How To Domesticate a God

GoldCalf

The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin.

“Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. 

He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.” (1 Kings 12:25-33)

The quickest way to domesticate a god is to ‘cast a graven image of their likeness.’

The rationale is simple, actually. When you take after a god, you come to value what that god values. So when Monarchic Israel/Judah took after Ba’al and Jeroboam’s graven calf-idols of Yahweh, their passion for the hungry and destitute fell by the wayside. Because Jeroboam’s version of Yahweh values what Jeroboam values, the Canaanite deity Ba’al and Jeroboam’s Yahweh don’t look so different. As a rule, we conjure up gods whose hearts beat in time with ours.

There is something to the popular suggestion that the gods of human history are just projections of the human psyche. To a point, Bultmann was on the mark in saying that theology is really anthropology. Unbeknownst to him, he’d made a biblically sound suggestion. The Old Testament paints a picture that suggests only two options truly exist: the ‘anthropological’ god of Jeroboam on the one hand – the golden calf whose sheer existence sacrilizes whatever nonsense the king dreams up – and the true God, the Facilitator of the Exodus on the other. We can have a projected god – Jeroboam’s God – who is for us because we are for us and he belongs to us, or we can have a God who is for God, and who, because He is for Himself, is ‘for us’ in a better way than the pliable, relentlessly affirming images we’d graven.

The ‘anthropological’ god of Jeroboam, however appealing, always proves himself a cheap trade-in, because although he is ‘for us’  as we are for us, his vote in our favor is a vote of betrayal, because our self-love is traitorous – not only to the true God who facilitated the Exodus, but also to us. Who lies to us more than we do? Who sabotages our endeavors more than we do? We are constantly acting against our best interests, choosing shallow affirmation over love, low-cost gratification over lasting hope. We are the antagonists in our own stories. Jeroboam’s god, who is for us as we are for us, is fickle because we are fickle. He is only as much of an ally to us as we are enemies to ourselves. He is only as trustworthy as we aren’t. Having a god that is for us is a living nightmare, because it has always proven to entail that he is like us.

In this light, taking on the values of a god who is already for us is a non-action. It is not a conversion, because if the god to whom we conform our values is already on our side we have nothing to surrender. Somewhere beneath our ‘collective consciousness,’ our fealty to the divine suzerain whose image we ourselves cast is an insidious form of circular self-devotion. Our service to Jeroboam’s Yahweh is really just service to our own community’s interests. Fealty to the graven image of the god of Israel proves at last to be something akin to “my country, right or wrong.” Soon enough, Jeroboam’s Yahweh has revealed himself to be a projected self-sanctioning of a return to Pharaohism.

He is impersonal. Unlike the self-serving God who facilitated Israel’s escape from Egypt and Pharaoh’s grip, he has no intrinsic personhood. He only has our personhood, and so he always votes in favor of our status quo. Like the gods of Egypt, he is bound to be the monarch’s lapdog, and therefore our worship of the impersonal Neo-Pharaohite god who advocates with faux-authority for our status quo is really just a sacrilization of our own self-destructive communal desires. Anything other than Yahwism is a form of illegitimate apotheosis [noun: elevation to divine status : deification (Merriam-Webster)]

Conversely, Yahwism [noun: the worship of Yahweh by the ancient Hebrews (Merriam-Webster)] is by nature a catalyst for the radical reorientation of communal values because the God at the heart of it is self-interested and is consequently beholden to nobody’s status quo. He is free to demand change from His subjects because His godhood is not contingent upon their circular self-devotion. Their continued existence is contingent upon His sustenance because He is real. He is the relational ground of being. The Yahweh who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, who forbade them from making a graven image of His likeness, is free to be God, because He is. And Jeroboam’s golden calf is not.

 

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Unworthy Ministers of a Liberating Gospel

ChristCleansing

Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Days come when I wake up in the morning and cannot talk myself into feeling worthy to lead any ministry in any capacity. Weeks of fighting hard against your own sinful habits and tendencies mean next to nothing to you in the hours and the days following a massive, messy collapse. Those are the moments in which you will want to give up – to throw your hands in the air and say, “I’ve always known I wasn’t cut out for this, and here is the proof.”

So you’ll probably do something incredibly unhealthy. If you’re like me, you’ll employ the fake-it-till-you-make-it method of dealing with your own unworthiness. Rather than allowing yourself to feel the weight of your sin and then allowing yourself to be healed by the grace of God, you will suppress both the pangs of crushing guilt and the peace of experiencing God’s ongoing forgiveness. Rather than offering yourself freshly to Jesus, you’ll ‘give God a few days to cool down’. And if you’re in any sort of leadership position in the Church, you’ll put on your best “I’m doing fine” face and carry on doing the work of God without the Spirit’s guidance.

I remember just how messed up I am every time I speak condescendingly to my girlfriend and watch the sense of security with me disappear from her eyes. It is crushing to realize that you are the kind of person that makes others feel unsafe. I remember just how not-holier-than-anybody I am every time I make the conscious decision to take the easy rather than the ethical course of action when nobody is watching. And if the conversations I’ve had with other believers are an accurate representation of the norm, everyone is like me.

