church’s witness to atonement, there are at least three tasks for the church. Exegesis (informed by biblical/situational context), theological interpretation (informed by reason, tradition, and the grand narrative of the Bible), and proclamation (informed by contemporary context). Exegesis alone will not get you straight to proclamation.

Secondly, the temptation is always looming to smuggle a transactional economy back into a grace-based relationship between God and the world.  Atonement theories are one of the sites where this is most likely to happen. The most frequent example I see of this comes in the form of telling people to love God or follow Jesus “because of what he did for us” or “because we owe him everything.” This is a true, and Scripture concurs in some cases, but ultimately the most compelling reason to love God and follow Jesus is not because we have to, but because we get to. Because we have freely come to see and trust that God’s love for us in Christ is true and good and beautiful in the first place, and that it holds all things together. This is why the logic of forgiveness through atonement, while not fully comprehensible, cannot be contradictory.  

Thirdly, context is everything. And not just New Testament context, but also contemporary context. We are far removed from the world of Second Temple Judaism, as well as the feudal judicial system of the Middle Ages. This does not mean that we are exempt from doing the hard work of understanding and interpreting the passages and theological traditions that have been handed down to us from these times and places, but it does mean that the way we preach the gospel today has to be, while not necessarily palatable, still relatable to modern sensibilities. There is nothing inherently “progressive” about this. Rather, it is driven by the on-going demands of faithful gospel-application in local church settings.

Atonement Embodied

Whatever disagreement we may still have about atonement theory, Bird and others like him will surely agree that atonement must be worked out on the ground in communities — where Christians are striving for unity amid differences and being brought together by the concrete, universal reconciliation and communion that is established by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, in the work of embodying this atonement in community, the church is called to forgive as God in Christ forgave us. This commitment to forgive, particularly for people of privilege, issues in a refusal to stop suffering, even for the sake of our enemies. We don’t get to demand payment even when it’s very hard not to. We don’t cry out for vengeance or retribution, even when it hurts us deeply not to. This is perhaps above all what it means for the church to be a community called atonement (a’la McKnight), and a community that is different from the world, for the sake of the world.  

Second, in embodying atonement, the church is called to put relationships before the law. Atonement literally means “to make one (again).” In order for this to make sense, one has to see the whole story in miniature. At the most primordial level, throughout the story of Israel, sin was more about breaking a covenant than a rule. Scot McKnight tells the story well:

Sin is a cracked relationship of otherness with God, with self, with others, and with the world.  The redemptive plan of the Bible is to restore humans into a oneness relationship with God, self, others, and the world.  This otherness problem is what the gospel “fixes,” and the story of the Bible is the story of God’s people struggling with otherness searching for oneness. (The Blue Parakeet, 72.)

In the atonement, God is the one who first put relationship before the Law. Now the Church gets to imitate that.

Finally, in embodying atonement, the Church is called to be in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in our midst. There is no atonement apart from this! Whether the reconciliation we are called to seek is across lines of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, nationality or class, people of atonement are people who enter into life with those whom society has demeaned or excluded in some way or another. This solidarity is expressed in neighborliness. At times, it may require resistance and advocacy, but only through relationships of mutual submission and that eschew patronizing hierarchies.

And most of all, solidarity and embodied atonement come together not just when we forgive, but when we are forgiven by each other — especially by those in whose oppression we have been complicit, even if unknowingly. The reconciliation of all things that Christ’s atonement inaugurates comes to completion only when these relationships are healed.  

So I’d love to know, how does this sit? What questions does this provoke? What angles or issues still need to be considered?

Endnotes:

[1] For the best theological treatise of a non-penal substitutionary theory of the atonement in the Western tradition, to my knowledge, I recommend Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theodramatics, (vol. IV in particular), which is arguably the greatest systematic theology of the 20th Century, along with Barth’s. I am currently writing a chapter in my dissertation on von Balthasar’s soteriology).

[2] Perhaps no one stressed this more in the European-American theological tradition than Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. The Patristic and classical tradition would have some questions for certain aspects of Moltmann’s theology, but one does not have to be a full-blown Moltmannian to appreciate his contribution.

[3] For a telling example of what I meant by “the most popular understanding of substitution,” I recommend this short sound bite from Acts 29 President and Village Church pastor, Matt Chandler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVpLCnpuUYA

Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 8, 2015.

By now it has become fairly common for many evangelicals to have expanded their understanding of the gospel to include the good news about the Kingdom of God, and about a new way of life that is made available in the Spirit because of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. This should be celebrated! And the message still needs to be proclaimed throughout our culture and the whole earth, for that matter, but it is really great that there has been some headway made on this front in many churches, thanks to scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others before and after them.

