Christian Atheism or Christian Maturity?

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Holy Week is upon us, and I have taken it upon myself to re-read Peter Rollins’ The Divine Magician. The book is a correction of Thomas Alitzer’s argument in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, but not for the argument’s lack of strength. Altizer takes a romantic view of humanity as divinized by the death of God through Jesus on the cross. Though, Rollins espouses Altizer’s radical theology, he takes the application to the everyday life. In talks, Rollins has said he denies the resurrection when he doesn’t love his neighbor as himself or withholds compassion from others. Likewise, he affirms the resurrection when he embraces the other while lifting them to their feet. How Rollins communicates his ideas in his book is nothing new—Christians over the centuries have done it as they moved throughout Europe and in the east: he translates the gospel of Jesus into the language of the culture. In the twenty-first century west the language of sacrifices and a moody God do not communicate the love of God for the world—in fact, it is quite the opposite. If we here in the west took the bible literally without any knowledge of the world that produced the bible, we would find God, at the very least a monster. God is a parent who had a child by mistake, but is more annoyed when the child misbehaves. Rather than take out all “his” hate on the mistake, “he” finds an innocent to take the blame. The innocent has to be willing so God can point to the sacrifice while yelling at the child, “If it weren’t for him, it would be you gutted and pinned to the tree.” Why would anyone want to believe in a God like that? The Eastern Orthodox Church shares that sentiment, and concluded that God, in Jesus, showed how far “he” was willing to love the world while the world beat “him” and killed “him.” The love of God is not tarnished by the language of violent culture, nor is that love contradicted.

I agree with Rollins’ assertion that people make things, ideas, and people an extension of their deepest desires or darkest fantasies like the totems of Freud or Jung’s archetypes. Jesus becomes God in the flesh sacrificed for the world because everyone of us desires redemption in our own lives regardless if we believe in a deity or not. Jesus becomes another symbol of humanity’s yearning for atonement. The empty tomb is comparable to the empty Holy of Holies after Jesus’ death, and the vacant room the Roman General, Tacitus observed as he pulled away the veil after he entered Jerusalem. There is nothing there. The space is void because such ideas as “God” or “Jesus” are neutral. Take away our ideas and our desires there exists no-thing. The question of God becomes a question to us, and wants to know what we’re seeking. Did God die on the cross as Altizer states, and the resurrection became a symbol of a divinized humanity carrying on the message of reconciliation in each other? Was God merely a symbol, like a rattle to an infant, to draw us out of ourselves, and when we finally matured we realized there was no rattle—like Neo in “The Matrix” when he understood there was no spoon? God is just a word and redemption is the cry of a child doubled over in guilt and self-loathing.

Rollins’ change in the Christian narrative has been long overdue because for too long the church—denominations aside—has responded to the world with milk, rattles, and spoons when necessity demands meat and an honest dialogue; however, a mature practice was hinted in the gospel of John, and argued blatantly by St. Paul. The author of John’s gospel wrote to a community about the tangibility of God and the Kingdom of Heaven being inside them using the fleshy metaphors of Jesus embodying the word of God. The author goes one step further in the sixth chapter when Jesus says to the people they must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood to be a part of him and the work of God. Even at the time of its writing (the end of the first century), there were people in the community who took such ideas as literal, and found the teaching reprehensible. The teaching the author wishes to pass on is the work of God is not found in the temples or scrolls, or the Rabbinic interpretations found in the Talmud, but in the heart of each person. St. Paul argues in a similar manner in the first two chapters of Romans as he says that the Gentiles who did not have God’s law in their culture had God’s law inscribed in their heart. Forty years before Jesus, one of the greatest Rabbis, Hillel (the teacher of Gamaliel who taught St. Paul) was approached by a Greek man who desired to convert to Judaism. The man wanted Hillel to treat the law as a philosophical exercise and asked him to recite all 613 commandments while standing on one foot. Hillel didn’t need to. He replied to the man, “That which is harmful to you do not do to your neighbor—the rest is just commentary. Now go study.” No one needed the Torah to understand that loving your neighbor as yourself, or treating others as you want to be treated is good way to get along in life. The man understood something valid in the teachings of Judaism, but assumed he had to adopt a Jewish narrative to live the life of God.

