It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

The Challenge of the Manger: The Deep Meaning of the Nativity

The Image of the Nativity Scene

Even in such a vigorously secular country such as Britain, much of our festive artwork and advertising is still littered with scenes from the Nativity; filling greeting cards, Advent Calendars, and shop fronts with the kind of religious iconography which is positively alien to most of us the rest of the year. Given the crass commercialism which is everywhere apparent in our contemporary notion of Christmas, it seems strange that this image of the shabby shepherds huddling around a tatty manger still has resonance in an age of LED Christmas trees and chocolate snowmen. What is it about the birth of this child which still has the power to capture our culture at least artistically? It certainly isn’t the background of the baby that moves us to depict him. Sadly, the surroundings of material deprivation in which Jesus was born is today shared by 1,000,000,000 of the world’s children and yet only organisations like Oxfam dare to put up their faces in the shop window. All right, what about his teachings? Does that give the Nativity its power? I don’t think so. History is never short of great orators or formidable moral teachers and yet the birthdays of most of the world’s great sages go unmarked. So, it is that modern Greeks continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus but you won’t find many Greeks celebrating the birth of Socrates! So, if the appeal is not in the biography or in the teaching, what keeps the Nativity in our minds and on our Christmas cards? Its endurance I suggest lies in the events following Jesus’ death. If you traveled back in time and asked a second-century Christian, ‘Why do you remember Jesus’ birth’? They would probably say “Because Jesus’ rose from the dead”. Determining what exactly “rose from the dead” meant to such a first-century person would be a tricky business, partly because the earliest oral sources which end up in the Gospels aren’t entirely sure themselves what happened. Yet the sources are at least agreed on a few points:

  • Jesus was executed under Roman supervision and buried
  • The disciples were disheartened and scattered.
  • Three days later, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some female followers (the New Testament writers differ on the precise details here)
  • The person of Jesus appeared to the disciples physically

Without the last two events, the birth of this little baby born in Palestine would probably have never come to the attention of the world at large and thus Christianity would never have been born. Indeed, without the resurrection (or an earth-shaking event very much like it) Jesus’ followers would have remained demoralised, unable to preach their Master’s message, much less put their lives on the line for it no matter how much Mary insisted upon what the Gabriel had told her. After all, doubt is nothing new and most of us need a good shake before we accept the incredible. We need more than visions or hearsay to accept a life change. Thus, it is the Resurrection (and not the star, the magi or even virgin birth) which makes the first Christmas coherent for the early followers of Jesus. That isn’t to say the Nativity stories don’t reveal important dimensions of the Gospel. For Friends, this is indeed the first Quaker story, a narrative in which we glance our own reflection. Our Peace Testimony permeates the nativity in Luke and Matthew. When Friends campaign against war and injustice the divine declaration given to the Shepherds is brought to life again: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). When Friends genuinely practice our Testimony to Equality, we sing along with the prophetic voice of Mary, who filled with the Spirit tells us how despite her lowly status in the eyes of society, God ‘has lifted up the humble… filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Here is also the call to value simplicity. God decides to manifest not in the halls of emperors and tyrants but in a ram shack through the body a frightened young woman. What about the Truth Testimony? Oddly I think the greatest mirror of truth in the Christmas Story is King Herod. He represents the world of which we are all familiar; one marred by the politics of fear, mutual suspicion, and violence. Raging and sneering against a new light that he cannot comprehend, Herod is not able to let go of the belief that order is based on fear and leadership on the spilling of blood. In Herod’s own darkness and insecurity, we see more clearly ‘the light’ the little child born in Bethlehem offers. He is a ruler without earthly power, without armies or principalities, without popular majorities or a solve-all-your-problems manifesto. He only has love and the sacrifices which absolute dedication to love requires.

The Resurrection and Hope Fulfilled

But as a cynical news cycle reminds us, lots of people have high ideals, but most of the time they come to nothing. Movements for justice fizzle out, revolutions are subverted and people remain oppressed. How do we know that the grand life of love and suffering inaugurated by Jesus means anything? Isn’t it certain that in this world, the corrupt kings always win?  This is where the empty tomb comes bursting into view. Early Christians continued to tell the birth story of Jesus because the ideals the Nativity narratives embodied were confirmed by their own spiritual experience. The only reason in my view that the story of the angels and the shepherds appears in the Gospel records at all are because something more concrete is coming further down the track, giving the Nativity tradition substance. What Luke and Matthew want us to understand is that the Gospel is not built on insubstantial dreams, but the lightening-bolt at the tomb, the axis point which gives the birth of Jesus’ its meaning. When the Hebrew Prophets declared that the Messiah would usher in a new age (a renewed Covenant no less) the early Church found its inauguration in the life of a man who had defeated inevitability itself. In that solitary, astonishing event, the rules of the world appeared to have suddenly changed. Paul expresses this next phase of the world as new creation where the fear of suffering and death no longer holds sure sway over living beings. As Paul relishes, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). If decay and oblivion were no longer life’s only trajectories, then the followers of Jesus had to start thinking about the world and indeed the universe in a new way. And so, they did. As the Christian Astrophysicist Arnold Benz notes in his excellent book The Future of the Universe (1997):

Good Friday/Easter became for Christians a new pattern for life, a paradigm with which they discovered the world anew. The only basic facts confronted them as they always had, and same needs plagued them, but they perceived therein a new, deeper, dimension. Even if the present is destroyed and no fortunate solution seems possible, all is not yet lost. God can create something completely new that far exceeds our boldest expectations. This also holds for one’s own life, where death must be confronted, as well as for catastrophes which affect all mankind. The expectation may not be fulfilled, at least not in the manner one wishes. For the new is no automaton, which would turn God’s free, act into a causal event. The future remains open and subject to risk. Christians nevertheless gather hope from the Good Friday experience that death will not be the last word, just as Good Friday was not the end-point it first appeared.

