In my early years as an undergrad, my friends and I were very into personality tests. We spent way too many Saturday mornings taking Buzzfeed quizzes when we should have been studying, discussed our Myers-Briggs results in depth, and cringed together over our StrengthsQuest results. Inevitably, we bickered over who was actually which Pixar character or what office supply. In the case of the MBTI, this lead to making fun of each other’s “NF moments” (like crying in Western Civ class, as I’m apparently very fond of blogging about), or mutual eye-rolling at the differences between my decidedly P-lifestyle in the midst of my more J-leaning friend group. And I can hardly go an entire weekend without remembering my friend’s smirk as she pointed out that I was an introvert with Includer as one of my top Strengths.
The first time I read a description of the INFP in high school, my only reaction was tears. Finally, here in this Wikipedia article, of all places, I found the assurance of understanding that I’d longed for from every relationship I’d pursued, every journal entry I’d written, and every fandom I’d pledged myself to. Not only did I feel understood in all the things I had never even considered about myself, but also this article’s very existence validated mine. Because my experience had even been thought of by someone else, someone else must have shared that experience. My existence must somehow be okay.
Personality types also helped me better understand others: that guy probably annoys me because he’s so aggressively E, or I don’t see the world quite the same as that person with a strong S. Of course the scientific validity of such indicators will be debated for aeons to come, not least impacted by how trends change. But at least in the case of my friends and I, MBTI gave us a common language to convey our needs and desires when we lived together.
Oddly, the more I retreated into my identity as expressed by any number of personality descriptors, the more trapped I felt. And maybe my understanding of how personality typing works is just subconsciously flawed: of course I understand that the populace of the world isn’t just 16 persons reincarnated into billions of bodies strewn across the planet. Of course people are more complex than four letters or five strengths, and there are exceptions, backstories, and spectrums to every type. I understand that, at least in theory. In practice, however, I began to make decisions based on who I thought I should be: “I might like studying literature because I have traits that some people express as NF” quickly became “I don’t have to always be around that person because I’m an I,” which escalated into “I shouldn’t make plans because I’m a P.” Explanations became excuses became exemplaries.
I have been known to take things to extremes.
Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations around the Enneagram. To those unfamiliar, the Enneagram is based off of nine personalities (with variations), and expresses each type’s basic fear, basic desire, key motivations, and the way each type operates in stress and in health. It may or may not come as a surprise that the free online (and totally legitimate, I’m sure) test I took identified me as a Type Nine, the Peacemaker, who fears disconnection while craving harmony. And while I didn’t burst into tears upon reading this description, it did sound spookily familiar.
On one hand, this personality type explains my struggle with all the rest. Nines have difficulty pinning down their own thoughts and emotions. They sometimes long instead to meld with other people and other identities, according to this enlightening podcast from the Liturgists. For me, that manifested in several ways. But most relevant to this post, I took a should/should not mentality toward the way I understood the INFP. If there were an ideal INFP, floating high and Platonic above the shadowy cave of this world, I wanted to become it. That was so much easier than just being me.
Even though the Enneagram helped me understand my understanding of personality indicators (even the Enneagram itself, in some odd, meta way), the moral of the story is not that a set of questions, a few paragraphs, and a list of people who might be like you will solve the longing to be yourself that you feel when a new acquaintance asks you what you do for fun, or when you visit your family to find you’ve changed, or when you make life-altering decisions, wondering what that younger version of you would think of you now. And when I took quizzes, even ones like “Build your dream potato dish and we’ll tell you the name of your future pet iguana,” I searched for these answers in who I thought I was. I wanted to be myself, and for that self to hold some kind of satisfaction that I knew I couldn’t find alone, like cracking open a geode with a hammer because your fist isn’t hard enough. But no personality test can reveal the secret to holism. No construct holds the reconciliation or justification of who I am to strangers, my family, my past. And not just because the MBTI is too simplistic or because the Enneagram is too complicated, or even because Buzzfeed is too ridiculous.
I was looking for answers, satisfaction, in myself. And most of the time, I don’t really know who this “myself” person is.
The sin of Israel, who complained for a king and crowned the tallest person they could find, is mine. The sin of the Pharisees, who made their own laws to feel holy, is mine. The sin of Adam and Eve, who ate fruit to become like God, is mine. And I make up new ways to hide and to atomize and to dethrone. My identity is here, too, in the sins I share.
But in ways beyond my understanding, beyond myself, my identity is in Christ. More than in INFP, in Strengths, in Nine. More than the personalities I try to mold myself into. And certainly more than in my sins. I can identify with Christ not because his personality happens to match mine, like another type, as if the Godhead were a pair of earrings that complemented my eyes. I can identify with him because he identified with me, releasing his own identity and emptying himself to humanity, to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). I identify with him because he chose me, and so I choose him instead of the sins of Adam and of Israel and of the Pharisees. I identify with him because I came to the end of myself and there was still no satisfaction, reconciliation, justification (or any other fancy-sounding word, except for maybe humiliation).
And so I empty myself, too.
“The ideology of Pauline studies privileges Paul’s voice over others,” laments one scholar, whose work I happened upon while researching the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. “What undergirds this ideology is a desire for univocity, a search for a single meaning, a universal truth that lies somewhere in the letters of Paul.”
He goes on: “It is hard to find a Pauline scholar or reader, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in outlook who does not go to hear a transcendent divine truth spoken in and through his or her interpretation of Paul.”
Since at least the reign of Justinian, much of the world has, at least in theory, looked to the writings of Saint Paul in order to hear the voice of God in them.
“The problem with this ideology, among others, is that it makes it all too easy to marginalize, categorize, and label as Other those with whom we disagree,” he suggests. “If there is a transcendent truth locatable within Paul’s writings, then diversity and difference become deviance. To fall outside the ambit of Paul’s rhetoric, however it is consructed by scholars and lay readers alike, is to place oneself outside the fold, the norm, and the conversation. By privileging univocity and uniformity and locating that uniformity in the construction – or reconstruction – of Paul’s theology or rhetoric, difference becomes a problem.”
Looking for the voice of God in the writings of Paul means looking for the meaning of existence in Paul’s ideology. In other words, trusting Paul, over against other candidates, to tell us the truth about the world. We are, then, accepting Paul’s narrative, rather than his opponents, Paul’s discourse, rather than that of the people he opposes.
Historically speaking, Christians have understood theology that is consistent with Paul’s writings to be generally within the bounds of acceptability and theology that grates against Paul’s writings to be false – even heretical.
One problem with this, as this particular author would frame it, is that by privileging Paul’s vision for Christianity over that of his opponents in Corinth, for example, we are affirming, in essence, that there is such a thing as universal, Transcendent truth that is true for all people, everywhere, at all times. Throughout history, the idea that there is such a thing as ‘non partisan’ truth, by which everyone is equally constrained regardless of whether they assent to it, has given those who are in power license to coerce those who do not share their beliefs into falling into line and accepting the truth claims held by the majority – the Inquisition, for example, or the Witch Trials, or the Mccarthyist nightmare of the mid-twentieth century. The notion that there is such a thing is universal, Transcendent truth has quite literally killed people.
“Rather than looking to Paul as the norm, the yardstick against which to measure thought and theology,” he continues, “I have tried to cast him as one among many, a move that privileges diversity. ”
In doing this, the author quoted above is not alone. It stems, in large part, from the assumption, in vogue since the days of Walter Bauer, that Christianity in its earliest forms had no ‘creed’ or structure to speak of. On this retelling of Christian history, the version of Christianity that we now practice as normative finally won out when the machinery of the state was employed towards suppressing those with whom the so-called ‘orthodox’ bishops disagreed.
Bauer’s thesis wasn’t particularly strong in the early 20th century, and there isn’t much left of it. But the sentiment remains, and serves as a springboard for theologians like the one quoted above.
