Category Archives: Anthropo-theology

This is where I both explain and develop the anthropology which underpins a revolutionary new style of theology.

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation VI: Gospel = Theological Nonviolence

To conclude a series on nonviolent interpretation of the bible we turn necessarily to the man from Galilee.

Jesus as cultural figure is so commonplace (both as doctrine and meaning), it is very difficult for us to get behind him, to identify a sense of his extrordinary novelty and singularity. Further below is a small thought experiment to try recapture this.

Jesus made a pivotal intervention in human history, explicitly teaching nonviolence (“turn the other cheek”), but even more crucially, displaying it in extreme, primordial circumstances.

The gospels set out the singularity of Jesus in terms of his identity as the Christ and of his relationship to the Father. The latter issue preoccupied the first centuries of Christianity and they understood the Christ/Messiah very much in the light of Jesus’ divinity.

But the relationship was conceived in Greek ontological terms, of being (“one being with the Father”), rather than the quality of the relationship, its phenomenology, as transformation of the nature of relationship itself.

Hence, the experiential basis of Jesus’ uniqueness was swallowed up in a doctrinal metaphysics of being, and we lost a human sense of why these immense claims were or could be made about him.

At Matt. 11: 25-27 we hear Jesus say, “Thank you Father that you have revealed these things to the simple, not the wise or intelligent.” The root meaning of nepios is those without speech or words (Latin infans), i.e. the pre-cultural child or unlettered adult. Jesus is saying clearly that his stuff is not revealed to those invested with conventional cultural knowledge, but to those ready to be humanized from the ground up. Those who are speechless in the old way, who are ready for a new human start.

He goes on directly to say no one “fully knows” or recognizes the Son except the Father, and no one recognizes the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. In other words, it is not possible to know the Father/Mother within the established cultural order. It is only in the revolutionary relationship that Jesus establishes that it is possible to begin truly to know God. What could possibly explain this exceptionality about himself?

If it is not some arbitrary demand to confess “Jesus as Lord” it has to be the radical nonviolence of God which cannot be known without the radical nonviolence of Jesus.

Conversely, when Jesus asks at Matt. 16:13-17 “Who do men say that I am?” and Simon Peter answers that he is the Christ, Jesus comments that it is “not flesh and blood that has revealed this, but the Father.” Flesh and blood is the universal cultural system we are in, and to recognize the Christ/Messiah is to be moved by the Father/Mother. Thus the nonviolent God also works to make known in our hearts the Messianic nonviolence of Jesus and allow us to confess him as the Christ-of-nonviolence.

Scholars uncritically assume that what is currently in their heads, and the heads of half of humankind, was always there, but it wasn’t. The affirmation of a crucified teacher of nonviolence as the key to history could not have happened without a transcendent event. Let’s try this thought experiment.

Imagine MLK Jr., that his fight wasn’t with racism, or militarism, rather with the religion of his own people. They possessed a national territory which they had achieved by exodus from the rest of America after the end of slavery, let’s say somewhere like California. There was a central institution, a temple, which everyone attended at regular intervals, by obligation. The people believed God had led them to California and the temple was the place he had chosen for his worship. However, the territory was currently occupied and under the control of the Nazis who began in Germany but were now in power everywhere. To fight the Nazis was like taking on the world order itself. But the people could never quit resisting, because the presence of the Nazis in the land was a blasphemy to God. At the same time there was the belief that the presence of the Nazis was a judgment by God on the sins of the people. So there was the added sense among opinion leaders that they now had to be absolutely faithful to God’s rules, in order to end the terrible Nazi curse they were under.

MLK began to preach: he behaved as if none of this mattered, the land, the temple, the rules, the Nazis. All that was important was a totally new move by God that had to do with him and his preaching, with relationship to him. Through this relationship there was the possibility of love, nonviolence and forgiveness for everyone around you. This was God’s move in the world.

What would people say?

