My Guest Post for Preston Yancey – “Towards Faith, Hope, and Love”

Today I’m guest posting for a blogger named Preston Yancey! Check it out, and follow the link for the whole piece:

Like so many others whose faith suffered in their twenties, mine was birthed during my time at college – specifically at a Bible university. I graduated with a degree in theology, and in the meantime almost lost my faith entirely. Most of my ‘education,’ if you can call it that, consisted of attempted indoctrination. I was taught the tenets of my school’s particular denomination. In the majority of my classes, legitimate questions about the weakness of our denomination’s theological positions were squashed in favor of ‘keeping the faith.’ We wouldn’t want those with weaker faith to stumble, would we?

http://prestonyancey.com/blog/2013/11/anonymous

A Progressive, Cruciform Hermeneutic

Today I am posting over at the One Theology blog. Here’s a snippet (check out the rest after the jump):

As Christians, I think we must find the answer in the crucified Christ. When we confess fidelity to Christ, we join Paul in saying “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Moltmann says, “There is an inner criterion of all theology, and of every church which claims to be Christian, and this criterion goes far beyond all political, ideological, and psychological criticism from outside. It is the crucified Christ himself” (The Crucified God, 2). Fidelity to the Event of the God who stooped to the depths of human existence and suffering must directly affect our reading and interpretation of the words we deem inspired.

http://onetheology.com/2013/10/03/a-progressive-cruciform-hermeneutic/

 

Saved from Sacrifice // Review Conclusion

This post is the final post in a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

I have greatly enjoyed reviewing S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. The book’s thesis has honestly been paradigm-shifting for me, particularly in my view of God, orthodox Christianity, and my understanding of the atonement. Since finishing it, I have come to read Scripture in a completely different light, and a lot of things that didn’t make sense before I read the book began to click for me afterwards.

In the final two chapters in the book Heim focuses on Revelation/apocalypse and its relation to the Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement, and then sums up the premise in a final chapter.

 

Apocalypse

Heim opens up the chapter on Revelation with a verse from Hebrews: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27).

This particular quote reveals Heim’s understanding of Revelation and apocalypse in the Christian tradition in relation to scapegoating sacrifice.

The beauty of this scapegoating theory – that sacrifice is unhinged by the Crucifixion and Resurrection – is also a curse. While sacrifice is an evil that should be abolished, the problem lies in the fact that sacrifice works. I.e., our societies are able to function because sacrificial scapegoating serves as a solution to conflict in the community. But what happens when the sacrificial system is dismantled by Jesus’ sacrifice, yet the society does not create a new path of reconciliation? Heim says, “Our societies  can hardly live without the old myths of sacrifice and their updated versions, yet our awareness  of their victimization of the innocent drains their capacity to reestablish peace among us” (263).

It is this dissonance (humans attempt to use scapegoating, despite the knowledge of its inherent evil) that helps bring about apocalypse because the previous ‘release valve’ becomes increasingly ineffective. In other words, conflict continues to build within a community without the possibility of true reconciliation in some way. “The social world implodes of its own weight” (264). With this misunderstanding of Jesus’ sacrifice, the world falls apart in a similar manner to the type of apocalypse we see in the Gospels.

Another way apocalypse occurs is via a second misunderstanding of the abolishing of scapegoating violence. Instead of simply recognizing the evils of scapegoating but offering no solution, victimization is recognized, but the injustice done to scapegoats “becomes a charter for an unrestrained tide of righteous wrath against their oppressors” (ibid.). Much like some of the extreme liberation theologies of the twentieth century or the kind of Marxism or communism that wages war on behalf of the victimized class, this misunderstanding leads to the kind of apocalypse we see in the final battles of Revelation.

Heim warns us here that, while the unveiling of the myth of ‘good’ sacrifice can be a good  thing, it can also bring humanity to an even more violent place. Heim (and Christ!) implores us to take a hard look at how we respond to the Christ Event and live in response to it:

Where is the legacy of the cross in all this? In an empirical sense it is both a wrench in the works of sacrifice and a spotlight on the practice of scapegoating. This can have negative effects, making sacrifice more bloody when we persist in it, or turning our awareness of victims into an absolute conflict with those we identify as their persecutors. But the most basic saving social effect of the cross is to disrupt all our unanimities, sacrificial or apocalyptic (290).

