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 Paul, and 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.