A Theology of Petitionary Prayer: Part 1, The Danger of Petitionary Prayer

In my experience, among Christians struggling with doubt, disenchantment, and deconstruction petitionary prayer is a huge stumbling block. 

Some of these problems are metaphysical. As disenchantment encroaches we start to wonder if "anyone is out there" when we pray. So asking God to "do something," to "answer" my prayer, pushes a weakening faith past the breaking point. If you doubt that God exists it's difficult to believe that God acts.

A different metaphysical issue concerns how petitionary prayer "works." As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, we tend to imagine the cosmos as a machine, as a vast causal mechanism. Given this assumption, we struggle to understand how God inserts himself into the chain of cause and effect in response to our prayers. Does God "suspend" the Laws of Nature to answer our prayers? We cannot specify the "causal joint" between God and the world. And lacking that vision, we grow doubtful and confused. 

A third issue concerns views of providence. Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Christians delight in answered prayer, singing hallelujah when some good medical news arrives. And while such gratitude is proper and good, for every answered prayer how many go unanswered? Why was this person healed while others died? The pain we experience with unanswered prayer, especially when we see loved ones suffering or dying, can cause our hearts to break. Especially when we cast a sidelong glance at the answered prayers of others. We can grow angry and resentful that God responds to others while seeming to ignore us.

Which brings us to a final desolation of petitionary prayer. Setting aside metaphysical and theological issues, most of our difficulties with petitionary prayer are intimate and painful. We've cried out to God to save someone we love, to heal someone we care about, and nothing happened. Entire faith communities go down on their knees, passionately beseeching God to act, and the prayers go unanswered. These experiences can derail our faith. They have derailed our faith.

All this brings me to a sad observation: petitionary prayer is a pastoral problem. Stated more strongly, petitionary prayer is spiritually dangerous.

By pastorally problematic and spirituality dangerous I mean that if we invite people into the experience of petitionary prayer, but don't equip them for the desolations and confusions that will follow, then we are actively pulling people into an experience that will unsettle their faith. The waters of petitionary prayer are treacherous and people are not well-served if we don't train them how to run those rapids. 

A lot of us, I think, have learned this, and have, through hard and bitter experience, shifted our prayer lives away from petition toward contemplation. This seems safer and more prudent to us. And yet, should we avoid petition altogether in our prayers? Have we become so jaded, skeptical, and disenchanted that we assume that God "does nothing" in our world? Do we no longer believe in miracles?

These, then, are some of the desolations we experience with petitionary prayer. And in thinking about the pastoral problems and spiritual dangers here, I'd like to offer up a theology of petitionary prayer in this series that I hope might be helpful.

Grace Over Karma: Part 3, Does Grace Slide Back Into Karma?

Given how the notion of karma, rooted in the just world beliefs of human psychology, sits at the heart of almost every world religion, Paul's declaration in Romans 5 comes as an earth-shattering announcement:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5.6-8)
Christ died for the ungodly. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. In short, grace comes to those who don't deserve it. The logic of karma is interrupted. As the Old Testament declares, God does not treat us as our sins deserve.

And yet, there are some snarly issues we need to wrestle with here. Given the reality of grace, what are we to do with all the descriptions of judgment in Scripture? It seems that, in many of these descriptions of judgment, the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished. If so, aren't we swinging back toward a karma-focused vision of Christianity?  

At this point, the conversation can run off in a lot of different directions. But rather than chasing all those rabbits, I'll just share how I think about this.

Following Paul's declaration in Romans 5, I think everyone is already forgiven. Christ died for the ungodly which, it seems to me, means that grace is available to everyone. Everyone is already safe. The issue then becomes how I stand in relation to that grace and forgiveness. I can live inside that grace with gratitude and praise, or I can reject and spurn it. And here, with this rejection, we reach a critical theological moment. Christ died for you while you were ungodly, but if you reject that grace do you lose it? 

This seems to be the rub: If you reject grace do you lose it?