At the same time, a problem remains within these same evangelical circles concerning the way we think about the gospel. The “Kingdom-of-God critique” does succeed at making the gospel bigger and more contextualized. It reveals that the good news is for all of creation, and not just human beings, and it situates the story of Jesus within the larger history of Israel as its climax and completion. This is very good, but we still need more.

Because, despite this welcomed and necessary expansion of the good news, it is not fundamentally corrective enough. Which is why it has been picked up fairly easily and simply “added on” to the “forgiveness-of-sins-gospel” – what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel.” [1] It’s kind of like when preachers say, “The gospel isn’t just about going to heaven when you die.” To which everyone then replies in their minds, “well, sure, but if Jesus had to pay for my sins in order for God to forgive me, isn’t it still the most important part?” And based on that logic, the answer is “Yes, it is.” Which is why the logic itself has to be challenged. The question is, how is the forgiveness of sins understood in the first place?

Tony Jones has recently written a book entitled, Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. This is because Tony thinks that this is pretty much the most important question facing Christian theology right now, and I agree with him. Tony calls the dominant atonement theory in many churches the “payment model,” more commonly known as penal substitution. In this post I want to very briefly compare and talk about two ways of imagining a substitutionary model of the atonement. In short, what I think we need is a substitution model that isn’t penal. Because, for one thing, without substitution, I think we lose something central and essential when it comes to our reasons for being Christian altogether. And for another thing, “penal” sounds way too much like “penis.”

The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us – namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins. And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.

In an interview with Gary Moon a number of years ago, Dallas Willard said this about penal substitution: “It is true that human beings have sinned, and this sin is ultimately an offense against God. The question is how this can be set right.” [2] The problem with penal substitution, for Willard, is that it “presents God as someone who never [really] forgives.” Because “if you get off the hook, it’s because someone paid for it,” Willard explains – not because you were truly forgiven. It takes the gospel out of the gospel! If someone owes me a debt, and a friend pays it instead, I may very well decide to call it even, but that does not mean I have forgiven anything. In fact, the whole exchange has still taken place according to the law.

One of the most damaging outcomes of this kind of theology, in my experience, has been how it can lead people to feel, whether consciously or unconsciously, like God doesn’t really love them. Now, some well-known pastors in neo-reformed churches are fond of the rejoinder that God loves us exactly as we are right now – not some future version of us. True enough, but the theology of many of these preachers doesn’t jive with this statement. It would be more correct if they said, “God loves you just as you are right now, because when God looks at you, God sees Jesus – not you.” No wonder this logic can leave people afraid of God and moralistic in their practice of faith!

The other way to understand substitution, as “non-penal,” might go something like this: God is indeed grieved over our estrangement from right-relationship with him. God is angry when we hurt each other and when we idolize impermanent things. God’s love has been wounded, and for this God is rightfully “wrathful” toward our sin. But in God’s love through Christ, that sin is “paid for” by God simply eating the cost of it, so to speak — not by having someone else pay for it. This is not cheap grace. It still comes at a huge price to God. It is “paid” by God stepping in to take the blow that we are levelling against ourselves and against God. God does not kill Jesus. We do. Our sin and violence does. And the performative demonstration of this is the cross, which is the ultimate expression of injustice, alienation and betrayal of God and others. It is both the symbolic and the real history of what God has always already been willing to do, which is not to demand payment, but to incur the debt of sin into his own being. In this way the “debt” is vanquished.

I find the way Brian Zahnd has put it here to be illuminating: “At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives” (emphasis added) [3].

Of course, some will understandably ask where this alternative theory comes from in Scripture. And I would first point out that the payment model isn’t spelled out in Scripture either. It too is a theory. Many times when we read about sacrifice, ransom, the shedding of blood for forgiveness, or Christ’s “dying for our sins,” we assume we already know what is being said because we’ve been taught a particular theory as the one true meaning. So we aren’t able to hear anything different.

Secondly, a genuinely Trinitarian understanding of God is what allows for an enriched and more biblical, as well as more traditional, concept of grace and salvation. God in Christ (their agency can never be divided!) takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), to use John the Baptist’s words, and then converts it into a peace offering (John 20:21). This is actually what it means to be loving, to live life in the Spirit, and to live in the Kingdom of God: to become the kind of people who are able to transform for others what they cannot transform for themselves. All of their resentment, negativity, fear, and hate is consumed and swallowed up rather than reciprocated. And so God in Christ subsumes our evil and does not return it. By this we are enabled both to be freed from it, as well as to free others from it – which is also a good job description for the church!

