Yesterday was the Pagan Pride event in North Andover, MA. I had been invited to give a workshop at the event. Matt the Pirate, and his wife Mary the Goth Theologian, John the Master Dream Interpreter (though he denies it), and The Prof. Carlos Z. joined me for the event.
I hope to develop a team of Christians who can hang out at such events, and actually be good examples - instead of silly, judgmental, and icky. “Icky” is a theological term, you know.
We want to do things like Dream Interpretation, training in Neo-Pagan/Christian relationships, and simple friendship development to show that we can all live in this world together without fighting like cats. Of course, Neo-Pagans and the kind of Christians who like hanging out with me have something in common - we are like cats, herding us remains an impossibility.
Now the day previous I visited one of the stores of a Salem Witch who was one of the presenters at the festival as well. Teri said to me in passing, “Did Carole tell you about the one rule of the workshops? They need to be performed skyclad.” Teri did not flinch a bit when saying this. Neither did I.
“That’s cool.” I replied.
So, the day of the event 5 of us drove out to North Andover from Salem at 7:30 in the morning. We arrived at the event early, and did so purposely. We put our hands to the work of setting up. Our plan was to make ourselves indispensable, which is really just another way of saying that we were going to be servants. We set up tents, we set up the Children’s area, moved picnic benches, set up signs, and Matt the Pirate helped the blacksmith haul anvils and organize the smithy’s area.
Once the vendors were set up, and the people began to arrive, we milled around. I greeted old friends from Salem, and made a few new friends. Matt the Pirate hung out with the Blacksmith; John, Mary, and Carlos got to know the festival, which is a mid-sized Pagan festival with live music, about 20-25 crafters, an early evening ritual, and a dozen workshops from morning to mid-afternoon.
My workshop was from 12:15 to 1:15. We ate pumpernickel bread and cheese, passed out flyers for the workshop, and joined the drum circle during the time between finishing set up, and the workshop.
The description of the workshop was this:
The Circle and The Cross Talk: Re-visioning Pagan/Christian Relationships
Looking back to the Caesars, and to the Burning Times misconceptions and urban myths have had deadly results for both Pagans and Christians. In our own times, though mild in comparison, Pagans have been on the receiving end of the religious persecution. Some have chosen to remain in the broom closet, and others have faced the struggle head on - sometimes to bitter disappointment with family, friends, and work associates. This workshop is designed as a deeper look into the worldview differences between Christian and Neo-Pagan thought with a focus upon deconstructing, and re-visioning some of the beliefs which cause the greatest pain. Come learn to navigate this battlefield of philosophical tension. Topics of frustration to be covered include judgment, conversion, spiritual dissonance, and sexuality.
At 12:05 we made our way to the workshop location. The previous workshop on Greek deities was ending, and we waited for the group to gather. About 20 people arrived, and after the welcome I introduced myself and the rest of the gang.
Strangely, no one was skyclad. Teri had lied to me, and Bev my wife was happier for it.
I gave my credentials for teaching the workshop - I call it Pagan street Cred - I’ve been excommunicated from a denomination for making friends with Pagans. That’s pretty darn good Street Cred.
The workshop looked something like this:
I taught for between 7 and 10 minutes on 4 different subjects, and between each subject I had the class break up into three groups. John the Dream Master led one group, Matt the Pirate led the second group, and Mary the Goth Theologian and The Prof. Carlos Z. led the third group.
My goal was to teach about four basic Christian doctrines, and what caused these particular doctrines to be divisive points between Christians and Pagans. My particular focus was to highlight imbalances in the approaches and theology of many Christians, which caused their behavior and attitudes to be negative and hurtful.
I taught first about Hell and Judgment, and shared the fact that this doctrine ought to be a great equalizing doctrine in evangelical circles, because the belief is that all people are destined for Hell or deserving of it. Instead many Christians are proud of some unique heavenly status they think they have, and instead of finding commonality with struggling humanity they become judgmental.
