Friday, February 16, 2007

The sacrificial lamb of God

Atonement: Substitution or Participation?

It is probably fair to say that "substitutionary atonement" is the only way that many of even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus. That theological interpretation asserts that: (1) God has been deeply offended and dishonored by human sin; but (2) no amount of finite human punishment can atone for the infinite divine offense; so (3) God sent his own Divine Son to accept death as punishment for our sins in our place; and therefore (4) God's forgiveness is now freely available for all repentant sinners.

It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness.

The basic and controlling metaphor for that understanding of God's design is our own experience of a responsible human judge who, no matter how loving, cannot legitimately or validly walk into her courtroom and clear the docket of all offenders by anticipatory forgiveness.

The doctrine of vicarious, or substitutionary, atonement begs, of course, the question of whether God must or should be seen as a human judge writ large and absolute. That is surely not the only and maybe not the best metaphor for God. What about the metaphor, for example, in which God is fundamentally Parent (Father, if you prefer) rather than Judge? As such, and indeed as the Bible repeatedly asserts, God's unpunishing forgiveness has always been, is now, and ever will be freely available to any repentant sinner at any place at any time.

But how then do you move beyond forgiveness to establish a positive union with God as loving Parent? Since Jesus is for Christians the revelation, the image, and the best vision possible of that God, it is only by participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that such a salvific "at-one-ment" is possible.

Go back now and read once again those three prophecies, reactions, and responses in Mark 8:31-91, 9:31-37, and 10:33-45 in light of that choice between God as Judge or as Parent, that choice between "substitution by Jesus" for us or "participation by us in Jesus". Notice, above all, how repeatedly Mark has Jesus insist that Peter, James and John, the Twelve, and all his followers on the way from Caeserea Philippi to Jerusalem must pass with him through death to a resurrected life whose content and style was spelled out relentlessly against their refusals to accept it.

For Mark, it is about "participation with" Jesus and not "substitution by" Jesus. Lent asks us to repent, change, and participate in that transition with Jesus. But to do so, as we know, would be to negate the normalcy of civilization's lust for domination and to deny the legitimacy of what lords and kings have always been and what nations and empires have always done.

- excerpted the book, The Last Week, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

The feeding of the five thousand

Mark's story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes begins by establishing two divergent solutions to a hunger situation. People (five thousand, Mark says) have listened to Jesus all day in a deserted place, it is now late, and they are hungry.

The solution from the disciples is quite reasonable: "Send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat" (6:36).

The alternate solution from Jesus seems quite impossible, "You give them something to eat" (6:37), to which the disciples respond, "Are we to go and buy two hundred dinari worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?"

This difference between Jesus and his disciples is established, yet as the story proceeds Jesus forces them to participate step by step as intermediaries in the entire process.

Jesus has them find what food is available (6:38), make the people sit down in groups (6:39), distribute the food (6:41), and pick up what is left over afterward (6:43).

In other words, they are forced to accept and particpate in Jesus's solution (give them food) and not in their own (send them away).

Note that Jesus does not bring down manna from heaven or turn stones into food. He takes what is already there, the five loaves and two fishes, and, when it passed through Jesus's hands, there is more than enough, much more than enough, for everyone present.

The point of this story is not multiplication, but distribution. The food already there is enough for all when it passes through the hands of Jesus as the incarnation of divine justice.

The disciples--think of them as the already present kingdom community in microcosm, or as the leads of that community--do not see that as their responsibility and are forced to accept it by Jesus. Behind that, of course, is an entire theology of creation in which God owns the world, demands that all get a fair share of its goods, and appoints humans as stewards to establish God's justice on earth.

- excerpted from the book, The Last Week, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Paul and empire

Interview with Adam S. Miller

Journal of Philosophy and Scripture

JPS: In order to frame our discussion of your new book In Search of Paul, co-authored with Jonathan L. Reed, I'd like to begin by asking a few general questions about the nature of your research as a whole. Traditionally, Christian thought has been shaped by a tension between Athens and Jerusalem or philosophy and scripture. While there are a number of different ways in which this tension may be interpreted, one possible reading of this tension is as the difference between reason and authority or science and revelation. Has this tension shaped your work as well? And if so, in what ways?

JDC: The immediate answer is yes, without a doubt. Because, as I understand Christianity, to speak to that for the moment, it is always a dialectic - that is the precise term, rather than tension - a dialectic between faith and history or any other way you'd like to formulate it. And by a dialectic I mean two items or phenomena that can be distinguished but not separated. The two sides of a coin would be an analogy. Heads or tails, left or right, top or bottom - you can distinguish them but you cannot separate them. So for me there is always a tension between reason and revelation, science and religion, faith and history, a tension that within Christianity has always been there. And actually, without in any way imposing Christianity on anyone else, this has broader application. I don't see how there could possibly be any kind of thought that was totally reason because that would be an act of faith itself. I do not understand how you could have a vision of life that was totally scientific since that would involve an act of faith that you could get a vision that is totally scientific. So I do not for a moment think that the concept of faith has to be Christian, not at all. But I do think that you cannot get along in life without what we call by various names reason and revelation, and certainly, like my model of the coin or any dialectic, it's extremely hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It may be clear on the extremes that one thing is an act of faith and another is an act of historical judgment, but in the middle I do not think that we can distinguish them whether we like it or not.

JPS: If we're talking about a dialectic between scripture and philosophy or faith and history, are you aligning history with philosophy and faith with scripture?