Conclusion

Heim’s closing chapter is virtually a summary of everything discussed before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

The point of his writing seems to hinge on two major issues. First, based on what Rene Girard has to say about culture, myth, and sacrifice, it is imperative that we attempt to understand the function of sacrifice in our societies and how this relates to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. If we misunderstand sacrifice (e.g., that perhaps it is ‘good’ or God-ordained), then we miss the point of the cross, which is to break the system of sacrifice by revealing Christ as a victim. Second, and related to the first point, when we misunderstand sacrifice and what Jesus’ death and physical resurrection mean, our atonement theologies can all-too-quickly serve as a foundation for violence and scapegoating by other means or as a way of passively accepting meaningless suffering.

Instead, we need to understand the following:

We are not reconciled with God and each other by a sacrifice of innocent suffering offered to God. We are reconciled with God because God at the cost of suffering rescued us from bondage to a practice of violent sacrifice that otherwise would keep us estranged, making us enemies of the God who stands with our victims. We are reconciled with each other because, at the cost of suffering, God offered us an alternative to our ancient machinery of unity. So long as our peace depends on scapegoats, we are never truly reconciled with each other. We only appear to be one community until the next crisis, at which point the short straw of exclusion will be drawn by some one or more of us (320).

Jesus is Lord and [?] is Not

So what does it mean, in the present, to say – like the early Christians – ‘Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not’?

Certainly, we don’t have a dictatorial leader exploiting the helpless and demanding infinitely more than we can give.

…Or do we?

Perhaps this ‘Caesar’ is not the physical, in-the-flesh dictator we picture him to be 2000 years ago. Perhaps our ‘Caesar’ is more abstract. Ethereal, but all-encompassing. Seeping into our lives with every action, inaction, and reaction.

Does not capitalism fill Caesar’s role, and as a more immediate presence? It infects our decisions almost literally by the minute.

“What will I buy? How will I pay rent? Where will I work?”

In the meantime, the underprivileged, the outcast, the helpless are left to rot in the wake of our (infinite) consumption.

But if Jesus is Lord and [capitalism] is not, then this system we participate in should be resisted, subverted, overthrown.

The gospel is not prosperity and wealth or being financially blessed. The gospel is radical equality under the resurrected Christ. And if we do not live as such post-resurrection, then we follow the false god of capitalism. We chant, with the rest of the privileged, “Capitalism is Lord and Jesus is not.”

Galatians 3, Girard, and Radical Egalitarianism

Scripture after Girard

Currently, I’m reading through the New Testament chronologically, in the order they were written, with my wife. As I just finished reading S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, one of my goals in reading through the New Testament is to be intentional about the lenses through which I read. Girard’s Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement has become important enough (and life-changing enough) to me that I am attempting to use that particular understanding of the atonement to inform how I read Scripture.

(As a side note, this goes against some of the things I was taught in my undergraduate degree. I was always taught that we need to attempt to rid ourselves of all lenses, to try and see what was really being said “then and there” in order to apply it “here and now.” The reality is, I don’t think that’s ever possible. Instead, it seems better to me to attempt to be aware of the lenses through which I read and to be intentional about them.)

While I knew that this understanding of the atonement would radically change how I see many passages in Scripture, I honestly didn’t know how much this would happen. The interesting thing is, I’m seeing it everywhere. There seems to be a hidden subtext woven throughout Scripture about the inherent evils of scapegoating that I simply wasn’t aware of before. So as I’m reading through the NT, I imagine I’ll be blogging some about what I see in relation to this atonement theory.

Galatians 3

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a prime example of this hidden subtext. Obviously, not every word written directly relates to the atonement, but it’s also no secret that much of Paul’s theology revolves around the crucified and resurrected Christ.

In the letter to the church in Galatia, Paul seems to have a very specific purpose in mind: namely, the church has forgotten the gospel as presented by Paul in favor of a ‘gospel’ that requires them to follow the Law along with belief in Christ.

This premise brings us to the crux of the letter in chapter 3. It is Paul’s understanding of the atonement that drives his understanding of how ‘justification’ works, post-Crucifixion. Following his expression of frustration at the Galatians for abandoning his gospel in favor of a gospel under the Law, Paul writes, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1).

