Imitating Christ? Maybe not so much…

Hate it or love it, Luther has a fun habit of up-ending some of the most sacred and treasured notions of the ancient world.

One of these notions, which has become integral to classical Christian theology, is the notion of “imitation” or mimesis.

Mimesis is a conventional Greco-Roman way of understanding how knowledge, education, salvation, philosophical attainment – even the very fabric of being itself – “works”. The basic idea is that you think of reality as a huge set of images, cascading downwards from heavenly archetypes. Things find their being as reflections of higher images, and the way you learn/ascend/develop/advance is by more exactly imitating “higher”, better images. So, for example, in late Greco-Roman political theory, earthly societies are supposed to imitate divine models: people are to imitate the emperor, who is to imitate Christ, who imitates God; or, the empire is to struggle to become an ever better mirror-image of the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, in Christian theology, the Christian is to imitate Christ, and so become ever better conformed to the divine (the “image of God”).

The early church – innocently enough – adopted this whole conceptual framework pretty much wholesale.

But Luther smelled a rat.

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Karen Armstrong and Early Christian Politics

Karen Armstrong writes a useful and provocative essay on the development of the secular state and religious violence. (The essay is linked to her recently published book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.) She meticulously argues that religion has traditionally been closely tied to politics, and that it is only somewhat recently that there has even been a conceptual difference between them. Along the way, she makes some excellent observations about the mistaken assumption of many Westerners that our separation of religion from politics is a politically or religiously neutral policy.

At the same time, she makes some claims about ancient Christianity in the tradition of religious politics that bear correction. She writes:

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”.

Armstrong here makes the mistake of assuming that the various ethno-national ideologies of the Jewish revolts against Rome are shared by Jesus as he is represented in the Gospels. They are not, and claiming that they are requires overlooking the actual textual context of Jesus’ words in the New Testament in favor of an historicized reconstruction of his person. Such reconstructions may be interesting as a way of thinking about political movements in Roman-era Palestine. But they have nothing to do with the textual person that lies behind the orthodox Christian tradition, a figure whose words are relied upon as a guide to Christian theology and practice.Read More…

He Will Not Go Away

He came to be with us. That’s the long and the short of it.

He’s like an annoying lover. He can’t live without you. He knows you don’t want him. He knows you will reject him – again, and again, and again. He knows you would really prefer it if he just cleared out of your life. But he won’t.

He’s like an annoying brother. He sees that you’ve gotten yourself into a mess. He knows that you don’t see it that way. And you’re stubborn. And you have your dignity. And you will hate him for meddling. But the mess is too big. So he just picks up the pieces anyway.

He doesn’t want anything in return. He doesn’t want your faith, or your obedience, or your love, or your good deeds, or your gratitude. He knows he won’t get them from you. Still, he won’t go away.

There is really nothing we can do about this. In fact, we’ve already tried everything. We’ve ignored him, laughed at him, shrugged our shoulders, rejected him, killed him. We’ve believed him, understood him, praised him, built churches in his honor, performed feats of asceticism and loads of good works, got pretty proud of him, killed in his name. We’ve lost our delusions, grew up, and finally almost forgot him. Still, he won’t go away.

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Why We All Hate God

About the Author
David Wagschal

“When there is no sense of the mercy of God, there is either contempt of God or hate.” 1

Now there’s a penetrating thought.  It is from the Loci Communes (1521) of Philipp Melanchthon.

The Loci Communes – now rather neglected, but in its day an important work – was essentially the first Lutheran systematic theology. Melanchthon was trying to sum up the core Lutheran message that Christianity is about nothing other than the mercy of God: the completely free gift of salvation, given to us all, through Jesus, with no strings attached, no demands, no “works” on our part.

In this specific passage Melanchthon is working out what happens when we don’t approach God in this way – when we approach God as most of us actually do, as a strict and demanding task-master, a merciless judge setting forth rules and laws for us to obey “or else”.

What happens when we think this way? We hate God.

Of course we hate him.

Why?

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  1. Philipp Melanchthon, The Loci Communes, trans. Charles L. Hill (Meador 1944), p. 177. []

Nothing We Do Today Is In The Bible

Steve Green, the multi-millionaire businessman and Bible artifacts collector of Hobby Lobby fame, is beginning construction on a new $800 million Museum of the Bible close to the Capitol and Mall in Washington, D.C. I’m happy to see a complex that will display and contextualize Green’s extraordinary treasury of biblical items and provide education about the background, history, and cultural impact of the Bible. As someone who has a passion for biblical literature and has spent a big chunk of his life working thinking, teaching, and writing about the Bible’s history and its effects on human societies, I think that a museum dedicated to exploring these things is a great thing (or at least has potential to be so). Nevertheless, Green’s motives for constructing his museum in the chosen location reveal some assumptions about the connections between the Bible and contemporary American culture and political governance that are not only deeply mistaken, but also quite dangerous in their implications. As he is cited by Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post,

“I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation — for our legislators to see that, that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can’t hurt being there [close to the Capitol].”