The Challenge of the Promise

What does this new pattern mean in our daily lives? Attempting to articulate this early Christian experience in a contemporary idiom, Benz summarises the new Resurrected reality initiated by Jesus through the following motto, “Whoever trusts in me, shares in a meaningful world, despite decay and death, even when the sun burns out, the earth spins off into space and the universe disintegrates”. Even in the inevitable suffering of the evolutionary process thinks Benz, God is there, using entropy as his method of entry into the world, pushing it towards transformation. I believe it is this cosmic promise that “all is not lost” which drags our increasingly post-Christian culture kicking and screaming back to the baby in the stable. That and the cold weather! Everyone seeks the prospect of a new beginning and a new hope at some point in their lives. The messianic child is the enduring symbol of that deep human need. Yet, having forgotten the old ways of expressing hope (through prayer, reflection, and community) secular society in its love for the Christmas card nativity has no way of accessing its religious meaning. In place, of reverence, devotion, and awe, our culture peddles an easier message of sentimentalism which expressly avoids confronting the theological vision which underlies the Christmas story. How should we as Quakers respond to this kind of avoidance? I think our big dare as Quakers should be to live per the dictum “all is not lost” in a skeptical/atheist culture which says that people don’t come back from the dead and angels never visit shepherds. I’m sure there are many Friends in our Meetings who would agree with this world-view, and herein lays the genuine challenge of the Nativity. By engaging seriously with the life of this extraordinary child, we are encouraged to re-evaluate our basic assumptions about the world (since it is hard to accept Jesus as the baby of promise without also confronting the issue of the empty tomb). Do we as Friends take the Resurrection sufficiently seriously in our Meetings and individual spiritual lives? Or in paying homage to our Christian roots, are we as Friends in fact too confined or too comfortable with our society’s philosophical assumptions about reality? Are we too eager to throw out older theological ways of thinking because agnosticism is easier to explain in a culture doubtful of God? Are we following our sense of God’s leading, or are we reticent to do so, worried by ‘what reasonable people might think?  Do we really give the Christian tradition our attention when seeking spiritual clarification and advice?  Or are we just content with a ‘chocolate-box nativity’ in December?  This is the deep challenge embodied by the child in the stable.

Why the Harrowing of Hell Still Matters

A Forgotten Model of Salvation

In 1 Peter there is a peculiar remark which continues to generate theological speculation among Christians to this day. After describing Jesus’ divinely sanctioned death, the text goes on to note: ‘being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits  to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built’ (3:19-20). Here the text recalls the gigantic progeny of the sons of God who brought violence and bloodshed to the earth in the days before the flood (Genesis 6:13). Even these creatures, long since dead are said to partake in Jesus’ messianic promise: ‘freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free’ (Luke 4:18). To confirm this conclusion, the author of 1 Peter goes on, ‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit’ (4:6). As cynical moderns with an eye for mythological motifs (the pre-flood giants have their analogue in Sumerian mythology) we are likely to dismiss this remark in 1 Peter as a cute cultural gloss by a writer who wants an audience familiar with Genesis to accept his claims. It would be easy to dismiss the image of Jesus talking to giants in some netherworld if this were an isolated image. But the motif of Jesus liberating creatures in some post-mortem state appears in other places in the New Testament as well.

Two key hints about Christ’s activity among the dead are provided by the Acts of the Apostles. In his speech to the citizens of Jerusalem (probably a version of a pre-80 CE creedal formula) Peter interprets a Psalm of David as referring to Jesus’ life after death: ‘you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption’ (2:27). Peter later repeats this formulation, telling his hearers, “His (Jesus’) soul was not left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption’ (2:31). Here Hades (ᾅδης) is a Greek borrow for the Hebrew Shoal (the grey afterlife reserved for both the righteous and the wicked). For the ancient Hebrews, there were no ethereal feasting halls or eternal summer lands. At best, a soul could expect a sub-earthly existence of perpetual gloom and dreamlike torpor. Yet, unlike his fellow mortals Jesus cannot be held by death. Indeed, he breaks the power of death utterly by his return to life on the first Easter. Thus the testimony of Acts makes sense of Jesus’ otherwise enigmatic statement that ‘the gates of Hades’ will not avail against the church (Matthew 16:17-19). A similar image of post-mortem liberation can be discerned in the theology of Paul. The apostle suggests in Ephesians 4 that Jesus ‘descended to the lower, earthly regions’ delivering ‘a host of captives’ from their bondage (4:8). Are these the same captive spirits mentioned in 1 Peter?  Paul even suggests that there is such a thing as baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). This ties in closely with 1 Peter’s mention of proclamation, to ‘the spirits’. Whatever else Jesus might be doing the world of the dead he appears to be carrying out God’s saving activity. In the manner of his earthly ministry, he continues to spread the Good News to those without hope. As the early church theologian Clement of Alexandria summarises these points:

Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’? … And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there (Stromateis 6, 6).

Here Clement helps us appreciate a vital issue. The Church can conquer the power of Hades because Jesus has conquered the netherworld first. As Paul asks in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55). Paul knows the answer. The power of Shoal has been abolished in Jesus. When we combine these statements with Paul’s images of Jesus shaming the principalities and powers at his crucifixion (Colossians 2:15) we get the impression of Christ operating on two levels. The first is the familiar Jesus of Nazareth as revealed through his public ministry (his preaching and the healing). The second is a more shadowy, altogether less familiar figure. This is the cosmic Jesus who is said to reconfigure the order of the world through his living and dying.He is not bound by space and time, but ‘is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). In this elevated state, he is capable of contending with the deep structures of the world (those things which Paul calls ‘the powers’). This includes the domains of ‘past’ and ‘future’ which restrict and condition all of temporal existence (see Romans 8:38-9). In the classical tradition, these realities came under the jurisdiction of the god Kronos (Time). While his son Zeus (the future father of Olympus) was capable of imprisoning him, he could not kill him. Time could be constrained but not done away with. In this respect, 1 Peter’s insistence on Jesus’ descent is more than a nice mythical gloss. It is an attempt (albeit in particular cultural terms) to describe the extent of Jesus’ saving power. The Son came not only to transform his contemporaries, but sought to free beings that had long since perished aeons past. Jesus has finally defeated Kronos. Now the world can be made radically open to a ‘new creation’. As Paul writes daringly, ‘whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours’ (1 Corinthians 3:2). The name for this ancient image of radical openness is the Harrowing of Hell, for now, darkness is being emptied and shaken (harrowed)  by Christ’s divine power.

Welcoming a New World

Why did the early Church believe that this event had changed everything? Part of the answer has already been offered through a brief mention of ‘the powers’ but let’s work through the implications of this idea to the end. In the old paganism, death was understood as a bridge from which no mortal could hope to return. It was a permanent fissure between two different realities. The gods could sometimes compensate fortunate mortals for their loss, but death itself was thought immovable. This is beautifully dramatized in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus discovers that even he cannot save his son, Sarpedon. As the goddess Hera reminds her husband:

‘Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since Doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him? Do it, then; but not all the rest of us gods shall approve you. And put away in your thoughts this other thing I tell you; If you bring Sarpedon back to his home, still living, think how then some other one of the gods might also wish to carry his own son out of the strong encounter; Since around the great city of Priam are fighting many Sons of the immortals.  You will waken grim resentment among them. No, but if he is dear to you, and your heart mourns for him, then let him be, and let him go down in the strong’ (The Iliad, Book 16, 439-457).