This is an important question because if you lose grace when you reject it we're back to karma. If you face judgment for rejecting grace you are "getting what you deserve." Calvinists are alert to this problem, which is why they want to remove our "choosing" grace from the equation. "Accepting" versus "rejecting" the offer of grace sneaks "desert" back into the equation, bringing karma back into view. And yet, Calvinists face their own problems here. If Christ died for all the ungodly then why is God electing to save only a few? Plus, Calvinism has its own karma problem in how it sees God's punishment of the wicked as wholly justified, as the wicked "getting what they deserve." 

We face different sorts of problem if we adopt a squishy vision of grace, where grace becomes a "get out of jail free card." For it is karma that gives weight to our actions, linking behaviors to consequences. Consider the cries of the oppressed. Are there no consequences for those who hurt or harm others? Will the bell of judgment not toll for them? Can I perpetrate any evil knowing I'll never face punishment? Is someone like Hitler not going to get what he deserves?

When we think about oppression and harm, karma starts to sound a whole lot more appealing than grace, and a lot more just. 

So, how are we to make sense of all this?  

I strongly believe that the only way to make sense of all this is to embrace the vision that God's judgment is an expression of grace. Simply stated, if God is punishing you, as terrible as that might be, you are not getting what you deserve. You are getting something better, something you don't deserve. You are getting grace. And the only way I can see holding those ideas together is to envision God's punishments as expressions of God's love, that the consequences we face have a restorative, rather than retributive, goal and end. Otherwise, if God gives the wicked what they deserve, we're back in a karma-oriented faith. A grace-oriented faith believes that behaviors do have consequences, even severe and awful consequences, but that those consequences, in the end, will be instruments of grace, as something so much better than what we deserve. 

Drawing a contrast between karma-oriented vision of God's judgment versus a grace-oriented vision of God's judgment is, in my estimation, the only way to keep the message of grace from sliding back into karma.

Psalm 54

"God is my helper"

Last fall at Rochester University's Streaming conference I made a presentation about theological anthropology. ("Theological anthropology" is the fancy term for "Your Biblical and theological perspectives on human nature.") The theme of the Streaming conference was the line from the Psalms, "Who are humans that you are mindful of them?"

One of the points I made in my presentation was that conservatives and progressives tend to get caught up in debates about valuation in regards to humanity. That is to say, to you have a low or high anthropology? And by that we mean, do you have a pessimistic or optimistic view of humanity? 

Religious conservatives tend to have a low anthropology, a pessimistic view of human persons generally rooted in some vision of depravity and entrenched sinfulness. Religious progressives, by contrast, tend to have a higher view of human persons, more optimistic and humanistic visions of humanity and human potential. A lot of this, especially among the ex-evangelical subset of progressives, is due to the typical oedipal reactivity observed with ex-evangelical deconstruction. That is, whatever was once espoused during your evangelical youth as "good" is rejected as "bad" and replaced with the exact opposite view. The classic example here is penal substitutionary atonement: Jesus dying on the cross to atone for your sins was once "good" but now that idea is deconstructed as "bad." When it comes to theological anthropology, the trend to is to reject pessimistic views of human persons such as "original sin" and replace that with a more optimistic view like "original blessing." Relatedly, "total depravity" is replaced with "you are worthy." 

To be sure, a lot of this is really just about healing from church trauma. If you've been raised with a very pessimistic anthropology you may have internalized some negative scripts about yourself that have done great damage to your self-image and mental health. In those cases, you really do to need to recover from and rest in healthier and more affirming visions of your inherent value and worth. 

Still, the general point here is that conservatives and progressives tend to spend a lot of time debating back and forth about if humans are good or bad. My particular views in this regard are nuanced. I have a high view of human value, but a pessimistic view of human behavior. I agree that you are worthy, but I also think people are mean, and if not mean they will let you down and break your heart. We each are so, so precious, and yet we treat each other so, so badly.

Which brings me back to Psalm 54's line "God is my helper."

The argument I made at Streaming is that we tend to get overly focused upon the conservative/progressive debate over valuation. Are we good or bad? This debate, in my opinion, is too narrow and overly moralized. If so, what should we be focusing on? Well, I shared at Streaming that we should ponder the "What?" in the psalmist's question "What are humans?" What are we? And the answer is this: Humans are creatures. The issue, therefore, isn't really about if we are good or bad. The pressing issue confronting us is that we are finite and limited. Phrased differently, our primary predicament, as creatures, isn't if we are good or bad but our ontological dependency. Our vulnerability, our neediness. 