Interestingly, Paul jumps from their abandonment of faith directly to Christ’s ‘public’ crucifixion.  It is Christ’s public, visible crucifixion that seems to be key in his understanding of what the gospel is. Christ, as the visible victim, bolsters the Church’s need to rely on faith alone and abandon the attempt at justification via the Law. In Girardian terms, it is the Law that provides the means for sacrificial scapegoating. The Law helps to create the taboos with which minorities can be blamed. Particularly, when conflict arises in a community, the Law provides a convenient method for determining who might be to blame for the community’s crisis.

Christ’s (visible) sacrifice, however, saves us from this mechanism. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13). And because Christ’s death is visible as such (rather than transforming into a myth in order for us to be saved from the trauma of the sacrifice), that death breaks the system and allows us to see it as unjust.

It is through this visible sacrifice, this transcendence of the Law, that the Spirit is given. Paul says so in verse 5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” This Spirit is what enables true unity among believers apart from the Law. Because the Law provided a basis for a community’s well-being, something needs to replace it when it is abolished via Christ’s sacrifice. There are certain rituals (the Eucharist and baptism) that help the community to do so, but it is by way of the Holy Spirit’s aid that the community can stay united, even in the face of conflict that arises.

Thus, due to the Spirit’s enabling and the baptism into Christ’s death, Paul can say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). This unhinging of socio-economic, religious, and political boundaries is only possible in light of the visible sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Overgrown (or Life after Deconstruction)

We are all in a state of becoming. All changing, all growing, all dying, all decaying. Bending, breaking, repairing, rotting.

There is no other reality but change. Stagnation, though perhaps perceived, does not exist.

front-cover-of-love-wins

Over the last couple of years, my faith has been in various states of crisis. It started with something small (namely, reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins). Up to that point, I had done very little questioning of my understanding of Christianity. I believed Jesus was the only way to heaven, hell was eternal conscious torment, and the Bible was inerrant (among other things).

Rob Bell, however, changed many of my assumptions. Poor exegesis of some biblical passages aside, I began to think, to question, to doubt.

What if hell isn’t real? What if I’ve misunderstood all along? What if God isn’t who I think God is? Have I simply accepted the story I’ve been given without hesitation?

Love Wins was the gentle push I needed to look over the edge of the cliff of my own certainty, my own satisfaction that my story was the ‘right’ one, that I had the answers. (Let me just say, I recognize my story is hardly novel. This type of encounter seems to be a common occurrence among young conservative evangelicals right now.)

how-not-to-speak-of-god

It was sometime after this point that I encountered the philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. If Rob Bell forced me to look over the edge of the cliff, Peter Rollins pushed me off. In fact, Peter Rollins’s theology – up through Insurrectionwas the focus of my senior thesis. I spent hours and hours of  my life consumed by his work. His first book, How (not) to Speak of God, helped move me past simply questioning some ‘secondary’ doctrines (at this point in my journey, I could still consider myself an evangelical) towards questioning my acceptance of orthodox Christianity completely. I became (in Rollins’s terms) an a/theist. In other words, the binary between atheism and theism broke for me. I gained a desire to lose any conception of ‘God’ which, according to Pete, functions as an idol – for ‘God’ is unable to be contained within any conception or idea (including that of the biblical writers).

The Fidelity of Betrayal and Insurrection were the next two books that deeply impacted my faith and understanding of ‘God.’ Fidelity helped me view the Word not as contained within the biblical text, but as an Event that the Bible (among other things) pointed to. While the text itself was cracked, its broken nature does not make it incapable of conveying the divine Word. This is not the only thing Fidelity speaks to, but was the theme that most affected me.

Finally, Insurrection helped me walk through utter darkness. By using the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus as models for our own lives. Following Jesus’ cry – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – I underwent the experience of God-forsakenness. This kind of atheism (not an intellectual one, per se, but certainly one felt at the core of one’s being) was, and will always be an integral part of my faith journey. The way of the cross, in my own life, involved the loss of religious foundation. Just as Jesus loses all identity on the cross (e.g., social, economic, political, religious), so I gave up all of my assurance in ‘God’ and Christianity. ‘God’ was no longer the deus ex machina, the object that exists to make sense of the things that don’t. Though I don’t feel as though I’m in that place anymore, I agree with Pete that this is a fundamental part of the Christian experience. Resurrection then became for me a method of living post-Crucifixion. It was an acceptance of the inherent meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion. This Resurrection-life is not a rejection of the meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion experience, but its purpose is to allow humans to love in the midst of non-meaning.