But maybe nowhere in the Bible is forgiveness better illustrated than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When the younger brother abandons his family and asks to receive his inheritance only to go and squander it, the costliness of the father’s consent to this request is unimaginably high. The burning passion he must have felt against his son’s rebellion and dishonoring behavior was surely inexpressibly painful and enraging. And yet, at the center of all the conflict within the father’s heart remains an unconditional offer of forgiveness even before the son decides to return. What the return activates is simply the process of relational reconciliation, not the efficacy of payment for the debt that he owed. The father has already “paid” the debt with his love in all his time of waiting – love which is big enough to “satisfy” the sin and grievances of seventy times seven sons! Technically though, it is not payment of debt, as many of our praise songs would suggest, but forgiveness of debt. This difference makes all the difference.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/04/24/you-might-have-a-soterian-gospel-if-you/

[2] http://conversationsjournal.com/2010/04/getting-the-elephant-out-of-the-sanctuary/

[3] http://brianzahnd.com/2014/04/dying-sins-work/

Seeing Truth after Modernity in the Gospel of John

[This post appeared first on the Missio Alliance blog here.]

This last month I started teaching a class at our church called “Jesus in John.” In surprising ways, I’m finding that the season of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection is especially brought to life by the fourth Gospel. Immersing myself in a study of John again has alerted me to how much I’ve sometimes let the biases of modern scholarship creep into my thinking about Jesus’ teachings and self-understanding. In spite of all the light that historical criticism may shed on what we can confidently say about the biographical details of Jesus’ life, I’m reminded of the extent to which a focus on merely measurable truth can seriously limit our imagination and capacity for perceiving truly human and transcendent truth.

In the passion narrative of John’s Gospel, Pilate infamously asks, “What is truth?” I say he “asks,” but it is hard to know if Pilate is really asking anything. Does Jesus simply refuse to respond, or is John taking us into Pilate’s inner monologue? Pilate is conflicted. He has no measurable reason for believing the claim that Jesus has been given authority that is greater than the Emperor’s. In the end, for Pilate, the truth of power wins out against the weak truth of his own blurry vision of Jesus, who for John is truth made visible, because he reveals the Father (1:18).

Philosophy in the so-called postmodern age is perhaps most notorious for exposing the troubled relationship between truth claims and power plays. This has thankfully opened our eyes to much of Western history’s dark underside. Without fully realizing it, however, I think it has also lured many of us into a place of suppressed cynicism — Christians and non-Christians alike.

One of the most distinguishing markers of the age we live in is the weakened confidence we have to place in truth that is knowable beyond the political and the material. As I try to observe what matters most to people, and even people in church — based on what they are willing to put their time, money and energy toward — it is clearly those things which are likely to ensure material success that take precedent. Obviously, I often succumb to the same thing, but what I notice as a pastor is the absence of trust in the reality of a different kind of life that is available to us. We sing about it, we sort of hope for it, and we maybe even feel a longing for it, but we don’t ultimately believe in it. I know there are many reasons for this, but one that jumps out to me is a loss, or at least a limit, of language that can speak faith well after modernity. This may be where John can help.

There is a deep connection in John between the truth as something in which we place our trust, and as something which we have to let ourselves get put into a position to “see.” Seeing and knowing are interchangeable, and both words have a double-meaning for John’s Jesus. Many of the people who see Jesus and even witness what he does remain fixated on only that which is immediately visible and materially knowable. Nicodemus asks, “how can someone be born when they are old?” (3:4) The woman at the well tells Jesus to “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty…” (4:15). They do not yet perceive what Jesus is re-presenting to them. The profoundly aesthetic dimension of truth to which Jesus points escapes their notice. They are still thinking and seeing with eyes “from below” — that is, in terms of the material and the political.

John is not belittling the material and the political though. Rather, the evangelist is going to great lengths to show how Jesus validates and re-sacralizes it, “from above” (“The words I say to you, I do not speak by my own authority” (12:49)), by coming into it. He does this by engaging the political not with concern for securing his material well-being, but by witnessing to and imaging God’s alternative, wise (“Logos”) order.

God’s wise order shines light in the darkest places of our corrupted orders, but people still hide from it. They refuse to let it in. It is only when these two orders are placed right next to each other that we begin to see both of them for what they are. This is how truth gets revealed: when the real ugliness of how the world is gets honestly disclosed by the beauty of what it can be. Then, by way of what the radiant form of Christ makes known and visible, those with eyes to see respond by refusing to disbelieve in the world’s redeemability.