The matter did not end there. MLK clearly had enemies among the temple and rules people. But instead of hiding out in the desert and spreading his teaching untroubled by authorities, he headed to the temple and he shut it down, claiming full authority over this central symbol. All the people gathered round him, hanging on his every word. They expected something overwhelming: that this totally new outrageous teaching would get a sudden all-powerful confirmation from God, so that it would wipe out all opposition, including the Nazis. At this point the temple authorities understood a direct challenge has been made and they decided to take MLK out. For some inexplicable reason he did not protect himself or even hide sufficiently carefully, but allowed himself to be discovered and captured. His followers are disoriented and scattered, the crowd turns against him. The temple authorities hand him over to the Nazis who torture and humiliate him in the most horrendous and public way, making him a joke and a disgrace to the whole world. He is strung up in a public place and dies a slow, crushing death. He shows great courage and perseverance but he dies all the same. Next day is Sunday. He remains dead. The only possible conclusion: this man suffered from terminal religious delusion.

From where then will come the psychological resources to assert not only the teaching of this man, but that he does indeed represent the true meaning of God? The man who preached these things had entered a pit of unmediated horror and all that could be felt was the echoing brute triumph of violence. It beggars belief that unlettered disciples could invent the gospel out of violated, condemned hearts, and afterward continue peacefully in nonviolence and forgiveness.

To entertain this understanding in respect of Jesus is willful a-historicism, projecting on first century Galilean Jews the default sense of Christian truth embedded after two thousand years of slow-drip cultural presence. As one of our group said, Christian meaning is imprinted in people’s minds today as a kind of collective myth, and they assume it would always have been as easy to embrace the story culturally as it is now. They don’t recognize how profoundly they have been shaped, and how impossibly this easy acceptance could have occurred originally: absent the transcendent event of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is the unnegotiable affirmation of theological nonviolence, and it could not have been imagined into existence! It is only when we understand the profound newness represented by Jesus and his death that we also recognize the organic truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection is understood simply as a confirmation that Jesus is divine then the suspicion will at once arise that it’s a religious fiction. In its proper context, of Jesus’ revelation of theological nonviolence, it becomes unavoidable.

Finally, a key aspect of the gospel narrative is Jesus’ mental suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. Matt. 26: 36-46 shows his horror facing the cross. The fact that the Father/Mother wills it does not demonstrate a perverse will to punish, rather the converse: because the Father/Mother is given over entirely to the risk of creation and its violent self-affirmation, so in imitation Jesus must surrender to the generative violence of human culture, in order to transform it. Jesus removes himself three times from his disciples, separating himself from actual humanity to do something new. Mark’s exthambeomai is to be out of one’s mind, paralyzed with terror. Matthew uses the standard word for grief (unto death), but keeps Mark’s ademoneo, the strongest word in the NT for depression and stress, a loathing for existence. These are very powerful words and they represent the depth of Jesus’ alienation from life as he faces the truth of human culture and its bottomless foundation in violence. Jesus must enter this human hell in order to bring it to love from within. The narrative of Jesus’ internal agony is unique in  ancient and classical literature: no other hero is shown to undergo such terrifying loss of self-meaning. But it is precisely this interiority or subjectivity in crisis that guarantees Jesus has entered the core of our violent existence in order to bring it to love.

It is the infinite gesture of self-giving in Gethsemane that is raised up in resurrection. Gethsemane is the phenomenological core of resurrection: the story of one is not credible without the story of the other.

To confess Jesus, therefore, is to confess the dramatic in-breaking in human history of theological nonviolence.

Beloved Lies and Lepidoptera

butterflies[1]Nature has provided for butterflies a bush of special delight. It is called Buddleia and in high summer it can be found crowded with the showy-winged insects all attracted by its sweet yet faintly rank scent. When numbers of them start feeding it’s a riot, as if they can’t get enough of the stuff. In my yard in England we had a bush, while two yards down there was another one. When mine was crowded the other one was too.

When there’s the threat of war, when the world begins to sweat the scent of violence, the news media flock like common butterflies to their backyard bush loaded with all that deadly nectar. They tell their breathless stories, fluttering their bright wings, highlighting all the violence as if it was naturally and singly on tap in their bush and their version is the only possible one. They do not see, don’t want to see, that just a couple of yards down there’s another bush with another riot of butterflies telling the same story of violence but from a completely different perspective.

Even worse–and this is where simple Mother Nature can no longer guarantee the metaphor and we have to allow in a specifically human element–one set of butterflies is secretly sipping from the very same poison nectar as the other. The more one riot of fluttering wings tells the story from their point of view the more the other riot of wings, two yards down, drinks excitedly from the purest well of the same violence! The more the story is told from one point of view, the more its content is imitated, but precisely from the other point of view!