I’m happy to grant that the Bible has had an enormous cultural influence throughout the history of this country; that’s an obvious truth for anyone with even a passing familiarity with American and Western history. Green seems to assume that our idea of religious freedom is essentially identical to that found in the Bible, and furthermore that our current governing philosophy regarding religious freedom is valid because it has biblical origins. Now, that’s a problematic thing to assert for two big reasons. First, it’s essentially saying that we have religious freedoms in this country because of . . . religion. The idea that the separation of church and state in our civic institutions is somehow mandated on the basis of a particular faith’s scriptural documents is an obvious fallacy; you can’t say that you have religious freedom because the Bible says you should. It might be a convenient way of doing an end-run around the theo-curious implications of basing America’s governing structure on biblical precepts, but it’s also a pretty clear assertion of the Bible’s (and, implicitly, of Christianity’s) epistemological superiority to other modes of political theory. Read More…

And How Exactly is the Gospel “Good News”…?

One of Luther’s key insights is that the Good News of Christianity should actually be good news.

That seems obvious, but it’s a sobering exercise to pause and look around at our communities and ask “how is any of this actually good news for people?”

Luther wasn’t naïve. He didn’t think that Christianity was simply an exercise in endless positivity. Quite the opposite. He thought that understanding the “bad news” of our sin and evil was an essential pre-condition for receiving the “good news.” He was quite aware that we’re all messed up and the world is messed up: we’re surrounded by futility, pain, suffering, and evil, and we both experience these things and propagate them. Further, on our own, we have no way out of any of this horror. We’re quite trapped.

No, the Christian message addresses reality, and reality is not pretty.

But the Gospel is still supposed to be “good news” in light of this reality. The message of Christ is still supposed to be an experience of real comfort, joy, and hope.

Is it in many of our communities?

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Jesus Is A Failure

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Nice phrase, right?

We, Christians, usually assume that it means something like this. If you, Jews and Gentiles, think that Christ is a failure and a fraud, you’re wrong. He really is powerful, wise, and successful, only he’s chosen to hide it for the time being. Those “in the know” (i.e., us) understand this. And, at some point, you’ll discover that we’re right – only it might be too little, too late.

Except that the ancient Jews and Gentiles – and the modern non-Christians and atheists – have got it right. Think about it. As a man or as a god, this Christ of ours is a failure and a fraud.

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Christianity and Political Action

Many of the things that I’ll be addressing on my page will relate to current issues, and hence be driven by the vagaries of news and opinion, but there are principles that guide my thinking on Christianity and politics that I’d like to be clear about up front. One thing that I think about – a lot – is the problem of power, and Christianity’s fraught relationship with it. Christianity is a faith that rests on paradox, particularly its central thesis that true power can only be gained not by strength, but through weakness. (If anyone doubts this, see the central line of the Easter hymn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which asserts that Christ is “trampling down death by death.”) If there is one way that we are expected to imitate Christ, it is in rejecting violence and coercion as a true solution to our human plight. As Christ declined to exercise the ultimate power that he possessed when he went willingly to his death on the cross, so Christians are supposed to avoid controlling others through duress. Christians demonstrate the paradoxical truth of their creed by abstaining from direct coercion of others, even to prevent violence to themselves.

Of course, in the real world, avoiding any exercise of coercion, or even occasional outright violence, is completely insane. Some modicum of justice and fairness is only realistically maintained when people fight for it, whether through political and social pressure or with physical force. If we want to live in a world that is forever dominated by the most ruthless and cruel among us, there’s no better way to ensure that result than by abjuring any responsibility to seek and exercise power. The very purpose of states is to provide a regular means of collective rule that ensures justice and a legal framework that people can rely on as they go about living productive lives.

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Talking Otherwise

As my author’s blurb will tell you, I’m a Ph.D. student in theology. This means that I spend an inordinate amount of time with books and my laptop. Still, I do talk to people once in a while.

Although I try to keep the topics of these conversations limited to cats and literature, theology inevitably comes up. And then all bets are off. A perfectly friendly discussion can degenerate into an acerbic, and even abusive, argument. A room full of lively banter and laughter can suddenly become permeated by near-catatonic boredom or dire seriousness. My perfectly intelligent, capable, and balanced friends can momentarily forget that I am not an oracle or a walking summa and demand a comprehensive, true, and binding answer to, say, the problem of evil. And then someone will embarrassedly change the subject.

I’ve learned a few things from these conversations.

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Welcome to David’s Blog!

[Editor’s Note: This is my original intro to my section of the blog, when the blog was divided into three blogs – June 2017, DW]

What is the purpose of my blog?

The Short Version

  • Part theological exploration, part personal journey, this blog is about renewal and reform.
  • Its starting point is concern about the status quo of the Christian church(es), and a need to open up dialogue on some of historic Christianity’s most widely held assumptions and convictions.
  • Its primary task is to re-visit and re-appropriate the central ideas of the earliest Reformation tradition, especially those of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560).
  • It will proceed (mostly) as an exploration into Luther and Melanchthon’s thought, and of later theologians in this tradition.
  • It will leave just about no aspect of traditional Christian institutions, doctrine, and life unexamined – so be warned! This is not a blog for the faint of heart.

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