Then the three groups discussed the point and how easy is it to buy YouTube likes, they felt about Hell and Judgment. There was laughing, and there was serious dialogue, and there was a mixed combination of joy to be talking about these things openly in a mixed religious group, and concern about the treatment many of the Pagans had received from Christians they knew and loved.
Then we discussed Conversion. I told them I was going to be giving them the inside scoop. Something many Christians did not realize, or if they did they somehow lost sight of it in the midst of their zeal. The point was this: No human can convert you. Conversion only occurs as an interaction between deity and a human.
Then our Christian group leaders had to rotate clockwise to change groups. For some reason they couldn’t quite figure out clockwise initially - evidence that they are not Pagans and don’t normally work in circles. Good thing I did not ask them to rotate deosil. Once they figured it out, the discussion on conversion appeared to be more personal, and filled with stories of pressure Pagans received from Christians.
Thirdly, I taught about Spiritual Dissonance, which is my redefinition of the subject Spiritual Warfare. When I mentioned Spiritual Warfare the group groaned, and understood the ramifications of the term. So we talked about the devil scares of the 1980’s through people like Mike Warnke, and Bob Larson. Then we looked for a more balanced view of the subject from a Christian perspective. My hope was to arm Pagans with sound views of Christianity in order to help them counteract bizarre unloving behavior from wacky Christians.
The group rotated deosil once again, and began to discuss this subject. Of course the problem of evil arose in the groups, and this became a point of discussion.
Last of all we talked about the hottest subject of all - sex. I had the group shout a victory shout because we were going to talk about sex, and they did so raucously. I pointed out that the practice of heterosexual, monogamous, wait-til-marriage sexuality was actually a ritual lifestyle being lived out by Christians who believe that the Church is a Bride to the Son of God, and that our full realization of this union will occur in the second coming. Now we are engaged as it were to Him. Most Christians don’t understand that this ritual lifestyle is a choice of beautiful ritual, and not a harsh law. Because they do not understand this they sound harsh when they discuss this issue.
Once again the Christians turned deosil in the circle, and arrived back in the original group they had led. Then they talked sex with Pagans. This was a hot and wild subject. One group was very serious, another group was light but philosophical, and the third was a bawdy group from Salem (I should have known!) in which The Poor Prof. Carlos Z. was being hit on by my friend a gay Pagan and Mary the Goth Theologian was trying to keep a straight face.
The group ended after this, and we all had a good time. I met someone from the COG who was excited about the workshop, and thought it would be good to have in a COG setting as well. That would be pretty cool actually, and I would love to do that someday perhaps.
I talked with a number of new friends, and they all appreciated the open discussion combined with the attempts to bring peace between the worlds.
Later that day I talked with Teri. She had mentioned the skyclad joke, and the fact that when she mentioned it to Carole, Carole asked, “What did he do?” Teri replied to Carole, “He worked me, and simply said, ‘That’s cool.’” Yep, I did work her. I’m not easily surprised, and I’ve been to enough public Pagan events to know this was not going to be a skyclad event.
Well, it still seems strange to me, but I was able to talk about Hell, Conversion, Spiritual Warfare, and Biblical Sexuality at a Pagan Festival and people loved it. All I can ask myself is, “What the heck have Christians been doing wrong for so long that this has not been able to happen?” Then again I have to remind myself that I have been excommunicated from a middle of the road Pentecostal denomination for doing such things. So, I guess I already know the answer to that question.
Author Bio:: Pastor Phil Wyman lives in Salem, MA. He has been married to his Babe Bev for over 25 years. They have one son who is married and living in Asheville, NC, one greyhound, and a squirrel who leave the basement. He pastors a church in Salem called The Gathering, and they are getting ready for Halloween, which is a month long event in Salem. Wanna join them? It’s a missional blast.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is so central to the Christian faith that no other alleged “gospel” can ever be acceptable. No other person, agenda, or story can compete with the gospel of Jesus for saving the world from our rebellion and just punishment. The good news that Jesus lives, reigns, and saves is a specifically religious proclamation, but the gospel permeates and affects Christian belief in all areas of life, public and private.