Western news media depict Russia as aggressors in the Ukraine just as surely as Russian news media depict the West in the same way. And the more one side flutters feverishly the more the other, glancing covertly behind them, does the same. Even as you read this I am sure the thought is suggested, well, really aren’t the Russians aggressors? But that is simply our in-built response to the whole systemic rivalry between “Russia” and “the West” outside of which the massive interests of cultural institutional violence will not allow us to think.

Thanks be to God through Christ we can become free of this thinking! One day the earth will wake up to the horrible untruth of systemic rivalry, be it between individuals or political powers. Systemic rivalry is the original sin of our human condition and people feel it gives special meaning to existence. But it is more and more implausible the more it pushes us toward disaster. One day we will wake up to the possibility of peace as the meaning of existence, and toss our beloved lies into the dustbin of history!

Salt Solution

In Syracuse N.Y. salt is ubiquitous, in the names of the roads, in its salt-springs history, and at this time of year just about everywhere you look. Anything that goes on wheels, or upon which wheels go, is encrusted in a thick grime of salt. After big storms, followed by melts and cold snaps, the roads are white, not with snow, but an astringent paste of the briny stuff, one you can taste in the air.

Jesus famously described discipleship in terms of salt losing its savor and being thrown out to be trodden underfoot (Matt.5:13). Commentaries say it’s strange, the compound NaCl is not known to lose its flavor, so what was Jesus talking about? My guess is on the steep inclines of Nazareth and Jerusalem people did just what they do now, on the occasions it did snow and freeze they put salt on steps and gradients. And when the wind blew and you got a tongue-curling taste of the stuff it was just like it is now, dull, cloying, unpalatable.

What Jesus was talking about was not salt losing its flavor in a chemical sense, but losing its precise human quality as seasoning. Too much salt and it’s no longer edible. Actually, it’s disgusting. A literal sense of the Greek word “to lose flavor” is “to become stupid, dull, doltish”… so Jesus is saying that when salt is spread underfoot it loses its tang, its meaning as salt and, instead, tastes, well, stupid, just a bad parody of its table self. All he did was reverse the order of events–first “no tang/bad parody” then “thrown out,” for the sake of his parable.

So, what does it mean for today’s disciples, intended to be “the salt of the earth,” but subject to the possibility of becoming bad parodies fit only to be trodden underfoot?

In many ways Christianity is already spread universally underfoot. In the West it has a massive historical and cultural presence which makes it appear part of the geography, of not much more vital significance than an old road paved over or an outline of ancient walls in an archeological site. Back in 2004 the announced European Constitution did not mention Christianity, prompting bitter complaints from the Vatican. An alliance that progressively emerged between the pope emeritus, Benedict, and some European atheists, for the protection of Christendom against Islam, only serves to highlight the parody-like version of Christianity that was being defended, one that has already ended under foot!

Here in the U.S. Christianity may appear more vital and contemporary but the same underfoot quality is all around us, evidenced by the now European style decline in many mainline churches, particularly and tellingly among young whites. At the same time the barely hidden undertow of violence revealed in many attitudes and situations in fundamentalist Christianity is its own unwitting but evident parody of the Sermon on the Mount where the salt parable appears. (http://m.rollingstone.com/culture/news/love-and-death-in-the-house-of-prayer-20140121)

It seems we are failing the salt test.

What would it mean to seek to be table-salt Christianity today? How is it possible to be salt that dramatically changed the taste of human life for the better, giving life to the earth in the 21st century? To answer this question you have at once to take into account an entirely other perspective about the “spread abroad” quality of inherited Christianity. Elsewhere I have argued that Christianity has had such a profound cultural impact it decisively and progressively affects our underlying responses and opinions, above all in our recognition of the victim through an undertow of Christ’s compassion. This paradoxical impact explains why there is in fact so much implicit Christianity in so-called secular culture and why it is so easy to find a kind of diffused humanism and spirituality entirely away from the churches. For this kind of thing Jesus used parables of seed and its amazing, unstoppable growth. If we take the liberty of mixing this phenomenon with the image of the salt, it’s as if the whole world is suspended in a kind of saline solution! Everything today is mixed with Christianity.

However, this is of very little comfort when there are also many accumulated crises facing humanity. As a planet we have desperate decisions to make about inequality, poverty, the climate, weapons and war. Never in fact has the need for genuine disciples been more critical. I would say, therefore, that it’s the single tangy grain of salt resting in the water which reveals what the whole medium really is.