JDC: Well, I presume so, but that is up to philosophy to define for itself. Within scripture there is no talk of philosophy. Scripture talks only about wisdom. This word is about as close as we can get to what the Greeks might call philosophy. The Bible would call it wisdom. And biblical authors think that wisdom is a gift of God to everyone. But the Bible is also quite clear that its wisdom is superior because it is revelation. But in general it assumed that wisdom is something that everyone can have, a gift of God to everyone. It's not secular, not in our sense. It's not reason in our sense either, that would presume a distinction that the Bible does not make. The Bible presumes that both reason and revelation, to use those categories, are gifts from God.

JPS: Do you think that this Biblical conception of wisdom is still accessible to us today? Or do we find ourselves in an entirely different situation insofar as we experience a break between science and revelation?

JDC: Well, in one sense, yes; in another, no. Here's the problem. First of all, the Bible, the New Testament, they are all operating in a pre-enlightenment world. In a pre-enlightenment world it is taken for granted by everyone (expect maybe some very erudite philosophers who don't believe in it, but the general culture takes it for granted) that, for example, divine babies can be conceived, that gods can come to earth and have intercourse with mortals and that this intercourse can produce divine babies. They take it for granted. It's simply part of the baggage of their culture. Therefore in their culture, in a pre-enlightenment culture, to announce that your Jesus is a divine child is not going to get the general post-enlightenment reaction that this can't happen, couldn't happen, doesn't happen, we don't believe that stuff. It might get the reaction that we don't believe your claim, but they cannot and would not argue that it could not happen. What they would like to know is: what has your baby done for anyone? If your Jesus is divine, what has he done for the world? That is a pre-enlightenment question. The post-enlightenment argument that it can't happen is never used in the first century. The most you'll ever get is that we don't believe your claim. So in a pre-enlightenment world, whether we live in a post-enlightenment world or not, we have to respect that. For example, if Paul goes around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, the immediate answer from a polite, pious pagan is not that we don't believe in that stuff. The proper answer is: good for you, good for Jesus, but so what? We've heard these kinds of stories before, what's he done for us? That is a pre-enlightenment question.

Secondly, I find myself less and less convinced that we are living in post-enlightenment world. The more I see of current pop culture, at least in this culture, the more I am inclined to think that fantasy has entirely taken over and I don't think that that is post-enlightenment. I no longer know whether or not people coming out of The Matrix think, gee that was fun, what a fantastic story, or if they come out thinking that it's real. I can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality anymore even in our foreign policy. I no longer know what our president believes. I don't see the evidence that we're living in a post-enlightenment world. So, for me, the contemporary debates between science and philosophy get lost in a mess of fantasy. I recall a line from William Butler Yeats that when you grow up on fantasy, you grow old in brutality. Fantasy is fine as a vacation, but when it becomes the bulk of our daily diet I fear that we no longer know the difference between fantasy and reality - and that breeds brutality.

JPS: This line of thought brings me directly to my next question. In a paper that you delivered in September 1997 at Villanova University you express concern about what you call the "long slow victory of Gnostic [Christianity] over Catholic Christianity."2 Could you address the nature of your reservations about the contemporary dominance of "Gnostic" readings of scripture? And do these concerns connect with the reservations you just expressed about fantasy?

JDC: Yes, absolutely. Let me put it in a larger framework. One thing that I noticed in researching for this book is that way back in the beginning of the last century, 1907, two different scholars, a British scholar named William Mitchell Ramsay and a German scholar named Gustav Adolph Deissmann, got on a train and a boat and a horse and went around the Pauline sites and saw the inscriptions that say that Caesar Augustus was divine, was the son of god, was god, was lord, was redeemer, was savior of the world. They saw all that and they said, as it were: Oh, my God! That is what it's all about! They saw that when Jesus was called by those same titles it was not simply the result of picking up the cultural debris of his contemporary world. It was saying, in effect: these are the titles of Caesar, but we refuse them to Caesar and assign them instead to Jesus. They were not simply applying to Jesus ordinary words in everyday language. So in 1907 these scholars saw the implications. But instead of the twentieth century building a theology on this realization - which of course would have been one-hundred percent political and one-hundred percent religious, something capable of pointing to that deep basis where religion and politics coincide - we went off into existential demythologization and it was the last thing the twentieth century needed. We went into a kind of personalized, existentialized individualism when what we needed was the kind of powerful political/religious understanding of Christianity authentic to the first century. I'm not even talking about an application of it. I'm just talking about seeing what was there, seeing why Jesus was crucified, seeing that the Romans got it right. That's part of what I see happening right now. On the one hand we have - though they are only straws in the wind at the moment, they are big straws in a big wind - a growing insistence on the political and religious implications of Christianity. I'm extremely excited. This is not just talking politics but talking about what Jesus called the kingdom of God, what Paul called the Lordship of Christ, which is simply a way of saying who is in charge of the world. And counterpointed with this I find a Gnosticism that coalesces magnificently with American individualism - inside not outside, religion not politics, spirituality not religion - everything that makes the whole thing Gnostic and safe.

The present enthusiasm for the Gospel of Thomas, which I also use as a historical document for early Christianity without any hesitation, is a good example of this. It's very often an enthusiastic acceptance by people who do not have the slightest interest in living its theology, an ascetic theology where the goal is to get back to the Garden of Eden - not working toward the future of eschatology, but working back to the Garden of Eden by means of a life of celibate asceticism. Quite frankly, if I preferred that theology, I would have stayed in the monastery. People get excited about the Gospel of Thomas simply because it is outside the canon. They think that because it doesn't belong to the cannon that it must be better than anything inside the canon. I find that extremely silly. If they say: here's the theology of the Gospel of Thomas, I prefer it and therefore I'm going to live it, I can respect the integrity of that. But here they are with the Gospel of Thomas and they don't genuinely endorse its theology. It would be like me being enthusiastic about Marx while rejecting his view of liberation.

