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Christianity Without Metaphysics

There’s a debate swirling in the PCA circles I grew up in about how one should respond to doubt in Christianity.  It started with Nicholas Kristof’s interview with Tim Keller in the New York Times that led to this response from Pete Enns, a dispute that was written up here.  Enns is concerned that Keller does not take seriously the questions sympathetic sorts have for Christianity about things like the virgin birth and the resurrection.  As Enns argues, these aren’t just questions about the compatibility of such claims with science but more the inconsistency of the Biblical texts themselves on these points.  The problem for me was never these particular points but with the account of the specific workings of a substitutional atonement understanding of Christianity.  Why was God restrained by a formula that demanded the death of God in order for things to be right with human beings?  How could a cosmic formula or justice or call it what you will constrain an all-powerful God?   How did believing or failing to believe certain things about what happened two thousand years ago have a metaphysical effect on the destiny of my soul?

The most sympathetic answers to these questions in evangelical circles come from those who offer more contextualized readings of the life and death of Jesus to explain how it would have been understood in the first century.  Those readings consider Jewish understandings of sacrifice and resurrection and argue that Jesus is a fulfillment of certain expectations.  Such accounts go some way to resist the substitutional atonement.  But they make Christianity appear to be the sublation of Judaism, it’s proper fulfillment, a reading which makes Judaism the problem to which Christianity is the answer.  Further, these accounts cannot explain the question of how something that happened two thousand years has a metaphysical effect on anyone’s soul today.

Through the fall, a friend and I have been reading a series of books by Ted Jennings, professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.  We started with Reading Derrida / Thinking Pauland then went on to Transforming Atonement and Outlaw Justice.  The first and last are more academic books and the second is more accessible, and lo and behold, it answers my question about how what happened two thousand years ago can have a metaphysical effect on my soul.  The answer is: it doesn’t.

Jennings is not saying that Christianity therefore has no effect or that it is just a story.  He argues throughout what might be called this trilogy that Christianity should be understood as a political philosophy for everyone not a set of beliefs that save by being believed.  Central to his argument is understanding the significance of Jesus’ life and especially his death in its historical moment.  Part of Jennings’ project is to reconcile the seemingly opposed projects of Jesus’ life–understood as a mercy mission–and Jesus’ death–understood as the settling of a cosmic injustice that leads to individual salvation.

Arguing that Paul’s attack on the law is as much if not more an attack on the inability of Roman law to save, Jennings points to the cultural meaning of death on a Roman cross.  The cross was a sign of imperial rule.  Death on a cross operates as a military-political act by an imperial power against those who might be a threat to it.  Jesus’ death on a cross associates him with the bandits he dies alongside as well as the political assassin, Barabbas, who the crowd asks to be freed instead of Jesus, suggesting a kind of substitutability between them.  The execution of Jesus is defended as what a friend of the emperor would do in John 19:12.  Jennings argues that Jesus is not aiming to leave that world to create a new other world that leaves the earthly one in tact.  Rather, by dying in this way, Jesus illuminates the failure of violence to ensure justice.

What seems to be involved here is something like a policy to prevent the Jesus movement from being simply another small-scale rebellion against imperial power that Rome knows only too well how to crush.  The aim is, on the one hand, to be plausibly mistaken for such a movement but also, on the other hand, to be decisively different.  Jesus’ surrender to the authorities and the acquiescence to his fate seem as if they served the political purpose that is at work here.  That is, they serve to separate Jesus from the mob that is all too ready to engage in suicidal uprisings.  Perhaps they point to a way that actually robs the empire of its legitimacy, forcing it to show its violence without resorting to violence, and thus breaking the cycle of reciprocal violence (39-40).

Jennings rejects readings of the Gospels that hold the will of God responsible for the death of Jesus.  Instead, Jennings argues that Paul’s analysis of the death of Jesus, by pointing to “Messiah, and him as crucified” enacts a political project that exposes the illegitimacy of empire by showing its dependence on violence.

In Outlaw Justice, Jennings argues through a reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans that Paul understands Jesus to oppose justice to the law.  If we understand Jesus to die lawfully at the hands of the Romans who follow an apparently just law that executes those who threaten the empire, then law itself is shown to be inadequate to salvation.  Justice is shown to be in excess of the law.  Christian commentators through the centuries have read the critique of the law in Romans as a critique of Jewish law in a move that depoliticizes the meaning of Jesus’ death and makes it a matter of personal salvation: works or law.  And along the way, this reading justifies Christian superiority to the Jewish tradition.  But this reading comes after Christianity itself has become associated with empire in such a way that makes it invested in individualizing and personalizing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Jennings points to the way that death appears in Romans as what those who understand justice to be beyond the law can overcome, not because they are delivered into some other plane beyond mortality, but because death as the site in which the law operates as the power over life and death ceases to have any power.  If we don’t see the law as the site of justice than the threat of death has no power.

I think part of what Jennings’ analysis frames is the way that this account of Christianity as a political philosophy requires overcoming the resentment toward mortality that has long accompanied Christianity.  If Christianity is not a means of living beyond this world, but a means of transforming this world to be just, not by needing to have certain notions of whether Jesus was born of a virgin or rose from the dead, but by recognizing the inability of the law to save, then Christianity performs the illegitimacy of imperial power.  It is not a promise of eternal life.  It does not mourn mortality, it mourns a world in which the threat of death is what motivates action in the face of the law.  Its mode of action is to continue to perform that illegitimacy by showing how the law works through violence.