What was I to do after this? After having existential crisis after existential crisis, I felt lost in a sea of non-meaning. Though Rollins’s call to create meaning via love in the midst of the utterly mundane is meant to help rob those things of their sting, something still felt missing. I tore down every bit of belief that I had – up to, and including, the belief in ‘God.’ Some days I felt like I could maybe affirm ‘God’s’ existence (What kind of existence, I wasn’t sure. Is God a person? An actual object? Love itself?), but other days, the notion of ‘God’ was ludicrous – like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

The problem, for me, was that this wasn’t enough. Not that love itself wasn’t enough, but that there was more. Something deep, something divine, that is a part of the very fabric of reality itself. No matter how hard I tried, I could never really shake the feeling, deep within me, that there is something beyond the physical. My doubts about their existence haven’t gone away (and probably won’t). But the fact is I cannot deny that ‘hum’ I feel deep within the core of my very existence. That feeling was not that everything is meaningless but that everything was full of meaning, and not simply because it has some kind of ‘personal meaning’ to me.

This is also not to mention that I don’t have any real desire to leave Christianity. In it, I find beauty, life, love, hope, justice, and mercy. And there seem to be deep truths within Christianity that resonate with my experience of Reality.

So, this is where I start. I have torn everything down. It is now time to rebuild. My desire is to rebuild a sustainable, hopeful, honest, broken, loving faith. One that is not based on guilt; one that is not simply a false creation-of-meaning in the midst of anti-supernaturalism. There is something to be said for the loss of the divine (Jesus did it!). But there is also something to be said for the existence of sacredness, the source of life as divine. In light of this, here are the five things that I affirm, on faith, about Christianity:

  1. The Crucifixion and the physical Resurrection of Jesus
  2. The Incarnation – that Jesus was and is the peasant-God
  3. The Trinity – that God exists as three separate, yet united, entities
  4. The Inspiration (but not inerrancy!) of Scripture
  5. The Atonement of humanity, by God, is at least our salvation from what would otherwise be a destructive system of violent sacrificial scapegoating

As far as the rest is concerned, I’m wide open or skeptical (or both). Some days, I will be plagued by doubt. Other days, I will be confident in the things I believe. In spite of this ebb and flow of doubt and ‘belief,’ my desire is to remain faithful to the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 8

This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

We will be skipping over chapters 6 & 7 in Heim’s book. While I found those chapters informative, I did not think they served to move the arguments around the main thrust of the book forward. (Chapter 6 discussed some of the post-apostolic period of the early Christian church and its relation to sacrifice; chapter 7 was basically a summary chapter and also discussed two mistakes commonly made regarding discussions about the cross within Christianity: namely, Christian Gnosticism and anti-Semitism.)

Chapter 8 is the first chapter in the third and final section of the book, which is entitled “In Remembrance of Me: The Cross that Keeps Faith Empty.” This entire section focuses on the aftermath of how the Church is meant to respond to this theology of the cross within its communal setting. Also, the next post in the series will be the final one, as we will combine chapters 9 & 10.

Heim suggests that when we view the cross in this new way that is being discussed, three sides of the cross present themselves (the first two were presented in earlier chapters): 1) “We see first the hidden, mythic practice of scapegoating that it reveals” (244). While the practice of sacrificial scapegoating began to be revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, the practice wasn’t fully revealed (according to Heim) until the Passion narratives. 2) “Second… we see that God opposes scapegoating sacrifice and has acted to vindicate the scapegoat” (ibid.). Normally, when scapegoating occurs, the deity of the tribe is found to be against the victim – the Gospels flip this system on its head. In showing the system for what it is, Jesus is the victim and is vindicated in full view. 3) “Third, we see the cross and resurrection as a charter for a new way of life” (ibid.). This final part is what we will review and discuss today.