JPS: The opposite of this kind of "spiritualizing" Gnosticism appears to be literalism. Perhaps the pertinent question would amount to: what kind of literalism? The first alternative would be that of Christian fundamentalism in which everything in scripture is simply affirmed as literally, historically accurate. The second alternative might be a kind of critical historicism that attempts to preserve the possibility, through a process of historical purification, of reading scripture literally. The result would be that the alternatives to Gnostic Christianity would be either a kind naïve literalism or a kind of critical literalism - but in either case a kind of literalism. Would you be willing to describe your work as a kind of critical literalism?

JDC: I would not. That puts my work into the bind of options that I simply don't accept. What I will ask very clearly is, when Christians in the first century said Jesus is Lord, what did they mean? What they meant was that Caesar was not lord. Now there is usually a way back to a literal referent, even in the most metaphorical statement. If in the middle of the last election I said that as far as I am concerned President Bush is an eagle, I think that most American's would understand that that should be taken metaphorically, that we weren't talking about talons and claws and beaks and feathers. But they would also take it for granted that it is an affirmative statement, that I like him, that I agree with his program and that that I'm probably going to vote for him. So there is a literal content: I am with his program. It might even mean that I'm going door to door campaigning for him. So metaphor is always a metaphor for something. If I were to say that President Bush is a vulture, that would be equally a metaphor, but you would probably presume that it's negative and that I'm against him. So I think that the question has to go beyond literalism and fundamentalism, or whatever the alternative is. I suppose that contextualism is the term I would use, where contextualism means that you read any text against, first of all, the genre in which it is written, and secondly against the world in which it was first said or written. So that when I see "Jesus is divine," I read that immediately in the world of Roman imperial theology in which Caesar was divine. If you say Jesus is divine you're either saying that Caesar is divine and our guy is just one more divinity or you're saying that Jesus is truly divine and Caesar is not. You are making a claim for a person. So the description of critical literalism, I wouldn't find that helpful. I would put the problem this way: if you are taking it literally, even in the sense of a fundamentalist literalism, so what? What does the phrase in question mean? What are its implications? Or if I take it contextually, what still has to be decided is: what does it mean for me? And maybe, maybe, you might be able to agree on meaning. Or at least we might be able to debate the right question.

JPS: So you would oppose a Gnosticizing influence not with a literalism but with a refusal of the dichotomy between the metaphorical and the literal?

JDC: Well, apart from the game of how the terms are defined I have no idea what they mean. Every metaphor has a literal content. It cannot be a metaphor for a metaphor for a metaphor. I think that my example is very clear: Bush is an eagle. That is a metaphor. Bush is vulture. That is a metaphor. They are opposing metaphors. We know that in our culture because in our culture an eagle is good and a vulture is bad. In another culture, of course, a vulture could be the one who cleans up the mess of the world. So what I want to know is, what does it mean behind a literal sense or a metaphorical sense. For that, I don't find the term critical literalism helpful.

JPS: I'd like, now, to explicitly turn our attention to your new book, In Search of Paul, and ask some more pointed questions about the ways in which these issues get played out in specific instances. First, the issue of resurrection. In the book you address on a number of occasions and at some length the importance to Paul of the notion of resurrection. You argue that Christianity's unique claim with respect to the nature of resurrection is that it is a process begun in this life and in this world, a process inaugurated by Jesus' own resurrection. You then describe resurrection for Paul as being "the normal human body transformed by the Spirit of God" and you refer to the necessity for him of accepting "the materiality of Christ's bodily resurrection."3 In your opinion, how literal is Christ's resurrection for Paul? Does Paul ultimately conceive of resurrection as a kind of transformative resuscitation of the human body or is resuscitation too strong a word?

JDC: Alright, back to the first century and a pre-enlightenment world. First of all, the continuity from Jesus to Paul is that each of them, in different theological language, make their claims within the general constraints of a first century eschatological expectation of the great clean-up of the world - that's what eschatology means, it does not mean the end of the world, it means the eradication of injustice and violence and evil in this present world. It means, God's will be done on this earth. Both of them make the claim that this process has begun, not that it's merely imminent, not that it's simply coming. They claim in different theological language that it has begun and that human beings, as believers, are called to participate in it. Both of these are radically new claims. Paul does it in different language than Jesus. Jesus' language is: the kingdom of God has already begun. Paul's language is that the resurrection has already begun. In other words, Paul is thinking within Judaism where the first element in God's great clean-up, the first thing that has to be done is that those who have suffered injustice and died, especially the martyrs, must be raised in their bodies. Because they have suffered in their bodies, they must be publicly justified in their bodies before the world. That is the claim of Pharisaic resurrection and that's the background to Paul's claim that the resurrection has already begun. Now, I do not know (and neither does anyone else - and if they tell you they do, they're wrong) what percentage of people in the first century took that literally in our sense or metaphorically in our sense. But we have a pretty good idea what percentage took it programmatically. The illustration is this: if we collected all the coins in the first century that said that Caesar was the son of god, we do not have the faintest idea what percentage took it literally and what percentage took it metaphorically, but we have a pretty good idea what percentage took if programmatically - that is, Caesar is divine, get with the program, Caesar is running the world. By believing it they didn't think of it as an abstract debate over propositions, but as a program for life. So once again in our post-enlightenment world we cannot understand a pre-enlightenment world by asking whether it is literal or metaphorical. We want to know, inquiring minds want to know, but the proper answer is that there is no way of knowing in our post-enlightenment world. Even today I don't have the faintest idea when people come out of a movie like The Sixth Sense what percentage take it literally, what percentage take it metaphorically. I don't know how you know that kind of stuff, how anyone knows, and I don't trust people who ask me. I know a lot of people came out of Gibson's movie thinking that they'd seen history, a documentary.