In order to remedy the widespread problem of ‘Pauline privilege’ in New Testament studies, then, the author’s “work does not look for Paul’s interpretation.” Instead, he has “tried to make space for ‘some’ Corinthian ghosts to have their possibilities.”
In less jargon-heavy language, he has sought to bring Paul down off the pedestal, so to speak, and instead try to reconstruct the voices of his opponents. Paul was not, as he and others in this particular post-Bauerian tradition assert (but never demonstrate), a valiant ‘defender of the faith.’ He was, quite simply, an idiosyncratic figure with a particular understanding of what Christianity should become. His vision for Christianity was no more intrinsically valid than anyone else’s, and certainly no more intrinsically true than that of his opponents in Corinth. Thus, when he rails against his so-called ‘heretical’ opponents, he is not doing so as one endowed with Transcendent authority or vocation, nor as one who speaks for God, but simply as a power broker, vilifying his powerless opponents in order to advance his own agenda.
The author, then, has sought to ‘put Paul in his place,’ as simply one voice among others in a conversation among ‘equals – where no one voice has any ‘Transcendent’ value over the others – out of a “commitment to plurality, a desire for difference, and the hope that a form of sociality might emerge that does not worship Transcendent univocity and rigidly police and enforce its borders.”
As such, he is commited to “looking beyond, around, and outside Paul for ways of thinking, believing, acting, and doing that might have been and that might still be.”
In doing so “we make space for other theological voices to be heard, or other visions of life to make their case to us, or other ways of organizing society and forming the self to present themselves to us.”
His hope, of course, is that piecing together the voices of the ‘alternative Christianities’ whom Paul ‘othered’ might “become a kind of pedagogy, a training in looking for and affirming difference.”
He concludes: “If we grow comfortable with seeing and hearing and finding pluralites, if we learn to desire difference, if we make our readings exercises in dialogue and debate without assuming that we must arrive at a singular truth, perhaps we can learn to look in the faces of those we fear and hate – and, perhaps worst of all, simply ignore – and instead see in them the face of God.”
Well-intentioned authors who take this tack, it seems to me, are a bit like the fabled ouroboros – the serpent who eats its own tail.
In another work, another author clarifies the implications of this particular hermeneutic. In her essay, she attempts to “unmask” the “violent undertones” of Paul’s rhetoric. The epistles to the Corinthians must be read ‘against the grain’ of the texts, she says, because Paul’s approach is abusive.
He is like a battering-ram, vilifying the Corinthian Christians because their expression of the Christian faith is outside of his “norm.” We must abandon the assumption that Paul’s iteration of the faith was ever the “correct” iteration – such sentiments are simply artifacts from a bygone age, when the ‘collected power’ of certain interest groups (“Pauline orthodoxy,” of course) was wielded to violently crush all dissent.
We know, now, that there is no over-arching truth under which all convictions can be measured. There are only ‘local truths,’ normative only in those communities that have opted to embody them, together. So long, then, as there is such a thing as “normativity,” there will inevitably be an ‘oppressed party’ who does not fit the norm.
In this light, she suggests, like the previous author, that Paul was not the fearless defender of “orthodoxy” that we have long imagined him to be, but simply a charismatic and domineering figure whose vision ultimately won out in the zero-sum power struggle that played out among the pluriform and disorganized Jesus movement of the first century CE. That Paul’s ideology ultimately won out against his opponents, then, was not a ‘victory for the faith’ – it was simply ‘social injustice.’ He didn’t ‘overcome the heretics.’ He just ‘marginalized’ the groups who felt differently than him.
Shocking as such conclusions may be, they are inevitable in any hermeneutic that begins with the “lived experience” of a group and works outward from there. Because if the “lived experience” of any given group (such as Paul’s Corinthian opponents) is the measure of things, then there isn’t actually any such thing as ‘social justice.’ There is only a kind of Nietzschean dialectic whereby any given group may acquire power and become oppressors or remain powerless and become oppressed.
So by the logic of the two authors quoted above, it would also have been oppressive if Paul’s Corinthian opponents had won out against Paul. There is a hypothetical world in which Paul’s voice was marginalized and the ideology of his Corinthian opponents came to be normative in the Christian church. In that possible world, perhaps similar authors with similar dispositions would be writing books that seek to destabilize the ‘Corinthian privilege’ in modern Christianity.
But probably not. Books like Classicist Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People or (at least peripherally) N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, or nearly anything by Wayne Meeks or Rodney Stark (or, for that matter, Paul Was Not a Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum), go some ways toward illustrating the extent that Western progressivism owes it’s very existence – quite literally “lives and moves and has its being” – in moral categories bestowed upon us largely by Paul.
It is only a minor exaggeration to say that the above authors have Paul to thank for the notion that marginalization should be avoided wherever possible, and that communal norms, though important, do not de facto bear within themselves the weight of the gods. To put it another way, if it makes us uncomfortable that Paul so vociferously comes to blows with those who would impose a substantively different vision for the Christian faith upon the early churches, it is because the moral and intellectual vision that Paul and his cohorts bestowed upon us have conditioned us to value ‘diversity’ in ways that his ideological opponents did not. In all likelihood, had Paul’s vision for Christianity not won out, nobody today would be complaining about the ‘marginalization’ of others. Not because we wouldn’t have a marginalization problem, but because we would never have been taught to care.
But diversity, pluriformity, the very notion that dissidents should not be crushed underfoot – these categories, quite frankly, are meaningless unless they are universally, transcendentally true for all people, everywhere, for all time, regardless of whether anyone acknowledges their truth value. If there are only ‘local truths,’ which are only normative for those communities that ‘opt into’ them, in a sense, then there is not actually any moral obligation for powerful interest groups to forego trampling powerless interest groups. There is nothing liberative about trading uniformitarianism for a formless and void relativism.
So the ideology that undergirds the two authors quoted above is bad for justice. If, however, we attempt to begin with Paul’s strange egalitarian impulse – as seen, for example, in his handling of the tense Jewish-Gentile relations in the churches of Rome, or the class-related issues pertaining to who could-and-could-not don ‘head coverings’ in the socially stratified churches of Asia Minor – then we will, or should be, compelled to become advocates for those upon whom society has tread, not simply as reactionaries or guilt-ridden members of the dominant culture, but as redeemed people compelled by God to faithfully carry out the ‘Cultural Mandate’ by rooting out injustice where possible, even at great cost.
[For those who are curious: The first author mentioned is Cavan Concannon, from the book ‘When You Were Gentiles,‘ and the second author is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, from her essay ‘Paul and the Politics of Interpretation.’]
This blog post has a thesis: Wholesale dismissal of the core insights of “Postmodernist” thinkers generally stems from never having read them – or from having read them, but poorly.
When I said this to a friend today, he was shocked, and asked just which core insights I had in mind. I can think of at least two.
At the very least, we should not dismiss the insight, at once profound and, in hindsight, self-evident, that human communities tend to gravitate toward marginalization. This is difficult to argue with, and, if you are a student of the New Testament, for example, or Church history in general, it will not be difficult to think of (rather uncontroversial) examples of this.
Not least, I would imagine, Paul’s lifelong struggle to conform the disparate church communities over whom he had influence to the demands of the Gospel – namely, for those predominantly Jewish churches with whom he corresponded to embrace fully the Gentile converts in their midst.
You don’t have to be a wholesale Foucauldian to recognize the human propensity to marginalize, as did those who (quite understandably) struggled to envision God’s covenant community as fully inclusive of Gentiles – who were uncircumcised, ate pork, and had fewer culturally-ingrained sexual taboos, among other things.
It was a two-way street, of course: Those predominantly Gentile churches, many of which Paul had planted or was now shepherding from afar, often struggled to be fully inclusive of the Jewish converts in their midst. The circumstances here are harder to sympathize with.