Here death is a rule which cannot be overcome without disturbing the unity of the gods and the subsequent  equilibrium of the universe. The same kind of metaphysical resignation is also preserved in the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The semi-divine musician attempts to rescue his mortal love from the jaws of death, but he is thwarted at the final moment by his own sense of human attachment. He is fated to lose her even though he tries to resist. From what did Orpheus attempt to rescue Eurydice? According to Homer the land of the dead was a cold and desolate place, devoid of the gifts and pleasures of mortal life. As the shade of Odysseus’ mother puts it in the Odyssey: ‘this is the way it is with mortals after death. The sinews no longer bind flesh and bone, the fierce heat of the blazing pyre consumes them, and the spirit flees from our white bones, a ghost that flutters and goes like a dream” (BkXI:150-224). Yet the Church, grounded in the proclamation of the empty tomb, gave a different answer to the problem of death.  Unlike the gods of Greece and Rome, the God of Israel was not bound to the powers of Hades. As the maker of heaven and earth, Christians and Jews understood him, not as ‘the God of the dead but of the living’ (Mark 12:27). Yet, this meant more than some general support of life over oblivion (a kind of biophillia). It was a comment on God’s relation to time. Through Jesus’ descent to Hades, we are shown that the past can be opened up again, walked in and rewritten. And yet here is the paradox. Despite this transformation, the memory of the past, its wounds and stings, are nonetheless preserved. Unlike Greek myth, Jesus does not come back from the grave, forgetful, as if he had drunk from the waters of Lethe. He still remembers the agony of  what has transpired at Golgotha  but he is no longer bound by the reality of the cross. Finding the words for this sort of erasure is doubtless philosophically taxing, but perhaps one of the best formulations can be found in The Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot: ‘The hint, half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union/Of spheres of evidence is actual/Here the past and future/Are conquered, and reconciled”. This sense that Christ could revisit and heal the wounds of the past, led the Church to a set of startling conclusions. What were they?

The Reign of Love

Jesus Christ would hardly have cited, as an example of all that is gentle and beneficent and compassionate, a Being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted; who shall inflict them, too, without any mistake as to the true nature of pain—without any view to future good—merely because it is just. (Percy Shelley)

Image result for sodomites in hell danteFirstly, the Harrowing of Hell potentially means the end of the old mythological horrors of the Jewish and pagan worlds and their replacement with a religion of radical love. An educated Latin-speaking Christian listening to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for the first time, would have been struck by the sublime newness of his message.  If he had been a student of the rhetorical academy, he would have been taught through Virgil’s Aeneid that the afterlife could be just as cruel as the world. Book VI of the epic poem is unflinching its descriptions of the gruesome fates of the damned. A devout Jew raised on post-exile prophetic literature would have been equally convinced of the reality of perdition. The Book of Enoch (read by Jews and Christians alike in the early centuries) contains a number of horrifying passages, involving lakes of fire and places of perpetual imprisonment. At the heart of these grisly scenes is an image of God most are familiar with.  This is the primordial Sky Father, who waits capriciously for us to fail but rewards us if we comply with his wishes.  As Sigmund Freud sketched out this deity in his essay The Future of an Illusion, the belief in such a being represents ‘one of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection-for protection through love-which was provided by the father . . . Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life’ (p. 30). Yet, like a human father, the supernatural parent who protects us could equally become our most dangerous enemy. In this sense, the divine Father (like the Roman patriarch) has the power of life and death over his children. In this mould, love is always tinged with the possibility of enslavement and violence. Yet, the Jesus community turned such a religious logic firmly on its head, through its emergent understanding of grace. In the faith of Paul and Jesus, God was not a cruel judge but a beneficient king who ’causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45). True, Christianity has as its central image, a father allowing the sacrifice of his son. But the sacrifice is restorative and not punitive.The Father does not kill the son to gratify his own lordly power, but does so in an effort to relinquish power for the sake of his creatures. This notion of self-limiting power radically rewrites the meaning of the Sky Father beyond anything psychoanalysis could imagine. In place of a tyrannical God and the grimness of Hades, Paul offers a hopeful vision of human destiny, in which each person can be reconciled through the actions of a loving parent. Instead of standing idly by while death plays havoc, Paul’s God never gives up on his children until they are all safely gathered to him. As Paul reflects,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-9)

Here religion is robbed of its habitual Freudian role as the enforcer of the Superego (as a vortex of punishment and guilt) and is transformed into an instrument for the healing of human relationships. At its heart is the possibility that God’s world can be ordered, not by a spirit of spine-chilling judgement, but by the laws of love and truth. While Christianity is always in danger of degenerating into the horror of the gallows or the misery of the prison-house, the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that the power of forgiveness always has the upper-hand over the temptations of condemnation.

The End of Religions of Flattery and Fear

If Christ’s descent protects us from a monstrous Freudian God, it also shields us from a deity of simple benefaction; the kind of being that a person might game or manipulate. In the old religions of the Mediterranean there was always the assumption of patronage between the gods, the community and the worshipper. As long as the supplicant placated the deity with appropriate satisfactions their personal or communal safety could be guaranteed. In this way, religion served as an insurance policy related to the promotion of certain instrumental goods. This model of cultic behaviour is powerfully summarised at the beginning of Homer’s Iliad in the mouth of the priest Chryses. Distressed by the abduction of his daughter by the covetous Agamemnon, this grieving father placates the god Apollo in the following terms:

“God with the silver bow, protector of Chryse, sacred Cilla, mighty lord of Tenedos, Sminthean Apollo, hear my prayer: If I’ve ever pleased you with a holy shrine, or burned bones for you—bulls and goats well wrapped in fat—grant me my prayer. Force the Danaans to pay full price for my tears with your arrows.” (Iliad, Book I)

At its mildest this was a religion which rarely extended beyond tribe or hearth. At its most extreme, this attitude produced the ancient mystery cults of the classical world. These inward-looking faiths promised personal immortality for the select worshipper (as long as the correct rites were observed).  In both cases, God was merely the guarantor of personal desire. While the religion of the Hebrews possessed most of the cultic elements of Greece (including their own mysteries) there was always something unruly about Israel’s God. Yahweh frequently refused the sacred bribery, implicit in popular ritual transactions and condemned those who put sacrifices before social welfare. As the Psalmist records God’s annoyance, ‘for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it’ (Psalm 50:10-12).  Such a god could never be buttered up in order to suit human expectations. The Harrowing of Hell merely confirms this key theological fact. Christ’s descent suggests that God has his own plans for the world, irrespective of the whims and schemes of human beings.

Here God is the great opener, the One who pushes us towards a world we dare not imagine. In this new reality, the rule of force is displaced in favour of a sovereign peace. It was the great doubter, the Greek Sage Epicurus who complained that, “If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another.” And that is where religion would stay if humans were left to their own devices. Yet, the God of Israel breaks this self-serving religiosity apart by depriving human beings of the satisfaction and fear of annihilation. Jesus dies so that death can have no more hold on the world. With this act, comes the affective end of all politics, all empire and all systems of oppression. Imperial flags may continue to fly, guns deployed and tanks prepared, but in the ultimate sense, it is all for nothing, because Hades, the master of the gun and tank, is a phantom. While all human civilization is based on the threat of obliteration (in the hands of rulers or armies) Jesus’ descent into hell renders death ultimately powerless.