And so my original question is, once again, in that first century world where people could come out of tombs - and of course they could - and appear to people (though it may be a little surprising to say that their bodies came out of the tombs, it's very un-Platonic, but weird stuff happens), if Paul went around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus bodily came out of the tomb, the proper first century reaction is not, if you are a polite pagan, we don't believe that stuff. Rather you say: okay, so what? I've head that type of story before. What does it matter to me? Why should I care? And that's when Paul would answer: yes, Jesus has been raised from the dead and God is concerned with bodies. God is concerned with justice. God is concerned with cleaning-up the mess of the world. Here is what we are doing, do you want to join us? That is a pre-enlightenment response. What we prefer to do in a post-enlightenment world is to spend our time arguing about the distinction between literal and metaphorical, which of course they knew in the first century as well as we do, but they were quite capable of hearing the meaning of a story without asking that question. I have no idea if anyone had gone up to Augustus at the start of the first century and said, you must understand, your imperial highness, that you are just a metaphor. All this stuff about being divine, being the son of god, the savior of the world, that's just metaphor. If he managed to say alive, Augustus would have simply said in response: but I am running the world and that's what being divine means.

JPS: Perhaps we could say then that the way to oppose Gnostic readings of scripture is not with literal readings but with programmatic readings?

JDC: I would think that if people like Jesus or Paul had lived long lives and died in their beds, then I would be very uncertain that the kingdom of God had anything to do with this world. I'd be much more inclined to say that it must be about the next life, or heaven, or spirituality. But what I'm really doing is trusting the Romans. I trust empires to know their enemies. I think that this is as true in Washington at the moment as anyplace else. So I trust that the Romans took a look at early Christianity and Jesus first of all and recognized that they were not a violent threat or they would have rounded up all the Christian followers and crucified the bunch of them all together. They recognized however that Jesus was a threat to Roman law and order, an ideological threat, not a violent threat. Instead, Jesus was crucified without his followers. That tells us that Pilate got it right. This was a nonviolent threat to the system. So I am trusting that the Romans got it right.

JPS: In the epilogue to In Search of Paul you write that "Christianity is, therefore, and only at its theoretical and practical best, but one manifestation of that far more fundamental grounding of the world in that which we ignore at our peril."4 Could you say more about this "fundamental ground" and about its universality?

JDC: You understand that this is more or less a direct quote from Vaclav Havel. I'm really responding to him. I'm taking his term and what I'm talking about is how Christianity can be presented totally within Christian language or totally within public discourse and that the reason it can be done validly is that in the first century Christian language was public discourse. If you call Jesus "messiah" (of course that is only public discourse in Judaism, you'd probably have to explain to a pagan what a messiah was) - but if you said Jesus was lord, a pagan would get it immediately. So you're dealing with public discourse. Some might be less open, like son of man, and need explanation but in general it was public discourse. It was making a claim on the world. Rome always talked about the world, not about the Mediterranean or Italy. Caesar was savior of the world. So from the start it is a public, global thing and it never occurs to me that it could only be had by a Christian. Christianity, like most of the world's great traditions, is a particular way of expressing an ideal of what the world should be.

I don't say: well, we're all on the same path to the same place, because that denies particularity, which I find to be a necessary part of human nature. It is like saying that all languages are saying the same thing. Yes, they are all communicating, if you want to put it that way, but they're very different. So when I say that Christianity has a global claim, I'm not saying that this claim can only be expressed in Christian terms. I think that we can talk about the world being a just place without presuming that America or Christianity or anything else has a monopoly on justice. But they are making global, cosmic claims. Sometimes this claim is put crudely when it is said that everyone should be Christian - which is about as crude as saying that everyone should be American - but I find it much more serious to say that if the world does not become just, it will destroy itself. If this is granted, then we can talk about how to address it.

JPS: Are you saying that the kind of language early Christians used, they used precisely because it was accessible to public discourse? And if so, might contemporary Christians need to revisit the kind of language they use publicly in order to make their claims about justice more globally accessible?

JDC: Yes, but I want to characterize it more as a necessity than as a strategy. I wouldn't want to say, well, they used Greek because that's what everyone else was using. That's true, but mostly they used Greek because they were part of everyone else. In one sense, this is the only language they had¾though their tradition gives them different and more powerful avenues into the media of that language. When a title like "son of god" is used by Caesar - which is on every one of his coins - it is interpreted to mean: first establish victory, then establish peace. That's what a divine being must do in running the world. Now Christians are using exactly the same language to say: no, first you establish justice and doing that will establish peace. So within the same language the phrase has very different meanings. I don't want to think of it simply as saying, well, let's use their language. What other language did you have in the first century if you ask the question: what type of world should we be living in? What is the world about? Or, more theologically, what is God like? What kind of a God runs the world? You can flip it either way and emphasize God or emphasize the world, but either way that's the only language they have for it.

JPS: Do you think that Christianity risks losing contemporary relevance if we stick too closely to a first century vocabulary? Do you think that Christians need to move toward a different kind of vocabulary in order to be heard in the contemporary world?

