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Must God Be Violent?: A Diagnosis & Prescription for Modern Christianity

Preachingpeace.org
March 2003

It seems to us that the modern American Church is becoming increasingly ineffective as a witness to the Gospel, and is often even a handicap. In this essay, we’d like to explore what we believe to be the most basic reasons behind this. If we are not to become bogged down in detail (something the Internet just won’t sustain) we know that it’s necessary to paint with a broad stroke of the brush, and that this has its risks. Nonetheless, we believe the effort worthwhile, and that there is a light to be seen at the end of the tunnel (and it isn’t an oncoming train!).

Readers of preachingpeace.org have seen how the integration of mimetic theory and theology creates the conditions for a real hearing, because a real telling, of the gospel. As we see it, modern humanity is faced with one simple question: “Must God be violent?” What if, in fact, we were to come face to face with the Creator and find out that our only experience is that of love and forgiveness?

We see the beginnings of a huge and necessary shift beginning in the Church’s understanding of the task of “following Jesus.” As the sciences have embraced what the Church has always known as “mystery” (the real existence of things that exceed our capacity to explain them) so also our theology is beginning to emerge from the lifelessness of the utilitarianism (functionalism/rationalism?) within which it has often been trapped. In addition, readers of Preaching Peace have seen that mimetic theory/anthropology helps to create a new place within which to hear, really hear, the Gospel, because it makes it possible to tell the Gospel in new language.

As we see it, the modern Church is faced with a simple question: “Must God be violent?” We hope to show how our understanding of “following Jesus” must change for the Church to reclaim its evangelical message and task in our time. Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, Mennonites, the Bruderhof communities, Bonhoeffer, Oswald Chambers, the Blumhardts, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II and many others have much to tell us about this business of following Jesus. Following Jesus always and everywhere means following in peace, in love, in forgiveness, in healing, in truth. He is no different today than he was when he walked around the land of his time. “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

It may seem a bit strange to suggest that the church has all but forgotten that Jesus reveals what the Creator is like, but we believe that it has, in many places. The gospel becomes an affront to us when it calls into question our religion, our faith and our spirituality. But when we look closely, we discover that we are still in the business of making Jesus in our own image. In so doing we conform the story of Jesus and the revelation of the Creator’s love to the mimetic scapegoating mechanism.

What the Gospel asks of us is a radical change in our thinking. We ought not to be surprised about this, for our current political crisis and our modern penchant for self-destruction is partially rooted in an earlier radical change of thinking.

The end of the twentieth century has seen the decline of virtually all institutions that constitute modern civilization. The crisis of confidence in traditional systems has eroded significantly as we enter this new millenium. Governments and Churches have been primary targets, but on a smaller level, the family has also suffered. This small unit has crumbled under the looming costs of living in modern society. The economy is the big issue of the day, and polls show our diminishing confidence in the markets and corporate America. The larger family of nations is in disarray during our Lenten season, reminding us of the way that its predecessor, the League of Nations, collapsed.

In the face of these crises, we reaffirm that as hearers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, our concern is specifically with that institution known as the Christian Church, and more specifically with the preaching of the gospel that has been entrusted to her. However, the relation between this gospel and modern theology remains a bit of a mystery. There are so many opinions on so many questions from so many different types of people that a coherent whole is difficult to find. Responses, books, journals and dissertations (and now web sites) proliferate like rabbits.

Modern theology is like a mirror that has shattered on the floor of the twentieth century. Each shard of the mirror shatters into smaller and smaller pieces in the crash. To put it another way, too many students of theology seem to have lost the forest for the trees. This has occurred because the overwhelming development of information has encouraged greater and deeper sub specialties. The sheer mass of theological opinion that has been produced in the twentieth century alone has passed the point of no return. There is far more ‘information’ out there than anyone could possibly assimilate in a lifetime.

The field of theology is therefore relegated to specialists, whose claim on their territory is “in depth knowledge” of one small patch of land. They are not unaware that they are surrounded by a vast wilderness of the unknown, but this seems to inspire little humility. Only stray into their patch and they will happily tell you all about it. Whether in biblical studies, church history, or theology, experts abound, but we must not mistake them for prophets. It may be that their research illumines our understanding, but knowledge (gnosis/scientia) is not Lord in the church.

In the context of the Gospel that constitutes and enables the Christian community to bear witness to Jesus in thought, word and deed, there is only one Lord, Jesus of Nazareth whose story we know from the New Testament. Jesus you say? Which Jesus?