The image of Christ breaking through the gates of hell reveals the ultimate futility of the many and varied little hells humans repeatedly inflict on one another. God has judged these nothing more than puffs of smoke, dispersed in a moment. There is no damage we can do to each other that God cannot rescind.  If we want to be true to this reality, rather than continue to play with shadows, we should live according to the rule of love and not violence. As Paul puts it: ‘Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but enjoy the company of the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Carefully consider what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:16-7).Yet, even this is ultimately about God and not us.  The Father wants us to live in the truth of his love so that he can accomplish his purpose: the renewal of creation. As Paul again informs us: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies’ (8:22-24). While our androcentric religions cling to petty jealousies and endless grudges, the descent of Jesus is the first sign that the cosmic winter is at an end and a new world is breaking in.

In late modernity, we need the assurance of this great thaw like never before.  Religions of both terror and glib self-satisfaction are again on the march. We can see the religions of terror every day on our televisions screens.  In the face of the self-righteous shooter or the zealous bomber, we observe the life of one who does not know that the long night is over and the morning has begun. He is still desperately clinging to the rules of death despite the fact that he is made for life and life at its fullest. Yet beside these merchants of doom, there stand a softer, yet equally seductive cohort. They are the ranks of the spiritually self-conceited those that peddle a comfortable religion of the self.  Here the old brutalities of the superego are replaced by the confidence of a contented Id. Such a religion’s greatest commandment is: Love yourself.  Such a faith encompass everything from the New Age Gurus of ‘positive’ thinking and ‘success’ to those who use their prayers to bargain with God for success, fame or a mortgage.  Like the transactional priests of antiquity, such people don’t want to come out into the spring sunshine to see a world made anew. They would rather stay in their drab little houses getting small gods (tissues of ego and flattery) to do their bidding. They don’t want to be part of the costly gift that Jesus has wrought because they might have to give up the central place they have made for themselves in their own sacred story. They are quite happy to remain under the awfulness of the old order as long as there is a slim chance of keeping a vestige of what they already possess. Of course the grave makes a mockery of this religion of self. In the final analysis, it is not more self-focused spirituality we need, but One who can reach in and pluck us from the darkness waiting to snare us. Thus the truth of our human situation is not to be found in sugary reassurance or fiery condemnation rather in the possibility of absolute love. Can we bear be held by one who cannot be ‘bought off’ or placated. Are we prepared to be loved by one who desires that our tapered identities become something more? If yes, we might have to die to the laws of death (our securities, our defences, our egos) but in dying to these things, we can finally discern the endless reality of life freely given.  Even the wounds of the past are not immune from this life’s power.  Our mistakes and failures are not confined to a locked room, but are something which can always be brought to light again and redeemed. This is what Jesus’ dictum ‘on earth as in heaven’ truly means. When Jesus’ descended’ (as the old creeds put it) time and eternity met and mingled, the one becoming perfected by the other. In this new terrain, there is no space for fear, tears or regret, only the appreciation of a boundless present that reconciles all to itself.  This is religion at its most sublime.

Why Would God Repent? The Theology Behind a Remorseful Jesus (Matt. 3:13)

The New Testament preserves a strange incident which offers a key to understanding the internal radicalism of the Gospel message. Jesus is walking beside the Jordan River with his cousin, the wandering prophet John, and asks to be baptised. Initially John resists this request saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:13). John seems to know that Jesus is more than a relative making a fleeting visit. Does John sense that Jesus is ‘God in the flesh’? At the very least, he knows Jesus is the Messiah; the one for whom John and Israel have been waiting. Why would God’s anointed need to be purified of sins? The request must have seemed an affront to his deeply ingrained religious attitudes. Wasn’t God always holy? Jesus’ answer is fittingly obscure given this assumption: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” In Judaism, righteousness (tzedek) is related to the notion of remaining faithful to God’s Covenant’. Why then would the Son of God need repentance? The appeal to John only makes sense if God were attempting to repair the Covenant-relationship from the divine perspective. What might this mean?

In previous generations, God (through the Prophets) had condemned Israel for its moral recklessness and religious promiscuity. For these failures they had been enslaved, scattered and exiled. Children were made orphans; fathers and mothers were robbed of their children; foreign armies despoiled the sacred places of their religion.  Yet in the sheer rapidity of their misfortune, God’s punishment appeared to descend into a series of meaningless and brutal acts. And yet, despite the vale of tears cast over the people of Israel, God appeared to be unmoved by the suffering of the people. Something of this existential despair can be found in the Book of Job. In this text God is reduced to a pitiless and vindictive trickster, who makes a bet with Satan that Job will not forsake his god, despite being pained, dispossessed and humiliated.  After putting Job through a series of gruelling trials, this blameless man finds it within himself to argue with God concerning the injustice of his situation: ‘God may well slay me; I may have no hope/ yet I will argue my case before God’ (Job 13:15: Miles 324). God’s response to Job is both surprising and unnerving: “Have you an arm like God’s? Can you thunder with a voice like His?” (Job 40:9; Miles 313). All God can do to justify these appalling actions is to appeal to great power (the habitual attitude of dictators). Such an answer was probably just as unsatisfactory to ancient Jewish readers as many modern ones.

Why does great power give any the right to inflict suffering on others? Doesn’t God care about other creatures? Or are we just pieces on a cosmic game-board? Given this monstrous lack of empathy, it is easy to see why the modern detractor of religion, Richard Dawkins, calls such a deity ‘jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’ (Dawkins The God Delusion p. 51). Given what God is meant to be; the author of the whole of time and space, is it really surprising that the Source of all is hardened to the little details of birth, suffering and death? Can such a Personality even begin to understand what we finite creatures experience? Ancient Greek philosophers like the Epicureans doubted it. If the gods existed, they thought, they would remain in a perfect world of their own. Insulated in their own divine bliss, they would show as little interest in the feelings of human beings as we take interest in the feelings of ants.

Should the badly treated insects (as Dawkins implies) go their own way? Is this God really worthy of worship? The answer to these questions can be found in the unfolding story which begins on the banks of the Jordan. The New Testament charts what Jack Miles calls a ‘crisis in the life of God’; the moment when God comes to suspect that the Thou was an abuser; that the Ground of Being might have wronged Job after all. The narratives we have, do not tell us what prompted this rupture in the inner-life of God. Yet, this we can justly say without injury to the integrity of the New Testament’s own theo-logic. God is not some dispassionate Being outside time (like Aristotle’s Prime Mover) but a voice to be argued with, persuaded and convinced. As Moses and Abraham learned, God’s mind can be changed by discursive means. While it’s nearly impossible to fully understand the motives behind such a decision; its consequences are at the core of Christian proclamation.  Jesus (whom the Gospel of John calls ‘the Word made flesh’) descends to the level of the human ants, lives like one of them, thinks like one of them, and eventually dies like one of them. He learns the cost of his own wilful blindness concerning the physical and moral limitations of those he commands. God’s resolve to mend his ways is made clear through Jesus’ request for baptism. God holds himself up to his own religious law, tacitly acknowledging that he caused pain and misery to his creatures and more narrowly damaged his Covenant with the people of Israel. God realizes that harsh judgement and moralising have wrecked creation. Now God seeks forgiveness from his people. The divine becoming human is not about God’s glory (seeking more adoring subjects) but about God coming as a supplicant before an angry and jaded community, who do not deserve their suffering. Among other things, this reading reveals a startling truth. For at least two millennia, many in the Church have supposed that a central part of Jesus’ mission was to demonstrate that the Jews had failed in their task as a holy people. Yet, if we stop to think about these matters in the light of Jesus’ enigmatic baptism,  the meaning of the incarnation is the exact opposite to the one proposed by  Christian supersessionists.The people had in general held their ground in the midst of dispair. God as Jesus had not come to show the Hebrews their spiritual failure. Rather, he had come in order to beg their forgiveness for his own.