JDC: What actually has been happening in my own research - which probably agrees with my definition of history in The Birth of Christianity - is that the past is interactively communicated by the present. Here, once again, we're back in a dialectic where it is very hard to tell where the past ends and the present begins. But I do see fairly clearly, and I don't think that I'm just imposing my own categories on it, that consistently across Roman texts, inscriptions, structures, and images the program is first victory, then peace. And part of the insistence of the book is that this program is not something the Romans invented, but that it has simply been the norm of civilization for at least the last 5000 years, and well before the Romans for at least 2000 years. But there is an alternative possibility coming out of the Jewish tradition that argues: first justice, then peace. These two opposing programs are like giant tectonic plates beneath history which are constantly grinding against one another. And I can't think that reality is much different now than it was in the first century. Except of course that our capacity for violence, our toys, our weapons, have increased dramatically. When Virgil began the Aenead with the first word arma, weapons, he meant swords or shields, and spears, but we have weapons that can destroy the world and make it uninhabitable. There is an exponential increase in violence from the first to the twenty-first century. But apart from that it seems to be exactly the same challenge: are we going to control the world by violence, that is, our violence putting down other people's violence? Or are we going to try to control the world by justice? How will we know when something is just? We'll know it is just when most people say that it is just. I don't find at all that the language of the first century, if we know what it means, is obsolete. But if we get into an argument about whether or not Jesus is literally the Son of God, that type of is argument is profoundly absurd because nobody can be literally divine except God. The temple in Jerusalem is divine simply because it is the house of god. So the real question would be, first century: do you think that Jesus is divine or Caesar is divine? Which programmatically means: do you think violence or justice should be running the world? I can translate it into that. In the first century Paul spends his letter to the Romans talking about how God is making the world just. It's called justification. This is our problem.

JPS: So you think that a first century Christian vocabulary remains strangely appropriate to our own situation because of the way in which Roman empire is mirrored by contemporary empire?

JDC: If you know what it means, yes. If I were to go out and say, we have to establish righteousness, that would strike most people as a very Christian word. But if you translate it properly as "doing right," well, okay, but what are talking about? Paul explains very clearly what doing right means for the world: it means making the world just. He doesn't tell us exactly how to do it. He just tells us, our small little groups are trying to do it this way. So I find that if you understand the meaning of it, yes, it is extremely pertinent. Let me throw in an analogy. If you read Ulysses by James Joyce, a classic of world literature, the fact that it is a classic of world literature means that it is both absolutely Irish and absolutely universal at the same time. If you look at Dostoevsky, it is both absolutely Russian and absolutely universal. There is no way you are going to confuse them. One's Irish and one's Russian. But they are both universal, people can understand them across languages. Whenever a religion or a work of literature gets down to the foundation of its own particularity it achieves universality. You don't get universality by being universal. You get it by being so deeply particular that people can recognize the foundation. I see that analogy holding for languages, for literature, for religion, for anything that's profoundly important. You have to be radically particular in order to be radically universal.

JPS: If we were to turn back for a moment to the kind of vocabulary that we were using earlier, would you characterize Gnosticism as a kind of false universality? False because it doesn't stick with the particular to the point where the particular becomes capable of revealing its own universality?

JDC: My criticism of Gnosticism would be this: one of the most fundamental decisions we have to make, going back to dear old Plato, is whether the human being is a dialectic, in the same sense as before, of body and spirit, or if somehow that spirit or soul is only temporarily, possibly even unfortunately, joined to what is either a flea bag hotel or a magnificent palace called the body. But in either case the soul is only temporarily embodied until it goes home to its true spiritual abode. I think that this is the most radical question in Western philosophy. Whichever way you come down on this question, everything else will follow. If you think that human beings are actually incarcerated, entombed spirits, that we're simply renting bodies out, then everything else will follow. But if you think along with the Bible that somehow or other the body/soul amalgam is a dialectic, that you can distinguish but not separate them, then everything else will follow differently. So Gnosticism seems to be a perfectly good, linear descendent of Platonism (I'm not certain though what Plato himself would have said), but at the heart of it is the presumption that the material world is at best irrelevant and at worst evil. Those seem to be the fundamental options. You have to pick your position from there.

JPS: A final question. If we, wherever we are at in the world, are interested in opposing empire, does that interest translate into turning our attention to whatever our own particular traditions are in order to look for their fundamental ground? Is the practical formula for challenging empire: stick with your own particularity until it reveals its radical universality?

JDC: Well, yes, basically. Although we are not just opposing, we are replacing. That is how our book understands Paul as Jesus's apostle. You have to have an alternative, otherwise local thugs just take over for imperial thugs. What you need is an absolute replacement and one thing we were trying to do in the book is to make the alternative clear: not just victory, then peace, but justice, then peace, so that people can understand. It must be an alternative program rather than simply an opposition. It's not that we don't like the Roman empire because we want a Jewish empire or an Irish empire or an American empire, or a slightly improved empire. The problem is that every kind of empire is basically violent and now after five thousand years of civilization the violence spirals. It always works for a while, but what is being offered now, as it was then, is an alternative. That is why I insist that we are not making a philosophical statement about human nature. We are not saying that human beings are inherently violent and we must get used to it. We are making historical statements about human civilization and suggesting, with Jesus and Paul, that we had better change it fundamentally if we are going to survive on this planet. The problem is that we have taken it for granted that violence is normal. The question is: where within Christianity and within every other religion and every other imagination can we find an alternative?