Not everybody’s sins are the same, but everybody’s sins are equally crippling. Whether you’re a porn addict or an emotional terrorist or just kind of a jerk, your sins are crippling. And if, like me, you’re tasked with leading others in ministry on a regular basis, the crippling effects of your constant moral failure can eat you alive.

The lie that we believe, that dominates our lives, is that we are uniquely jacked up. Because we can only know other people to a certain degree, it’s an easy lie for the enemy to sell. While I can’t plumb the depths of anyone else’s depravity, I know my own far too well to trust myself with anything. And so it goes with everyone.

But the gospel poses an uncompromising challenge to the pervasive lie. Namely, that everyone, everywhere, is supremely, nauseatingly jacked up. If the Biblical narrative is true, then I can assume with confidence upon meeting anyone that somewhere beneath the human face they put on, a terrifying darkness is present. We just domesticate our actual-jacked-up-ness well. At our best, we are all one push away from collapsing back into utter debauchery.

Let me put it another way. Nobody is that well adjusted. Time and intimacy reveal the cracks in the asphalt of everyone, and all it takes is to look closely at someone for a moment to see how remarkably fragile they are. We have a threadbare righteousness.

That means you don’t have to feel like damaged goods when your actual-jacked-up-ness shows its ugly face. And if you’re someone tasked with leading others as a minister of the gospel, it should remind you that you’re leading a flock of jacked-up redeemed people as one after their own heart. You’re going to sin, and then you’re going to be numb for a while, and then you’re going to be hit like a train with the fact that you’re completely unqualified for the job of “spiritual guru”. In that moment, cling to that conviction. Because it’s true. Your real-life depravity completely disqualifies you from wearing the “spiritual guru” hat. But understand that it’s a joyous disqualification, because ‘spiritual gurus’ have nothing to offer people who are ‘crooked deep down’.

Instead, be a ‘wounded shepherd’, selling a story of good news for criminals like yourself.

Paul and His Co-Authors

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_153

Rembrandt’s Timothy and his grandmother, 1648

While studying 1 Thessalonians for a college class, I was forced to deal with the critical issues regarding the authorship of the two letters to the churches in Thessalonica. The problem is fairly simple. The syntactical differences between the two works are substantial, as is the tone of the two letters, purportedly sent within a fairly short span of time from one another. The imminence of the Jesus’s return seems to be the focus of the first letter (so say those who question the authenticity of the second epistle) whereas the point of the latter appears to be to dissuade the Thessalonians of its imminence, even including a verse that may be an entreaty for the churches in Thessalonica to ignore the first epistle (2 Thess. 2:1-2).

The latter objection is a stretch. It was common for others to send pseudepigraphal letters in the names of the apostles. The early Church fathers were at least as relentless as, if not more than, the critical scholars of the 19th and 20th century in their efforts to snuff out forgeries and pseudepigrapha.  Bishop Serapion of Antioch (d. AD 211) once said “we receive both Peter and the other Apostles as Christ, but pseudepigrapha in their name we reject.” His statement appears to be representative of the sentiments of the early Church. Some of the earliest Church Fathers may have actually known Paul and all of them were immersed in the world into which he wrote. With all of this in mind, 2 Thessalonians went nearly unquestioned until Baur walked on the scene and decided, quite arbitrarily, that only Romans, Galatians, and the two letters to the Corinthians could be confidently called Pauline. The objections involving the supposedly conflicting eschatological visions of the two epistles reflects a weak reading of the Pauline corpus on the part of the Baur school more than any real dissonance between the works.

The dissonance in tone and syntax is not so easily dispensed with. A multitude of explanations have been offered, but the simplest and most probable may be that Paul often did not write alone. The argument goes as such. Paul’s utterly undisputed works consist of Romans, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians. The rarely disputed works are 1 Thessalonians, Phillipians, and Philemon. The ‘somewhat doubtful’ epistles are Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, the ‘very doubtful’ are Ephesians and the Pastorals. Those considered doubtful are often dispatched on the grounds that they appear to teach a ‘higher’ ecclesiology or have a ‘more developed’ eschatology than those works that are undisputed. This is especially true in the case of 2 Thessalonians.

It is noteworthy that two of the six disputed letters explicitly purport to be ‘from’ Paul and at least one other associate. Colossians names Timothy with Paul in the greeting establishing the sender. It is no stretch to imagine that Timothy was involved in the authorship. Both epistles to the Thessalonians name Silas and Timothy as co-senders. It is again no stretch to assume a shared role in authorship. They are at the very least prime candidates for authorship. Ephesians also merits mention. It does not mention a coauthor in the greeting. However, the greeting itself is suspect on account of the textual variants found within it. The phrase “to the Ephesians” is missing from the earliest manuscripts of the letter, suggesting that it was originally a general letter that was copied and circulated throughout the churches in the Roman Empire. Today, it is known as Ephesians solely on the basis of tradition. Given the uncertainty regarding the greeting, it is possible that the original greeting mentioned a co-sender. Plenty of ink has been spilt on the similarity between Ephesians and Colossians and it could be that both emanate from collaboration between Paul and Timothy.