Quite frankly, Romans didn’t just love their Jewish neighbors. Most of what you’ve read about how the empire was a “bastion of multiculturalism” is misleading at best. The cities, especially, were a powder keg, and the so-called “multiculturalism” of the Pax Romana days consisted mostly in explosive sectarian violence and heavy-handed imperial repression.
There was a litany of cultures, living together in relative stability. But it was not a Lockean arrangement; The stability of the empire rested largely in its being a military state. People from a multitude of backgrounds lived in close quarters without disintegrating into full-blown civil war because the State saw to it that opportunities to do so were rare.
So prejudice ran rampant, and minority groups like the Jews – especially of the Palestinian variety, who had not Hellenized at nearly the rate of there Alexandrian cousins – were the objects of near universal scorn. What “toleration” they received from the government was purely political prudence; What toleration they received from their neighbors owed chiefly to the fact that their neighbors didn’t want to be executed for “disturbing the peace.”
So when Gentiles joined these Pauline communities in ever-increasing numbers, it was inevitable that their Jewish co-religionists would not fare well initially. And they didn’t. The product of these inter-ethnic, intra-ecclesial tensions is that most of the New Testament was written.
There is another “core insight” that we should not dismiss. Namely, that there is a significant degree to which, in every age, culture, and community, the language we use gradually becomes like a vast “echo-chamber” that makes it difficult to think outside of certain fairly rigid, if spacious, categories. The result, of course, being that plenty of pertinent questions, whether moral questions or otherwise, never occur to us.
There is the reason, for example, that it took so very long for much of the Christian world to catch up with Paul, among other things, in regards to how marriage should operate. Paul’s notion of the self-sacrificing husband who reflects Jesus as he relates to his wife was certainly picked up by some of the Church Fathers, and later by some Reformers and Puritans, but the overall trajectory of Western society, aside from some exceptional cases, was simply to rehearse a number of variations on the traditional Greco-Roman pater-familial model in which the matriarch of any given household is either literally or functionally the “property” of her husband. That is, of course, just one example of how the linguistic “echo-chamber” plays out.
Unfortunately, so-called “postmodernist” authors generally use such jargon-heavy language that their writings are borderline incomprehensible, so even when they have a salient point, it only rarely comes across in digestibly. They seldom bother trying to communicate in plain language because they’re usually just preaching to the choir.
But even when they are only preaching to the choir, they are preaching a message that, at the bottom of things, ought to be heeded. They go off the rails, of course, and often.
One needn’t read far to find exactly what I’m talking about: There is, implicit in much “deconstructive” discourse, the rather indefensible presumption that all “norms,” everywhere – regardless of origin or intention – are inherently oppressive.
I hope that I don’t have to explain why that assumption is problematic; If you can’t imagine why so many twenty-somethings are immobilized by a kind of formless and void nihilism, I might suggest that it’s because we told them that “all truth claims are power plays.”
But claims like that are “postmodernism” at its very laziest, and least astute. These implications are by no means necessary, or intrinsic to the phenomenon. Lyotard defines postmodernism as “a distrust of meta-narratives” and it may be that.
But it is worth distinguishing between “a frankly uncritical distrust toward meta-narrative in general” and “a measured, conscientious posture of gentle suspicion.”
Who would disagree that it is certainly worth asking whether “the dominant assumptions of our culture,” at any given time, are actually correct? It ought to go without saying that if more people asked precisely that question of our culture, today, more people might be willing to consider that the Christian faith is not an artifact from a less-civilized age. If nothing else, I guess, it’s cute that we think we hate “postmodernism”: We are all, all of us, resolutely “postmodern” in our thinking, which, in itself, ought to remind us that very term itself is far less narrow than we imagine it to be.
After a particularly intense bout of official persecutions, the pagan emperor Gallienus granted Christians the first ever Edict of Toleration in CE 261.
“To the bishops,” it was addressed: “I have ordered the bounty of my gift to be declared through the world that the pagans should depart from your places of worship.”
Gallienus continues: “And for this purpose you may use this copy of my rescript that no one may molest you.”
Of course, these privileges “which you are now enabled lawfully to do,” Gallienus is quick to note, “have already for a long time been conceded by me,” at least, in theory.
“Therefore Aurelius Cyrenius,” the edict concludes, “who is the chief administrator of affairs, will observe this ordinance which I have given.”
He wasn’t doing them a favor; State suppression, the more familiar tack, had only turned the new religionists bolder. Left to their own devices, Christians mostly kept to themselves.
They were obnoxious, sure. Their ideology the most intolerant of progressivisms and their incessant refrain that there were no gods but God threatened, quite literally, to unstitch society. But in practice, they were inocuous, or tried to be.
Their most influential figure, Paul, had exhorted them to lead quiet lives, to work with their hands, to be good neighbors, to mind their own bloody business. And some of them had complied. But lynchings, sporadic and public, had emboldened them.
They disbelieved in “Heros,” because humanity was sinful, and “every inclination of the heart was wickedness” (Gen 6:5), but to die willingly, peaceably, wishing good for your murderer, was a kind of sanctified “antiheroism,” which they called “martyrdom.”
And so long as they romanticized a Jesus-shaped death, they could not be contained through heavy-handed coercion. They were better left alone by the State: While persecutions bred devotion, comfort might breed nominalism.
As such, a plan was hatched: Gallienus would lay off the bloodshed and the sharpest minds available would be commissioned to slay the Christic Beast in a wholly different way: Good old-fashioned debate.
As it turns out, the greatest of these sparring partners had been dead for 80 years. Celsus, the celebrated polemicist, wrote a sprawling work somewhere in the final decades of the second century cataloguing in painstaking detail the extent of the Christian menace.
“Anyone ignorant, or stupid, uneducated, or childish,” he wrote, “By the fact that the Galileans (Christians) admit that these people are ‘worthy of God,’ they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.”
He thought it was an insult. “They would never enter a gathering of intelligent men,” he goes on. “But whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools they push themselves in and show off.”
For Celsus, the measure of an ideology is the breed of folks it appeals to. “We see wool workers, cobblers, laundry workers, the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and masters,” he sneers. “And the Gallileans persuade them to their folly.”
His gripes weren’t new. About a century earlier, Tacitus (at his most Nietzschean) accused the Galileans of “hatred of the human race,” which carried with it a few associations: They only rarely married outsiders, condemned and abstained from gladiatorial games, avoided governmental positions because that often required one to deliver ‘death sentences’ (on which they frowned most vocally).
And more: Although they raised no objection to the existence of the military per se, Christian soldiers were forbidden from the act of killing, even in combat, which struck the average Roman as unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst.
There was a kind of pseudo-“religious pluralism” in the empire, but only in the sense that occupants were allowed to sacrifice to whichever cult they found most palatable. Irreligion was virulently opposed, as was any religious practice or conviction that may detract from your “patriotism.” You were free, in other words, to choose from an array of sanctioned cultic devotions which were carefully curated to ensure that your relationship to the gods did not hinder your usefulness to the emperor. Christianity was a spoke in Rome’s wheel.
So the “human race,” in this context, very much meant the machinery of Rome – because that’s what “humanity” was, in those days, in the empire. Those who were conducive (in the right ways) to the flourishing of Rome were “humans,” and those who weren’t, weren’t.
There were some loose parameters by which this might be gauged: The “nobility” were “human” by virtue of their birth. The logic was not complicated: Humans give birth to humans. Beasts don’t. If you were born in the underclass, you were born “subhuman.”
Your lot may not be entirely hopeless: Over generations, a proletarian “beast” might, by some good fortune, climb the hierarchical ladder and acquire citizenship for themselves, which conferred “humanity” upon the recipient – generally. There were exceptions, and your citizenship (and with it your “humanity”) was disproportionately easy to lose, a fact which likely weighed on every natural born citizen. There was a kind of cosmic intersection between “the flourishing of Rome” and the stratifying of its occupants into varying gradations of “humanness,” the hierarchy itself imbued with religious significance as each caste played its role in currying the favor of the gods. The Christians, by virtue of existing, disrupted this balance.