I have to admit to you that I don't think that there is any other question except violence worth talking about at the moment. It is the only question worth talking about. In the same way that anyone in the first century who wasn't talking about violence and what to do about it was a fool because within that first century the whole land was going to be absolutely devastated. And if Jesus was simply talking about the hereafter, he was a fool. If you are a scholar or a philosopher or a theologian your primary responsibility is to speak to your situation. That does not mean that you cannot speak about basic issues. It doesn't mean that you have to spend your time writing op-ed pieces. But it does mean that you should be able to see in what way the universal is present in the particularity of your own time and place.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Jesus, as son of God, brought humanity salvation

By John Dominic Crossan

The Washington, Post

December 20, 2006

For me, as a Christian, Jesus was and still is the “Son of God” as a transcendental alternative to Caesar as ”Son of God.”

High above the Meander plain, on the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey, lies a broken beam from above the entrance to ancient Priene’s main temple. It proclaims in large Greek letters a dedication to that city’s patron goddess, Athena, but also to the “Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus.”

Greeks and Romans distinguished between a god who was eternal backwards and forwards – for example, Jupiter – and a deified human, eternal only forwards – for example, Hercules. Romans distinguished those two categories linguistically as deus or dea versus divus or diva. Greeks used the same word for both types of divinity – theos or thea. (And, of course, since the New Testament was written in Greek not Latin, the fully human Jesus is designated there as divine with theos- not divus-language.)

In any case, and by whatever term, the essential job-description of a deified human, of a person raised to divine status was quite clear. Required: major salvific service to the human race.

Deification was usually accorded only after death but Caesar Augustus received it even while he was alive. He was called Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God; Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Why? What service had he rendered the Roman Empire or - as it preferred to style itself - the world, the earth, the human race?

He had brought permanent internal peace to an empire almost wrecked by twenty years of civil war – a nightmarish strife with battle-hardened legions led by predatory warlords on both sides. They even called it Augustan Peace (Pax Augusta) although we usually say Roman Peace (Pax Romana). Roman imperial theology formed around the emperor as divine – and with all those other titles just given - that is, around a human being who had executed fully and incarnated perfectly its core creed of peace through violent victory. In other words, the eternal and imperial creed of all those who cannot distinguish between peace and lull.

Early Christians, with whom I stand as a contemporary Christian, claimed that Jesus was Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God; Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Those titles, taken from a Roman emperor on the Palatine hill and given to a Jewish peasant on the Nazareth ridge, were either low lampoon or high treason.

Since the Romans did not roll over laughing, I trust their judgment that they were deliberate anti-titles. They announced that, not Caesar the Augustus, but Jesus the Christ had incarnated and contributed the fullest transcendental service to the human race. What, then, was that alternative service to the imperial chant of peace through victory? It was the call of peace through justice and that vision came straight from the heart of Judaism.

Jesus’ alternative vision was utterly Jewish even if not every first-century Jew would have agreed with it – not Josephus, for example, nor similar faith-based Roman collaborators. His vision came from the non-violent creation in Genesis 1, from the core of Torah in Leviticus, from the relentless critique of injustice and inequality in the prophets, from the insistence that the world belonged to God in the psalms. It came from God’s opposition to Empire – Egyptian in Exodus, Assyrian in Nahum, Babylonian, Medean, Persian, Greek, and Syrian in Daniel.

Jesus confronted the Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God and his followers later confronted the Roman emperor as Son of God with the Jewish Jesus as Son of God. Today we may like or dislike their choice of theological language, but we should at least recognize that they proclaim God’s opposition to Empire – Egyptian or Roman, British or American – because of its violent injustice.

Finally, titles of Jesus like Lamb of God, Word of God, and Son of God are relational metaphors. They are not literal but they are real because we humans can only see by seeing-as, that is, metaphorically. But metaphor is never simply Rorschach. It never means just whatever we need or want. It always requires some integrity of interpretation from the constraints of meaning born of time and place, society and culture.

But among those three metaphors, Jesus as Son of God is very special because that was the title of Caesar on coins and inscriptions, statues and structures all over the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus’ birth. To confess that title of Jesus was to de-confess it of Caesar, that is, to commit your life to peace through justice rather than peace through victory. It still is.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The resurrection

Interview wth Rachel Kohn

The Spirit of Things


John Dominic Crossan: One of the talks I gave here in the conference at Morpeth, was about the Resurrection. And I really asked a question there that I had learned from listening to a Jewish scholar ask it, which was a terribly simple one when you think of it. What did it mean for Jews in the first century to use the term 'resurrection'? If one Jew said to another 'God has raised Jesus' or anyone else from the dead, what did they mean?

Now usually when we Christians debate about the resurrection, we debate about whether bodies came out of the tomb, we debate about apparitions, we debate about the theology of the resurrection and do we believe it, and how we believe it. And I had never heard anyone really ask that most obvious question until I heard a Jewish scholar, an expert in the New Testament, ask that question.

Rachael Kohn: But isn't this a perilous area since Jews don't accept the divinity of Jesus; they're understanding of resurrection will be profoundly different from the Christian one?

John Dominic Crossan: That's exactly the anomaly, because you could say today, 'Now if you are a pious, believing Jew of course you do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, but you can still ask and you must ask - and in fact we must be able to agree on the answer to this question if we're doing historical scholarship - What did it mean, what did one Jew think they were saying when they said to another 'Jesus is raised from the dead', bracketing for the moment whether they believed it or not. What did the term 'resurrection' simply mean? Did it mean for example a body coming out of the tomb? What did it mean for those first century Jews? That is very, very new and I don't know if it's happening in many places except where you do have Jewish scholars who are now experts in the New Testament, not just in first century Judaism, but in the New Testament.

Rachael Kohn: Can you describe what Jesus might have thought about resurrection?