The avid reader of historical Jesus research in the twentieth century would have to say that no matter how you slice it, we all eventually remake Jesus in our own image. Our acceptance of Schweitzer’s judgement on the liberal lives of Jesus research of the nineteenth century has become our own modern day theological epitaph. In seeking to “fit the gospel to our situation” we project our own needs: Jesus as Sage for the University professors, Jesus as Spiritual Warrior for holiness groups, Jesus as Revolutionary for the marginalized, Jesus the Path to True Success for the middle class and the hits just keep on coming. These Christologies all have one thing in common; they are all fundamentally dualistic in orientation.

Philip Lee has analyzed the religious situation in North America and has come to solid and prophetic conclusions regarding our religious heritage; it is fundamentally Gnostic in character (Against The Protestant Gnostics). The significance of this book is that Lee is able to make a compelling case for the identity of shared fundamental presuppositions occurring in ancient Gnosticism and modern American religious life. It is a startling book in many ways and calls for a theological repentance. The framework of most theological discussions, he says, is conducted on and under dualistic premises. From the start, therefore, the theological answers that are found cannot help but be dualistic because the questions themselves arise from a dualistic worldview.

Lee argues that both liberal and conservative traditions imbibe from the same fountain, that they both share identical presuppositions. According to current standards, the dividing line across the spectrum of Christianity is no longer Protestant/Catholic; it is one’s ideological position that determines the efficacy of one’s faith. The mimetic character of the conflict is painfully visible in the harangues and epithets thrown back and forth across the battle lines. Perhaps, in a worst-case scenario, this will eventually affect the local congregation, where church members will aggressively deride others of different persuasion, but thankfully, for most, that time has not arrived.

Helmut Thielicke (The Evangelical Faith), places this dualism in the context of the debates initiated by Descartes and further supports the idea that that many of the problems that exist in modern Christianity stem from questions asked long ago, questions now seen in the light of mimetic theory as dualistic. In short, the shock wave originating in the Renaissance and logarithmically multiplying in the Enlightenment has finally crashed upon the shores of our day to day religious life like a tsunami. The modern Church finds itself to be steadily decreasing in its value to the world. Witness the treatment the White House gave the papal emissary this past week (March 2003).

Why is this so? There is in the churches plenty of ‘God-talk” but really very little ‘Jesus-talk.’ We may recite the Creed, but we do it in an Arian way; we treat the Father and Son as though they were separate. The modern approach asks the question “Is Jesus like God?” but the question asked in the gospels is the opposite, “Is God like Jesus?” to which they answer with a hearty “Yes!” Jesus exhibits the character of the Creator as a human person.

The revelatory capacity of the story of Jesus as we read both great literature and the Bible in the light of mimetic theory remains a vein of gold which has only been tapped at its surface. One of the beautiful things about living in the times in which we live is that out there in all of this expanding information base, there are paths upon which light shines. We believe that the Fourth Gospel names that light as the glory of God reflected in the Cross of Christ.

The split that has occurred in too many traditions between theology and spirituality is a direct result of our modern Semi-Arian belief. Theology is fundamentally about life, about both our experience and understanding of transcendence. Neither one grounds the other; rather we hold them in relation to one another (like modern physics does with particle/wave measurements). The same is true in the way that we understand the relationship between knowledge and imagination. We don’t mix ‘em, we don’t separate ‘em either. Maybe we are a little Chalcedeonian here but when we fail to have a dialectic epistemology we cannot not have either a true anthropology or a true theology.

Modern American Evangelicalism is a good witness to the problems inherent in doing theology dualistically. Its publication houses keep Sunday School teachers busy and church and pastoral libraries full. That should occasion no surprise. Within Evangelicalism there rages an intellectual/anti-intellectual conflict. But, there is a surprising commonality to all of this conversation that remains unknown to the participants. What is this common denominator? Every single in house debate within Evangelical circles can be traced to implicit acceptance of Augustinian presuppositions (or in some cases active defense of them).

It is fashionable in Evangelical circles to trace lineages back through American church history to Europe and the Reformation in complete unawareness of the fact that they were stamped by the past with a sacrificial ideology. The benefits of the work of Luther, Calvin, Melancthon, Menno and many others are many and varied. But the real division that occurred at the time of the Reformation was not between Lutherans and Calvinists or even Catholics and Protestants. The real division came with the Radical Reformation and its rejection of Constantinian/Augustinian influence on the gospel. Both Catholics and Magesterial Protestants held firmly to Augustine in particular, inasmuch as he was the main authority for much of Catholic theology and the Magisterial Reformers were desirous of being perceived as the true expression of the Christian church.

As we have pointed out elsewhere (Michael Hardin: Violence: Rene Girard & The Recovery of Early Christian Perspective), Augustine, great saint that he was, was terribly influenced by dualism. Augustine may have laid the foundation for Christian (sic) culture, but it is not the city of God. As is necessary in dualist religious thinking, Augustine builds on victims.