In the past, Yahweh had kept a firm hand on the people through the ultimate sanction of death. As God declares in Deuteronomy: ‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him’ (NIV 30:19-20).  This shadow of death extended over the whole people of Israel; from the defiant child to the little old man who dared to collect wood on the Sabbath. To refuse the Torah was to wish destruction on the whole community. Yet, as a living breathing human being, God seems to share the mortal horror of death. Jesus spends much of his time lifting its effects; allowing everyone he meets to choose life in place of sickness and death. Yet unlike his earlier visitation at Sinai, God does this with joyful irresponsibility; with few rules and requirements; faithfulness appears to be enough in this next phase of Covenantal relationship. Some do not even have to ask to share in this new abundance of life, like Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:1-44). Yet God knows that one cannot hope to repair the consequences of divine wrath unless those who have been lost are restored.

There can be no true healing unless death is done away with; not merely in the life of one or two, but in the life of all. To do this, Yahweh (that sometimes ferocious Personality) takes on the role of the sacrificial victim according the grisly imperatives of an earlier self. On the cross Jesus as God becomes his own sacrifice to quell a sense of sin according to his own rules (Leviticus 4:7). John subliminally recognises this, although it might have horrified him if he had considered the full implications of his designation of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) Here the Lord of ‘the Angel Armies’ (2 Kings 6:8-23) stands in the place of all those (human and animal) that have died for the Jerusalem religious cult. Yet, this is not a sacrifice of self-glorification. Jesus uses his death as a vehicle for the most radical healing project of all. God makes personal desolation the means of beginning creation’s salvage. As Carl Jung put the thought, Jesus’ execution is the moment when God attempts to ‘rescue mankind from himself’ (Answer to Job, p. 93). At the Resurrection, God initiates the final stage of this rescue; fulfilling the imperative of divine repentance by allowing others to be forgiven. In this way, God and the world are linked in a mutual embrace by which the characters of both are fulfilled. The marriage of earth and heaven (Revelation 21-22) is nothing short of a profound and mystical interdependency; the recognition that the wholeness of one is in the gift of the other. This means that among the philosophers, Hegel and not Thomas Aquinas, has got much closer to the world of Scripture. God is Person, but also a process.

If God’s attempted redemption is the chief task of the Incarnation, what does this mean for the Church and Israel? The Assembly of God’s people has its own failures to confront to be sure, but if the episode at the Jordan means anything, then our role (those who are part of the divine story) is to continue God’s practice of repentance out in the world. The kernel of the Good News (announced by the angels at the Nativity) is that God reneges on a past in which the Creator was frequently at war with Creation. Thus in this new era of peace, those through whom God works, are charged with the duty of removing anguish from those who are excluded by so-called ‘religious authority’, by cultic violence, by tribalism as well as the pervasive idolatry of force. For the early Church this meant a conscientious opposition to war and disbanding of old distinctions between Jew and Gentile. And if we are to believe Jesus in the Gospel of John, more radical transformations are still to come: ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear’ (NIV John 16:12). What tasks does God’s process of redemption mean for us today? Perhaps the most vexing of issue to trouble the Church in recent decades has been the recognition of same-sex relationships.  To some cynics, the affirmation of gay and lesbian people is a tale of feeble concession to secular trends. Yet, there is a another interpretation worth considering. Through the Spirit, God enters the cultural world to repair his own violence, personified in texts like Leviticus 18:22. By siding with the victims of stoning over the authorities who stone, by taking on the form of a broken and fallible man, divine fallibility becomes an instrument of repair and enrichment. God allows the body of Jesus to be wounded, so he can heal the wounded (in physical and cultural terms). To worship God as ‘suffering servant’ is not merely to acknowledge that God enters into our suffering, but also that God suffers because of the suffering the divine causes. Perhaps the world and God are on a path of co-redemption; each sustained by the progress of the other.

Angels Among Us?

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews, 13.2).

Angels are part of the fabric of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, yet their identity is starkly elusive. The word ‘angel’ comes from a Greek word angelos meaning ‘messenger’. An angel then is someone (or perhaps something) which communicates the will of God to the human world. In their earliest appearances, such heralds are surprisingly ordinary. When Abraham is seen entertaining angels in Genesis, we are told that he offers them hospitality, as he would any human guest (Gen 17: 2-7). Yet, even early on in the Biblical story, there is clearly something uncanny about them. An angel calls out from heaven, to stave Abraham’s hand from sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen 22:10). And we’re told that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder which linked earth with heaven (Gen 21:12). In this last image is revealed something of the intrinsic nature of the ‘angelic’ experience. To be in the presence of the angelic is to encounter an event which has the outlandish hallmarks of a timeless being, yet it occurs in time; amidst all the mud, blood and confusion of human history.

Later in the Biblical story (perhaps under the artistic influence of the Babylonians), the Jewish writers developed an image of angels more like the ones we see on Christmas cards today. And by the time of Jesus, Israel had a pretty sophisticated notion of what angels were like (complete with names, functions, and classes). At this later stage of their imaginative evolution, angels took on a bizarre, psychedelic quality- with glowing bodies, the faces of lions or eagles and with multiple wings. It was in this angelic-literate culture that both Matthew and Luke composed their Nativity narratives. Only the breaking in of the angelic world could be magnificent enough to mark the birth of God’s Messiah. The angels in their extraordinary appearance before the impoverished shepherds signal a new Jacob’s ladder, wrapped up in the person of Jesus. Yet, this still doesn’t shed much light on the nature of angels themselves; only that they are mysterious heralds, ushering in another grand mystery; God’s beloved son, alive on earth. So angels hang like big intrusive question marks in the middle of the Biblical universe, illustrating enigma, articulating our uncertainties, and offering us the joy of unexpected possibilities fulfilled.

