Tag: Theology

Theology as Meaning-Making

My last post ended with this line: “It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.”

Obviously, I don’t think theology is pointless. I love it too much to think that. But aside from what I mentioned before — that theology is at its best when it drive us to action – I’d also like to explore the idea of theology as a meaning-maker in our lives.

I’ll be recording the sermon on the Holy Spirit this week. One of the things I’ll be saying is something along the lines of this: Most of us have a sense that this universe isn’t just a bunch of atoms floating around randomly. Instead, many of us have an intuition that this whole thing means something. The biblical account helps us to see just a little bit under the surface of our lived experience. This isn’t all there is. From the Genesis creation stories to the prophetic literature to the Gospels to Paul’s letters, we’re reminded that there’s maybe something else going on.

In my mind, when we try to evaluate human existence, we have to start somewhere. By that, I mean that if you want to actually believe that life has meaning and purpose, you have to decide whether it can have meaning and purpose. For meaning and purpose to objectively exist (that we’re not just “making it up,” so to speak) the universe cannot be a random ball of material floating on infinitely until its eventual expiration.

In other words, if I affirm that there is nothing “under the surface” of the material universe in which we are experiencing consciousness, then I cannot logically affirm that human existence is inherently meaningful or has an ultimate purpose. There is no good or bad. There is no right or wrong. There is no “better” or “worse.” Everything that is just is. And I have no objective reason to act one way or another.

The corollary to this argument is that for human existence to have meaning and purpose, the material universe cannot be all that exists. Somehow, some way, we need a guarantor of meaning. A foundational, divine, supernatural *something* that makes life meaningful and imbues it with purpose.

So, put simply: Objective meaning cannot exist without the supernatural.

This is not a post claiming what kind of supernaturalism or divinity one ought to believe in if one wants to claim that human life has meaning. Only that meaning requires the supernatural.

And this is where theology comes into play.

If we start with evaluating our lives at the “material” level — i.e., what I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch — we can only get so far. I can eat an apple and know that it tastes sweet. I can jump and understand that I won’t fly into the air. But when I start to think about my very existence, I am left with nothing. When I start to ask the question “Why?” — my senses come up short.

Theology is an attempt to answer that why with a foundation in the supernatural. In Christian theology, if the question is “Why am I here?” the answer is somehow related to the fact that God has breathed life into this universe, and has some expectation about what that life should consist of. If the question is “Why am I in pain?” or “Why am I suffering?” the answer should be related to the fact that something in our experience is broken.

Again, my senses can tell me that I am here. They can tell me that I am in pain. They cannot give me some ultimate answer for why these things are the way they are.

If we want to engage in meaning-making (that has an objective foundation) we all have to engage in some form of theology.

Is Theology Pointless? Sometimes.

What exactly is the point of theology?

This question bothers me frequently because (1) I love theology and (2) on the surface, it seems like a relatively useless pursuit. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “He is so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” That isn’t to say that a claim like that is always wrong. It’s true that there are some people who don’t do the hard work of integrating theological work with the concrete, lived experience of the everyday. (NB: this is tangentially related to Kierkegaard’s claims about objectivity/subjectivity – theology is “subjective” in that if we know a theological truth only objectively, we don’t “know” it at all)

Theological reflection certainly has the potential to be useless. Especially the speculative forms of theology that are concerned with claims about God or the divine that have no basis, or no clear “so what” to which they point. Let’s take the claim that God created the world in six days, and that it’s necessary for Christians to affirm this. What’s the point of a claim like this? Presumably, it’s to argue against the prevailing scientific consensus (based on mathematics and physics) that the universe has existed for billions of years, and that the earth was formed over hundreds of millions of years. Probably there is some concern here that a claim like this is inherently atheistic — i.e., it doesn’t require a Creator.

Ultimately, I have little patience for theological claims like this. To clarify, it doesn’t bother me when people believe in six-day creationism. If it brings them comfort or bolsters their faith — that’s fine, I suppose. But requiring this as a marker of true Christian faith is when I lose patience. My reasons are at least twofold:

  1. Because all of the physical evidence we have gathered over hundreds of years have consistently proved this claim to be wrong. (I could certainly provide some sources here, but that’s not the point of this post)
  2. It’s unclear to me what effect this belief is meant to have on the life of the person believing the claim. Is it only because we are committed to some literal reading of the Genesis creation account? And if so, why? What other purpose could requiring this belief serve? Does believing in this claim make you more faithful? More content? More loving, kind, patient?