Modernity gave us confidence in the truth of what can be measured. This truth is not insignificant. But measurable truth does not offer freedom. Measurable truth does not bring wholeness. Measurable truth cannot restore.

 The highest kind of truth is not measurable. But nor is it merely hoped for, forever deferred and always “to come.” The typical postmodern view of truth might go something like this: we see traces and glimpses of truth, and we taste it in unexpected ways. It touches us, but then it leaves. We never really see it. We can’t point to it and say, “there it is.” Meaning itself, therefore, is undefineable, or at most very malleable. The aim and quest for truth, meaning and redemption is too weak to reach across the distance between us and that which we think we love, desire or are searching for. The best we can manage is authenticity, but authenticity about “we do not really know what.” So we’re left with an irreducible plurality of possible meanings. And that’s it. There’s no approachable meaning outside the constructed one, and again, we’re forced back down to the power plays of the political and the material.

By contrast, we must search for a faith, not that rejects, but that transcends the postmodern impasse. This is the all-important difference between a pre-critical and post-critical posture toward truth, which is similar to the difference between what Paul Riceour called the first and second naïveté, the latter of which is our “wish to be called again,” beyond the rational desert of criticism — not for fear of criticism, but because we believe there is something glorious that still remains after criticism.

If there is a deficiency in our reception of the revealed truth of the gospel, as postmodernity might insist, it is not because fulfillment is lacking, but rather because it comes to us in excess. The good news of the resurrection overwhelms us by its proliferation of meanings, its radiance of beauty, and its surplus portion of goodness.

For postmodern thought, the truth is something totally other that cannot be present or presented, because it has not been seen, and has not come. What we lay hold of as Christians, however, is the promise, the testimony, and even the experience, that truth has indeed been seen, and has indeed come. This does not mean truth is stuck in past or future-tense, but that it can be seen with the eyes of faith, and that it is we who make it visible, illuminating it by the splendor of the One who, though crucified, lives again, and offers to us the resurrection life even now.

Sources:

-John D. Caputo, “Apostles of the impossible: on God and the gift in Derrida and Marion,” in God, the gift, and postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 199.

-Jean-Luc Marion, Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud. In Excess: Studies in Saturated Phenomena (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 34.

-Paul Ricoeur. The Symbolism of Evil. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 349.

-N.T. Wright on The Work of the People: “Truth Happens.” http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/truth-happens

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live with a higher sense of identity and purpose.

Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, reading from the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.

The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians. Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.

The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic well-being.

Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose

Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.

For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.

One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a resurrection people?

The Resurrection Life

There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:

  1. First, against tribalism, God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our ways of doing things. So who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
  2. Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals uncritically supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, which led to the killing of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be much more egregious than we normally realize.
  3. And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.

So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life, is what it means to be truly human.

Naturalism is not Enough: Or, Why Transcendence is not the Problem

[This blog post originally appeared at HomebrewedChristianity.com, and was written in response to the podcast linked below. LeRon Shults graciously responded on his website, and we continued to dialogue in the comments section there.]

There has been a great discussion in the comment section of the latest TNT episode where Tripp talks with LeRon Shults and Barry Taylor, both of whom I admire. Shults defends a form of radical theology and at one point even uses the term “atheist” to describe himself. His ontology is a strictly “naturalistic” one. It reminds me of Kester Brewin’s recent criticism of Rob Bell’s benevolent conception of the universe. Several people commenting in response to the conversation have asked why process philosophy or theology isn’t more attractive to Shults, or why it doesn’t pass the science test. This is a great question and a discussion worth having, but I want to make another observation.

atheismIn the podcast, Shults characterizes religion or traditional theism as basically any belief in an infinite, disembodied agent or intentional force that authorizes an in-group. So for him there is an intimate and intrinsic relationship between “God” and “my tribe.” I think this is generally true, and sociology of religion seems to confirm it.

Because of this, for Shults, religion, or belief in God, frequently serves to reinforce prejudices of various kinds, and so should be rejected as inherently problematic or even antithetical to the advance of anything like the common good for society — or at least that’s how I interpret him. (Admittedly, I have read some of Shults’ earlier work, but here I am drawing only on the recorded conversation, and not from his books, which is probably a little unfair.) Shults does not preclude the possibility that religion can by contrast at times promote the common good, but he seems to suggest that when it does this — whether intellectually, activistically or mystically — the ianti-monotheism1nfinite, disembodied agent or intentional force-dimension to religion remains only superfluous if not an impediment. We can strive for justice, peace, the good, etc., without any transcendent referent, he would say. So Shults encourages us to “go all the way” with our criticism and not stop short at the boundary of “orthodoxy,” “theism,” or whatever. And this is the main part of his position that I want to question.

