Monday, June 21

Not that I Want to Spoil Anyone’s Easter, But …


… you can’t say you weren’t warned.

I will only say two things at the outset in my defense: (1) being Skeptic-In-Residence, like being a member of SEAL Team 6, makes it impossible to always sing Kumbaya and  "play nice with others," founding Skeptics John the Baptist and Jesus having set the precedent by calling people, respectively, “Generation of snakes” and “Sons of your father, the Devil”; and (2) crucial parts of this column are phrased, not as declarative sentences, but as questions, i.e., as issues to be ruminated upon without necessarily being resolved … and therefore, not as diktats, but as invitations to reflection on the part of religious believers. So with that in mind …

The God of the Hebrew Bible is said to have had a sporadically violent temper, so much so that various texts allege that on several occasions – the Plagues of Egypt, the slaughter of the Amalekites (Num. 24:20; Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19; 1 Sam. 15:2-33), the conquest of Canaan, the fall of Jericho (Joshua chapter 6), etc. – God either slaughtered or ordered the slaughter of numbers of people that today would justify the term “genocide”. (There is more truth in Richard Dawkins' description of the Hebrew Bible's God than most believers are comfortable contemplating.) Did such events really, literally occur in spacetime history? Unknown and irrelevant. (As an atheist, I would say that, even if these events were historical, they would be ascribable to the usual, mundane, prosaic warfare among nations, not to the intervention of any deity.) Questions of historicity aside, we can safely say that the stories illustrate the authors’ concept of certain aspects of God’s character, i.e., the stories are at least theological parables. The story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree was almost certainly not a historical occurrence either. But it likewise illustrates a belief:  George Washington was a man of exceptional personal integrity. Fiction is often used as a vehicle to illustrate truth. There is even a technical term for this kind of writing: “literature”. The literature of Divinely ordained genocide – factual or fictitious – illustrates the narrator’s view of the nature of God.

Nicolas Poussin -- "Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites"

Now, if you buy into the orthodox theological accounts of Who Jesus Christ was, this should give you pause. As I understand it and as I was taught in both Sunday School and in formal theology / Christology classes, the orthodox understanding is that the God of the Hebrew Bible is fully incarnate in the historical, flesh-and-blood Person of Jesus Christ – Who is, in consequence, both fully God and fully human. That is, Jesus is not “half-and-half”. There is no such thing as the “human part” of Jesus and the “Divine part” of Jesus. Rather, in the orthodox understanding, Jesus was wholly God and wholly man, in fact, “one in being with [God] the Father”. As a “first approximation”, this means that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, Whose character is depicted as being sporadically both jealous and vindictive, is the God Who is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. We are all familiar with the Gospel story of the little children playing with Jesus (Luke 18:16). Would you be comfortable allowing your children to play around the Jesus Who was the incarnation of the God of Exodus Who slaughtered the firstborn Egyptian children? Yet – if we credit orthodox theology and orthodox Christology – that is what the logic of belief requires believers to do who accept the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation. “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” may be half the truth. But only half the truth. Yet most Christian believers at least act as if “gentle Jesus meek and mild” were the whole truth, not half.


My question: why?

I can think of at least 2 possible reasons. The first potential reason, the less likely of the two, lies in an orthodox – and quite technical – theology of the Incarnation. In the Roman Catholic understanding of the Incarnation, there is something called the communicatio idiomatum (literally, the “communication of idioms” or the “interaction of selves”). This is a way – theologically sophisticated and exquisitely subtle – of accounting for the interaction of the Human and the Divine natures in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is affirmed to be one Person with two Natures – not two sides, least of all two halves, but two Natures, i.e., two sets of potentialities – in such a way that the two Natures – Human and Divine – intimately interact, without, for all that, becoming confused or conflated with each other. So when Jesus died on the Cross, an orthodox theologian would say, not that God died on the Cross, but that Jesus in His human Nature died on the Cross. (Years ago, Jurgen Moltmann wrote a powerful book of Christology entitled The Crucified God. The title is deliberately transgressive, because strict Catholic orthodoxy would require that Moltmann say, not that God was crucified, but rather that Jesus Christ, in His human Nature, was crucified: God qua God cannot be crucified. Not to insinuate that Moltmann was Catholic: he wasn't.) So, vis a vis the genocide narratives, the orthodox response, appealing to the communicatio idiomatum, might say something like this: prior to His Incarnation in historical spacetime, Jesus Christ, in His Divine Nature as the eternally pre-existent Second Person of the Holy Trinity, did indeed slaughter people in industrial-strength quantities, but that Jesus, in His historically incarnate Human nature, never slaughtered anyone. This is quite a mouthful. But it is formally irreproachable and pristinely orthodox, arguably too much so – to the point of clinical sterility -- to be quite satisfying. The cerebral cortex may be satisfied, but the glands cry out for more.