“We do not go to your feast but we patronize your industries,” replied Tertullian. “We do not buy Laurel crowns but we buy flowers. We do not buy incense for temples but we do for burial.”
More to the the point, “We do not contribute to the temples but we give more for alms than you do,” he said, and of course, “We improve business in that we do not defraud.” Thus, whatever objections their detractors may have, they “really lose by putting us to death because if we are Christians we are good men. If we are not good men, we are not truly Christians.” The measure of one’s fitness to carry on in the community (rather uniquely) was not in their “strength,” or “virility,” but their goodness.
Elsewhere, Origen insisted that the habits and norms with which “the name of Jesus” imbues His followers not only oughtn’t be threatening or suspicious, but also that His name “implants a wonderful meekness and tranquility of character, and a love to mankind and a kindness and gentleness.”
In other words, what appeared to Tacitus and Celsus to be “a hatred of the human race” was in fact the opposite. The Galileans didn’t “hate the human race. They redefined “human.” The Romans saw in their borderline pacifism a “hatred for the human race” because this potentially jeopardized Rome’s ability to defend its interests at home and abroad through force. But the Galileans refused to take a sword to the necks of Rome’s enemies – because Rome’s enemies were human, too. There was no “cultural grammar” for this. It just looked like obstinacy.
In a way, Gallienus got his wish. The early Church’s most impressive idiosyncrasies did not last forever. As Galileanism transitioned from utter obscurity into the dominant cultural force in the once-pagan empire, it became increasingly difficult to prevent cultural syncretism, often to disastrous results.
It was customary, for example, for the emperor to redirect State funds toward the cult of his preference. As a matter of course, then, the whole populace would be taxed in service thereof, and the cultic beneficiaries would change each time the emperor did. Typically, this was carried out with minimal consequences on the ground. While there was a kind of “patronage” system in which the Patrician class would make incredibly public (and generally negligible) donations to “the poor,” the pagan temples played a marginal role in this, so the shifting of State resources from one cult to the next was never earth-shattering.
But how, exactly, would Constantine, whose chosen cult, in an unprecedented move, was the cult of the Galileans, carry out redirecting State funds to a group who, unique among the religions of the empire, wholly denied the legitimacy of all of its competing cults? Rather brutishly, it turns out. He forcibly seized a number of pagan temples and bestowed them to Galileans for use as churches. Responses were mixed and many opposed the move, but the Galileans were in no position to turn down a gift from the emperor, and this practice became a barbarous precedent.
These tensions came to a head when, some time after emperor Theodosius I had banned Pagan sacrifices outright, the Bishop of Alexandria sought to renovate an abandoned temple for use as a church.
Alexandria had, for centuries, been perhaps the most of violent city in the empire, and when the renovation crew found human bones beneath the temple, certain groups declared the project to be a “burial desecration.” A riot broke out, and violent mobs began targeting Christians throughout the city.
As Christian retaliations, unfortunately, began, the mobs dwindled. In a panic, a group of them kidnapped several Christians and walled themselves in the abandoned temple of Serapis. No one was able to breach the walls of the Temple; The captors tortured and then killed their hostages.
Afraid that rogue outfits might seek vengeance by targeting pagans throughout the city, Theodosius declared the slain hostages to be martyrs. Lest the Serapeum itself become a monument for past grudges, he ordered it demolished. To avoid the issue in the future, several other abandoned temples were demolished, and the pagan idols therein were melted down and (in another move that became precedent) their precious metals redistributed to the poor.
So the relationship between the Church, which had its roots as an “alt-community” whose strange egalitarian social vision had proven contagious among those on the margins of imperial city life, and the dominant culture of Rome proved mutually modifying. Which is to say that the Church was enculturating elements of the empire even as it was inculturating its own values into the very structure of Rome. So much so, for example, that when the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate did finally wrench control back from a line of Christian emperors, the empire was already irreversibly changed.
There was no use, he realized, in trying to reclaim the empire for “the paganism of old.” Christianity had redefined “humanity,” had rendered unsustainable the stories that Rome told about itself.
Less inspiring but equally consequential, the razing of many pagan temples had cataclysmic effects on the populace that went beyond simply depriving pagans of places to worship. In the popular imagination, many of these temples, like the Serapeum, were believed to be indestructible – they were protected, the story went, by supernatural forces who would strike down any mortal who laid violent hands on them.
So when, only a few decades after Julian, a demolition crew took a hammer to the temple statue of Serapis after the great riot and were not struck down from above, what was left of the cult of Serapis largely jumped ship and sought catechesis among the Galileans instead – the Galilean had quite literally killed the gods.
Even before the Serapeum incident, Julian realized that if there was to be any popular “revival” of the old religions, paganism itself would have to change. So he set about on a project to bring popular paganism into greater conformity with the egalitarian norms embodied by the Galileans. Pagan temples were converted into community centers, in a sense, so that, like the churches that had now come to displace them, they would also be food pantries, lodging centers, refuges. Even where Christianity did not eclipse paganism, it transformed it.
The result being that only a handful of centuries after Celsus, the habits that he mocked in the Galileans had begun to remake the world. Celsus did not live long enough to be gloriously disappointed by this turn of events, which is a shame, I suppose, for those folks who like to “keep score.” But it wasn’t a shame. Because Rome’s capitulation, largely from the ground up, and not vice versa, to the strange ethos of the Galileans he so derided meant, among other things, that his great, great, great grandchildren grew up in a better Rome, and a better world, and their grandchildren, too.
“While the Second Great Awakening sought to save the whole country, some smaller groups of believers sought to save themselves from the country,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Or at least they (like the seventeenth-century Puritans) wished to first save themselves and then, perhaps by example, save others. In the first half of the nineteenth Century hopes were high, land was cheap, and experimental visions abounded” (P. 149).
“Another such group was the Oneida community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes,” writes Nancy Koester. “Noyes was a revival convert who believed that Christ had already returned and that true Christians, such as himself, were sinless” (P. 64), which makes him sound further beyond the pale than he was. In reality, he was simply “influenced by the prevailing belief that Christians could overcome all intentional sin” (MacHaffie, P. 123), which had come especially in vogue during the Awakening due to the widespread influence of mass revivalist Charles Finney.
As such, “Noyes envisioned the ‘Perfect Society’ as holding everything in common, including property, industry, and spouses,” writes Koester. “In 1846 in Vermont, Noyes instituted a ‘Complex Marriage,’ in which any adult male in the community can have sexual relations with any adult female” (P. 64)
He believed that “sexual relations were a gift from God which would not disappear in the Kingdom, but rather would be extended to include all the saints instead of just one husband given to one wife,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “This, he believed, was the meaning of the phrase, ‘They shall neither marry nor be given in marriage.’ The leaders of the community regulated the frequency of sexual liaisons between men and women, insisting that they did not condone free love and also making sure that no permanent attachments developed” (P. 125).
Instead, “The community itself would determine who should mate with whom, that decision being guided by the best principles of eugenics, or ‘scientific propagation,'” writes Gaustad. “Monogamy, Noyes believed, ‘is an absolute bar to scientific propagation.’ Consider, Noyes wrote, ‘how much progress would the horse breeders expect to make if they were only at liberty to bring their animals together in exclusive pairs.'”
He continues: “Noyes believed that monogamy made no more sense than celibacy did.” (He was not a fan of the Shakers). “What did make sense was bringing together the best specimens of the human race to procreate and thereby to lift all humankind up to the level where a truly spiritual revolution could occur” (P. 151).