Even more simply, as creatures we are those who need help

Grace Over Karma: Part 2, Grace Boggles Minds Wired for Karma

When Bono argues that belief in karma is "at the center of all religions" there is some psychological research that explains why this might be the case. 

Psychologists have studied what are called "just world beliefs." Here's how Wikipedia describes this cognitive bias:

The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias that assumes that "people get what they deserve" – that actions will necessarily have morally fair and fitting consequences for the actor. For example, the assumptions that noble actions will eventually be rewarded and evil actions will eventually be punished fall under this hypothesis. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of— either a universal force that restores moral balance or a universal connection between the nature of actions and their results. This belief generally implies the existence of cosmic justice, destiny, divine providence, desert, stability, order, or the anglophone colloquial use of "Karma". It is often associated with a variety of fundamental fallacies, especially in regard to rationalizing suffering on the grounds that the sufferers "deserve" it.

The hypothesis popularly appears in the English language in various figures of speech that imply guaranteed punishment for wrongdoing, such as: "you got what was coming to you", "what goes around comes around", "chickens come home to roost", "everything happens for a reason", and "you reap what you sow". This hypothesis has been widely studied by social psychologists since Melvin J. Lerner conducted seminal work on the belief in a just world in the early 1960s.
Since the 60s, research has shown that our minds are wired for karma. We instinctively believe that people "get what they deserve," even when they don't control the cause of their suffering, like getting cancer or suffering from a natural disaster. Our cognitive bias is that the world is "just," that good people are rewarded and wicked people are punished. So when we see suffering, we reason backward to assume that the victims, somehow, "deserved it." 

Why do we believe in a just world? Lerner has argued that just world beliefs make the world feel predictable and controllable. In this sense, just world beliefs function as an implicit theodicy, as an explanation for why bad things happen to people. Those explanations, even if wrong, make the world feel less random and uncontrollable. 

Returning to Bono's observation, given what we know about just world beliefs it's not surprising that religious beliefs would be deployed to explain the mechanism of karma, how the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. And yet, as Bono goes on to argue, grace blows all this out of the water. Grace crosses our mental wires, defying expectations and interrupting our cognitive biases. 

Grace boggles minds that are wired for karma.

Grace Over Karma: Part 1: Bono's Theological Reflections

You might find it odd that I think about the theological musings of a rock star, but ever since I've heard Bono's reflections on grace and karma I've kept coming back to his insights, the contrast he makes between grace and karma. 

Bono has shared his reflections on grace and karma here and there, but one of his most extended reflections comes from his conversations with Michka Assayas:
Q: As I told you, I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Q: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma and into one of Grace.

Q: Well, that doesn’t make it any clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal and opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Q: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Q: The son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: “Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s mortality as part of your very sinful nature and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions.” The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humble…It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven...

God Saves Us, Always

I've watched Paolo Sorrentino's shows The Young Pope and The New Pope and enjoyed them a great deal, though there are provocations aplenty in the shows, along with strong erotic content. The shows are tonally messy as they lurch from the sacred to the blasphemous. My theological take on the shows is that they are Augustinian meditations on love and the disorders of love--from sex, to power, to family, to the love of God. But in the midst of all the twisted and disordered loves on display, there are moments in the shows that are truly transcendent.

No spoilers, but one of those moments comes from Episode 7 of The New Pope, a scene in a confessional. After hearing a very sad confession, full of shame, guilt, failure, secrets, and weakness, the confessor shares these words of comfort, words I immediately wrote down because I didn't want to forget them:

God saves us, always. God does not deny anyone the grace of salvation. It is the most beautiful thing there is. We love vanity, and sin. We love depravation and wickedness. So we believe that God has abandoned us. That God does not like us. But God does not manage our lives. He does not correct our weaknesses. God does not stop our hand when it plunges into sin. No. All He does is save us. In the end, God saves us. And He saves us with a kiss.