John Dominic Crossan: I think the negative, if I could start with the negative, is that we today are primarily concerned in highly individualistic terms with Me. I want to know do I survive, am I going to continue, is there life after death for me? The crucial thing for first century Jews was not about Me but about God, whether God was just. And it was raised by the fact that with increasing violence throughout the centuries since the time of Alexander the Great, the Jewish homeland had been awash in blood. The Egyptian, the Greco Egyptians coming through, the Greco Syrians coming through, then the Romans, then the period of Herod; every time you looked, there was revolution because were being killed, it was martyred. And it looked like it was the more just people who were being martyred. Now what they asked themselves was where in all of that was the justice of God. It's a terribly simple question, it wasn't 'Do I live on?' but 'Is God just?' And if God is not just, who cares about anything else, because the world then is utterly meaningless.

So when they said 'resurrection' what they were stating was an act of faith that some day, somehow, and then it gets very vague how and when and all the rest of it, God is going to vindicate those who have suffered in their bodies, been martyred, been marginalised, been destroyed, and somehow it has to have to do with the bodies, it cannot be simply the Greek idea that immortality is the soul, which is very nice, but it's sort of 'for all of us'. So if the torturer and the tortured both have an immortality of the soul, that doesn't say anything about the justice of God. So the problem they're struggling with, now you could say, 'Well the solution they came up with that some day, somehow, there'll be a resurrection of the dead especially', that didn't happen the way they expected, sure. But that's all right, they're asking the right question. Is God just? And especially, how does God handle the sufferings of the innocent?

Rachael Kohn: So is it then a particularly Greek departure to see Jesus' resurrection as unique?

John Dominic Crossan: It would be a particularly wrong departure to think of Jesus' ressurection as unique. In fact I don't even want to use the term 'resurrection' for that. If you had somebody in the first century who wanted to talk of a unique privilege given to Jesus because he was a very holy person, because he was a Messiah, because he was the son of God, but uniquely special to him, the term you would use is exaltation. Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God, maybe like Elijah had been taken up, or Enoch had been taken up, or maybe Moses had been taken up, very, very holy people in the past, in a sort of unique privilege were taken up to dwell with God. It really had no corporate extension and it didn't really touch this question of the justice of God for the persecuted martyrs. So resurrection should be distinguished from exaltation. Exaltation is sort of individual, special, privileged, and resurrection has to do with how the justice of God handles not just Jesus, but everyone who has suffered unjustly and who has died as a martyr, especially the martyrs, they're sort of the core, and you can go out in ripples from martyrs to say, 'Well what about the just who would have been martyred if they had a chance?' as it were. 'What about the just who died peacefully?' and it goes out in ripples from there. But the core of it is, the justice of God.

Rachael Kohn: And the core of it is too, that Jesus was exalted and the resurrection, the corporate resurrection is still anticipated. Is that correct?

John Dominic Crossan: Some of the very earliest texts almost in our creed we talk about 'He descended into hell' and in general we don't have a clue what on earth that means. And one of my students once said, 'Well he must have gone down there just to check it out.' Because hell of course, is the place of damnation. What you're imaging there is Hades or Shed is the place underneath the earth where the just and the martyred are waiting for God's revelation of justice. And what Jesus does is go down in a way to lead them forth, because if Jesus is resurrected without them, we're not talking resurrection. So corporate doesn't just mean Jesus now, everyone else whenever, it means well we have to fix up all the past before we can trust this God for the future. How should we trust the justice of God for the future when we have a long history of martyred Jews who have died before Jesus, who wasn't the first, and he was not going to be the last, and somehow Jesus must go down into Sheol and lead them forth, liberate them, or else we can't trust this God any more. And that's a very difficult thing for most Christians I think, to think of, because it's sublimely mythological.

Rachael Kohn: One of the most central and important beliefs of the Christian church is in Jesus' bodily resurrection. How do you understand it?

John Dominic Crossan: Negatively and positively once again. Negatively, just to make it clear, the bodily resurrection of Jesus has nothing for me to do with what happened to the body of Jesus. Most crucified criminals in the Roman Empire were either left on the cross as the supreme conclusion and consummation through this public warning that crucifixion was, or they were speedily buried in a limed pit as the soldiers got finished with their day's work and got out of there. And if you've seen the rocks around Jerusalem it's hard to even imagine where they found somewhere to bury them. But what bodily resurrection has to do with me is that it is the life of Jesus in the body.

This life lived for justice, which is perennially, continuously, normative for Christians of all time. It is the body of Jesus which lived and died for justice, which is normative for us. Where I see that most clearly is that when in Christian gospel, Christian art, Christian mysticism, Jesus reappears, the wounds are always still there, they seem to never heal as it were, even after 2,000 years, because it's always the crucified Jesus who is bodily normative.

So that if you were a stranger from another land and you saw a picture, say, of a medieval artist of Jesus appearing to somebody, you'd say, 'Well why has he got holes in his hands?' and if I were to explain that to you, I'd have to explain to you everything about Roman crucifixion and then you'd say, 'Well then he must have been a criminal, right, if he got crucified?' I'd have to explain to you the whole life of Jesus. So if the wounds are there, everything is there, and in that sense for me, it is the body of Jesus which is normative for Christianity, not the ideas of Jesus or the words of Jesus, but the life of Jesus. And that if you do lead a life for God's justice, you will probably almost certainly, unfortunately, be executed. Or you would be marginalised or annihilated, whichever way your society gets rid of people who threaten it too much. So it's that bodily content I want to keep there, otherwise Jesus is a philosopher who had beautiful ideas, and we just read his works, and we don't need the body, and we don't need the life, and we just have the ideas. And I don't understand Jesus to be about ideas. It's about incarnating God's justice and a life.