In Noyes’ estimation, monogamy was so morally disastrous from a communal standpoint, that “’What we have in effect done,’ he said, was ‘choose the worst over the best.’ For ‘The good man will be limited by his conscience, while the bad man, free from moral check, will distribute his seed as widely as he desires’” (P. 152).
For good Christians to practice monogamy meant that good Christians seriously limited their ability to procreate en masse – which meant, in the days before reliable birth control, that lawless folks who were neither monogamous nor virtuous would far outnumber good Christians in their progeny, who could then remake the world in their inglorious image.
Thus, in Gaustad’s words, “To bring about spiritual revolution, a sexual revolution was required as well” (P. 151).
“Noyes believed that Oneida represented God’s kingdom on earth where selfishness, sexual inequality, tiresome labor, and death itself would be overcome,” writes MacHaffie. As such, they “dramatically altered the Victorian picture of the ‘Ideal Woman’ as wife, mother, and keeper of the hearth. The family was seen as a stumbling block to these groups since it diverted the attention and efforts of women and men away from the good of the community” (P. 124). They abstained from traditional family structures like contemporary Baptists abstain from alcohol: Even if they did not regard them as sinful, they regarded them as irredeemable obstacles to honoring God’s will in the fullest.
“For the vast majority of Americans, religion was a support to traditional forms of community,” writes Koester. But for the Shaker and Oneida communities, it did the opposite (P. 65). “Women were encouraged to take the initiative in beginning relationships and Noyes expressed particular concern that they be sexually satisfied by their partners. To reduce the chances of pregnancy, Noyes taught a method of birth control in which the male partner could, through discipline, eliminate the ejaculation of sperm during sexual intercourse” (MacHaffie, P. 125).
This was “an age of hope, Noyes observed, but so much of people’s hope was misplaced, being centered on an idealization of the past or on expectations of some divine fulfillment in the future,” Writes Gaustad. Whereas the Shakers sought (ineffectively, I should point out) to emulate the earliest Christian communities, and doomsayer groups sat on their hands waiting for the King to come home, the gathered Church at Oneida would endeavor to construct the kingdom of heaven in their own midst. “Noyes believed in a spiritual revolution that was now at hand, ‘An outburst of spiritual knowledge and power, a conversion of the world from sensuality, from carnal morality, and from brain philosophy, to spiritual wisdom and life,'” as he put it (P. 151).
Thus, at the compound, “where men and women freely intermingled, women farmed alongside men and men learned to sew. Women, it seems, were also encouraged to drive the teams of horses and work in the machine shops,” writes MacHaffie. “The leaders “discouraged the formation of bonds between mothers and children and relegated their care to men and women of the community in a special wing of the house.” The result being that Oneida women were not imprisoned in a cult of domesticity and consigned to embodying “traditionally maternal” norms and habits.
Perhaps as much as the Shakers, “Residents of Oneida challenged the idea of male and female occupational spheres. The communities were self-sufficient, producing the products and foods necessary for daily life – similar to the pre-industrial households of colonial America. In both instances, women had useful and productive work to fill their days” (P. 125).
“The community grew to about 200 members, supporting themselves through logging, farming, and the manufacturing of Steel traps,” writes Koester. “Another Oneida community excelled in the crafting of fine silverware, by which the Oneida name is still widely known” (P. 64).
Not unlike the Shakers, “Noyes insisted that God had masculine as well as feminine dimensions or elements. Often the word ‘androgynous’ (having the characteristics or nature of male and female) is used to describe their perspective” (MacHaffie, P. 125).
“Such sectarian groups offered women opportunities for participation and recognition which went beyond what was available to them in traditional Protestant churches.” MacHaffie goes on: “Perhaps most significantly, they were prepared to see women as inspired channels for new truth from God” (P. 126).
According to Nancy Koester, “In 1879 Noyes fled to Canada to escape lawsuits,” and without his stabilizing leadership, “Oneida Community members abandoned ‘complex marriage'” (and the eugenic underpinnings that came with it) “in favor of monogamy” (P. 64). In Noyes’ absence, it would seem, they determined (foreshadowing a 2015 Time Magazine article) that, even if monogamy isn’t ‘optimal,’ it’s nice.”
“Pre-Civil War America became a laboratory for religious experiments,” writes Nancy Koester. “Even though the great majority of people stayed within more conventional forms of Christianity, they were always some who thought they could discover, restore, or invent ‘True Religion.’ Available land helped to make these experiments possible” (P. 63).
The Second Great Awakening had inscribed a kind of “utopian proclivity” in much of the American consciousness. Generally, this led to the kind of progressive reforms for which nineteenth century activist Christianity is best known. But it also produced “separatist” communities who sought the live together, cloistered from the outside world, embodying to the best of their abilities the terms of “God’s new order.”
One such “early Utopian community, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known more familiarly as the Shakers) arrived in America from England in 1774 under the direction of mother Ann Lee,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Lee taught that procreation was unnecessary since the kingdom of God was near at hand. This being so, Shaker men and women should live apart, living celibate lives. If a married couple joined the Shaker community, the marital relationship ended as the common life began” (P. 150).
These enclosed communes “included both men and women, but celibacy was strictly enforced through indoctrination and careful regulation of day-to-day activities,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “Men and women ate at different tables, worked separately, used separate stairs to their living quarters, and sat on opposite sides of the room for worship” (P. 124).
According to Gaustad, Shakers saw themselves as “reviving the Pentecost church in their own time, one feature of that church being the commitment to live a virgin life” (P. 150).
Procreation was not simply unneccesary, though. “Lee came to believe that sexual intercourse was the source of all sin and that the family was based on carnal lust,” writes Koester. “Therefore, the perfect community must practice celibacy, which alone could bring equality between the sexes” (P. 63).
It is easy to forget how many of the early Christian communities held celibacy to be the optimal or even normative mode of Christian sexual expression. Works like the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla reflect this mindset. For the communities that produced the fictitious narrative, compulsory abstention from sexual relations owed less to the dominant culture’s Platonic unease with “bodies” and “material” than with an essentially feministish protest against the broad exploitation of women in Greco-Roman sexual practices.
As I’ve written elsewhere, “There was no ‘recreational’ sex for women in Rome – at least in the mainstream. Sex was not a game in the Empire Aeneas built – it was a tool, specifically, to dominate others. Affairs were not unheard of, but they were rarely for fun: Rome was entrenched in a rigid class system in which upward social mobility was nearly impossible. Sexual favors were often doled out in exchange for gifts, both monetary and otherwise,” but if you were a woman, sex was not about your pleasure – or your consent.
So when Thecla, an engaged noble woman from Iconium, hears St. Paul delivering a sermon, she devotes herself to chastity – much to the dismay of her mother and the chagrin of her fiance. When she will not back down, her loved ones (and eventually all of Rome) team up to martyr her, first with fire, then with lions, and finally by means of a whole array of Wile E. Coyote tricks and gadgets. In each case, the Lord rescues her, cementing, for those early Christian communities out of which the work emerged, God’s solidarity with womankind, who, in God’s new order, will not submit themselves to exploitation.
It is difficult for those of us born after the era of “sex positivity” to grasp the extent to which compulsory celibacy could have been liberating rather than stifling, both for women and for men, not only in the years immediately following the Resurrection of Jesus but even in the Shaker communities.
“Child-rearing became a shared responsibility,” writes MacHaffie. “Orphans and the children of new converts among the Shakers were cared for by a group of adults” (P. 125). According to Koester, “Their basis for Christian Community was the village, where property was held in common and all duties were shared. They built villages in which men and women lived separately and everyone contributed to farm work or crafts” (P. 64).
“Women generally did the indoor work and men did the heavier outdoor tasks but there was no indication that one type of work was superior to the other,” writes MacHaffie. “There is also evidence that men in Shaker communes carded wool and picked fruit, duties normally assigned to women” (P. 125).