I found myself thinking of the question of the usefulness of theology this week when I wrote a sermon on the Holy Spirit. Since a part of my spiritual upbringing included Pentecostal/charismatic expressions, my personal feelings about the Holy Spirit are ambivalent at best. In my worst moments, trying to understand the Holy Spirit can feel like another exercise in pointlessness. In other words, who cares who the Holy Spirit is/does?

But as I listened to and read experts on the subject (see The Bible Project’s series on the Holy Spirit), I found myself realizing that good theological reflection on the Holy Spirit can be extremely useful. In my own exploration, as I sharpened my understanding of the Bible’s picture of God’s Spirit, the connections to real life seem simple and prescient. If the Holy Spirit is understood as the life-giving force and energy that created and sustains the universe (a truly beautiful picture by itself), and we affirm that the Holy Spirit has now been poured out on all of humanity — that has many implications:

  1. All humans deserve radical dignity — including our family, friends, neighbors, immigrants, and enemies. I have every reason to love and care for those around me, because they too are sustained by the same Spirit that sustains and gives life to me.
  2. I can trust and be comforted by a truth like this, and know that my life is meaningful and purposeful. Even when that purpose seems unclear.

There are many, many other implications. But this is where theology is useful. It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.

Forsaking Christianity for the “Greater Good”

3:16: How would you summarize Kierkegaard’s Socratic point of view?

PM: I think that Kierkegaard saw himself as trying to help the citizens of nineteenth-century Copenhagen in much the same way as Socrates had helped the citizens of fifth-century Athens. He seems to have aimed his writings at a particular group of people who, under the illusion that they were leading Christian lives, had to be addressed in a specific manner so that they might overcome this illusion and change their lives accordingly. But while Kierkegaard held a lifelong interest in Socrates and selected his life as a model for his own, he also sometimes worried that relating to others as Socrates did might be incompatible with living an authentic Christian life. He worried that in playing the role of philosophical midwife for his fellow citizens, he himself might be sidestepping difficulties that every Christian must personally confront. If the Christian is to model his or her life after the life of Christ, then, Kierkegaard thought, doing this will include being open about the sort of life one is trying to live regardless of what others might think. In fact, he thought Christians should expect the world to reject what they believe (to find Christian beliefs absurd or ludicrous or perhaps even blasphemous) and, in many cases, to persecute them accordingly. Yet, in order to play the part of Socrates, he would sometimes have to be personally elusive, employing various forms of indirection to shine a light on others’ lives while keeping his own life an enigma. Withholding or concealing oneself is thus sometimes a Socratic requirement, while revealing or disclosing oneself seems to be an essential feature of an authentic Christian life. So I think Kierkegaard sometimes felt a tension within himself, between a Socratic part of his nature and that part of him that placed his trust in Christ.

From the “Pursuing Kierkegaard” interview with Paul Muench on 3:16 AM, emphasis added

I am no Kierkegaard, and no “philosopher” (If by philosopher we mean some genius with academic and perhaps cultural clout, which is often how we use the term — wrongly. But I digress.). But I have sometimes wondered whether my own desires — to “be” a philosopher or a theologian, to be a teacher, to write and to think and to be someone who does those kinds of things — are actually just a way for me to avoid the difficult, internal work of what it means to “become a Christian” (as Kierkegaard would say). Kierkegaard was truly brilliant, but I think he struggled with this in ways that I get but can never fully comprehend. It’s almost as if he forsook his personal religious conviction in order to bring to light the peculiar religious situation of nineteenth-century Denmark. It’s a remarkable way to live, and a remarkable choice to make.

No Conversation Is Too Scary

As many of you know, I’m currently a high school teacher (in the fall, I taught philosophy, and this spring I’m teaching a class called “senior practicum,” which is mostly personal finance, although I’ve taken a few liberties to discuss digital habits as well). The pairing of the two classes together is interesting for two reasons.