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The most significant modern thinker to begin the process of overcoming the problem of Augustinian dualism in contemporary theology was Karl Barth. Barth’s marginalization in North America is due to scholars treating Barth as though he were critically naïve. This is not at all true. Thomas Torrance has shown again and again in his reading of Barth that Barth’s epistemology is at one with that of the modern physical sciences. For Barth, the joy that was the discipline of theology arose from its subject, God for us in Jesus Christ. The place of the knowing subject conditions and is conditioned by the knowable object who is not object in se, but true subject. The so-called subject-object split is an illusion. Barth saw more clearly than anyone since Athanasius that there is no whole knowledge of God apart from that given in Jesus Christ. All other knowledge only bears witness for or against this.

Up to this point we have argued that contemporary American Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism has more in common with the heritage of dualism than with our encounter of God in Jesus Christ. This is why it appears that the vast group of churchgoers in this country has a relationship with ‘God’ but do not appear to exhibit the character of God (as revealed in Jesus Christ) in their lives. We continue to perpetuate this discontinuity if we, as preachers of the gospel, do not undergo a thorough self-examination of the dualism(s) in our own theological thinking, and repent of them.

There are several pillars that uphold contemporary theological dualism and act as a warrant for sacrificial theology. They are:

1. A docetic view of Scripture
2. A docetic Christology
3. An unhealthy atonement theory
4. A retributive eschatology

As we noted at the beginning of our essay, the growing unease with institutional authority has, in its beginnings, a challenge to the Scripture used by the churches to warrant their actions. The current undermining of the authority of Western institutions would not be possible if not for the fundamental shift in human understanding regarding self-autonomy from the late Middle Ages on. One cannot imagine the social contract without such a displacement of ‘traditional’ authority, where authority is shifted from king to people. The current crisis in the churches stems from the people in the pews constantly having to choose between two models: that of the divine authority of Scripture and the authority bequeathed to them by society. Isn’t it true that clergy too often tiptoe in their sermons so as not to ‘offend’ the pew sitters?

Unfortunately, one part of the Church has entrenched itself behind an indefensible bulwark, which in actuality is a theoretical cover for sacrificial thinking. Namely, the inerrancy of Scripture. The bumper sticker syllogism: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” aptly expresses the popular understanding of the authority of Scripture. To those not used to placing literature in context, reading the Bible is just the practice of free association but with divine warrant. The biblical text is lifted from history and is used to promote a dualist sacrificial theology. This is a docetic move (inasmuch as it is a-historical) and it bodes ill for the church (The Biblical Testaments as a Marriage of Convienence [a paper we’ll be putting up on the site soon]).

On the other side, there are those who, having experienced higher education, see the nooks and crannies of the biblical writings and all of its warts and conclude that while God may be perfect, Scripture is not, therefore, Scripture’s revelatory capacity is reduced to religious expression. While this may not seem docetic it is, inasmuch as the proliferation of opinions and a false ecumenism levels all forms of religious expression. This leveling makes of Jesus a cipher or symbol, just another expression of religious phenomenon. This allows one to deftly put off following Jesus because he remains essentially unknown. And of course, the modern quest for the historical Jesus bankrupts the four gospels when it insists on separating the story of Jesus from that of Jesus’ activity as Spirit in the church.

Knowledge, as Michael Polanyi has shown, is personal (The Tacit Dimension). In excellent fashion, this personal character of knowledge is given narrative rationale when reading Scripture by Norman Wright (The New Testament & The People of God). This preoccupation with narrative, important as it is, is not really modern but quite ancient. Humans are storytellers. If, on the one hand, we must take into account academic discourse on God, we must also take our own experience and framing of that experience into account. Trust in the apostolic witness is a faith activity, which can be expressed through rational discourse, but which is not exhausted by such

This ‘trustful’ reading of Scripture attends to both history and imagination brought together in the gospel. The locus of the revelatory aspect of the gospel is seen precisely in the forgiving character of Jesus as he hung dying. The choice to reflect the Creator abba even and especially at this point boggles the human mind. From this view, the view from below, the view from the cross, one learns that there are multiple pluralities of mythological readings, but a singularity of hearing in the gospel.

Our view of Scripture is our interpretation of Scripture. Christians may have a high view of Scripture, or they may have a low view of biblical authority, but if they interpret Scripture sacrificially, they remain in the realm of the mythological. Our view of Scripture is not as near as important as the hermeneutic we practice. When it is used to bear false witness against God, it is its most pernicious. If Jesus reveals the character of the Creator by the choice to hear and allow his person and life to be a witness to the Creator, then it behooves us to question those elements of our faith, theory and practice, that are contrary to the person and mission of Jesus.