First of all though, while it was only a brief summary in the podcast, I think Shults conflates Christian mysticism with another kind of Christian intellectualism that simply appeals to mystery when it hits an intellectual wall. That is not Christian mysticism. Shults probably knows this, but this characterization makes sense given how much Shults has studied Pannenberg, who was hardly a mystic. A theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar, for instance, who constructs his epistemology primarily on the basis of aesthetics and narrative, rather than on modern, foundationalist grounds, does not have this problem (Callid’s interview with Cecilia Gonzales-Andrieu highlights this difference well). That is, for Christians like Balthasar, the truthfulness of Christ’s beauty and goodness neither depends on nor contradicts empirical verification. And with regard to Christian mysticism — not unlike mysticism in other religions — it is about non-dual thinking and union with the divine through transformation of the mind into a less egocentric consciousness. Such a life vision is not some new idea that can be tried on for size until one becomes “post-mystical.” It takes months and years of practicing spiritual disciplines to see any fruit.

Secondly though, as one who tends to fall more into the activistic or liberationist camp in my own thinking, my counter-claim to Shults, or any other atheistic theology, is this: what stands in the way of the common good for society is not humanity’s belief in an infinite or transcendent, disembodied intentional agent. What stands in the way are people in general who want authorization of their in-group in the first place.

Most human beings live with and derive meaning from transcendent or absolute horizons. Pannenberg says as much in his anthropology. This may be too universalistic of a statement, but there’s pretty good evidence for it. The key question then isn’t whether, but what kind of transcendent horizon we are talking about. This insight is not original of course. Tillich and others have essentially said the same thing. Religion is merely the byproduct of the fundamental human tendency to make some-thing an ultimate concern. In other words, what is the ultimate good that informs and directs a people’s living and organizing? That is religion.

The Free Market, for example, is one such transcendent horizon or ultimate good. The difference is, it’s a transcendent horizon claiming a total immanence that nothing else can transcend. This was Tripp’s point in the discussion. So Hardt and Negri make their infamous case in Empire about the triumph of global capitalism, whose “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance of the nation-state subtly but no less powerfully reigns now in place of modern, national sovereigns. If Karl Schmidt’s Political Theology deified the sovereignty of the state, today we’ve done the same with the Market.

In their book Beyond the Spirit of Empire, Rieger, Miguez and Sung actually argue that the ideology of the Free Market is not transcendent enough. It is in fact atheistic. Its utopia is too weak, and so it closes off other options that might imagine a world where sacrificing the well-being of major segments of the population for the benefit of a few isn’t tolerated. For these authors — two of whom are bringing non-Western and post-colonial perspectives to the fore — to renounce transcendence, even in the name of good things, is to be left with no standpoint for a radical critique of history.

Christians confess that Jesus is somehow the immanence and the human embodiment of the Transcendent. Based on what Christians believe Jesus reveals about God, then, the danger is not, I submit, belief about the existence, intention or agency of God, so much as the disembodiment of these beliefs. I’m reminded here of this great Pete Rollins’ bit on denying the resurrection (– by not practicing it!). Because if Jesus is the full embodiment of this infinite agent’s intention, then the manner of his embodiment is always contrary to the “authorization of in-groups.” In fact, it should always un-authorize in-groups. The only thing more potentially empowering than eradicating a transcendent referent is to say that the Transcendent identifies with the excluded and oppressed peoples of the earth. I know this is a bold faith move that sometimes feels like wishful thinking, but unlike imperialistic depictions of God, it has the unique advantage of not being very convenient for the dominant and leisure classes of the world. Furthermore, if Jesus’ way isn’t ontologically authorized, from whence does resistance to in-group thinking come? Preference? Intuition? Reason? Buddhism?

LeRon Shults has obviously thought about his position very carefully and over a long period of time, so I’m not accusing him of reactionary thinking. And again, maybe it all comes back to science for him. I just have a hard time understanding how science makes the idea of an infinite, disembodied, intentional force so necessarily problematic, unless a scientific discourse is either confused with or unduly privileged over a metaphysical one. More importantly, I fail to see why atheism, full immanence, etc., is any more compelling than a transcendent theology that challenges prejudices and calls for an embodied abolition of insider-outsider ideology. This is exactly what a “Jesus religion” should do — abolish insider-outsider ideologies. And we don’t have to stop praying and reading the Bible, or believing in God to do it.