Killing Love: A Film with The Work of the People

Sharing again today another film from my 2019 conversation with Travis Reed for The Work of the People

As a reminder, you can preview the first two minutes of the film. The Work of the People is supported by a subscription-based model, so if you'd like to access the whole film, along with every other film at the site, it's only $7 a month for a personal subscription, which you can cancel anytime.

Today's film is entitled "Killing Love." 

In the preview I share that in the crucifixion of Jesus we find God among the criminals, the condemned and the cursed. Further, I suggest that finding God among the God-cursed--“Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3.13)--is one of the most subversive and "anti-religious" claims in the history of the world.  

My point is one made by a variety of theologians, from Moltmann to Girard, concerning how human powers, both political and religious, judge Jesus to be a criminal, an insurrectionist, and a blasphemer. Those religious and political powers kill love. And the gospels expose all this. We hear the verdict at the foot of the cross from the Roman centurion, "Surely, this man was innocent." And yet, the political and religious authorities killed him. 

Consequently, how can we ever trust political or religious authorities ever again? If God was once found among the condemned and cursed, how can we be so sure that this isn't happening again right now as we speak? That is what I mean when I say that the cross stands as a "sign of contradiction" in the midst of history against any human presumption to know, with any finality, who is cursed and who is saved. We got it catastrophically wrong at Golgotha, and I don't think anything has changed since.

What are we to do after we killed love? We run toward the victims, toward those hanging on the crosses of the world. That is where God will be found. Not in the corridors of Washington DC or in the pews of churches. Golgotha is God's GPS. God will be found among the lost and outcast. If God stands in divine solidarity with the victims of the world, then that's where the church should be found. As Moltmann writes in The Crucified God:
The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him. Thus Christian theology must be worked out amongst these people and with them...in concrete terms amongst and with those who suffer in this society...Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman...The church of the crucified was at first, and basically remains, the church of the oppressed and insulted, the poor and wretched, the church of the people.

Psalm 53

"There is no one who does good, not even one."

If you didn't know this, Psalm 53 is almost identical to Psalm 14. The musical notation at the start of each psalm is different, so perhaps it was the same song set to different music. Also, where Psalm 14 refers to the Lord as Yahweh, Psalm 53 calls the Lord Elohim ("God"). There's also some slight wording differences. 

In my prior reflections upon Psalm 14 I dwelt upon the opening line, shared with Psalm 53: "The fool says in his heart, 'There’s no God.'" Here with Psalm 53 I'd like to dwell upon a different line: "There is no one who does good, not even one."

Obviously, there's some hyperbole with "not even one." The thrust, though, of the line is that virtue is scarce and rare. Here's the fuller context:
God looks down from heaven on the human race
to see if there is one who is wise,
one who seeks God.
All have turned away;
all alike have become corrupt.
There is no one who does good,
not even one.
I think the reason these lines jumped out at me is because I've been thinking a lot lately about Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it."
The words that jolt me here are "and few find it." 

There's this widespread assumption that Christianity can "grow." That a church can become "mega." But I wonder if this is true. How can a church become "mega" if only a "few" find it? The math here doesn't make any sense. And Psalm 53 paints an even grimmer picture: "All have turned away." "Few" becomes "no one."

And lest this be interpreted as some culture war pearl clutching, me wagging a finger at the world, let me rush to quote Paul here: "What business is it of mine to judge outsiders?" I'm talking about Christians here. As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.'" By "few" I mean us, not them. I think every culture warring Christian should get off of social media and read Luke 18 over and over and over again. And then read it again:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I mean, if we want to frank about it, culture war Christians are walking down a path that leads straight to hell. I don't delight in that assessment, I'm just connecting the dots. I mean, Jesus is the guy who looked the moralism of religious folk directly in the eye and said, "I assure you that the tax collectors and sex workers are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." I would not want to be a social media Pharisee wagging a finger at the world the day the Lord returns. I'd rather be sitting at a table being lambasted as the friend of sinners. Just sayin'...

And maybe this is why, to return to the issue of mathematics, only "a few find it." Because you can grow a church with the culture wars. A church fueled by resentment can become "mega."  

I guess what I'm trying to say is this:

Size makes me suspicious. A wicked Christianity is a scalable Christianity. You can grow a rotten church.

Authentic Christianity is possible, but few find it. 