If this account of Christianity would seem to make anyone who resists the power of the law through violence Christian, perhaps it does.  It’s contemporary exemplary practitioners would be Troy Davis and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray.  Calling those who show the illegitimacy of the law whose power is rooted in death is a problem when Christianity is understood as the identity of the imperial power, where such identity shores up further privileges.  But if it is not an identity but a political philosophy and specifically a political philosophy aimed at destroying imperial power, and transforming the world into a just one, then there is no power to be gained by being called a Christian, no special association one can have that says I’m saved you are not.  The power would be only in the collective capacity to seek justice beyond the law.

Photo by Sunil.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. First of all, thank you for grappling with such matters. This, for a Christian, is where the rubber meets the road theologically speaking. Your last paragraph resonates powerfully with me. But I’m wondering if we need do away with atonement and heaven in order to have Christianity as empire-subverting and Justice-affirming? I realize that reading Christianity through 2,000 years of re-re-reinterpretation by all and sundry makes it harder to triangulate what those original Jesus People understood Jesus’ mission to be. But surely not impossible? As I read the gospel accounts it seems clear enough that those writers emphase Christ’s death for our sins.

    As I and so many liberal to progressive (politically speaking) Christians try to grapple with the meltdown of American Evangelicalism into a fascist movement, we are (being honest) also forced into having to reassess everything we’ve thought we knew about our faith. This is good. But for me, the river into all-out unbelief is crossed once I say that I no longer understand Christ’s death as having eternal significance not only here but in the hereafter. And… is Christ merely a great man along the lines of the wonderful Ghandi? Or is he truly fully God, fully man in a way no other human has been or ever will be?

    For me, I still believe the New Testament narratives of Scripture to be faithful recountings of historical events, and inspired interpretations of those events. Yet, I also embrace — many think with too much fervency — the belief that for any of my beliefs to mean something here and now requires me to see faith as present in the world, a struggle for Justice for the Other even more than for myself.

    Thank you again for such rich dialogue.

    January 5, 2017
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate this tension very much. One thing Jennings says in Transforming Atonement is that the Christian church in America is largely divided between those who take Jesus’ life as what matters–a mission of mercy–and those who take Jesus’ death as what matters–as process of salvation. Jennings argues that we need not find these opposed and that by reading Jesus’ death in this light we can see it as consistent with Jesus’ life theologically. I’d recommend Ted Jennings’ books if you want to get further into why this account of atonement is truer to the text than the “Christ died for our sins” line. I was especially convinced by Outlaw Justice, which is a commentary on Romans. Jennings argues that salvation is a political concept that has to do with establishing and defending the common good, which is why the emperor could be called the savior. One interesting point Jennings raises (in Transforming Atonement) is that we suppose that it is God who must be reconciled, who must be brought to accept humanity, but the language of the New Testament makes it clear that it is humanity who is angry with God, and given the injustice in the world, they have reason to be. Thus, it doesn’t make sense on these terms to think the cross puts human beings right with God, but rather that it is way that God transforms the way justice is pursued and enacted. Jennings is importantly NOT saying Christ was just a great man, his death was transformative. Just not in the metaphysical way we suppose.
      It is hard for me to understand what makes “Christ’s death as having eternal significance” so important if not for an anxiety about death. Why do we so resent that our time in this world is only so long? What if we thought of our time in this world as a time for transforming this world? The account of the meaning of Christ’s death becomes metaphysical in order to not be political suggests that that move is in itself a political one that keeps us focused on another world and not on this one. I really don’t see how Christians can really transform this world until they think this world, because it is the only one, is the one that most matters.

      January 5, 2017
      • I will look into Jennings, thank you.

        Re “this world, because it is the only one, is the one that most matters…” I think it significant that the bible — unlike many of those who say they believe it’s teachings — does suggest that there is not just a heaven but rather “a new earth.” If this earth is of only passing importance, why transform it rather than just erasing it? I don’t think, in fact, that’s what the biblical authors meant. N T Wright (among other theologians) doesn’t appear to think so, either. Rather, the “New Earth” is this earth — transformed, healed, made wholly right — and this teaching should help Christians turn toward a theology of now rather than a theology focused on “pie in the sky by and by when we die” (as your Grandmother used to mockingly say to me!). I realize I’m always wanting to reconcile the two halves here… but unlike some topics, I think they are perhaps reconcilable in ways worthy of exploration.

        January 5, 2017
  2. This has given me something to chew on. I’ve always taken the Jewish law paradigm for granted in the Pauline epistles. I’m kind of anxious to reread Romans with an eye for how Paul’s dichotomy between grace and law might be subverting the language of Empire. As a Wesleyan, I’ve never been held captive to substitutionary atonement theory. I’ve always much rather embrace the cross as a mystery than subscribe to any scheme that makes a God a moral monster to be satiated with the blood of the innocent. I have noticed people taking a second look at the older Christus Victor model as a way forward. I think you can have Christ’s triumph over evil without subscribing to a metaphysical devil presiding over a literal hell. If we understand that evil is greater than mere individuals or this or that idea and that the world is truly captive to it (not a hard leap these days), then we can look to the way of sacrificial love as the answer to the problem. Somehow in suffering with humanity, in choosing to be the oppressed and not the empire, Christ secured victory for all who walk in the way of self-sacrificial love.

    March 24, 2017

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