They “multiplied in the first half of the 19th century as these ascetic visionaries moved into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.” Though a fringe group, the sheer breadth of their reach suggests that their communities struck a chord with the populace (Gaustad, P. 150).
“The group began to attract revival converts who sought a radically new way of life,” writes Koester. And according to Gaustad, they “grew to about 6,000 by mid-century” (P. 150). But if “The Shaker rule of celibacy freed women from child-bearing and child-rearing,” Koester goes on, “it also meant that without new converts or the steady adoption of orphans, the movement would eventually die out” (P. 64).
Shakers not only “altered basic ideas in the Victorian ‘Cult of True Womanhood,'” writes MacHaffie, “But also challenged the traditional theological concepts” (P. 125). Although some Medieval and many “Modern” theologians had popularized the idea that God was literally male, the Shakers reclaimed something akin to the early Christian notion that God is neither male nor female, but that both maleness and femaleness are derivative from the nature of God. Although we speak of Him often in masculine language, the Patristics thought, this was chiefly a practicality: No one, they would say, should be deceived into thinking that God was male.
And so “The Shakers used their belief in the ‘androgynous’ nature of God as a keystone in the life of the community.” And more: “They built into their theology and group structures an equal rule for women. The Shaker ministry, which presided over the community, was made up of two women and two men. An equal number of Elders and Eldresses supervised the spiritual life of the Shaker families (30 to 90 people) while deacons and deaconesses attended to the practical details of communal life” (P. 126).
But the pathway that the Shakers took to get there was almost irredeemably problematic. “Mother Ann’s children had died in infancy, and in her grief she received visions that she believed were from God,” writes Koester. “In these visions, she saw herself as a female incarnation of God, a counterpart to Jesus” (P. 63). The logic ran that “God had first appeared incarnate in a male, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, the Divine Essence had its second incarnation in a female, mother Ann Lee” (Gaustad, P. 150). Previously, the human face of God was Jesus – a man. But “with the coming of the female Messiah,” writes MacHaffie, “The original equality that women had with men was restored” (P. 126).
Eventually, their commitment to celibacy doomed their communities to “a slow decline and ultimately near extinction,” says Gaustad. “When revivalism and utopian experimentation waned, so did the growth of the Shakers” (P. 150). According to Koester, “At the close of the 20th century, only one Shaker village remained, with just a few believers” (P. 64).
Nonetheless, in their day they were remarkable. “Studies of some Shaker communities in the last century show two female members for every male on average,” writes MacHaffie. This is noteworthy and it isn’t. In its earliest stages, the “Christian Revolution” was a peaceable uprising of women (and the men they’d won over with their otherworldly vision for a world put to rights).
By the nineteenth century, however, Christianity in America was largely the domain of “Godly (or ungodly) Men,” with women by default relegated largely to the background. Thus, it is possible that “Women may have been attracted to the sectarian communities for reasons directly related to their status in church and society.”
She continues: “Evidence taken from direct testimonies” suggest that “The revival spirit created in the atmosphere of intense religious feelings and yearnings which were satisfied for some women in sectarianism. Also, contact with other women, especially in communal sects, seemed to provide some women with a much-needed sense of ‘sisterhood.’ Testimonies from Shaker women, for example, reveal their intense enjoyment of conversation with women in their own communities and visits and letters from sisters and other locations. By joining the sectarian groups, however, women may also have been unconsciously rebelling against their status in the Protestant churches and in American culture” (P.127).
Works quoted above:
Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh Eric. Schmidt. The religious history of America. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004.
Koester, Nancy. Introduction to the history of Christianity in the United States. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her story: women in Christian tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Pr., 1988.
Meeks, Wayne A. Origins of Christian morality: first two centuries. Yale University Press, 1995.
At the beginning of my first semester at seminary, I was assigned to write a ‘theological integration’ paper for my Systematic Theology class. I chose ‘demonology’ as a topic to write about, primarily because I don’t care about demonology.
Because I’m a fairly by-the-numbers Protestant, and Protestants don’t care about demonology, because Protestants don’t care about the supernatural. Which is an overgeneralization, but all statements are, all the time.
And we really, really don’t. There are some outliers, mostly Pentecostal in orientation, who devote extended attention to the question of the supernatural, of spectral assailants and unholy ghosts – entities that St. Paul generally refers to as ‘principalities and powers’. Generally, though, even when their work is stellar (and it often is), it goes largely unnoticed by the broader Protestant community.
There are good reasons for this. We (allegedly) dislike speculation. We are (allegedly) devoted to speaking boldly where the Bible is clear and keeping quiet where it isn’t. We (allegedly) prefer to keep the gospel front and center in our preaching and discipleship and peripheral curiosities in the background.
Indeed, prospects of retrieving ancient emphases on the ‘principalities and powers’ has been marred by associations with the less-than-careful approaches of thinkers like C. Peter Wagner. His work is undeniably illuminating, but has often been guilty swallowing the bones along with the meat. Premodern notions of ‘territorial spirits’ and so forth have been devoured uncritically, luring intelligent and devout believers into varying degrees of baseless superstition.
“The devil made me do it” is a familiar mantra for those living in the post-Christian West. For those whose religious devotion outruns their familiarity with theology, such claims were, perhaps, the most natural way to understand their continued struggle with sin after experiencing salvation. It’s plenty natural to be ambivalent about integrating ancient demonologies into a contemporary theological framework.
Our grandparents insist that there is already a “responsibility crisis” of sorts in modern-day America, and not only in the youth culture. The notion that each individual is responsible for her own actions is eroding, we are told, and one may suspect that adding in the notion that demonic entities exist who are capable of significantly influencing our thoughts and actions can only compound this.
Of course, the notion that human wrongdoing can be chalked up to demonic co-opting is only rarely entertained in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and never in the scriptures themselves. With the noteworthy exception of the demons that are subdued by Jesus during the itinerant portions of His ministry, we are never given the impression that demons can be responsible for human behavior.
Neither does the notion gain serious traction among orthodox believers in the Patristic period, insofar as can be verified, or even among the medieval Scholastics, whose tendency toward eisegetical flamboyances was one catalyst for the eventual break from the established Church in the Reformation. “The devil made me do it” is a backwater theological error with no substantive connection to the historic Christian emphasis on dethroning the principalities and powers. But the threat of lapsing into such obscurantism is there, and so Protestants remain (allegedly) cautious about giving sustained attention to the supernatural elements of scripture.
There is, of course, another reason. Martin Luther had no qualms about acknowledging the role of the devil in kneecapping the world, but Harry Emerson Fosdick certainly did. What changed?
As the “New Atheists” like to remind us, we are not many centuries removed from the days when cases of what are now known to have been treatable mental illnesses were treated as devilry. Schizophrenics were tortured inadvertently and locked away, often after being put through arduous ceremonies to exorcise the demons believed to control of them. It would not be unreasonable to want to do away with the notion of malicious spiritual entities all together, gravitating instead toward more quantifiable disciplines like the social sciences as the chief lenses through which we examine societal issues.
The West did not abandon belief in devilry because the supernatural was proven to be superstitious, nor even because satisfying explanations were provided for the phenomena that used to be attributed to Beliar. Instead, it has long been assumed that human religion was subject to an evolutionary process by which it gradually became more sophisticated. Animistic religion was, perhaps, its irreducible form, and there wasn’t much to it. Slowly, these religions would mutate and take new shapes, each more vibrant than the last. Eventually, the pantheon of human religious experience grew so variegated that it could hardly be cataloged. The underlying assumption, of course, being that we have now seen the birth pangs of a new religious epoch – namely, secularism. The functions that religion once served are now usurped by more capable tools, most notably the sciences.
In his unfortunately-titled volume, Man’s Rise to Civilization, Peter Farb examines the variegated native tribes that spread out across the Americas as a launching pad to test hypotheses about evolutionary trajectory of early human societies. He notes what ought to be surprising: native tribes whose religion was basically animistic harbor a rich complexity that the wealthy, educated, and white conquerors who gave us the earliest accounts of their lifestyle were incapable of detecting.