St. Paul versus Nietzsche: Part 3, He Taught Us How to be Human

This series came to mind during the last of our Bible classes at church doing a study of 2 Corinthians. 

In the second to last chapter of 2 Corinthians we encounter Paul's famous line: "When I am weak, then I am strong." It forcibly struck me in our class how Paul completely flips "weakness" upside down in 1 and 2 Corinthians against the backdrop of Roman culture and virtue. 

As described over the last two posts, for the Romans weakness was clearly a bad thing, something shameful and to be avoided. And yet, Paul flips that assessment on its head. Paul effects a transvaluation of weakness. And the world has never been the same. Here is the Christian revolution that Nietzsche came to hate.

To paint a picture of how Paul conducts a transvaluation of weakness in the Corinthian correspondence, consider that the Greek word translated as weakness occurs 43 times in the New Testament. Twenty-three of those occurrences, over half of the NT usage, are found in 1 and 2 Corinthians. Paul talks a lot about weakness in these letters.

As Paul talks about weakness, he flips the Roman script. What was considered bad by the Romans--weakness--is now good:
"The weakness of God is stronger than men." (1 Cor. 1.25)

"God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." (1 Cor. 1.27)

"We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong." (1 Cor. 4.10)

"The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." (1 Cor. 12.22)

"It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power." (1 Cor. 15.43)

"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." (2 Cor. 11.30)

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12.9)

"For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor. 12.10)

"For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God." (2 Cor. 13.4)

"For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong." (2 Cor. 13.9)
It is difficult to describe just how crazy all this would have sounded to Roman audiences. In his transvaluation of weakness Paul turned the Roman world upside down. Our world as well. 

And not just in how we show a very anti-Roman, anti-Nietzsche concern for the weak, oppressed, and victimized. That much of the Christian revolution is obvious as we described in the last post. But consider here how Paul also changed our vision of being human

For the Romans being "fully human" meant maximizing power, vigor, and strength. But after Paul's transvaluation of Roman values, being "fully human" became embracing our weakness. Here's how Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians: 
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
We're breakable, not bulletproof. Being human means embracing our vulnerability and our fragility. 

Ponder the many modern voices who follow Paul here, from the "gifts of imperfection" of Brene Brown to Kate Bowler's "no cure for being human." Today we assume the truth that being "fully human" means embracing our weakness. But this pervasive, modern assumption is far from obvious. From Brown to Bowler, we owe this insight to St. Paul's transvaluation of weakness.

As surprising as this might sound, St. Paul is the one who taught the world how to be human.

Addendum:
I expect some readers will quibble with my final line. Isn't Jesus the one who taught us to be human? The answer is, yes, of course. Paul undergoes his own transvaluation of values on the road to Damascus when he encounters the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. And yet, I wanted to underline the role of Paul for a few reasons. 

First, Paul always gets hammered in comparison to Jesus. Everyone loves Jesus and Paul is just so...problematic. At least for some folks. 

Given that, I wanted to provoke a little bit (as I like to do) by highlighting the role of Paul in effecting the Christian revolution in the West. This is historically justifiable. Jesus didn't write anything down, and he never left Palestine. Paul's writings are the earliest Christian writings we possess. Given these writings and his mission work, Paul was the first to proclaim and communicate Christ's transvaluation of values to the Greco-Roman world. 

St. Paul versus Nietzsche: Part 2, The Christian Revolution

As I described in the last post, that Nietzsche wanted a "transvaluation of values," a "reevaluation of all values," could only happen because Christianity had already accomplished this feat by wholly overturning the pagan values of antiquity. Nietzsche wanted a revolution to undo the revolution. 

The story about how Christianity effected a transvaluation of values is wonderfully told in Tom Holland's much discussed book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

Holland grew up loving pagan antiquity, the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The same affection Nietzsche had. This love drew Holland into his historical research as an adult, his expertise in the Greek and Roman eras. And yet, it was those studies that eventually, and unexpectedly, culminated in Holland writing a massive history of Christianity's impact upon the world, the West in particular, down to this very day.