First, the philosophy class was inherently academic, and required reading, study, and heavy critical thinking. Some of the concepts we explored were abstract, ranging from free will and determinism to how we can say that we know anything at all. Second, the senior practicum class is clearly meant to be distinct from the philosophy class. It is not abstract; in fact, it’s fairly pragmatic. In some ways, it can be seen as an outworking of the philosophy course — at least in the sense that philosophy is meant to help the students frame and understand the world, and the senior practicum class is meant to help the students navigate “daily” life.

What I didn’t expect in the course of teaching these two classes is that I would get the chance to have other, deeper conversations with the students. Because the two classes are touching on issues that are deeply personal, we sometimes end up navigating tough waters. It’s not uncommon for the students to bring up political issues (even in the form of a joke), moral issues (abortion has come up more than a handful of times), or unsolvable philosophical or theological problems. My real goal in these conversations is not really to convince the students that they ought to think the way I do on these topics. That would be far too easy, to be honest. That’s not to mention the fact that they are all Christian students, raised in Christian households, so their viewpoints are highly similar, if not outright identical, on many of these issues.

My goal, instead, has been to open their minds up a little bit to other viewpoints, and I think I’ve come up with a solution to how to do try and do this. Part of my solution is driven, I think, by my concern with social media and its effects on public discourse. We currently find ourselves in a societal moment wherein social groups are dividing and divisive — primarily along political and theological lines. This leads to two things: digital echo chambers and the inability to engage in rational, calm conversation about difficult issues. In response to this, I’m trying to teach my students two things:

  1. No conversation is too scary to have.
  2. When discussing a tough issue, our first goal should be to ask “What does this person see that I don’t?”

These are actually relatively difficult to implement in real life. It can be easy to prefer avoiding tough topics of conversation, thinking that our interlocutors might be offended or appalled at our ignorance or disagreement. It’s also easy for us to be the person that is easily enraged, morally or intellectually. (Moral outrage, in fact, is an easy emotion to latch onto — just look at how social media companies have benefited from taking advantage of that emotion). But if we come at difficult conversations with an attitude of humility rather than pride, of curiosity rather than fear, our local community and the broader society stand to benefit.

Of the second point (asking, “What does this person see?”): this is a key skill when engaging in philosophical or theological inquiry. If we don’t actively try to envision why a person sees the world a certain way, or thinks that their moral position is superior to others, we don’t have any chance of gaining conversational favor. This means we lose the chance of having a dialogue, and of having the opportunity to persuade someone of our own position. I think many of us fear taking this step, however, because it requires risk. Alan Jacobs writes about this in How to Think:

To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction. (36)

I take Jacobs to mean here that too often the conversations we have are means to the end of happiness: either by way of conversing only with those who agree with us, or by seeking the satisfaction of arguing with others for the purpose of proving the superiority of our position. But to actively think, to engage in dialogue, to be willing to see from another person’s viewpoint means that we must accept discomfort and even the pain of changing our position on an issue.

We’d do well, in the long run, to abandon our desire for comfort, for happiness, for satisfaction. The health of both our individual selves and society at large may rely upon this very truth.

Kierkegaard’s Reflections on Job — On Becoming a Human Being

In the Upbuilding Discourses, SK reflects on two simple verses in Job:

Then Job arose, and tore his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord (1:20-21)

First, he gives a general reflection on the passage, and Job’s significance for humanity at all times:

When one generation has finished its service, completed its work, fought through its struggle, Job has accompanied it; when the new generation with its incalculable ranks, each individual in his place, stands ready to begin the pilgrimage, Job is there again, takes his place, which is the outpost of humanity. If the generation sees nothing but happy days in prosperous times, then Job faithfully accompanies it; but if the single individual experiences the terror in thought, is anguished over the thought of what horror and distress life can have in store, over the thought that no one knows when the hour of despair may strike for him, then his troubled thought seeks out Job, rests in him, is calmed by him. (110)

He then focuses in on the final two clauses of the verse: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The Lord gave:

With thankfulness resting in his soul in quiet sadness, he said a gentle and friendly farewell to everything all together, and in this farewell everything vanished like a beautiful recollection — indeed, it was as if it were not the Lord who took it away but Job who gave it back to him. (116)

Then, speaking of the person who, when faced with a Job-like situation, cannot be thankful for the goodness of what was given in the first place:

What his soul had delighted in, it now thirsted for, and ingratitude punished him by picturing it to him as more delightful than it had ever been. What he once had been able to do, he now wanted to be able to do again, and ingratitude punished him with fantasies that had never had any truth. Then he condemned his soul, living, to be starved out in the insatiable craving of the lack. (117)

The Lord took away:

How powerless is the assailant’s arm, how worthless the schemer’s cleverness; how almost pitiable is all human power when it wants to plunge the weak person into despairing submission by wrenching everything from him and in his faith he says: It is not you, you can do nothing; it is the Lord who takes away. (121)

Blessed be the name of the Lord:

Just as faith and hope without love are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, so all the joy proclaimed in the world in which sorrow is not heard along with it is but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal that tickle the ears but are repulsive to the soul. (122)

What I really love about Kierkegaard’s work in the Upbuilding Discourses (and this might be my favorite one so far — it’s written in a trio from 1843, at the peak of the early part of his writing career) is his interest in entering into the realities of human life. Kierkegaard is demanding and time consuming to read. He can be difficult at times, and his work is often complex and hard to follow.

But his work here is clearly filled with passion and interest for what it means to be human, and what it means to live in real life. These discourses are some of the few early works that he wrote in his own name, and not under a pseudonym, which I take to mean that this is what he wanted people to remember him for. That all our philosophizing and theologizing and rationalizing has a telos: to become a human being.

A Good World

I keep turning this problem — the problem of climate change — over and over in my head. The problem, for me specifically, is two-fold:

First, it’s so easy to fall into despair. The problem feels so big, and I am a single individual. My actions, on their own, make no perceptible difference one way or the other. Act or don’t act, and it will make no difference. It all feels very Kierkegaardian:

Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both.

Either/Or

Second, I live in a place where people often find the rhetoric around climate change to be hogwash at best, and a government/liberal conspiracy to take away individual freedoms at worst. This means that the discussion quickly devolves from discussing the scientific consensus that the earth’s environment is changing to non-rational arguments that lead to increased polarization and anger.

What is the solution to this problem? I still think it’s simply this: a better story. We’re in an interesting time right now in the West. There are good, amazing things happening — poverty and violence and crime are all, in general, on the decline. We are also in a radical transition — no shared values, shared culture, shared maps of meaning. We need to find some way to gain a baseline together, and that baseline must have something to do with who we are, what the world is, and where we want to go. I have hope that such a thing is possible, but it requires us all to sort of “let go” of our need to be right in conversation with our neighbors, and a willingness to be charitable about where others are at and what they

Elaine is actually pretty far ahead of me on this. A few weeks ago, she and a friend were conversing when the topic of the environment came up. I’m paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this:

Friend: Wait, you’re not one of those people that believes in climate change, are you?

Elaine: Actually, I don’t view our decisions as being related to climate change at all. It’s not really about that for me, it’s about taking care of the world that we have been given, treating it like a gift, and being good stewards of creation.

Friend: …Huh. I never really thought of it that way

I can tell you this — my response would not have been as wise or calm as Elaine’s. Because I’m so heavily invested in the reality of what climate change could mean for our very near future, I’m rarely willing to give ground on this conversation. But the reality is, for people like our friend, they may never be interested in “saving the climate.” What may convince them instead is an expanded imagination about what our responsibility as humans towards this gift is.

Kierkegaard the Liberal?

In a recent post, M.G. Piety (who wrote the main book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology I’m using for my thesis) argues that Kierkegaard falls solidly within the tradition of “liberal theology.” She makes this claim because of Michael Langford’s defines the fundamental characteristics of liberal theology in A Liberal Theology for the Twenty-First Century as,

(a) ‘The desire to use rational methods, including those of the empirical sciences, as far as they can be taken,’ (b) The confident ‘pursuit of truth’ from the perspective of belief ‘in a God who is active in the world, and who is the source of all that is.’

Piety argues, given Kierkegaard’s ultimate trust in rationality/logic and his (perhaps slightly) modified belief that God can be found in the world (Piety says that Kierkegaard only affirms that this happens “through the eyes of faith”). All well and good — however, I have a qualm that these characteristics solely define “liberal” theology. Modern theology, perhaps. Liberal?