God-Shaped Moments

Perhaps the most that can be said about angels is that they are a way of talking about God-shaped moments and God-shaped happenings, for which, in the end, only a spiritual meaning is persuasive. In some parts of the world, like Uganda, the traditional vision of angels still holds sway in the Churches. A robust Charismatic theology tells Ugandans to expect wonders, not just in the dusty pages of scripture, but in their personal lives. A Ugandan pastor once told that his life had been saved by an angelic visitation. In a rationalistic culture like ours, we are liable to take such accounts with a pinch of salt. Yet, he swore it happened to him, and told me he lamented the thinking of Western people, who refused to accept the presence of the angelic in daily life as he did. In my more rye moments, I suspect God is sensitive to our skeptical spasms, and as a consequence has scaled back his use of the spiritual fireworks. After all, it’s no good sending angels to people if so many of them are dismissed as mad. Given such intellectual hostility, how might we encounter angels today? Maybe some still experience the heavenly light on a hillside or see a flaming ladder, but I expect most will experience the angelic in more mundane ways. In the finest tradition of Protestant understatement, an evangelical lay preacher put it to me like this; coincidence is God’s way of keeping angels anonymous. The angels are with us, he seemed to be saying, but in the kindness of a stranger, the chance conversation, the hospitality unlooked for. In these convergences, God-shaped things happen and something of God is communicated to the world.

Angelic Service

This description of angels might seem all too homespun and vague for the tastes of some- especially if we reflect on the many dramatic stories in which angels appear. What attracts people to angels is their exquisite strangeness; their ability to shake things up and shift things around. Yet, this kind of supernatural thrill-seeking portrays a fundamental misunderstanding about these mysterious messengers. The truth of the angelic is not to be found in their flaming swords or majestic wings, but in the fact that, when Jesus was half-starved and dangerously exhausted in the wilderness, it was said that the angels came and nursed him (Mark 1:12). Here we see one of the many gorgeous paradoxes of Christianity. Christians are bidden to seek out the extraordinary (the magical if you prefer) in the rhythms of ordinary life- in loving, providing and serving. In this, the angels show us the way. In that spirit of compassion, most disciples of Jesus don’t expect some Harry Potter-style rerun of the First Christmas (complete with heavenly choir-calls of ‘Glory to God in the Highest’). Instead, they seek out the continuing presence of the Christ-child in the world, amidst all its pains and problems. By living in solidarity with those who hunger after peace, justice, and righteousness, the disciple is invited into the alchemical workshop or the magician’s study, so that she  might witness the transformation of the human heart from leaden blackness to glorious gold at first hand.

For most of us, however, this is a slow and arduous process (all true alchemy is). In general, the human species is pretty terrible at listening to its better inclinations. We get distracted by our own worries, anxieties, and hang-ups, so much so that we repeatedly fail to be the servants of love we know in our bones we can be. We neglect those in need closest to us, sometimes because we fear to intrude, or simply because the rush of the day just overtakes of us. And, in the end, without meaning to, we fail to do what love requires of us. Slowing-acting and difficult this process of metamorphosis might be, it is the abiding moral promise of Christianity; that we can become better, deeper, richer human beings, despite our inclination towards failure. And that’s the only magic followers of Jesus should need or expect. Anything else is a graceful bonus; gracious because it isn’t conjured up or looked for. Rather it appears unexpectedly from the depths of divine love. In this mysticism of the ordinary then, the angels are examples of service, encouraging us to heed God’s message when it is heard- not as a flashing light, but as an open door.

Talking to Angels

Yet, a niggling question remains. When all is said and done, can we actually see and talk to angels? Or are they just figurative expressions we hang on the mysterious? Many have claimed to have encountered angels- the poet William Blake and the scientist Emanuel Swedenborg to name but two. Yet for many, such testimony has never been enough. Could we perhaps summon them with incantations or special prayers? Could the materialists among us finally get something tangible to look at? The suggestion is pretty alluring, isn’t it? So attractive was the idea, that the Apostle Paul condemned early Christians for doing it. And even in later centuries, the occasional self-professed magus would attempt it (often at a great personal cost). The Royal astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I, Dr John Dee, was notorious for his arcane experiments to command and conjure angels. And it’s not just a relic of the past. Go to any Body and Mind and Spirit shelf in your local bookshop and you’ll soon see that such occult ambitions don’t seem to have abated that much in the proceeding centuries.

We seem as captivated by conjuring up angels as ever. Yet, as the old Faust legend warns us, the budding magician soon discovers that all he has summoned is a distorted reflection of his own desires and fears. Such are the perils of knocking on the doors of heaven just for the sake of curiosity. One suspects that the angels would prefer it if we didn’t spend much time trying to talk to them, since both we and they have a job to do in this world, and indulging in endless theological or occult speculation merely wastes time. It’s the holy equivalent of fussing over the latest bit of celebrity gossip in office hours. It might be fun, but it doesn’t get us very far. If you want to see angels, says the Christian tradition, you need first to get out of your own head and start living and working with others. The ‘deeper magic’ of Christianity as C.S. Lewis called it, requires no invocations, no astrological circles drawn in chalk, no black candles- only a willingness to start loving, giving and praying. Start down this road and you’ll soon discover angels around every corner- not all of them with wings.

Dedicated with love to my friend and guide Anna. I hope you are in peace Friend.

Would Augustine Bake a Cake for a Gay Couple?

What are the precise rules of the liberal-secular state? To what degree should Christians accept these rules? And what theological sources should Christians use to find a way forward? These thorny questions have come into stark relief in the last decade through a series of high profile cases in both Britain and the United States involving legal standoffs between conservative Christians and citizens in same-sex relationships. These ‘Culture wars’ over ‘religious liberties’ were exemplified in 2013, when the owners of an Oregon bakery denied service to a same-sex couple. The ensuing protests, fines and recriminations, revealed a a deep conflict of world-views: Should the consciences of religious believers be left unmolested by the secular state, or should tax-paying citizens be compelled to follow a rule of neutral equanimity- regardless of their fundamental convictions? A similar case in Northern Ireland in 2015 merely restated the same conundrum. As the judge in the case noted:

“The defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others.”

Behind the formulation of this ruling is an age-old controversy between Christianity and the public sphere. In the end, the conflict comes down to whether Christians feel they can accept the existence of a realm of moral deliberation beyond the authority of the Church. In the following post, I want to offer one possible answer to this these quandaries through the voice of the Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354 –430). I will suggest that Augustine provides support for what we might regard as a secular state, and that this framework should cause those Christians who rally against liberal secularism to be cautious. At the heart of this plea is an examination of Augustine’s double-edged repudiation of a publicly sponsored Paganism and a politicised Christianity. Within both these critiques Augustine develops a vision of civil society and government, which, I suggest, challenges Christians to look at issues of secularism, pluralism and tolerance in a fresh way. Firstly, let’s consider what Augustine thought about the role of religion in public life through a consideration of his attitudes towards Roman ancestral religion.