It is tempting to rest our Christian hopes for realizing God’s kingdom on a particular political ideology or strategy. In other words, while seeking to fulfill our responsibility to be engaged politically, Christians can unwittingly come to trust in a political, kingdom-promising “gospel” that proclaims how the world’s salvation from wrong, evil, and its cursed condition can be achieved. While being faithfully politically engaged, corporately and individually Christians can become co-opted into being politically confined within a particular party or agenda.
One way to correct that temptation is to stay ever mindful of the Christian Church’s fundamentally international identity. Central to the good news of Jesus is the truth that all kinds of people belong to his people: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). No aspect of Christians’ multifaceted identities is deeper than that of being “one in Christ Jesus” – whereby our Jewish-Greek national-ethnic loyalties are trumped by our transnational Christian unity. Christians of all nationalities should have their politics informed by the viewpoints of others around the world, thus checking the ever-present sinkhole into nationalistic provincialism that affects all people everywhere.
The same story that inspired Roman imperialism is the false gospel we are concerned about today; it is what theologian Walter Wink has called the “myth of redemptive violence.” Expressed in the ancient Babylonian creation story called the Enuma Elish, this myth says that the universe and human beings are the leftovers of a bloody war among the gods. Creation itself is a violent process, and history is naturally the violent struggle to bring order into the realm of chaos. Like the Babylonian Empire before it and many others since, the Roman Empire spread with this violent but glorious message of hope for humanity. The Roman Caesars claimed to be gods and saviors of the ancient world because their military conquests brought the good news of Roman order into the realm of barbarian chaos. Paradise lay within the boarders of the Pax Romana, or the Roman Peace, while the war between good and evil continued to rage along the frontiers.
Christian mission has to pursue contextualization while avoiding syncretism. On the one hand, contextualization is the retelling of the Christian story in the language of a particular culture’s false gospel; for example, saying that Jesus is Lord instead of Caesar or saying that God is defeating evil through the cross rather than through human war. Syncretism, on the other hand, holds on to the original false gospel while adding a gloss of Christian language and symbols on top.
Writing in the early 1800s during the development of German nationalism, G. F. Hegel used Christian language to express ideas that were patently un-Christian. He fashioned his philosophy of history after the Creation-Fall-Redemption structure of the Christian story while completely identifying God with the historical process itself. As a variation on the myth of redemptive violence, Hegel identified violent struggle between competing political ideologies as the driving force in human progress. When we hear academics today call liberal democracy the “end of history,” or when we hear politicians say that the United States has a “calling from history” or that “the war on terror is the defining ideological struggle of our generation,” Hegel is the quiet elephant sitting in the corner.
One major challenge for Christians in the United States today (especially theologically conservative evangelicals like the authors of this article) arises from the fact that two of many Americans’ most valued political ideologies also tell violent grand narratives, Social Progressivism and Neo-Conservatism. The older one, Social Progressivism, developed in competition with Communism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The newer one, Neo-Conservatism, grew out of Liberal Anti-Communism in the 1970s during a resurgence of interest in Hegel’s philosophy of history. Each of these political ideologies envisions a utopian future brought into the present by efficient violence and skillful use of less violent, but still coercive, soft power.
Over the past few years and across the U. S. political spectrum, clever speech writers and political consultants have decided to use Christian language to communicate their secular ideologies. One political party has begun trying to use “the language of faith” to win back religious voters. The other major party, which has been contextualizing its political vision into Christian language for several decades now, has recently included in its rationale for two wars religious rhetoric claiming that “History” or “Providence” (depending on the audience) has called our nation to vanquish evil. Our president and his speechwriters have taken words from the Bible about Jesus and applied them to American idealism: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” Neo-conservative intellectuals and policy makers are talking about a Pax Americana and arguing that the U.S. military is “the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.” They believe that violent American power, wisely directed at establishing democratic governments sympathetic to the interests of a globalized free market, has the best chance of bringing order to a barbaric and chaotic world of terror.