Instead, I think believers’ willingness to gloss over including the God of genocide in the Person of Christ is ascribable to at least one of two much more prosaic, and much more human, tendencies. The first is just to … not think about it. Humans are very proficient at compartmentalizing. That is why so many conservatives can express outright revulsion, morally and politically, at the prospect of a Donald Trump candidacy … yet still affirm their support if Trump is the GOP nominee: they compartmentalize Party loyalty and patriotism. (Sen. Marco Rubio – granted, with great reluctance – did so just recently.) Each affirmation – love of country and support for Trump -- may be equally sincere individually – only the person doing the affirming can know for sure – but like matches and dynamite, both affirmations are carefully kept separate. So we think of the Jesus who played with children to the compartmentalized exclusion of, e.g., the children slaughtered at Jericho.


Or we say people in the Bible – the characters depicted therein, and the people who wrote and redacted the stories – were, as the saying goes, just “people of their time”, whereas Jesus lived at least a couple millennia later, when the human race generally was – so we like to think -- “higher on the learning curve”. So, of course, the “slaughter coefficient” is lower today because people, in the intervening time, had learned -- maybe even God had learned – more finesse in dealing with others. In 980, President Reagan and Speaker "Tip" O'Neill would probably have crossed swords. But in 1980, they only clinked tumblers of good bourbon. We often employ this latter rationalization to salvage our deference for the Founders of the American Republic and the Framers of its Constitution. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were among the biggest slaveholders in the United States. The aggregate number of slaves owned by all three numbered roughly 600. Yet we remember all three as the preeminent architects of American liberty. Why? Well … because, we sigh gently and tell one another and ourselves, they were “just men of their time”, whereas we are more enlightened today.

On this account, one’s Christology becomes a kind of Freudian psychology born out of due season: yes, the genocidal God of the Hebrew Bible was incarnate in Christ, but … gosh! … the people in the Hebrew Bible were people inhabiting a lawless time who worshipped a God subject to fits of rage. But in the intervening couple millennia, God had managed to grow Godself a “superego” – the historical Jesus Christ Himself – that moderated God’s archaic tendency to slaughter people. (Interesting to compare this to C. G. Jung’s account in Answer to Job.) The chthonic old “id” was still there, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, but now restrained by a more fully articulated “ethical monotheism” … resulting in a “kinder, gentler”, perhaps even more domesticated, Yahweh, manifest as the Jesus Christ Whose resurrection believers celebrate at Easter. So the Latter is “safe” in a way the Former never was.

But what do I know? Don't interrogate me too closely about this:  personally, I prefer a clean shave with Ockham's Razor.

Anyway, have a happy Easter!

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Resurrection: public domain
Jesus blessing the children: public domain
"Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites" by Nicolas Poussin, Public domain
Donald Trump:  Michael Vadon under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0




  • OK, sure but . . . can’t we find some common ground with all of these expressions, that they’re all “castles in the air” — made by people. What we both ancient and modern is architecture more than theology. People erect castles of belief based on what kind of architecture they prefer, admire, are inspired by. So all of these expressions are adjectives of the people concerned. “In the beginning Man created God; and in the image of Man created he him.” ― Jethro Tull. Even Christopher Hitchins didn’t say it better. But to be religious is to say, I have a castle in the air that I value, and I don’t want to try to be spiritual without it. I know you CAN be spiritual without a castle, but I choose to be spiritual WITH a castle. Resurrection, Easter. It’s helpful to me. That’s what makes a Happy Easter. Happy Easter to all!