Western academia has conditioned itself to look for certain elements, to attribute ‘high culture’ to certain factors, most of which are notably missing in what were ultimately deemed the “least developed” tribes. As such, they were mistakenly deemed “primitive.” They were not. What we presumed to be barbarism was simply unfamiliar, including their religious expression. Animistic, polytheistic, pantheistic religion, etc. were hardly undeveloped, or simple, or primitive.
They were, instead, ceremonially and intellectually rigorous, even inductive in character. The specters presumed to haunt their prairies were not simply products of an overactive and under-stimulated shared imagination, Farb suggests. Even if they were not real, such beliefs were the product of careful investigations by critically adept investigators. He goes as far as to suggest that animism and its distant cousins are approximately as complex as monotheism – and approximately as complex as secularism.
At risk of sounding relativistic to a fault, he points out that much of what one presumes to be “common sense” in a secular society deconstructs to little more than “inherited ritual.” The sciences have illuminated our understanding of the natural world in certain respects. But alongside such ‘objective’ illuminations, we are prone to invent mythologies, incorporating demonstrated facts with baseless but deeply held cultural sentiments. These mythologies become ingrained over generations, sometimes long after being debunked. In this respect, the “secular city” is not unlike every other culture that has ever existed. Human culture has always been incalculably complex, gloriously nuanced, remarkably civilized. Our confidence regarding the non-existence of angels and demons rests not on scientific advancements, but uncritical presumptions of superiority to cultures that we have deemed primitive. It may be too inflammatory to say that antisupernaturalism is simply embodied colonialism, but it’s only half wrong.
In the absence of any falsifiable method to prove or disprove the existence of such supernatural forces as are chronicled in the Christian scriptures, or the Upanishads, or Qu’ran, or native American lore, religious people are left to do the inductive work of searching their respective traditions to understand how such entities have been characterized by their communities through the ages. For those connected at the bone to the Christian community, the scriptures are the primary source by which one comes to terms with the nature of the “principalities and powers.”
Harvey Cox: The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.
Peter Farb: Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. 1st ed. Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1968.
John Shelby Spong: Why Christianity must change or die: a bishop speaks to believers in exile. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999.
[Each of these books are problematic, but helpful. Farb is an interesting source – he swallows up much of what is wrong with contemporary Western antisupernaturalism, generally falling back on the wrongheaded consensus of the post-Kantian elite, but manages to step out, ever so slightly, as the result of his extensive studies in Native cultures. Looking closely at the seemingly otherworldly lifestyle of the many-splendored and endlessly diverse Native cultures that spread across the Americas aeons before Columbus, he unmasks the irredeemably reductive and untenable caricatures of “premodern” cosmogonies – and the “mythologized” understanding of the natural world that comes with them.
Spong, on the other hand, represents the worst of contemporary antisupernatural hermeneutics, regularly returning to this as a rationalization for discarding what is less-than-palatable in the scriptures. Whether the Canaanite conquest, Covenant exclusivism, or his pet issue, sexual ethics, such infractions are chalked up to ancient Israel having been in one or the other transitionary stages in the process of religious evolution.]
Friedrich Nietzsche’s been on the receiving end of some rather unfair accusations: That he was a Proto-Nazi; That he was a crude nationalist; Or a militarist: Or a nihilist.
And some very fair ones: That he was misogynistic; That his disorganized, aphoristic writing style was infantile and self-indulgent; That his mustache looked stupid.
But he’s an important figure. Not only for modern Christians, but for everyone. Much of what dominates contemporary discourse has its roots in Nietzschean thought. Derrida, especially, clung to threads previously oft-ignored by Nietzsche’s readers, which made up, perhaps, the better part of his philosophy: That there are no individuals, not really, but only subjects; We are all, always, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of arbitrary cultural constructs that we had no part in forming, which to a large extent determine our attitudes and prejudices; That our thoughts are not our own, not really. They are the thoughts of those men (always men) from ages past who managed to impose their perspectives on the populace, both in their own day and ours; That we do not “acknowledge” reality, we “constitute” it. We “construct” reality; That there is no “shared reality” that we can all acknowledge together. Or, if there is, we’ll never see it clearly. Especially not together, because there is no “we.” There is only a multitude of you’s and I’s, never us’es. There is simply a plurality of individuals who interpret the world according to somebody else’s constructs, which has co-opted our bodies and minds, somehow, and now compels us to see things through eyes that are not our own; That we do not see the world as it is, but as we were “conditioned” to see it.
One may be surprised to find that such ideas are older than they had thought. And these did not originate with Nietzsche either, but he has certainly been a contact point through which we have retrieved them. None of this, of course makes him a particularly good Christian apologist. But it is important groundwork to understand why he is, in fact, a one of the best.
As Nietzsche recounts (primarily throughout Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, human creatures are, irreducibly, a “pack of savages,” a “race of conquerors.” There is no such thing as “cooperation,” not really. There is only “conquest.”
There are only “interest groups,” some “powerful,” and others “powerless.” (In summarizing, I am sometimes using language that he did not employ). No one becomes “powerful” without taking power from others. It’s a zero-sum game. There are no truly “mutually beneficial” agreements or “cooperations” to be made. There is only the combined power of certain “interest groups” submerging the interests of other disparate and powerless “interest groups.”
Naturally, certain interest groups hold certain “values” and others hold other “values.” The “contest” between interest groups is a “contest” between irreconcilable “value sets.” Ultimately, the combined power of the victorious interest groups crystallizes into the “dominant culture.” Meanwhile, the “value sets” that dominant interest groups hold become “normative” over all others. Those who belonged to the disparate, powerless, “conquered” interest groups are “subjected” to the values held by the powerful, “conquering,” dominant interest groups.
When such a thing happens, however, the conquered and powerless groups grow to resent their “disenfranchisement,” holding their “conquerors” in contempt – simply by virtue of their having been conquered. They come to envision themselves as “victims” rather than simply as “vanquished contestants.” As such, they come to envision their conquerors as “villains,” simply for having “won” the “contest.” The conquered learn to see themselves as “morally upright underdogs” who deserve “liberation” from their conquerors and the values that their conquerors have imposed onto them.
The “dominant group” is reframed by the “dominated groups” as being the source of the their suffering, at which point what Nietzsche dubs the “slave morality” is born. As Nietzsche frames it, Christianity is the epitome of “slave morality.”
Plenty of groups are conquered, He says. Plenty of groups are victimized, sure. Plenty of groups are “submerged.” But this is simply the result of the inevitable “contest” between the irreconcilable “value sets” of competing “interest groups.” One of the groups will dominate, and the other will be dominated. That’s simply how it goes, always.
But Christianity, which during Nietzsche’s lifetime was generally believed to have began as a movement among the poor that only later spread out to the bourgeois, had, from its inception a distinct “egalitarian spirit.” It was riddled with “contemptible ideas,” as Nietzsche saw it, including the notion that the all-powerful Creator of the universe had, for some unconscionable reason, taken on human flesh and become a peasant – a “slave,” to use more Nietzschean language – in solidarity with what Christians called the “least of these.”
When Christianity became the unlikely religion of the Empire, it overthrew the Greco-Roman “will to power” – the “master morality” – and translated these unprecedented “egalitarian values” into the structure of the Western mind. Heretofore nonexistent concepts, like the “absolute value of the human person,” wholly regardless of their usefulness, strength, honor, or “virility” were thus “inscribed” into the “moral framework” of the West; Slowly, of course, in fits and starts, but inevitably.
Thus, Christianity had embedded, seemingly irrevocably, a “slave morality” into the Western consciousness (in fairly radical contradistinction to the cosmic frat party that was the pre-Christian Roman Empire).