The New Community

According to Heim, it is a good thing that sacrificial scapegoating is completely revealed as unjust in the Gospels. Unfortunately, it is not good enough. The truth of the matter is, scapegoating (despite its inherent evil) actually does solve a community’s problems. Regardless of its injustice, the victimization and sacrifice of an individual or a minority serves to stave off conflict within communities.

So, what happens when a community is forced to rid itself of the most effective way of removing conflict from its midst? Surely we are all aware that we are still broken people – our faith does not simply cause us to lose our differences of opinion. We require a new way of dispelling conflict without victimization (which we so easily fall into).

Heim gives three distinct ways in which the new community, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, is able to dispel conflict. The first is the sending of the Holy Spirit. For the author, the Holy Spirit plays (at least) a dual role in the world. First, the Spirit is the paraclete (or advocate) for scapegoats and victims. This was a part of an earlier chapter that we did not discuss.

The second – and, I believe, more important – role is “the inspiration and nurture of a new kind of community” (227). Take Acts 4:27-33 for example. The beginning of the passage talks about the collective violence used against Christ, but moves on to discuss the Holy Spirit in the role of the community:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common… and great grace was upon them all.

It is in the context of the falling of the Holy Spirit that the believers are able to do things like hold their possessions in common and live in grace – ways of life which would easily dispel conflict. Heim says “The notable work of the Holy Spirit… is to bring unity across difference and division” (228), in much the same way Paul says there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The normal socio-economic barriers of the day, though the labels remain, are broken through in light of the end of scapegoating.

Along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the two major practices of the early Church – baptism and communion – were meant to be unifying for the community and a way to replace sacrificial scapegoating.

Baptism

While baptism existed before Jesus’ ministry (e.g., John the Baptist), baptism is one of the defining features of the early Christian community through the present day. This act is symbolic in several ways. In relation to scapegoating and baptism, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3, 4).

In baptism, we are able to participate in Christ’s sacrifice in a non-sacrificial way. Baptism helps to replace scapegoating via identification with Jesus’ death as a scapegoat. God’s intent is to establish reconciliation in a way that entirely avoids scapegoating to mitigate conflict. To this, Heim writes, “We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors” (229).

Communion

Along with baptism, communion serves as the other method of dispelling conflict without sacrifice in the life of the Christian community. Heim states:

God exalts and vindicates the crucified one. But God does not do so through retribution and violence. Instead a new community forms, built around the memory of a justified sacrifice. They gather for their central act not to ritually perform another sacrifice but rather through the simplest of meals to recall the one whose death is to be final, to deliver us from further violence (231).

The purpose of communion, related to scapegoating, is twofold. First, it serves as an explicit reminder of the sacrifice made by Jesus. Just as the Passion narratives reveal the sacrificial system for what it is, so the elements in communion serve to remind the community that victims (and the Victim) are real, made of flesh and blood.

Second, and equally important, is the simple reality of sharing the table with the entire community in light of Christ’s antisacrificial death. “Just as bread and wine replace victims, so does this act become the unifying bond among the members, instead of a shared participation in killing… The crowd does not gather around a body; it gathers to become Christ’s body in the world, animated by the Holy Spirit of peace” (233).

Mimesis and Peace

Earlier in the book, Heim discusses the human tendency towards imitation (or mimesis). While it is quite common for our imitation of others to lead to rivalry, envy, and violence, it is also possible for mimesis to work in the opposite direction. In other words, we can either imitate the violence we see in others or we can imitate a model of peace for and in the community.

If one of Jesus’ primary missions was to help save us from redemptive violence (something that works, but shouldn’t happen), then Jesus must become our model for desire. Typically, our mimesis is directed towards the desires of an ‘other.’ This boils over into conflict and rivalry as we desire the object or person or profession (etc.) that we perceive our ‘model’ possesses or desires.

However, when Jesus becomes the model for the community, our mimetic desire is redeemed, because “what [Jesus] has designated as desirable is precisely nonrivalry itself. If people will contest with each other for this goal, they can attain it only be ceasing to contest with each other” (241).

This is the beauty of the new community, founded on an Event that in itself is against redemptive violence and sacrificial scapegoating. While these particular acts are generally a foundation for the structure of a community or society to survive amidst conflict, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection serve to reveal these founding acts as evil. Post-resurrection, the model of the Christ is used as a foundation of a new community that operates in direct contrast to the corrupt system of sacrificial scapegoating.