The Problem of Religion and the Secular

In recent decades, some have suggested that among early Christians writers, Augustine is the great collaborator; a theological architect for the corruption of the Church by the State. As John Howard Yoder articulates the problem, Augustine can be seen as a learned gentleman, who acclimatizes the Church to the rules of Roman public life. Such acclimatization emerges for Yoder graphically when we consider the issue of Christian ‘public influence’. The fact that Augustine thought Christianity should be a player in reconstructing society through an alliance with civil interests, proves for Yoder that Christianity in Augustine has become captured by motives other than those of the Gospel. Looking at this portrait in the round, one can certainly understand where Yoder’s disquiet comes from. Take for instance Augustine’s attitudes towards ancient Roman religion. Here, Augustine stands in the tradition of his mentor Ambrose of Milan, in detesting the old conservative cults of family, tribe and war which still dominated the civil and mental architecture of fourth-century Rome.

Ambrose’s plea in 383 to the emperor Valentinian II against the reinstatement of the Altar of Victory in the Senate House was not merely a repudiation of idolatry in the abstract, but a vivid expression of a developed theological politics. By rejecting the cult of Victory, Ambrose expressed a desire to disinvest the mystical and absolutist qualities of the state- fostered by Imperial decree since Augustus. The blood and cruelty of the governing powers must stand without providential justification, argued Ambrose; a secularisation which is paradoxically achieved by the judgment of Christ. Such a radical de-sanctification of state action has far-reaching consequences for the offices of Empire by subjecting them to invasive new values which disrupt the moral immunities offered by Roman Paganism. Such disorder was vividly illustrated in 390, when Ambrose forced the emperor Theodosius to perform public penance for his bloody conduct in Thessalonika.

Incorporated into a new theology of peace over victory, Ambrose was clearly determined that Theodosius would no longer act as his pagan predecessors had done. Following in Ambrose’s footsteps, Augustine attempts to unmask the destructive political dynamics of civil religion through a sustained analysis of traditional Roman institutions, rituals and attitudes. Augustine concludes that key sites of cultural education- from public games and theatrical performances to the rhetorical schools- were all contaminated by a civil theology which inculcates viciousness and moral license in the lives of citizens. As John Milbank observes:

In the story which Rome tells about its own foundations, the principle of a prior violence ‘stayed’ and limited by a single violent hand is firmly enshrined. Romulus, the founder, is the murderer of his brother and rival Remus; he is also the enslaver of the clienteles to whom he offered protection against foreign enemies. In battle, Romulus invoked the staying hand of Jupiter, who then received the title stator. The supreme God, therefore, like the founding hero, arises merely as the limiter of a preceding disorder… Mythical beginnings of legal order are therefore traced back to the arbitrary limitation of violence by violence, to victory over rivals, and to the usurpation of fathers by sons. And, according to Augustine, the Romans continued to ‘live out’ the mythos: within the city gates the goddess most celebrated was Bellona; the virtues most crowned with glory were military ones.

Pluralism and Roman Violence

What sustains this predilection to cruelty in the Roman story? Recent attempts to understand Augustine’s reception of Paganism through Milbank’s prism of primordial violence have tended to focus on the internal plurality of pagan theological praxis. As Graham Ward suggests, Augustine’s combat with Paganism in the fourth-century is ultimately about the nature of truth- possessing equivalence with the Church’s confrontation with radical postmodernity today. While such a reading has plausibility, it confuses our present anxieties about pluralism (namely relativism) with Augustine’s cultural concerns. While the post-Christian plurality of contemporary societies hinges upon liquidity and atomisation, the non-Christian plurality encountered by Augustine is explicitly allied with forces of cultural hegemony which wholly envelopes the public space.

While the Roman pantheon offered an image of radical pluralism to its worshippers, Augustine realized that these personalities were illusionary, not merely because they were idols, but because their personalities epitomised a single tendency- the quest for power. Much earlier in the Western tradition, Plato had suggested that collective strife among the Olympian gods deprives the pagan theologian of the ability to give a coherent account of piety. As Socrates pointedly observes in Plato’s Euthyphro, how can one decide what is just or unjust on divine example, if ‘different gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good and bad’? Radicalising this Platonic claim, Augustine suggests that the anarchy of polytheism does more than deprive human beings of a consensual conception of divine justice. It deprives human culture of the ability to sustain commitments to virtue, good order and peace as well. In the vindictiveness of Juno the Stoic apatheia of the semi-divine Aeneas and the adultery of Venus, Augustine observes the hard and fast exclusion of compassion, righteousness and affection from public life. In turn this leads to a uniformity of morally degenerate characters- which passively imitate the objects of their worship. As Augustine observes in a letter to Nectarius:

‘[You] might object, ‘all the old written traditions about the gods’ lives and characters ought to be understood and interpreted by wise readers in a quite different way.’ Yes indeed; just yesterday or the day before, we heard a wholesome interpretation of this sought being read out in the temples to the assembled people. I ask you: is the human race so blinded that it cannot grasp such clear facts? Jupiter is celebrated everywhere committing his acts of adultery; in paintings, in statues-cast, hammered or sculptured- in writing, in public readings, on the stage, in song, in dance. Why could he not have been described as prohibiting such behaviour, at least in his own Capitol? If such wicked, such completely shameless and impious acts are allowed to blaze without prohibition among the people; if they are worshipped in the temple and laughed at in the theatres; if even the poor man’s herds are wiped out as his animals become their sacrificial victims; and if the rich man’s inheritance is squandered on actors to imitate in plays and dances- then, how can you say the cities are ‘flourishing’?

Augustine: The Pluralistic State

What then is Augustine’s definition of civic flourishing? It is certainly not a monochrome and inflexible conception of the good. Such mirror images of a permissive polytheism have their own risks-namely the confusion between social conformity and genuine righteousness. Indeed, as Augustine reminds us, if one judges the worth of an individual according to the metric of social condemnation alone, then one would have agreed with the Roman persecution of the Apostles. Consensus is not always the same as goodness Augustine warns. In place of an uncritical adoration of unity, Augustine is sensitive to the far-reaching consequences of Christianity’s affirmation of a Triune God. Just as the harmony of the Trinity consists of a loving relationship between distinct yet interrelated Persons, the Christian practice of loving-kindness invites the disciples of Jesus to find unity in their differences. Consequently, the Christian who searches after love can live variously- as a married householder, a public rhetorician, or even a desert hermit ‘without any texts of the scriptures.’ This tentative Augustinian account of vocation is significantly strengthened when we consider the distinctive character of his hermeneutics. In place of a purely literalistic reading of the Scriptures, Augustine suggests that since the Word came into the world to communicate the love of God for human beings (1 John 4:8) any interpretation of the ‘words’ of Scripture which prompt us to charitable action must be consistent with divine revelation. As Augustine notes in On Christian Teaching:

Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to understand what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error . . . Anyone with an interpretation of the scriptures that differs from that of the writer is misled, but not because the scriptures are lying. If as I began by saying he is misled by an idea that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field.