Let’s take an example from Roger Olson:

In order for a theological proposal to be “liberal” it MUST be offered on the ground that modern thought requires it even though what is requiring it is not a universally recognized material fact (such as the earth moves around the sun). In other words, liberal theology makes modern thought in general a norming norm for theology–alongside if not above Scripture.

I’m inclined to trust Olson’s definition of “liberal theology” against Langford’s — partially because he’s making a claim about authority. In other words, liberal theology is not only characterized by trust in rationality, but a trust in rationality as a higher authoritative norm than Scripture and tradition coupled together. So then the question becomes, “Can we define Kierkegaard’s theology as inherently liberal?” Maybe, but not necessarily.

Kierkegaard trusted that rationality was capable of accessing truth about the natural world. Especially, as Piety says, regarding both tautologies/logic, the natural world, and human history. But was he so confident in the capability of rationality to determine truth in ethico-religious terms? Not particularly. Rationality lends itself to understanding ethico-religious truth(s) abstractly, “objectively.” His desire was to show, in his time, that embodiment of ethico-religious truth was the necessary requirement for truly being a Christian (“Subjectivity is truth,” etc.). In my mind, this implies that he distrusted objective, rational thought insofar as it was able to correct scriptural and creedal theology. True Christianity requires one to subject oneself to Christian tradition, to submit one’s reason to religious truth. Hence, rationality necessarily cannot function as a “norming norm” (as Olson says) for theology.

Ergo, Kierkegaard’s theology was not a “liberal theology.” Modern? Yes. Liberal — not so much.

The Pentecostal Elephant in the Middle of the Room

“Pentecostals were birthed on the wrong side of the theological railroad tracks, persecuted from virtually all sides from the beginning of the movement for our emotionalism, apocalyptic urgency, and radical deconstruction of racial and gender barriers.  Since we have superficial commonalities with other fundamentalists, that’s where we’ve sought acceptance.  In our need for acceptance, we have softened the more edgy and more interesting contours of our way of understanding God, church and world, minimizing our potential to be a renewal movement for the entire body of Christ.”

The Pentecostal Elephant in the Middle of the Room

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.

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 5

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

While Chapter 4 dealt with the passion narratives in light of Girard’s scapegoating theory, chapter 5 (“Sacrifice to End Sacrifice”) moves on to discuss how the early Christians understood Jesus’ death and the sacrificial system post-Resurrection.

Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Acts

One of the major portions from Acts that Heim deals with is Stephen’s sermon in front of the mob that is about to stone him (Acts 7:1-53). Interestingly, though we typically view Stephen’s sermon as a ‘salvation’ message before his death, Jesus is only mentioned once, and just barely. His sermon is split into four sections:

  1. First he speaks about Abraham, which seems like it would be a common starting place for any Jew giving something like a sermon. He talks about Abraham’s faith and willingness to leave his home for a place God would show him
  2. Next, Stephen talks about Joseph, whose brothers gang up on him and, as a result, he ends up in Egypt, helps stop a famine, and shows mercy to his brothers.
  3. The third section of Stephen’s sermon centers on Moses and is the longest portion. While the Mt. Sinai episode receives little attention, a large part of the Moses section focuses on the account of Moses’ murder of an Egyptian to protect his fellow Israelites. Unfortunately, he is even further ostracized from his community rather than drawn near to them. Heim says, “One way ending conflict has been tried and found wanting” (136). Following this, Stephen talks about how God required no sacrifice while the Israelites were in the wilderness, and Stephen uses some of the words of Amos to bolster his claim:”I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:21-24).
  4. Following his quoting from Amos, Stephen talks about the tabernacle as God’s dwelling place in the wilderness and then Solomon’s temple. But then he turns this around and states, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands,” and proceeds to rebuke his hearers, saying they oppose the Holy Spirit by persecuting the ones who foretold the “Righteous One” and then Jesus himself.

Interestingly, as I stated above, Stephen says little about Jesus, but draws a (slightly irregular) line between the figures in his story and Jesus. Further, the line Stephen draws from Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to Christ is one of the sacrificial victim. Israel itself has been enslaved and oppressed, as Abraham (as a “resident alien”) and Joseph (as one sold into slavery). Then Moses’ story speaks to this theme even further, first by him unsuccessfully using violence to help reconcile a situation, and then by himself being pushed aside by the Israelite community in favor of using a sacrificial victim (via the temple). Finally, these previous violent acts have been continued in the killing of the “Righteous One.”