A grain of salt is by definition a small thing, but a passionate condensation of salt in an ocean enables all the water around to know what its life really is and to be more and more drawn to it. It enables the whole solution to come alive in the life that already is its own.

Such a single grain can be achieved only in direct relationships where it is possible to see the qualities of compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness and peace at work. It is a challenge, and failure and false-starts are a constant possibility. But we know for sure it cannot happen in the big Christendom-style operations based in power relations and which today are more and more simply thrown-underfoot. The objection is sometimes made that small communities do not have the sociological presence and effect of the big operations so you absolutely have to replicate them. This kind of thinking does not understand the seasoning power of a single grain of salt, that tangy thing Jesus was talking about!

Tony Bartlett

Light Bulbs

I’m going to try something which I actually think is of the essence in contemporary theology. So bear with me, and you’ll see!

Systems—the way things are put together—control our thinking so much more than individual critical reflection. You are obliged to go to grade school from early childhood, and, in the vast majority of cases, when you emerge in late teens you have learned, implicitly, much more about systems—of authority, of grading, of competition and categorization—than any real knowledge in any actual field.

And that is only the most obvious, clunking instance.

Marshall Mcluhan’s’ book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message.” A “medium” in Mcluhan’s concept is a means of communication, but much broader and more structural than what we would normally understand in those terms: because it’s not the content, but the delivery system itself that is key.

For example, an electric light is a medium because on its own it radically changes the character of the human environment.

Similarly railways and highways change the meaning of the land, turning it into endless sequence, without beginning or end. And the printed word shifts our thought-world to continuity and linearity, overlaying complexity with seamless “rationality”.

And now there is the internet, the latest and most powerful example of a world-shifting medium. Incorporating in itself several previous media, it creates an explicitly named “cyberspace,” bringing with it a dramatic presence and simultaneity of all parts of the world.

Where is this leading? Without going into a long discussion of the points of convergence of this viewpoint with other contemporary thought (for example, the work of people like Illich and Debord) we can make a swift, radical connection to the thought of Girard.

Girard has conclusively shown that violence is the original human medium, the primary system of human communication.

Girard describes two stages in the work of violence, first disorder, then order. In the first the primary human group is in a chaotic-but-relational state of rivalry, with everyone angry with everyone else. In the second phase it is the group victim or scapegoat who gathers all the violence into herself and so provides order and shape to the universe. You could say, therefore, that the first state is the truly primitive system, the ur-medium so to speak, and then it is the group victim who is the very first true objective medium, organizing violence into order and communication. In this sense you might say violence is to the victim what electricity is to the T.V., structurally contained in the developed medium and making it work.

In turn the group victim is the practical beginning of human culture, so Girard would have absolutely no problem in seeing him or her as the original medium in this light too. All primitive new technology, agriculture, or the arts (including writing) are continually associated with gods. But the gods are original victims, so the cultural meaning of these developments arises from the beaten body of the victim, which provides transcendent definition and order to the transformed material conditions. So, we conclude, all physical media are firmly rooted in the original human medium of the victim.

But, then, if a single man should voluntarily enter the condition of the “original medium” and fill it with love, nonviolence and forgiveness what would be the results? Surely there would be a quickening of the pace of development of new media, because change is freed from the trauma of original/originating violence. And that is exactly what seems to have happened under the cultural impact of Christianity, with the ever increasing tempo of change from the printing press, through mechanical transport, through radio and T.V., and now to the internet. But this is only half the story.

The nonviolence of the new “original medium” must also leak through in the new media, showing the deep effect of their liberating conditions of origin. This is the argument I made in Virtually Christian (without invoking Mcluhan), showing that a “photon of compassion” continues to appear regularly on our electronic screens, our movies and in our audio songs, because of the generative role of the gospel.

But the final impact is still to come. The new “original medium” is an absolutely new level of communication in history, one which reboots humanity as such, together with all its media. There will always be, therefore, a profound human need to return to its primary scene to embrace and integrate the new humanity it brings. This in fact is the meaning of “church,” the situation and experience in which we rehearse Jesus’ cross and resurrection as the new primal human communication. It is the same as the light bulb which changes our world beyond recognition, except a billion times brighter!

Tony Bartlett