  • I would agree to an extent, but given that the various images presumably point to the same Object, there are limits as to how disparate they can be. A God Who slaughters kids (Jericho, Amalek, Egypt) is not clearly consistent with a God Who plays with kids (Luke’s Jesus with the children). Sometimes you have to make a choice or account for the real difference.


  • So I wonder if all the examples you cite have a common denominator — the dualism created by a particular definition of God (object). Slaughter, holding slaves,

    The wholly God and wholly man has another “wholly” which has to precede it, for it to work for me anyway. I’ve always liked Karl Barth’s way of constructing “castle” architecture to get at the “same Object” — the “Object” is first wholly other, Then there is a witness to self-revelation of the wholly other God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God — the Hebrew Scriptures witness in expectation, the Christian Scriptures witness in recollection. Neither has closer proximity to the revelation itself. Revelation is not “in” the text. not “in” the church., not “in” the religion. Since the revelation brings reconciliation of all things, there are no more dualisms. That is what allowed him to call bulls**t on the Nazi theology. That’s a good theology to me, one that clears the fog, the hubris of our dualisms.

    • To some significant extent. revelation and expectation are reconcilable. But not always. Sometimes dualism is legitimate. Say a man is about to rape a woman. She struggles and mightily & vociferously objects. Her assailant asks her why. “Because you’re about to assault me and rape me,” she says. “No I’m not”, the man responds. “I’m going to make love to you”. “Without my consent & through violence,” the woman replies. “Oh that’s just a superficial hubristic dualism,” the man says. That’s what I am saying vis a vis the character of God, OT vs NT: as irreconcilable as rape vs love-making. There really is a conflict there that is not a matter of perspective.

  • Also, to consider, the trinity is typically, Creator, Christ, Spirit compiling the Godhead. Karl Rahner and Elizabeth Johnson both refer to the trinity as a metaphor and that each bit is one aspect of the Godhead (with the possibility that trinity is more like a billion-inity). Jesus could be fully God and fully human being only one expression of the totality of the Godhead and be Jesus Meek and Mild. Although, frankly, some Christian scripture pushes against Jesus Meek and Mild.

    But then, I suppose, as soon as I say trinity is a metaphor, that puts us outside orthodoxy.

    • Hmmm … But doesn’t the point about Trinity-as-metaphor only hit the main point — the theology of God as genocidal or at least willing to countenance genocide — a “glancing” blow? Is there really a contradiction between affirming that the Trinity is a metaphor AND at the same time asserting a theology of God-as-genocidal? To me, the main question still remains as to the nature of the God that is incarnate in Christ. It seems to me that this is where (orthodox) Christians begin to cherry-pick. They want the God Who is incarnate in Christ to be the God Who “leadeth me beside still waters” while leaving out the God Who ordered the slaughter of the Amalekites. But the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation, eg, Nicene Creed, requires both “Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts” as well as the Shepherd of Israel. Who was the early Church Father who wanted to drop the OT canon because (he argued) the “Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts” God of the OT was radically irreconcilable with the tender and loving God revealed in & through Christ? Not saying he was right. (I ain’t got no dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight.) But he did see the issue clearly.

    • I also don’t have a problem with Trinity-as-metaphor. ALL language about God is metaphorical. Language about God’s (alleged) ACTS IN HISTORY may be literal, eg, if God really did part the Red Sea, the water really did move. But language about God qua God is always metaphorical. I mean, what could it possibly mean LITERALLY to say that God is LITERALLY “3 in 1”?

    • I think I see better what you mean now than when I responded initially. (I was sleepy and getting ready for bed!) I think that avoiding the consequences I outlined in my column, you pretty much HAVE to steer clear of ANY view that sees Jesus as “fully God” — the adverb “fully” is the problematical part — regardless of whether you regard the resulting statement as metaphorical or as literal. (And in any case, see preceding note about “literal” theological language.) The “fully” means that you cannot cherry-pick the “nice” parts of God and include those in the Incarnation while leaving out the blood, guts, and gore of the slaughter of the Amalekites, the Plagues of Egypt, etc,., etc. It has to be a kind of “prix fixe” theology — where you take everything or nothing — and not a smorgasbord or buffet.