Sincere, Bible-believing Christians often will disagree about particular political issues, including how most effectively the United States should fight hostile terrorism in a post-9/11 world. Even so, when narrowly focused narratives about the political process morph into all-encompassing stories about human development and restoration, they have gone too far. Grand political ideologies about the violent unfolding of human history are false gospels, plain and simple.
We see two ways that these false gospels have sometimes become synchronized with American Christianity. In some communities, political ideology is brought into the church and completely melted with Christian language and theology into a single thought system. But syncretism also happens when political ideology gets artificially sealed off from the rest of our theology and assigned to the task of political, social, and material salvation. We must beware our tendencies to keep Jesus as our spiritual savior while making the glorious violence of the U.S. military our hope for a better world. The only way to confront this compartmentalized form of syncretism is to do what Paul does in his letter to the Colossians: announce that Jesus is Lord Redeemer of all areas of life, including all powers and authorities, and that his victory over the forces of evil happened on the cross and in his resurrection.
In general, conservative evangelicals in the U. S. are behind when it comes to identifying and publicly denouncing the myth of redemptive violence in our culture’s political ideologies. Why have we been so slow? We have been slow because this terminology first developed among liberal theologians like Walter Wink in the early Nineties. We have been slow because much of the impetus for denouncing the myth of redemptive violence has come from the Sojourner’s movement and from others who identify themselves as theologically evangelical and conservative but politically progressive, a scary label for many of us. We have been slow because the helpful concepts criticizing the redemptive violence myth have been inappropriately used to criticize God’s violent judgment upon sin and the sacrificial atonement Jesus offered to his Father on the cross. Finally, our natural alliance with U. S. socio-economic-political power (domestically as well as internationally) might cause us to lose a great deal in terms of our socio-economic-political comforts if we criticize the ideology that helps to underpin that power.
Because we think in terms of redemptive history and believe that Jesus is Lord over all of life, we should be the first Christians to protest when violent political ideologies are expressed with the language and structure of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. We should be the first to protest when politicians use biblical language about Jesus to describe American ideals spreading violently around the world. And we should be the first to distinguish carefully between the judgment of God, which is appropriately violent, and eschatological progress in this age between the two advents of Christ, which has nothing to do with the violent advance of benevolent empires or political ideologies. In the Bible, violence is punishment, not progress.
Embracing God’s mission around the world means opposing false gospels that compete against Jesus’ way of bringing God’s reign to earth. Like all human beings, Christians will always have hopes for the future, political and otherwise, and we might communicate those hopes in the form of stories. But we shouldn’t pair Jesus up with a political ideology and teach that each is sovereign over their respective realms. Some of us might continue to identifying ourselves as progressive or conservative on Election Day, but without a syncretistic gospel, we might not accuse Christians from another political persuasion of working for the Enemy.
A just peace is a goal toward which all Christians can gladly aspire. We will disagree on how to move toward that goal, especially regarding political-military issues. Surely, though, we can agree that espousing military violence as the primary means by which a just peace will be achieved is a false gospel. Jesus reigns, and he is returning. May that gospel shape the contours of our hopes and dreams for God’s redemption of his world.
Author Bio:: Bill McLellan is a senior at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
Dr. J. Nelson Jennings is a professor of world mission at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. — Jesus
If ever there was a part of the Bible that seems tailor-made to affirm our so-called “separation of Church and State”, the relegation of religion into a private sphere while civic life inhabits the public, this would be the one. Indeed, many people with whom I have discussed issues related to faith and radicalism, especially Christianity and anarchism, bring out this text as a “proof” that what we are doing is somehow Biblically inadequate. I would say this is the text most employed for that purpose after Romans 13:1-7. The general popular view seems to be that this text either advocates such a separation as mentioned above, counsels “making nice” with the authorities, or both. When the statement is read in its context, however, this view becomes untenable.