This insight occurred to Holland, who is not a confessing Christian, when he began to compare his historical heroes, the Greeks and Romans, with his own modern, liberal, and humanistic sensibilities. The two worldviews clashed, and Holland began to wonder where the conflict originated. Here's Holland summarizing this dawning awareness in an article that anticipated the publication of Dominion:
The years I spent writing these studies of the classical world – living intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the legionaries who had triumphed at Alesia – only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a tyrannosaur.

Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable...

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
The Christian revolution was a transvaluation of the values of pagan antiquity. Our values in the West are not the values of ancient Sparta or Rome. Our values in the West are unmistakable Christian. We value equality over hierarchy. We value care over oppression. We value kindness over exploitation. We value love over might. Notions of "good" and "bad" in classical antiquity have been flipped upside down.

This transvaluation of values makes the earliest writings in the Christian canon, the letters written by St. Paul, among the most revolutionary documents in the history of world.

St. Paul versus Nietzsche: Part 1, The Transvaluation of Values

Among the many things the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for, one of those is his notion of "the transvaluation of values." Nietzsche also described this as "the reevaluation of all values."

By the transvaluation of values Nietzsche meant a complete reappraisal and reconfiguration of a society's values and moral commitments. Every value is to scrutinized and overturned. The transvaluation of values is demolition work, a clearing of the ground, so that a new value system could replace the old.

In the hands of Nietzsche, the transvaluation of values is radical work. In the transvaluation of values "good" would become "bad" and "bad" would become "good." Light and darkness were to switch places.  

What sort of demolition work was Nietzsche intending?

If you're familiar with Nietzsche, you know his target was Christianity. The values Nietzsche wanted to reevaluate and uproot were Christian values. As a student of antiquity, Nietzsche felt that the old pagan values of the Greeks needed a revival. Nietzsche wanted virtues of power, strength, victory, nobility and dominance to return to Western civilization. These values would be embodied by the rise of the Übermensch-- the "super-man" or "over-man." 

According to Nietzsche, this retrieval of pagan virtues was necessary because Western civilization had fallen into decadence and decay due to what Nietzsche called the "slave morality" of Christianity. Instead of valuing and praising the glorious achievements of the "super-men" among us, Christianity preached pity and meekness. Christianity was for the Betas in society, not the Alphas. The limp and passive Christian values were, declared Nietzsche, "anti-life." 

According to Nietzsche, the world needed a return to "top-down" virtues, such as power and dominance, where the strong would be returned to their rightful places of rule and authority over the herd of humanity. The "bottom-up" virtues of Christianity, concern and pity for the "least of these," needed to be uprooted. The Christian commitment to equality was to be replaced by hierarchy. As Nietzsche wrote, the rise of the "super-men" would involve "the elimination of equality." 

In summary, the Christian call to love was to be replaced with a "will to power," a drive for expansion and conquest.  As Nietzsche described the "will to power": “life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and at least, the very least, exploiting." 

Given all this, it's not surprising that Nietzsche would describe his "transvaluation of values" as being "anti-christ."

And yet, in the annals of Western history, Nietzsche wasn't the first to attempt a "transvaluation of values." That Nietzsche wanted a return to pagan values was evidence that a prior revolution had occurred, the transvaluation of values that Nietzsche wanted to overturn and reverse. 

This was the moral revolution of St. Paul. 

The Exorcism of Money: Part 4, Giving is the Exorcism

As described in the last post, Jacques Ellul argues in Money and Power that money must be desacralized. Ellul calls this the "profanation" of money, stripping it of its sacred character. If money is a dark spiritual power, its demonic potency has to be exorcised.

But how is this exorcism to be conducted?

Ellul shares his startling and simple answer: Give it away. Giving is an act of exorcism. For in giving the spiritual power of money loses its dark hold upon our souls.

Here is Ellul:
Now this profanation [of money] is first of all the result of a spiritual battle, but this must be translated into a behavior. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving...

In the biblical view, this is precisely how giving, which is a consecration to God, is seen. It is, as a matter of fact, the penetration of grace into the world of competition and selling. We have very clear indications that money, in the Christian life, is made in order to be given away...

Giving to God is the act of profanation par excellence. An object which belonged to a hostile power is torn from him in order to be turned over to the true God...