This brings us to our second point. The most significant place the churches need to rethink their preaching and teaching is the second pillar of dualistic theology, the problem of a docetic Christology. So much could be said here and examples multiplied. We will again remind the reader that we are using rather broad brushstrokes.

Ask yourself this question: How do I experience and/or understand the presence of God? Now ask yourself this question: How did Jesus experience/understand the presence of God in his life?

It may immediately be objected that the gospels cannot be used for biographical data about Jesus. We concur, to a point. However, we would observe that there is a consistent spirituality embodied and taught in all four gospels. Within the realm of the academy it is may be difficult to demonstrate such a viewpoint. But the academy, for all of its wonderful research, is not the home of the Living Christ. That vocation belongs to the Church.

But what happens when the church flattens out Scripture, when it is treated all the same? The popular conception of the inspiration of the Bible means that the Spirit is outside us residing in the text. The text is then viewed through a legal or moral lens and the church easily falls into the mimesis of legalism. More so, we assume that we know who God is or what God is like, but confess that Jesus remains a bit of a mystery to us. Talk about starting out on the wrong foot.

[Starting out on the right foot are Dietrich Ritschl’s Memory and Hope and The Logic of Theology. The latter spells out what shape a systematic theology might take when freed of its dualistic presuppositions. The former and much earlier work provides the christological foundation. Another excellent foray into non-dualist thinking is provided by a team of Lutheran scholars in the two volume Christian Dogmatics. We might also point out that it doesn’t matter where you start, Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright achieves the goal of a non-dualist approach from a liturgical perspective in Eucharist & Eschatology and Doxology.
This brief bibliographic excursion is intended to provide some sense that it is possible to see a real change occurring in theology over the last 50 years. How has the church preached and taught a docetic Christology? In Evangelical or Catholic circles, Jesus is different from the rest of us by virtue of the belief that he was the son of God. He was sinless. He was born of a virgin, He was perfect, He was the Son of God. He was different. By degrees Jesus’ humanity is further and further diminished until he is just an otherworldly hero.]

How does such thinking permeate the church? It occurs (gulp!) in our worship. It has been demonstrated what the effects of docetism were to the Christian liturgy. Joseph Jungmann points to the separation of the Son from humanity, particularly seen in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. It was at this time that liturgical prayer shifted from prayer to the Father through the Son in/by the Spirit to petitioning the Father and the Son in/by the Spirit (The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer).

At about the same time that the Christian religion gets social legitimacy, the church begins to abandon a commitment to peace. The difference between the Christian God and all the other gods becomes one of degree not kind. And so the church begins the process of looking more and more like an institution of culture and not the Body of Christ.

The more that Jesus is divinized by us, the greater will be our penchant to substitute other human figures. Peter Brown has shown this in his many books on Christianity and Late Antiquity as he explores the rise of ‘the cult of the saints.’ In modern America, the gap is filled with our heroes, particularly those who have been victims of random violence, especially those who perished September 11, 2001, and now those who have sacrificed their lives in Iraq.

Docetism separates Christianity from Judaism. When the human Jesus, his history, his people, his time and his place are denigrated, when Judaism is rejected, that is clear evidence of docetism. The Jewish Shoah (Holocaust) is as important an event to modern Christianity as was the destruction of the Temple to the early church. It is simply impossible to do Christian theology without reference to what happened. The recovery of the Jewishness of Jesus this past hundred years has been the true benefit of historical scholarship.

Our contemporary docetism has blinded us to the calling we have received in the gospel to be authentically human, thus authentically like Jesus, the redeemer and restorer of our humanness before God to ourselves. And so we reduce following Jesus to the study of Jesus’ ethics. Worse, we make Jesus out to be the legislator of a new and improved morality. It is impossible to separate Jesus’ ethics from his spirituality, to share the ethic(s) of Jesus one must also share a spiritual pilgrimage. The gospels may not be biographies and they may never satisfy historians, but as the documents of one person’s spiritual journey, they are without peer.

Further evidence of the influence of docetism, the stripping away of the humanity of Jesus, can be seen in our appropriation of the planet’s resources and our attitude and orientation to the natural world. Way too much evidence can be produced for anyone to imagine that the planet is in good shape. Maybe as far as planets go, it is in good shape, but as a habitation for humanity, it is on its last legs. We have slowly been poisoning and butchering and raping the creation. We are daily wiping out entire eco-systems somewhere on the planet, mostly in the name of freedom; economic freedom, free markets, etc. Why have we done this? In losing Jesus’ humanity, we lose our own and are thus unable to live with the creation from which we are made. And our view of the natural world as wilderness, foreboding, dark and capricious testifies to our unreconciled relationship with the creation.