      Actually, what I’m arguing can be stated as 3 questions:

      (1) Would you allow your kids to play around the Jesus Who incarnates the God Who condoned (even if God did not perform or order) the slaughter of the Amalekites (and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and … )?

      (2) Would you allow your kids to play around any of the priests who were convicted of pedophilia in the movie “Spotlight”?

      (3) If your answer to (1) is “Yes” and your answer to (2) is “No”, how do you justify that? Why is your answer to both not “No”.

      You can’t argue that the difference is between “Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts” YHVH of the OT vs. the gentle Jesus of the New, because of, e.g., the Jesus of Revelation wearing “garments dipped in blood” Who leads the armies of heaven on what is essentially a Christian jihad to exterminate unbelievers. (Again, even if you don’t take this text literally, it still has substance as a theological parable.) Or the Jesus Who told His disciples to shake the dust of an unbelieving village off their feet as they leave because that village will be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah.

      And you know the funny part? Issues like this never occurred to me until I had given up Christianity and could view the tradition AS AN OUTSIDER.

      And for the record … two points … (a) this is NOT JUST A PROBLEM WITH CHRISTIANITY. Rather, it is a problem with monotheism per se. Monotheism — ANY monotheism — has a history of conducing to slaughter, including secular monotheisms like Naziism and Maoism and Marxism. That is much less true of Judaism than Islam and Christianity, but I strongly suspect only because Jews have been so busy defending themselves against OTHER MONOTHEISMS that they never had time, historically, to avail themselves of the “luxury” of slaughtering one another. Who knows? In a world that actually tolerated Jews and that was devoid of anti-Semitism, Judaism might have been as militaristic as Islam and Christianity. (b) The only way I can see to avoid contamination with a genocidal God — Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — is, as you almost suggested, to DEPART FROM STRICT ORTHODOXY. To be “right”, you have to consciously be “wrong”, e.g., Trinity-as-metaphor.

    • I enjoy watching orthodox theologians with some “technical” training in postmodernist / deconstructionist “lit crit” methodologies contort themselves and twist and turn in order to construct hermeneutical coordinate systems that will allow them to interpret the “hard” texts of the Bible (OT and NT) in such a way as to avoid what, on a plain-text reading, would be the disturbing consequence, e.g., God ordering genocide. (I scan “Christianity Today” online, and a couple times a year, there is such an article purporting to show that, e.g., the rage and wrath and blood-lust of the OT God are actually “beautiful” … as one recent “CT” writer argued.) Of course, such a strategy is quite possible. Not for nothing did the great literary critic M. H. Abrams write a by-now-classic book called “How to Do Things with Texts”. But every time I read such a theodical interpretation, the question that always gets begged is this … “Yeah … OK … but remember, this text was written 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 years ago. Do you think this is what the text would have meant TO THEM AT THAT TIME? How could the text have meant anything like this to the writers and readers of the time, given that the hermeneutical machinery to interpret it thus would not exist until well into the 20th century CE?”

    • At one point, in fact, I was gestating a “Skeptics” column on just that: how biblical commentators / interpreters sometimes, in order to “soften” the “hard” biblical texts, have recourse to interpretive methodologies and paradigms that COULD not have been available to, and COULD not have occurred to, the writers, redactors, and readers of the time the text was written. No problem finding examples! Their name is “Legion”, for they are many. But after writing the first couple of paragraphs, I realized the subject was too technical to be comprehensible to anyone except “guild” members. (I’ve left academe, but have a PhD, so consider myself an “honorary” member.) So I abandoned it.

      BTW it’s stuff like this that rendered me “persona non grata” at the School of Theology and Ministry, at least with Sharon and Loretta (though not with Fr. Mike and Mark Taylor) … and not just because it’s too — as I was told — “left brain”. A PhD in an STM student is about as welcome as Ebola symptoms in a neo-natal ward.

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