Paul

Stephen’s story in Acts segues into Saul/Paul’s conversion story, which also contains some of the elements of scapegoating. Prior to conversion, Saul’s primary focus is persecuting and killing the Jewish Christian communities that are cropping up after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Heim explains,

“Christians represent a threat of dissolution in the community, a crisis, and Paul’s reaction is to isolate and destroy them in order to purify the people and to maintain unity. Once he becomes a Christian, Paul’s hallmark project is to build a community with non-Jews, across all the differing practices that the same Paul would have regarded before as impurities that destroy unity and identity” (140).

Both this encounter with Christ and Paul’s tenacity in the inclusion of the Gentiles greatly affect his later writings that are included in the NT. One of the major passages often used in reference to discuss Christ’s atoning death is Romans 3:10-26 (before you go on, I suggest reading it). In the first half of this section, Paul lays down the claim that all people, both Jewish and Gentile are under the power of sin. In doing so, he uses several quotations from Psalms and Isaiah. Three of the Psalms are particularly scapegoating Psalms, as we discussed here, three of them discuss universal sin in general, and the Isaiah passage quoted references the very nature of the universal perversity in mankind. While Paul addresses the general, universal sin that is part of humanity (i.e., everyone has done something ‘wrong’), he also specifically references a particular sin that everyone has committed – namely, scapegoating persecution.

Continuing in this line of thought, Heim addresses the Law in Paul’s writings. For Heim, through the lens of sacrificial violence, the Law is not the problem, but the way it is used to affirm victimization is. While the Law may have originally been meant to help the community avoid violence (e.g., do not steal, do not commit murder, do not covet, etc.), the Law can be, and was, used improperly; that is, it was wrongly used to justify the murder of innocent victims in order to maintain the community’s peace. Heim also notes: “The fact that the law appealed to in the process is an authentic divine commandment does not mean that the process [i.e., victimization/scapegoating] itself is valid” (143).

That God enters into the human sacrificial sphere does not mean that God endorses or approves of this particular method. Rather, he enters into the system because this is precisely where humanity’s sin universally manifests itself. Heim points out that even the text says as much, as “the effectiveness of the act lies not in the blood or the violence; it relates to faith” (ibid.). In other words, it is not the blood itself that saves us from God’s wrath, but our faith that God has entered into our brokenness in order to repair it.

The Resurrection of Jesus is the final act of redemption in God’s saving work. For by Resurrection, Jesus is not only acquitted and proved not guilty of the charges against him – those who carried out the violence against him are made innocent as well. Heim says, “They can be declared not guilty of Jesus’ death by the fact that Jesus is not dead. The prosecution cannot proceed in this capital case without a dead body, and the tomb is empty” (144). The catch, however, is that those accused (e.g., all of us) must affirm the resurrection, which also means affirming our guilt. We must affirm that our sin killed him before we can also affirm that he rose from the dead. Our denial that Christ rose from the dead is akin to refusing to have a witness testify in our favor (which is why Paul says Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” [Rom. 4:25]).

Hebrews

Finally, Heim addresses the book of Hebrews, which, to most of us, looks to be the most affirming text regarding penal substitution. Just take a look at Hebrews 9:11-14, for example. Killing animals seems to be pretty beneficial, but Christ’s death is infinitely more beneficial. A closer look, however, shows that the writer of Hebrews is not necessarily affirming the system of sacrifice so much as turning it on its head.

Later in chapter 9 of Hebrews, the author indicates that Christ’s sacrifice is not the same as the kind of sacrifice done before. If it were, then Christ would have had to suffer “again and again since the foundation of the world” (Heb. 9:26). Instead, Christ’s sacrifice was meant to stop the cycle of sacrifice. No longer do sacrifices offer peace to a community, and Hebrews makes this clear. In a similar vein, in chapter 12, the writer says, “[Jesus’] sprinkled blood… speaks a better blood than the blood of Abel.” To which Heim says, “Abel’s blood called for vengeance, and sparked the cycles of retaliation that we have contained only with more blood, the blood of sacrifice” (159).

Christ’s sacrifice was not meant to be an affirmation of sacrificial practice, but the sacrifice to end sacrifice.