[Giving] "desacralizes" money...

We cannot measure the power of giving in human relations. Not only does it destroy the power of money, but even more, it introduces the one who receives the gift into the world of grace (remember the debtors in the parable of the unjust steward), and it begins a new chain of cause and effect which breaks the vicious circle of selling and corruption.
There's some rich and beautiful insights here. By desacralizing money, giving is an act of spiritual resistance, an act of exorcism. Why? Because giving is an act for which "money was not made." Giving dispells the dark enchantment. More, giving extracts us from human relations defined by buying and selling to create a new chain of cause and effect rooted in grace. Giving creates an economy of gift.

Going back to Part 1 and Paul's principle of equality and his discourse on giving in 2 Corinthians, this is why I used Ellul in our Bible class. Giving money to the church on Sunday morning can seem rote and perfunctory, dropping a few bucks in the collection plate. But Ellul helps us see that the Sunday morning offering is a profound act of spiritual resistance, as a battle with Satan himself. Dropping money in the collection plate, giving money away, is an act of exorcism. For in giving money away its demonic hold upon our psyche is broken. Do with money that for which it was not made. Give it away. Drive out the devil. As Ellul shares:
We should meditate on this fact and think of it each Sunday at the time of the offering. The offering is not a utilitarian act, and Protestants should stop thinking of it that way...The offering, the moment of giving, should be for us the moment when we desacralize the world and show our consecration to the Lord.

Psalm 52

"You love evil instead of good"

Similar to Psalm 1, Psalm 52 presents a contrast between the wicked and the righteous and their respective destinies. 

The wicked boast, lie, devise treachery, and love evil more than good. Because of this God will bring them down and uproot them from the land.

The poet, by contrast, is a flourishing olive tree in the house of God, the same arboreal image from Psalm 1. The poet trusts, praises, and hopes in God. 

I'm struck by the start and ending of the psalm. In the opening lines, "You love evil more than good." In the final line (CSB translation), "I will put my hope in your name, for it is good." 

I've always been interrupted by Stanley Hauerwas' assertion that before we can act we must see. Moral description precedes moral action. Get the description wrong, misperceive the evil and the good, then everything downstream by way of action goes awry. A lot, therefore, is hanging on what we consider to be the evil and the good.

For example, last semester I was leading a Bible study with some ACU students and we were reflecting on the Gospel of John. In Chapter 3 we spent some time talking about this text:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
In John 3 there is no wrathful God judging the world. Rather, we judge ourselves in how we respond to the light. John 3 says this clearly: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light." The light enters the world, and we sort ourselves out. Some love the light and others love the darkness.

And yet, I asked the students, how do you define the light and the darkness? Everything hinges upon that definition and description. The words "light" and "darkness" are just semantic containers which can be filled with very different moral visions. The same goes for Psalm 52's use of the words "good" and "evil." 

This is a live question because there is a great deal of intra-Christian conflict about what constitutes good versus evil and light versus darkness. The label "Christian" itself has become a semantic receptacle that can contain very different moral visions. The task of moral description is acute and pressing for, in my estimation, many purported follows of Jesus are coming to love evil instead of the good.

The Exorcism of Money: Part 3, To Make Money Profane

After having described money as a spiritual power in Money and Power, Jacques Ellul goes on to describe how our spiritual resistance to money involves "profanation," the desacralization of money. 

To profane something involves reducing something sacred to something commonplace and ordinary. Generally, this is viewed as a bad thing. But if money is a spiritual power profanation, according to Ellul, is exactly what has to happen. Money has to be stripped of its spiritual potency. The spiritual power of money has to be removed. 

Here is Ellul making this point:

The ultimate expression of [the] Christian attitude toward the power of money is what we will call profanation. To profane money, like all powers, is to take away its sacred character...it is just as possible to conduct such an assault against Satan and all he inspires. In this case, profanation is truly a duty of faith...

This profanation, then, means uprooting the sacred character, destroying the element of power. We must bring money back to its simple role as a material instrument. When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, it superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. 

We can call this profanation of money, this expelling its dark power, the "exorcism of money."

But how to conduct this exorcism? We'll turn to Ellul's answer in the next and final post.