All of this brings us back to 2 Thessalonians. Without a doubt, the two evangelists had some sort of input in the writing process of both epistles, but only God knows precisely what the input consisted in. If I had to take a guess on the source of the radical departure in tone and style in the second epistle, I would hypothesize that Silas played the primary role in the authorship. Silas seems to have been either a prophet or an exhorter (Acts 15:22), either of which may explain the rather sharp tone of the work in contrast to the warmth of the probably Paul-penned first epistle.

It’s not likely that the “pseudepigrapha” hypothesis is going away anytime soon. Since the early 19th century, it has been the dominant narrative in the field of Pauline studies, and as a result it has been, in a sense, canonized into the orthodoxy of contemporary scholarship. However, if some or many of the letters commonly attributed unilaterally to Paul by conservative scholars are actually the products of collaboration, then much of the basis for the “pseudepigrapha” hypothesis disappears.

Time Isn’t The Key To Evolution, But Design May Be

Destruction_of_Leviathan

“Destruction of Leviathan”. 1865 engraving by Gustave Doré

Historically, the Christian religion has understood the world to be something like the stage upon which the drama of cosmic history plays out. Although there has been a diversity of understanding within Christian tradition regarding the nature of the world, it could be generally summarized by saying that it consists in both physical, observable creatures and objects and spiritual, non-observable creatures and objects. Those things which are physical and observable can be seen either plainly (with the naked eye) or under the proper circumstances (i.e. bacterium, microbes; with the proper equipment). Those things which are spiritual and non-observable can only be seen by being revealed.

The many Christianites have never been ambiguous regarding this matter: God and the world are not one-and-the-same. Although the Biblical worldview posits that God actively engages the world, it is postulated with equal clarity that the Creator is not a creature. Such pantheistic theories of God’s “oneness with the universe” are not only theologically problematic; they are nonsensical. Theism alone, Christian or not, can make sense of the universe. How? The relative orderliness of the universe – now, I said relative orderliness – is unlikely to have been achieved in the approximately 15 billion years since the hypothesized “Big Bang,” and the complex and functional creatures that operate within said world likely would not have formed unguided in the span of the approximately 4 billion years since life began, if I understand correctly. Time isn’t the answer to evolution. Design may be.

The sheer existence of the world demands a catalyst. The Bible itself does not actually teach Creation ex Nihilo (creation out of nothing) with any clarity, but creation ex nihilo is philosophically inevitable, and that means that means that a catalyst is also philosophicaly inevitable. More specifically, the relative orderliness of everything demands that it was a conscious catalyst. Nevertheless, amidst the order is a cruel chaos that pervades every corner of existence. The “problem of evil” doesn’t actually go far enough in diagnosing the depth of the universe’s brokenness. It’s not just that “bad things happen to good people.” The whole machinery of the universe runs on suffering. The balance of the ecosystem is contingent upon the innate violence of the creatures therein. As it is now, the world can only run if things die, and often. This phenomenon is well illustrated in this David Attenborough quote:

“I think of a parasitic worm that is boring into the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, that’s going to make him blind. And are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy.”

David Attenborough’s reaction to the apparent cruelty of the world is more-or-less universal. The phenomenon grates against a moral sense that is so deeply ingrained in humanity that we cannot think past it. We cannot transcend our sense of morality; we can only think in terms of it. Even those who have sought to develop a philosophical system that negates the objectivity of moral truth claims in order to prevent oppressive coercion do so ought of a perceived moral obligation to prevent oppressive coercion. Hence, given the innate moral sense with which specifically human creatures are endowed, it would seem that our conscious catalyst has an agenda. He is doing something, and the world is the stage on which this something is taking place.

The idea that there exists a conscious catalyst who has an agenda for the world alleviates more-or-less all of the objections brought against macro-evolution by its detractors, both religious and irreligious. That does not mean that macro-evolution is true, and that fact that it does not mean that macro-evolution is true does not, itself, mean that macro-evolution is not true. It only means that theistic evolution, specifically within the context of the Christian faith, is a remarkably coherent system. The problems that plague non-theistic incarnations of macro-evolution do not plague theistic evolution. And the philosophical problems raised by theistic evolution are summarily met when theistic evolution is coupled with a specifically Christian worldview.

The relative orderliness of the world ought to be expected given the Christian doctrine of design. The cruel chaos that pervades the evolutionary process ought to be expected given the Christian doctrine of the Fall. Moreover, the meta-narrative of macro-evolution is rendered meaningful, because the conscious catalyst’s agenda means that the cruelty of existence is not the result of nature’s indifference but of creation’s rebellion, it is what Ancient Near-Eastern mythology referred to as Leviathon, which the catalyst Himself has entered into history as a Jewish carpenter to reconcile to Himself.