Rachael Kohn: So you see Jesus as very much a social reformer an egalitarian, a model man, a man of God, who obviously lived within a milieu which had apocalyptic beliefs. How did he see himself in relation to God's role in the world?

John Dominic Crossan: I probably would not make those initial options disjunctive. Yes, Jesus was a full human being in the full sense of the word, but in the world in which Jesus lived, every coin of Caesar for example, bore the words 'Son of God' in Latin. Caesar was in effect, one of the incarnations of God on earth, and that made a lot of sense to millions of people. The power of God was clearly operative in Caesar who controlled the Mediterranean world, had the legions and all the rest of it. Now for somebody to look at Jesus and say, 'No, I do not find God, the Roman god of power as it were, incarnate in Caesar, I find the Jewish god of justice incarnate in Jesus', that is an absolutely possible Jewish act of faith in the first century, absolutely possible, that somebody could look at Jesus and say, 'This radical critique of Roman normalcy is the way God wants us to live, not just Jesus to live, but us to live.' Somebody looking at Jesus can say then, 'I see God here.' And they might even get into an argument, 'No, God is in the temple; this is the house of God', and they could say, 'No, the house of God has gone over to the Roman side, it's with Caiaphas who collaborates with Rome, I can no longer find God in the temple. I find God in this life.' That is an absolutely possible first
century argumentation.

Now another Jew could say, 'No, that's rubbish, I find God only in following the law of my people. I find God only in going down to Qumran and living with the Essenes. I find God only in rising against the Romans.' But the real question you're asking is not only first century where do people find God, and one of the options is in this sort of life that Jesus is living. So on the one hand he's utterly human, of course, he's not a divine being masquerading down here as a human being. But it is absolutely possible for somebody to look at Jesus and say, 'Here is I find God' and in fact Jesus himself is making some pretty strong statements when he says, 'This is the kingdom of God and that is not', because you could say, 'Well how do you know what is the kingdom of God? You're claiming to know the will of God, you're claiming special divine knowledge then?' I think Jesus would probably answer, 'Well isn't it obvious? We have always believed in a God of justice, we've had a covenant with a God of justice, you think this is justice?' I don't think Jesus would say, 'Well I've come down from God to tell you the message.' He probably would say 'Open your eyes, you think this is just? You think this is what God wants?' Once again, some people would say, 'Well yes, I have no problem with this.' Other people would say, 'No, I don't think this is right. I think you're right, this is not what God wants.' So it is claiming a divine knowledge, if you will, but in one sense it's no different than the prophet Amos hundreds of years before saying, 'You think the covenant is just about worship? The covenant is about justice.' And you say, 'Well how do you know that?' 'Well, isn't it obvious? And of course the answer is to some people, it's very obvious, to other people it's not obvious at all.

Rachael Kohn: Now I guess we can say that a lot of Christians throughout centuries and certainly now, have a strong commitment to justice and they also believe that Jesus is God, is divine, and did bodily resurrect in the way in which Christine doctrine spells it out. In your view of Jesus, which I believe kind of takes him off that pedestal of God, does anything really change?

John Dominic Crossan: What changes for me is first of all the character of God. And what changes for me not the pedestal. In one sense I don't take Jesus off the pedestal, but I keep asking what's the content? And what's crucial for me, you see, is that very often we have an easier question: 'Does God exist? Yes or No. Is Jesus son of God, yes or no.' The first century options were different. 'Does God exist as the Jewish God of Justice or as the Roman God of power?' Is God incarnate in say, a Jesus? Or is incarnate in a Caesar? That's a much rougher disjunction, because there isn't that possibility agnosticism. Well let's wait and see. And it's not that I want to really take Jesus off the pedestal, I want to know what he's up there for. We sometimes have put monsters on pedestals, killers, and years later we topple them off their pedestal. So before I want to genuflect at that pedestal, or to genuflect before this God, I want to know the character of this God. There have been killer Gods and killer sons and killer people of God. So it's a necessity to ask the question of the character of God, to make sure what we're worshipping, because we worship some funny stuff, especially in this century.

Rachael Kohn: Well indeed Jesus can be worshipped in very many ways, in Killer ways and then ways that lead to justice, so the onus is more on those who respond to him or interpret him.

John Dominic Crossan: I think it is, and it's very hard however if somebody says, you know, to love your enemies. You could say, 'Well I'm going to love them to death.' We've done that sort of stuff so it can be done. But if you really start with love your enemies, and if you look at the tradition of the first Christian centuries, nobody ever seems to suggest well if they come after us to persecute us, is it alright to kill a few? Defensively, of course.

That seems to be an option absolutely ruled out, beyond even discussion. I mean you will get a discussion later whether a Christian can be a soldier. But nowhere in the first century does anyone ever discuss seriously even defensively , and I think when Christians start using that 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', they're really taking that even defensively, since you don't want to be killed, you cannot even kill in self defence. So I think that's part of this message, and its profound depths, and I don't think that's negotiable.

Now when you get something like the Apocalypse of John, when this avenging God is going to have blood to the bridle bits for 200 miles, I think that's venous, I don't think that's justice, I don't think that's Jesus, and I don't think it's the God of Jesus. That's the killer God, and the trouble with the killer God is that it justifies us doing the same, and in fact it invites us maybe to start with a bit. We might jump start the Apocalypse, because if God is going to kill then I really don't see the reason why carefully and selectively of course, we mightn't be able to do it too. It's a final solution to the problem of evil, kill the evildoer.