Since this is Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, which my church follows, I’ll stick to Matthew’s telling of the story.
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away (Matthew 22:15-22, TNIV).
A few things worth noting:
- This is a trap. It would have been well-known by this time that, at the very least, a large number of people considered Jesus to be the Messiah or a related figure (the Prophet, etc.), a role which would have carried very specific revolutionary and anti-imperial connotations. We know now that resistance movements against the Romans were, if not a dime a dozen, far from uncommon - and usually dealt with harshly. That is precisely the genius of the trap: If Jesus answers the question in the affirmative, that the tax should be paid, he gives legitimacy to Israel’s status as subject to Rome, and therefore undermines himself in the eyes of the people - in addition to committing an offense under the Mosaic Law (ironic, since the Pharisees were supposedly all about the law). If he answers in the negative, he is guilty of sedition and subject to punishment, likely crucifixion (which, as we all know, is exactly what eventually happened to Jesus).
- It was not just disciples of the Pharisees who went to Jesus, but also Herodians, that is to say members of the collaborative government. Far from being simply an internal matter of faith and civic life, this is a confrontation between Jesus and representatives both of his own people (and Pharisees generally had no love for the establishment) and of the imperial oppressors.
- The imperial tax in question was levied by Rome only on subject peoples, not on Roman citizens. It was a particularly hated tax, and could ONLY be paid with Roman coin. The temple coin and local currencies were considered worthless for the purpose of paying this tax. Thus the tax not only imposed a burden on subject peoples, but reinforced the image of Roman superiority and of Caesar’s status due to the inscriptions found on the coin.
- The question Jesus asks is “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” That is, whose image is on the coin, and to whom does the inscription refer? The question is of monumental importance.
The image and inscription on the coin, as Jesus’ questioner recognizes, are Caesar’s - Tiberius Caesar, the emperor at the time. This much is given in the text explicitly, but what modern readers fail to realize is that it was precisely the image and inscription that caused great offense to the Jews. The image of Caesar would widely have been seen by the Jews to be a violation of the command to “have no graven image”, the second commandment from the Decalogue. As if that was not offensive enough, the inscription to which Jesus refers would have translated as “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Tiberius, son of the god, Augustus. And, of course, if his father was a god, what would that make Tiberius the son? Thus the coin breaches the first commandment as well.
In Jewish eyes this coin was a mockery of and an affront to their most cherished beliefs - that YHWH alone is God, and cannot be imaged by anything created by human hands. It is this very affront that was the reminder of the Jews’ subjugation to the pagan imperial powers - it was not just a “civic” matter, separate from “religious” concerns, but a fundamental challenge to their identity as God’s chosen people. This coin and the tax it was used to pay represented the whole oppressive system that entangled the Jews, and for Jesus to legitimate it would have done more than just undermine his status before the people - it may have set him up for a lynching, particularly since one of the expected tasks of the Messiah was to re-establish Torah as the primary guide for the life of the people and, as mentioned above, paying the tax was technically illegal under the Mosaic law.
This is a prophetic confrontation worthy of being noted with Elijah on Mount Carmel, an encounter with critical implications. Not only did the coin breach the first two commandments of the Decalogue, but on the reverse side it had an inscription referring to peace, the Pax Romana, which everyone knew was enforced by violence and threat, and lauding Tiberius as the Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest of the empire and its subject peoples. The Messiah was the one who was to usher in the reign of God’s peace, the true peace, and also to take on the role of the high priest of God’s people (a belief the author of Hebrews applies to Jesus quite creatively). That is, the Messiah was to be God’s priest-king, combining the roles of David, Melchizidek, and Judah Maccabbee from Jewish lore. The coin essentially claims that for Caesar which was only true of the Messiah - only true of Jesus.