This won’t be particularly impressive to those with revolutionary proclivities. For those post-modern and post-post-modern folks who haven’t collapsed into a kind of formless and void nihilism (the sort that Nietzsche predicted would be our undoing), the fact that the “Christian revolution” didn’t eliminate all sexism, racism, xenophobia and otherwise during the lifetime of the Apostles (or at least their Patristic proteges) renders the whole thing null and void, more or less.
Which is fine. Christianity has always been anti-revolutionary, and therefore never palatable to that particular demographic. Even Barabbas, the revolutionary who was set free by Pilate instead of Jesus (who is traditionally believed to have become a Christian after being released) supposedly put away his revolutionary mindset once he “took up his cross.”
But for those willing to accept it, it’s entirely worth noting: Western progressivism, all of its forms, both good and bad, are ultimately tributaries that run off from a great river that flows back to the incarnate Christ and the Apostles whom he trained. This ought to embarrass, for example, the “religious right,” whose mission, it seems, has long dwindled into painting up progressives as enemies of the Almighty. But it also ought to remind us that whatever “egalitarian impulses” we might have we owe chiefly to the “Christian revolution.”
It did not purge the world of injustice overnight. Some people will never forgive it for not having done so. Fair enough, I suppose. But if Nietzsche is correct, we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that what massive strides we have made, even over the last century, are due to our having liberated ourselves from Christianity. And more: If Nietzsche is correct, even those philosophies that often challenge and sometimes reject Christaity out of hand – whether it’s the Women’s Liberation movement, or LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups – ultimately “live and move and have their being” within the “moral vocabulary” – the “slave morality,” as Nietzsche would have it – bestowed upon us by the “Christian revolution.”
Yes, the West was (and is) an imperialist monolith who has subjected hordes of colonized provinces to a multitude of horrific wrongs. Yes, the West carried out these atrocities both before and after the so-called “Christian revolution.” And yes, the West has yet to fully own the blame and make due reparations to many of the wronged parties. All of these things are positively true. But only within the strange, egalitarian moral imagination that Christianity literally pioneered.
That is, if you believe that imperialism is wrong, or sexism, xenophobia, or racism, you’re already at least half-Christian. These very sentiments are what Cornelius Van Til calls “borrowed capital,” inherited from the Christian imagination. What wrongs the Christian world has inflicted – and they are many – are only actually wrong within a Christian moral framework.
Which is to say that if Nietzsche is correct, then Christianity’s most elucidating critics – feminist critics, for example – amount largely to groups who have applied their Christianized moral imagination more acutely to particular social ills (such as misogyny and “the patriarchy”) than the rest of the Christian or post-Christian world has bothered to as of yet.
I have, I assume, thoroughly upset both Christians who object on principle to feminism, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, critical race Theory, et cetera and non-christians who identify strongly with these particular advocacy groups, who feel that I am appropriating their interests to make a cheap case for Christianity. That much can’t be avoided, I guess. As I mentioned before, it’s only natural to be unsatisfied with whatever pretenses of moral authority the Christian religion still has after not having prevented the following two thousand years of rampant misogyny, brutality, and more.
But your liberative aspirations – what Nietzsche calls your “slave morality” – came from somewhere, and Christianity is that somewhere. And as “deconstructive” models of interpreting culture become increasingly mainstream – as normal folks, rather than simply professional academians, adopt previously avant-garde notions about the “arbitrariness of meaning,” and the “inherent violence of ideas” themselves, warming, as it were, to the notion that all of culture really boils down to the imposed power of certain interest groups over the conquered powerlessness of other interest groups – it’s entirely possible that it’s not wise to cut at the roots of the “slave morality” that has (at an admittedly glacial pace) brought us this far.
A disenchanted West, drunk on extreme relativism, probably will not blossom into a bastion of progressive values. However regressive one believes the Christian religion itself to be, it remains the “bank” from which our favorite liberation ideologies continue to make withdrawals – at least, if Nietzsche is correct. I’d rather we didn’t close the account.
The author of the Pentateuch was virtually unanimously believed to be Moses until the 17th century. And even then, it was not until the 19th century that skepticism regarding Mosaic authorship caught on like wildfire so that the traditional view quickly became the minority view. Throughout the 18th century, serious debate regarding its authorship was waged by heavy hitters like Witte, Astruc, Eichorn, and Ilgen, who ultimately paved the way for the more substantive departures to come in the 19th century by positing the existence of a ‘Jawist’ and an Elohist, on the (rather anemic) basis of the variation throughout the Pentateuch of ‘divine names’.
Through the 19th century, a number of hypotheses were offered to replace the traditional view. Geddes suggested that the Pentateuch was the synthesized product of a multitude of fragments. Franz Delitsch posited a process whereby an initially straightforward sacred tradition was gradually supplemented until finally arriving at its canonical form, somewhere in the Exile period. Hupfield and Graf were pioneers of what has come to be called the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’, which taught that a definite and identifiable group of sources from varying Hebraic cultic traditions, were ultimately brought together into what we now know as the Pentateuch.
Wellhausen ingeniously took this notion and ran with it, presenting a ‘coherent’ reconstruction of ancient Hebrew history. He suggested that Israel’s religious history developed like all religious histories supposedly develop: They began, he said, very simple, with little cultic flair, disorganized and decentralized. By the time of the Deuteronomist, however, there was a push for a unified Temple worship, or, at least, the birth pangs thereof, and so the Pentateuchal sources were further redacted to reflect this (although, apparently not particularly well, since the ‘evidence’ for the previous, ‘decentralized’ religion of ancient Israel is supposedly still plainly visible in the text).
Finally, by the time the Priestly redactor came around, there was little left of the old Prophetic faith, with its emphasis on ethics and such. In its stead, we are told, there is an almost obsessive attention devoted to cultic practice – an elaborate sacrificial system, a colorfully defined Temple, and, most importantly, a ‘central sanctuary’.
Wellhausen’s reconstruction, or at least some variation thereof, has become more or less axiomatic in mainstream academia. Although he largely popularized the Documentary hypothesis, there are a few glaring methodological limitations, not least that its conclusions are largely unverifiable and, worse, unreplicatable (irreplicatable? Unreproducible? Irreproducible? Words are difficult.)
That is, of the manifold scholars who have followed in the footsteps of these skeptical trailblazers, few of them have arrived at terribly similar conclusions about the particulars of the formation and authorship of the Pentateuch. Generally, if a theory is good, it should easily replicated by those who go through the same process whereby it was reach.
But because the Documentary Hypothesis and its various cousins are almost entirely conjectural, they are impossible to work with. As a purely conjectural foundation, they back scholars who operate from them into a corner in which they are forced to content themselves with building entire careers on little more than glorified guesswork.
Nevertheless, the Pentateuch is complex. At some points, Moses is said to be meek, whereas he is elsewhere said to be mighty and bold. Contextually, these hardly need to be contradictory, but they do present a challenge. And, too, the Law codes, especially of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) have their share of seemingly irreconcilable commands, but often this appears upon closer examination to be a case of non-overlapping casuistic scenarios. Even in cases in which apodictic commands appear to grate against one another, they do not, upon closer examination, need to be read as contestants in a zero-sum duel.
Moreover, reading through the Pentateuch, one is struck more by the remarkably theological consistency between even apparently disparate passages. The uniform witness of the Pentateuch is to God’s unique identity. He is the only Creator – the only one who can bara. He shares no common ground with the pagan deities, and has no difficulty dispatching them – and their subjects – when necessary. Whatever apparent diversity there is to be found in the beautifully complex books of Moses only underscores the broad theological unity thereof.
Thus, given the well-nigh unanimous testimony of the Church through the ages regarding Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, we ought to defer to those who have gone before us in regards to its Mosaic authorship and accept that the man himself was behind it – especially given the flimsiness of the skeptical objections by 17th-19th century elites.