As it was in the time of Hillel, so it is today. Many churches I have attended still rely on the mixed narratives of Roman culture and Jewish religion from the first and second century of the common era—most notably in ethics and understanding redemption through Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice. For the ancient Romans and Jews there were no contradictions in a benevolent deity who required sacrifices, nor were these two groups the only cultures to live in a sacrificial system littered with totems and divine hierarchies. The gods demanded sacrifice to communicate with humanity or redeem it when a heinous act had been committed.  A deity who would otherwise unleash his/her wrath unless people appeased it with a live sacrifice of some sort was accepted. Nowadays, we can look upon that as a psychological pacification for the pain of guilt over mistakes of the past—the infantile need for a blanket to cover up the shame for existing and keep warm in a universe cold and uncaring to the plight of living. The authors of the gospels, along with St. Paul, made use of this sacrificial language to communicate God, in the form of Jesus, loving the world and redeeming it as one of us so we did not have to endure “his” wrath. This narrative was good for the audience of the time, but even that narrative had to be changed from the original to meet their needs.

The gospels were not historic accounts as we understand history, but a story of what Jesus said and did, and why the authors believed he was the messiah and, later, as God in the flesh. The first thirty years after Jesus’ death and possible resurrection, his followers went everywhere in Judea and throughout the empire to spread Jesus’ message. Jesus lived in the backwoods of Judea, and spoke of the love of God with the imagery rural people could understand and apply to their own lives. By the early to mid 60s many of the listeners were either urban Jews or Greeks who had no connection whatsoever with the religious and cultural life of a rural countryside. Raymond Brown, a noted Catholic scholar in the 1990s, argued the writers retained the core tenants of Jesus’ gospel but changed the language so the new listeners could understand this good news. The same thing happened as the gospel spread and the followers of Jesus became Roman venturing into the most distant regions of the empire with the gospel. Roman imagery of Jesus, let alone the Jewish imagery, were lost on the tribes outside Roman borders. These ancient missionaries took the practices and language of the pagan tribes, and talked about the love of God in terms these tribes could understand. To accuse the ancient church of stealing or copying pagan rituals reveals a misunderstanding of the methods of these Christians. They saw God communicating to the pagans in their language, and saw Jesus as a fulfillment of what the pagans desired—Grace perfecting nature. By adapting Jesus to the pagan imagery, these tribes could have a clear understanding of what they were accepting or rejecting.

I think a change in the gospel’s narrative is beyond necessary for today. Theologians like Paul Tillich and philosophers like the Niebuhr brothers called for a change in how we relate to God in a post-nuclear context. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world changed because humanity could now destroy itself with a wild hair and a button. Men like Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Bishop Fulton Sheen wanted to go back to a world before the atomic bomb, a world they thought could be recreated with shallow doctrines and positive thinking—and that was a mere band-aid to treat a gunshot wound—a golden age fallacy. Evangelicals and Catholics in the 1950s reverted to the old narratives that satisfied a post-enlightenment America set in the rural frontier; but America became more urban, and had to deal with the world full of problems the old narratives could not answer. That is still the issue today as many Evangelicals and Catholics still rely on first and second century views of Jesus, and are put in the position of political leadership. How can the gospel be rescued from the likes of Paul Ryan and the Trump Administration hell bent on inciting another world war so their literal approach to biblical prophecy can be realized as Russia is mobilizing against the United States? The narrative needs to be changed to accommodate the issues we, as a species, now face. The infantile approach, thus far, has not worked and only oppresses people to an early death—literal and figurative. God, if God indeed exists, is not bound to a book or a culture’s interpretation of a book. The authors of Isaiah spoke of God never changing and always doing a new thing. This God, Christians claim to be theirs, did not stop doing a new thing when the New Testament canon was closed in the fourth century. How does this God speak to us today? How do Jesus’ words translate into our issues? How does the cross speak to the twenty-first century west? The old interpretations cause more harm than good, and Rollins’ approach to the gospel’s message is a good example so we Christians can take Jesus away from the kid’s table to have a conversation with grown ups.

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