So how does Jesus reply? “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” In other words, “This coin represents Caesar’s reality, the one you accept by rejecting God’s truth as you have done and obstinately continue to do despite my repeated efforts to call you back to faithfulness (remember that in the next chapter Jesus delivers a scathing rebuke to the Pharisees and chief priests). Give it back to him and do not bother with it any more than you have to - it should be of no consequence to you, but because of your lust for power you entangle yourselves in Caesar’s world. Give it back to him, consider it of no importance. Forget it, and get on with the true reality, the reality God has created and has chosen you for as would-be leaders of his people. Remember God’s will, and do it!”
There is no room for separate spheres of “religious” and “political” in Jesus’ reply. As William Cavanaugh likes to say, scripture says “The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it.” If the whole earth belongs to God, then what does that leave for Caesar? The only thing Caesar gets is his own image thrown back in his face, the symbol of his non-reality that cannot stand up to the truth of God’s reign and the coming kingdom.
Jesus’ statement is far from an endorsement either of modern liberal views on religion and the state inhabiting different spheres or of any kind of allegiance given to the imperial powers (nor is it, I believe, primarily about tax resistance, though some forms of tax resistance may be possible applications of the text). Instead, it is fundamentally a challenge to the vision of reality the powers would push upon his people and a call, I believe, for his followers to seek to disentangle themselves from the web of power politics and economics. After all, if we do not have what belongs to Caesar, if our economy is (as much as possible) extracted from the imperial economy, what can we possibly be obligated to give? Jesus’ response to this trap question urges us to enter into the divine imagination to strive to re-conceive our economic and power relations to one another.
What might such an alternate imagination look like, and what sorts of ways of living might be engendered by it? How can such an imagination be birthed and nurtured?
“The Church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to discern and the courage to expose the Gospel as it is already mediated in the life of the poor…When the Church has the freedom itsdeelf to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will know also how to minister among the rich and powerful. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world. When the Church has the freedom to go out into the world with merely the Gospel to offer the world, then it will know how to use whatever else it has–money and talent and buildings and tapestries and power in politics–as sacraments of its gift of its own life to the world, as tokens of the ministry of Christ.”
–William Stringfellow in A Private and Public Faith, 1962
Every time I read this quote, my mind trips over it…and it confirms something that the Spirit has been agitating in my gut: our job as the Church isn’t to redistribute wealth. Nor is our job so condescending as to share in our “blessings” or to “live simply so that others may simply live.” I’m not saying that wealthy people should keep hoarding wealth or that we should live a life of consumer whoredom.
But when we put such socio-economic concerns in the wrong perspective, we tell God’s story all wrong. It is like starting a joke with the punchline.
Jesus isn’t some sort of Religious Robin Hood. His mission wasn’t simply to redistribute assets from the powerful to the powerless, from the oppressor to the oppressed, from the wealthy to the poor. Rather, it was to name the poverty and powerlessness and oppression of all people and to bring freedom. Freedom from ourselves, freedom from our violence, freedom from sin. And that freedom only comes when we let the Gospel–the reality that God is with us in Christ Jesus–transform us.
Jesus offers freedom from oppression. That is good news, both the the oppressors and the oppressed. Both the fat American and his skinnier global counterpart are enslaved by the same global system of oppression. They are both crushed in the gears of a demonic machine. It is from that machine that Jesus came to set us free. And once we have that freedom, we can be free to do other things…like give our affluence to the poor. Or speak to the Powers. Or realize that no Man can oppress us, since we are already free.
I’ve realized that I sometimes get things mixed up. It is easy to replace the radical message of Christ for something like the radical message of Marx. They aren’t even close to the same thing.