Of course this did not mean an infinite elasticity of meaning. Like Plato before him, Augustine understands true love as consisting of a will directed towards the good. Yet, regardless of such Platonic qualifications, Augustine affirmed the value of social pluralism- not in a multitude of gods, but in the multiplication of good lives lived. Yet, such pluralism of virtue could not truly take root while the false plurality of Latin polytheism held sway in the public square. There must be room to imagine another moral universe beyond the squabbling Olympians- a culture in which Christ could be heard and heeded in acts of healing and justice. Yet, as Robert Dodaro has pointed out, such acts were not intended to undercut the role of the appointed magistrates. While Christians can advice, support, even condemn, Augustine did not envisage Christians as the final arbiters of public space. Indeed, as Dodaro observes; ‘Augustine demonstrates ‘underlying respect for the authority and legitimacy of the public sphere (res publica)’ in despite of its evident flaws.

What does this respect mean for Augustine’s understanding of civil society? Augustine’s desire to remain a petitioner in relation to secular power rather than its director is illustrative of a significant difference between himself and Ambrose. Despite the failures of the Emperors to live as Christians, Ambrose still held out hope for the Constantinian settlement in which the peace of the Empire was identical with the peace of Christ. According to this latter-day civil theology, Rome’s conquering armies were guided by divine Providence, while the power struggles of the emperors were the vulgar manifestation of a titanic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. In the midst of this ordered universe, Augustine introduces a rupture which Ambrose cannot cross. For all his condemnation of Roman Paganism, Augustine does not seem to believe that counter-absorption of the public space by Christianity is the answer to violence and or immorality.

Indeed, any kind forceful alliance between religion and the state is merely an invitation to corruption; whether such corruption is pagan or Christian. In both cases, Augustine repudiates a conception of the sacred which is made subservient to the demands of public power. It is for this reason that Augustine is so keen to break the link between Christianity and civic stability in City of God. Augustine is certainly not sympathetic to the Constantinian suggestion that Imperial Power and the Church should be identical. The Church must be free to be the Church. Yet, at the same time, the Church should not  attempt to become a counter power to the state. In this way, the church should accept secular institutions of justice when it can be shown that such institutions serve the object of ‘general peace’. To accept such a settlement is also to accept that individual Christians or church-communities will not always be ‘winners’. This is the price of refusing the idolatry of state-power. This does not bar Christians from mediation, protest and campaigning- but it does bar them from condemning the whole secular order. This is the tightrope which Augustine believes the Church in order to be authentic to itself. Behind this nuanced position is probably Augustine’s own reading of Romans 13: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves’.

Would Augustine Bake the cake?

This brief mention of Romans 13 brings us to another question; what kind of state might Augustine have prefered given his theological starting-point? In many respects what Augustine is arguing for in City of God (and earlier) is something remarkably similar to the pluralistic public space supported by the liberal theorist John Rawls. The public sphere must be a space where those of different lives can meet together, dialogue and find peaceful solutions to common problems. And as Dodaro’s mention of the appointed magistrates alerts us, there must be mechanisms for dealing with conflict which extend beyond the wishes of this community or that. There must be retraint and trade-off. Of course, the Church will not always agree with the way secular opinion-formers think, but it must trust that there are aspects of secular neutrality that serve the interests of the Church; supremely, the space for the Gospel to be proclaimed, for prayers to be given and the Church to act. To throw these goods away for some illusive vision of purity is at the very least theologically problematic. This was a hot issue in Augustine’s own life-time, when sectarian Christians (the Donatists) broke away from their local Churches, in their quest for absolute moral conformity.  Yet, as Augustine consistently pointed out, on this side of the fall, no Christian can hope for complete purity in the moral realm. The Church was not called to be absolutely good, but to rather proclaim the goodness of God. The final moral status of Christian entanglements will be decided, not by the partial understanding of individual Christians, but by the judgment of God. If the world is a field, we who grow in it, do not know which crop God prefers from this side of eternity. What is currently wheat can become a weed, and what is a weed can still become wheat “and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.” Where the cake shop owner and the gay client will be- no one but God knows. In the meantime, a pluralistic state permits the Church to do its best and for the state to be unhypocritical. This is perhaps the best we can hope for in the ‘earthly city’.

There are costs to this generous settlement to be sure. The culture which has given up on a unified mythology of faith and state maybe less idealistic and more cynical, yet it is more likely to be persuaded of the necessity for change. A society devoid of a single narrative is in this sense more susceptible to the transformative, loving narrative that Christianity at its best offers. If there is only one narrative, only one perspective can be heard. This is not a basis for peace and love. Augustine’s affirmation of exegetical plurality, suggests that he thought the Christian life always had to be larger than a single interpretation of any given issue would allow. Given these hospitable features, would Augustine bake a cake for a gay couple? A trivial question perhaps, but it brings so much into focus. We might answer this question by posing a series of other questions. Would Augustine expect everyone to assent to his interpretation of public ethics? Either within the Church or without? Does baking the cake amount to negating the ultimate goods that the Church proclaims? Is it equal perhaps to the worship of those false gods which promote violence? Augustine’s pluralistic conception of love suggest a negative answer to both these subsequent queries. To render a service to one with whom one disagrees does not mean one necessarily jepodises the truth of one’s position. What if one did it out of love, despite profound reservations?

Perhaps this is all down to the same kind of issue addressed by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Here he speaks of two different kinds of Christian; the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ bretheren. The ‘weak’ brethren are still ‘recovering pagans’- their minds still captured by the notion of ‘purity’. They would not eat food sacrificed to pagan gods for fear that their use somehow tainted the food with the sin of idolatry. The ‘strong’ Christian on the other hand realized that these images had no power- and the food sacrificed to idols was just that- food. These sacrifices had no corrupting power. As Paul concludes, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience’ (1 Corinthians 10:25). To draw a modern comparison, conservative Christians’ objections to baking wedding cakes for same-sex couples have the same feeling of obsessive purity about them. There is the implicit assumption that by baking the cake they are condoning what they do not believe in. But as Paul might have said; “it’s just cake”; it does not tell us anything about the purity of the agent that bakes it. Augustine, a good Pauline theologian is equally keen to detoxify Christians of the notion that they must seperate themselves wholly from the world around them; even when baking a cake! It turns out then that this matter is far from trivial; encompassing as it does matters of conscience, purity and Christian wordliness. Much is at stake here from the perspective Christian ethics, not least Paul’s insistence in the neighboring passage in Romans 12 that: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’. By baking the cake one affirms both the above imperative of coexistence and the fact that God desires an autonomous public sphere which is not polluted by a conflict between public and sacred interests. For therein the temptations of idolatry and insinereity are averted. By refusing to separate ourselves from our neighbours (from those who walk a different path from ourselves) and by conforming peacably to public authority (within limitted bounds) we walk the tightrope Augustine and  Paul believe is at the heart of the Christian life.