And I have cringed when talking about the Gospel on occasion because I mistakenly allowed the word “Gospel” to be defined by traditional Evangelicalism, where the tendency is to use the word to signify something like a legal transaction by which the penalty for our sin has been taken by the death of a god-man, and that this message must simply be affirmed for the transaction to take place.
The solution to that mistake isn’t simply to exchange it for its Liberal counterpart (which, like Evangelicalism, privatizes the faith except for that dimension of our faith that is useful for affirming progressive socio-political agendas).
Nor is the solution to do what so many are doing these days: to simply wed the two views into some sort of hideous chimera. We can put makeup and a dress on this chimera, but it will still remain an ugly beast.
The Kingdom of God is here. It is in and among us just as the King is in and among us. Why do we refuse to let that reality shape our imaginations? Why do we, instead, act as though all we have to offer the world is either the precepts of Christ (as filterd through Marx) made manifest through a better society (as one group would have us do) or the meaning of the Cross (as filtered through the Reformation then through Evangelicalism) as reproducable on a Gospel Tract?
The first group renders the Kingdom into a progressive utopia. The second into a theological abstraction. But what if we were to try to understand it as a present reality?
St. Augustine once wrote that he was a mystery even to himself. He goes on to say, that we exist in a fluctuation of concealment and unconcealment. As humans we understand our selves or Dasein only in moments of clarity. This moment of clarity is for Augustine the idea of God. We can turn away or towards this idea in a Kerkegaardian ‘leap of faith’. Even in Heidegger we see this idea secularized with the taint of his theology training. Man is constantly in turmoil in his existence. Existence is this idea of how we self interpret ourselves. Only through self interpretation do we exist as we find ourselves, and often described in facticity, such as I am male, white, American. Can dasein find itself without negating itself?
Our self-interpretation is who we decide or even pretend to be. As Shakespeare said quite poetically “The world is a stage, and we are merely players”. When our role becomes something different than we have prefigured for it, we begin to contemplate our existence which causes the existential angst depicted so well in the now famous painting by Edward Munch (Scream). Martin Heidegger coined the term life in historical facticity which I find absolutely fascinating because it explains that we can only decide to be something that historically makes sense in our throwness in this particular epoch.
For instance, Christ could only be the Christ in the particular epoch in which he became incarnated, or we could say he would have only been recognized as Christ (the anointed). In any other historical time, Christ could have been branded a witch (a practitioner of magik), a lunatic, and yes even a terrorist. To actually try to get into the ontology of Christ is not my intention in this short piece, but it seems this would be quite interesting.
Getting back to Augustine for a bit, and then heading back to Heidegger, we see in Augustine this idea that we must become face to face with ourselves. We need to go beyond our memories and our everydayness in order to come to the stark reality that we are not truly at home within ourselves. Augustine states “There was no way to flee from myself”. Heidegger states the same when he invokes us to begin thinking, to go beyond Plato and the Greek understanding of metaphysics, Heidegger states “we are not yet thinking”. He states this, because we are only thinking on a cursory or superficial level. We need to think of ourselves thinking or off the map of our minds in a regress of sorts in order to get beyond the factical self. The map is proverbial, but only because I have not gotten into the topological aspect of some kind of Badiouian Set Theory.
Heidegger moves on from there, and relates the entire problem with death. The true problem is our relation with death. Our struggle is an existential struggle which is always a reminder that as finite creatures we will perish. This is why in Tibetan Buddhism, they have such an intimacy with death. To meditate on death is to defeat it, and to welcome it as a new journey. (Helps that they believe in the returning of conscious experience in another form).
Even in Augustine, his entire Confessions is a literary journey of the will. The will chases after everything it desires, but in Augustine and even in Lacan the will is nothing but a symptom. To chase after desire is an exercise in futility, because nothing on earth will satisfy the lack.
(title pic courtesy of Simon Grossi)
Author Bio:: Scott Maxwell is a writer who focuses on Marx, Religion, Ontology, to describe the reality that is no longer visible to a species that has separated itself.
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